Jeff's Recs

Jeff's Recs

Here are Jeff's updated recommendations. Click on the review headline to reveal the review. Click on the title to order and feed your soul in unexpected ways.

Loving Modigliani, The Afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne, Linda Lappin, Serving House Books, 2020

She writes like a portrait painter, but not like ordinary portrait painters. No, she writes like Johannes Vermeer paints. Or Grant Wood. Or Edward Hopper. Or Shadi Ghadirian.

You see, these portrait painters sketch and brush more than faces. Instead, they design an ecosystem where a face resides. They take their faces off the canvas and create them in the wild, even if that wild is homogenized and pasteurized. And they paint everybody. They paint the served and the servants. They paint the men and the women. They paint the children. They paint frames around frames around reaction shots against more frames.

Let’s face it, somewhere along the way all art deals with two things: reduction and eternity, one a process and the other a product about timeless first principles, no matter how quixotic that may be. But artists like these don’t give in easily. They paint and write their battle, the one they wage with ever burgeoning experience and history.

But there’s more. Linda Lappin is building a case to be in the pantheon, the place of the irreducible and the not forgotten, but not the one in Rome or Paris or any number of other such named buildings, but the Pantheon of Novelists. Of course, no such pantheon exists, but if it did, she’d be both too modern and too old-fashioned, at least for what poses as a novel these days.

She wouldn’t come to mind like the Brontes or Proust or Twain because her novels sail out into an ocean of words like an 18th C explorer. Laurence Sterne did that, and he’s not in anyone’s pantheon, unless that pantheon includes a freak show.

Her novels crush up text and pour all the words into different forms like the terrazo artisans of the 1920s. James Joyce did that, and although he may be in someone’s pantheon, it’s mostly because we won’t admit that we don’t understand him.

And then there is Giannina Braschi. Take The Empire of Banana for example. It has been labeled a metaphor, philosophical fiction, high art, experimental, even revolutionary in subject and form, but rarely a novel, which is curious because the word novel comes from the Renaissance Italian novella, translated as new, or news, or little narratives all gathered together about novel things, which is a far cry from the one trick novels which are put on parade.

So if Linda Lappin writes like a portrait painter, then Loving Modigliani, The Afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne is a gallery showing where the portraits are all painted in different styles and points of view but represent the same subject, even if that subject is merely implied.

In “PART 1 AFTERLIFE — A Gothic Fairy Tale,” Jeanne Hébuterne wakes from her suicide and sets out to find eternity, which in her case is finding Amedeo Modigliani, her common law husband. Along the way her ghost comes across a fabled Modigliani and Hébuterne family portrait, the novel’s primary conceit. Here Jeanne explains that while pregnant with their second child, Modigliani began, but didn’t finish, painting both her and their first child Giovanna. She goes on to say that after he abandoned the painting, she sketched in Amedeo, and now while viewing the still unfinished canvass, she overhears Armand Metz, an art dealer, plan to have someone, maybe Moïse Kisling, finish this family portrait, the only Modigliani where all three family members are all present.

What is remarkable is not that “PART 1” is fantasy fiction, but that it is written with such realism. And it is this experiential and historical detail that helps transition us into “PART 2 — GHOSTS OF MONTPARNASSE.” Here we find ourselves reading an art history student’s diary, and as we read, we find that her research leads her to Modigliani and then Hébuterne. Ah, an intersection, an anachronism to be sure, but an intersection all the same.

Then, in “PART 3 — THE NOTEBOOKS OF JEANNE HÉBUTERNE,” the art student provides us with three of Jeanne Hébuterne’s notebooks. Quite a gallery walk so far, wouldn’t you say, beginning in fantasy, moving to fiction masquerading as a diary, and moving again to fiction masquerading as primary historical documents.

Still there’s more. In “PART 4 — THE MISSING MADONNA 2,” we return to the art student’s diary, and now her research not only embroils her in the darker side of the international art market but also brings us full circle, back to the fabled Modigliani and Hébuterne family portrait.

But, whoa, what’s this in “PART 5 — AFTERLIFE”? Here we get jerked back into the fantasy of Jeanne’s soul searching for her Amedeo, but this time there’s nothing realistic about it. Apparently Jeanne has washed up in one of Gauguin’s paintings (more on this later).

And then we return to fictional reality in “PART 6 — THE HOLY FAMILY OF THE CIRCUS,” but this time it’s not the art student’s diary; this time it’s a narrative written by an art museum curator about her encounter with the mysterious Modigliani and Hébuterne family portrait.

Disoriented? That’s fair, but allow me to suggest that disorientation is not always the place from which to begin a critique. Allow me to sidestep the trees so that I don’t miss the forest, a mistake I believe this reviewer made when she wrote that Loving Modigliani “lacks cohesiveness” and calls the Gauguin “interlude … superfluous,” conclusions which would be valid if Lappin was an ordinary portrait painter. But she isn’t.

In fact, it is exactly Jeanne’s trip to and rejection of Gauguin’s artistic reduction, his portrait of his own eternity, that clarifies for Jeanne, and ultimately for the reader, her own eternity with Amedeo, an eternity reduced and represented in the mysterious once lost, then found, and finally lost again family portrait.

Not surprisingly, the family portrait isn’t as reducible as we might hope. For one thing, it’s a collaboration. In the first version, Amedeo didn’t include himself. In the revision, Jeanne added Amedeo’s outline but didn’t finish painting him. And in the final draft, someone, maybe Kisling, painted in Amedeo, Giovanni’s face, and the background. And most importantly, the family portrait’s existence is illusory much less eternal. Does it exist? Some say yes. Some say no. But what is for sure is that it's not a portrait that other families can move into. It’s not a reduction. It’s not universal. And it makes it realistically clear, that as much as we want to paint it otherwise, we can’t take it with us.

New Age Fairy Tales, Michelle Argyle's Bonded, Three Dark Fairy Tales

You should read Michelle Argyle’s Bonded. Yes, you really should. Here are characters and stories you know, except you don’t. Here is the door to what happens next. Here is your generation’s place in history. Hey, and here you discover that Ms. Argyle is a damn good writer. Just sayin’.

So first let’s dig into those reasons. For one, Michelle Argyle is a storyteller. She tells stories like the first storyteller. She tells stories like the last storyteller. She even tells stories like Shakespeare because she takes a story you know and turns it into something new.

Take for example Argyle’s “Cinders.” To be sure, her story is based on the Cinderella we all know, but before I get into Argyle’s version, let’s take a look at the Cinderella you know, the one we think we all know.

Fact is, the Cinderella story starts way back with the Greek geographer Strabo’s “Rhodopis” (100 BC-100 AD?). In his version, we find a Greek slave girl living in Egypt who has her golden slipper stolen by a hawk. No, there’s no mention of how or why a slave girl has a golden slipper, but what does happen is the hawk drops the slipper in the lap of the unwed pharaoh. Of course, the pharaoh takes this as a sign, and when a search party returns with Rhodopis in possession of the slipper’s mate, the pharaoh marries her. Never mind that she’s Greek. You see, he’s sure her heart is Egyptian.

Skipping ahead, Charles Perrault’s “Cinderella” (“Cendrillon, 1697) is pretty familiar. Here Cinderella is relegated to servitude all followed by a fairy godmother, a ball, a lost slipper, two big-footed, mean stepsisters, a dainty-footed Cinderella, a wedding, and, finally, a generous outcome for Cinderella’s stepsisters.

Then there’s the Brothers Grimm’s 1812 “Cinderella” or Aschenputtel” (turns out Disney wanted no part of this). In this one, Cinderella’s mom has died, and Cinderella not only visits her mother’s grave but also honors her mother’s advice to be “pious and good.” When Cinderella’s father remarries, everything goes wrong, that is until Cinderella’s stepsisters ask their father for pearls and jewels. Going for some serious contrast, Cinderella only asks her father for the first twig that brushes his hat, and when she receives her father’s present, she plants the twig on her mother’s grave. When the twig takes root, cue some magic birds who supply Cinderella with a gown for the king’s matchmaking, three-day ball. On the third night, the frustrated prince spreads pitch on the steps and captures one of Cinderella’s shoes. When the elder stepsister tries on the shoe, her toe is too big, so she cuts it off. Successfully duped, the prince rides off with the surgically altered stepsister, but not so fast. When the two pass Cinderella’s mother’s grave, once again, cue the magic birds who tattle on the stepsister’s bloody foot. Frustrated, the prince returns to Cinderella’s house, and the bloody scene is repeated with the younger stepsister when she cuts off her heal. After more tattling from the magic birds, the prince returns a third time, rides off with Cinderella, and provides her with a fairy tale wedding, EXCEPT, you guessed it, cue the magic birds who peck out the stepsisters’ eyes.

All this is to say that although plot elements change from Strabo to the Disney’s Cinderella (1950), the purity of the aristocracy is always conserved. But that all changes with Anne Sexton’s “Cinderella” (in Transformations, 1971), a poem which actually begins five times, all “rags to riches” analogs. Why? Clearly Sexton's is no mere Cinderella retell but also a commentary on the act of retelling itself. Maybe it’s because we don’t just retell single narratives but also transform many of our narratives in a process much like Freud’s return of the repressed. And why do these narratives return so often? Maybe it’s because these stories have been transformed into memes and transmitted as cultural propaganda, a kind of brainwashing in favor of aristocratic and middle class notions of romantic, woman-repressing marriage.

Be that as it may, Sexton’s fifth beginning launches into her retell of the Brothers Grimm’s “Cinderella” (yep, she ignores the more familiar Perrault/Disney versions). What sets Sexton’s “Cinderella” apart is her omniscient speaker’s sharply honed snark. Along the way, we are treated to some pretty sinister asides like “walked around looking like Al Jolson,” “marriage market,” “all the warm wings of the fatherland,” and “that is the way with amputations.” Clearly the narrator knows something we might not, that Cinderella and the Prince’s happy ending is drained of reality, a “Regular Bobbsey Twins,” a death mask of 20th C American marriage.

Which opens the way for Michelle Argyle’s “Cinders.” I say this because “Cinders” is not a retell but a sequel where we find out what happens “the twelfth week after the marriage,” and just as all of Sexton’s snark portends, the real Cinderella questions the reality of it all. For example, does the Prince REALLY love her? After all, she did use magic to entrap him. Then there is the question of her stepsisters and all the other commoners. Apparently the King and Queen have instituted new laws which have led to an uprising requiring repression. It’s so bad the Prince has to ask Cinderella, “Do you even like my parents?”

But there is more. What about the guy Cinderella was in love with before all this started? Can she undo it all and just go back to him?

And furthermore, what is this about Cinderella’s fairy [god mother] being imprisoned? Goodness gracious, life after a fairy tale wedding is so-o-o complicated!

Clearly, there is an awful lot for readers to learn and think about, which is just why you need to read Michelle Argyle’s Bonded. But don't forget that “Cinders” is only the middle tale. There is also the first tale, “Thirds,” which is an environmentally sensitive prequel based on the Brothers Grimm’s “One-Eye, Two-Eyes, Three-Eyes.” And finally there is the last tale, the far out “Scales,” because, of course, you want to know about the realm that exists apart from humans, the fairy realm, the place where the drama is compounded and not negated by magic.

So as you can see, we’ve come a long way since Strabo, Perrault, and Disney talked a girl into a pipe dream marriage, so far in fact, that Michelle Argyle’s Bonded not only questions the reality of fairy tale unions but also points the way to new fairy tale possibilities, and who wouldn’t want to discover those? You do, of course!

Songs of the Rust Belt, The Poems of Kristofer Collins

If you are looking for a Rust Belt poet, then Kristofer Collins is your man. If, like Kris, you’re a Yinzer, even the better.

He has recently published two new volumes. His newest, Roundabout Trace, is a Pittsburgh gallery of people, streets, bars, songs—all soaked in a shot and beer. Here you will find a poem entitled “Beer for Breakfast,” a title for a Rust Belt anthem if there ever was one.

A few years earlier, Kris published The River Is Another Kind of Prayer, a volume in two parts. The first part, “New Poems,” is a fitting prelude to Roundabout Trace. Similarly rooted in Pittsburgh, The River’s . . . speaker ranges out to San Francisco, Portland, OR, Juneau, Dayton, OH, even “The Saddest Marathon Station in West Virginia.” He also brings Paris and Hokusai’s “The Great Wave” to Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood proving that a Rust Belt state of mind is fairly universal.

In part two’s “Selected Poems,” Kris does an archaeological dig through his oeuvre. His earlier poems are naive and charming in that new poet sort of way, impressionistic, often talking some woman into it. Continuing on, we learn about Kris’s influences and poetics as well as his love of song exampled by this Baudelairean pronouncement, “legion is the language/sung by twilight stumblers such as we” (“After Too Many Beers with Baldinger”). And as we come closer to the present, a new maturity emerges, one that balances the earlier exuberance with loss. In “Say Hi to Willie for Me,” the cityscape is changing, the population is gentrifying, and the speaker’s friend has left for Texas. All that is left is a poem scrawled on a men’s room wall, Kris’s and his friends idea of art.

But back to Roundabout Trace where the speaker’s voice is the strongest and the sense of place the most assured. Opening questions like, “How did we arrive here?” and “Why write poems?” feel more rhetorical than searching, the answers already settled. There is an overall sense that the City of God has collapsed into Purgatory, and the speaker is sitting in the Venal Bar at the corner of Omission and Commission chatting with all the other souls in waiting. And why shouldn’t this be the case? Everyone in Rust Belt America knows that The American Dream was built on two foundations, one rural and one industrial, and now that the foundations have crumbled, both places have been left living The American Pipe Dream. This is why the speaker of “Why Write Poems?” has only one hope, that his son will someday understand that his father loved him.

Many of the poems in Roundabout Trace are self-interrogations written as letters to Nancy, Tami, Rich, Jeff, Don, and the “You” of “Miles Davis Comes to Lawrenceville.” Here the memory of Miles’ music is incarnated into memories of Pittsburgh’s Butler Street and St. Augustine Church–all “weary of the wish for redemption.” Many other poems use places as jumping off points. For example, in the simple and elegant “Uneeda Biscuit,” the speaker weighs urban demolition and “last night’s crack-up” against the winter stoicism of an advertisement painted on a late 19th C brick building. The speaker concludes that the Uneeda Biscuit sign says it all but then modifies his conclusion because he doesn’t like what reality demands. Instead he imagines the sun shining “in all seasons” and “you” and him running “against/this river.” In Roundabout Trace happy endings are realized only in the imagination.

In closing, allow me to stitch together a poem from each volume into a single poem, one that becomes the archaeology of a Rust Belt Life. In “Panther Hollow Inn (1992)” from The River, the innocent young speaker rides to work with the more experienced, radio station hopping Velmirovich. After work, Velmirovich takes the speaker to The Panther Hollow Inn where alcohol takes a back seat to Ritalin sales and underage sex. The upshot is that this is not some hellscape. No, this is a Baudelairean, Rust Belt romance where the owner reaches new heights with lines of cocaine and a patron woos his underage paramour over the pay phone. Now jump ahead thirty years. In “Beer for Breakfast” the experienced older speaker sings the saving grace of beer. It is true that snow falls and the streets are broken, and taken together, there is no collective coat to keep out the wind, but all this is really about the emotional winter of broken souls. Some may be ready to leave this veil of tears, but for the living, well, there is compensation. There is beer.

As I’ve noted twice, I see a lot of Baudelaire in Kris’s poems, and for that reason, when I want to be in a Rust Belt state of mind, Kris Collins is my man, and if you’re in the mood, he should be yours, too.

Jeffrey Dunn

Jeffrey Dunn

Spokane, WA