Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Tattoo: Tatu

My friend and coworker Dana Resente, who turned me on to Flann O’Brien a few months back, has a tendency to leave notes in Irish for me and my other coworkers whenever she gets a chance. For the most part, the members of my department regard this practice as endearing, and although we never quite know how to respond to Dana’s missives, we smile appreciatively when we receive them and hope that they’re neither shot-through with insults nor full of vital information like your car is on fire or the dean wants your head on a platter (again). Now, however, with the help of Nuala Ni Chonchuir’s stirring book of poetry, Tattoo: Tatu (Arlen House, 2007), I can at least reply with a witty (if non-sequitur) riposte of my own in the Irish language.

To backtrack just a little bit, Chonchuir is an Irish poet whose work is both sensual and provocative. Her imagining of Virginia Woolf’s suicide in “Virginia’s Last Walk,” for example, leads the reader through the final moments of the writer’s life in minute, intimate detail (without, it should be noted, recourse to the rubber-nosed costumery that marks the same event in the film version of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours). Likewise, her treatment of Western body-image issues in a poem titled “Pandemic” toys playfully with the odd language we use to describe our relationships with food and each other: “Fun-size women/ bite each other’s backs,/ every flesh-inch/ tasted and tested/ against their own.”

Yet while Chonchuir bares her soul and examines the world around her in visceral and challenging ways throughout the collection, what’s most fascinating about Tattoo: Tatu is perhaps the poet’s work as a translator. Professing a love for the Irish language throughout her introduction, Chonchuir juxtaposes many of the English-language versions of her poems with Irish-language versions of the same. And while I know absolutely nothing of the Irish language, simply seeing both versions of the poems side-by-side is an eye-opening tip-off to the vagaries of translation. What becomes clear in Chonchuir’s work as both a poet and a translator is that translation is never an exact science; rather, it is an art that speaks a language of its own. That is, in the gap between one language and the next, there is occasion, as in poetry and as none other than TS Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock might attest, for a hundred indecisions, a hundred visions and revisions, yet the translator, like the poet, must settle on only one.

Of course, there’s also a practical value to Tattoo: Tatu—at least for me. The next time Dana leaves a note in a foreign tongue on my office door, I can reply with a line or two from one of Chonchuir’s poems—something like “Ta me fuar i mo lui i lana daichead poll ionam stroichte o bhiorain!” (“I lie cold in a laneway, forty stab wounds pulled from needles!”).

Hmm… On second thought…

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Months and Seasons

Since I’ve started this blog, a lot of authors and publishers have been contacting me about reviewing their books. For the most part, I’ve tried my best to read the books in the order in which they arrive. Last week, however, as I put down Guacamole Dip by Daniel Reveles, I couldn’t take my eyes off the cover of Months and Seasons by Christopher Meeks. And although there were a good two or three books ahead of this one in the queue (and despite all of the old bromides about the dangers of judging a book by its cover), I couldn’t resist. Something about the angry black chick on the cover called out to me, almost dared me to read just one story in the book. Which is all I really intended to do—just read one story before moving onto the next book on my list.

Big mistake.

The stories in Months and Seasons are like potato chips: you can’t read just one. Just a few sentences into the first piece, “Dracula Sinks into the Night,” I immediately felt at home in the world Meeks has created—one in which it’s possible to find varying degrees of salvation in a fall from a second-story porch while wearing a Dracula costume or (as in a story titled “The Holes in My Door”) in a stray load of buckshot fired accidentally into one’s own foot. Throughout this collection of short stories, which reads like an odd combination of Raymond Carver and O Henry (heavy on the Carver), Meeks approaches the complexities of human relationships with wit and subtlety. Moreover, his understanding of the fragility of the human species brings depth to his work. Case in point: my favorite story of the bunch, “The Old Topanga Incident,” in which a writer stares down a natural disaster only to wonder how much fight he has left.

Perhaps the most endearing piece in this collection is the opening chapter of the author’s upcoming novel, The Brightest Moon of the Century, which Meeks includes as something he describes as a “bonus track.” Titled “The Hand,” this piece introduces the reader to a teenager named Edward and his distant, recently-widowed father. Convinced that the public school system is failing his son, the father enrolls Edward in a private school where the vagaries of tying a necktie and dealing with his over-privileged classmates only exacerbate his sense of loneliness. Driven by Edward’s desire to connect with his father in even the slightest way, the piece, like all of the stories in this collection, offers a touching exploration of the ties that bind. Indeed, if “The Hand” is any indication of what’s to come, I’m certainly looking forward to The Brightest Moon of the Century.

Months and Seasons will be available in late May.

Update: Available now at!

Monday, April 7, 2008

Guacamole Dip

My life has been a bit of a whirlwind of late. A few months back, my wife and I spoke with a real estate agent. In what seemed like no time at all, our house was on the market and we were looking for a new home. Not long after that, we had a buyer who wanted us to agree to make some repairs to our current home before she’d sign anything, and we were making similar demands upon a seller. And so began the calls to the plumbers and handymen, the asbestos technicians and chimney inspectors, the oil-tank removers and brickwork experts, the butchers, the bakers, the candlestick makers.

Then there was the mortgage to secure, and now there’s the whole issue of actually moving everything we’ve accumulated over the past ten years into our new home in the space of twelve hours. On top of that, there was the enjoyable if ill-timed trip to San Francisco; there were (and always will be) papers to grade, lessons to plan, conferences to be held with students in various stages of compositional meltdown, and all of my various and sundry writing projects to see to. I’m almost tempted to cry, “Calgon, take me away!” The only problem, however, is that my bathtub leaks (another thing the buyer wants fixed), and my students tell me they’ve never seen a Calgon commercial in their lives. Which might leave me at a loss if not for Guacamole Dip (Sunbelt 2008), the latest collection of short stories from Daniel Reveles.

Like Reveles’ previous collections (Enchiladas, Rice, and Beans and Tequila, Lemon, and Salt), Guacamole Dip is set in the border town of Tecate – a great place to visit, if only for minutes at a time amidst the hustle and bustle of modern life. Populated by a cast of vibrant, loving, giving characters, Tecate is, in the words of one character, “a long way from Krispy Kreme.” And thank goodness! Having Guacamole Dip on hand over the last few weeks has been like carrying an instant vacation along with me wherever I’ve gone. No Krispy Kreme, no Starbucks, no ATMs, no worries. Just the welcoming sound of sidewalk vendors hawking their wares, the hearty songs of strolling mariachis, and the constant banter of Los Cafeteros, the town’s brain-trust, which gathers daily to discuss philosophy and politics over endless cups of coffee. Sure, there’s some intrusion from up north - Monologo de una Vagina is playing in the local theater – but for the most part, the town is a world apart, with a logic and karmic ecosystem all its own.

Beautifully written and brought to vivid life by a master storyteller, Guacamole Dip is the perfect, relaxing antidote to the senseless stresses of the modern world.

William Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha, and Daniel Reveles has Tecate.

Guess which one I’d rather visit.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Grammar Today: The New American Language and Grammar Primer

I'm very fortunate to have a job that I love: I’m an English instructor at Montgomery County Community College. Because the school has an open admission policy, I see a very wide range of students, all of whom are bright, witty and clever in their own ways, most of whom are eager to learn, and many of whom have wonderful, innovative ideas that they can’t always express in a clear and meaningful fashion. The problem isn’t that these students aren’t smart. The problem is that the English language is so riddled with what seem (to them, anyway) to be arcane rules that don’t necessarily make sense. My biggest challenge, then, is frequently that of helping my students cross the great linguistic divide that separates their ideas from their audience. And since this audience consists of my fellow colleagues in various disciplines, who would be shortchanging my students if they accepted anything less than the best both in terms of content and form, I am always looking for new and interesting ways to allow my students to engage in what is widely known as academic discourse. Or, in plain terms, how to talk smart to smart people. Hence my excitement over the opportunity to review Richard Betting’s Grammar Today: The New American Language and Grammar Primer.

Eschewing the smarmy pop-pedantry of the fairly recent spate of grammar books like Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Betting takes a systematic nuts-and-bolts approach to the issues of teaching and learning grammar. Early in the book, the author discusses the shortcomings of traditional grammar instruction and argues that students first need to understand both the point and the power inherent in communication before they can fully appreciate the nuances of their language. It’s not simply enough to teach students the rules, Betting notes; we need to explain why the rules matter. Additionally, Betting sees a value in allowing students to understand the history of English itself: if we recognize English not as static but evolving, we can allow our students to see that language is, in his words, “a work in progress.” In the end, perhaps it is this observation that gives the book its strength. For Betting, there is no “right” way to speak and write. Rather, we choose various modes of expression for various occasions. What Betting ultimately proposes is that we need to teach students how to describe what they are doing when they communicate, how to recognize that engaging in that process involves making choices, and how to make appropriate choices when trying to achieve different effects or communicating with different audiences.

Overall, Betting does an excellent job of mapping the diverse territories of contemporary composition and rhetoric studies. At the same time, however, I’m not entirely certain that the book will appeal to those most in need of a “grammar primer.” While Betting certainly provides the aspiring composition-and-rhetoric scholar with a compact volume that covers not only the approaches to writing pedagogy that have fallen in and out of favor over the past fifty years or so but also a brief history of the English language as well, my own experience with students who struggle with grammar is that this book may be too theoretical for their liking. Nonetheless, I recommend it to anyone who plans to make a living in the composition and rhetoric field.