Leave Your Body Behind by Sandra Doller

Reviewed by Mia Fassero


Leave Your Body Behind
by Sandra Doller
Les Figues Press 2015

Sandra Doller’s new book “Leave Your Body Behind” is not a story told simply. This is not a straightforward confessional or memoir or book of prose poetry. Even Doller’s publisher refuses to slap the usual genre label on the back cover, opting for the simple yet broad description: Literature. Doller’s book is, in fact, the diary of a poet. “The poet demands” she says tellingly, of both herself and her readers, who must wade through her subtle clues and references to earn a deeper understanding of her story. The struggle brings a payoff: Doller smashes up her life and presents us with art beyond the typical framed work of literature. She reminds us that it’s possible to rewrite our histories, reinvent our memories. This is a book that demands attention, attention to detail on every page.

The first section reads like a collage of journal entries on acid. The voice is disembodied; time folds in half, images pop up from the absurd and perverse to the innocuous and innocent as Doller recaptures “the very security of a youth you have the privilege to not remember.” Throughout the book Doller allows herself the freedom to break all the rules when it comes to typical chapter formatting, punctuation, even spelling, as only a poet does, unapologetically. What surfaces is her ability to be both secretive and revelatory.

Doller is relentless at times, offering up a buffet of images and imperatives. “Nothing moves. Except white SUVs. All over California. All the sweet sheeping hackers. Love your fog. Was that a rat. Wasn’t it. So a dripping ceramic vase on a pedestal is supposed to make you feel better. So lots of glass. Petro product free. So corn. So you know what I’m talking about. So say it in English so we can all hate it together.” The accumulation of details could be overwhelming (and indeed this is the book’s only hazard). However Doller is smart, very smart (this is no secret). She is clever to package her prose in small doses, giving the reader a chance to regroup in the white spaces on the page.

The narrator is faintly sketched (I’m referring to Doller as “narrator” since it feels the most neutral in this genre-less space). She grew up in Virginia near a lake. She has a sister. Her mother was a less than nurturing nurse. Her father was a questionable character. She now lives on the west coast (San Diego as per her bio) and is a professor of creative writing. But these are not the details of interest. The interesting details are in the images she creates and the ideas she thrashes about on the page. It’s no surprise that Doller, the author of three books of poetry, is known for the haunting physicality of her work, the sparse yet precise language in her poems.

“I can’t do this…” Doller confesses, reminding us where this journey, the book, began. “It’s impossible to tell what will happen if we tell the truth.” As she examines her life in fragments, she infuses these fragments with imagination and then stacks them up alongside philosophical arguments within the context of modern times. It’s a compact and complete trip for the mind in a narrow 134-page book, roughly the size of a Zagat guide (a slightly sarcastic reference I believe Doller might appreciate).

Shifts in time, space and tone pull us along as Doller shifts techniques from small chunks of prose to longer riffs. Her story “begins in Omaha” but this particular memory is in fact set in a tropical place, Mexico, where the author luxuriates in the lightness of nostalgia. Over time we come to know our narrator through repetitive imagery that reveals her struggles growing up, her issues with her father, her career as a professor, always coming at you in an oblique manner. Her specificity of detail is grounding – “a photograph taped to the back of a painting” when talking about her father, for example. Spread amongst the shadowy imagery are admissions scattered throughout – “They say I have no theme.”

Doller becomes more transparent as we come to know her midway through the book, admitting in subtle and not so subtle passages the difficulty with nostalgia. As she yearns to remember the past, she dips her toe in – she recalls childhood summers at the lake, popsicles, teenage pranks – then she pulls away. Her technique reflects the issues inherent with memory. Doller introduces each new “chapter” with quotes from myriad sources – from scientific and online news journals to modern dance critics and punk rock lyrics. Using the sources as structure is remindful of what may have started as self-prompts. Her tone ranges from confidential to confrontational, her use of language is consistently unconventional and unrelenting. Doller doesn’t hesitate to use the word “rape” in one sentence followed immediately by the phrase “Christmas Day.” The contrasting imagery is meant to make us flinch. When the tone shifts from passive to reactive, her one-liners pack a punch: “you should be paying me not to procreate.” Doller delivers entire paragraphs of directives that you can’t turn away from, forcing the reader into a state of heightened awareness.

Whether Doller is recalling a teacup store in Mendocino County or a hobo by the beach, her personal sketches of memories are sparse but poignant and her language is anything but cliché. “Even the cobwebs are clean” she remarks, describing the interior of a house, “atmospheric, red berry ambiance.” Her analogies are witty and timely, citing Tom Cruise’s teeth and Madame Bovary in a “gold lamé onesie” on the same page. The accumulation of details is what makes this work potent.

Doller takes on the vegetarians, politicians, and teenagers. She jabs, pokes and jostles the reader then smooths things over again. Expect unorthodox word choices, spellings of words. Expect to Google a name or two or more (sorry Lesley Gore). She notes that we can “recollect and collage and forget it…” How do you forget being called “slut” or a mother not acting like a mother or a father not acting fatherly, Doller asks. But she doesn’t seem to be searching for an answer.

“Is that prose or poetry and why” Doller quotes Gertrude Stein, one of her influences. In the end, who really cares? And why worry if the story moves you. It’s Doller’s natural inclination toward the poetry that is the strength of this easy-to-hold, hard-to-describe novel. Yes, Leave Your Body Behind is a diary, a meditation. It is also a flood of form that defies classification. As former poet laureate Natasha Trethewey said “It’s one of poetry’s greatest gifts to show us ourselves through the intimate voice of another.” Doller’s DNA is wrapped around this authentic body of work.







And the Hills Opened Up by David Oppegaard

Reviewed by Amber Parker Hills Cover_FrontCover_FINAL-01

And the Hills Opened Up
By David Oppegaard
Published 2014 by Burnt Bridge | New Orleans | San Francisco
$11.99 paperback ISBN 9780988672710

And the Hills Opened up is a horror novel set in the small mining town of Red Earth, Wyoming in 1890. From the first scene, David Oppegaard propels the reader into a quiet tension. The story opens on a hot July day with Hank Chambers—a foreman sweating through a summer fever—giving a headcount of his men before they set fire to the dynamite that would blast open the hills, unearthing much more than copper ore. There is something very unsettling about this opening scene: the sweat in Chambers’s eyes (a cringe-worthy, recurring detail), his uncertainty over the headcount of his filthy crew, the crow that flies overhead, the way the earth shakes once the mine is blown, and the way the black smoke curls upwards from the depths, darker and thicker than usual. And it’s in these tiny details that Oppegaard builds this sense of dread, and he does it without revealing anything too soon. He only hints at something being awakened, something so unexpected and so terrifying that Chambers “felt a heaviness resting on his shoulders, like the hills themselves were pushing down on him”—a delicate foreshadowing of the hell that is to come.

Oppegaard paints a simple yet vivid backdrop for his tale: the town of Red Earth survives on salaries paid by the Dennison Mining Company, a monopolistic entity owned by the absent character of Mr. Dennison—a man who wants things done his way, a rich man’s way. Despite his elusiveness, Dennison’s presence is felt, particularly in the people working for him, like the villainous overseer of the town’s payroll, Revis Cooke, a pompous creep who lives in a limestone-walled mansion that stands out from the small church, hotel, scattered shacks and cabins in town. The miners are overworked and paid poorly, spending most of their money and off-time drinking and sleeping with the prostitutes at the Runoff Saloon. These are the inner workings of the town and Oppegaard, patiently, makes it real for us. He takes what could be a clichéd western with one-dimensional characters—a sickly foreman, a young and inexperienced sheriff, a widowed whore, a gang of outlaws, a priest with impure thoughts—and amplifies all of it with a unique perspective, a completely twisted one.

There are a lot of characters in this novel, but the prominent ones are developed thoroughly. The main characters are given individual storylines, which eventually connect together, seamlessly, contributing to the larger story arc. Through light brush strokes of physical description and back story, Oppegaard gives his characters the attention they deserve. He brings them to life. He humanizes them, makes us believe in their story. It’s all necessary given the world Oppegaard has created, and the absolute devastation he eventually hurls us into. Impressively, Oppegaard is able to establish that feeling/connection readers have with characters without dragging out the main story. It’s that connection that heightens the destruction of the events that follow.

The events that follow are nothing short of epic and horrific; the violence escalates as we are introduced to the larger villain of the story: “The Charred Man.” He’s a skeletal figure with claw-like fingers and blackened skin, like he had been burned and buried alive, deep in the mountains. Within the dark tunneled mine, The Charred Man is first discovered by one unsuspecting mineworker. Equipped with no more than a single lit candle, the miner has only enough time to notice the lack of light in the burned man’s eyes before his throat is ripped out. But there are several monsters in this story: The Dennison Mining Co. and Cooke are symbols of moral decay and greed, while the Charred Man appears as a kind of “demon” or evil unlike anything living, a form of punishment for a small town living in sin (or perhaps he was just looking to harvest some new skin.)

What makes this western/horror successful is Oppegaard’s prose. It’s minimal, but written such precision of language and detail. The dialogue is on point. And who knew gore could be written so beautifully:

“It defied physics and good sense, but the tunnel packed with the bodies of the dead and maimed did not collapse as Hank Chambers climbed across its sloppy floor, which was actually less a surface and more a constantly shifting mass of knees, elbows, and anguished faces he did not want to look upon…He did not know if it was the smell, the wetness, or his fever, but he felt his mind loosening as he slipped forward, its grinding cogs reverting to some ancient form of thought, his body an eel among eels. His only focus was the light in his hand, which must not go out, which must not go out, which must not go out no matter what else might happen. Chambers had spent much of his life edging darkness and he would not submit to it now, even if this was his final hour.”

Oppegaard doesn’t tie a neat bow on this ending; there is an uneasy sense of relief, as if some great question is left unanswered. Who or what is the Charred Man and why is he here? Is the Dennison Mining Co. to blame for blasting too deep, or is it more complex than that? I feel like Oppegaard doesn’t need to explain anything, it would only take away from the experience. And the Hills Opened Up gives the reader exactly what they came for: a thrilling, real-time experience. This novel is so visually stunning, so utterly gruesome, and so perfectly paced, that it truly feels as if you are just another resident of Red Earth. And after closing the book, it will feel as if you were the only one who made it out alive.



Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder

Reviewed by Charlene Caruso

Distant Neighbors Cover

Edited by Chad Wriglesworth
Published 2014 by Counterpoint Press | Berkeley
$30.00 hardcover  ISBN 978-1619023055

Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder is a collection of letters that spans forty years of friendship between two prolific writers who have each spent a lifetime living in harmony with the land in unusual and complementary ways. Gary Snyder’s passionate respect for the wild nature of the land led him to live in the wilderness of the Sierra foothills. Wendell Berry’s deep connection to an agrarian lifestyle drew him back to farm in Kentucky where his family had been stewards of the land for generations. This collection of correspondence begins in 1973, shortly after the writers became acquainted professionally through Jack Shoemaker, an editor and publisher in the Bay Area who worked with both men.

In his introduction, editor Chad Wriglesworth, succinctly describes the relationship between the two writers and the importance of this relationship to a contemporary reader: “By choosing paths of hospitality over mindless competition, these two men—known for giving us alternative models for living in place—have also left us a so-called road map that leads to more generous and imaginative ways of existing together.”   Snyder and Berry are both purposeful and thoughtful in their letters—whether penning short notes about planting or composing long letters examining differences in their beliefs, there is a fearlessness in the way they live in the world.   Both men are committed activists for the earth, inhabiting the land in a deeply personal way, choosing to raise their families to respect and rely on nature and accept what each season offers, be it bounty or hardship.

As writers, these letters offer their critiques of each other’s work and in doing so display a mutual respect that becomes a deepening and enduring friendship over four decades. Both men passionately express their respective views on spirituality and human’s relation to nature. Snyder views the world from a Zen perspective, while Berry sees the world through a more Christian lens. Their discourse is a spirited exploration of their values, always seeking clarity and precision, but never sinking to an indictment or judgment.

Throughout the letters, there is a patience, a deep sense of following nature’s pace that proceeds from a total lack of pretense in writing and in living.   In one letter, Snyder leaves off from a discussion on the spiritual teachings of Zen and early Christians to ask Berry if he believes “one could use a tractor to get his place where it would grow enough grass to keep horses from there?”   In response, Berry interrupts a rant on “poet-interviews” to write, “On the tractor question, I think you must do what seems to make the most sense in your particular circumstances. I regret tractors, I guess, at least as much as I regret interviews. Both, however, can be well used.”

Wriglesworth has been scrupulous in documenting the context and chronology of the correspondence and he acknowledges the invaluable assistance he was given by both writers in completing this project. His careful curation has resulted in a cohesive collection that steadily traverses the courses of both men’s lives as they intersect with each other and with the culture and times in which they were written. The questions of what one believes and how these strongly-held beliefs determine the way one lives in this world will always be important. In the case of Snyder and Berry, their principles have not only shaped their own lives but also continue to help shape the ways people think about and interact with this world.


The Mexican Man in His Backyard

Reviewed by Jeff Chon

mexican man

The Mexican Man in His Backyard
By Stephen Gutierrez
Published 2014 by Roan Press, Sacramento
$15.00 paperback ISBN 978-0981596891

In the essay “Lucky Guys Forever,” the young narrator sits in a booth at Lucky Guys – a local burger joint and struggles with feelings of inadequacy as he watches a former classmate named Herrera preen over his beautiful ten-speed bicycle. We are told Herrera is in trouble, even though nothing particularly bad happened in Lucky Guys that day.

“Nothing bad happened at Lucky Guys,” the narrator tells us, “and that is the honest truth. In my story, certain versions are played with, but none of them untrue. That is the virtue of writing imaginative non-fiction. You get to do what the fuck you want.” This spirit of fearlessness propels the rest of the essay, as Gutierrez uses speculation and personal reflection to show us how something bad did indeed happen at Lucky Guys. Herrera had bullied the narrator throughout elementary school years before their encounter at Lucky Guys. Years after Lucky Guys, Herrera became a junkie. In the recursive landscape of memory, something bad did indeed happen at Lucky Guys: Herrera triggered Gutierrez’s retrospective impulses–impulses that carried through his teenage years and culminated in an essay filled with the regret and sadness that has clung to his memories like barnacles.

A sense of fearlessness permeates The Mexican Man in His Backyard, a collection of essays and short stories set in Gutierrez’s youth in East L.A. and adulthood in Fresno. Whether he’s writing about watching his father succumb to Huntington’s Disease, or the paternalistic privilege of white academics, or his inability to connect with the Mexican neighbor who’d watch Dodger games while sequestered in the back yard, Gutierrez illuminates the sadness and beauty of recollection with courage and clarity. Gutierrez gets to do what the “fuck” he wants because he’s telling the truth. We know he’s telling the truth because we believe the things he says. And readers believe the things he says because, from the first sentence on, our guide addresses the subjects of his pieces with tenderness, while assessing himself with a brutal honesty that is precise, lyrical, and unsettling.

Reading The Mexican Man in His Backyard, I was reminded of how all great writing aspires to draw the reader into its world. I spent a good chunk of my twenties living in East L.A. and I always felt like an outsider. No matter how hard my very kind neighbors tried to embrace my presence, I never felt as though I belonged there. This book was not only a homecoming of sorts, but by accessing his internal monologue in such an effortlessly conversational tone, Gutierrez finally made me feel like an insider, more than a decade and over 400 miles later.

 Creative non-fiction is unfairly seen as the bastion of the self-centered. The practitioners of this craft are frequently viewed as people who can only write about themselves, can only illuminate what has happened to them. With The Mexican Man in His Backyard, Gutierrez shows us how essayists have the ability to write about their lives in ways that resonate with all of our lives. Stephen Gutierrez isn’t merely writing about himself; he’s writing about all of us.