Review: Brassbones and Rainbows
by Jason Cantrell
Brassbones & Rainbows
2Leaf Press, pp. 120
Shirley Bradley LeFlore’s debut poetry book, Brassbones and Rainbows, is a vivid collection that uses a musical voice to address political and social issues. LeFlore’s word choice throughout her poems evoke the feelings of gospel and blues, and when reading the poems you don’t hear the writer’s voice speaking to you; it shouts and sings with passion you can feel in every line.
Many of the poems in the collection are written in a voice that shouts from the page, making one picture the poet as one who is fighting against being silenced. While the words in the poems don’t specifically say who or what is trying to silence the poet, the undertone of racism and prejudice stands out as the ideology the poet is preaching against. The need to shout out loud and be heard is perhaps best expressed in the closing lines of her poem “Brass Reality,” which reads, “you can bury me in the east / you can bury me in the west / but I’m gonna rise-up and be a TRUMPET in the mawnin.” A reader might recognize these lines, and a Google search of them reveals similar lines in a gospel song, “You May Bury Me in the East.” LeFlore changes the message of the gospel in a simple yet riveting way. The gospel song repeats lines about Christians longing to fly away, and one memorable set of lines reads, “You may bury me in the east / You may bury me in the west / But I'll hear the trumpet sound / In that morning.” The line in the gospel verse indicates that the trumpet sound, playing somewhere off in the undefined distance, signifies hope with each new dawn. LeFlore’s poem, on the other hand, boldly declares that she won’t be waiting to hear the trumpet, but instead will rise up and be the trumpet, playing out loud to spread that hope.
LeFlore’s perspective as an African American southerner comes out clear in her choices of words that call out the stereotypes most commonly associated with her race. In one poem, “Sonnybrotherman Dance,” she writes about a man dancing in what feels like protest against oppression. She tells “Sonnybrotherman” to “Dance in a cotton field / a tobacca farm / a steelmill grind / on a watermelon rind.” The images thus evoked are of an oppressed man dancing to show his passion, his freedom. The poem then calls for the man to dance in order to rise above racism and climb above the insults and crude names he has been called. She tells him, “Dance that boy named colored down in the ground / Stomp that boy named nigga with your 200 pound / Dance that name deep.” These lines bring to mind an image of a man burying the names he has been called, “colored” and “nigga,” and continuing to dance as he leaves those names behind him, buried deep underground. Then, towards the end of the poem, she says, “You don paid your dues / Work a lil soft shoe / Dance your own tune.” These lines tell the message that the subject of the poem has earned the right to dance, and the freedom to dance in his own way, because of the price he had to pay to gain that freedom.
LeFlore also uses a distinctly southern voice in her writing, using a grammar and style that immediately brings to mind a regional accent. She uses alternate spellings of many words to express the accent in them, such as in likes like, “cuz I got a gee-zus complex,” and “jus a box recycled, with a bag of ole bones.” Lines like these add to LeFlore’s distinct voice, and it’s easy to imagine, while reading these poems, LeFlore standing before you like a gospel preacher, shouting out the words.
After reading LeFlore’s poems, one doesn’t have to know for themselves the struggles of being an African American woman living through oppression and fighting for her voice; reading these poems makes you feel as if you have experienced those struggles, and you can hear the fight in the voice on the page.
Species/Spaces: A Journey of Blood and Time
Review: Blood Work
Mutter Museum, Philadelphia
A heavily populated Saturday afternoon echoes a literal mutter throughout the Mütter Museum, the living mingling amongst the dead, their voices hushing as a wall of skulls greets them beyond the foyer’s marble stairs. Even those who have been here before (including myself) cannot help but ponder the mummified past, the wax figures of the disfigured, and the alternately gleaming and rusting obstetrical tools which look more suitable beside a Torquemada or Mengele than in jolly old Franklin’s adopted hometown.
Above, the special exhibits room looks almost sterile, newer than its surroundings, reminiscent of Museum of Modern Art austerity, white walls and carefully spaced pieces, granting viewers a hint of intimacy. Below, thin and creaking wooden steps lead to crowded collections in jars; the sample and trifles and oddities of humanity which repel and draw the curious and strong of stomach. The reverse chronology of architectural and exhibition styles suit the venerable institution, a bequest of the University of Pennsylvania College of Physicians, and set in motion a walk backward through time into the American medical establishment.
The most modern of these works-on-view, “Blood Work,” is the brainchild of New York artist Jordan Eagles, whose web site describes the self-invented process as “preserve[ing] blood to create works that evoke the connections between life, death, body, spirit, and the Universe…”
Plexiglas and UV resin hold the blood captive, revealing a luminous glow, an unsettling powdery essence “as a sign of passing and change,” and mixes in copper as a “unique, fiery energy.” Along one wall, “Roze Triptych” captures blood as textile, “a map of memory and homage to ancient wrapping rituals.” Indeed, each cloth-permeated piece could be batik, a fabric of the life force as its substrate once flowed.
Eagles isn’t the first artist to use blood as a medium. Modern feminist pieces, from spoken word to the 2008 outrage surrounding Yale University art student Aliza Shvarts’ use of her own menstrual fluids (and self-induced miscarriages, depending on whether you believe Shvarts or a suddenly gun-shy Yale), place a high premium on blood and its symbolism. Why not use one’s own body in the manifestation of art? Why not capture the force upon which life flows? Why not make the figurative literal and the intangible physical? Who gets to decide which artworks are creation and which artworks are destruction, and why destruction isn’t art? On the issue of art or “art,” the casual Googler will find a million and one comments at varying levels of rational discourse. However, the discussion’s very existence strongly suggests the work has indeed created a narrative to which even the most valiant anti-art fanatic has dipped a toe. With this narrative, the artist can claim success.
As the blood in Eagles’ work did not issue from his own body, perhaps he dodged the gender politics and/or personal ethics bullet. The animal rights folks (Eagles sourced the blood of “Blood Work” from a slaughterhouse) never made anything remotely approaching the mass media splash that the pro-life (and pro-choice) people did for Shvarts’ Internet-famous conceptual piece.
I manage to tear my gaze from Eagles’ backlit blood paintings, glowing gold and red and in some spaces, deep black. Where, exactly, does “Blood Work” fit into the historical Mütter?
Downstairs, the main collection remains shadowed in original wood cabinetry, scrupulously maintained, yet the glass’s shiny waves betray the age which blamed “miasmas” for spreading infection. Unhindered, modernity creeps in around the corners: numbered cards, far more recently installed amongst the flesh and bones, offer viewers a cell phone tour. Then around the corner, on the opposite side of a descending staircase, the revolving exhibit presently entitled “Broken Bodies – Suffering Spirits: Injury, Death, and Healing in Civil War Philadelphia” beckons, in sharp contrast to the glamorous and sterile bloodwork which drew us to the museum space in the first place.
Another corner, and the bloodless “Soap Lady” in her open casket wordlessly questions everything the nineteenth century knew about bodily decomposition. Why she’s tucked away in a corner of the Civil War, I don’t know, but standing between her and a model of Abraham Lincoln’s head wound is suddenly overwhelming.
Enough blood and bodies for one day. I walk down marble steps, a feature one might expect of a museum, whether or not it contains art or “art.” Eagles has chosen a brilliant venue for his work: the crossroads of art and exhibit case, life and death, energy and repose. Choose your dichotomy: Eagles has articulated the connection between them.
Crying for Haiti Ended Long Ago
Review: Tears for the Mountain
Tears for the Mountain
Divertir Publishing, pp. 173
In the United States, where our national attention span seems to coincide with the length of a half-hour TV sitcom, it’s no surprise that the deadly, destructive earthquake in Haiti has disappeared from our national consciousness.
The January 12, 2010 quake killed more than 100,000 men, women and children and left tens of thousands more homeless. News reports at the time told of office building collapses in the capital of Port-au-Prince that buried scores of people alive under tons of debris. In the days and weeks that followed, orphaned children wandered the streets and roaming gangs enforced vigilante justice while looting homes and businesses for food and valuables.
Despite an initial international response that led to more than $32 million in donations in less than a month, the scores of similarly horrific disasters since – including the current typhoon recovery underway in the Philippines – have shoved the Haiti story completely off the mainstream media radar.
A quick Google search of the phrase “relief efforts in Haiti earthquake” produces recent releases from the Red Cross, CARE and the Obama White House. However, articles from such mainstream news sources as CNN, the Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor carry publication dates as old as only a few days and weeks after the quake itself.
Filling this informational void, however, is a powerful nonfiction chronicle called Tears for the Mountain. In his debut work, Chris Rakunas vividly shares his week-long experiences delivering ten tons of medical supplies throughout Haiti.
Originally published on January 12, 2012 – the second anniversary of the quake, Tears currently is receiving renewed attention due to the Philippines disaster along with the pending release of Rakunas’ third book, and second novel, The Eye of Siam.
The goal of narrative nonfiction works, such as Tears, is to provide detailed information about key situations, events and issues. Just as the Greek god Chronos wrapped his snakelike body around the legendary world-egg; a strong chronicle should wrap its arms around a topic and give us a comprehensive, opinion-free, non-judgmental account of what took place.
Tears meets and exceeds this goal by delivering the sights, sounds, feelings and smells of what it was like to be fully immersed in the hopeless tragedy that was immediate post-earthquake Haiti.
The fast-paced book begins with Rakunas, at the time a southwest Florida hospital executive, racing across the state’s Alligator Alley highway to catch a cargo flight to Haiti two weeks after the quake. He and his orthopedic surgeon colleague, Dr. Stephen Schroering, are making the trip with nine pallets worth of surgical goods that were dropped off at their hospital.
From their middle-of-the-night arrival at the darkened Port-au-Prince airport – illuminated only by the light of an electrical fire in the remains of the terminal – to their exhausted departure six days later, Tears chronicles the pair’s experiences interacting with the Haitian people in exacting detail.
We can see the brightly colored orange, green and blue piles of wood shards along roadsides where small houses used to be, as well as the hundreds of boxes of supplies that Rakunas spends hours sorting and organizing and sorting again.
We can hear the joyous laughter of young children playing outside the orphanage Rakunas called home for a week, which stands in stark contrast to the plaintive wailing of mothers over the bodies of their dead babies.
We can feel the old man’s damaged thigh bone snap into place as Rakunas assists with the resetting of a fractured leg on a makeshift church pew operating table, and we share the feeling of fear with the author as he sprints to seek shelter behind a courtyard gate to avoid a gang of Port-au-Prince thugs.
We can smell the pervasive burning charcoal aroma throughout the island, along with the sickeningly sweet odor of rotting human flesh that is seemingly encountered around every corner.
The chronicle also introduces us to such inspiring personalities as Miriam Frederick, the director of New Life Children’s Home and Rakunas’ host and facilitator for the week. She’s described in Tears as a both “a miniature Phyllis Diller” and “the Mother Teresa of Haiti” for her appearance and her countless good deeds. We also meet the complex Guy Philippe, a local political leader who was quite helpful to the author on a delivery to the remote town of Pestel. We learn in the book’s epilogue that Philippe is suspected of being a murderous counter-revolutionary who was trained and funded by the U.S. government.
Tears for the Mountain – named after graffiti in Port-au-Prince depicting a map of Haiti with its tallest mountain Pic la Selle crying – is faithful to its time line and organized into chapters simply titled Day One, Day Two etc. We awaken with Rakunas each morning to the sound of giant cargo planes touching down at the airport and go to bed with him each night after the bracing, but refreshing, ice-cold shower that washes away the physical if not the emotional stains of the day.
In a recent interview, Rakunas said he’s constantly haunted by strong, sensuous images from his trip, an effect he said is intensified each time he attends a book signing and speaks publicly about the trip. These experiences so strongly felt by Rakunas nearly three years ago are effectively recorded in Tears for us to process and ponder in our own minds.
With his repute as a novelist continuing to grow, one hopes Rakunas eventually will step back into the nonfiction genre as he clearly has a firm handle on what it takes to produce a strong and significant chronicle.