Sunday, September 20, 2020

A CLOUD IN MY HAND -- Erika Byrne-Ludwig

A mistake to dismiss the "cloud" you get in this collection of nearly four dozen spellbinding tales from Australian author Erika Byrne-Ludwig as just a quaint poetic metaphor, or maybe a clever reference to the ubiquitous digital clouds we keep hearing about but never see. Of course it’s a metaphor, Byrne-Ludwig's cloud, but “quaint” doesn’t come close to describing the power you’ll find between the covers of A Cloud in My Hand. Not if you've experienced any of the myriad faces ordinary clouds sometimes reveal to us. More intrusive than Joni's “illusions,” these bring thunder and lightning and wind and sleet and hail and horror and death: dark, forbidding miens that lurk behind the clean, happy fluffs we watch breezing across an innocent blue sky on a perfect day.


The cloud Byrne-Ludwig hands us with these stories arrived from a kaleidoscopic imagination that fabricates scenarios so diverse they’re apt to whirl from terror to laughter at the flip of a page, from an old woman tortured and beaten in her home for $15 to a lonely zombie on leave from his grave one night, who sneaks around spying on his widow, moves a ladder to confound the man who lives with her now, shuffles back to his grave, and climbs in, undoubtedly sporting a toothy grin on his undead face.

An even greater appeal than the stories themselves is the author’s voice, a soft, almost tentative invitation to participate in the telling. Its gentle approach draws me into an illusion of floating free from the usual narrative signposts that indicate direction, that neither of us by ourselves feels confident of what to expect for the characters, what will happen to them, how their story will end. It’s similar to the spell cast by some of the classic Russian writers, whose characters find themselves looking inward as circumstances conspire to put them in a situation where they’re unsure of their capability to affect a desired outcome. And we can’t help them, neither author nor reader. The characters are on their own. All we can do is watch, fascinated by their self-discovery, as are they, and hope, we and they, that things will work out for the better. And whether they do or they don’t, we are with them all of the way.

My favorite of these forty-six stories, one I will carry with me as long as any of those by my favorite Russian author, coincidentally shares a word in its title with one of the master’s best-known works. It’s a word I think of as ironically cheery in both contexts. I can imagine an appreciative sparkle appearing in Anton Chekhov’s eyes had impossible fortune allowed him to read Byrne-Ludwig’s A Cherry-Pink Moment.

It’s a bitter cold, windy winter morning, and Roselyn is commuting by bus to work. When the bus stops at a traffic light she sees a woman selling newspapers on a platform beside the road. The woman is dressed too lightly for the cold, wind “rippling through her shirt and spinning her trousers around her legs...Her ruddy face, her thin purple lips, her small tuft of hair, all taking the brunt of the wind.” It bothers Roselyn seeing the woman for the next several days selling papers in the same place, under dressed the same way, and one day on her lunch break, on an impulse, she buys a cherry-pink jumper for the woman.

But being shy by nature, Roselyn then wonders how the woman might receive her gift. “A turmoil began in her mind, questions about giving, about the right to assess people’s needs. These troubled her for a couple of days, but then, straightening her plump shoulders and raising resolutely her double-chin out of her scarf, she came to the conclusion that the paper lady needed her help. Who knows, her eyes...might flicker with joy when looking at the woolen jumper.

She decided to give it a try, encouraging herself as she often did: Come on, Rose, you can do it. It was mid-winter, a long month of cold winds ahead. This prompted her to act. She got off the bus and walked up to the lady with a shy smile, bought a paper held out to her. The woman’s hand was purple-blue. Just like the vase on my table with the bunch of irises, Roselyn thought..."

That’s as far as we go here. Roselyn and Byrne-Ludwig can take you the rest of the way. Come on, reader, you can do it!

You can get your copy of A Cloud in My Hand from her directly. Here’s her email. Give her a shout:


Wednesday, September 2, 2020


     We are seated on an upholstered bench in front of what might soon become our favorite Edward Hopper painting—well, besides Nighthawks, of course. The title of this one is less mysterious. In fact, it's so mundane and obvious one might even say it's redundant: Hotel Room. Really.

Hopper himself is seated near us on a bench situated at an angle and slightly to our front, giving us a three-quarter view of his face, just enough so we can watch how its silent language responds to the poem Sam Rasnake will read from his new collection, World within the World. Each of the collection’s three dozen poems is inspired by a different work of art. Each has its own title distinct from its inspiration. Rasnake is seated on our bench beside us. The title of the poem he will read has what the painting's title does not, an insightful mix of mystery, suspense, and...and something else, something combustible in the air that attracts the imagination: Night Journeys.

As I have never heard Rasnake’s voice, I must call upon imagination for a stand-in to deliver the words, and, just like that, no rhyme nor reason, the voice of Christopher Walken has arrived to do the honors.

The luggage is packed for

comings or leavings that blur

to silence. Only a dark square

of window near the room’s

bright, fevered edge gives

hope against the will’s deepest

appetite that settles onto the page,

two knees, and the unused bed --

a letter whose truth must dull

the body – its shoulders and

thin shadows, sagging toward

the fingers of disbelief.

Rasnake includes two other Hopper poems under the category he calls Solitudes as Meditation. But something in his reading must have caught in Walken’s voice, and he leaves us musing with our own thoughts. Hopper’s gone, too. Just like that. Here one moment then gone, leaving behind only his painting and the memory of what might have been amusement or surprise in his stoic features. We could move on to Georgia O’Keeffe’s My Last Door, but without Walken’s voice...well the imagination has its own mind, too, you know. If you can get hold of a copy of the book, and find some time for solitude during your pandemic quarantine—sorry, bad joke--your ear can provide its own voice, no? 

Okay just a sip. An O’Keeffe aperitif, if you will. In your own voice. It’s a quote Rasnake offers to help explain his resonating title: “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment.”

And this from Wallace Stevens, a poet I’ve made fun of because I’ve never taken the time, or had the patience, to get to know him. Whenever I’ve tried I’ve found him difficult. This line has ignited a new interest: “The world about us would be desolate except for the world within us.” Forgive me, Mr. Stevens, for I’ve been remiss.

Oh, hell—full confession time—for most of my life I’ve avoided poetry, considering it naively precious or even pretentious—pompous, even (altho I’ve always found alliteration amusing, which explains my struggle at the moment to find a fourth word starting with “p”...ah, here it is! I’ve come to see the discipline as vital for learning precision in the craft of wordsmithery). But I’ve still not acquired the knowledge and language to write conventional reviews of the works of other writers, considering instead that if I like something, rather than pretend to be looking at it in a detached, perhaps analytical light, explaining the mechanics of the work rather than how it moves me, I flaunt my enthusiasm in a way that some, including myself, would call “the extended blurb.”

Yet, blurbing is an art all its own, combining the lyrical language of poetry as well as the facility to convey expertise. Kathy Fish, a fine writer in her own right, provides World within the World with the blurb I wish I might have written were I so knowledgeable and skilled. Rasnake’s collection, Fish says, “is a dance of image and abstraction, of precision and fluidity.

“These masterful works draw the reader in, invite us to bear witness to the poet in conversation with the world of art and artists,” to which I say, Amen, sister--amen, and right on!

Sam Rasnake

Monday, August 31, 2020


The giants are not going gentle,

their Paleo legacy's doing the Welshman proud--

combustibility of kindreds,

raging on road and page.

I hear them both this chilly morning, as I stroll through town,

the rising sun friendly on my back. Ahead,

cries of ancient behemoths reach through legions

of sycamore, oak, poplar, and pine left to buffer us

from asphalt bedlam. This morning the trees seem complicit,

as if recognizing a kinship, relaying what they hear

as warnings, tilting leaves for acoustic advantage,

limbs waving urgent decibels my way.

And what reaches my ears does bespeak an inordinate passion,

almost a desperation—little guys pushing unmuffled snarls

to boundaries of hysteria, embarrassing the giants to crescendo

their rumbling growls into bellows of terrible, wrenching irony.

I hear a double poignancy in these voices celebrating extinction

past and future. Oblivion’s abstracted, denial and defiance

hold the center. And why not? Not going gentle affirms instinct—

the other demands resolve, and to what end? What satisfaction?

Nay, to rage against the dying of the light in one final tantrum!

One last curse at the inevitable! Ego’s ultimate rejection of

ending with a whimper! Dammit,

rev the fucking engine!


Sunday, August 30, 2020



Book 'em, Dana!

Five "bookings" now. I started with the fifth (most recent) in Dana King's Penns River police procedural series after reading a piece he posted on a mutual friend's blog. I liked "Pushing Water" so much I decided to read them all. Hooked more by the characters than on the plots--as usual for me--but I did find the plots, twisting their way thru all five novels as grist for the policing skills of Penns River's finest, are clever enuf and realistic enuf and surprising enuf to keep me clicking up the pages of my Kindle editions with pee breaks my only interruptions.

By the time I'd finished the series' first four, I knew this small town police department so well I half-expected to get a call from Chief Stush reminding me to bring donuts to his office for the morning meeting. I got to know some of the crooks, too. And even some of the snitches. "Something should still be done about evolutionary cul-de-sacs like Dwight Wierzbicki," Det. Dougherty observes in "Worst Enemies." A little later, frustrated by Wierzbicki's waffling, Dougherty grumbles that the snitch, a petty miscreant they call The Bick, "could inspire the Dalai Lama to steal a knife to stab him with."

Dougherty (pronounced Dockerty, thus his nickname "Doc") loves to engage in "ball-busting" with associates and friends--even an FBI agent he meets for the first time.

“My God,” Doc said. “A federal officer, come right to my house. What can I do for you?”

“You could invite me in,” the man said.

“You could show me some identification,” Doc said. “It’s not just Feds who dress unimaginatively.”

While sipping beer in Doc's kitchen, the two continue such bantering. The FBI guy gives as good as he gets, but Doc's zingers are best: “I went to school with a girl named Kathryn Whitlock. She was, well, slow, and that’s being charitable. We used to call her Special Kay behind her back.” He took a swallow. “I just assumed Special Agent had the same origin.”

Humor pops in constantly, some of it predictable, like the ubiquitous ball busting banter, but surprises, as well. There's a marvelous double barfing scene involving a hungover husband fleeing his enraged wife. Hubby runs in front of a car, ends up on the hood where he upchucks all over the windshield moments after the car's driver heaves all over it from inside the car...I guess ya gotta be there.

Then there's the casino blackjack dealer "a greasy little shit who spent the night trying to look down Mary’s blouse.” The dealer's name? Steve Onan.

The series' ensemble cast includes some criminals, as well as cops. There's the local Italian mobster, and one of his lieutenants, a tall guy called "Stretch." After deciding to promote Stretch's 6'8" nephew from car thief to collector, and arguing what his nickname should be, they settle on "Stretcher."

But enuf about my opinions, except for this: These novels are terrific fun. Please enjoy them, and record your own opinions here. You wouldn't want Mike "The Hook" Mannarino to have Stretch strap you to the backboard behind his house and throw fifty fastballs at you, would you now?

In chronological order, starting with Worst Enemies, the series includes:

Grind Joint

Resurrection Mall


Pushing Water.

Image may contain: 1 person 

I'm more than ready for Dana to book #6!


[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]



Sunday, August 23, 2020


The victim asks,

"Why can't we all just get along?"

Clothes too sexy for our soul?

Cognition out-evolving commonality?

Fuck you, I'm onto something? Gonna get Me to

a better place?

Skinner offended our "independent ego" outlook

with Beyond Freedom and Dignity,

unable to find a better way.

Thích Quảng Đức punked our clever mainstream conceit

when he ransomed himself for his spiritual brothers--

with gasoline and a match

showing nothing so much as a twitch.





Friday, July 31, 2020

THE ILLEGAL: The First Mexican Superhero – Steven Cortinas

[Disclaimer: compromised objectivity explained in body of review]

I am torn between disappointment and relief that I'm having trouble downloading (or uploading?) the audio version of The Illegal: The First Mexican Superhero. On one end of my dilemma is my desire to hear the voice of Sarah, my daughter, who plays one of the parts. Opposing this desire is my discomfort at the prospect of hearing Sarah's voice in one of the parts.

Is she "Anna," an undercover agent on assignment to destroy a drug- manufacturing slave camp that tortures children? From the book: “’You, dumbass!’ Anna swore. ‘You’re more of a hero than that sick fuck will ever be! You remember that shit!’”

Or is she "Kelly," the novel's arch-villain known as The Specialist? Here's a description: "breathtaking blonde in her early twenties. Her skin was fair, and her eyes were a piercing blue. And yet, that beauty seemed like a facade. It seemed like there was something behind that face, something unpleasant." And this: “She’s worse than any nightmare you’ve ever had."

Kelly's language? Well, of course it's...shall we say, a tad rough, considering she's the arch-villain, but as actions are said to speak louder than words, this scene alone exemplifies the sort of action that would give me nightmares just knowing it was only Sarah’s voice in the role: "The Specialist held up a chunk of brain that had been blasted from the back of her own skull. She nonchalantly stuffed the brain chunk back into its place of origin, and like the wounds to her face; the back of Kelly Carter’s head resealed itself." This after casually ripping out the spine of a street beggar whose presence offended her.

Not that Anna’s only threat to my fatherly sensibility is her foul mouth. During one forty-minute rampage she nunchucked, punched, and kicked her way for eighteen city blocks “brushing aside any person (badge or civilian) that chose to be an asshole.

Her lungs were aflame, and her limbs felt like jelly, but whatever. Waiting on the next street was a shoe store having been sacked by a quartet of Breakers. They had beaten the shop owner to dust, and were now ripping off the clothes of the man’s teenage daughter. A screaming Anna attacked with everything she had left, and by the time she was finished, not one of the intended rapists would ever walk or eat solid foods again.”


That’s my girl—or might be, if that’s her role. Or her voice, the voice I once heard tearfully explain what had just happened in the book her mom was reading to her. “Charlotte died,” was all Sarah could choke out expressing the grief she felt for the namesake of E.B. White’s classic children’s novel, Charlotte’s Web. Her voice conveyed her broken heart instantly to me, producing fatherly tears, even now, just remembering.

The voice was a rugrat’s, about 3, I’m thinking, when I heard it utter the only ugly word I’ve ever heard it use since. I was putting up blinds in the living room, and the screwdriver slipped and hit my thumb. “Fuck!” I said with a burst of vehemence. “Fuck,” came back to me so quickly I thought it an echo. But I turned around to be sure, and there sat Sarah grinning proudly up at me. I hadn’t heard her crawl in to watch me. I made nothing of what had just happened. Didn’t reinforce it by laughing or admonishing or anything. Just said something like, “Well hi, Sweatpea! I didn’t know you were in here.” I believe I forgot to check my thumb to see if it was bleeding. With a powerful magnifying glass today I might be able to find a wee scar there, though. A memento.

As I said, I never heard that word from her mouth since, nor any other profane or obscene language. Then again, she rarely lost her temper that I noticed. Either a very good natural actress or just a sweet-natured kid (it’s my prerogative to go with the latter). And now? It might seem silly of me to say this—even in quasi-jest, but what if playing one of these garbage-mouthed violent lasses in The Illegal rubs off on her active vocabulary? Can I risk taking her to Bangkok Noi or Juan’s for lunch next time she comes home from L.A. for a visit? (Should I have used two question marks on that last sentence? Three?)

Sarah and dad

But enough about me and my stuffy worries. Did I like the novel? Well, aside from you-now-know-what, I loved it. I’m not an action fiction fan, nor do I know a helluva lot about movies about superheros. Believe it or not of the action, while I’ll likely never fall in love with the “grindhouse” genre I do like me a good satire with an imaginative plot. The Illegal has both, in spades (pun inadvertent, but might as easily come straight from the book). Better yet, it deals with unsettlingly current realities, featuring such headline-dominating issues as sexism, racism, child slavery, drug abuse, official corruption, and corporate exploitation.

A bonus for me, which almost balances my personal angst about my sweet, beautiful, talented, daughter, is that I now have an authoritative reference on movies and superheroes. After a little practice I could berate the hippest street dude or smuggest college grad student with something like:Shazam! was supposed to be a comedy, but it wasn’t funny! It was supposed to be an action movie, but it wasn’t exciting! The only redeeming part of the movie was the kid on the crutches, the one who played Eddie in IT! That nigga should’ve been the star, cause’ homeboy can act! But the main kid was a fucking joke, and that punk has no business in front of a camera!

I hated, hated, hated, HATED that movie! Every audience-insulting moment of it! And I’m not pissed that it made money! Look at Batman V, Superman! Look at Hancock! Look at Indiana Jones and the Senior Citizen! Look at Twilight! Bad movies make money all the time! What pissed me off is that so many people liked Shazam! God, I feel like I’m taking crazy pills here! That ‘movie’ SUCCCKED!!!!”

Not sure who does that voice, but the character’s name is Devon Davis, so I know who it’s not!

Steven Cortinas? Haven’t heard of him? Here’s how he describes himself:

A light-skinned Hispanic that never learned Spanish growing up in Texas. Dropped out of college. Moved to Hollywood. Joined the Screen Actors Guild. Didn't want to be famous. Just wanted to work with creative people. His upcoming novels comprise The Legacy Universe, which began in 2003 with the creation of a girl named Erin Escalante (The Shadow War). The universe has since blossomed into multiple characters and stories, all of which are now coming into fruition. Steven still lives and works in Los Angeles, where he is STILL a light-skinned Hispanic who never learned Spanish, but whatever. It's all about the work.

Steven Cortinas

Monday, July 27, 2020

SYMMETRY: earth and sky – Tobi Alfier

My curse--or maybe blessing—is that I tend to identify closer than safely comfortable with literary protagonists. I say this as a precautionary note because Tobi Alfier's poetry collection Symmetry: earth and sky has taken me through a gauntlet of ups and downs and ooo's and ahh's and gasps of admiration so startling I had constantly to will my mouth shut to avoid drooling on my keyboard and electrocuting myself. This, I would proffer, may explain my admittedly uneven tone as I relate highlights of the richly amazing artistry confronting me with such impact, lifting curtains that reveal entire sagas in my imagination, it was as if, strolling through a museum of memories, I found myself time and again captured by exhibits suddenly springing to life with an immediacy that rendered me helpless to avoid becoming a part of them.
A luxury for the reader—unless he’s tasked with doing justice to the experience for potential new readers seeking the perfect poetry collection, for themselves or someone they love. The trick then is to be sparing with the samples, tease the palate with a tiny taste here and a tiny taste there and yet another and another without revealing so much of the full banquet’s promise ‘twould dull its allure.
And the venues—France, Poland, Brooklyn, New Mexico, Louisiana Bayou, honky tonk Texas, each with its own voice and spirit. You might hear Edith Piaf’s gamin voice railing in the background, sparking through the air of Honfleur as the poet confesses, "I’m tainted, shamefaced and lowbrow...I need a belt of something ill-advised, and a man to drink with me.”
Some lines strike universal chords, their mystic beauty transcending geography. “In fog, even distance seems to roam," breaks through cultural barriers in a poem dedicated to "the old country." In this instance we happen to be in Poland. Grandma "buried the woman part of her" when Grandpa died in "The City With No Vowels...ninety-three years of pierogis and mandel brot packaged, mailed, loved in countries she’d never see, at tables checkered with children she’d never meet, until that day—like the sound of a love letter torn open when no one looked—her beloved husband, our grandpa, dropped a rose petal down and came to find her."
Alfier gives us the grit and grace of people making lives in humble stations, struggling for dignity or simply peace of mind. Take Tasha, whose single mother refuses to beg or prostitute herself, setting the right example for her daughter, teaching her to love and to learn "the crass, hysterically private and bonding language of the women in the market booths, the wily but sincere language aimed at the buyers…"
Visiting a tenement in Poland, where "even the buildings wear gray...the war zone feel falls away as floor after floor creaks to life—voices seep through doorways, and tenement becomes neighborhood, the scent of coal fires and bread baking. Absolute certainty that this could have been your parent’s lives, and they learned comfort. They learned safety. They knew love. Nothing ever changes much, away from anyone’s truth."
Traditional culture slips away when our attention shifts to the New World of barmaids and drifters, treachery and heartbreak, hope, and illusions of opportunity in hardscrabble lives. A young woman about to spend time with a friend looks forward to "a day to remember the quiet goodness of daily blessings...she could get a PhD in disappointment, but no fieldwork will be done today."
Join the young lovers seeking “their naïve truths as the day turns dark as fairytale forests." Lines like this are precious gems that sparkle with promise of a special story in a field of others. Like this, anticipating a Friday night at the Santa Fe Saloon, "I pull my green suede boots out of a box, back of the closet, shake out the spiders, and test ‘em…they built boots to last—don’t matter if it’s cow shit or barn mud, babies, fallin’ out of a canoe, or winning at poker, boots always fit.”
Or, on the flip side, this unnamed “joyless” town where “no one grows better with age...just one foot in front of the other and then you’re dead...a place from which to send history’s most distant goodbye.”
Now a man’s voice, “mad for the woman named Alejandra...the woman who’s name has a carnival lilt, who lights my soul like the moon lights a late night in winter...” whose name he knows only because it’s pinned on her pocket. She wears “no lipstick, no ring, and she don’t even know my name.”
Then just like that we’re in Delta country, where “she ain’t gonna work...forever but they’re suckers for a forgiving face and she wears hers like mercy. At the Hollis House “the air is the color of heat and we’re up to our asses in sweat...we all sit on the porch steps, paper plates full to bending, thankful for a breeze finally stirring, banana pudding chilling in the inside fridge, half-remembered nods of thanks on everyone’s sticky smiles.” Oh, and lest we forget, there’s Ruby, who carries a knife and buys two pair of underwear once a year because “she couldn’t go commando to gym class. Otherwise she didn’t need nothing.”
Sometimes a line leaps out and grabs you with such force you take it with you and forget the rest of the poem. Here’s one: “When the sky is arctic blue there is a silence, the kind that hangs in the air after a slap.”
Plenty more where those came from. The last of the bunch, Postcard to My Son, Roaming the Halls of Academia, leaves us with, “All the world gives you is an inch of open curtain—imagination sets you out into the morning light.”

Tobi Alfier is a multiple Pushcart nominated poet and Best of the Net nominated poet whose poems have appeared in… The list is long. It might be easier to name a publication, then scan the list. Chances are she’s in there.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Attacking Panic

As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.
David Halberstam

No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.
John F. Kennedy

About a mile from home on my walk this morning
I had to pee so bad I panicked.

When I got back to my apartment I panicked
with an irrational need to eat the cheese Danish.

Right now, sitting here with my laptop, I’m panicking
trying to think of the next line in this poem,

and fighting a panicky urge to turn my head to see
in the lot outside my window who’s slamming car doors.

Oops, now my sense of urgency is torn between focusing
on the assassin beetle sneaking across a pane of the window
to my front and the tendril of ivy waving at me behind it
from the edge of the building across the parking lot.

At least I’ve abated my panic about the “next line of this poem”
but now there’s the next. Does it ever end? Do I want it to?
Is this the “ or not...” crux of my “busy being born”
v. “busy dying” dilemma?

I know of one whose answer spans the void between conceit
and moral dominion, yes, goading me forever hold my pee.