This month’s Across The Page features two new releases and a retrospective: Mari SanGiovanni’s Camptown Ladies; Daphne Gottlieb 15 Ways to Stay Alive; and Adrienne Rich’s A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far.
Camptown Ladies by Mari SanGiovanni (Bywater Books)
Many of you know Mari SanGiovanni from her fantastically funny and thoughtful novel Greetings From Jamaica: Wish You Were Queer, which was a runner-up for the first annual Bywater Prize for Fiction. That first book introduced readers to Marie Santora as she came into some unexpected cash, took her eccentric Italian family to Jamaica, and fell in love with a closeted actress named Lorn Elaine.
SanGiovanni’s latest, Camptown Ladies, is a follow-up and opens with Marie heartbroken and waiting for a call from her sister Lisa — also a lesbian and one who “barreled out of the closet” — but she can’t deny that she wishes the call would come from Lorn — “the Actress, the ex.”
It turns out that Lisa is calling with big news. She’s taken her portion of the inheritance and invested it in a run down campsite in Rhode Island. She wants Marie and their brother Vince to come and pitch in with its restoration and to help turn it into a “gay and lesbian paradise.”
Vince is also heartbroken because the beautiful, smart and tomboyish Erica has recently broken his heart. Marie is almost as upset by this breakup as she is about Lorn. Vince and Erica were “the world’s most perfect straight couple” — and she helped set them up.
When Lisa, Marie and Vince arrive at the campsite they see that it’s even worse than they expected (Lisa had bought it based on pictures over the Internet), but they get to work and eventually Lisa calls Erica, a talented contractor, to come out from California and give them a hand.
Even before Erica shows up, Marie can’t stop thinking about her and wondering what happened to cause the breakup with Vince. She thinks it must be her brother’s fault. It’s clear from the beginning that Erica’s arrival is going to cause problems — and that one of the main problems is going to be between Marie and Vince.
SanGiovanni keeps the reader guessing about how it will all work out by throwing in some surprising twists and turns and allowing the characters to make mistakes and develop. Camptown Ladies is funny, well-written and extremely entertaining. An impressive sequel. I highly recommend it.
15 Ways to Stay Alive by Daphne Gottlieb (Manic D Press)
Daphne Gottlieb is an award-winning performance poet and the author and editor of nine books, including Final Girl and the graphic novel Jokes and the Unconscious with artist Diane DiMassa.
Her latest collection 15 Ways to Stay Alive is just as raw, rich and original as her previous work. The book is a fluid collection of images, explorations and journeys. The opening epigraph is an ee cummings quote that sets an immediate tone of irony and directness that characterizes Gottlieb’s work: “Unbeing dead / isn’t being alive.”
The poems in 15 Ways to Stay Alive take on a range of subjects, including heartache, language and myth. As Kirsten T. Saxton writes in the brief but edifying introduction: “Gottlieb’s poems engage in a call and response with Adorno’s famous claim that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”
Indeed, in the poem “no poetry after auschwitz,” Gottlieb defends her position that poetry continues as “a mark of arrogance or hope,/ maybe both.” And she takes it one step further by trying to define what it is she is doing in the collection: “This is not a poem/ it is a rock/ through a window.”
Many of the poems here “sample” texts from other sources — from St. Augustine to a BDSM manual to Kanye West. And it works. “what it means to be young in new orleans” takes apart the Charles Bukowski poem “Young in New Orleans” and recreates a vivid narrative about Hurricane Katrina through a series of unexpected voices. “because you are a libra” takes text from a Wikipedia entry on “spontaneous human combustion.”
If you’re not familiar with Gottlieb’s work, start with this book or Final Girl, which won the 2003 Publishing Triangle’s Audre Lorde Award. Gottlieb has performed with Sister Spit, South by Southwest, and served as the poetry editor for the online queer literary publication Lodestar Quarterly. Check her out.
A Wild Patience Has taken Me This Far by Adrienne Rich (Norton)
The winner of a National Book Award and a William Whitehead Award for lifetime achievement, among many other accomplishments, Adrienne Rich’s work is celebrated for its ability to engage politics, morality, feminism and art. Her collection A Wild Patience Has taken Me This Far is one of my favorites from her long and impressive career.
A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far features poems from 1978 to 1981, including “The Images,” “Cultural And Anarchy,” “Turning The Wheel” and “For Ethel Rosenberg.”
Several of the poems here explore lesbian relationships through historic comparisons. “For Julia in Nebraska,” Rich uses Willa Cather as a metaphor:
On this beautiful, ever-changing land
–the historical marker says—
man fought to establish a home
(fought whom? the marker is mute.)
They named this Catherland, for Willa Cather,
lesbian—the marker is mute,
the marker white men set on a soil
of broken treaties. Indian blood,
women wiped out in childbirth, massacres—
for Willa Cather, lesbian,
whose letters were burnt in shame.
A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far is a classic. It deserves a spot on your bookshelf.