Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Shoot the Dog in its Face

The point of this post is (i think) that a reviewer, like any reader, comes with his or her own tastes and quirks of personality. But. But. But.

Last year Melinda Wilson reviewed my book, "Holy Land," on Cold Front Magazine , and it was, in general, a positive review.

But Melinda took issue with the violence towards animals (specifically, dogs):

Well, most suffering and violence is okay in this book. It makes its point. But when animals are used to make a point, I’m unimpressed. For instance, “People mean well. Then they grab your dog and beat him to death in front of you.” No matter how wronged one feels by life, by God, by people, leave the dogs out of it. Leave the bleeding to the humans, even the human children.

I appreciated Melinda's review. It was obvious that she'd read Holy Land carefully and thoughtfully. But this last part had me scratching my head. How can anything in poetry simply be off limits? Just be Taboo?

Melinda's other beef with Holy Land was the "narrator’s crude moments." The "surprising turns of bawdiness." And to make her point Melinda quotes the following:

“A rat climbed out of her cunt (or maybe her asshole).”

That too made me scratch my head. And I'm scratching it again now.

Anyways, for whatever it's worth here, in their entirety, are the two poems Melinda quotes from:

(The one with the crude moment)

We’d been out a few times and she’d promised this was going to be the night. So, I came out of the bathroom, ready but nervous, and she just lay there. A rat climbed out of her cunt (or maybe her asshole) (or maybe it’s just one hole), up her stomach, up her neck——and it grunted up her nose and became her brain. I can see this happening to every one of us, in front of our TVs, all across our country. She pulled me down, inside her, kissing me all the way. And I went blank (blanker than ever before) and marched into battle pissing.

(And the one I should have left the dog out of)

People mean well. Then they grab your dog and beat him to death in front of you. You’re listening to the news, and you find yourself ironing your daughter’s chest. Sewing up her cunt. This world comes down to you, and you pass it on.

And here's a poem that almost made it into Holy Land:

On my way downstairs I looked out the window and I saw a woman leaning down to pet her dog. She looked up at me, shot the dog in its face, and walked away. Now, I’m cleaning my navel. Pieces of lightning shoot through the trees like children on a bus. My first day at school I got in a fight. They called my mother. She came and undressed me. It’s one of my earliest memories: I’m on the sidewalk, my mother is touching me and the entire world is watching.

This poem originally appeared in The Mississippi Review and the reason it didn't make it into the final draft of Holy Land has nothing to do with violence to animals.

I love dogs. But what the hell's that got to do with the price of apples?

And the dog pictured above is my Pekingnese Chuy. But again what the hell's that go to do with the price of apples? (I used Chuy's picture here because he, as you can see, has lots of sex appeal. And that's why people read blogs.)

Anyways, I just read Melinda's review (again on Cold Front) of Star in the Eye by James Shea. (Fence Books).

Melinda seems also to have enjoyed this book. But, again, she takes issue with the portrayal of violence towards animals (dogs):

the speaker shoots a dog multiple times and his uncle “puts his barrel / into the wounds and fires.” The dog’s head “halves open.” I will say it again. Leave the dogs out of it.

Again: a reviewer, like any reader, comes with his or her own tastes and quirks of personality. But. But. But.



it is nice that you piss people off. i am actually jealous of it. it is good.

writing you back soon

rachel said...

i think it is strange that she reacted the way she did. i mean your poem even starts with "people mean well. then..." there's no reason to be in denial that violence towards animals exists. if a poem talks about swallowing a bird does that really cause harm? hmmm. i disagree with that thought of hers. maybe she is just overly-sensitive to that issue. that's what it sounds like to me.

Ross Brighton said...

I like the violence. And it does serve a point. The dog's skull "halving open" is beautiful, sublime... like some horrifically deformed flower.

Why do people continue to conflate representation and condonation?

Keep writing like this, both you and James.

Rauan Klassnik said...

thanks for the comments:

Blake :)
I know you are!
(want to trade places??)

yes, it's strange. and perhaps she's over-sensitive for some reason. But. But. But.

yes, I will keep writing the way I keep writing.

Rauan (Ron)

Big American Christian said...


The reviewer's approach is absurd on so many levels, it doesn't warrant intelligent discussion. What baffles me is not how a reviewer's personal issues can short-circuit their critical functions (it happens to all of us), but rather the existence of these reviews at all--i.e., the lack of editing involved before this review was published. Would you not fall out of your chair laughing if someone submitted such silliness to you? Perhaps you might publish it after you were finished laughing, but not without first "hacking it to pieces," so to speak. As much as I think small press books need more, more, and ever more attention, I can't see the value in slapping up any old crap to the interwebs and calling it a review. Though some might confuse it with social networking and CV-building, editors have actual responsibilities: hence the title.

[End of rant. Now I'm going to go shoot the dog that I've been nursing back to health for months. (Wow! Look how nicely such inane comments work on blogs. What a great place for them!) xoXtian]

Big American Christian said...

Oooof. Just read reviewer bio to find reviewer = managing editor of same magazine that published the review. Well, there you have it. Clearly this review needed no second thoughts, never mind editing!

Matt said...

"leave the dogs out of it. leave the bleeding to the humans, even the human children."

nice priorities. i think what we have here is your garden variety PETA nut...

Elisa Gabbert said...

yeah that makes no sense. no animals were harmed in the making of your book. besides, People mean well. Then they grab your dog and beat him to death in front of you might be my favorite part of the book.

Joe H said...

Yeah man, that's it. Like I was saying at AWP, there's a definite need for a high quality, free-wheeling review clearing house. I've always liked the idea of Coldfront and they throw some good stuff up there sometimes but the reviews and the reviewers don't seem to be talking to each other. Think it has a lot to do with the review by submission (and not commission) system. Every reviewer is going to have his own subjective position, but at least if you have a slate of 3 or 4 reviewers that keep each other honest, they're maybe going to be more up front about it.