The Piercing by Christine Garren

LSU Press, 2006. $16.95

 By Jennifer Whitaker

In The Piercing, Christine Garren’s stunning third book, we find ourselves encountering the shocks of everyday life—the neighbor who dies, the suddenness of autumn’s first falling leaves, the dead fish in the pond—in a way that is neither heavy-handed nor melodramatic. This is a book of ordinary events meted out through extraordinary vision. These poems reach toward Emily Dickinson and Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, and like both these poets, Garren crafts poems with an interiority that makes them feel like they are ours. But unlike Dickinson and Glück, Garren rarely calls on abstract concepts (e.g., love, hate, death) explicitly, rather finding power in allowing the reader to hone in on a subject through her concision, laying new vision and meaning over our expectations. To say these poems are quiet is inexact; they are controlled to the point that they can feel hushed, but it’s the hush of a burning fire—filled with continual and constantly changing crackles, flashes and sparks.

Indeed, it isn’t the events of the poems that are startling. Rather, the tension she builds makes the poems feel, at once, relatable and rare. This is a collection full of seemingly opposing forces—specificity and universality, reasoning and instinct, trauma and survival—which form the scaffolding of tension for the book.

Tension is most immediately created in The Piercingthrough Garren’s specificity—particularly in the repeated choice of the definite article (26 of the 50 poems in this collection are titled simply with a definite noun). As in Among the Monarchs and, to a lesser extent, Afterworld, the use of the specific and particular noun signaled through the use of thecontributes to the poems’ immediacy; the titles walk us right up to the speaker and demand our unwavering attention for the controlled moment of the poem. Tension, then, is created between the specificity (this tree, this mother, this yard) and the subjects’ seeming universality—we all have experience with trees, mothers, yards. And precisely because of this—because we can’t keep ourselves from relating to the subjects in these poems—we are positioned to be affected by and vulnerable to the peculiarity of her imagery and language. The poet uses expectation to her advantage, counting on us to bring narrative associations to the poem, then using those associations as a departure point to amaze with her startling vision. For instance, in “Safe,” the poet unravels our expectations of what “safe” means line by line through description:

These things too—that we had put with the jewelry and will

 the sound of night rushing past us

the damp scent of darkness

the cocaine powders, the thoughts

not beautiful

with recognizable shocks and forays, and the way the light fell openly

across the wood, about thirty years ago— (lines 1-7)

Within these brief seven lines, Garren creates tension by dismantling the associations of security and comfort readers bring with the adjectival form of the word through her description of the rushing of night, the darkness, the light falling “openly,” the “shocks and forays.” Then, in the poem’s last three lines, the expectations are fully exploded with the realization that “these things, as well // blasted // open into rubble” (8-10). By the close of the poem, all of our assumptions of safety from harm, damage or injury have been set aside, and it’s through this yoking together of our expectations of a subject and a disparate view of that subject—in the small space of each poem—that Garren increases the collection’s tension. We are drawn again and again to her view of these seemingly ordinary subjects because through her poems, we realize that nothing is mundane, nothing can be taken for granted.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the control of these poems, the poet is able to create something akin to a startle response in the reader. Certainly these poems aren’t frightening, but as readers we experience a similar reaction as being disconcerted or scared. At times we are startled into almost involuntary action, as the reader’s mind follows the leaps and thrills of the poem. In “Love Poem,” we move from relative calm to the poem’s staggering conclusion: “Now and then / a wave threw down another wish // and he would lift it to show me / how easy our dreaming was— // the dying being told they are not ill, // the abandoned being shown / how the world exists for them” (6-12). The turn there between lines 9 and 10, moving us from an almost idyllic scene to the reality of the speaker’s dreaming, surprises and pushes the reader into uncounted-on territory. Garren’s acutely tuned pacing works to further this tension, as she knows exactly how long to keep us in the language we expect from a “Love Poem” before narrowing the scene with unsettling imagery.

Coupled with this startle response is Garren’s attention to the possibilities of enjambment and speed to create tension. In “The Carriage,” she writes, “It was after your mother’s death—the birds were // red-headed woodpeckers, ballroom feathered, in bunches in the trees // so long ago exactness has been lost” (3-5). This quick, repeated flipping of the image or impression—first, the pervading feeling of loss with the mother’s death, the past tense verbs, and the line break making the birds seem already gone; then the vibrancy and opulence of the birds and trees, which quickly returns to the loss of detail that comes with the passage of time—announces to us that things here are not as they seem, and with each breath, what we think we know changes. Here, as so often in Garren’s poems, we aren’t sure where we’re headed until we’ve already arrived, trying to catch our breath, slightly disoriented. The collection’s tension builds and we exhale and inhale in tandem with each brief, intensely ordered poem. This effect is repeated throughout the collection so that the book itself seems to be a breathing thing.

The ratcheting up of seemingly daily experience could creep into melodrama, but in Garren’s vision, it is perfectly pitched and enacts the transition from crisis to recovery with the concision we rely on in her work. There is an instinctual movement to these poems—the very human instinct to work always toward understanding and meaning making. The speaker’s assertion in “The Well” that “We understand the crisis between us / is permanent. And then see ourselves / on the water’s bare lens, our portrait, perfectly detailed / and miniscule. / The exhilarating life is finished. We must accept it / this late afternoon and move / back into the rational world” (5-11) foregrounds this movement from the startling realization of loss toward understanding, or at least acceptance. This mimics the recursive experience of readers, as in these poems we are confronted by shockingly peculiar images and a controlled amount of space in which to understand them. We are called to re-read these poems, to try fully to comprehend, because we know there is truth to be found there.

Spending time with these poems, and encountering through them these very real shocks, reminds us that it is ordinary, daily life—the laundry, the paying of bills, the dishes and mail—that keeps us sane in the wake of trauma, big or small. These poems are distilled, daring, real: they return us to an enriched everyday life that takes care of us.


A wonderful album by Carla Kihlstedt, review here.

The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus! (They performed at the Flying Anvil Wednesday, June 28, 2006. See the "Interviews" tab for a great interview with Kinko the Clown, A.K.A. Keith Nelson, Cirkus founder.)

The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus

The Flying Anvil, Greensboro, NC

June 28, 2006

A Clowning Achievement

Before the show officially starts, a bedraggled, hobo-style clown stands in front of the stage and drinks a bottle of imaginary booze from a brown bag, eventually turning it all the way upside down over his head. A haunted look on his face, a noose around his neck, he wanders the cavernous Flying Anvil, gesturing for someone to give him a cigarette. Soon, someone obliges and he smokes as he moves ghostlike through the crowd. Meanwhile, a tall man in sparkly, cobalt spandex and large rabbit ears competes in Hula Hoop matches with anyone who dares.

“Not fair, not fair!” he chirps each time he loses.

Thunderous, dissonant merry-go-round-like music rises up from the side of the stage, where Skip Shirey plays a variety of keyboards and makeshift instruments into a microphone. The spandex man, otherwise known as the Big Blue Bunny, comes forward to announce the “rules” of the show. Among other things he explains that the removing of clothing will be both allowed and encouraged. Up on the stage Kinko, the clown, extinguishes the cigarette on his tongue, and the show begins.

Accompanied by Shirey’s percussion Kinko unrolls a cardboard sign that reads, “Will clown for Food.” He further unrolls it to reveal, “Cash,” then “Sex,” “Health ins,” “Peace,” “Scotch,” “Joint,” and finally, “Applause,” which he gets. He begins a balloon sculpture session, giving his finished pieces, mostly flowers and head-ware, to people in the audience. The Big Blue Bunny, who had been juggling impatiently at the back of the stage, comes forward to release his stage jealousy; he grabs a balloon from Kinko, inflates it, and, with lots of noise, molds it into a penis which he gives to a male in the audience. That frustrated gesture calls an end to the battle and the Bunny and Kinko announce the other performers. The perky, stripe-wearing Dizzy Lizzy gallops onto the stage, as well as tightrope walker David Didd and finally, with much fanfare, the foxy and forward Ringmistress Philomena struts into view and takes charge. She shouts welcomes to the audience, and, in classically exuberant ringmaster (or -mistress) style, promises the greatest and most dangerous show on earth.

The two founders of this Neo-Vaudeville company, Stephanie Monseu, or Ringmistress Philomena, and Keith Nelson, who is both the Sword Swallowing Mr. Pennygaff and Kinko the Drunken Clown, met waiting tables in the East Village in 1992. Nelson had been an Anarchist Studies major at Hampshire College, which he said left him with few job options--but in college he had learned to juggle and eat fire. Monseu was a jewelry artist who wanted to do something more exciting. Behind the restaurant, in the falling snow, Nelson taught Monseu how to eat fire, and the two joined in a mission to expose the world to salacious and death defying variety shows, the first of which was an act called "Fireplay." Three years later, in 1995, the Cirkus was born.

When they weren't touring the country, the troupe performed in small and late-night venues all around Manhattan, and for several years they gave a weekly performance at the Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. By 2002 the Bindlestiffs had established the first regular vaudeville show in Times Square in 70 years, at the Palace of Variety on West 42nd St, which has since been demolished. The show goes on though, almost anywhere it is allowed – from Lincoln Center, to the annual Burning Man Festival to fancy opera houses to small punk rock venues to children's birthday parties. They perform with as few as 5 and as many as 20 performers. Before their bookmobile was destroyed by Katrina, the Cirkus traveled with Autonomedia Books, which sold of a variety of subversive and anarchist literature, comic books, and zines. Now they travel under the wing of the Magic Hat Brewing Company.

All Bindlestiff performers have been classically trained in circus arts and some of them also perform with Cirque du Soleil and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. A Bindlestiff contortionist has appeared on Guinness World Records Primetime and Ripley's Believe It Or Not. The Bindlestiff show has included a miniature Circus of Performing Fleas, a Yo-Yo Master, an Airborne Striptease, a Whip Act, a Ukulele Duo, glass-walking, fire-eating and juggling, knife throwing and of course the World’s One and Only Brother and Sister Bed of Nails Act.

Between dangerous, enviable and sometimes nauseating feats the Bindlestiffs perform frequent and frighteningly strong changes in attitude that would be impossible to notice in a larger, less intimate circus. Kinko’s eerie depression is suddenly interrupted by the Blue Bunny’s sharp clamoring for attention. Lizzy Dizzy’s proud gleefulness gives way to mimed rage if she drops a juggling pin. Philomena aggressively rules the stage with her wicked sarcasm. All the performers interrupt one another and alter the course of events, apparently spontaneously. It is impossible not to be struck into intellectual submission by the Pirandelloesque changes. The show’s frantic schizophrenia is a spectacle in itself, and a theatrical device that feels as though could be the heart of the variety show experience.

The company does not allow unauthorized taping of a show, and the ban exists just as much for the audience’s enjoyment as for the company’s protection. The performers aim to transport the audience, they say, to at time when there were no such things as video cameras and the live variety show was the best entertainment available for regular people.

“This is really happening,” says the Bunny during his rendition of a song called, “Inky-Dink.” “What is happening?” he demands of the audience as he bounces up and down between verses. The Bunny’s glib questions reveal what separates the Bindlestiffs from other circuses and ties their already unique performance into high-intensity theatrical ritual--the immediate acknowledgement of the present moment and its danger.

Despite that the Bindlestiff Family Circus is a fun show, filled with tantalizing feats such as sword swallowing and fire-eating, and a masterful trapeze act, the Bindlestiffs pursue their calling for reasons that are most serious. The Bindlestiffs have dedicated themselves to entertaining, but also, it seems, to a rare form of theatrical provocation. Their early website promises, “We have traveled the globe in order to bring you your DEEPEST FANTASIES, DARKEST DREAMS, & UNEXPECTED ODDITIES!!!” This promise gains significance in that it turns the attention onto the potential audience members – they will face their fantasies, darkest dreams and unexpected oddities, not merely gawk at those of another. The Bindlestiffs have given themselves license to express circus’ darker, sultry, sexy, violent and libidinous sides. As positively Freudian as they can get, the circus draws from traditions that came even before Freud, the risqué 19th century variety show, and, as Monseu has said in an interview, “the original bloody battle that the Romans enjoyed in the circus.”

The Bindlestiff’s presentation of circus arts also comes from an understanding of vaudeville and circus history, and a reverence for clowning that is admittedly Fellinian. When I spoke with Keith Nelson a day before the show he told me, “Clowns historically have been very tied in with a spiritual world and religion. If you look at the Hopi clowns in the American Indian tradition, they were considered right up there and treated the way we treat ministers and priests. They were able to walk the line between this world and whatever the other world is and you would find that tradition going back to ancient times; clowns would walk that thin line.” Nelson’s assertion calls to mind the bridge between ritual and performance, such as that of the Whirling Dervishes or the theatrical productions of the ancient Greeks. Nelson believes that clowns, particularly clowns of the Great Depression, notably Emmett Kelly and Otto Griebling, performed in such a way as to produce a serious cathartic experience for an audience dealing with destitution. “Clowns are there to help you realize what’s out there and they operate as a breath of fresh air…. Clowns take you on an emotional rollercoaster,” Nelson told me. “It’s not all just ‘laugh, laugh, laugh.”’ Monseu evidently shares Nelson’s take on the role of the clown; at one point during the show she tells an audience participant, “You are right to bow to the [clown] nose. It is your free pass to poetic license. It will elevate you to a mystical, magical responsibility.” For 11 years Nelson, Monseu and company have been, as Monseu has said, “dancing on the fine line between life and death, between skill and chance,” and, I will add, between spectacle and ritual; the Bindlestiffs, rare saviors of vaudeville and the variety show, obviously take their responsibility very seriously.


This picture came into existence on a Wednesday evening around 7 or 8 at Amnesia in the Mission District of San Francisco. That's Dave Ricketts facing us with the guitar, Rob Reich on the accordian, Craig on guitar, and then Mike Groh, also on guitar. Ari Munkres was playing bass at this time but is not in this picture.These men are Gaucho!

The band draws influence from Biréli Lagrène, Stochelo Rosenberg, Robin NolanDjango Reinhardt, Stephen Grapelli and “jazz manouche,” which means "traveler jazz," a blend of traditional Romany music and jazz that was very popular in the 1920s.


Faith Healer

Booth Theater, NYC

July 13, 2006



     Sartre’s famous play No Exit hypothesized that “hell is other people.” Brian Friel’s haunting Faith Healer, which plays for three more weeks at the Booth Theater, presents a similar notion but the mantra could be changed to, “hell is being alone and remembering other people. Imported in May from the Dublin Gate Theater and now nominated for a Tony award, the production continues with the dynamic strength and virtuosity noted in early reviews.

Obviously it has been faring better than the 1979 Broadway production that was pulled after only 20 performances. Ralph Fiennes, who starred in the films The English Patient, The Constant Gardener and many London stage productions, including Hamlet, plays the lead, the faith healer Frank Hardy. Star War’s Ian McDiarmid, in his first appearance on the American stage, plays his manager, Teddy. Both men have been with the show since it opened in Dublin in January and for the Broadway run have been joined by Doubt’s Cherry Jones, who plays Gracie Hardy, Frank’s wife. The play consists of four monologues—it is a Ulysses-like switching between the characters’ wandering impressions, and there is no direct interaction between the characters. Friel’s mesmerizing text, Jonathan Kent’s directing and the actors’ stunning performances demonstrate how on that particular fictional Irish landscape isolation, strangeness and obstinacy lead to the growth of a twisted but revered artistic style.

       Friel grew up in the economically depressed Northern Ireland community of Londonderry and his work is well known to express the Irish tradition of exile, the struggle between provincialism and cosmopolitanism and political chaos within a community. The three characters in Faith Healer are not, their story reveals, realistically tied to any community but visitors who descend upon British Isles communities with the healer’s act, dragging along with them drink-fueled bouts of domestic chaos that almost seem to become performances themselves.

      Fiennes, as the faith healer, wills a double suspension of disbelief. The lines are so, well, frank, and Fiennes delivers them so frankly the healing abilities seem possible, even probable. Fiennes’ characteristically commanding presence makes it plausible that the mistreated Gracie and Teddy would have persisted with such devotion toward him. He describes them both fondly and critically, revealing particularly the emotional imbalance between himself and his wife—he persisting as the eccentric artist and she as the abused and neglected caretaker. He reveals the reason for his cruelty early on as he despairs of his “craft without an apprenticeship,” “ministry without responsibility,” “vocation without a ministry.” His anomalous state leaves him removed from tradition and history, an exile. His spooky recitation of names of towns the act visited seems a type of meditative attempt to call himself back into reality. He tells of various healings, his mother’s and father’s deaths, and, with exquisitely maintained stoicism, “A Dionysian Night, a Bacchanalian night. A frenzied, excessive Irish night when ritual was consciously and relentlessly debauched.” Jonathan Fensom’s minimal set design particularly underscores Fiennes’ stripped-down performance.

   We meet Gracie Hardy, smoking, drinking hard liquor, and appearing to be trapped in her chair, as though crippled. Cherry Jones’ portrays Gracie with devastating angst, particularly in the assertion that Frank always “obliterated” her before performances. She speaks about how she measures her health in amounts of drink and sleep and cigarettes. These methodical measurements seem almost the antithesis of the healer’s abstract art. It is as though she has reaped no benefits from supporting the healer’s art. Also antithetical is the painful dependency Frank seems to have produced in his wife, or mistress, as he would have you believe.

    McDiarmid as Teddy, Frank’s convivial manager, tells tales of exceptional animals and sings “The Way You Look Tonight” to us, as well as narrating the darker parts of Frank and Gracie’s relationship. As McDiarmid, speaking in cockney, drinks six or so beers he cheerfully and sometimes wistfully retells the stories of the road. His charismatic performance expresses both joy and a bit of sorrow in the act of remembering. He, too, seems isolated and slightly scarred in the aftermath of the touring show.

    The three character’s incongruent stories create a play that operates almost as an essay that weighs different sides of an argument. Each character has been cast into his or her own universe and free to omit or invent details as a device for coping with the past. Constructing “the real story” is not easy. The circumstances of Frank and Gracie’s marriage are fuzzy, as are the dates of the deaths of various relatives. Gracie is supposed to have died, which makes one wonder from where she is supposed to be speaking and when, giving the play its Sartre feel.  It also has the elegiac quality of one of Joyce’s short stories. The characters feel reasonably debilitated or stunted by history and the truth remains unrevealed, or clouded by impressions. The director, Jonathan Kent, has affirmed that the play is about the demands of an artist and the damage he causes. Fiennes’ portrayal of Frank’s cold selfishness delivers Kent’s intended message clearly. His fortitude when joined with Jones’ convincing grief and McDiarmid’s reminiscing narration expresses the irony of the life of the faith healer: in undertaking a mission to heal the public he has unremorsefully wounded those who supported him. Frank’s last dreamy monologue, in which he describes entering a church and “renouncing chance,” it seems that he, alone, the genius “healer,” has reached a state of grace and salvation.

I just finished reading New Orleans, Mon Amour, Andrei Codrescu's  series of charming vignettes about New Orleans. The chapters, most of them no more than a page and a half long, feel like individualized private glimpses into the life that Codrescu has found in and around New Orleans.

Lost Photograph by Rob Burger

My new favorite song on this new favorite album is the last one, "The Cantor & His Grandson." It's just lovely. The album was commissioned by John Zorn. One of the songs is about moving a couch through Manhattan on a hot day.

Rob Burger has played with Bill Frissell, Norah Jones, Tom Waits, Carla Kihlstedt and other members of the Tin Hat Trio, of which he is a member.  He is very, very talented and magical. His music sounds like compositions by fairies, gypsies and wise little elves. 

Here's something interesting he says about this album:

"I see Lost Photograph as a series of short stories, small portraits or miniatures. Though the record has a common thread running through it, intending to take the listener on a little journey, each song in my opinion, takes on a small life of its own. But that said, ultimately the stories are up to the listener to interpret."

That is from a great interview that can be found here.

                                                                                                                Tyler Smith


                                                         Hairlessness in Starship Troopers

          In 1997, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven  released Starship Troopers, a sci-fi action/adventure film written by Edward Neumeier.  In it, a group of young, earnest Earthlings take various roles in a 23rd century assault on an alien, insectoid culture.  Starring Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, and Neil Patrick Harris, Starship Troopers cost 95 million dollars to produce and made 120 million dollars world-wide…

         Distractingly shiny.  Shaved?  Waxed?  I’m unsure of the depilatory method, but Verhoeven’s future is a decidedly hairless place outside of the coiffure.  Something that doesn’t bode well for the hirsute and barbigerous among us.  (Me.)

         In the wonderfully gratuitous co-ed shower scene that during Johnny Rico’s basic training, everyone displays smooth, almost water-repellent skin.  Like a beach ball.  Except two characters: oafish (and appropriately hairy) farm boy Breckinridge and wannabe writer Kitten Smith, who sports a thin sprinkling of hair betwixt his nipples. 

         For their sins of sporting body hair, they’re quickly disposed of.  Breckinridge doesn’t even make it out of basic training.  Soon after revealing his chest pelt, he’s shot in the head during training.  Kitten Smith at least makes it to the first battle, but not even the hairless uber-mensch Johnny Rico can save him from being graphically snapped in half during their retreat.

         (Side note: the only character bold enough to wear a mustache, albeit a stylishly clipper-short one, is the first of the basic training comrades to get gruesomely shredded by the “Bugs” during the first battle.  He charges straight to his doom, the silly gung-ho mustache-wearing type.)

         But this is the future; a time where men and women are totally equal.  They play on the same futuristic football field with equally impossible dexterity, they wear the same asexual grey uniforms, they shower together, fly starships together, and die together as pawns, outnumbered, under-armed and with woefully inadequate armor protecting their hairless hides from the Bugs’ massive pinchers and claws.  Everyone strives for samehood.  Rico and his flame Johnny Dizzy Flores (played by Dina Meyer) are infantrypeople with the same capabilities, including the inability to grow body or facial hair.  Cool, right?

         Equality’s great but maybe Verhoeven, in his desire for maximum satirization, portrays this desirable hairlessness as a reflection of the Starship humans’ inhumanity.  After all, the Earth people of the 23rd century start a preemptive war against an essentially harmless alien species and race across the galaxy to destroy the Bugs in their home worlds.  Fueled and fooled by propaganda, the best and brightest young people sign up to be cannon fodder, have hardly any compassion for their fellow people and even less for their enemies, and joyfully revel in the fear and destruction they wreak.  Hardly the stuff that makes you want to hug your fellow man.   

         Being hairless reinforces the future people’s inhuman interchangeability.  If you’re hairy you don’t fit into the scheme, and if you don’t fit you won’t make it.  Big dumb Breckinridge with his well-maintained field of body hair can’t even survive basic training in the future, but Johnny Rico is pretty much unkillable.  He’s the prototypical hero of Verhoeven’s future: a hairless, zealous, inhuman cog fitted perfectly into a vast gray military machine.

         The future is dark, my bearded friends.

       One of the most visually striking facets of hero Johnny Rico (played by CasperVan Dien) is not his symmetrical jutted-jaw face, his strange factory placed-looking hair, or anything about his handsome and mesmerizingly large head.  It’s that his arms are so shiny.