Reviews
January, 2009 Montserrat Review, Barbara Goldberg reviews Sum, by Yonat Hafftka:
A quest narrative, the “journey,” traditionally stars a male hero. Not here. Yonat Hafftka travels from origins, to discovery, to investigation all the way to speculation, but her journey is an inward one, one that begins in the dark primeval chaos, a world of dank waters, snakes, hungry dogs. Yet this world also provides nourishment, meager as it is. It calls to mind Yeats’ “filthy rag and bone shop of the heart,” from which all beauty springs, but not just beauty – life itself. “Only those who can fly survive” (Old Waters), writes Hafftka, but flight is made more difficult because of the weight of the past: “The dead claim me./ When I learn to shake them off/ they are already rooted.” (“Out of Burnt Skin”).

While the waters of birth are murky, filled with invisible, menacing creatures, later in her journey Hafftka writes, “The water is as transparent as glass/ Revealing.” (“Transparent Water”). Here she has learned to confront those inner monsters and master them. In the same poem she writes, “The hippo just ten yards away/ Opens his mouth wide./ I at twenty/ Walk down his sloping tongue.”

Hafftka’s journey begins in darkness and it would be tempting to say it ends with enlightenment. But Hafftka discovers that enlightenment can be dark, too. In “An Unexpected Birth Re-Examined” Hafftka observes “We have passed the middle/ And suddenly we sense,/ Gravity puts the fire out.” Not everything is bleak. Here is “My Current Age”:

Unless a gun, a knife, or homelessness threatens me,
And if I strip my days of concern for the future,
Or of obligations to the past, then my day is a luxury.
I eat, I sleep and have pleasure.

A biographical note: Yonat Hafftka is a native Israeli raised in a kibbutz. She immigrated to the U.S. at age 22. Whether directly (a child of survivors) or indirectly, the Holocaust weights heavily on the Israeli psyche. That, and the tension of living under constant siege. The past – and the present – is complicated, indeed.

Barbara Goldberg most recent book is The Royal Baker’s Daughter (University of Wisconsin Press), winner of the 2008 Felix Pollak Poetry Prize. She has also edited and co-translated two anthologies of contemporary Israeli poetry, including After the First Rain: Israeli Poems of War and Peace (University of Syracuse Press/Dryad Press) as well as The Fire Stays in Red: Poems of Ronny Someck (University of Wisconsin Press). She is a senior speechwriter at AARP.
December, 2008 Montserrat Review, Mary Morris reviews Circular Stairs, Distress In The Mirrors by Peter Klappert:
It's not just the superb wit and eloquent writing embodied in this collection, but the constant stirring of surprises, of some great soul searching, if you will. The images are breathtaking. What is most ingenious about this writer is how he tackles difficult subjects, such as war and race, producing poetry with the social message he intends but with startling grace.

MOVEMENT

"This is not war," he used to say, "it is
a comic opera with an occasional death."
               HOMMAGE TO CATALONIA

Down the dark street through
a wound in the wall
we go clutching stones
with our throats in pursuit.
This is the bottom of the well.
Try again. This time use both of your wings.
We go in flight
through a bandage of
newspaper up the dark
stairs at the top
of the light we forget
to inhale. Try again.
This time your claws, and your beak.


These fierce, engaging poems of Peter Klappert are accompanied by fabulous, often dark, surreal drawings of Michael Hafftka, a stupendous collaboration indeed. Klappert turns ordinary subjects into fascinating poems exemplifying the human condition. Hafftka complements these visions with figurative, deeply psychological impressions. Both use the surreal in a brilliant rendition. No surprise, both have been on the cutting edge for some time. Peter Klappert is the author of six collections of poems and a winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Michael Hafftka is represented in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the MoMA, the Carnegie Museum, and The National Gallery.

Each poem of Mr. Klappert's is so skillfully executed as to alter subjects, creating works so original and awesome in a metaphorical, and sometimes metaphysical sense, as to be deeply intriguing, particularly in its condensed product. Klappert cuts to the chase without ever sacrificing beauty.

THE TRAPPER

I am digging a pit
deeper than I will need.

Already
on the other side of this mountain
Something is crying in a small hoarse voice.

It is breaking its teeth on my teeth.

Some shy animal is taking its paw
apart in the darkness.
Some poor animal is looking through its bones.

When I grab at my lungs they contract
like an old leather bellows.

Something the size of a very small boy
is kicking against that trap.


Devotions and prayers, gratefully original, align this book with titles such as "Lucifer Praying" and "The Lord's Chameleons." The latter, a radical, fantastical poem embraced by vision, explaining race. "But observing the long silence of God's tongue/ the family fell into division./ Some argued. He's the promise of all color,/ some No, he's dark green (like the leaves/ where now He's brooding). / Suddenly the air/turned mutinous with insects, an intimation/ of the coming of the Lord of Imitation./ The sun went dark as coffee, tongues/ of yellow lightning stunned their vision."

What is apparent in this book is its vision, the vulnerability of the species, and the precision of its language.

Who else could write, "Today I read of people in South America who measure time by the blossoming of flowers." "If he is beautiful/ he is beautiful with my losses, as a thief,/ exciting not by the value of his thefts/ but by the act/ and by invisible fine threads/ binding the object in time to its owner."

Who could slip into the pace of a prose poem with hip engaging language, or turn the political, personal, a boy in a frame back in time in the country of Laos, as in, "Boy walking Back to Find his Father's Cattle." "If the water jar has been broken/ if a river is rising/ and starts/ again walking/ if he finds the five buffalo/ now back to Savanne/ from his village unsettled in ashes/a place/ if the T-28s remain grounded/ if rifles doze in the sun/ in the mind of his father, who would/ were it safe, walk back himself…"

A writer this savvy, along with the remarkable renderings of Michael Hafftka, form this book into a stunning collection.

Mary Morris is the recipient of the 2007 Rita Dove Award, The New Mexico Discovery Award, Finalist for the 2008 Stan and Tom Wick Book Prize and the 2008 St. Petersurg Review Prize. Poems have been published in Indiana Review, Quarterly West, Nimrod, Poet Lore, Gargoyle, and many others. Contact info: Water400@aol.com
September 24, 2007
Publishers Weekly reviews Limit Point by Michael Brodsky

A veteran avant-garde novelist, playwright and translator of Beckett's Eleutheria, Brodsky (Detour) resurfaces with this beguiling collection of two novellas, one short story and three short-shorts. The title novella, which opens the collection, is written in that trickiest of forms, the second person (“you feel excluded, snubbed, far more than you've ever been, ever allowed yourself to be”), and follows the Beckettian peregrinations of Goodis (“you, Goodis!”) as he steals an overcoat, sits in a noirish diner and falls in with a low-end criminal gang, all the while commenting feverishly on what he sees: “Among the trashcans that divvy up the eft-head glimmer of an expiring streetlamp, you choose the biggest one to hide behind.” The second novella, “Midtown Pythagoras,” closes the book and is a similarly noirish, and very funny, play on detective fiction; a writer hires a private dick to strong-arm a reviewer into changing her views of the writer's work: “if I could make her vision of him coincide with his own then at last all would be well with his posterities.” All the work here is drenched in a weary angst, but Brodsky's joyful relief in writing—despite uncertain posterities—comes through on every page.
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September 2007
Conscious/Unconscious by Michael Hafftka reviewed at Dalkey Archive Press, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXVII, #3

by Joseph Dewey
Midway through Michael Hafftka's weirdly alluring matrix of episodic narratives (I hesitate to call them short stories as they defy virtually every assumption of the genre with hip audacity and confident savvy), our narrator finds himself wrestling with a particularly nasty porcupine, its savage pelt of prickly quills ever threatening, until, in the logic appropriate to a dream, he understands that now he must strangle the porcupine, does so, and then slips gratefully into a heavy sleep. Across fifty-six such vignettes, which exist tenuously between memory and dream and move with a kind of associational logic, Hafftka, an accomplished neo-expressionist artist for the past thirty years, catapults us, with this collection, his first venture with narrative, into a fairytale world of Jungian imagery charged with Freudian implication, a symbolic landscape of winding staircases, stone towers, lush fields, quaint cottages, and forbidding forests. With Alice-like temerity, the narrator moves about the dreamscape, his journey recorded in flatline prose delivered without exclamation even as the narrator meets one after another mysterious, inexplicably threatening eccentrics who are distorted by carnal itches and/or by unspecified emotional woundings. We share these confrontations with the narrator/artist who comes to reveal an evolving complex persona struggling with the unsettling implications of a series of irresolvable contemporary dilemmas: the relationship between sexuality and destruction; the appalling implications of the appeal of violence and the wellspring urges we share to do injury to others; the deception of appearances and the discomfortingly speedy process by which the familiar morphs into the strange; and above all the role—and challenge—of the artist whose inspiration and vision necessarily derive from shadowy and forbidding interior realms where we are ultimately most (in)human. Ably enhanced by twenty-seven original black and white drawings that are beautifully reproduced to reveal the Goya-esque dimensions of Hafftka's sensibility, these stories—part ironic parable, part fractured fairy tale, part skewed allegory—do not engage or entertain so much as haunt, lingering like the fragmentary recollection of a cryptic dream.
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Summer 2008

Back to TopSum by Yonat Hafftka reviewed at Jewish Book World, Summer 2008, by Eleanor Ehrenkranz

"Some of the poems in this collection bring surrealistic paintings to mind deliberately, I imagine, as the grotesque imaginings seem to represent the current adult world today, as in the poem "Out of Burnt Skins", where Hafftka writes:
"I rise out of burnt skins
Not a boy, not a girl,
Into a confused world of
Aching men and wasted women."
And these images are contrasted with Hafftka’s other poems which express the yearning for the beauty and simplicity of remembered childhood:
"Let me go
To the womb’s cave
Deeper and closer,
Down the steps, the walls
Covered with gardens I wish
I owned."
The overlay of melancholy extends to her philosophical poems as well, which concern the reflections of those in their forties who are beginning to assess their lives:
"Mannerism has as strong a hold at forty
As need had in the days of dependency."
The rueful attitude is also apparent in the wise observation that "Advice accentuates lack of sympathy." Her perception combined with a sensitive longing for the ideal gives her poetry substance.

Eleanor Ehrenkranz is a professor at Pace University, teaching writing courses. She got her PH.D at NYU. She has published articles in The New York Times, World Jewish Digest and The Greenwich Times, among other places.
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July 2008
West Virgina by Che Elias is among Reviewer's Choice at Midwest Book Review, July 2008
See the third Review from the top
Christopher Wunderlee, Reviewer

How It Is, or how it was, these are impressions, minute-by-minute minute collisions, a muddle of sensations, a stream of consciousness, or in this case, a torrent of consciousness, released by trauma, caused by trauma, dripping with it, indivisible, words flung like droplets over the falls. And you, reader, are in the Niagara-barrel. Feeling brackish gusts whip bare cheeks, soaked, knee-deep, tossed fiercely, flipped, flung, within the rush, the final forevermore always foreboding, that wet edge howling ahead, bellowing, spitting up hurricane rain. There is the current, the flow of words juxtaposed with broken images, the rocks awaiting your barrel below, the kindling of others, waiting like prophetic visions in rainbow sprays. This is not a b(r)ook, it's a storm-ride, a witnessing of a drowning.
West Virginia is bounded by great streams, unbroken flows of an awakened mind unable to comprehend a trauma. Rape forces a rage, a tearing from within, an implosion; West Virginia is a squall of consciousness. If Joyce flows through they microscopic hyper-experience and Beckett floods the fringe, Che Elias surges into the personal monologue, weaving an unbearable deluge of torment.
It was William James who coined the term, stream of consciousness, in The Principles of Psychology (1890), and the study of the mind has guided its development as a literary form, from Stephen Daedalus to Septimus. The unknown, un-dead voice of West Virginia is another other, but his passage is not of awakening, of falling apart, but of internal collapse, of a rambling rhapsodic deliverance akin to darling antiheroes, but this one of the dark yawn. This one needs therapy, medication, institutionalization, a savior, a faith, a lottery ticket. Consciousness has become a racket, the stream a rapid, the waking life a ridding. That way madness lies. Voices are murdering and torturing like some Elizabethan hanging in the public square. The confessional is wrought with sin, and there's hell to pay. Like true thoughts, Elias returns and returns to the theme, which is not a literary theme, not a plot device, not character development, but the stain, the scar, the sinking of the consciousness. The bitter words flung into perked ears, rebounding off forming lips, crackling over cerebella, resonate like a true memory, a true traumatic event.
We remember the arms flailing, the screams, the way the afternoon light looked like golden shards on white-tipped surf, and the heavy burden of the afterwards, when the sunken body was brought to the shore. We replay it accidentally in our bedroom sheets or during bus rides when our minds are given little leash. Tragedies have a way of remaining. And this is the tricky cruelty of our minds, of our inner voices, because when there is brutality, when we endure its initial assault, we are left with its meaning, and there is none. Fragmented, purposeless insanity visits our order, bludgeons reason, and requires some loss of accepting the mirage of any of it. We are a step closer to the falls.
West Virginia is a man over the cataract, tumbling, those last seconds a manifesto of spiked words groping for a branch, contorting to avoid the pike rocks. Elias is plunged deep into the torrent, post-fall, all too aware of the stain of sin and the Cain solution. Ripping open West Virginia is like swimming out to get him, and we all know, when someone tries to save a drowning man, usually they both die.
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February 2008
The Terror of Loch Ness reviewed at MUNGBEING.COM by Jody Franklin

The Terror Of Loch Ness has been inhabiting my home for months. I approached this scary beast of a book about a dozen times before I finally sat and read the whole thing in one sitting. I had to mentally prepare myself before plunging in fully: every time I tried to read it, I fled in terror from its shockingly torturous nightmare of a world.
Elias gets into the head of his protagonist, a powerless young man menaced and destroyed by a monster who repeatedly sexually assaults him, his girlfriend (the abuser's daughter) and other youth. His world is small, claustrophobic, finite: his vision is limited: there is little hope of freedom or escape: there exists only survival and reaction. We know nothing of the world beyond his anxious, meandering inner monologue: he feels, he hurts: his entire being is consumed by the cancerous plague of dominance and violence inflicted upon him and his girlfriend by his rapist.
The Terror Of Loch Ness is a surreal yet visceral literary experience: you live and feel the pain of the victim while trying desperately to dissociate from the corrosive reality of his poisoned soul. The voice of the narrator is frighteningly authentic: in laying bare the psychic landscape of a sexual abuse victim, we perhaps understand better the constant shock and trauma: the sheer terror: of having one's life controlled by a noxious, sadistic troglodyte.
Elias' prose is accessible yet difficult, lucid yet elliptical, savage yet beautiful. He utilizes fragmented language, run-on sentences, unorthodox capitalization and punctuation: experimental stylistic quirks: in an effective marriage with raw emotion to craft a wholly singular work of extraordinary literary fiction. The text is broken up by distorted imagery of torment and suffering by illustrator Michael Hafftka, whose subtle yet jarring contributions complement the prose by sporadically shattering the hyperreality of the abuse, transforming it into pure nightmare.
Loch Ness is a dark, murky water: and drowning is your only option.
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July 2007
Conscious/Unconscious by Michael Hafftka is reviewed in The Mad Hatter Review by Marc Lowe.

“I’m on the advent of a dream. I can feel it like acid in my blood,” says the I-narrator of one of the 56 vignettes—accompanied by 27 original drawings—that make up Michael Hafftka’s surreal collection CONSCIOUS/UNCONSCIOUS, published this year by the innovative Six Gallery Press. Indeed, one might say that the entire work reads like an extended, über-Freudian dream sequence. Each of the “stories,” which frequently feature situations and characters presumably from the author’s real life, past and present, pulls us into a dreamlike parallel universe that is at once both personal and universal.
While the pieces in this volume unabashedly employ elements of autobiographical confession/memoir, they read more like droll, nightmarish fairytales penned exclusively for adults, the sort of thing Edward Gorey (with a dab or two of Woody Allen) might have written whilst sipping absinthe and expunging his innermost doubts and fears upon the purulent-white page (had Gorey in fact been interested in women and sex, that is). The drawings, which look as though they were sketched by some deeply-disturbed—albeit extremely gifted—future artist/lunatic child, draw us deeper into the tenebrous world the author has created both for himself and for us, his readers. What is so intriguing about the collection is that it was written by someone who has chosen to narrate his stories through the medium of paint-on-canvas for many years, rather than by way of the pen (though he apparently wrote poetry for a time before abandoning it in favor of the [paint]brush, as alluded to in his bio and, briefly, in one of the vignettes in the collection). For this reason, perhaps, the prose is anything but pretentious. Sentences are short, simple, to-the-point. There are no haughty literary allusions here, no semi-obscure references to the work of important literary theorists or trends, no linguistic acrobatics that would serve to place the author among the “avant prose-poets” of either yesterday or today.
Yet, neither is CONSCIOUS/UNCONSCIOUS a work likely to make the bestseller list (given that a book published by an independent press could ever end up as such in today’s corporate market), for its content is much too honest, its implied imagery and ideas much too disturbing for the Da Vinci Code-devouring mainstream in America. Tropes such as scatology/urination; the desire to kill people or animals (as in “There Was No Need to Shoot,” “The Ass and the Porcupine,” and “Part of Me,” to cite just three examples); a constant fear of terrorists (Hafftka lived on a Kibbutz in the Jordan Valley long before 9/11); lust and apprehension—seemingly in equal measure—toward the female body/sexuality; penises and cannibalism (in one case the protagonist distastefully imbibes the former); phallic guns; etc., are revisited again and again in different combinations, at turns playful and terrifying, and always—if I may: Hafftakaesque.
From the opening vignette, “Changes,” the reader is confronted with the appearance of a mustachioed monster with fake wings and a laurel made of leaves, a creature whose “nondescript” appearance suggests that it could be a stand-in for someone/anyone other than itself: the narrator-author, his father, you or me, etc. There is also a fairy-tale-like cottage that recalls the Hansel and Gretel myth (more so because the narrator is accompanied by his sister, though we all know from Laurie Anderson that Hansel was really in love with the witch!), and a series of Borgesian corridors that lead the I-narrator to a “deformed” portrait of himself which has literally changed over time in Dorian Gray fashion. The theme of change and transformation is again revisited in “So Different,” in which the narrator meets his wife on the street but hardly recognizes her (“She looked so different.”); at the end of the brief fiction we learn that her name was not actually “Roes”—as it has been spelled in earlier vignettes—but “Rose.” (Has the dream mirror inverted the two letters, or is something else going on here? A slip of the purloined pen, perhaps?) In the accomplished, hilarious allegory “My New Freedom,” the narrator finds himself unjustly accused of smashing four placards in his school, an offense resulting in “expulsion from the administration and/or death,” much as Josef K. was accused of a nameless crime in The Trial. In the second half of this fable-in-miniature, which reads like Dante’s Inferno or a description of a Japanese Hell Screen, the optimistic-turned narrator finds himself in a dark corridor running beneath the school with a group of disgruntled friends, trudging through excrement and spattered with urine-rain, only to emerge onto the streets of New York feeling disappointed with his newfound freedom. In other vignettes women have three eyes (or multiple breasts; or penises that turn into animal horns); smoke emerges from the ears of a friend as he describes the latest “Dirty Harry” film, killing everyone in the room save the narrator and the woman he is trying to bed; and alien creatures are employed to do the work of their bosses after students are rendered “zombies.”
CONSCIOUS/UNCONSCIOUS, dreamed into our world by a visual artist whose paintings have been compared to those of Francis Bacon and to the “black paintings” of Francisco Goya, will appeal to fans of bizarre flash/micro-fiction and of the surreal/irreal, but it probably won’t be a favorite of readers looking for slice-of-life snapshots which give lip service to the Cartesian worldview, or to the 19th century Victorian novel in its modern-day incarnation. While the pieces are loosely tied together by the reappearance of certain key characters—the wife Roes/Rose, the lover Katina, the friends Ray and Rod, etc.—and by the consistent voice of the narrator, it cannot be said that they form any sort of coherent narrative in the traditional sense of the word; rather, the collection may be thought of as a pastiche dream diary of sorts, one that describes not the life and times of Michael Hafftka, writer/painter/poet, but the life and times of Michael Hafftka’s alter-ego “I.” The warning “All hope abandon ye who enter here” from Dante’s Divine Comedy would serve the uninitiated reader well, for, despite the self-deprecating humor that infuses these mostly-playful pieces, Hafftka’s world is nonetheless one that is dark, depraved, and decidedly disjointed; it’s bound to give some readers Freudian nightmares of their own.
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