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Book Reviews: The Grand Mcluckless Road Atlas by John Domeni; Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising by Jonathan Little; If You Find Yourself by Brian Patrick Heston

John Domini: The Grand Mcluckless Road Atlas

Oakland: Pedestrian Press, 2013

Reviewed by David Klein


     It isn’t so much luck that Domini’s lonely traveler needs, as a place to belong. One of the last of a dying breed, genus Romantic, Mcluckless is lost at sea in a world suffering the end stages of cultural lysis, a virus that bleeds the joie from all vivre. For instance, in the poem, “Pane Di San Francesco,” he longs for a classic treat out of a “candied past,” the eponymous raison-stuffed honeyed bread, but instead must make do with what’s become a tourist treat, “eggy (and) limp,” not unlike Mcluckless himself, who, with the same scalpel eye that pares dross from beauty everywhere he looks, can’t help but see in himself a sad sack Odysseus whose passion for culture has devolved into the pretense and “pale scam,” of, as in “A Museum, A Thought, and Priam’s Luck,” a “Lone Professor…defending painters everybody loved already.” He runs from the bread shop, only to be greeted by storms of pigeons and tourists: there’s no escape from this era of iPods, flip-flops and McDonalds, ruled by accountants. Nor any escape from his own inward eye.    

     Mcluckless begins his journey with “Gate Change,” in an anonymous airport in a nameless city. Having missed the announcement, disoriented and clueless where to embark on his adventure, all Mcluckless has as a guide is his instinct for transforming drear existence through the revivifying lens of poetry making. “You’re out of joint,” he tells himself. “Your poem, that’s on.”

     We then follow him on a haphazard journey from sapless American cities through Paris, Naples, and what appears to be Rome, grand old bastions of history and art, reduced now to tourist attractions. He’s always alone, our Mcluckless, his only companions the memory ghosts of a much younger woman, in “Beach Motel, Oregon,” or an ex-student, in “Detroit Scenery,” or, in “Lakeshore, L.A., Long Island, Ex-O-Skel.,” a woman whose “tiara shed its glitter on the windows of the train, the New Year’s speckle winking in the smut.”

     The voice of these poems is arch and rueful, like that of Donald Barthleme, whom Domini quotes at the start; the style declamatory. Each poem is a sort of soliloquy, as if Mcluckless commands an imagined stage, performing partly as vagabond poet in the hope of a sympathetic audience, and partly for himself, to feel less alone.

     In my favorite of the bunch, “Okie Monarchs,” the poet finds himself stuck in rush hour traffic in Oklahoma City, the first stop on the road atlas, an American inferno:

          Derricks jacking in and out, obscene beside the swings, the library…crude rules;

          mall posterboard and neon wink their lies

          across the Broadway shaft, like mica flickers

          across a pit, across the tumbling wrappers…

          like condoms, sacks of children’s souls               

     But emissaries from the natural world suddenly flock as if to lift his spirits, Monarch butterflies migrating south. Still, he can’t accept the gift as-is, because, though lovely, the Monarch is too common a creature for the poet who can never be at home in either the man-ruined or the natural worlds. His thoughts fly to a singular moment, in “glossy springtime,” when he was startled by a giant luna moth. Even then, with Cape Cod blooming all around him, he reflexively resorts to analogy. Instead of celebrating the moment, he cerebrates it:

          a luna moth, a monster, startled me,

          and it was green, and I thought, Dickinson,

          gone midnight, strange, her “noon” gone moon; I thought,

          Nabokov, sexy lepidopterist,

          ripe youth and beauty in his net… 

      Cast rudely from Cape Cod reverie back to Oklahoma City traffic jam, alone in a crawling car, his only escape is to imagine that two Monarchs are mating in the air:

          vivid upward love coils, 

          a couple climbing spiral steeps, at work 

          against the vertigo, a pair of pilgrims…

     Iowa is the road atlas’s ultimate destination, Domini’s home state, where the poet, struggling to write, already grows restless. Images of freedom intrude: a heart and arrow scratched on a prison wall, feathers poking from a shaft, and finally, a hitchhiker’s thumb, singing. 

     This is a fine collection of high energy poems, funny and sad, highly recommended.

The Details Of History

Jonathan Littell: Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising 

Translated by Charlotte Mandell, New York: Verso, 2015

Reviewed by Casey Dorman


As I read my newly arrived copy of Jonathan Littell’s Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising, which I had ordered prior to its English-language release in late-April of this year, I realized that the book was originally written (in French) and published in 2012. This was before ISIS became everyone’s focus, and at a point when the Syrian revolution still seemed to be a simple good-guys vs. bad guys confrontation between the Assad government and the civilian opposition. I wondered if I had wasted my money on a story that was now irrelevant.  But an accurate portrayal of a moment in time, particularly a pivotal moment, possesses its own validity. I was reminded of Littells’ earlier novel, The Kindly Ones, which dealt with World War II and the character of Germany as seen through the eyes of a middle-level Nazi officer. Despite being a novel about people long-dead and events, which occurred 75 years ago,  The Kindly Ones dealt with an eternal truth, the corruption of individuals. Although it is a novel about the past, its message is relevant today.

No less so, Littell’s Syrian Notebooks. Told with a terse, plain language reminiscent of Hemingway (despite it’s having been translated), Littell’s notebook is just that, an almost diary-like account of three weeks spent with the opposition, both the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and protesting civilians just prior to the brutal 2012 Homs massacre that killed over 200 people in a barrage of shelling of civilian residential neighborhoods. We are able to see not only the progression from peaceful protests to violent confrontations and brutal government countermeasures, but also the seeds of the present sectarian, jihadist movement that has turned a local skirmish into a regional war.

Assad’s army, his secret police and his private militias perpetrated atrocities approaching the extremes, if not the magnitude of those of the Nazis, both as an effort to stamp out opposition and to maintain control of the citizenry in such hotspots as Homs. Most of Littell’s and his photographer’s efforts were to document such activities and their toll upon the civilian population for the French newspaper Le Monde. They rushed from one battle site to another in a frenzied effort to interview and photograph victims and witnesses of attacks on civilians. In the process they were carefully managed by their FSA “minders” who were acutely aware of the propaganda value of such material, but wary of having their own, often violent activities give the impression that what was going on was a war, not government repression of civilians.

Indeed, the lines between peaceful protests and violent insurrection were constantly blurred, even in the days before the infamous massacre. Protests were routinely guarded by armed FSA “soldiers.” Although they claimed to only mount “counterattacks,” the FSA fired on the Syrian Army outposts, checkpoints and snipers nearly as often as they were fired upon. Most telling, Littell describes the civilian demonstrations, filled with singing and dancing. “The extraordinary thing about these demonstrations is the power they let loose. It’s a collective, popular jubilation, a jubilation of resistance.” But the chants are pejorative, not celebratory. “Bashar (Assad), we don’t know who you are, Muslim or Jew!” “Bashar, you have a giraffe’s neck!” “Bashar, get out, you and your dogs!” Eventually, the slogans demand retribution. “The people demand capital punishment for the butcher.” “The people demand the militarization of the revolution!”

Among the civilians the FSA soldiers are treated as heroes. Boys want to emulate them, to join them. Within the FSA, Bin Laden and Abu Musad al Zarqawri, the dead leader of Al Queda in Iraq are admired. The FSA in Homs is split between those who want jihad in order to bring in militants from outside Syria to help with the fight and those who are fearful that such a move will cause the revolution to spiral out of control. Religion is deeply embedded within the daily behavior and rhetoric of the opposition. They are more fundamentalist than the Alawites who control Damascus and the government. When Littell visits an opposition family’s house, even for a meal, women are rarely seen and always hidden away. In government controlled areas, this is often not the case. Are these the seeds for the eventual progression to Islamist jihad led by ISIS? From outside the culture it is difficult to determine because we are so used to associating fundamentalist Islam with jihad and violence that is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that one necessarily breeds the other. Littell only reports. He makes no value judgments regarding Islamic practices. In his view, which he makes clear in an introduction to the 2015 English edition, the ascendance of jihadists was fostered by the Assad regime in order to marshal world opinion against the revolutionary forces in his country. But his reporting reveals military-like organization, religious fervor and perhaps most telling, sectarian animosity against Shiite Muslims within the ranks of the opposition itself, long before the fight was taken up by so-called “outside” forces, such as ISIS. The fundamentalism is taken so seriously that, more than once,  Littell and his photographer are jokingly threatened with death for drinking whiskey among the FSA men.

By the time Littell is ready to leave Syria, only weeks before the Homs massacre, the revolution has clearly become a war. As a former Syrian Army soldier who joined the FSA said, “I deserted in June, in Dara ‘a. I did it so as not to shoot at people, and I immediately took up arms. I saw that you can’t take down this regime without arms.” In Littell’s own words, “At first they just wanted reforms, more freedom. Then confronted with the repression, things went further."

Homs is once again in the line of war. On May 13, an AP headline shouted, “ISIS Captures More Territory in Central Syria’s Homs.” For the West, ISIS has become the face of the Syrian revolution. Littell and some American politicians seem to believe that the dominance of ISIS is the result of the West’s failure to confront Assad militarily or to provide adequate support for those who originally formed the opposition within the country. Who knows? The opposition was militarized well before ISIS came upon the scene. Within it were jihadists who were also strongly sectarian in their leanings and who favored a fundamentalist version of Islam. Most importantly, the path of violence had been chosen. And in one Middle Eastern country after another, the violent overthrow of admittedly dictatorial and evil regimes has led to chaos and the rise of equally dictatorial and repressive fundamentalist elements—or, as in Egypt, military rule.

In Syria, cultural forces at work within the opposition to Assad led to violent conflict that, in hindsight, reading Littell’s notebook, seems to have been inevitable. Insulting and demonizing the enemy, using weapons, at first for protection of peaceful demonstrators, then to “counterattack” enemy assaults, celebrating the character and exploits of those who take up arms—even without religious fundamentalism and the concept of jihad, is incompatible with nonviolence. But what about Assad? Didn’t his measures necessitate such a reaction on the part of the opposition? Who is to say? Assad’s regime was dictatorial, repressive, used violence against innocent civilians. But its greatest atrocities, such as the Homs massacre, were in response to pushback from an opposition that had already embraced militarism as a method of protest.

Jonathan Littell reports events. The events were not random; he sought out those that emphasized the conflict between Assad and those who opposed him and he further sought out those that demonstrated the virulence of the Syrian regime and revealed the character of those who fought against it. He did so with almost no editorial commentary. What his reporting revealed was the anatomy of a particular revolution in its infancy. Many of the characteristics of what went on in Homs and in Syria are unique to that country, or that region, or to Islam, but many are not. The situation is now, in most Westerner’s minds, worse than before the revolution began, when Assad was comfortably in power. To others in the region (e.g. those who sympathize with ISIS), this may not seem to be the case. But anyone seeking to fight the repressive powers of a government which uses violence as its means of repression must keep in mind that there are definite things that lead  peaceful opposition to become violent—things that may lead to consequences worse than the situation that provoked the opposition in the first place. Jonathan Littell has documented some of those things in his book.


If You Find Yourself

Poetry by Brian Patrick Heston

Charlotte: Main Street Rag, 2014

Reviewed by Randall Mawer


I lived in and around Philadelphia for several years and since it is a fine, interesting city and my first “real” one, it remains attractive in ways Brian Heston’s collection of poems touches again and again. Everything enters the street vernacular in ways at once startling and convincing. Take science: “They got black holes now. / Just a dead piece of star that eats up / everything… / Shit, I got ex-wives that give / them holes a run for their money.”

Well-meaning but not terribly aware parents, the exoticism of grade-school learning—hibernation, evolution, volcanoes—all wrapped up in language continually vivid. The poet’s brother, building a ceiling, has “messed up somewhere / and now looks to fix it.” Do the “little radios” in horseflies heads ‘tell them when to die?” “Brian doesn’t know, so he decides to go to the zoo… / When his mother was alive, she would always be home from work and missing him.”

Tender like this is more than offset by the unconscious coldness of juvenile criminals like the ones who beat Dude to death with a ball bat. “What really stopped us / was boredom. After a while it didn’t mean anything, / like burning a dead cat.”

And there are the purely “found” proper nouns: the Arimingo Diner, the Schuylkill River, Graterford Prison, Kingsessing Avenue, “Abimael Smith who, / at seventeen, froze at Valley Forge,” Termini Bros. Cannoli. There is romance and myth in such names, enough to elevate the adventures of tired fathers, thrill-seeking kids, and bored wives to meaningful heights. “[I]n the dream hours / …I’m unable to distinguish Elysian fields / from the abandoned lot next door,” says Brian Heston.


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