by Chris Offutt
(Simon & Schuster) $21
Chris Offutt is a hillbilly savant who, among other things (he's also a fine novelist and memoirist), is fast approaching a mastery of the short story. His debut collection, Kentucky Straight, is both an elegant and brutal book; it teases grand tragi-comedy from the unlikely enclave of a small Appalachian community peopled by hard-scrabbled, heavy-drinking, royally fucked-up yet strangely dignified yahoos. Like Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, Offutt's fictional world is a jerkwater of incestuous longing and hereditary disrepair; a place where otherwise voiceless folks suddenly speak to that which is distinctly and universally American.
For Offutt, the big question is not "to be or not to be?" (his characters scoff at such high-falutin' horseshit). The real question is this: Should I stay or should I go? Offutt's brilliant new collection, Out of the Woods, examines the ramifications of flight from and return to the old family turf. It is the gravisphere of home--in this case, the Kentucky hills, where generational bloodlines course with ancient sins--which exerts a terrible force, at once propulsive and magnetic. Can you go home again? What's home, anyway? Offutt tackles questions such as these with poetic economy and philosophical integrity, in prose which is tough, clear, and compulsively readable.
The idea of home in these eight stories is only incidentally geographical. Home is not so much a designation as a spiritual equilibrium established in confrontation with time, fate, and death. "According to the dates," one character muses while looking at some gravestones, "many people had been dead longer than they had lived. Tilden knew men who'd spent more years in prison than out, and it occurred to him that time didn't move forward as he'd always thought. People moved through time instead." All-too-human revelations like this arise organically throughout the collection--the spontaneous grist of experience--and Offutt renders them with expertise and a humbling sense of awe. RICK LEVIN
A GRAIN OF POETRY
by Herbert Kohl (Harper Collins) $23
Remember ninth grade? Remember that one English teacher who told you exactly what you got out of that poem you really liked? Well if you don't, look no further than Herbert Kohl's latest, A Grain of Poetry: How to Read Contemporary Poems and Make Them a Part of Your Life. (How's that for a title?)
In this six-chapter how-to, Kohl writes about the readers coming to the poem in terms of rhythm and melody, images, voice, and line breaks. As a poet myself, I am happy that someone is talking about these things. My problem comes from the assumption Kohl makes that to read "modern poetry" one must understand the paths of poetry: form, line break, rhythm, etc. This type of understanding seems more important to the writer than to the reader. A Grain of Poetry seems to undercut the importance of the reader's personal self, limiting his work to a this-is-how-you-get-to-the-real-poem type of discussion. And is this the only way to read poetry? Do we always have to break it down in order to say, "YES! The writer knew what she was doing," or, "This means something to me"?
To me, reading Phillis Wheatley's work doesn't seem so different from reading Rita Dove's. (Yet the idea that contemporary poetry is somehow harder to read oozes from Kohl's covers.) As a guide, this work seems to lead the reader down the path that has separated writer and reader from each other for far too long. Kohl writes about his belief that a poem can only be enjoyed if it is read, and reread--digested, if you will, like a slowly eaten meal. I'm not sure about that. I'm inclined to believe more along the lines of Ntozake Shange when she writes, "...poetry should happen to you like cold water or a kiss." I don't remember which book of hers that comes from. I haven't had the time to reread them. LAURI CONNER
ONE HUNDRED AND ONE WAYS
by Mako Yoshikawa (Bantam) $21.95
Ever punctured your finger with a stapler to see how it felt? I did, when I was eight (it hurt). Kiki Takehashi, heroine of One Hundred and One Ways, self-staples when pushing 30, and then does me several better by grilling her hand on the coils of an electric stove.
A friend told me that the razor slashes on her arms anchored her to the world by proving that she felt something. Kiki certainly needs anchoring; she shares her New York apartment with radiant moths, a long-absent alley cat, a visiting geisha grandmother who has not yet arrived from Japan, and the starving, unresponsive ghost of Phillip, her One True Love. These memories and anticipations are insubstantial company.
In addition to pain, Kiki tries several other ways to connect with reality. She studies hard. She eats compulsively. She runs. She smashes ants. She takes a stolid, lawyerly, Jewish lover, Eric. None of these methods succeed in easing Kiki's grief over Phillip's untimely death, but Eric provides the most bang for the buck. Not just sexually--Kiki gets quite involved in questioning his motives for proposing marriage. Does he have an Asian woman fetish, as she suspects on their first encounter, and again when she spots him standing a little too close to his "friend," Theresa Chan?
As an African American woman, I can relate to Kiki's fear of becoming an exoticized trophy; like the stapler, it's a point of reference. And I enjoyed the stories of Kiki's grandmother, whose supposed variety of sexual skills gives the book its title, and of Kiki's mother, who spends most of her adult life in the role of Madame Butterfly, the European stereotype of passive Asian femininity. Of course her daughter vows to be different.
But Kiki seems unable to break through Yoshikawa's tough, translucent prose. She resigns herself to the loss of love, and remains nothing more than a narrator. What a novel this could have been if Yoshikawa had provided a third point of reference, allowing her heroine to do as I do, and feed her ghosts. NISI SHAWL