Electric Review

Culture & Criticism Since 2003

New American Poetry


THE NEW AMERICAN POETRY, 1945-1960. Edited by Donald Allen. University of California Press. 

This comprehensive anthology of the American post-war poetry scene was re-released in 1999, with an afterward by Allen and up-dated biographical information on the poets. It contains all the major writers from the era, and documents the seminal works from which the Beat Generation was born. Also of note because it publishes snippets from the poets’ journals, as we are given this rare chance to peek inside the minds of the writers and see just how the poems formed. For scholars, historians and casual fans alike. Five star selection.

After Reading The New American Poetry

And there
They formed
Ground-breaking step
Now visible
Soft breathless
Of the
Holy star
Drenched in wilderness
On the
Hollow edges
Of time
Like icicles
On the thirsty
Of God’s mind
The shape
Of the wind
At dawn

by John Aiello

Guest Review: INSECT DREAMS. Marc Estrin. Putnam Publishing.

For many of us, waking up in the morning requires a monstrous effort. So imagine arising from your nightly slumber “after disturbing dreams, transformed into an enormous cockroach.” This is the premise of the classic short story by Franz Kafka about Gregor Samsa, a twenty-four year old salesman’s over night Metamorphosis into an insect.

Drawing inspiration from Kafka, Marc Estrin creates a startling and highly imaginative debut with Insect Dreams. Estrin supposes that after Gregor was swept into a dustbin to wither away at the conclusion of Kafka’s tale, he is rescued by a former housekeeper and friends. Over the course of the next 30 years, Gregor is often given the opportunity, whether consciously or unknowingly, to become a spokesperson, or rather, a spokes-roach for the plight of humanity in the early twentieth century.

Gregor’s quest begins on December 17, 1915, when he is dropped off at Zirkus Schwanze der Hoffnung — Amadeus Hoffnung’s freak-show featuring such acts as Dog-Faced Boy, Alligator-Skinned Man and Serpentina, “The Woman with No Nerves.” Amadeus, a sufferer of Werner’s Syndrome (premature aging disease) instantly bonds with Gregor. So Gregor joins the line-up, lecturing on daily readings from the likes of the famous poets, Rainer Maria Rilke and Robert Frost to conducting seminars on Albert Einstein, whom he later meets in a comical situation.

Once his act turns stale, Gregor finds himself in New York City, partly as a result of his desire to learn English and his pseudo-celebrity status. After an American reporter writes an article about the five foot six cockroach, ‘The Gregor’ dance is soon giving “the Charleston competition as the hottest dance craze, with its attendant music, consumer spin-offs, and advertising tie-ins.” Throughout Insect Dreams, Estrin purveys this type of deadpan humor, never coming across as silly or unrealistic.

In the Big Apple, Gregor quickly learns that fame is short-lived. His first stab at employment is the elevator operator at The Occidental Hotel. Gregor, ever the optimist, revels in his new job’s simplicity and his tailored uniform in which his “antennae are carefully curled inside the pillbox hat.” While working one morning, Alice Paul, “a lovely sculpture,” appears in his elevator; he is instantly smitten with her. After retrieving one of Alice’s belongings, he nervously invites her to a baseball game. She accepts, providing Gregor with an ideal initiation into American culture, not to mention his first date since becoming a cockroach. Eventually though, their relationship is burdened by romantic interspecies complications.

This is the brilliance of Insect Dreams. Because Estrin’s vision of Gregor is infused with human qualities such as sympathy, compassion and loneliness, the reader ignores that, on the exterior, Gregor has six feet and an exoskeleton. By applying this technique, Estrin ingenuously demonstrates his ability to blur the lines between fantasy and reality. And in many cases throughout the novel, Gregor is more humane than many of the characters he encounters.

The novel also plays on our physical insecurities. After his awkward tryst with Alice, Gregor is determined through plastic surgery to remove two of his feet to appear more human-like. This is a profound moment for Gregor and an important plot point for the reader because Gregor’s decision will seal his fate. Like the wound on Samsa’s backside that never heals, inflicted by his father, his acceptance of who and what he is will ultimately set his mind free.

But before then, Gregor will play a crucial role in helping Franklin Roosevelt get elected president, even moving into the kitchen cabinet at the White House. Then, in an ironic twist, Gregor is assigned the position of researching new pesticides. In accepting this role, he decides, “Better I should do it than them.” Additionally, as a Jewish cockroach, he advises Roosevelt on the Nazi invasion and even assists Robert Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project.

Insect Dreams is an intelligent fable about an outsider’s attempt to fit in with an often un-accepting society. Estrin’s writing is always witty and insightful, and he’ll often leave you laughing aloud (“His palms would be sweaty if cockroaches had palms).” In addition to being a story about an often misunderstood roach-human striving for equality during a traumatic time, Insect Dreams is also a whirlwind of a history lesson similar to Forrest Gump. But one thing’s for sure: after reading Insect Dreams, you will think twice about using Raid next time a cockroach scampers across the floor.

by Ryan Bacchia

Ryan Bacchia is a former instructor in the College of the Siskiyous’ Writing Lab; he is presently enrolled at California State University, Sacramento in pursuit of a Master’s degree in English.

DEATH RATMichael J. Nelson. Harper Entertainment.

This novel tells the story of Pontius Feeb, a down on his luck writer who decides to abandon writing academic history books in favor of creating a best-seller about a six-foot long rat (in actuality, Feeb’s rodent is the same demonic rat who lives on in each of us: that God-haunted mouse scurrying through the inner reaches of the mind, dancing along the vines, pursuing human flesh in the dark book of a dream).

In the end, Nelson’s story is gripping in the way that William S. Burroughs’ novels were gripping, at once stripping away the layers of the subconscious, bringing the nightmares to life. In this story Holey, Minnesota is a fantasy world, but just as in Burroughs’ best books, every word is a new reality, here behind the secret masks of the mind, here in our tiny shapeless towns where six-foot long rats sleep beside snakes with fine long velvet smiles. This paperback edition also features wonderful cover art by Michael Koelsch in the tradition of the finest Pulp covers of the 1950s.

THE SPECKLED PEOPLE. Hugo Hamilton. Fourth Estate Publishers.

Used by permission of Harper Collins.

This well-realized and contemplative memoir by Hugo Hamilton examines what it’s like growing up in a household of mixed cultures as one of the “Speckled People” (according to Hamilton’s father, these were “the new Irish, partly from Ireland, partly from somewhere else”).

“The Speckled People.” People without a country. Hamilton grew up in a such an environment: His father was an old world Irishman, and his mother a German born Nazi supporter loyal to the sentiments of her home land. As a child, Hamilton was torn between the differences of these two cultures, and only further confused by the expectations of his classmates as he moved through the school system in Dublin. Throughout this study, he tells his story in poignant and human terms, careful not to skirt sensitive or troubling issues.

In the end, Speckled is relevant not only to the Irish and German people, but to all transplanted immigrants trying to understand and fit into alien cultures. Highly recommended as general reading, and also useful in classroom settings as a lower division Sociology and History text.


Cid Corman, the author of many books of poetry and a well-respected translator in multiple languages, has released this important collection which includes many previously unpublished pieces. The most note-worthy material in the book includes 50 new pieces by Basho, the Japanese Haiku master whose work has influenced countless generations of poets world-wide.


Interesting collection compiled by friend and esteemed literary critic Albert Gelpi. Important because it offers autobiographical material, interviews and correspondence with personalized poems selected by the discerning eye of Gelpi. A major addition to the Everson Catalog, on par-with his Masks of Drought released by Black Sparrow Press in 1980.

BEHAVING LIKE ADULTS. Anna Maxted. Regan Books.

London-based novelist Anna Maxted is a best-selling author who has amassed a loyal international following; Behaving Like Adults is likely to only increase that fan-base. Behaving, meant for all those single people out there struggling to find their “match,” tells the story of Holly, a 29 year-old woman who owns a dating service, but who can’t find the right man. The story, though often humorous, is also coldly real: there are alot of lonely people out there struggling to make a connection with someone –with anyone. This novel is about pausing to think about them.

CRYPTONOMICON. Neal Stephenson. Avon.

 This New York Times notable book is chock full of adventure and action: a convoluted Thomas Pynchon-like plot comes complete with a World War II timeline and heroes galore. This is more a movie than a novel — an epic story that consumes its reader from page one and refuses to let go.


MASKED & ANONYMOUS. Bob Dylan & Various Artists. Soundtrack. Columbia Records.

The album features 14 songs by various artists, including 4 pieces sung by Dylan himself. It’s difficult to single out the gems (since every track has merit) but the reworked versions of “Down In The Flood” and “Cold Irons Bound” will catch the attention of many a listener as the starkness of Dylan’s voice buries us in the bittersweet blues of memories gone by. Dylan’s version of “Diamond Joe” is also a high-point, immersing us in the musician’s folk-roots, the gentle hiss of voice and guitar lost in the echoes of God at the last hour, the singer himself lost in the poignant eyes of Woody Guthrie now ambling over the hills, falling into the softness of the Texas-gray sunset.

Still, longtime fans should brace themselves: Masked is a much different record than Dylan’s soundtrack for Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 classic Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. On this record Dylan is telling his own story through the timeless mirror of his music and songs. The pieces that Dylan and his producers have selected for this project are noteworthy because they personally present the music he uses to define himself (“Senor, can you tell me/Where we’re heading/Lincoln County Road/Or Armageddon?/This place don’t make sense to me/No more”). This interpretation of “Senor” by the late Jerry Garcia (a member of Dylan’s inner circle) is a defining moment: The singer swiftly on the move through the wilderness looks for some shelter among the burning ruins of the world, hunting and searching, riding deeper into the hollow fangs of darkness. I presume that Dylan perceives himself on this level — how else do we explain his “Never Ending Tour?” How else do we explain his need to be on the road almost non-stop for eighteen years?

Masked is a major record and we will look back on it as a vital component to the Dylan catalog (an entity unto itself and completely separate from the film): In the end, Dylan is his music and the secret moving pictures it creates. His voice is the camera and the perfect lensless electric eye through which we peer, staring down heaven through the flickering half-melted candles of the stars. Listen: The echoes hum and tremble down the long lines of Bob Weir’s guitar, gently swirling into the melody of “It’s all Over Now Baby Blue.” The man is his music. Masked and anonymous. His image the holiness of the invisible. Masked and anonymous. As graceful and timeless as the wind itself.

SUMMER. Summer. Odyssey.

Borrowing her name from the season –“Summer”– this classically trained soprano is likely the brightest star rising over the second half of 2003. With a voice that imbeds itself into the memory like the edge of a knife, Summer has come out blazing with her Odyssey debut that features 12 songs (note the wonderful keyboarding by Richard Cottle, who’s played with Mick Jagger and Vanessa-Mae among others, and the sensitive and unobtrusive production work of Nick Patrick).

“Summer” is quite a rich record, giving us everything from Vivaldi to Sting — and with striking results: Even though many of these pieces are covers, the singer manages to make them hers, wrapping herself around the echo of each piece, inviting it deep into her flesh. More than being technically on, Summer sings with spirit, compelling the sleepy to sit up in their chairs. At once, feet begin to tap and hips quiver until numb. Suddenly, we are lost in her voice, lost in the empty perfection of the music as it ebbs and flows and rises: “I wanted to do something different,” Summer says reflecting on her record: “Seeking[ing] out pieces from around the world and blend[ing] them into a new mix.”

Summer. The name is about the season. And the music is about passion — everything from a sensual rendition of Sting’s “Fragile” to an eerie and enchanting “Nella Fantasia,” which is based on Ennio Morricone’s beautiful score for “The Mission.” However, the high-point remains Stanley Myers “Cavatina,” from the film the “Deer Hunter.” As the simple lyric comes into full bloom, Summer’s haunting vocal takes us back to Cimino’s 1978 epic, bringing us back into De Niro’s presence: A woman sits alone and remembers the lover with whom she’s lost touch. And as the memory takes hold of her heart, I watch the ghost she cannot see: the haunted deer hunter moving through the dark timber, running swiftly into those smoke poisons of war, running and slipping, trying to escape the demons that end as the shape of his own reflection in the mirror.

Summer comes to us a unique voice, most edgy and piercing, yet still so soft and comforting: like a driving rain across the thirsty desert sands at dawn.

CDs In Brief

CROSSING THE STONE. Catrin Finch. Odyssey. At 23, Finch has distinguished herself as one of the finest classical harpists in the world. Born in Wales, her music is rich with the poetic melodies of Dylan Thomas and William Blake — deep and soulful, meant to leave the listener contemplating the world and their place in it. Like child prodigy and sitar virtuoso Anoushka Shankar, Finch is building her own roads and forging ahead into unknown territory. Her performance of Claude Debussy’s “Clair De Lune” is absolutely brilliant….HAVANA. John Stewart. Appleseed. Stewart’s been writing songs about the odd faces of America for the last 45 years, and “Havana” continues his journey. “Cowboy in The Distance” takes up the road where “California Bloodlines” left off, Stewart riding down the hidden alley-ways of these states, guitar in hand, recording the faces that pass him in the early night. The voice reminds us of Johnny Cash. The inspiration is pure Woody Guthrie. “Havana” is a wonderful collection spanning the full spectrum of Stewart’s styles, from Kingston Trio folk tunes to Lindsey Buckingham-inspired guitar licks. Old fans will love it, while new listeners will absorb some of the history of pop music since the late 1950s…. THE OTHER SIDE OF TIME. Mary Fahl. Sony Classical. “The Other Side of Time” is a brilliantly conceived album of broad proportions. The music here is varied – with soulful folk-tinged numbers and Celtic-flavored ballads set against a straight ahead Rock and Roll beat. And through it all, Mary Fahl’s voice shines as bright as rain water on the windows at dawn. Stand out tracks include the Gospel-flavored “Redemption,” the softly poetic “Dream of You,” and the mesmerizing “Ben Aindi Habib,” which is based on erotic poetry written by Moorish women in the 11th and 12th centuries. However, the true centerpiece of the record is the wonderful “Paolo.” This love song, driven by Scott Healy’s sweet piano line — mixing the intensity of the late Richard Manual’s style with the subtleties of Carol King’s playing — tells a story of deep loss: the narrator having embarked on a secret journey, exploring the insides of her wounds, remembering this face in the distant past, drowning in the shadows of what once was. Fahl, along with Summer and Sarah Brightman, are the singers to watch in the next few years; together they share the “next Norah Jones” title….Noted: OUR LADY PEACE LIVE (Columbia): Recorded in Canada earlier this year, the record features fine versions of “Are You Sad” and “All For You….” TRUE LOVE WAITS. CHRISTOPHER O’RILEY PLAYS RADIOHEAD. Odyssey.Very interesting collection has classical pianist O’Riley performing his favorite Radiohead cuts. “Airbag” and “Bulletproof ” show this unlikely marriage at its finest hour….THE OLIVER MTUKUDZI COLLECTION (The Tuku Years). Oliver Mtukudzi. Putumayo World Music. This compilation of Mtukudzi favorites is meant to bring happiness and joy to the listener now immersed in the music of Zimbabwe. Mtukudzi is a highly respected artist in Africa who brings with him a presence not unlike the late Bob Marley. “Tuku” features him at his best: blending the irresistible rhythms of dance with socially relevant lyrics.


NYPD BLUE. DVD. Seasons One & Two. Fox Home Entertainment.

Excepting The SopranosNYPD Blue is the best thing on television today. These DVDs capture the complete first and second seasons, as we re-immerse ourselves in the initial story lines that helped to build the series into the Emmy-winning machine it is has become. Pound for pound, Blue is simply the best

network drama to emerge since Bochco’s other tour-de-force, Hill Street Blues (As “cop” dramas go, Blue ranks on par with Gunsmoke: Andy Sipowicz this updated version of quintessential American lawman Matt Dillon, while New York City provides the perfect example of what the roaring old West has morphed into). If you’re only going to own a few DVDs, and if you enjoy gritty urban dramas, then these are the disks for you: The writing, direction and ensemble acting remain unparalleled.


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This entry was posted on November 1, 2003 by in 2003, Books, Guest Reviews, Music, November 2003, Poetry, Quick Picks, Television and tagged , , , , , .
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