Poetry for Southern California
My Family and Other Hazards
Book by June Melby
Henry Holt (http://us.macmillan.com/myfamilyandotherhazards/junemelby)
Reviewed by G. Murray Thomas
When June Melby was ten, her parents bought a summer cottage with a miniature gold course. Or, more likely, it was the other way around. From her telling, the golf course was the main factor, the cottage just an added bonus. In any event, she spent the rest of her childhood and teen years working there every summer. In My Family and Other Hazards, Melby outlines just how strange that was.
Yet, one of the things about childhood is how much we accept without thinking. We don’t know any other life, so our life must be how things are. Melby achieves this balance perfectly, fully acknowledging how strange her childhood was, yet reporting the details with a deadpan tone that makes it sound perfectly normal. Although as she moves into her teens, she does notice that most girls her age don’t spend their entire summer working.
Her tone is key to the book. It is informal and easygoing. It captures the feel of childhood summers. It is carefree, even when describing the daily chores of running the golf course. It is sunny; it is hopeful for the future.
Melby is a very humorous writer, in that deadpan way. “When we began seeing the same faces again and again, we did what sensible business owners do: we gave them nicknames. This made it easier for us to discuss them over lunch.”
From a chapter on making sno-cones:
If the ice is wet, the cone may overflow before you get the third squirt [of syrup] on there. If so, stop. Hand the cone slowly to the customer. Say, “Be careful. This one is pretty full. You’d better take a sip right away.” You know -- and will never reveal -- that if the cone is overflowing, it means the ice is not great. It will be gritty between the teeth and the flavor will be diluted. But the customer always feels privileged that his cone is overflowing with syrup, which, he thinks, is like getting front-row seats in the world of sno-cones.
This tone also allows her to be sentimental without being cloying. From the same chapter:
What the customer wants is what he imagines a sno-cone should look like. This is his vacation after all. Party, party, party. This is his week at the lake, and he has brought his family, and they have played mini golf, and he is wearing his favorite red-and-orange shirt, and the kids have matching Brewers baseball caps, and they are getting along better this year ... and the sun is hanging low, and it’s getting time to head back, and this is the last day before the long drive home. And the little girl looks up at her father and, in her most delicate voice, asks, “Daddy, can we get sno-cones?”
He smiles, and then says to me, “Do you have rainbow?”
Melby’s tone also enables her to capture the true essence of most family relations. So much of modern memoir seems based on a conception of a war between parents and children, seems to be about how unrelentingly evil one’s parents were. In Melby’s writing, there is always an underlying bedrock of love. There are disagreements and resentments, especially over those aforementioned chores. There is sibling rivalry. But in the end, they all love each other. The book is, in a way, love letter to her parents.
Without ever completely leaving the golf course, Melby manages to weave much else into the book. The book is structured as a tour of the 18 holes of the course, with each hole being given a larger theme, like Time, History, Complexity, Dreams. This enables Melby to not only organize her story in a logical but nonlinear manner, it allows her space to wander off on various tangents. She gives the history of miniature golf, and of the state of Wisconsin. She weaves in her post-childhood life as a struggling actress/comedienne/poet in Los Angeles. And she reflects on the various meanings of it all, of family, and childhood, and dreams.
My Family and Other Hazards is a perfect book to pass a summer weekend with, ideally sitting in the shade of a pine tree by the shore of a shimmering lake.
(June Melby will be at Beyond Baroque on Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014, Book Soup on Monday, Sept. 22, and Coffee Cartel on Tuesday, Sept. 23.)
Reviewed by Eric Morago
There are those poets who you curse under your breath when reading their book because they make it look too damn easy — as if the way they see the world and write about it is as automatic as their blood flow. Blas Falconer is one such poet; his book The Foundling Wheel, published by Four Way Books, had me mumbling expletives of esteem time and time again. In this collection of poems Falconer examines identity and parenthood, exploring how the two reconcile with one another for child against a landscape that is both keen to the world’s hard nature and full of wonder. With purposeful craft, Falconer’s lines are precise and poignant and work to create vivid narratives in each of his poems. It is this gift of language and technique, married with Falconer’s talent to show that which he observes while allowing room for the reader to make their own associations, that makes The Foundling Wheel a force of a book.
A prime example how Falconer engages his reader with a clear, yet dynamic narrative is his poem, “Vertigo.” In it, Falconer uses the kinetic action of a father spinning his young son in play and the physical sensation of disorientation to mirror the emotional vertigo of a haunting memory. Doing so leaves the reader free to question just what Falconer is suggesting about the relationship between that which is “full of light” and the “quiet dark.” The poem is beautifully executed and begins full swing:
When I spin, our son laughs louder, his weight
growing in my arms, and the window streaks
across my field of view, so it becomes indistinct
from the vase on the table, also full of light.
However just as Falconer thrusts us into this joyful act between father and son, we are suddenly—and purposefully—taken out of the moment, without transition, to something much more somber by the third stanza:
The night your father died, you told me how
he saved your life, twice dunking your fevered body
in a tub of ice, and we lay still in the quiet dark.
This jolting juxtaposition works to complement the disorientation that Falconer is playing at, perhaps implying that this is how life works — even at times of immense joy, darker thoughts can creep inward, without warning, leaving us dizzy. That life and its polarities can be dizzying. At its close, the poem ends on a perfect suggestive image of father and son making their way across the room to their mother who, like the reader, has been an onlooker:
Dizzy, breathless, we walk to you as if to cross
the great deck of a ship at sea — stumble, sway, tip.
The metaphor here goes beyond its mere implication to the narrative and can be applied more widely. Perhaps the “great deck of a ship at sea” is life and often we “stumble, sway, tip” our way through it. That is a sign of great poetry — a line that calls the reader to revisit, and associate it with more than just the text on the page.
As we continue on through Falconer’s poems we see how The Foundling Wheel explores themes of reconciliation, especially between the hard and nurturing nature of the world. In “Stray,” Falconer once again demonstrates his talent for language and craft while exploring his reoccurring theme of “light” and “dark” sharing the same space — both in the poem and in the greater world. The poem follows the speaker as he rescues a stray that has had its bone broken clean by some manner of weapon. His narrative is crisp and direct and goes to show the kind of man the speaker is in contrast to the one who would harm such a creature:
I grabbed his scruff and led him to the car,
lifted him with both arms — the way
I carry wood for the fire. He didn’t fight
as if he understood. I wondered what —
a bat or pipe? — could make a break so clean.
And who? And Why? He slumps to the floor,
I tug the leash, a diamond of light falls
from the window. Everything here is hard:
a plastic chair with metal legs. I’ll pay,
I say, no matter what, and wonder how.
The seemingly simple line, “Everything here is hard,” carries much weight, not only because it is true, but also because it is such an open-ended assertion. The reader is given the freedom to infer just what it is that is hard — the situation itself, or the choice to do the right thing, caring for another “no matter what,” but still wondering how? And when such a line is preceded by the description “a diamond of light falls,” we again have two polarities so close to one another that it must be more than a mere coincidence. Falconer here is cleverly creating juxtaposition within such a small space to draw attention to how the opposing forces of “light” and “dark” intermingle not only in the poem, but also perhaps in our own lives.
The Foundling Wheel is a solid collection of poems that moves the reader through a complex world, while pointing to places of both light and dark as effortlessly as a safari tour guide distinguishes between the gentle and more dangerous beasts. Falconer performs a gorgeous dissection with this book, reminding us that from time to time we all must “cut the fruit and not think/of the heart, to think of it and not flinch,/ or flinch and cut through its core all the same.” The cuts Falconer makes with his poetry are expert and exact, and while you may find yourself dropping a swear word or two in response, they would come not from a place of pain — rather, admiration.