Jan 26, 2015

Dante Di Stefano Reviews Jim Reese's Really Happy

Really Happy
Jim Reese
New York Quarterly Books, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-935520-81-8

Love Too Much, but Don't Let Go

Jim Reese’s third collection of poetry, Really Happy, pursues joy while coasting through the ruins of the contemporary consumer culture, in which an advertisement for Jockey underwear might reduce a wheat field to Cream of Wheat. These are poems in the American grain, equally at home swooping through the wide open spaces of the heartland, sitting at a counter in a local diner, or exploring the confines of the penitentiary yard. Reese begins the collection with a poem set in a “mega-pharmacy,” among the aisles of “formula, baby wipes, Aquaphor Healing Ointment,/ disinfectant wipes, lead paint test kits, hand sanitizers, lots of sugar free juice,/ binkies…pregnancy tests,/ colored condoms, acid reducers, Band-Aids, Ativan,” and so on. For Reese, the bric-a-brac of daily living provides the pivot into epiphany. Among these aisles, in these poems, Reese employs a plain spoken lyric narrative style in order to address fundamental questions about sexuality, masculinity, class inequity, gender inequality, social justice, the prison system, fatherhood, and, of course, happiness.

Throughout the collection, Reese intersperses poems about family, body image, teaching, and everyday life in the Dakotas and Nebraska, with poems drawn from his experiences as an educator at the Yankton Federal Prison Camp. The finest prison poem in this collection is “New Folsom Prison Blues,” which reads: 

There are few words for
razor on flesh—for scream.
Black. Blue. Cut. Wet.

I see some of you bandaged at the wrist,
forearm, belly, throat.
You are cutting to get out.

If we treat men like animals they’ll eventually
start to chew their way out— 

We know this,

By punctuating the collection with poems that expose the harsh realities of life within the prison industrial complex, Reese questions the forms of cultural confinement that lead to mass incarceration; implicitly the poet links the brutal truths of prison life with conservative notions of gender roles and the gluttonous materialism of American popular culture (as emblematized by the television show, Man Vs. Food).

Reese expands this critique of American culture through the central poem of the collection, “South Dakota Bumper Stickers—Redux.” This found poem consists entirely of slogans from bumper stickers. The poem builds meaning by accretion. The slogans themselves are by turns disturbing and humorous: “ I like my women like my deer: HORNY,” “If it has tires or tits, it’s trouble,” “I can muck 30 stalls before breakfast!/ What can you do?,” If the Fetus You Save is Gay/ Will You Still Fight for Its Rights?,” “If you don’t like whiskey, huntin’, or strippers, don’t come here,” “Eat More Kale,” “Cowboys for Christ,” “If you’re gonna ride my bumper/ you’d better put a saddle on it!” Like Gustave Flaubert’s The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas and Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, this poem lampoons cant and political doublespeak, and skewers the flotsam of a national discourse stuck just above the tailpipes barreling down the blacktop of the interstates and riding the ruts of dirt roads all over this country. Reese’s stance here is critical and ironic, but, characteristically, the poem also rejoices in, and embraces, the diversity of idiosyncratic foolishness represented by these bumper stickers. 

Ultimately, Really Happy is a book of poetry in which the acts of self-definition, epitomized equally by the bumper sticker and by Facebook, matter less than a sustained engagement with the broader culture and with daily life. Reese’s poetry agrees with Nietzsche that “what labels me, negates me.” Reese is less interested with telling you who he is than with exploring the truths of what he’s seen. Throughout this collection, the honest and direct commitment to recreating and challenging lived experience does what all good poetry should: it brings us to our senses. In the poem, “Knipplemeyer and Sons, We Lay the Best in Town,” Reese sums it up: “And you know, we say the wrong things in families/ of our own now. We scream too much,/ love too much,/ but don’t let go.” Despite the struggles bucking in our personal lives and the great injustices galloping through our national life, America remains a place where happiness might be saddled and ridden. There is no corral here, only a vast mesa. Hold tight the reins and ride.

Dante Di Stefano's poetry and essays have appeared recently in The Writer's Chronicle, Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora, Shenandoah, Brilliant Corners, The Southern California Review, and elsewhere. He was the winner of the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, the Ruth Stone Poetry Prize, the Bea Gonzalez Poetry Award, the Phyllis Smart-Young Prize in Poetry, and an Academy of American Poets College Prize. He makes his living as a high school English teacher and he was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Dec 12, 2014

Dante Di Stefano Reviews Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman

Dry Bones in the Valley
By Tom Bouman
W.W. Norton, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-393-24302-4

Grit-Tender, Gut-Black, Cold-Gleaming

In a dream, the Lord shows the prophet Ezekiel a valley full of dry bones. God tells Ezekiel that if he speaks the word of the Lord, then the word will breathe life back into these skeletal remains. Bone will rattle together with bone. Joints will snap into sockets. Ribcages will levitate from the dust. Tendons will reattach. Flesh will be recovered. As it turns out, God’s being metaphorical here. The bones are Israel and this vision contains the promise of homecoming, the hope of a return to the Promised Land. Hope malingers amidst desolation. Nature decomposes, and re-composes itself, as terrifying self-portrait. Families rise and fall. These are powerful tropes in American literature. Nevertheless, when we speak of home, as Svetlana Boym has pointed out, we experience the first failure of homecoming. Today, the logic of the strip mall and the handheld devise infuses the marrow of our daily lives. There’s a desiccated quality ghosting through the technologically driven ethos of our contemporary consumer culture. Tom Bouman’s debut novel, Dry Bones in the Valley, autopsies these dry bones.

Bouman sets the novel during the early days of the hydro-fracking boom in the Marcellus Shale. Wild Thyme Township, the fictionalized Northeastern Pennsylvania municipality, where this rural noir unfolds is a place where the locals eat antelope jerky, poach lumber and deer, dip their toes in the drug trade, and drive their ATVs to the local bar. It’s a place where generations of families, like the Stiobhards, are fighting an eternal Whiskey Rebellion. It’s a place where pole barns and corncribs rot amidst second-growth forests. It’s a place where cell phones don’t always get good reception, where dirt roads are commoner than paved ones, where a rusted Frigidaire might ornament what passes for a front lawn, and where a house’s interior might reek of bat piss and creosote. In short, it’s a place that’s about a thirty minute drive outside of many American suburbs; it’s the perfect setting to explore the dark contours of cultural and personal loss.

Officer Henry Farrell, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, is small town cop struggling with losses: environmental, emotional, ancestral, and connubial. In the opening pages of the novel, Farrell describes the view from his desk in the police station and says:
…way back in history someone had put a drop ceiling in the office, but I disliked looking at all the little holes and brown stains in it. So I popped out the tiles and unscrewed the frame. It’s still there in case someone wants to reinstall it. Till that day, I like seeing how everything works, the bones, everything plain from my steelcase desk right up to the pipes and HVAC near the ceiling.
Farrell’s impulse to lay things bare, to strip away the prefabricated, to tear down the artificial is the same impulse that animates Bouman’s novel as a whole. This impulse is also what propels the plot forward as Farrell investigates two local murders. Although the plot develops in a well-constructed and thoroughly satisfying manner, the real strength of Dry Bones in the Valley lies in the finely wrought nuances of Farrell’s narrative voice and the intricacies of his character.

Farrell’s narration is remarkable, a testament to Bouman’s facility as a writer. Sometimes the sentences unwind with the vertiginous grandeur of a Thelonious Monk number, sometimes they come clipped and slow like a fiddler bowing out “Bonaparte’s Retreat” in an old timey band. Toward the end of the novel, Farrell ruminates on the moments in his life that have slipped into a slower stream of time: “You don’t get many moments like that, I find. So you have to be open to them, even knowing that you won’t get many, and even knowing that when you remember them it’ll only feel like you’ve lost something important, instead of gaining something you can keep.” Grief and regret douse Farrell’s nostalgia for lost places, for departed loved ones, and for lost ways of living. Reading this novel is like taking a swig of moonshine. It burns and it sets you to reeling.

Ultimately, Dry Bones in the Valley delivers a poignant portrayal of a man coming to terms with loss. It also delivers an enjoyable and well-paced crime story. Most impressively, however, the novel reads as a love letter to Northeastern Pennsylvania. The backwoods characters such as Evelina Grady and Aub Dunigan, who inhabit this landscape, are as unforgettable as the Endless Mountains themselves. Bouman guides us through terrain as hardscrabble and as beautiful as a daylily growing in a trailer park. In Wild Thyme Township, history touches epidermis like barbed wire grown into an oak tree’s trunk. Riding shotgun with Henry Farrell over the mud ruts in a dirt road, one feels a little closer to seeing the world behind the world—as one might guess it really is—grit-tender, gut-black, cold-gleaming, beauty-stomped, and punched-alive. In the age of Twitter and Instagram (that is, in the era of the slipshod epiphany and the veneration of the superficial self), wisdom and delight shack up in such dark hollows, even if they have to share quarters with murder and sorrow for a spell.

Dante DiStefano's poetry and essays have appeared recently in The Writer's Chronicle, Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora, Shenandoah, Brilliant Corners, The Southern California Review, and elsewhere. He was the winner of the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, the Ruth Stone Poetry Prize, the Phyllis Smart-Young Prize in Poetry, and an Academy of American Poets College Prize. He makes his living as a high school English teacher and he was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Information on Tom Bouman and Dry Bones in the Valley can be found here.

Nov 18, 2014

Pushcart Prize Nominations

We are honored to announce Harpur Palate's Pushcart Prize nominations for issues 13.2 and 14.1. Below are also previews of their wonderful work. We wish you the best of luck!

Creative Nonfiction

Shawn Fawson, for "The Owl Sits Apart From Its Tree" (13.2)

Shawn Fawson resides with her family in Denver, Colorado. Her book Giving Way won the Library of Poetry Award and was published by The Bitter Oleander Press in 2010. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in South Loop Review, Vallum, and Mid-American Review, among others. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.


Anna Gates Ha, for "The Abalone Diver" (14.1)

Anna Gates Ha has an MFA from Saint Mary’s College of California. She was an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers and currently lives in Concord, California.

Caitlin McGuire, for "Centralia, Pennsylvania" (13.2)

Caitlin McGuire is a founding editor at Cartagena Journal, fiction editor at Yemassee, and online content editor at Fjords Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, Booth, fwriction, and Whiskeypaper. You can find her at www.caitlinmcguire.tumblr.com.

Lindsay Merbaum, for "Lemon Tree" (13.2)

Lindsay Merbaum is a wanderer and ex-teacher whose stories have appeared in Epiphany, PANK, The MacGuffin, Anomalous Press, and Dzanc Books Best of the Web, among others. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and is currently at work on a novel.


Brandon Courtney, for "On Seeing My Ex-Wife at the Farmers' Market" (14.1)

Brandon Courtney was born and raised in Iowa, served four years in the United States Navy (Operation Enduring Freedom), and is a graduate of the MFA program at Hollins University. His poetry is forthcoming or appears in Best New Poets, 32 Poems, and The Boston Review, among many others. His chapbook, Improvised Devices, was published by Thrush Press, and his book The Grief Muscles will be published by The Sheep Meadow Press. He is a graduate student at the University of Chicago.

M. P. Jones IV, for "Fish Tale" (14.1)

M.P. Jones IV is a second-year graduate teaching assistant, soon to graduate with a master’s in literature from Auburn University where he reads for Southern Humanities Review. He is also founder and editor-in-chief of Kudzu Review, a journal of Southern literature and environment. His poetry has recently appeared in Tampa Review, Cumberland River Review, Canary Magazine, and Town Creek Poetry, among diverse others; his creative nonfiction has appeared in Sleet Magazine and decomP magazinE; he has an article on The Shadow of Sirius in the current issue of Merwin Studies; and he is the author of a poetry collection, Live at Lethe (Sweatshoppe Publications, 2013).

Want to see the full versions of these pieces? Support print media by purchasing a subscription here! Indicate which issue you'd like to start with on the Submittable form. If you'd only like to purchase a back issue, information on that can be found here.

We are very proud to have these pieces in this year's issues and absolutely wish the nominees the best of luck.

Nov 17, 2014

Submissions Will Reopen February 1, 2015

We would like to extend a big thank you to everyone who submitted to us and to those who spread the word about our contests for issue 14.2! We have closed up the reading period and are busy making final selections. Our contest winners will be announced when the issue is printed in January.

Harpur Palate will reopen for submissions on February 1, 2015! We will be seeking regular genre submissions of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, as well as a winner for our John Gardner Memorial Prize in Fiction. We hope you will submit your work to us!

Thank you again, and have a good holiday!

-The Editors

Nov 11, 2014

The End is Near!

It's hard to believe that there are only FIVE days left to submit to Harpur Palate for issue 14.2! We've been having a blast reading through all the wonderful work that we've received so far, and are eagerly waiting to see what sort of pieces you send us in the next few days.

This is already shaping up to be an excellent issue, so take a look at the guidelines below (or click on "Submissions" above) to see if your work is right for Harpur Palate.


Our Poetry Contest is Open!

Our Creative Nonfiction Contest is Ready For Your Work!

General Submissions

Please no multiple submissions, but simultaneous subs are fine with notice. We cannot accept work from those affiliated with Binghamton University except for book reviews and cover art.


  • Short stories up to 6,000 words
  • Up to three flash fiction pieces

Creative Nonfiction

  • Pieces up to 8,000 words
  • Smaller flash pieces limited to three
  • Take a look at our archives to see what we've accepted before


  • Between three and five poems considered
  • No more than ten pages total

So polish up your work and send it our way by November 15, 2014! Our Submittable page is open and waiting for you.