Thursday, June 16, 2011

Biberman Reviews Shiva's Arms

Cheryl Snell's Shiva's Arms (novel review)by Matthew Biberman

Any one who frequents the fiction section of a good independent bookstore knows that there is something of a cottage industry of writers currently churning out fiction invested in capturing the lived experience of ex-pat Indians who have moved to America. One of the more distinctive elements of this sub-genre is its investment in detailing life in India as well as in America, most often in ways that include, often in great detail, the back stories of the characters before their decision to move away from their home land.
A recent addition to this stack of books is Cheryl Snell’s first novel, Shiva’s Arms. I know and admire Cheryl first and foremost as a poet, a fact that inevitably colored my reading of this book. Indeed I would encourage anyone who begins Shiva’s Arms to keep this fact in mind because I believe it influences the writing of this novel all the way down to its essence. Cheryl’s poetic eye is not just visible in the felicitous phrase, though the book is filled with such moments. A conversation in an Indian cab takes place in a dialect that sounds “like gravel in their mouths.” When a character unravels, we see that her eyes are “blue puddles in her slack face.” Food gets sopped up “in a baseball mitt” of bread. But to read Shiva’s Arms for its precise, poetic imagery is to skate along an iced over lake without any thought to the depths below.
The true challenge of Shiva’s Arms is to recognize that it is a very ambitious—indeed, innovative piece of writing. It is an experiment in what I would call a transversal novel. Shiva’s Arms takes shape somewhere between the sonnet craze that swept Shakespeare’s England four centuries ago and the cinematic techniques often identified as producing the Rashomon effect in twentieth century avant garde film.
First we must think about that now largely obsolete form—the sonnet sequence. Generally understood to have been popularized by Petrach with his love poems to Laura, the sonnet sequence flourished in the late sixteenth century in London. Shakespeare’s effort is a very late example, and perhaps for that reason, breaks new ground. For the first time, the poet is repeatedly identified with the speaker of the poems (think of all those puns on Will) and the beloved is not simply idealized (famously, her eyes are nothing like the sun) but also unfaithful. Nor is the narrative clear. When you read Shakespeare’s poems it is as if you are reading a novel in snap shots, but with this twist: as you read it dawns on you that somehow the poems are no longer in chronological order
While keeping that experience in mind, let us flash forward to the art house movie. Famously, Kurosawa made a film--Rashomon (1950) that retells a crime from four different perspectives, a device that highlights the complex and dynamic nature of reality. What the Rashomon effect highlights is the truth that though reality is intersubjective (that is, reality is a collective formation), this “collective hallucination” (to use Freud’s term) is inevitably being made by individuals who are experiencing what is happening in ways that are always at once congruent and divergent.
What Cheryl has done in Shiva’s Arms is to present the story of an extended family in a novel that combines both of these techniques. The result can be described as a novel where each chapter operates as a kind of intense short poem, that is-- as a sonnet. The chapters do not, however, anchor the reader to one character. Rather, the reader is passed from character to character. We begin tied to the American Alice, but then pass on to her husband Ram, and then their child Sam. This primary pattern is however interrupted with detours into Ram’s mother Amma, and -- with increasing frequency as the book builds to its conclusion -- the shunned sister Nela. With each shift, a different perspective is showcased. In strategy, the result is reminiscent of some of our most celebrated modernist novels, books such as Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway come immediately to mind. But in those works, the effect encourages the reader to separate out the characters so that the readers gains a satisfying sense that people are unique, yet isolated, grounded but limited to their bodies.
The effect that Snell produces in Shiva’s Arms is striking because it works in reverse. People in families get caught up in each other so that the configurations shift and change. Suddenly the notion that we are limited to our physical bodies falls away. We meld in our struggles, mix and combine in ways that defeat the macro laws of physics both in terms of space and even time. In this, Snell’s work is reminiscent of Djuna Barnes cult masterpiece Nightwood, though the overall mood is far more evocative of Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky.
For me the high points of Shiva’s Arms come when Snell renders the rapid blooming of a state of existential dread. The effect is positively unsettling in its intensity, most especially early in the novel after Alice’s marriage precipitates a psychological crisis. The concluding confrontation between Amma and Alice is even more impressive, coming as it does so effectively after the dramatic resolution of the dinner immediately preceding it. Fights in Shiva Arms do not end with characters walling themselves off. Everything drives toward mixture, a fact highlighted by Ram when he observes that “we are all just chemistry labs.” This theme is made overt via the role food plays in this novel complete with Recipes, a crowning touch. According to western cliché, cooking and food illustrate how each of us enjoys a unique and colorful heritage of goodness. True to its radical nature, Shiva’s Arms upends that idea and puts in place the notion that each of us is but an ingredient, a blend that makes up the bigger whole.
Shiva’s Arms is a satisfying novel that demands much from its reader. Its strengths are many but if I had to pick one on which to end I will stress that this is a book that provocatively challenges many of the most cherished presumptions propping up many well known examples of Indian – American fiction, or indeed of multicultural literature generally speaking. Despite paying lip service to the idea that western notions of subjectivity are not universal, most writers working in the genre of the English novel continue to present nonwestern forms of consciousness via free standing western characters. In stark contrast, Shiva’s Arms invites you to imagine characters that are interconnected parts of a larger whole. Such a radical insight can only come from a novelist of great talent and skillful execution. With luck, future novels from Cheryl Snell will deepen this exploration. As a reader I certainly look forward to the adventure.

Grady Harp Reviews Multiverse

Far More Than A Poetic Experiment

MULTIVERSE by Cheryl Snell is a short collection of poignant poems that edge the idea of a MULTIple universe replacing the concept of a simple UNIverse. But lest the reader be afraid that the scientific aspect of this premise is prevalent in this collection, it must be pointed out that despite the original 'idea' of the title, the poems in this collection are immediately accessible, very beautiful works indeed.

The flow and meaningful content of this book of poems by a seasoned writer is made even more seductive by the addition of expressionistic paintings by Janet Snell. Rarely have poems been so well 'illustrated' or at least so integrated as they are by the two Snells working in tandem. At the heart of these poems and art is a sense of home, of the sounds of and sense of night, and the radiant meanderings of on seasonal strokes. And yet Snell knows how to bring all of nature together, to include humans, in a touching manner. For example:

By the time our father bolted
from his sickbed to squeeze
the nurse's breast, we'd worked
ourselves into a frenzy of waiting.

When he fell back on the pillow,
He's sleeping, we whispered.
He can't hear our words' mad buzz.

Outside, a dragonfly, transparent
wings on a blue-tinged stick,
hovered above a broken cricket
dragging though the backyard thatch.

It rose up, sudden as a mind changing,
and the room sagged with breath
held against the last thing we wanted to see:
a pair of wings escaping, the world left out of reach.

This is a collection of poems to be lingered over, like reminders of first views or experiences we usually keep to ourselves for fear that speaking of them will make them lost to us. Snell has captured these moments and we can only hope she will continue to write such tender thoughts as well as in MULTIVERSE.

Mel Huber Reviews Multiverse


Cheryl Snell has collaborated with her sister, Janet Snell to bring forth an astute and staggering blend of poetry, science, and art in her Multiverse collection. Cheryl probes the evolving understanding of the physical world. Mulitverse, the title, is some what of a clever winking pun. It suggests the layers in poetry relate to the layers one finds in the scientific Multiverse concept. Multiverse, in essence, is a new theory claiming there is not just one universe but several, and some Physicists now think that there may be as many as eleven dimensions co-existing at once. In Multiverse Cheryl Snell pulls the string theory from physics and applies it to poetry. With the dramatic visual accompaniment of Janet Snell’s artwork, Cheryl takes the reader on an unexpected journey through the “The Natural Order of Everything.” This first poem of the sequence begins:

“It’s a trick. The sun aims wide-eyed light/though gauze breezes to filter out the truth”

Grounding the scientific concepts in concrete imagery the dimensions of existence are “filtered.” As light and dark can be measured mathematically and quantified in physics, so too can poetry measure light and dark in an attempt to quantify the affects of both. In her first poem, Cheryl attempts to “filter” out the truth of the light and the dark by using the metaphor of the predator the prey. She finds that words alone can fathom only part as she states, in conclusion, “I see there is no help for any of this/ I may as well start over.”

In trying to grasp the elusive meaning of nature and ones place in the natural world, Cheryl also explores relationships and the layers within those relationships. In her poem “Thermodynamics of Cooking Stone” she expresses the friction of co-existing as individuals in the binding construct of marriage. Rather then ending in a black hole she gives the reader a more hopeful image of togetherness:

“They’ll begin to satellite each other like shepherd moons/herding the rocks of Saturn’s rings/ around the low blue hum of heaven.”

The imagery Cheryl uses throughout this collection is startling and evocative. For example, in “Fight or Flight” Cheryl dares to tread the oft trod path of the “heart.” I have to say I approached the poem with prejudice having not read a poem, no, not one contemporary poem, with the word “heart” in it that I would say I felt was a successful poem. This poem, in my view, succeeds. Turns of phrase such as: “The tongue, stiff as road-kill…it also let’s the heart believe it can leap through the throat to freedom,” rejuvenates the bleeding heart cliché’ and turns it into something new.

On the intellectual side of things, one can see the influence of the concepts of physics in her poetry. In “Flicker Vertigo” she references the beginning of the universe and man’s attempt to comprehend his experience within this universe. She concludes with the mind bending statement “The brain fills in what’s missing, the blanks/ between light and light, a corrugated sky hanging over the theater’s false ceiling.” The impression of reality being a “corrugated sky hanging over a false ceiling” leaves me wondering what reality is. If the brain creates the missing blanks is this life a “false theatre,” a creation in our mind, or is the “false theatre” the existence outside of the mind? Cheryl’s collection is if full of such constructs which provoke exploration and discovery.

As a whole, Mulitiverse is a collection that satisfies both the intellectual and spiritual aspects of poetry. Cheryl Snell uses language with sensitivity and an intelligence that is as refreshing as it is profound.

Rosy Cole Reviews Prisoner's Dilemma


“Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.” *
But for mystics, the disabled and convalescent, those in enclosed orders, those dedicated to fulfilling their genius, those in jail and those who exist in a mental straitjacket, whatever the cause, there is always a conundrum:
Does the elusive Truth exist on the Inside or Outside?

Hostages like Brian Keenan, Anne Frank, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, all attested a life of the spirit and the imagination that would not and could not be limited by physical and ideological constraints.
So does narrowed focus confer a sharper and profounder vision, offering its compensations? Or is Freedom only to be found upon the exterior, in the prolix toil and muddle of human activity where opportunities for discovery abound? Even where choice is possible, aren't these states mutually exclusive?

Cheryl Snell in a new chapbook, Prisoner's Dilemma, explores this theme in situations concerning many kinds of effacement. Each short poem is offered like a remnant of woven fabric placed under the microscope so that the colours, slubs and knots and arabesques, can be appreciated. The imagery is often stark and reminiscent of Sylvia Plath, the emotion bottled which, unstoppered, pervades an air of vaguely fragrant stoicism. Where the subtext is menacing, it frets away at a blithe surface like a sliver of glass stuck in the weave. But, often, it's uncompromising, violent, in-your-face, leaving the reader with no more than the merest scintilla of hope. The images juxtaposed in Snell's phrases cleverly release new flights of meaning as, for example in Dirty Laundry:
Tumbling from the fold
of a fitted sheet – balled-up
silk, some foreign lace. Things come
and go in this house. Last night, an earring
tangled in the wrong colour hair, everything
gone bloodshot and damp.
The man's non-sequiturs circled the drain
of his stranger's ear: Let lovers go fresh and sweet
to be undone. How else to go
with a come-on like that – innocent as soap,
pink bubbles bursting like an alibi
on the verge of coming clean.

The collection as a whole hangs together with the shape and atmosphere of René Magritte's surreal painting The Empty Mask and, in miniature, I don't doubt is as accomplished. Cheryl Snell ably demonstrates that Richard Lovelace was right!
Chapbook hauntingly illustrated by Janet Snell.

Grady Harp Reviews Memento Mori

A Cache of Fireflies and Other Joys

'Memento mori' is another term for still life which is another way of describing observed carefully arranged items worth remembering, Memento mori is a particularly apt title for this collection of poems and paintings by the sisters Snell. Cheryl Snell, the writer poet, combines her sparkling little observations of life and ordinary things such as childhood reveries and mental notes of things/incidents/people she has observed and transformed into poem form: Janet Snell, the visual poet, continues to create aqueous paintings of expressionistic nature that pull the eye into worlds of fantasy and illusion. Part of the joy of the collaboration of the two artists is that they resist the temptation to 'illustrate' each other. That would be the expected result in a collaboration - one artist has an idea and the other elaborates on it.

Not so with MEMENTO MORI. Opposite Janet's wonderful little painting 'Gorkyesque' Cheryl places 'Poem with Bugs":
First they appear as paths
of dying stars, sparks arcing across
the old oaks. Imagine the presence
of bats whickering, the field full
of rushing shadows. The ghost of your father
is closer now, coming toward you
without grief or regrets. no one is to blame.

In the backyard of your childhood home,
upraised branches bloom with wings.
Someone else's little sister cups fireflies
in the indigo moments before bed, tossing
them into the empty spaces you must turn from
before the dusk backs into what it was -
failing light and fading voices,
a vast goodbye, the shimmering dark.

Across from Janet's painting 'Narcissism' is Cheryl's wonderful 'She paints herself into a corner.' And as the book flows - a feast for the eye and a recalled pleasure of reading memorable poetry. An Excellent book, this!

Rosy Cole Reviews Memento Mori

The Stunned Buzz of Resurrection

"Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colors, and that you be a true poet. The last is essential."
Wassily Kandinsky.

It may seem a little odd to begin a review of poetry with a quote about artists, but the Snell sisters don't make such distinctions easy. While each is pledged to keep her own internal boundaries, so that Janet's pictures are not a direct expression of Cheryl's poems, but rather conjure the atmosphere of them, it is plain that both are consummate artists, one with well-honed quill, one with psychogenic brush.
The 'heightened sensitivity for composition and for colors' applies equally to 'true poet', Cheryl. Her verses are a riot of color, sometimes named colors from the palette. She speaks of 'blue irony' and 'the indigo moments before bed' and 'alizarin, vermilion, cadmium, red wings beating everywhere at once'. Those who paint, or spend a lot of time in galleries, know how shades of red vibrate and redefine a whole canvas. Then there are the subtler hues, as in the gentle poem, Aura.

Small galoshes
fracture the rainbow
in a puddle.

A spray of seven colors
prisms the sky.
It falls back to earth,
trailing iridescence
around a thin yellow foot
it mistakes for the sun.

Cheryl's mastery of language is breathtaking, her phrases turned with lancet-precision. The montaging of contrasted images taps deep into the soul and releases elusive truths with the chaste simplicity of oxygen bubbles rising to the surface of a lake. You can feel at one with the unfurling torsion of spring, its sinews newly braced, in Poem With Spring Fever, opening you up to growing possibilities beneath a benevolent sky.
The perspectives range from under-your-nose through middle distance to wide blue yonder, with close-up shots that refuse to freeze and leave you on the crest of longing. A broken spider's web is 'a ruination of silk geometries' while 'In the stunned hush of its own snapped strands, the spider writhes and rolls in a ransom of insects.' Hope describes 'how the glazed sky hurled through will feathers will sometimes part like water for one bird.'
And who, in love, has never been poised on this precipice described in Closer?

Crisscrossed nerves
vibrate like colours on a map.
My senses are a balcony
overhanging the sea's dark watch,
its cosntant ticking. I wait,
a flicker of light upon the spine,
from my high place.
The rooms sway, and I know you
are near, the train pulling
into the station,
quick bound
down the escalator,
eyes on the door,
its hinged footing,
your hand opening the cab's yellow
into the rush-hour surge.

This is not poetry merely to beguile the imagination; it is experience by vital proxy, full of pulse and texture and radiance.
Memento Mori is a tour de force. I cannot praise it enough and feel privileged to have had the chance to review such a gem. The book is well-produced and does credit to poet and painter on every level. Janet Snell's expressionist art - vaguely reminiscent of Edvard Munch but intensely unique - broods over these pieces, depicting shape and shadow from the hazy layers of the subconscious. These presences shifting through space are the masks we tow our troubled worlds behind.
If the title suggests that Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality has been turned on its head, then it would certainly be misleading. This book is life-affirming to a degree and proves the paradox that there is still life beyond the barbed reminders of human transience.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Sheila Deeth Reviews Variations on a Theme with Ha...

Some short stories tell simple tales to immediate effect. Others draw the reader deeper, leaving a lingering taste on the tongue or haunting music in the air. Cheryl Snell's tales in this collection belong to that second type. Bounded at both ends by the song of a harmonica, the author creates vividly real and wounded characters. There's Roger, falling to twin temptations, beginning a tune but never quite ending it as the heat wave passes through. There's Zoe, filling her mind with facts and detail like Novocain to hide her pain. A fat sister recalls how she became who she is then finds it isn't shape that defines her after all. A mother is still a child and another mother's maybe falling in love.

Cheryl Snell creates scenes and memories like poetry, filling the senses and drawing the reader in. Stories flow through the eyes of her characters, telling truths they've failed to see, and blossoming each into singular shapes of honesty. What matters? People matter, a combination of how they see themselves and their relationships, a vivid mixture of different layers of existence.

Hurt birds, popsicles, harmonica's song--like elements of a well-written tune the refrains repeat through these stories making this truly a collection to savor, not just a random grouping of random tales. If you want short and simple, these stories aren't for you. But if you want those deep lingering tones, a harmonica's birdsong haunting the basement's gloom, this collection's for you.