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

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.

Sep 18, 2014

Announcing the Winner of the 2014 John Gardner Fiction Contest!

Our new issue is here! And that means we finally get to announce the winner of our 2014 John Gardner Fiction Contest. We run this contest in honor of John Gardner (1933-1982), author of fiction, a dramatist, and beloved professor here at Binghamton University.

We would like to thank everyone who submitted their work for consideration. Without you, we wouldn't be able to function as a journal. Seriously.

Congratulations to Janet Schneider, whose work "The Positional Player" is the winning piece! She wins $500 and our admiration here at the journal. Take a look at the sneak peek of her work below.

Want to know how the story ends? Buy a copy for yourself!

Janet Schneider writes during the winter in Berkeley, CA and in Charlevoix, Michigan all summer long. Her fiction and non-fiction work has appeared in Traverse Magazine,, and She received her MFA in fiction writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. When she’s not writing, she’s riding her bike.

You can buy the latest issue of Harpur Palate with Schneider's winning piece included via Submittable. While you're there, take a look at our submission guidelines and send us something yourself!

Congratulations again to our 2014 John Gardner Fiction Contest Winner, Janet Schneider!

Sep 16, 2014

14.1 Cover Artist Meredith Britt

We are so thrilled to have Meredith Britt's artwork for issue 14.1. Isn't it gorgeous?

Meredith Britt, "The Horses Return to Vaughn"

More about Britt in her own words:

I make art because it feels good and I don't know what else to do.

Painting, drawing, sculpting and making cut-paper collages occupies some of my creative energy. I’ve always done artwork, and I have made it my main focus. I have a bachelors in fine art from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. I learn a lot about art just doing it. It's fulfilling, luxurious and necessary.

I was raised by yard gnomes under a tall train trestle in southern France who grew squash and beans in their back yard and studied Chekhov by candlelight. They taught me to speak, but I only remember a few words. Amoeba. Acupuncture. Anomalies. We didn't get past the As. I was a picky eater so they fed me pop tarts. I began making self-portraits from shiny objects, and wrote the pop tart cookbook, which is out of print.

Then one day a passing stranger in a donkey cart gave me a lift to the art supply store. I began to draw and paint. I took up finger puppets. People came from miles around. From that day on I worked backwards, carefully careless. I became the president of Harvard and ambassador to the U.N. Now I am in the witness protection program in Las Vegas, N.M., where I decorate pop tart wrappers and run a hostel for yard gnomes.

Long ago I lived in New York, Chicago, Westcliffe, Colo., Big Sandy, Mont., New Orleans, Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, Kansas City, Ouray, Utah, St. Louis, Concord, Fla., and Rye, Colo.

Sunlight, the sky, other artists and their work, and my own art give me inspiration. My socks don't match. I’m a pretty good writer. I don’t make much money at that. This is an excerpt from my novel. No, wait – no, it isn't.

Britt is also part-owner of El Zocalo, a cooperative art gallery found in Las Vegas, New Mexico. They have a great website HERE, and a blog HERE.

Meredith Britt with sample artwork

Britt's artwork is sharp, fresh, and unique. "Horses Return to Vaughn" is a bright work of cut paper and we are proud to feature it on our issue. You can find more about her work at El Zocalo on Facebook!

Buy a copy of Harpur Palate 14.1 for your very own via Submittable.

Sep 15, 2014

Submissions For Our Contests Now Open

It's contest season! We're now reading submissions for our 2014 Milt Kessler Memorial Prize in Poetry and our 2014 Harpur Palate Creative Nonfiction Contest. You can read the details below or at our Contests Page.

The 2014 Milt Kessler Memorial Prize in Poetry

The entry fee is only $15 for this contest, and you can submit up to five poems for consideration per entry fee. Each entry fee includes a year subscription to Harpur Palate. The winner receives $500 and two contributor copies of their issue. We'll also highlight you on our website and promote you via social media. Multiple submissions for contests are allowed, and simultaneous submissions are encouraged.

Look at our archive page to see what sorts of work we've liked in the past. Better yet, purchase a subscription! You can do that via Submittable.

Our editors depend on reading blind submissions, so please don't include identifiable information on the manuscript itself. Leave that for the cover letter. If you'd like to submit a snail mail submission, you can address it to the appropriate editor and mail it to this address:

Harpur Palate
Binghamton University
English Department
PO Box 6000
Binghamton, NY 13902-6000

We prefer online submissions via Submittable. The deadline to submit is November 15, 2014.

The 2014 Harpur Palate Creative Nonfiction Contest

Like our poetry contest, the entry fee is only $15 and includes a year subscription to Harpur Palate. Please limit submissions to 8,000 words. The winner receives $500 and two contributor copies of their issue. We'll also highlight you on our website and promote you via social media. Multiple submissions for contests are allowed, and simultaneous submissions are encouraged.

Look at our archive page to see what sorts of work we've liked in the past. Better yet, purchase a subscription! You can do that via Submittable.

Our editors depend on reading blind submissions, so please don't include identifiable information on the manuscript itself. Leave that for the cover letter. If you'd like to submit a snail mail submission, you can address it to the appropriate editor and mail it to this address:

Harpur Palate
Binghamton University
English Department
PO Box 6000
Binghamton, NY 13902-6000

We prefer online submissions via Submittable. The deadline to submit is November 15, 2014.

Get Writing!

Aug 13, 2014

Sri Upadhyay Reviews Whip & Spur by Iver Arnegard

Whip & Spur
Iver Arnegard
Gold Line Press, 2014

ISBN: 9781938900099

"Already in that darkness": A Journey With Personal Demons

Iver Arnegard manages to lure a reader from the first two words: whip and spur, the namesake images of his work. From the title itself Arnegard’s writing does not waffle. It is consistent - in both the voices of its characters and the narrative - simultaneously transparent and sharp. Like the nominal “whip” and “spur” there is an immediate core of pain and control that is evident behind the writing and within the characters. Arnegard expertly explores the fallacy of control, the illusion that inspires one to become most afraid of that which they cannot police. The untamed wilderness Arnegard uses as his backdrop and the cruelty and isolation he presents through starkly-straightforward intimacy in his characters only serves to further unite his thematic elements. The reader feels the opposing forces of each narrative push and pull in an ultimate struggle between oneself and the individual will to persevere and survive. Often the ties that bind characters in Arnegard’s pieces, and the forces they wish to escape, are exactly what defines them and is so deeply rooted.

In “Ice Fishing” it becomes apparent that which the narrator wishes to escape is exactly what his identity is rooted in: his memories. The bodies of other characters are nameless, like the fish bones that weave throughout the piece. The names disappear and are gone until all that remains of the world Arnegard creates is that of universal appeal and importance: the snow and the sun, i.e. the earth itself. Appropriately, Arnegard begins with the theme of orienting, and directional imagery abounds in the first piece itself:

On a frozen lake a man is fishing. The sun – no warmer than a star – hangs over the spruce. Winter in Montana. The Pintlar Mountains rise to the east. Heavy timber blankets the foothills but only reaches halfway up the range. Those peaks are too harsh most of the year for anything but snow. To the west, where he came from, there are no mountains, just dense woods. After the road ended it was another four miles on foot. His snowshoes made the only tracks.

What is most remarkable about “Ice Fishing” is that the readers do not realize where they have been taken until they feel that cold mountain snap, breathe in the thin air, and find themselves asking – out loud, in my case – “is ‘she’ the ice or the sun?” I waited for the answer to come to me. In that moment Arnegard’s voice was silent – as though it winked from a different plane, reminding the reader of his or her journey to find answers in the wilderness like the characters try to find meaning through their dialogue with nature and with themselves, clinging to that lifeline as they decide which parts to keep and which weights to let go.

In “Recluse” from which the token line “whip and spur” is taken for the title, some of the most poignant images occur, leaving the readers with the tine of metal in their mouths as though they were the horse experiencing the pain of the bridle and bit. The woman of the story battles the memory of an abusive love and the demons of her past manifest as the enemies of her present: the parched land, dying cattle, and the lurking rattlesnake are always waiting, and always watching, in the final moment of confrontation Arnegard sets the final palpable scene:

Despite the wind tearing through kindling, I hear the shake of his rattle calling from under that log. In my mind, I am already in that darkness with him, inches from his hissing tongue . . . I wrap my hands around that top log and carefully move it to the side. As I squeeze my eyes shut, the rattle grows louder. Leaning above the opening, I push my sleeves back and reach my trembling hands down into the darkness.

In “Seventeen Fences,” I found the very first stanza to be so moving that I needed to read it three more times before proceeding. Lines such as “If you have an old map, you might still find Farland, North Dakota” set the stage of a soft story, as if you are seeing the landscape through the condensation of a whisky glass – muted and warm and the amber glow of summer’s late evening light that is beautiful, if a bit melancholy. Arnegard continues with more beautiful simple language: “and if you care to stop and untangle the years, you’ll find the last great boom of when the price of wheat was up, cattle prices up, even water in the rain gauge up,” before concluding: “sometime this winter an abandoned house in town will buckle, lurch to the side, and lean closer to the ground.” Arnegard continues strongly through the poem, with gems like the elegiac reflection of a mother’s passing: “One night her eyes dulled as dusk pulled the light from that room. The sun sank, purpled the western sky and sometime before dawn I dreamt a swarm of red-winged blackbirds rose from the fields. Eclipsed the stars and the moon.” Other characters come to play and make reappearances through the entire book and Arnegard describes them equally as lovingly, like the waitress, another of my favorites: “Coffee breaks she’d write poetry on the back of used guest check, her love for me under a smudge of ketchup, on the other side of someone’s eggs over easy, side of bacon and toast.”

Lest readers get too comfortable with the pastoral tone of “Seventeen Fences,” Arnegard reminds us with images of the very real darkness and danger, the forest just on the outskirts - of the town and our consciousness - with neat little lines tucked into the stanzas. For example, the first and final lines: “Up here summer swings open on hinges and a bear steps out, dazed, rubbing winter eyes when a cloud of sparrows swims overhead, sucked up into the sun,” and: “The last thing summer will see through its faded window is the shadow of a moose beneath a ribbon of green light,” respectively.

In stanza fifteen, readers get another glimpse of the continual contrast between man and his habitat, both victims of love and loss, with the line: “As my tractor makes furrows, hawks circle overhead, waiting for me to scare out a field mouse or a jackrabbit.” And the final paragraph of stanza sixteen: “My father fell in the north field, hands dirty, heart tight. I’ll move granite for the rest of my days and die, maybe the same way, a thousand stones beneath me, creeping toward the surface.” Finally the last two sentences of stanza seventeen suggest a retreat in the anger that pulses through some other passages in Whip & Spur, there is the slightest sigh, and then: “I walk over to look at the pulpit. When I tap it with my boot, a half-dozen prayers startle up from behind and flap into the light.”

In “What Rises” Arnegard completes the thematic journey full circle to the individual facing the wisdom of wilderness (depicted in “Ice Fishing”) and having the starkest of vital dialogues: with one’s deepest, truest self – the type of conversation many should have, but few ever will, and even fewer will in such committed poetic fashion:

Staring north, beyond Montana. So much potential. Never enough time.
. …What rises to the surface:
. …Memories. I have eight decades of them:
. …Years. Crawling by.

One can taste the acrid grit of memories and years, and that swallowing sense of recollection – the way it grows deeper and darker through reliving a memory. Arnegard understands that though the past might be bitter it is still a wholly-present part of the self, and one that must continually be acknowledged as the scale by which to measure the future.

For me, “Seventeen Fences” is most strongly the voice that is conveyed, and the poem is something special indeed. Human nature loves the incongruity of surprise as though it is a gift just for them alone, and all their own. Arnegard certainly delivers, and I am no exception in feeling this joy and delight, and I wonder then, if Whip & Spur is an exercise in control and drive for purpose, not power as the stories depict – and if it was, it was so finely executed.

Sri Upadhyay lives in New York and is a graduate student earning her PhD in Cognitive Psychology. She loves literature, language, and researches how we read and process meaning in text. Sri has been published most recently in Luna Negra, Alt Lit Press, Boston Poetry Magazine, Prosaic Magazine, Ghost House Review, and Flyover Country Review.

Jul 10, 2014

Dante Di Stefano Reviews Cynthia Marie Hoffman's Her Human Costume

Her Human Costume
Cynthia Marie Hoffman
Gold Line Press, 2014

ISBN: 9781938900105

A Filament of Smoke, Wandering

The twenty-six interweaving prose poems in Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s chapbook Her Human Costume glide like a skater pirouetting on black ice. The poems are written with an understated elegance: hushed, precise, and passionate. Hoffmann explores what it means to be a bundle of bones and sinews, memory and forgetting, draped in this, our human costume. From the vantage point of a new mother, the poems honor four generations of women and seek to unravel (and recouple) the countless silken ties of affection that connect sisters, mothers, daughters, and grandmothers. A mother singing the alphabet to her newborn questions how the needlework of language ushers us into the world and undoes us. A grandmother with dementia searches her walls for the levers that will initiate night. A sister recovering from surgery becomes a “weary animal…limping from the brambles,” who might disappear as “delicate wildlife…into the thick forest.” Hoffman invokes the fragility of such threshold moments, and summons the bravery that allows one to endure.

For Hoffman, the present is a place freighted with vanishings. The final poem in the collection, “There is no ghost in this house,” reads:
There is no ghost in this house. It is still a new house. No one has died here. People rarely die in their houses anymore, or are born in them. Yet the hall that leads to the stairway has its shimmerings, the stair its spontaneous crack. Three times in darkness I pass through to sit in the chair with the baby. She is the most alive thing in the house, her spirit most freshly settled in its body. The sound of the highway brushes against the window, and her heart is a plum springing on its stem. A warm sweet scent. If the ghost waits for me to cross from door to door, it surely touches me. If it breathes, it breathes in deep.
What haunts here is the precarious dance of the plum on its stem, the inevitability that the daughter will enter into the world outside this new house, where big winds blow, hearts break, and people age and die. However, “a warm sweet scent” suffuses this sorrow. Love buoys this mother and child, moors them to each other in this instant of shimmering. As the poet notes of her own mother in an earlier poem, a “mother’s imperfect selfless bones are made of helping.” All memory, Hoffman’s chapbook suggests, coheres around such imperfect selfless bones. The poem “I would say it is an ordinary day,” ends: “This is a memory of today. A filament of smoke wandering. A delicate, unraveling pink thread.” Bone provides the scaffold that holds up skin. Memory, the marrow that fleshes these poems.

Her Human Costume does what all good prose poetry should: it apprehends the ordinary in all of its unraveling strangeness. The poet Liz Rosenberg has noted:

It is an odd but true fact that a horizontal window lets in more light than a vertical window of the same square footage. Given this, it is even odder that we humans insist upon living such vertical lives, in vertical buildings, with vertical windows and views. 
Most verse—especially contemporary free verse—is also constructed along vertical lines. I mean this not only in the literal way, but also in the metaphorical sense of higher meanings. It is as if we are always looking up to something instead of at it.

Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s prose poetry avoids thinking vertically and favors horizontal truths; it privileges the glow of a streetlight let into a nursery from a bay window, rather than the luminary quality of the moon shining through a skylight. Hoffman transforms the fears, frailties, and loneliness that are the accoutrements of our human costumes. She makes of these motley scraps a humble outfit, stitched as artfully as the finest regalia. Hoffman says, “until we speak, we are merely creatures,” but when we enter into language we become a filament of smoke wandering.

Dante Di Stefano's poetry and essays have appeared recently, or are forthcoming, 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 currently serves as a poetry editor for Harpur Palate and he was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Jun 26, 2014

Local Reading with Tom Bouman and Dante DiStefano

Local authors Tom Bouman and Dante DiStefano are set to read at RiverRead Books on July 8th at 6:30 pm.

Tom Bouman is a local author who grew up in Binghamton and Brackney, Pennsylvania. Dry Bones in the Valley (W.W. Norton, 2014) is a rural noir set in a fictionalized Northeastern Pennsylvania town.

Walter Benjamin said that all great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one. Tom Bouman’s novel dissolves the genre of rural noir. The book is an intensely lyrical exploration of loss and a requiem for the changing landscape of Susquehanna county. It is an anti-fracking novel, a straight-up thriller, and a delicately wrought character study, all at once.

It is the finest contemporary novel that we’ve read in years and it’s poised to be the biggest book to come out of this area ever. Already, the novel has been put on must-read lists by Oprah and the ALA. It’s received praise from such crime fiction heavyweights as Donald Ray Pollack, Wiley Cash, and James Sallis.

You can visit Bouman's page here, his Norton page here, and his Amazon page here.

We also look forward to hearing Dante DiStefano, one of our wonderful poetry editors, share from his work!

Dante Di Stefano is a Ph.D. candidate in Creative Writing at Binghamton University. His poetry and essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The Writer's Chronicle, Shenandoah, The Southern California Review, Brilliant Corners, The Hollins Critic, Bayou Magazine, The Grove Review, Gris-Gris, and elsewhere. He has won the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award and the Academy of American Poets College Prize. He was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Contemporary poets whose work he admires include: Ruth Stone, Marie Howe, Jason Shinder, Reginald Dwayne Betts, and Terrance Hayes.

We look forward to seeing you all at this event! 

July 8 at 6:30 pm
RiverRead Books
5 Court St, Binghamton, NY 13901
(607) 217-7292

May 12, 2014

Tom Griffen Reviews David St. John's The Auroras

The Auroras
David St. John
HarperCollins, 2012

ISBN: 0062088483

Still Wet With Light

            The first word of the first poem in David St. John’s book The Auroras is “opaque.” Readers might find this to be quite fitting for the weaving triptych in which St. John explores theme and form. His elimination of punctuation, capitalization of the first letter of each line, use of mid-line extended spacing, and ampersands in place of and all tie the otherwise unrelated chapters together. The fact that The Auroras is a triptych in the first place hints to a religious layering, even though the format itself is far more commercial and practical than it once was. Before even reading the poems, the book transforms into a bit of a mystery. Whats to come? What should be expected? Arguably, this is one of the driving forces pushing the reader directly into The Auroras wet light.
            Each of the three chapters could easily be books of their own. The first one titled Gypsy Davy is a meandering poetic memoir that refrains from ever becoming too sentimental. Though readers are privileged to witness St. Johns travel exploits from afar, he manages to make the scenes inclusive, thus giving readers a stake in the poems. The journey, as it were, might be St. Johns way of further dedicating his book to his wife Anna Journey. He extends the metaphor through historical references of age, and imagery alluding to travel and adventure. In Aurora of the New Mind, St. John writes, Still I look a lot like Scott Fitzgerald tonight with my tall / Tumbler of meander & bourbon & mint just clacking my ice. Gypsy Davys Flute of Rain hints to King Arthur being presented his sword, Excalibur, Id filled the final page of my diary / A lovely thing given to me by The Lady of the Lake / & bound in a cover of tooled leather.  In Aurora of the Lost Dulcimer, St. John states that, I was just like Ulysses but better dressed. The poet shares his epic adventures, and rather than make them sound romantic, he uses images to maintain an honest and sullen tone. Cerebrus, a three-headed hound of hell, is mentioned in Schopenhauers Dog Collar. Schopenhauer believed that the world is in a constant state of unhappiness driven by continually dissatisfied people. This philosophy loads the poem. But St. John lets readers know that his own outlook isnt so bleak, writing in Pythagorean Perfume, that, Even if your boat is carved of rancid meat / & your sails are frozen with ice dont despair. Seems readers are in good hands on this journey.
            The second chapter, In the High Country, is the longest section and contains eighteen free-verse, non-rhyming couplets and five quatrains. The two-line stanzas give sharper focus to the poem, providing a pause between St. Johns doses of dense imagery. In this chapter, his description of place and time is braided with a meditative introspection about aging. The title poems first line states, Some days I am happy to be no one, and then proceeds to point out the connectivity of all things. Such revelations continue in From a Bridge, when the poet reflects on a womans suicide, Twisted violently toward the storm-struck sky / There are some things we know before we know. These bits of wisdom suggest that the poet is absorbing his own maturity while allowing the world to happen as it must completely out of his control. There seems to be a relief that comes with this acceptance. Without Mercy, the Rains Continued, is a brief study of the poets younger, less-rehearsed self. The naturalness of rain becomes a metaphor for something uncontrollable. The beautiful question left at the end of the poem is one readers may find haunting. Can we change? Do we change? Does this metaphorical rain still exist even after weve (supposedly) grown up and moved beyond it? St. John suggests that we just get used to being wet.  

                                    & as I listened I knew something
                                    Had been asked of me
                                    Across the years & loneliness
                                    To which I simply responded
                                    With the same barely audible

                                    Silence that I had chosen then

            Chapter three, The Auroras, is an exploration of mortality. St. Johns form alters drastically for this section (suddenly theres punctuation!) which announces to the reader that the voice has somehow changed. His lines are longer and the stanzas of free-verse seem to be more prose-based and wanting to share as much as possible within the limited space of each page. Immediately the aurora metaphor is clearer - the colorful and striking eternal changing of everything is the ultimate ingredient for life. The ability to move through its shifts without attachment and without the need to control it is the human challenge. In I. Dawn Aurora, St. John says:

                                    The nothing that you know is as immaculate a knowing
                                    as any moment moving from a distance into dawn.
                                    All of the awakenings, or the old unconscious lies       
He revisits the idea of connection and his rain metaphor in III. Autumn Aurora:

                                    The illusionist steps to the stage. Everything
                                    he claims will be, will be. I know because Ive watched him
                                    before the curtains began to part, & Ive seen he is not just
                                    one man, but he is also a woman. He is as multiple
                                    as the rain. 

Readers understand that the poet is pondering death as he writes about the famous Parisian cemetery in IX. Pere Lachaise. He moves from the micro to the macro - from his descriptions of the cemeterys virgin headstones, jeweled with rubies, from reflections within the onyx to his reminiscing about the death of a friend, thousands of miles away, who dressed in brass cymbals that chimed with each move. This stunning image moves into a celebratory final line that doubles as a commentary on ridiculous social/religious norms, When they / found him later, dead, they said how pagan hed become in his nakedness, / in his glory. The auroras are what St. John hopes the readers will stop and consider - then follow as a guide. They are wet, vulnerable, qualities that make them worthwhile. As such, he gives readers a lasting piece of advice in one of the final poems.  In VII. Ghost Aurora, St. John states:

                  What could be more useful than a loving
                  principle lifted slowly out of particles, like the frond of a morning fern
                  uncurling? Take up your coat; take up the morning. This is what it means
                  to lure the phantom out of the dark, until she lifts us into the space
                                 of song.  

One need not be afraid of the rain.

Tom Griffen is a student in Pacific University’s low-residency program for poetry. His work will be published in upcoming issues of The Crab Orchard Review and The Suisun Valley Review. He is also a visual artist and curator of the "We Are Carrboro" photography project in his hometown of Carrboro, North Carolina. See more at

May 7, 2014

Apocrypha by Emily Saso

Harpur Palate would like to congratulate Emily Saso, winner of the Undergraduate Flash Fiction Contest. Her story appears below and will be read at the Launch Party for Issues 13.1 and 13.2. Thank you to everyone who participated in the contest. Please enjoy 'Apocrypha.'

There were nights my mother came home, and there were nights she did not.
On nights she came home we read about Word War II. Under the damask quilt in a blue and yellow room, she asked me, did I know how the Danish King Christian X responded to a long birthday letter from Hitler? Spreche meinen besten dank aus, Chr. Rex. Giving my best thanks, King Christian. Hitler felt it showed ingratitude, and since he had left the Danish government intact during his occupation, he thought there ought to be a certain amount of thankfulness coming his way. My mother read out loud from a book all about King Christian X, who rode through the crowd in Copenhagen unguarded, who removed a German flag from a hotel rooftop even after he was warned he would be shot in the process. And as she stared into a colored photo of the King riding his stallion and pointed out the horse’s baroque qualities (thick-bodied; chestnut with a roman nose) I looked at her own features and closed my eyes to see if I could re-create her broad flat forehead and jutted chin and everything in between. I would need something to work off when I was alone in the blue and yellow room, the blanket pulled up to my throat, devouring passage after passage of text on the great Danish King that held my mother’s attention so resolutely.
On nights she did not come home my father and I ate pasta in front of the television. We watched game shows and made up answers to questions that bewildered us. Which French chemist developed a fermenting agent for Heineken? Marie Curie. Which actress won a golden globe for Paul Newman’s directorial debut? Marie Curie. And even though we were happy spilling tomato sauce on the table and guessing which contestant had a bunk buzzer, we glanced at the phone during muted commercial breaks, dreading both the presence and absence of a ring. If she called to say she was leaving work soon, she was lying, and we would not see her until the morning. If the phone stayed silent, she had already gone to find out what the night could offer her elsewhere, and on an island of two hundred and twenty eight numbered streets plus Alphabet City, there was no shortage of elsewheres.
When we could stretch out dinner no longer, my father turned on the computer and played solitaire for hour after hour, his face unreadable and bizarrely washed azure with the screen’s glare. I crept into my bed, but did not sleep. I tried to read the book about the Danish King, who caused the Easter Crisis of 1920 in a rash and selfish decision to take more land from Germans than he was owed, who fell off his horse and became an invalid after World War II was over. Sometimes I closed my eyes to conjure my mother’s profile that I had worked so hard to memorize, and found I could name and describe the features perfectly but, through the tunnel of memory, they appeared distorted. Her slightly pursed mouth turned into a long-lipped snout, not unlike a bear’s, and her deep-set eyes became increasingly ursine as well. I couldn’t shake the image of my mother as a bear and in the sleep that eventually came I dreamt she was a great Grizzly, sometimes carrying me by the scruff of my neck to safety, other times pinning me to the ground in a rage. When I woke I lay flat against my sheets, trying to stay in the realm of the dream, knowing that if I padded over to the next room my father would still be clicking away at the cards that stacked and shuffled at random and he would invite me to play a game with him. But I never got up; I forced myself to turn on the light and read chapters full of Danish expressions and war terms I couldn’t understand.
Occasionally, struggling through the rough material, I turned factoids into quiz show questions. What did a young boy once say when asked why King Christian needed no armed protectors? That all of Denmark was his bodyguard. The exchange was apocryphal, but nonetheless a nice lens through which to look back on someone who had failed his people and then triumphed and then failed again. If my mother had been present she would have claimed King Christian wore a yellow star to support the Jews, but this story, too, was false. It was another legend born out of the King’s eventual absence, when the Danish people’s minds were free to create whatever image of him they thought he deserved, their collective memory skewered by sentimentality and an innate instinct to gloss over moments of doubt.
I fell asleep for the second time with the book on my chest and my father, seeing my lamp still glowing, entered my room and tried to arrange my body into a better position. But I rolled away from his touch every time, clutching the history book hard between my palms, knowing if my mother saw me in the morning without it she would be disappointed.

Launch Party for Issues 13.1 and 13.2

Apr 22, 2014

Dante Di Stefano Reviews Nicole Santalucia's Driving Yourself to Jail in July

Driving Yourself to Jail in July
Dead Bison Press, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-615-91987-4

We’ve Earned These Little Flashes of Light Together

            Binghamton University has been a home to many exceptional poets: Ruth Stone, Milton Kessler, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Joe Weil, Liz Rosenberg, and Leslie Heywood have all taught here. Jose Antonio Rodriguez, Tony Medina, Yehoshua November, and many others, have studied here. The aesthetic of this varied group privileges lyric narrative poems grounded in reflections on place and memory with an allegiance to love and brokenness.  Nicole Santalucia’s debut chapbook situates her firmly within this tradition.  Driving Yourself to Jail in July consists of twenty eight lyric narrative poems. Each poem inflects honesty with surreal humor.  The concluding stanza of “Genealogy” provides an emblematic example of such inflection:Every time I enter a public bathroom I wonder what it would/ have been like to gouge my eyes out and serve them like/ Italian grapes to the children our grandparents would have had/ if they married someone else.”  Saint Lucy, Santa Lucia, provides the final image in a poem that meditates on the complicated connections between ancestry, love, fear, and identity.  The fact that this meditation takes place in a public bathroom underscores the poet’s allegiance to the ordinary, her sense that no matter how labyrinthine or lofty the subject of a poem, the mundane will continue to dry gulch us; Like Walt Whitman, Santalucia’s central line could be “I feel my body shall decay.”  Her poems pay equal tribute to the journeywork of the stars, a jailhouse cannoli machine, a crack house, and the kids on the south side who are born again as they crawl through a hole in the fence.    
            The poems in this collection are spoken in a narrative voice that is funny, yet real, tough, yet gentle, blunt, yet pointedly bright. An excellent example of this voice at work runs through the poem “Bitches on the Roof.”  The poem, in its entirety, reads:
            I love the bitch, said the guy with no teeth.
            Then, he took a swig from his can of beer,
            climbed back up the ladder onto the roof,
            and started hammering.  

            You can’t live with that bitch anymore,
            said the other guy with a bigger tool belt and two teeth.
            The bitch won’t even cook, said no-teeth man.  

            I sat quietly on my porch listening to these men bitch
            as they fixed the neighbor’s house. I secretly wished their
            bitch-asses would fall off the roof, and I wanted to tell them
            to stop bitching, to take off their bitch costume and strap on
            a real cock.  

            It was late May and the men kept coming to work on the house.
            Sometimes they would wake me up. They slurped their beer and bitched
            about their baby mommas. I started dreaming about tool belts and memorizing
            their conversations as they hammered each shingle.  

            Now, it is June and I’m wearing my own tool belt and sitting on the porch.
            Every once in a while I look next door
            as if to agree with the men who re-roofed the house last month
            and I want to climb on the roof and scream,
            I love the bitch.

This poem works because it is not merely a reflection of an experience, but it is rather a completely contained experience in and of itself.  Santalucia has accomplished a rare feat in contemporary poetry: she’s reanimated the love poem, sincerely and without sentimentality. She’s suddenly turned the phrase “I love the bitch” into a line from an epithalamion. She’s deflated misogyny. She’s questioned gender norms. She’s brought us to the rooftop with her speaker so that we can scream our love along with hers.
            “Bitches on the Roof” also explores how language moors us into place and might unmoor us if we allow it. Many of the poems in this collection consider the slippery proposition that underwrites all utterance. In “Ode to Leroy Street,” Santalucia says:
            Leroy drives the bus that stops 
            on the corner where the woman wearing hot 
            pink sweatpants drops quarters on the sidewalk;
            her name is Leroy too.

            Another guy named Leroy
            stands outside of the liquor store
            at 7:55 am. 

            I think my name should be Leroy
            because every time I look out my window
            busses pass by and yellow electric letters
            flash “Leroy Street” “Leroy Street.”
            At the stop light
            next to the liquor store
            next to hot-pink-sweatpants-Leroy
            bending at the knees 

            there are kids sitting with their backs 
            facing the street.
            I can’t hear what they are saying
            from over here on the second floor;
            I imagine them whispering
            My daddy’s name is Leroy
            and he’ll beat you up.

Nietzsche said “what labels me, negates me.” This poem articulates a fear of fixity, of definitions imposed from outside that threaten to overwhelm individuality and freedom.  However, the fear couches itself in comedy, the repetition of the word “Leroy” reiterating the imagined whispers of the children at the end of the poem. At the same time, this poem celebrates an actual place (Leroy Street is the actual street the poet lives on).  In that respect, this poem serves as an Ars Poetica in the collection, focusing as it does on the quirky ways that place shapes a person, a poet, and a poem. 
            In a broader sense, the poem “America, Let’s Pretend Your Name is George” presses issues of national identity. This is the only prose poem in the collection and it reads: 
Dear George,
There are lesbians wearing their grandmother’s wedding dresses. George, why do I want to kiss
your belly? This desire feels incestuous. George, I’m listening to Christmas music in July and
frying your chicken. I’m hungry, standing in the banana aisle at the grocery store, pretending to
pick up the lemons that fell so I can get a better look at my teacher’s legs; she shops here too.
George, of course I am going to be a poet. I drank all your beer before I turned nine. George,
your kids smell like mustard and hotdogs. Please keep them on a leash. George, there is no more
room for any more elephants. George, when I find out I am pregnant, we’ll celebrate, and we’ll
find a cure for your allergies. George, I went to the doctor and he said the glaciers are melting in
Juno, Alaska, and I’m worried we may be stuck here forever, where people are dying. George, I
will cover you in plastic and get Walt Whitman to let us on his ferry. George, get out of bed, all
of this is happening and I just want to be left alone. George, your leather belt is too tight and
your ass looks sexy in those pants. George, I’ve inherited my grandfather’s shotguns, thanks to
Nicole Santalucia would agree with Langston Hughes that “America was never America to me.” This poem is in dialogue with famous poems about America by Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and Terrance Hayes, but none of those poets had the audacity to rename the nation. Certainly, this epistolary prose poem carries on a close conversation with Jennifer L. Knox’s great “Hot Ass Poem,” a poem that similarly critiques the way that everyday discourse circumscribes our ability to read and make meaning. 
            The meaning made by this collection as a whole hinges on a worldview that celebrates the grit and vibrancy of the poet’s surroundings. The poets’ love for family, for friends, and for the community that shaped her comes through in every line. The images shock in the best kind of way. No other contemporary poet has lines as unforgettable as these from “Breaking News”: “The first time you kissed the tip of a sawed off shotgun/ god’s tongue wrapped around your waist and pulled you/ out of your skin—a puddle of beer on the floor instead of blood.” No other contemporary poet has lines as surprising as these from “Blue Balls”: “There’s an old man inside of me who wants to scratch his balls./ I feel this itch every morning when I roll over in bed/ and tell my wife that I love her.” This collection makes me remember why I love poetry; I read poetry not because it is beautiful, but because the world is like the weather is in Johnson City, New York, when the sky’s the color of steel wool left in the kitchen sink: grim, cold, and beautiful.
            Nicole Santalucia’s chapbook reminds me of that passage I love in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where Huck talks about eating his food all mixed together. In Driving Yourself to Jail in July nothing gets compartmentalized; everything’s mixed together; the ridiculous and the sublime are served up on the same plate.  Reading these poems I feel like a guy waiting for wonton soup in a queue of ghosts at a Chinese joint on Riverside Drive: hungry, ethereal, and in good company.  Santalucia leads us through the dirty streets of her hometown and guides us through the backwaters of empire. She brings us into the home she’s built with her wife, Deanna. She honors her parents, her family, her friends, and the variegated neighbors that make a hometown both forever recognizable and forever foreign. She leads us to her brother’s prison yard, past her own mistakes, and she offers us the firefly knowledge that we’ve earned these little flashes of light together.  

Reviewer Bio:

Dante Di Stefano is a Ph.D. candidate in Creative Writing at Binghamton University. His poetry and essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The Writer's ChronicleShenandoah, The Southern California Review, Brilliant CornersThe Hollins CriticBayou MagazineThe Grove Review, Gris-Gris, and elsewhere. He has won the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award and the Academy of American Poets College Prize. He was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Contemporary poets whose work he admires include: Ruth Stone, Marie Howe, Jason Shinder, Reginald Dwayne Betts, and Terrance Hayes.