Associate Editor Albert Kapikian inaugurates our book review thread with his thoughtful reading of two books: one, The Last Girl, by poet Rose Solari, and the other, The Wizard and the White House, by local author and associate editor Mike Maggio:
The Last Girl, Rose Solari’s latest book, begins with the writer engaging us in an internal dialogue highly unusual for a poet. Solari, who has been writing poetry since she could hold a pencil, but who has also done formal research into the divergence between British and American poetry of the 1950s, suggests an ars poetica not only for herself and her reader but for the little girl she once was.
“Come/with me as I walk the perimeter/of this field, and don’t be afraid.”
— “The Treehouse of the Dream Child”
The perimeter denotes the form which she has finally found to speak about her lifelong preoccupations. In granting the girl the safety she had sought but not always found in the treehouse where she practiced her “solitary art,” the mature poet is able to access the intense feeling of this child, and at the same time inhabit the cloud of unknowing in which she is ensconced.
“Hear/the floorboards singing her step, see/her old, new face.”
Poetry, then, Solari seems to be saying, if properly practiced, can summon the child to rescue the adult and summon the adult to rescue the child.
“she is a word/for keeping and losing, a talisman/against this sky, which is
red-black,/now, and terrible, and our own.”
Solari’s preoccupations have been career-long, indeed lifelong, so constructing an ars poetica to accommodate the girl she once was is not a contrivance. Maryland born and bred, she is rare among Maryland writers for keeping the state always in focus, even as she writes a novel set in England.
More important, perhaps, to the girl she was and the woman she has become is her brother, dearly loved, a Vietnam veteran who never really came home and who died in 2009. The safe space created for the girl is created for him as well:
“Walk into it, beloved hard-lost/boy. You will be, at last, all right.”
Solari has always been salvaging her past, trying to find a way to inhabit it that will allow her to move forward with it unencumbered. Indeed her novel, A Secret Woman, is about salvaging, sifting through, and ultimately finding a measure of meaning in a collection of manuscripts, old books, and floppy disks belonging to the narrator’s mother. Written partly during her period as advisor at the Centre for Creative Writing at Kellog College, Oxford, its epigraph is from Dante’s “Inferno.”
Even in her first book of poems, Difficult Weather, recently reissued in a 20th anniversary edition, the poet tries to salvage the things the little girl had experienced as an adolescent in the lower-middle class working suburbs of Maryland.
Now that Solari has found a new way to inhabit her preoccupations — a way that lets in the girl she once was — some great poems issue forth. In the three poems dedicated to her brother, she begins to come to terms with the most difficult preoccupation of them all, while at the same time offering us another meditation on the nature of the poetic process.
It is essential to imagine
one thing as another – as when
the small hard winter apple becomes
a globe for the dollhouse schoolroom
where the rubber children learn
their geography; as when a pan of mud
is really quicksand, and in it G.I. Joe
is sinking, sinking, until a buddy
pulls him out in time; as when the old
round wooden drying rack, with all
its bare arms up, is your helicopter,
rising over the shores of Okinawa.
where you will find your brother,
not yet broken, and carry him home.
— “Another Shore”
Local poet, Mike Maggio, has published a novel, his first, The Wizard and the White House. It is a satire — not one-size-fits-all, not us against them — but an equal opportunity satire worthy of Gogol, sending up all parts of our current society.
In Maggio’s novel, the President of the United States wakes up one morning to find he has no mouth, while in another part of Washington, D.C. a janitor wakes up to find he has two. A Pakistani immigrant in Arlington, Virginia, hears the voice of God in a waterspout and soon finds himself, despite every effort to refrain from doing so, speeding towards the White House gates.
And unbeknownst to all of them, these characters are being controlled by a malevolent wizard secluded somewhere in the Hindu Kush mountains nursing a terrible grudge.
Maggio, moreover, possesses that rarest of talents that allows for great satire — an understated tongue-in-cheek humor that is somehow at the same time outrageously funny. When the Chief of Staff, Mark Drove, discovers the President’s condition, Maggio writes:
And while he always strove to be politically correct, he managed, just the same, to be as truthful and forthcoming as circumstances would allow. So now, as he stared incredulously at the President, like a scientist examining a rare and strange-looking creature, he coldly assessed the situation and surveyed the room, as was his habit, to make sure no one was around, closed the door and carefully locked it to ensure privacy.
‘Mr. President,’ he said calmly and without emotion, ‘you have indeed outdone yourself this time.’
The satire, again, is equal opportunity. The pastor enlisted by the janitor’s wife to heal him, the Reverend C.J. Willis, is an opportunist whose proprietorship of a “storefront operation” in Southeast Washington is founded on a three-week mail-order course.
After the Pakistani immigrant, Falluzin Choudry, is arrested at the White House gates, we are introduced to our eponymous wizard, Sharir, who sees in his crystal ball Secret Service agents drag Choudry away and says to his enslaved assistant Akram:
“It’s wonderful, don’t you think? To watch them in action thinking they control everything they do?”
The novel traces recent events, and if you want to see George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Dick Cheney in its caricatures, you certainly can, but Maggio has more serious ambitions as well, and he began this novel before there was ever a “Quincy” from Texas in the White House.
Like the great satirists, Maggio wants to send up principles, not just individuals. In Maggio’s case, it appears that in the person of the wizard, he is just as interested in the ontological genesis of the events of our time as in the paupers and politicians that carry them out.
Nevertheless, it is perhaps less improbable that the President have no mouth than that he plead weapons of mass destruction that do not exist as a rationale for war.
Or as the Vice President admonishes the Chief of Staff while discussing strategy for dealing with the President’s current quandary, “Well, Mark. It seems to me we need to be truthful, as we have been all along during this administration, with the American people.”