Friday, June 23, 2006

Review of The No-Net World--THE PEDESTAL MAGAZINE

Larissa Shmailo's The No-Net World...reviewed by JoSelle Vanderhooft

The No-Net World
Larissa Shmailo
CD (Spoken Word, Music by Bobby Perfect)
Eggplant Press/Produced by SongCrew Records
ISBN Number: 0935060014

Reviewer: JoSelle Vanderhooft

Listening to poet and translator Larissa Shmailo’s latest spoken word CD is almost like attending eighteen short plays in the span of forty minutes. Like the best plays, each poem tells a compelling story of human struggle, in which characters fight (and routinely fail) to obtain such basic necessities as food, shelter, liberty, even love. Like the best plays, her poems also crackle with breathtaking language, which in the true tradition of the tragedies of which she speaks almost sound as if they could be sung (indeed, in some cases they almost are). Shmailo’s expert understanding of the close relationship between poetry and drama, music and language, and the primal human need to just hear a really, really good story make The No-Net World a truly unique contribution to twenty-first century American poetry, and a CD worth listening to frequently and carefully.

Also in the tradition of the world’s best dramas, Shmailo’s poems are filled with fascinating and all-too-human characters whose stories of loss, frustration, and displacement resonate with the listener long after the CD’s end. One of the collection’s most striking poems is “Madwoman," a poem about a mentally ill homeless woman, which would find good company in a book of contemporary monologues for actresses. Delivered in Shmailo’s warm, full Broadway voice and accompanied by Bobby Perfect’s restless guitar chords, it might just as well be one.

Here I am again walking among these vague and tepid people. They evoke a slight feeling of distaste in me. They smell my pain. They have no idea. I just hold my phone, the cellular phone I use for a disguise and I talk. Talk to the ultimate answering service. I walk and I talk to God. When you died I ripped the electrodes out of my skull and ran away from the land of cables and TV sets, great battles of television were fought here, great battles were lost. SoHo is no different from uptown or downtown, it’s all money and talking and bars, sex in cars, job-job-job, so I went to see the trees. The trees were beautiful, their leaves forming patterns of light on the ground and as the light played on my hair and my cheeks I realized no one ever dies. They just become trees. Even Marilyn Monroe was alive in a leaf.

The poem follows the speaker’s trip to the West Side Highway where she meets homeless people, speaks to God and Jesus, and eventually is “cured" of her illness. She takes pills, has a job and worries about her boyfriend’s health. But as she informs us, “you can’t really ever take the gift of madness away."

Once you have been stripped by god of everything—clothing, family, freedom, senses—you are his for life. And I was stripped, oh yes dear Lord of everything—every last thing. God took everything leaving only my soul, but I found that was enough.

Not only the stuff of great drama, this is also the stuff of truly compassionate and socially aware poetry. Instead of sentimentalizing and infantilizing the mentally ill and the homeless as the television shows Shmailo rails against tend to do, Shmailo looks at her subject as an individual, with her own past, present, and future, as well as her own set of demons to haunt her. By treating the nameless Madwoman with such care and respect, Shmailo turns her into a modern day Fool, even into King Lear himself when he wails at the storm in Act III, scene iv:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O! I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

Indeed, the echoes of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy can be found in many of The No-Net World’s poems, including “Lager NYC," “Death at Sea," “For Six Months with You," “Hunts Point Counterpoint," and the title poem itself. Like Shakespeare, Shmailo does not attempt to explain or justify poverty, madness, or the horror of the Holocaust or diseases such as AIDS (a subject to which Shmailo frequently returns). Instead, suffering is merely something to be endured, railed against, even eventually accepted.

Shmailo gives acceptance of suffering and death, which is, perhaps, suffering in one of its most brutal forms, beautiful treatment in the short poem “Johnny I Love You Don’t Die," one of the many on this CD which could well be a song, despite the lack of musical accompaniment.

Johnny I love you don’t die
Johnny I love you don’t die
Johnny, do you remember
Sitting on the stoop
The smell of green lilacs
The moon in your hair
My battered face
Your purple heart
You said they had no right
No right
And that no one would ever do that to us

Oh Johnny I love you don’t die
Johnny I love you don’t die
Johnny I love you don’t die
—just need work—
Johnny I love you don’t die
—T-cells go—
Johnny I love you don’t die
—Up and down—
Johnny I love you don’t die
—You’ll be strong—
Johnny I love you don’t die
—Soon I swear—
Johnny I love you don’t die

But eventually the speaker realizes that death is inevitable and encourages her husband to “let go, it’s okay." Shmailo’s willingness to portray death as an inevitable part of life, and indeed an inevitable part of love, is a mature, even profound statement to make in a culture which has become pathological in its fear of death.
But love does not exist merely as a corollary to death in Shmailo’s work. Several of her poems celebrate love for its own sake, including “Quantum Love" and “New Life." To further emphasize the importance love has on her work, Shmailo also includes her own elegant translations of Alexander Pushkin’s “I Loved You Once" and Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “Already One," two Russian poems which celebrate the passion, scope, and gravitas of love without discoursing into the despair that often accompanies it.

If the poems on The No-Net World are beautiful, the CD’s sound quality and production only add to their beauty. The recording is mercifully free from static, interference, and white noise that often plague spoken word CDs. The sound board used to make the recording also appears to have been operated by a proficient engineer; Shmailo’s rich, expressive contralto never sounds tinny or cavernous. Overall it is a nearly flawless CD that will especially appeal to patrons and practitioners of the performing arts, and to anyone who simply loves to hear a good story told well.

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