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Review of Unmasked by Candace Nola

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As many of you know, poetry is my secret mistress. Whilst I will always love prose and the novel, there is a power in poetry that cannot really be equalled. I have written about this a few times before, and there are many reasons as to why this is the case, but the two reasons that stand out to me are the following:

1) poetry combines several core artistic elements: imagery, music (in the rhythms and meter and in the rhyme), and narrative.

2) in the words of Candace Nola, “Poetry is the purest, deepest expression of self.”

This quote comes from the introduction to Candace Nola’s recent poetry collection Unmasked, and I can’t help but heartily agree with her. Purity and depth are two of the defining characteristics of great poetry. And, in writing great poetry, one is able to plumb the depths of one’s self: not the shallow ego-self, but the true and secret self. As the title of the collection suggests, in removing the ego-masks we wear, and baring our souls, we dig deeper towards the truth of this real identity concealed behind the societal dross and pain of human experience.

Unmasked is an awesome collection that surprised me in a number of ways. Despite the fact that Nola says in her introduction that poetry is also “raw emotion”, many of these poems are shaped, and possess beautiful form. This level of form and restraint allows us access to the visceral emotion and translates it into something beautiful.

A good example of this can be found in the very first poem, “Endure The Broken”. The final couplet is a masterful example of balance between form and emotion.

The void has consumed me, with darkness, with rage.

Let the blood run freely as a I die on the page.

The rhythm of this couplet is complex, but in essence it is anapaestic, a highly unusual choice. Most English poetry is written in iambic, which follows a measured rhythm almost like a heart beat, de-dum, de-dum, de-dum. Anapaests, however, flow more rapidly: de-de-dum, de-de-dum, de-de-dum. Like a horse galloping, or a river babbling. Candace Nola’s choice of meter here perfectly matches the symbolic meaning of the couplet. The blood runs “freely” with the pacy fluidity of the anapaestic rhythm—you can almost see the river of arterial blood flowing out from her pen. Sound, image, and meaning combine in a perfect alchemical formula where pain is transmuted into beauty.

Not all of Candace Nola’s poems are so formally wrought. Some border on prose with poetic elements. However, even in these looser forms, Candace Nola demonstrates a natural feeling for language and for combining striking imagery with mimetic, sonic effect. In her poem, “Masses” this is demonstrated brilliantly in the final stanza:

“Without you, I’m no longer here. My heart, my soul, no longer beat. I searched for you daily, in the depths of the masses, seeking myself in each heartbeat that passes.”

The italics here are my own, in order to underscore that though there are no line breaks, there is a hidden structure concealed in the prose paragraph. You can hear it—both the rhythm and rhyme-scheme—when the poem is read aloud. But visually it is hidden. This is brilliant because the final image of the poem is all about seeking both love and oneself in the masses that pass us by—how we lose the beauty and meaning in a world oversaturated, overcrowded, and overcluttered.

Throughout the collection, there are memorable quotes and images. One that particularly sticks in my mind is from the humbly titled poem “I’m Fine”.

Take the gun. Embrace the steel.

Let the bullet heal.

Heal” is a totally unexpected rhyme with “steel”, and the surprise juxtaposition causes the darker, deeper meaning behind the poem to hit with, well, the force of a bullet from a gun. It’s worth noting here that Unmasked will be a challenging read for anyone who has experienced, or is experiencing, depression or suicidal thoughts. There were a few moments where I had to put the collection down, because it reminded me of the intensity of those feelings, and how difficult it had been to see a way out. In this way, Candace Nola has truly captured a snapshot of her life. Emotions are temporal. They come and go like clouds. Yet, Nola has enshrined them forever, which is the potency of art.

However, all is not doom and gloom. The final poem, “Phoenix”, as the title suggests, offers us a transcendental uplift from the darkness and depression. Before I print the final poem in full, so that you can experience it for yourself, it is worth noting that this collection contains thirty-four poems, which is the same number of cantos to be found in Dante’s Inferno. Coincidence, or is perhaps Nola framing Unmasked as her own dark descent through hell and upwards into the divine phoenix of rebirth?

Born of ashes. Born of dust.

Born of blood, of rage, of scorn.

Phoenix rise. Phoenix fly. Phoenix die.

Cold, heartless, cruel desolation.

Child of hatred. Child of war.

Terrorized soul forced isolation.

Flames of ice. Hatred borne.

Phoenix rise. Phoenix dies.

Ash from flame. Desire wanes.

Burning wings, glowing brighter.

Red gold molten fire.

Slow burn, torrid desire.

Nuclear rage, mushroom cloud spires.

Phoenix flies.

Phoenix cries.

Tears of fire pouring down.

Burning out, destroy the ground.

Phoenix rage. Phoenix splayed.

Ripped open, beat and bound.

Phoenix cries.

Phoenix dies.

From the ashes, embers glow.

Phoenix still.

Phoenix grows.

In conclusion, Candace Nola is a fantastic poet, and I would definitely like to see more of her poetry alongside her novels and novellas.

You can purchase Unmasked on Amazon:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

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Review of Bishop by Candace Nola

Bishop is my first experience with Candace Nola, and so I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book either narratively or stylistically. The cover at first resembled a werewolf story to me—and I confess to having a weak-spot for werewolf narratives!—but upon closer inspection I realised it’s not a wolf, but a bear… This is a significant aspect of the story, in more ways than one.

Bishop is a novella, and its pacing reflects that. The opening chapters unfold at breakneck speed. Nothing feels rushed and yet we immediately get a strong sense of place—the frozen desolation of Alaska—and the hardy people within it. Our focus at the start of the narrative rests on Troy. His sister and niece have been missing for five days in the wilderness, and he’s determined to find them. In his desperation, for time is of the essence in these survival scenarios, he turns to a local legend—the mysterious man Bishop—to guide him into the wilds and find his missing family.

As soon as Bishop, the eponymous character of the story, is introduced, the story goes to another level. The strongest suite of the novella is by far the burgeoning relationship between Bishop and Troy. Bishop is a stoic man of few words, who seems more part of the landscape than human society. Troy is a caring and thoughtful man, altogether quite sensitive. Bishop is incredibly physically strong to almost superhuman levels. Troy has a busted knee from a hiking trip that went wrong. Yet both are determined and courageous in their own way. I found myself becoming heavily invested in their strange friendship, and the respect they gained for one another, and this is especially impressive to achieve in such a short space.

Set against this “buddy story”, for lack of a better term, is the story of the two women, Casey (the niece) in particular, who are trying to survive cut off from the rest of the world, hunted by something that seems like more than simply a beast of the forest… Casey is a plucky character, resourceful and driven. She’s no mere damsel in distress, and nor is her mother Erin, however what pursues them is beyond their experience, an evil that is deeply unnatural.

There is some cool world-building and lore here when we discover what is chasing these women and why. Without giving too much away, I could have stood to have read even more of it. I felt there was a fascinating backstory tantalisingly within reach, but it does not fully come to light. However, what we do see is interesting, and even more so when it is matched against Bishop’s narrative. Bishop is an enigmatic character, and sometimes giving enigmatic characters backstory can diminish their power, but not so here. We’re shown just enough to understand a little more about the man, but not so much as to break his spell.

I was also impressed by how Candace Nola was prepared to make narrative sacrifices. To overcome evil, we have to give up something. Something is lost so something is gained, it’s rule 101 of narrative climax (I’ve stolen this principle from Tristine Rainer and her fabulous book Your Life As Story). Candace Nola understands this and the scenes revolving around this loss are some of the strongest in the book. Her characters feel like they have real emotional interiors and give credible responses to trauma, and again, this is hard to do at the best of times, even more so in a novella-length piece.

I do have one minor criticism of the novella: I think Bishop could have done with further editing. There are quite a few typos in relation to how long the novella is. That said, Bishop shows a writer with tremendous talent, and hopefully that talent will get the nurturing it deserves in future efforts.

You can buy it at one of the links below:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA

As always, if you enjoyed this review and want to be notified when another goes up for more great book recommendations, then you can sign up to my mailing list here.