For the last few decades the U-M has had a graduate program in creative writing, but the town very seldom gets a sense of the students who pass through it. They are busy, after all, and here only for a couple of years. They form their self-supporting little groups and go out in public only late at night and to the bars. So it is a nice way of crowing about themselves, and a gift to us all, when the writing faculty invites alumni with recent books back for a public reading.

Margaret Lazarus Dean’s first novel, The Time It Takes to Fall, is a wonderfully evocative coming-of-age story set in central Florida in the mid-1980s. Dean’s protagonist, Dolores Gray, is a precocious middle-school student obsessed with NASA’s corps of astronauts, particularly the women among them. Her father is focused on his job as a technician working on the Space Shuttle’s solid-fuel rocket boosters; her mother is tightly wired and dissatisfied with her role as a suburban housewife and mother. The domestic drama plays out amid the glory years of the Shuttle program, which came to a sudden end with the spectacular explosion of the Challenger.

And that tragedy, with its emblematic hornlike vapor trail printed on the sky (the sign that would retain its power until it was replaced in our imaginations by the even worse plume of smoke in 2001) becomes the controlling metaphor of the book. Even as it brings the world of NASA money and employment to an end, it helps Dolores’s family create a fragile bond, something that may be a tentative sign of hope.

At first glance there is little connection between Dean’s novel and the poetry of Jaswinder Bolina. One thing they share, however, is an ease with scientific terms; even the title of Bolina’s first collection, Carrier Wave, suggests something of scientific measurement and objectivity. That suggestion, however, is most useful as a sense of contrast. Bolina’s poems make big jumps and find surrealistic connections. The poems’ wit and irony gives them a feel of impersonality, even as they offer highly personal records of the author’s wild imagination. The author tells us that “I didn’t struggle for meaning,” yet meaning seems to arise on its own from a mixture of tone and image. Even though much of the book turns on Bolina’s playfulness, even on his jokes, I am more attracted to other moments that arise out of his poems to assume a very real weight. The poem “What Awaits the Thunder,” after its small ironies (“It’s so difficult to be in love in wartime”), concludes:

I weep openly and sight returns to my bum eye. The garden grows
stereoscopic in the murky and shuddering light. A familiar
anxiety disperses, and a new anxiety resounds in its place.
I feel claustrophobic in the hailstorm. I grow murderous in the fog.
You say knock it off. I say it’s so difficult to be in love.

Margaret Lazarus Dean and Jaswinder Bolina read from their first books at the Rackham Building on Thursday, January 17.

[Review published January 2008]