Review: Cruelty, by Jonathan Podoga

Cruelty, by Jonathan Podoga, is no exception to the Splitleaves Pressaesthetic of making beautiful books. It’s a twenty-four page chapbook, printed on heavy paper. The cover and back are flecked and a pleasure to rub. It’s bound by thin string that reminds me of fishing wire. The cover contains a minimalist black and white photograph of a bed. This simple photo’s much like the writing contained within.

At its heart, Cruelty is a fucked-up love poem. It’s a book of poems that deal with mental illness, kidnapping, rape, and murder, yet such topics never seem overbearing. Pogoda’s minimalist writing style is to thank for this. Cruelty reads like a poetic news report.

Cruelty seems to follow a couple, mainly the woman, as she suffers a breakdown after getting a divorce. She holes herself, and her children, in a house, and dreams:

The three children develop their own

This is the language of the body, the language of violence. The language of the story.

Lines like

He’s badly cut. Medical photos are posted.


In this abandoned building, he imagines a
sort of commune has formed around her. He
imagines the deformed men who would rent the


She refuses him several
times. Other times she wears headphones.


A small group paints
each other. Thrusts. Another
positions itself atop a stomach and pair of legs bloody and half

all reinforce the sexualized violence that Pogoda writes. Far from being vulgar, the book enters the fantastic. Imagine Gabriel Garcia Marquez, on an eighth of mushrooms, fucking his mistress who loves to role-play rape fantasies. That’s what I feel when reading Cruelty. This might sound bad, but trust me, it’s wonderful thing.

I feel a sense of longing while reading through Cruelty. Certainly sexual, but also a longing for salvation:

He positions a chair in front
of a mirror and has her ride him. She suspects
there are others like her.

Not religious salvation, of course, though Pogoda does address that well in three sentences:

She hears voices. Mostly religious
figures. Pop singers.


And in the screams he realizes
he’s wandered into a room devoid
of sentimentality


He senses the futility of tearing people
he meets into pages.

In a fitting end to Cruelty, Pogoda writes

In rare photos, priests can be seen
chanting by the ovens.

This is the best ending possible, simply because it isn’t an ending at all. It seems, to me, to be an invitation; an invitation back to the start, to try and figure out what the hell just happened.

Like all captivating literature, Cruelty works on a few different levels. The beauty of this chapbook is the disconnect between the level that Jonathan Pogoda’s narrator is operating on and the level on which the reader is reading. This leads me to multiple interpretations of the book. To put it simply—perhaps Cruelty is so captivating because it fucks me. As a friend of mine likes to say, “There isn’t enough fucking in literature.” I find Cruelty fucks me in the best way.

David Greenspan is a HFR 1.1 contributor and the author of the chapbook i tried to bear the elephants and lost (NAP, 2012). His poems have appeared, or will soon, in MudLusciousRed LightbulbsVinyl, and other journals. Find candy and white vans at

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