Review

A Conversation with Dana Levin by Peter LaBerge

BY WESLEY SEXTON

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Dana Levin is an author, essayist, and teacher. Her most recent book is Banana Palace, which was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2016, and she teaches as a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis. She has been the recipient of several prestigious honors, such as the Whiting Award, a National Endowment of the Arts Grant, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

 

I recently had a conversation with Dana about technology and teaching that came to a point of, “maybe we’re destined to become cyborgs.”

Wesley Sexton: In places in Banana Palace, you seem to be arguing (or at least pointing out) that technology’s goals are often immensely spiritual. When technology attempts, as it often does, to exceed the bounds of the body, it puts itself in a camp with other spiritual processes, namely poetry and religion. But what does that mean? For poetry? For technology? Are they speaking out of the same mouth and should they be?

Dana Levin: Wow, those are the questions, right? Okay, here’s what I think: Art and Religion were born the first time the living came in contact with the dead. The first time our primordial ancestor found her friend dead on the ground, touched him with her hand and shook him, was the beginning of our central realization: the body and the animating spirit are not the same, for in death the spirit vanishes and yet the body remains! Our technological innovations have always been in service to making work easier on our bodies, to accomplishing tasks with greater ease and greater speed. What would be easiest and speediest of all? To not have a body, to not be bound by time and space, to move and change all things simply by thinking it. Hence: hands-free communication tools, self driving cars, increasing automation in all areas of manufacturing, and soon: every day access to virtual reality, which I fear more than anything else, because it will make it even easier and more attractive to ignore the karma of being an embodied spirit on earth.

WS: That’s the rub.

DL: Most of the time, I think we’re embodied because we are supposed to be. I don’t think the goal is to leave our bodies behind, despite what many major religions tell us. Humanity seems hell-bent on ridding itself of its pesky body—both the personal body, and Earth. So there are other moments where I think: well hey, we’re tool-making animals: maybe we’re destined to become cyborgs, what do I know? And we may be taking such bad care of Earth that cyborgification may be our only hope for prolonging our species.

Poetry has always been sparked by the body/spirit problem. It is the central thing it sings about, whether in love poetry, religious poetry, or poems of resistance. Even in surrealist work, in poetry that seems driven primarily to explore and express the Imagination’s circus, the underlying tension is the way such poems sing against the Imagination’s annihilation, inevitable because it is housed in a mortal body (cf. Keats’ Urn). Technology and Poetry sing out of the same mouth because it’s the only mouth we’ve got.

WS: I love how what you say makes sense of so many large and disparate forces in society (religion and technology and even politics). I’ve heard before that, in terms of subject matter, there are only about four or five poems that one can write; but your response really makes me think that every question attempts to come to terms, in one way or another, with “being an embodied spirit on Earth.” In a way, that is what we are always talking about, as poets and as people. Everything is a response to that question.

DL: Yeah. I’m always interested in getting to source.

WS: Some of your poems tend toward a journalistic accounting of events, or a poetics of witness. I’m thinking about that rhetorical move in conjunction with your line, “information about information was the pollen we / deposited.” Is there something contemporarily important about taking stock of our experiences and saying what actually happened?

DL: Your question suggests that there is something extra going on in our contemporary times that makes “saying what actually happened” especially important. But “saying what actually happened” is always necessary to the history of human civilization, with its comings and goings of wrack and ruin, the rising and falling of silencing forces. One thing poetry has always done is bring us the news. But it brings it slant, it brings it with all its shadowy interiors intact. I often tell my students that, especially in the twentieth century, American Poetry offered a shadow history of the United States: Ginsberg’s HOWL and Plath’s ARIEL being crucial books of the 1950’s Silent Generation, books by Audre Lorde, Ntozake Shange, and Wanda Coleman bringing us the news of black women in the 1970 + ‘80s, when the Women’s Movement was first trying to reckon with its own white supremacy. But even beyond the cultural and political, poetry has always brought us the crucial news of the Unsaid and the Unseen, which is often news of the SOUL, which is the most undervalued, under-broadcasted news we get.

WS: I think that’s great—thinking of poetry as bringing the news of the soul! I also love what you said about poetry’s slant-ness being a way to keep “shadowy interiors intact.” I think if there is one reason people struggle with or choose not to read poetry, it is this slant-ness, so I am often looking for ways to articulate the utility and importance of complexity in poetry. Many people (initially) explain poetry’s slant-ness as an authorial trick that intellectually shows off by creating some uncrackable riddle or something, but of course poetry must present itself to us in a mysterious way because that is how the world presents itself to us. That is how we present ourselves to ourselves.

DL: I agree.

WS: You recently said in an interview with Divedapper that you’ve been teaching poetry to many non-poets and that in that experience, you feel like a “missionary bringing the word of weird.” I love that moniker, and I wonder what ways you have seen poetry’s weirdness impact the uninitiated.

DL: A student recently told me she recommended another student take my class by saying, “Dana’s classes will make you feel like you’re going insane—” When I asked, with some alarm, how this was an endorsement, my student explained that, before my classes, no one had ever opened up the unconscious to her as a creative source. Poetry gives wildness a shape, poetry says: your dreams and daydreams might be trying to say something worth hearing. Poetry says: your imagination has value! Pearl beyond price!

While this is not foregrounded in my classes, it’s inevitable for the psychotherapeutic to rise up in workshop, which I think is of great aid to undergraduates, especially those who don’t have much experience tracking their minds, or feelings: writing and reading closely and inevitably lead to aha! moments of revelation and reflection. Last year I had a very quiet student, who I could tell was in the midst of personal difficulties, write a heart-wrenching response to Michael Dickman’s first book, The End of the West, and the way it evokes drug addiction, which was something her family members were struggling with. This student had no idea that poetry could engage this territory: speaking about the suffering of body and soul in the grips of addiction, and how this suffering affected loved ones and communities. She’d thought poetry too formal and polite to do this: she responded not just to the subject matter in Dickman’s book, but also *the way* he worked with language to talk about it. Poetry offered this student a double epiphany: first, that she was not alone in her suffering, and, second, that Poetry was open to the full range of spoken and written speech.

WS: That’s a great story! It happens so often that people have such a limited view of what poetry is and can be, that it is often such a great experience to show them how variously strange the practice of poetry truly is.

DL: It really is! I mean, come on—poetry is such a weird and powerful technology.

WS: For years there has been a deep skepticism about the workshop setting. What do you find are the wonders and limitations of a poetry workshop?

DL: Workshop, as a teaching tool, has the capacity to help students of any age encounter language anew, and as material: its sonic capacities, its nuances, the wondrous effects of diction and figuration. If a workshop is not spending time discussing these things, it’s not an educating workshop. Workshops can also create learning and artistic communities. To go back to the class referenced above, it was really meaningful to these students to have a place where we could discuss the secret, the unsaid, the inmost heart. And the closeness they began to feel as their poems told their secrets, their thoughts, their doubts, their angers and confusions, made the workshop experience all the richer: they really wanted to help each other figure out the most artful way to get at the truths they were trying to tell. Workshops fail when they devolve into focus group, thumbs up/down experiences, where clarity and immediacy win every time. It’s important for creative writing teachers to bring up, again and again, the complex nature of experience and how that complexity informs poems; to model patience with what at first seems opaque and inaccessible; to help students gain access to complex work.

At the graduate level, I have more ambivalence about workshop. Sometimes the hungers and necessities of career-building, hyper-awareness of poetry fashions, thrum under workshop discussion. The facilitation of the instructor is paramount here to keep everyone’s eyes on the ball, which is to help each student more strongly and sharply express their vision and linguistic palette, no matter how fashionable or unfashionable that vision and palette may seem to be.

WS: Yes, I suppose I’m wary sometimes of workshop imposing too much onto a writer instead of helping one say most artfully what it is they want to say. It sounds like that is a danger you are very aware of as a teacher.

DL: Thanks.

WS: You have done a lot of essay work exploring and explicating some of poetry’s most canonical authors (Homer, Robert Lowell, Wallace Stevens, etc.). What is the importance of some of these writers to you, and do you think the canon is dangerously under attack?

DL: Hmm. I recently had someone studying with me express surprise and gratitude that I assigned him to read the canonical Modernist poets: Eliot, Williams, Stevens, etc. He said he had had no real idea how many of the craft approaches he was using in his own work came not from the contemporary but from poets working more than a hundred years ago. To truly be an informed citizen, one must familiarize oneself with the history of where they live. This is true for all citizenry, including citizens of the country of poetry.

Maybe we’re over-prescribing the debut on our reading lists; maybe censure or avoidance isn’t in the best interests of the students in our classrooms, when it comes to the sins of the canonical fathers (and mothers). And what a thorough and necessary education!-—-to confront, with a real spirit of inquiry, the paradox that some of poetry’s influential and innovative works of the past were produced by anti-semitic, racist, sexist, classist writers. It can be deeply uncomfortable and very challenging, for student and teacher, to have these conversations, but it seems the ethically and aesthetically sound approach.

WS: What you say makes a lot of sense out of a complex issue. I think the issue with having a canon probably emerges when canonical works become the only works being prescribed and read in academic settings. Given the way canonizing often ignores and silences voices and aesthetics from the margins, to treat canonical works as the model of “good” poetry would continue to silence those same voices and aesthetics.

DL: Totally, totally true. Because, as you said, the canon has ignored or silenced voices at the margin, we question, even deny, the value assigned it. The questioning is crucial. The denial, if knee-jerk, can get in the way of considering what the poems plunked on the canon’s gilded, ivy-strewn pedestals offered to the development of the art. For myself, I think the promoters of  the “canon” are hierarchical and exclusive, but the poetries inside the “canon” are merely a set of aesthetic artifacts, saying something about their moment in space and time. They offer a set of aesthetic suggestions. Power says “canon,” but the canonical poems are, simply, poems. Best to acquire knowledge of both the Power and the poems, their history of influence, and be free to absorb, embrace, rebut, reject, synthesize, mutate this influence, create anew.

WS: Thank you so much.

 

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Wesley Sexton is pursuing an MFA at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in online journals such as Story South, Literary Juice and The Connecticut River Review. He lives with his wife and cat near a large Pin Oak tree and several brambleberry shrubs.

A Brief God: A Review of Emilia Phillips' Empty Clip by Peter LaBerge

BY LUIZA FLYNN-GOODLETT

 Emilia Phillips'  Empty Clip  (University of Akron Press, 2018).

Emilia Phillips' Empty Clip (University of Akron Press, 2018).

Empty Clip, Emilia Phillips's staggering third collection, was the first in my (admittedly brief) reviewing history that I've read in its entirety before making any notes or underlining what jumped out at me. I simply couldn't slow down thanks to the immediacy of these poems—a breathlessness tempered by deep tenderness that's only possible in the wake of true reckoning.

During my second reading, I realized it's one of those books that arrives exactly when you need it most and begins speaking as if it's sitting beside you, ready to take your hand. I'd hazard that we're all feeling a bit vulnerable these days, beaten down by years of unending regression. And, for many, the unique horror of this historical moment has caused old traumas to resurface, and triggers we'd imagined had faded are flaring back to life. Phillips has called this her "book of fears," and she faces those fears unflinchingly, as in "One Year After Contemplating Suicide," where the speaker refers to "the future / into which you survive still, / a dirt road / mile-markered by loss." Phillips makes the case that loss is our true common language and acknowledges the ways in which we're indelibly marked by it in poems like "Apostrophe, Oregon Hill," where the speaker identifies "your absence dense inside me as a fulgurite / in sand after a lightning / storm."  Phillips also recognizes how powerless we are at keeping loss from ripping through our lives, as in "Campus Shooter PowerPoint and Information Session":

If a shooter
enters your classroom, there's nothing
I can do, he says, loosening his
tie. But I can help the classroom next
door.

But Phillips's eye lingers on spaces where horror and beauty, trauma and trust, brutality and gentleness rub against each other, throwing sparks, as in "facesofdeath.com," where the speaker notices "how the bullet / grooved clean into the skin below / her clavicle. A buttonhole, a baby's / mouth." This speaker clings to the world even as it shifts and bucks away, as in "To the Neighbor Boy with His Father's Hunting Rifle, Begging the Police to Shoot," where "I watched instead / the tree in your parents' yard / sway, turning out its leaves / like wrists." Or "Denouement":

The snow was up to my knees.
The shovel handle cracked in two.

The nuclear plant high-rised
steam. It was the most heavenlike thing

I've ever seen.

Ultimately, Phillips asks how we might be burnished by suffering, hammered until we're more pliable, and ultimately, oriented toward empathy, as in "The Days That Were Have Now," where the speaker imagines, "After the accident / one man will say to another, / She could be bleeding internally, / don't move her." This speaker looks to the almost imperceptible moments of grace that suffering makes possible, as in "On a Late-Night Encounter with a Barefoot College Student Wearing Only a Party Dress and a Man's Blazer," where the speaker relates that encounter, then shifts between it and a classroom incident in which a student inadvertently reveals she's been raped. At the end:

She cried in the back seat wanting

to know if I was going to fail her
I said I wasn't        I didn't

but in truth I really don't know.

That's a gutting acknowledgment of how we fail each other, how even the best intentions can come up short in the wake of trauma, but it's also a reaching toward, a witnessing of that failing, and a questioning of how we might mitigate it and somehow be better to one another.

The engine powering this book is possibility—the uncertain promise of tomorrow and the curiosity we muster to face it, and that's most evident in poems like "One Year After Contemplating Suicide," where the impulse toward self-annihilation "comes like desire, / the way the smell / of soap turns you / back into a body— / the body that wanted that body"; even when turning away from the world, Phillips's speaker pivots inexorably back into it. Phillips's gift for possibility leads to moments like this in "Overpass," where the speaker asserts, "I'm ready to say / that whatever / holds / our attention is a brief / god." And I'll take her at her word—this book, wrought from Phillips's attention, is a brief god whose gospel is empathy and whose rites bind us to our brief, uncertain lives.

 

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Luiza Flynn-Goodlett is the author of the chapbooks Unseasonable Weather (dancing girl press, 2018) and Congress of Mud (Finishing Line Press, 2015). Her work can be found in Third Coast, Granta, Quarterly West, DIAGRAM, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She serves as poetry editor for Foglifter Press and lives in sunny Oakland, California.

A Review of Tomás Q. Morín's Patient Zero by Peter LaBerge

BY WESLEY SEXTON

 Tomás Q. Morín's  Patient Zero  (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Tomás Q. Morín's Patient Zero (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

In his second collection of poetry, Tomás Q. Morín takes to task some of poetry’s biggest questions—those of language, love, and myth–in his signature, playful style, which is awe-inspired and reminiscent of Mary Ruefle or James Tate, yet derivative of no one. Whether he is mythologizing, investigating the types of influence we inherit as members of culture and language, or sigh-singing the cyclical process of love lost and found, Morín manages to tell it all in a way that inspires open-eyed curiosity, or, in the darkest cases, disappointed amazement. Those readers seeking a lens through which the world appears both strange and amazing, despite and because of its brokenness, will love encountering this new book.

Again and again, the speakers in Morín’s Patient Zero seek to understand the terms of their existence—what it means to live in a world where so little is ever fully explained. One might think such a task would take the form of intense and widespread questioning, but there are extremely few questions actually posed in Patient Zero. Rather, Morín encourages us to indulge in imaginative instances of history, persona, and impossibility until a conglomeration of provisional and possible answers to the question of truth begin to emerge. Throughout the book, Morín employs various intellectual strategies such as ekphrasis, translation, and epistolary forms; but never does his speaker take him/herself unproductively seriously. In fact, Morín seems to take pains to ensure nothing is too neatly wrapped, undermining poems at their most conclusive points with fantastical and absurd assertions, such as “one could love a herring / I suppose if the timing were right and the moon / shone just so and the fish could order a pizza / for two in near perfect French.” In another instance, Morín’s speaker interrupts a desperate search for a runaway lover to comment on the appearance of 3s and 8s: “those conjoined twins / disastrously separated at birth.” No matter the context, there is always a willingness to let absurdity into the mental landscape; and in every case, the situation is rendered more artfully and truthfully because of the inclusion.

Always, Morín’s poems navigate a balance between fancy and reality. Sometimes a poem begins with a slightly impossible set of assumptions and proceeds logically from there, as in “Ai,” which imagines the Japanese American poet as an atomic element and proceeds with a faithful description according to those terms. In another way, the speaker in “At the Supermarket” describes the scene and all its characters to us as if they are “trapped in a Rockwell.” At other times Morín’s speaker will use facts and logical processes to reach delightfully unexpected conclusions. In “Gold Record,” for example, the historical fact that NASA sent a record of various earthly sounds onto the Voyager space shuttle lands us on “shag rugs,” listening to music with a “race smart enough to escape / gravity and cross the peacock-black / of galaxies.”

Consistently, Morín’s poems create a moment where the fantastical and whimsical butt right up against the mundane and the ubiquitous. It is often at their most absurd moments that the poems in Patient Zero reveal to us something deeply and undeniably true. When circus clowns cram into a tiny car in “Circus Pony,” this cultural epitome of absurdity becomes a way to speak authentically about performativity of the emotional self and the particulars of existence. In this way, Morín’s poems awaken us to the absurdity that exists within us and within our world to make it so we may delight in that absurdity, to make us more human.

Throughout Patient Zero, there are also many clear-eyed attempts to come to terms with what it means to be a modern person and to be influenced by a truly syncretic culture. Morín’s speakers claim both characters from the Old Testament and professional wrestlers from ‘80s television as sources of inspiration and cultural identity. We encounter attempts and non-attempts at translation, and we are asked to question the selective power language enacts on our consciousness. As mentioned above, the poem “Ai” imagines the poet Ai Ogawa as a periodic element, literally becoming one of the fundamental building blocks out of which Morín builds his book. Cumulatively, the reader receives a view of globalization and cultural relativity as processes of creativity and perspective building.

Similarly, Morín includes in this collection a brilliant translation of Pablo Neruda’s “Calle a calle,” which is more commonly translated as “Walking Around,” displaying a glimpse of the talent brought most fully to fruition in Morín’s translation of The Heights of Machu Pichu.

Amidst these homages to intercultural experience is a deep-seeded and ambivalently answered question: How much can honestly be transferred from one culture to another? What is lost in the process of translation? In the poem “Saudades” (saudade being a word that is imprecisely translated as nostalgic), Morín’s speaker warns us against translation “unless [we’ve] been a disciple of the rough grief / that lovingly wraps [us] in its wings.” However, Morín also invites us into such discipleship, saying it

is warmer
than one would expect, so much so that it’s easy
to forget for a moment something trivial like pigs
aren’t supposed to fly or that if you say saudades
with enough pain and heart the pigs of your past will come
trotting out of the dark, doing their little sideways dance
around you, shaking their hips to the drum
in your chest until you forget what a frown is
or why we need them.

In a similar way, the speakers in “Little Road” and “Red Herring” relish in the imaginative possibilities presented by misunderstood and poorly-pronounced languages. Here, a connection might be made to Morín’s willful obfuscation of mundane reality throughout Patient Zero. Just as a person less-than-fluent in French can walk around a French market pretending to be blown “so many kisses / with every r and l and w they speak,” there is a way in which Morín’s poems encourage us to resist perfect understanding so as to see the world with curiosity and awe.

This encouragement, however, never tends toward escapism or willful ignorance—perhaps because Morín acknowledges some of the world’s deepest sadnesses in his poems. Morín is not oblivious to the damage we do to each other, but he makes us see the “pitiful soul, hand at his punctured / side, trying to groan louder than the TVs / the neighborhood keeps turning up.” In a poem addressed to an aborted daughter, Morín’s speaker tells of “all the birthdays / I’ve celebrated but that haven’t come / to pass since that day long ago when we agreed / it would be better if you never drew that / first breath of air.”

Morín’s speakers do not close their eyes to sadness, but they do not close their eyes to possibility, either. We experience, as readers, a push-pull relationship with a world that does not yet know the best way to love us. On both grand and personal scales, Morín enacts the story of “love / gone cold, and its light, the clammy light we might spend / years saying we can’t live without and then do.” Whether told through the grandiosity of eternal space travel or the specificity of a weekend vacation, the poems in Patient Zero tell a story of love’s incompleteness, creating in us a longing in which the world seems beautiful. In the book’s titular poem, Morín imagines the moment that Adam and Eve fell into lovesickness. The speaker speculates as to the source of their affliction, and though a definitive “patient zero” remains unnamed, we eventually learn of lovesickness that it is “something, and divine, and endless.” For Morín, if the world has a stable state, it is this oscillation between love and disappointment, or the true expression of love together with its souring. In some cases, both of these oscillations occur simultaneously, as in Morín’s supermarket retelling of the Caritá Romana, as well as his longest poem, “Sing Sing,” in which a Muse is imprisoned for lovingly intervening in her poet’s life. In both poems, tales of love and imprisonment are knotted together and retold in an identifiably American landscape.

Morín takes us from the enormous to the minutiae and from the universal to the personal, always encouraging us to come to terms as fully as possible with what it means to be a person. What does it mean to inherit one culture, complete with its language and habits and qualitative assumptions, instead of another? What does it mean to admit the limits of our understanding? What does it mean to be profoundly disappointed by the same world that asks us in a million strange ways to love it? The poems in Patient Zero take as a central concern the belief that the stories we tell ourselves affect who we become, and in response, they offer us several marvelously unique narrative possibilities.

 

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Wesley Sexton is pursuing an MFA at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in online journals such as Story South, Literary Juice and The Connecticut River Review. He lives with his wife and cat near a large Pin Oak tree and several brambleberry shrubs.

 

A Review of Ghassan Zaqtan's The Silence That Remains by Peter LaBerge

BY ALLY FINDLEY

  The Silence That Remains , by Ghassan Zaqtan, translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

The Silence That Remains, by Ghassan Zaqtan, translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Ghassan Zaqtan’s The Silence That Remains speaks to the truths that live in the gaps between the episodic and ephemeral, marked “history,” “tragedy,” and “trauma” before our collective consciousness sails on. Zaqtan examines the space that is left between these flashes, and the forced reckoning of those left after the news crews retreat—the episodic nature of history and how personal lives continue on between the bullet points. There is a delicate redirection of our attention in this collection to the lives of people, with all their intricacies and enormities, in the margins and footnotes of historical trauma. Look at the people, these poems tell us. There, we will find the true magnitude of the cost of devastation.

This collection was compiled and organized from many other collections by its translator, Fady Joudah. Ordered temporally, Silence reveals Zaqtan’s penchant for alteration and revision, a lack of reverence for the set text. Some poems exist in different versions than their previously-published forms, others share the same title. His poetry lives in a way that other poetry rarely does, as he resists the tendency to imagine poetry statically and instead insists on the journey of each poem continuing, lending a fresh, timely currency to his verse and to his subject matter. His poems wend along through history, both personal and communal, preserved and (nearly) lost. This quality makes Zaqtan’s work (and particularly this collection) increasingly transferable and insistent on its continued relevance. Now especially, as trauma in Syria fills our news feeds and newsreels, the ways in which we memorialize such tragedy take on a painfully timely resonance—and unavoidable visibility.

Zaqtan’s experience, however, stems largely from his experience with conflicts in his native Palestine and later with violence in Lebanon. Born a Palestinian poet near Bethlehem in 1954, he identifies with those certain elements of the diverse Arabic poetic tradition. He has lived and written in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Tunisia, and a sense of place informs his poetic approach. In “Fingers,” found toward the beginning of the collection, Zaqtan asks, “What’s that ringing in the brevity of silence, / delicate between destruction’s instant / and fire’s eruption?” His answer:

Unrelenting and wise
fingers disassemble the horizon
into houses and send it back
to the beauty of dirt, iron, and people

Zaqtan articulates through his poetry, and particularly through this collection, that what remains, and what is built in that space, is defined by what has been taken. And in that sense, he places great evidence on physical space, belonging to that space when your home, your territory, the land that your ancestors made their own, has been taken from you. That land, once you are robbed of it, becomes the factor that defines you and informs the emotional and psychological landscape around you. In an interview with PBS’ Jeffrey Brown, Zaqtan explained, “For this uncertain place, for uncertain life, which we have in this area, we have to protect our personal history. A complete people has lost its future, has lost the location, has lost its place. And, obviously, poetry is one of the most expressive forms in order to reach the people. This is why the poets were the first to remind these people of their identity.”

In the poem “Khalil Zaqtan,” which eulogizes his late father and was originally published in a 1988 collection, Zaqtan writes:

And I will gather the house of your chucked absence.
As if we were alone on earth
[...] you die
so I can fold the falcon's wings after its departure
and believe the silence that remains.

This image of the house made out of “chucked absence” builds into Zaqtan’s theme of loss creating space. He extends this concept of building out of emptiness in his emphasis of the poem as a built space or landscape, using the language of physical place to describe the intangible or abstract. In “Khalil Zaqtan,” this house is the loss of his father. The poem “A Swallow” applies this perspective to the process of writing poetry and perhaps reveals something of Zaqtan’s concept of the poetic process. The poem begins describing its author: “Maybe he came out of a hole / in the evening’s wall,” “he became a carpet for the poem.”

A great deal of Zaqtan’s power lies in his ability to overlay our mental high-resolution photographs of war zones (public trauma, media narratives) with people we recognize, faces we know. He writes, “Two faces in catastrophe: / my father and his horse.” The minute details of people and things render the true face of loss clearly. The poem “Another Death,” already devastating in its sense of devastation-as-routine, begins “Her corpse is in front of the door,” but continues:

her standing there, singing at night, the glare of her silver comb
her knee that darts lightning our way
her glass rings

her henna-washed hair and pagan handshake
her laugh by the door
her gist in throwing her hair back or letting it down

She is seen not just as a body, but as all of the moments witnessed and all of the habits of the woman herself, the individuality painted vividly where, otherwise, she would become a number. In this capacity, Zaqtan prevents us from being able to to abstract these events, tying our inevitable private and mundane similarities, our small individual habits, to these public narratives which otherwise can only evoke sympathy without empathy. He builds for us a physical landscape, layering it with the moments and the people it witnessed—in peace, in war, and after:

The metal
the metal that tumbled
and whistled and howled
and sparkled in the space of the abyss
and in the middle of the roar
exactly there, in that corner
where coffee windows used to open in your eyelids

The precision of place is emphatic: “exactly there, in that corner.” It is important to get that corner right. It further emphasizes the seemingly inconceivable coexistence of these peaceful moments with the trauma that followed and that, but for memories, erased them. Rendering them here is Zaqtan’s rejection of that erasure, and his refusal to separate the peaceful and the traumatic events that have inhabited these spaces, as he layers these experiences and sensations over the same physical space.

This depiction gives the devastation a tangible human cost, and the contrast makes the loss more sharply felt for the fact that it was not, and never was, inevitable. Zaqtan uses the pinpricks of the quotidian, the peacefully banal, to sketch the outlines of the ineffable last reality of loss, deftly inserting his realities into the mental and emotional landscapes of those who will never physically witness those truths. In its telling of those truths, one of the poems that strikes me is “Their Absence.” It begins “and what remains,” bringing to mind the title of the collection, and its answer: silence. What remains is their absence, and this absence is stated in the presence of what have left. The poem reads:

And what remains
but little little
and their shirts
fabric that spreads on trees

banners that tug
only at trees

and are not received
a triumph

The banner of a nationalist conflict loses any honor in victory as it hangs from the body of a child. Objects lose their identity without the people they are connected to: a shirt becomes mere fabric without the child who once wore it. Humanity infuses these objects, and that humanity is then preserved in those same objects as evidence that humans lived. They were there.

Only a great poet can make you feel such grief and shame with the description of a small cotton shirt, can make you see the suggestion of a body and of a whole life lived inside of it—how the shirt fit against warm skin, present and dynamic. We don’t know what has happened, not overtly (in the sense that we, most of us, weren’t there—and none of us, living, reading, were the child). The context, however, is transferable, in the sense that this is what war does, what natural disasters do. This is what inhabiting these spaces, post-devastation, is like—living in the ringing silence of after. We are never told why the shirt flaps, deserted in the tree, but the weight of context resolves the final image. Zaqtan elevates this silence as the most pure form of communication, the most universally and instinctively understood. In his introduction to Silence, Joudah writes, “If silence is sacred language, golden, then everything else is inferior translation.” Rather than the absence of communication, it is instead the most pure form of it.

Formally, Zaqtan deftly crafts in short, delicate lines. His words would weigh too heavily and hang too simply for the sustained, breathy, and ornate line; each line says what it needs to say and says enough with little. Zaqtan’s manuscript is measured and cut into simple, observational truths which are constructed to reveal but not to dictate. He relies on the collective ability of an audience to fill the silences he leaves for us, knowing our innate similarities will guide our realizations. His language is sparing but not sparse. It is pared down to its densest core, the most suggestive words alone and undiluted in their force, darkly suggesting to us what we already know but perhaps do not yet see. We, unlike the people Zaqtan gives voice to, are not forced to make our lives in the aftershocks of this history. He paints for us life after the dust settles.

Silence resists our tendency to abstract history, news, and distance. Zaqtan’s poems read as necessarily internal, but they externalize distance, be it physical, emotional, psychological, or the distance of privilege—or lack thereof. The invasion of Lebanon, for example, took place as he was writing—a rocket literally burned down his Beirut apartment and many copies of his own poems. For me, this recalls Cameron Awkward-Rich’s “The Cure for What Ails You”: “cruelty, after all, is made of distance.”

Formally, Zaqtan refuses finality in his poems—an absence of final punctuation. Whether or not we can chalk such formal decisions up to difference in cultural or linguistic conventions, this absence creates the effect of a denied ending, a resistance to comfortably folding these scenes into the past or separating these stories from ourselves. As a poet,  Zaqtan is never finished with the poems, and we, as members of a global society, are never finished with his subject matter. In “Always,” he writes:

Seven days ago was Thursday afternoon
I read the poem
the one that was supposed to have been finished
that morning
and it wasn’t finished
For seven years
I finish it every morning then doze off
and by evening
I always catch it
opening its doors on the sly
and calling talk in

This volume is beautifully produced by Copper Canyon Press with the Arabic (verso) printed alongside its English translation (recto). As each script is read in opposite directions (English left to right, Arabic right to left), Zaqtan’s words stream outward from the center. The Silence That Remains is a collection to reflect on and return to, a thoughtful meditation delicately rendered.

 

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Ally Findley is currently the Assistant Editor at David R. Godine, Publisher in Boston. She holds a B.A. in English from Cornell University.

A Review of Diane Seuss' Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Peter LaBerge

BY E.B. SCHNEPP

 Diane Seuss'  Still Life with Two Peacocks and a Girl  (Graywolf Press, 2018).

Diane Seuss' Still Life with Two Peacocks and a Girl (Graywolf Press, 2018).

A story presented through still life, Diane Seuss’ fourth collection, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, exquisitely layers self, art, and language, while struggling with femininity, violence, and the question of the gaze. A collection set primarily within paintings, we see both self and painting only in fragments: the folded hands of a girl, the tail feathers of a dead peacock, a basket of fruit. Only at the collection’s conclusion do we see Rembrandt’s painting, from which the collection borrows its title, and arguably the self of the poems, whole. By this point, we know the painting and, indeed, the story Seuss is trying to tell, all the better for its slow approach to completion. This slow reveal doesn’t come from a desire to conceal or from a coyness, but rather from a well-crafted intention to draw the reader in—all the while making the reader question precisely from where they are viewing the image and the speaker. Are we in a gallery surrounded by paintings, viewed at one’s own leisure, led by an eccentric guide? Or are readers themselves bound by canvas and frame, being as much the viewed as the viewer?

Still Life both opens and closes within a painting titled Paradise, wherein Seuss introduces readers to the painting as self: “I have lived in a painting called Paradise, and even the bad parts / were beautiful.” In this first poem, the speaker shows readers around her world, piece by piece, the same way we are brought to the art and to the speaker herself. But it is also an exploration of borders and boundaries, a journey we do not take alone as we wander through the world of the speaker, getting to know her through the art she lives within.

[…] I am told some girls
slide their fingers over the frame and feel the air outside of it,
and some even climb over the edge and plummet to wherever

Before we can reach this point of understanding, we have to take time to live in the painting, within the frame, to wander in and out of the lives given to us on canvas, and occasionally to slip behind the eyes of the men and women who created them. Mid-collection, painters find themselves painted into the quintessential Midwestern landmark, Wal-mart. “Like you, we enter the store. Like you, we exit. The light outside will not relent.” All of these figures—the real imagined in a new space and the imagined presented as real—are treated with such tenderness and reverence it’s impossible to look away, impossible to not imagine Georgia O’Keefe, for example, standing beside you in a Wal-mart parking lot:

from above, we’d like to believe, it’s made of the same bone that we are.
How high would we have to go to see it as the skull of the deer we found
summers ago in the creek bed? Deep down we know it was not born and
cannot die.

This journey through painting and representation to the real also comes with loss and considerable harm to the speaker. The tangible “Real” that the speaker ventures toward and ultimately escapes into means inhabiting a body and the baggage that comes with that existence.

[…] I flew when I was five. Levitated, I guess.
                                                    […] Floated

there as if in a warm sea. It happened often
until I was ten, when I had the thought
that human beings can’t fly and was dropped,
As if from the beak of a large owl, onto the floor.

I was banged up. Cuts and bruises.
From then on, inhabiting my body felt shameful,
like I’d been ejected from the Garden and was
sentenced to a life of peeing and wiping,

But more than the raw shame of being a body, Seuss gets to the core of the daily violence of inhabiting the world; she gets to the daily maintenance and indignities of those bodies. She reminds us that “to belong to the land / and the people that made you is itchy / as hand-knitted wool.” This never negates a deep love for those same people but merely acknowledges the irritation and ache of it, which in the end makes the tenderness she has for the characters and figures of this collection all the sweeter and more meaningful.

Seuss and, indeed, her speaker are testing the boundaries of the body and frame—both a literal picture frame, the frame of a poem, and the more metaphorical frame of existence. The literal picture frame in which the recurring female painted figures find themselves contained is also being toyed with in a more literal fashion, the itchiness of inhabitation and the tenderness toward the figures on the other side of the idealized Paradise measured—until, finally, she finds the courage to leave:

                                                          […] I remembered
 
it all: my yellow room, my little crib with decals of butterflies
and a black-and-white dog and a gold cat on the headboard,

how I’d compose stories about them in my head before I could
speak, and the yellow bird we kept in a cage […]

                                                          […] I wanted
my mother, and this is why I left Paradise.

In traveling through these poems, we are slowly exposed to the literal painting that haunts this collection until, finally, we can see the full image at the same time that the speaker finally escapes her frame. These concepts speak volumes to the palpable constraint of the poems, as well as to the gaze. With the figures of the painting stepping beyond the frame, they become a little more real—whole individuals (typically female and, as such, more likely objects gazed upon than active participants) given more direct agency. The empowerment and revitalization of these typically-female figures—the perspective shift, each gazing at the world from their frame—shifts our perspectives and expectations as much as Seuss’ speaker stepping directly out of the frame and back into the “Real.”

Throughout Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, Seuss demonstrates remarkable tenderness toward her figures and speakers, exquisite control over form and design, and has given us, her readers, another exquisite collection, where visual art and poem are combined into an inextricable whole. Readers can’t help but be drawn into the frames the figures occupy, joining the speaker post-expulsion from the constrained but safe world of the painting into the sweet ache of reality upon its close. The world outside the pages seems fresh and leaves the reader questioning what or which frames they occupy, who they are gazing upon, who is gazing upon them, and most terrifying of all, what they might find if they took the leap, if they were to fully occupy and embody whatever lies beyond.

 

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E.B. Schnepp is a poet hailing from rural Mid-Michigan who currently finds herself stranded in the flatlands of Ohio. Her reviews can also be found in the Mid-American Review, and her poetry can be found in QU, The Evansville Review, and Roanoke Review, among others.

 

 

A Review of Eric Pankey's Augury by Peter LaBerge

BY BEN LEE

 Eric Pankey's  Augury  (Milkweed Editions, 2017).

Eric Pankey's Augury (Milkweed Editions, 2017).

Speculation—the foundation for all things literary and scientific—harbors the ambiguous no-man’s-land between curiosity and truth. In poetry, speculation offers the incredible capacity to alter perception and shed new light. Speculation is hope; it is risk, and to be perfectly clear, speculation is everything. Eric Pankey’s newest collection of poems, Augury, brings speculation to the forefront of his literary adventure and offers the reader a chance to step into a surreal and uncharted realm of explication.

Centered around the conflation of metaphysicality and seemingly mundane objects, each line in Pankey’s book shape-shifts. In his poem, “Another Time,” Pankey exhibits such fluid adaptations in imagery to give dimension to a chipped flower vase at a funeral for someone’s mother: “[She] felt the flaw on the vase’s neck: / A crack as fine as fishbone in the glaze / […] The past, she’d learned, is like a fishhook— / Curved and barbed” (43). Suddenly, the fractured vase at the mother’s wake—seemingly mundane and insignificant—arrests the protagonist like the way a tiny but sharp hook latches onto a fish. In other words, Pankey’s sentences are like minefields, cunningly ridden with trap doors and explosions where one least expects.

Often taking the form of concise conjectures, his poems also leave the reader with a hint of mysterious distrust, as many of them contain a dissonance that can only be resolved by reading further into the book. His poem “Vespers” literally culminates in a final note on the evening prayers in question. In a final breath, the speaker remarks, “The drone upon which harmony hangs” (40). The fragmented sentence, coupled with its physical separation from any other line in the poem, emit an actual feeling of dissonance. Amazingly, Pankey recreates a musical setting within poetry, striking a final chord that, while poignant, begs to be continued. Furthermore, Pankey’s poems act like puzzles, as they challenge their beholder to make new sense of both how they appreciate the space around them and how they interact with their confines. From ponderings on celestial allure to the gritty reality of Midwest alcoholism, Pankey slyly intertwines an area of reality with dreaming. In his “Speculation on Immanence,” he explicates the implications of confinement, noting:

The room is
Unnoteworthy
Except for the dreams…

And Magdalene’s face

Still illuminated
By the skull
She consults (27).

In essence, Pankey clouds the difference between mental and physical captivity. One’s own head space becomes synonymous to a cell-like room, as if to say that internal thoughts can be just as enclosing as a physical internment; what may happen in a dream interchanges with reality.

Although many of his poems consist of two to three line stanzas, Augury also contains a more lengthy piece with a singular nugget of prose on each page—often made poignant by the delicate use of paradox. In a speculation on melancholia, the speaker self-reflects, asserting that he is “Distracted, attached / To an absence, / Attentive to only distractedness” (17). Instead of writing about distraction outright, Pankey toys with the duality of attentiveness and distractedness, utilizing paradox to blur the convention that a person can only exist in a state of one or the other. Additionally, in an emphasis on the importance of speculation in creating poetry, Pankey admits, "At a loss of words, I write poems" (38). Here, Pankey remarks that poetry lives to explicate the inexplicable; in order to make sense of what is unfamiliar, a poet must draw from and transmute what they already know. As a result of this rationalization and subsequent experimentation, paradox bubbles to the surface.

Aside from paradox, some of Pankey’s poems also employ elements of wonder, as to create a whimsical awe that disrupts otherwise dark images. The speaker in his longer prose piece, “Souvenir de Voyage,” recalls a fantastical journey, laced with outlandish imagery: “Don’t expect to find there votaries of a vestigial cult of Dionysus, twin falcons rending the flank of a gazelle, or a shroud of jade squares held together with copper wire” (68). Dionysus, the Greek god of grape harvest and wine-making, connotes a luxurious sentiment. In corroboration, the likeness of two falcons on either side of a gazelle embodies a graceful but mythical scene. To top it all off, the jade and copper add a material regalness, resulting in a wholly fanciful section of the poem. As a whole, Augury simultaneously grapples with dark paradox along with fantastic imagery. In the employment of both truth and abstraction, he blurs the lines of thematic conflict, leaving the reader to make sense of a void in which what is real and what is not are open to question. Essentially, Augury enforces not only meditation, but speculation.

 

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Originally from the Twin Cities area, Ben Lee is the 2017 National Student Poet for the Midwest and a two-time national medalist in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. He attends The Blake School in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Review: Darling Nova by Melissa Cundieff (Poetry) by Peter LaBerge

By Guest Reviewer Cara Dees.

  Darling Nova , by Melissa Cundieff (Autumn House Press, 2018).

Darling Nova, by Melissa Cundieff (Autumn House Press, 2018).

As the title suggests, Darling Nova explores both the intimate and the infinite, documenting the brilliant, immense fragility of human and animal life immediately before and after it has dimmed. Melissa Cundieff’s first full-length poetry collection announces its obsessions from the first poem: “reminiscence is an augury / backwards, a slow bullet returning to us, now.” Here, speakers mourn not only those whom they have lost, but also the futures that will never come to fruition, consumed alongside the dead. Like the return of the “slow bullet,” reminiscing is a form of retroactive self-destruction. In this space, Cundieff seeks to warn, remember, and record, “To show the crows / that coins can be plucked after all from our friends’ eyes.”

Cundieff’s attention to the transient and the evanescent echoes throughout the many elegies piercing the collection, whether it portrays a child mourning the loss of “a floating pinpoint of dust” or a speaker’s first experience with death after watching a hawk’s “pupil turn...so black / I felt as though I had been blindfolded and led high up / a cliff, then pushed.” Settings range from a John Wayne movie set seeped in carcinogens, to a mass killing in Oklahoma State University’s homecoming parade, to the island of Kos. The latter is the backdrop to “Ellipsis,” an unblinking lament for Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy made famous in the photograph depicting his drowning:

Trying to think of a next, selfish line,
I’ll hear his breath like white noise.
(Looking past the water’s surface, pennies

in blue sleep. Is it not built into our eyes
to be sorry?)

Most often, the elegies of Darling Nova focus on the deaths of children and the “never-born” from the poem, “Hurt Music.” The voices of the dead disappear and reappear, a “living ghost to my edges,” reminders of the adult’s ironic outliving of the young existence she cannot shield from harm.I cannot help but think of Joanna Newsom’s gut-wrenching song, “Baby Birch,” the lyrics of which serve as the epigraph to the collection: “And at the back of what we’ve done / There is the knowledge of you.” Though only mentioned once, “Baby Birch” haunts the book, whether in the unflinching portrayal of abortion (“The bell’s emptied space / has no name”) or within the immeasurably delicate tissues of a man receiving the news of his terminal illness in “A Scene”:

When told decay
has made its way into his absolute,

where thinnest vessels flicke
in synapse and in remembered birdsong...

In this poem, the subject’s future is suddenly amputated, any prospect of survival cut short. The speaker is left to recognize and contemplate what the man “doesn’t recognize...all those losses / parading the bone-white god’s breath / of x-ray with its careful promises.” Like the image-driven lyricism of Brigit Pegeen Kelly, in which “the dead can mother nothing...nothing but our sight,” Cundieff is concerned with the act of witnessing death, the survivor’s consequent trauma, and the unreliability of written accounts of that witnessing.

Cundieff speaks to this witnessing with an incisive, luminous detail that permeates elegies like “Poem for Infinite Returns,” in which the speaker vows to “not make a metaphor of you,” or in the poem, “Hoping Wherever You Are, You Are Not Watching”:

                    In this trial of willing
you and your dogs to the widening, altered sky, I will call,
but you will not answer, because you, like our father, cannot,
could not ever, bear the asking noise of my voice.

Though often confronted with silence, abandonment, or the dark, laconic responses of household objects and animals, the speaker insists on finding answers in the voices of the past, even though she warns the reader of the danger of this undertaking, as in “Adam in Love”: “The risk of remembering is guilt, my friends, / and the clock’s beating lockstep, real.” There is real consequence in this struggle against forgetting; remembrance carries with it both guilt and the fixed grind of time.

Cundieff’s insistence on mourning, despite its certainty of guilt and pain, recalls Larry Levis’ declaration: “Every revolution ends, or it begins, in memory / Someone remembering her diminishment & pain.” As in Levis, the voices that answer the speaker—if they do answer—tend to be brutally, bitingly honest, as in “Eyeteeth”:

                  So often I ask my house
for its honesty. It answers back: stacking doll, rind, bitch,
chanteuse, fist. I ask again. This time, what is memory made of?
The house answers: compass, compulsion, headlights fugitive at night,
teeth speaking their white, a birthday cake on fire, a mirror’s
ten thousand scraped and silver darlings.

If remembering is an act of revolution or defiance, it is also an act of love, one that insists on praising the “silver darlings” of the smashed reflection alongside the bright ferocity of fire, teeth, and bone.

At times Cundieff moves into the realm of prophecy and myth, with speakers centered between the living and the dead, the spoken and the unspoken, the past and the present. These aphoristic interjections, typically set off in italics, are a trademark of Cundieff’s work, as in the never-born’s command to “Carry me in the bell, betrayer. / In the apogee of your voice / to my voice.” In “Indexical,” both the “necessary message” of the leaves and the speaker’s thoughts take on an oracular weight:

                                             October leaves
assemble a necessary message, the bright red

of their dying a symptom of denial.

The weather knows there is no such thing
as the absolute absence of hope.
I doubt

in a year we will even be talking.

The speaker is not only a reader of signs; she is also a translator and messenger, even if that message is one of silence or of the unspeakability of love or grief. Poetry and song have within them the potential for both ecstasy and transcendence. In Darling Nova, that transcendence is less about rising above the human realm and is more dependent upon confronting and staring down decay, transforming it into the human. “I sang my old / language with a worm in it,” the speaker of “Rebirth” intones. “[A]nd the worm dangled / with every exhale it took to conjure the distant / vowels of humanness.”

In the second half of the collection, “Romance at the Abandoned Mine” and “Paradox” mark a shift in focus; while continuing to contemplate mortality, humanness, and language’s incapacity to fully encompass the two, there is a growing concern with desire and the living body. In “Paradox,” the heart, which “cannot speak at all without / metaphor,” bursts beyond human expression, compelling the speaker to “realize I’m not dead yet, / that I can come back from fading / into the body’s old routine / of being alive.” The heart offers the physical pulse and rush of blood, but it is also uncontainable, powerfully elusive, and a testament to the limitations of language, “just a tongue not knowing / not even touching, / another tongue.” Later, in “As Beginning, As End,” the mother speaks to the daughter who wishes to travel back in time to reclaim her infancy, “We have left each other / for each other. The body wishes. The body is a wish.” The mother and daughter have, by necessity, separated into two solitudes, and the infant daughter, “all tangle / before word” has disappeared. The body is more than the vessel of a soul, spirit, or consciousness; it is its own hymn to vitality in all its devastating impermanence.

Darling Nova conjures a deep loneliness, the ache and anodyne of motherhood and daughterhood, and the finite scope of language, itself. There is much that distinguishes this collection from others—its subtle musicality and fierce, fearless imagery, for starters—but part of what makes these poems tick is also the incandescent steel of the voices underpinning the universe Cundieff creates. Her speakers do not shy away from “our anxieties / over death, over divorce and children, / [that] stare out like fallen fruits.” Rather, they “hold the rotten pear” and “stab...the wolf / in its yellow iris.” They fight tooth-and-nail to praise the body, to name suffering, to “tell the leaves above me that I've come here / to watch them change.”

 

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Cara Dees holds an MFA from Vanderbilt University and teaches at Vanderbilt and Fisk University. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a Pushcart Prize nomination, and was named a finalist for Indiana Review’s 2016 Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Beloit Poetry Journal, Best New Poets 2016, Crazyhorse, The Journal, GulfCoast, and Southern Humanities Review. Recently, her first manuscript was listed as a finalist or semifinalist for the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize, the Brittingham & Felix Pollak Prizes in Poetry, The Journal/Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize, and the St. Lawrence Book Award.

Review: Music for a Wedding by Lauren Clark (Poetry) by Peter LaBerge

By Guest Reviewer, Irina Teveleva.

Note: Reviewer Irina Teveleva and Adroit Interview and Reviews Manager Lauren R. Korn have created a Spotify playlist to accompany your reading of this review and subsequent (and inevitable) readings of Music for a Wedding. You can listen to "Music for a Book Review" here.

  Music for a Wedding , by Lauren Clark (Pitt Poetry Series, 2017).

Music for a Wedding, by Lauren Clark (Pitt Poetry Series, 2017).

 

The epigraph to Lauren Clark’s debut poetry collection Music for a Wedding, the winner of the 2016 Donald Hall Prize, comes from The Kinks’ song “Strangers.” The lyrics that open the collection suggest a love song rather than a dirge: “’til peace we find, tell you what I’ll do: / all the things I own, I will share with you.” The song, though, is about grief. The Kinks’ guitarist, Dave Davies, wrote the song for a friend who had died young of a drug overdose. In a 2010 interview with Stay Thirsty Magazine, Davies said, “It was like, what might have been if he hadn’t died so tragically.”

As the epigraph suggests, Music, too, is a book that catches the light at different angles. It is a book about a marriage ceremony, but it is also about a journey through the American heartland. It is a mixtape that features poems written after songs by Derek & The Dominos, Adele, Whitney Houston, The Mamas & The Papas, and the Lonesome Sisters. Most of all, it is a book about moving through grief and about searching for love, community, and connection—even when you feel the most lost.

If Music were an album, it would feature train signals and church organs, party noise and birdsong—Clark’s voice drawing everything together. One can hear the harmonic structure in “Mother’s Day,” the second poem in the collection. The speaker’s mother is digging through backyard dirt, searching for her dead husband as if to exhume him. One might expect the speaker to intervene, but instead they encourage her:

You have to pick up every shovel
and keep turning the ground. You
have to move soil until your hands
curdle. […] They will tell you
it’s wrong to keep shoveling, but
shovel forever. We all do.

This poem becomes an extended metaphor for the necessity of unearthing family secrets and airing skeletons hiding in closets. Clark’s speaker is telling the reader, you must talk about loss. Others will tell you that it’s wrong to keep grieving. They are wrong.

From this overturned soil, Music travels by train through rural America, past dark hills and lakes, farms and water towers, past daffodils old and new toward “the place / that is bigger than loss. The place that is big enough to hold every absence.”

In college, an archaeology professor taught me that in traveling, you should tune yourself to the local landscape in the same way that you would turn the dial in your car to the local radio station. In this way, he said, you should be able to recognize a small brook or a nameless hill in the landscape as a site of revelation, as much as a mountain or a canyon. When I read Music, I finally understood the metaphor; in this book, a field of corn can take on spiritual meaning. In “Listening to ‘Rolling in the Deep’ for Twenty Hours Straight,” Clark’s speaker describes how they watched as, outside of the train window, “All the people I love were standing in a mass in the middle of the spring / cornfield.” The field becomes a stand-in for human connection; “the cornfield taught me how much / can be mistaken for the touch of a human.” At this poem’s conclusion, the loved ones turn from each other, walking away in different directions. The poem ends, and the train and the speaker, too, are carried away.

In Music, the landscape becomes transformed by loss. Several of these poems gesture at a relationship between domestic violence and the violent history of westward expansion in the U.S. This collection resists easy answers about abuse. In “Parable,” a young child likens their body and that of an alcoholic father’s to a leg partnered with a shorter leg that others might see as deformed:

                     Who says both legs
have to be totally the same. Leg,
I can love your shortcomings.
Think of us as a set that walks.

It seems apt that a marriage ceremony is intertwined with the cross-country journey—two melodies in counterpoint. Over its course, small animals burn in a field and flower pots shatter; kitchenware is left outside and is filled with rainwater. This is a book of love poems—for people and for places—from a speaker who knows violence but holds hope for healing. And yet, so often, the speaker is also confronted with the limitations of what language can accomplish. In two poems about falling in love, sentences end with “and” unexpectedly, and. Then carry on again. In Clark’s translation, Catullus 101 is carved down to “I love you and I can’t prove it. / I love you and you don’t know.” The last poem in the collection, “Illinois in Spring,” concludes with the lines, “The wonder of watching a flying bird land / on water. The end of the line will always give you that feeling.” It is the end of the poetic line and, because this is the last poem in the book, the last stop on this train ride. This is as far as you can go; poetry can’t prevent an ending. One can anticipate that the dead will stay dead and that the lover might leave for good.

There is so much that Clark’s poetry can do for its readers. I read Clark’s poem about a road trip through the West, “Western Zuihitsu,” last spring, before it was reprinted in Music. Two weeks later, in the midst of life changes, I bought a train ticket to visit a friend in Indiana. It felt right to be physically moved by a poem, but as the train I was on rolled through the Midwest, I also thought about loss.

In these moments of transformation, Clark’s poetry is a source of strength and comfort. These dream-like poems are enough to stand on. Their promise is not that you will not lose anyone, but rather that you will move through the loss. In Music for a Wedding, as Clark writes in “Western Zuihitsu,” “The ground is made of soft stones and clay. It is like standing on the most enormous heart.”

 

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Irina Teveleva is a poet and writer. She was born in Moscow and lives in New York.

Review: Let's Sit Down, Figure This Out by Grant Kittrell (Poetry) by Peter LaBerge

By Guest Reviewer, Mike Good.

  Let's Sit Down, Figure This Out , by Grant Kittrell (Groundhog Poetry Press, 2017).

Let's Sit Down, Figure This Out, by Grant Kittrell (Groundhog Poetry Press, 2017).

A bear is arrested by a policeman for walking too slowly, a favorite plaid shirt begins to bleed, and fictional places like The Gallimaufry Goat Farm collide with Jacksonville, Florida. Let’s Sit Down, Figure This Out, Grant Kittrell’s debut poetry collection, leads its reader through unpredictable, surreal, and slapstick scenarios. Comprised of short prose poems, the collection often troubles the genre line between flash fiction and poetry. In much of his work, Kittrell reveals a fascination with idiom and strikes a conversational tone, showering his reader in speech, often imagined.

Tony Hoagland reflects on the potential and uses of idiom in poetry in an essay that first appeared in The Kenyon Review in 2014, writing, “The dictionary says that there are twenty-five thousand idiomatic expressions in common American use. Our speech is rife with idiom; we use it in the way that animals deploy various smells and glands—to tell others who we are, and whom we are with. Or, conversely, maybe we use it the way chameleons use color: to blend in.” With lines like “…I, laughing, long with the thought kept driving” in the short poem “Nana,” Kittrell seems to signal a Southern cadence. Aside from shading the collection in regionalism, Kittrell plays with idioms, setting up runways to take off into more surreal or abstract landscapes. In Let’s Sit Down, Figure This Out, the world is much like ours, but through language, possibilities beyond observed realities multiply.

Take, for instance, “Papa’s Crispies,” the fourth poem in the collection. The shared syllable in “pop” and “papa” creates onomatopoeia and, alongside “crispies,” immediately recalls the “Snap, Crackle, and Pop” mascots for Kellogg’s Rice Krispies. The collocation of “snap,” “crackle,” and “pop” feels like an idiom deeply rooted within the cultural zeitgeist of the U.S.; these adverts first appeared in the 1920s. For me, the allusion evokes brief moments at the breakfast table with siblings before school. I imagine the white noise of a television flashing from another room alongside morning commotion. Thus, I feel as though I am already sitting down with the poet when “Papa’s Crispies” begins via a run-on line from the title, “[…] are still popping. But at the kitchen counter he’s getting soggy and she’s getting all soggy and they know it and sometimes they do not pop at each other like they used to.” “Soggy cereal” also arguably holds a place in our idiomatic word stock. Functionally, the phrase pulls the reader into the poem, piquing the imagination while Kittrell refreshes the image by applying “soggy” to the human body to suggest stagnancy. Meanwhile, the idiom “to pop off,” meaning to speak spontaneously and angrily at length, also lurks beneath. The implied violence becomes both playful and unsettling, and the popping continues. The speaker worries over their father, questioning, “I wonder what happens inside him when he finishes all those crispies, if the popping inside him has something to do with his keeping going.” This dreamy, childlike imagination coalesces at the ending in wonder and horror: “I take a mouthful, hold the crispies on my tongue and tilt my head back like I’m screaming. I’m not screaming, I’m just trying to understand.” In the end, the poem may have very little to do with cereal, but instead touches a universal nerve of isolation and concern. Idiom enriches many of these poems and invites its reader into the poet’s world.

As the collection’s title might imply, the act of understanding and reflecting on matters of the body and spirit are central to the whole, even if through a screwball lens. Often, in these reflections, humor explodes into violence, sadness, or longing. James Tate once wrote, according to a Paris Review interview with Charles Simic, “It’s a tragic story, but that’s what’s so funny.” As the reader moves with the author between tragedy and comedy, one device Kittrell utilizes to navigate this challenge is dialogue. Perhaps, unlike lyric, conversations are often more able to veer in unexpected ways while remaining true to their form, and the use of dialogue seems to me uncommon in contemporary poetry.

“Would You Rather” is one such piece that incorporates dialogue and offers morbid entertainment. The poem plays with the comedic, party-game construction as the speaker converses with a character named Molly Jean. In this piece, no quotation marks or italics offset the speech, blurring what is described with what is said. Molly Jean asks, “Would you rather kill one cow or thirty chickens? I’d rather kill a cow, I said. Suddenly, out of nowhere a cow appeared.” If a more lyrical or metrical underpinning were expected, as compared to the more relaxed and loose nature of the prose poem, I might beg for more precision—for instance, is it necessary to preface a cow appearing from thin air with “Suddenly, out of nowhere…”? But conversation is rarely precise, and in the poem, the rhythm of the revelation feels right. The would-you-rather dilemma escalates as the speaker debates with Molly Jean about the logic or illogic of the world and, at her command, attempts to stab and kill the cow. The speaker describes in unbroken deadpan, “I noticed there was cotton hanging from the cow’s severed neck and I thought, this does not make sense at all.” At this moment, the conflict deflates as the cow transforms, yet the conversation proceeds. Molly Jean continues, “Would you rather be a woman for a year or win 10,000 dollars? I said, I’d rather be a woman, and she raised her eyebrows again.” In this moment, “Would You Rather” continues beyond its conclusion and leaves its reader with an image of perhaps scrutiny or incredulity.

Though the collection feels thin at just 53 pages, it is perhaps in-part due to its relative brevity that it also never appears beleaguered by the prose poem form. Let’s Sit Down, Figure This Out manages to be playful but does not arrive without gravity. Paraphrasing Gertrude Stein in her reflections on the prose poem in her essay “A Sexy New Animal: The DNA of the Prose Poem,” Natasha Sajé writes, “…prose is about verbs and poetry is about nouns: ‘Poetry is doing nothing but refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns.’ Prose gets somewhere, but poetry is wherever it is” (The Writer’s Chronicle, June 2012). If that is the case, poems in this collection are. They are catalogs of a reality told slant. They are sitting down and figuring themselves out one word at time and rarely reaching tidy conclusions. Readers will have the delight of sitting down with this unique collection as it takes risks and catapults them into different worlds.

 

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Mike Good’s recent writing can be found at or is forthcoming from december, Forklift, OH, Rattle, Salamander, Sugar House Review, The Georgia Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Ploughshares Blog, 32 Poems Blog, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and elsewhere. He holds an M.F.A. from Hollins University and helps edit the After Happy Hour Review. He lives in Pittsburgh and works as a grant writer. Find more at mikegoodwrites.wordpress.com.

Review: The Undressing by Li-Young Lee by Peter LaBerge

By Jason Myers, Guest Reviewer.

 Li-Young Lee,  The Undressing  (W.W. Norton & Company, 2018).

Li-Young Lee, The Undressing (W.W. Norton & Company, 2018).

Listen is the first word in Li-Young Lee’s rapturous fifth collection of poems, The Undressing. It is both invitation and invocation, a question and a command. Every word in Lee’s verse has this charged quality, a way of being many things at once. The book is “For The Lovers/And The Manifold Beloved,” and the love that Lee inhabits in these poems ranges from the close to the cosmic, as he addresses—and undresses—partner and Creator. “Beloved” is what God calls Jesus following his baptism, and God instructs those present to “listen to” Jesus. In Christian theology, Jesus is saturated in all being—he is manifold. Manifold is an operative word throughout these poems: many and folded. “Five in one body, begotten, not made,” he writes in a later poem called “Folding a Five-Cornered Star So the Corners Meet.” In the collection's first long poem, which shares its title, he declares, “A word has many lives.” Listen conditions both the reader and the speaker of the poem, as the speaker is engaged in foreplay, while the beloved is more interested in conversation than coitus.

There are the stories we tell ourselves, she says.

There are stories we tell others.

Then there’s the sum

of our hours

death will render legible.

Dialogue, in Lee’s hands, serves as both seduction and sacrament, a means of communication and a means of communion. “The Undressing” is about being naked both physically and spiritually. Dressing means putting on clothing as well as tending a wound, so the undressing Lee performs has erotic, psychoanalytic, and medicinal qualities. The voice of the beloved is sometimes playful, sometimes corrective: “I want you to touch me / as if you want to know me, not arouse me.” Still elsewhere it comes from that place where the psalmist said deep calls to deep: “One and one is one, she says. / Bare shineth in bare.”

Born to Chinese parents in Indonesia before his family fled from persecution to the U.S., Lee’s work has been imbued from the beginning with the compressed, ideogrammatic lucidity of classical Asian poetry, as well as the oracular expansiveness of prophets ranging from Isaiah to Whitman. “The Undressing” is his most mesmerizing long poem since “The Cleaving,” the final poem in his second collection, The City in Which I Love You.

As in “The Cleaving,” Lee finds pleasure and pain in close proximity, sometimes inseparable; he recognizes that those who wound us are often those who heal us. His poetry is haunted by family and world history, and also demonstrates tremendous tenderness for both. “Nothing saves him who’s never loved,” he writes, leaving ambiguous whether salvation is denied one who doesn’t give love or doesn’t receive it. It could be that love and salvation are symbiotic. In the next line Lee declares, “No world is safe in that one’s keeping.” He could be speaking of Trump, and/or he could be speaking of Mao, as he upholds Pound’s criterion of poetry being “news that stays news.” At the end of his long poem Lee writes, “For 20,000 years, human groups have thrived / by subtle and not so subtle mechanisms / of expulsion, exclusion, rejection, elimination, and murder.”

This tone is a rare lapse from the supple, enigmatic one that sustains most of the poem. No longer engaged in lovemaking, the speaker has put on his professorial robe and spectacles—though he does return to his original impulse. “If love doesn’t prevail,” he asks after descrying the decadence of our American moment (“One nation under the weapon”), “who wants to live in this world?” He then predicts the effort that will be required for love to prevail, “Ratifying ancient covenants. Establishing new cities.” In lines like this Lee makes clear that, like D. H. Lawrence before him, he composes under the spell of the Book of Revelation, with its visions of a new heaven and a new earth.

The incantatory nature of Lee’s work also owes something to St. Francis (“He is / my sister, this / beautiful Bedouin, this Shulamite, / keeper of Sabbaths”) and to Sylvia Plath (“Seraphic herald of the ninth echelon, / pleromatic eon demanding a founding gnosis, her voice electric tekhelet, Septuagint, a two-leaved door”), yet his tendencies toward combining the intimate and the vatic, the personal and the political, have forged a new vernacular. Only Lee can conjure lines like “The menace of the abyss will be subdued,” “your body is the Lord’s pure geometry,” and “It was even before there were numbers, / those fearsome first angels.”

As Rilke, one of Lee’s acknowledged inspirations, once wrote, “Every angel is terrifying.” Yet Lee, fearless and devout, goes in search of dialogue with angels. The long, penultimate poem of The Undressing is a report of one such dialogue. Lee writes,

What’s The Word! she cries

from her purchase on the iron

finial of the front gate to my heart.

These are the opening lines of “Changing Places in the Fire,” an apocalypse in which a “sparrow with a woman’s face / roars in the burdened air.” The Word is, of course, one of the figures applied to Jesus in the Gospel of John. Surely the sparrow-woman knows this, yet she is intent on getting Lee to confess or testify.

I tell her, I sang

in a church choir during one war

North American TV made famous.

Such songs make The Undressing a psalmody, a prayer book of uncommon wit and beauty. “Say what’s The Word or we both die!” the sparrow-woman demands later, echoing Auden’s line at the end of “September 1, 1939.” For Lee, the work of a poet is to summon, say, wrestle with, dress and undress the divine. “An exile from the first word, / and a refugee / of an illegible past,” he continues to produce from the materials of his life love songs for the body and the soul. Listen to him.

 

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Jason Myers is the poetry editor of The EcoTheo Review. A National Poetry Series finalist, his work has appeared in The Paris Review, West Branch, and numerous other journals. He received an MFA from NYU and an MDiv from Emory University in Atlanta, where he was licensed to the ministry at Ebenezer Baptist Church. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he works in hospice.

A REVIEW of MICHAEL WASSON'S THIS AMERICAN GHOST by Peter LaBerge

BY CASSANDRA CLEGHORN

  This American Ghost , by Michael Wasson (YesYes Books, 2017).

This American Ghost, by Michael Wasson (YesYes Books, 2017).

Neurobiologists have dramatically revised their estimates of when the human brain fully matures, pushing the threshold from the mid-teens to 25. According to this timeline, poet Michael Wasson's prefrontal cortex has only very recently knit together. This American Ghost is a record of the poet's fresh maturity; with great precision and tenderness, Wasson marks his developmental stages from boyhood to manhood. "So get naked & turn off / the light you've left on for twenty-five years," he writes in a poem composed of directions to his adult self. "Feel / how the rain might slow into snow & your breath / brightens from the dark held in your mouth" (27-28). But even when Wasson's poems recall childhood or adolescence, they reference something beyond the scope of a single lifespan. "The silence of the reservation / could fill me / to the point of breaking & I'd be / the boy in the front yard," he writes, locating the reader at a particular place and time in his recent past, and then swooping her off into a much more diffuse atmosphere composed of light and shadow and bodies that refract and glow: "can you see the fleshed / curving of my shoulders turned / black as near midnight?" (29) In each poem, Wasson brings his reader to the cusp of new knowledges and new ways of knowing, and holds her there, with him, expectant: "I'm waiting / in the yard for an answer to / the world" (30).

Wasson is Nimíipuu, from the Nez Perce Reservation in north-central Idaho, a piece of land that represents a fraction of the 17,000,000 acres the tribe claimed as their own before the brutal encroachment of white settlers at the start of the 19th century. When the public purchase of reservation lands was authorized by the Allotment Act at the century's end, settlers rushed in again to further dispossess the Nez Perce; today, only 12% of the reservation is owned by tribal members. According to the 2010 U.S. census, the current Nez Perce population is 3,500. Indigenous languages are the further casualties of colonialism; one of Wasson's poems begins with the recollection of Nez Perce elder Titus Paul, who was forbidden to speak his Native language at the Chilocco Indian School in 1922. The Endangered Language Project labels nimipuutímt (the language of the Nez Perce) as "critically" at risk, estimating that there are less than 50 speakers worldwide. In the past few decades, however, tribal members have worked toward language revitalization, developing language apps and online courses. As with digital repatriation (including the Nez Perce Historical Photograph Collection at University of Idaho), the Internet has opened up potentially dynamic ways to redress what Native American Studies scholar Tyler Rogers calls the "lethal archival logic" of settler colonialism. Through this resonant silence, Wasson listens for the questions of "another century": "how to change all these years of loss" (25) and "how are we remembered / in our choreography / of bones?" (145).  

In response to such questions, Wasson offers world-mending poems through which he threads phrases of nimipuutímt, sometimes accompanied by English equivalents and at other times left untranslated.  "kée píi'nekeyneks: Let us (swallow) take each other in" (7) reads the epigraph to one poem. In another, based on a traditional Nez Perce story, the poet makes as literal as possible the heat of the songs he sings:  "I confess     I'm young // & you take a flame / to my tongue // c'ic'ál is lit in the mouth   c'ic'ál again" (23). Readers may recognize in this bilingual dance a kinship with the work of Diné (Navajo) poet Sherwin Bitsui, and of Mojave poet and language activist Natalie Diaz, who enters what Diaz calls the "mausoleum" of her tribal language, writing her way into words she is only now learning as an adult. (To learn more about the challenges and rewards of bilingual creative writing, see this account of the MFA program at the University of Texas, El Paso.) Bitsui, Diaz, and Wasson follow Gloria Anzaldúa, whose work darts between multiple dialects of Spanish, English, Spanglish, and Nahuatl, calling out white supremacy by exploiting her readers' varying degrees of familiarity with and ignorance of the languages of oppressor and oppressed. But where Anzaldúa addressed a potential readership of millions of native Spanish and bilingual speakers in the U.S., Wasson draws upon a second language that most readers not only don't speak, but didn't even know existed. In this daring move, Wasson shares a sense of intimacy that defies translation, claiming likeness with those few readers who hold his endangered genealogy in common, and difference from the majority who do not. From the latter, Wasson invites a listening and a learning.  

Wasson thus expresses an expansive sense of service to his people, and of witness to those who stand beyond the circle. From the American ghost of the book's title and the Homeric dead of its epigraph, through the hauntings of immediate family members, friends, elders, and ancestors, the poet takes seriously his task, "to grieve history." This potent phrase names history as both the object of mourning and the ambivalent process by which the survivor may recollect, recover, and restore what is lost. Wasson knows that there are holes that cannot be filled by even the most fervent words of any language: "because when is the best question / I can muster" (23).

Intimations of suicide and lynching recur through the poems. The poet steps

                                                                        into a field & here is where

                                    it happened--

                                                                                                another boy

                                    held                                      dragged by the cock (7)

 

Before bringing the reader into the crime's horrific conclusion ("how that body burned / from the inside out"), he assures us that "we are still     so blessed to be // a wreckage of the most terrible monster" (8). In his compact and explosive chapbook, Wasson conveys viscerally and eloquently—and with seemingly infinite compassion—the intimate legacies of this genocidal empire:

                                             sometimes to remember this living

 

                                    we let a word

                                                fire from the opened hole in the head

 

                                    & tell me how to swallow what light does

 

                                                            to the tongue at rest (23)

 

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Cassandra Cleghorn’s Four Weathercocks was published in 2016 by Marick Press. Her poems and reviews have appeared in journals including Paris Review, Yale Review, Poetry International, Boston Review, Tin House, Eyewear Review (forthcoming)—and (most recently) Colorado Review and lovesexecutiveorder.com. She lives in Vermont, teaches at Williams College, and serves as poetry editor of Tupelo Press. You can find Cassandra at https://cassandracleghorn.com.

A Review of THE HOUSE OF ERZULIE by Kirsten Imani Kasai by Peter LaBerge

BY KATHARINE COLDIRON

 Kirsten Imani Kasai. Photo by Alanna Airitam Photography.

Kirsten Imani Kasai. Photo by Alanna Airitam Photography.

  The House of Erzulie , by Kirsten Imani Kasai (Shade Mountain Press, 2018).

The House of Erzulie, by Kirsten Imani Kasai (Shade Mountain Press, 2018).

Imagine a novel, mostly in journal entries or epistolary form, that unfolds slowly. Imagine that it bears witness to the deepening madness of a man who’s either a nascent schizophrenic or the victim of a voodoo curse. Imagine a sultry, blood-soaked novel haunted by the history of the American South and the complexities of Creole culture and heritage. Imagine that this novel uses a kaleidoscope of perspectives, no one view revealing all, and that its end bears destruction without resolution—more sour fruit of the Southern legacy.

If all that sounds appealing, you’re in luck: that novel exists, and it’s The House of Erzulie, Kirsten Imani Kasai’s third novel and her first for Shade Mountain Press. The plot involves a modern-day historian locating and becoming obsessed with the journal and letters of a mixed-race Louisiana couple from the 1850s. The husband of the couple, Isidore, suffers under a mysterious curse; we read of his descent first in his wife Emilie’s words, and then in his. Isidore’s journal comprises the bulk of the novel’s pages, which is a good thing, because his prose (and, by extension, Kasai’s) is extraordinary.

I saw Her last night, a vague and spectral shape wandering the cane fields, climbing among the shattered ribs of my ruined glass house. …I pushed myself through cloying lightless rooms as if wading through muddy swamp water, following the sobs of a crying child. I call his name but he does not answer except to weep and wail.

Sometimes the prose of these nineteenth-century citizens veers into melodrama, but that label is hard to avoid when considering a Gothic novel—which, make no mistake, is precisely the category in which The House of Erzulie rests. It sits on the shelf with Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein, the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca: restless ghosts, body horror, dastardly secrets, loves that should not be. The African American Gothic is often ignored in favor of the British variety, which is a shame, because there are just as many haunted houses and wailing spirits in New Orleans (more, even!) as on the moors of Yorkshire. The volume of melodrama turns up gradually as the novel progresses, both in theme and in language, but the book is so absorbing that this insistent music is hard to criticize without a particular distaste for the genre. Gothic fiction and melodrama share a lot of the same geography; this Gothic novel sometimes tips the carriage as it rides, breakneck, over its emotional territory. But in return, the reader is gifted with prose like this:

The house, the house! That cursed landlocked shipwreck. Pasted like a flyer onto my sleeping mind’s eyes, I cannot unsee it or spend a peaceful nocturne without wandering its spiraling, ruined halls.

If they are to the reader’s taste, the pleasures of this genre, and this novel, are exquisite.

If the initial, epistolary section of the book occasionally feels unpromising, it is because Emilie’s voice, perspective, and activities are appropriately limited for a woman of her era. Her letters are sometimes repetitive or trivial. But, crucially, they set down the groundwork for the horrors to unfold later in the novel. The reader needs to hear her perspective on what befalls Isidore before we hear his own. And once he begins to reveal that perspective, the novel becomes mesmerizing, clamping down on the reader’s attention and locking its jaws.

I believe little in Spirit realms, ghosts, or heathen gods, but if such powers exist, they trifle with me and take great pleasure in batting me about between their paws. Devour me now, I say! My cowardly soul has little use for this world as it is. I cannot account for my time, and my unquiet mind will not make sense of these events, nor find suitable explanation for what has happened.

What concretely connects Isidore and Emilie to Lydia, the modern-day historian reading their words and framing the novel, becomes clear only in the final pages. But what thematically connects the two stories is plain much earlier on. Lydia has had a bout with madness herself, and she practices what’s now known as “cutting” and what was once “bloodletting” in order to soothe her demons, just as Isidore does. Blood, literal and metaphorical, is front and center in this novel, from Emilie’s hemorrhaging during childbirth to the red Xs Lydia paints on a voodoo queen’s grave.

Inevitably, the topic of bloodletting in the South will invoke the spilled blood of slaves. The novel does not draw its emotional power from slavery (as does what is probably the most famous African American Gothic novel, Toni Morrison’s Beloved), but it does not ignore it completely. This is a challenging balance to strike. This novel covers a narrow emotional scope rather than a broad political one, but no author writing about the South in the 1850s can reasonably disregard slavery. Kasai negotiates the problem partially by gesturing to New Orleans as a profound melting pot, where racial lines are harder to draw than in other areas of the South, and partially by unflinchingly depicting a whipping and an auction in the course of the novel’s other, more emotionally central events. 

The House of Erzulie privileges the spaces of dreams, imagination, and sexual ecstasy (oh, no, this novel is NSFW). It does not care much whether it’s taxing the reader’s patience, or straining her credulity, and at some point, the reader must stop caring about these elements, too. Kirsten Imani Kasai wants to take you for a tour of a particular house in New Orleans, and the best option is to accept her offered hand and go along, eyes open. I suggest you leave the lights on while reading.

 

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Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., The Rumpus, The Offing, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at The Fictator.