Review

Nothing Is Ever Itself Only: A Review of Justin Phillip Reed’s Indecency by Peter LaBerge

BY LUIZA FLYNN-GOODLETT

  Indecency  by Justin Phillip Reed (Coffee House Press, 2018).

Indecency by Justin Phillip Reed (Coffee House Press, 2018).

Justin Phillip Reed’s debut collection, Indecency, offers a sharp, uncompromising rebuttal to a society that would like to reduce the speaker to their race, sexuality, and gender performance. Reed turns the white, heterosexual gaze back toward itself, revealing the void at the heart of those identities, while simultaneously reveling in black queerness and expounding on the vast universes contained therein.

Indecency, asks, What is sayable? Isn’t propriety just oppression with a smile? Reed then makes space for the truth white western culture asks marginalized people to keep to themselves and demonstrates how it attempts to conscript them into protecting the privileged from the reality of what is done in their name to maintain that privilege, as in “They Speak of the Body and One Sits Up Straight.”

what's black    and red        and red        all over? the public
drops    its hand    from the ear where it had    what it thought
was the decency    to whisper.

Reed illustrates how our society reduces black people to their bodies and then demeans and discards those bodies in poems like “Pushing up onto its elbows, the fable lifts itself into fact,” where “The soil is thick with hidden Black girls, the myth that only quiet Black girls are worthwhile Black girls.” Reed negates this dehumanization by grounding Indecency in physicality. His speaker, “so black my elbows / stripe their char on the carpet” (“Take It Out of the Boy”), is determined not just to survive, but to raise their voice over what seeks to silence them. This is a speaker who has “scrubbed my own maroon out of the porcelain / mouth of a pedestal sink,” in “Slough,” and relates, “I haven't swept / the welcome mat, haven’t taken advantage / of the free counseling sessions, have been / here before” in “Nothing Was Ever Itself Only.” But there’s a fierce intellect here that refuses to look away, wondering in “Paroxysm,” “why Edvard Munch’s screaming figure isn’t black as the day is long.”

One of the collection’s most exciting through-lines is its examination of whiteness—the ravenous blank of it, and how its cold, relentless spotlight throws blackness into strange relief. Reed demonstrates how whiteness obscures itself by insisting that its many violences are done by no one in poems like “A Statement from No One, Incorporated,” where faceless white voices insist, “We are so / many blades in the yard the wind / runs screaming invisibly through.” By rendering itself invisible and innocent, whiteness attempts to make itself unassailable, so it’s remarkable how Reed peers into this lack to reveal not only what whiteness imagines itself to be, but also how the construction of whiteness prefigures blackness as the repository of and direction for violence. This is especially striking in poems like “Pushing up onto its elbows, the fable lifts itself into fact.”

Unlike missing Black girls, taking black girls is a Western custom. It seems likely that such a statement will soon appear inaccurate: the white space in the new textbook editions will have nothing to say about it, if the white spaces behind those textbooks have anything to say about it.

It’s certainly not a new idea that whiteness requires blackness to serve as its shadow and foil—that’s one of many the twisted logics of white supremacy—but Reed illuminates the contours of whiteness in ways that undercut and deftly dismantle it, rather than taking existing dynamic as inevitable, describing, “A feeling in which the rest of the world is a white couple riding horses down the spine of a beach at dusk” (“Paroxysm”). Even more remarkably, Reed lets blackness speak back to the forces that demand its negation in “The Fratricide.”

How can we tell ourselves apart for you. How can
we help you to tell us apart. How can we help
you tell us apart. How can we help you to tear
us apart. How can we help you. You tear us apart.
How can we tear us. You help us apart. You help
us part. How can we tear you. How can we tear
you. How can we help us to tear you apart.

Reed highlights the paradox of living in a world that wants you dead in poems like “On Life as an Exercise in Preparing to Die,” where the speaker notes, “carnation once referred to the color of flesh: beyond the black and white meats, the bloody organs arrange a bouquet of crushed roses, paling and exhausted.” Reed also illustrates how being systemically imperiled binds black people, particularly black men, as in the previously mentioned “The Fratricide,” where the speaker “was already / wearing the skin of his skull, molding its contours / to mine.”

However, Reed calls attention to the ways in which queerness excludes his speaker from that fraternity, as in “To Every Faggot Who Pulverized Me for Being a Faggot,” where the speaker addresses “Dear fellow / gay-ass nigga,” asking, “who loves you these days? / I hope it’s Black people. I hope no one / stole the certainty of that away from you,” and later in the poem, addresses the white man who disavows their relationship in favor of the closet:

From its stubborn clay I’ve shaped
a creature, hollowed into its guts
a pair of lungs, attached appendages
that make it capable of walking
out of every room it enters at will
and willed it to love. What have you done.

That’s a radical sentiment, just as this collection is an incendiary one, a work of joy as much as suffering, of celebration as much as tragedy, and of life as much as death. Reed’s wit and formal experimentation, quicksilver and luminous, shows the world as it is, while detailing how the very people that society most devalues, demeans, and seeks to destroy are its true visionaries.

The experience of snaring: A Review of Shira Dentz’s how do i net thee by Peter LaBerge

BY MIKE GOOD

  how do i net thee , by Shira Dentz (Salmon Poetry, 2018).

how do i net thee, by Shira Dentz (Salmon Poetry, 2018).

Shira Dentz’s third, color-studded book, how do i net thee, invites an interactive, immersive reading experience. Dentz’s iridescent language might best be described as Play-Doh, constructed to be flexible, moveable, and often flung—though unlike Play-Doh, these poems are often weightier and sticky. Mostly resisting paraphrase and defying narrative explanation, Dentz’s lines instead sprawl and twist associatively across the neural net of the poet’s consciousness. While this book can often feel elusive, Dentz’s poems are not diction-dense in the way that an Albert Goldbarth or G.C. Waldrep collection might read. Rather, a Dentz reading experience may feel more like floating, recalling to my ear, the static felt in certain Rae Armantrout poems, perhaps Jorie Graham with simpler diction, or a motion reminiscent of C.D. Wright’s Rising, Falling, Hovering; that said, this is a style that feels like Dentz’s alone.

The first poem, “wax,” opens the collection in this vein, beginning “lightmilk / a little more tea-color than yesterday— / a march date coils.” While the word “lightmilk” will not be further illuminated by any OED or Wikipedia entry, its defamiliarization of light and milk feels evocative. I imagine myself sitting at a kitchen table with the poet, stirring tea, and reflecting on my morning, “lightmilk” evoking milk being stirred, tea brightening in a cup as milk is added (maybe skim milk, I’ll allow—but here in this essay only), and the muted quality of morning light. I think I am looking at a calendar (“march”), but perhaps I am examining a date to eat? Then what “coils”? A calendar? A fruit? The lightmilk? Trying to build a narrative quickly becomes impossible; thankfully, it soon feels unnecessary. In addition to contracting and expanding spacing between words and letters—even vertically on occasion with superscript and subscript in addition to these relatively conventional methods—Dentz also plays with capitalization and punctuation, both fragmenting sentences and blurring their endings as the rhythms and visual effects of poems require. For Dentz, the page is more canvas than vehicle, and the poet uses unconventional spacing on every access to create an unconventional reading experience. (For this reason, I elected to focus more deeply on the first poem— more conventional spacing makes its citation more intelligible. To be honest, most of these spacing techniques are, while enjoyable to witness, tedious to describe; as a result, I aimed to spare my kind-hearted review-reader this onerous description.)

“wax” continues from these three short lines into longer lines that break closer to the page’s right-hand margin, using enjambment across stanza-space: “…a word rising / ahead like smoke.    wax // flowers float along water my brother a steed’s dark flank glistening back.”

 Excerpt from "wax" courtesy of Shira Dentz.

Excerpt from "wax" courtesy of Shira Dentz.

In this sentence’s numerous potential subjects, I am reminded of John Ashbery’s idea of poems that refuse to describe experience, but rather describe the “experience of experience.” In similar equine obfuscation, his poem, “Baltimore” begins “Two were alive. One came round the corner / clipclopping.” And, if like in Ashbery, in Dentz, the “experience of experience” is the subject, we may never be fully privy to what incites its impulse. Yet our palate may salivate at “…dark flank glistening back,” an effect of the percussive k’s and similar gl phonemes in tandem with the somewhat sexual imagery in uncomfortable proximity to “brother” and “steed.” Ashbery further explains what he wishes to capture, noting, “I have a feeling that everything is slipping away from me as I’m trying to talk about it….” Similarly, things seem to drift as “wax” continues. As a counterweight to the drifting, Dentz provides sound as moorings; lines continue to cluster around phrases containing assonance and consonance such as, “…a bit of thought passed.”, “bird darts // past.”, “today’s springlike // gash.”, “bird // darts past,” ending with “knife the heat breath there’s not anything more to say about the brother” the line concluding without punctuation. The transformation of “passed” into “past” and the repetition of birds darting represent similar techniques that recur throughout how do i net thee.

In reading Dentz, I am also reminded of a concept articulated in Mary Ruefle’s essay, “On Beginnings.” Ruefle describes, “I believe the poem is an act of the mind. I think it is easier to talk about the end of a poem than it is to talk about its beginning. Because the poem ends on the page, but it begins off the page, it begins in the mind.” Perhaps Dentz would agree that being hung up on the beginning of a poem is unwise. In her poem, “If you’re going to keep criticizing the beginning,” her speaker answers the title with the lines “nothing will follow; // how like an eye / nnnnnnnnnn / an oval tooth in the background.” Yet, even as the poem is an act of the mind, in Dentz’s work, a poem’s beginning and ending may shift per reader and reading. “Surfaces    fast as blood” represents one poem that blurs beginnings and endings. Here, by rotating page orientation and text layout, the poem’s lines smash against one another.

 Excerpt from "Surfaces fast as blood" courtesy of Shira Dentz.

Excerpt from "Surfaces fast as blood" courtesy of Shira Dentz.

Cathryn Hankla, a former teacher of mine, once remarked something to the effect of, a poem’s first impression on its reader is often as a visual medium—first visual, then aural, then both, as senses trade off. If so, “Surfaces…” creates a first impression of chaotic disorientation. The title, running parallel to the book’s spine, pulls its reader from the portrait orientation of the previous page to landscape orientation, and the mind must turn with the poet’s. On the right side, where the poem seems to beg us to begin, lines read, “the mother and father spreading,” and goes down the u’s spine to describe “last night / the father / drove a / black mini- / truck into a / store….” This section concludes “another night the mother. shouting / in red orange yellow //    upside down,”. At this point, the reader must flip the book again to experience two mirroring lines on the left margin. They read: “hanging like a bat . a man-flavor like a lifesaver i was alive but had no home :” Where does this poem conclude? It doesn’t seem to want to end, but to recur as often as the reader elects to flip the page. The poem is an act of the mind. “…i was alive but had no home.” Here, the home is the reader’s mind. We’re left with the chaotic image the poem first impressed.

However, the poem does not rest there, though the mind might. Rather, “Surfaces…” continues into the next page, still in landscape orientation: 

Lines continue to fold in and rebegin. The poem seems to conclude with only minor strangeness, “Leaves are falling though it’s still warm.” However, on the following page, “Surfaces…” reasserts itself yet again, back in portrait orientation, with the title reappearing in the conventional location. Here, the poem repeats the lines on the first page without the spatial manipulation. While, perhaps at their least interesting under this orientation, upon the repetition, they feel more charged.

While I cannot rightly explain the happenings of these inventive poems, as they happen, they pull me deeper, choosing not to pull me closer to the poet or speaker. It is an unexpected experience, since the poems themselves seem so closely to mirror thought without revealing the thinker. Is it necessary to feel close to the poet to feel close to their poems? I don’t think so. Yet, the closest I feel to knowing the poet’s persona is in the zen-like line that closes the collection, “Everything can be measured in fruit.” Perhaps lightmilk can also be measured in fruit. Mary Ruefle speculates in another essay, “There is a world that poets cannot seem to enter. It is the world everybody else lives in. And the only thing poets seem to have in common is their yearning to enter this world.” This collection seems to be knocking on the door to a different world. The question posed by the collection’s unpunctuated title is never answered: if “thee” is the reader, how does a poet net their audience? As Dentz writes in “The Penmanship of Trees,” “to take these lines, however flimsy / hurl them at the white shrouded sky.” Each of these poems seem hurled to snare us—and if not snare us—snare us in the experience of snaring and being snared. And it is lovely when they do.

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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.

To Love, Despite Collapse: A Review of Brenda Hillman's Extra Hidden Life, among the Days by Peter LaBerge

BY CARA DEES

  Extra Hidden Life, among the Days , by Brenda Hillman (Wesleyan University Press, 2018).

Extra Hidden Life, among the Days, by Brenda Hillman (Wesleyan University Press, 2018).

Folded among Brenda Hillman’s tenth full-length poetry collection, Extra Hidden Life, among the Days (Wesleyan University Press 2018), are explorations of grief and loss, global warming and economic crisis, protests and violence against protests, feminism, the soul and its music. This new installment in Hillman’s œuvre has much in common with her four previous collections, each dedicated to and infused by one of the four elements. Like Cascadia (2001), Pieces of Air in the Epic (2005), Practical Water (2009), and Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (2013), Extra Hidden Life focuses on particular motifs – foremost among them, the “hidden” and necessary work of insect and plant life – which stitch each section together and lend her meditations on death and survival an imagistic unity. Through her emphasis on the microscopic or near-microscopic and its patient work of constructing and decaying, Hillman reminds us of the stakes of writing “in the twilight / of       a terrible year.” Piercing and brilliant, the collection calls on the reader not only to take action, but also to hear and “To love, despite / collapse, the life forms / reading to the wood.”

The five sections of Extra Hidden Life expand upon and echo back to one another. Hillman moves deftly from sorrow for the destruction of ecosystems and Native land, to the omnipresence of guns in the days “inside history where America is lost,” from the death of friends and family, to police violence against people of color. With her boundary-breaking forms, subtle and sudden shifts in tone and image, and startling fragmentations of her lines, Hillman pushes against an easy classification of her work. Indeed, she is not unlike the “great writers” mentioned in her poem, “Curl of Hair in a Drawer,” who are willing to “abandon their / camps & are burning the maps to stay warm.” Her poems spiral organically into and beyond themselves, grounded in the radiant physicality of body, nation, and planet.

Extra Hidden Life’s ruminations on the natural world—its embrace of wild syntax, its play of negative space, its foregrounding of activism and resistance—repeatedly put me in mind of Denise Levertov’s poetry, especially “Making Peace”: “A line of peace might appear / if we restructured the sentence our lives are making, / revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power, / questioned our needs, allowed / long pauses . . .” These poems speak to the need to restructure language and thought to better comprehend the world, to be willing to listen to what Levertov names the “syntax of mutual aid.” Frequently, Hillman incorporates color iPhone photos within the poems, so that her visual art seems to act as its own poetic line or to signify a new kind of punctuation. There is something breathing and beating and untamed in these forms, something simultaneously fluid and sharp. The speaker of “(untitled)” asserts that “The visible stands for everything, including the invisible.” The reader, plunged into the joyful, devastating world of these poems, is challenged to reconsider how they might learn to see the invisible in the visible, to love “the law  of the rock & dirt.”

In the middle section, “Metaphor & Simile,” the speaker welds together the words of Jean Toomer, Wallace Stevens, Rosa Parks, and Róża Luxemburg with images of algae, fungi, and lichen. Early in the section, which is composed of twenty-four “journal poems” inspired by the work of giovanni singleton and Robert Creeley, the speaker offers advice: “During the Can’t stand it / how to live:   skin in the yards, / life forms, species on stucco & bark.” As is true of other sections woven throughout Extra Hidden Life, the journal poems of “Metaphor & Simile” concern themselves with survival and the fight for survival, especially in spaces in which others wish to cause harm. In this way, fungi and lichen serve as a pattern for persistence, for how countless small forces can break down the destructive and the hopelessly cruel in “a cinnamon revolt...”:

          Not to despair yet to look out, to somehow chant
profound & blare each molecule existing here in
          circles at its will, something will outlast
          the scene, anthropocene, ~i~ write to you near
Xanthoparmelia here, “perhaps the most common
species” on granite, nameless energy
          till all of life seemed wrapped in it~

The study of the “hidden life” of forests and stone is thus a symbol of defiance, a hymn of gratitude, a protection spell, and an elegy for the fact that “you can’t write the names of species / Fast enough before they disappear.”   

Hillman threads themes of grieving and loss throughout each section, and the titular poem, “Extra Hidden Life, among the Days,” is particularly memorable. Dedicated to C.D. Wright, it features “extremophiles    , chemolithoautotrophs / & others with power for changing / not-life into lives,” an extended metaphor for the fierceness of Wright’s life and art:

The living prefer life    , mostly they do
              ,    they are ravenous
            ,    making shapes in groups
  as the dying grow        one thought
        until the end  , wanting more
              specifics ,     desert or delay
           until the i         drops away into
            i am not here  ,   the mineral other
pumps & vast vapors   , ridges & shadows beyond
         the single life it had not thought of–

Like the “i” that has dropped away and into extreme heat or cold, or like the heavy caesurae splitting the poem in two, Wright’s presence in the poem is also a rending absence. “Her Presence Will Live beyond Progress,” a long poem originally published as a chapbook by Albion Books (2017), is also dedicated to Wright and switches to a more confessional first-person lyric:

          i cling to her like a burr on a sock
    cling to her like a lipstick stain
cling like lichen on the live oak    breaking things down

    extra hidden life          among the days

Each line clings to the previous as the stanza drifts back toward the left-hand margin, before the next line again becomes untethered and independent. To be burr or stain or lichen is to “cling” for as long as possible to the living beloved; for the lichen in particular, “breaking things down” is both a deeply intimate and restorative act.

“The Rosewood Clauses,” an elegy for Hillman’s father, pairs grief and the looming threat of global warming with cacti and the silent industry of ants. Ants, figures of continuous work, invisible life, and decomposition, are also figures of incredible strength and endurance amidst disaster: “There is a / leaking out of everything. The ants / work underground; the invisible / is a communist.” Extra Hidden Life interrogates this unbearable sorrow from its opening section, “The Forests of Grief & Color.” Though several epigraphs headline the section, the excerpt from Judith Butler’s “On Grief and Rage” seems especially apropos: “Can we perhaps find one of the sources of nonviolence in the capacity to grieve, to stay with the unbearable loss without converting it into destruction?. . . if the grief is unbearable, is there another way to live with it that is not the same as bearing it?” Hillman offers a response, showing how grieving and living alongside the unbearable mirrors the struggle to save forests, animals, plants, and shores, democracy, and human life. At a moment in which “nothing / comes together anymore– / democracy & time, / from da: to divide–,” fighting for survival becomes a strategy for survival, itself. This collection urges the reader to not only brave the disillusionment and despair rampant in our politics and to stare down its indifference, but to also work alongside their own sorrow and fear, defiant and awake and “possessed of deep & vagrant joy.”

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Cara Dees holds an MFA from Vanderbilt University and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati. The recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and a Pushcart Prize nomination, she was named the runner-up for the 2018 Third Coast Poetry Prize and a finalist for Indiana Review’s 2016 Poetry Prize. Her work appears or is forthcoming in such journals as Beloit Poetry Journal, Best New Poets 2016, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, The Journal, and The Southeast Review. Her first manuscript was recently listed as a semifinalist or finalist for the Brittingham & Felix Pollak Prizes in Poetry, the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize, the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, The Journal/Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize, and the St. Lawrence Book Award.

The best I can wish for you is bad luck: A Review of Myriam Gurba’s Mean by Peter LaBerge

BY JACOB PAGANO

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Every so often, we encounter a memoir which voices a narrative that, though lived and told by so many, has still not been heard in its complexity, or received the recognition it deserves. Mean (Coffee House Press, 2017), Myriam Gurba’s witty, trenchant, and all too relevant account of a culture in which sexual violence exists as a frightening daily reality and is often confronted alone, marks that kind of memoir. It is urgent reading for anyone who wants to understand the hidden traumas on our high school and college campuses (and, as the #MeToo movement has shown, definitively everywhere), and an opportunity to hear directly from a survivor whose voice moves seamlessly between empathy and satire, wit and slam poetry-style conviction.

Mean tells the story of a queer Chicana (Myriam’s mother is Mexican, her father white) in the style of a feminist bildungsroman, with sharp attunement to what it means to be a mixed-race and bilingual woman growing up in Santa Maria, California. The world Myriam describes is one where sexual violencein the junior high classroom, where Myriam is molested by a male classmate, or on the town’s baseball teamis seldom punished. Gurba’s account is also deeply intersectional, addressing how cultural barriers make telling one’s story even more difficult, while at the same reveling in the joys and opportunities that come from being able to vacillate between Mexican and American cultures. Its content today would receive a trigger-warning, but Gurba gives us none, which is part of the point: this is violence we cannot afford to turn from.

The memoir opens with a vivid account of the night when Sophia Torres, an itinerant worker,  was raped and killed in 1996 by an assailant who, we soon learn, also attacked and raped several other women, as well as Gurba herself while she was attending UC Berkeley. Myriam’s narration of Torres’ murder, representative of what follows, is poetic and deeply embodied. Beginning with a lyrically rich few lines—“Let’s become that night. Let’s become that park. Let’s absorb and drip”—Gurba invites us to witness what is often unseen. She wants us to feel that we are there when “a dark-haired girl walks alone...” and is raped and killed.

The narrative that follows—tracing Myriam’s own pre-teen to college years—is at once courageous in its emotional breadth and in its ability to revel in a caustic humor that, despite all the pain, Myriam insists on preserving. At the crux of the memoir are poignant confrontations with grief: Myriam wrestles with the ghosts of those killed in acts of sexual violence and narrates the time she was raped; she accompanies her sister to an anexoria appointment, only to hear a doctor conclude “Mexicans” can’t be anorexic; and she faces a world of both adults and teens who are willfully blind to the pervasive hidden sexual violence in her California town.

The cultural climate in Mean—unfortunately one that resembles the experience of many on college campuses today—is one where administrators say, “These kinds of things happen,” to students when they report assaults. These are the words the school nurse tells Myriam when she recounts the night a man raped her, making the narrative itself, the imagined conversations between you the reader and Myriam, the place where confession, empathy, and understanding must occur.

Myriam’s words are like poetic flashlights, activists in their urgent demand for illuminating the truth: “Somewhere on this planet, a man is about to touch a woman to death,” she tells us while lying alone in her room one night and recalling her traumatic experiences at junior high. She later says, “After a stranger ambushes you and assails you… You understand that you live in a world where getting classically raped is possible and that classical rapists lurk everywhere.” Part of what Myriam does here is make us uncomfortable through language at once mocking and bitingly honest (“classical rapists”) that resists a culture where sexual violence is perpetuated in part through euphemistic diction that ignores or masquerades its effects and allows too many turn a blind eye.

And Myriam not only makes the blunt, poignant observation“When you have PTSD, things repeat themselves over and over and over”—but performs that repetition in the narrative. Traumatic memories return, again and again, regardless of where Myriam finds herself.

At the same time, almost as its own act of resistance, Mean sizzles with humor that is at once Myriam’s self-proclaimed “mean” style (“being mean,” she says “makes us feel alive”), which mocks and satirizes on a whim, but is also profoundly revealing of the way laughter can at times be the only way to express and confront despair. Part of what Myriam’s humor does is sublimate frustration and anger through imaginative fantasies. Spending the summer before she goes to college in the Mexican desert, Myriam encounters a missionary couple with a beautiful daughter (to whom she is attracted) and tell us: “I am a gringa, and since gringos are really good at exploiting Mexico as a liminal space, a shadow rose in me and eclipsed my morality. Images of violence toward the missionaries’ daughter sped through my mind.” Myriam is no real threat—she herself abhors violence—so we can laugh here, and realize the joke for what it is: a way to find laughter and to confront her own queer sexuality in a violent, discriminatory world.

And much of her humor is itself cultural commentary that points out the underlying prejudice in our culture. Recounting the irony in the fact that a white man teaches her college anthropology course, she says, “Who better to explain all the cultures and peoples of the world than he who is in charge of them?” And she doesn’t stop at anybody’s expense, telling us that, “‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ was originally a kind of rapey song meant to be sung by a guy. Luckily, Cyndi Lauper saved it.” It’s this kind of biting attention to the implicitly sexualizing language in our culture that characterizes much of Gurba’s wit, and invites us to be aware of how we ourselves speak.

Following her short-story collection, Painting Their Portraits in Winter (Manic D Press, 2015), the memoir further establishes Gurba as a voice that, like writers Sandra Cisneros and Ana Castillo, fearlessly reveals the complex tensions in being queer, Chicana, and a young woman in America. Castillo, a leading academic who considers the unique experiences of Chicanas as they relate to mainstream feminist debates in America and the literature that represents those experiences, would find a poignant, revolutionary example in Gurba. And like Cisneros in her inventive vignette style in The House On Mango Street Arte Público Press, 1984), which tells the story of Esperanza Cordero growing up in Chicago, Gurba has conveyed those tensions with profound relatability, striking psychological chords in her readers through prose that unabashedly moves into modernist-style poetry on one page, and into sitcom hilarity the next.

What Mean does so brilliantly is not only narrate such traumas and questions of identity, but help reveal the psychological obstacles, the grit and resiliency, that exist behind finding the voice to share them. Mean is both readable and unforgiving in its psychological realism, the way sexual violence leads to dissociation, P.T.S.D., confusions with what is normal and what is not. In doing so, Mean is also a profoundly impactful account of how violence threatens to take away language and the incredible ways that its victims have resisted that threat and reclaimed it with force.

Without giving away the memoir’s ending, it is fair to reveal that Gurba’s voice as the narrative develops becomes something of a compelling emotional friend—she is not just speaking, but she is speaking directly to anyone who has encountered such violence and wants to know what kind of enjoyment, what kind of moving through the world, could feel real and meaningful again.

In this way, the “mean,” bitingly humorous tone the book uses so brilliantly throughout, indicated by the epigraph from Jenni Rivera’s song “Unforgettable” (“Lo mejor que te puedo desear es que te vaya mal,” or, the best I can wish for you is bad luck), also finds a convincing note in profound empathy, reading almost like a letter to women and young people everywhere. 

And though the omnipresence of violence as an ongoing possibility never departs Mean, Gurba ultimately becomes the understanding and resilient voice she herself (and every young person) surely deserves to hear. That she is a high school teacher in Long Beach, California, is no coincidence, and one can only hope that her students are good listeners.

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Jacob Pagano is a writer and reporter who graduated from Amherst College in 2018 with a degree in English. He has worked as an assistant producer for the In Contrast podcast at New England Public Radio, lived and reported in China, and written for publications including The Oxford Culture Review, The Oxford Review of Books, and The Mainichi Daily Newspapers. He also freelance writes on activism and social justice movements, and he currently has a Gregoy S. Call Fellowship from Amherst College to develop his thesis on James Baldwin into an article. He lives in Los Angeles and loves to travel.

A Path to Empathy: A Review of Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith by Peter LaBerge

BY AMANDA HODES

  Wade in the Water , by Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf Press, 2018).

Wade in the Water, by Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf Press, 2018).

Tracy K. Smith’s fourth collection, Wade in the Water, surveys America and its history with an incisive, yet hopeful, honesty. By peeling back the present, Smith reveals the tendrilled roots of our nation’s grittier past. The forms of the poems range from erasures to ghazals to pantoums, but the cornerstone of the collection is the found poem, “I Will Tell You the Truth About This, I Will Tell You All About It,” which draws from the letters of African Americans in the Civil War. Detailing the injustices faced by the veterans and their families, the sequence features appeals to Abraham Lincoln, requests for due pension, and plans to reunite with separated family members. Preceding this piece is an erasure of the Declaration of Independence, reworked and recontextualized to speak directly to the racial discriminations of the past and present day. The speaker proclaims:

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for
Redress in the most humble terms:
                                                         Our repeated
Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.

Smith then enumerates these “repeated petitions” through the intimate, letter-based poems that follow.

Throughout the book, Smith also continues to question the relationship between the political and the personal, focusing especially on the intermediary of human connection. In the aptly named “Political Poem,” the speaker depicts a dreamscape of two individuals mowing their lawns as they communicate wordlessly across the distance. The speaker imagines that one “let[s] his arm float up, stirring / the air with that wide, slow, underwater / gesture meaning Hello! and You there!” Through the word choice of “let” and “float,” this gesture of connection is rendered instinctive, as though the released arm raises, or “floats up,” of its own accord. Optimistically, empathy and recognition are portrayed as the natural default, even in the languorous setting of suburban America. The poem ends with the admission that the mowers’ work “would take forever. / But I love how long it would last.” The word “would” reminds the reader of the fictional nature of this interaction. Despite the scene’s normalcy, it remains in the conditional tense, as though asking us to actualize these everyday gestures of connection.

Similarly, in the last section of the collection, Smith turns an observant eye to the individuals surrounding us in our daily lives. In “Charity,” an elderly woman treks persistently up a hill, “tussl[ing] with gravity.” Even from a distance, the speaker identifies with the woman:

I am you, one day out of five,
Tired, empty, hating what I carry
But afraid to lay it down, stingy,
Angry, doing violence to others
By the sheer freight of my gloom,

These moments of self-recognition thread the collection. Even when unflattering, such observations prompt the speaker and readers to hold up a mirror to their own behavior—to empathize and see themselves in others. In “Eternity,” too, the speaker recognizes this interconnection, “as though all of us must be / Buried deep within each other.”

This method of self-association is the conceit of the poem, “Refuge,” near the end of the book. It expounds the potential of empathy as the speaker addresses a refugee:

Until I can understand why you
Fled, why you are willing to bleed,
Why you deserve what I must be
Willing to cede, let me imagine
You are my mother in Montgomery,

The speaker endeavors to understand the “you” of the poem through her own lens. Avoiding a false equivalency between her experiences and the refugee’s, she aims to connect as best as she can “until [she] can understand.” Beautifully wrought, these poems offer a path to empathy. While some may contend that true empathy may never be achievable, Smith doesn’t make any grand claims, and, instead, asks readers to relate as best they can through their own experiences. As the speaker divulges, “Until / I want to give you what I myself deserve, / Let me love you by loving her.”

These themes of history and connection underpin the work, though Smith’s characteristic inquiries into religion and nature are also prevalent. Poems like “The Angels” and “Hill Country” offer modern interpretations of religious themes; angels are “Grizzled, / In leather biker gear” and God is lodged at a “cabin / Where he goes to be alone with his questions.” In the present day, angels are calloused, and even God has withdrawn to the woods for quiet contemplation. Environmentalism, too, is a recurring concern. For instance, “Watershed” discusses the pollution of DuPont chemical company and its gruesome health impact on cattle with “chemical blue eyes” and nearby individuals diagnosed with cancer. Interspersed with a prose account of a near death experience, the poem offers a fractured narrative from the perspectives of a lawyer and a dying man.

Yet, for all these varied voices and outward observations, Smith eventually shifts her gaze to her family. In the later poems “4 ½” and “Dusk,” she shares a lighter optimism as she considers her daughter’s appetite for life and development of a “solid self-centered self.” The speaker muses, “She wants a movie, or maybe / Just the tussle of her will against mine, / That scrape and crack. Horn on rock.” Through these “tussles” and references to the steadfast goat, her daughter’s tenacity is underscored, implying a hopefulness for the future. “Dusk” even ends with following scene of her daughter:

                                              The shoulders
Still so naïve as to stand squared, erect,
Impervious facing the window open
Onto the darkening dusk.

Ultimately, Smith brings all of these concerns and voices together into a powerful collection. Bolstered by an array of sources, the poems gaze outward and observe with an incredibly perceptive eye. The past presses up against the present, and empathy hums consistently below as a driving force behind the collection’s explorations of religion, history, prejudice, and environmentalism. While the future may loom like a “darkening dusk,” we are asked to watch, equipped with the past and a resoluteness of self. In Smith’s words, as it approaches, “let it slam me in the face— / The known sun setting / On the dawning century.”

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Amanda Hodes is a writer and musician studying at American University in Washington, D.C. She serves as editor in chief of AmLit and has been published in Furrow Magazine, Prairie Margins, and AmLit. She was also a Folger Shakespeare Library Lannan Fellow and a 2017 Fulbright UK Summer Institute participant at the University of Sussex.

Mapping the Lunar Body: A Review of Jennifer S. Cheng's Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems by Peter LaBerge

BY ARIEL KUSBY

  Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems , by Jennifer S. Cheng ( Tarpaulin Sky Press , 2018).

Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems, by Jennifer S. Cheng (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2018).

Jennifer S. Cheng’s new hybrid collection Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems is a lyrical exploration of women’s mythology and a reimagining of feminine spaces. It is a re-weaving of ancient stories about Chinese goddesses, an exploration of the body as landscape, and a deep-dive into liminal experience. It tells a big story: a romance between body and space, a map of the undefined spaces women’s bodies inhabit. Told in fragments, Moon uses a hybrid form that combines emotional and physical cartography, narrative storytelling, and lyric poetics. It re-invents these forms just like it re-invents folklore. The central thread of the book centers on the stories of the “Lady in the Moon” and various Chinese sea goddesses, or “Women In The Sea.” These women surge and disappear throughout the book, reappearing and re-telling their stories like the tides. The collection begins:

In the story of the Lady in the Moon, there is only one ending: to live out her nights as a captive, over and over, as if some necessary penance, as if a sorrow to see a woman paper-thin against the lesser light.

While this opening sets the stage for the story that has been told, with a singular and constricting ending, the woman in the moon is released through the re-telling as the book progresses. The phrase “as if” suggests that the woman’s fate may not in fact be a “necessary penance,” and that there are many possibilities to the reality of what happened. The speaker presents these different possibilities by telling us:

The lady in the moon loved her husband, but one day she left him on the earth in order to fly into the midnight, the edges of her dress like a decaying moth’s arms. She wanted to live on the light of the moon. Or: The lady in the moon was banished from the heavens along with her husband.

Present in these poems is a fundamental contradiction, a complicated desire: the simultaneous love for a person whose affection ties you down (the husband) and the love of freedom, exploration, and vast space. Depending on the story, she may not, in fact, be trapped by a “lesser light” but may be inexplicably drawn to the “light of the moon” or to the “midnight,” two contrasting images that may not be so different at all. Or, she may be trapped in penance with her husband, after all. Can seemingly contradictory stories all be true, simultaneously? In these fragmented folktales, Cheng gives the reader options on what to believe.

In their exploration of the liminal, the shadowy spaces in between definitive narratives, these poems chart the unchartable, that which moves, the dynamic bodies we inhabit: corporeal and geographic. One of the poems, titled “Chang ‘E,” asks us: “What is the relationship between a woman’s fragments and her desire/ for wholeness?”And later: “For in a world where boundaries are slowly slipping, we begin with a map of the body in motion.”

In these poems, body and landscape are inseparable. Just as bodies of water move, the human form moves, part of  a greater whole. All are part of a narrative that is complex and immense.

Interspersed between these stories are lyric poems in which the speaker incorporates elements of folklore into her own life. While each story is distinct in its own way, a blending occurs, revealing a common experience of watery women. By writing about these stories, the speaker reclaims an identity and a complexity truer to lived experience. She blurs her own myth with the myths of others. Take the poem “Myth-Making (I)” which opens:

Let us say
I fell from the sky

Let us say one night I reached

around my back & could feel
the place where something had been
severed. I would always
.
try to name it.
.

And later in the poem:

    I do not attempt
to cover it. In the streets
of Mong Kok & Wan Chai, I wear
thin cotton dresses and shirts
with low backs. In the crowds
I blend in. Nobody notices

my round wounds.

Here, the speaker exists on Earth, but with a wound she carries with her through the streets. The wound’s round shape is reminiscent of the moon. She is displaced, but still, she blends in. In the blending there is still an aloneness, a theme that runs throughout this book. An exposure and a covering-up—an attempt to name and define and still, a blurry futility to this inclination. She is a part of the modern world and also a part of folklore. She is a walking myth. She makes it so by asserting, “Let us say,” and she invites others to share in her reality, her own walking mythology. She uses her voice to define her experience but does not seek a definitive narrative.

In these poems, the speaker provides a new voice but does not want to provide an answer or a final say. To do so would be to miss the point. They ask: “To set about infusing a voice, where do we begin? Its shadow spaces, half-obscured corners, the ellipses at the tail of its third breath.”

By looking into the overlooked places on the edges of the most overlooked places, telling stories where no one knows they exist, perhaps even the owners of the stories. “The sound that cowers is usually the one that rings deepest,” the speaker says. And later, “Perhaps I wanted to un-know a myth.” In the unknowing there is an untelling that inevitably reveals a new myth.

Cheng rewrites stories about creation and the feminine. The speaker tells us:

You will remember, above all else, how she is—motherless, childless, godless—the last girl on earth—how the story of the world begins with her, a body in the marshes, sleeping, alone.

What is the worth of a woman on her own? In a culture that says a woman’s worth is defined by her relationships to others, the speaker asserts the power of this position—everything begins with her, a re-imagining of a creation story. Again, Cheng breaks down a binary: beginnings and endings. This story contains many births and completions.

The focus of these poems is on process and unfolding. In a section of the book in which each of its prose poems are titled “CHANG ‘E:” the speaker of one such poem tells us:

A chrysalis is an envelope of earthly hues, raw green, wrinkly dried brown, seeded vessels like leguminous plants. Instead of the transformation of their wings, now the rows of sleeping pods. Instar, and I am holding a word of celestial materials, ready to make a world apart. Sky and sea, speckled with gold, and empty ones, thin layers of lip skin, translucent, slit open. Inside the envelope: decomposition, disintegration, destruction. The structures are carried in the dissolution. The body holds knowledge as if it were a horoscope, an omen, an intuition of atmospheric currents to come.

Through the symbol of the chrysalis, a temporarily static vessel created to birth movement, Cheng focuses on how bodies contain both stasis and change. She focuses on the sleeping, as well as the holding: both “sky and sea” deep fluid knowledge that is like the sea, free and unconfined. Images of the skin as paper and the body as envelope appear numerous times throughout Moon, and as a symbol of movement and communication, a thin vessel that can contain complex sentiment. For example, Part ii of Moon’s Prelude which tells us that the story of the Lady in the Moon “is immersed in a pale envelope.” From as far away as the moon, apart from others, we can still send messages rich with meaning.

What Cheng delivers us in Moon is a delicate, complexly layered letter. It is both translucent and dense, a sensual story full of texture. It asks us to get inside the envelope, hold it up to the light, peel it apart, and fold it back together again. It is an invitation to participate in the telling of her myths, our own folktales, and the common stories that we as humans are all a part of.

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Ariel Kusby is a writer, editor, and bookseller based in Portland, Oregon. Her poems, stories, and reviews have previously appeared in Entropy, Bone Bouquet, Pith, 1001 Journal, Adolescent, and Hunger Mountain, amongst others. She works as a bookseller in the children’s room at Powell’s City of Books, and is the managing editor for Deep Overstock, the National Booksellers’ Journal. To read more of her work, visit http://www.arielkusby.com

Shown to be mirrors: An omnibus review of Milk, That Which Comes After, and small siren by Peter LaBerge

Back to Issue Twenty-Six.

BY LUIZA FLYNN-GOODLETT

 Dorothea Lasky's  Milk  ( Wave Books , 2018), Alexis Pope's  That Which Comes After  ( Big Lucks , 2018), and Alexandra Mattraw's  small siren  ( The Culture Society , 2018).

Dorothea Lasky's Milk (Wave Books, 2018), Alexis Pope's That Which Comes After (Big Lucks, 2018), and Alexandra Mattraw's small siren (The Culture Society, 2018).

Some books do something new within the poetic space, while others challenge our understanding of what poetry can do. Three new collections by Dorothea Lasky, Alexis Pope, and Alexandra Mattraw are the second type, enriching and expanding our understanding of what poetry is and what it might become.

In Lasky's Milk, anything and everything is only a turn away, whether through metaphor's web of associations or simply the poet's inexhaustible imagination. It's hallucinogenic: in these pages, individual identity falls away and, in exchange, the reader is given access to something like shared consciousness. This all-encompassing, fervent voice comes into focus in poems like "Little Kingdom."

We are no better than those
Who walk the earth
And the worms we ingest will make us strong
Everybody has a patch of dirty
Where they plant their green peril
Everybody makes the sign of the star
On their forehead
To let the devil know
It's me, Lord, it's me
Come home

This pace engenders anxiety and foreboding, the poetic equivalent of glancing over a shoulder, sure someone's following, which serves its subject matter, since death (always one step behind us all) swirls through Lasky's collection like a cold wind. In "The book of stars and the universe," Lasky writes, "In the dream my father took my dog / He brought her to the other world / My dog I miss you / My father I miss you."

Pope similarly grapples with the surreal aspect of loss in That Which Comes After." "I didn't feel the passing // Of my grandmother but it happened // The same as my own" ("LET'S START ALL OUR FRIENDSHIPS"). However, while Pope's specificity gives lie to the very idea of a universal, her speaker wants to be witnessed, just in a truer and more direct way, as in "BUYING TAMPONS," where she commands, "Look at me // I'm crying don't // Look away."

Mattraw picks up this theme in poems like "The Day Before the Burial," where "Night air fills lilacs, a soon darkness / rustles in the back room." This speaker is porous; familial relations and natural landscape blur her edges until "we're all / temporary / a constellation / mind" ("Triangulation").

This is where these three collections most directly communicate—in highlighting how women (in their ability to create life, along with the monthly expelling of potential life) are in constant proximity to the stuff of creation and destruction, and therefore, have something unique and urgent to say about where life and death rub against each other. In fact, the Milk evoked by Lasky's title is the useless, painful kind that comes after a miscarriage, as detailed in "The clog."

The place
With the dead babies
But no matter what I did
How hard I yanked
She would never leave
I knocked and knocked

Miscarriage is a death that our society doesn't allow to be mourned—a primal, deeply disorienting loss that women are often isolated within, without a familiar script or way of expressing their grief. And there's little compassion for a loss that so calls into question the way we believe life should go, as in "The miscarriage."

The women of the world say
Work harder!

The men of the world say
Work harder!

Pope's speaker in That Which Comes After attempts to offer support for this same loss in poems like "ALL MY FRIENDS LIVING DIFFERENT," asserting that "There's no talking about sky // Not while S holds a belly full // Of used to be life, the swell // remains thumpless." Of course this speaker's flat-footed; there's simply no language to reach across this gulf, as in "I MEAN THERE ARE SPECIFIC": "Feel better my friend // Texts me I'm worried // About her miscarriage // Is that too blunt."

Mattraw's small siren frames these revelations by illuminating the mysterious, baffling experience that even a successful birth engenders in poems like "/ Dilation /."

                                    / swimming you emerge /

                                            forty weeks under /
                             screaming in a stranger / palm reading
                                            your first body / How

will I know it's you?

These larger thematic arguments are further bolstered by the collections' formal choices. Where Lasky minimizes punctuation, allowing lines to flow like a tide that inexorably rises to drown the reader, in That Which Comes After, Pope uses line breaks to stumble us, calling attention to the constructed nature of poetry to implicitly question and undercut it, as in "THIS IS NOT ANOTHER BIRD POEM."

What gets stuck to my fingers

When I'm half alone

In the situation call back

Unknown numbers on my phone.

Mattraw's small siren keeps the reader at a similar remove, unpacking and bursting apart poetic structure in increasingly interesting ways. For example, there's a poem that runs as a footnote across the bottom of the right, blank pages of the book's first section.

In their own ways, each collection plays with scale, turning lyric binoculars toward grand horizons and then back to the interior. And, ultimately, those vantage points are shown to be mirrors, the divisions between them constructed by individual ego. Simultaneously, concepts of time and space are revealed for their triviality as the reader is invited to move through poetic time. As Pope's speaker declares in "THERE'S A RIVER IN PENNSYLVANIA," "Take the big clock off the wall // It's too early or late for time."

On the poetic plane these collections traverse, all things are equally exalted and insignificant, beautiful and ugly, powerful and weak. In fact, those very distinctions are rendered meaningless. And, once you give yourself over to it, letting it overwhelm you, there's something like transcendence to be found in poems like Lasky's "Kill Marry Fuck."

Sixty years later
A bomb of women
An entire country of women
Two women in the countryside
A pale green tapestry
Washed white by the seashore
The world

Within this glorious cacophony, there are moments of almost uncanny lucidity, as if a delirium is briefly lifted as someone looks you in the eye with a jolt of recognition, like this moment in Pope's "BUYING TAMPONS," "Over time we // Capsize into whatever // We've been running toward" or Lasky's "Winter Plums."

She's gonna die

We all are

Until then, the weather

The cold sweet fruit

These collections articulate a radical freedom that reaffirms poetry's core promise of possibility. In Milk, Lasky's insistence on her own dream-like logic wrests the reader into an alternate state of consciousness and makes room for her poems to be—and say—almost anything. There's the searing beauty of moments like "In the morning touching the wrist you will know what life is" in "A hospital room," the self-effacing sincerity of "My friend once came over / And read me her poems so freely / I wanted to / But I couldn't abandon her" in "Ghost flight to the moon," and the surreal sadness of "My mind / A bloodhound / For oblivion" in "Floral pattern." Pope's sincerity has a similar effect, giving the reader a giddy sense of expansion, while the speaker makes herself small, intimate enough to confide that "BUYING TAMPONS" "Is like buying diapers // It doesn't end // Until it does."

Ultimately, these poets embody so many selves and modes of being that they return us to one of the oldest archetypes of the poet—the trickster. These poet-tricksters open space for uncertainty and questioning, demonstrate the ways in which we're stuck in useless patterns of thinking, and upend tired assumptions that underlie cultural systems of power. As Lasky's "Snakes" articulates, "The time in-between / When you feel that poetry is the last thing you need / That's the time you need poetry most of all." There's no way to anticipate what comes next in these collections, no expected route ever taken, but the reader is grateful to follow them off the path and into the dark, nourishing unknown.

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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 editor-in-chief of Foglifter Journal and lives in sunny Oakland, California.

Cracking open the vault of human hypocrisy and duality: A review of Sloane Crosley's Look Alive Out There by Peter LaBerge

BY MADELINE DIAMOND

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One of today’s masters of the personal essay, Sloane Crosley, brilliantly explores a wide range of topics, from elementary school grudges to fertility, in her new collection, Look Alive Out There (MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2018). Crosley’s third book of essays, published ten years after her first, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, maintains her signature wit while offering stronger self-reflection.

Perhaps one of the most striking essays in this new collection is “Outside Voices,” in which Crosley describes her one-sided relationship with a noisy teenage neighbor in her West Village apartment. Crosley sets the scene by introducing the neighbor, Jared, from her distant perspective.

How do I begin to explain my relationship with this creature? Is it a relationship if you’ve never met? Certainly this is an acceptable dynamic online, but played out in real life it’s called stalking. All five of the windows in my apartment faced Jared’s house. And for as many years, I heard every word this kid said.

Crosley crafts the character of Jared with humor and ease—the reader simultaneously knows everything and nothing about him, just as the narrator does. While much of the essay discusses the idiosyncrasies of New York City life, it strays from insularity and exclusionary language. New Yorkers, in particular, may commiserate with the author and the standard of claustrophobia in New York apartment living; but fundamentally, “Outside Voices” is about privacy and perception. The author’s tangible frustration comes not only from the invasion of her own privacy, but also from her inadvertent invasion of Jared’s. She doesn’t want to know as much about Jared’s life as she does, but the fact of the matter is that she does, which ultimately drives her intervention in his life. Through dialogue and her sharp-tongued narrative voice, Crosley invites the reader into her mind and effectively expresses the terror that Jared has caused her. In one scene, the she describes an instance in which Jared and his friends witness the narrator and her boyfriend, who is referred to as “the emotionally unavailable man,” naked through a window.

“What’s the relationship?” [Jared] shouted up, making a megaphone of his hands.

“You have to admit,” said the emotionally unavailable man, “that’s some sophisticated heckling.”

Staying low, I opened the window further.

“Shut up, Jared!” I snapped.

Jared’s friends snorted and slapped the table.

“Oh shit, man,” said one of them, “she knows your name!”

It was the first time I’d used his name, a treat I had been saving for myself. I lay on my back and grinned at the ceiling.

Without much of a physical description or other basic information, it would seem that Jared is initially a difficult character to connect with, although Crosley provides just enough characterization for readers to understand who he is and what he represents. Similarly, the lack of characterization of the narrator’s boyfriend, an authorial choice, emphasizes the discrepancy between perception and true identity, a common thread throughout the essay.

There is also the issue of Jared’s name. The repetition and sonic presence of his name is such an integral part of the essay, and finding a pseudonym for this character to do justice to the havoc he’s wreaked is no small task. Is it a coincidence that the name Jared is one currently circulating the media with disdain, thus catching readers up to speed with a similar sense of frustration? For Crosley, a known lover of wordplay, it would be hard to believe that this wasn’t a conscious choice. By the end of the essay, the author, exacerbated by neighbor-induced mania, comes to a realization that despite Jared’s, and later his younger sister’s, unwanted presence in her life, and vice versa, their existences are ultimately separate. “Their lives were out there and mine was in here. They were forever behind me in time, as unable to catch up as I was to wait for them.”

While much of the essay is light and energetic in tone, this excerpt in the last paragraph of the piece suggests the true toll that this relationship, or lack thereof, has taken on the narrator. The author uses imagery to form a juxtaposition between Crosley’s identity in an enclosed, indoor space and Jared’s in a presumably freer, outdoor space. As a woman in her thirties, Crosley has earned a degree of security in her life, as evidenced by her five-windowed apartment, while Jared, his friends, and his sister, all teenagers, lack certainty but have a degree of freedom, which is part of what instigates the author’s disdain. Although, as Crosley soberly puts it, her life and Jared’s will continue to exist on different planes, emphasized by their spatial separateness.

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Crosley transitions between tones from essay to essay, from the comical to the deeply introspective. The personal essay format lends itself well to tonal shifts, and with that, the opportunity to shed the limitations of more traditional memoir. Take the final essay in the collection, “The Doctor Is a Woman.” While much of the collection is dedicated to the author’s adventures—and misadventures—this essay delves deeper than others in this book, as well as her previous two collections. The author examines the culture of the fertility world and, ultimately, her decision to freeze her eggs.

What makes this essay so remarkable is the author’s description of medical procedures, both from a clinical and a deeply personal perspective. Crosley details the steps of freezing one’s eggs with candor, but uses more casual language to remain true to herself as a writer:

You inject vials of drugs into your abdomen to persuade that one egg to let everyone have a chance. At the end of two weeks, you are briefly knocked out while your eggs are popped in a freezer.

By employing a conversational tone about a serious life event, Crosley invites the reader to join her in this experience. The use of the present tense gives the reader the sense that they are experiencing these events alongside her, rather than being told the story long afterwards. At the same time, this essay includes introspection that allows Crosley incredible vulnerability. “[The eggs] are just floating fractions of an idea. I know that. But I had never seen a part of my body exist outside my body before. I felt such gratitude.” Crosley writes “I know that” after the previous declarative statement, as if she’s addressing the reader directly. While many of Crosley’s essays use language that speaks to her readers for comedic effect, this essay is particularly noteworthy because of the candor and Crosley’s step away from self-deprecating humor. By putting herself at the center of this essay, she is able to provide a genuine account of what the fertility world looks like today while simultaneously exploring greater themes of self-identity and social expectations.

In an essay titled “The Chupacabra,” one of the shorter pieces in the collection, Crosley examines the life of a writer through a reflection on a unique assignment from a magazine—to find a creature, the chupacabra, in rural Vermont. “I am a less-than-ideal candidate for the job. I don’t specialize in mythical-creature hunting or even run-of-the-mill hunting.”

The narrator’s self-deprecating voice is a hallmark of Crosley’s writing style, as is the conversational tone used in this essay. The use of rhetorical questions, like when the narrator examines a flyer offering massage services that is “printed in Comic Sans (is there any other kind?),” offers a sense of familiarity that grounds the more outrageous subject matter of the essay in reality. Surely not all of the experiences Crosley writes about will be relatable to her readers, although her reflections on the unpredictability of the human experience, often expressed through quips, transcend subject. Similarly, in the penultimate essay in the collection, “Our Hour Is Up,” the narrator uses the rhetorical to add her mature sense of wit and perspective to a piece centered on a childhood memory: offering therapy sessions to her elementary school classmates—on Tuesdays specifically. “Why Tuesdays? Because Monday is too loaded, Friday is not loaded enough, Thursday is charged with anticipation for Friday, and Tuesday is essentially a less popular version of Wednesday. And ‘less popular’ is exactly where I belong.” The addition of this clever retrospection helps Crosley reconcile the relationship between the subject of the essay, her younger self, and her present-day narrative voice.

The conversation between the speaker’s two selves serves a major role throughout this collection. Whether it be the child and the adult narrator in “Our Hour Is Up,” the rational and the irrational self in “Outside Voices,” or the writer and the civilian in “The Chupacabra,” Crosley is constantly cracking open the vault of human hypocrisy and duality through the examination of her own experiences.

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Madeline Diamond is a writer and journalist based in New York City. She graduated from Bucknell University, where she majored in creative writing and American history. While at Bucknell, she interned at West Branch, the University's literary journal. Her writing has appeared in HuffPost, Business Insider, and more. 

Why We Read Fiction: A Review of Jamel Brinkley's A Lucky Man by Peter LaBerge

BY KWAME OPOKU-DUKU

  A Lucky Man , by Jamel Brinkley (Graywolf Press, 2018).

A Lucky Man, by Jamel Brinkley (Graywolf Press, 2018).

There is a moment four pages into “J’ouvert, 1996,” the second story of Jamel Brinkley’s collection, A Lucky Man, that is in so many ways emblematic of the nine stories comprising the whole. Brinkley’s young narrator, Ty, is about to get a bad haircut from his mother, a day before the West Indian Day Parade. Where the readers is situated in the plot, Brinkley has already rendered the family dynamic so fully, it becomes easy to think that you know what the story is about: looking foolish at a very crucial time in his transition from youth to manhood. It becomes easy to laugh as Ty pleads with her to go to a barbershop. “‘Trip’s been going since before he could walk,’” the narrator says, to which his mother responds, “‘Like I give a damn about some fool calls himself Trip.” There’s a familiarity to the characters that comes from Brinkley’s use of dialogue, generous  in the way it both provides a window into the characters’ lives and serves as a bit of misdirection. It can lull the reader into a false sense of security. But reading on, one comes to realize, no one truly knows what lies in another human’s heart, and what Brinkley has done in this first collection is remind us exactly why we read fiction—to find that out. To live in it.

The stories in A Lucky Man range from 18 to 38 pages, and in that space, Brinkley depicts each world in astounding detail. Clothes, music, walks, looks, skin tone, bodies—like the narrator of the first story, “No More Than a Bubble,” says, he and his friends “liked to know these kinds of things.” It’s these details that leave you so immersed, feeling like you know, so that when young, male partygoers, who crash a party looking for sex, come to understand something about themselves that they weren’t quite prepared for, you feel implicated along with the narrator. When, at the end of the story, he reflects on how his idea of beauty has changed, we are left to wonder about how our own misconceptions of beauty are constructed. The veneer of a story about two knuckleheads looking to score has cracked, revealing a story about a son trying to understand his father, about the fear of being alone. As the narrator is left wondering if he really got what he wanted, the reader will also wonder, Is this what I wanted, too? How have my own expectations influenced my reading of the story? Faulkner famously lamented that young writers forget that “the problem of the human heart at conflict with itself” could alone make for good writing. Brinkley takes Faulkner’s words to heart. His stories teem with conflict and, ultimately, are about locating that feeling. They speak to the way the heart’s conflict moves through time. They shift and grow with each page.

To be a writer of color—to be a black writer—is to bear the burden of expectation. To be a black male writer of any era is to bear the burden of representing black masculinity. Throughout the nine stories, Brinkley writes refreshingly nuanced portraits of black men, which, more often than not, highlight their fragility, in many cases as the men attempt to highlight their virility. Fraught relations between fathers and sons are interrogated in several of the stories. Themes of comportment and performance emerge as the sons make their way out into the world and try to find a connection, whether it be through exploring their sexuality or musing over the eventual arrest that will rob them of their future. Brinkley’s commitment to creating complex characters and allowing them to exist as they are, regardless of the consequences, is one of his many strengths. His protagonists often live through cringeworthy moments, and there are undercurrents of menace everywhere, reminiscent of writers like Mary Gaitskill or Raymond Carver. Yet, the precision through which Brinkley employs detail gives his stories such a rich and singular feel that it’s hard to compare him to anybody. Much of the beauty in these stories comes from the perspective of their narrators. There is distance between the speakers and the story being told, which allows for questions, which allow for moments of poetry. Wisdom exists in Brinkley’s speakers, even if they don’t see it themselves—it’s in the questions they ask and in the ways they remain unsure.

In the final story of the collection, “Clifton’s Place,” a neighborhood bar is transformed until it is unrecognizable, a chilling story of erasure through gentrification. Brinkley pairs this erasure with the owner of Clifton’s Place, a woman struggling through the phases of dementia, and the various demises of its group of neighborhood regulars, known as “the folks.” The story follows a regular named Ellis, a lonely, somewhat pathetic man, as he witnesses it firsthand. While being lectured by the bartender, Sharod, about not being run out of their own establishments, Sharod warns him, “[W]e can’t have none of that soft-ass, bearing-gifts-for-massa, wannabe native informant bullshit. I see you eyeballing that white girl, but don’t get it twisted. The gentry don’t give a fuck about you.” Ellis still follows her home and humiliates himself. Again, Brinkley spares no one, and by end of the story, just as we are not sure if we can bear any more degradation, Brinkley walks us through that door, allowing us to live out the consequences, and as we read the last words, we are once again left wondering, Is this what I wanted? We are once again left questioning ourselves, reminded once again why we read fiction.

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Kwame Opoku-Duku, along with Karisma Price, is a founding member of the Unbnd Collective. His debut chapbook, The Unbnd Verses, is forthcoming from Glass Poetry Press, and his work is featured or forthcoming in BOMB, Massachusetts Review, The Literary Review, Bettering American Poetry, BOAAT, and elsewhere. Kwame lives in New York City.

Lures and Hooks: A Review of Lee Conell's Subcortical by Peter LaBerge

BY CARA DEES

  Subcortical , by Lee Conell (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).

Subcortical, by Lee Conell (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).

“There’s a science to certain mysteries,” the narrator of the short story, “The Afterlife of Turtles,” declares. Midway through Lee Conell’s debut short story collection, Subcortical (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), the protagonist’s uncle—a man who loves science fiction and “worries about the state of his soul in a way intense enough to allow him to receive money from the state”—is missing. His absence forces her to question destiny, heaven, hell, mental illness, and belief, itself. This wrestling with belief, the give-and-take between the impossible and the possible, the desperately wished-for dream and stark reality, pervades the collection. Characters’ desire for transformation, the return of the dead, the ability to traverse social class or afford a college education, is deeply felt and deeply real, even as Conell situates many of her stories among ghosts, phantasms, and science fiction. Subcortical urges the reader to take fantasy and fiction seriously, to consider how belief in the supernatural or the unlikely is not only an emotional touch point, but also a potential form of salvation.

Winner of the 2018 Story Prize Spotlight Award and an Independent Publisher Book Award for Short Story Fiction, Subcortical’s stories often feature characters on a moral or psychological precipice, balancing between their past and an uncertain future, when visions of the monstrous or the uncanny drive them to face their guilt and fear. In “What the Blob Said to Me,” a grandmother relives her role in the construction of the atomic bomb among the backdrop of the 1958 film, The Blob. Soon, she associates the creature with her own silent complicity: “an oozing hush of havoc, a mucousy muteness surrounded by the sounds of others, by human screaming.” In “My Four Stomachs,” high school student Carley struggles to cope with her boyfriend’s debilitating mental illness. As Carley attempts to digest her confusion and grief, she recounts their relationship from the perspective of the four chambers of a cow’s stomach: “A place of entrapment, a place of softening. All at once. As if entrapment and softening were synonyms. They’re not synonyms.” Carley uses her encounter with the bizarre—in this case, the digestive tract of a mild-mannered, fistulated cow named Buttercup—to try to comprehend tragedy, puberty, first love and its disappointments.

Even “The Lock Factory,” a story anchored in realism, hints at the mysterious. Awarded the Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award and named a distinguished story in Best American Short Stories 2017, its protagonist is spellbound by the idea of freedom. She is especially invested in her vision of how her mother’s past co-workers escaped from or succumbed to their Midwestern hometown. Though gripping throughout, it is the present day scenes that most captured my attention, perhaps because of the far reach and pull of the mother-daughter relationship:

With my mother calling after me, I sprinted . . . Until then I’d always imagined an invisible tether linking me to my mother—if I got too far away, I was sure that tether would snap me back to her through some kind of mysterious maternal physics . . . And there, coming after me, was my mother. But not my mother like I knew her. I had never seen her run so fast. I had never seen her move with such strength.

Throughout the collection, Conell never loses touch with the reader; the passion and sense of loss in these stories, their beat and pulse, is never distant. Whether transported to New York or Nashville, the 1940s or the present day, she does not lose sight of what lures and hooks our hearts.

The lyrical control of Conell’s sentences allows her to transition smoothly from grief and bitter anger to sharp, quirky humor reminiscent of the fierce wit of writers like Lucia Berlin and Grace Paley. In fact, Paley’s dictum, “Luckily for art, life is difficult, hard to understand, useless, and mysterious,” seems to apply particularly well. In their attempts to understand pain and love, characters grapple with the mysterious head-on. In “The Rent-Controlled Ghost,” mystery takes the shape of a lonely young boy worried he “might become a ghost in the new apartment” of his renovated complex and subsequently befriending the ghost of a past tenant. In the haunting story, “The Sextrology Woman,” mystery assumes the form of a mold specialist in a relationship with a PhD candidate who disapproves of his career. This career, however, allows him to look at mold “the way some people might gaze up while inside a cathedral, as if serious Mystery were whooshing around a sacred vaulted space.”

Whatever the reader chooses to call it—mystery, magical realism, the glimmer of possibility—there is an overarching theme of the dream of reaching forward and above where you are at the present moment. These stories are brimming with the potential energy of each character, to join “beings that live on the margins, outside of any logical dimension, any successful design,” as the teenage protagonist of “Hart Island” earnestly hopes. After all, in a world in which Elizabeth Taylor is a genetic mutant, perhaps it is also possible to climb to a wealthier and more powerful social class, like the protagonist in “Mutant at the Pierre Hotel” dreams, or to pull a live rabbit from your hat for your former boss, like the narrator instructs in “A Magic Trick for the Recently Unemployed.”

Dreams, hopes, the unreal-made-real and vice versa, weave and tighten these stories together, rewarding the reader with perspectives that captivate and confound, whirl you around and yet fasten you to the solid reality of the human body. A persistent motif that sounds throughout the collection is, as one might suspect, the subcortex, the part of the brain responsible for instinct, memory, pleasure, and fear. Here, one might think of Frank, the protagonist of “A Guide to Sirens,” who fascinates honeymooners with fabricated myths about the island they’re touring. Such a task is both freeing and unsettling for Frank, who remembers his own troubled marriage:

Frank has packed all his memories of her away in what he likes to think of as the cerebral cellar of his brain. He imagines those memories decomposing down to their more basic bits, fusing to other forms: fairy tales, myths, legends, the stuff of tacky tours, the stuff that makes his living, the stuff that allows him to live.

It is this small, memory-laden “cerebral cellar” that Frank credits for his particular construction of the mystical or ineffable. Science and mystery, legend and loss become, to a degree, synonymous, and their gorgeous tangle is simultaneously dangerous, heartbreaking, and life-giving.

Sheila, a grieving college student in the story, “Unit Cell,” likewise places a stress on the importance of the subconscious for emotional survival. Confronted by images of her dead sister, she begins to think that, “instead of trying to keep the memory back, she should allow it to repeat until that higher-order structure emerges.” For Conell, the power of the human mind to provide structure and take it away is absolutely vital in the pursuit of self-knowledge. This dual nature, for instance, allows the narrator of the titular story, “Subcortical,” to begin to process how she was manipulated into taking part in a horrifying gay conversion experiment masquerading as science, as well as to address her own collaboration. Unable to sleep at night, she imagines the patient free and happy, “finally recognizing the person on the other side” of the two-way mirror she watches him from. Conell’s dexterous, smart treatment of these characters, her willingness to reveal their mistakes, flaws, humor, weirdness, and love, occupies a landscape both intimate and surreal, one the reader has “never seen before, a place that exists just beneath the surface of her waking mind.”

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Cara Dees holds an MFA from Vanderbilt University and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati. The recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and a Pushcart Prize nomination, she was named the runner-up for the 2018 Third Coast Poetry Prize and a finalist for Indiana Review’s 2016 Poetry Prize. Her work appears or is forthcoming in such journals as Beloit Poetry Journal, Best New Poets 2016, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, The Journal, and The Southeast Review. Her first manuscript was recently listed as a semifinalist or finalist for the Brittingham & Felix Pollak Prizes in Poetry, the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize, the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, The Journal/Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize, and the St. Lawrence Book Award.

Like a Knife: A Review of Fatimah Asghar's If They Come For Us by Peter LaBerge

BY RAYE HENDRIX

  If They Come For Us , by Fatimah Asghar (One World/Penguin Random House, 2018).

If They Come For Us, by Fatimah Asghar (One World/Penguin Random House, 2018).

The experience of reading Fatimah Asghar’s debut book of poems, If They Come For Us, is one of being gripped by the shoulders and shaken awake; of having your eyelids pinned open and unable to blink. If They Come For Us is a navigation of home and family, religion and sexuality, history and love. The speaker of these poems appears at once old and incredibly new, a dichotomy that is upheld as the narrative jumps from past to present and all over the last century. And yet, even when we’re told some of these memories and experiences are not the the speaker’s, they still are, somehow. A homeland, even one never seen, sticks in her blood; the trauma endured by her ancestors lives within her DNA. The cultural memory is lodged in the speaker like a knife—one that she may not be able to remove, but one that she could choose not to twist. But twist she does, and by doing so, opens herself to everything, from painful truths to the kindness of strangers. The cultural memory that lives in the speaker’s body is inescapable, but rather than run from it, she faces it boldly, writes it down, and shares it. In these poems, Asghar invites us to stare into the wound and—hopefully—learn from it.

Asghar’s book opens with invocations of history. Epigraphs from Korean-American poet Suji Kwock Kim and Rajinder Singh, a survivor of the India/Pakistan Partition, and an explanation of the Partition prepare us for the painful, but necessary, poems to come. (The Partition was the division of British India into India and Pakistan in 1947, which, Asghar writes, resulted in the forced migration of at least 14 million people as they fled genocide and ethnic cleansing. It’s estimated that 1-2 million people died and 75-100,000 women were abducted and raped in the ensuing months.) Multiple poems, all titled “Partition,” navigate not only the literal and historical meaning of the Partition, but also the divisions of the home, of gender, family—and, at times, how those divisions might be reconciled, if possible.

The book’s opening poem, “For Peshawar,” immediately draws the reader into the lasting conflict and fear with an epigraph that reads, “December 16, 2014 / Before attacking schools in Pakistan, the Taliban sends kafan, / a white cloth that marks Muslim burials, as a form of psychological trauma.” Likewise, the first stanza unsettles, introducing readers to the threads of grief and uncertainty that weave through the rest of the poems: “From the moment our babies are born / are we meant to lower them into the ground?” More than grief, though, this poem, and the poems that follow, drive the narrative into questions of home: Can a place be home if the people who live there, as “For Peshawar” questions, are meant to bury their children? What is home if it’s a place you’ve never been to and can’t touch? And what is home if the place where you are—both in public and in private—rejects critical pieces of who you are?

In America, the place that is ostensibly “home,” the speaker faces that rejection both in her family life and in society at large. In the poem “Microaggression Bingo,” Asghar uses the physical image of a bingo board to highlight the frequency of those microaggressions the speaker faces on a daily basis. Examples include both visual and verbal instances, like the first square, which reads, “White girl wearing a bindi at music festival,” and another on the bottom row where an unnamed speaker says, “I love hanging out with your family. It always feels so authentic!” Readers are also given a glimpse into the frequency of these occurrences via the text of the middle square, which reads: “Don’t Leave Your House For A Day – Safe.” In the same vein, the poem “Oil” walks the reader through the speaker’s experience as a young Pakistani Muslim woman in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks. She writes of her heritage, “All the people I could be are dangerous.” The speaker, whose parents have passed away, learns of her heritage from her relatives, who are “not-blood but could be,” further muddying notions of home, or where she truly belongs—often, this results in the idea that she doesn’t truly belong anywhere.

The speaker’s feeling of un-belonging continues even at home, as she comes of age without the guidance of a mother and father. This is true not only of race and heritage, but also of gender identity and sexuality, and many poems attempt to navigate those complexities—in terms of a relationship with the self and a relationship with religion. In “Other Body,” Asghar writes, “In my sex dreams a penis / swings between my legs,” and mentions how her moustache grew longer than anyone else’s in her class at school. She refers to herself, not unlovingly, as a “boy-girl.” Towards the center of the poem, that desire for a guiding maternal figure enters with the lines, “Mother, where are you? How would / you have taught me to be a woman? / A man?” And again, in “The Last Summer of Innocence,” questions of the role of the body, and of gender norms, resurface. In the same poem, the speaker’s sister defies Islamic law by shaving her arms, and Asghar writes in response, “Haram, I hissed, but too wanted to be bare / armed & smooth, skin gentle & worthy / of touch.” That is, until the sister’s body betrays her with an ingrown hair that lands her in the hospital. These poems return to the question of what “home” means, asking what it is to be in a body that doesn’t always feel like a safe place.

If They Come For Us gives readers lyrically beautiful but painfully true glimpses into a world we may not be familiar with and asks us to reckon with our place in it—whether that’s a place of commiseration, understanding, or of recognizing our own hand in upholding power structures that thrive off racism, xenophobia, and nationalism. But as important as those revelations and experiences are, the feeling I’m left with after reading through these difficult but necessary poems is one of optimism. If the speaker, who comes from a lineage of heartache and violence, and who lives through her own kinds of violence, can still look at this country that “has failed every immigrant to enter its harbor” and find kindness in the cracks, how can we not too have hope for a better, more inclusive, kinder future? Asghar’s book is many things: defiant, subversive, grief-stricken, angry—but it’s also full of things like bravery, friendship, family, and love. Amid the hurt and darkness that exists in this world, Asghar’s poems prove that hope is out there, if only we have the courage to look for it.

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Raye Hendrix is a poet from Alabama who loves cats, crystals, and classic rock. Raye is an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, where she serves as the Web Editor for Bat City Review. Raye was a finalist for the 2018 Keene Prize for Literature and received honorable mentions for poetry from both Southern Humanities Review’s Witness Poetry Prize (2014) and AWP’s Intro Journals Project (2015). Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Southern Indiana ReviewThe Chattahoochee ReviewShenandoahThe Pinch, and elsewhere. 

A Necessary Emptiness to Grow Into: A Review of Traci Brimhall's Saudade by Peter LaBerge

BY AMIE WHITTEMORE

 Traci Brimhall's  Saudade  (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Traci Brimhall's Saudade (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Traci Brimhall’s third poetry collection, Saudade, with its blending of family narrative, myth, and magical realism is, in many ways, the love-child of Anne Carson’s novel-in-verse, Autobiography of Red, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece of magical realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Throughout, Brimhall’s attention to the architecture of poetry, on the line, stanzaic, and collection level, provides this book, which dazzles and baffles in turns, sufficient narrative clarity to fully enter into the ornate and heart-breaking world she shapes.

Saudade grows out of and complicates many of the preoccupations Brimhall explores in her prior collections, Rookery and Our Lady of the Ruins, in its examination of spirituality, faith, desire, myth, and the interplay of humanity and landscape. Set in Puraquequara, a village in the Brazilian Amazon and also the birthplace of Brimhall’s mother, each section of the collection is told from the perspective of a different family member, beginning with (and returning to) Maria José, arguably the book’s central figure. In addition to Maria José, Brimhall includes sections in the voices of Maria José’s husband, Thomas; her mother, Sophia; and her grandfather, Don Antonio. In each section, a chorus of Marias offers commentary, encapsulating the collision between Western colonizers and indigenous peoples by bringing together motifs of Greek theater, Catholicism, and traditional indigenous beliefs to provide narrative continuity and exposition. The Marias make sure we know, as in “In Which the Chorus Provides a Possible Chronology,” that “history began but did not write itself,” and that they “sing history in reverse so the story might end in birth.”

While its characters’ concerns frequently overlap—dead loved ones are as inescapable as the rubber plantation, the fruits of the Amazon, and a sense in each character of being haunted by restless desires—each voice in Saudade is rendered in different poetic form. Maria José, for instance, speaks in tercets, whereas her husband, Thomas, speaks in long stanza blocks. As Claudia Emerson notes in an interview with Sarah Kennedy, “the tercet always feels that it’s searching for its missing line, pulling the eye down with urgency, and that imbalance” infuses Maria José’s search for her lost daughter, her memories of her affair with a boto (a dolphin that inhabits the Amazon), her marriage, and the role masculine figures have played in her life.

Of these issues, Maria José is most haunted by her grief and longing for her dead daughter, whose severed hand is found “in the mouth of a dead jaguar” and blesses the village with miracles (“The Unconfirmed Miracles at Puraquequara”). In “How I Lost Seven Faiths,” Maria José is consumed with impossible longings: “I wanted my daughter back. I wanted to live back / in the before. Before love possessed me. Before grief.” This backwards gaze is reinforced by the structure of the entire collection: we move through Maria José’s life and family tree in reverse chronological order, beginning with her daughter’s death and moving toward her grandfather’s life, as each character tries to return to his or her own “before.”

In contrast to Maria José’s aching tercets, her husband Thomas’ single stanzas convey his reluctance to accept various absences in his life. A colonist, Thomas arrives in the Amazon certain of his faith in a Christian god, and, even as his faith mutates, he resists its complete dismantlement. In “Better to Marry Than to Burn,” Thomas’ first poem in his section, which charters his arrival in South America, he has “the knowledge of God / like an apple in the mouth. I faced my temptation,” which includes his own wife as well as the lives and ways of the people he now lives among. However, his wife’s grief and her affair with the boto change him. Later, in “Sanctuary,” he admits, “I understood / my sorrow over the world does not change it” and that “better this choice to be powerless, / enthralled, to forgive God’s ambition to be free of us.” Here, we witness Thomas’ shift from certain knowledge to certain sorrow; from the belief he is a vector of change to his acceptance of his powerlessness.

Maria José’s second section deepens our knowledge of her, examining her marriage as well as her relationship with her parents: her father is imprisoned and her mother is dead. In an interview with Sierra Nevada Review, Brimhall comments on the “twined grief” that bleeds across generations—in life as well as in Saudade, which she considers a work of “autobiomythography.” Thus, the grief Brimhall felt in mourning the loss of a child and her mother’s death informs Maria José’s experiences in this section. Maria José addresses both her dead mother and an imprisoned man who is not her father, but for whom she can “imagine love, and then…feel it” (“When I Go to Prison to Meet my Father”). In “Revenant,” Maria José catalogues her parents’ romance and her mother’s death:

My mother of gold carnival mask, of green feathers
sprouting from her shoulders, of glittered body, candled dusk.

Let me inherit her fevered hips. Let me be all wing and stolen
and saved. Mother, rise up as July, as tempest, as God in his night
sweats and be tender. Hold the curtain back while I enter.

In reaching backward, toward her parents, Maria José finds indirect solace for her sorrow over her daughter’s death. This yearning for consolation in the arms of the dead is at the heart of Saudade, which, while revealing the impossibility of fulfilling that longing, also suggests there is comfort in the act of reaching.

Sophia, like her daughter Maria José, also struggles with the ways desire intersects with and disrupts faith. In the opening poem of her section, “Rapture: Lucus,” Sophia recounts the story of a “missing kapok tree,” which she knows

[…] woke from her stillness one equatorial summer
evening as Adão pulled parrots from her branches.

She dreamed an amorous faun chased her, which was a memory,
which reminded her that in another form she had legs

From the poem’s title we learn the tree has a spiritual dimension as “Lucus” is a Latin term for a forest or grove, but with some sort of “religious designation,” and even a past life. In Sophia’s view, the tree is not so much lost as awakened, rapture here not only pointing toward the Christian idea of believers rising to join Christ on the last day, but also to “a feeling of intense pleasure or joy.” In her poems, Sophia finds herself at the frustrating intersection of these definitions: on one hand, marked by a mole that resembles “a pink Madonna with her robe open,” she’s become a figure of worship and intrigue; on the other hand, she pines, “O miracle, abandon me.” (“Virago”). In “On the Feast Day of Our Lady Hippolyta,” Sophia wants “to write in my diary—Dear, there are some things / I would not do for pleasure. I want it to be true.” In these moments, we see that the insatiable and contradictory urges with which Maria José wrestles have their roots in her mother’s experiences, suggesting that, while genealogy may not offer explanation, it can help us see the patterns from which we emerge and which we (often) perpetuate.

Sophia’s sorrow segues into those of her father, Don Antonio, who also mourns for the loss of Sophia’s mother, going so far as to wish his beloved were alive and his daughter dead: “I want to barter with Heaven. It took the wrong love,” he pleads in “After Seven Lullabies Vanish from the Library.” While Don Antonio’s sorrows and desires reverberate with those of his descendants, his poems also offer insights into the collection as a whole. In “Sibylline Translation,” he notes “fiction is one way of knowing. Dreams are another.” In “Belterra Exodus,” he suggests “we should invent a new / history of fact and fancy, where life is hard but courage / is easy because the dead do not resurrect themselves.”

Saudade is this marriage of fiction and dream, a “history of fact and fancy.” Through pairing invention with research, Brimhall excavates not recorded history, but lived history, seeking an authenticity that encompasses but is not bound by facts. This results in a collection that is at times confounding, at others enchanting. Its value, however, lies in its ambiguity: there are limits to invention, limits to what we can fathom about ourselves and our ancestors. As the untranslatable title suggests, ‘saudade’ is the longing for something absent. By its nature this longing can’t be fulfilled; we can only seek. As Brimhall states in the penultimate poem, “there is no fairy tale here to invite you to meaning, only the fantasy of the past you have made in your own image.” Saudade posits absence as irrefutably present in the fabric of human life: it provides us a necessary emptiness to grow into, to fill with our joys as well as our sorrows.

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Amie Whittemore is the author of the poetry collection Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press) and co-founder of the Charlottesville Reading Series in Virginia. Her poems have won multiple awards, including a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Sycamore Review, Smartish Pace, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. She teaches English at Middle Tennessee State University.

The Body and Its Various Types: A Review of Samantha Zighelboim's The Fat Sonnets by Peter LaBerge

BY ERICA BERNHEIM

  The Fat Sonnets , by Samantha Zighelboim (Argos Books, 2018).

The Fat Sonnets, by Samantha Zighelboim (Argos Books, 2018).

How serious notorious and public a form, to think you could find the solution to a problem or an ending to an observation in one brief moment—a fraction of an abreaction or the science of the pattern of crumbs appearing on the table from the eating of a loaf of bread.
— Bernadette Mayer, in the 25th anniversary edition of Sonnets

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No bread crumbs appear on the cover of Samantha Zighelboim’s first poetry collection, The Fat Sonnets. Instead, three unnaturally greenish, glazed leaves float above an empty pink plate, (part of “Piehole,” a larger installation by Simone Kearney). The leaves are meaty and thick, congealed even, irregularly-shaped, marbled and menacing, reminiscent in their ominousness of the three seal men in Rita Dove’s “Adolescence II,” visiting that speaker in her bathroom, their “eyelashes like sharpened tines,” their eyes the shape of “dinner plates,” conflating food, femininity, and fear. Below the leaves in “Piehole” wait childishly large, pink-handled renditions of a fork and knife on either side of a dainty pink plate, the kind a child might use before transitioning into the world of the adults around her, one which is already familiar to her through exposure and observation. The concerns Zighelboim navigates in this collection are essential when we interrogate what it means to inhabit a body, to witness the body’s manifestations of turmoil, and to be helpless in the face of the body’s desires towards excess and self-destruction.

In the poem “Pie Hole,” Zighelboim’s speaker draws directly from that cover image, itself entitled “Place Setting,” placing it in the poem, reminding the reader how the “lettuces are toxic,” and the speaker’s ultimate wish is to “to end the lettuces into a fine and shining dust.” In this conversation, mastery over food—including the power to refuse it or to destroy it—symbolizes a larger sense of having agency in one’s own life and outward relationship to the gaze. The Fat Sonnets simultaneously controls and interrogates the body, emphasizing methods in which Zighelboim’s content seeks to pressurize its received form, resulting in the creation of multiple interpretations for the language itself.

In “Historiography,” for instance, Zighelboim employs various uses of “body,” the word made flesh, but also made into a catalyst that allows the reader the pleasure of peeling off other layers of meaning. The body began in an untroubled state, but “Then body fattened, deformed,” recalling Simone de Beauvoir’s own description (from The Second Sex) of how the evolution of a woman’s body can also be the catalyst for a desire to erase that body, to reduce it and its impact when gazed upon: “She would like to be invisible; it frightens her to become flesh and to show flesh.” As “Historiography” progresses, readers are introduced to the speaker’s body in its current position, as a patient in a doctor’s office, the speaker ‘disembodied’ from her own form. In this sonnet, however, the argument moves forward and makes the body into the body, the speaker’s own familial legacy included in the troubling description of how this particular body exists and the spaces in which it is and is not permitted to exist: “Definitely no space for body in the family / plot.” Not only is the speaker foreseeing herself (and possibly her own direct lineage) excluded in the future from her family’s burial site, but she is also not part of its history; she will not be contributing to a legacy, perhaps because there was “No space for body on the barstool. No space for body / in the plus-size store…No // space for body at the cool kids’ party.” The body is excluded, removed from the social-romantic landscape of possibility, and violently erased, both from the present and the future.

By the end of “Historiography,” the body has gained some measure of status, at least syntactically, appearing at the beginning of the lines with a capital letter, even if it is an illusion of control: “Body stops trying… // Body all those nights and all those pizzas. Body binges / and body purges.” For the reader and the speaker, the end of this poem is not a victory, but a surrender to disappointment, rather than to acceptance, a giving up, rather than giving in, but the honesty of it, the conventional late turn in the sonnet, allows this to happen. In The Second Sex, de Beavoir also acknowledges the honesty with which women can live in the later years of their lives once they are no longer subject to the pressure to perform femininity or to conform to its standards.

The value of form—why this dialogue between outsiders and the self matters so much—manifests in other poems, such as “A Sensible Lunch,” which, in part, responds to “concern trolling,” a form of rationalized cruelty. The first line, “I’m eating brown rice and a single turkey meatball,” is an austere response to a presumed question to which there can be no “correct” or satisfying answer, control masquerading as concern, invasiveness disguised as participation in a process of purification and diminishment: “Are you having a sensible lunch?” The space between the first line and the rest of the poem continues the motif of exclusion and erasure, even as the remaining thirteen lines are crammed with sensual descriptions of meals remembered as part of a “we,” as opposed to the “I” in the first line. The last line of “A Sensible Lunch” may also be a nod to the cover image, the lettuce leaves transformed through desire into “three tiny edible flowers.” Whatever Kearney’s leaves are, they are clearly neither square, nor meals, but they haunt both reader and speaker throughout the trajectory of this collection, weightless and terrifying in their presumed virtuousness.

Just as the discussion of a body’s form often evolves into a discussion of bodies at large, poems in form can comment on the usefulness of adhering to the conventions of form, the traditions of the sonnet itself in the case of The Fat Sonnets. The sonnet is immediately recognizable and easy to classify, as can be the body and its various types (plus-size, petite, pear-shaped, willowy, etc.), willingly or not. While not every poem in The Fat Sonnets fits the textbook definition of a Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet, each becomes a conversation with the form, and, as Richard Howard says, “Zighelboim gave to any and all of her poems the Sonnet’s intensity of Purpose.” Is it, as Bernadette Mayer asserted in the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of her own collection of sonnets, impossible to solve a problem in such a small space as provided by the sonnet? These are poems written for a world in which most of what we do is prepare ourselves to leave it behind: “I am an artifact / of myself. It’s time to move  now. It’s time to starve.” There can be no ending to these observations, nor is there any one form that can contain the problems of any body—private or collective—made flesh.

As I write this, I’m also fostering five very young kittens for a local animal shelter. Two of them are smaller than their brothers, and I am continually monitoring the weights of all five, delighted to see their tiny potbellies grow, encouraging them to gorge themselves on the kibble I provide for their nourishment. It is a relationship based on the purity of desire: the kittens must eat and grow “fat” as a way of surviving and because they are growing and changing so quickly.

The bodies of the poems in The Fat Sonnets ultimately challenge and stretch the constrictions of their own forms and limitations, and—through their visibility on the page—contain the element of performance, inhabiting form as we inhabit our own human bodies, often imperfectly, but—at best—continuing to change and to take from each moment that which we need in order to thrive.

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Erica Bernheim is the author of the full-length poetry collection, The Mimic Sea, and of a
chapbook, Between the Room and the City. She is currently Associate Professor of English at
Florida Southern College, where she directs the creative writing program. Her writing has
recently appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, The Missouri Review,
Hobart, and Burnside Review.

Stories Abound: A Review of Natalie Shapero's Hard Child by Peter LaBerge

 Natalie Shapero's  Hard Child  (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Natalie Shapero's Hard Child (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Natalie Shapero's second collection, Hard Child, opens with “Of surgeons putting their knives to erroneous // body parts, stories abound.” The collection closes with “God, of course they didn’t survive.” Her poems are distinct units with their own logic and tension but reference one another and borrow language (the last line of the book sounds like it could directly follow the first) in order to build on the book’s overall themes—or to land a joke, the way a comedian might in a standup set. These poems are taut and controlled, while appearing to make effortless leaps and connections.

Broadly speaking, Hard Child is about pregnancy and motherhood, confronting the way having a child changes one’s sense of memory and history. In two parts, more or less of equal length, the book’s arc follows the beginning of a pregnancy (“A blip in utero”) in the first, through the birth and early months of having a child (“To my young daughter, I sing…”) in the second. Throughout, Shapero’s poems try to reject history while embracing it: “I typically hate discussing the past,” the title poem claims; a few pages later, another says, “I swear to God I hardly think about the past.” And yet, throughout the book are references to historical events and people: Rasputin, the Iran–Iraq War, the Lindbergh Baby, the Kennedy assassination, and Elizabeth Bishop, among others.

This tension between denial and acceptance of history is deeply political, but Shapero remains present, always as culpable as the rest of us. In a poem called “Passing and Violence” she writes, “Watching football, I need / to see a man die.” But that’s hardly the most striking line of the book. One poem, “Monster,” begins in a birthing class before making a hard turn to genocide:

I recall
with ill feeling the curator, viewing a meager

tribute with disdain: CAN’T CALL YOURSELF A HOLOCAUST
MEMORIAL UNTIL YOU HAVE A TRAIN.

The internal rhyme of “disdain/train” twists the knife. There’s a joke there, but it’s caustic, like The Onion’s headlines about mass shootings. Shapero isn’t pointing a finger at anyone; she’s holding up a mirror.

The speaker’s memories also figure heavily, as in one of the standout poems of the collection, “Radio Science.” The poem opens with the speaker disbelieving a story on the radio—about babies in utero sensing the mother’s past trauma—until she is startled while out for a run. “[M]y blood arrested, foamed, / and troubled the dark in which the child formed.” As is typical in these poems, Shapero doesn’t confront the memory head on—“It isn’t right,” she writes. “I hardly / think of the past” (again, a denial of history)—choosing instead to tell us,

only the better times at that bar: recoil

of springs in the pinball corner,
pool table that accepted only quarters,

the floor too small and mobbed,
all of us always in range of getting jabbed

by a cue.

In describing the “better times,” she gives us an idea of what might have happened, the kind of man who would have been there, the way the speaker might recoil from him, the way the cue isn’t a cue at all. Throughout, the couplets are slant rhymed—like the speaker ducking the issue—until the very end when a repeated phrase and a full rhyme slam the poem home.

While history and memory are major motifs, the book is ultimately wrestling with the identity crisis that can happen when a person becomes a parent. Throughout, bodies change form or disappear in ways that are sometimes funny and sometimes unsettling, as in “Home Scale” in which parents are told to find their baby’s weight,

by stepping

onto a home scale holding
the baby, then you just subtract
your body from the scene.

In some cases, the speaker actually desires this subtraction, as in “Form, Save My Own”:

My mind has made
an enemy of my body;
it’s all I can do

not to quote Kissinger
on the Iran–Iraq
War: A PITY THEY

BOTH CAN’T LOSE.

In three consecutive poems Shapero writes about wanting “to know what kind of a dog I would be, were I ever a dog.” At first, it’s a demand; then “it’s ridiculous to opine on what kind / of a dog I would be”; then her lover asks her to stop talking about turning into a dog. As in “Radio Science,” this desire to transmute or vanish reads as a way to talk around an issue in the interest of trying to more accurately illuminate it. Is this postpartum depression? Does the speaker both want to be a parent and also desire a return to being childless? Perhaps. “It wasn’t for love of having / children that I had a child,” she writes. Shapero’s poems are rich, referential, and readable. That they remain indirect ultimately makes them more pointed.

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Timothy Otte is a poet and critic. Poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Denver Quarterly, Fence, Sixth Finch, SAND Journal, and others. Book reviews have appeared in the Poetry Project Newsletter, Colorado Review, Chicago Review of Books, and elsewhere. He lives in Minneapolis, where he works at Coffee House Press, but keeps a home on the internet: www.timothyotte.com. Say his last name like body.

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.

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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.