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Book Review

Orange Lady

by on May 1, 2018

Orange Lady, by Erika Ayón
Review by Brian Dunlap

How does a place look? How does it feel? How does it smell? Who lives there? What makes up the lives of the people who live there? What is the history of that place or the history of the people who live there?

These are many of the concerns writers of place address as they try to better understand where they’re from or where they live or explain to others what that place is truly like, to get beneath the pervasive stereotypes.

William Faulkner in his novel Absalom, Absalom! dives beneath and explores the myths his fellow Southerners have steeped their southern history of slavery and plantation culture in. At one point he describes a character “escaped at last into a world of pure illusion in which, safe from any harm, she moved, lived, from attitude to attitude.”

John Steinbeck in the opening to Cannery Row says that section of Monterey, California back in the 1930s and 1940s “is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots…sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks…laboratories and flophouses.”

And L.A. writer Stephen D. Gutierrez reminds readers about his South L.A. city in “Harold, All American,” that “Bell Gardens was a dilapidated town on the edge of L.A., all Okie then, with a smattering of Mexicans, wetbacks and surfer types, enlivening it.”

Los Ángeles is a city that begs to be written about. Writers since the first Spanish visitors have attempted to explain what Southern California, and later, Los Ángeles is, exploring its landscapes, then built environments, usually in relation to its inhabitants. Since the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, Los Ángeles literature is increasingly written by people born and raised there or by people who have a stake in the city. As a result, the literature has increasingly focused on the people that live in L.A.

Insert the debut poetry collection Orange Lady by Erika Ayón. She essentially writes a memoir in verse about growing up in South Central Los Ángeles, around 23rd and San Pedro Street, after immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico with her father, after kindergarten. Most of the poems are moments in time; a memory of herself, Apá, Amá, her sister Lorena, some of the characters that populate the neighborhood, of her family’s situation. It’s very much a collection of who they are and by extension who and what her South Central is.

The first poem “An Honest Living” does an excellent job setting the context that Orange Lady is read in. “Orange lady! Orange lady!” the opening line reads in part, already addressing the meaning of the collection’s title. Ayón is in elementary school and is picked on because her Mexican family sells oranges and other fruit curbside to make a living, a reality I’ve seen all my life living in L.A. But as Ayón reminds herself and the reader, pushing back against the narrative that Mexicans are not honest people (e.g. drug dealers), she says, “Apá’s words float in my mind, stop me from/crying, from saying it isn’t true. It’s an honest living, nothing/to be ashamed of.”

These poems, as “An Honest Living” illustrates, are poems of experience. Ayón writes her life, through a Mexican immigrant’s eyes, shifting the perspective in which L.A. is seen.  In “The Ride There,” she situates her memories by saying:

…a slow ride down San Pedro
…the streets stand desolate…
Numero Uno Market sees
no cars in sight…
The white button moon follows me…
Apá…
stares at the darkness that swallows the road ahead.

These South Central streets reflect the situation her family, and others like her, face: economic instability in a complex, racist country they’re struggling to understand, forcing them to navigate it blindly.

It’s through Ayón’s use of clear, plain language that her memories are able to just be, showing tenderness towards Apá in “Each Fall,” when he leaves to pick fruit, but returns to “whisper/about../how the strawberries bleed into your cut,/blistered hands.” Or through heart-break in “The Police Officers,” when Apá sells fruit and goods curbside and “mean police officers,” ask to see his vender’s license, “purchased with…assurance…/the…officers will leave us alone.” Instead they “tell Apá ‘You can’t be here…’/They snap/his picture as if he were a criminal.”

However, with the poem “In Another Country” Ayón completes the reader’s full envelopment into her perspective through the somber retelling of her immigration story written from the perspective of Mexico to her daughter. It’s at the end when her family finally reaches L.A. when the stark, heartbreaking reality of her experience is laid bare: “…she shakes/the last memories of me…/in the distance, I sigh, release/her forever from my embrace.”

Later, when Ayón is older, she ponders her perspective in “The Train Ride With Billy Collins,” about “if Billy feels that these trees are also/like poems. That those vibrant red/strawberries are planted poems,” insinuating that she hopes her perspective, story and community, and those of people like her, won’t be cast to the side by the white men/poets that Collins represents, as different or outside what the “definition” of a poem, story, life or community is. However, since it’s Ayón’s desire to, as she says, “loose ourselves in this/” her “world,” the fact that she italicizes Spanish words throughout Orange Lady, unnecessarily otherizes her perspective, to a degree, inserting a barrier between English and Spanish that are both a normal part of her world.

Yet, Ayón’s world, her Los Ángeles, is one that writers—a visiting Truman Capote and L.A. writers like Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion—could never conceive of, that left the Mexican/Latinx immigrants out of the city’s narrative. However, even with the occasional overuse of short words like “the” that causes a line here and there to be wordy, interrupting the rhythm of a poem, and the italicizing of Spanish words, her last poem “Elegy for the Orange,” brings Ayón’s memoir in verse touchingly full circle. She says, “Your juice became my childhood nectar…” And she understands “I won’t be your last survivor.” And that’s a reality the reader should never forget.

 

Orange Lady is available now through World Stage Press.

 

Brian Dunlap is a native Angeleno who still lives in Los Angeles. He explores and captures the city’s stories that are hidden in plain sight. Dunlap is the winner of the 2018 Jeff Marks Memorial Poetry Prize from december magazine judged by former Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis J. Rodreguez. His poems and book reviews have been published in Angel City Review, CCM-Entropy, California Quarterly and Dryland, among others. He runs the blog site www.losangelesliterature.wordpress.com, a resource to explore L.A.’s vast literary culture.

Book Review

Cadavers

by on April 5, 2018

Cadavers, by Néstor Perlongher
Translated by Roberto Echavarren and Donald Wellman
Review by Rosemarie Dombrowski

 

Cardboard House Press has a reputation for both finely crafted books and exquisite translations from the Spanish, not to mention a team of editors that spans the globe. For an English-only poetry scholar, their editions are essential to an understanding of the Latin and South American landscape.

In their latest release, Cadavers (2018), translated by the Uruguayan poet, Roberto Echavarren and Donald Wellman, Néstor Perlongher (the Argentinian poet and anthropologist) immediately sets the tone for his long poem by creating a tapestry of geography, scene, and image via “clusters,” each containing only a handful of lines, cohered not only by the haunting refrain There Are Cadavers/Hay Cadáveres, but a fervent confrontation with the Argentine dictatorship of the 1970s.

Some of the clusters are overtly sexual. Some are more regional. Some are portraits of the working class. Some are portraits of the outcasted. Many focus on women. From mothers to seamstresses to teachers to sex workers, his sensitivity and attention to the stories of all women seems revolutionary from any perspective.

The fetus, growing in a rat-infested sewer,
The grandmother, shaving herself in a bowl of leach
The mother-in-law, guzzling for a few seeds of wine shoot,
The aunt, going crazy for some ornamental combs,
There Are Cadavers

The desperation depicted in these lines – the desire for humanity and a few incidental material objects – is rarely the fodder of a portrait of an oppressed people. Rather than employing poetic pathos, he chooses to craft unspeakable images and scenes. This, coupled with his seminal role in the global LGBT movement, inarguably weaves a revolutionary fervor through the work.

Perlongher is unabashedly egalitarian in his quest to depict the suffering, and, like Whitman, he isn’t afraid to grapple with sexuality on both sides of the aisle: …in the booty/of that boy…in the stench of the judge’s pubic hair…in the moan of that chorus girl… It’s also worth noting the rawness of the Whitmanesque diction, bodily diction that has more “mucous” and “piss” and “ejaculat[ion]” than anything in the American canon circa the 70’s and 80s (aside from a “cock” or two in a Levertov poem, Rich’s tame-by-comparison “Twenty-One Love Poems,” and the woman-objectifying verse of Bukowski).

The repetition of cadavers at the end of every stanza is not just an aural device, but one that literally imposes the body onto everything. The dead body is ubiquitous. The bodies of looters and lovers and cheaters and fighters and families are ubiquitous. The diction of the body is also ubiquitous, from the musky little hairs to the mucus that is suckled. There is no body too deformed or decayed, too sensual or obscene for inclusion.

Perlongher’s Cadavers is, in part, a descendant of the great erotic protest tomes of Whitman and Ginsberg. It is also playful and buoyant, almost Steinian at times given its perennial return to the female body. It manages to revel in a linguistic landscape that is both plagued with decay and the persistence of life—through it all, the women continue to orgasm, birth, and bathe. The spinner, who managed to coil herself in the wires, in the barbs, becomes a powerful symbol of resistance in the face of a barbarous dictatorship.

This is, perhaps, one of the greatest homages to a people living and dying under an oppressive regime. Despite how many were murdered, Perlongher’s striking corporeal flashes do not allow you to forget.

 

Cadavers is available now through Cardboard House Press.

 

Rosemarie Dombrowski is the inaugural Poet Laureate of Phoenix, AZ and the founder of rinky dink press. She is the recipient of five Pushcart nominations, a 2017 Arts Hero Award, the 2017 Carrie McCray Literary Award in Nonfiction, and a fellowship from the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics. Her collections include The Book of Emergencies (2014, Five Oaks Press), The Philosophy of Unclean Things (Finishing Line Press, 2017) and The Cleavage Planes of Southwest Minerals [A Love Story], winner of the 2017 Split Rock Review chapbook competition. www.rdpoet.com

Book Review Interviews

Morgan Parker and ‘There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce’

by on March 20, 2018
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce,
by Morgan Parker
Review by Michael Lorenzo Porter

 

The orange Mussolini is running amok, nuclear war peers from around the corner, and rights once thought to be inalienable can be snatched as quickly as each new 24-hour rat race presents itself. Somewhere, in the midst of our bizarro world insane faux society posing as a real, functional society, Morgan Parker has found the time, the wit, and tact with which to eloquently communicate just what it is to be a black woman at this point in what is sure to be remembered as a turning point in human history. What does it mean to be a black woman?

What is America?

Do dreams still matter?

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce, the follow-up to 2015’s Award-winning Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night, asks the reader to ponder these questions and much much more. This latest work shows Parker has a knack, and some might say a lust for juxtaposing pain and comedy, the pillars for any millennial resigned to life in a sprawling metropolitan juggernaut of a city. It’s all here: TV Dinners, Beyonce, violence, the inescapable male gaze, the female gaze, relishing the canceled dinner, Beyonce. Sex. President Obama, late night rendezvous steeped in regret, the thrill of not feeling alone if even for a moment.

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce is brutal in its earnestness. Parker exhibits both strength and vulnerability in equal measure. She knows when to pull us back from despair. Knows how to stop us from fully delving into her mind.

In ‘RoboBeyonce’ Parker imagines a not too distant future (that actually could be our current soul-crushing present) where sex is a sterilized, clinical act with a cold manufactured quality.

Charging in the darkroom
While you sleep I am touch and go
I flicker and get turned on
Exterior shell, interior disco

A lack of fulfillment, or maybe an admission of detachment serves as a numbing dose of reality when confronted with situations that demand genuine human contact. Although Parker deftly manages to be in the moment, lest it pass us by in a whir we aren’t sure was even worth noting, she is also attuned with just what that scary unknowable future may bring.

The future is scary and Parker is aware of that fact.

She is also aware that if one is to truly live in this world, the taking of a vice seems to be akin to picking a career in a specified field. Self-loathing. Cigarettes. One-night stands you regret before they begin. Cigarettes. A lot of whiskeys. Too much whiskey.

While Parker muses about nights spent alone, basking in the fresh glow of plans just canceled via text message; it is near impossible not to relate. We’ve all breathed a sigh of relief at plans we just weren’t quite looking forward to falling through. And even if we were, the time spent alone in your apartment/room will surely be more productive than the night of bashing your brain silly with poison you can’t even afford, right?

The brilliance of ‘Beyonce’ is in its phrasing and in the forming of a web of language so taut and dense, it feels tailored for the eye and ear.

She is also not afraid to talk about race when it pertains to Beyonce’s perception of herself.

‘Beyonce celebrates Black History Month’:

I have almost
forgotten my roots
are not long
blonde. I have almost forgotten
what it’s like to be at sea.

In ‘Beyonce’ Parker has crafted something worth examining not just for its literary merits, which there are many, but also for its ability to provide an in-depth and honest look inside the heart and mind of the modern black woman.

+++++

I was able to catch up with her in between readings and writing late last week.

Michael Porter: I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.
Morgan Parker: Happy to do it!

Michael: When do you find yourself writing the most?
Morgan: I don’t have a writing routine, though usually to write every day, or at least take notes. Evening and night are usually when I’m most full, when I need to work to articulate a feeling.

Michael: Do the poems in your latest work reflect a particular mood?
Morgan: Definitely. There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé changes for me every time I re-read it, just as my view does on the time when it was written, its particular songs and proclamations. I work in each book to create an atmosphere, to invoke sounds and colors and figureheads. My new book, Magical Negro, overlaps in tone and theme a bit, but it has its own atmosphere and mood. It’s dark and difficult, angry, mournful, blunt, less vivid in color.

Michael: What is your favorite breakfast food?
Morgan: I don’t eat breakfast, which makes me feel ashamed. Coffee and cigarettes like a cliche. Sometimes I make steak and eggs after midnight.

Michael: When do you feel invisible?
Morgan: Pretty much at some point in every day— when a white woman walks into me on the street or cuts me in a line, or I am just at home alone, or sometimes even in a group, when I feel like no one hears what I’m saying.

Michael: What super power would you want if you knew you’d only have it for 24 hours?
Morgan: White girl, preferably within 24 hours that I’m traveling alone with heavy bags.

Michael: What/who are you reading now?
Morgan: Ben Purkert’s just-released debut, For the Love of Endings. Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays. Rereading The Color Purple. Dipping in and out of Robin D.G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.

Michael: Do you feel pigeonholed as a “black woman writer”? What I mean is, do you ever want to write from inside someone else’s perspective/mind?
Morgan: My own mind and perspective— including those of the ancestors that haunt me and those I’m able to channel—  are dynamic and multifarious enough to keep me busy, to keep my work changing as I change. For myself, in the writing, I don’t feel constrained by identity. I understand that audiences might expect a particular thing from me as a “black woman writer,” but I purposefully don’t adhere to expectations, I push discomfort and walk into the unknown. I’m terrified of feeling static in my work.

Michael: Tell me something no one knows about you.
Morgan: Is this possible?

Michael: What art helps you escape? (I have read that you like Basquiat) Is it escape you seek when looking at/enjoying art?
Morgan: There is art that helps me escape, get outside of myself and my world— certain novels and films. In general, though, the art I love most is work that makes me more myself, that reflects back to me and enhances my vision of the world.

Michael: Tell me what your favorite film/album is.
Morgan: Favorites make me anxious. Right now I’m listening to a lot of Ramsey Lewis albums.

Michael: Is there a place you cannot be bothered for weeks on end? A place you can get a good deal of work done? Your own fortress of solitude?
Morgan: Usually, this is my house. I really try to make my space conducive to imagination. But email still exists.

 

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce is available now through Tin House Press.

 

Michael Lorenzo Porter is a guy who writes about things, mainly surreal crime fiction. Think Fear and Loathing with palm trees.  He is a man about town and knows just where to be at the right time. His work has appeared in some places you may or may not have read but he doesn’t care. He works for the NAACP Image Awards where he advocates for literature in an increasingly visual world. But don’t get it twisted because he loves movies.

Book Review

Hover the Bones

by on March 13, 2018

Hover the Bones, By Melisa Malvin-Middleton
Review by Cody Deitz

 

Melisa Malvin-Middleton’s debut collection Hover the Bones, an installment in the Native Blossoms Chapbook Series, explores terrains of family and loss, where nothing is easy and nothing is taken for granted.

Through nineteen poems that run from the distinctly personal to the public, even broaching the political in places, Malvin-Middleton tries “to understand that which makes us human, / that which makes us scarred” (“Schism of My Maker”). It is this tension—between what makes us human and what makes us scarred—that charges these poems, and also what allows us to overcome the opacity that nostalgia, even beautifully-wrought nostalgia, can sometimes create.

Hover the Bones is a book first and foremost about family, and about what it means to be bound by blood. The opening poem, notably titled “Of Closure,” makes a ritual of burying an unborn child’s remains. The speaker here is concerned with what will suffice—what ritual she can enact to both mark this moment and move past it:

And it was good
enough to dig.
I test the soil
under metal’s scrape,
…One inch. Two.
How far
must I go to release you?

This highly enjambed poem sets the tone in style and content for much of the collection, where so much is about letting go, negotiating the distance between self and family, between the present and the past. Malvin-Middleton’s speaker seems to struggle often with a palpable sense of responsibility—guilt, even—that effectively grounds many of these poems.

Part of this responsibility is of the natural order. “She Died Alone” sees the speaker’s mother “in the middle of the living / room swallowed by hospice bed,” and her father’s voice echoes thinly in a later poem as he says “The dialysis is making me sicker” to a daughter that can do little more than agree: “Yes, sometimes it does. // It keeps him alive” (“Dialysis”). These moments, I think, are where we see Malvin-Middleton at her best. Where she might easily employ her considerable lyrical power, she eases back, letting the images do their work. The final image of “Dialysis” is an excellent example of this. See how the language here is stripped down to the barest observation:

There are:

The Needles
The Tubes
The Time

whittling away in a chair
surrounded by others
hooked up to an assembly line
of filtration
with the drone of daytime reality
shows playing over their heads.

She achieves a powerful synergy between the matter-of-factness of the language and the expansion of that long sentence across six lines; we actually hear the drone of the TVs overhead. And there are so many points where this image could be watered down by interjection, but Malvin-Middleton resists. We are left with the powerful tension between the hum of “daytime reality / shows” and the deeper, more profound reality to which the speaker (and we) are attuned.

But this book is not dedicated entirely to these questions of family. We actually encounter a wide variety of images and textures—from internal, almost surreal treatments of anxiety in “Signal of the Sirens” to sketches of a roller-derby girl at last call where “one shot after another run / in her silken hose / under sheets” (“Last Call”).

Some readers might consider this to be one of the weaknesses of the collection—the looseness with which these themes are connected. Like the speaker in “Bougainvillea,” we might “lose track of form / in this origami jungle.” This is a fair criticism, I think, but one perhaps based on a cursory reading. If one steps back and considers the collection as a whole, a sustained undercurrent emerges: how can I be in the world? this speaker seems to ask, knowing what I know? Time and time again, Malvin-Middleton’s answer comes in the form of language—more language. The book’s epigraph from Audre Lorde rings true: “So it is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive.” And I think these poems feel like Malvin-Middleton speaking, remembering, knowing that this may well be our best response to suffering and loss.

From the emotionally-charged, kaleidoscopic walk through a present charged by memory, we arrive finally at prayer. Through division inherent in “Schism of My Maker,” the speaker finds in her mother’s passion—for theatre, for art—herself. She asserts herself here more clearly than anywhere else in the book. She writes,

I am a master at unearthing our humanness, our faults
in raw honesty.

Trying to understand that which makes us human,
that which makes us scarred—

If you read, like I did when I first encountered these lines (and still do), “that which makes us human, / that which makes us sacred,” I think this book has done its work. And indeed, we end in invocation. In a book that strives to both heal from loss and not lose its power to color our lives in a meaningful way, the speaker finds the most appropriate ending in prayer. Words are, Malvin-Middleton believes, our greatest power of invocation, and I’m inclined to agree. Like a singing bowl, the speaker chants:

May I be well.
May I be happy.
May I be free from suffering.

May you be well.
May you be free.
May you be free from suffering.

May we be well.
May we be happy.
May we be free from suffering.

 

Honor the Bones is available now through Yak Press.

 

Cody Deitz is a California native but now resides in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where he is a PhD student in English at the University of North Dakota. He is a recent winner of the Academy of American Poets University Prize, and his poetry has been published or is forthcoming in various literary journals including NAILED, North Dakota Quarterly, The Fourth River, and others, and he recently released his first chapbook, Pressed Against All That Nothing, with Yak Press.

 

 

Book Review

Roberts Pool Twilights

by on November 14, 2017

Collection by Roger Santiváñez
Translated by Elsa Costa
Review by Vicent Moreno

 

“I feel the materiality of language most intensely when writing poetry. It is a push/pull relationship where the material resists. You have a sense of speaking through language and of language speaking to you. The plasticity is primary. This doesn’t mean that content doesn’t matter, but poetry is this space where every single particle of language is charged with the most meaning” Ben Lerner, The Guardian, 20 November 2016.

Lerner’s comments on the resisting and polysemic nature of poetry could be applied effortlessly to Roger Santiváñez’s book of poems, Roberts Pool Twilights (2017), published by the Cardboard House Press, and aptly translated from the Spanish by Elsa Costa in a bilingual edition. This book is welcome news for lovers of poetry and it is yet another example of Cardboard House Press’ ongoing commitment to publishing in English some of the best cutting-edge poetry found in Spanish. Santiváñez is a renowned poet from Perú, famous founder of the artistic and literary movement Kloaka in the 1980s in Lima. He currently lives and works in the United States where he teaches at Temple University. His poetry has a lot in common with the historic avant-gardes of the 1920 in their attempt to create “something new,” and their belief in a poem as an autonomous object, which exists outside of our material world and is created ex nihilo by the poet. In this sense, behind Santiváñez’s ars poetica one can see the ghost of Vicente Huidobro’s aesthetic movement, Creacionismo, and its clear poetic premise: “Make a poem the way Nature makes a tree.”

In Santiváñez’s book, the reader encounters a language that has been exposed to the highest temperatures of poetry; under this pressure, words bend, meanings melt, and out comes a product that only deceptively resembles ordinary language. As it stands, Roberts Pool Twilight is above all a book on the craftsmanship of poetry, a trance-like meditation on the poetic language where the mundane, suburban man-altered landscapes of New Jersey (like the title itself, Robert Pools) offer the Peruvian author an improbable locus amoenus for his inspiration.

Consider, for example, the opening poem in the collection, “Cooper River Park”:

& the glitter of the river’s shimmer
Still I glaze on the green bank
Sleekest ripple aquatic mi

Niature drawn by the goddess in
Visible hidden behind the celes
Tial frond that melts into the vault

In my earthly pain like the
Majestic vanished cloud
Just at forming and being deli

Quescent fragile presence swims
In the silent expanse adrift
O suspense gasp of miscomprehended

Rose

Here hyperbatons, enjambments, and split rhymes tense the language across verses; the poem and the reader wrestle for a moment until, as in the distorted image reflected on rippled water, familiar tropes of the locus amoenus appear: the water, the magical creatures, the grass, and at the end, standing alone in the verse, the Rose, arguably one of the most stereotypical topos in poetry. Much like Magritte’s pipe, a rose is never a rose in a poem and it’s definitely not in Santiváñez’s work, which attempts to create its own autonomous space, avoiding an easy referentiality to the “real” world. One could even affirm that poetry itself is in fact the real locus amoenus for Santiváñez.

The poetic voice in the poems of Robert Pools Twilight inhabits a double liminal space: the suburban, yet natural landscapes and the actual space of the poem. At times, there is a revealed tension in trying to translate one space into the other:

Here she comes blue in her graceful steps
Nubile curves at a pace sculpted
By the infinite deities shaping her

Innocence before the poem that only
Yearns to portray her triumphant playing
With the damp sand & found shells

By the ocean at her feet

While in the example above, the poetic voice “yearns” to capture the image, in other instances it’s the opposite as the poet finds solace in the actual poem, which anticipates or imagines the poet’s desire:

Thirst for you conspiring with me to
Draw you running every sway cur
Ve pronounced in every verse o’this

Song

Eroticism is at the core of most poems in this collection and, in a way, the dynamic force that shatters and complicates the otherwise static natural world that surrounds the poetic subject. On the one hand, if this is indeed a book on the art of poetry, Eros must have a strong protagonism; on the other hand, it showcases one of the traditional features of the locus amoenus as a space where love and sex is explored freely, away from societal conventions, an aspect that Northrop Frye has developed through the concept of “green world” in his study of some Shakespeare works. In most cases, the object of desire is directly mythologized (or in other words, poeticized as a classical literary trope). Fittingly, Venuses, Goddesses, and Nymphs populate the poems:

Absolute venus rattled by the
Foam in its point of breakage oh
Thighs bathed by the fate of the blessed

…..

You came back into view goddess girl of the
Freshening waves now with celestial drip
Ping & gilded bliss in your breasts

……

Rosy nymph of sensual calves
You stretch your back devoted to the
Movement that provokes your beauty

Roberts Pool Twilights takes the reader on an exciting journey that demands attention and patience. The reward is a stimulating collection of poetry full of stunning and enigmatic images that leave the reader with a feeling of vitality and joie de vivre. Each poem is a meticulously crafted piece that creates its own reality through the plasticity and playfulness of its language. Considering the difficulty of this type of poetry, the work of the translator, Elsa Costa, has to be commended for being loyal to the original while retaining the same plasticity in the translation.

 

Roberts Pool Twilights is available now through Cardboard House Press.

Book Review

I Remember Nightfall

by on September 14, 2017

Poetry collection by Marosa di Giorgio
Translation by Jeannine Marie Pitas
Review by Chris Muravez

 

This first comprehensive collection of English translations of Marosa di Giorgio’s poetry brings to the Anglophone-sphere an occult, surreal, and saturated poet from Uruguay. Jeannine Marie Pitas’ translations, and in-depth introduction, should, first and foremost, be applauded for what presents itself as an obvious labor of love for di Giorgio’s work. We should all be thankful for Pitas’ devotion to this poet, as that devotion in-turn translated itself into my own reading experience.

The title, I Remember Nightfall, captures the spirit of this collection, remembering the falling, not of sun, not of moon, but of night itself. Throughout the book are scattered memories that exist in the in-between times, the twilit mornings and evenings where shadows stretch, flowers begin to bloom, and imagination takes hold.  The book itself contains four of di Giorgio’s volumes – The History of Violets, Magnolia, The War of the Orchards, and The Native Garden is in Flames. These sections, taken from her writings of the 1960’s-70’s, contain twilit memories that find their linguistic path through a simple language structure and a calming repetition of scene. Memory itself is not necessarily reliable though, as there are dream-like injections of surrealism and pastoral plays between life and death, light and dark. In this remembrance are also the fallen human and inhuman figures that saturate di Giorgio’s poetry – trees, animals, mushrooms, mice, grandmothers, God. How else could night fall further than the sun, if it weren’t chasing reality from a garden, or into a bedroom?

And still, this is a violent place for us to be. Not a loud, obtrusive violence though, but a quiet, reserved disorder; there is an ambient terror that seeks its refuge in di Giorgio’s registers and syntax. “The gladiolus is a spear, its edge loaded with carnations, a knife of carnations. / … / That crazy lily is going to kill us.” (29) What are we to do, as readers, with these often, though not always, subtle and threatening undertones? How are we to be killed by flowers?

I would say stay still. Stay absolutely still in this affective place, and let the threats, anxieties, and terrors territorialize your reading. This is another magic of di Girogio’s work – her ability to create an affective sense of place, be it a garden, bedroom, dining room, cupboard. I often felt like I was about to be devoured by a giant snail, or else make love with God dressed as a bat at a wedding. These disturbances to reason, order, and memory make her poetic turns from scenery to action, and back again, simultaneously violent and sensual. The intuitive danger here also creates a sublime sensation, specifically in the garden and bedrooms, which makes me think of the strange meeting places in Joyelle McSweeney’s Necropastoral:

The Necropastoral is a strange meetingplace for the poet and death, or for the dead to meet the dead, or for the seemingly singular-bodied human to be revealed as part of an inhuman multiple body. It is a sublime site: a site of soaring flights and subterranean swoons.  It is also a strange meetingplace in the sense that diverse anachronistic poets meet in the Necropastoral, twinned in their imagery, motif, themes, spectacular strategies (Poetry Foundation, 2014).

In di Giorgio, Death and the Poet meet in twilit memories.

All of life and death was filled with tulle.

And on the altar of the gardens, the candles are steaming. Twilight’s animals pass by, their antlers covered with smoldering candles, and my grandfather and grandmother are there – my grandmother in her raffa dress, her crown of tine pinecones. The bride is covered completely in tulle; even her bones are tulle. (55)

There is also decadence – decadence in food, in life – which cause people to often associate di Giorgio with Baroque stylizations. Simplicity and exuberance, grandeur, excess – all revolving around life, and the sustainment of life – abound in Nightfall. There’s so much life happening in the twilight world of di Giorgio that Death is even welcome, given a seat at the table, and fed. Yet, how could Death possibly hope to eat its fill when such an abundance of life falls in crystals, jewels, and blood. Death cannot keep up, and the dead return to the living.

 … It seems to me that this is Epiphany Night.

A handful of stars fall down as if made of sugar. And all the garden and the firmament are filled with cakes covered in candles; there are sprinkles from east to west, tiny silver pearls from north to south.

My animals of long ago live again. The come from far away, from the world beyond, to bring me toys. (89)

The supernatural figures of Death, God, and Angels find homes, outside the Judeo-Christian canon, by losing the baggage of redemption, of other-worldly paradise. Instead they invade di Giorgio’s world to offer comfort, to terrify, or to be torn apart. God fights back against the abyss of a remembered nightfall. Speaking of God, she writes

Suddenly I saw him, blonde, smiling, carefree; I knelt down; my father’s steps became light and terrible. The butterflies hit my face, crunchy, dark, tasty as live, winged cookies. When I looked again, the other’s face had changed; he was hardly moving he was recoiling, stammering, but my father jumped out like a black cat from among the leaves and seized him by the veins (123)

God (Death?) is suddenly attacked by an anti-Oedipal father-cat figure. This is one instance of a violence that traumatizes, and this trauma is both physical and temporal. At other points, inhuman forms form from the human form. The speaker’s body becomes multi-pedal, broken, either by fingernail or by bone, in order to kill mice under a dinner table. The mother figure disappears/dies, the name of the father remains unuttered, and the smell of blood salivates the now Pavlovian pup of a reader. Is this not the trauma of memories that have been tortured by time and law?

Ultimately, for di Giorgio, true cruelty rests in order and reason, in restraint and conformity. “And then the white chick – almost a dove – flew from the trees to eat rice from my hands. She felt so real to me that I was going to kiss her. / But then, everything burst into flames and disappeared. God stows his things away safely.” (25)

As with any poet who has dedicated their life to the art, it is impossible to summarize the complexities of her work in the span of a book review. The ambient terror of di Giorgio’s poetry lives between abject affect and an object of effect. The law, symbolic or otherwise, is toyed with, teased, beaten and beating. Her poetics are also sublime – the terror and territories so vast, imaginative, real and surreal – they give the affective sense of place its sublime qualities. This often causes the identities of her subjects to fall apart, to become hidden, unknown, unknowable. The ambient terror and archaic twilit memories of I Remember Nightfall make this volume a necessary read for anyone interested in the occult power of spellbinding words.

 

I Remember Nightfall is available now through Ugly Ducking Presse.

Chris Muravez is a petulant poet living in the Bay Area. His poems have been published in Flapperhouse, Santa Clara Review, Deluge, and elsewhere. He teaches at Diablo Valley College and writes about the apocalypse like it’s cool.

 

Book Review

And We Were All Alive

by on August 8, 2017

Collection by Olvido García Valdés
Translated by Catherine Hammond
Review by Benito del Pliego

Among the contemporary Spanish poets, few are better suited for a translation into English than Olvido García Valdés. Her poetry cannot be reduced to any of the stereotypes surrounding what any Spanish speaking poet —particularly female poets— should be like, and yet a fine-tuned reader will have the opportunity of noticing that she is not leaving behind key aspects of the conversation that, one may say, the Spanish poetry has been having in the last few decades.

What is it, then, that makes this translation such an interesting read in English? It is about what the poem pays attention to. It is about how the poet positions herself in the language of the poem.

And We Were All Alive covers just about half the original included in the book that received Spain’s National Poetry Prize in Spain in 2007. With few exceptions, the poems offered in the translation are short notes in verse in which an observation of the surroundings takes the reader to an unexpected place.

Between the literal meaning of what you see / and hear and another less obvious place, / inquietude opens its eye.

That inquietude, as many poems, seems to come from an unusual glance to common views, from a chain of reflections without obvious connections, from memories of dreams, from retained memories.

A few poetic strategies define the writing process here. Among them, the most prevalent are a variety of forms of juxtaposition, such as opposition, or transitions eased by some short of grammatical or lexical ambiguities that moves the poem from one place to another without apparent discontinuity. Sometimes the bridge is established by a discrete echo such as in:

…Explosions / or skin tight to cheekbone; / veins and rough texture, / deteriorating, unable to adapt, the denim jacket had the odor / of the person, the person and the odor…

In any case, since there is not juxtaposition without a previous cutting, the poems also have another striking formal feature related to what is elided. These are quite poems, contained poems.

Being mindful of these two qualities (juxtaposition and ellipsis) greatly facilitates the possibility of chasing the elusive sense that presides García Valdés writing. The capacity to displace what is literally said, while safeguarding the possibility of other meanings, opens up an area of mysterious truth, a truth impossible to state in any other way but the way it has been written. Here, perhaps, lays the key of the fascination caused by García Valdés poems.

One of the elliptical —and fundamental— elements of the poems is the nature of their subjects. The voice that articulates the poems is defined by her capacity to see and say, rather than by any presupposed category (cultural, national, political…). There is someone in the poem; it is a she, it is a she who sees and says. Her voice takes us to a kind of knowledge that has nothing to do with so called common sense. Like other aspects of the book, the subject is precise, but not limiting. The projection of the identity is not the goal of writing; it is just one of the dimensions of which the poem make us aware.

The poetic forms resonate and may define the topics that emerge from the poems: death as a looming possibility, the disconcerting nature of human relationships, the warming presence of nature – especially animals – and places… In what is said arises the possibility of an answer, even if it is only an evanescent one.

The translation of these pieces may look like a simple task considering what Catherine Hammond has achieved. Or simply reading García Valdés’ original. In both cases there is a deceiving sense of normalcy. The difficulty seems to be placed in the interpretation or the evaluation of the words we read, rather than in the words themselves. The subtle dramatic points where the poem shifts gears or makes a turn are, nonetheless, difficult to capture in a translation. Hammond gently wrestles with then in a way comparable to the approach favored in Spanish by the author; it is a matter of punctuation, or the resonance of a few words. In that delicate process, Catherine Hammond achieves the essential task without too many concessions to translators’ tendency to make the translation look more natural than the original.

The second element I think poses a very interesting challenge for the translator is the delicate balance between distance and affection that crosses the book. It’s not ease to parallel García Valdés’ austere – but elegant and warm – Castilian phrasing. It may be hard for many readers to respond to both languages alike, but I would like to encourage everyone to search for that subtlety. Luckily, Cardboard House Press facilitates that approach with a bilingual edition. And we were all alive carefully in both languages.

 

And We Were All Alive is available now through Cardboard House Press.

 

Benito del Pliego is a Spanish born poet, translator and professor at Appalachian State University, in North Carolina. DiazGrey Ed. has recently published, in a bilingual edition, one of his poetry books, Fábula/Fable. His poems have been included in anthologies such as Forrest Gander’s Panic Cure. Poetry from Spain for the 21st Century (2013) and Malditos latinos malditos sudacas. Poesía iberoamericana made in USA (México, 2010). He has translated into Spanish, in collaboration with Andrés Fisher, selections of poetry by Lew Welch, Philip Whalen, and Gertrude Stein.

Book Review

A Life of Adventure and Delight

by on August 3, 2017

 

Review by Liz von Klemperer

Superman, Cosmo, & Other False Idols: In Akhil Sharma’s first short story collection, the consumption of American media plays out in real time

In his first short story collection A Life of Adventure and Delight, Akhil Sharma presents the American Dream as a Wizard of Oz sham.  Forces like Cosmopolitan Magazine and Marvel Comics are the culprits behind the curtain, pulling the strings to the happily-ever-after narratives his characters crave.  Sharma presents a darkly comedic take on the Indian immigrant experience, as his characters unsuccessfully seek affirmation through fast and easy pleasure peddled by American media.  What results is a melancholy and at turns tender exploration of the human psyche at it’s most vulnerable.

Sharma’s characters fumble to bridge the gap between traditional Indian and commercial American cultures.  Arranged marriages are a pervading theme, and Sharma describes them as pragmatic unions orchestrated by parents and often between two strangers.  This contrasts starkly with the concept of love touted by the American media, which sells a narrative of spontaneous and consuming passion.  In The Well, for example, Pavan, a first generation immigrant, “falls in love” with a host of fictional characters, such as Mrs. Muir form The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Spider Man’s Mary Jane, and Wonder Woman.  His dreams of a partnership that’s worlds away from the dysfunction of his parents arranged marriage.  After seeing his parents fight as a child, for example, he vows to give a flower to his future wife every day.  But when Pavan grows up and meets Betsy, a blonde American woman, he blatantly ignores her request that their relationship be casual and physical.  He tells her he loves her, and even goes so far as to not use a condom in hopes that by impregnating her she will fall in love with him back.  Unsurprisingly this manipulative method of fostering love backfires, and Bestys pregnancy ends in an abortion.  Pavan, with all his misguided idealism and supersized dreams of love, is left blinking and stunned.  No matter what cultural norms feed and facilitate a romantic union, dysfunction and heartache have no cultural boundaries.

In Sharma’s stories, the desire to latch onto shiny promises of comfort and understanding come to head with the very nature of American media, which is meant to reel a consumer in and sell a product.  In this case, the product is an idea, and Sharma’s characters have invested heavily.  Sharma casts his characters as earnest fools who have fallen into a masterfully laid trap, and are subsequently forced to recon with their naiveté.  While Betsy is jaded and unable to stomach googley eyed romance, Pavan has taken the American love story to heart.  To Pavan, Spider Man is not just a story, it is a possible alternative to his parents passive aggressive, dysfunctional relationship.  Sharma lays bare how the media we consume is fundamentally at odds with reality as well as dangerously misleading, especially for those who consume whole heartedly.  Sharma is also playing with the classic idea of the United States as the Promised Land, where people can seek futures of new and boundless possibility.  In Sharma’s world, his characters are shackled by their circumstances, whether it is isolation or hardship, and there is no American Dream tale to be found.

In Surrounded by Sleep, Sharma approaches immigrant indoctrination into American culture through the perspective of a child when ten-year-old Ajay prays to Superman after his older brother Birji’s near fatal swimming pool accident.  After the accident, Ajay’s mother creates a shrine and prays constantly, hoping that her display of piety will convince God to spare her child.  Ajay then Americanizes this practice by substituting Krishna with American cultural idols, like Superman.  Ajay imagines God as like Clark Kent, with “a gray cardigan, slacks, and thick glasses.”  Ajay entreats God to make his brother well again, and also asks God to make him rich and famous.  At ten he is already steeped in the narrative of the American superhero, whose beginnings are always “distinguished by misfortune,” and wants to believe that his success will be in direct proportion to his suffering.  In the hospital, he loses himself in fantasy novels in which the hero, “had an undiscovered talent that made him famous when it was revealed.”  Within the superhero narrative lays the American bootstrap mentality, the concept that, through trials and tribulations, the little guy can succeed and rise to the top.  Despite Ajay’s earnest desire to make meaning out of his suffering, he ultimately concludes “the world was always real, whether you were reading or sleeping, and that it eroded you every day.”  There is no corollary reward, or obligatory triumphant ending.  At the end of the story, Ajay and his father drive by the pool where Birji drowned, and Ajay reflects that people swam there without knowing the tragedy that transpired there.  Unlike in a Marvel comic, strife often has no redemption, and the world continues ambivalently.

This collection is prescient today because it exemplifies the ways in which the Ellis Island narrative has been thwarted and replaced by that of Trumpian isolationism and fear.  If not Lady Liberty, what cultural icons can serve as bastions of wholesome American values?  In a country where our president is an ex reality TV host, who do we look to?  Super Man, Spider Man, and Wonder Woman are easily digestible figures to turn to for Sharma’s characters.  These are, of course, merely shiny scraps that offer no true or lasting message.

In addition to having bought into glossy magazine covers, his characters are unremittingly selfish.  Pavan wants affection but is blind to the wishes of his partner.  Ajay wants his brother to get better, but couched in this plea is heroic glory and redemption for himself.  To top it all off, Sharma’s characters often do not change despite being forced to recognize the error of their ways.  No, this is not a shining immigrant story of strife and redemption, nor is it the immigrant story of disenfranchisement and racism.  It is a stark, unrelenting portrait of humans navigating their all too human desires.  There is one welcomed break from cynicism contained in these stories, however.  Unlike the stock ideas of success and intimacy his characters adhere to, his characters themselves are not pretty or glorious.  They are, as protagonist Gopal Maurya concludes in Cosmopolitan, “dusty, corroded, and dented from our voyages, with our unflagging hearts rattling on the inside.”  Their desires, sorrows and failures are hard to look at, but they are pure, raw.

 

A Life of Adventure and Delight is available now through W.W. Norton & Company.

 

Liz von Klemperer is a writer, lover, and succulent fosterer.  Her reviews appear in The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Brooklyn Rail, LAMBDA Literary, and beyond.  Find more at lizvk.com.

Book Review

Mouths

by on May 23, 2017

Mouths, by Claire Marie Stancek

Review by Kamden Hilliard

 

Stancek’s MOUTHS is, well, mouthy: obsessed with the physics, politics, violences, psychologies, and musics of the oral. This mouthyness, though, is still concerned with its craft—it abilities and inabilities to say. In an early poem, “Moth,” she reflects on the language we’ve been left. In this poem “The moths

…press     mouthless    faces to the books
and the books crumble    into new   language

eaten having eaten this     a language     and this                 is what remains this is remains

These ‘remains’ recall Wallace Stevens’ obsession with “a new knowledge of reality”[1]. Stancek, too, seems invested in a ‘new knowledge,’ one divested from the violences of “a language of war and difference… a language that expands and takes over other smaller languages.”[2]

As she pushes from the normative bends of syntax and diction, her poems swim toward a knowledge that is associative, cumulative, and transhistorical. The syntax of MOUTHS is anti-syntactical, post-structural, yet, oddly familiar. In some ways, MOUTHS, speaks in quotes, references, inside jokes, and paraphrases in that particularly modern way which often substitutes the speaker’s own voice for allegiance with texts outside of the speaker. The movement is not directional but revisionary, constantly considering and redressing itself on the page. The opening poem, “Swarm” teaches the reader of these twists

            revolt turning too into skin & skin
swarming       warm arm arc          ark

“Swarming,” devolves to “warm,” which in turn devolves to “arm,” then sonically darts to “arc” and “ark.” Similarly, a series of poems in the first section (“HUMAN WHAT THIRST COULD DRAIN YOU”)— “Moth,” “Root,” “Wind,” and “Warm”— all open on a string of associative mutations, “Moth,” sings out a litany of old, middle, and muddled English terms for mouth– “mouthe, mowth, mowthe, moth, moighte”. Yet, Staneck is not satisfied with play in abstraction—the poems consistently ground the reader with the desperate pragmatism of daily life “in sidewalk chalk, blue              blurry with dew…”.

This collection centers itself “in the shadowy realms of music, half-phrases / of songs and their moods…” and the track list is Whitmanesque in variance. Among the intertextual addresses are Lil Wayne, Lil Kim, Milton, Keats, Drake, Whitman, Bhanu Kapil, Brandon Shimoda, Shane McCrae, Fred Moten, and TC Tolbert. At their most effective they swim up into the line, as if destined to express what the poet knows, wants, but fails to voice. At their more complicated (and possibly critical) moments, the poems sound like someone you might know—using a Drake line in conversation, not to quote Drake, exactly, but perhaps, to access a feeling offered by Drake’s social space. In this way, the poems mouth through themselves. They work to arrange a sequence of meaning out of the detritus of this society, this earth.

Stancek’s poetics embrace a kind of bricoleurism as reality and navigate physical, emotional, and linguistic landscapes best they can. The poems know that “what is it to hold but to echo?” and respond with a breathless kind of pleading. There is an impossibility of linear time that makes mouthing unsatisfying, yet, “repetition again intervenes / in time”. She continues:

The repetition makes time and wastes time. Time sticks on the line, running forwards and backwards…

Later, in the same section, she elaborates,

Is standing and waiting what repetition is trying to effect? A way outside speed and time? Both Drake and Milton linger on the line ends, dragging the line on and asking it to be longer—Drake through repetition, and Milton through enjambment. Even still, it’s time that poets beg for…

It feels disingenuous to ask why one would “beg” for time. We all beg for time. We beg to be understood and to understand others all the while sensing the possible (inevitable?) failures. In “half-life,” the speaker’s date is “crying / and hyperventilating in bed and need[s] to cancel” while the speaker “becomes thick with goosebumps”. There are no individual failures in these poems, but failures of structure, sound, syntax, symbol “and after the end of human life, / what ephemera remain”. This talk of failure lends to a convenient, apocalyptic reading of the landscape where “shadows below showed little difference between life and live”. Staneck advises: “Find a buyer or be / sold Approach with the purpose of attacking,” which, regardless of the collection’s limitations, insists upon survival.

Wallace Stevens, along with Whitman (who haunts “Green”), occupies a vast and problematic parcel of the American literary landscape. Stevens has been written about and at and around, but Terrance Hayes, in his “Snow for Wallace Stevens,” does a particularly complicated justice, writing

Who is not more than his limitations?
Who is not the blood in a wine barrel
and the wine as well? I too, having lost faith
in language, have placed my faith in language.
Thus, I have a capacity for love without
forgiveness…[3]

These complicated, gifted figures populate much of modern poetry and it is the duty (one of many duties) of the poet to reckon with these complications alongside their own positionality. Stancek is invested in a revolutionary, activist poetics that begs its readers to question the varied quirks of reality and what one might do with, against, through them. Yet, the collection often feels un-raced. The mouth is an abstract, often non-human thing, yet when we consider the human mouth, one does wonder on the raced mouth. Who has access to the kind of joyful, poetic deviance at work in MOUTHS? This is unclear. The reader, then, must engage in the kind of reading championed by Hayes in “Snow for Wallace Stevens,” that considers the (im)possibility of “limitations.” Stancek almost sings her reader out of the English language, its syntaxes, its structural violences, and its insistence on narrative control. This book balances critical theory and an experimental poetics with a dexterity that is sure to draw admiration, disdain, confusion, and pleasure. Yet Staneck is terribly relatable, especially in those vulnerable, honest, human moments:

Please give me time
And by me, I mean us. And by us I mean: you, you, you

 I want to believe her. I do.

 

[1] from Stevens’ poem “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself”

[2] from Staneck’s interview with The Daily Californian (http://www.dailycal.org/2015/02/12/poet-teacher-claire-stancek-talks-power-words-mouths/)

[3] Hayes’ “Snow for Wallace Stevens,” was originally published in Lighthead

 

Mouths is available now through Noemi Press.

 

Kamden is a reader at Gigantic Sequins, an editor at Jellyfish Magazine, and goes by Kam. They got posi vibes from The Ucross Foundation, The Davidson Institute, and Callaloo. The author of two chapbooks: DISTRESS TOLERANCE (Magic Helicopter Press, 2016) and PERCEIVED DISTANCE FROM IMPACT (Black Lawrence Press, 2017), Kam stays busy. Find their work in The Black Warrior Review, West Branch, Salt Hill, and other sunspots.

Book Review

Inside V

by on May 16, 2017

Inside V, by Paula Priamos

 

Death. Taxes. The onslaught of summer. With the turn of June, Los Angeles is assailed with super-heated layers of plasma-smog, anginaiac freeways, and Angelyne sightings. The rituals begin, paramount being the stuffing of beach bags with tubes of SPF 90 and first aid kits. Don’t forget to pack a couple of summer reads – you know, those paperbacks you can casually flip through in about the time it takes to get sun-blistered, but not feel totally ashamed about toting. Inside V, Paula Priamos’ first novel, is one such book. Its brisk pacing, hooky chapters, and Los Angeles setting make for a noirish wedge to stuff between beach towels and a damp bathing suit.

Inside V belongs to that most Los Angeles of genres, the detective thriller linked inextricably to the city itself. This genre, which I’ll refer to as Sunshine Noir, originated in Chandler’s hard-boiled classics, and goes strong today, as evidenced in Michael Connely’s architectonic potboilers and James’ Ellroy’s pugilistic historiographic meta-fiction, to say nothing of the endless film iterations (picture Jack Nicholson with a band-aid on his nose). What makes Inside V stand apart from its Sunshine Noir cousins, is Priamos’ gentle shunning of certain genre expectations. Not only is Priamos’ narrator, a former defense lawyer named Ava (or “V” to her dashing husband, Grant), not a detective, but Ava’s conflict is overwhelmingly internal – hence the title. To achieve this, Priamos dials back the physical violence inherent in Sunshine Noir and channels the strife internally, into a cognized landscape of deceit, mistrust, and manipulation. Not only does Inside V eschew genre norms by privileging interiority, but the book departs from the phallic gaze of these male-dominated thrillers by focalizing through a female protagonist. While Ava is certainly not the first female-narrator in Sunshine Noir, this is still a rare enough conceit to give the book a certain charm.

(Here I feel compelled to insert a slight disclaimer: in spite of the aforementioned genre about-faces, the ending of the book does, in some respects, retreat to norms. I won’t spoil anything, but apparently blood must be spilled, though here we can measure it in droplets instead of buckets.)

Inside V opens with Ava’s husband, the almost comically sexy Grant, being prosecuted for statutory rape. While Grant vehemently denies any indiscretion against the teen-aged Latina in question, he seems resigned to a prison sentence given mounting and damning evidence. Meanwhile, Ava wears a stoic smile to her husband’s court hearings, hoping her nightmare will soon end. From the start, Ava wavers about Grant’s culpability; while at first she wills herself to believe her husband’s innocence, soon the rape-victim’s testimony has Ava second-guessing. This pendulum between Grant’s guilt and innocence swings throughout the book, both for Ava and the reader, and this is where Inside V shines. Priamos masterfully balances a series of enigmas, parsing out information and characters like carefully laid breadcrumbs. Just when Ava feels certain about Grant, Priamos adds a new wrinkle. Sustaining mystery in this way carries with it the risk of twists and red herrings over-complicating the story to a comical degree; however, Priamos’ twists are embedded in small, almost mundane details – a forgotten wallet, a suspicious pharmacist. Rather than feel contrived, the shifting mystery acts instead to amplify Ava’s character as she devolves into a nearly unreliable narrator.

All of this takes place on a road trip of sorts in which Priamos revels in the most Los Angeles of locations, from Jerry’s Deli, to Trader Joe’s, to Monty’s Steak House, and to a Palm Springs resort that stands-in for any of a variety of the desert oasis’s mid-century modern hotels. (On a side-note: the book does leave Southern California for a minute, though it says a lot that this is the weakest section of the novel.) Road trips provide opportunities for deep thinking, and Ava goes deep, particularly into her past. This interior journey evokes powerful memories of envy, jealously, and betrayal that problematize relationships, and layers the book’s Sunshine Noir trappings in a gauze of reflection. Along the way, Ava takes stock of her life, assessing her flaws, weaknesses, and mistakes as a way of determining the ultimate mystery of the book, whether or not she should stay with Grant.

Taken as a whole, Inside V can be read both a mystery and a study of jealousy taken to its grim extremes. Yet, in spite of a hearty dose of dark themes, Inside V‘s brisk prose and day-tripping narrative avoid the typically nerve-wracking tension of its grimmer cousins. Instead, Priamos provides us with an appetizing slice of mystery and allure, a perfect palliative for a third degree sunburn. Better yet, by working against genre, Priamos has achieved the rarest feat of all: she has written a Sunshine Noir protagonist that is, against all odds, relatable.

 

Inside V is available now through Rare Bird Books.

 

Kirk Sever’s writing has appeared in Colorado Review, Unbroken Journal, Rain Taxi, Bird’s Thumb, and elsewhere. Additionally, Kirk’s work has earned him runner-up status in both the Academy of American Poets George M. Dillon Memorial Aware and the Northridge Fiction Award. He currently teaches writing at California State University at Northridge.

Book Review

The End of Pink

by on May 11, 2017

The End of Pink by Kathryn Nuernberger

Review by Julia Landrum

 

Whether exploring P.T. Barnum’s FiJi Mermaid feeling like a “tease,” a woman trying to recover after giving birth, animal magnetism, Benjamin Franklin, the symbolical head, or phantasmagoria, the poems in The End of Pink are a fascinating play on science, the pursuit of it and pseudosciences, feminism, and emotion. Nuernberger writes with vocabulary specific to the topic she is writing about, such as psychology, to both fit the overall topic of the poem and stays on the reader’s mind long after the book has been read. She has serious moments in the poems that bring truth, sincerity, and real, human elements in a world of speakers based off surreal settings. For instance, in “The Symbolical Head (1883) As When Was the Last Time?” Nuernberger writes,

Let’s vivisect my brain and see
if it’s in there. You have your porcelain man
with the black-lined map of his loggings

and then ends the poem with “I miss you, you know, I miss you so”. Not only is there creative use of language and a mix of subject matter, but there is also a valuable core to this book. Many poems relate to women’s rights, specifically about consent and social norms around child birth. For instance, “P.T. Barnum’s Fiji Mermaid Exhibition As I was Not the Girl I think I was” discusses the idea of consent when the Fiji mermaid is thinking of talking to her lover and thinks, “I’ll ask him about the shock of this ‘tease’ and i’ll ask him who the honorable representative from Missouri raped and who the one from Indiana and if 1 in 5 women I pass on the street have been raped, how many in 5 of the men I pass on the street have raped and I’ll ask him if when I was naked and just wanted oral, did I have it coming and escape on pure luck?”. These lines in the prose poem speak volumes about consent and rape culture. The fact that they are coming from a “tease,” the faked mermaid, makes the poem even more interesting and highlights the importance of consent.

Whether the loss of a child or the body changes resulting from having a child, several poems revolve around this theme. In the poem “The End of Pink” the speaker states, “my nipples are brown now” as a result of having a child, the speaker then compares herself to a wounded mouse they try to let go in a field a hawk circles over. The poems reads,

We used tongs to straighten
the sideways spine trapped so
unaccountably wrong. The fat creature
limped himself into the grass
and further, the bird moved on

In the comparison of the speaker to the mouse, the speaker admits to feeling deformed in one way or another. Another possibility could be the speaker feels watched or socially obligated to do certain things. When the mouse gets away for a day, so does the speaker–but it is only one day. Obligations and healing are a rough cycle pulling at both the speaker and the mouse.The poem “Property Lines “ also talks about a woman’s experience with child bearing. Nuernberger writes, “We lived three springs on that field beside the pear trees where we buried the baby I miscarried at 16 weeks. She was so real and unreal I came to believe she was a breath now, running her fingers through the ironweed”. She uses nature imagery and writes an emotional narrative poem to discuss the harsh realities having a miscarriage can make one feel.

Overall, The End of Pink is a poetry book full of well-researched and interesting poems. It is well deserving of its James Laughlin Award. No matter what your area of interest, it is worth the read. There is something for everyone in this book whether it is the interesting subjects, the vocabulary, the style of storytelling, the way emotion is hinted at and then unhinged like a mousetrap, or the realities of motherhood and loss, this book has something all poets and readers of poetry can enjoy.

 

The End of Pink is available now through BOA Editions.

 

Julia Landrum is graduating from the University of Central Missouri with an English BA. She has been published in the Laurell Review and her school’s student literary magazine, Arcade. She has worked as an assistant editor for Pleiades: Literature in Context.

Book Review

Popular Music and The Crown Ain’t Worth Much

by on March 3, 2017

Popular Music by Kelly Schirmann

The Crown Ain’t Worth Much by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib

Review by Katharine Coldiron

 

 

 

In the middle of writing an ekphrastic novella based on an album I loved, I discovered to my surprise that music and literature don’t cross paths much. Bob Dylan is often viewed as a poet, and Yeats has been set to music by more than one artist, but still, it’s not often that the two media reflect on one another.

However, two small-press books of poetry from 2016 prove exceptions. Popular Musi
c
, by Kelly Schirmann (Black Ocean), and The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib (Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone) both explicitly call on musical influences to work at their subjects. In Schirmann’s case, the subject is life as a Millennial woman; for Willis-Abdurraqib, it’s life (and death) as a young black man. Both books explore multiple modes of poetry (often veering into prose), and both books boast artistic confidence and maturity well beyond debut-book status.

Schirmann’s poetry sticks largely to narrative and vignettes, but she causes small details to loom large. Most of her poems are no longer than a page, and some are even shorter. The narrative flow gives the reader the sense of sliding in and out of different parts of Schirmann’s mind.

All my friends
are moving to Los Angeles
She’s a fascist, says the Goodwill clerk
& hands me a new book
Wanting to learn a thing or two
is a dangerous position to be in
Girls just wanna have fun
says the loudspeaker
& the people swing
their brightly colored arms

As interesting as her poetry is, the prose is possibly even more effective. Popular Music is divided into six sections, alternating between prose and poetry.  The prose segments each tell a single story almost as a fable, beginning with a memory and ending with a life lesson. That sounds tedious, but in practice it’s stunning. The prose also hits as hard as the poetry, if not harder, because Schirmann brings a poet’s sensibility to both rendering detail and making thematic connections.

Schirmann varies between real-life details and this kind of spare, unadorned analysis. She really shines, though, as her prose lifts into the lyric register toward the end of each prose section. “Music makes space for us, entire continents of space,” she proposes. “It provides us with new languages and images with which to describe it to one another, new emotional esthetics with which to interpret the experience of Living. It even provides us with a person to which we can outsource the interpretation of this experience. Out of this mouth, our feelings flow.”

This is definitely a point of view to which Willis-Abdurraqib would subscribe. His book is not explicitly about music, but musical artists of all kinds are name-dropped throughout it: Jay-Z, Taking Back Sunday, Nick Drake, Kanye, many more. One poem is named “At the House Party Where We Found Out Whitney Houston was Dead”:

We, the war generation.
The only way we know how to bury our dead
is with blood, or sweat, or sex
or anything pouring from wet skin
to signify we were here, and the wooden floor
of a basement belonging to an old house on Neil Avenue
makes as good a burial ground as any
says the small boom box now playing DJ
in the center of this room,
and the Whitney CD inside,
pouring out of the speakers just loudly enough
to let everyone in this room
get a small taste of Whitney alive and young,

Music is not the only thread that ties these poems together. The poetry takes multiple forms: narrative, visual, prose, couplets, and even sideways, the words running vertically from the bottom of the page to the top. However, the book is all of a piece. Partially this unity derives from a series of refrains: dispatches from a barbershop, memories of a shooting, a dead mother’s voice. The book also holds together via its recurring themes: violence, funerals, the urban environment, poetry itself, and, most importantly, blackness.

…And child, when you take skin swollen and damp from the river and the blood, and you throw it in the heat, everything pops. You gotta cover your eyes, baby. Hold them children close. My mama’s mama said that’s how God made the south. Said there was nothing but grass and then, one day, all this wet black skin. Said it popped so loud when they set them down in the blazing stomach of the new world, them plantation fields split clean open and then there was cotton. And then idle hands for the picking, and then war, and after that, we all woke up with our skin covered in hot grease, birds following us everywhere and so at least we was eating good.

Need I say more? Willis-Abdurraqib’s words speak for themselves more powerfully than anything I could say to recommend them. Read this book; live inside this poet’s skin. His is a poetic voice as strong and impactful as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s, a mourning, shouting, singing vox populi.

 

Popular Music is available through Black Ocean Press.

The Crown Ain’t Worth Much is available through Button Poetry.

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