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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.

Book Review

Sing the Song

by on February 8, 2017

Sing the Song, by Meredith Alling

Review by Linda Michel-Cassidy

 

Meredith Alling’s Sing the Song collects twenty-seven strange and muscular flash fictions. My second take on these stories was how well they are crafted, and how well they work, given their brevity. At the sentence level, there is not a single superfluous word. My first take on these stories, the read-for-pleasure, no note taking first impression, landed on the first sentence of each story. Most, if not all, are so very confident, brazen, even, that they are almost stories in and of themselves.  A few to consider:

“Some babies drink soda the second they are born.” (“Other Babies”)
“I was the only blonde at a redhead party.” (“Redhead Party”)
“Once a year the Ancient Ham crawls out of the sewer to sit on a curb and answer questions.” (“Ancient Ham”)
“The exam room is a mess and I feel right at home.” (“Treatment”)
“Catherine on a wormless morning, praying to God.” (“Hellsure”)

How could one not read on?

The pieces are unified not by any of the usual methods: overlapping characters, or place or even topic, but by approach. The language used in the telling is one tick away from the expected. Instead of going weird, the author veers askew, and manages all this with brevity and understatement. Each piece exhibits control and a preference for lean sentences. When there’s dialog, it’s truncated. This sort of tamped-down language is the perfect base for the oddities that follow. The stories teeter gently in different directions: the absurd, the fantastical, the sad. Then, there comes the sucker-punch.

“Small Man” opens, “A small man walked out from behind my uncle’s television once. He just walked out my uncle says, and then walked down the hall. No big deal.” Alling writes of curious and unlikely things situated in a world we think we know. The narrators talk the way we talk, and find their lives as confounding as we do ours.

“Small Man,” continues, “Sometimes when I tell the story about my uncle, people think it’s funny, but it’s not. It’s serious. Hello. My uncle was sitting right there in his brown corderoy recliner with a plate of potatoes.” The man has a regular house, regular wife, regular dinner. No hysterics. It’s just a thing that happened. Many of the stories are like this one—not a huge identifiable arc, but rather an offering. Here’s a thing that could happen to some random dude who only wants to chomp on his dinner already. Then when the wife comes home, of course she’s not so sure, but she goes along. What we’re left with is the sense of their relationship that you do what you do for love, and that feeling is so simple and honest, that it backs up the whole story.

There are no tricky verbal gymnastics here; it’s all very low-key, often colloquial, but I’m convinced that this is all part of Alling’s strategy. Instead of using overwrought or poetic language, she writes in brisk unfettered sentences, clipped and to the point. It’s just a little to the side, which allows the action of the stories to bloom.

In “Ancient Ham,” the most absurdist tale of the lot, a wise ham answers the questions of the populace. This is only after they gift him with sewing needles and a little poke.

Most questions are about health, wealth, or love. They must be yes or no questions. The Ancient Ham answers by bobbing left or right. Left is no, right is yes. When the ham answers, people scream. … The air around the Ancient Ham swells with sweet breath. This makes the Ancient ham teeter with delight. Get it real delighted, it will vibrate. The women clutch their hips, men flex their thighs.

Like “Small Man,” its point isn’t the fantastical things that happen, so much as the endpoint, here a revealing moment between a mother and daughter. “The girl looks up, lips glistening. ‘Aren’t you beautiful,’ the mother says. The Ancient Ham bobs right, right, right.” Both stories start with the absurd, spin outward, then land squarely on a moment of connection. This trajectory, from whimsy to the final emotional note, managed in only a few pages, is is evidence of the control with which Alling writes.

In “Sample Sale,” the passive, crabby, sleepless narrator is first in line to buy a designer bag. Alling takes what feels like a real-world, albeit hideous, situation, a queue at a warehouse sale, then drops in an out-of–place character and allows things to escalate. Aggression and jealousy reign, and soon enough, there’s a brawl. The narrator ends up on the ground, confessing to these rabid strangers that she cannot sleep, that she is afraid of burglars. But then the warehouse opens, and they’re off. “’You’d better move,’ said the woman fanning herself. She was gently kicking my waist with her loafer. ‘You don’t look like you’re going to make it.’” The misguided energy, the distracted half-compassion of the other ladies feels very realistic. As with a number of the other stories, people are in the same physical space bumping along with their own agendas.

Alling writes convincingly of characters who have no idea of themselves. Many want to connect, but don’t have the tools, as in “Whistle Baby,” where the narrator cannot, will not agree with the parents of a baby that their child is a living, breathing miracle simply because the baby sort-of whistle-spits. The beauty of this story is that everyone is right and everyone is wrong. Alling nails the cool smugness of the parents, as seen in the letter the wife sends to the unimpressed narrator:

Sam,

We’ve tried to be good neighbors. Clover is a good baby, and a special baby we see now (and as suspected). A lot of people are interested and some TV shows too, but not you? Maybe we misunderstand, If you want to visit, please do.

Sam tries, really tries, but is only left to wonder, “I feel hot and tired and confused and alone and wonder if this is better, right now.” This last line is such a heartbreak, because we try so hard at times, but really have no way to judge if we’re humaning properly.

Flash fiction, when done right, as it is here, carries a wallop like no other. None of these stories felt like another, and yet the group feels cohesive. I suspect this is because while they start out with a shot, they all twist about, and each find their own emotional note, leaving the reader spent.

 

Sing the Song is available now through Future Tense Books.

 

Linda Michel-Cassidy is a writer and installation artist living on a houseboat in northern California. Prior to that, she spent a decade in voluntary exile in the high desert of New Mexico. Her writing can be found in Jabberwock, Harpur Palate, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, and others. She works for the literary reading series Why There Are Words and teaches experimental prose.

Book Review

The Braid

by on January 18, 2017

9781928650393The Braid, by Lauren Levin

Review by Raul Ruiz

 

You don’t know me, so what’s my opinion worth to you? What could I possibly do to qualify my belief that this new book, The Braid by Lauren Levin, is a spectacular, awe-inspiring project that will become an important book in the genre of the long poem? I am now going to stand on my head for an hour just to prove it to you. Faith, after all, is half the work of living.

It has been some time since I’ve encountered a book of poetry with such scope. Levin’s ability to form room enough for her poems to expand and meander while sustaining an incredibly singular tenor makes me want to touch the green sky. And though the book is enormous in content and in its aim to complicate structure (in other words, to claim it completely), I want to focus on the two aspects that I think are Levin’s greatest art: her attention to the liminal, and the necessities of motherhood writ large.

First, can I show you a tiny handful of this book’s light? From the first poem, “The Braid,”

Between myself and where everyone is
Under Mirabeau Bridge the river slips away between where my body stops and the world begins
It doesn’t have to be chronological, though she was born

If that’s the space, the braid weaves around a space impossible to fill
In that emptiness I watch time drift in her, accumulate, while elsewhere it doesn’t build up, it drifts and is sold

The first aspect I want to focus on is The Braid‘s function as a book about accumulation and refraction as a means to generate liminal regions. Levin is a master at creating spaces where opposite energies meet to form crowded empty forms, a perfect formal technique to denote the contemporary solitude among the frequencies of endless information abutting our lives. Here, Apollinaire’s poem “Mirabeau Bridge” (which begins, “Under Mirabeau Bridge the river slips away…”) crowds the space and time that a birth establishes to create an emptiness where time grows, where “a space impossible to fill” is born. This attention to liminality as foundational to loneliness sprouts blossoms of meaning throughout, so much so that I have often kissed the pages of this book, often in public, with eyes all starry.

The second aspect deals with what parenting actually necessitates. I am not a father, but I am not completely ill-equipped to discuss this, I don’t think, having been a first-row witness to the work of my own parents (is this going to get mushy? you must be asking yourself). Here, can I just go ahead and show you another bit from the book? This one from the poem titled, “I Want Our Minds to Be the Same,”

I keep reading Pasolini’s poem “Rage”
It’s about exiting a rose-shaped sphere of safety
and becoming public property
And because safety is intolerable but so is being property
because whether you are known or unknown is intolerable
the poem speaks truly to say that this condition is the author of rage

I dreamed that I asked my mom if she was annoyed with me
She said yes and that bugged me

Holy oxytocin! I want to focus our attention on Levin’s use of the word “property.” It is no accident, I think, that she uses the word in relation to Pasolini’s work. For what Levin is talking about when she talks about property isn’t a chip in the large schema of commerce and ownership (though these concepts are indeed enormous tectonic plates that push against the form), but more the age-old concept of each of us belonging to each. In exploring the work of motherhood, Levin inhabits a mode of writing that asks the reader to think about their own relationship to selflessness and selfishness, to how we make ourselves the “property” of others, of how we serve all others stuck in the puke of this our current world. Because just as the daughter in the poems, Alejandra, at some point says, “I want to grow a tree and chop it down,” so are all of us the agents of tremendous violence. And yet, we are loved nonetheless. There are endless fields that require tending to. The enormity of these poems makes room enough for us all to find our form of courage.

 

The Braid is available now through Krupskaya.

 

Raul Ruiz earned an MFA from San Francisco State University and has worked with writers at San Quentin State Prison. He is currently at work on his first book of poems.

Book Review

Storm Toward Morning

by on December 6, 2016

41bgmqbdr1lStorm Toward Morning, by Malachi Black

Review by Alana Folsom

 

There are some poetry books that ask to be read for their emotional impact—for the pure punch to the gut that their lines deliver—and then there are books that more subtly creep into your bloodstream. These books aren’t loud, but they remain beautiful and heavy in the part of your stomach that always feels a little hollow. Malachi Black’s debut book Storm Toward Morning is the latter: a subtle and delicate sneak. Most of this comes, for me, in my awe over Black’s use of form, syntax, and sound. As I read, I trust that the poet behind each word, who lay every comma like a brick, is doing so intentionally. The fact that Black has an explanatory companion to Storm Toward Morning online only affirms what his poems simmer with: control.

And I know that there’s a criticism of poetry often bandied about: that poets are writing for other poets. But Storm Toward Morning is the who gives a fuck? reply to that question. Black’s awareness of craft sparkles in its precision and, sometimes, humor (like “Ode to the Sun,” which opens with “You repeat yourself like no one/ I know…”).

I don’t want to lie, though: I struggle at times in this collection to grasp onto something beyond craft, and spent the week after I’d first read the book wondering if craft was enough. After re-reading this collection, though, I think that it is: that the skill embroidered into every poem is what makes each poem beautiful. Can I call a poem a Faberge egg and not be a douche?

In a text exchange with a friend, I called STM “intellectual” and when she asked if I meant “show offy,” I knew the word intellectual was wrong: these poems hum with confidence, seem to emit an I-know-what-I’m-doing bing at the end of each line. They’re not showing off, their just skillful. The moments that Black seems to be saying directly to other poets do you see what we can do? are the strongest. “Insomnia & So On,” for example, begins with the lines “Fat bed, lick the black cat in my mouth/ each morning. Unfasten all the bones//that make a head, and let me rest: unknown/ among the oboe-throated geese gone south” (7)—I could keep quoting, but the prosody’s muscularity is evident in these opening lines. The smoothness of the end-rhyme is the least impressive part of these couplets; more expert is the movement of meter, which begins with stress after stress to communicate the quite literal stress of the unsleeping speaker and then transitions into a lulling iambic pentameter. Within the meter, though, each word holds a sonic resonance that complements the beat, but also operates singularly: the long “o” sounds pull you forward through the entire poem and that construct a network of images (animals, weather, domestic life).

Storm Toward Morning tackles insomnia, depression, subjectivity, and faith. Underneath all this headiness and potential grand philosophy, though, is a simple and pressing question that the book circles: what is living? Interestingly, STM erases all notions of an individual speaker through repetition and divergent self- and poetic-definition, so the question is never rooted in the personal, a move that seems invigorating and new because of its anti-confessional bent. In “Traveling by Train,” for example, the poem ends with “…you’re lost/ between the meter and the desperate rhyme/ of clacking tracks. Home is nothing here./ You’re gone and in the going; can’t come back” (6). This “you” here seems to be the reader, lost to what the speaker knows (and there’s humor here, too: a glimpse into self-deprecation and diminishment) is a “desperate” rhyme, yet the reader remains “in the going”. The syntax in the poem’s final line seems to capitulate rather than declare: “can’t come back” is its own clause and doesn’t speak directly to “you’re gone”—in other words, the syntax is playing with our expectations, is calling for our attention  over the loud train sounds. The poem is aware of itself and yet it able to remain within the poem, like an actor believably addressing and then ignoring the fourth wall.

Interesting, too, the book is filled with poems that actively define both “I”s and “you”s—“I am the black strokes on the baby grant” (5), “I am an element” (25), “I am the harvest” (47) as well as “…you were the bottom of a birthday hat” (8), “you are the gulf/ between the hoped-for/ and the happening” (36), just to cite a few. These definitions, which often come in odes or in addresses to God, serve the effect of multiplying the speaker and the reader, who is sometimes the “you” as in “Travelling by Train,” but is often not. This isn’t a book about ego, about the self as individual, and perhaps that is why it doesn’t ever read as “show-offy”—because there’s no one thing/ person that these poems point to. Instead, these poems point to poetry itself: they are sonnets, they are odes, they are, most of all, asking to be read and read again so you can sink into the layers of craft that blanket each line.

 

Storm Toward Morning is available now through Copper Canyon Press.

 

Alana Folsom recently graduated with an MFA in poetry from Oregon State University, where she was Editor-in-Chief of their literary magazine, 45th Parallel. Her poetry has been published in The Journal, Hobart, and Apogee, and is forthcoming in Columbia Poetry Review; her critical writing has been published in The Iowa Review and the Rumpus. Follow her at @axfolsom.

Book Review

The Walled Wife

by on October 11, 2016

s-l1000The Walled Wife, by Nicelle Davis

Review by CLS Ferguson

Magic by division

of threes.

emp / ti / ness—

worth / less / ness—

rooms must be

filled with

sac / ri / fice—

Nicelle Davis’s brilliant collection is equal parts poetry collection and performed historicity, centered around the myth of the walled wife. Academics and lay readers can relate to Davis’ portrayal of the wife through her writing—she is no woman and therefore every woman.  The poetry works upon and against the historical accounts of the myth included as epigraphs included in the section entitled “case studies.” Davis answers Performance Studies scholar Della Polluck’s charge in her book, Exceptional Spaces, to make history go, rather than go away.

“We are shaped by story,” writes Lauren K. Alleyne in her introduction to The Walled Wife. She explains the plot from which Davis pulls her collection: “The master builder, Rada is building a citadel, Skadar [and] it’s believed that a woman must be buried within the walls of edifices in order for the buildings to stand.” The woman must be sacrificed, and writes Alleyne, “by inhabiting the perspective of the wife, Davis is able to also explore/explode the action.”

Nicelle’s word play and use of footnoting lays a foundation for the reader’s journey from the beginning. Her first poem, starting the first section: Wall One—Case Studies, which I included as an epigraph, is entitled As a Story Goes: Structurally. The base of the narrative begins and is always coming back to the body, the building, the body in the building. The paradox of the body that will no longer breathe as a means for the building to survive is also encapsulated in the play between a religion that may shun exactly what it is practicing and building upon: superstition. The wife is relied upon to make the building strong.

Further entrenching the patriarchy in the practice of walling the wife is the theme of man seeing himself as savior. In her piece, In Some Versions, the Husband Sends a Bird to Save His Wife, the husband becomes a bird, wanting to save his wife, but the river and winds keep him away. She wants him to save her, but he doesn’t, saying merely to have faith.

Have faith, he tells her. But

it is difficult, she cries. He assures her it wouldn’t be faith3

if it were easy.

Even the husband king does not have the strength to save his wife, but requires that she endure.

It is not only the husband that the walled wife has a relationship with. She also communicates with Rada, the builder. When reading the first section, it is helpful to the reader to reference the footnotes contained in the second section, Wall Two—Foot Notes. The walled wife buries the deepest and most appealing, truthful, insightful emotion in her footnotes or subtext. For example, door.6 I give that. The little 6 wedged between is the vaginal cavity, the opening to the womb. The builder giving her “that” is actually his permission for all who enter and exit the church to pass through her most inner and sacred entrance.

In the first section, Flesh Price demonstrates the loss of connection between the walled wife and her son, ending with a shore is all I know how to cling to. 9 The footnotes allows the reader to see the poems as skeletons so that s/he can interpret and allow the wife to fade a bit into the wall. The footnotes allow no such escape, as demonstrated by #9: In me is a little girl I’ve locked away. When she tries to escape I slap her until palms bleed, that is to say I sing myself to sleep when her tears surface on my face.

Dripping with Liquid Flesh: Parts of an Egg furthers the analogy of the female reproductive system. The analogy of the egg is quite literally analogous to the female reproductive system, but beyond that, there is a depth of betrayal that gives further insight into the anguish of the wife. She mourns the loss of a child she did in fact birth and mother as well as a daughter who never was—who may be the child she yet wishes to conceive or perhaps the child is the wife herself.

The third section, Girl Inside, is an exploration of the author finding herself through the walled wife, this is especially apparent in My Little Box Head Responds/Objects to Found Poetry and the Rewriting of “The Ballad of the Walled-Up Wife”: What I found in “The Wife” is this: I thought I would dig her up, but I only discovered my desire to be brought down, to be bound. In Experiments in Being Buried, the author tries on different walls, until she ends up masterbating in someone else’s bed, as if to demonstrate the equal feelings of pleasure and awkwardness that come with being buried alive.

She continues in this section from awkwardness to pain with Vila: Sacrifice, in which the author names pieces of the body given as a sacrifice in the wall. Ravens Fly in Threes serves as a reminder of being alive and free. The emotion of letting love go manifests as a physical splitting as the author attempts to set herself free, though maybe never successfully.

The fourth section, Wall Three—Retelling: A Countdown serves as the acceptance the author attempts to find of becoming The Walled Wife. In Third Hour of Being Buried Alive, the Wife Thinks of her Last Day in Church: Or Sharp Edges Hidden in the Seamstress, Davis plays with the concept of distancing the elocutionary sacred from the elocutionary profane, as set forth by Paul Edwards in his 1999 Theatre Annual article, Unstoried, by placing them within the same woman as she resists the wall around her. At the End: Day One furthers this by removing all possible romanticizing of the wall (I piss myself . . . I shit myself). The author indicts her readers in First Night in the Wall, the Wife Begins to Haunt Herself, making us all question whether we are always already haunting ourselves:

I claw at the bricks—can hardly keep a fainting swell from drowning me. Mama, she says, mama. And the song stops with mama. Now that she isn’t swallowing all air—I scream the church is falling, and her feet echo like a mischief of rats in my cellar.

The wife hears a daughter she doesn’t have, in the church she has become, screaming out as the only way to save it—though it has consumed and perhaps killed her. In Rada Hears the Wife Crying, the wife, perhaps the author weeps, mourns the loss of her life and her freedom, though when her perpetrator asks what is wrong, she denies her own grief. The reality of her husband betraying her and the stages of grief she experiences from being buried alive become a part of the wife in this section. After the irreparable harm that her perpetrators have cause her, they attempt to smooth things over with the wife in this section of the collection, as if to make amends, but there is never an offer of reparations. In the last poem of this section, Rada Goes to the First Day of Congregation, the man who caused her this pain and loss and the wife herself experience an acceptance of all that has happened after struggling with God. This is a home for a love greater than our individual bodies can hold.

The fifth section contains only one poem, The only words worth reading are written in the margins, suggesting perhaps all of our worthiness is at least slightly off center.

Overall, The Walled Wife commands the reader to acknowledge this woman who has been essentially erased by men, by patriarchy, buried in the walls of a church. The writing is impeccably crafted, each word selected and masterfully placed to take us on the journey of the wife’s betrayal, suffering, rebellion, grief, and acceptance. While most of us do not literally end of physically trapped in a wall, the process Nicelle Davis leads us through in her writing, through the metaphor of the walled wife, leaves us all with a bit better understanding and acceptance of our own demons and walls.

 

The Walled Wife is available now through Red Hen Press.

CLS Ferguson, PhD speaks, signs, acts, publishes, sings, performs, writes, paints, teaches and rarely relaxes.  She and her husband, Rich are raising their daughter and their Bernese Mountain Border Collie Mutt in Alhambra, CA. http://clsferguson.wix.com/clsferguson

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