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John Venegas

John Venegas is a half-Mexican writer and editor, living in the San Fernando Valley, with a BA in creative writing from California State University at Northridge. He is the Lead Editor and Book Review Editor for Angel City Review. He sells pool supplies, works as a handyman, and tutors students to pay the bills. He likes long walks on the beach, going to the opera, and really stupid dad jokes.

Book Review

After the Winter

by on December 6, 2018

After the Winter by Guadalupe Nettel
Review by John Venegas

 

I don’t know that anything can be said to be simple anymore. Everything has its context and, in that context, everything attaches to a functionally infinitely complex weave. That’s not to say that people don’t desire simplicity – our brains seem hardwired to default to it – or that being comparatively simpler to something else is a good or bad thing. It just is. Given how aware we have become of the interconnectedness of our lives, I don’t know that it is possible to tell a simple love story and do justice to the complexity of people’s lives. So many of us seem to latch onto concepts like “soulmates” and “the love of my life”. We wait for the moment where “fate intervenes” and presents us with our “perfect match”, as if the cosmos owes us each individually one big favor for making us put up with its unfathomable enormity and sense of humor. Believe what you want to about the order of things, by all means, but I think we need the ironic reality check of books like Guadalupe Nettel’s After the Winter from time to time. It is a love story, an all too real love story, not because of how it ends, but because of how its characters truly live.

After the Winter is the story of Cecilia, a Mexican woman who moves to Paris to study, and Claudio, a Cuban man who lives an extremely orderly life in New York. From the start, it is clear that Nettel knows what kind of beast the romance genre has become. Pick up any such book from supermarket or airport shelves and you are almost guaranteed gorgeous cis men with “flaws” that only make them more attractive to heroines that are not aware of how beautiful they are and who have their value repeatedly ignored or denied. I do not disparage such works in the least – they possess an inherent and powerful value – but they do love their tropes, and from the opening page, Nettel is determined to show that After the Winter is not that kind of story. The text begins with Claudio, who proves himself to be uptight, aloof, arrogant, rampantly sexist, and dismissively judgmental. And that all comes across in the first chapter. The second chapter introduces us to Cecilia, a bookish, intelligent, reserved woman who doesn’t know how attractive she is but who possesses a determination that most do not expect from her. I’m sure that sounds like we are beginning to veer back towards trope territory, but Nettel knows exactly what she is doing, dear reader.

At different periods in my life, graves have protected me.

The rest of the book (mostly) alternates between Claudio’s story and Cecilia’s story as they wind and wind and inch ever closer to one another. We see their relationships, both platonic and romantic, and the nuances in how they see themselves and the world, as well as how they present to that world. We see their worlds collide, an event not entirely unexpected but one which plays out in a way that I definitely did not see coming and yet which, in hindsight, felt inevitable and natural. Most of all, we see how these characters, so very different from one another despite some mutual interests, deal with moments of bare vulnerability, of life being capricious and unfair in multiple ways. Love in these two almost parallel stories, including when they intersect, not as this supernatural force for good, or even evil, but as a naturally occurring connection between people that we can choose to embrace or ignore, and in what manner we do either.

My apartment is on 87th Street on the Upper West Side in New York City. It is a stone corridor very like a prison cell. I have no plants. All living things inspire in me an inexplicable horror, just as some people feel when they come across a nest of spiders.

It is at this point that I began to realize something, at least where my interaction to the book is concerned. After the Winter is not about love and its vagaries; it is a book about love’s relationship to death. I’m guessing at this point that I may be leaving you with the impression that this book is what many of us like to refer dismissively as “emo”. Don’t worry. In its determination to stare unflinchingly at its subject matter, After the Winter treats the heady intersection of topics with a mature honesty that is surprisingly rare in literature. Cecilia and Tom are not “star-crossed” lovers whom fate conspires against. Cecilia and Claudio were never fated to find each other. Rather, Cecilia is a beautiful depiction of reality, loving intensely, occasionally even to the point of danger. And Death becomes something akin to an unseen character in the final third of the text, whose presence looms and who stubbornly refuses to (or perhaps cannot) resolve our stories how we might wish. The point then, for telling this particular love story, seems to say that love is our statement, our testimony against death. It is our coping mechanism, our gift to ourselves and each other to remind us that we are not alone on our journey.

I want total silence to see if it is true that you have something to say to me, if you feel you did not interrupt the dialogue between us abruptly or if, on the contrary, you have disappeared for ever.

While all of this is compelling on its own, it is still possible for these emotional themes and character studies to fall flat on their faces if the writing isn’t doing them justice, and Nettel handles all of it beautifully. Her style is wonderfully efficient without losing a hint of intelligence, and the effect of this is a book that, while by no means small, is paced so well that you can devour it in a single evening if you are not mindful of the time. Some of the credit for this in the English version (which is what I read) surely has to go to translator Rosalind Harvey. The best translations are almost always the ones where you completely forget you are reading a translation at all, and I could not find a single mistake, awkward sentence, or moment that linguistically disengaged me. I find these things all the more impressive considering the whole of the book is delivered in first person (something many editors try to scare their authors away from) and that Nettel and Harvey never once fail in keeping the characterizations and narrative voices consistent and believably flexible. Both Claudio and Cecilia have distinct and strong personalities and make decisions you will not predict. Not all fiction has to feel so richly real, but the effect is undeniable and intense.

If there is any real criticism to be made, I will say that the quick pacing does not let up at the end of the novel, which makes the resolution to both stories feel very fast. But even there I cannot really fault Nettel or the text, because I can see that this might be intentional and, if so, consistent with the book’s themes about story resolution. In any case, I still whole-heartedly recommend After the Winter. It is the kind of book I want to show to people who still think that stories about people just living their lives cannot be dramatic and utterly compelling. It is powerful and fun and, at times, devastating in the most meaningful ways.

 

After the Winter is available now through Coffee House Press.

Book Review

Testimony of Circumstances

by on October 9, 2018

Testimony of Circumstances, by Rodrigo Lira
Translated by Thomas Rothe and Rodrigo Olavarría
Review by John Venegas

 

I try to write these reviews from a perspective of cultural implication and value. That is to say, while all the technical matters of structure and diction and execution are very important, I try to emphasize the potential emotional and philosophical resonance of a work, not in a manner that tells you how to feel but to convey that the work in question has the capacity to affect at least one person on a profound level. The risk of approaching texts in this way is that, as you can probably imagine, the intimacy of this effect can wound in unexpected ways. We all build our defenses, even the most empathic among us, and yet no defense is absolute. No heart is immune to vulnerability. It is in this context, unwittingly confident in my inadequate preparedness, that I read Testimony of Circumstances, a compilation of the poetry of Rodrigo Lira, a Chilean poet whose reputation seems equal parts famous and infamous.

UNQUESTIONABLY beyond poetry (sic), / but certainly in the reach of originality, / European of the post-war era (…!) / were already experimenting with these gags / around 1950.

To those with a cursory knowledge of Chilean poetry, Lira’s name probably won’t be included in the list of those who first come to mind. His list of published credits is comparatively small and awareness of his work was largely a product of the local performative scenes in Chile. By all accounts that I could find, including the introduction to this collection, he is described as being at times endearing and loyal, at times abrasive and rude. Indeed, he seems a person of contradictions: he was born into financial, social, and educational privilege and yet a supporter of Salvador Allende’s nationalization policies; he will demand and beg for acceptance by his peers while critiquing them and their work, often in the same poem; he was known for his outspoken manner and perspective but also at times reclusive and afraid for his life. As you have probably gathered, there is some speculation that he had manic depressive disorder, and he was diagnosed with schizophrenia (thought admittedly in an age where that tended to be a catchall mental diagnosis). But he was a being of words, in the purest literary sense, and despite his struggles, he has produced works of incredible beauty.

De modo que a veces es preciso o preferible moverse / lo menos posible para evitar tropezones y choques / pues siempre o casi o casi está el refugio / de utopiazantes pero posibles futuros

What Testimony of Circumstances represents then is a kind of pseudo-biography, a fascinating, disarming, and brilliant cross section of a life dedicated to literature. Everything is on display here – Lira’s politics, his contentious rivalries with those he wanted to regard as friends and/or peers, his utterly merciless inner voice – all of it. There is a richness of perspective present that caught me rather off guard. Some poems feel like they were written by entirely different people. “Es Ti Pi” is methodical and deliberate, laid out like mantras that are meant to wrestle a maelstrom under control, while “Tres Cientos Sesenta y Cincos y un 366 de Onces” is verbose and unchecked, rolling with gravitas and an almost palpable need to expel its words. Still other poems, like “El Superpoeta Zurita”, move back and forth between those styles, as if the speaker cannot make up his mind about his reaction to the subject, at once flattering and annoyed, caught up in awe and obsessing over blemishes. It gives an unnerving and empowering impression that Lira is trying on a multitude of essences before ultimately refusing to adopt any but his own.

construct and shape the trademark / registered brand, graphic territory – and at once, the logo – / of a certain motor oil, lubricating substance / which is said to have had – at least at one / time had – (1) psychedelic or psychotomimetic powers.

The structures of the poems are the truest manifestation of Lira’s quest for identity. There is a stubborn refusal to allow the reader to settle into almost any kind of rhythm, which only makes sense when you realize that lyricism and cadence are not primary concerns. We are pushed and pulled because Lira is ultimately trying to convey what it is like in his mind, what it feels like to be him. Again, the layout and line breaks in “El Superpoeta Zurita” are so interesting that it felt like Lira was asking me if I understood what he was saying and, when I answered yes, he told me I was wrong and rearranged. His identity and essence are pulled in a dozen different directions, all of which he holds onto lest they pull him apart and leave the unique perspective shattered. I found this particularly surprising given my reading about Lira and how important stage performance was to his career. This is the kind of poetry that would make most open mic night bards turn green. And yet, it makes its own kind of sense in hindsight. Lira refuses to be bound and defined in simplicity. He is not merely written or spoken word.

he aquí las mias / Quisiera poder mostrar algo / de diertas cancioraciones sinfeccionadas, sinfectadas / de ciertas esperrancias y herideas sincereceas / –sincavidades o con carieacontecidas concavidades

I have never quite been sure what the technical definition of conversational poetry is, but I would hazard a guess that poems in Testimony would be prime examples. That refusal of lyricism allows Lira’s diction to feel like he is there, speaking to you; not as a spirit or a god delivering edicts and making demands, but as a person trying desperately to explain their world view and hoping someone will listen. This manner of writing helps the reader deal with the stop and go momentum of the structure, but it also helps you keep up with Lira’s changes of perspective and thought process. It makes what seems like an initially daunting task actually intimately relatable. And speaking of daunting tasks, Rodrigo Olavarria and Thomas Rothe deserve all the credit in the world for capturing Lira’s essence on the page and through translation. Their work is the kind of accuracy you crave as a reader of poetry, accurate to both letter and spirit, with the flexibility to appreciate and utilize the cultural and linguistic divides to enhance the experience.

So what it comes down to is we should die simple deaths / without widespread panic or panspread widnic or wad spread pinic / gently, our traps shut

I mentioned earlier the capacity of literature to wound, particularly when you approach it from an angle that includes a combination philosophy, emotion, and the work’s ability to make you feel. In truth, I was not expecting Testimony to have such an effect. In the interest of complete honesty, as I read about Lira, I was rather concerned that I had agreed to read the ravings of that one poet in any random literary circle who acts like his decent reception at a few open mic nights means more than the work of published poets but who still desperately wants to get published himself. And now, I sit here, writing this, more than a little ashamed in the arrogance of that misplaced concern. Rodrigo Lira’s poetry is fantastic. Rodrigo Lira took his own life on his thirty second birthday. Rodrigo Lira’s written words have come further than almost any text I have ever read to bridging the gap between souls and allowing me to see into the mind of someone else. He deserved and deserves better, especially from me. I approach my own thirty second birthday and have struggled with mental health issues since I was a teenager. Lira’s work serves as a critical reminder that no perspective deserves to be treated with disrespect without merit, and that, in this age where people are finally beginning to wake up on a large scale from the illusion of binaries, that conformity and rebellion are two poorly defined points on a spectrum that is ever in motion.

 

Testimony of Circumstances is available now through Cardboard House Press.

Book Review

Lessons in Camouflage

by on September 6, 2018

Lessons in Camouflage, by Martin Ott
Review by John Venegas

I find it difficult to fully conceptualize the extent to which patriarchy has inundated and insinuated itself into our society. That is by no means to say that such an infestation has not occurred – the only reasons to deny the copious evidence are ignorance or dishonesty – but comprehension of the sheer scale of the problem is frightening and difficult. The tasks before those of us who care about the well-being of our people, our country, and our species is a daunting one, both inherited and entrusted to us by those of our predecessors who recognized the Beast for what it is and who knew the price to be paid for challenging its strength. The most important of those tasks, obviously, is the empowerment of those who the system would otherwise parasitically feast upon. But there is another task, the completion of which which is vitally important if real and lasting change is to be effected: helping men to understand the repercussive, masochistic damage wrought upon them by patriarchy. To be clear, the primary victims of patriarchy are and always have been women, trans and intersex people, and all others who find their place on the spectrum of gender or beyond it. But men must come to terms with the fact that, from birth, they take part in a system that abuses them as both slave and guardian. And to this effort, I find wellsprings of hope when I encounter art such as Lessons in Camouflage. This poetry collection, written by Martin Ott, is a beautiful, haunting, and resonant example of what can happen when the veil is lifted from a man’s eyes.

Look into ash. I’m there where you begin.
I am the shadow that forms in front and stays
long after you’ve lost the spark within.
My power plumes in endless praise.

The collection begins with the lines “Yesterday’s sky is my molting skin. / My soldier’s makeup stains the plays / on a global stage, the actors dead, maudlin / applause sweeping across your family’s strays.” I really cannot think of a better thesis statement in the text. From the start, Lessons is telling you what it is, what it intends to do, and how it’s speaker regards his responsibilities. We often romanticize understanding or truth as some pathway to happiness or reward, and yet this could not be further from reality. Understanding and truth often carry terrible weight, weight we might rather flee from or transfer to someone else. In these opening lines, the speaker’s apotheosis is one of blood, the beginning of comprehension with regards to culpability and ramifications. In the direct sense, it is admission of guilt, of regret for having participated in the inflicting of pain and the ending of lives. The speaker is one amongst the ravenous mob whose morality has forced him to find a small glimpse of the scope of what the mob has done and might yet do. The language here is brutally effective, mincing no words in its statement of purpose, and it serves as a microcosm of what to expect from the rest of the text. While there is no shortage of clever turns of phrase or intensely compelling imagery, the language moves with an intimidating efficiency, not allowing you to miss the forest for the trees.

Life is not a hook to be baited.
Desire: to let mistakes be. Human.

The sheer range of topics here are a testament to the pervasiveness of patriarchy that I mentioned at the open. The relationships between fathers and sons are dissected and pinned open like frogs as the speaker examines the paternal figures in his life and fights desperately to provide both strength and empowering affection to his own son. Sexual and romantic relationships are explored for their power dynamics and how the treatment of male vulnerability is fundamentally linked toward love and connection. The American hypocrisy concerning violence as a noble, inherently validating, and masculine pursuit and as a perpetual, mindless savagery exhibited by the other exists throughout the text, at times in the form of echoing subtext and at times explicitly laid out in its disfigurement. This in turn ties in intricately to how the collection addresses the treatment of the American solider, and how that concept encompasses everything from fanatical hero-worship to genuine respect and empathy to complete ostracizing and abandonment. Again and again, a series of questions rear their heads: why am I like this, how far does this go, and what can I do about it? This introspection and broadening of perspective is quietly reflected in the construction of the poems themselves. Like the use of language, the use of structure here never strives for ostentation or complexity for its own sake. Rather, the poems are arranged with precision and consistent internal routine, as if the speaker is reacting to these problems with regimented and adaptive discipline.

I played army with the box of men kept
alive in the attic, soldiers in battles
with cowboys and dinosaurs,
an alien armada waiting, a man waiting.

The other major through-line on display in Lessons is one that declares itself right in the title: camouflage. There is, of course, the concept of how camouflage is related to soldiers, both a tool of protection and of increasing the effectiveness of violence. But critically the collection turns around and addresses its audience as well, imploring them to resist hypocrisy and examine how thoroughly camouflaged their own lives are. Advertisers camouflaging exploitation. Moral righteousness camouflaging fear and hate. Masculinity camouflaging repressed vulnerability and empathy. Heroism camouflaging bloodlust. Charity camouflaging selfishness. The collection ends with the lines “I hide my strengths and weaknesses, / clever boy, but my children expose / them with their own. Each day a scab / is torn and each night a new me forms.” If the opening is a clear declaration of intent, then the ending is a clear declaration of potential. The speaker knows he has, perhaps irrevocably, been distorted by the greed and anger of others. He knows that the mechanisms he uses to survive have consequences. But he also understands that awareness of those ideas empowers him to do something about them. He understands that awareness gives him an opportunity to break the cycle. Maybe his children do not need wear camouflage and, rather than transferring the burden of the problem, he can add his strength to theirs.

My son has a nightlight and I remember how
the invisible monsters kept me in their thrall,
the attempt to burn away shadows from sin.

Lessons in Camouflage is an exceptional little book. It challenges deeply ingrained norms while respecting its audience as a group capable of confronting difficulty. It is a collection that is poignant and timely; given the unfortunate reality that many men show intense adverse reactions to any perspective that they do not believe they can identify with, I cannot help but think that maybe a book written by a male Army veteran might stand a slightly increased chance of cracking their walls of ignorance.

 

Lessons in Camouflage is available now through C&R Press.

Book Review

Litane

by on June 12, 2018

Litane, by Alejandro Tarrab
Translation by Clare Sullivan
Review by John Venegas

 

One of the holy grails in the study of physics is something called a unified field theory. In short, we have theories that work really well for describing the behavior of stars and planets and light, and we have theories that work really well for describing the behavior of particles and fields, but the dream of many a genius is to mathematically describe a theory that can do both. Does this sound familiar to you? Have you, perhaps, encountered another field of study, maybe even one involving literature, where you are presented with multiple theories derived by very intelligent people, many of which provide a fascinating perspective but which cannot encompass the whole despite some insistence otherwise? It is exceedingly easy to forget that we are all looking at existence and trying to figure out what the hell is going on. I am reminded of these theories and many more as I pour over Litane, a poetry collection written by Alejandro Tarrab and translated from Spanish to English by Clare Sullivan. It is a book that is challenging, engaging, demanding of its reader without condescension, and so far reaching in scope I am still somewhat in awe. In an article she wrote for Asymptote, Sullivan describes Tarrab’s poetry as containing “allusions not just to other literature but also to philosophy, science, the visual arts, and music.” Of course, Tarrab is not the first to attempt this, but he does so with such skill in this book that I find the inevitable comparisons to T.S. Elliott not only justified but even a little lacking given this collection’s experimental tendencies.

caminamos por las placinies todo mi ser aposto que cruzariamos que despues de demontar el pabellon cruzariamos juntos para alzar el vuelo intro vuelve el dia tomamos la 132 lunar medeski el fuego la emocion de estar

we walk through the flatlands that my whole being swore we could cross that after dismantling the pavilion we would cross together to rise in flight intro day returns we take the 132 lunar medeski fire the feeling of being

Litane is collection that actively steers into madness; not the forced simulacra of insanity that many authors try to replicate, but the genuine incomprehensibility of filling one’s consciousness to the brim and attempting to process all of that information. It is a truly fascinating experience following each poem as they shift and move. Tarrab abandons pretty much any notion of grammatical constraint and allows his language unbridled freedom to flow and shift between tracks. It is akin to learning from a dancing master who only instructs by demanding that you follow his lead. It takes some time to learn the flow, and even when you do you will make the occasional misstep, but the effect is hypnotic to the point of camouflaging whether or not what you just experienced was extreme improvisation or choreographed with precision. Most immediately I am reminded of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s style, which is always welcome, but Tarrab places his own spin on the technique in that where Krasznahorkai is very intentionally playing with grammar and sentence structure, Tarrab is rejecting the need for such limitations. And if one accepts the notion that great artists do not utilize without purpose, then it is difficult to not see this style as a framing device that blends concepts and voices and thoughts into an impressionistic whole. It is common, and often commendable, for many poets to be hyperfocused, using minutiae and intricate detail to flesh out much grander existential concepts. While Tarrab does this, more often than not he extends his lens to an extreme width, zooming out and providing the forest for the trees. It is a surprisingly refreshing vantage point, and brings with it no small amount of vertigo.

aqui va un diablo hermoso inaudito de satan
no hay tragico en el cielo
en su practica solita es un iluminado

here is a pretty unheard of satan’s devil
there is no tragic in the sky
in his lonely practice is a visionary

I imagine that, if a poet approached a great many publishers and told them “I have a habit of routinely inventing words in my poetry”, said poet would earn no small amount of askance looks and skepticism. So, on a rather basic level, you have to appreciate the impulse to do it anyway – it takes some gumption. But in order to use it in a way that is meaningful and will give it any thematic weight, you quite simply have to know what the hell you are doing. You have to have a superb grasp of language in order to tear it apart and rebuild it into something beautiful. Tarrab meets and exceeds this challenge in spades. It begins with his title, Litane, which I imagine is something about which no small amount of digital ink will be expended. For my part, it is something I’ve quite literally never encountered before: an invented word used for a title, and one that perfectly encapsulates and frames the rest of its text. It is meant to evoke the word “litany”, or “letania” in Spanish, and it raises more possibilities for the collection than a sane person could fully explore in a life time. Is it referring to the cacophony of voices trying to explain their frames of reference? Is it a criticism that hearkens back to Milton’s legions of angels singing praise to an authoritarian god, or is it almost religiously reverential in the sound of so many expressing themselves? This questioning and unfurling of possibilities continues throughout the text. Poems take symbols and figures from history and mythology and rearrange them on a whim, like a child with their favorite action figures and dolls, or an adult playing with the pieces of an unsolvable puzzle. And all the while, the words just flow. The missteps in the dance I described earlier will be exclusively your own.

veias el polvo te travestias al lijar tu prenda pude sentir desde el ascensor al verlas plasmadas como algo inmediato te iba minando de lado hacia el piso

you saw the dust you cross-dressed and smoothing your garment i could sense from the elevator on seeing fem take shape how something immediate was eroding from you from the side toward the floor

Along the same lines, there is fantastic work on display here from Clare Sullivan. This is the kind of translation work you want to show aspiring translators, because she manages the three critical aspects of it beautifully. First, the underappreciated grunt work of matching style, flow, and structure. Then, the ability to recognize when improvisation will do more to capture the artist’s idea than a literal translation. Her use of lower case I’s, something she discusses in her Asymptote article, felt so natural and effective that I hadn’t even realized that it had to be a conscious decision on her part until she pointed it out. Lastly, her willingness to leave in an untranslated word or phrase when it does a far better and more succinct job of describing an idea than would its translation. This also happens to work well with Tarrab’s familiar feeling new words.

sin decir una piedra puesta sobre la tumba, sin decir piedra que daria permanencia.

without saying a stone placed upon the tomb, without saying stone that would grant permanence.

Even as I write this review, a new kind of importance for Litane reveals itself. We are living in an age where the identity of the individual has taken center stage. This, like pretty much everything else, has positive and negative effects. On the positive side, long oppressed voices are finally getting long overdue chances to express themselves and be recognized for their humanity. On the negative side, those who seek to exploit individuality for financial gain have increased opportunity to manipulate that kind of expression. Where Litane fits in is in reminding us that we are not alone. Again, on the positive side, I mean this in a quite sentimental fashion, with all of the solidarity and support that such an idea carries. And on the negative side, we are chastised to not think of only ourselves, to be mindful of the idea that as we express ourselves we better make damn sure that others can do the same.

 

Litane is available now through Cardboard House Press.

 

Book Review

Afterland

by on May 24, 2018

Afterland, by Mai Der Vang
Review by John Venegas

The kind of art you never want to get used to is that which is both beautiful and covering a deeply unsettling truth. In part, this is because you leave yourself open for the full weight of the subject and the elegance with which it is explored. In part, this is because we have something of a moral obligation to not become desensitized. That second aspect is becoming an increasingly important issue in modern literature. The long overdue and still insufficient effort to give non-white voices platforms and space to express themselves has meant that we have seen a substantial rise in narratives that justly eviscerate sanitized and justified stories of neo-imperialism. And, predictable as clockwork, a good deal of the white establishment, including many individuals who are ostensibly progressive, thinks itself “saturated”. (For those persons of color who are reading this review, bear with me; this is the kind of concept that white allies cannot be allowed to take for granted.) Strangely, this creates a disturbing form of pressure on artists whose voices have been shaped by the wanton abuse of old and new colonialism. Their work is often required to be of the highest, most indisputable caliber to have a chance at recognition. The fact that their work so often meets that challenge is perhaps the greatest joy I find in reading and reviewing literature.

Mourn the poppies, the mangosteen and dragonfruit.

But you come as a refugee, an exile, a body seeking mountains
meaning the same in translation.

Here they are.

I bring all of this up because I want to explain my frame of mind after finishing Mai Der Vang’s Afterland. It is her debut poetry collection, and one of such intensity and beauty that I find it perpetually in my thoughts. As a whole, Afterland is primarily concerned with the Hmong, a people indigenous to Southeast Asia, and specifically the collection deals with those Hmong who have lived in Laos. Their experiences as refugees, betrayed military allies, and the victims of indiscriminate greed of imperialists are rendered here in poetic language that is philosophical, spiritual, accusatory, consoling, and empowering. The reader is spared little in the way of the abject cruelty that the Hmong have dealt with, whether on the macro-scale as the United States destabilized Laos and the Hmong by unnecessarily involving them in the Vietnam War, or on the micro-scale as survivors find themselves unable to escape the memories of mutilation, torture, and death. The lands of the Hmong are given no less respect and lament than the dead, as they too were brutalized, pillaged, and abandoned. How many Americans even know of the Hmong and their involvement in the war?

The crowded dead
turn into the earth’s
unfolded bed sheet.

Obviously, I cannot speak the authenticity of Mai Der Vang’s descriptions and depictions, but I also would find it extremely difficult to believe that her work here does not do these experiences justice in terms of representation. It strikes me as a beautiful and deeply personal tribute to her people. This may be Mai Der Vang’s debut collection but is crafted with superlative skill and a deceptively effortless grasp of language. In past reviews I have mentioned my fondness for those lines or sections of poetry that feel like honey on the tongue and are so satisfying that one can almost be forgiven for the import of the words. This collection is rife with such selections. None of the poems are particularly dense or obtuse in their construction, because they don’t need to be. The poet is not hiding her message or trying to reward an obsessive reader for pouring over word choice (though such readers will find themselves incidentally glutted anyway). This is straightforward graceful use of language to mold intense, almost kaleidoscopic imagery.

The man howls in my head,
his stony wind

uncoiling in every crevice.

One of the strongest thematic elements running through this collection is the concept of borders being torn down. This is present not only in the more expected ways, e.g. refugees seeking asylum and survival, but in more metaphysical ways. The speakers (if indeed there is more than one) and imagery of the poems transition at will between the natural and the spiritual and the human, between the horrifically violent and the transcendently beautiful. It is present when colonizers trample and invade, and it is present when groups of Hmong are on the move, seeking respite. Colors, stone and metal, fauna, the day and night cycle and a hundred other concepts and tangible things seem to be in constant motion and impossible to fully disentangle from the rest. The power of this is brilliantly and hauntingly evident. Mai Der Vang puts on display the idea that the cruelty and violence are self-inflicted, not in the equivocating sense that diminishes the identity of the Hmong, but self-inflicted because imperialists have committed these sins against those that are and should be their kin, against a planet that is their home. Moreover, this effect raises the specter of consequences and culpability, neither of which are mitigated by the ignorance of the descendants of the perpetrators.

It’s been forty years of debris
turning stale, and submunitions

still hunt inside the patina of mud.

Afterland is the kind of book that should be necessary based purely on its quality. And that quality is beyond question. Unfortunately, it finds itself just as essential given the culture and moment in history into which it is being introduced. In the rush to appear proudly declare ourselves either “woke” or as ignorant as humanly possible, we too often forget (or willfully disregard) the idea that there are real people who affect and are affected by the choices we make, whether those choices are picking political candidates or the kind of literature we read. Afterland is a collection that unashamedly demands attention, not through some forced pretentiousness but through an earnestness and a refusal to consent to people being reduced to footnotes on rarely-trod Wikipedia pages. It is upsetting and loud and intimate in all the best goddamn ways, and it is utterly fascinating to watch Mai Der Vang turn through the cycle of prophet, advocate, shaman, and artist, never truly divorced from any of those roles.

 

Afterland is available now through Graywolf Press.

Book Review

Calling A Wolf A Wolf

by on April 12, 2018

Calling a Wolf a Wolf, by Kaveh Akbar
Review by John Venegas

 

It is a well worn cliche to ask where the time has gone. Our perception of time is a malleable reckoning of a malleable thing. Time means different things to different people, at different speed and at different densities. It is fascinating and quaint to watch as we try harder and harder to parse time using the oscillations of atoms or the hands of clocks. But for a great many people, maybe even all people, at least at a subconscious level, there are moments of trepidation, or even outright terror, when they come to realize that time cannot really stop. Not for us. The same dimension of existence that allows us to grow and perceive and explore is also the one that renders us, and everything else,  finite. So when you ask where the time has gone, you are, on some level, aware that the conveyor belt has an end. As I finished reading Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf, I could not help but be aware of its significance as a coming to terms and dealing with addiction, specifically in the form of alcoholism. But something struck me as I went back to individual poems and began to parse them out for analysis. With each word, each line, each stanza, I felt more and more drawn to the question of time. Not in the cosmic sense, but through the prism of the deeply intimate and personal. This collection deals with time in a disturbingly profound fashion, paying witness to all of its refracted distortions.

how much history is enough history    before we can agree
to flee our daycares    to wash everything away and start over

What is time to an addict? Calling a Wolf a Wolf is a collection that includes poems entitled “Potrait of the Alcoholic with Relapse Fantasy” and “Personal Inventory: Fearless (Temporis Fila)”. We watch as the speaker of these poems is caught alternately in the riptides and eddies of his own life, at times remembering and reliving moments of ecstasy and anguish, and at times completely at a loss for anything approaching a tangible memory. Chunks of a life feel missing, and there is a sense that the speaker seeks to hold back the flow of other memories from filling those voids, as if those forsaken pieces might one day be stumbled upon and refitted into the puzzle. In some poems the speaker worries that he may be caught in some interminable, frozen hell, while in others there is a desperate need for purchase, for a handhold to slow the advance and take stock of what remains. There are even moments of pride and empowerment, not necessarily from the “defeat” of addiction but instead from within the addiction, paying honest acknowledgement to the notion that there is a reason substances, ideas, and sensations are enthralling in the first place. And all of this conveys a sense that combines dislocation, contradiction, and worrisome familiarity that is no stranger to those who deal with addiction.

I can’t even remember my name, I who remember
so much – football scores, magic tricks, deep love
so close to God it was practically religious

Of particular note for me in this regard are the first and last poems of the collection. The book begins with a kind of prologue poem, one set aside from its kin and outside the work’s own system of organization. This poem, titled “Soot”, begins with the line “Sometimes God comes to earth disguised as rust,”. This is the first line of poetry of the whole book, the opening note of the symphony, and it conflates the concept of a singular, fundamental divinity with a tangible symbol of entropy that can consume things as durable as metal. The final poem of the collection, “Portrait of the Alcoholic Stranded Alone on a Desert Island”,  ends with the lines “The boat I am building / will never be done.” These bookends are the perfect encapsulation for the collection’s perspective. We begin with a speaker sifting through the ashes of a life, not a life that has been burnt to the root but one that has been burned black in several places, as he tries and fails to mulligan. We end with a disturbing, contradictory victory, one that finds paradise and freedom from the incessantly well-meaning and the callously inconsiderate, but only through isolation and fear of advancement. Moments stretch into stagnant eons, and eons disintegrate into moments that slip through fingers.

how many times are you allowed to lose the same beloveds
before you stop believing they’re gone

To be completely fair, time is merely the facet of this collection that connected most strongly with me. There is a wealth of other concepts here that resonate with a similar power. Akbar has presented us with religion, culture, power dynamics, language, nature, relationships, fear, death, and joy as points of origin from which we can build understanding, and that all assumes one needs to look any deeper than the already profound confrontation of alcoholism. And the strength of the language on display here means that, despite bursting at the seams with emotional and philosophical gravitas, the poetry remains graceful and precise. Akbar switches structure and style on what might first seem like a whim but slowly reveals itself to be deliberate determination. At times conversational, at times oratorical, Akbar seems to understand that he is moving through the intimate and the cosmic with the same lingering eye for detail. His speaker is as likely to converse with God as he is to describe losing his virginity, and in both cases with equal parts awe and disgust. There is no shying away from conflict or contradiction, and there is no balm for unresolved questions. Just as we have not figured out how to travel back in time save through the corrupted facsimile of memory, there is knowledge that remains beyond our reach.

it’s been January for months in both directions

There is one more poem that, for me at the moment, deserves a special note. It is titled “God”, and it sits toward the end of the collection. It is one of the most powerful pieces in the whole book, and not only because it chooses to do exactly what the title suggests and address the concept of the Almighty. Throughout Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Akbar draws parallels between the speaker and God, often through reality seeming to warp before the speaker’s eyes and the malleability of time being on full display. In “God”, the speaker demands and begs that God return and face the cruelties, the pockmarks on His creation. The poem is painful and visceral and determined, even on that surface level. But when one imagines the speaker turning that voice inward, or that God may never return and that the speaker is the only one left to assume responsibility. Did God discard us for our sinfulness? Did God abandon us out of fear? Is the speaker witnessing the repercussions of his own wake, or a vision of what may yet come to pass? Calling a Wolf a Wolf is awash in this kind of provocative, intense challenge, something that all students of poetry need to experience.

 

Calling a Wolf a Wolf is available now through Alice James Books.

Book Review

Abecedary

by on March 29, 2018

Abecedary, by Pablo Jofré
Review by John Venegas

 

Is it too much to describe the act of writing as paradoxical? So often the transcription of words to the page is painted as an effort by humanity to defy our own mortality and exist in conceptual form beyond the tapering of the mortal coil. And yet pages and scrolls decay. Ink bleeds and cracks. Arrangements of zeroes and ones can become corrupted, and hard drives and tablets (stone or electronic) can be shattered. There is something romantic and horrifying about that idea, of defiantly shouting into the voice and, if nothing else, amplifying the echo as best you can. But I think it also tends to overwhelm the idea and power of the present moment. In our post-(butnotreally)-post-modern haste to deconstruct meaning, it becomes all too easy to overlook the fact that in the moment, in your moment, meaning really does exist. It is locked in perpetual motion, constantly evolving and influenced by external forces, but it still exists, processed and filtered and constructed by you. It is unique to you, and while the rest of us may be able to catch glimpses or fragments of it in the right light, only you can ever see it for the beautiful and titanic thing that it is. I think it might be more productive then to think of literature (and, in truth, any art) as a conveyance vehicle by which we try to share snapshots of our meanings. Most of the time, texts do this implicitly or incidentally, existing by their very nature as things that can never be authentically recreated, only replicated. But sometimes a text, even a small one like Pablo Jofré’s Abecedary, can take this impossible gymnastics routine of an existential concept and grab it by the horns. In this collection, Jofré is equal parts poet, philosopher, linguist, mad scientist, human, social critic, and extraterrestrial as he invents a language all his own.

Being present (the waves and their rhythm).
Feeling in your own essence.
Knowing that others exist and communicating with them
through the universe. […]

To save you the Google search (because I already needed to do one), an abecedary is a language primer, oftentimes in the former of a letter table, meant to teach a student about the pieces that a language uses to construct words. Jofré’s Abecedary is a fascinating take on that idea, both because of its necessity and its layout. The collection is a series of poems arranged in alphabetical order, beginning with “Abyss” and culminating in “Zenith”, and, as you might now be guessing, that is not coincidental. Jofré is taking us on a journey from a place of nothing, a place of no meaning and identity, to a place that “is an emotion; human energy / (pure, sweet, sanguine).” Not every letter of the Spanish alphabet is addressed, because while our paths to actualization are often similar they are never the same, and some letters take more time than others, because our lives often stall or meander when the path is obscured.

Immolating yourself is cleaning the body, which was already dead,
and the memory crushed by the world.

Moreover, the poems follow no predictable curve in their emotional state of being. You are as likely to be terrified as you experience “Xenophobia” as you are immersed in “Hue”, because the path is a much a construct made on the spot as anything else. What this all adds up to is a priming of expectations against your better judgment. You have likely read experimental poetry before and you know that your subconscious predictions are rife with inaccuracy, but you’ve also probably learned your ABCs and you might be able to still hear that silly little song in your head. That is just part of Jofré’s genius here. Through just the structural constraint of his text, he makes you aware that you can still be oblivious and even indoctrinated. You might “know better”, but you are still making assumptions that can be ill-advised. Hell, I did it just a moment ago in guessing that you might have heard the ABCs song.

Waking up is the fear of not knowing where one is, who one is.
It is the lack of concepts, of heaven, of homeland,
it is the not knowing if I am lying down or sitting at a table.

And, as it turns out, the idea of thinking you “know better” is critical to both the poems of Abecedary and our world today. We are watching a person being born this collection, someone who perhaps already possessed a frame of reference before finding themselves in the “Abyss”, as they deal with the repercussions of the loss of meaning before welding a new one together. That speaker is bombarded with information, at times recollected from an old life and at times through relentless observation. With each poem and each new piece of information, there is a sense that the speaker may touch on some fundamental truth at the heart of everything, or even the heart of themself. There is a dogged determination in the language, even through its elegant beauty, to keep swimming through the pain and the distraction and grab new pieces to build the monument of meaning. We receive no sugarcoat, no soothing, protective hug; the process of individuality and sisyphean task of definition are painful and overwhelming, made all the moreso when one is being threatened and tortured into accepting someone else’s idea of meaning. Make no mistake: Jofré is not gentle is his critique of how hard we make this already laborious task on one another and ourselves. In particular, “Fear” is mercilessly terrifying poem, not because it blames the idea of being afraid, but what we let ourselves do when we are afraid; the justifications, the destruction, the self-mutilation of external violence.

Shapeless piece of the living being.
Liquid that imperceptibly creeps
and interjects its opinion

This idea that we have to be mindful of our effect on others wraps around beautifully in the poetry to connect again with how meaning is formed. If you believe that you are responsible for your actions and that your perspective is yours, then it would be the height of futile, selfish cognitive dissonance to deny those facts for other people. Jofré is building an alphabet (read: perspective) that is relatable, foreign, and most important of all, human, and in doing so he is not only exercising his right to exist and be heard but calling on the rest of us to do that same. This is baked into Abecedary on every level, even in the fact that many of us will read it as a transliteration. In my particular case, I have a copy that contains both Jofré’s work in the original Spanish, and David Shook’s transliteration into English. Shook’s work, incidentally, is as impeccable as ever. The adjective-noun relationship and placement is one of the biggest differences between Spanish and English in my opinion, and Jofré does not make the translation of his work simple by virtue of the density of his use of language. But there are several moments where, in direct comparison of the two versions, Shook’s tweaking feels lip-smackingly perfect in a way that even someone who speaks both languages might not see coming.

“The kiss it a newborn animal. It speaks, it whines,
It writhes on its placenta. It resists
the abandonment that will come; inevitably.”

+++++

“El beso es un animal recién procreado. Habla, gime,
se retuerce en su placenta. Resiste
al abandono que llegará; inevitablemente.”

In his prologue, the brilliant Will Alexander says that “Abecedary condenses via poetic semaphore lingual neutron stars penultimate to incalculable eruption”, and I find the astral metaphor surprisingly apt for what is at play here. We are, in essence, getting to peer into a mind and watch lingual fusion take place. Matter is being rendered and remade, often violently, and the cosmic mind behind it is in awe of the possibility before it. We look up at the sky and see the light of stars that died billions of years ago, and that light changes our lives in immeasurable ways, most of which we cannot understand or anticipate yet. Abecedary is a beautifully apt reminder that, in the universe’s penchant for cycles and equilibriums, that same conceptual causality is going on inside of and between us.

Abecedary is available now through Insert Blanc Press.

Book Review

What We Did While We Made More Guns

by on March 26, 2018

What We Did While We Made More Guns, by Dorothy Barresi
Review by John Venegas

 

Is there anything more human than the search for meaning in the face of destruction? That reflexive need to find answers, to make sense of violence and devastation, to find someone to blame. And what is worse? To find out that some terrible moment is senseless, unpredictable, and dispassionately cruel, or to find out that the moment was within control all along? I do not know, and I seriously doubt anyone could find a reliable consensus. But rarely do we find the kind of honest, visceral, and maddeningly intimate take on these ideas as is present in Dorothy Barresi’s What We Did While We Made More Guns. It is a poetry collection that is not only willing to perform a gloveless autopsy on our hypocrisy riddled corpses but one that refuses to let you sleep through it.

and knowing them for what they are,
I have crossed my arms against my chest – flesh, fat, gristle, bone –
as though I were a locked ward.
As though I controlled anything.

Deconstruction has become something of a buzzword in modern parlance, largely thanks to psuedo-intellectual circles adopting it as pre-fabricated defense against genuine criticism (see also “satire” and “free speech”). But I do not feel there is a more appropriate descriptive term for What We Did than deconstruction because the collection is a thoroughly meticulous breakdown of the component parts of our modern cultural situation, alongside a shockingly detailed analysis of their causal circumstances. This is more than a call for an end to violence. Barresi is holding out a cancer that has metastasized throughout American society. The worship of violence as a paradoxical vehicle for peace; white heterosexual religious patriarchy; gluttonous, exploitative consumerism; superficial, bandwagoning psuedo-altruism complete with ephemeral attention spans; all of it is laid out and bare, sometimes quivering on their own and sometimes bleeding into one another in a viscous mess. And it is made all the more necessarily uncomfortable by the pain in the voice(s) of the speaker(s). The tone pervading the work is one that hates the very real necessity of its work. For every incision into patriarchy, there is fragment of a loving paternal memory or dream that might have been. For every critique of violence, there is an acknowledgment of the very human rage and fear that surround threats to our selves. The collection understands that the horrors we face are born out of real emotion, all the while avoiding the pathetic “both-sides”-ism that equivocates cruelty.

Future times face us. The times following them are further in the future, but all future times follow the present. This is why the weeks to follow will be the same as the weeks ahead.

To be sure, such a display of artistic ambition is automatically setting up its own obstacles in terms of accessibility. The fact is many people, even well-meaning people, do not day in and day out have the stomach for this kind of self-examination. But Barresi makes a few powerful concessions in What We Did without compromising message or impact, particularly in the form of language. The poetry presented here is density without pretentiousness; reflective without being obtuse. It works with a confidence and determination that both assumes the reader can keep up and takes its time in making its point. Different structures and cadences are at play, which provide flavorful variation and allow the poems to stand on their own rather than become swallowed by the whole. To put it simply, the poetry is lovely to read, by eye or by ear. Couplets fill the mouth and roll around smoothly. In an uncountable number of moments, you are given just enough time to appreciate how every little part of a stanza is put together before the dramatic significance dawns on you.

Hey creed feast, Mr. Sheer Transplendency,
is that you

The strongest part of this construction, for me, lies in Barresi’s care with single lines of the poem. I find this to be something of an underappreciated aspect of modern poetry, or at least something that has a tendency to get lost in well-meaning attempts to convey elaborate concepts or shape unconventional structure. As you read, I highly recommend taking the occasional moment to pause and re-read almost any given line at random, because I am willing to bet you will find meaning there that you missed on the first pass. This is what I meant earlier when I referred to density without pretentiousness. You can very easily pass through and over a line like “by the sun’s radioactive choir boy blare.”, only to come back to it a moment or a day later and get an entirely different reaction out of yourself. This in turn lends itself to another underappreciated feature of poetry, re-readability, which is no small thing in the face of some of the subject matter.

When he died, rumors skewed autoerotic.
There were no funeral orations.

When answering the existential questions forced upon us by mass shooting in schools or domestic white terrorism or rampant violence against women and sexual minorities or mass incarceration of people of color or the murder of innocents (domestic and foreign) out of bloodthirst, What We Did provides us with a profound example to emulate. Just as the poetry rolls up its sleeves and plunges its fingers into the blood-soaked mess, so too does it look at us and demand we have the courage to do the same. It is a poignant reminder that there are no sidelines anymore, if such things ever really existed in the first place. It insists that we recognize at least part of the causes of these problems as human greed and fear, obligating us to both recognize the humanity in those who oppose us and helping us to see the fragile constructs upon which exploitative churches are built.

 

What We Did While We Made More Guns is available now through the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Book Review

Third-Millennium Heart

by on February 15, 2018

Third-Millennium Heart, by Ursula Andkjaer Olsen

Translated by Katrine Ogaard Jensen

 

To put it simply and get right to it, Third-Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjaer Olsen is one of the most human things I have ever read. I know that sounds cliche, but there really is no more succinct way to put it. This is a collection of poetry that embodies both the intoxicating power and horrifying vulnerability of the human experience. This is a poetic perspective that is simultaneously aware of the cosmically vast, the quantumly tiny, and the dance those two facets have been locked in since the beginning of time.

 

 

“I am. God is the lifting of differences between part and whole.
The structure of breastfeeding is divine, we are God, every day

GLORIA.”

One of the central and most powerful themes running through this beating Third-Millennium Heart is a no-holds barred exploration of the psyche of motherhood. The collection seems to have a single speaker throughout its run, and her thoughts are never far from a child she has had, a child she is yet to have, and/or a child she can no longer have. These sections are a master-class on the power of language in poetic form, as they beautifully convey the kind of visceral intensity that can be found in unconditional love and in pre- and post-partum depression. They deal with questions of morality in bringing a child into a dangerous and brutal world. They deal with wanting to help a child avoid making the mistakes of its parent, as well as situations in which pregnancy itself is a mistake. The poems immerse themselves in the metaphorical resonance that motherhood shares with godhood, especially with regards to the power to create and deny life, but also in the form of staring at all creator gods and asking how they resolved the turmoil and responsibility of their roles.

 

Forehead pointing west, a woman sits

and between her legs, another woman sits, forehead

pointing west

and between the other woman’s legs, a third woman sits, forehead

pointing west

and between the third woman’s legs

 

the new sun rises.”

 

In this almost accidental exploration of metaphysics, the speaker also realizes that, from her perspective, the universe has taken on an aspect that is referred to more than once as fractal. Fractals are geometric concepts that describe how structural patterns recur throughout certain systems. The speaker witnesses as the same struggles and ballets play out on the macroscopic and microscopic scales, and she is confronted with the scope and intricacy of a universe that operates with such symmetry and forward momentum. She wonders about whether the crises that eat at her will amount to any real change, while simultaneously drawing some comfort from seeing herself in a succession of creation and death that inherently means her potential child will, by its very existence, alter the entire universe. Settings and symbols see repetition again and again throughout the collection, even during otherwise unconnected thought processes, in the vein of mantras and meditations meant to stabilize a runaway mind. As readers, we see in real time the forced evolution of a soul that refuses to return to the cave.

 

“First, I drown in the radiance of the world. Then I want to be the opposite of

radiance: a dullness, hiding me and drawing everything to me, turning

all into one.

 

First, I open my limits to everything. Then, once I penetrate myself,

everyone, woman, man, babel and ivory,

will turn into me.”

 

With this kind of paradigm shift, the speaker becomes thoroughly aware of her own body and, if the soul can be said to be separate, the soul’s relationship with it. In the most immediate terms, this resolves itself in internal poetic debates about sex. We see the speaker’s mind as it revels in and decries the fires of passion. On the one hand, those fires can provide a warmth that, even if only for a moment, banish the cold of an incomprehensible universe. Moreover, they can, however intentionally or unintentionally, spark to life the flames that will become the soul of a child. On the other hand, the fire is more than capable of blinding and bringing pain, of burning hope and ambition to ash and scarring those that it touches. This consistent duality is always present as the speaker confronts sexual contact of any kind. One of the earlier poems even dares to ask about a child conceived out of rape. We are not given the protective shield of academic interest here; hands, legs, vaginas, and hearts are presented to us consistently as being “RED”, and whose blood is staining us is rarely defined with clarity.

 

“I am not who I am.”

 

It has to be noted that all of this incredibly heavy subject matter can only be addressed this comprehensively because the structure and the language of the poems are handled with such deftness. Too often experimental poetry tries to break rules for the sake of breaking rules, which in and of itself is not a bad thing but which also loses out on a great deal of resonant potential. Here, the “rules” are broken with divine purpose and it feels intensely appropriate. Poems are spread out over multiple pages as the thoughts of the speaker work through their problems in stops and starts, often when a new piece of the puzzle is found. The effect avoids the halting stutter than many similar works can’t help but show. Instead, the effect is like reading fragmentary poems that feel in and of themselves complete, only for the next page to reveal a devastating contradiction or show a line that is impossible in both its necessity and surprise. When Olsen takes the time to put only a single line on a single page, that line cuts to the core in a way that the longest novels often can’t.

 

My name is Nothing, so that when you call 1000 names I will come

no matter what, I will come.

 

Everything will be thick and RED, everything will flow.”

 

I don’t intend to keep you here all day, but there really is no end of talking points when it comes to Third-Millennium Heart. I haven’t even yet touched on the slap in the face delivered by the collection to the god Capitalism, or on the value of this work to the feminist movement in general, or the significance of having and lacking a name and what identity means in a universe of cycles, or about how the quality of Katrine Ogaard Jensen’s translation is amazing and absolutely vital in its retelling of Olsen’s stories. There is so much here to revel in and be horrified by and fall in love with. And that is what I meant at the start about this being the among the most human pieces of art I have ever encountered. It celebrates and vilifies in a way that feels wholly appropriate when examining humanity, its past, and its potential. It addresses big questions in the interest of their practical effects, and it spares nothing in sharing those questions and answers with us.

Third-Millennium Heart is available now through Action Books and Broken Dimanche Press.

Book Review

The World Goes On

by on February 8, 2018

The World Goes On, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai
Translated by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet, and Georges Szirtes

The animated science fiction comedy show Futurama has an episode in which the character Professor Hubert Farnsworth discovers the “missing link” between humans and apes and attempts to use it to prove the theory of evolution, only for his discovery to be co-opted by a group of creationists who attempt to use it to disprove the theory of evolution. When the alleged disproof is applauded, Farnsworth utters a line that has left an indelible mark on the internet and its memes: “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.” That sentence and the sentiment that it represents have become quite popular as of late. In a world where the most publicly powerful individual is an open bigot and rapist, where racist nationalist movements are surging in popularity thanks to the internet and fear-mongering, where a great many people have been shaken from their cozy collective dream, it is easy to understand a decent number of us are looking to borders and horizons, to simply get away from the stress and the stupidity. But it seems the implications and consequences of that impulse are much more difficult to appreciate.

The onset of catastrophe is not signaled by the sense of falling through the dark to an accidental death: everything, including a catastrophe has a moment-by-moment structure – a structure that is beyond measurement or comprehension,

Laszlo Krasznahorkai is an author you can trust to never shy away from the consequences of actions. In his latest book, The World Goes On, Krasznahorkai presents us with a series of stories, told by an unnamed narrator, in which people from all walks of life are in various states of transition – a man in his truck passes a pair of dogs in the street, a homeless person takes a swig from a bottle, a child leaves his job and his frame of reference behind. All twenty-one of these stories, on some level, present individuals who have experienced or are experiencing a paradigm-shift, the kind of perspective expansion that is thrilling and terrifying in equal measure. This is a book that uses both the magical and the mundane to explore profound and fundamentally disturbing questions such as the relationship between determinism and responsibility, the metaphysical implications of free will, and the warring suspicions that the universe is either completely uncaring or possessed by an incomprehensible will. The ground-level application of these questions is not lost in the fray either; for all the philosophical roiling, The World Goes On is a book that manages to make you give a damn about your reality.

I talk to him every Wednesday starting at nine am, but nothing, he doesn’t even budge, this isn’t just about anything at all though, I think many times he’s not really there, it’s not that he’s not paying attention, because all the same if I were to say to him what’s going on with you, Shitbrain, I tried it once, he immediately says: May I ask to whom you are referring?

If you are familiar with Krasznahorkai’s other work, then it will come as little surprise to you that his signature style of extremely long sentences is at play here. If you are not familiar with his work, then prepare yourself – I know it is becoming cliche to say this in literary circles, but Krasznahorkai writes for writers. He loves playing with language, dancing with it and toying out its intricacies as he and his sentences move to a tune that is meant to feel whimsical and impulsive but which clearly has no small amount of craft woven throughout. And given the subject matter of the book itself, that style is both fitting and welcome. Moments are meant to feel stretched out into infinity as the narrator’s thought process becomes increasingly aware of all the myriad ideas and tangents that even the most inconsequential notion can spark. Some stories possess Virginia Woolf levels of plot advancement, determined to plant their feet and make you realize the beauty and impossibility that you would otherwise miss in your haste. Somehow the style also fits the exact opposite speed, where moments in time rush by you in a blinding blur as the words in the sentence fall into place like the pavers of a path that forms beneath your feet as you race down it. This book feels almost immune to diminishing returns upon rereading – the stories are the kind of things you want to keep wading into, just to feel them running through your fingers and toes.

I must duly consider, while your face is constantly before my eyes, and while your story is gradually assembled in my mind, that this is the fate reserved by the world for one who is sufficiently sensitive and “intelligent” (in the special sense that you use this word) to embody the essentials about the reality of human society and his own inevitable death at its hands.

The level of craft on display here feels strangely necessary given the enormity of what the book is attempting. Krasznahorkai is not only addressing the questions and ideas I mentioned before but doing so from multiple perspectives, in ways that almost demand we empathize. While the text does have an arguably singular narrator, that narrator watches with such detail and intimacy that the narrator seems to disappear into the vicarious experiences. That impulse to flee, to leave a place because you have woken up to its disfigurement, is shown not only to be a real and often valid thing, but a thing so real and so valid that it calls into question the comparatively flippant nature of wanting to flee much easier circumstances. What does it mean to joke as an American about wanting to move to Canada because of Donald Trump when there are Syrians who are forced to flee in the name of survival toward a number of countries that see them as parasites? By the same token, the book also shows demands for action and characters who would chastise those who give in to fear and flee rather than fight for human decency. And that is by no means the end of it. The book, itself almost overwhelmed with perspective, cannot help but wonder whether any of this means anything; not merely in the postmodern sense of definition, but on a terrifyingly existential level. Are our fights and retreats going to amount to anything or is the world just going to go on, spinning in the void, its surface machinery grinding its gears past obstruction? Or does the very nature of our universe mean that those same fights and withdrawals are having immense, irrevocable effects on literally everything else?

Everyone has that piece or those pieces of art that they keep in their collection not only for their own enjoyment but so that they can show their friends or family in the hopes that those other people can understand what art is capable of. The World Goes On is quickly becoming one of those pieces for me. It is a book that can tell compelling stories, sculpt with language, broaden perspective, and break the rules with brilliant purpose. It is a book that will make you feel empowered and guilty, beautiful and horrified, angry and depthlessly empathetic. A good deal of the credit for this achievement should be given to John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet, and Georges Szirtes, translators who have managed to reconstruct Krasznahorkai’s literary voice in a way that leaves you speechless if you take any real time to think about it. To not only have to translate but to do so in an effort to faithfully rebuild these long, flowing, intensely personal sentences is a feat and a half. If you consider yourself a student of literature, you owe it to yourself to tangle with The World Goes On.

 

The World Goes On is available now through New Directions Publishing.

Book Review

Djinn City

by on January 25, 2018

Djinn City, by Saad Z. Hossain
Review by John Venegas

When it comes right down to it, can anything be said to be more essential to the fantasy genre then trying to find one’s place in the world? I’m not the first to suggest that we write deliriously imaginative stories of magic and monsters and good and evil because we are trying to come to terms with our own incredible power and the simultaneous and abundant feelings of powerlessness. We all affect the world, the universe, in all of our living moments, and the changes we manifest, whether intentional or not, irrevocably alters everything else. I don’t mean that as an inspirational platitude – it is, as far as our most brilliant philosophical and scientific minds can tell, the way the universe operates. To have that power, that influence, and to understand that not everything will work out the way you want it to is incredible and terrifying. Fantasy literature, for all of its Hollywood-backed prominence and fanboyish escapism, is first and foremost a tool to unleash perspective and see beyond the limits of our temporal truths.

Those temporal truths, and indeed the very question of one allegedly having a designated place in the universe, are at the heart of the wonderful Djinn City, by Saad Z. Hossain. At its most basic, Djinn City is a novel about three members of a family who must understand the “impossible”, who have their perspectives opened and flooded with scale. We follow Kaikobad, Rais, and Indelbad, three generations of the Khan Rahman family, as they not only explore the world of djinns (genies) and magic, but as they grapple with family, questions of fate and existence, and the dimensions of power. For those of you who consider yourselves experienced in the Western fantasy genre, including its more experimental standouts, understand that this story and its characters are not going to play out along those overworn paths you are used to. This is a story with consequences, grounded in a strange kind of realism that reflects the combination of arbitrary happenstance and orchestrated endgame that makes up our daily lives. You will see homages and ideas that abound in popular fiction, world mythology, and scientific thought, but they come together in a way that not only feels determined to subvert expectations but which does so without sacrificing coherence.

Thirty of the most peculiar shapes were walking around guzzling wine and food, from a thing made entirely of leafy branches to a walrus-man who resided inside his own bubble of water, and made life inconvenient for everyone by shouting commands through a loudspeaker inserted into a periscope-like opening.

That grounding proves quite essential throughout this text, because Hossain is introducing a world that, while perhaps familiar in some of its terminology, is a titanic, labyrinthine realm of possibility. This is a book that has sorcery, quantum mechanics, religion, philosophy, political intrigue, social commentary, genetics, and so much more. The literary and intellectual influences are too numerous to list, such that I would not be surprised if the author had set out to write a work that looked at all of these different branches of thought and tried to serve as an emissary between them. In tackling such a project, Hossain provides a direct, uncomplicated style of writing that makes very little pretense and yet also manages some brilliant turns of phrase and entertainment throughout. He is not trying to be experimental – I doubt such a fragile framework could hold up under the weight of the ideas – and he doesn’t need to be. To again borrow an overused descriptive phrase, Djinn City is a page turner; a story that immerses and keeps you up well past a sane hour.

A crystal city glittered beneath, domes and towers lit up by the setting sun, balconies floating on air, the streets wide and paved with marble, delicate bridges over running water, merchants floating on carpets, carrying fruits and wine, winding through the branches of a great tree in the very center. Humans and djinns cohabitated in plain sight, bargaining in the market square, smoking on street corners, peaceful, unhurried.

Even with the effective, efficient writing style, a story like this would be hard to sell to any but the nerdiest of us without some truly rich character development. The three Khan Rahman men are our vehicles into this vivid world and no effort was spared making them into flawed and thoroughly relatable people. On top of that, some of the supporting casts are standouts the likes of which I personally have not encountered in some time. A personal and particular nod of respect goes to Aunty Juny, a woman of action who, had she been given any more time on the page than she already has, would utterly steal the show from the protagonists. This is a cast of characters with real motivations and aspirations, and they help make the fantastic far more tangible.

Her perfectly coifed skull protected a brain like a rabid German U-boat loose in the Atlantic. No nuance of character or action escaped her, and everything was turned to advantage with the rapidity and precision of a field marshal.

The only real issue with Djinn City is that there are more than a few moments where exposition and backstory very much take center-stage from the general plot. This will not be a problem, and it may even be a boon, for those of us that love world-building (and I very much doubt that this is the last story Hossain has to tell in this realm he has created), but I can understand perspectives that will not appreciate Djinn City’s occasional indulgences in its own power. Suffice it to say that Hossain trusts his audience to revel along with him. And the reveling is great fun. I am fairly biased in this regard, because I happen to be an avid reader and student of mythology and world history, but target audience or not I find the world on display here so imbued with potential that I am already eagerly awaiting more.

A special note should also be made for the commentary made throughout Djinn City too. No work is apolitical, and Djinn City is by no means trying to remain neutral on anything. It presents us with a supernaturally powerful aristocracy convinced of its own superiority. It walks the poorest streets of its version of Bangladesh, exchanging stories with the disabled, the shunned, and the criminal. It is, by the very nature of its construction, an essay on the effects and illusions of colonialism, racism, capitalism, socialism, nepotism, and historicism. But it does all of that without forsaking a fun, compelling story. By have characters with flaws and not blindly forgiving them for those flaws, the criticisms and commentary feel more impartial, or at least more honest. It encourages the reader to set aside their need to inherently demonize or anoint and remember that from the mightiest djinn to the lowest beggar, people are people. Strange, yes, capable of mistakes or treachery, yes, but also things possessing inherent beauty and potential.

 

Djinn City is available now through Unnamed Press.

Book Review

Belladonna

by on September 28, 2017

Novel by Dasa Drndic
Translation by Celia Hawkesworth
Review by John Venegas

 

It is seductively easy to view humanity’s forward trek in time as story of progress. We look at the history of our species and construct narratives that make us feel good about ourselves, about our lot in life and the cost to get us there. By “we”, of course, I mean those of us in positions of privilege – those of us standing on the ashes of others. We pick and choose elements from stories of history that were already curated for the purpose of comfort, further rendering the delicious fat into something we can use to make everything else more palatable. But, worse than this, we violently reject anything that might disrupt our gluttonous meal, aggressively dismissing the bitter taste at best, even destroying the nuisance if we become sufficiently afraid.

As a person of privilege, I found Belladonna hard to swallow. It is a novel by Croatian author Dasa Drndic and it tells the story of Andreas Ban, a psychologist and author who seeks, above all else, escape. More than that, Belladonna is a withering, merciless examination of humanity’s existential relationship with history, one in which the burnt and bleeding remains of the victims are lain at our feet. Andreas, the novel’s protagonist, is a man dealing with partial dislocation – not a result of his circumstances but a thing of his own doing. Through his work, he has come to see the side of humanity that most of us like to pretend is not there or is only present in “bad” people, and he seeks comfort in the past. This fails, of course, because his eye, having been opened, cannot completely shut again.

That outer landscape, for Andreas a falsely real landscape, has sucked up, demolished, devoured his internal world,

This novel is not difficult because of its language, its structure, or its tone. As a matter of fact, all three of these facets, and several more besides, are incredibly beautiful. No, Belladonna is one of those rare novels that is truly demanding. The story is presented in such a way that it pulls you back to vigilance. The text is awash with details and minutia that, on a surface level, add an intense vividness to the immersion, but which also grab your chin and hold your gaze. It is a constant reminder that you are too easily distracted, that you cannot pretend your way to innocence, and that ignorance is no excuse. Moreover, the novel makes you aware that there are, and always will be, things that you do not know. There is always more information to discover, another perspective yet unaccounted for. The delivery of Andreas’ story and the stories that he sifts through are delivered in pieces, in fragments, all rich in detail but by their very existence and definition incomplete. The effect of reading this is dramatically potent, a reminder that the seeking of truth is an obligation without end.

Those others, those who had and still have a single-track life and a present without creases, arranged in drawers stupidly named “life”, in which there are neither wars nor displacements, in which weddings are all alike, just as funerals are, in which in fact there is no life, those people could not invite because they floated in their safe hatars where the lawns are soft and one’s steps springy, while he had fallen out of frame, hanging and swaying from a rusty hook and creating disorder. What would they talk about? What would they touch upon?

The flow of Belladonna is something in which you will lose yourself. Much of the novel is straightforward, matter of fact delivery that is trusting enough of its reader to infer the commentary being delivered in the description of events. But all the while this style builds in subtle intensity until the text can no longer stand the pressure and releases in amazing climaxes in which Drndic waxes poetic and unleashes sensations of long, elegant sentences that appeal to anyone with a taste for language. Further still, Drndic is beholden to no one in the path she takes to tell this story. The text does not care if you are impatient. In yet another beautiful echo of the novel’s message, the text will drag out the care and concern from you, if there is any to truly give. Belladonna is not a book for those of us with short attention spans or the inability to invest beyond a superficial level. This flow and style feel very important to the novel on multiple levels. First, they seem to be the one (perhaps unintentional) concession the text makes to the difficulty of its subject matter. There is an argument to be made that an uncomfortable truth finds better purchase when beautifully delivered. Second, they feel inherently respectful to the voices they help advocate for. Belladonna interrupts its prose in multiple instances to deliver extensive lists of the murdered, letters between characters, and pictures that provide yet more of the fragments of those that we have tried to forget. The care that was put into the construction of Belladonna is as much a tribute as any other memorial.

I do not speak Croatian, but given the masterclass in English on display, special acknowledgement should be given to Celia Hawkesworth, who has translated works from Drndic before. My understanding is that Drndic has an expert grasp of English and English literature, so to me it says something significant that Hawkesworth was asked to translate this work. The end product is a joy to read and seems to sacrifice none of Drndic’s characteristic visceral empathy.

It would be hard to find a novel more topically relevant today than Belladonna. We are surrounded by and tied to a rising tide of sexist, racist, fascist nationalism, whether we call the United States, Britain, Myanmar, or Palestine home. In an interview with the Paris Review, Drndic says that “Art cannot change the world, but it can change us. Art should shock, hurt, offend, intrigue, be a merciless critic of the merciless times we are not only witnessing but whose victims we have become. In this domain, the so-called intellectuals have enormously failed—by being silent, by committing treason,”. Belladonna is call to action, a blaring alarm to those of us who have been patting ourselves on the back because we supposedly dealt with the problem, to those of us who lie to ourselves and blame a few bad apples. It is the kind of novel that finds itself unfortunately essential, and brilliantly unquiet.

 

Belladonna will be available in October, thanks to New Directions.

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