Browsing Tag

Book Review

Book Review

Standing on Earth

by on June 15, 2017

Standing on Earth, by Mohsen Emadi

Translated by Lyn Coffin

 

What does it mean to be “grounded”? Some of us take it as a powerful compliment, a suggestion that we or our works of art possess some kind of immersive quality that is more objective concerning physical reality. Some of us take it as an imprisoning insult, a thing that wraps python-thick chains around the creativity of the soul and binds it to the immobility of a single form. In both perspectives, there is an assumption of choice, an agency that is taken for granted and given credit and blame, and there is an inherent binaric other, either a flighty lack of seriousness or a drowning unimaginativeness. Those binary qualities are no coincidences – they are born in cultures that define themselves in opposition, that treat fluid identities as unquantifiable at best and threateningly alien at worst. What does “grounded” mean to an immigrant? To a refugee? To an exile? To someone who can see the myriad differences and the far from coincidental similarities between two patches of earth?

I was at Universal Studios, sitting at a table in a food court, waiting for the Waterworld show to begin. I was bored and hot, but not enough that I was going to spend four dollars on a bottle of water. I reached into my bag to pull out my phone and check my lack of messages for the third time, when I grabbed something I hadn’t expected. A small poetry collection translated by Lyn Coffin. Mohsen Emadi’s Standing on Earth, as it so happens, but I’m sure you knew that by now. Being the good little Western half-breed that I am, I had no idea who Mohsen Emadi was. I opened to the first page.

I was there.
An unborn child
playful among guns.
The sun rises
and I carry your death,
womb by womb.

That is how the book starts. There is enough in those six lines that I could spend the rest of the review unpacking them and still have enough for an essay afterward. But in the interest of keeping this readable, I will instead pose another question: are those six lines grounded? If you will excuse my forwardness, the answers are yes, and no, if we are using the binaries. We have a speaker, recalling a life before a life, living amongst weapons, bathing in the sun’s radiance, and heralding the night we all fear. These are six lines that play with time and space and identity and yet somehow are fundamentally relatable, to a genuinely horrifying degree.

There is no better flavor sampler for Standing on Earth. We are treated to beauty and terror, the inversion of assumed stability, and a questioning of that which we hold in the depths of our hearts as inviolate and fundamental. As you move from poem to poem, there is a sensation that Emadi has been forced (which is not to say he is unwilling) to witness a multiverse of realities and that this collection is something akin to an attempt to layer them over one another. It begs questions that can only germinate in minds aware that existence stretches beyond the sensible.

Structurally, the poems are rarely given standalone titles, as if actively resisting definition, and there is a sense of almost constant motion from poem to poem. I say “almost” because there are a few titles and few definite changes in style that arrive rather suddenly, as if the speaker(s) did not expect them and are trying on new identities. While much of the poem has a fairly simple layout in terms of alignment and spacing, there is a moment of fascinating derivation. The poem “my skull…” indents on a whim and repeatedly, and it is the only work in the collection to do so. It felt like a twitch, like a spasm, as if even a basic and otherwise conformity becomes unpalatable. It is a powerful reminder of everything going on beneath the surface, of the pressure building below even the already evident venting within the language.

My skull’s
a cup of wine
and a Chinese painter
painted
on the edge
a herd
of
horses
racing
inebriated.

Given the sheer scale of perspectives that Emadi is trying to amalgamate, it is little surprise that the topics covered are multitudinous as well. Everything from general relativity to colonialism to narcotics to grammar is covered with at least the kind of gaze you reserve for the person who has caught your eye through the bus window and made you to wonder at the depth of their life. But some topics, noticeably time, space, and love, repeatedly return to center stage, not so much out of a direct effort to focalize them, but rather in the vein of a nervous tick – incessant internal questioning from the minds of the speaker(s), a heady cocktail of self-doubt and adrenaline that compels flight and fight. They are covered beautifully and nervously and passionately, spared no distraction in their not always pleasant detail.

As something of a side note, I do not speak Persian by any stretch, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of Lyn Coffin’s translations, but I am still incredibly impressed by them. To translate any work is to rewrite it, not only in the direct terms of language to language but in the sense of finding a common ground between two thought-processes that can capture the essence of the original. To put it simply, Lyn Coffin’s words are beautiful and brimming with potency, because Mohsen Emadi’s words are beautiful and brimming with potency. While I have no doubt that actually knowing Persian and reading the original poems would enhance the experience that is Standing on Earth, I have no small admiration and appreciation for this version.

My favorite line in the whole collection is “Meaning is utopian.” Not only does it capture the entirety of the collection in the way the first six lines do, but the multi-faceted power on display in three words is the kind of genius that most of us can only aspire to. Utopia, or perfection, is a goal that must always be pursued but never attained. It can’t actually be attained, because perfection is impossible, but even if it were, it would represent true and total stagnation, an end of all possibility and potential. And yet we must seek it out, because the search for it is the effort to better ourselves, to build upon what has come before and allow our descendants to do the same. Meaning is the same; it is impossible to achieve by its very definition, and yet the search for it encapsulates the whole of the human experience. That struggle reveals everything about us. In an age where we are coerced into thinking all else as “other”, an age where the defining battles are between “us” and “them”, an age where we all think ourselves as living in Winthrop’s city on a hill, we need more books like Standing on Earth. We need more reminders that we are all standing here, grounded, on our little patch of earth.

 

Standing on Earth is available now through Phoneme Media.

Book Review

Overpour

by on June 13, 2017

Overpour, by Jane Wong

 

Jane Wong opens Overpour with, “For years I lived this way: with words / That had to do with carrion / I have learned to cast away my enemies / I have lit their insides clean.” Upon first read, the words captured me in a way I did not understand. I wrote them down on the post-it note I use as a bookmark and took the words with me as I read the rest of the collection. Each time I encountered lines that made me pause my reading, I read the post-it and tried to imagine its connection to the poem on the page. I was delightfully surprised that although Wong’s poetry is a reflection of different topics like nature, war, and animals, there is an interesting interweave of language occurring on the page (sometimes evident and sometimes you need a post-it to remind you).

Wong’s poetry reflects topics that are disorienting and, at times, slightly unfamiliar. However, the narrative style of poems allows the reader to follow and reflect on one’s role as a reader and participator. Many of Wong’s poems do something interesting: they pair up the city with the country, they pair up human and animal. However, these images are not spoken about in binaries where the reader gets one or the other. Instead, they are spoken about together and create an interesting conversation —a call and response, if you will. Within this ongoing conversation, Wong points to different questions that we should all be asking about our world; questions about violence, poverty, and fulfillment. Though there is no one answer, the themes of these poems force us to see ourselves in this struggle; a struggle that compels us to question our contribution to the problem and what it is we’re doing to solve it.

Overpour is divided into three different sections but perhaps what is most notable is how  historical, political, and social contexts appear to haunt Wong’s poetry. In The Poetics of Haunting in Asian American Poetry (poeticsofhaunting.com), she states “A poetics of haunting insists on invocation: a deliberate, powerful, and provocative move towards haunted places. How does history —particularly the history of war, colonialism, and marginalization— impact the work of Asian American poets across time and space? How does language act as a haunting space of intervention and activism?” Wong’s poetry reflects her attempt to answer these questions. In doing so, she inhabits her mother’s voice in a series of poems titled Twenty-Four, Thirty, Twenty-Nine, Forty-Three, and Twenty-Five. Throughout these poems, the speaker exemplifies a search for the self. In Twenty-Four, the speaker writes about her marriage and having children. It is in this poem that the title makes an appearance: “Overpour, / of regret, there is too / much blood in a cow / to comprehend.” Here the speaker does anything but overpour the situation. In fact, this is only a snippet of this individual in this particular moment in time. There are still many years left to recount and as such, we are encouraged to read on. The rest of the poems in Wong’s collection are amalgamations of particular moments and memories. All of these moments deserve to be read —all at once or one at the time, you decide.

 

Overpour is available now through Action Books.

 

 

Book Review

Multiple Choice

by on June 1, 2017

Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra

Translated by Megan McDowell

Review by T.m. Lawson

 

Perhaps it is the cover design’s callback to blue books that provokes a nostalgia that seems to be trendy these days. (Has it ever not been trendy to peddle the past?) Or maybe it is the clever title in conjunction with the design: Is this book A) fiction? B) Nonfiction? C) Poetry? D) All of the above? Or E) None of the above? Alejandro Zambra punctures the distinctive lines between genres in this collection, earning the proud The New Yorker praise that he is indeed “Latin America’s new literary star.”

I’m inclined to agree; it surprises me that the book was not more of a splash in the U.S. considering our literary love affair with Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, and our recent history with the transformation testing in schools. The No Child Left Behind Bush-era policy has left behind a scar in children’s education and a belief that governments are not concerned with an educated populace but pliable citizens. Zambra hits on these notes very well. In his short story, Text #1, the narrator’s former grade school teacher, now a retired bus driver, serves as an embittered voice as he asserts to his former students, “[School] is rotten, but the world is rotten […] They prepared you for this, for a world where everyone fucks everyone over. You’ll do well on the test, very well, don’t worry—you weren’t educated, you were trained.” The narrator notes immediately that “it sounded aggressive, but there was no contempt in his tone, or, at least, none directed at us.”

The whole of the book plays with form, mirroring a standard testing packet as it transitions from word choice to longer texts. This in itself is novel, however Zambra takes off with the constrictions, effectively blowing my mind with each page. Consider this excerpt from “I. Excluded Term”, in which the reader (or tester) should “mark the answer that corresponds to the word whose meaning has no relation to either the heading or the other words listed.”

1. MULTIPLE                                                    4. FIVE
A) manifold                                                         A) six
B) numerous                                                        B) seven
C) untold                                                            C) eight
D) five                                                                D) nine
E) two                                                                E) one

2. CHOICE                                                       6. BODY
A) voice                                                             A) dust
B) one                                                                B) ashes
C) decision                                                         C) dirt
D) preference                                                      D) grit
E) alternative                                                     E) smut

One could sooner pick the prettiest star in the heavens than decide on a selection. Zambra boxes the reader in while liberating diction; indeed, how could you pick a word that does not belong when you really think about the direction they take you? It’s clever work, but it goes beyond simple cleverness. Zambra makes this section the most poetic out of all of them because of the compressed nature of exercises and the limited real estate given to the ideas he spreads on the page. It feels holistic how one “exercise” leaps to the next, all of them seeming to complement one another and build on each other like bricks. They are simple selections, not ten dollar words by any stretch of the imagination. Alejandro does magic with simplicity, and it plays to his literary strengths. My favorite pair end off this section appropriately:

23. SILENCE                                                  24. SILENCE
A) fidelity                                                         A) silence
B) complicity                                                     B) silence
C) loyalty                                                         C) silence
D) conspiracy                                                    D) silence
E) cowardice                                                     E) silence

The other sections include II. Sentence Order, III. Sentence Completion, IV. Sentence Elimination, V. Reading Comprehension (in which he gives three long prose selections called Texts and asks intricate questions analyzing the content). The second section is Zambra’s most enjoyable because of how it twists the brain and requires participation from the reader; it does not request. Instead, Alejandro sets up a “build your own adventure”, sculptural in tone depending on the reader’s placement. It requires brain activity, no passive intake of information.

26. The second                                                                  27. A child
1. You try to remember your first Communion.                     1. You dream that you lose a child.
2. You try to remember your first masturbation.                    2. You wake up.
3. You try to remember the first time you had sex.                3. You cry.
4. You try to remember the first death in your life.                4. You lose a child.
5. And the second.                                                            5. You cry.

A) 1-5-2-3-4                                                                  A) 1-2-4-3-5
B) 1-2-5-3-4                                                                  B) 1-2-3-5-4
C) 1-2-3-5-4                                                                  C) 2-3-4-5-1
D) 4-5-1-2-3                                                                  D) 3-4-5-1-2
E) 4-3-2-1-5                                                                  E) 4-5-3-1-2

This is Zambra waking up the reader and putting some semblance of stress that is akin to … dare I say, a final exam? But there is too much self-awareness, too much good humor as he pokes fun at all sorts of themes and subjects (the writer’s life, soured relationships, family arguments, a woman’s breast cancer) to be weighed down by any overt academic influence this format could take on. Alejandro Zambra is daring the reader to pick up the blue book and take a test, which begs the question: what does it mean to pass?

 

Multiple Choice is available now through Penguin Random House.

Book Review

Luna Park

by on May 30, 2017

Luna Park, by Luis Cardoza y Aragon

Translated by Anthony Seidman

Review by Kristin Kaz

 

I was four years old in kindergarten, which is when I learned how to identify coins using my fingers alone. Is this a common lesson for young capitalists? Hands thrusting into deep, dark cotton sacks, fingering the heavy ridges of a quarter, the slightness of a dime. The nickel and the penny were hardest to distinguish for a while, but I got the hang of it. Eventually.

And now I so rarely use my hands to explore the world.

I lost my way.
Where was I?
I rambled along singing!

This work, this collection, I’ll tell you first how it feels, and then how it feels.

Luna Park is a slim text, bound in cardboard and wrapped with a smooth, heavier stock. Is this recycled paper?[1] Difficult to say without my eyes, but there is something organic about it all. I drag my nails against the cover and it sounds like marbles. Like a rain drum. The pages themselves are slighter, still smooth, and they make a pud-pud-pud sort of thwacking sound against themselves as I flip swiftly through them. There is something nostalgic about the presentation. I have it. There I am, at the start of a new school year, wrapping text books in paper bags. This is the comfortable, familiar part of the process. This is what my fingers and nose can tell me about how this work feels.

This is what my eyes can tell you.

Luna Park (1924, 2016) is Luis Cardoza Y Aragón’s first collection of poetry. It is translated from the Spanish by Anthony Seidman, thrust into the thick of this decade’s hazy Twitter feed by Alan Mills, and steeped in the kinetic energy of Daniel Godínez-Nivón’s graphics.

From this critical living, restless,
A new soul has flourished:
Tender and strong,
Beautiful and sweet,
Like a flower of steel.

The beauty of a work like Luna Park is its ability to transcend time and space – or, rather, the ability to so clearly encapsulate the speed at which we hurtle through time, through space; the push-pull of experience and innocence; the jarring, grotesque specter of age that stalks us through the funfair.

The one who doesn’t reside in the future doesn’t exist.
The future started yesterday.

My third reading of Luna Park is punctuated by the metronome of relentlessly tack-tacking fingers on an ergonomic keyboard. I put the book in my back pocket (this is a book that fits in your back pocket), where I keep it while I carry my cat through the house to the kitchen, where I pace back and forth, cat slung over one shoulder, left-handedly nosing my way through the experience of Luis Cardoza Y Aragón’s poetry.

La vie s’en va…
A woman, with her gaze,
Tells me:
“Live it up”
Life shouts out
“Follow that woman”

This is not poetry to be read passively, to be enjoyed on some quiet Sunday.
This is poetry that begs to be read in motion; this is poetry that pushes you up and out.
This is poetry of exile, of transcendence, of momentum, of vitality.
This is poetry that tells you to live.
So you live.

 

Luna Park is available now through Cardboard House Press.

 

Photo of Luis Cardoza Y Aragón and Carlos Mérida in Paris, 1927 from litearturaguatemalteca.org

[1] It is recycled paper.

Book Review

Forbidden Fruit

by on May 26, 2017

Forbidden Fruit, by Stanley Gazemba

 

When most people talk about immersion today, they refer to it as an element of a visual medium. This makes some degree of sense, given how visual our species is. Technology has allowed us to create images of unprecedented creativity and realism. In literature, however, immersion is often only discussed in genres of fiction that are expected to engage in no small amount of world building – science fiction and fantasy, usually. This is a shame, really, because no work of fiction should take for granted that its readers will, by default, be fully engaged with the text. There is an onus on the author to respect that, in order to build a world, even one meant to acutely mirror our own, the world and its inhabitants must truly feel alive. Rarely do we encounter a better example of this than Stanley Gazemba’s Forbidden Fruit, a novel about a community in Kenya, a novel that embodies the earth itself and our experience of it.

One of the first things you will realize about Forbidden Fruit is that it is among the least pretentious novels you will have ever read. This is not meant as a slight against what some might erroneously consider loftier fiction – rather, it is meant to convey that Gazemba’s novel is the epitome of “down to earth”. It deals with the human condition, not in some overtly existential or cosmological sense, but by showing the daily lives of a community that must work directly for its subsistence and which engages with the very real stressors drawing it in every conceivable direction. The text is immediately and powerfully relatable to anyone who has had to really work for a living, not only in the trials and rewards of such a life but especially with regards to what effect this has on human relationships. This is the real meat of the novel’s perspective on the human condition. It embraces the idea that we are inherently social creatures (regardless of our level of introversion) and explores the concept that our lives are a struggle between the desires of the self and the bonds of community. To be sure, the novel does not suggest that the two things are always or inherently opposed, but as separate entities they can and will inevitably find moments of opposition.

The examples of this are plentiful: a poor and loyal husband and father presented with the opportunity for an affair with a beautiful and wealthy woman; a mother and wife dealing with the inherent and unfair instability of a patriarchal culture; a boy forced to deal with the harsher realities of the adult world; a woman who married out of an earnest and intense love realizing that she is no longer the object of her husband’s focus; a sloppy bachelor with aspirations of true romantic connections but a streak of independence and pride holding him back. Gazemba travels freely between these characters and more, not binding the story to any one mind but making sure that each is fleshed out and present to experience the consequences, good or bad, of life in this village. The very structure of the text reflects the relationship between the individual and the community, showing the former as very much a part of the latter, and the latter only defined by the collective of the former. It actually takes some getting used to if you are familiar with texts designed to be hyperfocused and constrained to the mind of a single protagonist. An argument can be made that Ombima is the central character of Forbidden Fruit, but the actions and thoughts of almost every other character are as impactful as his own.

If this tackling of the human condition can be thought of as immersion on a character level, then Forbidden Fruit has no shortage of immersion on a more traditional level. Quite simply, this is one of the more vivid and rich depictions of a setting for a novel that I have ever encountered. If you will forgive the Ameri-Anglo centrism I was educated in, I am reminded of Fenimore Cooper or Tolkein in the attention given to beautiful vistas, but without the moments of getting lost that can appear in works like Last of the Mohicans or Fellowship of the Ring. The feel of the wet mud, the smell of banana trees, even the impact of a hoe on earth too dry to till are all completely engrossing. This is no less true of what would be considered the more unpleasant sensations: the tearing of barbed wire on skin, the sound of gasping for air, the air inside a contentious hospital waiting room. Though polite about it, Gazemba is insistent that his reader be there, in the moment, with their senses occupied and their ability to avoid empathy compromised. The world in which the community and the individual live is no less a part of that relationship, equally shaped by and shaping its participants.

Forbidden Fruit is a truly quality novel that has, for all of its grounded nature, an inexhaustible wealth of ideas to address. Are you a Marxist looking for the class struggle? Present. Are you a Feminist looking for how woman resist the contradictions and subtler oppressions of patriarchy? Present. Are you a reader in the United States who is in need of greater exposure to literature from a different culture that feels both familiar and decidedly new? Present. Or are you looking for a novel that you can sit down with, read, and truly and totally experience? This is the book for you.

 

Forbidden Fruit will be available June 2017 through The Mantle, and is available now for pre-sale.

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

Confetti-Ash

by on May 18, 2017

Confetti-Ash, Selected Poems of Salvador Novo

Translated by Anthony Seidman and David Shook

 

In 1581, Sir Philip Sydney completed the The Defence of Posey. It was a response to an argument from a Puritan minister who claimed that the arts, particularly poetry, were egregious affronts. In The Defence, Sydney makes several comparisons between the act of writing poetry and godliness, specifically referring to both as the act of “making”. He claimed that poetry was paying honor and homage to God himself, as it was a human imitation of the creation of the universe. To be fair, I do not agree with such a lofty juxtaposition, if for no other reason than I believe poetry can only come from the mortal, those bound for death. But I am reminded of Sydney’s impassioned argument as I read Confetti-Ash, an amazing collection of Salvador Novo’s poetry translated to English by Anthony Seidman and David Shook. As the reader moves through the text and steps into the mind of the collection’s many speakers, we are presented with an ensemble of the human experience, treated with the curiosity of an inspired, curious, powerful, and even hubristic being. The real divine comparison here is not to the god of the Abrahamic tradition, but to Prometheus, or perhaps more appropriately, Huehuecoyotl – beings with an intrinsic link to the human condition, and who can appreciate our multi-facetedness.

Confetti-Ash is a collection with an almost compulsive need to run the gamut of extreme emotion. This is, as one would expect, due in large part to the choices made by Seidman and Shook, and they deserve plenty of credit for including a truly quality selection of Novo’s work. But it is primarily a result of Novo’s brazen ethos. He was known for being unapologetically homosexual in a country with a conservative Catholic elite, and his determination is present in several poems.

Ha descendido el cielo / por los ferrocarriles de la lluvia / Contemplacion. Egoaltruismo. / Cristianismo. Narciso.

Heaven has descended / via the railroad of rain / Contemplation. Ego-altruism. / Christianity. Narcissus.

This is a voice unafraid of divine judgment and aware of the hypocrisies present in so many dogmas and their social implementations. But it is not critical for the sake of vengeance or the need to rebel. Rather, it is peaceful in the sense of doing what the speaker feels needs to be done, regardless of the consequences. This peace will constantly give way to passion, however, in both of what we would consider positive and negative emotions. Genuine anger and fear weave in and out of an embrace with an emphatic need for love.

Por la calle habia / en cartels rojos y en bocas asperas, / extranas palabras / que se grababan en mi cerebro como enigmas / y habia acciones y efectos / cuyo motivo me preocupaba indagar.

On the street there were / words on red posters, gruff voices / strange words that stuck in my brain, like riddles, / and there were acts and results, / whose motives made me worry about finding them out.

On the surface, a stanza like this seems to be ambiguous, to the point of reluctance. But such is the effect of Novo’s work that even the seemingly mundane is laced with emotion. The reader can feel the blur of images and sounds and their inherently visceral nature. The reader is confronted with the idea that a determination to not look away will not necessarily lead to clarity, that bravery in the face of fear will not inherently bring understanding or a peaceful resolution. In point of fact, there is an implicit suggestion that bravery appears only in the face of the fear of the unknown. And the riddles add an intellectual dimension to the fear and the courage, teasing us on an Oedipean level because we are perhaps all tragic protagonists who must know.

As Jorge Ortega and Anthony Seidman point out in their respective foreword and afterword, Salvador Novo is almost criminally underappreciated with regards to the upper echelons of Mexican poets. He is a writer that aggressively resists easy labeling and confinement, unafraid of explore everything from gender role reversal within a binary system to agonizing grief at the thought of losing a loved one. And yet there always remains an undercurrent of mischief and impetus, as if something beyond even Novo’s understanding compels him to move and cause no small amount of strife. The speakers of his poetry are spirits that revel in and dread the newness, the protean metamorphosis they engender. In this I am reminded of W.E.B. DuBois, Gloria Anzaldua, Prometheus, and the shaping of a new identity, where a Mexican must confront his Spanish, his Azteca, and his Mexicano, the duality that is in and of itself something entirely separate.

I highly recommend this book to all of our readers, especially those of you who, like me, are irrevocably and blessedly Mexican. But the truth is as the world is dragged kicking and screaming into multi-cultural self-awareness, we can also use the beautifully written and translated Confetti-Ash as a reminder that we are neither the origin of this expansion of the human mind nor its endpoint.

 

Confetti-Ash is available now through The Bitter Oleander Press.

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

My country, tonight

by on May 9, 2017

My country, tonight by Josué Guébo

 

It is an artist’s privilege and curse to have the opportunity to render the horrific beautiful. Privilege because it is an opportunity to illuminate and to express even in the face of the soul-crushing, curse because it requires the artist to stare into an abyss that we can never be sure isn’t staring back. I am not referring to sugar-coating, the act of softening the physical and emotional impact of something truly painful. I am also not glorifying the terrible or suggesting that some abstract “goodness” is inherently present in the otherwise devastating. What I am saying is that artists can create and give voice to our living nightmares, and that such a thing can be truly beautiful. Case in point: My country, tonight, by Josué Guébo. This small collection of poetry, translated by Todd Fredson, is an exercise in brazen catharsis, a squaring of the shoulders to confront the pain and the rage and the wounds at the feet of exploitative oppressors. As Fredson points out in his eloquent introduction, Guébo’s home nation of Ivory Coast has been rocked with political instability and infighting, the most recent of which has resulted in two civil wars in less than fifteen years, and which stems largely from the gross callousness and cruelty of French colonization.

This is a background that should not be unfamiliar to the modern day children of colonized peoples or students of history. Guébo’s portrayal of violence and suffering and their resulting confusion and questions echo voices like those of Achebe and Marquez as he demands to know what the hell the point of all of it was. Where My country stands on its own powerful legs is in its fire and its drive.

Repeat your words / Bleeding with the fee / Of my refusal to bow / Pure refusal / Broth of refusal / Sap of refusal / Refusal / Thickens

This is the voice of someone who knows the names of the dead and the broken and whose resistance is coalescing before our very eyes. This is an identity taking shape, a concept and a thing made out of some original template but which has taken on the congealed elements of circumstance, like the blood of the fallen. That identity absorbs the impact of the “words” and the “fee”, embracing the disfiguration such things carry with them and allowing them to expedite the rebirth.

Using this passion, Guébo speaks with his own voice and with the voice of his people throughout the collection, making it near impossible to distinguish between the two. His poetry works on more layers than I can easily keep track of, equal parts call to action, funeral song, legal injunction, and existential narrative. It exists beyond a simple documentation of the injustices done to his people. Each page of poetry can be taken as its own separate poem or a continuation of the voice from the previous page. There is one speaker who is both an individual and a collective, which have vision over an entire nation and beyond, from the graveyards to bombed-out cities to empty homes to the whole of the continent.

Now what is it / Twin / My voice / From one side of the ocean to the other / What is it / Magma in the hustle of bankrupt laughter

Every poem is charged like this, fueled by the “magma” behind the “laughter”. Reading this page after page is a draining, intense, unsettling experience that demands further attention. And that is in no small part due to the beauty of the language on display. To put it simply, Guébo has an elegant grasp of language and a clear desire to wield it. In the original French (which itself is heavily influenced by the local native language of Ivory Coast), the words flow as if written for melody, singing with sarcasm and a need for action. Fredson’s translation into English does the original plenty of justice, allowing the reader to experience a kind of harmonized duet where Guébo commands the lead.

Tout ce que le pollen / Des hasards convenus / Porte à sa serre / Tout

The last particular note I’d like to make is one that I have brought up many times in the past – the power of a good title. Like the poetry behind it, the title of My country, tonight works on more levels than are easily kept track of. Is the speaker of the title referring to imminent revolution, the taking back of a stolen homeland? Is the speaker worried about the tenuousness of his nation given the circling predators waiting to feed off of it? Is the title the opening of an address to a people, to the land itself, an address that seeks communion with a collective spirit that has long been ravaged? These are the gifts of great poetry, the marvelous ambiguity and the heady rush of perspective evolution. Guébo’s efforts here provide both in ample quantities while never getting distracted from his intent and message. It beautifully renders the horrific, letting us bask in the glow of its ravenous fire.

 

My country, tonight is available now through Action Books.

 

Book Review

Apocalypse All the Time

by on May 2, 2017

Apocalypse All The Time, by David S. Atkinson

 

“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

That’s probably because I have a copy of David S. Atkinson’s Apocalypse All The Time. If you will forgive the egregiously obvious quote, then I can explain. Apocalypse All The Time is an absurdist science fiction novel set in a future that is both ridiculous and alarmingly familiar. The protagonist, a man named Marshall, is living in an age where, as the title probably indicates, the world is repeatedly ending. Or almost ending. Catastrophes come and go like fashion trends, making the population collectively lose its mind again and again, only for the Apocalyptic Amelioration Agency to swoop in and save the day. Not a single chapter passes without an inconceivably dire threat rearing its devastating head, and yet we the reader, along with Marshall, stare somewhat bemused by the whole enterprise.

Apocalypse is a novel that wades out deep into the swollen river of post-apocalyptic fiction, plops itself down right in the middle, and demands that the river break around it. We see everything we might expect from this sub-genre, but presented in ways that are sardonically entertaining and cleverly utilized. The book borrows from literally every such tale I can think of, from the Book of Revelations to Cabin in the Woods to The Road, and, at its best, teases you with the threat of cliché before surprising you in a way that satisfies and relieves. The main way this is accomplished is through its protagonist, Marshall. He starts the novel about as boring as boring can get, resigned to his assembly line life with no ambition or even joy in what he does and a determined willingness to ignore the inconsistencies of his world that gnaw at him. The narration, though in third person, is in large part delivered from over Marshall’s shoulder and colored by his insisted upon apathy. This is juxtaposed with the fact that horrible catastrophes are happening all around him, and often to him directly. Floods, ice ages, volcanoes, giant lizards, and cosmic radiation seem to take turns threatening human existence, and while these cause understandable bouts of panic, Marshall’s passive ennui is both amusing and frustrating.

Great cracks would open and swallow up men without thought, without intention. Buildings would crumble. People would die. Continents would shift. Life would change forever.

Marshall yawned. He rubbed sleep from his eyes.

It is here that Apocalypse performs its most impressive feat. It teases you with the worry that its sequence of events might get too ridiculous, or that Marshall’s attitude might become grating, or one of several other pitfalls for this type of fiction is approaching. But the balancing act here is very impressive. The pacing and tone leave just enough urgency and suspense that, despite the otherwise sardonic approach, there is a very real sensation that something powerful and dangerous lurks around the bend.

Sure, people think they have thoughts. If they had time to finally focus on them and put them down somehow, that would surely be a wondrous thing. But, do they? Do they really? Is that what they would find when they finally try, or would they turn out to be empty, all that crowding in their brains apparently only having been the illusion of thought, perhaps merely a substitute for it?

So what then might be the point of delving into the story of this mundane man amidst the many ends of the world? In all honesty, the answer is whatever you might make of it. That is, of course, the case for any piece of art, but what I am specifically referring to here is that I don’t believe Atkinson is insisting upon a message or suggesting a meaning. This is surprisingly refreshing. Often this kind of fiction, even the kind that mocks its own sense of importance, can clearly be broken down into sections that push ideologies. Science fiction is inherently a commentary on the direction that human societies have taken and are taking. And in that sense, Atkinson is not attempting to be discrete with his depictions of mindless herd mentality or of blind faith in the preservation of the status quo. But the lens through which we witness these things comes from a flawed and, at times, frustrating protagonist. The value judgments he places on how people behave and how the social order is arranged don’t carry the insistence that we see in so many “heroes”.

Marshall backed away, as if the piles of humanity weren’t fornicating in all directions. It wasn’t really shocking, though it startled him at first. At least, it wasn’t any more shocking than any of the other times it happened.

In particular, the ending of the novel I find a fascinating anti-resolution, the kind that leaves you feeling satisfied in its challenging need for asymmetry. I won’t spoil it here, but the end is a surprise on multiple levels and I think even if you are looking for it, you will not predict the outcome. It is, in and of itself, a clever commentary on the whole endeavor, of surviving and of telling ourselves stories of survival. Apocalypse is a novel that has my mind routinely returning to, considering everything from the philosophical implications of a biblical flood to the physics of a man-made Ice Age. Given how in love our society seems to be with tales about the end of everything, I consider this mandatory reading for anyone taking hyperbole too seriously.

 

Apocalypse All the Time is available now through Literary Wanderlust.

Book Review

The Consequences of My Body

by on March 23, 2017

The Consequences of My Body, by Maged Zaher

 

There is an assumption that a lot of us hold, myself included, that existence follows a linear progression. Sometimes, this manifests as an immediate experience of time dragging us forward through events we can only guess at. Sometimes it is more existential, such as believing one’s self to be part of a progressing humanity, the latest and most efficient thing yet produced by evolution. It is because of this assumption that works like The Consequences of My Body by Maghed Zaher prove incredibly valuable. At the heart of this poetry collection is an attempt to grapple with the question of personal importance, of relevance, legacy, and meaning. It is a quietly powerful work, at once beautifully afraid and resigned to its own momentum.

One of the first and most consistent thematic elements that appears throughout Consequences is romantic love. It appears in many facets, from the desire for sexual release to the capacity for distraction that love bears. The quality of the poetry is such that, were romantic love really the deepest idea being explored, the collection would be worthy of reading anyway. But as you immerse yourself in the text, you may begin to see that the beating question is not romantic love – it is whether or not you matter. To some, that distinction may be splitting hairs, particularly when the scope is limited to two people, but examine the fear that ghosts behind so many lines throughout the text.

Where do you want to meet on Wednesday? – I mean name the city – I will figure out something – tell me what time of the day works for you

Enough of this rambling – I will push send – you are insanely beautiful

It would be easy to write these off as the words of an over eager potential lover. But arguably the same speaker says the following as well.

Beneath the act of seeking / There is a void / Except that each death, dies / As it escapes the memories / Of the young

This is the voice of someone on the precipice, unable to look away from the vastness before them, and that vastness is beautiful and terrifying. It renders the love, the need for love, as not just an end in itself but the search for an anchor to some kind of stable reality. In a deeply personal and intimate way, Zaher’s poetry wades out into a river of identity and gets caught in the current. By mattering to someone, there is the potential to find meaning.

This exploration is not limited to the vehicle of love, either. Identity through political philosophy, racial heritage, national history, and spiritual experience are all sources of both solidarity and isolation.

I am a bad worshipper / Answering to the movement of the clouds / So easy to sit awaiting you

Lines like this again and again echo with a need to be noticed, a need to be acknowledged, even if through divine judgment. I don’t, by any stretch, mean that in a condescending way. We are a social species, after all. This is a humbling, empowering baring of vulnerabilities. Occasionally, that exposure is uncomfortable for even the reader, as there are more than a few glimpses of the obsession that such needs can become. This flavors the poetry with a tinge of mania that keeps it exciting and challenging, especially when considered with its repeated use of confessional tone.

I particularly enjoy the choice of title for this collection, The Consequences of My Body. The potential for meaning ranges wildly, from the question of whether or not the speaker exists beyond the physical shell, to the notion of legacy as a result of a life lived, to the effects on the self from having and pursuing desires. That spectrum of possibility reflects and encapsulates the poetry behind it, a fragment of iceberg betraying the expanse beneath it.

 

The Consequences of My Body is available now through Nightboat Books.

1 2 3 6