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Book Review

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

Drift

by on July 17, 2018

Drift, by Chris Campanioni
Review by Michael Browne

“I want to capture everything,” a character says in the opening pages of Chris Campanioni’s new novel Drift, echoing the very millennial compulsion to document everything, and mirroring the attitudes of the twenty-somethings that inhabit the 400-plus pages that follow. Written over the course of ten years, the book fits nicely into Campanioni’s output, sliding next to last year’s equally impressive, The Death of Art (C&R Press). Hard to categorize as ever, Campanioni has returned with more fractured narratives filled with an unlikely pack of auto-fictional models, college kids, Jersey Shore party-seekers, extroverts, and cynics, all seeking to document their existence by all means necessary. Channeling Bolaño’s 2666 formal structure, Chris Campanioni has crafted another terrific glimpse into our modern anxieties, and our compulsory need to “capture everything.”

Drift is composed of six sections, four of which are based on seasons of the year. Each section follows a variety of non-linear narratives. Mostly we follow a model named Chris Selden—presumably the auto-fictional Campanioni. The reader traces Selden through photoshoots in Palm Desert, trips to Brazil, romantic entanglements, and more. Selden, equal parts cynic and playboy—a la some character from Rules of Attraction or Glamorama era Ellis— believes that everyone born in 1985 is “doomed.” He also speaks at great length about resenting the artist’s insatiable need to observe:

The fact that I can’t look at someone, at anyone, without sizing them up, without writing them into the story. Every encounter in life viewed from above; a tracking shot from the camera eye of a cruising hawk. It wears on me.

Cameras constantly pace behind most of the proceedings in Drift, from photo shoots to coffee shops in NYC. Much of the narrative is described as if everything is being filmed, and the line dividing what is being recorded or not within the narrative becomes nebulous. Words like “tracking shot,” “scenes,” and “stagehand” are used in subtle ways intermittently throughout to elevate the feeling that everything is being captured, recorded.

Like The Death of Art, Drift captures aspects of the modern millennial zeitgeist perfectly. Characters constantly alternate between deciding to document the present moment or just experience it. Campanioni’s characters often crave the actual experience but oftentimes they find themselves living in a purely fabricated representation of experience. The world as simulacrum occupies big ideological spaces within Campanioni’s work. In a passage titled “This Must Be The Place” (one of the many Talking Heads references), the narrator reflects on the fallibility of memory:

Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of eyes, hair, a name or a face. It is not a record, it is an interpretation. A representation of the actual experience. A fake.

Or take for example Selden’s experience as a model in Palm Desert. When time is running short and the crew are unable to shoot in neighboring Idyllwild in the mountains above the desert, the crew recreate the backdrop of Idyllwild on the computer.

Idyllwild was the greatest thing I’d never seen…tall pines, sweet-smelling cedars, legendary rocks…eventually they’ll stick my body somewhere among those pines…

Here the world of simulation has become more ideal, more desirable than the actual world, than actual experience. The main conflict to be found within Drift is the tug and pull between real experience and manufactured, surveilled experience.

The allusions to 80’s new wave and indie music abound through the pages of Drift. Chapters titled “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “Girls on Film” broadly work to highlight some of the themes within the text, but also seem to be calls to Campanioni’s musical literacy, if anything else. Twenty-somethings hop into cars where the stereo plays Talking Heads, and casual conversations are had in coffee shops about the legitimacy of genre names like “dream-pop” and “chill-wave.” In Drift, things are begging to be defined and made tangible, but in a world that feels like a production set, real meaning and the correlated experience are always out of reach.

Sections titled “Atrocity Exhibition” (I-V)—borrowed from the Joy Division song of the same name—fracture the narrative even further, providing little vignettes that confound, further exploding any semblance of narrative. This almost apocalyptic stylistic approach works in tandem with the apocalyptic tonal nature of the book. Not only are there end of the world parties—including heightened anxieties around the end of the Mayan calendar (2012)—but the book as a whole feels prophetic of a certain “end times” mentality.

Much like in his previous novel Death of Art, Campanioni wrestles with his public image and how it is represented online. In one section, we are privy to a long transcript of messages Campanioni—or his auto-fictional self Chris Selden—has received from admirers across social media. Inquiries range from requests to befriend Selden, to questions about his diet and exercise routine, while other inquiries prove to be more probing and vaguely problematic. This section works well to display perhaps the ramifications of a public life like Selden’s that is readily available for consumption, for commodification.

Like most of Campanioni’s work, his new novel works best when it’s ideas are constantly in motion from one page to the next. Drift could not be a more apt title for a book whose ideas drift from page to page, appearing like a revelation and then vanishing just as quickly. Shifting from autofiction, to memoir, to metafiction, and realism, sometimes all within the course of a few pages, Drift is a book that begs us to put it back together, to frame our own narratives, and to follow its often transcendent insights in our own lives.

Drift is available now via King Shot 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

When People Die

by on May 15, 2018

When People Die by Thomas Moore

 

Review by Michael Browne

 

 

Exciting indie imprint Kiddiepunk have long been a purveyor of fringe / esoteric media and literature. Home to Dennis Cooper’s .gif novels, collage-like short films, and a bizarre reverb-drenched remix of Hanson’s debut album, Kiddiepunk’s multi-modal output is as hard to grasp as it is transgressive. The imprint’s latest release, a poetry collection titled When People Die by UK-based poet Thomas Moore, sees Moore retreading all the familiar melancholic beats of his previous works, while flirting with a disquieting brevity.

 

When People Die is a collection of confessional and fractured poems that spans three formal sections. Over these sections we are witness to more of the writer’s Genet-like fascination with the devious and emotionally void underbelly of human sexuality. In Moore’s world, sexual depravity reigns above all else, and his speaker is often left emotionally maimed or disoriented by his experiences. These stark and austere poems see the speaker blurring the lines of comprehension between love, lust, sex, and violence, and often all within the space of a line. Unlike similar writers that seem to take a certain kind of masochistic pleasure in writing from the gutter, one gets the sense that Moore truly writes from a place of sincere pain, emotional distress, and a graphically rendered despair.

 

Many of Moore’s poems find him striving to understand and compartmentalize his nebulous feelings of love, lust, and sexuality. The people that inhabit Moore’s world are often strung out and suicide prone, others float in and out, ambiguous and shadowy—barely existing on the page.

 

Your suicide keeps on getting postponed

Your friends say that it’s because you’re lazy

 

They want to talk about entitlement

 

Your friends are talking like you are not there

The sunglasses at night complement that

 

The inability to find tactile, lasting connections that go beyond a landscape of sadistic sexual rendezvous is something “When People Die”—and much of Moore’s work—seems to be preoccupied with. Lovers nihilistically connect over cruising apps and watch their connection ultimately drift, friends casually contemplate suicide, and regrets run deep.

The sound of the skateboarders
Outside the Palais de Tokyo
Sets my mind on a certain track


It’s these memories of teenage
Lives that I pretended were mine
While I lived one that was much less

 

The second section of the collection is devoted to what Moore has called his “Instagram Haikus.” These pieces work exceptionally hard and do well to convey the bleak nature of the collection—and because of their concision—offer up a heavy dose of claustrophobia. What Moore has done is craft eerily condensed and almost crystallized versions of the despair in the longer form poems, cutting them down to their void-like essence, creating a series of little deaths—Les petites morts.

 

The walls are pulsing

Haunting desires of strangers

Bodies start to merge

 

—-

 

Desperate for rope
I’m swinging from the ceiling
Death is hypnotic

 

Many of the Instagram Haikus appear like notes left behind on a lover’s nightstand, or cryptic DM’s sent in the middle of the night. All tinged with measured doses of ennui, regret, fleeting hope, and captured in a style that is more than apt for the 21st century.

 

The last section features the longest piece within the collection, and contains arguably the most compelling language and imagery. The narrator is woken from a dream to a phone call from an ex-lover or friend—the relationships between people are so vague and hallucinatory within Moore’s poetry that it’s hard to tell—and is recounted a nightmare featuring a dead young boy. What follows is a hazy chronicling of the emotional detritus of their relationship, and coupled with disturbing images of the boy that could easily be from a dream or reality.

 

…And my mouth
For a second looks
Like the fucked up
Mutilated kid’s corpse
And I’m screaming
At you
To put down this book
To stop reading these words…

 

Moore’s use of the dead boy’s mutilated body to describe the emotional turmoil of his relationship with his distressed friend works hauntingly well enough to avoid being heavy-handed or cliche. This falls in line perfectly with what Moore does so well throughout When People Die, which is his ability to describe such acute horror and apply it with such casual nihilistic flair to the unspoken emotions of his characters, rendering them mute and ineffective.

 

When People Die returns us to the literary transgressions of Genet, de Sade, Cooper, et al, but with a heightened sense of 21st century terror and ennui. Sexual nihilism and violence have been condensed into the spaces allotted for an Instagram caption, but the pain and emotional toll still loom large as ever. Moore has created another haunting collection, where suicide is always a viable option, sex is hell, and the void is perpetually gaping wide.

 

When People Die is available now from Kiddiepunk.

Book Review

Orange Lady

by on May 1, 2018

Orange Lady, by Erika Ayón
Review by Brian Dunlap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Orange Lady is available now through World Stage Press.

 

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

Book Review

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

Cadavers

by on April 5, 2018

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cadavers is available now through Cardboard House Press.

 

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

Book Review

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

I Love It Though

by on March 22, 2018

I Love It Though by Alli Warren
Review by T.m. Lawson

 

Concern with humanity is thematic within I Love It Though, its tantalizing cover art of bright red paint and yarn knit intestines of some faux roadkill on the asphalt promising violence, or at least an overview of it once the dust has settled and blood has been drawn (so to speak.) The book itself is small, deceptive of the hardcore delights within its cream pages. The whole text acts like one big shiny red warning label: something is happening, be aware.

Alli Warren uses her poet’s eyes and dexterous tongue to force open the reader’s eyes and their mouths closed: “I sing of something that cannot speak its name” (“Tunics, Trousers, and Cloaks”). This “sentimental feeling” bleeds into “pre-pledged consent”, an echo of civil liberties slowly eroding away because of human feeling (fear, anger, confusion) in the face of danger and impossibility. In a post-truth world, protection comes from “self-pollution” of substance abuse and making “hole[s]”, and the more one lives “the more it sucks” as Warren’s generation and perhaps generations past ours will see that “[a]ll the evil things of the world will have full sway / To get dressed”, while Warren’s speaker needs “the help of a trained hand”. It is hard not to unsee the ailments that weigh my (and those that come after) generation down. Warren has a dystopic view of the world (or is it realism?) even through a glare of word choice and sharp turn of line. She blends in pastoral elements (ducks talking to flowers) next to gigantic thumbs who can either push down on the speaker, or “help” them up.

Warren’s “Protect Me From What I Want” is probably the most straightforward piece in the whole text. The repetition of “I did it” has an automatic feeling to it, like the factory line: “I did it, I did it” scrolling down the page. This brings to mind how much of technology has sped up our line of reasoning: there is no need for a preamble, just a clear and simple declaration. It also evokes a confessional aspect, the “I did it” a justification and reasoning as well as self-reflective and remorseful. On the flipside, it also contains a self-congratulatory social media veneer (‘look at what I did’). It feels like a list of self-affirmations, tautological in whether it is the speaker causing the action, or if it is the end result causing the initial action:

“I did it for the lulz […]
[…] for the universe it amused me
[…] for the cycle of escalation for the unbound acts I did it for the
surprise of what might be in them
[…] for the same reason as you for the free-play of my bodily and
mental activity for the pleasure of my friends
[…] for the idea of the middle class
[…] for the present tenses I did it for the herd
[…] for the terror of the totally plausible future”.

Another poem, “On the Levelers Everyday” (note: a leveler is the pedal a worker would push with their foot), the speaker seems to be an amalgamation of pig-like animal and empathetic human female. There is a question of relativity that sways back and forth like the pedaling of the foot, and the speaker poses this thought of balance:

Who can live, who gets to eat
what’s a sidewalk, what’s a street
Let’s loot the establishments
I mean feed each other

Like I mentioned in my last review for jos charles’ Safe Space, a sign of good poet is the ability to layer multiple meaning in their work. These four lines do that for me. On one hand, the speaker attempts to ignite social outrage and anarchy, and on the other, poses the Robin Hood argument to justify the words: to feed the poor. There is a disconnection of what civilization is, what it means to be civil, and just as the speaker is blurring the lines of between human and base animal physically, so it is mentally. There is judgment pending in these four lines on hunger, civility, human kindness and its primal tribal nature, and if a pecking order can come into play with all of these elements combined.

The idea of balance is an undercurrent to I Love It Though, a phrase with a history of overindulgence.  The title, much like Lebowski’s rug, is what ties the whole collection together. In my opinion, it states that human nature won’t (or perhaps, can’t) change. The speakers in this collection’s poetry are not so aimless as they are helpless in what they are able to affect and change around them. This world is “unworlding” and becoming unrecognizable as the elements of time, space, and even bodies and objects seem to warp and melt into each other, all becoming amalgamations and hybrid. Warren’s book is a lovesong to the pre-apocalyptic children who dance anyway, simply because that is the way they have learned joy. The speakers have only known normal as it began to fray into the strange, and so have normalized it. Like myths of a previous culture, these speakers recognize that there is a disconnect of tradition and expectation, of “propriety [turning] into property”, and to use humor and the grotesque as channels of translation for these “sentimental feelings”. A small book with a hefty punch to the gut is always my favorite.

 

I Love It Though is available now through Nightboat Books.

Book Review Interviews

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

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

 

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

What is America?

Do dreams still matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Beyonce celebrates Black History Month’:

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

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

+++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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