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Book Review

Book Review

Death of Art

by on October 12, 2017

Novel by Chris Campanioni
Review by Michael Browne

 

Writer Chris Campanioni gives a crucial glimpse into our modern narcissism with his new book of memoir / non-fiction / hybrid text / does it really matter, Death of Art. Despite the ostentatious title, Campanioni tactfully avoids repeating oft-argued cliches regarding art’s apparent demise, and instead uses the title as an entry point for talking about identity, language, social media, and modern life as a kind of performance.

The book begins with Campanioni sitting around with a stranger cutting his face out of magazines in which he modeled. The book follows this act of self-immolation throughout, as Campanioni struggles with trying to refashion his own image and his own identity, in a world where these things are valued above all else. Campanioni is frank and open about his stints as a model and actor, and his struggles with the performative aspects of both. The text almost becomes a space where Campanioni can explore himself; a liminal space where he can avoid binaries and social norms and—in a way—deconstruct himself:

I had lately been thinking of a project titled Death of Art, which itself came from the       blacked out title of a poem I’d just written called ‘Death of the Artist…’ Cutting out my face could be the beautiful overture.

Formally, Death of Art moves from vignette style passages of memoir, to essays and poetry. Campanioni’s tone alternates from playful, to philosophical, to the banal and the confessional, and all at a blistering pace. His subjects range from 90210 and Tinder dates, to social media narcissism and celebrity culture. An obsession with 90210 and a brief reference to Care Bears in particular become interesting pivot points for Campanioni to make comparisons between the empathy of our former analog world, and the disconnectedness of our modern digital world.

Death of Art brilliantly taps into our insatiable need to be seen and felt via social media, and how life is not experienced in our modern age, but rather, documented. The Facebook photo as preferred cultural currency to the actual image and experience represented.

The same way that our generation will look back on our lives in sixty years and there will be plenty to see. Probably we only wish we would have lived it too.

In the section titled “Self-Interested Glimpses,” Campanioni adopts an essay style (as he frequently does) and argues that “Authentic experience has been replaced by fetishized experience; existence becomes object.” In Campanioni’s world, the Instagram photo of a sunset now reigns supreme over the actual sunset. This is not a wildly new concept, as many postmodern thinkers have believed that society and modern culture have started to place more importance on “simulacra” or the simulation of reality, rather than the object itself.

For Campanioni public spaces have become zones of anti-social behavior. He argues that the increased access to each other that social media provides us has “led us to become less tolerant, less sympathetic, and less understanding.” This is exemplified in the book via the nearly tweet sized entries describing a series of Tinder dates where he struggles to make eye-contact and prefers to meet in coffee shops, hotel bars, or “anywhere public enough to pass through, in transit, like anyone else. Just passing through.” The Tinder passage in particular reads like a detritus of  ineffectual millennial dating experiences that only work to solidify Campanioni’s belief that our ability to connect is stunted, not enhanced, by applications like Tinder.

Much of the book is devoted to Campanioni’s self-reflection and almost reads like some playful postmodern diary. The author is constantly engaged in a dissection of his own image, striving and hoping to dismantle it. “The Internet has its own idea of me, and so do its worshippers. I want to create my own idea of me. Maybe the Internet will follow.”

Campanioni’s concept of life being fetishized but not experienced, is nicely juxtaposed with passages that reflect his childhood:

We lived our days as if they were scenes in a musical; we danced & continued to sing. Sometimes in Spanish or English but also often in a language made up by my father, a practice I’d adopt too, & which became my true joy in life: the pleasure of words & the sounds they contained. Whether it meant anything was besides the point; it meant everything.

Here childhood is reflected upon nostalgically and without the author’s jaundiced view of our current culture’s unchecked narcissism. It’s also indicative of Campanioni as a great linguaphile, and the simple pleasure he derives from the physical sensation of the words exiting his mouth. This runs counter to the mechanized way we communicate now:

Face-to-face meetings have given way to my face on your touch screen…

Death of Art is a punchy hybrid text that holds its own intellectual weight and does well to not veer off into pretension nor cliche, which is no minor triumph considering it’s broad and aspirational title. Campanioni is a serious writer and a world class thinker, and there is something great to be gleaned from his latest offering that seems to revel in its ability to avoid classification and open up a dialectic about the modern ways in which we communicate.

 

Death of Art is available now through C&R Press.

Book Review

Belladonna

by on September 28, 2017

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Book Review

I Remember Nightfall

by on September 14, 2017

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of life and death was filled with tulle.

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

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

 … It seems to me that this is Epiphany Night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I Remember Nightfall is available now through Ugly Ducking Presse.

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

 

Book Review

Safe Space

by on August 29, 2017

Poetry by jos charles
Review by T.m. Lawson

I must have read this book of poetry twenty different times in the last few years. Once during a romantic trip with my (now ex) boyfriend; another time, post-breakup, in the tub, marveling at the sheer cut the words brought to my throat; and then another time when I explored my own gender identity and what it means to be trans*. jos charles is a trans* poet and brings a multifaceted presentation of trans* identity to this collection with titles like “Trigger Warning”, “Crave Panopticon”, “Public Health”, “Seagull, Tiny”.

jos attempts different approaches to communicate this state of ‘in-between’ with specific techniques, like alternating from the capitalized pronoun, a confident “I”, to the lowercased submissive almost-youthful “i” close to each other, sometimes on the same line. Pronouns are a preoccupation here in Safe Space; for instance, “them” and “they” are no longer Otherized but reclaimed by the trans* self as an integral part of the identity. “You” is shortened to the Internet/mobile culture “U/u”. Think of pronouns as directions on where to turn and what horizon to seek while jos plays with bodies as landscapes and architecture.

“[W]hat is the use / of being a woman, unless to be gathered / […] What is the relation of the body as site and / the investments that site is said to receive”, to which jos quips, “i am all asshole”. In “Insert_Eye”, a claim that “[a] woman ought not to be put / in the dative”, as in a woman should not be regulated to rules since a dative is a process of grammar used to “denote a case of nouns and pronouns, and words in grammatical agreement with them, indicating an indirect object or recipient.” A woman is what is “gathered”, jos peppers this thought in italics throughout the collection, just as a dative relates primarily (but not always) to giving, connected to the cultural perception of a woman as “giver” of whatever was “gathered”, whether her self, or herself.

It’s jos’ underrated approach with the way they use the language that makes this book re-readable, despite the cuts they bring. And what makes it especially deep is that speaker can take the audience to a point within the poetry and suddenly break contact with content, leaving us wanting. jos confronts queerness as “the gay” when the speaker recounts confrontations with family, lovers, and the self (as they transform).

In “Origin as Wetdream”, where “[they come with fear, u know it well, / to colonize the self”, jos rails against the “causal violences” that propel this transformation, already latent and underground like tectonic plates. The potential for the activity of movement and change is already there. jos is only ripping off the skin so you could see it for once, while playing around with the words like a sex act. The double and triple play that jos pulls on them is titillating to say the least, once you get used to the shock of the more obvious things that is slapped onto the reader’s face. Overtly homoerotic, scatological, pedophilic, and abusive images compete with healthy (and unhealthy) sexual habits: fellatio, facials, among other acts.

 

I was told i had speech issues / I would often misuse // my a’s  Warm became worm / harm became home // I’ve mostly figured words out / except with a cock in my mouth // u swallow and take a body / out a body  Later u shit a body

“Trigger Warning”

At one point, jos’ speaker poses rhetorically, “What does language / of proof afford?” What can language bring to the table that can benefit us? It seems to constrict us rather than liberate, and yet jos is doing exactly that: a liberation of their identity. In “Crave Panopticon”, there is a sequence of famous women, most of which are contemporary pop culture icons (Lana Del Rey, Yoko Ono, Rihanna, Taylor Swift) that juxtapose against historic ones (the Medieval writer, Christine de Pizan; gay activist, Marsha P. Johnson; the classical Japanese poet, Princess Shikishi; transgender activist, Sylvia Rivera, to name a few) before the poem opens into a chorus of their combined voices:

As one they seemed to sing, […]
‘i took it from dad,
i took it from every dune,
i took it from mountains,
from prisons, from prisons, […]
i took it from the mouth of boys,
and in the mouth of my one tyger lip,
i took of my breasts and gave my breasts
(a woman is what is gathered)
i took of my cock and gave my cock
(a woman is so much of what is gathered)
i gave my skin and took my skin
and was called beautiful commode
and utter shit of darkness, […]
and sylvia called me ‘child’
and clarice called me ‘sea’
and ariana called me ‘suckling’
and yoko called me ‘cut’
and shikishi called me ‘summer’
and christine called me ‘tower’
and taylor called me ‘trembling’
and lana called me ‘girl’
and ella called me ‘witched’
and nina called me nothing
and marsha called me ‘crisis’
and rihanna howled ‘sorry o god i’m sorry’
and i wept, having many names and being alone in that night

It appears easy to read the way Safe Space is set up: simple words, slang, short lines, but this is deceptive. It is actually one of the hardest poetry collections I have ever read, much less reviewed. Every time I read it, a new idea or observation pops up, which is the best indication that jos layered their work with impressive complexity.

my american // corpse has been such / a disappointment // I would live on feeling safe and spilling secrets / […] It is confusing that / words trick us

“Seagull, Tiny”

The book is also uniquely American primarily because it taps into the pulse of a reaction to the inclusion (and exclusion) of those outside of heteronormative tradition and background. The speaker in “Seagull, Tiny” mulls on the American experience, proclaiming that “[t]he united states / is a collective / process of / demanding feelings / and a certain memory”, a tug-of-war between nostalgia and tradition, and the immediacy that technology has brought to the table, the rapid change that is encouraged, inspired, and even spurred by the language that jos appropriates into Safe Space. Just know that once you enter this book, it can be almost everything but.

 

Safe Space is available now through Ahsahta Press.

Book Review

Tertulia

by on August 22, 2017

Chapbook by Seth Pennington
Review by John Venegas

Let’s get something sorted out before we get started: you are a mind, a soul if you want, spinning in circles on the skin of a planet that is spinning in circles in the grip of a star that is spinning in circles with a horde of its siblings that are moving inconceivably fast through the universe. Does that give you vertigo? Lovecraftian dread? Can you imagine that mind, your mind, being pulled along by an impossibly circuitous current, given the flickering light of consciousness to try and amass some semblance of a personal picture of everything? We all deal with this, one way or another. Some accept it. Some are fascinated, terrified, or confused, or some combination of the three. Some stick their head in the stand and wait for it to end. I didn’t imagine that I would find a beautiful, touching, and measured response to these ideas in a tiny little chapbook. But, thanks to Seth Pennington, I am very much enjoying being proven wrong.

To be clear, the poetry chapbook Tertulia is no heady science fiction romp. It is a text that embeds itself in the deeply, often uncomfortably personal. It spends little time staring up at the stars, dreaming, instead wading into a river of sensation and emotion that it is not entirely sure it will be able to emerge from. Tertulia looks at the microcosms, the reflections of the impossible vastness that can be found within the people that we love, the people that we hate, and the people to which we never give any thought. When you hear writers talk about getting into the flow, it is usually in reference to some flood of genius that compels them to write. Such an idea is romanticized and dramatized to no end, but here, in my opinion, is evidence of the real thing – an experience of flow for the intense, frightening thing it can be.

a new leg and terror at living with death
having been so certain, more certain than
any other day’s death you had

known. The blue on your lawn, it’s lying
so light the green is showing through,
as if color could be purer

This is fascinating use of spacing and structure, in a way that, intentional or not, encapsulates the experience and potential of writing poetry. For me, the power of the stanza break is critical. The pause, the holding of breath, feels as though the speaker is hesitating, waiting for something. When combined with the subjects under discussion, it is as if the speaker is afraid after having invoked death while simultaneously dealing with an array of color that feels unnatural. The speaker is giving us glimpses, moments in time and space that can only be conveyed through words. The chapbook is full of moments like this, where not an ounce of space is wasted and the fat is trimmed away. The speaker seems to be giving us only what is most important in the moment, be it the smell of sweat or the sight of aging pendulous breasts or the taste of dirt and forgotten lovers. It is precise poetry that knows how to hide its seams.

With the word choice and structure being so specific, it is little wonder that the language works exceedingly well. I found myself feeling genuinely guilty as I read, because there were several moments where the quality of the word play had me grinning like an idiot or marveling at the taste in my mouth, only to realize or remember that the thing being described was tragic or solemn. It’s like seeing a beautiful person at a funeral and forgetting where you are for a long moment.

Your family finds you bent over beyond your
breasts, the silver hair of your lip wet with
effort, with violent prayerfuls of sweat. And finally
when you move to speak, only dirt can
all from your mouth –
your wanting to taste him.

My choices of excerpts aside, there is far more than only lament. A tertulia is a gathering, often of artists, for the purposes of discussion and, while I cannot be certain that the title was chose for this reason, it is at least quite the coincidence that we see a wide array of passions on display. Lovers thirst and reassure. Families reminisce and bicker. Friends are born and multiply. As the current drags you, the reader, further and further out in the water and feeds you glimpses of lives, of moments, you can see the pattern, the echoes of answers to those questions of mortality and time and legacy and impermanence. This little chapbook does what often takes the whole of novels and compendiums, touching that deepest spark in all of us and reminding us to open out eyes and see.

 

Tertulia is available now through Sibling Rivalry Press.

Book Review

These Possible Lives

by on August 10, 2017

Essays by Fleur Jaeggy
Translated by Minna Zallman Proctor
Review by John Venegas

I imagine that most of us are worried, on some level, how we will be remembered. A lot of that is the standard issue fear of mortality that helps keep us alive. Some of it is philosophical and existential, the kind of question that you only arrive at when you get some hint of the scale of what is around you. Will your life fit into a book? How about sixty pages? How about ten? I hold no pretense that I will be deserving of such a thing, but I can’t lie: I now want Fleur Jaeggy to write of me when I am dead. Her short essay collection, These Possible Lives, explores the lives, deaths, and worlds of Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob. At less than sixty pages that are maybe three and a half by five inches, this was the kind of book that, as a reviewer, I immediately assume I will have to pair with something else to write a review of decent length. I enjoy being wrong. Jaeggy’s minimalist style and ethereal technique crafted such depth that I feel like I have stepped into an ocean of time.

On the most basic level, These Possible Lives is an examination of the personalities of writers and the toll the art can take. The essays render the lives of the ahead-of-his-time De Quincey, the vibrant Keats, and melancholic Schwob into impressionistic paintings. They standard historical fare – the circumstances of births, marriages, addictions, and deaths – but with such precisely wrought language that you could be forgiven for wondering whether or not you’d strayed far from the history itself. There is a whimsy here, not driven by lack of curiosity or impulsiveness, but by the currents of time. We can only experience fragments of the lives on display, through our mutual connection to the zeitgeist, so we are compelled to fill the unoccupied sections with our own perspectives. Jaeggy is our guide through this process, eloquently and elegantly rendering the fragments in such a way the authors of which she speaks can only be human. Jaeggy becomes a ghost of literature’s past, to borrow from Dickens, showing us only what we need to see.

This process starts with the trimming of the fat. Think about what Jaeggy is trying to do. She is encompassing the lives of three authors in less than sixty pages, in a manner that is both true to history and artistically creative. Most of us would consider such a thing impossible, and rightly so, because most of us can’t do it, or do it well. The trick, it seems, is in parsing out what it is that truly matters, not just in a text, but in a life. This is carving a statue out from within another statue, with the end result being more meaningful and engrossing than the original.

It would be necessary to reassure him of the identity of objects in the room. At times he discerned the ‘footprints of angels’ and would address himself to the deceased.

A simple, beautifully efficient way to reminisce about a touched mind. There is no wasted space, no hyperbole to lionize or demonize how De Quincey’s mind worked. And yet it is like a match to the kindling in our imaginations, leaving us to see what we will, be it actual angels in conversation with a poet or a slow, burgeoning freedom from sanity. And every possibility between.

His face colored slightly, turning into a mask of gold. His eyes stayed open imperiously. No one could close his eyelids. The room smoked of grief.

Here we are presented with the death mask of Marcel Schwob, one of the most influential and (here in the United States) criminally under-recognized writers of the late nineteenth century. Assuming that a piece of literature exists in conversation with itself, what does the quote above have to say to Dickinson’s depictions of death? Or Shelley’s fallen pharaoh? Jaeggy has painted Schwob as a man whose resolve could not be broken in the end, who passed in a manner that kings of old could only emulate at great expense.

But the text, for all its hidden depth and intensity, does not pretend to be above a soul of wit and charm. There are moments of quiet levity and delicious word play, especially when the text is fleshing out the world these artists lived in. Henry Fuseli is described as having eaten “raw meat in order to obtain splendid dreams”. Wordsworth is described as using a “buttery knife to cut the pages of a first-edition Burke”. It comes across as an acknowledgment that, for all our seriousness and for all the dramatic consequences of our actions, the lives of writers are strange and, at times, nonsensical. We are a weird folk, neither the demi-gods that history would make of us nor the vagrants our cultures often accuse us of being, but shamans with our fungi and tin-foil hats, never quite sure to whom we are speaking.

A special note must be made for the other major voice at play here: translator Minna Zallman Proctor. I do not speak Italian, but what has been presented here in English is nothing short of truly beautiful, and Parker’s work is no small part of that. I can only imagine the difficulty of translating something that so acutely focuses on brevity and efficiency. To pour over the proper word choice, to capture the essence of something so precise – it is awe-inspiring, a worthy tribute to the original text and its author simply by existing as it does.

In case you cannot tell, I highly recommend this book. I have soft spots for the most efficient uses of language (even if I don’t even come close to managing it myself) and deceptively deep work that challenges our assumptions of fact and fiction, and I struggle to think of a better example of either than These Possible Lives.

 

These Possible Lives is available now through New Directions Publishing Company.

Book Review

And We Were All Alive

by on August 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Book Review

A Life of Adventure and Delight

by on August 3, 2017

 

Review by Liz von Klemperer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Book Review

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.

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