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Book Review

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.

Book Review

Hover the Bones

by on March 13, 2018

Hover the Bones, By Melisa Malvin-Middleton
Review by Cody Deitz

 

Melisa Malvin-Middleton’s debut collection Hover the Bones, an installment in the Native Blossoms Chapbook Series, explores terrains of family and loss, where nothing is easy and nothing is taken for granted.

Through nineteen poems that run from the distinctly personal to the public, even broaching the political in places, Malvin-Middleton tries “to understand that which makes us human, / that which makes us scarred” (“Schism of My Maker”). It is this tension—between what makes us human and what makes us scarred—that charges these poems, and also what allows us to overcome the opacity that nostalgia, even beautifully-wrought nostalgia, can sometimes create.

Hover the Bones is a book first and foremost about family, and about what it means to be bound by blood. The opening poem, notably titled “Of Closure,” makes a ritual of burying an unborn child’s remains. The speaker here is concerned with what will suffice—what ritual she can enact to both mark this moment and move past it:

And it was good
enough to dig.
I test the soil
under metal’s scrape,
…One inch. Two.
How far
must I go to release you?

This highly enjambed poem sets the tone in style and content for much of the collection, where so much is about letting go, negotiating the distance between self and family, between the present and the past. Malvin-Middleton’s speaker seems to struggle often with a palpable sense of responsibility—guilt, even—that effectively grounds many of these poems.

Part of this responsibility is of the natural order. “She Died Alone” sees the speaker’s mother “in the middle of the living / room swallowed by hospice bed,” and her father’s voice echoes thinly in a later poem as he says “The dialysis is making me sicker” to a daughter that can do little more than agree: “Yes, sometimes it does. // It keeps him alive” (“Dialysis”). These moments, I think, are where we see Malvin-Middleton at her best. Where she might easily employ her considerable lyrical power, she eases back, letting the images do their work. The final image of “Dialysis” is an excellent example of this. See how the language here is stripped down to the barest observation:

There are:

The Needles
The Tubes
The Time

whittling away in a chair
surrounded by others
hooked up to an assembly line
of filtration
with the drone of daytime reality
shows playing over their heads.

She achieves a powerful synergy between the matter-of-factness of the language and the expansion of that long sentence across six lines; we actually hear the drone of the TVs overhead. And there are so many points where this image could be watered down by interjection, but Malvin-Middleton resists. We are left with the powerful tension between the hum of “daytime reality / shows” and the deeper, more profound reality to which the speaker (and we) are attuned.

But this book is not dedicated entirely to these questions of family. We actually encounter a wide variety of images and textures—from internal, almost surreal treatments of anxiety in “Signal of the Sirens” to sketches of a roller-derby girl at last call where “one shot after another run / in her silken hose / under sheets” (“Last Call”).

Some readers might consider this to be one of the weaknesses of the collection—the looseness with which these themes are connected. Like the speaker in “Bougainvillea,” we might “lose track of form / in this origami jungle.” This is a fair criticism, I think, but one perhaps based on a cursory reading. If one steps back and considers the collection as a whole, a sustained undercurrent emerges: how can I be in the world? this speaker seems to ask, knowing what I know? Time and time again, Malvin-Middleton’s answer comes in the form of language—more language. The book’s epigraph from Audre Lorde rings true: “So it is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive.” And I think these poems feel like Malvin-Middleton speaking, remembering, knowing that this may well be our best response to suffering and loss.

From the emotionally-charged, kaleidoscopic walk through a present charged by memory, we arrive finally at prayer. Through division inherent in “Schism of My Maker,” the speaker finds in her mother’s passion—for theatre, for art—herself. She asserts herself here more clearly than anywhere else in the book. She writes,

I am a master at unearthing our humanness, our faults
in raw honesty.

Trying to understand that which makes us human,
that which makes us scarred—

If you read, like I did when I first encountered these lines (and still do), “that which makes us human, / that which makes us sacred,” I think this book has done its work. And indeed, we end in invocation. In a book that strives to both heal from loss and not lose its power to color our lives in a meaningful way, the speaker finds the most appropriate ending in prayer. Words are, Malvin-Middleton believes, our greatest power of invocation, and I’m inclined to agree. Like a singing bowl, the speaker chants:

May I be well.
May I be happy.
May I be free from suffering.

May you be well.
May you be free.
May you be free from suffering.

May we be well.
May we be happy.
May we be free from suffering.

 

Honor the Bones is available now through Yak Press.

 

Cody Deitz is a California native but now resides in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where he is a PhD student in English at the University of North Dakota. He is a recent winner of the Academy of American Poets University Prize, and his poetry has been published or is forthcoming in various literary journals including NAILED, North Dakota Quarterly, The Fourth River, and others, and he recently released his first chapbook, Pressed Against All That Nothing, with Yak Press.

 

 

Book Review

Third-Millennium Heart

by on February 15, 2018

Third-Millennium Heart, by Ursula Andkjaer Olsen

Translated by Katrine Ogaard Jensen

 

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

 

 

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

GLORIA.”

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

 

Forehead pointing west, a woman sits

and between her legs, another woman sits, forehead

pointing west

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

pointing west

and between the third woman’s legs

 

the new sun rises.”

 

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

 

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

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

all into one.

 

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

everyone, woman, man, babel and ivory,

will turn into me.”

 

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

 

“I am not who I am.”

 

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

 

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

no matter what, I will come.

 

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

 

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

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

Book Review

The World Goes On

by on February 8, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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