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Book Review

Inquisition

by on November 1, 2018

Inquisition, by Kazim Ali
Review by Dan Alter

 

Extravagance is one way to talk about the sensibility animating Kazim Ali’s new collection. These are lush, wild poems, overflowing with sonic, verbal and formal play. Even when a particular poem is muted or restrained, it adds to the breadth of modes the book encompasses, another aspect of its “yes-and” approach. Diction, metaphor, form, sound are all deployed with an ebullient excess. This luxury, or extravagance, took me some getting used to: I found it both exciting and disorienting, at least in part because it runs counter to my training in the reading and writing of poems.

It happens that Ali teaches at Oberlin College, an incubator of tender souls where in the 1980s I arrived, one of many young, earnest would-be writers. My professors were for the most part earnest white Protestant men who set out to initiate us into the ancient art by teaching us to restrain our vatic impulses. It was the Midwest. It was the height of the “plain style:” a poem was meant to be something you’d say to someone in a bar. William Stafford or perhaps Sandra McPherson were held up as models. Laura Jensen, on the more unruly end of my professors’ canon, still boxed her unsettled surrealities in orderly stanzas. Only a murmur could be heard of the Language Poets’ dismantling of narrative and subjectivity, to say nothing of their avant-garde forerunners.

So I’m fascinated that Ali’s new book of poems, some of which was surely written in that same quiet Ohio town, launches:

In the earthquake days I could not hear you over the din or it might have been
the diner bell but that’s odd
because I’m usually the one
cooking up if not dinner then
a plan to build new fault lines…
from (“The Earthquake Days”)

William Stafford this isn’t. Din, been, dinner: this is a territory like hip-hop, with its hyper-rhyme, and its long syllable-piled lines next to lines that pull up short. And its boasts, the more extravagant the better, such as the next stanza where Ali strikes this pose:  I’m late for my resurrection/ the one where I step into my angel offices and fuck/ the sun delirious. (Characteristically Ali’s religious position involves apostasy, on a grand scale. Frustrated, fierce wrestling with the languages and mythologies of gods is a central pre-occupation of this book.)

The long first poem propels forward, without periods, enjambing line to line and stanza to stanza, flooding with energy, interconnectivity, multiple meanings. I want to call this Ali’s “flow” (as in the hip-hop term for how rhythm and rhyme move a rap across its beats). A number of poems work in this mode.

But Ali’s restless, expansive poetics doesn’t hold still in any mode for long. Thus the “flows” of “The Earthquake Days,” “Phenomenal Survival of Death in the Mountains,” and “Origin Story,” just to pick out a few from the first section, are punctuated with measured poems like “Light House” in crisp quatrains and syllabics, or the luminous, mysterious “John” with a series of floating singlets, each complete in itself in a system that recalls the ghazal’s loose linkages.

Inquisition also approaches content from multiple positions. The poems are largely written in the first person. This “I,” even when it adopts personas, tends to have recognizable concerns such as fraught relationships between parents and children, or a struggle with ruptured faith. Frequently subjectivity is foregrounded but situation is backgrounded to a dense play of sound and form. Some poems lean more toward abstraction. Others go in the opposite direction, the confessional tradition: for example “Origin Story,” which describes a trip home to see the poet’s mother after a stroke, the travelogue “Saraswati Puja,” or the Ohara-esque “Marie’s Crisis” which kinetically recounts a night in a gay bar.

Inquisition is likewise omnivorous formally. To list only a few forms Ali adopts or invents: variation on theme, mathematical, ghazal, syllabic, golden shovel, stanzaic. Ali seems to delight in various constraints, and the formal poems tend to be precise in following their particular rules. Yet the formal poems too are not careful or neat: in any form his poetics is embracing, rough, accepting of wide possibilities.

“Text Cloud Anthology” is a striking example of Ali’s formal inventiveness: it is not only an abecedarian poem but drawn completely from a found text. Our attention dances between the performance of this exacting form, which is luxuriant and surprising, and the threads of feeling woven into it.

Inside Kazim
Kazim knew
Learned light
Listened
Lived lost
Limited himself to matter
His memoir of morning
Mother mountain mouth
Never night this orifice open
from “Text Cloud Anthology”

At roughly the center of the book, two consecutive three page poems stretch toward two of its poles. “Sacrifice” is on the formal end, a kind of double-ghazal, with two alternating radifs (stanza end-words). It braids a story of protecting a budding peach tree from frost with meditations on versions of the binding of Isaac/Ishmael in the Muslim and Jewish traditions and pulls these strands compellingly into our current political landscape (Israel/Palestine, the ground of the narrative), and into the speaker’s own story:

I know something about going by different names and even switching bodies since my body too is said by some
to be against god. But how can what God utters fit into human ears, His languages are never learned fast

Or this, towards the end:

And what is it that you unbibled but not released are supposed to do when your small god-sized father asks you
to come. He looks at you with love but has a knife in his hand. Decide fast.
from “Sacrifice”

While “Sacrifice” takes liberties with some of the ghazal’s strictures–it eschews rhyme and syllable count–the resonances gathered between strands on faith, bodies, sacrifice and protection or its absence make their own dense kind of rhyming.

“Amerika the Beautiful,” a poem that the epigraph tells us is after “Bush’s War” by Robert Hass, is another center of the book. Following Hass’ template the poem employs a loose descendant of blank verse, occasioned by the poet typing the words “Trump’s America.” This leads to a recollection of the speaker’s religious shaming by an uncle in his home in India, after which he stays up all night conversing on-line with a cousin’s American wife. She is a convert to Islam who is facing a trauma of her own. This narrative is intermingled with bursts of unbridled lyric flight, as in this signature moment of lavish apostasy:

My body has never belonged in the world.
God and I were secret lovers hiding in the closet from my friends
and his. When he put his tongue in my mouth my body
came alive as a beast…..
“Amerika the Beautiful”

We are introduced to Imam Reza, the speaker’s “favorite imam” who fled repression in the Arab world, and then a catalogue of brutalities of the America premised at the beginning. The poem spirals through these materials, wrapping around the never-resolved personal story and the larger unresolvabilities that become its context. The final third of the poem is an extended associative flight (in “flow”) that builds great momentum, as in:

Our surface now roils with the unreal, wind through wheel,
does not god want to win and flout the unspoken? At Hussein Sagar
a sand crab crawls to the lake’s skimpy wrack line. Water meets earth
in the form of the broken. Body is where fire and air enter
among earth and water. A painting is the meeting of eye
and touch. River is sculpture unfolding in time. Such a quick turn
then, unmoving, my body so cruelly useless. Bodies now being beaten…
“Amerika the Beautiful”

The narrative thread keeps weaving back to the speaker’s cousin-in-law, anchoring the poem with an increasing tenderness. In its last lines one of her chosen names is revealed to be related to Reza: “you remember him? –Reza. The imam who wandered.  Here, as often in the book, Ali’s line feels rich in the mouth, humming with its internal rhymes and m, i and ah sounds. In this way a poem about “Amerika,” much of which is set in India,  ends with someone in motion across borders.

“Amerika the Beautiful” accumulates a layered mapping of heartbreak, displacement and spiritual longing. This summer I heard Ali speak about the exponentially increasing displacements we are living through. He proposed a poetics of border crossings, of multiple “homes” and of the multiple, intersecting identities they create. In the end, the extravagance of Inquisition, its restless, inclusive, fast-moving modes and methods, is in the service of an exploration of how poetry can work when more and more people come from many places at the same time.

 

Inquisition is available now through Wesleyan University Press.

 

Dan Alter has had poems recently published  in Burnside Review, Field, Fourteen Hills, Pank, and Zyzzyva among others. Dan holds an MFA from Saint Mary’s College of California. He lives with his wife and daughter in Berkeley and makes his living as an electrician. He can be found online (including links to other reviews) at danalter.net

Book Review

Testimony of Circumstances

by on October 9, 2018

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Testimony of Circumstances is available now through Cardboard House Press.

Book Review

Othered

by on September 25, 2018

Othered, by Randi Romo
Review by Stacy Pendergrast

 

To read Randi Romo’s Othered is to share both the grief and resilience of one woman who has been “othered” — as a Xicana, a queer, a sex abuse survivor, a former farmworker, an activist, and a Southerner — and whose loved ones have also likewise suffered. This book of 28 poems features the kind of writing that can only be wrought from deeply-lived, traumatic experiences as well as from a lifetime of brave responses.

Know that Romo is a woman of feeling and passionate words, but she is just as much a woman of action.   Fifteen years ago, she co-founded the Center for Artistic Revolution (CAR) in Arkansas, an LGBTQ civil rights organization named by the marginalized kids whom she mentored and for whom she still fights. In a 2015 interview with the Arkansas Times, Romo discussed her motive to make more Arkansans advocates for LGBTQ issues. She said, “It’s true, there are some that will never shift, but it’s the greater movable middle that now finds itself increasingly having to consider the real impact of homo/transphobia on their fellow Arkansans.”  With her new collected works, perhaps Romo has now lifted her voice in her greatest rallying cry for those whom she defends, and it is likely that her message will reach far beyond her state.

From the moment we view the collage of protest images on the book’s cover, we brace ourselves. In his introduction, publisher Bryan Borland prepares us further when he tells us that Romo writes on behalf of those voices that have been silenced. Borland says, “Sometimes those voices belong to kids she’s had a hand in saving.  Sometimes those voices belong to kids who couldn’t be saved, even with her best efforts.”  Tragically, two poems serve as epitaphs for two of those victimized for being different. Most heartbreakingly, Romo dedicates the book to her daughter “whose life was deeply impacted by the penalties of otherness and who paid the ultimate price, with her life.”

Indeed, the poems deliver on our expectations to be disturbed. In “Coming Out” we learn that the response to the young Romo’s revealed sexuality was for her to be sent away for gay conversion therapy, where even after she was put through “queer exorcisms,”  she proudly “stayed out.”  In  “Planting Season,” Romo reveals the tragic plight of migrant workers (she was one) who are exposed to a deadly gas as they work the strawberry fields. The poem “I Remember” gives us Romo’s wrenching account of how she endured multiple counts of sexual abuse, and how she learned to “sleep in boots jeans sharp-edged knife.” She effectively haunts us with the repetitive ending lines:  “Not a one of these things happened in a public bathroom.”

It is as if Romo takes all those years of compiled suppression, bullying, and abuse, and — with the natural focus of a child who works a play dough squeeze machine — kneads her compacted clay of pain, then leans on the lever of language so that her poems come oozing out, brilliantly colored and exquisitely molded.

The overarching theme of this collection is victorious affirmation in the face of relentless oppression and violence. However, there is tremendous range, and the reader is also relieved and brightened by Romo’s lighter tones, including her breaks for humor.  There is the playful “Bless Your Heart” from the perspective of the young poet, the child of a “Mexican mama / and a white daddy,” who is both charmed and befuddled by the whimsy of Southern expressions.  In the fantastical “Step-Sister’s Lament,” the girl-narrator at Cinderella’s ball imagines her mother’s reaction to her being the suitor of a princess instead of a prince.  To our delight, we revisit our own adolescent celebrity infatuations as we read  “Fan Letter to Hedy LaMarr.” No matter the gender of the one we crushed upon, we recognize the fluttering thrill in the words of the teen moving toward her star on the TV screen.  The poet says, “… so close I could touch you / and I wanted to / and it terrified me / and it exhilarated me / and I knew something was forever changed on / a Saturday afternoon …”

Perhaps the flashes of quiet angst best highlight the gift of Romo. Indeed, where she shows us how she fights back against bigotry, we admire her guts and wonder if we could muster an equivalent courage.  But it is in the calmer universal moments that she often appeals to our sense of sameness with her.  After all, as social beings, we fear being outcast or marginalized. This poet portrays pangs that strike deeply in all of us.

 

Othered is available now through Sibling Rivalry Press.

Last year Stacy Pendergrast was awarded the Nan Snow Emerging Writer Award given on the occasion of the CD Wright Women Writers Conference at the University of Central Arkansas.  She is a teaching artist in Arkansas. Follow her writing and teaching blogs at www.stacypendergrast.com.
Book Review

Lessons in Camouflage

by on September 6, 2018

Lessons in Camouflage, by Martin Ott
Review by John Venegas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Book Review

Drift

by on July 17, 2018

Drift, by Chris Campanioni
Review by Michael Browne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drift is available now via King Shot Press.

Book Review

Litane

by on June 12, 2018

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Litane is available now through Cardboard House Press.

 

Book Review

Afterland

by on May 24, 2018

Afterland, by Mai Der Vang
Review by John Venegas

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

Mourn the poppies, the mangosteen and dragonfruit.

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

Here they are.

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

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

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

The man howls in my head,
his stony wind

uncoiling in every crevice.

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

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

still hunt inside the patina of mud.

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

 

Afterland is available now through Graywolf Press.

Book Review

When People Die

by on May 15, 2018

When People Die by Thomas Moore

 

Review by Michael Browne

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Your suicide keeps on getting postponed

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

 

They want to talk about entitlement

 

Your friends are talking like you are not there

The sunglasses at night complement that

 

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

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


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

 

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

 

The walls are pulsing

Haunting desires of strangers

Bodies start to merge

 

—-

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

When People Die is available now from Kiddiepunk.

Book Review

Orange Lady

by on May 1, 2018

Orange Lady, by Erika Ayón
Review by Brian Dunlap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Orange Lady is available now through World Stage Press.

 

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

Book Review

Calling A Wolf A Wolf

by on April 12, 2018

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

it’s been January for months in both directions

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

 

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

Book Review

Cadavers

by on April 5, 2018

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cadavers is available now through Cardboard House Press.

 

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

Book Review

Abecedary

by on March 29, 2018

Abecedary, by Pablo Jofré
Review by John Venegas

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++

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

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

Abecedary is available now through Insert Blanc Press.

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