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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.

Book Review

Djinn City

by on January 25, 2018

Djinn City, by Saad Z. Hossain
Review by John Venegas

When it comes right down to it, can anything be said to be more essential to the fantasy genre then trying to find one’s place in the world? I’m not the first to suggest that we write deliriously imaginative stories of magic and monsters and good and evil because we are trying to come to terms with our own incredible power and the simultaneous and abundant feelings of powerlessness. We all affect the world, the universe, in all of our living moments, and the changes we manifest, whether intentional or not, irrevocably alters everything else. I don’t mean that as an inspirational platitude – it is, as far as our most brilliant philosophical and scientific minds can tell, the way the universe operates. To have that power, that influence, and to understand that not everything will work out the way you want it to is incredible and terrifying. Fantasy literature, for all of its Hollywood-backed prominence and fanboyish escapism, is first and foremost a tool to unleash perspective and see beyond the limits of our temporal truths.

Those temporal truths, and indeed the very question of one allegedly having a designated place in the universe, are at the heart of the wonderful Djinn City, by Saad Z. Hossain. At its most basic, Djinn City is a novel about three members of a family who must understand the “impossible”, who have their perspectives opened and flooded with scale. We follow Kaikobad, Rais, and Indelbad, three generations of the Khan Rahman family, as they not only explore the world of djinns (genies) and magic, but as they grapple with family, questions of fate and existence, and the dimensions of power. For those of you who consider yourselves experienced in the Western fantasy genre, including its more experimental standouts, understand that this story and its characters are not going to play out along those overworn paths you are used to. This is a story with consequences, grounded in a strange kind of realism that reflects the combination of arbitrary happenstance and orchestrated endgame that makes up our daily lives. You will see homages and ideas that abound in popular fiction, world mythology, and scientific thought, but they come together in a way that not only feels determined to subvert expectations but which does so without sacrificing coherence.

Thirty of the most peculiar shapes were walking around guzzling wine and food, from a thing made entirely of leafy branches to a walrus-man who resided inside his own bubble of water, and made life inconvenient for everyone by shouting commands through a loudspeaker inserted into a periscope-like opening.

That grounding proves quite essential throughout this text, because Hossain is introducing a world that, while perhaps familiar in some of its terminology, is a titanic, labyrinthine realm of possibility. This is a book that has sorcery, quantum mechanics, religion, philosophy, political intrigue, social commentary, genetics, and so much more. The literary and intellectual influences are too numerous to list, such that I would not be surprised if the author had set out to write a work that looked at all of these different branches of thought and tried to serve as an emissary between them. In tackling such a project, Hossain provides a direct, uncomplicated style of writing that makes very little pretense and yet also manages some brilliant turns of phrase and entertainment throughout. He is not trying to be experimental – I doubt such a fragile framework could hold up under the weight of the ideas – and he doesn’t need to be. To again borrow an overused descriptive phrase, Djinn City is a page turner; a story that immerses and keeps you up well past a sane hour.

A crystal city glittered beneath, domes and towers lit up by the setting sun, balconies floating on air, the streets wide and paved with marble, delicate bridges over running water, merchants floating on carpets, carrying fruits and wine, winding through the branches of a great tree in the very center. Humans and djinns cohabitated in plain sight, bargaining in the market square, smoking on street corners, peaceful, unhurried.

Even with the effective, efficient writing style, a story like this would be hard to sell to any but the nerdiest of us without some truly rich character development. The three Khan Rahman men are our vehicles into this vivid world and no effort was spared making them into flawed and thoroughly relatable people. On top of that, some of the supporting casts are standouts the likes of which I personally have not encountered in some time. A personal and particular nod of respect goes to Aunty Juny, a woman of action who, had she been given any more time on the page than she already has, would utterly steal the show from the protagonists. This is a cast of characters with real motivations and aspirations, and they help make the fantastic far more tangible.

Her perfectly coifed skull protected a brain like a rabid German U-boat loose in the Atlantic. No nuance of character or action escaped her, and everything was turned to advantage with the rapidity and precision of a field marshal.

The only real issue with Djinn City is that there are more than a few moments where exposition and backstory very much take center-stage from the general plot. This will not be a problem, and it may even be a boon, for those of us that love world-building (and I very much doubt that this is the last story Hossain has to tell in this realm he has created), but I can understand perspectives that will not appreciate Djinn City’s occasional indulgences in its own power. Suffice it to say that Hossain trusts his audience to revel along with him. And the reveling is great fun. I am fairly biased in this regard, because I happen to be an avid reader and student of mythology and world history, but target audience or not I find the world on display here so imbued with potential that I am already eagerly awaiting more.

A special note should also be made for the commentary made throughout Djinn City too. No work is apolitical, and Djinn City is by no means trying to remain neutral on anything. It presents us with a supernaturally powerful aristocracy convinced of its own superiority. It walks the poorest streets of its version of Bangladesh, exchanging stories with the disabled, the shunned, and the criminal. It is, by the very nature of its construction, an essay on the effects and illusions of colonialism, racism, capitalism, socialism, nepotism, and historicism. But it does all of that without forsaking a fun, compelling story. By have characters with flaws and not blindly forgiving them for those flaws, the criticisms and commentary feel more impartial, or at least more honest. It encourages the reader to set aside their need to inherently demonize or anoint and remember that from the mightiest djinn to the lowest beggar, people are people. Strange, yes, capable of mistakes or treachery, yes, but also things possessing inherent beauty and potential.

 

Djinn City is available now through Unnamed Press.

Book Review

Roberts Pool Twilights

by on November 14, 2017

Collection by Roger Santiváñez
Translated by Elsa Costa
Review by Vicent Moreno

 

“I feel the materiality of language most intensely when writing poetry. It is a push/pull relationship where the material resists. You have a sense of speaking through language and of language speaking to you. The plasticity is primary. This doesn’t mean that content doesn’t matter, but poetry is this space where every single particle of language is charged with the most meaning” Ben Lerner, The Guardian, 20 November 2016.

Lerner’s comments on the resisting and polysemic nature of poetry could be applied effortlessly to Roger Santiváñez’s book of poems, Roberts Pool Twilights (2017), published by the Cardboard House Press, and aptly translated from the Spanish by Elsa Costa in a bilingual edition. This book is welcome news for lovers of poetry and it is yet another example of Cardboard House Press’ ongoing commitment to publishing in English some of the best cutting-edge poetry found in Spanish. Santiváñez is a renowned poet from Perú, famous founder of the artistic and literary movement Kloaka in the 1980s in Lima. He currently lives and works in the United States where he teaches at Temple University. His poetry has a lot in common with the historic avant-gardes of the 1920 in their attempt to create “something new,” and their belief in a poem as an autonomous object, which exists outside of our material world and is created ex nihilo by the poet. In this sense, behind Santiváñez’s ars poetica one can see the ghost of Vicente Huidobro’s aesthetic movement, Creacionismo, and its clear poetic premise: “Make a poem the way Nature makes a tree.”

In Santiváñez’s book, the reader encounters a language that has been exposed to the highest temperatures of poetry; under this pressure, words bend, meanings melt, and out comes a product that only deceptively resembles ordinary language. As it stands, Roberts Pool Twilight is above all a book on the craftsmanship of poetry, a trance-like meditation on the poetic language where the mundane, suburban man-altered landscapes of New Jersey (like the title itself, Robert Pools) offer the Peruvian author an improbable locus amoenus for his inspiration.

Consider, for example, the opening poem in the collection, “Cooper River Park”:

& the glitter of the river’s shimmer
Still I glaze on the green bank
Sleekest ripple aquatic mi

Niature drawn by the goddess in
Visible hidden behind the celes
Tial frond that melts into the vault

In my earthly pain like the
Majestic vanished cloud
Just at forming and being deli

Quescent fragile presence swims
In the silent expanse adrift
O suspense gasp of miscomprehended

Rose

Here hyperbatons, enjambments, and split rhymes tense the language across verses; the poem and the reader wrestle for a moment until, as in the distorted image reflected on rippled water, familiar tropes of the locus amoenus appear: the water, the magical creatures, the grass, and at the end, standing alone in the verse, the Rose, arguably one of the most stereotypical topos in poetry. Much like Magritte’s pipe, a rose is never a rose in a poem and it’s definitely not in Santiváñez’s work, which attempts to create its own autonomous space, avoiding an easy referentiality to the “real” world. One could even affirm that poetry itself is in fact the real locus amoenus for Santiváñez.

The poetic voice in the poems of Robert Pools Twilight inhabits a double liminal space: the suburban, yet natural landscapes and the actual space of the poem. At times, there is a revealed tension in trying to translate one space into the other:

Here she comes blue in her graceful steps
Nubile curves at a pace sculpted
By the infinite deities shaping her

Innocence before the poem that only
Yearns to portray her triumphant playing
With the damp sand & found shells

By the ocean at her feet

While in the example above, the poetic voice “yearns” to capture the image, in other instances it’s the opposite as the poet finds solace in the actual poem, which anticipates or imagines the poet’s desire:

Thirst for you conspiring with me to
Draw you running every sway cur
Ve pronounced in every verse o’this

Song

Eroticism is at the core of most poems in this collection and, in a way, the dynamic force that shatters and complicates the otherwise static natural world that surrounds the poetic subject. On the one hand, if this is indeed a book on the art of poetry, Eros must have a strong protagonism; on the other hand, it showcases one of the traditional features of the locus amoenus as a space where love and sex is explored freely, away from societal conventions, an aspect that Northrop Frye has developed through the concept of “green world” in his study of some Shakespeare works. In most cases, the object of desire is directly mythologized (or in other words, poeticized as a classical literary trope). Fittingly, Venuses, Goddesses, and Nymphs populate the poems:

Absolute venus rattled by the
Foam in its point of breakage oh
Thighs bathed by the fate of the blessed

…..

You came back into view goddess girl of the
Freshening waves now with celestial drip
Ping & gilded bliss in your breasts

……

Rosy nymph of sensual calves
You stretch your back devoted to the
Movement that provokes your beauty

Roberts Pool Twilights takes the reader on an exciting journey that demands attention and patience. The reward is a stimulating collection of poetry full of stunning and enigmatic images that leave the reader with a feeling of vitality and joie de vivre. Each poem is a meticulously crafted piece that creates its own reality through the plasticity and playfulness of its language. Considering the difficulty of this type of poetry, the work of the translator, Elsa Costa, has to be commended for being loyal to the original while retaining the same plasticity in the translation.

 

Roberts Pool Twilights is available now through Cardboard House Press.

Book Review

Death of Art

by on October 12, 2017

Novel by Chris Campanioni
Review by Michael Browne

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Book Review

Belladonna

by on September 28, 2017

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Book Review

I Remember Nightfall

by on September 14, 2017

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of life and death was filled with tulle.

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

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

 … It seems to me that this is Epiphany Night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I Remember Nightfall is available now through Ugly Ducking Presse.

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

 

Book Review

Safe Space

by on August 29, 2017

Poetry by jos charles
Review by T.m. Lawson

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“Trigger Warning”

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

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

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

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

“Seagull, Tiny”

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

 

Safe Space is available now through Ahsahta Press.

Book Review

Tertulia

by on August 22, 2017

Chapbook by Seth Pennington
Review by John Venegas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tertulia is available now through Sibling Rivalry Press.

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