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Gabby Almendarez

Book Review

Overpour

by on June 13, 2017

Overpour, by Jane Wong

 

Jane Wong opens Overpour with, “For years I lived this way: with words / That had to do with carrion / I have learned to cast away my enemies / I have lit their insides clean.” Upon first read, the words captured me in a way I did not understand. I wrote them down on the post-it note I use as a bookmark and took the words with me as I read the rest of the collection. Each time I encountered lines that made me pause my reading, I read the post-it and tried to imagine its connection to the poem on the page. I was delightfully surprised that although Wong’s poetry is a reflection of different topics like nature, war, and animals, there is an interesting interweave of language occurring on the page (sometimes evident and sometimes you need a post-it to remind you).

Wong’s poetry reflects topics that are disorienting and, at times, slightly unfamiliar. However, the narrative style of poems allows the reader to follow and reflect on one’s role as a reader and participator. Many of Wong’s poems do something interesting: they pair up the city with the country, they pair up human and animal. However, these images are not spoken about in binaries where the reader gets one or the other. Instead, they are spoken about together and create an interesting conversation —a call and response, if you will. Within this ongoing conversation, Wong points to different questions that we should all be asking about our world; questions about violence, poverty, and fulfillment. Though there is no one answer, the themes of these poems force us to see ourselves in this struggle; a struggle that compels us to question our contribution to the problem and what it is we’re doing to solve it.

Overpour is divided into three different sections but perhaps what is most notable is how  historical, political, and social contexts appear to haunt Wong’s poetry. In The Poetics of Haunting in Asian American Poetry (poeticsofhaunting.com), she states “A poetics of haunting insists on invocation: a deliberate, powerful, and provocative move towards haunted places. How does history —particularly the history of war, colonialism, and marginalization— impact the work of Asian American poets across time and space? How does language act as a haunting space of intervention and activism?” Wong’s poetry reflects her attempt to answer these questions. In doing so, she inhabits her mother’s voice in a series of poems titled Twenty-Four, Thirty, Twenty-Nine, Forty-Three, and Twenty-Five. Throughout these poems, the speaker exemplifies a search for the self. In Twenty-Four, the speaker writes about her marriage and having children. It is in this poem that the title makes an appearance: “Overpour, / of regret, there is too / much blood in a cow / to comprehend.” Here the speaker does anything but overpour the situation. In fact, this is only a snippet of this individual in this particular moment in time. There are still many years left to recount and as such, we are encouraged to read on. The rest of the poems in Wong’s collection are amalgamations of particular moments and memories. All of these moments deserve to be read —all at once or one at the time, you decide.

 

Overpour is available now through Action Books.

 

 

Book Review

The Surrender

by on August 30, 2016

original

The Surrender, by Scott Esposito

 

2016 has been a year where many great novels, memoirs, and books of poetry regarding sexuality, identity, and the challenging of the gender binaries have been released. Authors like Susan Faludi, Drew Nellins Smith, and Robert Coné have found an imaginative way to present the aforementioned topics while allowing even the readers who may feel far removed from the topics to become absorbed in the literature. The same can be said about Scott Esposito’s collection of essays, The Surrender.

The essays supplement each other. They come together to form a magical journey that does not have a beginning, middle, or end. It is perhaps Esposito’s refusal to conform to a predisposed format that fascinated me. I wanted to keep reading because of the way the words moved on the page. Sure, it sounds a bit silly to say as such, but I found that within a matter of pages Esposito was able to take me from staring into a mirror at a woman who is captivated by her appearance to the heartbreaking pain a young boy feels as he sneakily tries on his sister’s bra. The incident with the bra is the first of a lifetime of feeling both shame and happiness. The narrator confides in the reader: “I had never felt revulsion at the thought of something I was wearing. I had never felt any feeling that remotely resembled this” but at the same time reveals: “Minutes later I wanted nothing more that to wear it outside of the bathroom, but I knew I couldn’t.” The contradictory revelation points to the way much of this essay is written. The narrator has many experiences where he is both shameful and enchanted to be wearing women clothing. Scenes like the one described above beg a larger question and one that should be directed to society: are we suppressing individuals by what we tell them to wear or by what we tell them not to wear?

Another reason I enjoyed The Surrender is because it is many things at once. The collection can be viewed as a memoir, film criticism, essay, theory, and even perhaps as a bibliography of sorts. Esposito’s last essay, “The Surrender,” conveniently reveals a sort of works cited where he divulges the different books and authors who have influenced him in some way or another. I can definitely see Esposito’s collection being taught in a Queer Studies or Women Studies class. At least, I hope a professor will encounter Esposito’s collection and get the same valuable information I received in the matter of a hundred pages or so and share the information with students in the hope of creating a dialogue both in and out of the classroom.

If one thing is to be learned from reading the collection is that identity is fluid. We live in a society where the media dictates what women and men should be wearing and how they should be acting. However, identity is not always related to our gender. Our identity constantly changes as we associate ourselves with other individuals and the different personas we constantly take in order to feel like we belong. This intersectionality of identities creates borders that we must see beyond. Ultimately, the reader is able to take away that identity is fluid not stagnant and is instead formed by the way in which an individual is socialized. I believe the point of Esposito’s words is to remind us that we can change the way we view each other. We can argue for the fluidity of identity and a remapping of our cultural topography.

 

The Surrender is available now through Anomalous Press.

Book Review

Arcade

by on August 4, 2016

9781939419729Arcade by Drew Nellins Smith

 

It is difficult to try and explain what Drew Nellins Smith’s debut novel, Arcade, is about. At its most basic level, the novel follows the unnamed narrator who refers to himself as Sam as he tries to anatomize his almost-closeted gay persona and the role society expects him to play. Other times, the novel switches to Sam’s desperate attempts to get back together with an ex who has long moved on. Even then, that’s not what the novel is about. Smith’s novel emphasizes the space the arcade —a place where otherness and anonymity mingle in between racks of porn DVD’s and dim-lighted booths where men (and sometimes couples) see their sexual fantasies come to life— takes in Sam’s life.

Sam is lonely and fails to know what he wants many times. In particular, the short chapters in the novel reveal Sam’s inability to figure out what it is he wants to do with his life. In fact, the chapters devote a sufficient amount of time and space to describe Sam’s job, the new relationship his ex-lover has, the peepshow arcade, and the sexual escapades that occur within it. As for the sex in the novel, Smith captures both intimate sex and the wild, almost neurotic, and detached sex —sex Sam only sees but rarely participates in. Though I really liked how the sex is presented, it is not the only reason I enjoyed Arcade.

Astoundingly, I believe it is the novel’s refusal to be a coming out novel that made me want to keep reading. For a long time, the gay novel genre has revolved around portraying male homosexual behavior and stories about their acceptances or rejections. However, Sam never outright admits he is gay and it is only his actions that ultimately portray him as a gay man. Of the topic, Sam says “And the truth is I’m telling people that I’m not really gay or whatever, but that I’ve fallen in love with a guy.” When asked what is the distinction between being in love with a guy and being gay, Sam’s response is that he does not want to think of it and that he “doesn’t even care if [he’s] gay or whatever.” Smith’s rejection of the typical gay novel allows the reader to focus more on the space, literal and imagined, of what it means to be a gay man never truly participating in sexual acts but watching them.

Though some may shy away or be offended by the frankness in which Sam recounts his time at the arcade, it is this very honesty that kept luring me to turn the page. Smith does not hold back in his novel: he patiently and carefully walks us down the lobby, through the aisles, and into the booths to join Sam to question the space which has been provided. The reader faces the truth of a situation where men like Sam are forced into literal dark spaces in order to satisfy their sexual needs.

The reason novels like Smith’s are important to read, especially given the recent Orlando attacks, is because the reader is able to see others have the same issues. Sam is not the only man in the booths but there are times when he might as well be. Sometimes he feels connected to the other men at the arcade knowing that just like him, they are looking to satisfy and be satisfied. However, more often than not, Sam feels detached from the location and the people in it knowing that most of the men go back to their wives and families and jobs and pretend the arcade does not exist. Sam does not have that option since it seems he is always thinking about the arcade, the people in it, and how he feels about it every time he steps inside and feels the surveillance the store is subjected to.

Arcade is a short novel in which Smith’s prose is straightforward and captivating. The series of scenes which are introduced with each new chapter create a cohesive story about Sam figuratively and literally watching others engage in sexual acts within the arcade. The men thrive in knowing they are anonymous since outside of the arcade those same men live normal heterosexual lives. Perhaps the arcade can be best described by Sam:

“Of course I could tell which men were rich or poor or middle class, but it didn’t matter out there. After the three dollar threshold, we were all the same… I liked the idea that most of us never would have met or interacted if it hadn’t been for that place, divided as we were by our jobs and incomes.”

Arcade is available now through Unnamed Press.

Book Review

The Women

by on March 30, 2016

The Women cover

The Women, by Ashley Farmer

 

Ashley Farmer’s The Women (Civil Coping Mechanisms 2016) is many things: the result of unpacking and repacking research, a careful methodical exposure of the subjugation of women, a call to action, and a book of poetry. Farmer takes fragments of information from the results she encountered as she searched women-related phrases and presents the reader with entries that do not regurgitate the research but collates and engages with the results.

 

In many ways, The Women is not just another collection pointing out the existence of a problem. Its poems warn us about the danger of treating women as subservient, but they are also calls to action, encouraging us to reexamine our perspectives on women and encouraging women to be proactive in defining their images for themselves. Though this collection is about women, it is not merely written for women. Farmer’s poems offer a how-to guide that moves away from “just another woman complaining” and suggests solutions through active “chopping up, stitching together, and writing through the texts.”

One of the major strengths of Farmer’s poems is the variation in style and structure since she presents fragments that we can then take and add our own personal experiences or observations. The book is divided into three sections where she plays with the notion of time by dealing with the past, the present, and the future. Each section elaborates on how women were seen, how they are seen now, and ends with an argument for how women should be seen. The idea of time is also emphasized with the different poem styles: prose poems, list poems, and narrative poems. The diverging styles offer us different ways of viewing and addressing the way in which women have been undermined and rendered powerless.

What I found to be more compelling about her entries are the ones that almost read like a list. The repetition of key phrases like “women are” or “women fall” reminded me, as a woman, of many instances where I have heard those same phrases being directed at myself or at others. Though the book is not extremely long or difficult to comprehend, there were times where I had to step away from it because of the reminded that, even in the twenty-first century, women are still subjected to oppression by both men and women. I see rejection of women online and in person and it saddens me how we often fail to see it. Farmer’s poems shed a light to the areas of subjugation women face —areas that might go unnoticed and as a result get perpetrated over and over again. One of the two epigraphs in the collection illustrates how we sometimes fail to recognize these small instances:

Q: “Why has society always been hard on women?”

A: “Society hasn’t always been hard on women. Hope I helped!”

—Exchange between strangers, Yahoo! Answers

 

No, it didn’t help. The individual who answered the question chose to ignore a question that could have had many answers. Though answering a Yahoo! question will not solve the ongoing problem of women being perceived as unassertive, unable to think for themselves, and dependent, providing a proper answer is one step in the right direction. At least, I think, Farmer would agree.

 

The Women is available now through Civil Coping Mechanisms