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Book Review


by on May 23, 2017

Mouths, by Claire Marie Stancek

Review by Kamden Hilliard


Stancek’s MOUTHS is, well, mouthy: obsessed with the physics, politics, violences, psychologies, and musics of the oral. This mouthyness, though, is still concerned with its craft—it abilities and inabilities to say. In an early poem, “Moth,” she reflects on the language we’ve been left. In this poem “The moths

…press     mouthless    faces to the books
and the books crumble    into new   language

eaten having eaten this     a language     and this                 is what remains this is remains

These ‘remains’ recall Wallace Stevens’ obsession with “a new knowledge of reality”[1]. Stancek, too, seems invested in a ‘new knowledge,’ one divested from the violences of “a language of war and difference… a language that expands and takes over other smaller languages.”[2]

As she pushes from the normative bends of syntax and diction, her poems swim toward a knowledge that is associative, cumulative, and transhistorical. The syntax of MOUTHS is anti-syntactical, post-structural, yet, oddly familiar. In some ways, MOUTHS, speaks in quotes, references, inside jokes, and paraphrases in that particularly modern way which often substitutes the speaker’s own voice for allegiance with texts outside of the speaker. The movement is not directional but revisionary, constantly considering and redressing itself on the page. The opening poem, “Swarm” teaches the reader of these twists

            revolt turning too into skin & skin
swarming       warm arm arc          ark

“Swarming,” devolves to “warm,” which in turn devolves to “arm,” then sonically darts to “arc” and “ark.” Similarly, a series of poems in the first section (“HUMAN WHAT THIRST COULD DRAIN YOU”)— “Moth,” “Root,” “Wind,” and “Warm”— all open on a string of associative mutations, “Moth,” sings out a litany of old, middle, and muddled English terms for mouth– “mouthe, mowth, mowthe, moth, moighte”. Yet, Staneck is not satisfied with play in abstraction—the poems consistently ground the reader with the desperate pragmatism of daily life “in sidewalk chalk, blue              blurry with dew…”.

This collection centers itself “in the shadowy realms of music, half-phrases / of songs and their moods…” and the track list is Whitmanesque in variance. Among the intertextual addresses are Lil Wayne, Lil Kim, Milton, Keats, Drake, Whitman, Bhanu Kapil, Brandon Shimoda, Shane McCrae, Fred Moten, and TC Tolbert. At their most effective they swim up into the line, as if destined to express what the poet knows, wants, but fails to voice. At their more complicated (and possibly critical) moments, the poems sound like someone you might know—using a Drake line in conversation, not to quote Drake, exactly, but perhaps, to access a feeling offered by Drake’s social space. In this way, the poems mouth through themselves. They work to arrange a sequence of meaning out of the detritus of this society, this earth.

Stancek’s poetics embrace a kind of bricoleurism as reality and navigate physical, emotional, and linguistic landscapes best they can. The poems know that “what is it to hold but to echo?” and respond with a breathless kind of pleading. There is an impossibility of linear time that makes mouthing unsatisfying, yet, “repetition again intervenes / in time”. She continues:

The repetition makes time and wastes time. Time sticks on the line, running forwards and backwards…

Later, in the same section, she elaborates,

Is standing and waiting what repetition is trying to effect? A way outside speed and time? Both Drake and Milton linger on the line ends, dragging the line on and asking it to be longer—Drake through repetition, and Milton through enjambment. Even still, it’s time that poets beg for…

It feels disingenuous to ask why one would “beg” for time. We all beg for time. We beg to be understood and to understand others all the while sensing the possible (inevitable?) failures. In “half-life,” the speaker’s date is “crying / and hyperventilating in bed and need[s] to cancel” while the speaker “becomes thick with goosebumps”. There are no individual failures in these poems, but failures of structure, sound, syntax, symbol “and after the end of human life, / what ephemera remain”. This talk of failure lends to a convenient, apocalyptic reading of the landscape where “shadows below showed little difference between life and live”. Staneck advises: “Find a buyer or be / sold Approach with the purpose of attacking,” which, regardless of the collection’s limitations, insists upon survival.

Wallace Stevens, along with Whitman (who haunts “Green”), occupies a vast and problematic parcel of the American literary landscape. Stevens has been written about and at and around, but Terrance Hayes, in his “Snow for Wallace Stevens,” does a particularly complicated justice, writing

Who is not more than his limitations?
Who is not the blood in a wine barrel
and the wine as well? I too, having lost faith
in language, have placed my faith in language.
Thus, I have a capacity for love without

These complicated, gifted figures populate much of modern poetry and it is the duty (one of many duties) of the poet to reckon with these complications alongside their own positionality. Stancek is invested in a revolutionary, activist poetics that begs its readers to question the varied quirks of reality and what one might do with, against, through them. Yet, the collection often feels un-raced. The mouth is an abstract, often non-human thing, yet when we consider the human mouth, one does wonder on the raced mouth. Who has access to the kind of joyful, poetic deviance at work in MOUTHS? This is unclear. The reader, then, must engage in the kind of reading championed by Hayes in “Snow for Wallace Stevens,” that considers the (im)possibility of “limitations.” Stancek almost sings her reader out of the English language, its syntaxes, its structural violences, and its insistence on narrative control. This book balances critical theory and an experimental poetics with a dexterity that is sure to draw admiration, disdain, confusion, and pleasure. Yet Staneck is terribly relatable, especially in those vulnerable, honest, human moments:

Please give me time
And by me, I mean us. And by us I mean: you, you, you

 I want to believe her. I do.


[1] from Stevens’ poem “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself”

[2] from Staneck’s interview with The Daily Californian (

[3] Hayes’ “Snow for Wallace Stevens,” was originally published in Lighthead


Mouths is available now through Noemi Press.


Kamden is a reader at Gigantic Sequins, an editor at Jellyfish Magazine, and goes by Kam. They got posi vibes from The Ucross Foundation, The Davidson Institute, and Callaloo. The author of two chapbooks: DISTRESS TOLERANCE (Magic Helicopter Press, 2016) and PERCEIVED DISTANCE FROM IMPACT (Black Lawrence Press, 2017), Kam stays busy. Find their work in The Black Warrior Review, West Branch, Salt Hill, and other sunspots.

Book Review

You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior

by on December 15, 2016

ebeidYou Ask Me To Talk About the Interior, by Carolina Ebeid


It is perhaps most difficult to see beauty when it lives in and around something horrid.  But the focus of vision does not preclude it from existing.  A pristine sky is unconcerned with tragedy and violence beneath it, and there is a strength in character, I think, in having the capacity to recognize both simultaneously.  That strength flows through You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior, a poetry collection written by Carolina Ebeid, in abundance.  This book is a fundamentally intense and vivid exploration of the universe we exist in and distort for ourselves, and one that embraces the echoing dualities of our lives not as contradictions but as ends of cyclical spectrums.

The poetry of this collection is not beholden to any one style.  The traditional mixes with the experimental as if the words are trying on different outfits.  Some poems exist in the tightest, most suffocating confines, while others sprawl out and leave luxurious gaps between their limbs.  The deliberate control over spacing and line breaks is regularly impressive throughout the book and, as one would expect, this allows for endless reengagement.  The greatest risk in this situation for a poetry collection is that the poems may end up feeling disorganized and hastily slapped together to fill space.  But Ebeid’s work handles any potential worry along such lines by utilizing a powerful and consistent tonal and thematic undercurrent.  Almost every poem utilizes evocative natural imagery and the duality beauty and grief.  This experience grips the reader in an intensely emotional way, forcing us to feel everything.  This is not a drug meant to banish pain or a device meant to torture.  The poetry embraces life in its sublime extremities.

In order to accomplish these sensations, Ebeid juxtaposes the almost unnervingly intimate with the sensory overload of the vast.  The various speakers of the collection are skeptical mothers, witnesses and victims of carnage, hopeful dreamers, and more, not to mention amalgams of all different types.

When I fell in love, I spoke / as a child & and dressed as a child

I lifted a lavender / heart, not the form inside / your rib cage

Again and again we find a contradiction-defying inclusion of innocence and experience as the poems move at random through time.  Whole lives are incorporated in this way, especially if one imagines speakers moving from poem to poem.  This collection, I feel, will get no small amount of recognition for its laments and remembrances, and rightly so.  But it includes much more than passive, negative reaction, and is all the stronger for it.  The full gamut of emotions is at play here and there is no shortage of critique.  Hypocrisy and inaction are exposed for the complicity they are, and traditional systems of comfort or explanation are challenged.

rings of white gold bring attention / bring persistence bring faith / in the persistence of what seems / most fated to die says the book

Aside from the sheer richness of the wordplay, I think one of my favorite aspects of this collection is its recognition of poetry as an interactive experience.  The use of varied structure and minimalist language provide the groundwork, allowing the reader to unpack and fill space with her own perspective.  But the poems will, at times, even directly engage the reader.  One stanza from the last poem in the collection reads like this:

reader, / I am emptied of me & you / of you / yourself keeps swarming out / until we are standing in a wide pool

Normally, this kind of direct address is frowned upon as lacking subtlety or wit.  But I think the poetry here more than makes its own case.  The speaker wants you to remember that you are reading.  Just as you are encouraged to embrace the good and the bad, the beautiful and the tragic, and the full extent of nature and humanity, you are also reminded that you are both inside and outside of the work itself.  It leaves the reader with a responsibility to carry this perspective with them beyond the closing of the book.  One could even read that stanza in a challenge.  Is the pool blood or some other essential?  Now that the speaker has emptied herself of herself, do you not have the responsibility to do the same?  The swarming out certainly indicates that the process has begun.

I highly recommend this collection for anyone who seeks, if you will pardon the cliché, food for thought.  The poetry here is infinitely digestible.  It is the kind of literature that you can and should keep reengaging with after thorough bouts of contemplation.  It operates on the vividly physical and the imposingly metaphysical, asking deeply complicated questions.  But it does not shrink from its own challenges.  It hints at origin points of answers and lays bare its suspicions.


You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior is available now through Noemi Press.

Book Review

Lost Privilege Company

by on November 17, 2016

lpccoverfinalLost Privilege Company, or the book of listening

By The Blunt Research Group


It is not hard to get people to think about their legacies.  For many of us, it is one of the driving factors of our lives, sometimes passing the boundary of obsession with how we will be remembered.  But I think the question of legacy is far more complicated that most are willing to acknowledge.  It exists beyond mere perception and the excuse of plausible deniability.  I believe The Blunt Research Group is operating under such a notion with their collection Lost Privilege Company, or the book of listening.  The group, the members of which importantly remain nameless in the book, have taken up the cause of creating wonderfully imperfect echoes of voices long past.  In doing so, the reader is asked to disengage from self-absorption and consider what is truly happening around them.  Lost Privilege Company, or the book of listening is a combination of poetry collection and an almost polite manifesto, one that holds up the fragments of lives and souls and memories so that we might look upon what we have wrought.

The poetry of Lost Privilege Company is created and delivered within a fascinating and horrifying constraint – every phrase of the poem comes from the case files of imprisoned juveniles, a disproportionate amount of whom were children of color.  Many of these children were offered up for pseudo-scientific experimentation and left at the mercy of eugenics researchers who sought evidence to confirm their deeply prejudiced beliefs.  Make no mistake: this is not a conspiracy theory or something out of an Orwell novel.  As the introduction to the book explains, such “science” is a very real part of American (and especially Californian) history.  This context, the pulling of lines from case files, adds a deeply unsettling and immersive quality to the poems.  To be sure, the poems are beautiful on their own, crafted with intimate care and profound connections, but the atmosphere around each of them is akin to having discovered the case files yourself and being forced to confront the ashes of potential beauty.

     as a method of discipline

the boy’s mother put coal oil on paper           lit it
and held it to her children’s feet

The “inmates” are described as having been incarcerated for antisocial behavior and delinquency, and each poem is constructed as a tribute to one of the children.  The refusal to obey traditional structure pays homage to those who, even at a young age, would defy the enforcement of social norms.  The interspersing of lines from the wards throughout each poem echoes the judgment and psychological intrusions that these “professionals” would force upon the children.  The fading of names behind the text of each poem is a beautiful, bone-chilling, and multi-level reminder of how little is left of the victims.  Many of these children were sterilized.  Many of them died.  Many had their sanity and identities discarded for the sin of nonconformity.  But the files, and now these poems, are what remain.  Doubtless for many cases, they are the only recourse to memory left.

   not a dirtier boy   in the house vile
and effeminate

taking short cuts across orchards

The second half of the book is given over to a space called “the book of listening”.  Here, the form changes from poetry to prose, or perhaps prose poetry.  It makes no attempt to define itself.  Each page of this section contains a stand-alone thought, or sequence of thoughts, that never plays out in more than a paragraph.

Having somehow gained permission to listen to an unknown voice, must one pledge not to harm or betray that voice?  What would that mean?  And would it ever be possible not to break one’s vow, one’s oath, to the voices one has solicited?

In our sociological environment, one that has yet again proven itself to be full of echo chambers and unknown voices, I find the thoughts presented of Lost Privilege Company to be beautiful and poignant.  The text questions and questions, leaving little unexamined, exploring good intentions and responsibility, as well as whether ignorance is any excuse.  Are we absolved of the sins of our fellow humans simply because we were not aware of the atrocities or the hate that spawned them?  What obligation do we have in the aftermath of such things, even (or perhaps especially) when all that is left are the pieces of past?  I described this section of the book as a “polite” manifesto, and I really mean that.  This is not meant to indoctrinate or make demands.  Rather, it asks questions and leaves you to sit in your new awareness, having pricked the bubble of your comfort zone.

In reading this book, I am reminded of a quote that is very debatably attributed to Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  To be clear, this quote is hilariously and depressingly ironic because of its gender bias and because that kind of willful inaction in the face of tragedy is a hallmark of the conservatism Burke championed.  But the spirit of the quote, the idea that inaction is dangerous and creates complicity, is powerfully echoed in Lost Privilege Company.  The book stretches out its hands, full of the remnants of the otherwise unremembered, and asks you what will you do now.


Lost Privilege Company is available now through Noemi Press.

Book Review

Ford Over

by on September 30, 2016

focover-1Ford Over, by John Pluecker


If you listen to media coverage, or the insensate fear-mongering demagogues that get the most media attention, immigration is described as, at best, something that requires ephemeral and nebulous “reform” and, at worst, an avenue through which murderers and rapists will gain access to your home.  There is a distinct and intense distrust of the brown “Other”, originating in the “Other’s” brownness and rationalized with all manner of dehumanizing fictions.  In the face of such ignorant and racist brutality, a work like John Pluecker’s Ford Over serves as a poignant, dynamic reminders of the fact that the only cure for such a disease is a dose of perspective.

Ford Over is a collection of hybrid poetry that immerses itself in the concepts and sensations that it explores.  Every single poem has its own unique structure, ranging from simple stanzas to whole paragraph stanzas of prose poetry to cut out words laid out on maps.  Some poems see their lines placed under rigid, uncompromising control, while others are delivered with whimsy worthy of a summer breeze.  Ford Over is not a text seeking to convey a single perspective; rather it presents its material in a wealth of poetry’s beautiful and myriad options, never confining the reader but always asking the reader to consider the unexplored. The text cannot be reduced to a generic amalgamation of preconceived notions, nor can it be forced to fit those notions after the fact.

This careful and yet spontaneous application of varying structures reinforces two of the work’s main focuses: the natural world, and how we interact with it.  To the first, Ford Over repeatedly returns to natural imagery, from “Clouds charge with beige and dark” in “Vista” to “plod plots of earth / into Serpentines” in “Strange,”.  The poetry makes constant use of landscape, giving it life and resonance with the people crossing it, putting the very earth in motion as both motive force and character.  In “Fording the Guadalupe”, the collective “we” fords rivers again and again, adding a certain Sisyphean quality to the effort that echoes the struggles of Mexican immigrants in their journeys.  But there is progress in the poem, along with the suggestion of sacrifice, that leave open the possibility of success.  The power of rivers to change the very land, to guide the presence and efforts of humans, is a textual emphasis very reminiscent of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in that, like Hughes’ famous poem, Ford Over utilizes the timeless, elemental power of water as witness and sibling to the enduring people being described.

But human interaction with this vivid natural world is given no less attention through the text.  Ford Over is replete with maps and landscape art, most of which are labeled or even covered in text.  These geographical representations cover from California to Texas and from San Fernando to San Luis, and they outline everything from parts of continents to rolling hillsides.  Often times, such as in the case of “The Hunt” or “Ioyaiene”, these maps are the canvas on which the poetry is delivered, further rendering setting into character.  The effects of this treatment are twofold.  First, in order to explore the poetry, the reader is forced to read the land.  The poetry is literally being shaped by the heart of the place from which it springs.  Poetic structure becomes indistinguishable from borders that we have created and imbued with significance.  Second, the whole arbitrary nature of geographical identification is brought into focus.  To be clear, I use “arbitrary” without its modern negative connotation.  The point is that the definitions and borders which we assign to places and peoples are human constructs, as much as our poetry is.  The artificiality of these labels is only highlighted when the land, as an entity in near perpetual motion, shifts and redefines itself and continues well beyond the scope of our boundaries.

This shifting, tectonic immersion is sealed and assured by the brilliant use of language throughout Ford Over.  In the past, when referring to the use of language, I was usually writing of authors using English to convey their text.  Here, Pluecker transitions back and forth between English and expertly utilized Spanish, simultaneously highlighting cultural differences while slowly welding them together to create something else entirely.  He utilizes “untranslation”, in which he begins translating from Spanish to English but soon abandons the effort, only to return again.  Many works he does not translate at all, from English or from Spanish.  On a personal note, I found this to be an exceptionally powerful tool, as I am half white and half Mexican and have felt the pull of both cultures acutely.  The fluctuation in translation is not a thing of frustration – it serves the further break artificial boundaries and to remind the reader of the boundaries’ artificiality in the first place.

As with so many superb compilations of poetry, Ford Over lends itself to quick reading or to in-depth unpacking, as well as to as much rereading as the heart desires.  It hardly ever speaks directly about the focus of its text, and is made all the better for it.  It allows a reader who might otherwise be walled off by their own assumptions to experience something beyond borders.


Ford Over is available now through Noemi Press.