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Phoneme Media

Book Review

Standing on Earth

by on June 15, 2017

Standing on Earth, by Mohsen Emadi

Translated by Lyn Coffin


What does it mean to be “grounded”? Some of us take it as a powerful compliment, a suggestion that we or our works of art possess some kind of immersive quality that is more objective concerning physical reality. Some of us take it as an imprisoning insult, a thing that wraps python-thick chains around the creativity of the soul and binds it to the immobility of a single form. In both perspectives, there is an assumption of choice, an agency that is taken for granted and given credit and blame, and there is an inherent binaric other, either a flighty lack of seriousness or a drowning unimaginativeness. Those binary qualities are no coincidences – they are born in cultures that define themselves in opposition, that treat fluid identities as unquantifiable at best and threateningly alien at worst. What does “grounded” mean to an immigrant? To a refugee? To an exile? To someone who can see the myriad differences and the far from coincidental similarities between two patches of earth?

I was at Universal Studios, sitting at a table in a food court, waiting for the Waterworld show to begin. I was bored and hot, but not enough that I was going to spend four dollars on a bottle of water. I reached into my bag to pull out my phone and check my lack of messages for the third time, when I grabbed something I hadn’t expected. A small poetry collection translated by Lyn Coffin. Mohsen Emadi’s Standing on Earth, as it so happens, but I’m sure you knew that by now. Being the good little Western half-breed that I am, I had no idea who Mohsen Emadi was. I opened to the first page.

I was there.
An unborn child
playful among guns.
The sun rises
and I carry your death,
womb by womb.

That is how the book starts. There is enough in those six lines that I could spend the rest of the review unpacking them and still have enough for an essay afterward. But in the interest of keeping this readable, I will instead pose another question: are those six lines grounded? If you will excuse my forwardness, the answers are yes, and no, if we are using the binaries. We have a speaker, recalling a life before a life, living amongst weapons, bathing in the sun’s radiance, and heralding the night we all fear. These are six lines that play with time and space and identity and yet somehow are fundamentally relatable, to a genuinely horrifying degree.

There is no better flavor sampler for Standing on Earth. We are treated to beauty and terror, the inversion of assumed stability, and a questioning of that which we hold in the depths of our hearts as inviolate and fundamental. As you move from poem to poem, there is a sensation that Emadi has been forced (which is not to say he is unwilling) to witness a multiverse of realities and that this collection is something akin to an attempt to layer them over one another. It begs questions that can only germinate in minds aware that existence stretches beyond the sensible.

Structurally, the poems are rarely given standalone titles, as if actively resisting definition, and there is a sense of almost constant motion from poem to poem. I say “almost” because there are a few titles and few definite changes in style that arrive rather suddenly, as if the speaker(s) did not expect them and are trying on new identities. While much of the poem has a fairly simple layout in terms of alignment and spacing, there is a moment of fascinating derivation. The poem “my skull…” indents on a whim and repeatedly, and it is the only work in the collection to do so. It felt like a twitch, like a spasm, as if even a basic and otherwise conformity becomes unpalatable. It is a powerful reminder of everything going on beneath the surface, of the pressure building below even the already evident venting within the language.

My skull’s
a cup of wine
and a Chinese painter
on the edge
a herd

Given the sheer scale of perspectives that Emadi is trying to amalgamate, it is little surprise that the topics covered are multitudinous as well. Everything from general relativity to colonialism to narcotics to grammar is covered with at least the kind of gaze you reserve for the person who has caught your eye through the bus window and made you to wonder at the depth of their life. But some topics, noticeably time, space, and love, repeatedly return to center stage, not so much out of a direct effort to focalize them, but rather in the vein of a nervous tick – incessant internal questioning from the minds of the speaker(s), a heady cocktail of self-doubt and adrenaline that compels flight and fight. They are covered beautifully and nervously and passionately, spared no distraction in their not always pleasant detail.

As something of a side note, I do not speak Persian by any stretch, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of Lyn Coffin’s translations, but I am still incredibly impressed by them. To translate any work is to rewrite it, not only in the direct terms of language to language but in the sense of finding a common ground between two thought-processes that can capture the essence of the original. To put it simply, Lyn Coffin’s words are beautiful and brimming with potency, because Mohsen Emadi’s words are beautiful and brimming with potency. While I have no doubt that actually knowing Persian and reading the original poems would enhance the experience that is Standing on Earth, I have no small admiration and appreciation for this version.

My favorite line in the whole collection is “Meaning is utopian.” Not only does it capture the entirety of the collection in the way the first six lines do, but the multi-faceted power on display in three words is the kind of genius that most of us can only aspire to. Utopia, or perfection, is a goal that must always be pursued but never attained. It can’t actually be attained, because perfection is impossible, but even if it were, it would represent true and total stagnation, an end of all possibility and potential. And yet we must seek it out, because the search for it is the effort to better ourselves, to build upon what has come before and allow our descendants to do the same. Meaning is the same; it is impossible to achieve by its very definition, and yet the search for it encapsulates the whole of the human experience. That struggle reveals everything about us. In an age where we are coerced into thinking all else as “other”, an age where the defining battles are between “us” and “them”, an age where we all think ourselves as living in Winthrop’s city on a hill, we need more books like Standing on Earth. We need more reminders that we are all standing here, grounded, on our little patch of earth.


Standing on Earth is available now through Phoneme Media.

Book Review

Smooth-Talking Dog

by on November 8, 2016

smooth_talking_dog_coverSmooth-Talking Dog by Roberto Castillo Udiarte

Translated by Anthony Seidman


The saying “misery loves company” has always irked me for some reason. Perhaps, because the connotation that it often takes is of a miserable person wanting to take you along for the journey. But really, I believe it comes from a more meaningful place – that of empathy. Poets – or any sort of artist for that matter – that can capture the ideologies of a generation, that feel left out of what society has to offer, and articulate it in a way that resonates with people on a large scale are important due to the fact that they make even the outsider feel understood. Their empathetic nature reminds us we all have somewhere we can belong.  Yes, while some may romanticize the follies or self-destructive actions of another’s life, the true beauty in the work is in its ability to cross boundaries and resist expectations. Ultimately they capture the humanity in life in places that it may not be easy to find.

Castillo Udiarte is one these poets. His work delves deep into the darkness of human nature, yet somehow comes back with an air of hopefulness. One could say he is a veteran of that path. Since 1985 he has published over half a dozen poetry books in Spanish; however, up until recently very little of his work has been available in the English language. This is all despite the fact that he translated many of his contemporaries in such as Bukowski into Spanish during his lifetime. Now, thanks to Phoneme Media and the poet/translator Anthony Seidman, there is a full-length collection of Castillo Udiarte’s work available in English.

The collection Smooth-Talking Dog gives readers a taste of what many have been experiencing for quite some time. Poetry that bites, poetry that stings, poetry that takes you to the darkest places in order to beat you down, and poetry that picks you back up again. The words Castillo Udiarte writes take you to another world, one of back alleys and corrupt cops, folklore and superstition, family and remembrance, office workers and prostitutes. It is an examination of the human existence of all sides of life that has a deep level of honesty to it. Many of the poems are short yet poignant pieces that envelope in their sentimentality:

Last night,
with the December rain,
the memory of Felipe
entered our house, one of my grandfathers
the one from the eternal garden.

I dreamed of him
thirty years younger,
smiling, his face pockmarked,
and his long lizard’s tail.
And in the dream
he told me of his exploits during the reign of Cardenas,
of his arrival at the border,
the construction of the Tijuana dam,
his job as a barman,
his first wife, his adopted son, and
the interminable shots of tequila.

A blue
Leakage flooded this morning,
And I don’t know how to explain to my daughters
That they too are part of my grandfather.

During a recent literary festival in Los Angeles, I had the pleasure of seeing Castillo Udiarte read his work. He presented a reprisal of his performative poem “The Magician of the Mirrors’ Final Show”. While Seidman accompanied him on stage providing a translation of the words that asked people from all walks of life to “step right up step right up” to witness the show, Phoneme Media’s editor David Shook walked around holding up a mirror in front of each audience member. The mirror was held awkwardly and intimately close to your face – forcing you to really examine and sit with yourself. At the conclusion of the poem the mirror was smashed. The magic trick here could be many things, but in that moment everyone’s reflection was taken into that same mirror and subsequently destroyed. It did not matter if you were a publisher from Mexico City, a community college professor from the Valley, a store clerk, or anything between. Everyone was captured in that same mirror.

That is the power of the work. It solicits everyone equally. Allowing everyone a moment to be felt. To feel heard. To feel beautiful.


Smooth-Talking Dog is available December 13, 2016 through Phoneme Media.



Book Review


by on August 9, 2016

9525a5_ab5c974884a648cb865219e102fe9de2Baho! by Roland Rugero


There is something enchanting about the dichotomy of simultaneous simplicity and complexity.  The intertwining of the two, I believe, creates some of the best writing ever made.  In a time when Hollywood and many publishing houses are on the perpetual search for the next apocalyptic franchise, the beauty of a focused, microcosmal narrative is too often overlooked and undervalued.  There is no shortage of such narrative or such beauty in Roland Rugero’s Baho!, a novel that, despite (or perhaps because of) its brevity, provides an enthralling and profound slice of life.

Baho! ends almost as quickly as it begins.  The novel is not even a full one-hundred pages and yet it tells a story that weaves across and around generations from Kanya, a village in Burundi.  Time is an ever malleable concept in the novel, with the story’s plot and narrative structure delivered out of chronological order.  The narrative jumps between perspectives and between present, past, and future tenses.  In the vein of proper poetry, words are never wasted on the page.  The word choice is never pretentious and the sentence structure is never boring, leading to that rarest of combinations – quick pacing and rich language worth unpacking.  All of these effects flow together to leave the reader feeling as if no time has passed at all, whether measuring the minutes spent reading or following the lives of the characters.  This is beautifully exemplified by the novel’s use of the Kirundi word “ejo”, which can be translated into English as either “yesterday” or “tomorrow”.  There is very little difference between the two in Baho!, lending the story a cyclical nature that is pregnant with commentary on human nature.

And if Baho! has a great deal to say about time and the repetition of events, then it has a veritable oration waiting for patriarchy.  All of the horrific events mentioned in the novel, ranging from war and murder to rape and domestic abuse, are laid at the feet of a deeply sexist system.  Feminine sexual “purity” is regarded as a matter of life, death, and eternal salvation for the village of Kanya.  When a suspected rapist is caught, the group of judges that have taken justice into their own hands cry out “Let’s go, men!  We must defend ourselves!”, as if masculine honor and pride are of higher priority than personage of the potential victim.  The female characters, especially the poignantly unnamed, one-eyed woman, provide ironic and unintentional commentary on the mixing of alcohol and perceived emasculation.  Sexist ideology is so ingrained that the one-eyed woman, herself an otherwise strong-willed character, recites a story for children that can only be seen as romantic through male-dominated lenses that treat women as wares.

Rugero’s skill is doubly apparent in moments such as this because the reader is never instructed on how to think about the issue – he merely presents a sequence of events and allows them to speak for themselves.  All of the social commentary present in Baho! is expressed in this way.  The scars of war, the twisting of morality to justify fear and vengeance, and the very human need for scapegoats are all addressed as part of an interconnected landscape, not pleading to be the center of attention but also impossible to ignore.  This, in turn, plays perfectly alongside Rugero’s use of form and structure.  Just as is the case with his use of time, Rugero’s style alternates between all available to him, from Western hero’s journey to African oral tradition.  The novel tries on different presentations like a person tries on clothes, sampling the comedic, the absurd, the tragic, and even a pinch of deus ex machina which, rather than detract from the story, provides its own commentary on the nature of family and obligation.

I imagine that the comparisons this novel will draw are going to be multitudinous, but I am reminded most pleasantly of both Chinua Achebe and William Faulkner as I read it.  Baho! is a story of pride and masculinity run amok, of the aftermath of war and what it means to have definitions forced upon you by society.  It is a beautiful breath of perspective from the type of voice that we in “Western society” so rarely hear (oftentimes because we willfully ignore such voices).  And as the translator, Christopher Schaefer, so aptly points out, Baho! does not spend its time on the wider conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis.  Rugero seems to understand that many of his potential readers have, rather shamefully, become desensitized to large-scale statistical depictions of the violence in the region.  So he has narrowed our focus down to a few people, a single village at the widest, and made us see the people as people, rather than numbers in a news report.  I highly recommend this novel, for the strength of its story, for the depth of its characters and commentary, and for the fact that you probably have read nothing it like it before.


Baho! is available now through Phoneme Media.