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T.M. Lawson

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

Multiple Choice

by on June 1, 2017

Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra

Translated by Megan McDowell

Review by T.m. Lawson

 

Perhaps it is the cover design’s callback to blue books that provokes a nostalgia that seems to be trendy these days. (Has it ever not been trendy to peddle the past?) Or maybe it is the clever title in conjunction with the design: Is this book A) fiction? B) Nonfiction? C) Poetry? D) All of the above? Or E) None of the above? Alejandro Zambra punctures the distinctive lines between genres in this collection, earning the proud The New Yorker praise that he is indeed “Latin America’s new literary star.”

I’m inclined to agree; it surprises me that the book was not more of a splash in the U.S. considering our literary love affair with Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, and our recent history with the transformation testing in schools. The No Child Left Behind Bush-era policy has left behind a scar in children’s education and a belief that governments are not concerned with an educated populace but pliable citizens. Zambra hits on these notes very well. In his short story, Text #1, the narrator’s former grade school teacher, now a retired bus driver, serves as an embittered voice as he asserts to his former students, “[School] is rotten, but the world is rotten […] They prepared you for this, for a world where everyone fucks everyone over. You’ll do well on the test, very well, don’t worry—you weren’t educated, you were trained.” The narrator notes immediately that “it sounded aggressive, but there was no contempt in his tone, or, at least, none directed at us.”

The whole of the book plays with form, mirroring a standard testing packet as it transitions from word choice to longer texts. This in itself is novel, however Zambra takes off with the constrictions, effectively blowing my mind with each page. Consider this excerpt from “I. Excluded Term”, in which the reader (or tester) should “mark the answer that corresponds to the word whose meaning has no relation to either the heading or the other words listed.”

1. MULTIPLE                                                    4. FIVE
A) manifold                                                         A) six
B) numerous                                                        B) seven
C) untold                                                            C) eight
D) five                                                                D) nine
E) two                                                                E) one

2. CHOICE                                                       6. BODY
A) voice                                                             A) dust
B) one                                                                B) ashes
C) decision                                                         C) dirt
D) preference                                                      D) grit
E) alternative                                                     E) smut

One could sooner pick the prettiest star in the heavens than decide on a selection. Zambra boxes the reader in while liberating diction; indeed, how could you pick a word that does not belong when you really think about the direction they take you? It’s clever work, but it goes beyond simple cleverness. Zambra makes this section the most poetic out of all of them because of the compressed nature of exercises and the limited real estate given to the ideas he spreads on the page. It feels holistic how one “exercise” leaps to the next, all of them seeming to complement one another and build on each other like bricks. They are simple selections, not ten dollar words by any stretch of the imagination. Alejandro does magic with simplicity, and it plays to his literary strengths. My favorite pair end off this section appropriately:

23. SILENCE                                                  24. SILENCE
A) fidelity                                                         A) silence
B) complicity                                                     B) silence
C) loyalty                                                         C) silence
D) conspiracy                                                    D) silence
E) cowardice                                                     E) silence

The other sections include II. Sentence Order, III. Sentence Completion, IV. Sentence Elimination, V. Reading Comprehension (in which he gives three long prose selections called Texts and asks intricate questions analyzing the content). The second section is Zambra’s most enjoyable because of how it twists the brain and requires participation from the reader; it does not request. Instead, Alejandro sets up a “build your own adventure”, sculptural in tone depending on the reader’s placement. It requires brain activity, no passive intake of information.

26. The second                                                                  27. A child
1. You try to remember your first Communion.                     1. You dream that you lose a child.
2. You try to remember your first masturbation.                    2. You wake up.
3. You try to remember the first time you had sex.                3. You cry.
4. You try to remember the first death in your life.                4. You lose a child.
5. And the second.                                                            5. You cry.

A) 1-5-2-3-4                                                                  A) 1-2-4-3-5
B) 1-2-5-3-4                                                                  B) 1-2-3-5-4
C) 1-2-3-5-4                                                                  C) 2-3-4-5-1
D) 4-5-1-2-3                                                                  D) 3-4-5-1-2
E) 4-3-2-1-5                                                                  E) 4-5-3-1-2

This is Zambra waking up the reader and putting some semblance of stress that is akin to … dare I say, a final exam? But there is too much self-awareness, too much good humor as he pokes fun at all sorts of themes and subjects (the writer’s life, soured relationships, family arguments, a woman’s breast cancer) to be weighed down by any overt academic influence this format could take on. Alejandro Zambra is daring the reader to pick up the blue book and take a test, which begs the question: what does it mean to pass?

 

Multiple Choice is available now through Penguin Random House.

Book Review

Balloon Pop Outlaw Black

by on February 28, 2017

Balloon Pop Outlaw Black, by Patricia Lockwood

Review by T.M. Lawson

 

There are too many (or maybe not enough) words to state my worship of Patricia Lockwood. I forget if it was her infamous “Rape Joke”, or the lesser known but still as psychically-charged “He Marries the Stuffed Owl Exhibit At the Indiana Welcome Center”, that drew me into her orbit as some free-falling fan-cum-satellite, but Lockwood is a young immortal in the literary world. Her art of infusing social critique and commentary with divine poetics is evidence enough; her chapbook (Balloon Pop Outlaw Black released by Octopus Books, 2012) was followed up by Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexual (Penguin, 2014). Her “sext” series on Twitter illustrates that she can take a medium and run away with it, provoking the internet with post-coital spasms (sometimes mistaken as a seizure).

Poetry is often argued as “dead” or “irrelevant” because of the changing of the guard; the clash of new and old generations arguing over how it should be used. In a way, they are right; poetry is dead—the old generation’s conception of poetry. Poetry is a phoenix. The Beat generation endured this transformation, the Confessionals suffered it, the Spoken Word poets ignored it (sometimes preferring to be separate)—and the same for the Lockwood-esque writers who reject convention while warping it to suit their means. Melissa Brody (So Sad Today and Last Sext), Kate Durbin (who claims that ‘they’ don’t pick Poet Laureates who use “cunt” in their poetry) and dozens of other emerging writers who blur the line of poetic form and sensibilities. It was the same for Romantics as it is for these Millennial writers: poetry is dead, long live poetry.

Patricia Lockwood could be seen as an anomaly in the literary world: no M.F.A., no elite connections, straight out of Kansas, completely organic in conception. In a way, I feel that this has given her an advantage over the M.F.A. graduates; not in measures of talent, but it is understandably difficult to create a heterogeneous writing population if most of these writers are graduating from the same universities and programs, taught by the same writers and professors, applying the same angles of theory with minor variations—literary inbreeding. In workshops, writers sometimes feel the pressure to conform and align the content to some “politically [literary-fashionable] correct” view, because in a way the workshop acts as a focus group, a miniature audience. Lockwood circumvented this and went straight for the jugular, a different sort of poetry: pop cultural, passionate, filthy, grotesque (Walt Whitman doing the nursing?), yet dry and critical at the same time. Highbrow meets lowbrow. This type of art resonates with the reasonably educated or at least hip reader.

I had the privilege of reading her second book before reading her first. Popeye is a surprising motif to decorate the cover, some freakish monster right out of an Adult Swim cartoon. In some ways, this book is the prequel to Fatherland Motherland Homelandsexual—pungent sexuality in that book has more in common with fisting than Wordsworth, while Balloon Pop Outlaw Black seems to have been corseted. This is Lockwood easing into poetics, not quite comfortable but on her way to challenging conventions. But everyone has to start somewhere, and it is interesting to map growth from her first book to her latest.

For example, she spends fifteen pages on deconstructing cartoon Popeye and the ideas that prop him up, “He has never worn a mustache, because he is not capable of growing a mustache. This is because he lacks both the letters M and W.” The poem is exactly Lockwoodian: prose stuffed into verse form, with a touch of irony and wit as she questions the everyday.

One of my favorite poems of hers in this book is “The Construction of a Forest for the Stage”:

…If a woman lives in the forest, we build
her a half-log cabin out of only the visible sides
of trees. She is self-sufficient; in her hand, the play
opens out like a hundred-blade jackknife, and
she cuts her name, and then all of us are watching …\

She plays upon the idea that not only are the characters and speaker watching, but we the readers as well. The whole poem is about performance, “construction” of identities and roles and social expectations. Then there is the equitable relationship the woman has with the forest, both as objects in the spotlight (the forest as backdrop, the woman as an actress). Lockwood’s poetry in this chapbook is surprisingly dense with detail, metaphor, and narrative that sometimes it feels like the page is choking with words. In other parts, the content becomes plain weird. Delightfully, isolatingly weird. (There’s a multi-page miniature epic reboot of Jonah; a boy on some sort of philosophical nautical adventure with a female whale, among other bizarre inventions.)

What sets it apart from other poetry collections is how much of a story Lockwood is portraying, really pushing prose poetry and the line between the two genres meet to its limit. Stylistically, more than half of the content is not traditional verse form, making this feel like a hybrid short story/poetry collection than any poetry that the regular reader might be more familiar with. After all of the conventional and traditional poetry I’ve read, even those that defy these stylings somehow repeat them; Lockwood’s gamble on prose-dominant styling works for her topsy-turvy message. The overwhelming depth of strange bedfellows she brings out (the dictionary salesmen whose “teeth are all / black gaps”, two halves of a horse speaking to each other, fathers and mothers of all varieties) creates a horrific symphony, the chorus being Lockwood’s deadpan wry observation of our natural (and unnatural) world.

A good instance of this is her frequent mention of forest as not just a subject and setting, but as a character, like a background character slowly being fleshed out into a supporting role. Another peculiarity is within the form of the poetry, particularly “Killed With an Apple Corer, She Asks What Does That Make Me”, which ends on a comma, leaving the entire piece hanging on the pause, experiencing the waiting. It brought to mind the old cellophane reels and a strip stilling, images slowly burning – that’s what her poem evoked. If you enjoyed her latest book Motherland, Fatherland, Homelandsexuals, you’ll adore this early look into Patricia Lockwood’s brain and the poetic tentacles testing out a sea of words.

 

Balloon Pop Outlaw Black is available through Octopus Books.