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Zachary Jensen

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

Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages & Uncollected Poems

by on August 23, 2016

diseno-de-tapa-kyn-taniya-print1Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages & Uncollected Poems by Kyn Taniya

There is something to be said about the importance of translation in regards to literature. I would not have been able to experience the work of so many writers that I love and admire if it were not for the endeavor of translators. Sometimes, the translation is coupled with a work being re-issued after many years, shining light on authors that may not have had much exposure outside their language. Allowing the work to breathe new life and hopefully widen the reach of their powerful words. When I am handed a book of translation it is quite frequently an exciting moment. The gravity of the process that it took in order for the book to reach my hands does not fall lightly on me. This was especially true with the book Radio: Wireless Poem In Thirteen Messages & Uncollected Poems by Kyn Tania.


Originally published in Mexico in 1924, where it now considered a cult classic of the estridentista avant-garde movement, Radio has now been translated after 92 years for a new audience to experience. The first thing that strikes about this bi-lingual collection is the sheer modernity of the work. The poems in this short collection feel like they could have easily been composed today as they were in the early 1920’s.


Poems discussing wireless technology and celestial objects, making reference to radio waves, could be seamlessly interchanged to discussions of cell phones and Wi-Fi signals. An example of this is in the poem “Midnight Frolic”:



Listen to the conversation of words

in the atmosphere.


There is an insupportable confusion of terrestrial voices

and of strange voices



The feeling of connection in these poems – that is hopeful in many ways – still bleed so beautifully into the feelings of unease that has only grown exponentially as technology has grown. Today the voices we hear are schizophrenic and never ending (unless you are lucky enough to pass through a data dead zone which is becoming more and more infrequent). The idea of broadcasting yourself out in the world is still such a novel idea today, one that I grapple with on frequent occasion. Because it is still so new, the rules and etiquette are ever changing, what may be socially acceptable one day may be strange another day. You just have to listen to the right voices.


The concepts and feelings in regards to technology are coupled with social unrest, political instability on a global level, and loss of loved ones to make poems whose words are cutting, sincere, and contemplative. In the poem “… IU IIIUUU IU …” (of which there is a great recording online of the poet reading it) we are presented with broadcasts of problems and occurrences around the world: Deaths in Chicago, unrest in Bagdad, sports heroes, and more all for sale to consumers at low prices. So quick and accessible it would be a shame not to take it all in.


When I read these poems I was given the realization of how much the world has really not changed. There have been advancements in technology that have pushed us closer together, closer to the stars, yet closer to oblivion; however the sentiment, the soul of what concerns us as human beings is still very much the same. The poems that live within this collection are fresh, and vibrant. Just as alive as when they were written.


Radio by Kyn Tania is available through Cardboard House Press

Book Review

The Hermit

by on August 2, 2016

lucy-ivesThe Hermit by Lucy Ives


Solitude. The first thought that this concept strikes within me is one of solemn and despondent feelings. Of hopelessness, the sheer and unbearable weight of being alone in the world, existing in a place, real or metaphorical, where you are left to your own devices. However, within this place that real introspection can occur. Where one can begin to process life’s eventualities, the brief moments that make up the whole, and the successes and failures that makes life worthwhile. It is exactly these things that Lucy Ives is exploring in her recent poetry book “The Hermit”.

At first glance this book is quite sparse. Blank space is at a premium in this text with many sections encompassing only a paragraph, sentence, phrase or other musing. This is not to the books detriment though. The emptiness of it all forces one to be more tuned in to the feeling of isolation, but more so to the language that is being used here. Language that captures quite powerfully the feelings or ideas Ives had set out to explore. Words are examined with precision, ideas are tackled with ease, and the reader is forced to examine language in modes that may twist your mind theoretically. Ives use of language is at times quite lyrical, thoughtful, poetic, introspective, philosophical or all of these at once. Small moments in life, moments that may otherwise go unnoticed are given the chance to shine in the limelight of existence.

The book is hard to pin down because it is ultimately so many things at once. It is a book about process: the process of writing, writing poetry and prose, how art comes into that process, and all the things it can encompasses. But it is also a book about emotions, either miniscule in their initial impact or devastating in those moments of inception, that dig into you so deeply that they become a part of who you are. The idea of these moments and emotions cycle back and we are presented with how Ives takes these emotions and turns them into something beautiful. So we now cycle back to the idea of process, but not as course one takes in order to create, but as a means to make sense of the world, to heal, to cope with the weight of it all.

It is within this realm of process, that the book that Lucy Ives has written becomes something remarkable, personal, and quite human. Ives breaks down fragments of her existence into the pages of this book and lays them out bare. The reader is given a glimpse into a world that otherwise is sealed; and by the end of the book you may not understand a single thing, or you may now be privy to many things, however this exploration will no doubt open doors inside your own soul to allow the band of thoughts and memories, and emotions to play their song and hopefully make you dance, at least a little.

“What if a person will always be a few steps from life, whetever that is, and what if this person will feel dissatisfied, imperfect on account of this distance? What will we say to them? Do they become a character typical of their time? And, if such a person cannot become such a character, what is the use of them?”

The Hermit is available now through The Song Cave