Book Review

Room in Rome

by on September 17, 2020
Written by Jorge Eduardo Eielson
Translated by David Shook

I think it is fair to say that wholeness, or, more specifically, a lack thereof, is part of the fabled “human condition.” I do not and will never claim to be the most experienced person in the world, but I also do not believe that I have ever known someone who feels complete. Truly complete, that is. To be clear, I do not mean content or happy – you can be either or both of those things and still possess unfulfilled desires, relegated aspirations, or even loneliness. Some of this, I think, does come from a very healthy and important drive in the mind to seek out challenge and stimulation. But it is long overdue that we acknowledge how much of our incompleteness, on a personal level, is imposed upon us. It is in this context that cannot help but consider Room in Rome, a collection of poetry by Jorge Eduardo Eielson. Again, in the interest of clarity, Eielson’s text is not preaching from the soapbox. There is nothing inherently wrong with preaching, but Room in Rome is using an alternative approach; an exercise in unstoppable serenity, an embracing of empathy with infinite momentum.

The imposition at play in Eielson’s poetry is the child and tool of society and culture. As far as I could tell, every single poem in this collection dealt with identity on some level, and specifically with the forces that either try to insidiously manipulate the self-image or try to crush it under their bloated gaits. Eielson, himself Peruvian and Swedish, two ethnic and cultural heritages that are themselves the results of centuries of war, colonization, immigration, and exchange, writes from a largely first person perspective as he has quite literally been transplanted to Rome. Poem after poem deals with expectations placed upon him, upon his neighbors and friends and strangers, and trying to find the sources of those expectations. Governments, patriarchy, the Catholic church, capitalism, and more appear as forces wielding boundaries and arbitrary labels as weapons to be bolted onto people, as if being branded in ownership is somehow going to lead to fulfillment. For all of its beautiful harmony as a text, Room in Rome is a scathing indictment of in-group favoritism and gatekeeping, and likely all the more beautiful for it.

el corazón / de esta ciudad que es tu cuerpo / y es el mío / nuestro cuerpo / y nuestro río / nuestra iglesia / y nuestro abismo?
the heart / of this city which is your body / and is mine / our body / and our river / our church / and our abyss?

In my last review, of Don Mee Choi’s essay on translation, “Translation is a Mode = Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode”, I remarked on how much joy I found in Choi’s essay writing style as it broke many of the dry as sepulchral dust rules that they warn you about in school. Now, I find myself wonderfully blindsided by this novelty again in Eielson’s poetry. We are no strangers to experimental poetry, and I would say that, by modern standards, Eielson isn’t doing anything groundbreaking. It is, instead, in simplicity that he expresses himself. There are spots where he puts his line breaks in the middle of words or phrases. I can already hear my professors (and even some of my understandably wary peers) cringing at the thought, but it is handled beautifully here. It contributes to the theme of incompleteness central to the work. The poems, while not consistent in their length or structure, somehow all have this snowball effect, building a downhill momentum as the language encourages its own flow. All the while, the speaker seems to float next to you, not so much detached as particularly of aware that they are both connected and an individual.

This type of delivery, that serenity in the face of chaos, is something that particularly appeals to me, largely because I find it seems to incredibly difficult to achieve. It is one thing to try and block out emotion (or appear to block out emotion) and appear dispassionate. It is altogether another to not judge yourself for having emotions, to achieve a kind of harmony by embracing yourself and the chaos and understanding your relationship to it. Too often we fetishize detachment as some idealized state of being, driven by those who would benefit from us denying our own humanity. You can feel the pain in the speaker’s voice when he speaks of things turning to ash before him. You can taste the intensity and ache of his love when remembers lost loves in ancient city. He recognizes these things as part of himself.

¿cuánto tiempo ha pasado desde entonces / cuántas horas / cuántos siglos he dormido sin contemplarte?
how much time has passed since then / how many hours / how many centuries have I slept without contemplating you?

For those of you familiar with work translated from Spanish to English, it should come as no surprise that David Shook is in top form here. The English versions of each poem are not only effectively accurate but they are almost as much of a joy to read as the original Spanish. None of Eielson’s message or emotion seem to be lost and Shook handles Eielson’s style wonderfully. And, corny though it may be, I cannot help but see this reinforce the search for identity throughout the text.

When I write these reviews, my goal is to express the kind of intellectual and emotional engagement that I experience, not to suggest how you should feel about a text, but to encourage you to find your own experience with it. They are suggestions, however emphatic, that the texts I am discussing will bring you the challenge and stimulation that I think the overwhelming majority of us seek. This goal, I think, is partially why Room in Rome had such an effect on me and I why I write about it now. Eielson is gently and firmly reminding you to find yourself, to be aware when other forces are trying to dominate your perspective or infiltrate theirs under the guise of your own. You can be a child of contradictions, of many names, of myriad complexity, and still be an identifiable you.

Room in Rome is available now through Cardboard House Press.

Music Nonfiction

The Years of the Unified Heart

by on September 16, 2020

You can add up the parts; you won’t have the sum

You can strike up the march, there is no drum

Every heart, every heart to love will come

But like a refugee

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in

— “Anthem,” Leonard Cohen

*

Tallboys of Steel Reserve, watercolors, and Leonard Cohen records mark 2016-17: years lost in the ether—post-grad and aimless; permeated by the existential dread of dawning upon twenty-something. I now see those days as some of the most capacious and blessed—hazy, dappled with light, full of growth and opportunity; full of so many cracks where the light has since filtered in. The dichotomies of that time made Cohen’s music all the more welcome.

Prior to Cohen’s passing in the fall of 2016, I was feeling splintered. I’d been out of college a year and a half, embarked on a messy trip of service abroad and returned early, begun stringing together part-time jobs to support my art. Trump’s election was permeable in everyday places, ambient but sinking in. One evening, I learned from my friend—a social worker for victims of sexual assault—that a man had walked up to a woman at the Target near my house, grabbed her between her legs, and said: “I get to do this now that Trump’s president.” Later that night, I told my best friends and bandmates, Joey and Trevor. We sat in a shocked silence for a while, and I remember being unable to withhold my tears. I stayed at their place, our trusted silence carving out some kind of belonging, somewhere I could rest.I sometimes get that evening confused with another from that autumn: I was with them in their house, again, and sitting in the same spot on the couch when we heard the news of Cohen’s passing. I can’t remember whose idea it was, but it felt like a communal one—we hopped into Joey’s truck, plugged in his iPod, and took turns passing it back and forth; picking favorite Cohen songs as he drove with no particular destination in mind. I think “Anthem” may have been the first pick. Somewhere during our drive, we came across a small country church with a lit sign that read something along the lines of: “If you died tonight, where would you go?” Again—a shocked silence accompanied by shared, knowing glances. We drove for what felt like hours, song after song. There was something monastic about our mutual silence, our shared grief going unanalyzed.

The morning after our drive, I printed out a picture of Cohen’s “order of the unified heart”—a symbol of two intersecting hearts (one upright, one downturned) that was printed on each of his books and represented the Jungian idea of anima/animus—that the masculine and the feminine are entwined in each of us and within our relationships. I got a tattoo on my ribcage a few hours later. I didn’t post a picture to social media, where people were sharing all sorts of elegies for Cohen. I empathized with and shared their sense of grief, but I didn’t know what I could possibly add to the conversation. There’s a unique sort of strand of survivor’s guilt I experienced, threaded into mourning the loss of someone I didn’t really know but loved well—an aching sort of reverence. It meant the tattoo was for me; a birthday gift to myself. A non-answer to the question we saw on the billboard that I’d been asked my whole life byway of my evangelical upbringing. At the time, I loved the conceptual richness of the sacred heart tattoo—the way it offered more intersections than the Christian cross.

When I notice it now, my tattoo means more than anima/animus—more than a symbol of multi-faceted love-—it means 2016: the year so many things were full of uncertainty and opportunity: the year Trump was elected, the year of our first shows as a band; the year of record-shopping in the dollar bin, the year I sold my guitar to make rent, the year of my first panic attack, the year I said I am not a Christian out loud, the year of letting the stray cat inside, the year we found her dead outside Joey’s window, the year of revolving-door records, Steel Reserve beer, and watercoloring on the floor.

O, see the darkness yielding

That tore the light apart

Come healing of the reason

Come healing of the heart

O, troubled dust concealing

An undivided love

The heart beneath is teaching

To the broken heart above

— “Come Healing,” Leonard Cohen

*

Not long before Cohen’s death, on that same couch at the boys’ house, the three of us had watched a documentary about Cohen’s time in a Buddhist monastery at Mt. Baldy in California. We were so taken with his ability to infuse the sacred with the profane, alchemize them into something wonderfully familiar and wholly magical. Plus, he was funny. We loved to giggle at lyrics from the title track of “The Future” (the album with “Anthem,” which came out in 1992 ahead of Cohen’s visit to Mt Baldy in 1994):

Give me crack and anal sex

Take the only tree that’s left

And stuff it up the hole

In your culture

We’d covered “Diamonds in the Mine” at one of our first shows as a band. Trevor had typewritten one of Cohen’s love poems as a gift for me when we’d first fallen in love, which I tacked up on my wall. When I turned 24 just days after Cohen’s death, Joey watercolored two book covers with images and lyrics of his; sort of Blakean, jewel-toned and regal. During that time and since, we’ve always freely exchanged Cohen’s poetry books and records in a rotating fashion. Whoever didn’t have one record or book could borrow it in exchange for another—they were one of the many revolving-door objects in our revolving-door friendship.

*

In 2017, the three of us moved into a house together and organized all of our records alphabetically on one big shelf. After they were all shelved we took a step back to admire our handiwork. We laughed at how expansive our Cohen collection was, sprawling out in the C’s like some kind of kingdom.

When I think of these treasured lost years, it’s Cohen’s music that accompanies them: a sonic context for all that growth and longing. It’s our tipsy, ambling covers of “Suzanne” at two in the morning with additional, improvised lyrics, our rice-and-beans dinners on the couch with Trevor’s copy of “Death of a Ladies Man” spinning round, a cheap candle flickering on the coffee table. It’s late nights at the since-demolished J&J’s Market & Cafe, where all of us had worked and dropped into like a second home, certain we’d find one another. It’s the bitterness of over-extracted coffee uncannily complimentary of an over-sweetened muffin, and “Closing Time” on the speakers when it was time to shuffle folks along. It’s going to La Hacienda on Nolensville Pike for a Saturday morning breakfast of huevos rancheros and hot, black coffee, then walking to Phonoluxe next door and looking through records. It’s finding a beautiful original pressing of New Skin for the Old Ceremony there, joyfully spending all my tips from a week of work on it, and putting it on the record player the instant that I got home.

New Skin was Cohen’s fourth album—the one where he left behind his previous producer, studio musicians, and the golden, cloying concept of ‘the Nashville sound’ and headed back to his more austere New York City folk scene roots. How coincidental to find this rare record in Nashville of all places, where I and my bandmates also sometimes felt simultaneously within and outside of the sometimes-mechanistic music scene.

The album cover was the original, before the artwork was banned and changed on later pressings. It is an image from the alchemical text Rosarium philosophorum, and was referenced in Jung’s work to symbolize the union of opposites—just like Cohen’s own unified heart symbol. I loved the Judeo-Christian references emanating from the record, recontextualizing these ancient symbols and words to mean something new, sometimes something radically different. It’s all condensed there, in the title: new for the old; a ceremonious reimagining I could feel fully welcome to. A communion table I could sit at comfortably.

And who by brave assent, who by accident

Who in solitude, who in this mirror

Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand

Who in mortal chains, who in power

And who shall I say is calling?

—“Who By Fire,” Leonard Cohen

*

I don’t listen to Cohen’s records as frequently as I used to. They don’t sit well in a casual context, for me; they require my full attention. Devotion, even. They’re like friends that live in a distant place but correspond with diligence, easily picking up where we left off. Joey’s since moved out of the shared house where Trevor and I still live, but he has his key. We still share equipment and records, practice in the music room, and play more and more often each year, it seems. Our friendships have grown up along with us, as we’ve taken on jobs, commitments, and projects that don’t allow for the same kind of consistent, casual hang-outs we once shared. We’ve become more intentional, monastic, like Cohen at Mt. Baldy, maybe.

We’ve found our place in Nashville, which is not fixed to any one ‘scene,’ but rather with one another—with our wider community which grows and vines in ways we’d never expected.

We’re devoted to one another in everyday ways. I can’t think of a better songwriter, anyone more emblematic of the ephemeral and unspoken, the mundane glory of our true love, our blessed friendship, then Cohen—serenading those lost years when they were in no hurry to be found.

##

Lauren Turner is a writer and musician (Lou Turner) in Nashville, TN. She is the author of Shape Note Singing (forthcoming from Vegetarian Alcoholic Press in 2021). Her poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in Image Journal, Cathexis Northwest Press, Chapter 16, and more. She serves as a blog editor for the freeform community radio station WXNA FM in Nashville, where she hosts her literary program, The Crack In Everything.  

Book Review

You & Me Forever

by on August 18, 2020

Chaos, lies, and raw emotion battle one another, composing and decomposing organically to create the heavy words strung together in Valerie Hsiung’s You & Me Forever. A work which transcends the barriers of a title of contents page and throws tradition under the bus of nostalgia. Memories alter page by page, making readers question their own experiences in youth as if self deception is a character in the story of our lives. Tradition, raunch culture, religion, origin story and sexual harassment mold into the textbook of an elementary school child and we are transported back to the world only our repression can find.

Written in sections of “Book One” , or “Postscript”, the poems wreak havoc on the mind and transport readers into the strange world of being literally lost in thought. This form of revisionism lends the text to become an art form in multiple layers and works as a performance. There have been certain moments when one can feel certain of relative trauma in text. You feel, I feel, they feel. We can all empathize or sympathize and wonder and relate. But there are times when a person comes across words on a page, and while remaining a hundred percent sure that they just read about rape, abandonment, or the unavoidable lies which come with ancestry, one may not notice the significance of the trauma. Valerie Hsiung’s work functions as a coping mechanism in both structure and content. From the words on the page to how they settle on the paper, meaning is woven into memory. Playing around with sentences and repetition like no one before her, Hsuing’s poems twist popular culture by recycling phrases and lyrics to make different meanings from them, as if putting together a ransom note from newspaper clippings.

Without giving away too much of herself, Hsuing uses ancestry to connect readers to the work in a way that’s relatable like parents lying about the origins of the child’s name, or a small exaggeration of a childhood event. Something so innocent that later becomes the foundation for a life of trauma.  While the first section, “Book One” delves into the youth of the narrator, the rest of the work jumps around memories of pain and confusion through events which have been altered by time. Hsuing’s use of italics showcases the mastery of intonation and how the way you say something affects the meaning,“They said the mind-the soul-die too/but only after the body.” 

There is a back and forth play between nature and technology at times, “I lick and lap at the magnetic water, become a part of the magnet.” As the narrator discovers a mutiny of self, a battle between memory and reality proceeds and the carnal animal or beast of the narrator becomes the driving force of the work. Violation is a lubricant for timeless emotion and poetry. And here also, the pain and violence in the poems are written with a sense of fragility and lightness that readers may at some points wonder, did we just skip something deep or was it meant to be so fleeting? 

More than once did a hand raise and a yelp come from my mouth as I joined in unity with the text, ME TOO! I wanted to shout, but had to keep reading each lasting word like I was starving. Hsuing introduces old ideas and creates their counter-positives, “In ancient times, rape was as common as wild was common. So, abduction, and the two – rape and abduction – often went hand in hand. These are common themes.” And immediately after this we read a section on the double standards portrayed onto Hera and Zues. But there is an almost existential nonchalant way in which the allegories are written. To see rape, then follow with “List of youngest birth mothers.” and no context behind it stands out as poetry that asks the reader to do work – which is brilliant. 

Unlike the grit that often comes with trauma poetry, the work here even goes as far as to reclaim “discharge” as something natural and feminine rather than grotesque or medical, “It was easy to carry the box that held her remaining life to the rented room in the abyss where the tree leaked its discharge…In this place, there were trees, mucosal intonations, and unprotected intonations, a vast, endless gamut, with trees, with trees, upon which she was only one of countless sentences.” The heartbreak I still echo while rereading the words in You & Me Forever is something I will cherish each time I have to call my parents grudgingly, or explain myself to an authority figure, or even explain myself to myself. Even in its final section, Hsuing manages to throw tradition in the air and writes the typical “acknowledgements” section of a book but instead of thanking names, she lists moments which have affected her in putting together this work. It’s almost like saying, yes thank you to all my friends and family for shaping me into this creature, or thank you for giving me the trauma and pain to put together this raw perspective of my life. 

You & Me Forever is available now through Action Books.

Issues

Issue 8

by on August 6, 2020
Angel City Review issue 8

Issue 8 is now available.

Featuring the work of:

  • Lindsey Novak
  • Anne Strand
  • Jennifer Faylor
  • Cristina Van Orden
  • Gale Acuff
  • Heidi Turner
  • Shuyu Cao
  • Simon Shieh
  • Charika Swanepoel
  • Lexi Cary
  • Marcia Arrieta
  • Micaela Walley
  • Sabrina Im
  • Emily Banks
  • Uzomah Ugwu
  • Alrisha Shea
  • Eric Stiefel
  • E.C. Messer
  • Erika Gallion
  • Emily Collins
  • Robert Martin
  • Tetman Callis
iBook/epub Interactive PDF
Book Review

Translation is a Mode=Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode

by on August 5, 2020

In several reviews on this website, I have expressed my view on the value of literature; namely, it is a necessary vehicle used to share human perspective and an intensely potent tool for empathy. If this is true, then there may be no purer manifestation of that value than that of literature in translation. It represents the crossing of borders and boundaries beyond the physical. It is often a deeply collaborative effort, as even authors who translate their own work must adopt hybridized linguistic and cultural perspectives. It, by its very existence, forces the reader to confront the existence of those they might otherwise be encouraged to label “alien”, “foreign”, or even just “different”. So maybe I am not in what one might consider a sufficiently objective mindset to examine Don Mee Choi’s essay “Translation is a Mode = Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode”, but I do not care, because it is a fascinating and provocative distillation of the power of translation, and a vital framing device for how we must proceed.

I seek mirrors through which I can also traverse, in order to map out the neocolonial history of my home, to translate myself.

The heart of this essay is giving translation its proper context. Beauty can often be found in the wake of tragedy, and while said beauty never justifies said tragedy, you can never understand one without the other. Most translation is no different. Much of it is born of and necessitated by the inconceivably cruel legacy of colonialism. But when we look at that legacy, especially those of us who are the descendants of colonization, we have a nasty tendency to treat it as a barbaric ancestral practice that we have left behind. The truth is that colonialism, like so many other forms of oppression, has merely adapted to new circumstances. Neocolonialism, which is the invasion and enslavement of cultures by or on behalf of capitalist corporations in the name of profiteering, is its latest incarnation and the one Choi specifically confronts in the essay.

I am not content to just go from Korean to English. I am not content to uphold the notion of national literature – the notion that literature outside of the Western canon is always bound to national borders.

She takes the time to explore the intense relationship between translation and identity, of how work in translation can resonate with someone who is of two or more worlds, with someone who can still feel the amputated connections to multiple cultural pasts. She shows how translation can take the very impetus behind neocolonialism and repurpose it as a tool of resistance; where neocolonialism ignores boundaries and consent in its insatiable need to destroy, work in translation travels back along its rubble-strewn wake to undermine it at the source. She helps us experience the tragic beauty of translation in our modern context, namely the regretful necessity of its existence as an imperfect tool of preservation and communication. For Choi, translation is not merely a political act, but a defiant one, resisting not only human greed but the advance of time itself, and questioning the assumed inexorability of both.

But my tongue deforms, it disobeys. I translate this longing, entangled with neocolonial dependency, as homesickness, which is a form of illness, a form of intensity.

On a slightly more personal level, I can say that Choi’s manner of essay writing is one that makes me deeply regret the argumentative techniques being taught in most schools. I would not be against showing this essay to any number of professors and department chairs as an example of how it is more than possible to make a persuasive written argument that is profoundly informative, deeply emotional, and a joy to read. Especially in the latter half of the essay I found myself pausing after several sentences and bemoaning the notion that so many students are taught to approach non-fiction and academic writing divorced from their own personal perspectives, as if such a thing was even possible. Choi’s writing is clear and powerful, poignant and elegant. She takes hold of an utterly daunting beast, that being the infinitely stacking layers of identity and legacy at the heart of her essay, and renders it intelligible without sacrificing scale or impact.

My tongue and your tongue are already an aggregate, a site of multiple and collective enunciation.

It is no coincidence that violence and militarism are so intimately tied with Choi’s subject matter. Neocolonialism is tautologically violent, and as it faces growing resistance around the world, it shows that violence through continued attempts at cultural erasure, police and military brutality, and economic exploitation. It can only ever respond to challenges with cruelty and dehumanization. And what is literature in translation other than an attempt to acknowledge someone else’s humanity? I do not think Choi is arguing that translation is some silver bullet (even our metaphors are violent) that will save us from greed and hubris and hate. But she makes the best case I have ever seen for the necessity of translation in fighting that terrible hydra. Her essay reminds me that translation doesn’t merely grow in the wake of tragedy. It is a manifestation of the existential human need for connection and acknowledgment.

“Translation is a Mode=Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode” is part of Ugly Duckling Presse‘s 2020 Pamphlet Series.

Book Review News

Black Lives Matter

by on June 5, 2020

Happy Friday to all of our readers. It was our intent to post a book review today, but in light of recent events, we here at ACR have chosen to use our platform to express support for the Black Lives Matter movement, the protesters, and the defunding, demilitarizing, and dismantling of police departments in the name of racial justice and respect for human life. The country in which we live has enormous potential for greatness, but that potential will never be realized so long as our institutions remain so utterly riddled with bigotry and corruption. Worse, that bigotry and corruption are, and always have been, held up by a significant portion of people as the meaning of that greatness. These undeniable realities of American life must be opposed, without hesitation or qualification, by any means necessary.

Black lives matter.

We are donating to several organizations that protect Black lives, that protect the rights and health of protesters, and that keep the resistance strong in courtrooms, jails, and advocacy groups. We are, health permitting, marching and demonstrating alongside protesters here in Los Angeles where we are based (check out @project_846, a protest led by our poetry editor Janice Sapigao and her husband). We admit to our own inadequacies and will continue to improve, increasing our engagement with Black authors and Black publishers. We will not be silent or complicit in the face of this institutional malignancy. We add what strength we have to the fight.

Black lives matter.

We are not saying or doing these things to self-aggrandize, or out of some perceived cultural or corporate pressure. We recognize that inaction is action, that neutrality is a choice, and that silence in the face of injustice is consent. Our mission at ACR has always been, and will continue to be, sharing literature not only for the joy of art but for the immeasurable value of engaging with new perspectives. To not engage now would be a betrayal of that mission, and of the people fighting every day for hope, love, and peace. Thank you for your time, for your support of our work, and, most importantly, for the efforts you have made and will make in these trying times.

Black lives matter.

Book Review

The Book of Scab

by on May 14, 2020

Written by Danielle Pafunda
Review by Anahita Safarzadeh

Dear Ugly Little Scab – we see you, we feel you, you are not alone. As the chronically ill Scab manifests within her passages, so do shared realities with a psychedelic twist. Danielle Pafunsa’s The Book of Scab makes what could be classified as nightmarish acid trips. Written as letters addressed to “Mom and Dad”, Pafunda opens the floor for ownership and for vulnerability as she traces through her adolescence and forces readers to experience the uncomfortability of sex and drugs which have so heavily influence the upbringing of little Scab. 

Fully equipped with the weaponry of a run-on sentence, Pafunda tells a tale much like the myths and legends of our ancestors. “I give his father the keys to your cars I give his father a bottle of your black label Jack Daniels I give his father some of the pornos I found in the ravine just in case he likes that kind of thing.” Something old and somehting new, Pafunda combines the nostalgia of the past generations who exhalted sex drugs and rock and roll while also being reminicient of what it was to like to be a child looking in on their parents confused or unaware. 

Something full of true grit, while still maintaining what is unique about our generation – music, sexual freedom, and a little bit of LSD. Although mysterious and out of place with time, the small essays between each parental letter has true depth. Using techniques such as alliteration to create a melody even if the chorus is made up of “bitch” and “fuck”. Spilling out of inanimate objects, little scab explores the landscape of her memories, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

“Between my ribs there are failings, and in my lungs there is a swollen crown of pollen spurs. It’s the only thing natural about me. I cough, and my bad taste wheezes out.”

To say one is reminded of Candy Man would be an understatement. The creature living within the passages of this novel has experienced pain, yes, but beyond that she is in pain and she see’s even her bodily fluids as evidence of her life as consequence. Consequence to what, to living, to existing, or consequence to being born into a body which others see as an object 

One is reminded of the magical realism of Latinx writing, an exotic tale of twisted stories. People turning into animals, love turning into puking in a bush. Is this all an acid trip, are our lives one nightmarish ride which has stops meant to wake us up. Using rose petals to dab blood from cuts made into the skin to write words. An expression of art and storytelling as a way of giving life from trauma. The Book of Scab dares to execute what many have only fantasized about. 

In certain moments readers are able to get a glimpse of what is real and what is not, then the proverbial rug is pulled from us, our trip guide wanders off, and again we are left alone to address the motives behind the hurtful actions of our friends and families. Each scenario, although unique to the Scab, relates to minority and female upbringing. Moments which have always existed and never been challenged are now written against a bourgeoise backdrop. 

Pafunda constantly uses shared realities to expose moments of sexual assault which have gone to make scabs of us all. Candy and fruit as a way to numb the pain and outrage of sexual assault, or lack there of. A showcase of extreme cruelty and unforgiving abandonment leading to a lifelong need to fill a void. The novella freudian tactics sewn into childlike dreams and adult-like realities. Midway through Scab begins to recognize why she did certain horrible things to others, but only after she is left awkwardly craving attention from men who have inappropriately attacked other women, “I ruin everything, don’t I, when I go looking for attention.”

There is a sexual narrative carefully told throughout the novel. Something which allows readers to connect the otherwise seemingly different essays, letters, and passages. A scab is a wound healing, but this scab keeps breaking open, like zooming into the Mandelbrot set. But there is also a narrative of an outsider which could be glossed over if not read with more open mindedness. “My rights are alienable. That I hold onto them for the time being is material….All my privileges are plenty suckled up around me at night in the bed when I dream of getting out of here.” Pafunda begs the question of identity and passing. Are we all unhinged corpses walking around in our skin suits absorbing the world around us, letting the world around us absorb us in turn? 

The Book of Scab is available now through Ricochet Editions.

Music

“Born to Die” and “Off to the Races” Essays by Denise Jarrott

by on May 13, 2020

Born to Die

I am 17 and I’m not ready for the rest of my life. This much life already feels like an accident, and the approach of my twenties a confusing, improbable indulgence.

I don’t know yet that I am not intelligent enough to survive on intelligence alone, and I am not pretty in the way they want me to be. It is 2004, and when the weather is tolerable, I develop a habit of driving out to the most deserted beach on the lake and walk back and forth, the wind blowing back my long black skirt. When it is cold, I sit in my car and I scream.

I am a girl who was born in Spirit Lake, which sounds romantic, but imagine a frozen lake in the middle of a field that stretches so far that the rest of the world seems impossible. Imagine the Ferris wheel and the orange yellow light of parking lots where teenage girls in halter tops and fringed faux suede belts laugh as they hop in the cabs of pickup trucks. This is the only place I know to be home, though it has not felt like home for a long time.

So, I became my own version of the sad girl. My strange clothing was gleaned from the free clothing room at church and the local Goodwill, my eyeliner smudged around my big, bored eyes, ensconced (or trapped) in my beloved American tourist wasteland. My sadness was in so many ways a performance, but a very real monster lurked beneath the surface. Beneath the opulent fantasy of my own teenage melancholy was something very real, a darkness even the sad girls couldn’t save me from. Something that wasn’t quite chemical and wasn’t quite imaginary. It would be many years before I could name it.

At seventeen, I wanted to feel the sort of love that swallows people whole. I wanted a love that made me feel like a saint drunk on Jesus, a love that will make me bleed for a reason other than feeling like a cornered animal. I wanted sweeping violins and crazed feminine pain and a glut of roses. I was ready for something that felt like a drug, someone to make me feel as infinite as the fields that surrounded me.

I am haunted most of all by the possibility I was (and still am) just bored. Could it be that it wasn’t a reverence for a seismic love, for self-destruction, or for another place that would save me and make me into a new person? It was an attractive prospect to be someone else, even if that person was living a distorted life. Maybe I just wanted an escape from that small town with the neon sno-cones and wholesome families rubbing shoulders with amoral twentysomething factory workers on weekend benders. That town that wanted so badly to be arrested in an endless summer.

It would seem paradoxical, even false, to say that what saved me that year and so many other years were other sad girls, some who had survived and some who had not.  Sylvia Plath and her incisive dark humor. Her bitter truth emerged from beyond the grave through the voice of my best friend Ashley, rehearsing her performance piece for speech and drama, an excerpt from The Bell Jar.

Years later, it was Chan Marshall’s haunted vocals in Moon Pix were like a dense, heavy blanket in a friend’s dark apartment, songs that staved off death and welcomed it in the same breath. It makes no sense, no sense, no sense…playing on repeat in the dark of an unfamiliar apartment as I tried to sleep off jet lag.

Later, there was Lana Del Rey. She came to me like a crossroads demon snaking through an internet radio station as I walked to work from my apartment one evening.  My pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola, she sang. I stopped in my tracks. My eyes are wide like cherry pies. Suddenly, the college town I’d grown to know as a cage to pace in became darker, wilder. Wherever she was, there was complicated men and ill-gotten diamonds and lost highways and the Pacific Ocean, roiling thousands of miles away.

I fervently consumed the Paradise EP, then Born To Die, and in consuming that sweetness, I tasted the familiar bitterness. I’d wished she had existed for me when I was seventeen, when I was living in that lake of spirits in the middle of endless cornfields. I wish I’d had her as a guardian angel to guide me though those early years, her voice in my ear as I sat in my car, telling me that “sometimes love is not enough and the road gets tough, I don’t know why.” I didn’t know why either. I still don’t.

 “Born to Die” begins with Lana asking “Why? Who, me?”,as if she never asked to be here. There’s an appealing teenage nihilism to “Born to Die”—it’s a song that evokes star-crossed lovers getting high on the beach, at the edge of a field, in a convertible, in a pickup truck, on the boardwalk, in the woods. We never asked to be born, and though we whine as much when we were young, it is later, having survived our wild, wild lives, when we have children of our own who cry though the night and never let us rest, it is finally then when we realize that they are trying to find the language to ask “Why? Who, me? Why?”

Off to the Races

I am 30, and I don’t have anything to lose. I take off to New Orleans with a lover I choose to keep a secret, because it is happening in the twilight of my marriage and the end of grad school and I think to myself that this may be the last time I can ever do this. It is exciting to keep a secret, and maybe I am finally bored enough to try something truly stupid. Just to see if I can get away with being this reckless this late in the game.

 I’m sunburned scarlet in a backyard saltwater pool of an old hotel, in a white swimsuit I will wear only this once, on this afternoon in New Orleans under lime trees and a shimmering of humidity. Everyone is smoking and drinking at the edge of the pool and it doesn’t seem like anyone here cares if their swimwear is flattering. Every now and then, the smell of marijuana wafts over the bodies in the pool.

It is a little bit primal, this city, heavy with the smell of rotting shellfish and sticky absinthe and impossible flowers. It doesn’t feel like America here, or any other place I’ve known. There is something older that haunts this place, this city of love and death and sickening history with street names like Desire, Bourbon, Piety. The man I brought with me, a man just as reckless as I am, watches me smoke cigarettes and trip over to the bar to ask for another margarita. A man takes me on a date with the bittersweet night. For three days, I am his baby and he would fight for me even if I never asked him to.

Lana’s voice rises and falls, rhymes “cognac” with “lilac“; rhymes “shameless” with “basement“. I can tell she is something of a poet, but more importantly, she is a singer (as all poets once were). There’s a deftness to her vocalizations, switching from sultry femme fatale and wide-eyed, bright young thing, as if two hyper-feminine demons are fighting over her soul. Or, more likely, these two versions of the same woman are what her adored “old man” requires her to perform, and she must switch between the two at his whim.

As a singer, she tries to please the audience in the same way she would please her lover, and it is utterly heartbreaking. That is why she is so tired. A starlet is both scarlet and harlot, waiting to be kissed in the garden of earthly delights, waiting to be loved for every inch of her tar black soul. She is both the persona and the person beneath, maiden and odalisque, woman dancing on the verge, on the edge of the Hollywood sign. She is tired because she has been so many other women and is so good at performing them that she has forgotten her identity.

This battle for control between Lana’s internal selves may be most brutal, most raw, in her infamous 2012 Saturday Night Live performance, which is admittedly difficult to watch. She sways in a white lace gown, her nerves buzzing and bare. The dark femme fatale voice is too deep, the delicate Lolita self too saccharine. Juliette Lewis tweeted that the performance “is like watching a 12-year-old in their bedroom when they’re pretending to sing and perform.” This vulnerability, coupled with Lana’s vocal stylings, is usually her strength, but in this case it was rough-edged, the line between the two personas too distinct. It is jagged, it is schizophrenic, it is the opposite of the polished performances required of a young woman. 

No one is certain whether or not Lana Del Rey’s consistent aesthetic is simply an aesthetic, or if her life really does consist of roses blooming in time lapse in the dark heart of America,  of fragile girls swaying through hotel rooms in red satin gowns and the wealthy, charismatic, dangerous daddies who are the still point of their faltering worlds. Perhaps it is not the point to speculate whether or not the art is derived from the artist’s life, especially if that artist is a woman and inevitably, the truth would be painted as either histrionic or duplicitous. In the beginning of her career, there was much speculation on whether or not Lana Del Rey was a overproduced persona, a Frankenstein’s monster created by her wealthy father. She was accused of being “fake”, but what would it mean for a performer to be “real”? Does the audience want realism?

Years after that fever dream of a few days in New Orleans, when I am living in New York, a different lover describes me as “confessional”, and by that point I have learned to expect such commentary from men, and I have learned that it is rarely, if ever, a compliment.  If anything, it is a warning to protect myself, that I can’t be such a delicate prairie flower in the unforgiving city. As if experiences were finite things to give away, and once those stories are told enough times, they lose their power. Sometimes I hope as much.

Is Lana confessing? Am I actually confessing, or is committing my experiences to words just hiding “the truth” behind a scrim? Sometimes she sounds a little exhausted with the histrionics, as if she’s told the same tale a thousand times of the man who gained incredible wealth by less than honest means, the story of hotel pools and love on the run. A world so sparkling and opulent it can’t last forever. The old man is a “thief” and a criminal and his girl is “crazy”, which she apologizes for multiple times, “God, I’m so crazy, baby , I’m sorry that I’m misbehaving…” but this demurring is only another means of seduction, for she is also “Queen of Coney Island, raising hell all over town.” Her tossed off “sorry ‘bout it” apology is an acknowledgment that her being “crazy” is another way to keep her lover, and whomever enters her world, interested. She knows that it is not direct authenticity the audience wants, but spectacle. The audience wants to be seduced.

Removed from this narrative, Lana’s Saturday Night Live performance is essentially what we do when we listen to Lana Del Rey’s music: perform our own internal narrative. We are twelve years old and swaying in front of a mirror. We are thirty years old, sunburned and drunk in a strange city. We are twenty-five and the woman we are and the woman we want to become and the woman we fantasize about being are in a bloody battle that will probably never end. It’s heaven and hell, truth and lies, the starlet and the harlot. Sometimes those things cannot be contained, sometimes they just are what they are, a girl caught in a daydream of a life she’s only pretending to live.

——————————————————–
Denise Jarrott is the author of NYMPH (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, 2018), and two chapbooks, Nine Elegies (Dancing Girl Press) and Herbarium (Sorority Mansion Press). Her poetry and essays have appeared recently in Luna Luna, Cover, The Boiler, Yes Poetry, Queen Mob’s, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a series of essays in conversation with Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. She grew up in Iowa and lives in Brooklyn.

Book Review

Jakarta

by on May 8, 2020

Written by Rodrigo Marquez Tizano
Translated by Thomas Bunstead
Review by John Venegas

What is the measure of a good piece of fiction? You’d think after all these reviews, I’d have a definition. But the truth is that no definition can ever be broad enough to encompass all the possibilities and specific enough to have any useful meaning. So it may be better to ask what makes this piece of fiction a good one. In this case, the fiction in question is Jakarta, by Rodrgio Marquez Tizano, and to be quite honest, I am writing this review to figure out the answer to that question. I’ve read it three times now and, after each reading, I’ve come away with two undeniable conclusions: 1) this a fucking fantastic piece of literature and 2) I can’t make sense of why. So here’s to hoping that putting words on digital paper might lend some clarity.

Though the city stagnates, and any possible works are safely buried under endless red tape, it’s still a place you never fully get a handle on.

On the most direct terms, this is a truly dystopian narrative. A first-person, non-linear dystopian narrative that teeters on the edge of magical (or perhaps sci-fi?) realism, all delivered by an unnamed protagonist. Right off the bat, the sense of dislocation and a lack of identity is intense. You are let loose in a world that goes largely unexplained and yet which is also disturbingly familiar, and your only guide is a person who won’t tell you their name and may not have the best grip on the flow of time, or their own sanity. It is, I have to say, a hell of a risky play. But damn does it pay off in the end. For one thing, I am always happy to see when an author trusts their audience to be smart enough to keep up. For another, the text is so well written that you find yourself following along almost through instinct alone, at least until you are so far in that you can’t really see the way back and you give in to the flow.

From Morgan’s notebook:

A story: the king asks the artist to paint him a labyrinth.

But it takes more than evocative sentence structure and clever wordplay to make a piece of fiction good, doesn’t it? What about the story? Dystopian fiction in particular always seems to be a misstep or two away from being a nihilistic masturbatory session for unprocessed immaturity. And yet here, Jakarta manages to be unrelentingly, mercilessly bleak, and yet somehow also funny and sweet and charming. The story allows you to empathize with people that, had someone just told you about their personalities, you’d probably never approach. It hands you existential questions with a sympathetic and regretful pat on the shoulder, not because it feels guilty, but because it knows you’ve been avoiding these questions for too long. I know this sounds pretty damn vague, but for however corny this might sound, Jakarta is a text to be experienced, not explained.

Maybe it is just me. Maybe this text comes along at the perfect (worst?) time for me. In the interest of disclosure, I am Latino, I am on medication to treat depression, I am a socialist, I am a former athlete and gambler, and I am living and writing this review while under stay at home orders to try and avoid the attentions of a global pandemic. When you read Jakarta, you will understand why all of that is relevant on the surface, but the reason I bring it up is that if we are going to consider that “good” may just be entirely subjective, then maybe this text is just letting me indulge that particular combination of young man’s angst and aging man’s bitterness, the parts of which I am just old enough to have a foot in.

Farther along the coast, beyond the ravines, the sky glows with a dirty light, like halogen lamps about to give up the ghost.

It takes a text like Jakarta, I think, to remind us of the purpose of literature, or perhaps the multi-faceted nature of that purpose. The purpose I speak of is empathy, the willingness and desire to recognize and experience (however second-handedly) perspectives that are not our own. Literature, like pretty much any art, is an act of understanding that we are not alone, that we want to be recognized and want to recognize in turn. And that recognition is not reserved for wholesome, or even bittersweet, experiences. If anything, we need solidarity and acknowledgment more than ever when we are isolated, when we are being oppressed and abused, when we are being fed narratives that are meant to distract us, deceive us, or render us powerless.

Addendum to idea: when I ask for my boulevard to have its very own median and for this median to be fitted in turn with a row of banana trees, Dos Bocas banana trees, the Secretary for Hydraulic Resources and Social Wellbeing gives me a tender look and exclaims: Don’t push your luck.

So have I stumbled upon an answer then? Is that what makes Jakarta a good piece of fiction? It’s probably as good an answer as I am capable of at the moment. The fact is that it is a wonderfully cathartic text, in the truest Aristotelian sense, one that tackles extremely difficult and unfortunately poignant subject matter and handles it with supremely gratifying deftness. To be clear, it is not a book that is going to appeal to everyone. But it’s also the kind of book that makes you realize what a damn shame that is.

Jakarta is available now through Coffee House Press.

Book Review

Unearth [The Flowers]

by on April 30, 2020

Written by Thea Matthews
Review by Sarah Bethe Nelson

The natural world of botany creates a scientific boundary around these deeply confessional poems. Thea Matthews’s debut collection, Unearth [The Flowers], uses the Latin names for plant life to root the reader in lifespans that persist. The Latin names provide a musicality that establishes an earthbound rhythm of growth, destruction, and regeneration. In the first lines of “Prelude | Praeludium” Matthews says:

UNEARTH          the abuse : repetition of bruising the spirit
the silence two o’clock in the morning
the mother in silence
the memories of a child
the child  / mother                 stolen
the generations like weeds ossified
the apathy of those already dead with a pulse
the time said once more     ssshhh… don’t tell no body     

They alert us to the battle that will be fought. Here the rhythm is no nonsense, staccato, a call to arms. We hear the pulse. Unearth, is to dis-cover. Excavation, with its suggestion of the morbid, tells us to dig up the buried truths, to set the record straight. The “no body” teaches us to feel the invisibility of the abused, and places us inside her voiceless-ness. The no bodies also represent our dead, our ghosts, and our memories. Demons are dragged into the light of day, and even though they are terrible to look at, they are eventually rendered powerless. The fight is over and Matthews has won.

Growth and regeneration weigh heavy throughout the collection. The interplay between our physical bodies, the “boundaries” of our flesh, the shore, and the ethereal development of heart and mind crawl like vines among the battle to regain power after what feels like irreparable damage. Memories are as vicious as cacti thorns and as deadly as poisonous flowers. But in this world there are remedies to be found, a salve for wounds, leaves that comfort, and healing nutrients in the damp soil and warm sunlight.

In “Iris”, Matthews performs an autopsy of memory and emotion while delivering a scathing comment on the hypocrisy of religion in a country that values wealth and fame over all else. A place where children are the innocent victims and “will/ starve over-/ weight” while “others/ will die in/ denial/ more will die/ next to stran-/ gers respons-/ ible for/ excavat-/ ing little/ organs”. You can hear the drums crack in these fragmented lines.

The language, while stark and at times brutal, retains a lyrical quality, the imagery both horrifying and beautiful, the textures tangible. You feel and see the story vividly. The petals unfold into an unknown world, propelled by the laws of nature, laws that lie outside of the body’s power. The use of space on the page literally makes the reader breathe and prevents crowding the growing thing before their eyes. The spaces slow the tempo and build the tension.

 In this collection the bull is called she, the flesh a boundary to the outside world like the shore stops the sea. It’s beneath the surface that salvation grows. The inner mirrors the outer: “as above so below/ as without so within” we are told in the opening lines of “Nopal Cactus.” It reads like an incantation, you almost hear the chorus singing it throughout the poems, reminding us how to fix our gaze, and how to steel ourselves for what is to be endured. It sets us up to grow anew, stronger and more resilient with every revolution.

We come to see that our trials and fears are the perennials. Are we replanting and cultivating our pain over and over, year after year? Our lives, our stories, what we create, are the annuals. There are seasons for our pain but seasons do end. Our bodies and souls regrow with the passing of time. This truth, Matthews seems to be saying, is an eternal one.

When we reach the annuals the rhythm shifts noticeably. The pace steadies and breathes, no longer fighting. In the midst of the eternally recurring we register the pulse of Matthews’s voice. Somehow “kill” rhymes with “healed” and we have reached momentum. The scars show but the battle and the mourning are over. In all of their quiet power and glory, the leaves unfurl.

There are moments during reading Unearth [The Flowers] when you feel how tightly Matthews holds these poems, her cards still very close to her chest. You wonder if what seems to be strict sequencing in order to control the reader’s emotional response could have been loosened to allow the poems to fully blaze and stun. Could they have grown more wild if not contained so closely? It’s possible, but for now I choose to trust Matthews’s vision, her tremendous strength, her devastating honesty, and the beauty of her words, each one a living thing reaching far into the Earth and stretching ever upward to the clear and healing light.

Unearth [The Flowers] is available for pre-order now through Red Light Lit.

Sarah Bethe Nelson is a poet, songwriter, and musician living in San Francisco. You can read her poetry collection, Illuminate The Ruins, which is available on Amazon. Or listen to her three albums Fast-Moving Clouds, Oh, Evolution, and Weird Glow (released by Burger Records) on Spotify, iTunes, or Bandcamp. Her book and music are also available at sarahbethenelson.com.

Book Review

Materia Prima

by on February 13, 2020

Can it be said that awe is an underappreciated emotion? I’m sure we’ve all got at least one friend that uses “awesome” as if it were going out of style (and let’s face it; it probably is and should). But I am talking about awe – that spine-shaking, finger-twitching, pupil-dilating experience of magnitude beyond one’s self. It is a sensation that ignites fight and flight. It is, maybe, the purest form of excitement, that moment balancing on a knife’s edge between dread and desire. Or, maybe, it is that knife’s edge splitting us in two, letting our halves drown in both extremes. I suspect that our current cultural lack of appreciation may have something to do with pride. Our egos get in the way, convincing us that humility is the same as weakness. Even when we are afraid of the awesome thing before us, our pride often blinds us to its full scale and potential of meaning.

and at the edge of the twenty-first century / anew
Narcissus and his double / clasped together / verging
on asphyxia / in rigid water /
locked / enclosed in green glass:
a Siamese fetus / in a test
tube /

These are the immediate thoughts I am left with after finishing Materia Prima, a collection of the poetry of Amanda Berenguer, one of Uruguay’s most renowned poets. This is the kind of text that you want to encourage egotistical people, especially those saturated in toxic masculinity, to sit down and just read. It is a beautiful, surreal read, almost oxymoronic. It is at once calm and intense enough to boil your marrow; it possesses the kind of fearlessness that can only be earned through facing true fear. If you’ve read any of my work on this website, then you know I have a deep-seeded attachment to the metaphysical, the cosmic, and the existential. Berenguer’s work plays those strings like a true maestra as she guides you through what I can only imagine was her own existential reckoning, and does so not as condescending instruction but as an invaluable lesson to the rest of us.

the gesture suspended adrift / taking measure of the world’s door / in the lapse / of thought’s pause / the exposed piercing amnesia shines / the Milky Way unknown.

“Materia prima” is a phrase from alchemy, referring to the concept of a base form of matter. It is, theoretically, the substance out of which all other matter is formed. It was largely dismissed as a concept when physics and chemistry overtook alchemy as the sensible branches of science. But the concept still exists; “materia prima” is still one of the holy grails of physics, even if the label is no longer used, and the search for it led to the discovery of the atom, the proton, the electron, the neutron, the quark, the neutrino, and still pushes the cutting edge of science to this day. Why am I explaining all of this? Because this is my review, and damnit if I am not going to spend a paragraph nerding out and talking about how amazing the choice of title is. Berenguer uses “Materia Prima” as the title for one of her more famous works, and editors Kristin Dykstra and Kent Johnson use it as the title for the collection, and I could not be happier. The concept connects on so many levels. It represents the connecting element of the largest and smallest scales, and resonates with us, we supposedly insignificant specks in time seeking deeper meaning in an unfathomably huge cosmos. It represents the eternal quest of the writer, trying to use beautifully imperfect language to reverse engineer sapient emotion and experience. It represents the effort of taking control of one’s own ego, breaking down all the constituent nonsense and hypocrisies and appreciating your scale and value as both what they are and what they could be. And the poetry of this collection is full of such explorations.

La Amaranta cree que es Madonna / y que lleva en sus brazos tatuados / un corazon verde como la luz de un semaforo. / San Jorge y Michael Jackson se le confunden.

For all of its impact on the conceptual side, Materia Prima does not disappoint on the technical side. Berenguer, continuing in her wonderfully deceptive contradictions, is both highly experimental and intimately structured. Some poems are akin to word searches or mathematical graphs. Others, like “Trazo” (Outline), use multiple text colors to create poetry within poetry in a way that is almost disturbingly elegant and simple. Still others, like “A Study in Wrinkles”, read almost alike prose poetry. On a very direct level, this means that the pacing of the text is enticingly variable. Each turn of the page has a reliable chance to bring innovation and a change in perspective. And yet, amidst all of that, Berenguer’s poetic voice is surprisingly consistent. The calmness I mentioned earlier is present throughout, even in moments of exhilaration, fear, or sadness. It is not calm in that it lacks emotions, or feels them in a stunted way. Rather, it is the calmness of letting yourself fully experience something, submitting to something powerful, knowing full well that you too are powerful and will emerge on the other side.

The notion of the divine / centers on a reality that is efficient / yet superhuman – whose mystery satisfies / darkness and infinitude. There’s neither blasphemy nor condemnation – there is poetry – word written – in the present / traveling across time.

For all the excitement this book stirs in me, it is something of a meditative experience. It is a strangely refreshing reminder that peace need not be stagnant or lacking in vitality. So often we are sold on the promise of conflict as the vehicle for inspiration and adrenaline. And, to be sure, Materia Prima does more than its fair share of wrestling with conflict. But there is a harmony here that I didn’t know I’d been missing. Or that I’d needed. I love most every book that I review (I wouldn’t be reviewing it here otherwise), but this is one that will likely go into my yearly rotation of things that require a return journey.

Materia Prima is available now through Ugly Duckling Presse.

Book Review

A Stab in the Dark

by on July 12, 2019
A Stab in the Dark, by Facundo Bernal
Translation by Anthony Seidman

I know this is going to make me sound very old, but I do feel there is something of a lost art to sarcasm, snark, and satire. Part of that is the fact that so much of the good humor with a bite is buried under a modern avalanche of edgelords and bigots who enjoy saying things to hurt people and, when called out on their pathetic behavior, retreating under the white (all too often exceedingly white) flag of “it’s just a joke” or “don’t you get satire?”. I’m also aware that when we find historical gems, they are often simply what time has not yet managed to erode, and that they too were likely obscured in an age that did not fully appreciate their genius. But there is something wonderfully impressive about an utterly merciless text that was born in an age that largely did not tolerate that kind of bravado. I don’t know what I was expecting when I started reading A Stab in the Dark, a collection of the poetry of Facundo Bernal, but upon completion I find myself thoroughly amazed, deliciously amused, and surprisingly hopeful. It is a thorough and elegant dressing down of systems and societal ignorance, poignant enough to ask hard questions and explore the hypocritical cruelty of social constructs with a sardonic smile on its face.

The ticket sales: good for seats in the sun, / worse for those in the shade. / The public: satisfied. / And that’s where the story ends. / Period.

It really is difficult to overstate the cleverness of this collection. I am reminded of the intended purpose of Jesters and Fools in the courts of aristocracy and royalty, not merely serving as entertainers but as critics. My imagination wonders at the idea of Bernal’s poetry being performed on stage, the speaker wearing a series of kabuki masks or the faces of Melpomene and Thalia. And few systems escape that performance unscathed. Bernal addresses the hypocrisy of the male gaze when it both desires and disdains female sexuality, the greed that betrays political revolution and societal progress into pantomimes, and the absurdity of moral authority when its supposed codes are neither fairly enforced nor logically consistent. He even explores how these self-destructive vices intersect, such as in “A Sermon”, where we watch a priest claim the moral high ground and warn his flock about the dangers of women. Bernal perfectly captures the affectations of those he criticizes, aping without misrepresenting, shucking the visual fluff and leaving the words raw and exposed.

do not frequent those dances / with such…ah…ridiculous cleavages, / which expose what should / remain forever unseen;

Humor, however, is all too often a coping mechanism, and this collection is no exception. The beating heart of A Stab in the Dark, the driving force behind its cutting wit, is a sense of dislocation, a person exploring identity while all too aware of the unrelenting exterior pressure they experience. Bernal’s poetry asks what it means to be Mexican, American, and Mexican-American, when none of those labels had concrete definitions to begin with. He echoes DuBois’ ideas of double-consciousness in poems like “Mexico in Caricature”, where we see a glimpse of what it is like to live with an ever-present mockery of you and your people. You can see the pity and anger in his words as he speaks of the lies that draw Latinx migrants to the United States, promises of opportunity and reward for hard work, while knowing full well the conditions that drive them to leave their homes in the first place. Without stating it openly, he encourages you to ask how any person is meant to find self-awareness under this kind of pressure. The fact that some do is nothing short of a miracle, and a testament to the resilience of their origins.

like the other gullible ones / he believed the tall / tales of god wages / and shorter / work days, among / other pipe dreams

I’ve mentioned in previous reviews a fondness for straightforward poetry, and Bernal definitely scratches that itch. Complexity can certainly be beautiful in its own right, but there is an undeniable effectiveness to being direct, particularly when your goal is subversion. Powerful messages can get lost when poets and authors forget their aims when writing and attempt to heighten the work through grandiose language. The only pomposity on display here is when Bernal allows the powerful and the hypocritical to make fools of themselves, and his poetry is all the better for it. Much of his work simply would not have the psychological gut punch that it does, or earn the same emotional pathos, if he had forced a lyrical waxing. The poems are never redundant or needlessly long, and the line breaks create a good flow that allows quick consumption and slow digestion. The collection is not terribly long, especially if you are lazy and don’t read it in both languages, but it is thoroughly re-readable.

peacocking in a green / leather coat, with a white / vest, and red pants – / in other words: Mexico.

To that end, the presentation of the text does not betray the sustained quality of the poetry for an instant. Anthony Seidman’s work as a translator is fantastic, as usual. His eye for when not to translate is impeccable, embracing the idea that there are many words or phrases that cannot carry the same weight and implication when reconstructed in another language. All poems in the collection are included in Spanish and English, and together they provide a powerful resonance with the text’s themes of duality. Even the footnotes are compelling, providing concise and efficient reference for Bernal’s regular commentary on the political and social scenes of his day. They, and the text they supplement, are sorely needed reminders of the wealth of Mexican and Chicano art from the early 20th century that is pathetically underserved by modern academia and culture.

Let’s hope none of this / will make one think: they’re robbing Peter / to pay Paul…

If this review makes me sound old in my admiration for an artifact of a different time, then I might as well also sound like a broken record, because the power and relevance of A Stab in the Dark to the modern age is too potent not to discuss. I am Mexican-American (how sad that I feel an impulse to refer to that as a potential bias), and I am forced to watch daily as many of my people are murdered by the police, exiled to places that they have never known under the lie that they “belong” there, or are thrown in cages to die. I am forced to watch their children receive the same treatment, with the only “mercy” shown to them being torn away from their parents and fed into blood-drenched jaws of a for-profit foster industry. I need more work like A Stab in the Dark right now, art that will put its hand on my shoulder as I stare into the abyss and smile with me as we steel ourselves against the horrors, as we remind ourselves that there is work to be done. It is perhaps a tired phrase, but there must always be literature that speaks truth to power, that shows the abhorrent distortions in the reflection not to be a trick of the mirror, but reality free of self-aggrandizement.

A Stab in the Dark is available now through LARB Books.

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