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Music Nonfiction

Not Hunting For Meaning: On Seeing Jandek Live

by on March 8, 2021
Jandek Performing at Hamman Hall

By Michael Sheehan

Not long after finding out about Jandek, I drove 300 roundtrip miles to see him perform on a Friday evening in April 2017 in Houston. It seems fitting that I had to go to such lengths to see Jandek perform; it serves the mythology. After all, Jandek spent three decades producing music shrouded in mystery, never (or almost never) giving interviews or revealing his identity, and never performing live. What made Jandek Jandek was, to a large extent, the reclusivity, the fact that listeners had to seek him out.

If you’re asking who or what Jandek is, it’s no surprise, despite the fact that he’s released more than 135 albums since 1978. Jandek is mostly a moniker for a single man—an alter ego for a slim redheaded Houstonian transplant named Sterling Richard Smith—though sometimes also it names the musical project, not the individual. If you were in the know in the 80s or 90s, what you had was an accidental 1989 interview in Spin and a mail-order catalog of albums (most featuring portrait photos of a redheaded man) that you could get in bulk by sending money to a PO Box in Houston. Maybe his music was played on your local college radio station. (I was devoted to the college radio station of my youth, WBER, but I checked and they did not recall ever playing him.) Maybe you caught passing references to him, like the offhand comment by Kurt Cobain in a 1993 interview where he pulled 1985’s Nine Thirty from his record collection and said “[Jandek’s] not pretentious but the people who listen to him are.”

The show was in Hamman Hall at Rice University on the anniversary of Prince’s death. I took my seat in the darkened auditorium where the curtained stage was drenched in purple light. There were not many people there but more than I’d expected. Dozens, let’s say. The houselights went down, and the audience went funereally silent. We stared for a minute or more at the empty, purple-lit stage. Then players emerged, still to utter silence: guitar, slide guitar, bass; these were Austin Sepulvado, Will Van Horn, and Mark Riddell, though nothing told me so that night. A woman (Sheila Smith) paused at the drumkit before coming to the two music-stands at stagefront to turn on tiny reading lights. She then returned to the drums—still silent—sat, and, after a bit of stillness, a lean figure dressed all in black appeared at the back of the stage and made the circuit they all had, but slower, walking along the glowing curtains, carrying a small bag or briefcase, hatless until he reached about midstage when he paused, donned the black fedora, and then set his bag down behind the drums, extracted his thick spiral-bound books of lyrics, and came to the front of the stage. He unclipped the book, set it on the stand, and gently set the clip down, fumbling with it slightly, as if perhaps nervous. The audience had not made a single sound during this whole approach. Then the two-hour set began. First an instrument started a pattern, then others joined, and finally Jandek—nearing and withdrawing from the microphone until the timing struck him—began. “I took a train,” he moaned, “to Colorado.”

I’d driven so far for this because reading about him, his reclusivity and the longstanding mystery of his identity, made me want to discover him, made me want to find and connect to this rare performer. I had also, at that time, finished a novel about a reclusive hairmetal singer who makes a dramatic and ill-fated return to live performance, a novel which I’d been sending out to be rejected by agents and editors. I don’t know how conscious the connection was–I’ve been writing about a reclusive musician for years and here’s this musician who has been reclusive for decades and only just recently started performing–but I think pretty conscious. But it was more than that, too: the combination (even contradiction) of a prolific output of albums and songs and lyrics with a strenuous effort to hide was compelling, in fact literally haunting: the presence of an absence. That his music was elusive, oneiric, uncategorizable, sometimes sounding a little like early Thurston Moore and at other times sounding like bad poetry over untuned instruments was, again, a powerful draw. That draw was the act of discovery, hunting for something, to find the meaning, intellectualize the lyrics and the music, to get close to the mystery, the ghost, and see what’s really there. But though the motivation was this finding, the experience of seeing Jandek was not of finding but of feeling, of losing myself rather than discovering the meaning.

Jandek’s onstage persona, as Marc Masters describes, is enigmatic and fit with the reclusive and mysterious figure only-guessed-at in the years before he made a surprise live appearance at a festival in Glasgow in 2004. Emaciated, dressed all in black, seeming at once rickety and ill and also wily and spry—he crouched and danced in slow, strange moves, out of sync with the music or suggesting a groove that was not otherwise evident. He intoned his lyrics, off-key, a moaning, haunting sort of wail, a near-spoken word that was evocative in its lyrics but also in the almost anguished quality of his voice and his delivery.

He would then cross the stage slowly, sometimes seeming to reconsider as he went or to listen and groove to what patterns were emerging behind him, crossing to a wooden chair at stage right which he slowly and with precise posture—what at first appeared like discomfort or difficulty—lowered himself into, after which the music tapered out within a few bars. It took me a couple repetitions of this to recognize the movement for the obvious communication it was: since every part of what was occurring onstage was an on-the-spot improvisation, Jandek’s sitting was his signal that lyrically that track had come to its finish. This improvisational quality makes the live performance feel much like the records in spirit, since many of them are freeform, experimental explorations of sound that are more like happenings than produced and planned tracks. Chaotic and amateurish, there are elements of structure and intention with his songs, even of album-level coherence and flow, but part of what you hear and feel when you listen to Jandek records is a sort of essaying of forms and emotions, rather than a performance in the true sense. Masters describes the live performance period of Jandek’s career, noting he “has put himself in a dizzying array of situations, often with collaborators he’d never performed with before or even met before the show…an impressive amount of shows have been complete wild cards, veering into styles, genres, and instrumental formats no one would normally associate with the Corwood representative.”

By shedding more traditional structures and approaches Jandek’s music seems to create something truly new, to reach and achieve emotions in wholly novel ways. Even though a given song might have a country feel to it or a blues phrasing, the overall song architecture hits you like nothing you’ve heard before—when it works. Admittedly, Jandek’s music is not easy to enjoy or even listen to, in many cases. There are many critical notes going back many years that suggest this atonality is not intentional—just a lack of mastery of the instruments, an ineptitude—or is intended but as a joke.

The point I want to make about the blues and Jandek’s context is that his music is strange but powerfully emotional, capable of resonant harmonies that haunt or transcend. But beyond or beside or within or through the flatly-intoned or howling strangeness, there are, at times, moments of deep sadness or sudden clarity but also sometimes moments of levity, moments of beauty, moments of, basically, frustration. Loneliness. The themes explored throughout Jandek’s lyrics are evoked in desperate, spare musical landscapes that have a fragmentary relationship to other, more familiar genres.

For example, at Hamman Hall, there was a point in the evening when Jandek switched places with Sheila Smith, who took the mic as he took the drums. He seemed a more capable drummer, albeit still an expressive rather than rhythmic one: he would quietly play until suddenly cracking the snare with a burst of presumed approval of Sheila’s lyric or delivery. But where Jandek stood mostly at the microphone feeling the music and finding the moments for his lyrics, Sheila crawled and posed and moved and danced in place. She wore an outfit that called to mind Alice in Wonderland. Somewhere in the middle of this, I closed my eyes, and stopped thinking and simply let the sound congeal behind my eyes. It was transporting. Though the purpose of seeing Jandek live–rather than simply buying the recordings he now releases of every live show–is to see him, I felt closing all my senses except the audile and letting the music do its work was the truest way to experience what was happening. And it was powerful. The ghosts of melodies arose and dissipated; the lyrics dug and stung; the large auditorium room we were in became an intimate space. Maybe this is what Kurt Cobain meant: to experience the music not intellectually but via an embodied cognition, something under or deeper than thought.

Still, seeing the Representative from Corwood (as he is sometimes called) at such close range struck me as something similar to Samuel Charters’ discovery of the only extant picture of Blind Willie Johnson, “Then there he was. I couldn’t breathe for a minute—I just sat staring at the screen.” This is undeniably part of the appeal. Perhaps unintentionally, Jandek created a sort of anti-celebrity in an era of massmedia. During the decades where lo-fi and no wave and grunge and indie-folk and alt-country bands rose to fame, his music remained accessible only via mail order. He retreated from reporters, avoided any publicity. This created among his fans a sort of echo of the mid-century search for the masters of the Texas blues, that desire to get as close to the source as possible. Hence Katie Vine’s 1999 article in Texas Monthly, “Jandek and Me,” in which she tracks him down, figures out his identity and finds him at home, then goes for a beer and captures the second-ever interview with him. He told her, at the time, “There’s nothing to get.”

But apart from that echo, I sat there and truly felt an experience that stepped outside of the commercial structure I’d come to know–come to long for acceptance in, with the novel I’d been sending out. This was a performer who had created and self-released music prolifically, denying a one-time eager world of any marketable identity. Prince, too, challenged ideas about identity, was a performer who could hybridize genres; I spent some time in the dark of Hamman Hall wondering if Jandek would cover Purple Rain–imagine it! In the thick ambient lighting, against the heavy drapery. But its impossibility I think highlights what Jandek did do. He didn’t cover, didn’t perform anything. He instead stood before a room of listeners, vulnerable, and open to the possibility of any given moment, including the possibility that he would struggle and never find the point where the elements fit together. But you could feel, could hear, that energy, that in-the-moment reaching.

After the last song–“From There” on the CD version, a nearly-twelve minute astral projection in which a haunting slide guitar braids and folds around the lyrics that are part dirge and part reflection on life and work and disappointment and longing; he speaks/sings/drawls, “So I’ll sing a song this evening / just to mean it all for you”–the stage procession was reversed, there was neither encore nor any call for one, though the crowd cheered wildly, and I walked out, across Rice’s campus, back to my car, and began the long drive north into the dark of East Texas, toward my home in the pines.

Michael Sheehan is an assistant professor of creative writing at SUNY Fredonia and formerly at Stephen F. Austin State University. He is also a former fellow of the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and a graduate of the University of Arizona’s MFA program and St. John’s College’s Graduate Institute in Liberal Arts. He has been an editor for DIAGRAM and was an Editor in Chief of Sonora Review, where he curated a tribute to the work of David Foster Wallace. His work is forthcoming or has appeared recently in Electric Literature, Agni, Mississippi Review, Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere.

Music Nonfiction

BACKYARD JAZZ IN THE TIME OF COVID-19

by on March 2, 2021

by Jennifer Shneiderman

            It’s my neighbor Annette’s birthday and reservations at the tony Connie and Ted’s seafood restaurant are not an option. We like to get dressed up and sit on the patio. We order the seafood tower, thick filets of fish and hot, salty french fries. We like to linger until the waiter brings out lit candles. Their service is stellar and the blond brownie dessert divine. Tonight, however, I stand in line outside of Versailles, the Cuban restaurant on La Cienega, for orders of garlic chicken, rice and plantains. My waiting spot is indicated with a “Stay six feet apart” circle spray painted on the concrete. The orders are stacked up in containers and wrapped in plastic bags. I wear a mask and gloves and I rub my hands with sanitizer after the waiter runs my credit card. When I get home, I will clean my card with alcohol wipes.

            I drive home and transfer several of the orders into baking dishes. The containers are thrown away and the dishes are heated until the sauce is bubbling, steam is rising and any virus is eradicated. My husband delivers the two remaining chicken orders, as well as a peach cobbler, to my neighbor’s house. She and her grandson will heat the food in their oven and serve themselves on their own dishes.

            We don gloves and masks and head next door with our hot food, bottled water, plastic flatware and paper napkins. Plastic tables and chairs are spaced far apart. They will be sanitized shortly after we are gone.

            At the end of our meal, my son brings his upright bass and his friend, Justin, arrives with a trumpet. He uses a trumpet mute to decrease the chance of transmission, and they choose the music accordingly. Jacob and Justin know the music and each other from a Colburn Conservatory jazz ensemble. They will play a short set at the far end of the yard. They start off with “All the Things You Are”, and then “Con Alma” and “Billie’s Bounce”. Neighbors start to gather on the sidewalk, trying to peek over the gate. The call of live music is strong and their eyes are large with yearning. The boys end with “A Night in Tunisia”. They pack up and go back to my house to eat their chicken on my porch.

            We can’t take a chance of hugging good-bye. Annette stands by, leaning on her walker while her grandson lights a candle on the cobbler. We won’t share dessert, or food of any kind, with them. We will leave and clean the handles of the gate with Clorox wipes as we go. We are just glad to bring some joy in the form of a  backyard jazz concert. It will have to do—until we can once again gather together for evenings at tight tables, bathed in colored lights and jazz.

Jennifer Shneiderman is a writer and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Indolent Book’s HIV Here and Now, The Rubbertop ReviewWriters Resist, the Poetry in the Time of COVID-19, Vol 2, anthology, Variant LiteratureBright Flash Literary Review, Trouvaille Review, Montana Mouthful, the Daily DrunkSybil JournalUnique PoetryAnti-Heroin Chic, Terror House, Thirteen Myna Birds, Potato Soup Journal, Awakened Voices, GreenPrintsProspectus, Autumn Sky Poetry Daily and The Perch. She was the recipient of an Honorable Mention in the 2020 Laura Riding Jackson poetry competition.

Book Review

Pixel Flesh

by on November 19, 2020

Review by Vicent Moreno

When Nocilla Dream, the first novel by Agustín Fernández Mallo, was published in Spain in 2006, it caused a seismic movement in the slow-moving and mostly predictable Spanish literary field. Published by a small press, the novel achieved a popularity only reserved to established literary figures and big publishers. While Fernández Mallo had already authored a couple of books of poetry, the instant success of his novel propelled his career; since then, he has published several novels, has penned a couple of essays on poetics and cultural theory, has won national and international awards and recognitions, and his works have been translated into various languages. Pixel Flesh, which appeared in Spain in 2009, was his first book of poetry after the publication of Nocilla Dream and it is his first book of poems translated into English. The volume is published by Cardboard House Press, a small independent publisher, which continues to lead in its drive to find and make available some of the best Spanish-language poetry to an American audience. This bilingual edition is translated by Zachary Rockwell Ludington and made possible, in part, by a grant from the PEN/Heim Translation fund. The best translations are always born out of a personal interest or passion in the work to be translated and this is clearly the case in Ludington’s precise and nuanced English rendering of Pixel Flesh (Carne de Píxel).

As a whole, Pixel Flesh can be read as a meditation on love, loss, and memory. Its format is a compilation of prose poems which, strung together, read like a long and fragmented poetic love letter with some caveats. For one, it is written from the perspective of loss, it does not project love into the future, but rather it looks at its past; it is the punctilious examination of a love affair. Like the pixel to which the title refers, the poetic voice zooms in obsessively to events, situations, moments, that make up the poetic voice’s love story. Interestingly, the only poetry written in verse in the book is actually not the author’s, but excerpts from a scientific article taken from the Spanish newspaper, El País. This bold move has two implications: on the one hand, it highlights Fernández Mallo’s understanding of science as a form of poetry, and on the other hand, it displays a very Duchampian gesture, ultimately signifying that anything is susceptible of becoming art in the right context or seen through the right eyes.

Scientific language appears frequently in the book, often as a metaphor of a stable and pure referent that lovers, as lovers do, try to circumvent in order to construct or understand their own reality: “you didn’t know the Principle of Least Action by which light [everything in general] seeks the quickest path to travel between two points (23) or “Your door, the Street, the hill. There is in this kind of goodbye a strange aquatic anti-law [you were crying, it was raining] that submerges Archimedes’ Principle and invalidates it” (21). Each of these images (the walk around the city, the goodbye in the rain) are motifs repeated throughout the book, to which the poetic voice will come back again and again, adding and subtracting information. Pixel Flesh is a highly intertextual work that opens up all sorts of hallways and windows into other forms of art, into other texts and disciplines. The references are sometimes direct: Blade Runner, Wittgenstein, Warhol, and pop music, among others, appear in the book as a very eclectic and, in appearance, incongruous amalgam of quotes and allusions that are a trademark of Fernández Mallo’s style. Ultimately, however, it is the reader who holds the key to venture into new doors and corridors. This makes each new reading of the book a new experience, rendering it practically inexhaustible in connotations and suggestiveness. For the sake of this review, I will just focus on three major references that stood out during my reading and which correspond to three of the discourses with which the author plays and pays homage to (philosophical, literary, and cinematic).

While Wittgenstein is a main influence in Fernández Mallo (after all, he has a collection of poetry titled Yo siempre regreso a los pezones y al punto 7 del Tractatus [I always return to the nipples and to the remark 7 of the Tractatus) and it appears as a direct reference in Pixel Flesh, it is Roland Barthes and its A Lover’s Discourse that resonate in this book. For one, both works are hybrids or mutants, they are hard to pin down as belonging to a specific genre and they are plagued with references and dialogs with other works. In a way, both start from the personal experience of love to try to conceptualize it and universalize it. Fernández Mallo collects moments, sensations that sometimes he calls “pixelados” [pixelations] and that conform a sui generis experience of the love story. Similarly, Barthes would call this the “Image-repertoire”, that is, the individual collection of subjective realities that the lover has about their particular relationship with the loved one, a unique idiolect that is however shared among those who love or have loved. The language of love is at once unique and universal: “What I saw in your eyes no one ever saw before, that we were the secret life of water, and an interplay of bodies to revalidate that cipherless escape by which a human being is something more than a bit of saliva” (19).

Another clear influence in Fernández Mallo is the language of film and cinematography. Some of the poems in Pixel Flesh in fact almost read as script directions, a choreographed scene that the lovers act out: “You were so beautiful, so whole with your pointy boots on that trip, the most thorough and western woman I had ever seen, light dominated by your hands, sentences: a drafting pen between your lips, astounded balance as you seasoned the fish” (47). The film Journey to Italy is mentioned a few times and one can see how that story of a disintegrating marriage is an apt background for the book. However, it is Michelangelo Antonioni’s vision and aesthetics, his elliptical and elusive plots that echo throughout these poems. The peripatetic characters of Pixel Flesh are reminiscing of Antonioni’s characters as they navigate urban landscapes and personal ennui in an intimate travelogue. We are never told the whole story, but are left to piece it together. Much like Antonioni’s trademark use of “dead time” in his movies, Fernández Mallo obsessively focuses on elements in appearance outside the story to elicit an emotional reaction in the reader who draws its own conclusions on how to connect them: “We circled the city. The sky ionized and dark, you offered me a Lucky [star between your fingers]. Within a radius of 2000 km around Earth there are more than 2 million kilos of scrap, the newspaper said: satellites, rockets, devices disintegrated in their circling” (89).

Finally, in this free play of associations that Pixel Flesh provokes, I can’t help but think of Julio Cortázar. Like the Argentinean author, Fernández Mallo possesses an understated romanticism that is allowed to shine in this book of poems. Pixel Flesh echoes the famous chapter 93 from Rayuela (Hotspot), a moment where Horacio lets go, so to speak, penning a love letter that is also a reflection on what it means to love, its language (“El amor, esa palabra…” [“Love, that word”]). Compare these two excerpts on the realization that what lovers feel is not that special, that it can and will be replicated in other arms, in other spaces: Pixel Flesh: “that everyone is one and, what’s more, not numerable, that other women will come, that other men will come, that it’s scary to think about the extent to which we’re all interchangeable” (13) and Rayuela/Hopscotch: “Of course you’ll be cured, because you’re living in health, after me it’ll be someone else, you can change things the way you change a blouse”.

The reader who enters Pixel Flesh, and in general the author’s universe, with an open mind and ready to be led down the rabbit hole of free associations will be doubly satisfied. While the text connects with the reader on a purely aesthetic and even affective level, thanks to a translation that stays true to the feeling of the original, it finds a more profound meaning in its invitation to the reader (that Baudelaire’s-like “invitation au voyage”) to explore, imagine, and see how this pixel of a work inserts itself in the larger picture of culture’s understandings of love across poetry and art, philosophy and sciences.

Pixel Flesh 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

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

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

When I Spoke in Tongues

by on February 14, 2019

When I Spoke In Tongues, by Jessica Wilbanks
Review by Lily Blackburn

That some believe in a spiritual language, one that negates form but can be coaxed from silence – connecting one to a higher power – is the source of both seduction and doubt for Jessica Wilbanks in her memoir When I Spoke in Tongues.

Wilbanks down-to-earth eloquence draws us into the intimacy of her family and community before slowly revealing the growth of her doubt and the emotionally arduous process of untangling a self from a religious past.After leaving her faith behind – sanctifying the moment with her name and the date on a scrap of paper in a bathroom at age 15 –Wilbanks struggles to find satisfaction or a sense of purpose sans organized spirituality; she studies the origins of her faith in order to contextualize her own experience.

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While magic may seem like an out of place word – it can only be said that church embodied both a magical and intimidating space for Wilbanks as a kid. Her descriptions of the congregation and scenes of worship are vivid, mystical.

“My mother’s lilting soprano joined my father’s baritone..My heart lifted in my chest and for the first time all day I felt like I could breathe…There was so much we wanted in that moment. We wanted to tap into the force that spun mountains and oceans out of air and take it into us.” These moments are undercut by a constant fear – of doing something wrong, falling inappropriately in her skirt if she, like her brother Obere, becomes too overcome with emotion. She yearns to feel what others feel around her, what she can’t yet articulate – the power of belief. 

I watched Obere fall under the weight of the pastor’s hand. One moment my brother was standing there beside me and the next moment he’d darted backward in his boy boots, hitting the ground with all the force of a man…I wanted to fall too, more than anything. But when my turn came…my legs refused to give out.

As a teenager, Wilbanks’ father “finds” the journal harboring her feelings for her friend of the same sex and Wilbanks relationship to her family – her final connection to her faith – is altered immeasurably. Wilbanks captures this sudden and irreversible shift rendering a familiar kind of shame. “As night stretched over the lawn my parents studied me as if I was an intractable algebra problem. They couldn’t solve for X.” As someone who grew up in a secular household – it is difficult to completely wrap ones head around the kind of shame that people experience when the laws of a religious belief system separate someone from their own family; though simply having been a teenager can conjure this deep sense of isolation – that suddenly, having been honest with yourself, you are no longer the same person in the eyes of those you love most.

In college in Houston, Wilbanks begins to research the history of Pentecostal faith left out of the sermons of her childhood. While Pentecostal faith is a marginalized sect of Christianity in the states, it was once the fastest growing faith south of the equator. Wilbanks writes of what is known as the Azusa Street Revival – a gathering of thousands of people inspired by William Seymour, a black preacher under whose teachings brought together so many that one church’s foundations literally collapsed beneath the weight of an increasingly diverse crowd of white and black – young and old – drawing racist critics to deem the whole movement false, unworthy, unholy.   

Wilbanks finds herself in Nigeria studying the intersections of Yoruba tradition and Pentecostalism, longing to be included once again in the rituals of her faith. “I thought maybe that old Holy Ghost language might still be wedged inside me somewhere after all, like a sleeping baby, waiting for the moment when I was no longer ashamed to let it out of my mouth.”

A sleeping baby not only embodying the innocence she feels she cannot claim, but the cosmetic purity that fills her with doubt; good versus evil – dichotomous thinking in the form of commercialized conversion narratives.

Near Lagos she attends the infamous Holy Ghost Services offered monthly at Redemption Camp – which typically draws between eighty and one hundred thousand people. It’s an oasis in comparison to daily life in Lagos.

As soon as we entered the gates I could see why people talked about the church headquarters as the promised land. After a few weeks in Nigeria, I’d become accustomed to power outages and traffic snarls. But Redemption Camp had constant power, running water, manicured landscapes, even flush toilets. Once inside, one was shocked by the order and calm.

Wilbanks is forced to reckon with not only her own privilege but the seeming lack of class consciousness in a camp for worship and spiritual connection – one that promises the message of “do good,” and you shall receive. It is inexplicably linked to and born from the passion and belief of the Azusa Street Revival. But even this interwoven arch of history, struggle and community against all odds is not enough to reconcile or her doubt.

The overall story becomes just as much a study on organized faith as it does relating the struggle of living post-faith. At the same time, the memoir’s trajectory offers a refreshing perspective on what forms self-discovery can take.

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Wilbanks relates the human need for acceptance and community through a unique lens – revealing how language and story can shape or empower the ways we find them.  In her city apartment, trying to forget the rural life she left behind, Wilbanks yearns to speak in tongues as she did as a child, struck by the syllables in a church bathroom – but she is long out of practice; moving her burrito to the side of her desk and entering a silent, zen state – she waits “clenching my fists in an effort to call up an entirely different self;” a young student mid-burrito just trying to feel something more in a moment of mundanity. The question for Wilbanks is, then, what is left? What does her life mean? It is Wilbanks ability to relate the experience of these larger questions that make When I Spoke in Tongues a relevant memoir in our divided present.

When I Spoke in Tongues is available now through Beacon Press.

Lily Blackburn is a writer and senior prose editor at Typehouse, a writer-run literary magazine.  She lives in Portland, Oregon with her cat, Binx. 

Book Review

Inquisition

by on November 1, 2018

Inquisition, by Kazim Ali
Review by Dan Alter

 

Extravagance is one way to talk about the sensibility animating Kazim Ali’s new collection. These are lush, wild poems, overflowing with sonic, verbal and formal play. Even when a particular poem is muted or restrained, it adds to the breadth of modes the book encompasses, another aspect of its “yes-and” approach. Diction, metaphor, form, sound are all deployed with an ebullient excess. This luxury, or extravagance, took me some getting used to: I found it both exciting and disorienting, at least in part because it runs counter to my training in the reading and writing of poems.

It happens that Ali teaches at Oberlin College, an incubator of tender souls where in the 1980s I arrived, one of many young, earnest would-be writers. My professors were for the most part earnest white Protestant men who set out to initiate us into the ancient art by teaching us to restrain our vatic impulses. It was the Midwest. It was the height of the “plain style:” a poem was meant to be something you’d say to someone in a bar. William Stafford or perhaps Sandra McPherson were held up as models. Laura Jensen, on the more unruly end of my professors’ canon, still boxed her unsettled surrealities in orderly stanzas. Only a murmur could be heard of the Language Poets’ dismantling of narrative and subjectivity, to say nothing of their avant-garde forerunners.

So I’m fascinated that Ali’s new book of poems, some of which was surely written in that same quiet Ohio town, launches:

In the earthquake days I could not hear you over the din or it might have been
the diner bell but that’s odd
because I’m usually the one
cooking up if not dinner then
a plan to build new fault lines…
from (“The Earthquake Days”)

William Stafford this isn’t. Din, been, dinner: this is a territory like hip-hop, with its hyper-rhyme, and its long syllable-piled lines next to lines that pull up short. And its boasts, the more extravagant the better, such as the next stanza where Ali strikes this pose:  I’m late for my resurrection/ the one where I step into my angel offices and fuck/ the sun delirious. (Characteristically Ali’s religious position involves apostasy, on a grand scale. Frustrated, fierce wrestling with the languages and mythologies of gods is a central pre-occupation of this book.)

The long first poem propels forward, without periods, enjambing line to line and stanza to stanza, flooding with energy, interconnectivity, multiple meanings. I want to call this Ali’s “flow” (as in the hip-hop term for how rhythm and rhyme move a rap across its beats). A number of poems work in this mode.

But Ali’s restless, expansive poetics doesn’t hold still in any mode for long. Thus the “flows” of “The Earthquake Days,” “Phenomenal Survival of Death in the Mountains,” and “Origin Story,” just to pick out a few from the first section, are punctuated with measured poems like “Light House” in crisp quatrains and syllabics, or the luminous, mysterious “John” with a series of floating singlets, each complete in itself in a system that recalls the ghazal’s loose linkages.

Inquisition also approaches content from multiple positions. The poems are largely written in the first person. This “I,” even when it adopts personas, tends to have recognizable concerns such as fraught relationships between parents and children, or a struggle with ruptured faith. Frequently subjectivity is foregrounded but situation is backgrounded to a dense play of sound and form. Some poems lean more toward abstraction. Others go in the opposite direction, the confessional tradition: for example “Origin Story,” which describes a trip home to see the poet’s mother after a stroke, the travelogue “Saraswati Puja,” or the Ohara-esque “Marie’s Crisis” which kinetically recounts a night in a gay bar.

Inquisition is likewise omnivorous formally. To list only a few forms Ali adopts or invents: variation on theme, mathematical, ghazal, syllabic, golden shovel, stanzaic. Ali seems to delight in various constraints, and the formal poems tend to be precise in following their particular rules. Yet the formal poems too are not careful or neat: in any form his poetics is embracing, rough, accepting of wide possibilities.

“Text Cloud Anthology” is a striking example of Ali’s formal inventiveness: it is not only an abecedarian poem but drawn completely from a found text. Our attention dances between the performance of this exacting form, which is luxuriant and surprising, and the threads of feeling woven into it.

Inside Kazim
Kazim knew
Learned light
Listened
Lived lost
Limited himself to matter
His memoir of morning
Mother mountain mouth
Never night this orifice open
from “Text Cloud Anthology”

At roughly the center of the book, two consecutive three page poems stretch toward two of its poles. “Sacrifice” is on the formal end, a kind of double-ghazal, with two alternating radifs (stanza end-words). It braids a story of protecting a budding peach tree from frost with meditations on versions of the binding of Isaac/Ishmael in the Muslim and Jewish traditions and pulls these strands compellingly into our current political landscape (Israel/Palestine, the ground of the narrative), and into the speaker’s own story:

I know something about going by different names and even switching bodies since my body too is said by some
to be against god. But how can what God utters fit into human ears, His languages are never learned fast

Or this, towards the end:

And what is it that you unbibled but not released are supposed to do when your small god-sized father asks you
to come. He looks at you with love but has a knife in his hand. Decide fast.
from “Sacrifice”

While “Sacrifice” takes liberties with some of the ghazal’s strictures–it eschews rhyme and syllable count–the resonances gathered between strands on faith, bodies, sacrifice and protection or its absence make their own dense kind of rhyming.

“Amerika the Beautiful,” a poem that the epigraph tells us is after “Bush’s War” by Robert Hass, is another center of the book. Following Hass’ template the poem employs a loose descendant of blank verse, occasioned by the poet typing the words “Trump’s America.” This leads to a recollection of the speaker’s religious shaming by an uncle in his home in India, after which he stays up all night conversing on-line with a cousin’s American wife. She is a convert to Islam who is facing a trauma of her own. This narrative is intermingled with bursts of unbridled lyric flight, as in this signature moment of lavish apostasy:

My body has never belonged in the world.
God and I were secret lovers hiding in the closet from my friends
and his. When he put his tongue in my mouth my body
came alive as a beast…..
“Amerika the Beautiful”

We are introduced to Imam Reza, the speaker’s “favorite imam” who fled repression in the Arab world, and then a catalogue of brutalities of the America premised at the beginning. The poem spirals through these materials, wrapping around the never-resolved personal story and the larger unresolvabilities that become its context. The final third of the poem is an extended associative flight (in “flow”) that builds great momentum, as in:

Our surface now roils with the unreal, wind through wheel,
does not god want to win and flout the unspoken? At Hussein Sagar
a sand crab crawls to the lake’s skimpy wrack line. Water meets earth
in the form of the broken. Body is where fire and air enter
among earth and water. A painting is the meeting of eye
and touch. River is sculpture unfolding in time. Such a quick turn
then, unmoving, my body so cruelly useless. Bodies now being beaten…
“Amerika the Beautiful”

The narrative thread keeps weaving back to the speaker’s cousin-in-law, anchoring the poem with an increasing tenderness. In its last lines one of her chosen names is revealed to be related to Reza: “you remember him? –Reza. The imam who wandered.  Here, as often in the book, Ali’s line feels rich in the mouth, humming with its internal rhymes and m, i and ah sounds. In this way a poem about “Amerika,” much of which is set in India,  ends with someone in motion across borders.

“Amerika the Beautiful” accumulates a layered mapping of heartbreak, displacement and spiritual longing. This summer I heard Ali speak about the exponentially increasing displacements we are living through. He proposed a poetics of border crossings, of multiple “homes” and of the multiple, intersecting identities they create. In the end, the extravagance of Inquisition, its restless, inclusive, fast-moving modes and methods, is in the service of an exploration of how poetry can work when more and more people come from many places at the same time.

 

Inquisition is available now through Wesleyan University Press.

 

Dan Alter has had poems recently published  in Burnside Review, Field, Fourteen Hills, Pank, and Zyzzyva among others. Dan holds an MFA from Saint Mary’s College of California. He lives with his wife and daughter in Berkeley and makes his living as an electrician. He can be found online (including links to other reviews) at danalter.net

Book Review

Othered

by on September 25, 2018

Othered, by Randi Romo
Review by Stacy Pendergrast

 

To read Randi Romo’s Othered is to share both the grief and resilience of one woman who has been “othered” — as a Xicana, a queer, a sex abuse survivor, a former farmworker, an activist, and a Southerner — and whose loved ones have also likewise suffered. This book of 28 poems features the kind of writing that can only be wrought from deeply-lived, traumatic experiences as well as from a lifetime of brave responses.

Know that Romo is a woman of feeling and passionate words, but she is just as much a woman of action.   Fifteen years ago, she co-founded the Center for Artistic Revolution (CAR) in Arkansas, an LGBTQ civil rights organization named by the marginalized kids whom she mentored and for whom she still fights. In a 2015 interview with the Arkansas Times, Romo discussed her motive to make more Arkansans advocates for LGBTQ issues. She said, “It’s true, there are some that will never shift, but it’s the greater movable middle that now finds itself increasingly having to consider the real impact of homo/transphobia on their fellow Arkansans.”  With her new collected works, perhaps Romo has now lifted her voice in her greatest rallying cry for those whom she defends, and it is likely that her message will reach far beyond her state.

From the moment we view the collage of protest images on the book’s cover, we brace ourselves. In his introduction, publisher Bryan Borland prepares us further when he tells us that Romo writes on behalf of those voices that have been silenced. Borland says, “Sometimes those voices belong to kids she’s had a hand in saving.  Sometimes those voices belong to kids who couldn’t be saved, even with her best efforts.”  Tragically, two poems serve as epitaphs for two of those victimized for being different. Most heartbreakingly, Romo dedicates the book to her daughter “whose life was deeply impacted by the penalties of otherness and who paid the ultimate price, with her life.”

Indeed, the poems deliver on our expectations to be disturbed. In “Coming Out” we learn that the response to the young Romo’s revealed sexuality was for her to be sent away for gay conversion therapy, where even after she was put through “queer exorcisms,”  she proudly “stayed out.”  In  “Planting Season,” Romo reveals the tragic plight of migrant workers (she was one) who are exposed to a deadly gas as they work the strawberry fields. The poem “I Remember” gives us Romo’s wrenching account of how she endured multiple counts of sexual abuse, and how she learned to “sleep in boots jeans sharp-edged knife.” She effectively haunts us with the repetitive ending lines:  “Not a one of these things happened in a public bathroom.”

It is as if Romo takes all those years of compiled suppression, bullying, and abuse, and — with the natural focus of a child who works a play dough squeeze machine — kneads her compacted clay of pain, then leans on the lever of language so that her poems come oozing out, brilliantly colored and exquisitely molded.

The overarching theme of this collection is victorious affirmation in the face of relentless oppression and violence. However, there is tremendous range, and the reader is also relieved and brightened by Romo’s lighter tones, including her breaks for humor.  There is the playful “Bless Your Heart” from the perspective of the young poet, the child of a “Mexican mama / and a white daddy,” who is both charmed and befuddled by the whimsy of Southern expressions.  In the fantastical “Step-Sister’s Lament,” the girl-narrator at Cinderella’s ball imagines her mother’s reaction to her being the suitor of a princess instead of a prince.  To our delight, we revisit our own adolescent celebrity infatuations as we read  “Fan Letter to Hedy LaMarr.” No matter the gender of the one we crushed upon, we recognize the fluttering thrill in the words of the teen moving toward her star on the TV screen.  The poet says, “… so close I could touch you / and I wanted to / and it terrified me / and it exhilarated me / and I knew something was forever changed on / a Saturday afternoon …”

Perhaps the flashes of quiet angst best highlight the gift of Romo. Indeed, where she shows us how she fights back against bigotry, we admire her guts and wonder if we could muster an equivalent courage.  But it is in the calmer universal moments that she often appeals to our sense of sameness with her.  After all, as social beings, we fear being outcast or marginalized. This poet portrays pangs that strike deeply in all of us.

 

Othered is available now through Sibling Rivalry Press.

Last year Stacy Pendergrast was awarded the Nan Snow Emerging Writer Award given on the occasion of the CD Wright Women Writers Conference at the University of Central Arkansas.  She is a teaching artist in Arkansas. Follow her writing and teaching blogs at www.stacypendergrast.com.
Book Review

Orange Lady

by on May 1, 2018

Orange Lady, by Erika Ayón
Review by Brian Dunlap

How does a place look? How does it feel? How does it smell? Who lives there? What makes up the lives of the people who live there? What is the history of that place or the history of the people who live there?

These are many of the concerns writers of place address as they try to better understand where they’re from or where they live or explain to others what that place is truly like, to get beneath the pervasive stereotypes.

William Faulkner in his novel Absalom, Absalom! dives beneath and explores the myths his fellow Southerners have steeped their southern history of slavery and plantation culture in. At one point he describes a character “escaped at last into a world of pure illusion in which, safe from any harm, she moved, lived, from attitude to attitude.”

John Steinbeck in the opening to Cannery Row says that section of Monterey, California back in the 1930s and 1940s “is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots…sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks…laboratories and flophouses.”

And L.A. writer Stephen D. Gutierrez reminds readers about his South L.A. city in “Harold, All American,” that “Bell Gardens was a dilapidated town on the edge of L.A., all Okie then, with a smattering of Mexicans, wetbacks and surfer types, enlivening it.”

Los Ángeles is a city that begs to be written about. Writers since the first Spanish visitors have attempted to explain what Southern California, and later, Los Ángeles is, exploring its landscapes, then built environments, usually in relation to its inhabitants. Since the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, Los Ángeles literature is increasingly written by people born and raised there or by people who have a stake in the city. As a result, the literature has increasingly focused on the people that live in L.A.

Insert the debut poetry collection Orange Lady by Erika Ayón. She essentially writes a memoir in verse about growing up in South Central Los Ángeles, around 23rd and San Pedro Street, after immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico with her father, after kindergarten. Most of the poems are moments in time; a memory of herself, Apá, Amá, her sister Lorena, some of the characters that populate the neighborhood, of her family’s situation. It’s very much a collection of who they are and by extension who and what her South Central is.

The first poem “An Honest Living” does an excellent job setting the context that Orange Lady is read in. “Orange lady! Orange lady!” the opening line reads in part, already addressing the meaning of the collection’s title. Ayón is in elementary school and is picked on because her Mexican family sells oranges and other fruit curbside to make a living, a reality I’ve seen all my life living in L.A. But as Ayón reminds herself and the reader, pushing back against the narrative that Mexicans are not honest people (e.g. drug dealers), she says, “Apá’s words float in my mind, stop me from/crying, from saying it isn’t true. It’s an honest living, nothing/to be ashamed of.”

These poems, as “An Honest Living” illustrates, are poems of experience. Ayón writes her life, through a Mexican immigrant’s eyes, shifting the perspective in which L.A. is seen.  In “The Ride There,” she situates her memories by saying:

…a slow ride down San Pedro
…the streets stand desolate…
Numero Uno Market sees
no cars in sight…
The white button moon follows me…
Apá…
stares at the darkness that swallows the road ahead.

These South Central streets reflect the situation her family, and others like her, face: economic instability in a complex, racist country they’re struggling to understand, forcing them to navigate it blindly.

It’s through Ayón’s use of clear, plain language that her memories are able to just be, showing tenderness towards Apá in “Each Fall,” when he leaves to pick fruit, but returns to “whisper/about../how the strawberries bleed into your cut,/blistered hands.” Or through heart-break in “The Police Officers,” when Apá sells fruit and goods curbside and “mean police officers,” ask to see his vender’s license, “purchased with…assurance…/the…officers will leave us alone.” Instead they “tell Apá ‘You can’t be here…’/They snap/his picture as if he were a criminal.”

However, with the poem “In Another Country” Ayón completes the reader’s full envelopment into her perspective through the somber retelling of her immigration story written from the perspective of Mexico to her daughter. It’s at the end when her family finally reaches L.A. when the stark, heartbreaking reality of her experience is laid bare: “…she shakes/the last memories of me…/in the distance, I sigh, release/her forever from my embrace.”

Later, when Ayón is older, she ponders her perspective in “The Train Ride With Billy Collins,” about “if Billy feels that these trees are also/like poems. That those vibrant red/strawberries are planted poems,” insinuating that she hopes her perspective, story and community, and those of people like her, won’t be cast to the side by the white men/poets that Collins represents, as different or outside what the “definition” of a poem, story, life or community is. However, since it’s Ayón’s desire to, as she says, “loose ourselves in this/” her “world,” the fact that she italicizes Spanish words throughout Orange Lady, unnecessarily otherizes her perspective, to a degree, inserting a barrier between English and Spanish that are both a normal part of her world.

Yet, Ayón’s world, her Los Ángeles, is one that writers—a visiting Truman Capote and L.A. writers like Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion—could never conceive of, that left the Mexican/Latinx immigrants out of the city’s narrative. However, even with the occasional overuse of short words like “the” that causes a line here and there to be wordy, interrupting the rhythm of a poem, and the italicizing of Spanish words, her last poem “Elegy for the Orange,” brings Ayón’s memoir in verse touchingly full circle. She says, “Your juice became my childhood nectar…” And she understands “I won’t be your last survivor.” And that’s a reality the reader should never forget.

 

Orange Lady is available now through World Stage Press.

 

Brian Dunlap is a native Angeleno who still lives in Los Angeles. He explores and captures the city’s stories that are hidden in plain sight. Dunlap is the winner of the 2018 Jeff Marks Memorial Poetry Prize from december magazine judged by former Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis J. Rodreguez. His poems and book reviews have been published in Angel City Review, CCM-Entropy, California Quarterly and Dryland, among others. He runs the blog site www.losangelesliterature.wordpress.com, a resource to explore L.A.’s vast literary culture.

Book Review

Cadavers

by on April 5, 2018

Cadavers, by Néstor Perlongher
Translated by Roberto Echavarren and Donald Wellman
Review by Rosemarie Dombrowski

 

Cardboard House Press has a reputation for both finely crafted books and exquisite translations from the Spanish, not to mention a team of editors that spans the globe. For an English-only poetry scholar, their editions are essential to an understanding of the Latin and South American landscape.

In their latest release, Cadavers (2018), translated by the Uruguayan poet, Roberto Echavarren and Donald Wellman, Néstor Perlongher (the Argentinian poet and anthropologist) immediately sets the tone for his long poem by creating a tapestry of geography, scene, and image via “clusters,” each containing only a handful of lines, cohered not only by the haunting refrain There Are Cadavers/Hay Cadáveres, but a fervent confrontation with the Argentine dictatorship of the 1970s.

Some of the clusters are overtly sexual. Some are more regional. Some are portraits of the working class. Some are portraits of the outcasted. Many focus on women. From mothers to seamstresses to teachers to sex workers, his sensitivity and attention to the stories of all women seems revolutionary from any perspective.

The fetus, growing in a rat-infested sewer,
The grandmother, shaving herself in a bowl of leach
The mother-in-law, guzzling for a few seeds of wine shoot,
The aunt, going crazy for some ornamental combs,
There Are Cadavers

The desperation depicted in these lines – the desire for humanity and a few incidental material objects – is rarely the fodder of a portrait of an oppressed people. Rather than employing poetic pathos, he chooses to craft unspeakable images and scenes. This, coupled with his seminal role in the global LGBT movement, inarguably weaves a revolutionary fervor through the work.

Perlongher is unabashedly egalitarian in his quest to depict the suffering, and, like Whitman, he isn’t afraid to grapple with sexuality on both sides of the aisle: …in the booty/of that boy…in the stench of the judge’s pubic hair…in the moan of that chorus girl… It’s also worth noting the rawness of the Whitmanesque diction, bodily diction that has more “mucous” and “piss” and “ejaculat[ion]” than anything in the American canon circa the 70’s and 80s (aside from a “cock” or two in a Levertov poem, Rich’s tame-by-comparison “Twenty-One Love Poems,” and the woman-objectifying verse of Bukowski).

The repetition of cadavers at the end of every stanza is not just an aural device, but one that literally imposes the body onto everything. The dead body is ubiquitous. The bodies of looters and lovers and cheaters and fighters and families are ubiquitous. The diction of the body is also ubiquitous, from the musky little hairs to the mucus that is suckled. There is no body too deformed or decayed, too sensual or obscene for inclusion.

Perlongher’s Cadavers is, in part, a descendant of the great erotic protest tomes of Whitman and Ginsberg. It is also playful and buoyant, almost Steinian at times given its perennial return to the female body. It manages to revel in a linguistic landscape that is both plagued with decay and the persistence of life—through it all, the women continue to orgasm, birth, and bathe. The spinner, who managed to coil herself in the wires, in the barbs, becomes a powerful symbol of resistance in the face of a barbarous dictatorship.

This is, perhaps, one of the greatest homages to a people living and dying under an oppressive regime. Despite how many were murdered, Perlongher’s striking corporeal flashes do not allow you to forget.

 

Cadavers is available now through Cardboard House Press.

 

Rosemarie Dombrowski is the inaugural Poet Laureate of Phoenix, AZ and the founder of rinky dink press. She is the recipient of five Pushcart nominations, a 2017 Arts Hero Award, the 2017 Carrie McCray Literary Award in Nonfiction, and a fellowship from the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics. Her collections include The Book of Emergencies (2014, Five Oaks Press), The Philosophy of Unclean Things (Finishing Line Press, 2017) and The Cleavage Planes of Southwest Minerals [A Love Story], winner of the 2017 Split Rock Review chapbook competition. www.rdpoet.com

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