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John Venegas

John Venegas is a half-Mexican writer and editor, living in the San Fernando Valley, with a BA in creative writing from California State University at Northridge. He is the Lead Editor and Book Review Editor for Angel City Review. He sells pool supplies, works as a handyman, and tutors students to pay the bills. He likes long walks on the beach, going to the opera, and really stupid dad jokes.

Book Review

Lex Icon by Salette Tavares

by on June 20, 2024

Collection translated to English by Isabel Sobral Campos and Kristofer J. Petersen-Overton

The phrase “echoing through time” and its variants are usually employed to describe something with historical significance, something that is believed to have recurring influence with cycles that stretch beyond a human lifespan. The phrase is often reserved for people or events or works of art that have had their importance decreed by institutional or cultural consensus, and often carries the implied weight of prophecy or destiny in its fusion of space and time. But if you dispense with the grandiosity, it is not a stretch to say that we all echo through time. We are, at least in the United States of America, not trained to think this way. We are instead taught that history is the record of the actions of “great” individuals (usually men) and that the rest of us amount to little more than the threads of the flags and banners that the “great” use as heraldry. I reject this myopic perspective; each of our lives, regardless of positive or negative labels, is a point of impact, echoing in all directions and affecting everything that will come after. This admittedly defiant train of thought is the fault of Lex Icon, a collection of poetry written by Salette Tavares. I cannot think of a more appropriate single adjective to describe this book than sagacious – it is the kind of text that challenges and helps you to push through the noise, providing a necessary clarity that can be both empowering and humbling.

“Espaço é o mais alto poema do Universo / que o arquitecto produz / é o difícil extracto do intense / que define / a qualidade da luz.

Space is the supreme poem of the Universe / which the architect produces / the hard distillation of intensity / that defines / quality of light.”

To be clear, there is no pseudo-omniscience on offer here; Lex Icon is not a self-help book and Tavares is not peddling some simple solution to life and its problems. But as you read her poetry, you realize that Tavares is consistently applying a very direct method over and over again: stop, observe, and appreciate. Several of the poems revolve around the impact of shoes or napkins or flasks, and one even explicitly around garbage. She is examining what we typically think of as the mundane detritus of human existence and recontextualizing them as the echoes of our lives, for better and worse. Tavares marvels in awe at the ingenuity required to make such things in the first place, and with trepidation at the rampant consumerism that renders such things simultaneously necessary and disposable. In a sense, she writes as a kind of preemptive archaeologist, studying the evidence of our existence and the negative space we leave in our immediate wake. She even ascribes religious significance to these objects; an absurdity, to be sure, and a knowing one on her part, but one that is both reverential and critiquing, rather than mocking.

“Poema litúrgico sobre o sapato. Durante a leitura deste deve seguir-se rigorosamente a indicação à margem. Não esquecer de o recitar em frente de um microfone ligado a vários altifalantes com grande amplificação de som. Sobre uma mesa colocar um sapato. Os fiéis que seguem este ofício devem estar descalços com um sapato em cada mão.

Liturgical poem on the shoe. During the reading, one should rigorously observe the parenthetical instructions. Be sure to use a microphone connected to loudspeakers at high volume. Place a shoe on a table. The faithful who observe this ceremony should stand barefoot holding a shoe in each hand.”

Tavares asks us to exist, even if only for a moment, within these seeming dichotomies and appreciating the perspective gained therein. My understanding of the historical context is that she is writing as part of movements that are transitioning out of modernism and toward greater experimentation, as evidenced by her multiple references to Dada. In this light, you can see Lex Icon as a embodying an early postmodern sensibility. There is a strong emphasis on the flexibility of meaning and the importance of questioning even foundational or “insignificant” assumptions (emphasis mine). The poetry lays out that the dichotomies only really exist in our minds and that, even if they prove contextually useful, they are always subject to change. Perhaps most importantly, the text pushes the reader to question the moral value judgments we casually attach to such ideas. Things can be both good and bad in different contexts and for the same reasons. Tavares posits that only by bridging the divide that we created in the first place can we begin to approach understanding the human experience.

“Dêem-me palavras que eu descobrirei as coisas / dêem-me coisas que eu descobrirei as palavras. / Entre a palavra e a coisa o intervalo é nenhum / palavra ou coisa a eloquência pertence-lhes: / à palavra porque diz a coisa / à coisa porque diz a palavra.

Give me words to discover the things / give me things to discover the words. / Between word and thing there is no gap / word or thing eloquence belongs to both: / to the word because it speaks the thing / to the thing because it speaks the word.”

I had no knowledge of Salette Tavares before reading this collection, and after reading both it and what biographical information I could find on her, I was not at all surprised to learn that she was primarily a visual artist. In her poetry, I feel the echoes of something akin to photography – an attempt to capture a perfectly distilled moment in time from a universe that is constantly and unstoppably changing. There is a kind of tragic impossibility to the task that makes it all the more beautiful. Tavares’ use of structure captures and language captures the infinite kinetic energy and losslessly transfers it into potential. She reframes the signifier and the signified into two inextricable parts of a perpetual motion machine that echo through time. She is, I think, consistently in awe of what the human mind is capable of, again for better and worse; the only thing that may be beyond our capacity is the ability to grasp the full extent of that capacity.

Lex Icon is now available through Ugly Duckling Press

Book Review

The Language of Fractions

by on October 18, 2023

Poetry Collection by Nicelle Davis
Review by John Venegas

“Deconstruction” is a word that gets thrown around a lot, both inside and outside academic settings. At the risk of being reductive, it is the practice of taking something apart conceptually. This can be done with anything and its purpose is to understand how that anything functions. Breaking something down into its constituent parts, seeing how those parts fit together and/or function on their own, can be an enlightening and rewarding experience. There is argument to be made that such a process is how we learn in the first place. Unfortunately, the term and the process are all too often co-opted by disingenuous pseudo-intellectuals who try to reframe the concept as an intentionally constructed threat to “traditional values”, or use it to legitimize conspiratorial bigotry. But even setting aside that kind of cruel misuse, I think those of us with “good intentions” have a very consistent habit of missing the forest for the trees. Deconstruction is not done in a vacuum, and those who do it are neither dispassionate nor objective. We cannot observe or describe without affecting, and being affected. I think Nicelle Davis understands this on a fundamental, intimate level. In fact, I think The Language of Fractions is one of the purest examples and examinations of deconstruction that I have read. It is a collection of poetry that speaks to the necessity of the practice while also exposing the cost of such an endeavor, if you pursue it to any depth of significance.

He realized most makeup is designed to look like blood and bruises.

To get it out of the way, allow me to state my general thoughts on this collection in a single sentence: Davis uses an intoxicating combination of sublime intimacy and Cronenberg-ian body horror to rebuild the Tower of Babel as a beacon of community and a direct, open challenge to any power that would deny our inherent divinity.

What became of the heel? / What becomes of the toes? / What do you see in the red / Rorschach test of severed women’s parts?

It is no great observation to state that intimacy requires vulnerability, or that vulnerability can be frightening. But there is more beneath that surface, and Davis is not content to see us wet only our toes. Her poetry here forces us to acknowledge that to be deconstructed is to be taken apart, to have your pieces examined by eyes that you can only hope do not mean you harm. Many, many people have the lived experience of being taken apart (conceptually or physically) by the cruel and the unjust, who often have “altruistic” justifications. Those experiences, of being valued only for your cuts of meat or your bone structure or your fatty tissue or your capacity to breed more livestock, can sear themselves into the mind, onto the soul, assuming they don’t kill you outright. Their lingering legacy is forced disassociation, an effort to torture dissonant mental voices into screaming over your natural one and leave you confused and in a state of self-loathing.

You too can be a house, just make a list of who lives inside you – you haunted house – you open door – you a slowly closing uterus, you casket.

This is why I think Davis speaks to the clavicle and the humerus and the navel and all sorts of other body parts. She is trying to work backward, piece together a shared history and ancestral language. She can see the outline of the identity that was and, while she knows it can never be reconstructed as it had been, the potential for something new and greater awaits. This is a beautiful purpose, to be sure, but it is also the source of the horrifying constructs along the way. Understanding and repurposing require experimentation, require putting things together in ways that were not originally intended, no matter how much it might upset a tradition-laden mind. Moreover, there is no small amount of frustration, as pieces who have long since had individualism forced on them must come together, communicate, and co-exist.

Where do thousands of people go when real / estate agents put on a pub crawl?

Maybe the most telling aspect of the poetry is the consistent underlying tone. There is no shortage of grief, of fear, of regret, but through and beneath it all there is an essence of fascination. There is a relentless need to understand, a joy in the power of unorthodox creation, and a determination to connect with others through shared experience. Each section of the text is framed by a “Belly Poem”, literal navel gazing as if the speaker is repeatedly reaching into some kind of genetic memory to experience umbilical attachment. Is there anything more intimate than the sharing of blood? Than the blurring of the lines between what distinguishes two organisms from one another? Davis is a mad scientist, a mother, and trying to become her own beautiful emergent monster. She writes and rewrites rules and maps, creates games and writes to children to harness naiveté’s objectivity, and build collages out of images, advertisements, and pictures. There is an impulse, as a reader, to beg her to stop, to slow down, to dismiss her words and actions as feverish. But those are the efforts of a complacent mind trying to shield itself from realizing that it can begin to see what she sees.

If this was tarot, we would call it / divination, / but since it’s just a game, we call it the News. Think about how / the dinosaurs died – now make a wish upon a shooting –

And what she sees, among many things, is the inversion; the scar-pattern from how our perspectives were abused into something that someone else approved of. Seeing the rest of the world in horror is the first step, necessary to lance the infectious deception, but never the end goal. The goal is to have the capacity to see beauty for ourselves, in ourselves, and in each other. To this end, the poetry is serenely beautiful, elegantly crafted, and effortlessly witty. It is as if the dissonant and natural voices have stumbled upon a mutual train of thought and are beginning to realize how wondrous it can be when they sing together. To be clear, that beauty is thoroughly painted with loss, in memory of and gratitude for those who came before, and in regret for those who will not see. But without those colors, would the beauty even be real? The power of this collection lies in its visceral biological colors, in its appreciation of what was and what could be, and in a brilliant gaze that has forgotten how to flinch.

The Language of Fractions is available through Moon Tide Press.

Book Review

Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From

by on April 14, 2022

Collection by Sawako Nakayasu
Review by John Venegas

There are times where it feels strange that we consider “raising more questions than it answers” as a mark against something. Granted, that phrase is often meant to convey a lack of closure or satisfaction or evidence, but it is the phrasing that bothers me. Are we not supposed to ask questions? Are we not supposed to seek questions? Can’t a lack of questions come dangerously close to willful ignorance? I am aware that I am probably overcomplicating the idea (perish the thought), but I have been reading Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From, by Sawako Nakayasu, and I find myself awash in questions, immersed in questions, and I could not be happier as a result. This is the kind of poetry collection that engages on every level and radically reorganizes one’s thought processes. It is a book that I can only recommend to those who are interested in having their presumptions and perspectives interrogated, not by anything as unsubtle as direct question from the text, but by the readers themselves as they immerse in the text.

As good and conscientious visitors they dutifully abide by the laws of the new land. It would only be polite.

I admit with no shame that I still don’t entirely “get” this book. I am a straight, cis male who has lived in the same country his entire life, and this collection primarily engages with displacement and motion within themes of gender, sexuality, political and generational borders, and much more. On a very basic level, this collection contains lines and entire poems written in several different languages, some of which I cannot read and some which I am only partially familiar. But I suspect that is largely the point. First and foremost, as I have said before, literature in translation is an unmatched vehicle for bridging perspectives. Furthermore, the way the poems weave in and out of different languages and styles and identities beautifully reinforces the overarching themes. Even if you could read every character, the text does not permit you complacency. It will not allow you to pin it down beneath a few convenient categories. And it will cause you to look at everything else you have neatly collated and now take for granted and see your handiwork for what it is – insufficient.

She can hold her own in a hot dog eating contest. She has guts of steel, buns of steel, pink enamel nails of steel.

As a more concrete example of what I am talking about, the collection has a running motif (or perhaps reoccurring subject) of a group of girls, their identifications starting at Girl A and ending at Girl J. These girls seem to be in a state of constant flux. Everything from their ages to their clothing to their physical existence to their moods changes regularly. I’m not even sure they are separate entities during some of their appearances. Girl A seems to fantasize about a train sliding along her back. Girl J has sweet and innocent eyes and also manages to give “a swift kick under the table to her asshole editor”. Girl B is “on the brink of overcooking that idea out of the realm of tenability”. Girl F identifies her real name as “Fuck You For Asking”. The fluidity of meaning here is, I think, as its most direct. The motion of who they are, on individual and collective levels, is perpetual. It is a reflection of how many societies and cultures simultaneously attempt to isolate women from each other and other genders and attempt to herd them into vast pens of categorical subservience. It is a reflection of reactions to that external pressure, both in the fight for solidarity and the demand for recognition of the self. It is a reflection of the struggle between our need for understanding and our tendency to oversimplify. Are the Girls ten individuals, ten shifting perspectives within the same individual, or both? Is there a solid answer to that question, even at an entirely hypothetical moment in time?

Girls A through J cut their tongues on the distant approaching sunlight.

These questions are by no means limited to women, whether inside or outside the text. Cultural and ethnic minorities, immigrants, and people from across the spectrum of gender can attest to these experiences. They are questions that should be asked of themselves by everyone, especially instead of external questions like “Yeah, no, but where are you really from?” or “Are you sure you’re in the right bathroom?” or “You get that it’s just a joke, right?”. Where many texts invite you to engage with such ideas, Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From firmly points out that this process is already happening, with or without your participation or permission. It reminds you that you have a choice to make: do you have the humility for regular and meaningful introspection, or will you be eroded like the rest of the stagnant detritus as the perpetual movement flows around and over you?

Like this. Luminous continuity of seeing.

And for all this earnestly high-minded contemplation, the collection never fails to be entertaining. Whether decoding linguistic constraints or mulling over a sequence like “Out of a failure to materialize clothing mid-jump on my way to the tuba player,”, the text is just plain fun to read. It runs the gamut of emotions, almost as a byproduct of its refusal/inability to cease in its journey. If anything, it demands more of itself than it does of its reader, perhaps understanding that in order to do justice to the concepts it addresses, it must wield language with both utter precision and kaleidoscopic creativity. I wholeheartedly recommend Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From in the same way that I might recommend getting a friend who is willing to stimulate and challenge you.

Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From is available now through Wave Books.

Book Review

Yi Sang: Selected Works

by on December 15, 2020

In a world already beset by far too many binaries, the false dichotomy of order and chaos may be the most dangerous. Whether on the socio-political scale, where championing “law and order” is a not-so-subtle promise of violent bigotry, or the literary scale, where the perpetually old guard decries increasing diversity and representation as unpredictable and dangerous, order and chaos stand in as palatable, almost mundane code-phrasing for whatever the user desires. I find this to be a particularly unfortunate set of circumstances, considering that, in my opinion, order and chaos, if indeed the two can truly be conceptually separated, truly thrive when united. The unpredictability of a system is vital for that system to evolve and adapt. The identity of a system, though in constant flux, is necessary to have meaningful interaction and existence. This is the frame of mind I am left in after having some truly meaningful interaction with the selected works of Yi Sang, a text that brings some blessed peace to my addled mind in a manner that does not ask me to sacrifice any of my creative impulse.

I finally chase down my galloping shadow and get in front of it. Now, my shadow chases me as if it is my tail.

My first impulse after sitting down to write about this text was to call it a “contradiction” and praise it for the confused but inspired initial state in which it left me. What we, the readers, are presented with is an intimate self-description of a flower caught in a hurricane. Even putting aside the pieces that are explicitly autobiographical, so much of this work is intensely personal, and it is so amidst the backdrop of imperialism. Yi Sang was born less than a month after the Japanese Empire conquered Korea, born into a region and a people that were having their identities torn apart and subjugated. He was educated in Japanese, worked for the imperial government, and through his passion for the arts and the connections it brought did he begin to press against the system around him. One might expect passionate calls for revolution, and yet several of the pieces in this collection express a fundamental and deeply relatable desire to return to simplicity.

When the citrons ripen, their skins come apart, and their insides ooze out. I pick one of them from the vine and hang it inside my room. I lie down beneath its voluptuousness as the juice drips down on me. I home that my emaciated pencil-like body will be fattened by this juice.

Among the most passionate moments of the text are those describing women harvesting fruit from trees, or those describing hope that retreating into the mountains might bring peace. There is a yearning for the familiar unknown – that which is lost but cannot be recalled. It took me longer than it should have, but I see now that there is no contradiction here. Yi Sang was a victim of imperialism, among many other things – imperfectly stripped of identity, left only with an incomplete mosaic of beautiful fragments to rearrange. “Order and chaos” were forced upon him, and he shows us momentary glimpses into his imprisoning dislocation. Even his choice of name, Yi Sang, carries this depth. The introductory timeline of the text mentions that the characters of Yi Sang’s name mean “plum tree” and “box”, and that he chose that name in honor of a painter’s box made of plum wood gifted to him by a friend.

Far away from the city, the stars double their numbers. It is so silent here that I might be able to listen to the celestial movements for the first time in my life.

I have a depthless soft spot and a jealous admiration for writers that can write simply without sacrificing complexity. Again, I know that sounds like a contradiction, but read Yi Sang’s texts and I think you will understand what I mean. He expresses the weight of centuries, an infinite and myriad expanse of meaning, in so few words. There is an effortless efficiency to his use of language (which, to keep going with the seeming contradictions, probably took considerable effort) that I find utterly vital to the thematic expressions he is attempting. This was a man who cherished those fleeting moments of emotional experience among a lifetime of confusion and suppression. His literature is like a series of psychic snapshots, endlessly layered with impossible detail of memory and history.

When she vomits blood, a wounded butterfly is perching on her. She is a tree branch stretching out like a spider’s web, tremulous under the butterfly’s weight. The branch eventually breaks.

It is kind of miraculous, then, that this text has been translated by four people – Jack Jung, Don Mee Choi, Sawako Nakayaso, and Joyelle McSweeney. I have remarked before that some of the best translation work is the kind that makes you forget that you are reading translation, and this is no exception. While I am sure that this translation team must have worked together on some level, the consistency of the voice throughout the text is still amazing to behold upon reflection. I did not find even a single hint of a whisper of a fragment of a hitch as Yi Sang’s literary voice pulled me into his world.

Eat the fragments of thought, otherwise the new thing is incomplete, kill the suggestions, people who know one thing should half the next thing after knowing one thing knowing three things, should make everything so to know one thing after knowing one thing.

And to be clear, that voice does not lose an ounce of strength, despite its desire for peace. I think there is a temptation to mistake an appreciation of both structure and change for being non-committal and weak, or to treat centrism in all things as some kind of utopian ideal. Yi Sang does not equivocate or excuse what imperialism has done to him, to his people, and to his cultural heritage. His is as quick to point out the unnatural distortions as the beauty. It is likely that this strength of his, this willingness to witness, is why the Japanese Empire killed him at twenty seven. His beautiful, bittersweet work proved prophetic as well – the cycle of rebirth is not exclusive to the good, and Korea is still the victim of imperial exploitation to this day. But these selected works help to keep the flame of his dreams alive, and I believe they will keep warm the souls of those today who can truly empathize with Yi Sang – the dispossessed, the colonized, and their descendants.

Yi Sang: Selected Works is available now through Wave Books.

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.

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

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

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.

Book Review

After the Winter

by on December 6, 2018

After the Winter by Guadalupe Nettel
Review by John Venegas

 

I don’t know that anything can be said to be simple anymore. Everything has its context and, in that context, everything attaches to a functionally infinitely complex weave. That’s not to say that people don’t desire simplicity – our brains seem hardwired to default to it – or that being comparatively simpler to something else is a good or bad thing. It just is. Given how aware we have become of the interconnectedness of our lives, I don’t know that it is possible to tell a simple love story and do justice to the complexity of people’s lives. So many of us seem to latch onto concepts like “soulmates” and “the love of my life”. We wait for the moment where “fate intervenes” and presents us with our “perfect match”, as if the cosmos owes us each individually one big favor for making us put up with its unfathomable enormity and sense of humor. Believe what you want to about the order of things, by all means, but I think we need the ironic reality check of books like Guadalupe Nettel’s After the Winter from time to time. It is a love story, an all too real love story, not because of how it ends, but because of how its characters truly live.

After the Winter is the story of Cecilia, a Mexican woman who moves to Paris to study, and Claudio, a Cuban man who lives an extremely orderly life in New York. From the start, it is clear that Nettel knows what kind of beast the romance genre has become. Pick up any such book from supermarket or airport shelves and you are almost guaranteed gorgeous cis men with “flaws” that only make them more attractive to heroines that are not aware of how beautiful they are and who have their value repeatedly ignored or denied. I do not disparage such works in the least – they possess an inherent and powerful value – but they do love their tropes, and from the opening page, Nettel is determined to show that After the Winter is not that kind of story. The text begins with Claudio, who proves himself to be uptight, aloof, arrogant, rampantly sexist, and dismissively judgmental. And that all comes across in the first chapter. The second chapter introduces us to Cecilia, a bookish, intelligent, reserved woman who doesn’t know how attractive she is but who possesses a determination that most do not expect from her. I’m sure that sounds like we are beginning to veer back towards trope territory, but Nettel knows exactly what she is doing, dear reader.

At different periods in my life, graves have protected me.

The rest of the book (mostly) alternates between Claudio’s story and Cecilia’s story as they wind and wind and inch ever closer to one another. We see their relationships, both platonic and romantic, and the nuances in how they see themselves and the world, as well as how they present to that world. We see their worlds collide, an event not entirely unexpected but one which plays out in a way that I definitely did not see coming and yet which, in hindsight, felt inevitable and natural. Most of all, we see how these characters, so very different from one another despite some mutual interests, deal with moments of bare vulnerability, of life being capricious and unfair in multiple ways. Love in these two almost parallel stories, including when they intersect, not as this supernatural force for good, or even evil, but as a naturally occurring connection between people that we can choose to embrace or ignore, and in what manner we do either.

My apartment is on 87th Street on the Upper West Side in New York City. It is a stone corridor very like a prison cell. I have no plants. All living things inspire in me an inexplicable horror, just as some people feel when they come across a nest of spiders.

It is at this point that I began to realize something, at least where my interaction to the book is concerned. After the Winter is not about love and its vagaries; it is a book about love’s relationship to death. I’m guessing at this point that I may be leaving you with the impression that this book is what many of us like to refer dismissively as “emo”. Don’t worry. In its determination to stare unflinchingly at its subject matter, After the Winter treats the heady intersection of topics with a mature honesty that is surprisingly rare in literature. Cecilia and Tom are not “star-crossed” lovers whom fate conspires against. Cecilia and Claudio were never fated to find each other. Rather, Cecilia is a beautiful depiction of reality, loving intensely, occasionally even to the point of danger. And Death becomes something akin to an unseen character in the final third of the text, whose presence looms and who stubbornly refuses to (or perhaps cannot) resolve our stories how we might wish. The point then, for telling this particular love story, seems to say that love is our statement, our testimony against death. It is our coping mechanism, our gift to ourselves and each other to remind us that we are not alone on our journey.

I want total silence to see if it is true that you have something to say to me, if you feel you did not interrupt the dialogue between us abruptly or if, on the contrary, you have disappeared for ever.

While all of this is compelling on its own, it is still possible for these emotional themes and character studies to fall flat on their faces if the writing isn’t doing them justice, and Nettel handles all of it beautifully. Her style is wonderfully efficient without losing a hint of intelligence, and the effect of this is a book that, while by no means small, is paced so well that you can devour it in a single evening if you are not mindful of the time. Some of the credit for this in the English version (which is what I read) surely has to go to translator Rosalind Harvey. The best translations are almost always the ones where you completely forget you are reading a translation at all, and I could not find a single mistake, awkward sentence, or moment that linguistically disengaged me. I find these things all the more impressive considering the whole of the book is delivered in first person (something many editors try to scare their authors away from) and that Nettel and Harvey never once fail in keeping the characterizations and narrative voices consistent and believably flexible. Both Claudio and Cecilia have distinct and strong personalities and make decisions you will not predict. Not all fiction has to feel so richly real, but the effect is undeniable and intense.

If there is any real criticism to be made, I will say that the quick pacing does not let up at the end of the novel, which makes the resolution to both stories feel very fast. But even there I cannot really fault Nettel or the text, because I can see that this might be intentional and, if so, consistent with the book’s themes about story resolution. In any case, I still whole-heartedly recommend After the Winter. It is the kind of book I want to show to people who still think that stories about people just living their lives cannot be dramatic and utterly compelling. It is powerful and fun and, at times, devastating in the most meaningful ways.

 

After the Winter is available now through Coffee House Press.

Book Review

Testimony of Circumstances

by on October 9, 2018

Testimony of Circumstances, by Rodrigo Lira
Translated by Thomas Rothe and Rodrigo Olavarría
Review by John Venegas

 

I try to write these reviews from a perspective of cultural implication and value. That is to say, while all the technical matters of structure and diction and execution are very important, I try to emphasize the potential emotional and philosophical resonance of a work, not in a manner that tells you how to feel but to convey that the work in question has the capacity to affect at least one person on a profound level. The risk of approaching texts in this way is that, as you can probably imagine, the intimacy of this effect can wound in unexpected ways. We all build our defenses, even the most empathic among us, and yet no defense is absolute. No heart is immune to vulnerability. It is in this context, unwittingly confident in my inadequate preparedness, that I read Testimony of Circumstances, a compilation of the poetry of Rodrigo Lira, a Chilean poet whose reputation seems equal parts famous and infamous.

UNQUESTIONABLY beyond poetry (sic), / but certainly in the reach of originality, / European of the post-war era (…!) / were already experimenting with these gags / around 1950.

To those with a cursory knowledge of Chilean poetry, Lira’s name probably won’t be included in the list of those who first come to mind. His list of published credits is comparatively small and awareness of his work was largely a product of the local performative scenes in Chile. By all accounts that I could find, including the introduction to this collection, he is described as being at times endearing and loyal, at times abrasive and rude. Indeed, he seems a person of contradictions: he was born into financial, social, and educational privilege and yet a supporter of Salvador Allende’s nationalization policies; he will demand and beg for acceptance by his peers while critiquing them and their work, often in the same poem; he was known for his outspoken manner and perspective but also at times reclusive and afraid for his life. As you have probably gathered, there is some speculation that he had manic depressive disorder, and he was diagnosed with schizophrenia (thought admittedly in an age where that tended to be a catchall mental diagnosis). But he was a being of words, in the purest literary sense, and despite his struggles, he has produced works of incredible beauty.

De modo que a veces es preciso o preferible moverse / lo menos posible para evitar tropezones y choques / pues siempre o casi o casi está el refugio / de utopiazantes pero posibles futuros

What Testimony of Circumstances represents then is a kind of pseudo-biography, a fascinating, disarming, and brilliant cross section of a life dedicated to literature. Everything is on display here – Lira’s politics, his contentious rivalries with those he wanted to regard as friends and/or peers, his utterly merciless inner voice – all of it. There is a richness of perspective present that caught me rather off guard. Some poems feel like they were written by entirely different people. “Es Ti Pi” is methodical and deliberate, laid out like mantras that are meant to wrestle a maelstrom under control, while “Tres Cientos Sesenta y Cincos y un 366 de Onces” is verbose and unchecked, rolling with gravitas and an almost palpable need to expel its words. Still other poems, like “El Superpoeta Zurita”, move back and forth between those styles, as if the speaker cannot make up his mind about his reaction to the subject, at once flattering and annoyed, caught up in awe and obsessing over blemishes. It gives an unnerving and empowering impression that Lira is trying on a multitude of essences before ultimately refusing to adopt any but his own.

construct and shape the trademark / registered brand, graphic territory – and at once, the logo – / of a certain motor oil, lubricating substance / which is said to have had – at least at one / time had – (1) psychedelic or psychotomimetic powers.

The structures of the poems are the truest manifestation of Lira’s quest for identity. There is a stubborn refusal to allow the reader to settle into almost any kind of rhythm, which only makes sense when you realize that lyricism and cadence are not primary concerns. We are pushed and pulled because Lira is ultimately trying to convey what it is like in his mind, what it feels like to be him. Again, the layout and line breaks in “El Superpoeta Zurita” are so interesting that it felt like Lira was asking me if I understood what he was saying and, when I answered yes, he told me I was wrong and rearranged. His identity and essence are pulled in a dozen different directions, all of which he holds onto lest they pull him apart and leave the unique perspective shattered. I found this particularly surprising given my reading about Lira and how important stage performance was to his career. This is the kind of poetry that would make most open mic night bards turn green. And yet, it makes its own kind of sense in hindsight. Lira refuses to be bound and defined in simplicity. He is not merely written or spoken word.

he aquí las mias / Quisiera poder mostrar algo / de diertas cancioraciones sinfeccionadas, sinfectadas / de ciertas esperrancias y herideas sincereceas / –sincavidades o con carieacontecidas concavidades

I have never quite been sure what the technical definition of conversational poetry is, but I would hazard a guess that poems in Testimony would be prime examples. That refusal of lyricism allows Lira’s diction to feel like he is there, speaking to you; not as a spirit or a god delivering edicts and making demands, but as a person trying desperately to explain their world view and hoping someone will listen. This manner of writing helps the reader deal with the stop and go momentum of the structure, but it also helps you keep up with Lira’s changes of perspective and thought process. It makes what seems like an initially daunting task actually intimately relatable. And speaking of daunting tasks, Rodrigo Olavarria and Thomas Rothe deserve all the credit in the world for capturing Lira’s essence on the page and through translation. Their work is the kind of accuracy you crave as a reader of poetry, accurate to both letter and spirit, with the flexibility to appreciate and utilize the cultural and linguistic divides to enhance the experience.

So what it comes down to is we should die simple deaths / without widespread panic or panspread widnic or wad spread pinic / gently, our traps shut

I mentioned earlier the capacity of literature to wound, particularly when you approach it from an angle that includes a combination philosophy, emotion, and the work’s ability to make you feel. In truth, I was not expecting Testimony to have such an effect. In the interest of complete honesty, as I read about Lira, I was rather concerned that I had agreed to read the ravings of that one poet in any random literary circle who acts like his decent reception at a few open mic nights means more than the work of published poets but who still desperately wants to get published himself. And now, I sit here, writing this, more than a little ashamed in the arrogance of that misplaced concern. Rodrigo Lira’s poetry is fantastic. Rodrigo Lira took his own life on his thirty second birthday. Rodrigo Lira’s written words have come further than almost any text I have ever read to bridging the gap between souls and allowing me to see into the mind of someone else. He deserved and deserves better, especially from me. I approach my own thirty second birthday and have struggled with mental health issues since I was a teenager. Lira’s work serves as a critical reminder that no perspective deserves to be treated with disrespect without merit, and that, in this age where people are finally beginning to wake up on a large scale from the illusion of binaries, that conformity and rebellion are two poorly defined points on a spectrum that is ever in motion.

 

Testimony of Circumstances is available now through Cardboard House Press.

Book Review

Lessons in Camouflage

by on September 6, 2018

Lessons in Camouflage, by Martin Ott
Review by John Venegas

I find it difficult to fully conceptualize the extent to which patriarchy has inundated and insinuated itself into our society. That is by no means to say that such an infestation has not occurred – the only reasons to deny the copious evidence are ignorance or dishonesty – but comprehension of the sheer scale of the problem is frightening and difficult. The tasks before those of us who care about the well-being of our people, our country, and our species is a daunting one, both inherited and entrusted to us by those of our predecessors who recognized the Beast for what it is and who knew the price to be paid for challenging its strength. The most important of those tasks, obviously, is the empowerment of those who the system would otherwise parasitically feast upon. But there is another task, the completion of which which is vitally important if real and lasting change is to be effected: helping men to understand the repercussive, masochistic damage wrought upon them by patriarchy. To be clear, the primary victims of patriarchy are and always have been women, trans and intersex people, and all others who find their place on the spectrum of gender or beyond it. But men must come to terms with the fact that, from birth, they take part in a system that abuses them as both slave and guardian. And to this effort, I find wellsprings of hope when I encounter art such as Lessons in Camouflage. This poetry collection, written by Martin Ott, is a beautiful, haunting, and resonant example of what can happen when the veil is lifted from a man’s eyes.

Look into ash. I’m there where you begin.
I am the shadow that forms in front and stays
long after you’ve lost the spark within.
My power plumes in endless praise.

The collection begins with the lines “Yesterday’s sky is my molting skin. / My soldier’s makeup stains the plays / on a global stage, the actors dead, maudlin / applause sweeping across your family’s strays.” I really cannot think of a better thesis statement in the text. From the start, Lessons is telling you what it is, what it intends to do, and how it’s speaker regards his responsibilities. We often romanticize understanding or truth as some pathway to happiness or reward, and yet this could not be further from reality. Understanding and truth often carry terrible weight, weight we might rather flee from or transfer to someone else. In these opening lines, the speaker’s apotheosis is one of blood, the beginning of comprehension with regards to culpability and ramifications. In the direct sense, it is admission of guilt, of regret for having participated in the inflicting of pain and the ending of lives. The speaker is one amongst the ravenous mob whose morality has forced him to find a small glimpse of the scope of what the mob has done and might yet do. The language here is brutally effective, mincing no words in its statement of purpose, and it serves as a microcosm of what to expect from the rest of the text. While there is no shortage of clever turns of phrase or intensely compelling imagery, the language moves with an intimidating efficiency, not allowing you to miss the forest for the trees.

Life is not a hook to be baited.
Desire: to let mistakes be. Human.

The sheer range of topics here are a testament to the pervasiveness of patriarchy that I mentioned at the open. The relationships between fathers and sons are dissected and pinned open like frogs as the speaker examines the paternal figures in his life and fights desperately to provide both strength and empowering affection to his own son. Sexual and romantic relationships are explored for their power dynamics and how the treatment of male vulnerability is fundamentally linked toward love and connection. The American hypocrisy concerning violence as a noble, inherently validating, and masculine pursuit and as a perpetual, mindless savagery exhibited by the other exists throughout the text, at times in the form of echoing subtext and at times explicitly laid out in its disfigurement. This in turn ties in intricately to how the collection addresses the treatment of the American solider, and how that concept encompasses everything from fanatical hero-worship to genuine respect and empathy to complete ostracizing and abandonment. Again and again, a series of questions rear their heads: why am I like this, how far does this go, and what can I do about it? This introspection and broadening of perspective is quietly reflected in the construction of the poems themselves. Like the use of language, the use of structure here never strives for ostentation or complexity for its own sake. Rather, the poems are arranged with precision and consistent internal routine, as if the speaker is reacting to these problems with regimented and adaptive discipline.

I played army with the box of men kept
alive in the attic, soldiers in battles
with cowboys and dinosaurs,
an alien armada waiting, a man waiting.

The other major through-line on display in Lessons is one that declares itself right in the title: camouflage. There is, of course, the concept of how camouflage is related to soldiers, both a tool of protection and of increasing the effectiveness of violence. But critically the collection turns around and addresses its audience as well, imploring them to resist hypocrisy and examine how thoroughly camouflaged their own lives are. Advertisers camouflaging exploitation. Moral righteousness camouflaging fear and hate. Masculinity camouflaging repressed vulnerability and empathy. Heroism camouflaging bloodlust. Charity camouflaging selfishness. The collection ends with the lines “I hide my strengths and weaknesses, / clever boy, but my children expose / them with their own. Each day a scab / is torn and each night a new me forms.” If the opening is a clear declaration of intent, then the ending is a clear declaration of potential. The speaker knows he has, perhaps irrevocably, been distorted by the greed and anger of others. He knows that the mechanisms he uses to survive have consequences. But he also understands that awareness of those ideas empowers him to do something about them. He understands that awareness gives him an opportunity to break the cycle. Maybe his children do not need wear camouflage and, rather than transferring the burden of the problem, he can add his strength to theirs.

My son has a nightlight and I remember how
the invisible monsters kept me in their thrall,
the attempt to burn away shadows from sin.

Lessons in Camouflage is an exceptional little book. It challenges deeply ingrained norms while respecting its audience as a group capable of confronting difficulty. It is a collection that is poignant and timely; given the unfortunate reality that many men show intense adverse reactions to any perspective that they do not believe they can identify with, I cannot help but think that maybe a book written by a male Army veteran might stand a slightly increased chance of cracking their walls of ignorance.

 

Lessons in Camouflage is available now through C&R Press.

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