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.

Issues

Issue 11

by on July 24, 2023

Featuring the work of:

  • Jasmine Kapadia
  • Shana Mirambeau
  • Landon Smith
  • Samuel Miller
  • Von Torres
  • Nijla Mu’min
  • Nicole Bird
  • Nick Kunze
  • Elana Kloss
  • Lynne T. Pickett
  • Connie Woodring

Art by Christine Bianco

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Issues

Issue Ten

by on March 29, 2023

Featuring the work of:

  • Christian Saldana Sands
  • Pia Simone Garber
  • Emily Joy Oomen
  • Samuel Miller
  • Corey J. Boren
  • Vivian Ia
  • Ruth Thompson
  • Sage Tyrtle
  • Anna Sandy-Elrod
  • Sophia Amanda Morales
  • Angela Gaito-Lagnese
  • A.J. Huffman
  • Dorothy Cantwell
  • Yessika Maria Rengifo Castillo
  • Chris Bullard
  • Julia Kooi Talen
  • James Miller
  • Anu Pohani
  • Callie Rowland
  • Heather Iverson
  • Kira Houston
  • Nandini Bhattacharya
  • Rachael Biggs
  • Robin Rosenthal
  • Kate Swisher

Art by Julio Rodriguez, Bridget Klappert, and Anthony Grant

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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

City on the Second Floor

by on March 29, 2022

Poetry by Matt Sedillo
Review by Frank Mundo

I was watching Disney’s “Encanto” with the kids when the mail arrived with Matt Sedillo’s new book of poetry, “City on the Second Floor” from FlowerSong Press, and I thought, how perfect is that? Here’s Matt Sedillo, extremely popular Chicano political poet, essayist, activist (the hardest working poet I know) – and yet somehow he’s become like the Bruno of certain parts of the Los Angeles poetry scene. His poetry superpower is so electric and engaging that most are absolutely dazzled and inspired by his voice, while the rest are left frightened (even triggered) and dismissive of his ostensibly dark and angry premonitions. Plus, he’s a troll, they say. He’s a communist with Das Kapital C. He’s (God forbid) a renegade. Self-taught? He didn’t even go to college.

Maybe that’s why, despite all he’s done for the poetry community in Los Angeles for a dozen years or so, we haven’t seen even a mention of Sedillo (or his three books) in the LA Times since he won the L.A. Grand Slam championship in 2011. Perhaps that’s why, no matter how hard he works and finds success, he’s never been the poet in conversation at Rattle. And, maybe it’s why, like his second book, “Mowing Leaves of Grass,” his newest book will likely never be reviewed or discussed by the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Maybe it’s just me, but, in certain parts of Los Angeles, it seems we don’t talk about Matt Sedillo – at least, not nearly as much as we should. And I just don’t understand why. Many compare him to Amiri Baraka, Jose Montoya, and so many other fiery or political poets. To me, his work is a cross between Allen Ginsberg and Wanda Coleman. So why isn’t everyone in LA talking about his new book, “City on the Second Floor,” which is flying off the shelves, by the way.

One criticism you’ll hear way too often is that Sedillo’s poetry is too angry. This is a lazy and shallow reading (or listening) of his work. Yes, there is anger in his poetry, and a lot of it, but it’s almost always tempered with humor, which can never be done effectively without empathy and compassion. Sedillo’s speaker addresses this idea in “Post,” the very first poem of the 32 poems and one play collected in “City on the Second Floor.” And I can almost guarantee that Sedillo or his publisher placed this piece first in the collection intentionally. There’s no way this was a coincidence.

“Post” begins looking back (even reminiscing, you might say) to a time of the service economy (when what? America was great?) – “…just like yesterday/ Municipalities raised cities/ Built nuclear families/ Associations of sturdy pockets/ A two-car garage, chicken in every pot.” What follows is their broken promise of tomorrow, “…which doesn’t show up all at once,” the speaker tells us, “But when it does…” it’s with liquidated pensions and automated factories – and the resulting gig economy left in a shambles to a generation who “…cannot afford to live in…” the very cities where they must hustle only to get part-time, freelance, contract, and “adjunct” employment. “Promise me the world, then show me the door,” Sedillo’s speaker concludes. “I was not/ Born/ Angry/ I was abandoned.”

Yet, even with that last line, as justifiable as the “anger” might be for this speaker (and Sedillo’s generation), I think a lot of critics who only want to see anger will miss the fabulous punchline at the end of the poem – “Tell me the one/ Where I killed the economy.”

I love this line, not only because it’s hilarious, but because it’s so accurate. Often accused of being whiners and lazy, Millennials are also blamed somehow for ruining the very broken economy they inherited. But I would argue that there’s nothing overly angry in this line. This is not an “OK, Boomer” sarcastic snowflake moment. This is more of a mic-drop moment – a humorous wink and a nod to the “us” in the us-versus-them structure that makes up so much of Sedillo’s poetry.

Even the title “Post” is a funny play on words of old versus new. Is this the postindustrial standard? Is this a letter? A social media post? Is this a signpost? Or is it a warning, like so many other poems in the collection about how consumerism, credit, and debt will ruin us all? Maybe it’s all these things and a hint of what to expect in the following pages of an angry and funny and compassionate collection.
Sedillo reworks this poem later in the book (sort of in reverse) in a poem called, “Hammurabi,” which is laugh-out-loud funny. This one ends with a deadly serious punchline, “Since they from on high/ Convinced us down below/ That we/ Ever/ Needed/ Their/ Code/ Of law/ To tell us/ We were free.” What’s funny is that the lies about the future in this remix of “Post” come from the TV characters we so loved and trusted: Lucy Ricardo, Mr. Belvedere, Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, and especially Al Bundy (all comedies, mind you) who convinced us that we “…could raise a family/ In a two story/ On the single income/ Of a shoe salesman.” LOL.

I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t the only one who believed Matt Sedillo’s poetry is as funny as it is angry. Maybe I just have a dark sense of humor. So, I called up Mike “the Poet” Sonksen, a poet, scholar, journalist, critic, mentor, and author with an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of poetry in Los Angeles. I respect Mike’s opinion so much because he focuses on poetry of merit, not simply the styles and genres he prefers. If anyone anywhere in LA is writing or “spitting” quality verse, he knows about it, writes about it, talks about – because he’s all about it and has been for 25 years.

“Matt Sedillo is relentless,” Mike told me. “He’s a student of history and skilled at spinning his astute understanding into engaging poetry,” and I couldn’t agree more. He also said, “Sedillo can also be quite funny, satirizing the powers that be with poetic one-liners. His social commentary balances truth and wit to produce a poetic velocity faster than Starsky & Hutch.”

Another poem I loved from the book, “Pope of Broadway,” literally starts as a classic joke: “An Arab, an Italian, a Jew, a Puerto Rican, an Inuit, an American Indian, a Mongolian/ And a Mexican/ Walk into a bar…” and “Anthony Quinn orders a drink.” This is a wonderful and complex poem about the “ethnically ambiguous” actors (the “every” Brown-man) in Hollywood, from Quinn (who was the best) to today’s other “two first-name” actors who continue this unusual tradition today, including Cliff Curtis and Oscar Isaac.

I like this poem also because I spoke about this concept (and the larger and darker meaning behind it) with Matt Sedillo a couple years ago, before he had written the piece. And reading the final product in his new book was a real treat for me.

That day, I also asked Matt what his goal was when writing a poem. “First,” he said, “it’s to satisfy the demands of structure.” Matt often uses a three-act structure that he has developed and refined over the years and made his own. It’s one of the major topics he discusses and often teaches as a highly in-demand speaker/performer at the top colleges and universities in America and at several other major venues in Canada, England, and Cuba. “Second,” Matt continued, “no matter what the theme is, I want to write poems (not every time, but I try) that are calls to action.” It’s not surprising to me that his answer is all about craft. Matt sees craft everywhere. He studies it and looks for patterns and anomalies in everything. He’ll read texts or study videos of fiery speakers, like Hugo Chavez and Michael Parenti, and spend hours breaking down their prose, examining what they say and how they say it. He’ll study the timing of stand-up comics, books, films, commercials, anything that tells stories in an engaging way that gets people to act.

In “Mowing Leaves of Grass,” Sedillo’s first book with FlowerSong Press from 2019, his craft, especially his three-act structure is in full effect. It’s the work that put him on the map as a unique and powerful voice in Los Angeles and beyond. The poems in his latest book, “City on the Second Floor,” however, offer a glimpse, I believe, of where his poetry is headed: even more powerful, political, angry, funny, timely, smart, carefully crafted, and compassionate calls to action.

I also asked Matt Sedillo who influences him and his writing, and I was a little surprised by his answer. An avid student of history, Matt listed artists who are still alive and very active in the community. He said Luis J. Rodriguez, the 2014 Los Angeles Poet Laureate. He also mentioned other poets whose work inspired him: spoken word artist David A. Romero, author of “My Name is Romero,” and Viva Padilla, Publisher/ Editor-in-Chief of Dryland, a literary journal.

Finally, I wanted to know about Matt Sedillo’s publisher, so I contacted Edward Vidaurre, Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of FlowerSong Press, and I asked him straight out why he chose to publish such an outspoken and, perhaps, controversial poet as Matt Sedillo. Without hesitation, Vidaurre answered, “Because, like me, he is fearless about his work. He’s a necessary voice in a world where being an activist is sometimes looked on as trouble.” Finally, he added – and it all made perfect sense to me – “I wanted his collection to make noise and open eyes.”

I suppose the gatekeepers and kingmakers of the Los Angeles literary scene will do what they want to do – and they still might not talk about Matt Sedillo after my little plea here. But, with Sedillo’s incredible work ethic, his determination and dedication to craft, and his fearless and supportive publisher’s commitment to sharing “necessary” voices and books, I know we will definitely be hearing much more “noise” from him.



City on the Second Floor is available now from FlowerSong Press.

Frank Mundo is a poet from Los Angeles. His latest chapbooks are Touched by an Anglo (Kattywompus Press) and Eleven Sundry Flowers (Antrim House).

Issues

Issue Nine

by on August 14, 2021

Featuring the work of:

  • Soleil David
  • Mud Howard
  • Marie Targonski-O’Brien
  • Manuela Williams
  • Mei Mei Sun
  • Chelsea Bayouth
  • Sean Carrero
  • Paul Ilechko
  • Sarah Marquez
  • Stephanie Valente
  • Lorraine Whelan
  • Michael Carter
  • Zoe Canner
  • Eugene Stevenson
  • Carol Hamilton
  • Rachel Warshaw
  • January Pearson
  • Chris Abbate
  • Kevin Ridgeway
  • Don Raymond
  • Anne Marie Wells
  • Jean Prokott
  • Raul Ruiz
  • Matilda Young
  • Alison Minami
  • Sylvan Lebrun
  • Bruno Figueroa
  • L Scully
  • Mehreen Ahmed
  • Oguma Hideo
  • Amber Foster
  • Dayna Gross
  • Liz Rose
  • Shaista Vaishnav

Art by jen stract, Monica Valdez, and Brea Weinreb

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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

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

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.

Book Review

The Book of Anna

by on November 12, 2020

If there is any significance in taking a novel of eight parts and proceeding it with a five part metatheatrical sequel, it is to show that length and history do not make a novel. Instead, imagine the waves of reaction and retelling passing between generations and finally into the hands of writers who take the liberty to create and recreate without shame or fear of traditionalists’ view of text. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna is often negotiated by the temporal and spatial definitions of woman at the time of reproduction. In Carmen Boullosa’s The Book of Anna, one may call into the question the boundaries of a sequel. Boullosa text, and the incredible translation by Samantha Schnee, stretch beyond the imagination by infusing historical references, magic realism, literary criticism, and metatheatricality to spin the yarn of its archetype to gives readers and women a version which we might be able to look at with more than contempt and see a possible outcome more closely aligned with our reality of feminism. 

Although I have never been a fan of disclosures, Boullosa’s novel begins with an explanation of the book. Tolstoy’s Anna writes a manuscript which is referenced once then thrown by the sidelines. Here, through her descendants, the work is finally able to come to light – but more than the work, the legacy she leaves behind for her children is something which Boullosa finds might have greater significance than her adultery and suicide. The explanation is also a wonderfully shameless way of giving readers a pass at first needing to read or reread the 864 page predecessor. 

Unlike the novels from the 18th century, Boullosa highlights the lives of every social class and pits their lives side by side. The novel opens with a vagabond attempting to bomb a train, a nod to Tolstoy’s novel which tickles the idea of breaking away from canon and promoting a new interpretation of femininity. Rather than focusing on Annas suicide by train, here we get Clementine’s desire to destroy a train – and whatever it may represent for each reader. 

Over and over, the characters are juxtaposed against each other through life and death or dreams and reality, “In Claudia’s dream, she exchanges glances with Sergei. In Sergei’s dream, they don’t. But in both dreams Sergei reflects: ‘But I am not completely human. And you know that better than anyone: I am a fictional creation, part of an imaginary drama”. These words are said to a dream version of Tolstoy who is haunting the characters subconsciously as they attempt to decide throughout the novel whether or not to give a painting of Anna to the New Hermitage. I am in awe of the psychological and traumatic retelling of characters like Sergei – to show how much they are aware of their own existence only in terms of their story is something I’m sure many fear before walking into the cold arms of existentialism. 

Some of the more meta sections of the novel revolve around Sergei, the son of Anna Karenina. Boullosa maps out for readers each moment and distinction one should make in order to understand the characters as fiction and nonfiction. Sergei exists but he also exists as a fictional character, “Sergei occupies the very same seat that his mother did…It’s like a menacing cloud that burns and asphyxiates him.” I see in these lines something reflective. A technique of writing which can oftentimes be taken to one extreme while craving the other. Poor Sergei is haunted by his past but by participating in society he is also haunted by his existence and is constantly swimming through anxiety made more evident with the block texts that are dedicated to explanation why Sergei is the way he is. 

I find that by highlighting the women in the novel as a sort of force to be reckoned with, while leaving Sergei as a sort of manchild, is just beautifully hilarious. So many female protagonists are silenced, especially in classic literature, and here too the men of the novel try to silence them again. Boullosa won’t let them. She gives the women a voice in the way they dress, the way they refuse to feel sorry for themselves, the way they manipulate their husbands carefully to act in a way they find favorable. 

If there was anything to dislike about The Book of Anna it may well be the length because when I finished it I actually said, That’s it? I wanted more, and I feel most readers will as well. There is not much closure in the novel and that in itself is a sort of rejection of the stereotypical novel and also a rejection of many of the interpretations of Anna Karenina. 

The Book of Anna is available now through Coffee House Press.

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.

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