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.

Music Nonfiction

The Years of the Unified Heart

by on September 16, 2020

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

You can strike up the march, there is no drum

Every heart, every heart to love will come

But like a refugee

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in

— “Anthem,” Leonard Cohen

*

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

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

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

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

O, see the darkness yielding

That tore the light apart

Come healing of the reason

Come healing of the heart

O, troubled dust concealing

An undivided love

The heart beneath is teaching

To the broken heart above

— “Come Healing,” Leonard Cohen

*

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

Give me crack and anal sex

Take the only tree that’s left

And stuff it up the hole

In your culture

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

*

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

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

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

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

And who by brave assent, who by accident

Who in solitude, who in this mirror

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

Who in mortal chains, who in power

And who shall I say is calling?

—“Who By Fire,” Leonard Cohen

*

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

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

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

##

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

Book Review

You & Me Forever

by on August 18, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

You & Me Forever is available now through Action Books.

Issues

Issue 8

by on August 6, 2020
Angel City Review issue 8

Issue 8 is now available.

Featuring the work of:

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

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

by on August 5, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review News

Black Lives Matter

by on June 5, 2020

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

Black lives matter.

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

Black lives matter.

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

Black lives matter.

Book Review

The Book of Scab

by on May 14, 2020

Written by Danielle Pafunda
Review by Anahita Safarzadeh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Book of Scab is available now through Ricochet Editions.

Music

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

by on May 13, 2020

Born to Die

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off to the Races

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review

Jakarta

by on May 8, 2020

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

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

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

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

From Morgan’s notebook:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jakarta is available now through Coffee House Press.

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