Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems by Jennifer S. Cheng (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2018)
once she was crawling through a tunnel made of fabric unable to see the sky. to find a tear in the cloth, an eyelet of
fear, which is to say, what is the body in transit? a pilgrimage--
(from “Her Dreams At Night”)
The latest collection of writings from Jennifer S. Cheng comes by way of the illuminating and mythological Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems. Broken into a neatly layered and dauntingly dense five sections, a prelude, and an interlude, the book of poetry and prose draws upon a plethora of Chinese myths, most notably The Lady of the Moon, Chang’e, of which the book is named, but also including stories of Nü Wa, Tin Hau, and others. Moon represents an intelligent, matured phase of writing for the poet. Containing a mutuality of intellection and empathy, it follows its incredible predecessor, the acclaimed House A, which explored intimately the ether and disintegration of location, identity, homemaking, and familial lineage. To encounter Cheng’s newest work and ever-expanding relationship with the world via Moon is a beautifully transformative and profound reading experience.
In Moon, Cheng’s words are incredibly inspired, fearless, and empowered by the fluctuations of that which surrounds her; and also, there is an integration and confidence that shows significant growth, appreciation, and resolve for the complexities of experience and endurance. Much like the Lady of the Moon, Chang’e, the proto-feminist archetype who is the subject of many ancient Chinese stories, Cheng is demonstrably capable of surviving, understanding, and acting against hardship and challenge and insight. This understanding of causation and achievement toward and of autonomy, both distinctly different and yet also bound in concept, inform many of the works and their monologues; these are writings of process, writings to embrace identity. Process and identity are significant themes throughout Cheng’s work, but here, in Moon, they are urged forward through the bold, unfaltering poet’s commitment and persistence to progress, knowledge, and freedom.
Sometimes we begin
& gradually learn to shore.
It is the process perhaps
of looking at things
the body builds
loose, saturated in it
Far from egotistical, the core divinity within these works represents a clear, sisterly (and, curiously, motherly) direction of empathy unrevealed so fully in previous works. Her previous movements in House A indicated a fascinating and inspiring relationship to space and the roots of home (as an idea and as an actualized, physical place with actual familial relationships and intimacies). In Moon, transition and migration are still very much resonating ideas; but they feel very much intentional and desirable. This intentionality and rational, firm placement is paired with the sense of wild and unknown that exists all around the poet. Between her homeland in San Francisco to her other homelands in Hong Kong and mainland China, to other, less-identified spaces, the reader is taken into the periphery of those authorial certainties. Environmental factors like heat and humidity trigger actions beyond the enveloping and into the charge of the writer: to find release and pace, to seek inward moments of reflection and protection.
For me, the experience of seeing the poet leverage the awe of the myths and imbue a daily life of communication, work, and insight with those myths gives way to powerful moment of witness. The readers of Moon are granted great opportunities in encountering Cheng’s methodologies. Cheng’s work is heightened to the point of a ceaseless blend with the incredible and extraordinary, and yet we as contemporary humans need not find the old writings and storytelling to be completely beyond our current context. From bus stops to parks to apartments to boats to islands to marinas, the world is full of contexts that can and do mimic the archetypal. In other words, there is a precise, transcendental unity with history here. Cheng’s work pulls those strings, pulls out those ideas, merging them through her own turns along the path. When I read that the book contains “maps,” I became aware of the interpretation of the map as the abstract wayfinding moment contained within the beautiful truth of each poetic experience happening in the past and fortified through the act of writing: that what was still is, and vice versa.
(If a closure of lines is always a lie. If shadows are multiple because the body is multiple. If, then, a continuation, the moon in its phases. Bewilderment and shelter, destruction and construction, unthreading as it rethreads, shedding as it collections.)
(from “Prelude, part i.”)
In some cases, these merges of old and new are most prophetically balanced by the image of the moon. As a symbol with an endless array of meanings, that which is lunar and orbiting in the fullest declaration of gravity serves the poet and the reader both with the energy of reflection. Astrologically haven-like, the moon is where Chang’e was made to be, to live, to continue, grown and growing, following transgression and complication. Cheng explores Chang’e’s movement to the moon and there are as many reasons why it was not Chang’e’s choice as there are reasons that she had to go.
And yet, despite this ambiguity of positive or negative triggering acts that inspire Chang’e’s timeline and journey and resulting emotional circumstances, the effect of the movement to the moon, at least partially, is an embodying of the necessary learning, growth, and subsequent liberation. As hard as it was, and continues to be, from a remarkable number of angles and interpretations, this movement and relationship with the moon is still representing epiphany, insight, and progression. That moment of the epiphany, of the transformation by way of reflection and reaction, is balanced throughout the book, allowing the floods of verisimilitude to open and close like a hinge.
Let me quarry
Let me curdle
(from “Creation Myth)
The form of Moon offers another integration of truth. Its five sections indicate more qualities of mapping, trajectory, and an indication of that process towards reclaiming space for growth and independence. The book begins before the five sections with a prelude, “Sequesterings,” that is enormously enjoyable to read without any context of the mythologies of the book. It is abstract and abundantly self-sustaining, providing a splinter of what follows: “Iterations,” “Artifacts,” “Biography of Women in the Sea,” “Interlude: Weather Reports,” “Love Letters,” and “From the Voice of the Lady in the Moon.” The five sections, split with their interlude, each offer unique angles on the precision of Cheng’s experience. They serve as their own waypoints in the map, but also serve as individual maps of life and the Chinese mythos pulling in characters in some cases and leaving out characters in other cases. They are pillars, pylons, temples that create that visual boundary between the lines of thought that the poet traces.
For as long as the stars do not seem to align in an orderly manner, as long as such lost light sources make their way into the spinning crevices of her lungs, she will continue to ask herself: How does one make a habitation of it? What is the relationship between a woman’s fragments and her desire
(from “Chang ‘E”)
Tracing is one of Cheng’s poetry’s best qualities, from my point of view. Being able to shift and create a poetics that contains both the exquisitely researched and the dutifully exploratory, as a representation of confidence (as opposed to anxiety, unsureness, and pretension), allows a floating essence throughout the book. Like her previous works, this engagement is deeply serious and focused, yet also open to that which is profound and that which is profoundly unexpected. As such, the book contains moments of surprise and delight; there were moments for me, as the average reader, where the book opened up and changed directions and followed leads, or took rests and pauses and meditations, and being within them as the reader felt secretive and empoweringly inspirational in its own way.
In this spectra of Cheng’s poetics, the result is ecstatically authentic, ironically personal even when mythological, and awe-inducing. The book, it appears, is a gift being given to the readers just as it is a gift given to the poet. There is a sense of award and reconciliation contained within that floaty, tracing spirit that lingers within the pages.
[. . .] if you take how she journeyed in utter silence, sailing in no particular direction across an endless and unbounded sea, dully lukewarm water melting into overcast sky, waiting for the waters to recede, waiting to land, somewhere, anywhere—you will remember, above all else, how she is—motherless, childless, godless-the last girl on earth—how the story of the world begins with her, a body in the marshes, sleeping, alone.
(from “Nü Wa”)
Despite one’s knowledge or lack of knowledge of the Chinese stories that are contained within Moon, the book is a significant next step for Cheng and a significant contribution to American poetry in general. It will, I’m sure, be recognized for its respect for an elevation of the adapted Lady of the Moon stories, inclusive of their feminist edge and elevation of the female spirit. The fascinating form and the revealing of Cheng’s continued growth and forward momentum as a writer are also worth noting again, as those who left House A will be amazed at where the poet exists in this work. And beyond all this context and these implications, the work stands on its own in stunning, absorptive independence. Like the reflection of the moon on a body of water, there is nothing quite like Moon, nor do I think there ever will be something like it by Jennifer S. Cheng or any other writer.
The Last Mosaic by Elizabeth Cooperman and Thomas Walton (Sagging Meniscus Press, 2018)
We love to think that various spaces are haunted, as we ourselves are haunted spaces.
(from “Last Breath of Color”)
The Last Mosaic is a collection of poetic statements and musing describing travels in Rome by poet-authors Elizabeth Cooperman and Thomas Walton. This collection is the first major collaboration between these two poets, and one that sticks timely as a footnote (or page rip or cobblestone trip) in the long history of representation of humankind. Like Anne Carson or David Shields (both who literally show up in the book in various ways, along with countless other authors and inspiring minds), the words in The Last Mosaic are loosely clumped into a scattering of ideas, linked together loosely into themes.
In other words, the poems (or sub-collections) serve as clusters of revelation and insight and ultimately as documentation of Cooperman and Walton’s witness and conclusion during their time in Italy. The words, then, serve to help the reader navigate the behemoth of consequence and history consistently present throughout the Rome and its surroundings. The book’s a marvelous feat, one that swirls around mystically and temporally. It is filled with context and subtext, direction and floatation, movement and stasis, evidence and obscurity.
Every poet knows that poets steal. Mimicry is the great device of art.
(from “If We Replaced These Bodies with Our Bodies”)
Most notably and superficially, the poets have written their book about their visits to Rome, and on the surface, in the moment, in the contemporary, it’s a beautiful and hearty record of the encounters in that multifaceted, multicultural place. The zoom that fills the spaces between each image, however, is on the historic and on the complex. In this case of world history, there is the act of borrowing and utilization that becomes key to understanding authorial placement. For Cooperman and Walton, it is a pleasant exchange between knowing the act of being present, and the act of engaging multiple pasts. Here, in “the last” space, we have an extension of all the previous ideas, a la mosaic, and an understanding that those previous ideas can be roped together in some finality. In this case, the finality of the authors and their presence.
The train rattles south, sometimes wailing, kneeling through the Tuscan countryside heavy with sunflowers, olives, hayfields, gold scarves folding, rolling rows of grapevines running over the undulant soil to Rome, Rome where every square foot of earth has its mouth full of stone.
(from "Little Scratches in Tempera")
The writing, fueled by countless vibrations of space and time in Rome, maintains a poetic form of theft. Literary theft, not nearly as morally impermissible, as identified by the authors themselves, is a form of stealing done and done intentionally to amplify thematic range. It’s curious to see where and how that process is discovered; the usage and bringing in of the external forces, the peripheral muses of the city life that buzzes around our poets, is a usage at once amplified and also distorted by origins. It’s a curiously muffled and uncertain position for Cooperman and Walton to take, but as their other works have indicated, seriousness and play are required of one another to exist at all. The journey into the feathery soul and spinal juices of Rome and its streets and peoples and figures is a journey of intentionality but open-mindedness, and despite the rigid consistency of form (on the higher level) of The Last Mosaic and its writing, the flexibility of content is arousing and not nervous or tense.
The process of the poets and their actions, here, in this publication, is complex; as we see them, as readers, these two authors move throughout streets and galleries and museums and plazas effortlessly, evanescently, floating about, taking and adapting that which initiates conversation and thematic development. The writing forms a keystone of imagery (their own ciphering, their own conjuration), ultimately forming images which serve to hold together (unlocking through an assumed completion or stability) the greater image. This bigger picture and macrocosmic lens of Rome is also allowed, through selection and exasperation alike, to be elevated more importantly than the smaller pictures contained within. At times. It’s not entirely clear just how much value is put on the small and the big throughout the book, and maybe it does not need to be. Perhaps the interplay between the various heights of Rome analogically indicates one step further how much beauty there is within the refractive, existential reality of a place set far into the past and far into the future at the same time.
I did not see for fifteen minutes the trick of blood at the old man's waist training his white robes smocked in black velvet.
(from "Soot on the Left Foot of God")
As I read The Last Mosaic, not having my own geo-psychological or emotional relationship to that area of Italy, I watched as the authors established and set forth an arranged system of values and hierarchies of authority and autonomy by way of discovery. More summative, they bumbled along, lived lively moments, and etched their own interpretation of the world around them, much like the many great artists that have continued to occupy Rome for centuries and centuries and centuries. Excitingly, thus, The Last Mosaic with its self-awareness and conceptual core (whether identified before, during, or after the writers’ experiences) is a fundamentally challenging book of these bold and autobiographically-dependent poetic statements; its core, like the city’s reality, is deservedly process-oriented, obsessive of and through history, and maintains a quasi-permanent concept of an umbrella positioning in a world where anthropological deconstruction is gravely suggestive of truth.
There is no feeling inherent in language. The poetry in language is what makes us feel. We use poetry all the time, though poems are generally thought to be useless.
(from “Sick Bacchus”)
Moments like the one described above from “Sick Bacchus” indicate a hearty and realistic relationship between Cooperman and Walton and the poems. Beliefs such as the poetry as synonymous with feeling ultimately identify and characterize the views of art throughout Rome and how we, as humans today, can integrate them into our own sense of being, by way of feeling. The book connects images, ideas, and ponderable frameworks (via strings and other logical progressions) thoughtfully, and again, intentionally. There is a rhythm and a pacing to the book as a whole that keeps it intact and even, in a sense of the eruptive, is capable of breaking down the poems themselves. Poem titles become earmarks but not requirements to the book’s truths. The book, like our occupations of space everywhere we go, is a testimony towards movement, and as such it doubles as a comment on the movement we physically endure and the movement of the language (representation) we express. Here, then, the book’s flow, a linear and circular (circuitously moving between both narrative identities) collection of moments and epiphanies, serves as binding to the reader. Sucked into the ancient vortex of story, hero, and the archaic, the reader has the chance to hold on and watch as that mosaic moves back into the ether time and time again in anti-conclusion. A resulting effect that the authors may or may not have intended is an understanding of the powers that come with the privilege to move, and the privilege to be able to see that movement throughout history. As the artist, the awareness of intention can be matched with inattention; what power we yield and how we relate to it, or refuse to. The book on its surface is often about embrace, but I encountered strands of denial and refusal within the book as well.
Negative capability can be thought of as seeing without a code explaining things. That is, no political agenda.
(from “Content as Costume Jewelery”)
Cooperman and Walton, like Keats, hone for some time on this value of negative capability and perhaps the sentiments of anti-conclusion or anti-conclusiveness are simply synonymous with the understanding of bringing in that which can be brought in, regardless of motive and desire from the conscious poetic mind. On one-hand, that makes for an exciting immersion into an exotic or otherworldly space in a country not of one’s own; on the other hand, the post-engagement approach, as it might be gleaned, could be an active rejection of that momentary weight of being within the privileged hierarchy. The tourist, who occupies space and has the weight of reconciling that space, can be, through the ambivalent, serendipitous encounter, transformed into a more unified, contributing being, who can be held accountable for their presence in that space. A mosaic implies participation and contribution to the entire image, and not a denial, invisibility, or exclusivity away from that entire image. Despite their definite outsider qualities, Cooperman and Walton have done a fine job being “one” with the city of their occupation.
While movement is incredibly important in this book, so is its inverse (as with any book of writing on the page). The Last Mosaic includes the gasps of presence and the nature of the authors and their conjoined, unified, and synchronic flow, as explored, but also in the injunction of description and stillness that pervades a world of movement, action, and space-time blossoming. Specifically, we have the “still life” poems, minutiae of encountered objects painted onto the page. For example, in “One Should Always Be Lost,” there is the following: “Up in the trees, a claw of half-dried leaves, arthritic, grabs a painful shock of sun. Purple wildflower clumps dance in circles around the gnarled trunks of olive trees.”
While this moment, like many others in the book, is deeply personal and reveals a polish of emotion, there is the sense of the author displaced, channeling like Keats or, later, Spicer, the explosivity of the world that surrounds us all. In Rome, as demonstrated by our authors, there is a very pertinent sense of the natural as causing that channeling. Could the roots and new growth emerging between the mosaic’s tiles, atop the fresco, or, like the grotesque refuse of today’s living birds and humans, serve as that conducive sense to move beyond history? Beyond, in this case, does not imply a dimming or degradation of history; for the core of The Last Mosaic, it is the point and the ultimate purpose. But throughout, the reader is challenged by the authors and where they can find sense and grounding amidst flash upon flash of their inspiration. Whether it’s identifying the relatively quiet morning moments or discovering an absurdly extraordinary pool of turtles, these triggering moments are exquisitely spliced throughout the otherwise rhetorical and didactic process of the book.
Beauty is that which we want to repeat.
(from “If We Replaced These Bodies with Our Bodies”)
Didacticism and history become key components to gauging where Cooperman and Walton may explore going forward. Living in Seattle, a place incredibly different from Rome in both respect to history and outlook to the future, the authors may have answers, at least in the form of poetry, that may be worth visiting from their home grounds. As a place that demolishes historical buildings for efficiency, cost, and value, there may be issues in understand that which can be provided by the beauty of repetition directly called upon by the authors in the quote above. As a city that, despite its best efforts, fails to deliver significant respect to the many cultures that fill it and recognize the recent but complex layers of the past, perhaps there is much to be applied or projected via The Last Mosaic. Still, the book does not concern Seattle so much as the splitting moment of existence that occurred in Rome during the period of its writing.
There is no pressure to look beyond the book or move forward from Rome’s streets; the book feels as solidified and territorial as geography itself. And yet perhaps such concentration means its lessons, values, and themes can maintain their harmony and impact all the easier as readers who do or do not care about Rome will find out as they get carried from balconies to cafes to gardens to squares to waterfronts to arenas by way of Cooperman, Walton, and the countless other voices of the same literary vortex.
Defense of the Idol by Omar Cáceres, Translated by Mónica de la Torre (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018)
Lost Literature Series #23
Led to the buttress of your solid thirst,
(headdress of frail waves, distressed hips),
the meteorite of your body sets the seasons,
from the empty arc of its skin.
(from “Fickle Oracle”)
In the 1943 prologue to Defense of the Idol, Vincente Huidobro invites the reader into the world of, the life of, Omar Cáceres with description, representation, introduction. “Outside your windows poetry crosses the universe like a lightning bolt,” Huidobro concluded, nearly 100 years ago, before stepping away and allowing the ethereality of the poet to take shape. It is with gusto and mystery that this statement of a poetry of crossing echoes into and beyond the pages of Defense of the Idol, a book that is as brief as a stirring morning and yet as magnificent as the oncoming storm.
it barges in, appears, from this lamp, in pieces,
a nocturnal poem I’ve scribbled in blurry handwriting,
night of a bluish storm, oh incomparable righteousness.
(from “The I’s Illumination”)
The book’s presence as a mode of identification asserts a sense of recovery. That this “lost literature” has been recaptured in the contemporary is an act resounding like a signal or beacon. It is a call to history. A call to purer energy. As translation, the collection glints like a gemstone, with the young Chilean, Cáceres, brought up from the void in a ritual as Orphean as psychedelic. The words of Cáceres by way of Mónica de la Torre emanate like the aforementioned bolts of lightning. They pop and shatter and bounce. They are the emersion and emulsion of life itself. This life, what little we know of the details, was life the poet knew and described and opened the world to by way of the poems.
as if we were spinning vertiginously in the spiral of our own selves,
each one of us feels lonely, narrowly lonely,
oh, infinite friends.
(from “Opposite Anchors”)
At roughly 60 pages in length, 30 devoted to the original text and 30 to de la Torre’s careful translations to English, the pamphlet-sized collection is as impactful as dynamite, as evaporative as teardrops, and as clutching as a vortex of memory. It represents what little has been known of Cáceres previously: his relationships with the avante garde in Chile and, spiritually, his intricate political ties to the Communist Party. These worldly, almost excessive biographic details are pushed and snuffed in the writing itself and in the publication; that is, they never find thorough exploration. And yet do they need it, or is the biography a plastication of the poet and his poetry? Is mystery today as it was, perhaps, in the 1930s? As demanding our attention is to the most objective realities possible, the presentation within Defense of the Idol sits glinting, remarking upon the world it finds itself within. The bubbling open of energies and stances in the poems gives all the represented life the poet needs.
Love of a hundred women will not sate the anguish
distilling its feverish buzz into my bloodstream;
and if I found there were support for that hope,
the voice of a precipice would have mercy on me.
(from “Insomnia Near Dawn”)
What has resulted is the collection: 16 poems, slyly positioned upon the page with dimples and craters of white space, capable of standing on their own, to proclaim, to shatter, and to disappear. There is the uncanny, the magical, and the pressure for resolve. There is beauty, homage, and commitment. There is attention. With Cáceres, we have an individual whose words spruce and spice and spit across our own spaces, our own peripheries—to wake, to trip, to collide in a poetry of ultimate infusive demands.
Take Out Delivery by Paul Siegell (Spuyten Devil, 2018)
Review by Greg Bem
Paul Siegell is a writer and visual artist whose sounds tear from his poems and shoot out into the ether, merging into any ear they come across. These sounds are the sounds of action and of life. They have been, in various ways, from book to book. In Take Out Delivery, Siegell’s latest collection and concept, the sounds are from poems following the dangling length of emotion, brevity, and maturity. They spear and stick, spin and wobble. They zero in and fly off within moments. They are fleeting instants, and clever ones too, that bring the reader in with a linguistic energy.
The book collects poems following two different formats. The first is a sexy entangling of characterizations, what might be deemed as Siegell’s “hot pepper people” poems. Partial ASCII vispo, partial minimalist comic, these poems dot across the book showcasing subtle typographical gestures and also bringing sense through Siegell’s linguistic dexterity.
In the first “hot pepper people” poem of the book (which also is the first poem of the book), one “person” expresses: “i love / party?” while the other says “we make pizza of evening!” A caption beneath the characters themselves reads: “hot pepper people / discovering their doppelganger / reaching for the same door handle.” There is a cuteness to this poem, as with the others, that is so simple yet charming, yet fiery and eruptive too. Another reads: “scantily clad / free radicals?” and “post-apocalyptic pickpockets!” and “hot pepper people / running riot at a massive, / six-turntable spectacular” conjuring the provocative, the strange, the ridiculous. The “hot pepper people” poems contain a similar tone and a similar sound across the book, while dazzling with their own shiny, unique moments.
While the sequence of “hot pepper people,” complete with mellow bites of absurdity and intoxication, could stand on its own, it spices up the book by being interspersed. The bulk of the “text” of Take Out Delivery are prose poems taking from Siegell’s life. In many ways, Siegell’s work arouses a sense of the whole. In this case, the “whole” of Philadelphia is the world that Siegell builds in these poems. There are references to artists and writers living their lives in the City of Brotherly Love. Place names. Cultural mentions and abstract artifacts. An entire landscape of city life is created in a whacky and profound space. Each poem begins with “We’ve Come for Your” which lends itself to the consumerist and idolatrist sensations of the American conditioning. It’s very American. It’s very funny and, with layers of subtext, gently critical.
Mostly, Siegell’s exploring the world as he does best: through the intellection of language. In “We’ve Come for Your Birth of Wordplay,” Siegell writes: “Leaks happened when sounds happened when it was hard to see. When others uttered the purpose of sound that I was made, I made the yes of sound. Strange and then OK when someone else said yes to the sound that I was made because I listened enough to know what that sound was mine, but also his and shared.” The odd, jumbling focus of this poem represents one of Siegell’s greatest strengths: to take an image, idea, or logical premise for language, and alter it just slightly enough to make it completely revitalized. In this case, there is the epiphany of shared language.
In another case, in “We’ve Come for Your Blood Test Results,” the quirk is the imagery: “On the bridge, the birdgirl waits with a weight in her ribcage. Symbolically, a sailor and his sweetheart. A sparrow pecking at a cigarette. A sparrow pecking at salt for snow.” Juxtapositions reach maximal surrealistic effect. Images become layers that mask their core as the poems continue. There is hiding, revealing, fantastical moments. Just as one truth is revealed, another truth is added, releasing or solidifying that which came first.
Thankfully, Siegell in his brilliant tongue doesn’t hide behind the flash of the absurd and the language for the sake of language. Instead, there are moments of the political, the social, the equitable, and the yearn for an understanding of the spectra that life affords. In these ways, Siegell is an empathetic poet. His humor is laced with a profound stretch towards the underlying meaning of and from others. “After sucking his nails to taste the dirt from underneath, a homeless man tics, ‘It doesn’t it don’t most matter if I know the news or not.’” (from “We’ve Come for Your Veterans Affairs.”)
Ultimately, that sense of vision must be balanced by the humorous musings of the poet. Siegell often creates situations in his poems that form an ars poetica, a device as inward as possible. The wording may come off as objective, or displaced, but commentary on the artistic process is present and arousingly personal, as in “We’ve Come for Your Unfathomable Fact”: “When he came to, the artist to a blank canvas raced and, as if an ominous grand piano silencing a star, he ferociously blackened everything out.” This poem, like many others in the book, is a dense offering from a poet whose youthful energy is matched by a mature introspection.
Whether you have encountered Siegell’s works in the past or this is your first exploration, Take Out Delivery is a rewarding collection of poems of two very different formulas that amount to an enjoyable experience. As poetry of the 21st Century, it fits right in with the soft jabs and quick mesmerizations of our digitally-dependent lives. As poetry of Philadelphia, it emulates the livelihood of a broad swath of humanity. As poetry of the heart, it laughs and emphatically pushes things forward.
A Box of Crazy Toys by Peter Dellolio (Xenos Books, 2018)
Review by Greg Bem
Silent films are
projected upon the
foreheads of children.
The little ones vomit
made of exotic African woods.
(from “Skeleton Accordions”)
Entering the world of Peter Dellolio is a walk along the bridge between charming and disturbing. To read his short forays into narrative poetry is to be immersed in the dreamscapes of another’s twisted mind. The sensations of imagery as grotesque as they are marvelous are sensations disturbingly crystalline. The metaphors of these poems are enthralling but agonizingly elsewhere; a book as relentless as A Box of Crazy Toys may be one better to take in small bits rather than, as per my approach, read in a single go.
The world among us is filled with a roaring blend of the absurd and the abstract, and Dellolio’s poems appear to meet that standardization, that landscape of normal weirdness, head-on. In reading A Box, I couldn’t help but find analogous contexts of the bizarre and spaces of the extreme like Magical Realism Bot, a Twitter account with the sheer purpose of going to the edges of understanding with heightened juxtapositions and realms of distortion. Likewise, I was reminded by the Surrealists, whose operations nearly 100 years ago found similar resolutions and conclusions through their own bending and prying of an emerging world of crisis and reaction. Indeed, Dellolio’s “box” appears to be in the same way a toolkit to showing readers what is possible through the mechanisms of an opened, unrepentant mind, a mind capable of agreeing to the extreme image and holding itself accountable to it as well.
Cream puff nipples on
the muscular breast
of the lion tamer.
(from “Maggot Wheels”)
And yet despite these fervent commitments, these sequences of wrestling the lines toward new heights of interpreting and appreciating the booming world of this continuing bark of a 21st Century, there is a noticeable difference between the roots, the ancestors, the earliest writers taking these approaches. Indeed, while the Dadaists, Surrealists, Expressionists, and many other loud groups engaging the image as a form of triumph and call to understanding power, focusing on social evolution, and otherwise rewiring the poet’s voice, the work of Dellolio here appears to be softer, softly incandescent, and even withheld. A rigidity that strikes me as apolitical and even (at best) timid and (at worst) repressed emerges out of the miscellaneous craziness of Dellolio’s “toys.” The playfulness and the toying around does not strike me as youthful and childlike, but rather reflective of the consumerism and information overload serving the beck and call of the new Americanization of the 2010s. A space uprooted by search engines, fluttering social media posts, and submerged cellphone behavior. A moment in human bondage honoring and protecting displacement, quietude, and passivity.
In some ways, these qualities of the shared, damned reality of so many appear as faux friendliness, but the inner conflicts that continue to cause crisis and discontent, evolved marginalization and demonization alike, pop out of the “box” much like the viral content, the glittering popularity, the potential for greatness. The irony of the “crazy toy” is that it’s most enjoyable but also most chaotic; it is, like Dellolio’s images and poetic instances, a presence both gravitational and destructive. To the book’s benefit and detriment, these poems are hardly self-referential, and hardly evoke a world beyond themselves. They are, like Magical Realism Bot, so far pushed into the absurd and abstract that their landscape is one of isolation; there is a protection and confinement that allows them to flourish and stand brightly on their own, but how they move beyond their own privileged cores is unnoticeable. And perhaps that’s the point, in reading A Box of Crazy Toys, in thinking about the ultimate constraint of poetry (perhaps now, perhaps always), that there is a context that will always be present and yet unavoidable. A context of constraint, an engagement of limitation, a necessary restriction to the dreams and desires of the poet themselves.
The dolphin, weeping
for its fallen brethren, slaughtered
and fashioned into this artificial
speaking device, dons a whipped cream
space helmet and floats towards
(from “The Clown’s Three Large Buttons”)
Pulling through what are quite clearly memories of actual places, situations, and circumstances, from his life and memories, Dellolio’s poems in A Box of Crazy Toys are, despite their level of the beyond, quite human. They are personal, they are funny, and they are communicative. I found myself laughing with these poems in ways I haven’t with poetry in some time. Despite the contentions the book aroused in my own understanding of a poetic present, this collection served with modes of entertainment, aesthetic appreciation, and a warmth toward fresh investigations of language. The yearning to keep reading made me question the antiquity of many forms of poetry, and where the poet may or may not be serving. I wonder if Dellolio has considered the effect of such poetry, in its extreme forms, as existing and affecting outside of itself, of continuing to expand beyond its own limitations once it infectiously brushes up against the reader. Where the poet may take their elements of the magical and of the real going forward is curious. How the conversation might be more directly woven beyond the poems themselves, if such a thing is possible, is even more curiouser.
Echo in Four Beats by Rita Banerjee (Finishing Line Press, 2018)
Review by Greg Bem
For every moving shade,
there was a jewel,
a bunt cake,
tea with honey,
found them dead in a village
near the Ganges,
in some bastard king’s chest
(from “Pygmalion & the Slippers")
Rita Banerjee’s Echo in Four Beats is a positive book. It is a book about positivity. It is a book about attraction. As much as it reflects the complex curiosities of the poet herself, this short, four-part poetry collection also reflects the curious ways extremely otherly and othered objects and cultures carry capacity and phenomenological connection with one another. East to West. The ancients to the contemporaries. Language and translation. These juxtapositions are arrived with Banerjee’s poetic presence, not quite lyrical, not quite narrative, not quite conceptual, which provides appropriate spaces and ranges to explore rather fully a world of integration.
At its core, the book is about Ovid’s myth of Echo and Narcissus, which serves as a fitting allegory for poetry in general, but also the landscape previously-described. A dualism within the speakers of these poems is a dualism of acceptance and rejection, of sequences of flight and iterations of home. There is sexuality and there is the sterility of that reflective promise. But complexly, Banerjee’s work carries that sterility into discoveries and modes of joy, fervor, and the interrogative push towards the refresh, towards the new, towards the validated and the enlivened.
We were like that—lanterns in the midday sun,
laughter against a white-noise wind, tongues
circling salt-water stories, cliffs cocooned by the afternoon, cameras
catching harbor fish, reptiles, serpents, impossible possibilities--
Much of the experience where these transformations are derived, carried by the mythic allegories the poet’s subtle adaptations of ancient lessons, is tangibly encountered in place and culture. While the back cover of Echo in Four Beats contains a quote by Jaswinder Bolina describing the book as “post-national,” I believe the antithesis is far more obvious. This is a book collecting poems that encounters and elevates individual nations, individual cultural histories, and appreciates them through their intertwining. In the ways the otherness in Echo and Narcissus is an otherness of affection and difference, so too is the distinct origins of the spaces and roots presented in this book.
The curses (or constraints) of the mythological beings further iterate a substantive metaphor in Banerjee’s voices, which identifiably rely on the power of other people, other poems, other traditions, and even other languages to thrive. The occasional poem in Japanese and Hindi, as well as pulled in language from European languages (most commonly French) are important examples of graceful appropriation. There is accountability, responsibility, and a joyful positioning of attraction towards those spaces that existed before and separate from Banerjee and this book, and while the messiness of it in totality may appear “post-national,” I would use other, more appreciative words like “subtle” and “hazy” to describe the effect of the poet’s language on the embodied elements of multiple cultures.
from all four directions, in the sky’s
dance, the world appeared
unreal, and in each broken piece of water,
the moon remained, laughing--
(from “One Night” (translated from the Hindi by the poet))
Multiplicity is an important element of the book’s core for multiple reasons. Structurally, I found the book’s four quarters (or sections) of the book to parse the book’s fluttering, experiential nature in a way that complements rather than detracts. For the general reader, the book's sections are not entirely explained. Though there is a slight haze surrounding the segmentation, a general thematic trajectory brings the writing across culture and geography. The book opens with sequences of predominantly American writings (inclusive of music) that then move through glimpses of Japan and India. Within the last section Banerjee wraps the book up with a presentation of miscellaneous musings, though their collection at the end appears as a symbolic gesture of dissipation. Additional complexity to structure is added through a handful of erasures responding to A.S. Kline’s translations of The Metamorphoses, a handful of “mis-translation” poems riffing on the likes of an abundant variety of thematically-relevant sources, including a Romani folk poem, a Hebrew prayer, and a poem by Baudelaire. These fragments of voices, echoing across the cultural spectrum we all must, in reality, understand, elevates and amplifies and contributes to Echo in Four Beats.
In Nevada, the stars throw
down their silver bounty
to the bear dancing on one leg,
and when the sky comes down
to devour us, it rains in quarters.
Those outside (external) images and ideas, while symbolic to the nature and inspiration of the book, do not completely overshadow or displace Banerjee and her own cunning use of language. I found most of the poems within the book that appear to lack direct references both compelling with memorable. The poet’s mind-shifting language include lines and stanzas incredibly capable of existing within their own, engrossing centers. Indeed, they emerge and disappear calmly, like distant lightning, and drag on, their memories moving from poem to poem, creating causality and a sense of overlapping resolution. Though not entirely sonic-oriented to be considered lyrical, these fragments within her poems are concise moments of implanting. They score and scourge, and represent, as objective language, as a sense of craft. And that craft moves along beneath the narrative trajectory of the book, a bubbling sense of the underneath, a layer of Thanatos and the urge toward definition and stillness.
In sum, Banerjee’s Echo in Four Beats provides a poetic space somewhere between engrossing and lightly attractive. That positivity moves from theme and culture to the language within and beyond. It’s a pleasurable space that will hopefully serve to inform, serially, a future for the poet and her mind’s next conjured spaces of communication.
We will supplicate, sublime, and let
our bodies dance through reverence.
Moss & Silver by Jure Detela, Translated from the Slovene by Raymond Miller (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018)
Review by Greg Bem
where once the never-to-be repeated gull
floated in an amorphous mixture of dusk and down--
Slovenia’s history of the avant garde is as much about its emergence today as it is about the roots, the origins, the beginnings. In Moss & Silver, originally published in 1983, readers are given the opportunity to engage in this continuation from 20th to 21st Century poets and poetries through the latest introduction of what is arguably a heroic artist. Jure Detela, who is praised and admired throughout the Slovenia of today, was also praised and admired throughout his life by way of his poetry and character. Now the English-language world, by way of translator Raymond Miller, and Detela contemporaries and collaborators Tatjana Jamnik and Iztok Osojnik, have access to a powerful, fundamental book of Slovene verse.
As Osojnik describes in the book’s introduction, one way to interpret Detela’s surprising and shocking range of verse is to categorize poems by their nature, spirit, and structure. Osojnik mentions the following types of poems in Moss & Silver: “the darkness, the haiku, and the legacy.” More themes than literal representations, these categories allow the reader to engage a relatively chaotic book, a book which has poems carefully translated but still estranged and sprawling, in a meaningful way. Mid-20th Century Slovenia’s own sociopolitical landscape forms a triangulation in looking at Detela’s works through the thematic presence of the deep, otherly darkness, the chiseling funnel of the shorter works (some directly derived from the traditional haiku form, and other forms), and the rather pointed, minimalist homages and odes carried across Detela’s work.
A torn landscape throughout Europe is the most obvious way to focus on these poems, and yet Osojnik also goes into significant detail of the psychological torture Detela represented in his poems when thinking of the cruelty and harm of general humanity. Detela believed in the destructive prowess of humans and spited it; the criticism results in a poetics of healing and protection that lends to a beautiful counterbalance (or juxtaposition) to the poems that are otherwise born of the grotesque, the gruesome, the brutal. As quoted in the introduction, this is poetry aligned with Aimé Césaire’s “everything has a right to live.”
Harts! Harts! Should I let the consciousness of / violence into my poem? How / can I remain faithful to your memory when / the world is transformed for me // into a message of killing?
(from “17. Poem for the Hearts”)
And while some of the poems may feel gratuitous and slightly melodramatic, it helps to imagine the world of this remarkable poet as a world of repetition, late-industrialism, war, and inequity. The persistence of these systemic onslaughts and battering cannot be forgiven lightly, and the iteration and reiteration through a focused and calm vision moves beyond redundancy to confidence, moves beyond ego to an ambitious rhetorical whirlwind.
That Detela’s work in 2018 may be a posthumous climax to a legendary life speaks volumes to the settings and contexts of Slovenia and the surrounding regions. That Detela’s work in 2018 is also receiving international attention and being moved from its country and cultures of origin to a foreign, distanced reality and context only highlights the impact and universality of a poet whose poems reflect life, reflect joy, and reflect respect.
Of course, not all poems are easily identified as having moral and morally-empowered undertones. In fact, the range of Detela’s work arrives in its most mysterious. Like Trakl (who Detela read and knew well), many of the poems take on an archetypal (or, even, allegorical) quality. Like broad strokes on the canvas, focus becomes revolving on individual beings, bursts of light and color, and the most general situations. Poem “7” in the book demonstrates this remarkably generalist method:
The sun drives
the transparent wings
of crystal animals
from the hearts of flowers
into trenches of
Some of the best moments in the book are when translator Raymond Miller leaves the interpretable poem as open as it can be. Miller’s research is masterful and yet it is balanced by the core of each poem. In this case, ambiguity has the chance to remain ambiguity. Other poems are treated with precision, Miller’s explanations doing well to add enough context to elevate the work without demeaning it. As in the case of “28,” where Miller explores the short poem’s history and relationship with neo-Orphism, which Detela embraced but ultimately, in the poem, chose to leave without explication and explanation. The resulting work has the capacity, then, to bring multiple forms of beauty to the surface with and without the work's full background:
Let the hungry voices
calling from shaggy throats
across the winter forests
to spits of green rise up
from the ground. [. . .]
Most of the poems in this apparently straightforward book are anything but straightforward. They represent many of the philosophical, moral, and literary journeys of a poet deeply affected by, involved with, and concerned about the clear postmodern schisms of psyches in and beyond Slovenia, Europe, and the West in the late 20th century. The depth and density of this latest edition of Moss & Silver are equally challenging and enjoyable.
As the poet's life was far beyond Moss & Silver, a goal to make additional work by Detela available in English has been established and serves to illuminate some of the explosive international future of the Slovenian avant garde. As the celebratory reverie and nostalgia of this poet and others persists in contemporary Slovenia, it will be exciting to watch the effects of international attention impact the local community of poetry and beyond. And yet, this book remains satisfying in its own right, as Detela's complexities remain satisfying, and offer much insight alone.
Nioque of the Early-Spring by Francis Ponge, Translated by Jonathan Larson (The Song Cave, 2017)
Review by Greg Bem
You are there all around me—today you trees, pebbles of the orchard, clouds in the sky, wondrous dead nature, uncontested nature.
You are there,
You are there indeed!
(from “Capital Proem”)
For those unaware of the French poet Francis Ponge, this new translation by Jonathan Larson offers a glimpse into a realm of glimpses, a fraction of poetic marvels in a realm of mere fractals. As a single work surrounded by many others, this book on its own is ultimately a gentle, inviting framework through which Ponge’s work and endurance, seasoned and lightened at once, can explore the gradients of concept and theme. It is filled with openness and propulsion. It is a thorough radicalism and also a challenge to the immensity of time and space. Knowing and to be known, the process and the result, a spiraling enthusiasm, wondrous, an investment, and an engagement. It is relational and intentional.
Time, nature, knowledge. These are key spaces of the macrocosmic warp and wordplay Ponge iterated originally though Nioque, as explored by its translator’s introduction. Through a significant treatment, Jonathan Larson has recrafted a book capable of encountering time in the umbrella of the creative process. Poems of 1950-1953, entries and explorations into and out of the wrapped, frolicking springtime. Nature as a reflection of seasons, perhaps with Spring serving as keystone, and nature as spirit, as something remarkably anew, consciously reverberating in circumspection. Nioque provides a portrayal of significance in its self-referential patterning. At what better, triggering instance does a poetics have an opportunity to grow, does a mode of thought lead to future elevations?
The earth offers all this, the arms extending into trees and bouquets. Boreas the winds, the sun (Phoebus) pass underneath or replenish.
(from “The Egg.”)
The collection speaks to the height which Ponge, perhaps beyond original insight, allowed the work. In many moments the book, as far as “many” can be used to describe a text both short and dense, is curiously arousing in its linking. Poem to poem, in elongated prose and brief fragments. These are the realms of connectivity, conscious and subconscious, which evoke those manners of Ponge’s greater associations.
Nioque is as much about itself as it is about the nature of craft and creation through existence, which reflects well the biographical proclivities of this French writer. As interrelated to the poet’s relationship to Surrealism as his seeking through Existentialism, the book identifies and sprouts through lineage. It suits well to exist, in its latest English form, alongside the relatively new translations of Char, Desnos, and others.
I am not through, have nothing but incomplete ideas (incompletely stated) and it is not so much about them than it is about completing them.
They are like fierce birds of passage whose form I regret not having been able to know entirely, or rather more like lightning bolts, since their singular virtue is, above all, it seems to me, in illuminating the conscience.
Perhaps what is most enjoyable to explore and attempt to understand in Ponge’s acclaimed work and the year 2018 is its humble, personal core. The nurturing core that is political and revolutionary comes out of a fateful, awestruck naturalism providing ample room for personal, affected junctions. Ponge, certainly beyond any sense of neutrality in his own contemporary warzones, crumblings, and oppressions, offers a heartfelt, incising gaze through inspirations and observations of the very source of where knowledge goes. Creation and the creative act become the pivotal dualism between the epiphanic states that the close and distant bring together, Ponge himself serving as triangulation.
Larson’s treatment of Ponge’s tone is accessible and in being accessible reflects well the book’s imagery and undulations of the natural spirit. What better platform for revolt and uprising than in being nurtured into confidence?
While Standing in Line for Death by CAConrad (Wave Books, 2017)
Review by Greg Bem
each time I drink water dropped from clouds
water they burned out of your body I cup my
hands to catch you
(from “Sharking the Birdcage”)
“(Soma)tic poetry rituals provide a window into the creative viability of everything around us, initiating an extreme present” says CAConrad in “Hall of the Decommissioned Pantheon,” one of eighteen rituals included in his latest book from Wave, While Standing in Line for Death. Conrad later states in the final ritual of the book, “Cremation Cocktail,” that “Poetry is a window into the magic of this world that never once asked me to apologize.” The unapologetic and the extreme present are married fulfillments discoverable again and again in this marvelous next chapter of the Philadelphian. The works are as extensible from all previous works, as they are wholly original, blossoming beings unto themselves.
When I first uncovered Conrad’s work, circa 2008, I was blown away, soul torn open and inspected, by (Soma)tic Midge, where the poet’s rituals were seeing their early iterations, their exposure to the public sunlight of publication. Much younger then, though open, though fetishizing everything I read quite distinctly, I found the poems and their origins hypnotizing and emphatically available. A certain lustful poetics bloomed then, and that urge, that viscera, continues to wind and unwind through Conrad’s canon. And yet here, a decade later, the poems and their greater accessibility, along with greater consequences, move beyond the romanticized present. These are, as they always have been, serious poems, and yet in this book they are clearly so. The political and equitable focus over themes is spelled out in Conrad’s current work, arguably a close movement forward from the relatively-recent ECODEVIANCE (also published by Wave Books, in 2014).
WE MUST INSIST that a redistribution of wealth always include The Love. How can we be there for one another? How can we be assured that everyone gets The Love?
(from “Power Sissy Intervention #1: Queer Bubbles”)
Part of what makes social change so dominant and so well-portrayed in While Standing, I think, is the greater sense of distance and space covered by Conrad here. Following numerous opportunities, rightfully earned, to be positioned throughout and beyond the American continent, we have a greater range of geographical (and, more importantly, geological) understanding of how the (soma)tic poetry can and should operate. It is not longer restricted to a specific chapter of a specific life (Conrad in the 90s and early 2000s) but has continued to operate and, delightfully, moved around the world. This is a universal poetics that by being so is even more captivating, filled with bravado, and powerfully acontextual—meaning, while context is incredibly important for the poems, can and should be adapted by the book’s readers throughout time and space. Conrad’s own testament to his Book of Frank being translated into multiple languages, and the many spot-lit moments in his ongoing, amazing life as a poet, reveal that adaptation has always been desirable. Now we have even more rituals giving birth to more poems spreading across landscapes and into communities, locales, and states of being. As such, While Standing is almost a magical realism of itself. It is a close continuation and depicts what has come, but in an elevated, almost unreal manner. It is the adornment representative of the ongoing beauty, with all of its capacities, all of its senses of the incredible and unbelievable.
in the breakable city / I want me hunger with / me after life / we are all / creatures of appetite
(from “Power Sissy Intervention #2: Apostle Paul Suppositories”)
Poems find homes in suspected and surprising locations. From a street corner in Asheville to a field in Kansas to a park in Seattle to a dive in Philadelphia, the imagery is exposing. Los Angeles. Singapore. Marfa. The Chihuahuan Desert. MoMA in New York. The (soma)tic translates across space, and time. Indeed, despite the ecstasy of a presence and intimacy found from place to place, people to people, there is a subtle and beautiful understanding of time here as well. The book opens with Conrad’s ritual “Mount Monadnock Transmissions,” the third he has created for his boyfriend, Earth, who was murdered by bigots in Tennessee.
The power runs like a vein dripping blood of this beautiful and harrowing history through each ritual to follow, landing on the book’s closing ritual, for Jonathan Williams, a beloved friend and mentor to Conrad. Life and death, revisited through the present, become beacons of time, markers that allow the poems to live with their own beating hearts. Rounded out by rituals conducted with friends in mind, from Fred Moten to Ariana Reines to TC Tolbert, the book exhibits a liveliness serving as tribute to the self and to all those powerfully present in Conrad’s life. There is, of course, due sets of anger, remorse, and disease, but the book is greatly harnessing love and awe. Much like his other collections of rituals, Conrad’s work in While Standing is one that pushes toward the most positive qualities of being and being fully.
another kind of happiness / hold still brother squirrel tiny piece / of sunlight to lick off your face
(from “Dear TC Tolbert as Long as We Live We Win”)
For those unfamiliar with Conrad’s (soma)tic rituals, there is no way to give them justice in a written response like this one. You must read them yourself and get the fullest out of them that you can. They are transformative and intentionally so: they are gifts that extend beyond Conrad’s own, uniquely personal transformations and are ready to be intercepted by most who are open to them. They involve the sensory, the temporal, and the intimate. They involve a great sense of wakefulness and a powerful demand for verisimilitude. They are as rooted in the earth as they are floating across the sky. They involve swallowing crystals, conducting reiki, smoking the physical representations of your nemesis, creating “queer bubbles” to give to children, and communing with the non-human beings of this world. These are to name a few, and I do feel guilty rattling concepts off like this, and so I say: go read the book. Go discover these moments.
As with Conrad’s opening poem on his boyfriend, Earth, there is much in this book that serves as tribute and retribution. As an extension of Conrad’s own background, this book directly explores equity through the minds of many within the LGBTQ community. It is a book that is both about and for those who have suffered. Like much of Conrad’s writing, through loss and harm this book exists. Through love and kindness and education towards those who have caused the loss and the harm, this book exists. This book erupts into a space needed by those who have been oppressed and identifies and responds to those who oppress. My own cisgender white background found its moments of quaking and the rupturing and exposure to my own privileges as I explored Conrad’s world, and the worlds of those within and beyond the literary realms he has chosen to include in his book, write about, understand. Again, the book is a gift: but it is a gift for many different reasons, for many different types of people, and so it is a fantastic and powerful book.
unfastened / in the backseat a / portion of our music is / mucus flying into stillness / at what point do we submit / to the authority of flowers
(from “Leave Something Quiet in Shell of My Ear”)
Much of the fantastical and the power that holds this book together is visibly present through Conrad’s poetry written through his rituals. The rituals, which are fully described, lead into their resulting poems, which Conrad provides in view directly after the ritual. These poems are often staggered in line and thought, resembling many of the poets Conrad has expressed admiration toward over the years: Jack Spicer and Jonathan Williams, to name a few. The poems contain elements of the concrete, sprawled like amorphous objects across the page. They flutter like reeds in a wetland, splay open like gemstones on a rough floor. The poems contain language that is eaten up, digested, and propped within their stanza like gleaning results of process. There is often a harmony within them, and a dependable personal distance to them as well. They are from within the moment-to-moment of Conrad’s exercises and conductions. They are thorough investigations mesmerizing, mystical, and of the potential of the performed and the sustained, and the humbly cherished. They are, again, gifts.
What happens with the future work of CAConrad is what is happening in the present work. As his blog indicates, there is a significant continuation of content seismically integrated into his life. The demonstrated commitment will arouse new ideas, new connections, and new commitments for his craft and his personal journey. It is an exciting privilege to be able to watch from afar, and be substantially informed by, as Conrad continues to move forward, weaving in and out, the many lines of life and the many lines of death within the spectrum of the beautiful and the ugly of our collective world.
lost in a pile of
needles and spools
the only trees in this
desert are books
(from “Home.3” in Width of a Witch)
Royals by Cedar Sigo (Wave Books, 2017)
Review by Greg Bem
My mind seizes on
the form first
from “The Magic Mountain”
Following up on the heels of 2014’s Language Arts, Cedar Sigo’s latest collection of poetry expands and grapples with identity, culture, and the American poetic canon. The poems of Royals feel familiar but also uniquely further along in Sigo’s experiences. And yet, going beyond the poet’s first books, Royals gifts the reader with longer, denser opportunities of exploring the subjects, with themes of greater bulk and heft. Viewed in totality, Royals is an expansive book, and a necessarily strong book carrying the weight of the history of an important American poetry to and the history of the self of Cedar Sigo.
As a collection of Sigo’s recent poetic examinations, the book affords his reality and lived experience, and yet also, in its size and proclivities of the self, contains contentions, difficulties, and the harsh realities of living through a very present white dominance. Royals undertakes a great representation of the great velocity of the poet’s life and experiences, while also maintaining a solid focus on personal intimacy and immersion. As such, there is clash and conflict, even with a book that feels straightforward and exceptionally self-aware. The concept of “royals” becomes a complex one, that can be interpreted as the poets Sigo finds influence from, or the individuals within the poet’s life, or even (as seen in below) the indigenous folks within Sigo’s community. With difficulty, Sigo’s literary influences may perhaps mask the conversation between that community, as well as Sigo’s individuality; the white dominant poetics continuing to press upon the mythos of America’s literary history emerges as solidified and intensely destructive at the same time.
If we set aside the origins of the poetry, the influencers whose books fill Sigo’s backpack, we see Sigo’s art in fine, beautiful presentation. Reading Royals, as an experience, positions the reader into a space of reality: comfort through precision and passion through art become familiar almost immediately upon opening the first cover. Form and content on the printed page, often transformed into binary concepts that must be kept separate, kept apart, are within Royals congruent and complementary to Sigo’s greater vision. This is nothing new with Royals, however, as Sigo’s poetry has molded the harmony between the concepts consistently from book to book; that is, flow and energies through form and through content have been the status quo for Sigo, coming naturally and necessarily for years.
Cantos triggered insanity and worse
Terza rima when I feel like swimming laps
Odes for luck in blackjack
Index for sedative
from “A Handbook of Poetic Forms”
The range of the writ, the light experimentation and the scope of stories, has matched dramatic chapters and moments of Sigo’s lived life. Poems, short and long, become sounding boards for grief, resilience, and even a more abstract and purer representation of memory. However, notably with this larger collection, the reader can truly see Sigo’s expertise in craft. There is visibility in range in Royals which was unable to be seen through the smaller scale of predecessors like Language Arts.
Poems like “Medallion” squiggle down the page in a serpentine, conversational dance with the paper itself. “The Magic Mountain” contains stanzas as glyphs, magical, erratically exposing sophistication and linear process one and the same. These visual arousals coincide with poems like “Smoke Flowers” and “Fever Dream,” which indicate to and induct upon the reader a sense of orderliness and calm. Dualisms and intersections, from the playful to the serious, from the stable to the chaotic, as seen superficially in the case of the form of each poem, down to the ideas contained therein, are incredibly noticeable with Sigo’s work. In Royals, it is fantastic to see the furthering of this angle of poetry.
As touched upon above, the problem with this book is that it both pays homage to the greatest literary figures of American poetry history (and beyond) but also stresses the importance and prominence of a member of indigenous and queer communities. That is not to say that these two lineages and stories must be kept separate, or cannot coincide; however, the tension is real, and I personally find the conversation one of imperfection, growth, and potential, radical change for Sigo as he moves into some future. The hesitancy to praise the funnel (or vacuum) of the white, 20th Century Poet is a hesitancy built upon the nearly endless instances of that funnel elsewhere.
We natives are royals / Yet phantoms / The edges emblazoned, clear / From fingertip to foot / Seattle is empty and surrounded / The sun beheaded or / Am I a marked man?
Fortunately, Sigo’s work, though often investigating (and appearing bound to) that history of American Poetry, also frequently appears to be operating beyond it. Beyond those poets and that lineage is Sigo himself, his critically-thinking mind, which floats above and toward an ethereal other space. The poems in Royals tends to be royals themselves, clashing with their formal roots. The mark of colonialism aside, I am reminded of the nurse logs of the Pacific Northwest rainforests, which though dead and ever-visible, make way for new species of even greater, more diversified beauty. And yet the relishing, the preservation, the presence of the former identities is mildly disturbing. Especially through poems like “Crescent,” where Sigo calls upon the space and voice of the indigenous humanity that is still very alive (within the poems and within Sigo’s homeland).
It would be remiss to omit the geographical positioning of the book, which calls out Seattle, and calls out Sigo’s native ties to the Suquamish. The relationship between US development and the indigenous peoples of the Greater Seattle area is well-documented. These poems, sadly and forlornly, provide yet another new look at how identities collide, meld, and interlink moving through the grotesque (and often silenced) present. These poems are a powerful statement of that present, of a voice among the voiceless, of a person among the invisible. Sorrow, anger, and, residually, joy are some of the identifiable emotions laced within this book. As Sigo’s work is read and deconstructed by many, these emotions and their poet’s states of being (which carry them) can, potentially, reinforce the indigenous narrative within Royals.
As much as I struggled with the book, and as much as I enjoyed it, Royals appears to be a rough but necessary step documenting the poet’s push through a current, endured direction. The book has marvelous moments and is clever and compassionate in its homages, and yet is positioned in a trying space. When Sigo releases his next book, it will require a relationship with Royals to be fully understood, and yet I imagine it will be as complex as Royals to stand on its own, and perplex on its own. For now, we have Royals, and the many “royals” within, which will reliably surprise, baffle, and arouse in their multiplicity.
A poem I puked drying out at a hot springs in love winding through the dry hills of neem leaves, an exaggeration of music I thought younger poets admired. The trimmings I knew I could press new meaning in between. I was endlessly in the mood and working this lace front, that words as force walk the earth. I tried to show a sailor bounding through his life in silhouette.
from “Guns of the Trees”