Mannish Tongues by jayy dodd (@deyblxk) (Platypus Press, 2017)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
“jayy dodd is a blxk question mark from los angeles, california, based on the internet. they are a writer & editor & performance artist. antagonistically queer & unapologetically blxk, they were raised to be a preaching cowboy—this is the next best thing. their first collection of poems, [sugar in the tank], was released on Pizza Pi Press.”
The words we molted between each other,
pleasant & unpleasant offerings, regifting
unpackaged clutters we know as limbs.
How extremities betray—being the first to numb.
from “An Excavation”
The words of jayy dodd stipulate excitement through arousal. They are fiery words. They flicker brightly. Smoothly. They warm, heat, and burn. These are the words of an edge that knows retribution, satisfaction, and consolation. These words represent prosperity through elevation. Through mind. They molt through the aches of transformation and the quakes of oppression. They move through and beyond to a space of universal care: the gift of the art of being alive is aroused in dodd’s fantastically straightforward, yet brutal, and yet even further ecstatic new book of poems, Mannish Tongues.
“Trading Lunacy” is a poem as much about cycles as about the pull of the eyes on flesh, the heart on mind. On love.
Their words move through familiar but electrifyingly personal contexts. The names of the sections found within the book are: Confessions, Prayers, Interrogations, Testimonies, Myths, Eulogies. Anchoring through but remaining unpossessed by the concepts of organized belief appears exquisite in dodd’s greater, autobiographical context. These sets of knowing, these bodies of knowledge, these reference points to morality and to reflection and to truth are to be reconfigured by a poet who has seen, and continues to see, where the fire will recreate.
my mouth be a reminder,
how saltwater suppose to stop the tongue from swelling,
how teeth be bones too,
how my voice sounds of needed haunting.
if this body be a land,
its language be howl & debris.
I’m sitting here in Seattle, reading Mannish Tongues at a wooden desk with a window filled with gray clouds. I read “scene: waking up next to John Keats after a pleasant evening” and flag lines about body, taste, and awareness. I’m reminded of Baldwin half a century prior, am reminded of the queer black experience being incredibly mindful, extraordinarily flexible, and carrying relentless energies. I’m reminded of Frank O’Hara and the responsiveness toward that burning love dormant within or bursting from us all. There is that responsiveness. There is a blend of respect and cynicism. There is critique and there is praise and the swollen merge bridges each poem and its particularity. “speak louder” evaluates flesh. “Black Philosophy #3” finds the conflict of solace between beauty, Blackness, and death. There are words. Energies. Responses. Engagements.
If we think of it as “energies of engagement,” then these poems that inform dodd’s craft, from form to tone, also inform their grander, splayed and displayed, poetics. This is a poetics that startles, reared on the page but leads to perform upon the page shortly after, words upturned to sit upright. The result is a smuggle of form, a shatter of the reader’s perceptions, an enlightenment by way of doing. I think of the act of poetry involving the act of reading, an intentional sounding and an application as individual as it is swallowed by the collective. I think of what dodd would want their readers to read. And then I think: to read Mannish Tongues expresses the fulcrum of dodd’s representation, the beauty of their intersecting identities.
“When Momma Was God” as a poem I read as the profound subtext of the mother, the profound instillation that must be distilled.
Whispers: try to find the symbol. Whispering: try to find the metaphor in this Seattle-lit bedroom. Let’s try: Mannish Tongues is a multidimensional mirror, available to be held at multiple angles at the same time, by the same reader. Though it comes out of dodd’s own incredibly courageous mind and voice, this is a book that features an open, impeccable, interpretable design. The experience of this book is an experience that will challenge and also complement its experience in the hands of any other. It is a book about unity as it is a book about education. Most poetry, it could be argued, serves to provide unity to its readers through accessibility, openness, relatable qualities. Most poetry, it could be argued, serves to provide education to its readers through the mere act of an author’s freshest language placed into a publishable format.
No doubt Mannish Tongues succeeds in both of these statements as it represents a poet’s craft that is indeed accessible and indeed fresh; however, dodd’s poems are drastic in a contemporary culture of division, a culture of a country that is (and has been) on the verge of dipping (again) into the rift of abuse and silence. Their drastic qualities are those that cause shaking, that cause reverberations through the proximity of the poet’s life and livelihood. What strikes me is where dodd’s own words touch angles of that mirror I never knew could exist, new understood did exist despite how different I am from dodd.
And this is that moment where I digress, that moment where I acknowledge that difference. As a cisgendered white male, there are aspects of the writing I identify with and aspects I do not. Of course, that is how difference, not necessarily a binary, works. The curiosity aroused is a curiosity of partiality. There is a schism between the work here, the poet and their collection of ideas, and the liminality and limitation of my perception. There is a desire to know all, a courageous voracity to understand, and yet the fullness will never be able to fill my cup, will never be able to be contained. This effect is magnificent, only uplifts the voracity to idealist proportions. A scrape of expectation stings to know that there can be more: that there can be growth. This sweet sting is exactly what is needed in this era of poetry. An era of discourse bridging the gaps between similar but unaware voracities, hungers, desires to express and love the expression wholly, knowing fully those paths, following the relative respite of emergence from own isolations.
Each day begins with burning, with
sacrifice. Such as dawn breaks,
the sky opens for toxic testimony.
Begin the offering, release vile sacrament--
fleeting pleasure. If ritual is morning,
is ceremony: the cloudy eye, the kindled throat,
it is discipline & sabotage & elixir.
dodd’s reverence towards the swells, swoons, swallows, and swelters of life are utterly imperishable. The aesthetics of these poems forms, cloak-like and distinct, in my inspection of them. All readers and writers differ. How often are they given the opportunity to discern so much beauty and uplift of the proximity through such difference? An intimacy in the learned words shared. A living tenderness in the opportunity to explore this gift.
I’m thinking of the age of authority. Authoritarians. I’m thinking of the era of a plateau of exquisite voices. Or a constellation. Or an archipelago. What is the best image? What is the best way to describe this inverted chamber, not of echoes but of explosions?
The age we live in brings the writing of Mannish Tongues into greater, more significant relevance for all. Like much of the population of the United Sates, new levels of awareness over the last 24 months have surged through all medias and information sources. Topics that expand the narrative of our hideous past and present include systemic marginalization and oppression, white nationalism and supremacy movements, a sequence of actions by local and federal governments capable of taking an already-false democracy and further pushing away equity, and the divisions that exist between and within communities. For many individuals, myself included, the language of the United States today is a language that causes conflict but is representative of growth. For many individuals too, that language has been told for decades, and it is not new to those who have suffered significantly in their lives here.
I am reminded of the fire of dodd’s verse. I am reminded of the fiery mirror being held by all of us together and separate at once.
I was born between earthquake & riot / of a goddess called mother who forged me like sweet cornbread from the warmth in her hips / she say I widen her / say eighteen hours of labor / say my head split her body / say black clouds of nappy hair & eyes of fire in her arms / this is not a mythology
from “An Origin Story”
It is fortunate and deserving of gratefulness that the worlds of the lives of many who, in our culture, had previously had to hide, were repressed, and silenced, can become symbols of power, growth, and extraordinary resilience. These new symbols, these new heroines and heroes (and perhaps we need new vocabulary for these gendered terms?), are the new mirrors with the new angles that all of us can peer into, learn from, and transform the world thanks to; new visions as expressively born as flesh from the flesh of poetry.
dodd and their art of recognition is an art that contributes homage and tribute through, it is one that understands that closer degree of permanence through the act of language, and it is an art that can allow what is otherwise overwhelming in the world—to those who have historically known overwhelming and those who have not—to better understand, be ready, be structured in interception.
Some Black boys wake especially feeling you mourning,
feeling birth & grave & concrete & fresh air
wake their own bones, their own tongues, their own fists,
especially the docile, the slight, the soft.
from “Some mornings you wake feeling especially Black boy”
Ghosts Still Walking by Do Nguyen Mai (Platypus Press, 2016)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
I cannot live in a world of
suffocation; you cannot live
in a world of restraint.
We all have our histories, and as they overlap we find ourselves in moments of assertion and crisis, individualized and collectivized at once. There is liberation in our autonomy just as there is burden; there is a body of hope within the group just as there is an entrapment. In many ways, Ghosts Still Walking is a book of poems that approaches the epiphanies that explain these moments. Poet Do Nguyen Mai carefully maneuvers around her own history, the history of the people and peoples she identifies with, and those people and peoples that in many ways represent her history, distanced as they may or may not be.
Maneuverability comes in the form of precision: a poetry that at times embraces these moments as explorations for personal growth, but also understands the critical power of representation and removal. Stories told, abstractions applied, and truths unraveled, these poems are waypoints for the reader offering a series of outlines for possible outcomes. But the book is not so easily mapped, not so explicit, and that is where Do’s craft, layered, translucent, permeable, demonstrates its power as staging, as a framework or radiance from which to find a foothold or further illumination.
Daughters, sisters, mothers, sit mending
tears in their aprons, the sounds in their souls;
gathered together in quiet homes composing letters,
piecing fragmented memories into ink stains
resembling words they do not know.
Even the girls dodging bullets to stay in school
are too afraid to learn the language of war--
from “Post Denied: Address Unknown"
As I read it, Ghosts Still Walking became as much a book of poetry finding ways forward through the bloody histories of Vietnam as it became a book of poetry seeking to prevent similar, personalized histories from further developing within the speaker’s life. It is thus a poetry about tracking survival and applying it, relating it, triangulating it to daily life. It explores the many concepts of the “other” distanced but knowable, the Vietnamese person as an archetype, as a ghost that breathes and exists far from its source, far from its ideal space of life.
A fracturing occurs through the displacing, darkened resolution of geographical distance, of decayed time, and of decontextualization. Do’s work confronts the tensions between being there then, and her poems border dreamlike between the worlds of Vietnam and the United States of then and of today, nearly mythologized in their epic retellings and reimagination, their descriptions and minimizations.
While many books within the past several decades have explored the similar trajectories of these modes of survival and migration, Do’s work contributes to the canon by breaking down certainties and boundaries. A mesh of light exists in Ghosts Still Walking that blurs and blends the past, present, and future of a united and disconnected Vietnamese existence, consistently uncertain and yet also filled with potential, with possibility.
with their wolf fangs, tear the pearls
from your plum-blossom lips so that
they may steal the words of your melodies
and call your own war songs theirs;
from “For Khán Ngọc”
Being an outsider whose own relationship to conflict is unique and disconnected from Do’s own intimate roots, I read the book with many moments of pause. There sits within these poems astounding, paralyzing moments of awe for its readers. I found it remarkably invigorating as I built the capacity to understand the poet. Do’s process for reconstructing images of value and influence, for elevating the life of the women, children, and men whose worlds all contribute to her own, exhibited a stuttering and enlightening effect. Storytelling and capturing the many moments that bind us, that allow us to find forgiveness and catharsis, is a strong quality to Do’s work.
This book is a shocking first release from a writer whose mature mind is capable of positioning deft lines of verse into limits that give a profound respect for the atrociously endless series of conflicts and tensions filling both Vietnam and the Vietnamese American identity. But it is also a book coming from a writer whose mind is awake to the profound drive for love and understanding in a world that, as described in these poems, offers so much challenge and difficulty.
Roses, even apart from their roots, still have thorns, and removing them does not erase the memory of pain.
from “Tongues of Fire”
Reading through the book in its entirety is much like walking up a broken mountain staircase, inspiring us to look down at our own feet as often as we look around ourselves in our continuously-elevated existence. To read Ghosts Still Walking is to see those contexts and peoples immediately around us who inform our decisions, in that we might better find the greater resolution for them and us, and all that such a resolution demands.