Kill Class by Nomi Stone (Tupelo Press, 2019)
They call it the kill zone I am going deeper in
We haven’t slept Pollen burns my nose
When shot in the head or torso at close range, die-in-place and no
(from “The Notionally Dead”)
What does it feel like to be an anthropologist observing the roots and cores of the United States Military Industrial Complex? What is the experience of roleplaying and becoming and maintaining “the other” in real, professional war games simulating the Middle East in the American South? These are questions examined by Nomi Stone’s speaker in Kill Class, a book of poems that is emotionally uproarious, intellectually chaotic, and filled with a torpor of spirituality in a landscape of displaced humanism and degraded identity. This book, Stone’s second and a follow up to 2008’s Stranger’s Notebook, blends Stone’s numerous skills into a single, defiant statement that demands a revisiting to our seemingly-endless production of conflict.
The world of Kill Class is a fully-realized, fictionalized version of real places that are not so far from where you are. From where we all are. “’Pineland [is] a simulated country in the woods of the American South, where foreign nationals are hired to theatricalized war, repetitively pretending to bargain and mourn and die” describes the context of this space of horror and the horrific. Pineland is also where we find the poet-anthropologist, one or many or universally all, who each bring their identity into this space of flux and cruel juxtapositions. The speaker moves in and out of the scenarios and situations, in and out of the role that has been provided, the back story and the vague sense of realism and wholeness. Stone’s writing doesn’t afford comfort and the shattered mirrors are painfully present. The voices in this book are slanted and fractured, collective but damaged, broken, and paralytic to the point of a wretched, damning beauty.
We go. I can’t
keep up with the group. Gypsy you stay
right behind me Everything
will be all right. I try to make small
talk because other talk brings me out
/ you have to stay in.
(from “Kill Class”)
It is educational to be part of Pineland as it is to document the experience. As it is to read through the documentation and fragments of stories and the singular narrative that does repeat, and repeat, and challenge in its repetitions. Stone’s resultant book (these poems) gruesomely represents the repetition of any given program, military or otherwise, and the endurance of rote pressure. The most antagonistic spaces of Stone’s narrative are when superiors, positions of authority and/or masculine encroachment, attempt to undermine the speaker’s voice and individuality. It is part of the war game and war games are indicative of war, systemic or personal. Stone’s speakers are strong but face conflict, of the other actors within Pineland and of the self, almost incessantly. This truth, that Stone lived through and engaged for two years the work to not only exist but to persist is heroic; and yet despite the success of the documented words, the poems, there is a very distinct, shadow side of this book.
Does anyone have a translation for any of this? If your face is a
(depending on whom you face),
behind you is a splinter.
This is one proverb
(from “Living the Role”)
That shadow is also one of the strongest metaphors operating throughout Kill Class, and it is also one of the major activities for the speakers in the poems: translation. Translation appears in many forms. The speaker translates phrases and terms between Arabic and English. For example, the quote above is based on the Iraqi proverb “If your face is a mirror and the back of your head a splinter” and its presence emphasizes boundaries, distances, and communion. The speaker translates these cultural junctions of Middle Eastern countries through the tragic contextual spaces of the contemporary American war game.
Translation is also inclusive of the necessary act of independence. It is the documented experience. The speakers as both ethnographers and artists translate through concise, spirited response. This translation of experience appears a means of survival and emotional stability. It comes in the form of the direct notes from points in the simulated exercise to the documented modes of freedom when the day’s acting is over, and re-entry occurs through the appearance of strip-mall (and its fast food symbolism) and the intimately-welcoming small-town pub.
There is a door in every word;
behind it, someone grieving.
(from “War Game: America”)
Like so much poetry that has existed before and will continue to appear, the poetry of Kill Class represents this process of translation as one that is a continuum, and a presence. While translation serves as an empathetic counterpoint to the sickening simulation of Pineland, translation is also the shadow of Pineland’s overall story. The people who make up the experiences in these sad, ongoing circumstances become more human through each poem, each practice, each situation. Their fictionalized experiences and lives are humanized through documentation and the value of the written word. It is sad that as they are discovered and described, so too is the pain and the conflict of their existence. And so too the pain and the conflict of the separation between the reader, the author, and between these individuals who exist out there, somewhere, and have real names and fully human lives.
Stone’s book may be a political act in its existence. It may exist to serve as a reminder that the American world of war is hidden behind curtains, between threads, and around corners. It may be an extension of conversations that have occurred for decades. And yet its heaviness, its provocation, its urgency exists in a solemn and chiseled authorial vision. Kill Class has transcribed as openly as possible the experiences of Pineland, as well as the personal experiences and stories of the poet-anthropologist. As such the weight of its existence may be more strongly felt, but it also it maintains an integrity of interpretation. As with stepping into a forest or an unknown, vast space for the first time, the prerogative the book brings reflects what the reader brings into it. The dynamic between the book and the reader may be the source of horror and the horrific that lurks from the first page.
[. . .] The woods
are a class in what
they can take. The country
is fat. We eat
from its side.
(from “War Catalogues”)
Chronology by Zahra Patterson (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018)
To “review” Chronology is already a commitment wrought with problems. Zahra Patterson’s collection of emails, notes, fragments, mementos, and micro-memoirs is flourished with purpose, responsibility, and urges to know fully. It is documentation of the process of translating works in languages that have been barricaded behind the ongoing colonialism of history, the limitations and suppressing qualities of publishing and its industry, and of a stifling and undaunting, contemporary geographical isolation. Chronology is also about time, and commitment. It is about the travels that surround projects and an exploration of personal ties to place and people. To language. It is about relationships: where they come from, how they become acknowledged, and how they grow. It is about memory, and the efforts writers can take (and do) as they seek out the beauty in the periphery of culture, in the slowness of the present. And it is about life, and the need to be and to move, to open and close through curiosity and growth and self-awareness.
The translation itself is arbitrary; what is important is my interaction with her language.
But summarizing the book with all of those qualities, while true, excludes the radical core of Chronology. It also excludes the extraordinary lineage of works Patterson accepts, interprets, and contributes back to: inspirations like Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha; Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip; and the theories of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (to name a few). Chronology is an examination of ethnic and racial power and pride, presenting numerous conversations Patterson has on blackness in the context of the United States and Africa. It is a plausibility towards ancestry and the history of multiple peoples, of identity, and of disconnection and displacement. It is an ongoing conversation of the necessary translation that contributes to health and progress in a globalized, post-colonial vision. Chronology is a dive into risk through the project that is generative of success, failure, and the remarkable acceptance of both. It is about human achievement and human stories, and the equity that can bind us and elevate us through both.
And Chronology is also a book about language in all of its amazement, its transfigurations, its complexities, and its own problems. The book seeks to remedy what is taken for granted in the act of translation, in the conversion and explored movement between one language and another. It recognizes the power of language and the vulnerability of language as it is approached, as it is messily understood, and as it may or may not satisfy. Language’s importance consists of its derivation from relationships, and from the resources that are created by the efforts of humans. From the lack of dictionaries to the inherent personalized experience of communicating to the emerging witness of orthography, of receiving assistance, of engaging serendipity, language and translation is of incredible essence. In Chronology, the core of languages forms the spine and the soul of the work and the project, and Patterson’s treatment is careful, restless, and dutifully challenging. There is a sense of mindfulness. There is a sense of consciousness. There are senses of morality and respect. And there is a sense, again, of the equity of human stories.
I could have gone to Malawi and stayed out of debt. But I had to come to Cape Town to find who I am. This city is me: the separate coexistence of Europe and Africa. Yet I am one. And it is one. The separation is part of the whole. What completes the essence is the unbearable dichotomy within it. Yet we bear it, don’t we. The Monster—the oppressed. The Fool—the oppressor. And vice-versa. And within all of us western-ethnic folk, we carry and cope with this dichotomy. When you become your own monster’s fool, you will have achieved self-awareness. Then you can live with your dual self.
But no matter what lens Chronology is explored through, there is the challenge of representing it as fully as it can be, representing it through any review or otherwise, and understanding its fullness as being filled with the unseen, the personal, the interpretable, and that which is outstanding. Much of the book’s most enjoyable moments occur when there is a fluid sense of complexity, where the book might not be known as well as it could, where it deserves retreatment by the reader.
The stories contained within, which literally explore Patterson’s engagement with a short story written in the Sesotho language, which literally explore the ongoing friendship between Patterson and the late Liepollo Rantekoa, are stories that inform each other and contribute to the book’s structure and form. But in support of and additionally beyond those narrative threads, Patterson’s Chronology feels like an offered gift of self, for self. Noting the space that the reader can be, that of the “the other,” is an occupied, intentional space that promotes connectivity and a humble resolve. Chronology, for me at least, induced a pressure to find love and fulfillment within my own realms as modeled by those pressures described in Chronology.
What is my function? I am not mere bystander critiquing orthographic politics and the violent gift of literacy. I am a writer. A speaker of English. I am not a translator or a speaker of Sesotho. What right do I have to embark on this project? An emotional pang—is that a right?
And so, what is the fuller (or simpler) description of the conversation of “the ultimately failed” project that is contained within Chronology? Much of it can and should be, at least in this space, this review, left up for mystery. We as a collective of readers have much to gain through the examinations and periods of self and selflessness, and their joyful and difficult overlaps, that Patterson has chosen, with intentionality and empathy, to include. To acknowledge the courage underlying this providing of reflection as intense and determined work, in all of intricacies, is to recognize Chronology as an act of productivity, beauty, and graciousness.
Glimmerglass Girl by Holly Lyn Walrath (Finishing Line Press, 2018)
When others see me, they will see a woman unhinged.
I will crawl out of my skin, leaving it all heaped behind me
and the naked me will walk home alone in the darkness
a disciple of shadows, an acolyte of the moon.
(from “I am Going to Find the Unicorns”)
The chapbook Glimmerglass Girl, while a whorl of selected moments, contains a collective and collective energy that has the potential to awe and influence. It is a feminist work as much as it is a work of an independent, confident poet. There is a general outburst of energy here, one that indicates journey and trial and achievement. It is a landscape of learning and knowledge, wisdom even, attained through the process of living out womanhood. These are poems that, as a collection, field experiential memory and meditative spaces of raw emotion. The book, both narrative and lyrical, lends itself to a harmony of reflection and gracious internalization. The poems are short and brief, and ultimately find their strongest qualities through Holly Lyn Walrath’s overarching voice when the book has been read and the covers finally closed.
Following a brief preface, “On Womanhood,” which requests the reader tread softly through the book’s pages, Glimmerglass Girl displays its 24 poems in a manner of delicate, slow care. “in the night glass is everywhere” opens the poetry of Walrath’s collection, indicating that delicateness is already present. The poem “Espejitos,” (“little mirror” in Spanish) sets not only the quality of the poet’s mental and emotional approach to her life and livelihood, but also sets the motif that will return from piece to piece.
The glass/mirror metaphor is not only in the imagery of the poems, but in the voices Walrath brings to the work, and, curiously, in the muse buried behind the history of each poem. Not only do previous circumstances serve for fuel of this poetry’s illumination, but previous aspects and iterations of the core self. These poems are architectural to the identity of the poet and even indicate a degree of transformation and transposition. The book indicates the poet’s cautious and unparalleled journey to get from previous to current states of being. And, remarkably, the metaphor never needs to be broken to reflect or scatter (open) those moments of illumination. The delicacy remains.
Her hands are soft and diminishing,
becoming like the petals of the peony
or lace paper—gold leaf.
(from “Peony Red”)
Glass is not the only surface or material that is operating within Glimmerglass Girl. Gold, another delicate substance, which carries symbolic properties, including the regal and the beautiful, appears multiple times throughout the book. There is a consistent sense of questioning when gold shows up, nearly alchemical in its positioning: what does this metallic serve as ingredient to? How does Walrath use it to position her own sense of self? Is it preservation of beauty? Is it a subconscious protection of identity? Is it merely the ornate, supplemental beauty that we all wish to carry around with us from time to time? Or perhaps it is purer, more abstract at its heart.
Details like gold, skin, weather, and other elemental imagery appear and disappear in a morphic process both ritualistic and organic the same. As such, Walrath has composed these vignettes with the capacity for explicit definition, but there is diffusion, abstraction, a termed fizzling. It is a world of memory and the temporary. Creating these premises allow for Walrath’s firm, pronounced independence to shine. And as a result, her voices open and chisel across the page with distinction and confidence.
The book’s textual poetry is combined with images pulled from archives and reused in new contexts here. How they play out, typically sharing space on the page with the poems, is typically straightforward and strong. However, while Walrath’s work in Glimmerglass Girl is fantastically capable and certain, it is curious to see that several poems positioned on the page overlap or are placed above the images. In numerous instances, this makes the poetry very difficult to physically read. While Finishing Line Press has created an engaging, explorative book, these design constraints unfortunately keep at least two of the poems from full physical readability/legibility.
And while it would be fine to ignore these qualities directly, there is value to them! The obfuscation here elevates and makes even more obvious the severity of the book’s original motif: the glass and the mirrors, and their resulting effects on light and clarity. The conflict with the embedded pictures results in its own conversation on how we find meaning and truth when integrating the external world with our own, purest forms of communication and expression. Whether intentional or not, there is a benefit in the selected images.
I am night and a thousand stars hurtle through
my skin, punching through the ether.
I crouch, prehistoric, in the space behind clouds, my volcanic heart
attracting lightning, sympathetic
(from “Anvil Crawler”)
Reading from cover to cover, this short collection of poems resonates deeply. As a male reader, I found the book to be filled with insight, information, and inspiration for knowing more about the female experience. I imagine the feminist offerings this book undoubtedly can provide to female readers will create realms of influence and inspiration in other, exciting ways. The individualism and independence of Walrath’s voice, and her movement from pillar of experience to pillar of experience, and beyond, has set a precedent for even more of her work. What it will bring, and how Walrath will view herself and the world around her, is an exciting and encouraging prospect.
XoeteoX by Edwin Torres (Wave Books, 2018)
A palindrome assures continuity—the entry into itself reborn at every passing. By becoming itself in the course of its lifetime, palindromes are the most human words.
(from “Chaos is a Flower” on page 34)
A book of circumspection and suspected object-oriented investigations of language, XoeteoX is the eighth collection of poems by Edwin Torres. It is a book that cuts some helpful corners by omitting authorial explanation and deconstructive explication, but manages to bring a mature, managed poetics forward to the open reader through moments of graceful experimentation and a surge of intense respect for the learned identity. Part focused vispo and part raw, irreparable reflection, the pages of XoeteoX are filled with the personal as the subject in a world that demands its stability. This plunge into the self feels retributive and swollen with an intentionality of output and excess.
At their core and on their surface, the poems in this book feel like gifts. Take, for example, “I was so Tired this Morning and Now Here I am Awake,” which densely packs a stasis of high energy, realism, and hyperbolic description into its quasi-confessional introductions:
Spilled, entwined, organ’ed, Zygotic, wiped, ready to receive your etcetera,
Becoming mine, etc.
Socketed each to each, chord’ed, felt-wrapped, fluid, etc.
Inched, ink’t, warped, amongsted, Kriatic, impulse, re-neutered, etc.
De-balled, un-iced, ridged prosthetics snugly fit, etc.
Neared, riddled, impossibly squandered, un-stanza’ed appreciatively, etc.
Far felt, nibbled, mouse-holed, in and out energetics, etc.
The language here is a bastion of range of the personal and the exasperated: dramatically posed with scope and boundlessness the poet explores and expands and extends, almost as if by necessity. Torres’s moments are the interconnected splay of the living line of breath in a poem that must continue to breathe. Tones are essences of output and inclusive of the whole, with surprise and relief filling the same void, simultaneously. It is a moment of profound tracks that lead toward some incomplete yet demanding moment of transformation by way of collection and accumulated knowledge. Transition and movement formulate the poem as it continues (pages later) into a space approaching gender and the elements of our human being that make up our identity and placements within our world and worldview:
throw myself catch me—the boy in the body to body the girl
the oblique interruption of body parts—ground into dust by the girl
Relief and shifts in positions of stress and certainty could be one interpretation of the core of XoeteoX, which is a book of parabola and palindromes: concepts with perspectives that lead to equivalencies and continuations (in loop). In the case of some of these poems, it is the method of exploration that serves to create a point of balance; in other poems, however, there is the direct question of the algorithmic procession that can exponentially lead to solutions or resolution in their formulas and building blocks. Take the vispo work “Tone,” which unreproducible here (visually) creates a grid poetics that shows transition by mere variable. In one section it morphs: “the break left alone / by windsect / the man left alone / by worldsect / the world left alone / by insect” (page 21). The poem ultimately is filled with puns of itself, variations on themes found within microcosmic displays of expression. There are roots to be seen in this rough trajectory toward truth, a roughness that is necessary through Torres’s momentum of exploration.
Additionally, traditional elements of experimentation pad those extreme instances, where text is literally torn apart on the page. The poem “Ocean Obelisk” is one example, where long and full stanzas are stripped from meaning and positioning by a carefully plunged representation of the aquatic, tidal scrape: rough text jumbled and smeared with a refreshing or rehashing is the “translation” of a simpler form of poetry and confessional identity. The result of this splice: it is curious but slightly unenjoyable to try and read directly. For me, I simply moved past the poem after scanning it and admired the courage of the self-erasure on the simplest of terms. Looking back, I think about how an obelisk often carries a certain degree of mythic mystery to it, and the “Ocean Obelisk” of Torres does this as well, providing a sort of center point, or blurred core, a depth charge, for the soul of the book. In other words, each palindrome here, which is swirling around the obelisk, needs a reflection point, and the abstraction of this obelisk, this symbolic nonentity (by way of the visual poem) appears, like an epiphany, to be that reflection as it is happening.
That concept of a linguistic carrying-along of personal reflection benefits from a more intense, elongated exploration of these terms and processes by the poet. Torres could have worked XoeteoX into a chapbook, or even a single, short string of poems but, like with his previous books, he does well here due to a slight uptake or excess. Here there is the filling, the overall surplus of humanity that comforts the concept of identity and reiteration. This effect I otherwise recently argued doesn’t work well with all writers. But we warm and learn further from additional examples, layers upon layers unearthed by way of fortification and structure.
circular, omnipresent, the shapes
you secrete, the ones that return
there will be ones, who keep you down
safe from their climb, faced by fear and tribulation
to dare laws of inadequacy, by turning on you
upon the times of your burn, of their bearing, upon ones
who daunt the awestruck jeers of frontal ability [. . .]
(from “Inversion” on page 43)
I personally find the most intense throws of the book in the scrawl and backhanded comments of the poems, the lines that have incredibly serious implications. There are qualities of equity, respect, tolerance, and persistence in this book that transmit before, during, and beyond a generally insular poetic moment of calm (for the reader: the first, generalized reading). These are words that hold an on-edge sense of potential and that which is the probable. But they are as personal as abstract, maintaining a useful sense of ongoing openness and invitation to engage.
Implications are many in the translation of reflection and repetition into broader realms. Much of what Torres writes appears to be meditational, methodical reasonings for grasping with reality, dealing with a gritty sense of the world, and a confident though turbulent placement of self. When Torres writes “how all have a bit of cave / inside / a hollow tone / bringing sound to the word / without answer,” I think of sanctuary and structure, hiding and escape, and, of course, the platonic, supportive sense of origins of the self (from “To Read with Silent Runners” on page 10).
As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I find the lack of a direct explanation and description of many of the individual poems in this collection to make the book as a whole difficult and, at least initially, wanting. While the interpretive openness might help illustrate the confessional elements of the poet’s self, as documented, there is also a sense that more direction, more instruction, could be useful and make the book more straightforward. But Torres’s decision with XoeteoX feels filled with an aspirational, optimistic confidence. The poems are a joy to read in the intense peace of inquiry they offer, and I imagine will serve as fantastic bundles of energy to push the poet forward with more momentum.
The Desert by Brandon Shimoda (The Song Cave, 2018)
WE START ALL OVER, WHEN
WE ALL START OVER, become
As when we were shot
Through anesthetic light
And brought to life
Within the sentence of existence
(from “Transit Center”)
I’ve been thinking of when I was in my early teens, budding with a sense of places other than my own. My mother, sister and I took a trip from our small town in rural Maine to Las Vegas. It was where my half brother and his mother (my father’s first wife, so technically my stepmother) lived. I have many memories of that trip, my first trip to the desert. They are swirling dreams of half-images and sparsely-detailed landscapes filling distinct events and moments, incredible spotlights of heat, burning feet walking across the blacktop, the aridity and that full, quiet brightness. Since that holiday, I have been connected with, contracted to, the desert. It calls me fully and regularly, like a drug or a community, whispers of my name, or someone else’s, spread out across a wind-like continuum on the edge of my consciousness. I have been to numerous deserts and other dry places. I have slept in them. I have walked through them. Driven. Hiked. Sweated out. Hallucinated. Challenged my own sense of reality. The ongoing relationship with them has been fortified with romantic cultural ideas of the place: the boundary before a (manifest) destiny; the lawless, free-spirited land of opportunity; the desolate sense of the ancient and barren and life-beyond-life-itself. Even now, recalling these desert frameworks and conditionings, I get the urge to drop everything and go. It is a good feeling. I hope for it to continue.
a larger purple, the most
sanitary I follow
I don’t remember
when I’m in it
It is happening
The Desert sits in front of me and it’s a large book. It takes up space. Brandon Shimoda has written a large book. It comes out of a lineage of desert writers. Poets. Essayists. Novelists. Many voices who have tried to grasp the ideas within an iconic, untouchable space. A space where immersion is forced. There is a binary of presence: you are within or you are out. There is before, during, and after, a narrative that is neither linear nor modular, but something more holistic, something more total, something that vibrates and stations within and beyond. I believe that The Desert, Shimoda’s work, a follow-up to his and others’ previous work, captures this sense of storytelling and world-telling. I believe it is work because it indicates a distinct, timely sense of effort in collecting, projecting, and residing within the writing of this space. I believe it is more than that too: it is a deeply personal book that throws the world about within its confines, its limitations, its own sense of knowing and unknowing. The Desert as I have read it maintains a sense of “the desert” as much as it feels like the waking life of Shimoda. A straightforward statement in general, and in the context of poetry, perhaps, but in some awing way there are the contractions of idealism and a precision of perfection here that is difficult to wrap my mind around. How does a book feel whole and complete, while retaining its otherness all the same? Is this merely a question of ignorance on the part of me, the reader, or is there something transmutable in the desert core, the same desert that leads to loss and death as it does to survival and humility? The Desert wraps the spectrum up nicely while, enduring the juxtapositions and serving as an excellent reading experience.
Black tarantulas. People sitting around a fire
Beneath enormous cottonwoods
The color of a Christian—pious, unresponsive
Faces in the smoke
(from “Blind Children”)
It is visceral: crackling echoes of swollen canyon and indomitable plains matched with acutely intimate campfires and vague splashes of humanity while housesitting. All is a morphic process here, and Shimoda, a literary seer or sage, whose voice stays present and distant (like the echo that careens around a corner or over and beyond a horizon), offers the thread. Seven sections of the book make up seven separate gazes towards the desert. As I mentioned, addressing them as a linear causality is not rewarding, and might not even be effective. Instead, it is calming to note that there are sections just as there are mountains: change over vast periods of time; growth and shrinking; movements in and out; relatively intact spaces of pattern and trend. The book is sequenced to lead the reader toward Shimoda’s desert by way of a daily, existential practice. He lived in Tucson from 2011-2014. He wrote. That is the setup. That is the otherworldly sense of space and time. What else do you need to know? When you, like anyone else, visits the desert, what do you need to know? Much of the pleasure and pain of the landscape, those qualities that make it knowable, that make it attractive and repulsive and, essentially, unforgettable, are intrinsically personal. Shimoda’s notes, his explorations, his positives and negatives, provide a sense of bearing, a sense of longing, and a sense of pacing. Time is a very real, and remarkable tool to be used and be applied in The Desert but only by alternatively going forward, backward, and through the text in multiple, fragmented visitations have I found “Time” to be everything I wanted, everything that completed the experience. Like the vastness of the desert in its many variable forms, Shimoda’s work challenges the reader in its sense of approachability, in its sense of wander, and the resulting emotional complexity and confusion.
I looked at everyone
I wanted everyone
To be where they were
(from “Evening Oracle” in “Bride”)
Perhaps I have found The Desert (as a symbol, as a form, as a specific type of literary process) to be the ideal container for Shimoda’s translucent, migratory poetry. A large statement, but one I can’t help but ponder. The cause and effect between Shimoda’s voiced (penned) experience balances with the dynamic totality of the subject matter. All the searing, all of the heat, all the illumination flows volcanically (liquidous and hellishly solidified one and the same) into a state of permanence that renders each poem, each story or moment, into a chiseled, pressured appearance. Pressured into being, into reliance, into expectation, while marvelously counter to the instability of societal space and time. Moments of the poet’s life that lead to insight are to be trusted, taken with confidence and even, remarkably, with joy. The book is not a book of joy in a direct sense, but the spirit contained within the book, that inextricable sense of freedom and security, finds an outcry of joy and awe all the same. But the book is also larger than that, as it needs to be. Shimoda’s experiences, the spectra of them, contain scattered layers of wisdom as well: the result of the hallucinatory and the imagined, the explored of the available, the induction of the potential. The desert is a space of learning and knowing and so is The Desert.
cut rectangles in the floor dug holes in the dirt
to stay cool
in July folded their bodies
like paper fell asleep
in the holes rivers evaporated. The prisoners disintegrated
Not even their secrets
(from “Gila River”)
Th beginning of the book’s postscript reads: “The photography on the cover is of three Japanese Americans, taken during the Harvest Festival at the Tule Lake concentration camp, October 31, 1942. The photographer was Francis Stewart, on assignment for the War Relocation Authority [. . .] A segregation center opened within Tule Lake, July 15, 1943. The prison within the prison—with enhanced security, fortified fence, increased guard towards, 1000 military police—incarcerated individuals who were considered disloyal. Stewart took a number of photographs at Tule Lake that capture what I have written elsewhere as the perverse psychosis that is settler colonialism in the United States.” (177) The reality here, that part of The Desert is an examination of this history of internment/incarceration/antagonism within the more contemporary colonialism of and within the United States, is a reality that The Desert is a book actualizing much more than Shimoda’s daily logs, his written practice, his fueled language. It is the fuel itself: the histories of marginalization and oppression, the systemic imprisonment and prejudice, and the sense of other that has and continues to pervade an American expanse of freedom, symbolically and legally.
“Not sure why I keep prefacing every email with mention of the desert, though the affirmation feels necessary. This is where we are, this landscape which feels as congenital to our condition as it does alien. I still have little sense of what it is, what it does . . .” (91)
To examine Shimoda’s book is to get a sense that, as I mentioned above, there is much contradiction and counter between that open existence of the desert. To be free affords exploitation. To be open allows room for the most closed. The desert is a space of profound knowing and unknowing all the same. And it is a space where the bleakest and most hateful instances can find their own pocket to run dry and remain echoes of their former selves. And further, it is a landscape where that history, etched into the landscape, can also be approached. Is it because nothing much lasts for very long in the desert? Is it because of that harshness that we can identify and blink apart? Is history on an incessant, unbearable loop, or is it actually bearable, actually tolerable, pulsing along and compact enough to grasp? I find Shimoda’s interpretation, integration, and the resulting persistence through the realities of the desert, including but not limited to the tyranny of the prison camps of the desert (and beyond the desert) to be one of mature acceptance. That is not to say The Desert represents the desert (as symbol and as physical space) as easy and accommodating! But that is full and true and helpful as a mode to conduct explorations of and beyond the self, of and beyond the poetry, of and beyond the imprint of language in time (however Time may be formed and interpreted). I think on this book and imagine my own attraction to the deserts I’ve visited before and have yet to visit, and I wonder about their fullness and how they might help me rather than just blindly attract, and help others too, and where that lived experience can lead to new spaces of knowing, growth, and wisdom.
Levon Helm by Jason Morris (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018)
Look: tiny orange
butterflies crown clover
every angle for
the nectar, their
little jewelers’ lupes
eyeing clovers’ coronas
it is these animals to whom I owe
a debt of gratitude larger than poetry
(from “Raw Umber”)
What’s in a name? Music, insight, courage, and a fame matched by death and history and the instantaneous. Levon Helm the individual, the musician, the icon, positively notorious and storied, is as mysteriously absent from Jason Morris’s first full-length as he might be considerably present. There is difficulty in knowing the truth, and perhaps as a ghost or an analogy we might find the figure’s energies throbbing and glissading through and across the pages by default, by knowing or unknowing, by potential. Either way, or both ways, Morris’s voice is what fills this book first and foremost and it’s his voice that resonates with a severe beauty of scurry and scrawl from cover to cover.
A quality that holds Morris’s book together through this book, as a collection, is its patchwork of diverse senses of self and the voices that represent those senses. Morris as poet approaches a documented world through an applied plethora of lenses, angles, and curiosities. Subject matter is scattered and wizened by its range; as a collection, his poems are pervasive and capable of maintaining a subtly inquisitive purity. Emotion is balanced and arcing in concision. Heights of explorative hyperbolism, through joy or fear or trauma or distaste, rarely find a presence. Morris’s work is a soft glow, a resonant hum, the realm of the residence of the voice in a lively and respectable world. This paradigm, consistent with the Californian bioregionalism I’ve most recently been reminded of by way of Schelling, is utterly pleasant and hypnotically realized. There is a trapping and a phantasmagoric engulf that sways and docks the reader into the poetic bob. Morris’s language is a whispering throat, a delicate pendulum, a soft tide, built upon music and inventory.
To choose not to
pick up phone & scroll anyway through
Dear old dreary daylit world, dull
repetition of daily news, look up instead to see
a world newly cathected, autochthonous in
clouds, in ones and threes.
(from “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”)
It is fascinating to find Morris’s poetry in 2018. It sits extensively from the 1970s or 80s, echoing along the decades and gathering evidence of a world slowly creeping. Technological advances are more humdrum and ordinary than explosive and shocking. The search engine is as commonplace as the hummingbird. The social media as blandly bountiful as the juicy red cherry and the spitting out of the pit. Technology, the digital, the contemporary where we find ourselves does not have to be of significant consequence, is how I read its acting space within Morris’s poems. It might be anticlimactic or slightly stark in a mild burden of melodrama. But it comes and goes, lifted meditatively from the poet’s grasp. A flighty assurance of this temporal non-reliance is filled with equal parts quirk and mythic. “Google” meets “Demeter” in the same span of the 80 pages that make up Levon Helm.
What else makes up the book’s mythologies? The inspirations of the young poet’s language make brief but intentional appearances: through Mike Watt & Thurston Moore to Lyn Hejinian to Creeley & Olson to Clark Coolidge to Dashiell Hammett, there’s the presence of a musical and literary world scraping by the notebooks and moments of Morris and his incisive glaze of language. And beyond the questions of Sonic Youth, beyond the tracks and the chords and the concerts and the stanzas and the books and the readings, or perhaps, ultimately, from within, the cast of characters expands to include those individuals of the biographic present, the alive and the nearby, those close and of community, familial and intimate, resonantly personal while all the time brushed across the canvas in tiny, expiring bubbles. Morris’s imagery of voice is hurried and tireless, yet the persistence of intentionality indicates a stationing and situating of the self, a ghosting of the self, lapsing and relapsing through the daily experience.
What haunts me (& maybe “Providence,” too) is an oblivion of memory; that the loss of the bits might prefigure a larger loss. By taping this message & making for it a memorial of decimated piano chords, tape-hiss & distortion; by putting it right in the middle of the album, the music recognizes that. Memory is an oblivion in which only ephemera floats to the surface.
A poetics grasping collage by the throat, wringing collection like a towel to loosen the liquidous core contained within, Morris’s pitter-pattering lines fall into place but not without a determined effort of work and challenge. His writing contains a fullness of demonstrated craft and revision. As a collection of poems, this significant investment of the poet may not benefit the reader with any immediacy, and yet there is a feeling, a shadowy current that follows each poem, indicating the historical treatments contributing to the book’s final form. Language of obscurity, references of placement and displacement, allusions and quotations determinately ambiguous, and unexpected moments of exquisite flourish and precision are all features that flank and surround the overall identity and vision of Morris’s voice. As such, much is surprising and to be gained through the patterns of readership without much expectancy and predictability. Through elements both magical and mysterious, Morris has a sincere, macrocosmic effect of discovery and arousal dispersed throughout Levon Helm. Perhaps, like the thorough and intangible life of the man that the book is named after, this effect is one representing an unburdening-yet-burgeoning empathy of worldly creation.
YR #51: Letters So That Happiness by Arnaldo Calveyra, Translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Zuba
Letters So That Happiness by Arnaldo Calveyra, Translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Zuba (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018)
Lost Literature Series #22
Everything rising came up from the eucalyptus, showering clean ash autumn from the burn. (41)
A skinny volume filled with squat, postcard-sized prose poems, Letters So That Happiness is as much about the worlds within each of its cartas as it is about the act of letter-writing itself. Arnaldo Calveyra’s first volume is also, coincidentally, contributing to the “lost literature” series of Ugly Duckling Presse. Curiously, Letters feels as lost (and searching) through its language as it may be lost in the English-language literary canon. Each poem fades in, mesmerizing cascades of scene-setting and environment-growing established within breaths, only to fade out toward the next blank space. The effect is an uncanny, paralyzing sense of grounded representation, flourished with pastoral roots and yet delivered with a bold and casual sense of realism.
Calveyra, raised in a rural, agrarian setting, son and grandson to cowboy culture, relays in this first book the setting for growth and cultivation. A surrealist farming of the mind, Letters explores and satisfies that essence of acknowledgment before and during the presented story, the periods of wakefulness and sharing. As such, the fleeting feeling of these works also feels staunchly intentional and directed, under the control of the poet. To think that the famous writer who lived through conflict and exile found flashing moments of grace and stability in an aroused, ethereal world of memory, wonder, and persistence envelopes the book in an aura of revelation and epiphany. The paradox of this eruptive sense is that the book never rings out with sensationalism, extremity, or even, more positively, ecstasy. The book seems ironically positioned in a relatively humble space for its young author; where the youthful energy would typically reign with arrogance and posturing, we instead find a book that is gentle, sorted, and withdrawn. And again, curiously, stable.
Suddenly, how wonderful! I came looking through loose autumn and slowed to a thistle beside the slide piled high with dead leaves. Wild! recently bloomed and gone into the raw milk. (29)
The searching, the seeking, the hum of a daily spirit finds anonymity in both voice and recipient of the letter form. The letters are not dated and do not contain anything but the messages themselves Though many of the scenes and characters within Calveyra’s poems in this book feel specific, feel explicitly known and thoroughly explored, the results of Calveyra’s poetics crafts more exuberant openness. A muffled beg of invitation, a soft plea for the transformed and transited, this is a book that further surprises with its direction of tone and messaging. The flutter feels surreal in its interpretable beginning, and it also feels drastically contextual in its leading qualities, its trims, its finer and more resplendent details. The reader may get what they give, as in the subtle splashes of our more intimately shared memories and dreams and interpretations, that sense of the vulnerable and the sealed shut coming together as an edge.
A smell that slipped early through the wooden slats, the wind’s latch: in the highest branches of all; the bustle of coming from water, that is, the change from wave to wind when it just can’t much more those few meters of beach. (9)
Poet and translator Elizabeth Zuba has admiringly carried this work into its full fruition, with direct help from both Arnaldo Calveyra and his son, Beltran. Zuba has demonstrated an inspiring diligence in working intensively through the original works, not just the cartas, to know Calveyra and to know him thoroughly. Her passage through Calveyra’s world by way of the poetry has been supplemented by his biography (included in this book), which is additionally mesmerizing and awestriking.
As Zuba’s lengthy exploration reveals, knowing the poet’s miraculous life and the process to the creation of this English translation are nearly as momentous as the poems themselves. Much like Calveyra spent many of his early years befriending and learning from Jorge Luis Borges and Carlos Mastronardi, Zuba found a mirrored experience in getting to know and understand Calveyra through friendship and storytelling. Calveyra’s agreement to commit to the English translation is one of the reasons for the translation existing to begin with, says Zuba in the book’s conclusive remarks. Following his father’s 2015 death, Beltran Calveyra provided similarly significant information and influence as well, indicating additional, contextual qualities of legacy, respect, and the captivation of filial connection found through Letters. Details of the translation process, which explore Calveyra’s unique grammatical methods, complement the book’s inclusion of the original Spanish text.
I remember the kitchen in the boil of cold pockets and the mouth in the steam singing good morning. (13)
As with its achievement as a spellbinding set of poems that would go on to influence individual mid-20th Century writers and an Argentinian subculture of leftist political rebellion, the new achievement of this English translation has the potential to provide levels of influence and curiosity. From the canon of South American literature as a whole, to the =milieu of political poetry of the 20th Century, particularly in a complex Latin America infused with violence and expulsion, this book is a valuable addition. The whispered, beautiful testaments within Letters explores the juxtaposition that is reality for Calveyra and so many other poets: at the core of difficulty, challenge, and migration there are entrancing and rescuing moments of calm, joy, and illustrative movements toward a grounded, intact center.
Rules for Walking Out by Crysta Casey (Cave Moon Press, 2017)
He shot himself
in the chest and stomach
on the night of last month’s full moon.
That was the day before he turned 50.
Now, he keeps writing the same letter
over again and sleeps a lot.
(from “Hell and Heaven”)
Does war ever satisfy? Does the military ever satisfy? Does the institution of recovery for veterans ever satisfy? Does mental health ever satisfy? I suppose what it takes is to define “satisfaction.” Crysta Casey’s poems, which tackle the aforementioned topics and much, much more, rarely feel satisfying, and yet they do feel emblematic and carry weight to cherish, pity, and endow energies of sympathy. Rules for Walking Out extends to the realms of painfully familiar and frighteningly relevant in this 2018. They are poems that are sad, often to the point of hilarity: one option is to laugh off the grim realities of those who were forsaken, abused, and derailed. These poems are poems of clarity and vision, and perhaps the clearest and most illuminating moments of sickeningly stark reality are indeed the clutch of satisfaction after all.
The book is not incessant. It is not long to the point of exhaustion. It is difficult from the beginning, through the middle, and to the end. But it is not a lengthy journey by ways of the stories as poems. It is the entire grand finale of explosive works of fire giving light to the shadowy night. It is grotesque. It is the writhing tendril and lit fuses. It is a collection of poems as real as poems can be. It highlights the buoyant statement of Graves, who claimed the difference between those poets and those insane is that poets write it all down. And in this case, doing so is to create a reality that is invisible, marginalized, and regularly forgotten. The victims. The servitude of those victims, who have somehow crawled into their own corners and stood, stupefied and unable to integrate into the fortress of the mainstream. No, not just being unable, but rather, quite defiantly, refusing to, even by asking questions, thinking spiritually, greeting and integrating the best intentions, the holiest friendships, and grandest circumstances.
“Are you a wanderer too?”
the doctor asks me. I don’t answer,
but run barefoot ten times
around the cement rectangular
sundeck, ducking umbrellas.
(from “Glass Houses”)
In Rules for Walking Out, it is almost as though Casey’s collected works work to track and advertise all the cruelties and distinctions that appeared before her own individuality, her life and attempts at living. The book, I should say, is autobiographical and reads like a notebook: uncut, uncensored, unafraid. Casey’s life moved from a mediocre early adulthood to serving in the Marine Corps, where she fell into inequity and became entrapped amongst the dominating, pimping masculinity of her superiors. A dualistic shift happened: responding to the abuse of the system and its sexualized pockets, and being encouraged to create, Casey declared herself a “Poet in Residence” and was promptly discharged. Her biography takes her to the mental health ward of a Californian hospital (where, symbolically and intensely, she learns of her mother’s failing physical health and corresponding in-patient reality in a hospital nearby) and, inevitably, up to a very anticlimactic Seattle.
The poverty-stricken Seattle wastes of the 20th Century, and Casey’s time within them, form descriptions of a continuation of the frightening and of the marginalization she experienced in her life’s prior chapters. Consequentially, the poems of her Seattle period also work, and they work through a poignant and balanced direction to confront the ugliest, meanest face of the state of the VA (as a system) and those humans who suffer (regularly) through it. These poems are flashes, to be sure, of a much larger and undescribed life, which is almost imaginably intolerable and/or awash by way of prescription medication, depression, and other ways of making sense and staying alive. And that there is so much existing beyond the poems make the poems themselves that much larger and conceptually fantastical, despite their harsh naturalism.
The sailboat on my wall
is forever sailing.
If we are its crew,
we have fallen overboard,
our drowned bodies floating
in life jackets on the surface.
(from “Hell and Heaven”)
Almost along the lines of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, much of Rules for Walking Out can be read like a collection of faces and identities as much as it can be read as Casey’s memoirs. It is, in a way, communal. This indicative quality of the writing demonstrates Casey’s commitment toward her role as a poet, which ultimately is the role of a community’s leader. Though action is often reserved, Casey floats about among her peers and, through documentation and acknowledgment, releases them from injustices. At least in her own, timeless, allegorical way. And I can’t help but think that perhaps this process, as brief and intense as it is having been collected and focused in Rules for Walking Out, may be of significant potential when it comes to analyzing War. War, like the wars we fight each day by way of those who bring us conflict, oppression, and harm, may be relieved (if not healed) by steps toward that acknowledgment. That is, following in Casey’s footsteps we may have the opportunity to revitalize our understanding of the forms War takes, and its systemic and unbelievably antagonistic persistence toward the individuals within and surrounding it.
And I couldn’t tell them—I would not be able to tell anyone until the news was officially released. I would go home with murder on my mind.
(from “Rude Awakening in the Public Affairs Office”)
Rules for Walking Out, in its prologue and four sections of poems, leads the reader on an examining that is worth the brief and enduring push—every second of it. The book additionally includes sections written by Casey’s peers and mentors, including Deborah Woodard, Trisha Ready, and Esther Altshul Helfgott. Not merely a memorial for Casey, who passed away in 2008, these additional writings are insightful critiques that demonstrate the powerful, empowering and inspiring qualities of a community of writers that truly learned from Casey and continue to learn through her published, available words. This counterpoint to the bulk of the work and its unsettling nature serves as its own expanse. There are boundaries here and they are clearly identified, and there is a positively-charged relief in the wake of such grave shadows, be they absurd or truly entrenched in terror. I imagine those who follow Casey’s line of writing will find many opportunities to embrace this holistic and inclusive structure in many more ways than one individual can imagine. Even that potential makes this book doubly so in its ability to satisfy and define satisfaction.
I gave my name
rank and serial number,
said I was a poet. Beyond
that I refused to speak.
(from “A Curse”)
Something for Everybody by Anselm Berrigan (Wave Books, 2018)
May I have a sip of your cigarette, asleep
in all my clothes, crying, uselessly, as your singularity
apologizes for & preserves our long way around
to an open muted slightly flittering love?
(from “The Parliament of Reality”)
The greatest act of truth in Anselm Berrigan’s eight book of poems, Something for Everybody, occurs in the book’s final piece. The poem, “& What Does ‘Need’ Mean?”, is a grotesque and grizzly ramble of a poem that shows Berrigan’s strongest and weakest qualities in its twelve pages. Those qualities, the poetic rampage and the incessant confessionalism, are seen intertwined and summate the otherwise messy and stale preceding contents of the book. In “& What Does ‘Need’ Mean?”, the reader encounters a dedication to and homage for St. Mark’s Church in New York, and it is here that the image of the center for the poet, the “downtown” brought into question through the poem’s concept (which was part of a generative, thematic exercise created by the Poetry Project, entitled “(Re)Defining Downtown” in 2016), is portrayed.
Partway through the poem, Berrigan writes: “I keep going and coming / back to this place for that & by / the way, you do get, right, how / truly fucking strange, if ordinary / it is, to be breathing, here, doing / this with a voice?” The truth of this set of lines, arguably prose boxed in and controlled in the narrow columnar style the poet has mastered, is a truth revealing crisis. Berrigan’s poems breathe in and out, accepting and pushing past crisis upon crisis. These moments of urgency and dramatic interjection are often buried beneath circumstance and pure image. That the poems of Berrigan often appear to be haphazard journal entries, scrawls upon a palm or a page in the middle of a park or a train terminal, reflect the speed and directive of their creation and the poet’s processing. This is pure New York, in all its tragic, unending anti-glory.
Then it was
as if I didn’t speak for another
year, & that’s a feeling, not
another fucking metaphor.
(from “& What Does ‘Need’ Mean?”)
When I started reading Something for Everybody, I felt the tame, erratic tones of Berrigan that his previous seven books contain. The forms were slightly estranged and kaleidoscopic (and ironically-cum-disappointment there most likely isn’t something for “everybody” in the book), but otherwise this is Berrigan’s hallmark style, his calling card representation of the world once again butting and jutting its way into focus through “the book” format. This book, however, feels slightly worse, though, and by worse, it is good. It is mildly exciting, a mediocrity and extravagance at once, that demonstrates the flattened reality of New York City. It is, thus, sickening and necessary at the same time; a book I can hardly recommend anyone read but can feel confident and describing should someone care to read it.
Earlier in the book, Berrigan has composed a list of “mini-essays” that are in the style of and taking the language from Joe Brainard. One essay struck me as an epitome of Berrigan’s structured gaze toward craft. “Turns” reads like this: “My work never turns out like I think it is going to. I start something. It turns into a big mess. And then I clear up the mess.” (From: “17 Mini-Essays on The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard.) Another piece of the puzzle in decoding, understanding, and learning to accept Anselm Berrigan and his barrage of bluster and agony is to understand his poems as rough patches that have been cleaned up.
The poems, which combine the hackneyed influences of various generations of the New York School, language poets, beats, and other “poetry movements,” are poems that do much with too little. The poems are often directly derived from or referencing writers whose souls should be at rest but whose corpses and works continue to be dug up and sifted through. In our era of technology and movements towards equity, the result of this vacuous reliance upon the past is blustering and is agonizing. Just as The Poetry Project attempted to define its role in 2016 following the emergence of a new face of tyranny, there is an attempt for the poet to define his role too, using whatever is at his disposal. And yet, the disposing act never quite makes it, as we spin, and spin, and spin through 20th Century Poetics.
That said, Berrigan is a family man who brings his family into the poems, just as he brings the outside world into his poems, and this interconnected, networked self contains some saving graces. The most brittle act of antiquated New York poetry is juxtaposed with (or, forgivingly, balanced by) interposed moments of the now, the new, and the emerging (“Tap for more tweets, munch / In the preserved meatlight” goes “Inward Branding Mechanism 2: Lonesome Sabotage”). Perhaps a comment on the antiquity of New York as a place and idea more than Berrigan as a poet following and honoring various lineages, every fresh image and idea related to contemporary communication and information exchange in the United States often gets dwarfed by pigeons and decaying train lines that have little to no relevance beyond themselves and the New Yorker devotees that may or may not identify with them to the degree we find Berrigan identifying. Those moments of tweets and social media, of the web, of current socio-political phenomenon are absurdly dim and overpowered by the vortex of New York and the faceless urban living that so many New York poets have described again, and again, and again. This obsession or trap or fate is not new for Berrigan, as any reader of his would expect, and its descriptions are important if only to serve as footnote. This is what’s going on over there in New York. The loop continues. Hurrah, hurrah.
for the nod out in collaboration with medical relocation I’m always a touch late
to ten baroque minutes away from a bad repair job in gravel kittywalks where
unnameable fluidity unlimited only by the flow of your distressed clarity of material
My criticism on the most important city in the world aside, the poems in this particular collection have plenty of shining moments that any poet actively studying and pursuing poetry would benefit from engaging. From “Speech,” a light concept piece containing four words (“SMASH THEM. / EAT THEM.”) to the typically morbid and self-/society-defeating “To a Copy” that scrolls down the page like a spiraled staircase, “Nothing / gets to be real / or realized / or reality-based / or filmed as if happening / or rendered realistically / or branded contemporary / or performed spontaneously” (and so on), the poems range wildly as per the book’s name-sake. And often the language does appear sparking and vaguely refreshing. But then there is the constant mess, and the jumble, and the shrouds of tones that inspire a feeling of decay and disrepair.
Halfway through the book, I found myself feeling a reminiscence of depression, a weight of the ugly and relentless machine: poetry as chore, as weight, as grumble. Most of Berrigan’s poems, when not fuddling through tricks in phrasing and lingual aerobics, are often situated as pure exhaust. The poet is shuffling around in a sea of images that carry as much meaning as breathing. And the breathing is for the poet, not the reader. So what is the point of these poems for the reader? I return to this question time and time again throughout the book. For example, I ask it when I see “June at One on Ave A,” which reads: “Bus! / Bus! / O bus. . . . .” the text falling down the page, like a dull, pseudo-apocalyptic nightmare. Similarly, I ask about intention and affect when I read the long blocks of text in “New Note” that can’t help me sigh with more exhaustion. The text is composed in huge paragraphs that could just as easily be pages and pages of columns, but it perhaps doesn’t matter. There is a resulting nihilism as I read “the song’s importance retelling what you’ve witnessed undersea, out windows at declines” . . . which has its own, rusty charm.
Perhaps Berrigan’s calling card, then, is a sorrow that can now be quintessentially branded into a fetish. This poetics is a poetics of industrialized pity, meeting mechanized repression, and a holistically-realistic essence of mental illness intersecting with blinding flashes of awe. Thanks to language, of course. And thanks to today’s undead: a bleached, ruptured Americana beyond and yet bound to the mind. And that is truth, a single man’s truth, who haunts the streets and histories of New York, and continues to document his own, regardless of the implications and disastrous messes to be made.
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.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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