First Mountain by Zhang Er and Translated with Joseph Donahue (Zephyr Press, 2018)
In November 2001, my extended family in China arranged a special burial ceremony for my paternal grandparents who had died in the past decade, seven years apart, both in their 90s. We, the living, were to move their ashes from Beijing, where they had lived their last twenty-five years, back to their ancestral home in Shanxi province. It was their wish to be buried together in the family cemetery. [. . .] my mother, my brother and I—physically carried the ashes on the train journey from Beijing to the remote mountainside village of Nan Po, southeast of Shanxi province.
(from the book’s introduction)
Passage is narrative. We push forward and time floats by. Things live. Things die. The world changes. The familial persists. Discomfort. Strategizing. Documentation. The longest glances that are like flutters, frenzies, rhythms of light bouncing and scattering and moving from abrupt brightness to soft remains.
First Mountain is Washingtonian poet Zhang Er’s latest collection of verse, and it is towering. Monumental, as similarly described by co-translator and life-time friend of Zhang Er, Joseph Donahue.
A note on the process of language translation on this book: First Mountain was written by Zhang Er in Chinese, and then translated into English. This form was then visited and explored and refined through a collaborative process with Joseph Donahue. Despite not being fluent in Chinese, Donahue applied a second set of eyes to heightening the mountainous qualities of the book, in a sense. His presence is an additive one.
I finally feel the weight of
the baggage, the silence.
“Welcome to Beijing”
Wide banner, a toothy snarl.
Travelers, dazed and sleepless.
(from “Xizhi Men Station”)
Though it’s not clear how much contribution Donahue provides poem by poem, they certainly did, collectively, no harm to the text. A benefit to the context of the translation is a closing piece for the collection demonstrating the process of communication and collaboration, and direct discussion of the text between Donahue and Zhang Er. To see this process is to feel even more stunned, feel pulled even more inward, to make the passage through the text a higher, exceptional passage.
The book moves from before, during, and after a sequence of death and burial rituals for the poet’s grandparents. Susan M. Schultz describes the book aptly, stating that it contains “stories of returning their ashes to their hometown, about the family members who gather around those ashes. It’s also a book about love: grandparents married for many decades, the author’s marriage, her love for her young daughter.” These things and more fill the pages of First Mountain, which feels like a primal stack of notes and investigations into the ritual of self-reflection.
The experience was more than a cultural shock to me. I was traveling back through time and space to a landscape and soundscape strange yet somehow familiar, where I found my ancestors, my clan members, and an elaboration of the relation of life and death. An entire unfamiliar and ancient belief system was presented to me in the span of just a few days.
(from the book’s introduction)
Much of Zhang Er’s poetry is personal, and there is no exception here. The book feels pacing, tension, intension, and trepidation at the process of returning to the Chinese homeland her family still occupies and knows. Lives through. Socializes within. The book documents these feelings of transience and transfer: an intentional moment replicated in a conceptual book during and beyond the journey.
Mountains can be and have been many symbols. The height of them, as one that may be discovered and endured by human movement, represents a feeling of passing, and in First Mountain there is the first passage. Zhang Er’s expressions and exhibitions ultimately feel primary, feel “first” here, feel as though this set of experiences may be archetypal, may be Aristotelean, may be neatly packaged in a cradle of the world return.
And passage is return. Passage is return to the memory of movement. Perception of a reality that may be traversed elevates the delivery. For Zhang Er as the poet exacting the return, the return to the extremities of the symbolic heights, both literally and figuratively, results in a flourishing and immediate beauty of the bounty that is within this book.
The poems here, collected pauses and spirited moments of grace, are intensely immediate, actually. They are at once stapled marks and fourth dimensional in their temporariness. There is relativity. There is collectivity. There is the breeze forward, forward, forward.
A desire to trace the cheek bones with a finger
to cup with both hands
the curves of the chin, a petite nose
round moist lips,
to feel the glow of health,
the beauty of a daughter,
as I might feel the clear stream of the Apricot River.
(from “My Grandmother’s Village”)
The passage forward is worldly. Though Zhang Er is Chinese American, this identity marches forward and merges well with her visit into a historic, uniquely present China. She brings into her work references and allusions along the path, and these integrations rarely feel forced. They feel as all parenthetical experiences and qualities feel: wholesome and encompassing. Holistic.
Ancient Chinese stories. Notes on funerary colors and processes. Genealogical and familial rules and norms. The anthropology within First Mountain is supplemental and intelligently low-key. It adds and remains profound. The layers of culture contained within this explicitly autobiographical collection reflect upon a poet’s center of self as a center contained within a whole. And that whole gets built, and gets finished.
Heavenly blue eyed, gold-beaked crane.
Where are you going?
To harvest stars?
To cup the moon? To fly
naked to the naked sun?
Strong wings, paper wings.
(from “Paper Craft”)
Though I would argue the epic quality of Zhang Er’s book does provide a strong linear narrative that allows for traditional modes of drama, emotional tension and release, and thoroughly controlled pacing, I would also argue that this book has a healthy distortion through its main theme: death. The book follows the programmatic representation and homage to the deaths of the poet’s grandparents. Death, end, completion. And also: cycle, reflection, repetition. The act of dying does not complete the person’s existence; the subject continues, sensibly vicarious, through the acts and respects of their family.
I have always found cultural understanding and examination and processing of death to be fascinating, and there is much fascination to be had in First Mountain. The book contains such severe reverence that it, as an extension of Chinese traditions, could serve to powerfully impact the readers and their cultures across the globe.
How does time pass?
Day after day,
a stream flowing in curves dislodges a pebble,
cracking open one’s own head.
A flower falls.
An army retreats,
(from “A New Research Project”)
Zhang Er’s renditions of translating these experiences are powerful and empowering; they afford the reader the opportunity to reflect and examine as personally. A modeler of this introspective finesse, Zhang Er combines the grave, the serious, the challenging with the superficial, the noise, that in life which offers counterpoint. From unnerving conversations with family members to analysis of the society and built environments of China, Zhang Er intersperses this layer as well. Another level of the mountain. Another subspace to form and stabilize the whole.
The balance throughout is also mirrored through one of the most powerful moments in the book: a reflection on marriage and the romance between Zhang Er and her husband. This sequence of musings provides a mature position of a writer who has multiple priorities and exhibits complexity through her structuring of the book.
You follow the teachings
yet still can’t distinguish those
wild flowers in your heart,
their names, their looks, even when they appear
as photos in the evening paper.
(from “Secret Words”)
I found the intimacy of a totally “other” piece of existence, a piece not of the book’s primary mode, to give the book, and Zhang Er, a significant pose. It challenges the book’s forward momentum by creating fracture and breaking off, forking, into a humanistic reality: the tangential is quintessential to each of us. Through our daily lives. Through our constructed representations. Through our art. As with staring through a series of pools of water and catching otherworldly levels of reflection, so too is the effect of the astounding and poly-breath here. And it gives First Mountain a stunning inwardness.
A Drink of Red Mirror by Kim Hyesoon and Translated by Jiwon Shin, Lauren Albin, and Sue Hyon Bae (Action Books, 2019)
With a long tongue I’ll suckle all your milk
and slurp up your brain
Two sheets of tongue like death
whine until the night wears out
and even without bodies
we flicked only our tongues
(from “Two Sheets of Tongue”)
Relentless. Gloriously grotesque. A statement on figure and body politics. Relationships, perceptions, and control. The new English translation of the incredible feminist surrealist approaches boundaries and absconds them. Her work is approachable and reproachable; an embrace of fascination and a rejection of horror.
These poems are bounties of binding and explosion, carefully considered expressions of crystalline order and salvaged wreckage. They are juxtapositions of voice, fields of life in decay, and a captured layering and distribution of the soulful human embodiment cum imprisonment. And answers of what it means to fully exist and fully break open into the ravings of liberty.
When you asked me What are you thinking?
I quickly pushed an earlobe dripping with blood
between your lips and said I’m not thinking of anything
Under the streetlamp two lilac trees recklessly tremble
(from “Weather Update”)
Unlike the previous Kim Hyesoon collections available in English, mostly done through the intensive and intense translations of Don Mee Choi, A Drink of Red Mirror is the result of a translation project. The cohort responsible falls under the guidance of Arizona State’s Professor Jiwon Shin. The book is a result of that cohort’s leading MFA students Lauren Albin and Sue Hyon Bae. The other contributing translators are students Rebecca Teague, Dakota Hale, Kevin Salter, Sierra Hamel, and Nicole Lindell.
This book is about the combing of translations in collectivity to find the sweet treasure of collaboration. Each poem in the book has its multiple translators identified. The weaving together creates a harmony in the tonal scope of the book. The book reaches extreme ends undeniably Hyesoonean, and the book falls in line through an integrity of language. There is an underlying flourish and roughness to these translations I don’t recall as present in Choi’s work. The result is an enjoyable satisfaction of grit.
When I enter the gorge of dreams
there’s that women, always waiting for me,
the woman who wanders the night of the ball
This morning she’s rotted black and smeared of asphalt
(from “Something Like a Poem”)
These poems fling and flail and ring and rail across the page. They are mesmerizing and filled with sublimity. They are at once the cacophonous crowd’s compounded tongue and the euphonic chorus. The speaker of each poem is the symbolic feminine extremely extended, hallmark protagonist of Hyesoon’s ongoing work. Translational differences, nuances, blemishes, uniquenesses aside, this book fits into the English canon of the brilliant South Korean poet. It is fascinating to imagine the choreographed poetics of a group whose shared goals plaster the space of knowing and fixity, and witnessing the emerged Hyesoon, the literary Hyesoon, Hyesoon-as-poetry, emerging forth, gaseous and spectacular upon or beside the anti-pedestal.
As mentioned, these poems are bodily-formed and focused. They feel prepositional. Concepts and identities within, and without, and between. They are transitory and trans-positional. They are poems that deal with self and other in a profound and provocative balancing act. The act is the initiative, and the initiative is the poet’s rhythmic awareness. This fortitude, this acute intuition, is represented through blazingly complex metaphor and nearly-mystical convergence of image and method for understanding. The voices of the speakers blend into the foreground and background of each poem’s narrative.
a child with a crushed chest a child whose lung at every breathing hole is filled with stones a child with ten fingers tattered like a folding fan a child whose two lips are stuck together a child whose eyeballs have melted a child whose teeth have been ground away a child whose ribs have been smashed away a child whose every strand of hair has been plucked a child whose blood among other things has been sucked into the drain a child whose tongue has been stretched like chewing gum a child whose brain has been sucked dry by a cat
(from “Eye of a Typhoon”)
There are subjects and spaces that these poems and their messages occupy, only to break down and mutate into other grounds, other centers, other platforms and placements. There is a sense of the futurist’s rapid positioning. A literary monstrosity born out of a 21st Century system for movement of tongue and text. A fluidity through the urgency of the present’s unknown, of the future’s distortion, of the demand for presence and a global-meets-personal actualization.
Unlike some of Hyesoon’s other English editions, A Drink of Red Mirror often feels situated and comfortable. I acknowledge a potential bias (I have read most of the other books too, and might simply be accustomed as an ongoing reader), and also believe that the works here do find a sutbtlety that reduces the Hyesoonean absurdity and extremity from eruptive splash to gurgling bubble. That is not to say these poems find softness or fragility; no, it’s quite the opposite—the levels of micro articulation and an incising examination make for significant complexities previously hidden.
The you inside you has a tight hold on your body that’s why your fingernails curl inward, the shell of your spiraling outer ear also gets sucked into your body if the you inside you lets go of its tight hold on your hand probably at that moment you will not exist in this world
This collection and these translations echo Don Mee Choi’s work—the fun and obsessively-ridiculous contexts and images—while ascribing more thoroughly examined scrapes and chiselings. The poems, many quite lengthy, take their time to flip through each setting and situation to grind the reader into the book. I felt, reading this, significantly displaced from stanza to stanza, often feeling pulled into a powerful current, a central energy (like a whirlpool, or flight through gravity), again and again.
Exhaustion and fatigue and a sense of the overwhelming. Pause and release and re-engagement. The track through worlds upon worlds calling forth rests upon rests. Each step forward through the 57 poems (broken into the book’s three sections) is astonishing and alleviating all-the-same. It is the smash of glass into ground. The overflow of water from basin to counter. The sun pressing outward from a rocky horizon. The veil forming and parting through a fogged-in plain.
The body of this book is filled with microcosmic interiors that range from close to far and all of in-between. An exploration of this text is a commitment to the tense and swollen core of existence and beautiful fractures of the individualized experience.
Sugar Factory by Emily Wallis Hughes (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019)
Your rhythm will delete all of your past
The way we interpret the world through the act of creativity, as a form of release. A form of bliss. A form of transformation. The way we receive the world and volley it backward, toward a new target, through a new direction.
The relationships between artist and artistry, conversion and translation, object and worldview The poet and the poetry as the contemporary medium for the facilitated conversation the profound thirst for an achieved, beloved existence. The painter as the meditator before the walls of the imagined essence, the exasperation of a beautified interpretation. The conceptual framework of conceiving the longitude of the sugar factory captured in geometric space. The record of friendship. Spellbinding consistency of communication and the microcosmic resound of community. And how the book forms forward these enticements.
Sugar Factory is a collaborative project between New York writers/artists Emily Wallis Hughes (who has provided the literary text) and Sarah Riggs (who has provided the cover and interior artworks, images originally created by way of Lascaux paints and followed Hughes's poetry). The book contains 63 works (poems and visual art) and concludes with an uplifting and resolute essay on the autobiographical roots of the generative qualities of the works and the act of publishing as collaboration.
The book, the first book of poetry by Hughes, is a joyride of canvas wrapped into new canvas, palette stacked upon palette, range of knowing exquisitely exposed before other knowing. Sugar Factory is a delightful romp between the communicated selves of two alive and intimate individuals.
On an opened jean jacket
I lay our triplets out nude
in the Poland snow which exists within
the narrow margin we see surrounding dawn
(from “Church Bells Come From the East”)
Reading Sugar Factory, I find myself pushed through text as though it is the current along a rocky coastline. The energies are subtle, often invisible, yet bright and present and full and cavernous. What exists above, through, and beneath the experience of reading these poems? I think, as I take hold, and push in, dive in, explore. The poems are phantasmagorical and spontaneously spirited. They are chopped up moments that lead in and out of the everyday experience.
They are chopped up instances of significance. There is reflection of the mutually beneficial: the feedback of a world that is at one outside and untouchable as well as within and universal. I am reminded of the haunts of an older world, of a world that is far less abstracted, far less buried, far more present, far more accessible. The elusive image, the Sugar Factory itself, a nothing-place filled with the nothing that is life, experience, and contentment.
The air, pressing all acute
Still, though, the sky
is a good idea
(from “The Sky”)
Hughes represents the autonomous, creative human throughout the book. Her exposures to the decision-making process that underly all creative works, including those that are often so large they loom, including books like Sugar Factory, offers reverence, consolation, and maturity. The effect feels respectful toward the reader who is otherwise along for the ride, spoon-fed spoonfuls of image and quirk, expression and invocation.
The musings and reflections that make up what is a long sequence of memento and record-keeping are powerful pressures toward keeping the structure of the work in place. Often this structure is one empowered and uplifted through a sense of mystery. Why are some decisions made? What does exposition leave out? Is there more the reader must understand, or is the entire world a blur? And, of course, there are questions about the nature of the collaboration and the placement of Riggs’s paintings, which add their own effect of the canny and uncanny alike: drips and spurts and splashes of creamy, oily, bold color that comforts and rockets one and the same.
She starts making a basket out of Yerba Buena and out of her own hair
and her sister’s hair and out of out of dog blood and out of
the elderberries dropped on the gravel path to her best friend’s house
She, she forgets
I forget how
A sense of bewitching and ritualization is another quality I enjoyed encountering through Sugar Factory. With qualities of ambiguity and fragmentation that exist within the sequence of poems overall, down to the smaller details that remain flashes of inspiration and evocative momentary genius, the book feels utterly alive and beyond reach. The moments, such as the one quoted from above in “Day,” represent a much more cohesive arrangement of objects and actions that feels intentionally experiential.
Whether these utterances and descriptions are actual rituals or serve a higher degree of personhood and liveliness is unspoken and is as uncertain as the book as a whole; and yet they offer counterbalance/counterpoint to the otherwise fullness of the currents of energy that move from one moment of Sugar Factory to the next. They sit supportively providing a sense of center to that ongoing, fantastical mystery awakened through the efforts of Hughes and Riggs, jointly combined into a common space.
She speaks, says after loss
there is always beauty. Then
youth over the daffodil
death under the milkmaids.
(from “Three Women”)
Overall, the book is a flighty, fascinating space that rounds itself out in the connection between two creative individuals who have released into the world an organized smattering of chaos. It’s fun and enjoyable to read, intellectually enveloping, and distinctly arranged through the joy of cooperative activity. It serves as euphoric juxtaposition: preview to the personal and pull upward toward the global collection of experience.
Midden by Julia Bouwsma (Fordham University Press, 2018)
for every sorrow that been dug from you,
here is a pile of rubble twice as high.
Tracking human change can be a painful and insightful process. The poet’s journey in Midden is one that personally and wholeheartedly explores the landscape upon which we walk, and how to better understand the stories of the lives of those who have previously lived within the landscape.
Through this book of poems, Maine poet and librarian Julia Bouwsma explores Malaga Island, Maine, which was once home to a “mixed-race” (Wabanaki, white, and African American) community that was intentionally and forcibly removed by the members of the government of State of Maine in 1912. This book investigates the history of this generations-old group of people and their terrifying demise via ethnographic biography, personal and psychological memoir, and the plethora of archives and library collections throughout the state.
How they came in boats,
how our shacks caught like a shot of light
when match met kerosene. How we left
in their boats; how we huddled
close; how mama bent
to the baby, her crooked
arm clamping him
silent. How a child curled
mouth to smoky knees and bit
them to red.
(from “The Story of Fire”)
In her telling of the story, Bouwsma directly tells the story of the community’s removal and erasure, including the moments of peace and wellness before removal, the process of displacement, and even truly insidious actions to the people’s identity, including the exhuming and relocation of the community’s island’s cemetery’s graves to the disturbingly symbolic Maine School for the Feeble-Minded. These writings occur throughout the course of the book, allowing the reader to appropriately learn and lean into the truth of the Malaga community and their antagonists.
Midden is opened with a foreword by Afaa M. Weaver, who says that “Bouwsma shows us the horror, in poems that are full, yet marked with a deftness and appropriate concision.” I couldn’t agree more. Reading Midden is reading a collection at once stark and writhing. The souls of Malaga’s early residents are bursting with the little documented life that exists, given fresh energy through the complex and mystifying odes of the author’s verse.
[. . .] Memory, a scrap of cotton I fold and fold
until the fabric strips the scent from my palms. If I don’t
make it out, tell my daughters their mother’s skin
is an abandoned shed, grayed pine and dry rot, but inside--
inside holds the taste of salt cod, the sweet clotting of blueberries
drying on tin-roof sun. Tell them to jimmy the lock, to search
if they can. Their fingers will remember.
To say that the events recounted through Bouwsma’s research and findings aren’t tragic would be pivotally incorrect and further dehumanizing. In Midden, the poet strongly describes the formal and intentional actions of Maine society. These are early days of the whitest state in the United States. The actions of the people in power in Maine were angled to shape how humanity-at-large functions. The reality of this hegemonic approach to culture and life presents the reader with a particularly exhausting degree of horror, one that has long been covered up.
Bouwsma has done her searching and collecting of information well, and the book-as-synthesis demonstrates these extreme and oppressive sequences in a logical fashion. Her poems reveal a narrative with a beginning and an end, highlighting the abhorrent behavior from its surface to its core, while ensuring the moments of wellness that did indeed exist within that community before its destruction are presented to the reader as well.
The poems fill the story in a dynamic sense; the poet approaches qualities of the life of the folks in Malaga from complex, multidimensional perspectives. There are souls here, and they dance along the edge of the words in this book. The reader will encounter collage, embodiment, cyphering, and even erasure in the literary structure of Midden. More traditional visuals—stanzas—meet the flickering fluidity of prose, and even the occasional iteration of the projectively-versed voice, creating a sense of affect and a doorway toward fantastic, superhuman moments.
I walk to the clear cut—discarded
limbs, silvered softwood. I trace
this trail of quartz crystals, vertebrae--
morsels dropped from a torn pocket and blazed
to bone dust. The road curves toward
and away. The road spins
the stone walls. My feet stumble inside
ruts my feet have worn.
(from “I Walk My Road at Dusk”)
It is quite sad to see the challenges Bouwsma faces in exploring her own daily life and justifying actions in an attempt to understand placement, value, worth, and relevance through her project. I found the autobiographical poems of the author, which noticeably melt into the rest of the book via tone, language, and vocabulary, to be some of the most powerful and engaging pieces to the work as a whole and one of the largest contributors to its themes. To see the contemporary’s endurance exchange with the historical’s brutality moves Midden beyond the conceptual, beyond works devoid of spiritual depth.
[. . .] Our grief pops loud as pine, burns
so loose we’re gone before we know it. Or we smolder
sweet and dark in our own hot scent. Birch skin peels
from branch, limbs crackle red, recede to black--
some days I unravel so quickly I don’t need a match.
(from “Dear ghosts, because you tell me to, I begin again”)
The poet closes her book with a long essay on process that may be one of the most successful of its kind I have read. In it, Bouwsma writes: “For me, the process of researching Malaga has been akin to walking the same road day after day for years, only to stumble over some new remnant or sinkhole each time. To study Malaga is to wonder, continually, if the ground you are walking upon is really what you think it is.” These words transform the spectrum of our memory.
Torment. Redundancy. Forgetfulness. And respect. Charity. Profundity. The fullness of this human experience comes full circle as we learn about why the project exists, and how it managed to manifest in its lifespan. Seeing these histories, these changes, these memories respectfully acknowledged and framed, like many other moments where Bouwsma honors those dead who were significantly oppressed, is an awe-filled charge of illumination in the night.
Here by Richard McGuire (Pantheon Graphic Library, 2014)
Standing on the steps of the Washington Monument, exactly where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech was, for me, a surreal moment. Time loosened its reigns on my reality: the significance of that space, of what has happened there over fifty years before my standing there gave me chills. It gave me an overwhelming sense of wonder, of appreciation. Not just for the man and what he did, but for that place.
Allowing one to transcend time, to recognize that all times are in their own way connected, is very much at the forefront of artist/writer artist/writer Richard McGuire’s objectives with his graphic novel, Here.
Fifteen years in the making, Here is an incredibly ambitious, inventive work of literature. With this sprawling graphic novel, McGuire tells a unique story that is far more about place than it is about people.
Set primarily within the physical space of one room in a house, the graphic novel shows the reader a series of moments from different times, all existing in the same location, all shown from the same fixed viewpoint, each revealing truths about humanity. On each page, McGuire takes his reader on a journey through time: fragments of conversations and actions from past, present, and future. While the majority of the story takes place during the past century, Here also ventures well beyond, exploring times as early as 3 billion BCE and imagining times as distant as two hundred years into our future.
The pages themselves are quite innovative, typically featuring windows over small sections which allow glimpses into various moments in time simultaneously. The effect of this is fascinating. Throughout several moments in the graphic novel we see that while times may change, people (and the things that people experience) stay very much the same.
As for the visual style, McGuire masterfully plays around with colors and textures, to elicit different moods and the feeling of existing in different time eras. The art itself, particularly the rendering of people and furniture, could arguably be labeled simplistic, but at 304 pages, the volume of art in Here is staggering. There is nothing simple about what McGuire has done with this graphic novel.
While there is much to be enjoyed in Here and, in particular, its experimentation with storytelling, I would also issue a warning of sorts: Here will ultimately not be for everyone. While there were dozens of individual story-lines in the book, none of them bear more fruit than a couple, quick dialogue exchanges or some simple actions. These moments have little, if any, narrative pull in and of themselves. As such, these fragments of individual stories will most certainly not satisfy the cravings of readers who want a traditional narrative complete with character development.
For me, and I suspect for many, Here’s originality, its experimentation with what constitutes a story makes it a work to be admired. What makes Here so special is the very thing that will make it off-putting to some readers. I just hope you choose to give it a chance. You might just walk away with a new appreciation for the places you find yourself.
Brian Burmeister is a regular contributor to the Sport Literature Association, Cleaver Magazine, and Compulsive Reader, and he can be followed @bdburmeister.
YR #59: American Prophets: Interviews with Thinkers, Activists, Poets & Visionaries by Paul E. Nelson
American Prophets by Paul E. Nelson (Seattle Poetics Lab, 2018)
"Over the past decade or so, no one has done more for poetry in the Pacific Northwest than has Paul Nelson. He has sponsored and hosted free public readings and workshops while bringing to Seattle notable poets like Wanda Coleman, Nate Mackey, Michael McClure, Brenda Hillman, George Bowering and other leading figures in the world of Organic Poetry. He is as fine an interviewer of poets as anyone working today, coming to each interview thoroughly informed but retaining great flexibility, letting the various threads intertwine. These interviews, combined with lengthy scholarship, have produced a number of remarkable essays and, ultimately, his manuscript American Prophets." (Sam Hamill)
In an era of echo chambers, an era where the world follows itself on social media and divisions run prevalent across spaces traditionally inspired by discourse, it is incredibly refreshing to encounter the interview as a form of and continuation of the literary arts. Like critically-minded celebrities Amy Goodman and Joe Rogan, like the many independent journalists whose names will sadly go unknown through the rift of consumption, Paul E. Nelson has an intentional mind toward the interview as a form of idea exchange. Of investigation. Of interpersonal existence. This is a quality that he brings from decades past and has managed to continue focusing upon as he moved forward with his own poet’s life as organizer, activist, mentor, and community elevator.
Nelson has spent the last decade (and arguably earlier) exploring the cultural landscape within the Cascadia bioregion. The results of his efforts include the formalization of this inquiry symbolized by the Cascadia Poetry Festival, which sees a strong-but-not-exclusive emphasis on poetry and poetics. The wide net cast to inspect and dissect how people live and create and grow in the bioregion is reflective his newly collected book of interviews, American Prophets, which includes conversations with 16 extraordinary people (from within and beyond Cascadia). The interviews that are captured in this book from years (and decades) past reveal Nelson’s passion and compassion for the brilliant shine of the human mind that co-occupies the world and the contemporary humanity through which Nelson conducts his own artistic practices. Each interview is startlingly different and yet in sum can be looked at as descriptive of Nelson’s own open-minded spirit.
The book’s subtitle is “Interviews with thinkers, activists, poets & visionaries.” The book is broken into three sections: “Thinkers/Activists,” “Poets,” and “Technicians of the Sacred.” The first category contains the voices of parenting coach Gloria DeGaetano, animal communications expert Rupert Sheldrake, feminist-futurist Jean Houston, and medicinal radical Larry Dossey. These authors and specialists, while representing completely unique perspectives and focuses on work to reform humanity, are all quintessentially forward-thinking through an exploration of health, the psyche, and the urgency of responding to negative contemporary changes in our societal living. To read each section, each interview, is to find intensely uplifting and inspiring paradigms to how we might confront some of our major human issues. The information (and advice) overload is not to be taken lightly; each moment I read through these interviews I was scrawling notes about profound illuminations that might make my own life better. In that way, American Prophets may have been prophesizing how the reader’s life might turn out, adamantly and necessarily!
As a concept, “necessary” and the hard determination/imperative of the expressions contained within these interviews is a bit of an overstatement. Taken mostly from radio programs that arguably was designed for a very open audience, the interviews here are light-hearted and beautifully intimate exchanges between Nelson and those who invited to chat. I believe every interview contains at least one moment of humor (with laughter indicated in the transcript), which reflects another aspect of Nelson’s character. As we saw in American Sentences, Nelson-as-poet carries humor as one of the handful of universal tools that can make truth accessible, approachable, and tolerable. Because none of these messages, none of these truths, are easy and straightforward—most require work just to understand the work of those experts within the dialogue. A joke here and then takes the interview that much further.
“Well, because we all carry our egos with us so, it is perhaps a vain ambition to think that you’re going to rid yourself of ego. But lyrical interference, I mean, the lyric is taken, if we take it not in the sense of song, but in the sense of a first person poetry, a most subjective form of poetry. Ultimately, this has its limitations. It throws the poet back on himself, herself and that’s OK, but it also narrows down the field of poetry. And when we imagine ourselves to be part of a lineage going back to a Homer, or a Dante, or a Shakespeare, poetry is a big proposition there. Partly it’s big because, Dante, Shakespeare and Homer, worked extensively and these were larger works. But even the possibility that in the shorter work, the short poem then, the medium-size poem, that there would be room for more than that kind of vaunted self-expression. The possibility of being able to express other selves, selves other than me, that the poet can be a spokesman for others and bear witness in the name of others.” (Jerome Rothenberg)
Sandwiched between the opening and closing of the book is its collection of poets’ voices. Nelson is predominantly (today, at the time of this book’s publishing) a poet, and as such his attraction to talking with poets makes a certain logical sense. And it might come as a surprise, but despite the spotlight being placed on the term “poet,” these interviews often cover much more than poet-ism and poetry. From the spiritual spectra of Allen Ginsberg to the Seattle roots of Michael McClure to the environmental activism of Brenda Hillman, there is much to be found within these interviews. Much more than their categories would lead the reader to believe! And as such, I find Nelson’s work, this book, to be far more open to more voices than I thought it would be going into it. The voices within should reflect the book’s readership (or vice versa).
Considerably a retrospective of Nelson’s longitudinal efforts as an interviewer, professionally and personally, the book is a marvel. The voices of the poets include Jerome Rothenberg, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Sam Hamill, Michael McClure, Wanda Coleman, Brenda Hillman, and Nate Mackey. In sum, a group as diverse in their walks of life as in their poetic practices. Each interview is just long enough to explore incredible, major ideas while not seeming endless. When it comes to endurance, each interview feels naturally like a chapter within the book, as a reader should expect it to be. They are weighted evenly and can be engaged with in bites, in individual reading experiences.
“I felt that I was a part of a community that wasn’t being documented historically, that events and things were occurring on a level that no one seemed to recognize, or if they did want to recognize, certainly didn’t want to publicize.” (Wanda Coleman)
The section focusing on the poets is followed by “Technicians of the Sacred,” which could be interpreted in a variety of ways. I interpreted it as those folks whose specialties or expertise is grounded in the spiritual; that spirituality is a value or quality to these interviewees above and beyond other values or qualities. While those thinkers and activists included a level of spirituality, as did the poets, the “Technicians” are those who are committed, mindfully devoted, to taking their concerns a step further. Phyllis Curott is a Wiccan high priestess. Bhagavan Das is a guru operating in the lens of Hindu religion and culture. E. Richard Atleo is a hereditary chief of the indigenous Ahousaht people. And Beaver Chief, whose interview is the last in the book, is of the Salish. Like the individuals who make up the previous two sections, these technicians are from extraordinarily unique backgrounds and carry their grave sense of self with them. Nelson’s respectful, curious position as interview is one that is inviting and careful. In each of these interviews, he puts the interviewee first, and the intimacy grows from there. To learn about each of these people through Nelson’s initiative feels special, like a gift, or a token of the human experience survived and cherished.
“Yes. I think that this is where the perspective of Aboriginals, indigenous peoples with a reputation for spirituality, I think will, in the future, be a necessary complement to the survival of the human being. I think science, with its great wonders and powers, as a technological advancement tool, serves to provide certain necessities for the human being. But none of the values that are necessary for survival on this planet. And I think that values can be derived. The authenticity, the legitimacy of values can be derived, not from ideologies but from spiritual quests where human beings can re-learn or remember, in fact, what was always the legacy of the human being.” (E. Richard Atleo)
Unlike many interviews we encounter online and in snippets, these full-length moments between Nelson and his subjects, his invitees, are at once lengthy and natural. They feel legitimate and at the same time the transcription reflects a fantastic degree of craft and a humbling degree certainty. American Prophets will hopefully be just the first of multiple books if interviews Nelson releases. Its potential to impact is strong. Ideally it has the additional potential to inspire a new, emerging sense of belonging that will increase our drive for interviews, for conversations, to triumph over the age of the echo and those vacuous monologues so prevalent today.
The Little Book of Passage by Franca Mancinelli (The Bitter Oleandor Press, 2018)
The diary as a genre offers possibility. It offers a resolute, curious inspection of the personal and reinforces the intention of documentation. It is bound by time in curious ways more obvious than most poetry, and yet often far exceeds the fluid ambiguity of the sprawl of fiction. The diary is a ring of keys in a way that much literature is a ring of keys, but unlike most literature, that ring is bearable from the very beginning, its doors appearing as a process of its reading. The passage to and through those doors marks the gateway of each entry, of each secluded, exasperating moment of exclamation. The diary carries so much of us forward in life, in our own way, as we contribute to it. And even in the age of the social, encompassing, virally-intrinsic internet, the mode of diary-writing, of performing for the journal and the self, remains.
“He knew we would meet at this point, where space crosses time, where the pupil of his eye opens. When he saw us passing the same glass back and forth between us, he took us away from the others.”
Franca Mancinelli is a fantastic example of the author of a diary, even if she does not actively identify as such. Her work The Little Book of Passage is a fantastic example of a diary, even if it is not explicitly identified as such. The implications of this collection of prose being derivative of a genre and all of that genre’s symbolic qualities are numerous. They are implications for trust, truth, transparency. They are taut with a commitment to the described self. They stretch with range but remain incredibly centered. Mancinelli, as indicated by her translator in the book’s introduction, the poet John Taylor, “movingly uses autobiographical details to raise more general psychological and philosophical issues.” Many diaries famous and underground reflect their satisfying capability to harness the facets of a daily life through micro-synthesis. To tackle the psychological, the philosophical, the spiritual, the social, the incredible, the mundane, and the exquisite, while doing so with breadth and that commitment, is to be a space of safety, a space of boundary, a realm of possibility for the sake of openness.
Moving through The Little Book of Passage, the analogy of movement is aligned with the actual processing conducted by Mancinelli in her daily moments. Causations are like minor eruptions of faculties through description of the transience and transformation that lead us toward those portals of truth, keys at the ready of unlocking. To read is to learn, and to learn is to be and to grow. We have this utterly beautiful sense of passage and it is a harmony between risk and reward, through synthesis and exposition. It is beautiful in that aquatic variability that leaves the reader speechless, floating through the ambiguous states of modal travel. “Traveling without knowing what brings me to you. I know you’re going beyond the limits of the sheet of paper, of the cultivated fields,” says Mancinelli, an almost literal experience, an ars poetica raspy and gleaming. These are stunts of truth, of crucial clawing forward page after page, towards that recess, that summit, that depth.
The harness of space blends joy and solemn humility simultaneously. Often there is the added synchronicity of the collective bearing the weight of the process. “We were alone and transparent, with something burning inside.” Even at its most mysterious moments, the heart within this speaker is big and full, ready to admit that which must be said. The discovery, the epiphany, and the refracted awareness. It is a bountiful consciousness through the ascension toward the written spell of intrigue and relay. And yet there is a wholesome quality to this writing as well, a makeshift pact toward an impressionist fountain of worldliness. The humble moments of narrative are grayed behind their temporary natures. Characters enter and exit like beacons of humanity reminding us all that Mancinelli is not all alone in that which she crafts.
“The old woman who lives in the next building sometimes goes out onto her balcony. She sweeps, hangs out the washing on the line, brings the laundry back in, waters two flowerpots. When she passes on, she will leave a clean space shaped by her life.”
The Little Book of Passage is ironically named when approached by way of its pillars of life. Not all snapshots indicate Mancinelli’s own spirited travels; there are instances that serve us well as positioned, blossomed moments of successful image. Their lessons may reach allegorical heights, but they are also reserved and endearingly structured. A blink may pass them by, but they wait all the same, ready to be received, ready to be read. Taylor writes of Mancinelli’s revolving with his own succinct interpretation tackling a poetic language of “unvoiced centers and disturbing causes which cannot be wholly defined yet which have come to the surface, as it were. As the reader meditates on them, they reveal their intricacy and mystery. That is, wordless centers full of emotions, thoughts, perceptions, and even imaginable acts—those pertaining, for instance, to the loss or lack of something or someone essential.”
While the poetry certainly feels universal, keyed into confidence through a bright, humane core, I couldn’t help but think of Mancinelli’s Italian heritage and where it may be a contributor. The reality of Mancinelli writing in an accessible, contemporary Italian language funneling up through a living, empowering Italian culture feels crucial to this space of breath and beauty. And while the references, the details, and the subtext may exist beyond borders, uplifted through a foray through generality, it was with this “libretto d’instruzioni” (“instruction manual” as literally translated by Taylor) that the life appears to pop out and pull inward.
“You no longer have a face, you’re beyond all contours. Only clear light. I’d like to gather you up in my hands, take you in you while you are born, but you gush forth: you are the primal current that cannot be touched.”
Ultimately this diary, if it may be considered a diary, is a meeting ground, an invitation, and a sharing space. Recorded and presented as memory and an attempt at engagement, The Little Book of Passage finds and preserves countless moments of those precious spaces. The growth upon which Mancinelli focuses her faculties, the severe and fearless enticement, and a steady procedure of documentation is an homage to the power of time, and the act of the passage toward that which comes next. Flowing freely alongside us readers is the impressions of certainty and accomplishment. The liberation that arouses through spaces of documented existence.
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 individuals of Middle Eastern origin are hired to perform in a 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.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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