Ideas Have No Smell: Three Belgian Surrealist Booklets: Paul Nougé, Paul Colinet, Louis Scutenaire (Ugly Duckling, 2018)
I like to look at the sleeve of Ideas Have No Smell as a treasure trove. Or a treasure chest. As my fingers touch the textured paper and pull out what is contained within, I feel the value of joy that only I can know, the reader intimately locked into an incoming history lesson. A sense of fictional and self-imposed nostalgia. A bearing of mystery and radicality that will flip switches and produce great emergence.
Contained within the sleeve is a beautiful micro-collection of avant garde documents, all translated from the French with heart-churning grace by M. Kasper: Transfigured Publicity by Paul Nougé; Abstractive Treatise on Obeuse by Paul Colinet; and For Balthazar by Louis Scutenaire. Holding possession over these voices, be they bleeps that puff like shaken dust or guffaws echoing across canyons of bookshelves, is a magical experience. They skitter across the desk in their flightiness. They cascade and maninpulate their image through the sorting and the shuffling. They are three siblings aligned with charm and quixotic presence.
All are gently wrapped together into a compelling and illuminating essay by Mary Ann Caws, which is, in a mode of abstract rebellion, printed on the backside of a large Vispo text created by Paul Nougé. This text, partially broadside, partially map, is both minimal and bizarrely engrossing at the same time; there is a vortex of language that (as readers will discover in their own way) pulled from and given into Transfigured Publicity.
With the involvement of Kasper and Caws, a gentle subtext of approval smooths out the ruffled process of three individual experimenters of the 20th Century and their collectivity in this publication. But despite the analysis, the thorough homework and critique and biography included within Caws’s essay and within the works themselves, the translated batch of titles feels strong on its own.
“DON’T FORGET / IN / THIS / CITY / ONE CAN / WITH NO FUSS / PROCURE / AUTOMATIC PISTOLS / AND / SPEAKING MACHINES” reads a random page I open in the Nougé text. Transfigured Publicly (pulled together from a performance in 1926) is filled with these anti-aphoristic expressions, evocative and startling and absurd. That these books are surrealistic is a matter of history. That they read like the Futurists and Dadaists is quintessential. “LOOK / AROUND / YOU // LOOK / IN / YOUR / MIRROR // THIS / CORPSE / THESE / POOR / CORPSES / WHO / ARE / CORPSES / GLADLY” goes another.
A burst of laughter is followed by my trembling, caffeinated composure. What is this breakdown in language? The full sense of an appreciated nihilism. An examination of the ruination of society, but in a way that is alleviating and enlightening. Nougé by way of Kasper bleeds the history of his contemporaries and predecessors, but now, with this iteration, there is a reinforcement of the clusters of brilliance from a hundred years ago.
Part of the awe of Ideas Have No Smell is that the brilliance from the previous century is carried forth to now, to this moment, to this lens, and yet with it carries the history itself. While Nougé’s language might feel as contemporary and provocative now as it was when it was first composed (written, performed, and so on), Paul Colinet’s Abstractive Treatise on Obeuse (pulled together at various points throughout the 20th Century) feels distinctly from another era. It feels like Oulipo. It feels like absurdism. It feels like symbolism, and Dadaism, and it feels challenging separate. The juxtaposition with Nougé is dynamic and their perpendicular meeting point is water feeding flame, and otherwise.
In the text, Colinet has created a character, as simple as possible, illustrated in the form of a black circle, colored in (a la scribble). “OBEUSE / IN ONLY ONE STITCH / (definitive edition)” the book begins, with the circle hovering above. The isolation is breathtaking, and yet disturbing. It is humorous and deadpan. It is conceptual and agonizing. The book continues page after page (for eleven pages total) collecting a form of examination (retrospection, even) the dissolves as minimally as it appears. The casual reader would blast through the work in under two minutes, and might not give it a second thought. I admit I leaned toward such a direction before reading the curious and thorough afterword provided by Kasper. The text, the treasure in the trove, has a story ranging from Breton to Magritte to Piqueray, and is deserving a good read. There is humor within the text itself, and there is humor within the afterword itself, for other reasons. It begs some understanding, perhaps a foray, into the dance between the biographer and the artist, between Kasper and Colinet, in a way that is rarely as shocking to understand in most publications. The mystery, in other words, is a tracing of the ghost of the self and the ability to vanquish the ghost and pounce towards history.
History and mystery continue their place front and center in the final of the three volumes in Ideas Have No Smell, the rough and personal For Balthazar by Louis Scutenaire (published as a pamphlet in 1967). Utterly contemporary in tone and form alike, this tiny booklet is a single string of utterances and statements ranging from the philosophical to the narrative to the confessional. “No matter what, no matter how, no matter where.” begins the book. “So happy to ignore anything he doesn’t know.” ends it. There is an urgency that gets filled in with exclamatory nonsense, unstoppable personalization, and a giant warp of meaning.
That Scutenaire had a varied background, going far beyond writerly experience to form his representational methods, is important to realize. That this sequence might as well be considered aphorisms despite its nature of connectivity and a larger plot is important as well. Ultimately, I read it and find it fleeting, but important. I find it a form of personal interrogation, and also distanced. For Balthazar may be a keystone to this writer’s significant other spaces and operations. Ultimately it might not strike out the way the other two pieces of the collection strike, but its lashing is long-lasting and affording a revisit.
In thinking about the avant garde, Surrealism, and beyond, treasures like this will only aid us in learning about our own contexts. It’s fantastic that Ugly Duckling has done due diligence to craft the historic record and bring it to a beautiful, well-crafted fruition. It would be even more significant to see future translations made available of these writers and their obvious, intensely fascinating other writings.
No Finis: Triangle Testimonies, 1911 by Deborah Woodard (Ravenna Press, 2019)
mechanically, she gripped the air’s one rung
(from “Mr. Steuer and Edward G. Worth, Battalion Chief, Fire Department”)
Tragic moments can be made beautiful. They can be recovered moments that retell a story, an act, a consequence through a humanized lens. In doing so, the past gets supported while the individual people within that past are provided with new life. In following tragedy, there is always room for more life, more experiences, more time to reconcile, grow, and find new memory and remembering. Those artists who take it upon themselves to preserve and enhance history have much to risk; they are working with lives and the fragility of those lives may be ruptured. The risk of the causing of or potential for additional harm may make some artists pause. It may also be the risk that spurs action.
In No Finis: Triangle Testimonies, 1911, a new book by the Seattle-based writer Deborah Woodard, the risk is taken, and the steps are treaded lightly. Tragedy in the case of this book concerns the horrifying Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which occurred in early 1911 in the Asch Building of New York City. This fire, which still gets taught in grade school history lessons throughout the United States, led to the death of 146 workers who were trapped through barricaded/locked doors and enflamed elevators. The details of the results are, objectively, grim and the occasion for grief is infinite. Still, within No Finis, Woodard carefully maneuvers through the loss to the life after the fire: those lives that continued on, those people who did not die in the fire, those who had opportunity to tell their story.
The book is written through the perspective of a defense attorney of the building’s owners, who were tried to death but made it through court with their lives intact. Thanks to Max Steuer, their attorney, the trial resulted in acquittal. The book is about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire as much as it is about this trial that followed. The lives of those who survived are expressly and thoroughly examined through small sequences (call them micro-fiction, call them poems) of the exchanges of the court. What results, what is born out of the tragedy of history and the history books, is an absurd, pensive, and occasionally heartbreaking situation between a man doing his job and a group of people who share trauma and an identity of survival.
I dream two scars where the wings should be. I see the mechanical up and down of the feathers each time I breathe.
(from “Mr. Steuer and Ida Okan”)
Woodard’s ability to humanize these individuals through the setting of the court is stunning. The book challenges our removal through space and time via empathy. Each of the witnesses and their testimonies are individual and lovable. They are humans with voices and lives. Positioned against the heinous and appearing-sociopathic Steuer, whose own sense of empathy is null, the entire courtroom and its inhabitants becomes a space of caring, a space to want to heal and to hope for retribution and resolution. The building’s owners make no appearance in Woodard’s book, nor should they: they have been replaced by (displaced by?) the stalwart, discriminant Steuer through which the entirety of the “new” narrative (the book) is controlled. This situation, carefully constructed by Woodard, provides entry to empathetic moments and a grueling, growing disdain for the callous men in power within the courts of the early 20th century.
This book is short and its individual sequences rush by and fade. The sequences are, of course, representative of how Woodard has interpreted the testimonies and defenses of the survivors. The sequences are, too, poetically positioned to support one another in the shadow of the strategy of Steuer (and the Court, which might through its own blankness of bureaucracy be a character of this story). In total, they create that humanized lens, that balance to tragedy, and that fullness of visitation into the pains of a very acute history and inconceivable loss.
Did you cry out for your sisters, then?
(from “Mr. Steuer and Joseph Brenman”)
Illustrations are included in the text in No Finis. Created by John Burgess, they appear hand-created, almost rough on the edges, very consistently bringing the abstract and the representative together. Diagrams of the movement and location of the fire, and illustrations of floor plans and city blocks are placed before and after the textual sequences, put into position in front of the survivors of the fire, unlocking or locking doors through conceptual confusion. Each comes with a description and footnotes, and the illustrations form their own sequence titled, by Burgess, “Testimony.”
Perhaps, then, the illustrations tell their own story, offer their own perspective, deserve their own voice. Woodard in her introduction writes of the illustrations collection: “[It] underscores the cramped geometries of the work lofts, with its grid of tables and hard-to-access exits [. . .] Strewn dots, indicating the burial sites and memorials to the victims, suggest a scattering of seeds—the ongoing potential for regeneration and redress.” These words should be applied to this book as a whole, which ultimately is a literary memorial for those who not only faced horror head-on, but found the strength to continue going through and beyond to new challenges, to further survival.
Huge Cloudy by Bill Carty (Octopus Books, 2019)
We find, post-storm, the sky
aspiring to hold more planes
than ever before. Everyone
on errands. Their traffic
wakes me. Late for class,
again. Late for everything.
(from “The Decisive Moment”)
“Do you not think this is ominous of good?” opens Huge Cloudy by way of its back cover¸ via the ever-so-floating curiosity of John Keats. “Ominous good” or elsewise may be slightly ajar, not quite the right phrase, as Seattle poet Bill Carty’s debut collection is more premonitory and mildly uplifting. It is a book announcing the fortitude of our relational continuum, a book that rubs up against the inner fibers of a poet’s momentary hallucinations of truth and distinctive realization. It is a kind, large-hearted book of gasps and furrows.
Huge Cloudy and its settings of epiphany and arousal range from the Pacific Northwest to New England, and occasionally otherwise in-between or beyond. The book geographically honors the human experiences through the lens of a poet’s poet, guffaws and glances of the microcosmic decision-making of keeping-going and emerging-through. It establishes early on a literary momentum kept in check through the quintessential contemporary fumblings of Carty’s world.
It is liquid
more vernal, some fluid settled
in the lowest region of the zone,
a depression shy to motion, a basin
I arrive at, thinking, this really is despair.
(from “Not a Moat”)
Each one of these poems, short and long, and of many spectra, is at length capable of filling the five major sections of Huge Cloudy with wax museum precision. A careful balance of the literal transcription of experiences and the fluffy, aerial methods of abstraction and blur bring about the phantasmagoria of Carty’s craft. It is a loving dreamscape bumping up against a casual gritty, an untiring reality of urban and rural American life shadowing and reflecting the same each poem’s speaker’s arousals.
The lauded effort of psychological bend within the writing is both cautionary and attractive, challenging but accepting the comfortable, spacy reality of Seattle and periphery. There is confrontation and exquisite examination. Perhaps the wash of the gray of the city’s usual skies accounts for this; or perhaps Carty’s background as a reader and editor of countless other written voices throws his own into flux and measure one and the same. The arrangement resultant of this causation, whatever the source, gives off air of fulfillment and a juxapositional sense of ambivalent fervor. When this reality shows its face through the bright and bland ether, Carty’s witty writ emerges to capture like a photographic flash:
a vision of sudden death
though when it comes to that
all anyone will talk about
is the bees.
(from “The Quick”)
The epiphany of these poems extends itself beyond the experience of the poet into the realm of life at large. It is document and repository of emergence into the world. Where is discovery? Where is surprise? Where is the magical and important around each and every breath and step? For the daydreamers, for those that align with Carty’s positions, with mind in out of the poem and a poetics rooted in each and every step, discovery is everywhere. Carty’s book serves inadvertently as a lesson book in this imaginarium, in this stomping ground for the emergence of livelihood and delightfulness.
Often, the life and delight of Carty’s field is supported by quasi-hilarity, quasi-horror. Often, it is acceptance following newness. In his longer, splicing sequence emerging after the first third of Huge Cloudy, “Aurora,” Carty describes the break and bend of expectation and constriction: “A sign / on the steps— / NO SITTING / ON THE STEPS. / A man sitting / on the steps, / giving me / the middle finger.” Moments like this, derivative of the many absurd intersections in the Emerald City, appear regularly and at once bring humor and breathe life into an otherwise static and muffled space. Clouds move. Humans move. Carty’s poetry is a poetry that moves simply by being.
The night was humid.
We stood by the burn pile
and did nothing. It felt like
the last thing we should do.
(from “All is Retained Which has Not Been Surrendered”)
Movement is representative in the size of that which this collection represents. But the size of what? Huge Cloudy is not solely of the clouds. The hugeness is derivative of the collectivity that we all face—together—in these cascading days of drama and threat and love. The bonding arises out of many spaces. Carty shares where comradery and a shared effort may be fueled by that which is depressing, that which is considerably challenging.
In “The Desired Change will Occur,” a poem mid-way through the collection, Carty writes: “No color. No playground. At times, it seems / we only know each other / by a thread, but we love that thread.” Later still, near the book’s close, an indication again of that collectivity: “Forget the utility / of the heartbeat— / more often, it’s a sign, / and we have been known / to chase a good symbol / around Cape Hope” (from “Mutual Fish”).
Bodies were bearable,
then borne subaquatic
through sky’s reflection,
caliginous green clouds
around the underwater lamp,
black shadows of seals
and passing schools.
(from “Too Many Sharks”)
These instances of solemn network and uprooting revelry are well-balanced with Carty’s placement of himself in Huge Cloudy, and they reveal mature measurement. There is more cause for writing, more reason for existence, than flourish and description of the bountiful beauty that surrounds us. This collection thus may be a kind test. It may be a book kept close to inspire and corral, may keep us fluidly on our backs staring up at life, waiting for the next vision to arrive and spur us into some flickering agreement.
Soundtrack to a Fleeting Masculinity by Benjamin Schmitt (Clare Songbirds, 2018)
But you kept on asking me
why only some grow
and others do not
and what they will
eventually grow into
(from “Track 16”)
Positioned to the reader as a book of two parts, two sides of an album, two collections of tracks, Benjamin Schmitt’s third book of poetry is both approachable and strangely mysterious in concept. It is a soundtrack to a poet making genuine attempts at furthering his understanding of the world around him, and incessantly documenting that understanding. It is a soundtrack filled with many of Schmitt’s evolving and evolved perspectives on gender, on masculinity, and male identity. It is also a soundtrack that is long, filled with many poems, perhaps too many.
Side one and side two of this “album” of poetry are two sides of the same coin. They feature Schmitt’s typical wit and playfulness that his earlier books investigated. Schmitt takes the experimentation with form and approach and offers it in a spectrum of output. Some poems feel crisp, well-edited, and homing in on the point of the book directly. Other poems feel as though they were whipped up at the last minute and thrown into the book with a “more is better” attitude. As the soundtrack continues from track to track, with poems labeled numerically across the book, there are a multitude of moments of profound beauty that otherwise fall in line with a dull, ambient hum of the filler poems in between.
on rooftops, sky and city
indecisive as gutters catch the faith.
(from “Track 5”)
On its surface, Soundtrack to a Fleeting Masculinity appears as gargantuan, an over-the-top examination of 21st century innocence-meets-experience belly-flopping across themes and shaking the overall pool of balance a reader might hope for with book-length expectations of verisimilitude. The ripples offer moments of excitement, humor, and the occasional intellectual quandary, and yet never seem to return the book to any pristine state. It’s difficult to grasp a book that provides a straightforward platform for delivery with the actual relentless contents inside; in many cases, connections that might link poems, motifs that harness image and place and tone, are either vague or absent entirely. Even the book’s core investigation on masculinity fades in and out throughout the course of the book as if it might not need to be examined in a full spotlight after all.
On one hand, a book that is scattered offers a more robust approach to poetry through the appeal of ecstasy and rigor. The ars poetica core of Soundtrack is definitely present here by the sheer audacity of the poet providing his full hand, his indominatable range of approaches to everyday poetry. There is an intention of presenting craft and highlighting effort of the writing itself. On the other hand, I wonder about what Schmitt’s ultimate goal with this book was as he followed up on the establishing of the initial concept. No truer does this query appear than the last section of the book is identified: “Special Bonus Feature: Robot Horoscopes: The Twelve Brands of the Nasdaq.” This section, curiously titled, is lazily added on to the album as an anti-epilogue to an otherwise epic endurance test of experiencing Schmitt’s questionable curatorial skills. The coup de grace sits within these horoscopes, which are a sequence of sci-fi appearing out of nowhere and having little to no connection with the greater body of work. As a standalone piece, “Horoscopes” might be charming and even satisfying to robot fiction enthusiasts; but as an anecdote closing an otherwise potentially serious collection of poems about concepts of “man” and “man-ness,” the inclusion of this section feels a tad disappointing.
They don’t ask about my past in this city
that is why I am so free to relive it
(from “Track 22”)
All these criticisms aside, there are, as I mentioned, moments within the book that are startlingly beautiful. Schmitt’s occasional moments of stunning verse appear almost haphazardly, as if Schmitt’s truest voice was hiding deep within a poetic madman, obfuscated by the everyday hero of Schmitt’s usual and incessant voice. This philosopher-seer sits waiting to instill the reader with lines questioning modernity, crying out towards truth, and bringing Schmitt’s strongest lines of thought into the foreground. “Track 38,” for example, brings forward a stanza of archetypal brutality: “There was blood, each drop trembling / with terror as it fell upon / the ground, clutching love / in puddles of red citizenry.” In “Track 43,” another example, Schmitt brings out his inner symbolist: “On our walk / towards the purple pool / that nightly poisons the sun / maddening the days / with clear nihilism / you were taciturn.”
Amidst the mess of Soundtrack, which played and played across my full morning, I waited for moments like those above to catch me unaware and pull me back into focus with the book. These quintessentially pondersome moments served as anchor points along otherwise droning verse. Oddly, the book’s intended message, so buried within, spoke strongly to me—as a reader who is concerned with contemporary masculinity, I began Schmitt’s work with specific hopes, and left the book with a furrowed brow as I contemplated a future with Netflix robots as sex workers. It, the book’s structure and appearance, did not seem to make sense in the grand scheme of Schmitt’s vision.
What turned him on
was the choice, that from millions
of bodies he could discard
the rest by choosing one. The violent-
colored eyes that gazed back
at him seemed trustworthy
in their reliable defiance.
(from “Track 53”)
The book also contains some key design flaws that left me questioning the publisher, Clare Songbirds, and the process through which titles like Soundtrack get published. Many blank pages were scattered throughout the book separating poems arbitrarily. The small footer icon (a vinyl record) on every page occasionally rubbed up with final lines. The final section, “Horoscopes,” closed a page with a header that started the next section on the following page. Even grammar and language errors showed their face, indicating a troubling absence of editing: lines like “but does wanting poison loving?” and “a hired tough who waited” were barely noticeable but lacking grace nonetheless; seeing the faux pas of using the word “transgendered” instead of the appropriate and respectful “transgender” is a slightly graver slip.
Soundtrack to a Fleeting Masculinity is a curious project that shows respectable and admirable endurance of a poet capable of significant risk-taking and demonstration. The poems capture Schmitt’s identity and identity evolution in a fascinating collection format that is flatly aligned with the album concept. The book is overloaded and could have been more impactful, I think, in a smaller, concise, and chiseled form. Perhaps Schmitt should have made more room for a B-Sides (though I imagine 100s of poems already fill that document) or even a full-length sequel.
What I Knew by Eleni Sikelianos (Nightboat Books, 2019)
But will tell of all I heard and saw when I was in
an ancient world, holding
tablets of red rock
up to the sea-cave roof to show
we’re ancient too, to fit time
back together as if
you could reconstruct a broken brain and face
a human world and race
an animal symmetry lounging into the future
Cataloging and sharing knowledge across time and space may seem a romantic ideal in an era of automata. Extensively, bending time and space to accommodate or accompany the lived experiences of humanity could be an entire framework to look through all the arts. In the world of literary landscapes and a weathering of language, these goals and these perspectives can be described by the tools that reinforce them. The image, for example, is an incessant tool allowing for and making easier this cascade of organized and propulsed learnings and revelation. On the nature of a set of eclectic and universal experiences, the presence of this tool, image, within the presence of the statement, grows into, collapses from the weight of, a collectivity of itself. Turn to poetry, then, to see where form and structure can resuscitate and prolong the array of image. Poetry can make that weight less unbearable, can make that collapse a flourish rather than an implosion. And too poetry sends image back to poet as channel, as wavelength, through which the sharing may be seen beyond time.
What I Knew by Eleni Sikelianos is a book of poetry aiming to bear and make bearable innumerable realities of a global sense of knowing. It is a book about technology versus humanity. It is an uproarious linking by word rather than code language places and peoples and cultures and love. It is an indefatigable sequence of lessons and time-escaped experiences, documented but anti-documented in the confines and constrictive pressures of this century. It is the interlocking medley born out of a saga that has as many beginnings as endings for the poet and the poet’s broad family of characters. What I Knew is a book (and book-length poem) capable of being as much about documentation as it is about a simpler, crisper, approach to the joy of a lived independence. It is also political and seeks to sink its teeth into the rapacious principles of the deadening tech empire’s falsehoods.
How best to represent an image of nothing in La Paz?
military action was suspended in Egypt
we demilitarized the verbs under oceans and overseas
the weight of information was too much in Oakland
Sikelianos writes, in the backmatter, “Someone has called the brain the last private territory, but we now know that’s a myth, too. Poetry may not be the total antidote, but it is a little spell to ward off the dark.” What does the poet mean by “dark” in this context? Stepping back to acknowledge again the book’s thematic responses to technology and, more specifically, the algorithm or search engine, dark becomes unknowable, overreliance, and the shallow homogeneity of the instantaneous presentation of meaning. Think searching for pictures on your favorite browser. The tags that leak reality like acidic blood from the social media platforms. Think soft engagement of contentment in a loud, damning, and inequitable world. The poet promotes the private, sacred act of writing poetry to counter the machines and their follies. The role of poetry is the role of privacy and it is an inspirational, uplifting role. The shrinking intonations of intimacy that result from our lack of private, independent corners of reality is that darkness, and it clouds, obfuscates, and converts to derangement. The poet is concerned in this book with many things, raw and openly internal things, rooted in, or seeded from the moments beyond the search, beyond the organization, beyond the dull flotsam and jetsam of our digital oceans.
Curiously the juxtaposition arising out of that beating, human heart of What I Knew is the balance between understanding a presence of the Internet and the algorithmic, pregenerative content that spews from within the Internet, and the recognition and authentication of that which can exist beyond the former. It is curious because the structure that houses the idea of the Internet feels remarkably familiar to the structure that houses the idea of the book. There are parallels. There is reception and receipt. There are feelings of autonomy and control that coincide with the art of the digital trance and the art of the poetic: hypnotism, psychedelia, and a dissociative act through participation tend to result from both for some audiences. For Sikelianos to provide the discourse that there is difference and there is an urgency to understand that difference may reflect how entrenched the content-consuming generations may be.
come to a town of roundabouts
by the sea
that allow a mind to spin in rounding arcs like a silver coin whirling on a light-filled table as the world’s ripples--
—human, animal, parsec, political, paramedicum--
—continue to ripple
Balanced between private and public in tone and these enduring, necessitated conversations on a collective, global reality, Sikelianos’s poem feels ancient and epic. It feels as an epic, with trails of story and layers of feeling, mystery, and a sense of the beyond that may or may not reveal itself over time. It is complete with extended metaphors and thorough subtexts. It is complex and challenging, and enjoyable and surging with beauty. What I Knew included a sense of voice calling from within an abstract space of quietude, memory, and the fortification of a present presence. I felt chills as I moved through the pages wondering if I was missing out, in my own life, on great answers to even greater questions. Was my mind, as one of many within the digital society, bound and occupied? Even with my own set of privileges of awareness and critical thinking, was there a line crossed and a colonization in action? These questions creeped along, creeping and creeping, merging with equivalent energies of ritual and sanctity through the poet’s poetry.
I read What I Knew in an entire sitting, and while doing so found myself remembering encounters with the writings of Lorine Niedecker, Philip Whalen, Robin Blaser, and Danielle Lafrance. These poets share a reverence for the episodic and those private instances of image that result in the epiphany of intimacy. They also share a purpose of elevation and respect for the act of writing as one that could be revolutionary and conducive to opposing hegemony’s hydraesque features. To retreat into the world of the lived experience, of our individual lived experience, and investigate it, serves and is a service. As a model, the image-filled poem can ignite and signal. It may be, before and/or now and/or later, a grace, a scaffolding, an otherwise absent structure of support. Which raises questions of timelessness. That bending backward and forward simultaneously.
in public space I polish my words I publish them
in their cacophony, a movement
of speech from outside to in, inside to out
Is this work then an extension of the fundamentals of Gertrude Stein and the modernists? Is the intertextual and multicultural efforts needed now more than ever? What of Duncan and Spicer and Olson, and the channeling of fractal-like histories? And what of revolution and war? Of the Futurists and the Dadaists? Is the algorithm the new machine that we may feel compelled to flee from, or to attack, or to meditate through? It may be that, like so many apocalyptic writers to have forayed before, Sikelianos is once again foraying into a space that is both frail and dismal, both dangerous and over. But there is more to the poetry than the warnings and responsibilities of response. There is life in it. A knowledge of life. And as with recent and also-timeless work by Claudia Rankine, Ocean Vuong, Tyehimba Jess, and so many others that flood my own private (and sacred) set of memories, this knowledge—as stories—might be enough beyond any call to action, any organization, and further dominance of system and technology.
Widowland by Pamela Manché Pearce (Green Bottle Press, 2018)
Help me when I collapse.
(from “Widow, Falling”)
The word contains so much. There is resolution. There is mystery. There is story. In grief, there is individuality. Reflection. The phenomena of existence. Of reality. Of mortality. The processes we have of engaging with and understanding the passing of those around us to memory, history, and a physical absence—these processes weigh us down. Discussions of loss are many. Discussions of grief are few, at least in my culture, where I come from. It often feels like holding a flashlight in a cave, seeking out the contours and recesses of an infinity of investigation. Seeking to understand where they have gone, and where I am following.
The significance and the challenge of grief as experience and as culture occasionally is met with art, with creativity, as counter, as balance, as navigation. Widowland by Pamela Manché Pearce is one such act of creation. It is a short chapbook containing 17 poems about grief. About loss. About the death of the poet’s husband. It is a raw glimpse into the texture and energy of these processes of investigation, of understanding, and of living beyond.
We didn’t know when the moment would come.
But I had no escape from being left behind.
Throughout the collection, we are met with the poet who is existing moment to moment, fragment of experience to next fragment. Everything that was, each system of the relationship that was, has been dismantled, and her life, which continues, must go on, no longer paralleled. The weight is real. The presence of disjunction is real. The resolution is existing but has not yet existed and conclusion is needed. Reflection is active. The moments are strange, excessive, and they plunge into the core of the everyday. There is a sense of the brooding, the gothic, the existential. And it is all broken down into moments. Widowland provides, as a collection, an assortment of beautiful and raw moments that tackle an active life without the poet’s other. Without his living presence.
In life, death’s interpretation may be spiritual. It may be emotional. It may be of consequence. It may be an enigma. The many interpretive qualities to the light of life indicate just how challenging these processes of grief can be. I appreciate Pearce’s distinct intentionality in approaching the grieving process (in her poetry) as variously as possible. The poems become dynamic in their arrangement across the book, offering the reader the opportunity to be enamored, to be confused, and to be at a loss of engagement. Because ultimately this is work, and there is a capacity within us all to explore this work. And at some point, capacity will be maxed.
What does a well-dressed gentleman wear
to have his corpse set afire?
(from “I Kiss Your Clothes Goodbye”)
There are not many instances of humor or release or relief within Widowland, which makes those instances that do crop up exaggerated and restless. Through confusion, through a reencountered situation or setting, through the novelty of ritual of passing, Pearce relies on the absurdity that is our life and our death and our existence between the two. There is the fleeting sense of lightness that carries the poet along day to day, and night to night. It is satisfying to read her works, anticipate how I would feel, and think about those efforts to reduce the stress, to flit along, and to be. Ultimately, thus, the poet shows where the hidden pockets of relief get to exist, and how death is not excluded from those pockets of relief.
I could not help but connect Pearce’s book and the emotions within to other recent cultural contributions covering similar themes. In the literary canon, Widowland comes not too long after Susan Howe’s stark and visceral This That (2010), which also explored, through poetry, the loss of a husband. Pearce’s book also comes after a handful of produced albums by Mount Eerie singer and songwriter Phil Elverum, albums working through, realizing, and processing the sudden death of his wife. These three releases include A Crow Looked at Me (2017), Now Only (2018), and the live album (after) (2018). These works have been not only widely heard but widely lauded, indicating a great cultural need for exploration and description of death and the resultant widowing.
It is the color of his
that smell of
gasoline as he
cups my face to
kiss my hair
as many cardinals
as I want.
(from “Tree of Cardinals”)
These recent cultural artifacts are matched with countless other distant and recent portrayals of death, dying, grief, and the afterlife. I can’t help but think about Pixar’s Coco (2017) and the upcoming return to Disney’s The Lion King (2019), all of which make death accessible to many audiences and age groups. The themes of loss and grief, of course, are hardly new; and even to acknowledge more recognition now than in previous moments seems like a precarious approach. But there is a canon, and Pearce arrives in it with her own exquisite verse. With this short collection holding up the weight of so much presence and intentionality, I look forward to seeing the poet’s future engagements with this relationship with loss and beyond in her own Widowland.
Greg Bem: I am here with Maung Day. How’s it going, Maung Day?
Maung Day: Hi Greg. Fine.
G: This is the first of what will hopefully be a variety of writers, luminaries, smart people around the world who are concerned with important things. Hm, where are we right now, Maung Day?
M: We are in Bagan, the old city that was built in 11th or 12th century. It was once a very prosperous Buddhist nation. It’s a destination for a lot of international tourists. It’s famous for its archaeological sites, culture, and food. It’s totally a different landscape from any other parts of the country. It’s located in the dry zone. There are palm trees. It can be really, really hot in the summer, but it’s still worth it. You can have a really good time navigating in the old city, and there’s more than 2,000 stupas and temples.
G: Yeah, we’ve been to maybe a dozen or two dozen in the last two days.
M: And we’ve been to the river, the Irrawaddy, the mother of all rivers.
G: It’s very beautiful.
M: Yes, it is.
G: Right now we’re sitting, drinking palm juice. There are a lot of birds, and it’s kind of near the road, one of the main roads here, so there’s a lot of automobile traffic. They’re making the palm candy and juice and alcohol behind us, about four meters away from us, which is kind of awesome. And this is a hot place. You’re right. It’s difficult being here. But it’s nice taking a moment under the shade. Thanks for being here and hanging out with me, this international tourist.
M: It’s been a blast, the last couple of days. I’ve had a good time with you.
G: So let’s talk about you, your writing, and who you are. I believe it was 2016 when Gasoline was published, a short but beautiful book. It showed me a lot about your interests in poetry, contemporary English writing, and also, obviously, a bit about the life you live here in Myanmar. Can you talk a little about the book, how you wrote it, where you wrote it? Did you write it in one language? Did you do any translation in the process of writing it?
M: I have always wanted to write in English. It was a challenge I wanted to give myself, too. It’s also really difficult to do it. So I’ve started writing in English slowly since 2009. And I’ve showed it to some people, some poets living in the US, asking for their feedback. It’s been very educational, with their comments. I keep reading in English, poetry in English and poetry in translation. I have written a lot in Burmese, I’ve published 8 books of poetry in Burmese, and I thought I’d also try to write in English with the limited language skills I have, so I started writing sporadically over the past 10 years. In Gasoline there are 24 poems, but they were written over five or six years’ time, so I just visited them again. It was difficult, but enjoyable, so much fun. A lot of these poems were conceived in my mind . . . when I talk about the language, they are not translations, they are different versions of some Burmese poems I have written, but not direct translation. So I have this understanding that you cannot translate from one language to another, you cannot carry a lot of things from one language to another. But if you enjoy working with languages, that’s also one challenge you want to take on. When I translate in English, I also try to see my work as being in English, other than what my working is like in Burmese. I’m not trying to be faithful to the originals, but trying to explore new territories, the tropes, the metaphors, and also the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years reading poetry in English. So it’s a combination of many things, and an experiment to me. But I remember I was reading a lot of poetry by Frederick Seidel, Anthony Madrid, and Bob Hicok, so I was reading a lot of poetry by these guys, and I’m really grateful because I’ve learned a lot from them. And they might not have a lot of things in common, but there is clarity when there comes to talking about politics or social commentary. In the case of Anthony Madrid, it’s very weird for me, it’s very surreal, and relies a lot on association, and it carries with it a lot of history of contemporary and experimental poetry to me. And Bob Hicok takes personal issues and relationships very beautifully, a very transcendental and at the same time multifaceted language to me. So I’m trying to steal some elements from them and I’m writing from a place of discontent, anger, and also from a very specific context, and it’s different from what other people are experiencing in their cities or countries. I don’t believe in poetry as an organic process, but rather you are always synthesizing things. I also like the space where I can reflect on myself and reflect on what I think and what’s going around me and my work.
G: So let’s go back to those writers you mentioned. English-language writers. How did you discover writers not in Myanmar (international voices), and literally where did you find them? And also, what about writers that influence you here, closer to home—how do you have history with them, if you do, and where do you find writing in Myanmar?
M: We don’t have bookshops that sell poetry and novels in English, but you can get a small amount of books—but you might not like to read them. For me, when I started reading in English, I went to the American Center and they have a library. It’s responsible for organizing culture events like poetry readings and movie screenings. I have been close to some of the people working there. They also one time commissioned me to translate The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and I did that work as well. And I have been contributing essays and articles to their bi-monthly magazine or journal. So I am quite familiar with American poets like New York School, the Beat Generation, and L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets, because I have come across these books in the library, but I also notice that there’s a lot of stuff beyond that. Because as I read that poetry, which was written in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, I started searching online. Then obviously the first results were Poetry Foundation, Poetry magazine, and I noticed what the magazine publishes is not that interesting—it’s quite mainstream to me, in a way that it contains traditional American poetry elements. But then I discovered more when I came across more journals like Shampoo, The Awl, Guernica, and many others. Then I find a lot of exciting poetry. Of course I started to remember names and some poems I really liked, and I continued searching more. Then I moved to Thailand in 2009. There are bookstores there where I could find more poetry books, so I started buying and reading. Over time, you will know who you like to read, but you will keep exploring, and that’s the poet’s life for me as well. When you talk about local poets, my poetry is very informed by the aesthetics of khitpor poetry. Khitpor poetry I think can be translated as modernist poetry, particularly this poet Phaw Way. I really like his poetry, the way he worked with imagery, the way he worked with political sentiments in his work. It’s visceral, that’s what I really like in his work. I also adopted the way he has written poetry. But he died really young. He was 28 when he died. He was really important to me, and he was really important to many of his contemporaries. He translated Russian poetry, some American poetry. He wrote them down in his notebook and passed the book around.
G: So for folks that are separated in terms of their lives, who died early or lived in a previous generation, you have to encounter their work through printed text or online postings and publishing. What’s the publishing world like here in Myanmar? Is there a lot of work being saved in the Burmese language? Are there a lot of works being published? Are the great works available to read if somebody wanted to go read them?
M: Yeah, there are a couple publishing houses. Seikku Cho Cho is one of them. That publishing house has been reprinting a lot of important stuff and trying to discover what hasn’t been printed yet. So now a lot of great works are available to an audience today. We have another publishing house called Nichalamya, or The Eras. This publishing house is particularly responsible for a lot of poetry. They are putting out a lot of modernist, contemporary, and political poetry, and also what might be interesting to the readers of the new generation even if it was written a long time ago. So I think the books are there. There are a lot of bookshops today that are selling poetry books.
G: Let’s talk about Myanmar writers outside of Myanmar. I personally encountered the anthology Bones Will Crow, which I think is one of the only English language and bilingual anthologies of modern and contemporary, khitpor, and more contemporary writing. And then Ko Ko Thett, who was one of the people involved with that, and I read his book that was published a couple of years ago The Burden of Being Burmese. So those were the two books and maybe a couple smaller books I came across as well in the United States. Are there others? What’s it like to think about Burmese and other Myanmar writers writing and trying to publish internationally?
M: Some years ago Maung Tha Noe was responsible for translating Romanticist and Modernist European poetry into Burmese. I think it was published in 1974 or 1975. Those translations were very instrumental. They paved the way to modernist poetry. A lot of local poets started to borrow and adopt these aesthetics, approaches and techniques of these European poets and writers. Maung Tha Noe has also been doing some translations of khitpor, modernist, poets. Some of these translations have found their way into international magazines and journals in the past. But maybe it wasn’t substantial in terms of the quantity. But more and more people are interested in writing in English. We can’t say it’s a bloom but some people have started doing that. Ko Ko Thett is doing that. But it’s still very little, I think. Most of the local poets don’t really read and write in English. Just some of us do that. And Bones Will Crow is a good thing to have happen because it somehow introduced Myanmar poetry to the international audience. It might not be comprehensive, not as much as we want it to be, but it’s still a very good introduction. James Byrne and Ko Ko Thett worked really hard to put it out. It’s been published in both the United States and England. But there’s been a gap. For me it would be awesome to publish and anthologize the younger generation of poets and it’s not always easy to do that. Translating as well as publishing and finding a publishing house or person who is willing to publish that kind of work. But I think Bones Will Crow is a good start.
G: You mentioned local writers in Myanmar maybe not writing or reading things in English. That made me think about the priorities of thinking beyond one’s country. Is it important, would you say, generalizing of course, for writers to look beyond the borders and geography of Myanmar? Or, based on the current political situation and social circumstances, is it important to stay focused on the center, on the heart of Myanmar? Do you want to look outwards, or do you want to look inwards? Why would writers intentionally not go out into the English language or other languages, and just continue focusing on Myanmar?
M: We also have to talk about the language. We also have to be careful with that sometimes. Is it enough to write in one language? This is something I ask myself a lot. I meet some poets who are interested in writing in English, and I know it’s a huge challenge to do that. I don’t want it to become a huge burden for poets. Writing poetry can sometimes be really difficult, and it has its own values in itself. For me it’s enough if you want to write in your own language. But, of course, boundaries are getting broad and now we’re talking to neighboring countries. We have built networks in Southeast Asia. There are literary festivals taking place (like in Singapore), and we’ve been invited to them. There’s a sense of solidarity, sharing, and exchanging ideas, and of course cross-learning. All of this are parts of these new exciting times . . . and in Singapore a lot of people speak English. It’s about education. Here a lot of people go to school and everything is taught in Burmese and it makes sense that a lot of people don’t speak or write in English. They might speak a little but not enough to write in English. But the young generation of poets are really interested in what’s going on internationally. A lot of young poets have internet exposure. Young poets, Han Lynn and Mae Yway (who has attended Rotterdam Poetry Festival). Han Lynn has been there as well. Han Lynn has been in Germany for a writer’s residency. So there are people who are interested in going out, learning different things, new things. In a large section of the literary scene, people don’t have the capacity or support to do that.
G: One of the ways that you participated beyond the borders was two summers ago in Iowa’s International Writing Program. What exactly did you experience there?
M: We had like thirty-something writers and poets from all over the world. It was a very unique experience because every day we got to talk to different writers and they all come from different backgrounds ethnically, nationally, and they’re doing really exciting stuff in their country. It was good to talk about what’s going on in each country, and reading their writings has been really exciting for me, eye-opening. We hung out and had panel discussions, readings, and time to mingle and talk. That was a really good experience, and those few months were really enjoyable. I got to see American poets who I have an affinity with aesthetically, like Nathan Hoks, for instance. So for me I also like to explore American poetry and what’s going on with that. I spent a lot of time in bookshops buying a bunch of American poetry books.
G: Did you think that the American bookstores were able to provide something more than the bookstores that you have access to in Myanmar?
M: Definitely. Also, the university library had a lot of poetry books. Not just written by American poets, but written by poets from all over the world. Hundreds of them, so it was heaven for me. I spent a lot of time reading them, and scanning the pages.
G: You got to travel a lot too, including to Seattle which is where we met originally. What were your travels like during your time in America and did you gain any insight into the country?
M: I don’t take things for granted. I try not to see all things in black and white, but still I receive information of the United States through the news or the books that I read, so it doesn’t encompass everything that’s happening there, and the local realities might be missing. So I have a bleak picture of the country, of the people, of course the politics. And it’s true to some extent. But when I went there I saw a lot of young people who have a lot of energy and vision in what they want to do and in creating the future that they want, and I saw a lot of people writing exciting stuff, and many people are open-minded. So for me, it opened my eyes to the new things taking place in United States. And a lot of other difficult things, like gentrification. I was particularly drawn to the works of Claudia Rankine. Also Trump was president at the time (still is), and there are some expats in the society who are feeling pretty helpless. But I came from Burma, you know, come on, a country with a long history of dictatorship, oppression. Somehow I also met these young poets and writers and we started to feel like “Wow, we’re in the same situations.” And we talked about discrimination against minorities—such things have been going on in my country for a long time, including discrimination against ethnic minorities and religious minorities. I was born to an Indian-Burmese family, so I have been subjected to discrimination at school and at society at large. So it’s sad that these things continue to happen in many parts of the world, but I also see hope in it because a lot of people are starting to say “no” to these things. A lot of people are not turning a blind eye to these things anymore, and they really want to take action and do something about it, write about it. So now maybe things are not a bed of roses, but there are people I want to continue to work with, and there’s hope.
G: So do you feel your own writing and your own sense of being a writer is directly aligned with those values? Are you a writer of political and social justice or other terms?
M: I don’t believe in “political poetry” or the “political poem.” But everything’s political at the same time. The problem with political poems is that you’re always second-guessing the contents. These poems are drowning, sinking into the ocean. Reading a political poem feels like diving into water, staying there. Whereas when you have an experimental aspect to your poetry, playfulness around it, you are coming up to the surface of the water and breathing. I do use lines with political references in my poems and I believe whatever you write will have some sort of political implication—it’s something I do in my poetry. I also want to keep my poetry interesting, and playful. I have used a lot of political references in my work, and I have an aversion for Burmese politicians, and what’s been going on with this country, and the structural violence they have established in this society through education, health care, housing . . . many aspects of the country. I try to deal with these things in my work, but I like to think these are also the nuances in my work.
G: We are back and now at the Taste of Myanmar restaurant [in Bagan]. I am sitting here with Maung Day over a nearly-completed dish of hot and sour potatoes—emphasis on the hot—and they are delicious! Hi Maung Day.
M: Hi Greg.
G: We were talking about a lot back at the palm sugar store, and we still have some more to chat about. You mentioned a little bit about values and interests you have in exploring race and identity in your own poetry. Did you want to expand on any of that?
M: I think a lot of writers and poets here are really concerned with what is going on in politics, and of course they live through this horrible experience of life in a military dictatorship. And a lot of them experience watching their works get banned or censored, and some of them even need to change their pen names because their pen names get banned. I understand there’s a lot of anger. Also psychologically, because we are in a transition, it’s hard to write about that, talk about that. But what’s largely missing in the conversation is anything about ethnic minorities. When it comes to politics, there are a lot of kinds of oppression, and people experience it differently. For example, I have a lot of friends, writers and poets, who are much older than me, and they sometimes assume that I have had a similar life as them. But no, actually. I was born as Indian-Burmese and had a totally different experience than them. They had no problem getting an ID. They had no problem enrolling in the university. They had no problem getting a job. But I only got my ID when I turned 25. I applied a couple of times before that and I was denied on account of looking Indian. But my ancestors came to this country in the 11th Century. And my parents have Burmese national registration cards, but they still denied me. Other forms of horrible experience occurred at school. Being bullied because I look different, because I wouldn’t join in prayer. My friends [today] wouldn’t know that. They always took it for granted, that I’m okay. Sometimes that’s really difficult, because it’s missing from our conversation. We always talk about politics in terms of party politics, the ongoing democratization process, students’ movements, but what about all these adversities? What about all these sub-groups, marginalized communities, in this country—who’s going to talk about them? So, that sort of thing really annoys me. And I really try to bring up that conversation in my work, or the conversation at the tea shop, or at the bar. I also try to engage with women. I try to work with different types of people. Our society is really male-dominated. There are a lot of women poets, but their works don’t get published often. A lot of men come up and say “They don’t write good poetry.” This sort of thing has to be stopped, for me. People ignore this. It’s a huge elephant in the room. I think it’s really important to talk about these things. I wrote a poem, “Gasoline,” the title poem from the book, about 23 people who were burned to death in Rakhine State, by the Buddhist fundamentalists, these monks. Some people really welcomed that poem, but I heard that later, in Mandalay, the poem started up some controversy, and a few monks were unhappy with me. For me, I don’t think we have any option but to say these kinds of things. I’m working through art. I’m not demonizing anybody. I‘m merely trying to reflect on that terror, and letting people know what I think, and how I work through that kind of experience in poetry. I think it’s really important.
G: I’m interested in how information gets shared, and how you spread your ideas, whether through poetry or otherwise. How peoples’ voices can be included in the conversation, or excluded. In Myanmar in general, on a broad level, I think it’s important to think about how ideas and words get shared. How do your words and ideas get shared and how in general are other poets and fighters for equity and inclusivity getting their words and ideas shared?
M: First of all, I wouldn’t consider myself at the forefront of this movement. I’ve contributed a little. We have to start with the writers and poets and digest these issues. Sometimes they might not be really aware of what they’re doing, what they would choose to write and why, what they wouldn’t choose to write and why. For me it’s not calling them names and labeling them as evil. A lot of things have been automatically excluded from consciousness because people might have gone through traumatic experiences. On a daily basis we should talk about these things. In the literary scene here, people meet all the time. People meet just to talk. These things come up all the time and a lot of other things come up. I organize workshops and poetry readings. I try to include as many diverse people as possible. I make sure it’s not about whether their poetry is good and bad, but about creating a space where people can show up and come together and read their poems. I’ve worked with some people who would always complain, always talking about the quality of the work all the time. The biases are always there. They are cherry-picking people who are like-minded, who they have an affinity with aesthetically. But that’s not the point. This way we’re marginalizing people I think. Events, forums, workshops are for a lot of people. These should be the platforms for people of different backgrounds, different aesthetics. We have PEN Myanmar, which has been promoting freedom of expression, and they’ve been organizing creative writing workshops where they touch on issues like that. It’s good that this is happening. It might not be enough but it’s something. Also, choosing works to publish. This is a big issue. I’ve been working with some of the women poets here because they don’t really get published, and whenever there is an invitation for a residency or literary festival, it’s just men all the time. We have to start raising questions about these things. Also the nomination process.
G: Do you have any female poets in your head right now that you could recommend to the world to read? Who are your favorites in Myanmar?
M: I really like Mae Yway’s work. She writes very innovative poems. The way she works with the language is really interesting. She’s a queer poet and she’s been writing stuff about her experience, and she’s been working through the perspective of the experience of a gay person who has been discriminated against. But it’s not always about a political agenda in her work. It’s very exciting. It has a lot of guts in it. The way she works with the language, she focuses on the fragmentary nature of human memories and emotions, and opacity of language in message sharing. I’ve translated some of her poems. Once she went to participate in the Rotterdam Poetry Festival and I translated her poems for that. She has published a couple of books, and one book has English translations in it, and you might be able to find that book in one of the bookshops in Yangon. So she’s one. And I also like Khine Pyae Sone’s work. She’s another young female poet who also has a lot of things going on in her creative life. For her, I think she had some bad experience with her father and the experience is reflected in her work. These issues are not new, but they are new here and haven’t been expressed here before. This is Burma. A very conventional society. Raising women under all the traditional values the same as 100 years ago. And social norms here are scary for women. And I’m talking about in that context. For these women writers, they are still discriminated by people. It’s really important these poets are heard and their works get published and also I recommend them because they write good poetry.
G: Thank you for sharing. You mentioned expression and expressing ideas. Having hung out with you for a few days now, it’s clear that you like to think about a lot of different ideas and different types of experiences in the many realities that we have. I’m curious what you’re working on now and what expressions you haven’t yet put into poetry that you’re think about doing.
M: That’s a really good question for me. I have published eight books of poetry, but each time I always work with a specific conceptual and experimental approach. I have combined text and drawings together for one book, for example. I’ve also done a lot of poetry that reflects the upbringing and social life I have had in this country and a book in which poetic language and form dialogue with those of films. This time I’m working on a book of prose poems dealing with the memory of childhood and memory of my family, my father, my parents, and going back to when we were together, living through difficulties. I’m borrowing elements of folklore, diaries and journal writing, different forms of literature and reporting. So I’m working on that and it’s exciting.
G: That’s awesome. Is it something that feels like it’s involving risk?
M: Yes. I’ve never done prose poems before. This is definitely a risk. I really am enjoying doing it. I don’t know what people will think, and I couldn’t care less. First of all, we’re dealing with ourselves in our work. Sometimes I have ideas—I want to do that, I want to do this—but when I really sit at the table, I’m working with the language, the memory, a lot of different things. I’m thinking about what I’ve absorbed poetically. There are many things, many factors in each poem. Other things take the back seat. I like this process.
G: Is that the type of approach you to take to your visual work as well?
M: Yes, that’s true. I think I like dialogism—I like my poems and visual work to have a dialogue with a certain political narrative and certain historic narrative, and I like them to be cross-genre.
G: What are some of your visual works in the past, for those who are exposed to you for the first time? Can you describe them in words?
M: I do a lot of drawings. They are very simple. They are made of very thin lines. There’s a lot of elements I borrow from Buddhist mythologies and the imagery of Buddhist art—the kind of thing you’d see on the murals in Bagan. In a lot of the visual work I’m doing, including film and installation, I’m deconstructing old mythologies and constructing new ones by using investigative, disruptive and non-linear narration. These mythologies shape how we think today, especially for people living in rural areas, and they are the largest population in this country. It is apparent that these mythologies shape how we think consciously and unconsciously.
G: When we were walking here, you talked about your childhood briefly and what it was like to become a poet. When you think about asking a question through your art, where does that come from? Why ask a question? How did you learn how to ask the questions that you’re asking?
M: I think we’re always told what to do, and what to say, and to keep silent all our lives. That’s how education works in this country even today. That’s how family life works. How social spheres are functioning today. Even politics, of course. I worked early on because I was lucky to have a father who introduced me to poetry early on, who introduced me to paintings, not just to look at them, not just to read them, but to close-read them and to work with them somehow and to think about them and to talk about them. When you start talking about something, you start to think about it. You start to notice what’s missing in the conversation, and you start to notice what’s bullshit, and that you’re being manipulated. And a lot of things are constructed and don’t reflect the realities of what people might desire. That’s how I started to question things. Also my experience at school being bullied. There’s this thing the kids have together and it’s imposed on them by society. “You have to be the larger group.” That type of mentality is always there. And for me to respond to that, it’s to think about the thing, and pose questions to respond to that.
G: And that becomes a piece of your writing, something that can be put into your writing and your art, and that can become a gift to other people, a tool people can use when they encounter your art and writing.
M: Yeah. A lot of people come and ask me about my visual works. I notice a lot of people don’t even want to think for themselves but rather they just go and ask the artist. I don’t mind talking, but one thing is that I try not to just say what it means. But I try to come up with what I was thinking when I was creating the art. That way I start to create a conversation with them, to communicate what they experience and have witnessed and seen. I draw the viewer into the conversation to see what they’ve experienced in their own life.
G: Any final thoughts on poetry and art for this interview?
M: Poetry is really important, because I think poetry gives us the kind of language that has the capacity to challenge the way people think, to unsettle the status quo of society, and it’s the language—everybody uses language—and poetry can reconfigure language in a way that it can provoke people to think. And it can transcend the rationality and touch your gut feeling and touch your beyond and what you’re always afraid to think. It’s a language, distorted, that can reflect what is a close truth. Writing poetry is important.
G: And there’s a place for it in today’s society.
G: Thank you Maung Day for chatting.
M: Thank you Greg!
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.
Welcome to Yellow Rabbits. Thanks for visiting.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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