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.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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