Kill Class by Nomi Stone (Tupelo Press, 2019)
They call it the kill zone I am going deeper in
We haven’t slept Pollen burns my nose
When shot in the head or torso at close range, die-in-place and no
(from “The Notionally Dead”)
What does it feel like to be an anthropologist observing the roots and cores of the United States Military Industrial Complex? What is the experience of roleplaying and becoming and maintaining “the other” in real, professional war games simulating the Middle East in the American South? These are questions examined by Nomi Stone’s speaker in Kill Class, a book of poems that is emotionally uproarious, intellectually chaotic, and filled with a torpor of spirituality in a landscape of displaced humanism and degraded identity. This book, Stone’s second and a follow up to 2008’s Stranger’s Notebook, blends Stone’s numerous skills into a single, defiant statement that demands a revisiting to our seemingly-endless production of conflict.
The world of Kill Class is a fully-realized, fictionalized version of real places that are not so far from where you are. From where we all are. “’Pineland [is] a simulated country in the woods of the American South, where individuals of Middle Eastern origin are hired to perform in a theatricalized war, repetitively pretending to bargain and mourn and die” describes the context of this space of horror and the horrific. Pineland is also where we find the poet-anthropologist, one or many or universally all, who each bring their identity into this space of flux and cruel juxtapositions. The speaker moves in and out of the scenarios and situations, in and out of the role that has been provided, the back story and the vague sense of realism and wholeness. Stone’s writing doesn’t afford comfort and the shattered mirrors are painfully present. The voices in this book are slanted and fractured, collective but damaged, broken, and paralytic to the point of a wretched, damning beauty.
We go. I can’t
keep up with the group. Gypsy you stay
right behind me Everything
will be all right. I try to make small
talk because other talk brings me out
/ you have to stay in.
(from “Kill Class”)
It is educational to be part of Pineland as it is to document the experience. As it is to read through the documentation and fragments of stories and the singular narrative that does repeat, and repeat, and challenge in its repetitions. Stone’s resultant book (these poems) gruesomely represents the repetition of any given program, military or otherwise, and the endurance of rote pressure. The most antagonistic spaces of Stone’s narrative are when superiors, positions of authority and/or masculine encroachment, attempt to undermine the speaker’s voice and individuality. It is part of the war game and war games are indicative of war, systemic or personal. Stone’s speakers are strong but face conflict, of the other actors within Pineland and of the self, almost incessantly. This truth, that Stone lived through and engaged for two years the work to not only exist but to persist is heroic; and yet despite the success of the documented words, the poems, there is a very distinct, shadow side of this book.
Does anyone have a translation for any of this? If your face is a
(depending on whom you face),
behind you is a splinter.
This is one proverb
(from “Living the Role”)
That shadow is also one of the strongest metaphors operating throughout Kill Class, and it is also one of the major activities for the speakers in the poems: translation. Translation appears in many forms. The speaker translates phrases and terms between Arabic and English. For example, the quote above is based on the Iraqi proverb “If your face is a mirror and the back of your head a splinter” and its presence emphasizes boundaries, distances, and communion. The speaker translates these cultural junctions of Middle Eastern countries through the tragic contextual spaces of the contemporary American war game.
Translation is also inclusive of the necessary act of independence. It is the documented experience. The speakers as both ethnographers and artists translate through concise, spirited response. This translation of experience appears a means of survival and emotional stability. It comes in the form of the direct notes from points in the simulated exercise to the documented modes of freedom when the day’s acting is over, and re-entry occurs through the appearance of strip-mall (and its fast food symbolism) and the intimately-welcoming small-town pub.
There is a door in every word;
behind it, someone grieving.
(from “War Game: America”)
Like so much poetry that has existed before and will continue to appear, the poetry of Kill Class represents this process of translation as one that is a continuum, and a presence. While translation serves as an empathetic counterpoint to the sickening simulation of Pineland, translation is also the shadow of Pineland’s overall story. The people who make up the experiences in these sad, ongoing circumstances become more human through each poem, each practice, each situation. Their fictionalized experiences and lives are humanized through documentation and the value of the written word. It is sad that as they are discovered and described, so too is the pain and the conflict of their existence. And so too the pain and the conflict of the separation between the reader, the author, and between these individuals who exist out there, somewhere, and have real names and fully human lives.
Stone’s book may be a political act in its existence. It may exist to serve as a reminder that the American world of war is hidden behind curtains, between threads, and around corners. It may be an extension of conversations that have occurred for decades. And yet its heaviness, its provocation, its urgency exists in a solemn and chiseled authorial vision. Kill Class has transcribed as openly as possible the experiences of Pineland, as well as the personal experiences and stories of the poet-anthropologist. As such the weight of its existence may be more strongly felt, but it also it maintains an integrity of interpretation. As with stepping into a forest or an unknown, vast space for the first time, the prerogative the book brings reflects what the reader brings into it. The dynamic between the book and the reader may be the source of horror and the horrific that lurks from the first page.
[. . .] The woods
are a class in what
they can take. The country
is fat. We eat
from its side.
(from “War Catalogues”)
Chronology by Zahra Patterson (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018)
To “review” Chronology is already a commitment wrought with problems. Zahra Patterson’s collection of emails, notes, fragments, mementos, and micro-memoirs is flourished with purpose, responsibility, and urges to know fully. It is documentation of the process of translating works in languages that have been barricaded behind the ongoing colonialism of history, the limitations and suppressing qualities of publishing and its industry, and of a stifling and undaunting, contemporary geographical isolation. Chronology is also about time, and commitment. It is about the travels that surround projects and an exploration of personal ties to place and people. To language. It is about relationships: where they come from, how they become acknowledged, and how they grow. It is about memory, and the efforts writers can take (and do) as they seek out the beauty in the periphery of culture, in the slowness of the present. And it is about life, and the need to be and to move, to open and close through curiosity and growth and self-awareness.
The translation itself is arbitrary; what is important is my interaction with her language.
But summarizing the book with all of those qualities, while true, excludes the radical core of Chronology. It also excludes the extraordinary lineage of works Patterson accepts, interprets, and contributes back to: inspirations like Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha; Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip; and the theories of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (to name a few). Chronology is an examination of ethnic and racial power and pride, presenting numerous conversations Patterson has on blackness in the context of the United States and Africa. It is a plausibility towards ancestry and the history of multiple peoples, of identity, and of disconnection and displacement. It is an ongoing conversation of the necessary translation that contributes to health and progress in a globalized, post-colonial vision. Chronology is a dive into risk through the project that is generative of success, failure, and the remarkable acceptance of both. It is about human achievement and human stories, and the equity that can bind us and elevate us through both.
And Chronology is also a book about language in all of its amazement, its transfigurations, its complexities, and its own problems. The book seeks to remedy what is taken for granted in the act of translation, in the conversion and explored movement between one language and another. It recognizes the power of language and the vulnerability of language as it is approached, as it is messily understood, and as it may or may not satisfy. Language’s importance consists of its derivation from relationships, and from the resources that are created by the efforts of humans. From the lack of dictionaries to the inherent personalized experience of communicating to the emerging witness of orthography, of receiving assistance, of engaging serendipity, language and translation is of incredible essence. In Chronology, the core of languages forms the spine and the soul of the work and the project, and Patterson’s treatment is careful, restless, and dutifully challenging. There is a sense of mindfulness. There is a sense of consciousness. There are senses of morality and respect. And there is a sense, again, of the equity of human stories.
I could have gone to Malawi and stayed out of debt. But I had to come to Cape Town to find who I am. This city is me: the separate coexistence of Europe and Africa. Yet I am one. And it is one. The separation is part of the whole. What completes the essence is the unbearable dichotomy within it. Yet we bear it, don’t we. The Monster—the oppressed. The Fool—the oppressor. And vice-versa. And within all of us western-ethnic folk, we carry and cope with this dichotomy. When you become your own monster’s fool, you will have achieved self-awareness. Then you can live with your dual self.
But no matter what lens Chronology is explored through, there is the challenge of representing it as fully as it can be, representing it through any review or otherwise, and understanding its fullness as being filled with the unseen, the personal, the interpretable, and that which is outstanding. Much of the book’s most enjoyable moments occur when there is a fluid sense of complexity, where the book might not be known as well as it could, where it deserves retreatment by the reader.
The stories contained within, which literally explore Patterson’s engagement with a short story written in the Sesotho language, which literally explore the ongoing friendship between Patterson and the late Liepollo Rantekoa, are stories that inform each other and contribute to the book’s structure and form. But in support of and additionally beyond those narrative threads, Patterson’s Chronology feels like an offered gift of self, for self. Noting the space that the reader can be, that of the “the other,” is an occupied, intentional space that promotes connectivity and a humble resolve. Chronology, for me at least, induced a pressure to find love and fulfillment within my own realms as modeled by those pressures described in Chronology.
What is my function? I am not mere bystander critiquing orthographic politics and the violent gift of literacy. I am a writer. A speaker of English. I am not a translator or a speaker of Sesotho. What right do I have to embark on this project? An emotional pang—is that a right?
And so, what is the fuller (or simpler) description of the conversation of “the ultimately failed” project that is contained within Chronology? Much of it can and should be, at least in this space, this review, left up for mystery. We as a collective of readers have much to gain through the examinations and periods of self and selflessness, and their joyful and difficult overlaps, that Patterson has chosen, with intentionality and empathy, to include. To acknowledge the courage underlying this providing of reflection as intense and determined work, in all of intricacies, is to recognize Chronology as an act of productivity, beauty, and graciousness.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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