A Box of Crazy Toys by Peter Dellolio (Xenos Books, 2018)
Review by Greg Bem
Silent films are
projected upon the
foreheads of children.
The little ones vomit
made of exotic African woods.
(from “Skeleton Accordions”)
Entering the world of Peter Dellolio is a walk along the bridge between charming and disturbing. To read his short forays into narrative poetry is to be immersed in the dreamscapes of another’s twisted mind. The sensations of imagery as grotesque as they are marvelous are sensations disturbingly crystalline. The metaphors of these poems are enthralling but agonizingly elsewhere; a book as relentless as A Box of Crazy Toys may be one better to take in small bits rather than, as per my approach, read in a single go.
The world among us is filled with a roaring blend of the absurd and the abstract, and Dellolio’s poems appear to meet that standardization, that landscape of normal weirdness, head-on. In reading A Box, I couldn’t help but find analogous contexts of the bizarre and spaces of the extreme like Magical Realism Bot, a Twitter account with the sheer purpose of going to the edges of understanding with heightened juxtapositions and realms of distortion. Likewise, I was reminded by the Surrealists, whose operations nearly 100 years ago found similar resolutions and conclusions through their own bending and prying of an emerging world of crisis and reaction. Indeed, Dellolio’s “box” appears to be in the same way a toolkit to showing readers what is possible through the mechanisms of an opened, unrepentant mind, a mind capable of agreeing to the extreme image and holding itself accountable to it as well.
Cream puff nipples on
the muscular breast
of the lion tamer.
(from “Maggot Wheels”)
And yet despite these fervent commitments, these sequences of wrestling the lines toward new heights of interpreting and appreciating the booming world of this continuing bark of a 21st Century, there is a noticeable difference between the roots, the ancestors, the earliest writers taking these approaches. Indeed, while the Dadaists, Surrealists, Expressionists, and many other loud groups engaging the image as a form of triumph and call to understanding power, focusing on social evolution, and otherwise rewiring the poet’s voice, the work of Dellolio here appears to be softer, softly incandescent, and even withheld. A rigidity that strikes me as apolitical and even (at best) timid and (at worst) repressed emerges out of the miscellaneous craziness of Dellolio’s “toys.” The playfulness and the toying around does not strike me as youthful and childlike, but rather reflective of the consumerism and information overload serving the beck and call of the new Americanization of the 2010s. A space uprooted by search engines, fluttering social media posts, and submerged cellphone behavior. A moment in human bondage honoring and protecting displacement, quietude, and passivity.
In some ways, these qualities of the shared, damned reality of so many appear as faux friendliness, but the inner conflicts that continue to cause crisis and discontent, evolved marginalization and demonization alike, pop out of the “box” much like the viral content, the glittering popularity, the potential for greatness. The irony of the “crazy toy” is that it’s most enjoyable but also most chaotic; it is, like Dellolio’s images and poetic instances, a presence both gravitational and destructive. To the book’s benefit and detriment, these poems are hardly self-referential, and hardly evoke a world beyond themselves. They are, like Magical Realism Bot, so far pushed into the absurd and abstract that their landscape is one of isolation; there is a protection and confinement that allows them to flourish and stand brightly on their own, but how they move beyond their own privileged cores is unnoticeable. And perhaps that’s the point, in reading A Box of Crazy Toys, in thinking about the ultimate constraint of poetry (perhaps now, perhaps always), that there is a context that will always be present and yet unavoidable. A context of constraint, an engagement of limitation, a necessary restriction to the dreams and desires of the poet themselves.
The dolphin, weeping
for its fallen brethren, slaughtered
and fashioned into this artificial
speaking device, dons a whipped cream
space helmet and floats towards
(from “The Clown’s Three Large Buttons”)
Pulling through what are quite clearly memories of actual places, situations, and circumstances, from his life and memories, Dellolio’s poems in A Box of Crazy Toys are, despite their level of the beyond, quite human. They are personal, they are funny, and they are communicative. I found myself laughing with these poems in ways I haven’t with poetry in some time. Despite the contentions the book aroused in my own understanding of a poetic present, this collection served with modes of entertainment, aesthetic appreciation, and a warmth toward fresh investigations of language. The yearning to keep reading made me question the antiquity of many forms of poetry, and where the poet may or may not be serving. I wonder if Dellolio has considered the effect of such poetry, in its extreme forms, as existing and affecting outside of itself, of continuing to expand beyond its own limitations once it infectiously brushes up against the reader. Where the poet may take their elements of the magical and of the real going forward is curious. How the conversation might be more directly woven beyond the poems themselves, if such a thing is possible, is even more curiouser.
Echo in Four Beats by Rita Banerjee (Finishing Line Press, 2018)
Review by Greg Bem
For every moving shade,
there was a jewel,
a bunt cake,
tea with honey,
found them dead in a village
near the Ganges,
in some bastard king’s chest
(from “Pygmalion & the Slippers")
Rita Banerjee’s Echo in Four Beats is a positive book. It is a book about positivity. It is a book about attraction. As much as it reflects the complex curiosities of the poet herself, this short, four-part poetry collection also reflects the curious ways extremely otherly and othered objects and cultures carry capacity and phenomenological connection with one another. East to West. The ancients to the contemporaries. Language and translation. These juxtapositions are arrived with Banerjee’s poetic presence, not quite lyrical, not quite narrative, not quite conceptual, which provides appropriate spaces and ranges to explore rather fully a world of integration.
At its core, the book is about Ovid’s myth of Echo and Narcissus, which serves as a fitting allegory for poetry in general, but also the landscape previously-described. A dualism within the speakers of these poems is a dualism of acceptance and rejection, of sequences of flight and iterations of home. There is sexuality and there is the sterility of that reflective promise. But complexly, Banerjee’s work carries that sterility into discoveries and modes of joy, fervor, and the interrogative push towards the refresh, towards the new, towards the validated and the enlivened.
We were like that—lanterns in the midday sun,
laughter against a white-noise wind, tongues
circling salt-water stories, cliffs cocooned by the afternoon, cameras
catching harbor fish, reptiles, serpents, impossible possibilities--
Much of the experience where these transformations are derived, carried by the mythic allegories the poet’s subtle adaptations of ancient lessons, is tangibly encountered in place and culture. While the back cover of Echo in Four Beats contains a quote by Jaswinder Bolina describing the book as “post-national,” I believe the antithesis is far more obvious. This is a book collecting poems that encounters and elevates individual nations, individual cultural histories, and appreciates them through their intertwining. In the ways the otherness in Echo and Narcissus is an otherness of affection and difference, so too is the distinct origins of the spaces and roots presented in this book.
The curses (or constraints) of the mythological beings further iterate a substantive metaphor in Banerjee’s voices, which identifiably rely on the power of other people, other poems, other traditions, and even other languages to thrive. The occasional poem in Japanese and Hindi, as well as pulled in language from European languages (most commonly French) are important examples of graceful appropriation. There is accountability, responsibility, and a joyful positioning of attraction towards those spaces that existed before and separate from Banerjee and this book, and while the messiness of it in totality may appear “post-national,” I would use other, more appreciative words like “subtle” and “hazy” to describe the effect of the poet’s language on the embodied elements of multiple cultures.
from all four directions, in the sky’s
dance, the world appeared
unreal, and in each broken piece of water,
the moon remained, laughing--
(from “One Night” (translated from the Hindi by the poet))
Multiplicity is an important element of the book’s core for multiple reasons. Structurally, I found the book’s four quarters (or sections) of the book to parse the book’s fluttering, experiential nature in a way that complements rather than detracts. For the general reader, the book's sections are not entirely explained. Though there is a slight haze surrounding the segmentation, a general thematic trajectory brings the writing across culture and geography. The book opens with sequences of predominantly American writings (inclusive of music) that then move through glimpses of Japan and India. Within the last section Banerjee wraps the book up with a presentation of miscellaneous musings, though their collection at the end appears as a symbolic gesture of dissipation. Additional complexity to structure is added through a handful of erasures responding to A.S. Kline’s translations of The Metamorphoses, a handful of “mis-translation” poems riffing on the likes of an abundant variety of thematically-relevant sources, including a Romani folk poem, a Hebrew prayer, and a poem by Baudelaire. These fragments of voices, echoing across the cultural spectrum we all must, in reality, understand, elevates and amplifies and contributes to Echo in Four Beats.
In Nevada, the stars throw
down their silver bounty
to the bear dancing on one leg,
and when the sky comes down
to devour us, it rains in quarters.
Those outside (external) images and ideas, while symbolic to the nature and inspiration of the book, do not completely overshadow or displace Banerjee and her own cunning use of language. I found most of the poems within the book that appear to lack direct references both compelling with memorable. The poet’s mind-shifting language include lines and stanzas incredibly capable of existing within their own, engrossing centers. Indeed, they emerge and disappear calmly, like distant lightning, and drag on, their memories moving from poem to poem, creating causality and a sense of overlapping resolution. Though not entirely sonic-oriented to be considered lyrical, these fragments within her poems are concise moments of implanting. They score and scourge, and represent, as objective language, as a sense of craft. And that craft moves along beneath the narrative trajectory of the book, a bubbling sense of the underneath, a layer of Thanatos and the urge toward definition and stillness.
In sum, Banerjee’s Echo in Four Beats provides a poetic space somewhere between engrossing and lightly attractive. That positivity moves from theme and culture to the language within and beyond. It’s a pleasurable space that will hopefully serve to inform, serially, a future for the poet and her mind’s next conjured spaces of communication.
We will supplicate, sublime, and let
our bodies dance through reverence.
Moss & Silver by Jure Detela, Translated from the Slovene by Raymond Miller (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018)
Review by Greg Bem
where once the never-to-be repeated gull
floated in an amorphous mixture of dusk and down--
Slovenia’s history of the avant garde is as much about its emergence today as it is about the roots, the origins, the beginnings. In Moss & Silver, originally published in 1983, readers are given the opportunity to engage in this continuation from 20th to 21st Century poets and poetries through the latest introduction of what is arguably a heroic artist. Jure Detela, who is praised and admired throughout the Slovenia of today, was also praised and admired throughout his life by way of his poetry and character. Now the English-language world, by way of translator Raymond Miller, and Detela contemporaries and collaborators Tatjana Jamnik and Iztok Osojnik, have access to a powerful, fundamental book of Slovene verse.
As Osojnik describes in the book’s introduction, one way to interpret Detela’s surprising and shocking range of verse is to categorize poems by their nature, spirit, and structure. Osojnik mentions the following types of poems in Moss & Silver: “the darkness, the haiku, and the legacy.” More themes than literal representations, these categories allow the reader to engage a relatively chaotic book, a book which has poems carefully translated but still estranged and sprawling, in a meaningful way. Mid-20th Century Slovenia’s own sociopolitical landscape forms a triangulation in looking at Detela’s works through the thematic presence of the deep, otherly darkness, the chiseling funnel of the shorter works (some directly derived from the traditional haiku form, and other forms), and the rather pointed, minimalist homages and odes carried across Detela’s work.
A torn landscape throughout Europe is the most obvious way to focus on these poems, and yet Osojnik also goes into significant detail of the psychological torture Detela represented in his poems when thinking of the cruelty and harm of general humanity. Detela believed in the destructive prowess of humans and spited it; the criticism results in a poetics of healing and protection that lends to a beautiful counterbalance (or juxtaposition) to the poems that are otherwise born of the grotesque, the gruesome, the brutal. As quoted in the introduction, this is poetry aligned with Aimé Césaire’s “everything has a right to live.”
Harts! Harts! Should I let the consciousness of / violence into my poem? How / can I remain faithful to your memory when / the world is transformed for me // into a message of killing?
(from “17. Poem for the Hearts”)
And while some of the poems may feel gratuitous and slightly melodramatic, it helps to imagine the world of this remarkable poet as a world of repetition, late-industrialism, war, and inequity. The persistence of these systemic onslaughts and battering cannot be forgiven lightly, and the iteration and reiteration through a focused and calm vision moves beyond redundancy to confidence, moves beyond ego to an ambitious rhetorical whirlwind.
That Detela’s work in 2018 may be a posthumous climax to a legendary life speaks volumes to the settings and contexts of Slovenia and the surrounding regions. That Detela’s work in 2018 is also receiving international attention and being moved from its country and cultures of origin to a foreign, distanced reality and context only highlights the impact and universality of a poet whose poems reflect life, reflect joy, and reflect respect.
Of course, not all poems are easily identified as having moral and morally-empowered undertones. In fact, the range of Detela’s work arrives in its most mysterious. Like Trakl (who Detela read and knew well), many of the poems take on an archetypal (or, even, allegorical) quality. Like broad strokes on the canvas, focus becomes revolving on individual beings, bursts of light and color, and the most general situations. Poem “7” in the book demonstrates this remarkably generalist method:
The sun drives
the transparent wings
of crystal animals
from the hearts of flowers
into trenches of
Some of the best moments in the book are when translator Raymond Miller leaves the interpretable poem as open as it can be. Miller’s research is masterful and yet it is balanced by the core of each poem. In this case, ambiguity has the chance to remain ambiguity. Other poems are treated with precision, Miller’s explanations doing well to add enough context to elevate the work without demeaning it. As in the case of “28,” where Miller explores the short poem’s history and relationship with neo-Orphism, which Detela embraced but ultimately, in the poem, chose to leave without explication and explanation. The resulting work has the capacity, then, to bring multiple forms of beauty to the surface with and without the work's full background:
Let the hungry voices
calling from shaggy throats
across the winter forests
to spits of green rise up
from the ground. [. . .]
Most of the poems in this apparently straightforward book are anything but straightforward. They represent many of the philosophical, moral, and literary journeys of a poet deeply affected by, involved with, and concerned about the clear postmodern schisms of psyches in and beyond Slovenia, Europe, and the West in the late 20th century. The depth and density of this latest edition of Moss & Silver are equally challenging and enjoyable.
As the poet's life was far beyond Moss & Silver, a goal to make additional work by Detela available in English has been established and serves to illuminate some of the explosive international future of the Slovenian avant garde. As the celebratory reverie and nostalgia of this poet and others persists in contemporary Slovenia, it will be exciting to watch the effects of international attention impact the local community of poetry and beyond. And yet, this book remains satisfying in its own right, as Detela's complexities remain satisfying, and offer much insight alone.
Nioque of the Early-Spring by Francis Ponge, Translated by Jonathan Larson (The Song Cave, 2017)
Review by Greg Bem
You are there all around me—today you trees, pebbles of the orchard, clouds in the sky, wondrous dead nature, uncontested nature.
You are there,
You are there indeed!
(from “Capital Proem”)
For those unaware of the French poet Francis Ponge, this new translation by Jonathan Larson offers a glimpse into a realm of glimpses, a fraction of poetic marvels in a realm of mere fractals. As a single work surrounded by many others, this book on its own is ultimately a gentle, inviting framework through which Ponge’s work and endurance, seasoned and lightened at once, can explore the gradients of concept and theme. It is filled with openness and propulsion. It is a thorough radicalism and also a challenge to the immensity of time and space. Knowing and to be known, the process and the result, a spiraling enthusiasm, wondrous, an investment, and an engagement. It is relational and intentional.
Time, nature, knowledge. These are key spaces of the macrocosmic warp and wordplay Ponge iterated originally though Nioque, as explored by its translator’s introduction. Through a significant treatment, Jonathan Larson has recrafted a book capable of encountering time in the umbrella of the creative process. Poems of 1950-1953, entries and explorations into and out of the wrapped, frolicking springtime. Nature as a reflection of seasons, perhaps with Spring serving as keystone, and nature as spirit, as something remarkably anew, consciously reverberating in circumspection. Nioque provides a portrayal of significance in its self-referential patterning. At what better, triggering instance does a poetics have an opportunity to grow, does a mode of thought lead to future elevations?
The earth offers all this, the arms extending into trees and bouquets. Boreas the winds, the sun (Phoebus) pass underneath or replenish.
(from “The Egg.”)
The collection speaks to the height which Ponge, perhaps beyond original insight, allowed the work. In many moments the book, as far as “many” can be used to describe a text both short and dense, is curiously arousing in its linking. Poem to poem, in elongated prose and brief fragments. These are the realms of connectivity, conscious and subconscious, which evoke those manners of Ponge’s greater associations.
Nioque is as much about itself as it is about the nature of craft and creation through existence, which reflects well the biographical proclivities of this French writer. As interrelated to the poet’s relationship to Surrealism as his seeking through Existentialism, the book identifies and sprouts through lineage. It suits well to exist, in its latest English form, alongside the relatively new translations of Char, Desnos, and others.
I am not through, have nothing but incomplete ideas (incompletely stated) and it is not so much about them than it is about completing them.
They are like fierce birds of passage whose form I regret not having been able to know entirely, or rather more like lightning bolts, since their singular virtue is, above all, it seems to me, in illuminating the conscience.
Perhaps what is most enjoyable to explore and attempt to understand in Ponge’s acclaimed work and the year 2018 is its humble, personal core. The nurturing core that is political and revolutionary comes out of a fateful, awestruck naturalism providing ample room for personal, affected junctions. Ponge, certainly beyond any sense of neutrality in his own contemporary warzones, crumblings, and oppressions, offers a heartfelt, incising gaze through inspirations and observations of the very source of where knowledge goes. Creation and the creative act become the pivotal dualism between the epiphanic states that the close and distant bring together, Ponge himself serving as triangulation.
Larson’s treatment of Ponge’s tone is accessible and in being accessible reflects well the book’s imagery and undulations of the natural spirit. What better platform for revolt and uprising than in being nurtured into confidence?
While Standing in Line for Death by CAConrad (Wave Books, 2017)
Review by Greg Bem
each time I drink water dropped from clouds
water they burned out of your body I cup my
hands to catch you
(from “Sharking the Birdcage”)
“(Soma)tic poetry rituals provide a window into the creative viability of everything around us, initiating an extreme present” says CAConrad in “Hall of the Decommissioned Pantheon,” one of eighteen rituals included in his latest book from Wave, While Standing in Line for Death. Conrad later states in the final ritual of the book, “Cremation Cocktail,” that “Poetry is a window into the magic of this world that never once asked me to apologize.” The unapologetic and the extreme present are married fulfillments discoverable again and again in this marvelous next chapter of the Philadelphian. The works are as extensible from all previous works, as they are wholly original, blossoming beings unto themselves.
When I first uncovered Conrad’s work, circa 2008, I was blown away, soul torn open and inspected, by (Soma)tic Midge, where the poet’s rituals were seeing their early iterations, their exposure to the public sunlight of publication. Much younger then, though open, though fetishizing everything I read quite distinctly, I found the poems and their origins hypnotizing and emphatically available. A certain lustful poetics bloomed then, and that urge, that viscera, continues to wind and unwind through Conrad’s canon. And yet here, a decade later, the poems and their greater accessibility, along with greater consequences, move beyond the romanticized present. These are, as they always have been, serious poems, and yet in this book they are clearly so. The political and equitable focus over themes is spelled out in Conrad’s current work, arguably a close movement forward from the relatively-recent ECODEVIANCE (also published by Wave Books, in 2014).
WE MUST INSIST that a redistribution of wealth always include The Love. How can we be there for one another? How can we be assured that everyone gets The Love?
(from “Power Sissy Intervention #1: Queer Bubbles”)
Part of what makes social change so dominant and so well-portrayed in While Standing, I think, is the greater sense of distance and space covered by Conrad here. Following numerous opportunities, rightfully earned, to be positioned throughout and beyond the American continent, we have a greater range of geographical (and, more importantly, geological) understanding of how the (soma)tic poetry can and should operate. It is not longer restricted to a specific chapter of a specific life (Conrad in the 90s and early 2000s) but has continued to operate and, delightfully, moved around the world. This is a universal poetics that by being so is even more captivating, filled with bravado, and powerfully acontextual—meaning, while context is incredibly important for the poems, can and should be adapted by the book’s readers throughout time and space. Conrad’s own testament to his Book of Frank being translated into multiple languages, and the many spot-lit moments in his ongoing, amazing life as a poet, reveal that adaptation has always been desirable. Now we have even more rituals giving birth to more poems spreading across landscapes and into communities, locales, and states of being. As such, While Standing is almost a magical realism of itself. It is a close continuation and depicts what has come, but in an elevated, almost unreal manner. It is the adornment representative of the ongoing beauty, with all of its capacities, all of its senses of the incredible and unbelievable.
in the breakable city / I want me hunger with / me after life / we are all / creatures of appetite
(from “Power Sissy Intervention #2: Apostle Paul Suppositories”)
Poems find homes in suspected and surprising locations. From a street corner in Asheville to a field in Kansas to a park in Seattle to a dive in Philadelphia, the imagery is exposing. Los Angeles. Singapore. Marfa. The Chihuahuan Desert. MoMA in New York. The (soma)tic translates across space, and time. Indeed, despite the ecstasy of a presence and intimacy found from place to place, people to people, there is a subtle and beautiful understanding of time here as well. The book opens with Conrad’s ritual “Mount Monadnock Transmissions,” the third he has created for his boyfriend, Earth, who was murdered by bigots in Tennessee.
The power runs like a vein dripping blood of this beautiful and harrowing history through each ritual to follow, landing on the book’s closing ritual, for Jonathan Williams, a beloved friend and mentor to Conrad. Life and death, revisited through the present, become beacons of time, markers that allow the poems to live with their own beating hearts. Rounded out by rituals conducted with friends in mind, from Fred Moten to Ariana Reines to TC Tolbert, the book exhibits a liveliness serving as tribute to the self and to all those powerfully present in Conrad’s life. There is, of course, due sets of anger, remorse, and disease, but the book is greatly harnessing love and awe. Much like his other collections of rituals, Conrad’s work in While Standing is one that pushes toward the most positive qualities of being and being fully.
another kind of happiness / hold still brother squirrel tiny piece / of sunlight to lick off your face
(from “Dear TC Tolbert as Long as We Live We Win”)
For those unfamiliar with Conrad’s (soma)tic rituals, there is no way to give them justice in a written response like this one. You must read them yourself and get the fullest out of them that you can. They are transformative and intentionally so: they are gifts that extend beyond Conrad’s own, uniquely personal transformations and are ready to be intercepted by most who are open to them. They involve the sensory, the temporal, and the intimate. They involve a great sense of wakefulness and a powerful demand for verisimilitude. They are as rooted in the earth as they are floating across the sky. They involve swallowing crystals, conducting reiki, smoking the physical representations of your nemesis, creating “queer bubbles” to give to children, and communing with the non-human beings of this world. These are to name a few, and I do feel guilty rattling concepts off like this, and so I say: go read the book. Go discover these moments.
As with Conrad’s opening poem on his boyfriend, Earth, there is much in this book that serves as tribute and retribution. As an extension of Conrad’s own background, this book directly explores equity through the minds of many within the LGBTQ community. It is a book that is both about and for those who have suffered. Like much of Conrad’s writing, through loss and harm this book exists. Through love and kindness and education towards those who have caused the loss and the harm, this book exists. This book erupts into a space needed by those who have been oppressed and identifies and responds to those who oppress. My own cisgender white background found its moments of quaking and the rupturing and exposure to my own privileges as I explored Conrad’s world, and the worlds of those within and beyond the literary realms he has chosen to include in his book, write about, understand. Again, the book is a gift: but it is a gift for many different reasons, for many different types of people, and so it is a fantastic and powerful book.
unfastened / in the backseat a / portion of our music is / mucus flying into stillness / at what point do we submit / to the authority of flowers
(from “Leave Something Quiet in Shell of My Ear”)
Much of the fantastical and the power that holds this book together is visibly present through Conrad’s poetry written through his rituals. The rituals, which are fully described, lead into their resulting poems, which Conrad provides in view directly after the ritual. These poems are often staggered in line and thought, resembling many of the poets Conrad has expressed admiration toward over the years: Jack Spicer and Jonathan Williams, to name a few. The poems contain elements of the concrete, sprawled like amorphous objects across the page. They flutter like reeds in a wetland, splay open like gemstones on a rough floor. The poems contain language that is eaten up, digested, and propped within their stanza like gleaning results of process. There is often a harmony within them, and a dependable personal distance to them as well. They are from within the moment-to-moment of Conrad’s exercises and conductions. They are thorough investigations mesmerizing, mystical, and of the potential of the performed and the sustained, and the humbly cherished. They are, again, gifts.
What happens with the future work of CAConrad is what is happening in the present work. As his blog indicates, there is a significant continuation of content seismically integrated into his life. The demonstrated commitment will arouse new ideas, new connections, and new commitments for his craft and his personal journey. It is an exciting privilege to be able to watch from afar, and be substantially informed by, as Conrad continues to move forward, weaving in and out, the many lines of life and the many lines of death within the spectrum of the beautiful and the ugly of our collective world.
lost in a pile of
needles and spools
the only trees in this
desert are books
(from “Home.3” in Width of a Witch)
Royals by Cedar Sigo (Wave Books, 2017)
Review by Greg Bem
My mind seizes on
the form first
from “The Magic Mountain”
Following up on the heels of 2014’s Language Arts, Cedar Sigo’s latest collection of poetry expands and grapples with identity, culture, and the American poetic canon. The poems of Royals feel familiar but also uniquely further along in Sigo’s experiences. And yet, going beyond the poet’s first books, Royals gifts the reader with longer, denser opportunities of exploring the subjects, with themes of greater bulk and heft. Viewed in totality, Royals is an expansive book, and a necessarily strong book carrying the weight of the history of an important American poetry to and the history of the self of Cedar Sigo.
As a collection of Sigo’s recent poetic examinations, the book affords his reality and lived experience, and yet also, in its size and proclivities of the self, contains contentions, difficulties, and the harsh realities of living through a very present white dominance. Royals undertakes a great representation of the great velocity of the poet’s life and experiences, while also maintaining a solid focus on personal intimacy and immersion. As such, there is clash and conflict, even with a book that feels straightforward and exceptionally self-aware. The concept of “royals” becomes a complex one, that can be interpreted as the poets Sigo finds influence from, or the individuals within the poet’s life, or even (as seen in below) the indigenous folks within Sigo’s community. With difficulty, Sigo’s literary influences may perhaps mask the conversation between that community, as well as Sigo’s individuality; the white dominant poetics continuing to press upon the mythos of America’s literary history emerges as solidified and intensely destructive at the same time.
If we set aside the origins of the poetry, the influencers whose books fill Sigo’s backpack, we see Sigo’s art in fine, beautiful presentation. Reading Royals, as an experience, positions the reader into a space of reality: comfort through precision and passion through art become familiar almost immediately upon opening the first cover. Form and content on the printed page, often transformed into binary concepts that must be kept separate, kept apart, are within Royals congruent and complementary to Sigo’s greater vision. This is nothing new with Royals, however, as Sigo’s poetry has molded the harmony between the concepts consistently from book to book; that is, flow and energies through form and through content have been the status quo for Sigo, coming naturally and necessarily for years.
Cantos triggered insanity and worse
Terza rima when I feel like swimming laps
Odes for luck in blackjack
Index for sedative
from “A Handbook of Poetic Forms”
The range of the writ, the light experimentation and the scope of stories, has matched dramatic chapters and moments of Sigo’s lived life. Poems, short and long, become sounding boards for grief, resilience, and even a more abstract and purer representation of memory. However, notably with this larger collection, the reader can truly see Sigo’s expertise in craft. There is visibility in range in Royals which was unable to be seen through the smaller scale of predecessors like Language Arts.
Poems like “Medallion” squiggle down the page in a serpentine, conversational dance with the paper itself. “The Magic Mountain” contains stanzas as glyphs, magical, erratically exposing sophistication and linear process one and the same. These visual arousals coincide with poems like “Smoke Flowers” and “Fever Dream,” which indicate to and induct upon the reader a sense of orderliness and calm. Dualisms and intersections, from the playful to the serious, from the stable to the chaotic, as seen superficially in the case of the form of each poem, down to the ideas contained therein, are incredibly noticeable with Sigo’s work. In Royals, it is fantastic to see the furthering of this angle of poetry.
As touched upon above, the problem with this book is that it both pays homage to the greatest literary figures of American poetry history (and beyond) but also stresses the importance and prominence of a member of indigenous and queer communities. That is not to say that these two lineages and stories must be kept separate, or cannot coincide; however, the tension is real, and I personally find the conversation one of imperfection, growth, and potential, radical change for Sigo as he moves into some future. The hesitancy to praise the funnel (or vacuum) of the white, 20th Century Poet is a hesitancy built upon the nearly endless instances of that funnel elsewhere.
We natives are royals / Yet phantoms / The edges emblazoned, clear / From fingertip to foot / Seattle is empty and surrounded / The sun beheaded or / Am I a marked man?
Fortunately, Sigo’s work, though often investigating (and appearing bound to) that history of American Poetry, also frequently appears to be operating beyond it. Beyond those poets and that lineage is Sigo himself, his critically-thinking mind, which floats above and toward an ethereal other space. The poems in Royals tends to be royals themselves, clashing with their formal roots. The mark of colonialism aside, I am reminded of the nurse logs of the Pacific Northwest rainforests, which though dead and ever-visible, make way for new species of even greater, more diversified beauty. And yet the relishing, the preservation, the presence of the former identities is mildly disturbing. Especially through poems like “Crescent,” where Sigo calls upon the space and voice of the indigenous humanity that is still very alive (within the poems and within Sigo’s homeland).
It would be remiss to omit the geographical positioning of the book, which calls out Seattle, and calls out Sigo’s native ties to the Suquamish. The relationship between US development and the indigenous peoples of the Greater Seattle area is well-documented. These poems, sadly and forlornly, provide yet another new look at how identities collide, meld, and interlink moving through the grotesque (and often silenced) present. These poems are a powerful statement of that present, of a voice among the voiceless, of a person among the invisible. Sorrow, anger, and, residually, joy are some of the identifiable emotions laced within this book. As Sigo’s work is read and deconstructed by many, these emotions and their poet’s states of being (which carry them) can, potentially, reinforce the indigenous narrative within Royals.
As much as I struggled with the book, and as much as I enjoyed it, Royals appears to be a rough but necessary step documenting the poet’s push through a current, endured direction. The book has marvelous moments and is clever and compassionate in its homages, and yet is positioned in a trying space. When Sigo releases his next book, it will require a relationship with Royals to be fully understood, and yet I imagine it will be as complex as Royals to stand on its own, and perplex on its own. For now, we have Royals, and the many “royals” within, which will reliably surprise, baffle, and arouse in their multiplicity.
A poem I puked drying out at a hot springs in love winding through the dry hills of neem leaves, an exaggeration of music I thought younger poets admired. The trimmings I knew I could press new meaning in between. I was endlessly in the mood and working this lace front, that words as force walk the earth. I tried to show a sailor bounding through his life in silhouette.
from “Guns of the Trees”
Evening Primrose by Kopano Matlwa (Quercus, 2018)
How viscous the blood must be. It carries so much in it. Stories swirling round and round our veins, up into our hearts, at least a zillion times a day. Stories of men going into cities, men in men, men in women, women in men, children in women, men in children. Strangers living in each other’s arteries, sharing intimacies, sharing pain, sharing anger, sharing hatred, sharing resentment, sharing loss.
The systems and patterns of love, harmony, resentment, and chaos of contemporary South Africa are emotionally and rigorously explored through a challenging Bildungsroman in Kopano Matlwa’s latest work. The story is large, brutal, and beautiful, contextual to its place and also universal in the brightness of its process of awakening.
This novella in four parts corresponds with major moments of protagonist Masechaba’s childhood and adolescence. The book follows Masechaba in a journal form, held in her voice, exploring early reflections on menstruation, movement towards independent living with best friend and academic peer Nyasha, a traumatic and expansively grotesque moment of sexual violence, and movement towards resolution through spiritual bonding to lead toward peace through motherhood.
As a brief and blunt description of a turbulent present-day South Africa, the book is both spiritual and political in contents and in tones. As a portrayal of the journey through early womanhood, the book is both empathetic and stunning. Matlwa’s enmeshing of both these extreme functions of the book is equally heartful and intellectual. The work breathes through the intersection of the struggles between society and the individual, between knowing and unknowing, between balance and destabilization passively and aggressively.
Ma says I must leave them there, the patients. I must walk in their shoes, but try not to bring their shoes home. So I leave them there, stuck between the soiled sheets and the sandwich hidden for the day an appetite returns, between toilets caked in shit and the soap dispenser that only worked once, the day the minister came to visit. But I fail at walking in their shoes. They have no shoes, Ma. How can I walk in their shoes when they have no shoes?
From the beginning of Evening Primrose, Masechaba’s endearing and honest voice encourages the reader to stay focused and trusting of the encountered stories and experiences. The protagonist explores the life she leads on her own and by way of family and colleagues. Her brother Tshiamo’s early suicide reinforces a general sorrow and resentment found throughout the book and its many conflicts. Bonds between Masechaba and her mother are inspiringly feminine, and yet not without their own tensions. Nyasha lingers as a voice of political concern but also irrationality and extremism.
The narrative reads with allegorical distinction, each character symbolic of their own revolving world, each activity and action carrying the weights and pressures of subtext and emerging meaning. From the beginning these additional layers of characterization form the many conversations the characters have, both verbally and existentially. Masechaba encounters difficulty between understanding and accepting tradition and encountering the antagonistic realities of her country and its own daily evolutions. Xenophobia, racism, religion, and post-apartheid South Africa is dauntingly experienced through our protagonist’s daily life, and yet it is balanced by way of her own commitment toward a profession and a future.
Masechaba’s plunge into a career as a doctor results in challenging dialogues on ethics, care, and acceptance. Faced with the grueling realities of the pain and torment of those she must help within the hospital she works, Masechaba fully endures and painfully comes to understand her many strengths and her many imperfections. When, mid-way through the story, she becomes the victim of a violent sexual act, she must face everything she has grown to know and re-examine everything she has grown up through to that point. The agony is severe and relentless. The naturalism of Matlwa’s writing is difficult, and yet reflects well the short form of the book.
Why do You want to see us grovel? Why must we break first into millions of pieces before You shovel us off the floor? Why must we shatter first before You react? Why must we pray for things that are obvious? Wasn’t it obvious that I needed You to save me?
While readers of Evening Primrose may find it difficult coming to terms with the South African context and the crippling realities of the book’s heroine, the story does, through its resolve, succeed in embedding many ideas, mostly unanswerable questions, as a form of resolution and growth. The symbolic moments of motherhood that resonate as cycles by the book’s end take on a fullness beautifully and painfully resonate of the life of the everyday, of every person. Matlwa writes with a commitment to portraying the relationship of beauty and pain from the most mundane to the most critical.
An ultimate gesture toward the living complication of forgiveness and the under-valued, subtle explorations of grief, this book falls in line with the likes of other short-novel writers like Hesse, Danticat, Mann, and Morrison. The book manages to sit on its own and bear the weight of severe emotional brevity, just as the scenes and situations described within its covers do the same for its characters. Evening Primrose is a marvelous gift for its readers, one that flows like blood, confesses like ink, and awakens like a new day.
Yellow Rabbits Reviews #36 and 37: Soledad Marambio’s Chintungo and Marília Garcia’s The Territory Is Not the Map
Ugly Duckling’s Señal chapbook series continues in 2017 with two new titles. The fifth in the series is Chintungo: The Story of Someone Else, a fantastic exploration of the mythos of identity, the process of heroism and legend-making, and family storytelling by Chilean poet Soledad Marambio. The sixth is The Territory Is Not the Map by Brazilian poet Marília Garcia, a snippet of investigations of investigations, which resounds with the process of assertions and their resulting awareness and mystery. Both books feature hills as keystone images in their symbolic, eclectically-inspired landscapes, and have found prominence in their profound recognition in the exploratory actions within poetry.
Soledad Marambio’s Chintungo
Translated by KT Billey
he writes, he writes and writes
the pen well loaded
as if the pressure released the melodies
that his musical friends
hear in blue words.
(from “The Chintungo Libretas”)
I had read this book like I read my own family: knowing and pushing into the nature of puzzles. Marambio’s relationship to time and place represents the continuation of a bleak naturalism of the mind: where fracture and fragment contribute to the greatest whole possible. There is a representation of form and loss throughout the book as the father figure, whose identity shifts between father and self-proclaimed Chintungo, is a persistent, unobtainable force. The distance contributes to thematic conversations on bondage, expectation, accountability, and the heroic. What is larger than life, if not for our own craft of identity?
Exploring the character Chintungo through the eyes of the speaker within this book felt like exploring a new paradigm of effortlessness, though stressed through emotional constraints, in understanding human relationships. Though the book is short, there is an enduring thread of activity from the first to the last poem that contributes to a light-heartedness, a playful exploration that is also bound by necessity. What is necessary in knowing family? What is necessary in constructing, establishing, and maintaining those connections when they are rooted in love and a familial knowing.
Though Marambio’s book is a splice of potentially-infinite explorations into a “larger than life” figure, the brevity within the splice indicates, or reflects, a degree of mortality: of both the characters within the story as well as the story itself. We thus have a safe presence of questioning, a bountiful but stable perspective of passage through the speaker’s mind and conclusive situations, which offers a substantive roundedness to the book in its entirety. This book opens more than it closes, and is worth exploring for the mature and patient excitement of its trajectory alone.
Marília Garcia’s The Territory Is Not the Map
Translated by Hilary Kaplan
the next morning you look at the empty bookshelves
white rectangles sunk into the ground
like an abyss, she says
telling the story of the woman
sitting in the back seat of the car,
fleeing the snow for good.
(from “At Berlin Schönefeld Airport”)
Antithetical though complementary to Chintungo, Marília Garcia’s The Territory Is Not the Map sparks a keen interest in the opportunity to foray into representation and reflection of intimacy. In its poetry there is the foundation, scaffolding, and ceiling of investigation, of the dive into the questions of communication and liveliness. Otherwise banal and commonplace images and situations are transformed into hyperbolic engagements with existence, where every essence has the capacity to represent the most prolific and disturbing statements on time, life, and a gravity of being.
There is also a grandiose functioning of memory working consistently within The Territory that is approached and acknowledged directly. This function stays within the book from cover to cover, creating a sense of wondrous confusion, decay of narrative, and a beloved choppiness. Who are speakers of these poems? What is their ultimate agenda? And, at least as importantly, to whom and to what do they reach out with their language? The impact of this ambiguity instills is complex, both capable of invoking disarray and instability, as well as a degree of trust for the reader. In other words, the mere process of the poet develops into the hinge we need to believe in what is being conveyed, even if we, as readers, might not fully understand. It is the benefit of space, as foggy and unknowable as we know it to be.
The line “do you remember what you said / as the car skidded?” (from “This Is a Love Story and It’s about an Accident”) is one of countless examples of Garcia’s precision of the exercised thought in The Territory. The line both enchants the given poetic scenario with its investigation and provides a dominant environmental constraint through a subtle contextualization. The potential power within these lines sticks and yet finds flight toward the next vaporous image, the next substantially paralyzing provocation. And yet the book is complete with a tone of comfort. Its emotional affect, rooted in sadness, anger, remorse, or otherwise, maintains an imperceptible or subliminal position within the book’s spine. In its place sits, positioned high, strength and resolve of a curious and empathetic poetics.
Originally published in 2016, Tyehimba Jess’s Olio won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and has since been reprinted by Wave Books to recognize the award. This essay explores my reading of the book for the first time in early 2018, in the onset of the second year of the Trump Administration.
Tyehimba Jess wrote Olio. It is important that I acknowledge the brilliant artist behind a book that is about so many people that are not the artist. It is important to me to acknowledge the artist who creates a conversation that extends beyond the moment of the absolute personal, for the absolute personal is easy to forget in a book that is about community, unity, and collective memory. And music. Yes, music too.
It is also important that I publicly thank Jess in this text, right here, because what will come soon after this set of lines is another set of lines, and another, that reflects my haggard, distracted, and often chaotic sense of time, space, identity, and the thinking-feeling mind. I thank you, Jess, for creating this book—and regardless of the clutter and ideas that are soon to follow, what, at the core, I would like to impart and pass on to anyone who comes upon this text is a hope that they will find the book, and approach it, and see how it is what it is, and perhaps see how it is that they did not see previously, and maybe consider the many qualities of the book, as a book in a lineage of books, of poetry, of African American art, of abolition, and as much of the 1800s and 1900s as of the 2000s. So, thank you for your contribution and, on a selfish note, to sending out a gift that I (and so many others) received.
Part 1: Olio
At 235 pages of text, Olio is the offering that sits beyond description. It is the established collection, gathering, fulcrum of voices recovered from their state as dematerialized and depoeticized through the malfeasance of time and structure. It is a book with the title demonstrating the miscellaneous, and as by the act of beneficence it is the miscellaneous taken into center, compiled, reinvigorated. And we have a presence to this book that grows with age, continues to sit as a cornerstone of a new epic, a new shattering and reinventing of the canon of American poetry and, more generally, the avant garde. And perhaps, through roots literal and figurative, representative of the deeply, historical individualism of the poet, and also representative of actual individuals who actually provide their own poetic, beautiful, souls, souls that continue to survive, and burn brightly, singing and singeing their way through text and context into today.
Thinking: that NPR would call this poetry unconventional.
The era that I write this in is an era of quaking and screaming. It is an era of agony and an era of unending uproar. 2018 comes two calendar years after the first publishing of Olio, which to much agreement and praise became a book to win the Pulitzer Prize. When the book won the prize, there were, of course, those who knew about it and those that did not. There are still those who know about it and those who do not. The prize resulted in those who would write about the book, and those who did not. And of the many public descriptions and responses of a book winning the Pulitzer Prize, many are lackluster, vague, and objectifying.
Like this, which is nothing much greater than a summary.
Like this, which refers to the book, among other things, as embodying book arts.
Like this, which may understand the book's humanism, but doesn't highlight the demand for this book's existence.
Like this, which despite its integral descriptions of the book's functions, still manages to leave readers with the reverberating, deeply callous "twisted funhouse" imagery.
How would you want your epic to be described?
How would you want a smash of canon to be shown?
How would you want the opportunity for respect and humility to be left tasting in your mouth and sweating from your ears as you move forward into the future?
But surely, disrespect and shallow beams from writers of our country can be tossed aside. Surely, they can? We are all deposits from the bowels of a fetid and fetishized dream, a landscape of infinite surfaces. "We" are the excusable writers whose privilege coats them in protections made to look like constraints and agreeable language. "We" the writers born out of a landscape of sickness. Turning the blind eye as our sick country decays and implodes around us. "We" who can hide behind the uproar and pretend to get away with our musings.
The country’s uproar is the uproar of a sickness. And the stupefying malaise of the responses to Olio, which in no way make up all of the responses but do stand out, notably, is a malaise that is contained within this sickness of the United States. That a poet of color, writing about people of color, heroes of color, would be denied or given less grace than anyone else, is the logical continuation of both historic racism and recent crises in racial identity embedded, deeply, in our fabric, in our daily conversations, in our sense of belonging, and our sense of communal history. The continued oppression and the minimized, passive-aggressive silencing of this great American poet is an also a phenomenon forming as an extension from other phenomena in our culture, which I hope to get into below. But there is racism, and one only needs look at the flat, bland rehashing of the book solely formed as narrative text (a deeply limited and limiting view) that we get a sense of how the book was received and interpreted beyond its greatest supporters.
Olio is a word I didn’t know before reading the book, and as I read the book, with the white privilege of being able to easily transport myself into other perspectives and appropriate other identities, I take a moment to wonder about what being within the olio as a physical thing might look like, and how being part of a culture of the minstrel show might look like, and how this book could serve as a guide, could in some way iterate the trajectory of a trinity, a contemporary Divine Comedy, or perhaps some degree of cantos. For there are songs in Olio, are there not? But who is doing the singing?
When I think about myself as the reader of this book, I think about my own differences from Tyehimba Jess, and Tyehimba’s representation of the “Owners of This Olio,” which include John William “Blind” Boone, Henry “Box” Brown, Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Fisk Jubilee Singers, Ernest Hogan, Sissieretta Jones, Scott Joplin, Millie and Christine McKoy, Booker T. Washington, “Blind” Tom Wiggins, Bert Williams, George Walker, and Wildfire (or: Edmonia Lewis). I think about the other representations and recordings and descriptions and borrowed words of other real people in this book, including (but not exhaustive) Julius Monroe Trotter, Della Marie Jenkins, Ben Holmes, George White, Maggie Porter, Greene Evans, Carmen Ledieux, and Thomas Rutling.
I ask myself things, automatically, things that may tell me more about me than they do about American poetry, but still come to mind, like:
“A miscellaneous collection (as of literary or musical selections)” . . .
I consider whether the irony that the audience of Olio is in fact an olio also, a la Terrace House, contributing in their own contemporary illusions of minstrel show-esque trapping is one Tyehimba Jess wished to invoke in the creation of his book. And I wonder if the book’s readership, as extension of our country’s splinter of seekers of the poetic, will ultimately arrive to encounter this quality of this newly spot-lit epic.
Now I am thinking back to the canon, and I am thinking back to Olio as a cornerstone text in our canon—yes, “our,” as representative not just a book of the African American literary history, but of one being, celebrating, poetry created in the United States as a geometry, a territory, a country, with its own macro-culture and fucked up but describable mass-lineage. I think of those texts we identity within our cannon already. Can we all agree on specific titles? If you think of a keyword string, say, “famous American poetry,” or “best American poetry,” what have our power structures, our leadership and decision makers, our consumer markets, agreed to meet those requirements?
I very much want to dwell on the inevitable oppression that exists in the canon, but I have other things my mind considers as well. In other words: there are qualities to “American poetry” as a canon, as a thing that we may ascribe denotations to, agreeable descriptions about, that I question as intersecting qualities with consumerism, technology, simulacra, and oppression. There are prevalent qualities that require us to examine the soulless, the invisible, those who suffer, those who are forgotten. There is also what is taught, what is known, and what becomes normalized. We are all victims to these trends, these patterns, these inevitable manifestations of management of media and content and cultural miasmas that we trudge through, as though swampy and murky and nearly-drowning us.
What happens if we change the keyword phrase to: “What makes American poetry good?” “How did American poets become famous?” I am reading Tim Wu’s book The Attention Merchants and am also thinking about Kevin Young’s Bunk. And Olio, where I take notes like “The ritualization of the performance as one that is commodified; breaking free from that performance seems to include an acknowledgment of it and a performing to the self.”
Is it possible to feel satisfied with simply acknowledging that a powerful new book has entered our canon, and that we can all sleep easily knowing that as an epic poem and as an expertly-navigated body of voices Olio has done more for the evolution of American poetry than any other book in recent memory, arguably ever?
On page 122, we encounter the Greene Evans jubilee, which, following a section of poems on Blind Boone, states:
“My friend, / can you imagine how it must feel to / finally own your own skin? Arms? Legs? Eyes? / To bellow with your own almighty light?”
I page through my notes, and think of a certain self-awareness to the notes I wrote of this section:
“As with Blind Boone, the people that are characters in this book not only struggle from systematic oppression, but also have to deal often with disability. Such is the case with Blindness, which ends up coming off as a blessing in disguise.” (See: page 105, on “Blind Boone’s Blessings”.)
Part 2: Breathing through the Book
When thinking about the breath used in various modes of meditation, there is often the metaphor of the breath as a way to carry and release the burden that exists. The burden may be that of the self or that of the world or that of the universe. It may be specific or it may be in totality, but the breath continues, and the breath lets the burden arrive, only to dispel and dissolve the burden a moment later. I have heard of song described the same way. I have heard of song as a way to resolve moments of pain, hardship, and suffering. That there is song, that there is voice that can carry music, is proof that we, that humans, can counter that which we face and carry.
Not all works disembowel the soul of this work. Not all.
I approached Olio as I approach most poetry I encounter at this point in my life, and that is through breath and voice. As I’ve just described, both the act of breathing (whether you describe this in terms of meter and form within the text or something that happens in parallel but not bound to the text, or otherwise entirely) and the act of expelling sound is an action of relief and processing. To read through breath and voice becomes a form of momentary liberation. It is tempting to make the jump, as ridiculous as it might sound, from liberation from the moment as the general reader to, analogically, the works of the minstrel show and the African American slave performances. This is tempting, but I do not think it is fair. What I do think is fair, and hopefully not entirely disrespectful, is that encountering a poetry bound in song and performance (as qualities of freeing, for the African American cast described in the previous section, the “cast” of Olio) that feels relieving to the reader will help develop some degree of empathy and engagement with the slave experience.
I wonder if perhaps the trouble with this book, as identified by the public, is through that empathy, through that unlocking pathway toward even one or two steps toward an inkling of understanding of what these individual humans went through in order to come to grips with their selves, their souls, their identities, their personhoods. Does unlocking that pathway thus turn this book on its head? Does it make it perform to the point where we are dissuaded from reading it? How many readers project their own insecurities onto a book in order to make it perform for them? To relieve the qualities of the olio (miscellanea of struggle) to find the bearable qualities of the olio (a minstrel performance)? And, sadly, if not also ironically, would a reader through unconscious transformation like this end up causing so much dissonance that once again the characters are just characters, the minstrels are just minstrels, the blacks are just blacks, and the poetry is just poetry?
The oppression of the soul is insidious. The murk of our disconnection is vague and safe.
“How do we prove our souls to be wholly human / when the world don’t believe we have a soul? / How do we prove black souls holy and human / when the whole world swears we got no souls?” (from: “Jubilee Indigo” on page 166)
Tyehimba Jess’s choreography is incredible and incredibly poignant, and it explores far better than my own writing these ideas, these layers of who we might be before, during, and after Olio is part of our lives. He quotes from Paul Laurence Dunbar: “We wear the mask that grins and lies, / It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes-- / This debt we pay to human guile; / With love and bleeding hearts we smile . . .”
And at what cost to pick up the book, in 2016, 2017, 2018, and read it? Or better yet, at what investment? Where do we pay to be liberated from a canon of the dead, blasé landscape of vague hierarchy?
I feel a sense of demurring within the implications of this book that sits open in front of me. An demurring of the self. I of course write from a seat of a history of power, of people who came before me and continue to exist around me, whose qualities are very similar to my own, who I identify with at times, and I write of this book and its reception from a perspective of a section that I ache to see transformed and, in staring at that white abyss I ritualistically ignore the world that I do not look toward—of those who are and will do more with, and benefit from, this book.
Part 3: Recognition and a Recognized Present
Well through Olio, Sissieretta Jones speaks in one of the poems: “Let the key be infinite. / Let the coon song scatter. / Let each mouth be envy. // Let bloodlines be muddied. I stand solo in this country / of concert. I am multitudes / of broken chains. I am Aida / with war on her lips.” (159)
Jones, a crooning Black Diva (to use Jess’s description), is a mesmerizing individual who, her story of survival, success, and struggle recognized, represents a truly beautiful and marvelous language. Olio is filled (in its many pages) with powerful, paralytic language. The verse is capable of throwing the reader from their seat. It is heroic and sacred, as warm as blood and as strong as steel. The imagery is hypnotic and the tone stings. There is a sense of the incredible, but a reader need not veer far from the stories of the speakers to understand why: the lives these people, these many chosen by Jess, were truly extraordinary. They were lives filled with horror, with the miraculous, with the truly unbelievable.
How often are we buried in our own perception of what is real and what we believe to be the limits of our knowing, when some new component of our collective existence comes along and shows us we were wrong, we did not actually know anything at all? What level of performance does it take to realize the drab din of our daily waking existences? What spell does it take to waken us from the perilous, endless dream?
If Olio was a single, simple parable, it would give us an answer to these questions: it takes the individual’s relationship with their expressed self, with their art, to realize how to elevate above the status quo, the chains, the indentured. Time and time again, story upon story, recollection upon recollection, confession upon confession, and celebration upon celebration, we encounter the meaning of the proposed answer, the subtext of Olio.
As I interpret it, it becomes the acknowledgment of the power within, and the ability to recognize that power for goodness.
Reading that line over, I find the crossovers with religion (which are too numerous to dive into too deeply here) significant, and that much of the community of sharing (where the transcendence of these artists took place) is one that finds solace in common ground. The ethical qualities of that ground are undeniable, and the collective suffering is undeniable as well. I will touch on this a bit in the next section, but I wish to acknowledge it here as well: Olio is strongly about itself as a world. It, as a text, operates on itself, as a concept, and the concept is one of dualism. It is miscellanea, but it is also the identified modeling of characters of significance. Jess as an artist has chosen to buffer the stars of the show, the cast as defined, with the myriad voices that also compose the greater miscellanea. Through these additional voices, through the found documents and extended contributions, there is the level of support that goes into the construction of the book.
Let me take a moment to undo the intellectualization of this text by simply commenting on the size of the book. It is a giant. Simply lifting it, feeling its weight and loftiness, indicated an item of grandiose fervor. Of an exceptional, storied essence. In its design, its approach, as a physical object of symbolic resonance, Olio’s appearance and surfaces reiterate its meanings of largeness, of collectiveness, of the voices and voices and voices.
I think for a moment about what it must be like to pick this book up. To know that there is so much within this book, and yet, could there also be an anxiety to interact with this book? Where are some readers of American poetry sick right now? Where is a book like this inaccessible? Where does its bulk, and the nature of its bulk, become a barrier or impediment?
“This is how I know love-- / so you can see my life is brimmed. It’s full-- / with every breath we’ve got. I’m filled completely, / the way any other human would love.” (53)
If anything rises through those question marks like truth to the surface of a body of unknowing, it's love.
Part 4: Speaking Toward the Future
“I conjure a claim / of birdsongs blended from each season’s sun / rooted deep in black muscle memory / that’s set slaves almost free, that carved its name / scrawling across each heart, the music's brunt, / ringing like a bell, like an open wound” (28)
There is the opening of a funnel. There is the drawing attention to an approach to craft capable of community. An embodiment of voices of those that deserve to be sung. Olio is not a reinvention of poetry, or the tradition of human storytelling, but it is a successful revitalization of how we successfully explore humans of history in the contemporary era.
It is a book that pulls forward the voices of a disembodied era into the contemporary. It is a book of evidence as much as it is a book of direct action. Olio is synchronized in its arc of the 19th and 20th Centuries with the spirit of the indie presses and indie artists of today, those spaces where the marginalized explore and receive justice, where the minoritized are capable of eroding the hegemony. Where systemic oppression is proactively countered. Where pride and worth is kindled. Where belonging and community blossom again and again.
To say that Olio as a grandiose, epic text fits into the current mode of the young and progressive poets operating within the world today, at large, is only one end of the book’s full scope. It also integrates uncomfortably but excitingly, into the ongoing, enduring story of the canon, which is published, which is nationally and internationally recognized. That discomfort, explored here a bit, will only be explored with Jess’s next projects, as well as those of his peers, of “American poetry.” That we may consider the past, the present, and the future as the culminating resonance of this book—a book that speaks with a peripheral in multiple temporal directions, is of note. But also of note is the splicing into, the fragmenting off of, our ever-emerging context, the context of the “on the verge of” and “eminently.”
In many ways, the book’s poems and the stories within those poems, about the life praised within those stories, all deals with the moments upon moments we carry around with us, symbolically attached to our lives. These moments define who a person is, what they have gone through, and what they have become as a result of those trials. The performance, as corrupted and bastardized and commodified as it was in the case of the heroes of color within Olio, was also the performance that fulfilled the dualism of freedom and autonomy within these individuals.
The performance in some cases was an identified pathway towards a vision of liberation from the beginning; in other, more epiphanic moments, performance became the hinge of transformation towards liberation and self-empowerment. And of course, there were those whose performance began, endured, and ended through its abuse, as in the case of Wildfire/Edmonia Lewis. Though it exists within its own timeline and I think it should be respected as such, the full spectrum of this relationship with this active, living expression of one’s thinking and feeling life (the performance), is also worth looking at as we, individuals living freely (in some ways) and enslaved (in some ways) go through with our own lives, our own potential transformations.
How might the literary artists of the world learn from Olio where Olio, a year after its award, remains more underappreciated than not? How might its size and its miscellaneous containment, threaded exquisitely together through Jess’s visionary mind, be accessibly and relevantly applied to the niches and moments that surround us? How might is battle institutional racism, individual racism, and the discomfort of knowing the corrosion and disgust that exists within the reality of the brutally pale Western canon? At what point might it, as a model, demonstrate the capacity for compassion, selflessness, and love that we have within ourselves? I ask these questions not in thinking they haven’t been asked before or answered before, but because the book, as I read it, continues to respond to these questions by default. The themes that emerge for a universal readership draw us, the readership, closer, educate us, inform us in ways that may not have done so in quite the same way.
And while the world has known fantastic writers of color finding well-deserved spotlights and recognition and elevation for influence (including poet laureate Tracy K. Smith receiving the Pulitzer in 2012, which was also trounced, also the end point of the racist confusion, and meanwhile her words speak for themselves and above the others), the world, and the United States, hasn’t quite been a moment like the moments it sees now, and hasn’t seen such a book as Olio. It joins links with other unforgettable works, works which defy and diffuse the spotlight toward a new centrum. And true, selfishly, I write this coming out of my own appreciation and acknowledgment of the overlapping moments of discovery and awareness that explores this book’s existence at this time, this place, this cornerstone of cornerstones for my own journey.
There is no easy way to close this piece of writing, and so I turn back to the text, look at one of its many fantastic moments of arising, where the voice of Edmonia Lewis bears witness to the undeniable power of self and transformation, on page 195 in “Minnehaha”:
I was born when I was written,
then hammered out of a mountain.
I was shattered and then broken,
then sharpened to the human.
Part *: Becoming and Unbecoming
It costs the journey
of the burn-out rockets
to learn how
to light up space
with the quick fire of refusal
then drift gently down
to the dead surface
of the moon.
As I move forward, as I have taken moments of my life to look and to look further, I move backward and follow, as the light of an illuminated reflection, what has been created. There was creation and there was response, which was additional creation.
This piece, which I've written out of respect for but also with admitted haste, this piece on Olio, on the olio, is far from perfect. I think about what I was hoping for when I picked up Olio for the first time and, with an intentionally open mind, said "Okay, I embrace this," and pulled the book close. The act of embracing one book and keeping others from being embraced. The act of intentionally choosing which book instead of a mindless flow of literature, the endless tides of words, the soulless sprawling of an abundant mass based upon previous conjectures of whiteness and power.
As I move forward, I imagine each book I stumble upon, encounter, am greeted by to be a masterpiece. I imagine the oppression of the academy and the institution of the published poem and the published poet as holding potential inequity. I imagine those works that gather dust in the corners, gather corrupted data in the corners of their owners' thumb drives, to be the next contribution to the canon.
I think about the generalizations I've made in these statements, and what kind of wrong they might bring. Have I oversimplified? Have I objectified? Have I appropriated? Have I misappropriated? Have I seized as an element of my entitlement, or am I honest and loving in my explorations? Where have I stumbled? Where have I lost foresight? Where has my blindness held me back? Where are lessons I should have learned previously? Where is there no conversation and only ego? Where is there only ego and no conversation?
The considerations of the spaces that have become uplifted and have the power of affecting so many people. These spaces have a certain spiritual quality. They have a certain quality that can transform the lives of those who believe in it. But first they must see it. Know it. Be aware of it. Conscious. Directly entwined. Intentional. The process of the presence of works like Olio have so much potential. There is a light. And there is more light after that.
When someone asked me, recently, what I was writing thousands of words about, it was hard to respond. I believe that sometimes the most vigorous words I encounter are some of the most chilling. And we often don't know why they chill. They just do. For me: Rene Char. Audre Lorde. Georg Trakl. Adrienne Rich. Claudia Rankine. Some and yet many. Many voices. Voices that erupt the notions of what "notion" even is.
These are seen. These people are seen. But olio. But jubilee. But the collective. The people who are not. The people who are not seen. The people who emerge. Who are discovered. Uncovered. Remembered. Brought to life. The people who have the potential, all the people, who all have the potential, to exist.
I think of the endless sequence of faces. The endless smiles. The endless struggles. The endless recoveries. The endless steps forward. And with each step, the procession of what is brought, like rhythm, into being and acknowledgment. Acceptance.
The truest canon that we can see: directly in front of us, as individuals and as collective, what we draw. But it takes the presence of these magical, powerful, and mesmerizing individuals in order to watch their works fill in the gaps of experience. I am grateful that Wave Books allowed for this to happen with Tyehimba Jess's Olio. I think of it as risk. I think of it as testimony. I think of it as dynamite on the floodgate. And it excites me. As it certainly does and will continue to excite the world. For poetry. For beyond. For truth. And for a persistence of an appreciation for the equitable human experience. Of the past, of the present, and the future.
Identity feels likely.
. . . Or at least zany, un-re-
to a glare, a stamped ex-
haustion of fixture’s texture
lowlifeing in the local cut.
Through grafts of language we find the most secretive burrows of truth, the truth that is destined to hide, the truth that is destined to exist before, during, and after the iterated expression, the accepted, the understood. In Insolvency, Insolvency! there are poems demonstrative of the active though underlying/peripheral/subtextual truths that appear like glitches in the perfection of representation, like melting in the stasis of certainty. This language, a language that is wholly that of the poet and author of the text in question, Jeremy Hoevenaar, is one that moans with arousal, shivers with clandestine excess and morbid recession. It is a language of the computer-as-precipice-of-humanity. An epilogue to the Turing Test. A presumption of the intelligence that could model the authentic and the artificial at the same time. Hoevenaar’s work is crucial to the fabric of a world that exists too quickly to notice itself, yet is pinned to the wall like a tapestry, unmoving when unacknowledged and infinitely capable when acknowledged. A mandala for circuitry. A vortex for the contemporary subconscious, which knows itself through the tidal waves of information that plow it around like snow on asphalt. Insolvency, Insolvency! is a rattler, a fountain, a fulcrum of the engorged reality within which we live. When the poet says, “In a world that doesn’t see you, / your thoughts must welcome you” we hear the moments of Camus and the existentialists uproariously imbued with the digital.
Insolvency, Insolvency! by Jeremy Hoevenaar was published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2017.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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