Sugar Factory by Emily Wallis Hughes (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019)
Your rhythm will delete all of your past
The way we interpret the world through the act of creativity, as a form of release. A form of bliss. A form of transformation. The way we receive the world and volley it backward, toward a new target, through a new direction.
The relationships between artist and artistry, conversion and translation, object and worldview The poet and the poetry as the contemporary medium for the facilitated conversation the profound thirst for an achieved, beloved existence. The painter as the meditator before the walls of the imagined essence, the exasperation of a beautified interpretation. The conceptual framework of conceiving the longitude of the sugar factory captured in geometric space. The record of friendship. Spellbinding consistency of communication and the microcosmic resound of community. And how the book forms forward these enticements.
Sugar Factory is a collaborative project between New York writers/artists Emily Wallis Hughes (who has provided the literary text) and Sarah Riggs (who has provided the cover and interior artworks, images originally created by way of Lascaux paints and followed Hughes's poetry). The book contains 63 works (poems and visual art) and concludes with an uplifting and resolute essay on the autobiographical roots of the generative qualities of the works and the act of publishing as collaboration.
The book, the first book of poetry by Hughes, is a joyride of canvas wrapped into new canvas, palette stacked upon palette, range of knowing exquisitely exposed before other knowing. Sugar Factory is a delightful romp between the communicated selves of two alive and intimate individuals.
On an opened jean jacket
I lay our triplets out nude
in the Poland snow which exists within
the narrow margin we see surrounding dawn
(from “Church Bells Come From the East”)
Reading Sugar Factory, I find myself pushed through text as though it is the current along a rocky coastline. The energies are subtle, often invisible, yet bright and present and full and cavernous. What exists above, through, and beneath the experience of reading these poems? I think, as I take hold, and push in, dive in, explore. The poems are phantasmagorical and spontaneously spirited. They are chopped up moments that lead in and out of the everyday experience.
They are chopped up instances of significance. There is reflection of the mutually beneficial: the feedback of a world that is at one outside and untouchable as well as within and universal. I am reminded of the haunts of an older world, of a world that is far less abstracted, far less buried, far more present, far more accessible. The elusive image, the Sugar Factory itself, a nothing-place filled with the nothing that is life, experience, and contentment.
The air, pressing all acute
Still, though, the sky
is a good idea
(from “The Sky”)
Hughes represents the autonomous, creative human throughout the book. Her exposures to the decision-making process that underly all creative works, including those that are often so large they loom, including books like Sugar Factory, offers reverence, consolation, and maturity. The effect feels respectful toward the reader who is otherwise along for the ride, spoon-fed spoonfuls of image and quirk, expression and invocation.
The musings and reflections that make up what is a long sequence of memento and record-keeping are powerful pressures toward keeping the structure of the work in place. Often this structure is one empowered and uplifted through a sense of mystery. Why are some decisions made? What does exposition leave out? Is there more the reader must understand, or is the entire world a blur? And, of course, there are questions about the nature of the collaboration and the placement of Riggs’s paintings, which add their own effect of the canny and uncanny alike: drips and spurts and splashes of creamy, oily, bold color that comforts and rockets one and the same.
She starts making a basket out of Yerba Buena and out of her own hair
and her sister’s hair and out of out of dog blood and out of
the elderberries dropped on the gravel path to her best friend’s house
She, she forgets
I forget how
A sense of bewitching and ritualization is another quality I enjoyed encountering through Sugar Factory. With qualities of ambiguity and fragmentation that exist within the sequence of poems overall, down to the smaller details that remain flashes of inspiration and evocative momentary genius, the book feels utterly alive and beyond reach. The moments, such as the one quoted from above in “Day,” represent a much more cohesive arrangement of objects and actions that feels intentionally experiential.
Whether these utterances and descriptions are actual rituals or serve a higher degree of personhood and liveliness is unspoken and is as uncertain as the book as a whole; and yet they offer counterbalance/counterpoint to the otherwise fullness of the currents of energy that move from one moment of Sugar Factory to the next. They sit supportively providing a sense of center to that ongoing, fantastical mystery awakened through the efforts of Hughes and Riggs, jointly combined into a common space.
She speaks, says after loss
there is always beauty. Then
youth over the daffodil
death under the milkmaids.
(from “Three Women”)
Overall, the book is a flighty, fascinating space that rounds itself out in the connection between two creative individuals who have released into the world an organized smattering of chaos. It’s fun and enjoyable to read, intellectually enveloping, and distinctly arranged through the joy of cooperative activity. It serves as euphoric juxtaposition: preview to the personal and pull upward toward the global collection of experience.
Midden by Julia Bouwsma (Fordham University Press, 2018)
for every sorrow that been dug from you,
here is a pile of rubble twice as high.
Tracking human change can be a painful and insightful process. The poet’s journey in Midden is one that personally and wholeheartedly explores the landscape upon which we walk, and how to better understand the stories of the lives of those who have previously lived within the landscape.
Through this book of poems, Maine poet and librarian Julia Bouwsma explores Malaga Island, Maine, which was once home to a “mixed-race” (Wabanaki, white, and African American) community that was intentionally and forcibly removed by the members of the government of State of Maine in 1912. This book investigates the history of this generations-old group of people and their terrifying demise via ethnographic biography, personal and psychological memoir, and the plethora of archives and library collections throughout the state.
How they came in boats,
how our shacks caught like a shot of light
when match met kerosene. How we left
in their boats; how we huddled
close; how mama bent
to the baby, her crooked
arm clamping him
silent. How a child curled
mouth to smoky knees and bit
them to red.
(from “The Story of Fire”)
In her telling of the story, Bouwsma directly tells the story of the community’s removal and erasure, including the moments of peace and wellness before removal, the process of displacement, and even truly insidious actions to the people’s identity, including the exhuming and relocation of the community’s island’s cemetery’s graves to the disturbingly symbolic Maine School for the Feeble-Minded. These writings occur throughout the course of the book, allowing the reader to appropriately learn and lean into the truth of the Malaga community and their antagonists.
Midden is opened with a foreword by Afaa M. Weaver, who says that “Bouwsma shows us the horror, in poems that are full, yet marked with a deftness and appropriate concision.” I couldn’t agree more. Reading Midden is reading a collection at once stark and writhing. The souls of Malaga’s early residents are bursting with the little documented life that exists, given fresh energy through the complex and mystifying odes of the author’s verse.
[. . .] Memory, a scrap of cotton I fold and fold
until the fabric strips the scent from my palms. If I don’t
make it out, tell my daughters their mother’s skin
is an abandoned shed, grayed pine and dry rot, but inside--
inside holds the taste of salt cod, the sweet clotting of blueberries
drying on tin-roof sun. Tell them to jimmy the lock, to search
if they can. Their fingers will remember.
To say that the events recounted through Bouwsma’s research and findings aren’t tragic would be pivotally incorrect and further dehumanizing. In Midden, the poet strongly describes the formal and intentional actions of Maine society. These are early days of the whitest state in the United States. The actions of the people in power in Maine were angled to shape how humanity-at-large functions. The reality of this hegemonic approach to culture and life presents the reader with a particularly exhausting degree of horror, one that has long been covered up.
Bouwsma has done her searching and collecting of information well, and the book-as-synthesis demonstrates these extreme and oppressive sequences in a logical fashion. Her poems reveal a narrative with a beginning and an end, highlighting the abhorrent behavior from its surface to its core, while ensuring the moments of wellness that did indeed exist within that community before its destruction are presented to the reader as well.
The poems fill the story in a dynamic sense; the poet approaches qualities of the life of the folks in Malaga from complex, multidimensional perspectives. There are souls here, and they dance along the edge of the words in this book. The reader will encounter collage, embodiment, cyphering, and even erasure in the literary structure of Midden. More traditional visuals—stanzas—meet the flickering fluidity of prose, and even the occasional iteration of the projectively-versed voice, creating a sense of affect and a doorway toward fantastic, superhuman moments.
I walk to the clear cut—discarded
limbs, silvered softwood. I trace
this trail of quartz crystals, vertebrae--
morsels dropped from a torn pocket and blazed
to bone dust. The road curves toward
and away. The road spins
the stone walls. My feet stumble inside
ruts my feet have worn.
(from “I Walk My Road at Dusk”)
It is quite sad to see the challenges Bouwsma faces in exploring her own daily life and justifying actions in an attempt to understand placement, value, worth, and relevance through her project. I found the autobiographical poems of the author, which noticeably melt into the rest of the book via tone, language, and vocabulary, to be some of the most powerful and engaging pieces to the work as a whole and one of the largest contributors to its themes. To see the contemporary’s endurance exchange with the historical’s brutality moves Midden beyond the conceptual, beyond works devoid of spiritual depth.
[. . .] Our grief pops loud as pine, burns
so loose we’re gone before we know it. Or we smolder
sweet and dark in our own hot scent. Birch skin peels
from branch, limbs crackle red, recede to black--
some days I unravel so quickly I don’t need a match.
(from “Dear ghosts, because you tell me to, I begin again”)
The poet closes her book with a long essay on process that may be one of the most successful of its kind I have read. In it, Bouwsma writes: “For me, the process of researching Malaga has been akin to walking the same road day after day for years, only to stumble over some new remnant or sinkhole each time. To study Malaga is to wonder, continually, if the ground you are walking upon is really what you think it is.” These words transform the spectrum of our memory.
Torment. Redundancy. Forgetfulness. And respect. Charity. Profundity. The fullness of this human experience comes full circle as we learn about why the project exists, and how it managed to manifest in its lifespan. Seeing these histories, these changes, these memories respectfully acknowledged and framed, like many other moments where Bouwsma honors those dead who were significantly oppressed, is an awe-filled charge of illumination in the night.
Here by Richard McGuire (Pantheon Graphic Library, 2014)
Standing on the steps of the Washington Monument, exactly where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech was, for me, a surreal moment. Time loosened its reigns on my reality: the significance of that space, of what has happened there over fifty years before my standing there gave me chills. It gave me an overwhelming sense of wonder, of appreciation. Not just for the man and what he did, but for that place.
Allowing one to transcend time, to recognize that all times are in their own way connected, is very much at the forefront of artist/writer artist/writer Richard McGuire’s objectives with his graphic novel, Here.
Fifteen years in the making, Here is an incredibly ambitious, inventive work of literature. With this sprawling graphic novel, McGuire tells a unique story that is far more about place than it is about people.
Set primarily within the physical space of one room in a house, the graphic novel shows the reader a series of moments from different times, all existing in the same location, all shown from the same fixed viewpoint, each revealing truths about humanity. On each page, McGuire takes his reader on a journey through time: fragments of conversations and actions from past, present, and future. While the majority of the story takes place during the past century, Here also ventures well beyond, exploring times as early as 3 billion BCE and imagining times as distant as two hundred years into our future.
The pages themselves are quite innovative, typically featuring windows over small sections which allow glimpses into various moments in time simultaneously. The effect of this is fascinating. Throughout several moments in the graphic novel we see that while times may change, people (and the things that people experience) stay very much the same.
As for the visual style, McGuire masterfully plays around with colors and textures, to elicit different moods and the feeling of existing in different time eras. The art itself, particularly the rendering of people and furniture, could arguably be labeled simplistic, but at 304 pages, the volume of art in Here is staggering. There is nothing simple about what McGuire has done with this graphic novel.
While there is much to be enjoyed in Here and, in particular, its experimentation with storytelling, I would also issue a warning of sorts: Here will ultimately not be for everyone. While there were dozens of individual story-lines in the book, none of them bear more fruit than a couple, quick dialogue exchanges or some simple actions. These moments have little, if any, narrative pull in and of themselves. As such, these fragments of individual stories will most certainly not satisfy the cravings of readers who want a traditional narrative complete with character development.
For me, and I suspect for many, Here’s originality, its experimentation with what constitutes a story makes it a work to be admired. What makes Here so special is the very thing that will make it off-putting to some readers. I just hope you choose to give it a chance. You might just walk away with a new appreciation for the places you find yourself.
Brian Burmeister is a regular contributor to the Sport Literature Association, Cleaver Magazine, and Compulsive Reader, and he can be followed @bdburmeister.
YR #59: American Prophets: Interviews with Thinkers, Activists, Poets & Visionaries by Paul E. Nelson
American Prophets by Paul E. Nelson (Seattle Poetics Lab, 2018)
"Over the past decade or so, no one has done more for poetry in the Pacific Northwest than has Paul Nelson. He has sponsored and hosted free public readings and workshops while bringing to Seattle notable poets like Wanda Coleman, Nate Mackey, Michael McClure, Brenda Hillman, George Bowering and other leading figures in the world of Organic Poetry. He is as fine an interviewer of poets as anyone working today, coming to each interview thoroughly informed but retaining great flexibility, letting the various threads intertwine. These interviews, combined with lengthy scholarship, have produced a number of remarkable essays and, ultimately, his manuscript American Prophets." (Sam Hamill)
In an era of echo chambers, an era where the world follows itself on social media and divisions run prevalent across spaces traditionally inspired by discourse, it is incredibly refreshing to encounter the interview as a form of and continuation of the literary arts. Like critically-minded celebrities Amy Goodman and Joe Rogan, like the many independent journalists whose names will sadly go unknown through the rift of consumption, Paul E. Nelson has an intentional mind toward the interview as a form of idea exchange. Of investigation. Of interpersonal existence. This is a quality that he brings from decades past and has managed to continue focusing upon as he moved forward with his own poet’s life as organizer, activist, mentor, and community elevator.
Nelson has spent the last decade (and arguably earlier) exploring the cultural landscape within the Cascadia bioregion. The results of his efforts include the formalization of this inquiry symbolized by the Cascadia Poetry Festival, which sees a strong-but-not-exclusive emphasis on poetry and poetics. The wide net cast to inspect and dissect how people live and create and grow in the bioregion is reflective his newly collected book of interviews, American Prophets, which includes conversations with 16 extraordinary people (from within and beyond Cascadia). The interviews that are captured in this book from years (and decades) past reveal Nelson’s passion and compassion for the brilliant shine of the human mind that co-occupies the world and the contemporary humanity through which Nelson conducts his own artistic practices. Each interview is startlingly different and yet in sum can be looked at as descriptive of Nelson’s own open-minded spirit.
The book’s subtitle is “Interviews with thinkers, activists, poets & visionaries.” The book is broken into three sections: “Thinkers/Activists,” “Poets,” and “Technicians of the Sacred.” The first category contains the voices of parenting coach Gloria DeGaetano, animal communications expert Rupert Sheldrake, feminist-futurist Jean Houston, and medicinal radical Larry Dossey. These authors and specialists, while representing completely unique perspectives and focuses on work to reform humanity, are all quintessentially forward-thinking through an exploration of health, the psyche, and the urgency of responding to negative contemporary changes in our societal living. To read each section, each interview, is to find intensely uplifting and inspiring paradigms to how we might confront some of our major human issues. The information (and advice) overload is not to be taken lightly; each moment I read through these interviews I was scrawling notes about profound illuminations that might make my own life better. In that way, American Prophets may have been prophesizing how the reader’s life might turn out, adamantly and necessarily!
As a concept, “necessary” and the hard determination/imperative of the expressions contained within these interviews is a bit of an overstatement. Taken mostly from radio programs that arguably was designed for a very open audience, the interviews here are light-hearted and beautifully intimate exchanges between Nelson and those who invited to chat. I believe every interview contains at least one moment of humor (with laughter indicated in the transcript), which reflects another aspect of Nelson’s character. As we saw in American Sentences, Nelson-as-poet carries humor as one of the handful of universal tools that can make truth accessible, approachable, and tolerable. Because none of these messages, none of these truths, are easy and straightforward—most require work just to understand the work of those experts within the dialogue. A joke here and then takes the interview that much further.
“Well, because we all carry our egos with us so, it is perhaps a vain ambition to think that you’re going to rid yourself of ego. But lyrical interference, I mean, the lyric is taken, if we take it not in the sense of song, but in the sense of a first person poetry, a most subjective form of poetry. Ultimately, this has its limitations. It throws the poet back on himself, herself and that’s OK, but it also narrows down the field of poetry. And when we imagine ourselves to be part of a lineage going back to a Homer, or a Dante, or a Shakespeare, poetry is a big proposition there. Partly it’s big because, Dante, Shakespeare and Homer, worked extensively and these were larger works. But even the possibility that in the shorter work, the short poem then, the medium-size poem, that there would be room for more than that kind of vaunted self-expression. The possibility of being able to express other selves, selves other than me, that the poet can be a spokesman for others and bear witness in the name of others.” (Jerome Rothenberg)
Sandwiched between the opening and closing of the book is its collection of poets’ voices. Nelson is predominantly (today, at the time of this book’s publishing) a poet, and as such his attraction to talking with poets makes a certain logical sense. And it might come as a surprise, but despite the spotlight being placed on the term “poet,” these interviews often cover much more than poet-ism and poetry. From the spiritual spectra of Allen Ginsberg to the Seattle roots of Michael McClure to the environmental activism of Brenda Hillman, there is much to be found within these interviews. Much more than their categories would lead the reader to believe! And as such, I find Nelson’s work, this book, to be far more open to more voices than I thought it would be going into it. The voices within should reflect the book’s readership (or vice versa).
Considerably a retrospective of Nelson’s longitudinal efforts as an interviewer, professionally and personally, the book is a marvel. The voices of the poets include Jerome Rothenberg, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Sam Hamill, Michael McClure, Wanda Coleman, Brenda Hillman, and Nate Mackey. In sum, a group as diverse in their walks of life as in their poetic practices. Each interview is just long enough to explore incredible, major ideas while not seeming endless. When it comes to endurance, each interview feels naturally like a chapter within the book, as a reader should expect it to be. They are weighted evenly and can be engaged with in bites, in individual reading experiences.
“I felt that I was a part of a community that wasn’t being documented historically, that events and things were occurring on a level that no one seemed to recognize, or if they did want to recognize, certainly didn’t want to publicize.” (Wanda Coleman)
The section focusing on the poets is followed by “Technicians of the Sacred,” which could be interpreted in a variety of ways. I interpreted it as those folks whose specialties or expertise is grounded in the spiritual; that spirituality is a value or quality to these interviewees above and beyond other values or qualities. While those thinkers and activists included a level of spirituality, as did the poets, the “Technicians” are those who are committed, mindfully devoted, to taking their concerns a step further. Phyllis Curott is a Wiccan high priestess. Bhagavan Das is a guru operating in the lens of Hindu religion and culture. E. Richard Atleo is a hereditary chief of the indigenous Ahousaht people. And Beaver Chief, whose interview is the last in the book, is of the Salish. Like the individuals who make up the previous two sections, these technicians are from extraordinarily unique backgrounds and carry their grave sense of self with them. Nelson’s respectful, curious position as interview is one that is inviting and careful. In each of these interviews, he puts the interviewee first, and the intimacy grows from there. To learn about each of these people through Nelson’s initiative feels special, like a gift, or a token of the human experience survived and cherished.
“Yes. I think that this is where the perspective of Aboriginals, indigenous peoples with a reputation for spirituality, I think will, in the future, be a necessary complement to the survival of the human being. I think science, with its great wonders and powers, as a technological advancement tool, serves to provide certain necessities for the human being. But none of the values that are necessary for survival on this planet. And I think that values can be derived. The authenticity, the legitimacy of values can be derived, not from ideologies but from spiritual quests where human beings can re-learn or remember, in fact, what was always the legacy of the human being.” (E. Richard Atleo)
Unlike many interviews we encounter online and in snippets, these full-length moments between Nelson and his subjects, his invitees, are at once lengthy and natural. They feel legitimate and at the same time the transcription reflects a fantastic degree of craft and a humbling degree certainty. American Prophets will hopefully be just the first of multiple books if interviews Nelson releases. Its potential to impact is strong. Ideally it has the additional potential to inspire a new, emerging sense of belonging that will increase our drive for interviews, for conversations, to triumph over the age of the echo and those vacuous monologues so prevalent today.
The Little Book of Passage by Franca Mancinelli (The Bitter Oleandor Press, 2018)
The diary as a genre offers possibility. It offers a resolute, curious inspection of the personal and reinforces the intention of documentation. It is bound by time in curious ways more obvious than most poetry, and yet often far exceeds the fluid ambiguity of the sprawl of fiction. The diary is a ring of keys in a way that much literature is a ring of keys, but unlike most literature, that ring is bearable from the very beginning, its doors appearing as a process of its reading. The passage to and through those doors marks the gateway of each entry, of each secluded, exasperating moment of exclamation. The diary carries so much of us forward in life, in our own way, as we contribute to it. And even in the age of the social, encompassing, virally-intrinsic internet, the mode of diary-writing, of performing for the journal and the self, remains.
“He knew we would meet at this point, where space crosses time, where the pupil of his eye opens. When he saw us passing the same glass back and forth between us, he took us away from the others.”
Franca Mancinelli is a fantastic example of the author of a diary, even if she does not actively identify as such. Her work The Little Book of Passage is a fantastic example of a diary, even if it is not explicitly identified as such. The implications of this collection of prose being derivative of a genre and all of that genre’s symbolic qualities are numerous. They are implications for trust, truth, transparency. They are taut with a commitment to the described self. They stretch with range but remain incredibly centered. Mancinelli, as indicated by her translator in the book’s introduction, the poet John Taylor, “movingly uses autobiographical details to raise more general psychological and philosophical issues.” Many diaries famous and underground reflect their satisfying capability to harness the facets of a daily life through micro-synthesis. To tackle the psychological, the philosophical, the spiritual, the social, the incredible, the mundane, and the exquisite, while doing so with breadth and that commitment, is to be a space of safety, a space of boundary, a realm of possibility for the sake of openness.
Moving through The Little Book of Passage, the analogy of movement is aligned with the actual processing conducted by Mancinelli in her daily moments. Causations are like minor eruptions of faculties through description of the transience and transformation that lead us toward those portals of truth, keys at the ready of unlocking. To read is to learn, and to learn is to be and to grow. We have this utterly beautiful sense of passage and it is a harmony between risk and reward, through synthesis and exposition. It is beautiful in that aquatic variability that leaves the reader speechless, floating through the ambiguous states of modal travel. “Traveling without knowing what brings me to you. I know you’re going beyond the limits of the sheet of paper, of the cultivated fields,” says Mancinelli, an almost literal experience, an ars poetica raspy and gleaming. These are stunts of truth, of crucial clawing forward page after page, towards that recess, that summit, that depth.
The harness of space blends joy and solemn humility simultaneously. Often there is the added synchronicity of the collective bearing the weight of the process. “We were alone and transparent, with something burning inside.” Even at its most mysterious moments, the heart within this speaker is big and full, ready to admit that which must be said. The discovery, the epiphany, and the refracted awareness. It is a bountiful consciousness through the ascension toward the written spell of intrigue and relay. And yet there is a wholesome quality to this writing as well, a makeshift pact toward an impressionist fountain of worldliness. The humble moments of narrative are grayed behind their temporary natures. Characters enter and exit like beacons of humanity reminding us all that Mancinelli is not all alone in that which she crafts.
“The old woman who lives in the next building sometimes goes out onto her balcony. She sweeps, hangs out the washing on the line, brings the laundry back in, waters two flowerpots. When she passes on, she will leave a clean space shaped by her life.”
The Little Book of Passage is ironically named when approached by way of its pillars of life. Not all snapshots indicate Mancinelli’s own spirited travels; there are instances that serve us well as positioned, blossomed moments of successful image. Their lessons may reach allegorical heights, but they are also reserved and endearingly structured. A blink may pass them by, but they wait all the same, ready to be received, ready to be read. Taylor writes of Mancinelli’s revolving with his own succinct interpretation tackling a poetic language of “unvoiced centers and disturbing causes which cannot be wholly defined yet which have come to the surface, as it were. As the reader meditates on them, they reveal their intricacy and mystery. That is, wordless centers full of emotions, thoughts, perceptions, and even imaginable acts—those pertaining, for instance, to the loss or lack of something or someone essential.”
While the poetry certainly feels universal, keyed into confidence through a bright, humane core, I couldn’t help but think of Mancinelli’s Italian heritage and where it may be a contributor. The reality of Mancinelli writing in an accessible, contemporary Italian language funneling up through a living, empowering Italian culture feels crucial to this space of breath and beauty. And while the references, the details, and the subtext may exist beyond borders, uplifted through a foray through generality, it was with this “libretto d’instruzioni” (“instruction manual” as literally translated by Taylor) that the life appears to pop out and pull inward.
“You no longer have a face, you’re beyond all contours. Only clear light. I’d like to gather you up in my hands, take you in you while you are born, but you gush forth: you are the primal current that cannot be touched.”
Ultimately this diary, if it may be considered a diary, is a meeting ground, an invitation, and a sharing space. Recorded and presented as memory and an attempt at engagement, The Little Book of Passage finds and preserves countless moments of those precious spaces. The growth upon which Mancinelli focuses her faculties, the severe and fearless enticement, and a steady procedure of documentation is an homage to the power of time, and the act of the passage toward that which comes next. Flowing freely alongside us readers is the impressions of certainty and accomplishment. The liberation that arouses through spaces of documented existence.
Kill Class by Nomi Stone (Tupelo Press, 2019)
They call it the kill zone I am going deeper in
We haven’t slept Pollen burns my nose
When shot in the head or torso at close range, die-in-place and no
(from “The Notionally Dead”)
What does it feel like to be an anthropologist observing the roots and cores of the United States Military Industrial Complex? What is the experience of roleplaying and becoming and maintaining “the other” in real, professional war games simulating the Middle East in the American South? These are questions examined by Nomi Stone’s speaker in Kill Class, a book of poems that is emotionally uproarious, intellectually chaotic, and filled with a torpor of spirituality in a landscape of displaced humanism and degraded identity. This book, Stone’s second and a follow up to 2008’s Stranger’s Notebook, blends Stone’s numerous skills into a single, defiant statement that demands a revisiting to our seemingly-endless production of conflict.
The world of Kill Class is a fully-realized, fictionalized version of real places that are not so far from where you are. From where we all are. “’Pineland [is] a simulated country in the woods of the American South, where individuals of Middle Eastern origin are hired to perform in a theatricalized war, repetitively pretending to bargain and mourn and die” describes the context of this space of horror and the horrific. Pineland is also where we find the poet-anthropologist, one or many or universally all, who each bring their identity into this space of flux and cruel juxtapositions. The speaker moves in and out of the scenarios and situations, in and out of the role that has been provided, the back story and the vague sense of realism and wholeness. Stone’s writing doesn’t afford comfort and the shattered mirrors are painfully present. The voices in this book are slanted and fractured, collective but damaged, broken, and paralytic to the point of a wretched, damning beauty.
We go. I can’t
keep up with the group. Gypsy you stay
right behind me Everything
will be all right. I try to make small
talk because other talk brings me out
/ you have to stay in.
(from “Kill Class”)
It is educational to be part of Pineland as it is to document the experience. As it is to read through the documentation and fragments of stories and the singular narrative that does repeat, and repeat, and challenge in its repetitions. Stone’s resultant book (these poems) gruesomely represents the repetition of any given program, military or otherwise, and the endurance of rote pressure. The most antagonistic spaces of Stone’s narrative are when superiors, positions of authority and/or masculine encroachment, attempt to undermine the speaker’s voice and individuality. It is part of the war game and war games are indicative of war, systemic or personal. Stone’s speakers are strong but face conflict, of the other actors within Pineland and of the self, almost incessantly. This truth, that Stone lived through and engaged for two years the work to not only exist but to persist is heroic; and yet despite the success of the documented words, the poems, there is a very distinct, shadow side of this book.
Does anyone have a translation for any of this? If your face is a
(depending on whom you face),
behind you is a splinter.
This is one proverb
(from “Living the Role”)
That shadow is also one of the strongest metaphors operating throughout Kill Class, and it is also one of the major activities for the speakers in the poems: translation. Translation appears in many forms. The speaker translates phrases and terms between Arabic and English. For example, the quote above is based on the Iraqi proverb “If your face is a mirror and the back of your head a splinter” and its presence emphasizes boundaries, distances, and communion. The speaker translates these cultural junctions of Middle Eastern countries through the tragic contextual spaces of the contemporary American war game.
Translation is also inclusive of the necessary act of independence. It is the documented experience. The speakers as both ethnographers and artists translate through concise, spirited response. This translation of experience appears a means of survival and emotional stability. It comes in the form of the direct notes from points in the simulated exercise to the documented modes of freedom when the day’s acting is over, and re-entry occurs through the appearance of strip-mall (and its fast food symbolism) and the intimately-welcoming small-town pub.
There is a door in every word;
behind it, someone grieving.
(from “War Game: America”)
Like so much poetry that has existed before and will continue to appear, the poetry of Kill Class represents this process of translation as one that is a continuum, and a presence. While translation serves as an empathetic counterpoint to the sickening simulation of Pineland, translation is also the shadow of Pineland’s overall story. The people who make up the experiences in these sad, ongoing circumstances become more human through each poem, each practice, each situation. Their fictionalized experiences and lives are humanized through documentation and the value of the written word. It is sad that as they are discovered and described, so too is the pain and the conflict of their existence. And so too the pain and the conflict of the separation between the reader, the author, and between these individuals who exist out there, somewhere, and have real names and fully human lives.
Stone’s book may be a political act in its existence. It may exist to serve as a reminder that the American world of war is hidden behind curtains, between threads, and around corners. It may be an extension of conversations that have occurred for decades. And yet its heaviness, its provocation, its urgency exists in a solemn and chiseled authorial vision. Kill Class has transcribed as openly as possible the experiences of Pineland, as well as the personal experiences and stories of the poet-anthropologist. As such the weight of its existence may be more strongly felt, but it also it maintains an integrity of interpretation. As with stepping into a forest or an unknown, vast space for the first time, the prerogative the book brings reflects what the reader brings into it. The dynamic between the book and the reader may be the source of horror and the horrific that lurks from the first page.
[. . .] The woods
are a class in what
they can take. The country
is fat. We eat
from its side.
(from “War Catalogues”)
Chronology by Zahra Patterson (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018)
To “review” Chronology is already a commitment wrought with problems. Zahra Patterson’s collection of emails, notes, fragments, mementos, and micro-memoirs is flourished with purpose, responsibility, and urges to know fully. It is documentation of the process of translating works in languages that have been barricaded behind the ongoing colonialism of history, the limitations and suppressing qualities of publishing and its industry, and of a stifling and undaunting, contemporary geographical isolation. Chronology is also about time, and commitment. It is about the travels that surround projects and an exploration of personal ties to place and people. To language. It is about relationships: where they come from, how they become acknowledged, and how they grow. It is about memory, and the efforts writers can take (and do) as they seek out the beauty in the periphery of culture, in the slowness of the present. And it is about life, and the need to be and to move, to open and close through curiosity and growth and self-awareness.
The translation itself is arbitrary; what is important is my interaction with her language.
But summarizing the book with all of those qualities, while true, excludes the radical core of Chronology. It also excludes the extraordinary lineage of works Patterson accepts, interprets, and contributes back to: inspirations like Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha; Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip; and the theories of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (to name a few). Chronology is an examination of ethnic and racial power and pride, presenting numerous conversations Patterson has on blackness in the context of the United States and Africa. It is a plausibility towards ancestry and the history of multiple peoples, of identity, and of disconnection and displacement. It is an ongoing conversation of the necessary translation that contributes to health and progress in a globalized, post-colonial vision. Chronology is a dive into risk through the project that is generative of success, failure, and the remarkable acceptance of both. It is about human achievement and human stories, and the equity that can bind us and elevate us through both.
And Chronology is also a book about language in all of its amazement, its transfigurations, its complexities, and its own problems. The book seeks to remedy what is taken for granted in the act of translation, in the conversion and explored movement between one language and another. It recognizes the power of language and the vulnerability of language as it is approached, as it is messily understood, and as it may or may not satisfy. Language’s importance consists of its derivation from relationships, and from the resources that are created by the efforts of humans. From the lack of dictionaries to the inherent personalized experience of communicating to the emerging witness of orthography, of receiving assistance, of engaging serendipity, language and translation is of incredible essence. In Chronology, the core of languages forms the spine and the soul of the work and the project, and Patterson’s treatment is careful, restless, and dutifully challenging. There is a sense of mindfulness. There is a sense of consciousness. There are senses of morality and respect. And there is a sense, again, of the equity of human stories.
I could have gone to Malawi and stayed out of debt. But I had to come to Cape Town to find who I am. This city is me: the separate coexistence of Europe and Africa. Yet I am one. And it is one. The separation is part of the whole. What completes the essence is the unbearable dichotomy within it. Yet we bear it, don’t we. The Monster—the oppressed. The Fool—the oppressor. And vice-versa. And within all of us western-ethnic folk, we carry and cope with this dichotomy. When you become your own monster’s fool, you will have achieved self-awareness. Then you can live with your dual self.
But no matter what lens Chronology is explored through, there is the challenge of representing it as fully as it can be, representing it through any review or otherwise, and understanding its fullness as being filled with the unseen, the personal, the interpretable, and that which is outstanding. Much of the book’s most enjoyable moments occur when there is a fluid sense of complexity, where the book might not be known as well as it could, where it deserves retreatment by the reader.
The stories contained within, which literally explore Patterson’s engagement with a short story written in the Sesotho language, which literally explore the ongoing friendship between Patterson and the late Liepollo Rantekoa, are stories that inform each other and contribute to the book’s structure and form. But in support of and additionally beyond those narrative threads, Patterson’s Chronology feels like an offered gift of self, for self. Noting the space that the reader can be, that of the “the other,” is an occupied, intentional space that promotes connectivity and a humble resolve. Chronology, for me at least, induced a pressure to find love and fulfillment within my own realms as modeled by those pressures described in Chronology.
What is my function? I am not mere bystander critiquing orthographic politics and the violent gift of literacy. I am a writer. A speaker of English. I am not a translator or a speaker of Sesotho. What right do I have to embark on this project? An emotional pang—is that a right?
And so, what is the fuller (or simpler) description of the conversation of “the ultimately failed” project that is contained within Chronology? Much of it can and should be, at least in this space, this review, left up for mystery. We as a collective of readers have much to gain through the examinations and periods of self and selflessness, and their joyful and difficult overlaps, that Patterson has chosen, with intentionality and empathy, to include. To acknowledge the courage underlying this providing of reflection as intense and determined work, in all of intricacies, is to recognize Chronology as an act of productivity, beauty, and graciousness.
Glimmerglass Girl by Holly Lyn Walrath (Finishing Line Press, 2018)
When others see me, they will see a woman unhinged.
I will crawl out of my skin, leaving it all heaped behind me
and the naked me will walk home alone in the darkness
a disciple of shadows, an acolyte of the moon.
(from “I am Going to Find the Unicorns”)
The chapbook Glimmerglass Girl, while a whorl of selected moments, contains a collective and collective energy that has the potential to awe and influence. It is a feminist work as much as it is a work of an independent, confident poet. There is a general outburst of energy here, one that indicates journey and trial and achievement. It is a landscape of learning and knowledge, wisdom even, attained through the process of living out womanhood. These are poems that, as a collection, field experiential memory and meditative spaces of raw emotion. The book, both narrative and lyrical, lends itself to a harmony of reflection and gracious internalization. The poems are short and brief, and ultimately find their strongest qualities through Holly Lyn Walrath’s overarching voice when the book has been read and the covers finally closed.
Following a brief preface, “On Womanhood,” which requests the reader tread softly through the book’s pages, Glimmerglass Girl displays its 24 poems in a manner of delicate, slow care. “in the night glass is everywhere” opens the poetry of Walrath’s collection, indicating that delicateness is already present. The poem “Espejitos,” (“little mirror” in Spanish) sets not only the quality of the poet’s mental and emotional approach to her life and livelihood, but also sets the motif that will return from piece to piece.
The glass/mirror metaphor is not only in the imagery of the poems, but in the voices Walrath brings to the work, and, curiously, in the muse buried behind the history of each poem. Not only do previous circumstances serve for fuel of this poetry’s illumination, but previous aspects and iterations of the core self. These poems are architectural to the identity of the poet and even indicate a degree of transformation and transposition. The book indicates the poet’s cautious and unparalleled journey to get from previous to current states of being. And, remarkably, the metaphor never needs to be broken to reflect or scatter (open) those moments of illumination. The delicacy remains.
Her hands are soft and diminishing,
becoming like the petals of the peony
or lace paper—gold leaf.
(from “Peony Red”)
Glass is not the only surface or material that is operating within Glimmerglass Girl. Gold, another delicate substance, which carries symbolic properties, including the regal and the beautiful, appears multiple times throughout the book. There is a consistent sense of questioning when gold shows up, nearly alchemical in its positioning: what does this metallic serve as ingredient to? How does Walrath use it to position her own sense of self? Is it preservation of beauty? Is it a subconscious protection of identity? Is it merely the ornate, supplemental beauty that we all wish to carry around with us from time to time? Or perhaps it is purer, more abstract at its heart.
Details like gold, skin, weather, and other elemental imagery appear and disappear in a morphic process both ritualistic and organic the same. As such, Walrath has composed these vignettes with the capacity for explicit definition, but there is diffusion, abstraction, a termed fizzling. It is a world of memory and the temporary. Creating these premises allow for Walrath’s firm, pronounced independence to shine. And as a result, her voices open and chisel across the page with distinction and confidence.
The book’s textual poetry is combined with images pulled from archives and reused in new contexts here. How they play out, typically sharing space on the page with the poems, is typically straightforward and strong. However, while Walrath’s work in Glimmerglass Girl is fantastically capable and certain, it is curious to see that several poems positioned on the page overlap or are placed above the images. In numerous instances, this makes the poetry very difficult to physically read. While Finishing Line Press has created an engaging, explorative book, these design constraints unfortunately keep at least two of the poems from full physical readability/legibility.
And while it would be fine to ignore these qualities directly, there is value to them! The obfuscation here elevates and makes even more obvious the severity of the book’s original motif: the glass and the mirrors, and their resulting effects on light and clarity. The conflict with the embedded pictures results in its own conversation on how we find meaning and truth when integrating the external world with our own, purest forms of communication and expression. Whether intentional or not, there is a benefit in the selected images.
I am night and a thousand stars hurtle through
my skin, punching through the ether.
I crouch, prehistoric, in the space behind clouds, my volcanic heart
attracting lightning, sympathetic
(from “Anvil Crawler”)
Reading from cover to cover, this short collection of poems resonates deeply. As a male reader, I found the book to be filled with insight, information, and inspiration for knowing more about the female experience. I imagine the feminist offerings this book undoubtedly can provide to female readers will create realms of influence and inspiration in other, exciting ways. The individualism and independence of Walrath’s voice, and her movement from pillar of experience to pillar of experience, and beyond, has set a precedent for even more of her work. What it will bring, and how Walrath will view herself and the world around her, is an exciting and encouraging prospect.
XoeteoX by Edwin Torres (Wave Books, 2018)
A palindrome assures continuity—the entry into itself reborn at every passing. By becoming itself in the course of its lifetime, palindromes are the most human words.
(from “Chaos is a Flower” on page 34)
A book of circumspection and suspected object-oriented investigations of language, XoeteoX is the eighth collection of poems by Edwin Torres. It is a book that cuts some helpful corners by omitting authorial explanation and deconstructive explication, but manages to bring a mature, managed poetics forward to the open reader through moments of graceful experimentation and a surge of intense respect for the learned identity. Part focused vispo and part raw, irreparable reflection, the pages of XoeteoX are filled with the personal as the subject in a world that demands its stability. This plunge into the self feels retributive and swollen with an intentionality of output and excess.
At their core and on their surface, the poems in this book feel like gifts. Take, for example, “I was so Tired this Morning and Now Here I am Awake,” which densely packs a stasis of high energy, realism, and hyperbolic description into its quasi-confessional introductions:
Spilled, entwined, organ’ed, Zygotic, wiped, ready to receive your etcetera,
Becoming mine, etc.
Socketed each to each, chord’ed, felt-wrapped, fluid, etc.
Inched, ink’t, warped, amongsted, Kriatic, impulse, re-neutered, etc.
De-balled, un-iced, ridged prosthetics snugly fit, etc.
Neared, riddled, impossibly squandered, un-stanza’ed appreciatively, etc.
Far felt, nibbled, mouse-holed, in and out energetics, etc.
The language here is a bastion of range of the personal and the exasperated: dramatically posed with scope and boundlessness the poet explores and expands and extends, almost as if by necessity. Torres’s moments are the interconnected splay of the living line of breath in a poem that must continue to breathe. Tones are essences of output and inclusive of the whole, with surprise and relief filling the same void, simultaneously. It is a moment of profound tracks that lead toward some incomplete yet demanding moment of transformation by way of collection and accumulated knowledge. Transition and movement formulate the poem as it continues (pages later) into a space approaching gender and the elements of our human being that make up our identity and placements within our world and worldview:
throw myself catch me—the boy in the body to body the girl
the oblique interruption of body parts—ground into dust by the girl
Relief and shifts in positions of stress and certainty could be one interpretation of the core of XoeteoX, which is a book of parabola and palindromes: concepts with perspectives that lead to equivalencies and continuations (in loop). In the case of some of these poems, it is the method of exploration that serves to create a point of balance; in other poems, however, there is the direct question of the algorithmic procession that can exponentially lead to solutions or resolution in their formulas and building blocks. Take the vispo work “Tone,” which unreproducible here (visually) creates a grid poetics that shows transition by mere variable. In one section it morphs: “the break left alone / by windsect / the man left alone / by worldsect / the world left alone / by insect” (page 21). The poem ultimately is filled with puns of itself, variations on themes found within microcosmic displays of expression. There are roots to be seen in this rough trajectory toward truth, a roughness that is necessary through Torres’s momentum of exploration.
Additionally, traditional elements of experimentation pad those extreme instances, where text is literally torn apart on the page. The poem “Ocean Obelisk” is one example, where long and full stanzas are stripped from meaning and positioning by a carefully plunged representation of the aquatic, tidal scrape: rough text jumbled and smeared with a refreshing or rehashing is the “translation” of a simpler form of poetry and confessional identity. The result of this splice: it is curious but slightly unenjoyable to try and read directly. For me, I simply moved past the poem after scanning it and admired the courage of the self-erasure on the simplest of terms. Looking back, I think about how an obelisk often carries a certain degree of mythic mystery to it, and the “Ocean Obelisk” of Torres does this as well, providing a sort of center point, or blurred core, a depth charge, for the soul of the book. In other words, each palindrome here, which is swirling around the obelisk, needs a reflection point, and the abstraction of this obelisk, this symbolic nonentity (by way of the visual poem) appears, like an epiphany, to be that reflection as it is happening.
That concept of a linguistic carrying-along of personal reflection benefits from a more intense, elongated exploration of these terms and processes by the poet. Torres could have worked XoeteoX into a chapbook, or even a single, short string of poems but, like with his previous books, he does well here due to a slight uptake or excess. Here there is the filling, the overall surplus of humanity that comforts the concept of identity and reiteration. This effect I otherwise recently argued doesn’t work well with all writers. But we warm and learn further from additional examples, layers upon layers unearthed by way of fortification and structure.
circular, omnipresent, the shapes
you secrete, the ones that return
there will be ones, who keep you down
safe from their climb, faced by fear and tribulation
to dare laws of inadequacy, by turning on you
upon the times of your burn, of their bearing, upon ones
who daunt the awestruck jeers of frontal ability [. . .]
(from “Inversion” on page 43)
I personally find the most intense throws of the book in the scrawl and backhanded comments of the poems, the lines that have incredibly serious implications. There are qualities of equity, respect, tolerance, and persistence in this book that transmit before, during, and beyond a generally insular poetic moment of calm (for the reader: the first, generalized reading). These are words that hold an on-edge sense of potential and that which is the probable. But they are as personal as abstract, maintaining a useful sense of ongoing openness and invitation to engage.
Implications are many in the translation of reflection and repetition into broader realms. Much of what Torres writes appears to be meditational, methodical reasonings for grasping with reality, dealing with a gritty sense of the world, and a confident though turbulent placement of self. When Torres writes “how all have a bit of cave / inside / a hollow tone / bringing sound to the word / without answer,” I think of sanctuary and structure, hiding and escape, and, of course, the platonic, supportive sense of origins of the self (from “To Read with Silent Runners” on page 10).
As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I find the lack of a direct explanation and description of many of the individual poems in this collection to make the book as a whole difficult and, at least initially, wanting. While the interpretive openness might help illustrate the confessional elements of the poet’s self, as documented, there is also a sense that more direction, more instruction, could be useful and make the book more straightforward. But Torres’s decision with XoeteoX feels filled with an aspirational, optimistic confidence. The poems are a joy to read in the intense peace of inquiry they offer, and I imagine will serve as fantastic bundles of energy to push the poet forward with more momentum.
The Desert by Brandon Shimoda (The Song Cave, 2018)
WE START ALL OVER, WHEN
WE ALL START OVER, become
As when we were shot
Through anesthetic light
And brought to life
Within the sentence of existence
(from “Transit Center”)
I’ve been thinking of when I was in my early teens, budding with a sense of places other than my own. My mother, sister and I took a trip from our small town in rural Maine to Las Vegas. It was where my half brother and his mother (my father’s first wife, so technically my stepmother) lived. I have many memories of that trip, my first trip to the desert. They are swirling dreams of half-images and sparsely-detailed landscapes filling distinct events and moments, incredible spotlights of heat, burning feet walking across the blacktop, the aridity and that full, quiet brightness. Since that holiday, I have been connected with, contracted to, the desert. It calls me fully and regularly, like a drug or a community, whispers of my name, or someone else’s, spread out across a wind-like continuum on the edge of my consciousness. I have been to numerous deserts and other dry places. I have slept in them. I have walked through them. Driven. Hiked. Sweated out. Hallucinated. Challenged my own sense of reality. The ongoing relationship with them has been fortified with romantic cultural ideas of the place: the boundary before a (manifest) destiny; the lawless, free-spirited land of opportunity; the desolate sense of the ancient and barren and life-beyond-life-itself. Even now, recalling these desert frameworks and conditionings, I get the urge to drop everything and go. It is a good feeling. I hope for it to continue.
a larger purple, the most
sanitary I follow
I don’t remember
when I’m in it
It is happening
The Desert sits in front of me and it’s a large book. It takes up space. Brandon Shimoda has written a large book. It comes out of a lineage of desert writers. Poets. Essayists. Novelists. Many voices who have tried to grasp the ideas within an iconic, untouchable space. A space where immersion is forced. There is a binary of presence: you are within or you are out. There is before, during, and after, a narrative that is neither linear nor modular, but something more holistic, something more total, something that vibrates and stations within and beyond. I believe that The Desert, Shimoda’s work, a follow-up to his and others’ previous work, captures this sense of storytelling and world-telling. I believe it is work because it indicates a distinct, timely sense of effort in collecting, projecting, and residing within the writing of this space. I believe it is more than that too: it is a deeply personal book that throws the world about within its confines, its limitations, its own sense of knowing and unknowing. The Desert as I have read it maintains a sense of “the desert” as much as it feels like the waking life of Shimoda. A straightforward statement in general, and in the context of poetry, perhaps, but in some awing way there are the contractions of idealism and a precision of perfection here that is difficult to wrap my mind around. How does a book feel whole and complete, while retaining its otherness all the same? Is this merely a question of ignorance on the part of me, the reader, or is there something transmutable in the desert core, the same desert that leads to loss and death as it does to survival and humility? The Desert wraps the spectrum up nicely while, enduring the juxtapositions and serving as an excellent reading experience.
Black tarantulas. People sitting around a fire
Beneath enormous cottonwoods
The color of a Christian—pious, unresponsive
Faces in the smoke
(from “Blind Children”)
It is visceral: crackling echoes of swollen canyon and indomitable plains matched with acutely intimate campfires and vague splashes of humanity while housesitting. All is a morphic process here, and Shimoda, a literary seer or sage, whose voice stays present and distant (like the echo that careens around a corner or over and beyond a horizon), offers the thread. Seven sections of the book make up seven separate gazes towards the desert. As I mentioned, addressing them as a linear causality is not rewarding, and might not even be effective. Instead, it is calming to note that there are sections just as there are mountains: change over vast periods of time; growth and shrinking; movements in and out; relatively intact spaces of pattern and trend. The book is sequenced to lead the reader toward Shimoda’s desert by way of a daily, existential practice. He lived in Tucson from 2011-2014. He wrote. That is the setup. That is the otherworldly sense of space and time. What else do you need to know? When you, like anyone else, visits the desert, what do you need to know? Much of the pleasure and pain of the landscape, those qualities that make it knowable, that make it attractive and repulsive and, essentially, unforgettable, are intrinsically personal. Shimoda’s notes, his explorations, his positives and negatives, provide a sense of bearing, a sense of longing, and a sense of pacing. Time is a very real, and remarkable tool to be used and be applied in The Desert but only by alternatively going forward, backward, and through the text in multiple, fragmented visitations have I found “Time” to be everything I wanted, everything that completed the experience. Like the vastness of the desert in its many variable forms, Shimoda’s work challenges the reader in its sense of approachability, in its sense of wander, and the resulting emotional complexity and confusion.
I looked at everyone
I wanted everyone
To be where they were
(from “Evening Oracle” in “Bride”)
Perhaps I have found The Desert (as a symbol, as a form, as a specific type of literary process) to be the ideal container for Shimoda’s translucent, migratory poetry. A large statement, but one I can’t help but ponder. The cause and effect between Shimoda’s voiced (penned) experience balances with the dynamic totality of the subject matter. All the searing, all of the heat, all the illumination flows volcanically (liquidous and hellishly solidified one and the same) into a state of permanence that renders each poem, each story or moment, into a chiseled, pressured appearance. Pressured into being, into reliance, into expectation, while marvelously counter to the instability of societal space and time. Moments of the poet’s life that lead to insight are to be trusted, taken with confidence and even, remarkably, with joy. The book is not a book of joy in a direct sense, but the spirit contained within the book, that inextricable sense of freedom and security, finds an outcry of joy and awe all the same. But the book is also larger than that, as it needs to be. Shimoda’s experiences, the spectra of them, contain scattered layers of wisdom as well: the result of the hallucinatory and the imagined, the explored of the available, the induction of the potential. The desert is a space of learning and knowing and so is The Desert.
cut rectangles in the floor dug holes in the dirt
to stay cool
in July folded their bodies
like paper fell asleep
in the holes rivers evaporated. The prisoners disintegrated
Not even their secrets
(from “Gila River”)
Th beginning of the book’s postscript reads: “The photography on the cover is of three Japanese Americans, taken during the Harvest Festival at the Tule Lake concentration camp, October 31, 1942. The photographer was Francis Stewart, on assignment for the War Relocation Authority [. . .] A segregation center opened within Tule Lake, July 15, 1943. The prison within the prison—with enhanced security, fortified fence, increased guard towards, 1000 military police—incarcerated individuals who were considered disloyal. Stewart took a number of photographs at Tule Lake that capture what I have written elsewhere as the perverse psychosis that is settler colonialism in the United States.” (177) The reality here, that part of The Desert is an examination of this history of internment/incarceration/antagonism within the more contemporary colonialism of and within the United States, is a reality that The Desert is a book actualizing much more than Shimoda’s daily logs, his written practice, his fueled language. It is the fuel itself: the histories of marginalization and oppression, the systemic imprisonment and prejudice, and the sense of other that has and continues to pervade an American expanse of freedom, symbolically and legally.
“Not sure why I keep prefacing every email with mention of the desert, though the affirmation feels necessary. This is where we are, this landscape which feels as congenital to our condition as it does alien. I still have little sense of what it is, what it does . . .” (91)
To examine Shimoda’s book is to get a sense that, as I mentioned above, there is much contradiction and counter between that open existence of the desert. To be free affords exploitation. To be open allows room for the most closed. The desert is a space of profound knowing and unknowing all the same. And it is a space where the bleakest and most hateful instances can find their own pocket to run dry and remain echoes of their former selves. And further, it is a landscape where that history, etched into the landscape, can also be approached. Is it because nothing much lasts for very long in the desert? Is it because of that harshness that we can identify and blink apart? Is history on an incessant, unbearable loop, or is it actually bearable, actually tolerable, pulsing along and compact enough to grasp? I find Shimoda’s interpretation, integration, and the resulting persistence through the realities of the desert, including but not limited to the tyranny of the prison camps of the desert (and beyond the desert) to be one of mature acceptance. That is not to say The Desert represents the desert (as symbol and as physical space) as easy and accommodating! But that is full and true and helpful as a mode to conduct explorations of and beyond the self, of and beyond the poetry, of and beyond the imprint of language in time (however Time may be formed and interpreted). I think on this book and imagine my own attraction to the deserts I’ve visited before and have yet to visit, and I wonder about their fullness and how they might help me rather than just blindly attract, and help others too, and where that lived experience can lead to new spaces of knowing, growth, and wisdom.
Welcome to Yellow Rabbits. Thanks for visiting.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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