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“I know and have always known my body was mine.”

(from the poem “The Difference.”)

 

Sarah Frances Moran’s Evergreen (Weasel Press, 2016) brings us a speaker whose vulnerability and strength resembles the beauty and transience of the tall Evergreen. Its branches may be chopped, its needles may burn—but the trunk, the soul, is strong. A girl can climb it, dangle her legs over the edge, and look out over the world.

Appropriately, in the collection’s first few poems, the Evergreen is a jailer for everyone who has hurt the speaker. Trees are such common place objects in our lives, always watching us move through our day, this makes sense to us. Moran’s Evergreen feels personal. Whether an abusive step father or a caregiver who looked in the other direction is caged here, the Evergreen holds the keys.  The people who caused harm to the speaker cannot, will not, be rescued. In “This Evergreen’s Locking Up Everyone Who Ever Laid a Finger on Me,” the language is surreal and gothic:

 

“These are the cages I keep where I harbor

all the damaged broken animals of my childhood.

 

If you reside among them it’s only because

you harbor abhorrence that can do nothing

but trickle through the blood stream of the root

of the tree you’d wish to cut down…”

 

Moran separates the sections of the second poem into cages much like humans who can compartmentalize pain—in order to function, to get through our day. In the first section, Cage 1, Moran writes:

 

“If you ever dreamed of being a patriarch, you failed.

You planted a tree

then doused it in gasoline and attempted to burn it.”

 

The idea of a tree acting as turnkey to our cages of people who have misused us is gorgeous and fairy-tale like. The tree is protector and punisher—especially since many people are never punished for their crimes. In Moran’s cages, the pain is kept sectioned off while the speaker of these poems heals and moved forward.

But this book does not limit itself to a compartmentalized kaleidoscope of suffering; as the reader navigates Evergreen’s gritty, dark, and beautiful terrain, they will find that Moran’s poems are multilayered. In the poem “Battle,” the reader not only deciphers an argument about “battling” one’s inner demons, but also a description of the writing process itself. In “Battle,” Moran writes:

“They don’t care about that stifled genius

or about how you’ve received 52 rejections letters to date.

What they do care about,

is the meat of you.

 

What’s deep down in your guts?

What makes them churn and what makes them ache?

 

…You redraft yourself, every day

for this battle.”

This poem uncovers the speaker’s vulnerabilities with lines like “Why do you sit at the bottom of the tub and just cry sometimes?” but also how writers need to reach deep inside of themselves to ask, How do I write this pain? How do I confess about this thing that happened to me and twist it into art?  How often do I cross out and start over— the words, my feelings, plunging a magnifying glass into the past and a knife into my heart again?

Moran has experience as a stellar spoken-word artist and it is thrilling to read “Battle” almost like an audience member at a performance. One can hear her voice create a moment to moment truth. We recognize the speaker’s manifesto of  “get up anyway,” find the strength somewhere, and write the poems.  We are ready to launch our own battle cry.

For example, take “Mama Makowski,” a poem about the speaker’s mother getting day-drunk and trying to compare herself to the poet Charles Bukowski—that icon of male bravado that continues to cling to its status in the literary canon. In this poem, the speaker asserts that her father is still alive, and that she hates a part of him but there is:

 

“…the longing for something not there.

 

We fantasize about holding their hands and

looking up at them with adulation…”

 

a piggy back ride

a stroll through the park…”

Moran shares that with her mother— an experience of fathers consumed by their own violence and drinking. Moran illustrates that what really makes a man is one who will hold a small hand, protect those he loves. The speaker commiserates with her mother over their “broken childhoods.” By this poem, positioned later in the book, Moran’s speaker is already reflective: she knows she was given the short end of the father straw and she still overcomes pain, chooses to honor her mother through cooking her recipes.

This speaker looks to the future. What will she, the speaker, leave behind? In the two poems “Frances’s Fingers” and “The First Time I made a Tortilla,” there is a joy in one’s roots, the peace in knowing who we are and where we came from:

 

“All the bolls of cotton you picked

and endless days in the sun

where your brown skin soaked up ray after ray..

 

Look at my hands and know the work they’ve done too.

 

…I got more than my middle name from you.”

Moran pays homage to an ancestor who picked cotton in Texas. The sun beating down on her skin, fingers arthritic by the end of her life, the speaker communes with this woman in these lines and helps her feel centered, blasts Johnny Cash on the way out of town, feels akin with this ghost. Likewise, in “The First Time I Made Tortillas,” Moran writes,

 

“As I knead the dough

 

the strength of all of my ancestors flow through into my fingertips

and I feel the struggles of feeding and caring for a multitude of children

….

my desire for perfection’s depth

is further than this rolling pin.

 

I simply want to honor my mother with this task

Say to her that the beauty of this creating will not die with her…”

 

Moran’s words vibrate and pull at us long after we close the book. We look down at our own bodies: what did we inherit?  With all of these poems, there is an overcoming of anguish. Flushed-out secrets explode from the tallest tree, find the warming sun, and the music, and always the words that seem to come down to or come back to “I rely on you,”  “I rely on you, “I rely on you.” This repetition is a magical litany: the words make themselves come true. We know what it means to find the ability to trust again, and to survive. Evergreen is legacy.

 

 

 

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. She is the author of two full length poetry collections (forthcoming.) Her chapbook “Clown Machine” just came out from Grey Book Press. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Lime Hawk, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Inter/rupture, Poor Claudia, and decomP. She also has poetry reviews at The Rumpus and Horseless Press. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.

Solmaz Sharif – Look

Graywolf Press 2016

Page Length: 93

Retail: $16

 

 

The winner writes history; the loser writes poetry. Not that Solmaz Sharif’s debut from Graywolf Press, Look (2016) is anything short of extraordinary. It’s just that the cliché about the “winner” is too true for Sharif to resist subverting in her urgent, prophetic, and virtuosic invective against the Nation State in general, and the contemporary American Nation State in particular.

 

It is hardly new for poets to use poetry as a means of political resistance, but rarely have we seen the politics of language play such a prominent role in the resistance. Sharif uses a variety of avant-garde forms to put enormous pressure on language itself so as to exploit its materiality, and therefore its malleability—a process of weaponization that can be used to liberate as well as oppress. Given the enormous oppression brought forth by the militarization of language, which is itself a kind of violent occupation, Sharif seeks to re-contextualize weaponized words in a process that might exorcize the English language of its most demonic possessions.

 

Until now, now that I’ve reached my thirties:

All my Muse’s poetry has been harmless:

American and diplomatic: a learned helplessness

Is what psychologists call it: my docile, desired state.

I’ve been largely well-behaved and gracious.

I’ve learned the doctors learned of learned helplessness

by shocking dogs. Eventually, we things give up.

 

These opening lines of the poem “Desired Appreciation” present the reader with a credo that posits the “learned helplessness” of nonviolent poetry as a means of complicity. The speaker gestures to the death of her own complicity in a brilliant image that serves opposite agendas: “Eventually, we things give up.” The “learned helplessness” of human complicity—of poetic complicity—is the resting state of one exposed to prolonged torture (here represented by the shocking of dogs). The American public—and by extension American poetry—has been psychologically tortured by prolonged exposure to “shocking” horrors, such that we must learn to normalize brutality and unspeakable violence not only in our lives but in the very language that is the substance of our thoughts. This acquiescence to horror is a “learned helplessness,” such that we must write about flowers and falling in love lest we lose ourselves in the grip of despair. Poets too are things, and, “Eventually, we things give up.” But even as Sharif offers a potent metaphor for the “learned helplessness” of American poetry, she, with the exact same metaphor, offers us a means of resistance: to “give up” docility is to be shocked too many times—to, in an act of poetic desperation, use the very means of torture to subvert the captivity.

 

This is precisely what Sharif accomplishes in Look, which offers contemporary American poets a look into what a revolutionary resistance to Imperial co-option might look like. The most pronounced example of this is the many poems in the collection that re-appropriate terms taken from the United States Department of Defense’s “Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms.” This practice participates in the tradition of the American avant-garde, beginning perhaps with Gertrude Stein and extending through the Objectivists and then later the LANGUAGE poets, which seeks to subvert the Imperial occupation of the English language by calling attention to language’s materiality. This is accomplished largely by the process of re-contextualization in which words’ meanings are determined not by some kind of intrinsic semantic cargo but rather by the larger context into which words, like objects, are placed and misplaced.

 

Sharif uses familiar, stabilizing poetic forms such as anaphora, the litany, and parallel syntax to place tremendous pressure on the diction culled from the DOD’s lexicon, words marked in the poems as foreign by their appearance in small caps: terms like INTERTHEATER TRAFFIC, HUNG WEAPON, PENETRATION AIDS, and SAFE HOUSE. In this typographical designation, Sharif mimics the problematic us/them tribalism inherent to all ethnic and political identities. This presentation of language inherently “other” calls attention to it—our awareness is heightened by its dual-citizenship, and we instinctively wonder whether its presence disrupts an otherwise “safe” poetic experience. In this way, we come to distrust the words, for we know that whatever sense in which they belong to the poem, they also serve another, more sinister master. In doing this, Sharif indicts the “learned helplessness” of benign, supposedly-non-political poetry by calling attention to its inattention: by interrupting poems that might otherwise be pleasant to our palate with targeted phrases like DESIRED PERCEPTION and THRESHOLD OF ACCEPTABILITY, Sharif brilliantly and subtly incriminates the reader for a habit of CIVIL CENSORSHIP. In so doing she implies that much of American poetry is little more than a LOW VISIBILITY OPERATION.

 

Sharif’s is the ground of BATTLEFIELD ILLUMINATION, whereby the poem seeks to redeem language itself for its complicity in human atrocity. Hers can be described as a guerilla poetics, whereby the overwhelming force and hubris of the occupying force is used against it, and this is made possible only by the native’s intimacy with the nuances of the terrain. Here the “native” is the poet and the terrain is our language—violently taken and brutalized by a Nation State to which it does not belong. Many twentieth-century guerillas believed that a true revolution could only take place when the occupied population became sickened at the abuses of its occupier. By forcing readers (and poets) to LOOK at what is being done in our “homeland,” Sharif accomplishes extraordinary work toward our necessary revulsion.

 

The bad news is that language, as an object, can be weaponized as a means of oppression and terror. Worse yet, unlike steel and plutonium, language is the substance of thought and identity: it is only through language that we can understand ourselves and the world in which we live. It is what we use to make sense of our lives: to justify the things we have done and want to do. When a Nation State occupies the language of its people, it creates an “us” by engendering a “them”—it necessarily splits the world into a quasi-tribal dichotomy. By doing so, the State unifies its populace by the perpetual generation of an enemy—a something against which we can be together. It is language alone that makes this possible.

 

However, the good news is that a word, unlike steel and plutonium, can never only be one thing. A word is unique among objects in that it always exists multiply: it may mean one thing, but it always necessarily also means something else. The alchemy of this transubstantiation resides in the power of context, and Sharif is an extraordinary wizard. The context of the DoD manual is war; the context of the poem is supposed to be peacetime. Of all the binaries Sharif seeks to dismantle in this collection: East/West; Islam/Christianity; Brown/White; Terrorist/Soldier; Enemy Combatant/Civilian; none more pervasively haunts the pages than the dissolved line between Wartime and Peacetime. This dissolution, only possible in an Empire, is the collateral damage of the weaponization of language. Sharif masterfully undermines and contradicts this violence by exposing the inherent multiplicity of words; which is to say, she rages against the dull machine of war by turning its weapons against it—into poems with which she hopes to provoke a sleeping community out of its “learned helplessness.”

 

 

 

 

During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. This month’s second poet is Samantha Duncan.

 

Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world—what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?

Samantha Duncan: I’m still very new to being a poet and the po-biz world. The majority of my creative work and education was in fiction, until about four years ago when I more or less switched over to poetry, so I’m still learning a lot through my experiences being a poet and press and journal editor. There are specific challenges that motivate me to write poetry—there’s a succinctness to it that requires cleverness and intimacy with language, and that really exercises writing muscles I don’t always use in fiction writing. It’s that uniqueness of the form and construction of it that drives me to stick with poetry, despite it not being my primary writing field.

FFF:  What are your influences—creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?

SD: I don’t consider myself a terribly artistic person, outside the writing spectrum. I became heavily interested in book arts and papermaking, several years ago, and a lot of those little details make their way into my writing. It’s such a tactile form of art that’s fun to write about. I also cite music as perhaps a second love, after writing, and it’s a vast landscape to draw inspiration from, whether it be someone else’s song lyrics or my own experience with playing instruments.

I have a Sociology degree and I’m a news junkie, so those issues are constant influences. No matter the direct topic, I’m always looking for the stories and voices I feel aren’t being heard enough. Some would argue that the prevailing point of view in most poetry is that of the straight, white, male, and so a greater representation of experiences is important to me, both when writing and when choosing work to publish as an editor.

FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems—as author and as reader?

SD: I really value inventiveness in poetry. As writers, we’re examiners of language, and poets have the unique opportunity to create our own molds for that language, to affix a personality of our choosing to it. We’re allowed to subvert the act of straightforwardness, and that opens doors to a free-play word arena. I really admire poets who write with such a rhythm that seems natural yet doesn’t sound like anything you’d hear in regular conversation.

FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something—an experience, a piece of art, anything really—that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

SD: Not really an experience or art piece, but I’ve written a lot about Malala Yousafzai since her attempted assassination. Her life and her relationship with her father fascinate me and have awakened me to some new realizations about my own upbringing. Her story has also led me to read and write more about women’s oppression in less developed countries, which can be very different from the inequalities women face in America, but just as important to talk about.

FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

SD: There are so many poets I think everyone should read, for many different reasons. I’ll throw John Ashbery out there, because I think people should become more comfortable with the notion of enjoying work they don’t always fully understand. He’s not extremely accessible, but he’s re-readable, and you get a little more out of him each time you do.

Fiction-wise, I think everyone should read Margaret Atwood. I have a long-standing beef with the fact that 1984 and Brave New World are on school reading lists but The Handmaid’s Tale mostly isn’t. Also, Amelia Gray’s Gutshot, because I love women who write weird, grotesque little stories.

FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?

SD: Nope, I think you squeezed everything out of me. Loved this interview, thanks!

 

Samantha Duncan is the author of the chapbooks The Birth Creatures (Agape Editions, 2016), One Never Eats Four (ELJ Publications, 2014) and Moon Law (Wild Age Press, 2012), and her work has appeared in The Pinch, Meridian, Stirring, and Flapperhouse. She serves as Executive Editor for ELJ Publications and reads for Gigantic Sequins. She lives in Houston and can be found at planesflyinglowoverhead.blogspot.com and @SamSpitsHotFire.

Stay with Me Awhile

By Loren Kleinman

ISNB: 978-1941058350

April 2016

Winter Goose Publishing

Reviewed by Brian Fanelli

Loren Kleinman’s last collection of poems, Breakable Things, had a lot of references to Charles Bukowski, even in terms of subject matter, specifically the poet’s willingness to not shy away from raw subject matter, such as drinking or sex. There are still some echoes of Bukowski in Stay with Me AWhile, but Kleinman’s new book draws more resemblance to Anne Sexton for the way that it addresses matters of the body and notions of beauty. The book is also more expansive in form, containing a number of prose poems and work that is more surreal than it is narrative. At the heart of the collection, however, is a theme that has been most pronounced in Kleinman’s work, the need for love and affection in an increasingly isolated and fragmented world.

Kleinman’s growth as a writer extends to how she addresses the erotic, which also echoes some of Sexton’s work. For instance, in the short prose poem “Me and Him,” the speaker confesses, “I want to know what makes him cum,” but the poem digs deeper than mere sex, illuminating the layers of feelings that coincide with sex in a long-standing relationship. In the next line, the speaker states, “I want to hear what happened to him that one night in his mother’s arms.” In many of the poems, the speaker admits how guarded she is around men, but “Me and Him” shows a tenderness, especially in its concluding lines, “He asks me to take off the do not enter sign/Joseph slides his face against mine. I let him crawl inside me/this time, fill me with sugar and kisses.” This is a nice contrast in tone and subject matter to some of the other poems that address loneliness. In “The Snow Reminds Me to Play,” the reader feels the speaker’s ache and desire for love and affection, especially in the lines, “The snow is loud and strong/It makes love to me when no one else wants to.”

Other poems tackle gender constructs, and Kleinman does so in direct, forceful language. “It’s Cold Out There” recounts a conversation between the speaker and a friend over the idea of beauty. This poem is also different from some of Kleinman’s earlier work for the surreal lines woven throughout the narrative.

 

No. No. I will not go outside and listen to the wolves tear

at the moon. It’s just that I’m alone. It’s just that you make

me feel so alone. You know. It’s not an achievement to be

that pretty, you say. It’s a bunch of glock and glick and it’s

cold out there. Look at my thighs. Look at the scratches

and stretch marks. Look at the skin pulled back from my

fingers. And you lick the marks; you eat them out with a

fork and knife. I’ve already forgotten what it’s like to be

loved; what it’s like to be. Let’s sit down in front of the

TV and nibble at our skin. Let’s sit here and stare into

the deepness of our eyes, then we’ll go outside and eat the

cheese form the mice’s paws.

The lines about wolves tearing at the moon and eating cheese from mice’s paws is an interesting, surreal juxtaposition to the rest of the poem, which is generally a more narrative prose poem. There is also something consuming about the couple’s attention to each other, namely the idea of nibbling skin and licking marks.

Ultimately, the book circles back to the character of Joe, first introduced early in the collection, in “Me and Him.” The concluding poem, “We’re Here Briefly, is celebratory, recalling a simple moment, when the speaker drinks on a rooftop with Joe, while holding his hand and smiling. At last, the speaker finds the love she desires. Overall, Stay With Me Awhile marks a shift in Kleinman’s poetry and shows she is willing to experiment more with tone and form, while addressing a deeper subject matter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. This month’s first poet is Chen Chen. 

Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world – what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?

Chen Chen: Thank you for these questions—big and kind of impossible, but I’m glad to be living with them. Why poems? I actually started out as a fiction writer; I tried writing novels. These were imitations of whatever I happened to like, from Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. In college, I wrote both poems and stories. I also wrote scholarly essays that went on too long and basically argued that literature is super neat (I still do this, in my doctoral program). Then in my third year, I took my first poetry workshop and just fell in love with the weird difficult astonishing ways of saying and wrecking and loving that poems give us.

I am part of so many different communities, histories, sparks, losses, trees, whispers. Poetry is a place where I can ask my Many and if I’m lucky, my All, to come in and converse. I can ask a frozen lake in Upstate New York to talk to an artificial pond in Lubbock, Texas. I can ask Pablo Neruda to talk to the stray cat that greets my partner and me when we pull into our driveway. I can ask your silences to dance with my silences; a form of talking, maybe. So: responding to what I read and love, attempting to create spaces for conversation and stray cats. And lately: what is real learning and how does that intersect with but also sometimes depart from institutions of education? And always: how can I, anyone, keep the heart, a heart, keep our places and selves living?

As for the poebiz, I think it’s crucial not to confuse prestigious publications and awards with what our actual work is. Of course, these shiny things have practical outcomes that are important—I have been supported throughout my graduate school life with scholarships and fellowships. And getting paid here and there for a poem does make a difference. (POETS SHOULD BE PAID BETTER.) Yes. That said… when I was a lonely kid in high school, going to the local library and discovering poets like Li-Young Lee, Louise Glück, and Robert Hass for the first time, I had no idea that blurbs were written by friends or former teachers of the writer and bios were quite often written by the writer. I had no idea that FSG was a “good” press and that it was more prestigious to publish in New England Review versus somewhere else. Now I know these things and I know why they are or can be important. However, aiming to publish in New England Review is not the same thing as attempting to write an exciting, moving poem. (A poem that can give and give.) You can have both “goals,” of course, but the former is achievable in a much more concrete way. The latter is big and impossible and infuriating and wonderful. On a similar note, I think it’s crucial not to confuse a style of poetry with making poems. Finding a style or a voice can be delightful; it can also be deadly. I would like poets to have questions and dreams rather than styles.

 

FFF: What are your influences – creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?

CC: I love the films of Wong Kar-Wai. I love the music of Perfume Genius. I love ridiculous huge purple snow pants on anyone, anywhere. I love my mother figuring out how to send me texts in Chinese and then how to send me emojis. I love the paintings of Paul Klee and Agnes Martin. I love Audre Lorde’s “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” Martín Espada’s introduction to Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination, and this recent book edited by Timothy Yu (Nests and Strangers) examining the work of Nellie Wong, Myung Mi Kim, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and Bhanu Kapil. I love a painting by Anselm Kiefer entitled “Everyone Stands Under His Own Dome of Heaven.” I love Kundiman, an organization dedicated to Asian American writers. I love the pug dog calendar that hangs in the living room I share with my love. I love the March pug dog.

 

FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems – as author and as reader?

CC: I value a poet’s idiosyncratic obsessions and a poet’s depth or scope of compassion. I like seeing a range of emotional and intellectual concerns. In my MFA, I started out trying to be a Serious Poet for some bizarre reason. I like humor, though it’s more important to me that someone real is writing the poem. Being a Funny Poet can be just as tiresome as being a Serious Poet. I like musics and formal dexterities, though the thing needs to move, not just impress. I like disliking a poem and then liking it. I dislike poems because of my tastes, which often need expanding. I loathe poems that harm or erase people. I like erasure poems, ones that demonstrate an understanding of the power dynamics of erasure and erase texts, not people. I like having my mind blown. I love not knowing what a poem is doing to me. I love poems that do what the cherry trees do, to rip off Neruda.

 

FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something – an experience, a piece of art, anything really – that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

CC: One of my best friends from high school liked to practice her photography with me as a model. She would take all these pictures and then we would look at them together on her computer. I remember saying, more than once, “Ugh, I look so Asian in this photo.” And my friend would say, “Um, you are Asian.” At the time, I would just say “I know” and make it seem like I was joking—but about what? It has taken a long time for me to really think about the internalized racism and messed up beauty standards I’d accepted and tried (try?) to live up to.

Earlier today I saw a posting about a new scholarship for Asian American actors and performers based in New York City. New York City—a place with a big and super diverse Asian American population. And we need a scholarship. So that Asian American actors have a (better) chance. Part of me is so glad that the organization behind this scholarship is taking action. Another part of me is so angry that the situation (in film and TV, in literature…) seems to improve for a select few and then the idea is that somehow we’re “diverse enough” now.

I grew up in the 90s, started college in 2007—and I still felt like being Chinese, Asian, Asian American, like these were ugly things and the more I could look and behave like a white person, the better, the more beautiful, the more person I could be. I don’t feel that way now, but I do wonder who I would be if I hadn’t spent so much time wishing I was someone else, hadn’t pushed away certain interests deemed stereotypically Asian (piano—I should’ve given piano more of a chance!), hadn’t thought I could never reconcile being both Chinese and gay. The thought of “well, the awfulness shaped me and I’ve turned it into art” doesn’t seem right. I don’t want to fetishize suffering, ever. I think it’s a pretty basic expectation, that people of color should be able to see dignified, complicated, beautiful representations of themselves on a daily basis.

 

FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

CC: Two books that have come out in recent years:

Hello, the Roses by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. This book is so expansive and attentive—to landscape, to notions of culture and self, to illness, to the opening of flowers and affinities. Berssenbrugge stands out to me as a writer for how she insists on a spectrum of feeling, perception, and vocabulary. Blending the mythic, the quantum mechanic, the phenomenological, and the medicinal, she makes poems (always now in sequences of longish sentences) that seem densely packed at first glance, but are really some of the most welcoming spaces I’ve encountered on the page. Berssenbrugge writes, “I tell you, your own thoughts and words can appear to inhabitants of other systems like stars and planets to us” and I believe her.

Life of the Garment by Deborah Gorlin. This book is so lilies-&-urine full of life, is living, every time I pick it up—it twitches and shivers and pinches me like a magnificent crab in my hands. A poet of world-bending physicality and a sort of gritty spirituality, Gorlin teaches me to inhabit space the way space inhabits me. Wildly. Graciously. Completely. Gorlin writes, “Cars sorrow too, their glittering/surfaces, metal wigs on wheels” and I believe her.

 

FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?

CC: Aren’t beavers AMAZING? Aren’t queer poets of color doing the BEST work? I’m going to make more time for walks. And soups. And supporting the poets, poetries I love.

 

 

Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and forthcoming spring 2017 from BOA Editions, Ltd. His latest chapbook, Kissing the Sphinx, is available from Two of Cups Press. His poems have recently appeared in Raleigh Review, The Poetry Review (UK), and the PBS Newshour weekly poem series. Chen is a Kundiman Fellow and a PhD candidate at Texas Tech University. Visit him at chenchenwrites.com.

Malachi Black – Storm Toward Morning

Copper Canyon 2014

Page Length: 75

Retail: $15

 

Like the greatest formal poets, Malachi Black writes in shapes. Received forms sculpt the shape of a poem by the measure of their recursiveness: the manner in which the poem moves forward and back simultaneously. In a traditional sonnet, for example, as the speaker develops an idea, a scene, or a narrative (an argument), she also, at the end of each line, creates sonic consonance with that which precedes and/or follows. The result is the sensation of forward movement through recurring patterns and the modulation of poetic effects (in this example the effect in question is end-rhyme, though the same argument can be made for poetic features like anaphora, syntactic parallelism, and other features that can echo through a poem). This recursiveness of the sonnet is heightened and dramatized when the poem looks back on itself in its volta: the previous content is artfully repeated and thereby modified, and the result is something like epiphany. The extent to which a poem establishes and then resists its form can be understood as its poetic “shape.”

 

Malachi Black’s poetic shapes are both elegantly discursive and dizzyingly circular: spiritual yearning in swirling eddies of sonic clusters. Storm Toward Morning, Black’s first full-length collection, relies heavily on received forms (most notably the sonnet) to present an aesthetic argument that is equal parts familiar and strange, and the result is palpably beautiful tension: between the traditional and contemporary; between first-book energy and technical virtuosity; and, most importantly, between faith and doubt: a spiritual disquiet masterfully imbued into content and form.

 

Black possesses an astounding command of prosody, and like a world-class athlete, he moves through his lines without wasted motion.

 

“Rocking in my midnight robe, I am

alive and in an eye again beside

 

my kind insomniac, my phantom

glass, companion and my only bride:

 

this little window giving little shine

to something. What I see I keep

 

alive. I name the species, I define

the lurch and glimmer, sweep and pry

 

of eyes against the faint-reflecting glass

by what they can and what I can’t

 

quite grasp…” (Against the Glass)

 

While this sonnet is written in iambic pentameter, Black opens with a procession of trochees that accentuates the quietly desperate state of the speaker. Notably, the opening line ends with a kind of existential release: “I am,” which both posits a stability of self and shifts the poem into its natural meter, which wraps itself around the line in a series of enjambments that create a cascade effect as we progress down the page: “I am / alive”; “my phantom / glass”; “What I see I keep // alive.” But as we course through the couplets, we are returned to previously introduced sounds. At times this consonance is semantically pleasing: “I am / alive;” “my only bride;” “I keep / alive.” However, at other times the effect is something more unnerved: a kind of haunting: “phantom” and “companion;” “faint” and “can’t.”

 

Black’s formal recursiveness is a microcosm of his poems’ engagement with poetic tradition: there is something undeniably traditional in Black’s prosody, yet that quality is cantilevered by Black’s associative ingenuity and contemporary diction, concerns, and general aesthetic orientation. In this regard, there are echoes of James Merrill, Robert Pinsky, Frederick Seidel, Thom Gunn, and the very best of Philip Larkin. And yet: the heart of Black’s formalism, which is, in the end, utterly Psalmic, seems to be in the spirit of the Metaphysical poets of the 17th century: John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw and Andrew Marvell, to name a few. These poets sought in their verse an ascent into the mysteries of the divine—mysteries rarely resolved but left open like metaphysical wounds that are simultaneously fatal and freeing. It was this quality, their articulation of spiritual brokenness in formal precision, that T.S. Eliot found utterly compelling, which led him to not only champion these once-derided poets into their still-standing critical favor, but eventually state that devotional poetry is actually poetry in its highest form.

 

Black’s poems are devotional in this regard: rather than proclaim “truths” about the divine, they are poems written toward the possibility of God. This postmodern faith is most prominently displayed in the second section of Storm Toward Morning, a crown of sonnets that testifies to both the undeniable reality of the sacred and its impossible position within the profanity of human living.

 

“There is no end: what has come will come again

will come again: and then distend: and then

and then: and then again: there is no end

 

to origin and and: there is again

and born again: there is the forming and:

the midnight curling into morning and

 

the glory and again: there is no end:” (Vigils)

 

Rarely are form and content so seamlessly transposed: as in Heaven so on Earth; so too in the poem. “There is no end” is both a joyful declaration and an ominous lament: to be “born again” in poetic rapture is to see the infinitude of experience within the finite moment. Or, as Blake famously wrote: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour” And yet: to be born is to be subjected to death. Incessant birth yields incessant death, and this fact yields profound ambivalence in Black’s poetry, which hiccups its rebirths and stutters its praise. In this, we are reminded inseparability of beauty and death, a tension that cannot (and must not) be resolved.

 

This resistance to resolution is Black’s most unique aesthetic move. While it has become a hallmark of postmodern poetics to parade this resistance, Black’s angle is fresh because of the shape of his formalism. Received forms convey implicit order: they are teleologically determined from the outset. Black’s sonnets are both elegant and desperate—their formal ruptures proceed out of existential doubt.

 

“Once more the bright blade of a morning breeze

glides almost too easily through me,

 

and from the scuffle I’ve been sutured to

some flap of me is freed: I am severed

 

like a simile: an honest tenor

trembling toward the vehicle I mean

 

to be: a blackbird licking half-notes

from the muscled, sap-damp branches

 

of the sugar maple tree… though I am still

a part of any part of every particle

 

of me, though I’ll be softly reconstructed

by the white gloves of metonymy,

 

I grieve: there is no feeling in a cut

that doesn’t heal a bit too much.” (This Gentle Surgery)

 

Black oscillates between formal precision and something like an artful wobble: by embracing imperfection in the presence of technical virtuosity, he dramatizes spiritual poverty and celebrates the fallibility that constitutes the essential distinction between the human and the divine.

 

 

Balancing_Acts_cover

Can modern poetry ever be sublime? Variations on this question—Is epic poetry dead? Are any modern poets truly Great? Is modern poetry doomed to be the verbal selfie?—all seem focused on the plethora of similarly-styled modern poems that skew toward the personal as opposed to the epic (in the larger sense), that eschew grand themes and sweeping visions for personal vignettes and points of view, the image for its own sake, language for its own sake, minutiae. Yahia Lababidi’s poetry, in his new comprehensive collection Balancing Acts, takes another direction, quite consciously balancing his own life experience against higher things, not only spiritual but also philosophical. While not epic poetry, these poems take us to another level of understanding in the visionary sense, actively reaching toward enlightenment, something higher.

Each poem balances its everyday sensuous elements, which are quite comprehensive, with a loftier vision. And that vision almost always reigns supreme. His pivotal moments wrestle with great ideas, often his own original ideas and observations. His language, as one might imagine, follows suit. He has no compunctions about using words like “specificity” and “undifferentiation” if they suit his purpose. The whole of language, including the often-spurned abstraction, is useful to him. The first poem in the book, “Words,” gives us his attitude towards language:

Words as witnesses

testifying their truths

squalid or rarefied

inevitable, irrefutable. […]

 

every poem is a cosmos

dissolving the inarticulate.

And indeed, that last couplet sums up what the poet seeks to accomplish. He also sets us up to understand that this book will be about “truths,” about things that are “irrefutable.” This would be the opposite of the current trend in poetry toward avoiding the abstract, proving in fact that philosophy and “pure” ideas can be presented or discussed in poetry without cliché or prosaic generalization.

He asks, for example, what do we understand about animals? To articulate such as-yet-unformed thoughts, he does not describe an animal in the usual way. Instead, the poet chooses a more philosophical exploration, asking “What Do Animals Dream?” (the poem itself being a series of questions):

Are there agitations, upheavals, or mutinies

against their perceived selves or fate?

 

Are they free of strengths and weaknesses

peculiar to horse, deer, bird, goat, snake, lamb or lion?

 

Are they ever neither animal nor human

but creature and Being?

In asking such questions, we face the dissolution of species in a moment in which consciousness itself is contemplated. The issue of animal vs. human is explored further in “Dog Ideal”, a tour-de-force of poetic reasoning that crescendos to where the dog becomes something akin to a zen master…possibly better. And not the way one might expect, but, as he argues earlier in the poem,

unconcerned with the pursuit of truth

and other lies

they live in Truth

 

never lost in the labyrinth of self

they are without self-image,

thus without self-deception

This is not another tale of the faithful dog often memorialized in literature; this is a philosophical exploration in poetry of dogness itself. He balances the facts of a dog’s life against important philosophical issues, and the comparison articulates a dog’s cosmos for us as seen through that lens. Of course, who we are as human beings is the subtext of this discussion of dogness, and by the end we can see where the dog has succeeded in ways that our very minds have doomed us to fail.

Or our hearts, as in this excerpt from the same poem:

honest in their need to give and receive

a love neither tormented nor tormenting

nursing their wounds without meditation,

which is the creation of more suffering

Grounded in science and reason, but aimed toward the spirit, his words engage both thought and experience to achieve their revelations. His poem “Dawning” describes the similarity of human change to plate tectonics:

As decisively, and imperceptibly, as a continent

some thing will give, croak or come undone

so that everything else must be reconsidered

In “Solitude and the Proximity to Infinite Things,” the desert is depicted as a force of nature to be reckoned with, its remoteness and sense of infinity making it a place “without heart.” Yet it is in that very place, “set apart,” where we can find the sublime, as in “Desert Revisited:”

incorruptible starting point

inviolable horizon

where eye and mind are free

to meditate perfection […]

 

experience quietude

the maturity of ecstasy

longing to utter

the unutterable name

Here the mind’s power transforms one’s environment while finding its own place in synch with the heart. These poems do not present “realization” as an end, as so often typifies “spiritual” writing. Rather, they form a gentle laying out of possible paths, ways of seeing and being. Here, to be enlightened is to return from the heights of concept, of “realization,” back to the heart.

As in the poem “Heart,”

The heart has its treasons

that reason does not know—

why it must cheat, lie, even die

just to stand a chance at rebirth.

This wisdom of the heart transcends logic and yet, in Lababidi’s cosmos, is not at war with it so much as offering us a takeoff point for those questions unanswerable by logic or philosophy alone. Such “rebirth” and the truths that are revealed by seeking it need a “poetry of feeling” which appeals to the senses and the intuition, beyond the “labyrinth of self” and “the conceit of thought,/ the paralysis of analysis” (from “Dog Ideal”).

Nothing, of course, can be sublime or grand without first being tested. These poems take us through more difficult and meandering routes, to familiar places we imagined perhaps as of no significance. Such as in “Hotels:”

Come, check into these dens

you patrons of boredom, lust

and pay-per-view entertainment

 

Such privileged inmates

showered simulated warmth

impatiently switching channels

 

You do not see yourselves

as the night does, shadows

in a flickering monster screen

This is no didactic poem; rather, it makes us picture a world where everything is of consequence. In the poem “Inheritance,” observing what we inherit from our progenitors shows that consequences derive not from the reality we present to others as true, but all the defects and awkward facts we seek to cover up:

We inherit the things we abhor

the unsightly clunkers we scorned

and vowed to forsake as décor […]

 

Hardly, the heroic public stances, more defeatist private habits

precious little of the extolled self discipline, gleaming courage

or magnanimity. In their place, a host of colossal smallnesses

Yet from “a host of colossal smallnesses” can come, with a more enlightened use of the mind, something far better. Although one might expect that an accomplished aphorist, which Lababidi is, would focus on larger issues; such focus is no less influenced by his being an Egyptian, a place where one’s personal life is dominated in many ways by powerful and oppressive or demeaning forces. Writing in English, exiled not only from his home country to which he dedicates this volume but from its language, makes more compelling the sense of there being a grander vision to be found. Without didacticism, and with a sense of beauty and freedom both in life and in the craft of poetry itself, we are offered insights into such things as the root cause of social unrest, in “What Is to Give Light”:

When words lose their meaning

and an entire people their voice—

so they can neither laugh nor scream—

death and life begin to taste the same

Here words are in fact survival tools. Oppression deprives its victims of the means of human expression, even of words themselves, so essential to freedom. “Dissolving the inarticulate” has never been more urgent. And as Jane Hirschfield says in her essay “Spiritual Poetry,” the poetry that rings most true “plunges into the heart of the matter at hand, bearing witness in some essential way.” This is exactly what Lababidi does on matters of highest import, and we as readers, taken way beyond the borders of our selves, are grandly enriched by it.

Beauty Broken and Decamped

The women in Ivy Alvarez’s chapbook Hollywood Starlet (Dancing Girl Press, 2015) have all lost something. Whether it’s their minds, a man, anonymity, peace, or a sense of self or place, it’s not coming back. We feel for their losses, but like any disaster hungry mob, we cannot look away. All of the titles have a name of a “starlet” followed by a word depicting an action of loss. Here are some of the titles: “What Vivien Leigh Dropped,”  “What Greta Garbo Offered,” “What Betty Grable Gave.” These women are missing pieces; like the artist Lana del Rey, they embody that idea of “beautiful sadness.” Alvarez captures this theme to a tee in this collection.

In “What Katherine Hepburn Lost,” we are transported into her inner conscious. Alvarez writes:

“Yorkshire. Why’d he bring me here?”

“…How long since I’ve had dirt under my nails?

This pantsuit’s stained with chlorophyll.

Maybe I’ll change. He can’t marry me. I have my role to play—

good time girl and quick repartee doth not fine marriage material make…”

Alvarez’s last lines carry a plea: “Oh Spencer, It’s me Kathy.”

The poem goes from recognizing Hepburn as the quick witted “girl Friday,” the friend, not the lover, and ends in heartbreak; we feel her plain yearning at the end. Alvarez brings out the “Kathy” (vs Katherine)  in us, in the wanting what we never seem to get, even though we already seemingly have it all.

Even the elegant and pristine Olivia de Havilland pines silently. She says, “Errol –

please call me Livvie once more.”

In “What Olivia de Havilland Wished For,” the last couplet is:

“I wish for something more than a celluloid kiss,

the mirage of eternity between our lips.”

Alvarez captures the persona of these famous heroines in a few lines of poetry. Olivia de Havilland was classy and perfect, never mussed up. What did this cost her? Alvarez offers us a personality for us to recognize and touch. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction. The poems are emotional truth.

We never know where Alvarez is going to direct us next. These short celebrity poem portrayals are surreal and bizarre. There is a welcome grittiness to some of the poems.

In “What Clara Bow Stole,” we are introduced to an obvious director’s statement when he says “Don’t speak…look pretty.” And Clara is a trouble maker, full of vim and vigor.

“…When I stole

my mother’s coat, after she held that butcher’s

knife to my throat, it scratched like that…

One more bite. Just like her, I’m committed

to my paper bag, my asylum of sweetness.”

This was one of my favorite poems. With Clara Bow, Alvarez draws attention to the fact that these women were forced to fit in a certain mold/persona.  The movie production companies controlled them and used them to make a profit.  These women fit into boxes of “best friend,” “siren” “ingénue,” “tomboy,” etc. Once the die was cast, no one could escape. These poems offer an escape. Alvarez offers an insight to a different reality for these women. They can escape, leave the set, love someone they are not supposed to. And they do it with tenacity.

In “What Ingrid Bergman Wanted,” we are made privy to Bergman’s thoughts. The actress was always so cool and collected in her films, but Alvarez throws in some grit and immediacy:

In Bergman’s thoughts:

“I spot a chapel in the shade

covered in lichen’s dull brocade.

No-one’s looking at me, kid.

Take a flake of rock, scratch the word

Ingrid into bark, letter by letter.

By the force of my hand.

I might earn permanency.

Let that plane leave without me.”

Alvarez gives Bergman a voice. She isn’t “made” to get on a plane by Humphrey Bogart, the symbol of a masculinity and control. Bergman stays because she wants to stay and maybe she lives in the woods, carves her names into the pines. Other starlets are given a voice as well: Frances Farmer chooses to swallow a chicken fetus whole while living in a foreign country. Rita Hayworth is nostalgic for her childhood, dancing with her father.

The closing poems are a direct line from A to B in terms of “innocent girl” transformed into Hollywood icon. They are “What Marilyn Monroe Ran From,” and “What Norma Jean Became.”

With Norma Jean, Alvarez pointedly describes an insecure girl, seeking validation:

“I’ve trimmed my flesh for muscle…

…becoming more anonymous with every step.”

With Marilyn, she is pursued by a swarm, “a halo of flies.”

“Jackrabbits, ears pricked,

follow me with their eyes.”

Like Ophelia wandering in madness, who takes center stage handing out herbs and flowers in one of her final scenes, she enraptures the audience for a time, steals their hearts.

But then we hear of her death offstage. Only her essence lives on, floats through our memories until the next breath of fresh air, the next live performance.

 

 

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. She is the author of two full length poetry collections (forthcoming.) Her chapbook “Clown Machine” is forthcoming from Grey Book Press this summer. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Freezeray, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Inter/rupture, Poor Claudia, and decomP. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.

All publishing poets know what chapbooks are. So, I’m not going to provide a history of the chapbook. The internet is full of good essays documenting that history. In fact, one brief essay can be found here on TheThe Poetry Blog by Sam Riedel. Here’s another link to one by the British historian, Ruth Richardson.  What I want to draw attention to is the importance of the poetry chapbook and the folly of considering it as less significant than a full-length collection.

A chapbook, which is basically any book with a page count under 48, will not be considered for any major prize. No matter how good, it cannot win a Pulitzer or National Book Award or National Book Critics Circle Award. In fact, there is, to my knowledge, only one national prize in the country dedicated to already published poetry chapbooks: The Jean Pedrick Award, sponsored by the New England Poetry Club. I emphasize “already published,” because there are plenty of prizes for chapbooks in which the prize is publication. But the incredible failure to acknowledge the significance of chapbooks after publication mirrors the failure throughout the poetry world to respect chapbooks as artistic achievements in their own right, the failure to judge them solely on their quality. Of course, there are devotees of the chapbook, but there are devotees and collectors of everything from backscratchers and umbrella covers to sugar packets. The error for poetry chapbooks is in the disregard for them, not only by the general reading public who may not even know of their existence, but by poets themselves, especially those aspiring to carve out a place in the literary world. The feeling is that if you want to be taken seriously as a poet you have to publish more than a chapbook, you must publish a full-length collection. Even those who value them value them only as “calling cards” or stepping stones toward publishing larger works. This is clearly an error if one reflects briefly on the history of great poetry.

Philip Larkin published five collections of poetry in his lifetime. Of those five only one of them would be a full-length collection by today’s standards and that one, his first one, The North Ship, only just makes it, coming in at 48 pages. The four that followed—XX Poems, The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings, and High Windows—would all be considered chapbooks by today’s definition. XX Poems was privately printed and so it’s difficult to find information about its page count. However, given that Larkin generally wrote short poems and even if each poem in this collection took up 2 pages, which is highly unlikely, it would be 40 pages of poetry, and thus, still a chapbook. The page count for each of the following four books respectively goes: 45, 46, and 42. So, only The North Ship qualifies as a full-length collection. Imagine the loss to the world of poetry if such chapbooks had been ignored as insignificant merely because of their length? Or consider the ridiculousness of relegating them to being mere stepping stones to his Collected Poems, published after his death.  These short collections contain some of the most startling and beautiful poetry written in the last century.

William Blake’s famous collections: The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience were both chapbooks. The first book comprised only 19 poems published in 1790. Four years later he published The Songs of Experience, which was only 26 poems. And to be clear, none of these poems were long. Most were a page or less. Even though these chapbooks were very small, not only in page number but in actual size, they were works of art unlike anything anyone else had produced, created using Blake’s own method of printing from copper plates etched by acids.

More recently, the poet Tomas Transtromer, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize, demonstrated the power of an oeuvre that accumulates in small increments, growing slowly like a glacier over years. Each individual addition to his total output never amounts to what is defined as a full-length collection. Only by combining old material with new material does he make more than a chapbook. His first book, 17 Poems, was, of course, 17 poems and they weren’t long enough to cover 48 pages. Not even close. The next set of new poems, Secrets on the Way, added fourteen more poems to his work. The collection after that, The Half-Finished Heaven, added twenty-one more poems. In this way, he kept adding to his oeuvre. But any given addition never would have broken that 48-page barrier.

Many other poets have published works that are chapbooks. The original publications of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations, and Ginsberg’s Howl were both chapbooks. Of Louise Bogan’s four major collections, two of them—The Body of This Death, and The Sleeping Fury, were chapbooks. Edgar Bowers’ second collection, To the Astronomers, was 36 pages. And the following collection Living Together, although 84 pages, was a new & selected and therefore, full of material from his first two collections. I’m fortunate to own a copy of this book and can tell you that the new poems in the collection only compose a total of 10 more pages. This could also be pointed out of many other poets. So what is our obsession with making collections long when so many important poets published short works of great significance? Why consider these mere works on the way to—not more important work, but just larger collections of work?

I’m not an expert. But my guess is it’s market driven. Somewhere along the line, it is all ultimately determined by graphs of market value and profit margins for the larger houses that publish poetry. Unfortunately, we poets have largely bought into this mentality. Our entire culture believes, as if it were divine writ, that bigger-is-better, that perpetual growth defines success. But it is error in many ways and folly for poets to follow along with this thinking. A poet should write and construct the best book they can, and if that collection is under 48 pages, then that is how long it’s supposed to be. To ignore a collection because it’s only 20 or 30 pages long rather than 60 or 80 pages is simply the error of a mind that thinks bigger is better. Or it at least is not questioning that implicit assumption. I wager that most poets don’t think of themselves as adhering to this mentality and yet, here we are, all racing toward that 48-page mark as though it were what defines a collection of poetry. Certainly nothing in poetry itself determines that. It is an ulterior motive shaping the collection to reach that mark. Consciously or unconsciously it is not a poetic motive directing the poet’s choices here and it’s time to put that to an end.

We should encourage what bookstores remain in the world to display chapbooks as clearly as others.  We should encourage institutions to establish prizes that recognize the best chapbook published in the previous year, prizes that are honored and respected as equally as any other prize for full-length collections.  Chapbooks should be reviewed as regularly as other collections and in both large and small journals.  They should be reviewed with the same attention as other collections.  I would be willing to wager a large sum that if these things were done, we would begin to recognize a large number of very accomplished poets who haven’t had a full-length collection published but are just as deserving of recognition as any who have.

Lighting the Shadow

By Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Four Way Books, 2015

Reviewed by Cheryl R. Hopson

lighting

Rachel Eliza Griffiths opens her fourth full-length collection, Lighting the Shadow, with the poem The Dead Will Lead Us, in which she writes, “This, / is what you must learn / by heart. The closed flesh / as commandment, a terra cotta / smear of fingerprints / praying along the blue cave.” The poet continues,

Lighting the shadow, a woman

crawls out beneath her own war.

The Dead Will Lead Us is only one of the book’s many epigraphs. The speakers in these poems have come to tell us what we must learn by heart – that transgressions, violence, rage, and caustic elements and ideas will “crawl out” of the shadow to struggle “with this blow of light.”

Griffiths’ collection is divided into four sections, Diaphanous Corpse, A Dark Race for Enlightenment, Verses From The Dead Americans’ Songbook, and The Human Zoo. The book has the feel of a patchwork quilt; or better still, a mosaic of images that strike at the heart and trouble the mind. These images are at once severe and magnificent.

The speaker of The Dead Will Lead Us talks of mercy as “the pulse of lupin / in a yellow field,” and of her “mother’s / Eyes” as “forgotten vases of irises.” But she does not explain herself further, nor does she ever come out from beyond the shadow. So what are readers to make of this poem, of the collection itself, and of the woman at the center, crawling out from beneath her own war?

We know of the speaker’s reliance on women artists of the recent past, such as celebrated Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, who is famous for her self-portraits and depictions of physical suffering and love:

Frida,

there is a death mask of your face

on the canopied bed.

We know of the speaker’s calling on the late African-American poet Lucille Clifton, who said “I write as a Black woman,” and left it at that:

Lucille, how wild

And we know of the speaker’s looking to Jewish poet Muriel Rukeyser, who told of the power of a woman’s truth to split open her own and other worlds:

Muriel : / […] of imagined ablution

In poems such as 26, Elegy, and Anti Elegy, the speakers indict America for its obsession with guns and its acceptance of the daily blighting of black, brown, young and old lives; its deadening/deafening bullets aimed at the Trayvons, Michaels, Jordans, and James.’

The poet tells us that she “won’t leave them / huddled like bulls inside the stall of a word,” these boys and men and women and children whose “names toll in [her] dreams.” These ceaseless dreams become nightmares are now hers, and our own national legacy’s.

Lighting the Shadow is a powerful collection. The book is at turns elegiac and raging, personal and transpersonal, dreamlike and nightmarish. It’s a collection that showcases a poet at work – “Thighs stoned by vandals” – and in process.

____________________

hopson

Cheryl R. Hopson, PhD, is an assistant professor of African American Literature at Augusta University in Augusta, Georgia. She has published essays on Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker, as well as on U.S. Black feminist sisterhood. Her chapbook Black Notes was published by Finishing Line Press in 2013.

Blueberry Elizabeth Morningsnow – Whale in the Woods

Rescue Press 2012

Page Length: 73

Retail: $14

 

Blueberry Elizabeth’s Morningsnow’s debut collection, Whale in the Woods, is mythic and mammoth. Winner of the 2011 Black Box Poetry Prize from Rescue Press, Morningsnow gives us a vision that is obsessive, oddly spiritual, and urgently beautiful. The result is one of the freshest, most original spiritual voices in Contemporary American Poetry.

 

At the core of Morningsnow’s poetics is the fusion of the elemental and the spiritual. Many of these poems center on large, recurrent, elemental themes and symbols: the weather, the moon, stars, fields, bodies (human, aquatic, celestial), dust, mountains, and copious amounts of light. Atop these Morningsnow layers a spiritual valence that ambiguously and provocatively begs the question of how imbued these elements might be with spiritual forces: ghosts, god, breath, and death.

 

“Ghost trapped in a cloud:

it’s not my fault when a fish drowns
look at me lakestorming
I’m dissolving all the time

A cloud is a crowd, a crowd

My brains drip onto flowers, roofs, absences, whatever

Yet I’m not part of the external and its edges

I even help this lake

But the lake’s without humility

And forgets that there’s a middlest, finest hole

An internal to everything”

(“Ghosts Are Nature”)

 

The title of the poem makes a bold metaphysical claim: “Ghosts Are Nature.” If this collection’s sprawling metaphysics could be summarized by a single statement this would surely be it. It would follow naturally, then, that our experience of the natural world would be haunting—that beauty would be wound tightly with terror—that the known would merely float in the greater expanse of the ominous unknown.

 

Morningsnow’s poetic forms follow this animism: often presented in bursts of lyrical vapor, evanescent and inevitable, voices emerge from the previously inanimate. We find the landscape surrounding the human milieu to be fully alive and capable of speech, and the words being spoken are equal parts human and oddly-something-else.

The following is spoken by “The Lake,” a recurring character:

 

“Can I kill as well as die many times? Yes. Can I live as well as get born forever? Yes.

 

I am the bone that never stops softening. Yes. There are swellings and

balloonings inside me. Yes and I am chunked up with ice.

 

I’m the Lake and a poem.

 

My consciousness goes grey and I turn to sleep in my center for I am not sorry, as you are, that everything constantly changes.

Look how I am. I have drowned you with my swillings. Look how I carry you into silence. Do you feel that words are true. I am ragged, I am ragged. I am ragged.

Breath is the only thing that’s fair.”

 

(“Of Clearness and Birth”)

 

However clever many of Morningsnow’s poetic constructions can be, she is also, at times, stunningly forthright. In very basic terms she makes a very large claim: the poem is not human. While it is composed of language, the most human phenomenon in the universe, the poem is more a coalescence than a willed construction: it is a lake that collects its contents passively and then reflects to its reader what may be momentarily looked into before it changes irrevocably.

 

The resulting effect is a brilliant juxtaposition of clarity and obscurity: a voice that phases between registers, scenes, and characters, yet never hides behind those devices for fear of what they might reveal. Accordingly: this is a poetry of revelation and discovery, a kind of poetic animism that seeks to divine the sacred from within the world’s (and the mind’s) many strange forms. Its vision is offered with a ferocity that testifies to the unadulterated violence of beauty.

 

“Remember when I killed my own brother       turning him suddenly and stabbing

him …

then, chopping up his various parts and scattering them in the path of our father’s warriors?

how is it, we wonder, that people are bound to each other

remember when I was darkening and widening                like a river

tearing its throat out in the sea”

 

(“Argosy”)

 

While some poets may opt for highly-sanitized creation-symbols such as the epiphanic sunrise or beatific copulation, the creative center of Morningsnow’s universe is thoroughly visceral: the image is of perpetual birth, and where there is birth there is afterbirth, not to mention the looming inevitability of death.

 

“And you are dead if you’re reading this because I have bursted on you and

killed you out of this and beyond dissolvings.

And because I have seen

trembling transparent eyes

rippling eyes

eyes of dying

there are pure psychic places

inside my self

inside my drain

inside my up and down

Because I have no such thing as desire or guilt

poems do not exist

they are merely:

discardings of skin (something you float in)

 

(“How the Lake Learned English”)

 

Morningsnow’s spiritual-poetic animism is preceded in the 20th-century Western canon primarily by poets influenced by the East: Gary Snyder, W.S. Merwin, and Allen Ginsberg, each of whom refuse to distinguish between the earthly and the heavenly: the profane and the sacred.

 

However, Morningsnow’s approach to this dissolution (the central action of her poetics is captured by the verb “to dissolve”) is entirely different from these quasi-mystics. While the destination of her poetic orientation is similar, Morningsnow’s path couldn’t be more distinct. Indeed: her path is distinct because the starting point is her own. Whereas Snyder, Merwin, and Ginsberg bring to the poetic line the simulated weightlessness of meditation, Morningsnow is thoroughly Western in her rough pilgrimage through a world of terrible, dangerous beauty. Accordingly, an aesthetic kin can be found in the ragged Deep Imagism of Robert Bly and James Wright, not to mention the epistemically-obsessed naturalism of Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, Forest Gander, and Susan Howe. Graham is, I think, a particularly interesting comparison, as Morningsnow, too, is concerned with the ever-shifting lines distinguishing the known from the unknown from the unknowable.

 

Whale in the Woods is equal parts shocking and lovely: its poetic machinations are diverse and unpredictable, and its dream is utterly unique. Blueberry Elizabeth Morningsnow presents us with a fiercely singular spiritual vision and a world entirely her own: dissolving; unstable; filled with bright and strange debris; uncompromising; necessary; fleetingly salvific.

During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. This month’s second poet is Amber Flame. 

 

Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world – what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?

Amber Flame: It is necessary for me to create – I literally can’t help it, even if I gave up on putting it out in the world. I am compelled by everything; visual art, dance, music, as well as all kinds of writing, primarily for my own happiness. I always did write poetry, was drawn to writing creatively from an early age. I think now I am comfortable writing poetry because I can complete a piece in one sitting, which is harder to do with longer forms. So, I guess the biggest motivation for being a poet right now is being a single working mother who needs to write and having limited time to focus.

I am incredibly lucky in terms of the poebiz landscape! For the first time last year I made a commitment to submit my work for publication, and I am still reaping wonderful benefits. I haven’t actually worked on navigation with intent; my goal was simply to discover whether my poems could be successful on the page. The more I immerse myself in the literary world, the more motivated I am to better myself as a writer – always looking to up my level!

 

FFF: What are your influences – creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?

AF: My fortune is that I have somehow surrounded myself with creative people in all mediums. My friends and peers are artists and creators – giving me a motherlode of inspiration. Mixed in with that is the fact that I’m an avid reader and a trained musician, and the list of influences is too long. I am drawn to those who want connection most, drawn to the outsiders, to those who analyze the experiences they go through and make beautiful things from that analysis. That is what I am forever doing – I am a Black queer mother in the United States who was raised fundamentalist Christian by white people, and I’ve practiced Buddhism for over 15 years – there’s a lot to analyze!

FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems – as author and as reader?

AF: I love the things that make me gasp, make me think or wonder, make me jealous – where I wish I had written that, or had thought of that trick or perspective first. It is a very rare book of poems that can keep me all the way through, but the ones that do have just enough story and mystery to make me invest in the characters. Throughline is important. I want people to read my work and sigh, breathe “yes” or “damn” or to cry or feel a gut punch or laugh out loud. I want to break through their barriers or reserve and get under their skin. As for my aesthetic, I seek to be a wordsmith, a clever craftswoman. I want every word to be specifically chosen and elegantly placed. I value that in other art. Like when I find myself enjoying a Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift song because the hook is just so damn good, and it got me despite myself!

FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something – an experience, a piece of art, anything really – that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

AF: I cannot avoid mentioning the loss I’ve experienced. I lost my mother earlier this year – she was too young and it was completely unexpected. I was with her when she collapsed and I still don’t know all the ways I am being shaped by the loss of her. She was one of my best friends, almost daily companion. The greatest grief of my life does influence every piece of art I make, of course. But I am too deep in the process right now to analyze it with any objectivity. Then, this fall, I lost my chosen mentor – the two most influential female figures in my life are gone, I am a mother without a mother. I keep saying I am not old enough to be my own elder. What I do know is that I am absolutely determined to be my best self, if only to honor them and my daughter. It is learning how to hold joy and pain at the same time, how to go on when there is no other side to get to – I will never get to “mom” again. The heartache quite literally knocks me down some days. I hear it won’t ever get better but it will get easier – I’m not holding my breath. Just deciding to get up and live well anyway. It is almost always someone’s creation that drags me out from under this shadow – be it a funny meme or video, an engrossing Netflix series, a song…

FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

AF: I love so many books! Christopher Moore’s Lamb definitely blew my mind, though. I’ve read the Bible many a time and he does such an exquisite job – it’s easy to believe it is a part of the original story and makes so much sense filling it in. Also, we all know how the Jesus story ends and I still hoped… cried when the cruxifiction happened – that is some powerful writing. I also really love Martin Millar’s Lonely Werewolf Girl series (this speaks to my less-than-discerning taste in fantasy, mystery and sci-fi fiction but is incredibly well written). As for poetry, Nayirrah Waheed’s Salt is more than anyone could ever ask for, makes me react in all the ways I seek to elicit from my readers as a poet myself.

FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?

AF: Being an artist and finding some kind of joy and/or release in the creative process is a great privilege. More than ever before, I am conscious and truly appreciative of that fact. Surrounding myself with artists who are working on a higher level than I am, or in a medium I never tried before constantly pushes me to grow. That, and a consistent daily practice shape the reality of my artist life.

 

 An award-winning writer and performer, Amber Flame is also a singer for multiple musical projects. Flame’s original work is published and recorded in many diverse arenas, including Def Jam Poetry, Winter Tangerine, The Dialogist, Split This Rock, Jack Straw, Black Heart Magazine, and forthcoming from Sundress Publications, Redivider and more. Her one-woman play, Hands Above the Covers: Hairy Palms & Other Nightmares of a Church Kid, was mounted under the auspices of a CityArtist grant through the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs. Since moving to the Bay Area, Flame works as a teaching artist and runs the Oakland Slam as slammaster. while performing daily feats of Black girl magic. She performs regularly on musical, literary, and cabaret stages, and works as an activist and organizer for a diverse number of queer and POC communities. Amber Flame is one magic trick away from growing her unicorn horn.

Fox Frazier-Foley is author of two prize-winning poetry collections, Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), and editor of two anthologies, Political Punch: The Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: An Anthology of Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She is founding EIC of Agape Editions.

During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. This month’s first poet is Sarah A. Chavez. 

 

 

Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world – what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?

Sarah Chavez: It’s funny, but I think a lot about what poetry does and how it has functioned in my life, but hardly ever why I ended up devoting myself to it. I did have other creative outlets: I played piano briefly and am fair at drawing; I even got within a class or two of an art minor with a focus in mixed media, and had a lovely professor encourage me to keep going with it, formally or not . . .

Sometimes I think what dictates the activities in my life – and to some extent, the people – is a sort of trial by fire or survival of the strongest, what’s left after the fall out. I love painting and drawing and collage, but those mediums are in some ways delicate, high maintenance. They require certain conditions, special spaces, a variety of instruments which can be costly: brushes, good pens and pencils, chalk, glues, epoxy, canvases. In comparison, poetry is like the working person’s art. All you need is something to write on and anything to write with. I used to write on the back of receipt paper while waiting to hear “order up” when I waited tables. I wrote in fifty cent notebooks between classes in college, and before that between chores when I lived at my mom’s. I’d take a pocket notebook out on ten minute cigarette breaks when I worked as an administrative assistant. Poetry (& writing in general) is portable and low tech, accessible. There’s a lot said about poetry being difficult and hard to understand, but ultimately, if someone gives a poem even cursory attention, whether or not they think they don’t “get it” overall, they will see an image, recognize a feeling, hear a pleasing set of sounds. Life, and our understanding of it, doesn’t happen in one linear comprehensive experience; it is snatches & moments. In that way I suppose poetry has always felt the most natural, it provides for me the best way to process and appreciate what I encounter in the world.

As for the poebiz landscape, I don’t know. It can be pretty rough, especially if you come from outside the literary/art/academic world. There’s so much insider knowledge no one tells you. I didn’t even try to publish a poem until I was getting ready to graduate with my MA, and I only did it then because I’d decided I might want to eventually apply to a terminal degree program and I found out you needed that sort of credential to be seriously considered. Once I started sending out my writing though, I realized it was a lot like other jobs: you just need to try, learn from experiences, & don’t stop; not if you think it’s what you want. Of course this is not to say sending out again and again after repeated rejections is easy, but when I look at the grossly low number of women, queer people, & people of color (this is true of other industries as well, such as academia), it becomes more than just personal desire for some perception of success. Navigating the poebiz and getting my work out into the world becomes about visibility and asserting the rights and talents of traditionally marginalized groups, about influencing the aesthetic of the literary landscape.

 

FFF: What are your influences—creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?

SC: A few things in particular I am influenced by are music, visual art, & oddly enough sociological theory. Music especially has been huge, not a specific singer, band, or style of music, but the feelings elicited. I’ll become obsessed with a band or singer and will listen to them over & over again until the mood has fully seeped in. That mood usually attaches to social and/or personal associations, and it’s those together that the writing comes from, like I’m trying to recreate the mood or feeling of the music through my writing. Similarly, with the visual art, the influence is about having feelings awakened. The sociological theory though, that helps me intellectually understand and translate the feelings, especially as they relate to other humans. I want to understand the context from which both positive and negative behaviors and choices come from, especially as it relates to ethnicity/race issues and social constructions of gender and sexuality.

 

FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems—as author and as reader?

SC: What I tend toward, both in what I write and want to read, is narrative and rooting in the physical. Language is about communication and communication, ultimately, is about connection. I want to use sensory details and the recognition and empowered engagement with our own bodies to aid in understanding. What makes art & literature meaningful to me is personal growth toward social harmony. I appreciate the skill & technique art for art’s sake takes, but at this stage in my life, I’d rather have visceral connection than marvel at solely intellectual endeavors. I want to see & touch things. I want to encounter something outside myself, but told to me in such a way that I feel it through my bones and blood. I think in many ways this is most challenging. It takes skilled craft and hard work to create that kind of situation, while maintaining the feeling of being organic. I want art & literature to work, to earn its keep, have a purpose outside itself.

 

FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something—an experience, a piece of art, anything really—that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

SC: I can’t remember if I’ve told this story before, but when I was around 13, my friend’s mom stole a notebook filled with poems my friend and I had written together, set them on fire, and tried to have me arrested.

This friend of mine and I started writing limericks after my maternal grandfather gave me an Ogden Nash book. As is a convention of the genre, though the book contained many limericks that were cute and harmless, there were also many that were crude and, let’s just say, “inappropriate;” of course our favorites were the bawdy ones. My friend and I both had difficult home lives, but hers was particularly bad and we disliked her mother quite a bit. So whenever her mom would commit some new sort of terrible (or just the same old terrible all over again), we’d write mean limericks about her. The poems were often making fun of her appearance, or how she smelled. They sometimes focused on how pathetic we thought she and this guy she was dating were. We wrote them all down in a standard college-ruled, red-covered, spiral notebook that I kept with me all the time. And it wasn’t just filled with our limericks, but also some of my deepest young teenager thoughts, feelings, and fears.

One day my friend and I decided to take the bus somewhere, or maybe we walked to 7-Eleven, I don’t remember which. Either way, we knew we’d wouldn’t be gone for too long, so I just left the notebook on the dining room table. When we returned, we didn’t expect anyone to be there, because her mom often left in the late morning and didn’t come back until after dark (if she came back at all). The mobile homes we lived in had stilted side porches that went half the length of the structure, so when we turned to go up the steps, at first all we saw was smoke and the back of her mom’s house dress. As we went up the stairs, she turned to look at us, revealing the notebook smoldering in the pit of their Webster grill. I don’t remember what she said, but it was definitely screaming and something about how could we and we were terrible people and I was a bad influence and she never wanted to look at our faces again. She commanded I leave her property, but I said I wouldn’t leave without the remains of the notebook. She said if I didn’t leave she would call the police and say I was trespassing, I said “good, call them.” I was going to charge her with destruction of property.

One of the things that has stuck with me all these years and helped shape my understanding and relationship with art was the realization that writing caused that out of control situation (and it did get more out of control). Part of my friend’s mom’s yelling and crying was quoting some of the lines from the limericks back to us so we could hear how cruel they were. It occurred to me later that even though those dumb limericks were just born out of the imagination of two teenagers messing around, those poems were powerful. They evoked rage and pain and humiliation. We certainly never intended for her to see them, but it was more a fear of half-hearted grounding than anything else. It never crossed our minds that what we said and wrote could truly, fundamentally affect someone else. Since then, I’ve never forgotten the potential power encased in a poem. Even though reading was always a source of comfort for me, it was that experience that made me think maybe I could not just consume the words, but write them too. If I could be so affected by what I read, and my friend’s mom could be so affected by reading what we wrote, there seemed to be limitless possibility (and power) in poetry.

 

FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

SC: Argh, this is such a difficult question! There are so so many . . . If I have to pick one or two, and I stick to poetry because this is a poetry blog, and I don’t feel comfortable picking something more contemporary because I have thought about them less, then in my current state of mind, taking into consideration multifaceted awesomeness, then the two that have come to me first are Naomi Shihab Nye’s Words Under the Words: Selected Poems and Philip Levine’s What Work Is, and Adrienne Rich’s The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New. And I totally just cheated. Twice. It’s cheaty to pick selected works, and I totally gave three titles instead of two. Anyhow, one of the characteristics that make these books so mind-blowingly awesome is their shared ability to accessibly discuss difficult emotions and social concepts while tightly controlling craft. Levine and Nye have both been criticized for being too plain-spoken. This is silly though, because why exactly is the striped down word or image “plain?” Precision is a talent and if someone can be precise, clear, and emotionally resonant . . . shit. Sometimes the best way to communicate about the things that are most difficult is to strip them down to the physicality of the experience. And while Rich doesn’t often have that criticism leveled at her work, she is also able to create sensory worlds in her poems that can set the body on fire. It’s a good fire, the kind that makes you feel more alive, makes you want to be a better person. I guess ultimately, that’s what these books have in common and why everyone should read them: you walk away from the poems wanting to be a better human to other humans.

 

FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?

SC: Not that I can think of. I thought the provided questions were wonderful and I deeply appreciate the invitation to think more about these topics and to share my thoughts with you.

FFF: Thanks so much for participating in this series, Sarah!

 

 
Sarah A. Chavez, a mestiza born and raised in the California Central Valley, is the author of the chapbook, All Day, Talking (Dancing Girl Press, 2014). She holds a PhD in English with a focus in poetry and Ethnic Studies from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in the anthologies Bared: An Anthology on Bras and Breasts and Political Punch: The Politics of Identity, as well as the journals North Dakota Quarterly, The Pittsburgh Poetry Review, and The Boiler Journal, among others. Her debut full-length collection, Hands That Break & Scar, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications. She is a proud member of the Macondo Writers Workshop. www.sarahachavez.com

 

Fox Frazier-Foley is author of two prize-winning poetry collections, Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), and editor of two anthologies, Political Punch: The Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: An Anthology of Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She is founding EIC of Agape Editions.

She collects pieces, forms whole body slowly

 

In Movement No.1: Trains, by Hope Wabuke, (Dancing Girl Press, 2015) an abundance of unexpected, organic relationships power through this chapbook, transmitting energy between humans and people, sound, color, and movement. Like the line referenced in the title above, there are many bodies at play in this collection. The train is a body, and the people, parts, stored inside.

Using fluid language and an almost dream-like tone, Wabuke gives us glimpses of humanity’s core like spying on a commuting passenger through the windows of a subway car: intense yet indirect, witnessing a presence briefly. It’s how Wabuke wants us to see: life like “tiny match stick toys.”

The word “movement” in the title illustrates a dual meaning: physical movement and orchestral movements, the actual text caters to the ebb and flow of daily life while also illustrating the navigation through an urban jungle. The energy never stops.

Wabuke begins her first poem in mid-sentence— we are moving already—and the train is alive in all of its magnificent silver glory. We have all waited for a train but Wabuke’s writing anticipates an animal coming around the corner:

 

“…and when she waits, knowing its coming by the movement of light

across rusted metal, the dirty white tiles of tunnel wall almost

beautiful in the light sliding closer through darkness…she imagines the sound she hears is breathing.”

Like a mystical living force the train gives birth to shadow and light. Turning corners unseen, making noise, consuming space. We read these poems as blurryeyed infants seeking out black and white shapes, alternately lulled and startled by Wabuke’s insightful words and descriptions.

Metal is a wonderful detail that ties people together in this book. Who is holding the metal poles, who lets go of them to fall into each other as the train lurches ahead, who holds steady. The metal is a lifeline for all of the riders, forced to hold on and mesh their limbs into places that don’t mesh. There is other frenetic pops of color as well. The colors Wabuke uses are very specific: grey, (grey water, grey bridges, grey sky,) but also a relieving blue ink sky, a yellow moon piercing the night, and popping red seats are beacons of light and reprieve amongst the train’s cacophony.

 

“sometimes when she sits on the red plastic chair that is one among

many alternating rows of yellow and red seats bolted to the inside

walls of the train, she is not used to so much space below her…shifting

slightly against molded plastic shape that does not fit her form.”

 

It is through this image, trying to curve one’s body into a tiny plastic chair, that we meet “him.” He is mostly described in the past tense already, almost as soon as we meet him, he is gone.

At one time he used to bump arms against the girl in the poems, but no longer. We get the sense of “him” and time, whooshing by. He is there one second, gone the next, like a missed train.

 

“…he would hold her hand then, first pressing two fingers tight

to circle her wrist marking the point of meeting until, releasing, he

would hold the two fingers up to his eye, laugh and call her tiny…”

 

And then later:

 

“and on the day after his leaving. she notices his absence in the

awkward stillness of her legs, the way her arms hang stiffly at her

sides…”

His presence is secondary to the action of the train, the girl, and the crowds. The masses are always moving: dancing on the platform while waiting for the train to a hypnotic drum beat, hands waving above heads, eyes in heads looking up for rain. All of the senses blur together magnificently where one can never escape noise or people. This could be any city.

Wabuke captures an ethereal stillness amongst such noise and music. People sway and look and touch and never stop but it is beautiful. The masses moving and stopping is similar to an orchestral swell or street performer ten minute act. She writes:

 

“…he would touch drumsticks to upside-down white buckets to make beats, she would

see sound touch tile in tunnel walls and touch heels to ground.

rocking upward in tiny motions, she would lift hands lightly; she

would move her body in tiny circles of his rhythm.”

 

These masses move and strive to find a rhythm and a place in the world that makes sense. As Wabuke so accurately describes: “the pressing of a shape into something else.” Strangers mingling can be unsettling, but Wabuke joins them, links us to a higher power. These poems are so spiritual despite describing and participating in a commute, which is often a source of stress for most people. Wabuke writes:

 

“…in this space without sound or light, she will remember how in the

sounding of first explorations they would move parts to form one

body. so she will stand, rise and press close to half-open window,

push frame to crawl out. the train, restarting.”

Wabuke’s words transport us out of the train, into the pouring rain, into the sky. The water invades the tunnels and platforms. This natural element is not supposed to exist down here along the cement with the rats, sprawling puddles on concrete, dripping its own drum sound. Yet here it is. It finds a way in through rivulets, the ceiling breaks open, people push with one big surge to get out, escape into daylight, reborn. The water is a relief.

No matter what walls and tunnels are built, the boundaries of silence, not making eye contact with someone five inches from your face on a train, human-ness finds a way, rushes to the next stop, runs to get to the exit first to breathe the fresh air.Trains_cover

In these poems, Wabuke deftly explores that transition form “I” to “you” to “us” and back again. Leaving the inside to step outside is tough, but she tells us the movement will happen, whether we like it or not.

 

 

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. Recent chapbooks are out or forthcoming from Grey Book Press, Dancing Girl Press and Shirt Pocket Press. Her first full length collection is forthcoming from Lucky Bastard Press. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Pith Right Hand Pointing, Chiron Review, Cider Press Review and decomP. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.

 

Deskins_Prairie Fires
Deskins_Choose with Care
Deskins_Love
Deskins_Prairie Fires
Deskins_Flowerets
The above text and images are by Laura Madeline Wiseman and Sally Deskins, from their book Leave of Absence: An Illustrated Guide to Common Garden Affections, a collaborative work whose lush look at the body and nature in this collection offers a rich pallet on the human form and these tall creatures that stand among us. Moving from fairy tale to children’s book, film representation to fact, Leaves tells the love story of two trees as they fall from a growing forest into the outstretched limbs of the other. Deskins’ body and tree prints and drawings weave a rich ecology of place to show us that even when we’re reaching away from what we know, our lives are actually becoming more entwined, binding us to what we love. 
 
Sally Deskins is an artist and writer who examines womanhood, motherhood, and the body in her work and others. She’s exhibited in galleries nationally and published her art and writing internationally. She is founding editor of Les Femmes Folles and illustrated Intimates and Fools (poetry by Laura Madeline Wiseman, Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014). sallydeskins.tumblr.com
 
Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of the full-length poetry collections American Galactic (Martian Lit, 2014), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), Queen of the Platform (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013), and Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012). Her dime novel is The Bottle Opener (Red Dashboard, 2014). She is also the author of two letterpress books, nine chapbooks, and the collaborative book  Intimates and Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014) with artist Sally Deskins. She is the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her newest book is the collaborative collection of short stories The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters: Ten Tales (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2015) with artist Lauren Rinaldi. lauramadelinewiseman.com
 
Fox Frazier-Foley is author of two prize-winning poetry collections, Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), and editor of two anthologies, Political Punch: Contemporary Poetry on the Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She is founding EIC of Agape Editions.
Deskins_WonderBra
 

During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. We are excited to have an extra installment of our Spotlight Series during the month of February, featuring the collaborative poetry-visual art hybrid work of Sally Deskins and Laura Madeline Wiseman.

Fox Frazier-Foley: How did you two come to work together? I know you’ve collaborated on other books/projects in the past. How would you describe your collaborative dynamic? What’s it like working together?

Sally Deskins: We met a few years ago via a poetry/exhibition event I produced in Omaha and thereafter did several events together until our first formal collaboration Intimates and Fools.

Laura Madeline Wiseman: We’ve luckily been able to participate in a few gallery shows and readings. Sally is a fantastic curator of exhibits of artwork by women. Our collaborative working relationship takes place online or over the phone. Though we once lived in the same state, now one of us lives on the east coast and the other in the Midwest.

SD: I moved to West Virginia where I’m currently in graduate school in art history. We worked remotely via email and phone conversations on our second collaboration that is just out, Leaves of Absence, and another that is in process! Thus far we have worked with Madeline’s writing first, then my reading and creating various drawings and body prints. I usually like to get ideas and feedback from her while I’m making it, so I’ll send her sketches and ideas. Once I have enough images with which to work and the writing is finalized, we work to find a home for the book.

FFF: What are your influences, respectivelyand I mean “influences” in terms of creative influences such as art/literature that inspires you or that you find yourselves drawn into conversation withbut also influences you may have personally, and socially/politically that shape your art?

LMW: As a gift, I received National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. I’d always wanted to learn about trees. I wanted to be able to name them—those in my yard, neighborhood, and city. I gave myself a writing and research assignment. I decided to learn to identify trees by the book and write poems about them, using the historical information and tree identification cues to inform the poems I wrote. I wrote dozens and dozens and let the story that became Leaves of Absence emerge. One morning as I explored a nearby city park looking for a tree that I could identify and write about, I thought about Sally’s art. She had recently sent images of new work—a watercolor illustration of a forest line of trees with women’s bodies within the darkened hues of old growth trunks. Along the trail in the park, a line of cypress followed a set of newly constructed houses, each back porch like the back porch beside it, but the trees’ trunks had shape, curve, lush evocative bodies.

SD: Most directly with these projects are the luscious words by Madeline of course! I read them over and over, together, in bits and I’ll pull sections or words that grab me, and create an image from there. I never thought about integrating nature with my body work until reading Madeline’s words which made it seem so natural to do! Of course I’m also constantly inspired by feminist artists from past and present, and this varies from day to day. I love artists who also collaborate and work with text like Judy Chicago, who has included either her own journaling, or words by other writers she admired like Anais Nin. Such collaborations and artwork inspires me greatly.

FFF: How would you describe the aesthetic of your work? What do you valuewhat, to you, makes cool art/literature? (I realize this question is a broad one, but I like it that the answers can be limitless!)

LMW: My aesthetic is eclectic. I am deeply honored to work with an artist as talented as Sally. She is the editor, publisher, and curator of Les Femmes Folles, that has published over 500 interviews with local and national writers and artists. It has released four anthologies, one for each year of LFF’s running. They each anthologize artwork, writing, and interview excerpts published during the year. I was lucky enough to have my work featured in the first anthology. I distinctly remember receiving the anthology, one I took with me as I was traveling to a Minnesota gallery exhibition of my collaborative work with another artist. As I read the anthology, I was astounded to see so many women presented with such care, thoughtfulness, and inclusion. It made me feel part of a powerful movement. Having the opportunity to create books with a woman who is doing such good work is a gift in and of itself.

SD: My personal artist aesthetic is feminist in intent, stylistically raw, bright and fun, and hopefully a bit unnerving. Madeline’s writing is feminist and often really subtle and surreal which I love. LFF’s aesthetic is broad, open, expressivesome with intentional feminism, some not.

LFF is inclusive and seeks to feature women featured and the anthologies who are passionate about their work, whether they are at a major point in their career, or just getting back into art, writing, acting, etc. I’m in my second year of graduate school for art history where I’m finalizing my thesis on the curative work of Judy Chicago and such study has helped crystalize the work that I find most provocative and necessary. For me,I like work with a feminist intent that has a broad reach makes the best literature and art.

FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about somethingan experience, a piece of art, anything really—that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

LMW: I loved one tree in college. Fall semester senior year in ecofeminism, we were asked to keep a tree journal—pick a tree and journal about it weekly. My tree stood outside my window, the only tree on a block of homes remade into student-apartments. It hid the alley and parking lot. It made a canopy of dinner-plate sized, like yellow-green hands. I once hoped to kiss another under that tree, but I never did. One day I heard chainsaws. When I turned the corner I saw them talking, cutting it down. My memory fails me here—did I gape, dash unseeing through the curling bark and brittle twigs or did I speak to them or did I stand with others to watch? Later, after they were gone, I foraged outside and grabbed a limb within my arms and took it inside. I propped it beside my desk. When I told my teachers, they said, “Pick another tree,” but I couldn’t, not for years, not until Sally and I began collaborating on Leaves.

SD: It’s hard to pick one. Many moments through books and art have inspired me—discovering Dada in high school, Valerie Solanas in college, The Yellow Wallpaper as a new parent, Wanda Ewing’s fearless figurative artwork, Judy Chicago’s autobiographies as a grad student and visiting Chicago’s The Dinner Party. I found common ground with all of these—and a sobering irony of women’s situation, women’s representation in art, and the high/low gendered value placed on art–that some things are still the same. But hopefully in making my art and doing LFF, raising my kids/having family along the way (not one or the other), I can make a difference.

FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read and/or some visual art that everyone should experience, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

LMW: I’ve mentioned National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. Learning about trees, learning to name them, learning about their uses and history, I found fascinating and richly entertaining. It changed the way I approached exploring my city.

SD: Besides Intimates and Fools and Leaves of Absence and all of Madeline’s other books and LFF anthologies :), everything I mentioned in the last answer—SCUM Manifesto (Valerie Solanas); The Yellow Wallpaper (Charlotte Perkins Gilman), Judy Chicago’s Through the Flower (1972), definitely an exhibition of Wanda Ewing’s artwork (pin up girls, video grrrlzzz, her dresses, any and all of it). And of course, visiting The Dinner Party will change your life—experiencing a history of Western women is mind-blowing, after a life of being the same old HIStory. And of course it’s gorgeous.

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Sally Deskins is an artist and writer who examines womanhood, motherhood, and the body in her work and others. She’s exhibited in galleries nationally and published her art and writing internationally. She is founding editor of Les Femmes Folles and illustrated Intimates and Fools (poetry by Laura Madeline Wiseman, Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014). sallydeskins.tumblr.com

Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of the full-length poetry collections American Galactic (Martian Lit, 2014), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), Queen of the Platform (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013), and Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012). Her dime novel is The Bottle Opener (Red Dashboard, 2014). She is also the author of two letterpress books, nine chapbooks, and the collaborative book Intimates and Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014) with artist Sally Deskins. She is the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her newest book is the collaborative collection of short stories The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters: Ten Tales (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2015) with artist Lauren Rinaldi. lauramadelinewiseman.com

Fox Frazier-Foley is author of two prize-winning poetry collections, Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), and editor of two anthologies, Political Punch: Contemporary Poetry on the Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She is founding EIC of Agape Editions.