TheThe Poetry
≡ Menu

Everything

Jess Burnquist

 

Jess Burnquist

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Difficult Drama of Nature

How cool the air above the horizon—the sky lights up
As you take your leave. And this leaving feels severe
It feels the way trees look as they clutch rough edges of land
All the while being shaped by a persistent wind.

I can be traced by satellite. Here is my house on a virtual map
But what of your soul? What of this next-phase?

I might be the tree clawing to stay. Also, you might be the wind.
The moon pulls these thoughts across a barren sea named Desert.
You dwelled here for a time with your lens—finding the synesthesia
In the mindlessness of the mesquite. What did I forget
To tell you before you splintered from your body
So fraught and pale—so tired of the process of breath?

You should know that your intended stillness
Gave way to the most difficult shifts of voice.
Your lithograph—the tea stained print
Of hallway and woman in three point perspective
Would form a constellation. And, dear friend,
We spoke once about the dead light of stars—the endless travelling
To briefly illuminate. I ask of contrast, why life/death? Why black/white?

There are no areas unmarked by this gasp
Of collective color. I gaze through darkness
Upwards to notice the moon. How it forms
A shy smile—a knowing wisp of light._________________________________________________________________

Jess Burnquist was raised in Tempe, Arizona. She received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Arizona State University. Her work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Persona, Clackamas Literary Review, Natural Bridge and various online journals. She is a recipient of the Joan Frazier Memorial Award for the Arts at ASU. Jess currently teaches English and Creative Writing at Combs High School in San Tan Valley, and has been honored with a Sylvan Silver Apple Award and grant for teaching. She resides in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area with her husband, son, and daughter.

 

apocryphal

Apocryphal By Lisa Marie Basile

Noctuary Press, 2012

ISBN 978-0988805132

Reviewed by Karl Wolff

 apocryphal

 

I put two bare feet up on the dash and spread myself

            but he is a boulder,

            smells of salt, has a chest that could possess

            me, or other nightmares

 

Lisa Marie Basile’s Apocryphal exists in that Nabokovian twilight between childhood and adulthood.  Between these realms one confronts monsters and the monolithic oppression of tradition.  This is Alice in Wonderland re-imagined as a harrowing nightmare journey, a poodle-skirted damsel thrown into the jaws of a slavering beast, who may be the speaker’s father.  What remains are fragments, memories, and fantasies strewn about or reconfigured.

When reading the book’s sticky sensual passages, the slow realization occurs that these prurient shards point to something more sinister than adolescent sex and appeasing those base cravings.

 

            I notice: the other children do not live this way

                        but then again they do not enjoy

                        getting fucked either,

                        & this, I do.

 

            I would learn to devour everything,

                                    mollusk & man,

            become obsessively pregnant with you,

            I mean:           become those women staring,

 

            & I would abort you.

 

Apocryphal is divided into three parts: “genesis,” “apocryphal,” and “paradise.”  It is equal parts visionary and horrific.  Childhood nostalgia turns into body horror.  Everything curdles into corruption and family secrets.

Then the speaker meets Javi:

 

when I meet Javi again he is the worm in my mezcal. once a constellation, once a man who bore a flag of kings, a crown of thorns & power suit, oh my god the forearms

 

While Apocryphal is a critique of traditional male masculinity, it is not beyond denying the urges – those primordial needs – and a celebration of those urges.  It is a contradiction—a friction—that creates heat and light.  Slowly, slowly, more details emerge: a Cold War childhood in a Mexican-American community (?), references to mantillas, and to Javi as “the worm in my mezcal.”  But things aren’t exactly clear, like stitching together a narrative from found footage and random newspaper clippings.  The book is simultaneously dream and pastiche: half-remembered events and the glaucous haze of nostalgia.  Everything about the speaker is fabricated.

 

I could take off my wig and rub off my

  sheen, become real, the bodytrophy underneath all this

 victimized shimmer. 

but I don’t own my own sexuality:

  it is borrowed from somewhere bad, a beach side-show of

 bouffant & glitter, two breasts propped up behind a taupe changing curtain

 

But things are more complicated than that.  Basile thanks her parents in the Acknowledgments.  “& thank you to my family, who I sincerely ask to not read this book. Please. I have borrowed and sculpted lives in order to write this, & I feel bad about it. You are beautiful, mom.”  Despite its avant-garde exterior, Apocryphal enacts the ancient tradition of poets adopting masks, personae.  At first blush, I felt betrayed by its confessions.  But not every book requires a finely wrought personal exorcism of childhood trauma and sexual abuse.  So long as the word “memoir” isn’t in the title, a poet or novelist is free to warp and deform their own personal experiences into something fictional.  Basile might have had a traumatic childhood, since that is more common than one would expect or be conned into believing.  (The patriarchal mythologizing of Leave It to Beaver down to The Partridge Family would make one think that growing up white and in the suburbs involved only trivial problems and a canned laugh track.  But only the fanatically credulous believe these TV shows bear any resemblance to actual lives or historical evidence.)

“everyone I love is recast as father, as murderer, a reconstruction, a deconstruction, an abuse-of, a haunting, a polaroid.”  Apocryphal is all these things.  Basile’s narrator attempts to exorcise memories, but she remains tainted, both in mind and body.  In “paradise” she says “it hurts to speak but it must be done.”  “I don’t respect these monsters but I weep anyway,” she thinks, “with bubblegum/popping through my black veil.”

Sea images return, only this return is more monstrous, a demonic reincarnation, the lasting legacy of abuse:

 

            tiding in,

            the lure of the long stem

            tiding in,

 

            the victim

            is never the victim,

 

            the victim

            is a new monster,

            tiding in.

 

Apocryphal is a haunting meditation on the violence perpetrated against women by those who should know better.  Not simply fathers, but the father-worship of our many institutions: government, organized religion, corporations.  Basile’s speaker gives us a privileged look inside a damaged and wounded soul: someone who wants revenge, the sweet satisfaction of parricide, but also cannot eradicate the cloying sticky shame that clings to her every surface.  Those beach side trysts yielded illicit pleasures, but they also contributed to creating a monster, tiding in and preparing to strike.

skirts and slack di piero

skirts and slack di piero

tretheway domestic work-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This essay will be posted in three sections. Part 2 will post on Thursday, October 16th and part 3 on Thursday October 23.

     Place plays a substantial role in establishing environment. Place can be used as a metaphor to define abstractions, as a backdrop that can help set tone or even as a character which can enhance movement and increase tension. Utilizing a sense of place can be an important factor in building depth in a poem and can be a significant tool for the development of characters.

     In the collection Skirts and Slacks, W.S. Di Piero uses place as a character as opposed to a backdrop to hang his characters upon. The characters do not merely exist where they live, place is used to give the reader additional bits of information that play out like vignettes around them. And although at times Di Piero’s characters seem to exist in spite of where they live, many times there is a subtle redefining of the habits of these characters through place.

     For instance, in the opening poem “Cheap Gold Flats” the title alone gives the reader some sense of style for this neighborhood. And even though the poem begins in a neighborhood bar, the image of those “cheap gold flats” seems to hang in the air waiting for recognition. This is a two-part poem, “Part 1.” Philly Babylon” opens with the bartender and whether or not the reader has ever been in one of these neighborhood bars doesn’t matter, Di Piero very effectively sets tone and place by appealing to the senses:

“The bartender tossing cans, carton to cooler,
hand to hand, with silky, mortal ease,
while the 4 p.m. beer and shot standees
study the voiceless TV above our heads.
The worst and longest storm on record.
Iceworks canal the pavements, power lines down,
Cars pillowed helpless in the snow.
Bus fumes vulcanize the twilight’s
911 sirens” (3)

     The reader can almost hear the clink of aluminum as the bartender tosses the cans, see them gliding as if he or she has watched the bartender perform this trick many times. The standees at the bar watch the voiceless TV as if this is a sacred place, which sets up the bar as if it were a sanctuary. We learn there is a storm. The wording here is particular “longest storm on record” not the worst, or the most snowfall, not even the greatest amount of damage, just simply the “longest.” Power lines are down, cars are “pillowed” which brings the drifts of snowed-in cars into a soft focus of airy snowdrifts with powdery white snow piled upon cars, angelic if form. The terms used to describe the storm and the setting does a lot to increase the feeling of seclusion in this opening section even though there is a group here there is little interaction among the characters.

“enter HAZEL, touching my elbow at the bar.

My Staticky Daily News breaks into the draft.

‘What’s my horoscope say today, honey?’

Dear Hazel, dear Pisces, don’t be hurt

Leave me alone a while, my mother’s dying,

I’ve been beside her bed for several days” (3)

     This intimate moment in which Hazel speaks to him and touches his elbow creates an interesting transition by breaking the silence with speech and continues with an unexpected insertion of the horoscope. This is such a great sarcastic break not only of the silence in the bar but lets the reader into the state of mind of the narrator. The reader finds out that his mother is dying without leaning on sentimentality. This line also reveals something more about the narrator himself. Di Piero pulls from the anger and hopelessness someone would feel about the eminent death of a mother: the seeking of isolation, the anger, the want to crawl into some sort of escape. The storm, the icy pavement and power outages now become a metaphor for not only the death of his mother, but the narrators state of mind as well. The chill he is feeling and the silence of the people standing in the bar watching the voiceless TV seem more significant now that we know he is in the midst of this crisis. This setting of the bar becomes a silent refuge for him until the solitude is broken by this sympathetic “touching” of his elbow. He no longer can escape the emotions that he is holding in and they begin to come out on the page.

“and when she looks above her head, she groans

to see whatever it is she sees, so here,

take my paper, go home, forgive me.”

     This passage does a few things. The mother looking up at some voiceless, soundless image harkens back to the men standing at the bar staring at the TV set. The “go home, forgive me” holds a double meaning. On one hand he could be talking to Hazel, on the other he could also be talking to his mother. The progression of place (the bar), the setting, (silent people standing around, frozen from the storm) and the actual emotional event the narrator is experiencing (his mother dying) all interconnect and foreshadow. Place becomes a character as important as the narrator, the other occupants of the bar, Hazel and his dying mother.

     In “Oregon Avenue on a Good Day” Di Piero also uses the senses to set place but in this poem he relies on taste and smell to set up this memory in which place becomes a concrete character.

“Some nights I dream the taste

of pitch and bus fumes and leaf meal

from my old exacting street.

This time home, I’m walking to find

I don’t know what. Something always

offers itself while I’m not watching.”

And then onto:

“enameled aluminum siding, brick,

spangled stonework, fake fieldstone

and clapboard, leftover santa lights,

casements trimmed in yellow fiberglass

our common dream of the all

and the only this, that’s exactly

what I can’t find.”

And finally:

“husband and wife inside, plus kids, suppertime,

pine paneling where scratchy exterior light

rises sweetly above a TV voice.”

     Place is as much a memory as a search for something the narrator cannot find or cannot regain. I find it interesting that in this poem the TV has a voice. The scene of the family having dinner has sound and a connection, unlike ‘Cheap Gold Flats” where the TV is voiceless. I like the idea of “a scratchy exterior light” The use of “scratchy” to describe the light shifts the feeling of this section into a completely different texture. This ‘scratchy” light from the exterior seems to be an intrusion into a memory diluted by time that threatens to “shed light” on this illusive thing he believes he has lost; the thing he longs for that may only exist in memory and not in the true reality.

     The poem “Hermes: Port Authority: His Song.” begins with the use of specific regional speech. The opening line is a type of hustler street-speak. Using a regionalism like this to open a poem is another way to set up place. The reader understands that this is happening in a city bus terminal and the character takes on a distinctiveness based on the idea of setting him in a city environment.

“Hey, mister, find a bus for you?

I burn my tracks, I stink.

I lay down in the dust.

And then:

“A dollar’s good. A quarter, too.

Any bus will do.

Wee got them all. There’s Teaneck,

The Oranges and Hackensack.

Atlantic City too.”

“”I’ll sell you pussy, nookie,

what you will. I’ll soap

your goodies in the men’s room sink.

O play me how you will.

Sleep tight. God speed your bus.

A dollar, quarter, dime will do.”

     This modern day Hermes is a very different messenger of the gods. This is the voice of no place. This is the voice of invisible existence and of things unseen. People ignore these unwanted, grittier people within all cities. This may be why the cities are named instead of described; this creates a namelessness that is created by treating places as well as people in this way. As if this new voice of Hermes is a universal telling of how all things have become: nameless, faceless, and disregarded. This is the voice of the hopeless and lost.

     Di Piero’s use of place as a character in Skirts and Slacks acts as another dimension for the characters and narrators to inhabit. Place not only begins to embody the character’s development but helps the reader to identify with even the most complex characters by giving the reader a solid anchor. But foremost in creating this place are the language choices that Di Piero embodies in these poems. This sense of collision that surrounds his characters is not limited to place alone.

     In “Pocketbooks and Sauerkraut” an essay from City Dog, Di Piero states that: “What my culture did give me was a sense…of language as the embodiment of contingency … but language … was swampy, crazily shadowed, and veined with unintelligible matter.” (43). Di Piero has created place in these poems from this “swampy, crazily shadowed and veined” language, and as a result, place becomes not only a naturally occurring extension of character but a solidly formed presence which acts as a character in itself to enhance and support the actions of the narrator and other characters in his poems.

     Natasha Tretheway’s domestic work, on the other hand, uses place in a very different way. Place in Tretheway’s poems is internalized by her characters. It is a sense that is carried within their movements. By using place as an internalized characteristic, she is able to create a persona that is expressed through the characters sense of their place in the world. In the opening poem of the collection, “Gesture of a Woman-in-Process” even the things around these women are part of them:

“Around them, their dailiness:

clotheslines sagged with linens,

a patch of greens and yams,

buckets of peas for shelling.”

“Even now, her hands circling,

the white blur of her apron

still in motion.” (3)

     The women are consumed as a part of the things that make up this place. “Their dailiness”; “the white blur of her apron”; the “buckets of peas for shelling.” All of these things speak to their work. There is little shared that is personal about these women. The chores they perform, the place that they perform it in and how they go about their day is interwoven into who they are. This truly epitomizes the idea of “I am what I do.”

     In “Domestic Work, 1937” The woman in the poem varies her movements and her temperament depending on place. Although she is doing the same work, her demeanor changes according to where she is:

“All week she’s cleaned

someone else’s house,

stared down her own face

in the shine of copper-

bottomed pots, polished

wood, toilets she’d pull

the lid to.”

But when she is at home doing the same work:

“a record spinning

on the console, the whole house

dancing. She raises the shades,

washes the room in light.”

“She beats time on the rugs,

blows dust from the broom

like dandelion spores, each one

a wish for something better.” (13)

     It becomes very clear that place is internalized into her actions. Her demeanor, her lightness is apparent in her own home, so different from her demeanor in the house of her employer. There is a joy apparent in the duties performed at home that are not present when she performs these things in the house of her employer.

In “Three Photographs” Thretheway uses place as a subjective part of her characters.

In “1. Daybook April 1901” she uses the narrative voice of the photographer who begins:

‘What luck to find them here!”

     This line turns them into objects within the photograph. Who they are does not matter. They are used merely as reference points to complete the photograph:

“two negro men, clothes like church,

collecting flowers in a wood.”

‘a blessing though their faces

hold little emotion. And yet,

they make such good subjects.

Always easy to pose.”

Even when she speaks of framing, it is still focused on the men in the photograph:

“how well this arbor frames

my shot—an intimate setting,

the bough nestling us

like brothers, How fortunate still

to have found them here

instead of farther along

by that old cemetery,” (6)

     They are not positioned within the things in the photograph; the things in the photograph are positioned around them. It’s as if as objects they hold more significance for the photographer. Flowers in a field would be incidental in a shot of an elaborate vista point so it seems that the men in this photograph are only necessary in order to capture the true nature of the “bough” or the “old cemetery.”

In “2. Cabbage Vendor” the focus is once again how this narrator does his/her work:

“When I’m in my garden

tearing these cabbages

from earth, hearing them scream

at the break, my fingers

brown as dirt—that’s natural.”

The narrator labels this work as being natural. Later, when the narrator speaks of the photograph it becomes the unnatural thing:

“But he will keep my picture,

unnatural like hoodoo love.

I could work a root of my own,

Turn that thing around

And make him see himself

Like he be seeing me—

Distant and small—forever.” (7)

     The idea that working the ground, pulling the vegetables is more the natural thing than her reflection in a picture is interesting in this passage. It brings again to mind the adage “I am what I do” which carries into the third and final portion of the poem: “3. Wash Women.” The narrator in this poem is looking at the picture. There is a different sense here as if the narrator’s connection stems from something other than familiarity. There is a communal sense of history and an understanding of that history that shifts between the narrator and the subjects in the photograph.

“The eyes of eight women

I don’t know

Stare out from this photograph

Saying remember.”

    The description of the work is supposed. This is a much more somber poem than previous poems in this collection. This poem gives the reader a more intensely disconnected feel. The women simply stare. The narrator supposes the lightness and joy in the chores but the faces of the women seem to tell another story.

“I picture wash day:”

“I hear laughter,

three sisters speaking

of penny drinks, streetcars,

the movie house. A woman

like my grandmother rubs linens

against the washboard ribs,

hymns grow in her throat.” (8)

     The narrator is giving us an imagined idea of these women working. It repeats the image of joyful work that we have seen in other poems in the collection until the poem comes to the final stanza:

“But in this photograph,

women do not smile,

their lips a steady line

connecting each quiet face.’ (9)

     This is the first hint that this is not happy work. This is the first time the sense of these women is different from the outer expression they portray. They are “a steady line connecting each quiet face” which tells the reader that this internalized place is dark, prison-like and inescapable.

     I find it significant that Thretheway uses place in this way. Many of the portraits in this collection are displaced persons. Slaves that do not belong to the homes they inhabit or the jobs they are perform. They seem to carry a sense of belonging only to themselves because of this displacement. They have been forced to fade into the background to survive and so in a sense they have become part of the place they inhabit. This is more of a social commentary than it first appears. In some ways, this idea of belonging to self and contented abiding within seems a very zen-like thing. But when the reality of slavery is considered this becomes a much different perspective. The fact that the people in the pictures are regarded as owned objects is significant. When viewed this way, the expressions on the faces in this picture become a reminder not merely of displacement, but of ownership. Slaves were often listed on manifests along with other “owned” objects: houses, furniture, china, bales of hay, acres of land and heads of cattle. Family members “willed” slaves to other family members at death and often used slaves to settle debts and disputes among landowners, trading them as if they were mere objects. So in effect, the only place for these women to have any power or strength is to revert to something internal that cannot be taken away from them.

     The differences in the way Di Piero and Tretheway use place enhances the characters and the settings in each of their collections. Di Piero’s poems are city poems. They have a beat and a strut, which narrates a type of separation from place so that it becomes something that enhances the poems as a separate character. Tretheway‘s characters don’t belong to the places they inhabit, so they carry these places inside themselves whereas Di Piero’s characters, imprisoned by their own actions, emotions and choices, pull out of the scenery around them like a 3-D image.

Jen Ashburn

Jen Ashburn

The Flight Home                                                                  En Route to Louisville

Remember the laundry that hangs on bamboo fences, on the edges of corrugated tin, on the rafters next to fishing nets that clump together and billow like 18th-century petticoats. Remember the blue jeans, the yellow t-shirts, the thick-hooded sweatshirts. Remember the slender brown legs that slide into the jeans, the fat lips of the toddler who sat on your lap, the hands of the man who, while working his day job as a security guard in front of an ATM, tied the knots that made the nets. Remember the brown waters of the Mekong, the Nam Khong, the Nam Song, the heavy rains in the afternoon, the early morning mist. Remember the clear rising song of a gibbon family at dawn. Remember the Chinese rock music. The gristle and fat in the meat. Even remember the mosquitos and salmonella. Remember how to say, “Do you speak English?” in five languages. And thank you. And please. Let me remember even when I’m hunched with work, when I’m old and crumpled with life. This life. Thank you. Please.

_________________________________________________________________

Jen Ashburn recently completed her MFA at Chatham University in poetry and creative nonfiction. She has work published or forthcoming in Grey Sparrow, Pretty Owl Poetry, Anak Sastra, The Poet’s Billow, Puff Puff Prose & Poetry Vol. II and the anthology Make Mine Words (Trinity University Press). She lives in Pittsburgh.

sumana roy

sumana roy

GOOD HOUSEKEEPING

At night, after you close the day like a book,

you grope for a bookmark.

That is peace, the house’s morphine,

for which you pay the bank interest.

The neighbour switches off the lights –

darkness becomes a sound.

The moonlight rests somewhere on the terrace,

making of your house its inn.

 

On a day like today,

you want to send your house on a holiday,

knowing that it will return to you

like a little child does, when thrown up into the sky.

Once the house was your child.

Now you are its slave.

It behaves like a pensioner.

 

(There are the cobwebs, the house’s cuticles,

always in need of paring.

Dreams make the skull of a house, you know.

You spend your life looking for the house’s tail.)

 

Once camels could pass through eyes of needles.

I laughed at the folly of my ancestors.

Now, as if in revenge, the three storeyed house passes through my eyes.

I see other things – impossibilities:

It is possible to hate humans, even those we love,

but your house?

Love returns after every bout of housekeeping,

like saliva in your mouth.

 

So every night you lock the gate.

And the boundary wall becomes an engagement ring.

sumana roy illustration

(Illustration by Avirup Ghosh)

_______________________________________________________________

Sumana Roy writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal. Find her at www.sumanaroy.com

 

 

das

das

ON THE SHYNESS OF BIRDS

(From A Meghalaya Travelogue)

In that shiver of leaves, a certain

caution lives. It is a thought

as precise as suspicion. Then,

inside the gaps

 

linking rain and dawn, fall

the sure gasp of song. They

are not afraid,

no. Every move covers

 

the hills, navigates

the clouds. There is escape, quick whip

strokes in the sky, a rustle

of bodies in the scrubs, but

 

they are never here. Their songs

are shadows. The leaves

are shaken by visitations.

The only verification

is shit.

nitoo das illustration

(Illustration by Avirup Ghosh)

_________________________________________________________________

Nitoo Das is a birder, caricaturist and poet. She teaches English at Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi. Her first collection, Boki, was published in September 2008.

 

image

X Major

image

 

Pines

image

 

ARTIST’S STATEMENT:

I think of these two pieces as being very deeply connected. The one big difference between them is my state of being when each was made. Pines was created about five years ago, before I had really fully realized what I was doing or who I was. Sometimes, when we are just so deep in our own circumstances, the ‘aha’ moments come in disguise. This image was one for me — the pines behind my home were my life vest until I could believe in myself. They promised me that one day my creative impulses would be integrated into my life in a way that make sense.

X Major, on the other hand, was created after a sometimes-painful period of self-realization. I envisioned it in conversation with Fox Frazier-Foley’s collection of poems, Exodus in X Minor. For the last several years, I had refrained from doing much work by hand, and gradually something inside me had begun feeding me the lie, “I am not worthy of being a real artist. Real artists create with their hands and don’t hide behind a screen.” But after reading the text and discussing its underpinnings with the author, I found it very evident that my own creative ship had come in. The piece took shape effortlessly: it was simply time.

These two works together, and the experiences they represent, remind me that to create a piece of art is to connect to the Source, which is to be real, to be vulnerable, to even fail if necessary. To be brave enough to fail. You have to be able to look your piece in the eye and tell it you aren’t afraid of what internally it may represent, that you actually love it no matter what. Because the piece is a mirror and a storyteller: it is your truest wish. When you’re real with your art, you are expressing self-love, and that is sometimes a very difficult thing to do.

___________________________________________________________________

Trista Dymond is a Detroit-based visual and installation artist who hails from Kentucky and upstate New York. She is currently focused on cultivating the art of stillness, and often finds it in the most unexpected environments — including The Heidelberg Project, where she works as site manager and resident artist.

Laura movie still 7


FILM NOIR: SLOW FADE TO BLACK


by L. E. Ward

Laura movie still 7

Certain genres of film seem to yield more and more, as the decades go by, of their richness, denseness and complexity. One of these is, certainly, the belatedly titled (by French critics of the 1950s) black film, or film-noir. The reputations of literateurs in our history (including Poe and Washington Irving), have often begun in Europe, not to mention that entire post-WWI generation of expatriates — who had been predated by Henry James and Gertrude Stein, among others, in the late nineteen, and early twentieth centuries.

At times, American excellence is too close-up; too visible to be “seen”; or viewed with a vision of the happenstance; the taken-for-granted. The Scriptures said it originally: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country.”

I first saw films-noir as a matinee-going child of the 1950s. At that time, I was not aware of them by a name, or even, necessarily, as a genre, except as depictions of crime and corruption, usually in a tense, urban setting. Films which stood out for me — with no recommendation or reference other than my own personal, boyhood viewing — in that era, were Finger Man (1955; Harold Schuster) and The Prowler (1951; Joseph Losey) — these, in particular, and for their particulars. Titles which emerged were The Phenix City Story, various city “confidentials” and “exposes”; even imported, low-budget British films, like The Square Ring (1953; U.S. release, 1955). Frank Lovejoy and Richard Conte were typical protagonists. Espionage or theft under a low sky emerged in Shack Out on 101 (1955) and Highway Dragnet (1954) — films remembered, by me, today, only in terms of an impression of atmosphere.

As I recall, after a third of a century, The Prowler had to do with a policeman (Van Heflin) enticed by a housewife who claimed she was disturbed by a “prowler”, and who lured him into a scheme to kill her husband. The climactic car chase on a dusty road is the only image retained by me. Finger Man yielded more: the terseness, tenseness, of Frank Lovejoy as a criminal, gone undercover after a booze-ring, with the heroine (Peggy Castle), walking alone on a dim-lit, city street, to her death at the hands of a scarred villain. When Lovejoy later apprehends the fiend, he says: “I know why you killed her, but did you have to do that to her face?” decades before I ever heard of existentialism, this remains my vivid, non verbalized introduction to the “night-world.”

The 1940s films-noir were seen by me, almost in toto, when they came to television, in the late 1950s, and early 1960s, when various studios sold their backlogs to television. One had heard of some of the more famous; but one got to see, and learn to appreciate, to immerse oneself, in the ambiance; the period atmosphere, again, independently.

Most of the films not only were in black-and-white but they used shadows for emphasis; for, indeed, a kind of poetry. If anything is disturbing about these colorizing fiends, it is all that they have missed, and has been missing, in recent decades. Present color has accompanied an abandonment of the old shrewdness in mannerism, art direction, and set decor.

The German Expressionist backgrounds, as well as the flight from the Nazis, of many of the writers, directors — and even some actors of “black” film, are undeniable; or, at the very least, suggestive. Some critics have squabbled about how something — a genre –could really exist, if its makers had not so labeled it and declared themselves, and their intentions.

The strongest, clearest, adequate evidence is the films, themselves and their abundance, in both quality and quantity. What B-film or television episode about crime or detectives, or not, can compare to the work of the 1940s (and somewhat of the 1950s)? Miami Vice has had effects, visceralness, “colors”; so has Crime Story. To me, neither is matchable.

This is definitely to be said for the 1940s movie-makers: they created a corrupt, aristocratic, materialistic world — making it compelling, and not glossy. It was a world imbued with a knowledge of lofty ideals, but a realization of the way men really “live,” and the beast that dwells underneath the skin. Some revisionists have carped that Hollywood did not know, or “allow,” the atrocities of the fascists, either to be seen explicitly or precisely, in the wartime era, or even its aftermath. While one can counter this, somewhat, with examples like Saboteur (1942), The Stranger (1946), and a few others, this is not, terribly, the point.

The vision of blackness is timeless, is eternal, is instinctive, as well as subjective. Of course, it involves a visual, as well as aesthetic ambiance; we are-entertained, entranced, by inequity and iniquity. Still, one was never puzzled, or less than certain, of what inhumanity or corruption was. The city — impersonal, dangerous, uncertain, and unreliable — contrasted with rural and small-town bourgeois values. The seduction of the cosmopolitan -that glitter that was gold, and not “golden” — was a conundrum. I recall the moral center of Veronica Lake’s impassivity, which was, really, not passive, either in the main or in its results. Most of the detectives were loners, independents; they were a part of, yet apart from, the often-corrupt, and always tractable, “police.” They knew the score; worked for hire, for a living, were rarely conned, although they could be; and were resolute to the photo-finish.

Before the 1940s, the “detectives” were urban gentlemen (whether Philo Vance, Nick Charles, or Sherlock Holmes — or Charlie Chan), who approached crime as a hobby, as well as an intellectual incentive. By the advent of John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), nothing would be so elitist or flippant, again. For all the tartness of 1940s detectives’ tongues, and their maintenance of an attitude of cool, of tight-lipped composure, they were like aerialists on a tightrope of experience, with only the abyss, or the knowledge of the abyss, beneath.

The genre progressed, and changed, slowly but surely. Alfred Hitchcock was one of its greatest originators, as well as stylists, but so were Fritz Lang, Orson Welles and Robert Siodmak. Some producers focused upon unusual intelligence and even artistry in handling of mediocre material, significantly, Val Lewton. Billy Wilder, Henry Hathaway, Otto Preminger and many others brought additional nuances.

By the 1940s, private detective films became a surfeit; although their guises were, truly, various and subtle. Consider Edward G. Robinson as the insurance investigator, Keyes, in Double Indemnity (1944), as well as the committed Nazi-hunter in Welles’ The Stranger (1946), as indications of just how precise, yet variable, depictions of the moral adversaries of the “immoral,” could be.

Some historians have seen the femme-fatale as a causal factor of blackness to descend upon humanity; others have been attuned to the aestheticism of elitists, themselves (the old saw of art versus reality; education versus feeling). Double Indemnity, among others (Ivy, The Locket, etc.), can be cited in the former instance; many others (Laura, The Unsuspected, The Madonna’s Secret), among the latter.

Film-noir, probably, does have parameters, but they are not as easy or as facile as this. Above all, dark film is serious; it is like a cat enticing a mouse into its trap. What would not succeed as a sermon, captivates as a come-on.

Take the “world” of Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) in Laura:  Can anything have been more visually “lovely?” Consider the elegance of urban “great houses” and country-retreats moved through in Saboteur, The Fallen Sparrow, The Unsuspected. Consider the elegant eroticism of “loveless lovers” in Gilda, Mildred Pierce,  and Double Indemnity; and consider the wide (if unrecognized) strain of a sexual nonconformity — too easily dismissed as misogyny. Book after book on film-noir comes from the presses, but I still see no reference to Van Heflin as a platonic gay companion of Robert Taylor in Johnny Eager (1942); more to the point, what did the hatred of conventionality mean for the audience and the actors, in Laura, The Uninvited and Rebecca (with strong suggestions of lesbianism); and the woman-killing “Uncle Charley” (Joseph Cotton) in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943).

Sometimes, the fascists were established as explicit enemies: cold, wealthy, impervious to human feeling, and life, itself–whether as Conrad Veidt in Casablanca (1943) or Claude Rains in Notorious (1946). The sex may have been “bad,” and “good,” but only rarely was it given a suggestion of goodness, as in the case of the psychiatrist (Ingrid Bergman) who saves Gregory Peck in Spellbound (1945). Even in Road House (1948), the good man -Cornel Wilde — saves the good woman (Ida Lupino); but twisted sex, in the form of the evil jealousy of Wilde’s partner (Richard Widmark), put both their lives and limbs at risk, until the conclusion. The political seriousness of film-noir in the 1940s with prewar, wartime, and postwar corruption and criminality all being called, at various times, and in various guises, to account, as well as to attention — can be emphasized by a kind of negative proof. When the true brutalities of war, and its immediate, postwar aftermath, ended (or at least ebbed), the budgets (at the very least), and critical and commercial importance of films-noir, did not cease, but they, frankly, subsided.

They did not, of course, disappear, even into the present. From time to time (the mid and later 1960s — upon occasion, during the 1970s and the 1980s) they, like Satan, have recurred when we have had need of them. The old ambiance of wealth, Eros, and danger recur in Chinatown (1973) — with its suggestion that Mrs. Mulwray cannot go to the police (“He owns them, too”). One cannot even trust oneself, as William Hurt discovers in Body Heat (1981) — where his salvation and nemesis, in the form of Kathleen Turner turns out to be one and the same person.

Evil, corruptibility, malleability have all remained constants. What was unique was what, in a burst of pique, yet fascination, numerous 1940s filmmakers made of them. They looked at the monsters close-up: of big people, who were low-living; and of small, or little, people, who could be corrupted. One rarely, if ever, laughed — or even cried — while watching film-noir. Laughter and tears are, after all, feelings; emotion; sentiment. Film-noir — for all its gaudy apparel — is a black world, a dead universe; where feeling has ended. One may tear a little, in remembering the films and film-viewing experiences, of eras past; At Tangerine being played in the background, at the end, of Double Indemnity, or at Clifton Webb reciting Dowson’s “They are not long the days of wine and roses, love and desire and hate,” near the end of Laura.

One remembers bits and pieces — dialogue; interior decoration; other oddities — from more of such films, than anything except the most beautiful and buoyant of musicals — which are, of course, their antithesis — even to the Technicolor the musicals were almost always originally photographed in: Bette Davis, falling dead on the railroad tracks, to the strains of Chicago, in Beyond the Forest (1949); Gene Tierney, wearing dark glasses, sitting as “Danny” (Darryl Hickman) drowns in Leave Her to Heaven (1945) — a fine film which the rare, original Technicolor, destroys, dramatically and thematically. Marilyn Monroe as the tawdry, yet understandable, Rose — writhing up the final steps of the bell tower in Niagara (1953) — one of the few films-noir made in Technicolor, where the color was not only an “asset,” but not a liability. “They can’t play for you anymore, Rose,” Joseph Cotton says about the bells to the lifeless body of Marilyn Monroe he has just suffocated.

But they “play” for us endlessly, on film, and in such films. For politics, Eros, color, or black-and-white, changing pretensions and fashions, aside, film-noir returns us to the original, undying jungle of earth, both pro and con — at one and the same time. In their presence, we are both villain and victim. Both Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train, ruining the child’s ice cream cone, strangling Laura Elliott, and the vision of Hitchcock, seeing her murder — helpless to assist, or prevent — through her glasses, which have dropped to the grass. We are mortal; guilty yet innocent; innocent yet guilty — as we witness the great shadow of Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce — move from the room in which her younger, neglected daughter has just died. We see the shadow on the wall, alone; and it expresses the inexpressible; nothing, yet everything. We are in the world none of us ever made; and from which none of us will ever escape alive; informed of our pleasure, and pain; our complicity — and of our own sentence to the “night-world” of eternity.

Ed. Note: This essay previously appeared in Movie Zine

LangstonHughes2

This is the final part of Brian’s essay.

The final Hughes poem this essay will address is “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” a long, poetic sequence about Harlem published in 1951, a sequence that relies on the rhythms of jazz, ragtime, swing, and blues to address and protest racial oppression. In Hog Butchers, Bus Boys, and Beggars, John Marsh states that not only did the “low-down” folks give birth to jazz, but they also received something back from it. “It gives them purpose and focus,” he writes. “They have invented it because they need it” (167). What Marsh doesn’t address, however, is the way black music forms link “Montage of a Dream Deferred” together, even as poems and voices cut off and another voice and poem begins. In his essay, “Movies, Modernity, and All That Jazz; Langston Hughes’s ‘Montage of a Dream Deferred,’” Bartholomew Brinkman writes that while the jazz rhythms may threaten the lyric stability and unity of the poems, the poem’s use of manic bop rhythms the sequence to “move from a critical gesture to an affirmative one, recouping its loss of a private, lyrical subjectivity and instituting in its place a communal one” (93). Furthermore, Brinkman adds that like a jazz performance, there is a forward momentum to the sequence that depends upon the ordering of the poems (93).

While the poems may seem disparate, when read together, they represent the tension in post-war Harlem, the anxiety over the dreams deferred and the racial inequality that still plagued communities. What separates the sequence from Hughes’ other Harlem-based poems is that “Montage” showcases a class-conscious Harlem.

All of this frustration is reflected in “Montage of a Dream Deferred.” The sequence opens with the poem “Dream Boogie,” which begins with the traditional ballad stanza, a-b-a-b rhyme scheme, “The boogie-woogie rumble/of a dream deferred” (The Collected Poems 388). The sound of music is accompanied by the sound of feet stomping in poetic rhythm, but there is a violent undertone pulsating in the poem, though something is about to break and explode. The “boogie-woggie” sound rumbles in the first stanza, and one of the two speaker asks, “You think/It’s a happy beat?.” The poem indicates potential militant violence, pointing not only to the questions the italicized voice asks about the nature of the beat, but one of the last lines, “Take it away,” which could refer to the dream addressed in the first stanza. The dream is literally and musically taken away. In addition, the meter breaks down in the poem, and stanzas are frequently cut off by the italicized voice, thus creating a back and forth sequence, a question and answer between the notion of the dream and the dream deferred.

In another poem in the sequence, “Ballad of the Landlord,” Hughes uses the traditional ballad form again, while highlighting the poverty and hardships blacks faced. He then smashes the form after the speaker in the poem is arrested. The sonic techniques Hughes employs, especially the use of repetition, are especially effective in showing just how desperate the conditions were. The poems begins:

Landlord, landlord

My roof has sprung a leak.

Don’t you ‘member I told you about it

Way last week?

Landlord, landlord,

These steps is broken down.

When you come up yourself

It’s a wonder you don’t fall down. (The Collected Poems 402).

For the most part, the opening stanzas adhered to the ballad form, especially in terms of the rhyme scheme and meter. The repetition of the phrase “Landlord, landlord” is an effective sonic technique because it shows how much the tenant tried to get the landlord’s attention. Eventually, however, the tenant has had enough, especially after the landlord asks for more money.

Ten Bucks you say I owe you?

Ten bucks you say is due?

Well, that’s Ten Bucks more’n I’ll pay you

Till you fix this house up new.

What? You gonna get eviction orders?

            You gonna cut off my heat?

            You gonna take my furniture and

            Throw it in the street?

            Uh-huh! You talking high and mighty.

            Talk-on till you get through.

            You ain’t gonna be able to say a word

             If I land my fist on you. (The Collected Poems 402).

After the tenant threatens violence, the rest of the poem changes. The ballad form, especially the doggerel rhymes and meter, break down. The tenant’s voice is gone, replaced by the landlord’s, who cries out, “Police! Police!/Come and get this man!/He’s trying to ruin the government/And overturn the land!” (The Collected Poems 402). Like other poems in “Montage,” Hughes depicts the change of voice by using italics and altering the rhythm. The final three lines read like newspaper headlines: “MAN THREATENS LANDLORD/TENANT HELD NO BAIL/JUDGE GIVES NEGRO 90 DAYS IN JAIL” (The Collected Poems 403).

           On multiple levels, “Montage” illustrates the inequality that plagued Harlem. The poem is a drastic shift from “Harlem Night Club” and “Harlem Night Song.” Not only does Hughes experiment with form, mixing traditional ballad forms with frantic bebop rhythms, but the content marks a stark contrast to the optimism of his Harlem Renaissance-era poems. “Montage” is a sequence written after the Harlem riots, a period when Cold War politics silenced dissent and nearly disrupted the growing call for civil rights and equality. The poetic sequence stands as a fine critique of American capitalism and racial inequality and draws attention to a country that fought in a world war under the banner of freedom and justice, while ignoring growing tensions at home.

           By using sound, specifically laughter, blues, and jazz, as an essential part of his work and defending black music forms and black art in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Hughes challenges the sonic color-line and ideas from the Enlightenment Period that can be seen in the early 20th Century. For Hughes, these sounds are not mere noise, but an essential part of black culture, an extension of the slave songs, a way to protest racial segregation, and an escape from the “weariness” of a white world. Furthermore, Hughes’s use of sound documents Harlem from the 1920s to the 1950s, capturing the optimism of the Harlem Renaissance period and the frustration of the later years.

 

 

Works Cited

Brinkman, Bartholomew. “Movies, Modernity, and All That Jazz: Langston Hughes’s ‘Montage of a Dream Deferred.’” African American Review. Spring/Summer 2010. Vol. 44: 85-96. EBSCOhost. Web. 27 Sept. 2013.

Chaser, Mike. “The Sounds of Black Laughter and the Harlem Renaissance: Claude McKay, Sterling Brown, and Langston Hughes.” American Literature. March 2008. Volume 80, Number 1: 58-81. EBSOhost. Web. 25 Sept. 2013.

Cullen, Countee. “Poet on Poet.” in Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. James Nagel, Ed. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. Print.

Davis, Arthur P. “The Harlem of Langston Hughes’ Poetry.” in Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. James Nagel, Ed. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. Print.

Goodale, Greg. Sonic Persuasion: Reading Sound in the Record Age. Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 2011. Print.

Griffin, Farah Jasmine. Harlem Nocturne. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2013. Print.

Halliday, Sam. Sonic Modernity: Representing Sound in Literature, Culture, and the Arts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 2013. Print.

Hughes, Langston. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Arnold Rampers and and David Roessel, Eds.New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.

The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” in Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry. Dana Gioia, David Mason, Meg Schoerke, Eds. New York: McGraw Hill, 2003. Print.

Jemie, Onwuchewa. “Hughes’s Black Esthetic.” in Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. James Nagel, Ed. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. Print.

Johnson, Charles. “Jazz Poetry and Blues.” in Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. James Nagel, Ed. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. Print.

Marsh, John. Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011. Print.

Petry, Ann. “Harlem.” Holiday. April 1949. Volume 5, Issue 4: 110, 112-116, 163-166, 168. Print.

Radano, Ronald. “Hot Fantasies: American Modernism and the Idea of Black Rhythm.” in Music and the Racial Imagination. Ronald Radano and Philip V. Bohlman, Eds. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. Print.

Stoever-Ackerman, Jennifer. “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line: Tony Schwartz Remixes Postwar Nueva York.” Social Text 102. Spring 2010. Volume 28, Number 1: 59-85. Print.

Stoever-Ackerman, Jennifer. “The word and the sound: listening to the sonic colour-line in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative.” Sound Effects. 2011. Volume 1, Number 1: 20-36. Web. 7 November 2013.

LangstonHughes2

 

Hughes’s ideas about jazz and blues were echoed by other black intellectuals only a few years after “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” was published. In Duke Ellington’s 1931 essay “The Duke Steps Out,” he says that jazz is more than the American idiom, but rather an essential part of black history, the result of transplantation to American soil and the evolution of the slave song, thus jazz has a history much deeper than mere dance music. “It expresses our personality, and, right down in us, our souls react to its elemental but eternal rhythm,” Ellington states (qtd. in Halliday 147). Like Hughes, Ellington makes a fine defense of jazz as an essential part of black culture, a music form that stems from slave plantation songs, a music that does not lead to laziness, nervousness, or hysteria, but rather a music that was necessary to survive in a white-dominated culture.

Like Ellingston, Hughes did connect jazz to black history, and he saw the music form as an essential part of Harlem, using it to chronicle Harlem from the 1920s to the 1950s. His music-based poems of the 1920s celebrate Harlem’s swinging nightlife, while his post-war music poems address racial segregation and class inequality. In several of Hughes’s early Harlem poems, specifically “Harlem Night Song,” the city comes alive at night when the bands take the stage.

Come,

Let us roam the night together

Singing.

I love you.

Across

The Harlem roof-tops

Moon is shining.

Night sky is blue.

Stars are great drops

Of golden dew.

Down the street

A band is playing.

            I love you.

            Come,

            Let us roam the night together

            Singing. (The Collected Poems 94)

More so than most of Hughes’s other poems, “Harlem Night Song” has a romantic quality, a speaker who implores a lover to roam the night with him or her while the band is playing and the moon is out. Even the night imagery is given a romantic quality. The moon shines, while the sky is blue and the stars are “great drops/of golden dew.” The poem, particularly the music of the band playing, represents a break from the daily grind, from the “weariness of the white world.” The couple is free to roam at night, to enjoy the music, despite whatever hardships they may face in the day. Like a lot of Hughes’s other poems, “Harlem Night Song” also draws on elements of the blues, particularly the use of the refrain, in this instance the phrases “Come/Let us roam the night together/Singing” and “I love you.” Hughes somewhat subverts the blues form, however, because “Harlem Night Song” is not a lament over a broken heart or racial oppression. Instead, it focuses on promise, of a budding love, a love that is made possible against the backdrop of music and a lively night life.

Harlem Night Song” is reflective of a 1920s Harlem, what critic Arthur B. Davis refers to as “Jazzonia,” a “joyous city” a “new world of escape and release” (136). He also notes that the time, while the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, Harlem experienced a cabaret boom. Furthermore, Davis point out that when Hughes came to Harlem at 22 years old as a sailor and beachcomber, it was natural for him to be attracted to Harlem’s nightlife and to view it as “a new world of escape and release, an exciting never-never land” (136). Hughes was one of many immigrants that came to Harlem, and according to Farah Jasmine Griffin’s book Harlem Nocturne, about 1.5 million African Americans moved north between 1916-1930 (7), thus places like Harlem experienced an artistic boom, creating an optimism reflected in Hughes’s early poems.

In later poems, particularly “The Trumpet Player,” Hughes blends African ancestry with the continuing struggle for equality, moving away from depictions of Harlem as a place of cabarets and dancehalls. The poem also reflects Ellington’s idea that jazz is an extension of previous black music forms and black history. The first stanza begins:

The Negro

With the trumpet at his lips

Has dark moons of weariness

Beneath his eyes

Where the smoldering memory

Of slave ships

Blazed to the crack of whips

About his thighs. (The Collected Poems 338).

Published in 1947 in the collection Fields of Winter, “The Trumpet Player” does mark somewhat of a change from earlier poems, particularly the use of African imagery. Davis states that “in this new Harlem, even the jazz players are infected with sectional melancholy” (139), meaning that the ideals of freedom and liberty promoted during World War II were not evident in Harlem. He adds:

The Depression of 1929, having struck the ghetto harder than any other section of New York, showed Harlem just how basically ‘marginal’ and precarious its economic foundations were. Embittered by this knowledge, the black community had struck back blindly at things in general in the 1935 riot. The riot brought an end to the New Negro era; the Cotton Club, the most lavish of the uptown cabarets, closed its doors and moved to Broadway; and the black city settled down to the drab existence of WPA and relief living (138).

The African imagery evoked in the poem shows the long history of inequality blacks faced, dating back to slavery and continuing after World War II. The opening stanza contains the image of “smoldering memory/of slave ships/blazed to the crack of whips/about his thighs.” This haunting memory of the past has a physical impact on the trumpet player, evident by the “dark moons of weariness/beneath his eyes.” By the third stanza, the poem shifts from memories of the past to the present music.

The music

From the trumpet at his lips

Is honey

Mixed with liquid fire.

The rhythm

From the trumpet at this lips

Is ecstasy

Distilled from old desire—

Desire

That is longing for the moon

Where the moonlight’s but a spotlight

In his eyes,

Desire

That is longing for the sea

Where the sea’s a bar-glass

Sucker size. (The Collected Poems 338).

            In Harlem Nocturne, Griffin depicts the 1940s as especially important to black artists in Harlem because of the realization of dreams deferred. In July 1941, there was a plan for a major march on Washington for jobs and equality. However, FDR issued an executive order calling for an end to discrimination in defense industries and federal bureaus, thus the march was called off. However, as late as 1940, 90 percent of New York’s defense plants refused to hire black workers, and a number of bars and restaurants did not serve black patrons (7). Furthermore, throughout the 1940s, J. Edgar Hoover called for a crackdown on black newspapers sympathetic to left-wing causes. He even urged FDR’s administration to use wartime sedition powers to indict members of the black press ( 92).

           These issues eventually led to the Harlem Riots, and by August 1, 1943, property damage was estimated to be over $5 million, hundreds were arrested, and six blacks died (Griffin 120). Writing about Harlem for Holiday magazine in 1949, novelist Ann Petry stated, “Rioting mobs broke plate-glass windows, looted stores, causing property damage estimated in the millions. And in the process they seem to have permanently rubbed out that other hackneyed description of Harlem –the dwelling place of dancing, laughing, happy-go-lucky, childlike people” (110). The “hackneyed description” of Harlem Petry refers to is certainly evident in Hughes’s early depictions of Harlem; however, his work evolved to capture the tension Petry refers to and to critique capitalism and inequality.

           In his other poems from the 1940s, Hughes addressed the issue of segregation and inequality directly, using sound to do so. One of his poems, “I, Too,” echoes Walt Whitman’s iconic poem “I Hear America Singing,” particularly Whitman’s idea that the downtrodden are also part of America and deserving of praise. Hughes extends the conversation by including blacks as part of America, while using sound, particularly laughter, to protest racial segregation.

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh

And eat well,

And grow strong.

Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

Eat in the kitchen,”

Then.

Besides,

They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

I, too, am America. (The Collected Poems 43).

           Written in 1945, about a decade before the Civil Rights Movement, “I, Too,” addresses the service roles blacks had and the segregation that existed, in this case the way the “darker brother” is sent to eat in the kitchen when company comes. Especially striking about the poem is the use of laughter as the one act of protest and challenge to white power.

Regarding form, Hughes isolates the lines “But I laugh/And eat well/and grow strong.” Those lines can also be read as end-stopped lines, meaning there is a natural pause at the end of each line, thus slowing down the rhythm and causing the reader to pause after the persona laughs, eats, and grows strong. Because of the form of those lines and the natural pauses, the acts are given more weight, and they come before the white space and shift to the following stanza, where the speaker is confident that one day he will have a place at the table. Not only is the laughter associated with the act of eating and growing strong, but the idea of one day transcending restrictive racial confines. The laughter is an act of protest that allows the speaker to imagine his body in a place it is currently forbidden in the poem, and it gives the speaker the confidence and strength to imagine one day he’ll have a seat at the table.

Part 3 of this essay will be posted on Friday.

LangstonHughes2

This is essay is divided into three parts. Part two will post on Wednesday, and part three on Friday.

 

          While many critics have noted the influence of blues and jazz on Langston Hughes’s poetry, little has been written about Hughes from a sound studies standpoint. His sonic landscapes not only chronicle Harlem from the 1920s to 1950s, but  also challenge the sonic color-line, specifically ideas from the Enlightenment Period about sound and logic, ideas that still persisted in the first half of the 20th Century, evident through early criticism of ragtime and jazz. In defending black music forms and using specific sounds in his work, including blues, jazz, and laughter, sounds of interwar and post-war Harlem, Hughes challenges 19th Century notions that only white speech is clear and reasoned and sounds unable to be pinned down, particularly sounds of the racialized Other, are purely emotional and non-logical; Hughes’s sonic landscapes also serve as a protest against racial segregation and a critique of American capitalism.

           Before addressing Hughes’s poetry and his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” it is important to give definition to the sonic color-line and understand some of the key ideas regarding sound from the Enlightenment Period that Hughes’s work reacts against, especially since such ideas still persisted just as Hughes’s career was beginning. The idea of the sonic color-line can be attributed to Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman’s work on sound studies, specifically her essays “The word and the sound: listening to the sonic colour-line in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative” and “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line: Tony Schwartz Remixes Postwar Nueva York.” In her first essay, she notes that the sonic colour-line describes race through “aural signifiers as well as visual ones” (21). The racial etiquette of the 19th Century distinguished between white sounds and black sounds, and included aural behavior, such as musical tastes, public displays of emotion, vocal tones, and accents in speech (22). Furthermore, the dominant cultural of the time labeled black sounds as non-logical. Because the sounds did not conform to white European standards, they were considered non-logical, overly emotional, and wild.

           In her other essay, “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line,” Stoever-Ackerman notes that the idea of the sonic color-line stems from W.E.B. Du Bois’s idea of the visual color-line in the Souls of Black Folks and his re-imagining of the color-line in Dusk of Dawn (65). She adds that we see race as well as hear it, and “sonic phenomena like vocal timbre, accents, and musical tones are racially coded, like skin color, hair texture, and clothing choices” (65).

           Stoever-Ackerman’s work points to several examples of the sonic color-line existing in the 19th Century, but it was also evident in early criticism of jazz and ragtime music, specifically the way critics linked the black music forms to wildness and nervousness. In Anne Shaw Faulkner’s 1921 essay “Does Jazz Put Sin in Syncopation?”, published in Ladies’ Home Journal, the author writes, “In almost every big industry where music has been instituted, it has been found necessary to discontinue jazz because of its demoralizing effect” (qtd. in Halliday 144-145). She adds that after the workers indulged in such music, there was an unsteadiness and unevenness to their work product.

          Other critics and record companies saw a distinction between jazz for a white audience and jazz for a black audience. Greg Goodale notes in his book Sonic Persuasion that record companies tried to manipulate Americans into categorizing music based on race and forced black bands to play “hot jazz” to cater to what they perceived to be the black sound (82-83). Hot jazz often had poor connotations and was frequently associated with drunkenness and sexual frenzy. These negative depictions of jazz, constructs of race, and ideas left over from the Enlightenment Period drew strong reactions from Hughes not only in his poetry, but also his manifesto “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” First published in 1926, the essay is critical of black poets that try to be white and avoid using black music forms. Hughes writes:

Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing ‘Water Boy,’ and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem, and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty. We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too (151).

The essay was published shortly after critic George S. Schuyler criticized Hughes in The Nation for his reliance on black music forms. Schuyler’s criticism echoes Counte Cullen’s review of Hughes’s debut poetry collection, The Weary Blues, for Opportunity in 1926. Though the review was generally favorable, Cullen was critical of Hughes for relying so much on jazz and blues.

Taken as a group the selections in this book seem one-sided to me. They tend to hurl the poet into the gaping pit that lies before all Negro writers, in the confines of which they become racial artists instead of artists pure and simple. There is too much emphasis here on strictly Negro themes; and this is probably an added reason for my coldness toward the jazz poems—they seem to set a too definite limit upon an already limited field (39).

To Hughes, however, jazz was a fundamental part of black life and essential to Harlem, what he labeled in the “Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain as “the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world” (150).

Hughes’s defense of jazz may have come because he realized jazz was a way for whites to transcend their racial identity and subvert negative constructs of black sound, thus realizing the music does not lead to hysteria or drunkenness. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, black jazz musicians played with white musicians in recording studios and in bars. In 1931, Louis Armstrong was arrested outside of a club in Los Angeles for smoking marijuana with white drummer Vic Berton (Goodale 83). It became more and more common to see integration on stage, even if major record companies tried to construct sound in terms of race and market to white and black audiences.

This integration is represented in Hughes’ 1926 poem “Harlem Night Club,” and like a lot of his other 1920s poems, it represents the optimism of the Harlem Renaissance that black art forms could be a way to transcend racial barriers, or more specifically a way for whites to enjoy black music forms and overcome racial constructs and identity.

Sleek black boys in a cabaret.

Jazz-band, jazz-band, ––

Play, play, PLAY!

Tomorrow…who knows?

Dance today!

White girls’ eyes

Call gay black boys.

Black boys’ lips

Grin jungle joys.

Dark brown girls

In blond men’s arms.

Jazz-band, jazz-band—

Sing Eve’s charms!

White ones, brown ones,

What do you know

About tomorrow

Where all paths go?

Jazz boys, jazz boys—

Play, PlAY , PLAY!

Tomorrow…. Is darkness.

Joy today!

  The poem presents a mixing of races, brought together by the jazz music, a scene that would have been common in the larger cities in the 1920s and 1930s. The “white girls’  eyes/Call gay black boys” while “Dark brown girls” dance “in blond men’s arms.” The speaker of the poem implores the jazz band to keep playing so racial barriers can be overcome and young whites can transcend racial identities, particularly the ideas that whites should not like this type of music, but the poem also poses the question “Tomorrow…who knows?”.  That question can be read two ways. Either the speaker believes that the jazz movement could lead to the erosion of racial barriers, or the speaker understands that once the music stops and once the listeners step outside, they will be re-introduced to racial constructs.  The later idea is more likely since the speaker admits in the final stanza, “Tomorrow…Is darkness/Joy today!.” For at least the moment, however, while the band keeps playing, racial barriers are non-existent and the whites realize that listening to this music has no negative effects.

Furthermore, the poem mirrors the syncopation of ragtime music and early jazz, employing syncopation so no regular meter or rhyme scheme is established. The opening stanza has a rhyme scheme of a-b-a-c-a. Two out of the lines in the stanza rhyme with nothing else, thus disrupting the pattern. Hughes does this throughout the rest of the poem as well, establishing what appears to be a rhyme scheme, before breaking it with one or two lines that do not adhere to the structure. In addition, Hughes changes the capitalization of the words “play” in the first and last stanza, also disrupting the rhythm. Like a lot of Hughes’s poems that employ music, his form mirrors the content.

Visit TheThe again on Wednesday for part two.

mordarling

 

mordarling

EXCESS AND ASCESIS: TWO FEMINIST VISIONARY POETS

VOW, BY KRISTINA MARIE DARLING

THE BLUE RENTAL, BY BARBARA MOR

____________________________________________________________

-“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.  But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

 Timothy 11 -12, The Bible, King James Version

-“Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque revenit.”

(“You can drive nature out with a pitchfork, she will nevertheless come back”)”

 -Horace (65-8 BC), Epistles I.X.24

Kristina Marie Darling created a domestic drama that unfolds in white space, an emptiness surrounded by a commentary in the footnotes.  It is a text without text, a Beckett-ian “texts for nothing” literalized.  Barbara Mor created a panorama, a historico-politico-paleontological rant against collective and individual injustices.  It is written with chthonic excess, with Whitman-esque long poetic lines set amidst the painted landscapes of the American Southwest.  Both Mor and Darling represent visionary feminist poetics; one spare and skeletal; the other a surrealist logorrhea.

Vow is about a marriage.  Rendered in short lines and esoteric marginalia, the bride faces the slow reduction and negation of her identity.  Unlike Mor’s work, The Blue Rental, Kristina Marie Darling’s work isn’t a frontal assault on violent male idiocy and its institutional tentacles (the state, the military, the corporation, etc.).  Darling works through small meditations on relics and debris.  At the bottom of the page she writes,

“Our house burns with light.  He is a shattered window overlooking a desert.  I am smoldering in a field of dead poppies.”

The images are distinct but unrelated, images of light and “a shattered window” (fragmentation), followed by an image of fire and desensitization (“dead poppies” – even the poppies, the flower that yields opium and heroin, body-deadening intoxicants, are dead).

Another recurring image is a “scorched altar.”  Reading through the book, one has to piece together the narrative from the fragments and clues.  Could arson be a cause?  Who set it?  Is the fire a cleansing act like a forest fire?  Or was it set alight to cover-up criminal activities?  The white space creates narrative silence.  It refuses self-incrimination, but also self-expression.  In The Blue Rental, Mor reduces the entire patriarchal enterprise of marriage and reproduction to a dismissive biological assessment:

Sin at the Origin of Earthly Life my desire that

shapes Evolution becomes His Curse,& when did

they respect sex breeding females like cattle who

thinks his little 20 second squirt of sperm gives him

the right to own Humanity

(from Hypatia)

Mor catalogs crimes against women with brutal and explicit descriptions.  The repetition of rape and murder made commonplace.  In her poem Hypatia, she traces this back to the atrocities committed by Saint Cyril and his Parabolans, hired thugs reminiscent of Saudi Arabia’s black-clad enforcers of religious morality.

Luckily The Blue Rental isn’t all horror and solemn rage.  Tiny flashes of humor leaven the otherwise dour proceedings.  In one poem she traces the history of a mining town in the Southwest.  The denizens desperately cling to a vision of middle-class propriety while a deep pit spews out various and sundry minerals, machines, and liquids.  While Mor’s intent is to give a David Lynch-ian nightmare patina to ecocidal damage, the poem reads like an episode of the popular podcast Welcome to Night Vale (itself owing much to David Lynch, H.P. Lovecraft, and Area 51).  If Thomas Pynchon has taught us anything, it’s that paranoia can be funny.  In another poem, three Mesoamerican goddesses end up working at Wal-Mart.  The unintentional humor make them no less profound or beautiful as poetic works.

“Once the bride enters, there’s no way out.” (Vow, “Appendix C: Misc. Fragments”).  Where Darling offers the reader bon mots and koans, verbal fragments suspended on the page surrounded by white space, Mor buries the reader in an avalanche of text, a chthonic mudslide of information, images, history, politics, broken bodies, and crime.  She gives us the American Southwest that negates the dominant patriarchal mythos of John Wayne, John Ford, and Western tropes.  This is the Southwest as overbearing capitalist force, seen by the female workers in the maquiladoras, the unending litany of murder victims that Roberto Bolaño writes about in 2666 (The Part about the Crimes).  Mor folds these crimes into a larger history of violence, rewinding the clock beyond the Conquistadors to the Hobbesian all-against-all of dinosaurs and trilobites.  While violence and consumption is an eternal verity, it is something all organisms do all the time, we humans have, in our short-sided attempt to rectify the ecocidal rape of the planet, erected artificial ideologies like vegetarianism and veganism.  While these puritanical dietary regimes offer the individual some modicum of moral superiority, it was John Maynard Keynes who said, “In the long run, we are all dead.”  The sad truth is that veganism is nothing but a prop to hold up one’s self worth.  And vegans being offended by the term “meatspace” comes across like an act of heroic self-delusion, akin to Christian Identity adherents who deny the Jewishness of Jeshua bin Miriam.

“I dream another me exists in the burning house, reading aloud from what I have written.  Broken glass.  A sad film.  The awkward silence.” (from Vow)

When they brought the horses i knew them   a crack in the

universe a fissure in mind look up the Milky Way divides the

sky into 2 hemispheres a brain 100,000,000,000 stars in

this brain a mythos in the sky  with a brain as mirrors  slow

transit of codes in the particulars of their eyes  they will say

they are not entertained by such discourse a memory where

they do not live or think they live  but the horse burst from rock

crevice in a sidewalk  all from Time returned little eohippus

dawn horse Dawn of mammals 53 million years Eocene in the

West   as their hands on cave walls opened mineral flesh and

it was there(30,000bce Aurignacian)evolutions later  and

all the beasts emergent from a stony hole or cavernous mind

dark and shining like night (from The Blue Rental)

Vow and The Blue Rental both act as visionary texts, railing against the nothingness that surrounds us and will eventually consume us.  Darling’s fragmentary meditation on marriage and domesticity literalizes St. Paul’s palaver for women to be silent and obedient.  Like a complementary text, Mor elucidates what St. Paul’s injunction has wrought upon women, civilization, and the planet.  Women treated like property or livestock or simply violated by men acting like predatory beasts.  Civilization turned into a free market capitalist frenzy to consume more and more, but with a belligerent ignorance at what constant growth and increased consumption mean in terms of limited resources and environmental damage.  And crunchy granola hippies chastising us to be simplistic and go off the grid (usually with unintentionally ironic Facebook updates) equally ignorant that a Noble Savage co-existing happily with Nature is just another myth White Patriarchy has erected.  While it may seem futile, at least Mor has the cojones to explicitly inventory the wrongs done by man against man, woman, and planet.  But it would be equally ignorant to chide Mor for not giving us solutions to the problems she points out.  The Blue Rental is a visionary collection of poetry, not a policy white paper.  Vow is visionary in its compactness and fragmentary distillation of marriage and domesticity, not an amicus brief on behalf of marriage equality.

These visionary poets need to be read, since their poetry needs to be experienced.  Both illustrate how words on a page can be a transformative experience.

whale of desire

 

 

WHALE OF DESIRE
BY MICAH TOWERY
REDUX CONSORTIUM, 2013
ISBN 978-0991152315

In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I’ve worked and corresponded with Micah Towery as a contributor to thethepoetry.com. It’s a cozy website that’s been kind enough to publish my rambling reviews, though I’ve only spoken with Micah through email or gchat. This wasn’t enough to preempt my reading of his debut collection Whale of Desire, and, since I am a poor follower of journals, I hadn’t come across any of his poetic work before this.

That said, I tore through this book, finishing it within a couple of hours despite the many re-readings and moments of reflection. Debuts are often meticulously crafted over a long time, but Towery’s is more than the best of a life lived until publication. It’s elegant, sharp, and balanced, a slim volume with no fear and no agenda. And in many ways the title, Whale of Desire, automatically encapsulates this, though it requires perusal beyond first blush.

This is a book of many desires and loves, affinities so vast that perhaps it can seem unwieldy. This title and the tribute to Melville are no accident: desire is a leviathan and easily obsessed over. Around desire so many other emotions eddy, but Towery doesn’t offer merely a swirling glut of emotion. His lines dance and crackle, his subjects both revered held accountable to magnification, his tone surreal but never disingenuous:

You leviathan—

laughing at the children who are laughing at you.

You’re taking out my brain and smoking it again

                like the cheap, cherry-flavored cigar it is.

My hairs are splitting you—

 (from Tribute to Herman Melville)

Surrealism and Christianity are siblings in their appreciation for symbology, though Towery never overloads. He investigates and we follow along, from Christian theology to the theology of jazz, through the canon and those unfamiliar with such things. The balance lies in Towery’s openness to life and its poles, not interested in lessons so much as associations. God above, the union below, “while Miles and John / play together upstairs.”

Philip Levine lurks around On the Closing of the Coca-Cola Plant…, though for a book full of God there is a distinct lack of blind subordination. Instead Towery transmits, journals, and observes with an open heart the decay of a type of certainty.

Praise you, laid off workers, part timers,

injured and summer laborers like me

who got out.

 

Goddamn the rest of you—

 

I know you had no place to go…

 

(from On the Closing…, I. Invocation)

Not quite ballads, maybe epigraphs of a sort. The narrator is only a “kid” at the bottom of the corporate flowchart, so we get a fly’s eye on the crumbling beauty of American industry.

The hottest mornings of summer

we get here early. It’s

still. Summer dark

fogs the windshields

 

and these men, left behind—

only a matter of time

until Binghamton plant closes

and we all become Crowley

 

Milk men, who have the same

but better union, who taunt me

in the backs of supermarkets:

You Coke guys eat more shit

 

than my dog.

 

I put product on the shelf

and declare, I am only

here for summer.

Though of course what new hire doesn’t believe that they are exempt, excluded from the politics of a life on the line. The curse of youth in general, flittered away without appreciation. The same could be said for belief, but Towery neither proselytizes nor anguishes. Binghamton deserves its songs, and the poet shifts his lines and injects enough jazz to keep the tune shifting and engaging. Where Levine was always an old man a grumbler, Towery blows a mean horn.

Not that there isn’t space for softness, but it never cloys. Love poems are a dangerous proposition in much current poetry. Even in verse many couch and armor themselves, or dial up the sweetness towards tooth decay. With the same deftness that he sings of labor and faith, T0wery approaches his love poems with the right combination of open-heart surgery and honest deprecation.

So instead, I’ve become accustomed

to false visions and vibrations,

the struggle of every little thing

and come to believe this might be a sort of love song,

a careless moment

of truth, an aloofness in which

I hear a train whistle—

I hear a church bell.

 

I am so impulsive for you—

I write this in the cold for you.

 

(from Love Song in the Light of Gas Stations)

Gas stations are rarely the regularly associated stage setting for love (maybe lust?) but beyond an unexpected association Towery delivers genuine love in a genuine world. The almost tidal nature of impulse, push/pull of desire and even moment it yanks around within us:

Almost—as I view you

              from the kitchen—I almost

come behind to hold you. and later,

              after dinner, I am full of sadness that

I didn’t. and I’m sad the roast

              I labored over lies half-eaten,

leaking on the cutting board.

 (from Third Love Poem for Jill)

These poems are walks, sights, and musings. There isn’t an indulgent indentation to be found, nor poetic seriousness or elaborate fretting. Towery delivers a taught, thoughtful collection to be savored, simmering with thought and experience. The Whale of Desire is large enough for all loves, from belief to fidelity, and each poem rings out as a hymn.

peace

 

 

PEACE
BY GILLIAN CONOLEY
OMNIDAWN, 2014
978-1890650957

Gillian Conoley’s new book of poetry (Omnidawn, 2014) is appropriately entitled Peace because it seems to aim at a kind of reconciliation: with the self, with family, with lovers, with the digital world, and with larger abstractions such as death and the occasional “God” or Christ which she infrequently refers to—but which seems to harbor in the vast undercurrents of the text. Her book is contingent upon a very austere subjectivism, but not without a very oblique, if not unintentional sense of humor. The subjectivism threads through the trajectory of the book in a very meaningful way, and yet the manner in which the subject relates herself to the situations she narrates seems as if through an opaque lens. And the opacity that prevails in its surrealistic bent could make the reader feel like he or she is sleepwalking through a very interesting and memorable dream. It is this which binds the momentum of the book and allows ample room for the reader to imagine, and to perhaps free-associate the given text with numerous other stories, most especially if he or she is of a writerly audience.

I don’t know if Conoley is influenced by Gertrude Stein, but there are certainly echoes of Stein in her work. For instance, in her poem A Healing for Little Walter she succeeds in telling the story with brief, syntactically awkward and obscure sentences: “A blue peal bent so far back it’s red./ Little Walter, beasts looking solemn at you/from the other side./Tina still rising./Turn and run./Gold fill,/Gold leaf fill./Fishbone thereby shall we see the light.” Stein, of course inherited a subjectivism which was obscured and hidden beneath the trail of her glottal-stop disordering of sentences, and yet the reader must conjecture who the speaker is and what she might be aiming at. Later in Conoley’s poem: “Gold leaf, gold leaf fill./Crying and wailing with our toy harmonicas/in a space gone unbolt into/a blueness sucking in the sun…” Throughout the poem she repeats the line: “Gold leaf, gold leaf fill…” which if the reader meant to construe this she or he might consider the gold leaf and its fullness in autumn, both in relation to the world and the consciousness of the self.

One of the most beautiful poems in the book is Experiments in Patience II. It reads almost like a haiku: “Family more/than genetics/and laundry/sweep the earth/in your/cemetery slippers/one foot slipping out…” In other words, and if I were to translate this literally and fill in the blank space:

My family is more than simply the genetics I inherit.

Defined by more than the loads of laundry I do each Sunday,

The routine of it like the years I’ve spent growing up

And spinning stories for the sundry experiences.

Family, like laundry, is also the routine of death,

Softly walking upon the graves of relatives,

And never quite letting go…

The incomparable phrase, “sweep the earth in your cemetery slippers” is what allows the poem a very celestial, if not other-worldly sensibility. It is also as I said the essence of the book’s slow and euphoric sleep-walk. Of course, there is a sentiment here, as there is throughout the book, which is not tear-jerking, but rather skin-tingling and evocative of a yearning for a higher spiritual plane.

And Conoley’s book is certainly not without its spiritual element, if not defiantly Christian. For instance, in her poem I Am Writing an Article (Johnny Cash) she asserts “Christ newly staked and writhing/in the heart/in the door-wide chest/in the overall black tower of you…” Here, Christ is a conflicted image of torture, altruistic love, and within his own antithesis.

Conoley’s speaker travels through spiritual planes which exist and yet clash with the digital world she inhabits, such as in the poem “an oh a sky a fabric an undertow:” “The GPS navigational finding device/enhance search/the overly/Google mapped,/severe lack of frontier in the world…” And here, “in mass human’s estranging light” (The Patient) it is evident that the world she sees does not quite reconcile with the world she must envision. Technology has led a mass of humans to begin “exploring the sewers,/recording/sounds of manhole covers as cars…” (an oh a sky a fabric an undertow), perhaps attempting to excavate the inevitable deaths that come with the human condition. It is without doubt that the speaker in Conoley’s poems sees herself as wholly a part of the human condition, and yet the book attempts to reconcile the conflicts which are attached to this.

I would highly recommend reading Gillian Conoley’s book, especially if you’re concerned with the irreconcilable elements of the status quo, with the larger more universal concerns about family and the self, and with the instabilities with which we are faced in the world as it stands. Conoley’s book has the transcendent qualities that future generations will be reading and considering, even after this generation has “[swept] the earth in [its] cemetery slippers.” A must read, for this world, and beyond.

 

 

LAMENT

 After Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii

There was a time when giants ruled the earth

and women were gods, too. But here in this moment

of mortality who, woman, will hold back your heart

from the imminent cliffs of grief? You cry out instead

of speaking, and if you were allowed you’d take the oath

and follow your husband, guard him against the wretched

spell of death like a shadow of black silk unraveling,

like a permanent shadow forged onto the ground

after an atomic blast, your arms outstretched;

in the background a curtain surrenders in the wind.

Beloved woman, twisted with torment

your spinning head cries like a god out of control:

Be brief! Let the weight of your serrated edges

cut this sorrow out of me.

_____________________________________________________________________

Ruben Quesada is the author of Next Extinct Mammal (2011) and Luis
Cernuda: Exiled from the Throne of Night (2008). He is Poetry Editor
for Cobalt Review, Codex Journal and The Cossack Review. His writing
has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Cimarron Review, The
Rumpus, and Superstition Review. He teaches English and creative
writing for the performing arts at Eastern Illinois University.

 

 

Body, Out 

(From Voicemail Poems)

There is a freshly-made bed next to mine,
that I don’t touch. There is a hum in the room, a hymn

in the sky. That evening two animal gods stood mountaintop,
and I sat below in the sunset, my body rooted, theirs extended,

all precision and color; hoof on mountaintop, bone and rock,
fur and mane; curve and wish, the desert

is nothing but curve and wish, the shhhh of air, the hush
of morning, of waking, of speaking to a silent room,

to an unbearable angel, to a movement not unlike birth,
legs open, body out

 

A Sad, Private Place

(From The Way Home)

 

This is how I imagine it would go if I did not prick my finger, if I did not stop growing while asleep; if it did not matter that, in these years, you lived and grew beautifully, independently. This is how I imagine it would go:

I sweep my fingers across your shoulder, following the curve of your collarbone to the place your skin dips.  Here, there is no bone to catch skin. We are in a sad, private place. It is not dark, it is not light. It was never a question of dark or light. Instead it is a question of sound, waves of noise thinner than needles. Here, in my imaginings, you cup your hands onto my shoulders, square my bare body toward yours. You say we will never find the way home. I say we are already there, even at times like these, times when death cannot see that she is birth, that she is animal, that she is flower. I lift my chin, tilt my head to the left, stretching my neck. Inside, we are screaming one great wall. Inside, there are mouths full of clean teeth, ready to tear it down.

 

_______________________________________________________________________________________

Ashley Inguanta is the Art Director of SmokeLong Quarterly. She is the
author of The Way Home (Dancing Girl Press/The Writing Disorder) and
For The Woman Alone (Ampersand Books).