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The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from poet Marie-Elizabeth Mali.

http://archive.org/download/Marie-elizabethMaliTheEggshellParade/MarieElizabethMali.mp3

 

The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from poet Kelli Russell Agodon.

http://archive.org/download/TheEggshellParadeKelliRussellAgodonInterview1/KelliRussellAgodon.mp3

Trick Vessels, by Andre Bagoo
Shearsman Books, 2012
ISBN 978-184861-203-7

Reading Andre Bagoo’s Trick Vessels incites a strange and rather silly first thought: “the imperative sentence wages a huge comeback!” Dumb thought? Being kind to myself (a favorite past time of mine) I begin to scratch this first thought for its complexity:

A. There is no greater or more compressed ordering device in the grammar of English than the imperative sentence.
B. It is the God sentence, and thus noun may be swallowed up in verb, and understood through action: Go! Leave! Look! Let!
C. There is much authority in the imperative. Eliot, knowing this, blasphemed against that authority, and gave it an ironic twist in Prufrock, that prime example of modern urban equivocation and enervation: “Let us go then, you and I.”
D. This much authority in a post-structural age, used without irony, is a huge gamble. After all, are we all not relativists, masters of the “but, perhaps not”, whores of the non-authoritative. After all, are we not men- kinda, sorta, well… really not? Isn’t our language always correct, and non-committal? Aren’t we sensitive and caring, and “Aware” and “grocking” even as we aim our drones at lil children, and assorted other enemy combatants?

Damn, straight! (well, maybe…). The first poem in Bagoo’s Trick Vessels doesn’t only use imperatives. It uses God’s imperative: Let. Unlike Prufrock, it is not immediately undercut and sabotaged by equivocation. This is the precise, intense, unequivocal imperative of ancient poesis: the poet conjuring the world, making it up as he/she goes along, taking on the authority of a lower case god:

Let the daughter of the Hibiscus say: “His love has no end.”

This is let restored to the full, non-ironic, authority of invocation, and, reading the poem, I wonder if Mr. Bagoo might not be a believer as well as an anti-ironist. But the poem is too tricky to rate a mere Christian wave. According to the poem, this love that has no end is a flower, and that flower is night, and hence the title: The Night Grew Dark Around Us.
I think of that trickster, Bob Dylan, informing us: “it ain’t dark yet, but it’s getting there.” I do not think this is the same dark as Dylan’s sinister version. The Poet’s dark could perhaps be not unlike St John’s “Dark night of the soul.” It could be the dark of his skin, of his ancestor’s skin, the dark ripped from its negative relationship to light, and turned into its own species of light dark as a form of light? This is not at all unusual with poets of a mystic turn, nor is it unusual with poets under historical crisis and duress (consider Miguel Hernandez writing from a dank Franco prison: “I go through the dark lit from within.”).

Perhaps this night which is flower which is love is a wager, a leap into the absurd. A decision to trust darkness itself as the percipient condition out of which light comes and to which it returns. Night in the sense of love is tomb and womb as one, and reading deeper into Trick Vessels we find this sense of dark, of erasure, of trickery to be what the great critic Kenneth Burke called “Equipment for living.”

The trick vessels could be the slave ships, but, being trick vessels, they shape shift and are never one thing, never condemned to an absolute definition. If they must be identified, the trick vessels are the words of the poems themselves, the words of invocation, of magic, of night. Let us consider night first:

IV On Encountering Crapauds at Night (from the poem, Trick Vessels):

I’ve grown to love the backs of Crapauds/That hide in dark spaces between steps/

And bow as though at temple.

And on trickery (Part VI):

The fig tree could be a murderer

A bandit come to ambush.

And later in the same section:

A soft whisper can bite.

A world of murdering fig trees and biting whispers is a world in which things can be counted on to have no loyalty to seeming. It is a word of shape shifting, a tricky world of night and, in such a world, the only true ordering intelligence is invocation—the authority of words as magic, as act—as incarnation. In such a world, “let there be” without irony is still warranted, still efficacious. In such a world where soft whispers bite, language does not resort to irony, to the glib, to the entitled, the privileged, the self referential. It is a matter of life and death, a matter of the right spell at the right time, a ceremony of erasures against erasure. Night may efface night and not be lost. The light of day has no such power, cannot live in erasures, and must resort to Prufrock’s whining equivocate: “that is not it at all.” Protest here is swallowed up in the medicine and strength of words as an act of majesty.

Much magic thinking runs up against rather brutal modern realities (Bagoo is also a journalist in Trinidad), but this is not the magic thinking Eliot would have condemned as Prufrock’s form of “Bovarism.” Instead, these words of night are as vessels, as ships, a ceremony of journeying where the Unnamed Creature Said to Come from Water (Title of the second poem) assures us:

But I have such knowledge, /I ensure these erasures/I follow the stop. I do not leak.

Broken Vessels then moves from certainties to uncertainty in many respects (as erasures tend to do), but out of this shape shifting, this world where soft whispers bite comes a new dynamic. It may be expressed as: I may not exist, and you may not exist, but what exists, and what can be trusted in the ongoing dynamic between the you and I. Sure enough, in the poem, Preface for Seasons the voice of the poem addressed a “you” to which it is in relation. The seasons here as mainly liturgical, seasons of ceremony: Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost (ordinary time is, as with most poets, left out). These are Catholic, but Catholicism is here but a form under which deeper orders hide and are enacted:

Some Lines from Advent:

There is a church inside a church/Where a mountain clump breaks off

And then from Incarnation:

Becomes a tree/the tree that breaks free/to become a ceremony

(note how this echoes the opening transubstantiation of love into flower into night. Trick Vessels is full of transformations under the signs of night, ocean, and the ongoing shape shifting of identity and politics).

From the section called Lent:

The values becomes valueless/ The desired is at first rejected/ the reject is later consumed.

This is a trick in theology known as transvaluation of values: the mountains are brought low, and the valley raised, the rich are brought low and the poor exalted, the valued becomes valueless, and the desired is rejected.

From Holy Week:

Thousands of touching hands/covers for secret agents

The praising mob that touches becomes the mob shouting crucify him. Judas betrays with a kiss.

From Easter (the shortest and most cryptic of the sections):

In between dreams/I make sense/In waking life/Chaos is hard to prove.

Chaos is not hard to prove in the night, and in the dark night of the soul, chaos is the only true order—the complex order of what has been lost and what might come to be—percipient order, the chaos of da Vinci’s deluge sketches—not void of order, but order as yet undetermined. We must resist the too easy chaos of contemporary life for it is not chaos but merely the random, the arbitrary, and these poems while shape shifting, call on something more than the arbitrary life. They call on ceremony. The poems of Trick Vessels are not the imposed order and false certainties of neo-conservatism, but an embracing of the power and force of night through the spell casting power of language–the magic that does not destroy uncertainty but which gives it value, and purpose. Because Bagoo’s poems do not traffic in false certainties, they restore the authoritative voice to its poesis—its intimacy with the dark, with the shape shifting upon which the poet’s older right to invoke most firmly rests.

In a larger sense, beyond the book, I see in Bagoo’s poetry a moving away from the equivocations of the best who lack all conviction and beyond the worst who are full of a passionate intensity. The poems in this book represent a movement away from equivocation, from irony, from the parody, the self-referential, towards a more genuine formalism—not the somewhat neo-conservative formalism of Hacker or, more so, the cranky formalism of metricists, but an older sense of poetry as the enacting of a ceremony, a vital and rhythmic invocation, almost liturgical in its use of the imperative, and the invocative. It is the genuine precision and formalism of spells, of prayer, or rhapsodic speech, a ceremony which must be formed out of the utterance itself to “order the sea.”

Bagoo might strike some as too sincere, as too insistent in his intensity. He uses anaphora, the imperative, the list, the rhetorical tricks of mystical oxymoron, and of transvaluation–all the tools of the magic trade—of invocatory speech. He undercuts such tricks at times with news from the world, but the world does not triumph over the verbal will here. These poems, as I said, are very formal in terms of their deliberation and engagement. Unlike the neo-formalists they are not about rhyme, meter, intellectual display or emotional detachment. Bagoo does not impose wit and order upon the landscape. He is not the return of Auden. He is, in a sense, the return of that which “Sang beyond the genius of the sea.” His is an ordering intensity—a ferocity of engagement which is always, by its nature, a thing of ritual. “A ceremony must be found” John Wheeler, the poet, wrote some eighty years ago. Bagoo has found that ceremony in this fine collection of poems.

 

The Eggshell Parade brings you a The Noisy Reading Series reading and interview from poet Michelle Bitting. Michelle reads her poem “Free,” which appears in the winter 2012 issue of diode.

http://archive.org/download/TheEggshellParadesTheNoisyReadingSeriesMichelleBitting/MichelleBittingTnrsFinal.mp3

The Mimic Sea
By Erica Bernheim
42 Miles Press, 2012
ISBN 978-0983074724’

I hope the Monarch butterfly I released this spring landed in Mexico tagged with
the ending line of the opening poem of Erica Bernheim’s Moonrats:

I’ve got rights and I should look into them.

This is the fewest of the “first books” I’ve read that feels completely self-interrogated and worked upon. It shines and it never presumes its own rescue. Dear Baby, I am held up/by anchors and antlers: one holds me down, the other/keeps me alone. There are statements all over this collection one could theoretically hear from NBC News’s Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel if he’d been released from captivity after five years instead of five days. Laid end to end, seven million hummingbird/eggs will take you to the bus stop and back. Ask the bodies I stand beside on any public transportation and they’ll tell you: I don’t toss about a term like interiority often.

Opening of The Superstition of the Clean Glass:

A cross-section of a tough person seems/touched in the middle of an island, and/we like it.

Bernheim’s is an interior lyric, on par with the elegiac verse of the late Larry Levis. Reading this book is not dissimilar to overhearing a soliloquy on intimacy pieced together by tape-looped recordings of “empty” residences visited and perturbed by The Atlantic Paranormal Society. I miss part-time investigator Donna, who also used to run the Ghost Hunters front office. Sometimes the Connecticut female accent is the only reason I remain in this country.

There’s a newer lyricism stirring around and around the Large Hadron Collider Chamber.
The newer lyricism is more about vibration and less about experience and feeling, experience and feeling having gotten humans squadoosh. This book continually reminds me buoyancy is better than tone, or being right. Bernheim challenges her reader to be intimate. She’s going to be intimate whether you choose to participate or not. I tried to impart to my Navy town how high on the courage-scale that ranks, but most of my neighbors care more about watching me fall off the fiscal cliff.

In the poem Fifteen Beautiful Colors, Bernheim examines light. I didn’t think that kind of magnification was possible anymore in poems.

XII. Two arms reaching make little sound grasps at smoke.
Nothing here will/bloom or rise, planetary faces.

Speaking of light, whenever sunlight is mentioned, something terrible has happened or something wonderful is about to happen. I love that. Prediction: Bernheim will win the third season of Spike TV’s Ink Master. Her championship tat will be whatever life form eventually emerges from Saturn’s moon Enceladus. She’ll pull on host Dave Navarro’s goatee and it will come off. As Ink Master, she’ll tattoo whoever she wants whenever she wants however she wants. As Ink Master client, my mother may desire three-dimensional Wedgwood buttons on her eyelids, or nipples? I’m praying for behind the calves, Mama.

I want the following gem from the poem Dialogue for Robots (pg. 67) tattooed on my pelvis:

In front of our eyes are too many ways to breathe.

It’ll be a cover-up for the botched Soul Train choo-choo.

There are poems addressed to a day-lily, a zookeeper, and a bellhop in here. They’re all provided the same equality of respect.

Let’s dig deeper into the Bernheim/Levis comparison. Here’s three lines. Pick which ones are Bernheim and which ones are Levis:

We go & there’s no one there, no one to meet us on the long drive lined with orange trees
You can recognize the words and not understand the sentence.
Put me in a scene and watch as nothing changes.

Try these:

It’s like your bones died two weeks before you did.
We was just two tents of flesh over bones.
Sex should be no more important than a glass of water.

Don’t worry, Good Will Hunting is still working all this out too.

Having appeared in the 2006 anthology Legitimate Dangers, Bernheim legitimately waited nearly two presidential terms to publish this full-length collection in 2012. She took her sweet time, I suspect, in order to release something rare, special, and dangerous — a finished book.

 

The Eggshell Parade brings you a The Noisy Reading Series reading and interview from poet Michael Homolka. Mike reads his poem “Family V,” which appears in the inaugural issue of Phoenix in the Jacuzzi Journal.

http://archive.org/download/TheEggshellParadesTheNoisyReadingSeriesMichaelHomolka/MichaelHomolkaTnrsFinal.mp3

jarrell

Mary Jarrell, left, with her husband, Flannery O Connor, Peter Taylor, & Robert Humphrey. Courtesy of UNC, Greensboro

 

Mary Jarrell’s late husband, Randall Jarrell, is well known to literary people for his wonderful satirical novel, Pictures from an Institution, for his ingenious criticism, for his translations of Rilke and Chekhov, for his endearing children’s books, and, of course, for his poetry.

In 2002, I had the privilege of interviewing Mrs Jarrell for a proposed documentary on the World War II air war, and the literature that had defined it. Though the project never came to fruition, the interview was, of course, invaluable in its own way, and took on a life of its own. Though in many ways Mrs Jarrell—from the POV of anecdotes alone— didn’t reveal anything that hadn’t already been exhaustively covered in various biographies (including her own memoir, Remembering Randall) being in her vibrant presence, and in the presence of her husband’s memorabilia, was a rich enough experience.

The following interview took place in Greensboro, North Carolina, in October of 2002, at Wellspring, Mrs Jarrell’s assisted living community.

***
Mary Jarrell has survived almost all of her scholarly contemporaries. In person, she is tall and slim, with a face (as was said of Zelda Fitzgerald’s) that is far more beautiful and enigmatic than one would gather from viewing her photographs. It’s apparent that she must have been quite something in her youth, but, as seems to be the phenomenon of old age, all that beauty has migrated to the eyes, and it is through them that one can see her as she must have looked at the time she shared her life with her husband. She lives alone in a retirement community, closely surrounded by neighbors, with a dachshund as devoted to her as a child.

Moments after Mrs. Jarrell (“Mary please”) welcomes me inside, we are joined by a tiny black and tan dachshund that is not a puppy, she says, “but a full grown mini who weighs seven pounds.” She lifts the creature in her arms.

“Meet Schatzi,” she says. “It’s the diminutive for Schatzel; means ‘little treasure.’ Half the dogs In Germany are called Schatzi.”

I’ve already noticed that she seems a little hard of hearing, and as I check the sound level on my recorder, she says, “I’ll just get closer to you…some people have a gentle voice that I don’t pick up very well.” By now I’m ready to start asking her questions, but something tells me not to lead off the discussion of her husband’s work with The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, and I remark instead on my liking for his treatment of the surrealism of the passing of time in his poem The Face.

“Oh yes…. ‘I haven’t changed/you haven’t looked.’ Randall dreaded it, getting old. He didn’t want it to happen; so the passing of time was very real to him…and he was sorry to have to live through it”, she says.

Though I’m glad my remark has stirred such easy and immediate candor, her response also sets off a tremor of alarm: it seems to steer us in a direction I’d resolved to avoid (or at least not to broach this early in the interview): the lingering speculation that Randall’s death in a traffic accident at age fifty-one had been semi-suicidal.

In her memoir, and in many interviews, she’d of course dealt summarily with this conjecture (it wasn’t so, according to the coroner’s report), and I reassure myself that by now any resentment she may once have felt toward those still perpetuating the rumor in literary circles might have settled into the almost dispassionate objectivity she’d consistently shown on the subject in her writings.

So I decide to start out with Ball Turret, after all.

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
(“The Death Of The Ball Turret Gunner”)

In Remembering Randall, Mary had elaborated on the fact that the poem was for Jarrell both a triumph and source of consternation, as it was the relentless public demand for the piece that inspired him to worry that he might become a one hit wonder.

“At present, you know, it goes for $250.00 a shot, and is in steady demand for TV as well as the printed page,” she says, gently touching the dachshund’s nose.

“Randall’s poem can be interpreted as being both anti-war and anti-state. But I presume he didn’t question the necessity of the second World War?”

Her answer is immediate and somewhat surprising. “He did …he really did. I was just dealing with that in one of his letters in which takes that up. He was very critical, especially of the Army, because to him in a way… it was an institution, sort of like Academia. And it had certain routines and inescapable requirements. Instead of looking at his past …you know, they knew he had been a teacher…they sent him to interviewing candidates and finally decided to train him to instruct cadets… and when they saw his teaching ability, they trained him for celestial navigation.”

I’m not sure I understand her answer, and rephrase the question. But she frames her reply in terms of her own feelings about the war (Hitler had to be stopped, etc), not Randall’s; and I drop the topic and remark that Jarrell’s brilliant criticism could eviscerate the loftiest reputations. (“Auden is like a man who keeps showing how well he can hold his liquor until he becomes a drunk.”)

“He finally moved away from that sort of thing”, Mary tells me, “He said, I’m not going to write any more severe criticism…it’s not worth it. It happened with his teaching, too. He only taught people that he really admired. Never mind the bad poetry. He didn’t teach bad poets.”

Abruptly, she laughs, relaxing. “You got this on tape?”

I tell her that I do, and ask her if she believes that Randall would have viewed the poetry of this day and age as being in a state of decline.

“Ohhhh, I’m afraid he would,” she answers quickly. “I have a friend that I often see… he’s retired, and divorced and teaches poetry at the Shepherd’s Center. And he likes poetry. But just this past weekend he told me that nobody, even the faculty over there, was interested in poetry. It’s always been a small minority, but it’s marvelous to see those who have lived on.”

Some modern poets (like Jarrell’s good friend Robert Lowell) who have done so, I observe, were surely helped by Randall’s honest praise.

“After some of his {Lowell’s) breakdowns… and after some time had elapsed…he wrote more and more of that ‘my life confessional’ sort of thing… Randall would’ve hated that. But the public liked it. Randall wanted it lyric and he wanted it visionary, and he wished that Cal had stayed with his marvelous historical poems like The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.”

“What about the Beats? In your book you discuss a visit by Kerouac and Gregory Corso to your home, but it would seem unlikely that Randall would embrace the Beats as a legitimate literary movement, judging from his tastes. Can you expand on this?”

She adjusts the dachshund on her lap. “Randall wrote about that better than I could, and he acknowledged that they did have a part in those years; but he never liked the fact that they wouldn’t revise. We met Corso out in San Francisco, and liked him a great deal. But again, he was constantly submitting poems to Randall, but he wouldn’t revise. He’d quit, and start another until he had ten half-written poems, and Randall couldn’t stand that.” We both laugh.

“There’s a quote you might like… just this morning, on the cover of… well, it’ll be on the cover of the book that’s coming out. It deals with Randall’s…high demand on others.” She rises quickly to look for the excerpt and is gone for several minutes, but returns empty handed. “Well…it’s somewhere. But it’s a quote by Robert Penn Warren, and he acknowledged Randall as a very great critic, said that he was generous with his criticism, but that he had such high standards for other poets, and himself; and of course the critic Helen Vendler said that ‘Jarrell put his talent into his poetry and his genius into his criticism.’ And I think he just thought people didn’t spend enough time; he knew how much time it took. He would use the Army phrase ‘wash out’ to describe something in a manuscript that needed to be removed. He’d tell somebody, ‘I think I’d just wash that out’ And he told Eleanor Taylor {poet and wife of writer Peter Taylor} that about her own poems a couple of times”

(Draft page from ‘The Woman at the Washington Zoo’, by Randall Jarrell)

 

My research in preparing for the meeting had given me the impression that for some literary historians, Randall Jarrell’s place in modern American letters had been secured as much through his criticism as his poetry; so if I had true journalistic instincts I’d try to keep Mary talking about that aspect of his career.

But I was afraid (perhaps groundlessly) that she was becoming tired, and I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t leave without asking about what, aside from his criticism and one novel, I personally liked best of all her husbands creations…his children’s books.

“Randall’s lovely poem The Lost Children deals not only, like Peter Pan, with the inevitable loss of childhood from itself, but with a parent’s loss of a vicarious childhood through the children that grow up and away from them into adulthood. I get the feeling from some other of his poems that romantic love, for Randall, was maybe also somewhat a vicarious childhood….and this certainly seems to be the case in The Gingerbread Rabbit. Do you feel that’s true?”

“Yes,” she smiles, and looks out into the garden for a bit.

“Two little girls, one fair, one dark

one alive, one dead,

are running hand in hand through
a sunny house…
They run away from me…

But I am happy…

When I wake I feel no sadness, only delight.

I’ve seen them again, and I am comforted

that, somewhere, they still are”

(“The Lost Children”)

Surely this is Mary’s voice, the voice of his beloved speaking through Jarrell (dubbed “Child Randall” by Robert Lowell in an elegy) and it is this that gives the poem its empathetic tenderness. When, in The Animal Family, the hunter brings a “baby” home, the family unit, so coveted by Randall Jarrell, comes full circle:

“In two days he was sitting on the floor
by the table when they ate, eating with them…

in a week it was as if he had lived with them always.”

***

We walk out into the sunshine toward the awning where we are to board the vehicle that’s to take us to the resident’s dining room (I had been expecting a minivan driven by a retirement home employee) and I get a kick out of the fact that Mary Jarrell, a woman of a certain age, not only drives, but drives a svelte, compact sports car, flaming red, bearing the personalized license plate, “POEMS”.

Since long before writing Remembering Randall, Mary von Schrader Jarrell has, emphatically, been herself. And her answer to my final question strikes me with the realization that maybe it’s her story that I’ve mostly missed.

It had been arranged that we part company after lunch, “not so much for a nap, but to rest my eyes and lie prone with one arm over Schatzi at my side and practice my yoga deep breathing.” As we wait for my cab outside, I apologize for tiring her.

“I’m tired, yes. But happy,” she replies. “It links me to once again quote Benjamin Franklin’s observation to the signers of the Constitution, ‘I’m so old I am intruding in posterity’.” She smiles, and her remarkable eyes are as bright as a child’s in the sun.

“How do you think Randall would have felt about 9/11?” I ask her impulsively.

“Oh, he’d feel it”, she says, “but I can’t presume to say what his feelings would be. I mean, one’s opinions do change, and he didn’t live to see that. He died at fifty-one. But I didn’t.”

Voices of Haiti was published in July 2012 by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. The contributors to the book are the poet Kwame Dawes, the journalist Lisa Armstrong, the photographer Andre Lambertson, and the composer and writer Kevin Simmonds.

Voices of Haiti takes place in Port-au-Prince less than a month after the fatal quake; in Tombs, the first chapter, the authors illustrate their initial impressions of the loss of life and security, and reflect on the ways in which the earthquake deepened existing fissures in Haitian society. The next two chapters, Mother of Mothers and Storm, delve deeper into local life in Haiti; authors interview aid workers and local doctors and spend time in squatter camps, churches, and houses of local informants. The final four chapters—Ganthier, Job, Boy in Blue, and Bebe’s Wish—focus on the stories of particular individuals and the ways in which they exercise agency through improvisation.

This book has two stated aims. The first is to draw “intimate portraits of individual Haitians;” the second is to “explore critical issues affecting Haiti’s future [such as] development, poverty, displacement, [and] HIV/AIDS”. While both of these aims are admirable, I initially wondered if they might be at cross-purposes. Art as activism is always tricky business; when a text simultaneously seeks to produce both formal merit and social advocacy, it typically achieves neither.

On the whole, however, Voices of Haiti does an admirable job. It is aided in its dually aesthetic and ethical goals by two primary strengths. The first is the intimacy between author and subject. In Voices of Haiti, informants bring the writers into their homes, share meals with them, and introduce them to their children; they confess their most shameful secrets and reveal their hopes about the future. These are not the sorts of details outsiders are typically privy to. Perhaps Haitians are simply very open; maybe artists just make the best ethnographers. Whatever the reason, the trust between participant and observer in Voices of Haiti is palpable, and adds much to the project.

Another strength of the book is its format. Voices of Haiti is a multimedia document that brings together text, sound, and image in a carefully organized way. Each section begins with a poetry reading that is accompanied by a slide show of photographs and a short musical score. Every chapter ends with an article or story. Interspersed throughout the book are additional clips of personal interviews and 1-2 minute musical performances. While each individual photo or poem might be assessed on its own independent artistic merits, this is hardly the point; the document is meant to be understood holistically, and its parts are knitted together in a fashion uncharacteristic of most cross-disciplinary collaborative artistic endeavors.

The cooperative spirit of the project and its successful integration of many divergent types of media makes Voices of Haiti a fine read (or should I say, experience) for anyone seeking a humanistic portrayal of the post-earthquake Haitian world and the people who inhabit it. That is not to say, however, that this document is an easy read. The book raises some difficult issues and asks important questions about development, cultural history, and especially agency in Haiti.

AGENCY AND VICTIMHOOD:

At its core, Voices of Haiti is an exploration of what agency is (from both a philosophical/historical standpoint and a more practical, localized one) how it is expressed, and how it is achieved.

There is a conflict between the world’s perception of Haiti and Haitians perception of themselves. The authors assert that Haitians do not think of themselves as helpless, and actively fight against the status of victimhood that is constantly imposed on them by foreign governments and even well meaning aid workers.

Some of the informants seem to acknowledge that it is difficult not to internalize expectations of helplessness; in Chapter 4, a frustrated informant named Andre (responding to a Christian sermon on the power of suffering) states the following: “So we must just accept this suffering and not do a thing about it? I can’t accept that. We have become passive; we have let the feeling that we must be cursed like this take a hold of us.”

At the same time, however, few of the Haitians interviewed or portrayed in the book describe themselves as victims or dwell on their personal misfortune. One woman in Chapter 3 states resolutely: “Crying cannot make us better. Crying cannot help us rebuild.” Similarly, Dr. Jean William Pape of GHESIKO and Dr. D’ Meza of PIH, for example, stress that it is “solidarity not charity” that builds relationships between doctors and patients and leads to sustainable solutions.

Where, then, does the myth of Haiti’s perpetual victimhood come from? The authors suggest that the myth is derived not from Haitians themselves, but from the seemingly impossible situations into which they are placed; they acknowledge in the first chapter that part of the reason the earthquake was so bad is that it exacerbates pre-existing fissures in Haitian society, and that Haitians are “as puzzled by the vicious irony of their circumstances as we are.”

I would contend, however, that any Haitian person who knows the history of Haiti is not quite as puzzled as the authors might suggest. If we want to know where Haiti’s problems come from , we need only to look at history to understand the answer. Since its inception as the first democracy founded by a slave rebellion in 1804, Haiti has been punished by regional powers for beating the odds. Case in point: Haiti’s liberation debt to France, it’s U.S. backed dictators, and it’s occupation by the U.S. military between 1915 and 1935.

While the authors of the book never directly connect Haitian defiance of Western powers to the country’s subsequent economic and political marginalization, they do allude to it indirectly, particularly in their discussion of the statue of Neg Mawon, a Haitian Freedom Fighter. They note that Dr. Joia Mukherjee rejoiced when, in the post-quake rubble, she saw the statue still erect because it reminded her: “the free man can never be destroyed.”

So, what do the free people of Haiti do in cataclysmic circumstances like these? The book abounds with examples. In Sou Piste, a group of 40,000 displaced people have constructed improvised housing on an old airstrip. Here, many Haitians are doing what they have always done; fetching water, bartering for food, and flying kites. In Ganthier, a woman named Malia Jean (upon the discovery of her positive HIV status) started her own activist group for women. Similarly, in Carrefour, the preacher Joel Sainton, ousted from his congregation for refusing to reject his HIV-positive wife, makes home visits to others affected with HIV/AIDS. In his community

Finally, in Petionville there is the indomitable Bebe, an assertive sex worker/beer brewer/hair stylist “who moves through the world as if she owns it.” Bebe of the contagious smile and the confidence that borders on defiance is a promise incarnate; the poem at the beginning of her chapter teasingly asks “How much do you think I am worth? How much for a piece of me.” While this questions is quite serious (after all, Bebe must provide for her young sons, and her business has taken a hit since the quake) it is also playful and hopeful—“Her view is for tomorrow; calmer days, no more riots, streets filled with expats, money in her pockets, a chance to make a go at something else.”

PERFORMANCE, TRAUMA, AND MEMORY:

While reading Voices of Haiti, I could not help but think of a very different book written several years ago by the theater historian Joseph Roach. Called Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic performance, the book proposes an interesting concept: that in societies that experience great hardship, where the voices of the many (and the suffering) have been silenced by official record-keeping and where both bodily and cultural oppression are widespread, the rituals of daily life, which are themselves a kind of performance, can serve as the site of new identity formation through a process he calls surrogation. In other words, the bodies of the living elegize the passage of the dead not only by sustaining particular rituals (burial, dance, familial structures, religion) but also by improvising new ones. The restored body, performing a new task, is a substitution for what is lost. Roach argues that this is why performance and trauma are inextricably related:

In the life of a community, surrogation does not begin or end, but continues as actual or perceived vacancies occur in the network of relations that constitute the social fabric. Into the cavities created by loss through death or other forms of departure…survivors attempt to fit satisfactory alternatives.

Roach understands “community” as a rhizomatic entity; vibrant but center-less, it is in a continual process of substitution and restitution. Arguing that performance is “restored behavior, twice-behaved, and always subject to revision.” Roach suggests that all definitions of performance offer it as a substitute for something that pre-exists it.

Performance stands in for an elusive entity that it is not, but must vainly aspire both to embody and replace. Hence flourish the abiding yet vexed identities between performance and memory, out of which blossom the most florid nostalgias for authenticity and origin.

Performance, which Roach defines as both “remembered motions… [and] imaginary movements dreamed in minds” is what the authors of Voices of Haiti are documenting in their book. They examine practical formulas of daily living, death and burials, laws and disobedience, commodification and violence. They explore moments of celebration and activity that go “beyond survival” and seem to recognize a cohesive, connecting force that transcends the finite problems of weak human bodies: “When I sing, I know how to fly, and how to reach where the water eases the spinning in my stomach/ this blood is not my enemy when I sing.”

In Voices of Haiti, moreover, it is certain individuals (frequently women) that act as keepers of culture, oral historians, caregivers, and community philosophers. It is their efforts that sustain and reshape the Haitian cultural identity; “Mother of mothers, in your bandana and with your holy testament, you must draw a line of defense around beleaguered souls/and speak a torrent of curses/ on the beasts lurking in the shadows.” By performing daily acts of kindness and stabilizing rituals, Haitians emerge from the tragedy as a reimagined people. Their persistent commitment to life is an elegy to the dead and an act of defiance against those forces (real or abstracted) than conspire to break apart and destroy bodies and lives.

CONCLUSION

Voices of Haiti is a book about the experience of freedom and trauma, and the complex ways people process both, weaving them into narratives and identities. This book, which is quite literally embedded with voices, is only an artifact of many performances; it documents the authors experiences in Haiti, but also their subsequent poetry and musical performances of the piece in Miami and Washington D.C., among other places.

Thus, the book effectively analogizes the Haitian experience, in not only content but also form; Voices of Haiti encapsulates the interplay between text and orality that is so essential to understanding the cultural development of all contemporary societies—in particular those societies in which the voices of the suffering, the poor, and the abused, are so often silenced by official histories.

At times, this multiplicity of voices and formats makes the piece seem incomplete; however, the book is a peace with its fragmentary nature and acknowledges the snapshot-like quality of its endeavor. Voices of Haiti is a synchronic document, the proverbial Bermuda grass of sensory experiences; it has no fixed center, no predominate bassline, and no resounding agenda, other than that of presenting the shimmering diversity of lives in the post-earthquake world of Haiti. This is somewhat of an accomplishment for a book that delicately straddles the line between activism and art.

Truck Books
ISBN: 9780984885749
$15.00

Weapons catalog descriptions: cyberpunk, academic prose, fables, and a Tyrannosaurus Rex stopping a suicide bomber.  From these disparate sources Josef Kaplan creates Democracy is not for the People, his newest volume of poetry. Divided into four parts, the book confronts the unholy terrors of globalization, globalized terror, and mass-market homogeneity.  These confrontations utilize high and low culture, genre imitation, and the political broadside.

It is easy to see this as agitprop or a gimmick.  At first blush, Democracy would appear as more preaching to the converted for the ranks of the Occupy movement.  Kaplan’s politicized confrontations, constructed with a cunning ferocity, aspire to become more, since the lifespan of literature outlives flash-in-the-pan political movements, nation-states, and entire civilizations.

The cunning comes from the technique of pastiche.  Democracy’s first section, entitled Tilt-Shift, is an extended pastiche culled from numerous sources.  Varieties of prose styles come one after another.  Along with these samplings, there are stream-of-consciousness style riffs on religious practice, assassination, and capitalism.  In its own way, Democracy uses the raw materials of recklessly deregulated capitalism and extremist ideology against itself.

Kaplan’s leftism seems pretty obvious, but in one instance, a piece called The President, he inhabits the voice of the ideologically unhinged, a rant that begins as an anti-Bush tirade and ends with the narrator gloating about posting on Yahoo! message boards calling for President Obama’s assassination.  An earlier piece, Gifts of Cloaks, begins with the story of Kenji Urada, who, in 1944, was the first person killed by a robot.  It continues with the history of SWORDS (“Special Weapons Observation Detection System”) and the development of unmanned drones.  In the middle of this prose poem, we read an extended excerpt from a weapons catalog, listing several kinds of drones.  The robotic technology has been weaponized and then commodified, unmanned drones the cutting edge of late capitalism’s commodity-fetishism.  Like the Transformers toy line, there is something intrinsically cool about an unmanned weapon.  Are Michael Bay’s Transformers movies and the trend of using drones for assassination part of the same moral sickness?  Or are we too distracted by the technology’s futuristic awesomeness to actually care in the first place?

Tilt-Shift is a mélange of discourses, commingling highbrow and lowbrow. The next section plays on the same societal critique, but from a different angle.  Ex Machina is a list of suicide bomber attacks, but something foils all the attacks at the last moment.  They include, but are not limited to, the following: Athena, daughter of Zeus, terrestrial bacteria, a spontaneously appearing field of poppies, the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, the sun chariot of Helios, the S.S. Heart of Gold, and the janitor from The Hudsucker Proxy.

When one reads these prose poems, one reacts with a kind of cognitive dissonance.  The tragic intermingles with the comic in perverse contamination of fact and fiction.  Each begins with a documentary description of the suicide attack and ends with intervention, divine or otherwise.  After a while, the long list of attacks numbs the reader, the pop culture interventions seeming like cutesy pop cultural references.  Then one realizes that these attacks did in fact happen, and there were no interventions.  Existential despair or laughter?

However, bad taste can operate as a means to illuminate the everyday, since the American news is now littered with random shootings.  With Aurora, the Sikh temple shooting, and other incidents, one realizes there is no Over There anymore.  Terrorism, like the Market, is omnipresent, seductive, and lethal. Democracy attempts to plumb the abyss created by deregulated markets and globalized violence.

Is Democracy the Howl for the Occupy generation?  The short answer is no. But should Democracy be the Howl for those Occupy protesters?  One hopes the reader will have a richer series of reference points than Allen Ginsberg’s verbally explicit indictment of Eisenhower-era conformity and nuclear paranoia.  Kaplan’s Democracy, in its self-conscious contamination of high and low culture, pop cultural references, and discursive pastiche, is a witty commentary on the present socioeconomic and political unpleasantness.  It’s also a well-written screed, parody, and ode to a world warped by failed states, failed economic systems, and failed theories.  This is not simple-minded agitprop, preaching to the converted, but a bracing slap in the face.

Whether as a gadfly to the bigger kids in communist Romania or as a teenager in Chicago, part of me always wanted to be hip, but another part always knew that it was too much work.

What does it mean to be hip? It means to be urban, wired, social, to occupy the latest spaces, to perform the most contemporary habits according to a precise code. If being hip means being urban, multinational, vanguard, does being unhip end up meaning that one has to be rural, nationalistic, or even parochial?

Speaking about downtown Los Angeles on BBC2 in the early 1990s, Dr. Edward Soja mentions how postmodern architecture can manifest as the feeling of de-centeredness quickly followed by a desire to submit to authority, any authority. How does this desire to find a center relate to the desire to lose a center? More precisely, as a first-generation immigrant American poet like myself who is interested in finding his place: how do the hardships of feeling lost play out in contemporary American poetry?

Recently, Swedish-American poet Johannes Goransson has suggested a link between the hipster and an excessive aesthetic on his popular blog called Montevidayo: “The hipster lets the art become excessive, lets art become “graffitiesque” (ie when art takes over the space of the everyday).” Perhaps hipster poets like Goransson, Ariana Reines, Sean Kilpatrick, and others, as practitioners of excessive aesthetics, offer useful responses to the moral-relativism articulated by postmodern urban spaces. Perhaps art is still that thing that helps us conceive of getting lost as an adventure.

What does it mean to take seriously the central lesson of the European avant-garde, via Tristan Tzara, that life is art? How can contemporary American hipster poets’ various understandings of excess help us understand the terrifying idea that life is an adventure and not a time-keeping instrument? What kind of self-expression or Romanticism is still possible after the death of the center?

Describing herself (and literature as such … since biography is written and, as well, it writes the self she describes), Ariana Reines writes in Coeur de Lion:

I don’t mean some internet-ready
self-reflexivity, self-irony, whatever
people call it, as if a self were so fixed
just ironizing “it” could constitute
a surge of consciousness. (7)

And here she is holding pop culture at a properly disdainful and therefore hip distance:

Apocalypto is a awesome title, we agree.
And Mel Gibson is like some kind of grotesque rendition
Of a stupid, stupid Georges Bataille
But his bloodlust, in its excess, is dull.
Its voracity runs too headlong
Into the carnage, or something, it doesn’t
Exploit the eros of violent possibility enough. (12)

Reflecting on the rather self-obsessed and confessional mode of the book, the same speaker writes:

When do you
decide you’re talking to
Literature too? It’s hard
To separate a body from
The words it lets fall.
And then the difference
Between what’s written
And what seems, outside
Of writing, almost just to be.
Writing has to do with
Time. It comes very close
After. Or
It can. This is very
Close after.
So close that it could
Scare me. I hope it
Will. I really hope it will. (50)

In his gothic and Google-age-surrealist book Entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate, Johannes Goransson writes: “His dingle-dangle is a strange fruit. Get out of here if you don’t know how to raise a child, how to save a child, from this disease. It’s a disease of language. I suspect I have it already. Shit.” (6)

In 1922, Tzara said: “Dada is useless, like everything else in life … Dada is a virgin microbe which penetrates with the insistence of air into all those spaces that reason has failed to fill with words and conventions.”

Sean Kilpatrick’s sexual and aggressive book called fuckscapes offers a series of horrific images in a variety of textual shapes cutting up pith and anger and idiom and confession all with a syntax that implicates the reader in this apocalyptic mess. He writes:

Neat breaks of ammo stung the weather.
They played my father’s rigor mortis over the loudspeaker.
Doctors with poor eyesight wearing rubber boots
Through his carrion, with southern accents in his carrion,
On lunch break, the color of lotion, his carrion in tents,
Said, “toothbrush removes father.” They
Said, “he served us well, your daddy pile
Of Frogger super-genes gone splat. (24)

Americans like their personal space and the Internet would seem to offer the ultimate in disembodied connectedness with its main utopian offering of a self that promises to be everywhere, a ubiquitous self. However, because we conceive of the Internet as a kind of space-space continuum that is out of time, it performs Dr. Soja’s “spatial turn” in the Humanities as a modal default. Because of this aesthetic or modal default as a spatial trope, an uncensored Internet is the most powerful instrument in the Democracy 2.0 movement.

How does space relate to the cool poets? Contemporary American hipster poets comprise a network of agglomeration in urban centers and as a causal consequence of this proximity to one another they create the necessary buzz for the literary mutations we come to recognize as progress. Sure, progress is a myth in the service of colonial projects but it is also the way each generation understands the geography of the past.

If the hipster makes art that is everywhere, does the marginalized maker make art that is nowhere? If we are the ones who construct space in poems and in burnt out downtown districts, what is the role of the oligarch who sponsors building projects? When a city generates excess, this garbage or grotesque excess offers once again the primary lesson of the European avant-garde: life is art. Consider the terrain of mortality; consider performing life as a fellow traveler to death. After all: nihilism shows us the amorality of fashion, but only if that amorality is seen from a critical distance rather than just lived. How, then, do we exploit the eros of violent possibility so we may live our art to the fullest?

Animal Collection is a new book of stories by Colin Winnette (author of Revelation, discussed here at THEthe). Like his previous book, it is a subtle blend of experimentation and dramaturgy. The concept: each story contains some kind of animal behaving in unusual and, in some cases, very human ways. From being cuckolded by a beaver, to falling in love with a hummingbird, to being impregnated by an iguana, human characters interact with animals in intimate and occasionally visceral ways. The result is a commentary on the strangeness of our own behavior, and the collection is proof of the power of certain art forms to defamiliarize ourselves to ourselves. This, to me, is the potent achievement of Animal Collection.

Here is the interview:

Brian: When we spoke about Revelation, a major theme of the conversation was the happy constraints of a framing concept. Here we have a collection of stories, each of which revolves around the image of a certain animal. How did this concept occur to you?  How “happy” of a constraint was it?

Colin: The germ for this project was pure constraint…or, better, like a dare / challenge I gave to myself because I was afraid. I had been asked to participate in a reading put on by Publishing Genius and Beecher’s Magazine at AWP DC a few years ago. I was super excited about the reading, many writers I admire were participating, and so I kept googling the reading and looking for info. Then, like the day before the flight, I discovered a poster for the event that claimed all of the authors had chosen an animal to write about and would then read that story in front of said animal’s cage…I had not done that. So I was sort of terrified and convinced of my own failure. Then there was a blizzard in Chicago (where I was living). A major one. All flights were grounded, school was cancelled, six feet of snow fell in something like two or three hours, and people were buried in their cars on Lakeshore Drive. Hunkered down in my apartment, nervous I would never make it to AWP in all of that, I decided to write 26 stories, one for each letter of the alphabet, each of which would center around an animal they had in custody at the Washington D.C. Zoo. A lot of these stories were awful, but some I loved. That was how the whole thing started. I wrote a lot more, revised considerably, and worked out a larger, more considered structure for the collection itself over the next few years. So, in a way, it was the happiest of constraints…except for those poor folks on Lakeshore Drive.

Brian: We have stories of metamorphosis, anthropomorphism, and something in between. In your thinking about this project, did you envision a clear boundary between the animal and the human? Is there a scale or spectrum of humanness or animal-ness? It’s obviously more fluid than that, but how fluid was it in your mind when you conceived of these scenarios?

Colin: The overall project, initially, was extremely fluid. As it came together, I began to detect certain underlying structures, and I worked to tease those out or, sometimes, to counteract them. Every story operates on slightly different terms so the boundaries shift. They are specific to each piece, and to the function of the “animal” in that particular piece.

Brian: More than even metamorphosis, we have visceral images of the human merging with the animal – eating a tarantula, having sex with an octopus, aborting an iguana baby, having one’s private space completely overrun by insects and vermin (which include men, in one story). This to me was a very disturbing turn, which contrasted with the lighter and outright funny tone of some of the other pieces (but maybe that’s because I’m squeamish in general). I guess the question is – if a story collection is a recipe comprised of different flavors, how did you manage the balance of the various flavors we have here?

Colin: This was a topic of much conversation with a  friend of mine, actually. The poet Ben Clark read these stories over and over again while I was working on them. He read many of the stories I wound up deleting and drafts of the stories that wound up looking completely different. At one point, he sorted all of the stories into separate categories. Something like: animal as human, human as animal, animal into human, human into animal, and so on. The various functions of the animal figure, as he could best figure them. So that was a helpful guide. But, more than anything, I was guided by the associative qualities of whatever animal occurred to me at the time I was writing the piece. That was a way I secured a certain level of variation throughout the text. Whichever animal occurred to me when I was setting out to write one of the stories would come with a cluster of associations. Some fairly common or general, and others deeply personal. Those associations dictated the movement of the story, and what was possible. So the stories had a kind of emotional and intellectual logic to them from the get go, which I then refined during revision. For that reason, some of the variation I hoped for was pretty much there from the beginning, but Ben helped me to see the “recipe,” helped to point out the ingredients, so that I might balance the whole thing more purposefully.

Brian: One unifying component of pretty much all the stories is the breakdown of relationships – lovers, families, friends. How does envisioning people as certain animals aid this feeling of disconnection and dissolution? Could it be misconstrued as a distraction (i.e., why not just depict humans as humans, rather than as animals?), or is that part of the point?

Colin: Well, I grew up on Disney films, so who knows what kind of havoc that wreaked on my sense of what exactly is “human,” but…

It’s different in each story, but the function of each animal brings something to the equation that I feel wouldn’t be there otherwise. For example, the iguana. That story is terrifying to me. It’s a joke my friend Blake and I used to make, that we always thought our parents didn’t understand us, when the reality is, they just couldn’t sometimes. It wasn’t possible. It’s entirely possible that I know Blake better than his parents ever could, just because we’re about the same age. The terms of our era were so radically different from our parents’, the disconnect was so severe, there was just no real way to bridge the gap. Any parents who are willing to listen to their kids and genuinely accept what they think and feel and do, without question, without feeling complete alienation and bewilderment every once in awhile, those are some pretty amazing people…or they’re faking it. It’s the kind of parent I hope to be (the genuine article, the amazing kind, not the faker), but what terrifies me is the question of whether I will have the self-awareness to realize when I’m not. Anyway, the joke Blake and I used to make was that it was easy to say parents “just don’t understand,” up until the day your kid is suddenly dating a Tyrannosaurus, and all you can think to say is, “I just don’t want you hanging out with that dinosaur! It’s unnatural!” Of course there’s something about racism in there too, I suppose, but for me it’s more about feeling fundamentally alienated from your child’s life. Or that’s the hook of the story. That’s what complicates it. I mean, would you have allowed her to birth the iguana?

And, just for the record, humans are totally animals.

Brian: Speaking of – the other major “human” theme is one that I’ve already briefly mentioned – the invasion of one’s space and privacy. To what extent is this a comment on the fact that the spaces and zones we build around ourselves are arbitrary and fragile? Am I putting words in your mouth here? Better than a tarantula, I guess. Stylistically, though, one way to convey this invasion of privacy (beyond various really creepy scenes) is the use of the second person. You open the collection in the second person, and one entire story consists simply of “You are here.” Who is you in Animal Collection? How many you’s are there?

Colin: Arbitrary and fragile, yes. Those are words I would use…and even have used when answering earlier questions. Each You, as with each animal, and each story, is very different. It is a way of incorporating the reader at times, or of generating an extra-textual character who is being addressed. For example, the Beaver story does not ask that the reader occupy the space of the You, any more than he/she would any other character. But the You story, that’s all about you, Brian, or me, or whoever is holding the book, really. On the one hand, it’s extremely literal. It’s also a joke. A bit of fun. But one that I felt was essential. It’s one of the last ones I wrote. I was pretty proud of it.

Brian: We have lots of animals, but also lots of voices and perspectives. As many as there are stories, really. This builds on that multivocal component of Revelation. I tell my students that writing is less akin to directing a film as it is to acting in one. How do you get your mind around the different voices and personae from story to story, especially when they’ll only live and breathe for a short time? To what extent do you “become” the voices you depict?

Colin: I abandon a story pretty quickly if I can’t embody the characters I’m writing. For me, it’s literally a physical sensation. I can feel it. I move in certain weird ways sometimes when I’m writing. You’re completely right that it’s like acting in a film, rather than directing it. Although, sometimes, once you know your characters well enough, and if you want to create a kind of stiffness or something, you can move them around like a director, like set pieces. I didn’t do that much here in AC, but I did do that a little in Revelation. They’re different projects, but they do overlap in certain areas. With AC, I was very invested in the voice of each character, or each story. It comes out when I read them, which is something I really love to do. (As a side note, whenever I read the “Tarantula” story, someone inevitably asks, “did you really…?”). I can’t say exactly what caused it, it likely has to do with the associative qualities each animal brings to the story, and what those associations allowed me to access. I was also able to play around a lot with these pieces, so I wasn’t stuck in one voice for any particular length of time. I could start writing and ride the wave of a particular voice until it stopped. Until it was done, and I could just end right there. I didn’t have to keep coming back to it and dragging more out of it. What I loved about writing this book is that I felt so free to make each piece be exactly the length it needed to be. I felt no pressure to extend a piece to make it more like a “short story” or to cut the longer pieces down so they better fit with the flash pieces. The book needed range. It required a variety of approaches to telling a story—and these are all stories, even if they’re poems. It’s a bestiary, an abecedarium, a zoo. It’s an animal collection.

It was late in the smoke-painted bar, a quarter past the blue hour, when The Interviewer pulled The Poet into an even darker room. And in the dark of that darkness, came the first question. Tell me, said the Interviewer, where do your poems live?

Maybe where all poems live: in doubt, shame, fear, prayer and ecstasy. Maybe they live in the part of me that still sees the Rickey, pubescent, gap-toothed, shy to smile, shy to speak, not man-enough, not black-enough, desiring, but who thought to be desired was outside him. Or that they live in this Rickey, older, who smiles, speaks, is man-enough, whatever “man” means, is black-enough, whatever “black” means, desires, apparently is desired, is desired.

Wherever the overlap is is where Rickey (his poems) lives. But poems also move.

The dark room was the color of closed eyelids now. Music reached in through a window deprived of its pane. With his eyes on the music, The Interviewer asked What was the last sin your poems committed?

Oh, they think too much. Worse, they feel too much. Still worse, they attempt this at the same moment, inside the same word. It’s what governs their lines, each line, their special meter. Could they be called Un-American for this or not contemporary or not of my generation? Many times they aren’t interested in performance or games.

A blade of moonlight cut The Poet’s body in half. The Interview liked this. The Interviewer wondered which half wanted most to be taken. Drinks appeared at the table without explanation.  I want to know, said The Interviewer, pausing to take a sip of his drink, what your poems dream about?

I want to know, too.

Minutes were hours in that shut eyelid-colored room. The moon turned into the sun without apology. Music that had been reaching through the window pulled its hand away. The Interview looked less himself. Tell me, please tell me, what have your poems come here to do?

Over drinks, I was recently describing my process to a new friend who, utilizing silence, then said, “So you’re a philosopher first.” My back straightened, and I may have reached for my nearly empty glass of whiskey. I can’t claim the title, of course, though I know this much is true: that I don’t find satisfaction in my poems—regardless if they’re doing the sonic, imagistic or rhetorical work I want of them and enjoy—until the poems themselves satisfy (“solve” doesn’t seem right) the question, the argument, that I’m at work to figure out.

So what is betrayal? Or heartbreak? Was Stevens right about the Imagination? What is meant when we say “boy”—when Stevens says it, when I do? Is violence serviceable? Is love?

I have questions. My poems come here to persuade me the childish belief that I might answer them.

________________________________________
Rickey Laurentiis was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. The recipient of a 2012 Ruth Lily Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, Rickey has also been honored with fellowships or scholarships from the Cave Canem Foundation, the Atlantic Center for the Arts, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference as well as the Chancellor’s fellowship from Washington University in St Louis, where he is completing his MFA. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in several journals, including jubilat, Callaloo, Indiana Review, Poetry and Feminist Studies.

Kiely Sweatt’s Origin Of
Patasola Press, June 2012, 68 p.

“It’s all about electric sockets” in Kiely Sweatt’s debut collection Origin Of, whose speaker will wrestle boredom for just “five minutes […] full of hot,” and searches for escape routes from domestic moments that merely “crackle and then burn.” Published this year by Patasola Press, Sweatt’s book ticks forward “our lives in five second intervals” with a few, sweeping backward glances (“Remember when we lived in Spain and everything seemed celebratory?”). At its height, Origin Of‘s uneasy domesticity recalls the insomniac pacing, after-dark décor, and restless four a.m. walking in Deborah Landau’s The Last Usable Hour; I imagine Sweatt’s speaker, as Landau writes in All Else Fails, “Strutting around / for awhile until poof.”

Sweatt’s poems also reveal the desperation in daylight and the struggle of a dynamic speaker (“I go under the name Utah, Manitoba, Albania, Pakistan and Bella / Coola”) to make her own space.

They often have a sculptural quality, both in form and in their detailed, haiku-like precision. This is a book that can begin in wide-framed fantasy:

Maybe we’re in Italy on the water. The car door jams.
Betty and her drug squad come. Go baby, Go!
It’s guns and Jimmy Jazz, guns and Sammy Masters.
“To Virginia!” he says, “There’s no other way to get what you get.

…But end in a close-up of fine china. The most “electric” poems of the collection, remarkably, are the ones that inhabit the intimacies of a household space. Sweatt turns a recognizable disquiet, such as a day full of “signs pointing to the non-alignment,” into a series of escalations:

I break plates.
The neighbors close their curtains.
I feel like throwing up sleep
And all I can say is, “thank you.”

The details mount: “a faint smell of growing houseplants,” “a pot of rice and leftovers,” or “The overdose of patterned carpets.” “I’m grey and bored and endlessly squeezing melons,” Sweatt says in approximation of her future. And, in frustration: “I seem more interested in wonder-working / like the power of my foot / bursting into this wall.” “No one else is annoyed by this?” the speaker asks loudly at the playground as she watches the “over enthusiastic mothers […] with their children looking for appraisal / in their little mirrored reflections”. (In anticipation of this moment, Sweatt also tells us What a Mirror Says: “My life seemed long”). Rote moments become reckless ones. Yet, when the present reality is tedious (“Listening to that voice down the hall / stirring milk in a wine glass is like paint drying a reminder note”) or somehow moves forward too effortlessly, the speaker devises alternatives:

My car is working nicely
and I’m inventing the need for you.

I hope you’re a Frenchman with a thick accent
in a floor length fur coat.

The fantasy gets louder, even as it grows more unremarkable: “I’m on the bedpost screaming / for morning sex and burnt toast.” In a collection that can swing from interior spaces to Paris sunsets, tangos, and black lakes, these “small” yet emotionally noisy moments are the most vivid:

Maybe it’s something small like
I don’t feel the same anymore.

But I do
I do.
I do.

But, Sweatt also tell us: “The word ‘vivid’ contains / a warning.” To further combat her sense of dislocation (“non-alignment”) or her homesickness for the past, the speaker comforts (and provokes) herself by writing origin stories, looking for patterns for why her life is “chipping”; why a relationship has collapsed (“Living alone is freeing, / but lately I find the lonely side more”). She’s looking for an “autopsy” perhaps, or “a profound understanding.” (“I want to know more about your other parts, parts / I felt pieces of. / I eventually thought you’d settle so we could consider our options,” she writes to her former love).

What is “the origin of restricted breathing?” Is the origin of restlessness also the origin of invention? The past only squirms under Sweatt’s scrutiny. “Seems so everyday / to look back towards a city […] I can only imagine my city / turning behind itself.” Gradually, the speaker comes to understand her impatience a part of a sequence; herself as both reader and writer of her own origin story:

You describe a person first,
by describing her body,
then speak from the point of view like
you lost something who lost someone.

There may be clarity in collecting and rearranging details, in outlining anger, in fantasizing about screaming and kicking through walls. “Defining this may seem strange,” Sweatt writes. “[…] like repeating words too many times.” Yet: “The overdose of patterned carpets / suddenly makes sense.”

 

They Used to Dance On Saturday Nights
By Gillian Devereux
Aforementioned Productions, 2012, 34 p.
ISBN 978-0-9823741-4-6

The carnival performers in Gillian Devereux’s They Used to Dance on Saturday Nights (Aforementioned Productions) are always, like Robert Lowell’s prostitutes, “freelancing out along the razor’s edge”, always subject to the fatalities of their trades—knife throwing,  tightrope walking,  sword or fire swallowing. Entertainers are only as lucrative as the opacity of their parlor tricks and/or the chance genetic mutations of their tragedies. Freaks may “share a stomach or a torso”; may “frolic”, frighten” or “fold their bodies flat as farmland”, or an armless girl may have a beauty in [her] strangeness that could ruin a man”. Images may be unexpectedly lovely, or transcendental: a dancing bear “soft as snow piled on pine boughs”, the salmon it’s tossed in its captivity leaping up into freedom and the constellations. Spectator and performer are a working system powered by the promise of newness, the momentary triumph of the illusory exotic.

There are also no dearth of “mutilated souls in cold morgues of obligation”, in Roethke’s phrase, variations of the quintessentially cruel ringmasters or mistress, whose

Children float in dingy beakers
Filled with blue-green bile: the dead stars
Of the dime museum, two-headed fetuses,
Stillborn monsters I carried like a thief…
To pay my way, I populated this carnival
Like Cronus, filled my belly with my own
Offspring, fed on small, disfigured bodies
Until, at last, I birthed my own meal ticket

Devereux’s text is most admirable as a metaphor for illness and survival. Many of her characters are examinations of Plath’s “magician’s girl who does not flinch”, professionals geared to stoicism and efficiency that is nothing like the seemingly effortless magic perceived by their audience. Performers themselves become spectators, housed in their own corporeality, captive audiences to the breakdowns of their own physical existences. But they are anything but passive observers. In The Act of Ignition, a girl whom “The sun hangs over [like] a tumor”

Stands
Alone in a field…
Then a flicker of light
Cuts through her, spills down
He arms and legs, chars her hair,
Crumbles her clothes to ash…
Her power developed
Suddenly: one morning she awoke,
Felt all her organs shift and spark
Like flint inside her…
She learned
To control this in time.
She learned
A single cell can incite a riot…

In Under the Big Top the limitations of the body—momentarily transcended by aerialism and dazzling feats of physical skill—are contrasted against the somehow-less-impressively powered (to the onlooker) accomplishments of nature and the cosmos:

No one notices the night sky…

No one sees
the backdrop, the shadow that shapes
_____and guards each delicate constellation.

Each star spins on invisible wire, falls
_____effortlessly into its assigned position
and not one person applauds….

I fall night after night,
_____netless and alone. I trained for this

my whole life, spent years in the air
_____learning to dive through the white
blare of spotlight; the physics of flight

_____swinging me over the bar
and farther, a solitary wheeling circle…

But nobody ever sees me…

It’s interesting to imagine copies of Devereux’s chapbook being handed out at the gate as carnival programmes; like Diane Arbus’ photographs, they tell us more than any mere propaganda ever could. Certainly this slim volume has something to teach us about magic and control, how indistinguishable the two often are from each other.

Leah Umansky: In your second book, Swoon, you have a sequence of poems around “Women.” Now, in Woman Without Umbrella, you have a similar sequence at work. Did you know when you finished Swoon, that you would have a similar sequence in your next collection?

Victoria Redel: The sequence in Swoon I saw in the way a visual artist might consider a sequence of gesture drawings—which seemed to me an extension of the overall notion I had for Swoon to try and render the many faceted and simultaneous aspects of a woman–mother/lover/thinker/daughter. In contrast I see Woman Without Umbrella as having a kind of narrative arc and so the thread of poems using the same titles is a consideration of time. And though “Woman” in the title is singular I think of this as a book inhabited by many women both contemporary and historical.

To answer the second part of your question—the sequence in this book was not anything I knew when I finished Swoon. It wasn’t anything I actually knew until I was well into working on this book of poems.

LU: This collection is full of intimate and tender moments in love and in loss. How would you say you avoided sentimentality in this collection? Do you ever consider it a risk? I think all love poems risk something of the writer. I’m thinking specifically of poems like, “Kissing” and “Almost Fifty.”

VR: Risking is central to poem making I’d wager for every poet. If the tightrope I walk in making these poems is that of sentimentality, I’m okay with that challenge–mostly because I didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. These were the poems I needed to make here in the middle of my life. Death, illness, love, divorce, hilarity, hope, foolish hope–none of these are sentimental. The courage to get up everyday is not sentimental. Living is not for sissies. Or avoiders. If I “avoid sentimentality” that’s good–but it won’t be because of “avoidance”. I’d rather run headlong toward that difficult possibility.

LU: How do you feel about the state of poetry in the digital age of 2012? Are you a fan?

VR: Years ago when I was first asked to publish a poem on-line, I thought, who would ever read a poem on a computer? Well obviously, that question was pretty foolish. I’ve come to love the free flow of poetry across the world—the opportunity for poets in other countries to connect with readers here (and vice versa). In that sense a larger audience is wonderful. On the other hand, I hold books in my hand. It is what I like to do. I also like to make poems with pencil and paper. I kind of miss my typewriter. I’m such a lousy typist that I always had to retype to correct typos and when I did, I always found myself fixing, changing, and revising. I’m not exactly sure I let my hands off a poem quicker now—its just different.

LU: What advice would you offer someone who is just starting to find his or her footing in the poetry world?

VR: It would be to think as little as possible about the “poetry world” and to think and live as much as possible with great poems and great books and the vision and mind of other artists and thinkers. I’d tell someone starting out to think more about bugs and flowers and weather and the tributaries of rivers than about the “poetry world”. That’s the world to find footing in, that’s what will yield.

LU: I love your novel, Loverboy, because of its lyricism, its honesty, its directness and its heart. I always recommend it to friends. You’re one of the few poets I know who also write fiction. Where do you see the distinction between fiction and poetry?

VR: Thank you for that reading of Loverboy. Of course there are distinctions between the two but for the sake of brevity (in this question) I’ll assert that there are essential similarities—at least for me. I’m a poet more driven by the sentence than by the line, and I’m a fiction writer driven more by language than plot. In fiction I tend toward compression—sometimes that works to provide a lyric intensity but often I have to work hard to open a paragraph, a page, a scene. In Woman Without Umbrella I was very interested in having a many-charactered narrative and shifting points of view.

LU: Thank you so much, Victoria.

____________________________________________
Victoria Redel is the author two previous collections of poetry, Swoon and Already the World as well as, three books of fiction, most recently The Border of Truth. Her short story collection, Make Me Do Things, is forthcoming in 2013 from Four Way Books. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for The Arts and the Fine Arts Work Center. Redel is a professor at Sarah Lawrence College.

Fence Books, 2011. ISBN: 978-1934200490. 80 p.

Today I write; I wait for
the form around which
I was formed.

Laura Wetherington, “My poitrine made of clouds”

Is order inherent or created? Does form come first or does the form-giver? Laura Wetherington explores structure – the visual, the functional, and the physical – in A Map Predetermined and Chance, published by Fence Books as C.S. Giscombe’s selection for the 2010 National Poetry Series.  Visually, the map is her key.  One poem is plotted like notes on staff paper. Others use typography to create meaning; words and phrases surface from the text as if two poems are unfolding at once.  Thematically, Wetherington circles around the dictum “The map is not the territory” (Alfred Korzybski) or “The description is not the described” (Jiddu Krishnamurti). For A Map Predetermined and Chance lacks a standard cartographer. In this collection, “there is no narrator, no barrier.” No overarching speaker or form-giver. Instead, Wetherington tells her reader: “Figure yourself […].”  Draw your own form. “Your vagina is a country. / Your orgasm takes over agriculture.”

Like a map, grammar is functional, orderly, and descriptive, just another structure on Wetherington’s page. Readers of Craig Dworkin’s conceptual project Parse (Atelos, 2008) know that something transformative happens between the moving parts of a sentence and its fully-formed self. Dworkin parsed the 1874 textbook How to Parse: an Attempt to Apply the Principles of Scholarship of English Grammar by using the book’s strict grammatical code as his guide. Language is translated into its role (“Singular Noun genitive pronoun Proper Place Name intransitive passive voice indicative mood incomplete passive voice…”). Wetherington, too, is interested in functionality, and tests language at the seams: “Of course I won’t lose you / because I never had you to begin with.”   She pulls apart punctuation, questioning “how [one can have] a question with a period” with a period, and syntax (“What is the verb to have? […] What is the verb to have to?”). In You slip from my fingers, she investigates the grammar of sexual desire, creating order even as she splits newly created sentences apart. Form is slippery; tactile:

This is a verb: your fingers.
This is a noun: my
desire. They make
a sentence: you finger
my desire.

A Map Predetermined and Chance ends with the remarkable series Visiting Normandy, which weaves accounts of D-Day from an oral history transcript by Lt. Carl H Cartledge into present-day accounts of a speaker’s extended stay in the same region.   Directly following a poem that references poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje’s hybrid work The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, the series seems to follow Ondaatje’s impulse to blend forms.  (“Even now I am not sure if it is the poems that anchor the book in a mental reality or the prose that does so with its physical actuality,” Ondaatje explains in the afterword to his book). For her part, Wetherington lends the poems set in the present-day a more physical actuality by enclosing the text in a black box while the poems that derive from the Lt. Cartledge oral accounts are free from such a barrier.  The speaker’s visit to Normandy becomes a series of fleeting moments frozen, as if in a snapshot. (“It’s not about the moment. / It’s about a fleet of moments,” Wetherington writes elsewhere in the collection). Past and present events are linked by a shared place or a shared history, yet, there are strange tangents.  A seemingly offhand remark, the very last line of the series, casts a new shadow over Visiting Normandy and hints at another version of events, another perspective.  With this possibility of a rewriting – a reordering – the collection loops around to Wetherington’s initial warning from the opening poem:  “the present is a pasture […] it points to itself.”

* * *

Wetherington is most interested in self-created form.  It is the atlas of her desire that she wants to study (“I want to explore your deep / structure. / Map it out on paper) just as she wants to be studied (“my primer / is a desire: see my desire get / fingered”). The imagery in her poems often stretches like a coastline or the orientation lines on a map. “I am a river long and unknotted […] the same ocean of elbows for rivers and not longer,” she writes; and: “I wasn’t long”[…] which is to say I take a long time to fall into gold light.”  When Wetherington says “I am longing,” in All I want is universe, we sense that what she’s really doing is elongating, creating new physical terrain with every articulated desire. There is always the universe, after all: “Any possible somewhere.  Any / possible long. And plus and plus and plus.”