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James Galvin – Everything We Always Knew Was True
Copper Canyon 2016
Page Length: 75
Retail: $16

 

How is it possible for the work of James Galvin, the face of the most famous poetry program in the world, to be so wildly underappreciated? One could spend a lot of time trying to understand this: is it because of his association with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop that critics have largely ignored his work, especially over the last twenty or so years? Or is it because his style walks so boldly in the footsteps of the many celebrated American poets who have taken as their central subject the natural world, and have done so with a language we can loosely call “plainspoken”?

A combination of these theories would view Galvin as the inheritor of a tradition of Iowa faculty poets (Donald Justice, Marvin Bell, not to mention recurring faculty members like Galway Kinnell and Robert Hass) who represent some “old guard” of American Poetry. But if this is Galvin’s inheritance, where are his deserved awards? Of the four just mentioned, three won the Pulitzer Prize, and between them all four have won many of the most distinguished awards in American letters. This is not to downplay his CV, which includes a Guggenheim and an NEA Fellowship, but Galvin is one of America’s most important living poets, and his oeuvre is as impressive as anyone in his generation, yet critics continue to leave him on the periphery as though he hasn’t published anything of note since 1997’s Resurrection Update: Collected Poems 1975-1997. He has.

In fact, Galvin’s work has since blossomed in a manner that none of the aforementioned poets’ has. But the evolution didn’t come without struggle. 2001’s X was a clear departure from Galvin’s previous work, retaining his singular mastery of the Western landscape, but filtering it through a decidedly broken subjectivity demonstrably ravaged by a crushing divorce. X is wildly uneven. It is the work of a poet struggling to find a new frequency. It includes some of Galvin’s greatest poems—“Fire Season,” “Promises Are for Liars,” “Heat Waves in Winter Distance,” “Depending on the Wind,” and the collection’s finale: a Dantesque sequence that culminates with a Paradiso of parental love.

None of these poems could have appeared in Galvin’s earlier work, for they demonstrate a speaker who is as unsettled by life’s ruthlessness as he is certain of its beauty. This ambivalence is certainly present in Galvin’s earlier work, but in X we find a poet whose faith has been radically shaken: a self-effacing quiver begins to trouble the line; existential anguish seems the book’s undertow. On the whole, X is one of Galvin’s best collections, but its unevenness is evident in a poem like “Ought,” which foregrounds wordplay and wit, anticipating Galvin’s evolution over his next two collections to relatively underwhelming effect.

In 2009, Galvin published As Is, his weakest book. To be fair: Galvin at his worst is better than most at their best, but As Is will stand in Galvin’s oeuvre as a document of transition between what he perfected in his early work—a brutally beautiful naturalism with remarkable metaphysicality—and a new, decidedly postmodern idiom that balances his faith in the image with a disarming tonal looseness marked by charming self-deprecation. In early Galvin: either everything matters or nothing matters. In the new Galvin: everything matters and nothing matters, and the causal relationship between these facts is perfectly circular.

The growing pains of As Is can be found in poems like “The Music” and “The Red Telephone,” where Galvin’s courageous departure from the natural world is awkwardly met with a kind of un-tethered wit. What is clever in a poem must be rooted in something outside its own self-satisfaction. And Galvin’s cleverness, though clear, seemed forced: like he was trying to squeeze into hand-me-down shoes. This was troubling to see in a world-class dancer.

But whatever aesthetic hiccups were introduced in As Is have paid off handsomely in Galvin’s new collection, which is, remarkably and decidedly, his best. Everything We Always Knew Was True is a miraculous, self-performed open-heart surgery in which everything we always loved about James Galvin is exposed and made new by self-deprecating charm and dead black humor. Never has an American poet so seamlessly fused the superficially opposite impulses of the deep image and the talky self-awareness of a particular strain of the Western avant-garde. We certainly see the fingerprints of Robert Frost and W.S. Merwin, but not without the whimsy of Apollinaire and John Ashbery.

The few critics who have written on Galvin can only think of one thing to say: that he has a firm grasp on the American West. He certainly does: he is the single greatest writer about horses in American literature. But what makes Galvin great is the subterranean intensity beneath the scenes he paints. Consider the following poem from the new book, included here in its entirety:

A Ceremony

My father coughed up a few bats
And that was that.
With a smithy’s hammer,
I broke and flattened his gold heraldic ring.
“Hit it again,” my sister said,
And I did.
There were three of us.
We stashed the ashes with the ring
In a cairn of black rocks.
My niece piped up,
“Isn’t anybody going to say something?”
I looked at my sister,
Who shook her head.
“Nope,” I said,
And the three of us walked away. (65)

Galvin’s signature here is not the hammer or the “cairn of black rocks,” but rather the blunt force of the final five lines, when the human milieu is laid bare in an exposure equal parts revealing and concealed. The genius of the poem lies in what its silence says and the cleanliness of its annunciation.

Or consider the following pair of ekphrastic poems, a genre Galvin has certainly mastered. The first reads in Galvin’s oldest style: tonally demotic; image-driven; remarkably restrained.

I paint my own front yard. The big pole gate
Left open so the subject can become
The narrow two-track road, which turns away,
And vanishes. It could be coming home
Or going. I’m not telling. The open gate
Means someone left, and I am waiting for them

To come home. You have to tell the truth. (“Five Paintings by Clara Van Waning,” 22)

Much of the poem would fit nicely into Galvin’s first four books, but the explosive presence of “I’m not telling,” is something Galvin had to earn post-Resurrection Update. It takes an otherwise lovely poem and sets it ablaze with the complicated strike of a withholding, self-aware speaker, which then flickers against the surface of the haunted, “You have to tell the truth,” which, when it lands, feels inevitable.

One of the collection’s most dynamic poems, “The Newlywed Acrobats,” written after Marc Chagall, manages to capture an astounding amount of Chagall’s romantic abandon and dreamy hover.

He sports gold-sequined tights and
slippers.
The bride is decked out in a gold bikini.
Her breasts are
two miracles.
Her smile is, well, blinding.

On the steps,
an avalanche of confetti.
Clowns are shot from cannons to the
right and to the left.

They spring each other higher and
higher and scarily higher until he vaults into a fourth-floor window
and she follows like a comet’s tail.

They look deeply into each other’s eyes, his bleary, hers
fierce with determination.
She says, “You’re not gonna believe this
part.” (13-4)

The weightlessness here is astounding for its palpable joy. In it we find an exuberance missing almost entirely from Galvin’s early work, and here, combined with his singular grip on the image, we are taken into a slipstream of what feels like true love.

When considering twentieth-century comparisons, one must mention Frost, Merwin, James Wright, Robert Bly, and Charles Wright (as well as the “Iowa Poets” mentioned above). What none of these masters was able to do, however, was to successfully and truly transform, over time, their aesthetic. Galvin has done that. The exception may be James Wright, whose early formalism is nothing to sneeze at, but whose later deep imagism transformed a generation.

The closest comparison, I would argue, is James Merrill: perhaps the twentieth-century’s single greatest poet. Like Galvin, Merrill is inexplicably underappreciated, and he is very highly appreciated. Like Merrill, Galvin combines a deceptively smooth formalism with a postmodern playfulness that refuses to take itself too seriously, which is, of course, perfectly serious. Like Merrill, Galvin exudes a hopelessly charming, dead-serious romantic streak, a brutal self-awareness, and a potent metaphysics in which the visible and invisible exert upon each other enormous counter-pressure.

The critics who are content to call Galvin a “nature poet” fail to grasp how utterly metaphysical his nature is. Galvin’s natural world is not unlike Melville’s white whale: elusive; beautiful; deadly; metonymic. It is the closest thing to the divine that its author can hope to approach, and even trying to see it involves significant risk.

One of the collection’s highlights, and one of its most contemporary features, is a nonconsecutive series of short poems titled, “What It’s Like,” which refuse to identify the “it” of the simile, leaving it appropriately open for nothing less than just about anything. The following are presented in their entirety:

What It’s Like

Horseback in an old burn.
Deadfall everywhere.
No way forward.
No way to turn around. (25)

What It’s Like

A freight elevator in free fall.
A grand piano in it. (37)

The series is reminiscent of the opening sequence of Mark Leidner’s Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me (Factory Hollow Press 2011). The openness is haunting; the vision unflinching.

 

It is a rare enough thing for a poet to write a breathtaking body of work. James Galvin had accomplished this by the mid-nineties, and were he a lesser artist, he’d have continued to write in that style forever. Of the poets who manage to cultivate a discernible voice, the ones who try to modify it often do so awkwardly and, too often, into courageous disaster. When considering Galvin’s oeuvre, there is a distinct new frequency that enters with X and then wobbles uncomfortably through As Is. The new voice, though, has blossomed fully in Everything We Always Knew Was True, which marks Galvin’s greatest collection to date and may one day stand as the defining book of his career. More importantly, it demonstrates that sometimes—although rarely, and never without struggle—a great poet can somehow become even greater.

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Jen Fitzgerald is a poet, essayist, and native New Yorker whose work has been featured on PBS Newshour and Harriet, as well as in Tin House, Salon, PEN Anthology, and Cosmonauts Avenue, among other places, and is forthcoming at Colorado Review and Public Pool. She is the host of New Books in Poetry Podcast as part of the New Books Network, and a member of the New York Writers Workshop. Her first collection of poetry, The Art of Work, is forthcoming with Noemi Press in September 2016.

During 2016, the Spotlight Series (usually) focuses on two poets per month whose work and consciousness move us, challenge us, inspire us. This month’s surprise!-special-feature third poet is Jen Fitzgerald.

 

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

Jen Fitzgerald: My creativity makes me feel as though I am functioning at my highest level of “human.” It comes, entirely from within me (I of course recognize inspiration and stimuli), it forms inside of me, and then I am the means by which it finds its form outside of me. It is something that I have denied others access to as a kind of self-preservation. Very little was mine throughout my childhood and adolescence. I vigilantly protected my thoughts, imagination, and drive to create. I kept my inner life sacred. Because of this, having my work in the world is alternately exciting and slightly unsettling.

Right now, I am interested in “full rooms.” I find these through a mixture of photography, poetry, prose poetry, and the lyric essay. A “room” could be completely full with only a few couplets, or it may take a series of photos and prose for readers/viewers to inhabit a space, wander around, and feel present. I do this by feeling—like reaching around in the dark until you recognize a form and grabbing hold.

What primarily propels me is that I am not supposed to be able to do this—I wasn’t supposed to be able to go to graduate school, I especially was not supposed to be able to go to graduate school for poetry, and I am not supposed to be able to define my life by my art. My family didn’t pay for my school. I worked three jobs at some points while going to school part time. It took me ten years to earn my bachelor’s degree.

Because I felt like I didn’t belong in these spaces of higher education, I was extremely anxious that it would be taken away from me, that my achievements would be credited to someone else, and that no amount of labor would ever be enough to prove that I had the intelligence, ability, and drive to be a successful writer and poet. I tolerated exploitation because I thought it was the only way a person like me would be granted access. Because of this, I worried a lot about “poebiz” at the beginning of my writing career—I no longer do.

 

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

JF: I find myself most influenced by framing the world around me. I do this primarily through photography—essay and poetry follow shortly after. By moving through whatever landscape I am in, looking for the perfect frame, I feel that I am “elevating the everyday.” There is so much art present in simple moments!

I understand how important it is for working-class, blue-collar people to see themselves in art. They think, as I have been told, that these experiences are not worthy of artistic rendition. From witness comes action—this stands true, further as: from viewing comes creating. Art moves us; it moves us especially to try our own hands at building, painting, sculpting, and making tangible representations of beauty. Those with power are all too quick to cut off the majority of our population, our laboring population. There is talent among the ranks of men, women, and non-binary laborers. There are artisans and creators, there are innovators and a resourcefulness that one would have to witness to believe. But they know about whom stories have been written and who appears in portraits. It can be discouraging. We artists can subvert that understanding with our own labor.

 

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

JF: I like to think of myself as an “Ashcan Poet.” If you all are unfamiliar with the Ashcan School, definitely look them up. There were a group of artists, loosely affiliated, at the end of the industrial revolution in this country. They were disenchanted with academic realism and they rejected Impressionism. They sought, instead, a gritty realism. This was also during the time of Riis’ documentation of NYC slum conditions in, “How the Other Half Lives.” Their paintings were journalistic and sought to render truth.

Poetry, like painting, can become a sort of self-replicating algorithm, where we do what has worked best for centuries so that we can get in under the radar. I am interested in innovation, taking risks, and challenging myself to challenge the art form. I have seen a movement toward this ideal in contemporary, American poetry, especially among emerging poets. And I fucking love it.

What is cool/important?

Hybridity

Realism

Hyper-Realism

Narrative Drive

Grittiness

Honesty

The Body

 

I value impact—I know what I want to do and what I want my poetry to do in the world. I value connection. While I may not be “a poet’s poet,” I of course want my fellow poets to read and connect with the work as I have read and connected with theirs. Just as I wrote this for my peers, I wrote this collection for the members of UFCW Local 342, for my grandparents, for undocumented workers world-wide, and for anyone who works three damn jobs and still finds time for their art because it is the only way they feel at peace—the only time they know bliss.

 

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

JF: Two, disparate and unlikely bedfellows come to mind as helping me form as a writer. These were, hearing Maurice Manning read for the first time and Super Storm Sandy.

What transpired on Staten Island during and after Super Storm Sandy has deeply affected me as an artist. I learned the difference between voyeurism/exploitation and framing to elevate. I began to understand that we have a responsibility to represent ourselves. If we don’t, we leave ourselves open to misrepresentation, historical revisions, and being made caricatures of through the skewed lens of the privileged.

 

Fact: History Gets Revised.

 

I am cursed with a long memory and a keen sense of injustice. My writing is memory interacting with artifice. I will drag a fragment of each of these facts through every sentence I write:

 

  • The borough president reported to the city and state that Staten Island was fine after the storm, some downed tree limbs at most. He hadn’t even left his neighborhood. The entire shoreline of our island was devastated.
  • It took six days for the Red Cross to show up. They started soliciting donations 24 hours after the storm. Proud people made on-air pleas to get some sort of help. The discomfort and pain of asking for help was apparent on their faces and in their body language.
  • The NYC marathon was due to start only two days after the storm. AIG set up heated tents with hot food and drinks at the starting line for the runners. The starting line was near marsh land where we were looking for the bodies of our missing.
  • After threats and protests by islanders asking for help and respect, the marathon was cancelled. AIG packed up their tents. The entire surrounding area was comprised of homes torn to shreds, overcrowded shelters, no electricity, no heat, and families riffling through rubble in their yards to salvage whatever they could of their lives. They watched the unused heaters carted off and the untouched coffee poured out on to the street.
  • Mayor Bloomberg flew a helicopter around a portion of the shoreline, landed for a few minutes to make a statement, and then left. He did not return again.
  • We set up our own relief networks. We solicited our own donations and distributed them to our neighbors.
  • Entire communities were uprooted, there was a mass exodus of poor folks, renters, and those who couldn’t afford to rebuild. Insurance companies did everything they could to not pay up. Portions of the island will never be the same again.

 

The first time I heard Maurice Manning read, I was in the auditorium of The College of Staten Island (years before Sandy). Much of my knowledge of poetry was the classics, and I was not wholly impressed. When I heard Manning read, when I heard the cadence of colloquial, I was struck. I didn’t know I could render, so honestly, the people in my everyday life. My people have a cadence too— it may not be as melodic as Manning’s, but it still sings. And they live ordinary lives that I too, could elevate to music. It made me feel powerful.

 

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

JF: I think that every poet should read books about the natural world, clouds, storms, plants, flowers, fauna, etc. I think every non-fiction writer should read The Red Book by Jung or Joyce’s Ulysses to sit in completely disorientation with the furthest stretches of what the human mind can do to reality, and every fiction writer should read poetry to release their pen’s inner scalpel. And those who don’t write, have the luxury of reading absolutely everything for sheer enjoyment.

I also suggest finding three different mediums that deal with the same content.

Lastly, I suggest reading whatever the hell you want because we get enough syllabi, recommendations, and must-reads.

 

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

JF: I’d like to talk a little about what I’m working on right now—in particular, the new collection I’ve been focused on for the past year and a half. The poems, so far, have been written while traveling the country in a sort of frenzy or fear of staying still. I just moved from Staten Island, the place I grew up, the place my family has called home for nearly 200 years. It was part of my identity and moving from it deprived me of the insulation that ready-made identity affords. This distance was necessary to create emotional and geographic space from past and continuing trauma. This is coupled with the desire to understand what it means to be an “American,” and the geographical, historical, and moral boundaries that go along with this term.

This collection is about “hiraeth,” the Dutch word that means nostalgia or homesickness not only for a place, but for the feeling a place elicits. I moved from state to state hoping this longing and confusion could be assuaged, that a feeling of comfortability could be triggered and I might feel at ease, maybe even at home.

These States of our nation, These States of mind, These States of being all represent the varied people, terrain and beauty that we are surrounded by in our everyday lives. We don’t need to run frantically, though I do recommend it for the wanderers and explorers, to find a new version of ourselves. I discovered that a physical journey to find where one belongs is actually a journey into the self, regardless of how the landscape might change. I am still on this journey and wonder is this very journey is not simply a life well-lived.

 

Jen Fitzgerald is a poet, essayist, and native New Yorker whose work has been featured on PBS Newshour and Harriet, as well as in Tin House, Salon, PEN Anthology, and Cosmonauts Avenue, among other places, and is forthcoming at Colorado Review and Public Pool. She is the host of New Books in Poetry Podcast as part of the New Books Network, and a member of the New York Writers Workshop. Her first collection of poetry, The Art of Work, is forthcoming with Noemi Press in September 2016.

My Wife Says That If You Live 20 Years

Without having to go to a funeral, you are really lucky. The girl on TV is no older than I was when everyone
in my quivering home learned to hustle one more ghost into our already overflowing pockets

& even though it is not real, she is being swallowed by a carnivorous grief that is howling & escaping through 
the screen on all fours, pacing around at our feet & begging us to move. Pissing on the blanket sewed by a
grandmother’s hands. Hands that were once a salve for every wound, hands that once clapped along with the 

good gospel in a church shack & once cupped a child’s crying face & once broke bread & then one day just 
broke. Outside, another sky undresses itself to its blood red flesh & what kind of world is this to bring a child 
into anyway? The names we carry have been carved into so much stone clutching the ground in Ohio it is 
impossible to consider how many years it would take to lift them out and pass them on to anyone as small as 
the crumbs from a good meal. but who are we to deny our families the delivery of new blood? New hands to 
assist with the burial and becoming of the earth that chews at the edges of whatever years our elders have left 
& maybe even us in our youth even though we moved out the hood & gunshots don’t echo over the river out 
here & boys don’t leave the barren fields & go to war just so they can fall asleep with full stomachs. It is 
somehow easy to forget that there are so many ways to die while black & not all of them involve being made 
hollow while the world watches & isn’t that a funny thing? How there is all this danger I ignore & make plans 
for 2016 & beyond & beyond & our fathers still want grandchildren in spite of all this & I am afraid that if I 
do not raise children to carry the heft of my body when it dies then I will be only bones after my soul exits to 
spare all of you such heavy lifting & how awful would that be & who would speak my name around a drunk 
& buzzing table when the card game runs dry? & on the elevator, when the woman eyes how I lock fingers 
with my wife, she leans in close & tells us she can tell we’re newlyweds & we smile & she asks how many 
children we’re going to have & I look past her face & into the metal wall where my fading reflection is 
whispering enough to carry endless caskets through the sinking mud.

 

 

The House Party, 10:30PM, Courtright And Livingston

another storm is crawling its way from the west
a grey husk rattling the windows of any small town it passes through
scaring the deer from their spring drink and crowding the forest
with the tremble of retreating hooves
the percussion of fear
here, a mother has left a house to her boys
left a Friday night to its own unraveling
the walls stretched to capacity
the bedroom a father never returned to in winter
now a dj booth
bring only yourselves and whatever can be passed
through the eye of a sewing needle
that which put its arms around the splayed denim
of jeans an older brother outgrew
and pressed the edges together
gifting them another year of life
another party where someone will pull a boy
close by their belt loops while
the dj plays One More Chance
for what feels like the 25th time in a row
one for each dealer who didn’t live long enough
to arch the wood on a house’s floor like a good spine
thrown into the heat of dance
by now everyone knows the chorus
even the line of bodies outside the door
eager to get in
stretching down the street
past the graveyard where ten niggas
got buried last Tuesday
the chorus jumping off of every living tongue
from courtright down to east main
the lightning sneaking behind everyone’s back
to turn the sky blue
a brief and bright sweater pulled over the cool night’s stomach
and the thunder that follows
an eager god begging the dj to run it back
one last time

 

 

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. He is a poetry editor at Muzzle Magazine, a columnist at MTV News, and a Callaloo creative writing fellow. His first collection of poems, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, is being released in 2016 by Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone Press.

During 2016, the Spotlight Series focuses on two poets per month whose work and consciousness move us, challenge us, inspire us. This month’s second poet is Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib.

 

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

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib: So, at the core, I believe myself to be a storyteller. I think of myself as someone who sits in the tradition of black storytelling, and I think poetry is the best way that I can get those stories outside of myself and into the world where they can (ideally) meet other people who see themselves in them, or live them in a different space. I think that is my motivation on both fronts. I’m not too into all of the pobiz stuff, if I’m being honest. I keep track of it, I’m a poet who writes and publishes, so I’m active in it. But it’s a space that I think holds the art back by holding up all of the wrong things and people so frequently. I see poets of color changing the landscape. Queer and trans* poets changing the landscape. The pobiz aspect of it is rarely interested in holding that up, and so I think I’ve weirdly created my own pobiz. It’s mostly just a biz where I push that work to the front and try to make it more visible.

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

HWA: I’m getting much more into pulling influences from non-poetry places. I still get my main influences from poetry, of course. All of my peers/friends/the legends who occupy the genre. But I really pull from a lot of other things. I love Josephine Baker. I watch and read a lot of Josephine Baker interviews, over and over. I really pull so much from the way she moved through the world as an artist who was deeply engaged in social movements. Same with Nina Simone. Those are my two bridges, right now.

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

HWA: I like work that I can fit inside of, even if it is about an experience that is not my own lived experience. So I try to offer that to anyone who reads my work. I think the writing should be a living breathing space. As much as a museum, or a park, or your favorite room. What is most important to me is crafting that space and allowing people to walk inside of it. I don’t necessarily believe that the work should always teach. Sometimes it should be funny, relaxed, something to escape into . . . but an escape, nonetheless.

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

HWA: Terrance Hayes’ poem “We Should Make a Documentary About Spades” was the first poem I read that made me feel like I could write the way I wanted to. A narrative that seems scattered, but is still tight, hitting all of the right notes, speaking to a very specific type of blackness that I understood. It was an entry point, to me. A thing that told me I could rejoice in and talk about culture and have it be understood. I was lost before reading that. I was trying too hard to bring people along for the ride. It opened up a world in which the ride is already full of your people, just waiting for you to join.

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

HWA: A book I think that everyone should read is Alice Walker’s The Temple of my Familiar. It is the first book I fell in love with, and I just re-read it like last year. It has aged well. I think it’s the book that gets lost in her catalog, but it’s risky. It takes chances when dealing with narrative and voice, in ways that a lot of books don’t. It taught me how to write into story using my voice in as many different ways as possible.

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

HWA: I have a book coming out! My first full-length poetry collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much comes out July 19th, from Button Poetry!

FFF: Congratulations! Tell us a little bit more about the book. What was it like writing it? What are its overall goals, as a project?

HWA: It was hard to write, specifically because in order to pull it off the way I wanted to, I had to revisit memories and places, and force myself to be honest about them. The pursuit of nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake is, most often, dishonest. I approach nostalgia, most times, with a type of selective honesty, and I couldn’t do that here. It’s a book that offers a small window into the generational violences of gentrification. And so, I had to consider how these things sit in emotional and physical spaces for myself and people I love. That’s hard, especially when I’m talking about the dismantling of my actual home—Columbus, Ohio, a city I love. Pulling that grief out of myself and sorting it out on paper was hard. But it made me feel closer, more connected to the city that still remains.

 

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. He is a poetry editor at Muzzle Magazine, a columnist at MTV News, and a Callaloo creative writing fellow. His first collection of poems, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, is being released in 2016 by Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone Press.

Cup Your Body into Someone Else’s Longing

 

In Emily O’Neill’s Make a Fist and Tongue the Knuckles, (Nostrovia! Press, 2016) the boys are sweet even when they are leading you by the hand to the back of the bar and the girls always know better. These poems are intimacy laid out on a conveyor belt—all parts are deconstructed and rebuilt. The intimacy is cataloged from kissing a stranger on a porch, to admiring a lover’s freckle colony, to justifying one’s job when meeting a date’s parents for the first time. O’Neill’s imagery travels around the block a few times and doesn’t apologize for it: her poems are harsh, gritty beauty.

 

O’Neill begins her dark walk with the poem “World’s Smallest Woman.” Her words are almost like those of an instruction manual:

 

“You can’t explain surprise

to yourself. Somebody else has to.

In the mirror your hair gets longer but

your eyes remain the same depth. Keep that

gulf to yourself.”

 

How many faces do we have to show others? To ourselves? O’Neill’s speaker knows about crappy first jobs, sharing drugs at work, making out in cars, knowing more about her own exit from a relationship than the other person in it.  She isn’t afraid to expose skin or call it like it is. One of the first poems that displays this distance in connection is “Your Boy Came By.” In the third stanza, aloofness plays a part but people still strip down the ankles at the end of it.

 

“Didn’t buy you a drink because why bother

bartering. Your boy, for free of you

won’t risk it…”

 

O’Neill’s speaker can only “fly away from the fire before (she’s) finished.” (From the poem “No Flinching.”) The details in racking up relationship bodies are staggering. Knives are a repeated image. Some knives are imagined as being planted in dirt and then growing trees on top of them. Let something lovely grow from weapons meant to cut. One knife is placed in the speaker’s hand by a shirtless boy who recites Coleridge. There is also blood (“I’m sure I’ve bled on sadder men,” is one memorable line from the poem “How To Whistle.”) In contrast, there are also multiple images of shoulders. We carry burdens on our shoulders and each poem in this collection is fighting a fight. We don’t know who wins but that doesn’t seem to matter. The fight feels important.

 

O’Neill never writes about intimacy in a clichéd way. In the revealing and almost confessional “Need to Know,” we witness exquisiteness. We recognize the exchange here between two people:

 

“I took my dress off for you—an invitation

to keep seeing what you shouldn’t take.

You won’t just take and I like that.

 

You hesitate and I bite harder. I want you

stuck like river bending in a valley…

Here, my fingers. Little ghosts. Here,

your fingers troubling me like rain

haunts the freeway in a dream.”

 

In such a hunger driven, spiny collection, this subtle moment is beautiful and haunting and gives the reader a glimpse into O’Neill’s softer side.

 

Here are some of O’Neill’s knowledgeable lines that are written like a manifesto, like we should be taking notes:

 

“Can’t be poor when you’re a killer.”  (“Lucky Like That.”)

 

“Give me a choice better than razor or grave.” (“Always a Sinner.”)

 

“Leave marks or I won’t learn.”  (“Always a Sinner.”)

 

“You were falling asleep on camera as I was waking up on camera.” (“Orioles.”)

 

“Never liked men with guitars. How they need constant noise keeping them still.” (“Last Year’s Blues.”)

 

“Shoes make the man aware that he can leave at any moment.” (“How to Whistle.”)

 

O’Neill’s speaker instructs us on how to survive, but it’s tough.  In “Poem for Brunch with Your Family Where They Asked When We’d Be Married,” there is a whole world of characters revealed throughout the two page poem. Here is an example of the inner psyche of the speaker here:

 

“It wasn’t that they asked what I did for work and choked

at the utterance of waitress or your mother’s insistence

on grad school as unfortunate or your uncle demanding

a second glass for the beer in front of me…”

 

We witness O’Neill’s speaker as a prisoner at this uncomfortable table. We feel her skin

crawl at being judged by these people who do not know her and may never know her well. We empathize. We also want to run away.  The speaker confesses:

 

“Yes I have parents. No, you can’t meet them.

My father is dead and my mother needs coaching

on how not to kill what she loves.”

 

Then the poem takes another glorious turn with these lines:

 

“The disappointment I am for not dropping everything

to stand by my man…Part of womanhood is waiting for

your turn to speak and they wouldn’t give me one and that

tells me everything about weddings…”

 

This poem is a novel of voice and vigor and slaps us across the face, and we still want more. Whereas so many of these poems circle around the speaker’s relationships, there is a transience to the language and the actual fleetingness of the intimacy. Its breakneck pace is powerful and does not let up. (It is, “O’Neill writes “the dance nobody teaches:” (From “Need to Know.”) We cannot go to O’ Neill for answers though, even though she has already told us how to live. She reminds us in the last line of the very last poem “Not So Fast,”

 

“Don’t answer me. I won’t stand still long enough.”

 

Luckily we read her words, hold them, tread on them softly, because she deserves no less and we cannot stay away, even if we end up following her into the cold, dark night.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

kiss the sound i make with my feet.
i am far
from everything
but i try.
 i can’t read what people say about trans women anymore
or i stop feeling for months.
such is life.
soon i will turn 28.
i am approaching the sky.
every birthday after 30 will feel like a statistical anomaly
because it will be.
it’s okay to feel what is true
in your hands
and in your teeth.
it doesn’t have to heal you or set you free.
it just has to remind you that you exist.
i hardly exist and it’s fine.
i’ve climbed out of too many windows to care
but i care. i do.
i care so much i can’t get out of bed some days.
crying helps, but not enough.
why should i have to cry?
you cry. you show me something. tell me how much it hurts
to exist.
bookend my body with all your rain
until i grow into something better.

 

 

 

 

i don’t have the luxury of pretending i’m just like any other woman

when i died nothing changed and everything was normal

the sun set at 4:47 p.m. on the dot

i was caught up in a green flash of light called beautiful

we are all called beautiful when we become bodies

“we must not be loved”

“we must not be loved”

“we must not be loved,” i whisper

to a picture i took of myself in the mirror

i’m just like any other woman

my name is god’s empty dream

my name is joke on primetime television

i love to laugh but the sound has become poison to my blood

it hesitates to flow and then explodes with fury

i am a sloshing bucket full of memories

i drown inside myself

trans woman

asterisked human

pull of flesh speaking gravity’s only language

 

 

 

 

hear both sides of the story.

i need to see birds pecking out your ears.

we must consider everything.

you will bleed to call me male.

i will squirm and piss myself

off.

here, a bandage. wrap it around

my body. i am shivering

in the cold of you, you real woman forest.

i am thousand year old fungus

mourning all the light

that has passed over me.

here, both sides of the story.

something on the internet about echo chambers.

something on the internet about dead trans women.

here, both sides of the story.

i have not slept in five years.

i called you to come carry me away and

you swallowed me up instead.
 

 

 

Joshua Jennifer Espinoza is a trans woman poet living in California. Her work has been published in The Offing, The Feminist Wire, PEN America, and elsewhere. Her full-length poetry collection THERE SHOULD BE FLOWERS will be released this month (August) through Civil Coping Mechanisms. More of her work can be found at joshuajenniferespinoza.com and on Twitter @sadqueer4life.

During 2016, the Spotlight Series focuses on two poets per month whose work and consciousness move us, challenge us, inspire us. This month’s first poet is Joshua Jennifer Espinoza. 

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

Joshua Jennifer Espinoza: My drive to write mostly comes from my inability to understand and deal with my own emotions as a trans feminine/mentally ill/traumatized person in a world that kind of hates all of those things. With poetry I can attempt to subvert the language of the world that has been inscribed on and within me against my will. In navigating the poetry world I am motivated by the same thing that motivates me to navigate the world at large, and that is simply surviving as unscathed as possible.

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

JJE: Panic attacks, comments sections on articles about trans women, bad dreams, good dreams, bad memories, good memories, poems I’ve only half-read, windy days, people who I love and who inexplicably love me back, the possibility of the end of this world and the emergence of a better one.

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

JJE: There’s a line in one of my poems that goes “the only aesthetic i have left is survival” and I guess that sums it up pretty well. I’m interested in art that does some kind of work in addition to simply existing as a beautiful object. I would love to be able to just create aesthetically pleasing work or whatever, but I don’t feel like I have that luxury. I’m more interested in disruption, not in the sense of being shocking for its own sake, but in the sense of challenging that which keeps me in the position of having to fight for survival.

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

JJE: Before I finally admitted to myself that I was trans I had spent a long time getting sicker and sicker, physically and emotionally, from the stress of holding it all in. I hadn’t cried in years and every day was one long panic attack. Near the end of this I stopped eating and was totally dissociated from everything. I was sure I would soon either be in the hospital or dead—but finally something in me broke and I just started crying in the car one day. I remember vividly my head against the window, the sun warm against my face, staring off at some mountains in the distance and sobbing because it all felt so real for once. I started feeling everything again and within weeks I was like “Holy shit—I’m not a man and I never have been.” I think a lot of my work attempts to recreate those moments of breakage, of transcendence through pain and destruction, of the necessity of tearing something down in order to discover or create something better in its place.

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

JJE: Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip completely destroyed everything I thought I understood about poetry, history, and the articulation of trauma. José Muñoz’s Disidentifications is essential for anyone interested in a non-whitewashed history of a queer and trans resistance that operated through the strategic appropriation and purposeful confusion of the cultural products and signs of white supremacy, heteronormativity, and the gender binary.

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

JJE: Not that I can think of! Thanks!

 

Joshua Jennifer Espinoza is a trans woman poet living in California. Her work has been published in The OffingThe Feminist WirePEN America, and elsewhere. Her full-length poetry collection THERE SHOULD BE FLOWERS will be released this month (August) through Civil Coping Mechanisms. More of her work can be found at joshuajenniferespinoza.com and on Twitter @sadqueer4life.

Bad News, Again
   after the June 2015 Charleston AME church shooting
after Mary Oliver
1.
There are so many reasons to stay inside, to lock
the room around my heart. I don’t even like it,
my heart. Bitter little fruit, little lead stone,
carnation blooming from a Sunday dress.
What does the world mean if you can’t trust it
to go on?

 

2.
Listen: birdsong (whippoorwill, maybe) broken
by the wail of a woman prowling barefoot
down the street.

 

3.
Sometimes, before light breaks, I lace my shoes
& race outside. I try to touch everything—
my neighbor’s rusty wind chime, the fallen
trees. My soles drum the concrete, hands strum
each metal fence.

 

4.
Listen: hasn’t my body felt like the body of smoke
before?

 

5.
One morning, on the corner, a girl, still
in plaits, crowned with butterflies, a field
that sang with every motion of her head.
Where was her mother at this hour?
I don’t know. But she looked at me
like a child. She turned her head.
She laughed & laughed at my awful music
& I thought oh. Yes. This is the world
with me in it. It is beautiful. It is.

 

 

Walking Lake Calhoun
to a.

In my favorite childhood memory
a blue lip of water is closing above
me & then my mother is pulling
me back up, though she denies it.
You were never drowning she says, love
is no buoy. This is as good a place as any
to begin, watching you descend
the stairs at 32nd St, back into my line
of sight. Here is the circle of my life
& here is yours, tangent extending
indefinitely away & here is the place
where, by definition, they always meet.
Rounding the bend, I almost tell you,
but there’s a monster rising from the water,
which for years killed off someone
close to my heart— massive jaws
opening in the ocean or sometimes,
improbably, appearing to fling
the beloved before a train.
What brought me here?
you’re asking, Loch Ness statue
bobbing still, though out of sight.
What brought me here? My friends
& I live in one apartment building
& once a week drive to a diner uptown.
It’s like being in a sitcom about having
friends, which is nice because
I never have to go outside.
Still, there are at least two worlds
in every person. Sometimes
I look too long at my friends’ faces
& fall through the bottom of our life-
boat & cannot find my way back
into the light & sure, I’m the monster,
sure, I’m the one eating my own heart.
My therapist would call this
a cognitive distortion, but I’m trying
to say that I prefer it, imagining myself
cruel & merely proximate to love.
Let me assure you I don’t believe in us.
Not you & I, storied romance, grotesque
pronoun, what am I without you? & here we
are, back at the beginning. We could walk
another lap? Not hug & say goodbye?
Though it isn’t true, you know,
what I said before.

 

 

 

Something About Joy

I’m alone in a room empty
of me, though I’m in it. The desk
is full of paper cups, still
with the residue of morning
coffee, or afternoon coffee,
or god / that which tethers me
to light. I’m not joking. The joke
is printed on the cups, green
voice reassuring You’re
Making A Difference!
because these cups
are compostable,
these paper cups
bear the Earth,
or at least its image
but I can’t see the forest
from here, the blade
descending
on a child skipping
out into the death field
to fill the cup I cradle
in my palm like a songbird.
Little joy & then it flies.

 

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016) and the chapbook Transit (Button Poetry, 2015). A Cave Canem fellow and poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine, their poems have appeared/are forthcoming in The Journal, The Offing, Vinyl, Nepantla, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. Cam is currently a doctoral candidate in Modern Thought & Literature at Stanford University and has essays forthcoming in Science Fiction Studies and Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 

During 2016, the Spotlight Series focuses on two poets per month whose work and consciousness move us, challenge us, inspire us. This month’s second poet is Cam Awkward-Rich. 

 

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

Cameron Awkward-Rich: Well, I’ll answer in reverse: I don’t know if I do navigate the “poebiz landscape.” Obviously I must, but it feels pretty unintentional, almost exactly like standing in the corner of a party full of people who are unbearably too brilliant and too beautiful (or just unbearable), but this party is where all of your friends are so you’re there too, standing in the corner hoping no one will notice you though of course they will because you’re a) being weird, over there alone and b) wearing that one outfit that makes you feel pretty. I’d like to say that I’m motivated to put my work out there because I really do believe that art both marks and expands the boundaries of what is possible to know/think/imagine and when I was growing up it would have been nice to have evidence that someone like me existed, that I could be thought. Of course that’s true. But, also, poetry is where most of my dearest friends live, so I live there too.

I think the first part of this question boils down to why poetry? It’s probably not enough to say that I have terrible visual aesthetic sense, yeah? Terrible fashion, terrible hand-eye coordination, terrible. But I’ve always known how to work with language. In part, it’s because I’m terribly anxious, so almost anytime I speak coherently, you can be sure whatever I’m saying has already been composed, crafted. Even before I started “writing,” then, I’d had a lot of practice. Also, I’m learning that poetry is not necessarily my medium. Essays (lyric, standard academic, etc.) are really my jam. What a poem can do better than an essay, though, is appeal to different registers of sense, both as in sensory info and as in making sense. Poems let us communicate/understand things (feelings, ideas, experiences) that don’t make sense as if they did.[1] And, honestly, as someone who finds the world, my self, and others utterly bewildering, I need all the help I can get when it comes to making sense.

 

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

CAR: To avoid making a long, nonsense list, I’ll say that I’m sort of a sponge: I read too much and watch too much and am too easily pulled in the direction of whatever I am currently consuming. That said, the things that I am most inspired by and am trying (and failing) to align myself with (creatively, personally, and politically) tend to be by femme and/or queer poc whose work turns away from the imperative to “humanize” (i.e. make legibly human according to the logic we’ve inherited) poc/queer life and instead engages the awkwardness, violence, persistent strangeness produced by that very endeavor. There are, in particular, visual artists working in collage (Alexandria Smith, who generously provided the cover art for my book, and Wangechi Mutu are two of my favorites), poets (Francine J. Harris and Ronaldo V. Wilson are two contemporary touchstones), and speculative fiction writers (Larissa Lai, Octavia Butler, etc) whose work has helped me think about how I’d like my life/work/politics to align. That said, my poetry actually operates mostly in the confessional mode, which I think is also an important mode and has been personally necessary for me at this particular moment in my life.
(The abbreviated nonsense list goes, in addition: my friends/peers in this weird house party, soap operas, movies that take place in tightly bounded worlds (i.e. spaceships, underground colonies, single buildings), my sister, other trans writers, my cat, academics who manage to navigate the academy without becoming creatively/intellectually/politically diminished, old ladies who don’t give a fuck, theory that delights in witticisms, people who ride the same bus and/or train every day, devastating novels.)

 

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

 CAR: Oh, all kinds of things. Anytime I come away from a book/poem knowing the world differently somehow. Anytime a phrase or an image gets stuck in my head like a song. Anytime an aesthetic object makes me react viscerally, moves me to laugh or (less frequently) cry or throw it across the room. As a reader, any of these marks an object’s success, so, as a writer, my work’s capacity to affect others in similar ways is how I measure my own success.

Also I suppose I should say that there is plenty of art that moves me in ways I’d rather not be moved: to feel, again, the persistence of white(cisheteromale) supremacy. There’s always the question of whether something can be “good” art despite being rooted in, reinforcing, and/or coming from someone whose actions perpetuate various oppressive ideologies. It’s a hard question, I think. Because one wants (I want) to say no, but then one inevitably cannot help but be moved by, even enjoy, problematic objects, as all objects inevitably reveal themselves to be. So while I want to say that the most important thing for me in my work and the work of others is this political dimension—does this object help me to imagine other worlds?/give me respite from this one?/expose or rework its harms rather than perpetuate them?—I also think that everything I write and most things other people write fail at this in one way or another. Still, in the attempt to not fail, new possibilities open. Which is the difference: art that moves me to feel white supremacy again might actually be incredibly “good,” or at least successful, art. But it lacks the surprise, the challenge, the freshness of work that actively tries to do something else. Cuz what’s less surprising than racism, ableism, misogyny, transphobia, etc?

 

FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something—an experience, a piece of art, anything really—that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?
CAR: During my senior year of college, both of my mother’s parents died in pretty rapid succession. I feel weird saying that their deaths altered my writing style for the better, but retrospectively I think it’s true. I never felt very close to my grandparents for all of the usual reasons: being a petulant adolescent, differences in religion, being obviously queer and always wary about what that might mean they thought of me. Anyway. After they were gone, I discovered a glut of speech, things I’d never said but should have or wanted to, questions I’d never asked.
Throughout college, my writing—but especially the writing that I thought of as Poetry—wasn’t really aimed at communication. It was confessional, sometimes, but I didn’t really think about the reader. Often I’d think of a poem as a little puzzle, not a speech act. But I found myself wanting to talk to my grandparents, so I wrote my first poem that was intended to be performed. It was straightforward and sentimental and cheesy. But it moved people, people who’d never known my grandparents and people who loved them dearly. And that’s, initially, how I found my way into the world of slam and spoken word, how I started valuing a poem’s capacity to affect, and why I started writing poems in my own, ordinary voice.

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

CAR: A book or two?! What do you think I am? That’s way too much pressure, so I’ll say that a book that I’ve been thinking with a lot lately is Eli Clare’s Exile & Pride: Disability, Queerness, & Liberation, which was out of print for a sec, but Duke University Press just reissued. It’s a wonderful example of the hybrid criticism/memoir genre and also, sadly, still feels ahead of the times (even though it was first published in 1999) when it comes to thinking gender, sexuality, ability, class, and, to a lesser extent, race together. Clare asks hard questions that today we seem hesitant to ask, let alone approach the answers to. It also manages to be a great intro text for people not already thinking about disability justice, in particular. Also it’s beautifully written.

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

CAR: Not necessarily. Though last time I appealed for help in an interview it worked out pretty well for me, so I’m going to do it again. I’ve been feeling pretty stuck lately, in terms of writing, and have been looking for books that will unstick me. Not like self-help books, but like novels so devastating or critical theory so gorgeously absurd or movies so strange they’ll shake me out of it. Anyone have suggestions? Hm?

 

[1] Taken from Jonathan Culler Theory of the Lyric page 184: “In a wonderful book, Precious Nonsense, now largely neglected, Stephen Booth uses the example of nursery rhymes to illustrate poems’ ability to let us understand something that does not make sense as if it did make sense. We seem to take pleasure in accepting nonsense…”

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016) and the chapbook Transit (Button Poetry, 2015). A Cave Canem fellow and poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine, their poems have appeared/are forthcoming in The Journal, The Offing, Vinyl, Nepantla, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. Cam is currently a doctoral candidate in Modern Thought & Literature at Stanford University and has essays forthcoming in Science Fiction Studies and Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 

Anand Prahlad – As Good As Mango

Stephen F. Austin University Press 2012

Page Length: 90

Retail: $15.95

Much of contemporary American poetry centers on expressions of “identity politics.” This mode of poetics, which has taken many diverse and brilliant forms, is most commonly articulated in assertions of identity: celebrations of self in its various guises against the dominant hegemony of the culture of the oppressor.

In Anand Prahlad’s brilliant collection, As Good As Mango, we encounter a poet who, while participating in the liberation from oppressive cultural forces so central to the poetics of identity, accomplishes this individuation by subverting the common relationship between poet and text. Prahlad is a poet less interested in expressing “self” than allowing self to be expressed by the very world in which the poet finds himself. His is a poetics of quasi-passive divination wherein the poet becomes the vehicle for larger aesthetic forces: voices, textures, and spirits that transcend the individual self of fixed human identity. The result is an incredible achievement: an articulation of radical liberation that doesn’t seek to merely assert self via poetry, but a world-driven poetics that gives itself fully to its vision and thereby transcends the limits of ego that so often encage the poetry of identity.

“I remembered scarlet

breaths like wind

through Japanese maples.

The giant windows

that never closed flush.

Hardwood squeaking and

an old, steam heater

clicking like a clock.

 

I remembered my father.

I would see him whenever

I went home, although,

he would hardly speak.

I hadn’t started seeing

his ghost yet blossoming

around my face.” (“Ghosts”)

“Ghosts” is one of the few poems in As Good As Mango that positions itself in the first person. As a matter of fact: it is one of the few poems in the collection to even use the first person “I,” which is virtually unheard of in contemporary poetry. And yet: the “I” we find is one whose very articulation is composed of memories of objects; a poetic self that is itself a kind of ghost: a spirit hovering over a series of memories—through which those memories pass and thereby assert something loosely resembling a self. The father, here, is a “blossom” that inhabits the speaker—a means by which the speaker can learn to see.

What is implicit throughout the poem is made explicit in its final three lines: “I could remember me / remembering things / without writing a poem.” In this gorgeous summation, the speaker asserts the poem as a means of self-identity—a vehicle through which the self can come to be. Memory, here, is less an assertion than an accumulation, and the self engendered by it is a coalescence of sensory experience.

Prahlad’s work is firmly rooted in an Afro-Caribbean animism that finds in the world of objects the primacy of the sacred. This is made explicit in the collection’s second half, titled, “Hoodoo,” after the West African syncretic religion of the same name. In the poem titled, “Hoodoo,” we get something of a credo. The poem begins:

“Knowing how silly it is,

still I chase the wind blown hair.

I run it down for blocks,

weaving through briefs and suits.

My heart fills like a rain bucket

with stories from the old people.” (“Hoodoo”)

Here the speaker begins with a self-deprecating concession, “Knowing how silly it is,” which is then followed by a series of declarations that manage to overcome the professed silliness. This ambivalence is markedly postmodern: even as the speaker remains suspicious of the religious system and its non-rational methods, he cannot help but “run it down for blocks.” There is something undeniable about the way his heart is filled with the tradition’s power, passed to him through “stories from the old people.” The poem ends with a powerful set of couplets, which finally overcome the initially “silly” talismans that make both the poem and its speaker:

“I chase it like I’d chase a black cat,

desperate for the bones.

This is who we are. This is everything.

Never being held by strange fingers.”

Prahlad’s poetics can be understood in the tradition of the African Diaspora, but there is also something present that is undeniably Keatsian. In the letter in which Keats coins what becomes one of the defining terms in English Romanticism, he distinguishes his own aesthetic from that of Wordsworth’s “Egotistical Sublime.” Whereas Wordsworth’s poetics engender a speaker who is capable of sensing and being, “a thing per se [that] stands alone,” Keats self-identifies as a “camelion Poet” (sic). The latter, “is not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing… he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body.” Insofar as the poetry of identity politics is an assertion of ego, it participates in the Wordsworthian lineage, but Prahlad’s approach is distinct in that the self found in his work is ever-shifting and perpetually in tune with the pulse of the things and beings which inhabit the poems.

The opening half of the collection is a long sequence composed, “In Movements and Incantations:” a series of poems or demi-poems that float in and out of particulars in a roving voice that seeks to animate its subject matter: persons and objects; spirits and histories that trace the contours of black experience in West Africa and then the American South. The sequence is at times solemn and mournful, as in “the lynching:”

“at first

he just shook.

and then

he stayed still.

at first

there was

so much pain that

no one there

and no one

since

would ever be

without it.

but then

he felt

the garden.” (“As Good As Mango”)

At other moments, though, the sequence is ecstatic and overwhelmed with beauty:

“when the black

body

spreads out

among lotuses

and lilies,

when the woman

in the moon

descends

wearing sapphire

and animal tusks

with rivers and stars

gushing from

her navel,

and ginger and pepper

is burning you

and greens is rocking

you on the atlantic

you can swallow

rose and petunia

swallow

the flesh

of tulip bulb

like peaches

with salt, or a jar

of lilacs, opened

while a pine

wind blows

through windows.” (“As Good As Mango”)

Prahlad’s poetry is willfully haunted by the spirits that animate the very world in which the poet walks and sings. As Good As Mango is a shamanic celebration of the vital life force of the poem, and its articulations are devastatingly beautiful and wildly original. This collection transcends the lesser aims of identity politics insofar as it is not interested in a self, but in a transcendence of self—a coalescence of spirit that mends the very fractures that separate the poet from that in which he lives and moves and has being.

CLC1

 

 

CLC2

 

 

CLC3

 

Cortney Lamar Charleston is a Cave Canem fellow, finalist for the 2015 Auburn Witness Poetry Prize and semi-finalist for the 2016 Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Beloit Poetry JournalGulf CoastHayden’s Ferry ReviewThe Iowa Review, The JournalNew England Review, Pleiades, River Styx, Spillway, TriQuarterly and elsewhere.

During 2016, the Spotlight Series focuses on two poets per month whose work and consciousness move us, challenge us, inspire us. This month’s first poet is Cortney Lamar Charleston. 

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

Cortney Lamar Charleston: I’ve got a lot of things to say about the world. I’ve always had a lot of things to say about the world, but haven’t always been confident enough to say them, smart enough to articulate them, artful enough to make them strike the chord I wanted them to, at least before poetry. People who have known me long and well may disagree with that, but it’s my own personal assessment, and in looking through my own eyes, I’m never quite as good as I want to be in regards to my intent of being in strong service of good: goodness. Poetry, however, has brought me closest to that (what I know to be) unreachable ideal. It relies on the mind and heart working in tandem, effectively communicating on two wavelengths at once. Anything I’m attempting to say, about myself or what I see around me, needs to be understood in both ways for there to be any hope of collective progress, in my estimation. We know the shortcoming of law is that one’s opinions, beliefs and feelings can’t be legislated, but does poetry, does art more generally speaking, have the same limitations? I don’t think so. I believe within a poem there is metamorphosis. A person is never the same after reading a poem, whether they realize it or not; it molds in a slow and unassuming way. Instead, the challenge is in getting more people to read poetry, to engage it with their mind and their soul. Access is everything, accessibility absolutely vital: again, this is my opinion. That is what has inspired me to get involved in “poebiz” as you call it. Whereas poetry is often seen as some ivory-tower pastime, something institutionalized and therefore not meant for wide consumption (by design), I’m attempting to bring forward language that resonates beyond the tower through the channels it has created for dissemination of verse. And to also do the same beyond those channels, because ultimately there are different audiences to be found across the landscape, from journal to journal, in print and online, and I’m not intending to restrict my words only to one set of people over another. Rather, I’m trying to speak to everyone because I believe my words are somehow relevant for everyone, regardless of their lived experience or mine; I want folks to experience their humanity just a little bit more and allow others to experience theirs. I’m pushing people in that regard.

 

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

CLC: When I need inspiration, a spark of creative energy, a push to the pen—I tend to go to music, usually hip-hop. For me hip-hop has always been there, and if I’m being honest, it is the reason I fell in love with words in the first place. For something that is often talked about so reductively outside of the fan base, people forget that it has a more expansive vocabulary than any other genre of music and it defies the conventions of language to make new modes of expression regularly. Every time I put on a record, I’m forced to bend my mind around the words and I follow by bending words around my mind. Hip-hop also provides something to analyze, to critique whether in terms of artistic execution or its underlying politics, which makes sense, as hip-hop was a militant child, so to speak. Now, other musical genres hold a lot of sway with me as well, but I always feel compelled to shout out hip-hop in a positive way when given a chance such as the one presented by your question. Beyond the music, I also find a lot of motivation to create from my peers, many of them accomplished artists and activists and scholars in their own right. They give me and give my words something larger to be part of and remind me daily that the work I want to do can’t be done in isolation. They remind me that in sharing my work isolation is what I’m running from, as well as the fear isolation produces. I know that fear. I’ve seen that fear. I’ve seen what that fear does. It’s destructive of self and community. In these tumultuous times, it’s undoubtedly time to run towards each other.

 

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

CLC: I have the most difficult time talking aesthetics in poetry, but I’ll do my best! In my own work, there are three things I’m often trying to do at any given time: (1) provide a musical experience, paying close attention to sound and/or rhythm; (2) invoke an organizing concept and/or conceit to its maximum effect; (3) avoid the use of words that I don’t use in everyday speech. I tend to hold myself to these guiding points whether my poem leans narrative, leans lyric or falls between the two poles. Because this is what I attempt to do in my own writings, it also makes sense that I’m pulled to the work of others that do any of these things whether singularly or in some combination. It all goes back to what I said before about accessibility and access as well as what I said regarding a poem working on the mind and soul; I want people to be able to enter a poem and feel comfortable in it. I want it to talk in their language. I want it to sing to them and soothe. I want it to make them think, to make them be contemplative and quiet their confusions. When I read, I always want to be brought to that place and really start to make sense of myself, and make sense of life, to the greatest degree I can. I want to be forced to ask questions and challenged to answer them. I want to be dared to be still and see through the haze. Funny thing is, in noting the symmetries between what I strive to do in my work and what I long to receive from the work I encounter, I’m making a small admission that I’m trying to create the work I need for myself. I’m the hand penning a kind of personal scripture. That’s damn beautiful if I think about it.

 

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

CLC: This type of question for many, I think, often leads to discussion of a type of trauma. What I want to do, instead, is talk about a moment that offered me joy, perhaps more in retrospect than it did in the moment, but still. Back in college, as a freshman, I had a prospective student from Chicago who I knew visiting campus and wanted to show him a good time. Looking for something to do, I took him to a spoken word show that I’d heard classmates talking about, not really knowing much about it, but having heard positive buzz. In that show, I found folks about my age speaking to life and death, speaking to violence and tenderness, speaking to comedy and tragedy and doing so all in their own unique voices from their own unique perspectives. These people had something to say about themselves and about their place in the world. It was affirming for me. It was liberating for me. It showed me a path forward after searching for years for a comfortable and viable mode of expression. It was that moment that made me a poet and one committed to speaking generously through myself but not necessarily being overly concerned with myself exclusively, which is a delicate endeavor. But even still, poetry, time and time again, has helped steady me when I felt I was going under, whatever the trigger may have been and no matter how many times I tried to direct the focus of the work away from me.

 

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

CLC: This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz is an unflinching look at the mispronunciation of love. Partly because of Diaz’s wildly colorful language and partly because of when in my life I read the book, it continues to stick with me and requires me to interrogate how I carry myself within the bounds of commitment to a partner, especially in regards to selfishness and the ease with which I can claim and wield masculine privilege to her harm (or even my own). The stories that comprise the collection were real to me in a way that many books simply aren’t; they were insightful but primarily because they weren’t written from a retrospective clarity or wisdom. Instead, the stories invited the reader to live in and through the muck, where our behaviors and decisions, good and bad, are contextualized but not fully rationalized nor forgiven and certainly not forgotten.

Wild Hundreds by Nate Marshall is simply one of the best collections of poems to hit the market in the past few years and certainly one that should be on everyone’s shelf. If I had to describe the book in one word it would simply be Chicago. The Chicago that Marshall so beautifully and fully renders in his verse is the one that captures negative national headline after negative national headline, but is given no real narrative in the process, nothing that speaks to the true character of the place and the many, many people who call it home. For all its rough edges—its willingness to push (re)imaginings of violence, vice, poverty and politics to the forefront of our consciousness—it is undeniably tender. It is full of love. It is authentic and invested with great purpose. It literally sings in praise, its musicality no doubt owing to the talents of its author as a rapper and student of the break beat. Sure, I may be biased in my assessment of this book both knowing Marshall personally and having the love for Chicago that I do, but I find it hard to believe that anyone who picks up this book and reads it walks away without being transformed for the better (and also made to have a bit more flava). I honestly just can’t fathom it.

 

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

CLC: The only thing I can think to say, at this point, is just how unbelievably grateful I am that anybody has read my work, taken interest in it, taken it to heart. What a blessing it is to be heard; thank you so much for listening.

 

Cortney Lamar Charleston is a Cave Canem fellow, finalist for the 2015 Auburn Witness Poetry Prize and semi-finalist for the 2016 Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Beloit Poetry JournalGulf CoastHayden’s Ferry ReviewThe Iowa Review, The JournalNew England Review, Pleiades, River Styx, Spillway, TriQuarterly and elsewhere.

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

(from the poem “The Difference.”)

 

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

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

 

“These are the cages I keep where I harbor

all the damaged broken animals of my childhood.

 

If you reside among them it’s only because

you harbor abhorrence that can do nothing

but trickle through the blood stream of the root

of the tree you’d wish to cut down…”

 

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

 

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

You planted a tree

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

 

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

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

“They don’t care about that stifled genius

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

What they do care about,

is the meat of you.

 

What’s deep down in your guts?

What makes them churn and what makes them ache?

 

…You redraft yourself, every day

for this battle.”

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

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

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

 

“…the longing for something not there.

 

We fantasize about holding their hands and

looking up at them with adulation…”

 

a piggy back ride

a stroll through the park…”

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

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

 

“All the bolls of cotton you picked

and endless days in the sun

where your brown skin soaked up ray after ray..

 

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

 

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

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

 

“As I knead the dough

 

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

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

….

my desire for perfection’s depth

is further than this rolling pin.

 

I simply want to honor my mother with this task

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

Jansport Backpack

I swap out key fobs like lovers I haven’t had—
blue broken heart, glitter skull, sassy attitude jokes.

Three boys vie for my number, but they don’t speak English,
and their calls come in like water hallucinations in a desert.

In Spanish class I learn dialogue I never mastered in English—
small talk, city planning, how I feel morning, noon, and night.

Walking the halls, you tap my ass when I lengthen
your shoulder straps that sing anthems in white bubble letters—

Peace Sign, WTVR, You Laugh Because I’m Different,
I Laugh Because You’re All The Same.

I buy so much white-out they must think I have problems
of a different kind, unrelated to the test of matchmaking

by expression. Why I feed a hairbrush to your front pocket
every day is unclear to the pep rally for my insecurity.

 

 

Coach Patent Leather Black Tote

First time inside, I swim the opaque blue interior
like the hollow in your neck I always wanted
to fill with my wishes. I wish for a mermaid tail
that increases my vocabulary. We type faster
to taste the creation in our mouths, to slow
the increasing likeness of days. To protect
my holding cell ribcage, I shoulder a sustainable cobweb,
wear a new sludge, push you to the pockets of me
hardest to get to. Old gum, mint-less. A spare
tampon that fits no one. A trail of annotated life,
zipper-thin. And the ocean feels nearer,
the more we breathe.

 

 

Faux Croc Lime Green Diaper Bag

Hardly a day goes by I don’t walk past a murderer,
or think of throwing the baby in the bear pit at the zoo,

which I say in a safe, plastic-lined pocket, like this poem,
or else it’s effort negated. Preference is default, they say,

Don’t forget to be a wallpaper, patterned and strippable,
an eighteenth-century muse for a modern-day trendsetter!

Half a dye job later, I’m sporting blonde tips
that I offer like free Kung Pao samples at the mall.

Blonde Tip: keep your teen mom comments to yourself
as you feed your inner checkout aisle.

When we played Light As A Feather, Stiff As A Board,
my thoughts won, by which I mean

they were feathered and glued to the wall and I was disqualified.
Blonde Tip: Allow open headspace to confound decorum

until you’re two standard deviations away from
a hairdo, a minivan, a steady heartbeat.

 

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

Solmaz Sharif – Look

Graywolf Press 2016

Page Length: 93

Retail: $16

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

All my Muse’s poetry has been harmless:

American and diplomatic: a learned helplessness

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

I’ve been largely well-behaved and gracious.

I’ve learned the doctors learned of learned helplessness

by shocking dogs. Eventually, we things give up.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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