Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Carrying
by Ada Limón
(Milkweed Editions, 2018)

Reviewed by Peter H. Michaels

Ada Limón’s new collection The Carrying finds joy in the quotidian and wonders how a self-directed life should feel. The poems repeat imagery of the newly born, green growth, and death as moments with truth, but without answers. In “The Real Reason” the speaker’s mother is scarred “from an explosion that took her first child she was carrying / in her belly,” and although a similar speaker in the poem “Trying” is working with her partner “to knock [her] up again,” the book expands the meaning of “carrying” beyond its recognized connotations. Limón’s ability to examine the smallest moments of life anew and translate that wonder and weight to the page is astounding and illustrates what this collection carries.

The speaker in “The Last Drop” owns many of the collection’s narratives as her own and considers the many stories—replete with grief—she carries within. After iterating several titles for her potential memoir the speaker recites two parallel parables implying that her life hasn’t been “easy,” but “all of it is good.” This thought guides the reading of “Dead Stars” which is seeded with lines such as, “We point out the stars that make Orion as we take out / the trash, the rolling containers a song of suburban thunder. // It’s almost romantic,” because Limón mates the celestial with the earthly while meditating in the midst of collecting trash.

In “Almost Forty” the speaker says “I’ve never been someone / to wish for too much, but now I say, I want to live a long time.” Facing mid-life after accruing a lifetime of grief leaves the speaker afraid, but grasping for more. This sentiment is repeated in “Sundown & All the Damage Done” where the speaker finds “a strange / contentment to this countdown” of years in contrast to loved ones who have passed already. This consideration of mortality continues in “The Vulture & The Body” when the speaker asks, “What if, instead of carrying / a child, I am supposed to carry grief?”

While not an answer, a reply is found in “Instructions on Not Giving Up” as the speaker faces “a green skin / growing over whatever winter did to us,” because now the speaker is like that greening tree that “seems to say, a new slick leaf / unfurling like a fist, I’ll take it all.” This acceptance of growth, in whatever form it takes, roots as the collection winds down. Other green and grounded moments occur in “The Burying Beetle” where a speaker confesses that she “lost God awhile ago. / And I don’t want to pray, but I can picture / the plants deepening right now into the soil, / wanting to live, so I lie down among them,” and this scene of grafting new vegetable life to her own becomes explicit.

Scions of leafy, life-like weeds and tomato plants wind through this collection. The speaker in “Dandelion Insomnia” stays awake pondering how simple propagation would be if she were a weed like a dandelion “making perfect identical selves, bam, another me, / bam, another me.” This innate fertility in weeds is paralleled by animal life in “Carrying”:

    A few farms over, there’s our mare,
    her belly barrel-round with foal, or idea
    of foal. It’s Kentucky, late fall, and any
    mare worth her salt is carrying the next
    potential stakes winner.


While “What I Didn’t Know Before” is a poem-length metaphor about an effortless love, the ease of animal reproduction returns: “A horse gives way / to another horse and then suddenly there are / two horses, just like that.” This is in stark contrast to the speaker in “Would You Rather” who is struggling with fertility and is “making a list of all the places / I found out I wasn’t carrying a child.” 


Then in “Mastering” the speaker’s trusted friend posits “the thing that makes you / believe there might be a god after all, is the making of a child” adding a friendly face to a patent societal pressure intimately intertwined with womanhood. This married speaker without children seems to broadcast an implied desire for childlessness, adding sting to her secret struggle with infertility. Her friend, assuming that a woman’s meaning in life must be gestated, regardless of willingness or capability, wounds the speaker and their friendship. The reader is privy to the speaker’s unspoken thoughts, “Isn’t love / that doesn’t result in a seed, a needy body, another suckling animal, / still love? Isn’t that supernatural? Screw your god.”

The speaker in “Trying” tells us “I’d forgotten how much / I like to grow things” adjacent to another attempt at pregnancy. Likewise, the speaker in “Maybe I’ll Be Another Kind of Mother” eschews traditional motherhood for days “writing words / and then at the movies, where my man has bought me a drink, // because our bodies are our own.” While “Trying” ends with desire to nurture another:

    I still worry
    and want an endless stream of more,
    but some days I can see the point
    in growing something, even if
    it’s just to say I cared enough.


This feeling seems reconciled by “Maybe I’ll Be Another Kind of Mother,” which says “it’s only the original tree again, green branches giving way // to other green branches, everything coming back to life.”

At the end of the collection, we arrive at a reckoning with these struggles in these lines from “Sparrow, What Did You Say?”

    What would I
    do with a kid here? Teach her
    to plant, watch her like I do
    the lettuce leaves, tenderly, place
    her palms in the earth, part her
    black hair like planting a seed? Or
    would I selfishly demand this day
    back, a full untethered day trying
    to figure out what bird was calling
    to me and why.


This passage leaves the speaker questioning whether her offspring should inhabit ink and page or a more corporeal form without any answer.

Generally, a failure to reconcile a craving for the impossible with an accepting of the attained is jet fuel for anxiety. The Carrying brings this fuel of the unanswerable to the burning grief from Limón’s preceding collection Bright Dead Things where such losses could “light up the room with pain, / [it would] be such a glorious fire.” However, the speaker in “Mastering” starts to accept that “perhaps the only thing I can make / is love and art,” and the poems in this collection are bursting with masterfully created art. That isn’t all that it is carrying. What Limón’s collection truly carries is “so much fire,”  a glorious fire—lighting a path of self-awareness and warming the chill of loneliness—allowing a reader to stop and encounter all that they are carrying.
 

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Personal Science
by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram
(Tupelo Press, 2017)

Reviewed by C.K. Coombs

Dreams are seldom drawn from the void. The unanchored scenes, the acute images, and the vivid feelings of a light doze and impactful musings, these are drawn from experience and not from nothing. Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s Personal Science is a collection of poetry that first mystifies, then touches the reader. Upon initial inspection, one may be tempted to think the book nothing but a series of half-remembered dreams, but deeper analysis reveals a grim and somewhat disturbing memoir. It is a submersion into Bertram’s stream of consciousness, which runs dark and wide.

Bertram’s writing creates a nebulous dreamscape, one of fading and flashing pictures, scenes that are often ominous. That fear suffuses the book with an atmosphere not unlike that which pervades a nightmare. Take “Homo narrans (chainsaw)” for example, wherein one of the only images described is that of “the blood spray on the garden’s wooden fence,” or the poem “Cerebrum corpus monstrum,” which begins with a terrifying series of implications:

    Nothing to be preserved
    By the idea of paradise.

    Take this pistol.

    The old dog’s ashes taken home in a cedar box.

    Take this blindfold.

    The warbler with the cinched wing won’t take
    From your handful of seeds.

    Shoot into the crowd.

    To feel the heart, you must
    Put your hand in it.


The reader is left haunted, wondering at the grim scenes which continue throughout the book. They seem to jump randomly among topics such as phobias, relationships, farewells, and death. Initially, it all comes off as strange and disjointed, like the shadowy figments and fragmented memories of a mind on the edge of sleep.

A small, clarifying rule for the book can be easily overlooked at the beginning. In the first poem entitled “A little tether,” Bertram recognizes the mind-bending journey that the reader is about to embark on, and seems to throw them a life-line, a grounding cable to some form of reality.

    The thing is just what’s said
    The line I try to get to
    There are rules even for dreams
    The cars are always cars I’ve driven
    The men men I’ve known


With that excerpt, the book is charged with an authenticity and a exposure that captivates the reader, and shifts the tone. These are not riddles without answers, designed to confuse. They are reminiscence, a recalling of things muddled—of pain and fear, of abuse, of “cars [she’s] driven,” and of “men [she’s] known.” No order is needed when baring one’s soul, and the fact that Bertram is willing to do so merits praise.

Approximately one third of the book, the middle third, is devoted to a seventeen-page prose poem called “Forecast.” A nervous woman, possibly Bertram, suffers from an intense fear of flying. It drives her thoughts, ironically, towards every article she can find on flight, plane crashes, plane construction, and flight history. Her fear pervades every part of her life, overcomes her attempts to suppress it, and outlives failed and unhealthy relationships. In a way, her fear becomes one of the only constants in her life. Her need to check the forecast every hour of the day on seven different websites, her constant searches and studies, these habits accompany her throughout her life where almost everything else changes. The final line of the poem is a surrender to the fright. “The only safe place to be was in a plane,” and the only constant in the author’s life is fear.

These pages stand in a striking contrast to the rest of the book. They rise from a fog of imaginations, a mountain in clouds. They are full of concrete settings, definite actions and reactions, as opposed to the more amorphous scenes of the other poems. It is as though the reader is allowed to come up for a breath, before returning to murky, simulated subconscious.

As she mentioned in “A little tether,” the men she has known play into the story frequently. Unsettling depictions of violence and sex frequent the pages, especially in the series of poems titled “Legends like these I keep keeping.”

    he made with the heat of his hands
    the night before our wedding
    made of my neck a bottle
    then ran me down the alley in nothing but
    a ghostwhite t-shirt & panties.


And then, later on in another “Legends” poem it reads:

    unfuckable. and don’t ever let a man fuck you up against an air-conditioner 
    I told you, & don’t ask me why, just don’t be the kabob on a shish, all skin &
    girl, ass against some window.

The alternating brutal and sensual details, alongside the explicit scenes, don’t so much hint at the speaker’s violent past, as much as they unfurl a host of chronicled dangers, a litany that bears repeating. Where the longer poems in the book have individual titles, “Legends like these I keep keeping” sets itself apart. Rather than it being just one poem, each page is its own moment, its own relationship. The legends that Bertram returns to are all relationships, each a different style, but all equally disquieting. Each is structured with a different form, tone, and voice, and each is a melancholy instance of trial and error, the experiments in Bertram’s deeply personal, scientific study.

Such poignant methodology is at the heart of this selection of Bertram’s poetry; it is an attempt to make sense of a life, a blending of experience, emotion, and things more indefinable. It is not an easy read, but it is a powerful one. It is a soulful collection, an acute and revelatory one. The poems never truly fit the mold of a confession, but they nonetheless work their way to a vulnerable reckoning. However, it is perhaps Bertram’s own “Homo narrans (iceberg)” that sums up Personal Science best:

    The glittering iceberg
    now not at all what I
    thought.


Saturday, November 3, 2018


Bluebonnets, Firewheels, and Brown-Eyed Susans
by David Lee
(Wings Press, 2017)

Reviewed by Nancy Takacs

In his sixteenth book of poems, Bluebonnets, Firewheels, and Brown-Eyed Susans, David Lee does something unique, while continuing to appeal to the big-hearted, the irreligious, and those with a funny bone. The book unearths his remembrances of women who lived in small-town west Texas, much like the one he grew up in, from 1948–1962, grappling with a Baptist culture. Several of the poems are in women’s voices, resonating with what women still have to deal with overall, but especially in rural America’s tight communities. 

“Poetry,” said Roethke, “is an act of mischief.” In his introduction, Lee warns us that this book will be so. He finds inspiration from his grandmother who wanted him to behave when he was four and told him to make up stories to keep himself from being bored. This is how he constructed his first tale. He dedicates the book to her.

Many writers and critics question whether writers of one gender can effectively get inside the mind of the other. Playwright Michelle Willens believes, “while women probably still write their own parts better, cheers for all who are daring to probe the ever-changing state of the sexes,” and literary critic Sarah Seltzer says, “[W]riting across gender may be harder, require more research and humility. We may fail or get ‘called out’ for letting our biases show…but the attempt at understanding, empathy, and inhabiting the soul of someone whose life experience is not ours, helps us grow as writers, and people too.”

Lee has given himself this challenge, it seems, to not only know and put forth what women felt, but to champion their strength and wildness, and to show compassion for their struggles. We come to know women who easily outsmart obtuse men, feisty women who know how to steal time away from family for their own pursuits, and who defy culture and religion to be themselves. The book also shows how selves and dreams became lost, while revealing subservience as a veneer, that no preacher or husband can snuff out a woman’s spirit. Men are foils for the women, who take center stage. 

Take for example, the poem (astutely set in the parts of a Greek tragedy) about Amanda, who married the dull Reverend Strayhan. She chooses an “anonymous” name, Amanda Strayhorn, and becomes a famous erotic writer among the Ladies Literary Society, all unbeknownst to the reverend. Coincidentally, her bible-thumping husband suddenly finds his libido, having excused himself from his former belief that wanton sex is Satan’s evil. After drinking a Coors beer that is tasteless, he determines it is a sign from God that he can do what he wants, misreading bible verses to twist them to justify his sudden license while depending on the misogynist Apostle Paul’s credo, “That all things are possible in those who love the Lord.” 

There is much more to this long poem—gossip at the Brenda’s Curl Up and Dye Hair House, ironic references to bible verses, and more of the Reverend’s excuses to become libidinous with his wife. By the end of the poem, those verses are riddled with puns, and the reader is wrapped in the melee that results from the unveiling of Amanda’s new identity, the reverend’s horrified discovery, and sides-stories about sex that intensify the irony. 

Lee has said, “I don’t believe in a God who frowns.” He was a seminary student at one time, though he left the seminary and always thought it to be the worst mistake he ever made. His dislike of preachy-ness shows. In a prior poem, we encounter the voice of the town librarian, who finally puts the hypocritical reverend in his place, in the church parking lot after a service:

    she said All my life
    I have engaged in a love affair
    with the written and spoken word
    devoted myself as Custodian of Culture
    to honor the right literary, civil, and genial
    use of language which I have always
    considered deity incarnate

    until my contact with you
    I believed we had sufficient wordage
    such as malarkist, buncombe, vacuous troglodyte,
    lambent dullard, cornaptious miscreant
    all perfectly acceptable terms short of verbiage
    for the socially and intellectually execrable
    therefore I had never comprehended
    manifest need for the coinage and usage
    of the nominative cocksucker
    prefaced by the adjective stupid
    to create what seems on certain occasions
    the formation of a perfect inferior syllogism
    until now
    and thanks to you
    I shall never again be confused 
    by the etymological necessity […]

As this interaction shows, characters in the town intersect in at times, compounding our knowledge of their traits and how others interact with them. We get to know them, as if we live next door. In several poems, Lee seems to have to right something, especially between women and their husbands. “The Fish,” with its epigraph from Elizabeth Bishop’s same-titled poem, enjoys the plight of Arty Gill when he ignores his chores and goes fishing, comes home drunk, and dumps a load of fish in the sink, expecting his wife Modean to clean them. When she refuses and finally leaves for days, the fish putrefy, and Arty has no choice but to put on a gas mask and clean the stink out of the house himself, using a hose, and an elaborate mixture of odd cleaners. The epigraph lingers as the poem ends with Modean’s success: “…victory filled / from the pool of bilge / where oil had spread a rainbow […] / until everything is 'rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!'”  

“Post Mortem After the Obsequies” features Mary Lynn, who looks back on her past, after her insufferable, emotionally abusive husband dies. He had consistently put her down, calling her Merlean, and never filled her desire for anything. She lost her dream to sing opera, and felt trapped. The portrait of her is drawn in her own voice, “I’ve never known the taste of truffles / but I’ve lived a life / cramful with trifles […]”

Towards the end of section “7 Coda: Last Call,” is an exquisite passage in which Mary Lynn deals with what is supposed to be grief for the loss of this man, knowing her mother’s and dog’s deaths were the only ones she felt true grief for. Lee substitutes wistfulness for grief, as her mind sets to resolve, to hope:

    Lord God,
    it’s one of those alone
    hard red wine nights
    foreshadowing a bloodshot tomorrow morning sky
    spiral broken moon splinters scattered
    all over the floor and on the furniture, lying
    like breathing, open-eyed antimacassar
    daring me to come sit anywhere near
    pushing me out the back door scared
    into the big alone

    Oh, but breathe in the waft of a ghost rain
    under a waxing cat scratch moon
    floating through live oak
    listen to the memory of a waif cinder maid
    singing Una Volta C’era Un Re
    and beneath me
    exactly between my feet
    a perfect moon-scarleted primrose
    glistening in the rekindling of the night

Lee has mentioned previously that Mary Lynn’s voice is very close to his mother’s, and that the dead husband in the poem is his step-father. The poem appears to give Mary Lynn back a few of her losses, and to celebrate her life, even as Lee imagines what it was like for her to live much of it sadly. Still searching for herself in old age, the voice rings true, right down to the core of her loneliness, her fears, as well as finding hope and boldness in nature and remembered music, suggesting both of these gave her relief, and perhaps relief to Lee, in the knowledge of how his mother may have observed, reflected, and opened, as she moved toward healing.

This is new terrain for Lee in some ways, but it is still him at his best. The swells of it, its risks, spot-on vernacular, humor, tenderness, and depth that calls forth Chaucer, Milton, Dante, and Greek tragedy will be familiar to readers of his previous work. It is both earthy and erudite. He is a magician, a weaver of poetry-tales unlike anything anyone else has written. It is a delight to once again share in his fine mind and heart.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Carrying
by Ada Limón
(Milkweed Editions, 2018)

Reviewed by Katie Jean Shinkle

To paraphrase and evoke Whitman, the poems in Ada Limón’s The Carrying are multitudinously vast, centered in binary dualities—life and death, despair and hope. The gorgeous lyricism in The Carrying does the work of holding the spaces of both the verb and noun of “carry” which embodies support, transport, transmission, infection, to be pregnant with, movement, acceptance, responsibility, consequence, and propulsion. The poems show us the experience of both devastation and reclamation, survival and thriving, hope, inside what it means to be acted on, to act on ourselves, and to act within the world.

A significant aspect of the duality of Limón’s poems is the invocation of the natural world, where there are 75-plus references of flora, fauna, natural locations, the occasional botanical name, and more standard references such as moon, ocean, and stars. These references conduct a magical significance all their own, as if specificity in naming gives way for an allowance and permission for a kind of carrying, entrance into, ownership of; the ways in which we can enter into the conversation about our humanity and how we choose (or possibly not choose) to survive. For example, in “Ancestors,” the speaker speaks of survival, both of the self and of ancestors/history, and the relationship of belonging within the framework of the natural world. 

    I’ve come here from the rocks, the bonelike chert,
                obsidian, lava rock. I’ve come here from the trees—

    chestnut, bay laurel, toyon, acacia, redwoods, cedar […] 

                Imagine you must survive

    without running? I’ve come from the lacing patterns of leaves,

                I do not know where else I belong.

Here we experience the duality of survival and extinction within the specificity of the natural world. The speaker is connected and belongs. Similarly, in a perfect depiction of the struggle of despair and hope, in “The Leash,” the speaker states,

    […] How can
    you not fear humanity, want to lick the creek
    bottom dry, to suck the deadly water up into
    your own lungs, like venom? Reader, I want to
    say: Don’t die. Even when silvery fish after fish
    comes back belly up, and the country plummets
    into a crepitating crater of hatred, isn’t there still
    sometimes singing? The truth is: I don’t know
    But sometimes, I swear I hear it.

In this instance, the reflection here regarding humanity and the natural world hits close to home. What are the results of our ecological destruction worth? How do we go about healing our Earth and each other? How do we carry on and through? How to find a glimmer of hope? As Limón states, we don’t know about the hope, but our wish is that sometimes it is there. 

Limón conjures death both in the literal evocation of death of humans (a young man who overdoses, a miscarried child), death as collapse in the natural world (roadkill, dead animals, flowers not sprung from the earth), and metaphorical and symbolic death/dying (father with Alzheimer’s, the struggle of trying to conceive a child, a corrupt US government, ICE raids, the problematic symbols of America (national anthem, flag), racial tokenism, sexism). In “Mastering,” the speaker encompasses this duality as “…how mute and mirror I can be,” illustrating the rupture of a blistering, painful moment between herself and an old, male friend discussing having children, but perhaps also the appropriate reaction to the inevitable life and death cycle. Even through all of the explorations of tragedy and suffering that Limón eloquently extrapolates from the most tender and fraught moments, there is a sense of hope and rebirth. In “Almost Forty,” the speaker admits, 

    […] I’ve never been someone

    to wish for too much, but now I say,
    I want to live a long time. You look up

    from your work and nod, Yes, but
    in good health.

Similarly, in “Trying,” Limón writes, 

    Even now, I don’t know much
    about happiness. I still worry
    and want an endless stream of more,
    but some days I can see the point
    in growing something, even if
    it’s just to say I cared enough.

In these examples, Limón outlines moments that keep us hopeful in the face of life’s unfathomable tragedies, suffering, heartbreak; and willing to seek an answer to the inevitable question she poses in the poem “The Real Reason,” “…But do we / ever really know each other fully?”

The Carrying encapsulates the complexity of what it means to go along with the living, the hope in being alive and thriving, the precious dualities of life that are a universal experience for all human beings in this world. As in this moment from “Dead Stars,” the poems of The Carrying document the experiences and emotions that propel us forward. 

    But mostly we’re forgetting we’re dead stars, too, my mouth is full
                of dust and I wish to reclaim the rising—

    to lean in the spotlight of the streetlight with you, toward
                what’s larger within us, toward how we were born.

    Look, we are not unspectacular things. 
                We’ve come this far, survived this much. What

    would happen if we decided to survive more? To love harder? 

Friday, July 27, 2018

jämtska — of fluids and listening.
by stinne storm
(Aarhus, dk: Antipyrine, 2017; mainland, La Verne, CA: Toad Press, 2016))

Reviewed by Amy Brunvand

Storm’s recent books, the chapbook mainland and the full-length jämtska – of fluids and listening are minimalist poems, similar in style and theme. A Danish language review describes storm’s poetic style as “amerikansk,” while storm’s website describes her own writing as “hybrid language” and notes that it differs in form from dominant trends in Scandinavian poetry. The poems consist of thought fragments, fleeting images that seem slight on first reading but that conceal surprising complexity and unexpected relationships. In spacious, white pages the poet provides room for contemplation. Ideas become recursive as words and sentence structures re-appear. The best way to approach this work is to read slowly, letting ideas settle. It takes more than one reading for the whole to coalesce. 

The chapbook mainland is storm’s translation of her own poem fastland (Copenhagen: Edition Afterhand, 2012) which she originally wrote in Danish. It is part of the Toad Press International Chapbook Series that focuses on English translations of avant-garde poetry. While mainland offers no parallel text, there is a visual clue to storm’s own concept of how the Danish and English versions are related. An illustration of a wild rose appears on the cover of fastland and a picture of a rose hip on mainland—the same flower in different seasons. With just a few words and phrases on each page, the poem offers soft breaths of images, but with a bite:

    things we were thinking of 
    went through the room. They are sharp [acute/pointed] 

    as funeral and red wine

The sentence fragments form around images of hunting in a landscape populated by lurking animals, hidden in shadows and dens, running from smoke. A blundering human presence disrupts the scene, “shooting down things from the sky. (south) birds / and whatever else you can hit.”

Towards the end, the poet poses a question that contains a mysterious, unfamiliar word, “who sends you tupilaqs?” Unpacking the word “tupilaq” practically requires an ethnographic study. It’s a whole poem in itself. Tupilaqs are a kind of Nordic voodoo doll made by Greenland Inuits to kill a specific enemy. Carved from bones (sometimes human) or made from other body parts, a tupilaq can be given life force through shamanic rituals that include sucking on the genitals of its maker. Then it is released into the sea to swim away and find its victim. Tupilaqs are not always loyal. The victim can deflect the attack by re-enchanting the monster and sending it back to kill its creator. Nowadays tupilaq carvings are made and sold as objets d’art without the ceremonies that animate them into vengeance demons. So storm’s startling question might mean, who wants to kill you? But pulled into the present from 3,000 years of cultural history it might also mean, who sends you art from foreign lands?

Jämtska – of fluids and listening is a full-length book with a similarly minimalist poem written mostly in English with occasional Danish. For many English-speaking Americans non-English languages present a challenge. According to the U.S. Census Bureau only 20.7% of Americans know a second language well enough to use it in everyday life, let alone to read and enjoy poetry. Yet the choice of title indicates that storm intends the reader, whether bilingual or not, to grapple with language. “Jämtska” is another Nordic word loaded with metaphor, though for English speakers the meaning is not obvious without first performing an act of translation. It refers to a Scandinavian dialect spoken in the Swedish province of Jämtland, which may or may not be considered its own language. While Jämtska speakers have asked the Swedish government for recognition as a separate minority language, the dialect is nonetheless intelligible to people fluent in Standard Swedish. Metaphorically, Jämtska is a foreign language that one can nevertheless understand. The principle comes into play on the first page with lines written in Danish, confounding English-speaking readers except for one startling English phras, “sacrifice zones.” Scanning the Danish for cognates turns up a few words close enough to convey meaning. Atomprøvesprængninger.  Atomic testing. Amerikanske vest. American West.  It seems that while the Jämtlanders have been demanding recognition as a distinct cultural group, transitory Americans have bombed their own desert into oblivion. 

Not all of the images are solemn. Storm is playful with language, sometimes even jocular. She translates and transliterates her thoughts to produce compelling new images out of the empty spaces in between language. In a section labeled “cellar” two people are arguing in colloquial English about going down in the basement to turn on the furnace. The conversation is funny. Even with no physical description of the cellar, you can imagine someone not wanting to go down into that spooky, spider-infested place, 

    i’ll show you the cellar and the pilot light. you say i don’t wanna see the cellar.

    —if you wanna stay warm in winter you wanna see the cellar. you say i
        wanna be cold

What is lurking in that cellar? Despite the humor, the fragment leaves an afterimage. Somehow, you can’t reach a state of warmth and comfort without first passing through some dark and menacing place. 

In “blushing,” storm follows a Danish language fragment with a mischievous confession, “i like rephrasing your questions.” She uses rephrasing as a poetic device throughout as in “birds (10/1)” a straightforward account of avian migration, the reaction to a dream of the snow to come, “it is not the cold of winter it is lack of food that causes their long flight some will stay / here as they are unable to make the distance.” The description is reworked in “birds (10/2)” to internalize the meaning of the thought,

    wake to the sound of your breath in a tight chest cold air inhabits the room as your 
    thoughts return from migrating

    some will stay there as they are unable to make the distance

The person who would rather be cold has been transliterated into a bird that would rather be hungry, into a thought that would rather stay home. The vision seems to represent grounding in place, or perhaps a fear of leaving, a shared nativeness that is strong enough to give rise to its own language, or more accurately its own jämtska.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Lapidary's Nosegay 
by Lara Candland
(Center for Literary Publishing, 2018)

Reviewed by B.J. Buckley

A lapidary is an artisan skilled at the cutting, polishing, and engraving of stone and gemstones for decoration and ornament, but also thereby refining and revealing previously unperceived facets of the material. A nosegay is a small bouquet of flowers, usually presented as a gift of affection and friendship, conveying, by the particular choice of blossom and hue, a symbolic message to the recipient, as well as the delight of color and fragrance. Emily Dickinson, invoked here (among others) as a sustaining and spiritual presence throughout this complex sequence of poems, filled her verses with thousands of references to both gemstones and flowers. For Candland, Dickinson’s poems are both mine and seed bank.

One can think of both Dickinson and Candland as lapidaries—mining language for opulent, unusual, even obscure words; carving and polishing them, and placing them in poems like jewels in carefully designed settings. But Dickinson was also a consummate gardener; her letters to friends and family are full of accounts of her efforts. She sometimes sent little gifts of pressed leaves, petals, and seeds. Indeed, she once referred to her small sewn pamphlets of poems as “posies,” another word for nosegays. Candland, too, is a horticulturist. Like any serious breeder of plants, she has saved seeds—hundreds of words harvested from the poems of The Belle of Amherst—and made many crosses, hoping for new hybrids with characteristics previously hidden in their genetic treasure houses.

By referencing gemstones—whose material seems permanent, but which can be ground to dust; and flowers, consummate embodiment of the ephemeral, but whose fragrance is one of the strongest triggers of memory and whose deaths yield the seeds of the next generation of blossom—both Dickinson and Candland invoke the shifting balances between body and ghost, mortality and immortality, presence and absence, intimacy and distance.

    c(o)chineal –

                            marj(o)ram –

    (&)     (((god’s)))  (((gem-tactics))) –

              colors t(o) tease & slake        ((flit))

              &             ((flit))          unannointed

    until we put a ((word)) t(o) every insect


Each poet also addresses, via generally Christian citation and image, a felt distance from institutionalized religion and a closeness to the states of rapture and awe in raw experience of the world which seems the foundation of human religious feeling. In her introductory poem, “NOTES ON THE WRITING OF The Lapidary’s Nosegay,” here is how Candland characterizes herself and Dickinson:

    We are Calvin’s bastard daughters – transl(u)cent heretics &

              Christian women                      seeded with invasive doctrines

    My ((gh(o)st))

                                                sees me as a weak-hybrid-housekeeper

              a M(o)rmon Quakeress

                                        (which is) practically (n(o)) thing at all

                                                                            &

                                                                      (((She)))

    the ((Winged)) ((( Queen)) of her (ow)n congregation of

                                                                    b(o)ne &

                                        (((flowers))) & (((j(ew)els))) & ((winged)) things

                    pr(o)fessing the herbarium      ‘s gospel

    ((((me thr(o)ugh the (((P(o)etess’s wind(ow))))))))

                                                                                            (((o!)))




                                      we lay down with (((god))) in our (ow)n dark l(oa)m

The book is organized as a primer: sets of one or more poems whose initial letters traverse the alphabet. Each small section is introduced by the corresponding verse from The New England Primer, the first reading primer designed for colonial American schools by Puritan emigrants, among whom Dickinson counted her ancestors. Many of the texts in the Primer were lifted from the King James Version of the Bible, and to those same texts Dickinson also went for images and inferences, especially to the Book of Revelation for phrases and metaphors about jewels and gems. Implicit in Candland’s choice of structure is a promise to “teach us to read” in a new way, to reveal to the reader a different and shining language.

Punctuation is yet another facet Candland and Dickinson each called to their aid in crafting poems, but in very different ways. When Dickinson’s poems were initially published, punctuation was added by editors according to the common usage of the time, rendering them nearly unrecognizable, in some cases, and compromising or destroying carefully articulated meaning. Her originals eschewed punctuation almost entirely for small dashes, the occasional question or exclamation mark, skilled lineation, and a fine trust in the astute reader’s ear and eye.

Candland’s strategy is in some aspects opposite. She employs parentheses, in sets of one, two, three, seven, and three with an o! inside (there is a key to these markings immediately following the table of contents) to ornament/emphasize vowel sounds, syllables, words, groups of words, images, objects, creatures, and phrases. Sometimes these are collections of concrete nouns piled up chock-a-block like a dragon’s treasure hoard: ears, wings, angels, birds, butterflies, petals, sun, jewels. Sometimes they are Latinate abstractions—words for the real but invisible realm of the unsaid, unanswered, ineffable, prayer, ghost visitations, clouds, air, spirits, the Belle of Amherst herself. Frequently multiple sets of grouped parentheses will be arranged around/over/in a single word, or in multiple otherwise blank portions of the pages. This parenthetic multiplication can seem to scintillate on the page, as light does when it enters, bounces around inside, and exits different facets of a cut gem. Her use of irregular line length and placement on the page also forces the eye to almost constant motion, again as light refracts through the facets of a jewel. In some poems she also employs two small parallel lines of dots to symbolize stars, pearls, daisy chain, diadem, constellations, eggs, insects, and/or microbes.

Here are two brief, ornamented excerpts as example:

    Pare this sapphire   (((apple)))

          of s(u)persilious bl(ue)

    & b(o)lts on uns(ew)n watered silk

    lodged in      (((Great Aunt’s)))   box (o)f  fascicles



    (((Moth-star dropt)))        int(o) the (o)rchard

        and last night –

                                                                              (((o!)))

                the wind has already been ((murmuring))

                                                                  (((o!)))

        int(o) the petite ear

    of the (((asph(o)del))) –—


If there are reservations, the first is that a work so typographically complex and visually difficult to parse is rendered in what seems to be a tiny eight- or nine-point font, making many pages fatiguing to read for any sustained period. The second is that this complex system of ornamentation eventually distracts too greatly from the beautiful, eccentric, quirky, and sometimes outright magnificent flow of the deftly original poems Candland has fashioned from Dickinson’s words. One wishes that she, like Dickinson, had trusted more in lineation and the finely tuned eyes and ears of her readers.

The question also arises concerning the nature of Candland’s enterprise as a whole. It is homage, certainly; but her enterprise seems a good deal more than merely that. It is a particularly daring kind of heresy to take on—in such a radical, fractured, and fractal way—one of the two poets (the other was Whitman) who irrevocably altered the way poetry was conceived of, written, and read in American English. Dickinson took, for a majority of her poems, the metered, rhyming form of the American hymn stanza (also used in “The Yellow Rose of Texas”) and stood it heretically on its ear with conversational diction; oblique rhyme; a phraseology based on human breathing; reassembling of grammar; wanton word invention; and a concept of divinity ecstatically trapped in its mortal creation, to and about whom she spoke as if god were one of the neighbors.

Candland’s linguistic manipulations are emphatically post-modern. Her characterization of this as the work of a lapidary is apt indeed—Dickinson’s own words the jewels, Candland’s nearly shattered, widely spaced lines and their typographical embellishments and adornments the setting. Candland has invoked and fashioned a sort of parallel universe where her own and Dickinson’s poetic and personal pasts and futures are simultaneous and coexistent—where flesh and ghost cohabit, coincide, and converse.  

Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance 
by Fady Joudah
(Milkweed Editions, 2018)

Reviewed by Donna Vorreyer

Footnotes are traditionally used to clarify information, provide details the reader may need to fully comprehend the text or offer definitions/explications of unfamiliar terms, people, places, or sources. They are also ordered numerically, in logical order of appearance in the main text. In this way, even the title of Fady Joudah’s Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance implies that what we think we know about the world will be transformed in this collection, that everything is ephemeral even if it is documented or explained. Perhaps this comes from Joudah’s knowledge as a physician that all corporeal flesh comes to the same end. But this collection is not a dirge for the end of things; in fact, it is the opposite. More than anything else, this collection seems to be an homage to the act of being alive and being seen.
       
The poems in this book alternate between simple narratives that reveal truths about human nature and complex lyrics that challenge the reader with unusual syntax, wild linguistic leaps, and spiritual allusions. It is a book of dichotomies, one where the specific scientific/medical language of the intellect is juxtaposed and layered with the more surreal and imagistic language of the heart. Moments of tenderness and suffering, of subjectivity and of objectivity, peace and no peace live together here, sometimes in the same poem. 

Joudah’s reverence for and attention to the body are evident throughout the book. Several poems reference his medical training. “Progress Notes” moves from a description of the speaker’s own face to one of a medical school cadaver, ending with a revelation about mortality, “I had come across that which will end me, ex- / tend me, at least once, without knowing.” “Thank You” recalls a professor who held a memorial service for the cadavers. The speaker volunteers to recite Quran verses in Arabic and have the professor repeat them in English. The poems ends with a discovery and an appreciation for being seen, acknowledged.

    “You didn’t notice it,” my friend later asked me, “the discomfort 
    in the room when you read?” I didn’t, I told him. “All I heard 
    and felt was how you, Professor, delivered. Every syllable, word.”

This reverence for the body is not just medical. One of the shortest and most powerful poems in the collection is called “1st Love.” In this poem, the features of the body are recited as a way of knowing, of recognizing the soul and the divine with the corporeal:

    When God began you she
    said to me one spring afternoon in bed
    God began

    with your hands
    a woman’s hands
    And when God reached your wrists
    God made the rest of you a man

This idea of seeing, of recognition, is also significant in numerous prose poems in the collection, many of them complete narratives that unfold with layered meaning. “tea and sage” is a moving tale of love, time, war, and sacrifice. This story begins with “Dear poem, today I learned…” which gives the whole piece the feeling of a story being told to friends, perhaps passed down from person to person, recognizing over and over the people who lived it. “The Scream” is a deceptively simple but stunning description of a playground injury scene that makes the reader question what innocence and guilt look like. After the bloody-nosed child, the victim in the story, points out the perpetrator:

                    I questioned the accused and he seized into
    absence. A nurse came and took Abel. I stroked Cain’s hair, his
    frightened stare, gorgeous eyes, he was beautiful.

And in “An Algebra Come Home,” an immigrant fruit vendor in Paris has his samples of peaches either ignored or taken and eaten without so much as a glance, a word, or a thank you. Until the speaker sees “you,”  

    you waited as you chewed then picked four fruits, one for each chamber. He said,
    “Gorgeous, you’re the one who’d mended my heart.”

Here again, the act of seeing. Of recognition. And here again the body, the four chambers of the heart.

The book is ordered in three sections, the second one being a series of collaborations with Syrian Kurdish poet Golan Hajii, composed in Arabic through a series of meetings, phone conversations, and emails and written in English by Joudah. One poem, “in a cemetery under the walnut tree that crows,” functions as mesmerizing ars poetica and testament to will with lines such as:

    I found a needle and with it

    I dug a well
    dug and dug until I struck ink

    [...]
    A lantern came down on a rope that a girl held
    I sent up the part of me that was light

The lyric beauty of Joudah’s poems is also something to admire. There is astounding sonic wordplay in poems like “Some Things.”

    Some things atrophy
    catastrophe
    rapture
    my position in the fifth column of your ringlets

And complex combinations of medical, personal, sensual, and political language and ideas in “Footnotes to a Song,”

    Echo has no compass: we trace each other’s dermatomes
    No ecstasy without betrayal: not all who live in flames are saints
    Great art needs no nation: in memory country size is one
    Great nations need great art: soliloquy a mother tongue.

This collection causes the reader to ponder the body, its place in time and the physical world, and to return to the idea that is most lasting and necessary for survival—connection. The poem “non-terminal” says,

    Touch me 
          I’m alive again
    there isn’t enough time or proximity
    for your essence or mine         to vanish

    we’ll remain
        fire and ice who turn to glass
    that doesn’t shatter

    mercury
        if it shatters

Like fire and ice and mercury, the poems in this collection undulate, crackle, and elude, all to ensure that the ridiculous and sublime delights and fears of the world our bodies inhabit do not go unnoticed.