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



    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))))))))


                                      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 –


                the wind has already been ((murmuring))


        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
    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

        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.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Conflict Tours by Jonathan Travelstead
(Cobalt Press, 2017)

Reviewed by Michael McLane

My day job entails organizing literary events around the state of Utah, including a statewide book festival that happens each fall. In 2015, a colleague sent me a copy of Jonathan Travelstead’s first book, How We Bury Our Dead, a wrenching collection of poems detailing Travelstead’s tour in Iraq with the Air National Guard, the loss of his mother to cancer, and his work as a firefighter in Illinois. I was floored by the work, and during a brief conversation at a conference that spring, invited him to Utah for a couple readings as well as a workshop with veterans.

A few months later, we were just a couple blocks from the VA hospital when Travelstead looked at me and said, “You know, I’ve never done this before.” He was nervous, and now I was nervous, though I tried to downplay it. It had never occurred to me to ask him if he had worked with veterans before. Something in his eagerness and confidence, as well as the candor and compassion in his work, just left me assuming he had. I had no reason to worry. What followed that exchange was a two-hour discussion of Yusef Komunyakaa, Anne Caston, and many others, as well as a poignant conversation on how writing allows us to navigate anxiety, loss, and healing that left even the most reluctant of participants captivated. Some wrote about their military experience for the first time in their lives. Travelstead looked like he’d been there a thousand times before.

It is this same Travelstead that we see time and time again in his second collection, Conflict Tours—throwing himself headlong out of his comfort zone repeatedly, because of curiosity, empathy, or simply a desire to be engaged, to be helpful. The conflict of the title is real, be it life and death struggles along the U.S./Mexican border, the literal and cultural fallout that remains in the Ukraine following the Chernobyl disaster, or Travelstead’s own struggles with ADD/ADHD. Both the military and recreational connotations of the word “tours” are at play, sometimes simultaneously, and Travelstead does not shy away from the complexities that the roles of soldier, fireman, or tourist carry with them.

The book opens along the U.S. border with Mexico, where Travelstead volunteered for a stint with the border patrol and witnesses the abuses that transpire throughout this landscape. He condemns much of what he sees, but also places such tragedies within a larger cycle of abuse that immigrants of all backgrounds have been subjected to throughout our history. In the poem “Field Worker,” he compares the black-lunged fate of his coal mining great-grandfather to the field workers of the Southwest exposed to agricultural toxins daily:
    My eyes open again on the fields, and I see hours when minutes
    are all we have, field workers trading

    the only previous thing they have for what settles in the hands
    before reaching the lungs, their family, I see the working dead.
    Grandfathers and children alike, their leathery hands

Or in the opening moments of “Border Patrol, Arizona,” where Travelstead is thrown immediately into the role of a medic with frighteningly insufficient resources:

         The square-jawed sergeant snatches my order.
Nothing that matters burns here. Congratulations, Airman First Class—
         You’re a medic. Shunts me to female private beneath
    the basketball hoop, who, with an IV and an orange bruised soft as skin,
         instructs me on the military’s care towards aliens.
    Cups my hand clasping the orange in hers. Finds the sweet spot in four
         or less punctures. Suddenly it’s my lone hand holds the fruit.

Travelstead’s sympathies clearly lie with those wandering the desert, be it for the benefit of their families, or in the attempts to flee violence, only to find themselves in the arms of another, albeit slower, form of violence. The stories of his own immigrant ancestors are made flesh and blood repeatedly in the poems. The duplicity of those the migrants encounter is clear, as with the farmer in “Riding the Beast,” who is happy to have the help as “no one educated enough for English picks / in the upper branches” but then jokes about the dangers of train hopping his workforce endures when “a hundred chalupas atop a train is a family portrait, / but when a train car slices into a low-slung tunnel / it’s a damn good start […]”Ultimately, the border becomes a seemingly arbitrary and meaningless method of rationalizing greed, racism, and dehumanization. It is a place where we are left with the same question posed to the poet by two wild horses in a later poem, “Tell me who you are to draw a line / our myths cannot cross.”

The poems in Conflict Tours oscillate between concerns external and internal, but the poet’s personal conflicts receive every bit as much scrutiny as the troubles he witnesses in geopolitical hot spots and war zones. Ostensibly, section two and its detailing of long bike trips and Appalachian Trail hikes lands the reader in a lighter place than the border poems. However, it becomes clear quickly that the physical activity and endurance inherent to these activities are both recreation and an ongoing challenge, a means of working through anxieties resulting both from the poet’s professional and military experiences and from his own ADD/ADHD. “Ultralight” opens this section and is a litany of the objects in the speaker’s pack along with their corresponding weights in grams. It ends with a declaration of emotional weight and surety that would make Tim O’Brien proud:
    Closed, I clutch the blade
    dangling loose from the slipknot on my chest strap—
    less than a kilo of pull and it’s freed. Bumps
    tumoring my hip-belt pocket.
    Adderall. I know where everything is,
    exactly how much I carry.

The aforementioned Adderall, what Travelstead calls his “pitbull pills” are a constant companion in the poems. They become, in many ways, a character in and of themselves, as in “Rapture,” an ode of sorts to the clear-headedness they allow:

            […] Hummingbird
    nested in the space between ribs. Your last thought,
    you are it, sustained forever.

    O Benzedrine, Dexedrine.
    O cold blue angel of methylphenidate, Concerta, and Ritalin—
    I hum with praise, I hum with joy

The complexity of this relationship becomes central in the book’s third section, which is devoted almost entirely to exploring this state of anxiety and how a regimen of medications, physical exertion, and wanderlust allow a means of navigating through them. “Analysis Paralysis” illustrates how even the most banal tasks become impossible in such a state of mind, while the poem’s staccato, checklist form creates just such a state for the reader:
    A quick in-and-out and nobody gets hurt, you promise,
    popping a sleeved capsule before walking into
    the Kroger’s. Only suddenly
    it’s two-oh-five
    and you’ve been fingering packages
    of meat on Manager’s Special for fifteen minutes
    comparing orange stickers on sirloin.

The titles of the book’s third section alone are indicative of the ups and downs which Travelstead is both enduring and exploring in the work—“Pleasure Principle (Pitbull Pills),” “Scientist,” “Analysis Paralysis,” “Failure,” “Monster,” and “Ghost.” But there is also something in the long, expansive lines that populate many of the poems, and with which Travelstead is so adept, that strips the poems of ambivalence and makes his work an emotional tour de force. Nowhere is this on display more clearly than in this third section, in poems such as “Failure”:
    Better to forget what plateau means, and the law of diminishing returns,

    how muscle ceases making gains when worked the same way twice.
    Sometimes even I try unyoking myself but Failure’s been calling the shots
    so long he’s not going to give up. Laughs like a loon imitating a hyena.
    Jerks the chain tighter, and this time when he smears my face in it

    I come away with a bloody nose

Though its poems are more historical in nature and perhaps are more precise in many ways than the more personal work in the poems that precede them, Conflict Tours is at its best in its fourth section. The section is a collection of nine poems that traces Travelstead’s journey through the Ukraine, particularly his time spent in the “Zone of Alienation,” the restricted zone around Pripyat, the town evacuated after the meltdown of the reactor at Chernobyl. Here, we meet Oksana, his guide to the Exclusion Zone who, with the aid of various radiation detectors, helps him discern where he can and cannot go. We encounter glowing trees, the eerie, fly-by-night state of Pripyat, which is being reclaimed by the forest around it, and the abundant wildlife that has returned to the area. The cognitive dissonance that such a place should cause any visitor is a treasure trove for Travelstead, as in the poem “Proximity,” where he is astounded by the indifference of the nearby wildlife to their presence, to which Oksana responds,

                         […] it’s not curiosity

    or pride, but time and nearness that make us forget
    what is truly dangerous. A window
    on the third floor where her red hair blazed as she wheeled
    to the white wolf like rolling thunder in the doorway.

    it’s lupine breath, penny rot. 

Travelstead calls his travels “an addiction to traveling to places of internal or recent conflict.” It would be easy to dismiss such excursions as disaster tourism were it not for the empathy that is always centered in his work. Nowhere is this more evident than in the poem “The Liquidators” which functions as the heart of the Chernobyl poems. In it, we discover that Travelstead’s motivation for visiting Pripyat lay not so much in its devastation and reclamation, but in a kind of pilgrimage to the monument left for the liquidators—the fire fighters and other first responders who lost their lives battling the initial fire and trying to contain the subsequent contamination caused by the meltdown—and to research the hours leading up the hellish circumstances that cost them everything. The poem is an in-depth look at the interactions of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Brigade and the Pripyat Brigade as the meltdown began. Travelstead is technically precise in the jargon and dialogue, while still compelling. We are thrown headlong into what are essentially lyric logistics, and they are heartbreaking:

    Thumbing the mic, I recall the rate of depletion, our half-life in these conditions,

    and the assurance in Newton’s Second Law that there is no death,
    but a changing of energy.
Put out Reactor Four or they’re all going up!
    Some relief comes when Commander Leonid arrives,

    assumes command from the roof of Reactor Three where he directs
    extinguishment of five fires formed into tornados of their own weather.  

That Travelstead would journey across continents to one of the least tourist-friendly spots on Earth in order to pay the briefest of  respects to his firefighting brothers says as much about him and his work as anything I can say here. The complex empathy of the poem, the giving of a voice to those memorialized in a place that essentially no one can visit, only reinforces this. It is a feat he replicates throughout his work, and is perhaps best summarized in some of the final words of Vladimir Pavlovych Pravik, one of the two members of the power plant brigade to die that day:

    In the silence I mouth
Thank you, that I am become a tool

    and not a weapon […]

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sycamore by Kathy Fagan
(Milkweed Edition, 2017)

Reviewed by Cassandra Cleghorn

Kathy Fagan’s poems have lent their talismanic power to readers for over thirty years: in The Raft; Moving & St Rage; The Charm; Lip; and now, blessedly, Sycamore. In book after book, Fagan teases, bringing to light what we thought we knew, what we want to learn, what she has come to know, and what she will tell so as to include us in her wild unknowing.

As a volume, Sycamore displays extraordinary coherence. In a recent interview, Fagan admits that it’s something of a “project book” insofar as its subjects “consumed my days and nights and bled over into my artistic life, and as such… entered the poems, shaped the poems, and my vision of what the poems could be.” The book’s title, its stunning design (cover by Michael Kellner), and more than half the poems put trees front and center. Plantanaceae is the prominent family: the American sycamore or buttonwood, and its cousin, the London plane, trees distinguished by their stature, their hardiness in cities, and by the pale, mottled camouflage of their bark.

The opening, wildly inventive poem, “Plantanaceae Family Tree,” contains seeds of myths from Egypt and beyond, of the poems that will follow, and of poems as yet unwritten. In “Letter to What’s Mostly Missing,” Fagan plants some tree knowledge: “That’s all for now, except to say that, unlike other trees, / the sycamore’s bark can’t expand, so it just breaks off, / which accounts for its Bernini-like sheen.” She builds “Inscription” around the story of the 42,000 plane trees that have lined the Canal du Midi since the 1830s. Over the past decade, the old trees have succumbed to a fungus, and are being felled and burned by the thousands. But Fagan never sentimentalizes, “So what / if we are replaceable? Mostly I love how / we burst the prisons of our skins and shine.”

Contemporary philosopher Michael Marder might place Fagan’s tree poems in the tradition of what he calls “plant thinking,” “a way of thinking that is not only about plants, but with them,” a form of “intimacy grounded in difference.” When Fagan sees herself in or as a tree and vice-versa, or when she converses with trees and has them converse among themselves, she tries out strange and wonderful strategies of cross-species identification. In “Santa Caterina’s Tomb” and “Inscription,” she calls the sycamore her “emblem,” evoking the Catholic tradition according to which the sycamore represents clear vision of Christ. But tree is never reduced to symbol. In “Inscription,” she admits, “Mostly I love the light / they hold inside, the all-too-much and aged toujours / of them, their airborne electricities. Who’s to explain / affinities like these?”

“I may look smooth—” she tells the reader at the beginning of “Self-Portrait as Sycamore in Copper and Pearl,” and complicates the analogy right away:

                           but take a long hard                                                                                                                                                look. Take a biopsy.

    Interrogate my juices
               under your scope &
            you’ll survive as I have
                                the sylvan hallelujah

    moments, bullion bars
     fanning through the showy
           oaks & maples & the sweet
                    sweet gums. When blue is

    dominant all over
    the earth, atmosphere is king,
          the air so hammers-on-
                    strings-perfect it steals

    the voices right off
          the birds.

Fagan’s lines move through human and tree bodies with what feels at times like laparoscopic zeal. Language is a calibrated instrument that pushes into the blight that must be discovered. At other times, Fagan’s lines exert a no less visceral, but infinitely more tender pressure on the surface. In “Sycamore in Jericho,” a poem about the diminutive tax collector, Zaccheus, who climbed the sycamore so he could see Christ, the speaker employs her reiki touch (on herself, on her reader):

    And after that, I felt, for a long time after, a weight on me then,
    a heated impression, hotter than the sun’s,
    like a word can leave or the memory of a child
    in one’s arms.

Losses of every kind also reverberate through the book’s bright air and are absorbed into its tissues. In “Letter to What’s Mostly Missing,” she writes, “In any case, one can only ask how many / names for the past there are. I am one.” We recognize the stage of life from which these poems issue. As she writes in “Black Walnuts,” “It is the season of separation & falling / Away.” What trees and humans share, Fagan might say, lifting a phrase from “Sycamore Envies the Cottonwoods Behind Your Place,” is “the one altricial need,” a species-wide certainty that each of us begins and ends in a state of fragility and perfect dependence.

In the extraordinary final poem, “Eleven-Sided Poem,” eleven tree species accost the poet after her death. “[O]ne of the whiter / sycamores who live on the river said, / Kathy, why didn’t you live in your body more?” The poet defends herself, “So, I said. Listen, you trees / (though I could not speak), / I remember dying to grow up. Standing / on tiptoe to pull my own baby / teeth.”

“Nervure” (the hollow veins in a leaf, or an insect’s wing) is one of the many poems in which the poet reaches her full lyric span and height—consistently and swervingly true, never portentous in that way poets of lesser skill can adopt as their default move: “I will die knowing less than I know now: That I bartered / my children for words and my words for love. That all my debts / were paid in full. And that when I was finally a child again myself, / scared, hungry, and cold, I was aware of none of this.” “Convent of Santa Chiara and the Poor Clares” is set in Assisi. When I read this poem, I began to think of Sycamore as providing a kind of hospice care in the archaic sense, a way station where one finds basic sustenance, but also comfort and the quiet chance for a reckoning. Such reckonings happen every few pages. In “Choral Sycamores: A Valediction,” Fagan builds an ars poetica around the figure of Daphne: “Like her / We are beheld unheld; we will not leave / The earth alive.”
Fagan’s way station, if at times primitive in the elemental sense of the word, is never austere. The book is full of the poet’s characteristic humor and the delight she has always taken in intricate wordplay, but is more indulgent in its pleasures than the previous books. Every pun pays unexpected dividends, windfalls of meaning. Most importantly, above Sycamore shines a sky of evident joy. At the end of “Letter to What’s Mostly Missing,” is a double gesture of tenderness offered and received: “The oak says, Let me spread / this mantle of blue over your cold marble shoulders, / Sycamore. And what can she say but yes.” We join this poet and her trees in affirmation. Sycamore warns and warms us, and deserves in return every show of love we can offer.