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.