Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Those Who Keep Arriving

by Julie Danho
(Silverfish Review Press, 2020) 

Reviewed by Millie Tullis

Julie Danho’s Those Who Keep Arriving places intimate ekphrastic poems alongside poems that examine the bonds of family in the face of the reality of human violence. Danho zooms in and out with remarkable clarity, examining the details and imagining the processes of the art she encounters. The fragile bodies and powerful histories of family members, strangers, and the self are both studied and held in this expertly woven body of poems.

Danho’s collection opens with “Erased de Kooning,” which examines both a piece of art and an idea: “Robert Rauschenberg wanted to know if unmaking art / could make art.” The silent questions behind the poem and much of the collection may also be the most familiar and difficult ones: What is art? What is art for? What is the difference between art and idea? Between humans and their art? The speaker turns to the beloved, who is absent from, but intellectually imagined to be, studying the piece alongside the speaker. “If you were here, how you would / praise this, how we would argue over whether this was true, / over what, if anything, was.” But the speaker determines, “My love, Rauschenberg lied.” After studying the erased canvas, sprouting “de Kooning’s violet crayon” and seeing that “there are even eyes, / still looking” the speaker answers, “The idea, / yes. But how his arms must have ached afterwards.” After a month of Rauschenberg’s effortful unmaking, the canvas is changed, but it is not wiped clean.

While in “Erased de Kooning,” the speaker and her imagined love stand before a painting and an idea, in “Process Inspiration for the Final Piece,” a response to Carles Piera Claramunt’s installation from Inner Light: An Art and Therapy Experience at the End of Life, the speaker must enter and move through a room filled with lightbulbs in order to view the artwork. Instead of making light, the lightbulbs playfully interact with the observers-turned-participants, knocking “lightly against our faces, arms, even knees, / no matter how carefully we slip between. / Inside each, in place of the filament, // a feather.” While this room was once part of a Barcelona hospital, “where people came to be saved, or try // to be saved,” and lightbulbs were needed to provide light, now the peacock-feather-filled bulbs offer the participants something else:

now we stand here

amidst bulbs with no glow, no heat, useless

except for their glory, the way they bell

off our bodies, their feathers like tongues

either silent or ringing

at a register that’s too high to hear.

Danho’s poems are not afraid of this kind of wonder; these poems provide an understanding that is both ordinary, knocking against our bodies, and occasionally just beyond our reach. In “The Night Before Kindergarten,” the wonders coexist as the speaker and her husband share Saturn with their daughter through a telescope in their backyard. 

To her, the extraordinary 

is still ordinary, so why not planets shuttled to the eye 

by a tube tall as a sister? We’ve shut every light 

in the house to keep the night clean, to let her see

the show that’s all for her, the girl we made

then circled until she knew she was the sun.

Tomorrow, we’ll send her off to unlearn it, 

to discover, as we did, how small we are, 

how little we matter anywhere but here.

But Danho’s collection is not interested only in positions and perspectives that take place inside of art galleries and personal spaces—the family home, the pink-lead-paint bathroom, the couch, the bed, the night sky in the yard, or Saturn through the family telescope. These poems are as intensely political as they are intimate, as “It’s Terrible What’s Happening There” makes clear. This poem begins mid-sentence, continuing the title’s statement by drawing the details of a family name and a family’s food to the distancing term “There” in the title:

people say, if it comes up I’m Syrian 

when my daughter mentions her “Sito”

or I’m microwaving my kibbe at work.

And it is. But I don’t need to tell you.

You’ve heard the numbers of the dead. 

When the speaker’s great-grandparents “left Aleppo, / they carried their stories like gold / sewn inside clothes, but no one since / has pulled hard at the stitches.” The speaker’s daily horror, then, is not of a city “that bombs are skinning / down to concrete and bone,” but is instead “that of a woman who looks / at the sky and expects only blue—a luxury / my ancestors passed down to me.” Danho’s collection reminds that safety, or even just the illusion of safety, is a privilege of distance.

Horror and harm are measured and understood in terms of distance in this collection, not unlike the observer who shifts her perspective as she moves through an installation that is a room full of lightbulbs offering her something other than light. In “Distance” the speaker states, “it’s said that tragedy draws us closer, / yet we look for a rock to wedge between us”; when a woman is stabbed to death on the bus route the speaker takes to work, she interrogates our responses to such news. At the bus stop, “how quickly talk leapt / from shock to sympathy to did she / know him?” 

Did any of us

wake today and think we’d be dead

by today’s end? Maybe she did. After all,

it was her husband, which made us feel 

better. It’s always safer when someone 

is killed by someone they loved.

This brutal, simple diction rings true as it horrifies. Danho exposes our human instinct to distance ourselves from danger and pain and condemns this othering. In “The Museum of Broken Relationships,” she argues, “In the end, there’s no marvel / in how we suffer, only in how / we build skyscrapers out of rubble.” However, if this is the purpose of art, to build with what we have before us, experiencing art is never the experience itself. In “When the First Father Dies,” the first line answers the “When” of the title: “You’re glad it’s not your own.” Danho reminds us of the limitations of our imagination, 

But no matter the soft comforts you utter,

or the number of bodies you hold,

your turn will not be better. Seeing a mugging 

isn’t being mugged. Holding your breath 

isn’t a pillow held over your face.

Danho’s collection questions what spaces imagination and art allow us to access, and where we fail in the face of lived experience—in the face of both real love and real harm. In “Erased de Kooning,” she writes, “like much art, / its title tells me what to see.” Those Who Keep Arriving takes its title from “Early Marriage,” one of the book’s many love poems. Here, the speaker hypothesizes that if she catches “death’s wandering eye,” her love “won’t widow forever.” Still, she says, “death isn’t what I fear best. It’s the living / who must welcome those who keep arriving, / must open their arms to people who keep arriving.” 

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