Thursday, December 16, 2010
Review by Marthe Reed
Moving deftly between registers of the fabulous and the mundane, Amy King’s Slaves To Do These Things articulates a language of resistance and becoming, this transformation figured through the re-configured body: “I thrum between / postures I heal from / and postures you pose in.” Opening with Baudelaire’s description of beauty as “a dream of stone…mute and noble as matter itself” juxtaposed against the dilemma of the embodied soul, being in the world – “I came out twice / sobered and married, / then aimless and pregnant,” King sets her new collection amid the daily rites of Brooklyn —cool weather, poets walking its sidewalks, friends gathering over wine and a meal — even as she warns us, “I am the final / seminary soul to / check your shape / in the dress of that embalming line.” Against the “neglect of a virginal / mother,” a church whose “fear of eternal flames…render[s] the spirit deaf”, she offers an alternative schema of sacred/spirit/body: “this space is blank, though / not intentionally so. It is so / because you are not yet in it.” King describes a dream about-to-manifest amid the catastrophe of political and economic collapse: “we play life / until delivered…everywhere terrorists, suicide failures, half-rolled against the fence of a homeless drifter.” Taking us on a “vision quest” at the Hudson’s edge, she speaks at “a door which opens…to no knock.” Chronicle of the coming of age – or vision – of a poet, the five “acts” of this collection meditate on gender, identity, and nation, “slaves / we made but no / longer cohabit with.”
A simultaneous awakening into poetry and politics, the speaker of these poems wrestles, in angry love poems, with an America of “snake oil’s morning” which she “want[s] to rescue from this toy chest /…[but] won’t use [her] only gusto.” The poet’s dream-formed Brooklyn becomes the scene of encounter with the lost self/Other, in which the divine functions as the site of threat rather than redemption – Claude Cahun’s epigram to “Act III” a confirmation, “Selling one’s soul to God : is to betray the Other.” Rejecting “the tear-soaked armpit / we call God’s love” as “a sideways path / that keeps us safe and criminal,” King’s speaker sends forth from Brooklyn, “me, / lost weed, skulled tulip, with scalloped eye. / A view to escape within.” Of the longing for redemption, only the fear of it “beautiful,” King reminds us that “To believe / a scarecrow’s resurrection, // you must, at first, behold the thing / alive.” Hope, redemption, divine intervention figure as “disease”, perils leaving us begging from “Doctor Starch” and his endless catalog of absurd prescriptions:
& you should, pounds told, eat more,
kill pill, stretch on, walk dogs,
little tongue, stone’s throw, vomit up,
grow heart, asks legs, quiver gut,
shake down, no meat, sex less,
prove life, launch death, sell self,
machine me, x ray, honey mound,
pubic eyes, smoke pipe, victim beef,
star lips, blanket I, apple chunk,
tea bag, growl pouch, pound out,
Turning elseward, King’s speaker “let[s] [her] body grow down / among weeds of singing children”, her mind “portable….[traveling] / the verse and valleys of whole people”, baking them into “shapes and a spoon- / shaped cake to taste the world with.” She leads us with her, outward into other worlds, the ones we’ve overlooked or “never stepped into” because in America “We hold on to the value / of a vote, a soliloquy, a sword.” Even so, we’re no closer to the sought-after redemption, “the lights after the curtain”— we’re still “hoping for a kinder, gentler world.” Riding along with King, we’re the “audience not quite tied / to the running board / of a hazmat jalopy,” “this sprayed-on dream…of supply & demand.” The “God” we’ve been waiting for? She’s re-gendered, “her mocha acetate / A-line” belying “her swollen version/ of [our] abdomen”, pregnant and promising what? Re-embodied she’s growing a “second fetal skin”, “an intimate book” we’re reading, our “forever / project of waking up.”
A bardic vision of the poet, seized from the midst of quotidian Brooklyn, like Whitman before her, reborn tracking the "American" catastrophe, envisioning another birth/re-birth -- a new 'earth'/body/dream born of the "etched-over dream": "we swell and precede / lit to the age of the coming America." A collection in five "acts", both re-creation and performance in which we are the actors, "looking down the hill," tumbling on "the pen's own angle." These poems, "prodigious...as the green pearl in silt," flash in and out of vision's surreal space, into and against love, out of masks, and into the open of the American dream, the American city: "Brooklyn...busy in / its torments, its gashes, its faint array / of willing and rebellious tenants." In "our love", "this art", “the child”, the possibilities of redemption are translated as body, a stage upon which the self performs and re-performs its own becoming: “This crawl space narrows / as the child emerges, // Ever more fractal, / ever more motion.” Slaves, stuck in “the soup of stupidity [passed] off as love’s castigations,” we stand, vertiginous, at the cusp of liberation—“a literal exchange / we reach across.”
Amy King is the author of I’m the Man Who Loves You and Antidotes for an Alibi, both from Blazevox Books, The People Instruments (Pavement Saw Press), Kiss Me With the Mouth of Your Country (Dusie Press), and most recently, Slaves to Do These Things (Blazevox). Forthcoming is I Want to Make You Safe (Litmus Press).
Amy organizes “The Count” and interviews for VIDA: Woman in Literary Arts, edits the Poetics List, sponsored by The Electronic Poetry Center (SUNY-Buffalo/University of Pennsylvania), moderates the Women’s Poetry Listserv (WOMPO) and the Goodreads Poetry! Group, and teaches English and Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College. Her poems have been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes, and she has been the recipient of a MacArthur Scholarship for Poetry. Amy King was also the 2007 Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere.
Marthe Reed has reviews in New Pages and at Dialogue's End; another is forthcoming from Ekleksographia. She has published two books, Gaze (Black Radish Books) and Tender Box, A Wunderkammer with drawings by Rikki Ducornet (Lavender Ink), as well as two chapbooks, (em)bodied bliss and zaum alliterations, both part of the Dusie Kollektiv Series. Her poetry has appeared in New American Writing, Golden Handcuffs Review, New Orleans Review, HOW2, MiPoesias, Big Bridge, Moria, Fairy Tale Review, and Exquisite Corpse, among others, and is forthcoming from Ekleksographia, Eoagh, and The Offending Adam.
Monday, November 29, 2010
Action Books, 2010
Notre Dame, IN
Review by Caitie Moore
“Say no lame!” the book opens. What might stand as an imperative for those of us living in the West, The Morning News Is Exciting exhorts us to face our international roles as imperialists. Here is a case for “political” poetry, (if it is our fear that we’ve lost our imaginations to a grey, harping, secular concrete when we create, publish or read poetry that knows its way around systemic oppression) made by retaining the starkly salvific and the significantly weird. Don Mee Choi’s poems give treatment to current events, but disallow familiarity of those events, and through this defamiliarization, we come to a greater understanding.
In thirteen sections, all containing discreet poems that range in form from epistolary to homophonic translation, Choi remains preoccupied with distance, loneliness, and the circumstances that create them. This is from the fourth poem of the section Diary of a Translator:
The moon wept behind the cloud. The child said to the stars: Detachment is painful, so is madness. Home is a system of longing, and suicide is a system of exile.
And earlier, in “10 Aug 2002” the fourth poem of the section Diary of Return, she writes
When I return when I return I say my twin of a twoness paces the bridge over the river of oneness and translates exile of an exileness and empire of an empireness while I trace the alleys of my childhood and find no one.
This yearning is ‘traced’ against a world that we already wish were different. In “10 Sept 1999”, the poem preceding the one above, came this figuration:
Another mysterious death of a GI’s woman (....) That is not to say GIs will now rape any woman due to homesickness and R & R. What needs to be said is that from elsewhere I translate the report of the death of a woman I met two months prior in Tongduch’on and that colonial distance can be saturated with separation due to homesickness of a different nature.The language and conclusions drawn in this section buoy us through what might have been our wariness of the prosaic, and demonstrate that Choi’s keen perceptions were not just happy accident in the opening sequence Manegg. The bizarre grammar there stems from the passage’s being a product of a homophonic translation of Manteg by Monchoachi, the Martinican poet. Choi has said “When translation fails, that is when we take orders from the darkness, displaced identities easily become worthless beings.” To stave off pain for these potentially displaced beings, she takes on the responsibility of conveying the experience of those who might not otherwise speak (“Females are silent” she writes, in the first poem of the section Instructions From The Inner Room). Her homophonic translations do not fail, and like many sequences in this collection, Manegg turns to animals for elucidation. We’re given yokes and eggs representing traditions of hetero-normative expectations layered with compulsive reproduction in animal husbandry. “Let me say in-law, in-law/ I won’t lay an eggy egg” (from “1 Say No Lame!”) and “Save and grin, wee and we, Hen revolts and bets on awe” (from “3 None Say None”). With syntax like “I solely laid beyond nit for jerk” we’re prompted to understand across hybridization, while confronting the constant trouble of doubting because the language is ‘foreign’, which is to say not familiar, which is to say difficult, which is to say worth it. But if we are left with any question of what, exactly, is being refused and why, we may have a response in one of the last sections, Diary of a Translator:
Long time ago, the moon laid an egg, which became an occupied egg, war egg, then a neo-occupied egg. The moon’s egg was a doubled egg. Egg and egg, a divided egg. History and memory fed egg. Not a hollow egg. Not a nation’s egg. Egg did talk egg talk! Egg did. Egg off! Empire must go!
The poems track many objects across and through sections—eggs, forests, bridges, the OED—until it begins to feel like these objects are being picked up and handled and carried to another room where we find them later. There is no space, however, in these rooms of rape and colonization for a vatic tone. The demotic tongue is as lofty as the speech will get. Even in the section From Noon—to All Surviving Butterflies, which draws on a book of Dickinson’s fragments and employs her use of the dash, we encounter earned irony and exasperation:
Master’s language is forever thoughtful about what happened before something. Happy language! Shame is attached to syntax. Seal it or numb it. Most terrible pain you can imagine. Ask OED! In my house, the shoed are put to sleep and the shoeless forever depart. Going to dooms of napalm! Going to Guantánamo.
It is this tone that specifically resists helplessness, and to consort with animals and etymology suggests power outside of a reign of terror. The speaker has been “In the forest since 1981” articulating a space that must be lived in, especially if comfortable inhabitation is impossible, especially if inhabitation provokes the sentiment “My forest, my ass.” The power of this collection, after the myriad problems are traced (Empire, Empire, Empire) resides in its multiplicity. The various forms throughout the different sections are woven with many disparate sources, including books regarding South Korea/ U.S. relations, and quotes from Spivak, Deleuze and Guattari, Fanon, Dickinson and Freud. The author herself slides skillfully out of one guise and into another. This variation presents an oblique solution to the problem of Empire as the one. Its welcome antithesis is here in shape-shifting multiples.
Don Mee Choi was born in South Korea and came to the U.S. via Hong Kong. Her first book of poems, The Morning News Is Exciting, will be published by Action Books this April. She lives in Seattle and translates contemporary Korean women’s poetry; her translation titles include When the Plug Gets Unplugged (Tinfish, 2005), Anxiety of Words: Contemporary Poetry by Korean Women (Zephyr, 2006), and _Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers (Action Books, 2008). _
Caitie Moore has served as the poetry editor of CutBank and as the managing editor of Slope. Her poems can be found online at Strange Machine and Inknode and in print in Muthafucka and forthcoming in Handsome. She lives and works in New York City
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
New Directions, 2010
192 pp, $29.95
New York, NY
A three inch deep box that opens like a bivalve or casket houses Carson’s book, Nox; the book inside is not bound to a backing but folded, concertina-style, and piled on itself. The one hundred and ninety-two unpaginated pages reproduce a note-and-scrap book containing lexigraphic entries, family photographs, collage, paintings and sketches, excerpts, quotations, and numbered autobiographical notes. Both the cover of the box and top page display on gray background a section of a photographic image of Carson’s brother as a boy, in flippers and goggles. The enigma of his character and death comprise the impetus and premises of Carson’s project, a project she describes as an epitaph.
Within the first few pages the reader is met with a blurred photocopy of a Catullus’ elegy for his brother in its original Latin. What follows, on almost every left-facing page, but a dictionary entry for each successive word in the poem, listing the relevant English meanings and a few carefully composed examples. Below is the entry for nequiquam:
[NE + quiquam] to no purpose or effect, vainly, without avail; et sero et niquiquam pudet late and pointlessly she blushes; (in litototes) without cause, groundlessly; (dubious) by no means; (as an exclamation) nequiquam! For naught! (why?)
On the other pages, all variety of personal trivia and notation narrate piecemeal the life and death of her brother, Michael.
The reader learns where (Copenhagen) and when (2000) he died, that his death was unexpected, and that news of it took two weeks to reach Carson. The reader also finds out where the funeral was held and how his widow spoke and behaved there and disposed of his ashes, how his dog reacted. The reader obtains knowledge of his involvement with drugs, his running-away and name change, his several wives and lifestyle abroad; they learn of the frequency and contents of his correspondence and nature of relations with his sister and mother, as well as how he spoke and behaved as a child, and that his eyes were blue. There are facts concerning the subject, such as the cause of death, that a reader does not receive, but it is unclear whether Carson is withholding them or knows no more herself.
Often described as a ‘highly acclaimed classicist and poet’, or ‘scholar and artist’, Carson has been lauded, dismissed, and cited for her generic positioning, her confessional content, her archival yet abstract, clinical yet intimate methodologies. A reader of her other books expects a sensitivity in presentation to the material and historic nature of words, as well as auto-biographical statements made in a voice which combines ironic, pedgagic, and lyric tones. Nox displays tactics and values present in much of Carson’s other writing: it doesn’t merely play at, but insists both on being experienced as history, and as an intensely personal artifact.
In a review for the New York Times, Sam Anderson describes Nox as a ‘deeply moving…brilliantly-curated scrap heap’, an ‘elegy and meta-elegy’; he finds in it the simultaneous portrait of a specific brother and a kind of Everybrother, noting the suspense that builds around the disclosure of this person’s details. Megan O’Rourke, writing for The New Yorker, also found Nox “personal and deeply moving”, stating that “despite its inclusion of personal details, [Nox is] as much an attempt to make sense of the human impulse to mourn.” Ben Ratliff calls it “precious in the best sense of the word” (NYT Sunday Book Review), and Michael Dirda finds it ‘moving yet strikingly unconventional’ (Washington Post). Only Dirda cautions readers against the fallacy of ascribing biographical truth to the book’s contents. In the Philadelphia Inquirer, John Timpane addresses directly this issue circumscribed by other reviews, claiming that Nox is not precious because of its ’‘painful, authentic uneasiness with itself…it’s self-consciousness and irony.”
“Why do we blush before death?” Carson’s invocation of this visceral and cosmetic change of color---one of performance as well as true feeling---gives the reader a sense of this self-consciousness. “If you are writing an elegy begin with the blush.” A few other aspects of Nox gesture towards the dual nature of elegy. The book, as object, is unwieldy; the shoring together of different forms and sources puts the syllogistic momentum out of joint; it frequently points to its own limitations and failures (“no use expecting a flood of light”).
More often, though, the work encourages illusions of transparency and genuineness. It is, after all, a photocopy of a notebook. In addition to imparting the material for a story of her brother, his death, and her grief, Carson directly addresses the reader (“I want to explain about the Catullus poem (101)”); she tells them what her brother called her as a girl (‘pinhead’, ‘professor’); she may even slip an elegy for herself into the definition of cinerum (“this ash was a scholarly girl”). At moments, she implies the validity of her endeavor by universalizing: “All the years and time that had passed over him came streaming into me, all that history. What is a voice?” It is not by accident that one finds the most striking language and thought in the sources mined---in dry definitions and ceremonial, restrained phrases of poets and historians who never prick the surface tension of their grief with disclosure, who point beyond themselves, always, to something else.
This Night situates itself as coffer and gift—but to who is unclear, as it is known that books cannot be enjoyed by the dead. Perhaps its universalisms and tropes of authenticity redeem the book from a certain kind of preciousness. If not, its quiet self-consciousness, generic quirks, and ironies challenge a simple categorization. But these too could be identified as related and not unproblematic methods: secret telling and its loopholes of explanation and wit, generalization, complicity, and voyeurism---does one not have boxes enough, secrets enough, of one’s own? If not, why conflate them with another’s? The shuttle of embarrassment, the loom of gossip and guesswork, the fabric of coy exposure: these discomforts combine with the pleasures of reading Nox to make up a mixed, complex encounter.
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Anne Carson is a Canadian poet and professor of history at McGill University. She has written several books, all of which blend the forms of poetry, essay, prose, and non-fiction.
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Andrea Applebee recently completed her MFA at the University of Pittsburgh. She presently lives in Philadelphia, where she teaches composition.
Monday, October 25, 2010
Ninth Letter, 2010
review by Thalia Field
Here is a short review of a fiction and also of a press which blurs the line between book/journal and object and foregrounds the question of publication’s aims, its mediums, and the variety of audience which exist beyond the well-manicured and gated lawns of the commercial establishment(s). Both this fiction and this press defy the solidity of this establishment and its conventions, which are about numerical dominance, bookshelf oligarchy, and the un-bliss of the dull-mindedly repeatable. Ander Monson’s story, “Desiduousness: The Mechanism”, and its publisher, Ninth Letter, seek to escape, if not subvert, this state of affairs, and the result is a collaboration offering tremendous pleasure.
I selected this ‘book’ to review because I’ve admired Ander Monson from afar and wanted to more intimately enter a conversation with his work. Starting from that point, I was immediately taken with the sensation that “Deciduousness:A Mechanism” is decidedly fiction, happily and deeply and differently so. The book, bound by a velum, immediately falls into six four-panel folios, folded into comfortable sizes which allow the reader to hold them, gather them, and constantly experience them as the notes which are being collected in the hand, and the mind, of the story’s subject.
The design impact of this publication is everywhere on the story, and yet no more intrusive that the body is on our minds, giving us the sensations, the mise-en-scene, of living. Monson’s story sketches an indeterminate technological ‘Mechanism’, discernable only through the tattered notes written for the infirm, disabled mad-genius who may some day wake to its ominous presence. The narrative is tightly wound, or tightly unwinds, and proceeds with emotional precision. The notes which structure the confession of their author begin in handwriting, and are backed with screen-prints and digital imagery, numbered by hand and sliced with the arches of connections, meanings whose meanings have been lost and aren’t avoidable.
That the story and the book-form co-elaborate the story feels right and powerful as the reading advances – and reminded me in their constant interplay of the general poverty of the publishing convention which binds all stories into the same habitual gestures. Here it is possible to open and refold, to stack and sort, to gather and shuffle. The lacunae in the story reflect in the gaps between the folios, as they speak both to the loss of the present as it could be brought back by the past/memory – and also to how we must await the unknowable future. This future is only made of past actions in this story, as elsewhere, and this was the aspect of the story I found most compelling: the subversion of nostalgia into a form of hostility that pushes things we are not comfortable with out of our way in the present and into the future, which is also the past.
The quasi science fiction (and psychologically insightful) scenario of Monson’s story never resolves, though we sense in the protagonist the isolation of a Moreau, a similar foreign locale, and an almost unholy or at least profane, project. Monson’s language is lyrical, elliptical, emotional, and just descriptive enough of the elements of the environment (and of the Mechanism) so that we keep hold of it – the butterflies and optical cables, ducts and screens, which sustain the body of the story itself. Confusion over whose story “Deciduousness:A Mechanism” will ultimately be remains of interest, as the reader is put in the place of the hibernated consciousness, unsure what we will wake up for or to, and by the time the end comes, I had the eerie sense that what I know of my world has more been laid from the past (and possibly with an agenda) then seeming to drop in from the future, so that the present, ever impossible, contains nothing but the kind of light the Mechanism itself devours. I do not intend to offer narrative interpretations, for this is an open text in the best sense: both specific in its dramatic details, and inconclusive where the wrong answers would lead us off the right questions.
This is a love story, and it is a story of anger, bruised where passion was. The Mechanism of both turns out the same, and yet it is the technology which allows the character bound to it to live and see, to experience life and death. There’s something enormous wrapped in this short story, it stays like an afterimage in the imagination.
from the last folio: “What is on the other side I do not know. It could be the outside world, cold and blood all over it. It could lead to a thousand animals consuming each other. It might be the past. Or nothing. It could be hell. A dream of hell or just a dream. In my dream it is a thousand butterflies organizing themselves into comprehensible patterns, like city light, moving off the edge of the screen as we begin forgetting. It could be a beating heart. A psychedelic corridor.”
I wish more publications of fiction, poetry, and essay would embrace the values of this Ninth Letter collaboration with Ander Monson – that we would be able to satisfy ourselves with more hand-made objects and book forms which sacrifice the false promises of mass-consumption with the beauty of organic innovation in design. Even when the fiction might be imperfect or the design critiqued, this is so much the better conversation to be having – how writing and reading are multiform and of infinite variety.
Ander Monson draws from his life in Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, the Deep South, and Saudi Arabia. He has an MFA from the University of Alabama. He edits the magazine DIAGRAM and the New Michigan Press, and publishes widely. His novel in stories, Other Electricities, has been newly released by Sarabande Books.
Thalia Field's book BIRD LOVERS, BACKYARD is just out from New Directions (2010) as well as is a collaboration, A PRANK OF GEORGES (with Abigail Lang) (Essay Press, 2010). She is also the author of two other New Directions titles (INCARNATE:STORY MATERIAL, and POINT AND LINE) as well as ULULU (CLOWN SHRAPNEL) a novel from Coffee House Press. Thalia is on the faculty at Brown University's program in Literary Arts where she teaches courses for writers which often ask questions about storytelling on and off the page and across many too-hardened disciplines of method.
Monday, October 04, 2010
Letter Machine Editions, 2010
by Karen An-hwei Lee
The latest collection by translator and poet Sawako Nakayasu, Texture Notes, features 48 original journal entries dated from 2003 to 2004, arranged in a variety of textures and rhythms. With echoes of Zukofsky poetics and Steinian word-play, Nakayasu explores the poetic challenge of describing physical textures in the external world: bicycles, fresh laundry, love in the air. To this end, the kaleidoscopic prose fragments resist simplistic interpretations, playing with formal categories of definition in a choreography of word-objects reminiscent of the early Modern objectivist poets:
Ant-sized objects, in the order received:
Ant, microchip, staple, pine needle, dimple, pebble, the ant’s twin, a one-to-one scale model of the ant, another ant of the same size, dust, crumb, fingernail, crumb, staple, mustard seed, the letter ‘I’ typed in 12-pt. font…. (19)
Focusing on “thingness” in the abstract and concrete senses, Texture Notes investigates the texture of bicycles in its first succinct prose poem, contemplates the textures of absence in an elegant one-line poem, 10.4.2003: “layers of loss” (7), and directs the reader’s attention to self-referential components in 11.8.2003: “Line trying to crumple its way into texture…” (17).
Nakayasu’s book-length collage is a recombinatory syncopation of astute observations: “Combined sum of the texture of one word at each moment everywhere, thicker than it is true” (11). With varying poetic densities at once macrocosmic and minutely liminal, the contradictions of urban life are depicted in miniature:
Thirty thousand unanswered minutes, eight arms filled to capacity three times over, a four-year-old tree attaining twice its current height thanks to the tears of a widow, one small Chinese girl and a couple of kegs, five million rotations of this old fan, whichever comes last.
Or the rock that develops a dent, small stone in my hand.
The rock to grow, spread, answer, spin, cold and smooth, after all the rain in my hand, or before it stops, or before it returns, quickly now -- (67)
At times, the poems take on the surreal allegorical qualities of a Russell Edson fable, as in 4.6.2004, whose first line begins: “Texture of a field of fried umbrellas” (9).
…Enough fresh oil was used in the frying of these umbrellas that theoretically the should repel any sort of fluid which takes a shot at the field, and in fact this is true, but the unfortunate inherent shape of umbrellas encourages the rain to slip inside the crevices between one fried umbrella and another, getting the toes of the children wet, whether they are there or not. (9)
Tinkering mischievously with a reader’s expectations, Nakayasu swiftly mingles the textures of word-objects as nouns by using language usually applied to other categories of definition. An emotion, for instance, is portrayed using meteorological language: “Love as described by the heaviness of air, measured by a repeated rise in humidity” (13).
According to the Etymology Dictionary, “texture” derives from the Latin textura for “web, texture, structure,” and from the stem of texere “to weave.” The word “text,” similarly, originates from the “wording of anything written” with its root in the Latin textus: “Scriptures, text, treatise,” also sharing a genesis from the stem of texere.
In perfect resonance with its etymological origins, Texture Notes weaves epistemological questions about categories of knowledge, or how we know what we know about the world, culminating in the phenomenon we call beauty.
8.22.2003 ….People, pilgrims, innocent bystanders, drivers-by, tourists, and locals alike come and gather, independently and in their own time, in their very own time, to admire it. And enjoy it. To provide a physical, chemical, psychoanalytical, or textural analysis of it. To assign it values of beauty.
Sawako Nakayasu was born in Japan and has lived mostly in the US since the age of six. Her most recent books are Texture Notes (Letter Machine, 2010), Hurry Home Honey (Burning Deck, 2009), and a translation of Kawata Ayane’s poetry, Time of Sky//Castles in the Air (Litmus Press, 2010). Her translation of Takashi Hiraide’s For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut (New Directions, 2008) received the 2009 Best Translated Book Award from Three Percnt.
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Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of Ardor (Tupelo Press, 2008), In Medias Res (Sarabande Books, 2004), and a chapbook, God’s One Hundred Promises (Swan Scythe Press, 2002). Her books have been honored by the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America (chosen by Cole Swensen) and the Kathryn A. Morton Prize for Poetry (selected by Heather McHugh). The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, she chairs the English department at a faith-based college in southern California, where she is also a novice harpist.
Monday, September 20, 2010
BOA Editions, 2009
Reviewed by Mike Walker
Matthew Shenoda’s new book of poems dwells on the historical and contemporary cultural and physical landscape of Egypt, covering a vast expanse of topics and images associated with the nation. Shenoda teaches poetry and writing and is Assistant Provost for Equity & Diversity for the School of Critical Studies at the California Institute of the Arts and while nothing in his biography is quite clear on his associations with Egypt, via his poetry it is obvious that he has a deep background and empathy for the country and its people. The teacher in Shenoda is also obvious in this work, as he even includes at the back of the book a glossary of many terms germane to Egypt he uses in his poems. Shenoda seems, beyond all else, excited to share an intimate portrait of a complex modern nation (with a long, varied, history which is just as complex) with his reader. That said, at times his writing seems nearly trite and his images appear close to something we’d expect from an Indiana Jones movie or Disney ride. Mummies, tombs, palm trees, poor native kids in the streets, all make their entry into these poems and at times I felt while reading that I would have a more accurate and clear sense of Egypt as a real nation—an actual place—via a Lonely Planet guidebook.
A deeper reading of Shenoda’s work though provides a more acute, powerful, view of Egypt. Although his writing is on the surface easy enough to explore, Shenoda proves to be a poet we need to take on with due care and a lot of time. His poetry holds riches if we are willing to spend the careful moments in finding these; he gives us a very real Egypt, and helps us understand how the most common images of this nation remain the most lasting in the cultural dialog most of us have with Egypt. Those rewards are powerful and worthy reasons for reading Shenoda, however, at times his emphasis seems a bit too pedagogical and less concerned with the art of writing. I do not doubt the images and experiences I gained via these poems are very personal to the poet but some seem too easily designed to convey a certain impression or feeling, and taken outside of the context of ”poems about Egypt”, many of these poems do not hold their own as interesting works of poetry. To give Shenoda the benefit of the doubt, his book is about Egypt, about a given topic and set to explore that topic in depth. It is probably unfair to expect additional merits from poems that are foremost employed to the goal of serving a certain topic and working as a cohesive unit. Still, a poet such as Jorie Graham can write about a spruce tree and also address a handful of other issues in one quick page while Shenoda takes at times a couple pages to sit us down in the desert and paint one single image.
I dreamt of this exodus
This wrapping back into
What had been unwrapped
And again beginning to see Home
thus Shenoda begins his poem ”Ecology”, which like many of his poems in this collection dwells on the process of being away vesus returning home, whether it is a collective home, a metaphorical one, or a personal one.
It is time for us
unearth the earth from itself
Shenoda tells us at the close of another poem, perhaps imploring us to undertake (in very literal terms, undertake) the greatest journey, the hardest exodus, of them all. Shenoda doesn’t lack for images, his ”buzzing telephone wires” in yet another poem I especially find powerful knowing of Cairo’s chronic issues with telephone service and the apt metaphor of telephone chatter for the many lives causing such speech in this sprawling city. However, sometimes I felt in reading Shenoda that the metaphors, the images, piled atop each other and didn’t quite have a clear direction in which to travel. Sometimes, his poems feel like a very astute and useful dictionary has been upended like a box, spilled forth its collection of words. I think the problem I experience with Shenoda’s writing is that I obtain from it striking, powerful, images but they quickly overlap and become too much like the image previous on the page I just turned over. I am sitting there, reading, and thinking ”in a place so varied and dynamic as Egypt, isn’t there more to speak of than old tombs, brotherhood, palms, and religion?”. Yet these are, if not the core themes exactly, the repeating motifs of Shenoda’s poetry. It feels something is missing, something both of modern Egypt and something of ancient Egypt beyond those things we all already know of this great culture. Yes, mummies, yes, tombs . . . but what else?
Perhaps though Shenoda’s project points at the problem faced in most any effort to revisit ancient texts and to write poetry about historical cultures. I have encountered the same issue when writing about Russia in the 1800s or about the Celts myself: how do you bring esoteric details to life to readers without dwelling on what they already know? How do you find focus germane to the nuances that intrigue you while firmly grounding your work in the period and place you’re interested in and making that geography evident? It is difficult to write of a place anew. For Shenoda, his work is really cut out for him as he is not only writing about Egypt the Ancient but also Egypt the Current: that’s a lot of space and time to consider in a slim book.
a child cups her hands in river water
knows too much about her history to drink
Here, and in other poems the image of cupped hands is used to represent, I think, not only the true, actual, cupping of hands to bring water to mouth but the broader need and action of moving water and other goods into one’s own control. Egypt’s history, in many ways, is a primary national resource, something that can be marketed for the sake of both tourism and associated economic benefits and also for the sake of national pride. Shenoda does a fine job in walking between the silent stones of history, the everyday lives of normal Egyptians, and the broad, grand, view of the nation that is on the forefront of its international relations. While in places I find his poems nearly trite in their stock images and his voice lacking in enough detail, I also find that his effort to be encompassing, as Shenoda is taking on a huge duty and taking such very seriously.
We run our fingers in sandstone,
Speak stories in rivets and impressions.
In fact, this seems to be how Shenoda himself speaks, how he writes. Using various touchstones of the experience of Egypt, he twists together a comprehensive story. The fact is that this story is lacking in places on details, lacking in plot if you will (for this is a narrative, though one composed of poems; for Shenoda’s stated purpose to be carried out, the overall function must be a narrative one). However, altogether, perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing: I can think of many books of journalistic and travel photography that are high on emotion, high on variety, but very low on real detail and leaving you wishing for more. Shenoda’s poetry provides a dashing view of Egypt and makes me want to dig deeper into the history and contemporary culture that has inspired his writing. It is a bit like looking at a city via Google Earth: you find yourself at times wishing to be down at street level. In fact, I plan to dust off André Raymond’s amazing, magisterial, history of Cairo due in part to reading Shenoda’s poems.
In conclusion, I am not awestruck with Shenoda’s poetry the way I was awestruck when I first read Jorie Graham’s work or Victoria Chang’s book of poems, Salvinia Molesta. His work simply doesn’t impress me in a way that I connect with hard and fast, but there are ample merits to his poems and in the depth and scope of his project. I would recommend that his book should be in the hands of anyone with a keen interest in contemporary creative writing on Egypt, North Africa, or the Near East, or anyone who has enjoyed Shenoda’s previous efforts. To the reader new to Shenoda, I am unsure whether or not this book is the best of introductions because its theme demands a lot of the reader and doesn’t offer up as much, at least in my own case, as I was expecting. Perhaps after re-reading Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone I will take from it what Shenoda intended, for now it is an interesting collection of poems that has some strong points, but simply not quite the caliber I was expecting given the grand scale of its ambitions. That said, I am warmed to know there are poets like Shenoda who are not afraid to tackle such ambitions.
• • •
Matthew Shenoda's poems and writings have appeared in a variety of newspapers, journals, radio programs and anthologies. He has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize and his work has been supported by the California Arts Council and the Lannan Foundation. Shenoda's debut collection of poems, Somewhere Else (Introduction by Sonia Sanchez) was named one of 2005's debut books of the year by Poets & Writers Magazine and is the winner of the inaugural Hala Maksoud Award for Emerging Voice, granted by RAWI , as well as a 2006 American Book Award. His latest collection, Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone, was published in Fall 2009 from BOA Editions. He has taught extensively in the fields of Ethnic Studies and Creative Writing and is currently Assistant Provost for Equity & Diversity and on the faculty in the School of Critical Studies at California Institute of the Arts. He lives with his family in Los Angeles.
• • •
Mike Walker is a writer, journalist, and poet. His original research and other academic work has been published in: AirMed, Goldenseal, EcoFlorida, BrightLights Quarterly, the ATA Chronicle, Multilingual Computing and Technology and other journals. His journalism in: The Florida Times-Union, The North Florida News Daily, Satellite Magazine, Twisted Ear, and other publications. His poetry in: Meanie, the Church Wellesley Review, Tipton Poetry Journal, and other publications. He lives in Gainesville, Florida.
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Review of C. Mikal Oness’ Oracle Bones
Lewis-Clark Press, 2007
by Karin Schalm
Oracle Bones is divided into three sections: Divinations, Scapulimancy and Charms, with an introductory poem, “The Handworm’s Hipbone,” setting the stage as an exploration of “the dark”:
He pe sceal legge leaf et heafde
Under the overturned wheelbarrow,
in the dark of that insulated space
warmed by the decay of last year’s leaves,
is the dark of the dark and building soil,
is the dark of the ever-dampening.
And when I overturned the overturned
wheelbarrow, the dark flew out like a covey,
like sparrows, and having been for so long
so used to all of its damp and warm
containment, and having fled so quickly,
it left behind the decayed, or half-decayed
body of an ordinary bird, a black bird,
the remnants of its red brassards browning
beside it. The remnants of last year’s leaves
also lain by its head for so long as to be
blackening beside it, silent and benign,
as if sent there by charm to diminish
some inconsequential thing shamefully
placed in a dark space in a dark time
to become naught in the heart of the harrower.
Oness’ goal in Oracle Bones is to decompose the darkness, to diminish shame. He does this partly by letting it fly free like “a covey” and partly by placing it next to something more “benign, as if sent there by charm.” The first technique involves the telling of the story—liberating it from its dark, hidden space of silence—and the story Oness tells involves dark confession as well as transformation.
In the first section, Divinations, we learn from “August 1990” that the poetic narrator accidentally killed his friend and mentor, Don, in a tragic car crash five years earlier. The source of the narrator’s great shame is that he was driving drunk. This is the main event of the book, the event that less significant events—like leaves—blow up against. The poem begins with small details of the narrator’s brunch with Don before the accident:
And it seems now as if brunch were a dream—
a fourteen dollar plate of shrimp and ham,
champagne from ten to twelve, and staggering
to my car. What did we talk about? Our jobs?
It continues with the startling clarity and painful consequences of the crash:
I only remember this: a sharp right turn;
in retrospect, a dreadful look of horror
on a woman’s face; then time goes past; I wake
to a loud slide, a crash of glass; my dash
board spins; I fall against the roof, the road
through the open window; I pull myself
out of my car, I think; I walk myself
past Donny, past a full crowd looking on.
I was, I say. I drove. It was me driving.
Yes, yes, yes, yes. I understand. I’m fine.
And powerless—that’s what it is you know—
on the curb pulling my ripped shirt over
my head, refusing help from the paramedics—
I am refusing help for the last time.
Because years later walking down the street,
or sitting on my bed at night, it comes
to me that I have done this, and someone
is dead, and that a mother must still weep
just north of here; I can begin to hear
her now. I can begin just now.
Oness builds both meaning and musicality through repetition. When the narrator is “refusing help from the paramedics,” the reader sees how unaware he is. Later, he is “refusing help for the last time” because he realizes how much he needs it, and not just for his physical wounds. The mother who “must still weep/just north of here” is finally something he can “hear.” All of the talkiness of the poem slows down, inviting the reader to be in this quiet space with the mother’s sorrow. Just as the narrator “can begin to hear/ her now,” he can also “begin just now.” He is beginning the process of healing through accepting, truly accepting, his part in the tragedy. This is a powerful place to begin.
The second technique Oness uses for decomposing the dark seems inherently flawed. The narrator refers to placing something benign as a charm next to the dark. “The Handworm’s Hipbone” opens with a mysterious Old English quote described in the appendix as a “charm against wens.” Not familiar with the term, I learned that wen means “a benign skin tumor, especially of the scalp.” This definition deflates the power of the mysterious Old English as well as the enigmatic definition Oness supplies, and not (I might add) in a good way. The terrible beauty of the “dark of the dark” is trivialized when seen in comparison to a skin disease. Perhaps this is Oness’ goal as well, to render the darkness as “naught in the heart of the harrower,” to make it disappear, or to decompose into something indistinguishable, and therefore less significant.
Unfortunately, the book loses some steam after the opening act. The reader catches glimpses of Don, the master ship crafter and mentor, in lively imagistic poems like “Sorbies” and “Chisel.” For the most part, the narrator’s earlier moment of recognition—awoken by intense tragedy—dissipates, shrouded in references to fishing, boats, Beowulf and runes (thus the title Oracle Bones). By section three, Charms, Don has almost completely disappeared. In “Mentor,” the narrator claims, “Forgive me: I have simply forgotten who you are.”
Oness seems to drop the main event of his book out of convenience, though, rather than a true act of decomposition. When asked about the different syntax and approach in poems like “August 1990” and his Beowulfian “Sea Voyage” in an interview with Sheri Allen, Oness said that he simply assembled the poems he had written over a period of time.
The poems were written at different times as I was engaging in different formal projects, and then, like so many others who put together books, I emptied a large room and played several games of poetry solitaire with the poems, experimenting with arrangement (Oness, The Southeast Review online).
When the narrator tells the story of the birth of his own child, it’s a bit jarring—like pushing in a puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit. There seems to be yet another dead child to account for, a child of the narrator’s. At the beginning of “In Memoriam” he says “All our relatives have turned to roses/in my mother’s yard, as has my child.” This losing and gaining of his own children is a compelling story, and definitely one I want to hear, but not in this collection. If these poems had appeared in a second book, they would have seemed cathartic. In this context, they seem simple-minded and self-serving. They make the whole enterprise turn sour for me, like a compost pile someone forgot to turn and pawned off as soil. For example, the poem “Struck” shows maple leaves alive and shimmering in light:
Under the silver-leafed maple, my house
gleams: inside, my one-year-old.
In any breeze the tree shimmers
wagging underleaf to overleaf.
A white light burns in a pure wind.
I want to believe that the purity of this wind is real, that there’s a sweet light emanating from the narrator’s house, his home, but I’m not yet ready for this. The wound from the car accident is still so fresh in my mind that I need more time to heal. All the charms and runes and fancy terms like “scapulimancy” (which refers to the heating of bones to produce cracks which are interpreted as oracular signs) feel like a distraction to me, a denial of the work at hand. Unlike the passages where Oness is great, where we are asked to embrace the oracular wisdom of his words.
C. Mikal Oness is a homesteader, poet and printer, living in rural Minnesota. He is the founding editor and director of Sutton Hoo Press, a literary fine press producing hand-made limited editions of poetry and prose. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Missouri, Oness has received the Toi Shan Fellowship from the Taoist Center in Washington, D.C. His poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, The Colorado Review, Third Coast, The Bloomsbury Review, Fence, Puerto del Sol, and other magazines. His work has been awarded the Mahan Poetry Prize, an Academy of American Poets Prize, the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award from George Mason University, and a Wisconsin Arts Board Grant. His book of poems, Water Becomes Bone, was published by New Issues Press in 2000 and was awarded the Posner Prize in Poetry by the Council of Wisconsin Writers. He has a limited edition chapbook, Runian, from Bergamot Press, and another limited edition, Privilege, from Cut Away Books. His manuscript, Oracle Bones, was selected for the Lewis & Clark Expedition Prize and was published in 2007.
Karin Schalm lives with her family in Missoula. She works as an administrative assistant at The University of Montana, rising early most mornings to walk her dog in the dark. She is a Master Gardener, a labyrinth lover, and a big fan of mountain wildflowers.