microreview: Primitivity by Amy Sayre Baptista

review by José Angel Araguz

Sayre-Baptistac_w

The flash fiction sequence that makes up Primitivity (Black Lawrence Press) by Amy Sayre Baptista explores a Southern Gothic tradition of storytelling in pieces that are voice-driven and immersive. Using voice in a near-alchemical capacity, Baptista’s characters come to life through phrasing and presence. Take this short passage from the collection’s opener, “Bait”:

This old road is a ghost. Two small plot cemeteries fenced like a crooked grin hold horse thieves that ran the stagecoach road and travelers that met death before destination. Bandits shot for robbing a man blind. Shot for doing the things men do in the dark.

The vivid imagery of the first sentence here mirrors the “crooked” nature of the landscape. The voice here presents the image in a nuanced, casual tone that contrasts the stark human nature being described. This mix of image and tone makes the narrator’s bluntness all the more tangible.

Here and in the other pieces, the poetic sits side-by-side with grit and survival. Southern Gothic tropes are subverted toward feminist and class issues in a way that is both affirming and interrogatory. Where one piece has an aunt clearing caught birds from twig traps while sharing with a child that “Be careful out a mama’s mouth don’t mean nothing ‘cept protect yourself  better than I did,” another explores the literal ghosts of a town murder through a seance, having each party involved speak for themselves. This approach to storytelling strives for compassion while remain unflinchingly true to the characters.

The flash fiction below, “Pike County Consilience,” shows a number of Baptista’s narrative skills at work. A great example of voice driving a narrative, this piece also braids in technical terminology. The juxtaposition of human voice against this terminology evokes a sense of urgency. The main character’s straightforward explanations become a form of rationalizing and re-imagining of hard truths. This impulse on the character’s part becomes relatable at different points, a testament to the power of Baptista’s empathetic approach.

*

Amy Sayre Baptista

Pike County Consilience

“Proof is derived through a convergence of evidence from numerous lines of inquiry–multiple, independent inductions, all of which point to an unmistakable conclusion.”
–Scientific American, 2005

A science man studies the world to say why, say how it got made. A Pike County man ciphers the world for what it is, and how to survive it. Me? I got some science in my toolbox right alongside the wire cutters and the claw hammer. Got me a proof, and a theorem or two, just as useable as my crescent wrench. Let it be known to all: I love Jesus Christ. That said, the Son of Man never broke no barriers on the biological front. Chalk that up to Charles Darwin. Talk about loaves and fishes? No small feat, Jesus wins. But give Darwin his due.

Don’t believe in evolution? Make the acquaintance of the good damn brain God gave you, please. Humans? We scrambled up outta dark water; fin, fang, and claw. No doubt. Pretty it ain’t, we used to filter our own sewage out our gills and rip our supper off a breathing bone. Still not convinced? You must be one of them that thinks babies came to life with mother’s love and angel milk. Truth never stands a chance with the feeble-minded. But I’ve had to stare a man back on his haunches. Eye to eye, I recognized the abyss we crawled out of throbbing beneath his pupil. Gibb Delbert’s his name. Glared back at him with a blade at the end of my gaze and knew he was still gonna come for me. Not for a social call neither. That’s evolution, and Gibbs on the slow track.

Darwin was on to something with his consilience. In plain English, that’s many ways of coming to an unmistakable conclusion. For instance, Bud Rickart says to me at the Rod & Gun on a Wednesday night, “Gibb Delbert means to kill you.” That’s just one line of inquiry, as Mr. Darwin was so fond of saying. Gibb comes into said establishment not thirty minutes later with a loaded revolver, puts one in my thigh and one in my shoulder before he gets tackled. That’s conclusive proof.

Action: Gibb done shot me.

Reaction: He went to jail for two months till next Friday,

But what goes up must come down, that’s Newton not Darwin, I hope I’m not moving too fast. This evidence comes together on the quick. Last night I get a call, says, “Will you accept charges from Danville Penitentiary?” Course I decline. This morning, I got a Banty Rooster broke-necked under my windshield wiper.

Proof: Blood feathers mean blood feud.

Times was when a righteous man with a crack shot might claim feud as self-defense. Not so today. Men like me need formularies just like the fellas writing the textbooks. Solving for the unknown in my neighborhood is a high stakes control set. Trajectory of bullets and repositioning the body? Mishandling those details gets you caught. My numbers got to add up, or I might as well start posing for a county-sponsored head shot. Leave Jesus be. Houdini’s my savior. I need a disappearing act.

*

Hypothesis on an Unlocatable Body

Theorem 1: Deer season, I take the firing pin outta my shotgun to give me three extra slugs. At twenty paces, I can end a man during the time of year no one questions a gun shot, or three, in quick succession. But that ain’t the difficult part. Trajectory of bullets, pin out, and a body? Too obvious and me the likely suspect.

Theorem 2: Solve for zero: where no evidence exists, there’s no proof to solve for. That’s algebra, translation, “the solving of broken parts.” Thank you Wikipedia and Arab people everywhere.

Theorem 3: No proof equals no charges. Add together the bank foreclosure of the abandoned hog operation at Nebo and property in probate. This equals a waste dumping pit both full and idle for a month. That formula births a slurry and stench to end all inquisition. A body in that slop seals the deal. By the time the farm sells, the hog pit will be no softer than concrete.

Theorem 4: A body at rest stays at rest: Gibb Delbert. A body in motion stays in motion: me. Decomposition meets destiny. Thank you, Sir Isaac Newton.

Observable Conclusion: Done, son.

*

Check out this interview in which Baptista shares more about Primitivity.
Copies of Primitivity can be purchased from Black Lawrence Press.

hushing with Susan Woods Morse

In these days of self-isolation and sheltering in place, the word “isolation” itself has been charged in meaningful new ways. And while the charging and refreshing of language with new meaning has been one of the enterprises of poetry from the start, when life takes on this work for us in a way that startles and discomforts, it is ultimately poetry that is able to show us that what feels new is often familiar enough.

round vehicle side mirror
Photo by Gantas Vaičiulėnas

I’m brought to these thoughts by this week’s poem “In the Hush” by Susan Woods Morse (below) which in its own way explores isolation as both verb and noun. The speaker begins by sharing that she is “contemplating the meaning of “now”.” By doing so, she is, in fact, isolating the present moment as something to be known further. Yet, despite this focus, the speaker admits to being unable commit to the endeavor, at least not when compared to, first, a cat, and later a bird in the second stanza. This inability to get at the meaning of “now” moves us into the noun sense of the word isolation. Even with the second stanza ending as it does with admiring confidence toward a swallow, the image of something making itself distant from the speaker implies the second sense of isolation.

There’s then another compelling turn of isolation and self-awareness in the following stanzas. First, a casual walk to a bar with a partner is described. While the speaker shares that they “[tell] ourselves we want the exercise,” she goes onto confide that “but I think it is also because the phone rarely rings.” This quick admission implies an isolation felt similar to that of the first two stanzas. This poignant, passing insight is echoed in the closing stanza’s final image of a field whose “false luminescence…plays tricks” on the speaker by bringing up memories while in the present moment “in that field a cow chews its cud, indifferent / to the consuming interests of the heart.”

This closing confluence of memory and image drives home the tension of the poem. While the speaker has been making efforts to isolate the present, the same effort reflects back a sense of isolation. This isolation is simultaneously rich in the details and insights offered but also reflects the cold of “indifferent” nuances. In this way, the speaker, as much as the poem on the page, makes her way to seeing “the consuming interests of the heart” clearer.

*

Susan Woods Morse

In the Hush

I sit on our deck, hands clasped behind my head,
contemplating the meaning of “now.”
I want to loll like our cat and bask in the heat
with his easy ennui,
only mine would be determined detachment,
not the same thing at all.

Instead, like him, I listen to the birds.
We both watch a swallow beat, then rest,
beat, then rest its wings against the paleness of sky.
And I think that is how to do it,
that is how to climb
a long tunnel of hollow air.

Tonight you and I will walk to the neighborhood bar,
telling ourselves we want the exercise,
but I think it is also because the phone rarely rings.
We will each drink one beer to tide us over
for the quiet walk home. We are just
occasional visitors there, unknown.

And for a long time after your snoring has begun
I will gaze through the dormer window
knowing that somewhere in a field
which has a certain false luminescence,
the green that plays tricks when I remember
being young and in the moonlight,
in that field a cow chews its cud, indifferent
to the consuming interests of the heart.

*

Susan Woods Morse’s chapbook In the Hush can be purchased from Finishing Line Press.

poetryamano project: august 2017

This week I’m sharing another installment archiving my Instagram poetry project entitled @poetryamano (poetry by hand). This account focuses on sharing poems written by hand, either in longhand or through more experimental forms such as erasures/blackout poems and found poems.

Below are highlights from August 2017. This month found me focusing on haiku on short, imagistic haiku. Also included below is a haiga inspired by the 2017 eclipse.

Be sure to check out the previous installments of the archive – and if you’re on Instagram, follow @poetryamano for the full happenings.

Enjoy these forays into variations on the short lyric!

aug 2017 1
Image description: A handwritten haiku that reads: faces shuffle through the coffee drips its bitter business.”
aug 2017 2
Image description: A handwritten haiku that reads: “at night lilacs lose their color to the moon.”
aug 2017 3
Image description: A handwritten haiku that reads: “writing across this blank paper a branch’s shadow.”
aug 2017 4
Image description: A handwritten haiku that reads: “why again why the wind fed broken glass.”
aug 2017 5
Image description: A handwritten haiku that reads: “reading scraps of Sappho years later my ears burn.”
aug 2017 6
Image description: A handwritten tanka that reads: “the gray cat’s eyes stop to take you in long before you can place them.”
aug 2017 7
Image description: A handwritten haiga that reads: “after the eclipse same trees under the same moon.”
aug 2017 8
Image description: A handwritten haiga that reads: “paper clip dash of wire hugs air to itself.”

 

 

community feature: Salamander Magazine

One of the big changes in my life that I was unable to share about during an academic year full of transition (including the present pandemic-related interruption) is how it’s been going during my first year as Editor-in-chief of Salamander Magazine. While we are currently in production for our 50th issue–and also running our annual Fiction Contest through the end of the month–I thought I would take a moment to share a bit about the first issue experience.

Front-Cover
Image description: A painting of a brown man and woman with the word “Salamander” over their heads.

I am proud of the final product on a number of levels. This issue contains amazing work from poets Naomi Ayala, Francesca Bell, Rosebud Ben-Oni, Caylin Capra-Thomas, Emily Rose Cole, Brian Clifton, Jackie Craven, Chard deNiord, Alexa Doran, Moira Linehan, Nora Iuga, Adeeba Shahid Talukder, Madeleine Wattenberg, and many more. On the creative nonfiction front, this issue features pieces by Marcos Gonsalez and Rochelle Hurt, while on the fiction front this issue features stories by our 2019 Fiction Contest winner Christina Leo as well as Michael Howerton who placed second, a flash fiction by Russell Dame, and an excerpt from David Maloney’s novel-in-stories Barker House (Bloomsbury). The issue rounds out with reviews of poetry collections by Lola Haskins, Brett Foster, Fady Joudah, and Tom Sleigh as well as a short story collection by Hadley Moore.

Another outstanding part of this issue is the art portfolio by our featured artist, Karla Rosas (KARLINCHE). Her piece “La Puerta Negra” is on the cover. I’d been a fan of her art for about a year before getting this gig. Especially this being my first issue at the helm, I wanted to feature art that hits me on the intersection where I and many others exist, where the personal meets the political, and shows how one can’t be seen without the other. I feel the Latinx community has had a number of awful and unjust narratives hanging over us. Featuring Latinx artists creating strong work in the face of such narratives is vital in pushing back against those narratives.

We had the issue 49 out mid-December and were able to celebrate in February with a reading featuring two of our contributors, David Maloney and Moira Linehan, as well as acclaimed fiction writer, Sonya Larson, who joined this year as a member of our Advisory Board.

Last thing I’ll share is that I’ve had a great time getting to teach this issue this past Spring in my introduction to creative writing course. Students have enjoyed interacting with these pieces of contemporary literature and learned a lot from them. I enjoy teaching the journal both to share my enthusiasm about the work but also as a way to share insights about the editing process.

Thank you to all the contributors and all our staff and readers who have made the success of this first issue possible!

To further celebrate this first issue, I’ve created a cento based on lines from poems in this issue. Expect another issue-related post when the next one comes out. For now, enjoy the fun collage/homage below!

Popcorn-sad

by José Angel Araguz

(a cento based on lines from Salamander Magazine, issue no. 49)

The heart is a wormhole—
limited to the path
you never had to become.

But grief’s like a cat, leaving then returning
our eyes lilac-bearded, our toes-daisy rich.
Today I will polish my own damned self.

I can begin to believe that you won’t come back again. Listen,
I saw their ghosts slither with the wind,
with the blood and birth. Popcorn-sad,

I step over stones and believe
the answer was in the moths
watching from above with small black eyes.

*

To purchase a copy of issue 49, go here.

To learn more about the Fiction Contest, go here.

highlights from Pretty Owl Poetry’s #takeovertuesday

This week, I had the awesome opportunity to participate in a #takeovertuesday on Pretty Owl Poetry’s Instagram account. I posted a series of “a day in a poet’s life” posts in their stories as well as held a poetry reading via Instagram live. I also had the opportunity to field some questions ranging from the writing life to astrology.

I share the question and answers below in the spirit of community. Thank you again to the editors of Pretty Owl Poetry! Thank you as well to everyone who shared space with me on Tuesday, either by asking questions, attending the reading, or simply viewing the stories. In these times where so much of life is affected and different due to the pandemic, I am honored to be a part of such a thriving writing community!

pop takeover 1
Image description: A man drinking coffee while sitting at a table with the following question and answer imposed: What kind of question should I ask you? Answer: IDK. I know a tad about astrology and tarot. And poemtrees. And surviving systemic oppression. Y’know, light stuff.
pop takeover 2
Image description: A stack of books with the following questions and answer imposed: What is inspiring you lately? Where do you seek inspiration when you feel uninspired? Answer: Community. As an introvert, I’ve learned to redefine socializing. For me, a book review is social, a way to center community. Here are some important anthologies for me right now. On top is a book of aphorisms. I like reading and writing in fragments as silence, too, inspires.
pop takeover 3
Image description: A couch pillow which features a skull wearing a flower garland with the following questions and answers imposed: Can ghosts have astro signs? Like if a Scorpio died in Pisces season would they change or synthesize? Answer: After conferring with my astro-colleague, I’m thinking, yes – one’s passing instigates a “death chart” parallel to one’s birth chart and interacts with it much like an Instagram filter.
pop takeover 4
Image description: A journal set atop a set of loose pages with a pen laid across and the following question and answer imposed: What do you consider your best practice in revising your own poetry? Answer: My process is to fill up journals and then leave them alone for a year or two. Then I revise by hand, editing down. From there, finally, poems are typed. Once typed, poems might be revised depending if I’m working on a project or submitting. I’m not done with some poems until they’re in a book.
pop takeover 5
Image description: A collage photo of two men and two women with the following question and answer imposed: And who is the poet that you most look up to and want to emulate? Answer: Obvs couldn’t pick just one. Here are some folx who for years have been lights to follow: Bert Meyers, Juan Felipe Herrera, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Sharon Olds.
pop takeover 6
Image description: A meme half consisting of Winnie the Pooh in a red shirt next to the word “apostrophe” and the other half consisting of Pooh in a tuxedo next to the words “top comma” with the following question and answer:  Fav meme template? Answer: On the spot, the Tux Pooh one is canon.  Here’s one I came up with based on something the amazing @hcohenpoet tweeted about an inventive response when not remembering the word “apostrophe.”
pop takeover 7
Image description: A book held open to a page where some pen marks have been made on the printed words with the following questions and answer imposed: How do you know when you’re ready to share a piece of work? How do you know when it’s done? Answer: With most poems I’ll feel I’ve given everything I had to it, seen all I can. So I send it out or share it as part of testing that feeling. Sometimes I’ll just leave a poem alone for a month or so. Time is the great reviser. The final feeling of being done sometimes doesn’t happen until a poem is published (but as seen here that’s not always the case). I encourage y’all to have a fluid relationship with your work, to show it and yourselves kindness.
pop takeover 8
Image description: A book laid on a table next to a mug with a skull on it, all with the following questions and answers imposed: What are you reading now? What new book do you recommend? Answer: I wrapped up a review of this new poetry anthology from @orisonbooks! I’ll be reading a poem from it tonight along with poems from the other anths from previous stories.

 

community feature: CavanKerry Press

the_waiting_room_reader_vol_I_This particular community feature post is inspired by a recent development: I’m happy to share that I’ve been named as a member of the Board of Governors for CavanKerry Press! I’m excited to join as a new board member, along with Cornelius Eady, and help develop the already dynamic CavanKerry Press community.  Special thanks to Gabriel Cleveland and Dimitri Reyes for their enthusiasm and support in bringing me on board!

In a phone conversation with Joan Cusack Handler, publisher and senior editor of CavanKerry Press, I learned about the different ways in which the press is creating community, including sharing some of their anthologies for free online during the month of April. Both volumes of The Waiting Room Reader as well as the Words to Keep You Company anthology are being made available as free PDFs on the CavanKerry website. Writers in these anthologies include Ross Gay, PaulA Neves, Maxine Kumin, Tina Kelley, Kevin Carey, Vincent Toro, and Linda Pastan among others.

the_waiting_room_reader_vol_II_Below, I share a sample poem from The Waiting Room Reader II, “The Inheritance” by Myra Shapiro. What moves me most about this poem is how it enters into an elegiac conversation in an unexpected way. The first four lines present the logic of grapefruit-as-talking-baby doll, and then builds from there back into the reality of the moment. This quick invocation of the mother in four lines sets up the rest of the poem in which human presence is acknowledged as being available to us in the actions and habits we learn from our parents. The short lines and images allow the meditation to develop in a way that continues to be surprising precisely by not trying to be. The facts of the speaker’s experience are laid out clearly, and what makes them surprising is the juxtaposition of phrase and image. The speaker moves from the hypothetical “Mama” of the opening lines, to her own mother, to being a mother herself. Here, we see the generations pass, each different yet similar, and each evoking the next in the poem. One returns to the title’s idea of “inheritance” and sees it expanded beyond the material meaning, the speaker realizing their own inheritance in the patterns of everyday life.

Myra Shapiro

The Inheritance

Just a grapefruit
but it never fails
to make the word Mama
when I cut it,
store the half uneaten
flat against the plate,
pink meat down
so that tomorrow
when I eat it it’s as juicy
as today. Washing fruit
she taught us but never this.
She just did it. Saved
the fruit against the plate.
As I do. As I saw it done
in my daughter’s house this morning.

*

Check out more from these anthologies and learn more about CavanKerry Press here.

new publication: Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy

dear-america-529x800Just a quick post to share about the release of a new anthology: Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy edited by Simmons Buntin, Elizabeth Dodd, and Derek Sheffield and published by Trinity University Press. My own poem, “American Studies” is included along with work by Jericho Brown, Victoria Chang, Camille T. Dungy, Tarfia Faizullah, Blas Falconer, Kimiko Hahn, Brenda Hillman, Jane Hirshfield, Linda Hogan, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Naomi Shihab Nye, Elena Passarello, Gary Soto, Pete Souza, Arthur Sze, and Kim Stafford among others. I am grateful to the editors for the work put into not only this anthology, but also the work they have been doing through their editorship over at Terrain.org where some of these pieces were originally published.

More on this anthology:

“Dear America reflects the evolution of a moral panic that has emerged in the nation. More importantly, it is a timely congress of the personal and the political, a clarion call to find common ground and conflict resolution, all with a particular focus on the environment, social justice, and climate change. The diverse collection features personal essays, narrative journalism, poetry, and visual art from more than 130 contributors–many pieces never before published–all literary reactions to the times we live in, with a focus on civic action and social change as we approach future elections.”

To celebrate the release of this anthology, Terrain.org has organized a Dear America Virtual Town Hall event series—the first to be conducted on Earth Day. Find out more about this event here.

My poem “American Studies” (below) was written shortly after the 2016 election. I was living in Cincinnati, Ohio at the time, in my last year of a PhD. I would go on to defend my dissertation on Trump’s inauguration day and walk out of said defense to find a pro-Trump rally happening on the university campus, complete with “Build the Wall” signs and a man (not a student) walking around armed with semi-automatic weapons. I share these details to provide context for the charged air that the poem was created in. An air of fear and despair, an air of survival. As a person from a marginalized community, I’ve been in survival mode all of my life, so it wasn’t that any of what I felt was new. What was new and dismaying was how overt intolerance had become, on campus, across the country, and also how shocked non-marginalized people were at the time. My hope is that through works like this anthology we continue to give voice and archive what it is like to survive.

José Angel Araguz

American Studies

November 22, 2016

My wife tells me of reading the Dear
America
 books as a child, those stories told
via the diaries of young women who lived

during difficult times in American history. In these
stories filled with suffering were the facts behind
the suffering. Her favorite involved the RMS Titanic,

the unsinkable ship that sank. I ask if
trying to imagine what it looked like was
what captivated, and she says no, says only

one book led to another, until she realized
she could never see it nor accept it.

                          ~

After the election, my friend explains he feels
he could manage here, but not his children.
He explains he spoke to their school director,

who comforted by talking about police presence. But
if there’s police, he asks, before anything happens,
what will happen when something does? American algebra:

Everything is x until proven y. Dear America,
if x represents what my friend feels thinking
about the police, what language do you imagine

he worries his children speaking publicly, and what
language are we speaking now? Show your work.

                          ~

Another friend writes: Here’s a verse I think
about a lot: And maybe the mirror of
the world will clear once again*. 
She shares

she’s been sick since the election, as I’ve
been. I imagine our voices trying to commiserate
between coughs. In physics, energy can neither be

created nor destroyed. What American physics happens here
as I read and hear her voice behind
the verse she sent? Are you, dear America,

afraid as I am that our faces will
no longer be there when the mirror clears?

* Faiz Ahmed Faiz


Copies of Dear America can be purchased here.

new publication: The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext!

LatiNEXT Final

Just a quick post to share the release of the latest BreakBeat Poets anthology, The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext edited by Felicia Chavez, José Olivarez, and Willie Perdomo and published by Haymarket Books. Super-excited to share news of this release – in part because my own poem “La Llorona Watches the Movie Troy” is featured in its pages alongside the work of a phenomenal community of poets including Sara Borjas, Javier Zamora, Denice Frohman, Peggy Robles Alvarado, John Murillo, Janel Pineda, Juan J. Morales, Benjamin Garcia, Jasminne Mendez, Elizabeth Acevedo, and Yesenia Montilla among so many stellar writers.

I’m also excited and grateful to the editors for creating a space representative and celebratory of Latinx poetry in its multitudes. In these pages are the stories and aesthetics of “an array of nationalities, genders, sexualities, races, and writing styles, staking a claim to our cultural and civic space.” I am proud to be a part of this event and look forward to the anthology’s success and impact.

In the spirit of celebration, I am sharing mine own contribution, “La Llorona Watches the Movie Troy” below. I spoke with a friend recently about what this specific poem being included means to me. This poem was one of the last ones revised in time to make it into my second full length collection, Small Fires (FutureCycle Press). So close it was to the then deadline that I never got a chance to send it out. One of four poems about La Llorona in that book, this poem had me exploring what it would be like to have her speak. The first draft was written the summer of 2004 when I lived in a house without electricity in Corpus Christi. Because it was summer in South Texas, I tried to stay out at the dollar movies for as long as I could. I ended up watching a lot movies on repeat, in particular Troy and Spiderman 2 (my book Everything We Think We Hear has the piece born from watching Spidey a bunch).

The first draft was very much heavy-handed and primarily focused as a statement against George W. Bush’s presidency and invasion of Iraq. That draft lived dated and lost for a good number of years. When it came time to work on Small Fires and its tetralogy of Llorona poems, this one came back to mind as being in conversation with that book’s statements of identity and conflicted nationalities. Letting La Llorona speak and harangue America via the actors of the movie still feels right. That the editors of this anthology saw fit to include this poem in an anthology full of similar conversations also feels right.

*

José Angel Araguz

La Llorona Watches the movie ‘Troy’

 

She watches Brad Pitt leap, then land a stab
like a hammer blow down, spends time taking in
the bronze skin of the actors, the way the say ‘grass’

like ‘toss,’ ¡Todo British! She snags popcorn
by the handful watching the gods
be shrugged off by warriors. During the scene

where the Greeks scurry from the Trojan horse,
their shadows fingers pulling at string
and unraveling the night, her breath is sand

and crackling flame. When they run towards fire
in the desert, towards collapsing roofs
and digitized screaming, the montage

of faces, of bodies pushing against each other
has her whispering to no one in particular:
¡Mira Baghdad, mira Juarez! And no one

in particular hears her over the Dolby
of swords being unsheathed. She begins to hum,
letting her voice hit the same notes

as the opera singer overlaid during the carnage.
Should anyone look over, they’d see
the silhouette of a woman in the third row

treating the forty-foot screen like an altar.
When, after seeing the toppling of statues
and the scavenging through offerings

to Apollo, sun god, the one who sees everything,
the aged and fallen king staggers in defeat
and cries out: Have you no honor!

Have you no honor!, she gasps and nods,
as if watching a telenovela unfold
according to how she would want it. Truth is,

she has seen this all before, has drowned
the brown bodies, has plucked gold coins
from river water before any boatman

could make his way to her. She knows
the blonde and blue-eyed have arrived
to play both hero and love interest again,

that though Helen here is a vagabond Marilyn,
she used to have un poquito de chile
in her blood, y un puñado de lodo

 in her heart. That’s why it’s a woman
who says: If killing is your only talent,
then it is your curse, and says it

like one slapping their hand against the river,
a sting in their hands for a while. Truth is,
there will always be a Brad to leap, and hit hard,

the thud through the speakers like a heartbeat.

*

Copies of The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext can be purchased from Haymarket Books.

 

microreview: Word Has It by Ruth Danon

review by José Angel Araguz

word has it

One of the things I admire about Ruth Danon’s Word Has It (Nirala Publications) is how the collection brings together via short lyrics and prose poem sequences a vibe of being a spy of language. I say “spy” and mean specifically a sensibility able to evoke the range of curiosity, intrigue, and vigilance that is associated with the heightened awareness one might associate with a spy. In “Floridian,” for example, we have the following lines:

Unseasonable chill in the palms.
Fronds I mean, and also the cold
fingertips that touch them.

Here, the wordplay that occurs across the punctuation and line break on “palms” of the first line, and the addition and jolt of the second line’s “Fronds” emphasizes both the human and plant double meaning in the words as well as the speaker’s awareness of this connection. It’s a pun of sorts rendered in a tone that is intriguing, as the formulation of “Fronds I mean, and also” have an air of nervousness as the lines continue back to the original human sensory association of “cold / fingertips.” This back and forth of sensory and conceptual perception is engaging for the way it creates an air of heightened awareness which has us in a different place than expected given the title “Floridian.”

This engagement with the unexpected continues throughout the book. In “Domestic,” there are three moments that riff on the concept of a shot of whiskey around which the poem is developed. Here are the opening lines:

“Shot of whiskey,” she thought, from
nowhere, not because she ever drank
the stuff, but because it seemed the kind
of random association one might have at
the end of a long day.

These lines are effective in the way they intellectualize associations around taking a shot, using phrases like “drank / the stuff” and “the end of a long day” to ground the poem in a heightened sense of the familiar. This familiarity is then riffed against in moments like the following:

“Shot through with light,”
was an expression she liked. Radiance or
the idea of glowing from within seemed
a worthy aspiration.

Here, the word “shot” from the start of the poem is repeated but changed from noun to verb. This change evokes the sensibility of the “she” being described who has gone from the poem’s opening “random association” to this aspirational one. It is a moment of hope, in a way, where the interrogative tone is left for a moment. This moment is short-lived, however, as the poem quickly narrates how “Unruly she was,” and then takes us to the ending where “She looked ahead, steady / on her feet, or so she thought.” The charm of this poem is how the established heightened awareness takes the idea of a shot of whiskey at the start and through the poem’s development gestures towards inebriation as a state of being due to overthinking.

There’s a moment in the sequence “Divination” that presents an encapsulated version of this idea of heightened awareness:

Consider now that the birds scrawl their
messages and you are too far from the sky to
read their words.

What then?

It is in asking “What then?” after the logic of birds scrawling messages we can’t read that the heart of the collection pulses. The human spying we do of language, so to speak, is frustrating work. At the end of the day, we don’t know the world through words, we know only words and persist with our vague sense of the world. The act of writing in Word Has It is imbued with a charge of responsibility and need despite this frustration, however. In “Birding” (below), the poem’s play and progression of thought show how much can be seen in light of having our “stupid eyes closed.”

*

Ruth Danon

Birding

So listen, let me confess, I do not live in a world
that lends itself easily to description or evocation
or adoration. In my ordinary life I face one brick
wall on one side and another brick wall on the
other. I do not even have words to distinguish
one brick wall from another and if there are
windows in yet another wall they give over to a
wall on the far side of any small opening. I envy
those who stand quietly on shores and watch
plovers. I do not know what a plover looks like
and I do not know if it makes a sound. The word
contains the word “lover,” and also the word
“over” and that is yet another brick wall. I
believe in the power of birds, but I do not know,
not for a minute, how to describe their quivering
hearts or their flights or the mad plunge of
herons into salty marshes. A little while ago I
washed my face in clear water. I plunged right in,
my stupid eyes closed.

*

To learn more about Ruth Danon’s work, visit her site.
Copies of Word Has It can be purchased via SPD.

poetryamano project: july 2017

This week I’m sharing another installment archiving my Instagram poetry project entitled @poetryamano (poetry by hand). This account focuses on sharing poems written by hand, either in longhand or through more experimental forms such as erasures/blackout poems and found poems.

Below are highlights from July 2017. This month found me going further with erasures. Along with working out of a true crime book, the last one is drawn from a book by Yasunari Kawabata.

Be sure to check out the previous installments of the archive – and if you’re on Instagram, follow @poetryamano for the full happenings.

Enjoy these forays into variations on the short lyric!

july 2017 1
An erasure that reads: “The news of lightning. No front-page its arch-rival.”
july 2017 2
An erasure that reads: “during the latter part of a few melodramas perception.”
july 2017 3
An erasure that reads: “like weaving a tapestry until the woven piece is finished the small, seemingly insignificant pieces complete with fingerprints”
july 2017 4
An erasure that reads: “an ambitious practice employing each word as a chisel, able to adapt instantly to any changes”
july 2017 5
An erasure that reads: “surrender as a cloud-strewn sunset”
july 2017 6
An erasure that reads: “some outstanding poison or drug that cryptic remark.”
july 2017 7
An erasure that reads: “doubt and conviction based on the turn of a card”
july 2017 8
An erasure that reads: “grasshoppers, remember tonight’s written in green by you”