microreview & interview: The Book of Mirrors by Yun Wang

review by José Angel Araguz

Book cover for The Book of Mirrors by Yun Wang

Reading through The Book of Mirrors (Winner of the Twenty-Sixth White Pine Press Poetry Prize, 2021) by Yun Wang, I find myself marveling again and again at her facility with the poetic image. Across poems ranging in theme from feminism, dreams, literary figures, motherhood, and the universe, Wang’s use of the image is nothing short of illuminating while also being instructive. Note how even in this one line from “Sapphire” creates a whole world:

White swans in flight dissolve into a dark sea punctured by stars.

This inversion of color in the move from “white swans” to “dark sea” is masterful and moves imagery beyond mere description. Across the collection’s four sections, Wang incorporates images to suggest, provoke, interrogate, narrate, and elegize the experiences of living in a world where one only has what they can sense and intuit to guide them forward. A good example can be seen in the short lyric “Regret”:

If I were a tree
I would never have shed
all my leaves
for the caress of sunset

and stepped naked
into that moonless
starless night

A trap embraced me
I had no voice

Here, the logic and mutability implied by the word “If” is pursued through descriptions of tree life, a move that juxtaposes the experiences of tree and being human. Through this proximity, tree and human are seen in stark contrast while also embodying distinct vulnerabilities. The poem implies that while the fixed and voiceless tree would naturally be thought of as the more vulnerable of the two, it is the human decisions made by the speaker that have left her, ultimately, “trapped” with “no voice” despite having one. One feels distinctly the weight of the title and how much of it stems from conscious human awareness and human error.

A similar interrogative use of image and binaries can be seen at work in “The Mirror’s Edge.” In this poem, the reader is presented with the narrative of a woman who:

slept with a bear to relieve herself of the burden of purity
to travel the world alone with only a backpack.

The poem develops its narrative, one where the woman is subjugated, and as it does the bear/lover is described more and more in terms of a human man, until the final stanza where we’re told:

Bears do not turn into handsome princes. He turned into a half bald man with a leather bound journal, in which he noted her various imperfections.

The poem’s opening logic of a woman sleeping with a bear already implies a sense of transition, and because the poem alternates between couplets and single imagistic lines (lines such as “White petals were trampled into mud” which precedes the above closing stanza) the idea of transition is already in our minds. This layered sense of transition, then, sets us up for this final transition of bear to man, and of human desire to scrutiny and emotional abuse.

The theme of lovers continues throughout the second section of the collection, imagery playing a role in engaging with figures such as Romeo and Juliet, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The collection moves into its third section engaged further with the blurred lines of history and storytelling, as evident in “The Visitation”:

The doctor said it was nerve disorder
that caused noises in the ears
Schumann listened and went mad

The voices chose him because of his music
A thousand fairies dancing in shoes of flame

It created a riot in their world
They wanted him to stop

They came through the piano’s
black and white doors
They stitched his mind into a maze

Here, we see image as a fabulistic engine. Through the choice of fantastical imagery, Wang is able to juxtapose the history of Schumann with the story and world implied by his music. Yet another binary, it is one that startles and presents a human experience beyond fact. There is also the moving “Children’s Game in Baghdad,” inspired by a news story:

A small boy jumped off corpses for fun. He explained to his mother that they were nothing. Dogs ate them. She told him that every dead man had a mother waiting for him to come home. He fell asleep in her arms.

The sun bled into charred gum trees.

She brought him to work. Photographed the green zone for a newspaper. A bomb sprayed them with shrapnel. She couldn’t stop shaking. He said it’s OK, not his first bomb. His school was shelled the week before.

Once upon a time rose petals rained down.

She couldn’t stop thinking of his lack of feelings. He whispered that all his friends jumped off dead bodies. In her dream, her husband handed her the Sumerian tablet he died protecting. The cuneiforms shifted into a pair of wings.

Here, one can see the use of image doing the work of empathy and reconciliation in the face of recent history’s irreconcilable atrocities. Housed in prose, this poem’s formal shape is that of information, of narrative, no line breaks to interrupt or fancify the narrative. The human content of the story, a mother trying to understand her son, is also straightforward. The inhuman content–war and its human damages–stands between what would be a straightforward act of empathy. The mother and son speak across the distance of different interpretations of the same experiences and facts. Image comes into play not to close the distance to shine light on it. The way, for example, the bomb exploding in the third stanza is followed by the standalone image “Once upon a time rose petals rained down” evokes a stunning image parallel to the shrapnel from the bomb while striking an emotional chord of loss and grief, feelings that both characters in the poem are unable to express. The image here is showing us the limits of the human capacity to reconcile everything the world shows us, while at the same time serving as a space where this limitation can be honored. That the closing image of a tablet whose “cuneiforms shifted into a pair of wings” happens in a dream is telling; even in dreams, another space where one’s capacity for reconciliation and understanding is tested, the only answer–and here I mean answer not as solution but more response to a call–is image.

In the collection’s final section, the speaker of these poems engages the theme of family. It is here where Wang’s use of imagery is put to, perhaps, its most reaffirming purpose, hope. In a series of poems about her son, Wang gifts us with the part spell, part prayer of “Supermoon”:

Pearl eye of the cloud dragon
kindles pink lanterns on the orchid tree

My son’s arms around me
In a beam of liquid light

We are immortals to mayflies
Let this be enough

In these six lines lies the pulse of this collection. The opening couplet’s vivid imagery is active, the image of one line “kindles” the image of the next. Then the second couplet brings together human and nature, binds them in image. Then the voice of the final couplet strides forth to the brink of what can be expressed–that while our life feels fleeting to us, to other creatures we may appear “immortals”–before expressing that “this be enough.” In the rich worlds presented in The Book of Mirrors, this final conviction of hope is more than enough.


Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Yun Wang: This collection reflects my idea of poetry as a unique way of perceiving reality and interacting with the world. It’s a mode of existence so essential to me that I would find life meaningless without it.

I grew up breathing poetry — my father recited ancient Chinese poems to me to calm me when I cried as a baby. We were poor, and my father was a persecuted political dissident who was banished and seldom came home. Fortunately, however, our humble home was located in a breathtakingly beautiful place, surrounded by blue mountains, on a rural plain green with crops and a crystal river running across it.

When I was a child, I went running on a path by the river each dawn. One morning, I was mesmerized by the clouds blooming from the mountains, the mist rising from the river, and the open green field shimmering with early light. I composed my very first poem in my head, in the ancient style. I was twelve. I think I became me that moment. A lot has happened since then, but I remain that child who connected with nature, and nature made her a poet, changing her forever.

Question: There seems to be a distinct conversation happening through your engagement with the image. What would you say is your relationship with the image?

A new poem usually begins as an image to me, an image so compelling that it haunts me, drawing me into it, in which I find an irresistible narrative, or even an entire lifetime unimagined before. The image sometimes comes from nature, as an epiphany when everything snaps into focus, and I can suddenly see beyond the confines of space and time. Sometimes it’s a mental image, which somehow has occupied my mind, and refuses to go away until I address it by writing the poem, which excavates its hidden emotions and makes sense of its larger meaning.

I am also a dreamer who has very vivid dreams, some of which have ended up in my poems. I interpret my dreams based on my own intuition, trying to explain them somehow. This may have something to do with my training as a scientist. I like searching for answers, and finding solutions to seemly impossible problems. In poetry, this makes me adventurous in exploring an alternative level of existence, one that transcends life, yet is a mirror of it.

Perhaps I see an image as a mirror, in which there is always something new and even exhilarating, if I dare to look, and keep on looking until it makes sense. I insist that my poems make sense, at least on some level. This again has to do with my dual identity as poet and scientist.


Special thanks to Yun Wang for participating! To keep up with Yun’s work, check out her Author Central page. Copies of The Book of Mirrors can be purchased from Amazon.

Yun Wang is the author of poetry books The Book of Mirrors (Winner of the Twenty-Sixth White Pine Press Poetry Prize, 2021), The Book of Totality (Salmon Poetry Press, 2015), The Book of Jade (Winner of the 15th Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize, Story Line Press, 2002), and the book of poetry translations, Dreaming of Fallen Blossoms: Tune Poems of Su Dong-Po (White Pine Press, 2019). Wang’s poems have been published in numerous literary journals, including The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Salamander Magazine, Cimarron Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Green Mountains Review, and International Quarterly. Wang is an astrophysicist at California Institute of Technology, currently focusing on developing NASA space missions to explore the Universe.

microreview: Erica Hunt’s Jump the Clock

review by José Angel Araguz

The book cover for Erica Hunt’s Jump the Clock.

In a recent interview, poet and essayist Erica Hunt shared the following in response to a question about the best writing advice she’d ever received:

From Rachel Blau DuPlessis in “Statement on Poetics”—paraphrasing now: A poem is “bottomless,” “intricate,” and “tangible” in detail. I like thinking this is true regardless of “school” or length. Here is what it has helped me to appreciate: A poem is a work made through language that bears rereading, to discover that difficulty is never without love.

Erica Hunt, interview

I’ve come to realize that these latter two concepts, rereading and difficulty, have become integral to my poetic practice. I have long considered rereading central to poetic experience. Rereading implies dwelling, lingering, becoming engrossed in the matter at hand. That we may read and reread a poem, each time coming away with more, with something different–that is poetry’s lifegiving gift. If nothing else, we reread because one can’t catch everything all at once. We look words up, try phrases aloud, wonder: Who talks like this? Life’s a cacophony we sense music out of; why shouldn’t art be similar?

The other concept, difficulty, is something that I have been slower to embrace. On one level, this reluctance seems natural. There is, for one, the early difficulty of the classroom, the way poetry is traditionally taught to be a kind of puzzle, a use of language shrouded in mystery, the poet a wizard behind a curtain, knowing more than you and deigning to obfuscate the ordinary for you to luck upon. And there are definitely poems that live up to this tradition; and this type of poetry remains teachable but not graspable, or, to use a word Hunt quotes above, tangible.

This occurrence of a poem being out of a reader’s grasp brings with it a number of connotations. On the one hand there is gaslighting; we have had whole generations believing that they are at fault for not understanding “great” poetry, which often leads people to give up on poetry altogether. This brings to mind the implication of the literal “grasp,” that there are certain people whose touch and presence around poetry would sully it. I try to dispel this kind of thinking in my own teaching practices by showing that linguistic difficulty should be embraced in good faith, that we can engage with a poem and allow it to teach us how to read it, but also that we should trust our reactions as readers as well. This good faith is a human trait, a way of endeavoring and persevering.

Finding ways of endeavoring and persevering is central to the body of work gathered in Hunt’s Jump the Clock: New & Selected Poems (Nightboat Books). Across Hunt’s lively body of work, one comes in contact with a voice able to interrogate while remaining attuned to language’s vulnerable and raw personal nature. When reading Hunt’s poems, one feels attuned to language’s plasticity at the service of connecting and not intellectual indulgence. To put it another way, her poems meet a reader half way and allow the reader space to work out meaning as well as a meaningful experience.

In her essay, “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics,” Hunt articulates further:

One troubling aspect of privileging language as the primary site to torque new meaning and possibility is that it is severed from the political question of for whom new meaning is produced. The ideal reader is an endangered species, the committed reader has an ideological agenda both open and closed, flawed and acute, that we do not address directly. On one level the lack of address is a problem of the dispersed character of the social movements in this country at present; on another level it is the general difficulty of looking squarely at the roles we play as writers in forming social consciousness

Erica Hunt, “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics”

There is an instructive empathy in these words as well as in Hunt’s poems. That a poem can and perhaps should endeavor to connect but not persuade, to persevere beyond difficulty not stunt with it. In the poem “Verse” (below) one can see some of these ideas at play.

The “you” addressed here is intimate. The line breaks and phrasing trouble expectations in a way that brings a reader closer to the page. The break, for example, across the two lines “When pushed to the wall / paper our habits seem trivial” offer up a jolt of reckoning. The first line takes a common phrase “pushed to the wall” and refreshes it by enjambing into “paper.” Doing so makes the phrasing hold a noun and action in the word “paper” (that it is “wall-paper” we are pushed against; that we “paper our habits”). In light of this jolt one can feel the earnestness of the question just before these lines: “Can you see?” Hunt risks linguistic difficulty for the sake of others to “see.”

Seeing, which is to say connecting, ultimately, is at the heart of Hunt’s poetic endeavors. One sees this in the travel of the last stanza from the line “Light is composed by experience” to the line “The / light in the brain is you,” which closes the poem. This travel from statement to inward declaration holds an invitation and reaffirmation to the reader. That this act of reading and engaging with a poem is in fact within our grasps. Hunt here, and elsewhere, presents difficulty with love, and our lives are richer for it.


Erica Hunt

Verse

It’s all in profile
what the shadows cast
on the floor. Can you see?
When pushed to the wall
paper our habits seem trivial,
a record of the body’s lost accidents.

We found that we could not be strangers
anymore, nor could we pose
randomly in our affection ducking
behind a turn of mood.
Instead we carried ourselves

unrehearsed into the arms of the unexpected
Continuity, using our sense to head
where we are going.
Every story has its campaign to win.
Missing numbers, interfering digits.
We work from the beginning to the back
end tracing where the author left her
prints on the text, her surplus

divinity. And when the right word
appears out of nowhere
it leads back here.
What word were we looking for?
Fire. In this light we appear

To be doing what we want, waving
the baton with the mind. If you want
to move your feet find something
there over the bridge of your
nose to attract you. Choose your
own words to hear yourself speak.

Light is composed by experience. Without correction it stands still
and is almost invisible collecting dust. Without it, we tend to see
lumps, and not the landscape the voices of people fall out of. The
light in the brain is you.

*

Jump the Clock is available for purchase from Nightboat Books.

microreview & interview: Radiant Obstacles by Luke Hankins

review by José Angel Araguz

Book cover for Radiant Obstacles by Luke Hankins.

One of my favorite things about poetry is how it can not only detail an experience but also be an experience. The intimacy of language to be known and shared between us, to be changed and yet hold despite the changing, speaks to the human experience in a way that is simultaneously of the mind as much as the body. In Radiant Obstacles (Wipf & Stock 2020) by Luke Hankins, one encounters a poetic sensibility aware and after such simultaneous experience.

Take the poem “The Night Garden,” a short lyric which engages with some of these ideas despite its brevity:

I am the waterer of the night garden.
I can hardly see.
I water what I remember
being there.

In four lines we have a narrative and a turn that defines that act of remembering. That alone is stunning. But what makes the poem speak to the human experience is the parallel blurring implied by the fact of the poem and the poetry within. The fact of the poem sets a two-line narrative about the night garden; the other two lines, then, reflect back this narrative as the ephemeral act it is narratively and in language. The garden that can barely be held in the speaker’s vision is parallel to what the poet has rendered for us on the page. Through brevity, clarity, and thought, Hankins is able to evoke an intimacy similar to the remembering the speaker engages in.

Radiant Obstacles is threaded with such moments of intimacy that acknowledge what lies beyond language. Whether it’s empathy felt by a son for his father with whom he shares a phobia of enclosed spaces and, despite it, accompanies his father on an elevator, or the acknowledged humanity shared between a bartender and her regulars, Hankins’ work is able to meet the concrete world with its rough edges and linger long enough so that new meanings give over.

This work after the various intimacies implied in language is approached at times indirectly via formal choices. The poems in this collection range from prose poems, short lyrics, and indented open field experiences across the page. One dynamic outlier in this vein is “That Than Which” which finds Hankins taking a quote from Anselm of Canterbury and repeating it over and over, each repetition shuffling the order of words and adding to them. The experience created in this experiment is dramatic. Where the epigraph holds as a solid construction of sense, the statement’s reconfiguring via the poem works away from that sense and into other senses. This approach on the part of Hankins evokes another type of intimacy, that of language as something both shared and constructed, able to adhere to and diffuse meaning not just in his handling but in our being along for the ride. What makes the poem remarkable is that the experiment, rather than shutting us out, welcomes the reader into its wrestling with meaning.

And yet, “wrestling” may not be the right word here. Through a kind of lyrical volley and parry, Hankins invokes the idea of language as a “radiant obstacle” in and of itself. As language fails to connect fully yet consistently draws us to it despite this failure, each poem is an endeavor on both the part of poet and reader toward exploring what can be found through being thwarted thus. “Tree Rings” (below) is a good example of what I mean. Here, the speaker meditates on both language and trees; by doing so, he explores the ways humans imbue themselves on the world, and vice versa. The difference being, however, that it all remains a one-sided conversation. Much like prayer, these ruminations ultimately lay bare the richness and sorrow to be found in the human want for a connection beyond ourselves.

Luke Hankins

Tree Rings

Here is a history that does not concern you,
a making apart
                           without
the imposition of form, a shapely
patient expansion, except not
patient because it is mindless.
But you cannot help regarding
the sawn trunk allegorically
(devoted becoming, then the desolate
crash through other limbs).
Do we not also expand ourselves
and thus can speak of the slow
sorrow of the trees even though
we know they are not sad,
not slow, except in
our perceiving? It is enough
to perceive a thing for it to bear
the force of truth.
                                  So,
the hillside stands of trees driving
minutely upward through mindless
centuries. Their jagged symmetries
unerringly perpetuate
and the soft new leaves,
the supple branches giving way
to the wind seem just like us,
though they are not.

*

Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Luke Hankins: My poems have frequently been criticized—especially in an academic setting—for being “overly” abstract. But many of the poems, both historical and contemporary, that impact me most profoundly share a deep engagement with abstract idea and reasoning. That’s not to say that those poems don’t usually engage with the concrete as well, but that they clearly revel in and deeply depend on idea in a way that, say, an Imagist poem does not.

Concretion has for decades been the accepted American poetic doctrine—and, yes, it is an important tool that novice poets typically need to learn. But it’s emphasized to such an extent that our poetry gets bled of complex thought, and consequently we risk losing our very ability to engage with abstract thought.

T. S. Eliot wrote that for John Donne an idea was as immediate as the scent of a rose. I worry that we stand to lose that capacity of mind. My poems attempt to revalorize idea and the ways that language can operate in the abstract. My poems are not devoid of concretion by any means—and some are entirely concrete. But as a whole they intentionally lean on abstract constructs.

Question: There seems to be a distinct conversation happening through the range of formal choices across individual poems—some lean toward direct narrative, others evoke rapturous undertones via indented lines, while still others engage with repetition. Was this intentional? What formal aesthetics do you see this book reflecting?

Luke Hankins: The variety of stylistic and formal approaches my poems take is certainly intentional. I could discuss the thinking underpinning the different approaches, but I prefer for readers to form their own opinions and reactions in that regard. What I will say is that I often tire of poets who write poems, year after year, that are essentially interchangeable in terms of voice, stylistics, and formal characteristics. Naming names is generally frowned upon, but he’ll keep making money, so here I go: Does the world need another Billy Collins poem?

I don’t intend to settle into a formulaic approach to writing poems. Each poem, for me, must be a venture into uncertainty—of voice, of idea, of form.

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Special thanks to Luke Hankins for participating! To keep up with Luke’s work, check out his site. Copies of Radiant Obstacles can be purchased from Wipf & Stock.

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Luke Hankins‘ most recent poetry collection is Radiant Obstacles (2020). A volume of his translations from the French of Stella Vinitchi Radulescu, A Cry in the Snow & Other Poems, was released in 2019. He is the founder and editor of Orison Books, a non-profit literary press focused on the life of the spirit from a broad and inclusive range of perspectives.

microreview & interview: Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals by Laura Cesarco Eglin

review by José Angel Araguz

Lifeonenotattachedtoconditionals_Cover_Final

The idea of poetry as healing is one that is easily romanticized. This romanticizing comes often with an air of distance: poetry as balm after the fact of hurt. However, there is another facet to healing, one rawer and more immediate, that poetry can tap into. Poetry as stitches being sewn; as open wound learning to close and scar. Through the dynamic lyricism found throughout Laura Cesarco Eglin’s latest collection, Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals (Thirty West Publishing House, 2020), we come across a poetic sensibility reaching for this latter intersection between the poetic act and healing.

When the speaker of “Melanoma Lines,” for example, shares with the reader “I know / how to listen to what’s not ready,” it is a statement that brings the reader closer to her experience. To know how to “listen” is to know what to listen for, to forge, in this case by necessity, an awareness. Later, in the same poem, the speaker gives an idea of the cost of this knowing:

I smelled myself being burned.
Cauterized, they said, as if I
didn’t know how to detect euphemisms

These lines continue the theme of immediacy and closeness, first through the sensory details of “smelled” and “burned.” Then, by singling out the outside word “Cauterized, they said,” immediacy is implied through the distant air of medical terminology, which the speaker distrusts as detected “euphemisms.” Making this distinction evokes for the reader the nuances of living with melanoma, a reality that is at the heart of this collection. The nuance engaged with here is that on the level of simultaneity and presence: simultaneity in that both “burned” and “Cauterized” exist in the same poetic space as the physical sensation being described by these two words exists for the same person; presence in the voice making these distinctions and dwelling on them.

In “Wrinkled Brow,” further distinctions are made in the same spirit about a headache that occurs “when your diagnosis / returns to melanoma.” Leaping from the imagery suggested in the title, the speaker describes the headache first as “a hefty dark gray cloud” rumbling in, then as “a coup / pressing on my brow, pressing on my thoughts.” This rumble of internal pressure is shown to have effects beyond the physical as the speaker goes on to declare:

so I refuse to iron my shirts
because matters aren’t that simple.
I let it all show,
revealing not that I am unkempt
but that I am
aware.

These lines are telling and powerful on a few levels. First, the title is evoked again in the first line here and expanded upon to the end of the poem. The “simple” act of ironing shirts works here through its implication of order and tidiness, ideas that run counter to the speaker’s experience. In stating that “matters aren’t that simple,” we are returned to the same sensibility of “Melanoma Lines” and that speaker’s calling out of euphemisms for pain. For the speaker here to “let it all show” through a refusal to iron her shirts is to again not kid herself as to the truth of her experiences. Another act of reclaiming and redefinition occurs here, as in “Melanoma Lines,” in the way the speaker clarifies that she is “not…unkempt / but… / aware.” The presence implied in these lines is forceful in an illuminating way. This poem focused on meditating on a physical headache is reframed by the end as a poem about how pain can often have one fighting to stay connected to one’s sense of self.

Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals offers a poetry engaged with survival and healing, and understanding the flux in between. Like the image in “Holding Space for Self” where “the beginning / of crying” is described as “far away / from the eyes—what rips apart” or the line in “Articulating the Change in My Body” where the speaker gives us the line “These scars belong here” rendered in Morse code on the page, Eglin explores and details her experiences with melanoma, and along the way works out a hard-earned wisdom that doesn’t preach but rather makes itself realized and felt. The travel of metaphor and image in “Landmarks” (below) is a good example of what I mean.

So much of healing is out of one’s hands. So much of healing is not healing. So much of healing is keeping up with shifting physical circumstances that force the sense of self to change. Through engagement with the refusals and moments of awareness brought on by the flux between pain and healing, Eglin’s poems offer readers survival as intimate knowledge and fact.

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Laura Cesarco Eglin

Landmarks

Des Moines bridges remind me
of my scar, so recent
it’s still red and tender and
hurts like arriving
in a new city. One
long line adorned with deep
raw dots on each side. It could
well be a doodle, one I make
absentmindedly—like without
realizing it, cancer has drawn
on me, even if I’d decided
I wouldn’t have it.

The bridges here are plural
to connect the East and West,
to connect the skin back to itself with
seventeen sutures, duplicated—
again a plural, like the echo
of the doctor’s voice in my head:
it will come back.

Many bridges, an attempt
to keep me in one piece;
an attempt to keep me
alive long enough
to cross them all.

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Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Laura Cesarco Eglin: Poetry is how poets engage with the world and contribute to it. Poetry, together with translation in my case, is how I think and observe. It’s a way of raising questions and challenging the status quo. Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals takes the repetition and pattern of biopsy, wait, surgery, biopsy, wait, surgery, and uses it to investigate repetition, cycles, near-repetitions, and to find ways to write alternatives. This exploration of possibilities and transformation are part of poetry and translation. The practice of facing situations, working with language, examining details, and letting go, inherent in poetry and translation, are very much a part of Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals.

Question: One of the aspects of this collection that felt most compelling was how the poems moved between the body and the mind, the mind here meaning both memory and imagination as well as immediate sensation. What was it like negotiating those spaces creatively? 

Laura Cesarco Eglin: Actually, I think it is negotiation, but not between memory, imagination, and immediate sensation. Rather, it’s negotiation between how we are expected to operate in the world, i.e. the norm, and how we actually live. This navigating between body and mind and memory and imagination and sensation and thoughts and, and, and, is how my mind works, how it connects from one (image, thought, feeling, memory, etc.) to the other, and holds them, sometimes simultaneously and sometimes in succession, sometimes at a slow pace, sometimes the pace is faster. Poetry allows me to express myself as myself. Poetry allows for ambiguity and simultaneity and association and contradiction and imagination to co-exist. It doesn’t impose an order, a rule, a particular structure. Life is like that: “the disarray in a bouquet, welcomed after having figured out the countless permutations of this is not a fixed arrangement.

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Special thanks to Laura Cesarco Eglin for participating! To keep up with Laura’s work, check out her site. Copies of Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals can be purchased from Thirty West Publishing House.

lauce mayo 2020Laura Cesarco Eglin is a poet and translator. She is the author of three collections of poetry: Calling Water by Its Name, translated by Scott Spanbauer (Mouthfeel Press, 2016), Sastrería (Yaugurú, 2011), and Reborn in Ink, translated by Catherine Jagoe and Jesse Lee Kercheval (The Word Works, 2019). She has also published three chapbooks: Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals (Thirty West Publishing House, 2020), Occasions to Call Miracles Appropriate  (The Lune, 2015), and Tailor Shop: Threads, co-translated with Teresa Williams (Finishing Line Press, 2013). Her poems, as well as her translations (from the Spanish, Portuguese, Portuñol, and Galician), have appeared in a variety of journals, including Asymptote, Modern Poetry in Translation, Eleven Eleven, Puerto del Sol, Copper Nickel, Spoon River Poetry Review, Arsenic Lobster, International Poetry Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Columbia Poetry Review, Blood Orange Review, Timber,Pretty Owl Poetry, Pilgrimage, Periódico de Poesía, and more. Cesarco Eglin is the translator of Of Death. Minimal Odes by the Brazilian author Hilda Hilst (co•im•press), winner of the 2019 Best Translated Book Award in Poetry. She co-translated from the Portuñol Fabián Severo’s Night in the North (Eulalia Books, 2020). She is the co-founding editor and publisher of Veliz Books.

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.

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.

microreview: Cenote City by Monique Quintana

review by José Angel Araguz

cenote city

Monique Quintana’s debut novel, Cenote City (Clash Books), is a stellar addition to the Latinx storytelling tradition of texts born out of exploring the intersections where folklore, politics, cultura, and literature meet. Told through fable-like short chapters, Cenote City presents the story of Lune whose mother, Marcrina, cannot stop crying to the point that she has become a tourist attraction, relegated to the nearby cenote, a natural pit or sinkhole that contains groundwater. In the character Marcrina, one can see a variation of the folklore figure of La Llorona (whose own tale has her become a ghost forever crying by the side of rivers after drowning her own children as an act of revenge due to her husband’s infidelity). Quintana draws from this connection and creates a character imbued with a similar sense of sorrow and mortality. What distinguishes Quintana’s Marcrina is the empathetic role she plays in the lives of the community of Cenote City as a deliverer of stillborns. Mediating the humanity of this motherhood experience in one role and serving as a human avatar of endless sorrow in another, Marcrina stands as a symbol of resiliency and depth against The Generales, the police force entity of Cenote City.

Marcrina is just one of a number of characters that inhabit the world of Cenote City; others include a clown able to make children disappear, and a “tiny coven,” one of whom’s members is able to set up a mannequin’s hair into a beehive style and then cast a spell that makes bees appear from it. With radical poetic impulses and flourishes reminiscent of Arthur Rimbaud, Quintana moves the narrative along mainly through the impressions evoked from images and the inner world of her characters. This approach allows her to make full use of the rasquachismo aesthetic, a Chicano sensibility that works to “[transform] social and economic instabilities into a style and a postitive creative attitude.” This aesthetic makes use of collage and places at the forefront the struggle of the oppressed. As a form of storytelling, rasquachismo offers Quintana the use of fruitful and evocative juxtaposition. While this approach at times leads to a dense prose style, the risk is ultimately worth it for how engrossing and captivating the reading experience becomes.

An example of what I mean can be seen in “The Daffodil Dress” (below). In this chapter, readers are presented with a memory of Lune finding Marcrina floating in a pool of water as well as the ensuing panic and recovery. One choice use of juxtaposition occurs around the images of insects coming out of the mother’s mouth. Having insects stand as words in the text lends the narrative a startling new understanding of language. Even when Lune cannot hear what her mother and father say between them, the presence of words is seen as alive and restless.

*

Monique Quintana

The Daffodil Dress

The spring after Lune’s father left them, she found her mother in the backyard of their house, floating in a plastic baby pool, her dress blooming around her body like a daffodil. Lune had been to a birthday party in Storylandia. She began to scream and tried to pull her mother out of the water. The warmth of the water was a shock to her hands and it soaked her party dress, making the skin on her legs burn and itch. She clawed at her own skin with her nails, painted pink by her mother with care. If the clouds could bear witness to that afternoon, they would say that Lune was a swirl of ribbons and brown skin, her kneecaps scraped by the sea of grass, bluish green and bleating, not willing to give up their secrets.

Lune’s screams were loud enough to bring the neighbors, to bring the ambulance, to bring the police, to bring Lune’s father. The paramedic, a young woman with slanted eyes and bright hair administered CPR, while the next-door-neighbor clung to Lune in the sway of bodies, and Lune held her hands in a fist, ready to curse anyone who would let her mother die. The red haired woman hovered over Lune’s mother like she was a kite, blowing the air, willing her to live. Lune’s mother had full round breasts buried under the daffodil dress, and her hair was matted to her mouth like clods of dirt. Lune thought she could see insects fly from her mother’s mouth and ears, when her father appeared and knelt beside her mother and the paramedics. The paramedic’s hands were shaking on Marcrina’s face when Marcrina began to cough up water, the baby pool tipped over and made a bigger pool in the grass, barely touching Lune’s toes again, the tight leather straps of her sandals burning her ankles. She clawed at her own ankles, pulling the sandals off her feet.

Lune thought that her mother had been dead and had been revived because her father had returned to them. There was a tourniquet wrapped around Marcrina’s arm and a stethescope placed at the rise and fall of her breast. Lune thought that her mother’s dying would make her skin turn blue, but it remained as brown as ever, and the daffodil of her dress lay shaking on her hips and her breasts. The paramedics tried to make Lune’s mother go to the hospital, but her father wouldn’t let them take her. He undressed her in the warm glow of the bathroom, the light of the ceiling, making new daffodils on her body. Lune saw her father put her mother in the bathwater, saw him pull her hair away from her face, her shoulder blades shuddered at the touch of the water. Lune could hear them whispering to each other and those whispers became the things that flew out of her mother’s mouth like insects. She tried to make out the lines of the wings and the plump black segments of their bodies, but the insects were hazy and only the buzz of letters could be recognized. No full words. Just moving mouths and shoulder blades and the slow crashing of bathtub water.

After he helped put her mother to bed, Lune’s father heated up cold cocido in a pot and they ate together in their kitchen nook. Lune’s father put his wife’s insects in his mouth and ate them. He ate the secrets and Lune and her father ate the soup together, and they were happy that she wasn’t dead.

*

To learn more about Monique Quintana’s work, visit her site.
Also worth checking out: Blood Moon Blog, where Quintana writes about Latinx literature.
Copies of Cenote City can be purchased from Clash Books.

microreview: Slingshot by Cyrée Jarelle Johnson

review by José Angel Araguz

SLINGSHOT

There’s a moment toward the end of the sequence “a machine of mahogany and bronze I” in Cyrée Jarelle Johnson’s debut poetry collection Slingshot (Nightboat Books) where, in the aftermath of a protest demonstration broken up by police brutality, the speaker is asked “You heard about the storm comin’?” which prompts them to meditate on:

The same storm slicing
through every inch of armor
my binder becoming more unbearable as the sun sets.

Yes. I knew about the storm coming.

This admission coming when it does at a moment of reflection and recovery is charged with an awareness that the literal storm of the poem runs parallel to the metaphorical storm of the political moment they are living in. The articulation of this awareness, here and elsewhere, is tinged not with resignation but resolve. This mix of awareness and resolve runs through this collection in stunning and complicated ways.

Whether awareness and resolve play out in expressions of self-presence, as in “false sonnet embroidered w/ four loko empties” which opens the collection and whose ending states: “I’m a full grown / whatever-the-fuck, and I will devour any / attempt to subdue me with monstrous animality,” or in poems troubling current staples of pop culture (as in the poems “a review of Hamilton: An American Musical” and “chewbacca was the blackest part of The Force Awakens“), Johnson enacts a lyric presence that engages through juxtaposition of tone and phrasing. In “chewbacca,” for example, the speaker riffs on the Star Wars mythos, braiding in commentary about race like “When we colonize the stars, everyone will be beige, / white folks sometimes say, or orange” and placing them next to others like “Chewbacca was the blackest part of The Force / Awakens. Always moaning & never understood. Always hunted & never going home.” This braiding makes the speculative nature of science fiction all the more human while also interrogating the implications of George Lucas’ vision. The projection of blackness onto the Chewbacca narrative, which is one of survival, parallels that of the speaker who shares at the end, “…I am just too tired. Too vengeful to go anywhere anymore.” This statement’s honesty is a surprise as it comes at the end of a poem that strips away much of the fiction of the film in order to get at the deeper implications for the speaker.

Awareness and resolve in the service of self-revelation, ultimately, is where Slingshot lives. My sense, though, is that Johnson would have readers be mindful of the difference between self-revelation and traditional ideas of confession in poetry. While the poems evoke the trials and tribulations of sex work and the intersections of being black, disabled, femme, and genderqueer, these poems work toward a visceral clarity. Rather than hold the reader’s hand and explain the complexities of the world they’re drawn from, these poems present themselves on their own terms and trust the reader to keep up. It is in this aspect that the poems point back to the title, in a way, each one a stone shot out to strike at the consciousness who hears it.

To return to the sequence “a machine of mahogany and bronze I”: The line “we will hold the line as a practice of freedom” is said by the speaker mid-protest. This collection shows Johnson holding the poetic line in a myriad of ways that open up the nuances of awareness and resolve. In the poem below, “jersey fems in the philly zoo,” this work is done through image and imagination, each surrealistic turn interrupted by a harsh reality. By the end, it’s clear that fear is one of the many things Johnson holds the line against.

Cyrée Jarelle Johnson
jersey fems in the philly zoo

a flamingo knows,
even without pink lipstick,
fem is a feeling.

black boots. Raritan
tap water memories flow.
murderous brown geese

fly from Johnson Park,
arrive, then turn up their beaks
‘fuck dis sposta be?’

they inquire. I
find cover in the leopard
print fem next to me

because here, always
someone’s looking, someone’s stares
caught in plexiglass

refracting the light
in your life. no. it’s not you.
they look to consume.

especially spring,
and when the ice cream melts
before it’s lapped up.

Philadelphia
is lilac and lightning strike
before a great storm.

electric strangers
cuff biceps unexpected
back draws straight — horror.

they look to consume.
they desire to control.
predatory birds;

eagles, owls, all.
swooping down with catching claws,
no glass to hide you.

I want my armor
an exoskeleton, tough
hewn of crushed velvet

bristling with defense
a kevlar of tenderness
enveloping me.

this is what happens
when the tree blooms: the axeman
runs to chop it down.

this is what happens
when creatures meant for the deep
somehow crawl ashore:

they will be lapped up
by the hot eyes of the sea
pulled tight by strange hands

knives licking their necks
the scent of wisteria
fireworks: flash/bang.

flash fire, roll flame
clip wings from those who maim us
declaw them all, bare.

maybe they will burn
corralled, while lights dance in sky.
steaming macho ash.

and if they must live
then make me invisible.
hide me. erase me.

*

To learn more about Cyrée Jarelle Johnson’s work, visit their site.
To read an interview with Johnson where they discuss the poem above and Slingshot in general, go here.
Copies of Slingshot can be purchased from Nightboat Books.

microreview & interview: Real Daughter by Lynn Otto

review by José Angel Araguz

PhotoEditor_20190608_141411093

It seems simple to say that what words can point to and hold is a constant source of meditation for me and other poets. Yet, this type of meditation is a high stakes one as it is in contemplating what words can hold that one also necessarily reckons with what cannot be held in words. Reading through Lynn Otto’s Real Daughter (Unicorn Press, 2019), one encounters poems that make use of this meditative space to engage with human conflict.

One can see this in “Marcescence,” which opens the collection with a reckoning salvo:

The beeches’ light brown leaves in horizontal layers
like my mother’s tiered serving trays
artfully placed in the winter forest and here we are,
in another stupid tree poem, this one
about the difficulty of letting go of something already dead.

In these lines, Otto’s speaker braids the direct meaning of the its title — a word meaning “the retention of dead plant organs that normally are shed”* — with family narrative. The first three lines evoke the way memory blurs present moment experience as well as suggests the natural way one understands the world through story. The second line’s simile deftly places nature and family side by side, a juxtaposition further complicated by the return to nature imagery in the third line. The last two lines of this stanza add a further depth to the meditation so far with its metanarrative nod towards the tradition of nature poems. Aware that she finds herself “in another stupid tree poem,” the speaker meets the sentimentality risked in the first three lines with awareness. This awareness furthers the veracity of the poem, allowing the double-meaning of the fifth line’s phrasing “the difficulty of letting go of something already dead” to hit with a compelling lyrical conviction. This conviction is furthered in the second stanza through a listing of words:

Such a fancy word for it when it comes to trees:
marcescence. You could name a daughter that.
Unlike fury. Unlike grief.

Here, the move of braiding nature and family narratives is taken further through the act of naming. There is a telling distinction in the way this speaker considers “marcescence” fit for naming a daughter over the words “fury” and “grief.” Placing these words on separate sides and seeing one as suitable for public use implies a number of things for the other two words. That “fury” and “grief” are human emotions and, therefore, typically kept private due to societal norms; that these two emotions occur in our inner worlds, this versus the public display of marcescence in trees; that, perhaps, these two words in their charged and potent nature eschew the fanciness the speaker sees in marcescence; it is through these copious implications that the speaker’s emotional presence is evoked.

The way these lines evoke this presence is quick and powerful, true to the essence of lyric poetry. This mix of skillful phrasing, hard-earned human voice, and thoughtful imagery render and suggest worlds of meaning througout the poems of Real Daughter. As the poems move through narratives of the roles taken up in one woman’s life (that of mother, daughter, wife), there is always an urgent awareness to see and find enough words for the life lived (and potentially overlooked) outside these roles.

In “Maytag” (below), one can see a good example of Otto’s ability to create a multivalent, compelling speaker. As the poem develops around a narrative about the speaker’s father and mother disputing over a broken appliance, the details begin to color the speaker’s inner world and her handling of a dead bird. The effect of this coloring is evident in the turn in the last stanza as the speaker considers “If my daughter were here.” This speculation creates an emotional depth through its contrast with what actually is done in the poem.

The poems of Real Daughter thrive in this rich space between imaginative speculation and the “real” world of family narratives. As the speaker of “Marcescence” notes in that poem’s ending stanza:

Consider the clean white spaces
between each layer of a family tree.
It isn’t like that at all.

The move to complicate and disrupt accepted narratives implied in this last line underscores the whole of this collection. Through these poems, Otto not only makes clear that it “isn’t like that at all” but also faces what it is like while at the same time providing glimpses of what it could be like.

Maytag – Lynn Otto

It can’t be fixed, says my father
of the dryer, the Maytag of many years—most
of their marriage—and the protest
of my mother, who can’t do laundry anymore anyway,
doesn’t stop him from having it hauled away,
ordering a Kenmore.

What he means is he can’t fix it. He has fallen
and what can a man do with a broken rib?
The third bird in two days hits the window and drops,
a rose-breasted nuthatch I place in a napkin,
but they won’t touch its fine fine feathers for fear of lice.
I’m to throw it in the bay.

If my daughter were here, she would bury it in a small box,
lined with a scrap of soft cloth.
But there’s no time for dead birds.
The crabs creep out sideways to clean up,
and my mother says to call the crematorium the minute she dies.
When the Maytag goes, she cries.

*

Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Lynn Otto: It seems to me that of all types of writing, poetry leaves the most space for the reader. I like reading and writing poems that give the reader not only sonic pleasure but also the pleasure of discovery–finding connections, layers, ambiguities, and so forth. I think the poems in Real Daughter allow those things to happen. My aim is that they welcome the reader in, and then trust the reader. I think most of the poems can be enjoyed by people who don’t have much experience reading poetry, but readers who want to will enjoy discovering more. The poems don’t over-explain. Neither do they preach or lecture, which brings me to another idea I have about poetry—that is, it’s a genre that generously accommodates uncertainty. A book of poems, even one that’s thematically tied together, can certainly cast about, and Real Daughter does.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Lynn Otto: Ah, well, writing anything at all is a challenge for someone taught that it’s best to keep things to oneself, especially family matters. And the process of putting words on paper—was I writing about what I thought and felt, or were the poems deciding what I thought and felt? The chicken-egg conundrum. Since I was not in the habit of knowing my own mind, it was hard to know what was going on. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of a poem going in an entirely unexpected direction. Of course, although books of poems are classified as nonfiction, they’re certainly not all autobiographical. They are, first of all, made things. Still, at times I wondered whether the poems themselves were putting a spin on things, and were influencing my feelings, even my memories. I worried that family members would be upset. I ended up writing poems that cast doubt on other poems, in effect undermining the reliability of the main speaker of the book. Only then did I feel comfortable sending it out into the world.

It’s funny that the first word of the title is a proclamation of authenticity: “Real.” But the second word is “Daughter,” a word that for me, and I think for many, signals expectations of duty to others, not to oneself. There is a tension in the title that runs throughout the book, and that was also part of my experience of writing it.

*

Special thanks to Lynn Otto for participating! To keep up with Otto’s work, check out her site. Copies of Real Daughter can be purchased from Unicorn Press.

Lynn Otto pic (2)*

Lynn Otto is a freelance academic copy editor and writing mentor, with an MFA in creative writing from Portland State University (Oregon). Her work has appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review, Raleigh Review, Sequestrum, and other journals (see lynnottoinfo.wordpress.com), and her book Real Daughter, winner of Unicorn Press’s First Book Prize in 2017, was published earlier this year.

microreview & interview: Zarzamora by Vincent Cooper

review by José Angel Araguz

zarzamoracover_3_orig

Vincent Cooper’s Zarzamora: Poetry of Survival (Jade Publishing, 2019) is a collection grounded in the great traditions of Chicano poetry. These poems recall the immersive narratives of Jimmy Santiago Baca and Luis J. Rodriguez along with the image-driven lyricism of Gary Soto’s early work. What sets Cooper’s work apart is the distinct perspective of his poetic sensisbility. Whether through dream or memory, Cooper’s visceral lyricism catalogues as well as captures life on and beyond Zarzamora Street.

The collection’s title invites a fitting metaphor. The word zarzamora translates to blackberry which immediately sets one thinking in terms of bramble and tangled overgrowth. Instead of a traditional family tree, these poems deal with family as a similar sprawling entity. Stories of uncles and brothers are engaged in a way that explores a necessary public toughness as well as private depths.

The death of one uncle in particular, Danny, serves as a catalyst for the aforementioned duality, forcing family to open up and reach out to one another. “Five Bullets,” for example, describes a speaker and brother meeeting for “beers and plática,” a ritual public act haunted by personal tragedy. One can feel this haunting in the following stanza:

“I can’t believe Danny is dead,” he blurts.
Surprised, mid-drink, I assent.
The restaurant darkens
and warps into The San Fernando Cememtery.
Bar stools become tombstones.
We dive into Uncle Danny’s uncovered grave.
Stand on his casket
together. Speaking the sacred to the public
worms watching from the niches of the Earth.

This surrealistic blurring and change of scene evokes how sudden memories can come and take over one’s reverie. A similar move occurs in the poem’s ending lines describing a moment as the two men leave the bar: “I leave a tip, as if / a handful of dirt.” Lines like these show how death can color daily life. This imaginative space where memory and feeling blur is where Cooper’s poetic sensibility flourishes.

As much as Danny’s death haunts the speaker of these poems, Danny’s own voice — present in the collection through letters written from prison — serves to further the experience, countering meditations on the life lived with the living presence granted by words. In these letters, the somber, straightforward tone of the poems is checked and challenged by Danny meditating in an imaginative space of his own. Writing from prison, Danny meditates on his own past as well as reaches out and, through his advice to the poet, gestures towards the future.

In one early letter, Danny reflects on family not writing to him:

“Some people have a hard time writing and others like me and you can express ourselves better in writing. Anyway, it doesn’t mean they love us any less because they don’t write. It’s just part of who they are.”

There is a power to this statement that speaks to the heart of the collection. On one level, Danny is working through the complicated feelings of not receiving word from people he cares about; on another level, he is defining the space between him and the poet. In naming “part of who they are” as not being able to express themselves in writing, there’s the implied naming of a part of who Danny and the poet are, a part of them able to honor life through words. As Zarzamora moves through its poems of varied voices and recollections, Cooper’s poetic mission runs parallel to Danny’s epistolary one. Both men are seeking to understand and hold onto lives often overshadowed by death and misunderstanding.

Through unflinching honesty and nuanced lyricism, Zarzamora stands as a testament to the personal lives involved in the poems while also honoring Chicano identity. In this book, Cooper represents narratives and voices often overlooked through poems that evoke their necessary human presence. “Brazos” (below), is a good example of what I mean. Through some riffing with tropes associated with the devil, this poem works out a real sense of the high stakes reckoned with in the world of this book.

Brazos – Vincent Cooper

The devil danced with the most the beautiful
women in the room
before they noticed his feet.
He ran away from the chicanos who chased him
into the bathroom
of the baile where
he vanished,
and Sulphur remained.

He crept behind children playing little league,
hid under the bed of chicano lovers making love,
and laughed in our faces during the depression
of our lives…

And he was present when my Tíos died.
We whispered I love you’s into Mike’s ear
while the devil was massaging Mike’s bare feet.
Saying, “He can’t hear you.”
Told Tony to leave the house
and meet five bullets down the street.
Laughing and swimming in Tony’s pool of blood.
He picked up Danny off the toilet
and threw him onto the living room floor without
air to breathe.
He rode shotgun with Jody.
Infected him with AIDS
watched Jody rot in a prison cell.

He had been present at all our miseries
because the reckless familia
only knows to live on the thinnest edge of life and
death.
Every day with a methadone trip
and heroin and liquor
and worst of all “love.”

They made a fungus of love,
mildew smiles.
Black rotted teeth.
Honey brown chests
with Old English tattoos, on
spore covered stomach muscles.
Their drunken killer smiles dimpled,
telling stories,
our brazos wrapped around their shoulders.
We, the naive, craved their empty promises.
We were naive.

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Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Vincent Cooper: I knew, even as a child that I was witnessing something artistic, conversations and other moments resonated. Years ago, a poet said that the first poets you encounter are your tios, tias and primos. This is absolutely correct in my case. My where is South Texas/ Southern California. What I heard were uncles singing and telling jokes. Brown men playing basketball here in the barrio is what I saw. Old schoolers dressed in guayaberas n’ Stacy’s clacking. Smelling like barbecue, tortillas burning on the comal, Old Milwaukee or Schaefer beer and sweat. Some comments or praise I’ve received is “Thank you for sharing personal experiences.” The only thing I can do is write a true and honest account of my experience. I write about being here in the barrio and about missing the barrio. My community. I don’t understand why this wouldn’t be for the literary canon. I write the way I remember it. This is simply the life that we have here in San Antonio.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Vincent Cooper: I am a masochist. The wheels have to be spinning already. There has to be a poem manifesting, prompted by a scene, memory, other writings. It might be an encounter with a relative that will trigger a poem –and it’s typically a negative thing happening that spurs the main idea to the poem. I don’t naturally just go sit at a desk and start typing up a million words. These poems in Zarzamora go back about 10 years. Right around the death of my Uncle Mike, I wrote pages of Westside San Antonio poetry. I debated writing these poems as prose or even as a novel. The narrative style is how I’ve written for at least 20 years. Initial edits by Viktoria made these bits of narrative into poetry. The voice and story was there but she taught me about breath, line breaks –or no line break, etc. She handed me books by Lucille Clifton and Li Young Lee too help build up and process.

Offending relatives was something that crossed my mind and I did remove poems, stories, and letters from Zarzamora. There was one letter where my uncle Danny had written racist comments. He was trying to stick up for me, or cheer me up, regarding an incident that happened in school. I think my relatives who’ve not even purchased the book are probably still offended, but I know this book is my experience not theirs.

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Special thanks to Vincent Cooper for participating! To keep up with Cooper’s work, follow him on Twitter: @vinnycoop13. Copies of Zarzamora can be purchased from Jade Publishing.

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Vincent Cooper is the author of Zarzamora – Poetry of Survival and Where the Reckless Ones Come to Die. His poetry can also be found in Huizache 6, Huizache 8, The Acentos Review and Riversedge Journal. His forthcoming manuscript The Other Side of Semper Fi chronicle’s his tumultuous stint in the Marines pre/post America- 9/11.