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.

* new work up at star 82 review!

Just a quick post to announce the release of Star 82’s Special Flash Issue which includes my piece “Prayer Box” along with an original ink sketch!

This special issue consists of 50 poets writing flash pieces of exactly 5o words each. Stellar work by Todd Mercer, Kate K Lore, and Autumn Stephens among others are included. Check out the rest of the issue here.

Special thanks to editor Alisa Golden for putting together a great issue and for allowing us to share original artwork!

See you Friday!

José

* 2015 end of year reading

Time once again for my end of year reading – which technically this year is more of a first of year reading – so however you feel fit to see it, please do. See it, that is.

I have been busy the past 3 weeks reading through the last leg of my reading list for my exams later this month. Here be the last stack(s) of books:

last leg

If you’re like me and can’t see a photo of books without scanning to see who’s in the “crowd,” here’s a short list of what’s visible:

a book on haiku poetics; Borges’ DreamtigersA Sense of Regard (essays); By Word of Mouth (William Carlos Williams’ translations); Pablo Neruda and the U.S. Culture IndustryWithout a Net by Ana Maria Shua; two books by Octavio Paz; Rigoberto Gonzalez’s Butterfly Boy (sans-book jacket, esta frio!); La Otra Mirada (microrrelato anthology); William Carlos William’s PatersonComplete Works and Other Stories by Augosto Monterroso; Takuboku Ishikawa’s Romaji Diary/Sad ToysConversations with Mexican American Writers (interviews); Sandra Cisneros’ My Wicked, Wicked Ways; Rosa Alcalá’s Undocumentaries; Pat Mora’s Aunt Carmen’s Book of Practical Saints; & flanking the stacks: William J. Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook; Juan Felipe Herrera’s Half of the World in Light.

***

I took a break last week to record a few readings from Everything We Think We Hear by the Ohio river after eating our annual Christmas Eve Eli’s BBQ. Below is the video and text of “Jalapeños” and “Holiday Policy.”

Looking back, I realize these two poems are a good example of the kind of range I was going for in this collection. “Jalapeños”is a kind of homage not only to the chili pepper but also to Yeats, family, and Corpus Christi, all refracted via nonlinear, lyrical momentum. “Holiday Policy,” on the other hand, is driven by a more linear narrative, but is subverted in its story within a story framework.

Enjoy!

*

Jalapeños – José Angel Araguz 

Pickled, you gleam, a smile hiding its teeth. Photo negative from Picture Day, money missing from my pockets, that smile. I can live without money; without food, I’m useless. Hunger is a tide: I walk down when it is low and see more. Over time, you’ve taught me to fashion sensibilities after what I can tolerate. When I am old and gray, and have eaten enough, I will tolerate everyone. When your darkness first cracked, did everyone go silent as you spilled out your many, tiny moons? And did he think himself a sky, the first to place your moons upon his tongue? Or was it only later, after biting into your body, thinking his own body turned water, that the first looked down and found, piled in his hand, the dunes of ellipsis you keep inside? You are commas, keep each bite separate. You are semicolons, a tip of the hat to greet the day. Shape suggestive of the J in my name. Shape suggestive, period. My aunt threatening with you if I ever cussed. Sting of I should’ve known better than to. Without you, I am useless. Corpus Christi Bay begins to glisten with you. You keep riding on the color of the waves, mocking, many and mocking. Family pickled. Family sharp with vinegar. Family broken with bites. Hunger is a tide: when it is high, I remember I cannot swim. Through skin and seed, my filthy existence resumes, after the sting.

Holiday Policy – José Angel Araguz 

My friend, who with his white beard and wide chest looks like Santa Claus, tells me of working at a liquor store and having to take polaroids of people paying with a check. He did this when he was my age, but because I am my age, my friend becomes Santa with a camera and nametag, standing as straight as steel bars on windows, watching me buy my liquor. He laughs telling the story, but the Santa whose eyes are hard on me is silent. Under white eyebrows, I see myself already doubled, following the motions of the story: white flash, pen collapsing on the counter, bottles pointing fingers from brown paper bags, fluorescence hum below the words: Holiday policy. The photo hangs like a tongue out of the camera’s mouth, my face slowly appearing from gray-white to a grainy, blurred reflection. It was enough to put cash in their pockets, as if it had been there all along, says my friend in the story, who himself dissolves into the friend in the room, grown quiet, as if he could hear himself speaking in the memory I would later have of him after he died, and disappointed that there isn’t more to him than stories like this one.

*

Happy policying!

Jose

P.S. Check out my Instagram account (joseangelaraguz) for two more shorter readings!

* existing with gisela kraft & an update

 

five-story house in laleli – Gisela Kraft

one lies in rags on the street
and his stomach is empty
and he wishes for death

one sits with friends at tea and backgammon
and his mind is empty
and he wishes for death

one sits in a straight-backed chair at a desk
and his bank account is empty
and he wishes for death

one lies in bed staring out to sea
and the place next to him in bed is empty
and he wishes for death

one flies back with food in its beak
and its nest is empty
and only this one says
we should give it another try

(trans. Laura Leichum)

This short lyric has quickly become a favorite of mine in the past few weeks. I’m charmed by the way the seemingly simple refrain quickly enters into allegory. The repetitions of “empty” and “death” build up an atmosphere of dejection and set up the turn at the end of the poem. The impersonal and non-specific nature of “one” as an address allows for the final stanza’s change in perspective; something “flies” in the heart of the reader and defies the preceding stanzas of emptiness and death, and gives further impetus to exist. There’s also a structural charm to the poem in the way the “five-story house” is played out in the five stanzas of the poem.

***

It has been a week since the official release of my collection Everything We Think We Hear. Since then, I have been humbled and moved by the warm reception and good wishes people have shown the new book. Thank you to all who have shown interest and bought the book!

After some minor issues, the book is available for order on Amazon!

As part of a partly superstitious and partly practical (or so I tell myself) process, I went ahead and ordered myself a copy. Here’s a pic that shows that my little book does indeed exist:

This copy is going straight to mom in Texas. I’ll make sure to post an update here when I receive my own copies for sale.

Happy existing!

José

 

* new collection released!!!

I’m happy to announce that my new collection Everything We Think We Hear is officially available on Amazon!

As I’ve mentioned here, this project brings the prose poem and flash fiction structure of my chapbook Reasons (not) to Dance and takes it in a more personal direction, adds a little more guacamole and South Texas to my usual rhetorical and imagistic leanings.

Here are what some of my favorite writers had to say about the project:

“What is the meaning beyond memory’s hauntings? How does one survive the multi-faceted self fashioned from such meanings? Poet José Ángel Araguz’ unflinching collection, Everything We Think We Hear, considers these questions from all angles and gives us answers as adamantine and brilliant as the prose poems he has fashioned in his questing.”

Sarah Cortéz, Councilor, Texas Institute of Letters, Author of Cold Blue Steel

“José Ángel Araguz balances the beauty and agony of a man siphoning love from beer bottles, sparse mother-son conversations, a stern Tía’s throw, and the weathered memories of an absent father. This collection, where a boy who couldn’t dream becomes a man “making communion with all he knows,” insists you gaze on lo raro, the sour-pickled and scattered parts of a soul who refuses to ignore the song of the broken even when surrounded by splendor. “

Peggy Robles-Alvarado, author of Homenaje a las guerreras

“In José Angel Araguz’s collection, Everything We Think We Hear, todo se vale, everything goes! This book plays with our senses and forces us to consider what we think we hear, what we think we are reading. A fierce voice that shouts often and whispers now and then the many truths of life in South Texas. The poetic prose pieces startle the senses with rich images that linger in the mind like memorable dreams. Read these pieces and come away transformed.”

Norma E. Cantú, author of Canícula

Anyone interested in a copy for review, I can make a PDF available. Feel free to contact me: thefridayinfluence@gmail.com

Thank you to Sarah, Peggy, and Norma for their wonderful words of support for this project!

Special thanks as well to Roberto Cabello-Argandoña of Floricanto Press for working with me during this process!

See you Friday!

Jose

* sunsetting with gwendolyn brooks

A Sunset of the City – Gwendolyn Brooks

Already I am no longer looked at with lechery or love.
My daughters and sons have put me away with marbles and dolls,
Are gone from the house.
My husband and lovers are pleasant or somewhat polite
And night is night.

It is a real chill out,
The genuine thing.
I am not deceived, I do not think it is still summer
Because sun stays and birds continue to sing.

It is summer-gone that I see, it is summer-gone.
The sweet flowers indrying and dying down,
The grasses forgetting their blaze and consenting to brown.

It is a real chill out. The fall crisp comes
I am aware there is winter to heed.
There is no warm house
That is fitted with my need.

I am cold in this cold house this house
Whose washed echoes are tremulous down lost halls.
I am a woman, and dusty, standing among new affairs.
I am a woman who hurries through her prayers.

Tin intimations of a quiet core to be my
Desert and my dear relief
Come: there shall be such islanding from grief,
And small communion with the master shore.
Twang they. And I incline this ear to tin,
Consult a dual dilemma. Whether to dry
In humming pallor or to leap and die.

Somebody muffed it?? Somebody wanted to joke.

One of the things that always moves me about Gwendolyn Brooks’ work is her ability to strike emotional chords down to the level of language. This is done in the above poem subtly at the beginning, as the word “gone” is in one stanza and “summer” in the next, only to be brought together in the speaker’s meditation as the compound “summer-gone.” Having this moment build up gradually allows the reader to be in the same space as the speaker, so that when “summer-gone” is repeated in one line, it is an inevitability.

A similar things happens in the line “I am cold in this cold house this house,” where the repetition of “cold” and “house” moves them from adjective and noun into the realm of an personal lexicon for this speaker. This repetition is a kind of nuanced linguistical desire and defiance that mirrors the conceptual themes of the poem, the speaker owning the experience through statement and restatement. When, later in the same stanza, the speaker says:

I am a woman, and dusty, standing among new affairs.
I am a woman who hurries through her prayers.

I can’t help but marvel at the juxtaposition of the longer, more punctuated line against the shorter line that follows. Here, sentence structure mirrors the speaker’s state of mind, assessing and taking in the “affairs” around her in one line, and feeling a need to “hurry” in the next. This kind of attention to the line fills Brooks’ work with lessons for both the heart and mind.

***

As promised, here is a sneak peek at the cover of my forthcoming collection Everything We Think We Hear, set to be released next week on December 1st. Stay tuned for updates and ordering information. For now, check out “Don’t Look Now I Might Be Mexican” (with audio!) published in Blue Mesa Review which will appear in the collection.

I’ve also been revamping the site a bit, making changes to make things more navigable. The more notable changes include the layout of the “poems” tab, which is updated to include some more recent publications, as well as the creation of tabs for “prose” and “tanka & co.” Under “prose,” there are links to book reviews I’ve done as well as posts for the Cincinnati Review blog and writing I’ve done on specific poems for journals (like this one for the Tahoma Literary Review – On “Spiderman Hitches a Ride” – the piece itself to be released next Tuesday). Under “tanka & co.” there are links to my publications in various Japanese poetic forms including this sequence of 39 tanka in Atlas Poetica (PDF). I’ll be working on gussying up the other tabs as time goes on.

Happy sunsetting!

José

* solituding with james schuyler

One of the most moving things about being a poet and sharing the work I do has been hearing feedback from people. I remember years ago after performing at a poetry slam, I had a woman come up to me and quote a line from one of the poems I’d read: “Why are men only honest during the slow songs?” Then she hugged me and said, That’s it, that’s exactly it.

Another time I was working at a coffee shop and had posted some poems (my own and by others) on the community board in celebration of National Poetry Month. It was a lovely surprise to hand off a latte to a young man as he smiled and said: “Solitude feels like fire sometimes.” Did you write that? That’s a good line.

My reaction in both situations was a mix of smiling and mumbling, eventually landing on a thank you.

In the three years of running this blog, I have been moved to similar moments of smiling and mumbling gratitude by comments made here, Facebook, Twitter, and email by those of you kind enough to read and reach out. While writing and reading may be solitary acts, there is a special kind of communion that happens in those moments of sharing lines and insights. Thank you for making me feel heard!

This week’s poem – “The Bluet” by James Schuyler – connects this type of communion via poetry with that available in the natural world. In those moments of reading a line and considering it, we read with the kind of attention and listening that “breaks/[us] up.”

* quaking *
* quaking *


The Bluet – James Schuyler

 And is it stamina
that unseasonably freaks
forth a bluet, a
Quaker lady, by
the lake? So small,
a drop of sky that
splashed and held,
four-petaled, creamy
in its throat. The woods
around were brown,
the air crisp as a
Carr’s table water
biscuit and smelt of
cider. There were frost
apples on the trees in
the field below the house.
The pond was still, then
broke into a ripple.
The hills, the leaves that
have not yet fallen
are deep and oriental
rug colors. Brown leaves
in the woods set off
gray trunks of trees.
But that bluet was
the focus of it all: last
spring, next spring, what
does it matter? Unexpected
as a tear when someone
reads a poem you wrote
for him: “It’s this line
here.” That bluet breaks
me up, tiny spring flower
late, late in dour October.
***
The countdown to the December 1st release of my full-length collection, Everything We Think We Hear, continues. Here is a link to my poem “Letter to Rainer Maria Rilke from NYC” published in The Acentos Review in 2010. It’s the piece where the “solitude” line quoted above appears.
Happy solituding!
José

* ¡presente! with anne sexton

The Truth the Dead Know – Anne Sexton

For my mother, born March 1902, died March 1959
and my father, born February 1900, died June 1959

Gone, I say and walk from church,
refusing the stiff procession to the grave,
letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.
It is June. I am tired of being brave.

We drive to the Cape. I cultivate
myself where the sun gutters from the sky,
where the sea swings in like an iron gate
and we touch. In another country people die.

My darling, the wind falls in like stones
from the whitehearted water and when we touch
we enter touch entirely. No one’s alone.
Men kill for this, or for as much.

And what of the dead? They lie without shoes
in their stone boats. They are more like stone
than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse
to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.

***

Dia de los Muertos – or Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday focused on praying for and celebrating the dead – occurred this past Sunday and Monday, and I found myself moved for the first time to build an altar in honor of my father. Here’s what it looked like:

* dia de los muertos altar *
* dia de los muertos altar *

Included on the altar are a copy of my first chapbook, The Wall, and a pencil sketch of my father done by Andrea Schreiber. Also, I have my stones in a J formation to symbolize my being his namesake. I am unclear even now, days after, how to articulate what this meant for me. All I know is that the conversation that began with my poem “Gloves”, included i the chapbook, continues to this day, on the page and, now, in ritual and observance.

In the Sexton poem above, what moves me is how the speaker states she is “tired of being brave” as she moves from human action to human action, all the while emphasizing what it means to her to feel human. That being human means feeling “touch entirely.” This concept is contrasted with the stone-like state of the dead. The poems is called “The Truth the Dead Know,” and the speaker’s words come from an awareness, fascination, and even fear of not being able to share in that truth. And the dead, as represented in that stone-like description, are seemingly everywhere, even in the wind.

This meditation on Sexton’s poem and my own experience this week makes me think of something Norma Elia Cantu introduced me to at CantoMundo as she spoke before a reading. As she asked us to think of and express gratitude for those Latin@ writers and artists that came before us, she began to name them. Each name spoken was then followed by the exclamation of ¡Presente! As Norma went on calling names, others joined her, shouting out ¡Presente! I marveled at the act: this simple word, which is what one answers with during roll call, suddenly felt charged each time it was repeated. The very air became heated by the summoned presences everyone in the room was the conduit of.

Names, and words in general, have a power in recitation and reading. A poem can be where other voices and other truths cross over each other and mingle. As Norma and Sexton show us, whether it’s on a stage or on the page, words can be a place where we can “touch entirely.”

***

As I mentioned last week, the countdown to the December 1st release of my full-length collection, Everything We Think We Hear, has begun! Along with prose poems and flash fictions, the collection includes two haibuns, the Japanese poetic form that combines poetry and prose. As a kind of preview, here are links for “Birthdays” and “Walks” as published in Contemporary Haibun Online.

Happy presente-ing!

José

* on the vine with denise levertov

Aware – Denise Levertov

When I found the door
I found the vine leaves
speaking among themselves in abundant
whispers.
My presence made them
hush their green breath,
embarrassed, the way
humans stand up, buttoning their jackets,
acting as if they were leaving anyway, as if
the conversation had ended
just before you arrived.
I liked
the glimpse I had, though,
of their obscure
gestures. I liked the sound
of such private voices. Next time
I’ll move like cautious sunlight, open
the door by fractions, eavesdrop
peacefully.

* uninvineted *
* uninvineted *

This week’s poem is by Denise Levertov, someone whose work I feel inspires the same kind of “cautious sunlight” approach to life and writing as is described above. Throughout the years, I’ve come back to her poems to learn again how to more inhabit my lines and line breaks. Note above the “abundance” of the third line, and how it scraps down to the one word “whispers.”

I have a friend who says that if you’re going to have one word stand alone on a line it better be the most important word in the poem. For me, “whispers” is a strong candidate for most important word, specifically because of what it means after I’ve read the poem and look at the words again. Structurally, my eye is drawn back to “whispers” and its two-syllable one line buddy “I liked.” The brevity of these two lines, how they are tucked into themselves much like the vine leaves of the poem, moves me to contemplate the whole poem further.

***

As I mentioned earlier this week, the release date for my upcoming collection, Everything We Think We Hear, is officially December 1st. I’ve got a couple of things in mind to share as we get closer to the date. Mas soon!

I’m also happy to announce that my chapbook The Divorce Suite will be published by Red Bird Chapbooks in 2016. More news on this project as it develops!

Happy vining!

José

* new work up at compose journal & news

* raro, in red and orange *
* raro, in red and orange *

Just a quick note to announce the release of Compose Journal’s Fall 2015 issue which includes my piece “Raro.” Read it here.

Compose Journal was also kind enough to let me contribute to their “The Story Behind (the Story)” feature. Find out about the origins of “Raro” – with specific insights into growing up in South Texas – here.

Special thanks to Suzannah Windsor for including my work in this issue! Check out the rest of the stellar issue – including work from Julie Brooks Barbour and Elizabeth Tannen – here. 

***

As for the news this week, I am excited to announce that my full length collection of prose poems and flash fictions, Everything We Think We Hear, is officially set to be released on December 1st from Floricanto Press. Stay tuned for updates (including a sneak peak at the cover soon)! “Raro” is a good example of the kind personal focus dipped into in this upcoming collection.

See you Friday!

José