poetry feature: Adeeba Shahid Talukder

This week’s poetry feature comes from the work of Adeeba Shahid Talukder whose chapbook What Is Not Beautiful is out now from Glass Poetry Press. Talukder’s work was featured here once before in 2012 and I continue to be floored by her consistently engaging lyric sensibility.

I actually had the opportunity to get an early read of What Is Not Beautiful and got to share my thoughts on it via the following blurb:

“In poems that weave the lyrical passions and strains of Urdu literary traditions with contemporary nerve and insight, What Is Not Beautiful by Adeeba Shahid Talukder presents a new and necessary voice. This collection invites the reader to follow meditations on family, self, womanhood, and culture rendered with the intimate urgency of the best lyric poetry. In the same way the speaker of one poem “[searches], again for beauty” only to find it “means something / else now,” the readers of Talukder’s poems will find the world around them cast in a new, vivid clarity.”

beautifulFor readers new to Talukder’s work, I would add that the poems of this collection live together in a rich atmosphere of perception. Perceptions of beauty, specifically, are engaged with to gain an idea of as well as to challenge their role in forging a sense of self. Yet, there is also lyric perception at work here, a way with the line that invites the reader into perceiving what is at stake for themselves.

The poem “Mirror” (below) is a good example of what I mean. Starting with an image of the sky “watching” herself in a river, the poem adapts its personification of the sky around a narrative imbued with human resonance. We are, in a way, seeing two narratives at once: the sky’s perception of her seemingly “heavy, wrinkled” self and the speaker’s indirect identification with these images and implied feelings. This braiding of image and emotion is an aspect of Talukder’s work that reads both as spontaneous and natural as well as a feat of craft and intuition. Furthermore, this braiding results in a voice, here and elsewhere in the collection, that is intimate and accessible, yet capable of reading into the nuances and depths of complex perceptions. Despite the narrative’s finality in the ending lines, the poem remains an open-ended experience for both speaker and reader.

Mirror – Adeeba Shahid Talukder

the sky watches the river,
finds herself
heavy, wrinkled.

the furrows in her
as the ship pulls in,

the light on the noses
of the wavelets,

the fitful wind —

each a particle
of her mind in flux.

the fog says: nothing is
as it seems. you

will never know
if you are beautiful.

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Copies of What Is Not Beautiful can be purchased from Glass Poetry Press.
Check out this interview with Talukder to learn more about this collection.

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adeebaAdeeba Shahid Talukder is a Pakistani-American poet and translator. She translates Urdu and Persian poetry, and cannot help but bring elements from these worlds to her own work in English. Her book Shahr-e-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved is a winner of the Kundiman Prize and is forthcoming through Tupelo Press. A Best of the Net finalist and a Pushcart nominee, Talukder’s work has appeared in or is forthcoming in AnomalySolsticeMeridianGulf Coast,Washington Square, and PBS Frontline, and elsewhere. Talukder holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan and is a Poets House 2017 Emerging Poets Fellow.

one more from Hannah Cohen

anatomyIn my recent microreview & interview of Hannah Cohen’s Bad Anatomy (Glass Poetry Press), I wrote about recklessness in poetry as being the honesty and nerve involved in trusting language to carry what you mean. My thinking even now is that it’s not enough in poetry to be honest and tell what happened, but to summon the nerve to make art out of it, to reach out and engage with poetic elements like image and metaphor, and suss out the aesthetic possibilities in this meeting between life and art.

Cohen’s Bad Anatomy does this work in every poem. In “Superficial” (below), the work plays out in a narrative that starts with a Google search and ends with a moment of vulnerability and admission. The vulnerability of the initial subject of babies born with their intestines outside their body is pivoted into another kind of vulnerability that is felt by the speaker; for them, this other vulnerability is another thing that is hard to see. Yet, the fact of the poem proclaims that because it is felt, it must be seen.

It is the gift of lyric poetry to provide tools that take us to such places of insight; it is the gift of each poet to let us in on what they make with these tools.

Superficial – Hannah Cohen

Today I learned there are babies
born with their intestines
outside their little baby bellies.
I don’t know how I spent
three hours on Google scrolling through pictures
of guts, viscera, that lucent sac

like God’s after-thought.
What if in some alternate universe,
I had my heart and lungs out
for everyone to see? The kidneys,
the liver poked, judged—hell,
maybe even loved. And you’d be with me

in that world—because you’re not
with me in this world—and I’d let you
touch me. Here, the babies have
their guts shoved back in.
Here, I only see what isn’t
and what isn’t us.

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To learn more about Hannah Cohen’s work, check out her site.

microreview & interview: Hannah Cohen’s Bad Anatomy

-review by José Angel Araguz

anatomy

There’s a sense of recklessness that feels natural to poetry. By recklessness, I mean less Robin Williams standing on a desk shouting a Whitman poem in Dead Poets Society and more the honesty and nerve involved in trusting language to carry what you mean. It is this latter recklessness that runs through Hannah Cohen’s chapbook, Bad Anatomy (Glass Poetry Press). In poems that show the lyric self pulsing between various modes of suspension and isolation, Cohen engages language in a way that invites the reader to experience the plummet into language we call poetry.

The collection opens with “Aubade Inverse,” a poem that subverts the traditional aubade with its focus on lovers reluctantly departing and grounds it in feelings of threat and danger:

I left scuffmarks
on white doors. I wish
I could break. I left
my legs in bed.
I left you
before you, left wet
knives in the knife block.

The emphatic “I” statements here create both a presence and momentum that charge the poem with the panicked feeling of someone checking for their car keys in the dark. Yet, despite this feeling, or perhaps because of it, the aubade’s theme of love is still invoked in the poem’s ending line: “I leave / nothing.” These three words point outward in a few directions. They can be read as the speaker implying that they “leave / nothing” meaning no trace; but they can also be read as refuting the departure implied in the aubade form, the speaker adamantly making it clear that they “leave / nothing” behind, suspending what they can through the act of the poem.

Or perhaps both meanings are meant: The way ambiguity works here and throughout these poems shows a poetic sensibility awake to the subtleties of line break and evocation. This next set of three lines from the middle of the poem serve as another example of this sensibility:

I am drinking. I drive
so fast I kill
the moon.

Here, the clipped enjambment creates an opportunity to dwell on the meaning of each turn. Between “drinking” and “drive,” there is recklessness; when we get to “kill” there’s a heightened sense of danger, a sense that is pivoted into surreality by the time we get to “moon.” The juxtaposition of action, voice, and image in these lines evokes not a swagger or false bravado (see my earlier reference to Dead Poets Society) but a clear, suspended feeling. This moment works in a way that is instructive and illuminating; dwelling on these lines brings out what the speaker means as the reader understands it. In the middle of a poem that ends with “I leave / nothing,” these lines point to ways in which meaning can be followed as it leaves from word to word.

This ability to navigate across ambiguity and voice is present throughout the world of the poems in Bad Anatomy. In “Like Someone Driving Away From Her Problems” we find that:

even god doesn’t believe
in the rusty jesus-saves
signs       can’t save her
from living
without landmark
or companion       the road a black snake
beheaded

Here, isolation is depicted as a space that even god can passively inhabit, joining the speaker in disbelief. The apt break between the words “can’t save her” and “from living” do similar work as in the opening poem, creating a space where mortality itself is glimpsed for a moment as a threat before moving on with the narrative. This reckoning with mortality is found again in “Upon Starting My Period After The Election” as the speaker reflects:

Even my body knew it was wrong to begin
again. What’s different between this cycle

and a hundred ones before? Is this my god-
given right to be less every time?

Here, the interiority and isolation found in other poems is given a more outward, public turn. Yet, the poem engages with the outside world on its own terms, framing this meditation on the political climate within the workings of the speaker’s body. The purposeful break on “my god-” sets up the gravity of the following line; together they evoke a personal and public bleakness. When the speaker notes at the end of the poem that she “can’t stop the betrayal,” the speaker’s menstruating body parallels the more public feeling of betrayal felt by most since the last election.

By tempering lyric recklessness with vulnerability and honesty, the poems of Bad Anatomy deliver reading experiences that reward nuanced and repeated readings. These poems are filled with the insight and thrill of overhearing someone tell a story at a bar, or reading someone’s lost love letters. And like great stories and love letters, these poems are compelling because of their unabashed mix of light and dark. What I mean can be seen in the final lines of “Sad Girl’s Drinking Ghazal” (printed in full below):

Just fuck me up. I love how pure bourbon is. I’m not
Hannah tonight. She’s only the crow in my rib cage.

What keeps me reading and re-reading these poems are the flashes of lyric self like this one; they occur in moments braided from voice and imagery, but are executed with raw soul.

Sad Girl’s Drinking Ghazal – Hannah Cohen

This shitty cocktail is more insightful than I am.
Unfilled, I count all the secret valleys in my rib cage.

Even the universe lets me down. I’m drunk, awake.
Is this how to feel? Next morning’s sunk in my rib cage.

There’s something romantic about a building condemned.
All that space. All the never-smashed ribs in my rib cage.

Call it a tendency to forget. I like things false
and true. Can’t pray for what isn’t there in my rib cage.

I keep returning from the dead. What a masochist.
Don’t, don’t, don’t — that self-defeating heart in my rib cage.

Inhabiting a body is easy. But living
in one? Can I be more than the bones in my rib cage?

Just fuck me up. I love how pure bourbon is. I’m not
Hannah tonight. She’s only the crow in my rib cage.

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

Hannah Cohen: I have a few tangential thoughts for this question:

– At its best and even at its worst, poetry is a community. An ever-changing, populous community of thoughts that manifest into words. With this in mind, Bad Anatomy represents everything about being a person with depression, anxiety, and an unhealthy sense of self-deprecating humor. These traits interact with each other like passersby on a street, or rowdy drunks in a bar. However, there’s always that thread of hope that weaves itself throughout the chapbook’s pages, and I fully believe that for a poem or set of poems to fully succeed for the reader and its author, there must be that “break.”

– Poetry can be short and terse, with gaping spaces of images that sometimes don’t make sense the first time. The ending poem “[and the deer flash guernica]” serves as a soft echo to the chapbook’s opening poem, with a one-act scene of some deer at night juxtaposed to the multiple “I” scenes in “Aubade Inverse.”

– Accessibility is important. I want to believe people can emotionally and mentally relate to the poems in Bad Anatomy. Even if they can’t always see where the poems are coming from, they can understand the content at least.

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

Hannah Cohen: These poems are like my own piercing arrows in that they’re tangible problems I’ve dealt with and continue to deal with in my life. While obviously not 100% autobiographical, several poems from Bad Anatomy sprouted from real situations and feelings. “2 a.m.,” for example, was made up of several moments where I was driving home in the dark. I suffer from pressure headaches and take Excedrin mainly for the placebo effect. I put all these things together and gave it that title to emphasize the aimlessness I was experiencing in my early twenties. Other poems have painful content (see “Sad Girl’s Drinking Ghazal”) that was eventually tamed by either its form or presentation.

Another challenge was the actual order of the poems. I did not want an obvious A to Z narrative, nor did I want poems to merely be mirrors to each other. I am thankful that one of my blurbers, Emilia Phillips, was able to offer some valuable advice about how to arrange Bad Anatomy for the most emotional impact. “Saturnism” was a frustrating poem to work into the chapbook, because it’s based on Vincent van Gogh and is the oldest poem. I almost removed it entirely. However, because it’s bookended by two short-ish poems about either separation or moving on, it seemed to finally work as its own entity, allowing me and the reader to inhabit a different mental space.

In the end, I’m happy with the final result. At some point, you just have to save the Word document and send it off to your publisher because if you keep nitpicking or changing up the order or a poem’s line, it won’t ever be done. Poems aren’t this finite object – you can always change it up at a reading or any future reprints.

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Special thanks to Hannah Cohen for participating! To learn more about Cohen’s work, check out her site! Copies of Bad Anatomy can be purchased from Glass Poetry Press.

authorpichc*

Hannah Cohen received her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and lives in Virginia. Hannah is the author of the chapbook Bad Anatomy (Glass Poetry Press, 2018). She is a contributing editor for Platypus Press and co-edits the online journal Cotton Xenomorph. Recent and forthcoming publications include Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Noble/Gas Qtrly, Cosmonauts Avenue, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Verse Daily, and Gravel. She’s received Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize nominations.

seeing with jennifer met

One of the great pleasures of writing reviews is catching onto things that poems do when they live together in a book. By “things” I mean, of course, the standard fare of themes, symbols, imagery, etc., but also something for which I am learning/discovering the technical terms for. In teaching, I often use the words engine or guiding principle, words that imply the mechanical and structural. Yet, what these words point to in my own use is more in tune with intuition.

galleryIn my recent microreview & interview of Jennifer Met’s compelling chapbook Gallery Withheld (Glass Poetry Press), I center my discussion around two visual poems whose layout on the page become another aspect to explored by reading. Through the visual poem form, one is able to guide text in the same way a spoken word or slam poet is able to command attention via vocal tone and gesture. Because of the presence of visual poems in Met’s collection, I couldn’t help but pay attention to the other poems that were more traditionally lineated. As a reader, these other poems became charged with importance, evoking a number of new questions: How is the vision of the collection different in these non-visual poems versus the visual poems? Where is the line drawn between what is on the surface a visual poem and what is, in my imperfect terms, a more traditionally lineated poem?

In answer to this last question, I present the poem “Collaboration” below whose presence on the page could be said to have a foot in both visual and lineated ideas of poetry. The poem is a complex ekphrastic that sneaks up on you; that is, the speaker goes from contemplating a photograph of the aftermath of an earthquake to the cover of an issue of The New Yorker. This move comes naturally, and what develops in the speaker’s meditation are images of a crack in the ground. These images are evoked, in part, by the visual layout of the lines of the poem. But beyond this, the meditation advances in such a deft manner, that what the reader is left with is not only an image but a way of imaging and imagining. This poem, for me, is at the conceptual heart of the collection because of the way it creates an engine out of seeing with which the reader is invited to see “the flowers float seemingly at random” at the end. These flowers are both an image and a motion. While there is so much seeing done in Gallery Withheld, it is done via poems which invite the reader to “collaborate” in the seeing, an interaction that is its own distinct poetic accomplishment.

Collaboration – Jennifer Met

for Christoph Niemann and Françoise Mouly

When I was young I saw a photograph
of a fence after an earthquake
where its man-made border was interrupted
as one half was heaved forward and
one half was pulled back leaving a large gap
like a warped spring—a latch
that can’t quite be forced close or like someone
painting a line down the right
side of a large and invisible street fell
asleep and when they woke up
they accidentally resumed their drawing
on the left side instead—the width
of a street—a common ground—a public right
of way owned and maintained
by the city—now left unconnected and you
couldn’t see where the earth ground
against itself sliding or where it rippled
like a blanket being shaken
because there wasn’t a mark and wasn’t a rift–
wasn’t a scar in the grass—and I
always associated this image with earthquakes so much
so that now the New Yorker’s cover
illustration reminds me of an earthquake fissure
the leafless cherry branch like lightning
slightly off-centre and striking upon the left-hand
side of the page where trefoils blossom pink
and loose petals drift back and up and I think
how the artist’s editor was right
to change the background color of this dark
crack canyoning up the beautifully clean
white—too obvious—to a new version of a branch
drawn black against black—unseen–

and the flowers float seemingly at random…

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Happy seeing!

José

microreview & interview: Jennifer Met’s Gallery Withheld

review by José Angel Araguz

gallery

Met Object

At the end of “Coming of Age in Idaho,” the second poem in Jennifer Met’s chapbook Gallery Withheld (Glass Poetry Press, 2017), the reader is presented with the phrase “an immovable feast” which hearkens back to Ernest Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast. This reference is key on a number of levels beyond wordplay. For one, much of the poems in Met’s book challenge and subvert the very stereotypes and gendered double standards that make possible the aura of a writer like Hemingway. Rather than rail against said aura directly, these poems imply it through sharp insights. As Idaho is “Hemingway country” and the site of his final days, the speaker’s “coming of age” is akin to rising from the ashes of a certain kind of writing tradition and taking flight into another.

Which is where another level of meaning can be found: this collection brings together lyric poems that trouble traditional poetics through engaging, experimenting, and expanding upon the visual poetry and projective verse traditions. Each poem can be seen as “an immovable feast,” either fixed on the page through intuitive choice or fixed into shape through a formal choice. In “The Object of His Desire,” for example, the narrative of a young boy collecting rocks is troubled when presented in the poetic shape of a woman. This confluence of content and form is purposeful and distinct; if the words were flushed left, they’d still be the same words, but they wouldn’t say the same thing they say in this shape. It is the gift of a visual poem to engage with a language’s plasticity and provide opportunities for multivalent, complex readings. For example, as the poem ends on the idea of facelessness, one can’t help but return to the shape of the poem, and note that where a woman’s face would be are the words: “You see / I’ve always / been drawn / to metaphor.” This implies another facelessness, a societal one. The casual tone of these words further point to the learned narratives of childhood and their insidiousness.

This critique of stereotypes continues in “Old Made: Self-Portrait in a Negative Space,” (below) which lives across from “The Object of His Desire” on the facing page. Where the shape of a woman is the shape of the poem in “Object,” in “Old Made” a woman’s shape is everywhere the poem is not. Even in describing this difference due to formal choice carries with it some of the charged critique that is everywhere in the poem. The assumptions behind the phrase “old maid” are challenged in the title; the rephrasing to “old made” implies how ideas of “old” are “made” in lack of knowledge and lack of connection. It is telling, then, to consider the way this poem ends and begins with the word “Us.” Stereotypes like the one challenged here can make a person feel that they are nothing in the face of others. This feeling is further implied in the form; where the woman’s face would be in this shape, there is instead a list of conjunctions, “if….and….but.” Which is to say that where a face, one’s most personal, recognizable feature, would be, there is instead a brief scatter of words standing alone. Read alone as they are, this list could be read as a half-started, unfinished, and unlistened to protest.

The poems of Gallery Withheld again and again make space to listen and engage with the half-started and unfinished. Reading these poems, one is left like the speaker in “Lefty Loosey” who contemplates Robert S. Neuman’s painting “Monument to No One In Particular” along with another woman who

contemplates
the structure with a frown
and when she leaves I take
her angle hoping
for direction

Each of these immoveable feasts invites the reader to come closer to the text in their reading. And like the speaker above, we must reflect that “its chaos is just / not meant for me or her / or my father in particular / but us all.”

Met Old Made

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

Jennifer Met: I don’t have an MFA and my undergrad degree is in Molecular Biology, so I have a very open opinion of what poetry can be—I am not limited by an idea of what a perfect “workshop” poem should sound like in order to be accepted as real, good poetry. In fact, I am often drawn to forms (like haiku/haibun, speculative, ekphrastic, and concrete poetry) that seem to have more of an outmoded or niche status in the contemporary poetry scene. In a time when poetry has such a limited readership I think it is silly of us to narrow the definition of what poetry can be. I love to read and write widely, and without labels!

In this vein, Gallery Withheld contains poems that have abandoned frames and formal spaces of presentation. They run the gamut from experimental to lyrical to narrative and contain variations of haibun, ekphrastic poems, persona poems, and more. While they share thematic elements exploring definitions of gender, objectification, and the intersection of word, art, and identity, the main binding thread of the collection is that the form of each poem contains some sort of shape/concrete element. More than just a gimmick or a literal, visual shorthand of the content, I think a good shape, like a good title, can lend an extra layer of meaning and engagement to a written piece. It is particularly important in these identity poems as we are so often judged and defined by our visual elements.

For example, take the poem “Object of His Desire” from the collection (originally appearing in experimental poetry journal The Bombay Gin). On the surface it is a charming anecdote about a child keeping pet rocks in an egg carton, but add the shape—an icon—a perfect, bathroom-door skirted woman—and the words become much more sinister. You notice how the rocks are being objectified and their plight becomes symbolic. Sure, they are treated nicely, but are “animals” (implying a hierarchy), and taken care of (again, implying power), named (implying possession and external definition/validity). Then, when the rocks, just like the woman-icon shape, are left without faces, we see how their feelings, even their individuality, ceases to matter. How without eyes, nose and mouth, they are unable to sense stimuli. Static—unable to interact with their environment, process or ever change. Trapped unable to speak and respond. But without any sensory input, they are unaware that this is even an issue—the system feels perpetual, grand, safe, even desirable. Hence the poem becomes the definition of “woman” as seen not just by a man, but by us all—a blank, yet somehow identifiable, object. However, this meaning only exists when the text is paired with the shape.

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

Jennifer Met: One of the challenges in writing these poems was wrestling with their literally “concrete” nature. Generally I started with an anecdote (narrative or image-based), then formed the polished prose into a meaningful form while trying to be mindful of good line breaks. However, poetry is such a fluid and organic process that this proved limited—the content would inform the shape, which would then re-inform the content, which would then re-inform the shape, in an endless cycle. However, it is not easy to cut or change even a single word without seriously disturbing a set, concrete, typographic shape, so I found myself constantly constructing a shape only to take the writing back out and revise it before reworking it back into a form. Because of this I actually felt the freedom to do a lot more straight-out rewriting than my revisions would usually entail.

Rewriting seems like a lot of work, and even a betrayal of our charged first-words, but it benefitted this collection so much that I have continued the practice in my current poems to great success. While changing single words or just reworking stanza breaks has never been my idea of revision, I have started to really scrap and rebuild poems—often saving only a few phrases, a single image, or even an idea that had unexpectedly developed during its initial writing—a process I highly recommend.

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Special thanks to Jennifer Met for participating! To find out more about her work, check out her site. Gallery Withheld can be purchased from Glass Poetry Press.

met_biopic_gJennifer Met lives in a small town in North Idaho with her husband and children. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee, a finalist for Nimrod’s Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, and winner of the Jovanovich Award. Recent work is published or forthcoming in Gravel, Gulf Stream, Harpur Palate, Juked, Kestrel, Moon City Review, Nimrod, Sleet Magazine, Tinderbox, and Zone 3, among other journals.  She is the author of the chapbook Gallery Withheld(Glass Poetry Press, 2017). 

breathing with Steven Sanchez

bodyIn my microreview & interview of Steven Sanchez’s To My Body (Glass Poetry Press), I focused primarily on the use of imagery throughout the collection to explore the presence of both the physical and experiential body in a poem. It is more than fitting, then, that this week’s poem, “Human Breath Is Eroding The Sistine Chapel,” takes the body metaphors and further unpacks them in an ekphrastic poem that adds new threads of myth to a familiar image.

The travel of this particular poem is where much of the image work is done. The title starts off by placing the image of Michelangelo’s painting in the reader’s mind. We are, like the speaker, considering the famous image and this fact about human breath and erosion. A few lines in, the poem shifts and imposes over this first image the image of the speaker’s hotel room ceiling, their meditation suddenly taking on a more intimate tone. This intimacy is complicated by the third shift of the poem as the speaker digs into memory. Here, the two imposed images so far in the poem are clouded, literally, by the frost breath of the memory.

These three moves present different takes on human breath: it can erode a painting on a ceiling; it can convey smoke in a hotel room; and it is what words are carried on in speech. In each take, breath leaves the human body to have an effect elsewhere. The nature of these effects is at times unmanageable, yet we continue to look, hoping to see something of ourselves in time.

god2-sistine_chapel

Human Breath Is Eroding The Sistine Chapel – Steven Sanchez

Where else do words tarnish
paint and plaster like smoke

on wallpaper, remnants of strangers
I feel close to? The dark matter

of their lungs and mouths scours
the textured ceiling. I light up and lie

down on the motel bed, becoming
Michelangelo on my back, cigarette

stroking the air. I see the world
like I used to, making cold angels

on the white expanse of my backyard
where I watched winter enter

and leave my body, transforming
words into something invisible,

almost tangible, like Adam’s left
hand that will never reach God.

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To My Body by Steven Sanchez can be purchased from Glass Poetry Press.

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Happy breathing!

José

microreview & interview: Steven Sanchez’s To My Body

body

review by José Angel Araguz

In his chapbook To My Body (Glass Poetry Press), Steven Sanchez brings together a series of poems that explore the ways in which the body learns what it means to be present. In unpacking moments of conflict and joy, To My Body becomes an ode to both the physical body and the body of experiences lived through.

One of the main engines in which this work is done is imagery. Sanchez’s eye for building up to apt and compelling images that speak volumes is evident throughout. In the opening poem, “Homophobia,” for example, a childhood memory of being shamed by a father for being “afraid // to let go” while hanging from monkey bars, ends:

you fall
in the sand and I hear

you sniffle.
You grab sand and squeeze
your hand, each grain

sieving
through your fingers
like water.

This image of moving from “sniffle” to the image of a hand squeezing a fistful of sand works on two levels. First, the grabbing after sand is an act of reaching for and wanting connection; that what is literally close at hand, sand, is something gritty and difficult to keep hold of, however, evokes how distant and unavailable that connection feels. What is being depicted is no less vivid for being a memory; time itself, evoked through the image of falling sand, creates its own grit. Secondly, the speaker interprets this image as moving “like water,” a simile that fruitfully juxtaposes disparate elements. That something rough and solid like sand can move and evoke water places in the reader’s mind a symbol for how fear works. The distance fear creates between people – here, the father and son, but also the son and themselves – often forces people to live parallel lives. The speaker is being asked in this moment to understand the hardness of difference, to let go of the hurt they feel while it is undeniably physically and emotionally present.

Similar image work occurs in the poem “Paleontology” whose opening lines set up the following scene of domestic violence:

My father threw second hand encyclopedias
at my mother’s back and she blanketed me

between her and the mattress…

This image of a mother protecting her child with her body is then unpacked by the speaker through further connections as the speaker recalls:

…the book splayed open

on my bed where a Tyrannosaurus Rex
assumed a fetal position, her spine

and tail arched into a semicircle,
skull tucked between claws

and into what was left of her chest. Her ribs
pierced the eye sockets of her offspring.

When that six-mile asteroid plummeted
from the sky, did the mother devour him whole

protecting him the only way she knew how
or did she fall onto him after impact…

These lines do a great job of unpacking the complicated implications of the opening image. Present day violence and protection is reframed here and placed within the wider context of existence, which is essentially what is at stake. Through the parallel image of an extinct species in a pose of bodily protection, Sanchez makes clear the dire nature of this moment between mother and son without any loss of the risk, danger, or love that existed simultaneously.

Ultimately, the poems of To My Body present a poetic sensibility able to honor and understand what it means to live through physical and emotional circumstances, to render them for both their darkness and light. In the poem below, one sees this sensibility in the service of coming to terms with one’s self. The speaker’s narrative develops through images of bodily knowledge (“skull’s tenor,” “the dense beat of a palm”), and through these images comes to an understanding, not to say peace exactly, with what it means to live with the dual nature of difference. Where the earlier image of sand falling from a child’s hand evoked conflicted and hurt emotions, this poem’s speaker presents its closing image of shark gills with an edge. To be in possession of “two halves of a sonnet / that can turn an ocean into breath” is to be in possession of a whole expression, two parts of an argument that can both overwhelm and sustain life.

The Anatomy Of Your Voice – Steven Sanchez

Only you can hear the rattle of bones
inside your voice, the skull’s tenor

tucked around the alto of your vocal cords
like the drumhead of a tambourine,

the dense beat of a palm striking skin.
At ten years old you hear yourself

on an answering machine and realize
why kids call you fag–your vocal cords

aren’t strings on a cello and aren’t steel
braided cables suspending a bridge,

they’re membranes slit in your throat
like silver zils in a tambourine ringing

whenever you speak.
Remember to inhale

as if through the gills
on either side of a shark —

seven and seven, two halves of a sonnet
that can turn an ocean into breath.

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

Steven Sanchez: I’ve never had much patience. When I was little, I’d untie my shoes in a hurry and usually end up with a tight knot I couldn’t get out. Sometimes my parents helped me out, and sometimes I cut it. While I’ve gotten better at untying my shoes, there’s still this knot I feel inside my stomach.

Up until a few years ago, if you’d asked me what I wanted more than anything in the world, I would’ve told you two things: to be straight and white. I didn’t learn the terms for these desires until grad school, and that’s when I realized how much society had made me internalize homophobia and racism. But the knot I have isn’t learned self-hate, it’s the effects of that prolonged self-hate, and it’s also anger. When California passed Prop 8, it was the first time I felt that knot in my stomach—not so much because of the prop itself, but because everybody around me, at best, was nonchalant. And as time goes on, as more headlines point out everyday injustices, people remain calm, and the knot gets tighter.

The knot never leaves and that was the hardest part was about writing To My Body.  I wanted to unravel that knot, to get rid of it so I could move on to something else. I was hopeful that these poems could be something like a spool, winding up my experiences so that somebody else could use them, but more often than not, the poems ended up tightening the knot. I started becoming frustrated.

Part of my frustration was because I definitely wasn’t ready to write these poems; the other part was that I felt like I kept failing because people said my poems were “political,” which people often used as a euphemism for heavy-handed. What really helped me work through that was reading Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde. They taught me how the personal is political, that simply existing is a political act, that every poem is political. I struggled so much with the negative connotations of “political poetry” that I’d forgotten how empowering it could be.

Changing my perception about the term political wasn’t enough. I knew that my poems still didn’t do what they needed to; they didn’t surprise me and they didn’t feel natural. At a craft talk, Eduardo Corral mentioned that coming to the poem with a pre-set message you want to convey doesn’t work because you’re not allowing yourself to be caught off guard. Also, Adrienne Rich wrote about the two kinds of political poems: good and bad. Bad political poems create an argument. Good political poems create an experience. I started realizing that because I had a pre-set message I wanted to convey, I approached them like an argument—here’s my statement, here’s my image supporting that statement. Instead, I tried re-creating formative moments in my life on the page without worrying about making a statement, without worrying about resolving those moments, and the knot started to loosen.

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Special thanks to Steven Sanchez for participating! Find out more about his work at his siteTo My Body can be purchased from Glass Poetry Press.