José & the unintended hiatus + interview

First and foremost, apologies for the radio silence. Totally unintended. A lot of life has happened, good and bad. It has been strange not being here in this space. I look forward to doing a bit more now that I’m getting life in order. I’ve got a few reviews in the works as well as some posts.

For now, please check out this interview at Mass Poetry where I talk about my latest collection, An Empty Pot’s Darkness, as well as disclose my love for Netflix’s The Witcher.

Más soon!

José

microreview & interview: Real Daughter by Lynn Otto

review by José Angel Araguz

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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.

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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.

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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.

fiction feature & interview: Maria Alejandra Barrios

For this fiction feature and interview, I am happy to present a story by Maria Alejandra Barrios. This story is followed by an interview with the author on the piece as well as on her work in general.

In “A Girl Cooks,” Barrios presents a narrative that interrogates traditional roles within families, specifically between daughters and fathers. The narrative develops around the act of cooking and braids memory with present circumstances, a move that creates tension within a personal, intimate framework. Another engine at work in the story is the role of naming. Each time a food is named, the narrator gives presence to memory and to herself.  It is this latter empowerment that is the thematic arc of the story. The reader follows the narrator’s inner realizations to its powerfully nuanced conclusion.

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A Girl Cooks
by Maria Alejandra Barrios

I knew that I wanted to cook something simple and not necessarily typical of Colombian cuisine for the occasion: maybe some pasta pomodoro or maybe some beef with asparagus. As soon as I heard my dad was being released from prison, I bought the first ticket to Colombia I found, and I rented an apartment so we could spend some time together. We communicated all these years through long distance calls. When I told him I had moved to the United States, he went silent for what seemed like a long time. And I ran out of credit, so the call ended. I feared I would spend all my money on silent calls, so we never spoke about it again.

The night before being released from prison, my dad told me that he didn’t want me to pick him up. He would take a taxi from prison to the apartment. I didn’t say anything because I knew it might be a thing of pride or an attempt to protect me. Instead, I thought about how in American movies people always change in prison, I wondered if he had changed much, he had never been the protective kind.

I thought about what to cook. When we still lived with my dad, my mom always cooked Colombian dishes like arroz con coco and patacones with some fried fish or a frijolada con tocino. He didn’t like anything at all: he said that everything was too salty or not salty enough, that the rice was sticky, or the patacones were greasy. My dad would even get mad at me when I finished all the food or had something good to say about el arroz con pollo.

So no Colombian food, I thought. Even if I wanted to, I didn’t have anyone to call on the phone like I used to call my mom when I was making buñuelos: “Mija, the important thing is that you find good cheese.” In bodegas, I found fresh Mexican cheese that was similar to Colombian cheese but never the same. The buñuelos would always taste like a modest version of home, and I would eat them while talking on the phone to her. I would lie and say that I found the right kind of cheese and that they tasted exactly like the ones at the pueblo. Through the phone, I could hear her smiling.

My dad said he would arrive at 2 pm. I served two plates of pasta pomodoro and some cheese on the side. I put a bottle of wine between the two plates and some red flowers in a vase. I took one last long look at the table before opening the door.

“Papi,” I said.

He hugged me. His hug was tight and desperate like he was thinking about hugging me the whole time he spent in the taxi.

We sat down at the table. “We should eat now while it’s still hot.” I was nervous, exactly how I would imagine my mom had been before every meal we shared with him. I wanted every bite to be perfect.

He started gulping the food. At some point, he placed the plate closer to his mouth so that he could eat faster. My dad finished his meal before me and poured himself a generous glass of wine. He didn’t offer me any, so I poured myself a more modest glass.

“I wish Marta was here,” My dad said after taking the first sip. The last time my dad saw my mom, ten years ago, he threatened to slap her. I took a sip of wine too, and I thought that maybe my dad had forgotten about everything that had happened before he went to jail. I wondered if I had forgotten too.

As I was looking from across the table at my dad, I thought about how my mom always used to make tamales for my dad on his birthday. Before making them, she would always look for all the coins in the house: she would look behind sofas and underneath pillows so that she could buy the biggest piece of meat she could afford at the tienda. After that, she would kill a chicken in the backyard. The smell of the herbs and the spices marinating the meats was so intense that Marina, the neighbor, always knew what she was cooking. Marina would beg for the recipe, but my mother would shake her head and say: “That’s a gift for mi hija. When I die, she’s the only one who’s getting the recipe.” When sitting at the table, she would look at my dad’s face first, waiting for a word of approval or an expression of pleasure. When it didn’t come, she would look at me. When eating with my parents, I was always nervous about my dad’s reactions to mom’s cooking. But when eating tamales I could never hide my joy. I would eat them fast, with my face so close to the plate you would think I was about to kiss it.

It never occurred to me to cook dad tamales for lunch. Pasta was easy, and tamales took hours and left my hands smelling like onions for days. Maybe papá had changed, in his sleepy eyes I no longer saw the young man that had made mami suffer so much. Looking at him, I saw that something in him had switched off, I just didn’t know when.

Afraid that he would be sleeping with his eyes open just like abuelo used to, I looked at him and asked the question that had been burning on my throat since I learned he was being released from prison:

“Do you remember mami’s tamales?”

He stayed silent, and I decided it was time to stand up. As I was picking up the plates, I realized I would never make tamales for him. It was the only thing my mom had left in this world that was only for me.

this story originally appeared in Reservoir Journal

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CalderapicInfluence Question: How did you get started in writing?

Maria Alejandra Barrios: I started writing with some kind of discipline when I was 15 years old.  I read a book called “Opium in the Clouds,” by Rafael Chaparro Madiedo and it got me really into reading and most importantly, into writing. I started writing very romantic stories that I would describe now as magical realism. I started uploading them into MySpace (which was really popular at the time), and people started messaging me and commenting on my stories. It was the first time I felt part of a community and that I felt confident enough to put something I created out in the world. Maybe this was also because I didn’t think about it as much as I think about it. All I cared was about me having fun with it and connecting with others. Looking back I think these stories were a lot about heartbreak. Or what I thought heartbreak was.

Influence Question: How does this particular story fit into your larger body of work?

Maria Alejandra Barrios: In recent years, I started writing more about my hometown(Barranquilla) and my country. When I lived in Colombia, I wrote about the places I dreamt about living in. Now, with some distance, I think I am able to write more about the things that I love about my country but also the things that upset me and that I’m still trying to understand. Relationships between fathers and daughters and the role that fathers have in the society I grew up in is one of those things that I’m still trying to figure out. I think this short story was the first step into me exploring the subject and hopefully having a bigger perspective on it so I can hopefully write a longer story about it in the future.

Influence Question: What are you working on now?

Maria Alejandra Barrios: I’m working on finishing my first short story collection of interlinked immigration stories. I’m working on edits and working on the final story that I hope ties everything together. I also started writing my first novel, which has been a scary process because I consider myself more of a short story writer. However, I have always been attracted to the idea of writing about love, and I think this novel might be a way of exploring that while also keeping the voice-driven first-person narration that I love so much.

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Special thanks to Maria Alejandra Barrios for sharing her thoughts on this story and her work! To find out more about Barrios, check out her site.

Maria Alejandra Barrios is a writer born in Barranquilla, Colombia. She has lived in Bogotá and Manchester where in 2016 she completed a Masters degree in Creative Writing from The University of Manchester. She was selected for the Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program: Performing & Literary Arts for the city of New York in 2018. He stories have been published in Hobart Pulp, Reservoir Journal, Bandit Fiction, Cosmonauts Avenue, La Pluma y La tinta New Voices Anthology and The Out of Many Anthology by Cat in the Sun Press. Her poetry has been published in The Acentos Review and her fiction is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review and Lost Balloon.  Her work has been supported by organizations like Vermont Studio Center and Caldera Arts Center.

one more from Susan Lewis

susan lewis zoomIn my recent microreview & interview of Zoom (The Word Works, 2018) by Susan Lewis, I discussed Lewis’ deftness with the prose poem as working through a push-pull between familiarity and distinction. The traditional structures of sentence and paragraph are subverted in the poems of Zoom with non-traditional phrasing and concepts.

In the case of “In Praise of Attention,” (below), the familiar phrasing of “in praise of” is subverted by a poem whose goal seems to be an interrogation of attention as a distinct act. Attention is first described as “that stiff upper chamber of another bloody pump,” implying a physicality to what we call attention, one that is similar to the physical heart. Yet, the poem immediately pushes against this logic by turning from the phrase “bloody pump” to “upper cut. Or cut to the quick & the dead.” In this phrasing, conceptual logic gives way to a logic of sounds, three syllable phrase replaced by another three syllable phrase, which is then further interrupted by a riff on the word “cut,” which in turns leads to a movie reference. The lyrical momentum of these lines would be inaccessible were it not for the self-awareness that runs the speaker of this and other poems in the collection.

Because the speaker shows themselves as aware of the frustrating yet fruitful fluidity of language, the reader’s own awareness of this fluidity, felt at turns as difficulty and fascination, can be grounded in faith. Faith in language as reckoning ground, as meeting place and place of obfuscation. The ending line, building off the italicized quote from physicist Werner Heisenberg, becomes a telling description of not only the prose poem form as exhibited here but of poetry itself.

In Praise of Attention,

that stiff upper chamber of another bloody pump. Or upper cut. Or cut to the quick & the dead, to be blunt, to be smooth as an animal in the grass, shooting the breeze with its salutary moods, its whispering timbre. Not so much chasing facsimilar euphoria as synthesizing with the generative wisdom of chlorophyll. Attending, nursing plus paying out my bottomless cache, that recirculating pump begging to be trimmed to droplets of uncertainty, those nemeses of finitude. That what we observe is not nature itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning. Words grasping boldly at the known grasping boldly at what is.

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from Zoom (The Word Works)

to learn more about Susan Lewis’ work, visit her site

microreview & interview: Zoom by Susan Lewis

review by José Angel Araguz

susan lewis zoom

In a recent conversation about prose poetry, I found myself tasked with defining what makes a prose poem “poetry” exactly. I fell back on my usual starting point, some riffing on Charles Simic’s idea shared in an interview that “[what] makes them poems is that they are self- contained, and once you read one you have to go back and start reading it again. That’s what a poem does.” What’s great about this quote is that it connects the reading act to the act of rereading, highlighting poetry’s ability to get things said in unique, memorable ways. I say “memorable” here, and feel the need to qualify it as not immediately memorable. That is to say, a phrasing’s distinction comes from the push-pull effect of being familiar enough to make sense, but unique enough to stand out and make us pause.

This movement between familiarity and distinction is one of the driving engines of Susan Lewis’ recent collection, Zoom (The Word Works, 2018). While the collection’s title brings to mind the film technique of zooming in, I find it also applies in terms of speed, in this case, the varying speeds of the reading act. This read on the title is invited, in a way, by the choice of having the individual titles in the collection be the first words of the poems. By having the poem begin with the title, the voice of the poem is engaged from the first words interacted. The opening poem, “Everyone Agreed,” executes this move in a self-revealing way:

Everyone Agreed

this was a thrilling catastrophe. There were the usual photo-ops & spell-checked swoons. Octopeds got the jump on the rest of us, but their webs were useless against the suck. Spare fur was exchanged for sexual favors until the water fermented and all hell broke loose. No one remembered to access their 20:20 hindsight until the razor light blinded us with its odor of inferiority. There was anger and danger beyond our wildest dreams, which stopped coming once the humdrum imploded, divesting us of our history & its discontents.

As I mentioned, having the title be the first words of a poem means the voice is there at the start of the reading act. This move creates an immediacy that propels the reader into the “thrilling catastrophe” of the poetic act. This momentum is then interrupted by Lewis’ choices in diction. The phrasing of “There were the usual photo-ops & spell-checked swoons,” for example, causes a reader to pause; the sentence is structured as a traditional sentence, but the meaning of “spell-checked swoons” causes one to pause and wonder. Yet, the decision to structure this phrase within a prose poem, which builds off the familiarity of the traditional sentence and paragraph, forces the pause to be brief. Were this poem broken into lines, the reader would be given the handhold of line break and stanza break which invite dwelling. Here, the poem marches on through the sense of a paragraph. One reads the rest of the poem propelled by this push-pull effect.

Depending on the reader, one could say that the poems of this collection are read at the mercy of this push-pull effect. Taking this perspective, however, would be to miss out on the rich difficulty available in this lane of poetry, a poetry whose linguistic ambition is to evoke through active sense-making and unmaking. The American tradition of richly difficult poetry runs from Gertrude Stein’s tender buttons to the contemporary lyrically ambitious work J. Michael Martinez. What Lewis adds to the conversation via Zoom is a sequence of poems whose fragmented sensibility become a ride where one catches glimmers of meaning tinged with gloom.

The poem “Dear Sir” continues this work of moving between familiar and distinct phrasing:

Dear Sir

or Madam, until you lose your head, mother its shred, wrapped in mystery & mead. No levity for this, your skid life. No mercy while you bilk your betters, sent flying to spy on your attempts to rise. Across the deep there are many with nary a hook to hang on. & ever & anon those lads with rainbow limbs snaking through the gloom. Another day another dolor. Not to mince woulds, but this sibilance is skilling us. & you who wish upon a stare? Where would you turn & fleetly tumble? The Burning Dervish never knows whereof he’d speak, mute as he is, spinning in his vicious circle, boring his whole through our dank & dappled gaps.

Here, idioms are approached and transformed, refreshed in a way that moves away from the typical reproach one finds in poems. Rather than turn a phrase for some argument or rhetorical stance, the transformation is executed with blunt power. For example, “Another day another dolor” is set as its own sentence, able to color both the previous and following sentence, but also standing as its own moment of distinction. This decision to let the new phrasing stand alone allows the original aphorism “Another day another dollar” to ring like an echo in the reader’s mind. Before one can fully unpack that, however, the prose paragraph structure moves the poem on to “Not to mince woulds, but this sibilance is skilling us,” another set of turns that invite both pause and movement. What is being worked out in this kind of difficulty is a poetry that points elsewhere than itself. The poem’s ending image of a dervish in a trance is telling, evoking a desire for spirituality through activity.

From the sight rhyme of “anger and danger” and the reference to Freud in the phrase “our history & its discontents” (“Everyone Agreed”), to the riffing and subverting of idiomatic phrasing (“Dear Sir”), what these poems offer is an engaged reading act where meaning is only part of the purpose. If narrative poems keep poetry connected to traditions of storytelling, then richly difficult poems like these keep poetry connected to traditions of the lyric voice, that personal, intimate, and engaged perspective whose presence alone gives it purpose and power.

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Influence Question: What were the origins of this collection?

Susan Lewis: José, thank you so much for your interest in Zoom! The origins of this collection go back to my years-long interest in the prose poem, combined with another interest of mine, which happened to develop at the same time: in poetry as play – which is not, in my mind, inconsistent with addressing dark or serious concerns. One of the things I find interesting is how much play the prose poem allows! I’m drawn to the paradox of this form: poetry that is not lineated, that is, does not advertise itself as poetry. I love the tension this holds – the demand that the reader look beyond the obvious, and engage with what might make poetry be poetry. (A question I think is more important than any particular answer one might suggest). Writing prose poems has only deepened my love for the form: the concentrated punch of a discrete bloc of words floating in a white page; the implication that substantial things come in small packages; the impression these blocs give, of density and compression; the focused attention they ask of the reader.

However, I did not set out, ab initio, to write a book-length project, or suite. It was interesting: after writing some number of what I thought of as free-standing poems, their common concerns started to become apparent, and began guiding the development and features of the rest of the poems in the book. Some of these preoccupations are packed into the title, with its nod towards film technique, as well as velocity. Organized around the substantive and aesthetic potency of point of view, the poems in Zoom borrow from film technique to ‘zoom in’ from the objective/long shot/third person, to the medium shot/second person, to the subjective/close up/first person. All engage the ramifications of subjectivity via bricolage, parataxis, polysemy, and compression. I think of the collection as adding up to a kind of status report for our moment in this world, in which the frame narrows along with the point of view, from the global to the local to the individual. Especially concerned with the need for, and failure of, empathy and decency, as well as with how we perceive and communicate, these poems also amount to a progress report on the state of language itself. The consensus among these poems is that we’re zooming – if not to our doom, than to the brink, where we might still be able to stop ourselves from irreparably despoiling our psyches and our planet.

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Special thanks to Susan Lewis for participating! To learn more about Lewis’ work, check out her site. Copies of Zoom can be purchased from The Word Works.

 

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Susan Lewis (www.susanlewis.net) is the author of Zoom, winner of the Washington Prize, as well as nine other books and chapbooks, including Heisenberg’s Salon and This Visit. Her work has appeared in a number of anthologies, including They Said (Black Lawrence Press, 2018), Resist Much, Obey Little (Dispatches Editions, 2017), and Carrying the Branch (Glass Lyre Press, 2018), as well as in journals such as Agni, Boston Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Web Conjunctions, Diode, Interim, New American Writing, The New Orleans Review, Raritan, Seneca Review, Verse, VOLT, and Verse Daily. She is the founding editor of Posit (www.positjournal.com).

microreview & interview: Stonelight by Sarah McCartt-Jackson

review by José Angel Araguz

stonelight3

In Stonelight, winner of the 2017 Airlie Prize, Sarah McCartt-Jackson adds to the tradition of lyric narrative collections that includes Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie and Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah, books that take on the materials of human life and through them evoke human presence. Informed by McCartt-Jackson’s background in folk studies, oral history, and naturalism, the poems of Stonelight move individually as statements of intimate experience, but also work together to tell the story of Ora and Eli and their family. One of the main engines behind this poetic storytelling is the use of nature as a lens to understand and feel human interactions.

The opening poem, “Kentucky Rose,” embodies what I mean in its opening lines:

This soil is a vein of stone the company calls blue heron
to indicate its grade—
a bituminous grease in the pleats of eyelines
and thumbnail quick,
in the corners of Eli’s mouth
until everything tastes like the long coal throat of Mine 18,

In these lines, the worlds of nature and human life are blurred in the physicality of Eli’s experience. The arduousness of coal-mining is evoked in the description of the soil working itself down into “eyelines” and “thumbnail quick.” Yet, the inclusion of the name of the soil “blue heron” frames this meeting of worlds. Bringing to mind a blue heron and its grace and flight, the following lines then sink down into Eli’s more grounded experience. This intense sensory experience continues to the poem’s end:

And when the earthhush of that shaft struggles to slip from the blue
shale stitched above the carbon, the sound becomes the rasp
of a carpenter bee’s mandibles boring tunnels
into the porchwood to remove its yellow poplar
grain by grain, gram by spittled gram.

Here, the intensity of Eli’s work is paralleled with a carpenter bee, an image whose focus and drive is as apt as it is startling. The implications here are double: not only is there the drone of the work, but also the feeling of necessity. Both are doing the work necessary for a living. From start to finish, this poem upends any idea that natural life and human life are at odds; rather, they exist as troubled neighbors leaving impressions on each other.

This use of nature as a lens for human understanding and feeling is found again in “Jacob’s Ladder,” which details Ora experiencing a miscarriage. The poem begins:

They say children born on the wrong side
of the river grow wild as fleabane
and do not return until Spring,
their veins all grass stems and cricket legs,

and that wild scuttles straight from their eyes
over the creekbed and slips over the birdfoot violet
into the sandstone,

Here, the world of superstition is brought in, framing what is at stake in childbirth for Ora. The narrative that begins here, that “children born on the wrong side / of the river grow wild,” is developed through nature metaphors of “fleabane” and veins gone “all grass stems and cricket legs.” This metaphoric language evokes directly what is meant by “wild” and what is to be feared. And yet, the narrative continues in the second stanza with the implication that this wildness will affect the land as well. As with “Kentucky Rose,” human intensity is paralleled with nature. Here, however, the parallel serves storytelling directly. Later in the poem, the reader finds out that Ora is unable to make it to the other side of the river:

So her baby’s hands uncurled as bluet and phlox,
her heart a hard walnut, shriveled and shut,
her bloody mouth a kiss on her mother’s thigh.

In these closing images, the experience of miscarriage is translated into nature metaphors. This reads like a natural progression from the opening stanza’s logic. Where what is feared for the child born on the wrong side of the river is expressed as a wildness whose mystery evokes troubled images of land and insects, the mystery that is death is approached through imagery that withholds further understanding. Here, nature represents what shuts out human life and renders it unknowable.

This reckoning with mortality is woven throughout the poems of Stonelight. As the narrative of Eli and Ora plays out in poems whose rich language is stitched with human heart, what remains compelling is how these characters survive and understand their survival. Even as disaster strikes, Ora’s perceptions of the world around her echoes and defies disaster. Seeing her lost children in nature, and through nature seeing herself, Ora is set down as one of poetry’s most compelling characters.

This presence is accomplished through McCartt-Jackson’s ability to braid together poetry, folklore, and research. In “O Death” (below), whose title is borrowed from an Appalachian dirge, McCartt-Jackson goes in the opposite direction of a majority of the poems in the manuscript. Where, as in the poems cited above, human characters are shown to interpret their experiences through the lens of nature, here we have an unnamed speaker evoking Death in a way that renders the experience human, intimate, and ever-present. Despite the contrast in approach, this poem continues the work of expressing the urgency of the world of Stonelight and its characters.

O Death – Sarah McCartt-Jackson

One by one the cicadas clutching the brittle bark turn their spiracles to the light to breathe her in. Their breath leaves ours on the sky-veined insect wings of the world fluttering in the edge of lampglow between umbra and fire. O candle whose light we love even as your wax taper wanes. She rattles but we do not even hear her, ears pressed to the cold cookstove, to the ragged beanvines, to the dog’s frothy tongue. O stone torn from the coalface, time-split and aching, receive her shaking tail of sound into each seam. Overturn each rock, unearth the roly polys and roll their husks between fingers so she will uncoil from the corngrass and lie on a rotting barn beam where moles scurry into her open mouth, and then turn one by one their bodies inside out. O twitching cicada hull hatched one by one with her rattle. O rattle. She sheds a snakeskin rustling on our front porch step, the silent rings in which she has traveled. Our yard, filled with each year of her scaly chaff, hisses like the white undersides of leaves blowing before the flood-rains. Each day we turn our faces to the woods, to the shade curled in a fern’s fiddlehead, to the shade clasped inside a hollow shell. O night, let their antennae burn.

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

Sarah McCartt-Jackson: What excites me most about Stonelight is that this collection combines elements of poetry and fiction. I wrote the book with a narrative arc so that the reader can experience the poems, and the lives inhabiting them, much like experiencing a novel. I was also able to incorporate my background in folk studies, oral history, and naturalism. Throughout the book, readers encounter folk beliefs, words of our ancestors, and a lush environment teeming with flora and fauna. I hope Stonelight guides the reader through the journey with Ora as she experiences her triumphs and tragedies.

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

Sarah McCartt-Jackson: One of the challenges of writing these poems was creating the narrative arc. I had to outline the book much as an author would outline a novel. When I went to put the poems together, I had to identify plot points that might be missing, then write new poems to help fill these gaps. The narrative arc went through many iterations before settling in its current stream.

Another challenge was the sheer history of the poems. Writing about the turn of the previous century required a lot of research—both historical and personal. I spent a lot of time reading old geology books, government documents, oral histories, and naturalist collections. This research gave me some new, rich language that readers might not immediately recognize, but I insisted on using these terms as they are. Because of that, I tried to help readers along with metaphor and imagery, while also providing extensive notes at the end of the book. In this way, we learn something about history, belief systems, and the folk—the people—that I have created in Stonelight.

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Special thanks to Sarah McCartt-Jackson for participating! To learn more about McCartt-Jackson’s work, check out her site. Copies of Stonelight can be purchased from Airlie Press.

Also: Be sure to consider entering the Airlie Prize, open now through March!

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Kentucky poet, folklorist, and naturalist Sarah McCartt-Jackson has received honors from and been published by Copper Nickel, Bellingham Review, Indiana Review, Journal of American Folklore, The Maine Review, Tidal Basin Review, and others. She is the recipient of an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council, and has served as artist-in-residence for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shotpouch Cabin (Oregon State University). She is the author of Stonelight (Airlie Press), which won the 2017 Airlie Prize, and two chapbooks, Vein of Stone (Porkbelly Press) and Children Born on the Wrong Side of the River (Casey Shay Press), which won the 2015 Mary Ballard Poetry Prize. She works on a farm in Louisville.

microreview & interview: Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez

review by José Angel Araguz

olivarez

The Latinx experience is often reduced to ideas of duality. There’s the phrase “ni de aqui, ni de allá” (neither from here nor from there). There’s Gustavo Peréz Firmat’s idea of “living on the hyphen,” which acknowledges the duality of having a hyphpenated identity, in his case Cuban-American. Even one of the more popular textbooks in Spanish classes across the nation is titled Dos Mundos, a nod to the narrative idea of living in two worlds.

This kind of phrasing and thinking is reductive when only one duality is considered. What I have found in my own experiences is that it is not only one duality that defines my own Mexican-American life, but a multitude of dualities. This thinking feels truer to the Latinx experience because while one duality implies a clean split into halves, multiple dualities implies a series of splits in one’s identity. One of the driving forces of José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Books) is an exploration of the complexity inherent in these kinds of multiple dualities and splits.

The opening poem “(citizen) (illegal)” begins this exploration in the subverted phrasing of its title, which takes the phrase “illegal citizen” and turns it via parentheses into two separate adjectives. The poem goes on to develop its narrative using the rhetoric of word problems:

Mexican woman (illegal) and Mexican man (illegal) have
a Mexican (illegal)-American (citizen).
Is the baby more Mexican or American?
Place the baby in the arms of the mother (illegal).
If the mother holds the baby (citizen)
too long, does the baby become illegal?

Here, the logic of words is placed against the logic of human laws. Having isolated (citizen) and (illegal) in the title, the two words begin to develop a life of their own as they move in their narrative placement. In the first line, (illegal) is strictly in the language of immigration law. Yet, the word is something different—and marked as such by the absence of parentheses—by the end of the stanza. This change occurs via the question asked in the last three lines of this stanza. This question’s narrative places the mother and child, one marked as (illegal) and the other as (citizen), in a familiar embrace between mother and child. Through context, the question parallels the proximity of this embrace with the proximity of words on a page, both the physical closeness but also the way the closeness of two words changes the meaning of both.

In bringing together word logic and law logic through this parallel, Olivarez evokes the fear immigrant parents live with, even in such innocent moments as holding a baby. By taking charge of these two words in an objective, logical way, the poem makes the humanity that is affected by them more evident and real.

One of Olivarez’s accomplishments in this collection is this ability to make present the humanity behind dualities in poem after heart-wrenching poem. In the aptly titled “Mexican American Disambiguation,” Olivarez works the duality of presence and influence through contemplation of American cultural staples:

everything in me
is diverse even when i eat American foods
like hamburgers, which to clarify, are American
when a white person eats them & diverse
when my family eats them. so much of America
can be understood like this.

Here, we have another moment of closeness, of something being embraced out of need. While the stakes are albeit different than the closeness between a mother and her baby, the meaning remains the same: words and ideas are affected by the human presence behind them. Even a hamburger, which here is at first taken as an American symbol, can become politically fraught when put in contact with the narratives of the Latinx experience. This poem quickly shifts to higher stakes as the speaker takes note of his family’s effect on the idea of the American Dream:

my parents were
undocumented when they came to this country
& by undocumented, i mean sin papeles, &
by sin papeles, i mean royally fucked which
should not be confused with the American Dream
though the two are cousins.

Within the complexity of the wordplay here, which moves between English and Spanish as well as between the metaphor of the American Dream and ideas of family, lies the conscience of this speaker. It is identity, ultimately, that the speaker is seeking to make clear by working through the ambiguity of symbols and ideas of America. Yet, clarifying one’s identity isn’t as simple as noting the right words; one must work through what the words mean. From “sin papeles” to “royally fucked” to “American Dream,” the poem seeks to understand each word through correlation, ending at “cousins,” a word that means family, but not immediate family. In Citizen Illegal, readers are invited to slow down and dwell on such distinctions for what they say about connection as well as for what is missed.

This navigation through distinctions of duality is consistently reckoned with in this collection on a personal scale. In “my therapist says make friends with your monsters,” the speaker delves into the context of therapy, where “monsters” are self-created; yet, within the greater context of the collection’s Mexican-American narrative, the speaker’s monsters are as double and duplicitous as the two countries themselves. The lyric sequence “Mexican Heaven,” braided throughout the collection, reimagines heaven as a source of respite but, as the following excerpt shows, tinged with familiar mistrust:

all of the Mexicans sneak into heaven.
St. Peter has their name on the list,
but the Mexicans haven’t trusted a list
since Ronald Reagan was president.

Movement is the common thread of this meditation on multiple dualities. In the most compelling moments of this collection, Olivarez presents to us poetic spaces where one dwells alongside the speaker on the elements in motion around him. The poem below, “I Walk Into Every Room & Yell Where The Mexicans At,” is a good example of what I mean. Within the context of a problematic conversation at a party, the speaker navigates beyond the good intentions of the conversation and unravels the meanings and memories at play in his mind. In this space, one sees not only what it feels like to be seen in a distorted manner, but also what it is like to survive it.

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I Walk Into Every Room & Yell Where the Mexicans At – José Olivarez

i know we exist because of what we make. my dad works at a steel mill. he worked at a steel mill my whole life. at the party, the liberal white woman tells me she voted for hillary & wishes bernie won the nomination. i stare in the mirror if i get too lonely. thirsty to see myself i once walked into the lake until i almost drowned. the white woman at the party who might be liberal but might have voted for trump smiles when she tells me how lucky i am. how many automotive components do you think my dad has made. you might drive a car that goes and stops because of something my dad makes. when i watch the news i hear my name, but never see my face. every other commercial is for taco bell. all my people fold into a $2 crunchwrap supreme. the white woman means lucky to be here and not Mexico. my dad sings Por Tu Maldito Amor & i’m sure he sings to America. y yo caí en tu trampa ilusionado. the white woman at the party who may or may not have voted for trump tells me she doesn’t meet too many Mexicans in this part of New York City. my mouth makes an oh, but i don’t make a sound. a waiter pushes his brown self through the kitchen door carrying hors d’oeuvres. a song escapes through the swinging door. selena sings pero ay como me duele & the good white woman waits for me to thank her.

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

José Olivarez: For me, poetry has been most powerful in shared experiences. The moment that made me want to write poems was seeing my peers, teenagers at the time, perform poems that spoke truthfully about their own experiences to an audience full of rapt teenagers and adults. My favorite past time is getting drinks with friends and then reading them my favorite poems (Ada Limón’s Glow, all of Lucille Clifton’s poems, Aracelis Girmay’s On Kindness, Patrick Rosal’s BrokeHeart: Just Like That). I believe that poetry is communal. I wanted to write a book that people would want to share with each other. I wanted to write a book that people could laugh to and cry to and feel all the feelings to. I wanted to write a book that young poets would want to read and rewrite and challenge and remix. I wanted to write a book that could belong at the library and on public transportation and in the park. I wanted to write a loud poetry. An impolite poetry. A poetry that asks you to reimagine the world.

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

José Olivarez: One of the challenges in writing these poems early on was that the poems were fitting too neatly into already established narratives about Latinx people and immigration, things like the sense of belonging neither here nor there, the arc of the American Dream, the othering gaze of whiteness. Where did these ideas come from? How could I complicate and destabilize them? I tried to rewrite the poems with an eye towards mischief and subverting those tropes. When I finished a poem, I tried to rewrite it to see what other possibilities existed. That’s how poems like “Poem to Take The Belt Out of My Dad’s Hands” were made. I didn’t want to write poems that fit too neatly into what was already expected of me.

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Special thanks to José Olivarez for participating! To learn more about Olivarez’s work, check out his site! Copies of Citizen Illegal can be purchased from Haymarket Books.

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JoséphotobyMarcosVasquezJosé Olivarez is the son of Mexican immigrants and the author of the book of poems, Citizen Illegal. Along with Felicia Chavez and Willie Perdomo, he is co-editing the forthcoming anthology, The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNEXT. He is the co-host of the poetry podcast, The Poetry Gods and a recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo, Poets House, the Bronx Council on the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, & the Conversation Literary Festival. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Paris Review, and elsewhere.  In 2018, he was awarded the first annual Author and Artist in Justice Award from the Phillips Brooks House Association. He lives in Chicago.

microreview & interview: Phantom Tongue by Steven Sanchez

review by José Angel Araguz

phantomtongue7

Phantom Tongue (Sundress Publications) by Steven Sanchez begins with “On the Seventh Day,” a poem depicting the speaker poring over images of male models in the Sunday ads—”glossy men” that “look like my G.I. Joe / if his clothes weren’t painted on”—then cutting and pasting body parts, fashioning ideal versions of attractiveness. This act is narrated in a compelling and telling manner; as the speaker notes that “These paper men / are caught inside words / they don’t even know exist,” it is hard not to notice the parallel with the speaker himself, a youth whose burgeoning sexuality is manifesting outside of words through this play with images. The poem ends with a similarly telling image:

I’ve learned to hide these men inside
the pages of my dictionary,
where words always cling
to their wet curves
like the newspaper ink
on my hands, headlines
and stories staining my skin.

This final image is charged with guilt and self-consciousness. Unlike the title’s reference to God resting after the creation of the world, this speaker is far from being able to rest or feel settled. In fact, his act of creation leaves him scared and with an impulse to hide his fascination.

This tension between fascination and self-consciousness lies at the center of Phantom Tongue. Starting with this poem about bodies, the collection begins to explore ideas of breaking—how bodies break, and what breaks with them—balanced by meditations on what is not broken. One can see this balance in the sequence “Passing.” In the section One of the Guys, the speaker is asked on the playground “Are you white or a wetback?” and responds with “I’m just like you.” The speaker is then told to grab a rock and join in the taunting and assault of another child. Unable to find a rock, or unwilling to, the speaker picks up a “large dirt clod” and is commanded to throw it at the head of the other boy. When he moves to do so, however, the speaker ends up only feeling how the dirt clod “explodes in my raised hand.” This closing image implies not only the futility of violence, but also the speaker’s discomfort in participating. It is almost as if the dirt clod breaks apart in empathy with the speaker.

This scene of coerced action resulting in futility skillfully leads to the second section of this sequence, Boy Scout. In this poem, the speaker is out fishing and reels in a brown trout, the experience bringing him closer to a growing sense of mortality:

I feel the rest of his life in this wire, taut
like string between two plastic cups.

Does he hear my heart tightening its pace,
a fist that will not let go?

The feeling of life on the wire compared to a childhood makeshift telephone drives home what is being communicated through this experience to the speaker. Viewed within the context of a conversation, the speaker is aware that he is at fault for the breaking from life that is going on at the other side. This awareness becomes a new knowledge in the form of the final couplet where the speaker’s heart becomes “a fist that will not let go.” Even the breaking life of a fish holds its fascination and lesson.

Sanchez’s attention to and facility with empathy is also present in the poems about his complicated relationship with his father. In “La Llorona,” for example, we are given an imagined origin story that is braided with the Mexican folktale. As the speaker tells us “My father’s forgotten / who brought him / to America,” the poem sets its license for this braiding as being grounded in the father’s absence of details. We further learn:

Somebody found him
when he was a boy
walking in the streets

of Tijuana, his mother
absent. The jagged
remains of his living

room window
cut his hands
when he reached

one more time
toward his own father,
dead for three days.

From here, the poem enters the speaker’s dreams where he tries to comfort the father. Where in reality the speaker’s father reached to the dead father, in dream he reaches toward the speaker. In this parallel, death and dream frame the speaker’s father with absence. This absence then becomes a space where the poem can explore the story of La Llorona and braid it to the father’s via imagery:

I can never touch him,
always my reflection
in water. A woman

emerges and slides
her finger across
his navel

where kelp grows
like an umbilical chord
inching toward his neck

Comfort exists in these stanzas edged with threat, as it does in life. The uncertainty of water—a realm of intangible reflections and unperceivable depths—makes a suitable parallel to the life of the father, who, through his own absences, lives an uncertain life. As the poem’s dreamscape baptism comes to a close, La Llorona holds the father and prays. In this way, braiding the narrative of La Llorona with that of the father redeems both troubled figures.

In “Approaching El Arco / Reloj Monumental,” redemption is explored in a way that allows for complication and doubt. As the poem moves through its crushing depiction of the speaker being questioned by border patrol while walking near the entrance of Tijuana, there comes this moment:

A gull walks

in circles a few feet away, his left wing
broken, upside down; his white

remex makes a path in wet sand
that three offspring follow. I could

hold the gull, stroke his sleek back,
and make a purple sling from my shirt.

But I wouldn’t know what I’m doing,
how to reset or mend his bones.

I would just break another one
I try to convince myself, even though

I know what happens if I do nothing.

This act of pausing, of acknowledging what’s in front of the speaker and each possible course of action, of lingering over meaning, speaks of the great empathy at the heart of this collection. By considering the broken wing of the bird, the speaker goes through the motions of feeling something (not quite innocence, but like it) break inside himself. Moments like this one showcase Sanchez’s gift for dwelling in complexity.

While the collection begins with a fascination with the body, this fascination quickly becomes an unflinching awareness of what is at stake within a body. Along with the physical breaking possible, there is the body as the house of what is broken and what continues to break. In the final poem, “What I Didn’t Tell You” (below), an address to a younger brother begins as advice and quickly shifts into regret and apology. Sanchez’s ability to look deeply within his own breaking—the physical and emotional, as well as the breaking that makes up memory—is illuminating. Throughout this collection, worlds that have gone neglected and unseen are made visible and granted the rich and transformative acknowledgment of poetry.

What I Didn’t Tell You – Steven Sanchez

for my brother

You can ask me anything,
Even about my first kiss,
which was at your age
and tasted like stale beer.
I used to feel guilty swallowing
the pulse of another man,
but now I know there are many
ways to pray. There’s a name for
that most intimate prayer:
la petite mort—the little death.
If, when your lover rakes
your back, you recall
the flock of worshippers
surrounding you like raptors
when they learned you’re gay,
clawing at your shoulders,
squawking for salvation,
remind yourself you have to die
before you can be resurrected.
Never forget what the Bible says:
when two people worship together,
they create a church
no matter where they are—
which must include
the backseat of a car
or the darkest corner
of Woodward Park.
These are some of the things
I wanted to tell you
that night in April
you called me for help
with your history report
about the gay rights movement.
Neither of us admitted
what he knew about the other.
Instead I started
with the ancient Greeks,
told you it was normal for them,
that for one brief moment
they were allowed to shape
their own history and religion,
organizing the stars, forming
Orion, for example,
flexing in the sky, arms
open in victory, belt
hanging below his waist.
But he was punished
for his confidence,
a scorpion’s hooked tail
piercing his body
like a poison moon.
When I see Orion,
I think of you and remember
what it felt like
for my knuckles to sink
into your stomach,
for my fist to collide
with your face. Your voice,
your walk, your gestures
reminded me of myself,
your figure bright and fluid,
creating a reflection
I wanted to break.
And now I see
your body spill open—
Big Dipper hooked
to your ribs, North Star
nestled in the middle.
I reach for that ladle
and drink.

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Influence Question: How does this full length relate/grow out of your chapbooks?

Steven Sanchez: The earliest draft of Phantom Tongue came first, followed by my chapbooks: To My Body (Glass Poetry Press) and Photographs of Our Shadows (Agape Editions). While my two chapbooks have a lot of thematic overlap (in terms of Queerness, internalized oppression, and Pocho-ness, among others), the image systems and tones between each chapbook felt different. Despite these differences, or probably because of them, I was able to figure out how to meet Phantom Tongue on its own terms.

Originally, Phantom Tongue had three sections, and the differences between the first two sections reflected the differences between the two chapbooks. The third section tried to reconcile those differences, but, like a bad sewing job, the thread was visible and didn’t match. I expressed my concerns to Sara Henning (my wonderful editor at Sundress) and she encouraged me to remove the sections and see what happened.

Reading through it without sections, I still saw significant shifts that reminded me “oh, we’re switching between chapbooks now,” so I tried out an organization strategy I used in my first chapbook—begin the book with a poem centering the body and end the book with a poem centering the body. If I could begin and end with a body, Phantom Tongue could tell the story of that body.

However, the final poems in Phantom Tongue had tones that clashed with each other. The title poem itself comes relatively late in the book and is a poem of witness (sort of) where the speaker lacks agency. But I wanted the end of the book to acknowledge and challenge what happens in the title poem. I turned to the poems from my second chapbook for help and found the poem I wanted to close on—What I Didn’t Tell You. When I found that poem, I realized a few of the poems in that chapbook had a similar tone and pacing; I realized that Phantom Tongue needed those poems near the end.

Ultimately, I found that my first chapbook seemed to privilege the physical, lived experiences of a body, while the second chapbook seemed to privilege the ways bodies get read as texts and assigned meaning. While those chapbooks can be their own entities, I realized Phantom Tongue felt clunky because the physical body and metaphysical body inform each other and cannot be so easily separated (if at all). My chapbooks were so helpful in my revision process, sort of like a phoropter in an optometrist’s office—sometimes one chapbook made an aspect of Phantom Tongue super clear, sometimes that same chapbook made me lose focus; toggling between the two helped me hone in on the smaller details I couldn’t see on my own.

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Special thanks to Steven Sanchez for participating! To learn more about Sanchez’s work, check out his site! Copies of Phantom Tongue can be purchased from Sundress Publications.

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1888_sanchezSteven Sanchez is the author of Phantom Tongue (Sundress Publications, 2018), selected by Mark Doty as the winner of Marsh Hawk Press’ Rochelle Ratner Memorial Award and a finalist for the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize & the Four Way Books Intro Prize. He is also the author of two chapbooks: To My Body (Glass Poetry Press, 2016) and Photographs of Our Shadows (Agape Editions, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo and the Lambda Literary Foundation, his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poet LoreNimrodNorth American ReviewMuzzleCrab Creek Review, and other publications. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from California State University, Fresno.

microreview & interview: Rodney Gómez’s Citizens of the Mausoleum

review by José Angel Araguz

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What a poet lists in their poems says much about what is important to them. There is a gesture of trying to catalog and hold onto, but also one of presenting and (re)presenting. Listing is a move I often find myself drawn to and examining in reading contemporary poems because it is through listing that a poet can achieve a differently-clear response to Robert Lowell’s question: “Yet why not say what happened?” In Rodney Gómez’s Citizens of the Mausoleum (Sundress Publications), “what happened” is recollected, invoked and evoked, acknowledged and interrogated via a poetic sensibility able to handle lists in a way that establishes clear human presence.

The opening sequence “Checkpoint Aubade” takes as its subject the finding of mass graves of unidentified migrants in South Texas. After the first section establishes how “bodies were potted / in Falfurrias” and how “roots / curled between their ribs,” the second section delves further through a list:

Duvalín spoon
rebozo
lone sacrum
Flamin’ Hot Cheetos
Lavoro jeans
Puma sneaker
bajo sexto
scattered jacks
receipt from Pollo Loco
butterfly knife
keys
Tres Flores brilliantine
comb with missing teeth
manifesto
full bottle of Levothyroxine
rosary
Circo Vasquez flyer
Coca Cola watch
bobby pin
miniature stop sign
coil from a sleeping cot
retablo of St. Jude Thaddeus

What’s powerful about this list is how it brings together a diverse array of everyday items and through juxtaposition and presence evokes human life. From the pleasures of eating (“Duvalín” “Cheetos” “Pollo Loco”) and pop culture (“Circo Vasquez flyer / Coca Cola watch”) to self-consciousness over appearance (“Tres Flores brilliantine / comb with missing teeth” “bobby pin”), all of it stands in stark contrast with the mortal context of the poem, represented directly by the inclusion of “lone sacrum” and indirectly through the “missing teeth” of the comb. Furthermore, the presence of the epigraph at the start of the poem noting that the bodies are unidentified begins a narrative of identifying within the reader. Reading the above list, one senses the human life lost and is simultaneously taken right to the limit of what can be identified. This move in a poem makes clear what is at stake for the Gómez in these poems without any filter or rhetorical scaffolding.

Listing works in a different way in “Love,” where the speaker meditates on the ways this words changes for people:

I’ve never understood how someone could fall in love
and just as quickly fall out, as if love were the Chunnel
or a passage under the Great Wall. Take my friend Al,
a surgeon, a bright guy with whom I went to State,
he meets a girl online, dates her for a week, and pretty
soon he’s professing an undying love, tattoos her Zodiac
sign on his bicep, and they go everywhere together—
the groceries, the gym, the shower—and pretty soon
they’re calling each other honey, which is the amazing
part because the only thing I’ve ever called honey
was printed on glossy paper or pressed in a candy shop,
and he describes this girl as a swan, which just a few
weeks later becomes a snake, how is this possible,
for love to evaporate, one mayfly minute to the next,

In this short excerpt, one can see a subversive listing at work. There’s the quick list work of trying to understand love in the first three lines, which show the speaker’s bafflement through a blunt logic. Then there is the narrative of a past relationship his friend, Al, has gone through. Through this narrative, there is a listing of details that changes as the emotional course of the relationship changes. From clear bicep to tattooed bicep, from “swan” to “snake,” these details shift in a way that is familiar, but it is the speaker’s urgent desire to understand (“how is this possible”) that keeps up the momentum created at the start of the poem.

This momentum-carrying listing features again in “Cloud,” one of a series of poems that take the death of the poet’s mother as its subject:

A cloud
hoarding my mother’s voice.
Symphonium.

When I sprint
at late hours
I am nothing
but cloud

and scour myself
for her.

She has gone
to a greater kind
of hiding.

This excerpt shows how the poem grounds itself in the idea of cloud. The line “A cloud / hoarding my mother’s voice” implies things being carried off and held at a distance. The speaker’s following note that he runs and becomes “nothing / but cloud // and scour myself / for her” shifts the meaning of clouds further, adding to it an active need to combat the “greater kind / of hiding” that is death. This active need is returned to and developed further at the end of the poem:

Sometimes
I’ll run on the bare back
of the arroyo,

skimming the water
for her face.

Cranes alight
to avoid my madness.

I am interminably
missing.

Here, one sees the logic of what’s being experienced by the speaker: loss leads to looking, looking leads to seeing what’s there and what’s not there. In this duality, one can sense the speaker’s reason for running and looking; in a broader view, this duality also represents a reason for the kinds of listing engaged with in this collection. What else to do in the face of the “interminably / missing” than begin to take stock of what is here.

Citizens of the Mausoleum does just that. Through poems and sequences devoted to personal and public loss (“We, Too, Are Asking Why” stands out as a vital and necessary poem about the Sandy Hook shootings), Gómez’s gift of braiding a sharp lyrical sense of phrasing and imagery with engaged poetic and political convictions is on full display. As can be seen in “Our Lady of San Juan” (below), Gómez goes one step further in these poems beyond saying “what happened” and presents poems that invite the reader to say it for themselves.

Our Lady of San Juan – Rodney Gómez

cupped hands : a sun dial
cesta of moon : votary
when she says I love you : glacier
hallelujah : crumpled wrist
walking on knees : acceptance of death
broken promise : burnt mesquite
promises kept : a flame
indifference of cicadas : Gethsemane
confessional : ornate rhythm of water
heavy element : the wages of sin
hidden prayer : lock for the mouth
rosary : a fastening, a clasp
an open mouth : cantankerous censer
frayed habit : lost key
burning cottonwoods : baptism
inevitable loss : confirming the time
when she re-appears : flicking a lighter
las desaparecidas : oversight of the body
rain on feather: balm
other: where the god resides
other: when the wound heals

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

Rodney Gómez: Well, I wanted the work to be something that I could read and enjoy. I don’t know who it was who said that poetry shouldn’t be entertaining, but I disagree with that statement. Poetry, and art, should be entertaining. Whenever I read poetry, I want it to be fresh, authentic, new, and real. I also want to be absorbed in it. I want a diversion from my real life and I want to be fascinated by what I’m reading. Now I wouldn’t describe the poems in Citizens of the Mausoleum as happy poems. And they aren’t entertaining in the way that an episode of Monk might be entertaining. That is, they’re not amusing. They can be very depressing, in fact. But I think I’m satisfied enough with the collection that I can confidently say I would read the book if I picked it up at a bookstore and didn’t have any prior knowledge of it. I would be interested in it. I would get some satisfaction out of it. If it caused discomfort, the discomfort would be worth it. I remember reading Rachel McKibbens’ blud and thinking about how heavy a book it was. In theme and tone and subject matter. But I couldn’t put it down after I started. I wanted to write something like that. Something that felt like it was hitting you over the head with a brick, but afterwards you felt you had achieved something by the experience.

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

Rodney Gómez: The poems were composed over a period of about five years starting in early 2011. I was grieving over the death of my mother and started using poetry as therapy, which is something I hadn’t really done in the past, having very little wounding to tackle. (My parent’s, migrant farmworkers and blue collar salt-of-the-earth types, poor folk and Mexicans, sacrificed a lot to make sure I lived a pretty normal and uneventful life.) None of the early poems made it into the book, but the challenge in writing the ones that did, being predecessors of the early trauma-filled poems, was making sure I wasn’t writing myself into solipsism. I don’t usually like navel-gazing poems. I like poems that say something to me as a human being. And so I very clearly wanted to write poems that were more than my experience. The trouble with that is an epistemic one about authenticity and having the right to say something that is more than you can possibly know. A poet’s perspicacity ends where someone else’s rights begin. So I tried to write what concerned me not only about my very limited world, but the larger world too. So you see, at the beginning of the book, a poem about the death of migrants in Texas. And you see a long poem about guns later on. There is a very real grappling in those poems between the speakers’ perspectives and imagined ones.

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Special thanks to Rodney Gómez for participating! To keep up with Rodney’s work, follow him on Twitter! Copies of Citizens of the Mausoleum can be purchased from Sundress Publications.

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RG*

Rodney Gómez is the author of Citizens of the Mausoleum. His work appears in PoetryPoetry NorthwestThe Gettysburg ReviewBlackbirdDenver QuarterlyVerse Daily, and other journals. He is an editor at Latino Book Review and works at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.