microreview & interview: The Book of Mirrors by Yun Wang

review by José Angel Araguz

Book cover for The Book of Mirrors by Yun Wang

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

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

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

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

and stepped naked
into that moonless
starless night

A trap embraced me
I had no voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sun bled into charred gum trees.

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

Once upon a time rose petals rained down.

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

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

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

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

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

We are immortals to mayflies
Let this be enough

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

microreview: Erica Hunt’s Jump the Clock

review by José Angel Araguz

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

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

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

Erica Hunt, interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erica Hunt, “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics”

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

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

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


Erica Hunt

Verse

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

Jump the Clock is available for purchase from Nightboat Books.

microreview & interview: Radiant Obstacles by Luke Hankins

review by José Angel Araguz

Book cover for Radiant Obstacles by Luke Hankins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke Hankins

Tree Rings

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

review by José Angel Araguz

Lifeonenotattachedtoconditionals_Cover_Final

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Laura Cesarco Eglin

Landmarks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

microreview: Primitivity by Amy Sayre Baptista

review by José Angel Araguz

Sayre-Baptistac_w

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

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

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

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

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

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Amy Sayre Baptista

Pike County Consilience

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

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

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

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

Action: Gibb done shot me.

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

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

Proof: Blood feathers mean blood feud.

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

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Hypothesis on an Unlocatable Body

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

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

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

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

Observable Conclusion: Done, son.

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

microreview: Word Has It by Ruth Danon

review by José Angel Araguz

word has it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What then?

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

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Ruth Danon

Birding

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

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

microreview: Slingshot by Cyrée Jarelle Johnson

review by José Angel Araguz

SLINGSHOT

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

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

Yes. I knew about the storm coming.

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

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

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

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

Cyrée Jarelle Johnson
jersey fems in the philly zoo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philadelphia
is lilac and lightning strike
before a great storm.

electric strangers
cuff biceps unexpected
back draws straight — horror.

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

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

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

bristling with defense
a kevlar of tenderness
enveloping me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

microreview & interview: 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.

 

SONY DSC*

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: Rodney Gómez’s Citizens of the Mausoleum

review by José Angel Araguz

mausoleum pic

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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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.

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.

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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.