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.

new review at The Bind!

Front-note: I hope everyone is staying safe out there–whether you’re protesting in person or doing activism at home. Black Lives Matter and we must do everything to push against systemic oppression.

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rosa bookAlso, just a quick post to share that my chronicle-review of Rosa Alcalá’s MyOTHER TONGUE (Futurepoem) went live earlier this week at The Bind!

Read as I divulge about writerly lateness but also about how books we carry–physically and emotionally–matter so much to our lives.

For more of Rosa Alcalá’s work, check out the poem “At Hobby Lobby” from MyOTHER TONGUE.

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Ever yours,

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.

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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.

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

one more from Sarah McCartt-Jackson

stonelight3In my recent microreview & interview of Stonelight (Airlie Press) by Sarah McCartt-Jackson, I noted how nature is often used as a lens in these poems to engage with human understanding and feeling. In detailing the narrative of Ora and her family, this lens feels natural, a kind of environmental intuition. Much like in poetry writing, the speakers across these poems scratch out meaning from what they have and are left with.

I say “left with” here specifically to imply loss. One of the things Ora has to reconcile to herself is a series of pregnancies which at times lead to miscarriages. In “Ora names her children (before they are born)” (below), one can see how the act of reconciliation plays out in linguistic and metaphorical richness. McCartt-Jackson’s rich facility with language and phrasing is in full display here as the natural and human world are braided in a way that invokes a soul to one and a wildness to the other.

“Naming” her children after elements of the natural world, Ora’s act of reconciliation is also one of reclaiming. She recovers what is not there – not there either through loss (as elsewhere in the book) or through not having arrived (as in this poem) – by bringing it into communion with what is there. The result is a speaker both haunted by and haunting the world around her. With every loss and possibility, Ora emphasizes her presence through this ability to name. The ending here, ultimately, troubles the certainty of this presence in a way that echoes throughout the whole of Stonelight.

Ora names her children (before they are born) – Sarah McCartt-Jackson

unafraid of the shadow that glides up the mountain
approaching the nest. She names them the too-close sound
of a child’s whisper inside her ear. She names them buds
on splintery sycamore limbs and the buds’ curled leaves.
She names them after river clay and lightning shapes,
after songs she hears from the bucket dropped into the well.
She names them turnip and buckeye and leather and bird-feather hat
and tulip and the yellow color of rooms lit by flame.
She names them loneliness that can be rocked to sleep,
rooms haunted by dust that crawls in between the floorboards,
a thunderstorm of starlings crowding out the light. She names
the fingernails, the knees, pale eyelashes, tiny shoes,
caterpillar inching along the branch hung over the roof.
And when her upturned hands pile up with names, she pours
them onto every pinecone fallen empty of seed split through
the staves, every fur tuft stuck to bark, every quill hollow
poked through the pillow. She plants them until they return
stitched to the ridgeline bones. They tell her not to name them.

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Copies of Stonelight can be purchased from Airlie Press.

Be sure to consider entering a manuscript for the Airlie Prize.

To find out more about Sarah McCartt-Jackson’s work, check out her site.

microreview & interview: Stonelight by Sarah McCartt-Jackson

review by José Angel Araguz

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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: Love Me, Anyway by Minadora Macheret

review by José Angel Araguz

lovemeanyway

The First Time PCOS Spoke – Minadora Macheret

The doctor didn’t believe my periods had disappeared.

Most months were painless
as I watched all the other girls clutch cramps and bloating—
I wanted that too. I was different enough
and every 28 days I begged my uterus.

Medicine wrestles pubescent girls into journal articles
amenorrhea is due to over activity (at this age).

Please gentle the body—
thicken it with sleep.
When you slow down,
you will be
a woman,
again.

*

Reading through the poems of Love Me, Anyway (Porkbelly Press) by Minadora Macheret, one encounters a poetic sensibility capable of exploring the intersection of disability and being a woman in ways that interrogate the misguided narratives around both. The first line of the poem above (“The doctor didn’t believe my periods had disappeared”) begins this work within the context of disbelief. Here, it is disbelief not only of what is stated, but also an implied doubt due to youth and gender. The poem then builds from this initial disbelief by adding to it the speaker’s own disbelief in the workings of her body. The difference between these two disbeliefs is stark: the doctor’s disbelief is authoritative, while the speaker’s is grounded in vulnerability and fear. This starkness is furthered by the third stanza, where the medically-informed disbelief is seen as “[wrestling] pubescent girls into journal articles,” phrasing that evokes what it feels like to have a personal experience reduced to objective terms and analysis.

By the final stanza, the turn to the language of prayer (“Please gentle the body— / thicken it with sleep”) is a surprise on several levels. First, authority is subverted and, while still distant, it works now in a different tone, a tone that reads first as “gentle” but proves itself controlling by the end. Secondly, this subversion exposes the condescension and harm of the doctor’s disbelief; their authoritative advice is prescriptive in both a medical sense but also in a sense charged by gender bias. In a way, this last stanza could be read as a command to the speaker, a woman, to “slow down.” Lastly, returning to the title, these last lines can also be read as PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) itself addressing the speaker. Because it echoes the medical authority in tone and advice, this address becomes a betrayal charged with vulnerability.

This engagement with disbelief through lyric (re)imagination is at the heart of Love Me, Anyway. The PCOS experience is shown as a human experience that affects both a woman’s body and identity. Throughout the poems, Macheret evokes the struggle of identity through poetic acts of (re)definition. In “Remembering Girlhood,” the speaker reckons with the identity-shaping effects of the schoolyard:

…I am other Watch the girls point inside themselves to understand the outside of me Listen to their words mouth traitor…She can’t be a woman there is no moon inside of her to wax and wane Follow the porcupine quills on her face and breasts She is of men not of women Turn away turn away turn away

What is compelling here is how the context of the schoolyard is subverted by, first, being informed by the disbelief of other children, and, second, by how this disbelief is channeled through a formal, high diction. Phrasing like “there is no moon inside of her to wax and wane” and “She is of men not of women” is charged with a severity that drives home the damning effect childhood bullying has.

In “To the Bearded Lady I Am (Age 26),” the speaker begins by sharing:

I spend my days mirror-bound. Farm the angles of my face with tweezers. Lately, I can afford laser treatment. Each pulse of light burns hair follicle clusters.

Here, we have the clarity and directness found in other poems, metaphor being used to set the scene. The poem develops to these ending lines:

The anxiety of hair growth strangles my days to slip into nights. I’m like a teacup left out, dust covered, a chip in my side.

The clarity of the opening lines grounds the poem in the speaker’s reality; coming to these closing lines, metaphor works in a different, richer way by showing a further depth to the speaker’s reality. Not only is anxiety acknowledged as part of the self-conscious act depicted, but there is the effect on identity. In seeing herself as a “teacup left out, dust covered, a chip in my side,” the speaker evokes ideas of beauty and purpose as well as neglect. A disease’s ability to make one feel “other” (as noted above) is presented here in literal object-ification. These lines are another example of how working past otherness and imposed narratives comes at the cost of a shifting sense of self.

In this last poem, the idea of disbelief—both that of others and one’s own—is answered by a clear reckoning and acknowledgment. Disbelief, by being present, implies the possibility of belief. The poems of Love Me, Anyway argue, ultimately, that sometimes all one has to believe in is one’s own experiences, one’s pain and survival. These poems embody one of the gifts of lyric poetry, specifically the ability to evoke struggle and the life found through it.

In the title poem (below), this idea is worked out as a hard-earned belief. (Re)definition appears again in the opening lines—“Settle into my skin, / show of nature gone awry,”—but is accompanied by conscious (re)action “make-believe the parts are working.” The poem continues through admission, creating from honest acknowledgment a lyric space where the speaker is able to fully voice and feel, and, thus, fully exist.

Love Me, Anyway – Minadora Macheret

Settle into my skin,
show of nature gone awry,
make-believe the parts are working.

There will be days
anger currents keep me upright
as anxiety locks me to the bed
and the safari of my skin
full of brush
stains the covers fluorescent-red

the Nile is deep and endless
as the mechanism syncs
to the monthly flood-watch.

And on the mornings
I am barren
for a day more than I can handle,
please love me, anyway.

*

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

Minadora Macheret: This collection reflects what I see poetry can do and/or can be because it is giving voice to invisibility, to disability, to the liminal spaces that make us more human than we care to admit. Through the manipulation of white space and use of lyric images to guide a narrative that is searching to understand itself, this collection allows for the reader to gain an emotional glimpse into a body haunted by grief, by disease, by an inability to function “normally.” Also, there is the blending of language/translation, of culture, of folklore/myth (Baba Yaga & Demeter make appearances), and how those elements of identity also play a foundational role into understanding the body and how to recreate the self and the stories told on the page. Most importantly, this collection is another avenue for political poetry and social justice because it is asking the reader to see how the patient is gazing back at the doctor, the clinic, the world they inhabit, especially as it considers the disabled body, the diseased body, the female body. Poetry also has the capacity to breathe new meaning and understanding into the undefinable and this collection is pushing against the ways in which doctors engage the female body and struggle to offer support and/or treatment for diseases they think they understand.

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

Minadora Macheret: Some of the challenges in writing these poems came through translation. What I mean by that is not just the translation of disease from scientific literature to something accessible, but in the actual act of thinking in Russian (my first language) to writing it in English. Because I think multilingually (and grew up in a household of polyglots) I struggle with translation at times and though poetry has the capacity to hold a multiplicity of languages and their conversions/inversions, I would need to have trusted friends look at the syntax and/or grammar at times of what I was saying for clarification. Another challenge was how to talk about a disease that is terrifying, that disintegrates the body from the inside out without just glamorizing it or making the disease beautiful. I worked very intentionally with balancing between the horrific/grotesque with lyrical images or use of musicality/sound to show the duality of disease and its affect on the body. In particular, I am thinking of my “Self-Portrait as Mythos” poem that is using beautiful language and imagery to show the realities of a disease that causes infertility among a host of other issues. Lastly, something I struggled with is how to balance the grief in the collection without ending on something inspirational. I tend to turn away from the inspirational because I wanted to show the lived every day experiences that many people go through as grief/disease/disabiltiy becomes a facet of their lives. One way that I dealt with this is to not shy away from (my) truth of the experience and to let myself sit in those images/experiences as they were.

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Special thanks to Minadora Macheret for participating! To learn more about Macheret’s work, check out this interview with her at Rogue Agent Journal! Copies of Love Me, Anyway can be purchased from Porkbelly Press.

m macheret*

Minadora Macheret is a Ph.D. student and Teaching Fellow at the University of North Texas. She is a Poetry Editor for Devilfish Review. Her work has appeared in Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Red Paint Hill, Rogue Agent, Connotation Press, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbook, Love Me Anyway, from Porkbelly Press, 2018. She likes to travel across the country with her beagle, Aki.

one more from José Olivarez

olivarezIn my recent microreview & interview of José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Books), I noted some of the ways the collection interrogates the multiple dualities of the Latinx, specifically Mexican-American, experience. Through word play and rhetorical moves, Olivarez uses his gift of speaking about narratives that often get neglected to present the nuances of language as well as life.

In “My Parents Fold Like Luggage” (below), the speaker is in story mode, presenting a fabulistic interpretation of his parents crossing over the U.S.-Mexico border. It is a narrative of risk as much as deception; these two sources of tension are presented through the speaker’s point of view through the metaphor of folding. Informed by memory, distance, and imagination, this folding turns out some rich moments of language:

my parents protect this moment. this now.
what folds them into the trunk of a Tercel.
the belief that the folding will end.

it doesn’t. dollars fold into bills. my parents
near breaking. broke.

Here, human breaking is folded into financial breaking. So much is riding on this fraught vulnerability, both in the moment and in the larger picture. The distinct punctuation and use of variations on “break” do a great job of evoking what is at stake. One finds a similar turn in the poem’s ending:

from the sky, it is impossible
to hear whether my parents cheer or pray
as the car steals north.

The key word here is “steals,” a word that nods toward the risk and deception of the narrative. Yet it’s the context, “from the sky,” that renders this ending heartbreaking. Not being able to “hear” from the distance of memory creates an engaging ambiguity. In not knowing if they “cheer or pray,” the poem allows those words to live side by side in the poem and moment.

My Parents Fold Like Luggage – José Olivarez

my parents fold like luggage
into the trunk of a Toyota Tercel.
stars glitter against a black sky.
from the sky, the Tercel is a small lady

bug traveling north. from the sky,
borders do not exist. the Tercel stops
in front of a man in green. stars glitter
like broken glass. the night so heavy

it chokes. in the trunk, it is starless.
my parents protect this moment. this now.
what folds them into the trunk of a Tercel.
the belief that the folding will end.

it doesn’t. dollars fold into bills. my parents
near breaking. broke. they protect what might
unfold them to discover they are six:
a family.  if the man in green opens the trunk,

the road folds back. this moment & everything
that follows disappears into the ink of a police report.
why doesn’t he open the trunk? my parents say
god blessed us. maybe they are right,

but i think about that night & wonder where
god was—a million miles away in the stars,
in the shared breath between my parents, maybe
everywhere. maybe nowhere. from the sky,

the man in green is so small it is impossible
to see him wave. from the sky, it is impossible
to hear whether my parents cheer or pray
as the car steals north.

*

To learn about José Olivarez’s work, check out his site.

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.

*

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.

new review at The Bind!

Just a quick post to share my latest review for The Bind!

montesIn this review, I share thoughts on Lara Mimosa Montes’s The Somnambulist (Horse Less Press, 2016) via an “eight-ball” form.

Alternating between excerpts from the book and my own critical/meditative prose reflections, this review mimics the pool game of eight-ball in terms of its section and its free range form.

Here’s my explanation:

In [the] spirit of braided open-endedness and intimacy, I have arranged my thoughts on and reactions to The Somnambulist across the following fifteen moments from the text. Consider these thoughts arranged like a game of eight-ball after the break shot where nothing has been pocketed. The pool analogy stems from the narrative of the uncle, whose role as a hustler parallels the role of a poet for the speaker in the book. My aim is to have my thoughts parallel the excerpts in a like manner, with the review being another open table where what matters is not any grand point being made or “pocketed.” Instead, the back-and-forth between reader and text is the focus, the reading experience as a game without scores, whose play and movement are trajectories into poetry.

Check out the full review here.

— José