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.

*

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.

*

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.

Pangyrus virtual reading!

Poster for Pangyrus virtual reading.

Just a quick post to share an upcoming virtual reading I’ll be participating in: Join Pam Painter, Joelle Fraser, Ryane Nicole Granados, Artress Bethany White, and myself as we celebrate the release of Pangyrus eight!

Pangyrus Literary Magazine’s 8th issue launches with this reading on Thursday, March 11 at 7:30pm EST.

I’m grateful to be reading alongside such dynamic writers. At the virtual event, folks will have a chance to meet the editors and authors who’ve made Pangyrus one of Boston’s most dynamic literary journals.

To learn more about this reading and register for the event, go here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/online-launch-party-reading-for-pangyrus-8-tickets-141737389347.

survival & understanding

It’s been wild y’all. Some minor emergencies. Some heavy conversations in and out of the classroom and mentoring spaces that I work in. The thread continues to be survival and understanding, in that order.

These themes run through Dash Harris’ “No, I’m Not a Proud Latina” which I taught this week. This article, which calls out issues of anti-Blackness in the Latinx community, stirred up a number of reactions which had me lecturing on speaking truth to power, how marginalized writers are often necessarily making decisions at the intersection of politics, culture, and experience in order to survive and understand this world. I also spoke about how community should hold space for the positive while also acknowledging and working through the negative. That for community to matter it must be an inclusive practice, not just an ideal or romanticized gesture. At one point, I found myself talking about identity, how in the U.S. we often discuss it in terms of a possession or territory. The trope is how we have to “find ourselves” before we can be ourselves. What else can it be beyond this? What if identity, or really identities, are sides of the self we’re privileged to be able to honor and exist in, however briefly?

I also caught up with Aurielle Marie’s latest letter for The Offing and their efforts to engage their literary network in social justice and a value shift toward equity within their respective organizations. In “The Other Side of Imagination,” Aurielle Marie details their experiences and realities in the wake of the January 6th insurrection. Some moments that hit for me:

Photograph of the U.S. Capitol Building as seen through a security fence with a soldier standing guard.

On that violent Wednesday, some of my community organizer friends were checking in with one another in group messages. A good friend remarked with fatigue that he believed we were being out-organized. I disagreed. “White supremacy means we out-organize our oppressors, word-for-word, bar-for-bar… it means in the heat of battle we don’t miss… and we STILL lose,” I offered, “because our oppressors do not need intention or strategy to have their ultimate political goals met.”

*

Black people have always had to prepare themselves, their children, their communities for the impact of state violence. This, too, is an imagination of some kind, the preservation of the very people being hunted by the State. My partner and I, like many Black and Brown folks across the country, spent the 6th and the days following planning against some of the terrible possibilities that could find us as two Black queer femmes in a Southern state. This imaginative genius, this survival is exhausting, and this month, I have only that: my exhaustion. 

I appreciate Aurielle Marie’s honesty about this event and personal aftermath. Part of me has been working non-stop, another part of me remains shaken and beside myself. If you’re reading this, I wish you deep, necessary reflection as well as rest.

writer feature: Saddiq Dzukogi

Book cover for Your Crib, My Qibla.

This week I’m delighted to feature friend and poet Saddiq Dzukogi whose book, Your Crib, My Qibla, is currently available for pre-order from University of Nebraska Press. Here’s a bit about the book:

Your Crib, My Qibla interrogates loss, the death of a child, and a father’s pursuit of language able to articulate grief. In these poems, the language of memory functions as a space of mourning, connecting the dead with the world of the living. Culminating in an imagined dialogue between the father and his deceased daughter in the intricate space of the family, Your Crib, My Qibla explores grief, the fleeting nature of healing, and the constant obsession of memory as a language to reach the dead. (book description by University of Nebraska Press).

I have had the pleasure of knowing Dzukogi over a number of years, sharing correspondence over poems and life. In his work, I have always found a paced, meditative way with the line that develops emotional depth across images that hold for a reader like sunsets: intense, clear, and with a momentum one can feel.

“Wineglass” below is a good example of this. Through intimate narration, the poem develops from its title image into a vessel of its own, holding the speaker’s grief while also moving through the experience of it. Physical details such as “Hands, cloudy from rubbing the grave,” evoke the speaker’s state of mind through the image of cloudiness and emphatic action of rubbing, while the word choice of cloudy/grave parallel the speaker’s desire to mix and be heard across worlds.

Saddiq Dzukogi

Wineglass

When your mother found strands of your hair
hung up in the teeth of your comb,
your father squirreled them into a wineglass.
It bites him hard that your life happened

like an hourglass with only a handful of sand—
this split to the seam of his body, a split
of darkness that won’t kill him but squeezes
adrenaline into his veins, so he lives

through the pain of your absence. He’s not alright
to speak. His voice rims with bereavement,
and he wants to sing by your grave, child,
now that birds blow songs through

the window—counts sadness on the prayer beads
necklaced around his collar. If he had known the sky
would inhale you out of him so quickly,

he would have stayed with your toes forever

in his hands. Your face is still everywhere,
even in the places he is not looking.
He presses a deep kiss on your grave,
on your forehead.

Hands, cloudy from rubbing the grave,
as if on your tender skin.
The distance he feels is more

than the 400 kilometers that often stands
between you. He will travel this far
to hold you against the moon.
They say you are like his reflection

pulled out of the mirror he stares into.
To pull you out he plunges his hand
inside himself and pulls.

*

Your Crib, My Qibla is available for pre-order from University of Nebraska Press.

Photograph of Saddiq Dzukogi

Saddiq Dzukogi holds a degree in mass communication from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria (Nigeria), and is pursuing a PhD in English at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. A 2017 finalist of the Brunel International African Poetry Prize, he is the author of Inside the Flower Room, selected by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani for the New Generation African Poets Chapbook series. Dzukogi’s poems have appeared in the Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast, World Literature Today, New Orleans Review, Oxford Poetry, African American Review, Best American Experimental Writing, and elsewhere.

Author’s Twitter: @SaddiqDzukogi

viscacha vibes & recent pubs

Meet my new friend, the viscacha. He’s got a look that is simultaneously wise, weary, and worked-over. While I can’t claim to be wise, I am definitely feeling weary and worked over by the world. Introduced this friend to my students this week and one responded with: “What does he hear that we don’t that he needs ears so big?”

As I continue to ponder that, I thought I would share some recent happenings:

If you’re reading this, I hope you’re managing.

Also, if you find out what the viscacha hears, do let me know.

what I cannot call hope

Another round-up of thoughts as I’m finding myself consistently and effectively overworked but wanting, needing to connect, to word here:

  • That it’s been hard to hear others speak of hope this week.
  • That it’s been hard to hear others sign off on emails with some reference to vaccines being “on their way!” As if they had a hand in the accomplishment. As if it brought loved ones back.
  • That it’s been hard to feel what I cannot call hope but can neither call despair.
  • That it’s been hard to hear others share that they feel relief for the first time in four years.
  • That I’ve been feeling what I cannot call hope but can neither call defeat much longer than four years.
  • That what I cannot call hope has me like the speaker of this poem by Rio Cortez, wary, certain while also uncertain of what’s there ahead.
A close-up photo of birch by Harrison Haines

This be stark, I know. Times be, too.

Something that brought some insight and inner movement was the latest letter, “On Resolutions,” by Aurielle Marie in their “series of 10 dedicated to engaging The Offing’s literary network in social justice and a value shift toward equity within [their] respective organizations.” In this letter, Marie pushes against the usual practices of New Year’s resolutions, which typically emphasize discipline while arousing shame and fear, and shares how:

It would serve us all better to start our year with an acute awareness of how we want to live it, to be loved inside of it, to learn from it, and to lose ourselves within it. What do you want — really want — for this country and our world in the new year? What political goal or dream comes to mind when you allow yourself the capacity to imagine?

Aurielle Marie

This sentiment gives me something I cannot yet call hope, but I want to, as it implies ways that hope can be sparked, invited, gestured, and called forth from within who we are and where we’re at.

Wherever you’re at, may you be kind to yourselves.

brief dispatch: sharing is caring

This week has me busy at the Solstice MFA low-residency program’s virtual winter residency. I’m having a lovely time spending time with this great community. The workshops are virtual, but the vibes are all real, ha. Even shared a shape poem exercise I wrote about here a bit ago.

Also shared this week:

A photograph of four haiku by Richard Wright.

The latter was shared with me. I share with y’all. It’s all just moving words around, no?

If you’re reading this, I hope you’re able to be kind to yourself while remaining aware of the world around us.

poetry feature: Lisa Summe

Book cover for Say It Hurts
by Lisa Summe.

This week I’m excited to share two poems from Lisa Summe’s upcoming collection, Say It Hurts (YesYes Books). This collection is due out on January 15th and is currently available for pre-order.

Here’s a brief description of the forthcoming collection:

Say It Hurts grapples with queerness, love, grief, masculinity, coming of age, and coming out in the context of cultural violence rooted in misogyny and familial violence rooted in catholicism. In these poems joy and loss hold hands—at sleepovers and haircuts, at symphonies and haunted mazes, among fathers, on dating apps, during car sex, in matching tattoos, on Pinterest boards, at funerals. Lisa Summe’s debut collection queers the love poem by demanding that the whole story be told—what it means to love, to grieve, and to heal by saying it out loud.

About Say It Hurts

One thing I’m continually impressed by in Lisa Summe’s work is the range of lyric voice she’s able to tap into. From direct intensity to nuanced, meditative insight, there’s always an emotional pulse to her work.

“Always a Man” (below) is an example of direct intensity. The lyric voice charges forth, interrogating the pervasive effects of toxic masculinity in women’s public and private lives. One effect is evoked through the speaker’s stating “I am not the kind of woman,” then using this “not” as a counterpoint to heteronormative examples of “kinds” of women. This reckoning is then forged by the verbal sexual assault women face. Through an example of a hypothetical couple hearing about “sexual assault on the news,” the poem gets to the question: “how many times in a year / do you think you get catcalled.” When this question garners a response “incalculable / like the number of times in a year I stub my toe,” we are as readers hit by a harsh reality. This harsh reality becomes all the more harsh as it occurs within the speaker’s own experience, that the poem has moved from hypothetical example to her referencing “my coworker or sister or best friend.” The poem continues listing various instances of women being catcalled, illuminating the opening line’s counterpoint through indirection. What develops in the first half of the poem is the harsh reality of straight and straight-presenting women in heteronormative society. The poem takes a turn with the line “but there is always a man” which takes us back to the title, its implied binary, and the interrogation via the poem of said binary. The speaker goes from detailing the effects of catcalls to sharing her experience of outright threats of violence. The poem ends on a note that makes clear how insidious misogonynistic subjugation is in women’s lives, queer or straight.

In “Your Pinterest Board Called Wedding” (also below), nuanced, meditative insight is created through the speaker’s reflection as she goes through an inventory of the title’s Pinterest board of an ex. Through this inventory, we get a variety of images and details whose emotional poignancy works through juxtaposition. For example, early on the speaker notes “so / you want an oval engagement ring” and follows that up with “my grief / circling around: coming back as bird.” This braiding of metaphor and image creates a palpable pathos, one that stands in direct contrast with the title. Where the mention of social media and the equally “social” weddings imply connection and celebration, the speaker grieves a loss of connection. There remains, however, a faint tone of celebration, the speaker in awe of the beloved even at a physical and societal distance, but this tone is modulated by grief and realization. The formal use of colons throughout this poem help in this modulation of tone, setting the pace while also letting the reading experience be one of rumination, speaker and reader side by side in awe and regret.

Enjoy the poems below. Also, White Whale Bookstore will be hosting a virtual reading & launch for Say It Hurts on January 23 featuring Summe as well as Sara Watson, Jari Bradley, Micaela Corn, and Diannely Antigua. Check out this link for info on registration and more about the event.


Always a Man*

I am not the kind of woman
whose boyfriend asks
in the midst of all of the sexual assault on the news
how many times in a year
do you think you get catcalled
I do not have a boyfriend first of all
but even if I did my answer would not be
that of my coworker or sister or best friend
incalculable
like the number of times in a year I stub my toe
I am not the kind of woman who looks like a woman
not the kind of woman a man whistles at near the gas station
or calls honey at the bank
or tells to smile because I’ve got a pretty smile
at the farmer’s market
the Jiffy Lube
the coffee shop
the bar down the street
my own porch
because the upstairs neighbor
the mailman
I am not the kind of woman my exes are
women who got hit on right in front me
while I held their hands at the gym or at the movies
or at the fucking Olive Garden
I am not the kind of woman
who has to use her energy to politely decline these advances
or gets called bitch
or gets a bloody lip
or gets it anyway
but there is always a man
while I walk home from work
in a button down & bow tie in broad daylight
there is always a man on the corner by the CVS
a man wearing a hardhat on the corner of Bayard St.
there is always a man
who wants to put me in my place
I see what you really are under there he says
you’re a girl

*previously published in Bone Bouquet


Your Pinterest Board Called Wedding

I swear that’s your actual finger: so
you want an oval engagement ring: my grief
circling around: coming back as a bird:
as a wing: fragile as the inner ear:
my alabaster heart: you: lace
everything: sleeves of your dress: lingerie: twitch
of my thigh: now you will marry a man: I don’t know
his name: twitch in my eye: when we were
together: we made words:  let’s get married: our idea
of save the dates: Scrabble tiles: getting
married: back of your dress wide open: your finch
tattoo bursting through: my grief flying out
the window of you: what you like
about the finch: it always returns home


Say It Hurts is available for pre-order from YesYes Books: https://www.yesyesbooks.com/product-page/say-it-hurts.


Author photo of Lisa Summe.

Lisa Summe is the author of Say It Hurts (YesYes Books, 2021). She earned a BA and MA in literature at the University of Cincinnati, and an MFA in poetry from Virginia Tech. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Bat City Review, Cincinnati Review, Muzzle, Salt Hill, Waxwing, and elsewhere. You can find her running, playing baseball, or eating vegan pastries in Pittsburgh, PA, on Twitter and IG @lisasumme, and at lisasumme.com.

virtual reading this thursday :)

Just a quick post to announce a virtual poetry reading I’m doing this Thursday with poet Megan Alpert! Here are the deets:

Virtual Event: Megan Alpert and José Angel Araguz
presenting An Empty Pot’s Darkness and The Animal at Your Side

Harvard Book Store’s virtual event series welcomes poets MEGAN ALPERT and JOSÉ ANGEL ARAGUZ for a discussion of their poetry collections The Animal at Your Side and An Empty Pot’s Darkness.

Date: Thursday, January 7
Event Start Time: 7:00pm
Registration: folks can register at https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_1gDiz-wzQTe0yC4U-jesAA

For more information on the event, check out the Harvard Book Store site.

Looking forward to seeing folks there!

ending & starting: shiki masaoka

Photo by Marta Wave of a bench by a building with snow-covered grass.

I’m writing this not feeling great on the last day of the year to be posted on the first day of the year. Feels like I should have something grand to say but I don’t. 2020 had me heart-sick for most of it. Here’s to 2021, may you deserve us. Enjoy some life sketches by Shiki Masaoka. May you sketch out newness from the old you bring with you.

life sketches by Shiki Masaoka

in the evening glow
as they range in a vast sky,
these huge pillared clouds,
each radiant on one radiant side,
all crumbling, all dissolving
together

*

on this long long day
in which the shoots of young pines
have lengthened
my fever has come out
toward evening

*

on these pine needles
thousands of raindrops
all trembling, all swaying,
and still not one,
not a single one, falls

*

beyond this pane
of the closed window
in my sick room,
that pole for drying clothes
and on it a crow crying out

*

my wish:
to be carried
in a glass palanquin
through fields
piled silver with snow

(trans. Sanford Goldstein & Seishi Shinoda)