Interrobang by Jessica Piazza

indexSonnets are one of the poetic forms that people whose poetry knowledge ends in high school can still name. When a poet employs a commonplace, canonical form across a lengthy sequence, it’s always worth exploring how she expands or subverts its conventions. In her debut collection, Interrobang, Jessica Piazza punctures the typical self-contained essence of the sonnet to address love, fear, and how they inform identity.

“Muchness” kept springing to mind to describe this collection. Piazza’s poems are dense with sound and emotion; there’s a weighty muchness to each one. With the exception of three longer sequences of linked sonnets, all the poems are titled after a phobia or a philia – a fear or a love. This duality resonates with the book’s titular punctuation mark, the combined question mark and an exclamation point that means “an exclamatory rhetorical question” (according to the Merriam-Webster citation at the front of the book). Interrobang’s poems contain their messiness, overflowing with fragmented images, questions, and exclamations. The poems’ speakers often veer between extremes: fighting and fucking, loud and quiet, familiar and strange. A rhythmic undercurrent propels them through these contrasts, as in these gleefully alliterative lines from “People Like Us”:

…I’m already un and raveling;

this scanty hope swan-songing my integrity.

(But maybe also, just a little, reveling?

Piñata pricked, unpilfered? Tamed tsunami swell?

An overflowing loving cup?) Tut, tut! Too cursed. Too much. I won’t allow it. …

Here, “too much” disavows the “un and raveling,” as well as the “overflowing” –demonstrating how form and content counterbalance each other, in another set of contrasts. This balance answers the question “why sonnets?” – the form is a kind of fulcrum supporting each poem, giving it a necessary weight. This weightiness, this verbal density within a compact form, is a common effect in other sonnet collections that tend towards the experimental, like Karen Volkman’s Nomina or Bernadette Mayer’s sonnets. Rather than the received sonnet setup (one train of thought, then a revision of, or commentary on, that beginning angle), experimental sonnets create their own rhetoric. They abandon thoughts midsentence, or pursue them into an unresolved question, or cast them into a Choose Your Own Adventure, or stretch them across successive pages.

The three extended sonnet sequences in Interrobang, “People Like Us,” “The Prolific,” and “What I Hold,” punctuate and balance the collection. Each of these sequences contains five sonnets, linked to one another by shared words from the last line of one to the first line of the next. Here’s the transition between the third and fourth sonnets in “The Prolific”:

…Instead I found the spot

on 23rd where, when the sun struck clear

glass buildings, streets appeared to multiply.

Then a thousand of me walked away.

A thousand other men could walk away

from me a thousand times, and yet I’d pay

them hardly any mind. The only one

who matters is the one I left. …

The extended length and patterned repetition, along with the layout – fourteen lines to a page – positions each sonnet in these sequences as something in between a standalone poem and a stanza. Their length allows themes and images to develop more richly, forming micro-narratives of a relationship (in “People Like Us” and “The Prolific”) and a personal epiphany (in “What I Hold”). This isn’t to say that the individual sonnets are lacking, but the three sequences are especially accomplished pieces of poetic craft.

The descriptions of colors, glass, and transparency threaded through “The Prolific” give shape to one of the collection’s consistent themes: being visible in a female body. A body moves through a city, seeing and being seen. Elsewhere, mirrors and windows reflect a body’s performances, as in “Eisoptrophobia, Fear of mirrors,” a sonnet in two seven-line reflected pieces that ends “Reflected, I am never at my best.”

A mirror again in “Panophilia, Love of everything” shows another warped reflection of the speaker’s identity:

…So I don’t understand

my drunkenness on scribble scrawled above

the mirror in the ladies’ room: You’re doomed.

Ecstatic that it’s almost true.

Here again is what I mean by muchness, a (traditionally) unladylike excess of it: drunk, scrawling and scribbling, the speaker emphatically embraces a dire almost-truth. Framed this way, it seems brave to be doomed, and to admit “I don’t understand.” There’s some excitement to being beyond understanding in the drunkenness and doom reflected here.

A truth-seeking spirit animates the collection. The choice of Latinate words to name all the poems brings to mind classical philosophy; in particular, Platonic ideals that things have a real, knowable essence. In this vein, “Anablephobia, Fear of looking up” describes roadside memorial signs:

Some read just: THINK. Those mark an accident.

Others: Why Die? And those mean someone did.

One day I heard a man say that his wife

gave up the ghost. But he was like a ghost.

Maybe that’s the truth. We die to leave

the losses that we cannot give away.

Compared to many poems in the collection, “Anablephobia” uses less enjambment and more complete, unfragmented sentences: “Those mark an accident.” The effect is assertive, but it’s tempered by uncertainty and abstraction. “Maybe that’s the truth” tells the reader something about what death could mean, what reality could unite all deaths.

It seems risky and brave to venture such broad ideas in the space of a fourteen-line poem. It’s an appealingly anachronistic approach: rather than privileging a thorough description of subjective individual experiences, as many contemporary poets do, Piazza’s poems grasp for the universal. They dare to move from an “I” to a universal “we.” “Anablephobia” ends with:

We die to tempt the edges that we fear.

We die to rise. We die to travel up.

“To tempt the edges that we fear” is rich with an appealing assonance. It also summarizes the rhetorical aims of some of the most memorable poems in my mental canon: think “Ariel,” or “Howl,” or “The Glass Essay,” all poems positioned on the edge of something fearful, potentially annihilating. Piazza earns her poems’ universal “we” with fierce intelligence and fearless expressions of deep feeling.

Interrobang is available from Red Hen Press.

Erin Watson is a Southern person living in Chicago and online at torridly.org. Her poems appear in Anthology of Chicago and in the self-published chapbooks No Experiences (2012) and Instax Winter (2014). She was a finalist for the 2014 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award.

O New York by Trey Sager

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 9.29.28 AMIn a rare 1966 radio interview in which he discussed “These Lacustrine Cities” in great detail, John Ashbery said “We must draw the line between obscurity and incomprehensibility. I firmly believe that poetry must communicate. It’s true that some of my poems are obscure, but this may be because I feel that one can communicate more things more directly, obscurely—at least at certain times—than directly.” While reading Trey Sager’s chapbook O New York, this idea of obscurity and its value came to mind many times, because just as much as Sager’s poems are obscure, are they also brilliantly systematic and intensely provocative.

O New York is divided into 4 sections. While the first section is introduced by the book title itself, the second is entitled “The Agreement,” the third “The Economy,” and the fourth “The Member.” These section titles and their edifice are pivotal, not only as applied to the poems they introduce, but as archetype of the mechanism that operates beneath the very fascia of this book. Separately, these sections are self-contained limbs of consideration—digits of surveillance and response. Collectively, this book is a body, a schema, a technical “how-to” manual. How-to see place. How-to see relationship. How-to see condition. How-to see individual:

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The above excerpt is extracted from the full-length poem that solely comprises the first section of the book. Sager’s formulaic slant nimbly mingles with the unskinned vulnerability which ripples throughout the speakers voice. The salient complexity lies both within the lines themselves, which are heavily enjambed and almost entirely without signifying punctuation; as well as their content, sparsely packed with metropolitan inference, tender address, and obscure reverie. This maneuvering of figure and feeling elicits a host of meanings, and continuously forces the reader to direct and re-direct their attention toward the poem—which shifts course frequently without hint or hesitation, and resolutely thrusts forward without so much as a water break.

Much like its totem city, O New York can feel congested and overwhelming when one first arrives (especially if you are a closet introvert like me.) Accordingly, Sager aptly provides his reader with a warning which reads just as ominous as “swim at your own risk.” Contrary to the preceding section, “The Agreement” contains this one, very succinct poem. While remaining true to Sager’s veiled aesthetic, one can discern a clear, even terse, message—however uncomfortable things are about to get, the reader is culpable in the discomfort:

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This poem instigates a sizeable degree of self-examination; one cannot help but magnify the fourth line “You agree.” While this poem functions as a near-ironic disclaimer of sorts, it also succeeds in drawing the reader into its municipal ecosystem at just the right moment—were it to happen any sooner, we would be spooked; were it to happen any later, we would be screwed—because the subsequent section, “The Economy,” is a whole new scaffold of intricate heads-or-tails making.

As if delivered through morse code, the sequence of obfuscated clicks in this poem require keen attention and discernment. Just as one idea builds momentum a new idea intercedes. Just as soon as that idea pushes forward, it too is usurped and taken elsewhere. The three pages of this poem can feel crazy making, like being stuck on a crowded subway car, or trying frantically to hail a cab only to have each one swiped upon approach. The best thing a reader can do in the midst of this poem is embrace the traffic. Grab on, be a part of it, honk your horn if you must but whatever you do, don’t pull off the street. The mobbing will be just as bad when you try again and it will be ten times worse attempting to merge back in:

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Brenda Hillman, one of my most inspiring professors at Saint Mary’s College, once told me that “every good poet is a mathematician.” This notion ping-ponged about my mind as I noticed the particulars of syntax and form in O New York. “The Economy,” in particular, requires an absolute willingness to participate on the part of the reader. One must regard and respond to the poem’s concerns, persisting when the poem beckons, pausing when a line is drawn. In reading through this paradigm, the poems skin becomes transparent: “the money needs a body…the word you I understand the least…I want to handle being with conditions…every time to time I sense how little I have saved…your voice reflects a future of a blue & less penetrable earth…decisions amount to statements in the system we joke about…the imagination is the one address the country cannot send us…this is this again…”.

These poems resonate just as polemical as they do surrealist. While the conscious is a lively and thriving presence here, the unconscious leaps are undeniable as the stream of thoughts move fluidly through both cognitive and cavernous mental landscapes. Allusions to economical and societal cognitions are made clear, as is the management of monetary structure deeply intertwined with the effectual grieving of personal connection, or lack thereof. This paves the way for the book’s final section, “The Member”:

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“The Member” contains three discernibly separate poems that operate as a syndicate, much like the overarching skeleton of the book, the first lines of which are direct addresses to the poem itself: “Hello poem,” “Thank you poem,” and Good-bye poem.” Similar in line and form to the title poem, “The Member” is without doubt the most personal and available. Close to confessional, the reader will feel the great and tangible power in the speaker’s admission of quarantine, loss, and confusion.

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The notable shift to this disrobed tone gives way to an unrestrained approach to the “you.” In a solemn plea, the speaker reveals himself as the feral, dismayed product of the city, the agreement, and the economy. In this final section, the originating obscurity has lifted. There is no point in masking the reality. W, X and Y have happened…and now, here is Z:

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Much like Allen Ginsberg’s “America,” these lines shout off the page of the violation in consumerism, the confusion in consumption, and the often painful stirring that comes with awareness. O New York is a work of nerve, distress, and engagement. By the time one has made their way through the buildings, the cars, the lights, the sounds, the masses, the book has become a byzantine city centre and the reader one of its civilians. When approaching this book, be prepared to pump the brakes a bit. These poems are not to be rushed through and probably are not best suited for “light reading” just before bed. They are however highly cerebral and inspiring—constantly challenging the reader to let go of how they think they “should” read a poem, and in turn, let go of how they “should” see their environs and within such, themselves. This book is one of intimacy, albeit cryptically so. I highly recommend reading O New York (as well as Sager’s other online chapbook with Ugly Duckling Presse Dear Failures) to those who are interested in seeing what happens when the lights burn out, sound depletes stability, and the strictures of a city—a person—become permeable.

O New York is available for free from Ugly Duckling Presse

Melissa Burke is a poet living in San Francisco, finishing her MFA in Poetry at Saint Mary’s College of California. She is a Poetry Editor and Social Media staff member at Omnidawn Publishing, as well as an Education & Children’s Events Assistant at Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA.

A Hotel in Beligum by Brett Fletcher Lauer

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The title of Brett Fletcher Lauer’s debut collection—A Hotel in Belgium—embodies the aesthetics of the poems, a shimmering alloy of detail and abstraction.

The book opens with a frontispiece titled “Poem.” The speaker sets up some rules of engagement for what is to follow:

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A poem is a “room made/ of chance.” Indeed, the collection is very much concerned with the idea of “chance”—both in terms of the arbitrary nature of life and in terms of the predetermined nature of privilege.

In a poem titled “Stockholm Syndrome,” the shape-shifting speaker is hard to pin down, switching pronouns, and distancing himself from himself with each new line:

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Such a voice seems risky, even problematic, as poets don’t get the carte blanche of fiction writers, no matter how many times we repeat that the poet is not the speaker. Yet that moral ambiguity is also what makes the poem so startling, and the title “Stockholm Syndrome” has you forewarned.

“Work Product” also enters dissolute territory. The poem opens with the speaker “breathing heavy / into one end of the receiver”:

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The “stranger” in the poem may either enjoy, or feel disturbed by, the voice “breathing heavy” on the other line. “Work Product” winks at gender by referring to the “stranger” as a gender-inclusive “he or she.” Beauty and surprise and intrusion all seem to blur into one another in “Work Product.” The suggestion of a telephone “receiver” here feels like a throwback, and that is one of the poem’s insights. I thought of Ariana Reines’s experimental play Telephone. Lauer similarly explores how technology can wreak havoc upon both consciousness and communication.

How does one write poetry when images are losing their meaning to memes? We can’t stop. We feel compelled to watch, and re-watch, say, a video clip of “a rabbit befriending a red fox / somewhere in Montana or Europe.” That’s from Lauer’s poem titled “The Collected Poems,” which continues:

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I appreciate the humor here, and the new normal of hating the constant smart phone notifications, while also craving them like candy. There’s a merciless wit here, a wit the speaker also turns upon himself.

A Hotel in Belgium evokes Holden Caulfield’s yearning for refuge and recovery from shadowy traumas. The last stanza of the titular poem, “A Hotel in Belgium,” contains some of the book’s most luminous lines:

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This moment emits a glow and feels like a break-thorough. “I must be a little horse” is a lovely line, humble and aching, all the more moving in contrast to the other, sharper voices.

In “Model Community,” the speaker turns his critical eye to a suburban utopia: “Filled with wonder and California weather, the historic/ architecture indicates streets worth walking.” Yet again, the speaker doesn’t spare himself, making the following admission:

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He’s stuck in a languor from which he cannot rise. And that last image, “cloudless days our imagination required,” conjures up the traumas of 9/11 in a way that meshes with the remove explored in many of the poems. It’s a self-saving detachment that seems to define our time.

As Timothy Donnelly helpfully suggests, Lauer’s various speakers may be read as “one single melancholic hero.”  Like the best kind of heroes, they have their foibles, which makes them all the more human.

A Hotel in Belgium is available from Four Way Books

Safia Jama was born and raised in Queens, NY. A graduate of Harvard College, she currently teaches writing and pursues an M.F.A. in poetry at Rutgers-Newark. Her poems appear in Reverie, The New Sound, and the forthcoming Cave Canem 2010-2011 Anthology. She is currently a guest-blogger for Bryant Park’s Word for Word poetry series.

The Tales by Jessica Bozek

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Jessica Bozek, in her collection The Tales reveals how our desire to write a story, to tap true events for emotional resonance, comes at the peril of reality itself. Her collection’s success lies in its deployment of the absurd: it’s a disaster story about violence wrought through the whispering of stories. The Tales relates the aftermath of one nation’s military annihilation of another nation by means of a single soldier, who accomplished his mission by storytelling. As is characteristic of good weird fiction, precisely how this went down is left mostly to our imagination.

For years afterward, people talked about the first
soldier to fell a nation with bedtime stories. They
wondered if it was better to be stilled into atrocity or
surprised by it.

The collection takes the form of a series of short prose-poem “tales”, the accounts of various individuals involved in the disaster: the historian, the revisionist historian, the seismologist, the dog, along with multiple installments of the tale of the disaster’s Lone Survivor. Punctuating the tales are pages entitled “The Saving: A Fairy Tale”. Each of these offers what appears to be an alternative plot, a scenario which may have resulted in the preservation of the victim nation. “The Savings” often come from animals. The loon’s lesson is that all communication must happen underground:

Now under a funerary green, the citizens are cut off
from the surrounding lands. A loon teaches them
that they can dive down into their own small lake and
come up in another lake. The cost of this transport is
that all communication must happen underground.

Perhaps, what the loon teaches is that we must practice communication not by bangs and flashes but by burrowing deeper into the tales of our neighbors and ancestors, by refusing the temptation of the old familiar tale.

The first section of the book focuses mostly on the tales of others, on accounts of the disaster itself. The middle section, which consists of italicized and lineated text, stirs up something metatextual:

the enemy is often
a metonym

Which makes me wonder: is it that what we identify as enemy is often merely an adjunct that represents a different and larger whole… or that the figurative device of metonymy can in fact, be the enemy. An intriguing and sort of worrisome thought, given that I’m supposed to finish a degree in creative writing pretty soon here. But I’m not saying Bozek’s collection is a denunciation of figurative language or, by extension, tale-telling; just that she troubles the endeavor. From Seismologist’s Tale, we learn that only those outside of stories survive the soldier’s attack:

The leaves were thin on the trees. By the time the
soldier made his final circles, only children
who hadn’t learned the words remained awake. Without language
the felt the leaves and the leaving.

Disaster stories are attractive because they can furnish us with a morally simple universe. It’s easy, when reading or writing disaster, to reduce the history to simplistic human muck, and to get down and wallow in it. This attractiveness undoubtedly poses a dilemma for artists and architects commissioned to create war monuments. And indeed, this is what is asked of the Lone Survivor toward the end of the book – the victorious nation seeks to compensate him through means of a contract that includes a Total Replacement clause, and through the construction of a memorial to his dead compatriots. So: How do you commemorate horror without glorifying it? The Public Relations Consultant’s Tale articulates a depressing truth about many monuments: that they either bore us or thrill us, but rarely educate us:

They keep the Lone Survivor alive as a specimen. On
field trips, their children visit the New Permanent
Demonstration of the Untenable Existance of
Destroyed Peoples at the State Museum for the
Justification of Military Action. The teachers use their
pointers and speak sternly. The children yawn, but at
night and for weeks to come they wonder about the
man who lives alone on this 3.2-mile tract. The brave
ones vow to return at night.

I looked up “tale” in the OED. Its various definitions share in common a mention of the verbs “tell” and “relate” and “say”. That is, “tale” means more or less the same thing as “story” but with a stronger indication of vocal agency. The tale is not as much the sequence of events being told as the action of telling them.

What’s you point, Sally? A monument is an edifice constructed for the purpose of relating a story. The edifice is the tale we tell. But the thing that happened still happened; its remains and its survivors persist on earth. (And they almost always do. Despite the stories, destruction is rarely total). They remain, occluded by the tale of their destruction. Appropriately, the book opens not with The Historian’s Tale, but the Revisionist Historian’s Tale, and the first detail it relates about the soldier is his white museum booties. Perhaps what’s being suggested is that the persistent packaging and display of disaster in museum and memorial, in book and lesson, can make us numb to the fact that the disaster is ongoing around us. The Historian’s Tale follows the Revisionist Historian’s Tale, and is more concise:

The citizens covered their heads, sitting down to sleep.

I closed the book wondering if what we need is fewer stories, or fewer metaphors, really. Because those things make sense, but disaster doesn’t. This book is sequence marvelous tales, and of parodies of political speech and absurd bureaucratese, punctuated by the dry accounts of the Lone Survivor of his life in the aftermath. In the end, he chooses a memorial made of fabric so that it will fade. The Seamstresses’ Tale relates how they made the memorial and how it was picked apart by birds and used for their nests.

Eventually, some birds took portions for their nests.
We liked the metaphor of it.

What could be so damning as that?

The Tales is available from Les Figues Press

Sally McCallum is from Tucson and studies at the University of Arizona.