REVIEW: Belladonna* Chaplet Series // Susan Briante

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(This is part of a series of reviews on titles from Belladonna*’s chaplet series, many of which are now available as free PDFs)

by Connor Fisher

Susan Briante’s chaplet, Neotropics: A Romance in Field Notes, is the 52nd publication in Belladonna’s series of small chapbooks. The chaplet is dense in its form, the intensity of its language, and the registers and types of language which Briante has combined. Neotropics, as its title suggests, concerns itself with a renegotiation of natural space in its intersection with human agents. Briante’s narratives place the reader in a humid atmosphere that is oppressive in a variety of ways, yet every poem and prose block demonstrates Briante’s creative dexterity, as she layers meanings and significations in minimal space. The only geographical location mentioned in the text is Galang Island (located at the southern tip of Malaysia), but page titles, as well as text throughout, indicate that the location is essential to Neotropics. Pages titled “3rd Day Of The Rainy Season,” “5th Day Of The Rainy Season,” “7th Day…” and “12th Day…” are interspersed with five pages titled “Eventual Darling” (no other titles are used). Formally, the work is largely consistent; Neotropics begins with a prose page (four paragraphs) followed by pages of lineated poetry, several of which comprise lines broken up into small stanzas or couplets.

The mentioned juxtaposition is indicative of the general form of Neotropics, as well as its overall argument. Briante plays the bricoleur in her poems, drawing language and concepts from political and feminist discourse, botany and general natural description, erotic meditation, and psychoanalytic pseudo-insights by early 20th-Century analyst André Tridon. In “7th Day Of The Rainy Season,” Briante writes,

A stem’s placability should not be mistaken for delicateness.

“Breathe deep,” the doctor told me and slid his stethoscope like a

coin over my chest

A seat by window suffices to stitch the world together.

I consider the number of heartbeats per minute within this pasture

of traffic.

Exaggerated mania for identification, writes André Tridon, is a

symptom of weakness (8).

Earlier in the composition, Briante engages more directly with nature, and uses natural objects to construct an ontology and a grammar, which the rest of the chaplet both occupies and troubles. In “7th Day Of The Rainy Season”

Mist treads down the mountain roof by roof to rest beside me.

White-tongued bougainvillea embrace a fishtail palm.

Romance plays no part.

Cuts of raw beef fill flatbeds hurling up the hill.

I sit with my legs closed, a single woman edging a plaza in Taxco (4).

Neotropics combines a natural environment—at one beautiful and threatening—with a politically oppressive atmosphere and a gendered, feminine space that is at once elevated and threatened by its surroundings. The sexuality of the female persona emerges, and the interior space that this invokes initially seems at odds with the external: the world of the “rainy season,” in which men define the female sexuality: “The frigid woman, writes André Tridon, is a cripple or a neurotic” (6). The result, however, is not a domination or determination of sexuality— Neotropics establishes a dialectic between the two manners of being and their associated qualities: inner / outer; performative / observing; and spectacle / diagnosis. This dialectic is formative to the poem and drives its development; as the persona and narrator navigates the inner and outer spaces of the poem, her account itself becomes a form of description, a flexible definition of the natural and the unnatural. This is at once an aggressive maneuver and a relinquishing of authority—the imposition of language into/onto the natural world confronts its inadequacies and biases; the poem possesses a political agency that rejects the external interrogation of female sexuality and political alterity. Neotropics simultaneously allows its subject matter to retain an autonomy; Briante avoids enacting the same clinical diagnostic mode that Tridon uses. She presents her subjects as they are—more accurately, as they appear to be.

Briante concludes the book with a touching moment that moves toward reconciling many of the political, sexual, and natural dialectics in Neotropics and which highlights the complicity of language in negotiating sites of political action and resistance:

Shepherds of reflex and deviation with preference for “sticks

trowels, knives,” with preferences for nipple clamps and half-light

chase flocks of pandemics across withered earth

to swat and prod at syphilophiac scars,

while the rooftops of a processing plant glisten like hand mirrors,

while the tanks of a refinery shimmer like a silver backed comb (11).

Neotropics is available as a free PDF download from Belladonna*

Connor Fisher was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and currently lives in Denver, Colorado. He has an MA in English Literature from the University of Denver and is working towards an MFA in Creative Writing—Poetry from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

REVIEW: Belladonna* Chaplet Series // Bhanu Kapil

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(This is part of a series of reviews on titles from Belladonna*’s chaplet series, many of which are now available as free PDFs)

by Tim Etzkorn

Bhanu Kapil’s “From The Wolf Girls of Midnapure” opens with disorientation: transliterated Bengali, shots of whiskey taken right from the subject’s palm, and fragmented prose characterized by broken, incomplete, sentences. As is the case with much of Kapil’s work, “From the Wolf Girls of Midnapure” serves as a psychological exploration of a traumatized subject as much as it does a story; the prose becomes a mimetic vehicle for the subject’s consciousness as much it is a drive train to carry readers through the text. In the case of this text, the subject is a historical avatar, Kamala, a reportedly feral child rescued by reverend Joseph Singh – renamed here “the Reverend Mother” (2) in 1920’s Bengal. Kapil shapes the textual fragmentation to match that of a developed mind being forcefully integrated into civilized living; the text re-shapes itself as the story moves along, as the wolf girls of Midnapure move away from their “feral” upbringing and transition into the human fold. Though, as the prose grows into a more coherent story, readers are forced to ask how differently do we treat humans and animals when we consider a person to be more animal than human?

The text initially engenders feelings of appreciation by the humane actions of Reverend Mother. She brings Kamala food and language. She brings Kamala humanity, purging her canine side. But the humanity she brings is tainted by gross debasement. An English bishop and his wife come to visit. Yet they do not call on the Reverend Mother to help or even to commend her for her generosity to Kamala; they appear “to watch: her eat” (3). The Reverend Mother provides “Raw mangoes” and “curd,” refined foods for Kamala. Kamala comes to these foods with “animal behaviors” (3), and this appears to be the real draw for the Bishop Wassingham and his wife. Kamala’s meal is not about what but about how she eats it. For the bishop and his wife, the Reverend Mother’s project is not about goodness but about what Kamala, looks and acts like.

As if at a circus, Wassingham and his wife dish out money in response to the spectacle. At the end of the meal, “the Bishop Mrs.” places a shilling in Kamala’s hand saying, “There you are, my pet” (3), a saying that is believably anachronistic, but a very intentional word choice on Kapil’s part, drawing attention to the continued dehumanization from which Kamala suffered. Sadly, the Reverend Mother seems to hold Kamala in a similar regard. Though her objectification of Kamala is more covert, readers can see it in her communication with Kamala. Kapil heavily punctuates the Reverend Mother’s commands to Kamala, breaking them down into the simplest commands and the shortest imperatives annunciated by exclamation points and sentence fragments. The syntax parallels the text’s opening, but here, the composition does not reveal a disjointed psyche undergoing a late introduction to language and civilization. Rather, it shows the Reverend Mother’s callous treatment of her human ward. Still catering to Wassingham and the Bishop Mrs., the Reverend Mother shouts, “Some tea, perhaps. Or salts. Darling, your hanky. My water! Kamala! Can you hear me?” The language becomes more desperate as the line moves forward. The Reverend Mother begins with a simple request – tea. Then she needs salts, an unconnected want, indicating that she might simply desire some service from Kamala. She then directs Kamala to her hanky, another implication that she needs to meticulously pay attention to her appearance as if she is letting her animal side show. The Reverend mother next exclaims “My water!” revealing that she is not just calling on Kamala to help out with two guests, instead, Kamala is more house servant than child. In such a fashion, Kapil draws attention to the more obscured inhumanity of the Reverend Mother due to how she treats the “wolf girl” of Midnapure whom she adopted, thereby giving some of Kamala’s humanity back to her.

Kapil continues to draw attention to humanity’s inhumane behavior as she winds the disorienting text into mystical journey. Narrating from what seems to be Kamala’s perspective, Kapil brings us through jungle and temple past an apparent tribal or indigenous ceremony. Kamala states,

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Kamala witnesses unnamed persons dancing with skirts and sashes made of baby wolf skulls – not even baby wolf skulls, the skulls of unborn wolves, ripped from their pregnant mothers. The unidentified actors who tear the skulls out “reason” that the wolves are just fat, acting as if they could not tell that the wolves were pregnant. Kapil draws a quiet analog between these mysterious jungle dwellers, grotesquely withdrawing unborn wolf-pups for the sake of a dance ceremony and the Reverend Mother. After watching the Reverend Mother’s behavior towards Kamala, it seems as if her deed saving Kamala was more akin to ripping her out of her Mother’s womb for own decoration than it was to a saving, adoptive act.

In “From The Wolf Girls of Midnapure,” Kapil creates a text where the syntax matches the subject, the psychological exploration of traumatized individual. Yet in doing so, Kapil brings up even bigger questions. Rather than limiting this text to the treatment of Kamala, she forces reader to question how they treat subjects deemed lesser – whether it is as animals, or even racially and culturally. In the end, Kapil’s text establishes a sense that our inhumane treatment of others reveals us to be more animal than human, not the other way around.

“From The Wolf Girls of Midnapure” is available as a free PDF download from Belladonna*

Tim Etzkorn lives in Yangyang, a small fishing town in South Korea where he teaches elementary English.

REVIEW: Belladonna* Chaplet Series // Maggie Nelson

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(This is part of a series of reviews on titles from Belladonna*’s chaplet series, many of which are now available as free PDFs)

by Erin Watson

For many, Maggie Nelson may be synonymous with her essay-poem Bluets, a series of numbered vignettes on being “in love with a color.” Because I picked up Bluets at a time when I needed to read it (voraciously, all in one afternoon-long gulp, mostly while crying on a blue couch), I looked for scraps of blue throughout Nelson’s chaplet “Something Bright, Then Holes.”

Here the blues are mostly flesh: “O bright snatches of flesh, blue / and pink, blinding in the light” towards the end of the first poem, and “elaborate blue tattoos” on the “soggy and blue” skin of an ice maiden in the second poem. Light and flesh trail each other through the five poems in this chapbook, adding up to an affecting meditation on selfhood and understanding.

The titular poem opens “I used to do this, the self I was / used to do this” like an apology. Then we’re told:

Something bright, then holes is how a newly-sighted girl
once described a hand. The continuum cracks, and now I am
half. A whole half. I see that now, though
I still struggle to see the beauty in front of me
O the blindness of having been born able to see. […]

The self who tells this is unstable and contradictory: cracked into “a whole / half” and blinded by “having been born / able to see.” While these couplets flirt with clichés, reinforced by the perfect end rhyme of “see” / “me”, the next stanzas undermine their unfocused abstraction with violence, with references to September 11th (“the planes flew / into buildings […] people and paper came down / like heavy confetti”) and to a consuming other:

…you wanted to eat through me.
Then fall asleep with your tongue against
an organ, quiet enough to hear it kick.

It’s a poem of being abased; resolving to become something new, being blind to just what that newness will be. That it ends without punctuation suggests that this resolution remains incomplete.

The second and longest poem, “20 Minutes,” continues along the brink of self-annihilation: “I don’t care about self I want out / of my story”, the speaker claims about halfway through, followed a few stanzas later by:

and if the purpose of language

is to generate more language

I am not sure I want it

After rejecting narrative (“I want out / of my story”), the poem holds up this uncertain rejection of the one sure thing poems can do: generate more language.

“20 Minutes” seems haunted by youth. After a description of the dead, cold, tattoo-decorated body of the ice maiden, we’re informed:

they know she was young because of
the squiggly line down her skull, a sign
the skull is still knitting itself together

before 30, the skull is still knitting itself together
the seam moving towards seamlessness

my skull, almost seamless

These repetitions build a sense of inevitability, mixed with dread: seamlessness seems too clear, too singular for the stubbornly multiple speaker here. This section foreshadows the poem’s last few stanzas, which return to youth:

When I was young I dreamt regularly
of purity
but I am no longer
that puritan

you, you stand pure as a tree
the question the ground asks of the sky

who cares now why
there is something
instead of nothing

the question now
is how did we become
earth’s affliction

Here is another self to be examined and rejected, as a part of an affliction.

Reading the poems in this chapbook, I often had the feeling of having your pupils dilated at the optician’s, looking through lenses at the eye chart as it clicks into focus. The third and fourth poems both bear the subtitle “from Jane” and continue this optical metaphor. “The Oracle” ends:

Then wait for morning to bring
the bright sediment of things into focus. It
comes clear.

And “Koan,” the shortest poem, starts out “Not yet,” moving through a series of images and adjustments to end:

A girl in a boat the boat full of holes. Closer.
A slit sky. A slit sky and a bowl. Almost.

“The Oracle” and Koan” are the only poems that end with punctuation, suggesting clarity, or at least an approximation of it. That these poems are “from Jane” suggests a kinship between women as a clarifying force. Elsewhere in the chaplet, everything is holed, slitted, frozen, bloody, and unclear. Then it ends on an opening: “and I speak” is the last line.

Each poem resists a unified interpretation. The collection describes a multiplicity of women and girls’ identities and allows them to be contradictory. This openness and contradiction creates a sense of power. You are your own oracle. You are the “I” that speaks.

“Something Bright, Then Holes” is available as a free PDF download from Belladonna*.

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.

INTERVIEW: The Poet in the Parking Lot // Megan Volpert

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by Jon Riccio

There’s a high likelihood Megan Volpert is the only Teacher of the Year appearing in The Volta. Much as I wanted to ask her about the faculty smoking lounges of yore, we had other matters to discuss, namely Megan’s new book, Only Ride. Any poetry collection prefaced with lyrics by Tom Petty is bound to resonate. That and the line “I pretty much have the kind of problems that a pot of macaroni & cheese can solve, except that a lot of people think I think about death a little too often.” Driver’s ed be damned.

***

Jon Riccio: I’m thrilled to present Only Ride in an experimental autobiographies class offered this semester at the University of Arizona. How does it feel having your book on a 2014 syllabus, as it was published in the same year?

Megan Volpert: Any time somebody wants to teach your book, it’s awesome. Indeed, it feels good that Only Ride is popping up on some syllabi rather immediately after its publication. As I was writing it, I figured it would be more of a slow burner–sort of unassuming, but then growing in favorability as word of mouth about it spread. It’s ending up more splashy though, and I can’t deny I dig that. However, the thing about your particular case of classroom is not that it’s in the current year, but that it’s an “experimental autobiographies” class. I know the class is being taught by a poet, but wow; it’s most lovely for people to understand that Only Ride is in a hybrid gray space, and is not, strictly speaking, poetry.

 

JR: The final sentences in your poems blew me away. They’re places where hypothetical monkeys, John Cougar and bridged infinities abound. How did you hone your talent for endings? Was there a writer whose work influenced this?

MV: Thanks! My attention to closure, and hookiness generally, probably stems most from my roots in slam poetry. When your three minutes are up, people have to know it by the sound of your voice and the sentiment of your final line. That said, I’ve always been a girl who likes to have the last word, who likes to get in the quippy and biting final remark. That’s a branch of sarcasm toward which I’ve always been naturally inclined. But also: Camille Paglia, Roland Barthes, Andrei Codrescu, Daphne Gottlieb, Nicole Blackman, and many more.

 

JR: The dead are “already being reborn & preparing to speak ill of you.” Only Ride offers such additional meditations as: “I don’t know the precise moment when I first looked upon my own mortality with respect. There was blood on it.” and “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, just not until it’s done scaring the holy hell out of you.” How did these examinations shape the book’s arc?

MV: They shape its motivation more than its arc. Since I was a kid, people have been telling me things like I have an old soul, or I’ve been forty since I was eighteen. Especially since being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis about ten years ago, and the extensive chronic pains that have accompanied that malady, I have come to some serious personal realizations about my life’s priorities. Only Ride is on a mission to share those, to make some kind of foray into humanism and to make explicit my philosophies of life. My grandpa called me up and said to me about this book that, at age ninety-three, he feels very close to death and he was shocked by how thoroughly I captured his feelings, given that I am only thirty-two years old. And that’s the thing: some people look death in the face sooner than other people, and I am just one of those people–the shadow of death is upon me. I’m not a morbid person, but I do consider daily the importance of making each day great.

 

JR: You mention wanting to define the living daylights in “Ankles disappear.” Here’s your chance.

MV: I just googled “living daylights.” I’ve always thought it would be a good name for a band, and there is in fact a band out there agreeing with me. It’s also one of the Timothy Dalton James Bond movies. Beyond that, I think the notion of “living daylights” is a highly personalized one. Everybody is fearful of different things they encounter in their differing existences. Who was it that said that only two things a person can be sure of are death and taxes? Only Ride gives a strong sense of my own living daylights and what I’m doing to keep on keeping on in the face of them, but I’m reluctant to declare too many aspects of my own scene as universal.

 

JR: “There are concave people & convex people” according to your poem “I’m not Velma.” Suppose there are two types of writers. What are they?

MV: You know where that line comes from? I ripped that idea from the movie Cocktail. There is a great bit in there where the mentor bartender is talking to newbie Tom Cruise, and the guy says, “there are two kinds of people in this world: the workers and the hustlers. The hustlers never work and the workers never hustle–and you, my friend, are a worker.” I’m paraphrasing, but fairly tightly. That’s an idea that’s been with me since I watched that movie as a kid. It was a formative experience for understanding how dichotomies operate. Now, supposing there are two types of writers, what are they? The workers and the hustlers. I appreciate your not asking me which type I am.

 

JR: Your publisher, Sibling Rivalry Press, welcomes all authors, artists and readers regardless of sexual orientation or identity. “Blowing up all kinds of new avenues” is how you described their trajectory during a recent interview. Please share how you came to be affiliated with them.

MV: I snookered Bryan Borland, the publisher of Sibling Rivalry Press (SRP). I’d had a press lined up for the Warhol book, but the press went under and left my manuscript in the lurch. Like, majorly last-minute in the lurch. I had to find a home for it and had heard some nice things about SRP, which at that time was just a tiny indie upstart with the first inklings of buzz. So I invited Bryan to do a gig, and then after the gig, I cold pitched him the book. He fell in love with the idea of it right away, and I had already done 99% of the legwork and everything, so it would be super easy for him to slide in and just print it. That was Sonics in Warholia, and Bryan and I have been working together ever since. Of course, he’s learned not to say yes on the spot to random writers who pitch to him in bars–I thank my lucky stars he greenlit me so easily. He has such good instincts, and watching SRP grow exponentially over the past few years has been a total delight. I’m giddy about being a part of that family, about helping Bryan to build his empire.

 

JR: One of my favorite passages from Only Ride is “I conjure before you the only openly queer faculty member in this public Southern high school, fully equipped to teach both English & tolerance. You are failing tolerance…” Enlighten us with a tolerance tutorial.

MV: The epilogue there is interesting: I’m currently serving as my school’s Teacher of the Year. So that’s awesome and weird. But as far as a tolerance tutorial, it really just amounts to two things: having an open-mindedness that recognizes difference, and then valuing those differences in a positive way. Valuing difference in a positive way is very difficult for most people, myself included. I think a lot of people are idiots. This year, I’ve been trying to be conscious of the ways I put people into boxes, and I’m trying to do a better job of extending grace to people I might otherwise find idiotic. Being gracious is one of my life-long challenges. I know I’m entitled to my opinion that most people are idiots, but I can still extend those people a space for their contribution to the world. If I tried to cut out all the idiots, I would face a real consequence of loneliness plus the strong likelihood that I will have myself become an idiot. Fascism sucks. Tolerance is just about clearing space for people to do their best, despite the fact that you may think their best is not as cool as yours.

 

JR: Your book opens riding into the sunset and closes riding into eternity. Do you think we’re more of a sunset- or eternity-driven culture? What role does poetry play in this?

MV: Well, that opening poem is titled “Only idiots ride into the sunset.” The idea is that there is still so much work to do, and so much life to live. Each of us is leaving a legacy for the rest of eternity, and if you want to exercise some decent amount of control over what that legacy is, you’ve got to deliberately go about prioritizing some things. Only Ride is a bit of a guidebook to what I’ve chosen to prioritize, and I hope it helps some people make a little more sense of their own daily struggles, gives a little fresh perspective on what each of us can accomplish in our relationship to the stream of history. So that’s the role of the book; I don’t really want to speculate on the role of poetry at large, but I guess most people would agree that the arts are one good way to share what individuals learn for the betterment of our whole culture.

 

JR: “Filthy lucre never sleeps” is one of most apt musings on karma I’ve read in ages. Any karma in your life of late?

MV: Oh, wow. Yep. Big time. So, my wife and I just celebrated nine years together. Her birthday is close to our anniversary and we had a little party at the house. Once a bunch of our friends and family had gathered, I proposed to her that we renew our wedding vows in NYC next year, to celebrate our tenth anniversary. She said yes, of course, and it turned up the volume on the birthday party quite a bit. And then the next day, I discovered a lump on my ribcage. Like, a huge lump the size of my fist. Overnight, there it was. So for the past few weeks, I’ve been having what we can now retrospectively refer to as a cancer scare. And the synchronicity of those two events in one weekend is pretty ugly, you know? I’ve never felt for one second that the universe was punishing me for being a queer. But I do believe we’re all on a bit of a pendulum swing, and we get some good, then some bad, then some good, and the other shoe is always going to drop sooner or later before another upswing. Well, I guess we upswung way high with that vow renewal idea, so the ham-fisted fates socked me one in the ribs the very next day. It’s funny, but in that way “the luck of the Irish” is funny, which to a lot of people isn’t funny at all.

 

JR: Your titles could be primers for living: “Everything still turns to gold,” “No bonus for backs broken,” “There’s a difference between familiar & recurring,” “Coming down is the hardest thing.” What’s best about the ascent?

MV: I think we’ve covered both the “primer for living” notion and the “ascent” issue. Ascent: everybody does it. Let’s make t-shirts. The Living Daylights band can sell them.

 

JR: You “aspire to have been not the poet laureate of rock & roll, but the rock & roll laureate of poetry.” Your first three acts in this vaunted (and Patti Smith-approved) position consist of…

MV: Only Ride is the opening volley. Right now, I’m working on a thing about the Bicentennial that is extremely gonzo and punk rock obsessed. And then I’m happy to tell you I’m under contract to write a book about Bruce Springsteen. I love music. It understands me.

Megan Volpert is the author of 5 books on communication & pop culture. She edited the Lammy finalist & ALA-honored anthology This assignment is so gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching. She is currently serving as her school’s Teacher of the Year. Predictably, www.meganvolpert.com is her website.

Jon Riccio studied viola performance at Oberlin College and the Cleveland Institute of Music. An MFA candidate at the University of Arizona, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in CutBank’s All Accounts and Mixture, Four Chambers, Paper Nautilus, Blast Furnace, Bird’s Thumb, Plenitude, Stone Highway Review, Waxwing and elsewhere.

ELSEWHERE // FEATURED BOOKS

there are some cool things happening on the internet:

Rachel Zolf writes on Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation over at Lemon Hound

A great profile on Ammiel Alcalay, written by Cole Heinowitz, is up at the Boston Review

Maria Damon writes on poetic isolation and collective clumsiness at Jacket2

Lucy Ives on disingenuity at the Poetry Foundation blog

Hans Ulrich Obrist’s list of ten things you need to know about now at Vogue

 

new books out:

Letters & Buildings by Thomas Hummel — Subito Press

Diana’s Tree by Alejandra Pizarnik — Ugly Duckling Presse

Ending in Planes by Ruth Ellen Kocher — Noemi Press

Essay Stanzas by Thomas Meyer — The Song Cave

One is None by Katlin Kaldmaa — A Midsummer Night’s Press

REVIEW: The Constitution by Brian Foley

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By Sally McCallum

This book begins with a self assessment. “Already we need / hay to fill / our effigies.” Already: even at its incipient moment, what constitutes of self-thing is called in to question. And even as the self grows, it recalls the ruins of what came before:

Put something
in it & leave

it to leaven.

It will rise like
the chimney
that stands

after the house.

When I was asked to review this book, I had some doubts. It is entitled The Constitution, so I thought, oh, the USA. And I have recently developed an allergic reaction to writing that takes up the task of examining national identity, really any national identity, but writing that deals with American national identity in particular – I’ve lately just been really cranky about it (I was living abroad). It seems to me such dialogs must necessarily write too many people out. For nearly any sort of person, of any sort of history, has had grounds to be defined as fundamentally American, at some point. And then saying, that very fact is what is defines America, seems too facile to me. Can’t we stop asking what is really American, I have been saying to myself.

As it turns out, this book was more or less what I needed to read. Because it’s not specifically about a nation, this nation – if you want it to be, sure, it could be, but well, only sort of – and because the task of examining any sort of identity is bound to leave us a bit desperate, a bit winded, but also exhilarated, maybe and if not hopeful than energetic.

One of the book’s epigraphs, from Ezra Pound, reads : To say many things is equal to having a home.

And this book does say many things. Broken down in to four sections, and punctuated by amendments, The Constitution is a book best read aloud to oneself precisely because it is difficult to read aloud, because the “scrib/bled” verse defies your assumptions about standard syntax and common locutions, such that as you try to pronounce these poems you’ll constantly have to amend your speech. These poems and their titles shelter jokes, bets and challenges; you’ll learn to expect to be surprised by endings to poems like “Moon Above the Law”:

like the moon
things happen

only once in

Don’t take anything for granted, not your right to a complete and conventional utterance, nor the fact that you may mold who you are, not the choice to consume what you choose, be it food or text:

every body
talks about the weather but you

know we can’t choose our food
but we can eat

an excerpt
bigger than
a

What is the sublimely rare and enormous antecedent that escapes these poems? I do not know, and neither, I think, does the book:

It is difficult
to value what cannot
be named

Which sets me thinking about, sorry, America again, since value is supposedly a national keyword (though, seriously, try not to think too much about America as you read. Or ever. Think precisely about what is in front of you). What is it with us and the incessant desire to define ourselves, as a people? Do all nations do that? Do even that many Americans do that, or is the interest of only a certain sort? How can I know? And how can I know whether any American identity, which you know I’m contending doesn’t exist, how can I know whether that non-existent American identity has any bearing on me, on my self, on my constitution? And why do I need to know? The Constitution tells me that “a need / is no evidence / of absence” – so perhaps then, I do know – perhaps the knowing of the self and the not-knowing are here, bound.

Have fun if you fumble over these brief lyrics. Our speaker’s voice is at times critical, at times funny and always arresting in its minimalist grace. Ask yourself as you read whether you are where you think you are. The book itself does ask this, and periodically presents “Amendments” that retrace the steps that brought us here from that strange lone chimney where we began; that question what how we continue to draw breath here:

I am under an impression

I stay alive
inside

attachments
instant

as the air is
previously owned

The presence of these amendments bids us to “stomach / the mistake of creation // provoked by the presence / of revision”.

And so as I say, perhaps this was the book I needed, for if I’m sick of hearing & attempting to generate and revise definitions of my own identity, then what I needed or what I wanted was to be reminded that the incessant return to the question, the incessant interrogation of identity and revision of the plan, was always already part of the self itself. I suppose. And you know? That was a poor sentence, but I am not going to rewrite it.

Already I’m filling my effigy with hay. All this speaking and writing and stuffing of tissue into shape has led us somewhere, maybe home. Here is a voice that animates uncertainty: that founds a script that writes on no thing and nothing out.

The Constitution is available from Black Ocean

Sally McCallum lives in Tucson and studies at the University of Arizona. Reading this book prompted her to revisit her roots by re-watching this, and she’s really not sure whether that was a good idea, but it was at least, strange.

REVIEW: King Me by Roger Reeves

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by Michael Wasson

This is America speaking in translation, in glitter,
in gold grills and fried chicken. Auto-tune this if you must.

Roger Reeves’ debut collection, King Me, marks an impressive, I would even say needed, contribution to contemporary American poetry. His poems here present an America that is personal in its specificity, myriad in expanse and scope. Reeves hands and mouth drip with the intimate relationship of beauty and violence.

The lyric in his book confronts us—chapped, curled sores, delicate to the touch, its bright wounds scattered as pleasantly as autumn clovers. His opening poem, “Pledge,” is a stark reminder: leave every painful, lovely, and often ordinary experience behind. Leave a wake of presence. In it, Reeves’ crafts negation, imprinting a slowly developing absence. Remaining for us:

I leave, I leave—this will surely leave a stain.

King Me ceremonializes historical and social uses of language, too. In “Cross Country,” which I first quoted at the beginning of this review, we are witness to a speaker teasing out both creation and undoing of the black body, an American corporeality:

                                                                    Here,
below this golden altar, the making and unmaking
of my body.

Reeves strains, croons, unmistakably finding refuge in the service of honoring a life and well as a death. It’s almost too much to handle, but Reeves guides us with as much of his grace as his muscled encouragement. His hands hold onto a lush sprawl of experience that moves from “the blue / hour of a field” to “the bog at the end of this road” to “a city that is running out of water.” History moves. It casts its line from the past to the very modern glitz of an urban space drying out, pocked and tattered, streetlit and concrete. And still Reeves sings out to us:

Pulling pulling, pulling. Think: nigger is the god
of our brief salvation. Nigger in a body falling toward a horizon.

And for the poet to keep hauling, to wrestle with language, it’s the repetition of his lines that provides us the energy deep from within his tongue. He reminds himself of the fiery convulsions that lie beneath the calls and responses to racial slurs. He gets as close as he can in understanding the emotional depth of this language, almost similar to how Yusef Komunyakaa articulates “Facing It,” to say “I’m flesh,” I’m human, I’m placed inside the skin of the memorial of history, of language, and of the self—full body mirrors shimmering at every angle.

This book is also “[o]pen as a wound,” showcasing a dual reality between healing and its stinging lesion.

I belong to the silence of a pomegranate
just cut open, the red seeds
pebbling a white plate.

Here, “Of Genocide, or Merely Sound” illustrates an afterimage of that opened wound, and Reeves locates his readers into that sound, building dissonant tension into the initial beauty of fruit. As those seeds rest on the plate, we sit patiently to pinch the seeds to our tongues.

Another perspective, too, Reeves does a masterful job at intersecting the reflection of the contemporary self with figures from the past. In a way then these poems investigate both damage and resilience embraced at a middle ground—a constant threading of historical fabric to our present modernity. And he’s not afraid to include the perforations and sewn lines that needle pins leave behind.

Throughout, self-portraits help to structure King Me. We hear Tiny Davis, jazz trumpeter and singer, Duchenne, French Neurologist, Van Gogh, and even Love in Mississippi. King Me is just that. Holding the ancient crown, those who’ve honoring the past—an entire lineage of people, bodies, deaths, and reputations—and wearing it today, singing of all the aligned human flesh.

Reading Reeves’ collection will give off multitudes of emotion. Several sensations at once. The slick wet tongue on dust. The dry hands parting the water. Fire drying the wet clothes of the impoverished. The horror and splendor of American identity.

This is a needed book.

The end insists the title “Someday I’ll love Roger Reeves.” Well, Roger Reeves, someday seems more like every day—or every poem that fleshes out the texture of this book.

Can I say it again? King Me is a needed book.

King Me is available from Copper Canyon Press

Michael Wasson, nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho, earned his MFA from Oregon State University and his BA from Lewis-Clark State College. He received a Joyce Carol Oates Award in Poetry, and his work is included or forthcoming in Poetry Kanto, As/Us, Hayden’s Ferry Review, American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Cutthroat, and elsewhere.