REVIEW: Touché by Rod Smith


by John Most
Poems defy definitions of defiance. They aren’t anything while they’re everything, et cetera. All too often, poets try to control paradox. They try to dress up words in order to present a polished product. They try to correctly play what’s unplayable for a carefully selected audience. Rod Smith has no time for that. He’s too busy doing something altogether different.

What follows are some of my haphazard reactions to Smith’s latest collection, TOUCHÉ. Before writing this review, I intentionally reread Deed (University of Iowa Press) and some of Robert Creeley’s letters and emails in The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley (University of California Press).

TOUCHÉ is a book that’s not a book. These poems are housed in a beautiful book, no doubt, but they came to be by travelling through different conversations, communities, interactions. I could list a dozen or so pieces of evidence that I’ve collected to support this point. Instead, I’ll choose one–”The Good House, etc.” The original long poem, “The Good House,” first appeared as a chapbook that was published by Spectacular Books in 2001. That poem then appeared in Deed. The “addition” to the poem, “The Good House, etc.,” appears in TOUCHÉ and is dedicated to Peter Gizzi. Why is it important for poems to exist or come to an ending or beginning outside the covers of a single book? One possible answer–by living outside a book, a poem is yielding to the nature of poetry, yielding to its paradoxes, its unclassifiable defiance.

Place and theory are pieces to the puzzle. It’s far too easy to say that Smith’s book is politically charged, since Smith and his work are inextricably tied to Washington D.C. It’s far too easy to say the book is overly theoretical or abstract, given its subtitle–in memory of my theories vol. 2. Politics is but one of many bases. And theory isn’t the dominant force behind these poems. One of the few places where theory jumped off the page was in “manIFpesto,” when Smith directly quotes Chomsky. The surface clues are much less important than the subsurfaces. The only way into the poems is by carefully perceiving why these poems are explicit and naked. You must pay attention and put in the time. In “The Lyric Republican,” when the reader expects a straightforward political statement, we instead receive, “maybe their worshiping their oaths / has a kind of shaking hook bed index we can flame.” The tone, the message, the experience, the poem is underground. Beneath the surface, Smith’s lines subvert by subverting subversion.      

Prolonged exposure is revelatory. So, you’re thinking “shaking hook bed index” is simply pure nonsense. You’d be wrong. The non-referential qualities of the poems turn out to be highly referential. These strings of words are nonsensical, but they aren’t pure nonsense. Eventually, the reader starts to pick up the rhythms and forces and ways of Smith’s poetics. Read “frame” for “flame,” or jump across and through any number of words. The reader starts to have expectations and starts to read contextually and across poems and between styles. The reader starts to read many words in one word. The reader begins to read the multiplicities and duplicities of language in “mine is the unmunched cointelpro-pop of cointelpro-pops.” It’s funny how scary language can be. Eventually, the reader is reading in spite of the words. (cointelpro is an acronym for a shady FBI counterintelligence program).

Perception isn’t a pure utility, because there are fields. Smith’s aesthetics is not found by reading the poems, by enjoying the poems as products on a shelf. It’s not found by identifying all the different styles and approaches Smith employs– appropriation, phonemic flip-flops, manipulative humor, colloquial speech, grammatical and lexical inexactitudes, predictable flarfiness, the repetition of words. It’s not found in how language is abused through its own functionalities. It’s not found by holding up a mirror to the languages used by the powerful and the powerless, the classy and the classless. It’s perhaps fitting that Smith includes a poem about LSD that’s titled “Poem,” because it seems, to me at least, that Smith’s aesthetics is found in the hallucinogenic haze, the electric in-betweenness of words and contexts and poems. To find it, you must read around, above, and through the poems. You’ll inevitably find yourself making cross-connections and free associations that endlessly unravel and entangle Smith’s own abstractions and insights.  I’ll end/begin with a poem from TOUCHÉ–“win.”

the world which taut

the wink how to smash–

tri-grid winds successfully

smell causation, perk in

branching on the soft blamed

clammy. a waif

studiously mooches or else

strums. bodily

triumvirate like a broken

book’s pulsing on the

day.

Available from Wave Books: $18.00

John Most is a poet. His latest book of poems is What Thoughts. He lives in Crozet, Virginia.

REVIEW: Sleeper Hold by Jibade-Khalil Huffman

by Chris Caruso

With the issue of racism, violence, and inequality at the forefront of national attention, Sleeper Hold, Jibade-Khalil Huffman’s third collection, adds another voice to the discussion. Huffman’s poems avoid much of vitriol and political opportunism and grandstanding found in the news. Instead, an “I” offers up flecks of narrative and antecedents and, unlike so many other texts that deal with these subjects, his vernacular doesn’t require one to have an advance degree to access his work. While the language might be simple, the poems themselves are complex in how the philosophical is mixed with “low brow” culture. The “I” that speaks is in a process of searching for place and value amongst the distractions found in media, catch phrases, and the addictions of daily life. The awareness of a discussion on race does not exist in a sealed off environment, sterile of the lives and experiences of population in which they relate to.

On the first day

of the poem

we perform

a trust exercise

These lines that open the collection allow Huffman to address the limitations of poetry and at the same time speak to the necessity of poetry to accomplish his task. He is aware that despite how the poem allows one to “start dancing in the street,” there is artificiality present. Even if one is writing a poem, there is a system in place that forces one to “adopt the speech/of a telemarketer”. Despite the illusion of assimilation, the “I” is still an outsider where 

the Star Spangled Banner.
On the surface of nature

is an argument

for crying your eyes out.

It is in this tension between the ideal of America versus the reality which the title of the collection addresses. Sleeper Hold draws upon the desires of a compliant populace to be distracted through entertainment, scandals, and various political actions perpetuated through the media, to keep distractions at the forefront instead of an awareness that might alter the condition that infects society. The title also refers to a trope found in professional wrestling. The sleeper hold is a modified choke hold performed by flamboyant characters in spandex battles between archetypal roles of heroes and villains. It is used to subdue the opponent, strangling them into submission. The title also alludes to racism, in that non-white wrestlers were often found to perform characters as savages or minstrels. This theme of being strangled and beaten into submission is found throughout the book. What is disturbing is not that this occurs, but how willing the citizens are to accept it:

Professional

wrestling is an interesting case

because it can provide a spectacle

we can at once ignore

then

come back to.

At once ignore

and devote

our complete attention

Socially the title draws on corporate and government desires to keep the populace placid through the distractions the media. Much like in wrestling the populace finds themselves being strangled into submission to accept their roles and continue on the path for which that have been following. It falls to the “I” of the collection to disrupt this cycle, not through violence, or protest but through a questioning of the self and how the “I” fits into these various roles and ruts. “Poem for Cedric The Entertainer” encapsulates this tension between entertainment and a striving to address the underlying racism found in society. A dichotomy begins the poem between “White people/love the 1980s/Black people/can’t help/but strive for/more declarative sentences…My live/in the bush of ghosts” Huffman builds on these two declarative sentences where White people become jokes in and of themselves with absurd novelty hats, where Black people strive for more important concerns such as caring and supporting their wives. The short lines and declarative statements create a tension between the perception between races.

The main question of collection is, how can American society escape from the sleeper hold it finds itself in? The sleeper hold that attempts to choke out the importance and relevance of Black experience and struggles. It also looks to offer a path for which those bombarded with the sleeper hold of media and trivial can perceive the world and their actions, and break out of a cycle of cute ads and a rhetoric of oppression. These are poems of protest, not against certain groups of individual or races, but instead protest against a system the encourages and wishes to continue these divisive practices.

Fence Books: $15.95.

Chris Caruso is a poet with MFA’s from Rutgers Newark and Boise State University. He is fascinated with the limits and transgressions of borders/boundaries especially the margins between words and images.

REVIEW: Leave Your Body Behind by Sandra Doller

by Liz McGehee

Sandra Doller’s Leave Your Body Behind takes its reader on a ride through a series of compartments, as it interrogates gender or, more specifically, what it means to walk through the world in a gendered body.

Throughout the book women are likened to animals (mainly canine) and analyzed as such:

“No dog was ever shut in like a woman. The trauma of thinking. Well
aren’t you lucky…

Everyone wants to imagine themselves a girl. Beautiful, brown, saver.
There, isn’t that better. You didn’t even have to touch the middle.
Honey, you just bought yourself a dog.

Here, women equal faunae, while men either consume or abstain from meat and animal ownership. Additionally, many sections of the book begin with excerpts from environmental studies, psychological findings pertaining to gender differentiations, or quotes directly tying women to nature. Often, the relation between women and nature functions as a form of entrapment, conjuring typical images imposed by mainstream literature on women—flowers, softness, beauty, and delicacy—ignoring the human qualities that make women people. However, Doller picks up this culturally forged bond between the feminine and flora/fauna only to eviscerate it while we watch helplessly.

The form, too, doesn’t allow itself to be categorized. It isn’t clear if the text is meant to be essay, poetry, or some mixture of genre, adding another layer of dissection to the work. Separated prose blocks compose countless sections and other sections resemble a prosaic coagulation of sorts. Sentences sometimes drop off completely or change direction, leaving the reader uncomfortable, never quite able to figure out what rhythm the author is attempting to establish or what she will do next.

The prose itself is instructional and commanding, emulating the ways in which women are guided like dogs through the world, or it is disparately submissive, looking for someone to point it in the right direction. The narrator embodies this frenzied, uneven rhythm of the prose, oscillating between a hollow, instructive male, voice and an anxious, permission-driven, female voice. Both appear often within the same set of sentences, as if trying on a new gender.

In one passage, the narrator appears female-emulating-male in an attempt at adequation:

…Once I had a jacket like that but I gave it away. It was given to me. I gave it. Once I saw a boy fix a dock. Once in the middle of the room. Once I taped my mouth shut. For you. Flickered. Once I was handy with a hammer…

The female here transforms from receiver to giver, as well as becoming “handy with a hammer” after the boy is mentioned fixing a dock. The underlying voice throughout the book appears female, one attempting to escape female passivity and subservient placement through the emulation of masculine behavior and speech. But she is never quite able to escape this position as we see in this passage by her flicker and silence. Further, she encompasses this female attempt at masculinity and autonomy through participation in the destruction of other women when enacting the male, what feminist author, Ariel Levy, termed the “loop-hole woman.”

This narrator futilely attempts to leave her body behind with the ceaseless behavioral emulation of the dominant sex, a reflection of western, capitalist ideas of success. The world’s antiphon at her body—eroticization, subjugation, and dehumanization—is led by binarization of the sexes:

Man was here when he wasn’t. That is the style of Man. When the headdress of the bishop or the dovetailed wood joint configuration, the one I can’t figure, when that comes, we will all be matter together. Until then, until one word for two things can actually mean both things, I mean, until the thing can actually be both things its word is, then.

Doller’s book carries the futility of the female body in a world where feminization equals subjection, and with it the neurosis, Stockholm syndrome, compartmentalization, and self-hatred that ensues from dwelling in such a space. Leave Your Body Behind successfully makes its reader question modern, western impositions of gender and the potential for gender when it is no longer tethered to the body.

Les Figues Press. $17

Liz McGehee is an MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Read another review of this book next door at The Volta.

REVIEW: n+1(+1) by Buffy Cain

n1

by Marc Matchak

Buffy Cain’s (n+1)+1: The Decivilizing Process Server was released online through GaussPDF and in print on Gauss Editions this past January. The book seems to operate off of what could be an algorithm, or something that reprocesses the entirety of (n+1)’s fifth issue: Decivilizing Process and extends its language, adding different suffixations, hyphenated forms, or at times, complete permutations – which more often than not provide each feature with wavering connotations, new and exciting hallucinatory contexts.

Whereas the word “picture” appeared in Meghan Falvey’s “Woman, the New Social Problem,” Cain offers us “picturesqueness” in “Woman-hater, the New Social Proboscidean”. Alike to “picture” as “picturesqueness,” “problem” becomes “Proboscidean” as (n+1)+1 provides an addend to language through its processing—wherein both the root forms and definitions of words become curiously suspended, often subject to an entirely different reading. It is perhaps inside this process, where its authorship and meaning gets lost in the server. In terms of its textual value, there certainly seems to be a critical operant internalized through Cain’s gesture. But value here seems as vague, or perhaps as indeterminate, as the algebraic term “n.” If “n” is a word amongst a larger algorithm-based narrative, then the materiality of word appearances allow for a number of paths in which narratives can form, and more playfully how we can read them.

Opening is the section “Against Emanation,” with the word “emanation” presumably acting as a permutation of “email”. Accordingly, “Thanks to emanation, the residual eloquentness of a moribundity letter-writing culturist received a rejuvenating jolt of immediateness.” As words absorb this +1– their suffixation, hyphenation, and permutation—certain textual theorizations begin to run humorously contradictory to themselves. That is to say, if “Against Email” once framed the immediacy of emailing against one’s nostalgia for eloquent letter writing, we’re taken back as readers to perhaps a (literally) more calculated discourse around writing email-letters. Immediacy loses such in becoming “immediateness” and words cast shadows as sources of emanation throughout the rest of the work.

It is quickly evident that whatever regurgitated (n+1)+1 materializes an internally critical voice with its stretching and twisting of words. However this sort of reading may be wearied from feature to feature. Take the more deliberately affected “Papa-3” (originally titled “Papa-2”). Such an overt addition seems to provide an extended reading, perhaps as a mode of presentation wherein the value of the original narrative is intently preserved. “Papa-3” offers a lengthier recount of Basharat Peer’s memoir set during the Kashmir Conflict, where grotesque descriptions of torture at the Papa-2, “the most notorious torture, chamberer in all of Kashmir,” are neither softened nor trivialized, but further twisted: “One soldierfish heldentenor your neckband, two others pulled your legumes in different directiveness, and three more rolled a heavy concrete rollick over your legumes.” Foremost is that such a rewriting, even reverentially, undeniably positions Cain’s result-text as something representationally tenuous—though it also calls for a consideration of its place in a larger stream of information, amongst the other features in the original issue. With descriptions of war and torture amongst other topics regarding emails, the Argonauts, online porn, we still are left to question: what is the value of n?

While (n+1)+1 often seems to allow for strained close-readings of a shadowing différance between itself and the original texts, some other results are more aesthetically rewarding—possibly appearing in favor of abstracting an already critical voice. There is “The Pornocracy Machine” which examines the changing climate of pornographic materials, masturbation, and our own eroticisms. In this machine digitized pornography is framed as a “wormcast neuk for the instantaneous transmissiveness of large imager and streaming filets.” The bizarreness of “filet” fuses the file with its content, which could ostensibly be the streaming of two people mashing genitals, dispassionately fucking, much like slabs of meat in motion. In a way both strange and humorous, the language of arousal blends with its elicited critique and soon both are precariously forgone, just as “The commissionership forgoes the possible of arid descriptiveness and resources instead to pornographic lingoes ‘licks his anvil,’ ‘uncontrollable suckler on her breaststrokes,’ ‘dripping with semen’.” What was once intended to arouse and then made subject to critique, becomes reformulated in a sort of gaudy, cartoonish language. In all of this, going from a language that acts cartoonish to a language that’s critical or constructive, there remains an inconsistency or rather, a method of approach that wildly differentiates in each feature’s reading.

But despite any inconsistency in how we read each section per se, the output from what is assumedly an algorithm behind (n+1)+1 is very consistent. The word “pride” appears as “pride-of-California” in “Noteworthinesses from Cape Town” as it does elsewhere in sections like “Anesthetic Ideomotion” and “Fictionalization Chronicity”. If anything, such deviations in our readings bestow each section with a unique operating function, outside of association and away from the language that contextualizes our reality. Still regarding an algorithm, it seems worth mentioning that work appearing so largely “gesture based” runs the risk of being heavily misinterpreted, or longs to remain without any interpretation whatsoever. Many questions can still be raised and much can be said about (n+1)+1’s relationship with experimental writing, constraint, and machine worship, or its standing as a sort of humorous antithesis to erasure poetry, though neither are necessarily what make reading it so enjoyable. Perhaps Buffy Cain’s (n+1)+1 functions as a result in itself, presenting a report on its affectation with which we are left to our own curiosities in engaging its strange logistics, the colorful output of a language protracted.

Gauss PDF: $5 print or free PDF

Marc Matchak is currently based out of San Francisco, California. Their work has been shown and published through The New School Library, Split/Fountain Auckland, and the Littman Gallery in Portland.

REVIEW: Tributaries by Laura Da’

by Katherine Faigen

To date, one of my favorite books of poetry is Jennifer Elise Foerster’s 2013 publication Leaving Tulsa, published by the University of Arizona Press. I was excited, therefore, to visit an AZ Press representative at AWP this year and explore recent publications. After recounting my love of Foerster’s mystery and rich images, their rep introduced me to Laura Da’s new book Tributaries. It did not disappoint. Tributaries, a mostly narrative collection that explores Da’s identity as a Native American, opens with “Earth Mover,” a poem that recounts a birth as seemingly violent as Da’s Shawnee history. As the poem’s speaker “…brace[s] / for the abrasion that draws the past / glistening into the present” Da’s reader understands that this past will be visual, difficult, and intermittently bloody. We, too, brace ourselves.

In Tributaries, Da’ seems interested in sourcing her personal streams to a greater ancestral body of water. Her book is broken into four sections that separate Da’s childhood and present from the past travails of her family.

Of these sections, “The Always Frontier” is the most personal. The speaker is an “I” who gives birth, who “rode the bus,” who “resist[s] the urge to panic,” and who, during the staging of a play about Shawnee leader Tecumseh, wonders “are we mocked or honored?”

The first poem, “Earth Mover,” contains visceral imagery and sets up the reader for an examination of Da’s recent and inherited past. “Earth Mover” begins with the birth of her son and a description of her cesarean section,

Ferocious and sly, my mind’s talon
plucks liquid movements from rivers.

arteries, ink, amniotic fluid, delicate webs of optical nerves.
Puckered prospect of the Cesarean veil.

Da’ juxtaposes the image of “my skin twisted in stainless steel pliers” with Ohio Valley settlers who, “enamored with the idea of excavation,” “pilfered” the work of Native American mound builders, searching for “feather headdresses, flakes of mica, pot shards.” From the beginning of Tributaries, we understand that this birth is as violent and invasive as the desecration of sacred mounds, and it is the catalyst for Da’ examination of her history.

More than personal, “The Always Frontier” is an examination of where Da’s personal identity and her society engage. Throughout Tributaries Da’ is interested in education and its influence by and on Native American culture. In “The Always Frontier” we first meet the native American God, Raven, interacting with a seventh grade textbook:

Raven curls his talons
against a newspaper rag…
that attributes his myth to an anthropologist
who travelled along the Pacific Coast
fifty years ago

“Raven talks of Curriculum” is a poem in which a young, Native American speaker, moves through her early history learning about Native American culture in school. The poem, in multiple sections, moves back and forth between rich, phonic visuals:

Mottled stones
with the patchy lichen-skin
and bulky silhouettes
of kids slumped on a coach
were disappearing
under the murky slush of flood water…

and moments of narrative exposition:

2013: the school district procures
new texts – feigned Native narratives.
As if to say with a shrug,
Colonialism had children and grandchildren too.

Other poems in this section work with similar themes. As Da’ travels from the Northwest to Ohio’s Miami River and Chillicothe – from where the government relocated Da’s family during the period of removal – she encounters more “feigned Native narrative” and struggles against these appropriations. As she recounts her experiences, Da’ refuses to provide specific clarity and context to those Native narratives she encounters. The history of Tecumseh, the Shawnee, the period of removal, and the mission schools is not something Da’ explicitly recounts. She keeps these histories close and narrates them only as they relate to her personally. By doing this, Da’ challenges her reader’s sense of history. Ours is partial and exists in textbooks. Da’s version is blood-filled.

In “The Tecumseh Motel” the speaker is amongst a group of “honored guests” who attend a locally performed tribute to Tecumseh’s War in which scalping and death by gauntlet are bloodily reenacted.

Crack the egg onto the actor’s head.
Red matter will slide down the crown
And eggshell will mimic shards of skull.

In “American Towns” a museum curator teaches students about relocation by

 …stippl[ing] red paint onto the sandy ground
simulating the gore of a military flogging.

As these histories and encounters begin to heap, Da ending to “The Always Frontier” is perfect and poignant:

 I want my ink to bellow –
Where is the ground unstained with blood?

When “Lazarous Shale: the Period of Removal” begins, we don’t actually see the blood of the Shawnee battles Da recounts in “The Always Frontier.” Instead, Da sets her second section in 1830 with a quote from President Andrew Jackson. The second and third sections of Tributaries are narrative, telling the stories of Lazarus Shale – Da’s great, great grandfather – and his family. While blood might not be present, Da writes about starvation and the estrangement, misuse, and misunderstanding of a culture. In these sections, language – as a theme – is important. Da begins “Lazarous Shale” by writing,

There was a word for village
That meant all at once:
Perfect home
Perfect man
All human systems working in harmony

We never learn what that word is, and this is purposeful. “Names” Da’ says, “were to be guarded” and so we are invited to witness a history, but not partake. As Da’ narrates moments from the story of Lazarus Shale, we learn about the Quaker mission schools and the renaming and Anglicization of Native Americans. In this section, children and compliance are traded for goods: “Tawny coffee beans, bolts of calico, molasses.” Names and language are personal, are evoked, but are not shared.

Throughout these two sections, Da’ remains narrative and continues the type of writing seen first in “Raven Talks about Curriculum.” Her poems are comprised of stanzas depicting brief moments. Where the stanza breaks, time has passed, something has happened that the reader has missed. These moments of apposition convey the normality of hardship and loss:

The siblings ride double to the mission.
Lazarus signs the ledger,
fingers wrapped around the quill
like gripping a rattlesnake fang.
       Rations for the destitute Shawnee.
He reaches back reflexively to steady the burden,
Judy’s slight weight replaced by
the wool, lard, sacks of cornmeal.

Through these characters and these moments, Da’ conveys a clear picture of a history we’ve only ever received in shards. This history is important and so her language is direct; her colors are dull and, because of this, those brief moments of brightness we see are even more striking. “Bright purple coneflowers” aren’t real but are an image that Lazarus’ sister keeps in her mind. More frequently we see shades of brown and ochre, and the occasional red, described simply as blood. Her characters pass no judgment but continue their series of actions. In “Poor Lazarus,” Lazarus, having traded his sons “for the release of seven barrels of winter rations” takes a nephew onto his horse:

The horse dances nervously
Sensing my frenzy.
To his credit,
the boy
keeps a steady hand on the reins.

As Da’ moves from “Lazarus Shale” to the third section, “Lazarus’ Children,” we continue to see her purposeful, powerful string of images, but those images have become more “Americanized.” Where we saw in “Lazarus Shale” animal hunts, births, and tales of panthers and loons, “Lazarus’ Children” show us “unfinished moccasins” “aprons” “marching bands,” and a trip from Ohio to Washington. However, we still see the same deprivation and fatigue. Da’ writes through the seasons and “Lazarus’ Children” begins in winter and moves through spring and the graduation of her great grandparents from the Haskell Indian school. In “Della” we see the transition from a Shawnee landscape

I rose every morning on the beach
of our summer grounds, pushed aside
a veil of butter yellow deer hide –
lake water so fast
it bowed across my sight.

to that of the Haskell Indian School, where the speaker finds herself for the next ten years. Da’s writing follows her relatives as they leave the school and head towards the Columbia River. Yet even this seemingly positive change is a lament. In “Irreversibility,” Da’ conjures the image of “stunted rivers/ whimpering and scratching” and commands,

Recollect – before the dam, salmon in the river swam so thickly
they could be speared from horseback.

As Da’ moves into her final section, “No Longer,” she doesn’t leave her reader with many questions, but circles back to issues she raised in “The Always Frontier” and connects her circling images of streams, rivers, weariness, and migrations.

Gazing at maps,
water calls attention through absence.
Lakes and river reaches
in Northeastern Oklahoma
the Scioto, Rio Grande, Kaw,
Columbia and Snoqualmie.

Watery seduction –
Migration’s
Sultry stroke of fatigue.

In “No Longer” Da’ “Measur[es] the Distance to Oklahoma” and retraces the steps of her heritage. Where “I” was so present in “The Always Frontier” it seems to be less so in “No Longer.” Instead, the speaker has become a spectator, following a “you” throughout “Measuring the Distance to Oklahoma,” and a series of seeming strangers in “Baselining.” There are no figures present in “The Myth of the West,” and Raven becomes personified in “Raven Gets Meta.”

Mid-semester, the administration calls Raven to the carpet
for a certain cavalier attitude

toward test-prep curriculum.

After Raven appears in the public school system, Da’ returns to a personal narrative. One of her more powerful poems in this section is “Passive Voice,” which starts, humorously with Zombies, but quickly moves into a more serious depiction of neglect. Da’ discusses her students’ summer vacations, their visits to American historical sights and Indian villages:

Where trouble was brewing
Where, after further hostilities, the army was directed to enter
Where the village was razed after the skirmish occurred
Where most were women and children.

 Here, Da’ displays a deliberate misuse of language. Through passive voice, no one actively directed the US army to enter Native territory; no one ordered the village razed. It is this exact passivity that Da’ creates and confronts throughout Tributaries. As readers, our only role is a passive one, as we view what happens to Lazarus and his family in the wake of removal, relocation, and reeducation.

It is our passivity in the face of Mis-Education that frustrates most. One of the main focuses of Tributaries is Da’s attempt, as a teacher, to come to terms with her identity in the face of her history. In “Sixth Grade” we leave Native American history in favor of a recitation of a Washington Irving tale and a girl upset over tempera paint. When the speaker notes, “A bright hair/molts from my scalp” we understand her awareness of her own inaction. In stark contrast, “Raven Gets Meta” provides us with a teacher who scoffs at the system: “These tricksters/ Looking into galaxies and yearning for self portraits.” Tributaries does a great deal of work responding to those issues in education that we see throughout all four sections of Da’s book. Her exploration is personal and yet embodies the struggles of the Shawnee people and, often, the role education played and continues to play in those struggles.

Tributaries is filled with evocative storytelling, rich images, and an affecting depiction of recent Shawnee history. Laura Da’s book makes vivid and intimate a past that, up until this point has been distant.

University of Arizona Press: $16.95

Katherine Faigen lives near Boston where she writes, coaches rowing, and teaches at Emerson and Babson Colleges.

REVIEW: Canto Hondo by Francisco X. Alarcón

cantohhondo
by José Angel Araguz

In his essay “Arquitectura del cante jondo,” the great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca defines the cante jondo against the flamenco of his time by saying:

“El cante jondo es un canto teñido por el color misterioso de las primeras edades de cultura; el cante flamenco es un canto relativamente moderno donde se nota la seguridad rítmica de la música construida. Color spiritual y color local: he aquí la honda diferencia…El cante jondo se acerca al trino del pájaro, al canto del gallo y a las músicas naturales del chopo y la ola…Es, pues, un rarísmo ejemplar de canto primitivo, de lo más viejo de Europa, donde la ruina histórica y el fragment lírico comido por la arena aparecen vivos como en la primera mañana de su vida” (García Lorca, 214)*.

(The deep song is a song tinged with the mysterious color of the culture’s first ages; the song in flamenco is a relatively modern song where one can note the rhythmic security of structured music. Spiritual color and local color: here lies a great difference…The deep song approaches the bird’s trill, or the rooster’s crow as well as the natural music of the poplar and the ocean wave…It is, then, a rare example of primitive song, of the oldest in Europe, where the historical ruin and lyrical fragment eaten away at by sand appear alive as on the first morning of its life) (translation: José Angel Araguz)

By naming his new collection Canto Hondo/Deep Song, Francisco X. Alarcón sets up the book’s spirit to be in the same vein as that of Lorca’s own “Poema del cante jondo.” Where Lorca celebrated the energy and mystery of his Andalusian influences, Alarcón’s new book evokes and celebrates the deep song of the Chicana/o literature, from its Pre-Cortesian roots to its politically fraught present.

Alarcón uses a minimalist style throughout the book to conduct his own fight against the “rhythmic security of structured music.” As the following examples show, he is able to keep close to images as well as concept within this style:

LOS OJOS                                             EYES

heridas con                                            wounds

las puntadas                                          with open

abiertas                                                  stitches

NARANJA DEL DESEO                    ORANGE OF DESIRE

 

no hay nada                                           there’s nothing

como comer                                           like nibbling

a mordiscos                                            an orange

en Granada                                             in Granada

una naranja                                             in the forbidden

en el jardín                                              orchard

prohibido                                                 of the Sultan’s

de la Sultana                                           main wife

While the image and brevity of the first poem are similar in spirit to haiku, the clipped nature of the second evokes William Carlos Williams’ own staggered lyric. The enjambed logic of both these poems gives an idea of the particular flavor of Alarcón’s poetics. In his hands, the deep song is ever personal, as alive and intimate as a nerve or a gasp.

These moves between image, insight, and form are to be found throughout the collection, including in the longer title piece “Canto Hondo/Deep Song.” This particular poem’s epigraph states that it is “after the passage of so many legal measures against undocumented workers – mostly Mexican and Central Americans – throughout the United States.” This declaration is followed by questions:

¿por qué                                                   why do

me escupes                                              you spit

la cara?                                                     in my face?

and later:

¿qué papeles                                           does the Sun

tiene                                                         need any

el sol?                                                       papers?

¿qué crimen                                           does having

cometen hoy                                          dreams now

los sueños?                                            become a crime?

These questions, which move from insult to a rhetoric composed of image and implication, make clear not only the stakes of Alarcón’s deep song but also the powers available to the poet to fight for and keep alive what he names at the poem’s end as “this struggle//for life/burning/in my heart.” By naming the struggles of others, Alarcón is able to document the undocumented and give voice to grievances similar to the way Pablo Neruda does in his Canto General. Neruda comes to mind not only in the political nature of the poem but also in the rawness and surrealistic reach of the images.

As evidenced through both the content of these examples as well as the textual set up of the collection with poems set in both Spanish and English, Alarcón’s deep song is grounded within a Chicana/o sensibility, with an ear for its music and an eye for its issues. Poems about family are mixed in with those on braceros and César Chávez. By positing itself in Chicana/o histories, these lyrics fight against being “eaten away” by time and help to keep Chicana/o poetry, ideals, and culture “alive as on the first morning of its life.”

(*García Lorca, Federico. Poesia Completa. Ed. Miguel García-Posada. New York: Vintage Español, 2012. Print.)

Buy it from The University of Arizona Press: $17.95.

José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and winner of Rhino Poetry’s 2015 Editor’s Prize. He has had poems recently in Prairie Schooner, Borderlands, and The Laurel Review. He is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Author of Reasons (not) to Dance, a chapbook of microcuento style short prose, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.

REVIEW: The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa, translated by Sawako Nakayasu

chika
by Max Cohen

  1. It’s a very strange thing that this book exists at all.
  2. Before the release of this collection (translated by Sawako Nakayasu, from Canarium Books), Chika Sagawa’s work was only available to English-readers in bits and pieces, most notably via a profile in Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology (edited and translated by Hiroaki Sato) and in Nakayasu’s own experimental book of “anti-translations”, Mouth Eats Color. Both of these books were released in the past 8 years.
  3. Can you imagine? 70 years between the death of the author and the first English translations of her work.
  4. In spite of Japan’s rich history of surrealist and avant-garde poetics, there’s still very little that ever gets translated into English, and, it sometimes seems, very little interest in rectifying that.
  5. Scholar John Solt has made the suggestion that this is due to the globalized, westward facing nature of the Japanese avant-garde; that, essentially, such poetry doesn’t feel as purely, authentically “Japanese” as more traditional forms like haikai or tanka.
  6. I suspect there’s also an odd cultural imperialism involved: since most surrealist movements (dadaism, futurism, cubism, etc) originated in the west and were then imported to Japan (such an odd thing, importing culture), the Japanese work is considered somewhat inessential, a curious side-story to the main event in Europe.
  7. In this history, Chika Sagawa herself holds a strange and often overlooked place.
  8. She’s been called (in this book specifically) “Japan’s first female modernist poet.” She was writing in a time when European artistic movements were really gaining traction in Japan, with many works being translated for the first time (some by Sagawa herself).
  9. But Sagawa’s modernism looks almost nothing like what we would consider it to be in the west. It’s not a simple emulation of Pound or Eliot; it’s the result of a process of adapting its central concepts to a separate and distinct poetic culture.
  10. Japanese modernism is as uniquely Japanese as haikai, and this collection is evidence of that: the more I read it, the more I am struck with the realization that I have never read anything like it.
  11. Sagawa’s poems feel more drawn than written. There’s a stillness to them; they progress, but not in a narrative sense. It’s more like staring at a painting and slowly absorbing each individual detail as it catches your attention.
  12. “Flower” in its entirety: “Dreams are severed fruit/Auburn pears have fallen in the field/Parsley blooms in the field/Sometimes the leghorn appears to have six toes/I crack an egg and the moon comes out.”
  13. The picture is still, but your eyes get wider.
  14. From “Had they been the eyes of fish”: “I believe that the work of a painter is very similar to that of a poet. I know this because looking at paintings wears me out.”
  15. Which isn’t to say her work is placid.
  16. In fact, her imagery can be almost violently energetic.
  17. From “Black Air”: “In the distance, dusk cuts the tongue of the sun./Underwater, the cities of the sky quit their laughing./All shadows drop from the trees and gang up on me.”
  18. The images don’t lie back and wait to be seen. They act out, loudly, each one drowning out what came before, until they combine into one wild chorus.
  19. It’s almost anarchic; they refuse to behave the way we expect them to.
  20. The images are always either reacting to each other, or instigating response.
  21. This lends to the wild surrealism that makes Sagawa’s work so vivid. Because each acting image usually gets its own line (and nothing more), there’s a jagged momentum in the jumps between them.
  22. Before you can come to grips with one, you’re looking at something else completely
  23. These compositional jags are reminiscent of saccades, the rapid eye movements that occur when one reads.
  24. Rather than absorbing text linearly, eyes jump about from different points of interest while reading, constructing the whole in bits.
  25. This subconscious movement becomes an interpretive act when looking at a Sagawa Chika poem.
  26. Her language is so striking that your mind can’t help but disperse. The lack of connection allows the pieces to create their own pulls, as your mind is stretched between them.
  27. “A chef clutches the blue sky. Four fingerprints are left,/— Gradually a chicken bleeds.”
  28. I often find myself staring at her work for long periods of time, taking in new thoughts piece by piece.
  29. Sagawa’s poems tend to be dense reads, but not difficult ones, per se. The act of staring at one for awhile is curiously satisfying. There’s always something to receive.
  30. It’s a testament to Sawako Nakayasu’s skillful translation that such dense lines aren’t just understandable, but lucid and elegantly rendered.
  31. As a comparison, here’s a line from “Insects”, as rendered by Hiroaki Sato in the anthology: “Turning its pulchritudinous costume inside out, the night of the metropolis slept like a woman.”
  32. The information density in that line is typical Sagawa, who, in a Proustian sort of way, always makes sure to completely finish an image before moving on, regardless of how complex it may be.
  33. It’s also, in this translation, really awkward. Awkward to the point of obscuring what’s actually being said.
  34. Given the basic units, how does one make all that information any more streamlined without losing its surreal tenor?
  35. Here’s the same line, rendered by Nakayasu: “Turning over its exquisite costume, the urban night slept like a woman.”
  36. No information is lost here; it just feels more natural, more at home in its new language.
  37. Nakayasu, a talented poet in her own right, manages this sort of incredible trick through the whole book. No matter how complex Sagawa’s language gets, the dream logic is never shattered.
  38. Back to “Black Air”: There’s another thorough-line in the book, one of personal annihilation.
  39. Many poems, especially early on, have a last line that acts as a sort of personal reaction to previous observation, and many of those last lines show the dissolution of the speaker.
  40. For example:
  41. “At any rate, the colors slowly fade each time I cry.”
  42. “My vision is about to come to a halt.”
  43. “I lose countless images to that other side.”
  44. “The things I’ve lost are never to return.”
  45. “A crowd of death lays stagnant.”
  46. “Death strips my shell.”
  47. “Please cover me with dirt every year”
  48. (that last one’s actually a title, but still)
  49. There’s a temptation to feel like these notions are prescient, what with Sagawa’s early death, at only 25, from stomach cancer.
  50. (The funereal book jacket, all black and white fields, does little to dispel this instinct)
  51. So it’s surprising, then, that the book never feels bleak. The death here is not the desperate, dark fire of Plath or the sad, sweeping desolation of Shelley.
  52. Death here isn’t really emotional or dramatic at all; it’s very matter of fact. It is observed, rather than felt.
  53. “All day/I hear the fallen, trampled leaves groaning./Such is the afternoon of life/It reports time that has already passed.”
  54. When emotional states are made dramatic, they detach themselves from the author to interact with the world directly. Sagawa remains an observer, even to her own feelings.
  55. “Deception and ruin, resembling fallen leaves, will soon block the road”
  56. “At that point my emotions dance about the city/Until they have driven out the grief.”
  57. Or maybe separation is less distinct than that?
  58. The image is an emotional actor. The emotional acts are observed like images.
  59. Who is Sagawa in this environment?
  60. Well, it’s entirely possible that she is the environment.
  61. There’s a sense of the whole bizarre world conforming itself to Sagawa’s emotional state.
  62. Which is true of many poets and of, y’know, perspective in general, but Sagawa’s great trick is that she still manages to seem peripheral, faded into the background. She convinces you that this is simply how things are.
  63. As in, the logical result of a horse going mad is to eat blue food.
  64. Or maybe it’s the other way around: in dissolving the self, its contents are allowed to disperse and color the environment.
  65. It’s a place that’s difficult to describe without simply quoting her wholesale. So I will.
  66. “A cloud has collapsed on the pavement/Like the horse’s white struggle for air”
  67. “Day falls into the leaves like sparkling fish”
  68. “As always, stars are abloom at the ranch/The swarming of which cows eat in the shape of an arch”
  69. “As always.” Like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
  70. And, in Sagawa’s world, it is.

Canarium Books: $8.

Max Cohen is an MFA candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ghost Proposal, Ninth Letter, and the Columbia Poetry Review. He like haiku just fine but wishes there were more people translating modern Japanese poetry.