REVIEW: To Be a “Unified Person”: Simone White’s Of Being Dispersed


by Peter Myers

In her recent interview in BOMB Magazine with rapper Vince Staples, Simone White describes hip-hop as “a thing that is, like a black body, both universally available and discursively hostile. It spits us out while we think we are consuming it.” It isn’t surprising to hear such a formulation coming from a poet; this dynamic, of simultaneous invitation and resistance, is just as much a part of poetry as hip-hop. It appears, for instance, in the friction generated when the intimacy offered by the lyric voice runs up against language’s imprecision, its unwillingness to cohere. Drawing our circle even wider, we can consider White’s statement in light of the identities we align ourselves with: how the categorizations and norms of which they’re composed by turn highlight and mask certain parts of ourselves, parts which are then pushed below, or spread across a distance. This is the central dynamic White concerns herself with in Of Being Dispersed, a relentless and exhilarating collection of poems.

Of Being Dispersed is both documentation and enactment of identity’s fragmentation, its tendency to split into pockets that resist any easy reconciliation with each other or the self that houses them. (Isn’t this what poetry is for? If identity is produced discursively, discourse is what’s needed to push back) We encounter these fragments, hear their voices, in White’s collection, and witness what happens when the distinct physical and mental worlds they inhabit cross paths and intrude one another. These speakers are female, Black, female and Black, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a poet, an academic, a body, a human that desires, a mind that has thoughts; they are all these things, simultaneously and in isolation, and in all of the contradiction it entails.

Given the array of selves White inhabits, the great variety of forms and voices present in her poems is fitting. Formally, Of Being Dispersed ranges from lengthy, essayistic prose (“Lotion”) to sonically-driven impressionist bursts (“Windrim,” “Kettle to Pot”). Between and within poems, White code-switches seamlessly, mixing low and high idioms and flitting in and out of the colloquial—and does so without affectation, a refreshing departure from the anxious displays of cultural omnivorism which often accompany such mixing of high and low. Just within “so as not to embarrass my comrades,” we encounter the “vestigial tail of Queens,” “barf-bag wisdoms,” and the “the white van of our progressive imagination,”phrases as evocative as they are sonically striking, alongside references to Robert Moses and “the scrotum of Jeff Daniels.” White’s language is surprising in a way that never feels inorganic, or like anything less than a deliberate expression of thought. In everything from prose to fractured verse, White’s poems are a dive into the interior workings of someone trying to work something out.

These pieces of a self, and their accompanying orientations toward world, do not always align with how White’s speakers perceive or desire themselves to be; identity’s impositions are often fought against, without success. In “Comment”: “In my marriage and with my mother, there was truly no celebration of my imaginary self, still caterwauling in the way-behind.” And, in “They Say They Can Fill Me Up with a Baby”: “Teaching Reznikoff I cry and make myself / the spectacle I say most certainly I am not.” Wife, daughter, spectacle-prone professor; these are roles that constrain White’s speakers’ attempts at self-definition. In “Preliminary Notes on Street Attacks,” the speaker commands herself (another?) to “swear on this stack of doodoo / on sight I am a unified person”—a startling mixture of oath and mild vulgarity that shatters the unity the speaker begs us to behold.

At times the sweep and precision of White’s sentences and lines function as a whirlpool, encircling an object or phenomenon about which the poem aims to think, nearly swallowing it, but, due to its own centripetal force, keeping a certain distance from it—a metacognitive process which the book dramatizes and comments upon. The triptych “Preliminary Notes on Street Attacks,” following an epigraph from Stevens (“I was of three minds…”), begins by recalling the racist and sexist (micro)aggressions the speaker has faced, but soon turns inward, the speaker’s investment in lived experience waning, her self-doubt growing. She moves from lines of unmitigated force and indignation (“no white man on the car would do a thing / if a crazy person with a knife tried to stab you / even take your baby / oh yes they’d let you die”) to frustration at her inability to leave her interior, poetry-fueled world (“You like a goddam blackbird and sentences. Inside your head is a grandiose place.”) to willful self-deprecation (“Terrific rageful / liar on Whitman on Asphodel, you would lie / to Baraka’s face.”).

The breakdown enacted by these “Notes” is by no means a reneging of Blackness as a topic of inquiry; White’s speakers have an acute awareness of Black history, one that they are unable to deny or escape. In “Then I began to hear the call of Los Angeles,” the book’s breathless opener, L.A. is ostensibly a place “where dead negroes can’t get in your house.” But the speaker knows this to be false even as she writes it, knows her distance from the dead is illusory: “Voices of the dead…/ I do not deal in. Not because they are not real, / but because they are, I do not deal in them” (3). Not dealing has a way of coming back to haunt; by the poem’s end the speaker’s only wish is to “take a room in this hotel for weeks on end / and pretend to be dead.” This is the realness of history’s dead: the ever-present weight of that history on the living. As Staples put it to White in the interview, “Black people from California is fucking displaced slaves”—a displacement less spatial than temporal in a country in which Black people are subjected to myriad injustices, of which mass incarceration, income inequality, and police brutality are only a few.

The facts and conditions of Black womanhood, and how a person responds to them, form one of the collection’s core preoccupations. In “Lotion,” which takes the form of an essay on “the slightly ridiculous bodily conditions each of us lives with daily,” White examines rituals of hygiene and bodily maintenance unique to Black women, particularly hair and skin care. Written in a skilled deadpan that mixes general information on lotion with exceptionally precise details about hygiene routines, “Lotion” foregrounds White’s skill as a humorist while laying bare the labor of self-care that, for White, constitutes an essential part of black womanhood. It is in this poem, too, that the book’s cover image crystallizes: the small, unbordered square of wiggling black lines coalesces into a mottled patch of skin—cracked, dry, “ashy.”

For White’s speaker, these rituals of care are fundamentally a way to “maintain dominion over the crevices of [her]self,” a project that she holds to be valuable and necessary despite her certainty that “these crevices extend toward an infinitely receding boundary”—a dispersal with no point of origin, and from which there can be no return. Lotion is a palliative, yes, but not a panacea, and the poem’s greatest strength is the way in which White’s speaker manages to convey detachment, frustration, and pride simultaneously—she is aware of how the rituals of Black womanhood have been and are still shaped by sexism and white supremacy, but does not see this as sufficient reason to cease getting pleasure from them.

Throughout the collection, these myriad selves appear and vanish and appear again changed, orbiting the poet at center, shaping her and being shaped while maintaining a distance. White analyzes them, speaks to them, draws them nearer, stalks certainty. Reading White, it’s difficult not to think back to Whitman: to largeness, containing multitudes, the many within the one. For White, the multitudes are there, no doubt—only they aren’t contained, but rather dispersed.

Peter Myers lives in Philadelphia. His poetry has recently appeared in Prelude, apt, and Salt Hill.

REVIEW: play dead by francine j. harris


by Ansley Clark

I’ve been feeling undone over the past couple of months, ever since I read and started carrying around francine j. harris’ play dead. These feelings are partly because harris’ book, at its simplest, is about brokenness. They are also because I first read this book just a week after the attack against Orlando’s queer community, during a summer filled with continued police brutality and systemic violence against people of color and other members of marginalized communities. In her poem “startle,” harris writes:

The minute you say want, the light which was red
is most certainly now, a womb—a thing no one wants to
stare into, most certainly a thistle, where nothing is safe.
any corner could be a cement truck. or a gun. (22)

While harris’ presents the image of a womb in this moment, she also addresses violence and vulnerability and hurt. She addresses the experiences of living in a world—in a country—where “nothing is safe,” especially for marginalized communities and individuals. She addresses what it means to live in a body that is not safe in either the public or the private sphere. Thus, the ache and throb of play dead are the ways in which it discusses violence, particularly sexual violence and the violence that occurs when one exists as a woman.

The book’s epigraph from Kazim Ali reads, “It’s always the broken that holds the universe in place.” And this brokenness continues throughout the book in a jerking kind of rhythm that both jars and soothes. In “in case,” harris writes:

                …our mouth
got us our bitter ass whipped, pick our own-
ers, our switches, our licks, our shut up. our shut up. our shut up. (16)

The poem ends with a strange and painful repetition, like a broken record or a broken doll, or like someone bashing their fists or their head against a wall, over and over. Under the weight of the images of physical violence, the speaker here seems to buckle slightly and repeat what she’s been told, that she needs to just “shut up.”

However, the book’s speaker(s) never once sinks under this weight. These are not quiet poems. While they are at times fragile and vulnerable, they also spit and scream directly back at their aggressors. This empowered voice refuses to allow the violence to crush it. This voice also speaks to the book’s epigraph by Kazim Ali as it explores how those who are broken possess perhaps the only kind of real strength and power.

Consequently, play dead involves a fierce and painful interplay between power and powerlessness and between violence and light. Reading this book is like watching light shift across shattered glass—I give this image not to be poetic, but to describe the book’s tight and chaotic ecology, as well as the poems’ forms and their physical presence on the page. harris’ lines and stanzas spread like cracks across the entire page, occasionally clumping in one corner. Additionally, harris’ punctuation feels entirely spontaneous and pure, like a continuation of her mental processes. In the book’s opening poem “in,” she writes:

We don’t always think in locks. or iron, we set up house to bring. dim it warm to want. (13)

While she uses periods, she occasionally begins a new sentence in lowercase, seemingly to indicate that these two thoughts are more closely connected than thoughts separated by both a period and capitalization.

At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, I want to say that my favorite poem in play dead is “tatterdemalion.” At the poem’s end, harris writes:

What parts of me shake loose dirt. What parts wait until you are bare. My jejune bluegrass, why do I eat your light. There are grasses growing up the shabby fence. All of them fluid blade. We sway. creep easily. What parts of me are wild. What parts storing up for the choke. How do I tell the difference. (68)

There is so much importance in these final questions. The poem begins with descriptions of listening to a women’s moan through a wall, and then flairs out wildly in images of dirt, weeds, and other green and growing things. Consequently, “how do I tell the difference” becomes “how do I tell the difference between my wild self and the self that the world dictates to me.”

Since play dead is a book that takes emotional risks, I feel it’s appropriate to say that “tatterdemalion,” and many other poems here, evoke enormous grief and make me cry. Because harris understands the intense balance between vulnerability and power, because we are not safe here, play dead is a crucial book.

Alice James Books (2016): $15.95

REVIEW: Earth Science by Sarah Green


by Tim Etzkorn

We’ve all been there: the way fading, afternoon sun alights subtle countryside on a cross-country drive; the sleepy moment on an airplane, head bumping against plastic siding, terra below skipping in and out between clouds; up late at night listening to trees sway in the wind, music playing somewhere inside, a beer, forgotten, warming on the stoop. Sometimes, the simplest moments seem disproportionately weighty, and I for one have always struggled to understand why. It is in this space that Sarah Green’s Earth Science resides. Like any good artist, Green has the ability to make the ordinary extraordinary. Notably though, she creates an entire text in which marvels are wrought out of the common. Green teases everyday ecstasies by lyrically exploring the emotional context that makes them so weighty, creating a text deeply personal and intimate as well as accessible and eye opening, helping readers to see why commonplace moments can be so arresting.

For the speaker in Earth Science, these moments can be housesitting and feeding Betta fish while eavesdropping on jilted lovers through an open window at 3am; noticing how light reflects off wine glasses after seeing an ex at a party; a deaf man saving a forgotten stocking cap from being left behind at the end of a snowy bus ride. Green artfully connects commonplace events with the internality that makes them so significant, and she does so in a language of the everyday.

Green opens the collection with “July Linden,” a poem drawing subtle beauty from the seemingly unremarkable. The speaker reflects on a collection of moments, housesitting:

At first I thought it was a grape arbor
or a guest’s jasmine shampoo.
I would walk around barefoot
after a glass of wine
on the sidewalk, holding up a leaf
and sniffing—not this, not that,
it was not my house, I was only feeding
a couple’s fish and sleeping lightly
on the woman’s side

She drinks wine on the sidewalk alone; her observations of the couple’s possessions are always couched in his and hers, never theirs. It appears that she is struggling with matters of relationship, and it is this context that makes the moments in “July Linden” impactful rather than the moments themselves. She goes on to describe how she

[…] never fully closed
the blinds at night, the better to see
old starry neighborhoods I missed.
the better to eavesdrop
on a swaying couple in the parking lot—
shadowy heart to heart,
I will never … sweatshirt to sweatshirt,
don’t say that … one friend leaning against a car

But her attention quickly shifts to the solitary betta fish she is caretaking, the creature that opportunes the whole poem:

[…] the fish that had been sick got better
and started eating more, even built the foam nest
male bettas make when they’re happy.
So I bragged about that, feeling responsible.

And the owner replied, from Brazil, Cute,
but it’s sad too, isn’t it. He thinks he lives in an ocean.
he thinks he’s changing his life.

Her and the fish’s owner address the fish diametrically. She sees the solo betta, building his nest, happy. The owner gets hung up on the loneliness – “it’s sad too, isn’t it.” The speaker points out that “He thinks he lives in an ocean,” he thinks he has endless possibilities; he doesn’t realize that he has boxed – or fish bowled – himself in as well, just in a different fashion, and if we take the speaker’s bifurcated observations of his and her belongings, the relationship may be a part of it.

“July Linden” appears to be about dissonant relationships and a movement towards contented solitude. The collection at large seems to be working its way through a breakup, but that doesn’t make Green’s poems only about heartbreak. Generally, whatever past relationship the speaker is considering is mentioned in passing, and the collection becomes about how our internal emotionality establishes a certain force for every occurrence.

As the collection progresses, readers witness more of the speaker’s relationship fallout, but so often, the fallout is presented in a fashion that provides meaning for an occasion rather than a reflection on the breakup. In “Constellations,” the speaker considers how a charged relationship with one person can change a whole space:

Across the room at the party
after we weren’t speaking any more:
a thread of small lights
between my shoulder and his shoulder.
both shoulders kind-of-turned.
Lights that were, to be honest,
just wine glasses refracting
intermittent blinking from a Christmas tree.
Glasses in hands of bystanders
who were not bystanders in their own account


[…] I tried to look somehow
without looking, my back to him.
My heart lurched as far as it could
to his side of my chest but it could not fly
physically through it. Once
at the grocery store, I sense him behind me,
two aisles away, and I knew we were missing
each other. Glad to reconvene at the counter.
His greeting arm. A little kiss while the receipt
printed. This was not that.

“Constellations” appraises the way a whole party shifts shape based on the speaker’s emotional condition: wine glasses and Christmas lights become a constellation, illuminating the party. Yet, this light is completely distant and unattainable. Like many have felt when viewing the night sky, the speaker wants to touch the stars but knows she cannot, and feels a lurch as a result. Her heart moves to the other side of her chest, but cannot leave her body. She reflects on past lurches – missing her partner at the grocery story – but concludes, “this was not that.” The weight of her breakup changes the whole atmosphere of the party and turns it into a canvas for memory.

If Green’s poems explore the way that our internal state can change the space for us, they are equally invested in how our condition simultaneously changes others’ space. In “Findings,” the speaker reflects on how a random act of kindness from a stranger carries its own intense valence due to her internal condition, though in concluding, she implicitly questions whether the moment would have even happened had she not been giving off the distinct light that can accompany loneliness:

Today a deaf man shouted Hey—
Hey—as I moved to trade the warm bus

for snowfall. I stopped. He was holding
a pale green hat

which had slipped my gloved hands
in the rush from seat to door.

I turned, wondering, saw
the hat, his headphones, light eyes,

said Thanks, then Thanks, again, clutching
the wool. Other bus riders looking

back, looking around. Later,
stir-frying for one, turmeric yellowing

my fingers like pollen, I remember
some Hindus believe there’s this

great heat we start to give off
in our saddest times. A sort

of stubborn fever—rising, signaling, until
even the gods

feel their warm foreheads, put down their
magazines, call out our names.

The speaker, in her solitude, shares a moment with a deaf man on the bus, perhaps dealing with his own sense of isolation at the time. The poem invites us to wonder if this bond would not have occurred had it not been for the “warmth” the speaker gave off in her saddened state. If nothing else, it seems that the speaker may have brushed aside this pedestrian yet poignant moment had she not been in need of connection.

Earth Science appears to be defined by her search for warmth out of a place of separation. The speaker painfully but positively moves towards a happy nest that is neither alone nor in relationship. It is a nest, which the speaker builds, that allows her to healthily connect with others. And in this fashion, Earth Science is a collection deeply about movement, a movement grounded in the ability to see the significance, and brilliance, of the seemingly unremarkable moments every day.

Buy it from 421 Atlanta: $15.00.

Tim Etzkorn is a lecturer at the University of Wyoming where he teaches literature and composition.

REVIEW: The Market Wonders by Susan Briante



by Connor Fisher

The Market Wonders begins, begins again, and reinvents, continually readjusting itself. The book, the third by poet Susan Briante, takes as its object the titular economic structure, and demonstrates a series of engagements—political, biographical, conceptual—with the contemporary capitalist market. Briante’s innovative engagement includes a sequence of personifications that imagine the Market’s own life structure and daily routine. Through the book’s sections, the market emerges as a complex intellectual and material figure, constantly in numerical and temporal motion: Briante indicates the ever-shifting closing value of the DOW on the top margin of the page in two long sections—e.g., “July 2—The Dow Closes Down 9686” (45). The text begins with a foundational group of quotations and invocations: Briante draws from John Ashbery, Lyn Hejinian, Charles Olson, Brenda Hillman, and Bernadette Mayer. Mingled with this literary constellation, Briante adds two other quotations:

            The theoretical physicist says, ‘I’ve always wanted to find the rules that governed everything.

The theoretical physicist says, Deep laws emerge (5).

Through the collective gathering of its sections, The Market Wonders poses similar epistemological questions: although the market behaves in a variety of (often contradictory) ways and inhabits multiple social registers simultaneously, Briante’s collection probes into its varying natures, to examine what underlies the market, what motivates it, what grounds it?

The answer emerges through poetics as much as through economics. Many of Briante’s pages dexterously mix registers of speech, types of language, and challenge the margins of the page itself to hold headnotes and footnoted text, compounded by long lines or abrupt jumps of syntax within the main “poem” sections. A strong example occurs on page 16 (I have omitted the Dow closing data and the footnoted text):

What if I write it all down, track it, if I consult tickers

and windows, measure blood flow, monitor the rise and fall

of my accounts, the tarnish of leaves


will a veil tear, will a web sparkle dew-strung, a rope bridge

between the dead-living-unborn?


Can I feel these numbers in my hands

like Whitman at the rail of a ferry?


The Dow rises above 10,000.

My dog scratches his ear.

A lamp buzzes             on its time. Rains

clear and the cold

arrives. The unborn

keep their distance.

I make a dinner of brown rice, butternut squash and kale:

some [thing/event] or my 3000

nerves bristling in the air.

The implications of Briante’s use of the page and of a complex poetics manifests themselves over the course of the book: the market is not relegated to a specific layer of our lives (the financial, the economic), but pervades every aspect of daily existence. The food on the dinner table is complexly related to the market—in both its most abstract and most concrete definitions. The market, and its concerns (what could be termed the “market-functions”) are often surprisingly material. As shown in the quoted page, Briante makes this refreshing turn and often sidelines ephemeral conceptions of the market as a placeless, groundless entity. Not only does the function of the market pervade objects and implicitly alter the “windows … bloodflow … leaves … veil … dew … rope bridge … dog … ear … lamp … unborn” of the quoted passage, but it also is, in some measure, constituted by them. Material is complicit in market, and serves to ground it; to make the market physically, poetically, and affectively real. Other helpful descriptions of the materials-of-the-market occur on page 44, as Briante invokes “the names of 62 birds,” as well as “bluegreen dragonflies [and] tomatoes,” and on page 67, where she states that “dark matter thinks.”

The aspect of materiality furthers the book’s inquiry into the idea of grounding the market: a base that provides stability to the market’s often unpredictable or senseless actions. Briante’s poems initially parallel the theoretical physicist’s search for “deep laws”—in aspects related to the economy, Marxist labor economies, and personal life. The Market Wonders asks itself and its readers what motivates and drives the market—barring that, it asks, in a phrase borrowed from philosophy, if the market is in fact market “all the way down.” In a telling passage late in the book, Briante asks:

An invisible calculus exists

beyond the page, a second story

leaf tremble, that view exactly

with the powerline running through (80)

The interspersed language of science bears significance; it does not indicate objectivity, but rather a sincere epistemological search.

Briante materializes this concern with the underlying, the hidden causal mechanism, by including, at the bottom of the page, a ticker tape homage: two lines of subscripted text run along the bottom of the page in most of the book’s ten sections. The ticker tape meanders in a wonderful ramble which allows Briante to stretch her poem format into page-spanning long lines—although here, as in the book’s numerous prose sections, Briante emphasizes the unit of the sentence over the unit of the line. She writes, “A pattern imposes form on cloth … behind a screen, brand on a body, current routed, stitched across countries: 42 months 1,260 days, 2 olive trees, 2 lampstands, .27 of US households live in ‘asset poverty’ ” without savings to cover 3 months of expenses (61–62). In these subscripted passages, Briante suggests that numbers, as a quantifiable, substantially firm means of qualitative knowledge, underlie the market structure and are in some aspect causal; numbers provide sequence, create data, and allow the discourse to branch from the historical to the imaginatively biographical. But the stability of numbers becomes false and misleading, as Briante acknowledges; if numerical stability is the “ground” of The Market Wonders, it would seem that this ground needs its own grounding. While numbers provide “everything patterns” (“12 stars, 7 heads, 10 horns, 7 crowns … 3.5 days, .1 of the city, 7,000 people, 2nd woe, 3rd woe” [63]), at some level these patterns break down and fail to account for the workings of capitalism, of the market, of personal relationships and one’s children. For Briante, the ground has always been ungrounded.

The Market Wonders catalogs a personal and cultural crisis of economic knowledge. For Briante, the breakdown between the “political” and the “personal”—already an unwieldy division—has dissolved. Whatever would formerly have been relegated to either category is now, outside of categorization, in the space influenced by, and influencing, the market. The last section of The Market Wonders, titled “Mother is Marxist,” adds further complexity to Briante’s argument by considering ways in which her radical responsibility as a mother forces engagement and sometimes complicity with the market. The personal and political collide in the home: home of the market and home of our children. “Mothers attempt to erase the integers, to move decimals, to point out discrepancies in the ledger, disrupt the protocols of exchange” (98). Here, couched again in the language of numbers and mathematical function, Briante places herself and a collection of radical mothers working in tandem to disrupt the market’s overpowering function. The mother is hyper-aware of her political and socio-economic status, military growth and deployment, racial incarceration, and the history of children’s insurance. While these issues do not ground the market itself, they allow Briante to display the incisive—and often introspective—perception that does ground many parts of this collection.

Briante writes on page 8, “The poem and the stock market welcome speculation.” Any speculation (including The Market Wonders’ clear grasp of history) is impossible without imagination. And it is this same imagination which allows the market—which finally exists as an infinitely constituted network, ungrounded or self-grounding—to continue the influence and expansion so well challenged and documented in Briante’s work.

Ahsahta (2016): $18

Connor Fisher lives in Athens, Georgia. He has a MA in English Literature from the University of Denver, an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and is working towards a PhD in English and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia. 


INTERVIEW: Emily Wolahan



Reading Emily Wolahan’s Hinge (The National Poetry Review Press, 2015), I’m reminded of the fact we live in “A tenable now, immersed/ in churned waterways, calling to its transient/ population. What exactly do we plan to do?” Her debut collection floats in an “armor. . .constructed from romantic movies,” ferries us past revelations in the form of hedge dew and field light. Hinges is a firmament that ponders the liminal as it plays out in arguments and bodies of water alike. From town planning to the Munchian scream, Wolahan illuminates the latch.

Jon Riccio: The verticality of Hinges poems – tighter margins, medium line lengths – adds to their reading pleasure. Was this the layout you always envisioned?

Emily Wolahan: I really enjoy a tight line and worked at honing that skill as I wrote this collection. An economic, sonic line matched the controlled tone of the speaker throughout the collection. These poems explore ideas and emotions from a very cautionary vantage point. I wanted the look and sound of the poems to match.

JR: Five of your poems have the word “Argument” in their title. What aesthetic forces must be at work for beauty to rise out of conflict?

 EW: Interesting—when I hear “argument,” I immediately think of rhetorical strategies used to convince a listener or reader of your point of view. Comes from years of teaching comp, I guess.

A good rhetorical argument acknowledges conflict and finds an intellectual way through it, which is very relevant to Hinge. In the “Argument” poems, I wanted to harness an abstract idea as a strategy to conduct the discussion. That’s how I arrived at “Argument in Fog”, “Argument in Exucitasio,” “Argument in Optative.” Eventually, I start to just straight up argue with things, because eventually, I always argue. A contrarian to the bone.

The beauty for me is in creating opportunities to think my way out of corners. At the time, I found the intellect very beautiful and wanted to convey its promise and, in some way, the emptiness of that promise. You can’t think your way into action, as Hamlet reminds us. 

JR: On a related note, did titling your poems “École des Hautes Études,” “Pauvres Petits en Été,” and “Vincent à Théo” in French broaden or restrict your compositional process?  

EW: I have a strange relationship with French. I spent a long time learning it, some time in Paris being snubbed for not knowing it better, and am continually drawn to reading French poetry. Incorporating French into my compositional practice always broadens my thinking, though very often no French appears. I’m currently working on a project that is directly influenced by the line structure of L’excès-l’usine by Leslie Kaplan.

I believe in reading as widely as possible, incorporating into your reading poetry from all over the world. Often that’s in translations, as in Kim Kyung Ju’s I Am a Season that Does Not Exist in the World or Tomas Tranströmer, Tomaz Salumun, and many others. I will muddle my way through French happily, however; the discomfort of not being able to whiz my eyes down the page and understand everything is enjoyable to me.

JR: “Wide: Letter to Herself” contains the lines “Within kitchen, drawer,/ within drawer, this porcelain bowl./ It will do. Will do.” which have a nesting-doll sparkle to them. How do they relate to the following page’s “indecision of paradise?”

EW: In many kinds of paradise (this one is a domestic), we may not have any worries, nor lack much, but we are also stripped of our intellectual faculties. That’s how I felt when I went from a full, New York City cultural existence to being a new mother in a small city in Northern England. I felt stripped of my brain and my ability to decide. The perfect happiness of having a healthy child and one’s kitchen in order didn’t escape me, but I felt the push against it too. Nesting-dolls embrace each other and capture each other.

JR: The above-mentioned poem concludes with “Light rain, cotton rain, cashmere rain./ Her dangerous belief in expertise.” When is novice-ness the best creed?

EW: I’d say, almost always! When are we not in a position when we are, at least in part, new to an action or situation? I’m very interested in inhabiting the position of “not-knowing”—as intellectual curiosity, but also emotional bafflement. An early title of this manuscript included the word “Acquaintance” because I was exploring the “knowledge of acquaintance” (versus “experience” or “expertise”). What results do we experience when we are somewhat-familiar-with a set of problems, but not at all expert in solving them?

There’s a palpable sense of anxiety in that, but there’s also joy in it. The energy of flying by the seat of your pants through life.

JR: You’ve lived in Britain, Hong Kong, Italy, and Saudi Arabia, to name a few of the countries listed in your bio. This, coupled with “That some solutions/ become answers, their spatial disclosure/ a forklift of readiness” (from “Sly and Unseen”) has me wondering how these travels honed your tools of investigation.

EW: That travel is the collected experience of the forced travel of my childhood and chosen travel of my adulthood. When I was an expat child, I refused to take pictures after I lost my Kodak Star 110 camera at the Trevi Fountain. I proclaimed I would rely on my memory. Alas, I am no Funes. I could observe, but not remember every detail.

What I took away from that observation of people and nature, however, is that there are multiple solutions to any given problem. A European city solves a civic need in one way, while an East Asian city solves it quite differently. One bird solves its problem of being prey through camouflage, another through strength in numbers. Designs, either industrial or evolutionary, develop over time. Some become universal, some stay idiosyncratic.

JR: You’ve melded rhythm and sound to give the best directions: “The insistent exit can be found/ in night field, short wheat/ bundled in shadow” (from “Quite Cold in Cloud”). Where best to locate a hinge’s entrance?

EW: I’d argue a hinge is not an entrance or an exit but the loose mechanism that makes either possible. While I feel liminal spaces are the most provoking of insight—what place cannot feel liminal at the right moment? Every place, and every angle of observation, can be made strange, thereby suddenly swinging open.

JR: We’re told “Some things/ are not suited for language. In the bookstore,/ you scream you want a particular fairy book,/ each fairy named, its powers afforded/ by the seasonal structures of miniature worlds.” In what ways does the fantastic serve the unspoken?

EW: What a compelling question. For a child, in particular, the fantastical and mythic can provide needed explanation of the often unspoken or hard to understand—death, betrayal, power and powerlessness.

In “Argument in Fog,” where those lines appear, I’m exploring what can’t be imagined fully (death and suicide—even our own futures) and the frustration of meeting limits. Children know that better than anyone and small children scream over it. A five-year-old’s guttural scream, the physical reaction to frustration, embodies how I personally feel. The Munchian scream into a windy terrain. The unspoken is often voiced, but in animal terms, non-verbally.

JR: If, as you say, “The only guarantee is a world/ in transition,” how do we find comfort “in the hum hee ha of a town/ that proudly cares for its pavement,/ its paths, its bridges?” 

EW: The image in that line comes from my interest and admiration for town planning. There is an incredible amount of unrecognized labor that goes into our cities and towns—from garbage pick-up, to coordinating with various skilled laborers in order to paint a bridge, design a lamp post, or plant a patch of garden. I’m personally inspired by that web of human action that embraces us because our own personal lives are subject to so much transition. Nothing is certain in our lives, no matter how vastly different they might be. Change will come. The Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times,” defines us. We are living in interesting times.

My current project is very concerned with the insecurity of our contemporary reality. If it’s not political unrest, domestic or international, it’s terrorism or environmental collapse that we could worry about. Every day seems pregnant with insecurity. I’m working on a poem in sequences that attempts to write from within that insecurity.

JR: I was pleasantly surprised to find the poem “Hard Soft Bodies” in a book called Hinge (“Universe the universe/ imagined red and luminous./ It needs to turn.”). Do you think there’s a cosmic latch? Can it be applied to writing?

EW: Surely, we’re all in this crazy game of writing to reveal something about ourselves or the world. The primary place, I think, is curiosity and self-discovery—then the added layers of “making.” In “Hard Soft Bodies,” I was conveying the experience of delivering an infant. The universal universe—and, yes, it must turn. That experience changed everything in my world—it was the cosmic latch that opened up my life and imagination.

Emily Wolahan is the author of Hinge. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Volt, Fourteen Hills, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, and many other journals. Her essays have appeared in The New Inquiry, Gulf Coast, and Among Margins, an anthology of essays on aesthetics. She lives in San Francisco.

Jon Riccio is an incoming PhD candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Recent poems appear in apt, Booth, Cleaver, Scapegoat Review, The HIV Here and Now Project, Hawai’i Review, and Dead King Magazine.    


REVIEW: Alkali by Craig Dworkin


by Michael Gossett

Writing out of the saline oikeios of Utah’s Great Salt Lake and informed by a career-long cultivation of non-expressive, constraint-based poetics, Craig Dworkin, in his new eco-conceptual compendium Alkali, has landed on the figure of the crystal as the site of recent experimentation in a way that borders on the teleological. Dworkin’s crystals—whether taking the form of mined quartz sitting on a desk, as in his restaging of Clark Coolidge’s sustained meditation “The Crystal Text,” or kept in the ground, as in the “spathe filtered fields” of the desert pastoral “Feldspar”—are rendered in a densely textured and amalgamating language that accrues in equal parts by Objectivist, Language, and oulippean strategies. As such, these crystals inform not only the subject of each of the book’s six poems, but a kind of syntax as well. If Alkali is thought of as a kind of glass case of such crystals, the beauty of the collection lies in the range of size, dimensionality, and opacity contained therein.

At the smaller end of the range are two of what the book describes as “geometrical exercises exhausting the limits of two particular oulippean constraints.” “Feldspar” is the resulting text from a paper-folding exercise Dworkin began in 2000 in an attempt to see if a text could be written in three columns and read in a plurality of ways—down one column, across and down two columns, and across and down all three—while sustaining the cohesion of both the poem’s grammar and its subject. (Note: Limited by the standard, unfolded pages of the book, the version of “Feldspar” captured in Alkali is a list of all available permutations of the columns.) The result is a line like “Over path — fulled filtered yielding spats of foliage fall to to fill” unfolding and evolving into “Over march of path: fault of fulled runs filtered by spare yielding spart spats; sprattle of foliage and felt fall to sparging to fill a scaf” and further into “Fold over march of grown path — fault of feldspar fulled runs in spathe filtered by spare fields yield spart — sprat spats sprattle pleats of foliage and felt, failing to fall to sparging pare to fill a scaf.” What was already difficult by virtue of its unexpected word choices and usages—a dictionary is absolutely a necessary reading companion—becomes increasingly more so as words shift parts of speech, relationships between ideas change as new ideas are thrown into the mix, and the echoing of sounds disorients us and even tricks us into misreadings. We are forced to parse sentences at a glacial pace, and are expected to hold multiple lineages together in our minds as if committing to memory a family tree. It is hard work, but the payoff is in the feeling of capturing the many faces of a vast mountain meadow as one zig-zags along a meandering path beside it.

The second geometrical exercise, “All Saints,” is so short it can be recreated here in its entirety:


Ored arches ern
inky rivers out
rust-raddled rows
ranged even over
aging riven rove-
ringed axes — randed
ewers raining ash,
raked eye ruts uttering reams.


Eves addle ere
our ender annum
ages air rung
under riper eaves.

Taking as an epigraph John Dowland’s “Weepe ye no more, sad fountains,” the first part of “All Saints” figures the “inky rivers” flowing under the “ored arches” of the Utah desert as tilted water jugs (“randed / ewers”) emptying out their contents as if “raining ash,” an image aligned with the Elizabethan ballad’s pair of crying eyes that find its correlate (and comfort) in springing fountains and melting snow. But where Dowland merely compares the short-term sadness of human concerns with events taking place on a geological timescale, Dworkin locates the sadness in the earth itself. The signs of age and fatigue (“rust-raddled rows”) associated with the rivers’ flowing (they have “riven” “ring[s]” with their “rov[ing]”) are amplified by the constancy and duration signaled in the depths of “rake[s],” “ruts,” and “reams.” These ecological tears are, in fact, scars: scars further carved with each “e” and “r.” The poem pivots into its second part around the word “eves,” which both alerts us to a temporal transition and prepares us for a frame of nesting rhymes that ends in “eaves” and contains the “addle”-”under” and “ere”-”air” pairings, further concentrating the textured sound patterning. In sifting through these pairs, we come to understand the synecdochical relationship between the human and the fountains in Dowland’s poem to be parallel to that between the rivers and the earth in Dworkin’s, a relationship extended ultimately to that between the discomfort brought on by the end of a day (“eves addle”) and that brought on by the end of the world (“our ender annum” aging “air rung under riper eaves”).

The linguistic play and ecological concerns of these two minimalist poems are extended and developed further in the expanded pastorals “In the Dark Wood / Nella Selva Oscura” and “Haligraphy,” two limited-edition letterpress pamphlets Dworkin created in June and July of 2012. The former takes its bilingual title from the opening lines of The Inferno, wherein Dante finds himself in an indeterminate forestscape that proves ripe for a disorientation both physical and psychological. And though we know Dworkin’s dark wood to be the landscape surrounding the Great Salt Lake, such knowledge does nothing to undermine the sense of intellectual and spiritual uncertainty. As if Samuel calling out “Here I am” to an unseen voice in night, Dworkin here seems particularly attuned to the sonic qualities of the space around him, following the question “Who hears the sound in the dark wood damping?” with a recognition of substance that is there, has always been there: “to hear / in the (her) // of what inheres, inured, / innate in names (in yours).” And yet, what is there seems also simultaneously not there, is both at-home and not-at-home, is Uncanny, as when the salty molecules of a woman’s cry are all at once “petrified, revenant, dissipating,” that is, solidified, ghostly, and disappearing, a fixed “static addenda” on the ever-expanding fractal “dendral record.” Like a “glistening and resinous” light flickering in its presence, what is “whole” is “in rounds, repealing,” vanishing.

In “Haligraphy”—Dworkin’s neologism for the study of halation, the way light forms a foggy halo around a photo or screen—light, like sound, demonstrates its equally transitory nature with dramatic consequences. “Halation at the lake’s horizon,” we’re told in one section, “occasions the visual collision of the distant hills; the granulate behind a scrim of calinated haze.” And in another, “the calice of the Great Lake’s basin salinates in an evaporative slake; sky, draining, etiolates; haze shades to hazard the azure’s hue.” Our attention is drawn time and again to “shallow light” and “laquered glaze” and things “lost to shimmer,” and yet it is only when the “night air rarefies” and “dissipate[s]” and the “accruals of shadows under boulder-curves merge” that we are allowed to see the way that, in the dark, “everything radiates, cools and quickens.”

Finally, the two largest pieces in the collection: “The Crystal Text,” the aforementioned restaging of Clark Coolidge’s poem of the same name, and “The Falls,” a long lyric essay on the concept of falling as it appears in French Modernist texts. “The Crystal Text,” easily my favorite poem in the collection, is an attempt at acknowledging the infinitely withdrawn nature of an object by exhausting its descriptions, uses, and resemblances. A kind of cubing exercise, Dworkin locates a crystal on his writing desk and, in the tightly controlled language we have come to expect from the collection, sustains his attention until the crystal takes on an oblique life of its own. “A rose quartz quarters on my desk,” he writes. “It obligates. It obliquates. Around an axis the crystal twists. The crystal finds an assectation in this text.” Dworkin’s later observation that “the crystal riddles” turns a key for the subsequent fourteen pages of the poem and brings an important literary tradition into the fold, effectively linking the long history of the riddle in English poetics—the monstrously alive riddle-objects and their alliterative accentual-syllabic distiches date back to the tenth-century Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book—to bear directly on two hot contemporary traditions in object-oriented ontology (“The rock is loud, though it resounds too low for me to hear… The crystal can only transmit, but no one is listening.”) and constraint-based conceptual writing (“The crystal is a lens. The crystal lends. It colors. The crystal as a prism imprisons certain shades. Its polar optics set selective spectra free.”). And like the riddle-objects of the Exeter Book, the crystal in turn is rendered as a writer (“The crystal is a scribe.”), a household object (“The rock is a clock.”), an erotic subject (“The crystal winks and lustres… and underneath the finger feels slick.”), a judge (“The rock is just.”), a crustacean (“The stone scuttles…”), and a storm (the stone “stirs the waves of the sea”). But despite the potential for a seemingly infinite series of comparisons, and though each comparison seems to open up some facet of the crystal in a new, undiscovered capacity, in the end Dworkin acknowledges that he is left no closer to truly understanding the small noun in front of him than he was at the beginning. “Only it can know how accurate and imprecise I have been here,” he writes, “the extents of my unfaithfulness and simultaneous fidelities.”

The book concludes with “The Falls,” a long lyric essay that, when premiered, was described as “part lyric catalogue of the sculptural condition of everything beholden to gravity; part essay on French Modernism; part elegy; and part grammatical investigation into how we speak of falling into abstractions (love and sleep and illness) with concrete consequences.” The meat of the essay, like that of many of Dworkin’s other pieces in this collection, is made up of several dozen quotations and fragments of quotations culled from sources ranging from Plato to Proust to an article on the photographic techniques of processing reversal film. Dworkin writes into and out of this material in a kind of lyrical annotated bibliography, allowing the line of thought to reel out a bit in exploration before bringing it back in again with a quasi-anaphoric structure reminiscent at times of Juliana Spahr’s this connection of everyone with lungs. The end result of this activity amounts to a magnificent juggling act in which disparate, but not unrelated, ideas, sources, structures, and themes are kept up in the air and treated one-by-one in passing en route to the formulation of argument and instruction common to the essay form but noticeably lacking in the lapsing cliches characterizing contemporary conceptual practice. “The Falls” resists summary in a way that is difficult as a reviewer but is satisfying as a reader, with its combination of encyclopedic research and associative poetic movements ultimately amounting to less of a singular text that can be mastered and captured than an illusive event than must be reexperienced from multiple angles for multiple unveilings.

The bring the crystal analogy full circle, Alkali is a wonderfully refined hunk of work, one slowly formed over the course of more than a decade. As a stone, it has weight, is lyrically dense and intellectually complex. As a prism, the light passing through it breaks out into spectra identifiable in conceptualism, object-oriented ontology, ecocriticism, and information/archive theory. This makes it an important book. It is an object as stimulating to peer through as it is to turn over in your hands. It is “always more important, more interesting, more capable.” Its “grid ranges, and will continue until something gets in its way.” It is “generous.” It is “generative.”

The difficulty with difficult work is that one rarely knows how much effort to put in without a guarantee that the effort will be rewarded. Difficult work often appears to be at best unintelligible, and at worst completely indulgent. But what distinguishes Dworkin from other conceptual writers and Alkali from other difficult works is the generative generosity embedded at each step of the way, and the clarity and intelligibility of ideas once encoded. The key is always there, in other words, and once unconcerned with the viability of access, one is freed to enjoy the movements by which the pins fall into place.

Buy it from Counterpath Press: $18.00.

Michael Gossett is from Memphis, Tennessee. He tweets commonplace books of poetry, riddles, comedy, and basketball at: @michaeljgossett and @theebigsir

REVIEW: Motherlover by Ginger Ko


by Jennifer Fossenbell

What if you wreck your ship in the middle of a dangerous/wavy prairie? What if “I” submits to the power of “you”? Ginger Ko’s debut book, Motherlover, asks these questions in a voice that serves as an audible beacon: staid but urgent like a whispered shout. Hers is a work of reckoning with its own flashing ambition to make dark/light.

Ko’s first full-length collection was republished recently by Bloof Books after appearing briefly through Coconut Books, shortly before that press’s dissolution. In an interview with Grace Shuyi Liew of The Conversant, Ko speaks more about those turbulent events surrounding the book’s origins. Bloof is a fitting new home; their catalogue of poets includes the powerful and peerless likes of Danielle Pafunda, Elisabeth Workman, Jennifer L. Knox, and many others probing language in and through feminist genealogies (among others).

In her conversation with Liew, Ko talks of her writing as resistance to “silencing and repression.” She was, in that moment, speaking of her own, within personal contexts – though recent events and conversations/arguments across literary communities have been echoing that same urgent theme on a public and social scale. Ko: “I was frozen-over and latent for almost a decade. Then I started writing, and this manuscript is what I got from just beginning to take account of all that’s going on…” This narrative surrounding the book’s origins, plus the fascinating/romantic tidbit from her bio that she wrote it in Wyoming, for me saturate the poems with an extra aura of personhood that poses, or maybe is disguised as, the figure of the prairie lighthouse featured in the third part.

Motherlover progresses through three sections, ranging drastically in tone and form, but orbiting around common subjects, among them relationships (and relationship trauma), emotional repression (and the backlash against it), violence (and what it begets… and a person’s surreal, underwater recognition that those things are fucked – even when they have been grossly normalized.

In the first section and long poem, “GASLIGHT,” we find early on a reference to “folie et deux” – literally, madness shared by two, or in psychological terms, shared psychosis – yet in the very next breath, something is already breaking through/into that corrupted bubble: “Suddenly a difference / Sent to illumine the insides”

In “GASLIGHT,” the speaker revisits childhood experiences, including several that speak to a “you” implicated by “folie et deux,” stating at one point nakedly:

I’ve been sorry to you my whole life
that you couldn’t prevent bad things from happening to me

The voice often takes on a blasé tone, as if growing desensitized in the cycle of reckoning:

Again and again I bury you after

I find you cold in the morning.

And at a few striking moments, it becomes almost extravagantly grotesque:

When you slice me open
cutting the bright perfect rind,
you see the insides green and black,
putrid little girl bangs swirled inside with other rot.

The tonal patterns established in the first part – alternating with scary precision between poetic/pretty and menacing/visceral – intensify and continue through the books’ middle section, “BODY.” Here a significant other is often addressed, instead of a parental figure, but we see the eerie recurrence of loathing of self/other informed by what one inherits, told by close-up speakers in first- and second-person that is somehow both intimate and chilly:

I am disgusting. Raised to be a bride, to hate myself for it, I come to
you full of brides.

There is no room in my heart for important men who
surround themselves with flowers. Take the garland of wives
and daughters from around your neck. That you feel safe they
would not choke you makes me sick.

The section generates kinetic energy through its oscillations, lifting and dropping from concrete image to interiority, from kinda joking to dead fucking serious, from brevity to expansiveness, from prosaic language in regulated lines to sonically-centered inventions. Even from the back-and-forth between simple, one-word titles, such as “Flora” quoted above, and those that strain their boundaries, spilling out into texts of their own, as in “Crouching Down to Crawl Beneath, Letting the Desk Enfold Me, I Curl Up For Secular Dreams. Where Is My Legacy? Not Here.” Here the title carries its own distinct voice and serves almost as a short counterpoint poem to the poem that follows:

In dreams I am no one’s lover. I wake up, find my fingers do not
meet when handling your throat with both hands.

Through moments like this, where the speaker fantasizes choking or some other violence against a lover, the poet and reader are pulled along in what we are used to calling a circle or cycle of violence. Though I say slinky is a more apt metaphor: it pulls its own weight. The force acts upon the mass, until the mass acts upon itself. In “I’m Wide Awake in This Recurring Dream,” a speaker recognizes neutrally but can’t alter her own participation in this:

I can’t stop watching myself from a distance
As my splitjaw gapes

Like a triumphant snake’s

In “Nine-Tailed Fox Is Reborn in the Wrong Country,” one of a few centerpieces of the collection, we go through a catalog of cruel imperatives in terrifying specificity. Mother, father, car mechanic, school-bus driver, ex-boyfriend, supervisor, and others are commanded to do her harm, with the alarming but it-makes-perfect-sense effect of putting the power back in the hands of the one commanding: “overpower my lap with your smooth heavy hips” and “break my nose with hardback books” and “twist my shovel teeth around in their sockets so the little / curves face out.”

Ko outlines a few different territories of wanting, from romantic relationships (wanting/loathing to be a bride) to family (fear/guilt/grief), from traces of childhood to presages of motherhood – to which the book’s title makes us give special attention. “Baby Shower,” an understated and powerfully affecting piece, meditates on the speaker’s brief pregnancy and its end, with Ko’s expert cool-cum-poignant tone:

So many years preparing. For nothing, it turns out.
Afterward the skin on my cheeks frescoed hard and glossy. It could be a tragic Greek mask but I’m actually OK.

Later, in “Prayer for What’s Close,” she returns to a list of wishes, the prayers of a body and soul grown in and among unavoidable cultures of harm:

Let me feel safe enough to have a child someday

It is here, at the book’s center, that something close to resolution is found. In “Prayer for What’s Close,” the speaker buoys herself through acceptance: “I’m ready for the sharpness of this because now I know that it’ll be sharp” and in “Starve the Beast” stirs up some encouragement in the form of a brief manifesto on going forward: “… Heart!     Parcel out what ails you so that we / can start living well.”

Empowerment lies in choosing: to welcome the sting of “sharpness” while rejecting the deeper/uglier threats of evisceration, drowning, being swallowed whole, of neglect, shame, and erasure.

The third and final section of the collection, “PRAIRIE LIGHTHOUSE,” consists of twenty-seven poems titled “Day Mark” and “Night Signature,” a reference to the system of signals used by lighthouses during the daytime and nighttime. Maybe the code-breaker in you can uncover a message in the sequence of titles themselves, accompanied by their simplified symbols, which remind one of full and new moons, of signs for “on” and “off,” even of the “dit” and “dah” of Morse code, and other binary structures that play so significantly in this work.

In one of the “Night Signature” poems, we find an example of Ko’s pairing of precise image with personal experience, often leading to a dreamlike effect with its pedestrian strangeness:

I float prone and try to forget I’m prone. My sinking feet keep
kicking up silt clouds from the bed,
and I do not wash very far downstream

Finally, with a striking move toward minimalism, the final two poems of the book (spoiler alert) are pared down and quieted to a single line each. It’s as if Ko has pruned the shrub to its base, to start again calmly, with a reverberating message of optimism, another prayer: “May this range be one of work and love” and facing it, an answer: “From the top of the fortress two leaps of light take turns.”

There’s a kind of fish that has a bioluminescent belly. Its underside lights up so that when predators look up from the depths, it is camouflaged against the sunlight above. These poems have that kind of protecting/uncanny light: a kind of brilliance against carnage. Glowing as a way of hiding, giving off your own light in the attempt to preserve yourself and the small beauties around you.

So we’re asked again: What if you find yourself wrecked/reckless in the middle of an inherited continent? Let the lighthouse be your body. Let your voice throw the light. How many and what kind of shipwrecks we will avoid in this way. In Motherlover, Ginger Ko is strobing sharp/tender signals into the dark – for her own safety and for ours – if we heed them, if we know how to read them.

Bloof Books, 2016

Jennifer Fossenbell lives in Minneapolis, writes poems, teaches composition, tends a toddler, and is getting ready to move to Beijing. Look her up if you’re in the area: