REVIEW: Apologies by Kristin P. Bradshaw

apologies

by Nicky Tiso

In her 2014 Burning Deck book Apologies, divided into two sections (drafts 1-73 and drafts 75-123), the question for language artist Kristin P. Bradshaw is what are we sorry for: “a new religion? a social-political discourse? a queer’s life?,” the back cover probes. This frank discussion of religion, politics, and sexuality is handled much more allusively inside the book, where “exploded” free-verse lyric stanzas, reminiscent of Sappho, smolder. Tracing a spirit, a longing, across personas, in Apologies “an I acts out in turns / each refraction of a Self,” in the form of poems framed like journal entries, like love letters, like laundry lists, and other marginalia, with both the sense of being quickly jotted and yet meticulously arranged. Like Susan Howe, Bradshaw combines historical scholarship and experimental poetics into a powerful lyric current. In its grip, erasure and fragment form a Jabèsian commentary on absence, exile, and nomadism (13):

:quote1

With an abstract determination, Apologies moves across imaginary topographies towards the codified sunset. Poems like “for Oregon” invoke the landscape of the American dream in relation to “referents, saddened” by proximity to war and economic decline, while locating “hope in the space between” these outsourced atrocities, where a quiet confessional resolve, “hungry and tired and in need of water,” tries to find what it means to be American.

Of course, movement itself is American, as Gertrude Stein noted in her nonstop prose in The Making of Americans:

I am always trying to tell this thing that a space of time is a natural thing for an American to always have inside them as something in which they are continuously moving.

So I see similarly American existential momentum in Apologies, like when Bradshaw’s narrator writes (60):

going against the rhythms of speech:

quote2

What we get is an ego aware of its artifice, moving between self-expression and self-reflexivity, the secular and the sacred, with synesthetic leaps that give language a sensuous physicality. Bradshaw’s MA in Religion appears to really animate her poetics, wherein the narrator’s voice is poised at a crisis of faith, not only sentimental, but ontological (49):

quote3

In two different stanzas we see a constancy of structure across contextual shift, and the repetition of formatted blank space draws our attention to it as a metaphor for movement, place, and death. Quiet and tempered, but polyvocal and foreboding, Apologies is a haunting of language and identity that works in nonlinear, nonnarrative sequence to explore “the paradoxical state of the spectre, which is neither being nor non-being,” to quote scholar Lisa Gye on the concept of hauntology, a Derridian term that is useful for analyzing a book with this much spiritual possession (59):

qhote4

The bracketed space represents infinite potential in a combinatory sequence—non-being—while the line below it (“canaries and other yellow birds.”) represents a possible but nonbinding variable in an endless, Baudrillardian circus of signs, into which the narrator projects their exiled, queer desires. The structural vacancy and rhetorical posturing can feel cold, but the weird and beautiful thing about Bradshaw’s writing is how quickly it can oscillate from the godless abyss back to the intimate and quotidian, warmly drawing you in (75):

quote6

Due to its ecclesiastical diction (“oh my sabellian heart!”), unconventional dramatic structure (more of an elongated suspense than a conflict-climax-resolution), and spectral personae, this book of poems might come across too pedantic for some, too obscure for others; but if you appreciate what Language poetry and theological studies have in common, the transcendental lyricism of Apologies echoes Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop’s own experimental virtuosity and profound vision, establishing Bradshaw as a dope protégé.

Apologies is available from Burning Deck.

Nicky Tiso is an MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota. His first poetry manuscript, Cata/strophe, was a 2014 finalist for 1913 Press’ Prize for First Books, judged by Claudia Rankine.

REVIEW: Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Light

61LDDfJJwVL

by Michael Wasson

Can it look so effortless to locate us in a bright opening as Souvankham Thammavongsa’s book Light? Her collection begins, “This is a clearing,” a spatial entrance so cleared of everything but one caveat, or “one rule,” that you “will bind to yourself like a promise / to begin.” In a way, we’re guided along and given a clear outline.

At the outset, the speaker brings us in, demonstrating how to start. With such a deft and soft hand, Thammavongsa doesn’t so much as urge as she lets us become receptacles to the possibilities of what’s before us: light, shapes, direction, and the very marked contours that remain here.

Reading Thammavongsa’s Light, we can’t help but feel opened, but not so much in a vulnerable way—as in grief or bearing fresh wounds—but merely as passive bodies left open at the lips pressed between the dark and light, the point at which a singular transformation enters us so easily. And to be transformed openly is a common concern for these poems:

fie mot is what happens when you’re not expecting it

This poem “Fie,” one of many that examines how another language says light or some sort of light source, shows us how to say fire in Lao. Going through the foundation word of fire, or fie, provides us then with how to say words for flashlight, fire when it burns through structures, or the sound of thunder. In Thammavongsa’s gentle surgery and guidance through several languages, we are in the audience role as a vessel—simply driven in place to receive, not expecting complex issues or dense manifestos.

Thammavongsa’s poetry is one leaning on the grace of simplicity, never overtly didactic, never verbose or meandering. Each poem explores our central theme: light. To be lit, to experience its absence, to need it, to part with it, to experience how slowly devoured we are by its presence, and in a way, almost speak for it.

Also, in the same vein, Thammavongsa illuminates the “marks”—I’d clarify as the “letters”—of her poems, allowing the whitespace to create clearer utterances within her poems. Her lines seem airy, almost floating. They are wrought with her initial declaration of “This is a clearing,” which we can then realign as “these are clearings,” creating a link from the book as a whole all the way down to the light pooling between her syntax. It’s a lovely, threaded effect.

Like light, Thammavongsa’s Light touches on so many aspects on a human’s life, too—failure, preparing for a return, text on the page, ceremonializing awe, love, and the beauty of continuation, as in the poem “Mountain Ash,” in which we know “Ash is what fire leaves behind” but we are challenged to consider that there is more: “Whatever we know of fire, we know it is not done.”

The most salient poem of the book, I find, is “Questions Sent to a Light Artist That Were Never Answered,” an unforgettable piece that equally critiques and advocates our obsessions:

  1. When you think about the word light, what comes to mind first?
  1. Do you work with real light (light from the sun) or only with electrical light?
  1. What are you trying to do with light?
  1. Do you think or work with the dark?
  1. What can’t you get light to do?
  1. Why light?

This book straightforwardly articulates its singular concern, thereby letting its source to permeate from the speaker’s vantage point. Again, we remain open, we are accepting, and ultimately we are changed in the process.

And in all its observations from a giant squid’s eye (that could absorb so much light but why so when it lived “where there was no light at all”) to the refracted, anaphoric effect of constant memories of one’s life surfacing, Light is a rich, enlightening experience that honors human curiosity. It’s a journey that I’m delighted to have embarked on with such a clear-eyed guide as Souvankham Thammavongsa.

Light is available from Pedlar Press

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

REVIEW: Dead Horse by Niina Pollari

niina-pollari-dead-horse-cover

by Douglas Piccinnini

Niina Pollari’s acerbic debut, Dead Horse, lives in the foreclosed present of the American Dream and yet, it is dressed with ancient feelings. For a reader feels the urge of the Latin antiphon, “[i]n the midst of life we are in death and, is also seduced in the throes of a young Morriseyshirt half-opensigning “in the midst of life we are in debt, etc.

Pollari’s complicated ennui faces “the pathless darkness / [d]arkening more.” Suffused in a desire for somethinga sign, anythingher speaker presses against the dissonance of the age,

It feels like noise
From headphones, in the air
In my hand, static
We stand still as coins
Silent
The apocalypse I feel
Is turning itself up like snow
On a dead channel

This casual, almost trite confession of a lost connection—of a “static” feeling, is familiar. And to look back a century passed in a few lines from Paul Verlaine’s “Apathy,” the affectation’s ageless, universal quality reveals itself.

The lonely soul is heartsick with this dreary
boredom. They say, down there a battle rages.
Ah, if only I weren’t so lack and weary,
if I could bloom a bit in this dull age!

The distorted “noise” and “static” that Pollari’s speaker addresses is a function of what money, or lack thereof can do: time and labor involved in a dollar as a unit of currency is silenced by it’s ability to be uniform—a symbolic object that rich or poor use in the same service. A coin is perhaps the strangest common object people encounter everyday; it is loaded with symbolism. And, while this relationship of money to gold and its promise is silent, the inequality of money is silencing.

The capital in capitalism, “like snow / on a dead channel” is a bleak truth. It begets the unrest caused by the severe financial disparities of late-capitalism.

It is this disconnect that pricks an apocalyptic nerve. Pollari’s poker-faced delivery of lines like “[t]he imported shoreline is washed away each year” embodies the millennial dilemma: the inevitability of a future debt compounding our existing
debt.

In “I Owe Money, debt not only defines, it radiates in the superficially baffling way that No Credit is Bad Credit threatens populations into the sudden accretion of crippling financial obligations.

I owe money, a large amount
Tied to my name, and following me around
The hundreds of dollars I relinquish every month
I don’t even miss it
Paying money is part of me
Like my human face
The amoebic debt that sparkles around me
Like a beautiful shirt
And,
Ownership is gathering things
And gathering things is a kind of self-definition
So just like that, I have gathered debt
And so I own money and let it define me

“Ownership” is “self-definition” is owing money. This debt is a type of added value. It offers a sense of worth, “like a beautiful shirt” you buy that maybe you shouldn’t but you do anyway.

The pissed-off feeling braided into this kind of institutionalized spending resides in the promise of potential, the fake it to you make it offering of every borrowed purchase made in promises.

***

Consider a few lines in exchange between Rocco and Leonora in Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Fidelio,

Rocco:

If we have no money, love cannot comfort bring,
Sadly life drags on, and sorrow follows
But when the coin jingles in the pockets,
Then fate is our prisoner.
Yes, gold brings love and power,
And all our wisher fills.
Happiness is the slave of gold;
Oh what a precious thing is gold!
Nought with nought united, what remains?
At dinner sweet love, and after dinner hunger;
May fate smile upon you and bless your endeavors.
Arm in arm, plenty of money in the purse;
Many a year you thus live.
Yes, happiness is subservient to gold:
oh what a precious thing is gold!

Leonora:

You can easily say so, Mr. Rocco;
Yet in truth now there is something
else which would not be less precious
to me; but I observe with sorrow that
with all my endeavors I cannot attain it.Rocco:

And what is this?

Leonora:

Your confidence […]

The certainty of our lives: life is a debt we pay by dying. We live in this debt as characters that seek the acceptance of our times.

***

In Francisco Goya’s etching, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” the epigraph reads, “[f]antasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels. The critic Colta Ives notes, the etching “shows the artist overwhelmed by the torments of his own mind.” Perhaps this is always the case. “Overwhelmed by the torments” of one’s own mind, a fantasy of the future is erotic in it’s potential.

Debt is to desire a certain future though we are never exactly in it. We arrive in a version of our desire, our dream. Pollari’s speaker survives at the crosshairs of time. She writes,

And how an hourglass is wide on both ends
But wide enough in the center for one grain only
That image is my voice
Working in my throat

In the present, at a center that is just “wide enough,” there is the sense of all grains that have yet to pass through the waist of the hourglass and all the grains that already have.

The voice of these poems, like a grain of sand part of a larger beach, is fated to a kind of eternal erosion.

I look at pictures of myself sometimes
And I can see my skeleton
Skull all hard
Around the eyes
Where they sink in a little
These pictures are rare but becoming less so

It’s blue around the eyes sockets
Like a mortal gleam

Pollari’s poems make apparent the baleful rule of existence—if you are alive you will die. Moreover, the inherent drama of your life is that it’s your own and “[t]he death of a body means nothing / [u]nless it’s your own.” Pollari strives at an elusive, perhaps selfish clarity, predicated in an interior knowledge that reflects her speaker’s environment. However, the environment has little to confess. It is opaque. The rules of nature and the rules of living were made by some other agent. The resulting position of Pollari’s speaker becomes one of both suspicion and indifference.

Nature bores me
The way a thing I don’t understand bores me
Like when I looked at an article about plagiarism
Sometimes I just can’t think about something
I can only describe it with words.

***

Norma Cole writes, “a poem is a made place, a deedless deed that stakes out or constellates ambiguity without laying claim to it, without attempting to master or contain it.” The seemingly wavering intention of a “deedless deed” or a kind of nontransferable gesture is the cultural capital of a poem, a poet. Niina Pollari’s Dead Horse gives a kind of evidence to the human condition—gives audience to the deed of living and the manifold misdeeds we are born into—“etc., etc., etc.

Dead Horse is available from Birds, LLC.

Douglas Piccinnini was born in New York City in 1982. His writing has appeared in Antioch Review, Diner Journal, Jacket, Lana Turner, NYTimes.com and, The Poetry Project Newsletter—among other publications. He has been awarded residencies by The Vermont Studio Center, Art Farm in Marquette, NE and, The Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia. In 2014, he was selected by Dorothea Lasky as a winner of the Summer Literary Seminars. He is the author of the forthcoming novella, Story Book (The Cultural Society) and collection of poems, Blood Oboe (Omnidawn).

REVIEW: After The Fox by Travis Nebula and Sarah Suzor

download

by Tim Etzkorn

One of the finest wedding stories I’ve heard is a tale of missed connections made. A man and a woman sat across from each other on Denver’s Light Rail. Both parties were struck by each other, but each of them neglected an interaction. The woman remained absorbed in her copy of Albert Camus’ The Stranger; the man, weary from his work day, gave in to timidity and said nothing. That night, the man made a post on Craigslist’s “Missed Connections” titled, To the girl reading Camus.

This bride and groom got together but only after missing each other and existing in a space of wondering what could have been. There is, in my opinion, something natively poetic about missed connections: a line misspoken or an opportunity missed to achieve something deeper enters a space of communicative slippage. With the actual connection absent, one accesses a space where memories and imagination holds court. One forgets moments of friction in favor of occasions of synergy; the lack that absence brings overshadows the shortcomings that presence brought. 

 Poetry often relies on communicative slippage to make or to challenge meaning. Poetic work employs missed connections in syntax, grammar, or meter to create or defy signifiers: lines miss each other, carry over, break apart, run on, or stop unexpectedly; words are elided, forgotten, and deleted; meter skips a beat here or adds a beat there. Similarly, a missed connection in real life allows us to forget, misremember, or rewrite a detail here or there to create a tale that is more to our liking, and almost inevitably, sights, sounds, smells, touches, and tastes are all altered to create something more evocative and more synthetically powerful.

This appears to be the realm in which Travis Cebula and Sarah Suzor’s After the Fox exists one of missed connections. Specifically, it is a lost opportunity between the voices of Morning and Nocturnal, two figures who necessarily must pass by each other eternally. In the context of After the Fox, the two have had some secret nighttime tryst, arguably aided by the bright night lights of modernity. The authors manage to reproduce and manipulate the discordant yet alluring nature of a missed connection in their epistolary poems that volley back and forth as Morning and Nocturnal constantly review memories and discuss what could be in the future – though palpably won’t come to pass.

The voices perpetually reflect on their relationship while failing to connect again. Hailing poem to poem, the two voices re-hash the past, articulate their dissatisfaction with the present, and allude to the impossibility of the future. Section one, “Atlantic,” situates the disintegrated relationship in the space of New York City. Morning and Nocturnal write back and forth with messages that are simultaneously provocative – particularly Morning – and evocative – particularly Nocturnal. Nocturnal reflects in a fashion that conflates a desire to return to their lost opportunity with a longing to forget about it:

 I wish for that time I forgot to dread you.
[…] I wish I could pour
all that distilled amber onto autumn’s
grass, drop a match,
and burn a patch of the world back
again. A black circle inversed
to then. (23)

 The utterance begins oblique: “I wish for that time I forgot / to dread you.” At that time Nocturnal enjoyed, embraced Morning’s presence; now the relationship is ruined, but despite this, the two voices can’t help but reminisce. Perhaps this is because these two can only have each other. They are bound together. Morning and Nocturnal must revolve around each other but constantly pass each other for all eternity.

Pages later, Morning replies:

And still you wonder,
what more did we need?
I’ll make you a list
while you sit there, writing down your wishes,
waiting for magic to burn a patch of the world back.
No, that was a good one. (25)

 Morning challenges Nocturnal. It eliminates the we in favor of an I, claiming it had a list’s worth of wants in the relationship. Both voices murmur lines that mingles nostalgia and desire with deletion. Nocturnal states that it wants to “drop a match, / and burn a patch of the world back / again. A black circle inversed / to then.” Is Nocturnal looking to get rid of their past experience, to remove memories to darkness, or is it looking to return a circle of life, of memory to then? It is intentionally ambiguous, and Nocturnal likely desires both. Morning responds by mocking Nocturnal’s line: “I’ll make you a list / while you sit there, writing down your wishes,  / waiting for magic to burn a patch of the world back.” Morning implies the ludicrous nature of this wish, but then concedes: “No, that was a good one.” Mornings claim is vague. Readers do not know whether Morning is referring to the line or to the sentiment, and most likely, Morning is trying to mask its nostalgia for the opportunity that the two had.

 Morning and Nocturnals connection is quite complicated though. They are stuck together, always passing each other, just barely. Cebula and Suzor’s Morning and Nocturnal seem to know this too, to know that they cant properly have each other, yet they are bound to each other. The two voices close the work in a quip to quip interaction. Nocturnal says, “In other words, I figure I will keep on / going. In other words, so will you.” Morning concludes the work, two statements later:

I know.
I will always be all the same.
I know. I’ve seen the fox at dawn.
There, chasing its tail. I know.
There’s a chance to stop,
and there’s a chance to keep going. (100)

Perhaps chance isn’t the right word here. But then again, that feels deliberate. The two want to have chances; they want to have choices. In reality though, there’s no occasion to stop, only to keep going. The two press on. As long as the earth turns, Morning and Nocturnal will pursue each other. They will always want what they can’t have: natural togetherness. And they will always longingly remember their scarce connection: dawn, dusk, and the strange happenings allowed by the ever burning night lights of cities.

After The Fox is available from Black Lawrence Press.

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

REVIEW: Undocumentaries by Rosa Alcalá

undocumentaries

by Jose Angel Araguz

…what I write isn’t memoir or autobiography; it’s sometimes messy and discursive and collaged—call it lyric, experimental, what have you—but I’m not ashamed to say that I “draw” (I’m thinking of both a graphic mark and a blood-draw) quite a bit from autobiography, that identity is central to my work

(Alcala, PSA)*

…a graphic mark and a blood-draw –

Within the idea of the artist’s mark, there is the implication of creation, of continuing to work at something fresh. The graphic mark also carries ideas of control and exploration. The blood-draw, on the other hand, brings in a world of double meaning. Because it is blood, it is intimate, it is physical and fluid and life. Blood is also family, where one comes from. Yet, the blood-draw also brings to mind the hospital. The blood-draw within this context is also life: blood is drawn for the sake of others, in this case not family in the strict sense, but the family of blood types, the tribes of positive and negative and neutral. Between these two ideas of drawing, the world of Undocumentaries can be said to unfold.

In the poem “In the Waiting Room,for example, the reader follows the meditation of the speaker as she, “sit[s] for hours looking at open-mouthed babies” (Alcala 75). The meditation moves from the immediate scene to the political implications, both of being a young woman having to “submit/to the whole silly production” as well as the knowledge that:

…within
the cluster of beings the technician
examines for future antagonisms
against the state, it will never find one
worthy of being knighted, no perfect
English gentleman.

The poem takes on another layer at this point, moves from ideas of womanhood to ideas of race. The tension in these ideas lies in both the lightheartedly cynical phrasing of “silly production” on one end, and the calling of the doctor as “technician” and children as “future antagonisms.” These choices in diction set up a speaker able to make the distance of language allow for an intimacy in feeling. The poem continues:

English gentleman. This my mother knew
despite all the fanfare about Charles and Diana’s
wedding: princes and kings marry their own:
keep washing the dishes (except she said it
in Spanish).

The rumination on race becomes one on motherhood, specifically the speaker’s mother. Race remains prominent, however, in the content of what exactly her mother “knew.” Her mother knew of segregation as much as daydreaming: knew about class as much as glamor. Family here is presented as where one draws their knowledge of the world from.

Furthermore, family becomes what is learned as well as relearned:

…As early as possible,
we learn to flirt with the guy who sells or makes
bed springs, those things beneath us
that cushion our sleep. Someone who never
discusses what he does, and works overtime
to bring the rest of his family
over.

The unspoken comes into play here in the potential “Someone who never/discusses what he does,” and echoes much of what the book is about: the “undocumentary” as what is left unsaid or unshown.

This exploration of the tension between said/unsaid and shown/unshown is continued in “Confessional Poem,where the image of a clothesline is taken on for its narrative potential. Alcala jumps right into the clothesline as metaphor for the poetic line with the first lines:

The girl next door had something to teach me
about what to air: On the line
somebody’s business gets told
then recounted; it’s best to thread a tale
for the neighbors, an orchestration
of sorts…
(21)

What is immediately striking about these lines is their confidence, their almost swagger, which
challenges the conventional notions of gossip the clothesline carries. These lines, in their tone and knowing, bring to mind the work of Sylvia Plath – a connection furthered by the choice of title “Confessional Poem.” At other points in the book, Alcala shows an awareness of writing within a poetic tradition (“A girl like me falls in love/with Yeats/and never recovers” from the poem “Undocumentary” is but one example), but nowhere else does the writing both indicate and challenge a specific tradition as it does here. The comparison to Plath is in terms of tone as well as the awareness each poet shows at working at a craft that is as much manipulation as a magic born of honesty.

…You wouldn’t know it
from the delicates I roll
into the yard. It’s all the same peek-a-boo lace
and stunted imagination. Of course,
all of this is scanty truth

Within the context of a poem called “Confessional Poem,” words like “delicates,” “peek-a-boo lace” and “scanty” are charged with multiple layers of meaning. One marvels at the wordplay at first for the skill on the poet’s part, and later for what it says of the speaker of these words, the self-deprecating air the words hang in. In drawing out the metaphor of the clothesline, Alcala presents a speaker aware of the insidious nature of narrative, how it has both the potential for showing as well as concealing. No story is the whole story. For a poem with the word “Confessional” in the title, very little is confessed. In fact, the idea that something personal can come through in a poem is challenged. Yet, in developing ideas of ways that narratives can be created and manipulated, the speaker of this poem gives an almost truer confession: the confession of a magician drawing back the curtain, the confession of a poet who knows how much control they have over language and how little control they have over life.

The poems final note drives this point home:

…Who hangs anything out to dry
when invention has halved the work?

This “halving” implies what is left unsaid in the act of documenting. The poems of Undocumentaries, at their most powerful, draw out – graphically, viscerally – the unsaid.

*(opening quote taken from “Latino/a Poetry Now: 3 Poets discuss their art (Rosa Alcala, Eduardo C. Corral, Aracelis Girmay).” Melendez, Maria. Poetry Society of America, n.d. Web. 22 Nov. 2013).

Undocumentaries is available from Shearsman Books.

José Angel Araguz, author of the chapbook Corpus Christi Octaves, is a CantoMundo fellow. Winner of RHINO Poetry’s 2015 Editor’s Prize, he has had poems recently in Blue Mesa Review, Pilgrimage, and NANO Fiction as well as in the anthology Goodbye Mexico: Poems of Remembrance. He is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. He runs the poetry blog, The Friday Influence.

REVIEW: contraband of hoopoe by Ewa Chrusciel

contraband of hoopoe

by Liz McGehee

“We are…the ruthless blood of ancestors” (19).

Imbued with the aching linage of immigrants, Ewa Chrusciel’s contraband of hoopoe is as astonishing as it is honest. Chrusciel’s bright plumage of language builds an ever-displaced nest for her readers in what manifests as pastoral of the relocated other.

Contraband, present in the title, meaning the smuggling or illegal import or export of goods, is more applicable to persons than “goods” or physical objects. The smuggling of souls, traditions, and ways of being are ever-present in Chrusciel’s second book of English language poems:

“Smuggling is translation…It is—for those who are unable to let go—nesting in two places at once…Both translation and smuggling come from longing for presence. From a loss. They speak of insufficiency of one life, one language.” (55).

The emblematic bird melees with clipped wings against her cultural erasure. Neither blending nor allowed to be. Moments of directness juxtapose with symbolic animal imagery, tethering the treatment of immigrants in the west to that of something less than human and to a clear system, which enforces such practices. The ugliness glossed over in American history becomes fully exposed in the radiance of Chrusciel’s prose.

“When I cross the border, I start hiccupping. The officer stares at my
nipples. I carry wonder inside me. I bring abundance. I stir the wings
within him” (13).

Chrusciel said in an interview with Colby Sawyer College that, “Writing in English is the work of smuggling metaphors from one language into another. It is a work of mistranslation. I am a smuggler because I do not like to renounce anything. I want to keep both of the languages and both of the worlds.”

The poems enact this division with the juxtaposition between the direct and indirect, the rapid transitions between animal poems and immigrant poems that take two contrasting approaches on the same subject. “Smuggling” never disappears for long in the text. The narrator deliberates [about] metaphorically “smuggling” her mother’s heirlooms back into the United States. She knows that keeping or bringing things from her homeland is punishable by law, and implicates any form of dissent from Americanization and cultural assimilation an act of treason charged by these new surroundings. The relocated are suspect merely by existing, trapped as other in a strange land.

“…In western
countries there was paper, but no truth to write on it. We knew the
truth, but had no paper. No paper to wipe off the system. We carried
it like a turf on our asses. What is this culture that cannot regenerate
itself by healthy digestion? This is where we beheld the system” (16).

Here, we see traces of the implemented literary tests after the Immigration Act of 1917 meant to exclude immigrants on their ability to convert to the conquerors language. This poem enacts the disability of such people to perform in foreign tongue as well as the squelching of diversity encountered at western borders.

The author’s direct confrontation with human experience, a range of animals, trees, and prayers follow us from poem to poem, embodying dislocation in this tyrannical landscape. Chrusciel invokes the great flood myth of Noah’s Ark, a myth existing across nearly every culture in one form or another but only recognized in the west via the bible.

Early in Chrusciel’s text Noah appears as smuggler:

“Noah smuggled a blue-footed booby in his resin boat. But how was
infinity smuggled in the blue feet of the booby? It crouched in his
webbed feet and chanted madrigals. Booby, you strut your blue feet in
the air and point the human species to the sky. No smuggler can get
hold of your blueness. You are the incarnation of the sky…” (30).

Noah is simultaneously savior and oppressor. In the poem, he takes it upon himself to save the booby, which has no desire for rescue, forcing it into the post-flood world now dictated by Noah and God. He embodies the insidious western, Christian colonization virusing its way across humanity. Noah’s prayers later develop into fins, allowing him mobility through this new domain where the animals become fixed.

No hierarchy of the soul exists but we witness a crafted system of inequality implemented by individuals with disproportionate power. Life dwells not only within animals, but trees, and other parts of nature in the text, ascribing to pre-colonized religions. Chrusciel creates a totem pole, always honoring the ancestors, always championing equity, and revealing a naturalized system.

 “There is no life for them in the old Continent, these pigeons called
rats. They have acquired the wrong reputation. They coo their litanies.
They sing to the faces of their landlords. They congregate on balconies
To interfere with Sunday hymns. The pigeons are better worshipers,
truer…” (22).

There is something akin to the oral tradition of the American slaves running through the book. Perhaps to remind us the law once protected that slavery, and likewise, immigration laws continue to subjugate the other, the non-conformist, and the diverse, stifling languages and deviant voices. Chrusciel reminds us that we are still being internally colonized.

The hoopoe, which hails from Africa, is referenced in the Quran (verse 27:20) and Chrusciel quotes this verse on the very last page, “How is it that I see not the hoopoe, or is he among the absent?” The reply in the Quran (not mentioned in the text) states:

 “But the hoopoe tarried not far: he compassed (territory) which thou has not compassed …” Quran 27:22.

We can interpret this in contraband of hoopoe as the internal, the soul, a territory that can never be subdued, though many will try. Despite the overwhelming assault of limitation, Chrusciel leaves us with this hope of inward mobility.

 “The most fantastical truths can be smuggled only through the windy labyrinths of our body’s cavity” (19).

That is that, when the body cannot travel, it is the soul that must fly.

contraband of hoopoe can be found on Omnidawn’s website.

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

REVIEW: Begging For It by Alex Dimitrov

dimitrov450
by Safia Jama

Alex Dimitrov’s debut poetry collection, Begging for It, explores some old-fashioned literary themes—romance, sex, heartbreak, beauty, and the American dream.

Dimitrov’s America shares a kinship with American film.  The speaker of “Heartland” opens the book with the sweet swagger of John Wayne: “In America, I stopped to listen for God” (1).  But God never really answers, or not in the way a boy expects, and America steps in to fill the silence.  A romance ensues, ending with the collection’s final poem, “I’m Always Thinking About You, America.”  Here the speaker’s tone has the casual, brazen timbres of a breakup line in the Internet age: “Zero apologies today but of course, there were things we did and didn’t do” (26).

One of the delights of this debut lies in that poetical device known informally as The Great Line.  Here are some of my personal favorites.

From “Blue Curtains”: “And all I remember is how expensive it was. / Not the room, but the feeling” (15-16).

From “The Fates”: “If this was a painting and not a dream, / I’d study the surface a long time, / and wonder where the light comes from” (7-9).

From “You Are a Natural Wonder”: “Suppose I never make it to San Francisco / or stop trying to describe the light in Paris // in those brief violet hours between three and five / when we are permitted happiness” (1-4).

As the title promises, Begging for It is full of longing, and poetry is the only true antidote.  The speaker of “After Love” addresses a lover: “In the first poem I wrote after you left, I killed you” (1).  That poem was the revenge, this one the memento by which to remember (and keep) the love alive: “But this is the poem I kept—/ it’s years ago and we’re in bed” (5-6).  Time is a tool for the poet to bend and manipulate into reverie.

The encounters here are mainly between men and boys, boys being cast as the new girls.  The speaker even flirts with the reader on occasion, inviting his audience to participate.  In “I’m Lonely and I Love it,” the speaker examines the line in another way:

I’m in Paris,
sorry I can’t talk right now.
That’s a great lie, a great line.
When really, here I am boys!
On my bed and in my underwear
doing absolutely nothing.
Playing with my hair,
playing sad ridiculous pop songs. (7-14)

The poem’s title, apostrophe, and subject play like a sad, funny show tune.

Old-fashioned reverie, artifice, and careful attention to whimsy—it’s all here, and somehow it works.  Dimitrov breaks the rules, even writing a light verse love poem to James Franco: “James Franco, James Franco, I love you” (13). Seen in another way, the poem riffs on the Pandora’s box of persona and desire in a celebrity-driven culture.

Dimitrov’s America seems, at first, suspiciously uncomplicated—is this poetry celebrating assimilation?  All things American?  There is doubtless an obsession with youth, capitalism, pop culture—all from the vantage point of queer communities.  Yet the minimalist sketches of Dimitrov’s autobiographical narrative as the child of first generation immigrants grant him poetic license to fall in love with his curated America—i.e., New York.  One thinks of Jay Gatsby, although Dimitrov’s speakers also identify with Daisy, doomed to bad treatment and great looks: “It is early in the century and all the men are late” (“Self-Portrait as Daisy in the Great Gatsby,” 10).  Dimitrov’s flirtation with the American dream is a throwback to an old romance with America as something new and green.

The collection reads with the ebb and flow of a good party.  And you know what? A good party has a hallowed place in literature.  This one is haunted by the spirits of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Oscar Wilde, as well as late arrivals Brigitte Bardot, James Dean, and, yes, even James Franco.

Begging for It is available from Four Way Books.

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