REVIEW: Undocumentaries by Rosa Alcalá


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:

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

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…

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

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.



ESSAY: Dead Records in Suspension: A reading of Holly Melgard’s Reimbursement and Carlos Soto-Roman’s Chile Project (Re-Classified)


by Andy Martrich

Evidence, physical or otherwise, is seldom considered via its role in a collection as a materially reflexive component of the collection (i.e. content-as-content), and in lieu of the affective quality it exhibits. The appearance of a configurative substance within the given context of a life-cycle or an archive might commonly trigger a classification process that takes place within that constraint; however, it is seldom considered in terms of requisite permutations as a variable of retention. The process of classification does not inherently question whether or not the identifiers assigned to and inferred from content are prone to expiration. Poetic content, particularly in the sense that it appears as evidence, is typically viewed in the context of its designated container— a poem, poetry, indications of poetic diction or aesthetic form, a shape, etc. But how is a reader to view content that was formerly assigned a role (socially, culturally, politically) only to be set in motion within the parameters of a collection— modified, nullified, or destroyed? Holly Melgard’s Reimbursement (TROLL THREAD 2013) and Carlos Soto-Roman’s Chile Project (Re-Classified) (Gauss PDF 2013) are two such instances of content appearing as modified evidence on display— collections striving to convey a nuanced intention proxy to the manufacturer, producer, or socially dominant authority source through the suspension of records in apparent disposition.

Holly Melgard’s Reimbursement is a 228-page book/PDF predominantly composed of images of losing lottery tickets. The piece is duplicitous in its intention, serving as documentation of financial loss, and as a kind of fundraising effort on behalf of the collector, where the cost of one book will ultimately reimburse the amount of her gambling losses over a 6-year period. In the introduction Melgard writes,

The price to purchase this book is equivalent to the money I spent on losing lottery and scratch tickets over the last 6 years ($222), plus whatever Lulu charges for its print on demand services. Reimbursement is for the work. Whether you have to work to pay for it or not, regardless of my job, now it’s your turn.

Reimbursement, Page 1

Here the reader is treated to the ephemerality of the record in that it only serves as evidence of the intention of the collector and not independently (i.e. records in isolation do not exist). In effect, there is also the implication of the transformation of meaning through stages of hope (i.e. bureaucracy), systematic rejection, financial loss as a result of that rejection, evidence (within the role of the archive) of the collector’s activities and habits over a given time period (6-years) and location (New York), and inevitably, of the death of the record (regardless of its suspension as content) in that it has served as a representation of an event/evidence and is no longer useful in the context of its intended purpose of production (i.e. a lottery ticket mandated by New York state). Here the reader encounters a content that stagnates at the end of its retention period. Essentially, it either alters intention (moved or modified by way of an external authority) or enters the death phase (i.e. disposition). However, during the reading process the reader innately assumes that the records remain active, in forgetting that she or he is not participating in the process of accessing and viewing losing lottery tickets, but rather scans of losing lottery tickets.


The reader cannot know if the collector has participated in disposition, or even shredded evidence subsequent to its digitization. It is in this space of the modification, movement, and destruction of records (records in a constant ephemeral phase) where we encounter content in flux— not of sound, image, capacity, or even aesthetics— but rather of the seamless transformation of what all things do best: disappear (i.e. die and decay). What remains is evidence; what goes is poetic inference.

Given the absence of the physical evidence, there occurs a necessary suspicion of the authenticity of any documentation that the image might imply. If presented with the corporeal evidence, then perhaps what is read is the non-fiction of evidence, which portends the necessity of advocacy for the reimbursement of the collector’s finances. However, there is only the image (that becomes the object, privileged substitute of the physical, regardless of its intrinsic drive toward obsolescence) and the word of the collector (an admitted gambler and therefore less prone to be trusted in a fiduciary context), who decides what stays and what goes.

In place of images of losing lottery tickets, suppose the reader encounters a flyer intended to serve as an advertisement for karate lessons, but the date for the lessons has already past. The reader is immediately faced with a question: what happens to the karate lessons when they are no longer offered? In this question lies the predicament of records, particularly as ephemera, which more frequently than not inherently intend expiration/systematic rejection/social uselessness— essentially treading a very fine line between modification/movement and disposition/destruction. In this example, the karate lessons were offered at a particular place and time (i.e. culturally historicized), but if there is no physical evidence, there is no real way of knowing if we are being manipulated into believing that what we are encountering is in fact a double. This act cannot be derivative of the intention of the object, which will always intend if it is allowed to; however, it is by a matter of an overriding intention of an external dominance (i.e. a policy, curator, archivist, collector), which ultimately grants meaning to the archive. In this sense, a record is always dead until moved/modified, even if that modification entails its destruction. Archives are immaterial until an authority says otherwise, and therefore are pockets of solipsistic activity (activated into existence by an authorization). The reader has no choice but to believe the collector in the context of her collection, regardless if the records are dead or nonexistent.

In a similar manner, the collector may portend nonexistence in preference to existence. In Carlos Soto-Roman’s Chile Project (Re-Classified), there are two ostensible authorities contending to authorize record states: the collector and the CIA. These Cold War era documents regarding the intervention of the USA in the 1973 Chilean coup d’état were de-classified in 2000, while the collector re-classifies them (13 years later) by occluding the previously uncensored content of the documents. In effect, while the National Security Archive mandates a renewal of access to information, the collector rejects this renewal, perhaps even illegally according to the Terms and Conditions of the National Security Archive website.

You may not edit or otherwise change the substance of the content in any reproduction, publication, distribution, or transfer of an article or section of the Web site that is credited to the National Security Archive, except that you may excerpt portions of the content with credit to the author, where applicable, and the National Security Archive.

Regardless, the result is a 45-page PDF of choppy scans replete with black marks and scribbling.


Classified information exposes another layer of the collection. Not only are classified records considered to be vital, they also require staunch security measures to prevent access by uncleared persons. However, the collector modifies the role of the record by re-censoring de-classified content, exposing the record in its former state while simultaneously negating the intention. The reader is left to view dummy representations of the latent phase, a record in a perpetual state of modification (always on the cusp of movement) within the collection. Because a re-classified record insinuates a de-classified record, the reader infers that the de-classified content is accessible in another location (perhaps the National Security Archive website) even though the collector refrains from providing this information. Evidently, the collector prefers the death phase over the record’s assumed accessible state in an archival phase somewhere else. Again, what remains in the life-cycle is evidence; the record on the cusp of disposition or dead from the cycle becomes the poetic inference of the material— no longer accessible for the sheer fact that no one accesses it (i.e. records cannot exist in isolation) in lieu of an accessible counterpart or state. In this context, the re-classified records only intend the portrayal of a particular classified state (Secret and Confidential) that the reader may safely assume has in effect already succumbed to disposition.


In many instances throughout the piece, classification levels are hardly censored (crossed out but still legible). The reader is left to consider whether or not this is a double of the original censorship. If not, what exactly is the collector’s bias? Aside from classification levels, there are words that recur uncensored throughout the text, namely: Chile, Pinochet, Condor, Disappeared, Murder, and Death. Some documents contain more selective edits than others. The juxtaposition between pages 30 and 31 is particularly revealing:


Page 31 follows suit, a document heavily censored in sloppy black marker, while on the preceding page the collector exercises very selective censorship resulting in the concrete presentation of a cryptic message, “MURDER IS CONDOR DISAPPEARED CHILE NNN.” In this context, the piece appears to be an erasure; however, in a cohesive sense, it differs in its role of re-instating a security measure in the absence of a security-related reason (or at least without providing the reader with one), re-adding in lieu of eliminating. It is therefore indicative of the very opposite of erasure, in essence, a busted evidence— an evidence that breaks under the strain of its activation (res extensa via res cogitans) and responsibility as accessible material in the collection. It is not the erasure of content, but rather the destruction of form (in the sense of material rather than technique). The suspension of such evokes the corpse of its modification.

It is in the death phase that evidence becomes defective, transitory, and in turn, poetic. In this case, it is primarily noticeable when considering the reader’s inherent suspicion of authenticity in the wake of the collector’s overt request for money (Melgard), and the collector’s selective presentation of a former state, i.e. a dead self (Soto-Roman). In both cases, the suspension of the dead record articulates the infirmity of its role as content to a collection, where it is the authority itself in which the intention is commanded regardless of the production and essential corruption of the trustworthiness of a record as a record.

Andy Martrich is the author of Iona (BlazeVox), NJN Transition (Gauss PDF), and Monsanto Ballooning #1, forthcoming from Make Now. He lives in Dakar, Senegal.


Hi Volta Blog readers. Here are some things from around the web that we wanted to share with you.

• An interview with The Volta founding editor Joshua Marie Wilkinson, over at Entropy, about running the small press Letter Machine Editions.

• A review of Danny Snelson’s recent work of conceptual poetry, Epic Lyric Poem at Queen Mob’s Teahouse.

• At Table Talk, an interview with Charles Berstein, & some poems, too

• Over at Asympote, an interview with the Ilan Stavans, founder of Restless Books, a press that focuses on works in translation.

REVIEW: Names Disguised by Betsy Fagin


by Sally McCallum

There is something about Betsy Fagin’s poetry that snags me, that is interesting, but that I was having a hard time naming. Her recent chapbook, Names Disguised, takes place in three parts that address madness, wealth, buried eggplant, urban development, modernization & overconsumption, and greed. Among other things.

The sections of the chapbook’s three parts are entitled “names disguised,” “names assume life” and “given name.” So, naming: something this book refuses to do, or rather, refuses to do simply. For if there is one thing that will strike you about Fagin’s poetry, it may be the dearth of names, or, that is, of people who may have names, anyway. This is a world of participilized verbs, of absent pronouns, where agency falls on colors or abstractions:

intrepid potentials re-try opulence,
ragged. wandering on high
which ever way tossed & turned.
without lessons of sin
or rinsing clean.
to all, this love gushed
forth as from a fountain,
and to all the wings of hearing,
swift thanks. thanks a lot.

So that the world we enter seems strangely inhabited by mostly actions and nearly no agents. And yet – that last line, that last interjection. “swift thanks. thanks a lot.” Some one’s voice cuts through the remote country and makes it all real again. This effect occurs again and again:

anyone who was offered
that invitation
eschewed faith. fell,
grated, upon
a new delicacy.
shadows, gentlemen,
messengers of fidelity –
just when things were
getting started.

Do you see what I mean? Despite the elevated tone and sometimes abstract tendency of these poems, they are spoken by a gritty, grounded and deeply critical voice. These are thoroughly political poems.

gently boiled
fidelity is the ambassador of mind –
violent tearing
at a ribald sense of worship:
great men enjoy,
as a dog its license,
eating at the bowl
desirous of flight.
a painful return.

Imagine a world with no people, only parts. What’s the difference between a person and a thing, a subject and an object? By the time we reach the end of the second section – which focuses on buildings – in the poem “Transition Dynamics,” we’re totally unsure of ourselves the moment we meet poem’s first line: “one day will be homegoing.”

The first section, “Names Disguised” dreams of something fantastic, a world where “licorice profanities drip, fall” and “leaves are desirous / of election.” What I liked about this section was the way that, throughout its otherworld fabric, it uses the language of political unrest. One begins to imagine that the world of forgotten castles and ragged dead ivy that arises is actually our own America.

The second section critiques our built landscape. It was maybe my favorite part. Fagin examines the overlap between urban development and labor practices and over consumption. In the three-poem series “body and building,” she discloses how the same politics of space apply at the level of the built environment and the human body. The series, I believe, exhibits a bit of hope. In the “body and building.1” the built landscape enshrines the totalizing fantasy of modern technocapital:

a shrine of reason
in an unreasonable,

confused world
rationalized the hygienic

to function as clarity
precision, codified sanitation

However, by “body and building.3” our speaker has reached an alternate vision, one that, though not precisely optimistic, does dare to dream of a world outside capital:

exterior open space,
synthetic and composite,
contains a space of social action
ambiguous dwelling places –

There’s hope in that dream, no? Even if it is a dream for “increasingly / ambiguous and lawless times.”

These are poems born of necessary scrutiny. Scrutiny of how inequality and injustice are not only obvious: how they are arranged tightly even into our dreams and furniture. It’s a weird little book, and you’ll need time to dwell with it. Take the time, though.

Names Disguised is available from Make Now

Sally McCallum lives in Tucson and studies French, Creative Writing and English at the University of Arizona. She is co-editor of the Volta Blog.

REVIEW: Soft Pages by Kathleen Fraser


by José Angel Araguz

pelagic, if that’s how a particular moment keeps continuing
without one being able to stop it…(6).

I enjoy a text that has me walking away having learnt a new word. In the case of Kathleen Fraser’s Soft Pages – a lyrical prose sequence part of the Belladonna chaplet series – that word is pelagic, whose definition – living or growing at or near the surface of the ocean, far from land – is a key into the overall text.

Throughout Soft Pages, Fraser’s speaker presents a hybrid mix of travel journal/personal diary/writer’s meditation. The ambition of such a mix is reflected in the way the speaker boldly reconsiders and repurposes the aim of the narrative at several turns:

I must remember to enter the narrator’s life in as many ways as possible—
[by “must”, I mean that I crave intimacy and little corners but take
even more pleasure in distancing devices, while sniffing the smell of leftover
shampoo on a person’s damp terrycloth robe ](10)

This craving for “intimacy and little corners” as well as “distancing devices” implies a specific kind of tension behind the narrative. The structure of Soft Pages itself is less fragmented (nothing feels exactly missing or broken) and more loosely tethered, a kind of conceptual mobile capable of holding various meanings, which returns us to the image evoked by the word pelagic.

Fraser’s lyrical musings explore various aspects of the “soft pages” in her life – from notebook paper to photographs and a fan, the latter two conflated as the speaker of the text describes her direct physical experience as:

Not as definite as departure. Already it was following the camera’s path,
its ability to bunch up time, capture it incrementally or smoothly, into successive
unfoldings, compression fanning out through heat-laminated brick, golden
fade-out into transliteration of…pale fan sent from Tokyo, held in place by a
thin loop of silver paper, just at its breaking point, until the restraint had been
lifted away to release the motion of unfolding. Someone wanting the prop in
cultural time. May I demonstrate my lineage?”(6-7)

Through this kind of leap from similarity to similarity, Fraser constructs a reading experience about reading experiences. Instead of a distrust of being able to pin down human experience in words, one reads a speaker engaged with how things change as soon as you start to pin them down by naming them. In a scene, for example, of going through the motions of a public yoga session, Fraser’s speaker recounts looking for her particularly marked yoga mat, only:

to find, among the various colored blankets [the instructor] provided in a
wall cupboard at one end of the studio, a soft blue plaid that would draw me
into a state of calmness, as if the water in the river were also blue, instead of
muddy, and the sky an intense wintry cloudless blue , instead of burdening
the urban landscape with its heaviness of pale and dark grey storm clouds
waiting to break loose (8-9)

This kind of nuanced moment of insight, where realities are superimposed upon each other through the blur of memory and sensory perception, makes up a large of the pleasurable reading experience of reading Soft Pages. Throughout the sequence, one is given the workings of a mind who values the various “ultimate” meanings and profound epiphanies to be found, “Even as you walk towards the most simple morning task” (6).

Soft Pages is available as a free pdf at Belladonna*.

José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and has had work most recently in Borderlands, Blue Earth Review, and NANO Fiction. He is presently pursuing a Creative Writing and Literature PhD at the University of Cincinnati. He runs the poetry blog, The Friday Influence.