Review: My Secret Wars of 1984 by Dennis Etzel, Jr.


by Laura Madeline Wiseman

“You put your thumb on a button and somebody blows up 20 minutes later, says Ronald Regan,” writes Dennis Etzel, Jr. in the closing poem of My Secret Wars of 1984, a book that examines the words written and spoken by cultural figures like Ronald Regan during the culturally significant literary year of 1984. For Etzel, 1984 was the year he entered high school from middle school, the year his mother came out, and the year he played Dungeons and Dragons, while also reading books that appeared that year such as Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars. Etzel’s secret war reads like a chorus, for the voices here with quotes arranged alphabetically in 366 sentences for the leap year of 1985 include bell hooks, Lyn Hejinian, George Orwell, popular culture writers and editors, and the national weather service, for this storm of language also alludes to an ice storm in Topeka, Kansas, one that sheathed the city in cold, left over 80% of the population without power, and destroyed hundreds of trees trying to bare the weight of two inches of ice. Arranged as blocks of text, the poems offer voices that echo and complicate, layering meaning as they seem to reflect and trouble who spoke that year and why. Etzel writes,

An unspent lunch money becomes a sustenance of comic books. And a number of pages were excised by that agency head there, the man in charge, and he sent it on up here to CIA, where more pages were excised before it was printed, says Ronald Reagan. And as soon as we have an investigation and find out where any blame lies for the few that did not get excised or changed, we certainly are going to do something about that, says Ronald Reagan. And as the heroes watch, they are watched in turn. And each evening the pace back home matches the sun’s setting. And I start high school at my lowest. And now we are putting up a defense of our own, says Ronald Reagan. (23)

Here, former president Reagan’s quotations work as a sort of troubling reminder of the cold war tactics that pitted capitalism against communism, of the way politicians speak in the doublespeak that Orwell described in 1984, and of the concerns of teenagers finding imaginary superheroes and imaginary powers a solace amid troubling growing years, as much as the lines remind that Reagan lost his mind as so many do due to Alzheimer’s, a disease that eats holes in the brain and excises what one thought they knew by swapping it with others. The rigorous constraints of My Secret War of 1984 make this first full-length collection an enjoyable and creative read, part of the pleasure reading for how the poet turns each sentence against the ones before and after it, how the poet moves through the alphabet as much as he moves through the spoken and written thoughts produced during that year, and how such lines move against the sweeter, more innocent lines and references such as those like “Please come to my rescue, Atreyu. Please let me find a place to hide” (61), for they remind how the social and cultural world shape us, shape our children, and shaped our younger selves. My Secret Wars of 1984 show how such youth and youthful pasts are full of thinkers, individuals who question and trouble the stories told about war, government information, and gender norms. For example, Etzel quotes hooks, “Feminism defined as a movement to end sexist oppression enables women and men, girls and boys, to participate equally in revolutionary struggle” (34), a line that suggests a powerful and necessary, if secret, war against which the protagonist of such a memoir in verse struggled, one that empowers such a revolutionary poetry of resistance. Collections like My Secret Wars of 1984 that speak resistance through poems retell and reimagine the historic moment, taking on the fragmentation of information and layering it into something whole, complicated, and smart.

BlazeVOX Books (2015): $16.00

Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of over twenty books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her most recent book is Drink (BlazeVOX Books, 2015). She teaches in Nebraska.


Interview: Knowledge Before Breath // Peter Balakian

Balakian at the ruins of the Armenian medieval city of Ani.

Peter Balakian has graffiti-tagged the space-time continuum and we would do well to keep the atmosphere stocked. His latest poetry collection Ozone Journal (The University of Chicago Press, 2015) breezes across the “static sounds from Comiskey and Fenway” circa 1961 with layovers in Haiphong Harbor and Teheran before arriving in the New York City of thirty years ago, leaving no Reaganism, Tribecan or epidemic unturned.

Jon Riccio: There are historical events, then there’s history itself, a subject addressed throughout Ozone Journal in such passages as “I could hear the end of history/ in the teeth rattling inside a gourd,” and “I was beginning to see history/ as images filtered through cracked glass.” Did putting the concept into tangible items make a more cohesive anchor for the book?

 Peter Balakian: There are moments in poems where macro perceptions occur; moments when you get a jolt about an epistemological or cosmic reality; “seeing history” in these poems you mention is one of those jolt moments for me—a moment of heightened perception about something large.

 JR: In “Hart Crane in LA, 1927” you write “Another colleague said you couldn’t understand Crane’s big poem/ without context, the other said you couldn’t understand/ context without the poem. Another said, listen to the/ strange sound the words make when you let the silence in.” How do you parse a poem’s meaning?

 PB: The characters in my poem are evincing something about the complexity of reading a poem. We all know that there are many ways into a poem and that a poem is a complex work of imagination that demands we read it from various perspectives. Formal and aesthetic dimensions are always the center of the work and we must go there first—that’s how the work came into being. But, various historical, cultural, and biographical contexts, when unearthed with care and brought to the poem with precision, can open up the work in important ways. The dialogue in my poem about Hart Crane tries to bring these issues into some conversation.

 JR: I’m drawn to Ozone’s glimpses of the scientific, a few examples being “the lidocaine of the morning air,” “the nanoparticles of spray-can mist” and “T cells floating in the elevator at Saks,/ spikes of protein/genome invasion.” Has this always been a facet, or is it something that subconsciously found its way into your writing?

 PB: I’ve always wanted to open the poem to everything possible in the realm of knowledge, ideas, experience, etc. When I was younger I was focused a lot on the body and its anatomy. Over the years, probably since the late ‘80s I’ve been interested in wrestling with dimensions of technology, digital culture, and especially the realities of our screen-age from TV to computer to cell-phone screens. Screens find their way into my poems because of course, this is a primary mode of consciousness and perception of our age—starting with mid-20th century TV culture. My recent books Ziggurat and Ozone Journal are engaged with various dimensions of science, from physics and the archeology of artifacts to AIDS and the erosion of the ozone in our age of climate change and ecological disaster.

JR: The titular poem is divided into 54 sections, while others range from three to 12. When do you know a section is complete?

 PB: Writing in longer forms engages me in another kind of rhythm; you have more space to work lyrical language and create planar juxtapositions and metaphoric shifts; you have room to layer the experience of the poem more richly. Each section is in conversation with other sections in the poem, and I’m trying to find the rhythmic and conceptual moment when the right realization has been achieved.

JR: “I was held together by tranquilizers and the weft of a prayer rug” (the first line of “Providence/Teheran, ′79”) succeeds in its beauty and frankness. What’s the most memorable advice you’ve received about beginning a poem?

 PB: I can’t say I recall anyone ever giving me advice about opening a poem. My sense of the opening is driven by the rhythm of the phrase and how interesting or energetic the opening line or lines can be while at the same time being right for the poem.

JR: Buddha, Joe Louis, Khomeini and Calvin Klein – not your everyday poem occupants, though they manage the Ozone with aplomb. What are the pros and cons of attaching recognized names to the work? Is there such a thing as too much celebrity-lending in the written word?

 PB: My engaging those figures and others in my work is not about using celebrity; those figures are just parts of various cultures that I’m interested in writing about – religious ideas, America during the Jim Crow era, contemporary America, etc. I have a broad interest in culture and I suppose here Whitman, Yeats, Auden, Robert Hayden and Adrienne Rich would be the kinds of poets who have inhabited these zones in their times. I suppose the issue of how grounded in culture can a poem be and be interesting to future generations is always at stake in this conversation. But, I would note that we still read Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Yeats’s “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” Auden’s “August 1, 1939,” Rich’s “Planetarium” or Hayden’s “The Middle Passage.” Homer and Dante give us plenty of culture and history in their poems.

JR: The second tercet in “Baseball Days, ′61” closes with “Kennedy’s hair blew across the screen. Castro was just a sofa.” A great moment in furniture poetics, for sure. How did you arrive at this image?

 PB: Remembering the TV screen of 1961 brought me those images. Kennedy’s face is obvious, but I guess the reader would have to know that a company called Castro made a much advertised pull-out sofa in the ′60s. But, the pun and double-entendre (Fidel Castro) is also, I hope, comic and engaging for the reader.

JR: I attended your lecture on Moby Dick at the Colgate Writers’ Conference. What are Ozone Journal’s Melvillesque qualities, if any?

 PB: Melville will always embody the ideal of an expansive reach of linguistic density and opacity. He will always embody the ideal of fusing the sensory and sensual with a reach for the metaphysical and for the domain of ideas. It’s not for me to say what might be Melvillian about my book, but these aspects of Melville’s sensibility are always prodding my head to go for as much as possible.

 JR: I admire the conventional turned on its ear, hence my double underlining of the phrase “anthropology’s shakedown” in “Slum Drummers, Nairobi.” What are the best possible outcomes of this, and who should do the shaking?

 PB: Again, I’m not going to do a reading of my poem, but I would just note that that image suggests something about what anthropologists do, how they critique, how deep inquiry can radically alter how we see and understand the world, how we come to have knowledge. In the poem, it’s my daughter Sophia, who is fact an anthropologist, who is leading me forward to see things in fresh ways.

 JR: Your book begins with a devastator and a sparrow. It ends on “a subway station sliding into water.” How do you equate dichotomy with destination?

 PB: Human experience is full of paradox and complexity, full of colliding strangenesses— and in some ways those are our destinations.

Peter Balakian is the author of seven books of poems, four books of prose and two translations. His book of prose Black Dog of Fate won the 1998 PEN/Martha Albrand Prize for the Art of the Memoir. The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, won the 2005 Raphael Lemkin Prize. He is the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities, Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Colgate University. His new book of essays, Vise and Shadow: Essays on the Lyric Imagination, Poetry, Art, and Culture was just published by University of Chicago Press.

Jon Riccio serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review. Current and forthcoming poems appear in Really System, Split Rock Review, Futures Trading and Hawai’i Review, among others. He graduates in December with an MFA from the University of Arizona. 





REVIEW: The Book of Feral Flora by Amanda Ackerman

by Scott Russell Morris

You’re not supposed the judge books by the cover, but I totally judged this one by its title and partially by its minimalist cover. “Feral Flora” is just very fun to say. The idea is delightful, and a book that can delight linguistically and idea-wise in just one title is worth picking up. (The cover is neat, too).

Inside the book, things get much more complicated, even as they continue to delight both by the sheer genius of the idea and the linguistic play. The first things most readers will immediately notice—and probably get thrown off by—are the multiple tables of contents. The first is a straight- forward Table of Contents that accurately and in a standard format tells us you what to expect in the rest of the book. Then there is a Table of Contents “written by Iris” and one written by “Morning Glory” and one written by Iris “later in the day.” These latter Tables of Contents are jumbles, unrecognizable, practically unreadable remixes of the original. Flipping through the book, you also find other such remixes, all written by trees and flowers, all unreadable in the conventional sense.

But not without delight. There is a certain delight in the randomness, the feralness of the floral prose. My favorite—based purely on my aesthetic, because by what else can poetry written by flowers be judged?—is a stanza in “Feral Iridium Animate Matter:”


written by Iris (later in the day)

 earth, else, you, interim? husband did and you B, and and husband and homes of of homes husband and of and what you and and forth between she was and A and do When When she in When When if B, did you, interim? […] If wished well, If the world to be would ars bare My ay bare appear apear of fists petals. of flowers. flowers. petals. of of with flowers. of arms would arms with appear of wished Buried flowers. I wished to to be

A note at the end of the book reveals that these poems, “written” by Iris and Maple and Mulberry, were generated after hooking the plants to sensors which recorded their reactions to Ackerman reading her poems allowed. Ackerman says,

In the composition, I used several somatic devices, such as altering my body through the scent of orris root, physically touching the plants, or ingesting irises. I wanted to alter my own sensory capacities through direct encounters with the iris plants themselves.

The result, is that about half of the book is attempting to bring us into “direct encounters” with the plants themselves, altering our perception and our definitions of poetry. There are passages, like in the chapter “Short Stones”, where the page does nothing but repetitively list types of trees. It is hard not to skim over these passages. It is also difficult not to want to read them aloud repeatedly. There is something both engrossing and gross about the way the plants have (de)composed these pieces.

The first chapter—which is more like lyric essay than prose poem—says of the narrator’s garden, “I wanted to call them pretty but they were weeds.” You might think the same thing about many of the poems in this book. They are pretty, but not in a way you feel comfortable with. It is tempting to think these poems written by plants may be a trick of some sort. But you also can’t deny that there is a certain wonder in the thought of plants writing poetry.

However, the flower-written poems are only portion of the text, and though it is the most showy part, and I think the part that will likely get the most press, it isn’t the most enjoyable part for the reader. Ackerman has other tricks up her sleave that are just as frustrating and delighting, but more rewarding. Most of the other works are somewhere between prose poetry and narrative. As mentioned, the first chapter reads like essay, as do portions of “Short Stones.” Most of the other chapters, however, lean heavily towards magical realism or even fairy tale. In one, two sisters wait out their time in the belly of a whale. In another, the chapter reads like an essay about minimalism, household items, and the narrator’s uncertain love life. In another, a witch tells a girl she has the power to heal, but the girl doubts that gift. In my favorite of the chapters, Ackerman retells the story of Hansel and Gretel, weaving it with the story of a dissatisfied business man who ends up turning into the witch who eats the children. The chapter is called “One Heart Is Better than No Heart: Emerging Buds” and starts with the tantalizing line, “It is time the story changes for good because it is an old story.”

Then, the next chapter of the book is titled “One Heart I Better than No Heart: (To be Read Separately): Regeneration. The Stalk Re-buds.” This second story starts with the same line: “It is time the story changes for good because it is an old story.” And then proceeds to tell the exact same story as the chapter before it. Word for word the same. Or close enough—it becomes a tedious game to check every sentence, but I didn’t find any that were different. The only difference comes because the first chapter starts on the right page and the second on the left. The effect is disorienting, but pleasantly so. Phrases you didn’t remember reading you go back and check, only to find them there. Details you’d already forgotten feel odd. You realize that you remembered the details in the wrong order. Like all the chapters in the book, you can’t help wondering if it is a luxurious trick. But you also wonder if it is the highest form of art, which makes you question everything you knew about how narratives should be told and how poetry is shaped.

In brief: Amanda Ackerma’s The Book of Feral Flora is a wild ride across genres and styles, a reading experience more than just a mere book of poetry or narrative. Not for the faint of heart, but definitely worth a read.

Buy if from Les Figues Press for $17.00

Scott Russell Morris is an English PhD student at Texas Tech University and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University. He is currently working on a memoir-in-essays about food, family, and travel. Visit him at

REVIEW: LETTERRS by Orlando White

by Michael Wasson

“It begins at a diacritical spark… of breath… and soma”

And so we enter Orlando White’s meditative, intelligent, and echoing second book, LETTERRS, both a collection of unsettling silence and precise clangor. As a shift from his first book, Bone Light (Red Hen Press, 2009), White moves from the examination of thought to the philosophical relationship between print and sound.

Within the utterance and inscription of a letter, LETTERRS advances what a poem does in its own tightening—that is, how a poem resists, subverts, and fragments so-called tradition. We begin with “Nascent,” a long poem playing out a woven origin between sound and flesh.


White possesses an incredible, deft hand in setting a word with amplified effect. We find ourselves in the clocklike uterus of the poem’s process—a slowed down act of creation. At each break, at each movement of language, we throb into rhythm, weighted, layered, wrapped in meanings that propagates at a velocity maintained by the page. His opening poem carves out a trajectory like a wavelet of sound escaping the lips and pervading the air.

As such, White very much considers a poem’s “air” space—how effect travels and is guided by the simple act of a person reading his “letters”—and he does so via the tension of uncolored emptiness fielded between each word; the human, bodied shapes communicated among letters, sound, and thought; and through the many depths of meanings that words carry along with them from the past and into the present. For instance, his “Nascent” uses the word ictus: a rhythmical or metrical stress, or a seizure/stroke.

We are given the graceful tempo within prosody, and yet we hold the medical meaning of a seizure—a violence stripping the body of its control.

If we read the white spaces with as much care as his use of word meanings, we will begin to see the poems in LETTERRS methodically blooming, firing, fading, quivering, and breathing—all so gradually. In the midst of a single word, even in the process of a poem unfolding, White submerges us into the body of the page as it undergoes its powerful gestation, echoing his words as though their very ink carries the weight of myths, creations, stories, truths, and sound from the inside of one’s own body to the light of the living world.

And once we are spoken, possibly in one’s mother tongue (here at times Diné bizaad, which is beautifully woven in), we undulate our very existence out to one another. White provides some philosophical puzzles that help lay out a clearing into which we can reach: Are we indefinite? If so, and if our languages, either written or oral, strive to live in perpetuity, what happens when we are silenced of our language? How do we interact with our languages?

Through a large portion of LETTERRS, we are seated to watch the stories of alphabetical letters develop. White’s speakers ask us to participate in each letter-headed poem—from a to o. We see an a as an ox, telling us “People create from what their objects / create for them.” answering immediately, “That’s why text behaves,” why text is a living entity.

Likewise, the speakers of these pieces are not so much prophets or philosophers as actual truth tellers, examining how space, ink, gesture, stroke, and being are commingled together to create our orthographical perceptions. We hear d gasping nearer to our eardrums; we sound out like kids again an e, us and the letter both genuflected “to worship in silence”; g is curvilinear shaped like the innermost bone-work of a human ear, asking “how does a letter become another when its origin / is lost? n begs us to consider our very own being as it swings between “page, ink.”; o is an eye, an aperture, funneling our vision as the nerves constantly diagram light, white, dark, and depth.

Masterfully, White holds us in light of his book’s arc, which started at the beginning, before the very first words of “Nascent,” á la Edwin Torres: “Poets are citizens of language.” We are to live inside language, deep beneath the flesh, embedded like bones, hearing and sounding out—erring along the way. But, as such, we too are language citizens, part of a larger narrative and aggregate that practices language to continue its mysteries, failures, flaws, and successes.

I think from “Nascent” to “Unwritten” to “Finis” and “Cephalic,” White opens us up to an echoed landscape in which letters, writing, sound, and thought slow down to eye one another closely. So close you can hear their eyes blinking. White engraves his poetry into us to reveal the shapes of our letters like “a limb still composing,” something stretched around us like skin, “always tightening.”

And just as we take pen to paper, it is White who reminds us to participate. To “behead the i, and watch its dot head roll to the back of a sentence.”

A powerfully intelligent book by an indigenous writer expertly capable of writing the procedures of our own human acts of communication—these fleshed and sounded letters.

Buy it from Nightboat Books: $17.95

Michael Wasson earned his MFA from Oregon State University. He is nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation and lives in rural Japan.

REVIEW: That Our Eyes Be Rigged by Kristi Maxwell


by Matthew Schmidt

Possibilities. It bemuses me to consider the many and varied. It seems there are umpteen doors to open immediately upon entrance into Kristi Maxwell’s fourth poetry collection, That Our Eyes Be Rigged. As readers we’ll all begin in/at the same place; so let us consider the first stanza from “In Which We Ask, Exist”:

Light chews on the patio
or could
a jawbone of light invents a countenance
to settle its valley, to climb scalp-ward
a jawbone of light exposes the whole
pitiable face
juts out over some poor domain
some poor dark domain
I’ve taken a bar into my thought
borrowed thoughts
barred my better thoughts
thought better of
doing that one thing

I’m rather disoriented, unsure where I am or where the poem is (and/or taking place). Usually I would consider this an issue, but don’t feel an overwhelming need to know specifics or see images here. Mainly—because there are multiple parts of the poem to latch onto—it provides enough interest for reader participation. We’re given a super-fantastic line concerning light gnawing concrete. Then, a semi-retraction, though not really. Following, a subtle shift to a half-question, “or could / a jawbone of light” (chew on the patio), half-creation “a jawbone of light invents a countenance.” So, now the jawbone of light is able to create a space for itself in a place (and it may or may not have masticated man-made materials to do so). We’re still contemplating light on a patio at the end of the first stanza, though it seems that the light (which the speaker is contemplating) climbs the speaker’s face. In essence, there is the face of light and the speaker’s face, like dueling Pac-Man creatures, jawing at one another. Of course, this is only my reading, and as I’ve stated there appear to be other avenues of access.

The first stanza is provided as proof to support the following statement: in this collection Maxwell articulates several meanings, imaginings, alternate takes, and restructuring through diction replacement and an admixture of syntactical arrangements. Simply look at the light in the opening stanza: does the light eventually and naturally morph into the speaker’s thought so that it is both physical and mental? Whether I’m the only reader to ‘see’ this in the poem matters less than the fact that there is an evident attempt to carefully place or replace words to mean differently or slightly different. A variation of “thought” appears in four consecutive lines while meaning something different than previously or more precisely re-stated to capture the speaker’s observations/thoughts.

While the above is more of a critical/theoretical approach to Maxwell’s poetry, I feel it’s important to confront the reality of the work to become excited about the work. Sure, I may have read too deeply into the first stanza, yet a simple formula allows an exchange of ideas and definitions through the speaker to the reader. As if watching a person meditate on how to connect with a fellow human through communication, a reader may assess the thought process of the speaker, literally map the synapses firing in their brain.

Throughout the book multiple forms are implemented into the experiment of word/meaning transformation. Maxwell uses long lines, center blocks, mid-line slashes, extra white space, sometimes confusing capitalization and punctuation rules, extended-page poems, and sound.

A prime example from “Post”:

What isn’t ensued by viewing and proven
after. Water muscled by waves
caught in the tide muzzle. This intended restraint

our tending is the refrain for. Swoosh
that drug-busts muteness again.

Speak it aloud. Do you hear the careful assonance and consonance? Sometimes there are direct rhymes, but more often there is a combination of slant rhyme/pun/homonym/repeated word (section) that develops as a poem moves along. “Intended” becomes “tending,” “muscle” bites into “muzzle,” and the “refrain” is “restraint.” That is, it isn’t just sounds/words that move the poems, but that at times these are the major transportive vessels.

A portion of “Plaisir/Minus (+/-)”:

                                                Not a
discarded roll toilet paper scrolled to
empty. Though this was empty. Little
concussions of the heart that resulted in— not
loss, not the golden floss memory shows off

Taken from a center-blocked portion of the poem, this section showcases the syntactical acrobatics employed. “Roll” is shifted from it’s usual position behind “paper” to before “toilet” in order that the rhyme is not too close to “scrolled.” Short of grammatically breaking-down the sentences, let’s content ourselves with recognizing the rhyme of “loss” and “off.” Or even the fact that before a rhyming word loses a letter another rhyming word (“floss”) gains a letter while keeping the -loss. When we arrive at “off” the l has dispersed and the esses have risen to the attention of f’s. A veritable magic act to add/subtract letters and keep the rhyme.

It seems to me the focus of the book is centered around how human eyes see and interpret data. We’re trained to stereotype in order to deal with the onslaught of information that is daily life. However, it is necessary to pay close attention to even the smallest things that we may understand and through understanding join/harmonize/get along with. Maxwell challenges us to view the world from more than one angle, as having more than one possible outcome/meaning. Instead, she champions the idiosyncratic lay-person. We all have our quirks and ways of doing and seeing and being. In “To Exercise This Astonishment,” Maxwell says

I have photographed my birthmark from five angles to submit, and I watch to
see my submission scrutinized with care.

Or later, one of my favorite metamorphoses occurs in one of five poems entitled “Every Time I Want To Write You, I’m Going To Write A Line Instead:,” where words turn to fighting before worth is found (I’d cite it, but I’d want to cite almost the entire poem). Thus, if you’re looking for a book of poems with an edge to its ideology, this should be on your radar.

Buy it from Saturnalia Books: $15

Matthew Schmidt studies English at The Center for Writers, The University of Southern Mississippi.

REVIEW: Dead Youth, or, The Leaks by Joyelle McSweeney


by Allison Donohue

 “O lovely, lovely. DEAD YOUTH you are so talented, so flexible and double jointed, so committed in your willingness to become any kind of media” (41).

May they rest in peace. But in Joyelle McSweeney’s play in four acts these titular dead youth, whose voices echo and multiple in number, do not rest; they ache, breathe, even hunger. They remember and while they may be young, teenagers really, they are adult in content, commentary; they are aware of themselves as a part in a working piece of art.

Let it begin on a ship, this Tempest-driven interpretation. However, it might as well be a mothership. Henrietta Lacks, its prologue; the great mother of the play who speaks only sporadically but empathetically on the subject of the dead youth, technology, and most stunningly, motherhood. “I was immortal,” Lacks states by way of introduction, “in my ability to be knocked down / and spread myself out to take the punch again. / In this sense I am still a mother. / I am forever taking the punch in the gut” (13).

“Mother” and “motherhood,” particularly when placed beside the term “dead youth,” redefines society’s definition of the term. Julian Assange, the ring-leader of the dead youth and the anchor of this ship, equally and comfortably utilizes the term, blurring the gender line: “DEAD YOUTH, I adore you, and I have personally vouchsafed you here at my maternal bosom” (19). But beware. Where McSweeney’s true art lies is in her subtle complication of the term by means of retelling the violent deaths of the dead youth in the first act:

Of the night they wrapped the barbed wire around me
and threw me into the river.
I was chained to a cash register.
Forever. Legal tender.
So I could purchase knowledge.
So I could chase after knowledge forever
In the madrassa of the muddy river
and never come up again.

Highly political, highly critical of technology’s role as relates to the youth culture, McSweeney’s mothership, DEAD YOUTH, OR, THE LEAKS, roots itself by questioning information through the appearance of Assange, Wikileaks, even the Muse who cites “The Internet, my second mother,” after which, all in the play approvingly nod (37). All of this culminates in McSweeney’s unsaid, driving question: how have we become what we’ve become? What has mothered us? And the answer that DEAD YOUTH provides is the height of a towering list.

My mother trashed reputation
My mother Hitchcock blonde
My mother windswept highlands
My mother undo
My mother bog
My mother bared midriff, dirndl, sari,
sandal, buckskin, wristwatch, hijab,
Who survived my birth
but barely

Which showcases McSweeney’s clearly poetic nature and language play throughout the four acts, prologue and epilogue. McSweeney’s attention to and playfulness with language transforms this four act play into a play in which the youth are anything but dead. Utilizing quotidian and popularized phrases, McSweeney resuscitates the youth: “Dead Youth 1: ‘It’s FUBAR. But YOLO. I’m AWOL. Lost at cee’” (17).

However, with the play deeply rooted in the current affairs of the early 2000’s, the question arises of how this play—as all art that adopts a highly generational tone—will move forward into the future, how it will age. Which is to say that McSweeney, by engaging the notion of the dead, has only succeeded again. For while my reading in 2015 may bring the dead youth forward into life through their vivid and sincere dysphemisms, these youth will only die in the future as popular culture—and with it, popularized language—rides the eternal momentum of fashion, dying out.

There is no doubt that what Joyelle McSweeney has crafted here is poetry. While classified as a play in four acts, the language itself is worthy of indulgence, plot aside. For instance, in the voice of the Muse:

Motives are to me
what grappling hooks are to
deep sea divers. Throw me an anvil
and teach me to fish forever.
I’ll lie under the sea, fishing, fishing,
and lying, lying

Or, in the voice of Henrietta Lacks:

When they autopsied me,
I wore a nightgown of malignant pearls
inside my body, as if I were a Queen that had swallowed
my own crown
or a demented bride with her own cake sewn up inside.

So full of breath is this imagery that I must raise the question: Are these youth dead? A play that sails in a out of the past, rising up out of Shakespearean mist, and citing everything from Commodore 64 to Private Bradley Manning, this ship reads more like a motherboard, culturally circuiting the internet—i.e. information—to these dead youth who learned too much, who perished violently and young in a sort of current 2000’s form of warfare. This ship, “the SS Smirk, moves on dreams”(19).

“We’re going to need a bigger gun” (45).

Buy it from Litmus Press: $15.00.

Allison Donohue, born in Washington DC, grew up in Centreville, VA. She holds an MA in English Literature with a focus on Poetics from Texas Tech University. In the fall of 2015, she will start her MFA at the University of Oregon. Her poetry is forthcoming in Forklift, Ohio.

REVIEW: The Verging Cities by Natalie Scenters-Zapico

by José Angel Araguz

…Come, memory, let me trace your eyes carefully. Let me learn you how.

 These lines, which occur early on in Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s The Verging Cities, are from the poem “Dear Angel,” a prose poem in which the speaker recounts something whispered by the “Angel” of the title. This “Angel” is José Angel Maldonado, the poet’s husband whose middle name serves as a fulcrum into and out of metaphor and reality throughout the manuscript. In this particular poem, the speaker addresses to Angel a meditation on math and language, and the inability of both to tangibly rein in personal meaning. The ending quoted above, in being in Angel’s voice, brings into confluence the speaker’s own internal conflicts and the possibility of seeing clearly/seeing through conflicts that is symbolized by love. The impetus of Let me learn you how – which is a reaching towards a lover as much as towards meaning – serves both as a key into the poems of The Verging Cities and a kind of edict for the collection overall.

In the poem, “Photos Found on a Dead Man’s Phone,” for example, the book learns us how to enter the circumstances of the title. Image by image, the poem builds a narrative of human impression, giving an idea not of the story but of fragments of the life lived. This kind of narrative is necessarily executed not through mere description but more poetic means:

Image ten: exposed tongue – the buds missing.

Image eleven: flash, then the phrase –
our darkest corner damp with memory.

In these lines, the shock of the first “image” (ten) juxtaposed against the logic of the second “image” (eleven) creates a visceral connection; the “missing” buds of “ten” travel, in a way, into the meaning of “eleven.” In this kind of scrambling after life through image, it is memory that is most alive.

Memory is not only alive but life-giving throughout this collection. The poem “Woman Found Near Sunland Park Mall” invokes the story of the woman in the title as well as the border agent who found her “open-mouthed,//and [whispering] agua.” The poem finishes:

…He puts his foot on her neck
and watches how slowly her face turns red with blood.

When the other border agents ask what state he found
this woman in, he has a story that involves water,

how some can buy it at Target and how others
don’t know how to call it by its proper name.

In pitting the plight of the woman against the story told at the end by the border agent, this poem is able to bear witness to both. Against the border agent’s insistence on the use of violence and “proper name[s],” this poem stands as an example of how stories do not cancel each other but rather coexist by acts of verging. Sometimes this verging involves damnable acts; still, this collection time and again shows the importance of not looking away, of always being able to name and seek out ways to learn us how to go on living. Only by meeting damnable acts with acts of witness can the poet make their way and live up to what is later said in the poem “Placement”:

Some say you have no right to talk about the dead. So I talk of them as living, their
bodies standing in the street’s bend.

While the verging cities of the title are El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, the heart is also seen as a kind of city. The most moving moments in the collection come when Scenters-Zapico is able to elevate the love relationship at the core of this book to the heights of a different way of understanding the world, as in the poem “Angel and I are Both Great Pretenders,”:

the vergin cities

Buy it from The Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University: $16.95.
José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and winner of Rhino Poetry’s 2015 Editor’s Prize. He has had poems recently in Prairie Schooner, Borderlands, and The Laurel Review. He is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Author of Reasons (not) to Dance, a chapbook of microcuento style short prose, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.