REVIEW: Who Owns Primo’s by Andy Sterling

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by Andy Martrich

Andy Sterling’s 2016 book Who Owns Primo’s is the 24th book of the Gauss PDF Editions imprint. As with all Gauss PDF Editions, it’s available in both PDF and book form.

Who Owns Primo’s is minimalistic. Its pages contain more space than text, consisting of anywhere from one to nine double-spaced lines descending from the top margin. The text is predominantly composed of names and references to names that seem to mask a broader and unnamed conspiracy at work. What or what isn’t behind them becomes an obsessive quality of the piece, because in Who Owns Primo’s masks are the only certainty—even Sam Tierney’s cover drawing suggests this foundational premise. It is the book’s mask, nodding to corollaries within.

Before discussing the specifics of Who Owns Primo’s, it’s important to mention Sterling’s previous book, Supergroup, also published by Gauss PDF Editions in 2013. Supergroup is a rough documentation of credits from albums released by Virgin Records in alphabetical order through the letter L, which were gathered from Wikipedia and Discogs. It reads like a directory, each page featuring eight names coupled with the player’s respective instrument or role, typically positioned to look like two four-lined stanzas:

John McCoy — bass guitar
Mike Thompson — French horn on “Woman”
Tom Saviano — tenor saxophone
Gordon Haskell — bass guitar, vocals

Baptiste Brondy — drums
Dick Pearce — flugelhorn, trumpet
Craig Pruess — string conduction
Brian Scott — tubulum  (24)

In Supergroup, names and roles appear severed from their previous commercial context, functioning solely as terms in a hypothetical directory. Like Supergroup, Who Owns Primo’s is onomastic, highlighting proper names, but where Supergroup has a specific conceptual bent regarding the usage of names (i.e., as credits), Who Owns Primo’s is dislodged from this constraint, free to cite names in the context of the title line, which appears on page 13:

Who owns Primo’s?

Sarah.

Grey Black.

Du Pont.

Schulz. (13)

The esoteric quality of Who Owns Primo’s makes it more unsettling than Supergroup. Although both pieces illustrate the strangeness of names, Supergroup plays with an established order toggled loose from its original context, but still methodically and smoothly. On the other hand, Who Owns Primo’s is indicative of an intangible breakdown, a deficiency that persists throughout the work. This is articulated in gaps, pauses, and large spaces interspersed throughout the text, giving it a porous, ephemeral look and feel. The content, as well, is terse and fragmentary. In the above example, the cryptic quality of the question “Who owns Primo’s?” is enhanced by the names and gaps that follow, equally dim signifiers.

Before finding out who owns Primo’s, it’s necessary to define what Primo’s is. Early on it’s not so clear. At first, Primo’s seems to be a kind of restaurant, given lines like “Primo’s dinner” (12) and “Have you tried Primo’s?” (14). But this definition quickly becomes inadequate when considering the long list of mysterious suspects regarding its ownership, a list that extends well beyond Sarah, Grey Black, Du Pont, Schulz. Despite the textual brevity of the piece, there are over 190 proper names that appear throughout. Google searches on individual names rarely provide helpful information, and one wonders if Sterling purposefully uses popular or common names, Robert Adam for example, in effort to widen the anonymity of possible entities tied to names; however, occasional hints are provided:

Titus Prude.

6-4 Robert Adam.

Classical Architecture.

London.

A dusty, little, black copy of Florida Today. (18)

The use of “Classical Architecture” and “London” may lead the reader to believe that Robert Adam refers to the 18th century architect of the same name. But does it matter? Probably not, as names typically appear alongside each other without any obvious connection—Sarah, Grey Black, Du Pont, Schulz. Titus Prude, Robert Adam. Titus Prude seems to refer to a high school tennis player. Every name that appears on page 23 is associated with a microbiologist or a student of microbiology. On page 17 we find “Sean Aslin” and “Will Whecton.” Are these misspellings of the actors Sean Astin and Wil Wheaton? Maybe. A Google search suggests those alternatives. But to a large extent, if not completely, who these names may or may not represent is of no recourse. A simple search reveals how vapid names can be as search terms, populating results as incidental as a wedding registry, an art student’s WordPress site, photographs of random people, scattered lists and metadata, profiles on Etsy, LinkedIn, Facebook, Pinterest. Who are all these people? These generalities create fodder for playful gestures throughout the text, for example:

John Dam, Vind Qnion II. VN.

John Dink 270 Swanston Street.  (34)

The names “John Dam” and “John Dink” could very well be the same thing. And, in this context, that’s exactly what they are. They are nothing if not generic identifiers. Sterling points again and again to the inanity of names and their associations. Identity, or rather nonidentity, appears to be at the heart of Primo’s, as the association of names with ambiguity, and the futility of identity formation via what one ostensibly thinks, does, or says, only ends up indicating an erasure. What manufactures the identities that may or may not be found behind these names? Other names and masks. The names of people, the names of places, the names of roles and positions, the names of bands. Ironically, this matryoshka-like persistence ends up being a true supposition, as the names that encase these nominal identities are solely identifiers signifying an equally generic cloud of surrogates—everything defines everyone.

Given the possibility of name for name substitution, Who Owns Primo’s could just have easily been titled Who Owns Titus Prude, Who Owns Florida Today, Who Owns Grey Black. Primo’s, after all, is just another name. In this sense, the representatives (names) of supposed entities, are entities unto themselves, the only entities, the identifiers of no one in particular or anyone at all. Who, indeed, owns Primo’s? No one in particular; anyone at all? It would seem that way. A name representing a sea of miscellany can never be specific, and therefore it’s impossible to encounter this or that thing beyond it. A supposed catalog of selves is by default inaccessible, or as Sterling writes:

They acted like somebody’s there, Ryan. There wasn’t nobody there.  (77)

Ryan wasn’t there either. If whoever or whatever owned Primo’s ever existed, that entity has been erased. They had only acted, an imitation of what we have no reason to believe was there to begin with. So who or what exactly provides this information? There is indeed someone or something that speaks, a sort of impersonal narrator that Sterling has created. Spoken sentences and phrases appear brusquely, reading similarly to the names, continuing the trek of anonymity. Just as there is no self or identity to represent, the phrases only indicate trace occurrences of no obvious consequence. The voice cycles through various banal activities—borrowing its father’s sport jacket, leaning into a car, running everything on batteries, while referencing other names in vaguely paralleled events:

But how am I to know who helped Anson to build that apple pie?

Who rose by the sword no further than Carli?

What’s love got to do with H biography?  (41)

As in the above example, there are places in the text where the disjunctive relationship between events and names reads like spam. Spamming is an act representative of the onomastization of language, rendering it general and anonymous. Who Owns Primo’s is suggestive of a world where identity feels very much like spam—piecemeal lists, curt metadata, cheap imitations, personalities presented like advertising. Nevertheless, the voice explores identity formation via the naming of names and fragmented routines. It searches for a continuity of associations with other nonentities and fantasies, as is evident in the recurrence of scenes and ploys for acceptance—as personal identity only appears relative to these ethereal others:

To get yourself in, Everhard’s in New York. (25)

Randy hit the scene with Clive. (53)

Had we not broken apart and invited you, Bernard? (89)

…and the relationship between names and spheres of activity is exemplified in a line found earlier in the text:

The scene, the practice, the name. I came. (16)

This implies that a mask is earned. First comes the scene, a current to which it’s possible to latch on, where the identity is doled out and nurtured according to the parameters of a collective interest—a fashion scene, a music scene, a writing scene. Then comes the practice, a commitment to an active concurrence within that commonality. The name comes finally as some kind of reward, a developed security in relation to a centralized construct. Thus, the voice’s formula for identity formation is ultimately narcissistic, engaging with scenes and practices, names and generalities in order to experience a personal continuity. ”I came” constitutes a sort of immaterial masturbation, a sense of temporary elation at the notion of becoming. Regardless, the voice is incapable of being accepted, as there are no entities to relate to outside of the identifiers, and therefore nothing really to accept it. It speaks from a peripheral, solipsistic emptiness:

The affinity of all souls pitched in the same room and quiet.

That isolationist-scene New York-aise. With no pussy.

A band played—“Wicker Park”—and I can only describe them through fly-wire doors. (29)

The voice is merely a voyeur, a disembodied peeping tom with acceptance and identity formation as its fantasies. Yet it acknowledges that it’s capable of being referenced despite its disconnection and anonymity:

The shepherded abortion contained an embrace. (66)

The embrace of absence is exactly this ability to be referred to as a hypothetical something or other, a centralization, of which the voice only achieves as a theoretical modulation—narration, not name, is its mask. It speaks other names in narration as its name, associations that allow it a remedial existence as a talker, so to speak. No where is this more evident than in the mundane dialogue that takes place between the voice and the name “Charles” between pages 47 and 71. I use the word dialogue loosely, as the trajectory of the piece doesn’t change—it maintains a dim transience, rather the voice begins to directly address a specific name:

“I say, Charles, assorted factors drive people.”

I think Charles packs better when he’s attempting to drive.

I work in Asia with a world-cave and a lop-ear. Charles plays the fool. (48)

The voice may as well be talking to itself. Charles is anonymous, lifeless—an imaginary friend. Both the name and the voice are equally without identities. Charles only says one thing, “Up or down” to which the voice replies, “Up, if I win” (55). The supposition of up versus down provides another general relationship, subjective and dependent upon position and relativity. What could possibly constitute winning in Who Owns Primo’s other than assimilation to the generic, the acquisition of an effective mask like a ghost that conforms to the striations of a superficial mold. Up, if centralized; up, if a blank reference.

What makes Who Owns Primo’s so unsettling is the relevancy of its suggestion that identity is nothing but a fog of cryptic hearsay—especially in a contemporary context where it’s necessary to constantly define ourselves via fill-in-the-blank profiles, tags, and avatars. This, too, is a world where identities have been succumbed by meaningless identifiers. Names are masks for what exactly? Anonymous voices, ghosts, imitations—masks on top of speculations, erasures, disguises, other lists and names.

And no one came within.

Speculated man. Demolished potato. (62)

Andy Martrich is the author of Pitching with Demonic Sigil Grips (PRB Editions), Blackmar-Diemer Gambit (Gauss PDF Editions), and Iona (BlazeVOX Books), among others. He lives in France.

REVIEW: Calamities by Renee Gladman

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by Sam Lohmann

Renee Gladman’s new book Calamities (Wave, 2016) wrecks genre. Let’s say it’s written in the essay line, each problem leading to further problems. Line and essay problems write and draw, don’t solve, each other.

Calamities is a book of episodic displacements and frames within frames. Each essay is a fragment, a new beginning, discontinuous from its neighbors but in conversation with them. Each one (until the final section, “The Eleven Calamities”—there are actually 14) begins with the phrase I began the day, which works not only to establish sequence but to place the narrator within three simultaneous frames: doing something (in the past, on a day), narrating the doing (in the book’s present), and writing, revising, worrying over the narration (in an ambiguous past-tense present, maybe the same day). The narrator often seems to be doing, thinking, writing by hand and typing on a computer all at once, or alternately. There are open quotations whose close is narrated verbally rather than typeset, essays within dreams within essays, and many remembered and imagined books and drafts and drawings. A peculiar mix of specificity and dreamy vagueness displaces each episode to a realm of fable rather than autobiography— narrator’s city and university go unnamed, while other names pass too briefly to ever pin down the narrator or her surroundings. This deflection comes to form, in Gladman’s words, “the scarring that made people feel safe in public,” in a story “rupturing, never completing itself, rather, endlessly repeating, starting again and again, in the sense that sometimes beginnings are slow and last forever and everything you need is within them.”

Calamities is a book about writing and how to go on. The central, centripetal strategy is analogy, between genres, media, modes of action. To begin (or, the narrator finds eventually, to stop), writing has to be something else—walking, thinking, folding paper scraps, or, inescapably, drawing. This speculative identity draws a meandering line through Gladman’s works: “I did every kind of walk down this corridor to arrive at the room of writing, and I walked with every kind of feeling, so that it wouldn’t always be the same text I was writing.”

The anthropologist Tim Ingold, in Lines: A Brief History, situates writing as a form of drawing, an activitation of line. His taxonomy of thread and trace, guideline and plotline, may be useful, but no explicit definitions are needed for Gladman’s practice and theory to go on. Analogy between media, pursued with visionary literalism or sly duplicity, has proven liberating for many artists: I’m thinking of Barbara Guest’s relation to painting, Nathaniel Mackey’s to music (specifically in his ongoing great jazz novel), or Cy Twombly’s to writing. If that’s one tradition Gladman’s work belongs to, she can also be read in traditions of black speculative fiction (with Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler), black transgressive conceptual art (Adrian Piper, Ralph Lemon), and American women’s writing at the intersection of daily life and linguistic experiment (from Gertrude Stein to Etel Adnan, say).

As Gladman has explained: “Recently, I have been playing around with the idea that there is a spectrum along which sentences become drawings.” (And in Calamities she says they are “identical gestures made with the hand.”) Ingold would take exception to the sentence, which he sees as an imposition from print culture, but that would miss Gladman’s point. Print is where we’ve been, and the sentence has been a primary object of experiment—and obsession—for the hundred years since Stein at least.

Gladman obsesses and opens new airways at the levels of sentence, story, essay, sequence, model, and of discrete words that draw themselves through the thickness and unexpectedness of their phonemes: Ravickians or looning up on claw or geoscography. Late in Calamities, the narrator holds the word sentence in her mouth and becomes aware of “the essence of sentence” like a paper chain or papier-mâché sculpture that absorbs the world into its sculptural content: “It sucked everything in and enforced an order that made me particularly aware of time.”

Counterbalancing the strategy of analogy is the centrifugal and contrapuntal tactic of essay as a unit of thought and of life. By making each essay coterminous with a day, Gladman estranges and doubles the day and makes it the site of problems to be essayed. The problems that engage her are fundamental, the solutions provisional and idiosyncratic. A book on architecture titled The Atlas of Novel Tectonics becomes a divinatory source for the novelist; one drawing demands to be redrawn hundreds of times in lieu of writing; a particular student (but which one?) is taken for the person in the world—“the person who is the most perplexed of all persons.” These insolvent solutions might be unsatisfying if the narrator, in her bewilderment and ours, weren’t such wonderful company.

Commuting by train, the narrator finds the Atlantic Northeast transformed into the Pacific Northwest, which seems to match the New England personality—“I mean, they really did already act as if all there was was rain.” Later the narrator, reading Herta Müller, considers the possibility that she has become a different person by laying eyes on the page: an “Eastern-European African American” in an atopian “undermining of all that is the case,” wishing she could get people “to understand how black people are another kind of Eastern European” and wondering how it would be “for the Eastern Europeans to call themselves black, or even black Asian.” Gladman’s experience as a black lesbian writer and academic is implicit throughout the book, while at the same time identity and its attendant characters—and all qualities of self we’d suppose permanent—come unstitched through the wayfaring of her narration. Calamities is a book about daily life, which is shown to be a series of transformations whose end is unknown. Ingold might describe it as a line traveled along rather than to or from: but Gladman’s line is discontinuous like letters in printed sentences. Each transformation is a calamity, unresolved but pointing to further possibilities.

Buy it from Wave Books: $18.00

Sam Lohmann is a poet and librarian living in Portland, Oregon. His recent books include Unless As Stone Is (eth press, 2014) and Day Use Area (Couch Press, 2014). Adventitious writings can be found at thefirmandaerie.tumblr.com.

REVIEW: Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

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by Michael Wasson

In the body, where everything has a price,
I was a beggar. On my knees,

I watched…

So begins Ocean Vuong’s frontispiece to his haunting and quietly devastating debut collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds.

It is here within the body where we begin to take in the world of this book. What really makes this entrance to the book remarkable is how Vuong’s speaker understands that the experiences we enter hold consequences. It is on the knees where we sacrifice and remain obedient to our senses. And it is the eye through which we witness the chaos of beauty. Vuong’s book stations us here who are—at the border of our flesh—trying to make sense of our lives.

Beginning the first section, Vuong shares with us the re-imagining and re-witnessing of poetic myth. From a snake left headless and still “in this version,” reminiscent of Milton’s Paraside Lost, to Telemachus pulling Odysseus “out / of the water” and dragging him by the hair through the crush and surf. This re-witnessing accomplishes and moves far beyond an appreciation for ancient literatures, but it gives us the opportunity to enter the myth to discover ourselves fully alive inside its narrative:

He moves like any / other fracture, revealing the briefest doors.

One of history’s most violent poems is Homer’s The Iliad. But what Night Sky with Exit Wounds introduces to us in “Trojan” is the idea of the body as the Trojan Horse—the strategic event between The Iliad and The Odyssey. The body is human-built. The body carries our “brutes” and war-sharpened “blades.” It holds our own people craving to return to their families and homelands. It even reminds us of our animal-likeness. But on a human level, it is the physical body we see when violence is enacted, or—as Vuong puts it so powerfully—“when the city burns.”

Night Sky with Exit Wounds grounds itself, too, in the American self, the American body, as a product of war. Here, insisted toward the end of “Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds” and the ending poem to the collection’s first section:

Yes—let me believe I was born
to cock back this rifle, smooth & slick, like a true

Charlie, like the footsteps of ghosts misted through rain
as I lower myself between the sights—& pray

that nothing moves.

What strikes me is the poem’s ability to “let” the “deathbeam” continue to pierce these different scenes inside the realm of a country amid violence. I find that even against a force of death, against all these different instances of terror, it is the speaker who argues to just let it happen. Why? Because the exit wound is the self. The exit wound is the speaker’s ability to move into and through the world. The exit wound now kneels down, praying for stillness to begin its process of healing.

Reading through the book countless times, even starting from the last poem to the first, I realize more and more just how powerful Vuong’s ability with form is. From longer poems to short couplets, gorgeously scattered lines broken and strewn over pages, to anaphora and prose breaks—the single poem that most entered me and stayed was “Seventh Circle of Earth”—with its title based on Dante’s seventh circle of Hell where the innermost of the three violent rings is made of burning sand and rain, meant to encase sodomites and blasphemers in flames.

But again, it was the form that forced me to look “into” and “away” from the mostly blank (or in this case, burned) pages. All that we see in the major white space—headed with the Dallas Voice epigraph about a gay couple, Michael Humphrey and Clayton Capshaw, murdered by immolation—are numbered footnotes, seemingly markers that are to guide us to the lines recorded at the bottom of the page. Vuong has single-handedly and via the labor of lyric forced us to stare into the white ash of immolation. So by replicating that “look into the wreckage yet we look away” urgency, we are then made to hear the voices of these lovers.

4. … Speak—/ until your voice is nothing / but the crackle / of charred
5. bones.

Toward the end of Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Vuong includes this devastatingly tender and gracious poem first published at The New Yorker that echoes not simply Frank O’Hara and Roger Reeves, but the role of lullaby—the role of song and lyric to comfort us, even in the face of the world’s terrors:

Don’t be afraid, the gunfire
is only the sound of people
trying to live a little longer
& failing. Ocean. Ocean—
get up. The most beautiful part of your body
is where it’s headed. & remember,
loneliness is still time spent
with the world.

Ocean mentions in an interview with David Winter that this poem is his way to “speak to my own shadow,” and what better way to comfort than to know that our own darkness, too, is listening and living there breathing beside us.
Many of us were beyond thrilled when Copper Canyon announced that they would be publishing Ocean Vuong’s first full book. Many of us had one (or both) of his chapbooks (if they weren’t sold out at the time) and read his poems as they entered the world. Many of us were changed by encountering his work—like beautiful literature should. How it challenges us to enter a space and be transformed by language.

And many of us I’m sure learned from how his speakers paid homage to the beauty inside the crush that his words seem to do so gently. So where do we stand after entering and departing Night Sky with Exit Wounds? We stand without a doubt—as the world continues to move under our feet—in awe of this brilliant and humble talent gifted to American poetry.

I am thankful having his book with me. Its pages continuing to remind me, “are you listening?” I am.

Buy it from Copper Canyon Press: $16.00.

Michael Wasson is the author of This American Ghost (YesYes Books, 2017), recipient of the Vinyl 45 Chapbook Prize. He is nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation and lives abroad.

REVIEW: Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us by Danielle Cadena Deulen

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by José Angel Araguz

We are never “at home”: we are always outside ourselves. Fear, desire, hope impel us toward the future; they rob us of feelings and concern for what now is, in order to spend time over what will be – even when we ourselves shall be no more.

These words serve as an epigraph into Danielle Cadena Deulen’s second collection, Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us, and lay down the framework for a set of poems whose emotional lexicon is able to navigate through narratives of personal experience as well as those drawn from literature and philosophy (the essays of Michel de Montaigne are referenced often; their titles serving as titles for a number of poems, including the title poem). Throughout this collection, the self becomes again and again a moment of awareness and interpolation. Poetry, Deulen’s book argues, is where those who are never ‘at home’ do their living.

Towards the end of the poem “Dirge with a Love Song in it,” dedicated to the poet’s grandmother, an example of what I mean by awareness and interpolation plays out in a scene of driving while thinking about the past:

…I am ashamed to say

I never thanked you for driving toward a future
into which I would someday be born. The radio plays

and I turn it up, a bridge blaring like the slow
explosions that fill my dreams: I run and run and turn

the corner of an unfamiliar hallway, an unclasped door
opening to an aisle. See how the light enters the dirge,

the stillness in the field beyond the sill? See how
your family standing on the hill beneath the pine

lines up to let the loose earth slip through
their fingers back to you? See the green, sorrowed air

where I’m not, where I couldn’t bear to be –
how I’ve driven so long thinking of you that you have

become the song, the mirror, the prayer, and the road
just past the reach of headlights.

The poem works through the momentum of voice and memory; the speaker’s act of driving and its implication of being in motion parallel the motion of memory and feeling. The urgency of the direct address is heightened by the command to “See” which is repeated three times until it is broken off as the speaker presents themselves “where I’m not.” The simultaneous narratives of the drive and funeral finally cascade into each other in the final lines, leaving the reader and speaker in motion, “carried away beyond” what there are words for.

This pointing towards “where I’m not” is one of the major themes explored in this collection. In “Winter Inversion,” a meditation on a winter in Salt Lake City plays out both in terms of landscape as well a relationship:

…Seagulls
displaced from coastal

cities cry poison over
the desert plains. We

pretend not to live
where we do, that we

don’t turn away from
each other with regret.

I try to avoid breathing
in your scent…

This comment on displacement colors the admissions of regret that follow and points us back to the Montaigne epigraph, which here translates literally into deliberate not wanting to be ‘at home.’ The statement on breathing, however, places the speaker back in their body, their center of awareness and interpolation. Like poetry, which exists somewhere between the poem and the reader, one’s life is made up of acts of interpretation, reflection, and understanding, all of which occur in the mind and, thus, elsewhere.

Not every exploration of the “where I’m not” theme happens in terms of evasion or displacement, however. In “Revision,” the hands-on task of shelling crabs is pushed on for the memory it could be:

If I could reverse it and reassemble
the cracked bodies of the crabs – their shells
no longer a lovely, silent red – restore
their frantic language of clicks and gestures…

In these lines, the speaker is taking the hypotheticals of philosophy and applying them to physical actions and their family narrative. The fact that one can no easier put a crab back together as reverse one’s life seems obvious; it is where the speaker takes the reader through pushing on this scene and concept that transforms this meditation into compelling art. “If I could reverse” the fate of one creature, the speaker states:

then I don’t have to write about what
came after. We can all live here, in this day,
forward and backward, listening to
the cold-blue sea rock softly against
our metal hull, watch the gray world slowly

take on color, shadows separating
from form, the tide rushing in,
our father’s real smile like a white magnolia
opening over us as we cross the bight
vibrating with light so brilliant
I have to close my eyes against it.

In defining a memory through what it could have been – in this case, the mess the hands make and the mess one’s family feels like is revised into a whole creature and a whole, blinding memory – the speaker reaches after reconciliation. Yet, it is in this revision’s imagery that the poem points to the ongoing futility and struggle of reconciliation. We find the speaker revising, yes, but revising to blindness, a blindness that parallels the reality of knowing; when one knows the ugly truth, one closes eyes against it too, but is left with the work of reconciliation regardless. Here, “where I’m not” points back to where one is, which is the place where one is actively trying to understand better.

This is a searching kind of empathy played out here. If, as Montaigne’s epigraph notes, “Fear, desire, hope impel us toward the future [and] rob us of feelings and concern for what now is,” then poetry becomes a kind of anchor not for the poet but for the experiences and understanding of the poet. In the poem, “Remedy,” the story of a girl whose doctors

[don’t] know
why her brain swelled, only that she’d brought
them to the end of their knowledge, … the only
course for keeping her alive: a hole in the head…

this searching empathy takes place via an anti-rite of passage. A girl’s medical condition, and her doctors’ bewilderment, leave her to work out her own knowledge and understanding:

Days stretch out now with nothing in them,
her adolescent summers like bleached sheets
hanging on the line. She wonders if this is
what it is to be a woman; her body mutinous,
burrowed into. Moths beat wildly at her smudged
window and she closes her eyes, too tired to
watch them suffer. She runs her fingers along
countertops, the edges of unopened books, slowly,

because she has nothing to hurry toward. She is
waiting, she thinks, for someone to heal her.
It makes her angry, but she doesn’t know why.
Her shoulders tighten. Sweat beads at her hairline,
rolls down her face. She imagines herself as
a flower deep in a swamp, which, once found,
will be ground into paste, rubbed into the body
of a fevered stranger, used as a cure for pain.

From the imagery tied to the girl’s “adolescent summers” to the imagined life of a swamp flower made into a paste, this particular arch of “where I’m not” evokes the territory of “what it is to be a woman” from the perspective of someone given no alternative but to carry on without answers. In the same way that the speaker of “Revision” sought after a method to restore the crab’s “frantic language of clicks and gestures,” the girl of this poem is deciphering her life via a troubled, persistent sense of reconciliation.

Ultimately, this being without answers becomes a central note rung throughout this collection. As these poems prove time and again, when one is without answers, one is left with questions and the emotions around questions. Even Sigmund Freud, a figure that can be seen as providing answers (at times unasked for) for society’s ills, is portrayed in the poem “Freud at the Laundromat” as just another human being lost in the cycle of their own cascading narratives:

a circle that turns within a box and slots
where the money goes and goes transparent
door that opens to anonymous red panties

oh if only undergarments could speak he’d
analyze the fuck out of them but suffices
with pressing his ear to each hot door…

…he dreams of his wife’s
younger sister Minna, Minna and their apartment

at 19 Berggasse – the lie they conceived that
also had to be cut out oh now he is too old
his penis alone in his grey, wrinkled slacks

he wants to take them off, throw them in with
a stranger’s clothes watch the legs wrap around
the other unfilled pants a psychosomatic twitch
controls his left wrist he clears his throat again
again what will it take to be rid of this constant
vertigo aching he imagines that death is like

a long dose of morphine but is still terrified
oh to awaken inside another body perhaps be
the child Minna canceled this time around kept

Freud’s cycling of narratives carries us back to the theme of “where I’m not.” Here, where Freud is not is a place of satisfaction or control, which is what Montaigne’s epigraph points to as being our constant and only condition. In Deulen’s poems, however, this condition is translated away from being defined by fear, and sees our lives as being carried by the momentum of hope and awareness.

Buy it from Barrow Street Press: $16.95

José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow. He is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Author of six chapbooks as well as the recent collection, Everything We Think We Hear, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence. His second collection, Small Fires, is forthcoming in 2017 from FutureCycle Press.

REVIEW: Hardly War by Don Mee Choi

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by Ansley Clark

Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War opens with an essay: a preface, a letter to Choi’s readers. Choi grounds us right away, explaining, “I was born in a tiny, traditional house, a house my father bought with award money he received for his photographs of the April 19, 1960 Revolution.” This house in South Korea is her “psychic and linguistic base, a site of perpetual farewell and return, a site of [her] political act—translation and writing” (3). Using this house as her point of departure, Choi then propels us forward into the book and its state of “perpetual farewell and return.”

This preface works as a map. Soon after, the book’s poems begin to dissolve and crumble, as though the map’s edges are slowly burning and curling in on themselves. The book moves into prose blocks, slowly thins into more lineated poems, and finally ends with an opera based on interviews she conducted with her father about his war experiences.

Choi’s Hardly War thus defies genre. The book is part poetry, part memoir, and part documentary/collection of physical artifacts. In her opening, Choi tells us, “I am trying to fold race into geopolitics and geopolitics into poetry. Hence, geopolitical poetics. It involves disobeying history, severing its ties to power” (4) Later on, in one of the book’s most devastating lines, Choi writes:

What are world memories? It turns out that they are war memories. And what are war memories? They are orphan memories. Orphan memories are like fetuses thrown out in bottles. (36)

This moment speaks to the heart of this collection: a complex exploration of both the speaker as an individual subject and as a part of a much larger inheritance. As her speaker grapples with understanding her paternal lineage and her cultural heritage, Choi’s book asks what it means to inherit war. At the same time, this book asks how the memory and conception of war is controlled and manipulated by U.S. culture’s violent need to forget, to erase, or to entirely ignore its history. Choi tells her readers that the lineage of war is the world’s lineage, and that the lineage of war belongs to all of us, either as the survivors or the oppressors or both.

Choi expresses this idea of “forgotten” wars and history with the book’s title, which also repeats itself throughout the book. Choi’s poems begin with the lines:

It was hardly war, the hardliest of wars. Hardly, hardly. (6)

Later Choi tells us:

My father was hardly himself during the war, then I was born during the era that hardly existed, and therefore, I hardly existed without DDT. (6)

On page 12, she adds, “It was partly history.” These refrains express and bitterly mimic the ways in which U.S. culture has minimized, silenced, and erased the Korean War, as well as other aspects of its violent relationship and history with South Korea. The refrain of the story being “partly history” or “hardly war,” along with the rest of the book’s language play, quickly becomes uncomfortable. And this discomfort becomes a way to better understand South Korea and the speaker’s reality and history. Choi’s speaker desires to prove an existence—both her own and an entire history’s.

The book’s linguistic experimentation mirrors the ways in which we repeat ourselves, internally or externally, as we struggle to remember or understand. In “1950 June 28: The Fall of Seoul,” Choi writes, “I was cheerily cheerily red and merely merrily washed my face in the yard and looked up the stairs…No one was on the road, so I ran really readily red, are you really red?” (11). This repetition is also eerily at odds with the poem’s violent subject matter concerning North Korea’s invasion of South Korea. Here she creates a singsong voice that feels true to how we think about memories—usually in a circular, stuttering, and uncertain way.

At other times, the linguistic experiments express the speaker’s painful awareness of the limits of her exploration. In “Neocolony’s Colony,” Choi writes:

You provide the prose poems, I’ll provide the war
                     Aye, aye, Sir! (43)

Later on, Choi tells us that as a child, she believed “that the people and things that [her] father photographed followed him and lived inside his camera” and that she, too, wished that she “could follow [her] father and live inside his camera” (49). Thus, the book contains a grief that is both chaotic and quiet: the speaker’s ache for a deeper understanding of her father, his absences when she was young, and the importance of his work.

Hardly War’s endnotes are just as important as the book’s main text, and perhaps even function as poems themselves. Choi draws from her father’s photography, fragments from war documentaries, excerpts from her father’s writings and his letters home, notes from her time at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, and countless other artifacts, all of which she explains in her endnotes. I found myself flipping rapidly back and forth between the endnotes and the main text as I read. This flipping back and forth to look for information, this desire on the reader’s part to understand is a crucial part of the book and its reading experience. Choi’s speaker is attempting to makes sense of history and her identity, and we attempt to make sense of it alongside her.

Choi’s opera, which closes the book’s main text, ends with the lines:

I must point out a simple truth—
the angels are waving to us— (89)

This moment reveals one of the speaker’s most important desires—to discover the truth about her father, herself, and a piece of history. Additionally, because Choi’s readers know that the truth is not at all simple, the understatement of “a simple truth” stresses the history’s complexity. Choi succeeds in the goal she sets in the book’s preface—to disobey history and sever its ties to power—by revealing all of this ugly complexity.

Wave Books; $18; http://www.wavepoetry.com/products/hardly-war

Ansley Clark teaches creative writing at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she recently received her MFA. Her poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Columbia Poetry Review, Typo, Sixth Finch, DIAGRAM, Black Warrior Review, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbook Geography (dancing girl press, 2015).

REVIEW: This Visit by Susan Lewis

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by José Angel Araguz

 Midway through This Visit by Susan Lewis, the following lines present the reader with the essence of the overall project of the collection:

touch me here or
anywhere you can find

a place to park your
restless attention,

fleeting as anyone fleeing
his limits,

hot to outrun the death
of moments

These eight lines from the poem “Will & Wish” are charged with crafted purpose. There is the emphatic nature of the voice which shows the speaker’s attention to be centered on the reader and on the act of reading itself. Also, there is the way in which the reader of this poem necessarily engages with this emphasis via the act of reading a line like “fleeting as anyone fleeing.” The change between “fleeting” and “fleeing” moves beyond wordplay within the context of this poem; the difference of a letter transforms “fleeting,” with its connotations of transiency, into “fleeing,” whose tone is one of urgency. The words, with a difference of a letter, have the speaker moving from an objective to a more personal implication. The value placed on the reading experience here and throughout the poems in this collection are often framed by these ideas of “restless attention” on one side, and outrunning “the death / of moments” on the other, making for a poetry whose stakes are of an intimate as well as intellectual nature.

The first section of the collection is comprised of poems whose titles are variations of the phrase “My Life in.” The personal and narrative connotations of this titling are subverted in poems where the self of the speaker is hard to pin down. This subversion, then, becomes part of the engine driving the poems. “My Life in Streets (Or Breathe),” for example, begins:

Descent,
            legs maybeing down,

                        talk
                        following,

entering metal,
            relocation assent –

blindness of repetition
ignorance of bliss

When one’s “restless attention” is faced with these lines, there is a disorientation that happens; instead of a “life,” the reader is presented with an object list of actions in third person. Yet, this disorientation proves fruitful as it places the reader in the position to find pleasure in the play of the line “ignorance of bliss.” This play on the proverb Ignorance is bliss does similar work as the move detailed above that takes the reader from “fleeting” to “fleeing.” The recognition of phrasing that happens on the level of sound is augmented by the change of “is” in the proverb to “of” in the poem. This change colors what follows in the poem, a meditation on “streets” where “men & pigeons” can be found “lusting for their future.” This juxtaposition of men and pigeons is an example of one kind of ignorance; the nature of “lusting” is having one’s attention elsewhere, ignorant of anything else. The title can be returned to then with the idea of this particular “life in streets” being charged with self-consciousness and unwanted attention, the latter making necessary the “averted gaze, / the anonymous refusal” found in the final lines. While the “life” gestured at in the title is the life of reading, what one is reading, ultimately, is the life; the nuanced gesture and phrase, the charged if subtle turn of a moment.

The second section makes use of a different trope, that of letter-writing. In poems that address subjects like “Tomorrow” and “Random Object,” the opening address of “Dear ____” subverts the personal tone of a genre of writing that also fights against “the death / of moments.” In “Dear Dear,” Lewis sets the tone of this section:

you construct,
caught in the

proverbial headlights.
Machinated like fruit

in sweetly lost.
Worry not,

wont not.
Unbend your lap of

luxury & welcome
home your loyal

servitude. As in
dog slave the

clean. As in
make glove not

lore.

The self-awareness evident in the first line which addresses the “Dear” of letter-writing as a “construct” builds off the momentum of the first section; instead of the implied inwardness and reflection of the “My Life in” lyrics, the “Dear” construct makes necessary an awareness of an outer subject and purpose. There is a lyric swagger in this voice that both propels the poem forward in a different manner than the poems in the first section, and which invite the reader to investigate along with the speaker. As much as the “Dear” construct is “caught in the / proverbial headlights,” this poem implies that there are meanings outside of this dynamic, that the word “Dear” is only a trail marker on the path to meaning. This kind of address becomes a space for the “restless attention” of the reader and writer. Phrasing like “dog slave the // clean” and “make glove not // lore” make use of the tension between what words say and mean on the page versus what words say and mean when spoken aloud. This riffing on familiar sayings (God save the Queen and Make Love Not War, respectively) create in the reader a space of reflex and reflection; each time the reader has to shift their attention and refocus creates a new moment, the creation of which adds to what I see as the collection’s implied mission to “outrun the death / of moments.”

These first two sections set up the remaining two sections of the collection nicely by establishing the different conceptual modes this poet is able to work in. What remains constant throughout these poems is the feeling of poetry as an active space. These poems are challenging only in so much as they are made to be engaged with on the level of meaning-making. The collection’s title, in a way, can be seen as pointing towards the “visit” of the eye on the page as much as the writer on a subject. As life is experienced moment to moment, so do these poems flicker and bend, accumulating meaning in pieces sought after the fact.

There is a moment in the title poem where this kind of fleeting/fleeing immediacy is implied:

(Mother, what you could have told me)
(Stranger, what you might have known)

It is a moment of solitude, the speaker’s voice speculating alone. Yet, because it happens in a poem, it happens in a space that can be shared, and where the parallel structure of these lines imply a further meaning; the “Mother” and “Stranger” are connected in the same way that “what you could have told me” is connected to “what you might have known.” The same meanings found by different methods; the same feeling behind different words. This paradoxical engine drives not only the poetry found here, but could also be said to drive poetry in general. The lines above also had me return to the book’s dedication, which states:

For my mom, who taught me how – and why – to read.

For the readers of This Visit, Lewis shares the fruits of those lessons in poems filled with an acute awareness of the nature and stakes of the reading experience.

Buy it from BlazeVOX [books]: $16.00

José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow. He is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Author of six chapbooks as well as the recent collection, Everything We Think We Hear, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence. His second collection, Small Fires, is forthcoming in 2017 from FutureCycle Press.

REVIEW: Local Extinctions by Mary Quade

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by Heather Lang

While privy to discussions about STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math) versus STEAM (all of the latter plus art), I’ve noticed an intriguing parallel. Alexander Pschera, author of the nonfiction book Animal Internet, criticizes postmodernist efforts to return to nature. Certainly, in a culture where hiking trails are riddled with signs stating, “Do Not Touch,” and on a planet suffering from climate change, urban sprawl, and pollution, Pschera makes an important point. “What may well be possible, however, is that emergence of a new image of nature—an image that is concrete and stimulates the senses, that breaks through the abstraction,” writes Pschera (as translated by Elisabeth Lauffer). Perhaps we can apply this logic not only to our view of nature but to the arts, as well. In Local Extinctions, Mary Quade demonstrates how poetry can and will continue to thrive.

Mary Quade’s second full-length poetry collection, Local Extinctions, exemplifies a contemporary intersection between the natural world and poetry. Her poem, “Stinging Things,” for example, is “after shootings in a Cleveland public high school.” The poem itself does not mention students, schools, or guns – at least it does not reference them literally. Rather, the lines explore a person who is pruning a tree being stung “on the ear, as if to say to its pliant softness, Now hear this.” In the second and final stanza of this poem, we discover that just above hangs a wasp or perhaps a hornet nest (these “Stinging Things” are never named). Quade describes the nest as “a child’s head, wrapped in bandages, / disembodied, and the warnings / brimming from the mouth.” She closes the poem with the following: “Inside, chambers and chambers of flightless / angers – substance but not yet shape.” Certainly, this piece is an exploration of the school shooting, not a traditional nature poem. Quade projects urgent and tangible contemporary problems onto this symbolic narrative. Nevertheless, the poem, like the collection, has some roots in the natural world.

Local Extinctions also acknowledges our disconnection from, our misunderstandings of, nature. In “Killing Songbirds the Compassionate Way,” we’re asked to witness a bird flying into a window. The effects, for the bird, are crippling: “broken wings,” “worm-filled wounds,” and “crumpled” bones. We bring them into the house and pretend “that the eye dropper / of sugared water / you slip inside their beaks / doesn’t drown them” even though the “bubbles / click on their tongues.” In the end, the poem closes by asking us to imagine that these songbirds saw us through the window, our “lids nictating,” our “plumage unpreened,” and they “tried, suicidal, / to revive you, / to keep you, / (suffering) alive.” This twist at the end of the poem not only prevents the piece from becoming didactic about our ignorance of the natural world, but it connects us to these birds in a more thought-provoking way, a way that – if I might be so bold – could only be both explored and, ultimately, articulated through poetry.

Instead of trying to turn back time, poets are embracing our contemporary world, and their work is increasingly relevant. H. L. Hix’s American Anger (Etruscan Press, 2016) fiercely explores politics and national identity. Liu Xia’s Empty Chairs (Greywolf Press, 2015), as translated by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern, passionately contemplates the poet’s experience as the wife of an imprisoned dissenter in contemporary China. Similarly, in the most lyrical, imagistic, and ultimately artful way, Mary Quade’s Local Extinctions demonstrates the imperative nature of the green humanities. Local Extinctions is a collection of poetry that should be read in Science, Civics, and Literature classes alike.

Heather Lang is a poet, literary critic, and adjunct professor. Nevada’s NPR member radio station has twice interviewed her this year about her writing, and in June she served as the Las Vegas Poets Organization’s featured poet. Her writing process is currently on exhibit at the Nevada Humanities Program Gallery. Heather’s poetry and prose have been published by or are forthcoming with HOOT, The Normal School, Paper Darts, Pleiades, and Whiskey Island, among others. Heather holds an MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University, and she serves as an editor with The Literary Review.