REVIEW: Mimer by Lance Phillips


by Peter Vanderberg

Mimer is a riddle told by the sphinx. Read “riddle” as spare, enigmatic poems that confuse and seduce. Read “sphinx” as ancient quandary, primal question, mortal dilemma, classical figure, myth, author.

One can say opal until one’s tongue swells.

One hawk may not mean mouth at risk.

Those two lines comprise the entire poem entitled, “From Nietzsche’s Bed” and that is the same title given for eleven poems, all from the section “From Nietzsche’s Bed.” So many questions spool out from these two spare lines. Is this an instruction for reading the book? Is this a truth about the body? Is this a warning? Such is the dilemma and pleasure of Mimer.

Stay with me for a bit on the sphinx — of Egyptian origin, but in this manifestation, I think our sphinx is Greek. The poems in Mimer continually reach back to Greek mythology for reference and figure. The title poem is a dialogue, or an erased dialogue, between Aristotle and Alexander, presumably the great Greek philosopher and conqueror respectively.

Aristotle: wind over those crows
Alexander: rhinovirus
Aristotle: foot the arch
Alexander: one must possess protection as one’s own skin

The dialogue takes place in these short bursts over six pages. The feel is of a duel of perspectives, dual perspectives, evolving definitions, associative play, disconnect, connect. The pages that contain these interactions are mostly blank. I believe Phillips invites the reader to stay with each page, to linger in the blank silence allowing associations to grow and connections to be disrupted.

As any great philosopher or prophet, Mimer breaks our linear-leaning thought processes. One must approach this book (really any good book) with intent to consider; with intent to search. In his brief author statement (found here), Phillips offers, “I think of the book as a

collection of parables, but in the sense that Crossan uses the term, as disruptors.” That said, the book certainly disrupts. The syntax is unfamiliar:

Semen & mint from the basin

One indicates eye with grinding teeth, sun

Entitled, “The Human Is Over,” the poem ends there. One can say this poem until one’s tongue swells, but any meaning wrung from it must be invented through a new grammar. The images are rich enough to invite one to try. The confusion we are left with invites us to the next riddle.

Eventualities honeycomb out mouth
Besieged have am silver sill peck
Under curtain moon propriety
Moan his ear due again
Moan a shriller value a one
Must simply accept as to money
The world below Sybil tearing
A squash an apple beating her
Breast before him marked domicile

This from the section “SUB-” is representative of Phillips ‘disrupted’ syntax. The words must be thought through singularly, then as combinations that may or may not invite reordering. The poem is a three-dimensional thing and so forces the reader to think along several axis. Sensuality is here. As is the natural world and a few human concepts that attempt to force sense from it all.

Back to the sphinx: a threshold keeper that is said to have devoured those who could not answer its riddles. This raises the question: what is at stake in Mimer? Certainly not death, yet perhaps Phillips suggests something about consciousness here. If we do not allow our concepts of self, other, world to be disrupted; if we do not experience fracture, can we ever have a life constructed on purpose? Perhaps Phillips suggests disruption is necessary so that we can rebuild authentic methods of understanding. Perhaps not.

This reader at least remained in a liminal state throughout Mimer: on the threshold of understanding, but not passing through the gate. I may have pocketed a few “meanings” by the end of the book, but they are too uncertain to mention here. Phillips disrupted my way of thinking, and I am grateful for that experience.

Get Mimer from Ahsahta: $18.00.

Peter Vanderberg is the founding editor of Ghostbird Press. He served in the US Navy from 1999 – 2003 and received a MFA from CUNY Queens College. Recent work has appeared in CURA, LUMINA, The Manhattanville Review and in collaboration with his brother James’ paintings in their book, Weather-Eye. He teaches art and creative Writing at St. John’s Preparatory School and Hofstra University.

REVIEW: Paradise Drive by Rebecca Foust

paradise drive

Read our recent interview with Rebecca Foust here.

by Whitney Kerutis

Rebecca Foust’s Paradise Drive is a collection of modern sonnets. Her book is a series of poems that couple the characteristics of the traditional sonnet with pedestrian themes and trucs. In this act of marbling, the sonnets play their cords from our own rib cages, driving lyrics out of reality— no longer does the sonnet seem gifted to us by muses but from our daily strifes, our internal battle between self-realized and refused identity within society. Modernity becomes siren through the adapted sonnet:

Take me, says this long, languid lick
of limestone and slate-roof house

corseted by a whalebone- thin fence
anyone could unlace


Then remember
you, daughter, born in a scarlet welter
on a wave’s green-curled edge of pain.

An ode to the journey of maturation and identity, Foust’s stark declaration and images arise out of music; rhyme, alliteration and assonance bumping against slang and commercial labels:

Yes, Pilgrim’s a buzz-kill: dour, dry, dull;
what’s cool now is hurling the word,
and insult, at white racists.

Perhaps Foust’s greatest feat in the collection is her unabashed voice, which thrives between the various environments and faces:

We bloom and bloom into old age,
then fade and linger; it’s hard not to hate
those new buds that keep swelling the vine.


Watching the wind lash the house on the screen,
we each thought the same thought: Im not a girl.
But when the door blew open, we all felt the chill

In her declaration to the self, Foust remarkably accomplishes detail and imagery within an economy of language. Striping the sonnet of fluff and instead allowing the words to string effortlessly into clear streams of sound:

Your hands cup paper plate
into a skiff to float you away
from the continent of one man’s hunger.

Let us not forget the painful humor throughout this collection, brilliantly executed through the poet’s extensive curiosity and imagination:

It’s just—
[ time   delay ]— that last dose of Botox
was whale-size, and now I can’t smile or frown
on cue.


Problem: dead’s not an option here in Marin.
Fix: relocate, with upgrade, to a place
where a rat can be loved. And, with excess.
Orange County, perhaps. Or Crawford, Texas.

Paradise Drive lends itself as an example of how traditional forms of poetry can both be retained as well as manipulated to survive in the modern world of poetry. A collection of the individual voyaging through society, Rebecca Foust has proven the sonnet as an adaptable form.

Buy it from Press 53: $14.95

Whitney Kerutis lives in Denver, Colorado and is working on her MFA in Creative Writing for poetry at The University of Colorado Boulder.

REVIEW: Model City by Donna Stonecipher



by Scott Russell Morris

My wife and I moved to Astana, Kazakhstan, three years ago, living there for a year while we taught at a Kazakh high school. From the largest window in our sixteenth-floor apartment, we could look out over the undeveloped edge of the capitol city where a large, globular building—which I affectionately referred to as the Death Star—was slowly taking shape, and beyond that, the glass pyramid Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, beyond that, the glittering new mosque and a set of buildings the ex-pat community called the Dog Bed and the Water Dish, beyond that, the old Soviet-style apartments. On the opposite side of the building, if we looked out from the stairwell’s windows, we could see the new apartment buildings under construction. The next block over from us, an excavation, started before we arrived and still digging when we left, was rumored to be preparations for what would be the tallest building in Central Asia. And just beyond that, the heart of Kazakhstan’s new capital city, a mirage of sparkling business and residential buildings, tall skyscrapers—some wavy, some glassy, some stony—all clashing against each other for flashiness. Malls and restaurants and businesses and fancy hotels next to the ambassadors’ houses. A tall, surreal tree with a golden egg, Kazakhstan’s equivalent of the Washington Monument, gleamed in the middle of it all, colored lights on it at night.

But most of these buildings were empty, the apartments built for show more than occupancy, the idea of a capitol more than the function of one, the president’s dream of what his legacy will be, but not yet accomplished. Beyond the glittering façade are crumbling apartments with exposed wires. The actual residents of the city live in the old Soviet heart, where buildings are short, square, uniform, and functional, where the mall’s wares are affordable and necessary.

I couldn’t help but think of all these empty buildings glittering in the Siberian sun and wind as I opened Donna Stonecipher’s Model City, a poetic exploration of other such cities, cities built with a plan or a dream that is unattainable.

Model City starts with a question: “What was it like?”. After which, we get 72 poems, all of them titled “Model City,” each poem containing four prose poem stanzas, every stanza beginning with “It was like…” And then each stanza takes you to a dreamlike world of empty hotel rooms and architects without buildings to build:

It was like the young architect sitting at her window looking out for hours at the city skyline and making lists of which buildings are beautiful and which are sublime.

The repetition of the uncertainty—tell us what it was like without telling us what it actually was, without telling us exactly what it is at all—creates a dreamy world as you move from poem to poem. While we know from the afterward that Stonecipher based many of her poems on Berlin and many others on the planned communities throughout the world, we don’t learn that in the poems themselves, and instead are left wondering if we’re looking at real cities, imagined cities, or imagined cities overlaid on the real ones. There are, in the words themselves, cities “composed solely of expensive emptinesses”. The language itself continually loops back on itself, so that in any given poem, each stanza contains many of the same words, as though the words became a way to see the through the façades their own emptiness. These emptinesses and looping rhythms only add to the dreaminess that the descriptions themselves create, emptinesses which draw attention not just to all the unused hotel rooms in the model cities, but also the strangeness of words.

It was like the citizen knowing that home is a construction exposing our constructedness; he chose the most beautiful language and tried to disappear into its declinations.

The world of Model City reminds me very much of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, though Stonecipher’s poems are less grounded in fancy and more in actual possibility—though often, possibilities unmet—and her observations are not of the supernatural, but of the oddly quotidian: for example, a city full of ad spaces that only advertise their own availability, shops where everything is free, the fleeting pleasure of an apartment with a sunrise view blocked by an empty hotel, an architect inspired by ocean waves. We do not have real cities in her work, we have model cities, city ideals. Factual, but not actual, cities.

The genius of her work lies in that strange boundary between what was imagined and what is actual, it was something was like, not what it actually was. While her book took me back to Kazakhstan, it will take other readers elsewhere. Readers, immersed as they will be in the beautiful, expensive emptinesses and abstractions of Stonecipher’s language, will no doubt be reminded of their own model cities, their own travels, their own moments running up against emptinesses.

Buy it at Shearsman Books. $16.

Scott Russell Morris is a student at Texas Tech University and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University. He is at work on a memoir of food and travel. His essays have recently appeared in Brevity, Proximity, Assay, and Stone Voices.

INTERVIEW: Meta Homes and Gardens // Rebecca Foust

Rebecca Foust

by Jon Riccio

Rebecca Foust’s Paradise Drive (Press 53) highlights the trappings of a humanness as agonized as it is Americanized. That she conveys these struggles and their triages in a book composed entirely of sonnets is no small feat. Foust’s collection excels in its alcoves, each iteration of the 14-line form simpatico with “the limestone walks/ to houses glowing like over-lit cruise boats/ docked under old oaks.” Inspired by Foust’s “The tiles are set in cement, but we’ve seen what a few/ cigarettes or million bucks can shake loose,” Jon Riccio tours the neighborhood, the author serving as his guide.

Jon Riccio: We met at The Frost Place Poetry Seminar where you were the 2014 Dartmouth Poet in Residence. You won my respect right off the bat after I heard that Robert Frost’s clothesline served as your primary canvas for determining the page order in Paradise Drive. Have you always employed such creative methods in the assembly process? What’s the best advantage to the book-by-clothesline technique?

Rebecca Foust: I laid out my first few books as I imagine everyone else does: on the bed, on the floor, on the kitchen table. The table was never big enough and the bed had to be cleared at night to sleep in, so the floor always ended up being the best option. But it’s hard on your back and knees to be bending over and stooping and creeping around like that. An open door or window can have disastrous effects on your carefully-aligned piles. And you eventually have to pick the pages up to mop the floor.

When Cleopatra Mathis came to visit at The Frost Place (TFP), she told me that when she was a fellow there, she tacked her poems up all over the living room walls. I loved that idea, but I knew those walls had been freshly painted and did not think TFP would appreciate my pockmarking them with thumbtack holes. Instead, I set up two banquet-size folding tables on the screened-in back porch and laid my poems out in rows. The porch faced west, and I liked working there in the late afternoons with the sun slanting in; I’d look up now and then to see if I could catch a glimpse of the mother bear and cubs who lived in the back field. One day I looked up and noticed the clothesline hung right over my head. That’s when I got the idea to pin the poems to the lines.

Two clotheslines ran the length of the 32-foot porch, so I had 64 total feet, enough room to hang about 85 poems. The rest got spread on the banquet tables, but I no longer had to have them in piles, and for the first time I could see all the poems that might go into the manuscript in nearly one glance. I used the tables as a discard pile and the clothesline for various incarnations of the book. I could see the “pages” at eye level and move them around at will. And I could leave them up for the whole summer! I always think better and get ideas when walking, so being able to pace back and forth along the clotheslines allowed me to see connections between poems that had not occurred to me before and to imagine many, many different possible sequences. Everything was fixed in the pinned moment but also infinitely fluid—all I had to do was unfasten a poem, slide the others down, and voila!—a new order. An added benefit was that the process was much easier on my back and knees than the “floor” method I’d used before.

JR: Polident and Percocet are a few modern-era amalgamations featured in the centuries-old sonnet forms throughout Paradise Drive (Ritalin, Tupperware and d-CON appear as well). Is it me, or do our times feel sonnet-made?

RF: All times are sonnet-made, in my opinion, or perhaps I should say the sonnet is for all times. I have found it to be an infinitely elastic and highly generative form. People have been breaking the rules with sonnets for so long that breaking the rules has become part of the form. But even staying within the rules permits infinite possibilities for expression. Wordsworth’s poem “Nuns Fret Not” (a title I borrowed for a poem in Paradise Drive) makes the case for structure allowing for greater artistic freedom. In an article written for the Cortland Review, Tony Barnstone says it this way:

In the words of the great Tang Dynasty statesman and writer Han Yu, to write in form is to “Dance in Chains.” That is, the joy of writing in form comes not in slavishly following the rule of prosody, of pouring content into a predefined form, but in creatively interacting with a tradition, renewing and modernizing it.

Poet Sam Gwynn calls it “pouring new wine into old bottles,” and it’s all just another version of Pound’s idea that the poet’s job is to “make it new.” 

JR: Was it harder writing about your father’s life (“I’m ready to tell the truth about Dad,/ extolled as a death camp liberator…He was false and flawed and still/ someone’s god, each 3-a.m. sobbed drunk-dial call.”), or your mother’s death (“At my mother’s wake, other gray faces/ who’d worked the looms in rooms/ so thick with thread that noon/ was dark.”)?

RF: In some ways it was harder to write about my father’s life because he was so private, even secretive, and what I know of his inner life and even of his history is largely imagined or re-constructed from going through his papers after his death. I think it was his experience in WWII that made my father turn inward, because in the photos before he was drafted, I see a very different man from the one I knew. My mother, in contrast, was open and willing to share details about her passions and frustrations, joys and griefs. It’s been easier to write about her life and death because she let me in, and the raw material for the poems is more accessible. Also, when writing about my father I feel a reticence that comes from, I suppose, a fear of violating his intensely-held privacy. I don’t have that fear when writing about my mother. I feel her blessing on everything I write.

JR: This excerpt – from “Stepford Wives Theme Party” – “stovetop Jiffy Pop, its swollen tin orb as frail/ as a paper wasp nest or spacesuit worn/ on the doomed Apollo.” has forever changed my outlook on movie snacks. What is it about lines like this and others, such as “She found the kill switch (every miracle has one),” that makes them so successful?

RF: I like that Jiffy Pop image too! It’s a very rich, visceral, accessible pop culture image that triggers several senses at once, but is not one that has been overused. And I think its comparison with those old spacesuits is surprisingly apt. Surprise and precision are two elements that can empower a figure of speech. Also, perhaps, oxymoron. The fragility of the foil torn through to get to a snack seems trivial, even fun, until you consider the same fragility as applied to space suits meant to protect the human body from harm. That kind of yoking of opposites adds tension and vigor to simile and metaphor. Something of that nature is at work in your second example as well. Miracles are large, profound things, often sacred, so it is surprising and even sacrilegious to conceive of them as being “rigged.” And since we generally think of miracles as being life-affirming, the idea of one having a “kill switch” adds another little jolt of surprise. 

JR: Paradise Drive, the street of wizened sonnets. An impromptu blurb, but since we’re on the subject of wisdom, let’s jump to the second poem of “The Market” where the futures trader trades “his clogs for a new pair of Adidas – / traction against those pesky subpoenas.” Give us another item essential to residency on your book’s titular drive.

RF: I love “the street of wizened sonnets!” Can you please put that up in a review on Amazon?

I can think of a number of items one needs in order to live on Paradise Drive. A Bird Dog, apparently. A two- or three-car garage to house the SUV for ski weekends along with the requisite PC-Prius. A home gym. A plastic surgeon on speed dial. Blinders are helpful. A Rolex is good. It’s all there in the book, everything you need for the Paradise Drive survival backpack. 

JR: I enjoyed the ways you incorporated other poetry forms – the list (“Three-Car Garage”), persona (“Gone to the Dogs”) and elegy (“Bourbon Elegy,” “Anastrophe Elegy”) – into the sonnet. What impact did multi-layering have on your generative/revision process?

RF: If it had any impact it was at a subconscious level. Aside from trying to follow the sonnet form (then later trying to see how much I could deviate from it), I didn’t think about form. I never thought: I’ll make a list poem, I’ll make an elegy. Once I had an idea in about 14 lines, I just kept revising to try to make it a better poem. Most of these sonnets came to me whole. I started the book in 2008, during my second semester in grad school, a time when I became interested in, then obsessed with, the sonnet form. For a year or so, sonnets were all I read. I was immersed and it was like learning a language. I eventually found myself dreaming in sonnets, making grocery list sonnets and even thinking in chunks of about 14 lines. For a while almost every poem I wrote just came out that way. I wrote hundreds of 14-liners; some became sonnets, and a few were good.

Paradise Drive began in one insomniac three-day period during which I wrote about 35 core poems without stopping, one right after the other, half filling a notebook that I afterwards carried with me everywhere. You know how it is when you are in one of those fertile creative periods, when everything—I mean everything—seems directly to feed the work? It was like that. I just looked around me and listened to what people were saying and read the local papers and there were poems everywhere. And because of my mindset and obsession at the time, the poems emerged as sonnets. It was like spitting out owl pellets—I’d take everything in, digest it, then expel these small, condensed packages of bones, teeth and fur.

JR: Your sonnets on bridges – “Romance” and the abovementioned “Anastrophe Elegy” – address suicide. One could see them as structures within structures exploring the unsayable. What do you hope readers will take away from these poems?

RF: That’s what poetry is supposed to do, right? Get as close as possible to expressing the ineffable, saying what is hard to say or can’t be said. It’s an impossible mission, and one I rail against in the poem “No Words.” But yes, I found structure very helpful for taking on really difficult subjects. The hardest poem in the book for me to write, the hardest line to write, was the one in “Don’t Talk About this” that addresses the mother’s fear that her child has used the belt of his bathrobe as a noose behind the closed bathroom door. That one, and the line about what the child says to her after she’s tucked him into bed. Thinking about form is one way I distract myself from what I am afraid to write, and I use it to trick my inner censor into looking the other way. 

JR: “Death by Dodge Sportsman” contains the immortal epigraph Man Gets Six Years for Motor Home Chase. What’s your advice for writers turning truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moments into poems?

RF: That epigraph was an actual headline taken from the Marin Independent Journal. You can’t make these things up, but they are everywhere if you look and listen. I wrote several poems from Marin IJ headlines but “Death by Dodge Sportsman” was the only one that made it into Paradise Drive. I had way too many “Seven Deadly Sins” poems for the book; one, “Rage Gets a Court Date” has an epigraph from a headline that read “Novato Women Guilty in Stabbing over Romantic Rival.” Most of those sonnets, like “Death by Dodge Sportsman,” combine humor with something that is not funny at all.

My advice? We always hear about Emily Dickinson’s dictum to “tell it slant,” but I guess I’d say something along the lines of “experience it slant” or even “experience slant.” We take all kinds of utter insanity in the world around us completely for granted. My advice is to look for the strange in the everyday, really look at things and really listen. The more you do this the better you get at it. And then something else begins to happen—you can begin to mis-see and mis-hear things in very interesting ways.

Then, of course, it is important to capture the things you notice. I try to carry a pen and index cards with me always, but when caught short I’ll make notes on my phone or even on my hand and all the way up my arm. If you don’t write things down in the moment, they are lost. 

JR: There’s a sentence from “The Quest” that resonates, stronger every time I return to it: “Maybe the chance/ to do an angstrom of good, make beauty/ or protest or laughter.” How does Paradise Drive serve this quartet of intent?

RF: Well, let’s just say I hope the book does an angstrom of good. I love that word “angstrom” by the way, and I stole it from a poem written by my friend Roy Mash. I like how the word sonically evokes the narrator’s anxiety about whether she has the power to do any good in the world.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that old chestnut about what can poetry do, what good is it, does it matter. We all know all the various lines that get quoted when this subject comes up. I’ve pretty much devoted my life to poetry since I retired from autism advocacy about eight years ago. That’s a lot of hours spent at my desk moving commas around, and it sometimes feels more than a little self-indulgent. So the preoccupation of the narrator in “The Quest” is my preoccupation. And her conclusion is pretty much how I rationalize spending so much time on this art. I do believe poetry can do that “quartet” of things, and that they are important things and maybe the most important things any one person can do. I often think about that line by Phil Ochs, how in times like these, beauty is the last form of protest. Some poetry does outright protest and bear witness, of course, and a small subset does it well. But I agree that beauty is itself a form of protest. In an age of cynicism, acknowledging and building beauty takes courage. And yeah, just making people laugh is a good thing. Beauty, protest, laughter—these allow for hope, and hope may be the only thing with the power to make the world better. In an essay written for the Georgia Review last year, Ann Pancake talks about the obligation of artists to “dream forward”—to see the world not just as it is but also to envision how it might be. Seeing and making beauty can, I guess, be a way of dreaming forward.

JR: The Volta derives its name from “the turn in thought in a sonnet that is often indicated by such initial words as But, Yet, or And Yet” (thank you, Encyclopædia Britannica). Which volta has inspired you the most, and why?

 RF: The word volta contains its own unit of electricity, and that is what you find in the best sonnets: electricity, pure energy. Urban dictionary calls sonnets “Pop-rocks for your mind. Deceptive packages that set off unexpected explosions.” Sonnets can indeed be like little bombs, with the volta where the explosion happens. Before the volta is set up (the fuse) and after it is, well, aftermath.

Voltas that are cued in obvious ways with disjunctives like “but” and “yet” are often the least interesting ones, because you can see them coming a mile away, and they can end up sounding didactic and over-explicative. These are the signals for rhetorical voltas, turns in argument or logic, but there are many other more subtle and powerful ways a sonnet can make a turn, for example by changing tone, setting, point of view, verb tense, subject, etc. Some poets, like Billy Collins (in his poem, “Sonnet”) actually employ the word “turn” to make the turn. The last poem in Paradise Drive, “Preparation for Pirouette” executes the steps of a balletic turn (“whip-pivot-spot”) in its 13th line.

Once I understood there are many kinds of turns besides a shift in thought signaled by disjunctives, I began to see that many sonnets have more than one turn. For example, some Elizabethan sonnets with strong voltas in their closing couplets also make a less obvious turn where we expect to see it in a Petrarchan sonnet, after the first eight lines. I was thinking about voltas when I wrote “Contradance,” on one level about a turn-and-dip dance move called a “Gypsy Meltdown,” and on another level about turning away from a turning away from faith, not quite the same thing as embracing faith. In that poem I tried to insert a turn in every single line; I wanted it to be continuously revolving.

So, to answer your question, sonnets that make more than one turn and whose turns are subtle are the most inspiring to me. Some poems in Paradise Drive strictly adhere to form and others bend the rules; others break nearly all the rules. What makes a sonnet a sonnet, I kept wondering, and how many conventional criteria can I jettison before the form falls apart? Two poems in Paradise Drive don’t have 14 lines, but I still consider them sonnets. I ended up deciding that if there is one element that must be retained, it is the volta. A sonnet has to end in a different place than it began; there must be compressed tension and change. So it’s great to end the interview here, on the volta, my favorite part of and what I believe to be the sine qua non of the sonnet form.

The 2014 Dartmouth Poet in Residence, Rebecca Foust is the recipient of the 2014 Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Award and recent fellowships from The Frost Place, the MacDowell Colony and the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. Her fifth book, Paradise Drive, won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and can be ordered at

Jon Riccio graduates this December with an MFA from the University of Arizona. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Qwerty, Redivider, Mountain Gazette, White Whale Review and elsewhere. He serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review.

Review: Notes From A Missing Person by Jennifer Kwon Dobbs


By Tim Etzkorn
Jennifer Kwon Dobbs chapbook, Notes from a Missing Person, reflects on Dobbs’ search for her South Korean birth mother. The story resonated in a special way for me. Presently, I live in South Korea, and her images of hunching Halmeonies, or grandmothers, scowling ajummas, or middle-aged women, her notes written in 한굴, or Korean, her scenes of barbecue grills filled with burning meat and blackened garlic, and her implications of exclusion made for a text that modeled my reality. At the core though, this chapbook is about far more than Korea and far more than Dobbs’ experience searching for her birth mother. Notes from a Missing Person is a text of exploration and confrontation; it takes on the pain that accompanies a turbid past. Even for those of us who dont have a background as fraught as Dobbs, the chap still plunges into our hearts and provides a moving exposé of how we write fiction to understand that which we do not know, how our bodies contain our history, and how we seek knowledge as a form of healing.

“Notes from a Missing Person” recounts Dobbs search for her Korean birth mother across political, geographic, and cultural borders, but the text seeks therapy as much as it looks for answers. Dobbs initially at least pursues healing by way of imagination; she creates stories to explain her heritage. Naturally, these tales fall short and Dobbs must turn to her body as a familial palimpsest and her homeland as a cultural tome to unearth her past.

Outwardly, Notes from a Missing Person falls into two camps: one of storytelling and one of healing. Dobbs makes this apparent early. She announces her wish to [T]alk back to that void, as if she were setting out on an oral tale exploring unfathomable myth. Dobbs then bands this mystery together with a sense of the corporeal, saying [T]hese notes seek to suture space and shift perspective. Like a good poet, Dobbs chooses her words with great intention. She wishes to put incomplete information together with missing parts, but she also seeks to suture space, hemming air and emptiness back together; getting at the bodily, suture denotes the medical stitching and sewing parts of the body to make them whole again. Dobbs isnt simply working to understand her past; she yearns to complete her self, to rectify rifts left open by a lifetime of not knowing about her history.

Rapidly, we become aware that paper can only take Dobbs so far. Artists and therapists may know that expressive therapy has marked and cathartic results, but Dobbs intensely wants physical contact with her real life mother. Only this can fill in the gaps that her imagination has failed to patch. She realizes, I cant write my way to Mother. She is not this page. Dobbs strives to suture with her pen, but a stitch made of fiction will not hold up. She needs something tangible, something fleshly to penetrate. Dobbs discovers that her notes promulgate the problem:

Each word I write distances Omma further just as I try to bring her closer
[] My mother is missing. I am missing [] In her image, I want to touch
myself as no one can touch me to find her, as no one can touch me
and with
the hunger of a child search and writing her mothers body from
what she knows
of her own.

Dobbs words make her aware of the emptiness that stems from knowing nothing about her mother. Fictionalizing what may be true about her past only reveals the huge gap between what she does not know and what may be real.

As long as her mother is missing, Dobbs feels that her past is missing. If her past is missing, she cannot fully understand her present and thus she is not fully there: What is this reality that is always a phantom [] Its a fiction that haunts where the body shouldve been, a story that strikes out for a body with memorys force. As Dobbs owns her lack of knowledge about herself she becomes increasingly obsessed with the physical. She knows flesh will provide a degree of knowing that stories and notes cannot.

Turning to her body, and eventually the country of her birth, helps Dobbs with her search, though she continues to confront issues of identity. She faces a double-bind of outsider status. In the U.S., Dobbs is a minority and feels the tension of being a racial outsider. In Korea, Dobbs is a cultural outsider. She is what is called a giyopo, a non-Korean Korean. She is neither fluent in the language nor the customs. Visiting the adoption agency that sent her to the U.S., western adoptee parents-to-be see her and assume she is Korean: In the agencys kitchen, I wash breakfast plates in the sink. A middle-aged couple enters and says to each other, she must be one of the birth mothers. Look at how young she is,’” Their assumption of her goes no further than her skin. Later, joining with adoptee friends and a beef barbecue restaurant, she fails the restaurant staff at being the Korean that she racially is:

Yet Im remembering the sweet smoke of a Hongdae restaurant, adoptee
friends shouting
Geonbae! and shooting soju, bulgogi spread like a
blackening skirt because no one
s paying attention, the scowling ajumma
running over with scissors and tongs. Hungry, I watch her balance, cut and
arrange the strips, as if her hands know the weight of the meat, the intensity
of the fire; or she
s annoyed that were drunk and burning our food because
we don
t know what to do. Were trying.

Because we dont know what to do. Dobbs line ripples like a boulder dropped in a duck pond. She and her friends cant know what to do because they are Korean by birth only. Much like the adoptee parents-to-be, the ajummas judgment goes as far as her skin. She looks Korean, so she should act Korean. The balancing, cutting, and placing of the meat should be as natural to her as it is to the scowling middle-aged woman, and when its not, she is deemed an outsider.

Nonetheless, Dobbs discovers that in searching her body and her homeland, she finds healing that paper will not reveal. Thats not to say her imaginative exploration has been for naught; her writing moved her journey forward, maybe even made it possible, and she has sutured some of her space. She can offer up her notes as a result:

You can weigh [the works] awkward heft in your hands, cut it with
scissors, drop the painted strips into a steel bucket and strike a match. Lean
the flamespaper hissing as it curls, blackens and ashesto see the
words return to their source.

Much like the ajumma cutting and weighing beef, Dobbs cuts and weighs her work. The meat fed her body; her writing fed her search, but now, its purpose has been served; she can sacrifice it. She concludes by turning the text onto the readers. She invites us to lean in, to cut up our own fictions and burn them so as to seek answers in our body as well as in our pens.

Read it at Essay Press for free.

Tim Etzkorn completed his Master’s in English Literature from the University of Wyoming. He has taught composition, literature, and ESL/EFL. At present he teaches EFL in South Korea.

REVIEW: Angels of the Americlypse: an Anthology of New Latin@ Writing ed. Carmen Giménez Smith & John Chávez


by José Angel Araguz

While Angels of the Americlypse: An Anthology of Latin@ Writing provides no shortage of interest, I decided to limit
myself to three “stops,” highlighting how each in their own respective way points to the inclusive/expansive spirit of the anthology, all the while detailing the unique reading experience it offers. In their introduction, the editors describe their intent as wanting “to invite, to welcome, to unerase and reinscribe, to expand the landscape by making it visible” (xvi). One of the ways in which this work is done is in the anthology’s structure: Angels presents each writer with an introduction, a sample of their work, and space for their own aesthetic statement. This thorough approach to each section allows for not only a glimpse into each writer’s literary voice as well as craft/personal voice, but, along with the introductions, points in many ways to the overall conversation each writer’s work is engaged in. This structure has the accumulative effect of evoking how alive the field of Latin@ writing is today.

Stop 1: Rosa Alcalá

In his introduction to Alcalá’s work, Peter Ramos asks: “Where is the line, the border, between one’s cultural identities and one’s supposedly true self?” (5). The selected poems that follow seem to take turns engaging with this question. Compare the first line of “Voice Activation” with that of “Paramour”:

This poem, on the other hand, is activated by the sound of my voice, and, luckily, I am a native speaker (“Voice Activation”)

English is dirty. Polyamorous…(“Paramour”)

Writing against an epigraph by Wittgenstein on how a poem “is not used in the language-game of giving information,” the first line of “Voice Activation” plays the idea of “native speaker” against that of a poem “activated by the sound of my own voice” and, doing so, complicates the act of writing. There is a powerful assertion in this line – that the writer is capable of both accessing the ineffable (with its connotations of the unknowable and unutterable) as well as being fluent in the ineffable – that is later counterpointed in the poem by lines like:

Have no doubt, my poem is innocent and transparent. So when I say, I think I’ll make myself a sandwich, the poem does not say, I drink an isle of bad trips (6).

In using the language of reassurance, Alcalá is able to both allay the ineffable as well as invite it in. This ability to navigate between the several ways language(s) can mean (and unmean) is a key facet of much of in this anthology, one that highlights the sentiment behind the line “English is dirty. Polyamorous.” In the two short sentences that open the poem “Paramour,” an act of “unerasing” and “reinscribing” occurs, which is repeated and developed, becoming a rhetorical engine driving the rest of the poem.

 Stop 2: Norma E. Cantú

In her aesthetic statement, Norma E. Cantú describes herself as being “[t]rained in semiotics” as well as “an undocumented folklorist – that is, I do not have any formal training in folkloristics” (54). If these statements are unpacked a bit more, Cantú can first be seen as a reader of signs. The latter statement’s juxtaposition of the word “undocumented” with the vocation of “folklorist” – the former a charged word for Latin@s, at times meaning illegal, and often implied in describing someone as being sin papeles (without papers) – complicates both terms, expressing an interest in both signs and folklore beyond the page (beyond papers). As the title of her aesthetic statement makes clear, Cantú focuses her reading of sign and folklore in order to “[See/Look] through a Chicana Third Space Feminist Lens.”

This seeing/looking takes us through the lives of three women – Aminda, Mercedes Zamora, & Elisa – from the novel Champú, or Hair Matters excerpted in this anthology. In Cantú’s particular mode of storytelling, which John-Michael Rivera in his introduction to her work describes as a “[conceptual] meld [of] autoethnographic technique with poststructuralist theories,” brings South Texas to life. Within each character’s story, many lives collide, celebrate, and pass each other through narrative as alive and charged as gossip and an unexpected phone call. Laredo becomes as rich as one’s own palm; lifelines cross each in their individual streaks but hold together as a resonant whole. An example of this kind of engaging narrative comes in this short passage from Aminda’s story in which she recounts her reaction to running into a medical intuitive:

Pues to make a long story short, I was intrigued and scheduled a session with the medical intuitive. It was intense. After six hours in session, I was exhausted. I cried and laughed and felt elated and full of life. She says we can heal ourselves (48).

This passage shows how Cantú mixes formal choices and an openness of voice to create a narrative that is engaging, direct, and real. This passage is also a favorite moment of mine because of how close this kind of narrative takes the reader into the thinking of the character. I found myself able to read the words She says we can heal ourselves both for what they say within the story’s context but also what they say about the spirit of this anthology. Angels provides example after example of how we as writers can heal ourselves by taking on the cultural and literary landscapes within and without.

Stop 3: Edwin Torres

Travel on the back of a poet in flight – the conjured modalities among a century’s search is where answers shapeshift among the alphabets. (294)

These words, taken from Edwin Torres’ own aesthetic statement, are a good place to round out this short ride through this anthology. With its focus on new Latin@ writing, Angels of the Americlypse offers the opportunity to do just what Torres suggests in this sentence: that we “travel” with this group of writers, experience some of the “century’s search” and be witness to “answers” as they “shapeshift among the alphabets.” The following three stanzas, drawn from Torres’ poem “ME NO HABLA SPIC,” tie together and evoke this anthology’s fascination with temporal and cultural reality, how both shape each other, “unerasing” and “reinscribing” who we are along the way:

i remember one afternoon in soho
sitting on the sidewalk
with my long-haired cat harry
single and care-free
showing my beautiful pet to the world
people passing by, saying
what a cute spic

i remember reading every email i sent
to feel as if i were the person
receiving my own words, basking in their clever reach
to feel the warmth of many messages
from many people, all of them me
a conglomerate of sinewy desperation
wrapped up in the viral opportunity of a cute spic

i remember sitting in soho
with my two-year old son
surrounded by expensive buildings
where there used to be none, the world passing
me, just thankful to get some rest
in the sun’s imperfections, the people
ooh’ing and ahh’ing, what a cute spic                     (273-279)

By bringing together some of the most exciting work being written today along with the thoughts and conversations behind them, Angels of the Americlypse stands as an essential and illuminating anthology.

Available from Counterpath Press for $35.

José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and winner of Rhino Poetry’s 2015 Editor’s Prize. He has had poems recently in Poet Lore, Borderlands, and The Laurel Review. He is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati. Reasons (not) to Dance, a chapbook of flash fiction/prose poems, is forthcoming this summer from FutureCycle Press. He runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.

REVIEW: Follow-Haswed by Laura Walker

by Brenton Woodward

Erasure poetry has become something of a trend in recent years, and has suffered the usual travails of trendiness: mis- or overuse by dabblers and hacks, ungainly attachments to political agendas, being assigned as undergraduate exercises, etc. What Laura Walker has done for the genre is remarkable. The premise of her book Follow-Haswed is an erasure of the eponymous Volume VI of the OED: every poem’s title is a word, from “follow” to “haswed,” and each poem’s text is taken from that of the word’s dictionary entry. The result is a refreshing and unpretentious example of what erasure can be.

As with any erasure project, the reader cannot help but wonder about the source text as they make their way through the book. This is especially and intentionally the case in Follow-Haswed, however. Walker’s choice of a dictionary as a primary text may seem whimsical or even arbitrary, but it is in fact a very calculated setup for Follow-Haswed to perform its own illustration of a fundamental poetic principle: the ability of individual words to have a spectrum of connotations and implications depending on their context. A dictionary such as the OED shows this in an explicit and matter-of-fact way, and Follow-Haswed invokes that method continuously – but it also performs such spectral shifts itself. Individual stanzas or even lines of a poem may be thought of as possible context for the titular word they attenuate; word-titles are eventually repeated, some several times, as though new and different contexts and connotations for them had been thought of and duly noted. The reader is constantly considering the connection between words, between the title of a poem and its text, between the text of a poem and the OED entry it was culled from, and eventually, between the text of the poems and the agenda of the speaker they originate from.

The word-title “go,” in particular, becomes a barometer of the book’s tonal development as it progresses through different iterations. Early on, “go” summons such images as a swarm of bees making “a great humming” as they are “reddy to flye,” while midway through the book “go” entails “the letters of the alphabet / in rags”. Certain words also recur thematically within the bodies of the poems, and despite my earlier expression of distaste for politicality in erasure poems, Follow-Haswed approaches something like it with a deft gracefulness. For example, “war,” “sailor,” “soldier,” “general,” etc. appear regularly throughout the book, and one is forced to consider what it means that a dictionary, the arbiter of the linguistic establishment, should be so preoccupied with the business of death. More subtly, “I,” “him,” and “she” / “the girl” become more and more common, until they can no longer be ignored or glossed over, and what was previously a pretty but depopulated landscape of tableaux becomes a dynamic and very human narrative.

These developments all come together somewhere around three-quarters through the poems, when the shuffling images and connotations fall into place to reveal the deeper truth of Follow-Haswed: it is a love story. Behind the shifting, translucent curtains of curated fragments and broken etymologies is a proto-narrative between “I” and “him” in which the narrator has “lost him” – a lover, or maybe a son, or perhaps both, somehow. By the last poems there is a suspicion that “he” was taken from the narrator by the often darkly-regarded “girl,” who might be only another aspect of the narrator’s own personality. The beauty of the story at the heart of the book is that it’s hardly even there, barely hinted at, a breath-fogged circle fading on the window of a darkened house; but better still is the fact that the hidden story of Follow-Haswed is just one of its many beautiful, subtle accomplishments.

Follow-Haswed is forthcoming from Apogee Press.

Brenton Woodward is a fiction writer and an incoming MFA student at Southern Illinois University. He hopes to someday understand the mechanics of a successful writer’s bio, among other things.