REVIEW: Incorrect Merciful Impulses by Camille Rankine

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by Michael Wasson

A flock of birds
when touched I scatter.

Here we are. We seem to have reached the edge of disaster and feel, really, how still and gorgeous we are within our isolated, temporal bodies. We reach out and out until the world touches back with some sense of validation of our brief time here. On earth, we are faced with instructions for our everyday living. These clinical symptoms provide us the chance to maintain ourselves. And it is through this merciful, compassionate work that brings us nearer to each other.

In her first book, Incorrect Merciful Impulses, Camille Rankine intimately takes urgent contemporary conditions of our modern living through frames of still-lives, back into memory, under the shadow of failure, and even held down in the tender arms of loneliness. Her poems ask us to stay affectionate while zooming in close to a tension-wrought face-to-face with the mangled cages of our existence:

Dear prisoner

Dear, dear wounded

You have earned our respect

Dear bad animal

Dear caged thing

There was something about you

What Rankine does with this opening poem, “Tender,” is write small rhythmic salutations to so many lives. To us. We are the poem’s addressees. We the people. We are the ones valued, and what better way to be tender than calling out with such generous grace and necessary passion. A dearness imbedded into each of us. Our bone fragments. Our daily catastrophes. Our patriot and citizenships. Our displacements and glad hands. Our perfections made bad, and likewise, our imperfections made beautiful. This is how we are made to stay in Rankine’s poetry.

Her poems do so as well by holding to what I’d call an unconditional affection for our pains and triumphs—like close-eyed devotion to the flights and failures of human experience. Take for example, “Always Bring Flowers”:

Before we could beautify our death
it was a white noise in my head, underwater-

red. The bullet holes in the walls
were stars and stars.

These moments happen throughout the collection, moments in which we are straddled between the fathoms of physical self-consciousness and visceral abstraction. Rankine has us look inward where we hear and experience, touch and see, all funneling to the point of one’s bodied experience of drowning. But also, almost effortlessly, we are turned to the outside reality—the bullet holes in the walls. Rankine has folded us over and over, and then quilts the ending couplet with scattered points of light—because those perforations riddling the wall are stars. They hammer awe into us with the softest blow.

Reading Rankine’s short, terse, and honest lines, I can’t help but end up feeling so grateful. For the gentle, expertly seamed wounds are aligned against the most untouched surfaces of our human experience. Her brilliant observation dissolves the line between language and experience.

In every dream I dream
I am asleep (“Letter to the Winding-Sheet”)

If I could
be the shape of your breath in the cold. (“Contact”)

in breath, an indecent thing, these wars
blessed to our bodies. (“Symptoms of Doctrine”)

where there is a city
or say       there is no city (“Lament for the Living”)

You know how the body is
a fragile thing. (“Little Children, My Apologies”)

And at last, her ending piece weaves every you addressee into a we, merging the you and I together into a distinct call across modernity, declaring how we exist even at the edge of disaster. Here we are the lit homes, the bones and blood, the knife and lost language, the smashed and rebuilt. We are a collective curiosity and always—yes, always—an impulsive discovery.

What a bright entrance into American poetry Rankine’s Incorrect Merciful Impulses has uncovered.

Buy it from Copper Canyon Press: $16.00

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

REVIEW: Sur/Dans/Par Rature: The Quest for Media’s Vanishing Point in Craig Dworkin’s No Medium

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by Chris Mustazza

[epiphone]

The epiphone for this review is an excerpt from the leading noise at the beginning of of a 1931 recording of Vachel Lindsay reading his poetry, originally recorded on an aluminum record. The act of presenting you with a play button/link promises audio content and doubles down on the promise by beginning to deliver noise that cues the beginning of an old recording. Such a promise keys a frame before rupturing or moving the frame, in the language of Erving Goffman. In other words, the promise, or at least the promise that you may have understood, is not fulfilled in the way that you might have expected. It turns out that the “silence” at the beginning of the recording, the hiss and rumble from the early sound recording equipment is the content, not an old-timey, paratextual mise-en-scene that foregrounds the “poem proper.” At the moment of recognition that there would be no voice delivered in the recording, that the only sounds to break the silence would be the material markers of the recording’s creation, you may have heard the hiss and rumble in a new way, considering it on its own terms rather than as an aural imperfection that one must endure to consume the content one wants. But what is the medium of the sound you just heard? The aluminum record? The reel-to-reel it was dubbed to in the 1970s (which we can faintly hear in the noise)? The mp3 digitized for PennSound? The unique combination of all three, plus the particular speakers or headphones you happen to be listening with? By going down this rabbit hole, we’ve begun to interact with the fascinating topics explored by Craig Dworkin’s No Medium and his goal to show that there is no medium, but that we must always consider media plural. In pursuit of media’s ontological multiplicity, Dworkin searches for a case where media can be the seuil (threshold—allusion to Genette intentional) to nothing: blankness, silence, meaning degree zero. “The goal of this book, accordingly, has been to linger at those thresholds and to actually read, with patience, what appears at first glance to be illegibly blank” (33).

In the loosely constellated chapters of No Medium (some of which have been previously published as essays), Dworkin reads books comprised of blank pages, disembodied paratext, audio recordings of “silence,” and clear leader presented as video in search of the precise point where raw materials become inscribable substrates—media. His larger question is how to identify the medium of any work, and more precisely, where the medium begins and ends. He concludes that any use of the word “medium,” in the McLuhian sense, is reductive: “Taken together, the chapters collected here argue that contrary to the casual ways in which we use the term, there is no ‘medium.’ No single medium can be apprehended in isolation” (28). Dworkin cites John Cage’s 1952 Music for Piano, in which Cage marked all of the “imperfections and irregularities” on a piece of paper before overlaying a musical staff on the sheet, thus converting the material markers of the paper’s production process into aleatory music. The reader of No Medium here becomes acutely aware of the 12.8 ounces of paper in his or her hands.[1] Instead of looking through the materiality of the book as one is often wont to do, the reader begins to look at it, the way an early modernist might hold a book up to the light to determine which way the chain lines run. This defamiliarization of the legible highlights the positioning of No Medium in the hinterlands of the fields of bibliography, material texts, art history, poetics, and media theory. Entering this territory, readers will find themselves teetering (and tittering) at (the idea of) the limit point between the symbolic and real.

Since No Medium is about apprehending the subtlest formal signifiers, I would like to focus on a couple of the formal devices Dworkin uses in his elucidation of media. The first is the rhetorical appeal to etymology that pervades the book. In every chapter, etymology is either foregrounded as an epigraph or presented as evidence within the argument. As Dworkin explains the lexical history of words like “hard-core” (89) and “substrate” (104), he is not just attempting to show resonances of the words’ earlier meanings in their current uses. The persistent appearance of etymology renders words material, in the tradition of so-called Language Poetry (“Words are things too,” said Charles Bernstein). In other words, the etymology in No Medium is a conscious formal device, rather than just a conveyer of content. In other words, the signifier becomes a kind of substrate into which diachronically variable signifieds are inscribed, blurred, erased (as with a pencil eraser), and reinscribed palimpsestically. In other words, in other words.

Translation also plays an integral role in No Medium, both as a formal feature of Dworkin’s argument and as a topic of his content. “Tangent,” the book’s sixth chapter, offers a critique of the common view of translation as the production of an ersatz copy of a perfected original, a quest for authenticity doomed to be asymptotic (“ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: from modern Latin asymptota (linea)‘(line) not meeting,’”).[2] Seemingly in dialogue with Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction,” the chapter argues that translation need not be a privative, quixotic quest for fidelity, that it can be additive and supplementary. Similar to the etymological threads that run throughout No Medium, the text consistently presents direct quotations, mostly in French, alongside Dworkin’s translations, which appear in brackets. I would argue that the presentation of both original quote and translation is not just a practical consideration, meant to aid those without the ability to read the “originals,” but rather an enactment of the aforesaid thesis of “Tangent”: translation and original are alternative lenses, individually historicized strata of meaning (thinking of Milman Parry’s “The Historical Method” here). An even more peformative enactment of this kind of diachronic accretion of meaning would be if, upon translation to another language, a future translator of No Medium included the original French quotes, Dworkin’s English translations, and his or her own translation of both, into words that figure their own historical moment and location. If this process were to be repeated over and over (and sorry for the Borgesian thought experiment here), the meaning of the translations would grow as a whole, not just pursue an unattainable original. There would be no original, just as Dworkin argues there can be no medium.

But media, more than language, is the focal point of “Tangent.” The chapter focuses mostly on transmediations of nothingness, from Cage’s inspiration to create “4’33”” by Robert Rauchenberg’s White Paintings, through Pierre Huyghe’s Partition du Silence, where he transcribes to musical notation the ambient sounds that break through the “silence” in “4’33””. Read together, the works present a poetics of synaesthetic translation, long of interest to modernist poets. Consider here James Weldon Johnson’s scoring of the speech sounds of African American preachers to paper in his seminal collection God’s Trombones (1927)—paper as recording medium and the transference of aural to visual.[3] Neither the aural nor the visual possess primacy—they are each an intermediary stratum built upon their own substrates that sum to dialogic meaning, just like the lingual translations.

No Medium always seems to anticipate a reader’s every interaction with it as physical object, demanding a sort of material paranoid reading. In the book’s third chapter, “Textual Prostheses,” which is a reprinting of Dworkin’s 2005 article of the same name, No Medium hits its apex of meta-ness, directly engaging with one of the book’s primary influences, Gerard Genette’s Seuils. Genette writes, “one may doubtless assert that a text without paratext does not exist and never has existed. Paradoxically, paratexts without texts do exist…” (Seuils 3).[4] And “Textual Prostheses” proceeds to show a number of cases where paratexts become disjoint from their texts, in an effort to trouble the distinction between note and text: “[the note] possesses an authority to trump the text that would seem to master it” (68). If there is one example I was surprised not to see in this chapter, it is Eliot’s addition of notes to “The Waste Land.” The addition of the notes follows from the material production of the poem: the book was composed of two 32-page quires and the poem ran for 48 pages—something was needed to fill the additional 16 pages. Now, of course, Eliot did not need to put notes here—he could have filled the pages with additional poems or other content. The choice to add the notes forever altered “The Waste Land” (insomuch as we can talk about any stable version of “The Waste Land,” originally titled “He Do the Police in Different Voices”). The notes are spoken about perhaps as frequently as the poem proper, and their appearance arose from the feeling of necessity to inscribe blank substrate, an aversion to the page naked.

The focus on notes and other forms of paratext in “Textual Prostheses” follows from a discussion in the second chapter, “Cenography,” on marginalia, including an examination of works where the text is erased, leaving only a reader’s marginalia. Marginalia is a form of reader interaction with the text—“the annotator always has the last word” (40)—and its focus both highlights the instability of a text (in a Barthesian, “death of the author” kind of way) and decenters the finality of pre-inscribed media. The reader can reframe the text by inscribing the substrate known as margins, in an act that brings Goffman and Genette together. While reading these chapters, the reader begins to become aware of the sea of paratext that submerges the text, that “speak[s]…from the margin: always partially excluded from the central text and always subaltern” (73). One notices the black bars that run through the epigraphs between chapters, conjuring the appearance of redaction, even in complete quotes: read between the lines! One begins to notice one’s own marginalia altering the text, taking it to get reframed. “He never said that—he’s been framed!”

As such, the book is successful in its engagement with the Russian Formalists, particularly Viktor Shklovky’s principles of estrangement/defamiliarization (otstranenie) and “laying bare” aesthetic devices. Dworkin cleverly summarizes this approach when, after discussing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography—“I know it when I see it”—he refigures the question: “But what if, instead, we saw it only when we knew it?” (93). Perhaps this is outside of the book’s purview, but I found myself wondering about a different form of estrangement, thinking about it in the Marxian sense, estrangement from the product of one’s labor. I was interested in the manufacture of the materials that form the substrates. For example, the records that are examined as substrates in chapter 7, “Signal to Noise,” are presented as being made from PVC. But just slightly before this time, records were made from shellac, an insect resin scraped from trees in Southeast Asia. The economy for shellac seems to me a parallel to people’s selling their rags/old clothes to be used in the creation of paper for books, during the period when paper was made of rag. I wonder what kind of biopolitical forces underwrite the conversion of substrate to materials, wherever that conversion may occur. And is this conversion similar to Bourdieu’s notion of reconversion, wherein economic capital can be converted to cultural capital?

In a world of progressively layered mediation (cf the epiphone), No Medium is a crucial and timely intervention. I wanted it to continue on, pushing Dworkin’s argument into inquiries of what silence or nothingness means in digital milieux, extending to meet the kind of forensics done in Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms. “Signal to Noise” comes very close to these topics, beginning to think about how a release of Zen for Record might be figured as Zen for Compact Disc, what silence means in the digital (e.g. zeroed-out disk segments within the constraints of audio CD format requirements). What does nothing look/sound/feel like in solid-state media like hard-drives in modern laptops? Can I stream silence from the cloud, or is it better to pirate it? Is it a good idea to use encryption if I’ve got Nothing to hide? The topics covered by No Medium were so captivating that I can only hope that there will be a sequel. Or maybe it’s already out, in the form of Dworkin’s Nothing: A User’s Manual. I might read this one on Kindle.

[1] Product weight from Amazon.com

[2] Apple Dictionary, built into OSX.

[3] See Mustazza, Chris. “James Weldon Johnson and the Speech Lab Recordings.” Oral Tradition. (forthcoming March 2016).

[4] Genette, Gerard. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, tr. Jane E. Lewin.

Chris Mustazza is a doctoral student in English at the University of Pennsylvania and the Associate Director of the PennSound archive, the world’s largest archive of recordings of poets reading their own work. Chris has edited several collections of previously unreleased recordings of poets like Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, and James Weldon Johnson, and his writing has appeared or will appear in Oral Tradition, the Chicago Review, the Notre Dame Review, and Jacket2. He’s been awarded a creative grant, for the 2015-16 academic year, by Harvard University’s Woodberry Poetry Room, where will do research for his dissertation, tentatively titled “The Sociolinguistic Birth of the American Poetry Audio Archive.”

REVIEW: The Book of Joshua by Zachary Schomburg

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by Matthew Schmidt

Birds. Horses. A boat. Blood. The color white. A telephone.

These and other recurring motifs and objects make up The Book of Joshua by Zachary Schomburg. It is a strange journey indeed; beginning in the year 1977 and moving through 2044, the first two sections titled Earth and Mars are prose poems with only the year as title. Schomburg was born in 1977 and the third section of lineated poetry, Blood, begins on page 77. This most likely is not a coincidence as numbers are important to the book, however, only 67 years elapse in book time (though the final section does not contain years or individual poem titles).

I bring these points up to note the meditative quality of the poetry. Moving as if through the speaker’s life and to a possible future, Schomburg questions himself, his place in the world, and what is expected of him through the birth of himself/Joshua and his maturation. 1981 has the speaker slowly growing:

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While the speaker (who is possibly an avatar of Schomburg) and Joshua appear to be the same person, it is debatable. We can assess the similarities to Schomburg’s life (or time of existence), the fact that a character known as the Woman is writing The Book of Joshua in The Book of Joshua, or that The Book of Joshua in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible is attributed to Joshua but most likely has several contributing authors. Arguments could be made for all three and perhaps other interpretations. Suffice it to say, the book is an amalgamation of various sources and ideas.

According to The Poetry Foundation, Schomburg himself wants his poetry to “generate…energy through confusion…in an emotional sense.” This is true of the book; strange things happen that the reader must grapple with: Joshua comes into being from the speaker’s throat (spoken into existence), the speaker makes himself/Joshua into a machine (much like our bodies mechanically regulate our temperature, blood flow, etc.) so that he can talk to him(self), travels to Mars, swims an ocean of blood, births his own father, and plays the game Family (like how we interact with our families). Yes, this sounds confusing, but ultimately it isn’t narratively confusing. It allows us to emotionally consider our lives, what we’re doing with them, why we act as we act, what it means to say something, and that we keep looking for something even though we don’t know what it is.

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I think it’s important to look at an entire poem like this to understand the movement of the work: how things grow and shrink, questions are asked aloud and of the self, feelings are considered and communication and place are questioned for their validity. Dreams and nightmares clash in the speaker’s mind as reality and emotional identity are pursued seemingly through funhouse mirrors. Think about it: we go to carnivals and pay money to look at ourselves in variously-shaped mirrors. Certainly it is fun, but it also is a way we can be something else for a moment, or think we look a different way than we look. Are the mirrors in our homes (flat, regular mirrors) really telling us the truth when we look in them? Isn’t it strange how we can look smashing in one photograph and awful in the next? Schomburg takes us to this existential realm and allows us the opportunity to look at himself/Joshua/ourself. We can ask hard, emotional questions and decide how seriously we wish to consider answers.

I’ll admit the first time I read the book and arrived at the third section I was nonplussed. An immensely engaging story has been going on for 70-plus pages and now I’m confronted with line breaks and lots of white space. Much of these lines repeat what has happened in the first two sections and I was lost. This is part of the point though. In life, just as we begin to think we understand something, find a rhythm, get comfortable, something changes. We think back over what has changed and try to pinpoint what we thought and felt about the events preceding the change and we come up with fragments of thought, a distorted reality. Often we mull these fragments over and over in our minds before arriving at a somewhat abstract conclusion. This is what the last section of the book enacts as form:

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Many of these ideas are all ready in our mind because we just read them. They return here in a different form and elicit different meaning with line breaks, white space, and brevity that make us take more time to pause and consider them in relation to their previous meanings. Time changes things or things change over time. We alter our understandings and make new connections. Joshua is the speaker is Zachary is me and you. Is robotic. Is equine. Is creating from the mouth and bird bones. This is definitely a trip, moving through the solar system and our blood stream simultaneously, issuing from mouths and entering ears, creating a new planet that is this same planet, learning what to do with our bodies and minds and importantly asking our emotional selves how we feel and that we do. I think you should get in the spaceship. Think you should go read this book.

Buy it from Black Ocean: $19.95

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

 

REVIEW: Beautiful Zero by Jennifer Willoughby

 

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by Heather Lang

Do you remember the first time that you played pin the tail on the donkey? I do. I was blindfolded and had to trust my guide, my spinner, who twirled me around until I barely knew the ground from the ceiling, much less the location of that construction-paper donkey. It’s interesting what we can notice during these disorienting experiences. This was the moment that I first observed the soft-floral perfume of my mother’s best friend, and I discovered that my elementary-school crush giggled like Alvin, the chipmunk. I was the “lucky” one who could peek beneath my hand-towel blindfold, but I was disappointed to find that no matter how far back I tilted my head, I could only see my light-up high tops and the patch of chocolate-brown carpet beneath them. I remember hoping that the birthday cake would be vanilla.

These are the types of memories that come to mind as I read Jennifer Willoughby’s Beautiful Zero. In this debut poetry collection, Willoughby writes about all-of-the-things, or so it seems, but she does not write about pin the tail on the donkey. Rather, these poems remind me of this children’s game as they disorient me. The moment that we think we might have our feet on solid ground, she grabs us by the figurative shoulders and forces us in another direction, and it is through this disorientation that the poet can deconstruct and then reconstruct the world around us. We stumble our way through the collection gaining an appreciation for these new meanings and these deeper connections.

Beautiful Zero is a book of seemingly, but not actually, reckless juxtapositions, and this constant allows the reader to give herself over to the random sights, sounds, and feelings that are deliberately splattered throughout the collection. The title of the opening poem, “Come Close Then Back Away,” sets the tone for these connections and contrasts. Mid poem, for example, Willoughby writes, “My knee-socks nestle at my feet. / Then we create an adult situation.” The line containing these knee-socks, a clothing accessory that reminds me of my grade-school uniform, is pressed up against the more scandalous sentence, “Then we create an adult situation.” Despite the youthful tenor being pushed against a much more grownup matter, the pieces are glued together. They are not random because, combined, the lines suggests pre-coital clothing loss. With Willoughby as our guide, however, we’ll never head in one direction for more than a moment, oftentimes one line, and this is a great pleasure of Beautiful Zero. The poem moves on to the “record player [that] is skipping in the distance,” “a column of oxygen,” and trees which treat the speaker “like fire.” Within the context of the poem, together it all somehow makes sense.

Another part of Beautiful Zero’s disorientation tactic is relabeling. In “Do Not Be Broken By The Day,” Willoughby writes:

Take it from me, Caroline, a crisis of faith
is not as interesting as a dead pigeon
in the cistern after a long winter.
The world doesn’t want to see you
on your knees for more than a minute
when it could be inspecting a music
box that knew how to fly.

Although the poet does not literally state that this being “on your knees” is an act of prayer, the “faith” within the first line lends this suggestion. There are the more violent connotations of this image, as well. The command, “take it,” even within the context of giving advice, quietly hints at a violence, maybe even a sexual violence, as I ponder the image of a woman on her knees. This act of being “on your knees,” something that could clearly represent one thing, prayer; or another, a fall; or another, a sexual act, might be ever-so-subtly redefined each time that we read this complex and ambitious poem.

Another example of this relabeling, a literary device of sorts, falls within these same lines. Willoughby redefines the “dead pigeon” as a “music / box that knew how to fly.” Certainly, this sheds a new light on the pigeon, a species of bird that many consider to be an urban pest. As these lines are all tangled up within sentiments of prayer and brokenness, a hope for the rebirth of even the most shattered and downtrodden hearts comes to fruition. If this dirty creature might have been something so delicate and lovely as a music box, surely we can find hope in and for ourselves, as well.

Within the middle of the fifty-one-page collection, the reader will find ten poems titled “Kaiser Variation” followed by a number, 1 through 10. Each of these poems is set within Kaiser Permanente, but each one tackles a different ailment, sometimes literally. In “Kaiser Variations 3,” Willoughby employs an extended metaphor as she writes, “It was the fourth quarter of the Badger-Buckeye / game and I smashed the neutrality rule eleven / times in the psych ward at Kaiser Permanente.” Using humor, the poet disorients us, as “Vivian,” a member of the counseling session, is “defeated by a group hug.” The counselor says that the “speaking is easy but the feeling / is hard,” and the poem, as well as the football metaphor, continues:

I was stuck in throes of accuracy, unplugging
my childhood of unimproved love. Man down!
Man down on the field, Bucky oompa’s a cute
tuba player […]

This blend of tragedy, as the speaker contemplates how “emotions were cocaine,” with comedy, like the flirtatious badger mascot, distances the psych ward scene from its gravid reality. This gift of humor allows us to more fully contemplate these important narratives because we’re less likely to simply turn away. Moreover, the illness changes within each Kaiser variation, so we’re never forced to linger on any one tragedy for too long. This is a kindness, one that allows the reader to embrace the critical catastrophes, such as both the literal and the figurative broken hearts, of Beautiful Zero.

Beautiful Zero is strange, and it is important. If I had to liken this collection of poetry to a children’s game, I might suggest pin the tail on the unicorn, for its magic, or pin the tail on the mermaid, for its nod toward humanity. More likely, however, I’d hope that we might choose some bizarre-yet-real-life creature, perhaps a species that we have yet to discover. And, when the time comes to look for this striking new beast, I would only hope that we might find a guide who is as gracious and as wise as Milkweed Editions’ new poet, Jennifer Willoughby.

Milkweed Editions (2015): $16.00 

Heather Lang is a poet, literary critic, and adjunct professor. Her work has been published by or is forthcoming in diode, Pleiades, The Normal School, and Whiskey Island among other publications. Recently, she was awarded the Spain 2015 Murphy Writing Scholarship and the Fairleigh Dickinson University Baumeister Award. Heather, an FDU MFA graduate, is an editor for both The Literary Review and Petite Hound Press, and she will serve as an AWP16 moderator/panelist. http://www.heatherlangwrites.com

REVIEW: Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres, ed. Edited by Marcela Sulak and Jacqueline Kolosov

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by Dennis James Sweeney

As the word “hybrid” comes into more frequent literary use, it has become important to figure out what the term means for contemporary writing. Without such attempts at definition, the term stands the chance of becoming a coverall applied to any and every work of literature that defies genre boundaries. Relatively speaking, this result would not be disastrous; it would, however, lead ideas of genre (primarily the categories fiction/poetry/nonfiction/drama) to become even more firmly entrenched while what falls between those categories remains amorphous, ephemeral, only vaguely “hybrid.”

Rose Metal Press’s new anthology, Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres, edited by Marcela Sulak and Jacqueline Kolosov, works against that flattening of the term in two ways. In her preface, Sulak does the necessary work of disassembling the idea of genre, noting that genres are merely “a critical mass of reproducible structural patterns,” and, more interestingly, that the original source of literature was itself “hybrid,” the distinctions between genres having arisen only when they became politically and culturally useful. She goes on to acknowledges the inherent contradiction in labeling writing that transcends labels; as Eileen Myles put it in a personal email to Sulak, “It seems old fashioned to coin a term and worse to stick to it to describe a new diasporic state in which all genres are inadequate and fail.”

But the real work of the anthology occurs in the division of its creative pieces into eight sections: lyric essay, epistolary, poetic memoir, prose poetry, performative, short-form essay, flash fiction, and pictures made of words (i.e., writing that uses or consists of graphic elements). Each category features excerpts of five or six authors’ hybrid writing, preceded by an essay by the author on their own work. Sulak makes sure to note that these categories aren’t meant to be definitive in any way; instead, they’re to serve as “a place to start when we gather to examine the energies that are released when various genre fields are used and combined.” This is the second way the anthology works to enrich the term “hybrid”: by distinguishing between and examining some of its many manifestations.

It seems to me that this promise is fulfilled more in the creative excerpts gathered in the anthology than by the craft essays that precede them. Julie Carr blurs appropriation and prose poetry in her extremely topical 100 Notes on Violence. An excerpt from Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker’s excellent Home/Birth puts both collaborative writing and a mix of political and poetic goals on display. Khadijah Queen’s truly strange verse play “Non-Sequitur” takes the dramatic form to its limit in order to encourage “more awareness of (unconscious or conscious) participatory roles we all may take on in our own lives.” And Craig Santos Perez uses the unique layout of his writing on the page both to depict and to work against the violence done to his home’s traditional storytelling techniques by colonialism. The range of forms across the book is truly impressive; the diversity of its entries alone recommends this anthology.

But the majority of the essays that accompany these excerpts seemed to focus less on “the energies that are released” by particular hybrid forms and more on the energies that generate such forms. That is, the essays seem to focus more on what it is like to write hybrid work than what it is like to read it. This is reflected in their order: essay first, then creative work. Marcela Sulak even emphasizes the importance of the process of creation to hybrid writing in her preface: “Because authorial intent is such a large factor in determining hybrid affiliation…our representative authors are given nearly as much space for their artistic statements as they are for their art.” I worry that such a claim, and particularly the identification of the essays as “artistic statements,” tends toward a somewhat insular representation of hybridity.

For me, the anthology’s best essays were those that sought to explain artistic choices on the basis of the effect they would have on the reader. Craig Santos Perez, for example, alternates between (in Roman type) a discussion of Steven Edmund Winduo’s views on hybridity in Pacific Islander literature and (in italics) a personal story of what it was like to grow up in Guam, eventually applying Winduo’s discussion to his own story. Though Perez talks at length about his own life in his essay, he makes it clear that his ultimate goal is “to make the traces of our stories visible.” Khadijah Queen, as I mentioned before, writes that her “Non-Sequitur” intends to bring about a certain awareness in the reader of his or her own performativity. And Joe Wenderoth discusses the relationship of his Letters to Wendy’s with “a variation on a particular comedic skit…: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” He speaks with remarkable impartiality about his own work, and eventually describes the comedic effect such a sketch has on the reader. All three of these writers manage to explain the intentions of their creative work in terms that are relevant primarily to its audience, and not only to other writers.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with talking about craft, and certainly this tendency makes the anthology even more useful in the creative writing classroom. But to direct the book toward writers—even to presume that authorial intent is a central factor in distinguishing what hybrid writing is—runs the risk of rendering the term “hybrid” useful only for those who also write. Again: not a disaster, relatively speaking. But as many excerpts from this anthology show, hybrid writing is often in essence political; if we are to challenge readers’ assumptions not only of genre but of the world around them, we must recall (or at least hope) that our audience is not only ourselves.

All of this said, Family Resemblance is an ambitious and profoundly varied document from a press that has been publishing and advocating hybrid writing for nearly ten years. The book will be especially useful in the classroom, and to those who hope to discover writers who work outside of traditional genre distinctions. It is hard to find unity in hybridity. Sulak and Kolosov have done the opposite: identified the tremendous diversity of a term, “hybridity,” that is so often used to give a (false) sense of unity.

Rose Metal Press (2015): $17.95

Dennis James Sweeney’s stories and poems have appeared in places like Crazyhorse, DIAGRAM, Indiana Review, and Passages North. He’s the Small Press Editor of Entropy and author of the chapbooks THREATS and What They Took Away. This year, he lives in Malta.

REVIEW: Life in the Folds by Henri Michaux, trans. Darren Jackson

folds1a

by Jerome Keeler

The writings of Henri Michaux (1899-1984) won the admiration of such figures as John Ashbery,  Allen Ginsberg, Ezra Pound, Jorge Luis Borges, and Octavio Paz. It was no small admiration: Michaux’s contemporaries understood him to be a genius. Yet Michaux’s major works, despite the fact that they have been available in authoritative French editions for decades, have for the most part not been translated into English.

Darren Jackson’s translation of Life in the Folds, originally published as La vie dans les plis (Éditions Gallimard, 1949) marks a small step toward rectifying this situation. Indeed, it is fair to call it something of an event. Quite apart from the quality of the translations, which are in large measure more lively than earlier efforts, Mr. Jackson has simply made a wise choice in translating a work in its entirety, rather than offering another volume of the selected-and-edited options already available. And he has chosen a particular type of Michaux work that, rather incredibly, has never been translated into English. One can easily find volumes describing Michaux’s mescaline experiments, or either of his travel journals, or works combining non-fiction, drawings, and verse, but until now there has been no way to access his more strictly poetic books except in selected form. This is a significant absence, for it is in such writings that Michaux’s artistry is on its fullest display.

 

Michaux is certainly not alone in such a fate—it is shared by any number of major twentieth-century poets who did not write in English. If we cannot really complain of this, then, we can at least note the results. These consist, I think, principally in an overselling of a certain side of Michaux: his quirkiness. If you’ve encountered any previous translations from Life in the Folds, such as those available in Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology, 1927-1984 (University of California Press, 1994) or Someone Wants to Steal My Name (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2003), you might imagine Michaux to be some sort of comedian. In fact, throughout much of his work, and particularly in Life in the Folds, Michaux is primarily occupied with suffering.

The collection opens with a section titled “Freedom of Action.”  Most of the selections from Life in the Folds that have previously been translated elsewhere are drawn from this section, and it is not hard to see why. The most memorable piece is certainly the first, “The Sack Session,” which begins with the sort of setup characteristic of Michaux:

It began when I was a child. There was a big cumbersome adult.

How to get revenge on him? I put him in the sack. There, I could beat him at my leisure. He cried out but I didn’t listen. He wasn’t interesting.

I sensibly kept this childhood habit. I don’t trust the possibilities for intervention one learns as an adult, and besides, they don’t work very well.

You don’t offer a chair to someone in bed.

“Freedom of Action” continues to explore such imaginative acts of violence. In “The Sausage Cellar,” the speaker swipes an enemy marshal and other personages from the streets and grinds them into sausages. Elsewhere, to deal with the family, he makes a rapid-fire “slapping gun” out of his hand. Such scenarios display the primary mechanism of Michaux’s art: the displacement of concepts, or psychological states, to literal situations. The immediate reaction of a new reader to this gesture, I believe, is likely to be, and perhaps should be, a smile, or a chuckle. But it is the smile one smiles when reading Beckett, or Kafka, for instance—an uneasy one. As the title “Freedom of Action” suggests, Michaux knows what we are really in for: freedom amounts to no more than the possibility of imagining such a notion. It is reassuring, perhaps, to use the imagination to achieve revenge, but in reality it is oneself who will become the sausage, the marshal who will do the grinding. It is encouraging, then, in a perverse way, to see that there is a lot less to laugh about as Life in the Folds progresses.

Michaux witnessed, among other horrors, the occupations of Belgium and France, the Nazi death camps, the destruction of the great centers of European culture. And he perceived, as intensely as any modernist master, the effects of these events on the individual historical subject. The extent to which the camps in particular are central to his work becomes clear in Life in the Folds in a manner never approached by previous selections. His particular insights are most evident in the tensions between the pieces in “Freedom of Action” and those in the book’s second section, “Apparitions.” Here, the weaponry is no longer in the subject’s hands. It remains largely in the imagination but as a threat rather than a means of revenge. Michaux explores this in chilling ways. “The Danger in The Associations of Thoughts” begins with the cool observation that beauty can be appreciated whether the subject of contemplation is a pair of human lungs or the violent cutting action of a saw. Then the fireworks begin.

          But how miserable it is, a pair of lungs under a saw that approaches, imperturbably, how miserable it is, especially when these lungs are yours, and why did you start thinking of the saw when your body alone is what interests you, to which the saw, for this reason, will inevitably draw near? And in a time of blood such as ours, how could it not cling to it? And there it is, entering as if it were at home, sinking in thanks to its magnificent teeth, calmly cutting its furrow into the lungs that will be of use to no one, no one, isn’t that obvious?

For the imagination, the only element of the spirit that survives a near extermination, suffering is the only thing left to imagine. There is certainly nothing to smile about in this section, which occupies almost half of the volume. A catalogue of tortures is presented. Speakers envision being thermocautered, disembowled, trepanned, and assaulted with a sword so long that at the point of entry into the flesh it has tapered to the point of invisibility. To make matters worse, one simply gets used to it all: “A war comes. A war passes. Before passing it consumes a lot. It consumes enormously. So it’s natural that it crushes some skulls here or there.”

If Life in the Folds contained nothing but these sections, it would be a remarkable achievement. But Michaux has something more up his sleeve: “Portrait of the Meidosems,” a 28-page account of the aspirations and sufferings of an imaginary race of creatures who find themselves embodied fleetingly in a variety of forms. It is a dazzling, dizzying account, every bit as primitivistic and initially mystifying in French as in English (certain sections might give the impression that this is a clumsy translation, when in fact Jackson has simply chosen not to interfere with the effect of the original). When people describe Michaux as unclassifiable, “Portrait” is the kind of thing they have in mind:

The herd that’s coming, like slow pachyderms, advancing single file, their mass is and is not. What could they do about it? How could they carry it? That heaviness, that stiff gait is only something they’ve taken on to escape their lightness, which eventually terrifies them.                   And so goes the procession of enormous bladders, trying to deceive themselves.

A body of insightful French criticism exists on this poem, but much commentary in English seems to focus on the notion that the suffering of the Meidosems holds a mirror up to our own. But within the context of Life in the Folds, it seems more accurate to understand the Meidosems as unlike ourselves. If “Freedom of Action” and “Apparitions” are concerned with the sufferings of beings in the flesh, “Portrait” imagines the destiny of creatures who are, in terms of corporeality, neither here nor there. Shuttling between “the cold of Nothingness” and a variety of awkward bodies they cannot choose or control (knots, spears, bloated sponges, waterfalls, condensation on a mirror), the Meidosems pass their existence always on edge. They wouldn’t mind something a bit more permanent. Yet perhaps their fate is not so awful. For the embodied, as the speaker at one point breaks in to observe, there’s nowhere to go but down: “Scattered organs, broken races, intentions trapped in stone. The solid has you. In shards of yourself. The solid you so desired has you at last.”

Wakefield Press (2016): $14.95

First published as La vie dans les plis. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1949.

Jerome Keeler is a freelance writer living in Princeton, New Jersey.

 

REVIEW: The Siren World by Juan J. Morales

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by José Angel Araguz

In an interview, the essayist Richard Rodriguez tells a story about Edward James Olmos visiting a high school in California. In the story, Olmos turns to the room full of young Latin@ faces and asks: “How many of you are proud to be Indian,” to which the young crowd applauds and hollers in approval. Olmos then asks: “How many of you are proud to be Spanish?” Here, the young crowd responds with an awkward silence.

Olmos’s questions and the youths’s two different responses play out the crucible in which many Latin@s must work out ideas of identity for themselves. In working out one’s sense of latinidad, a person must reconcile not just the history of the oppressed natives that fell under the conquistadores, but must also learn to reconcile the history of the oppressor, and how that too makes up part of the identity and history of Latin@s today. I share this story as a way into discussing the poems of Juan Morales’s The Siren World, a collection unafraid to reckon with both personal and cultural history.

There are places marked by no plaque.

No committee petitions for historical status,

but something happened here –

These lines, from the poem “New World Map,” point to the central engine of The Siren World. These poems engage with memory and identity in order to mark down what “happened here.” In the section The Mountain, the poems delve into the poet’s Ecuadoran background, embodied by stories of his mother as well as stories plucked from the history of the Spanish Conquest. The opening poem, “A Good Education,” layers the narrative of the mother’s childhood upbringing in Ecuador, where she “recited saints, prayers, and science formulas,” with his own childhood in the United States. In detailing the routines and curated knowledge shared in school, the speaker of this poem makes clear how “The world’s violence [can fall] from the minds like pencils dropped under ancient radiators.” By layering the history of not only the mother and the speaker, but also of countries, the poem evokes a sense of what is at stake in documenting and establishing what “happened here.” This layering also allows the speaker to end on an image familiar to anyone educated in the United States, an image charged further given the meditation of the poem:

And I put myself there too,

 

getting a good education, oblivious to our country’s failings, saying the

pledge of allegiance and gawking up at the flag with my small hand on

my heart, about which

 

I knew nothing.

This section ends with the poem “Downtown Ambato, 3:14 AM,” in which the speaker and the mother share a room during a visit to Ecuador. This meditation on insomnia highlights the poet’s ability to dwell on details; amidst counting exhalations and the intermittent barking of stray dogs, the speaker is possessed of a quiet urgency. The room for the insomniac becomes a kind of conscience, the speaker alert to each movement around him. This quiet urgency symbolizes the collection’s theme: as it does during the restless toss and turn of the speaker, the material of what “happened here” continues to move around us, fleeting, resisting to be marked down. Still, the poet tries:

I capture every town sound

and convince myself that I understand

my mother’s hunger for sleep after so many years

without. Then I multiply it. I wish I could wake her

and ask how to say insomnia

in Spanish except hope

she’s in the midst of peaceful sleep.

The second section of the collection, The Island, takes the poems to Puerto Rico to explore stories of the poet’s father. Where the poems in The Mountain lived in moments of meditation and reflection on what the past might mean, here the poems present the past in a tougher tone. In “Passport,” for example, a poem whose “passport” structure and conceptual framework reflect Adál’s “El Puerto Rican Passport, El Spirit Republic de Puerto Rico,” the reader is presented with the following:

Sexo (Male) When I turned 18, my father gave me a machete. When I

turned 21, my father gave me a shoe shine kit.

The clipped and straightforward execution of these lines underscore the emotional atmosphere of The Siren World. For a moment, what “happened here” is marked down in two pseudo-official statements whose juxtaposition of violence and pathos strike a direct and exact(ing) note.

The theme of violence as a background element is returned to in “Garter Snakes.” Here, the reader is presented with the memory of killing of snakes as a childhood game. The speaker’s sensibility is established as the poem moves forward, describing both the violence done to snakes as well as to the speaker’s unspoken disgust and disapproval. The reader then learns:

When I threw rocks, I missed

 

on purpose. In the arroyo with the shallow

creek and the broken bridge,

I watched free snakes

ripple atop shallow water

with their heads level –

a holy incident

we did not yet know

we envied.

What is powerful about this ending is the inaction of the speaker. In the awkward silence of childhood moments like this one, a certain kind of character begins to develop. A child’s reckoning before natural life is later followed by the revelatory understanding of the poet.

The father narrative is developed over the course of the second section. As with the first section’s stories about the mother, these poems find the poet able to use history as a way to feel out both personal and cultural present. In “Revising Scars,” the effort to work out what “happened here” is stretched in a way that tests its limits. The poem begins:

I bait my father with questions about his history

like the tattoos of two birds inked on in 1952

that I already assigned the meaning of young love

and longing and preservation of him as a man…

The self-awareness of these lines is meaningful. In this scene, the reader is presented with a symbol of what the poet’s task consists of; essentially, to push and question against a world of “assigned” meanings, even their own. This imposed narrative on the part of the speaker is followed down further, until the father responds:

[           ] and he challenges family myth

when he tells me he was too drunk to remember

how those damned tattoos got on him in the first place.

There is a sadness to the humor of this ending, and a lightness to that sadness; the speaker’s invented narrative is deflated, but what deflates it is a clear evocation of the father. The speaker is thrown back onto his imagination; in this instance, what “happened here” is made of the kind of sharpness and elation found in the best poetry.

Indeed, the need to work through the sharpness and elation of one’s life is at the heart of The Siren World. Poet as chronicler of what “happened here.” Poet at the heart of the awkward silence between two inseparable sides of history. These poems by Juan Morales again and again take us to the heart of reconciliation with the personal and political. The ending of the poem “Guaman Poma, Writing By Candlelight,” turns the speaker’s meditation on the Quechua noble into a statement on the poet’s task; it also serves as a call to readers and writers alike to open their eyes to what “happened here”:

Where will my words about Guaman Poma be lost?

Maybe an attic, a thick folder in a desk,

or a garage box, but still confident

in the risky release of poems

into the hands of a comrade

who will carry each sacred word,

chancing the indifferent someone

who will never bother to read.

Buy it from Lithic Press: $17.00

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.