REVIEW: A Third Instance – three chapbooks by Rosa Alcalá, Craig Watson and Elisabeth Whitehead

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by José Angel Araguz

By two we enter
the story, and leave the ark built
to survive
the telling
of catastrophes –
one by
one

Via Biblical allusion, these lines from Rosa Alcalá’s poem “The Story to be Written” stress how reader and writer necessitate and need each other, meeting in the “ark” of the written work. Throughout the “telling/of catastrophes” found throughout the works of Rosa Alcalá, Craig Watson, and Elisabeth Whitehead, this collection of chapbooks shows itself to be engaging with the way literature manifests itself past the page.

Rosa Alcalá’s To the Archives begins the collection with its poem “Projection,” which finds the poet using varying fonts to quote from Ben Rubin’s media installation, “And That’s Just the Way It Is” (University of Texas-Austin, Cronkite Plaza) and Walter Cronkite’s news report of President Kennedy’s assassination.

This maneuvering and blurring of the world between text and story is continued in “Notes on Pasiphae.” Through a longer line, we move from myth to the computer screen, to the infamous act of coerced bestiality Pasiphae is famous for (which led to the birth of the minotaur), to a meditation on the way these acts are rendered through various paintings, ending on a final moment in which ideas of motherhood are juxtaposed against that fateful moment where parent and child meet:

…Here, they stared
at each other – mother, monster. A maze long before any built.

Mixing her own voice with that of Jacques Derrida, Alice Notley, Barbara Guest, Julia Kristeva, and Michel de Certeau, Alcalá then works out a meditation on ideas of voice in terms of language (spoken, unspoken, written) in the poem “Voice: An Essay.” Family stories and ghosts are mixed in with intellectual reckoning. Throughout these poems, one feels a reaching after that space between reading and understanding, where the self lives unknowingly, almost as a ghost.

Craig Watson’s Almost Invisible: Depositions from Neverland focuses on the way that “J. M. Barrie’s life and fantasies were so integrated, so seamless, that one continually became the substance of the other.” This blurring between what is written and what read, what made up and what made real through reading abounds through Watson’s poems.

The muddied relationship of the story of Peter Pan and the story of J.M. Barrie begins to be explored right off in the opening poem, in which the character of Mrs. Darling begins by asking:

All children, except one, never change. Does this make me the
narrator?

only to end with:

All children, except one, kill their birth with a new story. So who is
the narrator now?

The narrative implications in these two statements is powerful. In the first, it is an adult voice that presents the logic of what defines a child, namely that they “never change;” that is, “except [for] one.” The change implied is that of adulthood, which would point to the speaker, Mrs. Darling. What is also implied is a relationship between narrative and change. This relationship is further complicated in the closing formulation of the opening statement and question. If a “new story” can “kill [the] birth” of a child, then one must wonder what possibilities are opened via the new narratives being created by Mrs. Darling’s meditation here via Watson’s project.

These ideas explored in the voice of a fictional character are counterpointed with the voice of a person in the poem “David Barrie,” which a note informs us is:

…J.M.’s brother, drowned while both boys were young. Their mother…grieved so deeply that there were times J.M. pretended to be David to garner attention.

This narrative charges the meaning of these lines presented in David’s voice:

In the paradise of self-interest
You can learn to be someone else.

Time’s up, lights out.
Anyway, sorry about that promise
It was dead when I found it.
Are they looking for you too?

The interplay of voices – J.M. via David, both via Watson – is revelatory in its implications. This poem, with its layers of narratives, seems to be asking: How much life is lived in the voices of others, via reading, or, in J.M.’s case, in the gestures of others?

Whereas Alcalá and Watson frame their projects with outside texts to take familiar narratives to unfamiliar places, Elisabeth Whitehead’s To the Solar North project starts with the unfamiliar and takes the reader further into unfamiliarity. Here is the first section of the opening sequence, “Pilgrim”:

she was collected toward the borderlines / with hanging pelts / a mover’s supply of the finest quality / fibers brand / cigarettes paper / post cards from the old city and internal / detail / how to construct a model- / animal or wood spine with field books occasioning / the frequency of prison- / ships sustenance / on vials of sugared water

What is unfamiliar here is the broken narrative presented through a line capable of phrasal and visual jolts. As the project goes on, this approach opens up to some startling lyrical moments, like the following from “At the Lodging House”:

3 silk purses 3 garnet rings / pulled aside for barter
and the soft grains make the stomach churn / elder and spiral a water- /
cup this
our first view of a city:

an appeal or merciful /

what will you bear of it /

in waiting of course /

gilded of this /

Elsewhere, the use of the slash mark produces a kind of break in narrative cohesion as well as setting up a kind of binary within the details and what’s said. Here, however, the slash marks are used as a kind of imaginative space, playing against the setup of “our first view of a city” and offering only half of the conceptual “view,” the other half necessarily left up to the reader’s imagination. As the project returns to its theme of travel again and again, the reader is presented with varying ways in which the “ark” of a poem can tread water.

Buy it from Instance Press (2014): $15

José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and winner of RHINO Poetry’s 2015 Editor’s Prize. He is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. His collection, Everything We Think We Hear, is forthcoming from Floricanto Press. He runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: * new book review up at the Volta Blog | The Friday Influence

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