Category: Ansley Clark

REVIEW: Collected Body by Valzhyna Mort

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by Ansley Clark

Suffering is deeply rooted in the body. As is forgiveness. “It is all about the release of weight,” Valzhyna Mort tells us, in her poem “Sylt II.” In her second collection of poetry, Mort sets up binaries such as this, alternating her poetic moments between suffering and forgiveness, light and dark, weight and weightlessness, beauty and the grotesque.

Born in Minsk, Belarus, Mort is widely known and praised in the international poetry world and is especially known for her dynamic reading style and voice. Collected Body features a multitude of these voices, narratives that are both subtly connected and disconnected through both lineated poems and longer prose pieces. In “Zhenya,” one of the book’s two prose pieces, Mort offers us an old opera house: “Its massive porous building, a worn-out white sponge, absorbs the damp air of the dark park…The fire of raindrops sores the bullet cavities on the walls” (44). Just a few pages later, Mort describes a family member’s country garden: “All those years of the unmatched harvests of marbled plums, white apples, birch syrup, and raspberries we used to wear as thimbles” (51). In rich, detailed language, Mort creates a world that does not shy away from any subject, describing abundance just as thoroughly as scarcity.

One of the most wonderful parts of Collected Body is the burning energy it exudes. This energy is yet another of the book’s binaries; Mort creates a sharp tension between the burning of shame and self-loathing, and the brighter burning of the need to escape this shame, of self-forgiveness. The shorter, slightly quieter poem “Guess Who” contains a perfect example of this binary. The poem opens with “i [sic] found healing” and then responds a few lines later with “should I be ashamed of myself?” (42) Here is a women’s body, self-doubting, but trying to spin itself upwards out of the flames

Part of this shame and self-loathing comes from sexual violence and oppression, two subjects which the book returns to again and again. In her poem “Utopia,” Mort writes:

and again the moon hangs like a white cocoon
so that at dawn a red moth will open its wings
and come down to the brook
and our men try to subdue it
they jump on its back
like overripe plums falling from trees
to tame the horse of the planet
and then with their lips dry from thirst
they rush to our mouths
and through them
they pull out our hearts
like buckets full of cold water
out of wells
and then they let them fall down with a roar
and this is why our hearts ache (40)

In a watery cascade of lines, Mort allows her images to bleed into one another and transform themselves as they fall down the page: first, a moth, then the violence of the men, falling plums, a wild horse, and women’s bodies, suffering. This is a suffering caught between a country’s political violence and its struggle to rebuild itself. And this political violence and struggle to rebuild is etched across women’s bodies. In her prose piece “Aunt Anna, Mort writes, “To which does motherhood in M. belong? Sanctity or disturbance; milk or manure? Mothering a child into a country unfit for history…” (19)

Similarly, while political suffering is expressed through women’s bodies, women’s bodies are also expressed through the landscape. Mort writes, “nipples of corn were getting harder and darker” (17) and “the flock of M’s gardens shrunken by perspective into a single bush, as if it were the pubes of a woman, lying flat on her back, naked” (16). Thus, Collected Body carries several implications: the political body of a country, women’s bodies, men’s bodies—giving and receiving violence, the body of the landscape, scarred. And finally, the connections and disconnections between all of these different bodies, the ways in which these bodies nourish and destroy one another.

It is the tension between these collected bodies, as well as between the book’s many binaries, where Collected Body’s speaker balances on a thin and shimmering thread. While this speaker alternates between positions of strength and weakness, the book ends with the speaker in a position of power over a man’s body: “Here he lies on his stomach­ ­– /the gap between his ass and his thighs/forms a perfect black diamond” (60). In this moment, at least, the speaker finds a position of power, a strong foothold on the wobbling thread.

Collected Body is available from Copper Canyon Press

A native of the Pacific Northwest, Ansley Clark is currently an MFA candidate at University of Colorado Boulder, where she also teaches creative writing. Her poems have appeared in Smoking Glue Gun, BODY, Spork, and elsewhere. She has work forthcoming in Denver Quarterly and Berkeley Poetry Review.

Language Arts by Cedar Sigo

sigo_cover_final_for_website_largeI’ve been carrying Cedar Sigo’s Language Arts, released in April from Wave Books, around with me for the past several days, returning to its playful and enigmatic poems again and again. Picture a lover’s bedroom, sexily yet maddeningly littered with cigarettes and crumpled clothes, half-drunk coffee, wine glasses with lipstick around the rim, piles of papers, etc. A view of the mountains, or Paris, through the open window. The chaos is exciting, slightly overwhelming, and arousing. Being inside Language Arts is like this.

The poems ask: how can one sculpt one’s brimming life into language? They ask: “what can I make with / what I have? / happy anger” (37). They say: let’s dig into the word glamorous. Let’s redefine glamour. Let’s frame the chaos of an individual’s life—full of experiences, places—as being glamorous. Glamorous explained as methodically messy, as an array of personal experiences, travels, and dream-like states, masterfully woven into lyrical collage.

Sigo writes:

…glamour is an investment

Involving desire and unreality. The poems are perfect

Laid back time machines, ground-blooming flowers

Their endless pastel grime in streaks (26)

Glamour which involves “desire and “unreality” commits itself to a kind of language play, which is a prevailing theme in the book (reflected its title Language Arts). Often compared to the rolling style of Frank O’Hara, Sigo employs a playfulness of form similar to collage. Sometimes in thin columns, sometimes couplets, sometimes spread widely across the page, Sigo’s poems reflect the movements of his mind—effusive and unpredictable.

This idea of the collage is introduced in the book’s opening poem, “Ode,” which is a thrilling and breathless stream of text. Sigo writes:

Master collagist lover householder editor surrealist confidant, making magic

pointed underpinnings on paper pulled through a typewriter, personal priest,

follower, holed up in Cairo, stuffy small room you never want to leave… (3)

Here, Sigo seems to introduce himself. This is what I am, he says. These are what poems can be. Many things which refuse to be pinned down, which refuse stasis.

Within Sigo’s collage is also an underlying darkness. The poems remind us of the continual presence of the memories of where one comes from, like throbbing, painful jewels in the body. Yes, this is still glamour, Sigo seems to say. Glamour as inner strength. He writes: “What they think of/ as pain inside/ I think of as glamour” (32).

Later, Sigo adds the single, raw couplet: “Pain soaks through me / colder than rain” (50).

Some of the poems’ underlying darkness felt distinctly familiar to me, as a native of the Pacific Northwest, growing up in Washington State near the Suquamish Reservation where Cedar Sigo was raised. In this corner of the Northwest, literal darkness is pervasive, relentless. Sigo channels this darkness in his poems, where lines like “We watch the wind move / wet shadows on a stick / trace the old (gold) / and flaking” (32) make his readers feel as though they’ve returned to a childhood home, which is a house of dripping gutters and wet forest.

In moments such as this, Sigo’s language feels intentionally heavier than the buoyant flashes of memory and language play in other poems. This darkness often feels oppressive and rich, gives a velvety texture to the book. In “Hot Water Music”:

Amber gates and worried songs deflected nightly

with your hand mirror, birdcalls

cutting each other off on a mix-tape

 

We drank another pint

and ate the salmon

and slept like logs (42)

However, this heavy darkness is metered by Sigo’s refusal to remain in one place for long. One of my favorite moments in the book is in the poem “XXXV,” which opens with the brilliant line: “Fuck off with your crippling guilt / The earth has edges, boys get thrown in fountains.” He concludes the poem: “Draw me in deeper with deceit and smoke, let’s go again” (21). This line, and the rest of the poem, seem to be a reminder that no matter how heavy one feels, there can be in this darkness a redemptive thrill, even—strange as it sounds—a redemptive sexiness. Sigo reminds us of the glamorous chaos which is our daily collage, which is our life.

Language Arts is available from Wave Books

A native of the Pacific Northwest, Ansley Clark is currently an MFA candidate at University of Colorado Boulder, where she also teaches creative writing. Her poems have appeared in Smoking Glue Gun, BODY, Spork, and elsewhere. She has work forthcoming in Denver Quarterly and Berkeley Poetry Review.

Andrei Sen-Senkov’s Anatomical Theater (In the Grip of Strange Thoughts), trans. by Ainsley Morse and Peter Golub

photoOn the back cover of Anatomical Theater, author Andrei Sen-Senkov writes:

            Poems live inside me—tiny, naked, formless. They have to be dressed before they can                                  be dragged outside. Everything I collect, all these little ribbons, bits and pieces—it’s all                                 articles of clothing for poems.

Written in slim stanzas and short prose chunks—each vastly different from the others—Sen-Senkov’s poems do feel like tiny living creatures, each highly individualized, dressed in scraps. Throughout this newly translated collection of poems, from traditional Russian fairy tales to a Kraftwerk concert to soccer balls and grains of sugar, the subjects of Sen-Senkov’s poems each take on vivid stories of their own.  Sen-Senkov’s mind works like a hummingbird. The poems feel quick, lavishly detailed, intimate, untethered.  They move like carefully constructed miniatures of people and objects into which Sen-Senkov has blown life and set spinning across the books’ pages.

Stepping into this world feels both disorienting and thrilling.  This thrill partly results from Sen-Senkov’s generosity as a poet. Like a curator, he offers his readers histories, daily routines, drifting, complex thoughts, and collections of images and item which often feel deeply personal. We follow Sen-Senkov through the complicated urban streets of Moscow, engaging in an exciting struggle to keep up with his wheeling imagination as he processes his observations and thoughts.

Born in 1968 in what is now Tajikistan, Sen-Senkov currently lives in Moscow.  Similar to his poems, his life also contains multiple layers; he works as a gynecologist, is one of Russia’s most respected contemporary poets, has published over ten books of poetry and prose, and has worked with other artists to create collaborative work with visual poetry and music.

Like kites, Sen-Senkov’s poems are both pleasingly comprehensible and impossible to hold on to—rings of cigarette smoke lead to meditations on aureoles, Chinese good luck coins, and the earth (67).  Sen-Senkov’s strange associations surface in his series “Perfect Day,” composed of brief, dense prose poems:

A bit of crumpled light turns up in the communal basket.  Here among these

                        paper odds and ends, it is nearly an angel. It shines a little, flies a little, and

                        saves no one. (85)

and:

A heart beating is the faint footfalls of a creature marking its territory with a

                        red smell. (89)

or even stranger and more fantastical—the fairytale juxtaposition of a lunar eclipse and a gingerbread house:

              The lunar eclipse that no one noticed is offended. Quietly spiteful, it is doing

                        what the gingerbread house might have done had it gone unnoticed by a fat,

                        glutted, grotesque Hansel and Gretel. (85)

The subjects of Sen-Senkov’s poems become diverse characters deeply entrenched in their urban setting.  Objects which we might see in passing while commuting on the subway—such as crumpled trash, light—or might not see at all—our beating hearts, a lunar eclipse—find recognition and narratives of their own within Anatomical Theater. They are lost, suffering from some unnamed oppression, “quietly spiteful,” and yet also swinging wildly with an almost manic, wonderful freedom and refusal to remain any one thing.  As in “Perfect Day,” they are nearly angels,  “sav[ing] no one.”

Also exhibiting this freedom and oppression is a series of poems entitled “Independent Tea Films,” in which Sen-Senkov describes various kinds of tea, assigning them each mini stories:

Tie Guan In: “The Iron Goddess of Mercy” is a premium variety of oolong, Rich and                                                yellow in color, this tea produces a fragrant orchid-like aroma when steeped; the tea

                        is floral, often giving off a rich, almost metallic, sweet aftertaste.              

                        “A Normal Workday for the Tie Guan In:”

   she works in a

                        small greenhouse

                        where edible flowers grow

                        for the European market

                        her task

                        is to control the plants’

                        water intake

 

                        she likes

                        to trick the plants

                        her Chinese, multi-colored

                        patients on a drip

 

                        she always knows

                        that they will

                        be pierced by

                        German, Dutch, Swedish

                        Christian deaths (9)

Within this poem and others in the series, the layers of narrative and associations are so densely piled,we forget the poem is originally describing a tea.  Here lies the poem’s power to convey both freedom as well as suffering. Within the dark absurdity of globalization and international markets surfaces a kind of rebelliousness. The “she” of the poem becomes ambiguous, signifying both the tea and a female character within the tea’s story. The poem and its subjects maintain their freedom by refusing to hold still for us, to give a singular meaning.

The books ends with a section of poems titled “Anatomical Theater,” each devoted to different body organs.  An anatomical theater was traditionally used to teach anatomy at universities of the late 16th to early 19th centuries.  The theater was usually a kind of amphitheater with a space in the center for a table on which to perform dissections, surrounded by circular tiers where students could stand to observe.  In the “Anatomical Theater” series, Sen-Senkov creates a surreal interpretation of this exact scene.  These particular poems—as well as the book as a whole—become a kind of creative museum to objects, such as various kinds of tea or body organs, each carefully preserved and on display within careful stanzas which give each object new meaning and reverence.

“Anatomical Theater,” “Independent Tea Films” and “Perfect Day” demonstrate one of Sen-Senkov’s greatest gifts as a writer—his imagination. His seemingly fragmented poems depicting microcosms of objects and their histories—imagined or otherwise—reveal not the world as we see it, but its cracks and seams which we often ignore.  After shining a light on these seams, Sen-Senkov then beckons us closer, reaches his fingers into them, and pries them apart to reveal even more intricate, stranger worlds.

The book’s title—Anatomical Theater (In the Grip of Strange Thoughts)—fits these fast-paced, yet painstakingly painted meditations perfectly. His work mirrors what it is to be a complex modern human  constantly bombarded with history, both ancient and recent, information, globalization. To be a human made of flesh and organs within the memory of old fairytales and the daily pulse of modern technology. If Sen-Senkov’s work is political, it’s political without judgement, political because the world is political in its organizations of power, because daily lives are political in their austerity, both elements  which his work closely examines.  Sen-Senkov’s Anatomical Theater is a celebration of 21st century living, in all its contradictory interdependence and isolation.

Buy it from Zephyr Press: $16

Originally from Portland, Oregon and recently a traveling teacher, Ansley Clark is now an MFA candidate at University of Colorado Boulder where she also teaches creative writing.  She has poems published in Spork and Cirque and can be found here: http://ansley-clark.tumblr.com/