by José Angel Araguz
pelagic, if that’s how a particular moment keeps continuing
without one being able to stop it…(6).
I enjoy a text that has me walking away having learnt a new word. In the case of Kathleen Fraser’s Soft Pages – a lyrical prose sequence part of the Belladonna chaplet series – that word is pelagic, whose definition – living or growing at or near the surface of the ocean, far from land – is a key into the overall text.
Throughout Soft Pages, Fraser’s speaker presents a hybrid mix of travel journal/personal diary/writer’s meditation. The ambition of such a mix is reflected in the way the speaker boldly reconsiders and repurposes the aim of the narrative at several turns:
I must remember to enter the narrator’s life in as many ways as possible—
[by “must”, I mean that I crave intimacy and little corners but take
even more pleasure in distancing devices, while sniffing the smell of leftover
shampoo on a person’s damp terrycloth robe ](10)
This craving for “intimacy and little corners” as well as “distancing devices” implies a specific kind of tension behind the narrative. The structure of Soft Pages itself is less fragmented (nothing feels exactly missing or broken) and more loosely tethered, a kind of conceptual mobile capable of holding various meanings, which returns us to the image evoked by the word pelagic.
Fraser’s lyrical musings explore various aspects of the “soft pages” in her life – from notebook paper to photographs and a fan, the latter two conflated as the speaker of the text describes her direct physical experience as:
Not as definite as departure. Already it was following the camera’s path,
its ability to bunch up time, capture it incrementally or smoothly, into successive
unfoldings, compression fanning out through heat-laminated brick, golden
fade-out into transliteration of…pale fan sent from Tokyo, held in place by a
thin loop of silver paper, just at its breaking point, until the restraint had been
lifted away to release the motion of unfolding. Someone wanting the prop in
cultural time. May I demonstrate my lineage?”(6-7)
Through this kind of leap from similarity to similarity, Fraser constructs a reading experience about reading experiences. Instead of a distrust of being able to pin down human experience in words, one reads a speaker engaged with how things change as soon as you start to pin them down by naming them. In a scene, for example, of going through the motions of a public yoga session, Fraser’s speaker recounts looking for her particularly marked yoga mat, only:
to find, among the various colored blankets [the instructor] provided in a
wall cupboard at one end of the studio, a soft blue plaid that would draw me
into a state of calmness, as if the water in the river were also blue, instead of
muddy, and the sky an intense wintry cloudless blue , instead of burdening
the urban landscape with its heaviness of pale and dark grey storm clouds
waiting to break loose (8-9)
This kind of nuanced moment of insight, where realities are superimposed upon each other through the blur of memory and sensory perception, makes up a large of the pleasurable reading experience of reading Soft Pages. Throughout the sequence, one is given the workings of a mind who values the various “ultimate” meanings and profound epiphanies to be found, “Even as you walk towards the most simple morning task” (6).
Soft Pages is available as a free pdf at Belladonna*.
José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and has had work most recently in Borderlands, Blue Earth Review, and NANO Fiction. He is presently pursuing a Creative Writing and Literature PhD at the University of Cincinnati. He runs the poetry blog, The Friday Influence.
(This is part of a series of reviews on titles from Belladonna*’s chaplet series, many of which are now available as free PDFs)
by Peter Vanderberg
Anne Waldman’s chapbook is primarily composed of the single, long, title poem. The book is a fragmented meditation that approaches questions of war, conscience, feminism, art, history, and other subjects. It is a book that at once confuses and invites the reader to create meaning. The experience of living with this book for a while was like what I imagine Zen students experience in their search for no-meaning.
First, an epigraph from the New York Times dated Nov 18, 2001. A site recovery worker writes about ghosts and what he sees, unseen by others. Waldman’s book is now placed in that context: under the specter of 9/11/01. The effect is that now, the book is grounded in that memory of 9/11, but it becomes also about the unseen, and somehow this makes the poem bigger than any fragmentary visions of that day and its aftermath.
Waldman’s opening poem appears to be a prose poem, the entire piece italicized, which for me suggests a voice, either in one’s head or being yelled in defiance of definition. The cumulative effect of the poem is an announcement of self: though it seems to contradict itself at times, its terms at once powerful:
I am the toil of all Jerusalem my eyes are firebrand meteors to light your way…
then dabbling in cliche’:
I am here living the good life the sane life the yuppie housewife life…
I think of Whitman: “Do I contradict myself…then I contradict myself, I contain multitudes.”
Next, the title poem: [Things Seen] Unseen, which is typographically separated by a line. The poem is a Ginsbergian free-verse piece that at times bewilders and then comes clear, momentarily. The ephemerality of the poem’s sense of itself suggests a consideration of the nature of reality. There are, undeniably, things unseen. What then is the relationship between the seen and unseen? What questions arise from that relationship and what answers, if any can be found there?
Again I am reminded of Allen Ginsberg in that Waldman, as Ginsberg usually does, sends me researching the terms of her poems –
Ofra Haza singing “Galbi”
La Pitture Etrusche di Tarquinia
A Bar At The Folies-Bergere
Ofra Haza singing Galbi refers to a 1984 song that set a 17th century Arabic poem to music.
La Pitture Etrusche di Tarquinia – Etruscan murals from 8th – 2nd Century B.C.
A Bar At The Folies-Bergere is a painting by Edouard Manet of a girl behind a cafe bar staring directly at the viewer.
From these notes, I glean a setting: the Arab world, its history…then, I am in Paris, and the beautiful girl behind the cafe counter looks at me accusingly, enticingly. I do not know what this all means. The effect is like notes of music that create an emotional tone beyond literal translation.
The poem is also fragmented in terms of its typographical layout. Phrases and ideas scatter and are separated by a physical break in the form of a bold line cut horizontally across the page. Waldman uses this visual break on every page of the book. The effect is an invocation of the title:
This polar relationship, at once contradictory and complementary, invokes the idea of the other. The effect on each page is akin to that of the octave – sestet relationship in the Italian sonnet: the call and response that creates a dialogue of thought and meditation.
This charged energy drives the reader on through Walman’s poem. Each fragmented idea leaps to the next with the reader in search of continuity. As the page is broken by the line, so to is the thought process, and so it must begin again.
Page four begins with the parenthetical “(seen).” A clue to which side we are on? Perhaps the reader can now feel grounded in the physical, the real, the observable. But what follows begs a search for meaning, a salve for a reality that does not ground us well:
The Camps & Genocide
2,000 lbs of laser bombs
a white male Chief of Staff smirks
a vice-president dodges his odds
Waldman does not shy from making political statements. These things seen, lead to questions and a search for meaning (redemption?). A bold line drawn across the page is the gate through which the reader passes into the “(unseen).”
it depends what ends you are on
terrorism? or eternalism?
sun & rain of a dead civilization
her debit card
works like a ghost
These metaphysical fragments prompt us to consider the cost and the remains of the “seen.” We search for answers in between, in areas of overlap between seen and unseen experience.
Personally, I found it difficult to unravel [THINGS] SEEN / UNSEEN. Perhaps that is the experience Waldman wants us to have. The questions that arose in reading her work led to meditations, uncomfortable thoughts, feelings of anger and despair, even self-accusation. The work Waldman gives us is like a koan. We are invited to unravel the poem, trace its meanings, draw our own lines and raise our own questions.
This chapbook is free. The experience of reading it is bewildering, powerful, uncomfortable and invigorating. Through her poetry Anne Waldman offers a spiritual exercise. It’s value is somewhere between mantra, spell and prayer. As she says towards the end of her book, “this document keeps the demons at bay.”
Peter Vanderberg served in the US Navy from 1999 – 2003 and received a MFA from Queens College, CUNY. His work has appeared in CURA, LUMINA, The Manhattanville Review and in collaboration with his brother James’ paintings in their book, Weather-Eye. He teaches at St. John’s Preparatory School and Hofstra University.
(This is part of a series of reviews on titles from Belladonna*’s chaplet series, many of which are now available as free PDFs)
by Heather Brown
There is my father
in the doorway. What is he
He stands. He happens
again and again. I happen
to be here, where my father is
tonight, standing in the door-
way. I happen to be trying to fit him in
to the size of this room.
In her film-script/poem/memoir The Book of Jon, an excerpt of which Belladonna Books has put into one of their downloadable chaplets, Eleni Sikelianos has created a visual time stamp that retraces the lines of her father’s life and presence and records the impressions he has left on her. In the process, her commentary grows to include the way humans have left their stamp on the earth and thus lost track of the earth itself. In this selection, it may be easier for the reader than for the poet to tell where she ends and her father begins. She begins by addressing her father as “you,” in an epistolary fashion, then moves—removes—to the third person and refers to him as Jon in the section entitled “Notes Towards a Film About My Father (Jon).” This section is part script/part prose, but is broken by the slashes that normally indicate line breaks in poetry. Throughout this section, Sikelianos spotlights single shots, makes bracketed notes, and sets scenes apart to recreate her experience of her father. This is a form (or merging of forms) that Sikelianos develops even further in her book, You, Animal, Machine, a scrapbook-memoir-essay from Coffeehouse Press, about her grandmother Melena, who worked as burlesque dancer in the 1930s and ‘40s.
Following the script notes section about Jon, more fully-formed poems draw all the previous threads together into a braided, cohesive direction that propels both reader and writer through a final return to pages of directive prose that zooms beyond both the poet and the father into
Houses and houses and houses and houses. Houses and houses and houses and a pool. Then the bigger buildings rise up out of the Earth’s surface at the radiating axis of the city. Cars move around, people inside them. (Watch) from the window as the city changes from a sea of houses laid out in sloppy grids, splattered across the valley, creeping into the mountains, falling off right into the sea. (But there is no sea here.)
Through these scenes of the larger world, Sikelianos—now more deliberately and confidently—flies parallel at 30,000 feet to the earlier father-daughter narrative. She seems to be commenting on the ways we are marked, the ways we mark each other and the world. Her final images call forth the desolations of privilege, once we remove ourselves from it to more plainly understand the impositions and superimpositions that we visit upon one another and our environments.
Heather Brown received her MFA in poetry from Oregon State University. She lives and writes in Portland, Ore. and works for Powell’s Books, Inc.
(This is part of a series of reviews on titles from Belladonna*’s chaplet series, many of which are now available as free PDFs)
by Connor Fisher
Susan Briante’s chaplet, Neotropics: A Romance in Field Notes, is the 52nd publication in Belladonna’s series of small chapbooks. The chaplet is dense in its form, the intensity of its language, and the registers and types of language which Briante has combined. Neotropics, as its title suggests, concerns itself with a renegotiation of natural space in its intersection with human agents. Briante’s narratives place the reader in a humid atmosphere that is oppressive in a variety of ways, yet every poem and prose block demonstrates Briante’s creative dexterity, as she layers meanings and significations in minimal space. The only geographical location mentioned in the text is Galang Island (located at the southern tip of Malaysia), but page titles, as well as text throughout, indicate that the location is essential to Neotropics. Pages titled “3rd Day Of The Rainy Season,” “5th Day Of The Rainy Season,” “7th Day…” and “12th Day…” are interspersed with five pages titled “Eventual Darling” (no other titles are used). Formally, the work is largely consistent; Neotropics begins with a prose page (four paragraphs) followed by pages of lineated poetry, several of which comprise lines broken up into small stanzas or couplets.
The mentioned juxtaposition is indicative of the general form of Neotropics, as well as its overall argument. Briante plays the bricoleur in her poems, drawing language and concepts from political and feminist discourse, botany and general natural description, erotic meditation, and psychoanalytic pseudo-insights by early 20th-Century analyst André Tridon. In “7th Day Of The Rainy Season,” Briante writes,
A stem’s placability should not be mistaken for delicateness.
“Breathe deep,” the doctor told me and slid his stethoscope like a
coin over my chest
A seat by window suffices to stitch the world together.
I consider the number of heartbeats per minute within this pasture
Exaggerated mania for identification, writes André Tridon, is a
symptom of weakness (8).
Earlier in the composition, Briante engages more directly with nature, and uses natural objects to construct an ontology and a grammar, which the rest of the chaplet both occupies and troubles. In “7th Day Of The Rainy Season”
Mist treads down the mountain roof by roof to rest beside me.
White-tongued bougainvillea embrace a fishtail palm.
Romance plays no part.
Cuts of raw beef fill flatbeds hurling up the hill.
I sit with my legs closed, a single woman edging a plaza in Taxco (4).
Neotropics combines a natural environment—at one beautiful and threatening—with a politically oppressive atmosphere and a gendered, feminine space that is at once elevated and threatened by its surroundings. The sexuality of the female persona emerges, and the interior space that this invokes initially seems at odds with the external: the world of the “rainy season,” in which men define the female sexuality: “The frigid woman, writes André Tridon, is a cripple or a neurotic” (6). The result, however, is not a domination or determination of sexuality— Neotropics establishes a dialectic between the two manners of being and their associated qualities: inner / outer; performative / observing; and spectacle / diagnosis. This dialectic is formative to the poem and drives its development; as the persona and narrator navigates the inner and outer spaces of the poem, her account itself becomes a form of description, a flexible definition of the natural and the unnatural. This is at once an aggressive maneuver and a relinquishing of authority—the imposition of language into/onto the natural world confronts its inadequacies and biases; the poem possesses a political agency that rejects the external interrogation of female sexuality and political alterity. Neotropics simultaneously allows its subject matter to retain an autonomy; Briante avoids enacting the same clinical diagnostic mode that Tridon uses. She presents her subjects as they are—more accurately, as they appear to be.
Briante concludes the book with a touching moment that moves toward reconciling many of the political, sexual, and natural dialectics in Neotropics and which highlights the complicity of language in negotiating sites of political action and resistance:
Shepherds of reflex and deviation with preference for “sticks
trowels, knives,” with preferences for nipple clamps and half-light
chase flocks of pandemics across withered earth
to swat and prod at syphilophiac scars,
while the rooftops of a processing plant glisten like hand mirrors,
while the tanks of a refinery shimmer like a silver backed comb (11).
Neotropics is available as a free PDF download from Belladonna*
Connor Fisher was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and currently lives in Denver, Colorado. He has an MA in English Literature from the University of Denver and is working towards an MFA in Creative Writing—Poetry from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
by Tim Etzkorn
Bhanu Kapil’s “From The Wolf Girls of Midnapure” opens with disorientation: transliterated Bengali, shots of whiskey taken right from the subject’s palm, and fragmented prose characterized by broken, incomplete, sentences. As is the case with much of Kapil’s work, “From the Wolf Girls of Midnapure” serves as a psychological exploration of a traumatized subject as much as it does a story; the prose becomes a mimetic vehicle for the subject’s consciousness as much it is a drive train to carry readers through the text. In the case of this text, the subject is a historical avatar, Kamala, a reportedly feral child rescued by reverend Joseph Singh – renamed here “the Reverend Mother” (2) in 1920’s Bengal. Kapil shapes the textual fragmentation to match that of a developed mind being forcefully integrated into civilized living; the text re-shapes itself as the story moves along, as the wolf girls of Midnapure move away from their “feral” upbringing and transition into the human fold. Though, as the prose grows into a more coherent story, readers are forced to ask how differently do we treat humans and animals when we consider a person to be more animal than human?
The text initially engenders feelings of appreciation by the humane actions of Reverend Mother. She brings Kamala food and language. She brings Kamala humanity, purging her canine side. But the humanity she brings is tainted by gross debasement. An English bishop and his wife come to visit. Yet they do not call on the Reverend Mother to help or even to commend her for her generosity to Kamala; they appear “to watch: her eat” (3). The Reverend Mother provides “Raw mangoes” and “curd,” refined foods for Kamala. Kamala comes to these foods with “animal behaviors” (3), and this appears to be the real draw for the Bishop Wassingham and his wife. Kamala’s meal is not about what but about how she eats it. For the bishop and his wife, the Reverend Mother’s project is not about goodness but about what Kamala, looks and acts like.
As if at a circus, Wassingham and his wife dish out money in response to the spectacle. At the end of the meal, “the Bishop Mrs.” places a shilling in Kamala’s hand saying, “There you are, my pet” (3), a saying that is believably anachronistic, but a very intentional word choice on Kapil’s part, drawing attention to the continued dehumanization from which Kamala suffered. Sadly, the Reverend Mother seems to hold Kamala in a similar regard. Though her objectification of Kamala is more covert, readers can see it in her communication with Kamala. Kapil heavily punctuates the Reverend Mother’s commands to Kamala, breaking them down into the simplest commands and the shortest imperatives annunciated by exclamation points and sentence fragments. The syntax parallels the text’s opening, but here, the composition does not reveal a disjointed psyche undergoing a late introduction to language and civilization. Rather, it shows the Reverend Mother’s callous treatment of her human ward. Still catering to Wassingham and the Bishop Mrs., the Reverend Mother shouts, “Some tea, perhaps. Or salts. Darling, your hanky. My water! Kamala! Can you hear me?” The language becomes more desperate as the line moves forward. The Reverend Mother begins with a simple request – tea. Then she needs salts, an unconnected want, indicating that she might simply desire some service from Kamala. She then directs Kamala to her hanky, another implication that she needs to meticulously pay attention to her appearance as if she is letting her animal side show. The Reverend mother next exclaims “My water!” revealing that she is not just calling on Kamala to help out with two guests, instead, Kamala is more house servant than child. In such a fashion, Kapil draws attention to the more obscured inhumanity of the Reverend Mother due to how she treats the “wolf girl” of Midnapure whom she adopted, thereby giving some of Kamala’s humanity back to her.
Kapil continues to draw attention to humanity’s inhumane behavior as she winds the disorienting text into mystical journey. Narrating from what seems to be Kamala’s perspective, Kapil brings us through jungle and temple past an apparent tribal or indigenous ceremony. Kamala states,
Kamala witnesses unnamed persons dancing with skirts and sashes made of baby wolf skulls – not even baby wolf skulls, the skulls of unborn wolves, ripped from their pregnant mothers. The unidentified actors who tear the skulls out “reason” that the wolves are just fat, acting as if they could not tell that the wolves were pregnant. Kapil draws a quiet analog between these mysterious jungle dwellers, grotesquely withdrawing unborn wolf-pups for the sake of a dance ceremony and the Reverend Mother. After watching the Reverend Mother’s behavior towards Kamala, it seems as if her deed saving Kamala was more akin to ripping her out of her Mother’s womb for own decoration than it was to a saving, adoptive act.
In “From The Wolf Girls of Midnapure,” Kapil creates a text where the syntax matches the subject, the psychological exploration of traumatized individual. Yet in doing so, Kapil brings up even bigger questions. Rather than limiting this text to the treatment of Kamala, she forces reader to question how they treat subjects deemed lesser – whether it is as animals, or even racially and culturally. In the end, Kapil’s text establishes a sense that our inhumane treatment of others reveals us to be more animal than human, not the other way around.
“From The Wolf Girls of Midnapure” is available as a free PDF download from Belladonna*
Tim Etzkorn lives in Yangyang, a small fishing town in South Korea where he teaches elementary English.
by Erin Watson
For many, Maggie Nelson may be synonymous with her essay-poem Bluets, a series of numbered vignettes on being “in love with a color.” Because I picked up Bluets at a time when I needed to read it (voraciously, all in one afternoon-long gulp, mostly while crying on a blue couch), I looked for scraps of blue throughout Nelson’s chaplet “Something Bright, Then Holes.”
Here the blues are mostly flesh: “O bright snatches of flesh, blue / and pink, blinding in the light” towards the end of the first poem, and “elaborate blue tattoos” on the “soggy and blue” skin of an ice maiden in the second poem. Light and flesh trail each other through the five poems in this chapbook, adding up to an affecting meditation on selfhood and understanding.
The titular poem opens “I used to do this, the self I was / used to do this” like an apology. Then we’re told:
Something bright, then holes is how a newly-sighted girl
once described a hand. The continuum cracks, and now I am
half. A whole half. I see that now, though
I still struggle to see the beauty in front of me
O the blindness of having been born able to see. […]
The self who tells this is unstable and contradictory: cracked into “a whole / half” and blinded by “having been born / able to see.” While these couplets flirt with clichés, reinforced by the perfect end rhyme of “see” / “me”, the next stanzas undermine their unfocused abstraction with violence, with references to September 11th (“the planes flew / into buildings […] people and paper came down / like heavy confetti”) and to a consuming other:
…you wanted to eat through me.
Then fall asleep with your tongue against
an organ, quiet enough to hear it kick.
It’s a poem of being abased; resolving to become something new, being blind to just what that newness will be. That it ends without punctuation suggests that this resolution remains incomplete.
The second and longest poem, “20 Minutes,” continues along the brink of self-annihilation: “I don’t care about self I want out / of my story”, the speaker claims about halfway through, followed a few stanzas later by:
and if the purpose of language
is to generate more language
I am not sure I want it
After rejecting narrative (“I want out / of my story”), the poem holds up this uncertain rejection of the one sure thing poems can do: generate more language.
“20 Minutes” seems haunted by youth. After a description of the dead, cold, tattoo-decorated body of the ice maiden, we’re informed:
they know she was young because of
the squiggly line down her skull, a sign
the skull is still knitting itself together
before 30, the skull is still knitting itself together
the seam moving towards seamlessness
my skull, almost seamless
These repetitions build a sense of inevitability, mixed with dread: seamlessness seems too clear, too singular for the stubbornly multiple speaker here. This section foreshadows the poem’s last few stanzas, which return to youth:
When I was young I dreamt regularly
but I am no longer
you, you stand pure as a tree
the question the ground asks of the sky
who cares now why
there is something
instead of nothing
the question now
is how did we become
Here is another self to be examined and rejected, as a part of an affliction.
Reading the poems in this chapbook, I often had the feeling of having your pupils dilated at the optician’s, looking through lenses at the eye chart as it clicks into focus. The third and fourth poems both bear the subtitle “from Jane” and continue this optical metaphor. “The Oracle” ends:
Then wait for morning to bring
the bright sediment of things into focus. It
And “Koan,” the shortest poem, starts out “Not yet,” moving through a series of images and adjustments to end:
A girl in a boat the boat full of holes. Closer.
A slit sky. A slit sky and a bowl. Almost.
“The Oracle” and Koan” are the only poems that end with punctuation, suggesting clarity, or at least an approximation of it. That these poems are “from Jane” suggests a kinship between women as a clarifying force. Elsewhere in the chaplet, everything is holed, slitted, frozen, bloody, and unclear. Then it ends on an opening: “and I speak” is the last line.
Each poem resists a unified interpretation. The collection describes a multiplicity of women and girls’ identities and allows them to be contradictory. This openness and contradiction creates a sense of power. You are your own oracle. You are the “I” that speaks.
“Something Bright, Then Holes” is available as a free PDF download from Belladonna*.
Erin Watson is a Southern person living in Chicago and online at torridly.org. Her poems appear in Anthology of Chicago and in the self-published chapbooks No Experiences (2012) and Instax Winter (2014). She was a finalist for the 2014 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award.