Category: Christine Holm

REVIEW: Terror Matrix by Zoe Tuck


(This is the fourth in a series of reviews focused on titles released by the Oakland-based small press/poetry cult Timeless, Infinite Light. TIL is currently on a West Coast tour.)

by Christine Holm

In her Poetry Foundation interview with Sara Wintz, poet Zoe Tuck discussed that as she worked on her chapbook Terror Matrix, she

was reading Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain which is about how the experience of pain is this universal experience but it remains very undescribed and she talks about a lot of really heavy stuff like torture and war and what those do and then she moves to creativity and poetry and what that can do. I was reading that, I was reading a lot of Beckett and thinking about being a U.S. citizen and being complicit in a lot of nasty governmental extracurriculars. I knew that in part that story wasn’t my story to tell, but I was trying to talk about being complicit in that. But it only fails. In a way that’s interesting. It’s poetry.

Complicity is a notion I seemed to return to time and again when I sat down with Tuck’s new release from Oakland’s Timeless, Infinite Light Press. Nearing the end of the collection is “[pretend some business],” a piece filled with prefixes of negation, un– this and no that, don’t and isn’t and without. In the margins, I scribbled: such refusal, such not-quite-understanding of what is ‘un’natural; things out of proportion, out of expectation and the questions, really, become – why, and, why must these things be done?

Not yet an answer, but a complication from the poem which follows, the poem which begins:

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The build here amounted to more marginalia – the thinking through of what struck me so about Tuck’s poetry. For now: how stealthily these poems work, relying so much on preconceived notions many of us, however thoughtful we might like to see ourselves, don’t sit down and examine. With that, Tuck weaves her poems which are at once felt full of a sense of the automatic, winding, moving observantly at a steady pace. At the same time, we are reminded Tuck doesn’t spill herself on the page and walk away, leaving readers to make sense of the arcs and lines of written language. Moments when we can glimpse some of her craft’s structure are where we feel most invited in, perhaps not to struggle with her, but enough to make sure we remember we’re reading someone bare here, and that the access we are being offered – goodness, what a privilege.

This synergy is felt wonderfully with the closing of “[i have one job]” –

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The focus of our collective gaze turns from mystery of the invited intruder to love, to love, to action. By letting our focus shift, we were made complicit in the crime, and not so unhappily, with Tuck as our guide, our binoculars.

With this language of kinds of torture, of war, of, at the very least, wounds or what wounds do, complicit was an easy and ready word which felt full, captivated, in my synapses as they sparked against the sounds of Tuck’s poems.

Until I realized how perfectly wrong the term was.

A quiet part of the project with Terror Matrix is sussing out a feeling of how to be a citizen in a war-time country where we often feel neither responsible nor terribly involved in choices our government is making. This difficulty is paralleled in how Tuck dealt with understanding Scarry’s The Body in Pain, and the larger project of how Tuck deals with understanding her own body in her own society.

“Complicit,” of course, is all wrong because there is no crime, despite what we’ve been told. When we question our physical structures, the bruises made or the scars our bodies refuse to hold, we’ve done nothing wrong. What Terror Matrix praises is the questioning, binary or otherwise, and the opening of ourselves to uncertainty, to the admittance of unknowing. In her opening poem “[i am compelled to accept your jabs],” Tuck lays out much of the work we will wander around, in and through:

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What does it mean to be – feminine? Injured? Privileged? What does it mean? These poems don’t even have to resist a lofty eagerness to keep the reader at bay with philosophical wonderings, they do so with ease. Tuck uses language ranging from technical to colloquial, makes each poem compact in a justified column, and in doing so creates a kind of newspaper clipping. These are broadcasts from the edge of unknowns, but not unreachables.

As Tuck told Wintz in her interview, “sometimes when I’m reading a poem or writing a poem, it solves a problem that I didn’t know existed while rearranging the inside of my body.” These edges, these unknowns – these are the spaces where Tuck calls out to us from – simply, beautifully, to say this is where she is right now.

Terror Matrix is available from Timeless, Infinite Light

Christine Holm began writing poetry while employed in social services and continues to find spaces where creative work overlaps with community service, from writing with palliative care patients through Poesia del Sol to teaching inmates with The Writers in Prison Project.

a princess magic presto spell by Lisa Jarnot

Jarnot400_1024x1024My nephew loves Lisa Jarnot’s a princess magic presto spell. Forget Thomas and all his train friends, the family and their bear hunt, the caterpillar no matter how hungry he might be. Sixteen months old, Nephew full-footed baby-runs his chubby legs down the hall and into the room I’ve invaded in my sister’s home the past several weeks. In a stack of books whose tower has been made vulnerably by the lack of any consistent shape, built more by timing than anything else, he always – always – whether by size (a respectable square of 7.5 inches tall and wide, barely half an inch tall), texture (a cover-binding of paper nothing like suede but with a softness that reminds me of middle school choir robes all the same) finds this triptych.

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opening Part Three’s Every Body’s Bacon. In between such lines and language, now and then we land on artwork by Emilie Clark punctuating sections of the poems throughout the book. What he is in awe of, he can’t tell me yet. But Nephew points, vocalizes the ooohs and wows I’m also thinking of when I encounter these images which seem, in a sense, to be the cellular constructions of somethings enlarged, enlarged by a kaleidoscopic microscope. They are bright in a muted watercolor scale, intricate and smooth as line-drawings.

Admittedly, I find myself more easily understanding of Clark’s images than Jarnot’s poems. Another confession: I am an engineer’s daughter. I find safety in logic and order. On any given day when I go to the page, I most go for the opportunity to trust in means of communication I grew up with. It is far too easy for me to point at a collection like Jarnot’s and ask the mundane question along the lines of how do we as readers make sense of the pieces put together. This is a limitation of my reading, I am aware.

At this point in my reading history, I’m far less interested in these more obvious inquiries. Or – I see them as, in fact, so very important they risk and then lose meaning. While the impulse I still have is to find sense-making markers through Jarnot’s work, which presto spell is my first encounter, and poets writing similar verses, it leads to an unproductive thought-game that gambles with the beauty and wonder which ultimately makes this a book I’ve come to keep close.

Of course the child is how I came to better understand presto spell.

After a few times through the collection, I most looked forward to page 26 not only for the large Clark image on the adjacent side, but in particular for these lines early on in Every Body’s Bacon –

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These statements feel grounded, pointed, but not without sincerity or an intimacy. Much of Jarnot’s collection refuses personhood like this, but only so much as I-ness creates. Personality, without personal pronoun, is full and rich and palpable here in presto spell in a way that, once I noticed the omission – the revision – made me realize how much we rely on personal pronouns as stand-ins. Use of I or he or she, they can be shortcuts, allowances to leave out small details that Jarnot’s writing flourishes with.

A few times more than those, a small child on my lap reacting to and interacting with the language rolling off my tongue, off the pages of presto spell, I better understood to remember something not necessarily foreign but so fundamental about the aurality of language.

I will line up in the sentences of this lonely vehiculate, a day leaning toward evening, a

midsummer cacophony of peaches, hydrangeas, and bees,

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We end with wonder, an incantation to call ourselves home, or away, wherever will make us imaginative to lose and then regain ourselves with awe.

a princess magic presto spell is available from SOLID OBJECTS

Christine Holm began writing poetry while employed in social services and continues to find spaces where creative work overlaps with community service, from writing with palliative care patients through Poesia del Sol to teaching inmates with The Writers in Prison Project.

Aquarius Rising by Ben Fama

Screen shot 2014-07-10 at 11.31.04 AMWhile Ben Fama’s Ugly Duckling Presse chapbook Aquarius Rising has sold out since its 2010 release, it is safe in the archives of the organization’s free online archives. Here, we can almost feel the letterpressed pages – the polymer plate constellation printed on a practically Pantone 3258-teal cover, the Sabon-set text’s clean lines running beneath the fingertips as he says, time and again, not loudly but still insistently: wake up!

As a new Fama reader and a longtime lover of the physicalness of the book as artifact – especially books constructed with as much care as UDP consistently offers its publication – I was struck by how quickly the pages turned. Fama teaches us deftly how to read his poems from the first, and when we get to “Glitter Pills,” placed just after the title poem and nearing the end of this 20-so page collection, the compactness, straightforwardness of

To live a serious life

that’s a fucked up thing

I would have to rent out a cabin

beneath terrible angels


when you want to leave you can

I’ll stay there just me and my heart

bigger than the sun

it is a mission etched into the underside stone of a bridge we cross over daily. Reaching back to the opening Hakim Bey epigraph (“the universe wants to play”), Fama is finding a balance around the poles of levity – lightness, because there is so much to hold our hopefulness, and weightiness, because what is divine can destroy. It is not simply messed up to abide by a code of seriousness, so much as it is “fucked up” to posture ourselves into these modes without sincerity. The collection read quickly not because there was any lacking depth, but because the complexity spoke to a difficulty I found incredibly accessible. More so, the poems’ forms are often without line-end punctuation, but generally end-stopped, as if to say the grammar or sentence structure might not continue, but the ideas have no need to be so formally discontinued one from the other.

In many ways, Aquarius Rising searches for the sincere. Fama writes not distractedly, but allows easy movement of the pondering mind, as if mimicking on the page his line from the lovely “Joe Brainard’s 21st Tan” –

I know too the sorrow wanting love

refuse to tame my vulgar emotions

and I’d like to go home

the long way if I remember.

If “home” is a place where our thoughts, like our bodies, find rest, let us wander a bit longer to stretch our legs, along with the last bits of that imagining of our marriages to moons. And what a pinch of regret to think the wandering way is forgotten, the play Bey encourages, the space for a less serious living, is something we broke, made docile or domesticated.

Or worse – that “the world thrives on misunderstanding / a cloud full of mature situations.” In the chapbook’s closing poem “Tauromachy,” a piece sequenced almost in aphorisms (perhaps, a nod to us over-analyzers, those of us inclined towards seriousness-seeking? The easy question of why enter us into Aquarius and exit us several signs over with Taurus? Well, perhaps, because the water-bearer and the bull…) we are again shown sequins and magic, animal life and our seemingly contemporary impulse or illness away from the beautiful, the simple, the unexplainable. Aquarius Rising is a collection to keep close at hand, a good literary friend to help us linger somewhere unknown. Because we can.

Ben Fama’s Aquarius Rising is sold out in its print edition but can be found for free at Ugly Duckling Press’s Online Chapbook Archive. Fama’s first full collection, Fantasy, will be published by UDP in 2015.

Aquarius Rising is available for free from Ugly Duckling Presse

Christine Holm began writing poetry while employed in social services and continues to find spaces where creative work overlaps with community service, from writing with palliative care patients through Poesia del Sol to teaching inmates with The Writers in Prison Project. 

Jennifer Militello’s Body Thesaurus

body_thesaurus225When Jennifer Militello lets us out of her 2013 collection Body Thesaurus, she uses “Wholeness Is an Imagined State” as a way to remind us how much we’ve reshaped and realigned the histories she’s helped us create in the previous 75 pages. Militello begins, as she often does, digging one hand’s fingertips deep into the soil of a time unnamed but incredibly felt, while the other weaves itself into a kind of contemporary awareness:

Or myth: a giver of consolation prizes,

hands bitten black and blue, gods

we knew who had no wings: it’s not

the blood’s sigh. It is the cry of the unborn,

held back in half-formed throats, in

the vocal chords of those who know death

before they know a prose (75)

What is often so striking about Militello’s collection is how the poems find balance between seeming preoccupation with the individual self and a refusal of personhood: there is a ‘we’ in line three of this poem, but not another personal pronoun in the epilogue until line 20 of 24:

We hear the root’s sure grave tapping to drink

from the runoff, the suburbs, the factory,

the ceiling fan blades, their slow, weighted

circumference as it fills our china plates. (75)

With echos of Plath and Sexton, a conjuring of confessionalism in the housing of myth-making, Militello manages the cult of me beautifully and deftly, letting her readers offer themselves — or any other figures they want to place within these woods and waysides — as the personalities. She provides the circumstances, the parameters of the spaces. As a reader interested in voice and character within the poem, it took me the first fourth or so of Body Thesaurus to understand, and then trust, that Militello’s gorgeously constructed landscapes of

Snow falling not far from here, the verb of

what will listen. The cold stretch of terrace

in the moon. Away where evening sings

its wet leaves clustered like flint (7)


When the sea runs barren

as the possible bones, when the names are gone

from the gravestones and cliffs, when the long dry dune

can decay us at last, November (10)


So few dead at the bottom of the river,

so few rapids broken open with their backs.

I empty bottles at the lips of the burn.

Four dramatic winds press into my hip to uproot

an infidel’s heaven. (12)

these aren’t tactics of distancing, but invitations. I often found myself dreaming of these worlds weeks after I’d lived in them because of Militello’s management of careful details. Again and again, the poems provide case studies for building complete worlds with these descriptions, but without becoming prescriptive. That is what I’d been welcomed for, not just to see the winter-world, cemetery or riverbed, but to move about the branches fallen with my own snow-shoed feet.

By situating her readers in this way of recreation through reading, Militello further reinforces the project of connection I see her building. Under the guise of epigraphs by Joseph Heller and Dylan Thomas, we are rooted from the first in an effort to find ourselves in our surroundings, what it means to be human with memory, in a landscape of trees which decay and metals which can be remelted, and ever-changing spaciousness. From there, in Body Thesaurus, we are so often separated. On the whole, there is a persistent loneliness to these poems, focusing in on the isolation of trying so hard to define the self and the relationships we neglect as a result of our impulse to turn ever inward.

Structurally, Militello constructs the difficulty of this as a strict dichotomy through her forming seven sections — plus prelude and postscript poems — each with a heading of what the self is not: a shadow of the self, a symptom, a battery of tests, what is said about the self, a study of the world, and a cure. We often come to understand ourselves or our situations by the void, the ‘not’ statements, and these headings suggest science, a factualness that Militello then resists with the exactitude of her worlds, worlds verifiable only by our complicity. No research or study will make this cartography hold.

What does hold together is language, the poems speaking to their collection’s title. On the one hand,

the poems, in conjunction, hope to explore selfhood not by definition, but by carving out possibility through these groupings of similarities of meanings. On the other hand, Militello brings us back to the etymology of ‘thesaurus’ as a storehouse or treasure, especially with her ability to make musical rough sounds:

The machine in us becomes what mixes

to make a man, what picks him from a pile

of bones. Drink from this and it will itch

in you, bewitch you, cause you to begin. (3)

This passage in particular alternates between soft hums of ‘m,’ lulling ‘ou,’ and strikes of ‘x’s, ‘k’s, the mouthful immediately engaging our auditory attention for the contrasts and shifts that will sustain us throughout Body Thesaurus. We are being remade through redirection of our attention away from ourselves, beyond our current circumstances and the tired ways we talk about them. Militello isn’t necessarily telling us much we don’t already know within these piles of bones, but she does so accessibly, crafting images that ultimately feel so starkly intuitive, threading together phrases so surprisingly natural to how the mouth moves, we want them to be as integral to our physical bodies as the figures she allows us to inhabit.

I first came to Militello’s work during a reading as she promoted her 2009 collection Flinch of Song. So sharp and confident as she offered those poems, every word felt a devastating comfort. This is why I’ve kept her close, and why I’ve looked to her work for guidance in my own writing and escape from it, by turns. These years later, making imagination and reality irrelevant distinctions to the heart of a memory, the title poem “Body Thesaurus” points directly inwards, reminds me why it is so important to understand,

                              Your lids are the lime-lined,

impromptu graves of thieves. As a mind,

your body is a wall of leaves; let its edges whisper (59)

We might be unsure of ourselves, but we are trying, searching for a quiet song, a dark woods that holds not the word, but the many words that make real the feeling we had as we understood how incomplete we were yesterday.

 Buy it from Tupelo Press: $16

Christine Holm began writing poetry while employed in social services and continues to find spaces where creative work overlaps with community service, from writing with palliative care patients through Poesia del Sol to teaching inmates with The Writers in Prison Project.