Category: J. Fossenbell

REVIEW: The 8th House by Feng Sun Chen

the 8th house

by J. Fossenbell

I’d never been to the 8th House before—I didn’t even really know what it was, before I read this book. Or rather, I knew it but didn’t know its name.

The stutter verges on the 8th house
when I become unrecognizable as a person

The 8th of the 12 houses in Vedic astrology is not where you would want to live, but it’s essential to occupy and have occupied it: the home of life, death, and rebirth. You emerge from it bloody and tingling. Not renewed in any traditional sense, not absolved, not any of the adjectives we might associate with being reborn, but with eyes burned/aching, you come out “SHINY AND DISLOCATED AND GRATEFUL.”

Feng Sun Chen’s latest collection of poems traces an enclosed space of intimacy that invites you in—not like sex (though there’s sex here, too) but primarily like inhabiting/invading the wet cavities of a massive, contaminated body in a darkly domestic and sincerely spiritual way.

It is stupid to escape the self
The real self wants to be ruptured

The speaker is equal parts human and animal, stupid and divine, full of longing and compassion, grieving the dissolution of the self that can only express itself in failed dualities and broken language(s). Thoughts are de/formed through the language that births them, already dumb translations from another realm into the sphere of the mouth, tongue, breath, utterance. The speaker asks, “Is it because we have two eyes that we can only see two things?

From the first long poem “[I AM THE MIDAS]”, with its initial six pages SHOUTED as if from a splintered dais in some hyper/surreal amphitheater of cruelty, Chen stumbles into sudden possession of revelations.

I SUDDENLY THOUGHT I HAD GIVEN BIRTH

Nascence, or the need for it, is at the core of many of these poems’ energy—both the unbearable emptiness of “epidemic” infertility, and also the frightening and beloved fetuses that can’t or won’t come, the lost Suns of “mary. There’s a sense here of the utterly impossible task of either forming or being a perfect body.

I am desperate for a fetus.
To be a soft stomach bloated with sea life
cannibalistic like a virgin.
I will walk on the black shore with my child
still shiny with mucus and blind

The speaker’s drift across registers and spiritual states ranges from the corporeal Peg to the transcendent mary, with many others in between. Peg/Peggy is never fully revealed or explained, but reminds me of the dead pig tree and “I’m OK, I’m Pig!” of Kim Hyesoon, the only person Chen directly names in her acknowledgements. Her references to the little Pegs carry in them a deadly serious joke on the nature of consciousness and communication, and what it means to be a gratuitous human. Pegs/pigs are sentient, except as pork, and in both forms make repeated appearances throughout these poems.

The Three Little Pegs is a love story
What story isn’t about longing
Even a story with no plot is about longing
Perhaps it has forgotten what it longs for
long before what we have forgotten is forgot

Peg becomes a surface where Chen carefully stacks some of her most allusive linguistic pick-up sticks. But even her LOL non-sequiturs and base puns are more than just punchlines; they’re another kind of rite.

I am a Peg when I copulate.
It is difficult to be sincere while Pegulating.

The shame of both animal urges and human sentiment—of the drives to eat, piss, and screw; and to love, be loved, remember, and prayis another major emotional project here. The speaker often confesses to feeling ashamed, but it’s a fearless shame without embarrassment.

I am being watched
even when the eyes
of the world have been burnt
in fact that is when I am most base

In this spiritual logic, bodiesbelong to evil, cruelty” and only the ways our bodies are broken belong to us.So disease is proof of self, though it is a contaminated self. And good doesn’t lie inopposition to evil here, but next to its sister in suffering, who deserves our compassion.

After so long, I believe in demons because I saw one.
It was weak from pain, a universe of pain
lying next to me.
I felt for it
and stroked its face.

Another of the speaker’s modes is mary, a name almost a reference to the Holy Mother, but which mostly flattens to a common noun, which is always just out of reach, being reached for and missed. Yet strangely, these moments are some of the most devastating and disarming for me. While the animalistic Peg seems like it should be easier to touch, it feels more distant than the abstract and agonizing quietude of mary.

Suddenly I have insides that have contacted me, they say mary
*
mary slipped through my fingers
dried into gray crust.

Also present here is a shade of Aase Berg’s “black shell” from Dark Matter: a calling of names and feeding of bodies into machinations of history and death. Only this is a kind of modified death, death with a prefix—superdeath, maybe, or psychedeath. Uncannily cute drawings of little maggots clump on the pages and cover, plus a stray fly or two (art by Josh Wallis). The maggots remind me more and more as I read of miniature dumplings that I want to pop into my mouth, because in the emotional logic of these poems, consuming is similar to prayingan act as embodied as it is transcendent. It’s in the fat of the pork, which is both salvation on a cellular level and a ritualistic return to the fucked-up stupid joy and terror of being a person. It’s pure, even in its gross impurity.

All I wanted, I still want.
I still want to be filled with the richest light.

These are poems that will pierce and rupture your mental plane. Its sun will shine light on the blood it draws. Immaculate porcine ghosts and black angels will haunt you. This is a calling out, and despite the speaker’s resignation, or her insistence that, as a poet, she has no historical power, she is not powerless. Her insides are contacting you and sending you an urgent message. Listen. You can laugh, but in laughing wonder what you’re holding back.

I want blood to splatter from my mouth when I speak
Because sharing is caring

Available from Black Ocean.

J. Fossenbell lives in Minneapolis, where she reads and writes poetry and stuff, and teaches fresh snowmen to stop making sense.

REVIEW: Demon Miso/Fashion in Child by Joseph Mosconi

Untitled

By J. Fossenbell

Language constitutes a multi-use material to be employed in an ad campaign for a chain of mood-altering gastropubs. Or in the latest series of viral memes. This is shouting slogans for all levels. It’s Fun! Mosconi himself claims that Demon Miso “can be read and enjoyed by seven-year-olds (and has been, or so I’ve been told),” and I believe it (except for the “adult content” that would go over said seven-year-old’s head). This book/book-length poem hits me in some as-yet-unnamed part of the brain that lies at the triangulated center between eye, tongue (both language and muscle), and funny-bone. It’s a game of Mad Libs meets connotative bumper cars.

From vaguely suggestive aphrodisiacs:

1 2 3

to more firmly suggestive euphemisms:

4 5

to international curiosities:

6 7 8

to hilarious sound-bites:

9 10 11

to fantastic could-be product names:

12 13 14

to potentially symbolic enigmas:

15 16

Then, when we reach the end of the book, Mosconi reveals:

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Now I know why so many pages/phrases/stanzas/lines rang with familiarity as I read. I have eaten at numerous restaurants in Asian countries with badly- /comically-translated items. I had my own list of favorites going in my journal: “Open Bible Culled Flower” and “Whole Fish Don’t Forget Manhood” were two of the best. I wonder, then, did Mosconi simply collect a long list of such oddities from foreign travels and assemble them into this spiffily-colored series of amusing mini-posters?

Well, no. Mosconi appropriated much of the language for the book, as I would have guessed, but that he also “simply made up” some of the language himself. He characterizes his “method of composition” as “rather conventional collage.” This comes from Mosconi in conversation with his partners from the L.A.-based Poetic Research Bureau, Andrew Maxwell and Ara Shirinyan. Their site explains their mission is “to cultivate composition, publication and distribution strategies that enlarge the public domain.” They go in for “appropriations, impersonations, ‘compost’ poetries, belated conversations, unprintable jokes and doodles, ‘unoriginal’ literature, historical thefts and pastiche,” and publish, among other things, “the occasional literary fetish objects of stupidly incomparable price and value.”

This particular text could be read as digestible fetish object. The design (by Affect Studio) is the text. There is no excerpt except a screenshot. Quote equals thumbnail. The use of trendy, pop- and ad-friendly colors and the Insaniburger font, are central to the experience. Readers today know what a font signifies almost as instinctively as we know how English® tastes when it’s been jammed through the Google translate machine, or deformed by untranslatable nuances. In fact, Demon Miso/Fashion in Child is a text as much about translation as anything else: from language to language, from plate to alphabet, from word to meme, from color to emotion, from form to sensation. If we can assume that a certain portion of the lines/pages result from bad translations, we have to marvel at just how delightfully wrong things can go when people translate cultural products into a language outside their own system. Suddenly body parts and religious references. Suddenly euphemisms rife with meaning in some pidgin that exists only in between linguistic borders that never actually touch.

I find my verbal brain, too, spending a portion of reading time attempting to translate the evocative colors that pass before my eyes into words: Is that apocalypso drab? Oh, what a lovely shade of mudsucker nigiri. Hm, what is that—bloated whorehouse pox? I almost start to believe Mosconi has coded this naming diversion into the pages themselves. We translate what we eat into nourishment or waste; growth or shit are the natural and only consequences of consumption.

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His choice of words in the explanatory note seems significant: “These are the names of all the things I’ve eaten.” All of them? And not dishes, but things. All the things we eat is a lot. The joke is on us. Mosconi’s CONSUMPTION UNITS are small in word count but Big in size. Whoppers, you could say. They are bites that we swallow whole more than we actually “read.” Yet size is half the point, according to Brian Kim Stefans in his essay “Conceptual Writing: The L.A. Brand.” He points out that Mosconi has a thing for large fonts in this and previous publications, and I agree with Stefans that the largeness represents an interesting crossover from private reading into public viewing on, say, a bus or train, where unsuspecting people could accidentally read the text from across the aisle as you flip or scroll through the pages. So then, is the potential to be accidentally consumed a power move? When we read without meaning to (as when the language of billboards and other ads is forced upon us), who’s in control? [I’m currently reading Demon Miso on my laptop in a café, and I notice a few people standing behind me in line are peering curiously at my screen as I scroll up and down. Whose power is at play here? Whose privacy is being compromised?]

Scrolling/flipping are a rhetorical mode based in speed, movement, and action. In physical form, I’m sure the sight and feel of the fully saturated colored pages would be gratifying, but to me, scrolling through at a moderate or fast pace seems to be the method of ingestion best-suited to the Dadaist flavor of this particular menu. Scroll, bite, scroll, chew, scroll, swallow. In this way, a marquee. In this way, neon signs and vertical spreads. Fast food.

If size and scale are half the point of this object’s design, then the other half is color. In fact, half of the book’s 146 pages are pure, solid colors, matching the text on the preceding page. In his 2013 book, Fright Catalog, Mosconi displayed a similar interest in investigating the effects of color and color combinations. On mood, on meaning, on how we digest. The same is true of food presentation, we could point out. When we order off the menu, we’re going for a visual/psychological as well as a gastronomical experience. When we consume units of poetry, the same is (could be/should be) true. This positions us as consumers even when participating with “pure” Art. Mosconi’s attention to the subtleties of affect based in form and color would be scarily reminiscent of marketing techniques if they weren’t done with a nod.

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I wrote a few months ago about what I read as the presence of the stuplime (to borrow Sianne Ngai’s term) in Chris Sylvester’s STILL LIFE WITH THE POKÉMON—a conceptualism based in excess and mechanized dumping. By contrast, Mosconi says his books Fright Catalog and Demon Miso/Fashion In Child “deliberately invoke the legacy of minimalist poetry and text-based visual art of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s” and that he doesn’t think of the books as “strictly conceptual.” Indeed, if a half-cynical criteria for being “strictly conceptual” is that it is more productive to talk about than to read in its entirety, then this minimalist side of the arcade token must be the “leniently conceptual,” for it is more interesting (starting with possible) to view/read from beginning to end than to “just” talk about. Or at least equally so. Yet I keep coming back to Ngai’s term. This still feels related. Perhaps it’s an exercise in stuplimity driven, instead of by voluminous and baffling repetition and reproduction, by exquisite linguistic denaturalization, earthy gut-bomb humor, and a disruptively pleasant pseudo-banality.

By design.

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Make Now Books, 2014

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J. Fossenbell writes, teaches and flings snow in Minneapolis. She recently graduated from poetry finishing school and became a mutha.