Category: Jake Syersak

Baby-Doll Under Ice by Katie Jean Shinkle




Rather than lyric or imagistic intensity, sometimes it’s the all-out fierce trajectory of a collection, fueled by mystique, intrigue, pacing, etc., that wows us. Baby-Doll Under Ice, from Hyacinth Girl Press, delivers the aforementioned qualities, but at heart it’s the momentum, or descension—the continually downward spiral—of the poems’ two personae (Charotte and Baby-Doll) powering Shinkle’s collection. This mood of decline establishes itself early in the first prefatory poem, “Shades of Sub Rosa”:


So the being-sucked-under begins. But sucked under what? The poem, “Baby-Doll’s Descent Into,” offers some insight:


Here I have to pause to draw attention to Shinkle’s great ear, particularly the long drawn out mouthiness of “swallow,” “woman,” and “submerge,” and the way the submersion, sounded out by the acute vocabulary choice, is followed by the audible fragility of pairing “ice” with “create.” And notice how the breaking of the ice follows the submersion; it’s the little details like this, the narrative non-linearity of sensorial experience just ahead of the consciousness of physicality, that demonstrate Shinkle’s devotion to detail down to the propulsion of its very minutiae.

But lyrical acrobatics aside, these lines introduce the dichotomies that truly drive the collection: that of mind vs. body, consciousness vs. sensorial—manifestations of capital S self continually chasing each others’ tails in the hopes of reaching a higher understanding: thus the recurring circular imagery. Baby-Doll and Charlotte never explicitly interact, but they do appear joined by the symbiotic impulse to cycle through one another. Often their relationship is understood by comparing facing pages, making this an almost living book, in some ways. On one page:

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And on the opposite page:


One wonders whether a unified Baby-Doll/Charlotte persona is yet another circle, a sort of Heraclitean step into the same yet ever differing river. There are many possibilities here. No matter the answer, the personae continually recede into each other like a matryoshka doll, and there is pleasure in that.

Yet the poems conscientiously recognize that there is a sort of eternal regress built into this design, and it doesn’t escape Shinkle to expand the poems well beyond self-study. In “Machicolation,” for example, Shinkle zooms out and examines the larger ramifications of ouroboros-like ideologies:


Where it may seem trite to leave the downward spiral in the purely personal realm, Shinkle pushes herself to larger critique, one that is, of course, well open to interpretation, but is assuredly an understanding that, if we want to fully mine our personal cyclings and sinkings, we must also mine those of the interpersonal—and vice versa.

Baby-Doll Under Ice is available from Hyacinth Press

Jake Syersak is an MFA Candidate in Poetry at the University of Arizona. His poems have most recently appeared or are forthcoming in CutbankPhoebe, and Ninth Letter. He is the author of the chapbook Notes to Wed No Toward from Plan B Press. He edits Sonora Review and Cloud Rodeo.

Candy in Our Brains by Anne Barngrover and Avni Vyas

Screen shot 2014-07-27 at 7.03.17 PMLuna moths, Joni Mitchell, pipebombs, Mowgli, Cosmo, oyster bars, glitter, Gilligan, time machines, Shamwows, and John McCain’s disapproving face: this book’s lexicon rainbows like a handful of wordcandy tossed in a pot of cultural ragù.

A collaboration between Anne Barngrover and Avni Vyas, Candy in Our Brains is refreshing exactly because it reads like a collaboration; that is, the transparent call-and-response mode of the poems generates a unique rapport between the two speakers of the poems (referred to as “heroines” in a number of the titles), as they set their poetic sights on topics ranging from intimate everydayness to the colorfully surreal. Thus the poems harbor the ability to implode or explode on a whim, and at will:

Maybe you are a tolling bell or a hurricane siren. You foretell famine
and marriage both. Almond milk curdles into piglet tails and still they call
me cynical. When the sky purples and hisses like strays over the hills, I sure am.

The images are often simple and pleasurable but varied, the lyricism patient yet precise—and, at the right times, playful. The core strength of these poems lies in their elasticity: the personal fears they confine to a gravely personal kernel, twirl gracefully, and then propel into vaster universal realms:

Asters and their ‘roids, plumage and earth, wattle and mortar—so many things to pack
then shoot off into space, like the time I didn’t say I love you and you didn’t say it back.

Themes of a love/hate relationship (in relation to particular culture norms, commodities, gender roles, etc.) pervade these ever twisting, ever turning poems, so it’s unsurprising that they’ve chosen to package themselves exclusively—albeit loosely—in the guise of 14 line sonnets. Something like a bipolar hyper-sonnet emerges: a poem where emotions are perpetually heightened, visceral, on edge, and ready to unmask their new monster any given second:

Once I knew this bitch who dressed
her damn parakeets in designer. Didn’t have the sense to train them, either.

And only a few lines later:

What does it really mean to go bad?

Dour, fermented, flammable. Afterburner homilies. The studio audience
is up our leotards and dead silent when I go, “Y’all shut the fuck up now.
It’s time for me to cry.

Maybe what’s most interesting to me is how this all figures in to the process of world building. In “Re-toxication Night,” easily one of my favorites, the poets, assumedly perusing a bar scene, course through what they choose to call “yes nights,” an almost self-constructed cultural wringer wherein our heroines “pass through the pickup lines as if in a turnstile… slurr[ing] prayers to the patron saints of cherry pies and booty calls.” It’s at one moment mechanically degrading—at its worst—and fulfilling and necessary at best, a very double edged sword, indeed: “What we do on this night / remains a history written in nail polish. Yes nights, we curl like scattered leaves…More / often than not, we wake under an old blanket amongst a litter of ourselves.” Here, interior and exterior blame collide and are never mutually exclusive—a nice little jolt of complexity.

Everything funnels into an intriguing and, I think, truthful snapshot of American life, where often what’s attractive, energetic, vivacious, and beautiful owes to an eerie backdrop of commodity fetishism—or, incubates the germ ready to make you a commodity. This is a snapshot of heroines resisting the best they can while still living, as we all do. The key is the interior life of these poems far outshines the crumbling exterior of the world around them—and that’s important.

In the words of our heroines, “I like the look—devastated chic.” Me too.

Candy in Our Brains is available from CutBank

Jake Syersak is an MFA Candidate in Poetry at the University of Arizona. His poems have most recently appeared or are forthcoming in CutbankPhoebe, and Ninth Letter. He is the author of the chapbook Notes to Wed No Toward from Plan B Press. He edits Sonora Review and Cloud Rodeo.

In Anima: Urgency by Amber Nelson

71xzSTsjz3L._SL1017_Picture a scene where language is a whetstone and thought is a knife and you’ll get a basic sense what Amber Nelson’s poetics inside In Anima: Urgency are like. The title more or less indicates what’s to be expected: sharp, pun-laden, sonically driven compressed and meticulous lyric jewels faceted by both wit and philosophical compression.

Words here hide behind sounds, sound behind words, meaning behind sound, and sound behind meaning. Truth, in these poems, is derived from the human psyche’s capability of holding multiplicities of ever-moving meaning static—if for only a moment. Thought here is slippery, multidimensional, and exists only as part of a larger system that continually slips out of our full comprehension. Here’s one of the first poems of the book—and one of my favorites:

the line, mantic,
not straight but maps
of Delphi—white island ruins
a memory—sounds like
sky—coin incident

These poems are small but deceptively complex and wonderfully and richly layered. Each one is its own little microcosm of a world. Words separate and collide, forcing different meaning simultaneously on the same line; rhymes justify and falsify, lead you and lose you; and the imagery maps and demaps. Nelson, in these spaces, locates an “emergency,” where chance and human agency coincide, where the psychology and physiology behind language are constantly butting heads, where mind and body grapple with mutual co-dependence:

Inana in hand—my mind
mines will from descending
deus ex machina, ascends
to give life, the words breathe
manus anima—the dust

Something in these poems reminds me of Ronald Johnson’s late “Shrubberies.” Each word is so carefully chosen, each line so tightly wrought to drive the tandem musicality and intellectual fervor each piece must deliver in the compressed space they allow themselves. But whereas Johnson was hoping the concrete world would speak intellectually of itself to the human faculty, Nelson seems to hold out hope that intellectual faculties are able to carve a concrete path through the outside world:

arc aids or colon nods:
movement of utopia
your torpor internalizes
coins through slots

No doubt, these are all little portraits of chaos, but Nelson is not without restraint. Nearly all the poems in this book are limited to 5 lines each and the book itself divided into 5 sections: “Heaven,” “Earth,” “Language,” and “Time” being those in which the little poems appear, and “Recur-sieve” being the finale, in which a longer poem, composed partly of reconstituted fragments of the former poems, appears. This last poem is a welcome punctuation to the collection, a sort of climactic pièce de résistance wherein chance encounter goes head-to-head with human agency in a poem where meaning depends half on what has been and half on what is yet to be:

Think a body serves vice
in deed—eats to sire changing states—
To bear bears fallow: embodiment is
invasion as envision—

This is where Nelson’s poetry not only has to talk the talk but walk the walk. This is a poetry unafraid to make bold claims and test the limits, strengths, and weaknesses of those claims before its very readers’ eyes. It is a living and very human poetry that pushes past its fear of fallibility in order to grasp the very nature of living in the human skin.

In Anima: Urgency is available from Coconut Books

Jake Syersak is an MFA Candidate in Poetry at the University of Arizona. His poems have most recently appeared or are forthcoming in CutbankPhoebe, and Ninth Letter. He is the author of the chapbook Notes to Wed No Toward from Plan B Press. He edits Sonora Review and Cloud Rodeo.

Practice on Mountains by David Bartone




Proximity to the reader is tricky business in poetry. Get too close and you’re laughed out as a confessionalist; get too far and you’re a hare-brained postmodernist. But in Practice on Mountains, chosen by Dan Beachy-Quick for Ahsahta Press’s 2013 Sawtooth Poetry Prize, David Bartone tactfully negotiates between the two, cultivating an immediate intimacy between speaker and reader:

Beautiful friend, the motion to dethrone you is meant to raise you up you must know this you must believe me.

Beautiful friend, you are the reader.

The mercy seat I know is yours alone.

Here I hand it back.

And hand it back he does—and then takes it back again, as needed. It’s this give-and-take relationship that makes the book so immediately gripping (that and the pure pleasure of Bartone’s ever-syntactically twisting, elongated lyricism). A reader of Practice on Mountains learns quickly that, if you are willing to follow the author’s vulnerability, and let your guard down, you will be intellectually rewarded with the hypotactic unraveling of Bartone’s existential reflections, which can appear suddenly and unexpectedly:

I would like to say to you I am searching for a faith.

I am aware that useless if you have to ask exists, and therefore useless if you have to tell exists.

Perhaps this is coming out churlish and masked.

Perhaps this will change into something we can come to love.

This living without.

This living will.

The result is pretty stunning. Bartone’s seems to be collating an ultimate unity of intellect and emotion, the reader and author, histories and hopes, the loved and unloved, persona and personified, and so on. The centrifuge of the work may be a romantic relationship gone awry and the turmoil involved in thinking it through, but it’s the vortex of surrounding meditation that always ends up taking center stage.

Reading Practice on Mountains is sort of like watching a DVD of one of your favorite movies and watching it through with every directors’, writers’, actors’, producers’, filmographers’, grafters’, and whoever else’s commentary all running at the same time. All the special effects, dynamic storytelling, and drama are there if you want it, but you turn on that commentary because you want the dirt, and it’s that metacognitive voice and original text in tandem that ultimately create the final pleasurable delirium.

That he operates as storyteller and superimposed enlightened narrator at the same time allows him to propose an idea and then immediately excuse, criticize, or celebrate the result all in one breath. Bartone is simultaneously speaker, commentator, and spectator, which allows him a unique perspective from which to view—or lose himself to—surprising philosophical inquiries, which often fall far from the central plot. Again, this prevents sentimental confession becoming the end-all, be-all of the work:

I am scared to admit this: the river is partial, from any view, except from in it.

Yes it seems we are all looking for heaven on earth.

In heaven, it is my belief, you get to choose which tense of life verbs occur in.

But the belief never lasts and I do not consider myself faithful.

You can say this is baptismal.

If there is a dominating recurrent theme in Bartone’s book, it seems to be that there’s no better way to examine a subject than by total immersion. In light of that, loving, having loved, and hoping to love may all be the same in that they ultimately shape the present, which is (more or less) the most immersive scene possibly. The most tender moments of Bartone’s poetry can be attributed to his bringing his subjects before the present:

The fascination of the human mind is that certain action occurring off scene is made more vivid because of, and certain action occurring off scene is stress-inducing. For years people have called this abstract v concrete. For centuries people have called that Hellenic dramatic action v Shakespearean.

The fascination is this scene, not what happened on or off of it in between this and the last. Or this and the next.

It is in this fascination I most implicate you, reader. You are here with me. For or against will.

We are here.

My love occurs both on and off the stage, as it may.

Bartone offers as many views on-stage from the poet’s seat as can be offered off-stage from a reader’s perspective. Both are united by the present, by the page, by the “stage,” of the written word, as it were. With all the many histories, past hopes, future dreams, perspectives and wonders Bartone shares with the reader in an effort to bring them to a present they both can celebrate, one wonders whether this book is less a reflection on past romantic love and more a cleverly concealed love note to his readers.

Practice on Mountains is available from Ahsahta Press

Jake Syersak is an MFA Candidate in Poetry at the University of Arizona. His poems have most recently appeared or are forthcoming in Cutbank, Phoebe, and Ninth Letter. He is the author of the chapbook Notes to Wed No Toward from Plan B Press. He edits Sonora Review and Cloud Rodeo.