Category: Liz McGehee

REVIEW: Missing the Moon by Bin Ramke

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by Liz McGehee

I had the pleasure of meeting Bin Ramke a few years ago at a poetry reading in Denver. I felt compelled to approach him after he recited a few lines referencing his inadequacy with French and a burning desire to communicate with his mother in this language. The ties to East Texas and Louisiana were abundantly clear through dripping imagery and specified flora/fauna. I suspected then that Ramke had Cajun origins similar to my own, which he confirmed after the reading.

Ramke’s poems are riddled with location and one’s disconnection within it as a result of outside forces. His most recent title, Missing the Moon, is no exception. Being from the Gulf Coast, Ramke’s poems have always resonated with me as snapshots of what I lost after Hurricane Katrina, a landscape and culture marred with years of remoteness, forgotten, then suddenly ripped away.

Missing the Moon isn’t merely a book of poems. It is an archive. Ramke’s need to catalogue the environment speaks to the displacement of Gulf Coast natives within their own land and to those who’ve been forced away post natural disaster: “contain is what a body does/until it doesn’t, and spills itself” (13). This retreat into the body mirrors the evacuation of Cajuns into the swamp, the pressure keg of a people forced to assimilate, and the eventual burst when this becomes too much.

Wandering is present throughout the text, along with invasion, appropriation by outsiders, and linguistic colonization:

Someone entered our city
under cover of umbrella, the first,
of many the last to linger he
learned a new language he
came to say to stay, stray.

In this poem, the colonizer forces a new language on the citizens, and stays for a time before discarding the city and people once colonized and drained of any resistance. The remnants of colonization in Louisiana remain physically preserved, unlike Cajun culture and language, which continues to deteriorate daily. Cajuns exist widely in popular culture through the same stereotypes invoked by the education system to regulate them.

In “Locally Euclidian,” Ramke perfectly captures the dislocation of Cajun descendants living between the remote, primitive location of the swamp and the encroachment of colonization, which has forced them there:

Butterflies are known to drink tears
of children along river banks—salt and similar
hormonal secretions attract the metamorphic
species. A child of empire, helpless
little leaflet floating just beneath the surface.

Forest rivers fascinate, beguile by being two worlds
both dangerous. As of overlapping centuries
we belong in neither, tree nor water, air nor
rock. He heard sounds but turned to the piano…

The speaker lives between “two worlds,” one composed of forest and the other of rivers. In this environment, there is nowhere to stand, “we belong to neither.” Cajun people, then, live in limbo represented here by marshland. Both worlds present different dangers, although it seems that nature provides a type of cover, even if unstable.

In the second half of the poem, the speaker states:

rock. He heard sounds but turned to the piano

to interiors; child of Empire, taught the sound
to sit up, to speak, to beg. He would touch
one key with one finger again and again
hours at a time, then sleep, then again

to cure himself he said. But I was thinking
of myself, my days along rivers among trees
wholly within the sounds and airs of anger,
of angels of heat, insects and other stinging

Nor was it the history of water I was recalling
nor was it music, the making of a note.

This poem indicates that the speaker has been forced into this remote existence, retreating “among the trees/wholly within the sounds and airs of anger.” He retreats into the swamp and, ultimately, into himself. The child, taught by the empire to sit, speak, and beg, directly reflects the colonial policing of Cajun children in schools, who were brutally punished for speaking their native French:

…some educators subjected French-speaking students to harsh, humiliating penalties. They called them names like “swamp rat” and “bougalie” (a Louisiana term meaning “lower-class Cajun”), forced them to write lines (“I must not speak French at school”), made them kneel in corners on kernels of corn, or slapped them with rulers (Bernard, 18).

Throughout the book, there is a reoccurrence of children, language, and control working in tandem. In “Inaudible Child,” a young boy is chastened through the English language:

Surely goodness and mercy et cetera
Evilchild is attested as an English surname
from the thirteenth century
Bad Boy he would say when he failed
answer       failed boy ailing     bad answer

The boy you had had a mind
Of his own  his owning a mind
engaged         engulfed him         how

fear flows through the minding
mannerly behaviors fearful tears
of infancy infect       A parent fails…

Here, the boy fails in English and is shamed by the very tool that fails him, referring to himself as a “Bad Boy.” He struggles with autonomy of his own thoughts, which are regulated through the education system and translation. His parents fail to protect him from this.

Following the Red Scare Louisiana’s “Board of Education banned French from classrooms, a move sanctioned by lawmakers in the state constitution of 1921” (Bernard, 18). This move almost single-handedly contributed to the deterioration of Cajun French, allowing educators to discipline French-speaking students. This history is the crux of Ramke’s Missing the Moon.

In “Why It Is Painful to Speak,” we see the damaging effects of translation:

I translate myself into myself—
sane phrases, words and words
Returning into Sabine Bay we would
stare forward into a horizon the dark
smear of cypress and palmetto not
yet arisen to separate sky from water
the shape of the boat a word…

The speaker is forced to translate himself into foreign words. “Pirogue,” the word for boat in Cajun French, has been taken from the speaker. Everything, every word, every part of himself is translated into the language of the colonizer. Words, images, and the self, lose all meaning through the other’s language. One becomes separated from one’s original language, culture, environment, community, and, subsequently, one’s selfhood.

The book concludes without any sort of resolution, reflecting the shambles this community continues to dwell within. “He heard their whine as warning:/full bodies to blood fly, fierce;/little creatures we are, too defenseless/nestled, nestling infestation of self/within self…” (98). Ramke echoes the flight of Cajuns from systematic colonization here. People that would rather occupy unlivable land than submit to the erasure of Americanization.

Missing the Moon speaks to and for a forgotten people, exposing the not-so-distant remnants of this Americanization. It exists as an archive for the voiceless, rewriting history through displacement, and exposing the raw nerves resting quietly under the surface of the swamp.

Omnidawn (2014): $17.95

Bibliography:
Bernard, Shake K. “The Cajuns: Americanization of a People.” University Press of Mississippi. 2008. Print.

Liz McGehee is an MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder.

 

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REVIEW: Leave Your Body Behind by Sandra Doller

by Liz McGehee

Sandra Doller’s Leave Your Body Behind takes its reader on a ride through a series of compartments, as it interrogates gender or, more specifically, what it means to walk through the world in a gendered body.

Throughout the book women are likened to animals (mainly canine) and analyzed as such:

“No dog was ever shut in like a woman. The trauma of thinking. Well
aren’t you lucky…

Everyone wants to imagine themselves a girl. Beautiful, brown, saver.
There, isn’t that better. You didn’t even have to touch the middle.
Honey, you just bought yourself a dog.

Here, women equal faunae, while men either consume or abstain from meat and animal ownership. Additionally, many sections of the book begin with excerpts from environmental studies, psychological findings pertaining to gender differentiations, or quotes directly tying women to nature. Often, the relation between women and nature functions as a form of entrapment, conjuring typical images imposed by mainstream literature on women—flowers, softness, beauty, and delicacy—ignoring the human qualities that make women people. However, Doller picks up this culturally forged bond between the feminine and flora/fauna only to eviscerate it while we watch helplessly.

The form, too, doesn’t allow itself to be categorized. It isn’t clear if the text is meant to be essay, poetry, or some mixture of genre, adding another layer of dissection to the work. Separated prose blocks compose countless sections and other sections resemble a prosaic coagulation of sorts. Sentences sometimes drop off completely or change direction, leaving the reader uncomfortable, never quite able to figure out what rhythm the author is attempting to establish or what she will do next.

The prose itself is instructional and commanding, emulating the ways in which women are guided like dogs through the world, or it is disparately submissive, looking for someone to point it in the right direction. The narrator embodies this frenzied, uneven rhythm of the prose, oscillating between a hollow, instructive male, voice and an anxious, permission-driven, female voice. Both appear often within the same set of sentences, as if trying on a new gender.

In one passage, the narrator appears female-emulating-male in an attempt at adequation:

…Once I had a jacket like that but I gave it away. It was given to me. I gave it. Once I saw a boy fix a dock. Once in the middle of the room. Once I taped my mouth shut. For you. Flickered. Once I was handy with a hammer…

The female here transforms from receiver to giver, as well as becoming “handy with a hammer” after the boy is mentioned fixing a dock. The underlying voice throughout the book appears female, one attempting to escape female passivity and subservient placement through the emulation of masculine behavior and speech. But she is never quite able to escape this position as we see in this passage by her flicker and silence. Further, she encompasses this female attempt at masculinity and autonomy through participation in the destruction of other women when enacting the male, what feminist author, Ariel Levy, termed the “loop-hole woman.”

This narrator futilely attempts to leave her body behind with the ceaseless behavioral emulation of the dominant sex, a reflection of western, capitalist ideas of success. The world’s antiphon at her body—eroticization, subjugation, and dehumanization—is led by binarization of the sexes:

Man was here when he wasn’t. That is the style of Man. When the headdress of the bishop or the dovetailed wood joint configuration, the one I can’t figure, when that comes, we will all be matter together. Until then, until one word for two things can actually mean both things, I mean, until the thing can actually be both things its word is, then.

Doller’s book carries the futility of the female body in a world where feminization equals subjection, and with it the neurosis, Stockholm syndrome, compartmentalization, and self-hatred that ensues from dwelling in such a space. Leave Your Body Behind successfully makes its reader question modern, western impositions of gender and the potential for gender when it is no longer tethered to the body.

Les Figues Press. $17

Liz McGehee is an MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Read another review of this book next door at The Volta.

REVIEW: contraband of hoopoe by Ewa Chrusciel

contraband of hoopoe

by Liz McGehee

“We are…the ruthless blood of ancestors” (19).

Imbued with the aching linage of immigrants, Ewa Chrusciel’s contraband of hoopoe is as astonishing as it is honest. Chrusciel’s bright plumage of language builds an ever-displaced nest for her readers in what manifests as pastoral of the relocated other.

Contraband, present in the title, meaning the smuggling or illegal import or export of goods, is more applicable to persons than “goods” or physical objects. The smuggling of souls, traditions, and ways of being are ever-present in Chrusciel’s second book of English language poems:

“Smuggling is translation…It is—for those who are unable to let go—nesting in two places at once…Both translation and smuggling come from longing for presence. From a loss. They speak of insufficiency of one life, one language.” (55).

The emblematic bird melees with clipped wings against her cultural erasure. Neither blending nor allowed to be. Moments of directness juxtapose with symbolic animal imagery, tethering the treatment of immigrants in the west to that of something less than human and to a clear system, which enforces such practices. The ugliness glossed over in American history becomes fully exposed in the radiance of Chrusciel’s prose.

“When I cross the border, I start hiccupping. The officer stares at my
nipples. I carry wonder inside me. I bring abundance. I stir the wings
within him” (13).

Chrusciel said in an interview with Colby Sawyer College that, “Writing in English is the work of smuggling metaphors from one language into another. It is a work of mistranslation. I am a smuggler because I do not like to renounce anything. I want to keep both of the languages and both of the worlds.”

The poems enact this division with the juxtaposition between the direct and indirect, the rapid transitions between animal poems and immigrant poems that take two contrasting approaches on the same subject. “Smuggling” never disappears for long in the text. The narrator deliberates [about] metaphorically “smuggling” her mother’s heirlooms back into the United States. She knows that keeping or bringing things from her homeland is punishable by law, and implicates any form of dissent from Americanization and cultural assimilation an act of treason charged by these new surroundings. The relocated are suspect merely by existing, trapped as other in a strange land.

“…In western
countries there was paper, but no truth to write on it. We knew the
truth, but had no paper. No paper to wipe off the system. We carried
it like a turf on our asses. What is this culture that cannot regenerate
itself by healthy digestion? This is where we beheld the system” (16).

Here, we see traces of the implemented literary tests after the Immigration Act of 1917 meant to exclude immigrants on their ability to convert to the conquerors language. This poem enacts the disability of such people to perform in foreign tongue as well as the squelching of diversity encountered at western borders.

The author’s direct confrontation with human experience, a range of animals, trees, and prayers follow us from poem to poem, embodying dislocation in this tyrannical landscape. Chrusciel invokes the great flood myth of Noah’s Ark, a myth existing across nearly every culture in one form or another but only recognized in the west via the bible.

Early in Chrusciel’s text Noah appears as smuggler:

“Noah smuggled a blue-footed booby in his resin boat. But how was
infinity smuggled in the blue feet of the booby? It crouched in his
webbed feet and chanted madrigals. Booby, you strut your blue feet in
the air and point the human species to the sky. No smuggler can get
hold of your blueness. You are the incarnation of the sky…” (30).

Noah is simultaneously savior and oppressor. In the poem, he takes it upon himself to save the booby, which has no desire for rescue, forcing it into the post-flood world now dictated by Noah and God. He embodies the insidious western, Christian colonization virusing its way across humanity. Noah’s prayers later develop into fins, allowing him mobility through this new domain where the animals become fixed.

No hierarchy of the soul exists but we witness a crafted system of inequality implemented by individuals with disproportionate power. Life dwells not only within animals, but trees, and other parts of nature in the text, ascribing to pre-colonized religions. Chrusciel creates a totem pole, always honoring the ancestors, always championing equity, and revealing a naturalized system.

 “There is no life for them in the old Continent, these pigeons called
rats. They have acquired the wrong reputation. They coo their litanies.
They sing to the faces of their landlords. They congregate on balconies
To interfere with Sunday hymns. The pigeons are better worshipers,
truer…” (22).

There is something akin to the oral tradition of the American slaves running through the book. Perhaps to remind us the law once protected that slavery, and likewise, immigration laws continue to subjugate the other, the non-conformist, and the diverse, stifling languages and deviant voices. Chrusciel reminds us that we are still being internally colonized.

The hoopoe, which hails from Africa, is referenced in the Quran (verse 27:20) and Chrusciel quotes this verse on the very last page, “How is it that I see not the hoopoe, or is he among the absent?” The reply in the Quran (not mentioned in the text) states:

 “But the hoopoe tarried not far: he compassed (territory) which thou has not compassed …” Quran 27:22.

We can interpret this in contraband of hoopoe as the internal, the soul, a territory that can never be subdued, though many will try. Despite the overwhelming assault of limitation, Chrusciel leaves us with this hope of inward mobility.

 “The most fantastical truths can be smuggled only through the windy labyrinths of our body’s cavity” (19).

That is that, when the body cannot travel, it is the soul that must fly.

contraband of hoopoe can be found on Omnidawn’s website.

Liz McGehee is an MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Life by Elizabeth Arnold

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…in landlessness alone resides the highest truth,
shoreless, indefinite as God. —Herman Melville

This is the quote that begins the longest and most significant poem in Elizabeth Arnold’s Life. Life is the third book in a (so far) three part series created by Flood Editions. The first two books, Civilization and Effacement, focus primarily on political borders and erosive disasters. In this third collection of poetry, we fixate on the interconnectedness of the world, of humanity through geographical, archeological, and infrastructural elements mentioned in the first two works, but Arnold’s labor is so much more than a series of poems. It is reifying, temporal, original, evolutionary, aquatic, constructed of rudiments which unite us all in this life:

the human element remains:

everything there’s alive though carved,

the grave’s returning spirit
requiring the appearance of life

in order to be fed.

Arnold catapults us all over the earth; from Megalithic sites in Ireland, to Rome, to Mount Etna. In “Fontana dei Quattro Fium,” we observe the Fountain of the Four Rivers located in Rome, each river representing the four continents to which Catholicism had spread by 1651, the year of the fountain’s conception. Water, particularly rivers, serves as conduit throughout Life for linking humans to each other as well as the surrounding nature:

but I saw something other as your
voice moved like the river when it

swerves past rocks it swirled,

slammed giant thumbprint-like impressions into
nobody knows how long ago,

carving a new channel.

More moving, is the physical language Arnold steadily employs. Her descriptions mimic the tectonics and erosion of a plane in constant motion, which moves persistently onward, anguine like a river, wholly unconcerned with the feelings of man, replicating the movement and very nature of life and death.

Arnold is not afraid to discuss the edgeless nature of life. In the poem “Osiris in Pieces,” we see the Egyptian god of resurrection, death and life presiding over past and present, the shattering of Memnon’s statue in two as the contemporary isolation between people in the same households, a cycle which resists diffusion on a global scale.

Regathered apart in separate cities
a thousand miles between

we are reborn.

Going back to the Melville quote, there is mutual dependence in lack of socioeconomic boundary, in having naught (also a reminder that nothing is indelible). Without nationalities, religions, and other culturally defining modes what is there to squabble over? Often, we see the phenomena of communities coming together and people from all over the world helping perfect strangers after natural disasters with no monetary motivation.

Here, I am reminded of the great flood myth that pervades nearly every culture from The Bible to the ancient Greeks, the boundless erasure of earth and lines, an event that rendered everyone and everything the same. In this way, Life is a type of exegesis. Simultaneously, Life reads as a sort of neo-haibun akin to Anne Carson’s “Kinds of Water,” (a collection of thoughts in each city she visits in France and Spain that also, as implied by the title, contain themes of water flowing through it), historical walk-throughs and reflections that birth from travel.

Water is not only the source of life, but heavily associated with death as well, a duct which all lives course through:

So the mountain is sponge with
plenty of water for plant growth, little runoff.

What’s lost is lost mostly to the sea.

Antithetical life and death are never far apart in Arnold’s poems. She reminds us that we cannot have one without the other, that there’s no way to circumvent the candor of the earth’s cycles, a beast which has no regard for who we are or where we came from. We are all the same when entropy sets in. Life is a reminder of how ephemeral human time is:

Towns on the mountain’s slopes are
built of lava,

blue-black cinders near the mountain’s peak

where the
main science station stood

Nothing lasts.

And yet, while we are all connected, we can only have a singular experience:

Painted on the inside of the lid of a coffin in Paestum, he was
diving into nothing all alone. To live is to die diving.

This poem is reminiscent of the Orson Welles idiom: “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone.” While this seems somewhat depressing, it really doesn’t matter what you or I feel because there is truth to this, and there is comfort in knowing that life goes on.

Life is available from Flood Editions

Liz McGehee is an MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Deformation Zone by Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson

Screen shot 2014-06-15 at 6.22.08 PMDeformation Zone (2012) is an online chapbook collection of two essays released by Ugly Duckling Presse, co-written by spouses and separately poetic geniuses, Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson. The essays center on translation, and while they discuss the matter separately, the message is clear: translation is Frankenstein’s monster covered in stitches, a mutated child pieced together in the womb of language and born by the translator.

The first piece is written by Göransson, who lived in Sweden until the age of thirteen before moving to America. Göransson discusses the lesion that is left from translating the self in his essay, “Translation Wounds.” Something notable about Göransson’s translations is that his words are always juxtaposed on a mated page (at least in the two books I have read). We never witness his work without the original keeping close watch, a deliberate move in relation to this leaking wound. The joint between the original work and the translation is severed, and here is where the wound breeds.

Using particular examples from his own translations of Transfer Fat by fellow Swede Aase Berg, Göransson displays the impossibility and futility of translation. In the poem “öppna Väljaren” (“Open the Voter” in English), a key word, “val,” which has three meanings in Swedish, is used and played with repeatedly; but because we have nothing like this in English, the word simply becomes “whale” over and over again. The intention and cleverness of the poet has been lost through this conversion, which feeds into the idea of this spreading injury inflicted on the page. Göransson leaves us with these haunting words:

In our American poetry, translation is mostly seen as the antithesis of poetry, an impossible obstacle, something that one must but can’t overcome. But there are poetry and translation projects that are interested in this ghostly séance space of corpses and wounds. These are projects that are born to lose, that make a home there, that make a text there, that stoke the wound, that stoke in it; made from doubt, they put a finger in it; faint, of failing health, they have their blood drawn, they are drawn to the (blood) loss of translation.

McSweeney navigates her ekphrastic essay “Translation, the Slavish Mould, the Filthiest Medium Alive: With Special Reference to Matthew Barney, Andy Warhol, and Divine” through a different yet similar tributary to Göransson, opting for the physical translation of multimedia projects, or the transformation of a work of art into a different work of art; for instance, turning a painting into sculpture and rendering that sculpture into film and so on.

These acts of translation throw the medium’s limits radically into question, disorienting our sense of where if anywhere the borders of film, painting, sculpture, and literature might lie.

McSweeney’s artistic pop culture references and use of photographic figures give the reader a highly interactive approach to this multifarious text.

McSweeney lists two ways to translate: masterfully or slavishly. Slavishness is a spore in the text that diverges and grows. The word slavish is defined as both deliberately imitative and lacking originality. A type of common sense is required to achieve transparency according to her. The text then dips into the art-star mould, the creation of moulds and their impossibility to fill or sustain. The constant translations from one medium to another break any mould that could encase such art.

There is no natural body in Barney’s work, because the body is always revealing itself to be prosthetic, a set for evisceration or dismemberment, a sculpture, a tool, a medium for media. An this super-saturated mediumicity often reveals itself as a wounding of the body, an opening, a ripping away.

In both of these essays a physicality of translation exists wounding in nature. To translate is to birth a monster, to lose solid footing, and to shoot oneself.

Deformation Zone is available for free from Ugly Duckling Presse

Liz McGehee is an MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder.