by José Angel Araguz
In an interview, the essayist Richard Rodriguez tells a story about Edward James Olmos visiting a high school in California. In the story, Olmos turns to the room full of young Latin@ faces and asks: “How many of you are proud to be Indian,” to which the young crowd applauds and hollers in approval. Olmos then asks: “How many of you are proud to be Spanish?” Here, the young crowd responds with an awkward silence.
Olmos’s questions and the youths’s two different responses play out the crucible in which many Latin@s must work out ideas of identity for themselves. In working out one’s sense of latinidad, a person must reconcile not just the history of the oppressed natives that fell under the conquistadores, but must also learn to reconcile the history of the oppressor, and how that too makes up part of the identity and history of Latin@s today. I share this story as a way into discussing the poems of Juan Morales’s The Siren World, a collection unafraid to reckon with both personal and cultural history.
There are places marked by no plaque.
No committee petitions for historical status,
but something happened here –
These lines, from the poem “New World Map,” point to the central engine of The Siren World. These poems engage with memory and identity in order to mark down what “happened here.” In the section The Mountain, the poems delve into the poet’s Ecuadoran background, embodied by stories of his mother as well as stories plucked from the history of the Spanish Conquest. The opening poem, “A Good Education,” layers the narrative of the mother’s childhood upbringing in Ecuador, where she “recited saints, prayers, and science formulas,” with his own childhood in the United States. In detailing the routines and curated knowledge shared in school, the speaker of this poem makes clear how “The world’s violence [can fall] from the minds like pencils dropped under ancient radiators.” By layering the history of not only the mother and the speaker, but also of countries, the poem evokes a sense of what is at stake in documenting and establishing what “happened here.” This layering also allows the speaker to end on an image familiar to anyone educated in the United States, an image charged further given the meditation of the poem:
And I put myself there too,
getting a good education, oblivious to our country’s failings, saying the
pledge of allegiance and gawking up at the flag with my small hand on
my heart, about which
I knew nothing.
This section ends with the poem “Downtown Ambato, 3:14 AM,” in which the speaker and the mother share a room during a visit to Ecuador. This meditation on insomnia highlights the poet’s ability to dwell on details; amidst counting exhalations and the intermittent barking of stray dogs, the speaker is possessed of a quiet urgency. The room for the insomniac becomes a kind of conscience, the speaker alert to each movement around him. This quiet urgency symbolizes the collection’s theme: as it does during the restless toss and turn of the speaker, the material of what “happened here” continues to move around us, fleeting, resisting to be marked down. Still, the poet tries:
I capture every town sound
and convince myself that I understand
my mother’s hunger for sleep after so many years
without. Then I multiply it. I wish I could wake her
and ask how to say insomnia
in Spanish except hope
she’s in the midst of peaceful sleep.
The second section of the collection, The Island, takes the poems to Puerto Rico to explore stories of the poet’s father. Where the poems in The Mountain lived in moments of meditation and reflection on what the past might mean, here the poems present the past in a tougher tone. In “Passport,” for example, a poem whose “passport” structure and conceptual framework reflect Adál’s “El Puerto Rican Passport, El Spirit Republic de Puerto Rico,” the reader is presented with the following:
Sexo (Male) When I turned 18, my father gave me a machete. When I
turned 21, my father gave me a shoe shine kit.
The clipped and straightforward execution of these lines underscore the emotional atmosphere of The Siren World. For a moment, what “happened here” is marked down in two pseudo-official statements whose juxtaposition of violence and pathos strike a direct and exact(ing) note.
The theme of violence as a background element is returned to in “Garter Snakes.” Here, the reader is presented with the memory of killing of snakes as a childhood game. The speaker’s sensibility is established as the poem moves forward, describing both the violence done to snakes as well as to the speaker’s unspoken disgust and disapproval. The reader then learns:
When I threw rocks, I missed
on purpose. In the arroyo with the shallow
creek and the broken bridge,
I watched free snakes
ripple atop shallow water
with their heads level –
a holy incident
we did not yet know
What is powerful about this ending is the inaction of the speaker. In the awkward silence of childhood moments like this one, a certain kind of character begins to develop. A child’s reckoning before natural life is later followed by the revelatory understanding of the poet.
The father narrative is developed over the course of the second section. As with the first section’s stories about the mother, these poems find the poet able to use history as a way to feel out both personal and cultural present. In “Revising Scars,” the effort to work out what “happened here” is stretched in a way that tests its limits. The poem begins:
I bait my father with questions about his history
like the tattoos of two birds inked on in 1952
that I already assigned the meaning of young love
and longing and preservation of him as a man…
The self-awareness of these lines is meaningful. In this scene, the reader is presented with a symbol of what the poet’s task consists of; essentially, to push and question against a world of “assigned” meanings, even their own. This imposed narrative on the part of the speaker is followed down further, until the father responds:
[ ] and he challenges family myth
when he tells me he was too drunk to remember
how those damned tattoos got on him in the first place.
There is a sadness to the humor of this ending, and a lightness to that sadness; the speaker’s invented narrative is deflated, but what deflates it is a clear evocation of the father. The speaker is thrown back onto his imagination; in this instance, what “happened here” is made of the kind of sharpness and elation found in the best poetry.
Indeed, the need to work through the sharpness and elation of one’s life is at the heart of The Siren World. Poet as chronicler of what “happened here.” Poet at the heart of the awkward silence between two inseparable sides of history. These poems by Juan Morales again and again take us to the heart of reconciliation with the personal and political. The ending of the poem “Guaman Poma, Writing By Candlelight,” turns the speaker’s meditation on the Quechua noble into a statement on the poet’s task; it also serves as a call to readers and writers alike to open their eyes to what “happened here”:
Where will my words about Guaman Poma be lost?
Maybe an attic, a thick folder in a desk,
or a garage box, but still confident
in the risky release of poems
into the hands of a comrade
who will carry each sacred word,
chancing the indifferent someone
who will never bother to read.
Buy it from Lithic Press: $17.00
José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow. He is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Author of six chapbooks as well as the recent collection, Everything We Think We Hear, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.
by Chris Caruso
Language allows the “I” to create a separation between the interior and the other –nature, beasts, lover, etc.—a process to draw distinctions and through that create a form of possession. This is the ghost of Adam’s placing names and roles upon all found in the Garden. It is through language stories are told, histories recounted, myths born, and poetry written. All of this implies a human imposing ones identity and knowledge upon the world. In Cody Rose Clevidence’s Beast Feast, a disruption occurs. The distinctions between human and animal, self and nature, language and meaning are all but dissolved throughout the collection. These poems force the reader to exist and become lost amongst the destabilized landscape.
It is in this process the “I” this concept of self is weakened to the point of evanescence- a transparent silhouette that tenuously grasps to the self-affirmation of knowledge that language is assumed to offer. The human and the beast melt into each other. Where the language and thoughts of one begin and end becomes increasingly difficult as the collection progresses. The result is an “I” that is not singular or completely human. It is in this tension where the Beast attempts to understand the language of poetry and civilization which imposes itself upon the natural world. As a reader one must seek order and meaning amongst a landscape in which the logic of the civilized world is confusion and misunderstanding thrive. These attempts at capturing meaning are constantly challenged. The poem[ZYG] captures this confusion, this displacement of the conventions of communication.
The poems in this collection are an evolution from the classical concepts of self and language into a world in which identity is unstable and shifting. The Metamorphosis series which can be assumed is a direct reference to Ovid’s work, further calls into question of how one is to interact within the world and changed by it.
“TRANS/IS LUCENT “EYEBALL’D” HAIRY NIGHT <FELT>//…is this a gated garden is this ambivalent is this a penultimate river/this is a mutant form of something I’ve seen before, leave it//…is this or isn’t it a way of changing perception is this in order, is this the order/or is it ordinary in the half-light or it is revolting…it is molting it is releasing some shimmering body into the hands of the state.”
Much like Ovid, the narrative is one of the shifting of forms of what a body is and how it is engaged and influenced. Is the “I” a human in animal form, or Beast that is playing a role at humanity? This is where the beauty and the challenge of the text occur. The pastoral is ruptured as the industry of humanity bleeds into nature. The poem is no longer a means to reflect on the tranquility of that beyond the city, but instead how civilization and nature clash, the uncertainty of identity that erupts from that.
BEAST BEATS SELF AGAINST CRUSTAL EARTH
BEAST EATS MONEY, SHITS GOLD.
BEAST EATS SMALLER (OR LARGER), DUMBER BEATS.
BEAST GETS A NECKLACE & IS BEAT, ADORNED.
BEAST PAWS SATIN, CHEWS MUD. BEAST SHEDS, SWEATS, SPITS, FUCKS SWOONS.
This is one of the strengths of the collection, the uncertainty, the movement towards an attempt to understand. The audience is forced into a strange land with no guide or sense of direction. We are lost as an attempt to organize to find form, which has been stripped of the features that are relied upon to give meaning. These poems are not static words, but the living and growing experience of the Beast. A disruption where even the most simple sounding line, becomes a quagmire of uncertainty. “THIS IS THE FOREST” Such a simple line that highlights the complexity of this text, what is the forest? What isn’t and who or what inhabits it? It is Clevidence’s ability to draw attention to the struggle of poetry to express experience and knowledge. This struggle is what makes this collection an entity that can never be held in place, but offers slivers of understanding with each encounter. The result is the knowledge of the fragility of the self’s ability to identify and how quickly meaning is erased. The deterministic nature of poetry to express is corroded. What is left “trumps a psychological truth no trumpet relentless no weary shall no shelter.”
Ahsata Press: $18.00
Chris Caruso is a poet with MFA’s from Rutgers Newark and Boise State University. He is fascinated with the limits and transgressions of borders/boundaries especially the margins between words and images.
By Laura Madeline Wiseman
Meg Tuite’s newest chapbook Her Skin Is a Costume offers a linked sequence of short stories written in the flash fiction mode that capture the effects and aftereffects of alcoholism and family violence as it reverberates through the lives of children who lived it and become adults living it still. Sometimes there is a hopeful naiveté that removing children from the parents that emotional and physically abuse them will be the balm that soothes the wounds of neglect and trauma, rather than understanding the complex ways post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can scar all. Tuite’s collection demonstrates the vast and varying effects of PTSD.
The first story “May I Please Be Excused from Reality” opens with children hiding upon the return of their father from work. She writes, “Whatever life was lived in the apartment before he arrives vacates itself. All six siblings scurry into silence, shadows. Mom busies herself in the kitchen”. As dinner begins, the children keep to silence. The father speaks, “‘So you must have done something productive today,’ he says as he carefully cuts his chicken, slicing each piece into thin wafers before spearing it with his fork. ‘There’s got to be some goddamn reason I’m paying for your Catholic education,’”. On invitation, the children of this family verbally posture, acting out their father’s family violence on classmates and peers, on each other and on themselves. This is a family where they have learned and are practicing that to engage with others means violence and it’s better to enact it, rather than be the recipient of it. Tuite writes, “We are such opaque children. We are subterfuge”.
Certainly there are girls and women in Her Skin Is a Costume who are violent, who drink and do drugs, who steal and lie, but Tuite also shows how family violence can have a lasting impact on those gendered female whose lasting effects of PTSD are to be repeated victimized by boys and men. In “Body of Bread” the protagonist Tracey has turned her body into a bread that fills the sexual needs of groups of men, solitary men, and couples. As sex worker, her body’s work is sometimes paid in cash and sometimes in alcohol. Tuite writes, “Trace spends nights forging through this monotony of reality in the same way her mother plunged her fists into the dough. They both feel out those areas of resistance, force the lumps into the center to merge. They pound down coarse little fistfuls of tireless egos, pummeling to work out life’s inbred inertia and resistance with the looser, runnier matter of risk,”. Tuite suggests that the character realizes she seeks the necessary self-work of redemptive violence against the self. However, when men seek to do this same necessary self-work, rather than use redemptive violence on the self it becomes redemptive violence against others.
The character of Tracey in “Body of Bread” is tragic, for through her character and her character’s work lingers the fear that despite the pummeling her body and life takes by her own hands will not be enough. She will not be transformed. She will not rise. This lingering tension is what makes Her Skin Is a Costume transformative and urgent. Tuite’s chapbook invites sadness and anger, to mourn what is lost by the tragedy of family violence as it manifests, but neither pity nor guilt’s urge are the force of this work. Tuite’s chapbook suggests questions—if organized religion offer scripts of power of men over wife and children, then how do such scripts linger decades after the children have grown and gone? Why do we perpetuate such traditional stories still, if even one family or one child is damaged by them? If we know PTSD is long lasting for those who’ve experienced gender violence as children, then why do we fail to offer support to such individuals later in life when they need it most? Tuite writes, “Pain will always be another sibling” and by doing so, her statement invites us to question if it does.
Beyond the absolute necessity of chapbooks such as the one Tuite has written, is the power and force of language and art here. Tuite’s characters are exquisite and real, they are complexly drawn and cast in such a way that the reader is made aware of their tragic flaws even as the characters themselves linger in oblivion. These are characters who are “trying to locate an existence that remains as defiled as his memory of his dad’s beatings”, whose eyes “are swollen and red. They speak of days, months of silent sobbing,” whose laughter is the thick skin against sexual assault. Her Skin Is a Costume is a complete story in edgy, raw language that is visceral and crucial because it suggests that by calling attention to family violence, we don’t have to perpetuate the cycle. We can offer our boys and girls, our women and men new narratives of interactions, if we’re brave enough to take off the costume, the guise of toughness, the act of violence, and begin looking and really seeing what’s underneath.
Red Bird Chapbooks (2013): $12
Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of over twenty books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her most recent book is Drink (BlazeVOX Books, 2015). She teaches in Nebraska. www.lauramadelinewiseman.com
by Aziza Barnes
is it worth it to stop this history
if you ain’t you gonna eat?
– Danez Smith
Just as when I read Hands On Ya Knees, I read insert [boy], in one sitting on the A train from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Danez Smith is one of the few poets whose work calls me to refuse rest from it. His insistence, his code-switch, his ability to convey vernacular as intelligence as emotional as memory, is the work poets of our generation hunger for. insert [boy] is a triumph. Smith’s work opens permission for writers of our time to exist in the literary landscape, derailing questions and statements such as, but not limited to, “what’s Gangsta Rap? Who’s Audre? What’s ‘stepping?’” Smith writes it as commandment, stating that each cultural artifact has an intelligence of its own, one that he need not build a glossary for. In layman’s terms, you can look that shit up.
…It was so outrageous you couldn’t go any further & so you had to find a way to use it.
– James Baldwin.
To take from the opening epigraph of [insert] boy, Smith evokes, twerks and rearranges entirely the outrage Baldwin describes as being The Condition: poor, black, gay. And what’s more outrageous, I would argue, to be all these and alive, still. This work is not an erecting of tombstone, but a flag planted down in a country colonized an amount outrageous.
[insert] boy, is outrage: sensual, violent, fist curled command, wreckage celebration, orgy-ballad-shook, Chicago-step graceful, everybody-cousin-lip-smack chatter, knee-bent trap music, knee-bent prayer music (and ain’t they both a prayer?), Afro-Surrealist mammalian solidarity, haint conjure holler (to Lorde, to Baldwin), whiskey laden, weed smoke hanging, a bullet dirge, a ghost song. Smith encourages that our outrage, as well as our desire, as queer black kin should be so complex. We have a right to complexity, to nuance and engagement.
Smith’s poem OBEY, begins,
at the orgy I deem all the whisky & all the weed & all the coke mine mine mine & I dare a motherfucker to tell me different.
This loud declaration of want and presence (mine, mine, mine) does the work of eschewing shame from the conversation Smith wants to achieve. Bushing shame and fear to the side, we are meant to focus on where and by what means of demand the colloquial becomes animal, that “fuck him, dawg,” devolves into “fuck him, dog.” That shift, traversing time, ownership, kinship in one slip, not of the speaker’s tongue, but of the recipient’s ear. By the end of the poem, the speaker, having worn the body of black, of sexed, of dog, arises from the orgry as oracle, decreeing with a certain command, “everyone must know what I know.” That the perceived devolution into animal is not a regression; is instead, a superpower. A means by which to expel any external voice’s ability to degrade the black body; I obey when he calls me dog and through it, I exalt eternally myself. After reading this poem, all I could do on the A train was write quietly underneath it, “wow.”
These shifts, or transactions between histories, American currencies (paper money or black body as property), Smith subverts notions of power by an insistence on the speaker’s “I,” their agency. In MAIL, Smith writes,
Dear Mrs. Thompson, Your husband pays me fifty extra dollars when I bust on his face, twenty five more when I kiss him after…did I bitter the back of your tongue?
Following with an incorporation of religious gestures, “his cash: a tithe, his ass: a cheap offering.” Who in this equation can be deemed church? Who is altar? Only the I, the speaker. Debunking myths of sex work, Christianity and the act of “purchasing” a body, Smith erects a gospel from the shadows, of haints, alive and all knowing, who speak back with uncompromising reads, flex and shade, to a world that seeks to unmake them.
I throw up my hands in praise for Smith’s achievement at signaling the I’s desire for a specific kind of violence to be enacted upon them. Rihanna, in her most recent album, echoes Smith’s work in her song Yeah I Said It, as she sings, “yea yea// I ain’t tryna think about it// no// yea I said it boy get up inside it//I want you to homicide it//damn I think I kinda like ya//up against the wall//we don’t need a title.” Each artist unravels the the notion that pleasure and violence are disconnected. Rather, that they feed on each other. A body accustomed to violence they explicitly do not ask for (police, bullets, pedestrian moves to criminalize the black body), would want to conjure a violence of their own in the most intimate of spaces. It’s the reason I feel most unnerved in Smith’s 10 RENT BOY COMMANDMENTS, when Smith reveals the realest shit I’ve ever heard, or commandment #3, “(if you failed to discuss, you know anything goes).” Smith exemplifies the criticality of personal proclamations, constitutions and the consequence of leaving home without one, the silence that Audre Lorde warned would not save us.
Smith calls to the need to be choked as the speaker in the CRAIGSLIST HOOKUPS, the dull ache at being called a nigger in bed by a white lover (not the first time), to the ancestral post-traumatic that begs for a filmic gesture “cue Mississippi, dusk & moonshine breath, a white sheet on the bed, a white sheet on the floor,” which all culminates in a holler back, a resurrection of black queer desire as the loudest voice in the room, that it was “the first time he asked him to say it [nigger] again.” Smith details the call and response felt inside of one’s own body, being thrown against white desire, that the evening, irrespective of the year (2015, 1965, 1830), begins with “a man & his property enjoying a quiet evening,” that the black body, even in its own imagination, belongs to someone else.
To move from this poem into the section titled, LOVER, Danez takes back all of his real estate, despite being, “sick of the word all.” In POEM WHERE I BE A HOUSE, HENCE, YOU LIVE IN ME, Smith confesses to the beast/lover who dwells in himself/his house,
baby, everything in me needs to be wiped down, yet I refuse. leave your print everywhere, when I’m ready to be clean
I’ll burn down.
We are able to laugh, able to suck our teeth, say mhm, that wordless praise meaning, “we know,” at Danez’s chosen purification, his burning, his choice. An agency wrought from hustle magic, hunger and full bodied faith, void of pity, void of fear. By the time Smith arrives at POEMS IN WHICH ONE BLACK MAN HOLDS ANOTHER, I can barely hold the weight of it, of, “learning to touch a man’s back & not think saddle or conquer or burn // it’s in your body, how it doesn’t reduce mine to churned wet froth…I am learning what loving a man is not, that we don’t have to end with blood.” This moment in a kitchen, two black men stepping, hands on shoulders, spinning, while it speaks to the I’s understanding of another way to love, speaks to a larger ecology present in insert[boy]; the idea, the prayer, of a world in which black men can dance without dying.
Available from YesYes Books (2014): $16.00
Aziza Barnes is blk & alive. Born in Los Angeles, Aziza currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi. Her first chapbook, me Aunt Jemima and the nailgun, was the first winner of the Exploding Pinecone Prize and published from Button Poetry. Her first full length collection i be but i ain’t, is forthcoming from YesYes Books March 2016.
by Brenton Woodward
To Drink Boiled Snow is, in some ways, intimidatingly erudite. It contains an erasure, a dramatic allegory, a meta-poem, a poem consisting entirely of anagrams for “Morgan Le Fay,” whatever a boustrophedon is, every kind of metrical line and foot I’ve ever heard of, and unquestionably many more poetic formal elements I never knew existed. In doing so, it illustrates not only the beauty but the necessity of a wide spectrum of poetic formats – the vast and precious variety of the poetic ecosystem.
To Drink Boiled Snow is the sort of book that confronts you with the fact that there are words you have heard for years, words you have read a hundred times, which you do not really know the definition of. Words that you have ignored or dismissed and never bothered to look up, reassuring yourself that your vague and tentative sense of their meaning is enough, that in time, contextually and without effort, you will understand them fully.
To Drink Boiled Snow shows you, however, that you have not. That these words you have dismissed are important, that they do things. That you are missing out on little slivers of the world by not investigating, right now, what it is exactly that these words mean. That you, as a writer and/or reader, are in denial about the number and scope of words which you treat this way. And, of course, when I say you I really mean I.
But in the act of confronting me with these words, these lexical lacunae of mine, the poetry hints at their deep and true definitions. “Sidereal” is explicitly defined by the poem in which it appears, drawing specific attention to the presence of these blindingly invisible words in our lives. Its early appearance in the book (“All Good,” p. 4) blazes a trail for more of these words; these others, when they come, are presented without explication, wrapped in their own obscurity which the verbal landscapes around them are careful to maintain. These aren’t the sort of words that I could gain a vague contextual sense of, or, if I could, I felt that I had gleaned only a tiny portion of their full meanings. This book taught me (and reminded me when I forgot) to be mindful of these words, to stop and acknowledge and honor them. I am, in all seriousness and humility, a better person, in this respect, for having read Caroline Knox’s book. I am better for words like sidereal, ideogram, soffit, numinosity, and motile.
Yet I never felt belittled, or lectured, or browbeaten. This book’s erudition is confrontational, but not in a conceited or self-aggrandizing way. The confrontation is between myself and all the ways in which words could be used, all the schemes and matrices that have been devised and that I have ignored, to the detriment of myself and of the language at large.
“What is it with / words like sidereal?” Knox asks in “All Good.” And I ask this of myself, continuously. “There is no word like sidereal,” she answers herself, but there are so many words like sidereal, and I cannot convince myself any more than she can that there aren’t.
Despite my statements thus far, To Drink Boiled Snow is not an attempt to display or preserve archaic forms and words for posterity; it is not a lexical or poetic museum. It’s more of a yard sale. It is an argument for seeking out and collecting words, structures, rhythms, formats — and then using them. To beautify the world. To confound and enlighten. To seek and hoard and know for the sake of the acts themselves. It is a call for more poetry, and more kinds of poetry, and that is itself a beautiful thing.
Available from Wave Books (2015): $20.00
Brenton Woodward is the Assistant Editor at Liminoid Magazine, a fiction writer, and a(n) MFA candidate at Southern Illinois University.
by Allison Donohue
Adam Day’s debut collection, Model of City in Civil War, encompasses a large cast of characters. As many as it seems a city can hold. The collection begins with a poem titled “Before the War” and from there proceeds into a war-torn, often winterized scene. The collection oscillates. Many poems are written from the perspective of a speaker in his own civil war; he confronts haunting questions of loss, death, and how time shifts, and how one must learn to shift with it somehow. Interspersed are poems about others: “The Insomniac,” “The Cow,” an eighty-year-old man in “He Speaks of Old Age,” and in “Combine” the following appear: Stalin, Tennessee Williams, God, Goya, Queen Anne. The faces are endless. In his collection, Day constantly turns outward as though to say: here is someone else; someone else, too, is suffering.
In “Water from the Same Source,” the speaker, jarred by a loss, returns to the world: “Going back out…I was reminded / how easy it is to forget the world / is inhabited mostly by others.” The “others” in these poems create the city in which Day’s speakers trudge. By turning outward, Day’s speakers look the other city patrons in the eye. This decision to look unlocks the most mysterious and compelling poems. “Sleeping with Uncle Lester” is a prime example. The speaker, having gone home with a woman the night previously, wakes up next to this woman’s Uncle Lester. The poem continues like so:
I woke with her uncle Lester
beside me, slack-chinned and thin, face
and neck a wash of white stubble
and the high turpentine of fetid sweat.
Lester’s wife died when their Chrysler
broke down as she hemorrhaged
from miscarriage. I got up
on my elbows; out the window
was the background of an otherwise
dull family photo…
The speaker goes on to describe the scene of the backyard. However, for just a moment, we are let into Lester’s troubles with no explanation as to how the speaker knows this information. Perhaps sleeping beside him suggests such intimate sharing; perhaps it is the detailed way the speaker has looked at and described Lester’s face. Either way, Lester’s sufferings are brought forth and he becomes one of the men walking Day’s city in civil war.
One of Day’s most compelling poems revolves around Mussolini. In “Diorama—Scarlet and Liver” there is violence, as expected. What interests one more though is the way the poem begins:
There is Mussolini in his tight,
shirtless on pine shavings. One eye opened. Swollen face
pancaked, his mouth a singed, lipless stretch.
To take a man who governed so many, so terribly and place him in the first lines of the poem in a coffin rewards Day’s preoccupation with perspective.
Yet, the ambition of Model of a City in Civil War exists largely in its commentary not on the wars between others but the wars we hold with ourselves. While Day does look outward, he is adept at turning his eye inward. These poems are where some of his most truthful and poignant lines reside. At the core of this collection is a sense of grappling. Day’s speakers confront what a war leaves behind. That is, the war of living life. It is called growing up, losing a parent, losing anyone and everyone who became close to us for a moment. This is fully realized in “Hiding Again in London”:
Months like this passed before I left for Stockholm
carrying the anonymous thing that we’ve always
known without having learned,
that we’ll lose, that speaking into silence, our gods,
parent-ghosts, and lovers will not
hear us. Still, call after him. Awkwardly call this man
Day’s collection seems to say: there is a war; there has always been a war. Eventual and unavoidable, loss is returned to again and again. Model of a City in Civil War is dangerous; there is often a man “swinging his broom like a scythe,” there is a rusty nail “shocking the snow / with a faint russet pulse” and often there seems to be no hope (“Apprehended at a Distance,” “Snow in a Brick Courtyard”). Yet, at times there is waltzing. At times the speaker parts with a previous life saying: “I feel sure I won’t / find anyone, now. I’ve settled into that a bit. And I find myself / attracted more and more to pregnant women” and a moment later the speaker finishes, “and maybe I think this time I could get it right” (“Time Away”).
Adam Day’s honest debut is written with people in mind. His collection is crowded; people often throw elbows outside of the poems’ pages. It is like every city we’ve been in and in that way it is comforting. We have a guide who walks us through, yet our guide is equally alone and warring, claiming: “None of us is more alone / than another, and still no comfort / in it” (“Now and Forever”).
Buy it from Sarabande Books: $14.95
Allison Donohue grew up in Virginia. She holds an MA in Poetry from Texas Tech University. Currently, she’s an MFA candidate at the University of Oregon. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Cortland Review, The Minnesota Review, Hotel Amerika, and others. Her book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, The Collagist, and Connotation Press.
by José Angel Araguz
I…continued dreaming, of owning a space
where all my poems would live & recline when tired, a pink box…
I wonder, will I call it Jessie or Yesenia? I need it, else I’ll have to continue
carrying my poems around like a baby on a sling, in the absence of a pink box.
From The Pink Box’s opening poem, Yesenia Montilla establishes herself as a poet for whom language is not only how we communicate but how we live. Throughout this collection, the reader is presented with a voice consistently aware of the stakes of a given situation, aware that for every dream there is a struggle. Whether it is a painful memory as insistent as the sound of a subway train buckling along on its track, or a moment of celebration via ghazal, ode, or haiku, Montilla keeps the reader close to the action of life. When the speaker of a later poem states, “I want to live in service of one action today, poetry,” they are declaring the heart of Montilla’s vision.
An example of what this vision is generous enough to offer is evident in the poem “Dendrology.” Here, the speaker recalls being shamed for her hair:
…my aunt announced
I’d never be loved by a white man
con ese pelo malo.
This judgment, however, is immediately challenged:
I loved my hair,
the way it frizzed around the edges
of my face & stood there like a woman
waiting to be asked to dance a slow bolero…
In recalling this moment of shaming, Montilla guides the reader through the process not of defiance but of consideration. Through these lines, the reader experiences a specific moment, one of new knowledge, and the instinct to hold that knowledge up to what one already knows. It is a nuanced form of defiance and of living enacted here. At the level of sheer understanding, the speaker’s narrative is moved to an image that evokes the physical hair via metaphorical movement. In this moment of intuited action, both speaker and reader wait to see what unfolds.
A similar moment of action via language occurs in the poem “Ode to a Dominican Breakfast.” As the speaker moves through a challenge against other traditional breakfast fare, the speaker and poem take an unexpected turn:
The other day I wore a white dress
with a wide skirt & red sash
I danced a merengue barefoot on my stoop, I kissed the
Dominican flag, once for each time I remembered a Taino word
yucca, batata, tanama, ocama, yautia, cacique, juracan,
every bite on the plate, every morsel like a bachata tune
This scene moves the poem from a mere contrasting of one cuisine against all others into the realm of celebration within language. Through the combined actions of dancing, kissing, and remembering, the speaker makes clear that what is at stake in this ode is not just what feeds the body. The gratitude and presence of each Taino word – words, like all words, to be spoken, mouthed – gives the poem a heartbeat’s persistence.
In “My Father’s 50th Birthday,” another kind of ode-like action takes place:
We forgot two years of jail visits.
Polaroids with white walls.
We forgot crack & shame.
We carried you out of the club,
you threw up on us with abandon.
Carried you like a dead body into
the narrow building…
shoes & lifted you onto the bed
to not wake your tired mother.
As we left we heard you cry out
Mami & at that moment you
were five & we were fifty.
We felt our childhood scratch
the back of our necks to let us know
it was finally gone for good.
In this poem, the celebration of the father’s birthday becomes a meeting and blurring of memories. The development of emotional tension leading to the images of the father being carried out are powerful and transformational; in a way, the father becomes a symbol himself of all the familial memories, struggles, and disappointments that the children carry between them. When the speaker feels “childhood scratch,” the physical nature of memory is emphasized.
Moments of such emphasis abound throughout The Pink Box. Montilla again and again makes available her stories and insights in poems that live up to the struggles experienced and overcome to get them to us. Her determination “to live in service of one action…poetry” is inspiring. That one should not surrender to despair, to hardship, to celebration, to anything but the language to evoke the journey, the surviving, is an admirable mission. It is a mission that Montilla, as evident in the poem “Iktsuarpok,” seems committed to:
the shaman said be ready
& I bought a new dress black a million ravens huddled
he said love affair
& I opened wide a calendar lunar phase & all
he said fire
& it was a million hummingbirds with their human faces dancing
he said madness
& here I sit waiting for the honey taste of it to drown me good
Buy it from Aquarius Press/Willow Books: $17.95
José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and winner of RHINO Poetry’s 2015 Editor’s Prize. He is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Author of the recent collection, Everything We Think We Hear, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.