by Allison Noelle Conner
The poems in Hoa Nguyen’s latest collection concern themselves with the domestic and/or quotidian. There are scenes of cooking, dreaming, note-taking, remembering, season-changing, crying, tree-cutting, and bird watching. At times it feels as if you are reading fragments from a diary, one seemingly focused on expressing the everyday through language. However, the “everydayness” of the content is countered constantly by Nguyen’s use of gaps, silences, evasion, and reassemblage.
Her work brings to mind two quotes from “Commitment from the Mirror-Writing Box”, an essay by Trinh T. Minh-ha from her book Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. In the first, Minh-ha describes an alternative type of writer, one who does not express themselves in sentences but rather “thinks sentences: she is a sentence-thinker…[one] who radically questions the world through the questioning of a how-to-write.”(17) In the second, Minh-ha stresses the importance of writing as becoming: “To write is to become. Not to become a writer (or a poet), but to become, intransitively. Not when writing adopts established keynotes or policy, but when it traces for itself lines of evasion…A sentence-thinker, yes, but one who so very often does not know how a sentence will end, I say. And as there is no need to rush, just leave it open, so that it may later on find, or not find, its closure. Words, fragments, and lines that I love for no sound reason; blanks, lapses, and silences that settle in like gaps of fresh air as soon as the inked space smells stuffy.”(18)
What shapes do Tells of the Crackling trace? The image of the slash( / ) recurs throughout the book. It is found on the cover, on the title page, in the bottom right corner of the pages facing right, and on the penultimate page. The sign recalls a blade, a slice, carving, the aftermaths of some cutting motion.
She is her but I don’t rem
the ashes I obsess She said
Remember cracks, is swallowed by action rather than expressing an action. You feel the pulse of the speaker’s empathetic thinking: the words do not merely relay, they enact the disjointedness of failing to remember that which you apparently know. For Nguyen, language is not static or unchanging or inherent. It can easily be fragmented to reveal hidden meanings, alternative possibilities, and unknown sentiments. It can exist as a song that resists the rational, the ordered, the logical, the dominant. It can become “punctuated shredded parts” coursing together to form the unimaginable, the absent, what on the surface seems to be impossible. In “Locust Tree Notes (East Toronto)”, the speaker mentions how this specific species is “[u]sed to reclaim damaged land”:
They reestablish “disturbed sites”
with nitrogen roots
(my notes say soul)
Nguyen seems to be searching for ways in which poetry, language, and gestures can(and, conversely, fail to) restore and/or regenerate comprised geographies; whether those be ancestral, psychological, emotional, spiritual, linguistic, material, political, or metaphorical. Throughout Nguyen presents us with moments where disturbed sites rupture and erupt into the domestic present. What if the sharp, short noises previously discarded as nonsense or ruined rose to sing an untraceable tune? How should one capture the texture of its tellings?
In “To Seek”, the speaker announces her frustration with the utilitarian function of expression:
I want the root of the words
not the fucking use
made purposed and stupid
Many any foot feet be
May my root feet be
The shifting wordplay illustrates the unstableness of language and meaning. On the surface, “the root of the word” can refer to the word stripped of its prefixes and suffixes. But root also connotes lineage, history, and pasts; or that which disturbed sites wish to remember and reclaim. “Stars” approaches this subject of parental inheritance and reconnection. But rather than explicitly state “This is a poem about familial legacy, about a speaker reckoning with their ancestors”, Nguyen stitches words together to create a multiplicity of meaning. The stream of consciousness tone reiterates this feeling of linguistic spontaneity, interrogation, and ambiguity.
Stars your parents join
join your parents of the stars
under an oxygen tent
The blank between “Stars” and “your” could be a breath, a hesitation, something missing, contemplation, preparation, a space for creation. As the poem proceeds the language starts to turn in on itself. The speaker views memory as something “to sever”, “to sit in”, to “serve you”, “a rock fortress”:
more father than father in years
After cold spring
I mean spring o uncle
What have you here bring spring
The exact uses of the words are less important than the knot of associations the words bring forth. The father is far, farther, as distant as traveling light. The realization turns spring to psring, a reordering that illustrates the speaker’s difficulty in thinking clearly about traumatic pasts. Nonetheless, roots in the form of “bright spring” continue to sprout despite the cutting, the erasure, the destroying. Tells of the Crackling wonders: What language will or can grow from the disrupted? Nguyen offers no definitive answers. As readers we are given openings, channels, and points of departures. Perhaps what matters most is our willingness to return, as the last lines of “After The Song” suggest:
tremble and I sign
my name It’s my
hand on the page
climb back up again
a chorus of screams
Sing Sing the chorus again
Buy it from Ugly Duckling Press: $9.00.
Allison Noelle Conner is writer based in Los Angeles. She is an assistant fiction editor for The Offing. Currently, she is at work on her first book, a prose project exploring institutionalization, possessions, and black women geographies.
by Douglas Piccinnini
César Vallejo, Inger Christensen, Alice Roberts, Louis Malle, Alfred Tennyson, Alice Notley, Eileen Myles, William Shakespeare, Andrew Zawacki, P.B. Shelley, David Glimp, Stephen Ratcliffe, Lisa Robertson, Erin Mouré, John Wieners, Robert Urquhart, René Char, John Ashbery, David Hume.
In the residue of “old devotions” and new meditations, Julie Carr’s Think Tank archives the still-digesting data from a-life-in-books into the mind, into the body. From the body, Carr gives back a novel text in an act more nuanced than ventriloquism: Think Tank dialogs in the ear-marked pages of ‘literature’ in a style that mirrors the craft of folksong and of jazz; to expand the role of inherited ideas and exponents of style; to take input and produce an output worthy of praising and pushing the boundaries of the art(form).
And at once, the space of this book and the space of the body achieve an act of synecdoche, in which the body is an extension of the book and the book an extension of the conscious body.In this way, Carr is able — to borrow a line from Carr via Inger Christensen — “to circumvent death and communicate presence.”
As equal parts homage and transformation, the long sequence that makes up Think Tank dwells in a metalepsis of poetic selves. Its alert, yet forgiving, engagement with the “sharp rocks of indeterminacy” yields more than pastiche. As Carr writes,
And narrative illusion breaks down metaleptically
Transforming expectations of early and late
Bubbling in “yeasted minutes” the resulting work presents an “effort to amass some new time” and track a consciousness of melodies that dialog with Vallejo, with Notley, with Myles, with Hume—among others.
A careful reader sees the many minds at work in this book and takes note of the overarching gesture that values the superimposition of selves that form the narrative of our lives and, as Carr trumpets, via Notley,
One has a secret self, a rather delicate pondering inner person. Much of poetry exists to communicate with this entity.
Carr’s Think Tank broadcasts an involved music that roams along the historical dial of thinking and makes a strong case for the pleasure of interior life and the pleasure(s) of thinking.
Solid Objects (2015): $16.00
Douglas Piccinnini is the author of Story Book: a novella (The Cultural Society, 2015) and, a collection of poems, Blood Oboe (Omnidawn, 2015).
Read an earlier view of this book on the Volta Blog here.
by Raymond de Borja
It is fairly commonplace to characterize our contemporary setting – of ubiquitous computing, the cloud, the Internet of things, big data, etc. – as one where our knowledge of the world is increasingly easier to accumulate and transmit, but where our experience of the world is becoming more and more inaccessible and uncommunicable. Not to say that the ubiquity of technology is an outright catastrophe, but at least to point out that the relationships among language, knowledge, experience, and the world (already traditionally fraught problematics) are made more intricate by developments in technology. That, as there are changes in the accumulation and transmission of knowledge, so too must there be changes in our means of accessing, communicating, and making experiences. Changes that all the more make the necessity for poetry more urgent, should we think of poetry as a space where language is both knowledge and experience, and also, very possibly, a limit of a world.
Giorgio Agamben traces a genealogy of the problematics of language, knowledge and experience in his essay Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience. A tracing motivated not by a nostalgic return, but by the possibilities opened up by a topology, a mapping of potential experience given the then, modern conditions. Among the first accounts of the poverty of experience, Agamben notes, is by Walter Benjamin, who, observed that soldiers returning from the First World War have “grown silent – not richer, but poorer in communicable experience.” Post World War I, a critical break in the genealogy of experience happens when the poverty of experience becomes quite ubiquitous as to become the day-to-day: A “destruction of experience,” Agamben writes, which “no longer necessitates a catastrophe” but one where “the humdrum daily life in any city will suffice.” Here is Victor Shklovsky cleaning and meandering about in Art as Technique:
I was cleaning and, meandering about, approached the divan and couldn’t remember whether or not I had dusted it. Since these movements are habitual and unconscious I could not remember and felt that it was impossible to remember – so that if I had dusted it and forgot – that is, had acted unconsciously, then it was the same as if I had not. If some conscious person had been watching, then the fact could be established. If, however, no one was looking, or looking on unconsciously, if the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been. And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.
We enter Jose Beduya’s Throng after a catastrophe; here is the first poem The Search Party quoted in full:
THE SEARCH PARTY
In the fields
We were boys
And girls finding debris
With nothing to report
A people very inside ourselves
We found each other
Through a system of ropes and smells
Our long, stumbling days
Began and ended
With ballad versions of the prayers
We were taught in different tongues
Flashes and rustling
From copying machines replaced
Our voices when they failed
The images we’ve tucked under rocks
Scattered with the wind
That moves all merchandise
Guarding against numbness
We started small fires
Everywhere we went
Only when we buried
Our hands in the hard soil
Of the valley
Did the throbbing surrounding
Hills become a part of us
Ironies around the poverty of experience are performed in The Search Party – the neat couplets, the calm prosody (a calmness that runs throughout Throng mostly through lines of under 10 syllables), the sparsely punctuated lines… what we find here and in the rest of Throng is a worlding, a lyric cycle with the tonal consistency of the day-to-day albeit punctuated with disasters. In The Search Party, even catastrophe has become routine – to the point that the heroic work post-catastrophe is left to inexperienced “boys/ and girls finding debris,” who show no indication of remorse even when there is “nothing to report.”
Apart from the tonal consistency, other specific tropes found in The Search Party recur throughout Throng, among them the divine characterized as un-redemptive, and often disfigured:
With ballad versions of the prayers
We were taught in different tongues
(from The Search Party)
With the helicoptering
(from Morrow [In the clearing)
Who lives alone
Will be surrounded by armless angels
And when she lies down
For a long time in the field
Attempting to decipher
The temperamental night sky
Sees the long swords
Of flashlights approaching
(from Morrow [In the clearing)
Such glimpses of the disfigured divine are legion in Throng, and throughout, what is certain only is that “God was,” that the “The sweet lord has many/ Moving parts said my sensors” – harrowingly beautiful lines which sum up in their brevity a divine, which unlike the divine of theological pedagogy, approachable only through experience and suffering (pathema), is in here instead disfigured, is merely knowledge, is information captured by sensors.
Another recurring trope is the copy:
Flashes and rustling
From copying machines replaced
Our voices when they failed
(from The Search Party)
We check against copies
And eat the pages
As we read them
We make ten copies of the morning
(from State of Emergency)
The copy has permeated Throng’s world so much that “We must mass-produce/Mirrors to stay what we are” which although is a desire for identity, is on the other hand a desire for a simulacral one, without real possibility. A thought, which offers no solace, in a world where already the divine is un-redemptive, and the copy is the quotidian.
But the potential for the miraculous appears in Throng through the plural “we.” In most of the poems, the “we” rather than the “I” is used. This offers a nuanced questioning of experience: In a world which is increasingly routine and disfigured, how is it possible to speak of a “we,” how is authentic shared, first person experience possible in a world shaped by accumulated knowledge? “Reality,” says Paul Celan “must be searched for and won,” and in Throng perhaps although “We found each other/ Through a system of ropes and smells,” (from The Search Party) at least we found each other, and although “We make ten copies of the morning” (from “State of Emergency”) we at least “watch and watch/for changes” (from “State of Emergency). Only in “we” is pathema again minimally possible:
THE END, THE END
Sundays we move sideways
Mondays we are blurred and folded
Into the eternal question
We cry out
And our crying out reveals us
To each other and ourselves
By the long hooks
Of our fears we are suspended
In an oxygenated sensitivity
That we later drag down
To our cubicles
Without fellow feeling we are
Motionless on a rooftop garden
By our sorrows we are lowered
Our household objects
And our loved ones glow
But we’ve reached
A threshold to our amazement
Minimally, as we reach a threshold to our amazement, and so Monday is a possibility for revealing us to each other and ourselves; a Monday, that in Walter Benjamin’s terms, is “shot through with chips of Messianic time,” the threshold both a limit and a door to our amazement.
Agamben locates the possibility of authentic experience in infancy, taking from literal infancy where one has not learned language (parole), but also conceptualizing a condition of infancy that comes before and continues as one is appropriating a language. Reading Claude Levi-Strauss, he locates this condition of infancy, this boundary condition between langue and parole, in myth. We can very well locate this boundary, this infancy, in the poem. Lisa Robertson articulates this through the beginner: “Poems are beginners. The urgent social abjection of the poem transforms that vernacular to a prosodic gift whose agency flourishes in the bodily time of an institutional and economic evasion. […] In poems and through vernaculars, citizens begin themselves, because only here speech still evades quantification, escapes the enumerating sign, and follows language towards its ear, towards natality[.]”
But even with the narrative arc that Throng seems to take through its fictive worlding, and despite the many similarities it has with our contemporary reality, it is obviously, and formally a poem, and hence a beginner, intimating ambiguity to make as Shklovsky would have, the stone stony, if only to make this stone the harrowing stone that it in its is-ness is; “Guarding against numbness” by starting “small fires” (from The Search Party). We read through these ambiguities: What redemption can we find from the shards of disfigured divine? What hope can we draw from such persistent “we” faced with the impossibility of personal and therefore also shared experience?
Then we come to the poem Morrow [In the clearing] and ask what is this “I” and why does s/he appear mostly in the Morrow poems?
In the clearing
In the fragrant heat
I ran my fingers
Through my beloved’s
For lice and daymares
But our bed of leaves disguised
A complex network of gears
A whole abysmal
I lost all
Feeling in later systems
The epoch a muscle
Was a year in June
Over the countryside
The great wheel
With the helicoptering
Our souls were scattered
Only half of us
The beloved appears only once in Throng, and s/he appears in the morrow. Throng begins after a catastrophe, and perhaps only after/through a worlding such as Throng is it possible to begin to experience.
Agamben, Giorgio. Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience. Trans. Liz Heron. New York, N.Y.: Verso Books, 1993.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York, N.Y.: Schocken Books, 2007.
Robertson, Lisa. Nilling.Toronto, ON: Book Thug, 2012.
Shklovsky, Viktor. “Art as Technique” Ed. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis. Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, Second Edition. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.
Lake Forest College Press (2012): $13.00
Raymond de Borja’s first book, they day daze, was published by High Chair. He is working on his second book tentatively titled Given.
by José Angel Araguz
By two we enter
the story, and leave the ark built
of catastrophes –
Via Biblical allusion, these lines from Rosa Alcalá’s poem “The Story to be Written” stress how reader and writer necessitate and need each other, meeting in the “ark” of the written work. Throughout the “telling/of catastrophes” found throughout the works of Rosa Alcalá, Craig Watson, and Elisabeth Whitehead, this collection of chapbooks shows itself to be engaging with the way literature manifests itself past the page.
Rosa Alcalá’s To the Archives begins the collection with its poem “Projection,” which finds the poet using varying fonts to quote from Ben Rubin’s media installation, “And That’s Just the Way It Is” (University of Texas-Austin, Cronkite Plaza) and Walter Cronkite’s news report of President Kennedy’s assassination.
This maneuvering and blurring of the world between text and story is continued in “Notes on Pasiphae.” Through a longer line, we move from myth to the computer screen, to the infamous act of coerced bestiality Pasiphae is famous for (which led to the birth of the minotaur), to a meditation on the way these acts are rendered through various paintings, ending on a final moment in which ideas of motherhood are juxtaposed against that fateful moment where parent and child meet:
…Here, they stared
at each other – mother, monster. A maze long before any built.
Mixing her own voice with that of Jacques Derrida, Alice Notley, Barbara Guest, Julia Kristeva, and Michel de Certeau, Alcalá then works out a meditation on ideas of voice in terms of language (spoken, unspoken, written) in the poem “Voice: An Essay.” Family stories and ghosts are mixed in with intellectual reckoning. Throughout these poems, one feels a reaching after that space between reading and understanding, where the self lives unknowingly, almost as a ghost.
Craig Watson’s Almost Invisible: Depositions from Neverland focuses on the way that “J. M. Barrie’s life and fantasies were so integrated, so seamless, that one continually became the substance of the other.” This blurring between what is written and what read, what made up and what made real through reading abounds through Watson’s poems.
The muddied relationship of the story of Peter Pan and the story of J.M. Barrie begins to be explored right off in the opening poem, in which the character of Mrs. Darling begins by asking:
All children, except one, never change. Does this make me the
only to end with:
All children, except one, kill their birth with a new story. So who is
the narrator now?
The narrative implications in these two statements is powerful. In the first, it is an adult voice that presents the logic of what defines a child, namely that they “never change;” that is, “except [for] one.” The change implied is that of adulthood, which would point to the speaker, Mrs. Darling. What is also implied is a relationship between narrative and change. This relationship is further complicated in the closing formulation of the opening statement and question. If a “new story” can “kill [the] birth” of a child, then one must wonder what possibilities are opened via the new narratives being created by Mrs. Darling’s meditation here via Watson’s project.
These ideas explored in the voice of a fictional character are counterpointed with the voice of a person in the poem “David Barrie,” which a note informs us is:
…J.M.’s brother, drowned while both boys were young. Their mother…grieved so deeply that there were times J.M. pretended to be David to garner attention.
This narrative charges the meaning of these lines presented in David’s voice:
In the paradise of self-interest
You can learn to be someone else.
Time’s up, lights out.
Anyway, sorry about that promise
It was dead when I found it.
Are they looking for you too?
The interplay of voices – J.M. via David, both via Watson – is revelatory in its implications. This poem, with its layers of narratives, seems to be asking: How much life is lived in the voices of others, via reading, or, in J.M.’s case, in the gestures of others?
Whereas Alcalá and Watson frame their projects with outside texts to take familiar narratives to unfamiliar places, Elisabeth Whitehead’s To the Solar North project starts with the unfamiliar and takes the reader further into unfamiliarity. Here is the first section of the opening sequence, “Pilgrim”:
she was collected toward the borderlines / with hanging pelts / a mover’s supply of the finest quality / fibers brand / cigarettes paper / post cards from the old city and internal / detail / how to construct a model- / animal or wood spine with field books occasioning / the frequency of prison- / ships sustenance / on vials of sugared water
What is unfamiliar here is the broken narrative presented through a line capable of phrasal and visual jolts. As the project goes on, this approach opens up to some startling lyrical moments, like the following from “At the Lodging House”:
3 silk purses 3 garnet rings / pulled aside for barter
and the soft grains make the stomach churn / elder and spiral a water- /
our first view of a city:
an appeal or merciful /
what will you bear of it /
in waiting of course /
gilded of this /
Elsewhere, the use of the slash mark produces a kind of break in narrative cohesion as well as setting up a kind of binary within the details and what’s said. Here, however, the slash marks are used as a kind of imaginative space, playing against the setup of “our first view of a city” and offering only half of the conceptual “view,” the other half necessarily left up to the reader’s imagination. As the project returns to its theme of travel again and again, the reader is presented with varying ways in which the “ark” of a poem can tread water.
Buy it from Instance Press (2014): $15
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. His collection, Everything We Think We Hear, is forthcoming from Floricanto Press. He runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.
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
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.
by Dong Li
In this spellbinding debut, Michael Keenan dips in the heart blood and paints a swift scroll of fleeting names. Lean and lovingly delicate, like the poet himself, these poems tend to have titles longer than a line, which slowly draw out their short echoing bodies. The line-ends may remind us of the one-eyed Robert Creeley, whose seemingly abrupt enjambment estranges the text as words break apart and breath stumbles. Often, the parting of words and breaking of breath happen in those secrete places or gap gardens whose deep songs no one else hears. As with Creeley, it is the “unseen birds in simple flight” that the poet sees: Lotte’s maple blossoms, Paula’s lime gardens, Anna in the hallway, Ballerina in the elm. The list goes on, indeed a “pine-forest-frenzy, coming/full-on-night.” Taking its toll, longing looms especially at night and brings those longed-for lovers unreachably close to the touch. This young troubadour sings us through the gap gardens of the evanescent longing and sets us on a drift over the tender folds of skin, over a tremble on the heartstring. The poem embodies. In the bodies. After deep songs, check, check, where are the places to go. Nowhere in the longing mind. Except night. Night in the dark dunes of night. Ladies are dark and only naming curls upon mouth corners. These understatedly romantic and hypnotically resonant acts of naming evoke endless scenes of the unrequited, the unreachable, and the forever-gone.
It is not the fantastically faraway lovers that we see through Michael’s eyes but the poet himself through the unexpected and unintended glances, like a car parked illegally “on Court Street in the middle of the day.” We are, thus, in, in his eyes: we are in the dirty-water days with Michael and his dark art. The motto, “To run the dark,” is certain and clear. To dance a deadly blue waltz, to seek radio towers from Paula’s window, to insert letters to Victoria between window and sill, to see a first friend, to watch a first lover forever in the fading waters, dark love does drive the goddamn ancient car. Frank Stanford in the night company, we are on a highway to black smoke, black rain, to the “lute in the glass wind.” Who leaps into crystal Mississippi again and again. Is the heart green again. Regardless, the night buoys, regardless, the moon wets. Our hearts break out, regardless. Longing, the dark art. Living is the night. As the poet and his poems move around the country on his waffle truck, “the Autumn is/listening” and we are listening to moments of waking in the cemetery of the mind as they translate into telepathic tendrils or tunes of New Orleans. These poems are intimate and thin like hair. Like a wisp of hair in a pool of whispering hairs, they smooth the skin of feelings and feelings in the skin. When Michael asks his friend Carlos, “is it time,” let us stand up and sing yes. It is Michael Keenan’s time. It is your time, Michael. Not too late to dream, not too late to be alive, let us run away with him and drive to the moon.
A-Minor Press: $12.95
by Jake Syersak
Ashagalomancy—this is one word you won’t find the Oxford English Dictionary, or any other dictionary, for that matter. But you don’t have to do a whole lot of internet sleuthing to find that the word ashagalomancy is closely related to astragalomancy—the high psychic art of divination cast from throwing die. Ashagalomancy, however, is divination drawn exclusively through animal bones.
The poems of Abraham Smith’s Ashagalomancy are just that—divinations. Divinations from a throw of animal bones?—kind of, in that each poem begins with a metaphoric tossing of bones: each poem begins with the phrase, “IN THE OLD DAYS” (that tried and true, age-old kindling for a good long story) followed, in the same line, by an apostrophe to some wild creature: an owl, a cicada, a vulture, a blackbird, etc. Once the bones are cast, and our clairvoyant’s motor revved, the reader rolls like a runaway freight truck down the most drawl-addled shag a shaggy dog story could compose itself of:
That Smith foregrounds the animal invocation (here, the sandhill cranes) is no coincidence. The creatures perch there, static, throwing from their idyllic bodies only indistinct shadows down to the earth, where they become the anthropomorphized haunts (or shag) of the speaker, a speaker who could only be likened to a sort of southern gothic Mad Hatter, one who domesticates those haunts with a series of home-cooked/half-baked creation myths. The new myths become Smith’s way of reviving the creature, dragging it—and all its symbolisms and connotations—from its “OLD DAYS” into the modern world.
This takes some meandering, and the readers of Abraham Smith’s Ashagalomancy need to feel at ease with that—why shouldn’t they? Divinations are rarely prized for their clarity, but for their interpretive deviations, the wiggleroom they allow their auditor. But that doesn’t mean the diviner takes a backseat to these poems; on the contrary, the diviner is very clearly rattling the bones:
These moments of pathos are refreshing, especially alongside Smith’s contorted language, and reveal that beauties and archetypes of “THE OLD DAYS,” while perhaps outdated, need not necessarily evoke degradation. Indeed, they are elements of our living environment—physical or cerebral—that have touched us and made us their product. At the same time, that environment is also the product of us. Smith does not ignore this dialogue:
While comparisons between a fly and a zipper, the natural and the man-made, may appear—initially—inconsequential, Smith reminds us: “it’s the incidentals are monumental.” If we can remember that the natural world and the man-made world are equally malleable via perception (or, mythmaking), it becomes possible to embrace responsibility for both.
Better, then, to embrace the dialogue between the natural and our made environments: a coyote’s yowling at the moon as “a chainsaw laughing backwards to strop my light to this curled world” or the cluck and tweet of chickadees reflecting “a yellow lower on / that bird say it with me / time is pee yellow is hello.” The language in Ashagalomancy simultaneously exalts and denigrates our archetypes and idylls, our “world…filled / with gorgeous excuses” by boiling them down to their colloquial refuse, their rhetorical after-burns, their smolderings, their slag:
It’s as if Ashagalomancy’s ethic is couched in the turning of phrases itself. At times, the poems read as though they are on the brink of falling victim to their own discursiveness, reaching near-exhaustion by their excessive trail blazing: “It seem all i can do is say the same old beautiful thing cheek kiss words.” Or, they are discouraged by the motor itself: “the only reason we think sometimes more deeply than bears / is flyswatters.” But because the shag of the dialogue never ends, there remain possibilities of revival.
This is where Smith’s conception of our relationship with nature, both as product and producer of, becomes important. If language allows us to disfigure the landscape, Smith reminds us that it allows us also to reconfigure and revitalize—thus, his justification for mythmaking. Of course, this mythmaking is a double-edged sword:
Just as myth can clarify, it can cloud. What Smith’s Ashagalomancy makes abundantly clear, however, is that behind every myth, there is an emphatically unique human agency that should not—and perhaps cannot—be forgotten.
Action Books (2015): $12.00
Jake Syersak has an MFA in Poetry from the University of Arizona and is currently pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia. His poems have most recently appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Yalobusha Review. He edits Cloud Rodeo.