Category: Safia Jama

REVIEW: Begging For It by Alex Dimitrov

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by Safia Jama

Alex Dimitrov’s debut poetry collection, Begging for It, explores some old-fashioned literary themes—romance, sex, heartbreak, beauty, and the American dream.

Dimitrov’s America shares a kinship with American film.  The speaker of “Heartland” opens the book with the sweet swagger of John Wayne: “In America, I stopped to listen for God” (1).  But God never really answers, or not in the way a boy expects, and America steps in to fill the silence.  A romance ensues, ending with the collection’s final poem, “I’m Always Thinking About You, America.”  Here the speaker’s tone has the casual, brazen timbres of a breakup line in the Internet age: “Zero apologies today but of course, there were things we did and didn’t do” (26).

One of the delights of this debut lies in that poetical device known informally as The Great Line.  Here are some of my personal favorites.

From “Blue Curtains”: “And all I remember is how expensive it was. / Not the room, but the feeling” (15-16).

From “The Fates”: “If this was a painting and not a dream, / I’d study the surface a long time, / and wonder where the light comes from” (7-9).

From “You Are a Natural Wonder”: “Suppose I never make it to San Francisco / or stop trying to describe the light in Paris // in those brief violet hours between three and five / when we are permitted happiness” (1-4).

As the title promises, Begging for It is full of longing, and poetry is the only true antidote.  The speaker of “After Love” addresses a lover: “In the first poem I wrote after you left, I killed you” (1).  That poem was the revenge, this one the memento by which to remember (and keep) the love alive: “But this is the poem I kept—/ it’s years ago and we’re in bed” (5-6).  Time is a tool for the poet to bend and manipulate into reverie.

The encounters here are mainly between men and boys, boys being cast as the new girls.  The speaker even flirts with the reader on occasion, inviting his audience to participate.  In “I’m Lonely and I Love it,” the speaker examines the line in another way:

I’m in Paris,
sorry I can’t talk right now.
That’s a great lie, a great line.
When really, here I am boys!
On my bed and in my underwear
doing absolutely nothing.
Playing with my hair,
playing sad ridiculous pop songs. (7-14)

The poem’s title, apostrophe, and subject play like a sad, funny show tune.

Old-fashioned reverie, artifice, and careful attention to whimsy—it’s all here, and somehow it works.  Dimitrov breaks the rules, even writing a light verse love poem to James Franco: “James Franco, James Franco, I love you” (13). Seen in another way, the poem riffs on the Pandora’s box of persona and desire in a celebrity-driven culture.

Dimitrov’s America seems, at first, suspiciously uncomplicated—is this poetry celebrating assimilation?  All things American?  There is doubtless an obsession with youth, capitalism, pop culture—all from the vantage point of queer communities.  Yet the minimalist sketches of Dimitrov’s autobiographical narrative as the child of first generation immigrants grant him poetic license to fall in love with his curated America—i.e., New York.  One thinks of Jay Gatsby, although Dimitrov’s speakers also identify with Daisy, doomed to bad treatment and great looks: “It is early in the century and all the men are late” (“Self-Portrait as Daisy in the Great Gatsby,” 10).  Dimitrov’s flirtation with the American dream is a throwback to an old romance with America as something new and green.

The collection reads with the ebb and flow of a good party.  And you know what? A good party has a hallowed place in literature.  This one is haunted by the spirits of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Oscar Wilde, as well as late arrivals Brigitte Bardot, James Dean, and, yes, even James Franco.

Begging for It is available from Four Way Books.

Safia Jama was born and raised in Queens, NY. A graduate of Harvard College, she currently teaches writing and pursues an M.F.A. in poetry at Rutgers-Newark. Her poems appear in Reverie, The New Sound, and the forthcoming Cave Canem 2010-2011 Anthology. She is currently a guest-blogger for Bryant Park’s Word for Word poetry series.

 

 

A Hotel in Beligum by Brett Fletcher Lauer

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The title of Brett Fletcher Lauer’s debut collection—A Hotel in Belgium—embodies the aesthetics of the poems, a shimmering alloy of detail and abstraction.

The book opens with a frontispiece titled “Poem.” The speaker sets up some rules of engagement for what is to follow:

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A poem is a “room made/ of chance.” Indeed, the collection is very much concerned with the idea of “chance”—both in terms of the arbitrary nature of life and in terms of the predetermined nature of privilege.

In a poem titled “Stockholm Syndrome,” the shape-shifting speaker is hard to pin down, switching pronouns, and distancing himself from himself with each new line:

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Such a voice seems risky, even problematic, as poets don’t get the carte blanche of fiction writers, no matter how many times we repeat that the poet is not the speaker. Yet that moral ambiguity is also what makes the poem so startling, and the title “Stockholm Syndrome” has you forewarned.

“Work Product” also enters dissolute territory. The poem opens with the speaker “breathing heavy / into one end of the receiver”:

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The “stranger” in the poem may either enjoy, or feel disturbed by, the voice “breathing heavy” on the other line. “Work Product” winks at gender by referring to the “stranger” as a gender-inclusive “he or she.” Beauty and surprise and intrusion all seem to blur into one another in “Work Product.” The suggestion of a telephone “receiver” here feels like a throwback, and that is one of the poem’s insights. I thought of Ariana Reines’s experimental play Telephone. Lauer similarly explores how technology can wreak havoc upon both consciousness and communication.

How does one write poetry when images are losing their meaning to memes? We can’t stop. We feel compelled to watch, and re-watch, say, a video clip of “a rabbit befriending a red fox / somewhere in Montana or Europe.” That’s from Lauer’s poem titled “The Collected Poems,” which continues:

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I appreciate the humor here, and the new normal of hating the constant smart phone notifications, while also craving them like candy. There’s a merciless wit here, a wit the speaker also turns upon himself.

A Hotel in Belgium evokes Holden Caulfield’s yearning for refuge and recovery from shadowy traumas. The last stanza of the titular poem, “A Hotel in Belgium,” contains some of the book’s most luminous lines:

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This moment emits a glow and feels like a break-thorough. “I must be a little horse” is a lovely line, humble and aching, all the more moving in contrast to the other, sharper voices.

In “Model Community,” the speaker turns his critical eye to a suburban utopia: “Filled with wonder and California weather, the historic/ architecture indicates streets worth walking.” Yet again, the speaker doesn’t spare himself, making the following admission:

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He’s stuck in a languor from which he cannot rise. And that last image, “cloudless days our imagination required,” conjures up the traumas of 9/11 in a way that meshes with the remove explored in many of the poems. It’s a self-saving detachment that seems to define our time.

As Timothy Donnelly helpfully suggests, Lauer’s various speakers may be read as “one single melancholic hero.”  Like the best kind of heroes, they have their foibles, which makes them all the more human.

A Hotel in Belgium is available from Four Way Books

Safia Jama was born and raised in Queens, NY. A graduate of Harvard College, she currently teaches writing and pursues an M.F.A. in poetry at Rutgers-Newark. Her poems appear in Reverie, The New Sound, and the forthcoming Cave Canem 2010-2011 Anthology. She is currently a guest-blogger for Bryant Park’s Word for Word poetry series.

MOTHERs by Rachel Zucker

zucker-240x300The poet Rachel Zucker begins her memoir, MOTHERs, with a story she once told her mother as a child, and which her mother wrote down: “Once upon a time there was a girl and she sat down on a pebble to think about her mommy because she had gone a long way away” (1).  The quotation gets to the heart of the book.

About her mother, Zucker writes: “I remember so little but can recall in rich detail the way the outside of the door of her study felt beneath my small palm as I stood, listening, trying to decide whether to knock or whether to risk her wrath by interrupting her” (122).

Zucker’s mother, the author and storyteller, Diane Wolkstein, was known around New York. She would spend hours practicing the stories she would tell each week on the radio and to scores of children in Central Park. Yet Zucker expresses ambivalence about stories: “The story of ‘what happened’ is always a lie” (18).

Chapters and paragraphs in MOTHERs are long and short, ragged and gleaming.  It’s a conceptual piece, and filled with ellipses. Her memories are few and far between, so Zucker clings to the particulars of place:

Until the divorce my parents and I lived in the bottom two floors of a two-story brownstone in Greenwich Village. The brownstone was at the end of a short alley called Patchin Place, which had a gate left open to pedestrians but locked, except for special occasions, to cars. Each facing row of attached brownstones shared a backyard. e.e. cummings lived in number 4 before I was born. Djuna Barnes lived in number 5, and when she died I saw two men carry her body away in a black body bag. (122)

Zucker’s portrait of Greenwich Village is both romantic and macabre, with the ghosts of great writers floating through her back garden.

On matters of the present, Zucker turns inward. For the poet or artist or writer obsessed with process—and let’s face it, most of us are—this is a book worth carrying around because Zucker peels back the page to show us the realities of being a woman and a poet and a mother. She names (almost) everyone as she writes candidly about mentors and teachers and friends. Jorie Graham cancels appointments at Iowa. David Trinidad talks about clothes. Zucker admits to feeling occasionally ridiculous at readings. She risks telling the trivia to capture the truth.

Vast expanses of blank pages separate each chapter. I used some of the space to write. Other times, I skipped to middle chapters, going back to re-read later. In the book’s final chapters the narrative voice snaps into new clarity as Zucker grapples with some of the most difficult moments of her life, not to mention the possibility that she is not so different from her mother: “The sound of her typewriter. The ticking of my computer keys” (111).

MOTHERs is a courageous and risky book, both in terms of form and content. Zucker provides new language to investigate the challenges a woman artist must face down: the starts, the disappointments, and ultimately, the labors she must complete, with and without the support of her many mothers.

MOTHERs is available from Counterpath Press

Safia Jama was born and raised in Queens, NY. A graduate of Harvard College, she currently teaches writing and pursues an M.F.A. in poetry at Rutgers-Newark. Her poems appear in Reverie, The New Sound, and the forthcoming Cave Canem 2010-2011 Anthology. She is currently a guest-blogger for Bryant Park’s Word for Word poetry series.

Kamilah Aisha Moon’s She Has a Name

She-Has-A-Name-Cover-200x300In her debut poetry collection, She Has a Name, Kamilah Aisha Moon satisfies a deep need to speak about her family’s experiences after her youngest sister was diagnosed with autism.  Moon’s collage of loss, grief, and gratitude reveals a family that is undeniably close and poems that feel absolutely necessary. 

Some of the most poignant poems here speak in the voice of the father, whose pain struggles to find expression within the confines of traditional masculinity.  Titled “(Father),” it opens with this double-admission as he recalls holding his youngest of three daughters: “The last thing / I ever wanted was to let her / down.”  His next observation is a gradual, devastating realization:

She didn’t wriggle

like my older girls did,

restless for ground.  No, Lord, no.

Please.  Not my baby girl, not the one

named after Mama, gone. (11)

The poem makes room for the father’s grief.  An empty nest is one kind of sadness, but this fledgling cannot fly away.  

No one has it easy.  In the case of a family member in need of extra care, moral questions abound.  The older and middle sister must work to individuate and, yes, leave home as most children do.  Yet as the speaker of “(Middle Sister)” reveals, one sister’s autism diagnosis has ramifications for the other siblings: “We know ‘watch your sister’ means forever” (41). The line packs so much meaning into so little space, revealing the power of family vernacular.

There is room for joy here, too.  Moon takes mini-breaks from the collection’s official theme in order to honor and reflect upon other facets of experience—early childhood, coming of age, falling in love.  In “Me and My Friends Circa 1981,” we enjoy a whimsical memory: “At least half of us walked around/ wearing constant Kool-Aid mustaches / and fresh knee scabs” (16).  The self-deprecating humor gives way to a celebration of childhood play while hinting at hurts to come.  

Yet even in these poems of departure, away from the troubles of home, there is that needling theme again: what could have been.  As Moon’s speaker admits: “Each visit home frays me, / the price I pay for being able to drive away.” (53)  Survivor’s guilt is real.  Profound truths like these abound in She Has a Name—even the title edges in a lesson, correcting acquaintances that neglect to ask a certain sister’s name.  Moon’s poetry reveals the work of years—both on and off the page—though the truth in her poems may appear effortless to the untrained eye.  

In “Watching a Woman on the M101 Express.”  Moon’s speaker observes a distraught passenger: 

I can’t stop looking. You can’t get over

whatever has happened, so shell-shocked

that birds could land and roost.  I want to ask—

 

just so you know someone

is paying attention, but not enough

to know what ravages.  It’s rude

 

to stare.  I’m from the South, a suburb

where Grief pulls the shades first,

stays home if indecent… (53-54)

 The poetic muse has no doubt visited this “Express” bus: the poet sees suffering, feels it in her bones, and must write.  Thus, a new vantage point opens up: the younger sister’s autism runs parallel to the poet’s own Negative Capability, to borrow Keats’s oft-quoted term.  And autism does not stop the younger sister from performing a transcendent African dance, painting a “Possible Self-Portrait,” and speaking her own truths.  From suffering falls wisdom, drop by drop.  Personified Grief must find her way out, somehow, and this New York poem feels the tug of Southern roots.

Moon follows in the tradition of Lucille Clifton, both in terms of vision and style. In the collection’s final poem, “A Superwoman Chooses Another Way to Fly,” the kid sister—no longer a kid—breaks away from the margins of italics to voice a full-bodied persona poem that transcends Autism.  Here the speaker wakes, as usual, covered in sweat from nightly torments.  Despair beckons.  The poem is written in lower case, a tribute to the Goddess Clifton, whom I imagine as the angel that inspires another way to be free:

it’s always a choice, the angel spoke-sang,

to be stronger than what pulls

us down.  let these night sweats  

rain a salty hope, despite waking up

full of old water with the flaked mouth

of a sharecropper at dusk. (72-73)  

Here the poem—and indeed, the collection— breaks open and outward, and back in time.  We are in the presence of a Southern, black poet.  And a deep spirituality.  Electric currents of race, gender, and identity politics run throughout the collection—if you know enough to look, you’ll notice lines like “Autism, the one-drop rule for minds” in the opening poem, “Borderless Country.” 

Let’s set all that aside for a moment, as we have been invited to a healing revival.  Moon’s book bestows a parting gift, an argument for how to live after loss: “Why stay thirsty when / many draw from my well? / Why settle for shacks when I own / a sprawling, rambling heart?” (73).  Pity is rejected in favor of self-affirming love.

Moon’s is a very personal project.  In the Author’s Note, she calls her work “a ‘biomythography’ in poems,” citing Audre Lorde’s term, “based on a larger family narrative.”  Moon adds: “I can only speak for and as myself definitely.” 

Wise readers will turn the page and greet this important literary debut by Kamilah Aisha Moon.  

Buy it from Four Way Books: $16

Safia Jama is an MFA Candidate at Rutgers-Newark