by Tim Etzkorn
It is rare to find a writer that seems so confident in the meaning of their poems and so unconcerned with their poems’ ability to make meaning. And it is rare to read something that immediately feels as if it will be as important one-hundred years from now as it is today. For me, Richard Moore’s Particulars of Place achieves all of the above. Whether he is contemplating present and historic violence or providing meditations on personal tragedy, Moore’s voice is vital, and as he moves between these subjects, a detail comes to the forefront that holds Moore’s writing together: the ability of words to heal and destroy and the capacity of language to process matters social and personal. For Moore, or Particulars of Place‘s speaker at least, it seems like there is nothing more important for survival as a self or as a species as listening to words from the past and engaging in relationship with words in the present. In the text’s opening, the speaker whispers to us the tragedy of repeated violence:
as their own.
History, a carrion discourse of accident
and ignorance […]
History as disambiguation
replication virus of memory
that eats, phage, yes
eats what there is to know.
In footnotes only a library of cruelty
in whispers barely speakable acts
that disabuse the householder from the human house
the human from a shared and animal home.
Moore’s opening lines create an image of a snake eating itself – “Delusional histories / […] claim us / as their own.” Our past claims us and drags us into another iteration of it, and we continue to eat ourselves until we meet self-destruction. Ignorance of this invites history’s “carrion discourse” — a conversation of rot repellant to all, which we unconsciously manifest and pass on like a virus, like a trojan horse that spreads from individual to individual and only gets marked in the quiet footnotes that no one reads.
Using Moore as a lens to examine modern conflict, we can see that discourse serves as a catalyst for violence more than ever before. Now, no wars exist without philosophical justification, and no matter matter how much information sits at our fingertips, we replicate abuses of the past. Moore points out how our unawareness of history – i.e. our ignorance of word spoken and stories told becomes a weapon as we remain ignorant of language’s power.
As Particulars advances, the speaker continues to parse out his perspective on words and their manifest significance. Their power goes beyond providing lessons on our past and thus salvaging our present. They literally have the ability to make our past, present, and future. In “A Family Affair,” the speaker claims,
In a manner of speaking
A life is what is said of it
not star light but the story of
sun-centered stars or so we say
the authenticating angels have been
paid off cannot blow a whistle
are silent as stone angels must be.
In ceremony at the solstice
lay out the ornaments of the years
and say, “This is a world.”
Moore frames the poem with a contingency: “In a manner of speaking.” He is simply attempting to say something, to put things a certain way. Everything that is to come is not fact; it is not inherent truth; it’s an attempt to make sense out of something by way of words. The speaker elucidates, saying, that life is the story we tell: “A life is what is said of it.” It is “not star light,” not something heavenly ordained. It is our story, or rather, the story we tell to make sense of all that happens. Life is the tale of “sun-centered stars.” We make ourselves the stars, the center of the narrative, rather than focusing on the celestial bodies around which we revolve. He teases this out further, going so far as to say that the heavens don’t have a voice. He claims, “authenticating angels […] cannot blow a whistle.” They can’t pass on the truth, revealing how things really are, because they are necessarily silent. Angels are merely stone sculptures outside of Gothic cathedrals made by us to explain the inexplicable. As the speaker remarks, this world is only one of words.
Carrying on Particular’s theme, Moore shows how important language is to meaning by paralleling the poem’s structural disintegration with the speaker’s meditation on his fading acuity. Moore introduces a refrain that falls apart as the poem advances:
Velcro mind stay with me on this trip
Velcro mind stay with me
Move grandly into the gathering of words
and measurements — a reach — hand span —
light speed — pressures that life mountains break seas
from the grand uproar of the first event
in a nondectectable nil of time.
The speaker draws attention to the ability of words to serve as “measurements,” whether that means describing the span of a hand in inches or the infinite space between galaxies in light years. Words operate as a force to not only explain mountains and seas but to also lift them up and break them in fictions so vivid they seem real. The speaker points out that words are the operative force in explaining matters as huge as the origination of time. The speaker simultaneously addresses his own fading mind; his ability to use words falters and the “Velcro mind” that has carried him through his life fades to just “Velcro.”
It is as if that “carrion discourse,” that “replication virus of memory / that eats, phage, yes / eats what there is to know” doesn’t just afflict history; it comes after all of us. The speaker discourses on aging, his fading eyesight, and on his loss of acumen. Perhaps history must necessarily rot away because that is how the human mind works. We get to a point where, on an individual level, words fade into delusion and reality follows suit. In “Access Denied,” the speaker states:
Print accompanies the best of days,
There is no equal to what a page displays
Of fact and fancy, scattered left and right,
Not as a picture of what’s present there
But as a means of making sense of it,
Now access to that world has been denied
The speaker repeats his theme regarding the value of words. They help make sense out of experience, whether it’s through auditory processing or by reading another’s experience. As the speaker loses his vision, he can’t access one of his greatest pleasures – writing and reading. If we apply his personal tragedy to the larger social set up, we better understand Particulars of Place’s emphasis on “delusional histories:” there is no way of making sense of the world without words. Moore’s Particulars of Place beautifully portrays an aging speaker’s relationship with words as well as the world. This is something we will all experience in time. Though, more simply and perhaps more importantly, the text eulogizes words and draws attention to the everlasting value of paying attention to them. We need words to understand our past; we need words to understand ourselves; and without words, we cannot comprehend anything we see.
Tim Etzkorn recently taught EFL in South Korea and presently teaches composition and literature at the University of Wyoming.
By Tim Etzkorn
Jennifer Kwon Dobbs’ chapbook, “Notes from a Missing Person,” reflects on Dobbs’ search for her South Korean birth mother. The story resonated in a special way for me. Presently, I live in South Korea, and her images of hunching Halmeonies, or grandmothers, scowling ajummas, or middle-aged women, her notes written in 한굴, or Korean, her scenes of barbecue grills filled with burning meat and blackened garlic, and her implications of exclusion made for a text that modeled my reality. At the core though, this chapbook is about far more than Korea and far more than Dobbs’ experience searching for her birth mother. “Notes from a Missing Person” is a text of exploration and confrontation; it takes on the pain that accompanies a turbid past. Even for those of us who don’t have a background as fraught as Dobbs’, the chap still plunges into our hearts and provides a moving exposé of how we write fiction to understand that which we do not know, how our bodies contain our history, and how we seek knowledge as a form of healing.
“Notes from a Missing Person” recounts Dobbs’ search for her Korean birth mother across political, geographic, and cultural borders, but the text seeks therapy as much as it looks for answers. Dobbs initially at least pursues healing by way of imagination; she creates stories to explain her heritage. Naturally, these tales fall short and Dobbs must turn to her body as a familial palimpsest and her homeland as a cultural tome to unearth her past.
Outwardly, “Notes from a Missing Person” falls into two camps: one of storytelling and one of healing. Dobbs makes this apparent early. She announces her wish to “[T]alk back to that void,” as if she were setting out on an oral tale exploring unfathomable myth. Dobbs then bands this mystery together with a sense of the corporeal, saying “[T]hese notes seek to suture space and shift perspective.” Like a good poet, Dobbs chooses her words with great intention. She wishes to put incomplete information together with missing parts, but she also seeks to suture space, hemming air and emptiness back together; getting at the bodily, suture denotes the medical – stitching and sewing parts of the body to make them whole again. Dobbs isn’t simply working to understand her past; she yearns to complete her self, to rectify rifts left open by a lifetime of not knowing about her history.
Rapidly, we become aware that paper can only take Dobbs so far. Artists and therapists may know that expressive therapy has marked and cathartic results, but Dobbs intensely wants physical contact with her real life mother. Only this can fill in the gaps that her imagination has failed to patch. She realizes, “I can’t write my way to Mother. She is not this page.” Dobbs strives to suture with her pen, but a stitch made of fiction will not hold up. She needs something tangible, something fleshly to penetrate. Dobb’s discovers that her notes promulgate the problem:
Each word I write distances Omma further just as I try to bring her closer
[…] My mother is missing. I am missing […] In her image, I want to touch
myself as no one can touch me to find her, as no one can touch me—gently
and with the hunger of a child search and writing her mother’s body from
what she knows of her own.
Dobbs’ words make her aware of the emptiness that stems from knowing nothing about her mother. Fictionalizing what may be true about her past only reveals the huge gap between what she does not know and what may be real.
As long as her mother is missing, Dobbs feels that her past is missing. If her past is missing, she cannot fully understand her present and thus she is not fully there: “What is this reality that is always a phantom […] It’s a fiction that haunts where the body should’ve been, a story that strikes out for a body with memory’s force.” As Dobbs owns her lack of knowledge about herself she becomes increasingly obsessed with the physical. She knows flesh will provide a degree of knowing that stories and notes cannot.
Turning to her body, and eventually the country of her birth, helps Dobbs with her search, though she continues to confront issues of identity. She faces a double-bind of outsider status. In the U.S., Dobbs is a minority and feels the tension of being a racial outsider. In Korea, Dobbs is a cultural outsider. She is what is called a giyopo, a non-Korean Korean. She is neither fluent in the language nor the customs. Visiting the adoption agency that sent her to the U.S., western adoptee parents-to-be see her and assume she is Korean: “In the agency’s kitchen, I wash breakfast plates in the sink. A middle-aged couple enters and says to each other, ‘she must be one of the birth mothers. Look at how young she is,’” Their assumption of her goes no further than her skin. Later, joining with adoptee friends and a beef barbecue restaurant, she fails the restaurant staff at being the Korean that she racially is:
Yet I’m remembering the sweet smoke of a Hongdae restaurant, adoptee
friends shouting “Geonbae!” and shooting soju, bulgogi spread like a
blackening skirt because no one’s paying attention, the scowling ajumma
running over with scissors and tongs. Hungry, I watch her balance, cut and
arrange the strips, as if her hands know the weight of the meat, the intensity
of the fire; or she’s annoyed that we’re drunk and burning our food because
we don’t know what to do. We’re trying.
“Because we don’t know what to do.” Dobbs’ line ripples like a boulder dropped in a duck pond. She and her friends can’t know what to do because they are Korean by birth only. Much like the adoptee parents-to-be, the ajumma’s judgment goes as far as her skin. She looks Korean, so she should act Korean. The balancing, cutting, and placing of the meat should be as natural to her as it is to the scowling middle-aged woman, and when it’s not, she is deemed an outsider.
Nonetheless, Dobbs discovers that in searching her body and her homeland, she finds healing that paper will not reveal. That’s not to say her imaginative exploration has been for naught; her writing moved her journey forward, maybe even made it possible, and she has sutured some of her space. She can offer up her notes as a result:
You can weigh [the work’s] awkward heft in your hands, cut it with
scissors, drop the painted strips into a steel bucket and strike a match. Lean
toward the flames—paper hissing as it curls, blackens and ashes—to see the
words return to their source.
Much like the ajumma cutting and weighing beef, Dobbs cuts and weighs her work. The meat fed her body; her writing fed her search, but now, its purpose has been served; she can sacrifice it. She concludes by turning the text onto the readers. She invites us to lean in, to cut up our own fictions and burn them so as to seek answers in our body as well as in our pens.
Tim Etzkorn completed his Master’s in English Literature from the University of Wyoming. He has taught composition, literature, and ESL/EFL. At present he teaches EFL in South Korea.
by Tim Etzkorn
One of the finest wedding stories I’ve heard is a tale of missed connections made. A man and a woman sat across from each other on Denver’s Light Rail. Both parties were struck by each other, but each of them neglected an interaction. The woman remained absorbed in her copy of Albert Camus’ The Stranger; the man, weary from his work day, gave in to timidity and said nothing. That night, the man made a post on Craigslist’s “Missed Connections” titled, “To the girl reading Camus.”
This bride and groom got together but only after missing each other and existing in a space of wondering what could have been. There is, in my opinion, something natively poetic about missed connections: a line misspoken or an opportunity missed to achieve something deeper enters a space of communicative slippage. With the actual connection absent, one accesses a space where memories and imagination holds court. One forgets moments of friction in favor of occasions of synergy; the lack that absence brings overshadows the shortcomings that presence brought.
Poetry often relies on communicative slippage to make or to challenge meaning. Poetic work employs missed connections in syntax, grammar, or meter to create or defy signifiers: lines miss each other, carry over, break apart, run on, or stop unexpectedly; words are elided, forgotten, and deleted; meter skips a beat here or adds a beat there. Similarly, a missed connection in real life allows us to forget, misremember, or rewrite a detail here or there to create a tale that is more to our liking, and almost inevitably, sights, sounds, smells, touches, and tastes are all altered to create something more evocative and more synthetically powerful.
This appears to be the realm in which Travis Cebula and Sarah Suzor’s After the Fox exists — one of missed connections. Specifically, it is a lost opportunity between the voices of Morning and Nocturnal, two figures who necessarily must pass by each other eternally. In the context of After the Fox, the two have had some secret nighttime tryst, arguably aided by the bright night lights of modernity. The authors manage to reproduce and manipulate the discordant yet alluring nature of a missed connection in their epistolary poems that volley back and forth as Morning and Nocturnal constantly review memories and discuss what could be in the future – though palpably won’t come to pass.
The voices perpetually reflect on their relationship while failing to connect again. Hailing poem to poem, the two voices re-hash the past, articulate their dissatisfaction with the present, and allude to the impossibility of the future. Section one, “Atlantic,” situates the disintegrated relationship in the space of New York City. Morning and Nocturnal write back and forth with messages that are simultaneously provocative – particularly Morning – and evocative – particularly Nocturnal. Nocturnal reflects in a fashion that conflates a desire to return to their lost opportunity with a longing to forget about it:
I wish for that time I forgot to dread you.
[…] I wish I could pour
all that distilled amber onto autumn’s
grass, drop a match,
and burn a patch of the world back
again. A black circle inversed
to then. (23)
The utterance begins oblique: “I wish for that time I forgot / to dread you.” At that time Nocturnal enjoyed, embraced Morning’s presence; now the relationship is ruined, but despite this, the two voices can’t help but reminisce. Perhaps this is because these two can only have each other. They are bound together. Morning and Nocturnal must revolve around each other but constantly pass each other for all eternity.
Pages later, Morning replies:
And still you wonder,
what more did we need?
I’ll make you a list
while you sit there, writing down your wishes,
waiting for magic to burn a patch of the world back.
No, that was a good one. (25)
Morning challenges Nocturnal. It eliminates the “we” in favor of an “I,” claiming it had a list’s worth of wants in the relationship. Both voices murmur lines that mingles nostalgia and desire with deletion. Nocturnal states that it wants to “drop a match, / and burn a patch of the world back / again. A black circle inversed / to then.” Is Nocturnal looking to get rid of their past experience, to remove memories to darkness, or is it looking to return a circle of life, of memory to then? It is intentionally ambiguous, and Nocturnal likely desires both. Morning responds by mocking Nocturnal’s line: “I’ll make you a list / while you sit there, writing down your wishes, / waiting for magic to burn a patch of the world back.” Morning implies the ludicrous nature of this wish, but then concedes: “No, that was a good one.” Morning’s claim is vague. Readers do not know whether Morning is referring to the line or to the sentiment, and most likely, Morning is trying to mask it’s nostalgia for the opportunity that the two had.
Morning and Nocturnal’s connection is quite complicated though. They are stuck together, always passing each other, just barely. Cebula and Suzor’s Morning and Nocturnal seem to know this too, to know that they can’t properly have each other, yet they are bound to each other. The two voices close the work in a quip to quip interaction. Nocturnal says, “In other words, I figure I will keep on / going. In other words, so will you.” Morning concludes the work, two statements later:
I will always be all the same.
I know. I’ve seen the fox at dawn.
There, chasing its tail. I know.
There’s a chance to stop,
and there’s a chance to keep going. (100)
Perhaps chance isn’t the right word here. But then again, that feels deliberate. The two want to have chances; they want to have choices. In reality though, there’s no occasion to stop, only to keep going. The two press on. As long as the earth turns, Morning and Nocturnal will pursue each other. They will always want what they can’t have: natural togetherness. And they will always longingly remember their scarce connection: dawn, dusk, and the strange happenings allowed by the ever burning night lights of cities.
After The Fox is available from Black Lawrence Press.
Tim Etzkorn lives in Yangyang, a small fishing town in South Korea where he writes and teaches English.
(This is part of a series of reviews on titles from Belladonna*’s chaplet series, many of which are now available as free PDFs)
by Tim Etzkorn
Bhanu Kapil’s “From The Wolf Girls of Midnapure” opens with disorientation: transliterated Bengali, shots of whiskey taken right from the subject’s palm, and fragmented prose characterized by broken, incomplete, sentences. As is the case with much of Kapil’s work, “From the Wolf Girls of Midnapure” serves as a psychological exploration of a traumatized subject as much as it does a story; the prose becomes a mimetic vehicle for the subject’s consciousness as much it is a drive train to carry readers through the text. In the case of this text, the subject is a historical avatar, Kamala, a reportedly feral child rescued by reverend Joseph Singh – renamed here “the Reverend Mother” (2) in 1920’s Bengal. Kapil shapes the textual fragmentation to match that of a developed mind being forcefully integrated into civilized living; the text re-shapes itself as the story moves along, as the wolf girls of Midnapure move away from their “feral” upbringing and transition into the human fold. Though, as the prose grows into a more coherent story, readers are forced to ask how differently do we treat humans and animals when we consider a person to be more animal than human?
The text initially engenders feelings of appreciation by the humane actions of Reverend Mother. She brings Kamala food and language. She brings Kamala humanity, purging her canine side. But the humanity she brings is tainted by gross debasement. An English bishop and his wife come to visit. Yet they do not call on the Reverend Mother to help or even to commend her for her generosity to Kamala; they appear “to watch: her eat” (3). The Reverend Mother provides “Raw mangoes” and “curd,” refined foods for Kamala. Kamala comes to these foods with “animal behaviors” (3), and this appears to be the real draw for the Bishop Wassingham and his wife. Kamala’s meal is not about what but about how she eats it. For the bishop and his wife, the Reverend Mother’s project is not about goodness but about what Kamala, looks and acts like.
As if at a circus, Wassingham and his wife dish out money in response to the spectacle. At the end of the meal, “the Bishop Mrs.” places a shilling in Kamala’s hand saying, “There you are, my pet” (3), a saying that is believably anachronistic, but a very intentional word choice on Kapil’s part, drawing attention to the continued dehumanization from which Kamala suffered. Sadly, the Reverend Mother seems to hold Kamala in a similar regard. Though her objectification of Kamala is more covert, readers can see it in her communication with Kamala. Kapil heavily punctuates the Reverend Mother’s commands to Kamala, breaking them down into the simplest commands and the shortest imperatives annunciated by exclamation points and sentence fragments. The syntax parallels the text’s opening, but here, the composition does not reveal a disjointed psyche undergoing a late introduction to language and civilization. Rather, it shows the Reverend Mother’s callous treatment of her human ward. Still catering to Wassingham and the Bishop Mrs., the Reverend Mother shouts, “Some tea, perhaps. Or salts. Darling, your hanky. My water! Kamala! Can you hear me?” The language becomes more desperate as the line moves forward. The Reverend Mother begins with a simple request – tea. Then she needs salts, an unconnected want, indicating that she might simply desire some service from Kamala. She then directs Kamala to her hanky, another implication that she needs to meticulously pay attention to her appearance as if she is letting her animal side show. The Reverend mother next exclaims “My water!” revealing that she is not just calling on Kamala to help out with two guests, instead, Kamala is more house servant than child. In such a fashion, Kapil draws attention to the more obscured inhumanity of the Reverend Mother due to how she treats the “wolf girl” of Midnapure whom she adopted, thereby giving some of Kamala’s humanity back to her.
Kapil continues to draw attention to humanity’s inhumane behavior as she winds the disorienting text into mystical journey. Narrating from what seems to be Kamala’s perspective, Kapil brings us through jungle and temple past an apparent tribal or indigenous ceremony. Kamala states,
Kamala witnesses unnamed persons dancing with skirts and sashes made of baby wolf skulls – not even baby wolf skulls, the skulls of unborn wolves, ripped from their pregnant mothers. The unidentified actors who tear the skulls out “reason” that the wolves are just fat, acting as if they could not tell that the wolves were pregnant. Kapil draws a quiet analog between these mysterious jungle dwellers, grotesquely withdrawing unborn wolf-pups for the sake of a dance ceremony and the Reverend Mother. After watching the Reverend Mother’s behavior towards Kamala, it seems as if her deed saving Kamala was more akin to ripping her out of her Mother’s womb for own decoration than it was to a saving, adoptive act.
In “From The Wolf Girls of Midnapure,” Kapil creates a text where the syntax matches the subject, the psychological exploration of traumatized individual. Yet in doing so, Kapil brings up even bigger questions. Rather than limiting this text to the treatment of Kamala, she forces reader to question how they treat subjects deemed lesser – whether it is as animals, or even racially and culturally. In the end, Kapil’s text establishes a sense that our inhumane treatment of others reveals us to be more animal than human, not the other way around.
“From The Wolf Girls of Midnapure” is available as a free PDF download from Belladonna*
Tim Etzkorn lives in Yangyang, a small fishing town in South Korea where he teaches elementary English.
Amanda Nadelberg’s chapbook Building Castles in Spain, Getting Married emerges as a triptych across Europe investigating the types of realizations travel, romance, and geographical difference can bring about. But I found that beneath the journey, Building Castles provides a psychological exploration of the deleterious relationship loops we fall into when we lose touch with ourselves. While evoking a degree of terror to be found in the way we participate in these inimical cycles, Building Castles trims out the filler that distracts us from the romantic patterns in which we participate, beautifully exposing the misfortune that can exists when we unwittingly repeat our actions.
Before I even got a sense of the looping that the text contains and the distressing relationships Building Castles’ subject duplicates, the speaker sets a sense of foreboding in the vague and weighty diction that opens the chapbook:
It begins on a train
because she is thinking
and people take trains
to get places. Hair wild and full,
this young lady is older (1).
The speaker opens up with ambiguity: “It begins on a train.” Through the whole text, we never know what “it” is; we are on a journey with the poem’s subject, the unnamed “she,” trying to unravel what might begin on this train at the same time that the subject appears to be unthreading her own realizations about herself and her relationship. Between the subject’s present progressive “thinking” and the periodic impression of the woman being “young” and “older,” I felt a certain timelessness and tautology both in the subject and in myself. At the same time, the fact that the heavy and indefinite “it” was only beginning, I knew there was more mystery, more “thinking,” more “wild and full” exploits to come only to be revealed in the reoccurrence and replay of the subject’s experiences.
As the chapbook progressed, I saw the speaker acknowledge her future, yet repeat her behavior: “I am getting married” (1). But while she says this, she cycles through men, engaging with and leaving a painter, bidding him many mistresses, pointing out that “there are men everywhere,” and meeting a man named “two glasses please” at a wedding (2). The seeming interchangeability of men is part of the poem’s power. It draws attention to the amorphous similarities our choices and actions have when abstracted and how this similitude sets us up to repeat inimical loops unaware of our own pattern. Just as the subject parted ways with the painter, piqued, I watched her slowly grasp the decay of her liaison with the next man, “two glasses please:”
[…] He’s needed on the
telephone—would you apologize
for me—her face in the window
watching color and the wind,
all forms of disappointment (2-3).
Despite the fact that the subject is slowly repeating her own romantically injurious pattern, she stays with the man, holding onto him even though the colors and the wind around her are all tinged with “disappointment:”
such a mess in Paris, she
goes back to the country,
she will not call. She wants
a man to hold onto, she
needs only a minute.
No time he says, even for
apology. No, she didn’t get
the letter, the telephone
interrupting, I’m awfully
busy, he says to her, wait
a minute […] (4).
A great deal of Building Castles’ success stems from the ambiguity of place, space, and tense. It becomes increasingly harder to know whether the poem’s subject is dealing with her “fiancé” or with a European love affair. The uncertainty made me feel that this woman will continue to rotate through use and abuse until she can develop awareness around this pattern and break free from it; furthermore, it made me ponder where I do this in my own life. Nadelberg concludes the poem with a chilling degree of obfuscation, as the closing stanza brings us right back to the beginning:
On the train she is
happy at the window,
the colors of the country.
A wild woman, she goes
back to Le Mans, returns
to the lovely invisible street and,
like other women, makes lamps (6).
The cyclical nature of the chapbook made me feel like I was back at the first stanza. In fact, the succession made it difficult to not start the chapbook over again, and then again, and then again. For a moment I felt sucked into the cycle along with Building Castles’ subject. She loops back to the beginning, slightly different than when the chapbook opened, but her difference is one of degree, not of kind. She is happy; she is still wild; she returns to France; now, she is not travelling; she is working; she “makes lamps.” Yet in doing so, she is “like other women.” She becomes equivocal like the abstracted and interchangeable men she described. I didn’t know and couldn’t know what her fate would be, but I could see the dangers in her iterations and transpose such peril onto my own proclivity to repeat actions. As a result, all I could do is hope for this speaker to change her loop, and reciprocally, stop and examine the harmless or harmful loops in which I participate.
Download Building Castles in Spain, Getting Married for free at The Song Cave
Tim Etzkorn lives in Laramie, WY where he instructs at the University of Wyoming and is a M.A. candidate in literary studies. He specializes in early modern poetry, drama, and iconography.
Jenny Zhang’s first poetry collection, Dear Jenny, We are all Find, is highly exploratory, raw, and vulnerable. It is filled with the pain of an individual embracing and living in a sense of lost-ness, a feeling of forlorn disorientation provided by an ancestry that is laden with ghosts and skeletons, a collapsing relationship, and fragmented and splintering writing. Though, it is this anguish that makes Zhang’s work so excellent.
As I read Dear Jenny I found myself wrapped up in the narrator’s world as she delved deeper into introspection and at times a personal and linguistic violence that expressed her own struggles. Zhang’s narrator never shies away from unrefined examinations of her shattering world and ultimately creates a sphere where, contrary to the title, nothing is fine, and nothing is found. The wandering path through the narrator’s haunted background styles itself in a fashion that is as fractured as the narrator’s state of mind and emotion. Language folds in on itself, paralleling the narrator’s psychosomatic confusion that is slowly revealed as she explains her roots and her personal relationships. And though the text ends in distress, it humbly provides more questions than answers and yields catharsis that feels as productive for the narrator as it does for any reader who has walked the path of heartbreak, uncertain self-identity, and slow, halting healing.
Though Dear Jenny’s linchpin is the deconstruction of language and the slow fall of the narrator’s relationship with her partner, she begins her three-parted collection with the section, “Motherlands,” exploring a psychosomatic lost-ness relevant to her heritage. Zhang’s, “I Saw a Skulk,” presents what appears to be a painful past indistinguishable from a lonely present.
This was back when I lived on a mountaintop
The balancing act
was more difficult than you could imagine
Who cares if only one thing drawn to scale
(my head) (your fingers attached to my missing finger)
(the punitive wakefulness of mornings
alone) (the tiptoeing and the wandering off)
Reader’s transition in and out of a bewildered waltz, wondering if the poem is about a challenged childhood or a struggling relationship. The narrator dithers between juxtaposed loneliness with a distant “you” figure and a childhood summoned by a discussion of the narrator’s father and a former home:
They were shown a slideshow of a performance
of a scripted exaggeration of a theatrical reinterpretation
of my life and who I used to be
They clapped for me, reinforcing my outline
as a shady place for entrapping the past
and the pre-past passing of years
I’m only depressed for a moment when I show them
the drawing of the mountaintop where I lived—
My father slept on a cloud
I kept the swelling down with a cane
I purposefully rolled down
enduring thorns and the branches and the bramble
and the broken glass and the upright bottles (12-14).
Whirling between the past and the not-past, the narrator simultaneously confronts the challenges of being Chinese in a western culture, malaise with her father, and loneliness with Michael, the “you” figure that reappears throughout the whole collection. As the text moves forward, it becomes clearer that the damage and pain apparent in “I saw a Skulk” is personal and moves in and out of past and present alongside a relationship that still thrums with strain.
In Dear Jenny’s second part, “New York,” the narrator’s distressed relationship takes on a larger significance and the language subsequently falls further into disarray. Zhang’s “Danggggg” addresses another familiar theme – unchanging minds in unwanted arguments:
Where are you/ are you driving in a car/ thinking about not-me/ the horseness of anxiety rubs at the ventricles in my heart/ […] your gaseous head is how you so quickly destroyed me/ […] (he said: I will turn your heart into gold/ I said: how will you turn stone into gold/ he said: how will the planet spin from left to right if your mind is as indivisible as a kiwi seed/ […] let’s not turn this into an argument/ too late/ ????? (49).
Zhang complicates our perception of poetry and prose; she generates staccato images written in a paragraph format separated by poetic line breaks. With this frenzy of strung together thoughts, Zhang allows readers to step into the racing mind of a disheartened lover struggling with her partner. The phrases hit like misfiring engine pistons, articulating themselves out of order and unexpectedly. The narrator envisions her partner after the fight, thinking about anything but her; she reflects on the dispute itself, replaying the words and revealing terms of phrase so unique they must be personal; finally, she concludes with her hesitance to argue, her own wish to not go there with the relationship, but she knows it is too late.
The toll the narrator’s failing relationship takes on her dilates as Dear Jenny moves into its third and final section, “La France.” Zhang’s narrator more explicitly describes the abuses she and her partner laid on themselves as they mutually tried to deny their impending collapse. Zhang’s language reveals a confusion that matches the plot, the uncertainty of their partnership, and the violence of a break up in, “It was good to drink wine to pass time before you came home, I mean bad:”
I knew what would happen
and I let it happen anyway
it was frisky and you were fiscal
I was very lonely and I became non existent
I had almost no dignity
I had nipples that pointed north
and a twat that said hello
when strangers passed in a sweat
and I said good and we’re just touching
because of the loneliness I told you about (90-91).
In “La France,” we don’t just see the clash of a struggling couple, we see the narrator and her partner using drunken sex to screen a failing partnership, to hide a loneliness that overpowers their togetherness.
As “La France” concludes, readers witness the relationship end and watch the narrator move on in life, trying to not fall in love again; she still quakes from the trauma of the previous ninety pages. The text ends morose, and sadly, there is no spasm of hope to walk away with. Nonetheless, Zhang’s honest reflection on familial challenges, heartbreak, and feeling adrift, is inarguably moving. Zhang explores these themes devoid of saccharin; she fills her verse with powerful images and raw insight and takes a cathartic journey that can help all readers reflect upon or move on from a feeling of pain and lost-ness.
Buy it at SPD: $12
Tim Etzkorn lives in Laramie, WY where he instructs at the University of Wyoming and is a M.A. candidate in literary studies. He specializes in early modern poetry, drama, and iconography. Outside of teaching and writing, Tim scales the mountains of the Snowy Range and participates in walking meditation with his dog, Jake.