REVIEW: Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong


by Michael Wasson

In the body, where everything has a price,
I was a beggar. On my knees,

I watched…

So begins Ocean Vuong’s frontispiece to his haunting and quietly devastating debut collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds.

It is here within the body where we begin to take in the world of this book. What really makes this entrance to the book remarkable is how Vuong’s speaker understands that the experiences we enter hold consequences. It is on the knees where we sacrifice and remain obedient to our senses. And it is the eye through which we witness the chaos of beauty. Vuong’s book stations us here who are—at the border of our flesh—trying to make sense of our lives.

Beginning the first section, Vuong shares with us the re-imagining and re-witnessing of poetic myth. From a snake left headless and still “in this version,” reminiscent of Milton’s Paraside Lost, to Telemachus pulling Odysseus “out / of the water” and dragging him by the hair through the crush and surf. This re-witnessing accomplishes and moves far beyond an appreciation for ancient literatures, but it gives us the opportunity to enter the myth to discover ourselves fully alive inside its narrative:

He moves like any / other fracture, revealing the briefest doors.

One of history’s most violent poems is Homer’s The Iliad. But what Night Sky with Exit Wounds introduces to us in “Trojan” is the idea of the body as the Trojan Horse—the strategic event between The Iliad and The Odyssey. The body is human-built. The body carries our “brutes” and war-sharpened “blades.” It holds our own people craving to return to their families and homelands. It even reminds us of our animal-likeness. But on a human level, it is the physical body we see when violence is enacted, or—as Vuong puts it so powerfully—“when the city burns.”

Night Sky with Exit Wounds grounds itself, too, in the American self, the American body, as a product of war. Here, insisted toward the end of “Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds” and the ending poem to the collection’s first section:

Yes—let me believe I was born
to cock back this rifle, smooth & slick, like a true

Charlie, like the footsteps of ghosts misted through rain
as I lower myself between the sights—& pray

that nothing moves.

What strikes me is the poem’s ability to “let” the “deathbeam” continue to pierce these different scenes inside the realm of a country amid violence. I find that even against a force of death, against all these different instances of terror, it is the speaker who argues to just let it happen. Why? Because the exit wound is the self. The exit wound is the speaker’s ability to move into and through the world. The exit wound now kneels down, praying for stillness to begin its process of healing.

Reading through the book countless times, even starting from the last poem to the first, I realize more and more just how powerful Vuong’s ability with form is. From longer poems to short couplets, gorgeously scattered lines broken and strewn over pages, to anaphora and prose breaks—the single poem that most entered me and stayed was “Seventh Circle of Earth”—with its title based on Dante’s seventh circle of Hell where the innermost of the three violent rings is made of burning sand and rain, meant to encase sodomites and blasphemers in flames.

But again, it was the form that forced me to look “into” and “away” from the mostly blank (or in this case, burned) pages. All that we see in the major white space—headed with the Dallas Voice epigraph about a gay couple, Michael Humphrey and Clayton Capshaw, murdered by immolation—are numbered footnotes, seemingly markers that are to guide us to the lines recorded at the bottom of the page. Vuong has single-handedly and via the labor of lyric forced us to stare into the white ash of immolation. So by replicating that “look into the wreckage yet we look away” urgency, we are then made to hear the voices of these lovers.

4. … Speak—/ until your voice is nothing / but the crackle / of charred
5. bones.

Toward the end of Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Vuong includes this devastatingly tender and gracious poem first published at The New Yorker that echoes not simply Frank O’Hara and Roger Reeves, but the role of lullaby—the role of song and lyric to comfort us, even in the face of the world’s terrors:

Don’t be afraid, the gunfire
is only the sound of people
trying to live a little longer
& failing. Ocean. Ocean—
get up. The most beautiful part of your body
is where it’s headed. & remember,
loneliness is still time spent
with the world.

Ocean mentions in an interview with David Winter that this poem is his way to “speak to my own shadow,” and what better way to comfort than to know that our own darkness, too, is listening and living there breathing beside us.
Many of us were beyond thrilled when Copper Canyon announced that they would be publishing Ocean Vuong’s first full book. Many of us had one (or both) of his chapbooks (if they weren’t sold out at the time) and read his poems as they entered the world. Many of us were changed by encountering his work—like beautiful literature should. How it challenges us to enter a space and be transformed by language.

And many of us I’m sure learned from how his speakers paid homage to the beauty inside the crush that his words seem to do so gently. So where do we stand after entering and departing Night Sky with Exit Wounds? We stand without a doubt—as the world continues to move under our feet—in awe of this brilliant and humble talent gifted to American poetry.

I am thankful having his book with me. Its pages continuing to remind me, “are you listening?” I am.

Buy it from Copper Canyon Press: $16.00.

Michael Wasson is the author of This American Ghost (YesYes Books, 2017), recipient of the Vinyl 45 Chapbook Prize. He is nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation and lives abroad.

REVIEW: Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us by Danielle Cadena Deulen


by José Angel Araguz

We are never “at home”: we are always outside ourselves. Fear, desire, hope impel us toward the future; they rob us of feelings and concern for what now is, in order to spend time over what will be – even when we ourselves shall be no more.

These words serve as an epigraph into Danielle Cadena Deulen’s second collection, Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us, and lay down the framework for a set of poems whose emotional lexicon is able to navigate through narratives of personal experience as well as those drawn from literature and philosophy (the essays of Michel de Montaigne are referenced often; their titles serving as titles for a number of poems, including the title poem). Throughout this collection, the self becomes again and again a moment of awareness and interpolation. Poetry, Deulen’s book argues, is where those who are never ‘at home’ do their living.

Towards the end of the poem “Dirge with a Love Song in it,” dedicated to the poet’s grandmother, an example of what I mean by awareness and interpolation plays out in a scene of driving while thinking about the past:

…I am ashamed to say

I never thanked you for driving toward a future
into which I would someday be born. The radio plays

and I turn it up, a bridge blaring like the slow
explosions that fill my dreams: I run and run and turn

the corner of an unfamiliar hallway, an unclasped door
opening to an aisle. See how the light enters the dirge,

the stillness in the field beyond the sill? See how
your family standing on the hill beneath the pine

lines up to let the loose earth slip through
their fingers back to you? See the green, sorrowed air

where I’m not, where I couldn’t bear to be –
how I’ve driven so long thinking of you that you have

become the song, the mirror, the prayer, and the road
just past the reach of headlights.

The poem works through the momentum of voice and memory; the speaker’s act of driving and its implication of being in motion parallel the motion of memory and feeling. The urgency of the direct address is heightened by the command to “See” which is repeated three times until it is broken off as the speaker presents themselves “where I’m not.” The simultaneous narratives of the drive and funeral finally cascade into each other in the final lines, leaving the reader and speaker in motion, “carried away beyond” what there are words for.

This pointing towards “where I’m not” is one of the major themes explored in this collection. In “Winter Inversion,” a meditation on a winter in Salt Lake City plays out both in terms of landscape as well a relationship:

displaced from coastal

cities cry poison over
the desert plains. We

pretend not to live
where we do, that we

don’t turn away from
each other with regret.

I try to avoid breathing
in your scent…

This comment on displacement colors the admissions of regret that follow and points us back to the Montaigne epigraph, which here translates literally into deliberate not wanting to be ‘at home.’ The statement on breathing, however, places the speaker back in their body, their center of awareness and interpolation. Like poetry, which exists somewhere between the poem and the reader, one’s life is made up of acts of interpretation, reflection, and understanding, all of which occur in the mind and, thus, elsewhere.

Not every exploration of the “where I’m not” theme happens in terms of evasion or displacement, however. In “Revision,” the hands-on task of shelling crabs is pushed on for the memory it could be:

If I could reverse it and reassemble
the cracked bodies of the crabs – their shells
no longer a lovely, silent red – restore
their frantic language of clicks and gestures…

In these lines, the speaker is taking the hypotheticals of philosophy and applying them to physical actions and their family narrative. The fact that one can no easier put a crab back together as reverse one’s life seems obvious; it is where the speaker takes the reader through pushing on this scene and concept that transforms this meditation into compelling art. “If I could reverse” the fate of one creature, the speaker states:

then I don’t have to write about what
came after. We can all live here, in this day,
forward and backward, listening to
the cold-blue sea rock softly against
our metal hull, watch the gray world slowly

take on color, shadows separating
from form, the tide rushing in,
our father’s real smile like a white magnolia
opening over us as we cross the bight
vibrating with light so brilliant
I have to close my eyes against it.

In defining a memory through what it could have been – in this case, the mess the hands make and the mess one’s family feels like is revised into a whole creature and a whole, blinding memory – the speaker reaches after reconciliation. Yet, it is in this revision’s imagery that the poem points to the ongoing futility and struggle of reconciliation. We find the speaker revising, yes, but revising to blindness, a blindness that parallels the reality of knowing; when one knows the ugly truth, one closes eyes against it too, but is left with the work of reconciliation regardless. Here, “where I’m not” points back to where one is, which is the place where one is actively trying to understand better.

This is a searching kind of empathy played out here. If, as Montaigne’s epigraph notes, “Fear, desire, hope impel us toward the future [and] rob us of feelings and concern for what now is,” then poetry becomes a kind of anchor not for the poet but for the experiences and understanding of the poet. In the poem, “Remedy,” the story of a girl whose doctors

[don’t] know
why her brain swelled, only that she’d brought
them to the end of their knowledge, … the only
course for keeping her alive: a hole in the head…

this searching empathy takes place via an anti-rite of passage. A girl’s medical condition, and her doctors’ bewilderment, leave her to work out her own knowledge and understanding:

Days stretch out now with nothing in them,
her adolescent summers like bleached sheets
hanging on the line. She wonders if this is
what it is to be a woman; her body mutinous,
burrowed into. Moths beat wildly at her smudged
window and she closes her eyes, too tired to
watch them suffer. She runs her fingers along
countertops, the edges of unopened books, slowly,

because she has nothing to hurry toward. She is
waiting, she thinks, for someone to heal her.
It makes her angry, but she doesn’t know why.
Her shoulders tighten. Sweat beads at her hairline,
rolls down her face. She imagines herself as
a flower deep in a swamp, which, once found,
will be ground into paste, rubbed into the body
of a fevered stranger, used as a cure for pain.

From the imagery tied to the girl’s “adolescent summers” to the imagined life of a swamp flower made into a paste, this particular arch of “where I’m not” evokes the territory of “what it is to be a woman” from the perspective of someone given no alternative but to carry on without answers. In the same way that the speaker of “Revision” sought after a method to restore the crab’s “frantic language of clicks and gestures,” the girl of this poem is deciphering her life via a troubled, persistent sense of reconciliation.

Ultimately, this being without answers becomes a central note rung throughout this collection. As these poems prove time and again, when one is without answers, one is left with questions and the emotions around questions. Even Sigmund Freud, a figure that can be seen as providing answers (at times unasked for) for society’s ills, is portrayed in the poem “Freud at the Laundromat” as just another human being lost in the cycle of their own cascading narratives:

a circle that turns within a box and slots
where the money goes and goes transparent
door that opens to anonymous red panties

oh if only undergarments could speak he’d
analyze the fuck out of them but suffices
with pressing his ear to each hot door…

…he dreams of his wife’s
younger sister Minna, Minna and their apartment

at 19 Berggasse – the lie they conceived that
also had to be cut out oh now he is too old
his penis alone in his grey, wrinkled slacks

he wants to take them off, throw them in with
a stranger’s clothes watch the legs wrap around
the other unfilled pants a psychosomatic twitch
controls his left wrist he clears his throat again
again what will it take to be rid of this constant
vertigo aching he imagines that death is like

a long dose of morphine but is still terrified
oh to awaken inside another body perhaps be
the child Minna canceled this time around kept

Freud’s cycling of narratives carries us back to the theme of “where I’m not.” Here, where Freud is not is a place of satisfaction or control, which is what Montaigne’s epigraph points to as being our constant and only condition. In Deulen’s poems, however, this condition is translated away from being defined by fear, and sees our lives as being carried by the momentum of hope and awareness.

Buy it from Barrow Street Press: $16.95

José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow. He is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Author of six chapbooks as well as the recent collection, Everything We Think We Hear, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence. His second collection, Small Fires, is forthcoming in 2017 from FutureCycle Press.

REVIEW: Hardly War by Don Mee Choi


by Ansley Clark

Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War opens with an essay: a preface, a letter to Choi’s readers. Choi grounds us right away, explaining, “I was born in a tiny, traditional house, a house my father bought with award money he received for his photographs of the April 19, 1960 Revolution.” This house in South Korea is her “psychic and linguistic base, a site of perpetual farewell and return, a site of [her] political act—translation and writing” (3). Using this house as her point of departure, Choi then propels us forward into the book and its state of “perpetual farewell and return.”

This preface works as a map. Soon after, the book’s poems begin to dissolve and crumble, as though the map’s edges are slowly burning and curling in on themselves. The book moves into prose blocks, slowly thins into more lineated poems, and finally ends with an opera based on interviews she conducted with her father about his war experiences.

Choi’s Hardly War thus defies genre. The book is part poetry, part memoir, and part documentary/collection of physical artifacts. In her opening, Choi tells us, “I am trying to fold race into geopolitics and geopolitics into poetry. Hence, geopolitical poetics. It involves disobeying history, severing its ties to power” (4) Later on, in one of the book’s most devastating lines, Choi writes:

What are world memories? It turns out that they are war memories. And what are war memories? They are orphan memories. Orphan memories are like fetuses thrown out in bottles. (36)

This moment speaks to the heart of this collection: a complex exploration of both the speaker as an individual subject and as a part of a much larger inheritance. As her speaker grapples with understanding her paternal lineage and her cultural heritage, Choi’s book asks what it means to inherit war. At the same time, this book asks how the memory and conception of war is controlled and manipulated by U.S. culture’s violent need to forget, to erase, or to entirely ignore its history. Choi tells her readers that the lineage of war is the world’s lineage, and that the lineage of war belongs to all of us, either as the survivors or the oppressors or both.

Choi expresses this idea of “forgotten” wars and history with the book’s title, which also repeats itself throughout the book. Choi’s poems begin with the lines:

It was hardly war, the hardliest of wars. Hardly, hardly. (6)

Later Choi tells us:

My father was hardly himself during the war, then I was born during the era that hardly existed, and therefore, I hardly existed without DDT. (6)

On page 12, she adds, “It was partly history.” These refrains express and bitterly mimic the ways in which U.S. culture has minimized, silenced, and erased the Korean War, as well as other aspects of its violent relationship and history with South Korea. The refrain of the story being “partly history” or “hardly war,” along with the rest of the book’s language play, quickly becomes uncomfortable. And this discomfort becomes a way to better understand South Korea and the speaker’s reality and history. Choi’s speaker desires to prove an existence—both her own and an entire history’s.

The book’s linguistic experimentation mirrors the ways in which we repeat ourselves, internally or externally, as we struggle to remember or understand. In “1950 June 28: The Fall of Seoul,” Choi writes, “I was cheerily cheerily red and merely merrily washed my face in the yard and looked up the stairs…No one was on the road, so I ran really readily red, are you really red?” (11). This repetition is also eerily at odds with the poem’s violent subject matter concerning North Korea’s invasion of South Korea. Here she creates a singsong voice that feels true to how we think about memories—usually in a circular, stuttering, and uncertain way.

At other times, the linguistic experiments express the speaker’s painful awareness of the limits of her exploration. In “Neocolony’s Colony,” Choi writes:

You provide the prose poems, I’ll provide the war
                     Aye, aye, Sir! (43)

Later on, Choi tells us that as a child, she believed “that the people and things that [her] father photographed followed him and lived inside his camera” and that she, too, wished that she “could follow [her] father and live inside his camera” (49). Thus, the book contains a grief that is both chaotic and quiet: the speaker’s ache for a deeper understanding of her father, his absences when she was young, and the importance of his work.

Hardly War’s endnotes are just as important as the book’s main text, and perhaps even function as poems themselves. Choi draws from her father’s photography, fragments from war documentaries, excerpts from her father’s writings and his letters home, notes from her time at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, and countless other artifacts, all of which she explains in her endnotes. I found myself flipping rapidly back and forth between the endnotes and the main text as I read. This flipping back and forth to look for information, this desire on the reader’s part to understand is a crucial part of the book and its reading experience. Choi’s speaker is attempting to makes sense of history and her identity, and we attempt to make sense of it alongside her.

Choi’s opera, which closes the book’s main text, ends with the lines:

I must point out a simple truth—
the angels are waving to us— (89)

This moment reveals one of the speaker’s most important desires—to discover the truth about her father, herself, and a piece of history. Additionally, because Choi’s readers know that the truth is not at all simple, the understatement of “a simple truth” stresses the history’s complexity. Choi succeeds in the goal she sets in the book’s preface—to disobey history and sever its ties to power—by revealing all of this ugly complexity.

Wave Books; $18;

Ansley Clark teaches creative writing at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she recently received her MFA. Her poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Columbia Poetry Review, Typo, Sixth Finch, DIAGRAM, Black Warrior Review, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbook Geography (dancing girl press, 2015).

REVIEW: This Visit by Susan Lewis


by José Angel Araguz

 Midway through This Visit by Susan Lewis, the following lines present the reader with the essence of the overall project of the collection:

touch me here or
anywhere you can find

a place to park your
restless attention,

fleeting as anyone fleeing
his limits,

hot to outrun the death
of moments

These eight lines from the poem “Will & Wish” are charged with crafted purpose. There is the emphatic nature of the voice which shows the speaker’s attention to be centered on the reader and on the act of reading itself. Also, there is the way in which the reader of this poem necessarily engages with this emphasis via the act of reading a line like “fleeting as anyone fleeing.” The change between “fleeting” and “fleeing” moves beyond wordplay within the context of this poem; the difference of a letter transforms “fleeting,” with its connotations of transiency, into “fleeing,” whose tone is one of urgency. The words, with a difference of a letter, have the speaker moving from an objective to a more personal implication. The value placed on the reading experience here and throughout the poems in this collection are often framed by these ideas of “restless attention” on one side, and outrunning “the death / of moments” on the other, making for a poetry whose stakes are of an intimate as well as intellectual nature.

The first section of the collection is comprised of poems whose titles are variations of the phrase “My Life in.” The personal and narrative connotations of this titling are subverted in poems where the self of the speaker is hard to pin down. This subversion, then, becomes part of the engine driving the poems. “My Life in Streets (Or Breathe),” for example, begins:

            legs maybeing down,


entering metal,
            relocation assent –

blindness of repetition
ignorance of bliss

When one’s “restless attention” is faced with these lines, there is a disorientation that happens; instead of a “life,” the reader is presented with an object list of actions in third person. Yet, this disorientation proves fruitful as it places the reader in the position to find pleasure in the play of the line “ignorance of bliss.” This play on the proverb Ignorance is bliss does similar work as the move detailed above that takes the reader from “fleeting” to “fleeing.” The recognition of phrasing that happens on the level of sound is augmented by the change of “is” in the proverb to “of” in the poem. This change colors what follows in the poem, a meditation on “streets” where “men & pigeons” can be found “lusting for their future.” This juxtaposition of men and pigeons is an example of one kind of ignorance; the nature of “lusting” is having one’s attention elsewhere, ignorant of anything else. The title can be returned to then with the idea of this particular “life in streets” being charged with self-consciousness and unwanted attention, the latter making necessary the “averted gaze, / the anonymous refusal” found in the final lines. While the “life” gestured at in the title is the life of reading, what one is reading, ultimately, is the life; the nuanced gesture and phrase, the charged if subtle turn of a moment.

The second section makes use of a different trope, that of letter-writing. In poems that address subjects like “Tomorrow” and “Random Object,” the opening address of “Dear ____” subverts the personal tone of a genre of writing that also fights against “the death / of moments.” In “Dear Dear,” Lewis sets the tone of this section:

you construct,
caught in the

proverbial headlights.
Machinated like fruit

in sweetly lost.
Worry not,

wont not.
Unbend your lap of

luxury & welcome
home your loyal

servitude. As in
dog slave the

clean. As in
make glove not


The self-awareness evident in the first line which addresses the “Dear” of letter-writing as a “construct” builds off the momentum of the first section; instead of the implied inwardness and reflection of the “My Life in” lyrics, the “Dear” construct makes necessary an awareness of an outer subject and purpose. There is a lyric swagger in this voice that both propels the poem forward in a different manner than the poems in the first section, and which invite the reader to investigate along with the speaker. As much as the “Dear” construct is “caught in the / proverbial headlights,” this poem implies that there are meanings outside of this dynamic, that the word “Dear” is only a trail marker on the path to meaning. This kind of address becomes a space for the “restless attention” of the reader and writer. Phrasing like “dog slave the // clean” and “make glove not // lore” make use of the tension between what words say and mean on the page versus what words say and mean when spoken aloud. This riffing on familiar sayings (God save the Queen and Make Love Not War, respectively) create in the reader a space of reflex and reflection; each time the reader has to shift their attention and refocus creates a new moment, the creation of which adds to what I see as the collection’s implied mission to “outrun the death / of moments.”

These first two sections set up the remaining two sections of the collection nicely by establishing the different conceptual modes this poet is able to work in. What remains constant throughout these poems is the feeling of poetry as an active space. These poems are challenging only in so much as they are made to be engaged with on the level of meaning-making. The collection’s title, in a way, can be seen as pointing towards the “visit” of the eye on the page as much as the writer on a subject. As life is experienced moment to moment, so do these poems flicker and bend, accumulating meaning in pieces sought after the fact.

There is a moment in the title poem where this kind of fleeting/fleeing immediacy is implied:

(Mother, what you could have told me)
(Stranger, what you might have known)

It is a moment of solitude, the speaker’s voice speculating alone. Yet, because it happens in a poem, it happens in a space that can be shared, and where the parallel structure of these lines imply a further meaning; the “Mother” and “Stranger” are connected in the same way that “what you could have told me” is connected to “what you might have known.” The same meanings found by different methods; the same feeling behind different words. This paradoxical engine drives not only the poetry found here, but could also be said to drive poetry in general. The lines above also had me return to the book’s dedication, which states:

For my mom, who taught me how – and why – to read.

For the readers of This Visit, Lewis shares the fruits of those lessons in poems filled with an acute awareness of the nature and stakes of the reading experience.

Buy it from BlazeVOX [books]: $16.00

José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow. He is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Author of six chapbooks as well as the recent collection, Everything We Think We Hear, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence. His second collection, Small Fires, is forthcoming in 2017 from FutureCycle Press.

REVIEW: Local Extinctions by Mary Quade


by Heather Lang

While privy to discussions about STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math) versus STEAM (all of the latter plus art), I’ve noticed an intriguing parallel. Alexander Pschera, author of the nonfiction book Animal Internet, criticizes postmodernist efforts to return to nature. Certainly, in a culture where hiking trails are riddled with signs stating, “Do Not Touch,” and on a planet suffering from climate change, urban sprawl, and pollution, Pschera makes an important point. “What may well be possible, however, is that emergence of a new image of nature—an image that is concrete and stimulates the senses, that breaks through the abstraction,” writes Pschera (as translated by Elisabeth Lauffer). Perhaps we can apply this logic not only to our view of nature but to the arts, as well. In Local Extinctions, Mary Quade demonstrates how poetry can and will continue to thrive.

Mary Quade’s second full-length poetry collection, Local Extinctions, exemplifies a contemporary intersection between the natural world and poetry. Her poem, “Stinging Things,” for example, is “after shootings in a Cleveland public high school.” The poem itself does not mention students, schools, or guns – at least it does not reference them literally. Rather, the lines explore a person who is pruning a tree being stung “on the ear, as if to say to its pliant softness, Now hear this.” In the second and final stanza of this poem, we discover that just above hangs a wasp or perhaps a hornet nest (these “Stinging Things” are never named). Quade describes the nest as “a child’s head, wrapped in bandages, / disembodied, and the warnings / brimming from the mouth.” She closes the poem with the following: “Inside, chambers and chambers of flightless / angers – substance but not yet shape.” Certainly, this piece is an exploration of the school shooting, not a traditional nature poem. Quade projects urgent and tangible contemporary problems onto this symbolic narrative. Nevertheless, the poem, like the collection, has some roots in the natural world.

Local Extinctions also acknowledges our disconnection from, our misunderstandings of, nature. In “Killing Songbirds the Compassionate Way,” we’re asked to witness a bird flying into a window. The effects, for the bird, are crippling: “broken wings,” “worm-filled wounds,” and “crumpled” bones. We bring them into the house and pretend “that the eye dropper / of sugared water / you slip inside their beaks / doesn’t drown them” even though the “bubbles / click on their tongues.” In the end, the poem closes by asking us to imagine that these songbirds saw us through the window, our “lids nictating,” our “plumage unpreened,” and they “tried, suicidal, / to revive you, / to keep you, / (suffering) alive.” This twist at the end of the poem not only prevents the piece from becoming didactic about our ignorance of the natural world, but it connects us to these birds in a more thought-provoking way, a way that – if I might be so bold – could only be both explored and, ultimately, articulated through poetry.

Instead of trying to turn back time, poets are embracing our contemporary world, and their work is increasingly relevant. H. L. Hix’s American Anger (Etruscan Press, 2016) fiercely explores politics and national identity. Liu Xia’s Empty Chairs (Greywolf Press, 2015), as translated by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern, passionately contemplates the poet’s experience as the wife of an imprisoned dissenter in contemporary China. Similarly, in the most lyrical, imagistic, and ultimately artful way, Mary Quade’s Local Extinctions demonstrates the imperative nature of the green humanities. Local Extinctions is a collection of poetry that should be read in Science, Civics, and Literature classes alike.

Heather Lang is a poet, literary critic, and adjunct professor. Nevada’s NPR member radio station has twice interviewed her this year about her writing, and in June she served as the Las Vegas Poets Organization’s featured poet. Her writing process is currently on exhibit at the Nevada Humanities Program Gallery. Heather’s poetry and prose have been published by or are forthcoming with HOOT, The Normal School, Paper Darts, Pleiades, and Whiskey Island, among others. Heather holds an MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University, and she serves as an editor with The Literary Review.

REVIEW: To Be a “Unified Person”: Simone White’s Of Being Dispersed


by Peter Myers

In her recent interview in BOMB Magazine with rapper Vince Staples, Simone White describes hip-hop as “a thing that is, like a black body, both universally available and discursively hostile. It spits us out while we think we are consuming it.” It isn’t surprising to hear such a formulation coming from a poet; this dynamic, of simultaneous invitation and resistance, is just as much a part of poetry as hip-hop. It appears, for instance, in the friction generated when the intimacy offered by the lyric voice runs up against language’s imprecision, its unwillingness to cohere. Drawing our circle even wider, we can consider White’s statement in light of the identities we align ourselves with: how the categorizations and norms of which they’re composed by turn highlight and mask certain parts of ourselves, parts which are then pushed below, or spread across a distance. This is the central dynamic White concerns herself with in Of Being Dispersed, a relentless and exhilarating collection of poems.

Of Being Dispersed is both documentation and enactment of identity’s fragmentation, its tendency to split into pockets that resist any easy reconciliation with each other or the self that houses them. (Isn’t this what poetry is for? If identity is produced discursively, discourse is what’s needed to push back) We encounter these fragments, hear their voices, in White’s collection, and witness what happens when the distinct physical and mental worlds they inhabit cross paths and intrude one another. These speakers are female, Black, female and Black, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a poet, an academic, a body, a human that desires, a mind that has thoughts; they are all these things, simultaneously and in isolation, and in all of the contradiction it entails.

Given the array of selves White inhabits, the great variety of forms and voices present in her poems is fitting. Formally, Of Being Dispersed ranges from lengthy, essayistic prose (“Lotion”) to sonically-driven impressionist bursts (“Windrim,” “Kettle to Pot”). Between and within poems, White code-switches seamlessly, mixing low and high idioms and flitting in and out of the colloquial—and does so without affectation, a refreshing departure from the anxious displays of cultural omnivorism which often accompany such mixing of high and low. Just within “so as not to embarrass my comrades,” we encounter the “vestigial tail of Queens,” “barf-bag wisdoms,” and the “the white van of our progressive imagination,”phrases as evocative as they are sonically striking, alongside references to Robert Moses and “the scrotum of Jeff Daniels.” White’s language is surprising in a way that never feels inorganic, or like anything less than a deliberate expression of thought. In everything from prose to fractured verse, White’s poems are a dive into the interior workings of someone trying to work something out.

These pieces of a self, and their accompanying orientations toward world, do not always align with how White’s speakers perceive or desire themselves to be; identity’s impositions are often fought against, without success. In “Comment”: “In my marriage and with my mother, there was truly no celebration of my imaginary self, still caterwauling in the way-behind.” And, in “They Say They Can Fill Me Up with a Baby”: “Teaching Reznikoff I cry and make myself / the spectacle I say most certainly I am not.” Wife, daughter, spectacle-prone professor; these are roles that constrain White’s speakers’ attempts at self-definition. In “Preliminary Notes on Street Attacks,” the speaker commands herself (another?) to “swear on this stack of doodoo / on sight I am a unified person”—a startling mixture of oath and mild vulgarity that shatters the unity the speaker begs us to behold.

At times the sweep and precision of White’s sentences and lines function as a whirlpool, encircling an object or phenomenon about which the poem aims to think, nearly swallowing it, but, due to its own centripetal force, keeping a certain distance from it—a metacognitive process which the book dramatizes and comments upon. The triptych “Preliminary Notes on Street Attacks,” following an epigraph from Stevens (“I was of three minds…”), begins by recalling the racist and sexist (micro)aggressions the speaker has faced, but soon turns inward, the speaker’s investment in lived experience waning, her self-doubt growing. She moves from lines of unmitigated force and indignation (“no white man on the car would do a thing / if a crazy person with a knife tried to stab you / even take your baby / oh yes they’d let you die”) to frustration at her inability to leave her interior, poetry-fueled world (“You like a goddam blackbird and sentences. Inside your head is a grandiose place.”) to willful self-deprecation (“Terrific rageful / liar on Whitman on Asphodel, you would lie / to Baraka’s face.”).

The breakdown enacted by these “Notes” is by no means a reneging of Blackness as a topic of inquiry; White’s speakers have an acute awareness of Black history, one that they are unable to deny or escape. In “Then I began to hear the call of Los Angeles,” the book’s breathless opener, L.A. is ostensibly a place “where dead negroes can’t get in your house.” But the speaker knows this to be false even as she writes it, knows her distance from the dead is illusory: “Voices of the dead…/ I do not deal in. Not because they are not real, / but because they are, I do not deal in them” (3). Not dealing has a way of coming back to haunt; by the poem’s end the speaker’s only wish is to “take a room in this hotel for weeks on end / and pretend to be dead.” This is the realness of history’s dead: the ever-present weight of that history on the living. As Staples put it to White in the interview, “Black people from California is fucking displaced slaves”—a displacement less spatial than temporal in a country in which Black people are subjected to myriad injustices, of which mass incarceration, income inequality, and police brutality are only a few.

The facts and conditions of Black womanhood, and how a person responds to them, form one of the collection’s core preoccupations. In “Lotion,” which takes the form of an essay on “the slightly ridiculous bodily conditions each of us lives with daily,” White examines rituals of hygiene and bodily maintenance unique to Black women, particularly hair and skin care. Written in a skilled deadpan that mixes general information on lotion with exceptionally precise details about hygiene routines, “Lotion” foregrounds White’s skill as a humorist while laying bare the labor of self-care that, for White, constitutes an essential part of black womanhood. It is in this poem, too, that the book’s cover image crystallizes: the small, unbordered square of wiggling black lines coalesces into a mottled patch of skin—cracked, dry, “ashy.”

For White’s speaker, these rituals of care are fundamentally a way to “maintain dominion over the crevices of [her]self,” a project that she holds to be valuable and necessary despite her certainty that “these crevices extend toward an infinitely receding boundary”—a dispersal with no point of origin, and from which there can be no return. Lotion is a palliative, yes, but not a panacea, and the poem’s greatest strength is the way in which White’s speaker manages to convey detachment, frustration, and pride simultaneously—she is aware of how the rituals of Black womanhood have been and are still shaped by sexism and white supremacy, but does not see this as sufficient reason to cease getting pleasure from them.

Throughout the collection, these myriad selves appear and vanish and appear again changed, orbiting the poet at center, shaping her and being shaped while maintaining a distance. White analyzes them, speaks to them, draws them nearer, stalks certainty. Reading White, it’s difficult not to think back to Whitman: to largeness, containing multitudes, the many within the one. For White, the multitudes are there, no doubt—only they aren’t contained, but rather dispersed.

Peter Myers lives in Philadelphia. His poetry has recently appeared in Prelude, apt, and Salt Hill.

REVIEW: play dead by francine j. harris


by Ansley Clark

I’ve been feeling undone over the past couple of months, ever since I read and started carrying around francine j. harris’ play dead. These feelings are partly because harris’ book, at its simplest, is about brokenness. They are also because I first read this book just a week after the attack against Orlando’s queer community, during a summer filled with continued police brutality and systemic violence against people of color and other members of marginalized communities. In her poem “startle,” harris writes:

The minute you say want, the light which was red
is most certainly now, a womb—a thing no one wants to
stare into, most certainly a thistle, where nothing is safe.
any corner could be a cement truck. or a gun. (22)

While harris’ presents the image of a womb in this moment, she also addresses violence and vulnerability and hurt. She addresses the experiences of living in a world—in a country—where “nothing is safe,” especially for marginalized communities and individuals. She addresses what it means to live in a body that is not safe in either the public or the private sphere. Thus, the ache and throb of play dead are the ways in which it discusses violence, particularly sexual violence and the violence that occurs when one exists as a woman.

The book’s epigraph from Kazim Ali reads, “It’s always the broken that holds the universe in place.” And this brokenness continues throughout the book in a jerking kind of rhythm that both jars and soothes. In “in case,” harris writes:

                …our mouth
got us our bitter ass whipped, pick our own-
ers, our switches, our licks, our shut up. our shut up. our shut up. (16)

The poem ends with a strange and painful repetition, like a broken record or a broken doll, or like someone bashing their fists or their head against a wall, over and over. Under the weight of the images of physical violence, the speaker here seems to buckle slightly and repeat what she’s been told, that she needs to just “shut up.”

However, the book’s speaker(s) never once sinks under this weight. These are not quiet poems. While they are at times fragile and vulnerable, they also spit and scream directly back at their aggressors. This empowered voice refuses to allow the violence to crush it. This voice also speaks to the book’s epigraph by Kazim Ali as it explores how those who are broken possess perhaps the only kind of real strength and power.

Consequently, play dead involves a fierce and painful interplay between power and powerlessness and between violence and light. Reading this book is like watching light shift across shattered glass—I give this image not to be poetic, but to describe the book’s tight and chaotic ecology, as well as the poems’ forms and their physical presence on the page. harris’ lines and stanzas spread like cracks across the entire page, occasionally clumping in one corner. Additionally, harris’ punctuation feels entirely spontaneous and pure, like a continuation of her mental processes. In the book’s opening poem “in,” she writes:

We don’t always think in locks. or iron, we set up house to bring. dim it warm to want. (13)

While she uses periods, she occasionally begins a new sentence in lowercase, seemingly to indicate that these two thoughts are more closely connected than thoughts separated by both a period and capitalization.

At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, I want to say that my favorite poem in play dead is “tatterdemalion.” At the poem’s end, harris writes:

What parts of me shake loose dirt. What parts wait until you are bare. My jejune bluegrass, why do I eat your light. There are grasses growing up the shabby fence. All of them fluid blade. We sway. creep easily. What parts of me are wild. What parts storing up for the choke. How do I tell the difference. (68)

There is so much importance in these final questions. The poem begins with descriptions of listening to a women’s moan through a wall, and then flairs out wildly in images of dirt, weeds, and other green and growing things. Consequently, “how do I tell the difference” becomes “how do I tell the difference between my wild self and the self that the world dictates to me.”

Since play dead is a book that takes emotional risks, I feel it’s appropriate to say that “tatterdemalion,” and many other poems here, evoke enormous grief and make me cry. Because harris understands the intense balance between vulnerability and power, because we are not safe here, play dead is a crucial book.

Alice James Books (2016): $15.95