by Michael Wasson
A flock of birds
when touched I scatter.
Here we are. We seem to have reached the edge of disaster and feel, really, how still and gorgeous we are within our isolated, temporal bodies. We reach out and out until the world touches back with some sense of validation of our brief time here. On earth, we are faced with instructions for our everyday living. These clinical symptoms provide us the chance to maintain ourselves. And it is through this merciful, compassionate work that brings us nearer to each other.
In her first book, Incorrect Merciful Impulses, Camille Rankine intimately takes urgent contemporary conditions of our modern living through frames of still-lives, back into memory, under the shadow of failure, and even held down in the tender arms of loneliness. Her poems ask us to stay affectionate while zooming in close to a tension-wrought face-to-face with the mangled cages of our existence:
Dear, dear wounded
You have earned our respect
Dear bad animal
Dear caged thing
There was something about you
What Rankine does with this opening poem, “Tender,” is write small rhythmic salutations to so many lives. To us. We are the poem’s addressees. We the people. We are the ones valued, and what better way to be tender than calling out with such generous grace and necessary passion. A dearness imbedded into each of us. Our bone fragments. Our daily catastrophes. Our patriot and citizenships. Our displacements and glad hands. Our perfections made bad, and likewise, our imperfections made beautiful. This is how we are made to stay in Rankine’s poetry.
Her poems do so as well by holding to what I’d call an unconditional affection for our pains and triumphs—like close-eyed devotion to the flights and failures of human experience. Take for example, “Always Bring Flowers”:
Before we could beautify our death
it was a white noise in my head, underwater-
red. The bullet holes in the walls
were stars and stars.
These moments happen throughout the collection, moments in which we are straddled between the fathoms of physical self-consciousness and visceral abstraction. Rankine has us look inward where we hear and experience, touch and see, all funneling to the point of one’s bodied experience of drowning. But also, almost effortlessly, we are turned to the outside reality—the bullet holes in the walls. Rankine has folded us over and over, and then quilts the ending couplet with scattered points of light—because those perforations riddling the wall are stars. They hammer awe into us with the softest blow.
Reading Rankine’s short, terse, and honest lines, I can’t help but end up feeling so grateful. For the gentle, expertly seamed wounds are aligned against the most untouched surfaces of our human experience. Her brilliant observation dissolves the line between language and experience.
In every dream I dream
I am asleep (“Letter to the Winding-Sheet”)
If I could
be the shape of your breath in the cold. (“Contact”)
in breath, an indecent thing, these wars
blessed to our bodies. (“Symptoms of Doctrine”)
where there is a city
or say there is no city (“Lament for the Living”)
You know how the body is
a fragile thing. (“Little Children, My Apologies”)
And at last, her ending piece weaves every you addressee into a we, merging the you and I together into a distinct call across modernity, declaring how we exist even at the edge of disaster. Here we are the lit homes, the bones and blood, the knife and lost language, the smashed and rebuilt. We are a collective curiosity and always—yes, always—an impulsive discovery.
What a bright entrance into American poetry Rankine’s Incorrect Merciful Impulses has uncovered.
Buy it from Copper Canyon Press: $16.00
Michael Wasson earned his MFA from Oregon State University. He is nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho and lives abroad.
by Michael Wasson
How might we find ourselves filling the vacancies in the small pieces of the world around us? How might this feel when we know that the psyche we carry along is central to our suffering? In his debut book of poetry, Storm Toward Morning, Malachi Black is not so much our complete answer to these questions but an attempt to beautifully transcribe the experience of questioning via meditative exploration.
Take for example “Psalm: Pater Noster”:
I am your plum:
in the shadow of your mouth
and I will echo as a taste
against your tongue:
To search out the world for metaphors and adding meaning to our experience is a central concern for these poems, and we find ourselves participating. The speaker informs us that it is our plum. Adding urgency and palpability, Black’s speaker seems to be desperate in fixing us together. We are devouring the plum. Hungered. It echoes across our tongues. We praise it.
Here, too, the speaker mines into us. At the same time, we want it. In time, through the pulse of the poem, Black’s speaker has become a part of us. Desire. The need to be wanted. That satisfaction, the very suffering of loneliness reaches out and slips in, transforming from the ache of the mind to the fleshy plum opening in your mouth. And the best part is that you, yes, want it.
Religion and ancient literature seem to ground the collection well. Not oversaturated, but briefly, effectively so. In the aforementioned poem, I notice at first it’s headed with “The Lord’s Prayer.” Throughout, but not limited to, Black helps us reenter Dante’s Canto XIII—the suicide woods—; we witness the canonical hours that he notes is a condensing of “the traditional quarantine period of forty days and forty nights into the passage of one day”; and we see gestures toward Caesar, Archimedes, Marcus Aurelius.
What I find with Black’s clear-eyed and intellectual use of these figures is a profound sense of inwardness by looking to others. Again, it’s that way of locating pieces of the world—be that literary events or a baby grand piano—that we can fill in with ourselves. With Dante’s Canto XIII, Malachi is attentive to the tree in agony: “The tree can speak, and it will shriek until a whole head hangs by a neck-like stem with a dumb body dangling beneath. And hell has won: once borne, the body drops. Another one’s begun.” How much like lives in cycle Malachi Black showcases with this grim scene.
How much like being born, like suffering and hanging on to life, and finally in an instant like dying and being reborn again we simply are in our experience.
Storm Toward Morning is one of those true to form, true to innovation and to ancient concerns of humanity—which seems to always be reoccurring in some way or another—and true to the music in our questioning. We feel guilty in defying powers around us. We feel relieved to break bonds. We are anguished. We are joyous in our celebrations. And we are carving the outlines of our consciousness in the world around us. Malachi Black takes us closer to ourselves and illuminates how “… to burn on.”
A genuine, masterfully skilled, and powerful debut in American poetry—haunting, reflective, and guiding us through by its light, through the dark ruptures of our living, Storm Toward Morning is a magnificent book.
Storm Toward Morning is available from Copper Canyon Press.
Michael Wasson, nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho, earned his MFA from Oregon State University and his BA from Lewis-Clark State College. He received a Joyce Carol Oates Award in Poetry, and his work is included or forthcoming in Poetry Kanto, As/Us, Hayden’s Ferry Review, American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Cutthroat, and elsewhere.