Tagged: Michael Wasson

REVIEW: Incorrect Merciful Impulses by Camille Rankine


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 prisoner

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.

REVIEW: LETTERRS by Orlando White

by Michael Wasson

“It begins at a diacritical spark… of breath… and soma”

And so we enter Orlando White’s meditative, intelligent, and echoing second book, LETTERRS, both a collection of unsettling silence and precise clangor. As a shift from his first book, Bone Light (Red Hen Press, 2009), White moves from the examination of thought to the philosophical relationship between print and sound.

Within the utterance and inscription of a letter, LETTERRS advances what a poem does in its own tightening—that is, how a poem resists, subverts, and fragments so-called tradition. We begin with “Nascent,” a long poem playing out a woven origin between sound and flesh.


White possesses an incredible, deft hand in setting a word with amplified effect. We find ourselves in the clocklike uterus of the poem’s process—a slowed down act of creation. At each break, at each movement of language, we throb into rhythm, weighted, layered, wrapped in meanings that propagates at a velocity maintained by the page. His opening poem carves out a trajectory like a wavelet of sound escaping the lips and pervading the air.

As such, White very much considers a poem’s “air” space—how effect travels and is guided by the simple act of a person reading his “letters”—and he does so via the tension of uncolored emptiness fielded between each word; the human, bodied shapes communicated among letters, sound, and thought; and through the many depths of meanings that words carry along with them from the past and into the present. For instance, his “Nascent” uses the word ictus: a rhythmical or metrical stress, or a seizure/stroke.

We are given the graceful tempo within prosody, and yet we hold the medical meaning of a seizure—a violence stripping the body of its control.

If we read the white spaces with as much care as his use of word meanings, we will begin to see the poems in LETTERRS methodically blooming, firing, fading, quivering, and breathing—all so gradually. In the midst of a single word, even in the process of a poem unfolding, White submerges us into the body of the page as it undergoes its powerful gestation, echoing his words as though their very ink carries the weight of myths, creations, stories, truths, and sound from the inside of one’s own body to the light of the living world.

And once we are spoken, possibly in one’s mother tongue (here at times Diné bizaad, which is beautifully woven in), we undulate our very existence out to one another. White provides some philosophical puzzles that help lay out a clearing into which we can reach: Are we indefinite? If so, and if our languages, either written or oral, strive to live in perpetuity, what happens when we are silenced of our language? How do we interact with our languages?

Through a large portion of LETTERRS, we are seated to watch the stories of alphabetical letters develop. White’s speakers ask us to participate in each letter-headed poem—from a to o. We see an a as an ox, telling us “People create from what their objects / create for them.” answering immediately, “That’s why text behaves,” why text is a living entity.

Likewise, the speakers of these pieces are not so much prophets or philosophers as actual truth tellers, examining how space, ink, gesture, stroke, and being are commingled together to create our orthographical perceptions. We hear d gasping nearer to our eardrums; we sound out like kids again an e, us and the letter both genuflected “to worship in silence”; g is curvilinear shaped like the innermost bone-work of a human ear, asking “how does a letter become another when its origin / is lost? n begs us to consider our very own being as it swings between “page, ink.”; o is an eye, an aperture, funneling our vision as the nerves constantly diagram light, white, dark, and depth.

Masterfully, White holds us in light of his book’s arc, which started at the beginning, before the very first words of “Nascent,” á la Edwin Torres: “Poets are citizens of language.” We are to live inside language, deep beneath the flesh, embedded like bones, hearing and sounding out—erring along the way. But, as such, we too are language citizens, part of a larger narrative and aggregate that practices language to continue its mysteries, failures, flaws, and successes.

I think from “Nascent” to “Unwritten” to “Finis” and “Cephalic,” White opens us up to an echoed landscape in which letters, writing, sound, and thought slow down to eye one another closely. So close you can hear their eyes blinking. White engraves his poetry into us to reveal the shapes of our letters like “a limb still composing,” something stretched around us like skin, “always tightening.”

And just as we take pen to paper, it is White who reminds us to participate. To “behead the i, and watch its dot head roll to the back of a sentence.”

A powerfully intelligent book by an indigenous writer expertly capable of writing the procedures of our own human acts of communication—these fleshed and sounded letters.

Buy it from Nightboat Books: $17.95

Michael Wasson earned his MFA from Oregon State University. He is nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation and lives in rural Japan.

REVIEW: Storm Toward Morning by Malachi Black

storm toward morning

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:
Enfold me
in the shadow of your mouth
and I will echo as a taste
against your tongue:
I am
your praise:

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.

REVIEW: Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Light


by Michael Wasson

Can it look so effortless to locate us in a bright opening as Souvankham Thammavongsa’s book Light? Her collection begins, “This is a clearing,” a spatial entrance so cleared of everything but one caveat, or “one rule,” that you “will bind to yourself like a promise / to begin.” In a way, we’re guided along and given a clear outline.

At the outset, the speaker brings us in, demonstrating how to start. With such a deft and soft hand, Thammavongsa doesn’t so much as urge as she lets us become receptacles to the possibilities of what’s before us: light, shapes, direction, and the very marked contours that remain here.

Reading Thammavongsa’s Light, we can’t help but feel opened, but not so much in a vulnerable way—as in grief or bearing fresh wounds—but merely as passive bodies left open at the lips pressed between the dark and light, the point at which a singular transformation enters us so easily. And to be transformed openly is a common concern for these poems:

fie mot is what happens when you’re not expecting it

This poem “Fie,” one of many that examines how another language says light or some sort of light source, shows us how to say fire in Lao. Going through the foundation word of fire, or fie, provides us then with how to say words for flashlight, fire when it burns through structures, or the sound of thunder. In Thammavongsa’s gentle surgery and guidance through several languages, we are in the audience role as a vessel—simply driven in place to receive, not expecting complex issues or dense manifestos.

Thammavongsa’s poetry is one leaning on the grace of simplicity, never overtly didactic, never verbose or meandering. Each poem explores our central theme: light. To be lit, to experience its absence, to need it, to part with it, to experience how slowly devoured we are by its presence, and in a way, almost speak for it.

Also, in the same vein, Thammavongsa illuminates the “marks”—I’d clarify as the “letters”—of her poems, allowing the whitespace to create clearer utterances within her poems. Her lines seem airy, almost floating. They are wrought with her initial declaration of “This is a clearing,” which we can then realign as “these are clearings,” creating a link from the book as a whole all the way down to the light pooling between her syntax. It’s a lovely, threaded effect.

Like light, Thammavongsa’s Light touches on so many aspects on a human’s life, too—failure, preparing for a return, text on the page, ceremonializing awe, love, and the beauty of continuation, as in the poem “Mountain Ash,” in which we know “Ash is what fire leaves behind” but we are challenged to consider that there is more: “Whatever we know of fire, we know it is not done.”

The most salient poem of the book, I find, is “Questions Sent to a Light Artist That Were Never Answered,” an unforgettable piece that equally critiques and advocates our obsessions:

  1. When you think about the word light, what comes to mind first?
  1. Do you work with real light (light from the sun) or only with electrical light?
  1. What are you trying to do with light?
  1. Do you think or work with the dark?
  1. What can’t you get light to do?
  1. Why light?

This book straightforwardly articulates its singular concern, thereby letting its source to permeate from the speaker’s vantage point. Again, we remain open, we are accepting, and ultimately we are changed in the process.

And in all its observations from a giant squid’s eye (that could absorb so much light but why so when it lived “where there was no light at all”) to the refracted, anaphoric effect of constant memories of one’s life surfacing, Light is a rich, enlightening experience that honors human curiosity. It’s a journey that I’m delighted to have embarked on with such a clear-eyed guide as Souvankham Thammavongsa.

Light is available from Pedlar 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.