by Liz McGehee
I had the pleasure of meeting Bin Ramke a few years ago at a poetry reading in Denver. I felt compelled to approach him after he recited a few lines referencing his inadequacy with French and a burning desire to communicate with his mother in this language. The ties to East Texas and Louisiana were abundantly clear through dripping imagery and specified flora/fauna. I suspected then that Ramke had Cajun origins similar to my own, which he confirmed after the reading.
Ramke’s poems are riddled with location and one’s disconnection within it as a result of outside forces. His most recent title, Missing the Moon, is no exception. Being from the Gulf Coast, Ramke’s poems have always resonated with me as snapshots of what I lost after Hurricane Katrina, a landscape and culture marred with years of remoteness, forgotten, then suddenly ripped away.
Missing the Moon isn’t merely a book of poems. It is an archive. Ramke’s need to catalogue the environment speaks to the displacement of Gulf Coast natives within their own land and to those who’ve been forced away post natural disaster: “contain is what a body does/until it doesn’t, and spills itself” (13). This retreat into the body mirrors the evacuation of Cajuns into the swamp, the pressure keg of a people forced to assimilate, and the eventual burst when this becomes too much.
Wandering is present throughout the text, along with invasion, appropriation by outsiders, and linguistic colonization:
Someone entered our city
under cover of umbrella, the first,
of many the last to linger he
learned a new language he
came to say to stay, stray.
In this poem, the colonizer forces a new language on the citizens, and stays for a time before discarding the city and people once colonized and drained of any resistance. The remnants of colonization in Louisiana remain physically preserved, unlike Cajun culture and language, which continues to deteriorate daily. Cajuns exist widely in popular culture through the same stereotypes invoked by the education system to regulate them.
In “Locally Euclidian,” Ramke perfectly captures the dislocation of Cajun descendants living between the remote, primitive location of the swamp and the encroachment of colonization, which has forced them there:
Butterflies are known to drink tears
of children along river banks—salt and similar
hormonal secretions attract the metamorphic
species. A child of empire, helpless
little leaflet floating just beneath the surface.
Forest rivers fascinate, beguile by being two worlds
both dangerous. As of overlapping centuries
we belong in neither, tree nor water, air nor
rock. He heard sounds but turned to the piano…
The speaker lives between “two worlds,” one composed of forest and the other of rivers. In this environment, there is nowhere to stand, “we belong to neither.” Cajun people, then, live in limbo represented here by marshland. Both worlds present different dangers, although it seems that nature provides a type of cover, even if unstable.
In the second half of the poem, the speaker states:
rock. He heard sounds but turned to the piano
to interiors; child of Empire, taught the sound
to sit up, to speak, to beg. He would touch
one key with one finger again and again
hours at a time, then sleep, then again
to cure himself he said. But I was thinking
of myself, my days along rivers among trees
wholly within the sounds and airs of anger,
of angels of heat, insects and other stinging
Nor was it the history of water I was recalling
nor was it music, the making of a note.
This poem indicates that the speaker has been forced into this remote existence, retreating “among the trees/wholly within the sounds and airs of anger.” He retreats into the swamp and, ultimately, into himself. The child, taught by the empire to sit, speak, and beg, directly reflects the colonial policing of Cajun children in schools, who were brutally punished for speaking their native French:
…some educators subjected French-speaking students to harsh, humiliating penalties. They called them names like “swamp rat” and “bougalie” (a Louisiana term meaning “lower-class Cajun”), forced them to write lines (“I must not speak French at school”), made them kneel in corners on kernels of corn, or slapped them with rulers (Bernard, 18).
Throughout the book, there is a reoccurrence of children, language, and control working in tandem. In “Inaudible Child,” a young boy is chastened through the English language:
Surely goodness and mercy et cetera
Evilchild is attested as an English surname
from the thirteenth century
Bad Boy he would say when he failed
answer failed boy ailing bad answer
The boy you had had a mind
Of his own his owning a mind
engaged engulfed him how
fear flows through the minding
mannerly behaviors fearful tears
of infancy infect A parent fails…
Here, the boy fails in English and is shamed by the very tool that fails him, referring to himself as a “Bad Boy.” He struggles with autonomy of his own thoughts, which are regulated through the education system and translation. His parents fail to protect him from this.
Following the Red Scare Louisiana’s “Board of Education banned French from classrooms, a move sanctioned by lawmakers in the state constitution of 1921” (Bernard, 18). This move almost single-handedly contributed to the deterioration of Cajun French, allowing educators to discipline French-speaking students. This history is the crux of Ramke’s Missing the Moon.
In “Why It Is Painful to Speak,” we see the damaging effects of translation:
I translate myself into myself—
sane phrases, words and words
Returning into Sabine Bay we would
stare forward into a horizon the dark
smear of cypress and palmetto not
yet arisen to separate sky from water
the shape of the boat a word…
The speaker is forced to translate himself into foreign words. “Pirogue,” the word for boat in Cajun French, has been taken from the speaker. Everything, every word, every part of himself is translated into the language of the colonizer. Words, images, and the self, lose all meaning through the other’s language. One becomes separated from one’s original language, culture, environment, community, and, subsequently, one’s selfhood.
The book concludes without any sort of resolution, reflecting the shambles this community continues to dwell within. “He heard their whine as warning:/full bodies to blood fly, fierce;/little creatures we are, too defenseless/nestled, nestling infestation of self/within self…” (98). Ramke echoes the flight of Cajuns from systematic colonization here. People that would rather occupy unlivable land than submit to the erasure of Americanization.
Missing the Moon speaks to and for a forgotten people, exposing the not-so-distant remnants of this Americanization. It exists as an archive for the voiceless, rewriting history through displacement, and exposing the raw nerves resting quietly under the surface of the swamp.
Omnidawn (2014): $17.95
Bernard, Shake K. “The Cajuns: Americanization of a People.” University Press of Mississippi. 2008. Print.
Liz McGehee is an MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder.
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 Liz McGehee
“We are…the ruthless blood of ancestors” (19).
Imbued with the aching linage of immigrants, Ewa Chrusciel’s contraband of hoopoe is as astonishing as it is honest. Chrusciel’s bright plumage of language builds an ever-displaced nest for her readers in what manifests as pastoral of the relocated other.
Contraband, present in the title, meaning the smuggling or illegal import or export of goods, is more applicable to persons than “goods” or physical objects. The smuggling of souls, traditions, and ways of being are ever-present in Chrusciel’s second book of English language poems:
“Smuggling is translation…It is—for those who are unable to let go—nesting in two places at once…Both translation and smuggling come from longing for presence. From a loss. They speak of insufficiency of one life, one language.” (55).
The emblematic bird melees with clipped wings against her cultural erasure. Neither blending nor allowed to be. Moments of directness juxtapose with symbolic animal imagery, tethering the treatment of immigrants in the west to that of something less than human and to a clear system, which enforces such practices. The ugliness glossed over in American history becomes fully exposed in the radiance of Chrusciel’s prose.
“When I cross the border, I start hiccupping. The officer stares at my
nipples. I carry wonder inside me. I bring abundance. I stir the wings
within him” (13).
Chrusciel said in an interview with Colby Sawyer College that, “Writing in English is the work of smuggling metaphors from one language into another. It is a work of mistranslation. I am a smuggler because I do not like to renounce anything. I want to keep both of the languages and both of the worlds.”
The poems enact this division with the juxtaposition between the direct and indirect, the rapid transitions between animal poems and immigrant poems that take two contrasting approaches on the same subject. “Smuggling” never disappears for long in the text. The narrator deliberates [about] metaphorically “smuggling” her mother’s heirlooms back into the United States. She knows that keeping or bringing things from her homeland is punishable by law, and implicates any form of dissent from Americanization and cultural assimilation an act of treason charged by these new surroundings. The relocated are suspect merely by existing, trapped as other in a strange land.
countries there was paper, but no truth to write on it. We knew the
truth, but had no paper. No paper to wipe off the system. We carried
it like a turf on our asses. What is this culture that cannot regenerate
itself by healthy digestion? This is where we beheld the system” (16).
Here, we see traces of the implemented literary tests after the Immigration Act of 1917 meant to exclude immigrants on their ability to convert to the conquerors language. This poem enacts the disability of such people to perform in foreign tongue as well as the squelching of diversity encountered at western borders.
The author’s direct confrontation with human experience, a range of animals, trees, and prayers follow us from poem to poem, embodying dislocation in this tyrannical landscape. Chrusciel invokes the great flood myth of Noah’s Ark, a myth existing across nearly every culture in one form or another but only recognized in the west via the bible.
Early in Chrusciel’s text Noah appears as smuggler:
“Noah smuggled a blue-footed booby in his resin boat. But how was
infinity smuggled in the blue feet of the booby? It crouched in his
webbed feet and chanted madrigals. Booby, you strut your blue feet in
the air and point the human species to the sky. No smuggler can get
hold of your blueness. You are the incarnation of the sky…” (30).
Noah is simultaneously savior and oppressor. In the poem, he takes it upon himself to save the booby, which has no desire for rescue, forcing it into the post-flood world now dictated by Noah and God. He embodies the insidious western, Christian colonization virusing its way across humanity. Noah’s prayers later develop into fins, allowing him mobility through this new domain where the animals become fixed.
No hierarchy of the soul exists but we witness a crafted system of inequality implemented by individuals with disproportionate power. Life dwells not only within animals, but trees, and other parts of nature in the text, ascribing to pre-colonized religions. Chrusciel creates a totem pole, always honoring the ancestors, always championing equity, and revealing a naturalized system.
“There is no life for them in the old Continent, these pigeons called
rats. They have acquired the wrong reputation. They coo their litanies.
They sing to the faces of their landlords. They congregate on balconies
To interfere with Sunday hymns. The pigeons are better worshipers,
There is something akin to the oral tradition of the American slaves running through the book. Perhaps to remind us the law once protected that slavery, and likewise, immigration laws continue to subjugate the other, the non-conformist, and the diverse, stifling languages and deviant voices. Chrusciel reminds us that we are still being internally colonized.
The hoopoe, which hails from Africa, is referenced in the Quran (verse 27:20) and Chrusciel quotes this verse on the very last page, “How is it that I see not the hoopoe, or is he among the absent?” The reply in the Quran (not mentioned in the text) states:
“But the hoopoe tarried not far: he compassed (territory) which thou has not compassed …” Quran 27:22.
We can interpret this in contraband of hoopoe as the internal, the soul, a territory that can never be subdued, though many will try. Despite the overwhelming assault of limitation, Chrusciel leaves us with this hope of inward mobility.
“The most fantastical truths can be smuggled only through the windy labyrinths of our body’s cavity” (19).
That is that, when the body cannot travel, it is the soul that must fly.
contraband of hoopoe can be found on Omnidawn’s website.
Liz McGehee is an MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder.