by José Angel Araguz
By two we enter
the story, and leave the ark built
of catastrophes –
Via Biblical allusion, these lines from Rosa Alcalá’s poem “The Story to be Written” stress how reader and writer necessitate and need each other, meeting in the “ark” of the written work. Throughout the “telling/of catastrophes” found throughout the works of Rosa Alcalá, Craig Watson, and Elisabeth Whitehead, this collection of chapbooks shows itself to be engaging with the way literature manifests itself past the page.
Rosa Alcalá’s To the Archives begins the collection with its poem “Projection,” which finds the poet using varying fonts to quote from Ben Rubin’s media installation, “And That’s Just the Way It Is” (University of Texas-Austin, Cronkite Plaza) and Walter Cronkite’s news report of President Kennedy’s assassination.
This maneuvering and blurring of the world between text and story is continued in “Notes on Pasiphae.” Through a longer line, we move from myth to the computer screen, to the infamous act of coerced bestiality Pasiphae is famous for (which led to the birth of the minotaur), to a meditation on the way these acts are rendered through various paintings, ending on a final moment in which ideas of motherhood are juxtaposed against that fateful moment where parent and child meet:
…Here, they stared
at each other – mother, monster. A maze long before any built.
Mixing her own voice with that of Jacques Derrida, Alice Notley, Barbara Guest, Julia Kristeva, and Michel de Certeau, Alcalá then works out a meditation on ideas of voice in terms of language (spoken, unspoken, written) in the poem “Voice: An Essay.” Family stories and ghosts are mixed in with intellectual reckoning. Throughout these poems, one feels a reaching after that space between reading and understanding, where the self lives unknowingly, almost as a ghost.
Craig Watson’s Almost Invisible: Depositions from Neverland focuses on the way that “J. M. Barrie’s life and fantasies were so integrated, so seamless, that one continually became the substance of the other.” This blurring between what is written and what read, what made up and what made real through reading abounds through Watson’s poems.
The muddied relationship of the story of Peter Pan and the story of J.M. Barrie begins to be explored right off in the opening poem, in which the character of Mrs. Darling begins by asking:
All children, except one, never change. Does this make me the
only to end with:
All children, except one, kill their birth with a new story. So who is
the narrator now?
The narrative implications in these two statements is powerful. In the first, it is an adult voice that presents the logic of what defines a child, namely that they “never change;” that is, “except [for] one.” The change implied is that of adulthood, which would point to the speaker, Mrs. Darling. What is also implied is a relationship between narrative and change. This relationship is further complicated in the closing formulation of the opening statement and question. If a “new story” can “kill [the] birth” of a child, then one must wonder what possibilities are opened via the new narratives being created by Mrs. Darling’s meditation here via Watson’s project.
These ideas explored in the voice of a fictional character are counterpointed with the voice of a person in the poem “David Barrie,” which a note informs us is:
…J.M.’s brother, drowned while both boys were young. Their mother…grieved so deeply that there were times J.M. pretended to be David to garner attention.
This narrative charges the meaning of these lines presented in David’s voice:
In the paradise of self-interest
You can learn to be someone else.
Time’s up, lights out.
Anyway, sorry about that promise
It was dead when I found it.
Are they looking for you too?
The interplay of voices – J.M. via David, both via Watson – is revelatory in its implications. This poem, with its layers of narratives, seems to be asking: How much life is lived in the voices of others, via reading, or, in J.M.’s case, in the gestures of others?
Whereas Alcalá and Watson frame their projects with outside texts to take familiar narratives to unfamiliar places, Elisabeth Whitehead’s To the Solar North project starts with the unfamiliar and takes the reader further into unfamiliarity. Here is the first section of the opening sequence, “Pilgrim”:
she was collected toward the borderlines / with hanging pelts / a mover’s supply of the finest quality / fibers brand / cigarettes paper / post cards from the old city and internal / detail / how to construct a model- / animal or wood spine with field books occasioning / the frequency of prison- / ships sustenance / on vials of sugared water
What is unfamiliar here is the broken narrative presented through a line capable of phrasal and visual jolts. As the project goes on, this approach opens up to some startling lyrical moments, like the following from “At the Lodging House”:
3 silk purses 3 garnet rings / pulled aside for barter
and the soft grains make the stomach churn / elder and spiral a water- /
our first view of a city:
an appeal or merciful /
what will you bear of it /
in waiting of course /
gilded of this /
Elsewhere, the use of the slash mark produces a kind of break in narrative cohesion as well as setting up a kind of binary within the details and what’s said. Here, however, the slash marks are used as a kind of imaginative space, playing against the setup of “our first view of a city” and offering only half of the conceptual “view,” the other half necessarily left up to the reader’s imagination. As the project returns to its theme of travel again and again, the reader is presented with varying ways in which the “ark” of a poem can tread water.
Buy it from Instance Press (2014): $15
José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and winner of RHINO Poetry’s 2015 Editor’s Prize. He is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. His collection, Everything We Think We Hear, is forthcoming from Floricanto Press. He runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.
by José Angel Araguz
While Angels of the Americlypse: An Anthology of Latin@ Writing provides no shortage of interest, I decided to limit
myself to three “stops,” highlighting how each in their own respective way points to the inclusive/expansive spirit of the anthology, all the while detailing the unique reading experience it offers. In their introduction, the editors describe their intent as wanting “to invite, to welcome, to unerase and reinscribe, to expand the landscape by making it visible” (xvi). One of the ways in which this work is done is in the anthology’s structure: Angels presents each writer with an introduction, a sample of their work, and space for their own aesthetic statement. This thorough approach to each section allows for not only a glimpse into each writer’s literary voice as well as craft/personal voice, but, along with the introductions, points in many ways to the overall conversation each writer’s work is engaged in. This structure has the accumulative effect of evoking how alive the field of Latin@ writing is today.
Stop 1: Rosa Alcalá
In his introduction to Alcalá’s work, Peter Ramos asks: “Where is the line, the border, between one’s cultural identities and one’s supposedly true self?” (5). The selected poems that follow seem to take turns engaging with this question. Compare the first line of “Voice Activation” with that of “Paramour”:
This poem, on the other hand, is activated by the sound of my voice, and, luckily, I am a native speaker (“Voice Activation”)
English is dirty. Polyamorous…(“Paramour”)
Writing against an epigraph by Wittgenstein on how a poem “is not used in the language-game of giving information,” the first line of “Voice Activation” plays the idea of “native speaker” against that of a poem “activated by the sound of my own voice” and, doing so, complicates the act of writing. There is a powerful assertion in this line – that the writer is capable of both accessing the ineffable (with its connotations of the unknowable and unutterable) as well as being fluent in the ineffable – that is later counterpointed in the poem by lines like:
Have no doubt, my poem is innocent and transparent. So when I say, I think I’ll make myself a sandwich, the poem does not say, I drink an isle of bad trips (6).
In using the language of reassurance, Alcalá is able to both allay the ineffable as well as invite it in. This ability to navigate between the several ways language(s) can mean (and unmean) is a key facet of much of in this anthology, one that highlights the sentiment behind the line “English is dirty. Polyamorous.” In the two short sentences that open the poem “Paramour,” an act of “unerasing” and “reinscribing” occurs, which is repeated and developed, becoming a rhetorical engine driving the rest of the poem.
Stop 2: Norma E. Cantú
In her aesthetic statement, Norma E. Cantú describes herself as being “[t]rained in semiotics” as well as “an undocumented folklorist – that is, I do not have any formal training in folkloristics” (54). If these statements are unpacked a bit more, Cantú can first be seen as a reader of signs. The latter statement’s juxtaposition of the word “undocumented” with the vocation of “folklorist” – the former a charged word for Latin@s, at times meaning illegal, and often implied in describing someone as being sin papeles (without papers) – complicates both terms, expressing an interest in both signs and folklore beyond the page (beyond papers). As the title of her aesthetic statement makes clear, Cantú focuses her reading of sign and folklore in order to “[See/Look] through a Chicana Third Space Feminist Lens.”
This seeing/looking takes us through the lives of three women – Aminda, Mercedes Zamora, & Elisa – from the novel Champú, or Hair Matters excerpted in this anthology. In Cantú’s particular mode of storytelling, which John-Michael Rivera in his introduction to her work describes as a “[conceptual] meld [of] autoethnographic technique with poststructuralist theories,” brings South Texas to life. Within each character’s story, many lives collide, celebrate, and pass each other through narrative as alive and charged as gossip and an unexpected phone call. Laredo becomes as rich as one’s own palm; lifelines cross each in their individual streaks but hold together as a resonant whole. An example of this kind of engaging narrative comes in this short passage from Aminda’s story in which she recounts her reaction to running into a medical intuitive:
Pues to make a long story short, I was intrigued and scheduled a session with the medical intuitive. It was intense. After six hours in session, I was exhausted. I cried and laughed and felt elated and full of life. She says we can heal ourselves (48).
This passage shows how Cantú mixes formal choices and an openness of voice to create a narrative that is engaging, direct, and real. This passage is also a favorite moment of mine because of how close this kind of narrative takes the reader into the thinking of the character. I found myself able to read the words She says we can heal ourselves both for what they say within the story’s context but also what they say about the spirit of this anthology. Angels provides example after example of how we as writers can heal ourselves by taking on the cultural and literary landscapes within and without.
Stop 3: Edwin Torres
Travel on the back of a poet in flight – the conjured modalities among a century’s search is where answers shapeshift among the alphabets. (294)
These words, taken from Edwin Torres’ own aesthetic statement, are a good place to round out this short ride through this anthology. With its focus on new Latin@ writing, Angels of the Americlypse offers the opportunity to do just what Torres suggests in this sentence: that we “travel” with this group of writers, experience some of the “century’s search” and be witness to “answers” as they “shapeshift among the alphabets.” The following three stanzas, drawn from Torres’ poem “ME NO HABLA SPIC,” tie together and evoke this anthology’s fascination with temporal and cultural reality, how both shape each other, “unerasing” and “reinscribing” who we are along the way:
i remember one afternoon in soho
sitting on the sidewalk
with my long-haired cat harry
single and care-free
showing my beautiful pet to the world
people passing by, saying
what a cute spic
i remember reading every email i sent
to feel as if i were the person
receiving my own words, basking in their clever reach
to feel the warmth of many messages
from many people, all of them me
a conglomerate of sinewy desperation
wrapped up in the viral opportunity of a cute spic
i remember sitting in soho
with my two-year old son
surrounded by expensive buildings
where there used to be none, the world passing
me, just thankful to get some rest
in the sun’s imperfections, the people
ooh’ing and ahh’ing, what a cute spic (273-279)
By bringing together some of the most exciting work being written today along with the thoughts and conversations behind them, Angels of the Americlypse stands as an essential and illuminating anthology.
Available from Counterpath Press for $35.
José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and winner of Rhino Poetry’s 2015 Editor’s Prize. He has had poems recently in Poet Lore, Borderlands, and The Laurel Review. He is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati. Reasons (not) to Dance, a chapbook of flash fiction/prose poems, is forthcoming this summer from FutureCycle Press. He runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.
by Jose Angel Araguz
…what I write isn’t memoir or autobiography; it’s sometimes messy and discursive and collaged—call it lyric, experimental, what have you—but I’m not ashamed to say that I “draw” (I’m thinking of both a graphic mark and a blood-draw) quite a bit from autobiography, that identity is central to my work
…a graphic mark and a blood-draw –
Within the idea of the artist’s mark, there is the implication of creation, of continuing to work at something fresh. The graphic mark also carries ideas of control and exploration. The blood-draw, on the other hand, brings in a world of double meaning. Because it is blood, it is intimate, it is physical and fluid and life. Blood is also family, where one comes from. Yet, the blood-draw also brings to mind the hospital. The blood-draw within this context is also life: blood is drawn for the sake of others, in this case not family in the strict sense, but the family of blood types, the tribes of positive and negative and neutral. Between these two ideas of drawing, the world of Undocumentaries can be said to unfold.
In the poem “In the Waiting Room,” for example, the reader follows the meditation of the speaker as she, “sit[s] for hours looking at open-mouthed babies” (Alcala 75). The meditation moves from the immediate scene to the political implications, both of being a young woman having to “submit/to the whole silly production” as well as the knowledge that:
the cluster of beings the technician
examines for future antagonisms
against the state, it will never find one
worthy of being knighted, no perfect
The poem takes on another layer at this point, moves from ideas of womanhood to ideas of race. The tension in these ideas lies in both the lightheartedly cynical phrasing of “silly production” on one end, and the calling of the doctor as “technician” and children as “future antagonisms.” These choices in diction set up a speaker able to make the distance of language allow for an intimacy in feeling. The poem continues:
English gentleman. This my mother knew
despite all the fanfare about Charles and Diana’s
wedding: princes and kings marry their own:
keep washing the dishes (except she said it
The rumination on race becomes one on motherhood, specifically the speaker’s mother. Race remains prominent, however, in the content of what exactly her mother “knew.” Her mother knew of segregation as much as daydreaming: knew about class as much as glamor. Family here is presented as where one draws their knowledge of the world from.
Furthermore, family becomes what is learned as well as relearned:
…As early as possible,
we learn to flirt with the guy who sells or makes
bed springs, those things beneath us
that cushion our sleep. Someone who never
discusses what he does, and works overtime
to bring the rest of his family
The unspoken comes into play here in the potential “Someone who never/discusses what he does,” and echoes much of what the book is about: the “undocumentary” as what is left unsaid or unshown.
This exploration of the tension between said/unsaid and shown/unshown is continued in “Confessional Poem,” where the image of a clothesline is taken on for its narrative potential. Alcala jumps right into the clothesline as metaphor for the poetic line with the first lines:
The girl next door had something to teach me
about what to air: On the line
somebody’s business gets told
then recounted; it’s best to thread a tale
for the neighbors, an orchestration
What is immediately striking about these lines is their confidence, their almost swagger, which
challenges the conventional notions of gossip the clothesline carries. These lines, in their tone and knowing, bring to mind the work of Sylvia Plath – a connection furthered by the choice of title “Confessional Poem.” At other points in the book, Alcala shows an awareness of writing within a poetic tradition (“A girl like me falls in love/with Yeats/and never recovers” from the poem “Undocumentary” is but one example), but nowhere else does the writing both indicate and challenge a specific tradition as it does here. The comparison to Plath is in terms of tone as well as the awareness each poet shows at working at a craft that is as much manipulation as a magic born of honesty.
…You wouldn’t know it
from the delicates I roll
into the yard. It’s all the same peek-a-boo lace
and stunted imagination. Of course,
all of this is scanty truth
Within the context of a poem called “Confessional Poem,” words like “delicates,” “peek-a-boo lace” and “scanty” are charged with multiple layers of meaning. One marvels at the wordplay at first for the skill on the poet’s part, and later for what it says of the speaker of these words, the self-deprecating air the words hang in. In drawing out the metaphor of the clothesline, Alcala presents a speaker aware of the insidious nature of narrative, how it has both the potential for showing as well as concealing. No story is the whole story. For a poem with the word “Confessional” in the title, very little is confessed. In fact, the idea that something personal can come through in a poem is challenged. Yet, in developing ideas of ways that narratives can be created and manipulated, the speaker of this poem gives an almost truer confession: the confession of a magician drawing back the curtain, the confession of a poet who knows how much control they have over language and how little control they have over life.
The poem’s final note drives this point home:
…Who hangs anything out to dry
when invention has halved the work?
This “halving” implies what is left unsaid in the act of documenting. The poems of Undocumentaries, at their most powerful, draw out – graphically, viscerally – the unsaid.
*(opening quote taken from “Latino/a Poetry Now: 3 Poets discuss their art (Rosa Alcala, Eduardo C. Corral, Aracelis Girmay).” Melendez, Maria. Poetry Society of America, n.d. Web. 22 Nov. 2013).
Undocumentaries is available from Shearsman Books.
José Angel Araguz, author of the chapbook Corpus Christi Octaves, is a CantoMundo fellow. Winner of RHINO Poetry’s 2015 Editor’s Prize, he has had poems recently in Blue Mesa Review, Pilgrimage, and NANO Fiction as well as in the anthology Goodbye Mexico: Poems of Remembrance. He is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. He runs the poetry blog, The Friday Influence.