by José Angel Araguz
…poetry was there for me as a refuge and as a way to channel and redirect neural energies. In terms of the book, it is a personal struggle, but also a family and a social one. I come from damaged hemispheres, both biographically as someone with epilepsy, and politically as the child of a colonized island.
The personal and social worlds of the poet as well as the implied agency of seeking “refuge,” “channeling,” and “redirecting” all come together in Urayoán Noel’s latest collection Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico to present a vision of poetry as (inter)active narrative. Yet, these pieces are born not only of personal experiences and their social implications but also how both of these factors are translated from language to language, moment to moment, and even technology to technology. Many of the pieces in this book were written via various smartphone apps (including word and anagram generators, Google Translate, etc.). Also, as the poet notes: “Certain poems were composed in English and Spanish simultaneously, while others are performative, experimental, or nonequivalent self-translations. In some cases, the line between translation and original is deliberately blurry.” Along with such rigorous structural framework and play, the collection is pleasingly grounded at each turn in a sensibility able to alternate not only between languages but also between personal and social purpose.
An example of the alternating current (pun on a book title by Octavio Paz intended) running through the collection can be found in the sequence “Décimas del Otro Mundo/Otherworldly Décimas,” in which the poet presents a series of décimas, a traditional Spanish form, in both Spanish and English, along with an Afro-Taíno refrain:
Revolución de las alas, Revolution of the wings,
revolución de las noches, revolution of the nights,
revolución sin derroches, revolution that unites
eufemismos, ni antesalas, with the clarity it brings,
revolución de las balas revolution of all things
en la cuna en que morí, in the death cradle that claimed me,
un abikú y su cemí an abikú and his cemí
en selvas neoliberales in neoliberal pastures
de retoños irreales: governed by unreal masters:
aguoro tente omi ki’. aguoro tente omi ki’. …
This combination of three languages within a traditional Spanish form by itself subverts tradition in order to evoke the kind of confluence of cultures that make up Latin America. Beyond this subversion, however, there is the poet’s use of bold type to bring forward a third poem from the English. In this particular décima, the world “revolution” is chanted in bold, insisted upon, only to open up to “the clarity it brings.” Noel’s use of language and type face here parallel the literal movement implied by the word “revolution”; the eye of the reader falls on the page and reads one poem, then returns and reads another. This kind of engagement with the text is of great value to this collection’s vision.
Another mode of drafting poems employed in this collection is that of the improvised oral poem. One such poem here is “Voz Quebrada/Voice Creaks” which the poet recorded “on a smartphone while walking along Cripple Creek Road in Tallahassee, Florida.” This mode of writing is compelling as it presents the poet embracing technology with the same kind of spontaneity and attention as anyone at their desks with a writing prompt. Instead of a word bank, there is the bank of a creek on a given date; yet, there is the poet in their solitude, working out such insights as:
This accident of voice
these surroundings unmarked
except for the trademarks I carry
remarks without recharging
this gadget defines my song
but no battery in the world
can power the promise
of this brown orange green
of this hazelnut pine
While one can see the influence of the performative mode of writing on the subject matter in a line like “this gadget defines my song,” there is also an indirect musical influence; the internal rhyming of “unmarked,” “trademark,” and “remarks” here show how thought and music alternate while at the same time following each other toward the purpose of song.
The narrative of struggle and understanding of what the poet terms above as his biographically “damaged hemispheres” also alternates throughout the collection. Early on, the piece “My Burning Hemisphere” presents the following scene:
The July fourth I spent at the hospital I woke up staring at the smudge of waterfront across the East River. That night the fireworks would crawl like serpents up my skin, matching the wires tangled in my head.
My epileptologist would later tell me, you’re lucky (to be a poet, he meant, and work with the language part of the brain, in school, at my own pace—or at least that’s how I heard it).
Trying to seem smart, I nodded, mumbling something about neurons and dominant hemispheres, but soon the fog had dominated me. It wasn’t river fog, it was the fog of self as it slogs through way stations, looking out smudged windows at cities for once festive.
He might have simply said “the sky, it clears for no one,” and I might have started to agree, had I had the strength, had the serpents not returned.
One notes right away that the narrative of this particular piece is carried less in the actual details of what occurs between the speaker and the epileptologist than in the sensations through which the speaker understands and remembers. The speaker tries a number of times to listen and hold onto the moment, only to mishear and drift into a “fog” of what “might have simply [been] said.” What is significant here is how the struggle against “fog” and “serpents” leads the speaker to a silence that they quickly turn into an imaginative space. While not able to clearly see what’s happening, the speaker is able to evoke in a poem what happens when they see that they are not seeing.
One of the more compelling pieces, “Scene Apps/Synapse,” a piece that Noel notes is half comprised of “free-form and selective translations of passages from father of modern neurology, Jean-Martin Charcot’s book Les démoniaques dans l’art (Demoniacs in Art, 1887)” picks up the “damaged hemispheres” narrative, albeit indirectly. The poet’s translations of Charcot alternate between word lists “generated with a random-word generator app for smartphone and then (mis)translated using Google Translate.” This mix of objective meditation and technological randomness evokes again the “fog” of the earlier poem as well as the project’s overall variations of the word “hemisphere” as having both a global and neurological meaning. The “fog” of the earlier poem is the poet’s own condition; to have an echo of that struggle derive indirectly from an alternation of texts such as in this piece is moving on both an aesthetic and human level.
Furthermore, the nature of the project, with its engagement with code-switching as well as embrace of mistranslation and self-translation, moved me as I read this particular piece to return to the title “Scene Apps/Synapse” and translate it into Spanish (“Sin Apps,” which in English would mean “Without Apps”) which also evokes an English variation (“Sin Apps,” meaning the apps of sin). Far from being immaterial, this train of thought is indicative of the kind of readings this project lends itself to. In reading the alternating text, moving from the coherent, articulate prose of Charcot to the technologically generated randomness of the word lists, the descriptions of the epilepsy-like episodes take on a more intimate verisimilitude; such involuntary episodes do leave a person split between coherence and intrusive chance, in a state “Without Apps” to help distinguish, navigate, or ground reality. The mistranslation into English “Sin Apps” also feels connected to the piece in the way that it mirrors how the father of modern neurology’s analogies and interpretations of these episodes are put in terms of demoniacs.
The fight against being pinned down, whether politically or biologically, is an American struggle (America here meaning not just the U.S. but all of the Americas). Noel responds to the forces, large and small, around him with movement: the movement of wordplay as well as the movement of his own voice on the wind. Through performance and chance, (mis)translation and mashup, this collection presents a poet willing to push and reach out in much the same way the speaker’s mother does in “Rumoreos/Her Hemisphere in Me”:
pensé en como siempre te lamentabas I thought about how you always regretted being de ser la única en tu familia que cantaba feo the only one in your family who couldn’t sing y en como siempre encontré tu voz linda and how I always found your voice pretty por el esfuerzo in its exertion por como te empujabas para llegarle a la nota in how you would strain to reach a note
Again and again, this book presents the kind of poetry that if you were to only hear it you would miss what there is to see; yet, if you were only to see this work, you know it would be worth it to hear it aloud. These poems, more than any I’ve read in a while, ask you to consider and read them in the languages you know, and to suss them out in the languages you can barely guess at, for these poems speak the languages we’re made of.
Noel ends the collection with “Signs of the Hemisphere/Letreros del Hemisferio,” a poem that evokes Whitman in its scope, and in which, like a 21st century Whitman, he strikes a note of communion and continuity:
who hears what I’m reciting? here’s what I’m reciting the echo and the wave’s crest I leave the rest to resigning politicians and the bankers who are gasping for heirs and so I leave the word in hopeful ruin I transcribe our reunion with your help I begin to transcribe I transscrub I transscrawl I transcry while holding ground over the missing tongue with your help I begin I’m reciting the cyst I’m resisting the sigh I’m restoring the song with your help I’m resetting the sky
Buy it from The University of Arizona 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.
by Katherine Faigen
To date, one of my favorite books of poetry is Jennifer Elise Foerster’s 2013 publication Leaving Tulsa, published by the University of Arizona Press. I was excited, therefore, to visit an AZ Press representative at AWP this year and explore recent publications. After recounting my love of Foerster’s mystery and rich images, their rep introduced me to Laura Da’s new book Tributaries. It did not disappoint. Tributaries, a mostly narrative collection that explores Da’s identity as a Native American, opens with “Earth Mover,” a poem that recounts a birth as seemingly violent as Da’s Shawnee history. As the poem’s speaker “…brace[s] / for the abrasion that draws the past / glistening into the present” Da’s reader understands that this past will be visual, difficult, and intermittently bloody. We, too, brace ourselves.
In Tributaries, Da’ seems interested in sourcing her personal streams to a greater ancestral body of water. Her book is broken into four sections that separate Da’s childhood and present from the past travails of her family.
Of these sections, “The Always Frontier” is the most personal. The speaker is an “I” who gives birth, who “rode the bus,” who “resist[s] the urge to panic,” and who, during the staging of a play about Shawnee leader Tecumseh, wonders “are we mocked or honored?”
The first poem, “Earth Mover,” contains visceral imagery and sets up the reader for an examination of Da’s recent and inherited past. “Earth Mover” begins with the birth of her son and a description of her cesarean section,
Ferocious and sly, my mind’s talon
plucks liquid movements from rivers.
arteries, ink, amniotic fluid, delicate webs of optical nerves.
Puckered prospect of the Cesarean veil.
Da’ juxtaposes the image of “my skin twisted in stainless steel pliers” with Ohio Valley settlers who, “enamored with the idea of excavation,” “pilfered” the work of Native American mound builders, searching for “feather headdresses, flakes of mica, pot shards.” From the beginning of Tributaries, we understand that this birth is as violent and invasive as the desecration of sacred mounds, and it is the catalyst for Da’ examination of her history.
More than personal, “The Always Frontier” is an examination of where Da’s personal identity and her society engage. Throughout Tributaries Da’ is interested in education and its influence by and on Native American culture. In “The Always Frontier” we first meet the native American God, Raven, interacting with a seventh grade textbook:
Raven curls his talons
against a newspaper rag…
that attributes his myth to an anthropologist
who travelled along the Pacific Coast
fifty years ago
“Raven talks of Curriculum” is a poem in which a young, Native American speaker, moves through her early history learning about Native American culture in school. The poem, in multiple sections, moves back and forth between rich, phonic visuals:
with the patchy lichen-skin
and bulky silhouettes
of kids slumped on a coach
under the murky slush of flood water…
and moments of narrative exposition:
2013: the school district procures
new texts – feigned Native narratives.
As if to say with a shrug,
Colonialism had children and grandchildren too.
Other poems in this section work with similar themes. As Da’ travels from the Northwest to Ohio’s Miami River and Chillicothe – from where the government relocated Da’s family during the period of removal – she encounters more “feigned Native narrative” and struggles against these appropriations. As she recounts her experiences, Da’ refuses to provide specific clarity and context to those Native narratives she encounters. The history of Tecumseh, the Shawnee, the period of removal, and the mission schools is not something Da’ explicitly recounts. She keeps these histories close and narrates them only as they relate to her personally. By doing this, Da’ challenges her reader’s sense of history. Ours is partial and exists in textbooks. Da’s version is blood-filled.
In “The Tecumseh Motel” the speaker is amongst a group of “honored guests” who attend a locally performed tribute to Tecumseh’s War in which scalping and death by gauntlet are bloodily reenacted.
Crack the egg onto the actor’s head.
Red matter will slide down the crown
And eggshell will mimic shards of skull.
In “American Towns” a museum curator teaches students about relocation by
…stippl[ing] red paint onto the sandy ground
simulating the gore of a military flogging.
As these histories and encounters begin to heap, Da ending to “The Always Frontier” is perfect and poignant:
I want my ink to bellow –
Where is the ground unstained with blood?
When “Lazarous Shale: the Period of Removal” begins, we don’t actually see the blood of the Shawnee battles Da recounts in “The Always Frontier.” Instead, Da sets her second section in 1830 with a quote from President Andrew Jackson. The second and third sections of Tributaries are narrative, telling the stories of Lazarus Shale – Da’s great, great grandfather – and his family. While blood might not be present, Da writes about starvation and the estrangement, misuse, and misunderstanding of a culture. In these sections, language – as a theme – is important. Da begins “Lazarous Shale” by writing,
There was a word for village
That meant all at once:
All human systems working in harmony
We never learn what that word is, and this is purposeful. “Names” Da’ says, “were to be guarded” and so we are invited to witness a history, but not partake. As Da’ narrates moments from the story of Lazarus Shale, we learn about the Quaker mission schools and the renaming and Anglicization of Native Americans. In this section, children and compliance are traded for goods: “Tawny coffee beans, bolts of calico, molasses.” Names and language are personal, are evoked, but are not shared.
Throughout these two sections, Da’ remains narrative and continues the type of writing seen first in “Raven Talks about Curriculum.” Her poems are comprised of stanzas depicting brief moments. Where the stanza breaks, time has passed, something has happened that the reader has missed. These moments of apposition convey the normality of hardship and loss:
The siblings ride double to the mission.
Lazarus signs the ledger,
fingers wrapped around the quill
like gripping a rattlesnake fang.
Rations for the destitute Shawnee.
He reaches back reflexively to steady the burden,
Judy’s slight weight replaced by
the wool, lard, sacks of cornmeal.
Through these characters and these moments, Da’ conveys a clear picture of a history we’ve only ever received in shards. This history is important and so her language is direct; her colors are dull and, because of this, those brief moments of brightness we see are even more striking. “Bright purple coneflowers” aren’t real but are an image that Lazarus’ sister keeps in her mind. More frequently we see shades of brown and ochre, and the occasional red, described simply as blood. Her characters pass no judgment but continue their series of actions. In “Poor Lazarus,” Lazarus, having traded his sons “for the release of seven barrels of winter rations” takes a nephew onto his horse:
The horse dances nervously
Sensing my frenzy.
To his credit,
keeps a steady hand on the reins.
As Da’ moves from “Lazarus Shale” to the third section, “Lazarus’ Children,” we continue to see her purposeful, powerful string of images, but those images have become more “Americanized.” Where we saw in “Lazarus Shale” animal hunts, births, and tales of panthers and loons, “Lazarus’ Children” show us “unfinished moccasins” “aprons” “marching bands,” and a trip from Ohio to Washington. However, we still see the same deprivation and fatigue. Da’ writes through the seasons and “Lazarus’ Children” begins in winter and moves through spring and the graduation of her great grandparents from the Haskell Indian school. In “Della” we see the transition from a Shawnee landscape
I rose every morning on the beach
of our summer grounds, pushed aside
a veil of butter yellow deer hide –
lake water so fast
it bowed across my sight.
to that of the Haskell Indian School, where the speaker finds herself for the next ten years. Da’s writing follows her relatives as they leave the school and head towards the Columbia River. Yet even this seemingly positive change is a lament. In “Irreversibility,” Da’ conjures the image of “stunted rivers/ whimpering and scratching” and commands,
Recollect – before the dam, salmon in the river swam so thickly
they could be speared from horseback.
As Da’ moves into her final section, “No Longer,” she doesn’t leave her reader with many questions, but circles back to issues she raised in “The Always Frontier” and connects her circling images of streams, rivers, weariness, and migrations.
Gazing at maps,
water calls attention through absence.
Lakes and river reaches
in Northeastern Oklahoma
the Scioto, Rio Grande, Kaw,
Columbia and Snoqualmie.
Watery seduction –
Sultry stroke of fatigue.
In “No Longer” Da’ “Measur[es] the Distance to Oklahoma” and retraces the steps of her heritage. Where “I” was so present in “The Always Frontier” it seems to be less so in “No Longer.” Instead, the speaker has become a spectator, following a “you” throughout “Measuring the Distance to Oklahoma,” and a series of seeming strangers in “Baselining.” There are no figures present in “The Myth of the West,” and Raven becomes personified in “Raven Gets Meta.”
Mid-semester, the administration calls Raven to the carpet
for a certain cavalier attitude
toward test-prep curriculum.
After Raven appears in the public school system, Da’ returns to a personal narrative. One of her more powerful poems in this section is “Passive Voice,” which starts, humorously with Zombies, but quickly moves into a more serious depiction of neglect. Da’ discusses her students’ summer vacations, their visits to American historical sights and Indian villages:
Where trouble was brewing
Where, after further hostilities, the army was directed to enter
Where the village was razed after the skirmish occurred
Where most were women and children.
Here, Da’ displays a deliberate misuse of language. Through passive voice, no one actively directed the US army to enter Native territory; no one ordered the village razed. It is this exact passivity that Da’ creates and confronts throughout Tributaries. As readers, our only role is a passive one, as we view what happens to Lazarus and his family in the wake of removal, relocation, and reeducation.
It is our passivity in the face of Mis-Education that frustrates most. One of the main focuses of Tributaries is Da’s attempt, as a teacher, to come to terms with her identity in the face of her history. In “Sixth Grade” we leave Native American history in favor of a recitation of a Washington Irving tale and a girl upset over tempera paint. When the speaker notes, “A bright hair/molts from my scalp” we understand her awareness of her own inaction. In stark contrast, “Raven Gets Meta” provides us with a teacher who scoffs at the system: “These tricksters/ Looking into galaxies and yearning for self portraits.” Tributaries does a great deal of work responding to those issues in education that we see throughout all four sections of Da’s book. Her exploration is personal and yet embodies the struggles of the Shawnee people and, often, the role education played and continues to play in those struggles.
Tributaries is filled with evocative storytelling, rich images, and an affecting depiction of recent Shawnee history. Laura Da’s book makes vivid and intimate a past that, up until this point has been distant.
University of Arizona Press: $16.95
Katherine Faigen lives near Boston where she writes, coaches rowing, and teaches at Emerson and Babson Colleges.
In his essay “Arquitectura del cante jondo,” the great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca defines the cante jondo against the flamenco of his time by saying:
“El cante jondo es un canto teñido por el color misterioso de las primeras edades de cultura; el cante flamenco es un canto relativamente moderno donde se nota la seguridad rítmica de la música construida. Color spiritual y color local: he aquí la honda diferencia…El cante jondo se acerca al trino del pájaro, al canto del gallo y a las músicas naturales del chopo y la ola…Es, pues, un rarísmo ejemplar de canto primitivo, de lo más viejo de Europa, donde la ruina histórica y el fragment lírico comido por la arena aparecen vivos como en la primera mañana de su vida” (García Lorca, 214)*.
(The deep song is a song tinged with the mysterious color of the culture’s first ages; the song in flamenco is a relatively modern song where one can note the rhythmic security of structured music. Spiritual color and local color: here lies a great difference…The deep song approaches the bird’s trill, or the rooster’s crow as well as the natural music of the poplar and the ocean wave…It is, then, a rare example of primitive song, of the oldest in Europe, where the historical ruin and lyrical fragment eaten away at by sand appear alive as on the first morning of its life) (translation: José Angel Araguz)
By naming his new collection Canto Hondo/Deep Song, Francisco X. Alarcón sets up the book’s spirit to be in the same vein as that of Lorca’s own “Poema del cante jondo.” Where Lorca celebrated the energy and mystery of his Andalusian influences, Alarcón’s new book evokes and celebrates the deep song of the Chicana/o literature, from its Pre-Cortesian roots to its politically fraught present.
Alarcón uses a minimalist style throughout the book to conduct his own fight against the “rhythmic security of structured music.” As the following examples show, he is able to keep close to images as well as concept within this style:
LOS OJOS EYES
heridas con wounds
las puntadas with open
NARANJA DEL DESEO ORANGE OF DESIRE
no hay nada there’s nothing
como comer like nibbling
a mordiscos an orange
en Granada in Granada
una naranja in the forbidden
en el jardín orchard
prohibido of the Sultan’s
de la Sultana main wife
While the image and brevity of the first poem are similar in spirit to haiku, the clipped nature of the second evokes William Carlos Williams’ own staggered lyric. The enjambed logic of both these poems gives an idea of the particular flavor of Alarcón’s poetics. In his hands, the deep song is ever personal, as alive and intimate as a nerve or a gasp.
These moves between image, insight, and form are to be found throughout the collection, including in the longer title piece “Canto Hondo/Deep Song.” This particular poem’s epigraph states that it is “after the passage of so many legal measures against undocumented workers – mostly Mexican and Central Americans – throughout the United States.” This declaration is followed by questions:
¿por qué why do
me escupes you spit
la cara? in my face?
¿qué papeles does the Sun
tiene need any
el sol? papers?
¿qué crimen does having
cometen hoy dreams now
los sueños? become a crime?
These questions, which move from insult to a rhetoric composed of image and implication, make clear not only the stakes of Alarcón’s deep song but also the powers available to the poet to fight for and keep alive what he names at the poem’s end as “this struggle//for life/burning/in my heart.” By naming the struggles of others, Alarcón is able to document the undocumented and give voice to grievances similar to the way Pablo Neruda does in his Canto General. Neruda comes to mind not only in the political nature of the poem but also in the rawness and surrealistic reach of the images.
As evidenced through both the content of these examples as well as the textual set up of the collection with poems set in both Spanish and English, Alarcón’s deep song is grounded within a Chicana/o sensibility, with an ear for its music and an eye for its issues. Poems about family are mixed in with those on braceros and César Chávez. By positing itself in Chicana/o histories, these lyrics fight against being “eaten away” by time and help to keep Chicana/o poetry, ideals, and culture “alive as on the first morning of its life.”
(*García Lorca, Federico. Poesia Completa. Ed. Miguel García-Posada. New York: Vintage Español, 2012. Print.)
Buy it from The University of Arizona Press: $17.95.
José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and winner of Rhino Poetry’s 2015 Editor’s Prize. He has had poems recently in Prairie Schooner, Borderlands, and The Laurel Review. He is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Author of Reasons (not) to Dance, a chapbook of microcuento style short prose, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.