microreview: Primitivity by Amy Sayre Baptista

review by José Angel Araguz

Sayre-Baptistac_w

The flash fiction sequence that makes up Primitivity (Black Lawrence Press) by Amy Sayre Baptista explores a Southern Gothic tradition of storytelling in pieces that are voice-driven and immersive. Using voice in a near-alchemical capacity, Baptista’s characters come to life through phrasing and presence. Take this short passage from the collection’s opener, “Bait”:

This old road is a ghost. Two small plot cemeteries fenced like a crooked grin hold horse thieves that ran the stagecoach road and travelers that met death before destination. Bandits shot for robbing a man blind. Shot for doing the things men do in the dark.

The vivid imagery of the first sentence here mirrors the “crooked” nature of the landscape. The voice here presents the image in a nuanced, casual tone that contrasts the stark human nature being described. This mix of image and tone makes the narrator’s bluntness all the more tangible.

Here and in the other pieces, the poetic sits side-by-side with grit and survival. Southern Gothic tropes are subverted toward feminist and class issues in a way that is both affirming and interrogatory. Where one piece has an aunt clearing caught birds from twig traps while sharing with a child that “Be careful out a mama’s mouth don’t mean nothing ‘cept protect yourself  better than I did,” another explores the literal ghosts of a town murder through a seance, having each party involved speak for themselves. This approach to storytelling strives for compassion while remain unflinchingly true to the characters.

The flash fiction below, “Pike County Consilience,” shows a number of Baptista’s narrative skills at work. A great example of voice driving a narrative, this piece also braids in technical terminology. The juxtaposition of human voice against this terminology evokes a sense of urgency. The main character’s straightforward explanations become a form of rationalizing and re-imagining of hard truths. This impulse on the character’s part becomes relatable at different points, a testament to the power of Baptista’s empathetic approach.

*

Amy Sayre Baptista

Pike County Consilience

“Proof is derived through a convergence of evidence from numerous lines of inquiry–multiple, independent inductions, all of which point to an unmistakable conclusion.”
–Scientific American, 2005

A science man studies the world to say why, say how it got made. A Pike County man ciphers the world for what it is, and how to survive it. Me? I got some science in my toolbox right alongside the wire cutters and the claw hammer. Got me a proof, and a theorem or two, just as useable as my crescent wrench. Let it be known to all: I love Jesus Christ. That said, the Son of Man never broke no barriers on the biological front. Chalk that up to Charles Darwin. Talk about loaves and fishes? No small feat, Jesus wins. But give Darwin his due.

Don’t believe in evolution? Make the acquaintance of the good damn brain God gave you, please. Humans? We scrambled up outta dark water; fin, fang, and claw. No doubt. Pretty it ain’t, we used to filter our own sewage out our gills and rip our supper off a breathing bone. Still not convinced? You must be one of them that thinks babies came to life with mother’s love and angel milk. Truth never stands a chance with the feeble-minded. But I’ve had to stare a man back on his haunches. Eye to eye, I recognized the abyss we crawled out of throbbing beneath his pupil. Gibb Delbert’s his name. Glared back at him with a blade at the end of my gaze and knew he was still gonna come for me. Not for a social call neither. That’s evolution, and Gibbs on the slow track.

Darwin was on to something with his consilience. In plain English, that’s many ways of coming to an unmistakable conclusion. For instance, Bud Rickart says to me at the Rod & Gun on a Wednesday night, “Gibb Delbert means to kill you.” That’s just one line of inquiry, as Mr. Darwin was so fond of saying. Gibb comes into said establishment not thirty minutes later with a loaded revolver, puts one in my thigh and one in my shoulder before he gets tackled. That’s conclusive proof.

Action: Gibb done shot me.

Reaction: He went to jail for two months till next Friday,

But what goes up must come down, that’s Newton not Darwin, I hope I’m not moving too fast. This evidence comes together on the quick. Last night I get a call, says, “Will you accept charges from Danville Penitentiary?” Course I decline. This morning, I got a Banty Rooster broke-necked under my windshield wiper.

Proof: Blood feathers mean blood feud.

Times was when a righteous man with a crack shot might claim feud as self-defense. Not so today. Men like me need formularies just like the fellas writing the textbooks. Solving for the unknown in my neighborhood is a high stakes control set. Trajectory of bullets and repositioning the body? Mishandling those details gets you caught. My numbers got to add up, or I might as well start posing for a county-sponsored head shot. Leave Jesus be. Houdini’s my savior. I need a disappearing act.

*

Hypothesis on an Unlocatable Body

Theorem 1: Deer season, I take the firing pin outta my shotgun to give me three extra slugs. At twenty paces, I can end a man during the time of year no one questions a gun shot, or three, in quick succession. But that ain’t the difficult part. Trajectory of bullets, pin out, and a body? Too obvious and me the likely suspect.

Theorem 2: Solve for zero: where no evidence exists, there’s no proof to solve for. That’s algebra, translation, “the solving of broken parts.” Thank you Wikipedia and Arab people everywhere.

Theorem 3: No proof equals no charges. Add together the bank foreclosure of the abandoned hog operation at Nebo and property in probate. This equals a waste dumping pit both full and idle for a month. That formula births a slurry and stench to end all inquisition. A body in that slop seals the deal. By the time the farm sells, the hog pit will be no softer than concrete.

Theorem 4: A body at rest stays at rest: Gibb Delbert. A body in motion stays in motion: me. Decomposition meets destiny. Thank you, Sir Isaac Newton.

Observable Conclusion: Done, son.

*

Check out this interview in which Baptista shares more about Primitivity.
Copies of Primitivity can be purchased from Black Lawrence Press.

microreview: Word Has It by Ruth Danon

review by José Angel Araguz

word has it

One of the things I admire about Ruth Danon’s Word Has It (Nirala Publications) is how the collection brings together via short lyrics and prose poem sequences a vibe of being a spy of language. I say “spy” and mean specifically a sensibility able to evoke the range of curiosity, intrigue, and vigilance that is associated with the heightened awareness one might associate with a spy. In “Floridian,” for example, we have the following lines:

Unseasonable chill in the palms.
Fronds I mean, and also the cold
fingertips that touch them.

Here, the wordplay that occurs across the punctuation and line break on “palms” of the first line, and the addition and jolt of the second line’s “Fronds” emphasizes both the human and plant double meaning in the words as well as the speaker’s awareness of this connection. It’s a pun of sorts rendered in a tone that is intriguing, as the formulation of “Fronds I mean, and also” have an air of nervousness as the lines continue back to the original human sensory association of “cold / fingertips.” This back and forth of sensory and conceptual perception is engaging for the way it creates an air of heightened awareness which has us in a different place than expected given the title “Floridian.”

This engagement with the unexpected continues throughout the book. In “Domestic,” there are three moments that riff on the concept of a shot of whiskey around which the poem is developed. Here are the opening lines:

“Shot of whiskey,” she thought, from
nowhere, not because she ever drank
the stuff, but because it seemed the kind
of random association one might have at
the end of a long day.

These lines are effective in the way they intellectualize associations around taking a shot, using phrases like “drank / the stuff” and “the end of a long day” to ground the poem in a heightened sense of the familiar. This familiarity is then riffed against in moments like the following:

“Shot through with light,”
was an expression she liked. Radiance or
the idea of glowing from within seemed
a worthy aspiration.

Here, the word “shot” from the start of the poem is repeated but changed from noun to verb. This change evokes the sensibility of the “she” being described who has gone from the poem’s opening “random association” to this aspirational one. It is a moment of hope, in a way, where the interrogative tone is left for a moment. This moment is short-lived, however, as the poem quickly narrates how “Unruly she was,” and then takes us to the ending where “She looked ahead, steady / on her feet, or so she thought.” The charm of this poem is how the established heightened awareness takes the idea of a shot of whiskey at the start and through the poem’s development gestures towards inebriation as a state of being due to overthinking.

There’s a moment in the sequence “Divination” that presents an encapsulated version of this idea of heightened awareness:

Consider now that the birds scrawl their
messages and you are too far from the sky to
read their words.

What then?

It is in asking “What then?” after the logic of birds scrawling messages we can’t read that the heart of the collection pulses. The human spying we do of language, so to speak, is frustrating work. At the end of the day, we don’t know the world through words, we know only words and persist with our vague sense of the world. The act of writing in Word Has It is imbued with a charge of responsibility and need despite this frustration, however. In “Birding” (below), the poem’s play and progression of thought show how much can be seen in light of having our “stupid eyes closed.”

*

Ruth Danon

Birding

So listen, let me confess, I do not live in a world
that lends itself easily to description or evocation
or adoration. In my ordinary life I face one brick
wall on one side and another brick wall on the
other. I do not even have words to distinguish
one brick wall from another and if there are
windows in yet another wall they give over to a
wall on the far side of any small opening. I envy
those who stand quietly on shores and watch
plovers. I do not know what a plover looks like
and I do not know if it makes a sound. The word
contains the word “lover,” and also the word
“over” and that is yet another brick wall. I
believe in the power of birds, but I do not know,
not for a minute, how to describe their quivering
hearts or their flights or the mad plunge of
herons into salty marshes. A little while ago I
washed my face in clear water. I plunged right in,
my stupid eyes closed.

*

To learn more about Ruth Danon’s work, visit her site.
Copies of Word Has It can be purchased via SPD.

microreview: Cenote City by Monique Quintana

review by José Angel Araguz

cenote city

Monique Quintana’s debut novel, Cenote City (Clash Books), is a stellar addition to the Latinx storytelling tradition of texts born out of exploring the intersections where folklore, politics, cultura, and literature meet. Told through fable-like short chapters, Cenote City presents the story of Lune whose mother, Marcrina, cannot stop crying to the point that she has become a tourist attraction, relegated to the nearby cenote, a natural pit or sinkhole that contains groundwater. In the character Marcrina, one can see a variation of the folklore figure of La Llorona (whose own tale has her become a ghost forever crying by the side of rivers after drowning her own children as an act of revenge due to her husband’s infidelity). Quintana draws from this connection and creates a character imbued with a similar sense of sorrow and mortality. What distinguishes Quintana’s Marcrina is the empathetic role she plays in the lives of the community of Cenote City as a deliverer of stillborns. Mediating the humanity of this motherhood experience in one role and serving as a human avatar of endless sorrow in another, Marcrina stands as a symbol of resiliency and depth against The Generales, the police force entity of Cenote City.

Marcrina is just one of a number of characters that inhabit the world of Cenote City; others include a clown able to make children disappear, and a “tiny coven,” one of whom’s members is able to set up a mannequin’s hair into a beehive style and then cast a spell that makes bees appear from it. With radical poetic impulses and flourishes reminiscent of Arthur Rimbaud, Quintana moves the narrative along mainly through the impressions evoked from images and the inner world of her characters. This approach allows her to make full use of the rasquachismo aesthetic, a Chicano sensibility that works to “[transform] social and economic instabilities into a style and a postitive creative attitude.” This aesthetic makes use of collage and places at the forefront the struggle of the oppressed. As a form of storytelling, rasquachismo offers Quintana the use of fruitful and evocative juxtaposition. While this approach at times leads to a dense prose style, the risk is ultimately worth it for how engrossing and captivating the reading experience becomes.

An example of what I mean can be seen in “The Daffodil Dress” (below). In this chapter, readers are presented with a memory of Lune finding Marcrina floating in a pool of water as well as the ensuing panic and recovery. One choice use of juxtaposition occurs around the images of insects coming out of the mother’s mouth. Having insects stand as words in the text lends the narrative a startling new understanding of language. Even when Lune cannot hear what her mother and father say between them, the presence of words is seen as alive and restless.

*

Monique Quintana

The Daffodil Dress

The spring after Lune’s father left them, she found her mother in the backyard of their house, floating in a plastic baby pool, her dress blooming around her body like a daffodil. Lune had been to a birthday party in Storylandia. She began to scream and tried to pull her mother out of the water. The warmth of the water was a shock to her hands and it soaked her party dress, making the skin on her legs burn and itch. She clawed at her own skin with her nails, painted pink by her mother with care. If the clouds could bear witness to that afternoon, they would say that Lune was a swirl of ribbons and brown skin, her kneecaps scraped by the sea of grass, bluish green and bleating, not willing to give up their secrets.

Lune’s screams were loud enough to bring the neighbors, to bring the ambulance, to bring the police, to bring Lune’s father. The paramedic, a young woman with slanted eyes and bright hair administered CPR, while the next-door-neighbor clung to Lune in the sway of bodies, and Lune held her hands in a fist, ready to curse anyone who would let her mother die. The red haired woman hovered over Lune’s mother like she was a kite, blowing the air, willing her to live. Lune’s mother had full round breasts buried under the daffodil dress, and her hair was matted to her mouth like clods of dirt. Lune thought she could see insects fly from her mother’s mouth and ears, when her father appeared and knelt beside her mother and the paramedics. The paramedic’s hands were shaking on Marcrina’s face when Marcrina began to cough up water, the baby pool tipped over and made a bigger pool in the grass, barely touching Lune’s toes again, the tight leather straps of her sandals burning her ankles. She clawed at her own ankles, pulling the sandals off her feet.

Lune thought that her mother had been dead and had been revived because her father had returned to them. There was a tourniquet wrapped around Marcrina’s arm and a stethescope placed at the rise and fall of her breast. Lune thought that her mother’s dying would make her skin turn blue, but it remained as brown as ever, and the daffodil of her dress lay shaking on her hips and her breasts. The paramedics tried to make Lune’s mother go to the hospital, but her father wouldn’t let them take her. He undressed her in the warm glow of the bathroom, the light of the ceiling, making new daffodils on her body. Lune saw her father put her mother in the bathwater, saw him pull her hair away from her face, her shoulder blades shuddered at the touch of the water. Lune could hear them whispering to each other and those whispers became the things that flew out of her mother’s mouth like insects. She tried to make out the lines of the wings and the plump black segments of their bodies, but the insects were hazy and only the buzz of letters could be recognized. No full words. Just moving mouths and shoulder blades and the slow crashing of bathtub water.

After he helped put her mother to bed, Lune’s father heated up cold cocido in a pot and they ate together in their kitchen nook. Lune’s father put his wife’s insects in his mouth and ate them. He ate the secrets and Lune and her father ate the soup together, and they were happy that she wasn’t dead.

*

To learn more about Monique Quintana’s work, visit her site.
Also worth checking out: Blood Moon Blog, where Quintana writes about Latinx literature.
Copies of Cenote City can be purchased from Clash Books.

microreview: Slingshot by Cyrée Jarelle Johnson

review by José Angel Araguz

SLINGSHOT

There’s a moment toward the end of the sequence “a machine of mahogany and bronze I” in Cyrée Jarelle Johnson’s debut poetry collection Slingshot (Nightboat Books) where, in the aftermath of a protest demonstration broken up by police brutality, the speaker is asked “You heard about the storm comin’?” which prompts them to meditate on:

The same storm slicing
through every inch of armor
my binder becoming more unbearable as the sun sets.

Yes. I knew about the storm coming.

This admission coming when it does at a moment of reflection and recovery is charged with an awareness that the literal storm of the poem runs parallel to the metaphorical storm of the political moment they are living in. The articulation of this awareness, here and elsewhere, is tinged not with resignation but resolve. This mix of awareness and resolve runs through this collection in stunning and complicated ways.

Whether awareness and resolve play out in expressions of self-presence, as in “false sonnet embroidered w/ four loko empties” which opens the collection and whose ending states: “I’m a full grown / whatever-the-fuck, and I will devour any / attempt to subdue me with monstrous animality,” or in poems troubling current staples of pop culture (as in the poems “a review of Hamilton: An American Musical” and “chewbacca was the blackest part of The Force Awakens“), Johnson enacts a lyric presence that engages through juxtaposition of tone and phrasing. In “chewbacca,” for example, the speaker riffs on the Star Wars mythos, braiding in commentary about race like “When we colonize the stars, everyone will be beige, / white folks sometimes say, or orange” and placing them next to others like “Chewbacca was the blackest part of The Force / Awakens. Always moaning & never understood. Always hunted & never going home.” This braiding makes the speculative nature of science fiction all the more human while also interrogating the implications of George Lucas’ vision. The projection of blackness onto the Chewbacca narrative, which is one of survival, parallels that of the speaker who shares at the end, “…I am just too tired. Too vengeful to go anywhere anymore.” This statement’s honesty is a surprise as it comes at the end of a poem that strips away much of the fiction of the film in order to get at the deeper implications for the speaker.

Awareness and resolve in the service of self-revelation, ultimately, is where Slingshot lives. My sense, though, is that Johnson would have readers be mindful of the difference between self-revelation and traditional ideas of confession in poetry. While the poems evoke the trials and tribulations of sex work and the intersections of being black, disabled, femme, and genderqueer, these poems work toward a visceral clarity. Rather than hold the reader’s hand and explain the complexities of the world they’re drawn from, these poems present themselves on their own terms and trust the reader to keep up. It is in this aspect that the poems point back to the title, in a way, each one a stone shot out to strike at the consciousness who hears it.

To return to the sequence “a machine of mahogany and bronze I”: The line “we will hold the line as a practice of freedom” is said by the speaker mid-protest. This collection shows Johnson holding the poetic line in a myriad of ways that open up the nuances of awareness and resolve. In the poem below, “jersey fems in the philly zoo,” this work is done through image and imagination, each surrealistic turn interrupted by a harsh reality. By the end, it’s clear that fear is one of the many things Johnson holds the line against.

Cyrée Jarelle Johnson
jersey fems in the philly zoo

a flamingo knows,
even without pink lipstick,
fem is a feeling.

black boots. Raritan
tap water memories flow.
murderous brown geese

fly from Johnson Park,
arrive, then turn up their beaks
‘fuck dis sposta be?’

they inquire. I
find cover in the leopard
print fem next to me

because here, always
someone’s looking, someone’s stares
caught in plexiglass

refracting the light
in your life. no. it’s not you.
they look to consume.

especially spring,
and when the ice cream melts
before it’s lapped up.

Philadelphia
is lilac and lightning strike
before a great storm.

electric strangers
cuff biceps unexpected
back draws straight — horror.

they look to consume.
they desire to control.
predatory birds;

eagles, owls, all.
swooping down with catching claws,
no glass to hide you.

I want my armor
an exoskeleton, tough
hewn of crushed velvet

bristling with defense
a kevlar of tenderness
enveloping me.

this is what happens
when the tree blooms: the axeman
runs to chop it down.

this is what happens
when creatures meant for the deep
somehow crawl ashore:

they will be lapped up
by the hot eyes of the sea
pulled tight by strange hands

knives licking their necks
the scent of wisteria
fireworks: flash/bang.

flash fire, roll flame
clip wings from those who maim us
declaw them all, bare.

maybe they will burn
corralled, while lights dance in sky.
steaming macho ash.

and if they must live
then make me invisible.
hide me. erase me.

*

To learn more about Cyrée Jarelle Johnson’s work, visit their site.
To read an interview with Johnson where they discuss the poem above and Slingshot in general, go here.
Copies of Slingshot can be purchased from Nightboat Books.

microreview & interview: Real Daughter by Lynn Otto

review by José Angel Araguz

PhotoEditor_20190608_141411093

It seems simple to say that what words can point to and hold is a constant source of meditation for me and other poets. Yet, this type of meditation is a high stakes one as it is in contemplating what words can hold that one also necessarily reckons with what cannot be held in words. Reading through Lynn Otto’s Real Daughter (Unicorn Press, 2019), one encounters poems that make use of this meditative space to engage with human conflict.

One can see this in “Marcescence,” which opens the collection with a reckoning salvo:

The beeches’ light brown leaves in horizontal layers
like my mother’s tiered serving trays
artfully placed in the winter forest and here we are,
in another stupid tree poem, this one
about the difficulty of letting go of something already dead.

In these lines, Otto’s speaker braids the direct meaning of the its title — a word meaning “the retention of dead plant organs that normally are shed”* — with family narrative. The first three lines evoke the way memory blurs present moment experience as well as suggests the natural way one understands the world through story. The second line’s simile deftly places nature and family side by side, a juxtaposition further complicated by the return to nature imagery in the third line. The last two lines of this stanza add a further depth to the meditation so far with its metanarrative nod towards the tradition of nature poems. Aware that she finds herself “in another stupid tree poem,” the speaker meets the sentimentality risked in the first three lines with awareness. This awareness furthers the veracity of the poem, allowing the double-meaning of the fifth line’s phrasing “the difficulty of letting go of something already dead” to hit with a compelling lyrical conviction. This conviction is furthered in the second stanza through a listing of words:

Such a fancy word for it when it comes to trees:
marcescence. You could name a daughter that.
Unlike fury. Unlike grief.

Here, the move of braiding nature and family narratives is taken further through the act of naming. There is a telling distinction in the way this speaker considers “marcescence” fit for naming a daughter over the words “fury” and “grief.” Placing these words on separate sides and seeing one as suitable for public use implies a number of things for the other two words. That “fury” and “grief” are human emotions and, therefore, typically kept private due to societal norms; that these two emotions occur in our inner worlds, this versus the public display of marcescence in trees; that, perhaps, these two words in their charged and potent nature eschew the fanciness the speaker sees in marcescence; it is through these copious implications that the speaker’s emotional presence is evoked.

The way these lines evoke this presence is quick and powerful, true to the essence of lyric poetry. This mix of skillful phrasing, hard-earned human voice, and thoughtful imagery render and suggest worlds of meaning througout the poems of Real Daughter. As the poems move through narratives of the roles taken up in one woman’s life (that of mother, daughter, wife), there is always an urgent awareness to see and find enough words for the life lived (and potentially overlooked) outside these roles.

In “Maytag” (below), one can see a good example of Otto’s ability to create a multivalent, compelling speaker. As the poem develops around a narrative about the speaker’s father and mother disputing over a broken appliance, the details begin to color the speaker’s inner world and her handling of a dead bird. The effect of this coloring is evident in the turn in the last stanza as the speaker considers “If my daughter were here.” This speculation creates an emotional depth through its contrast with what actually is done in the poem.

The poems of Real Daughter thrive in this rich space between imaginative speculation and the “real” world of family narratives. As the speaker of “Marcescence” notes in that poem’s ending stanza:

Consider the clean white spaces
between each layer of a family tree.
It isn’t like that at all.

The move to complicate and disrupt accepted narratives implied in this last line underscores the whole of this collection. Through these poems, Otto not only makes clear that it “isn’t like that at all” but also faces what it is like while at the same time providing glimpses of what it could be like.

Maytag – Lynn Otto

It can’t be fixed, says my father
of the dryer, the Maytag of many years—most
of their marriage—and the protest
of my mother, who can’t do laundry anymore anyway,
doesn’t stop him from having it hauled away,
ordering a Kenmore.

What he means is he can’t fix it. He has fallen
and what can a man do with a broken rib?
The third bird in two days hits the window and drops,
a rose-breasted nuthatch I place in a napkin,
but they won’t touch its fine fine feathers for fear of lice.
I’m to throw it in the bay.

If my daughter were here, she would bury it in a small box,
lined with a scrap of soft cloth.
But there’s no time for dead birds.
The crabs creep out sideways to clean up,
and my mother says to call the crematorium the minute she dies.
When the Maytag goes, she cries.

*

Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Lynn Otto: It seems to me that of all types of writing, poetry leaves the most space for the reader. I like reading and writing poems that give the reader not only sonic pleasure but also the pleasure of discovery–finding connections, layers, ambiguities, and so forth. I think the poems in Real Daughter allow those things to happen. My aim is that they welcome the reader in, and then trust the reader. I think most of the poems can be enjoyed by people who don’t have much experience reading poetry, but readers who want to will enjoy discovering more. The poems don’t over-explain. Neither do they preach or lecture, which brings me to another idea I have about poetry—that is, it’s a genre that generously accommodates uncertainty. A book of poems, even one that’s thematically tied together, can certainly cast about, and Real Daughter does.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Lynn Otto: Ah, well, writing anything at all is a challenge for someone taught that it’s best to keep things to oneself, especially family matters. And the process of putting words on paper—was I writing about what I thought and felt, or were the poems deciding what I thought and felt? The chicken-egg conundrum. Since I was not in the habit of knowing my own mind, it was hard to know what was going on. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of a poem going in an entirely unexpected direction. Of course, although books of poems are classified as nonfiction, they’re certainly not all autobiographical. They are, first of all, made things. Still, at times I wondered whether the poems themselves were putting a spin on things, and were influencing my feelings, even my memories. I worried that family members would be upset. I ended up writing poems that cast doubt on other poems, in effect undermining the reliability of the main speaker of the book. Only then did I feel comfortable sending it out into the world.

It’s funny that the first word of the title is a proclamation of authenticity: “Real.” But the second word is “Daughter,” a word that for me, and I think for many, signals expectations of duty to others, not to oneself. There is a tension in the title that runs throughout the book, and that was also part of my experience of writing it.

*

Special thanks to Lynn Otto for participating! To keep up with Otto’s work, check out her site. Copies of Real Daughter can be purchased from Unicorn Press.

Lynn Otto pic (2)*

Lynn Otto is a freelance academic copy editor and writing mentor, with an MFA in creative writing from Portland State University (Oregon). Her work has appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review, Raleigh Review, Sequestrum, and other journals (see lynnottoinfo.wordpress.com), and her book Real Daughter, winner of Unicorn Press’s First Book Prize in 2017, was published earlier this year.

microreview & interview: Zarzamora by Vincent Cooper

review by José Angel Araguz

zarzamoracover_3_orig

Vincent Cooper’s Zarzamora: Poetry of Survival (Jade Publishing, 2019) is a collection grounded in the great traditions of Chicano poetry. These poems recall the immersive narratives of Jimmy Santiago Baca and Luis J. Rodriguez along with the image-driven lyricism of Gary Soto’s early work. What sets Cooper’s work apart is the distinct perspective of his poetic sensisbility. Whether through dream or memory, Cooper’s visceral lyricism catalogues as well as captures life on and beyond Zarzamora Street.

The collection’s title invites a fitting metaphor. The word zarzamora translates to blackberry which immediately sets one thinking in terms of bramble and tangled overgrowth. Instead of a traditional family tree, these poems deal with family as a similar sprawling entity. Stories of uncles and brothers are engaged in a way that explores a necessary public toughness as well as private depths.

The death of one uncle in particular, Danny, serves as a catalyst for the aforementioned duality, forcing family to open up and reach out to one another. “Five Bullets,” for example, describes a speaker and brother meeeting for “beers and plática,” a ritual public act haunted by personal tragedy. One can feel this haunting in the following stanza:

“I can’t believe Danny is dead,” he blurts.
Surprised, mid-drink, I assent.
The restaurant darkens
and warps into The San Fernando Cememtery.
Bar stools become tombstones.
We dive into Uncle Danny’s uncovered grave.
Stand on his casket
together. Speaking the sacred to the public
worms watching from the niches of the Earth.

This surrealistic blurring and change of scene evokes how sudden memories can come and take over one’s reverie. A similar move occurs in the poem’s ending lines describing a moment as the two men leave the bar: “I leave a tip, as if / a handful of dirt.” Lines like these show how death can color daily life. This imaginative space where memory and feeling blur is where Cooper’s poetic sensibility flourishes.

As much as Danny’s death haunts the speaker of these poems, Danny’s own voice — present in the collection through letters written from prison — serves to further the experience, countering meditations on the life lived with the living presence granted by words. In these letters, the somber, straightforward tone of the poems is checked and challenged by Danny meditating in an imaginative space of his own. Writing from prison, Danny meditates on his own past as well as reaches out and, through his advice to the poet, gestures towards the future.

In one early letter, Danny reflects on family not writing to him:

“Some people have a hard time writing and others like me and you can express ourselves better in writing. Anyway, it doesn’t mean they love us any less because they don’t write. It’s just part of who they are.”

There is a power to this statement that speaks to the heart of the collection. On one level, Danny is working through the complicated feelings of not receiving word from people he cares about; on another level, he is defining the space between him and the poet. In naming “part of who they are” as not being able to express themselves in writing, there’s the implied naming of a part of who Danny and the poet are, a part of them able to honor life through words. As Zarzamora moves through its poems of varied voices and recollections, Cooper’s poetic mission runs parallel to Danny’s epistolary one. Both men are seeking to understand and hold onto lives often overshadowed by death and misunderstanding.

Through unflinching honesty and nuanced lyricism, Zarzamora stands as a testament to the personal lives involved in the poems while also honoring Chicano identity. In this book, Cooper represents narratives and voices often overlooked through poems that evoke their necessary human presence. “Brazos” (below), is a good example of what I mean. Through some riffing with tropes associated with the devil, this poem works out a real sense of the high stakes reckoned with in the world of this book.

Brazos – Vincent Cooper

The devil danced with the most the beautiful
women in the room
before they noticed his feet.
He ran away from the chicanos who chased him
into the bathroom
of the baile where
he vanished,
and Sulphur remained.

He crept behind children playing little league,
hid under the bed of chicano lovers making love,
and laughed in our faces during the depression
of our lives…

And he was present when my Tíos died.
We whispered I love you’s into Mike’s ear
while the devil was massaging Mike’s bare feet.
Saying, “He can’t hear you.”
Told Tony to leave the house
and meet five bullets down the street.
Laughing and swimming in Tony’s pool of blood.
He picked up Danny off the toilet
and threw him onto the living room floor without
air to breathe.
He rode shotgun with Jody.
Infected him with AIDS
watched Jody rot in a prison cell.

He had been present at all our miseries
because the reckless familia
only knows to live on the thinnest edge of life and
death.
Every day with a methadone trip
and heroin and liquor
and worst of all “love.”

They made a fungus of love,
mildew smiles.
Black rotted teeth.
Honey brown chests
with Old English tattoos, on
spore covered stomach muscles.
Their drunken killer smiles dimpled,
telling stories,
our brazos wrapped around their shoulders.
We, the naive, craved their empty promises.
We were naive.

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Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Vincent Cooper: I knew, even as a child that I was witnessing something artistic, conversations and other moments resonated. Years ago, a poet said that the first poets you encounter are your tios, tias and primos. This is absolutely correct in my case. My where is South Texas/ Southern California. What I heard were uncles singing and telling jokes. Brown men playing basketball here in the barrio is what I saw. Old schoolers dressed in guayaberas n’ Stacy’s clacking. Smelling like barbecue, tortillas burning on the comal, Old Milwaukee or Schaefer beer and sweat. Some comments or praise I’ve received is “Thank you for sharing personal experiences.” The only thing I can do is write a true and honest account of my experience. I write about being here in the barrio and about missing the barrio. My community. I don’t understand why this wouldn’t be for the literary canon. I write the way I remember it. This is simply the life that we have here in San Antonio.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Vincent Cooper: I am a masochist. The wheels have to be spinning already. There has to be a poem manifesting, prompted by a scene, memory, other writings. It might be an encounter with a relative that will trigger a poem –and it’s typically a negative thing happening that spurs the main idea to the poem. I don’t naturally just go sit at a desk and start typing up a million words. These poems in Zarzamora go back about 10 years. Right around the death of my Uncle Mike, I wrote pages of Westside San Antonio poetry. I debated writing these poems as prose or even as a novel. The narrative style is how I’ve written for at least 20 years. Initial edits by Viktoria made these bits of narrative into poetry. The voice and story was there but she taught me about breath, line breaks –or no line break, etc. She handed me books by Lucille Clifton and Li Young Lee too help build up and process.

Offending relatives was something that crossed my mind and I did remove poems, stories, and letters from Zarzamora. There was one letter where my uncle Danny had written racist comments. He was trying to stick up for me, or cheer me up, regarding an incident that happened in school. I think my relatives who’ve not even purchased the book are probably still offended, but I know this book is my experience not theirs.

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Special thanks to Vincent Cooper for participating! To keep up with Cooper’s work, follow him on Twitter: @vinnycoop13. Copies of Zarzamora can be purchased from Jade Publishing.

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Vincent Cooper is the author of Zarzamora – Poetry of Survival and Where the Reckless Ones Come to Die. His poetry can also be found in Huizache 6, Huizache 8, The Acentos Review and Riversedge Journal. His forthcoming manuscript The Other Side of Semper Fi chronicle’s his tumultuous stint in the Marines pre/post America- 9/11.

microreview & interview: Zoom by Susan Lewis

review by José Angel Araguz

susan lewis zoom

In a recent conversation about prose poetry, I found myself tasked with defining what makes a prose poem “poetry” exactly. I fell back on my usual starting point, some riffing on Charles Simic’s idea shared in an interview that “[what] makes them poems is that they are self- contained, and once you read one you have to go back and start reading it again. That’s what a poem does.” What’s great about this quote is that it connects the reading act to the act of rereading, highlighting poetry’s ability to get things said in unique, memorable ways. I say “memorable” here, and feel the need to qualify it as not immediately memorable. That is to say, a phrasing’s distinction comes from the push-pull effect of being familiar enough to make sense, but unique enough to stand out and make us pause.

This movement between familiarity and distinction is one of the driving engines of Susan Lewis’ recent collection, Zoom (The Word Works, 2018). While the collection’s title brings to mind the film technique of zooming in, I find it also applies in terms of speed, in this case, the varying speeds of the reading act. This read on the title is invited, in a way, by the choice of having the individual titles in the collection be the first words of the poems. By having the poem begin with the title, the voice of the poem is engaged from the first words interacted. The opening poem, “Everyone Agreed,” executes this move in a self-revealing way:

Everyone Agreed

this was a thrilling catastrophe. There were the usual photo-ops & spell-checked swoons. Octopeds got the jump on the rest of us, but their webs were useless against the suck. Spare fur was exchanged for sexual favors until the water fermented and all hell broke loose. No one remembered to access their 20:20 hindsight until the razor light blinded us with its odor of inferiority. There was anger and danger beyond our wildest dreams, which stopped coming once the humdrum imploded, divesting us of our history & its discontents.

As I mentioned, having the title be the first words of a poem means the voice is there at the start of the reading act. This move creates an immediacy that propels the reader into the “thrilling catastrophe” of the poetic act. This momentum is then interrupted by Lewis’ choices in diction. The phrasing of “There were the usual photo-ops & spell-checked swoons,” for example, causes a reader to pause; the sentence is structured as a traditional sentence, but the meaning of “spell-checked swoons” causes one to pause and wonder. Yet, the decision to structure this phrase within a prose poem, which builds off the familiarity of the traditional sentence and paragraph, forces the pause to be brief. Were this poem broken into lines, the reader would be given the handhold of line break and stanza break which invite dwelling. Here, the poem marches on through the sense of a paragraph. One reads the rest of the poem propelled by this push-pull effect.

Depending on the reader, one could say that the poems of this collection are read at the mercy of this push-pull effect. Taking this perspective, however, would be to miss out on the rich difficulty available in this lane of poetry, a poetry whose linguistic ambition is to evoke through active sense-making and unmaking. The American tradition of richly difficult poetry runs from Gertrude Stein’s tender buttons to the contemporary lyrically ambitious work J. Michael Martinez. What Lewis adds to the conversation via Zoom is a sequence of poems whose fragmented sensibility become a ride where one catches glimmers of meaning tinged with gloom.

The poem “Dear Sir” continues this work of moving between familiar and distinct phrasing:

Dear Sir

or Madam, until you lose your head, mother its shred, wrapped in mystery & mead. No levity for this, your skid life. No mercy while you bilk your betters, sent flying to spy on your attempts to rise. Across the deep there are many with nary a hook to hang on. & ever & anon those lads with rainbow limbs snaking through the gloom. Another day another dolor. Not to mince woulds, but this sibilance is skilling us. & you who wish upon a stare? Where would you turn & fleetly tumble? The Burning Dervish never knows whereof he’d speak, mute as he is, spinning in his vicious circle, boring his whole through our dank & dappled gaps.

Here, idioms are approached and transformed, refreshed in a way that moves away from the typical reproach one finds in poems. Rather than turn a phrase for some argument or rhetorical stance, the transformation is executed with blunt power. For example, “Another day another dolor” is set as its own sentence, able to color both the previous and following sentence, but also standing as its own moment of distinction. This decision to let the new phrasing stand alone allows the original aphorism “Another day another dollar” to ring like an echo in the reader’s mind. Before one can fully unpack that, however, the prose paragraph structure moves the poem on to “Not to mince woulds, but this sibilance is skilling us,” another set of turns that invite both pause and movement. What is being worked out in this kind of difficulty is a poetry that points elsewhere than itself. The poem’s ending image of a dervish in a trance is telling, evoking a desire for spirituality through activity.

From the sight rhyme of “anger and danger” and the reference to Freud in the phrase “our history & its discontents” (“Everyone Agreed”), to the riffing and subverting of idiomatic phrasing (“Dear Sir”), what these poems offer is an engaged reading act where meaning is only part of the purpose. If narrative poems keep poetry connected to traditions of storytelling, then richly difficult poems like these keep poetry connected to traditions of the lyric voice, that personal, intimate, and engaged perspective whose presence alone gives it purpose and power.

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Influence Question: What were the origins of this collection?

Susan Lewis: José, thank you so much for your interest in Zoom! The origins of this collection go back to my years-long interest in the prose poem, combined with another interest of mine, which happened to develop at the same time: in poetry as play – which is not, in my mind, inconsistent with addressing dark or serious concerns. One of the things I find interesting is how much play the prose poem allows! I’m drawn to the paradox of this form: poetry that is not lineated, that is, does not advertise itself as poetry. I love the tension this holds – the demand that the reader look beyond the obvious, and engage with what might make poetry be poetry. (A question I think is more important than any particular answer one might suggest). Writing prose poems has only deepened my love for the form: the concentrated punch of a discrete bloc of words floating in a white page; the implication that substantial things come in small packages; the impression these blocs give, of density and compression; the focused attention they ask of the reader.

However, I did not set out, ab initio, to write a book-length project, or suite. It was interesting: after writing some number of what I thought of as free-standing poems, their common concerns started to become apparent, and began guiding the development and features of the rest of the poems in the book. Some of these preoccupations are packed into the title, with its nod towards film technique, as well as velocity. Organized around the substantive and aesthetic potency of point of view, the poems in Zoom borrow from film technique to ‘zoom in’ from the objective/long shot/third person, to the medium shot/second person, to the subjective/close up/first person. All engage the ramifications of subjectivity via bricolage, parataxis, polysemy, and compression. I think of the collection as adding up to a kind of status report for our moment in this world, in which the frame narrows along with the point of view, from the global to the local to the individual. Especially concerned with the need for, and failure of, empathy and decency, as well as with how we perceive and communicate, these poems also amount to a progress report on the state of language itself. The consensus among these poems is that we’re zooming – if not to our doom, than to the brink, where we might still be able to stop ourselves from irreparably despoiling our psyches and our planet.

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Special thanks to Susan Lewis for participating! To learn more about Lewis’ work, check out her site. Copies of Zoom can be purchased from The Word Works.

 

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Susan Lewis (www.susanlewis.net) is the author of Zoom, winner of the Washington Prize, as well as nine other books and chapbooks, including Heisenberg’s Salon and This Visit. Her work has appeared in a number of anthologies, including They Said (Black Lawrence Press, 2018), Resist Much, Obey Little (Dispatches Editions, 2017), and Carrying the Branch (Glass Lyre Press, 2018), as well as in journals such as Agni, Boston Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Web Conjunctions, Diode, Interim, New American Writing, The New Orleans Review, Raritan, Seneca Review, Verse, VOLT, and Verse Daily. She is the founding editor of Posit (www.positjournal.com).

microreview & interview: Stonelight by Sarah McCartt-Jackson

review by José Angel Araguz

stonelight3

In Stonelight, winner of the 2017 Airlie Prize, Sarah McCartt-Jackson adds to the tradition of lyric narrative collections that includes Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie and Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah, books that take on the materials of human life and through them evoke human presence. Informed by McCartt-Jackson’s background in folk studies, oral history, and naturalism, the poems of Stonelight move individually as statements of intimate experience, but also work together to tell the story of Ora and Eli and their family. One of the main engines behind this poetic storytelling is the use of nature as a lens to understand and feel human interactions.

The opening poem, “Kentucky Rose,” embodies what I mean in its opening lines:

This soil is a vein of stone the company calls blue heron
to indicate its grade—
a bituminous grease in the pleats of eyelines
and thumbnail quick,
in the corners of Eli’s mouth
until everything tastes like the long coal throat of Mine 18,

In these lines, the worlds of nature and human life are blurred in the physicality of Eli’s experience. The arduousness of coal-mining is evoked in the description of the soil working itself down into “eyelines” and “thumbnail quick.” Yet, the inclusion of the name of the soil “blue heron” frames this meeting of worlds. Bringing to mind a blue heron and its grace and flight, the following lines then sink down into Eli’s more grounded experience. This intense sensory experience continues to the poem’s end:

And when the earthhush of that shaft struggles to slip from the blue
shale stitched above the carbon, the sound becomes the rasp
of a carpenter bee’s mandibles boring tunnels
into the porchwood to remove its yellow poplar
grain by grain, gram by spittled gram.

Here, the intensity of Eli’s work is paralleled with a carpenter bee, an image whose focus and drive is as apt as it is startling. The implications here are double: not only is there the drone of the work, but also the feeling of necessity. Both are doing the work necessary for a living. From start to finish, this poem upends any idea that natural life and human life are at odds; rather, they exist as troubled neighbors leaving impressions on each other.

This use of nature as a lens for human understanding and feeling is found again in “Jacob’s Ladder,” which details Ora experiencing a miscarriage. The poem begins:

They say children born on the wrong side
of the river grow wild as fleabane
and do not return until Spring,
their veins all grass stems and cricket legs,

and that wild scuttles straight from their eyes
over the creekbed and slips over the birdfoot violet
into the sandstone,

Here, the world of superstition is brought in, framing what is at stake in childbirth for Ora. The narrative that begins here, that “children born on the wrong side / of the river grow wild,” is developed through nature metaphors of “fleabane” and veins gone “all grass stems and cricket legs.” This metaphoric language evokes directly what is meant by “wild” and what is to be feared. And yet, the narrative continues in the second stanza with the implication that this wildness will affect the land as well. As with “Kentucky Rose,” human intensity is paralleled with nature. Here, however, the parallel serves storytelling directly. Later in the poem, the reader finds out that Ora is unable to make it to the other side of the river:

So her baby’s hands uncurled as bluet and phlox,
her heart a hard walnut, shriveled and shut,
her bloody mouth a kiss on her mother’s thigh.

In these closing images, the experience of miscarriage is translated into nature metaphors. This reads like a natural progression from the opening stanza’s logic. Where what is feared for the child born on the wrong side of the river is expressed as a wildness whose mystery evokes troubled images of land and insects, the mystery that is death is approached through imagery that withholds further understanding. Here, nature represents what shuts out human life and renders it unknowable.

This reckoning with mortality is woven throughout the poems of Stonelight. As the narrative of Eli and Ora plays out in poems whose rich language is stitched with human heart, what remains compelling is how these characters survive and understand their survival. Even as disaster strikes, Ora’s perceptions of the world around her echoes and defies disaster. Seeing her lost children in nature, and through nature seeing herself, Ora is set down as one of poetry’s most compelling characters.

This presence is accomplished through McCartt-Jackson’s ability to braid together poetry, folklore, and research. In “O Death” (below), whose title is borrowed from an Appalachian dirge, McCartt-Jackson goes in the opposite direction of a majority of the poems in the manuscript. Where, as in the poems cited above, human characters are shown to interpret their experiences through the lens of nature, here we have an unnamed speaker evoking Death in a way that renders the experience human, intimate, and ever-present. Despite the contrast in approach, this poem continues the work of expressing the urgency of the world of Stonelight and its characters.

O Death – Sarah McCartt-Jackson

One by one the cicadas clutching the brittle bark turn their spiracles to the light to breathe her in. Their breath leaves ours on the sky-veined insect wings of the world fluttering in the edge of lampglow between umbra and fire. O candle whose light we love even as your wax taper wanes. She rattles but we do not even hear her, ears pressed to the cold cookstove, to the ragged beanvines, to the dog’s frothy tongue. O stone torn from the coalface, time-split and aching, receive her shaking tail of sound into each seam. Overturn each rock, unearth the roly polys and roll their husks between fingers so she will uncoil from the corngrass and lie on a rotting barn beam where moles scurry into her open mouth, and then turn one by one their bodies inside out. O twitching cicada hull hatched one by one with her rattle. O rattle. She sheds a snakeskin rustling on our front porch step, the silent rings in which she has traveled. Our yard, filled with each year of her scaly chaff, hisses like the white undersides of leaves blowing before the flood-rains. Each day we turn our faces to the woods, to the shade curled in a fern’s fiddlehead, to the shade clasped inside a hollow shell. O night, let their antennae burn.

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Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Sarah McCartt-Jackson: What excites me most about Stonelight is that this collection combines elements of poetry and fiction. I wrote the book with a narrative arc so that the reader can experience the poems, and the lives inhabiting them, much like experiencing a novel. I was also able to incorporate my background in folk studies, oral history, and naturalism. Throughout the book, readers encounter folk beliefs, words of our ancestors, and a lush environment teeming with flora and fauna. I hope Stonelight guides the reader through the journey with Ora as she experiences her triumphs and tragedies.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Sarah McCartt-Jackson: One of the challenges of writing these poems was creating the narrative arc. I had to outline the book much as an author would outline a novel. When I went to put the poems together, I had to identify plot points that might be missing, then write new poems to help fill these gaps. The narrative arc went through many iterations before settling in its current stream.

Another challenge was the sheer history of the poems. Writing about the turn of the previous century required a lot of research—both historical and personal. I spent a lot of time reading old geology books, government documents, oral histories, and naturalist collections. This research gave me some new, rich language that readers might not immediately recognize, but I insisted on using these terms as they are. Because of that, I tried to help readers along with metaphor and imagery, while also providing extensive notes at the end of the book. In this way, we learn something about history, belief systems, and the folk—the people—that I have created in Stonelight.

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Special thanks to Sarah McCartt-Jackson for participating! To learn more about McCartt-Jackson’s work, check out her site. Copies of Stonelight can be purchased from Airlie Press.

Also: Be sure to consider entering the Airlie Prize, open now through March!

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Kentucky poet, folklorist, and naturalist Sarah McCartt-Jackson has received honors from and been published by Copper Nickel, Bellingham Review, Indiana Review, Journal of American Folklore, The Maine Review, Tidal Basin Review, and others. She is the recipient of an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council, and has served as artist-in-residence for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shotpouch Cabin (Oregon State University). She is the author of Stonelight (Airlie Press), which won the 2017 Airlie Prize, and two chapbooks, Vein of Stone (Porkbelly Press) and Children Born on the Wrong Side of the River (Casey Shay Press), which won the 2015 Mary Ballard Poetry Prize. She works on a farm in Louisville.

microreview & interview: Love Me, Anyway by Minadora Macheret

review by José Angel Araguz

lovemeanyway

The First Time PCOS Spoke – Minadora Macheret

The doctor didn’t believe my periods had disappeared.

Most months were painless
as I watched all the other girls clutch cramps and bloating—
I wanted that too. I was different enough
and every 28 days I begged my uterus.

Medicine wrestles pubescent girls into journal articles
amenorrhea is due to over activity (at this age).

Please gentle the body—
thicken it with sleep.
When you slow down,
you will be
a woman,
again.

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Reading through the poems of Love Me, Anyway (Porkbelly Press) by Minadora Macheret, one encounters a poetic sensibility capable of exploring the intersection of disability and being a woman in ways that interrogate the misguided narratives around both. The first line of the poem above (“The doctor didn’t believe my periods had disappeared”) begins this work within the context of disbelief. Here, it is disbelief not only of what is stated, but also an implied doubt due to youth and gender. The poem then builds from this initial disbelief by adding to it the speaker’s own disbelief in the workings of her body. The difference between these two disbeliefs is stark: the doctor’s disbelief is authoritative, while the speaker’s is grounded in vulnerability and fear. This starkness is furthered by the third stanza, where the medically-informed disbelief is seen as “[wrestling] pubescent girls into journal articles,” phrasing that evokes what it feels like to have a personal experience reduced to objective terms and analysis.

By the final stanza, the turn to the language of prayer (“Please gentle the body— / thicken it with sleep”) is a surprise on several levels. First, authority is subverted and, while still distant, it works now in a different tone, a tone that reads first as “gentle” but proves itself controlling by the end. Secondly, this subversion exposes the condescension and harm of the doctor’s disbelief; their authoritative advice is prescriptive in both a medical sense but also in a sense charged by gender bias. In a way, this last stanza could be read as a command to the speaker, a woman, to “slow down.” Lastly, returning to the title, these last lines can also be read as PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) itself addressing the speaker. Because it echoes the medical authority in tone and advice, this address becomes a betrayal charged with vulnerability.

This engagement with disbelief through lyric (re)imagination is at the heart of Love Me, Anyway. The PCOS experience is shown as a human experience that affects both a woman’s body and identity. Throughout the poems, Macheret evokes the struggle of identity through poetic acts of (re)definition. In “Remembering Girlhood,” the speaker reckons with the identity-shaping effects of the schoolyard:

…I am other Watch the girls point inside themselves to understand the outside of me Listen to their words mouth traitor…She can’t be a woman there is no moon inside of her to wax and wane Follow the porcupine quills on her face and breasts She is of men not of women Turn away turn away turn away

What is compelling here is how the context of the schoolyard is subverted by, first, being informed by the disbelief of other children, and, second, by how this disbelief is channeled through a formal, high diction. Phrasing like “there is no moon inside of her to wax and wane” and “She is of men not of women” is charged with a severity that drives home the damning effect childhood bullying has.

In “To the Bearded Lady I Am (Age 26),” the speaker begins by sharing:

I spend my days mirror-bound. Farm the angles of my face with tweezers. Lately, I can afford laser treatment. Each pulse of light burns hair follicle clusters.

Here, we have the clarity and directness found in other poems, metaphor being used to set the scene. The poem develops to these ending lines:

The anxiety of hair growth strangles my days to slip into nights. I’m like a teacup left out, dust covered, a chip in my side.

The clarity of the opening lines grounds the poem in the speaker’s reality; coming to these closing lines, metaphor works in a different, richer way by showing a further depth to the speaker’s reality. Not only is anxiety acknowledged as part of the self-conscious act depicted, but there is the effect on identity. In seeing herself as a “teacup left out, dust covered, a chip in my side,” the speaker evokes ideas of beauty and purpose as well as neglect. A disease’s ability to make one feel “other” (as noted above) is presented here in literal object-ification. These lines are another example of how working past otherness and imposed narratives comes at the cost of a shifting sense of self.

In this last poem, the idea of disbelief—both that of others and one’s own—is answered by a clear reckoning and acknowledgment. Disbelief, by being present, implies the possibility of belief. The poems of Love Me, Anyway argue, ultimately, that sometimes all one has to believe in is one’s own experiences, one’s pain and survival. These poems embody one of the gifts of lyric poetry, specifically the ability to evoke struggle and the life found through it.

In the title poem (below), this idea is worked out as a hard-earned belief. (Re)definition appears again in the opening lines—“Settle into my skin, / show of nature gone awry,”—but is accompanied by conscious (re)action “make-believe the parts are working.” The poem continues through admission, creating from honest acknowledgment a lyric space where the speaker is able to fully voice and feel, and, thus, fully exist.

Love Me, Anyway – Minadora Macheret

Settle into my skin,
show of nature gone awry,
make-believe the parts are working.

There will be days
anger currents keep me upright
as anxiety locks me to the bed
and the safari of my skin
full of brush
stains the covers fluorescent-red

the Nile is deep and endless
as the mechanism syncs
to the monthly flood-watch.

And on the mornings
I am barren
for a day more than I can handle,
please love me, anyway.

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Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be? 

Minadora Macheret: This collection reflects what I see poetry can do and/or can be because it is giving voice to invisibility, to disability, to the liminal spaces that make us more human than we care to admit. Through the manipulation of white space and use of lyric images to guide a narrative that is searching to understand itself, this collection allows for the reader to gain an emotional glimpse into a body haunted by grief, by disease, by an inability to function “normally.” Also, there is the blending of language/translation, of culture, of folklore/myth (Baba Yaga & Demeter make appearances), and how those elements of identity also play a foundational role into understanding the body and how to recreate the self and the stories told on the page. Most importantly, this collection is another avenue for political poetry and social justice because it is asking the reader to see how the patient is gazing back at the doctor, the clinic, the world they inhabit, especially as it considers the disabled body, the diseased body, the female body. Poetry also has the capacity to breathe new meaning and understanding into the undefinable and this collection is pushing against the ways in which doctors engage the female body and struggle to offer support and/or treatment for diseases they think they understand.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Minadora Macheret: Some of the challenges in writing these poems came through translation. What I mean by that is not just the translation of disease from scientific literature to something accessible, but in the actual act of thinking in Russian (my first language) to writing it in English. Because I think multilingually (and grew up in a household of polyglots) I struggle with translation at times and though poetry has the capacity to hold a multiplicity of languages and their conversions/inversions, I would need to have trusted friends look at the syntax and/or grammar at times of what I was saying for clarification. Another challenge was how to talk about a disease that is terrifying, that disintegrates the body from the inside out without just glamorizing it or making the disease beautiful. I worked very intentionally with balancing between the horrific/grotesque with lyrical images or use of musicality/sound to show the duality of disease and its affect on the body. In particular, I am thinking of my “Self-Portrait as Mythos” poem that is using beautiful language and imagery to show the realities of a disease that causes infertility among a host of other issues. Lastly, something I struggled with is how to balance the grief in the collection without ending on something inspirational. I tend to turn away from the inspirational because I wanted to show the lived every day experiences that many people go through as grief/disease/disabiltiy becomes a facet of their lives. One way that I dealt with this is to not shy away from (my) truth of the experience and to let myself sit in those images/experiences as they were.

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Special thanks to Minadora Macheret for participating! To learn more about Macheret’s work, check out this interview with her at Rogue Agent Journal! Copies of Love Me, Anyway can be purchased from Porkbelly Press.

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Minadora Macheret is a Ph.D. student and Teaching Fellow at the University of North Texas. She is a Poetry Editor for Devilfish Review. Her work has appeared in Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Red Paint Hill, Rogue Agent, Connotation Press, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbook, Love Me Anyway, from Porkbelly Press, 2018. She likes to travel across the country with her beagle, Aki.

microreview & interview: Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez

review by José Angel Araguz

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The Latinx experience is often reduced to ideas of duality. There’s the phrase “ni de aqui, ni de allá” (neither from here nor from there). There’s Gustavo Peréz Firmat’s idea of “living on the hyphen,” which acknowledges the duality of having a hyphpenated identity, in his case Cuban-American. Even one of the more popular textbooks in Spanish classes across the nation is titled Dos Mundos, a nod to the narrative idea of living in two worlds.

This kind of phrasing and thinking is reductive when only one duality is considered. What I have found in my own experiences is that it is not only one duality that defines my own Mexican-American life, but a multitude of dualities. This thinking feels truer to the Latinx experience because while one duality implies a clean split into halves, multiple dualities implies a series of splits in one’s identity. One of the driving forces of José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Books) is an exploration of the complexity inherent in these kinds of multiple dualities and splits.

The opening poem “(citizen) (illegal)” begins this exploration in the subverted phrasing of its title, which takes the phrase “illegal citizen” and turns it via parentheses into two separate adjectives. The poem goes on to develop its narrative using the rhetoric of word problems:

Mexican woman (illegal) and Mexican man (illegal) have
a Mexican (illegal)-American (citizen).
Is the baby more Mexican or American?
Place the baby in the arms of the mother (illegal).
If the mother holds the baby (citizen)
too long, does the baby become illegal?

Here, the logic of words is placed against the logic of human laws. Having isolated (citizen) and (illegal) in the title, the two words begin to develop a life of their own as they move in their narrative placement. In the first line, (illegal) is strictly in the language of immigration law. Yet, the word is something different—and marked as such by the absence of parentheses—by the end of the stanza. This change occurs via the question asked in the last three lines of this stanza. This question’s narrative places the mother and child, one marked as (illegal) and the other as (citizen), in a familiar embrace between mother and child. Through context, the question parallels the proximity of this embrace with the proximity of words on a page, both the physical closeness but also the way the closeness of two words changes the meaning of both.

In bringing together word logic and law logic through this parallel, Olivarez evokes the fear immigrant parents live with, even in such innocent moments as holding a baby. By taking charge of these two words in an objective, logical way, the poem makes the humanity that is affected by them more evident and real.

One of Olivarez’s accomplishments in this collection is this ability to make present the humanity behind dualities in poem after heart-wrenching poem. In the aptly titled “Mexican American Disambiguation,” Olivarez works the duality of presence and influence through contemplation of American cultural staples:

everything in me
is diverse even when i eat American foods
like hamburgers, which to clarify, are American
when a white person eats them & diverse
when my family eats them. so much of America
can be understood like this.

Here, we have another moment of closeness, of something being embraced out of need. While the stakes are albeit different than the closeness between a mother and her baby, the meaning remains the same: words and ideas are affected by the human presence behind them. Even a hamburger, which here is at first taken as an American symbol, can become politically fraught when put in contact with the narratives of the Latinx experience. This poem quickly shifts to higher stakes as the speaker takes note of his family’s effect on the idea of the American Dream:

my parents were
undocumented when they came to this country
& by undocumented, i mean sin papeles, &
by sin papeles, i mean royally fucked which
should not be confused with the American Dream
though the two are cousins.

Within the complexity of the wordplay here, which moves between English and Spanish as well as between the metaphor of the American Dream and ideas of family, lies the conscience of this speaker. It is identity, ultimately, that the speaker is seeking to make clear by working through the ambiguity of symbols and ideas of America. Yet, clarifying one’s identity isn’t as simple as noting the right words; one must work through what the words mean. From “sin papeles” to “royally fucked” to “American Dream,” the poem seeks to understand each word through correlation, ending at “cousins,” a word that means family, but not immediate family. In Citizen Illegal, readers are invited to slow down and dwell on such distinctions for what they say about connection as well as for what is missed.

This navigation through distinctions of duality is consistently reckoned with in this collection on a personal scale. In “my therapist says make friends with your monsters,” the speaker delves into the context of therapy, where “monsters” are self-created; yet, within the greater context of the collection’s Mexican-American narrative, the speaker’s monsters are as double and duplicitous as the two countries themselves. The lyric sequence “Mexican Heaven,” braided throughout the collection, reimagines heaven as a source of respite but, as the following excerpt shows, tinged with familiar mistrust:

all of the Mexicans sneak into heaven.
St. Peter has their name on the list,
but the Mexicans haven’t trusted a list
since Ronald Reagan was president.

Movement is the common thread of this meditation on multiple dualities. In the most compelling moments of this collection, Olivarez presents to us poetic spaces where one dwells alongside the speaker on the elements in motion around him. The poem below, “I Walk Into Every Room & Yell Where The Mexicans At,” is a good example of what I mean. Within the context of a problematic conversation at a party, the speaker navigates beyond the good intentions of the conversation and unravels the meanings and memories at play in his mind. In this space, one sees not only what it feels like to be seen in a distorted manner, but also what it is like to survive it.

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I Walk Into Every Room & Yell Where the Mexicans At – José Olivarez

i know we exist because of what we make. my dad works at a steel mill. he worked at a steel mill my whole life. at the party, the liberal white woman tells me she voted for hillary & wishes bernie won the nomination. i stare in the mirror if i get too lonely. thirsty to see myself i once walked into the lake until i almost drowned. the white woman at the party who might be liberal but might have voted for trump smiles when she tells me how lucky i am. how many automotive components do you think my dad has made. you might drive a car that goes and stops because of something my dad makes. when i watch the news i hear my name, but never see my face. every other commercial is for taco bell. all my people fold into a $2 crunchwrap supreme. the white woman means lucky to be here and not Mexico. my dad sings Por Tu Maldito Amor & i’m sure he sings to America. y yo caí en tu trampa ilusionado. the white woman at the party who may or may not have voted for trump tells me she doesn’t meet too many Mexicans in this part of New York City. my mouth makes an oh, but i don’t make a sound. a waiter pushes his brown self through the kitchen door carrying hors d’oeuvres. a song escapes through the swinging door. selena sings pero ay como me duele & the good white woman waits for me to thank her.

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Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

José Olivarez: For me, poetry has been most powerful in shared experiences. The moment that made me want to write poems was seeing my peers, teenagers at the time, perform poems that spoke truthfully about their own experiences to an audience full of rapt teenagers and adults. My favorite past time is getting drinks with friends and then reading them my favorite poems (Ada Limón’s Glow, all of Lucille Clifton’s poems, Aracelis Girmay’s On Kindness, Patrick Rosal’s BrokeHeart: Just Like That). I believe that poetry is communal. I wanted to write a book that people would want to share with each other. I wanted to write a book that people could laugh to and cry to and feel all the feelings to. I wanted to write a book that young poets would want to read and rewrite and challenge and remix. I wanted to write a book that could belong at the library and on public transportation and in the park. I wanted to write a loud poetry. An impolite poetry. A poetry that asks you to reimagine the world.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

José Olivarez: One of the challenges in writing these poems early on was that the poems were fitting too neatly into already established narratives about Latinx people and immigration, things like the sense of belonging neither here nor there, the arc of the American Dream, the othering gaze of whiteness. Where did these ideas come from? How could I complicate and destabilize them? I tried to rewrite the poems with an eye towards mischief and subverting those tropes. When I finished a poem, I tried to rewrite it to see what other possibilities existed. That’s how poems like “Poem to Take The Belt Out of My Dad’s Hands” were made. I didn’t want to write poems that fit too neatly into what was already expected of me.

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Special thanks to José Olivarez for participating! To learn more about Olivarez’s work, check out his site! Copies of Citizen Illegal can be purchased from Haymarket Books.

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JoséphotobyMarcosVasquezJosé Olivarez is the son of Mexican immigrants and the author of the book of poems, Citizen Illegal. Along with Felicia Chavez and Willie Perdomo, he is co-editing the forthcoming anthology, The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNEXT. He is the co-host of the poetry podcast, The Poetry Gods and a recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo, Poets House, the Bronx Council on the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, & the Conversation Literary Festival. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Paris Review, and elsewhere.  In 2018, he was awarded the first annual Author and Artist in Justice Award from the Phillips Brooks House Association. He lives in Chicago.