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).

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microreview & interview: Stonelight by Sarah McCartt-Jackson

review by José Angel Araguz

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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.

microreview & interview: House of McQueen by Valerie Wallace

review by José Angel Araguz

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In the note for “Let’s make a dress from these,” from Valerie Wallace’s  House of McQueen (Four Way Books), we learn that the poem’s title is a quote from Alexander McQueen himself, spoken “as he walked into his workroom with a handful of red medical slides.” In the same spirit of ingenuity and repurposing, Wallace’s collection presents poems that inhabit similar liminal spaces. Ranging from ekphrasis and collage to engaging with docupoetics with singular purpose, the poems of House of McQueen brings McQueen’s aesthetic vision and humanity to life through its engagement with the observable and imaginative.

The aforementioned poem, “Let’s make a dress from these,” which centers on the dress made from medical slides mentioned in the note above, starts with an objective description: “Stained red medical slides layer vertically on sleeveless sheath, / high-necked and cut away from right shoulder to right hipbone.” The reader is presented strictly with what the eye can see in these lines. The poem then moves from the physically observable, to the suggestive and poetic:

Heavy overskirts of crimson ostrich feathers swish & switch,
thick & deliberate into underskirt of plum-black ostrich feathers.
These skirts obey the law of push. From the slightest pressure they bloom.

In these lines that round out the first stanza, the observable is engaged on two levels. First, there is the evocation of the image through phrasing with the repetition of “ostrich feathers” across two lines; but there’s also a structural echo of the image in the enjambment of “swish & switch, / thick & deliberate.” Here, the repeated use of the ampersand works like typographical stitching joining two descriptions of ostrich feathers. The last line of this stanza furthers this evocation, taking it to an imaginative space through its mention of “the law of push” and “bloom,” language that makes the observable fact of the dress into an active, engaging image.

Another kind of engagement between the observable and imaginative occurs in the poem “Shears,” only this time it is one on the level of craft. Composed out of text found and “occasionally corrupted” by the author from Basil Bunting’s Complete Poems (New Directions), what makes this poem remarkable is how Wallace is able to find and repurpose language outside of the McQueen-centered project and bring it into conversation:

Silk tweed gray felt sable damask flannel
Glory of sharp tool be the lasting part of me

Plip scut slew slew all sounds fall still
Have you seen the fox? Which way did he go, he go?

These opening lines begin with fabric language and quickly go into intimate revelry. The repetition and wordplay here are to different purposes than in the poem discussed above; yet the move on the poet’s part to evoke image and feeling from recovered language remains the equally compelling.

Similarly, the poem “Autobiography of Alexander McQueen,” which is composed of quotes from print and video interviews with McQueen himself, takes the found language approach and creates from it a sense of human voice and presence:

I’m a romantic, really—
I try to protect people.
People say I do it for the shock value
I just like exploring the sinister side of life.

Drawn from McQueen’s lips, these opening lines are haunting in the way they represent isolated moments of self-awareness and aesthetic vision. Despite their repurposing into poetic form, in this case a pantoum, the designer’s unique sense of self-possession and character ring out. When the poem closes and the form repeats the first and third line above, the argument performed through the act of the poem lands for the reader as an argument of being:

Solitude is the blank canvas I work from.
Life is transformation.
People will say I did it for the shock value—
But I’m just a romantic really.

House of McQueen can, in fact, be read as a romantic’s transformation of language materials into aesthetic revelation. The very spirit of high fashion is implied throughout the conceptual and structural narratives explored. Wallace’s deft eye and ear create poems that keep pace with and come close to matching McQueen’s original sartorial creations. What stands out as the book’s highest accomplishment is how Wallace is able to bring readers again and again to the liminal, imaginative space of inspiration.

The poem below, “Council House, 1972,” opens the collection with exactly this note of dwelling on the possibilities inherent between the observable and imaginative. From the feeling of having “never seen anything like it” to “wondering, how to draw that color — sea coast changing to dawn,” the reader is presented with two artists: the artist McQueen was on the verge of becoming, and Wallace now, able to find the words to house them both.

Council House, 1972 – Valerie Wallace

When I was about 3 years old, I drew a dress on the wall. And what dress was it? Cinderella.

When she turned, I’d never seen anything like it.
Dress made for charming prince and fairy.
I could manage the little sleeves, tiny waist rising
out of skirts which laughed as they traveled with her across the ballroom floor.
And they had stars woven in them.
I got caught wondering, how to draw that color — sea coast changing to dawn.
There was trouble, but I didn’t care. I knew it was the dress
that saved her. All the rest was just a story.

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

Valerie Wallace: Thank you so much for this question. I think poetry is a space for great permission, so for me this collection invigorates that idea, because it takes on many challenges at once – persona, ekphrastic, formal, free, a bit of narrative – all in an attempt to make a cohesive  emotional . . .  welling forth about a singular life.

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

Valerie Wallace: This is probably obvious, but my primary challenge – which animated all the other challenges – was to stay true to McQueen’s aesthetic and vision. Ultimately I used form and craft in service to his tailoring foundation, and a wide range of source material, as he had, for his collections. I researched Scottish and English history and the history of fashion, learned bespoke terminology, read McQueen biographies, and made use of interviews with McQueen, as well as his close friends and family. I felt my own imagination had permission to be wild. If I thought, Why not? I tried it. If I thought, What if…, I did it.

I’ll just add that at first I thought I was writing a kind of elegy. Then I thought I was writing language poems. At times, I was forcing poems into these categories. Of course, those poems were not very good. I learned that I had to strengthen my listening muscles. I had to listen to what the poems needed to say, wanted to say, find the little soul for each. As that began to happen, the poems and I began to trust each other, and then a collection began to hum.

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Special thanks to Valerie Wallace for participating! To learn more about Wallace’s work, check out her site! Copies of House of McQueen can be purchased from Four Way Books.

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wallace 2Valerie Wallace’s debut poetry collection House of McQueen (March 2018) was chosen by Vievee Francis for the Four Way Books Intro Prize in Poetry. In their starred review Publishers Weekly said that Wallace created “…a literary seance…serving as a scholar of and medium for the late iconic fashion designer Alexander McQueen….” Her work was chosen by Margaret Atwood for the Atty Award, and she has received an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award and the San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference Award in Poetry, as well as many grants to support her work, for which she is extremely grateful.

microreview & interview: Phantom Tongue by Steven Sanchez

review by José Angel Araguz

phantomtongue7

Phantom Tongue (Sundress Publications) by Steven Sanchez begins with “On the Seventh Day,” a poem depicting the speaker poring over images of male models in the Sunday ads—”glossy men” that “look like my G.I. Joe / if his clothes weren’t painted on”—then cutting and pasting body parts, fashioning ideal versions of attractiveness. This act is narrated in a compelling and telling manner; as the speaker notes that “These paper men / are caught inside words / they don’t even know exist,” it is hard not to notice the parallel with the speaker himself, a youth whose burgeoning sexuality is manifesting outside of words through this play with images. The poem ends with a similarly telling image:

I’ve learned to hide these men inside
the pages of my dictionary,
where words always cling
to their wet curves
like the newspaper ink
on my hands, headlines
and stories staining my skin.

This final image is charged with guilt and self-consciousness. Unlike the title’s reference to God resting after the creation of the world, this speaker is far from being able to rest or feel settled. In fact, his act of creation leaves him scared and with an impulse to hide his fascination.

This tension between fascination and self-consciousness lies at the center of Phantom Tongue. Starting with this poem about bodies, the collection begins to explore ideas of breaking—how bodies break, and what breaks with them—balanced by meditations on what is not broken. One can see this balance in the sequence “Passing.” In the section One of the Guys, the speaker is asked on the playground “Are you white or a wetback?” and responds with “I’m just like you.” The speaker is then told to grab a rock and join in the taunting and assault of another child. Unable to find a rock, or unwilling to, the speaker picks up a “large dirt clod” and is commanded to throw it at the head of the other boy. When he moves to do so, however, the speaker ends up only feeling how the dirt clod “explodes in my raised hand.” This closing image implies not only the futility of violence, but also the speaker’s discomfort in participating. It is almost as if the dirt clod breaks apart in empathy with the speaker.

This scene of coerced action resulting in futility skillfully leads to the second section of this sequence, Boy Scout. In this poem, the speaker is out fishing and reels in a brown trout, the experience bringing him closer to a growing sense of mortality:

I feel the rest of his life in this wire, taut
like string between two plastic cups.

Does he hear my heart tightening its pace,
a fist that will not let go?

The feeling of life on the wire compared to a childhood makeshift telephone drives home what is being communicated through this experience to the speaker. Viewed within the context of a conversation, the speaker is aware that he is at fault for the breaking from life that is going on at the other side. This awareness becomes a new knowledge in the form of the final couplet where the speaker’s heart becomes “a fist that will not let go.” Even the breaking life of a fish holds its fascination and lesson.

Sanchez’s attention to and facility with empathy is also present in the poems about his complicated relationship with his father. In “La Llorona,” for example, we are given an imagined origin story that is braided with the Mexican folktale. As the speaker tells us “My father’s forgotten / who brought him / to America,” the poem sets its license for this braiding as being grounded in the father’s absence of details. We further learn:

Somebody found him
when he was a boy
walking in the streets

of Tijuana, his mother
absent. The jagged
remains of his living

room window
cut his hands
when he reached

one more time
toward his own father,
dead for three days.

From here, the poem enters the speaker’s dreams where he tries to comfort the father. Where in reality the speaker’s father reached to the dead father, in dream he reaches toward the speaker. In this parallel, death and dream frame the speaker’s father with absence. This absence then becomes a space where the poem can explore the story of La Llorona and braid it to the father’s via imagery:

I can never touch him,
always my reflection
in water. A woman

emerges and slides
her finger across
his navel

where kelp grows
like an umbilical chord
inching toward his neck

Comfort exists in these stanzas edged with threat, as it does in life. The uncertainty of water—a realm of intangible reflections and unperceivable depths—makes a suitable parallel to the life of the father, who, through his own absences, lives an uncertain life. As the poem’s dreamscape baptism comes to a close, La Llorona holds the father and prays. In this way, braiding the narrative of La Llorona with that of the father redeems both troubled figures.

In “Approaching El Arco / Reloj Monumental,” redemption is explored in a way that allows for complication and doubt. As the poem moves through its crushing depiction of the speaker being questioned by border patrol while walking near the entrance of Tijuana, there comes this moment:

A gull walks

in circles a few feet away, his left wing
broken, upside down; his white

remex makes a path in wet sand
that three offspring follow. I could

hold the gull, stroke his sleek back,
and make a purple sling from my shirt.

But I wouldn’t know what I’m doing,
how to reset or mend his bones.

I would just break another one
I try to convince myself, even though

I know what happens if I do nothing.

This act of pausing, of acknowledging what’s in front of the speaker and each possible course of action, of lingering over meaning, speaks of the great empathy at the heart of this collection. By considering the broken wing of the bird, the speaker goes through the motions of feeling something (not quite innocence, but like it) break inside himself. Moments like this one showcase Sanchez’s gift for dwelling in complexity.

While the collection begins with a fascination with the body, this fascination quickly becomes an unflinching awareness of what is at stake within a body. Along with the physical breaking possible, there is the body as the house of what is broken and what continues to break. In the final poem, “What I Didn’t Tell You” (below), an address to a younger brother begins as advice and quickly shifts into regret and apology. Sanchez’s ability to look deeply within his own breaking—the physical and emotional, as well as the breaking that makes up memory—is illuminating. Throughout this collection, worlds that have gone neglected and unseen are made visible and granted the rich and transformative acknowledgment of poetry.

What I Didn’t Tell You – Steven Sanchez

for my brother

You can ask me anything,
Even about my first kiss,
which was at your age
and tasted like stale beer.
I used to feel guilty swallowing
the pulse of another man,
but now I know there are many
ways to pray. There’s a name for
that most intimate prayer:
la petite mort—the little death.
If, when your lover rakes
your back, you recall
the flock of worshippers
surrounding you like raptors
when they learned you’re gay,
clawing at your shoulders,
squawking for salvation,
remind yourself you have to die
before you can be resurrected.
Never forget what the Bible says:
when two people worship together,
they create a church
no matter where they are—
which must include
the backseat of a car
or the darkest corner
of Woodward Park.
These are some of the things
I wanted to tell you
that night in April
you called me for help
with your history report
about the gay rights movement.
Neither of us admitted
what he knew about the other.
Instead I started
with the ancient Greeks,
told you it was normal for them,
that for one brief moment
they were allowed to shape
their own history and religion,
organizing the stars, forming
Orion, for example,
flexing in the sky, arms
open in victory, belt
hanging below his waist.
But he was punished
for his confidence,
a scorpion’s hooked tail
piercing his body
like a poison moon.
When I see Orion,
I think of you and remember
what it felt like
for my knuckles to sink
into your stomach,
for my fist to collide
with your face. Your voice,
your walk, your gestures
reminded me of myself,
your figure bright and fluid,
creating a reflection
I wanted to break.
And now I see
your body spill open—
Big Dipper hooked
to your ribs, North Star
nestled in the middle.
I reach for that ladle
and drink.

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Influence Question: How does this full length relate/grow out of your chapbooks?

Steven Sanchez: The earliest draft of Phantom Tongue came first, followed by my chapbooks: To My Body (Glass Poetry Press) and Photographs of Our Shadows (Agape Editions). While my two chapbooks have a lot of thematic overlap (in terms of Queerness, internalized oppression, and Pocho-ness, among others), the image systems and tones between each chapbook felt different. Despite these differences, or probably because of them, I was able to figure out how to meet Phantom Tongue on its own terms.

Originally, Phantom Tongue had three sections, and the differences between the first two sections reflected the differences between the two chapbooks. The third section tried to reconcile those differences, but, like a bad sewing job, the thread was visible and didn’t match. I expressed my concerns to Sara Henning (my wonderful editor at Sundress) and she encouraged me to remove the sections and see what happened.

Reading through it without sections, I still saw significant shifts that reminded me “oh, we’re switching between chapbooks now,” so I tried out an organization strategy I used in my first chapbook—begin the book with a poem centering the body and end the book with a poem centering the body. If I could begin and end with a body, Phantom Tongue could tell the story of that body.

However, the final poems in Phantom Tongue had tones that clashed with each other. The title poem itself comes relatively late in the book and is a poem of witness (sort of) where the speaker lacks agency. But I wanted the end of the book to acknowledge and challenge what happens in the title poem. I turned to the poems from my second chapbook for help and found the poem I wanted to close on—What I Didn’t Tell You. When I found that poem, I realized a few of the poems in that chapbook had a similar tone and pacing; I realized that Phantom Tongue needed those poems near the end.

Ultimately, I found that my first chapbook seemed to privilege the physical, lived experiences of a body, while the second chapbook seemed to privilege the ways bodies get read as texts and assigned meaning. While those chapbooks can be their own entities, I realized Phantom Tongue felt clunky because the physical body and metaphysical body inform each other and cannot be so easily separated (if at all). My chapbooks were so helpful in my revision process, sort of like a phoropter in an optometrist’s office—sometimes one chapbook made an aspect of Phantom Tongue super clear, sometimes that same chapbook made me lose focus; toggling between the two helped me hone in on the smaller details I couldn’t see on my own.

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Special thanks to Steven Sanchez for participating! To learn more about Sanchez’s work, check out his site! Copies of Phantom Tongue can be purchased from Sundress Publications.

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1888_sanchezSteven Sanchez is the author of Phantom Tongue (Sundress Publications, 2018), selected by Mark Doty as the winner of Marsh Hawk Press’ Rochelle Ratner Memorial Award and a finalist for the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize & the Four Way Books Intro Prize. He is also the author of two chapbooks: To My Body (Glass Poetry Press, 2016) and Photographs of Our Shadows (Agape Editions, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo and the Lambda Literary Foundation, his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poet LoreNimrodNorth American ReviewMuzzleCrab Creek Review, and other publications. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from California State University, Fresno.

microreview & interview: Rodney Gómez’s Citizens of the Mausoleum

review by José Angel Araguz

mausoleum pic

What a poet lists in their poems says much about what is important to them. There is a gesture of trying to catalog and hold onto, but also one of presenting and (re)presenting. Listing is a move I often find myself drawn to and examining in reading contemporary poems because it is through listing that a poet can achieve a differently-clear response to Robert Lowell’s question: “Yet why not say what happened?” In Rodney Gómez’s Citizens of the Mausoleum (Sundress Publications), “what happened” is recollected, invoked and evoked, acknowledged and interrogated via a poetic sensibility able to handle lists in a way that establishes clear human presence.

The opening sequence “Checkpoint Aubade” takes as its subject the finding of mass graves of unidentified migrants in South Texas. After the first section establishes how “bodies were potted / in Falfurrias” and how “roots / curled between their ribs,” the second section delves further through a list:

Duvalín spoon
rebozo
lone sacrum
Flamin’ Hot Cheetos
Lavoro jeans
Puma sneaker
bajo sexto
scattered jacks
receipt from Pollo Loco
butterfly knife
keys
Tres Flores brilliantine
comb with missing teeth
manifesto
full bottle of Levothyroxine
rosary
Circo Vasquez flyer
Coca Cola watch
bobby pin
miniature stop sign
coil from a sleeping cot
retablo of St. Jude Thaddeus

What’s powerful about this list is how it brings together a diverse array of everyday items and through juxtaposition and presence evokes human life. From the pleasures of eating (“Duvalín” “Cheetos” “Pollo Loco”) and pop culture (“Circo Vasquez flyer / Coca Cola watch”) to self-consciousness over appearance (“Tres Flores brilliantine / comb with missing teeth” “bobby pin”), all of it stands in stark contrast with the mortal context of the poem, represented directly by the inclusion of “lone sacrum” and indirectly through the “missing teeth” of the comb. Furthermore, the presence of the epigraph at the start of the poem noting that the bodies are unidentified begins a narrative of identifying within the reader. Reading the above list, one senses the human life lost and is simultaneously taken right to the limit of what can be identified. This move in a poem makes clear what is at stake for the Gómez in these poems without any filter or rhetorical scaffolding.

Listing works in a different way in “Love,” where the speaker meditates on the ways this words changes for people:

I’ve never understood how someone could fall in love
and just as quickly fall out, as if love were the Chunnel
or a passage under the Great Wall. Take my friend Al,
a surgeon, a bright guy with whom I went to State,
he meets a girl online, dates her for a week, and pretty
soon he’s professing an undying love, tattoos her Zodiac
sign on his bicep, and they go everywhere together—
the groceries, the gym, the shower—and pretty soon
they’re calling each other honey, which is the amazing
part because the only thing I’ve ever called honey
was printed on glossy paper or pressed in a candy shop,
and he describes this girl as a swan, which just a few
weeks later becomes a snake, how is this possible,
for love to evaporate, one mayfly minute to the next,

In this short excerpt, one can see a subversive listing at work. There’s the quick list work of trying to understand love in the first three lines, which show the speaker’s bafflement through a blunt logic. Then there is the narrative of a past relationship his friend, Al, has gone through. Through this narrative, there is a listing of details that changes as the emotional course of the relationship changes. From clear bicep to tattooed bicep, from “swan” to “snake,” these details shift in a way that is familiar, but it is the speaker’s urgent desire to understand (“how is this possible”) that keeps up the momentum created at the start of the poem.

This momentum-carrying listing features again in “Cloud,” one of a series of poems that take the death of the poet’s mother as its subject:

A cloud
hoarding my mother’s voice.
Symphonium.

When I sprint
at late hours
I am nothing
but cloud

and scour myself
for her.

She has gone
to a greater kind
of hiding.

This excerpt shows how the poem grounds itself in the idea of cloud. The line “A cloud / hoarding my mother’s voice” implies things being carried off and held at a distance. The speaker’s following note that he runs and becomes “nothing / but cloud // and scour myself / for her” shifts the meaning of clouds further, adding to it an active need to combat the “greater kind / of hiding” that is death. This active need is returned to and developed further at the end of the poem:

Sometimes
I’ll run on the bare back
of the arroyo,

skimming the water
for her face.

Cranes alight
to avoid my madness.

I am interminably
missing.

Here, one sees the logic of what’s being experienced by the speaker: loss leads to looking, looking leads to seeing what’s there and what’s not there. In this duality, one can sense the speaker’s reason for running and looking; in a broader view, this duality also represents a reason for the kinds of listing engaged with in this collection. What else to do in the face of the “interminably / missing” than begin to take stock of what is here.

Citizens of the Mausoleum does just that. Through poems and sequences devoted to personal and public loss (“We, Too, Are Asking Why” stands out as a vital and necessary poem about the Sandy Hook shootings), Gómez’s gift of braiding a sharp lyrical sense of phrasing and imagery with engaged poetic and political convictions is on full display. As can be seen in “Our Lady of San Juan” (below), Gómez goes one step further in these poems beyond saying “what happened” and presents poems that invite the reader to say it for themselves.

Our Lady of San Juan – Rodney Gómez

cupped hands : a sun dial
cesta of moon : votary
when she says I love you : glacier
hallelujah : crumpled wrist
walking on knees : acceptance of death
broken promise : burnt mesquite
promises kept : a flame
indifference of cicadas : Gethsemane
confessional : ornate rhythm of water
heavy element : the wages of sin
hidden prayer : lock for the mouth
rosary : a fastening, a clasp
an open mouth : cantankerous censer
frayed habit : lost key
burning cottonwoods : baptism
inevitable loss : confirming the time
when she re-appears : flicking a lighter
las desaparecidas : oversight of the body
rain on feather: balm
other: where the god resides
other: when the wound heals

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

Rodney Gómez: Well, I wanted the work to be something that I could read and enjoy. I don’t know who it was who said that poetry shouldn’t be entertaining, but I disagree with that statement. Poetry, and art, should be entertaining. Whenever I read poetry, I want it to be fresh, authentic, new, and real. I also want to be absorbed in it. I want a diversion from my real life and I want to be fascinated by what I’m reading. Now I wouldn’t describe the poems in Citizens of the Mausoleum as happy poems. And they aren’t entertaining in the way that an episode of Monk might be entertaining. That is, they’re not amusing. They can be very depressing, in fact. But I think I’m satisfied enough with the collection that I can confidently say I would read the book if I picked it up at a bookstore and didn’t have any prior knowledge of it. I would be interested in it. I would get some satisfaction out of it. If it caused discomfort, the discomfort would be worth it. I remember reading Rachel McKibbens’ blud and thinking about how heavy a book it was. In theme and tone and subject matter. But I couldn’t put it down after I started. I wanted to write something like that. Something that felt like it was hitting you over the head with a brick, but afterwards you felt you had achieved something by the experience.

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

Rodney Gómez: The poems were composed over a period of about five years starting in early 2011. I was grieving over the death of my mother and started using poetry as therapy, which is something I hadn’t really done in the past, having very little wounding to tackle. (My parent’s, migrant farmworkers and blue collar salt-of-the-earth types, poor folk and Mexicans, sacrificed a lot to make sure I lived a pretty normal and uneventful life.) None of the early poems made it into the book, but the challenge in writing the ones that did, being predecessors of the early trauma-filled poems, was making sure I wasn’t writing myself into solipsism. I don’t usually like navel-gazing poems. I like poems that say something to me as a human being. And so I very clearly wanted to write poems that were more than my experience. The trouble with that is an epistemic one about authenticity and having the right to say something that is more than you can possibly know. A poet’s perspicacity ends where someone else’s rights begin. So I tried to write what concerned me not only about my very limited world, but the larger world too. So you see, at the beginning of the book, a poem about the death of migrants in Texas. And you see a long poem about guns later on. There is a very real grappling in those poems between the speakers’ perspectives and imagined ones.

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Special thanks to Rodney Gómez for participating! To keep up with Rodney’s work, follow him on Twitter! Copies of Citizens of the Mausoleum can be purchased from Sundress Publications.

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Rodney Gómez is the author of Citizens of the Mausoleum. His work appears in PoetryPoetry NorthwestThe Gettysburg ReviewBlackbirdDenver QuarterlyVerse Daily, and other journals. He is an editor at Latino Book Review and works at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.