microreview & interview: Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s Scar On/Scar Off

scar on scar off

review by José Angel Araguz

Loriella is Dead – Jennifer Maritza McCauley

Yesterday Loriella choke-cried into my phone,
saying we black gals got to stick together, hip to hip
since the world is a leech sucking at our night
necks, and I said girlIhearyou and I could hear
her voice cleaving clean down the center and
I remembered this was the girl who kicked a blackboy
down the stairs of Litchfield Towers, and burned my books
in the dorm yard when I told her I couldn’t love her like that–
With all-the-time love, with only-her love

and she said give me sweet words then and I said what sort
and she burned my books again, the next night, on the dormhall yard
and told me my skin was the wrong kind of tawny,
that I was too soft-voiced to be a real black girl, that
everything I said was too long for listening.

Yesterday, she was talking and her voice got soaked with
ghosts, of men who sexed her bad and women who
gave her lies of love, and I remembered the other nights
she called me, when we were young and tighter-skinned, and
she talked about firearms and gun barrels and her
Auntie’s arm- burns and she said she’d never
do what her Auntie did though she thinks about
what it’d be like to go away, with no man or woman draining her
dead, to go away by her own hands like Auntie did that
night when we were playing Scrabble on the dormhall
floor and she got the call that said Auntie is dead
Auntie left the room.

Yesterday, Loriella thanked me for love, said I was okay and
she knows her head is cut-up and we agreed that every
head is cut-up and every little black girl head is a little
tired and today her Mama calls me and says

Loriella is dead, and asks me what I said to her and
I said nothing, just that we black girls got to stick together
hip to hip, heart to heart, and her Mama says
how come you didn’t try any kind of talk to make
My Girl live and I listen to fat air on the phone and her Mama’s
cold cries, and I imagine Loriella’s neck, life-broken, on the floor.
I think of its fleshy folds and clavicle, her pink mouth,
how it pursed and pouted and spoke fear and I think of what

I said every day when we were young: What do you want
me to tell you? and how I wondered what
words could do. I tell her Mama that, as
I choke-cry, “What could words have done?”

*

Reading through Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s Scar On / Scar Off (Stalking Horse Press), I kept coming back to the final question in the poem above: “What could words have done?” This question lives at the core of this collection whose poems embody spaces of agency and contemplation. Whether reckoning with danger and gendered double standards while listing “40 Ways to Avoid Sexual Assault,” or invoking Celia Cruz’s bittersweet refrain “la vida es un carnival” in an underground mall, McCauley’s poems answer the question of “What could words have done?” with witness and presence.

In the poem above, the question originates from a moment of grief. The narrative of Loriella is one of misunderstandings and fractures. Even the phrasing of “girlIhearyou,” whose collision of words evoke urgency and a desire for connection, stands out as a one-sided gesture. The speaker goes on to detail the ways in which that sought-after connection kept slipping. And yet, the poem stands as an answer to the question itself, a testament to a life that cannot be summed up neatly, and the life of the speaker who must move forward despite this knowledge, questioning and holding close to words.

This question returns implicitly in the lyric essay “An End,” in which a speaker meditates on her experience working with and caring for an elderly man. The speaker relates: “I am afraid to die, my oldman client tells me,” at the start of the piece, and follows up a little later with “My oldman says don’trepeatwhatIsaid again, and I nod.” Through this back and forth, the text becomes a space where this secret can be held; it resides here for the speaker in a way that allows her to empathize as well as contemplate the fear itself. The speaker later learns of his death via a phone call answered while driving. The news shocks her and results in a car accident:

I pull over and wait for the driver to get out. She climbs out of her Jeep carefully. I walk up to her, give her my information. I watch this woman scribble the superficial facts of my life on the back of a Burger King receipt. She is writing what I tell her: my car’s make and model, my Daddy-given name, my address and phone number. All evidence of my short and stupid life. Underneath the red of Target storeface, I watch this woman record everything I tell her about me. She finishes quickly; I don’t have much to say. She looks up, wondering if my body is shaken. It is not. I was young then, nauseatingly alive.

Here, again, we have misunderstandings and fractures, albeit of a more literal kind than before. In the act of exchanging information after a car crash, the speaker becomes aware of her mortality, but also of what little might remain afterward. This piece which is an act of the speaker recording the final days of her “oldman client,” suddenly finds a parallel in this scene after an accident. The insights offered here are nuanced. What can words do in the face of “the superficial facts” of our lives? What could words have done for her oldman client? Again, witness and presence return as an answer.

Not every answer to the question “What could words have done?” is elegiac. “The Summer of Screens,” for example, presents a speaker awake to what words can do and are doing. In the excerpt below, there is a lyric elasticity able to hold the varied layers of experience that the speaker lives through while watching a Beyonce video in a particular time and place in American history. What plays out as juxtaposition within the literary and aesthetic act of a poem, reflects the complicated nature of life for this speaker of color. Here, again, the speaker seeks connection, but finds instead a troubled reflection; the same medium that offers up these also offers up the cultural rejection embodied by Donald Trump. It is hard not to feel left out in a world where our pop stars and our politicians have a major presence in our consciousness while remaining, ultimately, inaccessible on several levels.

The poems of Scar On /  Scar Off live in this duality. How do we make peace with the scars we have? We live despite them, with them, but not ignoring them. We remain present with them. We use words to engage what the scars mean. And after understanding what we can through the witness and presence of books like McCauley’s, we persevere, like the speaker below, to “still, desperately, / want to getinformation.”

*

III.

On YouTube, Beyonce has tied up that
blonde weave we’ve been seeing for years
into tight braids that look like shadowed cornfields,
shining against her expensive scalp. She
is twitch-dancing, her soft-hard legs jerking
to the sound of pop and power, a beat
rehearsed to make us shout “yeah, girl, please!”

Beyonce isn’t wearing white and she’s not
having fun anymore she wants you to know she won’t
have as much white fun. On YouTube, she glowers
at me and descends into Katrina-water, while sitting
on top of a copcar she bought for this video.

In another video, Donald Trump calls my graduate school
by name and says it is full of little black people with little
white leaders, and he looks me in my eye and reminds me
I am one of the little black people he hates.
I click on Beyonce’s video again because I know this dark
rich woman, in a game of theoreticals, loves me
far more than Donald Trump.

When I realize this, Beyonce is no longer glowering at me,
she’s saying, “girl, we got this, I’m with you,” and she is
glistening fine and smooth. Her royal black skin could be mine
but it isn’t.
Her skin: as shiny as a money-coin.

When she sings ladiesgetinformation I start crying
and don’t know why, because I know this is
a video and she has purchased all of our culture’s
chilling symbols and will go back to a queen-home
I will never see. But when I see her skin like this: suddenly black
and toughly smooth on my small computer, she reminds me of who
I am. This summer I could be one of those Bey-lovin’ blackfolks
worshipping my be-weaved goddess from the backrow of
a concert that costs half my rent. Maybe, before I go back to
my busted Ford, me and other blackgirls and boys might get lucky
enough to pass her security guards, to walk around the concert
copcars she owns, that we could never buy
for protection. I still, desperately,
want to getinformation.

I click off the video,
when she sings:
SLAY SLAY SLAY
SLAY SLAY SLAY

*

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

Jennifer Maritza McCauley: Audre Lorde has this terrific quote: “There’s always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself…because they want to dismiss everything else…” Poetry is my way of underlining, striking out, and rewriting all of these pieces. With poetry, I can interrogate the many definitions and intersections in one person, community, language, and genre. As a half-African-American and half-Puerto Rican woman, I’ve often been told who I am, what I’m not, how to fit in and how to talk. As a result, I’ve never been a fan of simple definitions. I don’t like leaving “pieces of myself” dismissed. I also enjoy many poetic forms, and think the identity of a poem can be just as complicated as the identity of a person.

For me, the beauty of poetry is that it can tell a story, sing love, compel readers to act, lay loss bare and bloody. Ideally, I wanted this collection to reflect some of the issues posed and dissected by poets I admire like Claudia Rankine, Sonia Sanchez, Tato Laviera, and Gloria Anzaldua. How do my experiences and those of folks I know push against stereotypes? What are the conversations and conflicts in my communities? How do I complicate what folks already think about race and gender? These were questions I was consciously and unconsciously wrestling with as I wrote this collection. Ultimately, I wanted this work to be many-voiced, hybridic, messy, searching, and full of love.

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

Jennifer Maritza McCauley: I started writing this collection while I was bouncing around the South and Caribbean, editing my novel with my wonderful agent Amanda Jain and preparing to move to the Midwest from Florida. During this time, I’d be in prickly situations or meet folks that unearthed my complicated feelings about blackness, Latinidad, the body, love, and loss. Poetry and short prose were my go-to genres for exploring these concerns.

Some poems were more challenging to write than others. Sometimes I had to be in the right mindset to get the words on the page. Often, I’d say, “I really need to write a poem about this,” and the piece would take forever to come together. I’d give up, return later. Other times, the words came naturally. Sometimes a poem would tell me it needed to be prose, or vice versa. After a year or so, when I realized I had enough poems to start thinking about a collection I tried to find themes and through-lines. The hard, fun work was determining which pieces belonged and didn’t belong in the book. I cut a lot of darlings and played around with the structure of the book  quite a bit. The awesome folks at Stalking Horse helped with this process further after they picked up the collection. Writing this thing overall, was a challenging and liberating process.

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Special thanks to Jennifer Maritza McCauley for participating! To find out more about her work, check out her site. Scar On/Scar Off can be pre-ordered from Stalking Horse Press.

jenniferpictureJennifer Maritza McCauley is a teacher, writer, and editor living in Columbia, Missouri. She holds or has previously held editorial positions at The Missouri Review, Origins Journal, and The Florida Book Review, amongst other outlets, and has received fellowships from Kimbilio, CantoMundo, the Knight Foundation, and Sundress Academy of the Arts. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets University Award and has appeared in Passages North, Puerto del Sol, Split this Rock: Poem of the Week, The Los Angeles Review, Jabberwock Review, and elsewhere. Her collection SCAR ON/SCAR OFF will be published by Stalking Horse Press in fall 2017.

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microreview & interview: Rossy Evelin Lima’s Migrare Mutare ~ Migrate Mutate

This week’s microreview & interview features Rossy Evelin Lima’s Migrare Mutare ~ Migrate Mutate (artepoética press, 2017) whose poems are presented below in the original Spanish first, followed by English translations by Don Cellini.

lima cover

review by José Angel Araguz

Hacia el sur – Rossy Evelin Lima

En la frontera hay letreros
que señalan con una flecha
hacia dónde está México: hacia el sur.

Yo siempre corro a ponerme atrás de ellos
esperando que esa flecha
se clave en mis pasos
esperando que esa flecha
me haga una marca en el rostro
mientras me traspasa para seguir su rumbo: hacia el sur.

Corro a ponerme atrás de cada letrero deseando que la flecha
sea un arpón y mi pecho cristal,
que se divida en mil estelas,
esperando tragarme esa flecha
como un espina,
como un ancla.
Hacia donde está México: hacia adentro.

*

Headed South – Rossy Evelin Lima translated by Don Cellini

On the border there are signs,
an arrow that points
the direction toward Mexico: south.

I always run to put myself behind them
hoping that this arrow
fixes my steps
hoping that the arrow
will imprint itself on my forehead
while it runs on continuing its route: south.

I run to put myself behind every sign hoping that the arrow
will harpoon my crystal chest,
shattering it into a thousand trails,
hoping to swallow the arrow
like a thorn,
like an anchor.
Which direction is Mexico: within.

*

One of the things I admire most in a poet is their ability to make their obsessions and themes their own. Rossy Evelin Lima’s Migrare Mutare ~ Migrate Mutate makes the themes of her collection evident in the dichotomy of the title. Following suit, the poems are presented in two sections, each taking a word from the title. The “Migrare/Migrate” section is rich in variations on the theme of migration, here specifically between Mexico and the U.S., via poems that place the lyric self right into the drama of (re)defining ideas of migration.

In “Hacia el sur (Headed South),” for example, the reader is presented with the image of signs along the border whose arrows point “the direction toward Mexico: south.” The speaker then riffs on the implications of arrows. In the lines that follow, one can see how this symbol of direction is also a symbol of threat and action, especially when the speaker hopes “the arrow / will harpoon” into her chest, “shattering it into a thousand trails.” Far from being “shattered,” however, the speaker reclaims the arrow through this image of putting themselves “behind every sign” by stating “Which direction is Mexico: within.”

This conflux of images sets the poetic ambition of the collection. In reading the “signs” of her world, Lima presents the lyric self as interpreter. The image of the speaker’s chest shattering “into a thousand trails” can be seen as the urgency with which this poet writes about the costs and stakes of migration. That what the lyric self’s chest shatters into are “trails” is telling; the drive to write poems carries a purpose beyond expression. The poems in this first section point to the practical way “migrating” one’s inner world outward can help others travel within themselves. Through innovative associations (thorn/espina, anchor/ancla), the arrow becomes something singular in this poetic world.

This (re)defining of symbols and images continues in the second section, “Mutare/Mutate.” The poems in this section use the lens of mutation to lyrically evoke the way elements, animals, and other voices change and complicate themselves and the world around them. In “Agua que se rinde (Water That Surrenders),” for example, we find a speaker contemplating how:

Hasta el agua se rinde,
cierra su boca de océano, calla,
se reviste de raíces
se esconde en el centro oscuro
y se empodrece,
se torna esmeralda y carbón y desarraigo.

Even water surrenders.
It closes its ocean mouth, quiets,
searches among roots,
hides in the dark center,
and becomes putrid,
becomes emerald and coal and exile.

This travel of shape is also a travel of meaning; the lyrical ambition of this and other poems in this section is to encompass and face both the light and dark of their subjects. This lyrical ambition is also at the heart of the book’s closing poem, “Mariposa (Butterfly).” Here, the speaker departs from typical ode territory and clearly states the ambition to “conjure” all sides of a butterfly. The repetition of the line

eres la única muerte que promete alas,

you are the only death that promises wings,

does the work of conjuring. Each repetition is a dip forward, charging the poem with mortal awareness. Yet, despite the gravity of such a gesture, the poem keeps its momentum. Mid-poem, we find the speaker “living like a poet / between the canyons of the present.” This direct statement on the poetic act brings back the ambition of the book to present a specific poetic presence. This poem about a butterfly whose “death…promises wings” brings together the two words of the title, and evokes how the reading of a poem can mutate into a presence that keeps the mind and heart in motion.

Mariposa – Rossy Evelin Lima

Transparente presencia rutilante,
eres la única muerte que promete alas,
el despertar negro y naranja de la emigración,
te conjuro, en esta jaula de soles y lunas,
en esta jaula forjada con franjas azules y rojas,
eres la única muerte que promete alas,
eres la firmeza de un vuelo libertario,
mujer Monarca,
vienes cada año para llevarme contigo,
y sin saber por qué me ves cerrar los ojos y los puños.
Eres la única muerte que promete alas,
voy viviendo como poeta
entre los cañones del presente,
voy viviendo como larva
enterrándome el camino como daga,
voy soñando con el néctar de las flores
que crecen al otro lado de la frontera,
eres la única muerte que promete alas.

*

Butterfly – Rossy Evelin Lima translated by Don Cellini

Translucent shining presence,
you are the only death that promises wings,
the black and orange awakening of migration,
I conjure you, in this cage of suns and moons,
in this cage forged with red and blue stripes,
you are the only death that promises wings.
You are the strength of your free flight,
Monarch Woman.
You come each year to carry me with you,
and without knowing why, you see me close my eyes and fists.
You are the only death that promises wings.
I go on living like a poet
between the canyons of the present,
living like a larva
burying the road like a dagger.
I dream of the nectar of the flowers
that grow on the other side of the border.
You are the only death that promises wings.

*

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

Rossy Evelin Lima: Poetry is not an instrument but a force. In that sense, I think that in poetry, I am the poem’s purpose: I allow it to excavate, to reveal itself, layer by layer, to find in me the path towards a piece of paper.  Like Abigael Bohorquez wrote in his poem Exordio “Poesía, desembárcame, échame a tierra y léñame; como a candil de sangre, enciéndeme…”

I can’t do anything if I don’t empty myself and allow Poetry to bury me, to ignite me with purpose, I willfully accept to be a vessel Poetry can guide ashore. I am not the weaver, I am the thread and the poem is the fabric. As a result, Migrare Mutare, opened my heart to the situations I faced as an undocumented immigrant in the US, a subject I struggle to talk about because in order to talk about it I must relive it, revive it. Nonetheless, poetry condenses my emotions projecting my core to the exterior, exhuming these sentiments in a liberating pull outward.

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

Rossy Evelin Lima: The challenge I faced when writing these poems was that all the words wanted to come out at once. The first portion of the book, “Migrare,” was written within a day. I could not stop. The words had been roaming around for quite a while, and in all honesty, I was trying to hold them back. Like in Plato’s cave, I would see the shadows of these poems dancing, but I didn’t want to reach out. In an ordinary day, I went to a coffee shop to work on my dissertation, nothing unusual. I had been working for a couple of hours when I found myself staring at a blank page in my notebook. I felt what Lorca would call, the Duende, and began with the line, “en la frontera hay letreros…” I wrote twenty-three pages that day, which were later divided into poems.

I didn’t revisit “Migrare,” until three months later, only to be taken by the same force. I had felt it coming, a very similar feeling to when you are preparing to take a very long trip. I didn’t offer any resistance this time. I noticed that the second portion of poems had much to do with water, an element I identify with, but differing from the rest, these talked about change. As if coincidences exist, a couple of days before, my mom had told me about a phone call she had with a very old friend from when we lived in Mexico. She told me, very preoccupied, that her friend said she “sounded” different. “Well, you are older, you’ve been exposed to a new language…” But no explanation would ease my mom’s mind. “What if I changed?” She asked, “We all change, we are in constant change.” I replied, as my mom looked straight at me and said “What if it really changed me?” I knew what “it” meant, and in that moment it made perfect sense: adaptation. In order to survive we adapt, most of the times unaware of the changes we have to make in order to do so. As immigrants we encounter situations that force us to change with an impact; we move, in Latin expressed by the word Migrare, and we change, expressed by the latin word Mutare. In that moment I was able to see where the poems I had written belonged.

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Special thanks to Rossy Evelin Lima for participating! To find out more about Lima’s work, check out her site. Migrare Mutare ~ Migrate Mutate can be purchased from artepoética press.

rossyRossy Evelin Lima (born August 18, 1986 in Veracruz, Mexico), is an international award-winning Mexican poet and linguist. Her work has been published in numerous journals, magazines and anthologies in Spain, Italy, UK, Canada, United States, Mexico, Venezuela, Chile, and Argentina. She has been awarded the Gabriela Mistral Award by the National Hispanic Honor Society, the Premio Internazionale di Poesia Altino in Italy, the International Latino Book Award, and the Premio Orgullo Fronterizo Mexicano award by the Institute for Mexicans abroad, among many others. She is the president and founder of the Latin American Foundation for the Arts, the founder of the International Latin American Poetry Festival (FeIPoL), as well as the co-founder of Jade Publishing. In 2015 and was invited to speak at TEDxMcallen to talk about her experience as an immigrant writer in the U.S.

microreview: Gabriela Aguirre’s La isla de tu nombre

This week’s microreview features Gabriela Aguirre’s La isla de tu nombre and is presented first in English (with translations of the Spanish), followed by a full Spanish translation of the microreview. Special thanks to Veliz Books editor Laura Cesarco Eglin for her great help with translations of the poems and prose.

aguirre

review by José Angel Araguz
review translation by José Angel Araguz with Laura Cesarco Eglin

Un pie sobre la mesa,
un par de manos,
un nudo hecho de sílabas y dedos.
Un pronombre nuevo para mí
porque nunca lo dije con amor,
contigo en la mitad del nombre:
pequeña mía.
Y una canción que suena en mis oídos
para que la bailemos en mi cabeza
cuando lo terrible.
Un árbol crece despacio
–y quiero que lo sepas.

A foot on the table,
a pair of hands,
a knot made of syllables and fingers.
A new pronoun for me
because I never said it with love,
with you in the middle of the name:
my darling.
And a song that rings in my ears
so we can dance to it in my head
when the terrible.
A tree grows slowly
–and I want you to know.

La isla de tu nombre (Veliz Books) by Gabriela Aguirre begins with this short, intimate lyric balanced between the tangible and intangible. The move from the “foot” and “hands” of the first two lines into “a knot made of syllables and fingers” moves the poem directly into this duality; the word “knot” also implies both sexual tension (knot as in the knot of the bodies) and other tensions (that of language, that between two people). This move is returned in the line “And a song that rings in my ears / so we can dance to it in my head” which brings the meditation into the body itself. This interiority leads to the final two lines, which compare the speaker’s inner world to the growth of the tree. Yet, unlike the tree, this speaker can reach out from this inner world to let the beloved “know” about it. The way a love relationship can make such knots, and the way poetry can help evoke them, is at the center of this manuscript.

The dualities, begun in the “island / name” of the collection’s title, serve as a key into the world of Aguirre’s poems. The distant and solitary implication of an island is reckoned with the personal nature of a name. This focus on language and how it charges the (in)tangible is further explored in “Rayar los libros, glosar lo escrito.”:

Rayar los libros, glosar lo escrito.
Me enseñaste a hacer anotaciones al margen
para no olvidar lo importante.
Nunca antes rayé los libros,
querida mía.
¿Cómo tendría cara para abrirlos después
y encontrarlos alterdos
por mis frases y mis interrogaciones?

No quiero encontrar tu caligrafía en mis libros,
tu paso por ellos y por mí.
Pero abro uno con anotaciones mías
y sé que detrás de mis trazos estás tú
deciéndome que hay que rayar lo escrito,
dejar marcas y preguntas.

Mark the books, gloss what’s written.
You taught me to take notes in the margin
so as not to forget what is important.
I have never marked books before,
my dear.
How could I face opening them later
and find them altered
by my sentences and my interrogations?

I don’t want to find your calligraphy in my books,
your passing through them and through me.
But I open one with notes by me
and I know that behind my strokes you are
telling me that it is necessary to mark what is written,
leave marks and questions.

Here, we find a speaker interrogating how the acts of reading and writing always point to something other and involve the world of memory. The imagery of this conceit is compelling; marginal notes done in one’s personal handwriting always stand in stark contrast to print words. A literal reaching after meaning and modifying a text occurs in this image. This image and its tension are pushed further within the context of a relationship. How much do we change each other while reaching after one another? What does intimacy mean in terms of handwriting? Regarding this latter question, the speaker finds the beloved behind her own “notes.” The poem ends on this action, on the speaker dwelling on what she’s been told by the beloved.

What drives these poems, ultimately, is this reporting and documenting of the heart. La isla de tu nombre engages the reader with short lyrics that share the scope of Sappho’s poetry and the intensity of Alejandra Pizarnik. In “Somos siete en esta mesa” the themes of the book are centered within the role of a person sitting at a dinner table with others:

Somos siete en esta mesa
luego de la carne y la ensalada,
el arroz y el pan con romero.
Mi copa de vino se calienta despacio
porque el fresco del jardín no alcanza,
porque la respiración vertical del bambú
no alcanza a detener los ruidos de la banda de reggae
que ensaya en el edificio de junto.

He sido asignada a partir la tarta,
a partirla como se parten las conversaciones,
el deseo del otro,
la tierra durante las catástrofes.
He sido elegida para escribir este recuerdo:
el de las frutas que brillan bajo la luz
mientras el cuchillo las atraviesa.
Me han dado un arma para partir una costra
que en el centro tiene el color oscuro del chocolate.
¿Cómo podía negarme?
Cómo negarme a la posibilidad de trazar un camino,
otro
otro
siempre distinto
nunca el mismo
ningún trozo igual.
Cómo negarme ante tal ofrecimiento,
cómo negarme a las pequeñas catástrofes
de la cocina:
ahora todos tienen un pedazo de la fruta que duele
después de haber sido cortada por mí.

There are seven of us at this table
after the meat and the salad,
the rice and bread with rosemary.
My glass of wine warms slowly
because the cool from the garden is not enough,
because the vertical breathing of the bamboo
is not enough to stop the noise of the reggae band
rehearsing in the building next door.

I have been assigned to cut the tart,
to cut into it as conversations are cut into,
the other’s desire
the earth during catastrophes.
I have been chosen to write this memory:
of the fruit that shines under the light
while the knife pierces them.
I have been given a weapon to break a crust
whose center is the dark color of chocolate.
How could I refuse?
How to refuse the possibility of drawing a path,
another
another
always different
never the same
no piece equal.
How to refuse such an offer,
how to refuse these small catastrophes
of the kitchen:
now everyone has a piece of the fruit that hurts
after being cut by me.

The deliberation in the second stanza over the act of cutting into a tart, of being “assigned” an active role, parallels the active role of the speaker throughout this book. The line “I have been chosen to write this memory,” is powerful in its clarity. The sensibility behind these poems is soberly aware of what it means to be isolated in one’s feelings, able only to offer others “a piece of the fruit that hurts.”

To return to the title’s metaphor, the island of another’s name carries with it the weight of our relationship with another person, as well as their absence. A person is not their name; a word is not the thing it signifies. The poems of La isla de tu nombre contend, however, that poetry is a way to cross the distance between language and the world.

La isla de tu nombre can be purchased from Veliz Books.

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reseña por José Angel Araguz
traducción por José Angel Araguz con Laura Cesarco Eglin

Un pie sobre la mesa,
un par de manos,
un nudo hecho de sílabas y dedos.
Un pronombre nuevo para mí
porque nunca lo dije con amor,
contigo en la mitad del nombre:
pequeña mía.
Y una canción que suena en mis oídos
para que la bailemos en mi cabeza
cuando lo terrible.
Un árbol crece despacio
–y quiero que lo sepas.

La isla de tu nombre (Veliz Books) por Gabriela Aguirre comienza con esta lírica íntima y compacta entre lo tangible y lo intangible. El movimiento desde “pie” a “manos” en los dos primeros versos hasta “un nudo hecho de sílabas y dedos” mueve el poema directamente en esta dualidad; la palabra “nudo” también implica tensión sexual (nudo como en el nudo de los cuerpos) como otras tensiones (la del lenguaje, la de dos personas). Este movimiento vuelve en el verso “Y una canción que suena en mis oídos / para que la bailemos en mi cabeza” que coloca la meditación en el cuerpo mismo. Esta interioridad conduce a los dos últimos versos, que comparan el mundo interno del yo lírico con el crecimiento de un árbol. Sin embargo, a diferencia del árbol, este yo lírico puede llegar desde este mundo interior para permitir que la amada “sepa” sobre ella. La forma en que una relación de amor puede hacer tales nudos, y la forma en que la poesía puede ayudar a evocarlos, está en el centro de este libro.

Las dualidades iniciadas en la “isla / nombre” del título sirven como clave en el mundo de los poemas de Aguirre. La distante y solitaria implicación de una isla se mezcla líricamente con la naturaleza personal de un nombre. Este enfoque en el lenguaje y cómo imbuye lo (in)tangible se explora más en “Rayar los libros, glosar lo escrito.”:

Rayar los libros, glosar lo escrito.
Me enseñaste a hacer anotaciones al margen
para no olvidar lo importante.
Nunca antes rayé los libros,
querida mía.
¿Cómo tendría cara para abrirlos después
y encontrarlos alterdos
por mis frases y mis interrogaciones?

No quiero encontrar tu caligrafía en mis libros,
tu paso por ellos y por mí.
Pero abro uno con anotaciones mías
y sé que detrás de mis trazos estás tú
deciéndome que hay que rayar lo escrito,
dejar marcas y preguntas.

Aquí, encontramos a un yo lírico interrogando cómo los actos de lectura y escritura señalan siempre algo distinto e involucran al mundo de la memoria. El imaginario de esta idea es convincente; las notas marginales hechas en la letra de cada uno siempre están en marcado contraste con las palabras impresas. Un intento de entender el significado y de modificar un texto ocurre en esta imagen. Esta imagen y su tensión se realzan aún más dentro del contexto de una relación. ¿Cuánto nos cambiamos unos a otros mientras nos intentamos entender? ¿Qué significa la intimidad en términos de la letra de cada uno? En esta última pregunta, el yo lírico encuentra a la amada detrás de sus propias “trazos.” El poema termina en esta acción, con el yo lírico  pensando sobre lo que la amada ha dicho.

Lo que impulsa estos poemas es este informe y esta documentación del corazón. La isla de tu nombre atrae al lector con poemas líricos que comparten el alcance de la poesía de Sappho y la intensidad de Alejandra Pizarnik. En “Somos siete en esta mesa” los temas del libro se centran en el oficio de una comensal:

Somos siete en esta mesa
luego de la carne y la ensalada,
el arroz y el pan con romero.
Mi copa de vino se calienta despacio
porque el fresco del jardín no alcanza,
porque la respiración vertical del bambú
no alcanza a detener los ruidos de la banda de reggae
que ensaya en el edificio de junto.

He sido asignada a partir la tarta,
a partirla como se parten las conversaciones,
el deseo del otro,
la tierra durante las catástrofes.
He sido elegida para escribir este recuerdo:
el de las frutas que brillan bajo la luz
mientras el cuchillo las atraviesa.
Me han dado un arma para partir una costra
que en el centro tiene el color oscuro del chocolate.
¿Cómo podía negarme?
Cómo negarme a la posibilidad de trazar un camino,
otro
otro
siempre distinto
nunca el mismo
ningún trozo igual.
Cómo negarme ante tal ofrecimiento,
cómo negarme a las pequeñas catástrofes
de la cocina:
ahora todos tienen un pedazo de la fruta que duele
después de haber sido cortada por mí.

La deliberación en la segunda estrofa sobre el acto de cortar una tarta, de ser “asignada” un oficio activo, es paralelo al oficio activo de el yo lírico a lo largo de este libro. El verso “He sido elegida para escribir este recuerdo”, es poderoso en su claridad. La sensibilidad detrás de estos poemas es sobriamente consciente de lo que significa estar aislada en los sentimientos, sólo para ofrecer a los demás “un pedazo de la fruta que duele”.

Para volver a la metáfora del título, la isla de un nombre lleva consigo el peso de nuestra relación con otra persona, así como su ausencia. Una persona no es su nombre; una palabra no es lo que significa. Los poemas de La isla de tu nombre sostienen, sin embargo, que la poesía es una forma de cruzar la distancia entre el lenguaje y el mundo.

La isla de tu nombre es publicado por Veliz Books.

aguirre 2Gabriela Aguirre (Querétaro, México). En 2003 obtuvo el Premio Nacional de Poesía Joven Elías Nandino con el libro La frontera: un cuerpo, y en 2007 el Premio Nacional de Poesía Enriqueta Ochoa con el libro El lugar equivocado de las cosas. Ha sido becaria del FONCA, del Consejo Estatal para la Cultura y las Artes de Querétaro (en la categoría Jóvenes Creadores), y del Instituto Queretano de la Cultura y las Artes (en la categoría Creadores con Trayectoria). Fue becaria de la Fundación para las Letras Mexicanas en el área de Poesía de 2005 a 2007. Ha sido incluida en diversas antologías de poesía y textos suyos han sido publicados en varias revistas y periódicos nacionales y estatales.  Algunos de sus poemas han sido llevados a escena en la obra de teatro “Homenaje a un ciego que abrió los ojos”, bajo la dirección de Rodrigo Canchola. Estudió la Licenciatura en Lenguas Modernas-Español en la Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro y la Maestría en Creación Literaria en Español en la Universidad de Texas en El Paso. Actualmente estudia un Doctorado en Artes en la Universidad de Guanajuato.

 

microreview & interview: Tina Cane’s Once More With Feeling

cane cover 2

review by José Angel Araguz

A Minor History of the East Village – Tina Cane

Maybe you knew a kid who booked through Tompkins Square on his Schwinn     and came out
the other side without the bike and in his socks     never mind he wasn’t buying drugs     this
the price of his stupidity    or maybe you went to Gem Spa three days in a row for egg creams
to flip through Interview magazine     still a stack of color Xeroxes assembled by Andy Warhol
or to The St. Mark’s Theatre to see Oh God! starring George Burns     Enough! you’d said
crouched on the seat     knees beneath your chin     rats scuttling the aisle for popcorn dregs
but it never was
not when that guy died trying to sleep in a hammock on his fire escape
off Avenue A     not when the cops found a woman’s head in a pot on her boyfriend’s stove
on Avenue B not when you and your friends mistakenly buzzed in the guys who would beat
Faye’s elderly neighbor close to death     junkies hunting jewelry or just high     they were men
you could describe     to the cops to anyone for a long time after
and when the paramedics had you
stand by the stretcher as they unjammed the brake     it wasn’t enough to want to take the woman’s
trembling hand     and it wouldn’t have been enough to take it

*

Reading through Once More With Feeling (Veliz Books) by Tina Cane one encounters a poetic sensibility able to write from a sense of place that is both exterior as well as interior. Place works here as both noun (NYC in the poem above) but also the verb. It is the singular way in which Cane places a poem’s attention on subjects ranging from city life to parenthood that creates a space/place for the “feeling” of the title.

In “A Minor History of the East Village,” the city is evoked as a place both mysterious and indiscriminate. From the kid who loses his bike and shoes, to the rats scuttling through the movie theatre, things keep happening at the edges where no one seems to notice or pretends not to. When the speaker says “Enough!” in the same italics as brand names and a movie title (Oh God!, fittingly), the feeling of being overwhelmed is evoked. Rather than pull away, however, the speaker is further pulled into documenting this “minor history” by the words “but it never was.” These words answer the cry of “Enough!” and act as a volta, pivoting the poem into detailing three neighborhood deaths, the last of which occurs in the speaker’s own building. Suddenly, what has been happening at the edges is happening directly in the speaker’s life. The word “enough” returns in the final lines in order to be pushed against further, and convey how the speaker is caught in a moment where every action feels futile.

The collection creates and dwells upon such places/placings of complication via other “minor history” poems, a number of lyric sequences, self portraits, and nocturnes. Throughout, we find a sensibility able to reckon with the statement made in “Nocturne: Restoration,”: “My fingerprints make residence upon the earth.” This idea that fingerprints (full of connotations of individuality as well as mortality and transience) can themselves be places is at the heart of the book. What traces (places) do we leave upon each other? How much power do we give to memory? To names? These poems take turns contemplating these questions, and seeking answers beyond them.

In the aptly named “Trip to Now,” we find the admission:

I was looking for something specific and perfect
but let’s not ruin this with words
New York you and I

This idea of words being able to establish “something specific and perfect” while at the same time being a source of “ruin” reflects a seemingly conflicted idea of poetry. Cane’s poems, however, prove there is a fruitful and compelling tension in this conflict. It is what drives a poem like “Nocturne: Ludlow Street” (below). When the speaker states that “falling in love was like being on the verge of an accident,” we are left in a place that is both the search for something perfect and the need to avoid ruin. That this meditation leads to a scene between parent and son adds to the already high stakes.

In this scene, the nuanced insights happen at the level of line breaks. Reading that the future “is a parallel universe    we are driving” all on its own line, for example, has dual implications of control and lack of control. This jolt of meaning sets up the “fingerprints” imagery of the last line. This further surprising statement from the son carries a sense of gravity to it, and drives home the dual nature of place in this collection. In poems precise in their naming but open and flexible in their observations, Once More With Feeling engages with the idea that life happens between the places we consider and the places we imagine.

*

Nocturne: Ludlow Street – Tina Cane

I could have stood there all night     staring at the Torah ark in your bedroom
looking for clues to the future     a disclosure     but the relic was a relic adorned
with Christmas lights in a semi-legal living space on Ludlow Street     its wisdom
not for me   falling in love was like being on the verge of an accident     I had kept
to myself for so long     often losing     in order to     falling in love was like being
shut out of ideas     a delectable trap   disclosure also often an accident
The future says our nine-year old son
is a parallel universe    we are driving
down a tree-lined street     Did they keep wood from Jesus’s cross?
he wants to know     No I say     There were fingerprints on it, I bet     he says     Yes

*

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

Tina Cane: I always characterize poetry as an approach rather than a genre. As such, poetry is a most flexible form and, like water, can fill any space the poet carves out. My collection, Once More With Feeling, reflects poetry as my attempt to understand the world and my experiences in it. I don’t write with any specific aesthetic or intellectual agenda. I write to understand. Having written a bunch of poems, however, does not imply that I’ve understood anything at all. And I don’t mean that in a deprecating way. I mean that writing is a path. My poems are stones I lay on my path, as I move forward.

Once More With Feeling is a book about place and love and grief and family, about glancing back while pressing on. That seems to me a most human, universal situation. The collection is grounded in particulars—NYC, neighborhoods, people—but is also me reaching out to the reader. To me, poetry is about connection—in all its incarnations.

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

Tina Cane: This is the most explicitly autobiographical work I’ve written.  I had to work hard to balance my own sense of yearning and vulnerability with a degree of dispassion I felt was necessary to avoid lapsing into nostalgia. There’s always a risk of sentimentality when one writes about the past. While I do believe a poem should move the reader, I resent work that tries to corner me into feeling a certain way. Sometimes poems can hide their true strength behind coy and snarky humor—disguised as intellectualism. Sometimes poems over-share in a way that burdens. I was trying to negotiate between those spaces as I worked on this book. Whether or not I’ve succeeded is certainly subjective, but I wrestled for sure.

At one point, a friend and fellow poet told me he felt a presence in the collection that wasn’t on the page. It was an interesting comment–one that took on true relevance when we discussed “A Minor History of Bodega.” I came to see the “bulletproof glass” in the final line as a metaphor for something I was doing—allowing myself to be seen, but through an impenetrable veneer. Prompted by that conversation, I wrote a couple of  very spare “Self Portrait” poems in which the speaker is conflated with her mother. It was a small addition, but one that felt big to me.

Writing poems is rarely easy for me. Writing exerts itself on me.
As with life, in poetry I press on—collecting and sorting, seeing what gives.
It’s an exquisite kind of pressure to grapple with.

*

Special thanks to Tina Cane for participating! To find out more about Cane’s work, check out her siteOnce More With Feeling can be purchased from Veliz Books.

Tina Cane. Credit Mike Salerno jpgTina Cane is the founder and director of Writers-in-the-Schools, RI and is an instructor with the writing community, Frequency Providence. Her poems and translations have appeared in numerous publications, including The Literary Review, Two Serious Ladies, Tupelo Quarterly, Jubliat and The Common. She also produces, with Atticus Allen, the podcast, Poetry Dose.

Cane is the author of The Fifth Thought (Other Painters Press, 2008), Dear Elena: Letters for Elena Ferrante, poems with art by Esther Solondz (Skillman Avenue Press, 2016) and Once More With Feeling (Veliz Books, 2017). In 2016, Tina received the Fellowship Merit Award in Poetry from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. She currently serves as the Poet Laureate of Rhode Island, where she lives with her husband and their three children. photo credit: Mike Salerno

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Goodreads Book GiveawaySmall Fires by Jose Angel Araguz

Small Fires

by Jose Angel Araguz

Giveaway ends August 10, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

 

microreview & interview: Manuel R. Montes’ Infinita sangre bajo nuestros túneles

For this special microreview & interview, I share excerpts from a Spanish to English translation in progress I’m working on as well as provide insights into why I’m excited about this project and some commentary from the writer Manuel R. Montes himself.

montes cover

review by José Angel Araguz

I am currently working with Montes on a translation of his novel Infinita sangre bajo nuestros túneles (winner of the Premio Bellas Artes Juan Rulfo para Primera Novela 2007), which is a complex work of fragmented storytelling. In our conversations over the text, I find myself using the phrase “lyric novel” to describe the ambitious range of techniques exhibited throughout the text. Infinita details the brief life and sudden dying of a prematurely born child through the various voices and thoughts of the individuals involved. The nonlinear story jumps between the past and present, establishing connections and metanarrative insights that recall modernists like Virgina Woolf and James Joyce, but which are executed with a human pulse in the style of Roberto Bolaño and Jonathan Safran Foer. Through this ambitious and engaging mosaic of voices and interwoven narratives, Montes honors the human experience of a child’s death with the gravity and complexity it merits.

In the following excerpt from the second section of the book, the narrative flows from a telephone conversation with the father of the lost child to the origins of the novel/narrative itself, all from the perspective of the writer, who is uncle to the “octomesino” or “eightmonther” (a variation on “preemie” which is used to refer to premature born infants):

“this morning I went to the cemetery, ripped grass from his tomb and am planting it, this way we’ll be closer to one another, don’t you think?” I hear a tightness in his voice, panting into the receiver, “by the way, have you begun writing the book?”

–I’ve yet to even try, the process comes less readily when one faces fiction in its most extreme order, made of pure reality–

my sister-in-law mailed  me, in a yellow envelope, sealed, forty-two printed sheets and a back-up magnetic, three and a half inch disc, it is a long letter that contains “only what happened,” and besides this, another note, handwritten, in the first folio, which adds, “I hope this material will be useful, make whatever changes you think appropriate,” the font chosen is ordinary, the font size, reduced, in the document, unnumbered, almost every chapter is described, almost of a whole novel, “much is missing, I’m sending you what I have stored in the computer, according to my notes, as I remember it”

–but the novel or all the possible novels could be anywhere, and what is lost is the author, searching, attempting to write it or them, lost in the chimeric jungles of paraphrase–

the recipient of the letter is a space without image or the imposing blank page in the middle of a photo album

the recipient is, to be precise, the eightmonther

–“you should at the very least find a way to organize so many loose notes”–

A good sense of the tone and scope of the novel is given here, especially how the text moves between being a meditation on a family crisis as well as a meditation on the act of writing. Two frustrated acts of creation are paralleled. What moves the novel for me from straightforward prose into lyrical territory is how the narrative dwells on details and allows for significance and intimacy to arise out of things like the font chosen by the mother to share pieces of the story. The phrasing of that last line, that a brief life and a death can result in “so many loose notes,” is rich in poetic meaning, both for the narrator and the reader of this fragmented text.

The novel moves forward in this fashion, switching perspective and scene, in order to convey the emotional currents of the characters involved. One of the more impressive results of this fragmented narrative is the multiplicity of voices made possible through it, including that of the eightmonther. Here, in a passage a little after the one above, the narrator continues to metanarratively piece together and meditate on the task at hand, only to be interrupted by the eightmonther’s voice (in italics), creating itself amidst the “loose notes”:

another segment, from the notes of the letter

“everything was so real, that night –the first night of august– was the longest night of my life”

–is it that fiction could possibly shorten the suffering?–

it’s that your maternal love started to become more of a labyrinth, and started to darken

you have to tell them that my body, or its forgotten nostalgia, mourns itself at times, do not remember me, do not describe me, you don’t have to cure me, I am fighting to die, do not entangle me, do not bind me, I grow more distant if you tie me down, and I want to come closer, my body does not work, but I am not only my body, let me escape this body like I escaped yours, you have to tell them that it’s useless, you will see that it’s useless, when you are here, with me, that body has ceased to belong to me, leave it alone, leave me alone, that body continues to hurt me when you recall it  

“I would like to know what you are thinking, what would you say if you could speak”

–“remember, organize, organize”–

there are quotes from other characters, but they are inconsistent, imprecise, lacking continuity, my sister-in-law could not deal too much with correcting them or giving them greater emphasis, making them more legible, clearer, impossible to behave so coldly when relating an agony, the voices which burst into the letter resemble those curtains which mysteriously widen like a bellows and make us look back, on summer nights, during a drowsy instant in which the wind has stopped blowing

Here, the rich turns of phrase continue: “remember, organize, organize” reads like a mantra during this attempt to narrate a dark time. The interruption of the eightmonther’s voice can be seen as a kind of consciousness bursting in, much in the spirit of the curtain image in the last paragraph, something else moving in the room of the narrative. What does narrative embody? What does it stir up? What does it potentially exclude or replace? These questions move like electric currents throughout the text.

While these short excerpts can by no means do justice to the whole of the novel, I feel comfortable sharing them here as fragments of a work that in itself is fragmented. Before a whole story is understood, there are voices making themselves known. The story of the eightmonther moves from the mother’s “loose notes” to the narrator’s meditation and effort that is the novel, and now to the translation of that effort. It is a story of motion, which is what is at heart of lyricism.

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IMG_5479Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing this novel and how did you work through them?

Manuel R. Montes: The difficulties were — have been ever since I wrote the book ten years ago — strictly emotional, familiar. The writing process was impressively unconscious, fluid, impersonal and intimate at the same time. It was an act of hearing and transcribing more than anything else. Of waiting for the last pain from the silence of a white pages filling at their own pace. I — the self-critical I, the form-obsessed I, the style miniaturist and neobarroque experimental I — barely intervened. The novel wrote by itself in less than two months. I kind of recollect the overnight sessions in front of the computer, the urgency to finish and the sadness, but these I won’t consider hardships. The only real challenge for me was to deal with guilt and gratefulness, having dared to expose, with all its tragic luminosity and its engulfing darkness, the death of a new born, dear nephew. I experienced true regret and also a simultaneous, joyful necessity of immortalizing, in words that didn’t seem to be mine, his four-month, relentless and unbearable life and struggle before he passed away. I have not worked through this mourning feeling completely, nor have I stopped marveling every time I remember how the novel just materialized independently from me, way beyond my control or even my will. It was as if I couldn’t touch it. I still can’t.

Influence Question: In describing this project to others, I find myself using the phrase “lyric novel” – Do you have any thoughts about the phrase, which for me is not a fixed term but something I continue define as I continue to translate your book?

Manuel R. Montes: I am not against the phrase, not at all, which would offend by the way many of the novelists of my generation or even older authors if someone considered their works as examples of that category. Nevertheless, when I think of «lyric», it’s the expressive predominance of the «I» as the main voice of a work what comes to my mind, and because of that resemblance to a certain kind of poetry I would disagree with the term, since the narrator in my novel is a hidden shadow, a silent, invisible and anonymous figure, some sort of scared and hypersensitive witness who listens those around him or her crying. A nobody who is mute but has to translate to prose the horror and the wonder of a short and fragile existence, feeling impotence and fear and compassion, but also admiration. It’s not «I» who speaks or try to speak here, but «Them», «Us».

*

Special thanks to Manuel R. Montes for participating! To find out more about his ideas on writing, go here.

photo credit: Diana Cárdenas

Goodreads Book GiveawaySmall Fires by Jose Angel Araguz

Small Fires

by Jose Angel Araguz

Giveaway ends August 10, 2017.

See the giveaway details
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microreview & interview: Michael J. Wilson’s A Child of Storm

wilson cover

review by José Angel Araguz

Tesla Writes An Obituary – Michael J. Wilson

I left you New York —

Walked the mountain paths of Colorado — found
a field to plant my bulbs

I’m the tired circus sidekick — arms spread — tied to a wheel
waiting for daggers

The clear dark night steamed with Milky Way and nothing

Here is some patent for a ray gun on a receipt for a hat
now — let me spill anonymous electrons in peace

You have your direct currents to the ears of America

I am not inclined to be king
Quietly — I will build a city of light
capture the sun
drive my fists into the ground until I split the earth in two

I will walk into the sky —

Edison, +++++++ you have no hobby —
care for no amusement —
disregard the rules of hygiene —
you have

immense +++ blind +++ contempt +++++ for learning
knowledge
decency

trusting only good +++ American +++ sense —

Leave me in my empty with Clemens

Forget you ever knew a Nikola Tesla

*

Mirroring the image above of “the tired circus sidekick — arms spread — tied to a wheel / waiting for daggers,” the poems in Michael J. Wilson’s A Child of Storm (Stalking Horse Press) approach their materials from various angles. Whether assuming the persona and mythology of Tesla, providing a sequence of history lessons, or delving into the implications of selfhood juxtaposed against nature and city, these poems take aim at exploring variations. Each turn in a poem is another dagger thrown, not to hit the subject directly, but to create a charged air and impact around it.

In the poem above, the Tesla persona is taken on with a directness capable of epic address (“I left you New York”) as well as pathos (“let me spill anonymous electrons in peace”). The effect of this directness is a commanding lyricism. There is command in the way the voice in this and other Tesla poems feels human; yet the lyricism arises not out of the voice but out of the ambition visible behind each poem, line by line.

This poetic sensibility leads to lines that cascade in meaning and image. In “Faraday Cage,” for example, a sequence ends: “May the echo that is my ghost skip on your page like a frame / of film melting.” The travel here is compelling: from the resonance of “echo” and “ghost,” words that imply sound first then mortality, to the moves of logic within the image of a melting film frame, the ambition here is to both evoke and hold, all the while aware of the transient nature of memory. Another moment of lyrical ambition occurs in “Study (Sand Dune and Tree)” and its image of “These flagellant trees / arms raised mid-cat o’ nine prayer.” These two lines work like a Venn diagram, evoking simultaneously the action of flagellation and the stillness of trees and prayer.

This vision runs through the collection, allowing for moments rich in revelation like the following excerpt from “History Lessons: The Rock Dove”:

The pigeon originates in Europe, northern Africa and southern Asia but is found in nearly every city in the world. One of the first animals to be domesticated, pigeons seen today are feral ancestors of birds raised for food, work, or as pets.

While ostensibly part of the history lesson of the poem, these lines read as possibly being about Tesla as well as the speaker in other poems, these various voices aware of a history that both created and estranged them.

Ultimately, a fruitful estrangement results from the ambition behind these poems. In the poem below, the reader follows a scene between the speaker and another person where the unravelling of a sweater at the end of the poem mirrors the unravelling that can occur between two people. The poem moves, however, with an intimacy that grows with each turn of conversation, sense, and memory.

*

Eastern Red Cedar – Michael J. Wilson

You
smell
like
cedar berries +++ and sawdust
mixed with plastic

You say: The radiator is full of steam

It’s closed system
probably full of some black death
we wouldn’t want to know about :

Remember when we had a stove in the kitchen
the grass comes yellow squared where the woodpile is
remembered

How
did
this sweater get a hole in it

How does a moth get passed all that smell

You mumble
Something about an old dog you used to know
a cold snowy day
a fall by the woods
when you were ten
The radiator punches the air and you look
at the discolored circle on the floor where the stove was

You say these things only comfort on the first cold day

That slipped stitches in sweaters only get bigger

*

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

Michael J. Wilson: At its core, poetry should be revelation, it should sear. This could be personal, but it needs to be like a shot of light through the subject. It should clear space around itself. I reference St. Teresa a lot in my work. I’m not remotely religious, but the idea of being penetrated by revelation is one I identify with. I equate revelation with the body and mind.

Nikola Tesla felt science the way Teresa felt God. His vision of science – a great light that infused his being – is as close to actual religious ecstasy that I believe one can get in reality. Tesla saw his creations wholesale in his visions, then he made them to match what he perceived. That’s a description of writing. Poetry can, and should, be complete visions laid bare.

Speaking more broadly about books as objects – I am interested in arcs. Narrative and emotional. I wanted this book to feel like it added up to something. Even if that something is ephemeral and indescribable. I find books that feel like random poems collected to be tiring. There are great examples of this kind of book, but I want more. I want them to feel like the best albums do. An experience to be had. They should cohere. I like to think I did a small bit of that with my book.

IQ: How did you navigate the use of persona/research during the making of this collection and what did you learn from this process?

MJW: Research is ingrained in my process. I will spend months reading, obsessively, on a topic. I’ll buy books. Watch documentaries. I will talk about it to anyone in earshot and get my findings tattooed across my eyeballs.

I’ve always been attracted to the weird details in the “truth” of things. The fact that Tesla’s brother died from a fall off a horse. That the idea that maybe Tesla caused the accident somehow. Those things interest me way more than the particulars of his plans for alternating current. That level of research is where I go. The personal, the tiny. So, in a lot of ways they are inseparable.

When writing in Tesla’s voice I tried to just think about how one would behave if this was how the world was seen. And then I blended in my own world view. I found that this created a Tesla that could also talk about my beliefs and issues.

I found that this helped me work through the deaths of several family members. It was almost like Tesla was doing the thinking. It created a persona for myself to navigate the world in this project. And perhaps beyond it.

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Special thanks to Michael J. Wilson for participating! To find out more about his work, check out his siteA Child of Storm can be purchased from Stalking Horse Press.

author photo credit: Cameron Gay

microreview & interview: Robin Carstensen’s In the Temple of Shining Mercy

carstensen chap
review by José Angel Araguz

Stray – Robin Carstensen

She came howling for food
on the porch in June — tufts
of gray-white hair sprung from her
birdlike strut — huffing a claim
for herself, as if she could
conjure the rain in this brown
drought-struck town, boarded up
houses marked Foreclosed.
On this small plot of land
I’d come back to save, books
in my heart with my name on them,
on these sun-baked planks
on this yellow-scabbed yard,
I’d watched her streak across
the street, tomcat tearing up
her dust. Her screech had stiffened
the humid night. She’d come
for three seasons, gulp my leftovers
beneath the red hibiscus, swish
her smoky plume of tail, brush
by me like a petal, be gone.
In early April, I found her
under the moonlight, her right eye
gouged and black-encrusted,
draining green as if the moon
had wept. Hard news struck
morning: the vet showed a pellet
lodged in her thin neck,
the entrance wound — her blown
eye. As I buried her that night,
children played in the yard
next door. Her milk had been dry.
The litter likely starved to death.
I couldn’t hear myself think
about them. Just the children’s
voices scratching the hot air,
loud and bored, my turn, my turn,
bouncing on the trampoline,
their big, thin skulls bobbing
on their string-bean bodies
soon to be loose on the planet,
roaming beneath the faint
moon bearing earthshine.

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One of the things that immediately struck me about the poems in Robin Carstensen’s chapbook In the Temple of Shining Mercy, is the way poetic language is placed at the service of empathy. In “Stray,” for example, the speaker meditates on the final days of a stray cat whose life is cut short due to an act of violence. The speaker’s tone throughout conveys a sober wistfulness, able to lay out the details in a direct manner. The phrasing of “as if she could / conjure the rain in this brown / drought-struck town” both paints a picture of the speaker’s surroundings but also implies a certain hope.

This dual turn of imagery and phrasing occurs again at the end of the poem in the imagery of children on a trampoline. As a pellet was found to be the cause of the stray’s death, there’s a slight implication the cat was shot by neighborhood kids. This implication is furthered by the phrasing of “their big, thin skulls bobbing / on their string-bean bodies / soon to be loose on the planet.” The use of the word “loose” is crucial here: there is the loosing of the possible threat the children could grow up to be, but also the loosing from the safety of home and childhood, of children growing up and becoming strays themselves “roaming beneath the faint / moon bearing earthshine.” The poem ultimately empathizes with the speaker’s understanding of mortality, that all — stray cat, children, and self — are loosed awaiting their mortal “turn.”

Throughout the chapbook, Carstensen shows herself as able to lift everyday experience and evoke a bit of the mystery beyond it. From a magazine advertisement imploring the would-be consumer to “Explore This,” to a game of poker, the range of material Carstensen writes about is given the same multivalent empathy and consideration, each subject seen for what they are and what they mean and might mean. In this work, the poet is less mystic and more like the envisioned gardener of “The Master” (below). In this poem, the speaker describes growing a “garden in my next life” where:

My next-door neighbor will be a woman
who will not ask me to confess
my failures, nor by tongue, eye, sleight-
of-hand, ask whom I’ve betrayed or who
betrays me and themselves.

Instead of this human interrogation, the speaker’s imagined neighbor will:

offer cuttings, give easy
watering tips: aim for the roots
on lamb’s ears, not the leaves, or they wilt.
The fire witch like their drink in the morning;
Astoria soak the live-long day in sun. 

This exchange of one kind of wisdom is rich with meaning, namely that of moving through the world in a way that helps others become themselves. Part of that work seems to be learning how to approach things (aim for the roots) or seeing them for how they work. The purpose of this work and consideration is evident in a final scene between the neighbor and the speaker:

Behind her rosebush, beneath her straw hat,
she will wave to me, no small occasion
tender things, our radiance, and our laugh.

The phrasing of this “no small occasion” reflects the lessons learned from this “master.” Being able to show consideration and empathy for other beings can teach one how to be considerate to one’s self. Yet, the poem is masterful in its own right in that it avoids speaking in the high terms I speak of it; that is to say, in handling the narrative through direct details, the poem develops such meanings subtly, so that both reader and speaker simultaneously experience the revelation of seeing the “tender things” before them in a clear light.

The Master – Robin Carstensen

I want to grow a garden in my next life
and watch a spotted toad beneath the rain.
My next-door neighbor will be a woman
who will not ask me to confess
my failures, nor by tongue, eye, sleight-
of-hand, ask whom I’ve betrayed or who
betrays me and themselves. Nor will she
insinuate how on Earth do I not know
how to trim a rosebush. She’ll know
I’ve learned perfectly well how to ask
such questions of myself. Behind her
fence, she’ll offer cuttings, give easy
watering tips: aim for the roots
on lamb’s ears, not the leaves, or they wilt.
The fire witch like their drink in the morning;
Astoria soak the live-long day in sun.
My neighbor won’t ask me over for tea,
so I will never be late or anxious
about presentation. She won’t press
her weight over the fence or plant
herself in my yard inch by inch, tell me
wistful stories of sons who never call
or of poor souls besodden, stricken down.
I won’t tell her how I blew it again at work,
let someone get my goat. All that meditation,
awareness of ego, and for what? I won’t
tell her how I try to wean it, though it keeps
me up at night, how I’ve been too kind
or not kind enough, how much I know
about a womb and the way it can embody
hollowness, the way it echoes fears, mothers’
and daughters’ fears and envies and more fears.
My neighbor will observe these shadows
and leave them wordlessly to ebb and flow.
We’ll revel in the lizard, the red-tailed
hawk, the pink-fleshed mice they both devour,
and my face lit up upon the green shoot
in my garden, my first seed come to light.
Behind her rosebush, beneath her straw hat,
she will wave to me, no small occasion
tender things, our radiance, and our laugh.

*

Robin.Nov.2016.Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them? What do you feel poetry can do/be?

Robin Carstensen: Restraint  is one of my biggest challenges. It took many years reading, studying, and practicing poetry’s craft to learn this fine art of suspension and release. For this, I’m grateful for my graduate experience with such teachers as Lisa Lewis and the late Ai. While I needed encouragement and validation, I also needed someone willing to tell me to hold back, to work harder at precision and clarity as I ventured with the reader into uncharted territory. My early drafts are often journal entries over-steeped in the sensory, emotional world. I work to chisel the poem down to the sharpest, most resounding images and sounds. I want to cut but not drown the reader or myself. I’m thinking of my poem, “Stray,” for example, my outrage at the violence perpetrated against a neighborhood cat. The challenge in this and so many poems was to express the outrage, to question unnecessary violence, to discover its connection to all of human violence, without the overbearing polemics or the sermonizing that surely makes the reader run for the hills.

I enjoy the long adventure, the slow promenade. Perhaps this mirrors how I move my body in my daily life—I hate to rush. The challenge for me in life as in the poem is to bring the reader along with me, to hold steady at my pace and length, to trust we’ll arrive somewhere, if not spectacular and breathless, perhaps intriguing or quietly special. I discovered help and pleasure in received forms and the innovation of form in containing and shaping ambling, cumbersome drafts.  In particular, the incantatory ghazal and villanelle as well as the sonnet’s iambic beats help me hold the reader in a mutual descent or ascent into terror, ecstasy, meditation and all the valleys and rivers between. The question remains: How can I keep the reader with me—my companion, my lover, and my friend—as we reach into human violence, loneliness, or the depths of eros and love? The first reader, friend, lover is myself, and if I can be very still and honest with myself, the poem might expand to invite others to hold the tension with me. In the stillness, the imagery, sound, and form radiate and bubble forth.

Like James Baldwin in his writing habits, I found the stillness for writing most of these poems long after everyone else had gone to bed. Whether living alone or with someone, I mean a kind of quiet when the world and all our clamoring subsides. In her dialogue with Jane Hirschfeld and Juan Filipe Herrera on the “Poet’s Civic Responsibility,” Naomi Shihab Nye refers to this “muchness” we are all experiencing. We’re living among heightened, intersecting tensions locally and globally, as well as increased demands personally and professionally. While technology and social media offer more avenues to connect, imagine, and share, we are inundated with stimuli, information, private lives overshared and overexposed. Writing and reading a poem is an opportunity to bring us into stillness and the depths of feeling, thought, connection we hunger for. It’s one of my greatest challenges and pleasures to write poetry that reaches for this depth and for the impossible beauty between mystery and revelation.

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Special thanks to Robin Carstensen for participating! To find out more about Carstensen check out this announcement by Iron Horse Literary Review. In the Temple of Shining Mercy can be purchased from IHLR here.