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.

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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.

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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
at Goodreads.

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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.

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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.

*

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.

microreview & interview: Roberto Carcache Flores’ A Condensation of Maps

maps coverreview by José Angel Araguz

Treatment – Roberto Carcache Flores

If I could
I’d be your
therapist,
playing
smooth jazz
through
the morning,
one eye
on the clock,
another in
your folder.

I’d browse
through
all those cries
you scribbled
using watercolors
while waiting
for a ring,
to usher
you inside.

My hands
would shake
in yours
like swarms
of moths
around a
lamp shade
until you
grab a seat,
and look me
in the eye.

*

Reading through A Condensation of Maps (Dink Press), I found myself again and again impressed by a poetic sensibility capable of creating images that evoke physical and conceptual movement. In the above poem, this work is set up by the narrative implied in the title, “Treatment.” The speaker develops a brief hypothetical scene, the short lines driving home the intimacy of the address. While the first two stanzas navigate the title’s conceit strictly, speaking in the literacy of the therapist’s office, it is the third stanza’s turn that brings all this metaphor work to a human level. As the speaker’s hands shake in the you’s “like swarms / of moths / around a / lamp shade,” there is a double immediacy evoked, that of hands in hands, but also that of a dire need for direction. This need is implied in the moth imagery, and presents both the speaker and the you as driven by seeking. The empathy here is palpable.

Similar moments of visceral imagery happens throughout the chapbook. The first stanza of “The Fordham Sentinel,” for example, delivers a line by line revelation, one that develops and suggests itself as the six lines move:

Have you checked your bed
for all your fallen pens?
Did the blue stains
on your sheets
leave bite marks
the following morning?

The result is a compelling and unsettling synesthesia: as a reader, I am drawn into the narrative of “fallen pens” and “blue stains,” only to be startled by the implications of “bite marks.” When these elements come together, this stanza does the work of a surrealistic tanka, presenting a personal and immediate meditation.

In “Borders Left Behind,” Flores’ particular brew of imagery and lyric sensibility come to bear on the political. Here, the use of the word “borders” carries special significance. For a poet from El Salvador writing in English, each poem is an act of navigating borders of expression and sensibility. These undertones course through the poem, charging the meditation of the first stanza with an objectivity that is quickly subverted into the intimacy of the second stanza. The political becomes personal in a moment full of human risk and need for understanding.

Borders Left Behind – Roberto Carcache Flores

Imagine
stamping
a black seal
on a feather
every time
an eagle soars
too far from
its nest
or questioning
a vulture’s
motives for its
incessant travel.

The only borders
we should cross
lie across
the eyes
of two
strangers,
even as
we travel
on this bus,
your head
on my shoulder.

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bookscoffee-2Influence Question: How does this collection reflect your relationship/history with the short lyric?

Roberto Carcache Flores: The collection is ordered somewhat chronologically. The first poems represent my earlier work. Initially I think my approach was much more ambitious. I often tried capturing the essence of places and even bits of history. This is especially true for my “El Salvador” poems, which attempt through longer verses to convey my impressions of different places in my home country.  I still look back at these poems fondly, but with reservation.

Later on, I tried to focus on shorter verses and poems in general. Hence, the collection ends with works that only contain a couple of verses and very little sort of context.  I think my goal now is to merely replicate a specific sensation or thought, trying to say more with less. It can be something like a type of sigh or the meaning of a certain smile.  For better or worse, I now find myself aiming for poetry that is less expressive and more definitive.

IQ: What writers/forms have influenced your sense of sentence, phrasing, and brevity?

RCF: Two specific poems come to mind, since the list of writers who have influenced me is all over the place. The first is a very short poem by Roque Dalton titled “Miedo” or “Fear”, dedicated to Julio Cortázar. The poem says “Un ángel solitario en la punta del alfiler oye que alguien orina.”.  The translated version goes something like: A solitary angel on the needle tip hears that someone is pissing. I believe Dalton wrote this poem while being a political prisoner. Either way, it has haunted me since the first time I read it and completely changed my views on how poetry should work.

I stumbled upon the second poem more recently. It’s an odd sort of poem by Robert Walser titled “Little flowers stand in the field”. The poem involves Walser walking through lovely gardens, drinking coffee, and eating jam and butter. Like most of Walser’s work however, the lightness of these verses foreshadow a precipice, a deeper insight into the fleetingness of these sensations. The final stanza of the poem brings everything back to its essence: “Earth is a house with passageways / and rooms where you abide, / it is the storm and stress in it / that hurry me outside.”

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Special thanks to Roberto Carcache Flores for participating! To find out more about Flores’ work, check out his siteA Condensation of Maps can be purchased from Dink Press.

microreview & interview: Susan Lewis’ Heisenberg’s Salon

lewis hs

review by José Angel Araguz

Drawing inspiration from German physicist Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which “states that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa,” Susan Lewis’ latest collection, Heisenberg’s Salon (BlazeVOX [books]), presents a prose poem collection that evokes the form’s surrealist traditions while expanding on its logic-making means.

One can see this idea of position and momentum reformulated in poetic terms in these lines from the title poem:

Every time she turned her back, the apartment rearranged itself. Each version created a home for another way of life.

From there, the reader follows the main character adapting to her constantly rearranging apartment, curling up and reading Victorian fiction when she “[discovers] the couch under the picture window,” and setting the next meal when “the dining table was there instead.” In a similar manner, the reader of this collection adapts to each poem’s engagement with and rearrangement of familiar linguistic territory. The aptly named “Indeterminacy” is a good example of adapting to rearrangement:

Indeterminacy

It was time for something, although she could not for the life of her imagine what. So she assumed her post on the stoop & waited for the future to declare itself. A tattered bird of dubious provenance landed on the banister & inspected her with his ancient gaze. She exhaled with emphasis, but otherwise managed to keep her preconceptions to herself. The old fellow cocked his head & screeched. Terrific, she said. How am I supposed to know if you’re the one I’m waiting for? Terrific, he squawked. How am I supposed to know if you’re the one I’m waiting for? I get it, she said, bravely extending her arm. I get it, he echoed, latching on with admirable decision. It was the last conversation they ever had.

Here, the first half of the poem positions two characters in places of waiting. There is a push and pull between interiority and meaning at work; because “she could not for the life of her imagine what” it was time for (keyword here being imagine, an act of interiority), she is forced to look outside herself. Thus positioned, the conversation that takes place in the second half of the poem works as momentum, giving the scene the urgency of question and response. The phrasing of a “tattered bird” also leaves things ambiguous; one can envision a parrot playing out the conversation that follows, merely echoing the other character. And yet, the choice to not be specific about the kind of bird it is leaves room for the fantastical. From this uncertainty, the imagining the other character was incapable of on her own becomes an outer moment of imagination via this “conversation” with the bird.

This transformation via uncertainty plays out for the reader much like the conversation plays out for the characters, strictly in the moment, in the rush as the pieces of the poem come together. There is a thrill in this kind of poetry that speaks of a sensibility awake to the materials at the core a poem, how to get the “tattered bird” of familiar language to say something new. As plot requires conflict, these poems point to lyricism as its pulse.

One of the ambitions of this collection is learning how to be awake to this lyric pulse. The reading act is itself a combination of position and momentum, holding words still in the mind while moving towards the sense implied. In a way, the reader of Heisenberg’s Salon is in the same position as the boy of “One Day” (below) who finds himself literally embodying change, watching the world evolve as the poem develops. Certainty and uncertainty, this collection posits, both happen suddenly and simultaneously. As in the uncertainty principle, one is reckoning with ideas of position and momentum in these poems. Yet, because they are poems – poems whose essence can only be located within the act of reading and being heard, thus, in motion – the interplay leads the reader to a fruitful uncertainty, and, one could say, a lyric certainty.

One Day

grass started growing form the young man’s chest. Everybody changes, said his mother, surreptitiously dabbing at her eyes. But the boy, who was wise beyond his years, felt delicate roots tickling his sternum & knew it was a matter of time before they’d probe his lungs & entwine his heart, crowding the space it needed to expand & contract in its steadfast commitment to preserving his options. As the weeks passed, graceful green strands sprung from his armpits, between his legs, & even, in the finest possible wisps, from his upper lip. One morning he awoke from a luxurious dream of water glossing boulders as smooth & warm as flesh to find a starry sprinkle of tiny yellow blossoms adorning his burgeoning tufts. He had only to be still & tiger swallowtails floated around him, sipping his nectar. Unable to deny the inexorable slowing of his breath, he was content to observe himself contemplate the ramifications of his personal evolution without emitting a watt of excess heat or other sign of agitation.

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Susan-LewisInfluence Question: How does this collection reflect your relationships/history with the prose poem? What writers have influenced your sense of sentence and story?

Susan Lewis: I love the prose poem! Brevity and density are its challenge and its promise. To paraphrase Whitman, it contains multitudes — like the power to embrace or eschew narrative, meter, syntax, and even the sentence itself.

I began working with the more narratively driven poems in Heisenberg’s Salon as a kind of emotional and intellectual R & R after being immersed in another collection of prose poems (currently called Zoom) which are far more abstract, fragmented, and entangled on the lexical meta-level. This was not my first time exploring this sub-genre: my book, How to be Another, gathered a group of tale-like creatures in the section called e.g. (reflecting my notion that narrative proffers examples, rather than, say, arguments, restatements, or prescriptions — like the other poems assembled under the headings vis, i.e., and Rx).

The rhythms, architecture, and verbal texture of these poems, however, are quite different than those earlier pieces. And my critique of categories, boundaries, and borders has intensified (in the geopolitical context as well). A fish confined to a small container stays a small fish. The same can be said for a psyche. Any insistence on us vs them deprives ‘us’ of the (sometimes challenging) benefit of ‘their’ company and perspective. For this book, I found a kind of metaphorical support for this principle of inclusivity in quantum indeterminacy.

My love of the prose poem dates back to my introduction (thanks to my friend and mentor Chuck Wachtel) to Julio Cortázar’s seminal The Lines of the Hand, and Russell Edson’s Dinner Time, both of which can be relied upon, in a pinch, as complete guides to writing of any kind — be it short story, novel, or poem. (Which is to inveigh, once again, against the unhelpful constraints of such categories).

Cortázar’s other very short works, like many in Cronopios and Famas, and all of Edson’s oeuvre, have wormed their way into my sense of timing and ‘turn.’ Their compressed journeys draw an arc from premise, to ramification and extrapolation, to conclusion — which in different pieces might be more or less conclusive, and more or less shocking, or absurd. They model a kind of imaginative and investigatory digging — deeper, absolutely, but also laterally, towards new terrain — which ends up yielding a skewed and oddly clearer view of their starting positions.

The poems in Heisenberg are also deeply indebted to the work of Lydia Davis and James Tate, both of whom transform the ordinary into the extraordinary by penetrating, judicious, and genuinely inspired elisions, containments, and departures. And Kafka looms over all of us who touch on the surreal in the hope of exposing the tragic absurdity of the real.

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Special thanks to Susan Lewis for participating! Find out more about her work at her siteHeisenberg’s Salon can be purchased from BlazeVOX [books].

microreview & interview: Steven Sanchez’s To My Body

body

review by José Angel Araguz

In his chapbook To My Body (Glass Poetry Press), Steven Sanchez brings together a series of poems that explore the ways in which the body learns what it means to be present. In unpacking moments of conflict and joy, To My Body becomes an ode to both the physical body and the body of experiences lived through.

One of the main engines in which this work is done is imagery. Sanchez’s eye for building up to apt and compelling images that speak volumes is evident throughout. In the opening poem, “Homophobia,” for example, a childhood memory of being shamed by a father for being “afraid // to let go” while hanging from monkey bars, ends:

you fall
in the sand and I hear

you sniffle.
You grab sand and squeeze
your hand, each grain

sieving
through your fingers
like water.

This image of moving from “sniffle” to the image of a hand squeezing a fistful of sand works on two levels. First, the grabbing after sand is an act of reaching for and wanting connection; that what is literally close at hand, sand, is something gritty and difficult to keep hold of, however, evokes how distant and unavailable that connection feels. What is being depicted is no less vivid for being a memory; time itself, evoked through the image of falling sand, creates its own grit. Secondly, the speaker interprets this image as moving “like water,” a simile that fruitfully juxtaposes disparate elements. That something rough and solid like sand can move and evoke water places in the reader’s mind a symbol for how fear works. The distance fear creates between people – here, the father and son, but also the son and themselves – often forces people to live parallel lives. The speaker is being asked in this moment to understand the hardness of difference, to let go of the hurt they feel while it is undeniably physically and emotionally present.

Similar image work occurs in the poem “Paleontology” whose opening lines set up the following scene of domestic violence:

My father threw second hand encyclopedias
at my mother’s back and she blanketed me

between her and the mattress…

This image of a mother protecting her child with her body is then unpacked by the speaker through further connections as the speaker recalls:

…the book splayed open

on my bed where a Tyrannosaurus Rex
assumed a fetal position, her spine

and tail arched into a semicircle,
skull tucked between claws

and into what was left of her chest. Her ribs
pierced the eye sockets of her offspring.

When that six-mile asteroid plummeted
from the sky, did the mother devour him whole

protecting him the only way she knew how
or did she fall onto him after impact…

These lines do a great job of unpacking the complicated implications of the opening image. Present day violence and protection is reframed here and placed within the wider context of existence, which is essentially what is at stake. Through the parallel image of an extinct species in a pose of bodily protection, Sanchez makes clear the dire nature of this moment between mother and son without any loss of the risk, danger, or love that existed simultaneously.

Ultimately, the poems of To My Body present a poetic sensibility able to honor and understand what it means to live through physical and emotional circumstances, to render them for both their darkness and light. In the poem below, one sees this sensibility in the service of coming to terms with one’s self. The speaker’s narrative develops through images of bodily knowledge (“skull’s tenor,” “the dense beat of a palm”), and through these images comes to an understanding, not to say peace exactly, with what it means to live with the dual nature of difference. Where the earlier image of sand falling from a child’s hand evoked conflicted and hurt emotions, this poem’s speaker presents its closing image of shark gills with an edge. To be in possession of “two halves of a sonnet / that can turn an ocean into breath” is to be in possession of a whole expression, two parts of an argument that can both overwhelm and sustain life.

The Anatomy Of Your Voice – Steven Sanchez

Only you can hear the rattle of bones
inside your voice, the skull’s tenor

tucked around the alto of your vocal cords
like the drumhead of a tambourine,

the dense beat of a palm striking skin.
At ten years old you hear yourself

on an answering machine and realize
why kids call you fag–your vocal cords

aren’t strings on a cello and aren’t steel
braided cables suspending a bridge,

they’re membranes slit in your throat
like silver zils in a tambourine ringing

whenever you speak.
Remember to inhale

as if through the gills
on either side of a shark —

seven and seven, two halves of a sonnet
that can turn an ocean into breath.

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

Steven Sanchez: I’ve never had much patience. When I was little, I’d untie my shoes in a hurry and usually end up with a tight knot I couldn’t get out. Sometimes my parents helped me out, and sometimes I cut it. While I’ve gotten better at untying my shoes, there’s still this knot I feel inside my stomach.

Up until a few years ago, if you’d asked me what I wanted more than anything in the world, I would’ve told you two things: to be straight and white. I didn’t learn the terms for these desires until grad school, and that’s when I realized how much society had made me internalize homophobia and racism. But the knot I have isn’t learned self-hate, it’s the effects of that prolonged self-hate, and it’s also anger. When California passed Prop 8, it was the first time I felt that knot in my stomach—not so much because of the prop itself, but because everybody around me, at best, was nonchalant. And as time goes on, as more headlines point out everyday injustices, people remain calm, and the knot gets tighter.

The knot never leaves and that was the hardest part was about writing To My Body.  I wanted to unravel that knot, to get rid of it so I could move on to something else. I was hopeful that these poems could be something like a spool, winding up my experiences so that somebody else could use them, but more often than not, the poems ended up tightening the knot. I started becoming frustrated.

Part of my frustration was because I definitely wasn’t ready to write these poems; the other part was that I felt like I kept failing because people said my poems were “political,” which people often used as a euphemism for heavy-handed. What really helped me work through that was reading Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde. They taught me how the personal is political, that simply existing is a political act, that every poem is political. I struggled so much with the negative connotations of “political poetry” that I’d forgotten how empowering it could be.

Changing my perception about the term political wasn’t enough. I knew that my poems still didn’t do what they needed to; they didn’t surprise me and they didn’t feel natural. At a craft talk, Eduardo Corral mentioned that coming to the poem with a pre-set message you want to convey doesn’t work because you’re not allowing yourself to be caught off guard. Also, Adrienne Rich wrote about the two kinds of political poems: good and bad. Bad political poems create an argument. Good political poems create an experience. I started realizing that because I had a pre-set message I wanted to convey, I approached them like an argument—here’s my statement, here’s my image supporting that statement. Instead, I tried re-creating formative moments in my life on the page without worrying about making a statement, without worrying about resolving those moments, and the knot started to loosen.

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Special thanks to Steven Sanchez for participating! Find out more about his work at his siteTo My Body can be purchased from Glass Poetry Press.