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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.

*

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.”

*

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.

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5759df779b8f9Just a quick post to share my latest and last microreview & interview for the Cincinnati Review blog!

This time around I spend time with Jennifer Givhan’s Landscape With Headless Mama (Pleiades Press).

I’ve had a blast writing for the CR blog and plan to continue the microreview & interviews here on the Influence (check out the Submissions tab for more details).

See you Friday!

José

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RUNAWAYIn my recent microreview & interview of Rochelle Hurt’s In Which I Play the Runaway , I discussed how the idea of “narrative inheritance” is central to the collection, working as a background to be subverted and challenged via the themes of the physical body and the conceptual runaway. What this means is that the collection is concerned with the stories we accept about ourselves and how those stories change, either on their own or through our effort.

In “Poem In Which I Play the Cheat” below, the speaker begins their story as something they “could explain.” Through the modal verb “could,” the speaker places their story in an imaginative space, suspending the scene of “when he touched my arm” and the image of “a stunned doe” as part of only one instance of the experience.

The speaker then charges back into the material of their story, back to “Sun as first love.” In the third stanza’s depiction of being younger and in love with the sun,”its heat, so much / like a body, a welcome weight,” the speaker establishes distance from scene with the “he” of the first stanza. This distance is where the story begins to change, the speaker now less in love with a person and more in love with an experience.

When the final stanza changes the first stanza’s phrasing of “when he touched my arm” to “when I touched his arm,” a subtle, but significant shift happens. Where the first stanza has an outside action create an interior response, the last stanza grounds itself in inner sensation. Rather than having a story of action and response, the last stanza has a story of response only, a lingering and holding onto sensation that leaves the speaker “wanting until a kind of night” falls within them. Suddenly, the role of “cheat” and its connotations of evasiveness serve a more complicated and honest purpose: that of unflinching witness to the self.

*

Poem in Which I Play the Cheat – Rochelle Hurt

I could explain
that when he touched my arm, a field opened
inside me, so I lay down there like a stunned doe
wedding herself to the ground for its green.

But you should understand it began before that —

Sun as first love: when I was small,
I would close my eyes each afternoon
and press myself into its heat, so much
like a body, a welcome weight on top of me.
Its light split my skin, and I opened
to the infinite red and shine beneath my lids
as time thickened and pleasure oozed
like syrup into the bowl of my skull.

What I mean is that I fall in love with surfaces —

When I touched his arm, the horizon flickered
before us, and I knew the sky was only
a scratched film of sky. I fixed on its sun nonetheless,
wanting until a kind of night fell in my chest.

*

Happy storying!

José

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RUNAWAYJust a quick post to share my latest microreview & interview up now at the Cincinnati Review blog!

This time around I focus on Rochelle Hurt’s second collection, In Which I Play the Runaway (Barrow Street Press).

I’ll be sharing a poem from this collection on Friday. Stay tuned!

For now, enjoy the review.

See you Friday!

José

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bodyIn my microreview & interview of Steven Sanchez’s To My Body (Glass Poetry Press), I focused primarily on the use of imagery throughout the collection to explore the presence of both the physical and experiential body in a poem. It is more than fitting, then, that this week’s poem, “Human Breath Is Eroding The Sistine Chapel,” takes the body metaphors and further unpacks them in an ekphrastic poem that adds new threads of myth to a familiar image.

The travel of this particular poem is where much of the image work is done. The title starts off by placing the image of Michelangelo’s painting in the reader’s mind. We are, like the speaker, considering the famous image and this fact about human breath and erosion. A few lines in, the poem shifts and imposes over this first image the image of the speaker’s hotel room ceiling, their meditation suddenly taking on a more intimate tone. This intimacy is complicated by the third shift of the poem as the speaker digs into memory. Here, the two imposed images so far in the poem are clouded, literally, by the frost breath of the memory.

These three moves present different takes on human breath: it can erode a painting on a ceiling; it can convey smoke in a hotel room; and it is what words are carried on in speech. In each take, breath leaves the human body to have an effect elsewhere. The nature of these effects is at times unmanageable, yet we continue to look, hoping to see something of ourselves in time.

god2-sistine_chapel

Human Breath Is Eroding The Sistine Chapel – Steven Sanchez

Where else do words tarnish
paint and plaster like smoke

on wallpaper, remnants of strangers
I feel close to? The dark matter

of their lungs and mouths scours
the textured ceiling. I light up and lie

down on the motel bed, becoming
Michelangelo on my back, cigarette

stroking the air. I see the world
like I used to, making cold angels

on the white expanse of my backyard
where I watched winter enter

and leave my body, transforming
words into something invisible,

almost tangible, like Adam’s left
hand that will never reach God.

*

To My Body by Steven Sanchez can be purchased from Glass Poetry Press.

*

Happy breathing!

José

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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.

*

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.

*

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.

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osowskiThis week I’m sharing a poem from Leah Poole Osowski’s collection Hover Over Her which I recently discussed in a microreview & interview for the CR blog.

In my review, I discussed the collection in terms of “the poetics of suddenness.” This week’s poem, “Glow Sticks,” embodies what I mean by this phrase in its use of direct commands to indirectly handle a narrative charged with urgency. One of the ways in which this move comes together is the mix of long and short sentences.

The shift in energy, for example, between the sentence: “Crack them like taking a frozen lake in your hand, / as a branch, and applying light pressure”  which occurs over two lines, to the sentence after it, “Enter the dark” is compelling for a number of reasons. For one, it is the move from the comfort of detailed instruction and linguistic duration of the longer sentence to the “dark” of the shorter sentence that is abstract and concise. Also, the switch in diction and length creates a momentum in the speaker’s voice that evokes the suddenness that the addressee is being guided through.

This momentum is builds throughout the poem, culminating in the image of “flashlight beams / spelling your name into space.” I’m moved in these final lines by both the closing side of the indirect narrative of the poem as well as what the image implies beyond the poem. To have a name spelled out in light into space speaks to the fleeting nature of life. One can see a parallel in this image of John Keats’ epitaph, which reads: “Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water.” Osowski’s collection is full of moments like this one, whose freshness and vividness is articulated through a living pulse.

*

Glow Sticks – Leah Poole Osowski

Phenol and chemistry that excites a dye.
Crack them like taking a frozen lake in your hand,
as a branch, and applying light pressure.
Enter the dark. Teach a girl who’s never seen light
held in a tube to throw them toward the ceiling —
see the night split open like fault lines.
Show her to trim her wrist and dance like prisms
in a thunderstorm. Tell her how to keep
them into tomorrow, with tinfoil in the freezer,
and watch her worry. You understand this fear
of losing the light. How many summers did you
break them open over the sands of Cape Cod bay,
shake the chemicals onto the ground to bring
the constellations to your feet? You still taste
the hydrogen peroxide when you kiss strangers.
Still mourn the slow deaths of jarred fireflies,
of sand-covered beach fires, of flashlight beams
spelling your name into space.

*

Happy glowing!

José

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