microreview & interview: Kelly Davio’s It’s Just Nerves

review by José Angel Araguz

davio

Kelly Davio’s It’s Just Nerves: notes on a disability (Squares & Rebels, 2017) is a collection of creative nonfiction essays that explore and report the inner and outer realities of living with myasthenia gravis, a “a chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease that causes weakness in the skeletal muscles, which are responsible for breathing and moving parts of the body, including the arms and legs” (NINDS). The language of this definition, in light of its clarity and conciseness, or perhaps because of it, does little to bring the condition into human terms. One of Davio’s gifts is her ability to translate the complexities of her experiences into relatable moments via an authentic, engaging voice, a voice capable of insight and snark, as well as compelling honesty.

The opening essay, “Strong is the New Sexy,” for example, starts:

In the hospital complex, I sit in a room with a woman who plans to teach me how to swallow. Or, to re-teach me. I came into the world knowing how, born with the universal instinct to suckle and feed. I knew how to swallow just as I knew how to breathe. It’s just that, somewhere along the way, my body’s muscles have forgotten.

Here, Davio recasts her condition as a species of “forgetting,” a phrasing that would seem simple were it not also connected with “the universal instinct” mentioned earlier. This connection evokes the depth of vulnerability felt in this moment; the breaking down of the body means a breaking down of the self. This transition and necessary “re-teaching” doesn’t happen in a vacuum either, but rather in the public, fraught atmosphere of a hospital. The influence of the outside world is evident a little later in the same scene:

On the other side of the plate-glass window of the physical therapy room, hang gliders swoop down from the pine-covered mountainside. Their sails are the bright neon of 1990s fashion, and it’s impossible to miss the daredevils with their spectacular, spandexed bodies. I wonder whether the location of the window is intended to be inspirational: a call to the possibilities of good health, a motivation to perform one’s exercises well and get back out there. I have an impulse to drop the blinds over the window. I’d like to occlude the mountain.

In these opening paragraphs, we have a different kind of clarity and conciseness than that of medical jargon. There is the clarity of one’s thoughts and feelings during the awkwardness of physical therapy, but also the clarity of what colors the experience. The indirect violence and insistence on difference implied by most so-called “inspirational” posters is never more charged than in a medical setting. In a context where one is forced to question and doubt who they are bodily, posters like the one described here force an inner questioning of one ‘s attitude. For this reason, the sentence “I’d like to occlude the mountain,” is striking not only in its agency and defiance, but also because it comes from a speaker who themselves is feeling “occluded,” blocked and forgotten by their own body.

One of the questions I feel this collection of essays keeps asking and answering is: Who are we in the face of what we don’t know? This is engaged with in a dual manner throughout. Like in the above, the essay “On a Scale of One to Ten” presents a scene where outside pressure, this time in the form of a doctor’s question, forces a quick gauging of one’s self. In response to a doctor’s request to tell “what percentage [she’d] been debilitated by [her] neurological disease” during an assessment for surgical intervention, Davio experienced the following:

“What percentage?” I had prepared myself for all kinds of possible outcomes in this consultation. I was ready for anything, from him brushing me off to telling me that I’d need one of the more gross and undesirable procedures for which he’s known. One thing I hadn’t prepared for was performing quality-of-life math on the spot. I didn’t know how to put a number to the way I lived, or to the extent to which I’d adapted, year after year, to a new and inadequate set of circumstances.

I told him, “I have no idea.” He assured me that he just wanted an estimate, as though that clarified anything. At this point, I was emotionally exhausted, and I was frustrated. As I often do when frustrated, I said whatever came to mind.

“I haven’t been able to chew a salad for three years. I can’t teach a whole class anymore. I can’t walk anywhere without falling. I stop breathing sometimes. You tell me what percentage that is.”

He stopped typing away at his computer, swiveled around in his chair to look at me, and smoothed out his tie. “I think you answered my question.”

Here we again have a disconnect between the clarity and conciseness of the medical world versus the language of human experience. While the use of math terms to discuss one’s pain carries its own thwarted ambition, what stands out more in this scene is the disparity between Davio’s frustration and consequent edged statement “You tell me what percentage that is,” and the detail of the doctor “[smoothing] out his tie.” This latter detail symbolizes the discomfort, even on the part of the professionals trained and paid to treat patients with chronic conditions, feel in the face of said patients’ realities. Which is where the duality of the question, Who are we in the face of what we don’t know, comes into play. In this scene, Davio has to summarize an experience in an impossible way; in the process of giving an answer she doesn’t know how to give, Davio herself becomes something that the doctor doesn’t know how to respond to. At the end of this scene, she is frustration, he is a tie to be smoothed down.

What these essays make clear through scenes like this one is the range of things one has to reckon with as one learns to live with a chronic medical condition. From unpacking the shaming and misinformation about disability in mass media, popular culture, and writing conferences, to her experiences living and working in England pre-Brexit, Davio’s gift for writing relatable, unromanticized accounts of her life remains consistent. One thing that the trio I mentioned above – insight, snark, and honesty – do well in this collection is to keep things dynamic. Time and again, when the world shows itself as wanting to neglect, ignore, and not see her, Davio stares right back, answering the impulse to “smooth down” and look away with essays that are undeniable and unignorable.

*

Influence Question: Did your background as a poet come into play in any way as you put together this essay collection?

Kelly Davio: I think my work as a poet did play a role in how I approached the subject matter of this book. Poets have these great toolkits for examining the world indirectly; it’s as though the whole of our training is geared toward delivering ideas and information in the least likely way possible. If we can compare nonfiction to another medium, like photojournalism, then poets are probably the most like these intrepid photographers who take underwater portraits of people’s pet schnauzers. So yes, poetry taught me to come at my subject matter from unusual angles, and that has allowed me—I hope—to keep this fairly universal subject matter fresh for the reader.

But there’s another respect in which writing these essays was a new experience for me. When I write a poem, I’ve typically gnawed on the idea for some time before I put the text down on the page. I have an idea of what I want my underwater schnauzer portrait to look like. Essays turned out to be more exploratory for me; in my early drafts, I was writing to understand something, whether about myself or about the world around me, eventually revising down some more fully formed idea. That was a really exciting process for me as a writer, because I hadn’t really felt that same kind of freedom to wander around on these long, intellectual hikes before.

Influence Question: One of the great accomplishments of this book is your ability to write sober, unromanticized yet relatable accounts of experiences like being an American living abroad and engaging with the (mis)representations of disability in popular culture. What were some of the obstacles and/or lessons learned in evoking this hard-earned clarity on the page?

Kelly Davio: First of all, thank you for that! I think that the greatest challenge I had in writing these essays was getting past the stigma that exists around my subject matter in the literary world. I cannot tell you how many times I was lectured by other writers on the global truths that there’s no audience for books about illness or disability, that reading about other people’s pain is boring, that personal essays aren’t a legitimate thing to be publishing in the first place…you get the idea. For a long time, I bought into that stigma.

I got over it one morning as I sat in a panel discussion on the craft of essay writing at a literary conference. I had been hoping for a discussion of—oh, I don’t know—the craft of essay writing. But what I and the other attendees got was an hour or so of some hung-over looking guys I don’t think any of us had ever heard of roundly mocking the work of several well known women writers who publish personal essays. I left that room knowing exactly who my audience wasn’t. Who cared what those guys thought?

After that panel, I decided I to write whatever the heck I wanted. I wrote the kind of thing I wanted to read, and I trusted that there were other folks who might want to read the same kind of thing. Since the book’s come out, I’ve been enormously gratified to find that, yes, there is an audience for this work, and they’re much more pleasant people to hang around than those sour-grapes panelists, anyway.

*

Kelly_Davio_web-1Special thanks to Kelly Davio for participating! To find out more about her work, check out her site. It’s Just Nerves can be puchased from Squares & Rebels.

Kelly Davio is a poet, essayist, and editor. She’s the author of essay collection, It’s Just Nerves and the poetry collections, Burn This House and The Book of the Unreal Woman, forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in 2019. She also writes the sometimes-column “The Waiting Room” for Change Seven Magazineand her work has been published in a number of other journals including Poetry NorthwestThe Normal SchoolVinylThe ToastWomen’s Review of Books, and others. She is one of the founding editors of the Tahoma Literary Review.

Advertisements

microreview & interview: Jennifer Met’s Gallery Withheld

review by José Angel Araguz

gallery

Met Object

At the end of “Coming of Age in Idaho,” the second poem in Jennifer Met’s chapbook Gallery Withheld (Glass Poetry Press, 2017), the reader is presented with the phrase “an immovable feast” which hearkens back to Ernest Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast. This reference is key on a number of levels beyond wordplay. For one, much of the poems in Met’s book challenge and subvert the very stereotypes and gendered double standards that make possible the aura of a writer like Hemingway. Rather than rail against said aura directly, these poems imply it through sharp insights. As Idaho is “Hemingway country” and the site of his final days, the speaker’s “coming of age” is akin to rising from the ashes of a certain kind of writing tradition and taking flight into another.

Which is where another level of meaning can be found: this collection brings together lyric poems that trouble traditional poetics through engaging, experimenting, and expanding upon the visual poetry and projective verse traditions. Each poem can be seen as “an immovable feast,” either fixed on the page through intuitive choice or fixed into shape through a formal choice. In “The Object of His Desire,” for example, the narrative of a young boy collecting rocks is troubled when presented in the poetic shape of a woman. This confluence of content and form is purposeful and distinct; if the words were flushed left, they’d still be the same words, but they wouldn’t say the same thing they say in this shape. It is the gift of a visual poem to engage with a language’s plasticity and provide opportunities for multivalent, complex readings. For example, as the poem ends on the idea of facelessness, one can’t help but return to the shape of the poem, and note that where a woman’s face would be are the words: “You see / I’ve always / been drawn / to metaphor.” This implies another facelessness, a societal one. The casual tone of these words further point to the learned narratives of childhood and their insidiousness.

This critique of stereotypes continues in “Old Made: Self-Portrait in a Negative Space,” (below) which lives across from “The Object of His Desire” on the facing page. Where the shape of a woman is the shape of the poem in “Object,” in “Old Made” a woman’s shape is everywhere the poem is not. Even in describing this difference due to formal choice carries with it some of the charged critique that is everywhere in the poem. The assumptions behind the phrase “old maid” are challenged in the title; the rephrasing to “old made” implies how ideas of “old” are “made” in lack of knowledge and lack of connection. It is telling, then, to consider the way this poem ends and begins with the word “Us.” Stereotypes like the one challenged here can make a person feel that they are nothing in the face of others. This feeling is further implied in the form; where the woman’s face would be in this shape, there is instead a list of conjunctions, “if….and….but.” Which is to say that where a face, one’s most personal, recognizable feature, would be, there is instead a brief scatter of words standing alone. Read alone as they are, this list could be read as a half-started, unfinished, and unlistened to protest.

The poems of Gallery Withheld again and again make space to listen and engage with the half-started and unfinished. Reading these poems, one is left like the speaker in “Lefty Loosey” who contemplates Robert S. Neuman’s painting “Monument to No One In Particular” along with another woman who

contemplates
the structure with a frown
and when she leaves I take
her angle hoping
for direction

Each of these immoveable feasts invites the reader to come closer to the text in their reading. And like the speaker above, we must reflect that “its chaos is just / not meant for me or her / or my father in particular / but us all.”

Met Old Made

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

Jennifer Met: I don’t have an MFA and my undergrad degree is in Molecular Biology, so I have a very open opinion of what poetry can be—I am not limited by an idea of what a perfect “workshop” poem should sound like in order to be accepted as real, good poetry. In fact, I am often drawn to forms (like haiku/haibun, speculative, ekphrastic, and concrete poetry) that seem to have more of an outmoded or niche status in the contemporary poetry scene. In a time when poetry has such a limited readership I think it is silly of us to narrow the definition of what poetry can be. I love to read and write widely, and without labels!

In this vein, Gallery Withheld contains poems that have abandoned frames and formal spaces of presentation. They run the gamut from experimental to lyrical to narrative and contain variations of haibun, ekphrastic poems, persona poems, and more. While they share thematic elements exploring definitions of gender, objectification, and the intersection of word, art, and identity, the main binding thread of the collection is that the form of each poem contains some sort of shape/concrete element. More than just a gimmick or a literal, visual shorthand of the content, I think a good shape, like a good title, can lend an extra layer of meaning and engagement to a written piece. It is particularly important in these identity poems as we are so often judged and defined by our visual elements.

For example, take the poem “Object of His Desire” from the collection (originally appearing in experimental poetry journal The Bombay Gin). On the surface it is a charming anecdote about a child keeping pet rocks in an egg carton, but add the shape—an icon—a perfect, bathroom-door skirted woman—and the words become much more sinister. You notice how the rocks are being objectified and their plight becomes symbolic. Sure, they are treated nicely, but are “animals” (implying a hierarchy), and taken care of (again, implying power), named (implying possession and external definition/validity). Then, when the rocks, just like the woman-icon shape, are left without faces, we see how their feelings, even their individuality, ceases to matter. How without eyes, nose and mouth, they are unable to sense stimuli. Static—unable to interact with their environment, process or ever change. Trapped unable to speak and respond. But without any sensory input, they are unaware that this is even an issue—the system feels perpetual, grand, safe, even desirable. Hence the poem becomes the definition of “woman” as seen not just by a man, but by us all—a blank, yet somehow identifiable, object. However, this meaning only exists when the text is paired with the shape.

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

Jennifer Met: One of the challenges in writing these poems was wrestling with their literally “concrete” nature. Generally I started with an anecdote (narrative or image-based), then formed the polished prose into a meaningful form while trying to be mindful of good line breaks. However, poetry is such a fluid and organic process that this proved limited—the content would inform the shape, which would then re-inform the content, which would then re-inform the shape, in an endless cycle. However, it is not easy to cut or change even a single word without seriously disturbing a set, concrete, typographic shape, so I found myself constantly constructing a shape only to take the writing back out and revise it before reworking it back into a form. Because of this I actually felt the freedom to do a lot more straight-out rewriting than my revisions would usually entail.

Rewriting seems like a lot of work, and even a betrayal of our charged first-words, but it benefitted this collection so much that I have continued the practice in my current poems to great success. While changing single words or just reworking stanza breaks has never been my idea of revision, I have started to really scrap and rebuild poems—often saving only a few phrases, a single image, or even an idea that had unexpectedly developed during its initial writing—a process I highly recommend.

*

Special thanks to Jennifer Met for participating! To find out more about her work, check out her site. Gallery Withheld can be purchased from Glass Poetry Press.

met_biopic_gJennifer Met lives in a small town in North Idaho with her husband and children. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee, a finalist for Nimrod’s Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, and winner of the Jovanovich Award. Recent work is published or forthcoming in Gravel, Gulf Stream, Harpur Palate, Juked, Kestrel, Moon City Review, Nimrod, Sleet Magazine, Tinderbox, and Zone 3, among other journals.  She is the author of the chapbook Gallery Withheld(Glass Poetry Press, 2017). 

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.

*

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 & 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

*

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: 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.

*

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

rogue-ing with robin carstensen

carstensen chapAs I noted in my recent microreview & interview of Robin Carstensen’s In the Temple of Shining Mercy, one of the things that moved me was the use of empathy as a kind of engine for poetry throughout the collection. The close and true listening required of this kind of writing is instructive and illuminating. Instructive in that it focuses attention on ways to simply be there via poetry; illuminating because of the way the there is unpacked and explored.

An example of what I mean can be found in “Rogues on the Heath,” another poem from Carstensen’s book. Here, the speaker develops a narrative involving tomcats in their life, a narrative that quickly cascades into a meditation on the nature of connecting with others, either through letters or touch. By the end, the speaker presents their own sudden understanding of a need as “feral” and innate as those of the tomcats.

Rogues on the Heath – Robin Carstensen

Tomcats crying on the porch
beneath the bludgeoning sun
will lunge at the bowl
so fiercely the thin blonde one
will knock the food out
as if he’s up to bat when I stoop
to pour. A thousand tiny saws
rattle their throats to stir me
awake, for it is nearly noonday,
and the night was long
and treacherous. I should
ease their abscessed faces,
put their limp bodies down,
should have done the deed
months ago, but both are warm
against my hand, and I am
a cowardly god. An orphaned
one, come down, swung low,
swing low sweet chariot. Here
is morning’s sumptuous hope
on the wane around my ankles,
crawling through feral eyes,
as if my emergence was a letter
like all the letters I’d written
to the one I didn’t love
to death but cared for — the colors
of tulips I’d mentioned but not
their fragrance blooming inside
my coral spring, how I’d saved them
for love, and how the one starving
for it would gnaw my sternum
to shreds, suckle my veins
into brittle twine, because nothing
matters more than the barren stretch
between words in all their bounty
pressing our warm ribs — bowls
and bowls of touch achingly
unable to fill the vast moors of us.

*

Happy rogue-ing!

José

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.

*

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.