microreview: Gabriela Aguirre’s La isla de tu nombre

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

aguirre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

La isla de tu nombre es publicado por Veliz Books.

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

 

one more from tina cane

In my recent microreview & interview of Tina Cane’s Once More With Feeling (Veliz Books), I focused on the idea of place and its dual nature in the book as noun and action. I found this particular lens to the collection engaging on several levels. In a poem, place is often both what we write about and what we create in writing. This duality parallels several ideas on the interaction between content and form discussed by poets from Charles Baudelaire to Denise Levertov. There are moments in Cane’s collection when content and form interact and create a tension that feels like a living pulse.

telegramIn this week’s poem, Cane takes the conceit and form of a telegram and subverts it to create a moving statement on mortality. The repetition of the word “STOP” — a direct allusion to the telegram form which would use this word to signal the end of a phrase or sentence — is expected given the title of the piece. Once the narrative of the poem begins to build, however, the word begins to carry with it an added sense of urgency. The practice of using “STOP” in telegrams increased during WWI in an effort towards clarity. In the context of a poem, this effort becomes less about clarity of a message and more of clarity of feeling.

Telegram to My Father – Tina Cane

YOU LOOK LIKE A GOYA STOP IN THE WATERY LIGHT STOP
CHEEKBONES SHARP SKIN THIN LIKE ONION PAPER STOP
BREATHING STOP SHALLOW STOP YOUR FINGERS FRAGILE DRUMMING
ON THE BEDSHEET STOP YOU ARE MOVING YOUR LIPS STOP TRYING
TO RIDE THE TIDE OF MORPHINE DRIP STOP UNCLE MARTY IS ON THE PHONE
MANIC IN STATEN ISLAND STOP PLEADING “YOU DECIDE YOU DECIDE”
JUST BELOW A SHOUT STOP THE FLUIDS I SAY STOP “WHY NOT ME?”
YOU ONCE QUIPPED “STOP” I SAID “WHY?” YOU SAID END

*

Happy pulsing!

José

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Small Fires

by Jose Angel Araguz

Giveaway ends August 10, 2017.

See the giveaway details
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microreview & interview: Tina Cane’s Once More With Feeling

cane cover 2

review by José Angel Araguz

A Minor History of the East Village – Tina Cane

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

Nocturne: Ludlow Street – Tina Cane

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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by Jose Angel Araguz

Giveaway ends August 10, 2017.

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* microreview & interview: jeff sirkin’s travelers aid society

After having done a couple of “microreview & interviews” for the Cincinnati Review blog, I have decided to incorporate the form into The Friday Influence. Essentially, I’ll highlight a couple of poems as well as responses from the poet to a question or two specifically about influences. My goal remains centered on sharing things I’ve read and want to share with the community of readers of this blog, as well as to promote specific poets and be a poetry ambassador in general.

I plan to do one microreview & interview about every two months, posting on Mondays typically, except for this first one which I wanted to highlight today.

Below is the first official TFI microreview & interview featuring Jeff Sirkin’s Traveler’s Aid Society.

suitcase

Another Repair – Jeff Sirkin

How long will I wait at the garage
knowing the seals are shot
and thinking about the plumber
again with his hand out
always on his way?

We’re entering a dark place
but can’t we just stand
with the company to whom
we’ve committed ourselves?

And someone turns up
the ever-present television
(a bad plot device I think),
Cable News like an epidemic
blaring the failure of the new
administration to eliminate Mexico
The mechanic wiping his hands
Maybe if you changed the filter
every once in a while, he shrugs,
you’d have a chance

But I’m not, I assure him,
one to play the odds
unless you count the Folger’s coffee
burning away in its pot all morning
a product of Proctor and Gamble
my hometown’s biggest employer
a source of pride and soap.
They’ve kept the city afloat
for a century.

You must realize, he continues,
it’s hopeless. Meaning “No future,”
I translate, eyes on the TV footage
of another immigration crisis.

I’ve heard it before
and seeing as I’m not going anywhere anytime soon
I’ll hear it again.

What do you think? I ask.

Well, he offers, the coffee’s always terrible.

No, man, try to keep up,
Will I make it home?

*

I chose this poem specifically from the book because it serves as a good example of the way Sirkin is able to blend intimate intellectual insights with moments from day to day life throughout Travelers Aid Society. The language and phrasing of the second stanza, for example, is the kind of poetically charged statement that points beyond its meaning within a narrative. The words “a dark place” and “company” have their place in terms of politically conscious tone of the poem, but implied also is human company as well as the corporate type (like Proctor and Gamble mentioned later). A collection whose “home” ranges from the poet’s experiences in El Paso, Buffalo, and Cincinnati, this kind of linguistic friction works to humanize where the poet is at, mentally as much as geographically.

Waiting in the garage for something to be fixed, this speaker’s meditation is quickly colored by the “bad plot device” of a TV in the background. This self-aware move on the part of the poet does two things: 1) shows an awareness of the kind of narrative his speaker has entered, but also 2) serves to reach after a way to control and subvert that narrative. I read the way each narrative element in the poem – the waiting, the TV, the small talk between mechanic and speaker – end up tumbling together by the end as making this kind of subverting necessary. Through juxtaposition of thought, detail, and dialogue, the poem itself seems to be trying to respond to the urgency behind the speaker’s words at the end when he says, “try to keep up.”

This feeling of trying to keep up via poetic means remains constant throughout the collection. What the poems try to keep up with for the most part is history, both in terms of personal memory and the history forgotten/neglected in documents and archives. The title poem, included below, is a good example of the way these two sides of history can be in dialogue in a poem. In the crucible of the poem, memory and archives help create a space outside themselves that allows for history to move beyond its own established narratives.

Travelers Aid Society – Jeff Sirkin

The hill falls, the daily paper shrinks.
In the kitchen Dad laments the collapse
of state funding for public institutions
and calls out headlines over morning
cereal. “Smog Alert in Effect.” “Streetcar
Called Waste of Taxpayer Money.”
We chew on our toasted oats
and pretend the coffee’s better
because of the new machine.

I remark on the efficiency of the
shower drain, the empty gates
at the shuttered airport terminal, my research
plan for the Historical Society library.

The coffee demands empathy.
The meteorologist predicts
more of the same. Dad claims
he speaks from self-interest.

“Youth Police Cadets in Training.”
“Drought Cited in Fireworks Ban.”
“Bankrupt Airline asks Fed to Assume Responsibility
for Pension Promises.”

Call it my empire of repurposed
paper. My network of convenience packaging.
My ruin in reverse.

At the research library I search for traces
of Jeff Davis, the self-proclaimed King of the Hoboes,
but find outdated property maps and lectures
lamenting the great surplus of excellent projects
seeking capital.

I search for The Jungle Scout. The Hobo News Review.
The Travelers Aid Society.

I find a scale model of the old baseball stadium
and snap a photo from high-above the left field fence,
but no one cares to comment.

I read about railroad speed, railroad case,
and railroad convenience. I find notes
from shareholders meetings
of a hundred defunct railroad companies.
Danville and Pottsville. Greenville and Miami.
Sunbury and Erie. Hillsborough and Cincinnati.

The first in the West is the Little Miami,
incorporated 1836, completed 1846. It runs
along its namesake river on the east side of town
north to Springfield, surviving
as a corporation until 1981, when it is
merged out of existence, the dormant rails ripped
from their beds, the right-of-way developed
into a bike trail.

The museum laughs. The archive
pleads for mercy. I make an offer
to the stationary loop
of the evening commute.

Billie Holiday sings,
“I’ve been around the world in a plane,
settled revolutions in Spain,
the north pole I have charted,
but can’t get started with you.”

Out on the interstate
three black me balance
against the highway embankment
hacking weeds and sowing seed aggregate
to arrest the sliding soil.

Over their heads the sagging fence beckons,
the family-friendly chain restaurant glowing
just out of reach.

*

Influence Question: There is an interest in the title poem and elsewhere with researching hobo culture. Can you speak a little about this interest as well as the overall political framework of this book?

toddler-town-bw-smallJeff Sirkin: “My interest in hobo culture emerged from several things. One of these was Kerouac’s On the Road, which I’ve taught a number of times over the past several years, and which, despite its flaws, I continue to find compelling. Among other things, the novel creates a spectrum of different character types found “on the road” (from commuters, to tourists, to college students on summer adventures, to itinerant workers). Of these, hoboes are regarded as the most pure, having achieved almost a state of grace in their rootless wandering. As if, having committed themselves to the road (and thus movement) instead of some tenuous dream of property and “home,” they’ve separated themselves from the consumer capital/ industrial/ modern world, and thus exist almost as holy ghosts, skirting the edges of our reality and perception, visible only to those open to seeing beyond the reality of workaday life. Free, in a sense of the ideological frames and boundaries refracted in and through our bodies as our daily lives and dreams.

“Secondly, in April 2011, just as I was really getting started on this book, a friend of mine from Cincinnati—a musician and wanderer and free spirit—was shot and killed by a police officer in Cincinnati under confused and suspicious circumstances. I discovered only after his murder that he had lived as a hobo at one time. The idea of the hobo had already come up in some of the poems, but this incident brought to the fore some of the issues and themes I was already starting to think about: frames and boundaries; property; what “inside” is and means; what it might mean to be “outside” and what the cost to transgress that border; the structures of power that create and hold us as subjects. And this is not to forget what the cost for those who by virtue of the color of their skin or nationality or background or sexual orientation or identity or expression aren’t given the option to ‘choose’ their own relationship to culture, whose status as “outlaw” is imposed upon them from the start.

“Finally, early on as I was researching both hobo history and Cincinnati, I discovered that Cincinnati was, in the early part of the 20th century, an important locus for hoboes and hobo history. Jeff Davis—self-styled “King of the Hoboes” and founder of a chain of cheap lodging houses in cities across the U.S. called “Hotel de Gink” (“established, ran by, and for hoboes”)—was born in Cincinnati in 1883. He hit the road at the age of 13, traveled the world as a hobo, and was a leader in hobo culture, working tirelessly for hobo rights (and labor rights), founding and leading the Hoboes of America organization for many years. He died in his hometown of Cincinnati in 1968, at the age of 84. It remains curious to me, having grown up in Cincinnati and having lived there as an adult for many years, and then returning to do research there, not only that I’d never heard about Cincinnati’s hobo history, but that I couldn’t find a trace of it. Maybe it was never recorded; maybe it’s been forgotten; maybe intentionally erased. For me, it became a ghost whispering about a city that may or may not exist in the shadows of the one I think I know.

“There is a mythology surrounding hoboes and hobo culture dating back to their heyday, the turn of the last century (at least), in which hoboes represent freedom, escape, and living a heretofore unrecognized alternative existence. I was interested in that mythology, as well as its real connections to the city I was writing about. In the book it becomes a kind of limit, I think, or maybe a faulty utopian dream, a big rock candy mountain that, despite its romantic appeal, might also function to mystify us to alternative ways of thinking freedom.”

*

Final thoughts: Reading this collection, I admired how the layers of memory and fact kept being acknowledged and explored throughout. One of the poetry’s responsibilities, according to these poems, would seem to be listening in on and recording what we can of the ghosts around us. Poetry, then, can be seen as one way to resist settling for the prescribed narratives expected of us and also a means to finding one’s own path to the rest of the story.

*

Travelers Aid Society can be purchased from Veliz Books. Special thanks to Jeff Sirkin for participating in this microreview & interview! To find out more about his work, visit his site.

Happy aiding!

José