unrealing with kelly davio

In my recent microreview & interview of Kelly Davio’s It’s Just Nerves: notes on a disability (Squares & Rebels, 2017)I spoke of her essays being driven by “a voice capable of insight and snark, as well as compelling honesty.” These three elements are in full effect in one of Davio’s recent poetry projects, a series of poems focused on the persona called the Unreal Woman. Through this persona, Davio brings together these same elements from her nonfiction essays to create a fulcrum to dig further into her experiences as a woman with a disability.

While the persona of the Unreal Woman takes center stage in Davio’s upcoming poetry collection, The Book of the Unreal Woman (Salmon Poetry, 2019), she is also an influence throughout the essays of It’s Just Nerves, as can be seen in the following from “Strong is the New Sexy”:

The product of a generation of girls who grew up with the specter of anorexia stalking our friends and siblings, I was told that “real women have curves” as though it were a mantra.

Our elders were trying. They wanted to flip the arbitrary concept of thin-body beauty on its ear. They wanted us to find self-acceptance, but when they tried to scare us with photos of undernourished bodies and with cautionary tales of the dangers of disordered eating, we learned that being skinny was one more way in which we could fail—one more way our bodies could be repellant.

With the onset of a progressive neuromuscular disease several years ago, my body’s relationship with solid food became a complicated one. I was never a curvy woman to begin with, but with each of the more feminine attributes I’ve lost, I’ve become, I am given to understand, less and less of a real woman.

I wonder at what point I will become unreal altogether.

davioIn the poem below, Davio approaches similar ideas as here but in a more visceral manner. Where nonfiction allows for the unpacking of rhetoric in a meditative manner, poetry allows for moves that go for the jugular as much as the heart and the mind. By subverting the well-intentioned phrasing of “real women have curves” and creating the persona of the Unreal Woman, Davio pushes against the erasure of women whose experiences don’t fit into the neatness of this phrase’s logic.

This poem brought to mind Anne Sexton, in specific her poem “Her Kind.” Through the imaginative and interrogative space created by the Unreal Woman persona, Davio evokes some of what and who is left out of the “real women” conversation, and invites it in with the conviction of one who has been “her kind.”

Real Women – Kelly Davio
—“Real Women Have Curves”

They fit in size-Q panty hose, we’re told.
Their volume fills the special-order bras
built wide enough about the lacey bands
to suggest a well formed plentitude

in fully lined and double-lettered cups.
Real women give birth to multitudes
of Gerber-blonde babies in a continual
swell and retraction not unlike that

of a latex balloon, so quick to snap back
to size. Real women, after all, work out.
They repeat a mantra: healthy is the new,
but forget what was old. They raise dumbbells

and celebrate themselves. They know
what would fix you, Unreal Woman, disposing
of your sharps in the bright orange canister.
They have tut-tutted you, unreal woman,

when bottled prescriptions spill forth
from your open purse. They have watched you,
unreal woman, vertiginous and clutching
for the staircase handrail or shuffle-stepping

with a limp, your slacks dangling from meatless
hips, from bony kneecaps. And under the Lasik
clarity of their vision, Unreal Woman, you
become small as they expand, claim the space

you were never meant to occupy. They start
with your hair, thinning from steroids,
and thread it out by the root. They nibble
at the keratin of your fingernails, roll skin

from your limbs like wet paper, knock
your bones together in a jaunty tune.
Seconds are all it takes to absorb you.
Real women, they eat your heart out.

*

For more about Davio and the Unreal Woman poems, check out this 2016 interview and poetry feature at Easy Street. Also, visit her site here.

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suggesting via thomas lux

This week’s poem, “Empty Pitchforks” by Thomas Lux, does a great job of making suggestion a lyrical engine. Diving off the epigraph “There was poverty before money,” the poem begins an engaging game of evoking poverty and lack through the subjects it engages. In doing so, Lux is able to move poverty from abstraction to concrete reality.

pitchforksThe title phrase, empty pitchforks, begins this work by suggesting a specific image and meaning. To think of pitchforks alone is one thing; to have the added word “empty,” which implies its opposite and brings to mind the states of holding and lacking, is to have the image colored by suggestion. Through the quick work of juxtaposition, the tines of pitchforks become all the more sharply rendered (pun intended via “sharply,” btw).

This work of suggestion gains momentum as the poem continues, down to the action of the last line which drives home poverty as not only a material but spiritual dearth.

Empty Pitchforks – Thomas Lux

There was poverty before money.”

There was debtors’ prison before inmates,
there was hunger prefossil,

there was pain before a nervous system
to convey it to the brain, there existed

poverty before intelligence, or accountants,
before narration; there was bankruptcy aswirl

in nowhere, it was palpable
where nothing was palpable, there was repossession

in the gasses forming so many billion … ;
there was poverty—it had a tongue—in cooling

ash, in marl, and coming loam,
thirst in the few strands of hay slipping

between a pitchfork’s wide tines,
in the reptile and the first birds,

poverty aloof and no mystery like God
its maker; there was surely want

in one steamed and sagging onion,
there was poverty in the shard of bread

sopped in the final drop of gravy
you snatched from your brother’s mouth.

from New and Selected Poems: 1975-1995

artificing with denise levertov

Poems have a way of changing the things around us, allowing us to reconcile with and reimagine them at the same time. In this week’s poem, “The Wedding Ring” by Denise Levertov, a wedding ring goes from being listed among forgotten things in a basket to being seen for what else it could become. Along the way, the speaker goes into what the ring has meant up to this point.

metal-ring-1152237_960_720What occurs in this mix of looking backward and forward is an evocation of the personal meaning of the wedding ring; this evocation isolates the ring, and allows for an imaginative distance. The “artificer” imagined towards the end who is able to re-work the ring strikes me as a metaphor for the poet. In poems, we work “simple gifts” out of the materials of a fleeting existence.

The Wedding Ring – Denise Levertov
My wedding-ring lies in a basket
as if at the bottom of a well.
Nothing will come to fish it back up
and onto my finger again.
                                      It lies
among keys to abandoned houses,
nails waiting to be needed and hammered
into some wall,
telephone numbers with no names attached,
idle paperclips.
                      It can’t be given away
for fear of bringing ill-luck
                      It can’t be sold
for the marriage was good in its own
time, though that time is gone.
                      Could some artificer
beat into it bright stones, transform it
into a dazzling circlet no one could take
for solemn betrothal or to make promises
living will not let them keep? Change it
into a simple gift I could give in friendship?

seeing with jennifer met

One of the great pleasures of writing reviews is catching onto things that poems do when they live together in a book. By “things” I mean, of course, the standard fare of themes, symbols, imagery, etc., but also something for which I am learning/discovering the technical terms for. In teaching, I often use the words engine or guiding principle, words that imply the mechanical and structural. Yet, what these words point to in my own use is more in tune with intuition.

galleryIn my recent microreview & interview of Jennifer Met’s compelling chapbook Gallery Withheld (Glass Poetry Press), I center my discussion around two visual poems whose layout on the page become another aspect to explored by reading. Through the visual poem form, one is able to guide text in the same way a spoken word or slam poet is able to command attention via vocal tone and gesture. Because of the presence of visual poems in Met’s collection, I couldn’t help but pay attention to the other poems that were more traditionally lineated. As a reader, these other poems became charged with importance, evoking a number of new questions: How is the vision of the collection different in these non-visual poems versus the visual poems? Where is the line drawn between what is on the surface a visual poem and what is, in my imperfect terms, a more traditionally lineated poem?

In answer to this last question, I present the poem “Collaboration” below whose presence on the page could be said to have a foot in both visual and lineated ideas of poetry. The poem is a complex ekphrastic that sneaks up on you; that is, the speaker goes from contemplating a photograph of the aftermath of an earthquake to the cover of an issue of The New Yorker. This move comes naturally, and what develops in the speaker’s meditation are images of a crack in the ground. These images are evoked, in part, by the visual layout of the lines of the poem. But beyond this, the meditation advances in such a deft manner, that what the reader is left with is not only an image but a way of imaging and imagining. This poem, for me, is at the conceptual heart of the collection because of the way it creates an engine out of seeing with which the reader is invited to see “the flowers float seemingly at random” at the end. These flowers are both an image and a motion. While there is so much seeing done in Gallery Withheld, it is done via poems which invite the reader to “collaborate” in the seeing, an interaction that is its own distinct poetic accomplishment.

Collaboration – Jennifer Met

for Christoph Niemann and Françoise Mouly

When I was young I saw a photograph
of a fence after an earthquake
where its man-made border was interrupted
as one half was heaved forward and
one half was pulled back leaving a large gap
like a warped spring—a latch
that can’t quite be forced close or like someone
painting a line down the right
side of a large and invisible street fell
asleep and when they woke up
they accidentally resumed their drawing
on the left side instead—the width
of a street—a common ground—a public right
of way owned and maintained
by the city—now left unconnected and you
couldn’t see where the earth ground
against itself sliding or where it rippled
like a blanket being shaken
because there wasn’t a mark and wasn’t a rift–
wasn’t a scar in the grass—and I
always associated this image with earthquakes so much
so that now the New Yorker’s cover
illustration reminds me of an earthquake fissure
the leafless cherry branch like lightning
slightly off-centre and striking upon the left-hand
side of the page where trefoils blossom pink
and loose petals drift back and up and I think
how the artist’s editor was right
to change the background color of this dark
crack canyoning up the beautifully clean
white—too obvious—to a new version of a branch
drawn black against black—unseen–

and the flowers float seemingly at random…

*

Happy seeing!

José

blues, song, & sea: amiri baraka

The distance between the list poem and the ode varies. A list poem, for one, implies attention, if not praise. Yet, the act of listing is the act of making space and placing importance on a subject. Odes, which are made up of mainly attention and praise, also create an empathic space for readers. Whenever I begin to see a list occurring in a poem, I take it as a cue to listen/watch closely: something is being paid attention to in an engaged manner.

In this week’s poem, “Legacy” by Amiri Baraka, what is listed is a series of actions: sleeping, growling, stumbling, frowning, etc. There is a momentum generated in this listing of actions that embodies the tortured tone of the speaker. I call it a “tortured tone” but not a passive one; what this list of actions brings attention to is the act of evocation made possible by song. This speaker goes on to tell us that “(the old songs / lead you to believe)” in the sea. To expand on this logic: Songs, which exist on the air, can create hope, illusion, feelings, etc. out of the very air that holds them.

This poem is dedicated to “Blues People,” and what these people mean to the speaker can be felt through this listing and attention to action. This list itself becomes like the sea, existing in motion as long as the poem is read.

Legacy – Amiri Baraka

(For Blues People)

In the south, sleeping against
the drugstore, growling under
the trucks and stoves, stumbling
through and over the cluttered eyes
of early mysterious night. Frowning
drunk waving moving a hand or lash.
Dancing kneeling reaching out, letting
a hand rest in shadows. Squatting
to drink or pee. Stretching to climb
pulling themselves onto horses near
where there was sea (the old songs
lead you to believe). Riding out
from this town, to another, where
it is also black. Down a road
where people are asleep. Towards
the moon or the shadows of houses.
Towards the songs’ pretended sea.

from Black Magic (Bobbs-Merrill, 1969)

one more from jennifer maritza mccauley

scar on scar offIn my recent microreview & interview of Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s Scar On / Scar Off (Stalking Horse Press), I noted the recurring themes of witness and presence throughout the poems. These themes are not mutually exclusive in the poems, rather, they exist side by side, creating meaningful friction and nuanced depths. Today’s poem, “Some Advice,” is also from McCauley’s collection and is  a good example of these creative engines at work.

In the poem below, a speaker recounts the “advice” given to them by a man. The move to relate the man’s statement not in his voice via quotes, but instead through the narrative framework of “He says” allows for a distance that disrupts the power of what is said while at the same creating a space in which what is said can be interrogated. The man’s statements, which are charged with danger, threat, gender stereotypes and double standards, are braided with the speaker’s inner responses.

These inner responses trouble the already troubled conceit that these statements are “advice.” The true nature of the man’s statements is unfurled throughout the movements of the poem. From the first stanza’s misguided take on accountability which shames the speaker and their physical presence (“your joyful teeth are enough to / jail you in consequence”), to the admonishment and threat of the last lines, witness and presence work together to evoke the mortal threat this speaker lives under in society and also subverts that threat into a poem that forges awareness out of lived experience.

Some Advice – Jennifer Maritza McCauley

He says you have it coming
because you smile
too-big at the Papis and gals and no matter
the meaning behind that smile, baby,
your joyful teeth are enough to
jail you in consequence.

He says whatever happens
when he releases me into the wet night
after a weird beer or somekinda wine
is my own fault, that I can’t blame my
body-losses on the black city or briny Caribbean
night.

He says that’s your problem –
the happy in your front teeth,
the way your purpl’d hips coil and flick,
it doesn’t matter if you see themboys spirit
before body, themboys don’t see
spirits and yes, babygirl:
they are looking at you.

He says what I should see first
is men-eyes and lusty sweat bundled
on men-foreheads and he says
if I wear shortskirtstightjeans and themboys
reach out and snatch me from red alleys,
that’s on me. And by the way, he says,
if you don’t bite hard enough
when they catch you, baby,
you’re a fucking whore.

*

Scar On / Scar Off can be purchased from Stalking Horse Press.

seeking with lorna dee cervantes

Where last week’s poem by Francisco X. Alarcón evoked ideas of presence, this week’s poem, “Freeway 280” by Lorna Dee Cervantes, is driven by self-exploration and self-seeking. Often these themes are approached in poems in loud ways, in declarative statements and pronouncements. In the poem below, the speaker of the poem meditates on the environment around her.

The listing in the second stanza, in particular, moves in a way that points back to the speaker’s sensibility. Amidst the trees “left standing” in the yards she can see, the speaker observes “viejitas” (old women) who come and collect greens and herbs. This juxtaposition of the natural with the human imbues both with a sense of survival.

apricot-orchard-261479_960_720The self-exploration/seeking takes on a literal turn as the speaker scrambles over a fence to get closer to “los campos extraños de esta ciudad” (the strange fields of this city). Once there, the speaker continues to keep an eye on what is present, and, in doing so, evokes their own presence. That this presence is made up of seeking makes it all the more compelling; at the heart of lyric poetry lies such seeking, such presence.

Freeway 280 – Lorna Dee Cervantes

Las casitas near the gray cannery,
nestled amid wild abrazos of climbing roses
and man-high red geraniums
are gone now. The freeway conceals it
all beneath a raised scar.

But under the fake windsounds of the open lanes,
in the abandoned lots below, new grasses sprout,
wild mustard remembers, old gardens
come back stronger than they were,
trees have been left standing in their yards.
Albaricoqueros, cerezos, nogales . . .
Viejitas come here with paper bags to gather greens.
Espinaca, verdolagas, yerbabuena . . .

I scramble over the wire fence
that would have kept me out.
Once, I wanted out, wanted the rigid lanes
to take me to a place without sun,
without the smell of tomatoes burning
on swing shift in the greasy summer air.

Maybe it’s here
en los campos extraños de esta ciudad
where I’ll find it, that part of me
mown under
like a corpse
or a loose seed.

from Emplumada (University of Pittsburgh Press)

*

Happy seeking!

José