1.

Being a total smartass who brings mockery and irreverence, at least in some small degree, to almost everything I do, I found myself at first, um, rather humbled by Lourdes Figueroa’s yolotl, the latest chapbook from Spooky Actions Books.   Reading yolotl is not a humorous experience. Because yolotl is the story of a murder (a literal murder, certainly, but perhaps in some sense a figurative murder as well) and an elegy to a murdered woman. Because yolotl is a thirty-eight page multilingual dreamscape of rage, sadness, history, addiction, love, sex, personal and collective memory, legend, violence, with even an occasional splash of journalistic objectivity, all coalescing around the figure of a woman’s / women’s  violently misused and discarded body / bodies against the backdrop of the Mexican-American border.  (The fates of a pregnant migrant worker and illegal immigrants figure in heavily as well, in addition to that of a drug mule.)  In other words, if Weeds were LOL, then yolotl is #shitjustgotreal.  (Okay, Weeds was more of a ‘dramedy’ than pure, laugh-out-loud comedy, but it definitely included a lot of ‘hi-jinks,’ so hopefully you see my point.  There is nothing even remotely ridiculous about yolotl.)

The language in yolotl [‘Yolotl’ literally “heart” in the Nahuatl language spoken by the Aztecs, but according to an online urban dictionary I consulted, also “a sweet, caring, nice, and smart girl”] glistens as viscerally as an organ in the body.  Check out this fast rush:

let us believe   in the shoot of the wheat in the budding poppy    hoy le ruego   que me

recuerde in a palpitation i dreamed of us walking through rows of apple orchards

i held a hoe you kissed my upper lip gave me a gun we danced a valse we bowed

and prayed    the earth reeked of coal under the cold moon you stuck your tongue

in my ear

put the barrel to your heart sin canción held out your hand full of maiz amigo entre

sus granos nos buscamos alli    the trigger pulling the finger to point the barrel

voice soft in my eyes

There’s no other way to say this: Figueroa’s language, which I choose to read at a slow breakneck pace, makes my heart beat faster and has all the velocity of a bullet traveling through an idea.  And yet, despite the violent image of “gun” and “put the barrel to your heart,” there also exists genuine tenderness in this passage—“‘voice soft in my eyes,” not to mention the dream of the apple orchard.   What the speaker examines here may in fact be the nature of love (and of memory) itself.  Sure, it’s dreamy alright, but it’s also fraught with real danger.  We may go down “sin canción” (without a song).  We may have to beg to be remembered (“hoy le ruego    que me recuerde”).  This passage comes towards the beginning of the chapbook, and sets us up perfectly for what I believe is one of its  central themes—the speaker or speakers in yolotl are asking us to remember what might otherwise remain invisible.  (I’ll write more about this later.)  Also, what we find in this passage, and throughout the entirety of the chapbook, is lyric intensity that tells a story, hell, many, many stories.  Personally, I love when this happens.

2.

“everything is    a poem   say yolotl”

What strikes me about some of the figures in yolotl, is that they don’t seem to experience particularly good luck—and that’s a huge understatement.  They’re on what we might consider the wrong side of the border, the wrong side of economics, the wrong side of gender.  (Of course, I use the term ‘wrong’ here not to denote ‘bad’ or ‘of lesser human worth,’ but rather ‘without as much power as the so-called ‘right’ side.’)  And while much of the action in yolotl takes place in what may be perceived as a foreign country, or at least in ‘foreign’ territory that will remain unexplored in practice by me, one version of the average American reader of poetry [this version, in particular, happens to come from a white, middle class background], yolotl, in its entirety, reads like an invitation, maybe even a challenge.   At first I even experience momentary confusion—will I step away from the proverbial window and become more than a mere voyeur—voyeurism would accentuate that distance and ‘foreignness’ I mentioned earlier—or will I descend into a page-turning stupor, experiencing horror perhaps—because terrible things are described in these pages—but also perhaps never understanding what I believe is the true tone of yolotl?  [Anyone who’s ever gone dull after being caught up in one of those endless Law & Order: SVU marathons on USA may know what I’m talking about here.]  In the words of Figueroa, I feel as if:

I don’t know    how to    genuflect    the word bends me    I walk    my

legs move    we move across borders    we are    wide open

But reading yolotl ensures that I rise to this very challenge.   Because yolotl is angry and sad and loving and asks me to care.  Perhaps it is the fragmented nature of much of the language in these pages that in and of itself ensures my participation.  Here, physical space is a “wide open” door, yet “in the pores of our bodies we are not that far apart.”

We are and we aren’t.  In language of urgency and tension, a story emerges, piece by broken piece.  And that story is one of yolotl rising, despite what happens, as a great, possibly mythical mother figure:

she scattered    her self   making   mothers upon mothers

each and every one containing   her rhythms   and she

danced   making drums of their   skins   and she looked

at her self   in them   and saw their   skins gleam   like

the dark   oceans   and   the stars

And thus the act of writing / speaking breaks silence, ensures visibility, elongation, life.  The act of being, of creating is, in the end, perhaps the best revenge.

3.

Everything is a poem.

Consider this: a narrative told in fragments that compose a body of work only to explain how that pre-established body cannot possibly continue to exist within the established parameters.

The fact that this body cannot continue is rendered in language that throbs and pings , once again, like an accelerated heartbeat.  Check this out:

her lips she presses her lungs into the feathers nahuatl does not speak we do

not speak two carry the line separate the olive trees from the almond trees

clumping soil the hoe splin- ters into her flute there is more to the esophagus

than you think the belly emerging as we inhale there is no skin to dream as the

voices of hers migrate al norte they want to say we have sung this

before the sun of the suns the mountain almost built five more

vagus sin nombre el vagabundo into the plump of the lettuce

head beheading her nameis the same as yours the plate is

full roots un earthen ing pesticide in her liver we are

fumigating each other the distances cirrhosis

reaches so far there is no window

in her eyes her throat is soft

he breaks the hyoid

hides her under

the seven caves

Beginning with long lines and lungs and proceeding to mid-length lines outlining a slow poisoning through pesticide and ending with short lines and a strangling, this section serves to illuminate just how easily ‘body’ peters out, that even a very specific body can become a disposable object to be hidden away out of sight.

Now consider this: as we can see from above, ‘body’ doesn’t refer to some intangible, ethereal concept but rather to the flesh and blood body of a young woman.  Or maybe it would be more accurate to write, “the body of young women,” because plurality / multiple strands exist plentifully in this chapbook.  Some of the narrative strands in yolotl refer to a drug mule, perhaps, others to a pregnant migrant worker, not to mention to the now decomposing and almost completely unidentifiable body found “by a child selling chiclets in the fifth cave of the seven caves a tourist site near a tiny village northeast of Sonora that is also part of the president’s property…”  This nearly-a-sentence comes near the end of the chapbook and the almost harsh objectivity of the journalistic style differs starkly from what precedes and follows it.  (In fact, the text on this page appears laid out like a newspaper article.)  That the child presumably sells chiclets to the tourists and that the body is found on the property of one so privileged and exulted as the president only serves to highlight that the central body/bodies in question in yolotl are commodities to be consumed and then thrown away, not unlike a used piece of chewing gum.  The tragedy that is central to yolotl seems at least partly to be the idea that those in power will always have the power to secure more chewing gum (if you’ll let me extend the metaphor).  Consequently, the fate of the powerless is not only brutal but also anonymous.  But  in my mind, the inherent mission of  Figueroa’s chapbook isn’t necessarily to put names to faces, but rather to confront the brutality and sadness of anonymity head on.  And by sewing language to subject, by evoking strong emotion with strong language, Figueroa creates an altogether new body—a deeply-layered body at that—in and of itself in order to mark and honor the experience of the unnamed characters that populate the chapbook.

*

Addendum (but keep in mind that this has nothing to do with the writing itself, but rather with my feelings of inadequacy as a reader): I don’t speak, read, or write Spanish.  I admit that I am obsessive enough that I tried to translate every single word of that language in this text. Sometimes, I found this illuminating, at other times confusing.  I didn’t know what to make of my own inability to intellectually understand the complete content of a text I was reviewing, i.e., supposed to be analyzing.   When I did finally step out of review mode, I found myself caught up in something that was much larger than my own comprehension, in fact, even incantatory.  This in turn created a tensile friction that was both dreamlike and visceral, which only added to my enjoyment of the book.  In ending, I’d like to share a quote about multilingual writers from the University of Arizona Poetry Center website (thanks to Craig Santos Perez for posting on his FB page):

“Where some forces work to shut down, seal off, and contain, multilingual writers work to expand, forge links and refresh: like language itself.”

And indeed, the overall project of Lourdes Figueroa’s yolotl is one of reaching out, of joining present with past, and of giving new voice to those whose voices have been cut off.  Highly recommended.

1. SHE FILLS UP BLANK MOMENTS WITH WHAT YOUR MIND COULD BE THINKING BUT MAYBE ISN’T BUT MIGHT NOW AFTER YOU READ HER POEMS

I love epigraphs.  Epigraphs are awesome.  If well-chosen, they indicate to the reader an inkling of the space the book will fill.  Well, on the first page of Mortar (Omnidawn Books), we find a quote from Barbara Guest: “I feel blank moments / and I feel sorry for them.”  What follows is a quiet, thoughtful group of poems, that although are each excellent in their own right when read individually, weave in and out of each other to create sequence and consistency.   In elegant, controlled language that is nonetheless occasionally fraught with danger (“In a sleep / you invent the weapon I touch you with,” from “Repose”), Mumolo establishes: 1) the existence of a self (this should not ever be taken for granted), but in this case a ‘self’ whose understanding of its own position alters in the face of an examination of its own standing (“privilege”): and 2) that perhaps the only possible cure for the blankness Guest invokes is to begin the occasionally arduous task of examining what else besides the self does exist. Throughout Mortar, Mumolo, as the poet, pushes and pulls her speaker, in the process pushing and pulling language across the space of the page to create tension between content and ‘blankness.’  Her speaker finds meaning even as she questions, sometimes stumbling against boundaries: “What mattered was / I was practicing life / then land stopped thinking” (from “March”).

2. THE SPEAKER EXAMINES WHAT MIGHT BE A TREND AMONG MEN/MALE ARTISTS/MALE WRITERS TO APPROPRIATE THE EXPERIENCE OF WOMANHOOD FOR THEIR OWN PURPOSES

(I was going to say “nefarious purposes,” but I realized that would be projecting and therefore not fair to the work in question.)

A couple of key examples: In “In Regard To,” the speaker states, “It is popular for me as a man / to introduce himself / as a woman in this feeling.”  Interestingly enough, the next two lines read: “When my fingers make an L figure / a gun on a temple.”  Although Mumolo’s poetry doesn’t necessarily follow logic as I learned it, there do seem to be a lot of what I would call associative leaps.  Is it so hard to imagine that the thought of a man presenting himself as female for the sake of popularity might irk a member of the female of the species, whose own experiences as woman have so often been marginalized in life and in art?  How many of us haven’t pretended to blow out our brains by placing two fingers to our temples on occasion or another, out of distress or irritation?  But I would argue that there’s far more going on here in the juxtaposition of these lines.  There’s an absorption of shock taking place, as a result of the appropriation of experience and narcissism on the part of the male in question that actually threatens the continued existence, the veracity, of the female speaker’s existence.  Here, the shock is expressed in mimicry, the creation of a flesh-and-blood gun.   Elsewhere, for example in “Decentralization of Easement,” a taut, crisp prose poem, the speaker remarks upon, “Men having babies in their paintings.  Babies history arrests outside of my museum, which is her museum.  I sing into its building, unharvested with echo.  Tone on sleeve.  She’s as lonely as the rest of us, she says.  And wears it, disdainfully.”  While reading this, my brain makes its own associative leaps, and I can almost imagine the “tone on sleeve” as ink toner, as the byproduct of ‘manning’ some gigantic printer that spews out predetermined and contorted images/versions of femaleness.  In fact, the speaker address this in the lines that follow: “I put my cheek on the frame to cool my eyes.  You say you’re writing this one as a woman uncomfortable with failure.  I am breathing this one as a failure comforting her.”  (Emphasis in the original.)  In the end, the female viewer refuses to accept the image that the male artist has proffered.  One might argue that even the female image disagrees with herself (“And wears it, disdainfully.”).  This sense of disagreement, of questioning image, segues nicely into a discussion of another great thing about Mortar.

3. THE NUDE SERIES

As Brian Teare has suggested in the introduction to phrases/fragments: an anthology (Sustenance Press, 2011) where some of the Nude poems first appeared—full disclosure, I also have poems in this anthology—“When a woman writes a series of “Nudes,” she participates in an explicitly feminist epistemology, given that a ‘nude’ invokes both the long misogyny of art history and women artists’ and theorists’ recent interventions into that history.”  [ Series is a loose word though.  These Nude poems–a mere five in total, but they pack a punch–are scattered through the book’s first section and serve to thread the section together as a whole—for example, right before “Middle Nude,” there’s a poem called, “Not a Mask of Immodesty.”  The connection here is almost tactile.]  “Third Nude” comes first, and perhaps appropriately begins with the lines, “We could be nothing but interruptions / moon-colored snow  / if class can belong to a body…”  Motherhood and childhood are discussed, the Nude as mother / daughter / child (archetype?), but the voice of the poem remains fully adult.  [Later in the series, Mumolo invokes the first nude (and, I suppose, the first mother) of all, Eve, and later Eve’s temptation, which of course then caused her to grow ashamed of her own nudity after eating from the Tree of Knowledge.]  In “Left Nude,” the poet writes:

“Flexible architecture of belonging    to someone /we disinter ourselves           as the moon / what does the moon do / where illusion reigns / my body is BOOMING / the main ability of a nude is how her figure triumphs / when earth rehearses her irrelevance”

[The actual text floats across the page but thanks to an ill-bred combination of my idiocy and some formatting issues, I was unable to convey that here–could this just be another reason to get hold of the actual book?]

This nude is planetary, heavy.  Also, “what does the moon do” [the moon so often allied with the feminine] begs us to answer the question it poses.  If I remember correctly from elementary school science classes, the moon reflects (light).  Reflections make me think of mirrors, which do not show us what we really look like, but rather switch our left and right sides.  [Hence, those of us with asymmetrical faces look slightly different in a mirror than we do in a photograph.]  And yet despite this reflection, this illusion, we continue stubbornly as we are.  “BOOMING,” if you will.  Mumolo’s nude is claiming something back for herself. As a whole, these nudes reject their own commoditization even as they wonder just how possible it is to step out of the frame.  The effect is eerie, ethereal.

4. ‘MONEY ON IT’

Money On It, the second half of the book, also begins with a really cool epigraph from a William Bronk poem called “Memorial” that reminds us “how quickly the world changes. / The land and life are too interrupted / by the indomitable fantasy of extreme violence…”

What follows is the poet’s epigraph (memorial even?), written, perhaps, to grace the tombstone of our century so far.  We find here an examination of the intersections of capitalism, power, protest, the personal importance of literal cash money, language, beauty, and art, all as they are interrupted by images, brevities of the every day.  (As for the latter, the poem sequence includes nearly blank pages that consist entirely of fragments centered at the bottom of these pages that seem to come and go as they please, almost as if they move freely within the structure of the more sentence-based poetry of the series as a whole.)

Rather than quoting a longer passage within this review, I’m going to refer you here, to Comma, Poetry, an online journal edited by Pablo Lopez where you can get a feel for a few of the poems.

Happy reading!

(Bog Girls Gone Wild / Servilia Did It)

Bog People: (a definition).  Preserved corpses dug up usually in peat bogs left over from Iron Age Europe.  Given names like ‘Grauballe Man’ or ‘Windeby Girl,’ usually based on where the bodies are found.  Examined through archaeological processes for causes of death.  Believed to be victims of execution or human sacrifice.  Even better if you try to imagine their last days, the reasons for their deaths, etc.  (That was an archaeological process for me as well.)

 

As a child I turned chill pushing past glossy photographs in a library book of leathered, mutilated bodies with chemically induced coppery hair.  I drifted in and out of imagination to get to their individual fates, but I always gravitated especially to one fate in particular.  There is this girl with her head shaved.  She’s blindfolded.  The narrative text suspected her of committing adultery.  The Internet has lots of stories about this particular bog person, which is what the Internet was invented for, right?  And of course eminent Irish poet and Beowulf translator Seamus Heaney has vaulted the fates of the bog people and their hold on our popular imagination into the literary realm with North, his 1975 collection of poetry and especially the “little adulteress” of the poem “Punishment.”  Heaney’s poem focuses on the gaze of the would-be observer of the execution who admits, “I almost love you / but would have cast, I know, / the stones of silence.”

 

So the bog people are nothing new.  Then what’s my beef and why do I feel the need to address the treatment of this corpse here and now?  Blame the September 2007 issue of National Geographic.  But first you have to understand how I stood and took in that preserved scalp.  Any girl or woman doesn’t have to hyperextend herself to learn about the history of violence against women.  There are many sources.  The Bible.  American Psycho.  (I would argue, however, that the novel, as well as the film, is at least in part an exploration of why that violence occurs).  Or just watch a couple episodes of the HBO series Rome on DVD, especially the episode when Vorenus causes his wife’s death and curses his daughters to Hades over an adultery scandal.  As for the growing author of this article, I took the body and transgressions of ‘Windeby Girl’ and buried that body and those transgressions inside my own growing body.
There would have been this guy around my age who smiled at me when I fed the chickens or whatever Windeby girls do in their spare time in Iron Age northern Germany.  And I would have this older husband I had been delivered to for a price.  It’s called kaufehe actually, which literally means ‘bought marriage.’  And something or nothing at all would happen between myself and this young man who grins like dripping water when I pass by and HEAD SHAVED! BLINDFOLDED! BOGGED!  And that poor, beautiful youth is thrown in right after me.
As a girl growing up and as a woman who can admit to neither purity nor to depravity but simply to the strange condition of being human, all this ‘punishment’ kind of makes me think about my own time and place.  How maybe I shouldn’t take for granted my ability to commit transgressions as I see fit.  Maybe, what I took from staring at that glossy photograph of the half shaved head and the label of adulteress was simply the idea that there really could be certain absolute transgressions and it is only our growing laxness as a culture that is saving my skin.  I think that I was learning to believe that the process of a woman making her own sexual decisions was somehow illicit, deserving of voyeurism.

 

But there’s one huge problem about Windeby Girl and her adulterous nature and that boy who loved her and how she was shoved to the ground and her head shaved to signify her crime and about the psychological life I led carrying this girl and her transgression within me as a cautionary tale.  The problem is that Windeby Girl, as a recent issue of National Geographic (not just my grandfather’s favorite coffee table magazine!) makes perfectly clear, is Windeby Boy.  Not only did ‘Windeby’ not just smile at the wrong person or spread some legs, he existed perhaps in an entirely different genre of our imagination.  According to Wikipedia, someone named Heather Gill-Robinson, a professor at NDSU, can be credited with doing the DNA studies on this mummy and letting me, and countless others off the hook of imagining ourselves discovered in flagrante in a forest or a barn with someone so much cooler than who we’re supposed to be flagranting with or even just suspected of the deed and led to a peat bog as the ultimate punishment.  The last breath before the icy water.  Etcetera etcetera.
Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not trying to make light of the real tragedy of real human beings with feelings, social connections, intelligences, and desires being deprived of the rest of their natural lives because of religious beliefs promoting human sacrifice or Iron Age mores determining what crimes deserve death as a punishment.  And it’s easy to press our very human imaginations into imprints that will describe to us just a little bit of who these people were.  From National Geographic:

“. . . many bog bodies were interpreted as people in disgrace, supposedly punished with torture, execution, and burial in the bog instead of cremation, the customary Iron Age practice.  Windeby Girl, discovered in northern Germany in 1952, was said to be an adulteress whose head had been shaved in a manner described by Tacitus.  Then, researchers speculated, she was blindfolded and drowned in the bog.  A body found nearby was identified as her lover.”

So I’m not crazy.  It’s part of what we do as humans to imagine circumstances for other humans we know nothing about in order to?  Satisfy our voyeurism?  Honor their humanity?  Honor ours?  All three and then some?

°

I work in a major chain bookstore.  National Geographic sells a fair number of copies, and customers regularly ask me where the magazine is located.  I take them to the ‘Current Events’ section and there we have that familiar yellow border and all those glossy photographs.  The story in the magazine about the bog people and its discussion of Windeby ‘Girl’ is just further proof that the phenomena of these mummies dug up from peat bogs and our need to find an explanation for the causes still captivates our imagination. (The National Geographic article, for example, cites the National Museum of Ireland’s Eamonn Kelly’s theory that at least some of the bog sacrifices belong to would-be pretenders to thrones or failed kings.)  But although I have no real proof I daresay that the hoopla over Windeby ‘Girl,’ and my childhood fascination over her demise shows how we as a culture are encouraged to re-imagine ourselves into the sexual pasts of women as explanation for their behavior.
Season two of the HBO smash hit Rome on DVD is also a recent release at the bookstore where I work.  But plenty of people still come in for season one.  (The assassination of Julius Caesar occurs at the end of season one.  Season two brings us the aftermath and the rise of Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian.)  The show focuses on two “garden variety” Roman soldiers (as the Netflix slipcase calls them), the aforementioned Lucius Vorenus and his good friend and brother-in-arms, Titus Pullo, and follows their stories both preceding and following the assassination.  What do Verenus and Pullo have to do with re-imagining sex as a motive for the actions of women?  Not that much, actually.  But the series’ treatment of the character of Servilia, mother to the more famous Brutus, does offer a glimpse into how many of us still believe that old adage that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
In a nutshell: Servilia is Caesar’s lover.  Somehow or other she gets spurned.  Her anger and hatred know no boundary.  She curses the clan of the Julii.  This involves some rolled up scrap of paper being stuffed into a crack of Servilia’s nemesis’ house late at night.  Her own home offers an open door for the conspirators.  And perhaps most importantly, the series portrays her as a key player in the ongoing struggle to bring the conflicted Brutus once and for all over to the side of the conspirators.  For the republic, of course.  Never mind that Servilia never once says or does anything in the series that manages to convince this viewer that she has a ‘republican’ nature.  No, she’s just pissed at Caesar.  Because he spurned her.  Hell hath no fury, you know.  Never mind that spurn and that curse.  Never mind that Servilia is played as a woman who manages to be both chilly and seething at the same time.  No.  Brutus, my son.  She says, her voice trembling with emotion.  I am soooo proud of you.  The Republic is saved.
Some people I know don’t agree with my interpretation of Servilia’s role.  Maybe I’m missing something.  I certainly do not intend to suggest that a woman cannot have powerful political motives, whenever or wherever.  Or even that it’s entirely possible to sort out the various avenues and sources from which our motives generate and gain ground.  And I’m no fool.  I’m not going to tell you that sex, or the pursuit of sex, or the desire to maintain a sexual relationship (or romance! or friendship!) hasn’t played a sizable role in my life.  I’m not going to tell you that sex (or romance! or friendship!) hasn’t gotten me into trouble or led me into bad decisions.  But I think what I’m trying to point out is how our popular media and popular imagination seem to get transfixed on what I would call the transgressive nature of Windeby’s imagined adultery or Servilia’s spurned love.  (And not to give anything away, but just look at how Servilia ends up!)

 

As humans—as women humans—we can make the right decisions for ourselves and others without sacrificing the sexual (and romantic) aspects of who we are.  It’s like the borderline, impetuous Fatal Attraction vs. the moral and passionate Jane Eyre.  The silly, flirtatious Eva Braun who kowtows to Hitler in Downfall vs. the independent, sexy Jessica who helps bring Logan around to the other side in Logan’s Run.  I could go on.  It’s fun to go on.  I’ll just close by saying, although I probably shouldn’t because I certainly don’t want to plant any ideas, that at least now that Windeby Girl is Windeby Boy, no one can make a movie about her tragic and adulterous demise.

Which shouldn’t be misconstrued to mean that there are only ten reasons.  This collection of poetry has a lot going for it. You can buy it here, at Powell’s or here, direct from Dog on a Chain Press. Also, this list begins with endings and ends with a beginning.

1. Killer, Quiet, Deadpan Last Lines

Dena Rash Guzman knows how to end a poem.  Her last lines are loud-quiet.  Quiet-loud.  Well-crafted but rather effortless.  Heavy and weightless.  You could blow smoke through them or they could shoot you full of holes.  Maybe even both at the same time.  Her poems end and then you take a breath and then you realize the poem is over.  And that she SLAYS YOU, without ever once manipulating you emotionally.  Basically, she just tells you something fierce.  Quietly.

2. Delicious I

Maybe you don’t like poems that employ the first person singular.  Go read another book.  Or stick around and let Dena Rash Guzman blow your mind.  Because the poems here are rooted in an individual, are personal, but they’re also personable.  The I remains so utterly translucent, tethered to body (but not to a body stuck inside itself), I can wear it like a dress, take it for a walk, maybe go to the coffee shop down the street and feed that I a scone.  This I is magnanimous and allows for the reader to participate in it.  This I is at times diaphanous, as evidenced by these lines from “Life Cycle” (p.6):

I’m wood-clad, weathered
gray by snow and sun.
The lights inside my stories flicker.
The moon wanes and fills.
Phases matter little to hours
sidling through rooms,
defining and redefining
by fashion and function my trusses,
my mortise and tenon joints,
the structural frame.
I populate my space in time
as only something necessary will

and then turn around and gets specific, just two pages later, as shown here, in these lines that come at the beginning of “Life Cycle” (p.8—all the poems in Life Cycle are called “Life Cycle”):

When I was young, I was so poor
I wept like a baby in art class.
I was hungry.  Underfed.
Teacher showed us Warhol’s
32 Campbell’s Soup Cans.
I wanted to eat them all,
cheese, tomato rice, clam chowder,
right off the screen.

The I in this book is both a little kid-self thinking about food and an epic self in tune with elements, the moon.  And that, I think, is the point.  We are small and epic.  Epic and small.

3. Every Poem in Life Cycle Is Also Called “Life Cycle.”  And Yet This Never Gets gimmicky.

Every poem stays fresh.  Whether it’s a love poem, a list poem, a poem of childhood recollection, a poem evoking war, Yeti, motherhood, sex, China, Chernobyl, God, country life, soldierhood, you name it, it’s here, these poems deliver fresh insight, contain within each boundary their own unique direction.  And while Dena Rash Guzman deserves kudos for delivering on the promise of her trim, sparse, often deadpan tone, she’s also not a one-trick pony.  There’s variety of form and diction here as the reader moves through the collection—we get sinuous short lines, winding long lines, sentence fragments, prose poems, couplets.  And yet I’m always here in the poem I’m reading now.  Right now I’m rereading “Life Cycle” (p46), “to Tim, who nearly died today,” which includes the following lines:

Sun like a vowel,
pancakes and departure,
a dawn of truth, farewell at the door,
bus after car.  It goes and goes on.

That’s another point of the book, I think.  “It goes and goes on.”

4. Great Love Poems

“Life Cycle” (p26) is probably one of my favorite poems in the book.  It brims over with beautiful pith and spare light and includes brief explications of Courtship, Pregnancy, and Domesticity.  Another poem in the book contains the line, “What breeds in us is dirty and clean,” and that applies to this poem too.  Because “I like white porcelain.  You hate chips. /  I drop dishes when I get upset.  / …We smell like love together.”  Yeah.  That pretty much sums up love if you ask me.

5. Great List Poems

I’m particularly partial to the one on page 41, although (spoiler alert) I love Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

6. Exquisite Example of Rhyme

I was at a poetry reading recently where a poet was using end-rhyme and the poem seemed very contrived and sing-songy.  After I got home, I poured myself a cold beverage and glared at my rhyming dictionary for about five minutes.  I’m of the opinion that I’m not a big fan of end rhyme.  Internal rhyme sure, but end rhyme, no.  And yet Dena Rash Guzman employs end rhyme so effortlessly, in just the right dose, that she snuck right past my prejudice.  Here’s an example of how she embeds the rhyme within her stanza in such a way that the lines pulse with energy, push right into the next line:

I am broke and unhinged.  Gravedigger dirty.
Tinpot as a skinned raccoon.  Fat carton of spoiled milk.
I am just a beggarly man on the lam, up a staircase,
a flat-footed cop waddling in chase.
Criminal on the roof, he yells.  Come down!
I can’t give up now.
I can’t afford the ticket.

(“Life Cycle” p38)

These lines flex muscle and don’t end with the rhyme but rather pull weight.

7. Exquisite Examples of Rhythm

Dena Rash Guzman employs a natural rhythm in her poetry that lulls me, as the reader, awake.  She puts words in the right place.

8. Life Cycle Lives up to its Epigraphs

“To be.” We get this as we pass over the first otherwise blank page of the book.  Then comes “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum,” dog Latin for “don’t let the bastards grind you down,” and quoted from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, followed by “Skin ‘em alive, and leave them along the trail,” a quote from Bazzel Bumgarden, a personage who remains somewhat mysterious to me.  This is an auspicious beginning that promises poetry that will cut and whittle and make its point with a sharp knife.  Life Cycle delivers.

9. Life Cycle Appeals to My Past As A Feral Child

Enough said.

10. This Book Begins with A Poem about Shipwreck

Whether real or metaphorical, a shipwreck is like life.  Everyone who traverses the ocean knows that we, we who traverse the ocean, are the ocean’s bitch.  The ocean is majestic, powerful, at times ferocious, always to be respected, sometimes to be feared.  The ocean could kill us at any moment, as could anything in life.  What Dena Rash Guzman understands, and why I think she places this poem first in her collection, is that a shipwreck (life) signals danger to every soul on board, extends both the promise of death and the fervent hope for continued earthly existence.  That despite the danger a shipwreck (life) poses, we are all, after all, waiters who are “crying out for their mothers / as the cold drinks them to the bottom.”  AT some point our lives begin and aren’t over until they’re really over.  Life Cycle is what comes in between.

Okay, you’ve got me, this isn’t really a review.

But one of the reasons I wanted to blog my reactions to what I’m reading these days is because I often get intimidated by reviews I read in the finer literary magazines of our time.  They read like academic papers and use words like ‘dialectic’ and ‘hegemony’ a lot.

My negative reaction to those words makes me feel like the so-called, dreaded anti-intellectual and then I feel shitty about myself and not smart and also guilty for being such a terrible Scrabble player–writers are supposed to be good at Scrabble, but I suck, trust me, I have been looked upon with sheer disgust (“‘Cat?’  That is your word, Jenny Drai?  ‘Cat?’  Margery here got ‘xylophone’ and she is just an accountant.”)–and then I try to read a few pages in Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, because, you know, that’s an important book that everyone should read (it is), but I soon drop off to sleep (um, the writing is a little dry), and when I wake up, I’m like, Jenny Drai, you are so lame, you might as well just give up and join the Tea Party.  But then I thought, if I had my own blog, I could write in words that I understand.  You know, I could respond to the poetry as me.

I then promptly wrote a review of a chapbook that, I think, comes off sounding like an academic paper (the review, that is, not the chapbook).  The funny thing is, I really responded to the poetry in question (“20 Paintings by Laura Owens,” by Elaine Bleakney.)  But I dampened my enthusiasm enough to write a “proper” analysis.

As somebody who writes reasonably intelligent, engaging poetry (or so I’ve been told by enough people and editors to believe it), but who won’t be getting into MENSA anytime soon and doesn’t even qualify as the proverbial “gifted” person, I would still like to put in my two cents worth about poetry.  (I admit to having once had a lot of baggage about my perceived level of intelligence; my own mother mocked me horrifically over my SAT scores.  Now she lies about it and tells people I did better than I actually did.)

So I had all of this swimming around in my mind when I started reading “Sirenomelia,” by Sara Sutter (Dog Year, 2013)and at first I was overwhelmed because, bowled over by the writing as I was, I wasn’t exactly sure how to approach it.  And there I went down that whole, Jenny Drai, you’re so dumb, road.  But I’m not sure I am dumb.  I just feel things instead of thinking them.  So my actual reaction was more like, “Holy shit I love this and want to take a bath in it and perfume myself with this,” but then scared again because, “Holy shit it I don’t understand this in any traditional sense of the word ‘understand'” and that’s when I remembered that some poets (Pattie McCarthy being a great example), the best poets, if you ask me,  forge sense on an anvil of their own making instead of merely adhering to some preconceived notion of it and so it takes time to collect what they give you.  In “Sirenomelia,” we get a lot of layers: congenital otherness, hermaphroditism, the familiar and the supposedly monstrous, heraldry, transgenderedness, weird erasure that leaves us with half words, and a series of linked, vivid, incredibly lucid poems, all titled, “Field.”  I’ll leave you with one and come back another time to say more about the chapbook as a whole.  (You can read another poem from the book at the Dog Year web site.)

FIELD

 

For her dirty hands,

they punished my grandmother.

 

Unpainted shields on the field of honor.

At night I round up her tools–

 

chains, love, constancy, peace,

–honor them with thoughts of use.

 

In continental Europe, a dormant beast

names a heart shield.  Three leopards

 

on a stem of hearts.  She tore the boards

with her teeth.

Being an art dunce, my first thought upon examining my  copy of Elaine Bleakney’s  engaging new chapbook, “20 Paintings by Laura Owens” (now available from Dog Year, an imprint of Poor Claudia) was, “Does the figure of Laura Owens exist outside of this text?”  (You see, I had never heard of the painter Laura Owens before, or knowingly seen a single one of her paintings, and at least at the initial moment of encountering her name, I was determined not to Google her.)  The answer to my question, I learned, after pouring over the twenty-poem cycle in question (and after an eventual sojourn with the Internet), was, “Yes and No.”

In order to explore the themes that develop and run through the chapbook as a whole, it’s worthwhile to examine the actual layout of text (and just as importantly, blank space) on the page.

(The first poem in “20 Paintings,” quoted in entirety, blank space included)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laura Owens.  Untitled, 2009, acrylic and Flashe on linen, 18 x 20” [I’m

beginning to feel this for the mountains when I steer the car.  Have you ever

lived in the mountains?  Sometimes you’re the texture or the bowl; the ridge is

a stain or a drop; the colors aren’t the same today as the day before.]

 

This juxtaposition of space and text—each poem in the cycle adheres to the same format—creates multiple effects.  First of all, and by far the simplest of all possible explanations in my mind, would be that open space creates a field for the reader to imagine the absent, roughly two-dimensional, visual surface that triggers the writing.  But a far more interesting explanation, made possible by Bleakney’s aesthetic choices, is that the field created by the space allows the speaker to create a three-dimensional absence which she may fill with her own internal weather, a process in which the speaker becomes the painting’s ego, and eventually even a superimposed alter-ego for the painter herself, who remains mostly absent, in terms of fact.  Throughout the cycle—other than a reference to her birthplace, we get very little information about the painter herself—but she remains ever-present through the speaker’s entreaties.   The speaker evokes Owens directly, or more particularly, the Owens she is in the business of creating, such as here, in the third poem of the cycle:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laura Owens.  Untitled, 2010, Flashe on linen, 28 x 22’ [I get caught up in

color.  The red.  What it candles.  Then all we could say about support. People

nearby. Strangers. Strange as this study by Laura Owens is to me. Strange as

“Laura Owens” is to me. I ran up the hill tonight in hot pink nikes. This is

what I sang.]

 

First of all, this is, simply put, beautiful writing.  “The red.  What it candles,” evokes, at least in my mind, a vivid visual response that slowly leaks into and warms the bones.  (This chapbook contains a number of instances of surprising language—for example “so that texture can bleed;” “as the clouds scrape;” “she broke into candy colors,”–that ground the speaker’s associations and questions in the tangible world of the senses.)  Second, getting ‘caught up in color’ is an interesting statement here.  Certainly it’s appropriate to refer to color when discussing a painting.  But the speaker in “20 Paintings,” arguably a work in the ekphrastic tradition, doesn’t set out to merely describe paintings, but more certainly records the moment of response.  (This reminds me of Charles Olson quoting Edward Dahlberg in Projective Verse, namely, that “one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception.” )  Certainly, a movement from perception to perception occurs within these poems and accounts for an abundance, almost excess, of associative material.  In fact, as the series progresses, the speaker connects and alludes to—in other words, has on her mind—among other persons and things, the HBO series Girls and its creator Lena Dunham, Frank Ocean, Basho, Pavement and Stephen Malkmus, Radiohead, a mother figure, conversations with friends or acquaintances, form rejection letters—treasure this, Bleakney nails it dead on and the send-up is hilarious, the Irvine Ranch Company, and Hart Crane.  However, these references never overwhelm or threaten to make the work topical.  Rather, I believe, they suggest (in a particularly brilliant and cogent manner) something about the way we, as human beings, are wont to approach art, music, the written world, hell, the world in general: namely, it may be impossible to leave the self we inhabit (and all that self has encountered along the way) entirely  behind us.   Suddenly, these poems are no longer merely about the moment the speaker responds to the artwork in question, but about the moment she inhabits it..

The assertion that it’s awfully hard to leave the self behind begs another question: should we try?  “20 Paintings by Laura Owens” offers an interesting answer—an answer involving the concept of collaboration.  “On our fridge a post-it from Marcela: ‘thinking about you and collaborations,’” Bleakney writes in one of the poems.  Collaboration in poetry is a thriving entity  these days, whether between poets  or between an individual poet and a visual artist.  (The poetry of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge paired with the art of Kiki Smith comes to mind.)   For its part, “20 Paintings,” is a serious examination of the poet-artist collaboration despite the fact, perhaps because of the fact, that, as already noted, instead of a visual, we get blank space.  Instead of drawing lines in our mind between the speaker’s words and some tangible graphic image, we, as readers, become free to imagine—in other words, bring ourselves to the text—in even other words—become the text’s ego.  (What would “20 Poems on ’20 Paintings by Laura Owens’” look like?  Each of us would come up with a different answer.  And I say this only partly tongue-in-cheek, there’s plenty of space in the chapbook to take notes.)  Thus, the truest form of collaboration in “20 Paintings” may take place as the dyad of “Laura Owens” and the speaker slowly but surely becomes the triad of “Laura Owens,” speaker, and reader.

One last note: in the same section of the chapbook that asks,”Why am I tagging your paintings, Laura?” we get the line, “Facebook says: to chat with friends, turn on chat.”  A send-up of FB, perhaps, but also a serious statement.  In other words, if you want to connect, you have to connect.  And connection is key here—it’s what staves off (or may stave off) despair, because we also find references to death in these poems, to the speaker’s own (“Someone hold my death please.”), as well as to the drowning death of Hart Crane.  And what is art, if not in at least some small part, but a resistance to death?  The last line of the chapbook, which I won’t reveal here, manages to express futility even as it insists upon existence, to be totally random, entirely quotidian, and genuinely whimsical all at the same time.  This line, like “20 Paintings by Laura Owens” as well as this cycle of poems as a whole, revels in, flies in the face of all that may come and all that has come before.  In other words, it just is.

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