Poets on Poets: Celebrating New Collections (Part 2)

Rosebud Ben-Oni
April 7, 2020

 

While the last 72 hours have been some of the worst days of my life, fraught with multiple emergencies spanning the globe that we never saw coming in a million years, I’m now writing this trying to keep in mind that there is still so much goodness out there in the world. And while still in the thick of so much uncertainty, I also wanted to share some joy here, to keep this series going, to have some sense— amid so much social distancing be it physical, emotional, spiritual or otherwise, amid so much doubt— that we can still find ways to each other, despite the sacrifices we might be asked to make. I write this now because I love my family greatly, and found deep within myself that nothing can break that love because I believe in it, because despite everything going on and my own health concerns, I will do anything to protect it, to keep it intact. That kind of belief is not without consequences or repercussions, when trying to find solutions to multiple problems that have seemingly have none, that it’s taxing physically on my body and my brain (now covered in a thick chunk of gossamer-like swamp, or so it feels), whether I like it or not.

The siren are still going off, more than ever. The birds are still singing at 2 and 3 AM as if the sun were rising just for them. Maybe it is. Maybe when you’ve always loved ridiculously big, because the family you were born into and the family you’ve married into are also big, and that love is big and loud and ridiculous and pulling you in multiple directions, you will unconsciously adapt, you pray you will, because your mind itself is left drained and too tired to sleep, confronted with your own powerlessness and inability to create a path out for someone who asked you to dig a well, build a town, be a surgeon’s skilled hand, too. Maybe you just find a way to do it though it looks nothing like those original blueprints. Maybe your hand itself changes. Maybe a hand becomes a bird wanting to skitter away from it. You don’t build a cage. You wait until it starts to sing. You hope it does, though there’s no guarantees. Because there’s no more promises, at least for now— there’s only the feeling of the back of a rope, the edible part of an apple core, the jagged side of a circle. You wait for them too. You wait.

I wait.

Perhaps this is really what I mean when I thought I knew what it meant to exist best in poetry. Because everywhere else has become stranger strange, even this city, the only city I’ve ever loved, greatly and foolishly, my borough of Queens, still my home and yet a step away, a cold sun, a distant hand loose in my own grasp. —Rosebud Ben-Oni

 

 

Alonso Llerena on Meg Shevenock’s The Miraculous, Sometimes (Conduit, 2020) and Desirée Alvarez’ Raft of Flame (Omnidawn 2020). 

Meg Shevenock’s stunning collection, The Miraculous, Sometimes (Conduit, 2020) is an act of soft and brutal memory.  Shevenock moves through form and lyric creating a haunting narrative rooted in the reality of desire and the search that arises from trauma: “Not all bodies can have what they want. Some bodies thrash in their own dark lakes…”

Shevenock follows in the tradition of Cecilia Vicuña’s lo precario, the precarious lure of trash or the discarded. This tradition seeks to create an autobiography of debris and upholds the belief that maximum fragility can work against maximum power. Shevenock works against violation and trauma through memory recollection across the trash: “I would fashion my existence out of debris” is how the poet describes the search, but specific finds reward the reader: “The leather’s rectangularly shaped, a loose swatch whose stitches, also red, reveal their slow dissolve. Weather has stained a dark line down the lavender.  This assemblage speaks to me. Object and affect” lead to devastating self-reparation: “Culling these disparate lives to order, where previously I felt none, is a way toward memory: knocking earth from the nodules is combing knots from a young girl’s hair”. All of the assemblages awakened my memory.

The Miraculous, Sometimes pushed me to look at every object’s possibility to become part of my narrative and a conduit for language. Shevenock bridges the gap between art and life by pursuing how the body recalls through the mundane and allows for desire to heal.

Desirée Alvarez’s brilliant second collection, Raft of Flame (Omnidawn 2020) is a colorful time-traveling search for the answer to this question: How do we create myth from what we are given? Alvarez wrestles with colonialism and its implications on identity and the self.  Each poem awakened my quest to understand how colonialism continues to violence my body. “Call and Response between Colonizer & Colonized” annihilated me with this question: “Are you born a slave or a tyrant? I am vanishing on the threshold.” 

I felt this question in my veins and I will carry its answer with me for the rest of my life. My mind’s eye reveled through the ekphrastic work that peers in and out such as “La Menina” which renders the poet within the painting to guide us to truth: “Yes, it’s a great painting and then you look at all the lace that needs starching like empire.”

And the truth of history is savage: “The soldier cut off her hands, he stabbed her first.  Imagine how 800 towns burned in the kingdom of Jalisco.” Alvarez then tells us she would prefer to think of the dog in the painting, but I cannot help but think of the Spanish obsession with purity of blood as I learn the dog is a mutt. Alvarez weaves time, genre and medium to create an artifact that has touched my heart from a place of alterity.  The collection has inspired me to seek answers to the questions Alvarez has taught me I cannot ignore.

 

* * *

 

Seema Reza on Purvi Shah’s Miracle Marks (Curbstone Books/Northwestern University Press, 2019)

These days, my world has shrunk. Tethered to the small footprint of my home, to the needs of a family, I rise and start the dough in the morning, wash dishes, prepare meals, bathe, wake my sons, serve them soft bread kneaded by my hands. 

“You

believe

you can

 

talk to river, calm it down, reason it. Woman,

 

have you not                    learned?

You may birth your ruler.”

The women we meet through these poems in Shah’s collection are living (and dying) in opposition to patriarchal oppression. Through epigraphs spanning Vedic texts and modern headlines and commentary, Shah traces the links of the chains that bound and continue to bind Indian women into submission and exclusion, and the extraordinary lengths of suicide and infanticide they go to in order to unfasten themselves from unbearable, traumatizing situations.

And those of us living in the ‘liberated West’—where our self-determination exists only up to a threshold and under constant threat of erosion—catch our reflections. The same cycles of washing and bleeding and feeding inherent to caregiving. The same expectation of sacrifice that often fastens us to despair.

“The value of water even before

a cyclone

 

The value of women even

before the public sphere.

 

The value of a bed before

it is dusk, before you need

 

to make it home with the day’s wash or sloshing pots or tomorrow’s tank.

 

How we live

 

for lineage, grains to mouths, spills to plenty, women to women.        How we live,

 

as a lamp in service

 

of being lit.”

 

“In many places, surviving birth as a girl child is a miracle.” The poems march and meander and skip across the page. Here the use of space is not only aesthetic, but political—the words spread like oil on water, the marks cannot be contained. The miracles compound and morph: woman in pursuit, woman as monster, woman as mark-maker and space-taker. And woman refusing: to offer herself as refuge, as sacrifice, as martyr.

It is a novelty, it is a choice, it will end, there are possibilities on the horizon, I remind myself as I go through the motions, my capacity to act on the world collapsed into caregiving. I stay home, as I’ve been told to.

“You hear the voices of women who never

drowned, who could actually

never be

 

drowned. You touch

your skin and mark

 

a ghost, perhaps

too many to count.”

Miracle Marks echoes.

 

* * *

 

Lynn Melnick on Allison Benis White’s The Wendys (Four Way Books, 2020)

“After you died, I saw/ you everywhere, which is not/ uncommon. Several times a day,/ I’d say to myself, Her eyes/ (skin, hands) like yours.// I’d say to myself. But not you….” Lyrical, hushed, and dangerously incisive, Allison Benis White’s The Wendys captures grief in all its facets—allowing for its ever-changing nature—and expertly mines what it is like to be a woman in life as well. White’s late mother was a Wendy, but here the poet explores five other Wendys: Wendy O. Williams, lead singer of the Plasmatics; photographer Wendy Givens; fictional Wendy Torrance, from Steven King’s The Shining; 16-year-old Wendy Coffield, the victim of a serial killer; and character Wendy Darling, from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Inhabiting others gives White, always an incisive poet, a new wildness, and while her hand is always deftly in control, the different channels and forms in The Wendys bring an energy to the book that makes it feel eerily alive.

White has a way of cutting to the heart of things without dwelling there to stop the bleeding. The poems in The Wendys linger in us because they are, like life, unresolved and urgent and complicated. She writes: “If you open your mouth, if a book is the axe for the frozen sea inside us./ Once a man hit me so hard a fist of light splintered behind my eyes./ It’s been so long since I’ve slept through the night.” White’s refusal to look away—in fact, her insistence that we look, and slowly—is what makes The Wendys so crucial and such a comfort for anyone grieving, or loving, or trying to endure. “Because they have finished hurting us, it is easier to miss / the dead (I am not finished). The outline / of a unicorn tattooed on her stomach, two butterflies above her breasts. Because they have finished (I am not finished), because nothing is real / until it ends.” These poems are a guide for surviving until the end.

 

* * *

 

Rachel Mennies on Jennifer Jackson Berry’s To Know Crush (YesYes Books, 2020) and Kimberly Quiogue Andrews‘ A Brief History of Fruit (University of Akron Press, 2020)

In a moment currently defined in part by a forced absence of touch, by maintaining a minimum six-foot perimeter between our bodies, reading Jennifer Jackson Berry’s To Know Crush right now feels especially electric. Sometimes the poems themselves, all untitled, even look like beds, their centered stanzas bordered thickly by white space; sometimes the bodies in the poems are in that electric bed and singing expressively, loudly, celebrating sex in a way that—in quarantine especially—feels both grounding and exuberant. “You put your hand over my mouth. // Thin walls you said,” recalls a poem’s speaker early in the collection. “I wanted everyone to know,” she responds.

To Know Crush opens under the banner of writer Lindy West’s line “Being fat and happy and in love is a radical act,” and it takes this line emphatically into the book as anaphora in many of its poems—Every time I write about sex it is a radical act—to remind the reader that not all embodied hunger, whether stated or sated, shares the same stakes. This collection is a book about life in a fat body, a body policed for its fatness by past lovers, by therapists, by strangers in bars, in supermarkets, on planes. Berry marks the shifting depictions of this life through a similarly powerfully shifting syntax: when the speaker names many of the moments where her fatness has been used by others, whether as fetish or at-the-gym inspiration or derision object, the poems assume a regimented, more prose-y form, like that of a reporter, of a witness. “A woman passed me a note at a reading,” one poem opens. “I know / your pain fuels your art, but have you tried / Overeaters Anonymous?” But those poems written to the beloved, named only as “you” in this collection and interspersed throughout, tumble without capitalization or other regiment from line to line—they spill out before us vulnerable and unrestrained. “when you kiss my neck,” the speaker says, “i am every cliché i am meant / to be denied.”

For A Brief History of Fruit, by Kimberly Quiogue Andrews, we will begin with the fruit: not just the tropical “yellow slick of mango on a held spoon” or ripening post-frost Midwestern berries, but also as a trope notably absent from a Central Pennsylvanian still life, one that reveals instead bullets, a metalworker’s oiled rag. A Brief History of Fruit is a book about positionality and relation—between different generations and iterations of family (“every time you write // about fruit / you mean father,” observes the speaker of “Love’s Varietal”), within capitalism’s scourge(s), to one’s racial personhood and place(s) of origin. Andrews offers us numerous lenses throughout the collection to access the various forces that both consume and shape the book’s speakers—but for its complicated, earth-bound sensuality, for how perfectly it gets at all of this positionality, I’m going to stick to the food.

In the poem “In which voluntourism”—a heat-core living at the collection’s center—these forces masterfully coalesce; in the poem’s closing image, we dine on their fraught confluence. Here, the speaker—a “Fil-Am” tourist volunteering to till a field “north of Manila” in the Philippines’ Bulacan Province—confronts both her immediate proximity to and generational distance from her previous generation’s nation of birth as a voluntourist. The poem shares “the story where you know you are not helping,” the speaker tells us, and at the same time also “the story where your not helping is in fact the whole point although you will not be told this;” the speaker has arrived both home and somewhere utterly foreign to her, where she at once performs both intense physical labor and frivolity. Andrews makes a stunning meal of these powerful contradictions at the poem’s end from pandan, the “tall grass,” the speaker says, that “can be given to you by a woman whose fields you have incompetently tilled for an hour.” And with the sharp grief of estrangement palpable through the poem’s final stanza, “you eat the pandan. You eat your concern.”

 

* * *

 

Claire Wahmanholm on Michael Lavers’s After Earth (University of Tampa Press, 2019)

I had been waiting for Michael Lavers’s After Earth for years. Catching glimpses of the book in workshops was like trying to imagine a sculpture from the drape of the cloth that covered it. (Be)holding the final product last winter was a deep and perfect joy, and well worth the wait.

After Earth is quiet in the way outer space is quiet. Which is to say its stillness is massive and sublime. Within it, even the stars “seem lost, moving in circles/ over spacetime’s swaying, night-blue sea”; “dark antimatter/ gather[s] in everything like thunder”; finally, closer to Earth, there is “dawn like a sieve, dusk like a shattered jar.” Earth is rotating at 1,000 mph. We are orbiting the sun at 67,000 mph. The sun is moving at 492,000 mph around the center of the Milky Way. The Milky Way is hurtling at 1.3 million mph toward the Andromeda Galaxy. All this feels like nothing. But After Earth reminds us of the horrible velocity with which we crash through this life and into oblivion. Lavers tears through catalogs whose commas say not yet, not yet, not yet: “Ants queuing/ to higher ground, the prairie sounding charlock,/ rapeseed, Job’s tears, milkweed, sorrel—/ quick, before everything goes, let’s put them/ in our little book: the fireweed, the wood lily,/ the whispering of snow.” If the catalogs of After Earth were all you had to refashion this world, you could do it.

The book, whose speaker always seems to be “enduring/ happiness, expecting grief,” is riven with the impulse toward self-annihilation, and plays in the wilderness that exists between attachment to the world and relinquishing one’s grip on it. This tension is heightened by the presence of children, and the knowledge that they are never ours to keep: “I hold you, but only as much as the sea holds the hull of a ship: always lapping/ against it, and never discerning much more than an outline, a bright mass/ with somewhere much farther to go.”

It doesn’t matter what awaits us after this. We are forced to love the things of this world, damaged as they—and we—are. A line from one of those years-ago workshop poems had lodged itself in my brain, and seeing it now, on page 21, at the end of the poem “Coda,” was just as devastating now as it ever was: “if the next is better, I’ll still miss this world.”

 

 

 

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