Archive for the 'Book Reviews' Category

31
Jul
17

On Neil Aitken’s Babbage’s Dream

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

//

Neil Aitken's Babbage's DreamCharles Babbage was a mathematician, inventor, and even philosopher, but he is mostly known as “the father of the computer,” as he designed the first “analytical engine.” He is also the main focus of Neil Aitken’s Babbage’s Dream (Sundress Publications, 2016). However, this is no biography, and it’s not a string of found poems. For Aitken, Babbage becomes not only a lens through which to examine Babbage’s emotions and an artist’s and scientist’s endeavors with creation, but the 56 pages of poems (two of which first appeared in Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) and nine pages of notes also tend toward ontology and explore what it is to be a struggling human.

The bulk of the book consists of long-lined, unrhymed couplets of lyric poems. But where a lyric poem uses the lyrical I to express a voice going through change, Aitken replaces the I with the Babbage persona and a near omniscient voice observing Babbage. Additionally, almost all the lines are marked with a caesura in the middle, sometimes two or three. For instance, the opening of “Babbage at His Desk, Enumerating the Known World” (23):

   From here, you lay bare the world
   table after table, column after column: 

   each thing known and numbered, counted
   like sparrows in their open graves, 

   the heartbeats of pigs, the staggered breathing
   of cattle in low country fields. Each significant. 

   A sign. A signature. The quality of ink
   spread on the printer’s block. Silk threads,

Those these lines are shorter than most, we can see/hear how the couplets move and also act like binaries. The lines move between velocity and pause, which is helpful in the longer lines. The caesura acts as a breathing fulcrum, as well as an experiential fulcrum. As for the binary action, the opening line presents an emotional abstraction that is countered in line two with the need to mathematically express or capture those emotions. Thus, line 1 –emotion / line 2 – math; and line 1 – abstraction / line 2 – categorization. Then, line three successfully quantifies the known, which is then countered in line four with an image, an emotional image of despair. Thus, line 3 – mathematical representation / line 4 – image representation; and line 3 –quantifiable / line 4 – inexpressible. There’s a back-and-forth movement between opposing experiential realms of perception and expression.

Sometimes the back-and-forth occurs in the same line, such as line six, where the period caesura acts as the fulcrum for the experiential shift. The couplets, the movements, mimetically rendering thoughts, feelings, actions a person moves through during moments of struggle, despair, joy, the ineffable, while allegorically paralleling how “binary numbers are stored in a digital computer as either absence or presence (nothing or something)” (“Notes” 71). Perhaps this can be all simplified as movement between conscious and unconscious. Not all the couplets behave this way, but many do.

In fact, there are five poems that experiment with form and structure, and four of those do so using computer programming language, such as C++. For example, “Comment” (46), which first appeared in Redactions, opens:

   At the company town hall meeting,                           // in the movie theater again
   we see the same slide. The financial gurus                // old plots, new faces

   spin the numbers again, a visual rhetoric                   // fake stars painted on the scene
   of gray bars rising adjacent to red. Someone             // dull plastic, factory-made

Here there are two columns. According to the notes, the poem “uses the // line notation from C++ to indicate that what follows is to be read by the human, but not the computer (i.e., everything after those marks is ignored by the compiler”) (72). The left column uses the first-person plural subjective “we” to attempt to objectively render a scene, while the right column has an unidentified speaker providing a judgmental assessment (or “comments”) of what is actually happening. So again, we have this fulcrum, but this time it hinges on the //. The left side is for the computer and is in a fairly objective and narrative language, while the right side is for the human and is in an unknown snarky, lyrical voice.

I think these binaries, these couplets exist because Babbage lives in two worlds: one of the computer or mechanical and one of the human, who experiences love and suffers great despair at the loss of his wife and daughter within a year’s time. In essence, the poems underscore a human’s conflict between mind and heart and the dialectical movements we encounter within ourselves each moment of the day as we endure what is here and what is gone, what is made and what is destroyed, and between maker and the maker’s creation. The language in Neil Aitken’s Babbage’s Dream is concise and specific as computer code and is rhythmically rigid, with the binary of iambs providing a steady backbeat. //

//

//

//

//

Aitken, Neil. Babbage’s Dream. Knoxville, TN: Sundress Publications, 2016. Print.

//

26
Jul
17

On Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric

 

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

//

Jonathan Culler – Theory of the LyricIn Theory of the Lyric (Harvard University Press, 2015), Jonathan Culler does not attempt to provide a definition of what the lyric poem is. Instead he gives us new ways to approach the lyric poem, as Culler believed previous methods were ineffective or lacking. For instance, in the past, some scholars and teachers of poetry have tried to reconstruct the poet’s/speaker’s experiences or motives for writing the poem, even though the poem does not benefit from or need those reconstructions, especially since it doesn’t address what the poem and its language are doing; or the New Critics approach – “[Culler] was no longer oriented by the New Critical assumptions that poems exist to be interpreted. It [his chapter on the apostrophe in particular but the book in general] sought, rather, to explore the most unsettling and intriguing aspects of lyric language and the different sorts of seductive effects that lyric may have” (viii). Culler throughout suggests the reader address the lyric poem as an experience, and he provides many ways to do that. Because of this, perhaps, Culler uses accessible language (as opposed to high-academic or obfuscating language that we often encounter when reading literary criticism). Even with the accessible language, my reading was fully engaged and slowed as I wrote plentiful amounts of marginalia and would often to pause longer than normal to contemplate what he wrote or to re-read his poem examples to see how poem worked with his ideas. The book is a concentrated study of the “Western lyric tradition” (3) from the ancient Greeks to Modern poetry, and on one occasion, contemporary hip hop.

One way to approach a lyric poem, according to Culler, is to realize that it is an event, a repeatable speech act. The lyric is performative to a degree and not constative. The lyric poem seeks to make something happen and is not designed to be read for signs of character or plot. The sensual pleasures of the lyric poem – rhythms, harmonies, line breaks, memorable lines, etc. – are often what attract the reader to the poem in first place, as opposed to a hermeneutic reading for meaning. In other words, “The meaning of a poem, he [Amittai Aviram] claims, allegorically represents ‘aspects of the power of the poem’s own rhythm to bring about a physical response, to engage the readers [sic] or listener’s body and thus to disrupt the orderly process of meaning’” (165). This evokes what Robert Frost said, those who read poems with their eyes are barbarians; you must learn to read with your ears.

The articulation or enunciation of the lyric poem creates a timeless present and underlines the poem’s lyric nowness. The lyric exists outside of time, it doesn’t move chronologically, and it exists in the eternal now – the event of its reading. “The fundamental characteristic of the lyric,” claims Culler, “is not the description and interpretation of a past event but the iterative and iterable performance of an event in the lyric present, in the special ‘now,’ of lyric articulation. . . . Fiction is about what happens next; lyric is about what happens now.” (226). The poem is its own event.

This lyrically event, according to Culler, with its sensual pleasures might be especially important in times of prosaic complacency, reasoning, argumentation, and political oppression. As Merleau-Ponty says, the lyric poem resists “the prose of the world” (304). Similar to Surrealism, the lyric poem with its sensual pleasures releases the mind from prose’s abstract thinking and “perception of the world” (304). This becomes important in building a community, especially when coupled with the lyric I. The lyric I or “the subject is constituted as the subject of this sensory experience, which is available to any wanderer” or reader (323). In other words, the lyric I, while a seemingly personal subject and thus in opposition to the masses, becomes a voice for the masses, the powerless, the voiceless and unheard ones overwhelmed by power and ideology. Because of its sensual pleasures, its non-prosaic thinking, the lyric poem can “generate a community that it addresses, to assert social values, to participate in a restructuring of the sensuous and affective domain of life” (330), of which Culler gives plentiful examples. The lyric is communal and political.

While it might seem that Culler is defining what a lyric poem is, I contend he is showing what the lyric poem does, and what it does is usually overlooked in criticism and the teaching of lyric poetry. The lyric poem in its doing uses iterable musical events as an antidote to the blind allegiance to facts and signification. It makes “a new organization of experience presuming the centrality of unrealized amorous passion, which has animated the lyric and popular song” since the time of Petrarch (315). While there are a variety of themes and forms of lyric poems at any given time, it’s the experience of the lyric poem that is missing from the critical discussions of lyric poetry, and this is one Culler’s main concerns.

Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric is much more exhaustive than exploring the lyric poem as event and social force. It also examines its non-mimetic properties, explores aspects of the genre through history, reflects on theories of the lyric, provides a good study on rhythm and meter and the social meaning of meter, has a fascinating chapter on the apostrophe, delivers a well thought out study of the sonnet through time, and a concluding chapter on “Lyric and Society.” I recommend this book to every teacher of poetry, as it gives a few pedagogical approaches to teaching poetry, especially by way of rhythm:

A greater foregrounding of rhythm as central to lyric might enable the teaching of poetry to regain some of the ground lost in recent years and also might lead to a different set of poetics. One could thus imagine an approach more connected with evaluation, which has not been central to literary studies recently: What works and what doesn’t? What engages our attention, our corps de jouissance – to use Barthes’s term – and what does not? For such a poetics an important part of the teaching of poetry would be accustoming students to hearing and experiencing the rhythms of traditional verse – they have a surprisingly hard time hearing iambic pentameter without the practice of recitation, for instance, though they fare much better with four-beat rhythms. (173)

And I recommend it for every poet, as it’s a cross between a craft book (in a certain way) and a critical approach, but written by someone with a firm understanding of what poets are up to by way of the ear to the heart to the mind. //

//

//

//

//

Culler, Jonathan. Theory of the Lyric. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. Print.

//

26
Apr
17

On How Dare We! Write: A Multicultural Creative Discourse

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

//

How Dare We Write

Use coupon code REDACTIONS and save 30%.

Like most of America, the higher up you go in Academia the whiter it gets. With that comes the white privilege of criticism and writing, whether intentional or not. The vast majority of writing anthologies and handbooks are written by white authors, which reemphasizes certain styles, modes, and approaches. Editor Sherry Quan Lee’s How Dare We! Write: A Multicultural Creative Discourse (Modern History Press, forthcoming May 2017) is a new creative writing anthology by writers of color. Through what are essentially literacy narrative essays, the writers share how they struggled to write in an environment where they “are to listen, be silent, and be awed by the ‘right way’ to tell a story as defined by those in the ruling class going back to Aristotle” (Stark 51). These writers are doing what writers in the past have done: teaching us how to read literature. They educate us, though this education is not on an artistic aesthetic, like Imagism or Vorticism, but for cultural aesthetics. As a white, heteronormative, cis-male who tries to check his privilege, I was often surprised at certain privileges I had that I was not even aware of, such as how “italicizing non-English language contributes to otherizing our tongues” (Gómez R. 87), and more of which I’ll point out below. This book is eye-opening, critical, and personal.

The first essay after the introduction perfectly lays out what is ahead: “the personal is political” (Falcón 9-10) and “[a] need to interrupt the narratives of domination” (10). Kandace Creel Falcón writes as a Chicana (she identifies to “Chicana” as opposed to “Xicana,” which she explains) academic navigating the “cis-male white privilege” (11) embedded in scholarship. She points out “the assumed neutrality of whiteness translates into invisible authorship” (11), an invisible authorship that neutralizes voices that aren’t cis-white males. This privilege was one I was not aware of, and it became an eye-opening moment for me. Falcón then explores how she inserted the “I” back into academic writing and that her “scholarship is rooted in an agenda of liberation [. . . a] liberation for us all” (11). At this point, I reconsidered how I might change my approaches to teaching Composition I and II, among other courses. What new texts will I use and how can I teach a criticism that validates approaches from a variety of identities? How can I emboldened the critic’s “I”?

Jessica Lopez Lyman in the following essays builds on the idea that knowledge can come from an individual, as “we are all producers of knowledge” (17), and there doesn’t need to be preceding archival materials to sift through for validation. As a result, she tries to be heard, to be unerased, to not feel like an impostor, because as she says, “non-existence is the most dangerous violence” (19). This erasure, according to Chris Stark, who identifies as “a mixed Native lesbian” (49), also occurs in the creative writing workshop. She points out that in a piece of fiction she

was criticized for writing about someone similar to me, for writing about myself. Never once, in the MFA workshops or in other writing groups I have been in has a white man been “accused” of writing about himself, even when he clearly is writing about himself and his experiences. (50)

On top of it all, her professor read a story clearly based on his experiences, “but no one said a thing” (51), which highlights the hypocrisy. This makes me hypothesize that this is also true in literary criticism. If a person of color writes fiction that is based on their life events, then it’s critically looked down on as not truly fiction, but when a white male writer does the same thing, rarely is he called out on it. Stark also reveals another type of privilege like an apocalypse (in its etymological sense “to uncover”), where a story needs to have a “climax” to be considered a successful story, whereas native American writers tend to tell “stories in a cyclical fashion [that does not follow the] the checkmark structure [. . .] taught since elementary school” (51). Or as Anya Achtenberg points out in “Notes in Journey from a Writer of the Mix”:

[W]riters of the mix/writers of color, with this high degree of deterritorialization in our language, exhibit high potential for radical and revolutionary work. With language less “representational,” more expressive, marked by intensity; there is “a whole other story vibrating within” the story [. . .]. This critical language speaks of a condition perfectly familiar to me, and offers a way to refute those judging our works within old, biased parameters. (100)

This reasserts a major thesis of this anthology, which Achtenberg synthesizes down into a sentence, that writing “calls for seeking other story structures that work with that consistent level of tension [as opposed to building tension, relieved by “a perfect screaming climax,” and then dissipating in denouement and “comfy resolution”], and open story to the spectrum of experience of life in this tension [. . .]. I must go with story finding its unconventional organic form in motion and constant tension” (99, 103).

Perhaps the heart/heat of the anthology lies in Marlina Gonzalez’s “Dancing Between Bamboos or The Rules of Wrong Grammar”:

How does one speak or write or exist, survive or even dare to thrive in an environment rich with diverse cultural perceptions, when our cultures are blind to each other and one culture insists on taking over the dialogue? (67)

The personal and critical essays provide answers to this question and others, such as learning how to claim a place in a “white male dominated (WMD) literary ecosystem” (Vongsay 118).

This anthology can easily be used as a supplementary text in a creative writing workshop environment, especially at the graduate level or upper-level undergraduate courses. Not only are the essays informative and make the reader consider new manners of writing and reading, but each essay is also followed by a writing prompt, so the reader can put a theory to practice. I can even see this anthology being used in a composition class. No matter how it is used, I recommend this book for all writers and those who write about literature, and when you do, be sure to have a lot of sharpened pencils, as there will be a lot of underlining. I know I will be a better teacher of writing because of editor Sherry Quan Lee’s How Dare We! Write: A Multicultural Creative Discourse.//

//

//

//

//

Lee, Sherry Quan. How Dare We! Write: A Multicultural Creative DiscourseAnn Arbor, MI: Modern History Press, May 2017.

//

Use coupon code REDACTIONS and save 30%.//

 

03
Apr
17

“Love Waves” and Doors: Associative Pattern Making in Laura McCullough’s The Wild Night Dress

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

//

Laura McCullough -- The Wild Night DressIn the “Series Editor’s Preface,” Billy Collins notes, “One requirement for poets is the ability to write about two different things at the same time. Seamus Heaney turns writing into a kind of digging. John Ciardi intertwines marriage and the structure of an arch” (ix). In the 2017 Finalist Miller Williams Poetry Prize book The Wild Night Dress (The University of Arkansas Press, 2017), Laura McCullough does this, too, and she informs the reader up front in the Prologue’s poem, “The Love Particle,” “Love Waves is the name given to shocks / across the planet’s surface after an earthquake, what we / who are not at the epicenter actually feel” (3). She’s aware she’s going to share some intense personal experiences from her epicenter of grief and pain and her readers will experience her emotions in those Love Waves.

The two opening poems of “Part I: Passage with Hardboiled Egg” – “Feed” and “Toward Something Larger” – inform the reader what is at the epicenter of McCullough’s grief: her dying mother and her departing husband. Both create voids in her life, but more of the book revolves around her mother than her ex-husband. Perhaps this is because the bond with a mother is stronger than with a lover, which as a “long marriage / cycles predictably” (7), whereas with her mother, there appears to be a deeper intimacy of unspoken understandings, such as when her mother had “thrown up / in the water, perhaps a first sign.    Signs // in language are made of signifiers and the signified. / Mother and daughter are a kind of language” (19). McCullough will also build signs and symbols for the reader, which I’ll get to obliquely.

The poems in this collection are interconnected in the immediacy of one poem moving into the next and across the breadth of the whole collection. In fact, this book of poems would be a good one to use in an advanced poetry writing workshop where students are trying to organize their own poems into a manuscript. In the poem-to-poem movement, an image, word, or idea appears in one poem and the following poem, such as the appearance of “residue” and “bees” in “Soliloquy with Honey: Time to Die” (14-15) and “Across Which the World” (16), language in “I Am Calling You” (17), “What He Said the Russians Say” (18), and “Hunger Always Returns” (19), and “door” in “Ceremony of a Commonplace and Unremarkable Moment” (25), “Passage, Revolving with Boots” (26), and “Revolving Door” (27). Additionally, some words and images appear in poems far apart, such as “water,” “salt,” and “ocean,” but with the distantly echoed images, or conceptual harmonies, associations are being created within the self-contained universe of the book. For Instance, in “Water : Waterfall :: Equation : Proportion,” McCullough creates relationships between “soul” and “water,” “ocean” and “human,” and “salt” and blood,” so that later on when we read “water,” for instance, we have a built-in associative memory to “soul.” Certain words and images, like “water” and “soul,” then carry a relationship throughout the book.

With the image of “door,” which appears at least 12 times in the collection, it accumulates multiple associations, so much so that it behaves like a symbol. “Door” first appears in “What He Said the Russians Say” (18):

   I was just a girl
   who hadn’t lost enough to understand
               language
   as a door we stand at pondering,
 

   trying to get it open, say what we mean,
   and how we are afraid that no one
   is even on the other side. (16-22)

Here, “door” is an obstacle to expression, as well as a place of meditation, mystery, and fear. Later, in “Revolving Door” (27), she is able to see what’s on the other side of a door – a gardener “cutting leaves” (11). Still, there is a sense of being afraid, as she can barely see him, “his eyes meet no one’s” (8), and because “his sneakers were once red” (9). The once-red sneakers when coupled with the “weapon” he “wields” creates on ominous moment, because it feels like those shoes are covered in blood, but in fact, the blood-colored shoes have been soiled by his cultivation of plants and keeping them alive. The “door” here then begins to set up the feeling of a liminal place between one living world and another living world, so when we get to “Body a Doorway” (35), where McCullough wants “to make” her “body a door though which she [her dying mother] might pass” (9), we understand she wants to mediate her mother’s death and make it pleasant for her. However, the door still carries a fearful emotion, because “in these last seconds my [McCullough’s] mind rebels, / and I barely hold back the small selfish voice: No, don’t go. // Then it is done” (10-11). She couldn’t mediate for her mother. The moment was too overwhelming, too scary. She instead watched her mother pass away to “the other side.” Much later in the collection in “Lake of Sky: Refrain” (71), we see how McCullough “prepared” herself “for being / a doorway” by bringing her mother’s favorite books to her, as well as “myrrh,” “a battery operated candle,” a “scarf,” and other intimate items. But here the “door” works in reverse. While McCullough can’t cross over, her mother from the other side can, as she now has her mother’s “face inside of” her face (19). The image/symbol of the door gains new layers of meaning and associations as we move through the collection, as do other images. In essence, in developing self-contained associations and image/concept harmonies, she creates the “Love Waves” as well as she can through language so we can feel the ripples emanating from the epicenter of her experience.

Throughout The Wild Night Dress, McCullough is in the crosshairs of two griefs while attempting to stay whole, and her writing of this book, so it seems, is an attempt of making a new wholeness for herself amid the absence of her mother and ex-husband. As you move through the poems and the wake of “Love Waves” in The Wild Night Dress, be sure to have a box of tissues and leave your doors open.//

//

//

//

//

McCullough, Laura. The Wild Night Dress. Fayetteville, AR: The University of Arkansas Press, 2017. Print.

//

19
Mar
17

On Knowing Knott: Essays on an American Poet

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

//

Knowing Knott: Essays on an American PoetMy first encounter with Bill Knott was reading a review copy of The Unsubscriber (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004) in a yurt in or nearby Newport, OR. I was dazzled and amazed at his wildness and technique. Next to the collection’s third poem, “Neckognition,” I wrote:

He has mystical line breaks. They do what we try to make them do. Give them a split-end quality. One line is appearance A, the next line changes appearance A into B and into C, until you’re left with A+B+C=an action or event of fluidity. He’s stopped time into discrete parts, but by the stanza’s end, the fluidity of the act is realized. See stanza one. Harmonies in the last stanza.

Here’s the poem:

     In love the head turns
     the face until it’s gone
     into another’s where
     it is further torn

     from its own mirror
     and grows even more
     erased and lost and though
     the former still yearns

     to be his/be hers
     it sees these lovers
     over your shoulder show

     whatever disappears
     can also go as verse
     whose shape’s nape-known now.

This is also a sonnet-variant. I fell in love instantly with this master of forms, language, style, Surrealism, and freedom to explore unlike any other poet, at least any poet I’m aware of, since Gerard Manley Hopkins.

In Knowing Knott: Essays on an American Poet (Tiger Bark Press, 2017), there are essays from 16 other poets and friends of Knott, who also write about their love for him. The essays are short, and vary in length from three pages to 35 pages, although most tend to be around five to six pages. The essays are mostly filled with anecdotes that portray the complexities of Knott’s personality, his generosity, and self-sabotage at success. There is also some analysis of his poetry in Michael Waters’ essay “What Had Made Us So Whole: ‘The Sculpture’ by Bill Knott” and in Stuart Dischell’s “On Human Stilts,” but mostly the essays are sketches of Knott as complicated human being. The book also includes six color images of his art, as Knott “was as serious about his painting as his poetry” (113), as Robert Fanning notes in “May Eagles Guard Your Grave.”

In Thomas Lux’s essay “Bill Knott: Can My Voice Save My Throat,” Lux asks, “do you think Knott’s self-deprecation, his self-denigration, his self-abnegation, might have anything to do with his childhood?” (84). In the 83 pages prior to this, I was realizing much of Knott’s actions are the classic traits of someone who suffers from abandonment trauma. According to some of the authors with varying degrees of detail, when Knott was young, his mother died giving birth (though Knott “always suspected she might have died during an (then illegal) abortion” (91), then a few years later, his father sent him and his sister to an orphanage because he couldn’t take care of them, and then the father committed suicide. I believe this contributes to what Jonathan Galassi in “(Not) Publishing Bill Knott” identifies as Knott’s “serious self-esteem issues.” For instance, as Star Black in her essay “Loving Bill” points out, Knott:

[s]omehow felt betrayed by his own accomplishments and connections, as if to be a self-published outsider was not quite satisfying, yet to be an insider was fraudulent. Making a decision and then reversing the same decision after he made it was one of his traits. (44)

There are consistent stories throughout the anthology about him pushing away his success (and sometimes pushing away others before they could push him away) as if he wasn’t worthy of it or them, a classic defense move by someone who suffers from the trauma of abandonment.

Perhaps this is why he started to self-publish numerous chapbooks in small print runs, sometimes even only one copy. Knott published at least 11 books of poems with publishers such as “Random House, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the University of Pittsburg Press, Sun Press, and the American Poets Continuum Series at BOA Editions” (Dischell 71), but he was so prolific and printed so many self-published chapbooks that probably no one knows how many books he really released, maybe not even Timothy Liu or John Skoyles who tried to collect everything Knott published.

Knott was a poet’s poet. He was a master of the craft and was always revising, and was even known to put “errata slips into books of his in bookstores” (Lux 85). Despite his constant revisions, Knott’s poems arrive to the reader with the energies and wildness of a first or second draft, which to me is a major accomplishment.

Knowing Knott is a pleasure to read, and can be read in one sitting because it is so engaging and only 114 pages of essays (126 total pages), and it’s very inspirational, too. Prior to reading this collection of essays, I thought Bill Knott was a semi-obscure poet, as not many poets I have met who are my age or younger know of him. After reading this book, I realize how important he was to the generation of poets before me and the generation before them. According to Robert Fanning in Knowing Knott’s last essay, Thomas Lux declared “Bill Knott our greatest living poet. ‘Bill Knott has more talent in his pinky finger [. . .] than Any Poet of his Generation” (115). I believe this book, in some degree, is a calling to future generations of poets to not overlook this poet whose “art lies, in part, in living inside the language, and lies, in part, in viewing it from the perspective of enduring outsider” (Waters 13), and whose poetry is so “hard-core surrealist” that, according to Lux, “If Bill were French and born a few years generations earlier, he would have kicked André Breton out of the [Surrealists] group for being counterrevolutionary” (80). I believe after reading Knowing Knott: Essays on an American Poet that Knott can teach poets how to be unique, wild, energy driven, as he fully embraced and triumphed in the many forms of poetry, and perhaps more importantly, Knott’s actions will inspire us to be generous members in the poetry community, as he was consistently helping poets with their poetry or helping them financially. In the words of Skoyles, “When we lost Bill, we lost a person with an uncompromising integrity and an enormous compassion for the underdog. [. . .] When we lost Bill, we lost what could be called the conscience of poetry” (97). Knowing Knott will keep reminding us of this and Bill Knott.

//

//

//

//

Huff, Steven, ed. Knowing Knott: Essays on an American Poet. Rochester, NY: Tiger Bark Press, 2017. Print.

//

27
Jan
17

On Bonnie Bolling’s The Red Hijab

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

//

bonnie-bolling-the-red-hijabBonnie Bolling’s The Red Hijab (BkMk Press, 2016, and winner of the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry) is set in Bahrain, a kingdom of more than 30 islands in the Persian Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. According to H. L. Hix’s “Foreword,” “Of what happens in the Middle East, most North Americans receive little word except from what news media present. Consequently, the readily available image of the Middle East is biased toward conflict and violence” (7). Bolling, who lived there for several years, provides a unique view of Bahraini culture, an insider’s view, a journalistic view but with empathy.

The first image of empathy occurs in the opening poem, “The Red Hijab.” After describing an ancient area in the Persian Gulf (perhaps Diraz) with an “abandoned double-wide” trailer, a “tangle of razor wire,” stray cats, dirty windows, and a man “wrapped in a potato sack” picking through the trash, a woman appears walking in the rain with a laundry basket and an umbrella. Images like this of people trying to go about their daily business and tasks occur throughout the book, but here, in the poem “The Red Hijab,” a housemaid wears a “red hijab.” It immediately, at least for me, conjures images of the girl in the red coat from Schindler’s List. In that movie, the girl in the red coat enables Schindler to fully understand that the Holocaust is happening around him, and she inspires him to do everything he can to stop it and to save as many Jews as possible. Bolling, who I assume is the speaker in these poems, however, does not act as a savior. She also does not try to simplify or generalize the Bahraini culture, as western news media might. Bolling’s observation of this housemaid allows us to see a side of life we may not hear about in North American media. In effect, Bolling becomes something like a journalistic embed, who “stand[s] on the corner, leaning next to the sign / that says in three languages: no uncovered women allowed / adjusting and re-adjusting my black hijab, me [a white, female, United States citizen] / on this narrow, broken footpath keeping my silence and distance” (“In Diraz” 7). The woman wearing the red hijab is the reader’s entrance point into the book and Bahrain.

As part of her journalistic acclimation, Bolling uses cultural signifiers, such as Bahraini foods and words like hijab, azan (a call to prayer five times a day by the muezzin), muezzin (the crier who calls for azan from a high part of a mosque at stated hours), Shahada (the Islamic profession of faith), Shamaal (a northwesterly wind blowing over Iraq and the Persian Gulf, which is often strong during the day but weaker in the night), among others, as points of cultural exchange, or at least points of cultural encounter. The encounter for the reader is the disorientation he/she feels when experiencing the unfamiliar and looking for a translation (as I did above with Dictionary.com). This defamiliarization helps the reader shake off the stereotypes of those who live in the Middle East. The speaker must have experienced something like this, too, but now these signifiers are familiar to her. With all this said, one may wonder if Bolling is just wearing a comfortable mask – trying to act like Bahraini while holding on to the security of her white, American privilege. In part I, this may seem the case, but later we realize, part I was just a tour inside the walls of Diraz, and an intimate tour as we sometimes feel the “Oh, we want it all, don’t we?” (“Above the Azan” 28) judgmental disdain some Bahraini have of American tourists.

Perhaps the thematic thesis of part II is best stated in “Gathering Plumeria,” the last poem of section I, when the speaker says, “I am taking / it all in, every side because stories / from the heart don’t lie” (32). By taking the reader behind the walls, deeper into the community where she lives, Bolling introduces us to a few of its citizens and tries to get inside their hearts, such as a woman at home, a young man who will suicide-bomb a coffee shop, “young boys wearing black” harassing an older man because they are bored, and a family whose father’s tongue was cut our and the people who cut it, among others. In “Stars, Moon Rooster” (37), one of the poems I return to most, Bolling, referring to herself in the third person, walks at night and looks into a “house with linoleum,” where she sees a woman and imagines what the woman is feeling and thinking. Using the same third-person “she” to describe herself, Bolling shifts into the woman thinking about hope and how a new born baby is “the embodiment of hope,” until the baby is “thrust / into the arms of another,” and how over the years of life hope “doesn’t matter so much.” Eventually, the wind wakes her from trance, and she returns to her own night journey.

One might consider this presumptuous to assume what someone else is thinking. Perhaps they would be correct. However, she lived in the community for quite some time and observed and listened to the people. She was a poetic embed, unlike the disembodied “they” providing commentary and generalizations. Frequent phrases in section II are “they say,” “they are saying,” “someone says,” and other variations, and this “they” often makes statements about the Bahraini. Because we don’t know who the “they” is, the statements become almost Orwellian. For instance, in “A Silencing” (49-50), the poem opens with an active voice describing the speaker cooking a meal, then there is the volta “Deep in the village / the blind rooster’s / crowing.” This volta hinges on the apostrophe in “rooster’s.” Do we read “rooster’s” as subject and verb, “rooster is,” or as possessive, “the crowing of the rooster”? Perhaps both as the poem then segues into “This village / is said to be ancient.” This sentence is in the passive voice, as we don’t know the subject, or who is doing the saying. It’s just stated, and the reader wonders if that voice is the same as the next sentence’s voice, “Been the same for centuries, / they say, except for air conditioning.” The community’s character, personality, and culture are anonymously inscribed. This unknown speaks for its citizens. Even the local news realizes that “Someone from outside is fooling them / into going up against each other,” where the “someone” is the unknown voice and the “other”s are at times the young and the old. That “someone” is so strong, it can command young people to cut out the tongues of old people:

     Then, they were on him.
     Do it, someone said, do it now.
     So they did it with scissors.
     They cut-out his tongue –

In essence, the unknown “they” and “someone” are performing a type of erasure on its citizens by telling them what they are and not allowing the citizens to have an ability speak back, while at the same time also erasing their religion, as evidenced by cutting out the tongue of a man who memorized the Qu’ran.

What Bolling does in section II’s other poems and throughout the book’s poems is to give voice to the people who have been erased or overwritten. Through her journalistic end-paused and end-stopped lines (there is very little enjambment in these poems), and her movements between physical and psychological realism, she allows us to read below this anonymously created palimpsest to reveal more than “conflict and violence” and to show how

                       so many stories separate us.
     So many nations.
                       We search our tongues,
     desperate for a phrase, some scrap
                       of language or utterance
     that will allow our worlds
                       to come together for a moment (“Only Bread, Only Water” 51-3),

Perhaps this is why we hear a rooster announcing morning so often in The Red Hijab. It’s a language we all understand, as well as the food and love that persist throughout this collection of poems.//

//

//

//

Bolling, Bonnie. The Red Hijab. Kansas City, MO: BkMk Press, 2016.

//

28
Jun
16

The Domestic Fabulism of Adoption in Stacey Balkun’s Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

//

Stacey Balkun's – Jackalope-Girl Learns to SpeakAccording to The Adoption History Project, “[a]pproximately 5 million Americans alive today are adoptees, 2-4 percent of all families have adopted, and 2.5 percent of all children under 18 are adopted.” Despite the statistics from the Department of History at the University of Oregon, it seems as though less than 2-4 percent, less than 2.5 percent, and most likely far less than one percent of contemporary American poetry is about, concerned with, or brushes up against adoption issues and themes. Even in tv shows and movies, aside from characters such as Clark Kent, Natalie from The Facts of Life, Punky Brewster from Punky Brewster, and the movies Juno and Elf, there are few adopted characters or themes of adoption. As an adoptee, this is of some concern to me, especially since I never wrote poems about adoption until recently in the 48th year of my life. I think part of the cause for the lack of adoption poems for others and myself is that many adopted children, according to my research and own experience, tend to either just accept the issue, ignore the issue, or just forget they were adopted. The adoptee accepts their adopted parents and moves on with life. Fortunately, Stacey Balkun’s chapbook Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak (Dancing Girl Press & Studio, 2016) is wholly concerned with the adopted life.

Perhaps another possibility for the lack of adoption poems is the poet not knowing how to successfully write an adoption-centric poem in a way that isn’t predictable, sentimental, insincere, or lacking nuance. Balkun, however, found a way. In Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak, she uses the characters Jackalope-Girl (representing an adopted female) and Antler-Girl (representing Jackalope-Girl’s birthmother) to tell the allegorical story of Balkun (or a female adoptee) growing up as an adopted person. While I think it’s an allegorical story, others might call it “domestic fabulism,” which is akin to Magical Realism of the home life, or home life told in the manner of a fable, or as Catherine Moore says in an interview about an anthology of domestic fabulist poetry she co-edited with Stacey Balkun, domestic fabulism is where “myth and magic easily co-exists with domestic concerns; indeed, if often amplifies the drama of the ordinary.” As a result, we enter an everyday world in Big Sky country of Longview, Texas, as well as a northeast suburb, where there are proms, cigarette smoking, sex, and dentists. Within this ordinary world, the fabulist elements of a jackalope child born from an antelope mother and rabbit father can exaggerate, or amplify, the life of adoption so as to subvert the reader’s expectations and generalizations of the life of an adoptee and the adoptee’s birth parents and adopted parents.

In many stories of birth parents, the birth father is often considered an absent father or a derelict, is told to leave the relationship, or is just plain ignored. In Jackalope-Girl, the only three things the reader learns about the father are that he is a rabbit who once had sex with Jackalope’s birthmother (Antler-Girl), and both were “uncertain” of what they were doing sexually (“Jackalope-Girl’s First Time”). After the sexual encounter, the mother then drove home alone. The mother had an innocent night of sex and the father didn’t even know of the pregnancy. He is ignorant of his jackalope child. The collection of poems, however, isn’t about the absent father, but the domestic fabulism makes us reimagine a new way of looking at the birth father – he’s not necessarily a dead beat or scum bag, he just may not know he even has a child since the mother drove away without telling him.

Even though Jackalope-Girl briefly mentions the father or suggests the father by way of his absence, the poems are more focused on the Jackalope-Girl, Antler-Girl, and Jackalope-Girl’s adopted parents. We learn that Antler-Girl (the birth mother) early on had plans for adoption and even had an adoption lawyer. Despite all this “When the jackalope-girl lost her fur / in the third trimester, her mother’s / body trembled, sensing loss,” which implies the mother was caring and loving of her child, and was not the uncaring or irresponsible mother that so many stereotypes about birthmothers perpetuate. Because the poem alters a human mother into animal form, the poem is better able to engage the reader in a story that subverts typical expectations by presenting a responsible and caring birthmother. In other words, if the poem used humans, the story might seem bland and unreal. For instance, later in the same poem:

     jackalope-girl [still in the mother’s womb] felt
     the distant voice [of the adoption lawyer on the phone]. Her thighs
     stretched into muscle meant for leaping

     and her nose twitched, eager
     to memorize the smell of south.
     She felt soft as steamed cornbread.   (10-15)

By using these elements of domestic fabulism, it becomes believable that there is a loving and responsible birth mother, and the unbelievability that a baby could hear the voice of the adoption lawyer on the telephone, and that she was “eager” to inhabit the south becomes believable. As a result, the reader gains new perspectives on birthmothers, adopted children, and birthmother-child relationships.

Balkun’s use of domestic fabulism also allows the reader to enter the mind of an adopted child who is often (always?) trying to fit into her adopted world or her adopted world is forcing her to fit into it. For instance, in “Inoculation,” the reader encounters Jackalope-Girl as a baby with “Rabbit teeth [that] grow forever: two up, / two down” (3-4) that would grow into antlers unless she “chewed on wood / or stones” (4-5). Even as a baby, she instinctively knows how to take care of her teeth, but her adopted parents (who seem to be humans and not animals) did not and they did not want her to have antler teeth. They “wanted it / stopped” (9-9), so the parents “had the dentist inject muscle relaxers / into her gums [. . .] / She bared her teeth / and screeched, but his pliers had already grabbed hold” (9-10, 11-12). Later on, in “Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak,” Jackalope-Girl’s “first word was mistaken / for a whimper” (2-3) by her adopted parents; further, when she “asked only for milk” (3) and “clover” (4), her “surrogate mother laughed and handed me [Jackalope-Girl] a binky” (5-6). In other words, just as a colonizer imposes their ways on the colonized, there is an unnatural transition from birth world to adopted world, much misunderstanding between the two worlds, and the adopted parents (colonizers) enforce their ways on the adopted child (colonized). Perhaps this is one reason (consciously or not) why Balkun chose to represent the adopted child as an animal since colonizers often view the colonized as animals.

Also, inherent to this living in an adopted world is whether the child should fight it or accept it. Or maybe it’s a fight for the adoptee’s birth world or flight from the birth world to the adopted world. Perhaps this is the main theme of the collection of poems. I imagine most adoptees have this concern at least once in their life, and may ask him/herself conflicting questions, such as: “Should I try to discover who I am?” or “Why do I feel so different from my adopted family members?” versus “Should I just accept this adopted world that makes me into something that is different than my instinctual self?” Early on, Jackalope-Girl is resistant to her adopted world, “I was born to an electric storm / in winter. I can’t be caught” (“Inoculation” 30-31), because she can feel “big sky country” of where she was born and instinctually she can feel her antler self, even though her antlers have been “filed down” (20). In fact, she wants so much to return to her birth world, she invents the allegorical “Animal City,” a sanctuary city for adopted children who feel at ease with themselves and speak a language they can all understand. It is the promised land before the colonizers (parents) arrived.

Jackalope-Girl is conflicted and perhaps always will be, which is something readers might not expect of adoptees had Balkun not used the allegorical animal figure of a jackalope as a representation of an adoptee, and as brief as the collection of poems is (16 poems across 24 pages), we get an intimate insight into the life of an adopted person. I do hope for more of these poems or an expansion of this collection as I think there is still more to explore. Nonetheless, any reader of poetry will enjoy Stacey Balkun’s Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak and her domestic fabulism of the adopted.

//

Works Cited

Adoption Statistics.” The Adoption History Project. Department of History, University of Oregon, 24 Feb. 2012. Web. 28 June 2016.

Balkun, Stacey, and Catherine Moore. “NO FEE Submission Call and Interview – Fiolet & Wing: Anthology of Domestic Fabulist Poetry, DEADLINE: June 15, 2016.” Interview by Trish Hopkinson. Trish Hopkinson: A Selfish Poet. N.p., 7 June 2016. Web. 28 June 2016.

//




The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Pre-Dew Poems

Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

Negative Time

After Malagueña

After Malagueña

Enter your email address to subscribe to The Line Break and receive email notifications of new posts.

Join 2,830 other followers

December 2017
M T W T F S S
« Nov    
 123
45678910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293031

Archives

The Line Break Tweets


%d bloggers like this: