Posts Tagged ‘Redactions: Poetry & Poetics

28
May
20

On Rick Bursky’s Let’s Become a Ghost Story

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

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“‘Convulsive beauty’ . . . associates surrealist beauty with the unknown, with desire and with the promise of revelation” – Krzysztof Fijalkowski

Rick Bursky Let's Become a Ghost StoryRick Bursky’s Let’s Become a Ghost Story (BOA Editions, 2020) is a story convulsing in reality. It is a story that begins with poems grounded in surreal, sexual desires and ends in poems exploring death and the afterlife. It’s a story about making stories about relationships, and “Relationships,” according to Bursky in “Like Many Other Technologies, My Dreams Are Now Obsolete,” “are stories / two people write at the same time.” Most of these relationships are with the speaker’s various lovers, but at times, especially in section II, are about relationships with the speaker’s father, sister, women, and war. Let’s Become a Ghost Story, seemingly, is Bursky’s strategy for creating his “ghost story” that irrupts into the real.

One way to confront this repressive hold of reality is to provide surreal images like:

     Lovers have used my tongue as a red carpet.
     It’s been said my elbows glow in the dark,
     and on hot, humid days I sweat fireflies.   
                                               (“The Scaffolding”)
 

Or:

     A woman asked me to swallow a compass
     so I would always find my way back to her.   
                                               (“I Could Have Been an Inventor”)

The latter recalls (perhaps by way of homonym) John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” but unlike Donne’s simile of two lovers “As stiff twin compasses,” the surreal presentation works by association that combines the desire to consume, the desire to return to a lover, and the desire to satisfy a lover’s request. And in this we can see two stories. One story is a woman requesting an act, and the other is the accommodating act. Images and experiences like these are not found in the waking world, but as they are read, they blend smoothly into the waking world. The surreal irrupts into the real, is accommodated by the real, and changes what is real.

Another way to confront the repressive hold of reality is by creating moments where the reader is not sure if what is presented is true. For instance, in “Sooner or Later, Everything Comes Out,” Bursky writes, “a single pencil / can draw a line thirty-five miles long.” I didn’t know if that was true or not. It felt like it could or could not be true. I looked it up. It’s true. When one of Bursky’s characters says, “the padlock was invented in ancient Egypt” (“There Were Many Luxuries Involved”), that seemed too early for the invention of the padlock, but I looked it up and it was true. Also true is “The earliest dentist known by name is Hesi-re. He practiced in Egypt, / five thousand years ago.” Because of this, Bursky establishes credibility, and this credibility will allow him to subvert the privilege of conscious reality. An example of the height of conscious reality is Albert Einstein, and so Bursky confronts that reality with another pencil in the prose poem “The Arrogance”:

“If you stand on the beach, reach out and rub the horizon with a pencil eraser, earth and sky become one,” Albert Einstein wrote to his sister, Maja: “catastrophic possibilities, I’d rather not consider walking barefoot in the sand.”

While Einstein did have a younger sister named “Maja” and was concerned with the “catastrophic possibilities” of atomic power, he did not write this passage. It seems real, and it seems real enough, that the speaker tries to erase the horizon, and the reader wonders if he will, but he fails. But instead of recognizing the impossibility of erasing the horizon, he thinks:

Instead of the eraser I should have brought the whip to the beach. I believed if I stood in surf and cracked it the whales would know I was there.

Bursky has created truths, fallacies, and half-truths that all blend into a truthiness. Whatever he writes feels true. The reader can experience these situations in the mind, and if they can be experienced, they must be true. His earlier credibility allows him to undermine what is considered reality. The pencil will appear again in “This Is Another Version of Heroism.” In this poem, his porn star wife gave him a “box / of pencils imprinted with my name.” In this case, a lover gives him a gift with which he can create possibilities and realities. But in this case, he doesn’t use the pencils, as expected. He concludes the story of the pencils:

     I never used the pencils until today
     when I sharpened all of them to down to nubs.
     She would be flattered by this:
     everything was a compliment to her,
     even my name, a pile of shavings in a silver cup.

He shreds his signifier and destroys the potential to create with language, as classical surrealists were haunted by the idea that language is not speech but is reality. Bursky breaks down reality into an action that creates a symbol in an unconventional way. He transforms from one reality (life) into another (afterlife), which is significant because this poem opens the section “Four” that explores the afterlife and how to create a ghost story – his own ghost story. He speaks from the dead. He speaks the dead into the living. In Let’s Become a Ghost Story, Rick Bursky eventually dissolves conscious antinomies to allow for revelation and for a truer story to emerge. //

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Bursky, Rick. Let’s Become a Ghost Story. BOA Editions, 2020.

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Works Cited

Fijalkowski, Krzysztof. “Convulsive Beauty.” Surrealism: Key Concepts, edited by Krzysztof Fijalkowski and Michael Richardson, Routledge, 2016, pp. 182-192.

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03
Dec
19

Redactions: Poetry & Poetics 2019 Pushcart Nominations

Redactions: Poetry & Poetics has made its nominations for the 2019 Pushcart Prize. In the order of appearance in issue 23 are:

  1. Derek Annis “Elegy for Suicidal Ideation” (page 8).
  2. Jeannine Hall Gailey “Fairy Tale Redacted” (page 12).
  3. Téa Franco “Por mi hermanito Mateo” (page 14).
  4. Susan Elliott “Making Dinner for You” (pages 16-17)
  5. Todd Osborne “A History of Gardening” (page 18)
  6. Charlotte Covey “bottom feeders” (page 19)

To read these poems, stories, and more, order a copy of issue 23 from here: http://www.etsy.com/shop/redactionspoetry.

08
Jul
19

On Carrie Etter’s Imagined Sons

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

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Carrie Etter's Imagined SonsI have not found many poems focused on the topic of adoption, and I’ve found even fewer poetry collections focused on it, but Carrie Etter’s Imagined Sons (Seren, 2014) is a worthy find. This collection contains poems from the viewpoint of a birth mother who relinquished her son when she was 17 years old. There are 38 prose poems titled “Imagined Sons” followed by a number and subtitle, such as “Imagined Sons 1: Fairy Tale” or “Imagined Sons 32: The Fifth Supermarket Dream,” and interspersed between those prose poems are 10 poems titled “Birthmother’s Catechism.”

The catechisms arrive in the form of questions and answers, which often feel like an interrogation. The interrogations seemingly make the birth mother feel tremendous guilt for relinquishing her son, who was born on September 11, 1986, which I believe is at the tail end of the Baby Scoop Era (if it ever ended). The Baby Scoop Era began shortly after World War II, and it was a systemic attempt to take babies from unwed mothers, especially young mothers, and that deliberately made the mothers feel like unworthy humans. The opening catechism addresses this when it points out how she signed a contract “With black ink and legalese” that forced her to give up her son. Most likely she, at the age of 17, had no idea what she was reading and was also too young to be signing a contract, which is another issue with the Baby Scoop Era. It’s also an issue that will appear in a later catechism in the line “When a stranger compares her mortgage to signing away her first son, I nod and cannot speak” (46). A little bit later in the opening catechism, the reader can see how she was treated when a “Nurse brought pills for drying up breast milk.” Right away, the reader not only feels the trauma of a young mother relinquishing her baby son, but the reader also sees how poorly lawyers, doctors, and nurses treated her. Much of the rest of the book is told from Etter’s point of view many years after, still coping with the day of her son’s birth.

Throughout the catechism poems, it’s not quite clear who is asking the questions. Maybe it’s the birth mother’s guild-ridden mind, but often it feels like a faceless, Kafkaesque judge and she’s on trial. And this judge is often, maybe always, triggering her PTSD. For instance, here is an excerpt from one interrogation:

     What is the anniversary of loss?

     Sometimes the melancholy arrives before the remembering. 

     . . . 

     What is the anniversary of loss? 

     When I say sometimes the melancholy comes first, I know the body has its own memory. 

     What is the anniversary of loss? 

     The wishbone snapped, and I clung to the smaller piece.   (15)

 

The judge is forcing her to explain and maybe justify her actions, and the reader can see how her pain is not only emotional but is also physical. The body, which grew the baby for nine months inside itself, remembers. It remembers the baby’s breathing, heartbeat, and hunger rhythms. The body, like the mind and heart, just can’t forget. With each catechism, the reader gains a better understanding of a birth mother in later years and early years. The reader also realizes and understands that she made the wrong wish, though against her will, and she lives with it daily. For instance, in one catechism the judge asks, “Who do you think you are?” and she responds, “A wrong answer” (21). And in another catechism, the judge asks her:

     Why haven’t you looked for him? 

     What if I found him? 

     Why haven’t you looked for him? 

     What if I found him turning away?   (31)

 

These lines show the hope and fear of the chance encounter of meeting her son, and it also parallels the main theme of the prose poems.

In the “Imagined Sons” prose poems, she often fantasizes in surreal, dreamlike scenes about chance encounters with strangers who she hopes will be her son. To complicate matters, Etter had her son in the United States, but later in her life, she ex-patriated to England, where the chances of the encounter are probably zero. And yet she imagines, she hopes, and she even recognizes familiar family features in the male strangers, such as how a stranger “has my large, dark eyes” (“Imagined Sons 4: Black and Velvet”), or “He’s reasonably handsome, with her father’s reddish hair and light eyes” (“Imagined Sons 15: The Second Supermarket Dream”). It’s as if she is so desperate to find her son that she might be imagining these familial features. To me, this is an unexpected reversal, because the adopted child who seeks their parents often wants the experience of recognizing where they come from – the joy in finding someone who looks like them. It seems birth mothers do the same. And all of this – the relinquishing, the guilt, the hope, the possible reconnection, adoption – is surreal, which may be why Etter chose to write prose poems. One can argue that the prose poem is the better container for surreal events than a lineated poem, because the prose poem can freely flow without conscious interference from the mind negotiating the tension between grammar and line breaks, or as Baudelaire says about the prose poem, so it can “adapt to the lyric movements of the soul.” In other words, it may more closely parallel the unconscious flow of thought and dreams. And these thoughts she will never let go of, as she tells her interrogator, she will let her son go when:

     A man carves my name into granite with hammer and chisel. 

     . . . 
 
     It is time, Celan said, the stone made an effort to flower.
 

I believe the reader also will not be able to let go of the birth mother’s trauma, language, and images in Carrie Etter’s Imagined Sons. //

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Etter, Carrie. Imagined Sons. Seren, 2014.

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12
Mar
19

On Keetje Kuipers’ All Its Charms

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

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Keetje Kuipers All Its CharmsAll Its Charms (BOA Editions, 2019) is Keetje Kuipers’ third full-length collection of poems. There is much to admire in this book, but what catches most of my attention are the steady, evolving tones paralleling a woman becoming a mother.

The book begins with poems of a speaker confronted with the morality of killing creatures. The opening poem, “Becoming,” recalls William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark,” where Stafford has to decide what to do with the dead pregnant doe with a living fawn inside her. Stafford “thought hard for all of us – my only swerving –, / then pushed her over the edge into the river.” Kuipers’ similar incident is “When I saw that early spring / meadowlark – one-winged, flapping into the road – / I pressed my heal to its chest, to the earth” (9). She, like Stafford, provides mercy. In the following poem, “Landscape with Sage and the Names of My Children,” she held a “dead / buck by his antlers and dragged him through the sage” (10). In the next poem, “The elk my father shot,” she witnesses her father’s respect for an elk he just shot with a bow and arrow, as he is “quiet / so as not to scare away the grazing // ghost he’s made” (11). The tone of these opening poems is one of conflicted compassion. A tone not dissimilar to Stafford’s thinking “hard for all of us.”

After these opening poems, the tone shifts to joy, reverence, and awe. What’s remarkable is how long Kuipers sustains the tone, which is for about half the book. And this tone is inspired by a pregnant mother awaiting her new life and trying to create the joyful atmosphere for her soon-to-arrive child. The tone affects the poems’ attitude and me, as I felt uplifted. In “Migration Instinct,” she compares her earlier life of a late-night partier and a careless spender who maxes out her credit card to her present life. The joyful tone asserts itself in the final lines (which is where it often happens), when she writes of her current situation:

     But I’ve got dishes to wash, tiny sock after sock
     to fold. Sadness is so much work. Angry takes too much 

     time. And there’s my own daughter, mouth to my breast
     as she winks in the lamplight, sucking it all right out me.   (23)

After reminiscing, she is faced with chores, but then is swept away in the adorable cuteness of baby socks, and pendulums back to her youthful, unfulfilling feelings, then swings back to a winking baby enabling her to experience a new type of love. She finds hope and awe, as if she has blossomed into a new and meaningful life.

This delightful tone continues into the second half of the book, too, but on occasion, it is interrupted by the worries a mother (I assume) tends to have. The tonal demarcation isn’t clear cut, but it starts somewhere around the poem “Outside the Refugium.” In this poem, Kuipers watches a magpie eat a dead sparrow and swallow its heart. Then the magpie speaks to her, “Yes, the world has always been this fragile” (37), before the worry of protecting and caring for a child sets in. In the following poem, “Picking Huckleberries as the World Ends,” she worries about how she’ll “shelter” her child. Following that in “Landscape with Children,” she thinks to herself about her child:

                                          Your absence
     is impossible, unimaginable. 

     You can’t ever be gone from me – a prayer
     I hold under my tongue like a dark pill 

     I’m afraid to swallow.   (39)

I start to see what I think is the evolution of a mother. A single mother who had a baby via sperm donation and who is alone in the world with her child amid real and imagined concerns that are presenting themselves to her. Bravely, she learns to negotiate those feelings with a joyful tone, again, such as at the end of “Collaborators”:

                                                          ferries
     we drive our big cars onto because now

     we can go anywhere, ferries that took
     the people from the clear shore of their lives

     to the internment camps on the mainland
     because nothing could be more dangerous

     than living among each other where voices
     unnetted and rising in complaint

     are a flock of birds that can make no better
     song than the one which we sing together.  (52)

She realizes no matter what happens, they will make it, they will survive, and they will make joyful music.

While the tones evolve and oscillate, as they probably should or the book would be too sugary, Kuipers sees the world like a sparrow, whose “head [is] turned to the side / so one black eye can search the stippled sky / in ecstasy,” even as it is being eaten alive by a magpie. She rises out of her past life of soured relationships and experiences, and she finds joy and compassion in her new life as a mother, and therein lies the beauty of the book and all its charms.//

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Kuipers, Keetje. All Its Charms. BOA Editions, 2019.

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18
Feb
19

On Katie Ford’s If You Have to Go

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

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Katie Ford’s fourth collection of poetry (and fourth with Graywolf Press), If You Have to Go, revolves around a break up with her partner of many years. The book consists of four sections, with section “II: The Addresses” comprising the bulk of the poems. In this section, there is a prefatory four-line poem that is followed by 39 sonnet-shaped poems that behave as a crown of sonnets. That is, each poem has three four-line stanzas and a couplet, which occasionally rhymes, and some aspect from the couplet is included in the following sonnet’s opening line. Sometimes the repeated aspect from the couplet is a line or phrase, an altered version of a line or a phrase, or a word from within the couplet. For example, the end of sonnet 34 ends, “Yet, lighting candles – / it’s how I went on,” and sonnet 35 begins, “By candlelight the house went down.” This type of linking not only aids in thematic flow of the section and book, but aids in the associative thinking of the speaker. The direction of thought shifts but with the same repeated aspect. For instance, while sonnets 34 and 35 share images of light and home, sonnet 34 is concerned with whether to burn the home down (where the “home” is also symbol for the writer’s body, as established in the book’s opening poem “In the Hearth”), and what to do with its ashes, but sonnet 35 turns the focus on how to deal with the ghost of the departed husband. This associative linking and thinking are vital as section II is a monologue, and to me, it appears to be an internal monologue of the writer sorting out her new life, or filling in the emptiness of lost love. This internal monologue also at times leads to abstract language, some contorted syntax, and multiple internal voices.

The opening lines of If You Have to Go are, “Of life’s abundant confusions / this does not partake” (“In the Hearth”). This is a perilous start, as the reader has nothing concrete to attach to and the “this” is ambiguous. However, it situates the reader with the abstractions we commonly use when thinking, especially during a break up with a lover. The reader, however, will later learn that “this” refers to all that surrounds her break up and the empty feeling that accompanies it. This abstract language also seemingly conjures past religious poets, like John Donne, who might use phrases like “abundant confusions” or use the word “partake.” The antiquated language of forlornness, however, is contrasted with images from the physical world.

Because of the contrasting languages of the internal and external, the images appear more evocative. Consider the opening of the first sonnet-shaped poem in section II:

     Empty with me, though here I am, I saw
     some soul set my meal with dream, then leave

It’s a challenge to visualize what it is happening at first because there is nothing really concrete. If the first line included “I am” before “Empty,” the reader gets a better sense of what is happening, but still the lines are a bit vague. Though the reader catches on to the fact that the narrator is talking to herself, and she represents herself with both the objective and subjective first-person pronouns, “me” and “I.” She is acted on and acts, to some extent. She “saw / some soul,” but is it a metaphysical soul or a person? And why “some” instead of someone more specific? Perhaps it’s because she’s in deep depression. But then this happens in lines 3-8:

     a gift for me: a ten-toothed comb to rake what’s dead
     from me until the comb’s carved medieval scene 

     where bend two horses, water-consoled,
     adds to me the hope of that number.
     My own comb’s a lime-shined prairie
     with the grass of plastic acres. 

The comb with all of its details brings her out of her internal despair and gives her a form of external hope. A hope she can physically hold on to, and a comb of hope that will accrue more meaning, as it is often referenced throughout section II. The image resolves what the abstract cannot portray.

The point I am trying to get at is risk. Ford risks using antiquated words and syntax, as well as abstraction. These uses are what every creative writing teacher (and composition teacher) tells his or her students not to do. Teachers stress writing in today’s language and with images to engage the reader. Ford’s risks, however, pay off as she fully renders one human’s broken-hearted condition by balancing the inexpressible internal with the sensual external, and as she tries to find stability through a resolvable regularity of abstraction and image. In addition, by bringing in the antiquated language, she speaks to the past and reminds the reader that writing of loss is timeless and universal. In If You Have to Go, Katie Ford creates a language and poetics for vulnerability. //

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Ford, Katie. If You Have to Go. Graywolf Press, 2018.//

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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

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