Reviews

Behind the scenes of the city and the writer

Messy and fraught with flashes of beauty

Photo of Cometbus (left) by Chrissy Piper.

Last Supper 

Last Supper 

Aaron Cometbus

ARP Books 2014, 96 pages, $11.95, ISBN 978-1894037596

In Aaron Cometbus’s first poetry collection, Last Supper, flashes of the city and one of its writers carouse side-by-side in all their messiness and fragmented beauty like blurry snapshots that tell the truth in the fuzziness. Which is fitting, given the film stills by experimental film documentarian Jem Cohen that grace the book’s covers. Improbable seeming scenes present themselves in freeform stanzas, sometimes with gallows rhyme that often showcases pained or hard-won honesty. Cometbus, the author of the eponymous zine (since 1981), chronicles both a changing and fading city, and is also a writer ruminating on aging. There are moments that stand out in plaintive speech spiked with poetic wisdom; that make you fold the book, set it down, look out the window, and then pick it up again. For those who have followed his zine, it’s intriguing to see what Cometbus has chosen to render in poetic form.

When Cometbus proclaims he “gave directions to every single person on the train / and gave them correctly for a change,”[1] New Yorkers will understand; he nails the only-in-New-York experiences without being cliché. How many times have we given directions only to realize we gave biking directions for driving or driving directions for the train? In the opening poem “Three Bridges,” those who have seen this scene will immediately recognize it — but had you ever really stopped to remember it? That’s what Cometbus does, bringing the unlikely memories to light that we haven’t bothered to remember:

At the foot of the bridge number one
is a tiny shop crammed with socks
The sun doesn’t shine there
It’s so subterranean that the store serves as a foundation
for the ramp that carries bikes and cars
away from the island (9)

Cometbus is observant of all the things we might miss on the streets — the kinds of things astute nonfiction filmmakers like Jem Cohen notice; shortly after the above poem we encounter:      

An only in New York
warning note
taped to a trash bag
on the street
“Books inside
all in Chinese!” (12)

Given that Cometbus is an avid cyclist in the city, what he sees are things we miss because walking is too slow and driving is too fast. In between these snapshots of a city not always seen, we see the analogy of the life of a writer, behind the scenes, also not always seen. New York is the famed stereotype of the glamorous “writer”; Cometbus cuts an imposing figure if you’ve seen him in his bands or at his haunts like the Poetry Project marathon (which is also the partial subject of a poem). Alongside all of this, Cometbus tells of what goes on in a real writer’s apartment in the height of summer in New York. I’m sure any regular NYC writer can agree:

In a quiet apartment in Brooklyn, peace reigns
boneless cats lie snoring in the heat
one an inkblot, the other a scoop of melted ice cream
[…]
Now I sit with a cold can of pabst
and a hot double espresso
Perched and poised to strike
and return to work on my novel for another night (15)

These two narratives, the lesser-known story of the city and the not always seen story of the writer — of the real writers of this city, not the NYT bestseller list ones — show how cities and writers actually live, and this is what makes this book come alive. As Cometbus says:

I found his book
on that […] dollar rack
where all the best things in life
reside (14)

Cometbus tells one hilarious convoluted story (of many), not so funny when it happened, of when he needed a dollar to catch his train to the airport:

I found an unmarked
building on 41st St
where Travelers Aid was supposed to be
[…]
I filled out the forms and
anxiously awaited
[…]
The social worker was half way
through the interview when she glanced at the bottom of the page
“A dollar — that’s all you need? Why didn’t you say so before?” (35)

For all the stereotypes about this city and “punks,” the poem speaks volumes about the simultaneous qualities that make New York, New York, and the pluckiness of its residents. Cometbus has a gift for rendering these moments that say poetically all that needs to be said in a seemingly — but deceptively — simple and pithy moment.

The city, like Cometbus acknowledges about himself throughout the book, isn’t what it once was:

Even a relatively recent arrival
like me has their old NY that’s gone:
The coffeeshop at the UN
with chipped china and paint peeling off the walls
[…]
Does anyone know a good bike mechanic
now that Peter Pizza has sold his shop?
The new owner wants to put my address into his computer
but I don’t even like to give my name (41)

What is an equally humorous and sobering story to read is his devotion to his typewriter and typewriter repairman Li Quan:

“Ah Panasonic KX,” he says fondly
when I barge into his store in a cloud of dust
“You still haven’t given it up”
“Never!” I vow, “Not as long as you’re here”
To which he replies: “Six months” (41)

Like typewriters that always seem to fade from use, but never do, Cometbus devotes an entire section to “Living in Bookstores”; bookstores always seem on the verge of extinction, even in NYC, but have never really died like we thought they would. Cometbus has had his share of time in them:          

I’ve spent a lot of long, dragging days
manning the counter in struggling little bookstores
where failure hangs in the air (54)

What Cometbus has a gift for showing is those bits of loneliness in the clutter of community; that’s NY and its trademark, so much of what E. B. White famously said in “Here is New York” about the city giving the “gift” of loneliness and privacy. Many of Cometbus’s poems can be said to be actual examples of White’s observational theories on the city. Cometbus (like White) shares stories of places in NYC that popular culture usually doesn’t acknowledge when hyping up stereotypical New York events, as Cometbus writes in “Holidays”:

Instead of watching the ball drop in Times Square
I go to the Chassidic district
where you can hear a pin drop
It’s not their New Year (67)

As he continues to try to live with authenticity and community in this city, Cometbus gets a sharp awakening about how much he has not changed in “Modern World” when dealing with workers in a punk bike shop:            

“Cool sticker, dude” they said
then returned grim
“For insurance reasons
we’re unable to work on this
It’s unsafe to ride
Those are the rules” (74)

Cometbus continues to watch the city change around him, and it’s a kind of change those of us who are not the uber-wealthy millionaires, stock brokers, out-of-state students will recognize; the real city is not lasting any longer — it is indeed disappearing. As he writes in “The City Disappears”:           

Until the day comes when you ride the train
and look around to realize
that everyone and everything is new
besides the train
and you (92)

The writer that Cometbus is, a writer that sits behind the book counter, is behind all the changes and challenges of living in the city:

The greatest writers on earth keep me company
though the real work begins at closing time
sitting behind the counter
writing more books
that no one will buy (55)

I hope that this ending of “Living in Bookstores” does not become true, because I look forward to Cometbus’s next book of poetry. How Cometbus parses life, not into one of his zine narratives, but into poetic yarns of wisdom, is fascinating in and of itself. Cometbus captures the city like those faded 1970s photos with the white border around them, or the ’80s Polaroids just blurry enough to let both mystique and true colors shine through — a missing vision of your world suddenly appears and disappears just as quietly. Last Supper is a must read if you care about how the city’s authenticity seems to be under constant siege, if you were part of a punk and squat scene, if you value true human interaction, if you’ve forgotten what it means to be a true, alive member (not virtual) of the community that is NYC — or perhaps any city.


1. Aaron Cometbus, Last Supper (Winnipeg: ARP Books, 2014), 70.

Mutual-aid amid 'ASoUND'

A review of Cheena Marie Lo's 'A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters'

Boat from the cover of ‘A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters’ laid over a visualization one of the book’s poems of tabulated numbers.

A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters

A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters

Cheena Marie Lo

Commune Editions 2016, 76 pages, $16, ISBN 978-1934639191

As a rule, the most general abstractions arise only in the midst of the richest possible concrete development, where one thing appears as common to many, to all. Then it ceases to be thinkable in a particular form alone. — Karl Marx, Grundrisse

Earlier I rode in David’s parents’ sports utility twice past the Church’s Chicken in Funktown that just shut — Chelsea tells me it was about a month ago — to and from moving a bookcase out of Uhuru Furniture & Collectibles into David’s new room in The Honey Hive, the cooperative house David until recently had a far less sunny room in. Chels speculates the Church’s shut in part because of how many folks, apparently residentially or vocationally displaced, hung out front; many still do, like folks still do on the sidewalks surrounding the recently chainlink-enclosed St. Andrews Plaza in West Oakland, a block from the tenants’ rights clinic. Chels added that the folks assembling in front of Church’s, whether just to assemble or else to hit up neighbors for chicken or change with which to buy chicken or whatever, represent the population of the restaurant’s neighborhood customer base, who were presently getting displaced. Following the logic of a recent piece in The Guardian describing how “in many poor and middle-income neighborhoods … McDonald’s have become de-facto community centers,” these folk of Funktown do less and more than represent demographic shifts. They’re doing what they’ve been doing for some time — getting together where they have been regardless of whether the doors behind them are open any more.

“[T]owards each other,” “towards our neighbors,” “towards the amalgamation of larger divisions of the species for purposes of mutual protection,”[1] to quote from a poem in Cheena Marie Lo’s new book of poems, their first. Lo, like me, is an Oakland-based poet, writing in (yet another) period of our neighbors’ violent deterritorialization and reterritorializing mutual-aid; this period is the subject of their book.

A series of un/natural/disasters and their mass mediations — statistics included — have already done the work of reiterating the racialization of many of those to whom I refer, the people Lo’s book allegorically cares most for. According to Development Without Displacement, a report put out by Causa Justa::Just Cause, the same organization that houses the aforementioned tenants’ clinic, “Between 1990 and 2011, Oakland’s African American population decreased [by 40 percent] from 43 percent to 26 percent of the population, the largest drop by far of any population group.” Census data visualized by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project shows that in the census tract including Funktown’s Church’s, the black population fell by thirty-three percent, from thirty percent to twenty percent, between 1990 and 2010.

The shuttered restaurant’s facade has already been covered in painted writing. My favorite throw-up there is “IDEA,” writ in big comparatively flat-styled block letters as if to name the social force that has displaced the restaurant’s operation. It’s that big idea that makes matters its own and then moves out many of said matters’ makers, as in the moving contradiction, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” — considered a natural phenomena by political economists before (and since) Marx’s critique. Recall that, for Kant, beautiful things — nature exemplary among them — are beautiful because to the viewer they appear as designed purposively despite lacking practical purpose; with this in mind, I quote the closing lines of Lo’s poem “How There Was So Much Water”:

how nature is layered on the manmade.

or how man interferes with nature and fails. something about lines and
       boundaries and naming. something about the ugly being beautiful.

how what’s dirty is actually crystal clear. (20)

Building exteriors are among the most insistent images in Lo’s A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters; these exteriors are subprime and beautiful, to paraphrase an essay title of Fred Moten’s. When I first heard Lo read from the book’s manuscript over a year ago at the release event for their Commune Editions comrade Jasper Bernes’s We Are Nothing and So Can You, I thought maybe some of the poems concerned foreclosed homes (no longer signature to Oakland’s housing crisis, but part of its basis; more so a residential injury signature to the crisis in Providence, RI from where I moved not long ago). Perhaps that night Lo read “Direct Sunlight Looking Over 4725 Dauphine Street,” which includes the following:

lines of parallel panels painted gray and peeling.

eight lines of parallel panels in the frame pained gray and peeling.

orange X spraypainted on eight lines of parallel panels in the frame, so
       bright against paint gray and peeling. (17) 

After another listen and several reads these images become more obvious marks of one of the many New Orleans homes wrecked when the levees failed amid Hurricane Katrina — because of so many “because”s listed in “Because Another Tropical Storm is Looming,” but most immediately “because the levees that protect New Orleans from floods are weak” (9). The “orange X spraypainted” appears again in three other poems, “X-Codes Mark the Spot on Every Home,” “Xs May Shine With Startling Clarity,” and “Yellow House Leaning Forward.” A little research following the book’s acknowledgement of K + 5: An X-Code Exhibition elaborates that the X-Codes were used to indicate whom or what FEMA responders found in the home as it was searched for survivors; the codes since “seem to say/xo rip miss you,” as Lo’s “X-Codes Mark the Spot” describes (60). (At the level of euphemism, my association with foreclosure wasn’t entirely wrong: finance jargon refers to a home as “underwater” when the price of the property is less than the amount owed to the lender.) 

The main un/natural/disaster serialized in the book, as I’ve already indicated, is the one faced by those to whom the language of news reports — from which Lo appropriates significant parts of the book’s text — refers as “poor black people,” or “poor and African-American,” or “poor black communities,” and these are just three of more than a dozen variations on that phrase Lo borrows: “folks [who] were told to evacuate, and they had no means to do it” (28–30), or else did and now have no means to get back. The repetition of these variations, among many other phrases, fragments, and sentences beginning with the word “poor” in the poem “Poor Marks for His Handling of Federal Response,” seems to simultaneously mark the inadequacy of such language and to perform part of an answer to two questions that appear early in A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters and that resonate throughout:

can a disaster be qualified by the number of lives lost?
                                                                                 /how to quantify absence?” (16).

A few years ago in the comment feed to Calvin Bedient’s “Against Conceptualism: Defending the Poetry of Affect” Bhanu Kapil wrote that “there ARE dead zones — real ones — and that to study their neutrality is a politics of sensation.” Kapil was contesting Bedient’s dismissal of M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! along with a whole slew of other works that sometimes get tagged Conceptual Writing. Kapil wrote that observation after seeing a performance of Zong!, and wrote this too: “Being there — at all — with [next to] [at the perimeter of] the worlds or beings who — don’t get to tell or say or be in certain vital or expressive ways” (brackets Kapil’s). This could easily be a description of what Lo’s book is and does, why it’s perfect that its acronym is ASoUND, indefinitely audible ambient as the whole thing is (I’m thinking now of Lyn Hejinian’s description of Renee Gladman’s Ana Patova Crosses A Bridge as “zones of sheer ambience”). But of Kapil’s declarations, which don’t once relate Zong! to Conceptual Writing, and how apt they feel to me for A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters, I can’t help but think how the book again and again apposes the concept of disaster and disaster’s general un/naturalism with its real sensitivity for disasters’ fields of ambient socioecological loss, losses that qualitatively count the disaster of late imperial capital and its cultural forms, conceptualism most definitely included. Near, against, amid “the state … in danger of collapse” and “there is no way home” (52), Lo poses: “so what about support and what about struggle”; “so what about the field upon which tender feelings develop even amidst otherwise most cruel animals” (38). 

When Cathy Park Hong wrote last year, “The era of Conceptual Poetry’s ahistorical nihilism is over and we have entered a new era, the poetry of social engagement,” this book was still on its way to us to help realize this new era. While reappropriating many of the tools that Conceptual Writing sought to claim for itself from older avant-gardes and amid much literal and figurative abstraction — whether lists of categories that “connect policy to built environment” and “probation to reinvestment” (13–14) or a three-page table of digits with no obvious reference except one of several acknowledgements in the back of the book (43–45) — A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters “speaks through its sheer numbers” (42). It says that disaster is inseparable from the socioecology that you can hear, no matter how distant, in the materials of its very conception when that materiality comes together; it’s always been together. 

This is why when reading Jameson Fitzpatrick’s review of A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters for Lambda Literary, I am both with and not with Fitzpatrick in hoping that “[i]n future work, perhaps we will have the opportunity to hear more of what Lo themself has to say in … asides,” such as:

(unspeakable this anxiety i am
unable to find the language
until long after waking
until then, there is this) (53)

For, as Maurice Blanchot reminds readers over and over in The Writing of the Disaster, the “unspeakable … anxiety”[2] of Lo’s speaker is an affective literary mark of the disaster that has and is always already come and yet to come. And that disaster is everywhere found, un-and-con-founding us. The speaker’s aside itself substitutes for found language “until” the “i” is “able to find the language … long after waking.” This language is something that we find, sometimes strangely, in common with Lo in figuring out how we can move toward each other amid these times A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters writes through. We are ourselves together in it.


1. Cheena Marie Lo, A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters (Commune Editions, 2016), 49–50.
2. Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (University of Nebraska Press, 1986).

 

‘the unspeakable, the unutterable’

Song X: New and Selected Poems

Song X: New and Selected Poems

Patrick Pritchett

Talisman House 2014, 174 pages, $21.95, ISBN 978-1584981114

Over the past two decades, poet and essayist Patrick Pritchett has been quietly building an impressive and altogether unique body of work, culminating in a recent (2014) new and selected poems, Song X, which is derived from previous collections Gnostic Frequencies (Spuyten Duyvil, 2011), Antiphonal (Pressed Wafer, 2008), Burn: Doxology for Joan of Arc (Chax Press, 2005), and Reside (Dead Metaphor Press, 1999). Song X takes its title from Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman’s free jazz album, implying that the poetry included here is, like the work of those artists, an experiment in form — one that aims to transcend the limitations of language, namely the unsurpassable gulf between materiality and spirituality that has vexed writers possibly since language’s invention. As with his Romantic and transcendentalist forebears, Pritchett’s lyric modus operandi is to find a way past these intrinsic limitations of form and to fold them into his compositional practice; in other words, to make a potential source of weakness a poetic strength.

And there is much strength — of line, mind, and spirit — to be found in these poems, which at times approach a pure lyricism unmatched in English poetry since Swinburne. Yet Pritchett’s work often leans on a self-described “new Gnosticism,” which Pritchett has described as “a lost mode of visionary poetics by experimental means […] haunted by the ghosts of theology and making it their work to sift through its ruins, working within the parenthetical gap articulated so well by poet Robin Blaser: ‘we’re no longer inside of religion, but we are still inside of whatever happened to it.’”[1]

Burn, perhaps the most gnostic of Pritchett’s works, is a book-length “doxology” (classically a liturgical praise to God) of interconnected poems addressing — in a decidedly abstract, intuitive, and emotional sense — the martyrdom of Joan of Arc. The collection is arguably Pritchett’s most accomplished, containing his most pleasingly lyric and metaphorically rich work; Pritchett has an attraction toward, and a gift for composing, serial poetry. Here, Pritchett describes the martyrdom of Joan as “encrypting the body of dust in the body of flame.”[2] What is most remarkable about this sequence is Pritchett’s ability, through tone and language, to evoke an immensely personal vision, whatever its dependency on the historical figure of Joan. In fact, Burn shares much commonality with mid-twentieth-century American confessional poetry, though stripped of its often psychological context; Pritchett prefers to distill his emotional resonances to an almost purely visionary experience — in other words, poetry as secular religion.

In an endnote to Gnostic Frequencies (not reprinted here), Pritchett notes that the “crux” of his poems lies in “the unspeakable, the unutterable — in the darkness that surrounds and informs the matter of the poem as logos itself is what emerges, not from spirit, but out of earth. Whatever escapes language even as it transfigures it.”[3] What this involves is an attempt at a poetic reintegration of the visionary and the everyday. In this, Pritchett evokes the paradoxical necessity of language to the human experience, how ingrained and essential it is to our psyche, whatever its liminality and material restrictiveness. “The secret of transparency is / the opacity of its halo” (108), Pritchett writes in the poem “Gnostic Frequencies.” In other words, the more truth one hopes to achieve in language — and that is Pritchett’s ultimate aim — the more difficult and imprecise the language becomes. Pritchett’s gift is his ability to achieve such remarkably precise yet transcendent lyrics amidst the strenuous imprecisions of words.  


1. In personal correspondence with the reviewer dated March 15, 2016. (A longer statement is available on Pritchett’s always fascinating, if infrequently updated, blog, Writing the Messianic.)

2. Patrick Pritchett, Song X: New and Selected Poems (Northfield, MA: Talisman House, 2014), 17.

3. Patrick Pritchett, Gnostic Frequencies (Brooklyn, NY: Spuytin Duyvil Press, 2011), 159.

Gelmaning on

A review of 'Oxen Rage (Cólera buey)'

Photo of Juan Gelman (right) courtesy of Gianluca Battista, 2011.

Oxen Rage (Cólera buey)

Oxen Rage (Cólera buey)

Juan Gelman, trans. Lisa Rose Bradford

Co-im-press 2015, 392 pages, $24.95, ISBN 978-0988819948

Remarkably few volumes of poetry by Juan Gelman have been translated into English. This is perhaps because of the unique challenges inherent in translating his work, known for its neologisms, playful and musical language, and political exploitation of ambiguity — Gelman once wrote to his translator, Lisa Rose Bradford, “To be sure is a sickness of our times.” Yet, as a poet who turned to translation to broaden his creative resources, Gelman’s work, I would argue, is not resistant to translation but rather uniquely receptive to it — provided the translator has the guts to tinker with one of the most influential Spanish-language poets of the twentieth century. Bradford rises to the task with a poet’s courage and imagination.

Bradford has previously translated three volumes of Gelman’s poetry, including Commentaries and Citations (Coimbra Editions, 2010), Com/positions (Coimbra Editions, 2013),and his Carta abierta titled Beyond Words: Juan Gelman’s Public Letter (Coimbra Editions, 2010), which includes commentary and an interview with the author, and won the National Translation Award. These books pertain to Gelman’s incredibly fertile period in the 1980s, during which he experimented with writing intertextually, conversing with poets of the past and of his own invention, breaking and reinventing language. While this recourse to experimentation may have been spurred by tragedy — he was exiled from Argentina shortly before the military dictatorship of 1976–1983, while his son and pregnant daughter-in-law became bodies among the estimated 30,000 disappeared — its roots begin much earlier, as Oxen Rage demonstrates. The book collects the remains of eleven unpublished books written between 1963 and 1968, coalescing around a long elegy for the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara. Oxen Rage is suffused with the violent optimism of the 1960s, and it is this willful refusal of despair in the face of gathering political darkness that engenders the “stubborn obstacles”[1] of the book’s oxen-like language. 

Bradford’s is not just the first translation of Oxen Rage into English, but the first into any language. Complicating — and liberating — her monumental task, is the fact that the book includes Gelman’s first forays into pseudotranslation, of the invented poets John Wendell and Yamanokuchi Ando. Even Gelman’s own voice is far from fixed, moving from expansive free verse to intricate meter, prose poetry, and evocative fragments, to extended elegy, but always reveling in musicality, sometimes without regard for meaning. As Bradford writes in her introduction to Oxen Rage, “this medley of genres and approaches to writing poetry in many ways springs from translation, in the most energizing sense of the word, translation being an occasion to open up the language for it to become enriched by reinvention” (xiii–xiv). Bradford’s challenge is to translate without pinning down ambiguity, to create distinct voices in English while allowing each to bend and change. In doing so, she benefits from a long artistic friendship with Gelman, a poet who viewed all acts of writing and translation as “con/versational” (xiii).

Bradford offers unusual insight into her translation process in her introduction, where she shares the literal translation through which Gelman’s poem “Yes” passed on its way to her final version. Readers unable to recognize the Spanish neologisms in Gelman’s en face original will see his linguistic innovation in Bradford’s literal translation: “celebrating its machine / the dog-stubborn heart love-dwells / as if it weren’t given (struck) crosswise / back winging in its defiance // winging of flying wing” (xv). Already, between parentheses, we can see her mind moving from the vague literal to a more visceral verb. Compare those intriguing yet unintelligible lines with her ingenious version:

celebrando su máquina                                    celebrating its engine
el emperrado corazón amora                           the dogged heart enloves
como si no le dieran de través                         as if it weren’t battered on the bias
de atrás alante en su porfía                             wingforth and back in its defiance                     

alante de ala de volar (38)                               forwarding wings to flight (39)

By not translating literally, Bradford achieves that rare alchemy of English poetry that has the texture of Spanish poetry, while being true to Gelman’s unique voice. Her poem revs open with an engine that fuses human and animal, animal and machine. The brilliant “battered on the bias” slants wing-like to catch a rhyme with defiance, propelling the poem forward as it hovers between heaven and earth. The tension between wings and feet stretches the poem diagonally: “troubled by stones / underfoot like feet of a sort // feeting along rather than winging or how / the world the ox the enloined would be / if we weren’t devouring one another / if we were enloving more lavishly” (39). Gelman appears torn between the desire for escape and the daily struggle of life on earth. He praises the loyalty of the ox, who appears here not as stubborn (to a fault) but a lover, enloined, giving life. Elsewhere, Gelman plays with changing the gender of nouns, while here he transgressively attributes maternal qualities to the castrated draft animal. The coinage “enloined” (“lo que se hija,” literally what sons) is reminiscent of a pun Gelman has borrowed elsewhere from César Vallejo on “hijar/ijar,” “to son” with “flank.” Bradford mimics the structure of Spanish, finding sonic echoes by repeating prefixes in sometimes familiar, sometimes new ways, as in engine, enloves, endeavoring, enloined, enloving. Capturing Gelman’s neologisms is a weighty responsibility in this poem in particular: “de atrásalante en su porfía” and “el emperrado corazón amora” became the titles of recent books in 2009 and 2011, respectively, proving how Gelman’s experimentation in Oxen Rage has continued to reverberate up into his final works. Having now fixed their titles, we can only hope that Bradford will fill in the poems encompassed by these later volumes.

According to Bradford, Gelman likened his moments of poetic inspiration to “A horse galloping on my chest.” In another poem, “Heroes,” Gelman animalizes himself by making his own name into a verb, gelmanear — “my thing is to gelman” — something he will continue to play with in later books, including Carta abierta. He also creates verbs from nouns, as in the poem’s opening, “the suns sun and the seas sea” (35), which benefits from fortuitous puns in English. The sun and sea can’t help but be and do just what they are, yet humans often strive to escape our animal nature. Not so with this poet, who celebrates ranch animals without romanticizing them. In this poem, the animal of metaphor is a horse, and the focus on castration remains: “we have lost our fear of the great stallion / successive hatchets are upon us / and it always dawns upon our testicles” (35). The work animals in these poems in some sense function as a critique of capitalism — “all poetry is hostile to capitalism” (265), he writes — yet Gelman was equally critical of the strictures and dictates communism imposed, particularly when it came to literature. With a clever intervention in the last stanza, which in Spanish simply begins “a gelmanear a gelmanear les digo” (34), Bradford clarifies what sort of animal Gelman is: “giddy up gelman on i say / go gelmaning on to meet the most beautiful ones / those who launched victories in their great defeat” (35). To gelman is to gallop through life, to push on against despair and exhaustion, but it is also to be ridden, to be worked. Bradford’s translation of “Heroes” in the book doesn’t differ much from an earlier draft published in Asymptote, but one can appreciate how she has streamlined certain lines, such as the opening, embracing the declarative power of Gelman’s simple language. Another translation of the poem, by Katherine Hedeen and Víctor Rodríguez Núñez published in their beautiful critical tribute to the poet after his death in 2014, which adheres to and departs from the original in sometimes the same and sometimes different places as Bradford's, allows the reader to appreciate just how much translating Gelman is an act of interpretation.

Gelman titles the collection Oxen Rage after the second “book,” foregrounding the significance of these poems as a nexus of future linguistic inspiration. Yet, his experimentation in other sections extends also into the formal. “Sertimientos” / “Sertiments,” the title of which plays on the common practice in porteño dialect of substituting r’s for n’s, is a stupendous example of formal verse, with a driving rhythm of octonario (sixteen-syllable lines) formed of pairs of eight-syllable lines connected by a caesura, and a chaining rhyme scheme over five cinquains. How to translate a poem like this? Bradford wisely does not attempt to replicate the rhyme, and the syllable counts change slightly, but she retains the paired construction of the lines across caesuras, which comes quite naturally to English poetry, by way of Beowulf:

like a wisp of a cry like a wee little bit
like a pebble’s flight of catenating light
i untether my horses and tie up my patience
nightbound voices raise their two voices
nightbound branches raise their two voices (69)

Following Gelman, Bradford repeats words or uses conjunctions to connect the two phrases across the gap, finding internal rhyme in places. Terms of bondage proliferate throughout the poem, mirroring its unchaining structure, which Bradford translates adroitly, finding synonyms that multiply meaning: “and the beasts of love roam unchained / and they sing but don’t sew those Machiavellian tailors / who stitchlessly seamed your heart up with mine / and lashed their fate with barbarous sweetness.”  “Lashed” puns wonderfully on tying, but also whipping, coming as it does in close proximity to Gelman’s horses. This is a poem that moves with the inspiration of wild horses, beasts unchained, while patience is tied up and left behind in the stable. The lovers in the poem strive against fate, personified with the classical trope of a tailor: “the barbarous tailors doublestitch the wrack and ruin” (doublestitch, another wonderful choice for what in Spanish is simply “atar,” to tie) (68–69).

And what fate do the lovers strive against? A new refrain replaces the opening “nightbound voices”: “it’s fear outside it’s hunger it’s cold / and it corrupts and kills and shrivels the bond.” Love must be very strong to survive fear and poverty born of political repression. But the lovers are not innocent: “those black devils just as your love and mine / with their tender pustules and pure indecency / sing like the devil it’s hunger it’s cold / and arise through the fault of all innocence.” The paired contradictions tear against their binding, and speak to a painful romantic bond that perseveres against external forces and its own inherent instability. As the poem comes to a close, phrases are recycled for a devastatingly inevitable conclusion: “i untether my horses they intone their two songs / without saying it’s fear i gaze at the infinite sky / your heart and mine tether their wrack and ruin / and at one fell stroke they crush it’s hunger it’s cold” (69). While “Sertiments” sings with the modernismo music of Martí and Darío’s formal verse, it speaks to the reality of a disaffected generation in 1960s Argentina.

The refrain of hunger and cold recurs later in sparser free verse in one of the poems of “Other Mays,” which warns those who persist blindly, ignoring the injustice of the world, “careful now it will get dark / get hate get hunger get cold” (129). With remarkable consistency, Bradford matches the reverberations across Gelman’s Spanish in her translations, ensuring that these throughlines can be followed in English, as in the opening of “Another May”: “sunny people who stroll / along the skin of may / strolling people strolling along / doggedly defiant of the world” (129), which recalls the famous neologism of “Yes.”

Now that we have a more or less firm grasp of Gelman’s voice (as if that were possible) we can appreciate the poetic achievement of Gelman’s pseudotranslations, and Bradford’s translations of the pseudotranslations. The poets Gelman has invented here are British (John Wendell) and Japanese (Yamanokuchi Ando). A plausibly Japanese surname, ando is also the first person singular of the Spanish verb andar (to stroll or walk), so it is almost as if Gelman is saying, “I go around being Yamanokuchi.” Gelman’s relationship to his imagined poets is one of embodiment. To his credit, and Bradford’s, Ando’s poems do not mimic the aesthetic minimalism and meditative contemplation that is often associated with Eastern poetry in translation. While Ando employs metaphors of the natural world, he also engages with the Western poetic canon in poems about Sappho, and Greek and Arab mythology. His best poems, quite unlike Gelman’s, tumble in a single sentence of sounds spread out across several stanzas that grow stranger and stranger as they go on, as in the ending of one of the Sappho poems: “roses growing there and when / they rotted on her tongue / they left her damage sweetness / death and double blooms of thought” (345). Here, Bradford has preserved the proliferation of d-sounds in Gelman’s “original” — “le dejaron daño dulzura / muerte pensamientos dobles” (344) — which drag the poem down with heaviness. Unsurprisingly, for a poet enamored of Sappho, Ando excels at erotic poetry, as in poem II, which is also composed of a cascading thought that here finds a sense of resolution at the end:

love not spent on full orgasm
with a woman if a man with a man
if a woman sucks the salt
from kidneys crackles

in the lungs killing joy
vexing the cervical and a caress
changes rock into clay
deafly coursing through the body like

other disappointments or brightness
in this world so replete
with baseness betrayal rooms
that begin to moan at night (337)

While Ando’s erotic poems begin to resemble Gelman’s minimalist intonations to an absent lover in “Sefiní” / “Say Finis,” they are more surreally metaphysical. Bradford makes lovely choices here again, such as making “sordo” into an adverb, “deafly,” that can also be read as “deftly.” With Ando, Gelman creates an innovative, contemporary voice that forcefully opposes the regionalisms imposed on Eastern — and, for that matter, Latin American — poets.

In translating Ando, Bradford tacks closely to her method for Gelman’s own poems, writing good translations that preserve, when possible, the aesthetic qualities of the Spanish (without in this case any obligation to sound like Spanish). The task of translating John Wendell, from Gelman’s Spanish “translations” into their English “originals,” is arguably more challenging, and Bradford rises to it tremendously. It is not their local reference points that make Wendell’s poems read as distinctly British — “nor do I know why these reflections / fall like snow in Charing Cross where I love you / and sink down into you as into a river / of ambrosia and milk and honey and I love you” (247). Nor is it because, as a poet concerned as Gelman was with the postcolonial political reality, his worldview is shaped by the borders of the former and current British Empire:

I am a man of the world interested
in the revolution in Pakistan the lack
thereof in Yorkshire where
once I saw people weeping
from hunger or mere rage. (239)

(Consider how universal Gelman’s concerns in his own Argentina are shown to be, when Wendell expresses worry over the hunger, rage, and lack of revolutionary drive to combat them in Yorkshire.)

Bradford’s translations of the pseudotranslations of Wendell are glorious because they work poetically like poems originally written in English, as when she translates the wordplay of solo/sol (alone, sun) as “your name rises every morning / warming the world and setting / alone in my heart / aloft in my heart” (242–43). Or when XVII enjoys internal rhyme in its opening stanza, “with the breaking of day again / the house begins to grate / and it may be ghosts or some ward- / robe some forgotten memory falling apart,” and in the same poem, desgarramos is broken to enhance the meaning of the line as “where once upon a time we tore our selves apart” (237, emphasis mine). But most especially, when Wendell remakes one of Gelman’s signature themes in an unmistakably English vernacular, replete with rhetorical questions, yet with an alien enjambment: 

and who dares to claim my heart is madness?
and who dares to claim my heart is not madness?

who is it dancing below who
is it guessing below dear friends
the favorites of hate and of time that gulps down hate
and all those tiny sparrows that are blameless?

and who swears that Panama is Panama and not your hair
when snow has fallen and we have made love like beasts
and delicate as beasts
and sad as beasts?

so much need for god’s sake
that’s how we’ll end up good god
dumb or half blind but always
rigorous in our assessments (233)

It is in her translation of the colloquial expressions that Bradford brings Wendell into a believable English, translating compadres as “dear friends,” and diós mio and mi diós as “for god’s sake” and “good god.” Yet what could be more Gelman than making love like beasts? What could be more British than ending a love poem with “rigorous in our assessments”? (233).

In the face of American poetry’s increasingly alarming insularity, Gelman’s revolutionary book demonstrates the rich “con/versation” that can only come from engagement with other languages and traditions. Bradford’s translations finally extend the conversation and the afterlife of these seminal poems. Only in translation can we appreciate the success of Gelman’s pseudotranslations, which force the reader to consider what makes a poem sound like a particular language or culture, what expectations we bring or limitations we impose on international writing. In Gelman’s polyphonous voice and Bradford’s translations we see reflected both the particularity and universality of great writing.


1. Lisa Rose Bradford, introduction to Oxen Rage, by Juan Gelman, trans. Lisa Rose Bradford (Normal, IL: co-im-press, 2015), xi.

Nostos — returning home to the self

A review of erica lewis’s ‘daryl hall is my boyfriend’

daryl hall is my boyfriend

daryl hall is my boyfriend

erica lewis

Barrelhouse Books 2015, 86 pages, $10, ISBN 978-0988994539

After reading erica lewis’s latest poetry collection daryl hall is my boyfriend, a collaboration that later became the first book in a box set trilogy, I felt as if I’d returned an epic hero who found a way back home to selfhood/personhood via a sea of layered memories, triggered by songs that change “even in the remembering.”[1] Stirring up an accessible feeling of Odyssean nostos, or the journey home, lewis prefaces her collection with “this is an album about re-ordering the past”; anyone with room for nostalgia is invited to join the poet on memory’s dance floor. “It’s about having to grow up. What it means to grow up and let go of the past and childish things,” lewis offers in her “process note.” Constrained by 1980s Daryl Hall and John Oates pop song lyrics, the poet engages memory and spins it through her contemporary confessional. 

Memory is a beehive

Organized into three sections, “somehow, you can dance to it,” “instrumentation,” and “rarities and b sides,” the poem titles in the collection all take their names from various Hall & Oates songs, with the actual song title appearing as an asterisked note at the end of each poem. While the poems aren’t about the songs, the songs “trigger” and incite the contents of the poems. Other musical stars from yesteryear also make appearances: Pink Floyd, Paul Young, Lionel Richie, Michael Stipe, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Etta James, and Patti Smith are included. Songs, and the “stars” who sing them, provide the fluidity that memory thrives on; and as we know, memory never stays in one place, nor does it flow from only one stream. Childhood handclap songs — “apples on the table / peaches on the floor” (7) — interrupt the collection throughout, claiming their position inside memory’s “dresser of small regrets” (7):

we roam in search of a language that can grapple with our multiple
   realties including
   the delusional one

down down baby down by the roller coaster/sweet sweet baby i’ll never
   let you go. (3)

Memory is a “mouthful of bees” (18) buzzing through the mind at thunderclap speed; “childhood glitters” (55) — in which “childhood meant the world was piling up” (54) — and young adult recollection collide with present adult perspective. lewis shows us how the mind operates, moving from past to present, fine-tuning the “white noise” (39) static of time, “and once you admit time past is    [actually]     infinite / being a child gradually fades away” (5). In the poem, “all the days i’ve lost hoping and pretending*,” the poet begins, “there is a blur between personhood / sitting in this building staring out of a window,” making the path to a whole self a murky one steeped in self-conscious adult mistrust (doubt):

and it was like, forgive me
the logic of childhood is not genuine
i shouldn’t talk about myself that way
in mid-air we forget our feet
we are too old to have this dance party. (65)

In “the stampede / of things that aren’t relevant anymore” (21) there rests an inner assurance that “the heart creates its own history” (30), and included in the pulsating memory stream are both personal and historical wounds, where memory becomes a form of sickness:

or that being alive is a burden inside of you
so memory is just a form of getting sick
the conventional way of saying this suffocates. (65)

Personal wound, and meeting it head on with the hope of healing oneself one day, is confessed in the poem “my bark is much worse than my bite*”:

i know that i’m dealing with some kind of wound
that’s not about losing youth as much as it’s about losing the willingness
i hope one day i will be able to be completely myself. (30)

Sifting through the “anxiety, hope, love” (30) of yesterday and recasting it into a present point-of-view is emotionally arduous; lewis not only brings personal wounds to the forefront to collude with her present, but allows historical wounds to also come into focus. In “i don’t need a reminder of the love that went away*,” the poet shows the receptive (vulnerable?) mind at work, addressing “love” by interjecting the Jefferson-Hemings controversy into the poem as a backdrop, a memory-wound:

love it ain’t for the weak of heart
who writes about a central happiness anyway
there is a new real in my life
and this is like being baptized again
when i think of you and me i’m always worried
graveyards and now the whole
thomas jefferson sally hemmings of it all
you don’t want to think about where you’re from
you want to think about where you’re going. (74)

Yielding to a flash of history, the poet moves forward without blinders “in the process of healing from things in the past” (47). While not directly addressing Thomas Jefferson’s long-term relationship with his purported slave-concubine, Sally Hemings (lewis alters her spelling), a tense historical knot — “what the songs trigger”[2] — surfaces beneath the skin of the poem. The ghostly human wound enmeshes with the poet’s personal history because “we react to pulses without even knowing it” (14) in a constant dance with history’s grand rhythm. And we (readers) aren’t alone; we have an “autopilot” (74) in our poet, an “indian princess” (75) at our sides “coasting down the hill listening to juicy” (74) in a kaleidoscopic return to an understanding of what it means to be a self, a star among many. The intimate hue of lewis’s confessional, in “mid-80’s neon glitz” (28), reaches out to you now, responsive reader: “this is who you are   this is where you’re going                here we are” (50).

Silence is tuning into static

In tuning into memory, “reordering the past,” lewis turns up her radio dial, having “fallen in love with the idea / of static” (73), and changes channels, entering the static — “i’m a radio” (45) — all to arrive at a meditation on silence. Throughout daryl hall is my boyfriend lewis creates exquisite (present) moments of reflection, as introduced on the first page of her collection:

not realistic but real
the fleeting pressures of

one creating silence [listening closely to the silence]

there’s nothing graceful about
                       
always wanting. (1)

The busy bee mind is at work, disallowing a peace of mind in the present:

so there is no refuge in listening to your own silence
whenever you’re ready to head home and remain indoors “forever”

you still can’t. (1)

“trying to love myself” (30) becomes a lifelong destination, a long-term path of growth in which “you’re going to need all your happiness to grow up” (73). It’s inside the static-like “waves crashing” that the poet restores moments of self-contemplation. Self-love? In the poem, “some strings are better left undone*,” lewis reflects:

a lot of the time you can’t really tell
                          — like that static sound that sounds like the waves crashing
“i’m reaching the point where i’m wondering if that feeling is just life”

wanting things to be different than they really are

                                                but we’re like aliens, a part of everything

and nothing at all. (43)

Tuning into the static of memory’s many siloes to arrive at self-observation, lewis unifies us in our alien-ness: we all are a part of “everything / and nothing at all.” A Zen-like state is enacted on the page through blank space, “white noise” (39), balancing energies between the poet’s sculpted lines. Quietude, that pathway to self-gnosis, recovering “[what might have been lost]” (9) in a “what we didn’t get then we get now” (38) triumph, serves as salve in the collection, comforting in the background on a field of “white sparks” (62), interrupting the “song” to embalm the poem:

the hinterlands of what we used to know
drums on the rooftop
[so] quiet, so awesome in the quietude
i can hear my heart beating
    i can hear everyone’s heart. (76)

Time = “now is forever”

Perched on her “timeline of trees” (53), singing from a present perspective in which “now is forever” (19), lewis composes (engages) “whole stretches of time” (49) in a performance that renders “memory as current / perception not nostalgia” (53) and does so in a way that could make this a collection on the treatment of time travel. In “don’t you leave me sitting here in atlanta*,” a poem dedicated to Dan Thomas-Glass, who previously collaborated with lewis, the poet makes known her “plan to slow time, stash it in inescapable” (53). What does it mean to “slow time” and to “tend to our memories instead of the present” (54)? It means “to air the past” (74), to re-sort, to reorder. It means to go there by traveling through the mind. The poet emboldens in “i don’t need a reminder of the love that went away*”:

i’m writing to you from 1977
i’m writing to you from 1991
paper trails on a mountain
opening your lungs
and only you will understand why
to air the past
today is a day for someone else. (74)

Thoughts about time appear repeatedly metaphorized as origami, which holds the collection together in one powerful recurring image: “so the thinking was like origami / everyone folded neatly into [tiny/little] / birds” (1). The poet witnesses and, in “there’s so much more than promises*,” negates:

i want to love you in real life
but am mixed up with you in an anxiety way
a head full of paper shredded nothing like origami. (55)

The many folds of time are in forward motion within the collection:

“oh time, it’s leaving, i have to remember that”
just falls over itself, like origami
whiplash style. (14)

lewis pressure cooks time and lets her reader digest and absorb her results. In “i’m only joking but you better be right*,” time’s distortion is focused on — in a negative light:

you’re right
this is the end of something
here is the entire circular façade
i have no trumpet
distance distorts one’s sense of duration

time here doesn’t alter anything
where are you
i’m sitting in the grass
i’m at this place in my life
this is what holds the world together. (81–82)

The grandiosity of time, and “thinking about how large the galaxies are” (67), overwhelms. As readers of poetry, we often feel “like the most distant point” (66) outside the work, attempting to commune with the poet’s thoughts. And we are, in direct address, reminded of our “point” and proximity to vast thoughts, such as contemplating time and the universe and our position in it. lewis sums it up in the opening poem to the second section of the book, “instrumentation”:

the truth is
i remind you of smaller things/inform you of your smallness
    and this is pouring this is pouring out [                /this is terror]
[it is very temporary]. (43)

Truth — or confess!

A preoccupation with the “truth,” what is “real,” what is “fake,” and the “series of lies” (34) we tell ourselves — “some memories you’ll make up to fill the gaps” (49) — permeates the poems. The poet demands in “you know i can’t imagine you were the magic*”:     

tell me again who i am …
tell me anything as long as it’s true
you have wrecked me into my real shape. (64)

Shaped by her beehive confessional, the poet affirms “this is the truth / this is fiction / what happened what hurt        this new game” (45); and “i need you more than anything else in the world*” maintains “we fake the sound / of living   in lives lived messily” (76). The poet, who’s “not going to lie” (66) and who likes “people who are honest about their lives” (66), wonders if she’s fooling herself (65) and relates that “we’re not so / different in that we prefer being lied to” (64). Is memory then a trickster of the mind; “memory is [as] fiction” (10)? In “if you’re in it for love you ain’t gonna get too far*,” the poet laments that she wishes she had more interesting memories to share and likens them to “nostalgia or paralysis” (26). There is also the problem with “the act of remembering wrongly” (53). Since memory is subjective, who would question another’s with the assuredness of having an absolutely accurate and truthful one intact? After all, we are told that “the relation to the past has nothing to do with memory” (67). What may be the most authentic or “real” are the feelings — wound and wonder — circulating about the past, even though our “autopilot” (74) reveals, “i think i’m perpetually going to be in that wounded / faux-wounded position / the white noise   the background music” (39). We feel them in our present “not by the accuracy of our memories but by our willingness to question / them” (38), honest in the fact that we are “no longer missing actual intimacies but imagined ones” (26). lewis questions in “we keep on missing each other*”: “or is it about interrogating what / something could be, or / might be, or is capable of becoming” (49)? “yes yes this is the true true,” the poet sings, “i don’t have real relationships with people” (54). Declaration or deliverance? What is “real” is “true” and what isn’t, is “just fake” (24) like “your fake name” (63). lewis ponders in “there’s so much more than promises*”:

i know you’re never going to understand
sometimes we are all here with the lights out
perpetually young
making bad fake decisions
we burst for need and thinking wrongly. (55)

We are constrained by the human condition, in our “disguises” (63), and with “blunt physical truths around us” (69), reworking and remaking our pasts in which “we all want to be the hero of our own story” (61). To narrate along the way is to be human. To tell our “stories” (our songs) — however made up or “fake” — is distinctly human. We need to relate, even if we “pretend that words can make a humanness between us” (43).

Humans, horses, stars: Otherness inside us

Whether it’s returning home to Ohio in fragmented conversations with a sick mother or returning to ’80s pop songs to discover oneself a grown adult, lewis masters the use of the collective “we” in a layered confessional to the self, exploring what it means to be “human” in a shared experience of our humanity. It doesn’t matter either if the memory isn’t “real”; as readers we sympathize with the poet’s intentions, growing up with family memories in “the ways and means are the parts subject to change*”:

these are the things that were beautiful in my life

my aunts told wonderful stories        we had a very strong family     my
mother’s sisters loved each other intensely   the uncles loved each other
intensely   those were
the days when it meant something. (38)

In “everytime you go away you take a piece of me with you*,” lewis revs up in philosophic mode:

i can only begin this once
if i possess only distances
        we are the we we were not

i.e.
the problem with the past
the code we punch into our lives
     understanding has everything to do with instability. (56)

Our inability to comprehend everything in our past is our shared humility. This admission and awareness is a key entry point into lewis’s collection; we discover how the mind is “running in circles / coming back as we are / objects of our imperfect human devotion / the sound of things we know” (70). And that we ought to “stop pretending / we’re ever going to make anything of ourselves / … it’s ones and zeroes, it’s not personal” (71), because “what we’re nostalgic for is an intensity      / here, god” (37), i.e. to be present. Imparting a sense of oneness with her audience, the poet continues to relate in “i’m sorry i said i’m sorry*”:

we count ourselves
as having other people’s
refractory feelings
we never hold ourselves up
when you think of gravity [it is] this way
           in haunting slow motion. (67)

We’re all included, for “everyone is a heartbreaker everybody is the one that got away / all you know is you need more / in this almost human refrain” (67). Later the song curves into a resigned bitterness: “because we don’t know anything / what became of / the fucking rain / the fucking snow / this long sense of human experience” (77). Another moment in which the poet synthesizes with her reader opens the poem “you must be thinking something but you ain’t saying nothing*”:

hearing my way into yr words, my own, these songs
           
and we are so many pieces

and this           feels like us trying to
    figure out the way to move on from it
    not to abandon it but to keep it in its place and figure out what’s next. (15)

Empathy and human otherness found in ourselves is displayed markedly in “what’s this thing all about true blue*”:

you can’t be turning me on and off again

it’s hard not to notice

how you wear the feelings of one person modified by another

in the feelings of one person modified by another

i feel peculiar noticing this
           
the moment is important to me now though as something special to put
   away. (24)

How our behavior of modifying others with our feelings is universal might need another collection to fully explore, but here in this one lewis beckons, “and what do you sing to one another when you’re still evolving” (52). We are also reminded that “you don’t accept your weaknesses the same way that you love / the weaknesses of others” (45) next to the fact that we all come from a mother, another body “outside” ourselves. The poet’s mother, in addition to aunts and the “father curiously absent” (82), makes regular appearances throughout. Early in the collection we learn that “my mother used to / say a penny for your thoughts” (5) and by the end of the collection the poet feels that “maybe mothers should know the ends of the stories they tell” (73). In the collection’s final poem, “the silver leaves the drones of clever talk*,” the return home to mother is reflected upon in “conversations again / artifact by artifact”:

i remember now
i am my mother’s age
doin my best patti smith. (85)

The collection then might be called a return to origins — back to the womb — to a “real” self; lewis assures “we will become ourselves” (3). While “mother” is a familiar motif that surfaces as a returning source (home) in the collection, another powerful image riding alongside her is the horse. If each poetry collection can have its own “spirit animal” (lewis suggests) then the wild horse is a good choice for daryl hall is my boyfriend. In the collection’s final section, “rarities and b sides,” horses mesmerize in several poems. In “i’m just looking at you through crazy eyes*,” we are likened to horses:

the way we look like horses
chewing through the narrative
smashing face-first into the mortality
in the old sense of awe
standing over the expanses. (77)

The unassuming and unattached intuition of horses is revered in “have i been away too long*”:

horses always know something
they don’t want to love you
they just want to hold you
that slow motion vibe
                        we have the same truth. (79)

Other poems follow in the collection noting that “it is the year of dark horses” (81), and in “words of comfort too*” the need is “to seize those wild horses / and ride them / the needs those scatter lines we took / home after the new year’s eve party / it’s weird to see your life in other people” (84). We arrive at the end of the book in the “year of the horse” (85), when “your mouth looked [so] cool in the light / a choir of echoes” (85).

Above the horses are “stars,” and they are sprinkled all over the pages of the collection. There are far too many to cite them all (as in a starlit sky), and by the end of the book we’re feeling like stars ourselves, having sung along with the poems and having recognized that we too are a “distant point” (66) in the universe. Our autopilot poet remarks “[the shift              of stars without feeling them fade]” (15). We learn that “slits are stars” (9), then once again that“stars are slits” (61), and that it’s possible to “cut and paste the stars across your face” (61). In the poem “there ain’t no right or wrong way just a play from the heart*,” we discover that “statistics tell us we’ll see the stars again” (11), and sometimes literal stars become conflated with pop-rock stars. In “people have a tragic habit of letting love get in the way*,” lewis writes:

“my heart is beating in a different way”
  and now i’m your favorite star
distancing in one long movement
         working backwards piecing together the scraps
i want to get so close it blurs. (51)

We’re left perplexed in the complex cosmology of the poet’s serial song. Meandering through lyric, refracting our light and being refracted (modified by others’ feelings) by our own light, we mix with the poet’s light until we’re riding our “own altitude,” feeling “like the most distant point / all lit up” (66).

Form/process                   

Most of the poems in daryl hall is my boyfriend move down the page in an open form lyric, enacting memory’s many fragmented streams, complete with spatial gaps (silences) as witnessed in “i can’t go for just repeating the same old lines*”:

— or that feeling is
a prompt to return
                       
a laugh to shake the dreams out of my head

                            (girl’s name) and (boy’s name) sitting in a tree

                                                     [still an essence in the other’s memory]. (22)

No capitalization and very little punctuation are employed; the use of quotes (where noted as interviews, appropriated text, or conversations) and slashes and brackets pepper lewis’s poems. The free form movement of the poems allows the reader to enter the songs — feeling at times right in the middle of them — and feel tuned in. The forward slash both moves forward in time and stops (in beat with time) acting as an aesthetic placeholder on the page — visually creating a pause in the poet’s breath/meter. Brackets also feel like inner whispers — more than asides — and are intrinsic parts of the poems’ structures vibrating their own energy (voice). Toward the end of “you must be thinking something but you ain’t saying nothing*,” the poet shares her process (“constraints”) directly. Here, process, content, and form (the use of “/” and “[ ]”) all synchronize to come into play:

dear abstraction inherent in these constraints, i want to document
the inaccessible and uncomfortable to hold/         the little fictions
we tell ourselves
                            [that suitcase of something with something inside
                                                                   recorded from far away]. (15)

Willingness to offer up one’s writing process, embedded within the work, is helpful for readers, and lewis does so in her collection, letting on that she’s “switching my ideas into a pop format” (34) — that is, song. She also notes how being in love with everyone she grew up with has “helped [her] think about seriality and transition” (66). Is love inside the body, trying to come out through song, or is it outside ourselves, “like two different songs” (9), trying to come in? Maybe it’s a little of both, magnetism? Witness, confessor, singer, the poet — who realizes “god, i should sing” (19) — takes song and spins it on its toes, imploding her past to reload her present in finely crafted lines with occasional breakouts of repetition: “and the north / and the north” (82), “and sing my love / and sing my love” (69), “enough to weep over it / enough to weep over it” (78), “turn it into magic magic” (73), and “make it rain / make it rain” (79). Repetition rocks us gently into the field of song, affirming that these poems need to be read aloud.

In her generous note at the end of the collection, the reader is treated to a postscript, which lists other artists (aside from Hall & Oates) who have helped instigate (“trigger”) collaboration with the poet through use of their appropriated texts. We hear Lionel Richie’s “Hello” and find Jean Genet, LeRoi Jones, Melissa Eleftherion Carr, and lines from various Pitchfork interviews (mostly Ryan Dombal’s) collaged into the poems. Conversations with the poet’s ill mother “up to my arms in the cancer” (73) haunt the work, especially in the collection’s final poem, where close readers feel the arrival home to Mother, who opens the last poem with “you look like one of those moon girls” (85). We are left in wonder to wonder.

The project: trilogy

daryl hall is my boyfriend is the first of a box set trilogy promising further continuity and sequence. The cover artwork (by Mark Stephen Finein), in pink-crimson neon ITC Serif Gothic, gives the appearance of a handwritten journal, whose title (feeling sure of itself) looks like it may have been scrawled by a teenager during Hall & Oates’s prime, wearing an “80’s reference point” (83) in a kind of Miami Vice-skin. lewis’s attention to process allows even the poem titles, when read together, to read like a complete poem. On the contents page for the section “rarities and b sides,” several song lyric titles, when read back-to-back, transform into an individual stanza of loss:

day to day, to day… today                                                      61
the dreams you want to be either stay or get away           63
you know i can’t imagine you were the magic                    64
all the days i’ve lost hoping and pretending                       65
maybe we’ve been alone too long                                          66
i’m sorry i said i’m sorry                                                         67

Memory is a wondrous connective tissue, and lewis succeeds in stirring ours through her own, offering her reader a shared intimate experience in the lyric of You and I. And our poet, seasoned by time that enfolds like origami, knows that song is the vehicle to enable such a lyrical relationship. Using these Hall & Oates songs, these poems manifest as memory’s modified appliqué to rouse the feet that once danced to them, leading us to the poet’s confessional, where she reproduces herself “endlessly in these lines / suture identity to memory / scar to art” (26). She is “not going to lie” (66) and knows she’s (we’re) dealing with old wounds that only an “old version of the song” (45) might remedy — and “you me us them” (61), we’re all in it, drenched. In a versified memoir to the self, in “re-ordering the past,” how much does it matter whether how we remember is the correct way, that our stories (our songs) are “real,” “fantasy,” or “fake,” or whether our “true” home is in Ohio or here or there? What is recalled and what is appropriated is marked by time and distance. lewis, who knows the awesome space (and terror) that silence brings, awakens our smallness and lights it up, making us “stars” in the game of resinging, resigning, and reassigning memory. The poet’s epic is our epic, since “we all want to be the hero of our own story” (61). At the end of daryl hall is my boyfriend, I felt a little more aware of my wounds (my own humanity) and refreshed by the healing property that writing and reading can bring. Home in the awareness of “how life shapes and re-shapes us” (32), I trust that the “songs outside of people” (29) are also within me awaiting their trigger; and I’ll be on the dance floor with them (mid-’80s style) till lewis releases her forthcoming follow-up collection, mary wants to be a superwoman.


1. erica lewis, daryl hall is my boyfriend (Washington, DC: Barrelhouse Books, 2015), 86.

2. See the process note at the end of lewis’s book.