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 The book collects the remains of eleven unpublished books written between 1963 and 1968, coalescing around a long elegy for the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara.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

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).


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.

On gossamer wings

A review of 'A Field Guide to Lost Things'

A Field Guide to Lost Things

A Field Guide to Lost Things

Peter Jaeger

If p then q 2015, 173 pages, $9.00, ISBN 978-0957182776

Are they of the past, by the past, and for the past? This might be a way of evaluating the later-than-life productions of Marcel Proust. Thus there may be something to say for Peter Jaeger’s A Field Guide to Lost Things even though it is not one of Proust’s best.

How is it that A Field Guide is not one of Proust’s best? Proust started a whole new way of writing into memory and into the soul of lost desires. The set of writings produced subsequently by Proust’s way of writing is a large set including writings created after the death of Marcel Proust, but so overwhelmingly changed and retold because of Proust’s writing that they can be said to compose, depending for their makeup on the writer’s tastes, i.e. on her literary and phenomenological Gestalt, a body of writing that is truly the later-than-life productions of Marcel Proust.

Naturally, it is always in present time that we keep accounts; but even then the present is only a memory of an instant, and, thus, of the past, by the past, and for the past. That is one way to look at it (as Emmanuel Levinas puts it, dans le temps, déphasage de l’instant et déjà rétention de la phase séparée). Alternatively, the past of the later-than-life productions of Proust may seem not to be recovered but rather unencumbered, by virtue of their being written. Indeed, the secondarity corresponding to the non-remembrances of the unconventional textualization of Proust by Peter Jaeger, and to all the found sentences, re-involved as they are from the beautifully written Swann’s Way by CKS Moncrieff of 1922 vintage, comes out clearly; it comes out naturally for a way of reading, and so so, so, beautifully. Surely beautifully, as they are of Moncrieff’s terms (his taking and reducing and reproducing Du côté de chez Swann), and as they are the script and the direction and the cherished motivation for Jaeger’s coming upon the lost-feeling fields.

Above all, this way of coming offers readers what is natural, what is natural in them, and what thus chimes with their nature. It offers this naturalness by way of its pacing. A Field Guide contains the sentences, and thus the points of view of types, of Moncrieff’s writing, arranged for the reader’s ease in neat alphabetical order. The sentences, or the sometimes chosen cuts of participial and noun phrases, imply and effectively represent (in their progression) what appear to be dictionary entries, proceeding continuously; that continuity of presentation (though merely of a sort of continuity) is of the essence. The informing mark of the continuous two-column format is presentability, and what shows is a form of reading that is meant, and confirmed, as being of the essence. Getting from A to Z counts for more, it would seem, than the past’s or time’s being of the essence.

That is to say, in the mix of descriptions and elegant reveling in assertions is where penetration lies. How those assertions are measured superbly to perform the role of guide, how Moncrieff’s sentences are rolled out, is how we know, somehow. Moncrieff’s formations guide us through a breezy experience suggestive of eyeing beauties expressly formed for Proust’s latest. They do so in assured (and serenely limited) secondarity. This much is true, and to this extent decontextualized and echoing and resonating with limited force and effect. Yet the experience of regret in their being lost, as a condition of writing them down in this fashion, only adds to the beautiful capture of these lost things, by design. Such are the facts as we may account for them, or assemble them, knowing full well what nature’s beauty is coming to. Of so much exquisite fragrance and potential (read carefully, delightedly, any of Proust’s entries, such as “All Manner of Birds” in the A columns, or “Hawthorn” in the H columns, or “Waves,” or better “Weather,” in the XYZ columns) much is lost.

It is, moreover, the style that is of the essence and thus essential to Jaeger’s alphabetical text, which reads as a “novel” in novel form, repeated continuously. And that is all to the point of what it is to be reading it in its approachable secondarity, in repetition, as the joy of style all to the good, as I have heard, to the relief of many, as Moncrieff’s translation is all to the good.

And so it is not one of Proust’s best as being all there for the reader’s ease and swift capacities.

An account in sentences and participial and noun phrases would seem to bypass the past. Yet a moment obtains, and the practice of using the word in a sentence is an old familiar, as illustrated in the entry for “Hawthorn.” We similarly find in the Oxford English Dictionary terms being illustrated by historical uses, and similarly in continuous columns, though of three rather than two. This practice is mimicked in the Oxford Latin Dictionary, where it has the merit of providing still greater reach towards the past, etc., in three columns again, and with the further exception that the respective lexical item is ellipsed and not spelled out each time. That, then, in sum, is what you get, a course of repetitions of lovely phrases. You get these irrelevancies, lacking semantics, with no interrogations/irritations, just entwined words (beginning near the bottom of the second column of the verso):

Hawthorn If I had had the
courage I would have cut
you a branch of that pink
hawthorn you used to like so
much [une branche de ces épines roses
que tu aimais tant
]. In vain did I shape
my fingers into a frame, so

Then cut to first column of next page, the recto:

as to have nothing but the
hawthorns [sic; put under “Hawthorns”?] before my eyes;
the sentiment which they
aroused in me remained
obscure and vague,
struggling and failing to free
itself, to float across and
become one with the
flowers. It was indeed a
hawthorn, but one whose
flowers were pink, and
lovelier even than the white.
My aunt did not go to see
the pink hawthorn in the
hedge. The hawthorn [les aubépines] was
not merely in the church, for
there, holy ground as it was,
we had all of us a right of
entry; but, arranged upon
the altar itself, inseparable
from the mysteries in whose
celebration it was playing a
part, it thrust in among the
tapers and the sacred
vessels its rows of branches,
tied to one another
horizontally in a stiff, festal
scheme of decoration.
Unfolding through the arch
of the pink hawthorn [déployant sous l’épinier rose], which
opened with her, and with
all that unknown world of
her existence, into which I
should never penetrate.

Being continuous, the columns are not in the habit of being broken, as is sometimes the case in two-column structures. It is thus not anything like the brokenness (a sort of breaching or extendable and expressive guttering) employed, e.g., to intriguing, collusive effect in Anselm Berrigan’s Zero Star Hotel. Or maybe, true enough, there is not this feeling of a negotiable break, and yet, if not this, nevertheless a clipped (or choppy) quality of shortened lines (and phrases?) both supporting and denying swiftness of reading. So perhaps easy reading is not the point.

Easy reading or not, in terms of context the presentation of this entry rather gladly proceeds, is a happy point. The limited range of “Hawthorn” occurrences throughout A Field Guide means that the reader tracks the (mis)guidance to her spot better than for some entries. To be sure, for every dictionary occurrence, context is lost; to be sure, one may be hard pressed, in this day and age, to find a hawthorn in the landscape of an American city, one either bulging or wasted. There is a difference here, however. Context may in this instance be revisited quickly if we are aware, or if in our reviewing we become aware, that meeting Gilberte Swann, haughty daughter to prove so awesome a sighting to one, is a fine moment indeed, intermixed in the narrator’s fine appreciation of the delicately white or pink hawthorn blossoms, or maybe it was the flowers of the strawberry plant that were white, and in any event the fact that we see them, and now her, only because weather permitted the telling of le côté de Méséglise-la-Vineuse (and hence on the way to chez Swann).

Yet the sentences are there, to be read one after another (somehow); are there smushed together (somehow, and with some quite indistinct purpose), as a test of how to read. That is the question: how to read it.

All these problems, specialties of A Field Guide to Lost Things, are there to be placed and to be asked, for the curious. Or Jaeger’s rendition may strike and may otherwise spur the reader on, in similar ways and with even swifter restrictions. It may seem a curiosity, perhaps. The tent folds and unfolds; the fields disappear, fast.

Now take the entry for “Wing”:

Wing All his memories of
the days when Odette had
been in love with him,
which he had succeeded, up
till that evening, in keeping
invisible in the depths of his
being, deceived by this
sudden reflection of a
season of love, whose sun,
they supposed, had dawned
again, had awakened from
their slumber, had taken
wing, and risen to sing
maddeningly in his ears,
without pity for his present
desolation, the forgotten
strains of happiness.
Anyhow, I’ll take you all
under my wing; she can put
the blame on me.

On their face, these bits from Swann’s Way no doubt delight. Differing, and differently opting for their urging, they are rich. But the reader who knows, who can remember the passage from whence for Jaeger (and for Moncrieff) that first long and revealing sentence came, will know the most of it, how bringing back such a magical surge of elucidation can represent one of the narrative’s high moments (notes hautes and [as well] mimiques). But here, as they are, dolorously, they’ve gone.

Living fire and flattered lyre

On Erica Mena and Robert Fernandez



Erica Mena

Ricochet Editions 2015, 55 pages, $15, ISBN 978-1938900112

Pink Reef

Pink Reef

Robert Fernandez

Canarium 2013, 96 pages, $14, ISBN 978-0984947133

In Featherbone and Pink Reef, poets Erica Mena and Robert Fernandez make an argument for poetry’s somatic effects. These two books are very different, but they share a spell-casting potency and embrace the power of language not just to denote the world, but to act, vividly and terribly, within it.

Erica Mena’s book-length poem, Featherbone, makes bodies of its words and then dismembers those bodies. She crossbreeds them into neologisms (boneslide, shaleskin, huskweight) and stretches them until denotative meanings thin out and the resultant language feels physical — somatic rather than explanatory.

Out of fleshfallow slip,
out of sicklight swell,
out of silvering fear,

     (the featherbone reach)

out of undreamed grey,
out of waterskin scale,
out of bone soft loam,

     (the featherbone twist)[1]

Featherbone is a book-length spell — a performative utterance. Like any spell, it strives to make concrete the material realities it names. Mena is not the only poet to engage with notions of ritual in her work: CAConrad’s (soma)tic poetics also hearkens back to magic, with Conrad explicating processes of self-hypnosis, the use of charged objects, and conversations with dead poets to produce his poems. But Featherbone claims an authority different from Conrad’s work. Whereas the poems Conrad creates by his ritual process feel like the residue of that process — inviting a reader to attempt the same ritual herself and produce her own work — Mena’s work has an authoritative finality. Her book is the ritual. In Featherbone, physical things (flesh and wing and feather and skin and bone) proliferate willfully — distinct from any shaping consciousness — before being consumed, desiccated, burned, eaten. The book conjures an environment of frightening vitality, where bodily forces contend, words carve and rasp and hum, and death is never an ending.

Against the formless in the heave, the featherbone cannot
be rejected / cannot take shape. The fatty stratum sifts the sublayer
and probes the subduction and swarms behind your eyes. I want
to know the color of your bones.

The shaleskin flakes thin above laceveined wing,
an oil to grease the featherbone plunge.
Your skullhollow for echo your bonehollow for wind
your eyepit for hollow, scraped off. (26)

There’s a you and I in Featherbone, but no firm addressee, and certainly no “speaker” as, say, Conrad is in his (soma)tic poetics. Instead, Mena creates an environment where such distinctions blur, where categories of being overlap eerily. In Featherbone the body itself “leaks bones” (21), mindlessly generative.

This distressing and complicating of categories extends all the way to the nature of composition itself. Rather than suggesting a numinous authorial “soul” hovering behind its bodily substantiation in language, Featherbone evokes a world in which brief flesh and tangible words ground, and give rise to, a cold and sublimely scary spirit:

The featherbone develops language.
It teaches relations:
            axial, caudal, vesicle.
It teaches shape:
            spindle, flexuous, borne.
It vertexes, you intersect yourself. (44)

The featherbone, that is, came first. The poet did not create the featherbone to employ as a speaker; it is, instead, the featherbone who is the creator of the words.

The featherbone speaks. The tissue webs, it spreads across the voids. To scrape away. (44–45)

This featherbone, hybrid being, is the strange heart of the book that takes its name. Featherbone’s spell subverts conventional ideas of poetic inspiration much more deeply than many poems that present more obvious difficulty of reference or speaker. Plenty of poets enjoy the play of sound, but few can make it signify with the strange somatic unity found here.

Altricial or sereswallow tear in the afterthought glint and gleam,
whirlbone twist and glean that you may glaze the soundless throat.
Alveoli burst the pulse-turn gear and corrode. (17)

Mena’s gift for verbal music — how this passage, for instance, gargles on its repeated gl’s, r’s, and t’s — is always used in evocation of the physical.

Most lyric poetry presumes the Cartesian subject of modernity, holding inner and outer objects up for contemplation. Featherbone instead creates a psychic environment that makes me think of the ancient Greeks, who believed in an active soul, or anima, overflowing the body and entangling itself in the world. The anima doesn’t precede or stand apart from material existence; it is inextricably caught up in it: “the soul is in a way all existing things,” Aristotle said. This grants a frightening power to the free imagination, and in Featherbone there’s a similar sense of risky, contagious magic in the use of words:

You filter and separate,
            you striate and rise.
This is how it begins.

To become. It slakes
            its lift in your weight.
The monstrous sky.

Your bonefuse around it,
            your salt-tide through it:
            you were made to expand. (37)

Just as ancient myth jammed together distinct parts into new creatures (the manticore, a lion with a scorpion’s stinger; the naga, half-human, half-snake), so Featherbone jams death into life. For all the destructive power in the book, it ends not in annihilation, but in a suggestion of the dependency of the lofty and spiritual on the decayed and fleshly. “Made of things that flutter. Licham. Bonesalt. Pulse. The night within the distant skin. We thrall the weighted sky” (47).

It’s tempting to attribute to Mena’s distinguished work as a literary translator (from Spanish and Arabic) her poetry’s command of language’s tangible, changeable qualities. But Featherbone’s intensity is such that the “command” seems to have run the other way. Featherbone is a body acting on a body; it’s been a long time since I read a book which granted its materials such power over the composing poet — and over the reader.


Lying on his back in a darkened cell, a cloth across his eyes and a stone resting on his belly, a young bard of the western islands of Scotland would complete his study in perfect silence, “pumping his brain” until he emerged into daylight a master of rhapsody, curse, and magic, to be honored and feared by the island’s lords.

This was five centuries ago, when bards wielded deadly and binding instruments of language; not many poets remember this time, but Robert Fernandez seems to. His book Pink Reef is a sequence not of descriptions but of performative utterances, emerging from a speaker alone in the dark with visions of eggs and bone, meat and moths:

the mounds of roe are
so bright today it’s like
I see the sun for the first
time it’s like I see the sun clearly
in the idea of it it’s like I see the sun
clearly in the black mounds of
shine in the swollen
clear of it[2

This quote suggests the vividness and horrified fixation which dominate Pink Reef. Fernandez shares Mena’s knack for arresting, tangible imagery. But his book relates differently to its subjects. “There is an ink // into which seeing passes” (13), one poem warns us; whereas Featherbone grants a durable, gruesome immediacy to its material, the environment of Pink Reef is more mutable. Featherbone conjures a bodily reality; Pink Reef’s untitled poem-sections instead conjure visions in the poet’s mind. Even Fernandez’s oddest conjunctions of subjects have a hallucinatory intensity. When the speaker seizes on a noun and repeats it, as in the nautiluses and the corn below, the reader feels not the particularity of the subject (a certain specific sea creature, a certain cornfield), but rather the overpowering force of Fernandez’s obsession:  

there are nautiluses
in the corn,

but the nautiluses
spray debris

bull draped in a mirror
of sweat

sprays corn
& blubber

I am listening
to the whale song
in the alien corn (14)

Those last two words come from Keats, but so what? History is no comfort in Pink Reef: Cartier and Chanel, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Blake and Ida Applebroog all come up among the book’s gristle, blisters, and brain corals, but they hang inconclusively; they are not presiding spirits or ancestors for the speaker but unstable material among other unstable material. Likewise the incursions of familiar technological flotsam: “the table set, blood / ruptures cloth speakers,” or “the scream boils like / refrigerator bubbles / under ice-pack” (58). Featherbone’s vocabulary feels intentionally ancient and mythic: it would puncture the book’s effect if Mena had included cloth speakers or refrigerators. But Pink Reef is more capacious: the book’s vision seems able to absorb any material, ancient or modern, technological or bodily. Nothing survives whole — as in the “melting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon cubes // Les Demoiselles d’Avignon / blocks of melting shine” (52) — but neither is anything refused.

At its least effective, Pink Reef feels merely gross: “understand / the damned / with sails unfurling / from their / assholes” (9); “Jeff Koons / wants to fuck me / I offer him / a strip of / my back / a strip / of my bloodied / bleeding” (36–37). What, then, saves the book from being overkill, an eighty-four-page spurt of exploitative violence? For one thing, Fernandez’s ear for poetic music: there’s not one poem in here that doesn’t sound, at the level of vowel and consonant, beautiful. “One who flatters a lyre / clips the spine’s fused discs” (81); “it is the refulgent blush of your / diadems that makes me itch through the scrim- / shawed ant-hill of my bones” (42). For another, Fernandez’s sense of formal control: Pink Reef is broken into short sections (the longest is thirty-six lines) of short lines, a series of rigid containers within which the material can hurl itself.

This formal control points to another oddity of the book, and a way in which it differs profoundly from Featherbone. For all of the energy of Fernandez’s language, Pink Reef refuses any kind of ritual climax. Another poet might have worked such material into a cumulative long poem — some ecstatic Dionysian thing that would leave the reader feeling disturbed, but also transported, by the book’s end. Not Fernandez. “I / cannot / I refuse / I refrain” (84), ends the last poem.

But refrain from what? Refuse what? Fernandez asserts no argument, delineates no alternate way of knowing, spares no energy to attack contemporary notions of body and spirit. Rather the poems seem, as Barbara Guest once put it, to have “taken and shaken” the poet, leaving him, with “blood & // bubbles of blood / in the stomach” (43), to stumble forward, his soul and body in tatters.

Featherbone and Pink Reef are dark, often horrifying, books, but they are spiritually — that is, somatically — alive. In a poetic era whose idea of “resistance” is often limited to an ironic repurposing of dominant language, these books resist alienation by their very spell-weaving vitality, their commitment to an active, performative use of language. The poets’ force of belief — Mena’s in the proliferant bodily power of her featherbone, Fernandez’s in the intensity of his visions — sweeps the reader up. They demonstrate the continued vitality of a very ancient understanding of poetry’s power.

1. Erica Mena, Featherbone (Los Angeles: Ricochet Editions, 2015), 4–5.

2. Robert Fernandez, Pink Reef (Marfa, Texas: Canarium Books, 2013), 74.

Labor of we

Layers and alliance in Kenji Liu's 'Map of an Onion'

Photo of Kenji Liu (right) by Margarita Corporan.

Map of an Onion

Map of an Onion

Kenji Liu

Inlandia Institute 2016, 146 pages, $15.00, ISBN 978-0997093209

Kenji Liu’s debut poetry collection does not start quietly; rather, it breaks into the world, denouncing the United States’ attempted erasure of migrants through legalese that alienates non-English-speaking people. The collection begins with the birth of the speaker in Kyoto, Japan, and spends layer upon layer puzzling the violences that the colonial center wreaks against the periphery. Liu’s overarching metaphor for intersectionality and assemblage of identities is the onion without a full and “real” center. Three layers that Liu uses cluster as follows: poetic forms and ancestry, settler colonialism and the speaker, and wholeness from ruin.

Layer 1: Poetic forms and ancestry

In some respects, the formal poems in this collection act as proof of ancestry, or as official documents to be problematized: the reader engages discourses around descent, heritage, and inheritance. Specifically, Liu uses the qilu, an ancient Chinese formal poem that is composed of eight lines of seven characters each. Liu uses this formal mode — and deviates from it — to echo the social and cultural distance from his parents’ homes. In his poem “My Dear Koxinga,” Liu experiments with migrating this form into English:

Nations need a parable
To reinvent themselves with.[1]

In this use of form and its subversion in English, Liu is able to attain a new kind of “parable” in which the national belonging of the speaker is in flux, using an ancient form to undo the historicizing of a single narrative. Liu’s speaker shifts linguistically as well as formally; for instance, in the poem “A Son Writes Back,” Liu also employs the qilu form but adds to it a translation into Chinese by Der-Jin Woan and Suh-Ling Lin.

Liu considers Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee in order to practice his art of complication. Noted by Timothy Yu in the book’s introduction, Liu uses the dictation lesson to illustrate the way that language is complicit in the institutional racism against migrants. Often the migrant is slated to inhabit a particular place in the settler state of the US, desiring to assimilate into the patterns of racialization within the present construction of citizenship. What is ignored, typically, is the fact that this land was purloined from Native inhabitants. Liu adds Native American presence to the political landscape of “Deconstruction: Papers” through “interventions” that disrupt the English-only legalese of immigration papers and show the irony of a settler state using language that deliberately shuts out any imaginings of alternative citizenship. The interventions that Liu makes add Chinese, Taiwanese, and Lenape languages to the texture of official documents; the poem, divided into three parts, includes “Birth Certificate with Chinese Intervention,” “Taiwanese Passport with English Intervention,” and “Naturalization Certificate with Lenape Intervention.” Liu’s interventions and considerations of the languages of places are important to the claims that he poses for the anticolonial project of this book. From “Deconstruction: Papers”:

Personal description of holder as of date of naturalization
kènu Date of birth February twenty kènu nineteen seventy
seven kènu sex Male kènu complexion Medium kènu
color of eyes Black kènu color of hair Black kènu height
three feet zero inches kènu Marital status Single kènu (4)

In this poem the appearance of Lenape language serves as an unrelenting reminder that this land was originally Lenape; that the archive of the land still holds the memory of its original inhabitants. In doing so Liu asserts that immigrants do not have to serve the settler state and its continued genocidal actions against Natives. He shows how migrants and immigrants are able to destabilize official mechanisms, such as immigration papers, to illuminate this history and alliance with Native groups.

Layer 2: Settler colonialism and Liu’s speaker

Asian American literature is often discussed in relation to white and black cultures in the United States. Liu expands this discourse to include other migrant groups; by doing so, he is able to resist the mythology of the nation that many subscribe to in order to achieve cultural capital.

By naming specific indigenous North American groups whose land his family migrated to, Liu opens up his onion to the complexities of being a minority group struggling for national inclusion on the land of Native people who have been denied ownership, their land stolen from them by the American government.

In the poem “In Orbit Around New York City” Liu contends with the names of places around Edison, New Jersey. He writes: 

Over the decades, onion skins
laid with scalpels. Tributaries,
deveined (14).

In this poem Liu’s speaker attempts to excavate the palimpsest of the land. He applies his overarching metaphor of the onion to the histories of landscapes, accounting for the role that colonization, forced migration, and immigration have played in shaping the tenor of national space.

A phantom in this collection is Japan as a colonial master of Taiwan; it emerges through the language of official documents that Liu recreates. The leveling agent between the speaker’s parents is their immigration to the United States and the neocolonialism of the American capitalist market, where both must contend with the English language to survive. In his poem “Landing,” Liu maps the challenges his speaker’s parents face. Liu writes,

By now nobody has to explain the three-in-one god. Japan dwells
in Taiwan, the US dwells in Japan, eternally. Now they cohabitate
in the stock market. Baptism by firebombs, atomics, Gojira (89).

Liu’s speaker contends with settler-colonial complicity as well as American imperialism to portray a complicated scene where the speaker’s parents — one Taiwanese, one Japanese — learn English in a basement on Lenape land stolen by European settlers.

Layer 3: Wholeness from ruin

The last layer that Liu contends with is that of the psychic inheritance of a fractured history of national belonging. Liu’s speaker emerges whole, despite the complicated immigrant identities that he must wade through. As with the various places and inhabitants that make up the history of the speaker’s location, Liu offers a reworking of the Theravada Buddhist practice of metta, sewing together well-wishes for all beings in his poem “Memoriam for Places.” Liu offers a prayer to the devas of place, acknowledging the complications of “graveyards,” “chalk outlines,” “bullet holes,” and “prison cell corners.” He writes against ruin:

May all your stained places remember
how after rains, grass gets free (85).

In this poem Liu articulates the resilience of his immigrant speaker, how complexity of identity makes for a beautiful spring — how emerald wholeness emerges despite damage. And there is freedom in this survival; a freedom that the poet and migrant know despite the multiple spheres of oppression faced in this world of racial profiling, unjust incarceration, police brutality, anti-immigration violence, and Donald Trump.

Spanish, Japanese, and Chinesetranslations of Liu’s poemsappear in this collection to show the multilingual landscape from which Liu’s imagination draws, and the ways in which minority communities can share a common poetics and allyship. Ending his collection with the poem “Deconstruction: Body Unbound” Liu writes,

                 the predictable I

the trembling labor of

we (108)

This acts as a call to form alliances with others in the current political climate of the United States. This book is pivotal in the Asian American canon in its alliance-forming push to act against the dominant, white supremacist hegemony that immigrants, Natives, and minorities alike face in the United States. Liu imagines a world where “alliance” means the negotiation of various colonizations, histories, and oppressions, and a weaving together of stories into one so powerful and nuanced it must be reckoned with.

1. Kenji C. Liu, Map of an Onion (Riverside, CA: Inlandia Institute, 2016), 36.