Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2017
REVIEWED BY GABINO IGLESIAS
Chiwan Choi’s The Yellow House is one of those rare poetry collections that simultaneously serves as a manifesto of Otherness, a heartfelt and brutally honest journal of the most crucial moments of the poet’s life, and a celebration of the feelings, moments, and places that great poetry can invoke even when the writing itself is rooted in earthy, memory-tinged simplicity. As if that wasn’t enough, the collection is also an enjoyable recounting of how Choi found himself; a surprisingly cinematic series of vignettes that present the reader with loss, love, desire, friendship, family, and the city of Los Angeles.
The Yellow House opens with a simple three-line declaration that manages to set the mood for the rest of the collection while also proving themselves contradictory:
i chose poetry
then lived this unremarkable life.
On one hand, Choi lets us know that there was a point in the journey of his life where a decision had to be made, and poetry won. However, the second line attempts to extract honesty from the process, and the poems that follow it prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Choi’s writing is very personal and honest. Furthermore, the word unremarkable is the exact opposite of what’s presented in this collection; poems filled with the agonies of every coming-of-age tale, the magic of a childhood spent navigating different cultures, and nights spent in a massive, violent, strange city that tends to become part of those who spend enough time in it. After reading the book, coming back to those three lines is crucial because they reveal the playful man behind the poems and let us know that we were on a sad, humorous, carefully constructed trip from the very first page.
Choi’s style is a mixture of sincere sharing and words being used to deal with certain memories. However, more important than his approachable, enjoyable style is the vulnerability Choi brings to the page. From dealing with death to plucking pieces of life that were happening in 1980, Choi treats his subjects and his writing with the same openness, and that candor translates into beautiful poetry:
this is stupid and emotional
and not poetic at all,
but life is so weird and beautiful
and i can’t tell whether it’s slipping away
or if it’s drowning me.
i can’t get out of bed
and if there was skin next to me
i would bury all the feelings in it
to some 80s soundtrack
like a non-stop loop
of the best of the church.
There is a yellow house in The Yellow House, and its appearances are just one of the many elements of cohesion that make this a very complete collection. The other cohesive elements are love, loss, memory, dreams, the role of parents, and the equal importance of things said and things left unsaid. Ultimately, the beauty of The Yellow House is that is personal and universal, and that allows the reader to recognize Choi for what he is: a survivor who’s seen many things, a son, and a man concerned with recognizing the things that came before and made him who he is now:
on the porch
drinking barley tea so my legs won’t fail
(that’s what mother says)
and, for a moment,
looking at my hand.
it is still.
sometimes it shakes,
sometimes it holds
On the most basic level, The Yellow House works because it is, simply put, beautiful poetry. Devastatingly beautiful. However, for those who care about the details of the genre, Choi also demonstrates a unique understanding of the way blank space can affect his message as well as a sense of rhythm that gives his work a particular flavor. These last elements make this collection a must read for fans of language and poetry and a superb addition to the Civil Coping Mechanisms catalog, which already includes some of the best contemporary poetry collections: There Should be Flowers by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, Lady Be Good by Lauren Hilger, and The Book of Endless Sleepovers by Henry Hoke, to name a few.
To read this piece and many more, order a copy of PANK 12!
INTERVIEW BY MANDY SHUNNARAH
Whether she’s writing about the endless curiosity of the body, the challenges that accompany being a feminist who isn’t afraid to defend her autonomy, the humor of living in a semi-rural area, or the wisdom of dogs, Kimmy Walters will delight you.
Walters is young—26, to be precise—so Millennials especially will recognize themselves in Killer’s pages. Walters’ debut poetry volume, Uptalk, was published in 2015, also by Bottlecap Press. At this rate, poetry connoisseurs will have much to look forward to.
Walters’ is the kind of poetry you can’t help but want to read, even when you’re falling asleep with the bedside lamp on. It’s the kind of poetry you read aloud to your friends because you just can’t keep it to yourself. The kind of poetry you want to read at stoplights even though it would pain you to be caught in the midst of a poem when the light changes.
While some modern poets default to snark, Walters is confident enough in her poetry to let each piece speak for itself rather than forcing the reader toward a quick, easy, often moralistic conclusion. Killer asks the reader only to observe and acknowledge—what readers glean beyond that is entirely their own.
Though the entire volume is captivating, the standout poems are “Good Morning, I Am Not Going to Commit Suicide Today,” “Does Your Soulmate Speak English,” “Marrying a Husband,” “Poem About How Little Affection I Had for Him,” “Giving Blood,” “The Water Was Filled With Swans,” “People Person” and, of course, the namesake, “Killer.”
I talked to Walters about her writing process and how her life experiences have informed her work.
Shunnarah: One of the things I most enjoyed about Killer is that while your poems are flush with meaning, they’re also extremely enjoyable on the surface level. Was the accessibility of your work always important to you? Did you ever have a memorable moment of throwing your hands in the air in frustration while reading a poem and think, “What does it all mean?” and vow not to make anyone do that?
Walters: Thank you! I’m not sure I ever consciously decided I wanted my writing to be accessible–I just didn’t have any interest in writing anything super opaque. I don’t get frustrated with needlessly complex writing so much as I get disinterested. I start looking around like “What else is going on?” I’m not going to spend a lot of time with a page that’s not really trying to communicate with me, and neither are most people.
Shunnarah: In the poem “Killer,” for which the collection is named, you speculate there may have been a killer who previously lived in your residence. Have you learned more about the house’s history since writing that poem?
Walters: I just looked up the house that poem was based on in Google Street View and there is a single black folding chair on the porch. Seems ominous…
It’s possible a killer lived there. That whole town was haunted as hell. One time my roommate and I slept downstairs in sleeping bags so we could try to get an overnight audio recording of the upstairs ghost. It was inconclusive.
Shunnarah: A number of the poems in Killer have a dark, subtle humor that is rendered sublimely in the text. I also noticed the recurring theme of dogs, creatures who manage to be simultaneously sage and goofy. Tell me more about your sense of humor and how it has developed in your poetry.
Walters: I’ve been depressed for a large portion of my life, and I dealt with it by constantly telling myself jokes. For a long time I thought that’s what everyone’s interior monologue was like. My sense of humor comes from years and years of trying to distract myself from being sad.
Shunnarah: You studied linguistics in college—deviating from the more common path of studying English literature or creative writing. Tell me more about how the study of linguistics gave you insight into language and influenced your poetry.
Walters: I didn’t have a lot of direction when I entered college, but the adults around me warned me against pursuing an English degree because they thought I wouldn’t be able to get a job. (I later found that it’s not easier to get a job with a linguistics degree, and a lot of people don’t know what linguistics is.)
It’s kind of an accident that I ended up with this degree, but it was a good course of study for me. I’ve always been interested in what language is capable of, its history, and how it changes. Studying linguistics definitely encouraged me to be more playful with language. The first thing you get taught in an introductory linguistics class is that you need to stop being such an asshole about language, which was true for me and probably all of my classmates.
Shunnarah: You’ve talked extensively about your use of social media as a poetic medium—namely making poetry out of the tweets from the now defunct horse enthusiast bot account, @horse_ebooks—so here’s the obligatory social media question. Many fans of your poetry found you via Twitter and Tumblr. Do you think blogging and social media, particularly Twitter because it requires brevity, have helped guide people to modern poetry?
Walters: When I was a tween, the thing to do at my school was to keep a blog, so I’ve been writing online for about 13 years. Connecting with people online is easier and makes me less anxious than trying to meet people other ways, and the way I’ve connected with people is by sharing writing or art.
Over the years I’ve had a lot of practice creating things that I want people to see. I took to Twitter quickly because I’m usually brief anyway. Twitter’s character limit is a constraint on writing the same way that the rules of haiku are. I mean, like anyone, I’ve tweeted “who up?” but hella old poems essentially boil down to “who up?” too. It’s one of the Big Questions.
The internet is a buffet and I am going hog wild on it. It’s so easy to sample things—I read articles online about subjects I’d never think to actually buy a book about. That may be where some of the interest in poetry is coming from. Someone who’d never browse the poetry section of a bookstore might have a poem come across their feed on Twitter or Facebook and find that they like it. Then they’ll come across a tidbit about food science or body language and like that too. We take in so much information; some of it’s gonna be poetry.
Shunnarah: Killer is your second collection of poetry, the first being Uptalk, which was also published by Bottlecap Press. In what ways have you evolved as a poet from Uptalk to Killer?
Walters: I think I was more focused while writing Killer, and generally had a better idea of what I was doing. I felt more confident writing, because I knew that people had responded positively to my work, and made quicker, less self-conscious decisions. The style is similar, but tighter, I feel.
Shunnarah: What are you working on now?
Walters: I’m figuring that out! I’ve just been writing poems and waiting for some theme to hijack my life so I can write another book.
Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though Birmingham, Alabama, will always have her heart. Her creative nonfiction essays and book reviews have appeared in The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, Deep South Magazine, and The New Southerner Magazine, where she won Honorable Mention in their 2016 contest. You can read more of her work at her website, OffTheBeatenShelf.com.
BY GABINO IGLESIAS
Last year was such an outstanding year for literature that a top ten list just wouldn’t cut it. Horror, literary fiction, poetry, nonfiction, noir; every conceivable genre produced at least a couple of gems that deserve to be on this list. I started the year aiming to read 200 books, which is something I try to do every year. Work, looking for work, too many long books, and writing a dissertation were all elements that got in the way. That being said, I managed to read about 110 books, and here are the best 21 in no particular order:
21. Floodgate by Johnny Shaw. This was fast, fun to read, packed with more action than a superhero movie, and showed a level of worldbuilding that makes it a novel that should be used to teach it. Shaw can do crime, violence, intrigue, and comedy, and all of those can be found in spades here.
20. Death Confetti: Pickers, Punks, and Transit Ghosts in Portland, Oregon by Jennifer Robin. Robin is a performer, writer, and traveler whose life definitely belongs to the small group of those that should be written about. This collection of nonfiction takes place mostly in the streets, on public transportation, and in bars across Portland. The people and situations the author encounters are enough to make it a recommended read, but the outstanding and commanding way in which Robin writes about them make it an absolute must and earn the book a spot on this list.
19. Slipping: Stories, Essays, & Other Writing by Lauren Beukes. One of the first authors to come to mind when thinking about writers who can move in and out of a plethora of genres while simultaneously sounding fresh and unique, Beukes has become a household name thanks to novels that are a bizarre, scary, wildly entertaining mix of science fiction, crime, and horror, and this collection offers more of that.
18. Bruja by Wendy C. Ortiz. What Ortiz does for the memoir here is comparable to what Flaubert’s Madam Bovary did for modern realist narration or what Capote’s In Cold Blood did for the nonfiction novel. Simply put, Ortiz’s “dreamoir” is a new thing and this book will be the starting point for a movement as well as the go-text for all upcoming memoirs that inhabit the interstitial space between reality, memory, very personal surrealism, and dreams.
17. Magic City Gospel by Ashley M. Jones. Going into a poetry collection without being familiar with the author’s work is always an adventure. With this book, the adventure yielded a treasure trove of southern imagery, a screaming celebration of roots and culture, and an unapologetically raw view of the female African American experience. This is brave, beautiful, necessary poetry that should be taught in schools and that undoubtedly becomes more important with each dumb step the country takes backwards.
16. A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson. Evenson is one of the most talented living writers in the world, and this collection is full of stories in which he proves it time and time again. Sad, strange, creepy, touching, surreal, scary; if you can think it or feel it, Evenson does it here. The best short story collection of 2016 and yet another superb entry into the oeuvre of a man who seems to only get impossibly better with each new offering.
15. Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Haze. The folks at the New York Review of Books know how to pick their classics, and this one is my favorite so far. A narrative that still resonates in modern noir’s DNA, this is a dark, twisted tale of love, violence, secret agendas, and the way plans have a tendency to crumble.
14. Witch Hunt by Juliet Escoria. This book is full of the kind of poetry that reaches deep inside you, pulls out the ugliest things you have to offer, and then slaps you in the face with them, and Escoria does it all just by sharing her own life. Full of heartbreak, broken relationships, and crippling realizations, this book is what happens when a talented author decides nothing in her past is sacred and exorcises the demons by writing them out.
13. The Incantations of Daniel Johnston by Scott McClanahan and Ricardo Cavolo. This is the only graphic book on the list, and it’s more of a surreal biography than a novel. Touching and magical, Cavolo’s art and MacClanahan’s words combine perfectly to offer readers a look inside the brain and soul of an outstanding artist tortured by mental illness and haunted by demons most of us can’t even begin to fathom.
12. The Book of Endless Sleepovers by Henry Hoke. Sometimes a poet is capable of stuffing his entire life into a book, and that’s exactly what Hoke did here. The pain, awkwardness, drama, and discoveries of a child transform into the suffering, joy, and blossoming sexuality of a young man, and all of it is filtered through the author’s sharp mind and tender heart. By the time I was done with this, I wanted to ask a million questions, congratulate Hoke a million times on his accomplishment, and give him a million hugs.
11. Chicano Blood Transfusion by Edward Vidaurre. El barrio has a heart that spans the globe, and Vidaurre taps into it to write poesía with a lot of truth and feeling. Readers will find the usual themes here, but also a range of new ones and different, unique experiences and memories. La poesía del barrio has a new voice in Vidaurre, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
10. Albina and the Dog-Men by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Just like no film director can compare their work to the bizarre visions created by Jodorowsky, no author can claim to bring together poetry, love narratives, and surrealism to the page the way he does. This is a long, sexualized, mythological fever dream that fits in perfectly with everything Jodoroswky has given us in his long, illustrious career.
9. Glue by Constance Ann Fitzgerald. I read this book on my phone while sitting in my car. I didn’t plan on that, but the first few pages hooked me and the rest is history. This is a powerful, autobiographical narrative that deals with loss and coping. Fitzgerald shines at showing us that being broken and not knowing how to handle things is a perfectly normal part of being human.
8. Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones. Sure, this is a werewolf novel, but it’s also an outstanding noir, a fantastic YA narrative, an emotional family saga, and a great road trip tale. Jones has always managed to work in many genres at once, and this one stands amongst his best work to date, which is saying a lot.
7. Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay. Anguish and loss are at the core of this creepy narrative. The disappearance of a young son is the vehicle Tremblay uses to scare readers, but it’s also the event he uses to deconstruct the way humans (re)act under pressure and how an event can make people collapse. This is another author than only gets better with each new book, and I eagerly await whatever he puts out next.
6. The Fisherman by John Langan. I’ll keep this one short: the mythos book that will be talked about and discussed twenty years from now? This one.
5. I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas. A scathing academic deconstruction of the Lovecraftian scene and its problems would collect dust in university libraries across the country, so instead of doing that, Mamatas wrapped it all up in a wildly entertaining and surprisingly funny novel about a murder at a Lovecraftian convention. If you care about the destruction of racism and misogyny but don’t mind doing it with a smile on your face, this book is for you.
4. Novi Sad by Jeff Jackson. Post-apocalyptic fiction done right. Tense, gloomy, strange, and poetic. This is the shortest novella on this list, and it packs as big a punch as anything else on this list.
3. Patricide by D. Foy. The best literary novel of 2016. Smart, fast, violent, philosophical, and possessing a depth that most literary fiction can only dream of. Foy is an author whose work will be talked about a lot in the near future. I suggest to start reading him now.
2. Swarm Theory by Christine Rice. I could write ten pages on the way Rice weaved together a narrative about a whole town and all its denizens, but that would probably bore you. Instead, I’ll say this: Swarm Theory is the most impressive book about a town/plethora of characters that I’ve read since devouring Camilo Jose Cela’s The Hive, and remember that Cela got a Nobel in Literature in 1989.
1. The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock. Along with Jones and Evenson, Pollock is a national treasure whose work constantly mesmerizes readers. Hilarious, vicious, filthy, and smart, this story of brotherhood, death, and crime was one of the few true literary gems published by one of the Big Five in 2016.
BY JAMIE LOWENSTEIN
Changing the format of a poem from visual (reading) to visual (video) and auditory (spoken word) stretched my imagination and forced me to rely on intuition, friends, and my theatre training. My poetry writing tends to start with a small idea or phrase, and then goes onwards with no clear direction in mind, mixing metaphors, and ending eventually when there is not much steam left to go on. In my everyday life, I tend to have more direction with the same result- stopping when I run out of steam. In this case, I had already completed this step because the poem, which acted as the foundation, was already written. The small idea, identity and identifiers/labels, had coal thrown on its fire, and the steam powered it on for 5 pages. I finished the poem, reflected on its exploration of how one identity for an entire person is minimizing because people are inherently intersectional–“i am at the intersection of all my identities”–and set the poem to rest. So, how did I find a way to further explore a piece that I felt was finished?
In a class I’m currently taking, we spend a lot of time discussing media as a form of performance, and how this type of performance, in a Warholian way, either is or is not a reflection of our truth. So, my first idea was to film myself looking in the mirror in order to turn a private moment of performance public. Publicizing intimacy normalizes it, and allows an audience to feel personally understood. Next I thought of writing my identity labels on my body. Originally I wanted them to circle my neck like a noose, and then up onto my face like a tool of asphyxiation. However, I ultimately decided against that idea because of simple practicality and the worry of breaking out even more–maybe “vain” should have been a title in that list. In any case, I now had a new idea to further my work: the inability to change how others perceive you visually i.e. based on skin color, acne, etc.
With this idea in mind, I mapped out what the camera would be showing the audience for each beat of the poem, bringing out images in the poem more clearly and concretely. Once I had planned each beat, I knew I could not do this project myself. I am not a drawing artist, and I couldn’t pan around my own body. I reached out to 2 friends of mine who do have these talents, and they were extremely helpful, doing their best to help me achieve my vision. The process mirrored my theatre work, meaning that it was collaborative. I gave Ray a lot of liberty to draw the pictures however she wanted, which ended up with a beautiful result going down my spine. The filming went a similar way. Jen apologized for her shaky hands and not getting the timing exactly right, but I assured her that all small flaws could be embraced because the poem is not about being perfect, but rather about falling apart at the seams. The video both adds to this idea, but also contrasts it: showing me free of labels in the end, no longer dictated by the text of the poem. The last shot is very similar to the first because the text mirrors itself, but at the end the “i” words do not make me blink because I am controlling my own identity and what you see of me when.
The audio experience of the poem–my harsh assonance and stabbing pronunciations, contrasted with the Chopin piece–are used to further the contrast of the visual with the text. My voice reflects the uncontrollable spiral of self-doubt and the overwhelming power of others’ impressions. However, self-doubt is often internal. The most seemingly stable, happy person can be torn apart internally. And that is the function of the song- to reflect the external performance of someone struggling to come to terms with their identities’ intersections.
Saint Julian Press, Inc.
REVIEWED BY Jennifer Morales
FUEGO, Leslie Contreras Schwartz’s debut poetry collection, is, as its title (“fire” in Spanish) suggests, a sprawling and hungry force. The poems, like the flames of a well-fed fire, arc widely, touching many topics. Schwartz, a mother of young children, writes about the limits and wonders of the pregnant body, about the fruits of labor — whether it be a tomato from the garden, a baby, or a poem — and about the struggles of children to assimilate to the confining world of adults. Several of the poems are ekphrastic responses to the photography of Amy Blakemore, who uses cheap equipment and highly refined developing techniques to make portraits that are rich in palette but often hazy in form. Others celebrate the daring and lonely feats of legendary endurance swimmer Lynne Cox.
It was this latter set of poems that tipped me off to Contreras Schwartz’s theme of boundaries —of bodily autonomy and bodily integrity, of unreachable shores, about the thick margin between being a writer and being a mother. “The Swim to Antarctica,” portrays Cox in her struggle to force herself to swim through 22-degree waters: “… her own voice breaking through to say what she/always/wanted to say to the body/you are owned, not owner …” In “Long-Distance Swimming,” the poet considers the teenaged Cox’s advance toward the unknowable land of adulthood: “… a lighthouse/rising to meet her on some continent,/some mainland she doesn’t have a name for yet.”
Contreras Schwartz’s poems alternately attempt to acknowledge and obliterate these boundaries, giving FUEGO a tug-of-war rhythm — fierce resistance followed by rest for the next hard pull. This struggle/rest rhythm feels apt for a book that includes many pregnancy and childbirth poems, mimicking as it does the pattern of labor contractions.
Even with all this back-and-forth, the threat of engulfing stillness is always present. One can sense a fear of inertia — a swimmer suddenly swallowed by the sea, a writer who loses the thread of a poem. In “The Falcon,” the life of a bird of prey is hemmed in by injuries, and the bird, in its flightlessness, has become a useful educational display for schoolchildren. Many poems deal with the stillness of the mother-body, while on bed rest or on the operating table during a c-section, or while endlessly breastfeeding a newborn.
The poet pushes back against that stillness in the title poem, “Fuego,” insisting that “This is not/a woman, sitting in a room/writing. It is a woman/whose hair has grown/wild fire, melting every/frozen moment in her house.” Later, in “Gardening,” one of my favorite poems in the book, she welcomes it: “… We all/need retreat, to rest, to feel/sometimes that it will come to us/by itself, a heavy plate that/says this is all yours.”
Contreras Schwartz celebrates the small triumphs of children against the strictures of adulthood. “My Daughter Sees Clouds” is one of the most powerful poems in the book, speaking of a child’s growing agency in the world as she gives names to the forms she sees in the sky. This self-granted authority to label the clouds is in high contrast to the rest of her day, a day governed by others: “… Everybody’s hands/pull and push her/into seats and halls, into lines and restrooms,/down to sleep and wakefulness. …”
She also quietly revels in women’s power to bring forth life while simultaneously bucking narrow world views that say that a woman’s value lies in her reproductive capacity. In “Burwell v. Hobby Lobby,” a found poem, she cleverly satirizes critiques of “Women who wish to run./Free-” levied by the plaintiffs in the infamous birth control coverage case.
Although the language in FUEGO is occasionally burdened with some unproductive repetition (e.g., many things in these poems“bloom” or are “tiny” or “deep”), there are moments of true transcendence. As a fellow mother/poet, I’m grateful for Contreras Schwartz’s passionate exploration of those opposing hemispheres of identity.
FUEGO is Contreras Schwartz’s debut. I hope more of her creative flame is going to burst out of the writer’s room soon.
Jennifer Morales is a poet, fiction writer, and performance artist. She is the author of Meet Me Halfway: Milwaukee Stories (University of Wisconsin Press, 2015), the Wisconsin Center for the Book’s 2016 Book of the Year selection. Her poetry has appeared most recently in Glass Poetry Journal’s special edition, Pulsamos: LGBTQ Poets Respond to the Pulse Nightclub Shooting, Kenning Journal, Verse Wisconsin, and Stoneboat, and is forthcoming in MAYDAY Magazine. Jennifer received her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University-Los Angeles in 2011, and currently serves on the board of the Driftless Writing Center in rural Wisconsin.
The Gorilla Press, 2016
REVIEWED BY MADARI PENDAS
Cathleen Chambless’ debut poetry collection Nec(Romantic) makes you feel like you’ve entered a dream, and with each page you’re moving along the thoughts you rarely visit, perhaps avoid. A macabre simulacrum of the waking world. It is a world where you are attracted to the things that would normally frighten and repulse you. This phantasmagoric book is not only a celebration of love, but of its equally magnificent counterpart, death. A love of the dead, a love for the dead, and love that brings death. It challenges our traditional notions of love and explores the idiosyncrasies that make each romance special.
In “44 Ways to Measure You and Me” all the unique encounters between two lovers is enumerated. The experiences that have endeared the lover to the speaker are also the same self-destructive qualities that drain and destroy the love: “17. I said yes, my head on your chest. 18. In poems I wrote you. 19. In songs you wrote me. 20. In secrets of cc’s. Syringes, and plastic baggies. 21. Hepatitis writhing 22. You said I would never find you, but I always did. 23. In parks. 24. On street corners. 25. In a cemetery.” Here is a love that avoids clichés, that is not a re-imagining of a John Keats Ode, but a gritty portrait of two flawed human beings, whose love is not measured in years, but by distinct shared experiences. The reader sees the totality of a relationship captured on a single page—from the first meeting “1.January 28, 2013,” to it’s conclusion, “44.When I leave before you die.” Despite the tragedies engendered by this love, the speaker still manages to find the beauty within the melancholy.
“Skeletons” is another poem that challenges the “happily-ever-after” notion of love we’ve been inculcated with. The whimsical piece depicts two skeletons relaxing in lounge chairs who symbolize a dishonest and feigned relationship, which is further implied by the final line, “That happens when you lock/ them [skeletons] in the closet for too long.” “Skeletons” demonstrates one of “Nec(Romantic)’s” most outstanding qualities, it’s pairing of outré visuals with humor and impactful conclusions. The amalgamation between realism and absurdity has a haunting and memorable effect, similar to a Joan Mirò painting.
The collection devotes itself to the macabre and the ways individuals interact with the paranormal and magical. The poems “Egyptian Fairy Voodoo” and “On Extracting a Human Heart” are written from the perspectives of fairies and deities, and explore humanity from an otherworldly perspective, thus providing a rare commentary on mankind.
In “On Extracting a Human Heart,” the speaker asks: “How do I extract a human heart?/ With time and trust./ Ask the gods why words will make humans peel open.” Here humankind is dissected from above, where language can be weaponized and used to “peel open their chests.” In “Egyptian Fairy Voodoo,” the fairies view humans from a lateral perspective, and provide insight from a quasi-contemporary standpoint.
The devotion to the painful, ritualistic, and otherness of existence inspires a deeper connection between reader and author. Shared traumatic experiences, whether real or re-imagined, bond the reader and the writer who converge on the page. The emotional intensity of each poem demonstrates to the reader that they are in fact getting more than just a collection of poetry, they are receiving a “gem out of her heart,” as is put in “Necromantic Glossary for the Practitioner.”
The book also examines the definitions and social constructs of womanhood. It challenges the current notions of femininity and deliberately chooses to spell woman with a ‘Y.’ These choices and statements offer another view of romance—love for oneself, inclusive of one’s gender and identity. In the emotive poem, “SHAVED PUSSY POETRY,” a vagina pleads against being shaved, and the pain of the act is viscerally recalled, “Stubble & skin snag between metal teeth/ bloody bubbles run down legs/ her pussy too sore to make love.” Here the organ that is essential for making love, receives none. It is tortured by its owner in order to comply with a modern conviction that women must be smooth and soft.
The poems that discuss feminism, like “MODERN DAY F*WORD,” and “Why I spell it with a Y,” highlight the need to love women not because they are extensions of men, or a means to glorify them, but because of the unique space they occupy in the universe. They are not men without penises, as Freud described them, but separate beings. The artwork in the book emphasizes this point by portraying the female form in nontraditional and startling ways. In one image a beclouded woman stands in the foreground while headlights shine behind, in her arms are sheets that create the illusion of wings. Here woman is ethereal and vague. In another tree branches sprout from her body and she stands centered. Here woman is an evolving being that grows farther from her origin.
If one dissects the title of the collection, “Nec(romantic),” it is syntactically obvious that romantic occupies greater space than the prefix “necro.” Such is the case with the subject matter. The book is greatly influenced by, and devoted to, death and the mysticism surrounding it; but more importantly this book is about love. Every iteration, every strange and confounding form love occupies, and the ways love can inhabit, and destroy us.
In “Little Boxes,” we explore a love that causes emptiness, instead of assuaging it—“even with a lover/how alone I was, how alone I still am.” We explore addiction, the most heightened form of love. An addiction is to be enamored. “Nec(romantic)” entwines the compulsions of addiction with those of love to demonstrate their similarities, and their shared abilities to ruin lives. In “Little Boxes,” the lover’s addiction leads to his demise, while the speaker’s love for the addict leads to hers. “A phantom wearing a person/ suit is what you became, with/all of that heroin in your veins./ At night I’d put my head/ on your chest and feel startled/ when I heard your heartbeat. I/ forgot you were a human being.”
I did not read this book the way I read other books, as a passive consumer, who has errant and irrelevant thoughts while reading. I was haunted. I felt the weight of the book on my life, as a specter in its own right. I was also overcome with a tenderness for the things in my own life which are strange and morbid, and which I fear writing about. I found Chambless’ fearlessness and audacity inspiring. She has turned her traumas and curiosities into a special universe within these pages. She frees the skeletons from her closet and props them up for all the world to see.
Madari Pendas is a Cuban-American writer and poet living in Miami. Her works focus on the surreal and absurd aspects that accompany living in an exile community, and the inherited identity crisis of being a Latina in America. She has received literary awards from Florida International University, in the categories of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in the Accentos Review and the Miami New Times.
Nightboat Books, 2016
REVIEWED BY LESLIE CATON
Body, earth, family, global politics, and God pushed thoughtfully through a meat grinder with memory and sex blades: this is the work inside The Old Philospher, winner of the 2014 Nightbooks Prize for Poetry, by Vi Khi Nao. Before I go on, I need to admit I’m not usually a poetry reader–I’m unsettled when I don’t have confident answers to the question what’s this about? The poetry I gravitate toward is concrete and essayistic, like Mary Ruefle’s “The Bench.” Khi Nao’s previous work, including her novella Swans in Half Mourning, retains a consistency in form that anchors readers and makes space for the imaginative. Philosopher, although packaged in a poetry casing, is anything but consistent. It reads like essay, fiction, or poetry by turns, but provocative images and themes pull even a reluctant reader from challenging poem to story to lyric essay and everything in between.
The book begins with a brief poetic meditation on identity and gender in “dear god I am god” then moves deeper into nature and the uncertainty of prayer as the sun is god as “a child / who pretends to pray” in “Fog,” then into the mind of rock itself as a fatalistic chunk of limestone with a working-class vernacular–“See ya around, pancake faces”–prepares to be turned into a retaining wall in “AA Meeting for A Limestone.” Though the subjects of these poems are dissimilar, thematic threads pull them together: in “dear god” the narrator is washing herself “in dew;” in “Fog,” god is a “daffodil twirling in dew;” in “AA Meeting” the limestone laments his last day “being drunk sitting by the river.” Water lets these unlike pieces flow; in the first two poems we dip our toes, by the third we are drenched, convinced we should suspend our disbelief and just read.
Language is cut and combined in startling ways, mixed into new forms as each piece builds on the next. Nao mixes all kinds of innovation from the literary charcuterie: experimenting with space, punctuation, narrative voice, line, meter; even prose that reads like short-short stories. While this kind of sometimes-jarring motion from one form to another could feel contrived, Nao deftly uses these stylistic leaps to keep the reader off-balance. She leaves a hand on our shoulder, though, by repeating and recombining themes and images: the concrete of body and earth, the uncertainty of memory and God, biblical stories as vivid as our own histories, dark human moments feeding the political, and the grounding pull of sex. This echoing is necessary to steady the reader as form, content, voice–almost everything–shift through the book.
The importance of the thematic and linguistic through-line is demonstrated in the move from “Biblical Flesh,” a three-page block of poetic prose about the betrayed lover to “Hay Bale & Asphalt,” one page of poetry spaced carefully from margin to margin about love or a woman being run over by a policeman outside a restroom (for me, an uncomfortable ambiguity):
and wait for your 3rd lover to arrive and read you back
the torturous verses concealed in packages of salt inside you Then you turn
to Lot’s wife and ask, “Was the view worth it? Is it still gorgeous?”
She is grass, legume, fodder drifting beneath the field of
The man is a mixture of
(“Hay Bale & Asphalt”)
Body and elemental earth exist in a liminal space in these poems, demanding that we consider what else is similar, what else transcends potentially imagined boundaries. As recurrence of theme, image, and language carries from piece to piece, a sense of continuity develops, earning the reader’s trust. And this trust is absolutely necessary by the time we get to “Pastoral Threshold,” where we are thrust into a supernatural political short-short story narrated by a leader of the United Arab Emirates in a modern take on the biblical story of Uriah the Hittite. The casual, patriarchal malevolence in this poem is stirring; after the narrator explains how he sent Uriah to Syria as a UN Inspector to die and to take his wife, the ruler tells us, “Days after his death or rather his assassination, she was squirming in my arms, under the opulent bed sheets of the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi where I housed my lust.” While this prose poem (or short-short) could easily stand on its own, as with the other disparate works in this book readers must trust Nao’s sure hand and take the time to reorient with each piece or be lost to confusion.
Nowhere do readers’ efforts pay off more richly than when Nao takes slices from her memory and shapes them with image, combining elements of previous poems that become revelatory. In “My Socialist Saliva,” the political is pressed into the personal through Nao’s childhood in Vietnam. Again the borders between nature and the physical is questioned. On the back of her mother’s motorcycle, breathing the “aromatic rain of rambutan and coffee beans,” she tells us:
My mother rode me on land coated with rambutans
Rambutans were like little ball hearts growing red hair
The earth of Long Khann was swollen with such cardiovascular beauties
My little heart was a little engine
Of red earth–the streets of my childhood were walking to & fro
And then the violence of the Viet Cong carves into the narrative, surreally introducing the political into the body:
My grandmother’s body, a helicopter
ran through her in Saigon
Its heliocentric blades cutting through her skin & bleeding crimson fence wires
That demarcated the pastoral field of her elbow from the suburb of her bicep
The chopping up of convention, the blurring of form and genre, and the haunting resurgence of the deepest common themes resonate through this work. Like the way Nao grinds up poetic tradition, she butchers expectation to make something delicious. She makes us work, makes us think. I can’t say what, exactly, this book is about. But it reads like life often feels: confusing until we take the time to breathe and let meaning coalesce from the strangest places.
Leslie Caton is a freelance writer and essayist. Her essays have been named Notable in The Best American Essays and finalist for the Norman Mailer Two-Year Non-Fiction Prize.
REVIEWED BY HOLLYNN HUITT
A series of Un/Natural/Disasters is not the place to turn if you’re looking for levity, for beautiful language and pleasing rhythms. The collection of 39 poems bluntly beat a track around hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, asking us to take another look at the tragedy and absurdity of what happened in 2005, of what continues to happen today.
Lo’s poems are powerful and honest and they can be tough to read as Lo unflinchingly shows us the sights, sounds, and statistics of New Orleans. We catch some familiar and heartbreaking signs left behind after Katrina, like the neon X’s marked on houses, the creep of successive water lines. At other moments, the poems are hopelessly cryptic and unfamiliar (lists or scatterplots of numbers and symbols with no context) and we long for Lo to explain them to us. Lo withholds, working like a conductor, sunk beneath stage level, summoning thoughts and figures into formation, only occasionally stepping in to repeat something, as if to say “did you get it?.”
In “Because another tropical storm is coming,” snatches of sound bites march down the page, different voices making the same point. The sound clips in “Warning signs and signals” are clustered together, but you can almost hear Lo flipping through TV clips, the smooth, modulated voices of news anchors sounding increasingly bizarre as the poem progresses. Several poems, like “Poor,” beat out a dark chant, the word repeated so many times, it becomes a humming mantra about the wrongs of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. It is moving and numbing.
Lo doesn’t have all of the answers, here. There are moments where the poems are intentionally vague, like in “Something About Being Maddened by Hunger.” Consider that there is more to this situation than can be described in words, or covered in the news, they seem to say. Consider that, even as you read this collection, even as you feel sorrow, you will not ever fully understand. There will always be something eluding your grasp.
Despite this, the subtext to the collection feels clear. Who is to blame? Who is to blame for what happened to this city, the houses, and, most importantly, the poor black people who suffered the most? Reading this collection is not unlike going to a protest, one you might’ve stumbled into, so you stand near the back of the room and let the statistics, definitions and numbers, wash over you. But as you hear more and more, your anger and outrage grows, until you realize you’re no longer in the back, but you’re standing in the front of the room and the keynote speaker is stepping onto stage.
That’s when this collection solidifies, becomes unshakable. Lo’s voice seems to ring out for what feels like the first time toward the end, in short and skillfully pared down poems. They drop perfectly into place in the broader collection. In “We are alone” they ask, “Where has everyone gone?” making it clear, that they, too, are bewildered. There can be no resolution, no explanation that makes it easier to wrap the tentacles of our brain around all that has happened in New Orleans. Think about it, Lo seems to say. And don’t stop for a long time.