Review of Lo Kwa Mei-en's The Bees Make Money in the Lion (CSU, 2016)

The Universe of Lo Kwa Mei-en’s The Bees Make Money in the Lion: A Review

by Madeleine Wattenberg


Unmade, unmake, unsung, undress, unpin, underfoot, unbearable, unwar, unwound, unthinking, unmapped, unslit, unforgiven, unhurt, unspeakable, until,

Lo Kwa Mei-en’s second collection of poetry, The Bees Make Money in the Lion, is a collection of un-verse. It presses language in its attempt to undo itself, its speakers, and the systems in which it necessarily operates. A shifting lyric “I” sings at the centering of this undoing. “The reverse of the universe is round—a ground with a ceiling,” Mei-en writes. A trap: the universe overturned is the universe. There’s no up or down. Instead, the poems’ speakers orient themselves towards the red horizon of mars, of citizenship. They’re spliced through data, embodied and stamped as girl, outsider, immigrant, alien, cyborg. It’s an orientation toward a constellation of past, present, future—dead light guiding.

At a recent conference, I had the opportunity to ask Lo Kwa Mei-en what it means to “write after.” She urged me to consider instead: who receives this after? Who will get to write the “after” and have the power to frame and define it? Who will watch from earth as those white enough and wealthy enough rocket through pollution and border-as-violence to colonize mars? Who will undergo inter-planetary transport already shaped to their purposes of procreation, production, service, slave? The Bees Make Money in the Lion explores these questions literally and figuratively. Space exploration maps exploration on earth—the future will make a map of the past. The future is a ripple outward from origin, not a linear trajectory toward a new beginning:

. . .                           So fair is the bright nuclear summer’s bateau,
us sweetly inside. Thus, reflect. The reef is glass, the chain is deaf
gold, and the future is bright, this bright, but flashing in fright,
the mild bloom like a child in bloom, like a world refracting.

The narrative is a sci-fi adventure, and thus a romance, and thus the narrative of colonization. The Bees Make Money in the Lion is concerned with systems. Sequences of sonnets, elegies, aubades, and pastorals populate its universe in layers of constraint. Additional rules of the abecedarian or repetition doubly bind these forms. Speakers are forced to generate utterance and movement within the insistence, even violence, of this constraint (“I would run my finger down your seam”). Because Mei-en’s speakers operate within these limits, they must multiply inward and into language to establish agency. In a sequence of “Babel” poems, both the first and last words of each line repeat: “After falling, an economy is taut to eject the body, to break” becomes “After rebelling, the light was good, if original. I love winter, fit to break” in the subsequent poem. The collection is one of formalist maximalism—strata of rule and regulation. Yet within the line, the expected “taught” appears as “taut,” demonstrating one way that Mei-en multiplies and destabilizes meaning within the confines of the form. It is in this purposeful slippage that speakers gain a sense of agency.

Throughout the collection, the syntax enacts a process of destabilization within the determined rules by subverting the reader’s expectation. Mei-en is able to predict what words a reader (and particularly, I think, a native English speaking reader) expects in the sentence and exchange them for phonetic similarities—the reader is in this way put in the position of questioning the rigidity of their neural-linguistic coding. Here, bees make money, not honey. This work toward multiplicity is also necessary for the ongoing conversation of identity and space. “I too have acted like an America,” the speaker confesses. One small article (“an”) stands against the monolithic conception of America—there are as many Americas as Americans, and “Honey in a foreign girl’s roar is the key to auto / -fable, and here be lions.” Honey (or is it money?) is the means by which to fashion a self-made myth.

At times the speaker is lion, at times the speaker is bee—the promised body, the colonized body. In her poems, Mei-en performs an interrogation of hierarchy. “My monarch is feral,” she concludes in the opening poem. By the collection’s middle, the speaker inhabits the lion in multiplicity. In rhetoric of proclamation and self-address, she states, “Lo, I am lions.” Turn the page, and the lion degrades, an undoing of the undoing: “when I diminish the lion I start at her tail, for love of what I demolish.” The reverse of the universe is the universe.

In contrast to animal kings and kingdoms, the honey and cage, many of Mei-en’s speakers inhabit the language of technology. In these poems, bodies run programmed scripts of race and gender, speakers practice a mechanized art, soon swept away in a data wash, and “glib gears reproduce my body in www but not in / world, not yet.” Infomercials, chat forums, textspeak—the “computer nightingale” sings. In “Aubade for Non-Citizens,” citizens compete on reality TV for the title “colonist,” and this is “[t]he future, the TV / vectoring the colonists’ self-portrait.” We already live in a world where viewers vote their favorites into the colony. Mei-en highlights how we’re living this future. In “Pastoral for Colonial Candidacy,” the speaker declares, “I have a futurist’s job . . . a mechanic / who shows up for what was long since determined.”

Some poems, such as this one, engage in dialog, signified by white space, italics, or shift in tone. The abecedarian “Elegy with Status Quo and Albatross” begins:

Arbiters of beauty’s immortal orbit are the rich. They know a buzz
            beelining the bikini of the universe if its kicks them in the essay,

            collective conscience says [on stage]. Doves collapse the hat (the hoax
du jour) and [in the wings] belles go wild, wild, wow—

even past take-off, I’ll dance for love of the leitmotiv
                          for one big step for—              [The business of] take-off:

 The order of the English alphabet is the status quo. The layers of performance through which the speaker constructs and deconstructs longing, the advertisement appealing to “love of something bigger than—.” This is the log of citizenship, sailing to American-Dream-Turned-Martian-Dream and the new motherland is the motherboard: “X-ray this, motherfucker, socket / circuit twinned, sex on a memory stick . . . I am a kill switch. I mean, I want to be still // and retrieve my obedient self to unlearn.” The lineage of the android is computer mediated DNA.

In the “Babel” sequence, the speaker takes on myth of language: “The legend screws us like we came together in a loving tongue.” As she rejects the monolithic nation, Mei-en rejects the mono-language of humankind. “So unscrew it,” she says, inviting her reader to join her in this process, loosening the system’s nuts and bolts.

What can be affirmed in the un-verse? It’s a language that refuses to be settled in—that rejects the settler. In The Bees Make Money in the Lion, the undoing is the doing. Despite longing (“Let there be more world to wait for than this in this world”), there’s no wiping clean the hard drive of language. Even Mars is not outside the system—we’ll take ourselves with us when we go.


Madeleine Wattenberg's lifelong dream of writing reviews entirely in emojis feels closer than ever. The words of women and nonbinary writers keep her imaginary zeppelin afloat. Her own work appears or is forthcoming in journals such as Hermeneutic Chaos, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Mid-American Review, Muzzle Magazine, Ninth Letter, and Guernica. Direct birdcalls to @topazandmaddy.

Review of Sophie Klahr's Meet Me Here at Dawn (YesYes Books, 2016)


After reading Sophie Klahr’s Meet Me Here at Dawn

by Rachel Mennies


[all text excerpted in the original book appears in italics]
 


an early poem named dare          say when:          its border learned only by crossing it


here Chicago     New York     Orlando     Miami         in each room only the speaker and her lover        


I walk through the paid rooms (vols I/II/III)          each full of pocket mints     lotion     matchbooks     the paper bag of cash          personal effects that, if left behind, successfully identify nobody


(here is never the lover’s wife       I never see her face)
 

I greet the erotic with a hand in the dirt          After sex sometimes, there is blood on the sheets          the erotic with a hand in the air          Night comes down / through the trees, cups my face / upwards—          I pause in the dark         where both sex and prayer begin with clasping fingers


          To consider: I loved a hive of light
To consider: I came when he bit my palm
 

this book wishes me to pray         how the speaker asks whose hand is whose         how she lies beside another body         disappears with your piece of God
 

and reappears in the unavoidable illumination of aftermath          the sun rising through dawn blinds in each paid room          light in the airport, trembling back         


light on the brother whose life snapped back, a bough pulled down then released          light on the father holding the speaker for the first time, a baby         


(that is a mailbox he tells her          that is a tree)
 

Klahr’s line expands and contracts from poem to poem         a song hummed into different jars          then unscrewed
 

after leaving the paid rooms for good           the speaker trades rhetorical positioning          if morality has a fiber to it could it heal itself?        for the windows opening wide         it is the fifth year of our affair          for the lights turned on          what have we brought forth?        
 

across its brightened threshold she brings a bride wading into a pool         
 

I never see her face
 

I look away the first time I read the word wife          as if I’d walked uninvited into the poem (a bedroom          with the door ajar)          I’ve been trying not to mention your marriage but they say a gun onstage          must go off                    
 

each time after          I do not look away
 

I set out to review Meet Me Here at Dawn in a more traditional format and, as I do with any book I'm (re)reading with the intention of reviewing, I took weird, shorthanded notes in the margins. As I read Klahr's bookin particular, as the speaker's important troubling of the boundaries between intimacy, eroticism, and loss grabbed meI looked over my notes and realized they'd crystallized into a sort of poem themselves. I offer up this creative response, based partly on those margin notes, entirely at the altar of the original book: a rendering done in gratitude for having read it.


Rachel Mennies is the author of The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards, the 2014 winner of the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry and finalist for a National Jewish Book Award, and the chapbook No Silence in the Fields. She teaches writing at Carnegie Mellon University and is a member of AGNI’s editorial staff.

Review of Donika Kelly's Bestiary (Graywolf, 2016)

 Bestiary by Donika Kelly

review & writing prompt by José Angel Araguz


One of the compelling aspects of Donika Kelly’s Bestiary (Graywolf Press) is the way the poems catalogue experiences that society in general refuses to name much less dwell upon. From child abuse to conflicted ideas of self rooted in race and oppression, Kelly’s book takes on its title’s premise of presenting a compendium of beasts and subverts it into a metaphor for documenting inner struggles and transformations. This work, however, is done indirectly through evocation and metaphor, making the arguments that much more engaging and engrossing.

There is a sequence of love poems, for example, that interpolate the language and lore around various mythological creatures and braids it with lyric meditations on the heart. In “Love Poem: Mermaid,” we encounter the lines:

Love, I am made

for calling: bare breast, smooth tail,
the perfect balance of scales.

I have claimed this rock,
which is also your heart,

which is also a shell I hold
to my ear to hear what is right

in front of me.

This mixing of the personal and mythological worlds moves beyond metaphor via direct address. Subverting the intimacy expected of love poems, the speaker evokes the distance and separation of mermaids and places it between herself and the addressed beloved. A sense of human helplessness is felt as the conceit is pushed to its conclusion:

                        I am a witness
to the sea and the sun, to your body

lashed to the mast. O that my voice
were a knife, that a knife could change

anything, that there was nothing
between us but salt and breath.

There is an emotional honesty in these lines that springs from both mermaid metaphor and human voice. The mermaid metaphor invites “the sea and the sun” and the “body / lashed to the mast” imagery into the poem. Yet, it is the human voice of the speaker that brings home the logic and hurt behind the last three lines. Wishing that “there was nothing / between us but salt and breath,” suggests, without naming, the worlds (mythological, emotional) between the speaker and the beloved.

This work of suggestion continues throughout the book’s other themes. In “Balloon,” we find a speaker contemplating:

What kind of bird is she? Foul.
What kind of woman is she?

In “Love Poem: Griffon,” another speaker:

What
kind of bird am I?

These moments are rendered in their respective poems in ways that allow the questions to suggest themselves. In “Balloon,” wordplay presents a moment of blurred insight; in the latter poem, a griffon is given voice only to question itself, a move that seems playful except when lingered upon. What is being given voice in a poem like this is both a griffon and a self; these questions, then, point to spaces where words are left unspoken.

The gesture is nuanced, yet essential. The poems of Bestiary surprise in their ability to acknowledge silences. This is most evident in “Love Poem: Donika,” in which the speaker interrogates that other mythological creature, the poet:

This is a spring of shambles.
Of meadows slow to flower,
of fire sooting the underbrush,
and, love, I am lonely as a bear.

After admitting that “I am no good at bearish things,” the speaker goes on to end the poem stating:

I am tired of mounting
this hill alone.
                        Love, how do I gain
what was lost in winter?

Here, we have a poem that moves from “a spring of shambles” to a looking back at “what was lost in winter.” Through the conceit of a bear emerging out of hibernation, this poem evokes a sense of being acutely aware of change and loss simultaneously. This particular change and loss, however, is less about any beloved and more about a state of being.

To push the conceit further: bears and poets survive, for all intents and purposes, through acts of necessary solitude. But what is there after survival? What is there beyond moving forward? The poems of Bestiary ask us to listen not just for the answers to these questions but for the questions themselves. In this space, silence is seen not as the absence of sound but a lessening of it, a lessening that implies a return.

 

Writing Prompt: Choose a creature (mythological or otherwise) and free-write a list of associations around it. Allow for things you know to mix with pure associations that occur in the moment. Then, think about a memory or time in your life where you conflicted with someone (a partner, a family member, yourself, etc.) and list phrases that you recall from that time. Then braid these two lists into a poem where one side influences the feel and logic of the other.

 


José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and the author of seven chapbooks as well as the collections Everything We Think We Hear (Floricanto Press) and Small Fires (FutureCycle Press). His poems, prose, and reviews have appeared in Crab Creek Review, Prairie Schooner, The Windward Review, and The Bind. He runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence and teaches English and creative writing at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon.

Review of Mary Ruefle's My Private Property (Wave Books, 2016)

“It is sad, is it not”: A Review

by Trevor Ketner


A cancerous cactus, shrunken heads, the different colors of sadness: these are just some of the many startling and poignant images from NEA and Guggenheim fellow Mary Ruefle’s new prose collection, My Private Property (Wave Books). My Private Property is infused from the very beginning with what I’ve come to think of as a passionate melancholy. For example, in “Little Gold Pencil,” Ruefle writes: “I had a nice feeling of sharing, so when they asked me whether I had anything else to say I told them that in the beginning you understand the world but not yourself, and when you finally understand yourself you no longer understand the world.”

Paired with this resignation is a deeply felt and nurtured curiosity for a world that should simply prove (and does prove to some) to be boring: “These crumbs on my kitchen counter look like a scattering of stars, though they are not much bigger than grains of salt, and made of toast, burnt bread.” Even in something as mundane as crumbs, Ruefle finds not only two comparisons to be made, but also two different ways of characterizing the crumbs themselves. She continues, “There are those (I have seen them too) who do not notice such things as crumbs, and if pointed out to them, consider crumbs as natural as a tree and as unremarkable as anything that goes unnoticed” (“The Invasive Thing”).  My Private Property is filled with moments like these, moments of stillness, contemplation, even sadness, leading to a realization or a revisioning of the world surrounding the speaker, whom the reader so often feels must be Ruefle.

These pieces are much like a perfect ceramic replica of a pillow; though seemingly light and comforting, each piece is in fact heavy with meaning and emotion. It is to Ruefle’s credit, and evidence of her mastery, that a book so concerned with sadness is not depressing. Instead sadness is explored as an emotion of life and the living, of loss not as something concrete, but a sign of change, a different breed of having. This is perhaps exemplified best in the title essay, which examines the cultural and personal significance of shrunken heads.  “My Private Property” opens:  “It is sad, is it not, that no one today displays any interest in the art of shrunken heads.” We are then taken through a quick series of thoughts: on the Peruvian Jivaro tribe’s process of shrinking heads; an account of an explorer whose head was shrunk and sent back to his wife who fainted every time she had to take it out of its trunk for cleaning, and ended up being eaten by mice in the trunk anyway; of Ruefle’s time in Brussels as a young child in a military family where she sees an African example of a shrunken head in a museum she visits over and over again, importantly acknowledging, “the museum [she] wandered in was built on rape and plunder and pillage and oppression and murder, that everything in it was stolen.” The essay ends with the account of Ruefle’s mother’s death, when her head swelled to an unnerving size. In all, the essay is what My Private Property as a book is about: a world in which sadness claims us and we, as it seems we must, claim it back as our dearest possession.

One of the most moving pieces in My Private Property is “Pause,” an account and reflection on menopause both as a social phenomenon and as a very individual one for Ruefle. Before “Pause” appears the only image in the book, a scan of a hand-written page Ruefle calls her “cryalog” a catalog of all the times she cried over the course of some past April:

The saddest thing is, I now find the cryalog very funny, and laugh when I look at it.

But when I kept it, I wanted to die, literally kill myself—with an iron, a steaming-hot turned-on iron

This is by far the most viscerally violent moment in the entire book. Quite essential to the rest of the collection, it grounds some of the light-hearted pieces like “Observations on the Ground,” or “The Woman Who Couldn’t Describe a Thing if She Could.” Even within “Pause” Ruefle undercuts the searing reality of sadness with some humor: “You have on some days the desire to fuck a tree, or a dog, whichever is closest.” The power of her humor is that not only does it act as a foil for the darker moments in My Private Property, but also it is utterly believable. Reading “Pause,” the reader has no problem believing Ruefle when she says she wanted to fuck a tree, just as they believe her when she says, “You will feel as if your life is over and you will be absolutely right about that, it is over.” Even for someone who will never experience menopause, Ruefle packs enough pathos into this relatively small space to make you invested in it, invested in the reality of sadness, loss, and change.

In similar form, the prose poem sequence about the colors of sadness (blue, purple, black, gray, red, green, pink, orange, yellow, white, and brown) woven throughout the collection is beautiful and poignant. In “Pink,” Ruefle writes, “Pink sadness is the sadness of white anchovies. It is the sadness of deprivation, of going without, of having to swallow when your throat is no bigger than an acupuncture pin. . . .” While initially surprising, the pieces ultimately lead to a certain comfort as the reader comes again and again across the glyph marking each, and knows, as if in on some secret, what will come after. The “Author’s Note” (which I will not share here so as not to rob others of the satisfying moment of reading it at the end of the collection), acts as a key, and, like any good key, it turns and opens a whole new room.

The essays and prose poems of My Private Property have obviously been curated by the mind of a poet. There is a masterful manipulation of juxtaposition and association of images that are threaded throughout so that the book holds a shape, not like an arrow pointing in a singular and definitive direction, but instead like a bowl collecting rain. One can trace, especially on a second read (which I found to be an almost immediate reflexive reaction upon finishing the book), the fine architecture of the book itself.

My Private Property is pure magic. It dazzles and moves the reader to a deeper understanding of the place sadness holds in their lives. Ruefle seems to be implying that while sadness is the one emotion we feel we have most to ourselves, the most idiosyncratic feeling, it is also the one most easily understood by others. Insightful, emotive, and brimming with empathy, My Private Property is a masterwork of love for the world and others in it.


Trevor Ketner holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota. Their poems have appeared in Best New PoetsDay OneNinth Letter, West Branch, Pleiades, The Offing, Devil's Lake, Boxcar Poetry Review, Memorious, and elsewhere. Their essays and reviews can be found in The Kenyon Review, Boston Review, Lambda Literary, Booklist and The Rumpus. They currently serve as Associate Poetry Editor for Slice Magazine.

Review of Megan Levad's Why We Live in the Dark Ages (Tavern Books, 2015)


A P/rose/oem Re(Action) to Megan Levad's Why We Live in the Dark Ages
a patchwork of p/rose/oems concerning know(ledge)

by Ariana Nadia Nash
 

From “Bullying”:
“and has a different colored eye, which, by the way, if you have a different- / color eye it means you ate your twin, I mean you, you absorbed your twin / in, in the womb.”

Doubled self. Multifolding language. Onepointing to many. You and not you. One always multiple. 

 

An index, rather than a table of contents. Find Afghanistan; cartilaginous skeletons; Heidegger, Martin; kangaroos; Plague, the; Playgirl; sea grapes; vaccines; vampires. Infinite Jest-like spatiality to the form. Internet-like. Word-searched. Read(y) for literary criticism from the “digital humanities.” An authoritative guide? What other forms of order are displaced? 

 

A question can be an assertion?

Power? Feminism?

Overvaluing contingency uncertainty gaps is ignorance? Undervaluing contingency uncertainty gaps is tyranny?

The question marks a form of excess?

 

Evolution is nonlinear. Reptiles had breasts. Whales from camels. Fractions are like verse. We’re in the Dark Ages, maybe?, because we don’t all speak the dominant language, which today, maybe?, is scientific. History is also nonlinear, because history always looks back while moving forward. Which is why we try to raise chimps as people, maybe?

 

From “Great Men of Science: Thucydides”:
“Okay so...and uh...sort of, you know sort of...but that, uh / I don’t know if...So...they were / they were sort of....and, uh... and, uh...were sort of like...Anyway...all crazy, like...and somehow...for this uh, this uh....if you will. / And uh...on his way to, I think...and, uh...or...and uh, and uh, this could / lead to uh, to uh, his death...they


were sort of, uh...sort of paranoid....So...or uh...I don’t know if he literally did that...he sort, he, he, he was very / good at um, um, sort of...so whatever...a Spartan lifestyle if you will...I think it was this / I think, I think...or something...Anyway so...or...like all...and maybe he / slept with...maybe he didn’t....anyway he did some, I think...for the uh, the uh...I believe”

 

God is referenced on pgs. 27, 41, 73, 75, 80, 81. As in “God I loved that book!” and Anne Sexton’s poetry collection, as in Kepler and Ptolemy’s views of God and the universe, a quote from John 3:16, and St. Paul on the road to Damascus. God in multiform interconnections? God in information-masked-as-knowledge in all its dementions?

 

What is the difference between a line break and ‘uh’? Can ‘uh’ be a ledge in language? “Sublimity...is the feeling of being on a cliff, this is a very / simplified version, being on a cliff looking over the cliff at the smallness or / the expanse, the, the uh, expanse the, the expansiveness of what’s below / the cliff or beyond the horizon and the....feeling of both terror and awe.”

 

Pro(fusion). Monotremes to Walkabout to male ambivalence toward nursing to sweat to “gross” opossums. Homeopathy: nano-nonsense, Hippocratic oath. Plural(isms). Anne Sexton following or maybe of the “Great Men of Science.” The “brain-body reaction” of love. All the chimps and the kittens they loved or killed. (Enter)relation. Hap(hazard)ness.


From “Lucy, Part Two”:
“...somewhere / off of South America does that make any sense? Do chimps live there? / That’s wrong it was, was Africa. Somewhere off of South Africa. Or / is Ghana in Africa? It was Ghana. An island off of Ghana.”

It was The Gambia. 

 


It’s sort of like Drunk History, or at least maybe asks: What’s up with Drunk History? What’s so funny about in(toxic)ated people getting history half right? Jen hic(cuping) that Washington was a “dumb fuck” for his treatment of Oney. Duncan vomiting into a toilet while explaining why Edison was an asshole and how Tesla fell in love with a pigeon.


P/rose/oetry:

If every line of a poem goes to the end of the page, is it verse? Or ragged prose wearing a mask? Distinction made arbitrary?

Language hovers between two entities and refuses to be recognizably either? 

 


Ariana Nadia Nash is the winner of the 2011 Philip Levine Prize in Poetry for her collection Instructions for Preparing Your Skin, published by Anhinga Press. She has also published the chapbook Our Blood Is Singing from Damask Press. Her work has appeared in Rock & Sling, Poet Lore, Painted Bride Quarterly, and Cimarron Review, among other journals. She is a lecturer at the University of Chicago.