Review of MK Chavez’s Dear Animal, (Nomadic Press, 2016)

Review & Writing Prompt for MK Chavez's Dear Animal, 

by José Angel Araguz

 

Reading through MK Chavez’s Dear Animal, one is captivated by the ways the title phrase can be returned to and given new meaning. From direct address to noun, this title does the work not only of complementing the collection as a whole but also serving as a lens through which the poem’s stakes are made clearer. The collection begins with the proem “Artemis,” which evokes the title’s charge of direct address:  

Come ride
my
ovarian horns.
Down
with the captive
Clitori.
Be free
&
speak
my
grizzly
bear
lips.


The direct address here works twofold, invoking not only the goddess of wild animals, wilderness, and the hunt, but also casting her presence as context for the way in which this poem and the poems that follow view the female body. Through the imagery of “ovarian horns,” a complicated gesture is made. The speaker asks the goddess to possess and charge the physical body with meaning, and, thus, let the body be enough. This direct address also subverts the go-to opening of ancient epic poems (“Sing to me, O Muses,…”), only instead of commanding muses to act on their behalf, the speaker here claims both goddess and the female body as being active by being present. This presence-as-action note is further emphasized in the poem’s soundplay of “speak / my / grizzly / bear / lips,” where “bear” evokes its homonym “bare,” adding bravura and vulnerability to an already complexly layered short lyric.

The short lyric as a form itself, an animal dear to poets since the writings of Sappho, can be seen as the subject of another turn on the collection’s title. In “The Affair,” Chavez uses the short lyric as a crucible where her themes of animal and human relationships mix and mesh:

Nocturnal like most vermin,
we feed on remnants
and on the soured breath
of our lives. We loll
suckling on flesh
primitive
and sinewy.
Likeness of one
another
and the world around us.

Here, it is word choice that drives home the emotional tension of the poem. An affair in which the two are akin to “vermin” would seem unflattering except that this conceit allows for the later “loll / suckling” which connotes a tenderness not immediately associated with the word “vermin.” By placing both words as part of the metaphor, this short lyric draws out meanings beyond initial impressions and shows need and want as integral to both animal and human experience.

Another way the title Dear Animal, could be read is as defiance. The undertones of this are implicit in “Not So Ancient Mariner”:

The launch of a ship involves a certain sullying, taking her by the helm and the breaking of a bottle over the breasts of her prow, the spume bubbling in a public spectacle to mark her owned…

In these opening lines, the speaker revisits Coleridge’s poem and mines its materials to create a narrative that challenges sailing tropes, specifically how the ship is seen as female and passive. The poem continues:

Young men are always encouraged to travel, taught they are destined to be gentlemen and explorers…They are told it is their duty to return to land and tell tales, but the rite of passage is hers.

Here, the speaker addresses the other side of the dichotomy, the assumed power of males in the traditional sailor narrative. By stating that “the rite of passage is hers,” however, the speaker takes back agency. The acted upon and passive ship becomes redefined as active via its presence, returning us again to the theme found in the proem. Yet, where in the proem one’s presence as action is an act of boldness, here one is engaged in a mix of pathos and world-weariness. The defiance (against tradition, against gendered tropes) inherent in getting to the wisdom of this ending comes at the cost of disenchantment.

Disenchantment recurs as a theme throughout, but always as fuel for revelation (as in “Not So Ancient Mariner”) rather than resignation. A good example occurs in the aptly titled “The Faculties of Sense,” in which Chavez addresses the controversy around the reading of Michael Brown’s autopsy as conceptual art by Kenneth Goldsmith in 2015. Goldsmith’s “conceptual” act is placed in contrast with the speaker’s own struggle to find “equilibrium” during a “rough year” in which “[in] an effort to explain myself / I sometimes uttered, I am the aftermath / of war.” This effort toward articulation is further conveyed as the speaker meditates:

When the term random acts was first coined
it was not meant to mate with the words gunmetal
and rapid succession. Consider the body
left on the ground for hours. The world allowed to fester.

Word choice again plays a key role in this personal and political reckoning. The phrasing of “not meant to mate” (emphasis added) drives home the nature of words and their power. Throughout, this collection holds that words are human, and “mate” through meaning. With this understanding in mind, when “A solitary man, so used to his podium, / [reads] an autopsy as art,” that act is one of trying to separate language from its ingrained humanity, as if even the words of an autopsy weren’t still about a human being.

When humans—we thinking animals—become the subject of Chavez’s poems, one feels the weight of the word “dear” in the collection’s title. Language in many ways implies distance; our immediate experiences are also at a distance, the distance of memory and understanding. Yet language and memory can serve as a way to cross that distance and connect with our humanity and what, in fact, is dear to us.

*

Writing Prompt: Pick a favorite mythological deity or conduct some research into mythologies that interest you. Collect facts, interpretations, and associated words that you are drawn to. Then create an invocation in the style of “Artemis,” addressing the deity directly in a contemporary way. What would cause you to invoke said deity? What would you talk to them about? What would you ask their help and insight on? Would you gossip with them, or rage? Be sure to braid your own obsessions/fascinations into the narrative.


José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and the author of seven chapbooks as well as the collections Everything We Think We Hear, Small Fires, and Until We Are Level Again. His poems, prose, and reviews have appeared in Crab Creek Review, Prairie Schooner, The Windward Review, and The Bind. He serves as an editor for the journal Right Hand Pointing and is on the editing staff of Airlie Press. He runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence and teaches English and creative writing at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon.

Review of Heidi Czerwiec's Conjoining (Sable Books, 2017)


Fusion & Fissures in Conjoining by Heidi Czerwiec

review by Stacey Balkun

Czerwiec sees the sights. Many of the poems in Conjoining, including the centerpiece poem, are based on true stories, myths, and exhibits. We’re brought to Chernobyl after the horrific events, led through the exhibits at Body World, and told an odd yet true tale in “The Girl Who Gave Birth to Rabbits,” which begins: “Mary Toft knew how it felt with child— / three birthed, one dead . . . That August, a large lump of flesh bled / from her body, and by October, rabbits.” We learn how Mary pretended to birth bunnies, and yet was discovered for her falsity: “rabid with fervor to birth, quaint / trickster, canny coney, cunning cunt” (42). A detailed “Notes” section at the end of the book documents this as well as the other source texts, putting these poems directly into conversation with other types texts in an act of conjoining form.

***

Czerwiec is a master of understanding and subverting form. So many science and nonfiction-based texts depend on structure, and so there’s a formal obsession at play in the poems found here. Several “nonnets” appear. These non-sonnets are all so close to a sonnet, but subvert the form just so: an extra line, or a missing line. Syllable counts that are just barely off, just by enough to remind us that we’re in a competent poet’s hands; one who knows what a perfect specimen would look like, but also knows nature doesn’t abide by such rules. Similarly, “Villanelle, Fucked Up Beyond Recognition” plays with the form of a villanelle, and what it means to fuck it up. It’s not fucked up. It’s perfect.

Contrapuntal poems like “Double-Exposure: Mermaid/Sirenomelia” use form to imitate the doubling or half-ness of the poem’s content:

I’m every sailor’s fantasy—
                                    if you catch my driftI’m tail
They want to conjoin with conjoined me
                                    (truth me told, more -bait than jail-.)

What a voice, what a form! We have this fantastical, sexualized mermaid on one side, and the voice of a speaker affected with sirenomelia, known as Mermaid syndrome: a rare deformity in which the baby’s legs are fused together. The beautiful collides with the realistic, humanized, darker side. The contrapuntal form allows us to  read either voice separately, or conjoin the two together, perfectly mirroring the stakes of this collection.

***

Oh we’re in good hands. The poems in here possess striking aural qualities. Czerwiec recognizes the poet's tasks of making words sing, and she draws from all aural traditions, from epics to nursery rhymes. A frequent use of couplets pays homage to the great epics, and wordplay is just as prevalent as formal play in poems like “Conjoining” (4) and “Doggerel,” a poem about a “dog girl”:

. . . By dressing me
in an embroidered bodice, Bruxelles lace,
they thought to make of me an absurdity,
thought to make me finer, even svelte.
But no brocade so fine as my own pelt.

Word play, rhythm, and rhyme drive this poem, but its heart is heartbreaking: the story of a speaker who is thought of as a beast, and yet has this rich inner life as a girl with emotions of her own. An overwhelming sense of empathy and focus on the tension between history’s treatment of such characters and their interior landscapes come together, over and over again in the pages of this book.

***

Try it yourself! A writing prompt:

“. . . We who did not exist

beyond embrace now exist excised, exorcised,
a brace of bodies, the bridge abridged.”

—Heidi Czerwiec, “Conjoining”

Find a news article in the “strange news” section; it could be about people, animals, or even the environment. Read it closely and take notes. Write a poem in two columns: the left column will use the third person, discussing the topic as a news article would. In the right column, envision the voice of the person/creature/plant/landscape. Fit these columns together as a contrapuntal poem. As you write, think about sound. Try to end on a rhyming couplet that ties the two sections together.


Stacey Balkun is the author of Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak & Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women's National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, Muzzle, Bayou, and others. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications, Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn & The Loft.

Review of Amber West's Hen & God (The Word Works, 2017)


Review & Writing Prompt for Amber West’s Hen & God

by José Angel Araguz


Reading Amber West’s Hen & God, I found myself becoming more and more engaged with the ways in which West’s poetic sensibility is able to subvert expectation through a singular mix of conceit and voice. Each poem in the collection establishes a narrative and quickly pivots it toward an emotional momentum. In “Misery Index,” for example, the poem begins:

We started measuring misery
in 1963. An economist traced its origins
to 1948. Our misery: 11.49.

A year later, we were far less miserable: 5.10.

This straightforward beginning develops into a narrative about how lives are affected by misery, and vice versa. The turn in the poem comes in the final two stanzas, when West incorporates language from Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech, which was delivered and televised on July 15, 1979:

We won’t forget 1980, our most miserable year.
June, in particular, the cancelled trips, too many
weddings, and Misery’s 32nd birthday—
a crisis of confidence. Suddenly every baby
made her breasts ache, the threat
nearly invisible in ordinary ways.

Since then we’ve done our damnedest
to stay under 10.0 while everyday Jimmy
builds and builds. Each home sweet home
an apology we can’t quite accept: the smell
of 20.76 on his neck, its taste on his lips.

What is remarkable here is the way in which the poem moves misery from an abstract concept to a palpable, human matter. The braiding of words from Carter’s speech helps do some of this work by creating an interesting juxtaposition. The speaker’s voice, which seems to speak matter-of-factly to the reader regarding misery, handles the elevated language of the italicized quotes in a way that feels bittersweet. What does “a crisis of confidence” mean in the face of human misery? What does that phrasing ignore or smooth over? This national moment of private misery being addressed publicly is pushed in a nuanced manner; the result is an ending that brings misery closer than a televised speech could.

In “Happy Hour,” a similar use of voice as fulcrum into pathos occurs. Here, an embalmer unloads his daily woes, stating: It’s not the kindest living. The play of an embalmer saying this line about “living,” his words charged with double meaning, serves as a jumping off point for the speaker and embalmer alike. The speaker goes on to detail the embalmer singing as he drinks; it is a scene out of a poem by the likes of Charles Simic or James Tate. Yet, as is evident in the final stanza below, what makes this poem stand out is the way in which West allows the embalmer to have the last word:

The lights go up at two
I help him to a cab
he whispers Jo
next time I go
I’m coming back a crab
with a shell like bone, but red

a bloody shell as thick
as the skin is thin
on a baby’s chin

a gull would rather eat a brick

Another facet of this collection’s use of conceit and voice can be found in the more personal atmosphere of “He Visits.” This poem presents a scene in which the speaker remembers the childhood visit of an otherwise absent father. Hailed from the bedroom, “where they seem to stay / for days,” the speaker remembers being asked to “Bring some grapes for your daddy.” The narrative develops from there, and memory meets child logic in the form of a question the child-speaker asks: “How come / you never got married?” The father, in the arms of the mother, responds:

You think we should be married?
he answers, gazing at her
smiling as she gulps

He kisses her left hand
holds it in the air
There. We’re married. You happy?

I nod, watching my mother’s eyes
narrow as she swallows
something, I think
the size of an apple

This act on the part of the father to “marry” the mother is an imaginative act, but it is one that mocks the gravity and innocence of the child-speaker’s original question. And while the adult-speaker can unpack this moment for its complexities of intimacy and emotional entanglement, West deftly ends the poem with an image seen through the eyes of the child-speaker. What occurs in this scene can almost be seen as a tug-of-war over narrative. While the father “answers” the question with a gesture toward affection, the child-speaker’s intuition feels something is off; the poem’s closing image becomes a metaphoric tug against accepting the proposed narrative of the father’s gesture and looking for what else there is to see and note in that moment.

Such moments of insistence and exploration drive Hen & God. Whether elegizing public and personal deaths or recalling previous relationships and friendships, West’s ambition to live up to the claim in “Poem as God” that “I am god and my ears / are the wings of the world” makes for compelling poetic moments throughout.

*

Writing Prompt: Along with “Misery Index,” a number of poems in Hen & God make use of found language. The poem below stands out for the ways in which borrowed, factual language is blurred and made intimate as the poem develops.

On your own, pick a local bird whose presence is so abundant you almost neglect to notice it sometimes. Conduct some research on the bird, taking notes on whatever facts appeal to you as language and phrasing. Then, freewrite about a past relationship, love or otherwise, staying close to memory and how things have changed in your life since that relationship. Try braiding in some of the language from your research. Like in West’s poem below, feel free to follow the images and leaps spurred on by this mix of languages.

Artifacts of Our Affection by Amber West 

When I notice mold in my toothbrush mug
I remember the pigeons
roosting in the airshaft:
their toilet, their nest, our bedroom view
dusk and dawn

Monogamous, amorous, pigeons are known for their soft cooing calls

Once I had
three mugs, gold-trimmed
blond carousel ponies
painted on each side. A gift from your parents
our last Christmas. I thanked them
politely, might’ve even cooed

Slaughtered indiscriminately, the passenger pigeon
became extinct in 1914

One shattered in the sink
I sold another on the sidewalk. The last survives
demoted: bathroom workhorse

Servants and slaves often saw no other meat.
Pigeons in your dreams suggest

You left the photo I gave you
in the emptied dresser:
us against the wind on Golden Gate Bridge

you are taking blame for the actions of others, or may express
a desire to return home

but you took the bread maker
the banjo engraved with a golden eagle

Once used for carrying messages, pigeons represent
gossip or news. It is thought they may navigate by the sun

I take down the cloth paintings
we bought in India. Pigeon
this message to the moon:

There is no true scientific difference

in the afterglow shuffle
bedroom to kitchen

between a pigeon and

your Valentine bathrobe remains
useful—

a dove

releasing
each man it embraces.

*

Poem includes found language from the following sources:
“Passenger Pigeon” entry on reference.com
“Pigeon” entries on dreammoods.com and in Encyclopedia section on infoplease.com
“Pigeons and Doves” entry in Rainforest Bird Index on rainforest-australia.com

 


José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and the author of six 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 RHINO Poetry, New South, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. He runs the poetry blog, The Friday Influence, and teaches English and creative writing at Linfield College.

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.