Review of Khaty Xiong's Poor Anima (Apogee, 2015)

Some Notes & a Cento for Khaty Xiong’s Poor Anima

by José Angel Araguz

Je est un autre (I is another). – Arthur Rimbaud

This quote from one of Arthur Rimbaud’s letters kept coming to mind while reading Khaty Xiong’s collection, Poor Anima (Apogee Press, 2015), at first because of the poet’s borrowing of lines and titles from Rimbaud’s work, but later because of its connection to the book’s running theme of the elusive self. Rimbaud’s quote, “I is another,” which can be interpreted to mean that our concept of self or “I” is separate from our inner selves, seems a natural conclusion within the context of the poetic act. This idea walks the fine line between persona and lyric self, and creates a space for emotional authenticity. These words also carry an added charge when considered within the world of Xiong’s poems, a world of bicultural identity, where the “I” is another in not one but two languages.

With these thoughts in mind, it is telling to look at the opening poem, “Refine,” and note how it reads as if fighting against having a first-person speaker. Without an “I,” the reader feels an added insistence to focus on the opening image:

—two bodies tangled in the night
cutting, pleading
her dark wet form against the darker form

This image is followed by a series of questions:

what does love look like now?

why would anyone want to write this?

what is vulnerable?

Again, without an “I,” these questions feel like they are coming out of a void, their need to be asked more urgent than a need for authorial presence. In dealing with the braided narratives of war, exile, and family, the poems of Poor Anima alternate between this “distanced” type of speaker and an “I” that is right in the mix of meaning-making. Note that by “distanced” I don’t mean abstract or objective; rather, Xiong is able to bring herself under as much lyric scrutiny as any family story or linguistic concept. In this way, Rimbaud’s “I is another” becomes a creative act, one that allows a poet to directly trouble and be troubled by various aspects of the lyric self.

In working on this cento, I specifically sought out lines that had an “I” in them. I thought doing so would unravel a hidden theme or argument in the book. The resulting cento gives examples of the linguistic elasticity that Xiong’s work seeks to engage with. The opening couplet consists of lines from the title poem and from “Bad Blood,” the latter’s title taken from Rimbaud:

When I linger awhile longer and I want my mother
I mean language touched by letters, the ones that teach surrender.

While my means of bringing these lines together was intuitive, I feel these two lines on their own speak to the spirit of the book in their respective ways; when brought together, they create a new depth. In “Poor Anima,” the line “When I linger awhile longer and I want my mother,” is one of a list of “when” statements. Each statement feels unfinished, yet they accumulate into narrative and dialogue grounded in the speculation of the word when, which implies a specific time but also the suddenness of transition via cause and effect.

The line from “Bad Blood” above is the last line of Xiong’s poem, and is preceded by a meditation that starts, “The dead return.” This opening phrase is echoed later in the poem by “Exile opens such possibility, and ghosts remind you to care.” Both of these instances point to the last line’s idea of being taught “surrender.” There is tension implied in this poem between the living and the dead, one that points to the creative space of meaning. The dichotomy of the living and the dead also implies transition. Ultimately, to make peace between the self that is “I” and the self one lives in, one must make peace with the changeable nature of meaning. Which brings us back to the questions of the opening poem:

what does love look like now?

why would anyone want to write this?

what is vulnerable?

The book and statement that is Poor Anima stands as an answer to all three.


Poor An(i)ma: a cento with lines from Khaty Xiong’s Poor Anima

Je est un autre (I is another). – Arthur Rimbaud

When I linger awhile longer and I want my mother
I mean language touched by letters, the ones that teach surrender.

Often, I call to lure myself—
I am American and it means something: My family,

the others I can’t quite trace out
though I harrow,

this time a depression, etc.     I hand over my species,
what a fucking mess. I guess we earned it—

seasons in words. I am your keeper.
I can’t hold this form, can barely remember how

I abuse the season for dialogue.
I mourn the living;

that gives river a new delta. I wait—go on—the same way.
I have been writing other things: other things have been writing me.

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 Human-Ghost Hybrid Project by Carol Guess & Daniela Olszewska (Black Lawrence, 2017)

Human-Ghost Hybrid Project by Carol Guess & Daniela Olszewska

Review & Cento by Stacey Balkun

Human-Ghost Hybrid Project is a collection of collaborative prose poems by Carol Guess and Daniela Olszewska. A hybrid text with two authors, its sentence structure grounds us as readers, but the narrative is nonlinear, at times absurd, reading almost like a mad libs with unexpected nouns and verbs filling each otherwise familiar sentence. Our speaker is neither ghost nor human. We find ourselves in this liminal space between time and place: the world presented here is both familiar and not of this earth. The prose poems here destabilize the reader and re-create syntax, inventing language and making meaning of uncertainty. These ghostly poems offer a new lens, a new way to see what it means to live not as a human-ghost but as a woman, navigating the world with many faces. In response to this project, I offer this three-part cento: a hybrid of lines and titles from the book (italicized) and my own thoughts.



Human Ghost is only half in love with your language. Don’t try to speaknot yetdon’t bother the girl ghost ruminating under a freestanding helmet. We are both autumnal in post-Ophelia dress. Half-joke, half-threat: I’m simultaneously psyched and sober, wavering and opaque in this newfound form. Both my brains have been working overtime to make me look like someone you could fall, then stay, in love with. It takes both my eyes to see this, both my brains to process, both my lips to respond.


Ghost Human is the author of multiple mistakes and six past date boxes of kaleidoscope perfume. Human Ghost is hybrid and unbridled. Here, we’re half-human, half-disappeared. We flick our tails, scales bright as stolen cigarettes. We take up the whole page. We wait for shipwrecks, Princess-ish. Together, we re-define royalty, expanded and abridged. We speak together, voice singular. We’re so much alike no one remembers my name.


I’m simultaneously sheep and pleather. Scaled and feathered. This is what it means to be woman. How brash of me to bride my bridge: sky for borrowed, clouds for blue. They said how it would always be for us, but we proved them wrong. I found a text message in a bottle, sand and broken glass everywhere, okay? We run these pages, flickering. Then I feel guilty about feeling guilty. Then I feel pointy and then I feel flat.I speak my mind, common syntax a spoiled formso let’s Devil in the Details. An underwater matchbook might stay hooked in a coral reef for centuries; an emory board cracked in my pocket and tossed to a junk drawer forever. This is no Girlbox for Sale. You know this story, but you don’t know that in the Original Version They Cut Out Her Tongue. We’re here to show you how it grew back.

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 and The Loft.

Review of Nikki Wallschlaeger's Crawlspace (Bloof Books, 2017)

Glitzy Subversion in Nikki Wallschlaeger’s Crawlspace 

by Rochelle Hurt

Crawlspace Shopping List (all italics represent quotes from Wallschlaeger’s book)

1. pie holes filled with magnificence
2. spiral ham (Everyone has a spiral ham fetish)
3. a rococo compass
4. the iconic ‘50s / inspired Coca-Cola kitchen set
5. rocking chair of rose water cyanide
6. PT cruisers that nobody drives
7. gewgaw bag of my money and marbles
8. Fresh Klonopin ribbons for my daughters
9. A protest sign hidden safely in Hattie’s famous / frown
10. a loaded / handgun (you can buy them in the intestine / department)
11. a silted crockpot of philosopher / dung
12. the antebellum purling / dog tags of myself
13. logos / of commercial femininity
14. My joy, privately owned (What is the difference between / a house and a mall really?)

Nikki Wallschaleger’s 2017 collection Crawlspace is full of knickknacks, trinkets, and gewgaws—the glittery disposable products of late capitalism that both perpetuate and distract from hegemonic violence. The list of quotes I've compiled above reflects some the ways that consumer culture shapes and antagonizes private lives in the book. 

The misuse and abuse of bodies is one visible consequence of this intersection between the personal and the commercial. One of my favorite poems in Crawlspace, Sonnet (7), illustrates the relationship between commercial excess and oppression of otherized bodies through dazzling and disorienting language. Wallschlaeger writes:

Father, there’s a ruin in our bibelot.
I light apple cigarettes when I look at the
collection of misogynoir gimcrack you left
behind. The FBI hosts symposiums and
they’ve claimed the work of disco house
Holton St. border from the black holocaust
museum their evil metered laughter. Girl
they just keep joking about us.

The address to “Father” in the first line links the decadence of capitalism (“a ruin in our bibelot”) to patriarchy, a duo that has manufactured centuries of casual misogyny and racism in the name of entertainment, convenience, aspiration, and wealth. Meanwhile, we can get any kind of cigarette we want—a slow death dressed as consumer choice. In capitalist fashion, the bedazzled syntax of the next sentence doesn’t really mask the violence it contains, but it does provide an appealing container for it—a museum or a disco house maybe. (How much difference does it make when you’re in the gift shop?) The patriarchal and white supremacist violence that manifests as physical force used against Black women (domestic violence, police brutality, sexual assault) cannot be separated from the capitalist violence of consumerism (anti-Black media imagery and beauty products, decorative cultural appropriation, the oversexualization of women of color). The former is enabled by the latter; the latter is a distraction from the former. At the end of the poem, in relatively pared-down language, Wallschlaeger writes: “The way you took away my safety is fine,” and then, in the final couplet: “I’ve accepted that / I’m a black vagina.” The use of the body as decoration results in the reduction of people to their most vulnerable and commodifiable parts.

All of the poems in Crawlspace are labeled as sonnets, and the sonnet form here is at once flexible and rigid. Wallschlaeger forgoes the rhyme scheme and strict meter of traditional sonnets, but often maintains the rhetorical structures, including turns like the one in the couplet quoted above. She also sticks to fourteen lines, though some sonnets are extended into multiple fourteen-line segments. Some sonnets have lines much longer than the traditional form, while others have very short lines—but all of the sonnets use the form as a means of restriction, a move that’s underscored by Wallschlaeger’s uncomfortable enjambment in poems like Sonnet (7) above. All the flexibility of line length, stanza structure, metrical patterns, and varied lineation exists only within the container of the sonnet form, which functions for Wallschlaeger as a means of capitalist control. She writes that the poems in the book come from “a series of sonnets that I’ve placed into small buildings, but since the bank owns the buildings that I move in, I am only paying mortgage.” In this light, the slight variations within the form, which by the end of the collection feels so dominant as to seem hegemonic, begin to look like survival mechanisms—or even, as Wallschlaeger sees them, subversions, “micro-victories against hegemony.”

The association of the sonnet with love and romance then serves as a reminder of the ways in which hegemonic forces seep into everything—and how capitalism allows this to happen. “What is the difference between / a house and a mall really?” Wallschlaeger asks. Romantic and familial relationships, self-image, race and gender dynamics, sexuality, cooking, cars, furniture—it’s all produced or appropriated by this system. Even protest is “hidden safely in Hattie’s famous / frown” (or maybe Kendall Jenner’s famous smile). This is why Wallschaleger’s excessive linguistic patterns work so well—the piling up of concrete nouns, compounds, and adjectival phrases; the ecstatic and confrontational music; the repetition and listing to the point of exhaustion. We are meant to feel overwhelmed and exhausted—as exhausted, maybe, as Wallschlaeger’s speaker does: “I’ve been exhausted my entire life // I hate telling you / how I really feel.” By the four-part Sonnet (50), the speaker’s language has become so infused with the capitalist promise of improvement and its accompanying racist double standards that it is convulsive:

                                    I am
mad mad. A bad bad girl who
can never be sad when white
people are good. Only white
wives are good women even
when they’re bad wives but
when good women are sad
good men don’t listen to
them either however our
shared sadness at being bad
girls or good women does not
live in the same neighborhood

you think we need to have to
transmogrify into good women
good wives with good men good
educations good children good
communities good poems good
girlfriend good food good books
good hair noses cufflinks good

The poem doesn’t end so much as jump over the ledge it’s been approaching this whole time: “say I am not good JESUS will save me /sterilizations executions intoxications / sunless moonless nameless homeless.”

Many of the poems toward the end of the collection address physical violence directly. In Sonnet (54), for example, Wallschlaeger writes of Michael Brown’s death, the use of his death in the name of art and entertainment, and the subsequent erasure of the state violence that caused his death, which in turn makes space for more violence: “he is still being killed in a diversity / of ways we are killed in a diversity of ways / I am killed in a diversity of ways & now / newspapers have started to write poems.” The relentless “diversity” of violence here echoes both the empty neoliberal calls for “diversity” as a flimsy solution to racial inequality and the relentless “diversity” of products and choices offered by late capitalism in the book’s previous poems. The echo is by design—a reminder that these are interdependent mechanisms of systemic oppression and none is extricable from the other.

And yet, we shop. We buy. We watch CNN. We drink Pepsi. We light apple cigarettes inside our mortgaged sonnet houses because what else? Perhaps this is why the book’s excess is not merely tiring. All the trinkets and shiny stuff of this book make it pleasing, irresistible, exciting, tantalizing, an effect that is complicated—but not reduced—by the links the book makes between consumption and violence. The appeal of Wallschlaeger's language is that it is both pleasing and troubling, at once glitzy and subversive.

Rochelle Hurt is the author of In Which I Play the Runaway (Barrow Street, 2016), which won the Barrow Street Book Prize, and The Rusted City (White Pine, 2014), a novella in prose poems. The recipient of awards and fellowships from Crab Orchard Review, Arts & Letters, Poetry International, Vermont Studio Center, Jentel, and Yaddo, she is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Slippery Rock University.

Review of Kathleen McGookey's Heart in a Jar (White Pine, 2017)

Heart in a Jar: Review & Ten-Specimen Cento

by Amelia Martens


Amidst seven poems directly addressed to Death, Kathleen McGookey’s prose poem collection, Heart in a Jar (White Pine, 2017) teems with life.

The zoological catalogue, a bright plumage or dark spill, ranges from poems actually set in zoos, to the use of animals as metaphor, to the speaker’s direct attempts to save or at least articulate the life forms which fly, prowl, give birth, weave homes, and suffer in the world around her.  The heart is in a jar for examination, like “The dead cat, stolen from Biology,” and McGookey never turns away from this other side of life.

There is a certainty to these poems, and a struggle to exist in a world where everything dies, a world where boys need bird suits after school, where paper fish have been taught to swim. Things are not as they should be in McGookey’s prose poems. Death must be addressed, animals caged, and Grief Jackets designed and tested. In this examination, McGookey gives us animals, but also so many hearts and other bits of the body—mouths, fingernails, earwax: the physical existence of human animals; “because being an animal is not so bad,” and we have no alternative. These prose poems struggle with parenthood from both sides: “Having a child is not what you think,” to the “universal plight of how to dispose of emotionally charged artifacts” of one’s parents. In small boxes, McGookey points out the unavoidable pain of all stages of life, these miraculous nests made of loss.  Here seemingly opposite emotional states (“In absence, anyone is perfect”) come up against their mirror twins (“Eventually, someone may notice my absence”).

The heart in McGookey’s jar is sometimes human, sometimes another animal, sometimes complete, sometimes torn apart in a recognizable story. Even the landscape is both reliable and painful: “Lake Michigan heaves its slow heartbeat on the sand,” and the speaker is told to “just let it fall” if she drops anything over the side of the lighthouse. How difficult it is to hold on and how difficult to let go in a world crowded by life and loss; Heart in a Jar reflects our fractures back to us. Here we recognize—in animal fables, in trips to the zoo, in our own dreamscapes—how little control we have. Even if we try to rescue some creature, or ourselves, we may “damage it beyond any repair.”

In awe of the animals—the significant life—that McGookey includes in Heart in a Jar, I have gathered her words together in a ten-specimen cento. All lines come from McGookey’s book, which holds even more hearts within.


Dear Life: A Ten-Specimen Cento


I’d rather learn facts about penguins: what they eat, how much they weigh, how they stay warm in the Antarctic. Today, it feels like the last, brief bit of birdsong, just before the sparrow in the pine flies away. At twilight, no matter the weather, that single bullfrog called to me. But in the morning, I found the raccoons’ greedy dirty footprints on our cooler. We still had, at least something they wanted.

As for theories, I like luck. But each morning, when I hear the white-throated sparrow making its threats at down, I know you’re not far behind. Whale bones litter the only sky. Fireflies are strung up and dangle by the glass walls. Eventually, someone may notice my absence.


The pregnant skunk moves into the dollhouse—it is available—then nibbles hard-boiled eggs at the table set for three.  All winter mice laid eggs under the stairs near the furnace. Wasn’t it yesterday the tethered owl nuzzled her keeper’s finger and the keeper told us, Put your hands in your pockets. A sleek bee sting and gauzy kisses won’t help. Octopus, vampire, cowgirl, bat. The monkeys inside me are sick of speaking the wrong language. The last monkey wants to swim for it. She believes the vast ocean is only a trick of the eye.


Our angel promised to scrub floors, but we got down on our knees anyway, our hearts like rabbits. Our teeth are white and sharp and long as the bones of fish. When the moon shines in my river, when a butterfly tries to lay eggs on it, we must not touch. It is raining, just barely, and the rain feels like the sleek fur of otters against our cheeks.


Let the barn owl coast above me; let the worms come. If the wind kicks up, you can chase beach balls with the kids and dogs who splash by the reeds. I know truth is precarious. And here you’ve sent a curtain of rain for the cat to hide behind.  Dr. don’t-grieve-for-me tips me back and kittens stare down from the ceiling. They are all trust. So when our dog was run over, when our friend drowned the day his brother won the spelling bee—this was another kind of pain.


When a pair of barn swallows swooped by our conference room’s windows, the committee rejoiced. Some sat for hours and petted the sleeves. I will write any address with immaculate clockwork, immaculate desire, because being an animal is not so bad, there are whole hours, whole afternoons, to drowse by the pond in the cornfield.


The rooster sleeps all the time. I like to drift by the brown horse that grazes in a field lit by dandelions. And please look down into the water. I’ve spent days teaching the paper fish to swim. We make faces and let the wind fill our cheeks like a couple of fat goldfish. The dead cat, stolen from Biology, showed up in my locker. After school, my boy searches through his collection of bird suits: pine siskin, least bittern, brown thrasher, wood thrush. From his closet’s messy nest he pulls chimney swift, shakes twigs from its pockets, slips it on.  Behind him, a lion lies on the concrete, an indifferent royal pet. But the lion does not belong to the angel. Each carefully pretends he is alone.


I’d like to talk about something else for a change, like that small blue frog, which, if licked, kills whatever licked it. The frog might be another color. You might have to eat it to die. The outdoor tank where jellyfish drifted luminous, to piped-in Vivaldi, is in storage now.


The tree frogs’ silver chorus rose in waves as I ran back to my house. I could still hear the girl’s faint sparrow song. Store the box until I want it, then tell me a story, the one where I’m happy as a trout because no one catches me. A fat and silent baby trembled among the glistening trout when my husband hauled in the day’s catch.


Once I read in a children’s book that rain never changes, that the rain on our roof and windows also fell on the dinosaurs. Cat banished, then sought. One bright fish circled in its bowl on the altar. This time of year, swallows dive for feathers to line their nests. And here is the monarch’s chrysalis, dangling under our threshold. Rain and wind worry us, but if we rescue it, we will damage it beyond repair. When I pick up a dead swallowtail, it’s already swarming with ants. I lifted a painted lady, then a black swallowtail, from the dirt. Each was still a little alive.


Nothing sings or swings or swims in me. No flashing trout, no penguin, no saucy chimpanzee. No bright otter, too smart to be caged. The otter is better. Silver bubbles cling to its back behind the aquarium window. Spiders spun silver hammocks where the children swayed, petting pearl-colored kittens that had dropped from the trees. I want four fat mourning doves to strut the roof’s peak, then scatter when a hawk dives.

Amelia Martens is the author of The Spoons in the Grass are There To Dig a Moat (April 2016), a book of prose poems, selected by Sarabande Books for the 2014 Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature. She received both an MFA in Creative Writing and an MS in Literacy, Culture, and Language Education from Indiana University and currently teaches for West Kentucky Community & Technical College.

Review of Shelley Wong's Rare Birds (Diode Editions, 2017)

“Yes, it’s true // that I multiply like a queen”: Twinning in Shelley Wong's Rare Birds 

by Allison Pitinii Davis


Shelley Wong’s Rare Birds (Diode Editions, 2017) ends with an invitation and begins with “Exit Strategist.” The speaker escapes in the opening poem—“I walk the plank, I’m off / this ship—”—and when she reemerges in "Self-Portrait as Frida Kahlo,” she has transformed not only into Kahlo but an assortment of forms: “They call me a bird” and “I am the horse that runs.” To keep up with this speaker requires that we navigate a collection of escapes, transformations, and twinnings.

Including “Self-Portrait as Frida Kahlo,” roughly half of the poems in the chapbook are spoken as Kahlo and/or draw from her biography. Six poems are written “as Frida” or “as Frida Kahlo” and two poems (“Dear Frida” and “Epithalamium”) are addressed to her. “Dear Frida” contains the lines “You have me tangled / in flower names /… / We are twinned.” To better explore this twinning, I examined Kahlo’s art, life, and writing as recorded from 1944-54 in The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait (Abrams, 2005).


Rare Birds: noisy birds, fingers / in the hair, pigeons’ nests / a rare understanding of / human struggle simplicity / of the senseless song / the folly of the wind in my / heart

The words “Rare Birds” appear in proximity in Kahlo’s diaries: “noisy birds /… / a rare understanding.” In addition to the title, birds appear throughout Wong’s collection:

“Exit Strategist”: “One bird, one way out.”

“Self-Portrait as Frida Kahlo”: “They call me a bird, / but I rust”

“The Woods”: “I peacock // into a spiral sequence” and “Women teeter / in bird of paradise pose.”

“Epithalamium” (to Frida): “A dove and an / elephant, they murmur” [Kahlo’s parents reference to Kahlo’s and Rivera’s marriage]

“Furlough”: “your elbow back like an electric wing”

“Ghost Bird”: “(text from a scientist’s explanation of the euthanization of a male moustached kingfisher, a rare bird)”

“Salt”: “My spirit animal / is a bird, but not a seagull.” and “Maybe I’m an ibis, maybe I’m a swan.”

“After Mayflower in the rose garden”: “a cormorant / extended its wings like a bat”

“Her Still Lives” (as Frida Kahlo) “My banana / bird soldier is always // ripening.”

“Dear Frida”: “Let the parrots loose / when you hear his fist / against your locked door.”

“Prayer” (as Frida Kahlo): “You make me a widow, / a dark bird strung on a wire.”

“White Rabbit” (after Then She Fell): “She asks ‘How is          a writing desk like a raven?’ / ’Feathers’ I reply”

“In the Hot-Air Balloon”: “as an illusion // of a winged thing / when all I want is / collision.”

In the above examples, birds (or wings) imply movement. Birds appear in opposition to rust, elephants, collision, and male fists against locked doors. They are connected to ripening and escape and used as verbs (“I peacock / into”). The exceptions to this pattern are significant—the motionless writing desk is like a raven because “feathers,” a widow is like a wire-strung dark bird, and perhaps most significantly, the title “rare bird” appears in the note of the poem “Ghost Bird”: “(text from a scientist’s explanation of the euthanization of a male moustached kingfisher, a rare bird).” The poem is an erasure—brackets note where words have been cut from the original account. This erasure reads less like a silencing and more like an attempt to free the kingfisher—each [ ] seems like a place for the silenced kingfisher to escape the narrative being assigned to it.

While the collection uses nature symbolically, it simultaneously appears to want to free the birds from the collection’s own usage of them. Likewise, the use of persona and twinning in the collection does not conceal or erase the speaker. It provides a [ ].  



Reading these texts together, I encountered parallel themes and symbols. The following cento (which continues throughout the review) highlights parallels and “twinnings” within the texts by alternating lines from Rare Birds (in bold) and The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait (Barbara Crow De Toledo and Ricardo Pohlenz translation).

We are twinned.
I tell you, your eyeball is / my eyeball
Everything is not quite so matchy-matchy.
We are the / same as we were and as we will / be. Not counting on idiotic destiny.

What remains in my memory are / our common silences.         
Mine was a strange world / of criminal silences
I was once / caught in my own silence / the sharp circle.
I'll try out the pencils / sharpened to the point of infinity

The emphasis of twinning in Rare Birds also appears in Kahlo’s diary. In her discussion of the origins of her 1939 double self-portrait “The Two Fridas,” she describes an imaginary friend that she “followed…in / every movement and while she / danced, I told her / my secret problems.” Both the speaker of Rare Birds and 1939-era Kahlo are moving past difficult relationships, and their twinning seems to provide support.  In “Dear Frida,” the speaker understands even loneliness as shared and thus surmountable: “We’re not savages because / who isn’t lonely?”

Language and titles also twin in Rare Birds. There are poems titled “Still Life in Red and Black” and “Her Still Lifes.” The repetition of “still” expands the word into its multiple meanings of motionless and enduring—it is still still. A portrait of life continuing: “still life.” Wong’s word play keeps opening and shifting language so we are always meeting twinning at a new angle. She describes her own composition process in “The Woods,” and fittingly, the language repeats and expands: “It’s twisted like how I make lines, / branch over branch.” Titles repeat to form themes: “The Fall Forecast” and “The Spring Forecast.” “In the Hot-Air Balloon” is foreshadowed by a line in “The Woods”: “Don’t be pissed // when my hot-air balloon / gets tangled in your tree.” The mangos unpeeled by a lover in “Spectrum” return to the mango tree in “Valentine,” a poem in which “the mailman / walks backwards” and actions are reversed—the lovers move backwards through their relationship until they do not know each other. As if gravity was reversed in the collection, what goes down must go up. 


imperialism -fascism - religions - stu- / pidity - capitalism
They want women to wear Europe
above all North / America - (U.S. and/England)
Fly your flags, see if / that saves anyone.

Both writers explore racism and imperialism. In “To Yellow,” the speaker separates the color from the slur: “You suffer / for that which you should not / be named for: my skin, my people” and “Dear yellow, / you have never covered / my body.” The end of the poem reclaims self-definition: “My tribe is rising. We are the new names, / the ones we have always known.” In her diary, Kahlo places herself in a Communist collective: “I am only a / cell in the complex revolutionary mech- / anism of the peoples.” She aligns herself with “Soviets – / Chinese - Czecho- / slovakians - Poles – united / in blood to me. And to / the Mexican Indian.”

In “The Spring Forecast,” the speaker cries, “Come out, come out, / ripest peach, offwhite leader.” The search for this leader ebbs in and out of a series of quintets. In one of the most formally exhilarating moments of the collection, strings tighten back with the line:

                                     Doors flung open

                                     to receive gold arrows.
                         (stringing the strings)
              Skirts flare into bells. Hair
                          like bougainvillea.

The stanza blossoms forward with the force of the flowers. The following poem, “After Mayflower in the rose garden,” critiques imperialism. The progressive blossoming of “The Spring Forecast” is set against a flower of privilege: “Many-petalled ship whose sea was never braided with thorns: // who discovers? Did it take a long knife / or a detonation?”


Oh dear, // I left my dream girl in the woods.
Tree of Hope / stand firm! / I'll wait for you—
Don’t shake the fire tree / if you shiver at sparks.
Don't let the tree get / thirsty it loves you so much.

Both texts burst with colorful, fruit-laden love (and loss) poems. The eroticism in Rare Birds peaks in back-to-back poems “The Concert” (as Frida) and “Still Life in Red and Black” (as Frida):

                                                            her hair
               a sweet tree, her ripeness
                                   trembles in gentle
                                               shocks, sweetest
               little deaths, as she
                                                           returns to me, split
                       orange, broken
                                   pomegranate—     (“The Concert”)

My teeth
mark you as claimed,
domestic creature
that I am,
I press into your
 thighs and suck
 . . .
I smear
your mouth with seeds
and paint you
in the morning when
the apple crawls
with ants     (“Still Life in Red and Black”)

Compare to the mouth of Kahlo’s lover in her diary:

There was all manner of fruits
in the juice of your lips, the blood
of the pomegranate, the horizon
of the mammee and the purified pineapple.

In Rare Birds, men often appear as a threat behind closed doors: In “Courtship” a man knocks on the speaker’s door and asks if she is “decent.” She replies “‘Always,’ sincere and / and mildly appalled.” In “Dear Frida,” the speaker tells Frida that Diego’s love for her is conditional: “He approves of your dresses / when your skirts turn // into a temple.” The speaker’s advice? Sic parrots on him when he comes to the locked door. 

In my cento, the line “Tree of Hope, stand firm!” (Árbol de la Esperanza, mantente firme) is from Frida’s diary, and it also references the song “Cielito Lindo” and the title of Kahlo’s 1946 painting, another double self-portrait. In the painting, one Frida is suffering on a gurney while the other Frida holds a back brace and a flag painted with the hopeful song lyrics. The twinning implies a liberation—a doubling of the self as a means of enduring. The painting and Rare Birds ask us to consider the ways in which all art is a “twinning” of its creator(s)—art as a space where artists can explore and radically affirm selfhood. Wong’s and Kahlo’s intersectional feminist works are lush with selves—as the speaker says in “The Woods,” “Yes, it’s true // that I multiply like a queen.”

Allison Pitinii Davis is the author of Line Study of a Motel Clerk (Baobab Press, 2017) and Poppy Seeds (Kent State University Press, 2013), winner of the Wick Poetry Chapbook Prize. She holds an MFA from Ohio State University and fellowships from Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner program and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She will begin her doctoral studies at The University of Tennessee starting Fall 2017.