Review of Elizabeth Bradfield’s Once Removed (Persea Books, 2015)


Attempting Scientific Inquiry into Elizabeth Bradfield’s Once Removed

by Laura Maher, with illustrations by Julia Koets

 

The animals know: something is beginning, or something is ending. Something has changed. Call it climate change, call it human interaction, call it nature. The animals are looking for what has drawn them.

The humans look on, observe. The humans aim to know these animal desires: to learn them, to learn from them, to understand why the animals behave in the prescribed way that scientists know, or why they do not. Call it exploration, call it research, call it nature. The humans are looking for what has drawn them.

Drawings by Julia Koets

The poems in Elizabeth Bradfield’s Once Removed are possessed of both animal instinct and human reflection. These are poems I am familiar with, but have never read before. These are poems that delight in the world and its questions; these are poems that direct us to hypotheses, not conclusions. In the process of reading the book, I found myself scribbling questions into the margins, like:


Where does language fit into this world?

Hard to care about the split
infinitive when ice storms,
when past dues, when shore erosion.
   

                         —“Distance Education”


How do we name the bodies of others?

                                        Mammal.
Maman. Breasted & nippled
& warm, warm, warm.


                         —“We All Want To See a Mammal"


How do we name what we cannot see?

My heart, my heart—I am so often lost.
How do we map our time apart?

                          —“Travel of the Light”


What are we to do with the wreckage created by living?

        I’ll reckon you. I’ll reckon
we’ve not wrecked it, not yet.

                                    —“Invocation”

and

            what greater hush is there than a boat aground

            then       lifted by tide?

                                     —“August Song”


What does the I know of the self?

                                                It

is harder and harder to leave the stiff forest of I, I, I,
a life cultivates. The trunks of self
thicken, saplings rise, ready to replace

 whatever falls. The wafted drift of meadow
in which I began has been supplanted.

                           —“Deliquesce: A Meditation in Seven Parts”


What can be learned from the wisdom of animals?

 In laboratory dark, birds leap toward
their routes. Their inked feet
prove again and again that they know
which way (and when) to begin.
 

                            —“Travel of the Light”

So much of the book relies on the relationships of subjects—of animal to human, of land to sea, of the living to the dead, of the self to the world. By the end of the book, one has studied innumerable mammals, fish, habitats, human choices, work, and language.

Through repeated observations and the asking of questions, hypotheses tested, Bradfield builds poems that use scientific method as an ongoing process. Even when there is a conclusion to be drawn, we pause just long enough that it can then be refined.

That is was daylight, that we saw the coyote
low under roadside brush, that
it just kept walking and did not
                                                            turn away.

            ...

I stared. Silence, a thick band, wove
from you to me to this coyote just beyond
barbed wire. We attended       
                                                      one another.

                                            —“It Was Daylight”


Bradfield’s poems, though they do much to navigate the complex environments of emotion, relationships, and knowledge, ultimately ask just one thing of us: how will we attend one another?


Laura Maher is the author of the chapbook, Sleep Water (dancing girl press, 2017). Her poetry has appeared in CrazyhorseMoonsick MagazineThe Collagist, New Ohio Review, and Third Coast. Laura holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Arizona, a Master of Arts from the University of Texas at Austin, and a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She lives, works, and writes in Tucson, Arizona.

Julia Koets’s poetry collection, Hold Like Owls, won the 2011 South Carolina Poetry Book Prize and was published by the University of South Carolina Press. Her poetry and nonfiction have been published in journals including Indiana Review, The Los Angeles Review, and Carolina QuarterlyShe has an MFA in poetry from the University of South Carolina and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Cincinnati.

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.

 

I.

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.

II.

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.

III.

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 Jordan Rice's Constellarium (Orison Books, April 2016)

Natal Chart for Constellarium by Jordan Rice

review/interpretation by José Angel Araguz
natal chart illustration by Ani Schreiber


A constellarium is a device used in teaching the shapes of several constellations. Constellarium by Jordan Rice is a collection of poems that teaches the shapes and depths of various personal experiences. From the poet’s gender transition to memories of family affected by military service and friends affected by personal trials, Rice has created a book that speaks to what must be faced and overcome in the struggle of staying true to one’s self.

Below is a natal chart of Constellarium, taking its publication date as its birthdate. My interpretation focuses on the aspects of the chart that matter most in a book. In discussing this book as its own separate entity and being astrologically, I explore the reading-as-aesthetic-act process to which poetry uniquely lends itself. To paraphrase Borges, a book is not an aesthetic act; the writing of one, however, is, and so is the reading of one. If astrology is talking about the stars in terms of “influence” on our lives, Constellarium becomes a space where the push and pull of said influences are shown and evoked.

Natal chart by Ani Schreiber

Sun in Aries

With a publication date of April 5, 2016, Constellarium falls under the sign of Aries at the beginning of the astrological year. Along with the implications of new beginnings that are associated with spring, there is also a focus on the ever-evolving present moment. Aries is a fire sign, and fire is constantly in motion, flickering as flame or seething as ember. The poem “My Life” evokes this range between flicker and seething in its opening line, “The physician tells me much I know already,” and follows through in its detailing of what the speaker is told and consequently feels:

Life won’t be simple either way and, it’s an
impossible choice. I take a year. Then advice.
Lose weight now. Grow out your hair. Unlearn
hiding. Mostly fear will pass. Passing’s always
a state of mind, though you may require surgery.

The tone of the first three lines of this stanza feels straightforward; the physician’s “advice” and speaker’s waiting live within reckoning’s flicker in a controlled manner. This control is then pushed against by the turn of the words “pass” and “passing” in the second to last line of this excerpt. “Mostly fear will pass,” reads as the first pat response to fray, the word “mostly” undercutting the certainty of “fear will pass.” From “pass,” the poem immediately moves on to the act of “passing” which for the speaker is defined as a “state of mind” that “may require surgery.” This framing of the speaker’s stakes as mental and physical further undercuts the certainty of the tone at the beginning. This movement from certainty to complexity stays true to the spirit of Aries and its focus on the now; the physician’s advice, said with certainty, is challenged to make space for human frailty. It is important to note that this challenge is not a dismissal; rather, it is a refusal to pretend that fear isn’t present while nevertheless moving forward.

 
Moon in Pisces

While sun in Aries means Constellarium is a book that challenges and charges forward, its moon in Pisces speaks of great intuition. This intuitive aptitude is present in poems like “Epithalamion,” in which the traditional wedding poem is subverted to honestly reflect on the effects the speaker’s transition has on her marriage:

No voice carries. I try every one, even

apology & rhetoric: the apsis of our fall. Listen.

Around us whirs the sex I’m to becomeviolent,
exact. I etch up another voice within your silence.

Say, I’m sorry. Say I am sorry. Say again I had no choice.
I lost one self to this other and killed our child’s father.

The moon in natal charts is tied to emotions; with Pisces in control, this means mutability and depth, both of which are evident in this poem. In going from “voice to voice,” the speaker here shows a great effort to reach an understanding with the wife, and a steady frustration of this effort. Within this idea of “trying” voices, the poem itself acts as another voice, another means for the speaker to work toward understanding. A line like “I lost one self to this other and killed our child’s father,” which sums up the complexity of the speaker’s circumstances while at the same time making space for its effects on her child, has a lyric elasticity that moves narrative into the realm of empathy. This emotional flexibility is the Pisces influence, while the persistence is the charge of Aries.


Mercury in Aries

Mercury in a natal chart controls communication, and here we find Aries again. A brief look at the chart above shows that Constellarium’s overall astrological makeup involves several turns between Aries and Pisces. The tension between the fire of Aries and Pisces, a water sign, presents itself in insightful poems that are active while dwelling on emotional stakes. This capability regarding communication is evident in the poems dealing with family, like “Tresses” which ends:

My father will still limp from living room
to kitchen, kitchen to front door, stooping the gravel

drive to welcome me beyond his own startle and
amazement, whomever steps from my familiar car,

softer now, with rounded face, hips wide as
my mother’s, who cannot look at me so very long.

Or “Passover,” one of Constellarium’s longer poems, which is addressed to the speaker’s brother who is following an uncle’s footsteps into the military. The poem ends with the speaker remembering a visit to the ruins of a prison camp:

And maybe I meant it as a reminder

or a warning to not sign yourself off overseas, ship out, get lost,
but you ignored me and walked out to the ledge by the water,

where the granite rose in an easy slope from the current
to submerge into woodline and the current of roots and all else

behind us, and pointed to a wide, crystalline streak in the stone
and said to me, This is a fault. This is a fault of the earth.

Whether it is the father in “Tresses” seeing the speaker and welcoming her “beyond his own startle and / amazement” or the speaker in “Passover” admitting the possible intentions behind the visit to the prison camp, Constellarium is full of moments of crucial clarity. Even in “Tresses,” when the mother “cannot look at me so very long,” the poem acknowledges the looking that is done. Acknowledging the human effort behind such looking is difficult yet necessary work. Aries is famed for being the god of war in mythology; when considered through the lens of astrology, this war becomes an inner one. Constellarium, with its mix of Aries and Pisces influence, embodies the reconciliation of war and empathy; to survive one’s inner war, one must empathize with themselves. These poems impress upon the reader poetry’s ability to say, like the brother in “Passover,” “This is a fault. This is a fault of the earth”: One sentence acknowledges the fault, while the following one notes its place in the world.


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 Essy Stone's What It Done to Us (Lost Horse Press, 2017)


“A town we all know well”: A Collaborative Review of What It Done to Us by Essy Stone


In this collaborative review, Allison Pitinii Davis and DJ Morgan, an instructor and a student at Tennessee Wesleyan University, examine What It Done to Us (winner of The Idaho Prize 2016 ) from East Tennessee, the region explored in the text. While reviewing Stone’s examinations of Appalachia, we considered our own relationships to the region and our narrative distance as readers.

 

Allison: In the end of “My mamma used to call me a black-hearted child,” the speaker references The Lost Sea Adventure, America’s largest underground lake. It’s located twelve miles from the university we’re writing from. The speaker is annoyed by “All the tourists fucking around/with their flashlights, & what I want is to frighten them back.”

We are readers who live near the locations Stone writes about, but I feel like a tourist in these poems—my gaze is as problematic as “all the rich white men gulping mugs of American beer” at Hooters in “The Argument.” Yet Stone’s speakers urge readers to keep looking—they are nothing if not hospitable. In “They come looking for blood,” men approach a Hooters waitress to use her blood in a violent ritual, and the waitress welcomes them— “I said come in please misters.” The waitress agrees to let the men scrape blood from her ankles with a nail file because “It is a truth universally acknowledged that someone’s gotta bleed” and “I’d hacked my legs up shaving anyways.”

"I feel like a tourist in these poems—my gaze is as problematic as 'all the rich white men gulping mugs of American beer' at Hooters"

These female speakers endure violence, yet in the end, they win by attrition. In “Among the Prophets,” the speaker appeases the patriarchy in order to avoid abuse—“Daddy, yes, we’d be dead without you, we’d be dead on the streets like rats, yes, we is like rats exactly”—but then reworks her prostration into a Trojan Horse: “I seen an army fall before, & in the end it was the rats who swallowed every last gilded thread on their bodies & chewed up the bodies too. Come judgment, the littlest is the largest.” When televangelists or Californians or readers try to “save” or pity these speakers, the speakers wield submission like a weapon. In the masterful rewrite of William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a jock on a subway in California sexually harasses the speaker and asks her to dominate him because it will make her feel “empowered.” She replies, “I don’t wanna be empowered—to me violation is the sexy part of sex.”

While these poems make it clear that “these is hard economic times”—“no resale value on a trailer home, but you keep the acreage unless the government dicks you down,” “all the money from the pill industry goes out of state; you never see it here,” “a trailer-park rager…/a gun up your ass when you sit/between cushions on the couch”—the poems save the most vicious critique for the self and its endurance. In the final poem, “The Angel Wants to Know What Fear Is,” the speaker shows her difficult survival no pity: “Still you look so pretty with your own flesh in your teeth.” This final line makes the reader understand that yes, we are tourists here and in way over our heads. We appeal to Stone for help, but her brutal gaze has shifted from the reader to the self.

DJ: Her writing seems to be just the abrasive, hard-hitting truth that modern Southern readers have been needing and pining for. As we say in the South, she told it like it is, both boldly remonstrating the failings of small Southern Tennessee life as well as defending and highlighting the facets of religion, neighborliness, and behavior that defines and enriches us all. I am immensely proud of where I come from and the experiences I have had; I don’t not want to leave you with the impression I despised coming from a small town.

The first few lines of “Fast Car” immediately establish an emptiness—she mentions it should have been filled with love—that envelops her so much it is “burning you up & pounding between your ribs.” The following description of the need and want to fill this emptiness struck me particularly hard. Coming from a small town (we didn’t even have a red light), there were definitely moments I felt destined for more or just desired something greater. I believe this is where she is going, especially when she calls herself an “outsider.” The poem itself, her work as well, is easily identifiable and comparable to any small-town citizen, whatever their age.

My favorite part of this prose poem is her praying the dam will break loose because something has to be released or awakened. How fitting she made this comparison! Yet the finality of the poem, the resolution, finds her in the arms of a boy and his fast car, dressed in her cashier’s uniform, hearing promises from this boy that he will take her far away, yet knowing it isn’t true. After reading that, I felt a certain dryness inside myself. She paints the small town life well, not necessarily painting a morbid picture but being careful to show the prison-like qualities of it, of being stuck in a mire of complacency.

Allison:  I’m much newer to the South that you and Stone grew up in, but I’ve seen the stretches where “God quotes himself on billboards along I-40.” Much of the collection alludes to a dark side of Tennessee’s history—in “Among the Prophets,” “the KKK chopped my daddy’s wood for him, winter of 1968—damned if they would see a white boy freeze.” In “Chattanooga Wedding,” a kinswoman mechanically braids ribbons in the speaker’s hair even after there is no more hair left to braid: “she stares into space—/her palms clasp & release, clasp & release, tracing incantations in empty air.” I particularly don’t have access to the deep-rooted religious culture of East Tennessee. In “Sex and Psychosis in the House of Prayer: A Vocabulary,” the collection explores what the speaker and Rolling Stone call a religious cult: “IHOP—International House of Prayer—meant to confuse folks hungry for pancakes.” Yet in poems like “Charismatics in Ecstasy,” the speaker notes the ways in which she and her church still “clasp each other/in secret.” This especially comes through formally—the language and long lines of these poems evoke biblical incantations.

"she cannot truly escape the 'clutches' of the small town; however, it may be that the small town cannot truly escape from her"

DJ: In “Charismatics in Ecstasy,” Stone is easily able to produce both a sour and a sweet picture of church, a staple in the South. Here, the beauty comes from the fact that despite her absolute rejection of it, she still “flirts” with the practice, perhaps realizing it is indeed a much larger and immensely impactful part of her she never truly understood before. I think it can be tied back in to “Fast Car” where she cannot truly escape the “clutches” of the small town; however, it may be that the small town cannot truly escape from her, as she clings on to some small part of her past. Behind the composed face and the façade of knowledge and self-confidence, some small part of her cannot be completely done away with.

Allison: “The small town cannot truly escape from her, as she clings on to some small part of her past.” Absolutely.  Reviewers often applaud writers who avoid “regionalism.” As a writer who focuses on the Rust Belt—another misunderstood region—I appreciate how Stone unapologetically presents Appalachia. She explores the area’s dialects, religious culture, and class issues yet also uses these “regional” elements to pull one over on the reader. In his introduction to the collection, Gary Copeland Lilley notes that “Stone has created a southern gothic for today.” The genre is often associated with the grotesque, which reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s remark, “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”

Stone especially manipulates the “grotesque” in the poems exploring waitressing and strip clubs. These speakers are experts at constructing façades for survival. They head back into the bathroom to “adjust our cleavage, growl through lipsticked teeth at the unseen/hand that holds us here./Raise our chins to meet its invisible fist.”  These speakers invite us to look at what poverty, fundamentalism, and patriarchal violence has “done to us” and what they do to survive it, but they remind us that they can watch us watching them. “In a Strip Club Called The Emerald City,” the speaker warns the customers “I heard they put cameras/in the bathrooms.” In “Trap House,” the speaker warns her customer “you don’t know that your end of days starts here,/in me, between my legs.” In “Snake Oil,” the speaker and her partner sell tinctures of “Vapor Rub, cigarette filters, chlorinated pool water, & Fresca” and “those fat saps/ate it up like the last supper.”

The final section of the book includes a rewrite of Blake’s A Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In Stone’s version of “Memorable Fancy III,” “The Angel spake unto me & said, how did you recover?” The provided antidote is “I earned some scratch & moved/to California.” Is the answer ditching flyover-America for the coasts? In “The Voice of the Devil,” “The Angel spake unto me & said, your daddy’s hell is California!” to which the speaker admits that “may be something we got in common.”
 

Note: This review's title is taken from the murder ballad "Knoxville Girl" (below), to which Stone alludes in her collection. 


DJ Morgan is a student at Tennessee Wesleyan University in Athens, Tennessee.

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 teaches at Tennessee Wesleyan University and will begin her doctoral studies at The University of Tennessee starting Fall 2017.