Review of Cait Weiss Orcutt’s VALLEYSPEAK (Zone 3 Press, 2017)


Mapping the Valley: A Review of Cait Weiss Orcutt’s VALLEYSPEAK

by Allison Pitinii Davis

A psychogeography of 1990s “San Pornando,” a family story told through noir-logic and aftershock—Cait Weiss Orcutt’s VALLEYSPEAK (Zone 3 Press) excavates the San Fernando Valley using its Valspeak. This insider’s interrogation of place deconstructs the Valley using the Valley’s own tactics. In these formally-innovative poems, the invasiveness of a cum-shot becomes a tool of social examination. The poems bring us too-close to a place as only a speaker who grew up “in the valley under porn / stars” can. The interactive map accompanying this review allows us to consider this “under porn / stars” geographically—the speaker’s home is in Encino, which is south of the adult film industry in Chatsworth. The locations on the map represent settings in the poems and clicking on each location marker opens an excerpt about the place. Zooming in and out and toggling from street-view to satellite-view emphasizes the constructed nature of place—street names mapped onto geography, a culture mapped onto a region.

The map allows us to visualize the Valley as a place and a conceit informing the book thematically and formally. The geography of valleys reappears symbolically and anatomically—porn stars ask “Have you ever / banged your way // up & out / a valley?” while the speaker warns “Girls, mind / the valley, // its cunts.” Eventually, in response to processing her mother’s difficult life, the speaker starts “valleying”—“I fold inwards. // I fold inwards." In a place where the porn industry presents the private as public—the inside as outside—the speaker’s interiority reminds us that surfaces are constructs, acts, art. The body and the body of the text are virtuosic forms that can morph for effect. “Spring in Genesta,” “Hallows,” and “Razed” are sonnets and the odes (to the glitz, to the one glove, to the papasan) are prose poems. Words slither into each other: “stigma, stigmata,” “Denali, / denial.” In some poems, lines roll metrically across the page as smooth as “Lipstick rolls across linoleum,” while in other poems, caesuras carve valleys within the lines. 

Reading the book while referencing the map allows us to trace the characters’ whereabouts as they navigate divorce, suicide, addiction, and puberty as well as the events that shaped 1990s L.A.—the porn industry, the Northridge earthquake, Rodney King’s murder. Mapping the speaker’s explorations of the area’s racial and economic divides emphasizes how humans have cruelly divided contiguous land based on our differences. As the speaker guides us, Virgil-like, down the Valley, we meet the characters inhabiting the region. Mom is a charitable “Beauty Descendant” battling addiction, Dad is “a Nice—if Lapsed—Jew,” and Podge is the little sister who “finds a crop top / like some people find Jesus.” Gladys the housekeeper “wants no part of gringa madness," and Dad’s friend Mr. Florin “buys young girls from Thailand.” One “half-Jew girlfriend” will be “raped / by one no-face no-home no-race- / we-know-man in the bushes” while one “half- // Filipino-half- / Czech girlfriend will whisper / she probably liked it.” As the book navigates the sexual encounters of the speaker’s friends and family, the porn stars of Chatsworth, and the prostitutes of Sunset Strip, we learn that the Valley is a place where “A: my call, // but B or C: / I take it where they say / I take it” and where “Even clothed, it is unsafe to be anything / but iron." The women in the region, as in all regions, have methods to creatively survive their culture. In this collection, they become experts at posing and manipulating the observer’s gaze: “All… / women know / they’re naked, // & why / it pays.” When the speaker declares “I know my world, how to guard it,” readers are reminded that our collective gaze, too, is a threat—that the lens through which we interpret or judge the speaker’s notorious home is invasive.

While many poems in the collection describe infamous L.A. locations, others describe the family home in Encino. The poems depicting the sisters at home are representative of the explicit and hidden ways women support each other throughout the book. When “Podge learns history is a pack of lies,” the speaker teaches her how to navigate it: “I tell her // noir is everywhere. Every plot’s a cover-up.” In the final poem, the sisters are in their yard playing “Femme Fatale, Noir” like other sisters might play house. In the game, the sisters practice the skills they imagine they’ll need to survive: Podge “tucks // invisible guns in invisible cleavage” while the speaker industriously pulls bark off of a tree and announces: “This is the place we will bury / our husbands.” Implicit in the poem and the collection is that there is integrity in no-holds-barred survival. When the “women in my family age to plastic,” the plastic takes on the dignity of armor. When the speaker tries on her dead mother’s dress, she declares: “Black Dahlia, Mom. Even murdered, / we survive. Because who tells the stories, otherwise?” In mapping these new stories onto one of America’s most mythologized cities, VALLEYSPEAK is a vital example of how to ethically approach and represent a region.

Allison Pitinii Davis is the author of Line Study of a Motel Clerk (Baobab Press, 2017), a finalist for the Ohioana Book Award and the National Jewish Book Award’s Berru Award, and Poppy Seeds (Kent State University Press, 2013), winner of the Wick Poetry Chapbook Prize. She holds fellowships from Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner program, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Severinghaus Beck Fund for Study at Vilnius Yiddish Institute. Her poetry has appeared in Best American Poetry 2016, The New Republic, Crazyhorse, The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. She is a PhD student at The University of Tennessee.

Review of Nicole Homer's Pecking Order (Write Bloody, 2017)

8 Things Nicole Homer’s Pecking Order Taught Me About Motherhood

a creative review by Leila Green


In Nicole Homer’s first full-length poetry collection, Pecking Order, she examines motherhood and its impact on women’s bodies. Her poems circle miscarriages, births, and child-rearing, uniquely focusing on their dreary, physical aspects. They subvert the power typically associated with childbirth, exploring the visceral elements that often render it grotesque. In “Motherhood,” she laments:

Motherhood is like
being pecked
to death
by my
favorite birds
made from my
body, torn
by beaks sharpened.

In this way, Homer strays from often romanticized notions of motherhood, offering a more sobering, nuanced account of birthing and raising children. The strange violence depicted here is mirrored in another poem, “How I Became a Mother Contemplating Loss,” in which the act of giving birth is totally stripped of melodrama and instead painted with blood and other unsavory fluids:

My body offered me a new
dream: a woman as round as I, reaching into me; a room, dimly lit and
gray; voices talking to me; tears and sweat and shit and blood, my blood,
my screams. Then, my newest prayer on my chest. Hungry for my body
and suckling at me until we were both milk drunk and near sleep…

This portrayal of mother and child as undergoing intertwined traumas invites an inquiry about the ownership of women’s bodies. Aside from the physical effects, what does giving birth say about mothers and their bodies? How much of ourselves is lost when we give birth? Homer writes of her newborn son: “I held him for hours that way. His hair flaked with my blood. His skin/ sticky with my blood. His blood, my blood” (“How I Became a Mother Contemplating Loss”). This mingling of selves is at odds with the body’s reclaiming after childbirth. Even after they are born, a mother’s child is still an inextricable thing. Through offering more realistic, less saccharine versions of birth and motherhood, Pecking Order forces us to reexamine often glamorized understandings of what it means to birth life, assume the role of a mother, and reclaim the body. Ultimately, Homer makes us wonder: Does motherhood elevate or lower women and their bodies in the proverbial pecking order?

Although Pecking Order begs many questions, it ended up answering several of my own. Homer’s poems taught me that:

1.     Giving birth is not only beautiful, but violent. Even grotesque.

2.     Our bodies barely belong to us. Even our children can pillage them, grow, then go elsewhere.

3.     Motherhood makes women belong even less to themselves.

4.     We have to work to reclaim our bodies, after birth, during life, after death.

5.     Our children can be cruel reminders of what we are not.

6.     Overarching narratives about the power of motherhood ignore the ways in which it often renders us powerless.

7.     Our children’s bodies are inextricably, and eternally, tied to our own.

8.     Motherhood is a double-edged sword.

Leila is a 24 year old writer from Milwaukee. She posts reviews of black poetry and literary fiction on her Instagram:

Review of jayy dodd's Mannish Tongues (Platypus Press, 2017)

Hymnal Review of jayy dodd’s Mannish Tongues 

by Logan February

In Mannish Tongues, jayy dodd demonstrates a mastery of lyric, and more than that: they fully inhabit language, manipulating it so intimately that every proclamation doubles as a confession. The presence of “tongues” is laid out across the whole book; the speaker's language belongs exclusively to them. One clear instance of this is the persistent capitalization of the word “Black”—a gesture that works to establish blackness as more than just one of many facets of identity & self, as central, fundamental. The profundity goes even deeper—the personal ritual of speaking in “tongues” is essential to the work. In the poem “There's Something bout Being Raised In Church,” the speaker offers some explanation for this; they speak of “learning to walk on holy ground when both [their] / parents were preachers,” a revelation that provides great insight into dodd's poetics. The speaker claims they have been “touched by the most high.” This is what makes Mannish Tongues such a hymnal experience. I have attempted to recreate that experience in the following call-and-response. All italics represent quotes from dodd’s book.

Hymn for Black & Body

i first learned sensation singing hymns too close to choirboys

hallelujah. hallelujah.

my first tongues were communion, / the body was sacrifice to be broken

amen. amen.

the most genuine magic my boyish / hands could conjure was a fluke, a phenomenon, one i would be / hard-pressed to manifest again

hallelujah. hallelujah.

When Momma was God, / She blessed me in her image

amen. amen.

this is not a mythology / this is the only story I know

for my body / born of broken earth / into a city breaking & burning

hallelujah. hallelujah.

because Heaven touches Earth / right below my jawline

amen. amen.

I am often caught in the dark, with familiar / failures, hollering at homeboys & / whispering profanities

It’s funny to me how many boys must have pictures like this / allowed / to be soft & pouty before it’s beat out of them

amen. amen.

praise new ways to tell time, / praise not knowing which timezone it is when he calls, / praise him never listening but always wanting to talk

hallelujah. hallelujah.

I believed him when he told me I was the truth / & that I could set him free

I want to call you love, but / only know you as confessional

amen. amen.

Kissing spliffs before familiar / tongues. These are our bodies

my lungs are night-sky- / black & sparkling at their own resilience

hallelujah. hallelujah.

vernacular of bullets coming for the back of your throat

imagine this body beautiful, imagine this Black, / immaculate

amen. amen.

infinite Harambes / infinite African bodies / displaced

infinite niggas / bashing out eulogies / to be taught in school

hallelujah. hallelujah.

the first biographies i learned were eulogies

amen. amen.

infinite footage / on loop on loop on loop on loop on / loop on loop on loop on loop on loop on

hallelujah. hallelujah. hallelujah.

the god of blue / shields & white devils / arms his flock / with noose & / silence

amen. amen.

Some Black boys begin with daily incantation, / you, mourning them quietly

amen. amen.

Black ghosts dwell just outside / of streetlight altar, where // Black & body are unable / to survive the night

hallelujah. hallelujah.

Black ghosts don’t creak the floorboard / nor terrorize dreams, don’t fester // old grudges bout money / never expected to get back

we gather wealth on / dance floors, awaiting / the interstellar possibility of return

amen. amen.

death was always subject / to some sort of resurrection

hallelujah. hallelujah. hallelujah.

Our spirits will whisper / a chorus of victory, every hymn of night-time / & new nations

you will find / yourself: an effigy of stars

amen. amen.

we lived in heaven, so maybe all imagined was possible

ain’t nothing / more real than being alive right now

hallelujah. hallelujah.

every poem, even in its most spectacular excitement, / must know how to finish itself       off

hallelujah. hallelujah.

every poem is masturbation

amen. amen. amen.

Logan February is a happy-ish Nigerian owl who likes pizza & typewriters. He is Co-Editor-In-Chief of The Ellis Review. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tinderbox, Wildness, Glass, Bateau, and more. He is author of How to Cook a Ghost (Glass Poetry Press 2017) & Painted Blue with Saltwater (Indolent Books 2018). Say hello on Instagram & Twitter @loganfebruary.

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 Lisa Allen Ortiz's Guide to the Exhibit (Perugia, 2016)

Field Notes to Guide to the Exhibit by Lisa Allen Ortiz

a review by Amie Whittemore

Exhibit A: First poem of the collection, “Admission,” in its natural habitat.

Exhibit B: “Patois,” unlike some species of poems, which shy from view, wants you to look at it.

  • Writing field notes to a collection of poetry that purports to be a guide but is also itself an exhibit is like sketching a painting at a museum while your friend photographs you and posts it to Instagram. It’s a double-exposure, a layered haunting.
  • We must toil between knowledge and experience. Sight is dangerous, Ortiz warns us. Blinding even (see Exhibit A at right, but also, the poems, “Identification” and “Beginner’s Guide to Birding”).
  • If Field Notes are a translation of witness, if every language is local, if the exhibit includes us, if notes are inherently incomplete—
  • My guess is you haven’t read this book. Perhaps because it is not overtly political in a politically charged climate. Perhaps because Ortiz stays out of the self-promotion game, a Google search picking up a sprinkling of poems, her website, but few other sightings of the poet in her natural habitat.

Exhibit C: Excerpt from “Cyanotypes of Anna Atkins” where we see how we see what we see and make it so

  • In a blog posted November 2016, Ortiz writes, “we [poets] more than others are comfortable with the incomprehensible, the obscure, the vague, the wildly emotive, the disingenuous, the cruel, the fanciful, the ignorant, the willful, the victimized, the helpless, the wounded, the misunderstood. In poetry we support the multi-vocal, the plural.” The plurality of experience rests at the center of Guide to the Exhibit, as it examines attention—how do we direct it, and in doing so, what do we nurture?
  • See Exhibit C (below, right): what do you feed with your gaze? What is the self, and its accumulations, but a hall of forgetting—what is the point of remembering, when everything will leave? What is the point of making, when everything will fall apart?
  • Ortiz unfolds such questions gently as cloth napkins laid across your lap.

Exhibit D: Excerpt from “At the Friend Level.” Not shown: how I imagine the friend level, fathoms deep, plumb line sinking into ocean, touching every current.

  • To exhibit is to publically display. Every exhibit directs a gaze, knows it is meant to be gazed upon. Channeling Rilke, Ortiz continually examines the act of perception, of witness, of (in)sight, what it renders, how it renders us.
  •  Her magic rests in form as well as content. In Exhibit D  (below, left) we see the poet’s dexterity particularly clearly in this syntactical move,  “verb: pronoun, verb: pronoun.”
  • Such fine tethers between “you” and “me” in Exhibit D, the punctuation barely joining, slightly dividing—like the drift of my eyes following birds as they flee your mouth (see Exhibit B).
  • Marked: you, erased: me.
  • If to exhibit is to publically display, it’s important to note that Ortiz exhibits private geographies, of the heart and mind—love, its playfulness; how we are all microbiomes; what it feels like to lose a parent, to contemplate paradise while drinking Mai Tais; she attends to quiet liminalities, slippery in-betweens.
  • Yet, she is also looking (always, with the looking!) at what is public, though we don’t often associate that adjective with glaciers and bowerbirds, with beakfish and turtles; in short, the world, the self—we’re all exhibitionists. Who’s looking at whom (cue Rilke winking behind the curtain of every poem)?
  • What’s (mostly) absent from these poems: social media, pop culture, political references.

  • What shadows the edges: war, climate change, the many ways we wound each other.
  • What is often at center: curiosity, splendor, grief, the art of lov(s)ing. Is it a privilege to not write directly about war? About identity? About traumas of the body and mind? Surely. Do we need more collections by a diversity of writers about war, identity, and trauma? Of course.
  • However—
  • While Guide to the Exhibit may not feel of this sociopolitical moment, it nonetheless reminds us that what we attend to, we feed.
  •  Looking: you, fed: me.
  • As Jack Gilbert writes in, “A Brief for the Defense:” “To make injustice the only / measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”
  • Gilbert again: “We must risk delight.”

Exhibit E: Excerpt from “Microfossil Exhibit” asking us what we’ll handle, see, and note in our brief time, with our failing sight.

  • What happens when you do not attend to Trump’s latest tweets, when you do not attend to coiled debates on social media, when you do not attend to anything that happens on a screen—are you feeding something else?
  • What is it? Attend to it. Exhibit it.
  • There is a difference between resistance and persistence. Both vital, but one is formed in relation to the enemy (resist) and one toward your own devotions (persist). Guide to the Exhibit may not be a book of resistance, but it is one of persistence.
  • Persisting: you, nurtured: me.

 Amie Whittemore is the author of the poetry collection Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press, 2016) and co-founder of the Charlottesville Reading Series in Virginia. Her poems have won multiple awards, including a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Sycamore Review, Smartish Pace, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. She teaches English at Middle Tennessee State University.