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 Xandria Phillips's Reasons for Smoking (Seattle Review, 2018)


Coping and Resilience in Xandria Phillips's Reasons for Smoking

review by Logan February

In Reasons for Smoking, Xandria Phillips documents, interrogates, and coexists with the hardship, violence, and terror that Black and queer women have to face in their daily lives. The poems speak on a personal level, close to the bones of the poet herself; on a deeply ancestral level, for all of the "nameless women floating as bones in Atlantic basements;" and on a universal level, where those who live on the margins of society can gasp and clutch at their chests because, here, their story, too, is being told.

Where a lesser collection would give its final battle cry, Reasons for Smoking is only still going strong, gathering speed, blurring lines with careful curation of language so that all facets of aching existence are indelibly intertwined. The reader is made to understand that this collage story is, at the same time, a single one. This is where the book's genius lies: the mastery of craft is amplified with the spirited speaker, reckless and loud, who is "not one who / is cautious around men."

The speaker introduces us to the work with one bold statement: "I write to you from the predicament of Blackness." True to her words, we are led through the whole harrowing experience of Blackness in America. The speaker is strong and strongly flawed, adopting several coping mechanisms to deal with her "predicament," her "holy embodiments of Atlantic trauma." In "—BIGLY—" she tells us she "don't dance unless [she's] sloshed / to [her] eyebrows in fermentation." In the titular poem, we are exposed further to the motivations behind her habits, how she smokes "to preoccupy the mouth / in the presence of men" and because "a burning tip / is a weapon."

In America, Black queer women must learn resilience as a prerequisite for survival. This collection goes even deeper to humanize the subject population, shifting away the layers of armor to reveal the fragile and the tender and the soft. We witness the confession that smoking is "a way to be discreet / in kissing [her] fingers." She quarantines herself with some significant women in Black history (Edmonia Lewis, Anarcha, Michelle Obama) in order to explore herself better.

Phillips goes on to demonstrate a fundamental communion with her ancestors, their food, their rituals, their journey; so intrinsic is it that at a point in the collection, the self, "I" is replaced with "we":

we carried the ocean in we / mouths
                                              for the longest /

                     and some of we /
                                              well I did as well /

                    swallow yesterday
                                             water / and we did

                    not retch / but we
                                             have felt / a churn

                              since / tasting the
                                                       wife of a man hung /

                                      how his feet nodded
                                                               a route to hell / the salt

                                                of his wife’s inlet like
                                                                        a fruit we never tasted

— from "A Fruit We Never Tasted"

A tension is created in the juxtaposition of a physical death with social one. With gutting allusions to the KKK, the Angola Penitentiary, and the horrific Tuskegee experiments, the speaker chronicles all of the evil visited upon Blacks in America. She speaks of experiencing a social death, which is simultaneously excruciating and numbing. This, too, is a coping mechanism. In "Contract for Social Death," an explanation is offered for this: “After your first death       you won’t feel a thing."


Logan February is a happy-ish Nigerian owl who likes pizza & typewriters. He is Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Ellis Review, and a book reviewer at Platypus Press' the Wilds. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Raleigh Review, Yemassee, Wildness, Glass, Tinderbox, and more. He is the author of How to Cook a Ghost (Glass Poetry Press, 2017), Painted Blue with Saltwater (Indolent Books, 2018) & Mannequin in the Nude (PANK Books, 2019). Say hello on Instagram & Twitter @loganfebruary.

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 Patricia Smith's Incendiary Art (TriQuarterly/Northwestern, 2017)


The Torchbearer Speaks: Patricia Smith's Incendiary Art

review by Kathryn de Lancellotti

 

The photograph in Jet magazine from Sept. 15, 1955 of Emmett Till’s mother staring gravely at her son’s mutilated face in an open casket forced the world to witness the reality of racism in America. In a country where “the sound of weeping is a prelude to sleep,” Patricia Smith’s Incendiary Art is a torch that illuminates injustice—a narrative of poetic elegance and form that invites the reader into the art of truth, of the implications of the black experience, and of American bodies—what it means to be a black man, or his mother, or daughter. Smith speaks to our vile history, and points to a present as gruesome as our past. She sews together stories of Emmett Till, modern police killings, men killing their daughters out of desperation, conversations between mothers waiting to visit with their sons in prison, and mothers mourning too many murdered.

Smith tells stories in parallel realities, creating situations or circumstances where things could have been different for fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, small snapshots that would have saved the boy’s life and/or altered history. She titles them “Emmett Till: Choose Your Own Adventure” and prefaces them with lines like “turn to page 128 if Emmett Till never set foot in that damned store,” then starts the poem with a kid running by the store instead of being “wooed by chewing gum/ and peppermints. The steamy shop’s a bore/ ‘cause they’ve got better suckers where he’s from.” Smith imagines a world where all children have access to life’s sweetness, and from a grieving heart she dreams up better endings.

The poem “That Chile in That Casket,” referring to the Jet magazine photo, is about black families keeping the infamous photo in their homes as a reminder of what happens to their kind. Daddy would shake his head and mumble, “this is why you got to act/right ‘round white folk,” and whisper, “Lord they kill that chile more than one time.” The poem ends with the speaker looking at the photo and realizing that there aren’t any photos of her in the house which meant she “sparked no moral,” and that she was alive. Smith invites readers into her own story as well as the stories of others in the hope that we might better understand the haunting effects racism has on individuals and families—where living in fear for one’s life is a part of the American experience.

The various forms and meter Smith employs in her work creates a sense of urgency for the stories. They are often written in syllabics, and with assonance, consonance, and rhyme, all working together to move the poems quickly and with force. The multiple forms she employs such as prose, villanelle, sonnet, and sestina become the containers for the wildfire that is her poetry as it burns through the page with heat and velocity. There’s a tension between the controlled forms she writes in and the explosive content. This tension creates restraint and authority over the syntax and the sound, so readers sense that the poems are tightly controlled by Smith as they erupt with the violent and horrific truths of structural racism.

Smith’s ability to bring the reader into the sorrow of her characters is a testament to her capacity for empathy. In the poem “For the Mothers of The Lost,” the speaker aches with the mothers lamenting their children’s futures. With the daughters who are “out of dollars, out of time.” With sons who are “just seeking ways to be erased,” who say to the police, “please, I’m tired. Help me fall down.” With the men who leave their daughters with their mothers, or murder them out of rage. Smith has a way of shining light into the darkness with a necessary and timely tongue of fire, challenging readers to open their eyes and face the truth. In the final poem, “Incendiary Art: The Body,” she writes, “Today, one said I sure would/like to burn a black man alive. So, Yep…” The work isn’t over, and I get the sense that Patricia Smith will continue to carry the torch and raise fire until every heart is roused, and every injustice illuminated.


Kathryn de Lancellotti is currently completing her MFA in Poetry at Sierra Nevada College. She has a degree in Literature with a Creative Writing concentration from University of California Santa Cruz and is a former recipient of the Cowell Press Poetry Prize and the George Hitchcock Memorial Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in Chicago Quarterly Press Review, Catamaran Literary Reader, Porter Gulch Review, Rabbid Oak, Red Wheelbarrow and others. Kathryn resides in Cayucos, California with her son, Jade.