Posts Categorized: Microreviews

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MICROREVIEW: CRISTINA A. BEJAN’S GREEN HORSES ON THE WALLS

Review by Roxana Cazan

“From the start I was told my dreams / Weren’t possible / That I was crazy / That I needed to be serious / That theatre was a hobby / I was always merely chasing the green horses / And it was time to grow up / Because they didn’t exist,” writes Cristina A. Bejan in her debut collection Green Horses on the Walls (Finishing Line Press, 2020). This is often what children born to immigrant parents hear growing up, an attempt at righting the wrongs that compelled the parents to uproot themselves and move. Through its searing attention to the challenges of embracing a hyphenated identity both as a second-generation immigrant living in the diaspora and as a poet whose verses coalesce from trauma—Bejan is a Romanian-American poet-survivor—this collection astounds the reader with its overwhelming earnestness. The poems display a resistance to narrative, while still unavoidably relying on it, as they illustrate fragments of a life both halted and propelled by the violence of immigration, communism, mental health issues, and sexual assault. The poems together speak about an equilibrium, a way to survive trauma by finding an outlet through which to recreate oneself.

The poem that holds the key to understanding this collection is entitled “Equilibrium.” In it, the speaker puts into balance the experiences that underlie a world of pettiness and hurt with the noble moments when she is able to grasp a flicker of hope. “People may shit on each other here, but that is not all they do” because “a young city man buy[s] an old country man / breakfast,” “[a]nd when it feels like too much—which it often does / I know I can go home. I know I have a home / And how many people can say that?” Regardless of how many hurdles life can throw at the speaker, she concludes that as long as “someone somewhere, even here, is listening” to her story, then she is “standing in equilibrium.”

“Opening the Orange Envelope” is a prose poem in which the reader is called as witness to a negotiation between the language of evidence and that of transcendence, as Philip Metres says in an essay on the documentary poem. Bejan strings together vignettes that show glimpses of the ways in which her grandparents and parents struggled to survive communism and its lingering ghost, living with the terror of being followed, caught, and imprisoned as enemies of the state. As she retells these narrative fragments, she also presents her own anxiety at having inherited her family’s trauma. The poem underscores the effect of listening intently to stories of hurt and peeking into the notorious orange envelope that contains photographs of her family’s survivors of communism. By listening to other stories, both the speaker and the reader experience an erasure, an expansion, and ultimately a reclamation of identity.

Other poems illustrate the speaker’s traumatic past as a victim of sexual and emotional abuse. The poem entitled “To my rapist—or ‘the man who raped me’ rather—with Gratitude” employs anaphora to list the many ways in which sexual abuse has affected the speaker. Through a hypnotic whirlpool of “thank yous,” the anaphora lends the poem the quality of an incantation, so that by the end, the speaker can actually be thankful that she was able to survive her rape. She writes, “People can tell you: forgive, move on, it’s in the past/ But every day the victim has so much to thank the rapist for/ See?/ So, my rapist, thank you for your exit today from my mind and life.” That this poem is therapeutic, describing in chilling detail the incident and its aftermath, is clear to the reader. But the poem does more: it establishes the purpose of the entire collection, as all the poems together offer a therapy session of sorts to a wandering soul seeking a safe place to land on.

As she writes her way towards and away from her Romanian identity and her trauma, Bejan leaves the reader with one lesson to ponder: “with the days and the years/ Everything that I’ve seen will make sense/ And I will understand why I was given this path/ And/ With no more hopping, no more escaping, no more means/ Breath by breath/ Here/ I will be free.”

Finishing Line Press, May 27, 2020, $13.99 paperback (46p), ISBN: 1646622154.

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MICROREVIEW: STELLA VINITCHI RADULESCU’S A CRY IN THE SNOW, TRANSLATED BY LUKE HANKINS

Review by Roxana Cazan

           A Cry in the Snow published by Seagull Books posits that the only way to navigate personal and cosmic traumas is to ponder carefully the experience of our emotion in the tranquil space of reflection, where serenity and repose allow us to “distill” our emotional experiences, as translator Luke Hankins puts it. This distillation is presented as fragmentary images that recall the past and reinvent it by chiseling the output language. The space that forms between the recalled experience of trauma and its rendering through linguistic production is a space for reflection, the “space of a cry surrounded by space surrounded by nothing” as the epigraph by Lorand Gaspar—Romanian-born Hungarian-French poet—at the very beginning of the book indicates. Vinitchi Radulescu’s intellectual approach to poetry writing situates her in the same tradition as modernist poets with the Romanian Ion Barbu, the French Arthur Rimbaud, and the American W.S. Merwin.

           “first mornings” offers such an assemblage of visual and verbal textualities that allow for the experiences evoked to be transformed and transforming:

 
at the break of dawn
juncture of the seasons    the earth warms
 
the text is read on one’s knees
 
the sea kneeling between stones
 

           The poem draws on an original experience of hurt, one that requires the speaker to undergo a transformation in order to come to terms with. The speaker needs to be reborn at the “juncture of seasons” out of the sea and into the “house of flesh” (3). This rough rebirth compares to the beginning of a war whose victory would allow the speaker to read the text on her knees, that is, to reflect upon the past with ataraxia, tasting “what is written on these lips” (3). The advancement into daylight represents a transformative moment of clarity, of maturity of vision because only when one starts “at the break of dawn,” can one eventually face one’s destiny or “meet [one’s] li[fe]” (3). The poem describes the process of arriving at revelation through an intellectual rebirth.

           Other poems conflate the idea of Bergsonian time as duration with memory which “keep[s] still” (“memory keep still”). For Vinitchi Radulescu, memory is this duration. In the poem “definition,” “the memory of the stars / conjugate insomnia of coming nights,” which is the “story of us / history in ashes” (8). In “children of the fog,” the years are “stained / black with forgetfulness” (9). In the poem with the same title, “the earth begins” with “the memory of another land / which has just left us” (11). Just as Bergson posited, the reader of Vinitchi Radulescu’s poetry is allowed to see only fragments of memory that are impossible to arrange in a full-fledged narrative tapestry. However, through intuition, the readers can grasp the contours of the image that the palimpsest of memory reveals.

           The second section of the book incorporates Vinitchi Radulescu’s poetic prose sequence Journal aux yeux fermés (Éditions du Gril, 2010), in English translation. This section takes the readers back into the poet’s childhood, in her native Romania. Vinitchi Radulescu’s poetic prose harnesses the elemental aspects of forced migration and the painful departure from home.

           If remembering begins as a fairly linear narrative, soon the speaker’s trauma breaks down into emotional fragments. We learn that “they assemble us in The Square,” “decorated in red, flags and portraits,” that “a truck has arrived during the night,” and that the speaker’s friend “looks at me, the faceless woman, I can sense it, but I can’t see her eyes… She’s moving away. I want to get closer to her, or at least for her to speak to me….I realize I’m the one moving away, I’m taking steps, huge steps in the other direction” (52-53). The readers also learn that “this is my distant childhood. We had to cross a river, someone took me in their arms,” and that “I’ve just come home from school, I’m running, soaked, especially my shoes. What will I wear tomorrow? I make it home. The evening speeds by. Mama isn’t back yet” (52-56). The more painful the memory becomes, the more fragmentary its rendition into verse: “In black there is every color…The sun draws bars in the air through which birds enter and exit. Invisible. But I sense them. They fall… There were jonquils, and then there was a great sadness. In people’s eyes… Snow—the only whiteness of that time” (58-65). It is the poet’s job to “untangle these letters, gather them from the sand, it’s my job, I’m the one who has to do it, I know it” (57).

           The collection ends with a shorter section entitled “Fragments of Life and Death.” These poems celebrate being alive despite the obstacles and the extraordinary ability to navigate deaths, silences, and separations. Vinitchi Radulescu explains that “to write is to forgive. My poems are so proud of forgiving silences for their silence” (82). Vinitchi Radulescu’s ending poem explains that this process of writing one’s future can only happen if the narrative remains incomplete, if we “don’t finish our sentences, / sweet absences, / the trembling of vowels” (93). In that syncope alone can the future be formulated, can the hope for ongoing endurance be articulated. This silence is not sterile, but throttles rather with potential. It nurtures the bonds that keep us moored to this shore, despite hurricanes past and present.

Seagull Books, 2018. $21, 93 pages.

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MICROREVIEW: CARMEN MARIA MACHADO’S IN THE DREAM HOUSE

Review by ethan pickett

VIOLENCE  

            We are forced to consider violence every day. We are confronted by it, made to sit with its implications. We have strong ideas about who is violent and who can be violent. We pretend we know what it looks like.

            There is a dramatic shift that happens when someone we thought we loved (or could love or want to love or, unfortunately, continue to love) commits an act of violence against someone else; when we have to come to terms with the proximity of such a harsh world to our small and seemingly safe communities. I know firsthand what it feels like to lose love over a dispute none of us want to relive. To have a community violated in such a way— that is, from within— is a poignant sadness unmatched by any other. To be on the receiving end of inter-communal violence is devastating.

            These are, however, hard truths. The lack of representation that this type of brutal act sees is, in a way, demeaning to those who have been required to steep in its effects. Representation not only matters, but is vital to reaching understanding.

BUILDING

            Using bricks of association to build a house out of memory which may be confusing, but is certainly a waking nightmare. She uses the clarity of the present as a lens through which to process. She knows this is a story that needs to be told. She knows there are people that need to hear what she has to say. She knows these narratives of the past are still becoming, still filling themselves out as time passes. She knows there are still people struggling to find voice in the cacophony of social pressure, even when it can be masked as freedom. She knows all of these things as she lays her foundation and piles memory on top of it, brick by brick.

PLACEMENT

            She refuses to be tokenized, to be used as a representative for a whole, to be the archetype. She asserts herself as a person with something to say. Someone whose story can help other people understand. Someone who has empathy, complicated relationships with people and with memory, and a comprehension of her own placement in the world. She is not a symbol.

VOCABULARY

            You are stunned by the beauty and the simplicity existing simultaneously, and that’s just in the words. More, you are placed in this moment from the very beginning where you are asked to consider the mere existence of a text such as this one in “How do we right the wronged people of the past without physical evidence of their suffering?” that comes along in a string of questions begging you to understand what the implications of this work might be.

            You are impressed by the clear-eyed confrontation of social inferences and willingness to combat those pressures, screaming unabashedly about queerness, finally investing in “helping queer folks understand what their experiences mean.” You feel a movement away from—in Machado’s words—the eternal liminality of queer women. You see the doors open.

VISIBILITY

            You wonder about the ways such an exact fear can be captured. You learn how to walk with the weight of memory hanging from your limbs, making each movement an exercise. You learn about the origins of the gaslight, about abuse scholarship, about queer trauma. You’re being educated while your heart is breaking. It is a rare feeling.

            You sit on the floor of a house—much like the one you’ve been invited into by the pages of the book you may or may not feel qualified to read—which happens to be in the same midwestern college town, while pursuing the same dream as the one in this memoir you are poring over that feels so close to your own memory, but offering new perspective in identity. You cry. The tears come not because it hurts (it does), but because you feel so seen. This was made for you out of necessity.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf Press, 2019)

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MICROREVIEW: CHRIS DOMBROWSKI’S RAGGED ANTHEM

Review by Noah Davis

            In Chris Dombrowski’s latest poetry collection, Ragged Anthem, the poet asks America what song it now sings, examining the raw issues of towns staggering toward extinction, places where the flag was once stitched in factories before being drawn up the pole at the town square. Wrapped in these broader questions, however, is the pressing matter of who we return to, who we share our bed with, our home with. For this reason many of the poems include the poet’s wife and children, and in their faces the nation’s troubles and concerns are reflected.

            While writing this book Dombrowski lived in two places: his birth state of Michigan and his long-adopted home of Montana, both are in regions where neglect created the ache of fear and obsolescence in the citizenry.

In his poem, “Bull Elk in October River,” the reader listens to his confession

 
My own worry
remained vague though it tracked me
through winter, constant as current, though I had no name
for it, perhaps because I had no name for it.

Without the ability to name the thing that stalks him, the poet is left as prey, taking to the banks of rivers, to the brush country of upland Montana, to the pressures of debt and parenthood and the possibility of failure.

            While many of the narratives in the book are firmly situated in the human world, Dombrowski—a renowned fly-fishing guide who lives deliberately in concert with the natural world—argues that the primacy of natural selection, the predator-prey relationship is the very foundation of our existence, although most contemporary humans willfully ignore it or are simply ignorant of it.

            The poet not only suggests that fear is a natural reaction, a healthy response that keeps us and so many other species alive, but that we may also find balance, an ever-shifting center, in this very space. The closing lines of the poem “Bird in My Boot” highlights the need for humans to remember our most basic selves:

masked eyes looking past
my human to the one that aches to survive—
it lit ultimately in a blur of gray-orange,
leaving its mark to billow as it disappeared
into that country owned by the winged,
upon whose constant intercession I depend.

            Living in the shifting world of climate change, an alteration of the natural cycles that has sent much of the world into a state of anxiety and shock, Dombrowski replies to the question of “What will come next?” through his children. Whether it be the empathy his son displays toward a pheasant the family plans to eat: “I’m sorry. But as a runner I cannot cut the legs / from another animal”, or his youngest daughter saying the word “moon” for the first time as they walk together, alone on the shores of Lake Michigan, it is the possible intimacy with other humans and the more-than-human world, the possible transformations that such intimacy might provide, that offers a negotiated hope for the poet.

            Despite his deep devotion to nature, Dombrowski does not ignore human culture. An array of contemporary musicians, including Bruce Cockburn, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, and Jeffrey Foucault, make appearances in person or in quoted lyrics. This dialogue with popular music creates an intertextual conversation that ranges from the poet sending a text to his friend Jeffrey Foucault as he hunts snow geese, to the borrowing of Bruce Cockburn’s arresting line, “Like a pearl in a sea of liquid jade,” as a title to introduce Christ walking on water.

            The closing poem, “Tablet,” is one of instruction and direction, affirming a path toward wholeness and transcendence. Yet the transcendence of which the poet speaks is not a leaving of the material world but a further immersion into it. “[R]est your cheek on the shoulder of the mountain,” the poet says. Go and pick the last apple from a tree near the river and “eat it in three / juice-spilling bites.” Like a Bitterroot Mountain Moses, the poet has come down from the mountains and written a series of commands on a tablet. But rather than a collection of prohibitions, Dombrowski encourages his reader to embrace the sumptuous bounty of this world: to catch a brook trout and cook and eat it, to feed the few remains to the ants, to climb “into / the small boat of those remaining bones, / fold yourself. Then row.”

Wayne State University Press, 2019. $16.99, 67 pages.

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MICROREVIEW: NICOLE SEALEY’S ORDINARY BEAST

Review by Anni Liu

 

 

In Ordinary Beast, Nicole Sealey’s first full-length collection of poetry, she questions how to make something that will last. While it would be easy to say that with these impeccably crafted poems Sealey has answered the question, I believe this poet is less interested in the act of simple preservation than in dancing within the limits of our “brief animation.” One thing that makes this book of myriad forms and ideas feel fresh is its ambivalence about the questions most central to it. Sealey writes:

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