Posts Categorized: Microreviews

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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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MICROREVIEW: David B. Goldstein’s Object Permanence

Review by Hannah Thompson

On the last numbered page of Object Permanence, David B. Goldstein reveals the occasion for this chapbook—while staying at Casa da Confraria in Sinatra Portugal, he wrote poems from the perspective of dolls and animals he encountered in the house. Goldstein names the dolls by identifying their anachronistic, and often unsettling, features. Here are just a few of the titles: “Large Head Under Glass,” “Handless and Legless Doll,” “Burning Doll,” and “Big-Handed Doll.” Regardless of our cultural fear of dolls (their fixed expressions, their hollow bodies, their uncanny-valleyness), these titles are scary. Who removed the Large Head from the doll’s body and put it under the glass? Who tore the hands and legs from the Handless and Legless Doll? Why is the Burning Doll burning? And, furthermore, who does the Big-Handed Doll address when it says, “Each of you must decide / how I will hurt you,” (1-2)? I won’t answer these questions for you. Instead, I ask you hold onto your uneasiness as you approach the two most difficult poems in this piece.

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Microreview: Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties

Review by Tessa Yang

In the opening story of Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection, the narrator, stealing into the woods to have sex with her boyfriend, offers the following reflection: “I have heard all of the stories about girls like me, and I am unafraid to make more of them.” “Unafraid” is an apt descriptor of Her Body and Other Parties, released yesterday from Graywolf Press. It is a book that pushes back: against literary conventions, against the stigma and silence surrounding queer sensuality. In these eight stories, Machado bulldozes the barriers between sci-fi, fantasy, literary fiction, horror, and erotica, and makes us wonder how we ever could have dreamed of separating them. Read more…