Posts Categorized: What We’re Reading

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The New Testament, Citizen, and Forgiveness Forgiveness: Contemporary Poetry on the Politics of Race

In light of the recent epidemic of racially charged violence and two grand jury decisions not to indict the policemen responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, I would like to draw attention to three newly published poetry collections that deserve consideration within the current dialogue on blackness: The New Testament by Jericho Brown, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, and Forgiveness Forgiveness by Shane McCrae. These three books have garnered much attention on their individual merit, but deserve consideration in terms of the conversation we should be having about race relations in America.

A poetry book is a kind of rumination. For the average poetry collection to go from the seed of an idea to an ISBN number takes at least 2-3 years—even for relatively established poets like Rankine, Brown and McCrae. All three books were released within a month of each other and, based on their overlapping subject matter, one might suppose these varying depictions of the expendability of black lives result from the July 13, 2013 Trayvon Martin case verdict. But, assuming a typical publication schedule, these books would have been in the editing stages by the time George Zimmerman’s acquittal made headlines.

I say this because The New Testament, Citizen, and Forgiveness Forgiveness all bear testimony to the importance of poets amidst the voices that respond to today’s atrocities. The fact that these books focus our attention of varying views of blackness, of black masculinity, of disappearance, of youth—while our newsfeeds fill with the loss of one black life, after another black life, after another—is more strategic than anomalous.

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Microreview: Language Lessons

Review of Language Lessons, Vol. 1 (Poetry, Third Man Books, 2014)

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Last summer at the Newport Folk Festival, Jack White was joined on stage by actor John C. Reilly. Together they covered Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene”—and Jack White wept. The magic of a music festival sparks in the friction, the weird juxtaposition of singular voices for one weekend only! The best moments of literary anthology Language Lessons, Vol. 1, occur at just such junctions—curated carefully enough to allow for the haphazard transcendent. Headliner Jake Adam York opens the show. Adrian Matejka steps back and lets the ones-and-twos speak for themselves. Nicky Beer ruminates on the panda, while a few stages over, the mythic Frank Stanford returns from the dead for one more set. (Like the Tupac hologram at Coachella, but with more blood.)

 

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Microreview: Laurie Ann Guerrero’s A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying

Often a debut collection will satisfy a reader’s hunger pains only to be wiped away after the initial reading like stubborn crumbs. Laurie Ann Guerrero’s A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying defiantly demands a place at the table. This collection offers sweet and savory poems that invite the reader into a domestic sphere where all is not as it seems. Poems like “Babies under the House,” “Esperanza Tells Her Friends the Story of La Llorona,” and “My Mother Woke a Rooster,” signal the intensity of full-bodied language that is delivered throughout this tantalizing debut.

Guerrero’s complex narratives rely on powerful bodily tropes such as bone, skin, and tongue. In the introductory poem, “Preparing the Tongue,” she writes, “In my hands, it’s cold and knowing as bone.” Language assumes the form of a tongue “Shrouded in plastic,” which the speaker carefully unwinds. She craves “to enchant it: / let it taste the oil in my skin, lick / the lash of my eye.” Instead of employing domestic language generally associated with meal preparation, the speaker forcefully admits that she will “lacerate the frozen muscle, tear / the brick-thick cud conductor in half to fit / a ceramic red pot.” It will be painful, if not bloody, and by the end the “frozen muscle” will be transformed into sustenance for the body. These poems are crafted out of urgency for consumption.

Throughout the collection, Guerrero asks what it means to have a tongue with no voice, to suffer quietly, to rewrite history. A series of poems titled “One Man’s Name: Colonization of the Poetic,” explores the caustic relationship between heritage and language. In the final installment of the series, Guerrero writes:

Write the body well, I say.
Pink man, write well, write body.
Little pink man: write books,
write history, white history: Cortéz
and I have the same hands: grandmother.
Bodies ripped with babies and men: molcajete:
pounded, blood-red dust, pigment
for painting. Art. Framed in gold.

In her visceral debut, Guerrero hacks away unnecessary language “like an axe murderer.” By relying on careful lineation and striking imagery, she weaves a complex tapestry that displays a body ravaged by history. She sews images together with language like a skein of blood red embroidery thread. A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying reveals what it means to conquer with, and be conquered by, imagistic language.

Guerrero’s poems are not silent. Like a raging rooster clawing its way across a tin roof, these poems demand the reader pay attention. In “Put Attention,” the speaker remembers her grandmother’s inability to translate Spanish into English, thereby butchering her own demand for the speaker to “Ponga atención.” “Put attention, put attention. Put it where?” the speaker asks. “Shall I put attention in my glass and drink it soft like Montepulciano / d’Abruzzo? Like Shiner Bock? Horchata?” With each poem Guerrero petitions, “Put [your] attention somewhere large.” A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying repeatedly dismembers large issues like family, race, and history in an effort to make them more digestible. Through careful construction, these poems become palatable bites that leave the reader feeling satisfied instead of overfed.

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Microreview: Sad Little Breathing Machine by Matthea Harvey

There are some writers whose work tends to itch the insides of your ears long after you have put the book down and gone on to do your usual things. Although there are many writers whose works stay with me, Matthea Harvey’s Sad Little Breathing Machine is a poetry collection I feel very lucky to have grown acquainted with. Portions of Matthea Harvey’s writing find me when I am making figurines out of bubbles in the dish soap or humming to the white noise of the A/C in my Elantra. I find the music in this collection meticulous and sentient. ‘[This] little Narrative is so adorable’ quips one of the characters in Harvey’s “Once Upon A Time: A Genre Fable.” I also find this to be true. I cannot think of many works I think of as both adorable and melancholic. The fact Breathing Machine pulls of both makes reading it a pleasure to come back to, and the kind of book one continues to develop a different relationship over time, as one matures, like The Little Prince and its heart-breaking love between a boy and his rose.

Much like the writers Indiana Review celebrates with the Half-K prize, Matthea Harvey does not burden Sad Little Breathing Machine with a definition for the kinds of writing we are witnessing. Is it a collection of poetry? Are portions of it micro-fiction? Breathing Machine is more about the recognition that different stories demand different types of narration—different states of embodiment. I relish the ambiguity of genre in “Baked Alaska, Theory of.” I love how a “country song” resides over the narrative’s complicated protagonist like a benevolent soothsayer to the perils of father-daughter relationships: “O the flesh is hot but the heart is cold, you’ll be alone when you are old.” Not even the enchanted princesses of this other realm are immune from the friction of a family dinner. As a reader, each time I go back to portions of Breathing Machine, I feel continuously delighted by what I uncover in these well-crafted pieces. As a writer, each time I return I gain a greater appreciation for the cogs maneuvering this machine and its craftsman’s quiet handiwork.

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Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven

Even on its surface, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is a beautifully constructed spiderweb of a novel. It begins with the death of Arthur Leander, an aging actor, and expands outward. On the same snowy night, a deadly Georgian Flu breaks out in North America and spreads quickly, completely wiping out 99 percent of the population. Moving back and forth in time, the narrative weaves together the lives of Arthur’s ex-wife, his college friend, the paramedic who tries to revive him, and, most centrally, Kristen Raymonde, the eight-year old child actress who witnesses his death.
Fifteen years after the collapse, Kristen is performing Shakespeare plays with the Traveling Symphony, a ragtag group of musicians and actors who wander through the half-formed settlements of the new world. Painted on their caravan is the Star Trek quote, “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they encounter a violent prophet, the symphony must once again fight to maintain their fragile existence.
At once sprawling and intimate, Station Eleven is less interested in the gore of the epidemic than it is in the aftermath, the different ways humans embark on the painstaking process of rebuilding. Both before and after the epidemic, Mandel’s complex characters grapple with the same questions, searching across an impersonal world for connection and meaning and hope.
While traveling with the symphony, Kristen remembers flying on airplane as a child. “She’d pressed her forehead to the window and saw clusters and pinpoints of light in the darkness, scattered constellations liked by roads or alone. The beauty of it, the loneliness. . .” For me, Station Eleven is that pinpoint of light, that faint voice coming through a dark tunnel, a prayer for the modern world.