Notes on the State of Virginia: Journey to the Center of an American Document, Queries IV and V

vintage virginia

This is the third installment of a year-long journey through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. You can read previous installments here and here.

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Query IV: A notice of its mountains
Query V: Its cascades and caverns

I walked into Queries IV and V thinking Jefferson would use these sections to acknowledge the changeability of Virginia’s natural landscape, the dramatic variations of terrain that make it both beautiful and dangerous to traverse. I thought I’d compare Jefferson’s celebration of Virginia’s wild places to the notion of surprise in poetry, or maybe to resistance—that sense that the poem is getting lost somewhere in the middle, and you, the poet, have to invent a light (or a hatchet) to make your way through the draft.

I should have known better.Continue Reading

Listening to Baltimore

Maryland Army National Guard Soldiers and local law enforcement watch protesters gathered in front of City Hall, Baltimore, April 30, 2015. The marchers shouted slogans calling for justice, equality and peace for fellow Baltimore residents. The Maryland National Guard was activated for the first time since 1968 to assist with peacekeeping operations while unrest continues in Baltimore. (Photo by U.S. Army National Guard Sgt. Margaret Taylor, 29th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

Maryland Army National Guard Soldiers and local law enforcement watch protesters gathered in front of City Hall, Baltimore, April 30, 2015. The marchers shouted slogans calling for justice, equality and peace for fellow Baltimore residents. The Maryland National Guard was activated for the first time since 1968 to assist with peacekeeping operations while unrest continues in Baltimore. (Photo by U.S. Army National Guard Sgt. Margaret Taylor, 29th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

Meet your narrator: a white woman who runs a community-based literary organization for Black kids. Your setting? Baltimore.

A year ago, your narrator sat around with four other writers. Three of us white, one Black, one Asian. We were trying to figure out how to talk about the events of April 27, 2015. “Riot” fixated on property damage. “Protests” occurred, but those which took place after April 27 were organized in a way that the initial events weren’t.

By April 28, individuals present at Penn-North had coined the term “Baltimore Uprising.” Called thugs by the same media that praised Egyptians in 2011, the neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester felt an urgency to tell their own story. Their story begins long before April 12, the night of Freddie Gray’s arrest. Their story is framed by the 51.8% of residents ages 16 – 64 who are unemployed and the 33% of residential properties that sit vacant. But “coming up with a name and a hashtag was a luxury we didn’t have time to commit energy to while in the midst of it,” Dr. Herber Brown III, a Black pastor and prominent community organizer, told me.

As the events of April 27, 2015 are processed into history — in museums, in textbooks, in our collective imagination — we need to think about who the words belong to. And as a white woman, this is a place where the words do not belong to me.Continue Reading

Words of War: Poetry and Trauma

1-17th Infantry helps clear 120 kilometers to Shorabak [Image 6 of 22]  Sgt. Tim Martin, an infantryman with Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, shows evidence of the long journey after returning from Operation Buffalo Thunder II at Forward Operating Base Spin Boldak, Afghanistan, July 2, 2012. During the eight-day mission, Afghan and American forces cleared more than 120 kilometers of rugged terrain and escorted approximately 60 truckloads of humanitarian aid for distribution to the people of Shorabak. 117th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment (Hawaii) Photo by Staff Sgt. Brendan Mackie Date Taken:07.02.2012 Location:FORWARD OPERATING BASE SPIN BOLDAK, AF Read more: www.dvidshub.net/image/619195/1-17th-infantry-helps-clear...

117th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment (Hawaii) Photo by Staff Sgt. Brendan Mackie

“All a poet can do today is warn,” Wilfred Owen wrote during World War I. If one view of poetry holds it up as something filled with beauty or romance, the truth is that poetry found its first place more in images of violence and war—think of The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Epic of Gilgamesh. In the last 100 years alone, poetry has been shaped and changed by war: from the WWI poets, such as Owen, to the more recent poems coming out (and that will surely be coming out more and more as these events are processed) about current wars. But, what about the idea of poetry as warning? Do the poems of World War I reflect on today’s wars? Are they still as applicable to us?

To examine this, I’ll bring up an example from my own experience. I teach composition and communication at the college level and when I first introduce textual rhetorical analysis, I usually do it by first broaching literary analysis (which is often something students are more familiar with rather than jumping straight into rhetoric). The way that I introduce it? By looking at Ivor Gurney’s poem “To His Love.”

Gurney, an astonishing poet, was traumatized by his time in WWI and spent the end of his life institutionalized. “To His Love” is arguably one of his finest works, and one that most clearly shows the trauma of his experience. The poem begins slowly, simply, it’s tightly rhymed structure making it seem like the most traditional of elegies:

He’s gone
and all our plans are useless indeed.
We’ll walk no more on Cotswold
where the sheep feed.

Continue Reading

The Best Poem I Read This Month: “A performance for intimate space with strangers” by Saretta Morgan

 

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Saretta Morgan participates in “text-based writing,” and currently attends the interdisciplinary graduate writing program at Pratt Institute. Additionally, she’s a member of the Belladonna* Collective, a feminist avant-garde group founded in New York City. These affiliations begin to orient lenses and traditions through which to read her work; but “begin” is the operative word here, as I believe Saretta Morgan’s work doesn’t simply continue any one mode of writing, but works to permutate the orderings, genres, and possibilities for how text can function. In the past two years, I’ve been following her work, both critical and creative, as it’s published online, and am pleased today to link to one of her recent works through the Ploughshares blog.

Saretta Morgan’s newest untitled piece, recently published by TAGVVERK, records seven days in late 2015-early 2016 on eight closed “window shades” that serve as tablets. The text—simultaneously diary, day-keeper, “(A performance for intimate space with strangers),” catalogue, poem—looms forward by providing a series of peaks: its entirety features a few phrases or sentences per “slide,” and a black background becomes foregrounded by making up the majority of the space. Flipping Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” by charging the typically all-white page with black backdrops and white text, Saretta Morgan also invokes Hortense Spillers’s piece “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” to think through black womanhood, black feminism, and black motherhood. Morgan finishes this “performance for intimate space with strangers” with the claim: “This is a stage populated by white people throwing shit around if I say so.” Therefore, the page becomes a stage, in its representation and its critique: Morgan’s piece confronts personal and public articulations of blackness and daily entries of facts translated into theories and back again, as fragments of living.

Continue Reading

Preserving Intent: What’s Lost in the Cinematic Translation of Mrs. Dalloway

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I like to follow up my reading of a text with its cinematic counterpart. After finishing Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, I rented the DVD of the same name with great anticipation. But after the credits rolled, I was unsatisfied: while the cinematic version of Woolf’s novel provides a touching and well-acted rendering of her vision, it fails to recognize and execute some critical themes from the hard copy novel.

In the film, the omission of a consistent concept of time was immediately recognizable. Yet, the novel is divided by eleven panels of time. The film occasionally shows Big Ben chiming the hour, but fails to highlight how Woolf saw the theme of time as absolutely critical to shaping the individual’s everyday experience. Entirely absent from the film is the concept of deep time, a reading of time that pre-dated conventional 24-hour time. One of her journal entries confirms her desire to produce such a concept in a work like Mrs. Dalloway: “I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humor, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect…” This primordial illustration shows Woolf’s need to portray a sense of movement that simultaneously spans the modern convention of time, yet remains timeless. Although the film does shift between scenes from Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway’s childhood and the present, this sense of “time before time” is absent.

The “beautiful caves behind her characters” in Woolf’s novel lack complexity in the film version. Poignant scenes are cut, weakening the cinematic version. As in the novel, there’s a film scene where Mr.Dalloway is shown trying to decide what to get his wife for her birthday. But the angst Woolf writes into his action—buying his wife red roses—is completely passed over.Continue Reading

Reconstruction: How the Lyric Essay Rendered One Body After Trauma

Anatomy Class, 1920

1.
I didn’t start writing lyric essays until I found out I had cancer. The melanoma buried in my right cheek was at first missed, and then misdiagnosed in its severity. Clark’s stage IV, they told me. Likely in my lymph nodes, but they wouldn’t know until my third surgery, the excision and biopsy.

2.
I was coming out of a dry period in my writing. I had hardly written in the previous year since my brother’s death from complications arising from a rare genetic disorder. When I went back to the page, I couldn’t go back to it as I’d been there before, but I felt I must go back. I had something to say, and what if I didn’t have long to say it?

What If became my muse.

3.
The poems became fragmented, full of white space.  I broke lines unexpectedly, at least for me. Out of tune, out of sync/syntax. I revised through redaction, cuts, excisions.  Everything seemed relevant and connected, even as everything seemed disjointed. Separate.

4.
Text is solid or liquid, body or blood.1Continue Reading

Review: RAPTURE by Sjohnna McCray

9781555977375Rapture
Sjohnna McCray
Graywolf Press; April 2016
72 pp; $16

Buy: paperback | Kindle

“Father and Son by Window,” the opening poem in Sjohnna McCray’s debut poetry collection Rapture, has an ephemeral feel; the poem rises like a plume of smoke. “You sing, soft winds and blue seat,” it begins, a line more about sound and mood than action, with such rich consonance that it practically begs to be read aloud.

This nicely sets up the book as a whole, hinting at McCray’s talent for sound, while gently nudging readers in the direction the poems will take. Many of Rapture’s main subjects are introduced here on page one: the relationship between a father and a son, the pleasures and irritations of the domestic sphere, and—of course—love, in all its forms.

The love between father and son is present in the second poem, too, but in “How to Move,” love is manifested as attention to the physical body. The line breaks in “How to Move” flawlessly measure the information in beats:

I cannot look at anything
so black as my father’s leg
or used-to-be-leg below the knee[.]

Continue Reading

Who Speaks How

Dunhuang_Mogao_textile_embroidery

I love when people ask my friend Jenny and I how we know each other, because long before we co-taught a queer theory elective and drove cross-country and made parallel moves to Pittsburgh, she was one of my first writing teachers. It was in her Xeroxed handout of eclectic love poems that I first read Stanley Kunitz’s 1971 “After the Last Dynasty”: what would become my first truly beloved poem, which itself begins with a transformative event of reading.

Reading in Li Po
how “the peach blossom follows the water”
I keep thinking of you
because you were so much like
Chairman Mao,
naturally with the sex
transposed
and the figure slighter.
Loving you was a kind
of Chinese guerrilla war.

This being the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month, I wanted to observe this poem: to submit how it works and what it means to me as anecdotal evidence of poetic capacity.

The summer I found this poem, I was 16 years old. It was my first time studying at the Young Writers Workshop, an immersive alternative to sports camp then housed in an un-air-conditioned freshman dorm in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was, to borrow the hyperbole of that particular moment, a transformative summer. Emboldened by critical pedagogy and a lot of Ani DiFranco, I wrote love poems for my camp boyfriend, ekphrastic poems for seventeenth century paintings, slam poems (I know) for men who’d harassed me on the metro.Continue Reading

Indigenous Taiwanese Lit: From One Island Comes Global History

taiwanese temple for PS

The deeper you go into reading indigenous literature the greater your understanding of the human condition. Such is the case with Indigenous Writers of Taiwan: An Anthology of Stories, Essays and Poems. In these contemporary and compelling pieces we see beyond skin color, religion, and geographic location by placing Taiwan at the center of our literary map.

Taiwan has nine indigenous tribes divided into eight mountain groups and one non-mountain group, we learn from translator John Balcom. Balcom, who co-edited the anthology with Yingtsih Balcom for Columbia University Press’s Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan series, explains that their populations range from 4200 to 122,800 and they occupied Taiwan as far back as fifteen thousand years ago. As we progress into the book and discover similarities and differences among the tribes, we find work that ranges from the personal to the universal and contains truths that parallel myths and legends. We find ourselves pondering our own Natives while discovering how the Han Chinese, the Japanese, and Western imperialism have molded Taiwan.Continue Reading

“Ghosts Usually Accompany Me through My Poems”: An Interview with Diane Seuss

A_big_tip_in_Galveston2Words just seem to have more possibilities in the poems of Diane Seuss. They become more flexible, more magnetic, attracting and accumulating meaning and music in a speedy rush to surprise, a hard-won clarity about what it’s like to be here, be human. Diane is the author of three books of poetry: Four-Legged Girl (Graywolf Press, 2015); Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010), recipient of the Juniper Prize for Poetry; and It Blows You Hollow (New Issues Press, 1998). A native of Michigan, she serves as writer-in-residence at Kalamazoo College.

Matthew Thorburn: How did Four-Legged Girl come together? Would you talk about your process—and was it different from your experience with your previous books?

Diane Seuss: Each collection has been the result of its own unique process. Four-Legged Girl came together after writing poems over a few years that reflected my obsession with the nature of desire. When I looked at those poems I saw a kind of trajectory that was not necessarily chronological but did move through a process of being captivated by desire (a true captive), rescinding desire, and finally coming to a new kind of desire that was not about romance but, frankly, about poetry. In my world, poetry is a placeholder for a larger spiritual and intellectual process. When I wrote the title poem, the image of the girl with four legs was the frame I needed for the freakdom of the whole manuscript. She is the purple creature who rose out of the whole shebang. The big poem in the book’s center, “I can’t listen to music, especially ‘Lush Life,’” became the drain around which the rest of the poems swirled, and in fact the image of the hub could be considered the collection’s structural metaphor.Continue Reading