Becoming-Citizen: A Review of NATURALISM by Wendy Xu

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Wendy Xu
Brooklyn Arts Press, Nov 15 2015
42 pp, $5 – $15

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Wendy Xu’s Naturalism opens with a dedication: “To immigrant parents.”

That’s one of the most direct statements in the chapbook, and the eleven poems that follow create such a surreal mixture that it’s hard to tell if Xu’s lines “fixed orbit satisfies / my aesthetic need” from “Civil Dusk” are supposed to read as a playful push.

But unlike “surrealism” as it’s typically generated—that is, from an upper-class white male-identifying source—Xu’s surrealism reads as almost documentary. Instead of a surrealism based on “what if” and fantasy, the approach of Naturalism relies on flipping perception of pre-conceived, accepted, or currently understood systems of language. For Naturalism makes you realize how bizarre the “natural” world really feels. It’s how much a hurt can become, how much an everyday phrase can insidiously work and worm through, how much we disbelieve our own beliefs when we begin investigation.

For what is immigration and “becoming naturalized” if not a surreal, nearly-nightmare-fantasy, and totally queering experience? To cross one imagined border into another nation, to “become” natural—as if, pre-citizenship, a human being was “unnatural” before. Think, too, about the axle on which anti-immigration rhetoric rotates: “some people” are “illegal aliens”—not human / instead subhuman, unnatural, Other.Continue Reading

Discovering the Poetry of Yehuda Amichai

chagallWhen you’re tired of the same old books but then you discover a new favorite, it’s a major event. It’s like finding liquid water on Mars: wonder and joy and promise where before you’d seen a barren landscape. The big discovery for me this year has been Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000), entirely thanks to the beautiful new collection The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). There are Israeli writers I like—Amos Oz and Etgar Keret especially—but Yehuda Amichai I love.

Edited by Robert Alter, Amichai’s original Hebrew has been translated skillfully into English by an accomplished group that includes Barbara Harshav and the late Benjamin Harshav, Assia Gutmann and Ted Hughes, Leon Wieseltier, and Alter himself. They perfectly capture Amichai’s blend of Biblical idiom and playful modernist experiment. I’ll let the poetry speak for itself. Here’s ‘My Father,’ translated by Stephen Mitchell:

The memory of my father is wrapped in white paper
like slices of bread for the workday.

Like a magician pulling out rabbits and towers from his hat,
he pulled out of his little body—love.

The rivers of his hands
poured into his good deeds.

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The Words Beneath the Sound: Music Inspired by Literature

As Virginia Woolf famously observed, the best writing often begins with a rhythmical “wave in the mind,” an inner tempo around which syntax and diction are arranged, a guiding beat of artistic intuition that, when struck upon, makes it nearly impossible to set down the wrong word. Other writers have similarly expressed the importance of heeding the aural resonance of language, of prioritizing sound over sense and music over meaning, and ceding control to the mysterious cadence that can string together words so that they beg to be spoken aloud. Poetry, of course, is chief among literary forms for its emphasis on rhythm, a relationship overtly celebrated in illustrious works such as John Berryman’s Dream Songs, or Whitman’s polytonic verse. John Taggart, a poet greatly influenced by the composer John Cage, even argued that the very goal of poetry is to create “sound objects” where poems cease to pursue metaphor and become more like mini-operas, arrangements that achieve the effect of compositional scores.

Unsurprisingly, the interrelation between music and literature also flows in the opposite direction, with composers taking inspiration from authors. Consider The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” (The Master and the Margarita), Guns N’ Roses’ “Holden Caulfield” (The Catcher in the Rye), or Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad (The Grapes of Wrath). Instances are equally prevalent among classical works—to cite examples from just one career, the Welsh composer Donald Ibrahím Swann (1956-1967) wrote a full-length opera of C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra, set music to J.R.R. Tolkien’s poems from The Lord of the Rings, and wrote scores to accompany the words of William Blake, Emily Dickinson, and Oscar Wilde. Indeed, the list of music inspired by literature is predictably vast and continually expanding, often in innovative ways. Here are four recent compositions that, though notably diverse, are united in holding words as their muse:

1. The Trial, by Philip Glass

An icon of postmodern symphony and arguably the most popular living composer, Philip Glass grew up steeped in literature, the son of a professional librarian. It is somewhat expected, therefore, that Glass draws significant influence from writers—to date, he has composed 25 operas with a literary basis, including works inspired by Edgar Allen Poe, Doris Lessing, and Allen Ginsberg. His most recent, The Trial, is an adaptation of the 1925 novel by Franz Kafka. Released as part of the 2014/2015 season at the Music Theater Wales, the opera features eight singers who play multiple roles, an orchestra of only 12 instruments, and a libretto by playwright Christopher Hampton that closely adheres to Kafka’s text while still leaving room for interpretation. “[Kafka] saw the political and social world we are involved in with a clarity that very few writers have ever seen,” says Glass in a video produced by the London Royal Opera House. “He could see what was happening, and he could describe it. Sometimes the music can follow the picture exactly; the music is right on top of the image. But if we start moving away from it—and that’s what we do in the theater—it allows the spectator to help invent the story.” With this emphasis on collaboration, Glass adds a new layer of life to The Trial, lending the sense that Kafka’s compelling yet unfinished novel is, in a way, still in the process of being written.Continue Reading


9780143126874Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy
Joanna Klink
Penguin, 2015
Poetry | $20
80 pages, 6×9 in

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As a stopped clock is right twice a day, so book blurbs are right a few times a year. On the back cover of Joanna Klink’s fourth book, Terrance Hayes declares, “As soon as I finished this beautifully unassuming and assured book, I began reading it again,” and for once this familiar hyperbole turns out to be just; the collection feels so whole and cohesive that on finishing one immediately goes back to read the opening poems with more attuned eyes. Likewise, the jacket copy’s phrase about “a self fighting its way out of isolation, toward connection with other people and a vanishing world” describes the energy of these poems accurately, if a bit melodramatically.

The wholeness and cohesion come about by a variety of means. The turns in the figurative language consistently surprise without ever seeming strange for the sake of strangeness, always mysteriously right:

no light of the fixed stars, no flashing in the eyes,
only heather pared by the dry air, shedding
a small feathered radiance when I looked away,
an expanse whose deep sleep seemed an unending
warren I had been given […]

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“Slipperiness of Signification”: An Interview with Lee Ann Roripaugh


In her most recent book, Dandarians (Milkweed, 2014), Lee Ann Roripaugh writes in the borderland between poetry and prose, blurring boundaries and finding the unfamiliar music in everyday language. She is also the author of three previous books of poetry, including Year of the Snake, which won the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award in Poetry/Prose, and Beyond Heart Mountain, a winner of the National Poetry Series. Lee teaches at the University of South Dakota, where she directs the creative writing program and serves as editor-in-chief of South Dakota Review. We recently caught up via email to talk about Dandarians, the fascinating ways in which poetry and prose can overlap, and life as a state poet laureate. 

Matthew Thorburn: Dandarians describes and reflects on a difficult and painful personal history with candor, sensitivity, careful yet surprising language, and sometimes humor. How did this book come to be? Did you conceive of it as a larger project from the outset, or did it come into focus as you were writing the poems?

Lee Ann Roripaugh: For me, Dandarians is in so many ways a book about language: language as communication and miscommunication, language as signal and code, as biosemiotics, as conduit, as electrical current, as currency, as impossible possibility, and perhaps, ultimately, as yearning. And so I suppose the book originated from this place of language as yearning. I was reading up on semiotics and biosemiotics and thinking about desire for connection, desire to write one’s way between self and other, as well as desire to read/make meaning.

I began working on prose poems that were attempting to articulate or explore these themes (a form of meta-yearning, perhaps?) when I realized that the lyric flash essays I’d been working on about betrayals of language—liminal, hybrid words miscommunicated to me from my Japanese mother—with all of their emotional and connotative resonances, with all of their slipperiness of signification, as well as all of their transgressive danger and potential, formed a sort of autobiographical ground zero for these explorations, and that’s when I knew that these essays would form the spine and nervous system of this particular book.Continue Reading

Lying as survival: the literary pep talk


Has a young child ever asked you to watch him run? Are you ready? he asks, and then the same intense eyes that one tries to remember a dream with. Then his arms start pumping at a speed that must seem lightning-fast to his own mind but really looks more like an impersonation of slowness—it’s objectively unimpressive, even your leisurely walk would overtake him, his legs simply lack the length. He runs in uneven circles and when he returns to you, his little lungs straining, what do you do? It doesn’t take a behaviorist to know that you, we, must “O” our mouths in shock. We must “Wow!” and enlarge him and protect him from the world while we still can.

Of course, we don’t apotheosize an adult’s work that aims to soar but barely gets off the ground. We’re old enough to take the truth. As adults, we should hold each other’s work to high standards, and our own work to the highest of all. As writers, we shouldn’t settle for a single pale line. But before the poem is written, I say, we should lie to ourselves, the way we lied to that winded child.Continue Reading

“Sometimes she is a space” : Janice Lee’s Reconsolidation: Or, It’s the ghosts who will answer you

Janice-Lee_Reconsolidation-Or-its-the-ghosts-you-will-answer-you_001Taking up the mantel of memory and elegy is no easy task, but Janice Lee’s new book Reconsolidation: Or, it’s the ghosts who will answer you embraces the ghosts. The text is not so much a reflection on writing, loss, memory, and death, but a twisted projection of those topics. The medium is under as much consideration as the memory. By keenly understanding limits of language, Lee creates “a site of conjuration.” And so Reconsolidation doubles down on space and time.

As readers, we ride through a long period of mourning activated by the death of Lee’s mother in a single night; and, yet, the book’s brevity at seventy some pages and a multiplicity of empty space makes time spent reading feel like “the speed / of a blinking eye.” These physics are constantly under interrogation:

“I feel sometimes that time is moving in the wrong
direction…How does
the past persist in the present and swallow the

Because, besides the neuroscience of memory Lee presents in the text itself, time operates swiftly, consolidating and reconsolidating the evidence of experience, memory, and outer sources to create a shifting arrangement. The effect is dizzying. It’s no wonder that Lee has written elsewhere about László Krasznahorkai’s winding sentences and the long takes of Béla Tarr’s filmic adaptations: she’s treading similar ground in creating a book that only takes an afternoon to read, and, at the same time, involves a process of memory that feels eternal, where “it would / only take a few minutes, they said. But it felt like / an eternity.”Continue Reading

So Long, Dear Writer


ck williams

The poet C.K. Williams died this Sunday, September 20, 2015. For the last few months I’ve been enjoying a review copy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s beautiful new collection of Williams’ poems, the Selected Later Poems, but I’m finding that now, in light of Williams’ death, I can’t read the book in quite the same way I did a week ago. Am I being illogical? Does a poet’s death change their poetry in any fundamental way?

How should I approach a poem like “Dear Reader,” originally published just this year in The New York Review of Books? “Dear reader,” Williams begins, “dearest inscrutable listener inscrutably harking or regrettably more likely not harking.” In fourteen anxious, ungrammatical, sprawling lines, Williams lays out the developing series of relationships between reader and writer over the course of a literary career. There’s the ideal reader the poet creates for himself as he labors in obscurity, a real reader whom the poet—glad to finally have an audience!—is eager to please, a more demanding reader who expects confession and autobiography, and finally the reader the poet shuts out of his imagination because the pressure to please all parties is simply too much to handle.

In tracing this arc it seems Williams is closing the book on his career; now it seems he really was saying farewell to poetry. Or it would seem so if not for these final lines in which he transcends or rather embraces the pressures of being answerable to a readership:

… I swore when they barbed me
I’d keep to myself forever though I know now there’s never forever and know too dear reader

here with me in one way or another that there aren’t any mysteries I’d still care to conceal
so as long as you’re out there nose in a book at your end of the page I’ll keep scribbling at mine

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“It’s A Bit Mysterious, and I Like That”: An Interview with Frank X. Gaspar

2381600190_347912351c_zFrank X. Gaspar writes poems that are lyrical, powered by swift associations, and full of surprising images and leaps in thought that in retrospect make perfect sense. He is the author of five collections of poems, including Late Rapturous and The Holyoke, as well as two novels, most recently Stealing Fatima. Frank was born and raised in the old Portuguese West End of Provincetown, Massachusetts. He teaches in the MFA Writing Program at Pacific University, Oregon. We recently caught up via email to talk about Late Rapturous, the strange ways in which a poem can start, and the differences between writing poetry and fiction. 

Matthew Thorburn: Late Rapturous is composed of prose poems as well as poems in long lines that sometimes seem on the verge of becoming prose poems. Would you talk about how it feels to you writing prose poems versus lineated poems? Do the two offer different possibilities or challenges?

Frank X. Gaspar: Interesting that you ask that. I don’t feel any difference in the process; it seems more a matter of how my mind is working at the time. I pay as much attention to sound in the long-lined poems as I do with poems having more traditional line breaks—a lot of attention, actually—but without the line breaks to perhaps reinforce the sound with the eye, the prose poems might not announce their accentual nature.Continue Reading

Review: LIFE IN A BOX IS A PRETTY LIFE by Dawn Lundy Martin

dan lundy martin_LIFE IN A BOX IS A PRETTY LIFELife in a Box Is a Pretty Life
Dawn Lundy Martin
Nightboat Books, 2015
Poetry | $15.95
104 pages, 6 x 9 in

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Dawn Lundy Martin’s two previous collections, A Gathering of Matter / A Matter of Gathering (2007) and Discipline (2011), were remarkable both for the rigor of their investigations of identity (family, ethnic, political, gender, and sexual) and for the formal risks she took in conducting those investigations.  Martin’s poetry is a high-wire act, a combination of audacity and control, and she likes to work without a net.

Her new book’s title raises the specter of confinement—a circumstance that occurs throughout her text, not only in imagery drawn from slavery and incarceration, but also in the citing of discourses designed to contain and set limits. Hegemonic voices periodically run vertically down the page, like prison bars:

“The Irish, the
Iberian, and the
Negro are of

is paralleled elsewhere by a diagnosis of “nymphomania.” The text’s first-person voice wants to believe there is an elsewhere, but the way to it is hard to find: “We labor in our attempts at rebirth. Remain inside enclosure, wood box.”
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