This Is the Homeland
Ahsahta Press, May 2015
Mary Hickman’s first volume of poetry begins dazzlingly with “Joseph and Mary,” a poem carved out of Joyce’s Ulysses. Whether this was done by dramatic erasure or by mosaic-like re-arrangement of fragments is hard to say, but however it was accomplished, it enchants. Hickman’s distillation of Joyce’s novel carries a distinct flavor of Stephen Dedalus, a Stephen who has perhaps changed genders, but is still a shape-shifting intelligence in exile, looking for a body it can call home.
The body may be the homeland named and claimed in the title. Names of the body parts appear frequently—forearms, hips, glands, knees, feet, spine. The poems sometimes invoke yoga (“The Locust,” “Woodchopper”) or chiropractic (“Spinal Twist”) or even the operating table (“Twelve hours his chest / cracked & / died”), but somehow our best efforts to name and claim the body leave an elusive remainder. “This is the homeland,” the final sentence of the first section of “Territory” confidently asserts, but by the end of the second section the poem is asking, “What land is this?” In This Is the Homeland, the body is both the only place we will ever live and a mystifying, unknowable other.Continue Reading
What’s wrong with being raised by wolves? In Humanimal: A Project for Future Childen, Bhanu Kapil investigates “the true story of Kamala and Amala, two girls found living with wolves in Bengal, India, in 1920” (ix). But unlike a crowd drawn to witness a re-enactment, Kapil’s book instead involves “trying to see it” (17) and the creation of a work of radical empathy. Of becoming, not speculating: a desire to “write until they were real” (41).
In this complex “re-telling of planar space,” Kapil records her trip to the site where Kamala and Amala briefly lived “as girls,” her own father’s journey to England from India, where “his feet resembled those of a goat’s” and her childhood (35 and 64). Ridiculed by children in London after returning from India while still in school, Kapil remembers: “When I grew up, I wrote about the bloodstream of a child as intermingling with that of an animal” (40). And this is a book of so many interminglings that the differences can hardly be marked by its end, if only because “I was frightened and so I stopped” (1).Continue Reading
Jehanne Dubrow’s latest collection of poems, The Arranged Marriage, tells a difficult and moving story about the poet’s mother and her early life. The narrative gradually comes into focus for the reader through a sequence of beautiful, haunting prose poems—narrow blocks of words the poet likens to “newspaper columns” that convey her “poetic reportage.” Jehanne is also the author of four previous books, including Red Army Red, Stateside, From the Fever-World and The Hardship Post, and co-editor of The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems About Perfume. She is the Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House and an associate professor of creative writing at Washington College.
Matthew Thorburn: 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?
Jehanne Dubrow: My mother has told me the stories that form The Arranged Marriage since I was a little girl: her exiled Jewish childhood in Honduras, her experience of being held hostage by a violent man, and her forced marriage in El Salvador which followed that trauma. These narratives are so much a part of me that The Arranged Marriage happened very organically. I wrote fifteen of the collection’s central poems in the first week and then spent the next two years building the rest of the book around those key texts.Continue Reading
Poetry has a history of violence.
It was true a few hundred years ago, when bards wrote of knights and of great battles, and it is true today, when poets pick up their pens to write about the trauma of war, abuse, or repression. Whether they abhor it or glorify it, there is something about human violence that has always called poets into action. In fact, the link between history and violence is so intimate, you might even say that poetry is a history of violence.
Lately, as the public debate about guns continues in the U.S., I’ve thought about that history of violence. I know I’m not alone in thinking that the debate has grown depressing. Each side takes its familiar positions. Not only does nothing happen, you start to feel that no one is even listening anymore. I’ve found myself wishing the debate had a little more creativity, some space for openness, for change. And so, even though it might seem strange, I’ve begun to wonder what poetry could bring to the conversation.
So I started to look for poems about guns. And what I found was very surprising—there was so few of them. Searching anthologies and online databases I found countless poems about the effects of war, hate, and violence. But I found almost nothing about guns specifically. And I began to wonder why.
Maybe, I thought, the reason is obvious. Guns just aren’t poetic. They are blunt. They are obvious. There’s nothing subtle about them. I’m reminded of an episode of The Office where Michael Scott goes to his improv class and proceeds to ruin every single scene by entering with a gun. Guns are heavy-handed, and that’s one thing no artist wants to be.Continue Reading
“Anthologists invariably make enemies,” Eunice De Souza notes in her introduction to Nine Indian Women Poets. This anthology is unlike most anthologies, as De Souza takes up her editorial role to rally against universality, mapmaking, and flattery. De Souza isn’t seeking to make enemies, but she realizes that all choices for anthologies suggest other choices: those poets who are left behind.
For Nine Indian Women Poets is itself a corrective volume: here are Indian women writing poetry in English who have not only gone unrecognized by white canonical anthologists or critics (save the rare reader like Bruce King), but who have all written for upwards of twenty years without such recognition.
What makes these poets’ work strike sharply together? They all write in English; all own or disown this language, exploring its twists, barriers, and perpetuations. Kamala Das, the oldest poet in the anthology, draws English as: “The language I speak / Becom[ing] mine, its distortions, its queernesses / All mine, mine alone” (10). For Das, queernesses enable a crucial ownership of the language. The language allows one to name herself and others, so that Das, by the end of the same poem, proclaims: “I too call myself I” (11).
Mamta Kalia, the poet placed immediately after Das, writes: “I am no longer Mamta Kalia” (26). By contrast, Kalia’s poems revolve around a radical empathy that practices negation: “How close we felt / discussing our dislikes / sharing a few hatreds” (22). The venom of an evil actually engages us: it brings together those who feel invariably shunned by an unjust and misogynistic world.Continue Reading
In her second book of poems, My Resignation, Maureen Thorson immerses us in the story of two people figuring out how to start a new life together. Her poems are finely textured, moving, and often humorous. She has a keen appreciation for the quirky natural detail or odd snippet of conversation that perfectly captures a moment—and her work shows us again and again how those moments add up to our lives. Maureen is also the author of a previous book, Applies to Oranges, as well as a number of chapbooks, and the founder of NaPoWriMo, an annual project in which poets attempt to write a poem a day for the month of April.
Matthew Thorburn: Would you talk about your process for writing the poems in My Resignation and putting this book together?
Maureen Thorson: The poems grew out of little notes and quotations that I jotted down in the months after my husband and I first moved in together. I knew I wanted to make something out of them, but I also wanted to preserve their “present-ness” by not reworking the individual snippets very much. So I ended up typing all the notes into 11×17, four-column sheets, trying to preserve as much as possible the formatting of the original, handwritten notes. Once I had four sheets filled, I printed them out and started drawing circles between bits and pieces that felt emotionally or narratively connected. I refined the poems by adding interstitial stanzas, or remixing bits of separate snippets together. For the final section of the book, which takes place three years after the moving-in period with which most of the poems are concerned, I relied less on this collaging process, but wrote more directly.
It took about five years to put the book together. Many of the first drafts I discarded, or folded together in trying to get a narrative arc that wasn’t forced, and which felt true to the sometimes fractious emotional process of becoming a couple.Continue Reading
Juan Felipe Herrera being named our 21st U.S. Poet Laureate is special for a few reasons. He is the first Latino U.S. Poet Laureate in history, but also an unlikely if necessary one. It’s no obscure fact that his writing has historically been underappreciated, undercelebrated even. Herrera’s writing has not, historically speaking, been the kind of writing mainstream America—and I should add mainstream Chicana/o letters—has readily embraced. True, Herrera is integral to the chicana/o literary canon, but his writing is also less commercial, less likely to be anthologized than some of his contemporaries who have played into the publishing industry scripts: Write about the cocina, don’t write about Darfur; write about the barrio, don’t write about geopolitics. The beautiful thing about Herrera is that he writes it all. And he writes it well. He refuses to be contained. Which is, more or less, the brown writer’s road to obscurity—being uncontainable. Continue Reading
Indian bookstores come in wide varieties: street-sellers pitch copies of everything from tabloids to Freud, more upscale boutiques feature plastic-wrapped paperbacks in scholarly fields, and stuffed-to-the-brim cubicles at train depots deliver Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels beside worn editions of the Gita.
But, without a doubt, I always came across copies of Vijay Seshadri’s 3 Sections. The collection’s distinctive caramel cover features a red slash demarcating its title and author: in many stores, several of these candied collections would be nestled next to one another, provoking a question one of Seshadri’s poems asks: “How strange would it be if you met yourself on the street?” (33). How strange it is to see the same book again and again: 3 Sections was peculiarly unavoidable in India, like a neighbor you keep bumping into at the supermarket.Continue Reading
I read Kyle Dargan’s poem “Goliath” the night of the Baltimore riots. I was in Mexico City where the images of the riots made it to the Mexican presses before the story did—Freddie Gray, the police beatings, his snapped spinal cord. The details simply hadn’t been translated yet. But the beautiful thing about a riot, anywhere in the world, is that the literal image always translates. Every single time.
Even my barber who cares about nothing—not even his own kids, not even my hair—knew the real story was about dignity. We talked about that for a long while. And then we finally came to the semi-conclusion that the stakes of any riot is human dignity. Neither of us could articulate that thought further. So, I sat in silence.
I remember, thinking of something to fill the silence, that “Goliath” came to mind. But you quickly learn not to be that guy in the barber shop. You can talk about news or sports or sexy ladies but you can never talk about poetry. Nevermind that “Goliath,” like so much of Dargan’s newest collection, Honest Engine (University of Georgia Press), articulates the seemingly impossible, the incredibly nuanced.
Reading Honest Engine, you can’t help but feel haunted by Dargan’s poems. Haunted in your everyday life, in your personal moments—but also in the collective ones too—watching the news, shooting the breeze with your barber.
In recent months, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has released two poetry collections that encapsulate much of what I love about poetry: James Lasdun’s Bluestone: New and Selected Poems and Devin Johnston’s Far-Fetched. Lasdun and Johnston are quite different in style and subject matter, but they are both masters of the subtle shift, the poem that starts in an unassuming place and leads you away from the old logical paths to a fresh perspective.
I first fell in love with Devin Johnston’s work while reading his 2011 poetry collection, Traveler, and his prose collection, Creaturely and Other Essays. There’s a Thoreauvian sense of wandering in all his prose and poetry—a wandering over the landscape, language, and history of the United States—coupled with a mastery of form uncommon in an American poet. In Far-Fetched the tone is usually serious (except when he’s skillfully imitating Scottish lyric or translating Catullus or bouncing through rhyming couplets) and there is a prevailing mood of quiet and contemplation.
Better to show than tell. Here’s “Orpingtons,” originally published in the July/August 2014 issue of Poetry magazine and included in Far-Fetched:
A pair of Orpingtons,
one blue, the other black,
with iridescent necks
and fine, ashen fluff
cackle through the dark,
their damp calls close enough
to chafe, a friction with no spark.
They settle down to roost,
two rests along a stave.
Each curls into itself,
comb tucked beneath a wing,
as the days grow long enough
to kindle in each a yolk,
the smallest flame of spring.
To me, the two most telling lines in this poem are, “They settled down to roost, / two rests along a stave.” In this musical metaphor, the Orpingtons become rests, the symbols for silence in a musical score. To the audience, the rest doesn’t exist (because a rest is precisely that which can’t be heard), but the rest exists for the musician because it is seen written on the page. It’s all about perspective. Through imagination (and we first see the imagination flare up in that synaesthetic phrase “damp calls”) the poem pierces the surface world of the observer and lets our perspective shift to the private knowledge of the observed.Continue Reading