For a long time I've thought about keeping a journal. But then uncomfortable questions emerge. What goes in? What stays out? There's the additional anxiety of a journal being traced back to an "I": a journal is never to be taken as fiction, but non-fiction. The "I" in the entries is always me without mediation, without ventriloquy. George Life's precarity project tests how the act of composition, of adding and erasing, might discover a signature that is at once "I" and "not-I." The achievement of these poems is a combination of embracing and editing. Even the kitchen sink has gone into these poems. Meditative lines like "formal which is to say a kind of purity" culminate in the "violence / and splendor somewhere west of Houston" in the first entry. In a second entry, the act of eating potato chips and a translational play on free radical leads to this realization: "free radicals / radicales libres eating Lay’s what we learned yesterday fails us today." Life's precarity is a palimpsest journal, or what Bloom might call a site for poetic crossings. In these evocative lines and unexpected breaks, we track the movements of "I" that is always somehow other and yet eerily familiar, the "I" that I inhabit on the page or in the world.
I just ate the last of Klondike bars. My lover comes in to the office, leans over me where I am working, kisses the back of my neck and asks, is it because I ate the last of the apples? A pretty moment, funny—one of shared intimacy. Why we love each other perhaps. But is it a poem? No, probably not. It was there, now gone. A fleeting moment that I can’t do much more with. And this is why I am so envious of Portia Elan’s work, its ability to transform the everyday into the holy. Elan employs an internet parlance, oft dismissed in our serious Poetry work here as low, in a way that is altogether new and exciting.
After reading Chris Santiago’s poems, I immediately reached for my copy of Joan Didion’s The White Album and turned to its title essay. Freshly unpacked after a cross-country move, its pages still smelt like California. Small grains of sand from some grungy beach north of Santa Monica spilt from the book onto my desk that faces Ithaca, New York. Didion’s essay begins: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live...We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the moral lesson in the murder of five.” The narratives in Santiago’s poems carry this compulsion, to venture through memory and history, and to insist the importance of life and all of its incarnations.
The poems (and translations) this week have been a challenge for me: they are too much. The first challenge was one of selection. When Jen Hofer sent me these translations of Virginia Lucas, I was immediately entranced: the energy, the linguistic outbursts, the bravery, the excessiveness that seeped and dripped everywhere. I couldn't deny these poems anything, whether it be my attention while reading, my idle thoughts hours later, or this space here at TOA. My first task, one of selection as editor, was in some sense a failure. I couldn't select; I had to have have have. And so, I took took took everything Hofer and Lucas offered me. Six poems alongside their six translations. Just enough excess to feed the excessiveness.
When we look up at the night sky, we are looking up at victims. They may be shackled in stars, jointed by light, but they are still the patterns that have been formed after torture and rape. Daniel Altenburg's poems this week operate within the stratospheric depths beneath this sad empyrean. Engine burnoff, sexual violence, and Classical allusions mark the liminal spaces between gods and mortals, between desire and its consequences. Altenburg reimagines our trips to the stars through alternative examples. Mothballed spacecraft, sexual histories, and the bodies of astronauts chart the hidden costs of progress, the tradeoffs of history that so often go unmentioned. Amidst the detritus, Altenburg discovers light in burning embers rather than the twinkling stars. He discovers lyricism. He discovers a path, even, toward humaneness.
In this group of poems, Michelle Y. Burke takes on the subject of pregnancy with unexpected anxiety and a keen sense of the uncanny (which seems a necessary, if not often narrated, part of having another being growing inside you). Burke's poems eschew a pre-scripted narrative of pregnancy in favor of a more Alien one. Of having two heartbeats in one body, she writes, "A thing should be one thing or another. Not both/and." This group of poems is less Miracle of Life and more brooding, to use the author's word. Burke explores all definitions of brood: as a noun for children and chicks; and as a verb, to hover over or think anxiously about. To be in a state of depression, even. By invoking the Narcissus myth, Burke engages the selfishness of the desire to have children without denying the work and worry that goes into it. Cheeky and irreverent, this author can't explain "why I love you like the chipped mug I'll never throw away (unless it leaks)"; to her characters, even conception is just a shared surprise.
When I went to grad school, I didn’t know anything about poetry. Problematic, I know, as I was going to grad school for poetry. Those first few weeks at new recruit meet and greets, my peers would ask me, “are you narrative or lyric?” I didn’t know there was a distinction, or that the binary was so fractious. I think this may be a normal MFA experience. You don’t go to grad school to write poems—you’re already doing that—but to learn who’s producing work at the time. A poet who’d shown up in town the same year I did took it upon himself to learn me and lent me 10 or so contemporary books of poetry, among which was Mathias Svalina’s Destruction Myth. I remember my reaction: you can do this? Poets can be funny? And sweet? Work can be flooring, heart breaking, absurd, and beautiful? Svalina ended up serving as my primer to contemporary poetry and as I went on to teach in environments where folk didn’t have a background in poetry—underserved kids in New Orleans, inmates in Alabama and Louisiana—Destruction Myth became my go to text. The language was available, approachable. Svalina’s work does this here as well, achieving the incredibly difficult balance of accessible and profound, culturally relevant and hilarious but never cheap.
Marcelo Castillo's poems choose their wounds over their scars. The roots are exposed, the scabs freshly ripped. This is a poetry that locates equally in hives and in semen, that harvests what poetic fruit it can from suffering. Chronicled in these two selections this week are complex processes of desire, pain, and a kind of acceptance. We find ourselves agreeing—albeit begrudgingly—with the speaker that "[t]his is the only hand I'm allowed." Castillo manages to bring us into the troubling and heartbreaking situations of his speakers without asking for apologies or simple pity. The language of these poems may fester with knives, abusive fathers, and creatures that sting, but it also serves to remind us that a wound festers because it is filled with life.
"If I am alive" Aditi Machado begins. "If I am thinking / nothing has stopped". In this selection of three poems, Machado burrows into the paired binary of thinking and feeling. On the one hand, cogito ergo sum. On the other hand, "I feel that I am happening / in a sleeve." To perform this investigation, Machado turns inward, and the space that the turning creates and navigates is sacred. With echoes of Blake, Machado moves toward the void of the god word she finds within: the word that cannot be spoken, the word that cannot speak, the word that cannot help itself but to create ripples of language that emanate from it: "Which is to say if the god word was denied to speaking, it was not / to thinking or feeling or tapestry." Because, of course, there is no difference between thinking and feeling. Both are functions that occur in and are processed by the brain. Their wedding is inevitable, and so "[b]lessed is the heart. / Blessed is my gethsemane // of florid logic."
“Tell me to stay and let me hate you, tell me to leave and let me love you.” This line conceals a novel’s worth of narrative, and a line is all you’ll get here. Jamison Crabtree’s poems subvert our desire for story. Like any good love affair, they give us elaborate backstories and complexity of feeling within a couple brief meetings. Then, these sentences cut us off abruptly and leave us wanting more. The lines in Crabtree’s poems are embedded with micro-narratives that force a reader to lean closer, to tune their ear to the music and be moved. Just as the speaker of the second of these pieces must leave, so, too the story must leave us behind. The residue of feeling, of yearning for more, of empty-pit stomach—that visceral whatever is the stuff of these poems, the tiny wild that Crabtree captures and immediately lets loose. But we wouldn’t rather read a novel than experience these brief moments of emotion. To paraphrase what Crabtree writes himself: If ever a story appeared, it would be no comfort.