From my balcony in Istanbul, I have a partial view of the Bosporus. During winter, when the trees lose their leaves, my view becomes clearer and wider. In the middle of summer, like today, this view is restricted by two trees. The nearest is a fig tree, whose now-ripening fruits I can nearly grab from the balcony. The other is a tree I haven't been able to identify, whose name I don't yet know. A few nights ago, a storm came down off the Black Sea, driving violent winds up against the hillside where I live. When I awoke the next morning, I saw that my view was clearer and wider, and I could see more of the city's Asian coast—the tallest section of the fig tree had cracked against the wind and come down, now resting on the path to the front gate.
Over the last eight weeks, I've been working closely with students from China who are learning English. Together, we discuss English words as if they were atoms in the Large Hadron Collider. Smash apart a word like "submarine" and you get "sub" (below, beneath) and "marine" (involving water). Blow "agoraphobic" to smithereens and you'll find "agora" (a forum essential to public identity in ancient Athens) and "phobia" (fear of) in the dust pan. This week, the poems by Barbara Tomash develop their lyricism through the particles of our language. Thus "[a-]" evokes the "pericarp of a peach" without "center, stalk, or stem." In "[re-]," the function of [re]petition suggests the markings of flood waters on the outside of homes. These poems [re]turn me to those moments with my students when everyday, worn-out words become suddenly spooky and magical again, when in the "thin film of speech sound" every "germination is possible."
Months ago, when the cat was sick with a cold, she got a treat—chunky canned food in thick sauce—instead of her usual weight-control dry food mix. The saucer of wet food sat in a place on the floor where she doesn’t usually get food, a reminder that this was a special event. Tonight she returns to that spot on the floor and sniffs around, meows, looks up at me with her big yellow eyes. She waits, unsure of what for. In these poems by Romanian writer Robert G. Elekes, everyone is waiting for the ghost of some comfort. The dead wait for the living to join them, while the living are “embalmed in now” waiting on a train car. These poems seduce with surreal imagery and dreamlike logic, conflating the worlds of the living and the dead, dreaming and waking, childhood innocence and adult sensibilities.
This morning my coffee shop crawls with toddlers, hipster toddlers—they all have mullets. While putting cream into my coffee, hung over, I part the two in front of me to exit. One trips over my feet and face plants right into the polished concrete floors. Seconds pass, nothing, and then blood from his nose, he wails. I apologize to his mother but she reassures me I have nothing to do with his fall. In the car, Joshua texts, ‘Hey was I being an asshole last night?’ No, I respond, not at all. “I have this vague feeling that I was,” he says. Today is already heavy with the guilt and terror of living. This week, we present four from Carleen Tibbett’s Dataclysm. The suffix -clysm: break, broken, crush, bend, destroy. Dataclysm—I think, then, overwhelmed by data, broken and crushed by this anxiety of living, the endless information. Tibbett’s work is so approachable yet resists easy summary, a tension created by availability and that the windows of the shop are painted black and we can’t look in. Each poem ends with a .jpg file extension, and each poem is a tiny, perfect image-making machine. Experiments where in the “infinite types of darkness” words are made, “spectralnestled / in the somewhen.” We sometimes know it’s not our fault, that we did nothing wrong, but we can’t resist the need to apologize. Tibbetts' poems remind me of my need to be absolved.
To understand the political and social ruptures that Josué Guébo addresses, it is essential to have a little history. In 2011, the year My country, tonight was published, reconciliation efforts led to the Ivory Coast’s first presidential election in nearly a decade. Ethnic violence had characterized a 2002-2007 civil war, after which a north/south division remained informally. The 2011 election gave way to five months of violence referred to as the second civil war. While Guébo is interested in the questions of national identity that have tormented the country, rather than directly address questions of ethnic difference Guébo has expanded the political discourse; he sees the violence as a condition of the neocolonialism that Kwame Nkrumah forecasted as the last stage of Imperialism in Africa.
When I first read these poems by Lily Clifford, I responded: I'm going to resist the urge to tell you my reading. I felt that to tell my reading would be to reinscribe the author to Clifford, which seemed at best indulgent of my own narcissisms and at worst rather problematic. Or, as Clifford writes here, "each eye is called to sway, / again and back / the small quadrant of your desire for you." Instead of asking me to explain these beautiful poems as I read them, I realized that the poems were asking me to open myself and be receptive of them. These poems are sites of communication, yes, but a communication that happens through an insistence on listening rather than telling. I'm not told what to think by the poems; they ask me to listen and then think. I can't tell the poems what they mean; instead I ask if I can continue listening. And through this listening, I find myself pushed, pulled, and chopped apart and I don't even care if I will ever be able to put myself back together again.
Christine Herzer's "Language Room VI" is spacious, generous. When I say this, I'm referring to its broad plains of white space. Wait. Let me write that again. I'm referring to the poet's remarkable talents for shifting tone when a shift is least expected. No, that's not right either. I'm referring to the poetic project as a whole, a palimpsest displaying its scratch-outs and allusions for us to read (or not to read). Or maybe I'm referring to the title, its evocations of space, of an ambient poetics that draws its primary inspiration from pale morning light drifting through a window. Is there a window in the Language Room? Let me try this again. The Language Room is not obsessed with light, but with walls. Etchings and scrawls. Quotes in French, German. Even chromatic arithmetic. The walls display one generation of consciousness after another. And this is what I meant, originally, about spaciousness and generosity. A sense that you and the poet could go left or right, could discuss toast or the aesthetics of rejection letters in a single experience. That you might walk through this poem as you do through a room. Not walk, but wander.
I like a gambit. I like trickery. Maybe I’m just a fan of the hustle, but when a poet manages to play, to really play in a poem, well, that’s the point in my reading that I decide I’m all in. I’m game. See, in poetry workshops students get a lot of “it’s too gimmicky” when they step outside the box. This is especially true when they mess around with structure and rhyme—those old-school craft tools that people like to say are outdated, at least until they see them done right. And Marielle Prince? She does them right. She sees the game and she knows she’s playing it (she’s mastered it, in fact), but she also knows that it’s both a game and also dead, dead serious. These poems, the author wrote: “are for the kind of people who as kids could find themselves suddenly terrified during a game of tag, the game shifting within their bodies into the shape of something primal and urgent and not actually fun at all.” But I’m offering these poems to all of you because she’s wrong on that last account. Oh, they are fun. The subtle terror is thrilling. And in her hands, the possibility of losing one’s footing inside the poems is a risk I’m happily willing to take.
Let's say that every person has four sides. And let's say that those four sides each have four sides, and that those four sides in turn also have four sides, ad infinitum, raised to the fourth, to the fourth, to the fourth, to the fourth... I imagine there's a mathematical term for this but I don't know it. Let's say each side is presented at one time, in one place. When we wake up in the morning, for instance: one person. During the shower: another person. At coffee: another person. Renting a house: another person. Light shines through, illuminates another, here, today, now, and the light shifts and another. This week, Timothy O'Keefe's eight Quadrilaterals explore these sides of self. Tight, four-sided poems—beautiful four line machines, both playful and smart. In a line like "People pass by people passing for themselves passing people," I wonder the person I choose to be today and I will choose for tomorrow. I'm never sure which side to show.