About two years ago, I experienced Elisabeth Houston's work for the first time. The word one must always use, I believe, with Houston's work is experience for her work demands that one isn't ever just reading, just listening, or just thinking. My first experience of Houston's Baby project was at a secret show at Human Resources, an art space in the Chinatown neighborhood of Los Angeles. The show involved photography/art, publishing, audience interaction, a traditional reading, party games, dress-up, video, conversation, and, finally, the audience's own writing. Throughout that show, and in the poems published here today, Houston's work challenges, forcing us to experience both Houston's own confrontation with gender, racial, psychological, and identity issues, as well as our own relationship with these issues. What becomes central is that we are being irrevocably isolated. Through Houston, we confront ineffective and inappropriate interactions, of the grotesque, of abuses of power, of stereotypes, of identity and gender markers and we find ourselves realizing our actual state of existence: alone in the world. And as we try, through these poems, to reach out in that aloneness and cross the boundary to another person, we inevitably entered into dynamics of power, privilege, and trauma as those attempts ultimately fail, even when they succeed. Or, as Houston writes here: "'the meaning of life' – and its corollary, fulfillment – was an equation / baby was constantly, secretly trying to solve."
Last month, a friend and I drove across the country. Over six days and 2,500 miles, we crossed deserts green from monsoons, southern prairies, flooding swamps, forests—a journey of superlatives, of vastness, of record-breaking weather events. And yet what struck me most during those long drives were the small towns off the highway, clusters of shacks and abandoned brick buildings and ranches that offered human perspective to the indifference of the landscape and the wheeling stars at night. The lyrics this week from Sean F. Munro act as a human rejoinder to the vastness of our world, fixating upon the small and physical—tongues, bones, hair, the fillings of teeth—as a means of affirming the cosmic within human form. Take the first poem to appear here, "light theory." The two hundred and six bones of the human body mark both our stubborn, inescapable embodiment, the "weight of everything at once," and also the very anchor that enables our capacities for understanding: "we know nothing / can hear the voice of the present / without the blood torn out of the veins and looked at." At these moments, Munro reminds me most of a Lorca lost somewhere in west Texas, studying the roughs and swirling dust. The poems evoke the macabre at times, and also the sublime in its most human form.
Oh, the cat again. Sometimes I think she’s a weird alien from another planet or an ancient creature that's time traveled into this future. She is meowing her head off at me, though she's already gotten food, a trip outside, water and her daily massage. She meows at me to see what else I’ll give her. And though such behavior could become tiresome, she always manages to do something entrancing when I'm on the verge of irritation, ensuring I’m endlessly charmed. Such are these sonnets from Anis Shivani’s “Death is a Festival.”
My father is sick. In the last year, his health has rapidly degenerated. Several days ago, I went to his small apartment that smelled of tobacco and stale urine to intervene. His feet swollen, I forced socks up his calves. I opened the laces of the only shoes that would fit and pushed his feet into them. I stood him up, had him lean into my chest as I worked a t-shirt over his arms and head, like a child. We then drove to the VA, where he was taken into care. This week, I also attended the wake of Offending Adam editor Cody Todd who we lost earlier this year, tragically and too early.
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.