Friday, April 28, 2017
KATIE HIBNER Reviews
daughterrarium by Sheila McMullin
(Cleveland State University, Cleveland, 2017)
Conventional wisdom contends that terrariums are the most humane enclosures for small land animals, easing their confinement by mimicking their natural habitats. Perhaps they are the cruelest containers, however, for creatures intelligent enough to see through the simulacra, the vestiges of former freedom that taunt them as they endure their owners’ groping. In the titular poem of daughterrarium, Sheila McMullin’s speaker pleads, “take me out of this bed and put me back in the grass.” Like a contained animal, she cannot switch environments without her handler’s intervention.
With its illusory independence, McMullin’s terrarium conceit parallels the collection’s central theme: the aftermath of sexual trauma. In one poem, the speaker dreads the folkloric “King of May,” a man entitled to impregnate any woman in his village. The speaker desires to steal powerful keys from the regent who “does not care to learn” her name, but reflecting on his sexual ownership of her, she reconsiders, “If I get caught…think about what he could do / This is when I feel the most fear.” “Bad Woman, thought drawer variation,” one of the collection’s longest pieces, chronicles a girl’s hospitalization and self-blame after “a boy sticks his dick in her ass and then in her vagina,” with an interlude that juxtaposes the ordeal with the goading deception of a terrarium:
“Between sapping limbs
of plum and bark
a child breaks
the skin of her hands.
Stopping the blood with sap,
she licks off her fingers what she thinks
will taste like honey.
It tastes like sick and bedtime.” (7)
The girl cuts herself on the seemingly-sweet branches, and afterward finds that the juice that tempted her isn’t sugary, but nauseating. The girl mistakes the limbs as saccharine and harmless, just as the poem’s victim may have misinterpreted her assailant as a trustworthy partner, believing that their intercourse would be pleasurable rather than painful. At the hospital, the doctor infantilizes the victim, lecturing her, “Make sure to wipe yourself from front to back;” and her mother inappropriately frets about her reputation, warning her that her medical files are “not private in the way (the doctors) make it seem…they categorize you out of context.” The girl of the interlude anticipates honeylike flavor; the victim likely expects empathy from her doctor, genuine concern from her mother about her health. Similarly, a terrarium’s inhabitant often mistakes its plastic foliage for authentic plants, preparing for actual nourishment when it tries to take a bite.
McMullin’s speaker underscores the inseparability of a mother from her daughter’s sexual health, portraying a girl’s first period and her mother’s guidance, “Yes, you could have babies now. But don’t until you have a good job.” Like the mysterious hands that hover over a terrarium, the speaker’s mother anonymously haunts her. The speaker remarks to her wistfully, “You are white light behind the scene…You were involved in my birth / though I do not know your name.” Her unknown mother pervades her vision, constantly illuminating backgrounds.
God permeates the collection even more than the matriarch. As a terrarium-housed pet relents to the higher power of its owner, a single supreme being governs the speaker. She discloses, “In my fantasies / I sit in front of a bowl of poppies / at the kitchen table, thinking about God.” She reveres God so much, she daydreams about daydreaming about Him. Although the speaker clearly adores the Almighty, others doubt her worthiness of His affection. She admits, “My ability…to be loved by God and earth / have been questioned.” The speaker’s sexual assault spurs such challenges; society shames her into believing she is “broken and disgusting.” Numerous biblical verses exalt the body as God’s temple; therefore, the speaker equates the violation of her body with a sacrilege that could destroy her connection to the Lord.
The image, “God’s hand over our belly over the earth,” reverberates throughout the collection. This refrain is so rich. It positions the speaker and the subject between the firmament and the land, between Heaven and Hell. More specifically, it orients their wombs between these two poles. The placement of God’s palm on the speaker’s reproductive organs reiterates her conflation of her sexual and spiritual sanctities. It also reinforces the speaker’s conviction that she does not control her own body, corresponding to the powerlessness she feels as a victim of assault.
Other refrains echo throughout daughterrarium, ringing like death knells. Subverting the vitality its title suggests, decomposition ravages the collection. In “Bad Woman, thought drawer variation,” the recovering girl must stay in a hospital room where “the putrid smell / of the devil’s tongue flower hangs like fever.” The poem “Bad Woman, beneath vision seaweed variation” epitomizes daughterrarium’s gothic element:
“…the flowers wilted
and petals through rot
removed themselves from air…
women’s faces beneath water
sucking in water…
arms becoming seaweed
then seaweed becoming arms again.” (40)
Flowers and female bodies decompose, integrating into the land and sea to continue an eternal life-and-death cycle. The piece’s illustration of submerged, putrefying women evokes John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, implicitly critiquing the Pre-Raphaelite fetish for vulnerable maidens. McMullin denounces such eroticization of defenseless women because it promotes sexual exploitation.
Since a gothic landscape provides a backdrop to discourse on bodily trauma, daughterrarium recalls Rickey Laurentiis’s Boy with Thorn. In McMullin’s collection, women surrender to seaweed, and her speaker instructs in one poem, “…let you go…give you yourself to the roadside trash.” When confronting racist or homophobic violence, Laurentiis’s speaker advises, “To negotiate the dark you must open, you must open / To the dark: dirt, the hundred worms beneath you, beneath / Where hands come to claw the dirt, let, and lay you down.” McMullin doesn’t specify the setting of her gothicism, whereas Laurentiis’s explicitly refers to the American South; but both poets recommend embracing nature’s ugliness when trying to recover from humanity’s. Each of them also populates their collections with phantoms. McMullin’s speaker declares that her grandfather needs her to “speak to the women that have died.” While reflecting on victims of lynching, Laurentiis’s shudders, “…I dream what haunts each night: / These bodies, even lynched, are still thinking.”
The speaker of daughterrarium envies the ghosts’ incorporeality. She proclaims, “I feel optionless and forced to keep my body on.” Her physique burdens her not only as the site of her trauma, but also as a target of personal and, latently, political criticism. As many, if not most, women do at least once in their lives, the speaker implores society, “Trust me with my body.” She needs to independently navigate her relationship with her form.
The speaker asks others to believe in her command over her own body, but she doubts it herself. She agonizes, “What will grow / in the untouchable space / in my throat?” Even though it’s her own organ, the speaker worries she cannot control what swells in her throat because she cannot physically contact it. A myriad of other growths riddle her flesh: McMullin’s body horror peaks in the poem “Toward Myself,” in which God punishes the speaker and her family for their greed by first eliminating their hands and feet, then infesting them with tumors:
“a growth formed inside us
we gave praise
purple and bulbous
we gave thanks
a pain spongy and tissue
bent knees in water
asking for forgiveness.” (26)
McMullin’s speaker envisions retribution as somatic invasion, specifically, the breach of alien flesh. Conventionally, sexual trauma involves penetration from the outside, whereas “Toward Myself” inverts that notion by originating the violation within the body itself. The poem portrays the constant, visceral damage sexual assault inflicts upon survivors’ psyches, how they must bear it with every step they take.
The speaker not only fears growth within herself, but also excrescence from her body, projection into her surroundings. The speaker characterizes the ruefulness festering in her mind as an “angry knot twisting out of this pit.” She likens her mind to an abyss, and she conveys the fury of her regret by imagining it as a tuber that squirms up from its depths. She admits, “This makes me feel ashamed / An overextended body.” The speaker’s body expands into its exterior by the growth of protuberances or liquefication: in “Lilith’s Book,” she asserts, “my body would melt / under the eyes of the neighbors.” This contention explains the speaker’s dread of outgrowth: any extension of her body could advance it into society’s sightlines, could subject it to the glares of more critics.
The fact that almost half the individual poem titles in the collection begin with the phrase “Bad Woman” manifests the neighbors’ damage to the speaker’s self-esteem. “Lilith’s Book” opens with the declaration, “When I sleep / I am a bad woman.” Even when completely passive, when doing something necessary for life, the speaker cannot escape censure. In “Bad Woman, thought drawer variation,” the mother of the hospitalized girl “believe(s) the daughter / could have handled the situation better,” assigning responsibility to her own child as she recovers from trauma. No wonder the healing girl chastises herself, “How was I so unprepared?” Parents are often their children’s greatest allies, their last lines of defense. Additionally, as McMullin evidences in other pieces, mothers largely influence their daughters’ perceptions of appropriate sexual health and behavior. Therefore, when the mother faults her daughter for her trauma in “Bad Woman, thought drawer variation,” no one remains to shield the girl from self-blame.
In many of daughterrarium’s pieces, especially the lengthier ones, the authoritarian (and mostly condescending) voices of the speaker’s mother, grandfather, and doctors interrupt her. She recognizes her critics’ fallaciousness, however; to them, she claims, “…inside of my ears…(is) the difference between what you say I know / and I how I feel.” McMullin mimics the speaker’s resultant cognitive dissonance. A segment of the titular piece begins with a catalogue of instructions for the reader to alter words in an unspecified text (“Exchange singular with lioness and redact lioness; insert crickets.”). These commands directly echo Lucy Ives’s Anamnesis, in which Ives follows nearly every line with the mandate, “Cross this out.” Just as the speaker juggles societal perspectives of sexual trauma with her own incongruous mindset, the coexistence of the original text with the orders for its revisions forces the reader to negotiate cacophony, to attempt to reconcile contradictory voices.
Unlike Ives, McMullin also implicitly compels the reader to do so by pairing words with parenthetical rebuttals. The poem “Clara’s Book” opens with the enigma, “this (that) came into me by way of God / you (God) delved straight in and / God (she) took hold, made me hurt.” In three lines, McMullin provides two options for what penetrates the speaker, and three for who wounds her. The piece “Antumbra” recalls the blank spaces and variants Emily Dickinson scrawled throughout her manuscripts. McMullin occasionally disrupts the text with bracketed gaps and provides choices for filling them: for instance, the reader can choose between the similes “breath / like summer wind” and “breath / like chameleon paper.” In his review of Anamnesis for Bookslut, Josh Cook aptly likens the paradoxical phenomena of such pieces to “Schroedinger's cat before the box is opened.”
McMullin also engages the reader with page-long lacunae in the three poems titled “Firelight Mediation.” In this series, the speaker appears to address the reader directly, alternating between confessions (“I realized I was angry / and I realized late”) and queries (“Do you believe me?”). She trusts the reader enough to divulge her feelings, but also doubts their confidence in her, an extension of her society-imposed inferiority complex. By the end of the collection, however, the speaker gains self-esteem, and the implicit dialogue of the “Firelight Meditation” series involves the reader in her gradual transformation. Toward the end of the last poem in the series, she declares:
“I often still feel like a very bad person,
But it is getting easier to identify who is actually saying that…
You don’t have to support me
You have to get out of the way” (77)
The speaker still disparages herself, but she improves at discrediting and deflecting her critics. She concludes that she doesn’t need encouragement and vindicates her anger at her trauma, advising the reader not to interfere.
One of the collection’s final poems, “Olga’s Book,” evidences that the speaker can justify her volatility because she channels it into a virtuous pursuit: toppling oppressors. The poem’s form explicitly imitates Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette, an epic in which a female protagonist slays a hegemonic, hyper-masculine Tyrant. The speaker’s nemesis in “Olga’s Book” is similarly misogynistic; he blames her ““for” “not having pregnancies”” and claims that she’s unlovable. She allows him to heap on abuses, then finally retorts, ““I” / “dare you to” “uncome in me.”” McMullin omits a response, indicating that the speaker’s riposte renders the bully speechless. The speaker returns the male chauvinist’s sexually-charged attack. This feat, coupled with McMullin’s direct allusion to The Descent of Alette, signifies that the speaker evolves into a feminist crusader, a champion for victims of sexual abuse.
Terrariums confine predators such as snakes and lizards, suppressing their instinctual fierceness. In the span of daughterrarium, however, the speaker augments and refines her aggression. Decay and a myriad of oppressive voices riddle her habitat, but when the speaker and the reader emerge from this “walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” both are much, much stronger.
Katie Hibner's poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Bone Bouquet, inter|rupture, Timber, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Vinyl, and Yalobusha Review. Her criticism has been published by Entropy, Full Stop, Heavy Feather Review, and New South. Katie dedicates all of her writing to the memory of her mother and best friend, Laurie.
Posted by EILEEN at 7:00 AM
Thursday, April 27, 2017
EILEEN TABIOS Engages
DONALD TRUMP IN NORTH KOREA by Jared Schickling
(Moria Books’ Locofo Chaps, Chicago, 2017)
I’ve written six and edited two chapbooks for Moria Books’ Locofo Political Poetry Series. Some folks have asked how I can be so prolific. My answer is two-fold: 1) in general I’m prolific, and 2) a la Jared Schickling’s DONALD TRUMP IN NORTH KOREA.
That is, like Schickling’s, some of these Locofo chaps protesting the administration’s policies (seem to) write themselves. They can be relatively easy to poop out. Garbage in, gold out. Caveat: not all of the over a hundred chaps in the series are in this vein or colon (sorry, couldn’t resist). Many of the poems in the Locofo series also transcend the Locofo context because they’re that good. But with No. 45, some chaps offer the sense of the times writing themselves—this is all to the good, reminding me of that statement about poets not needing to write fiction when they write poems; the poetry is all around and the effective poet need only to be able to observe/discern. So here’s Schickling’s latest chap whose poems also make gold from shit—anyone else ever wonder what happens to King Midas’ shit after he poops? … but I digress. Here’s one:
Well, I’d say the race card has been officially Trumped.
Part of the poems’ pungency (sorry, couldn’t resist) is exactly due to their brevity. Their power is such that they resonate longer than the time it takes to read them—like the scent after major poop expulsion (again, my apologies: I’m not able to resist …).
But the brevity doesn’t disavow a depth to the criticism, e.g.
It’s so cold outside I saw Donald Trump with his hands in his own pockets.
I looked at the above, about to release the same snort or chuckle elicited by some of the other poems, but paused, because, really, there’s nothing humorous about the image. The poem immediately—viscerally—raises the images of too many unemployed or underemployed in lines or just hanging out, their “hands in [their] own pockets” in the cold.
They’re also quite smart poems:
When will we come to our senses and figure out how many Donald Trumps are in the country?
This is “political poetry” at its best. The poems cut (pun intended) to the point swiftly and clearly, while displaying analytical effectiveness.
It also says something depressing about the times—or that I’ve been reading too much protest poetry—that the ones that offer humor (e.g. “BOSOM BUDDIES” and “JUST GRAB EM”) start to feel clichetic (even when they’re not). Perhaps that’s because the situation indeed is a treasure trove for comedians but … the situation is not really funny—there’s too much at stake and too many people hurting.
Let me end with one more—I actually didn’t get the title at first and so share for others as psychologically-exhausted as me that “MAGA” but of course stands for “Make America Great Again”:
The problem with being Donald Trump is that by the time he realizes he’s not in shape, it’s too far to walk back.
One doesn’t need to deep-read the above to be wary: there are things for which we need to be vigilant, and prepared.
Eileen Tabios is the editor of Galatea Resurrects. Her 2017 poetry releases include two books, two booklets and five poetry chaps. Forthcoming later this fall is a new poetry collection, MANHATTAN: An Archaeology (Paloma Press). She does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor, except when the review focuses on other poets as well, which is the case in April's reviews: M. Earl Smith reviews her collaboration with John Bloomberg-Rissman If They Hadn't Worn White Hoods, 8 Million Would Have Shown Up In the Photographs and Freke Räihä reviews her TO BE AN EMPIRE IS TO BURN!. More info about her work at http://eileenrtabios.com
Posted by EILEEN at 11:01 AM
Wednesday, April 26, 2017
SAM LOHMANN Engages
We Denizens by Jen Coleman
(Furniture Press, 2016)
INFANT SQUID BEING IN THE WORLD
Back in September I was reading the new book We Denizens by Jen Coleman and encountered these lines:
infant squid swallow a million times themselves
in water and let again that water out, each a self-
propelled arrow among arrows finding direction
one from another in so much dark.
which is totally startling and beautiful, and the odd inversion “and let again that water out” adds a Miltonic cadence that makes an infant squid leviathan, and that linebreak self- into -propelled arrow is like a turning inside-out of effect into cause, and then the next line is:
Look closely: everything has scatters.
And these scatters of Heraclitean fire are set up as sea life quickening in the preceding sentence:
In a way, here, under the moon
thinned and scattered by water, drifted life
is not helpless but migrating from deep, rising
adrift with their own power.
so the whole thing is set within a cosmos, and a plurality of organisms emerges from undifferentiated unity (drifted life) by a grammatical sleight where the pronoun their corresponds to the verb is. So I copied the whole passage from the poem “On Desire” into my notebook, with I assume a broad look of “Wow!” on my face.
(click to enlarge)
But I wasn’t ready to think about desire. In the days before this I had been preoccupied by an email correspondence with a writer I idolize, Bruce Boone, and we seemed to be at an impasse over what he had meant, in a draft essay on translation, by the need for hierarchy, its importance to any writer or translator. This troubled me since I tend to idealize lateral or chaotically churning relations. I had settled, maybe willfully, after some discussion with Bruce, on the idea that this was his ex-Catholic way of saying that a writer or translator needs the discipline to be immersed in a cosmos, an image (in almost the Hermetic imago mundi sense) of being in the world. And that such an image would situate the writing within a logic of location and relation carrying the kind of clear spiritual authority Bruce himself carries, which allowed him to say this shocking thing. (And maybe, with my crude habit of sorting, I was including Bruce with two other great heterodox pantheist Catholic gay writers, José Lezama Lima and Robin Blaser, each of whose poetries made explicit the struggle to know a cosmic image.)
At Bruce’s insistence I was reading Pierre Hadot’s book on Plotinus, and I’d recently copied out this passage of Plotinus on contemplation of the world-image:
Let us imagine that we see the whole earth…and the sea, and all divine [but I wrote diving!] beings, as if in a transparent sphere, in which it really would be possible to see everything. Let us keep within our soul the luminous representation of this sphere, containing everything within itself… Keep this image within yourself, and eliminate its mass; then eliminate the presentation you have within you of its spatial extension and its matter.
The last command seemed to require an imaginative or pneumatic discipline I’ll never possess, but I liked the image. And around the same time I was reading Renee Gladman’s Calamities and found the passage where she says she realized one of her students—but she did not know which one—was “the person in the world” about whom she’d been thinking only in the abstract for so long, and asks: “How did one draw out the person who is the most perplexed of all persons?” And this too was a revelation, that the need for a world implied a person who was, though anonymous, particular, actual, and waiting to be drawn out. Maybe I was understanding Bruce’s notion of the spiritual hierarchy of translation—anyway I felt dizzy.
So when I copied down this passage of Jen’s poem I was thinking of what it takes to exist consciously in a world, as an individual barely differentiated from a swarm, in an imaginative structure of perfect transparency and compactness that could only be totally confusing, unknowably dense, mobile and entangled. After writing out the lines I stared into space. Then I wrote below them: “INFANT SQUID BEING IN THE WORLD.” This seemed to solve something. I seemed to know what I should do next. I should write about, and try to embody, infant squid being in the world. Picturing the world had been a deadlocked obsession with me for a long time, but this motivating image from Jen of infant squid being pushed the whole relation into specific, livable, slippery actuality, a story where creatures were forces that became not just intertranspicuous (Percy Shelley’s word) but interinanimating (Fred Moten’s word).
I was also learning from the way my daughter Ceci says world to mean simply place and sometimes describes the movements of her imaginary friend Copb from “Copb’s world” to “your-guys’ world.” But she knows the word place and the two aren’t quite synonyms for her. She gets world accurately: place as knowable cosmos. It seemed if I learned how to infant squid be in the world it would be a big deal, maybe the big step from anxiety into beauty or full participation in things. But so much was happening just then, the beginning of the school year for the whole family, and at the end of September my grandmother died. So the phrase has just been sitting there, waiting for me in the other notebook, until today, November 3, 2016. And next week of course the world will end.
Afterthoughts, April 2017
Why can’t I understand the cosmic hierarchies?
Why does every theory of translation make me want to dethrone the angels?
What could be better than speaking with the dead, or speaking with the voices of the dead?
What about speaking with tardigrades, in loving solidarity, as imagined by Jen Coleman (in the poem “Micro Animals”)?
How would it look if I tried to draw a graph of what immersion, submission, scatter, migration, and drift are doing here?
Have you ever seen how a basket star feeds itself?
As Bruce asked, how much is this really about the death of my grandmother? Well, she taught me more than anyone about contemplation, and was the first poet I ever met.
How do I fit into all this? Do I appear here as the straight man, in one or two senses? As reader and student I’m perhaps passive, perhaps submissive, at the same time that I’ve arranged, however haphazardly, the whole thing.
And where, in all this, are “Fear and Fury”? (The title of the consummate crown of sonnets at the center of We Denizens, structured by around contradiction and transposition with the help of a brilliant tonal equanimity like Willie Nelson by way of Gerard Manley Hopkins reading feral hope between the lines of each day’s apocalyptic news, bedenizened with owls, worms, bobcats, skunks, hunters, cowboys, astronauts, lovers, squirrels and dogs, about which I can only say, read it!)
Sam Lohmann is a poet and librarian in Portland, Oregon. His books include Day Use Area (Couch Press, 2014), Unless As Stone Is (eth press, 2014), and Stand on this picnic bench and look north (Publication Studio, 2011). Adventitious essays can be found at thefirmandaerie.tumblr.com.
Posted by EILEEN at 3:41 PM