Episode #117: Salt and Bone – An Interview with Muriel Leung and Grace Shuyi Liew

Episode #117!  You can listen here:

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Muriel Leung is from Queens, NY. Her writing can be found or is forthcoming inThe Collagist, Fairy Tale Review, Ghost Proposal, Jellyfish Magazine, inter|rupture, and others. She is a recipient of a Kundiman fellowship and is a regular contributor to The BloodJet Writing Hour poetry podcast. She is also a Poetry Co-Editor for Apogee Journal. She will attend USC’s PhD program in Creative and Literature in the fall. Her first book Bone Confetti is forthcoming from Noemi Press in October 2016.

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Grace Shuyi Liew is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Prop (Ahsahta) andBook of Interludes (Anomalous). Her work was chosen by Vancouver Poetry House as one of “Ten Best Poems of 2015.” Her poetry has been published inWest Branch, cream city review, Puerto del Sol, and others, and she is a contributing editor for Waxwing. Grace grew up all over Malaysia and currently resides in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

But There is a Cost: on Victoria Chang’s The Boss

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By Leah Silvieus

Victoria Chang’s The Boss (McSweeney’s 2013) is a virtuosic and intimate meditation on power in its many forms. The Boss, winner of the PEN Center Literary Award as well as a California Book Award, is as polished and self-assured as a third book should be. While there are many fine poems worth discussing in this collection, I would like to focus on the poems titled after the paintings of American artist Edward Hopper (1882 – 1962), which make up nearly a quarter of the collection and comprise a significant part of its structural frame.

Hopper’s Office at Night appears in the title of three poems; the New York Office, Office in a Small City and Automat all appear twice. Chang also includes poems titled after Conference at Night and Chair Car. Much of Hopper’s oeuvre reveals figures gazing out windows – or gazing at each other unable to connect emotionally, which is solitude of a different kind. These paintings often place us as viewers into position of voyeurs who are happening upon Hopper’s figures just before or after something important occurs. We feel the tension between these individuals and the outside world that they gaze upon; we are not invited to engage fully, but at the same time, we are tempted to linger. The brilliance of Chang’s poems, however, lies in how they return the painting’s gaze, thus inviting the reader from the position of voyeur to witness:

 

“[…] from the front the building looks

like a giant spreadsheet there would be

thousands of rectangles

 

thousands of workers staring out like

little numbers waiting to be shifted up

shifted down summed up averaged

deleted” (“Edward Hopper’s Office in a Small City” p. 37)

 

The readers become those gazing back at the spreadsheet of office windows, alongside the speaker, as if it were in our power to sum the workers up, average them – delete them. “They are waiting on us – what will we do?” the poem seems to ask.

Chang also invites the reader into the position of witness as she transposes the figures in Hopper’s paintings into scenes of the speaker’s history, as she does in her second “Edward Hopper’s Office at Night.” The end of the poem segues into an intimate and personal discussion of the legacy of power: “I hear my two-year-old fighting / with someone in her crib she is bossing // someone around no no no bad that’s mine you don’t take / mine […]”, and later in the same poem, “[…] I hear her singing happy birthday to / me happy birthday to me she is already celebrating / herself she will be the perfect boss.”

Chang’s deft use of enjambment, slant rhymes and plays on words embody the tension between the figures in the poems, between interior and public life, between the individual and her relationship to structures of power. She walks courageously into the difficult terrain of the tension between power’s effects on others and our own desire for it: “my four-year-old daughter still / listens to me I am the boss and I like it I / see why the boss likes it,” she writes in “The Boss Wears a White Vest.” Later, in “The Boss Rises,” she comments: “we / can be bosses too can hold the cross but / there is a cost.”

Then, Chang reminds us, there are some powers that we are helpless to control altogether, which she captures in “I Once Was a Child”: “my father lost his words to a stroke / a stroke of bad luck stuck his words / used to be so worldly […]” Little, if anything, is lastingly ours:

 

“[…] my blood has nowhere to go trapped in this

cavity circling and reassuring itself chasing

itself until one day it will rush out and

never look back” (“Some Days One Day”)

 

The landscape of power that Chang presents in The Boss is, at times, quite grim; however, her playfulness and prosodic virtuosity reminds us that we need not live quietly desperate. While Hopper may have given us windows from which to gaze out, Chang’s poems give us the hammer to break through.

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Leah Silvieus

Leah Silvieus is a poet and interdisciplinary artist whose work has been featured at the O, Miami Poetry Festival and at the Asian American Women Artists Association in San Francisco. She also has received grants and fellowships from Fulbright, Kundiman, US Poets in Mexico, and the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. Her writing has been featured in Asian American Poetry & WritingCURAThe Collagist, and diode, among others. Currently, she divides her time between Florida and New York where she works in the yacht hospitality industry. You can visit her athttp://leahsilvieus.wordpress.com/

 

Identity Forged by Experience in Lydia Minatoya’s Talking to High Monks in the Snow.

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By Micah Tasaka

Talking to High Monks in the Snow, by Lydia Minatoya, is an autobiographical novel about the challenges a Japanese American woman faces to understand the multiplicity of her identities while attempting to connect to her cultural and ancestral roots and seeking to stabilize her career. The book questions what it means to belong to or feel connected with one’s self while trying to balance one’s place in the world. In Lydia’s world, she had no access to what it meant to be Japanese. Aside from her family, Lydia did not meet a Japanese American person until she was twenty years old. As an adult, she travels to various homelands in search of an identity and direction. She speaks of having a divided identity. She says, “I am a woman caught between the standards of East and West.” To deal with this, she decides to travel between the two, constantly searching for where she belongs. Ultimately, Minatoya finds that self-discovery is a journey in which one is molded through the process of going.

First, Minatoya talks about the qualities she was taught since childhood that an Asian American woman should have. She speaks about her upbringing in Albany, New York. Young Minatoya tries to understand the expectations put on her as a Japanese American woman through the only source she has to navigate that world, her mother. However, her mother, Okaa-chan, has a fractured identity of her own because she grew up without knowing her mother. When she was very young and still living in Japan, Okaa-chan’s parents divorced. As a result, Okaa-chan was not allowed to see her mother for the rest of her life. Coming from this type of fractured femininity that trickles for generations, Minatoya gives snips of conversations between her and her mother. In one conversation, Okaa-chan explains, “My father gave me an okoto to teach me to cherish my womanhood…the notes are delicate yet there is resonance. Listen. You will learn about timelessness and strength. Listen. You will understand how, despite sorrow, heart and spirit can fly.” Okaa-chan is trying to teach her daughter about the qualities an Asian American woman should value. She wants her daughter to be able to withstand many hardships while remaining elegant and having depth. Minatoya comments, “An American daughter, I cannot understand the teachings of my mother’s okoto. Instead, I listen to the music of her words.” Because she is American, she cannot grasp the cultural connection her mother speaks of. She has been divided from that part of herself. However, through loving her mother, she establishes a connection to her culture, which she is able to revisit later in life.

In addition to lessons of endurance and elegance, Minatoya is also taught that an Asian American woman must be clever if she is to survive in the world. When Okaa-chan is writing young Lydia’s name in Japanese (Yuri), she explains that there are two ways to draw the characters. One way of writing Yuri means “clever” while the other means “lily flower.” Young Lydia questions why her mother decided to name her clever rather than after a beautiful flower. Her mother says, “Too many flowers already. In America, it is better to prepare a child to be clever – to be open to the world, to accept imagination, to see the unseen. A flower girl gets picked. A flower girl gets trampled. A clever girl gets prize.” Okaa-chan wants her daughter to be resilient while still willing to take chances and allow herself to experience the world around her. She wants her daughter to be an active participant in her own life instead of a girl who is acted upon and walked all over. She is preparing her for the world to come.

Instilled with these qualities, Lydia moves into adulthood where these values are challenged. Minatoya excels in college, receives her doctorate, and moves to Boston to begin her teaching career. Though optimistic with her new position, Minatoya learns that she is only one of four Asian women working in her field at her university. However, Minatoya’s position is soon compromised. Lydia was hired while the university was going through an accreditation process. It was suggested that her department could “benefit from a more ethnically diverse faculty.” Once the school received its accreditation, she is conveniently let go. Lydia felt used but also relieved; she was never sure that teaching was for her. Teaching was a simple opportunity presented to her, not a conscious career choice. Lydia needed to discover herself before she could settle down with a career. So, instead of letting this setback destroy her, she takes action. She is encouraged by her friend, Moe, who said, “Go on and travel. Go on, just for a change of scene. You’ll see. Gonna be you that changes. Indeed, indeed. Gonna be you.” Moe was exactly right. Lydia sets off to travel to Asia to discover her roots.

To further her understanding of herself, Lydia travels to Japan to meet her relatives. She says, “I am not an adventurous person. I am the sort who hesitates at the brink of escalators, reluctant to relinquish terra firma.” She admits her fears and cautious spirit but does not let these hinder her and steps out in search of some connection to guide her. After traveling around Japan for some time, Minatoya finally connects with her family. She meets many of her family members and often feels displaced because, even though she is of their bloodline, she still feels awkwardly American and struggles to understand herself because of her Asian American identity. Then, she meets the patriarch of her family in Japan. At first, she believes he does not like her because she is traveling with a man who is not her husband. Then, after much silence, the patriarch takes out a six hundred year old scroll containing the lineage of Lydia’s family. Her family is the oldest traceable line in the region. Minatoya says, “For the first time, the old man looked at me. He turned and studied my face. For a long and breathless time, his keen eyes seized and held me. ‘This is who you are,’ he said. ‘Remember and be proud.’” This experience shows her that her elder accepts her as part of the family and approves of her, which makes her connection to her culture more tangible and real. This powerful acceptance from her family boosts Minatoya’s confidence and helps establish her roots. Because of this, she is able to start teaching again and accepts a teaching job in Japan.

After some time in Japan, she accepts a teaching position in China as a professor of American language and culture. While there, she works with a classroom of students who spend much time asking her about life in America. She is no longer among her people and is seen as an American. However, her students still wonder about her bi-cultural identity. A student asks her, “‘You are American Japanese. Can such babies honor their parents? Can they grow strong and straight? Or do they grow strong but misshapen, bowing between East and West winds? Or perhaps, do they snap?” Minatoya responds, “My mother told me that in America children could grow to be like the bamboo. Bowing between competing winds, the tree grows strong and flexible. It will not snap…But in some ways the bamboo is a fragile tree. It needs to grow in groves. By itself, the bamboo is a lonely tree for, inside, it is hollow…Perhaps this is what I have found. In Japan. In China. Here with you my dear dear friends.” She finds that it does not matter which place she calls her home because she creates a home in the people she holds space with. For the rest of the book, Minatoya surrounds herself with people who are familiar and comfortable. She travels with her home and finds comfort and connection wherever she is. She leaves China to go to Nepal on vacation with a group of friends.

In Nepal, Minatoya is treated as a traveler. This differs from her experiences in China and Japan where she is treated as a resident. Because of this, the Nepali people often read her as an American with similar features to themselves. Once again, she is made to question what it means to be American. She says, “The Western mind tries to seize ungraspable experience. Like gold miners panning a stream for shattered reflections of the sun, we search for the flow of experience, sorting its shadowy play of patterns into object that can be held and owned and trusted enough to be loved.” Nepal teaches her that in order to form identity, one must flow through the experience instead of forcing the experience to happen. Lydia lets go of her desire to control the world around her. Experiences cannot be owned like objects; a person has to absorb their experiences into their identities. She stops struggling and takes in the lessons she learns instead of trying to seek them out. By this time, Minatoya has matured enough to know that one’s identity is, ultimately, built by experience rather than subscriptions to other people’s ideas of how a person should act or what they should value. Identity and experience are intrinsically tied to one another. There is not only one way of being or a single identity. Minatoya is able to bridge her identities divided between the East and the West because her experiences have taught her that she is complex. She can have multiple identities and be able to navigate many worlds as a result.

As Lydia returns to the United States, her lessons take full form. She begins to study ikebana, the art of Japanese flower arranging. Though the end result of well-crafted ikebana is gentle and delicate, her Sensei, Keiko-Sensei, shows her that the flowers must be swiftly hacked and maneuvered, without mercy. When Lydia tries to bend her flowers with as much command as Keiko-Sensei, her branches crumble and become disfigured. Keiko-Sensei, seeing her struggle, takes the branch and twists it into a beautiful art piece. Lydia says, “And gradually I learn that what seems like roughness instead is honest intimacy. A real mother does not do her caretaking through a series of artful poses. And eventually my flowers cease to cringe and crumple at my touch.” Through the journey of self-discovery, Minatoya learns that sometimes, in order to become a true work of art, one must be molded, painfully and without delicacy. It is through this process that Minatoya finds herself. After being woven and bent through her travels across the world, she comes home to America to learn that what she was looking for was always inside of her; it just needed to be formed. She ends with, “Like a missionary, I was sent to light a candle deep in the wilderness. But the wilderness lit a candle deep in me.” For Minatoya, the journey is what shaped her, ignited her, and taught her about who she is.

As someone who, throughout the book, seems to challenge herself and go where she must in spite of her fears, Minatoya still describes herself as being afraid of change. She says:

Change unnerves me. Behind every opportunity lurks the possibility of my undoing. Was I now Asian? Was I still America? Would I have to choose between the two? While I had been living in Asia, Asia had begun living in me. She pulsed through my heart. She traveled through my bloodstream. She changed my perceptions, my thoughts, and my dreams. Like a mother who kisses her bruised daughter and shoos her back to play, Asia had transformed the ache of my lapsed career.

And indeed transformed Lydia, too. As a child, she grasped all around her for some foothold in which she might understand herself. She then grows into an adult weathered by experience. Although she still seeks to understand herself in a vast array of complexities, she allows the experience to change her and move her and in that process is able to discover herself and her life purpose. Through Minatoya’s work, readers can learn not to base identity on other people’s ideas and expectations but rather base identity on one’s journey of self-discovery through life experience.

***

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Micah Tasaka is a queer biracial poet from the Inland Empire exploring the intersections of identity, spirituality, gender, and sexuality. Their work seeks to make a playground of religious myths while creating queerer deities. They received their undergraduate degree in creative writing from the University of California, Riverside. They have performed throughout Southern California and have featured in Riverside, Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Palm Springs. Their debut chapbook, Whales in the Watertank, was self-published in 2014. They have been featured on The California Journey of Women Writers literary blog, and their work can also be found in the upcoming In The Words Of Women 2016 anthology.

2015 Favorites: Stephanie Hammer

It’s that time of year!  We’ve asked guests and contributors we’ve featured on The Blood-Jet Writing Hour in 2015 to share with us their favorite books, literary magazines, and reading series from the year.

This post features poet Stephanie Hammer.  She writes:

Favorite magical realist novel: Ryka Aoki, He Mele A Hilo

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Favorite self-destructing poetry collection: Chiwan Choi, GHOSTMAKER

Favorite fictional dog book: Andre Alexis, Fifteen Dogs

Favorite somewhat sexual podcast about fictional crushes: hearteyes

Favorite poetry writing prompts blog: John Brantingham’s 30 Days til Done

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Favorite town visited in China with huge Buddha statue: Laitan

Favorite about to be published poetry chapbook by former student: Angela Peñaredondo, Maroon

 Favorite new literary journal: mud city

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Favorite reading recommendation: Vickie Vertiz recommending Reyna
Grande’s The Distance Between Us

Favorite performance art podcast series about global warming: Heather Woodbury, As The Globe Warms

 

Favorite local bookstores:

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Los Angeles: Chevalier Books

Port Townsend: Writers Workshoppe

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Stephanie Barbé Hammer has published work in Mosaic, The Bellevue Literary Review, Pearl, NYCBigCityLit, Rhapsoidia, CRATE, and the Hayden’s Ferry Review among other places. She has been nominated for a Pushcart prize 4 times in poetry, fiction and nonfiction categories. She published her first novel in 2015, THE PUPPET TURNERS OF NARROW INTERIOR (Urban Farmhouse Press). Her other books include the prose poem chapbook Sex with Buildings (Dancing Girl Press, 2012) and a full length poetry collection HOW FORMAL? (Spout Hill Press, 2014). Stephanie is an award winning teacher and Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Riverside. She now teaches at writers’ associations, conferences, galleries, bookstores and most recently, at two private universities in China.

“Safekeeping the Stories We Cannot Turn Out into the Night”: On Michelle Peñaloza’s Landscape/Heartbreak

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By Leah Silvieus

Some years ago, the Scientific American[1] published a piece on a study that showed that music has the ability to affect the human heartbeat. Like a Verdi aria that causes the heartbeat to synchronize with the music, Michelle Peñaloza’s Landscape/Heartbreak (Two Sylvias Press 2015) walks beside us through journeys of loss across the city of Seattle. As she writes in the opening essay of the collection:

And what happens to words when walking with someone? Walking changes the quality of conversation. Your bodies have something to do: the distance you traverse together, the observations you make, fill any silence, and yet—silence becomes more acceptable. Even comfortable. Walking side by side for miles, your breath and stride fall in time together. Your heart works in tandem with the other heart walking beside you.

Peñaloza’s idea for the project began simply enough, as she writes on her website: “my heart broke and I went on a very long walk.” What has followed is a frank and tender meditation on trauma, memory, and the relationship between inner and outer landscapes:

What kind of story can a city tell if this isn’t just the corner of Broadway and John, but the corner where X learned that Y never really loved him? Or if this isn’t just the hospital across the street, but the place where Z told her mother she loved her for the very last time? How does access to the narratives of the people in a city change the way we experience that city’s physical landscape?[2]

During the year Peñaloza worked on the project, she accompanied 22 friends, friends of friends and strangers as they retraced the paths across Seattle where their hearts had been broken. All of the walks began at the Hugo House in the Central Capitol Hill neighborhood and covered almost 120 miles.

Throughout this collection, Peñaloza walks alongside her readers, encouraging them to listen – not only to what did happen, but also to what did not: “The plot is over but still we mull / the coulda, woulda, shoulda / even as the oceans rise and the petals fall. You might have stayed with him forever.” There are myriad traumas ghosting behind these poems: “people who’d lost children and mothers and fathers and lovers, who’d been traumatized by the hate of others, who’d been cheated on and lied to, who’d cheated and lied, who’d been fearful and brave.” (“Notes from the Field”) Landscape/Heartbreak also addresses those heartbreaks we cannot name: “Of course I pray to you. Bending low my head / silently pleading for what I can’t ever seem to find: / the few, right words, the ones that could be enough,” she writes in “Prayer to the Patron Saint of All Lost.”

The beauty and raw precision of the language in Peñaloza’s collection evokes the feeling that one is physically and emotionally walking beside her and her fellow heartbreak walkers. “We touch the Scotch broom and lilacs / erupted in spring, notice the renegade ferns / growing upon the stumps of old docks,” she writes in “We Walk a Heart Around Lake Union.” The cadence and clarity of Peñaloza’s images carry an almost palpable weight: “Because of the lentils in jars, the hydrangeas drunk on pennies, the grafted apple trees, the Italian plums, and Rainier cherries,” she writes in a prose poem, “A Strange Constellation of Desires,” “Because he told me he loved me. Because I believed him.”

We can never feel the losses of Landscape/Heartbreak as acutely as those people who suffered them firsthand. Peñaloza, however, gives us these sorrows in the form of hydrangeas, neon signs and rusted nails and asks us to hold them, to sit with them, to feel the weight of their stories – even, or especially, if we aren’t sure what to say in response. As she says in her introduction: “Don’t say you understand. Don’t say everything is going to be okay. Do not ever say that things happen for a reason. Say nothing. Listen.”  Reading this collection is as heartbreaking as its title promises, but it is also a prayer of intercession for lost things and for the aspects of ourselves that we lose along heartbreak’s journey. Everything might not be okay. We might never understand. We might not find a reason behind our suffering. Landscape/Heartbreak knows all of this and still accompanies us along the difficult way, assuring us that we need never walk alone.

 

[1] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/music-therapy-heart-cardiovascular/

[2] http://www.michellepenaloza.com/theidea/

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Leah Silvieus

Leah Silvieus is a poet and interdisciplinary artist whose work has been featured at the O, Miami Poetry Festival and at the Asian American Women Artists Association in San Francisco. She also has received grants and fellowships from Fulbright, Kundiman, US Poets in Mexico, and the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. Her writing has been featured in Asian American Poetry & WritingCURAThe Collagist, and diode, among others. Currently, she divides her time between Florida and New York where she works in the yacht hospitality industry. You can visit her athttp://leahsilvieus.wordpress.com/

“Between a Season of Desire and a Season of Dust” : Suzanne Bottelli’s The Feltville Formation

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By Leah Silvieus

Suzanne Bottelli’s The Feltville Formation (Finishing Line Press 2015) is ambitious. Within the chapbook’s slim 26 pages, Bottelli, who was born and raised in New Jersey, reaches from the state’s geologic history in the first poem, “To a Rogue Boulder in Sunlight,” into the present day. While tracing the industrial and cultural history of the area, Bottelli deftly unwinds the genealogy of what has made not only New Jersey, but also the country as a whole, “go and grow”– and its consequences. In collection’s title poem, we glimpse a billboard: “[…] a white man in a cap  / pours the milky bucketful above a rooftop: / PAINT WITH EAGLE PURE WHITE LEAD.” The image conjures a “milky” and superficially wholesome, vision of American industry, but one that is also heavy with connotations of literal whitewashing and its poisonous aftermath.

In the collection’s second poem, “Ironbound,” Bottelli walks the reader backward through a complex litany of industrial and environmental development: before “the waterfront renewal project / with its green playfields and jumpsuit orange boardwalk,” before “the days when reactor boil-over / was hosed down the old blood troughs and into the river,” there was the founding of Lister Agricultural Chemical works, whose purpose was “to grind up bones for glue and grease (to make things go), / and for feeding the soil, to make things grow.” Bottelli reminds us that the visions of the past often fuel the present – literally, in this case.

Bottelli’s infusion of childhood memories makes the collection as intimate as it is ambitious, and that is perhaps the chapbook’s greatest strength as it vitalizes the links between past and present. One of the most striking poems in the collection is “Fort Lee, NJ: July 4, 1976,” in which the child narrator presents New Jersey in a surreal and cinematic flash: cash “fluttering like green birds from above,” “the summer air jubilant with sirens,” “[s]chooners plying the destroyed river,” “a woman with a frosted swoop of hair / perched on the bench of her very own Wurlitzer.” “What a party,” Bottelli writes, “Two hundred years / in the blink of an eye.” Toward the end of the collection, Bottelli invites the reader to appreciate the present moment through the immediacy that often only a child can have:

 

“As when the mind starts sifting,
like a kid with a lifted window screen,
for the glints and grains that might give

delight before the whole show
is over – […]”

 

How quickly the present moment is over; how quickly we move through time. While awareness of the present moment may not necessarily be a remedy for the oversights and errors of the past, The Feltville Formation seems to suggest that such awareness may be a small step toward creating a livable future – as our present inevitably becomes our past.

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leah1

Leah Silvieus

Leah Silvieus is a poet and interdisciplinary artist whose work has been featured at the O, Miami Poetry Festival and at the Asian American Women Artists Association in San Francisco. She also has received grants and fellowships from Fulbright, Kundiman, US Poets in Mexico, and the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. Her writing has been featured in Asian American Poetry & WritingCURAThe Collagist, and diode, among others. Currently, she divides her time between Florida and New York where she works in the yacht hospitality industry. You can visit her athttp://leahsilvieus.wordpress.com/

In the Beginning (After the End): on T.J. Jarrett’s Ain’t No Grave

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By Leah Silvieus

T.J. Jarrett’s Ain’t No Grave (New Issues Press 2013) calls our attention to the apocalypse that was the legacy of American racism and slavery and then culls from its ashes the bones that would sing themselves beyond the grave. The collection is less elegy than post-apocalyptic creation story: “Come now,” she writes in “Interrobang,” the opening poem of the collection, “Interrogate the mixing bowl  / of my throat. Claim what is left in it.”While Jarrett’s voice is one of the most beautiful lyrical voices I’ve encountered recently, these poems’ beauty does not soften their ability to strike at the heart. Jarrett’s encantatory lyricism is both fierce and tender; her songs call us to face the history of atrocity with the most human aspects of ourselves.

One of the most moving poems of the collection is titled, “My Father Explains the History of Sugar, the Middle Passage and Slavery to My Brother, Age 5, over Breakfast,” which I will quote here in its entirety because to break it up for the sake of quotation would be to undermine the poem’s powerful and elegant lyrical structure:

The history of sugar is the history of skin.
Consider this bowl, filled with sugar.
This glass, filled with milk.
Your body, the value of the body –
filled with all you can make of it.
Would you trade that body for sugar
when you hunger, or the milk
when you thirst? How about someone
else, your sister, another body?

Say you wouldn’t.
Know you would.

Often throughout the collection, Jarrett’s lyrical voice creates the effect of a camera-perspective shift. We begin this poem imagining a boy at a breakfast table, listening as his father tells a story. By the final stanza, the camera has shifted. The volta turns on the reader: The “you” is no longer just the boy anymore. “You” is the reader; “you” becomes us. Jarrett has guided us into the frame of the story without our becoming aware of it. She stands beside us as we watch the events unfold, and it is this gentleness with which she achieves this shift that makes these poems so powerful and heartbreaking.

Jarrett has dedicated five of the poems in the collection to the victims of rape, hanging and burning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These poems, however, are not simply elegies to bury the dead but songs to resurrect them. The names that these poems bear, previously unknown to many of us, rise up to defy their anonymity. In “What We Say to the Water,” dedicated to Laura Nelson, who was raped and hanged on May 25, 1911, Jarrett writes, “Be still. No further. / Apologize to no one.”

Even as Jarrett’s poems command the work of resurrection, they do not leave the story there. Memory is not enough; resurrection, even, will not suffice. In “Lazarus,” she interrogates what happens after Christ commands Lazarus to “Rise up and walk”: “Did he turn his back / to the sound at first, cry out: It’s early yet.” Later in the poem, she records Lazarus’ impressions of the world with which he must re-engage: “How small now this earth, how tinny / its birdsong. How sloven the tree’s corporeal array.” Given Lazarus’ perspective, we might begin to ask ourselves: What are the stakes of resurrection? Of being called again into the land of the living, which now seems so small? Of walking again among those trees bearing their horrific “corporeal array”? Of truly seeing for the first time? We can no longer claim innocence; we must decide what to do with our new sight. As the speaker says in “When the Sun Nears the Earth in the West”: “Behold the spinning earth. Choose.”

After reading Ain’t No Grave, we as readers become sorts of Lazaruses, emerging from our tombs to gaze upon our world with newly opened eyes. Although this collection brings us face-to-face with the history of atrocity, Jarrett does not leave us at its mercy. In the final section of the book, she recounts the story of a girl who was afraid of the dark in which she writes, “Exhausted  / [my mother] brought me a flashlight. // With it, I would write / words into the darkness until / I could fill the room with them.” “Let there be light,” Jarrett’s voice calls out over the darkness. And there was, and here is, light.

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Leah Silvieus

Leah Silvieus

Leah Silvieus is a poet and interdisciplinary artist whose work has been featured at the O, Miami Poetry Festival and at the Asian American Women Artists Association in San Francisco. She also has received grants and fellowships from Fulbright, Kundiman, US Poets in Mexico, and the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. Her writing has been featured in Asian American Poetry & WritingCURAThe Collagist, and diode, among others. Currently, she divides her time between Florida and New York where she works in the yacht hospitality industry. You can visit her athttp://leahsilvieus.wordpress.com/