Poetry, Review, Summer

How Many Ways to Arrive: A Review of not so, sea by Mg Roberts

NotSoSea_Final_Cover2.indd

Durga Press, 86 pages
Reviewed by Muriel Leung

“tell me how to root in sentence form, to distinguish pain from sacrifice

                                                                                                   ::

tell me where to dissolve”

–excerpt from Mg Roberts’ not so, sea

For Mg Roberts in her wildly emotive first book not so, sea, poetry is an attempt to reconcile a messy story of origin. On the one hand, origin is scripted by geographical traversal as the speaker emigrates from the Philippines. However, geography in terms of nation and borders is just one narrative strain. For Roberts, geography is not only the stuff of maps but also the textured landscape of place, the angled hurt of memory, and the indefatigable strength of the mothering body that endures birth, death, and everything in between.

It is why the text within not so, sea appears in the form of non-linear narrative and fragments parsed by white space. Fragmentation is necessary to construct this particular narrative of origin. It disrupts a linear and hegemonic narrative that privileges order and coherency. For Roberts, these fragments are jagged shards that begin with a “cut” in the book’s cinematic opening in which the speaker watches the story of her birth through performative distance. The cut at once signifies the cutting of an umbilical cord as well as the filmic technique of moving from shot to shot. Though these gestures may seem like discordant parts, they are assembled together to forge a new meaning.

This undulating movement between distance and longing characterizes the tonal complexity of the book’s fragments. In between birth and death, there is the narrative of a rich intergenerational history between women—the speaker, her mother, her grandmother, and her daughter as well. There is also the militarization of Asian countries that include the Philippines and Vietnam as well as the violent forces of racism in the speaker’s everyday encounters in the U.S. Frequently torn between spaces and time, the speaker forces herself to engage with what is most difficult in order to better comprehend her own history. She self-flagellates by watching post-Vietnam War action movies “to be closer to” an unnamed American G.I. that she addresses in a letter whose only distinction is by the number one. She ruminates on the Barbie Doll’s proportions and the expectations the toy’s measurements have placed upon young girls, particularly for the speaker’s daughter. In each turn, the speaker attempts to grow closer to violence as a way of touching it—which is a unique way of attempting to know it and master it in the hopes that she could uncover something in return that might make the future safe for her and her children.

not so, sea is a brightly dappled landscape of a text that matches its moments of clinical removal with floods of unrestrained mourn. Despite that grief, it is also a text of hope. In the lines from which Roberts draws for the book’s title, she writes, “Perched on this location, bowed against this site and elsewhere—not so, sea./ Pages turn creating distance. I must retell myself until I can see us in color.” The site that she names is non-specific but the syntactical obfuscation of the phrase “not so, sea” tells us that the sea can be both object and figure of address. The multiplicity of meaning here in the physical landscape is very much a marker of the potential of text. The process of “retell[ing]” though it may be bleak and terrifying, it is also necessary. It needs to be said because the alternative of silence also cuts. But this act of retelling is powerful for it names a distinct suffering marked by the perpetual sense of transiency and distance after immigration, removal of one’s innate sensibilities through the damaging effects of colonialism, racism and misogyny, and the cultural and familial demands in response to all this discord. Though there is a palpable fear of how this suffering will be passed down to a future generation, Roberts offers this generosity—an inheritance of pain is not without the fortitude to persist in spite of it.

***

Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung is a multimedia poet and former teaching artist from Queens, NY. Her poetry and essays can be found or is forthcoming in Coconut, TENDE RLOIN, Bone Bouquet, Dark Phrases, and RE/VISIONIST. She is a recipient of a Kundiman fellowship. Currently, she is a MFA candidate in poetry at Louisiana State University where she also serves as the Assistant Editor of New Delta Review.

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Poetry, Review, Summer

On Jay Nebel’s Neighbors

jaynebel

Reviewed by Leah Silvieus

If you were to find yourself chatting with Jay Nebel’s Neighbors (Saturnalia Books, 2014) at a BBQ, it wouldn’t be too long before you’d get the feeling that these are the kinds of poems that have seen a lot. Maybe it’s because they’ve actually experienced a lot, or maybe it’s just that they’ve learned how to pay attention. Maybe it’s both. The poems in this collection are raw and heartbreaking, in great part because they’ve learned to cut the bullshit. Nebel writes with a kind of worldly vulnerability that seems to be a result of chasing cynicism to its limits and then returning from the edge:

[…] I want the faith
of the blind hamster who sniffs over the edge
of the kitchen table and pushes off,
to believe as some of my friends believe,
in jumbo neon crosses and radio stations,
in the palm against your forehead,
falling backwards and underwater
revival, in the cleaniness of porn stars […]

(“The Cleanliness of Porn Stars”)

            Neighbors deals with the desire to be seen as well as the loneliness and shame that often accompanies that desire. In “Shopping at Macy’s,” Nebel describes a speaker “surrounded by young bodies, twenty-year old whips,” who realizes he is “nothing to these women, / just a middle-aged married man with tattoos.” Nebel lays these confessions out nakedly and with little comment, thus eliding the temptation to descend into self-pity. He concludes that poem with this striking line: “I am waiting for someone to arrest me.” Perhaps shame hangs heaviest if we get away with our fantasies, if, worst of all, we confess and no one cares or even notices. This risk of emotional exposure is one of the collection’s greatest vulnerabilities and one of its greatest strengths.

It’s not only in the back rooms and dark alleys that we witness the struggle for survival, Nebel’s poems demonstrate, but also in the lawns and malls and Home Depot parking lots where people waver between two seemingly irreconcilable extremes: quiet desperation on one end, recklessness on the other. “We’re at war and the world’s at war,” he writes in “Lawns”: “Every day I’m more like a beached / whale waiting for someone / to pull out his fishing knife and open me up.” We struggle to matter and to mean – to tell those stories that make us feel that we have an audience and are therefore a little less alone: “I’m working on the right finale,” he writes in “Fast, Hard, and Rated R” and continues later in the poem: “I refuse to be remembered as the mangy dog that crawled back under the porch / to die […] Give me heavy / metal and a long-haired guitar.”

The Old English roots of the word “neighbor” come from words meaning “near” and “dweller” or “inhabitant.” Like the title of the book, Nebel’s poems remind us that there is someone on the other side of that wall, across the lawn, down the street – others who are with us in our shame and desire and risk. In reading the collection, Nebel’s poems become kinds of neighbors to the reader, offering us “the awkward high five of reincarnation,” and with their own vulnerability dare us to be more vulnerable, dare us to be seen.

***

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/

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