Poetry, Review

“This is no place to live alone”: A Review of The Belle Mar by Katie Bickham

By Heather Buchanan

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This is no place to live alone.

This simple statement is the cornerstone of The Belle Mar by Katie Bickham. Set in an old Louisiana plantation house that has stood from 1811 through the present day, this collection links generations of characters across time. Through a brilliant use of atmosphere, tone, language, and visceral imagery, Bickham enables readers to grasp the subtle complexities of a brutal world that masqueraded itself as genteel.

Bickham’s house is dead, yet alive. Through interconnected vignettes, the poet masterfully employs a house full of ghosts to tell a long, sad story. Each poem takes place in a specific location, most often a room in the house. Each room served its traditional purpose, such as the kitchen, tool shed, or attic, but they also served a dual purpose within that slave society. In “Barracks, 1839,” a master gently calls out his slave, Abraham, for a punishment that will ultimately tear all the flesh from Abraham’s back. Upon his arrival at the barracks, the master is:

Grinning. Grinning like he might split in two
with laughing any second. “Abraham, m’boy,
m’boy.” He stalked a few slow circles round the room,
all the breath sucked from Abraham’s lungs…
“You know we got to go outside, son.”

In an earlier poem (“Library, 1830”), the granddaughter of the dying slave master feels driven by a moral cause, sneaking out to find the three slaves she is secretly teaching to read. As she prepares to meet them, she rationalizes:

You had to do bad sometimes, had to play tricks,
Had to sneak to have a good heart,
To guide your good heart home…

Having spent four months of “ghosting” to her room and copying pages at night, the granddaughter “had nearly smuggled out every last line / of Grandfather’s abridged Odyssey.” This carefully selected choice of text demonstrates Bickham’s strong command of literary devices such as allusion. Could the granddaughter be presupposing a future for three slaves by teaching them an epic poem about a perilous journey home, and how trickery could be used to outwit a cyclops?

Each poem in The Belle Mar moves forward chronologically, juxtaposing the worlds of master and slave. In “Attic, 1835,” the tragic legacy of slavery continues through the passing on of a plantation from a father to his son, a chain of human misery that will not be broken:

In his last minutes, his father had held his face
with the strength of a well man. “This will be
your bed tomorrow. That, your window,
those, your fields. They hunger, boy,
and you will feed them or they’ll swallow you.

As he takes in his father’s last words, the son feels the weight of his obligation to perpetuate this oppressive world: the fields, and the “churning / steady noise of the Mississippi…There was no returning, / was never any rising back up / above sea level.”

Through a sustained tone of detached matter-of-factness, masters, slaves, and women on both sides of this bleak dynamic make weighty decisions every day, decisions that have a finality that our contemporary society would find difficult to contemplate. In “Back Fields, 1849,” the slave Abraham makes the risky decision to run:  “After the rains / we gone.” For the slave, choosing to run from the plantation likely means death; for the master, recapturing a runaway means contemplation of death for the slave. Bickham’s women simply know this:

“A woman knows which pains she’ll survive /
considering those she’s known before” (“Far Swamp,” 1825).

The language of The Belle Mar stays true to its context, sparse dialogue and tight descriptions upholding the truth of these characters’ lives. The title of each poem is based on the “purpose” of each room. Figurative language displays the conventions of Louisiana life: dried sticks of cane, iced tea, summer storms, the river and floods, a “graying maid,” all in support of themes of family, nature, and death.

One could argue that the characters of The Belle Mar are figures representing that larger slave narrative that is familiar to us, yet Bickham imbues each resident of this house with little touches of vibrant humanity that makes them something more than figures. Perhaps it’s the way Violet, standing in the kitchen, “feels the coming storm in her knees, / less pain than heaviness—the body’s way / of speaking with the earth” (“Kitchen, 1845”). Maybe it’s the way that teacher of slaves, Penelope, can “sprint the pecan rows”. Or likely it’s Old Israel, who chooses to hang himself rather than face an unknown future as a newly-freed slave, “fought them / when they tried to carry him… / spat and slapped when they tried to say prayers on him” (“Sugar House,” 1864).

The Belle Mar begins and ends with the house. Its dreamlike atmosphere is just this side of a nightmare, a place no one can ever escape. Bickham understands that the past and present will not—nor ever will be—separated. Even after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the house endures. The owner remembers growing up in the house’s “haunted halls” (“The Belle Mar, 2005”) and dreads her husband’s plans to rebuild it:

She believed him. He would sink his last dime
into raising the house from this ruin.
But in her marrow, hope rose
like floodwater, hope
the house was finished…

In the final poem, “Parlor, 2012,” a woman inherits a key to the house from her mother. She is warned in a loving note to “Guard against rattling bayou ghosts, / the pinstruck bones who stalk the riverline.” The daughter knows better:

My mother was mistaken. Ghosts stay
close to home, grinding their teeth
in the walls, making their beds
in the warped floors. I see them
sweeping out of rooms just as I light lamps.
This is no place to live alone.

 

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Heather Buchanan

Heather Buchanan is the owner of Aquarius Press, now celebrating its 15th year. Willow Books, its literary division, develops, publishes, and promotes writers typically underrepresented in the field; recent collaborations include the publication of Cave Canem XII. A graduate of Wayne State University and the University of Michigan-Dearborn respectively, Heather has taught Composition, English, African American Literature, and World Literature at several colleges and universities. In addition to teaching, Heather presents on arts and literature at conferences across the country, most recently for the Ragdale Foundation. She has directed many events and conferences, including LitFest Chicago, Midwest Poets & Writers Conference, and the Idlewild Writers Conference. A Poet-in-Residence emeritus for the Detroit Public Library system, Heather also served on the Board of Governors for UM-Dearborn’s College of Arts & Sciences Affiliate and was the COO of the Wayne County Council for Arts, History & Humanities. A musician, she is currently working on a World War I centennial book and music project honoring the Harlem Hellfighters. She has been a reviewer for BlogCritics and MyShelf and has blogged for publications such as Poets & Writers.

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Interview, Poetry, Summer

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.

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Poetry, Review, Spring

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.

***

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/

 

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2015 Favorites, Poetry, Uncategorized

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

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.

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Poetry, Review, Uncategorized

“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/

***

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/

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Fall, Poetry, Review

“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.

***

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/

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Fall, Poetry, Review

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.

***

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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