Poetry, Review, Spring

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

TheBoss

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/

 

Standard
Fall, Poetry, Review

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

e6fc69d28f468c9ea3010fa60eaecd4b

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/

Standard
Fall, Poetry, Review

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

51ObILLcieL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_

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/

Standard
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/

Standard
Poetry, Review, Spring

To Attend to the Fleeting Moment: Judy Halebsky’s Tree Line

91aLm-QP99L

Reviewed by Leah Silvieus

Judy Halebsky’s newest poetry collection, Tree Line (New Issues Poetry and Prose, 2014), evokes the sense of a moving meditation on the possibilities of distance. As a tree line inhabits the liminal zone of climate, Halebsky’s poems move within liminal zones of nature, language and human relationships. Drawing on traditions of Japanese literature and modern collage, Halebsky uses juxtaposition to reveal connections among seemingly disparate ideas, time periods and languages.

“This contrast or juxtaposition is central to the art of haiku. It allows for a space between what is written in the poem and what is evoked by the poem,” Halebsky says in an interview with Dominican University of California where she currently teaches. “With the season marker and nature-based images of the poem, the haiku address the human condition of fragility in a transient world. We are subject to the natural world, the forces of nature, and the ever-fleeting condition of life. A haiku calls us to attend to this fleeting moment.”[1]

Or, as Halebsky writes in In “Motel 6”: “haiku isn’t 5-7-5 / it’s two images that crash together / to make a third.” Halebsky remains keenly observant of the living world while acknowledging its brevity with sensitive detachment. In a poem written after Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Flying,” she writes, “we lie so close your heart beats through my ribs / we walk scarred / we love only with what we can bear to lose.” Gilbert’s original poem weaves together a meditation on a fading relationship and the Icarus and Daedalus myth. In the stunning last line of “Failing and Flying,” Gilbert writes, “I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, / but just coming to the end of his triumph.” Like Gilbert, Halebsky explores moments of sorrow, grief and separation by slowing down their collisions and divisions to reveal the beauty inherent in their juxtapositions and negative spaces.

She writes, for example, in “Li Po Loved Two Things”: “Basho looking down over the falls / in another country / hundreds of years later / picking flowers for Li Po.” In this image, we are aware of both the distance and the kinship between these two poets who are unified across languages and geography by the simple gesture of picking flowers, of gift giving. It is the chronological, geographic, and linguistic distance between the two poets that makes possible this gift, Halebsky seems to suggest, and perhaps distance that makes connection possible at all.

In “Space, Gap, Interval, Distance” she writes:

        間ma
        written as the sun
        coming through the gate

as what we leave open
between us
so the spirits    when they come
will have a place to land.

Yo-Yo Ma, quoting the violinist Isaac Stern, once said in an interview [2] that music happens between the notes. The same effect is present here in Halebsky’s work. It is Halebsky’s delicate handling of the inherent brevity of life, connection, and language that lends her work its profundity. Tree Line rewards multiple readings as each continues to reveal more expansively the music that lives within the poems’, and our own, fleeting moments.

***

[1] Halebsky, Judy. “Judy Halebsky.” Dominican University of California. Dominican.edu, n.d. Web.1 May 2015.

[2] Ma, Yo-Yo. “Music Happens Between the Notes,” Interview by Krista Tippett. On Being.org. On Being, 4 September 2014.Web. 1 May 2015.

***

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/

Standard
Fall, Poetry, Review

“A Riot of Surface”: Hannah Brooks-Motl’s The New Years

 

hannahbrooks-motl

Review by Leah Silvieus

Hannah Brooks-Motl’s debut collection of poetry, The New Years, deals with the tension between skating well on surfaces (to borrow a phrase from Emerson, whom Brooks-Motl references frequently throughout the book) and pressing through surface into the meaning-making of memory. Brooks-Motl divides the book into three sections: “Winter Then,” “Properly Speaking” and “Village & Sea.” None of the poems have titles, and the scarcity of end-stops throughout the collection conjures a dreamlike world that drifts from one thought or moment to the next, from seaside hotel to prairie to snowed-in car. The melancholy that suffuses the book is not merely the result of the speaker’s being alone but of acknowledging the distance that the act of remembering necessitates:

We love the new year like an object
Or decide to, filling our hands with the unpleasant snow
To type a thing we must be cold (39)

To remember, in some ways, is to relinquish one’s possession of the past. Allusion is not the original text itself. In fact, allusion emphasizes the reader’s distance from the original. Likewise, memory cannot be the past moment itself. The memories we have today will become ghosts, surface, perhaps even nonsensical:

Ahead of me, there are ghosts
Do I know them
Their names, particular looks, and a certain
Singing nature
It’s possible I have spoken
Nonsense […] (82)

At times, The New Years risks skating away from the reader on its own surfaces. The book generally resists, however, by grounding itself in literary allusion (e.g. “My dear wild boar,” a phrase culled from a letter from Jenny to Karl Marx) and striking images that unite elevated diction with colloquial speech: “What good to speak now to love’s endlessness—like litter over the / prairie.” (74) Perhaps what grounds the book foremost, however, are the candid moments from the speaker’s past that sear through the winding discourse about memory:

The embarrassment once of not knowing what “counterpane” meant
A word a lover used in an email
I wrote back a description of the hotel where I was (14)

Celebrating a new year, in theory, is about specificity: the glowing countdown to the year in Times Square, the televised countdowns of the 100 best music videos of the year, the news highlights. But when viewed in the plural, how quickly the new years blur. What was the top song of 1991? What did the hosts serve at the New Year’s party I attended in 2005? Did I even go to a party that year?  What we remember, we remember in incomplete or sometimes even mistaken glimpses, Brooks-Motl points out. The New Years gains its footing precisely by admitting there is no footing, and in the end, skates away, but not without a haunting final address and inquiry to readers about where we are going, which in some ways, is also a question of where we’ve come from:

The head is your spring and being walked
Through the hills, a black field—
Where is your soft, suburban grotto
To go to, again
Is it handsome (83)

***

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 at http://leahsilvieus.wordpress.com/

Standard
Fall, Poetry, Review

Review: Fanny Howe’s Second Childhood

 

Second-CHildhood-175x250

 

Review by Leah Silvieus

Fanny Howe’s latest collection of poems, Second Childhood, refuses to hover ethereally in the heavens and instead trudges through the muck and mud of the world, dreamlike, childlike, and bewildered (to borrow a term from her book of essays, The Wedding Dress). These poems explore the second childhood of aging as a portal to engaging mystically with the world. “Throughout my life I have remained vague and have accepted the humiliation it brought, almost as if stupification were a gift,” Howe writes in the title poem, “I willfully repeat my mistakes over and over and never learn from experience.” Throughout the book the speakers put on their  “second child/hoods” as a monk wears a habit:

 

You might think I am just old but I have finally

decided to make the decision to never grow up, and

remain under my hood.” (“Second Childhood”)

 

Through poems that range from short vignettes to longer, geographically roving meditations, Second Childhood envisions the physical and spiritual worlds as a palimpsest: in each realm’s most profound moments, we see traces of the other.

 

Black winter gardens

engraved at night

keep soft frost

on them to read the veins

of our inner illustrator’s

hand internally light

with infant etching […] (“The Garden”)

 

While the language of Second Childhood is generally spare and quiet, Howe carefully tucks music within the lines, as if encouraging the reader to slow down and look more closely. The assonance and slant rhyme of soft/frost and inner/illustrator’s/internally/light/infant evokes the movement of the spirit inscribing itself on the physical world, like an artist coming to her canvas.

Howe chisels away at romantic notions of mysticism and thus renders her speakers achingly human. They experience moments of transcendence, sure, but they also suffer the tension of being both a physical and spiritual entity, and this conflict generates some of the book’s most poignant moments:

 

[…] shame and loneliness are almost one.

Shame at existing in the first place. Shame at being

visible, taking up space, breathing some of the sky,

sleeping in a whole bed, asking for a share” (“Loneliness”)

 

While this book is sometimes serious in its meditations, it is not without joy. “Figs, bread, pasta, wine and cheese,” Howe writes in “A Vision,” “These are not the subconscious, but necessities.” The gift of aging, of mysticism, and perhaps of being a writer, is being able to perceive both the body and the spirit’s wisdom in each moment:

 

You may be called to a place of banality or genius,

but as long as it is your own happiness that responds to it,

you are available to something inhuman. “A Vision”

 

Second Childhood is less a gift of new insight as it is a gentle welcome to seeing as we have already seen, long ago as children: magic and miracle everywhere, in the wine and the figs, in the winter garden, in the blessedness which is already in us and through us, and everywhere, just waiting to be found.

***

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 at http://leahsilvieus.wordpress.com/

Standard