Sunday, May 19, 2019

Andrea Rexilius, Sister Urn

It is the season of warmth, colorful lights line the houses. Words hearth and
mirth arise. But now a weight grows heavily on our chest, like pneumonia.

Lungs unraveling. Therefore language unraveling. I go for walks in the
neighborhood and gather loose threads from the city’s unhappy bodies. I find

violet threads strung into the nests of birds. Long red threads with the texture
of yarn. Short, fine, yellow threads, barely visible. I store these threads of

collective bodies in wooden jewelry boxes which contain many compartments.
All of the yellow thoughts, all of the blue intertwining all a small lake. (“NESTS OF MAMMALS”)

I’ve been eager for some time to see new work from Denver, Colorado poet Andrea Rexilius, rewarded with both a new title, Sister Urn (Portland OR: Sidebrow Books, 2019), and another already announced for next spring, The Way the Language Was (Letter Machine Editions, 2020). Rexilius is also the author of To Be Human Is To Be a Conversation (Rescue Press, 2011), Half of What They Carried Flew Away (Letter Machine Editions, 2012) [see my review of such here] and New Organism: Essais (Letter Machine Editions, 2014) [see my review of such here]. It is interesting to note dates on such, suggesting her books are composed in bursts, which also might suggest less of a trajectory of books composed consecutively, but concurrently (admittedly, this is entirely speculative). In an interview conducted by Amanda Ngoho Reavey, posted on the Woodland Pattern website on February 25, 2015, Rexilius speaks to the interconnectivity of her writing in general, responding:

AR: To weave again into the previous question, I secretly define my poetics, my pedagogy, my way of being in the world as “to be human is to be a conversation.” What this means is that my previous thinking, previous being, previous experiences are always becoming new, rethought, reconsidered in the present moment and on into the future. A conversation keeps turning, keeps asking questions, keeps thinking in the moment, demonstrating the ecstatic (human), as opposed to the static (not human). In this way I do not think of my books as separate from each other. But at the same time, I do also think of them as discreet documents that can be read separately from one another, or in any order really. They are demonstrative of a rhizomatic style of writing. For instance, the third book answers the question “What is the relationship between the text and the body in your writing?” that the first book leaves blank. I think of the answer as coming from the third book, in relation to the thinking inherent in that book, as opposed to the thinking of the first book, but I simultaneously see the way the third book is in conversation with the first one not just through this question, but in the way that it considers, in particular, research and relationship. In this way it extends upon and answers back to the first (and second) book. My most recent project also reaches back into this larger conversation by picking up the thread of gesture and residue. In other words, each book opens a detailed nuance of the larger whole. What that whole is doesn’t really matter, or it is “the conversation” whose center point is always evolving.

Contemporary to that interview, she includes this as the opening paragraph to her statement introducing her work in the anthology The Volta Book of Poets (SideBrow Books, 2015) [see my review of such here]:

My work investigates the book as a process of inquiry and is interested in the nature of conversation, questioning, subjectivity, women’s history, and the proximity between physical self and textual self. In my writing and teaching I combine interdisciplinary research with creative process to spawn an approach that is both rigorously intellectual, in the sense of questioning, critical thinking, and essaying, as well as playful and engaged across the disciplines of performance, film, and installation. Related research interests include: contemplative performance poetics, book arts, text-off-the-page, feminism, and aesthetic theory.

I’ve long admired Rexilius’ ability to blend the essay, long poem and lyric/prose poem traditions enough that all exist equally, shifting and turning through a sequence of lyric examinations, much of which focuses on concern both human and ecological, whether large or intimate, and the ways in which language and the body impact upon another.

There are stories about the things human store in trees. I found a human
Heart, spirit of a sleeping girl, journal of a dying witch, Amen. This is the

story of our other life. Eric is an herbalist and I am a bird. I kneel down in
front of a book and weep. It is brown and thin, like the Fox River. It tells a

story of women burnt to the ground. Smart, independent women who read
books, who study plans, who give birth, who understand phases of the

moon and know the ocean’ relationship to blood. The world is not flat in
their notebooks. Their wisdom a form of casting flies. Even as a young girl,

I knew these women. I felt I was one of them. (“NESTS OF MAMMALS”)

Composed in two sections—“SISTER URN” and “NESTS OF MAMMALS”—her opening, title section explores the grief exposed when a sibling dies, her sister Andrea, for whom the book is dedicated. The section opens with a prose poem, moving into a series of short lyric bursts on loss, grief and memory, writing, as in the title poem itself, “The direction of any map as its climate. / I’m the unmoored space beneath what you’ve weathered. / You’re the beautiful crumpled terrain […].” Her precision is powerful, palpable and understated, as noted in this poem, which sits near the beginning of the first section:


Who cross into orphanages of air
find flight. The flightless
carve spaces, remove need.
Ghost the expanse.
walls, windows
into the next.

Some say a thick black line.
Drawn taut against the curvature,
an etching into
cut open round bowl,
a god’s home. Meridian.

Beneath the roots
of a fallen tree. See.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Susan Tichy, The Avalanche Path in Summer


As a rock balanced on pillar of ice
As pebbles dislodged in a single step

And much to learn
of walk-road   mouth-sound   deer-dust   silt

bone-blade as the root
of separation

Wing beat : to repeat, to practice
Grass-road   bird-door   stone sky

American poet Susan Tichy’s sixth poetry title, and fourth consecutive title through Ahsahta Press, is The Avalanche Path in Summer (Boise ID: Ahsahta Press, 2019), a meditative articulation of rural space. The poems that make up The Avalanche Path in Summer are reminiscent of the work of Brian Teare (who blurbs the back cover, as well) [see my review of Teare’s latest here], though their shared meditative awareness of natural space, and the acknowledgment of the erosion of that same space through human activity. Tichy’s writing is incredibly physical, dense and straightforward, from the expression of a just-shot doe, “before the blood jet, that look // of mere surprise” (“‘WITHOUT EXAGGERATION, WITHOUT MYSTERY, / WITHOUT ENMITY, & WITHOUT MERCY’”) to the opening of “EVERY STEP STUBBORN,” that reads “on a whiplash path / rockfall rain : // pump blood and lymph / through muscle, fascia // joints of the sacrum / nested, not fused // so the slightest twist / of fall, whip- // crack of spine and tailbone bends / stumbles    revises itself :” to “terrible objects / steps collected / on calm summer path / of the avalanche— // eggs of the pipit / sheep bones, eager // to ‘lay the forms / of passing clouds’” (“ARCH”). As she ends her lengthy “Author Statement,” included with the press release:

At a glance, these ideas may seem far from the projects of my earlier books, but a poem’s declared subject is less like a box, more like a vortex pulling thought and experience toward itself. Particularly in Gallowglass, images of mountain life were deposited into a matrix defined by the book’s ostensible subjects. The Avalanche Path in Summer simply reverses field and ground: instead of a book about “foreign soldiers” in which “nature” is embedded, here is a book about mountains in which injury and war are the porphyritic inclusions that define a specific conglomerate, a particular life. What does not change is the responsibility to witness. Our historical position is rare: to observe environmental change at this scale, happening not in deep time but in human time. As artists, as citizens, we must both use and endure that privilege.

Friday, May 17, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Terese Svoboda

A Guggenheim fellow, Terese Svoboda is the author of seven books of fiction, seven books of poetry, a prize-winning memoir, a book of translation from the Nuer, and a biography of the radical poet Lola Ridge. The Bloomsbury Review writes that “Terese Svoboda is one of those writers you would be tempted to read regardless of the setting or the period or the plot or even the genre.”

1 - How did your first book change your life?
Utter despair disappeared, I felt that at last there was a crack in the literary world that would admit me. How does your most recent work compare to your previous? The stories in Great American Desert aren't as oblique as those in Trailer Girl and Other Stories, and the new ones are linked by clifi, a genre that came into being very recently. How does it feel different? My most recent book, Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, was a biography. It was a delight to abandon the declarative.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction? I recently uncovered a notebook written when I was eleven, listing my poems and their date of completion from age seven – but the box also contained a file with the weekly newspaper I put out at the age of eight that ran several fictional pieces. “First” is lost in the sauce. This question of genre-flitting is answered in Europe by the appellation “woman of letters.” I've even written a few letters.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Define “starting.” When the first draft looks viable? Or the first notes? Ideas are cheap and I'm easily entertained by utter nonsense. I work from unintelligibility. Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes? I write quickly so as to block thinking, that activity that so easily destroys interesting work. Seldom, however, do drafts arrive complete. More often than one likes to admit, a poem or a novel or a story takes ten years to piece out. It's kind of like killing an animal, peeling off the skin, staking it to the ground to cure, then turning it into a fur coat. The original experience would be the animal, the fur coat, the beautiful (down PETA) result of a long transformation.

4 - Where does a poem or work of poetry usually begin for you? Poetry appears in the half awake state, the hypnagogic, when the censors are still sawing logs. Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning? I have tried both approaches, stirring the pot until the mess begins to stick together, and building on an idea. The second only seems easier because you just keep rotating one idea, but at some point you start repeating yourself. Okay, maybe you repeat yourself no matter what.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings? I don't mind readings, they seem to be important to publicity and publicity sometimes equals sales and sales always helps get a press interested in another book which in turn holds back the utter despair. (see answer to first question). In this regard, however, I've only had the same press twice.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are? Any time I approach theory, the whole project loses air and nothing is worth the pixels I put down.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be? A writer should play. It's an art form. That play can be serious but it must be outside the confines of the strictly rational in order to tap into the larger meanings that make art worthwhile and eternal. An artist doesn't live in a vacuum (see above “loses air”), her mind must stay labile and open to whatever cultural materials present themselves. Artists can be bad.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)? I have seldom been disappointed by an editor, outside or in, flattered as I am by the attention. It's like being in love with the dental hygienist.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)? I walked into the Columbia grad office carrying a baby in a pouch and met Grace Paley. She said only one thing to me: Low rent.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to memoir to biography)? What do you see as the appeal? It is never easy to move between genres. The inspiring image shreds or blossoms during the move and that result can't be anticipated. The writer has to discard many learned feints and thrusts to accommodate herself to any new genre. For example, very little poetic compression is allowed in biography and if that's where one's expertise lies, it can't and shouldn't be done. For my memoir, Black Glasses Like Clark Kent, I grafted on the form of the long lyric poem and inserted a little playlet in the middle to stir it up.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin? Adoration of the screen, sometimes even while getting dressed, transcribing whatever half-awake scribbles have been given to me. This is followed by trying to forget things – an activity these days doesn't seem to be too difficult – in order to write.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration? I'm never stalled. Sometimes I pace during my impatience to get the next image, or open the fridge. This last is so frightening I am compelled back to my seat.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home? Burning onions.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art? Chris Marker's video, Sans Soleil. Inspired by his work, I curated an exhibition called “Between Word and Image” for the Museum of Modern Art. I was fascinated by how one can join imagery with words to make metaphor vs. dramatic illustration, and this led me to produce 15 art videos myself.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work? My library's yelling.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done? I've done everything I've wanted to do. That doesn't mean everything's been published.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer? Real estate agent. This comes from being from a long line of peasants who venerate land over everything else. When I was nineteen, I was the rare manuscript curator for McGill University, bleeding from papercuts and stabbed by century-old straight pins holding letters together. Good reasons to move on.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else? I thought I decided to write when I discovered that creative writing classes had no finals or quizzes, but going through my boxes, I seem to have been writing as soon as I learned to make words.

19 - What was the last great book you read? Poetry: Twerk by Latasha Nevada Diggs, fiction: Insurrecto by Gina Apostol, nonfiction: The American Slave Coast by Ned Sublette. What was the last great film? Moonlight.

20 - What are you currently working on. Odalisque, an impossible novel about a multi-ethnic harem that meets a Chinese poet fleeing from re-education on the Sudanese pipeline, a book of poems God Gave Noah The Rainbow Sign that is nearly finished, and a book of short stories, Nothing Bad Has Happened Yet. I'm available.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

father update:

I recently spent a second fortnightly (on average) weekend on the homestead, for the sake of caring for my father, who was diagnosed with ALS back in February. The only way he can remain home is with someone to stay with him at all times, which my sister has been doing, for much of the past two months. I'm attempting to get down for a series of weekends to assist, so she doesn't end up overloaded.

He is doing well enough, and is happy to finally be home (where he insisted he be), but requires assistance to move in/out of electric wheelchair, hospital bed and commode, and assistance in getting dressed, and preparing meals, as well as with his breathing machines (he sleeps with a mask for his breathing).

He does have some health-care assistance as well, including nightly visits for an hour or two for the sake of bedtime preparation and the occasional shower, helping him upstairs to the walk-in shower they installed last year (the same time the ramp was put in outside). Also, he has, twice a week, a nighttime person from 11pm to 7am, and weekday mornings of 7am to 2pm or so. This is enormously helpful, but one of us still needs to be there to help him with his medications (which these folk won't touch).

This past weekend, I was there from Friday noonish to late Sunday, with this weekend assisting from Saturday noonish to some time on Monday, with the Victoria Day holiday providing an opportunity for Christine to not only watch the girls but come collect me (I am home full-time with our wee girls, remember).

[I've been wearing my glasses like this for a few weeks now; where might I have got that?]

The time on the farm is allowing me to get a certain amount of work done, which is nice, but is exhausting, sleeping in the master bedroom with a monitor, in case he rouses (and needs bathroom assistance or anything else), and he does tend to wake before 7am (whereas I, for the most part, do not).

His television focus seems to be documentaries on the Smithsonian Channel (most of which I enjoy, but an awful lot about Hitler, it would seem), episodes of Mythbusters (they do have an awful lot of fun on those, don't they?) or the news (1/3 of his television, I'd say). I'm taking in lots of information, eating more ice cream than I should (apparently they told him he could eat as much as he wants, given ALS patients tend to lose a lot of weight) and reading through mounds of books, most of which I have been able to review (I'm weeks ahead in some of my reviewing).

And yet, this is an awful lot of time away from wife and wee girls, both of whom are too small and energized to spend much time in the farmhouse, given his tendency for multiple naps throughout the day. It is very quiet, there. At least this an opportunity for them to see him, given how long he was in the ICU, where wee children are not allowed.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Fatimah Asghar, If They Come For Us


Ullu partitions the apartment in two—
a thin blue wall cutting the deserted hall.
Toys & books on our side,

refrigerator, sink & TV with our Auntie A.
She sends us rations throughout the day & we stay
separate, not allowed to cross. I’m ten

& haven’t been hugged in a long time.
Allah made a barrier between me & my mom.
Ullu makes a barrier between me & my aunt.

When he leaves we sit at the base of the blue wall
& I laugh loud so Auntie A knows
I’m alive & okay & she laughs loud so I know

she hasn’t left & we sit like this for hours, hands
pressed to the felt, laughing, laughing
unable to see each other.

I’ve recently been going through Chicago poet, performer, filmmaker and educator Fatimah Asghar’s remarkable poetry debut, If They Come For Us (One World/Penguin Random House, 2018), a book that explores the division of British India in 1947, otherwise known as Partition, which brokered the creation of two independent dominions, India and Pakistan. Partition not only sparked violence and chaos, but upended generations, prompting waves of immigration away from what had once been their homeland, now irrevocably divided. Asghar writes a series of deeply intimate portraits of family, from the contemporary to around the period of Partition, and linking the two in multiple direct and indirect ways. There is such an ease to her lines, composed with such a remarkable clarity of thought, and purpose, even as her poems explore some rather dark, and deeply personal, territory. This is a powerful book, especially as a debut, and one I’m surprised to see not listed as part of any shortlists. Her poems articulate the rippled effects of trauma, displacement and violence, even generations beyond the immediacy of Partition. As she writes in one of a sequence of poems with that title: “1943: famine spreads through / the British Raj. // in Bengal three million die / bones of skin, arms sharp as machetes.” In a recent interview posted online at Dazed, conducted by Dhruva Balram, they explored some of Asghar’s engagement with that history:

Do you think writing it was in some way interacting with your past, reconciling with your history?

Fatimah Asghar: Yeah, I think history is really important to me and it’s often done away with because people don’t give history the space often that it needs, especially in America. It was important for me to say that this is something that happened. This is why, you know, these things don’t go away. They’re intergenerational. They don’t just leave. People don’t just experience trauma like this and just leave. I’ve been surprised because this is my first time doing a reading from the book that’s not in the US. In many of my readings in the US, young, South Asian people will come up to me and say, ‘I have never heard of partition’.

I feel that. Like, we’re not taught that and if you are, in my family, for example, if you bring up stuff like this, they’re like ‘yeah, that’s really painful, that’s really ugly’.

Not that this is all the book is about, as If They Come For Us explores grief, queerness and family, a well as the larger and ongoing effects of such dark periods of history, linking Partition to the contemporary climate of post-9/11 America. There is the poem “Oil,” for example, that includes:

Two hours after the towers fell I crossed the ship
out on the map. I buried it under a casket of scribbles.

All the people I could be are dangerous.
The blood clotting, oil in my veins.