Saturday, July 04, 2020

essays in the face of uncertainties

“Writing is always and forever a social practice.” Montreal poet and critic Erín Moure writes, to open one of the essays in my beloved wager: Essays from a Writing Practice (2009). “The varying discourses in a society either shore it up or challenge it. And discourse isn’t something we can walk away from when we set down our pen.” I’ve been rereading Moure as a particular kind of salve against the squirrellyness of lockdown, nearly a month in. It swells inside me like a balloon. Her work strikes for the intermesh of the content of her work, as well as the music of her language, and I’ve been moving back and forth between the signed copy I have on my shelf, and the signed copy Christine has. When two writers merge their libraries, what might you have expected might happen? We had boxes worth of doubles, deciding only to remove unsigned duplicates as extraneous.

Someone points out that today, April 13, 2020, is actually the birthday of Samuel Beckett, born this day in Dublin in 1906. “Why this farce, day after day?”

We might be Easter Monday, but the day Beckett was born was Good Friday. At least one difference between the days. And what are days, anymore?

And in three days, our Aoife, my third and youngest child, turns four years old. Another birthday on lockdown. Christine suggests that hers, in June, will be our third consecutive household birthday in lockdown. Might we be open by November, for Rose? We really have no idea. How does one write in a pandemic? Over the weekend caregiving my father, I compose another twenty letters to a variety of friends. I hope to get them out by the end of the week. In today’s mail, a copy of Lisa Fishman’s latest poetry collection, Mad World, Mad Kings, Mad Composition (2020). At least we’ve still the mail, declared an “essential service,” although one never knows how long that might last. A couple of weeks back, Fishman responded to an email I sent her that she was in a “rented R.V. having driven 2,000 miles one-way to rescue my mother with a lung/respiratory condition to get her from Arizona to Michigan.” Wherever she is now, I hope they’re both safe. As the first lines of her new collection offer:

Truth-telling is possible, thought Laura Riding, so the poem does not need to happen. That is, poetry should not exist. Rather, language should speak truth in all ways. Not in a separate realm, a special form, called poetry. Poetry existing as a separate category prevents language from speaking truth outside of poetry. Her decision therefore: No more poems. Write a dictionary. Where is this dictionary? Florida?

Responding to my follow-up email from earlier today, Fishman does inform me that everyone in her space is safe, and on lockdown, with her mother and her mother’s husband safely into Michigan, although “straight into the virus ‘hotspot’ of metro-Detroit.” Through the distances, all our conversations are immediately shaped over safety, health. How are you, really? The nature of pandemic forcing a shift in how we approach each other, even through the most casual of interactions. Everything, as I’ve said, becomes heightened. Further in Moure’s essay, “Breaking Boundaries: Writing as Social Practice, or Attentiveness”:

            Discourse, then, has to be questioned, turned over, or it shores up what is, for me, an oppression and silencing of others. It shores up my own silencing! It is a tacit agreement with the status quo. Every word we write can do this, fall into this tendency, or it can be attentive and can subvert it, reveal its seams, push it sideways. This oppressive tendency, remember, is not solely an outside pressure imposed upon us by the world of ideology and consent: it’s inside. We carry it within us. You can’t easily see a structure from inside. Yet focusing on the language can help us find its boundaries, rub up against them, and see what changes, what enters.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Bhanu Kapil, How To Wash A Heart

I don’t want to beautify our collective trauma.
Your sexual brilliance resided, I sometimes thought,
In your ability to say,
No matter the external circumstances:
“I am here.”
from this place, you gave only this many
Dessicated fucks
About the future.
Day by day, you discovered what happiness is.
As your guest, I trained myself
To beautify
Our collective trauma.
When night fell at last, I turned with a sigh
Towards the darkness.
I am about to squeeze out an egg, you
As you kissed me
Hold a funeral for the imagination,
I thought.

I know I haven’t read nearly enough of the work of Bhanu Kapil [I reviewed a chapbook of hers a while back], “a British-Indian writer who currently resides in Colorado,” but knew enough to order a copy of her latest, How To Wash A Heart (Liverpool UK: Liverpool University Press, 2020), a book self-described as: “Drawn from a first performance at the ICA in London in 2019, and using poetry as a mode of interrogation that is both rigorous, compassionate, surreal, comic, painful and tender, by turn, Kapil beings to ask difficult and urgent questions about the limits of inclusion, hospitality and care.” Kapil’s accumulation of untitled single-page lyric poems, each constructed as an accumulation of short lines, extend into a book-length suite. Constructed out of a sequence of five lyric suites, each section is distinguished only by a single blank page between; a page held as if to pause, and allow the author to gather her thoughts, before continuing. “How thyme migrates.” she writes, to close the first suite: “The chalky blue flowers/ I need something that burns as slowly / As that. / Because living with someone who is in pain / Requires you to move in a different way. / You bang the cup down / By my sleepy head.” She writes of arriving and of leaving, and of the difficulties and the opportunities, the passionate joys and the grief, that such provided. “Though we lost all our possessions,” she writes, as part of the second suite, “I felt / A strange relief / To see my home explode in the rearview mirror.” Her book-length suite invokes memory, distance, trauma and culture, of the visitor, the host and the immigrant. “But this is your house / And there’s no law / That requires / What you’re offering me to last / Or outlast / The moment I crossed your threshold / To eat this heaving plate / Of meat.” She writes of home, and of homelessness, from the vantage of memory, and that of her hosts’ guest room: “The art of crisis / Is that you no longer / Think of home / As a place for social respite. / Instead, it’s a ledge / Above a narrow canyon.” This poem, this book, is a powerful invocation and exploration of being, becoming and belonging, and the distances that one carries within, as well as the distances that one is offered. This is a beautiful, intimate and powerful read.

As she writes in her “Note on the Title” at the end of the collection:

On the night I arrived in London, I received an email from Ankur Kalra, an interventional cardiologist in Akron, Ohio, asking me to blurb his poems, works of heartbreak and passionate love inspired by the Bhagavad Gita! The wifi was spotty and so, though I couldn’t download his manuscript, I asked him to tell me about his own work. What can you tell me about the immigrant heart? “Yes,” he wrote back, “this is the area of my expertise. Of course, anxiety and shock have an effect.” And: “There’s a medical diagnosis attributed to it: broken heart syndrome or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy. Takotsubo is the Japanese term/word for octopus trap. The heart gets ‘stunned’ during acute emotional/psychological stress, and it effects the heart muscle and its pumping function. It loses a lot of its pumping function and assumes the shape of Takotsubo; just its base moves. It can be life-threateneing, is more common in women, and does recover/regain the lost function in several weeks’ times after the acute stressor fades away/is absorbed or processed.”

When the night of the performance came, I read this email aloud then tore my book in half, drenching it in the good blood.

Good Blood: a performance ritual created by Lygia Pape in 2002, in which two people sit facing each other on chairs. Each one holds an ice cube made of red ink in their upturned palm. Whoever’s ice cube melts first, that person is the good blood. The instructions don’t ask for silence, but often, when I’ve shared this practice in faculty training or poetry seminars, the participants don’t speak. I had an idea for the ICA event that was about the audience members, seated, ice cubes dripping on the floor, exchanging stories from the book of their own hearts. But in the end, this was too complex. I had to get it back down to the real floor. And lower the sun through the roof at midnight. It is always midnight in the art museum. As the audience entered, I gave them an ice cube each, made red with little drops. I thought I would say something, but in the end it was simply that, a way to welcome people into the space without using any words.

So, the title for this book came from these experiences, which took place a few hundred yards from Buckingham Palace. Would you like me to write a poem about ?! I can.

How to wash a heart:
Like this.
On a Wednesday evening in early
When the delicate blossoms
Turn white then crimson
Then green,
The dressing room
Of the ICA
Is pleasantly cool.
Honey on toast
Brings the hornets,
My mother said.
I’m not your bag of bones
To kick around anymore.
Instead, I pour the kettle
Of hot water
Over the red ice cubes
In a rehearsal
That surprises me
With its strong emotion
And plumes of steam.

In writing these new poems, I diverged – almost instantly – from the memory of the performance. Instead, as soon as I sat down to write, I heard an unexpected voice.

This is the voice of this book: an immigrant guest in the house of their citizen host.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Anstruther Press: Ellen Chang-Richardson, Síle Englert + Mahaila Smith,

I’ve said before that I’m rather fond of the books produced by Jim Johnstone’s Anstruther Press: the poems within are often very good at what they are attempting to do, and occasionally, my interest in what is possible in a poem overlaps with theirs. My own bias notwithstanding, there are books here worth paying attention to, and authors here worth following. Anstruther also often produces first or early chapbooks by Canadian writers, allowing emerging poets the opportunity to stretch out a bit in a small space, beyond that of the poem or two in a literary journal. Ottawa-based Ellen Chang-Richardson’s debut is Unlucky Fours (2020), an eight-part sequence of inquiries and hesitations around origins and familial histories, and how far their reach extends, and how much we allow those stories to impact on our own. There is much suggested in this poem, more than the poem has space for, but she manages to present just enough of her questioning to allow the empty space to envelop.

VI.       D.S.

They say that this is what it means to be Canadian:
a rite of passage, practiced rote through our parents’ histories.

As I repeat                   the steps
I watch you

                                    fish the St. Lawrence.

London, Ontario poet Síle Englert’s second chapbook, after Threadbare (Baseline Press, 2019), is The Phobic’s Handbook (2020), writing out a lyric suite of eleven fears: “Coulrophobia,” “Frigophobia,” “Ornithophobia,” “Hominophobia,” “Venustraphobia,” “Disposophobia,” “Lalophobia,” “Cygnophobia,” “Odontophobia,” “Xylophobia” and “Ideophobia.” The poems are curious articulations and explorations of lesser-known phobias, from the “fear of coldness” and the “fear of disposing of items” to the “fear of men.” “The stolen red mitten becomes a metaphor for every absent thing.” she writes, as part of “Cygnophobia.” This is an intriguing suite of poems, and there are moments that I wish she could have gone further, deeper. Are there more to this series? How far could she go with these? Part of me wishes she would write thirty more poems around these fears, and then excise the weaker poems, to see what she might be left with. I think there is a lot of potential here, and some good moments, writing around and through a variety of fears, of phobias. As she writes to end the poem “Disposophia”: “if you feed them, they multiply.”


I’ve run out of ways to write beautiful on walls.
Drained the ink from calligraphy pens,
liquid hourglass of swoop and curl
scrawling, only breaking
at doorways.

Moth-eaten synonyms are many-mouthed like doormats
under the weight of minutes and shoes.
Tried on, cast off. I see the stars
blinking through their holes.

Embroidered on a body with my woman’s hair:
a spectrum of brittle, coloured threads.
Coarser where the weather touches
too much. Stich beautiful with these
in my schoolteacher cursive.

It was swallowed more times than spoken.
Jagged edges, bits broken off
by teeth or fingernails—
how stone decomposing into sand
is eventually glass.

Originally from Ottawa but currently in Toronto is Mahaila Smith, whose debut is Claw Machine (2020), a collection of first-person lyrics constructed out of an intriguing blend of direct and indirect lines. “I uploaded the family photo album to the Cloud.” she writes, to open the poem “BACK HOME, LYING IN MY TWIN BED,” continuing: “Time focused without, before me.” Each poem explores a small scene or a small moment. In deeply attentive and focused poems, everything else falls away, but for the small moment that claims her attention; opening large, her poems contract until there is nothing else but for those final lines, the whole of each poem aimed there. There is something indirect about her directness that intrigues. It makes me curious to see what she might do next.


Noisy inside, I choose amber beer,
drink and wait for a friend, friends,
loud music, lights, a movie with a talking duck.
Wait and see you through the front window:
Are you coming in?
Sitting in a booth,
I’ve brought someone you should meet.
A man takes a photo behind us,
pushing crocodile mouths closed.
Across the floor we shoot green plastic soldiers
and exploding oil cans,
step back and see the whole labyrinth.
Step forward and break down crumbling mortar.