​Figures for an Apocalypse

Figures for an Apocalypse

Edward Mullany
Publishing Genius Press (2013)
193 pages; $14.95

Reviewed by MH Rowe

If you were going to write an Edward Mullany poem—which is just as likely to be an extremely short story, given Mullany’s interest in miniaturized narratives—you would describe a slightly uneasy situation, such as a woman in a café stirring her tea over and over again. The piece would last only two or three lines, but its title would be something like The Woman Who Drowned Later That Day. Like Lydia Davis, Mullany has a punishing sense of economy. His new collection, Figures for an Apocalypse, can be bleakly funny but also unsettlingly abstract, as in the poem that reads, in its entirety: “The weather was clear.” It’s not exactly an image. It doesn’t show the reader anything particular, or reveal a mood. But the poem’s title is “The Day Painkillers Fell From the Sky.” Mullany’s is a world where fantastical goings-on are dreadfully normal, or blankly horrendous.

Reading a brief poem about medication raining to the earth, we might be tempted to say that Mullany is a master of understatement. Such a label would be distracting, however. For what makes Figures for an Apocalypse such a pleasure to read is Mullany’s sure hand, his patience, and his sense of distant but palpable suffering. As in his previous volume, If I Falter at the Gallows, there is so much drama in his poems, but he often tells the reader only one thing: a single detail, a solitary circumstance, or a stark image. He doesn’t understate at all. The reader knows exactly how horrifying the situation is in “The Enormous Spiders” or how demonic the main character is in the four-line poem, “The Father Who Drove His Family Over a Cliff.”

It isn’t fair to call all the pieces in Figures for an Apocalypse poems, though. Some read more like prose, but all are masterpieces of stray details, patiently outlined with Mullany’s deadpan clarity. The piece called “The Boiling of the Liars,” reads:

First, it was dark. Then the sun began to come up. Then a crowd began to gather. Then a group of naked men and women were led out into a courtyard.

Other writers might be tempted to make lengthy, fabulist hay out of a premise involving the boiling of liars. But Mullany is prose-y and straightforwardly invested in concrete narrative detail. He dwells simply and clearly on the human stakes of this boiling (which could be ritual or punishment): you have to wake the liars up when it’s daytime, then you have to march them naked into the courtyard where the scalding pots await them.

Mullany’s longer pieces (only a page or two long, but obviously narrative) are—if anything—even more gorgeously deadpan than his tiny poems. “Contagion” renders the attraction between parents with sick children as a kind of haunted, helpless desire. It’s almost as scarily intense as “Reunion,” which chronicles the accidental, haltingly flirtatious encounter between a divorced man and woman in a department store, their new spouses hovering around them like anxious satellites. It’s one of the best pieces of flash fiction I’ve ever read.

One of the virtues of Mullany’s poems (and longer flash pieces) is that they have a sense of dramatic consequences but no extended plots, so they don’t feel like premises animated by character conflict. Instead, Mullany’s writing reveals an odd middle ground between premise and narrative, where human pain seems simultaneously realistic and fantastical. In this sense, the apocalypse he describes over and over in his book is the one we experience every day, where the world stands revealed in all its bizarre contortions of logic, love, and helpless hope.

MH Rowe’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Spork, Monkeybicycle, DIAGRAM, Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, ILK, and Jellyfish. He is running around a park in southern Minneapolis.

Viral

Viral

various authors
Button Poetry (2014)
e-book; $7

Reviewed by Scott F. Parker

In Viral, Button Poetry collects the nine poems featured on its YouTube channel that went viral in 2013 to the a capella tune of 200,000+ views each. These impressive play counts support Button’s promotional claim that the anthology is a “forceful argument for the continuing cultural relevance of poetry.” Such statements are common in spoken word communities that have defined themselves in part as a response to the perceived irrelevance/boringness of much published (or “page”) poetry, and they contain a flavor of defensiveness around the marginalized position they hold in the culture. These artists are mostly young, and with few exceptions have not yet gained the institutional support of the (relatively) powerful poets everyone ignores. This is approximately how the story gets told in spoken word circles, and there’s a lot of truth to it. These poets tend to be dismissed and excluded for aesthetic reasons from MFA programs that guard the pathway to professorship.

However, when spoken word moves from the stage to the page it shifts the terms of the discussion too. We read poems differently as text than we do as performance. Considering that these poets are great performers, it’s a fair question why they need a book. To be real: none of these poems is as good as text (since there is only an e-book, it’s still not actually page) as it is on YouTube. But a few come close. Javon Johnson’s “Cuz He’s Black” is a direct, clear, and powerful story of a speaker witnessing his five-year-old nephew’s racial consciousness already taking form. Black boys “don’t have the luxury / of playing war / when we’re already in one” doesn’t need to be “delivered” to leave you bobbing your head in recognition. Johnson avoids one of the traps of spoken word by not overselling the moralism of problem-solution formula in his poem. His speaker identifies the racist forces at work on his nephew (as well as on himself), but he has the self-awareness to know that identifying them is not relieving them; instead of becoming a policy directive, the poem maintains as a testimony to what it’s like to be a person who wants to better the world but is limited in his powers to realize this goal. The power that is accessible to him is the one he takes advantage of. Namely, to turn vulnerability into art.

Dylan Garity, Assistant Director of Button Poetry, has two pieces in the collection, both of which move further in the direction of op-ed pieces. “Friend Zone” challenges the speaker’s unintentional participation in rape culture, while “Rigged Game” reflects on the injustices of our educational system. These two poems are maybe the best examples of of the book’s overall effect: they are easy to agree with and harder to be moved by—until you see them performed, in which case: whole ‘nother story. “Pinatas,” by Pages Matam, and “Shrinking Women,” by Lily Myers, are, along with “Cuz He’s Black,” the poems that work best as reading material. Each employs extended metaphor and vivid language that are features common to much good writing. Matam describes rape as “a Vietnam prostitute with red, white, and blue skin.” Myers illustrates eating disorder saying, “I don’t know the requirements of the sociology major / because I spent the entire meeting deciding / whether or not I could have another piece of pizza.”

Perhaps the best-known poem in the collection is Neil Hilborn’s “OCD,” which presents a failed love through the lens of the eponymous condition. It’s a stunning thing to watch—and the ending’s a real killer—but without Hilborn’s performance the piece comes off as simplistic and as a caricature of the disorder. It’s Hilborn’s second piece in Viral, though, “The Mating Habits of the North American Hipster,” that most deserves comment. When he does it live, there’s an accent you don’t get from the text, but the poem for once is just as bad as you fear, three minutes of cliched judgment from the speaker. In a movement that prides itself on inclusivity, why this aggressive animosity toward hipsters (whatever/whoever they are)? Besides Hilborn, at least two other contributors to Viral (Michael Mlekoday, Button’s Head Editor, who provides the foreword here, and unfortunately for the book did not himself go viral in 2013; and Guante, about whom more below) take shots at hipsters in their other work. To many, skinny jeans merely represent bad taste in pants, but very often in spoken word they work as synecdoche for an ironic way of life at (nearly violent) odds with the earnestness that is the core ethos of the form. The hipster seems to embody a degree of sin that spoken word depends on to draw its own virtues in contrast. The aggressive opposition betrays an insecurity regarding the hipster’s (or, irony’s) legitimate threat to spoken word’s distinctive tone. The earnestness of the form, as Viral attests, exposes a great weakness alongside a major strength: it allows for the power to really move its audience; it also allows people to get away with bad poetry that’s in support of a good cause.

The harshness of some of these judgments discomforts me, and with the exception of “North American Hipster” these are all great pieces that deserve to have gone viral, but that’s what makes the decision to publish them in an e-book doubly curious. If you are expected to read without the pleasures of a physical text (I printed the book out, but I assume most readers will not), all the more reason to click over to the video. It wouldn’t be a knock against these poems that they don’t read well if they were meant as performances, but packaged this way it becomes one.

So the real intrigue of the book is the original work (essays in most cases) each author contributes to accompany the poems. This is an opportunity for the poets to reflect on the form (text vs. performance) or the craft or who knows what. Unfortunately, many of them forgo these possibilities for the sake of interpreting their poems or mediating the reactions of those 200,000+ views. Javon Johnson accepts the criticism of “Cuz He’s Black” that it neglects “straight black girls, black women, and our black LGBTQ brothers and sisters.” This would be a valid criticism of social policy, but it’s not a valid criticism of a poem. This kind of response, however, highlights the danger these poems face of having their agendas confused for their art, when the great appeal of spoken word has always been its ability to provide both simultaneously. In Garity’s essay we read about responses his poem got and what his “goal with the poem was.” This response undermines the poem’s successes and defends its failures. Matam gives us hundreds of words covering the same territory as his poem, but less effectively.

One of the strong essays is Rachel Rostad’s “Media Matters: a Lecture Delivered at UC San Diego, November 2013,” which accompanies her poem “To J. K. Rowling, from Cho Chang.” Rostad succeeds in complicating the poem and moving her discussion into the realm of craft as a moral concern for writers—in addition to the moral concerns of the poem’s subject (in this case the stereotyping of Asian women).

But the highlight of the entire book is Guante’s essay “Both Sides of the ‘Is Poetry Dead?’ Debate Miss the Big Picture,” which returns to the foundational question of the spoken word form, its relation to so-called “traditional” poetry. As Guante claims, and as Viral demonstrates, concern over the death of poetry is “due to either simple ignorance or a willful distaste for the form” of performance poetry. Generously, Guante treats the former like an open possibility: “Maybe some people think poetry is dead because they’ve built their ivory tower so tall they can’t see us moving around down here.” But the view from the tower is a looking down in more ways than one. They—I don’t want to say “we” here—see you, and they ignore you because they think they can; they think they’re protected up there. Are they? Guante knows the stereotypes work both ways, that not all poetry professors are “white yuppies … [who] fear that writing something relevant will ‘dilute their Art.’” He knows that “the page/stage divide is a false binary—an enormous overlap exists between published poets and performance poets, and we can all learn from each other.” This much is indisputable. Whether he’s also correct that performance poetry is “the future of poetry” or whether it is only a movement that will contribute to whatever that future will be, we’ll see. Either way, “that’s scary for some people, but progress always is.” All towers end up as rubble. And on the ground: poets everywhere.

Scott F. Parker is dislocate’s Reviews Editor.

I Am Not a Poet

I Am Not a Poet: 15 Years of Street Roots Poetry & Art

Street Roots (2014)
200 pages; $16

Reviewed by Anna Rasmussen

I Am Not A Poet blooms out of brokenness. This remarkable book features a selection of poetry and art collected over the last fifteen years by Street Roots—a biweekly paper providing Portland’s homeless community with income opportunities as well as a platform for publication. The poems are striking constructions of witness that provide an intimate account of the speakers’ thoughts and experiences. The introduction aptly comments, “The subject matter is sometimes dark—but always genuine—a reflection of the human cost of homelessness. These poems are also hopeful, offering a glimpse at the resiliency of the human spirit.”

In many ways these poems revolve around the speakers’ complicated relationships with feeling and place. There is a deeply confessional element present in the language: reflections full of epiphany, meditation that informs realization. Compelling emotional moments are framed in an incredibly visceral conception of place. Setting unfolds in a bouquet of images: cement flower beds, blonde roses, mosquitoes pumped with blood, the earth soaked with rain, a trellis of stars. One particularly strong voice in the collection, Kareem Ali, projects a sense of deep emotional meaning on the landscape of his poems. In the midst of his “orphaned olive branches” and “exhausted doves”—we find the spirit of a speaker present in the image-objects themselves. Everything is the vessel for personification. “On the beach,” Ali writes, “The wind coughs into a skeleton of trees / forcing starfish to sleep like gnomes.” Here we are met with an uncanny sense of reality—images of the everyday anxious with restlessness. The connection between place and emotional projection is insistent. And at times it’s as though materiality has dissolved and place is emotion.

One outstanding element of the conception of place in the collection lies in its depiction of an “outdoor” that occupies a magical range of industrial and celestial. Ali’s poem “Trail” begins, “Summer rain / And tulips shagged in a monsoon of light / and swallows / Peeling back the skin of moon / Revealing the soggy / Arch and ark of evening.” We find ourselves in the middle of a mind actively engaged in wonder. The metaphors are unexpected and bright—there is a real sense of physicality in the “skin of moon,” which like our very own body is malleable and shifting. This opening, as in many poems in the collection, paints an astonishing portrait of the elemental in everything. There is a challenge embedded in this restless eye/“I” to absorb our surroundings more carefully—to greet each day with more intention: “There is the keen beauty / of green in so much / ugly grey emptiness” (Jay Thiemeyer).

Many of the poetic narratives detail the realities of poverty, addiction, absence, and pain. All corners of life are observed with vulnerability. Robert M Hensel writes, “Bare bodies stand naked, their bones clanging in the wind.” Lines like this echo with open fragility—and in this exposure there is an intense bravery. The raw nature of this witness reminds us of the need to live with care and observation. At especially revealing times, the poetic gaze turns to the reader: “To you all who are the public / Three times you passed me by on the road” (Witch One). In the midst of the industrial-pastoral we are made to think of our role as citizens, as members of “the public.” The poem requires an interrogation of our interactions with the world—it asks us to examine how to act as socially responsible citizens. Poetic language that may feel hyperbolic or overly abstract in other contexts instead serves as the emotional scaffolding necessary for a project of this significance.

As the title suggests, I Am Not a Poet approaches craft not as occupation or vocation—but rather as the occasion for witness. Poetry is agency—it is a rare and beautiful kernel that transcends the spheres of public and private. Each of these poems spring from the generosity of the writer: flowering invitations. This collection takes personal pain and renders it with an art that feels both sacred and necessary—“Enter this magic,” Karen Goodyear writes, “Where the invisible vanish, honored guests appearing.”

Anna Rasmussen is working on her MFA in poetry at the University of Minnesota. She writes about the desert and bodies and light.

Three Books by William Stafford

Winterward

Tavern Books (2013)
68 pages; $15

Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems of William Stafford

Graywolf Press (2013)
128 pages; $16

We Belong in History: Writing with William Stafford

Ooligan Press (2013)
128 pages; $12.95

Reviewed by Katie Rensch

This year marks the centennial of former Oregon Poet Laureate William Stafford’s birth. For the occasion, Tavern Books, Graywolf Press, and Ooligan Press have each released a book celebrating the beloved poet. The books’ editors have compiled three unique collections of Stafford’s compelling and delicately complicated poems, demonstrating his masterful style and precise language that not only speak to his generation but remain current to this day.

Winterward,Stafford’s dissertation at Iowa State University, is one of the best collections of poems in terms of its subtlety and depth of style. Stafford masters intricate simplicity, allowing the beautiful architecture of poems open space for tension and conflict. This slow calculation is most present in “Boom Town,” “Lake Looks,” and “Letter from Oregon.”

In “Boom Town,” Stafford anthropomorphizes oil well engines that talk to the night, and these musings are felt by the snakes that represent the “tongue” and breath of the local people. In just four quatrains (a nuanced brevity that becomes a character trait), he portrays the complexity of a boom town and its aftermath.

Stafford writes in the poem “Lake Looks”: “The eerie eyes of normal people, / anvils for error, / we more than match with our lake looks, / depths of terror.” A present but not overwhelming exchange of alliteration and rhyme makes this line perfectly tuned for the ear. We first hear the e in “eerie” and “eyes” and then are brought back to the sound in the first rhyme word “error.” But this alone is not enough. Stafford pleasantly places the quick repetition of m in “more” and “match,” giving a brief break in sound that is followed by “lake looks.” This creates the all unexpected pleasantness of the “terror” rhyme with “error” that to my ear sounds like a final bell at the end of the line, not to mention the iambic lines with acutely timed trochaic, spondaic, and dactylic substitution.

“Letter from Oregon” moves through time and space by leaping from nature to doubt to old memories of home. This movement creates a feeling of disillusionment, and the reader must rely on the form and line break to be guided by the poem. Take the last stanza: “Somewhere in the ocean beyond Laramie / when the grass folded low in the dark / a lost fin waved, and I felt the beat / of the old neighborhood stop, on our street.” Even though Winterward is an early group of poems, it includes some of Stafford’s most finely crafted poems.

Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems emphasizes the poet’s strong relationship to the political world and his attempt to make sense of the natural one. In these poems Stafford always maintains his energy to understand and also proves that the poet does not need long sentences or an abundance of language to create poetry. Through short syntax, Stafford has instinct for concrete image and poetic tension that elevates each poem. For example, “Travelling through the Dark” is the kind of poem that I would rather avoid but cannot help myself from rereading; his harrowing account of finding a doe dead on the road, the fawn still warm in her belly, is achingly beautiful and true to nature, an emotionally difficult but worthwhile read. In the poem Stafford hesitates before pushing the doe off the canyon to prevent more swerving and more deaths alongside the road, but the reader feels for the speaker, the doe, and the unborn, now dead, fawn. The tone and immediacy of the scene is felt in the last four lines: “I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red; / around our group I could hear the wilderness listen. // I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—, / then pushed her over the edge into the river.” It is with this great drop off that Stafford leaves us for the next poem, an equally harrowing exploration of political and humanitarian mistakes titled “Mein Kampf.” Stafford does not toss any opinion into the face of the reader. Even in the most poignant line, “Old mistakes come calling: no life / happens just once,” he chooses to delicately move the reader to think in the most natural way, continuing: “You are a turtle with all the years on your back. // Your head sinks down into the mud. / You must bear it. You need a thick shell in that rain.”

Titles such as “Report to Crazy Horse,” “At the Grave of My Brother: Bomber Pilot,” and “A Catechism” point to the collection’s interweaving catalogue of landscape, national history, and family tensions. Graywolf has presented a collection of work noteworthy for any reader interested in poetic language.

We Belong in History is better placed alongside books of pedagogy than stacked on your literary bookshelf, but even so it occupies an important place in the collection of Stafford’s works, as it shows how his poems can be used in the classroom—a crossover that was important to Stafford. With lesson plans in the back, the book follows a simple layout. In three sections—nature, family, and moments in time—Stafford’s poems are followed by the work of middle school and high school students who won a contest for responding to Stafford’s work. What maybe seems unfair, though, is placing verdant writers after Stafford’s masterly executed and time-honed poems. Looking past that critique, the collection offers insight into what students glean from these poems in terms of tone and poetic movement.

Julia R., in the poem “Fourth,” in the section “On Nature,” uses similar syntax and sound as Stafford but draws on her own punctuation style: “tonight: / the sharp sweet opening to— / something, or so I whispered to my palms / they glowed electric with heat and melted ice cream under fracturing artificial stars / every year in July, we burn fissures across the sky.” Listening to the first stanza, I can hear the Stafford influence in the syntactical pauses, but what Julia does is place those pauses differently across the line. For example, the last line uses a caesura to draw on the “July” and “sky” rhyme, a lovely move that I did not see in the other Stafford collections. I prefer Stafford’s precise punctuation—unafraid to call attention to short sentences—but I think this young poet has tremendous instinct and certainly should keep Stafford as a mentor.

The poems in the two preceding sections, “On Family” and “On Moments in Time,” imitate Stafford’s precision with language and image less successfully, perhaps suggesting the difficulty of familial subjects and the maturity needed to isolate moments with great depth. These are just middle and high school students, after all, and their poems show the signs of early work.

In the preface to Winterward, Stafford writes, “As to techniques used in this collection, the writer is too near the creative process to be acutely aware of having relinquished any appropriate possibilities. The writing felt as if it took account of use of sounds, use of images, and use of ‘the dance of the intellect among words.’” Quoting Ezra Pound, Stafford modestly attempts to disguise his profound sense of form and the relinquishing of oneself to this form to create honest art. While readers know Stafford as a poet with keen instinct, these three collections of his work seem to say more about the editors than Stafford himself. In Winterward, editors expose readers to Stafford’s precise and yet refreshing communication with nature, but in Ask Me, readers see Stafford as a man trying to understand his complex world politically and socially. Finally, We Belong in History reveals Stafford as the teacher for all poets. This book attempts to connect the deep impact a mentor can have on a young apprentice of poetry and is certainly worth exploring for any writer interested in teaching or mentoring young poets. All of these books share the unique presence this centennial poet has had on contemporary American poetry.

Katie Rensch is a poet, essayist, and collaborative artist living in the Twin Cities.

​The Reason I Jump

The Reason I Jump: The Inner Life of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism

Naoki Higashida; Introduction by David Mitchell; Translated by KA Yoshida and David Mitchell
Random House (2013)
176 pages; $22

Review by Amber D. Stoner

The rise of autism awareness and autism spectrum diagnoses means fewer and fewer people today don’t know someone on the spectrum. Whether you do or not, Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump is a valuable read—perhaps, on the subject, the most valuable read. In his introduction, David Mitchell, who translated the book with KA Yoshida, describes four categories of the many now-available autism books: how-to manuals, academic texts, parent memoirs, and “autism autobiography” written by adults on the spectrum. As a reader of each category, I have often been disappointed and frustrated by the cold technical aspects and the prescriptiveness common to all four. None were particularly helpful when my three-year-old son was flailing about because his shirt was the wrong color. Now, Higashida’s bookreveals another category indicated by its subtitle: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism. Here is a book written by a self-aware child with autism, describing why he does what he does as he experiences it. Higashida’s unique and needed voice is a gift to anyone who wants to understand autism and especially to parents, caregivers, teachers, and to other children with autism who will see themselves reflected in his words.

This slender book, written in question-and-answer format, reads fast but should be taken slowly. He’s saying so much. Since spoken communication is almost impossible for Higashida, he uses an alphabet grid to point out letters to spell words and compose sentences. Despite the effort involved, Higashida writes, “What kept me hammering away at it was the thought that to live my life as a human being, nothing is more important than being able to express myself.” He goes on to express his sensory experiences, feelings, movements, the effects of touch, words, and memory on his very being and body. He describes joy and beauty and pain:

“Unlike the words we’re ordered to say, repeating questions we already know the answers to can be a pleasure—it’s playing with sound and rhythm.”

“So on competitive occasions like school sports days, the pleasure I get just by being there takes over, and I’ll end up running the race with all the urgency of someone skipping his way across a meadow.”

“Just by looking at nature, I feel as if I’m being swallowed up into it, and in that moment I get the sensation that my body’s now a speck, a speck from long before I was born, a speck that is melting into nature herself. This sensation is so amazing that I forget that I’m a human being, and one with special needs to boot.”

Higashida is more self-aware than a typical thirteen-year-old because he must be to get through his day. He’s aware of what he does, why he does it, and what he needs from others. He writes, “just let us have a good cry, and then we can get back onto our feet. Maybe the racket we make will get on your nerves a bit, but please try to understand what we’re going through, and stay with us.” Repeatedly, Higashida implores us not to give up on him and others with autism: “To you who are helping us, I’d say this: please handle and approach our behavioral issues with a strong faith that they are definitely going to pass, at some point in the future. When we are stopped from doing what we want, we may well make a terrible song and dance about it, but in time we’ll get used to the idea. And until we reach that point, we’d like you to stick with it, and stick with us.”

This use of “we” and “us” recurs throughout the book. His inclusivity is unifying and powerful, but the reader must remember that he is one child with autism. Others with autism may or may not feel or think the same way. There is no one size fits all. This is not a how-to book. We must think and decide how to understand and move forward in our individual situations with any children we know on the spectrum. Not everything he says will apply or apply exactly. Read this not for instruction but to learn what it is to be human. Feel the joy, pain, and struggles of another. Seek to open your mind, shake the dust off, and see a new perspective. Give that empathy muscle a good workout.

Because our empathy is so important. Higashida explains in his afterword: “I hope that by reading my explanations about autism and its mysteries, you can come to understand that all the obstacles that present themselves don’t come from our selfishness or from ego. If all of you can grasp this truth about us, we are handed a ray of hope.” Good books offer understanding and hope. The Reason I Jump is one of them.

Amber D. Stoner is a writer and editor living in Minnesota. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, MinnPost.com, and the Eden Prairie News.