Monthly Archives: July 2015

Review of Pictograph by Melissa Kwasny

Kwasny cover

Pictograph. Melissa Kwasny. Milkweed Editions, 2015. 69 pgs. $16.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Melissa Kwasny’s latest collection, her sixth, consists of a series of prose poems many of whose titles contain the word “petroglyph” or “pictograph.” These poems are ecological in the deepest sense, for although they acknowledge human viewpoints, they refuse to be centered in the human. The speaker observes closely, meditating on what she sees—birds, hares, red drawings on rocks. And though the speaker is sometimes accompanied, or at least addresses human relationships whether or not a companion is literally present, the mood of this book is solitary, and from that solitude honesty emerges. The speaker isn’t speaking so much as mulling over her experience in a world that has been created as a refuge for all creatures. And yet, through their titles and subject matter, the poems also draw attention to human consciousness and expression, human connection across millennia. The meaning of this expression sometimes remains mysterious, as one title, “Pictograph: Possible Shield-Bearing Figure,” makes clear, but though witnesses may not absolutely understand the meaning of a given figurative symbol, those witnesses do understand the urge toward expression and experience a reciprocal urge toward reception. Kwasny’s success in this collection stems from the confluence of these factors: the reader trusts the writer and so follows her through this meditative experience, and the writing itself rewards the journey.

Before I take a closer look at any of the poems, I need to confess that I’m often suspicious of prose poetry as a genre. Not every descriptive paragraph earns the title of poem, regardless of how its author classifies it, and much of the time when I read prose poems, I wonder what the poem gains from its form that is worth sacrificing the power of poetry’s line. Then I begin to wonder whether the prose poem is simply a way for the writer to avoid attending to much of the craft of poetry, for I sometimes find prose poems wordier and rhythmically flatter than conventionally written poems. If a prose poem has a narrative thread, I wonder why it’s called a prose poem, rather than, say, flash fiction (an admittedly recent term). On the one hand, labels ultimately don’t matter much. On the other hand, art of any genre comes with its conventions, so when writers reject those conventions, their choices should be more than arbitrary. All this is to say that I surprised myself as I began to read Pictograph; I had to lay down my prejudices. This collection has taught me that prose poetry does have a legitimate place in contemporary writing, and it has taught me a “formless” form presents its own sufficient challenges to a receptive writer. (I realize now that in speaking of prose poetry, I am rehearsing some of the same arguments that have surrounded the validity of free verse—there’s a lesson here for me, and I suspect for others.)

Here is “The Wounded Bird” in its entirety:

In order of least shyness: evening grosbeak, junco, pygmy owl. When the pine siskins come, they will be shameless. The bats have their holocaust in their Vermont caves. The pines die from pine beetles on our slopes. Some presences are not blessings; they are self-contained, invitations to investigate further, or warnings to stay away, or inscrutable, unreadable as a god is. You there, mountain chickadee, in the thicket, then hopping up my leg. You were struggling, off balance. You could flutter but not fly, a wobbling presence come out of the blue. As if you knew I would understand this as approval. Look, I have always been uneasy using the word god. It has no wind to it, like you do. It sounds like clod, self-satisfied, a fat man in an overbuilt house. A period, not a comma, which has wings. I kept returning to the window until you disappeared into the dusk. Then, nothing could lighten my mood.

Concrete language fills this poem, and when its ideas become more abstract, those ideas relate logically though unexpectedly to the surrounding imagery. The names of the birds in the opening sentence are specific and unusual enough to attract the reader’s attention, and the assonance of “least…evening grosbeak…pygmy” commands the attention of the ear. The poem continues with depressive descriptions of the natural world, the bats with their “holocaust,” the dying pines, but in these sentences too, they rhythm is tight—notice the proportion of accented syllables, much higher than in ordinary prose. In sentence five, Kwasny turns toward the abstract, suggesting a difference between “blessings” and “warnings,” though those distinctions may collapse into something “inscrutable, unreadable as a god is.” That simile startles, and it lingers as Kwasny returns to a description of another bird, the wounded one of the title. A few sentences later, she returns to the idea of a god, but it is the word rather than the thing itself she is considering, suggesting that “a god” is simply a word rather than the thing the word should signify. The speaker resists the word because of its sound, a poet’s concern, and then she describes the lack she finds in “god” through metaphor: “It has no wind in it.” Here, Kwasny introduces a bit of humor, unusual in this collection: “It sounds like clod, self-satisfied, a fat man in an overbuilt house.” We can see this “fat man,” and indeed, he isn’t terribly different from some more conventional representations of a god. Kwasny immediately returns, through another metaphor, to the apparent subject of the poem with the reference to “wings” before she concludes with disappearance.

“The Wounded Bird” succeeds finally as a poem rather than simply as a piece of evocative prose not only because of its use of common poetic devices: figurative language, concrete imagery, patterns of sound. As importantly, it juxtaposes one idea against another, the bird and god, god and the bird, without surrendering to a compulsion to explicate, without any irritable reaching after explanation, as our ancestor John Keats might say.

I admire the poems in Pictograph. They invite the reader in despite their exploration of the writer’s solitude. They encourage a meditative reading, a consideration of what it means to be alive in this world, here, now, even as we connect with those who have come before and leave our own signs for those who will come after.

Review of Seam by Tarfia Faizullah

Faizullah coverSeam. Tarfia Faizullah. Southern Illinois University Press, 2014. 65 pgs. $15.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Seam, Tarfia Faizullah’s first collection, is that book many of us have been hoping for and the type of book some among us have probably tried and failed to write. Politically engaged without descending to diatribe, empathic without plummeting into sentimentality, Seam explores the effects of the 1971 war that led to the separation of East and West Pakistan and the establishment of the new nation of Bangladesh. Faizullah provides some historical context for the poems, most significantly the detail that military strategy included the rape of over 200,000 Bangladeshi women; the government later awarded these women the title of “birangona,” which translates as “war heroine,” though many of these women continued to experience shame and ostracization. The book explores the experiences of these women through the voice of an interviewer and of the women’s own voices filtered through hers. This book is successful as political poetry because it so directly addresses the horrifying experiences of some human beings through the systematic and willful behavior of other human beings; it is successful as poetry because the poet relies effectively on figurative language and exploits the possibilities of the line and stanza. Seam is structured not so much as a collection of individual poems as an extended meditation, a multi-part exploration of a single theme. The center of the book, for example, consists of eight sections titled “Interview with a Biragona,” interspersed with five poems called “Interviewer’s Note” as well as four other related poems.

The eighth section of “Interview with a Birangona” addresses the questions, “After the war was over, what did you do? Did you go back home?” In answering these questions, the speaker describes her reception when she did return home once, briefly. As with each of the other sections of “Interview with a Birangona,” Faizullah structures this poem in couplets, perhaps the most controlled stanzaic form, as a means of constraining some of the emotion, which might otherwise overwhelm:

I stood in the dark
doorway. Twilight. My grandfather’s

handprint raw across my face. Byadob,
he called me: trouble-

maker. How could you let them
touch you? he asked, the pomade just

coaxed into his thin hair
a familiar shadow of scent

between us even as he turned

These opening couplets illustrate Faizullah’s ability to write evocatively even of such pain. The imagery is striking, her word choice not simply careful and precise, but unique. How differently line three would read with just a small change: “his handprint red across my face.” With “red,” the image would barely rise above cliché; with “raw,” we retain the visual image, but it also becomes tactile, and “raw” connotes not only anger but a coldly merciless response. A few lines later, Faizullah includes an image that in other circumstances could be nostalgic: “the pomade just / coaxed into his thin hair.” Here, “coaxed” is a particularly effective verb, implying a subtlety that pomade sometimes lacks. She relies on synesthesia next, “a familiar shadow of scent,” describing the aroma as visual, a “shadow” that evokes the real thing without being the thing itself. This olfactory image becomes the symbol not of grandfatherly affection but of rejection. Faizullah’s line breaks are equally effective. The pause between “dark,” concluding the first line, and “doorway,” beginning the second reinforces the speaker’s outsider status. The phrasing of the second line suggests that the doorway into the home proceeds through the grandfather, who will block it. Similarly, by breaking line four at the hyphen, rather than after the more syntactically logical “trouble-maker,” Faizullah emphasizes the speaker’s familial identity as trouble itself. The speaker’s grandfather orders her away, and she describes all she sees as she leaves, concluding with these lines:

…The dark rope

of Mother’s shaking arms was what
I last saw before I walked away.

No. No. Not since.

This last line answers the interviewer’s questions, but the answer is insufficient without the story that precedes it. And the story, through its precise rendering, is what readers remember.

Seam includes a few untitled prose poems, including the last poem of the book which I quote here in its entirety:

I struggled my way onto a packed bus. I became all that surged past the busy roadside markets humming with men pulling rickshaws heavy with bodies. A light breeze from the river was cool on our faces through the open windows. Eager passengers ran alongside us. The bus slowed down. A young man grabbed those arms, pulled them through. The moon filled the dust-polluted sky: a ripe, unsheathed lychee. It wasn’t enough light to see clearly by, but I still turned my face toward it.

The language of this poem suggests violence as much as it suggests hope—the “rickshaws heavy with bodies” rather than with people, for instance, or the man who “grabbed those arms.” Still, the speaker turns toward the light, dim and “dust-polluted” as it is. Having heard the stories of women who have survived experiences that seem nearly unbearable, the speaker has fulfilled a listener’s responsibility: to bear witness.

Faizullah tells these stories with grace and honesty, refusing to turn away but also refusing to exploit them through the inclusion of explicit violence that would only be gratuitous. Seam is not simply well-crafted; it is one of the most important collections published in these first decades of the 21st century.