Author Archives: Lynn Domina

Review of Kill Class by Nomi Stone

Nomi Stone. Kill Class. Tupelo Press, 2019. 90 pgs. $17.95.

Occasionally a poet emerges whose personal experience or knowledge permits readers entrance into worlds they might never otherwise know. These poets write books that change our thinking about our lives and about how literature can intervene in the actual, material world. Think about Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam (which I reviewed here) or Tyehimba Jess’ Olio or Fatimah Asghar’s If They Come for Us. Nomi Stone is one such poet, and Kill Class, her second collection of poetry, is one such book. Stone is formally trained as an anthropologist as well as an accomplished poet; Kill Class could not have been written otherwise. In these poems, the speaker is embedded on a military training base, observing

observing and participating in “games” intended to teach soldiers how to make war.

Though written primarily in free verse, the poems assume many forms, taking advantage of the options for line lengths and line breaks that free verse allows, and they range from very short (3 lines) to unusually long (6 pages). Stone is skilled enough with craft, that is, to exploit the characteristics of language in order to explore her subject fully. By exploring such a disturbing topic through a variety of forms, the poems continually surprise, startle, and horrify.

The title poem is the longest in the collection. Details emphasize  the game-like nature of the soldiers’ training. “The story says we are in the country of Pineland,” the poem begins, eventually describing the speaker’s role:

The story says I join the guerillas.
The story says I carry this tent in.

Three cages at the wood-line:
the goat, the chickens,
a solitary white rabbit.

That rabbit, seemingly introduced here as simply a bit of local color, will become crucially significant, revealing the speaker’s character as one who refuses the false restriction of an either / or possibility, and therefore as one unsuitable for “Kill Class.” But first, she reveals more about her role:

Commander: You are Gypsy, from Taylor-town, the widow of Joker,
one of the fallen guerillas.

They make me a fighter.

One woman among 40 guerillas
and the 12 American soldiers
secretly training them to overthrow
their country’s government.

Joker fell heroically, and our child—there was a child—they made
me eat his ashes.

The syntax here is puzzling—does the second “they” have the same antecedent as the first “they”? Although it would seem so grammatically, logically it would seem not; surely those forcing her to eat her own child’s ashes must be the enemies. People identified as “we” or “us” could never behave so barbarically. Except. Except. This is a class that teaches participants how to kill, how to dehumanize someone in order to be able to kill him or her, and in doing so, how to of necessity dehumanize oneself. I still want to believe the “they” here refers to the enemy, but then I come to this line:

“Commander: Do you take hot sauce on those ashes?”

Part of the point here is that there’s little difference between “we” and “they,” and that “we” have little reason to persuade ourselves of any moral superiority.

Here, Stone steps back, providing temporary relief from the story’s intensity:

It’s May. Heat saps the water out of the body
as pines swoon in and out
and out. They have put aside the rabbit for me.

Commander: Gypsy, this is yours. Feed it. For now, feed it.

Some small choices in this excerpt are particularly effective, an article rather than a pronoun for instance: “the body” not “my body” as if the speaker is beginning to dissociate. The next line break, “pines swoon in and out / and out” emphasizes the heat’s dizzying effect. When the speaker is instructed to feed the rabbit, readers understand the possibility of emotional attachment but also notice the ominous “For now.”

As the poem develops, Stone emphasizes the role-playing nature of this class, focusing on the necessity of remaining in character. As the poem moves toward its climax, the significance of some details becomes clearer, and the speaker begins to understand her ethical dilemma. As an anthropologist, she might often be able to assert, accurately or not, cultural detachment, but here she is embedded, playing a game that is not play, within a culture that is at least to some extent her own. I am going to quote a long passage here in order to show how Stone conveys tensions among her “real” identity and her role, revealing eventually how little distinction there is between the two:

They bring me to the tree-line for kill class.
Gypsy this rabbit is yours. We have all been kind
enough to share our food and water out here.
We all have to help out so we can eat.

There is a pit for the un-useable
portions of the entrails.     Secure the goat, slit its neck over
the pit, and proceed with the chickens.

This one is yours.
Use this stick. One time over
the head should be enough.

You have to, Gypsy, they say.
You can do it. Commander tries to give me
a fist bump to say We
are in this together. We are not in this together.

They cannot make me lift
my fist. Gypsy
how can we trust you? If you can’t kill
an animal, how
can you be a fighter?

The pines.

I’m sorry. I will clean it after if you want.

They bring me over     the chickens warm and still
The flesh under
their feathers
the organs
pulled out / the pearled
interiors.     This is meat now. I turn them
into something

we eat. I think I am done,
but Whisker says almost gently
Gypsy you need to kill the rabbit. Unfortunately
you do not have a choice.

I have a choice.     Let me be perfectly clear,
I say. It is not happening.

The men make a circle
The pines make a circle
You need to hold
the legs.     They are tying together
the legs     the animal
screaming     They raise
the stick     The legs are in
my arms     The legs are in my arms

What a conclusion. As insistent as the speaker has been that she has a choice, that she is different from the soldiers, that her role play remains more conscious than theirs, she discovers how implicated she nevertheless is, how implicated we all are. The most obvious sign that the speaker is losing control of her situation is the absence of punctuation in several of the lines toward the end of the poem. In addition, the line breaks and extra spaces between phrases create a confused and abrupt pacing, suggesting the speaker’s confused thought patterns. She acknowledges that she abstracts animals “into meat” by participating in their preparation after the kill if not in the kill itself, but she continues to insist, “I have a choice.     Let me be perfectly clear, / I say. It is not happening.” Again, Stone’s reliance on a pronoun creates a useful ambiguity. On one level, the phrase is used colloquially, the speaker meaning that she is not going to follow the instructions she’s been given. On another level, the sentence is a plea of denial—this horror that is happening cannot possibly be happening. The poem ends with the rabbit not yet killed, though its imminent death is undeniable. The only question is whether the speaker will be able to remain a passive participant—though the poem certainly implies that she has already passed that point, that she passed that point even if unknowingly as soon as she entered this role play.

Kill Class is an unforgettable book. Its success depends on Stone’s ability to describe this material artfully, but as importantly, it also emerges from the speaker’s recognition of her own moral culpability in a world that repudiates any easy distinction between “us” and “them.”

Review of The Floating Door by M.E. Silverman

The Floating Door. M.E. Silverman. Glass Lyre Press, 2018. 83 pgs. $16.00.

M.E. Silverman’s The Floating Door features a few series of overtly related poems interspersed with other individual poems that complement them thematically. One series consists of poems in “Response to” contemporary concerns, from the mundane and mildly amusing, e.g. “Step on a Crack,” to the more disturbing yet still somehow amusing, e.g. “I Can’t Get off the Couch.” Another series features “Mud Man” and “Mud Angel.” Yet another explores the life of “The Last Jew” in Afghanistan—many of my favorite poems in the collection occur within this series. The collection includes several prose poems, as well as traditionally lineated poems, most often written in free verse, demonstrating Silverman’s attention to craft.

The book is interesting for its craft but even more interesting for its thematic strategies, juxtaposing explorations of spirituality and religious practice with descriptions of the ordinary encounters of 21st century life, challenging temptations to separate the transcendent from the imminent, the sublime from the dismal.

“The Last Jew Celebrates the New Year with His Dead Friend, Ishaq Levin” begins by setting the stage, the last Jew tired of being last:

After seven years,
he digs him up
for the High Holy Holidays,
brings him home
to the space they once shared,
slaps him down
in a borrowed rocker
in the empty café.

The act, of course, is absurd, though perhaps no more absurd—though clearly not implausible—than the fact that any given country would be home to its “last Jew.” The two celebrate the holy day together, though “celebrate” might exaggerate their activity:

The sun snaps shut
like a casket lid over Flower Street.
By the open door,
a table is set for two.
Levin remains silent,
still holds a grudge,
jealous that Zablon outlived him
but more concerned with his hands
tied to the chair
with the tzitzit from his old tallit.

He sits wide-eyed, surprised,
slightly displeased,
even more thin skinned
than before, …

I’ve often observed that as people age, barring a stroke or other serious brain injury, they just become more like they always were; for Levin, this development seems to follow him even into death. Zablon isn’t lonely simply for company, nor is he missing a specific person—he’s lonely for the companionship of someone who understands his worldview, his ethnic and religious commitments, so lonely that digging up a grumpy corpse improves his evening.

The act acquires symbolic value of course,  the entire poem functioning as a metaphor for the power of the dead among the living, even moreso when cultural memory is infused with genocide, but it succeeds primarily because of its literal meaning. Silverman creates two interesting characters, men who might not seem to have a lot in common with the reader, but men who resemble us nevertheless. For who among us hasn’t experienced this deep longing, and who among us hasn’t also rested in the comfort of our character flaws? These men are interesting because of their oddities, though those oddities aren’t really so odd.

“Mud Angel” is tonally quite different from “The Last Jew Celebrates the New Year with His Dead Friend, Ishaq Levin.” It is written in short couplets, with a comparatively equal distribution of enjambed and end-stopped lines. Here is the poem:

In the barn, he removes
& folds his clipped wings,

a blue-gray, not from dye
but from age, grime, storage.

Gently, the bruised feathers
brush the scar on his left cheek.

At night, in flight,
it itches more

like a healing wound
open to air. Every morning,

every morning he looks down
from the loft, rests

a hand on a bale of hay,
thinks about chores

& closes the trunk, thick
with dust & dirt,

then turns, his back bare
with phantom limbs.

The imagery in this poem—“bruised feathers,” “itches more / like a healing wound”—is memorable and assists the reader in imaginatively embodying this figure. For what is a mud angel, really, but a human being, made of clay as Genesis tells us and “little less than angels” as Psalms says. The sonic devices are equally effective, especially the alliteration and consonance: “bruised feathers / brush,” “closes the trunk, thick / with dust & dirt, / then turns, his back bare.” Silverman’s reliance on monosyllabic words emphasizes these hard sounds and permits these short lines to be comprised of predominantly stressed syllables. That is, although the poem isn’t metrically regular, it often nearly sounds so and occasionally becomes so: “At night, in flight, / it itches more…” In this poem particularly, Silverman exploits many of the poetic devices available to him without becoming shackled by them.

The collection also contains several prose poems, many of which emphasize narrative and in another context might be called flash. These pieces are often highly imaginative, bordering on magical realism. “Hurricane Dreams,” for example, opens with the speaker’s father pulling “a hairless cat out of my chest,” the father immediately becoming linked to Abraham. The poem questions the father’s power; he is not God and therefore “cannot breathe life into something so small as me,” yet as we all know can deliver death. Any piece of literature that analogizes a father and son as Abraham and Isaac is bound to become ominous, as this one does. Although it concludes with the collection’s mystical title image, the last sentence remains more ambiguous than the story from Genesis is, disturbing as that story nevertheless is: “I breathe & breathe & obey for the love of God, the way Isaac did with his eyes closed, without murmuring, aware of the sharp steel but not what his father hears, what his father knows, yet still willing to go through the floating door.” In the canonical story, what the father hears is God’s revision of his command to kill Isaac, but what the father also knows is his willingness to have committed that act. The poem seems to conclude with meditative trust, but the speaker’s willingness to submit himself to the father doesn’t relieve the poem of its sinister undercurrent. The reader can’t help but respond ambivalently, and evoking that ambivalence is perhaps Silverman’s best decision here, for the poem becomes much more memorable than if it had resolutely (and likely falsely) resolved this dilemma.

M.E. Silverman’s work has been widely published in literary journals, and he is as active as an editor as he is as a writer. I was, in fact, introduced to his work through an anthology he edited, Bloomsbury’s Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, which I also reviewed here. I appreciate his vision in both roles, and I’m looking forward to whatever he publishes next.

Review of Harborless by Cindy Hunter Morgan

Cindy Hunter Morgan. Harborless. Wayne State University Press, 2017. 65 pgs. $16.99.

Harborless, Cindy Hunter Morgan’s first full-length collection, is unusual in several respects. The book consists of forty poems responding to specific shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, wrecks that often occurred because of weather, of course, but also due to exploding boilers, waterlogged wheat, or collisions with other ships. They carried loads of pigs, Christmas trees, apples, immigrants. The poems are interesting for their content but also for their craft—they rely on memorable figurative language, incorporate a range of poetic forms, and successfully incorporate the voices of multiple characters—yet they are also entirely accessible for readers who believe they don’t like poetry.

The collection is arranged into five sections, each bracketed by “Deckhand” poems that suggest thematic concerns to be explored in the following section. The first poem, for example, “Deckhand: Scent Theory,” describes a young man who recalls his past and considers his present through aroma:

When he climbed up the deck ladder
that first morning, his shirt still smelled
of his mother’s wash line:
Dreft and sunshine.

Now what he breathes is rain
and ore, deck paint, grease,
engine oil, boiler exhaust,
steam.

Mornings there is coffee.
Sometimes he pours a bit
on the cuff of his sleeve
so later he can press his nose in it.

The poem concludes with these lines:

At night he peels
his clothes off
and drops them in a pile,

dark, stagnant puddle
of stained cotton,
cesspool of sweat turning
to mildew.

The poem progresses from pleasant scents that recall presumably pleasant memories—laundry on a line and the deckhand’s mother—through less pleasant but utilitarian scents—deck paint, engine oil—to the unequivocally vile—a “cesspool of sweat.” This job, working on a ship all day out on the lake, might have seemed romantic to the young man when he was still imagining his future, but it quickly acquires the characteristics of most physical labor. It’s exhausting work, and the rewards are slight. The speaker doesn’t directly reveal the deckhand’s thoughts here, permitting the imagery to evoke all we need to know. Such effective imagery characterizes many of the poems in the collection.

These final two stanzas of “Deckhand: Scent Theory” also illustrate Morgan’s skill with sonic devices. We might quickly notice the slant rhyme between “peels” and “pile,” but then notice the repetition of both “p” and “l” in “puddle” one line later, as well as the subsequent internal slant rhyme with “pool” in “cesspool.” In addition the “oo” of “pool” is repeated in “mildew.” Because English spelling is so inconsistent, the same sound often represented by wildly different spellings, the carryover of “pool” to “mildew” is invisible to the eye and therefore more subtle when the ear picks it up. Then there’s also the alliteration of “stagnant” and “stained” which contribute to the consonance of “cotton,” “sweat,” and “turning.” And of course, there’s assonance in “cesspool” and “sweat.” Virtually every syllable, in other words, contributes to the aural pleasure of these stanzas. It’s tempting to assume that accessible poetry will be unsophisticated in its craft, but this poem more than manages the dual challenges.

Most of the poems in Harborless are written in free verse, but Morgan also incorporates several in received forms, notably a series of erasures printed to resemble the remains of burned paper, as well as a pantoum and a couple of prose poems. Here are the first few sentences of “J. Barber, 1871”:

Peach crisp, peach pie, peach jam, peach compote, whole peaches, sliced peaches. In those hours before the peaches burned, the whole ship smelled like August in a farm kitchen. The hold was full of Michigan orchards, full of juice and sugar and the soft fuzz of peach skin.

The exuberance of the opening list is fun to read, despite its context. The rhythmic energy continues throughout the poem, which concludes with this sentence:

Peaches sizzled and spit as the ship burned, as fire consumed what was made of sugar and what was made of wood, as masts toppled like limbs pruned from fruit trees, as men rolled across the deck like windfalls, bruised and scraped, and everything was reduced to carbon and loss.

Because of the exuberant language, the last clause, “everything was reduced to carbon and loss,” becomes particularly haunting, reminding readers that despite their visions of “men roll[ing] across the deck like windfalls,” this event is not comic but tragic. Morgan’s ability to manipulate the reader’s response is impressive here, as the poem includes such attractive imagery as “each peach was seared, the sweet juice of summer briefly concentrated and contained before everything cooked, oozed, dripped, and exploded,” appealing to the reader’s desire, before it turns to the final evocative statement.

This poem, like others I’ve discussed, achieves its effect in part through its reliance on imagery associated with the land, with farming, to describe its opposite, life on water. Morgan’s reliance on agricultural imagery creates an almost nostalgic motif woven throughout the collection, such that the poems have more subtle craft-oriented relationships in addition to the obvious relationships of content.

The cities of Marquette and Munising, MI, both located on the shore of Lake Superior, have chosen Harborless as one of their community reads for next fall. A collection of poetry might be a daring choice for such a program, but this book is exactly the collection to appeal to experienced readers of poetry as well as readers who believe they don’t like poetry. Its content is compelling and its characters are sympathetic, as in the best fiction, yet its craft is both skillful and subtle. Reading and rereading this book has been exceptionally satisfying.

Review of All That Held Us by Henrietta Goodman

Henrietta Goodman. All That Held Us. BkMk Press, 2018. 66 pgs. $13.95.

Henrietta Goodman’s third collection, All That Held Us, consists of untitled Petrarchan sonnets that explore relationships among a daughter, her absent father, shamed mother, judgmental and peculiar aunt, and at least one early lover. The family is more dysfunctional than most and so makes for interesting reading. What is most striking about the collection, though, is how Goodman manages the

sonnet. Most writers in English opt for the Shakespearean version because it requires fewer repetitions of each rhyme, yet Goodman adheres to Petrarchan expectations and seems to do so with ease. Although almost all of the rhymes are true rhymes, they are never forced and are often both subtle and inventive. Similarly, the diction throughout the collection is colloquial, interestingly subverting this most classic of classical forms. In addition, she adapts the strategy of a crown of sonnets, repeating a line from one poem in the next, though the repeated line often occurs in the middle of a following sonnet rather than at its opening. The poems are woven together as they would be in a crown, that is, but more inventively, more surprisingly.

Here is the fifth poem in the collection:

It wasn’t innocent, the way they mocked
each other, screeched and grumbled a grammar
of perfect bitterness—wore it, armor
of status, even though my mother hocked
her rings in Charlotte. So easily shocked,
my aunt had packed away the old glamour
of dances—sweat-stained dresses, the clamor
for a partner. She sprayed Lysol and locked
her door when my friends came, called me the child
in notes she wrote to God or no one, scraps
of paper buried under piles of stuff.
I called her shithead once at thirteen, wild
to separate myself, to spring the traps,
to find out whether words would be enough.

One of Goodman’s strategies is to use “they” toward the beginning of a poem without an explicit antecedent. Although the referent soon becomes clear, readers sometimes interpret “they” to mean one couple, e.g. the father and mother, when it refers to another, e.g. the mother and aunt. This ambiguity, which from a less-skilled poet would result simply in confusion, here reinforces the turmoil of this family—so much is unstated, so much can be inferred only through close observation.

The form here, particularly Goodman’s choices of rhyming words, reinforces the content with understated wit. The rhymed words “grammar,” “armor,” “glamour,” and “clamor,” for example, suggest in themselves the ambivalences within this family. Arguments proceed according to an expected form, and the two women’s symbiotic misery ironically armors them against further risk, and the potential for pain risk entails. “Glamour” might once have been desirable but is now characterized distastefully, by sweat and noise. The aunt’s attitude particularly can be characterized as the sum of these words. Goodman’s facility with end rhyme is enhanced by her attention to sonic effects more generally, the alliteration of “grumbled a grammar” or “whether words would” for instance, or the near rhyme of “notes” and “wrote.” Throughout this poem, the sounds are aggressive, the hard “k” and short “a” being particularly insistent.

The aunt’s character is conveyed here through memorable detail, especially in the sestet. She sprays Lysol to disinfect her house after guests arrive, refers to her niece as “the child,” and writes complaints to some invisible figure. There’s a second turn in this sonnet, midway through the sestet, as the speaker shifts attention to herself and her own desire to escape this place and these people. She discovers the power of language, not simply to evoke a reaction as she likely did here but also to validate her own experience.

The following poem begins with a line adapted from this one: “The clamor for a partner—how to give / it up?” This subsequent poem explores the adult lives of the mother and aunt, their tamped down desires converted to arrogance and bitterness. Several poems in this section focus on the relationship between the mother and the aunt. The speaker herself observes the adults but only comes to understand, as children will, a few years later. The relationship of the two women is invariably inflected by knowledge of the man who appeared for one of them, briefly, a few years earlier, the man who came to the house only once after the speaker was born but who is as psychically present as if he had moved in and claimed the lazyboy and tv remote. Midway through the collection, two poems illustrate, through their structure, how one relationship infuses the others. One poem describes the baking of a birthday cake for the mother, an unusual event in that very little actual cooking otherwise occurred in this family. The line that links the octave to the sestet states: I think they loved each other / once, shared their mother’s cookbook, watched TV.” The next poem begins with this line: “I think they loved each other once, or thought / they did, the day they fished Lake Elsinore / from a sailboat he’d bought—a whim before / they conceived me.” When the reader begins this poem, the temptation is to assume that the “they” in the first line consists of the same individuals as the “they” in the similar line from the poem before, that is, the mother and aunt. By line three, however, that assumption is proven wrong, and the “they” who “loved each other” becomes the mother and father. The dyads cannot escape each other, and Goodman guarantees that readers understand this through not only the form and content of the individual poems, but also through her arrangement of the poems within the collection. Goodman’s thoughtful attention to the progression of the individual poems and to the effect of the entire collection is, for me, one of the most satisfying elements of All That Held Us.

Like many readers of contemporary poetry, I suspect, I spend most of my time with free verse and, more recently, experimental and hybrid forms. Many poets still write in received forms, some regularly, some more occasionally. All That Held Us, though, is unique among collections I’ve read over the last few decades, not simply because Goodman has written an extended series of Petrarchan sonnets, but because she has both retained the conventions of the form and adapted it to the 21st century. The poems are a pleasure to read individually, and they are even more pleasurable to read as a group.

Review of Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment by Minal Hajratwala

Minal Hajratwala. Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment. The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, 2017. 120 pgs. $19.99.

One of the most interesting developments in the publication of contemporary poetry has been the turn to hybrid forms and hybrid collections. One factor is clearly related to technological developments that now permit text to be located on a page in unusual ways and also permit a mix of image and text that would have been difficult (and more crucially, expensive) just a generation ago. Another factor, I suspect, is the increasing diversity of cultures represented by publishers of contemporary poetry in English. Not every culture distinguishes among genres identically to mainstream British and American readers, nor does every culture assume that genres should not be mixed within a single published work. So we’re seeing collections of poetry especially that include pieces typeset as prose (whether we label them prose poems, flash, or something else), photographs and drawings, and short dramatic scripts. I suspect that one reason many of these collections that are challenging the boundaries of genre are published as poetry is because most poetry publishers are small, with limited staff and even less hierarchy, and much of this work is not sold in conventional bookstores. Such factors could discourage these publishers from experimentation, but the opposite seems to have occurred: these smaller publishers can do what they wish, and many of them are producing the most interesting work being published today.

Minal Hajratwala’s Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment is one such collection. It contains poems that follow conventions in their appearance on the page, poems in columns of alternating voices, poems that look like prose, and finally a play. Despite these generic differences, the pieces are linked stylistically as well as thematically. Hajratwala juxtaposes classical with popular culture, putting characters from each in conversation with each other—Lady Gaga and Cassandra of Troy, for example. She also references individuals and characters from many different historic and geographic locations—Arjuna, Zitkala-Ŝa, the Buddha, Achilles, Margaret Mead. The poems are pleasurable to read because their content is often surprising, but they are not merely clever. Hajratwala encourages her readers to think not only about cultural distinctions and their sometimes arbitrary significance, but also about how members of a given culture perceive others. The book is playful and also thoughtful, challenging and wry, sometimes amusing and often very, very serious.

“Bodies of Water,” the third poem in the collection, plays on the multiple meanings of both nouns in the title. Describing Lake Victoria, it opens with what initially seem like a bizarre series of metaphors, though those metaphors soon make an appalling kind of sense:

Shape of brainstem, or ovary.

Northwest of the nipples of Kilamanjaro,

south of the Sudan,

the pale queen’s lake makes a gap in the continent

where, now, corpses rush—

a torrent of flesh so uniform you would not guess

they died for their differences

a hundred miles upstream.

One passes

every three minutes.

The initial metaphors, describing landscape in terms of reproduction and primitive thought, perhaps simply reaction more than thought, for it’s the “brainstem” not the brain that serves as the metaphor’s vehicle, prepare us for the subsequent event, the ethnic slaughter of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda. A few stanzas later, a European speaks:

I have never seen such cruelty to man,

claims the British ambassador, his tongue

distorting Hutu, Tutsi, Rwanda—

The ambassador’s statement is so ironic as to border on despair, for so many of the 20th and 21st centuries’ ethnic conflicts in Africa are the direct result of European colonialism. Many of the poem’s images rely on body parts, as does “tongue” above, as the speaker describes the bodies’ “dismemberment.” Then, she turns to her own response:

Two hand spans across the globe

I wonder whose hands will caress

the forty thousand, how will they shift

so many dripping dead to shallow graves &

in which language will they wail?

The poem critiques the British ambassador as well as the soldiers who have committed such atrocities. It also reminds the reader that we are all implicated, for one of the most disturbing facts is that there are so many events to compete with this atrocity, to debate the ambassador’s claim. This poem is perhaps the most serious in the collection, but many of the others explore history, revealing that history is the continuous story mistreatment of one group of humans by another.

“Bodies of Water” is a poem organized into conventional lines and stanzas, all the more horrifying because it so resembles a lyric on the page. The pieces in section three, “Archaeologies of the Present,” are more experimental. They adopt several of the conventions of social media and electronic search engines, each piece accompanied by a list of tags, and each tagged word appearing in bold face. “The Beautiful” has the following tags: “star, blood, cellular, closet, homo, hegemony,” and begins this way:

Luxury at this time in America means white robes with hoods, made of plush terrycloth, a material used in bathing towels in five-star hotels. The stars are a rating system indicating quality of accommodations, food, fame & so on.

To be a star one must be photogenic, emblematic, blank enough for projection: dreams, desires, even terrors. Homicides are enacted & reenacted for entertainment. Many means exist to simulate blood.

As soon as American readers see “white robes with hoods,” they are thinking KKK. The poem initially seems to suggest this is a misreading, but the second paragraph oddly confirms it. Members of the KKK have committed hundreds of homicides, to create terror among African Americans and others, and to offer entertainment for some white Americans. (Who can ever forget the photographs of mobs at lynchings?) “Luxury” is privilege, the ability to wear the terry-cloth robe or to wear or decline to wear the other robe with a hood. “The Beautiful” continues to enumerate daily rituals that signify luxury—varieties of cereal, lipstick, closet organizers, milk. The piece ends with a return to its beginning:

Homo fortified milk is sold in dozens of varieties to account for varying needs for fat, allergens, growth hormones, pesticides, etc.

All varieties, even chocolate, are white.

Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment is worth reading and rereading for both its style and content. Its hybrid nature entices readers into close attention, heightening the effect of the content. We’ve never read about these events, our own cultures, or the cultures of others quite this way before. If the accomplishment of this collection is representative of The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, I can’t wait to read more of their books.

Review of Travel Notes from the River Styx by Susanna Lang

Susanna Lang. Travel Notes from the River Styx. Terrapin Books, 2017. 92 pgs. $16.00.

I’d had Susanna Lang’s Travel Notes from the River Styx in my to-be-read pile for some time, and when I finally picked it up recently, reading it in one sitting, my first thought was that I wished I’d read it sooner. It’s just fantastic. You should all read it. I’d end this review right here, but I know you, dear reader, have heard such claims over and over again, and you’re skeptical. So let me try to convince you.

This collection is a meditation on time and distance, separation and return. Many departures, as the title suggests, are physically permanent, though memory can keep people close or permit them to arise without previous notice into the present. Memory itself sometimes departs too, frustratingly, sadly, though a person remains near. Travel Notes from the River Styx explores relationships and ancestry, particularly the details of ancestry created by war, displacement, and refugee status.

The most prominent figure in this book is the speaker’s father. In the opening poem, “Road Trip,” the speaker travels through mountains, along a road she’s traveled before, and experiences a mystical visit, perhaps through a dream, from her father, mother, and grandmother. The visitors transcend the boundary between life and death, of course, but transcend time in other ways also, more comfortable here than they had sometimes been in life. Written primarily in tercets, the poem opens with a contrast between familiarity and difference:

You remember the signs along the road
for underground caves, stalactites,
zip lines, miracles. There was a sign

I hadn’t noticed before—Cavern, Ice Age Bones.
As if, on the way south, we could take a detour,
pass through an earlier time, visit our ancestors

as we visited grandparents when we were children,
our fathers driving for days punctuated by exits
advertising cheap motels where we didn’t stop to sleep.

What the speaker hadn’t noticed before is an invitation to deeper time, a kind of visit that would be miraculous, though probably unlike the miracles advertised in the first stanza. Lang’s preference for regular stanzas—couplets, tercets, quatrains—is evident throughout the collection. Here, the regularity suggests a sort of control that helps manage the unpredictability of a mystical experience and the overwhelming power grief can exert. The regularity along with the comparatively long lines also affects the pace, slowing it down to ensure a more contemplative reception of the story the speaker will tell. A few stanzas later, Lang describes the visit with her more recent ancestors:

…the rain fell as it always falls on these roads.
It’s a story you and I tell about these trips,
the fearful crossing through the mountains, in rain

or snow or fog. This time my father waited
where I stopped for the night, my mother busy
in the kitchen though she, too, was a visitor in that place.

She moved back and forth from counter to stove
with her mother, who was at home there, the rooms
dark in the early evening as if underground.

They set my place at the table, though as in the old stories,
I cannot tell you what we ate. The rules have not changed
about what you can and cannot bring back.

My father was still in his nightshirt but he stood unaided
as he had not done in years, a glass in his hand,
proposing a toast. Has it been like this for you,

have you found the house where your dead linger
along some other road, in the course of some other trip?

The direct question that concludes this section, asked of the “you” who has been addressed throughout the poem but also, of course, of the reader, is particularly effective. The details indicate that the speaker’s experience consists of a moment within the legend of continuous human experience: “as in the old stories, / I cannot tell you what we ate.” She shifts between these events that occur within a type of universal time and her own specific role, describing a man recognizably her father but not her father as he was at the end of his life. And then with the question she turns outward, linking her story to the suggestion of others. Her word choice here, “linger,” “some other road,” “some other trip” reinforces her theme, how time allows multiple moments to occur simultaneously.

The poem concludes by linking all of these ideas imagistically:

…Chanterelles rise
from below, ruffled like vivid cloth; rise from those caverns
where the signs call us to witness ice age bones,

where those we’ve loved wait for us to stop on our way
and share a meal, even if we cannot tell later
what wine sparkles in the glass we raise.

These last lines are particularly satisfying. They return us to the opening of the poem, and to the line I quoted above with the speaker’s father “proposing a toast.” Though the poem certainly explores grief, the last line celebrates the speaker’s experiences, even as some of them have been of loss. Yes, the dead wait somewhere; nevertheless, “wine sparkles in the glass we raise.”

In its tone, craft, and subject, “Road Trip” is representative of many of the poems in the collection. “Welcome” is somewhat different, though it, too, feels contemplative. Again, the poem is addressed to an indeterminate “you. Although the speaker refers to herself initially in the first person singular, she assumes a collective responsibility, speaking for a community that includes other living creatures as well as inanimate elements of nature. Here is the poem:

Now that you are here, I want you to know
the difficulty of water.

How the river is so low, we dream of floating.

How we try the pump though the well has run dry—
it’s a form of prayer.

I want you to know the despair of sea turtles
and the homesickness of mackerel.

How the evening is nostalgic for the voices
of sparrows, how the wind

when it rises brings only dust from the road.

I realize that you do not have enough buckets to fill our wells,
that you do not make rain.

Still, you should know. For one day at least,
you should taste our thirst.

Lang’s skill with craft is evident throughout this poem, especially in her use of assonance and internal rhyme and her decisions regarding line breaks. Most memorable, however, is the voice. It’s authentic and trustworthy, partly because it is so quiet. In this poem, the matter-of-fact tone paradoxically reinforces the speaker’s desperation. In every poem in the collection, the voice is reassuring yet honest,  inviting the reader into an examined life.

 

Review of Monster Portraits by Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar

 

Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar. Monster Portraits. Rose Metal Press, 2018. 76 pgs. $14.95.

Despite anything you’ve heard about the death of this and that, we live in an exciting time for literature. Genres and styles have expanded considerably during the last half-century and particularly the last generation, with much contemporary writing challenging the idea of genre itself. The back cover of Monster Portraits, with writing by Sofia Samatar and drawings by Del Samatar, refers to the book as “fiction & art.” When I purchased this book, and as I was reading it, I read the text as poetry—prose poetry perhaps, but poetry nevertheless. Other readers would probably call the pieces flash fiction, though some sections also have the feel of nonfiction.

What difference does it make what we call a thing? Isn’t literature analogous to that rose that would smell as sweet called by any other name?

As a reader, I approach genres differently, as I suspect almost all of us do. I read poetry more slowly than prose, pausing more often, thinking less about trajectories, even though we know that collections of poetry are supposed to be arranged with an arc in mind. I’m more likely to mull over an individual word when I read poetry, and to yield my attention to other small units. Prose is made of words, too, you might say, but the units of fiction and even nonfiction are different than words—they’re paragraphs at least, or scenes. If prose is written the way masons build walls, brick by mortared brick, poetry is written the way Buddhist monks create sand paintings, grain by colored grain.

Conventionally at least.

Monster Portraits is anything but conventional, so it’s no surprise that it’s published by Rose Metal Press, which has made a name for itself publishing hybrid work. The books they publish are consistently interesting, in content as well as form. Monster Portraits in particular is puzzling and provocative, and the further I read in it, the more I liked it. Syncretic and sedimentary in their development, the pieces often rely on surprising juxtapositions that become perfectly logical by the end of the piece. Ultimately, the collection explores one question—who or what is a monster?—and also asks the more challenging one—who or what isn’t?

“The Green Lady,” for example, opens with a fantastical but direct description:

“She emerged from the sea at Rostai, crowned with foam. I had been camping on the beach. The water fragmented about her tendrilled head. I scrambled for my notebook, knocking over my little cooking pot, spilling my dinner, burning my hand on the coals.

Trembling, I scribbled her words, which blurred at once on the humid paper. ‘In our country, phosphorescence is eaten from little shells. Our castles are of coral; our herds are whales. It is the perfect place for you, except that you could not breathe.’”

The conversation between the speaker, who reveals her fear of drowning, and the Green Lady, continues for about three-fourths of the piece. Then the content seems to shift:

“In the sixteenth century, the Anabaptist theologian Balthasar Hubmaier used a play on words to attack the reverence for the sacramental wafer. In his pun, the monstrance holding the wafer became the monster that rises from the sea in Revelation 13. O monstra, monstratis nobis monstruosa monstra!” The sin was the worship of the creature in place of the Creator. The error was a passion for the image.

“The Green Lady left me retching. I’d forgotten to hold my breath.

“The monster itself is a revelation.

“Balthasar Hubmaier was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake. His wife, a stone around her neck, was drowned in the Danube.”

What does the Green Lady have to do with a Christian sacrament? Is the speaker making a theological argument? If a monster is a revelation, what does it reveal? Is Hubmaier’s wife linked to the Green Lady in any way other than through their affiliations with water?

Through this shift in content, the piece takes on significantly greater seriousness; it’s no longer simply fantasy or fairy tale (if fantasy or fairy tale are ever simply that), but also cultural commentary. Certainly, this piece is evaluating definitions of the monstrous, suggesting that the perpetrators of torture rather than their victims are the monsters. It also, however, provokes us to think about language, how relations among words sometimes signify hidden realities, how text is itself an image—and in this book, is also surrounded by actual images. Those of us who value art do often share “a passion for the image.” Perhaps all artists must at least risk heresy if our work is to be any good, not against religious doctrine per se but against received beliefs about what art can and should be.

The last piece in the book, “Self-Portrait,” confirms what we’ve suspected all along, that the distinction between monsters and other beings is neither clear nor certain nor absolute. The speaker travels through several imaginary places, briefly describing her activities in each. Toward the end, she refers to Cixous and the particular love siblings sometimes share and then addresses the reader directly:

“Here at the end I’m reduced to begging you: Endure the scar. Let an insight come and find you. The monster, in this case, would have been, emerging from a certain order of the figures, a ‘philosophy of love.’

“Endure the scar. When you’re alone, on the bus, on the tracks, in the vacant lot, on the edge of the bathroom sink, that’s where they find you.

“We went into the field to study monsters and they found us and they found us and they found us and they found us.”

This book is unlike anything else I’ve read. Like the monsters inside it, Monster Portraits found me and found me and continues to find me.

 

Review of Hour of the Ox by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello

Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello. Hour of the Ox. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016. 62 pgs. $15.95.

Hour of the Ox, which won the Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, tells a story of loss, of the richness of a former life and also the richness of a current life. Its author, Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, succeeds in these poems through her reliance on imagery that is not only concrete but unusual, her trust in the power of metaphor, and her adoption of an authentic and informed yet thoughtfully quiet voice. Her language is evocative, restrained, and precise. The poems link personal memory with cultural tradition, such that disruption of one signifies disruption of the other.

“Your Mouth Is Full of Birds” is arranged into long-lined couplets. The form suggests control and order, appropriate for this poem which is trying so hard to contain its emotions, particularly of loss. Unlike in many couplets, most of the lines here are enjambed rather than end-stopped, a strategy that destabilizes the initial sense of control. Yet the lines in each couplet conclude with either true rhymes (follow / swallow), near rhymes (branches / branded), exact repetition (said / said), or, in one case, an evocative form of metonymy (birds / rookery). Cancio-Bello’s close attention to all elements of the line is matched by her subtle development of metaphor and her attractive word choice. Here is the poem:

You asked me once at dawn about forgiveness and I said
I didn’t think you had any need to be forgiven and you said

nothing, pointing instead to the tangerine branches
heavy with five-petaled flowers and a rookery of crows branded

like oiled umber in the sunlight. How grave the silences tucked
in each wing and beneath your tongue, silences you later tucked

into my suitcase when I wasn’t looking, letters written in memory
whose creases I smoothed over and over until I could remember

the gray trunks of the tangerine orchards, how each flower smelled,
each fruit peeled and quartered, full of tongues that still swell

in my dreams and burst into a hundred miles of telephone wires,
the silhouettes of birds still attached. Now, after all this while,

when you come to me at night with your mouth full of birds,
I think that you meant you forgave me for the rookery,

because they left their wings on my window, not yours. Oh how they follow
me still through this city, crying for you with every red-throated swallow.

Relationships between lines and sentences are particularly interesting in this poem. The first sentence requires four-and-a-half lines, and though it consists of multiple clauses, Cancio-Bello does not separate any of them with commas, letting them run into each other instead like a person speaking too quickly, without a pause to suggest grammar’s influence on meaning. She reserves the single comma to introduce the final series of phrases brimming with modifiers and objects but lacking any subject. I am examining this first sentence so closely because I am intrigued at how Cancio-Bello controls the pace of this poem and how the pace helps develop as well as subvert meaning. The enjambment between lines two and three is an example of such subversion, especially following the quickly spoken first two lines. Given the repetition of “and I said” and “and you said,” readers are expecting the words that follow “you said” to be a response to “I didn’t think you had any need to be forgiven.” But they’re not. The word that follows, “nothing,” is a word in the poem only, not a word the “you” utters. The imagery that follows is beautiful, but as the poem progresses, the speaker and the readers begin to realize that perhaps the speaker had misunderstood the “you” all along. Perhaps, when the “you” raised the subject of forgiveness, it wasn’t the “you” who required forgiveness but the speaker. The structure of this poem permits such ambiguity, which is almost always more interesting than certainty, without confusing the reader.

Finally, we reach the last couplet, which is also intriguingly ambiguous, the ambiguity heightened by the line break. Many poets would have broken the line after “me” rather than after “follow,” so that we’d have this final couplet: “because they left their wings on my window, not yours. Oh how they follow me / still through this city, crying for you with every red-throated swallow.” This slight shift doesn’t substantially affect the meaning of the first line, but it does dilute the possibilities of the second. Who is crying, “they” or “me”? “Red-throated” is a phrase often applied to birds, though not crows particularly, and “swallow” is of course also a common bird. In a less-accomplished poem, this language would serve only as a clever pun, but here the language encourages readers to recall the birds that have populated the entire poem as well as the title, “Your Mouth Is Full of Birds,” before they consider the alternate (and to my mind, more likely) possibility that the speaker is (also) “crying for you.”

The best poems reward such close reading, not merely for the purpose of literary analysis, but for instruction in craft. I am often astonished at the skill of contemporary poets. I read a poem, and I wonder, “How did she do that?” And then I think, “I want to do that, too.” Nearly all readers, I think, will enjoy the poems in Hour of the O, even when the poems themselves are somber. Readers who are also poets will want to read and reread, hovering above these pages in order to absorb just a little, and then a little more, of Cancio-Bello’s skill.

 

Review of Walking Backwards by Lee Sharkey

Lee Sharkey. Walking Backwards. Tupelo Press, 2016. 89 pgs. $16.95.

The most striking characteristic of Lee Sharkey’s most recent collection, Walking Backwards, is its voice. Although many of the lines in many of the poems are grammatically straightforward, their meaning is often elusive. The speaker frequently sounds detached from her material, her tone nearly neutral, which ironically amplifies much of the content’s chilling horror. These poems examine anti-Semitic actions of governments and individuals, often during (or, more accurately, throughout) the twentieth century, though also contextualizing these comparatively recent attempts at Jewish annihilation within their endless history. Yet the collection also offers glimpses of beauty and is itself a sign of that most human need—to create beauty. Even as the poems narrate some of history’s most vicious events, the collection is populated by poets, musicians, and painters. Ultimately, Walking Backwards also looks forward, confronting the future through the knowledge of evil, yes, but also with hope.

To the extent that Jewish history begins with Abraham, it begins with violence—not yet genocide but with a patriarch’s willingness to commit filicide, not once but twice. The Bible is as violent as any book of modern history, and the Hebrew people are perpetrators as well as victims. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his sons, though, is qualitatively different from the more anonymous or generalized battle scenes. Isaac lived a long and full life, but what most people recall when they hear his name is that his father was prepared to slit his throat.  “Betrayal” is a meditation on this story and opens with an attractive though peculiar image: “A seed pearl slides down the fallopian tube.” The second line begins to suggest which story this poems responds to, and the complexity of that story is acknowledged within a few more lines. Here is “Betrayal” in its entirety:

A seed pearl slides down the fallopian tube

90 years of waiting and now the slow roll into existence

Song and supplication

He wakes to the knife tip stroking his sternum

The other child exiled to the desert with no milk in the goatskin

Song and the spill of blood

He will be a wild man, his hand against every man and every man’s against him

Or was it the other on the altar

And lifted his own child up

Song and

Cast the child down in the wilderness

And laid him on the pyre

The right hand smothering his dusky countenance

I have built seven altars and offered up seven sons

The left hand covering his face to save him from the fright

Abraham and Sarah had waited decades, into their old age, for the fulfillment of God’s promise that they would be ancestors of a great nation. Meanwhile, Abraham had fathered another son, Ishmael, through Sarah’s maid Hagar. After Isaac was born, Sarah grew jealous and asked Abraham to send Hagar and her son away, which Abraham did, sending them out into the desert with only some bread and a skin of water, essentially to die. God saves them, but Abraham was clearly willing to sacrifice his first son as well as his second, Isaac, a fact that non-Muslim readers often forget (a version of this story is also narrated in the Koran).

Without knowledge of this foundational story, “Betrayal” makes little sense, but the poem is much more than simply a retelling of the story. Sharkey relies on her skill with craft to create a poem that includes a theological interpretation but is so much more than that. Her use of alliteration and consonance, particularly as those elements influences rhythm, is particularly effective. The easeful repetition of “s” and “l” in the first line reinforces the meaning of “slides,” and the stress on “down” immediately following two iambic feet also sonically emphasizes its meaning. A similar effect occurs in the next line with “now the slow roll,” the long “o” sounds stretched out to slow down the pace. So far, the action relies entirely on imagination, as an egg’s journey those few inches from ovary to uterus is invisible. The poem opens musically, even a tad romantically, so readers are startled by the immediacy of the fourth line: “He wakes to the knife tip stroking his sternum.” This line, too, is musical, and the gentle word “stroking” belies its significance. The poem becomes more sinister as readers recall its appalling reference, but then the poem turns toward a more sympathetic and compassionate view of Abraham. Here, he is not a man driven by blind obedience, asserting his loyalty only to God. He longs to protect his son even as he sacrifices him, “smothering his dusky countenance” with his right hand, but “The left hand covering his face to save him from the fright.” Scholars—and believers generally—have argued for millenia about the meaning of this Biblical story, but one important element in the poem is the speaker’s empathy with the actors. Between these two final lines is another, the italicized “I have built seven altars and offered up seven sons,” a reference to Jewish midrash referencing Jewish martyrs, and particularly mothers’ experiences of loss, so in this particular poem, it serves to turn the conclusion back toward the beginning, the “seed pearl” becoming human life.

In the context of the entire collection, however, this line links the poem to many others, to all those who have to some degree suffered a martyr’s death, killed for their identity. Stylistically, “Betrayal” resembles many of the poems in the collection. Its allusions are more ancient, as most of the poems address modern evils, those at least as difficult to fathom as the idea that God would command a man to sacrifice his son. Nothing about contemporary culture suggests that human beings will soon emerge from their determination to annihilate each other, a fact that makes Walking Backward all the more crucial. If anything will save us, it is our capacity for thoughtfulness, and it is thoughtfulness that most accurately characterizes this book.

Review of Lake Michigan by Daniel Borzutzky

 

Daniel Borzutzky. Lake Michigan. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018. 81 pgs. $15.85.

Daniel Borzutzky has published several collections of poetry and translations, and he’s won prestigious prizes, including the National Book Award. If you’re familiar with his work, you’ll want to pick up his latest, Lake Michigan. If you’ve not yet read his poetry, you should begin now, with Lake Michigan. Although the book is organized into scenes and acts, the individual poems are each structured similarly—each line, long or short, a sentence, straightforward and devoid of punctuation. The book is inspired by an unbelievable and yet absolutely believable investigative report asserting that the Chicago police run a secret interrogation facility where they torture individuals into confession and where they can keep these individuals hidden from their families as well as from the (more public and documentable version of the) judicial system. Borzutzky’s stylistic choices reinforce his stark chilling content, though you may finish the book wishing you did not know the truths it reveals.

The collection opens with a prologue that captures Borzutzky’s tone and style as well as foreshadows the degree of implicit and explicit violence that will be described throughout the book. Here are the first few lines:

There are 7 of us in front of the mayor’s house asking questions about the boy they shot 22 times

There are 7 of us in front of the mayor’s house screaming about how the videotape of the shooting was covered up so the mayor could get reelected

And a police officer says down there where they live there was a shooting     you should be protesting that shooting     a 9-year-old boy was shot by a gangbanger     why aren’t you protesting that shooting     why are you only protesting this shooting

Another police officer wants to know why we are protesting this shooting when just yesterday there was a drive-by shooting in Rogers Park and two innocent bystanders were shot and one of them died

We don’t answer      instead we do a die-in in front of the mayor’s house and the camera crews from the nightly news stand above us as we lay stiff and motionless on the cold wet pavement

They shot the boy 22 times

Here in the prologue, the collective speaker understands how precariously we hold those things we claim to hold dear: democracy, equality under the law, basic human rights—as state-sponsored violence makes absolutely clear. While the questions the police ask are valid, and while every form of gun violence in the United States needs to be addressed, state-sponsored violence against citizens and other residents is qualitatively different from any other type of violence. State-sponsored violence reveals that we, especially if we are not white, have no rights, to paraphrase Justice Roger Taney, that the police are bound to respect.

The poems in this book, titled as scenes, range from two to five pages. The speakers are occasionally collective as in the prologue, though more often they are individuals or presumably omniscient figures external to the action in the poem. Despite the stylistic consistency, the poems hold the reader’s attention because the details are so chilling, and because the events narrated here have become so undeniably typical of American life.

This excerpt suggests that Lake Michigan is poetry of witness, which it is, challenging readers to position themselves among the witnesses who speak in this book. Individuals become witnesses because of what they observe, but more significantly because they testify to their observations. Neither witness nor testimony is served very well by the pensive lyric that has constituted the dominant mode of American poetry over the last few generations, so Borzutzky’s choice of this straightforward, almost non-poetic, form is strategic and effective.

Nevertheless, Borzutzky exploits elements of traditional poetic craft, sometimes by drawing the reader’s attention to what it cannot accomplish. Here are the first several lines of “Lake Michigan, Scene 10”:

The police shooting boys are like police shooting boys

And the nazis burning Jews are like nazis burning Jews

And the police protecting nazis are like police protecting nazis

And the prisoners who are tortured are like prisoners who are tortured

And the psychologists overseeing torture are like psychologists overseeing torture

And the mayor privatizing prisons is like the mayor privatizing prisons

And the rule of law being suspended is like the rule of law being suspended

And the broken prisoners on the beach are like broken prisoners on the beach

I dream I am pregnant and my baby is a revolutionary plan to destroy the global economy

And my baby is like a baby with a bullet in its mouth who is like a baby with a bullet in its mouth who is like a baby with a bullet in its mouth

And the disappearing public employees are like disappearing public employees

And the puddle of vomit from a tortured prisoner is like a puddle of vomit from a tortured prisoner

Similes are insufficient; everything here can only be like what it is. Language can describe only what is. Attempts to imagine similarities between what is and what isn’t only dilute the horror of what is. Borzutzky extends this catalog nearly to its limit, shifting the rhythm slightly—by exaggerating the catalog even further—in line 10, just after he has interrupted the pattern in line nine. Subsequently, the poem shifts briefly into concrete imagery, “the puddle of vomit from a tortured prisoner,” before returning to the catalog of more straightforward violence, eventually linking these events to the shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, Virginia, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As the poem progresses, however, it distinguishes between witness and bystander, suggesting that the two roles are mutually exclusive. If readers begin to feel implicated here, the book has achieved one of its goals.

Lake Michigan is a serious and disturbing book. It is ambitious, not simply for the success of its art, but for the survival of the nation which has made it necessary.