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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.