Ask yourself what image comes to mind—not just comes really but leaps, springs—when you think of your childhood. It might be a pick-up truck no one ever drove, or a grandfather clock someone seemed to be perpetually winding. Objects as places, places as objects: the literal nooks and crannies of our lives that store real and speculative versions of the past.
For the speaker in Mike Lala’s inventive, unnerving, and commanding third chapbook, In the Gun Cabinet, the gun cabinet is the salient object-place. Can you picture one of those? No matter. You will. But if a gun cabinet is already clear in your mind as that pick-up truck or that grandfather clock, it’s about to reveal itself as many object-places at once, many metaphors. The gun cabinet is a shoebox diorama that holds a whole world in miniature, a nesting doll that contains many smaller permutations of a self inside.
In the gun cabinet
where I drafted another maker
In the gun cabinet, two playgrounds
one for me, one for my mother
This gun cabinet is a closet for hiding, a playground for playing, and as one of the most haunted lines of the collection reveals—
In the gun cabinet, the bodies you inhabit through your life
stand up like guns inside the doors
Maybe when you were a child, someone measured your height every year, then made a little tick mark on the wall. Maybe your siblings stood beside you for this annual measuring and marking. Or maybe this is a trope of the American coming-of-age that you’ve only witnessed in movies. But chances are, you weren’t thinking of yourself or your siblings, or the inches you grew, or the bodies that changed, stretched, and shifted to accommodate the new height and heft of them—as guns.
We may know in some general way, but Lala’s book, like full immersion or complete hypnosis, puts us in mind and also in body—shall I say puts us in bodily mind—of one particular fact: The past is a place where everything is also something else, even and especially ourselves.
This book, when you pick it up, as I urge you to do, is deceptive in its softness—a black paper cover with French flaps, the title lightly inscribed, no picture on the front because the picture has already been conjured in your mind. You’re thinking of a gun cabinet now and of being inside one. You don’t know what you’re getting into, not exactly, and that’s no accident; that’s by design. On the first page, the words seem to flicker—print resists its static condition in this project, bolding and fading. Then, you’ll see a first glimpse of that forthcoming lyric epiphany about bodies standing like guns inside the doors. You’re bracing yourself a little now, already, as you should.
By the time you enter the poem—and it is all one poem, the poem of the object-place that is the gun cabinet, that is the past, that is the self in relation to the past—your senses are on high alert, scanning the page and its occupants. There is the brother who “cut his finger & drew it into the wood.” There is “the edge of the barrel my father dropped as it pitched & went off.” You may be thinking, as I was, of Chekhov’s gun, the literary principle which asserts every element in a story must be necessary and irreplaceable. The same is true of a poem, perhaps even more so, given the compressed vitality of the form. Chekhov said, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” Here is the rifle on the first page, and it has already gone off by the first stanza break. Just think what is possible now.
Maybe you’re thinking, too, of the haunting poem from Emily Dickinson, the one that begins:
My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away –
You are not alone. I can’t help but think of Dickinson as I read Lala. I hear his poem in conversation with hers, both of them born of bruised lament, of trauma. Hear how Lala’s portends their shared mood of sorrow and rage:
There’s a violence here
that folds you
in the country
under a poplar tree
in the evening
(in the gun cabinet, evening)
over the power lines
slack a fence missing pickets
the house now boarded
built on contract by migrants
stalking the harvest north
Notice, too, the images that Lala chooses and crafts. He gives us natural beauty in the form of a poplar tree, then reveals a landscape is marred by power lines which have also gone slack. So the landscape is flawed and also dangerous. What if those lines were to fall? A picket fence is a classic trope of the happy American family, even the picture-perfect sitcom family, but this one is missing pickets. So the family too is marred. The dream of happiness, of normalcy, remains unrealized. Even the house as domicile, as safe haven, was “built on contract by migrants.” There’s that uneasiness again, creeping in. Were they treated well, paid a fair wage, these migrants? Or is the house itself, even down to how it was made, implicated in a larger system of violence?
Lala’s book also includes stunning visuals. There are stills of rich, blurred colors that reflect and encapsulate a certain emotional chaos. Where the poem itself is deftly spare and understated, the images are bright and urgent. The lone representational still is of three mouths open, lips parted in speech or song, attempting a chorus. The words on the adjacent page complete a multi-media diptych. The speaker tells us now in short, increasingly breathless lines:
my language trailing
like a bride’s train climbing
the stairs I descend
to the last seat I left
with the pair of lorgnettes
I needed at the end
of my vision, a door—no
at the edge
of experience, a curtain
a garter on the border […]
my lips part
This book begins to morphs into a gallery. The reader moves through pages like rooms, the words and pictures augmenting one another, amplifying the tension of what is coming, until the text alone prevails. We enter the innermost chamber now—chamber a word which connotes guns and rooms at once. We are inside the gun. At the fulcrum of the book, all is quiet. There is the soft white paper and the sharp black words:
I say he touched me [I am acted on]
I say he grabbed me [the body acted on]
[they ask me where] I show them [she starts crying]
I say it hurt [the act itself]
I say he hurt me [his body acted]
I say through acting [his hand] he hurt me.
Now we too are wounded in the chamber with the speaker. Maybe we are thinking of Dickinson again, of how her poem concludes:
Though I than He – may longer live
He longer must – than I –
For I have but the power to kill,
Without – the power to die –
That heart-breaking limbo; that eternal, liminal space.
Even an earlier passage in Lala’s poem strikes us anew: “& me in the chair/like a discharged gun”
There is a volta in Lala’s book, a necessary and irreplaceable turn. The volta is so powerful that the page must be turned sideways—from landscape to portrait—in order to be read. I am reminded of the expression “turned on its head.” The violation here at the heart of the book turns speaker and reader alike on their heads. We are all off-kilter now, even the paper on which these words appear: “inescapable fact of my body/ here, inescapable fact/ of his.” But the violation too has a history. There has not been only one instance of abuse, not only one perpetrator of it. There is a legacy of violence here, to which the sideways page becomes our portal:
the mind requires power over not only others but over its own experience
& so her five brothers & father, after bringing her to my grandmother
after drawing her a bath (not taking her to the hospital) found purpose (asking her
What does he look like How tall What color What did he
When the pages are righted again, the speaker confronts the broken silence anew—“ribbons unknotted,” he says. The rest of the book addresses aftermath, the paradox of the painful acknowledgment of pain. Now the first black diamond appears in lieu of an asterisk. Black diamonds on the ski slopes and on the white hills of the page: they mark treacherous territory, warn skiers (and readers) of the most difficult paths to come.
in the museums, galleries, archives of a new century
drawers whose mediating walls were rotting, that single image repeating (I
remember, somewhere, saving the front page because I thought it was worth something)
Our speaker is writing his way out of the gun cabinet of the past. Art is to gun cabinet as gun cabinet is to art. The subject and the form which contains it. Are you thinking now of the speaker in “Satan Says” by Sharon Olds, of the little girl trapped inside the jewelry box of her locked past? I am. I am thinking of her struggle as she curses the parents in pursuit of a safe release.
opens and breaks when I say that. My spine uncurls in the cedar box
like the pink back of the ballerina pin
with a ruby eye, resting beside me on
satin in the cedar box.
And I am thinking of this speaker, feeling for this speaker—a bodily empathy emerges—as he begins to articulate the meta-questions of his own locked past.
what is the value in making now I see how
will my work speak from its place to this
great violence […]
how you gaze beyond the gun cabinet […]
what parts of the story were you told dark evergreen
our seaming duration
do you remember what parts of the story
did you take to be your own
The book ends with an interview, which extends these questions as ruminations. It reads as a catechism to the whole project while still remaining an integral part of the poem: In the gun cabinet, two chairs (center) face each other. Two cameras on tripods behind them. In the middle, a small table with two glasses. Lights down over the room, oak paneling & lamplight […]
What’s the content, the gist of this interview, you ask? I’ll give you one line, one salient line: “Let’s talk about how you talk about your mother, in the gun cabinet.” Yes, this is what they call a teaser, though I’m being serious. I urge you to pick up this book—carefully, because it’s loaded; immediately, because it’s loaded. I can think of few collections more necessary or irreplaceable than this one.