Our Obsidian Tongues by David Shook

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Poet and translator David Shook has been in the news lately for The Poetry Drone, an aerial vehicle he is attempting to crowd-source through Kickstarter. It’s a project his publishers at Eyewear Press call “zany, brilliant, … [apparently legal].” What does a Poetry Drone do exactly? Drop “poem bombs” of course, semi-rigid, biodegradable bookmarks printed with poems in earth-friendly soy ink. Shook’s objective is to raise awareness on the military’s drone operations, promoting political engagement by poets in the process. Naturally, it’s also a way to encourage poetic plurality and a new audience of readers—an impulse that’s grounded in Shook’s debut collection.

Our Obsidian Tongues opens with two epigraphs, one in the Nahuatl language indigenous to Mexico, “Nimitstlasolta nosiwaw,” and a passage from Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “This is the city and I am one of the citizens, / Whatever interests the rest interests me.” This epigraphic pairing, an endangered language of which Shook is a scholar, and Whitman’s effusive, demotic invitation signposts Shook’s interests. The collection makes Whitman’s influence readily felt, the restless, ecstatic temperament by turns contained and deployed throughout the poems.

The delightfully strange movements that characterize Our Obsidian Tongues take some getting used to. Once you’ve learned how to read these poems, which begin as tight, titled lyrics and spread out across subsequent pages, their originality proves a welcome engine. The collection opens to the title poem “Our Obsidian Tongues,” one of several translations after Mexican poet Tecuani. It is a 12-line gem of a definition poem:

Our tongues are neither spoons
nor arrows. Neither flower petals
nor leaves. Our tongues are
obsidian tongues, shorter than
the knives priests use to sacrifice
but equally sharp.

The collection’s stakes and sensibilities are here apparent: a particular blend of surrealism and ritualism, the threat of violence looming over the pastoral (sharp cylindrical objects later appear as the subject of Shook’s prose poems). But the next page doesn’t mark the start of a similarly tight lyric, rather begins an untitled confession: “The last few months I’ve look on her with pity. / I’m on the tenth floor & even here I hear the whines / of drills…” These initially jarring transitions work to evoke the range of voices and experiences Shook hopes to capture. The collection’s impressionistic recurring sequences, “Sylvester Adán” (as a carpenter, farmer, artist, orchard keeper, and singer) and the postcard poems give Shook’s constructed Mexican landscape its relief. The contrast between his tightly controlled translations (what Shook calls “cannibalized” poems) which provide moments of traditional lyricism, “If you were a city / I could give perfect directions / to wherever they asked me, / I could map your neighborhoods & / catalogue your smells” (from “I Know your Body” after Víctor Terán) and the subsequent dilated passages mirrors the tension on the level of the line; Shook carefully and playfully juxtaposes registers, striking the devotional against the secular. To that end, the seemingly in medias res, untitled contemplations are vital layering devices:

My father had a vision
through the double-window of an airplane:

Aztec gods protecting their city, arms folded
like celestial bouncers.

Typical of Shook’s dark wit, “celestial bouncers” suggests the ceremonial riddled with modern-day kitsch. The section concludes, “The sun rises each morning without human sacrifice. / The misery of the city is enough.” Heritage, however rich, does nothing to safeguard against poverty.

The sequence of prose poems on thin cylindrical objects—“The Needle,” “The Toothpick,” “The Pin”—are some of the loveliest in the collection, grounding longer impressionistic passages and calling to mind William Carlos William’s assertion “no ideas but in things.” In Shook’s work, however, the things are cross-sections of history, defining and curating place as much as purpose. Consider “The Toothpick,” which elevates the whittled wood by a wildly imagined (Whitmanic) exploration of its origins and travels:

The most democratic of mouth furniture, health benefits of the
periodontal variety confirmed & only rumors of stomach splinters
afflicting heavy chewers. What tiny woodsmith can hew a toothpick?
What carpenter possesses the concentration required for the carving
of a perfect wooden obelisk?

The poem presses on thus, questioning farfetched connections, cause-and-effect, and the toothpick’s historicity: “Friar Norbello decried, in perfect octosyllable, that the Wise Men from the East hadn’t brought the Christ-child toothpicks: even the pre-plaque from that holy mouth might one day make a relic.” The confusion between religious and secular artifacts, and the almost hallucinatory quality by which one turns into the other, hangs over the poem. Similarly, In “Fourth Tenochtitlan,” (after Eduardo Lizalde), syntactic slippage humbles the holy: “Over the howling valley of / some god’s throat: breath / warm & rank high-hopped / beer & grain…” The pastoral, spiritual, and profane coexist in Shook’s collection much as they do in modern-day Mexico.

Shook’s homage to Whitman proves a thoughtful one—he contemplates and invokes a democracy of voices while maintaining his own idiosyncrasy, tenderness, and humor. Here’s a poet deeply engaged with the task of ensuring that languages, and therefore entire human histories, do not fall into disuse like Walkmans and PalmPilots. Our Obsidian Tongues demands more of the reader than many first collections do, and the risks are many—unruliness, difficulty, and obscurity—but the payoff is a vibrant, restless approach to cataloguing place that doesn’t forfeit lyricism. Shook’s ultimate loyalty lies with language, as the Poetry Drone eccentrically suggests. Why shouldn’t the same technological advancements used for stealth be appropriated to reach a greater readership? For as Whitman reminds us: “To have great poets, there must be great audiences.”

Maya Catherine Popa is completing an MSt in Creative Writing at Oxford University under a Clarendon Scholarship, and an MFA in Poetry from NYU where she co-leads a veterans workshop. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Poetry London, Southword, The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast "Women in the World" and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @MayaCPopa. More from this author →