Painful Celebrations: Five Books for National Poetry Month

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Poetry reviews can be painful celebrations because so many poets are producing fearless, important work, and work that does not slight craft when facing our political reality.

Holy Ghost, by David Brazil, is an example of this kind of work, and “Holy Ghost Say” is a poem well worth unpacking:

Say my
name, say my name,
say my name, I
thought I overheard your wishes, we
live in the stutter & from a flaw we gather
butter of the resurrection deliberate as
light after a rainy morning as
instruction. He wed not these
creatures fail to flourish us, but
ripen love within slave gates, the
lord shall be a wall of fire &
there is no veil,
the check good daughter’s in the mail.

Every act of reading is inseparable from what the reader has encountered before. One pleasure for reviewers, in this case a necessary one, is to share some of that. I recently devoured a book on the history of Valley Forge that was uneven in acknowledging the way slaves contributed to the victory of the Continental Army there. Most slaves had names chosen for them by owners, an especially pernicious theft. The debt owed to them by white Americans is greater than words. “Holy Ghost Say,” written before the history book I refer to, raises awareness of this debt.

Brazil’s rhyme schemes and repetitions become chants invoking ceremony and Leonard Cohen. The way he uses “dust” and “clay” in “One Dust Song” is a shaping of the universal need for ritual declaration:

day and dust
and dust and day
and breath and bone
and mortal clay

to say all what
we cannot say
it falls to dust
to dust and day

in god we trust
to show our way
a way to dust
to dust and day

day is short
and dust is long
and right is right
and wrong is wrong

This is about half the poem, and it ends perfectly, with a nod to “mortal clay,” the stuff of all of us, though we are never off the hook for the responsibility of trust, no matter what we believe. After all, “in God we trust“ is stamped on a coin that honors a slave owner, making “Slave Song” another fine reminder of what we need to conquer:

Kingdom weathers
cool and breezy
says that o my
yoke is easy

my tongue’s broke on
kingdom speeches
far as Pharaoh ‘s
army reaches

see the song and
sing the slave as
he is laid down
in his grave

then before
astonished eyes
let him with his
people rise

“Astonished” is the well-placed fulcrum here, where tongues are no longer broken. “Holy Ghost Force” toward the end of this volume, tells of taking on “the face of my brother”—one of poetry’s essential tasks.

 

Autobiography of Death, by Kim Hyesoon, is a book about what Hyesoon has called “unbearable events,” including the 2014 drowning of two hundred and fifty high school students in South Korea when the ferry on which they were passengers capsized. The crew enabled their own escape by instructing students to stay on the overloaded vessel. Inanimate cargo included material for a navy base shared by South Korea and the United States.

Hyesoon teaches near where the ferry sank, and found herself unable to wear bright clothing after the disaster. Her poems embody grief and loss, pushing hard, with compassionate necessity, to do the impossible: keep those kids alive. This is a book of challenging paradoxes and enormous empathy, translated from the Korean by the award-winning translator Don Mee Choi. This excerpt from “Lack of Air DAY TWENTY-THREE” illustrates my point:

As you let go of yourself
you became tinier than a piece of thread
you became so tiny that no one saw you
moreover no one could tell
when you were stuck to somebody’s nape

As you let go of yourself
you became big as the sky
you became so large that you didn’t recognize yourself
moreover no one could tell
when you descended as a cloud
when an eyeball was attached to each dew drop

The spectacle of living far from home without a body!
The spectacle of roaming after death as a faint adverb!

Who? Who was it? A suffocating flesh-like cloud came down
and a thread-like temple blew in the wind
You tried to grab the temple
but your hand was so big you couldn’t close it

The poems are numbered because, as Hyesoon explains in an interview with Choi that appears after the poems, “In Korea, we believe that when someone dies, the spirit of the dead journeys to an intermediate space that is neither death nor life for forty-nine days.” The physicality of these lines both suffocates and liberates, like the spirits they invoke.

“Death Swarmstorms DAY THIRTY-FOUR” contains, in its title, a created word that is absolutely perfect in English and makes me wonder if it’s a word in Korean, and how it would be heard in that language. How to make sound accomplish or enhance meaning is a challenge for all writers and translators, and the word “swarmstorms” gets the job done. In this poem, Hyesoon asks: “Should I say someone is scratching the night with a razor blade? / Say each scratch becomes bright momentarily?” This is very rough going, as it should be, when, in the same piece, she wants to know if “screams fill up like crystals.”

Later, in “Such Painful Hallucination DAY FORTY,” Hyesoon exhorts, “Look, look carefully without fear.” “Listen to the SOS of each star,” she says in “Face of Rhythm,” which serves as an epitaph. Later in the same poem, she adds that she hates “this music that peels my soul.” To read Hyesoon, and to take in the twisting, bold, almost overcrowded black and white drawings by Fi Jae Lee that accompany some poems, is to be caught up in a necessary maelstrom.

 

No one will ever know enough about Native American history because so much has been suppressed, by racism, by government policy, and by silence as an understandable response to trauma. Kevin Goodan, in his collection, Anaphora, eloquently excavated reasons for silence after suicides in his Native American community. Abigail Chabitnoy, whose tribal roots are Unangan and Sugpiaq, tells another tale of trauma in How to Dress a Fish.

The timing of How to Dress a Fish’s publication is coincidental in a heartening way: The 2018 midterm elections brought historic wins for Native Americans, and not just seats in Congress but also offices in down-ballot races. The wins came after decades of organizing by people who will see themselves and their families in this debut collection.

Most of the poems focus on events that should never have happened. As a child, Chabitnoy’s grandfather was taken by the US government from Alaska to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. There, he was forced to abandon his culture and become the kind of “productive adult” Washington policy-makers envisioned. “Lessons in Articulation” is a crisply crafted explication of silence and speech:

He didn’t tell us when he learned what it meant,
that they took their words from them.

If he were not an accountant, my father,
he might have been a historian. A fisherman. Or
he might have been nobody. He might have been unsettled.

Father, did you have these questions, when you were young with only
_______your cousin, your aunt?
Father, did your father know?

This brings us to the core of the matter, when the poem says:

I don’t remember Carlisle in my schoolbooks. Was it something
you showed me, Father, that summer
we toured all the battlefields?

If he were not an accountant, my father,
he might have been a historian.
But there was no value in these things
no way he could convey.

I don’t know when I learned what it meant,
they took our words from us.

That’s where the piece ends, leaving the reader with a sense of the vast damage done by this cultural crime. The triumph of words is accompanied by mysterious photographs and illustrations accent the poems without overwhelming them.

It is easy to imagine hearing these poems performed live or on a podcast. I’d love to hear Chabitnoy recite them from memory with some of the artwork projected behind her. Here are the last two stanzas of the prose poem “History Lesson,” which recounts the time during the fur trade “[when] Big Money entered the… waters…”:

largely mythological This man, who in 1970 would
be remembered by Aleut chiefs of Unalaska as the
Destroyer, understood and respected the Aleuts.

[NOTE TO SELF: After this poem, include
definitions of GENOCIDE.]

The final piece, the title poem, is yet another long lesson in the finesse of dressing what is no longer living, but has been caught and will do its part. The last line, is an act of excavation and due diligence:

[Record of Pennsylvania Aleuts ends. Sixth generation missing in surviving document. No way of assigning number to seventh generation without disturbing existing order.]

 

How to Dress a Fish is disturbing in the best way.

 

Kenji C. Liu is a prizewinning poet and former Djerassi resident, and Monsters I Have Been is a gutsy book that is a collection of inventions. On page one, the noun “frankenpo” is defined as “an invented poetic form,” but Liu’s definition of the word as a verb is the perfect introduction to the collection: “to create a new poetic text by collecting, disaggregating, randomizing, rearranging, recombining, erasing, and reanimating one or more chosen bodies of text, for the purpose of divining or revealing new meanings often at odds with original texts.”

“This is what I mean,” he’s saying emphatically, and offers new constructions to help you figure it out. “Thus Have I Heard” looks and sounds like conventional loose verse:

We are visas
________in a national
________drowning.

________Each of us an executive
____decision, pursuant to clay.
Each a subsection
______of protocol,
___________________and yet,
Memoranda: I am a train light
_____________country,
vetting
the president of
_______________his
_______________terrorist
_______________shape.

This is a sharp arrow pointing to more complicated formal constructions, including a piece on the facing page with Japanese script below some words and down the right margin. Denise Levertov, in an interview in The New York Quarterly many years ago, spoke of the difficulties of reproducing her work the way she had designed it to be seen. One senses this same tension in Liu’s work.

“Teaching men to be emotionally honest,” subtitled “frankenpo,” is a poem on the left side of the page, with paragraphs on the right that are wonderfully mangled excerpts of other texts. Like the work of Hyesoon and Chabitnoy, Liu’s creations suggest kinetic performance. ”Suicide hookups” is one line, and it doesn’t matter that you don’t know if he’s talking about emotional or physical suicide. He might even be talking about political suicide and the way masculinity going through a slow wringer right now.

Here is “Descending, throttle, early, savagely,” subtitled “frankenpo (for Prince)”:

He’s a beautiful bird again. Desperately funk, tornado gorgeous, heart thick with furious glide, and me his dessert. A conspiring body of heavy love, a whole dusk package. He sits and moistens, a ripeness in him, black as sons. Glisten he rises, a burning of bites and roses. A flushed, trembling hollow across his lush. See his national pouty-lip, a skin-tight, slightly welling back door swinging all piano wide. His bikini simmers, his cheeks jump, honey face staring wickedly over lustrous flower shoulder. He crushes my diamonds, stains my quiver on the spot. I muzzle his leopard face. The night furrows its savage, purple coat. Waters my sleeping moonlight Cadillac. Drowning looks like light, a meaningless swim. Here, lustrous racked chrome, passport of spandex lips. His pompadour bird, plunging into my wild.

Liu is at the vanguard, and many people will read this collection wishing they could pull off similar work. He is a master of the territory where outer energy meets corporeal substance: ”Tornado gorgeous,” “Spandex lips.” Nothing is static and everything elevates and metamorphoses song, a fine fit for our exceptionally edgy moment.

 

Last, but uniquely the equal of its companions in this discussion, Eye Level, by Jenny Xie, won the 2017 Walt Whitman prize, and it sings the body electric in compelling ways. Xie was born in China and she is a constant traveler, as the last line in “Rootless,” the frontispiece to the collection, makes clear: “Me? I’m just here in my traveler’s clothes, trying on each passing town for size.”

Writing in “Phnom Penh Diptych: Wet Season,” she is acutely aware of her senses:

August, chambered. City of a million young faces.

[. . . ]

 

And how combed through, this rain!

The riled heat reaches the river shoal before it reaches the dark.

A privileged young man, being chauffeured in a gold Lexus, is oblivious “with honeyed sleep.” Later, Xie’s speaker is in an alley “of sex workers, tinny folk songs pushed through speakers,” and after that, wonders with italics, “How do eyes and ears keep pace?” Here are the last three lines:

The zippered notes of bike engines enter
through an opening in my sleep.

My dreams sputter out because of this.

Of course her dreams are going to sputter out after so much conscious input. The mysterious miracle is how brilliantly she catches unforgettable description. I want to always remember “honeyed sleep,” “zippered notes of bike engines,” and other of Xie’s jittery joys of paying attention.

Her speaker’s travels take her many places. Here she is on “Corfu,” with its “hard-boiled hills,” a Greek Orthodox monastery where even the female cats can’t enter,” and “an airport so small I could see from one end to the other.” Here she is in “Chinatown Diptych,” in New York:

Retirees beneath the Manhattan Bridge leak hearsay.

The Woman in Apartment #18 on Bayard washes her feet in a pot of boiled
water each evening before bedtime. But every handful of weeks she lapses.

I lean into the throat of summer.

Perched above those streets with whom I share verbs and adjectives.

“Long Nights” reminds us that in each of us there is “so much interior / unpicked over by the eyes,“ and that “Nothing is as far as here.”

How true. How enormously, achingly, beautifully true.


Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →