27 August 2012

The Flood

Born in Florence in 1397, Paulo Uccello was a fifteenth-century Italian painter whose work cannot be identified easily, if at all, within predominate artistic trends of his day. As Franco and Stefano Borsi state in the introduction to Paolo Uccello (1994), most historians attempt to “establish the existence of a deep conflict between Gothic and Renaissance” during the period Uccello painted. This rivalry hinged upon a binary formed by Florentine painters who created “bourgeois, realistic, commercial, and austere” works and Sienese painters who “remained faithful to a courtly, pleasant and rather lifeless Gothic.”

The Borsis suggest that the aesthetic divide becomes problematic when considering the work of Uccello, at least in the sense that he incorporated aspects of both within his paintings. To this extent, “Gothic and Renaissance are terms that are irremediably opposed and consequently, in Uccello’s work, impossible to reconcile.” In order to better understand the ambiguity of Uccello’s work, the Borsis advocate interpretations that approach his paintings from “oblique angles” that produce “no synthetic judgments” or resolutions.

Molly Brodak’s chapbook The Flood (Coconut Books, 2012) embodies this interpretive model, engaging Uccello’s life and work from an ever-shifting series of oblique angles that frame her subject matter in strange but interesting ways. Brodak acknowledges as much in the ekphrastic poem “The Hunt (Last Painting)” when she writes:
Shadows make no sense after a while;
the body is likely to erase its own designs.

For horses, there is color: a kind of love
that narrows. The unpointed hounds whip

their bodies out of the clutter of legs, carmine softspots,
this wickerwork perspective: counted and locked!

But a wall finally hollowed. His black gesso showing through,
translating blankness, what cannot be resolved a figure. (22)
The poem concedes that Uccello’s shadowing techniques “make no sense after a while,” just as normative historical paradigms fail to make sense of the painter’s work. Likewise, while the Gothic and Renaissance dialectic cannot be resolved within his painting, nor can “translating blackness” (i.e. the sensibility of shadows) “be resolved” within the “wickerwork perspective” of Brodak’s poem.

This inability of an ekphrastic poem to resolve a perspective, narrative, or aesthetic element of a painting, then, ends up being one of the overriding concerns of The Flood. In the poem “Small Items,” Brodak writes:
We dislocate,

as if right up to the dying man.

You are already late to this image.

In fact you might never be found,

hugged that hard by clocks.

A formula works when it disappears,

like art,

a brain beaded

by tiny acts.

The rupture captures

regret, having painted nothing

but a more rational forest floor. (19)
Indeed, reading an ekphrastic poems dislocates us from a painting, in that comparing two art forms always involves an untranslatable schism. This dislocating effect causes a “rupture” that allows us to “capture” only the “regret” produced by “coming late to this image” (or never arriving at all). If we enter the poem in search of a linguistic translation, explanation, or enlightenment, we’ll gain “nothing / but a more rational forest floor”; and the “rational” in art signifies, at best, the death of art. If anything, the poem “works when it disappears / like art.”

How does a poem, particularly an ekphrastic poem, disappear? Brodak intimates at an answer in “Lead White,” when she writes of a “dark hair space” filled with “blackness,” which she goes on to describe as:
Doubtable is how it looks,

not like a novel, a way of seeing everything

I don’t agree with, having nothing

to do with words, the opposite of fact:

in no absence of nothing,

the brush’s belly dries up

and varnishes just the warp, just the consonants,

a sentenceless tilt in the head’s violence, (21)
Just as the Borsis argue for an irreconcilable divide within Uccello’s work that renders his oeuvre unclassifiable within normative paradigms, The Flood argues that the ekphrastic poem leaves us in a “Doubtable” space that has “nothing / to do with words.” Instead, the poem fosters “a sentenceless tilt” in our consciousness that produces “violence”: a mind at odds with how to process the “no absence of nothing” we confront. In a manner of speaking, then, these poems provide us with both “the door and the window [that] open / to nothing” (23); but in that nothing, we unravel the “folds of the mind / … // …still vibrating” (8) with infinitely unanswered questions.

21 August 2012

Snowmen Losing Weight

In his first, full-length collection Snowmen Losing Weight (BatCat Press, 2012), Noah Falck appears to level an explicit indictment of Whitmanian poetics in the poem “Not A Song” when he writes: “Sing not the crossed arms of America. / Sing not America, not the frayed salt of wounds.” These lines, though, should be read as a bit of a dodge. For, indeed, Falck does sing America, although he focuses his music upon a particular cross-section of the country.

And what is that cross-section? Mostly the Midwest and its cities, landscapes, and denizens. Take, for instance, the following passage:
Then the scoreboard leaks
a boatload of Japanese beetles
and tiny children lose their teeth.
I watch the colors come out of their screams
and it makes me feel Catholic all over.
The point guards dreams in unmarked cars,
in starchy collared shirts.
The “scoreboard” evokes the high school football fields of Middle America, while the “boatload of Japanese beetles” serves as a reminder of the popular Bag-a-Bugs that lined suburban streets in Ohio and Pennsylvania during the mid- to late-eighties and overflowed with shiny green and brown beetles. Similarly, readers encounter a slew of images one could see in any number of cities and towns located between the coasts:
vanity plates from Michigan and the moon
after the blinds were drawn. There were seat
belt violators everywhere, people surfing channels,
a stubborn breeze lounging in the parking lot.
There were soda machines. Mountain Dew cans
squashed like hit-n-run and the moon 
            a gas station down the block some teenagers,
stoned for the first time, sift through a mountain
of potato chip bags.
Whether “vanity plates from Michigan,” soda machines filled with Mountain Dew, or stoned teenagers munching on potato chips purchased from a gas station, Falck’s poems orient readers within a blue-collar, American universe that reminds one of settings popularized by singers of the 80s, such as John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen.

While one might be tempted to pigeonhole Snowmen Losing Weight as a collection that traffics in quaint, often nostalgic memories of a bygone era, this would be to misread the collection's tone. In fact, several poems document an unapologetic exodus from Rust Belt by its younger inhabitants. For example, the second poem of the collection offers the following image:
and there are people
wearing puffy coats walking
away from the center
of the city. The buildings
are all vacant and small
Then, a bit later in the prose poem “Recipe For Reasoning”:
The river lost his prizewinning gleam. And there is no music coming from First Street. The abandoned buildings share the panoramic view and remember the foot traffic; they can’t forget the foot traffic. Still no music wants to come from First Street. All the canned beers go uncollected and the wind goes nostalgic. The city should have a future.
In both instances, people walk away from Midwestern city centers, leaving their vacant and abandoned buildings as monuments no more relevant than “uncollected” beer cans left to roll down the streets. Only the wind remains to experience the nostalgia of these empty cities. Moreover, the few who do stay to relive “the golden days / of drive-in movies” are those who, “years later,” are broken “men with saggy tits / and book clubs of [aged] women.” Yes, the “city should have a future,” but in all likelihood it doesn't; or at least not a future that appeals to a younger generation.

How, then, does the speaker of these poems confront this desolate and aging region? Well, first he flees from the “empty spaces / of urban buildings cranky with rusty machinery” and “the place where [his] heart / was first broken”; then, once he has “moved into another neighborhood” in order to escape “all the sadness in all the moments along the way,” he sings new songs within and to his a new America. Of course, the concluding poem of Snowmen Losing Weight leaves open to debate whether or not the speaker of these poems can truly escape the region; for we are told in “The Measuring Tape For The Midwest” that this part of the country “extends beyond the five flavors of boredom and further than the dimple-smeared children circling the food court could ever imagine.” Perhaps, then, it is inescapable.

16 August 2012

Saint Monica

Patron saints, particularly in the Christian faiths, are holy persons who advocate for a specific nation, place, activity, profession, or group of people; moreover, religious communities believe that patron saints have the ability to intercede within the natural world on behalf of their designated charges.

To this extent, Mary Biddinger's chapbook Saint Monica (BlackLawerence Press, 2011) opens with an epigraph from the Patron Saints Index Online that contextualizes Saint Monica, mother of Saint Augustine of Hippo. Born in Algeria in the year 322AD, she married “a bad-tempered adulterous pagan named Patricius,” in addition to being a “reformed alcoholic.” She died in Italy during the year 387AD. The Catholic church recognizes Monica as the patron saint of “abuse victims, alcoholics...difficult marriages, disappointing children, [and] victims of adultery.”

Under this backdrop, then, unfolds Biddinger's narrative of a Midwestern girl named Monica, her “Cleveland flowering” (11) from child to woman, and the double life her religious upbringing forces her to endure. On the one hand, Monica appears to be an exemplary model for other children during her youth. In “Saint Monica and the Hate,” the speaker tells us:

Because she didn't live in a trailer. Because
she knew the answer, even before Miss Nells
asked the question, hand darting up as soon
as she heard the words What year. Because
she always won the blue ribbon, and often

the red, too. All parents loved her, dropped
her name when scolding about tangled hair.
Crooked hems. (15)

On the other hand, Monica experiences the same carnal passions and desires that all human experience, caring little for the consequences:

Monica knew who went [to Hell] and why, regardless of the time spent fluffing the chrysanthemums outside the rectory. She'd go to the Devil's Place herself if it meant one hour alone with Kevin McMillan in the falling-down barn. Sister Rita said it was hot, but Monica could live with that. (17)

In fact, she not only imagines “one hour alone with Kevin McMillan,” but later ditches class and to spend “the second half of class in the janitor's closet with dreadlocked mops and ghostly bottles of ammonia, Kevin McMillan half naked in front of her” (30).

The desire to adhere to social norms the church imposes upon its subjects, while simultaneously acknowledging the desires and pleasures of one's own body, results in a split consciousness for Monica. “Saint Monica Takes Communion Twice” describes her dual persona, even attributing specific, visual characteristics to both of them:

The first time it was the girl with hair tucked behind her ears. The second time it was the girl with hair in her face, hands unfolded, bra strap peeking out from the neckline of her sweater. She just got back in line and did it all over again. The funny things was that nobody noticed. (30)

Of course, it's not just the child Monica in which two separate identities exist; once she becomes a grown woman, Monica retains these multiple personalities, such that: “The girl with the hair in her face showing up for a job interview (still smelling of Captain Morgan's) in lint-flecked yoga pants, only to be escorted into the office of the girl with hair tucked behind her ears” (30). Indeed, the passing of time and changing life circumstances do not alter the fact that Monica lives two distinct lives: two separate people who one day may “meet somewhere in the future, standing next to each other in a Denny's bathroom” (30) and unify; but, until then, she navigates her lives the best she can as a divided self.

Monica's divide, it would seem, stems from the manner in which the Catholic faith indoctrinated her. At an early age, the church tells her that, in order to be a faithful servant, she must sacrifice the connection to her own body and well-being for the sake of religious fervency. In “Saint Monica Stays The Course,” the speaker of the poem relates Sister Cathleen's instructions to her pupils for proper, ceremonial customs during the May Crowning procession. Sister Cathleen tells her youth students:

do not stop the procession whatever happens. If Molly Grace faints on the steps and suffers a concussion upon impact, breaking her glasses, keep marching. If Maeve erupts in her first period like a water balloon tossed on a bed of thumbtacks, keep marching...Magdalena may vomit up her cornflakes once she is seated in the pews. She has done this before. Keep your eyes to yourself. If you fear you may have explosive diarrhea during the ceremony, say two Hail Marys and one Glory Be, and get over it..,If your tuition checks are returned due to non-sufficient funds, show up to class anyway until the Bursar walks you to the front door. If you feel like you will die after then-hour shifts waiting tables, stray husbands pinching your ass and snapping your bra strap, say two Hail Marys and one Glory Be, and get over it. If your fiancé slams you against a wall and you suffer a concussion upon impact, breaking your glasses, keep marching to the bathroom with a bottle of Windex and a roll of paper towels and make that crooked mirror shine. If he appears above you in the middle of the night, reeking of Wild Turkey and Kools, do not push him away. Proceed as planned. (13-14)

To ignore physical pain, the sexualized self, and financial strife for the ceremonial crowning of a statue necessarily leads to a future life of abuse in and subservience to a manipulative, abusive, and patriarchal culture that values both misogyny and perseverance in the face of continual torment. Of course, as a rational human being, Monica realizes, at least at some level, to live such a life is not just self-defeating, but self-destructive. In turn, she creates multiple identities in order to manage the force of tradition with the preservation of self and a life of always out-of-reach happiness.

While a leading a double life can be helpful for surviving a particularly dangerous or unwanted situation, such an existence is not ideal for the entirety of one's life. And so, the final poem of the Saint Monica closes with the protagonist looking back on her life and regretting her dilemma:

                                          How long until
she went back fifteen years, days before
she staked all her money on the wrong
horse, grazing in the wrong pasture. (42)

07 August 2012

China Cowboy

At the most rudimentary level, Kim Gek Lin Short's China Cowboy (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2012) tells the story of a depraved relationship between La La and Ren, with Short building her nonlinear narrative through a series of fragmented prose poems that alternate between the years 1989 and 1997. The story's premise focuses on Ren, an American from Missouri, who kidnaps La La, a twelve year old Chinese girl from Hong Kong, and sexually assaults her over the course of eight years.

But outside of the obvious themes of sexual abuse and criminal behavior, China Cowboy offers an interesting exploration of identity formation in an era of global capitalism. In one of the first prose blocks, the collection's narrator informs readers that “La La always wanted to be a cowgirl” (5), a desire fueled by a childhood set to the soundtrack of American country music:

La La liked to listen to music music all day she played her records. Loretta Lynn Patsy Cline Emmylou Harris beautiful cowgirls. La La never asked for anything but one day she asked for a guitar. Her mother was hanging laundry out the kitchen window. Her mother blared COWGIRLS DON'T HAVE FLAT FACES gave her daughter a clothespin. La La put it on her nose. Wore it to school. Wore it to bed. Did not take it off even dyeing her hair. (5)

La La idolizes Lynn, Cline, and Harris, but her mother chides both this infatuation and request for a guitar as ridiculous due to her “FLAT FACE.” According to La La's mother, physical appearance dictates identity and, therefore, is to a great extent immutable. Undaunted, La La wears a closespin on her nose, risking pain and public humiliation in order to change her facial features and realize her dream of becoming a American cowgirl singer.

But it's not just her facial features that La La seeks to alter. The narrator also mentions how, when she was “five or six,” La La sang “in her corner of the bigger room practicing losing her accent” (49). It would appear that her presistence pays off; in the prose poem “Fist City,” the La La of 1997 has successfully transformed her vocal patterns:

Y'all, where I come from there are no maps to it, and what y'all don't know I trick it up. I had experience before I even met Ren, and some of it weren't girls...Ya'll, I would've been out of your league at 12. I'm only tattlin' now. (17)

Employing the Southern-inflected “y'all” and “tattlin,” La La not only loses her accent, but tailors her new voice to a particular region of the United States in order to sound more like a cowgirl. Of course, by erasing a past and replacing it with one that never existed, La La must now admit that “where I come from there are no maps to it.”

Just because La La can't map where she comes from, though, doesn't mean she can't imagine an origin. While living in captivity, La La:

hears synthesized theme music from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and sometimes sees Clint Eastwood poncho-ed and posing in the doorframe of the bathroom...From the look on Clint's face she know they are thinking the same thing. She thinks, it is like they are the same person. She thinks, it is like he is my blood father. (46)

In La La's imagination, Clint Eastwood's character Blondie from the 1966 Spaghetti Western The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,literally, becomes her biological father. On the one hand, the construction of an originary tale based upon a movie starring an American celebrity, no doubt, speaks to the all-consuming nature of American entertainment and its hegemonic grip on global culture; on the other hand, Sergio Leone, an Italian director, filmed the movie in Spain primarily using European and Mexican actors. The American-self La La constructs, in fact, is a transnational product from the beginning: a European facsimile of an American Wild West that, itself, never existed: imagination layered in imagination covering a forgotten past.

La La, eventually, questions the authenticity of Patsy Cline and the American life she imagined. Before her kidnapping, she thinks:

When I get to America I will have my own room children in American have their own rooms. It will have a lock on the door like when I'm famous and have curled hair. When I get to America I can be anything I can be Patsy Cline I have her wrists. (18)

After Ren kidnaps her, though, her dream of a private room with a lock, fame, and curled hair vanishes. La La can only wonder at “why the white devil wants to hump so much” (13). First-hand experience allows her to see through the smoke, mirrors, and movie sets of the American Dream, revealing instead a “white devil” who “humps so much” and leaves her covered in “semen loose warm stream dewlap my hair saltwhite smeared” (28). In this depraved confusion, La La turns to song in order to question how that dream and her imagined American identity managed to fail her: “Why can't Batman play the guitar? / … / Why can't Elvis fly a spaceship” (101)?

02 August 2012

Don't Try This On Your Piano, or am i still standing here with my hair down

As a musical and poetic technique, the call-and-response form first appeared in the Americas during mid- to late-seventeenth century, imported from Africa as part of the slave trade. Used in both spiritual hymns and secular work songs, the back-and-forth interplay of voices fostered a sense of community, promoting active participation from all its members. In these collaborative songs, slaves lost themselves in musical escapism and found temporary comfort in intimate, human connection.

Over the course of several centuries, mainstream American culture has assimilated the practice of call-and-response into its fabric, most obviously in the form of rock 'n roll and popular music. The change of context, though, irrevocably altered both its aesthetic and purpose. And while both poetry and contemporary micro-presses hand-making chapbooks could hardly be called “mainstream,” the alterations call-and-response have undergone evidence themselves in Steven Karl and Veronica Wong's Don't Try This On Your Piano, or am i still standing here with my hair down (Lame House Press, 2012).

The first sentence of “I am always confusing symbolism for othering,” the collection's opening prose poems, calls out: “Nothing else was evident other than this scratching, and estranged you from a strange me.” The second poem of the collection, “I am (always) confusing (symbolism for) othering,” reponds with the line: “Nothing ever evident other than itch.” Both the titles and the opening sentence/line (as well as the other poems in the collection) play with the concept of theme and variation inherent in call-and-response. But far from developing community, these poems “erase the connection” between speakers, estranging one from the other.

Of course, the speakers of this collaborative chapbook don't necessarily lament the estrangement. In fact, the prose poem “The realization of a fantasy renders it less than fantasy” concludes with skeptical sentiments about the process of collaboration:

But maybe the violence is not in the falling apart, but rather in the coming together, like galaxy formation from gravitational collapse or has that been disproven already? See also: what must be given up in order to create.

In this instance, the poem conceptualizes the “formation” and “coming together” of distinctly separate entities as “violence” and expresses anxiety about “what must be given up in order to create” something when working in conjunction with someone else. For, indeed, those who engage in collaborative writing must concede individual aesthetics, content, and form for the sake of communal writing. Does one view collaboration affirmatively through the lens of community formation, or negatively through the lens of violence toward an individual subjectivity?

While Don't Try This appears to champion an autonomous sense of self, the chapbook occasionally questions both the efficacy and possibility of a hermetic subjectivity. In “violence is / any year / in which,” the speakers write: “tomorrow we will burst out of our skin and decide whether metamorphosis is self-destructive”; and earlier in “My Life Has Been Breaking One Egg With Another,” we're told: “Perhaps I do not believe in freedom.” The first passage leaves open the possibility for an affirmative view of collaboration when we “burst out of our skin” and enter the communal realm, while the second passage debates whether or not the concept of “freedom,” or the individual, is even possible.

Certainly, the speakers of Karl and Wong's collection exist in a self-described world of separation and distance where connection is unwanted or out-of-reach; or, in their own words:

Thank you for asking for a photo of me. I have been thinking a lot about what to send you—it seems unfair because in reality, while I've taken quite a few pictures that I'm pretty sure you would like, I want to be sending them to someone else. I've been imagining what it's like to sleep next to you because I've been remembering sleeping next to him, how it was like separation, and distancing. How solitude is like white hydrangeas How I only know his summer wardrobe. I feel sad after I dream your hands pressing against me.

The “separation, and distancing” of two people, coupled with the analogical comparison of “solitude” with the natural beauty of “white hydrangeas,” certainly challenges positive paradigms of collaborative poetry. But, in the end, “the filling up or the emptying out” of one's writing with a collaborator is a question that the collection leaves unresolved.