Reviews

Lily Blackburn on Earthquakes in Candyland

Jennifer Robin. Fungasm Press (2019). $14.99, paperback.

Jennifer Robin’s feminist gonzo nonfiction collection, Earthquakes in Candyland, is a series of disruptions; from essay to micro-flash, Robin takes the position of an intimate journalist, combining observation and interviews with poetic vignettes and philosophical inquiry that push us to question ourselves and our role as humans.

Many of the longer pieces in the book follow in the style of Robin’s statement in the story “Oxy’s Midnight Runners”: “I’m here to hear stories,” she says to her interview subjects on a trip to New Orleans, “I’m sick of telling mine.”

Anaïs Nin, an influence of Robin’s once said, “We write to taste life twice.” It could be said that Robin’s book is a result of tasting life twice to illuminate meaning and experience in her work, and the result is deeply personal, blunt and empathetic.

What Robin calls “fissures in the illusion,” these essays, flashes, and tweet-riffs are what seep up through the cracks of the candy-coated veneer, critiquing everything from our self-obsessed technology addictions, to the criminal justice system; they are meant to provoke and also to connect.

Told from bus stops, train stations, MAX rides and sidewalk encounters, the book weaves a narrative of lives lived in transition, as if Robin took a literal road trip through a Candyland apocalypse and recorded the whole thing in her notebooks.

The 125 stories (in 315 pages) tackle both deep critique and celebration of American experience from multiple perspectives. The story “Breathe Deeply,” narrates unflinching descriptions of violence in a series of vignettes revealing a history of racism at the hands of white slave owners.  “The Tarot Reader of Troy, New York” details Robin’s hitchhiking journey across the country to visit her biological daughter in an open adoption. “Oxy’s Midnight Runners” follows a pair of New Orleans teens selling pills to make ends meet, while discussing everything from ghosts to ancestry and what it means to “have no truck.”

Later, the interviewer turns the camera on herself.

“I am trying to remember everything…as if I can retreat at a later date and like an ancient scribe add up this information on sheets of pressed goatskin and it will spell out the meaning of life. And why shouldn’t it? How much do I need to know? How much does anyone need to know?”

This is how Robin gets personal on the page, with larger questions which unexpected, intimate connections naturally stir within us, if we’re paying attention.

Her fascination with the lives of others is contagious; the army-brat turned model on the overnight Greyhound. The cam girl exchanging emojis with her clients on the night bus. Lonnie, a tattoo of a star on her cheek, touting her God-love to a man at a Portland bus stop. They are the people who challenge the norm by being unabashedly themselves.

Like literal Queen Frostines or Princess Lollys, it’s the experiences of those Robin meets on her journeys who ground the stories— symbols of hope guiding us through our own sense of American aimlessness, our search for a lost King, something to believe in.

The story “The Best Flavor” is one sentence: “If we must have mind control— what is the best flavor of mind control?”

The micro stories that break up these essays prod and expose, and feel like distilled versions of what Robin cannot let us not hear; we’re fucked, but people are beautifully complex, and our stories matter.

Lily Blackburn is a Portland based writer, an editor for Typehouse Literary Magazine and a full-time bean pharmacist (barista.) She graduated from Portland State in 2017 with her BA in English. You can find her work at Little Fictions | Big Truths, Coffee People, and Angel City Review.

***

THE BLACK CONDITION FT. NARCISSUS

jayy dodd. Nightboat Books (2019, 96 pages). $15.95, paperback.

I read jayy dodd’s newest creation over and over, until I became only an ear, severed. Until I became only nerve, raw to each breath, feeling reverence, heartbreak, tenderness, gratitude. Feeling humility in the face of the divine, a witness of every word-cell’s tenuous tenaciousness. I kept/wanna keep this collection on replay, letting SIDE A pour in, then SIDE B, then the BONUS TRACK, crashing again and again against that inner drum, swirling all the way back, all the way down.

jayy dodd tells me so many things I need to hear, one of which is LISTEN. Listen so hard you miss meals, phone calls, and the voices demanding your extinction. Listen so hard that when you turn the volume down, you don’t recognize the world anymore. Trish Salah calls dodd a genius—so much YES. With this new collection, dodd shows being—”blxk trans femme” being—in all its complexity, beauty, and vulnerability. Here the self can shiver out of one’s grasp as easily as ripples can disperse one’s reflection. There’s something god-like, something permanent, in that ephemerality, that resistance to category and definition, that impossibility of being—and urgent need to be—held.

dodd shows that being—in line, in poem, in self, in world—is so much more than any one presentation, any one glimpse in the mirror, any one capture on film. dodd’s book is full of hands, always in flux, so expressive yet so mysterious, being only one part of a whole that often exists in shadow. Powerful in holding but also in letting go. Vulnerable for the same reasons. Able to show so much about a person, but also so little. Able to build up, tear down, lead and mislead. In “Manual,” the lines: “What if God was something / that could be held in the hand.” Not a question.

dodd’s book is next to, awash in, testament to the divine, writing the “blxk trans femme” body into existence, creation the first tool of divinity. In “I Know I Been Changed,” dodd writes, “you will call me out my-self, blasphemous / but i have heard on high my body is harmonic gospel / it was written in sacred memory before coming into being / now, i am here ready for rapture…”. As the speaker becomes, agency/power is reclaimed: “…As a child, / I spoke as a boy, I understood as broken, / I thought as a ghost; but when I renamed this body, / I put away childish things” (from “narcissus reads 1 Corinthians 13, Without Love”). Coming of age, coming into being, stating, “I am.” Complicating and decolonizing the statement that “we are made in god’s image.” Trans body as god-like, a reflection and manifestation of the divine.

But not immortal. After all, “Amerikkka” has declared war on such bodies, especially when they are black and femme: “in the wood / the trees say hey baby, / so i’ve accepted my body / can’t be both safe & beautiful” (“narcissus goes to the market”). Existing, out in the open where a pool may reflect beauty, where a stone thrown may disperse it. By existing, dodd gives me courage to do so. But dodd also holds me accountable, reminds me that I too have hands. That an old myth can be undone and a new one made. That I should hold “whatever / binds me to this earth” close and undo whatever doesn’t.

“…what will we make of our new cradles of tomorrow?” dodd asks in “Babylon.” I am so here for this remix, this rapture, this future-making.

***

The Sea That Beckoned

Angela Gabrielle Fabunan. Platypus Press (2019, 48 pages). $13, paperback.

Angela Gabrielle Fabunan’s debut, The Sea That Beckoned, is a meditation—no, that’s too sedate—a fixation on the many ways one (especially one who migrates) looks for home—in the place one was born, in a new land, in memory, in language, in each other—and the many ways it is lost. But more than that, this is a book about the self, and how conceptions of home define, complicate, or even threaten that self. In a world reaching for the concrete, this book crashes into every certainty, scattering the concrete as a wave scatters sand. Here, home and self are as vast, elusive, and changeable as the sea. As soon as you scoop it up, it’s already slipping away.

“There was once a country I resided in, but it was neither here nor there,” Fabunan’s speaker says in “Fair Game.” In “Midway,” the speaker says, “In / or Out—perhaps there’s a place we can call home, / but right now there’s just this, an in-between…”. This “in-between” is the vessel that holds this book. The speaker, unmoored, is “neither here nor there.” All homes, all selves ebb and flow in the speaker’s mind, each dissolving a little as something new is ever-forming: “a life spent / gathering the arithmetic of loss” (from “First Day”).

This “in-between” exists in form as well: one line gives, another takes away. And imagery: spring growth replaces decay. Images from one home, fractured, slip in and are quickly replaced or bump up against images of the current home: “the shadows made from clouds appear like / dreams, the old and new mingling, the fluidity of sky and ocean / marrying the horizon” (from “Migration Story”). The place lost exists as a film over every current action, home under the ghost of home—image under the ghost of image—and “in the end, / only memory remains” (from “Fishnet”). Memory, slippery as a fish.

And language is slippery, too, like America, its promises never fully realized: “back then, we were gods, knowing nothing / but what we desired and that we’d have it” (from “The Other Shore”). Language can define what is home and what is not, or not yet. It shapes one’s understanding of the world, just as understanding shapes language. Learning the language of place can give one power. Forgetting the language of origin can fracture self. Combining language can make one other, something new that can be powerful, yes, but also threatened.

Fabunan’s glimpses of the Phillipines are vivid, and like the speaker, “you float / in ever changing phases” (from “Cadena de Amor”), swept up in the grief, the love (for there can be no grief without love), and the movement. As the speaker moves forward, becomes something new, something is also lost so that the body, the mind, becomes a graveyard. The speaker is haunted and haunting: “all I wanted to say: hello and goodbye at the same time” (from “Midway”). She will “bloom,” but at the same time, she will “wither,” and isn’t that pain, that ache, what it means to be fully human? And isn’t there, in that in-between, a kind of wholeness?

For all this uncertainty, this in-betweenness, the proliferation of questions rather than answers, Fabunan’s debut is not hopelessly adrift, not hopeless. Rather, it is the splash that ripples out, creating possibility: “we beings are more than just language, / more than accent or the drift / between homes, each / catapult into the unknown / turns shadows familiar” (from “Model Minority”). In Fabunan’s book, all things exist and can exist, even if all things are not present. Reading this lovely book is like dipping one’s toe in the sea and remembering its size and connections. This is a book for anyone who has ever lost home and searched for home, for everyone still searching.

***

Cranesong

Rona Wang. Half Mystic Press (2019, 76 pages). $15, paperback. $7, digital.

Rona Wang is, in Carissa Dunlap’s words, a “badass creator,” and I couldn’t agree more. Wang is the type of creator who gives other creators pause, who makes one ask, what have I been doing with my life? Not nearly as much as this sophomore at MIT who is already a prize-winning writer (Wang won the 2016 Adroit Prize for Prose and a 2018 Isabelle de Courtivron Prize from MIT’s Center for Bilingual/Bicultural Studies, just to name a couple) and has created a writing mentorship program, an online learning platform and community, been named one of “22 Under 22 Most Inspiring College Women” by Her Campus, and has written a gorgeous and gut-wrenching debut of short stories. And she’s only 21.

Cranesong, published by Half Mystic Press, is a collection that puts the rest of the world on mute as each story peels open. In one story, a “barely-eighteen college freshman” returns home for Thanksgiving and realizes “[e]verything [she] knew of home is gone,” and some things can’t be replaced. In another, a village is transfixed by the “Guiyang girl in the rice paddies,” her power transcending death. And in another, a young Chinese girl finds a precious moment of friendship in a war-time America determined to erase everything she cares about.

Wang’s skills as a storyteller are a joy to behold. She shifts smoothly and seamlessly from one point of view to another, from present to past and back again, from realism to magic realism and back. Legend can sit beside YouTube; each element, no matter how quotidian, jumps forward into something close to wonder, but the painful kind, like sunlight bouncing off snow. In another writer’s hands, these shifts would be incongruous. But in Wang’s, they’re magic.

And Wang’s characters are so real: they lift makeup they can’t afford, “stealing promises for the lives we yearned for,” crave connection so hard that when they look at the person they love, they “wanted to crawl inside of her, make a home out of all that tenderness,” and say yes against their better judgment because “it feels so good to be seen.” And they’re often in free fall, trying to find their place in a world that asks them to break themselves against its closed, and often locked, doors.

As they deal (but not always cope) with culture, language, sexuality, loss, and racism, and yearn for love, beauty, and home, it’s impossible not to ache right along with these complex characters, many of whom exist with a foot in two or more different worlds, watching, being watched, and sometimes targeted by those that “shimmy like they know they belong in this moneyed, neon world.” In “Liv, Liv, Lipstick Liar,” Liv says, “Some people would walk for years to have something magnificent and entirely theirs.” These are characters walking, getting a little messed up in a messed up world, and the reader gets a little messed up, too.

Wang has a talent for slipping the floor out so that each paragraph, each story, reverberates through muscle and bone to something central. Her imagery is so arresting (“skies that swung open like switchblades” in “The Evolution of Wings”), her diction so startling and fresh (“Skeins of green grains embroidered her limbs and neck” in “The Girl in the Rice Paddies”), the whole of her collection so true to the raw emotion roiling under each surface, that I’d be willing to follow Wang pretty much anywhere. Better pay attention to this bright, vibrant new voice.

***

Knock 

Melissa Atkinson Mercer. Half Mystic Press (2018, 70 pages). $15, paperback. $7, digital.

Half Mystic Press’s first book, written by Melissa Atkinson Mercer, is bewitching, full of pitch and portents. One stumbles in and is caught in its spell…or is it curse? Knock uses elements of both, gathering its earthy ingredients (“my tongue is turbulent with acanthus, with bloodroot, with a pig’s mudded hoof” in “she says: these are my lungs”) and mixing them with ritual and the conjured voices of dead poets.

On the table of contents, a formula is laid out: six steps to “cure” depression (the first of which is “they cut out your tongue”), split into three parts. Braided into these steps are three definitions for knock, all verbs, all with agency: “to produce a noise,” “to gain entry,” and “to collide.”

When the tongue is removed, one must find other means of communication, and a knock can be so many things: forceful, tentative, sinister, urgent, and deliciously eerie. What is it about noise divorced from body—unexplained bumps in an empty house, scratching at a windowpane on a dark night—that gives one such a chill? That shiver up the spine lies at the heart of this collection where, behind each poem, there is an incessant, unsettling tap, tap, tap.

In the title poem, the cursed speaker says, “If I could be loud enough, if incessant, the door might truly open.” But as each section unfolds, instead of the door opening, who is knocking seems to shift. The speaker seems to exist on both sides of the door, an uncomfortable impasse. To be cursed is to be trapped, after all. Frustrated movement ebbs and flows poem by poem until the landscape seems to vibrate, and the speaker’s occasional calmness in the face of it deepens the chill. The poem “love was the thing i wanted to say” begins with a house filling with water, the speaker inside. Time passes, and the speaker eventually becomes a fish, and “the walls turned black with eyes.” Yet instead of alarm, the speaker says, almost casually, “There was nothing so unpleasant…”.

The speaker exists in a dissociative state, sometimes more beast or object than human, other times divorced from her parts, from voice itself: “I found my tongue singing in a pail of waste” (“the first cure for depression…”). The cure for the speaker’s “sickness of the tongue” is biblical (Matthew 5:30, KJV: “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee”) and performed outside our frame of view by faceless beings. Mercer’s cutting and mixing in clips and lines from poets who committed suicide feels almost like a reclamation, cut-out tongues singing through this collection like the speaker’s own disembodied tongue, stubbornly hard to silence.

The loss of voice doesn’t stop the speaker’s yearning. She projects it (knock, knock) onto everything around her. The animals take up her thirst: “I taught them, the thirsty pigs, lifting their hooves to fence posts: one, two, three & again, darlings, again” in “knock.” And as others try to tame the speaker, their shaping a form of violence, so too do images, words, and objects contain a wisp of violence: “Storms grew on the black lake, cracking it like marble. We plucked out the cotton sky” (“mother, ice storm”).

As these lines show, Mercer skillfully juxtaposes images, building tension and deepening connections. In the first poem, which is also the first cure, the mountains made from the “tongues of women buried for the sin of lust” collide with the father who “cuts the tongues from goats before the feast.” Sitting as they do, the father figure and the women are connected, the father’s violence a shadow that looms and echoes forward. The women, tongueless, become goatlike.

Indeed, the women’s and speaker’s human form eludes them: they are birds, beasts, cyclops, trees, fish, elephants. This shapeshifting (mimicked by form as the poems flow into prose and back) sometimes seems like power, sometimes curse, sometimes both. In “xiv” of “to gain entry,” the speaker says, “my sea-born blood is a cathedral’s light / dreamlike ferocity a snake skin / shimmered beneath the wet leaves.” In “oh where to begin,” the speaker asks, “Lord, preserver of man & beast, who may I ask has been tasked with my unimaginable body…?”

The speaker is often acted upon, and even when she makes the move herself, her actions are almost always self-defeating…or self-mutilating. In “what do you remember of before,” the speaker says, “I’ll dig a grave & climb inside.” This self-immolation is echoed in the recurring womb, which is “Verboten,” whether by the speaker’s choice or another’s. Perhaps the womb is the key to breaking the inherited curse: “While my own mother lives, you could not speak at all. That was the curse we chose” (“too emphatic,”). In this way, the speaker is indeed “apocalypse.”

This multilayered collection weaves the reader in with every image, every shift, until the reader is left disoriented, existing on multiple levels, an ear there, a tongue here. The reader is both the one who hears the knock and the one knocking. Also the knock itself. Also the door. Also the one who opens it. Also the one who leaves. What pieces might be left behind?

***

A Portrait in Blues: An anthology of identity, gender & bodies

Selected and introduced by jayy dodd. Platypus Press (2017, 80 pages). $16, paperback.

Reading A Portrait in Blues is like falling into the hush of a winter night, the path back disappearing under snow as the landscape begins to transform. There’s a chill on the air and the threat of getting lost, but there is also Polaris, brighter against the deep blue.

This is not to suggest a constant. This anthology is about bodies—be they star, planet, land, water, animal, poem, or our own, ever-changing forms—and is the body ever constant? Even Polaris is getting smaller, its pulse rate decreasing. Stars, too, experience death. But can a body ever really be defined, either by where and when it begins or when it ends? At the same time, bound by so many forces, can it ever truly be free? These are questions the poems in this anthology ask in voices that are vulnerable and sharp and soaked in blue.

jayy dodd, who selected the poems, says in their introduction: “I’m curious to what we make of ourselves under limitations— it feels easier to transcend when you can point to the barriers of your departure.” These are bodies departing, transforming, yearning, grieving—bodies testing their limitations and relating to other bodies. In Logan February’s “Self-Portrait as Cotyledon,” “A tree falls in the forest & / I am the forest & nothing stops shaking.” jayy dodd speaks to this web of connection: “Our landscapes, bodily & otherwise, don’t exist in vacuums.” So many times in this anthology I drop off a line, and the earth shifts.

The moon, that body whose outfit of light allows it constant transformation, makes several appearances, and powerfully so in Koby Liliana Omansky’s “The Tenderness Intended This”: “Where was this moon when I searched for her? That same night? / Could this laughing, monstrous opulence, / larger than light, be the same tepid sphere I saw / shattered behind a tree, full with shame?” In “No Recital,” Peter LaBerge casts the heart in shadow with “I’m giving / Being the moon a try” and “Moon: please begin / Again.”

These are writers who seem ever conscious of the body, and to be ever conscious of the body, is to be conscious of it changing and dying every moment it’s living. Regret lives here, complicated with gratitude, as seen in Laura Villareal’s “Apology”: “Body, I want to bury you / in fresh, out-of-the-dryer blankets. / Let you bathe in green tea & sunflowers. / I haven’t been good to you.” And assertion complicated by doubt, as in John Stintzi’s “Split /”: “yes, I know as much as you do, / am certain only of uncertainty.” Strength, complicated by tenderness, as in Jonathan Bay’s “Beginning”: “Part of me is always / that beating heart / those weak lungs.”

These poems remind us “how complex we are” (Emmanuel Oppong-Yeboah, “the thing expressed”) at the same time jayy dodd reminds us how fragile: “The semi-permeances of the body, physically & beyond, makes all it experiences susceptible to bruising. Flesh blues when ruptured.” These poems, this anthology blues, bruises, and ruptures. It is a deep ache, the kind that reminds you just how alive—and briefly so—you are.

***

Alex Rieser on Blood Lyrics

Katie Ford. Graywolf Press (Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2014, 62 pages). $16, paperback.

Some books of poetry begin slowly in teaching you how they will operate, as if creating you as a reader. Often this is the case with project books, bound by their own generative constraints. Katie Ford’s Blood Lyrics is not one of these as the text opens into the sudden agony of its occasion. The world upends when even a healthy child is born; the utter familiarity of everything exists. For the narrator of Blood Lyrics, on the event of a preterm birth, it would seem that the world continues to spin until a complete 360 degree turn leaves it uninhabitable: “I nightmared/ far from her/ my body/ her empty tomb” (“Sleep and Her Ache,” 12).

There is no dancing around the subject here. Nobody is tugging at the reaper’s coat tails and running the other direction. These poems stand erect, eyes locked upon the brutality of this new world that seems as empty to its narrator as her prematurely vacated womb.

Ford captures the fog of unknowing. There’s a horribleness that won’t cease to permeate, as when a loved one has a terminal illness and the updates come of their condition: “Our sorrow had neither place nor carrier-away,/ and dared not hover over the child” (“Children’s Hospital,” 10). And our narrator is stuck there, hovering, floating, attempting to define what her child is and unable to lay a definition down, like a warm blanket, over her.

It’s difficult to read such direct work and resist using the word raw to describe it. Where Charles Olson sought proprioception these poems are as well wrought with the body. Where Garcia Lorca sought the duende, his demon of the earth, Ford’s Blood Lyrics is punctuated by bracketed songs that contain such substance: “[Oh where has our meadow gone?/ … I sing of hell/ and the brutal body.]” (“Children’s Hospital,” 11).

But it isn’t all reaction. As the struggle continues it seems to re-write this narrator whose voice remains uniform but whose personality becomes a palimpsest of philosophical and spiritual suffering. I love when a complicated sentence pulls itself off, and Ford’s prose poem “The Four Burns of the Soul” is an exciting example of this: “Whether to believe there is an unbearable distance or to imagine no distance, thereby feeling a proximity lifting oneself into that which is both imagined and is, or imagined and is not, or not imagined and is, or not imagined and is not” (56). One emerges from that sentence viscerally, almost dizzily.

This philosophy is part of the larger structure of the book that itself seems to go through a series of reserved regret, mourning a death that might not happen. It is through this lens of liminality that the book looks beyond the suffering of the self and to the pain of humanity at large, believing perhaps that there is no distance between her suffering and the broader body of it. Where the book’s first section “Bloodline” takes place in the children’s hospital and hovers there, the second section entitled “Our Long War” confronts what is or is not imagined of the cruelty that dying or not dying brings. In the book’s final section, containing only a single poem, Ford creates the link:

When I looked up from her hospital crib
to see the wider world, could I help it
if I saw a war?

Now I look out from the nursery window–
first a birch tree, then rowhomes, the city, the country, the world—
still the war widens… (“From the Nursery,” 61 & 62)

The experience of the near death of the child has rewritten the language that the narrator of these poems is able to use and the images that she is able to see. When one is forced to struggle for such a time that struggle occupies language and thinking. Until it inhabits the very blood from which lyrics flow. This is the modus of this excellent collection.

Alex Rieser is the author of the chapbook Emancipator (New Fraktur Press, 2011) and has internationally published poetry, fiction, interviews, and criticism. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, The Cossack Review, The Portland Review, Paris Magazine, The Prague Review, Five Quarterly, and many others. He holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco, where he served as Chief Art & Poetry editor for Switchback. He currently lives in San Diego, CA with his wife and son.