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Monday, June 23, 2008

Jill Magi's Threads, reviewed by Kristin Palm

Jill Magi
Futurepoem Books, 2007
ISBN 9780971680074

Reviewed by Kristin Palm

I doubt the accuracy of this map.

This evocative, handwritten note appears midway through Jill Magi’s Threads (as well as earlier, in typeface) and feels integral to this beautiful book’s premise. Composed of both text and images, Threads is a deeply personal, yet commonly meaningful, navigation of history, languages, cultures and generations. But this exploration is marked by hesitation—maps, after all, do not always point the way. In both content and form, Magi incorporates the haltingness, indecision, slippages and shifts that mark her journey, making them a central part of the story.

Like memory, like language, Magi’s artifacts are fragmented—bindings are loose, pages are torn, translations are imprecise, family members sleep in separate root cellars to avoid simultaneous bombing. And so, her stories and artworks are pieced together, forming an intensely moving collage of observations, remembrances and experiences. The writer arrives in Estonia, the country of her father’s birth. The language is heavy on her tongue, and there is the weight of a nation slowly emerging from the shadow of Soviet Communist rule and into the uncertain promises of capitalism. Magi’s ancestral home, its people, her family and her place in and in relation to them reveal themselves in the book just as one imagines they revealed themselves to her—slowly, cumulatively, over great distance and time.

Magi finds much of her meaning in interstices (both physical and linguistic)—cracks and fissures and crumbled remains.

Plaster falling away as skin from wood latticework

This city peels, its pages glued together by something personal

left inside the book

Or neatly sutured.

Which roads lead out and which lead in?

She incorporates the language of bookbinding (a prominent theme in her artwork, as well), underscoring that books are a form of way-finding, but also reminding us that time can alter—or erode—the information within.

A torn leaf is repaired by marrying the overlapping edges and print
together with a needle. Position it under the missing part. Some loss is

The Estonian language, too, plays a pivotal role in this book. Magi forms her mouth around unfamiliar sounds not just to communicate, but to bring herself closer to her forebears’ ways of being and understanding.

There is no past tense in the grammar of telling
in Estonian there is no then or there,
it is only here.

Also integral is Magi’s correspondence with her father—her connection to Estonia even from afar. The phrase “Dear Dad, if you can even vaguely translate—” appears more than once in Threads. Tarmu Magi is credited as the translator of several poems in the book and it is his recollections—and protestation—that annotate the aforementioned map. The hand-drawn maps that appear in the book are his as well. These personal exchanges, as well as the inclusion of other family documents, contribute to the book’s overall sense of history as infinitely layered, textured, almost tactile.

A successful bomb devastates the city’s idea of itself. Now a footbridge,

My obsession with the sounds of war—

Use the words you know for expressing direction to refresh

to unclose

Near the end of Threads we learn that “a neat book probably means that the binder has concerned himself more with the appearance than with strength.” Magi, though, resists any temptation to bind her material too tightly. Perhaps her greatest strength is her willingness to let all she has heard, witnessed and dutifully recorded to gently, yet powerfully, unclose.

* * *

Kristin Palm is the author of The Straits (Palm Press, 2007). Her writing has appeared in LVNG, Bird Dog, Spinning Jenny, Chain and the Faux Press anthology Bay Poetics.

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Danielle Pafunda's My Zorba, reviewed by John Findura

My Zorba
Danielle Pafunda
ISBN 9780615195933
Bloof Books, 2008
Poetry, 79 pages, paperback

Reviewed by John Findura

Danielle Pafunda’s second book of poems is like watching an old nickelodeon or pressing your eye to the hole in a fence while the lights are flicked on and off quickly; there is rotation, and the movement often leaves you forced to fill in the minutest gaps, coloring the book with the reader’s own ideas.

The “Zorba” who appears throughout the book is never stable and cannot be pinned down. “She said my body became a praise-shack” is perhaps the most in-depth look we get into who or what Zorba is. Later, “He drew a drawbridge, she drew a gangplank. He an awning, / she an armory.” The book vacillates between the drawbridge and the gangplank, just as Zorba morphs between a “he” and a “she.” As each poem unfolds, there is a sign of welcome, but as quickly as it is noticed, next to it is the gangplank leading us off into the murky depths. It is an apt metaphor for reading this book as each turn of the page sucks us in deeper.

“Go Starboard, Go Further, Flee” contains the lines

[…] We dinner. We deck with the captain, a stroll in the
balloon light. We deck the captain, the gunner comes running.

Snail the passages so that in the phosphorescence of shipwreck,
I will be able to find you.

The images themselves are obvious, the way of getting there, however, is wonderfully skewered: the multiple meanings of “deck” when it is used so strangely as a verb the first time, the phrase “balloon light” and its long “o” connection with “moon,” the use of “Snail” as a verb, and the image of a shipwreck in phosphorescence.

Aside from the leaps in lines like “He warned me the wool blanket”, and the distance of the word “warned” to “warmed,” what keeps the momentum going is the transfer of sexuality throughout. The narrator eventually leads to “I felt my tentacle flex” and “soon thereafter I stiffened” from the feminine perspective of “for the third time in a year, I had / become hysterically pregnant.”

In “Rallying on the Plank, the Porch Swing Leans In” Pafunda writes that

With Zorba’s fingers, I have seen the shape of the triangle.
The shape of the hole and the shape of the plaintiff. I have
encountered the shape of a blade of grass, which slips
between two doors of the porch. Screen and otherwise.

The sex is obvious, the sexuality not so much as it again teeters back and forth. The first line leaves a bit of a mystery with the relationship to Zorba. Is the speaker feeling through Zorba’s fingers? Has she taken on the role of Zorba? Or is it simply Zorba doing the showing? And if so, whose “triangle”? The second line also adds another layer of interest. By separating the images of “The shape of the hole” and “the shape of the plaintiff” we are left to believe that they are separate, with a more masculine identity assumed by “the plaintiff.” This would leave the female in the role of “the Defendant.” What is her crime? Is it letting the blade of grass slip “between two doors”?

After a large break of white, Pafunda continues “A Quarter-Hour of Recess” with

When I tried to cover the hair with pancake, Zorba
Intercepted. She patted down the razor blade. The laugh.
Later, Zorba, her own blade in hand. Her brittle.

Brittle, exactly, like this poem, like these poems. Everything seems broken, haphazardly put back into place, trying to resemble what is was before the fracture, like a child gluing the lamp he broke back together. Scattered throughout the book are words and ideas glued together like “mommyanddady” and “HanselandGretel.” We recognize the form immediately, although it is a little off, but we find its purpose now changed and agitated—its reason stripped to the outline of an object. In places it becomes the outside world being ensnared by the whimsy of a broken set of blinds.

In the end, there is a single reason to not put this book down, as well as it being a legitimate reason for picking it up in the first place: as Pafunda states in “Parsimonious Holiday,” “It would be interesting to see what happened next.”

* * *

John Findura holds an MFA from The New School. His poetry and criticism appear in journals such as Mid-American Review, Verse, Fugue, Fourteen Hills, CutBank, No Tell Motel, H_NGM_N, Jacket, and Rain Taxi, among others. Born in Paterson, he lives and teaches in Northern New Jersey.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Jaime Luis Huenún's Port Trakl, reviewed by Angela Woodward

Port Trakl
by Jaime Luis Huenún
Translated by Daniel Borzutzky

ISBN 9780979975509
Action Books, 2007

Reviewed by Angela Woodward

Blackbirds and Pelicans: A Review of Port Trakl

Georg Trakl, Austrian poet, when failing school apprenticed himself to a pharmacist for easy access to drugs. He was so panicked serving the pharmacy’s customers that he sometimes sweated through six shirts in the course of one morning. As a child, he once walked into a pond and stood submerged. Only his hat bobbing on the surface marked his presence. He was rescued. During World War I, he was left in charge of 90 severely wounded men whom he could do little to help. Unnerved by this gruesome experience, he shot himself. Though gravely injured, he seemed to be rallying and to have recovered his spirits. But by the time his friend Wittgenstein arrived to cheer him, he was dead of a cocaine overdose, aged 27.

His poems leak a quiet disgust, are often set in twilight, or darkness only briefly illuminated. Figures—children, the lonely one, the golden one, an unspecified woman—appear momentarily and vanish. Short, simple declarative lines present an insistent Trakl rhythm. We hear it right away, the deliberate plod of things doing things: mostly falling, dropping, dying, falling silent. His colors are blue and brown, his bird a blackbird, his trees fir and birch, his landscapes indeterminate borderlands—by a wall, the edge of a forest, always a fairly limited view that shifts as the light wanders off.

Chilean poet Jaime Luis Huenún has captured this same bleak rhythm and constrained landscape in his series of poems Port Trakl, here put into English by Daniel Borzutzky in a bilingual edition from Action Books. In these 25 poems, Huenún has moved Trakl’s poetry into the inner life of drifters haunting a sailor bar in an ocean port. Huenún’s speaker shifts, sometimes a captain, other times an observer of the captain, or a nondescript man who might have been a captain once, except no one cares in the bar of Port Trakl. In Port Trakl, everyone stares into the mysterious visions in their drinks, while the narrator muses on “the poems sweetly burning/ in the overflowing ashtrays” of his life.

Huenún’s poems are reconstructed versions of Trakl, as if half remembered fragments, hybrids, or very loosely, drunkenly translated renditions. The drinkers in the bar hear the crash of waves, but also the cry of a blackbird, an animal that does not belong in this ecosystem. In the next poem, “pelicans covered the pier,” and we are again located in the port, but before long our narrator is crossing a forest of firs in some hazily glimpsed mid-European land. Someone is drinking cognac and anise, while back in Port Trakl, clouds drift by. A man stands smoking on the wharf, and far away, snow falls on pines.

Why do this? Huenún’s poems are a clear tribute to Trakl, dead almost a century, drawing a line back to an Old World forebear. Huenún, who writes here in Spanish, is a Mapuche Indian, an indigenous minority who has edited several volumes of Mapuche poetry. In Borzutzky’s graceful introduction, Huenún comments on the perception that an indigenous poet “can only sing about the natural world, his ancestors, his gods and mythologies,” preferably in his native tongue. Huenún rejects this notion, goes far from it in his revival of the dead Austrian. Yet this beautiful book is an oblique commentary on the ethnic, giving voice to abandoned, soulless, perhaps ruined people, waiting at the margins of a commerceful ocean. Borzutzky says, “one does not need to use the language of home to evoke the social and political realities of home.” In Port Trakl, first world oppression of the third world, displacement of the indigenous, loss of culture, destruction of the environment, envy of the imperialist victor, float out of these poems like a shimmer of spilled oil or whiff of rot, barely there, but weighting our perception of these slight verses. It is a wonderful book, and Borzutzky and Action Books have done us a favor by bringing it into English.

I returned to Port Trakl through the worst
paths in the ocean.
Weakened by salt from the storm, my eyes
were my only cargo.
“Captain,” called the helmsman,
“We are drifting.”
I said no, we are heading straight
for the cloudy port of my heart.

* * *

Angela Woodward's fiction has appeared recently in elimae, Diagram, Pebble Lake Review, Thirteenth Moon and elsewhere. Her book The Human Mind was published by Ravenna Press in 2007.

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Brenda Coultas's The Marvelous Bones of Time, reviewed by Becca Klaver

The Marvelous Bones of Time: Excavations and Explanations
Brenda Coultas

Poetry. 6 x 9, 140 pages, paperback
ISBN 9781566892049
Coffee House Press, 2007

Reviewed by Becca Klaver

What’s the difference between a poem and a ghost story? Are the phenomena we experience projections of our own psyches, just as images that appear in poems are projections of a poet’s? And don’t those images manifest just as mysteriously as ghosts? As Brenda Coultas leads us on a backroads tour of general stores, Underground Railroad stops, haunted apartments, cemeteries, rivers, and at least one famous librarium in The Marvelous Bones of Time: Excavations and Explanations, we go on a bit of a phenomenological tour as well, and soon see many of these divisions (between poem and ghost story, poetic image and occult vision) collapse, ignored. As Coultas blurs—or renders irrelevant—genre lines, we’re made to examine how much of our own personal and cultural experience is based on hearsay, superstition, intuition, or some sense—sixth or sixtieth—that interprets events beyond the empirical.

A more useful question might be: what are the pleasures of a ghost story, and how are they like and unlike the pleasures of a poem? You won’t return to the ghost stories in Book II of Marvelous Bones, “A Lonely Cemetery,” again and again for their language or insight as you might a favorite poem, but this doesn’t diminish their capacity for gratification. Instead, these poems redirect and redefine readerly desires: they intrigue, titillate. Take this paragraph from “Sister-in-Law’s Paranormal Encounters”:
She stepped outside to wait for her friend to pick her up, but her friend was late so she went back in. She heard the sound a phone makes when its receiver is off the hook. It was. Which was odd, for she clearly remembered hanging the phone up properly before she went outside. She put it back on and the friend called and said, “Why are you playing games with me? I know it was you because I hear the same background music.” During this time, her family’s police dog never stirred or barked. (118)
How can we not ask “What happened next”? My pleasure looked something like this: when I got to “A Lonely Cemetery,” I wanted to inhale it, the tug of narrative desire was so strong. Instead, I kept putting off finishing the book, the way you do with a gripping novel. The poems were addictive, seductive—but why? Well, because the ghost stories of “A Lonely Cemetery” do what prose poems do best: they offer certain pleasures of longer narratives in a single jolt. They also offer that other seduction of novels and movies and all popular narrative genres—escapism. I was in the grip of an alternate reality, and I got to let go of my own (and its attendant cynicism), to suspend my disbelief for the sake of art and, yes, entertainment. Entertainment of the campfire variety, folksy and communal.

It is not popular to hope for this type of pleasure from a poem, but I suspect that contemporary poetry would be more popular among general readers—or at least educated, non-poet readers (should it be?— I say why not)—if it willfully engaged more modes of pleasure more often. Much of it prefers instead to think imposingly, to position itself a cool distance from such feel-goodery, as if pleasure could only emerge in poetry as mushy sentiment, or through surprising diction and imagery. (Coultas, among others, deals in a different brand of surprise, including the good ol’ “Boo!”) And then of course there are many poetries—many of which I admire and feel a debt of gratitude toward—that take on the daunting burden of subverting pleasure (poetries that pull the rug out from under our inherited patriarchal, heteronormative literary desires, for example). We need these poets and the theorists riding in their sidecars, but we also need poets who pick us up for a whole new ride and make that ride the poem.

Lyn Hejinian’s use of the term “poet-phenomenologist” to describe Coultas in her judge’s citation for the Norma Farber First Book Award, which she awarded to A Handmade Museum (Coffee House Press, 2003), feels apt when thinking about Marvelous Bones as well. This epithet seems to point toward just what Brenda Coultas is doing that is unlike any other poet’s work. Her reportages hold the cool sheen of fact. In “The Abolition Journal” she writes: “In the history of the county, they wrote Co. for colored” (27). Out of context, this phrase describes the world as it is, or was. Whatever glint we catch off this phrase is not coming from the sentence itself, which may as well be an excerpt from an encyclopedia entry. Instead, placement is paramount (the sentence is at the bottom of a page that is otherwise half full) and so is the speaker (it sits among a series of excerpts from official documents, indicated by quotation marks, into which Coultas attempts to insert her voice, and the poem enacts this attempt) (27-28). In other words, the speaker’s way of organizing the world, past worlds included, is so deliberate and singular that even a matter-of-fact statement such as “In the history of the country, they wrote Co. for colored” takes on her particular spirit and culture-view, and so becomes poetry. What is happening here might be said another way by the American Heritage Dictionary, which provides this definition of phenomenology: “ . . . method of inquiry based on the premise that reality consists of objects and events as they are perceived or understood in human consciousness and not of anything independent of human consciousness.”[i]

Interestingly, this project and A Handmade Museum, with their long lines of prose, their collecting and cataloging, their exuberance and celebration, their determination to “notice what’s vivid,”[ii] also place Coultas squarely in the American bardic tradition that has mostly been reserved for male poets. This is perhaps not surprising for the poet who was also the second woman welder in the history of Firestone Steel, but it’s revealing in any case. Allen Ginsberg appears in the flesh—er, spirit—in the first poem in “A Lonely Cemetery,” which concludes with a psychic reader asking Coultas, “Who is that man with the dark glasses and pot belly? Is there any reason I should be seeing Allen Ginsberg over your shoulder?” (68).

There are plenty of good reasons, as it turns out: for all its philosophical heft, this is also the most hands-on contemporary poetics I can think of. A poet who works in cutups and white-outs is still handling words; a poet who works in ekphrastic modes is still responding to a form of art. Coultas is literally getting her hands dirty as she digs through trash and cornfields. Who better to look over her shoulder than Ginsberg, then, not as her Virgil but as her Whitman, “dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher” (Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California”)? In a supermarket in Berkeley in the 1950s, in a librarium in Oakland in the 2000s—Coultas addresses issues of country, cultural memory, and time as she asks many seers and many landscapes a variation on the question “[W]hat America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?” Her questions were perhaps phrased differently (Who lived here? What happened here? What’s under there? Have you ever seen a ghost?), but judging by the answers collected in Marvelous Bones, they hoped for no less complicated—or frightening—answers.

Coultas’ prose forms and her flat storytelling tone and diction knowingly obscure her artistry, but they also have the added effect of making you believe. Not surprisingly, and in spite of the epigraph to “A Lonely Cemetery” (“every word you are about to read is true / or believed to be so”) the most convincing ghost stories (= the best poems?) are the ones in which Coultas is the subject of the haunting, hunting, or stalking. The awards for scariest stories and best poems, then, go to the entire section titled “The Robert Investigations” (in which Coultas and her friend Robert visit The Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland), and to the poems “A True Account of When We Lived in a Haunted House,” “The Shed,” and “The Tear in the Fabric Between Space and Time,” which begins:
They asked us if we wanted our room haunted or not, so we took the haunted one hoping for evidence. When it came, I pulled the covers up over my head and prayed it would go away. When it came to my husband, during a nocturnal bathroom visit, he closed his eyes and ran back to bed. (71)
I’ve largely neglected Book I, “The Abolition Journal,” so far, and I want to talk about it now by way of piecing together Coultas’ decision to publish these books as one volume instead of the separate collections they might have been. The two books of Marvelous Bones are connected by certain geographical images—most significantly, the Ohio River, a liminal place that divides a slave state (Kentucky) from a free state (Indiana); is the dwelling of many well-known local monsters; and is the place where Coultas entered the world, her “head crowning on the bridge” (17).

By way of this geographic logic, the two books become a way for Coultas to write a local history on her own terms. In “The Abolition Journal,” she writes, “The preface to my family history reads, ‘There is very little, if any, published about this family or the branches that follow’” (47). Marvelous Bones, of course, fills that gap. That a family history as written by Coultas includes catalogs of names (of towns, former towns, abolitionists, and products), transcriptions of local and family lore, and pages of jokes about Kentucky positions her less as tweedy historian than as town folklorist. Coultas finds the forms that will serve this role. As she writes in Narrativity: “I have failed at traditional forms but I suspect that in the long run those forms have failed me. Maybe, maybe not. Each writer must make and break her own rules. As for now, I'm at work observing, discovering obsessions, and devising a container to carry it all in.”[iii]

The final, crucial, parallel between the two books is the fact that “The Abolition Journal” is a ghost story, too—not simply because of the specters of places and proper names that haunt the book (“Chrisney was Spring Station / Henderson was Red Banks / Owensboro was Yellow Banks” (50)) but, of course, because of the specter of slavery that haunts American culture (I can’t help but be reminded of Toni Morrison’s Beloved). Certainly this isn't typical history typically told, and it can also be seen as revisionist work on behalf of groups marginalized by race and class especially. Coultas’ variation on “the personal is political” is “the local is national,” and she is a poet brave enough to look at—sit with, walk around in—our country’s dumpsters and cemeteries, a.k.a. our guts and our remains, our scariest local sites. This is not some coded way of saying “one person’s trash is a poet’s treasure,” but instead a way of pointing out that not everyone can observe phenomena this closely. Not everyone can see these ghosts. We have been taught to be blind to them; most of us blind ourselves in order to avoid despair. You could probably get away with calling Brenda Coultas many things, but one who heeds dirty, discarded, or dead things this intently is most often simply called a poet.




* * *
Becca Klaver is a graduate of the University of Southern California and Columbia College Chicago, and a founding editor of the feminist poetry press Switchback Books. With Arielle Greenberg, she is coediting an anthology of poems for teenage girls. Her chapbook, Inside a Red Corvette: A 90s Mix Tape is forthcoming from the greying ghost press.

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Ana Bozicevic’s Document reviewed by Chris Tonelli

by Ana Bozicevic

Poetry chapbook, 20 pages
Octopus Books, 2007

Reviewed by Chris Tonelli

With her second chapbook, Document, Ana Bozicevic provides us with a travel log of sorts. In the first poem, “Rhode island,” for example, we witness a departure: “From water and wood / you build on the jetty / a shrine.” It is from this shrine that someone or something embarks: “…red-throated / waterbirds, / typestrokes of fish // visit the shrine // (to view the film / of a coat, departing.).” It is not an actual departure, however, but a cinematic depiction of a departure, and it is unclear who is departing (Is it the speaker? The “you?” Just a coat?) or where he or she is going. Not to mention the fact that there is a movie playing in an ethereal shrine on what appears to be a beach in Rhode Island.

If the purpose of a collection’s first poem is to instruct the reader on how to approach the rest of the collection, “Rhode Island” does just that, laying the groundwork for a certain kind of fragmented narrative, while disarming the reader of other conventional narrative expectations, thus blurring the line between travel log and dream journal. By expertly combining the rhetoric of narrative with the agility of surrealism, Bozicevic creates a landscape, and a cast of characters within that landscape, for which flux is the only stable thing.

Within the confines of an individual poem, Bozicevic captivates the reader—each poem, although very athletic in its shifting from conversational to lyric diction, from image to idea, is also architecturally sound. But, while we are given hints of characters—a traveler, a messenger, a speaker, a “you”—we can never be sure who’s who from poem to poem. We are given glimpses of settings as well—a waterfront, a tavern, a town—but are constantly diverted from those settings, and therefore are frequently disoriented as we move through the book.

What makes something disorienting, at least in part, is its surprise. But, as in a dream, where disorientation is par for the course, we are ready for it as we set out into Document, because we become familiar with it even before we get to the first poem. The epigraph—a quote from Tsvetaeva—begins harmlessly enough: “To her who travels—sleep. / To the wayfarer—the way.” This certainly rings familiar, like one of any number of travel blessings that may be cross-stitched and framed and hung on a paneled wall. But the turns Bozicevic makes in Document are emblematic of the turn Tsvetaeva makes here. After a relatively tame beginning, the epigraph ends: “Remember!—Forget.” In doing so, Tsvetsaeva shifts from the concrete and even cliché to the metaphysical. So not only is the epigraph’s subject matter—travel, sleep, memory—reflected throughout Document, the way it shifts from the mundane and comfortable to the abstract and prophetic is reflected as well.

Even the dedication—This book is for its messenger—is slippery. Is the messenger a character in the book? And if so, does that character correspond to someone in Bozicevic’s life, as most dedications do? Is it for the publishers of the book—since they are the ones delivering the book, the document, to the world? Or is it the reader—the one carrying the book around in the world? After reading Document, the reader is no closer to an answer. But what this frontloading does, ultimately, is lower the reader’s narrative inhibitions, preparing them for the constant shifting and melding that follows, expanding their sense of what is possible.

In the collection’s second poem, “The Messenger,” the elusive anti-narrative which this frontloading prepares the reader for is confirmed. The title appears to be a tidy link to the aforementioned dedication, in that we expect to hear from or about The Messenger. And possibly we do. But it is just as possible that we don’t:

What are the passions replayd against you


Down the avenues of gulls in argument.

Blue forgets it’s color and takes the role of space.

O show! me the traveler, in tapdance down the waves.

Our bones may reverse.

Since we find ourselves in a similar setting—on or near a shore—it seems possible that the same speaker who addressed The Traveler in the first poem (“O traveler. Grey star.”) is now addressing The Messenger. But it is just as possible that The Messenger is the speaker of this poem and is addressing his or her own “heart-mollusk,” yearning to see The Traveler and to perhaps commune with him or her in some way. “Our bones may reverse,” the speaker of the poem speculates. Bozicevic’s language here seems to be that of someone recounting a dream. “I was addressing my heart, but my heart was a mollusk,” one might say, or, “I remember wanting to catch a glimpse of someone called The Traveler and thinking that if I did, our bones might reverse.”

The language of dreams is almost always untranslatable—generally it is the dreamer who gets the most out of his or her own retelling. Because the dreamer alone experiences the dream, he or she is able to bridge the gaps in his or her incomplete memory of the dream with its accompanying feeling or effect. We, on the other hand, have only the dreamer’s fragmented recollection, and whatever the sum of those parts, are unable to empathize.

In Document, however, Bozicevic masterfully immerses the reader not simply in a recollection of an ever-morphing travel dream (“We were on a beach…you were building a shrine, and then all of a sudden, a movie was playing at the shrine and the birds and fish were watching!”), but the dream itself, so that we find it completely natural when somewhere or someone becomes somewhere or someone else. To evoke such complete empathy in the reader takes poetry of they highest order, and Bozicevic’s is undoubtedly that. Instead of simply humoring the speakers of these poems as they recount their dreams, their travels, the reader gets the sense that these are dreams he or she has had, that these are places to which he or she has traveled, knowing full well that this is not the case.

Like most dreamscapes, the ones in Document are impassable. In the book’s title poem, for example, the “star-tall” roses “navigate / a tub of unease.” Even the speaker questions how this can happen: “Who stamped the passports of these hordes of spring?” Appropriately enough, in a poem called “Document,” in a book called Document, we come across a conventional document, albeit used unconventionally—the speaker can’t fathom how the powers that be have allowed the roses to travel from winter, or non-existence, into spring.

The poem then abruptly shifts, as dreams do, to The Traveler, “oarless, cresting on a promise,” and we find ourselves face to face with another traditional document—a contract. “Release the rudder,” the speaker urges the Traveler, “A little bit lower— / (You’ve almost forgotten—): There, we’ve both signed it.” It is a contract the validity of which is contingent upon the speaker and The Traveler forgetting. Bozicevic, bravely, neither avoids her subjects nor manipulates them. Here, as previewed in the Tsvetaeva epigraph, Bozicevic confronts travel and memory and the conventions of sleep (dreams), and while she certainly practices a kind of lucid dreaming, she in no way limits her subjects—a testament to Bozicevic’s organic and pristine construction of not only each poem, but the collection as a whole. Though only thirteen poems long, Document accomplishes what most full-length books only set out to.

* * *

Chris Tonelli lives in the Boston area where he runs The So and So Series. He has work forthcoming in Saltgrass, Salt Hill, Absent, and Good Foot, and is the author of three chapbooks: For People Who Like Gravity and Other People (Rope-A-Dope Press, forthcoming), A Mule-Shaped Cloud (w/ Sarah Bartlett, horse less press, 2008), and WIDE TREE: Short Poems (Kitchen Press, 2006).

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Heidi Lynn Staples's Dog Girl, reviewed by Karen Dietrich

Dog Girl
by Heidi Lynn Staples

Poetry, 82 pages, paperback
ISBN 9780916272951
Ahsahta Press, 2007

Reviewed by Karen Dietrich

Dog Girl, by Heidi Lynn Staples, vacillates between the fragment and the whole. Voices within the collection speak through disjointed lyrics and limericks, equal parts singsong, wit and nonsense. This is poetry in limbo, in a constant state of torque, wherein what matters is both content and form, both message and mode of delivery. Limber lines offer glimpses inside delicate juxtapositions of pain, displacement, and delight. While the poet’s head may be in the clouds, exploring a stratosphere of language, her feet are firmly planted in purpose, eyes focused intently upon human experience.

Each turn of phrase, each play on words is not driven by whimsy, but awareness. Take “Arson,” for example:

The spun floor, bleary my eyes,
How injects the barbs sharp the pain:
Ah sleep after that sweat, mind lies,
Till the pull verging blood begins.

Undone the dawn begun, assured
No skin soft idioms of the son:
O son I bled go to your skyward,
Where no now ever hurts anyone.

This is poetry unexpected, siphoning the extraneous to present to the reader the essence of sound, of words heard within the mind’s ear. Adjectives possess heightened descriptive powers, as Staples uses them in sharp and arresting ways, often ignoring the basic principles of language. But who needs rules in poetry like this? These poems exist to challenge what we know of a word’s imaginary boundaries. And Staples hops, skips and pliés over these boundaries with grace and gumption. We “go on to your skyward,” with the speaker, trusting her to take us to a place we’re not quite sure exists, yet greedily anticipate with open arms (and ears).

Throughout Dog Girl Staples spins themes of childhood, love, uncertainty, and loss. At different moments we are given: “these reaches of a sizzled sum. these branches aloft as scission” (23); “flowers archived / in the right blight off diagnosis” (45); and “a breeze wild like those strings at the heart / of things, those throes singing our cells into living” (66). This collection is certainly ear candy, but what Staples offers is more than a shallow dip in the sensory pool. It’s a full dive to the bottom of being, to what it means to experience the world as both the self and the other.

Questions abound, but the answers are not paramount – it’s all in the asking. Look at “Yellow Leotard,” one of several ekphrastic poems in Dog Girl in response to photographs by the artist Kanako Sasaki (who’s also responsible for the cover photograph that so deftly embodies the mettle of the poems within):

red carpet spills the fray, the body di-
splayed, the dead-one’s a rose
feet tuned in and you can’t seize the face.
“innocence is certainty”
in a look by a woman who knows her hystery.
is that a shadow or a saying?
toward whom, that allotted tree preaching for whom
a bout beyond the edge, am i your mother?

Lines like these lay bare the subconscious that blooms within the heart and mind of the speaker. As reader, one experiences an accumulation of images and sounds, each toppling toward a terrible and beautiful destination. Yet at the end, we’re not quite sure if we’ve arrived or if our trek has just begun. There is a delicate balance between control and chaos, as Dog Girl precariously walks the tightrope strung between cynicism and wonder, carefully conjuring the sounds and images that equal something greater than the sum of their parts.

Take, for example, twelve poems throughout the collection that gather their titles from the months of the year. It appears Staples can take virtually anything and wrench it to suit her needs, inventing her own chronology, a broken calendar longing to be mended. The collection opens with “Janimerick” and closes with “Decemblank,” a stunner with an ending that doesn’t truly end, catapulting the reader further into a space where meaning is both lost and found: “chance chanting in us, like a girl’s hair waving / in a breeze and that O please, she said, don’t stop…”

The reader doesn’t walk away from a book like Dog Girl, but rather gallops, fueled by the poet’s intense awareness of both an interior and exterior world. A few times, Staples may risk too much, with wordplay like “attach the storm windows, lit’s beginning to glint cold,” but overall, her verbal and mental acrobatics succeed in dazzling the reader without blinding. With Dog Girl, Heidi Lynn Staples offers a string of poems, some seemingly whole, others delicately assembled fragments, but all sound, mind, and body.

* * *

Karen Dietrich received her MFA in poetry from New England College in 2008. Her poetry has appeared in The Henniker Review and her nonfiction is forthcoming in an anthology about women and motherhood titled Who's Your Mama to be published by Soft Skull Press in 2009. She lives in Pennsylvania.

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