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ProForma:“Denizen” by Nicholas Gulig
It happens and it occurs. These are our times
happening, their weight and consequence
a noise that cancels out
and others, a noise of war,
of nothingness, which is potentially an act
within its infancy, a thing
through which we make each other
into endings, our edges
pressed together, pulled and parted
open, torn and tortured, that we exist, are still
existing somehow through the fact
of our erasure, beginning over
and again, ceaselessly
and through it. That one is left
no choice but to imagine. No world
but that of words to build a breathing world between us
Covenant as bridge, there shall be people. The breath [a kind of noise beyond
the book] transcribes the book
as secular. Between competing points of reference
on the horizon [I, as in
insurgency] like atmosphere at times occurring wildly
in the interior [no sea
or even reason] [leads to a reduction] [a process
by which the state of nation-states surrounds our thinking, enters everything and ends
against itself] [as land
and circumstance] [as hydrogen, an openness exists
if one is listening] [a bond to oxygen]
[as bomb] A face beyond
It was the month in which the noise became the violence of its occurrence. The garden ended in September and it burned. In “the east” they lit a flag and raised their own above the ashes of our reasoning. Though you were far, you felt responsible. You had done so little to abate the context going on around you. Everywhere around you, a violence flitting in the wind and scattering, a thing. From which arose the structure of a nation, which invaded. You felt responsible. The news was everywhere, the war and what to think of it. The thousand threads of it. Which were and are particular, in both a person’s hands, peculiar, the fact of continents, estrangement. In the mornings you wrote poetry in a small café and read what lived and died on your computer. Elsewhere, smoke designed its ornaments against the sky. In a valley far away the alphabet became a desert and you crossed it. You found no water there but that which welled in others
What is thinking now upon atrocity? A thought
discretely gripped around its subject
enters into one of many fields described in art as actual,
none of which approximate an overlap.
This it could be said and has been. Terror
alters us. We speak and are immediate, relating strangely
to the wind which picks the desert up
and changes it. What is carried there, what noise exists
upon announcement, the groundwork
of a correspondence. I would like to write to you
from deep within the language of a room, some music present
in the tepid depth of these remains, excursions,
a sound within a sound pronounced to live inside of
like a death-thought. Is this excusable?
Do we forgive ourselves too easily? In such a world
as this, at such a distance, it is possible to hear
from deep within the safety of an unexploded building
the continuous expansion and retraction
of the human lung as it attempts
to push and pull the air that others scream in
Heard at certain distances, the cry of a civilian responding to the sudden and unexpected vacancy of loss begins to take the shape and form of music violently composed. Categories of voices used in the production of human music (and thus our sense of “the human”) include “chest voice,” “middle voice,” “head voice,” “whistle voice,” “falsetto,” and “vocal fry.” An irritant known mostly for its pulmonary properties, chlorine gas affects the body through the production of hypochlorous and hydrochloric acid. To perform the vocal fry correctly, one controls the air, taking care, above all else, to stay suspended above a whisper. This occurs when elemental chlorine reacts with water. The song of cells attaching strangely to the edges of the cells around them is one of many sentences in which the verb “to be” begins to disappear upon the instance of its utterance. Agree or disagree. To weep is to belong to that which waits beyond the problem of the singular, there in the impossible despondency of things. Cry of error, the molecular. One is often emptied
Aesthetically, what defines a desert is a human being
burning in a cage. In the ears of the dead,
music isn’t beautiful
or rare. When written in a state
to the fact of history invisibly defined, language often shadows
out the other. Histologic findings
of this occurrence include: bronchial
of epithelial cells, erosions and localized
necrosis. It is difficult
not to look on Youtube. It is difficult,
but one has done it, often
and repeatedly, varying the angle
of the screen, the time
of day, the music. This damages the cell walls
and negates them, interacting
with various amino and enzyme systems. Speaking
is amiss. This damages the circuitry of the vast
electric happening. Thus, the desert blisters where its edges meet
with thought. How should we compose?
Every book is a community. Occurring openly. In the desert of the singular, an act of faith or else an orchestra opposed to its arrangement. From this the poem arises, disseminates a fledgling self into the air. Mouths and sand and syllables. A destination leading to an overwhelming sense
of the particular. Of who we are
Of narrative and nationality, a state
of pure emergency. Talk
Speak to me,
just speak. [The neighbor’s house
is burning. Beautiful,
the trees. The trees
existing.] Master, fuck me harder
Moored to this, to them and thus the world
that speaking makes
around us, attached to things
and that from which arises
thingness, the myth of surfaces in the beginning,
occurring over in the aftermath
of time, of populace, becoming nothing in particular
more than real, the art of the material
and what to make of it,
what form to struggle
with or for,
that we may be there differently, again,
emerging through an opening,
a doorway in the wilderness,
The course of empire illuminates the path
behinds us. Apathetically the noise
that deafens from the screen
and is, to this extent, commercial
in an ordinary sense, arises
in the middle
distance, a kind of difference between localities
extending out from one place
to another, a bridge it could be said
and has been, most certainly a sound, I hear it
there, it is, I see it, here,
together breathing, you, I see you, are you breathing
Cage or context or cacophony.
The noise accumulates beyond the mind’s ability
to score it. Translation thus becomes
necessity. The music there
as well as somewhere. You, sitting in your room,
existing in the rich and orchestrated light
of a computer, having never had to hear
directly that which does
in this world, not the next, occur.
Having eaten well and exercised and learned.
Having written, having read,
what is it then that you exist within
the system of a system
of a system of. Startled, staring out,
not screaming, your voice is not
the voice that you remember happening.
It isn’t accurate, the sound
and its appearances. It isn’t accurate enough.
Though it occurs within a framework,
a page of snow or else the static overwhelmingly
apparent, a surface scared by what is written
on it, the shape and shadow of a flag
atop a building, moving in the wind,
its angry history unfurling like the alphabet,
which has been used and put within
the service of atrocity. Which is itself a desert
spoken of and into, a violence made
to make an order, to enforce. O to breathe the air
Breathing solely into the upper regions of the chest, an untrained vocalist pulls without intention at the air around her body. The first effect is a burning pain in the throat and eyes, followed by suffocation. As a result, the lungs emanate a meager 40 percent of the singer’s potential volume. Respiration becomes increasingly difficult as the pain behind the sternum rises. Because the posture of the vocalist is poor. Because vomiting provides relief, the head begins to tilt, reaching for the upper pitches, for the lower. Relief is temporary. The lips and mouth grow parched. The high notes pinch. A thick, dry fur begins to gather on the tongue, a sticky film. Despite the sound that one imagines she is making, the song constricts and hardens. Nothing more is known about cases which prove fatal in the field
If I have learned to sing I have done so only
as a matter of result.
Language is a residue.
At the end of a line of others speaking at the end
of a line of others.
That one can take a sound and make it over
in their image should remind us
beautifully at last
of the appearances
surrounding noises changed to music
and renamed. An image tuned
or turned to face its maker.
one must force oneself
to do this, often
and repeatedly, to say
as many voices
together mostly, but only
mostly. Here I am: a variance, a violence
Ebbing inward, a drift of energies distends
an interruption in the sense of being
noise an impasse makes
of difference. Only causes
are occult. Eros, or
the West. A stranger’s face
becoming difficult in certain light,
a new desire, terror. It’s beginning to feel a lot
like I’m at fault for something
far away. That there
is television. That I sit within a room.
Spell apology, spell mercy. I know the world we make
collapses, but the first time I ever read
a poem that worked I got
distracted. The words came in from nowhere,
and I agreed. The world came in,
the noise in which it’s getting difficult
to pray: to be apart, to separate.
Before the alphabet begins to ache again as series,
even finite now I must
remind myself to say “not faith
so much as what is after
center: other: there.” A state of many nations, selves,
a strangeness overwhelmingly
apparent, absent. We find it difficult
to mind and cannot say it. War, the terrible
satisfactions. That we are capable
of this. That finally, after everything, we find that we comply
The sequence chosen for this prize exists at the end of a longer work called Orient, a collection of six poems of which “Denizen” is both a product and an active, concluding part. Conscripting language from the cacophony of voices at their periphery, sections of these poems first occurred as the outcome of a yearlong process of transcription, (mis)translation, erasure, and collage. Thus, many of the words and phrases do not belong to the work exclusively. Its lexicon is co-created, re-imagined, shared. Engaging a variety of external media linked intuitively to a binary list of cultural “oppositions,” the work attempts to map, reformulate, and hold together a cast of disparate energies underpinning U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. These energies comprise the ideological, religious, and political noise in which we, as citizens of Empire, find ourselves, a spectral clamor that makes it difficult to hear and see and empathize. Given the nature of these noises, my privilege as an artist became increasingly clear. I began to sense that the American imagination depended deeply on a context named by ghosts, one which connected me directly with the lives (and deaths) of people and places I lacked the means to understand. In this way, to be a poet writing in America is also to elegiacally engage with that which isn’t “here,” an absent-presence made particular by ignorance, complicity, and war. Part of this engagement entails an honest recognition of my own collusion with a history of occupation and my use of language as an occupying, aesthetic force. The other part demands my speaker(s) themselves be willing to be occupied. “Denizen” among them, the poems in Orient try and fail to live and breathe as an expression of both these practices at once.
Nicholas Gulig is a Thai-American poet from Wisconsin. The author of two books of poetry, “North of Order” (YesYes Books) and “Book of Lake” (CutBank), he currently lives in Fort Atkinson and teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Judge Hadara Bar-Nadav writes of Gulig’s “Denizen”: C.D. Wright claims “Poetry is nothing if not equipped for crisis. Sharp and penetrating, it cuts through every fear by which we are secretly governed, brings each to the light of the page and names it.” And I can’t help but think she could be speaking of “Denizen,” a wonderfully daring and ambitious poem that charges forth into the political landscape, bringing with it palpable fear and longing and language itself, as it questions how a writer can write about war and destruction and terror while actually doing that writing.
The muscular sound and syntax of this long sequence jostles us, pulls us uneasily into its fragmented, tension-filled world via sinewy phrases (“the noise became the violence of its occurrence” or “Of narrative and nationality, a state of pure emergency.”) “Denizen” captures the warp of war and narrative, of a speaker who writes poems in a café and reads “what lived and died on my computer,” as so many of us do: war is what happens elsewhere until it doesn’t. Form effectively energizes the content, a live-wire pulse that shape-shifts in this hybrid sequence of lineated poems, fragmented bursts, and prose.
Though the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings and the various wars and military action it sparked seem to be the impetus, “Denizen” also considers what it is to be a global citizen in the information age. How do we mediate the distance between the person at a computer watching the war on the news and the person who is in a war zone? How do we mediate language when one is writing about war that happens elsewhere but is intimately felt? “Language is a residue. / I cling,” states the speaker, and the words “residue” and “cling” are at once hopeful and tenuous. Of course, writing about war is problematic in many ways, but also necessary. The speaker in “Denizen” is undeniably culpable (“Here I am: a variance, a violence”) and asks us to consider our own part, too. “Denizen” is challenging, breathless, innovative, and stunning. This is a necessary work in a difficult time.
ProForma:“This Dream” by Cameron McGill
of you, which sideways grabs
me in waking: hands
cold washrags on a line at dawn, eyes
bloodshot-blue still as a frozen swing.
I was with you again, Ireland:
fingers of light through the curtain in Maam. Little joy.
The map a graded paper on our bedside table.
Nothing scares me anymore
except the past tense: how you walked through my sleep
like the street we lived on.
Campbell’s at Croagh Patrick in Westport, and Clare
Island curled like a sleeping child. You’d never turn me away.
Ruins in Antrim, that look on your face
when you said there is no tower.
Memory’s a long rope I pull through myself.
Cracked door, this wild slit of light. And shadow
under eyes like currants in a paper bag.
Forefinger and thumb to sockets, and silent
I dress. At the kitchen sink,
I hear my name:
your tenor from the empty living room.
Sadness rings inside me like a pretty bell.
you subtract your dance from the dark, and the world
opens like your arms, gets it wrong.
About “This Dream”
This poem, in its nascent form, came about after a 2014 trip to the west of Ireland with my partner at the time. It certainly felt like a struggle with memory, or more specifically, with the past. I had been thinking about the line, “Nothing scares me anymore / except the past tense,” and I began considering the connection between place, person, memory, and the self. The form, as I recall, was a bit influenced by D.A. Powell’s Chronic, which I had been reading around the time I began revising the poem. I was intrigued by Powell’s use of space on the page, by the poem being a “dream,” where memories of places, images, and people coalesced in a kind of push and pull within the context of the lines. I was hoping to get across the uncertainty of memory and the certainty of remembering, while acknowledging that these particular places and this particular person were still very much a part of the speaker’s present. It feels now that the speaker is explaining what is emotional fact, though in the context of the dream, still distancing himself from an acceptance of those facts. With the line, “Memory’s a long rope I pull through myself,” I had an image I could use to inform the stanzaic structure. It happened that both the imagery and underlying emotion, the content and form, were working to simultaneously disorient and center the speaker.
Cameron McGill is a second-year MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Idaho. He is originally from Champaign, IL. He received his BA in Political Science from the University of Illinois. Cameron is Poetry Editor for the journal Fugue. His work has been published in Poetry East, Measure and Split-Lip.
Judge Hadara Bar-Nadav writes of McGill’s “This Dream”: I was immediately struck by the precision and elegance of the form, a mark of craft that is evident from the very first line. Rich specifics supercharge the poem, delicious place names that build a world for the reader and are also notable for their delightful sonic quality (as in “Ruins in Antrim”). Deft syntax also energizes these lines as in the heartbreakingly short sentence: “Little joy,” which is wonderfully ambiguous (how wonderful that there is joy, how tragic that there is little of it). And the last stanza is a stunner: the ghostly aching of loss rendered in concrete imagery, as in “your tenor from the empty living room” and “you subtract your dance from the dark.” The last line is equally surprising and fresh: all the well-wrought imagery, the words, the world, get it wrong; the beloved cannot be reproduced or returned. A dazzling ending for a dazzling poem.
ProForma: “Tabloid for Judy Garland” by Iliana Rocha
[ ] we star in opposite directions,
a woman of her own grotesque—
we’ve learned to be good at strangeness.
Her rainbow folded in half, she pled for a tenderness
she was never given, confessed
[she’s] learned to be good at strangeness,
the place where great joy meets even greater sadness.
Voice of limping menthol bell, the best
[ ] star [ ] opposite [ ],
her liver singing ruin, ruin. [ ] Reflection,
a half-dead mirage of [ ]
[ ] strangeness.
In red, she was skeletal & amphetamine, corrections
for the mother, always one second
[away from reward]. We star in opposite directions,
[ ] but where has the protection
been? Home is not a lesson:
[ ] we star in opposite directions,
we’ve learned to be good at strangeness.
About “Tabloid for Judy Garland”
Judy Garland is someone I’ve admired since I was a child, and I still have a VHS collection of her films I can’t bear to get rid of, especially Summer Stock and Meet Me in St. Louis and the Andy Hardy series where she played opposite Mickey Rooney. She always played the misunderstood brunette whose sex appeal wasn’t at the forefront, and that quality continues to resonate with me. Because she wasn’t the typical bombshell, she managed to complicate what we valued in our heroines. But she was a bombshell. She killed it in “Get Happy” in that sexy tuxedo jacket and fedora and, of course, in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” where wistfulness was made tangible. Those Technicolor moments were such a stark contrast to her personal life, and it seems that, to this day, her vulnerability is more a celebrity than she herself.
The “tabloid” poems feature infamous female figures, and my objective of this project is to rewrite the pejorative from their narratives—I’ve done Jayne Mansfield, Lupe Vélez, even JonBenét Ramsey, and I have plans to do Selena and Theda Bara. While these are tribute poems, the deconstructed villanelle also serves to mimic the hyper-omission and sensationalism of celebrity tabloid journalism. As someone deeply interested in ways women’s narratives are crafted, along with the unstated assumptions they carry, I wanted the refrain to house a collectivity—the “we” functions as space where the writer and the subject share, borrow, reciprocate, and celebrate their complexities.
Iliana Rocha earned her PhD in English Literature and Creative Writing from Western Michigan University. Her work has been featured in the Best New Poets 2014 anthology, as well as Bennington Review, Blackbird, and Third Coast. Karankawa, her debut collection, won the 2014 AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and is available through the University of Pittsburgh Press. She is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Central Oklahoma where she teaches creative writing.
Judge Hadara Bar-Nadav writes of Rocha’s “Tabloid for Judy Garland”: This whole series of poems is wonderfully inventive and fresh, but “Tabloid for Judy Garland” is particularly powerful and balances innovation, tone, diction, and content in evocative ways. I was immediately struck by how absence is articulated through brackets, a kind of self-erasure that mirrors the self-erasure via drugs and alcohol hinted at in “her liver singing ruin, ruin.” This ruptured villanelle captures glimpses, glimmerings, and fracturings of a life all at once, from the “rainbow folded in half” to a woman in red, “skeletal & amphetamine.” Visceral imagery, diction, syntax, and sound work hand in hand in such well-wrought lines as “Voice of limping menthol bell…”. The “we” in the poem is also a resonant and heartbreaking choice; the “we” who “star in opposite directions” are strangers at last and loss lingers on.
The Skin that Heats and Sparks: Anya Krugovoy Silver’s From Nothing | Review by Paige Sullivan
March 27, 2017
Though From Nothing, Anya Silver’s third collection of poetry, begins with the titular, Donne-esque poem that distills the book’s overarching themes, one can flip a few pages ahead to “Just Red” to feel the collection’s pulse.
In the poem, the speaker shops while her mother sleeps, her father declines in a nursing home, and her friend lies dying in a hospital. The poem abruptly shifts focus: “What I want tonight is lipstick.” She continues:
As pure a red as I can find–no coral
undertones, no rust or fawn. Just red.
Ignoring the salespeople, I untwist tubes
and scrawl each color on my wrist,
till the blue veins beneath my skin
disappear behind smeared bars.
The act of buying “just red” lipstick becomes a controlling metaphor for the collection as a whole: a woman who is keenly attuned to the world, searching for reminders of its lushness and endurance; a woman who is repeatedly faced with her own mortality and that of those she loves.
And while the lipstick in “Just Red” functions as a talisman of vitality, the nail polish in “Red Never Lasts” is a dovetail response, echoing the larger tension of life and loss at work in the collection. She writes:
For three days, your nails are a Ferris wheel,
a field of roses, a flashing neon Open sign. […]
But soon, after dishwashing, typing, mopping,
the chips begin, first at the very tips and edges
where you hardly notice, then whole shards.
Life and loss are closely, consistently entwined in all three sections of From Nothing. The early poem “Coincides” renders side by side images of the speaker and her sister: “I press my shorn chest / against an X-ray machine and hold my breath, / my sister births from her body a baby girl.” Silver observes a comparable dichotomy of presence and absence in “Redbud,” when spring beckons “each pink knob open,” though “some twigs / remain bare.”
While in “Just Red” there is an urge to assert livelihood in the face of death, “Redbud” ends with a different, more perverse, deeply human impulse: “Sometimes I see / the lushness and want to strip it clean.” Similarly, in “Dannon,” the addressee confronts a monumental, nearly incomprehensible truth with recognizable, human feeling: “When you were first diagnosed with cancer, / a commercial for yogurt made you furious–that others could think about pureed fruit / when you might be dying!”
Many poems in From Nothing directly address the ones Silver has lost, particularly women befriended through the shared experience of living with metastatic cancer. And while the poems circle around the details of sickness and death – hospital beds, morphine, tumors – Silver returns again and again to signs of life that persist amidst loss, as in “Leavings”:
…[I] order my son to pick up his leavings–
towels, pajamas, and inside-out tees.
He loves bare trees with wind shaking them.
My friend, who can hardly breath now,
whose sight is failing her, says she’ll leave
before Christmas–the final leaving,
for which all others are correspondences,
which folds the others in its giant wings.
Silver’s examination of her own body and experiences with cancer make for some of the most compelling work, and “Poise” gives a visceral account of this: “I perform cancer. // […] I will not let myself sleep in public. / The poisons drain into my blood, precious as rubies. / My veins, like a dancer’s ankles, crackle.” By the end of the book, she sustains the impulse to honor her body for its corporeality, and thus its splendor, as we see in “Three Roses”:
In my sternum grows the rarest rose of all–
the gold rose, not plucked in any human garden.
It spreads petals in the chambers of my heart,
gold touching every dark cell of my body with love.
Lay your hands on my chest–here, I give it to you.
Feel your palm of my skin heat and spark
Whether taking root in story, art, history, memory, or what lies beneath the skin, From Nothing is a deft exploration of the body and lived experience–in its flourishing and its fragility.
by Anya Krugovoy Silver
Louisiana State University Press, September 2016
Paperback, 80pp. $17.95
Paige Sullivan recently completed her MFA at Georgia State University, where she also served as the poetry editor of New South. Her poetry and prose have been published in Terminus, Mead, American Literary Review, the Bitter Southerner, and elsewhere. She currently lives and works in Downtown Atlanta. Find her online at @bpaigesullivan / bpaigesullivan.wordpress.com.
Best New Poets 2017 Nominations
March 20, 2017
Grist is thrilled to announce the poets from Issue 10 we nominated for Best New Poets 2017:
Lindsey D. Alexander
“Saudade [All You Pioneers]”
Congratulations, Lindsey and Clare! If you haven’t read these poems yet, get your copy of our tenth anniversary issue today!
Death, Art, and Writing | by Ryan Masters
March 20, 2017
The first working artist I ever met was a funeral director named Dan Mason. I worked as Dan’s apprentice at Diuguid Funeral Home for 6 months, and besides some tedious truths about the way people die in the Bible Belt, the only things I learned were the few things Dan taught me about the disciplines of an artist. There are hundreds of reasons a person shouldn’t be a writer, especially not a serious one, and many of these reasons are sound. So when I find myself drinking too much or seriously contemplating a life selling insurance, I remember what I learned from Dan, principles I work by as I endure the poverty and obscurity of my current condition.
Dan had a thick head and a quick, Southern tongue. When I came to work for him my head was a big, soft cloud, full of empty abstractions. I thought I knew something about life and about writing, and that all I lacked to become a serious writer was a little experience. A job that surrounded me with the gravitas of mourning, I thought, would really teach me the difference between books and literature. I aspired to life’s higher experiences.
But Dan had long ago shaken off the pretense of the profound. He had been a funeral director as long as I had been alive. Life, Death, Art—he capitalized none of them. They were “university words,” to him, and he suggested I go back there if they interested me so much. He left truth and the afterlife to Reverend Pillow and the other dreary Baptist preachers of our town.
Dan simply worked. Whatever was needed to move a family through their grief, he set his mind to doing these things well. Most of these things were boringly ordinary. He was careful to fold the sheets and tidy up after removing the deceased from its place of death. He always wore his suit jacket in the presence of the bereaved family. He used an incredibly difficult stitch to close the incision used to fish out the carotid artery during embalming, a stitch that, if done properly, made the spot disappear into an elderly body’s natural wrinkles.
His work was important not because of anything special about death, but simply because it was difficult and required a commitment that not many were willing to take seriously. For Dan, embalming was high science, cosmetizing a lost art. Through years of death-disfigured faces he had learned how to make any dead face imitate its living form. His proudest work was of a man whose jaw had disintegrated from oral cancer, whose face he had taken two days to restore with clay compound, cosmetics, wire, and whatever else he could find in the embalming room. He did this to replace the widow’s hideous last memories of her lover’s cancer-ridden face—its shocking absurdity of colors, its haunting disfigurement—with a face that hearkened back to a time when the man was healthy and alive. He even labored over the creases of the man’s new lip, used sand paper to give his clay chin a natural coarseness.
Some object to this function of art. Shouldn’t art reveal the truth, rather than conceal it? We are about confronting hard truths in their raw form: Death, Life, Decay, those sacred, capitalized words.
But think of that. The disordered image of a cancerous death restored to the delicate order of the living form. The mortician serves the memory of the bereaved the same way the literary writer serves the imagination of the reader. The writer takes words and characters that have gone cold dead from everyday use and gives them the aura of life. In the end the work is only an imitation of life, but what does that matter if the imagination experiences that work as living?
Finally, Dan knew the funeral was ultimately about the difficulty of being the living witness of a dead body. Especially if that body was beloved. This is why he obsessed over open caskets and said to hell with all the memorial jewelry the corporate office was pushing. He knew that the central issue of his art was the lost body, and that his job was to fix that body in a narrative that allowed it to be grieved by the bodies that had to go on living.
I first learned this truth in the context of fiction writing. It was from Flannery O’Connor, who wrote: “The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality.” The hard reality of the dead body has this in common with the realities of well-made fiction: it brings us into deeper contact with that all-consuming mystery of human life, namely that it matters and that it ends.
I remember the night the family of a teenager who hanged himself came in for their first viewing of the body. We didn’t have time to embalm, so Dan improvised. He set the features, which is industry parlance meaning to fix the eyes and mouth in positions of repose. He applied a little cosmetic, just to take the blue out of the lips and cheeks, and then tilted the head in such a way to hide the marks of the rope. Then he had us cover the boy with three long sheets that would obscure the metal table the boy’s body lay upon. Then he covered the boy in a thick blanket that he fished out of somewhere. That poor family was about to come into deep contact with reality. And though their boy was, in sheer cold fact, dead, Dan didn’t want the family to leave thinking he no longer mattered.
Dan and I never did really get along. I was a novice in the world of funeral directing, and I had no respect or patience for his craft at the time. It took me a while to grow up and to realize the vast difference between a man like that and a boy like myself. I was like one of those who are swept up into the romance of novel-writing each November. It was all very exciting, and then it began. I lasted 6 months.
When I moved on and set myself to the daily, hourly, grind of writing, I finally started to understand something about what was required to do good work: dedication, in lower-case.
Ryan Masters is an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction student at Washington University in St. Louis. His recent essay, “Unless a Kernal of Wheat Falls,” was published in Image and appears in the Notables section of this year’s Best American Essays series.
Impossible Questions: Leif Haven’s Arcane Rituals | Review by Justin Goodman
March 13, 2017
Exhortations are poetic. Think Homer’s “Tell me, O Muse,” to Rilke’s “you must change your life,” to Whitman’s “This is what you shall do.” One can say they are diaristic, but it is more an acknowledgement of one’s temporality; poems are extended as offerings, loving suggestions, even an occasional plea. Not so much an alarm clock as a handshake. It’s this extension of the self that Leif Haven offers in his debut poetry collection, Arcane Rituals from the Future, selected by Claudia Rankine for the 1913 First Book Prize, whose title is aptly confusing at first glance. Aren’t “arcane rituals” associated with historical figures like Aleister Crowley? How can they be from the future, and how does one perform something “from” the future? After all, poetry is always already in the past since it’s been written down, so how does a reader understand this translation of the future from the past? As Leif Haven states in an interview in The Conversant: “it doesn’t seem to matter if there is a right answer, and maybe an impossible question with no right answer is the best starting point.” Exhortations as poetry are independent of conclusion.
Leif Haven is no novice to poetic consideration–he has 5 published chapbooks–and Arcane Rituals is a cohesion of his previous works’ temperaments, which run the gamut from sentimental to comic, such as in his chapbook, The Joy of Pain, a poetic transcription of words from Bob Ross in The Joy of Painting. However, Arcane Rituals is more cryptic and atomic than his prior collections; overall, it is a purposefully unbalanced series of poems. At times with the playful erudition of Ben Lerner’s The Lichtenberg Figures, at others contorting words into art pieces as serious and dense as a Donald Judd sculpture: the collection begins “in the era that would be called THE ABERRANT PLATTER” where “loamy with fables the sky mumbled down fresh new covenants” in an almost religious epiphany until “the sky kept a pocketbook and marked in it.” In an instant, the mood pivots from an ultramundane vision to mundane accounting–a summary of a collection where the self must supercede the supernatural in the pursuit of the quotidian.
With gentle pleadings to “imagine,” Arcane Rituals‘ “Instructions for Making a New World” seems to be meant less as a poetry collection than as an art object. “Imagine,” it exhorts, “something heavy.” Now in untitled poems, where before the poems were numbered, with occasional titles, the nameless voice desires the impossible. There’s a great deal of Whitman’s “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” except it foregoes the naturalism, the romanticism, the familiarity of the old poet. There is just the distance of one self to another: “I don’t know how you can turn, and conceiving the steps to complete the return, go about them”. It is like having a sense of touch, but no access to it; “Imagine the mind of the thing you started with. That is now your mind. The mind of something that is heavy…” And somehow, this is very sad.
After all, the uncertainty for imaginative action is central to the future of the title. The section’s concluding sentiments circle Haven’s investment in the unnamed speaker’s imagining —
And there is no suitable namer yet born but i am saying
It now i am saying it and i am giving
It though not suitable a name so it will be so the time
Will hold like brass unto the name that it is
Here is, in a way both sudden and expected, the sharpest turn of the collection – not bereavement because of a seemingly implacable distance, but a celebration of the inevitable coming-to-be this distance suggests. “In that way,” in using the imagination to face down the impossible future, “aren’t we…pursuing an impossible project” Haven would ask. Always.
It’s fitting that Claudia Rankine chose this collection as the winner of the 1913 First Book Prize. In a sense, it is a version of her Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, vying for love and affection in a world making impossible demands–a lack of imaginative empathy for Rankine, a feeble imagination for Haven–where the possibility of the impossible is what’s at stake. There is urgency, that is, and yet “the wafers are a simple goodness.” This communion with poetry is a recognition that “there is no guide into the place that you might be going to so don’t hesitate to take one.” It is a recognition that the future might not even exist. Arcane Rituals is a cherishable object because of the untranslatability of the future it exposes and the amount of pressure it puts on the powers of imagination. As Haven meditates in “Stream” from The Joy of Pain, “I like to make bushes/just to show how easy it is to create/some of these illusions.”
ARCANE RITUALS FROM THE FUTURE
by Leif Haven
1913 Press, 2016
Paperback, 100 pp. $15.00
Justin Goodman earned his B.A. in Literature from SUNY Purchase. He is currently the Assistant Fiction Editor at Boston Accent Lit and Assistant Reviews Editor at Newfound. His writing–published, among other places, in Cleaver Magazine, TwoCities Review, and Prairie Schooner–is accessible from justindgoodman.com.
A Whale is a Whale is a Home is a Lamp: An Interview with Dana Diehl About Craft and Her Debut Story Collection, Our Dreams Might Align | By Michelle Ross
March 6, 2017
Ross: Dana, after reading your gorgeous story collection, Our Dreams Might Align (Jellyfish Highway Press 2016), I’m struck by how much your stories are built up of observations or details pertaining to the natural world–caterpillars, whales, cliffs, stars. Please talk a little about that in terms of your writing process. Do your stories often begin with the natural world? Do you find yourself looking to the natural world when you’re at an impasse?
Diehl: When I write a story, I usually begin with a fact or image from the natural world and develop the story by imagining characters and a plot around it. For example, in “Swarm,” I began with memories I have of bagworms (which are actually caterpillars, not worms) building nests in our trees when I was a kid. In the summer, my dad would carefully burn the web-like nests from the branches. I wrote a scene in which I tried to capture that complicated feeling I had of being both disgusted by the worms and feeling sympathy for them. I thought about who might be burning the nests and who might be watching them burn. I wondered what might make a person relate to the bagworms. The story developed from there.
When I feel stuck, I usually turn to research. I look for a detail that might push my metaphor or enlighten something new about a character. Researching the life cycle of bagworms and learning that females die after they mate helped me to realize that part of “the girl’s” journey involved coming to terms with her new identity as a wife.
I find it hard to write a story without drawing on nature, and maybe this is one of my weaknesses as a writer. But I believe that writers should lean into whatever excites them, whatever makes them ask questions, whatever feels mysterious and magical to them. For me, that thing is the natural world. Using it as my lens is the most genuine way I know how to tell a story.
Ross: You wrote in the days leading up to your book launch about wanting to experiment in “Swarm” with a distant third person by referring to the main characters as “the boy” and “the girl.” I’m curious how common it is for you to begin a story with a formal experiment or technique in mind from the start. And when you begin this way, do you often stick with these restraints or do you find yourself abandoning them sometimes because a particular story requires something different?
Diehl: Though I enjoy writing with formal constraints, only a couple of stories in this collection began that way. An example is “Astronauts,” one of my flash pieces. The first draft of that story was actually about seventeen pages. During my first year of graduate school, I took a class with Peter Turchi in which he gave us a list of “formal constraints” and asked us to choose a few to respond to. I chose the prompt that required us to cut a longer piece down to 700 – 1000 words. “Astronauts” wasn’t working in its current form, so I decided to apply the constraint to this story. I felt very attached to some of the images in my original draft so it was a difficult challenge. But ultimately it forced me to drop the scenes that weren’t forwarding the story and put pressure on the moments that were.
Ross: What is one other way you typically begin a new story (other than with the natural world or with a formal experiment)? Is there a story or several in the collection that began in this way?
Diehl: Many of my stories are inspired by authors I admire. Several of the flash pieces in this collection were written in response to a story I was reading at the time. I wrote “Stones” after Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, because I admired how Stein transformed mundane items into objects that felt precious and electric and wanted to replicate that in my own style.
When I was in college, my professor, Catherine Zobal Dent, noticed that I often internalized what I read and recycled the bits of style and imagery I picked up into my own writing. I hadn’t been doing this consciously. Though Catherine meant it as a compliment, I was embarrassed to realize how many of my ideas came from other authors. Now, I’d like to think that I am more conscious of my influences. As I’m finishing a story, I try to think about who the story is in conversation with and how it contributes to that conversation. I want to make sure my stories are adding to the conversation, not just repeating what has already been said.
Ross: Because I’m fascinated by how some writers love first drafts and loathe revision, while others thrive in revision but find first drafts painful, I have to ask which camp you’re in. Why do you think one is easier for you than the other?
Diehl: I actually think there’s a third camp writers can be in, and that is the planning stage. I love that first stage of the process, when I’m exploring an idea, but I haven’t committed to it yet, and I don’t yet feel the pressure to put my ideas into story form. For me, this stage involves a lot of freewriting and Googling and fragmenting. Usually this is my most confident stage, when I haven’t found any of the flaws in my idea yet!
However, if I’m choosing between first drafts and revision, I would definitely choose revision. After I’ve gotten pass the “planning” stage, writing a first draft is painful and full of a lot of self-doubt. Revising is easier, because the raw material is there, and so I can relax. Revision is where play happens.
Ross: I believe that whales appear in about four of the stories in this collection. The most obvious example is “Swallowed,” about two brothers who are swallowed by a whale, but then there is the father studying whale sounds in “Closer,” and there are smaller references to whales in a few other stories. And your book’s cover features a whale. Were you conscious of this fascination with whales during the writing of these stories or was it a pattern that you noticed later or even deliberately drew out later? Why whales do you think?
Diehl: Well…I learned a lot about my own obsessions by reading through my collection for the first time! It was not a premeditated choice to have so many whales in these stories, but once I noticed the pattern I wasn’t surprised. I read and think about whales a lot, so it makes sense that they would turn up in my stories. I’m interested in the fact that whales have historically been a great source of mythology for humans. You can find stories and depictions of whales in almost every ancient civilization that had access to the sea. Whales are part of our collective imaginations, and until recently their worlds have been inaccessible to us. We try to understand whales by imagining them in relation to ourselves. We ask if they are lonely when we find one that sings at the wrong hertz. We ask if their hearts are big enough for us to swim through their ventricles. A whale is a whale, but it is also so many other things. For the ancestors of modern-day Inuits, a whale was a home. Inuits would collect the curved bones of whales and use them as a frame for their homes. In the 18th and 19th century, a whale was a hoop skirt, a corset, a lit lamp. Whales have such great metaphorical potential, because they’re so hard to define and understand. In her lovely essay, “The Moon by Whale Light,” Diane Ackerman writes that “A whale’s glimpse of us is almost as rare as our glimpse of a whale.”
Ross: Do you have a favorite story in this collection? Why?
Diehl: My favorite story is probably “Going Mean,” the last story in the book. This story was a lot of fun to write, because I got to imagine all of the trouble two baby Komodo dragons could get into. Like whales, Komodo dragons have a history of being mythologized, and I loved being able to tap into that rich mythology.
Dana Diehl is the author of OUR DREAMS MIGHT ALIGN (Jellyfish Highway, 2016). She earned her MFA in Fiction at Arizona State University, where she served as editor of Hayden’s Ferry Review. Diehl has taught Creative Writing at the National University of Singapore, Florence Prison in Arizona, and ASU. Her work has appeared in Passages North, North American Review, Booth, and elsewhere. She lives and writes in Tucson. You can find more of her work at http://www.danadiehl.com/.
Michelle Ross is the author of THERE’S SO MUCH THEY HAVEN’T TOLD YOU, winner of the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award (Moon City Press 2017). Her writing has appeared in The Common, Cream City Review, Hobart, Moon City Review, and other venues. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she works as a science writer and serves as fiction editor for Atticus Review. More about her writing can be found at http://michellenross.com/.
Dorothea Lasky, I Wouldn’t Be a Poet Without You: How Black Life Influenced My Poetics | by Katie Condon
January 23, 2017
Dorothea Lasky’s second poetry collection, Black Life, was assigned as a part of a creative writing course I took in college, and because I had gotten away with it for 19 years so far, I didn’t bother glancing at the book before class. Plus, I had recently heard the T.S. Eliot quote that says something like: all poets have their best ideas before age 18 and spend the rest of their lives writing after them. Since I took that quote seriously, I figured if I could remember everything I thought of a year ago and write it down, POETRY would be happy to publish me in no time. Like every other late teen, I thought I had nothing left to learn.
You can see where this is going—when a classmate read the following lines from a late poem in Black Life called “It’s a lonely world” I was knocked down by a surprise I imagine is similar to being told you’re expecting twins at fifty-five:
It’s Dorothea, Dorothea Lasky
I have done something very wrong and
I am so very sorry about it
“You have done a very bad,
Very bad job” my old boss says
In his Honda
As I take his dick in my mouth—
“Poems can have dicks in them?!” I thought.
“Not only, young Katie, can you put dicks in poems, but you can do so without having to make symbols of them. Fuck allusion,” is what, I imagine now, Black Life laughed back to me.
I hadn’t even read her book yet, and already Lasky was teaching me valuable lessons in being honest and direct. What I appreciated most about the collection when I decided to neglect all other assigned reading to pour over Black Life ad infinitum was its complete lack of self-concsiousness—how Lasky not only titled a poem “Mike, I had an affair,” but followed it with the lines “You know I am a great woman / I am a great woman” without the slightest implication of irony or apology. Although I was not new to the writing game, I hadn’t been hanging around the ring long enough to have rid myself of the paralyzing fear of revealing anything about myself in my writing because WHAT IF SOMEONE ACTUALLY READ IT. Fortunately for me, the bravado and sincerity Lasky hemmed Black Life with were contagious, and soon I was testing the boundaries of my own timidity: What happens if I write about drugs and sex? What chaos will ensue if I address the dude I’m so angry with, like Lasky did with Mike? To my disbelief, nothing happened. I didn’t get kicked out of school. I wasn’t struck by a reckless tractor-trailer sent by God. The only difference I noticed after trying out Lasky’s aesthetic tools was that a few roots had stretched themselves out from the little writing-seed I’d planted years ago, and anchored themselves into the ground of fierce, femme, confessional poetry.
Although I’ve picked up Black Life for reassurance and support frequently over the past seven years, I noticed after reading it closely this fall how much more I’d learned from the book than I’d realized. In addition to speaking honestly about my own life (and putting dicks in poems), my poetics also learned from Lasky how important it is to balance authority and bravado with vulnerability and inclusiveness. For every poem of Lasky’s that asserts “If I am standing in front of you / right now, you are listening to the voice of one of the greatest poets of your time” there is also a poem that positions itself as “I just feel so bad” does, which follows in full:
I just feel so bad
I don’t know
How to overcome it
Skinner says that it is my
Way that makes me function
In this world
I like to think
About things that are nice
I like to plant purple flowers in my mind
That dazzle the starscape
There is no one for me to talk to
Except you dear reader
When there is no one else
To love, there is only you
To pour my love into
Echoes out the landscape
I have no home
I am destitute
But inside me
Is a little voice
That must speak
It gets louder when you listen
In this poem, and in others throughout Black Life, the speaker risks sentimentality and casts herself in an unflattering light with eagerness and ease. When Lasky confides in her readers that she, the poet who parades with a god-like authority in the surrounding pages, feels “destitute,” she engages in a generosity that is often mistaken for humility—she tells us that we have agency in her poems, even the ones that strut. In this way, Lasky taught me that alienating your readers, like my teenaged poetry unintentionally did in fear of being too revealing, is not a sign of poetic genius, or even minor talent. Poetry, rather, is an intimate exchange, like a kiss, between the poet and reader. Faux humility might convince someone to lean into you for a poem or two, in the same way exaggerated confidence can. It is only generous and sincere vulnerability, however, that allows a reader to trust your voice for the length of a book, or career.
I don’t owe all of my poetic principles to Lasky’s second book, but I owe it a hell of a lot: the first time I read Black Life, Lasky gave me permission to never ask for permission again; every time I’ve read it since, she’s reminded me of the exchange, of the delicate equilibrium a poet must strike to empower the reader at the same time she causes them to tremble.
Katie Condon is a Poetry Editor at Grist. If you would like to see first hand how her poetry has been influenced by Dorothea Lasky, head to http://www.katiecondonpoetry.com. To get your own copy of Black Life, visit wwww.wavepoetry.com
Justin Boening’s Not on the Last Day, But on the Very Last | Review by Emily Corwin
January 9, 2017
Justin Boening’s Not on the Last Day, But on the Very Last is a book that gives pleasure, a visceral sensation that starts somewhere in the chest and ripples down to the feet. These poems are wild, lush, and dreamy. I even love the way this book feels in my hands—it is smooth, vibrant, something easy to carry. Boening’s poems are rich, populated by horses and rivers and hair, mirrors and children and paintings. It is a place that I like being inside of, a place to return to.
As the title suggests, Not on the Last Day, But on the Very Last, examines apocalypse, the afterlife, and the ways in which the self navigates these endings. “Is there another world? Is it this one?” the speaker asks. Boening considers this world before him, looking closely at the things of this world, the land and plant life, the gods and animals:
The noise of the bramble
never leaves me.
I bless the cedar. The months go by. I bless your saw.
When you need
me to hurt, I’ll dim
in the linden leaves, I’ll hide
in the fire-scarred hills,
and the great guards
of my gilded name
will circle around to protect me.
And you’ll be there,
and I’ll know your name
as a god knows your name
This landscape is often internalized by the speaker, such as in “Proxy Baptism” when he states: “I shake myself to wake a deer bent down inside of me.” Pervading the book is this desire to transform, to enter a more primal shape. “Everything seems like something you’d say to me in a small town to keep me breathing like a little beast,” the speaker says, wondering too what happens if he becomes “wild again and no longer respond[s] to [his] name.” Boening’s speaker shape-shifts throughout the collection, imagining himself as the man sitting next to him, as a god or animal, as an opera singer, as nobody. By approaching the speaker in these various forms and bodies, Boening shows a self in motion, a self that adapts and dreams of other lives, that ponder the kind of life he could have wanted. This is seen particularly in the poem, “Nobody”:
And as we pushed aside a tangle of leaves to enter
a stolen wood, we knew we’d be joined
by no one not dragging their fat bags behind them.
And the poplars began to shake, or we did.
And the leaves reflected light as they twisted
in the dumb wind—a school of fish
shot through by sun—and nobody was bothered
by a reality that had already come, and nobody
was longing for the one that hadn’t.
The reality that has come to us, this world that we are given is so very tender, dreamy, yearning—a world we should lean into, regardless of our bodies, human or not. In addition to the transformations of the speaker’s body, the female bodies in this collection were particularly striking—the speaker seems often surrounded by a community of women. Women as mothers, women who take his hair, who weep, who button and unbutton his shirt, who fall asleep, who walk back to the house cradling a toy horse. The women feel far-away and mythic, a mysterious, kindred presence on the speaker’s journey.
The scale of this whole collection works on the level of mythology, with these images that can feel both archetypal as well as specific. It is as though we look at the globe from a distance and see its details with a microscope. This effect can be seen in the opening of “The Door”:
In the wilderness, a door
stands upright. Its paint
peeling, its knob
a little loose. I place a palm
of dead bees beside it
to remind the trees
of what it is
to be young.
Boening’s poems are ancient, mystic, sometimes wry, and always ardent. I will be returning to this book often, to spend time in the places these poems have built, to spend time with this speaker at the ends of the earth.
NOT ON THE LAST DAY, BUT ON THE VERY LAST
By Justin Boening
Milkweed Editions, 2016
Paperback, 61 pp. $16
Emily Corwin is an MFA candidate in poetry at Indiana University-Bloomington and the Poetry Editor for Indiana Review. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Winter Tangerine, glitterMOB, Hobart, smoking glue gun, and Word Riot. Her chapbook, My Tall Handsome, was recently published through Brain Mill Press. You can follow her at @exitlessblue.
Good News from Past Contributors
December 12, 2016
We couldn’t be more excited to have heard some great news from past contributors!
Grist 6 contributor Darren C. Demaree’s newest collection, Many Hands Applauding Inelegantly, is now available from 8th House Publishing. You can purchase it at 8th House’s site here and read more of Demaree’s work at his website here.
Alyssa Jewell’s poem “Frida Kahlo Takes a Muse in Detroit” was selected for inclusion in Best New Poets 2016 which will be published in January 2017. You can read Jewell’s poem in our online issue from last year here and pre-order your copy of Best New Poets here.
Stephen Lackaye’s debut collection, Self-Portrait in Dystopian Landscape, was named the winner of the 2015 Unicorn First Book Contest and is now available for purchase here. Lackaye’s poem “Thrall,” published in Grist 6, is included in his debut, and to read more of Lackaye’s work you can visit his website here.
If you’re a past contributor and want to let us know what you’ve been up to since appearing in Grist, please e-mail Jeremy Reed at email@example.com to update us!
Congrats to everyone on their accomplishments!