Tiphanie Yanique – Wife

Disclosure: No personal connection to the poet or publisher that I’m aware of. Yanique’s book features experiences of structural misogyny in the Virgin Islands and the USA, and brings both feminist and post-colonial understandings to her poems’ discussion of marriage and how the institution interacts with conceptions of love and sexuality. It’s worth bearing in mind the obvious point that I have no personal experience of a lot of what Yanique describes, and may be missing a lot of nuance. As ever, I’m operating with what I hope is an open mind.

Review: Right from its opening poem, ‘Dangerous Things’, Wife may be characterised by its ability to express complex power dynamics in more-or-less plain language:

‘This is the island.
It is small and vulnerable,
it is a woman, calling. You love her
until you are a part of her
and then, just like that,
you make her less than she was
before – the space
that you take up
is a space where she cannot exist.’

The poem asserts that critiques of colonialism and of male formulations of desirable femininity are, at their core, inextricable. The following lines, ‘The island / is a woman, therefore / dangerous things live below’, neatly enfold two oppressive schemes of thought that permit dehumanisation and the exercise of control over both colonised land and female body. It also starkly highlights the problem with turning either into a metaphor, in which the particularities of each may be ignored, simplified to the point of violence. The poem concludes:

‘True, we will never be
beyond our histories.
And so I am the island.
And so this is a warning.’

Figuring the poet’s exact position within this system is tricky. The first person hasn’t appeared previously, so the speaker’s taking on of an identity already established as politically restricted feels partly defiant, partly resigned. Maybe only resigned insofar as acknowledging the real and current situation allows a clearer sense of exactly what she is in fact defying, hence the ‘warning’ to the incoming reader. The ‘we’ in the quoted passage feels universal, perhaps not just the speaker and the oppressed people she stands in for, but the predatory ‘you’ from earlier in the poem. History is affirmed as an active force in the present; the poem infers that if the poet/speaker/Yanique is the island, it follows that a white colonist/male reader/addressee may remain the invading force. The poem recognises these as the book’s starting positions, and its ‘warning’ may be its demand not only for close attention but sensitivity to its argument.

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The poems that follow, ‘Blood Wedding’ and ‘Body Logic’, continue the trajectory of ‘Dangerous Things’ in its movement from the political towards the domain of personal experience. The former walks a very fine tonal line, modulating between the dreamy violence of Garcia Lorca’s play of the same name and a deeply morbid turn of humour:

‘A spouse is only a surgeon
passing her own organ through the mirror

dear
beautiful
kidney’

There’s something at once posturing and grounded in these lines, not quite rejecting the doomed love narrative, relishing its visceral imagination while keeping sight of the ‘myth cleaved / from the mirror’, marriage as a culturally sanctioned behavioural control. The best poems in Wife find this place of tension between the poet’s will to artfully and faithfully render her desires, and her awareness of the forces that would punish such forthrightness. As ‘Body Logic’ suggests, those forces are not always external:

‘The body has its own
infant logic.
Its own way to know
if what you speak is true […]
It will open you
and leave you open.
And you’ll have to read it
like a sonogram.’

Again, there’s no straightforward way of rendering the body as hero or villain, and the penultimate sentence is just beautiful in its balance, those reverse angles on ‘open’. Taken together, the poems leave the impression that their speaker is beset on all sides, that even the faithfulness of her own senses cannot be taken as read. Most importantly, I think, ‘Body Logic’ figures an oppositional relationship between bodily instinct and outward expression; its closing line presents the reader with a literal image of the body’s interior to be ‘read’ by the body’s owner, who may or may not be doing so reliably. The poem seems to argue that not even private feelings can be trusted implicitly, that even these deeply intimate moments are subject to the same confusion and frustration as any social moment.

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In her interview with the Forward Arts Foundation, Yanique notes how Claudia Rankine (named in the book’s notes as a teacher/mentor) ‘screws and bends form to say things that otherwise might be impossible to say’, and Wife is noteworthy for its refusal to speak the same way twice. Zuihitsu is a form of personal essay or fragmentary thought in Japanese literature, literally the words “at will” and “pen”; Yanique’s ‘Zuihitsu for the day I cheat on my husband, to my fiancé’ explicitly turns the matter of intimate personal relationships into a literary concern. The poem is a complex, often wry exploration of relationships both romantic and familial, those roles often unrecognisably blending:

Queen: The title a husband gives to his wife only after first giving it to his mother.’

‘I will tell Baby [the lover] that I do not want people. I want family. Your husband, he will say, is your family, right? And I cannot tell if he is directing me to remain unattached or if he is pleading with me to adopt him.’

The poem doesn’t necessarily pass judgement on these fusings and echoes, and it treats what might be called infidelity not as a flaw but a feature of the institution of marriage:

‘I wept. Thinking, already, of the day this one would become the lover. Mourning, already, the pummelled beauty of our affair.’

‘Loving a spouse, says my husband who is not yet my husband, is like praising One God, whom you will betray.’

Adultery: a fetish for monogamists.

What the poem seems to argue for, by way of performing it, is the kind of double-edged openness that appeared in ‘Body Logic’, a frank awareness of the price of respecting, or indeed not respecting, one’s own needs. Like ‘Blood Wedding’, it sees perfect fidelity as an unsustainable artifice, a mortally damaging lie compared with the temporarily hurtful truth (‘pummelled beauty’) of the affair.

In ‘Dictionary’, the poet again employs the prose poem, laying out the political connotations and linguistic origins around the word ‘wife’. Again, the tone balances between humour and scathing critique:

wife – (European origins) a married woman. As in slave in the house. As in chef, maid, nanny and prostitute. But unpaid for these services. […] In the colloquial, wife means woman: as in “Old wives’ tale” meaning a story passed down by ignorant old women.’

As in the social-to-personal progression earlier in the book, each paragraph moves towards a more dehumanised understanding of the word, from ‘wifey – (American Negro origins) diminutive of wife but more desireable. Girl who cooks, cleans, fucks and gives back massages’ to ‘get wife – (Caribbean origins) to have sex, to fuck a human female. […] “Wife” is a direct translation of “sex”.’ Though the poem makes clear that both word and institution are colonial imports, it is clear-eyed about its thorough integration into the poet’s home society. The poem is driven by its assertion of the speaker’s agency, fighting back against social stricture by naming it.

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Alongside the book’s social realism are several poems in which anxieties about racial and misogynist oppression are given full, uncanny voice. In ‘I try’:

‘In the high branches of a tree
there is a bride’s
veil
swinging
Of course, there is a story
here

Though, perhaps the veil is nothing
more than a white
garbage bag
But I know better
I don’t believe my eyes’

Coming straight after ‘Dictionary’, this is a stark and suggestive piece, leaving ample room for the reader’s imagination to fill in the horrific blanks. Alongside the book’s ongoing consideration of how the body may be enlisted against the individual’s ability to identify her own suffering, the poem ends with intimations of lynch mobs, a history of violence against people of colour:

‘Now we may try the ghost bride
for answers

Such as
what do dead bodies mean
when swaying
from trees?’

Where ‘Dictionary’ may find bleak humour in its exasperation, ‘I try’ reaffirms the lived reality of where such deep-seated cultural bigotry leads. That the poem can only express this understanding through a layer of self-doubt (‘this odd telepathy’) leaves space for the reader to choose whether or not to believe the poet’s testimony, whether we ‘believe [her] eyes’. Among the bolder or more dramatically performed statements in Wife, ‘I try’ stands out among its moments of quiet horror. Likewise, ‘A poem to mark when we were afraid’ draws on imagery of Bible Belt America (‘the RV Park’, ‘the revival’, ‘cattle and Hummers’, ‘bumper stickers that read “Follow me to Christ”’), as the speaker and their partner ‘are received as the representatives / from the Pygmy Goat Association’. Within the dreamy world where people are ‘a sir’ and ‘a ma’am’ – people identified by social honorifics rather than individual, humanising features – the poem takes a turn:

‘From the official pamphlet we learn:
pygmies are black pagans and the goat is a metaphor.
That night, though you sleep beside me, the steers stamp me into meat.’

The book was published in November of 2015, and the poem’s composition predates the recent mainstreaming of white supremacy likely by even longer, but its rendering of the monstrousness of white America’s social adhesives is painfully prescient. Again, the departure from the book’s more prosaic waking world is expertly handled, carefully wrongfooting the reader.

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The book’s penultimate piece, ‘Traditional Virgin Islands Wedding Verse’ may be read as a kind of coda. The poem’s form requires each verse to contain the word ‘belong’, and once more, the poem shapes away from social duties (‘Before you even know / you are your own, / you know that you are / someone else’s) and towards the interpersonal. The poem adds to the book’s previous formulations, however, by including a sort of intermediary between the arbitrary, somewhat overbearing institutions of family, religion, state and employment on one side and lover on the other:

‘You are part of a tribe,
It is not a shackle. It is the true story
of self-creation.
It is what makes you.
You come to belong to yourself.
You say I am
and call your own name.’

The ‘tribe’ – notably differentiated from family or place – appears as one of the few enabling forces in the collection, one that empowers the individual via communal support. Where the poem ends by somewhat ambiguously describing the married couple as ‘claiming’ each other as in the first stanza their parents ‘claimed’ them, the tribe is allowed to stand as an unfixed and positive space.

A majority of the book’s finest pieces come in its first section, leaving the later stages of the book feeling a little light. ‘The Story of Our Elopement’, for example, while an interesting narrative, doesn’t quite push outwards from the specific moment that occasioned it. ‘Confession of the five foolish brides’ is an interesting re-think of the parable, but feels a little drawn out. Again, these are by no means bad poems, but the sheer quality elsewhere makes these merely adequate pieces feel a little dry, slow down the hectic pace of the collection.

Despite this, Wife is an extraordinary first book, one that demands slow reading and unbroken attention. Yanique’s skill with capturing atmospheres of implicit violence, allied with her ability to make broad societal structures feel human and intimate, allow for some intensely good poems, with impressive artistic range and depth of understanding. Very well worth her Forward Prize victory, and I hope it finds its due readership on this side of the Atlantic.

Further Reading:

Interview with Yanique by Forward Arts Foundation

Review in St Lucia Star

Review by Becky Varley-Winter in Sabotage Reviews

Review by Martyn Crucefix

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Alice Oswald – Falling Awake

Disclosure: Normally this would be super short, just saying that I’ve read some of Oswald’s work previously but have no personal connection to her. Jack Underwood’s Brief Manifesto for Kindness, however, has important questions about how ‘full’ these disclosures actually are. He notes that having this section at best does a half-job, publicly clearing one’s conscience without really troubling one’s right or capacity to pass judgement, particularly on writers who experience more oppression than I do, i.e. just about everyone. And I guess there’s real danger of doing the same right here, so suffice it to say Underwood’s note about ‘tactical soul-searching’ has been bugging me constantly, I recognise the irony of doing this at the prompting of another privileged white man, and as ever, I hope you trust me – I’ll do my best to earn it.

Review: Insofar as a book as meditative as Falling Awake can be said to have a clear thought-line or theme, it may be the deconstruction of the primacy of human voices and bodies. The book features several ‘talking’ animals (albeit speaking a language to which the reader has no access) and humans in various states of decrepitude. This preoccupation with primacy is in tension with Oswald’s extremely precise control of pacing – although the imagistic element of the poetry may be of, for example, a swan’s decayed corpse or a badger falling to its death, what each poem has to say is delivered with a miniaturist’s attention to the information conveyed  by every odd detail. So the corpse in ‘Swan’ is ‘the plane-crash mess of her wings’, ‘getting panicky up out of her clothes’, climbing out of her own cockpit’, ‘the clean china serving-dish of a breast bone’, ‘the leather underdress / of the heart’, ‘my own black feet / lying poised in their slippers’, ‘the / frozen cloud of the head / before it thaws’, ‘the bride has just set out / to walk to her wedding’. Connecting the uncommon abundance of unique imagery is the swan’s own surprise at finding herself so suddenly grounded –

‘bending back for another look thinking
strange
strange’

– and the list of metaphors can be roughly sifted into two groups, ‘flight’ and ‘(wedding) clothes’, and although the connection is never made explicit, the poem seems to purposefully weave between these domains before arriving at its final image:

‘the little black-lit church
it is so cold

the bells like iron angels
hung from one note
keep ringing and ringing’

What starts with a swan’s dismembered body ends with a traditional church wedding, via several backward looks. There’s an entire short story’s worth of narrative here if the reader wishes to reach for it, and it doesn’t sound like a happy one. Extrapolating a defined plot, though, would risk distorting what seems to purposefully lie a degree out of reach, the poem’s uncertainty (which the swan seems to share – ‘strange / strange’) integral to its meaning. Behind its lyric ambiguity is, I think, a very pointed arrangement.

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The opening poem, ‘A Short Story of Falling’, I think is partly intended to prime the reader for precisely this intensity of composition, to read an organising force behind the book’s disappearing meanings. The poem is ten couplets in irregular pentameter, with polysyllabic rhymes that more often than not finish on an unstressed syllable; the last couplet echoes the first and the entire poem formally embodies the cycles of water and life. As in ‘Swan’, there’s an empowering dissonance between the poem’s formal solidity and its unstable substance. The poem relies on its music as much as its sense, the constant falling away and returning:

‘if only I a passerby could pass
as clear as water through a plume of grass

to find the sunlight hidden at the tip
turning to seed a kind of lifting rain drip

then I might know like water how to balance
the weight of hope against the light of patience’

The last of these three couplets feels almost too neat, leaning heavily on its rhetorical power to convey two relatively loud abstractions for a poem (and a collection) that finds its meaning almost entirely in the concrete, observable world. That such a noticeable exception to the rule appears in the opening poem seems significant. I think the line points towards ‘Tithonus’, the book’s closing long poem/performance piece about a mortal who fell in love with the dawn, who was granted immortality but not eternal youth, and thereafter waits every morning for a glimpse of his love. Maybe it’s a reach, but the book’s preoccupation with creatures (including humans) that barely survive or struggle to communicate might be rooted in the opening poem’s surprising note of optimism. There is certainly suffering, there is certainly decay, but there is survival, of the natural if not necessarily the human world. Maybe it’s only optimistic the way Beckett is optimistic.

Beckett might be a valuable touchstone in Falling Awake. The sequence ‘Village’ is the only poem that features reported human speech, and it renders that speech as almost-nonsense, perhaps attempting to make speech sound the way birdsong sounds to an untrained (human) ear, a gathering of stock phrases from which – like ‘Swan’ – a narrative could be inferred, if not one that could be easily or accurately translated:

‘somebody out thankfully not me out lost in the mud
somebody lost out late again say what you like
a boot by the granite not many of us left
living in the slippery maybe the last green places are you listening’

Like much of the Irish writer’s work, ‘Village’ is populated by folk just barely surviving, the poem relishing describing their bodies in unflattering terms: ‘that’s him bursting full of himself hook-nosed sinister walk / scars on each side of the wrist no teeth’, ‘spillikin legs always wet for some reason’. Oswald balances the sequence between a failure of communication and the will to keep going regardless, the poem’s last line sees its speaker(s) ‘living on the fluff of green of the last little floes of the earth’. Perhaps the undercurrent of Beckett’s apocalypticism makes this a far more troubling line than it might have been – those ‘very last floes’ sound rather conclusive.

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Although many poems in Falling Awake take place in the poet’s immediate physical space, along the River Dunt or in the poet’s back garden, more often than not the centred speaker is non-human, or, like Tithonus or Orpheus’ dismembered head, are subject to powerful debilitation of their senses of self. Arguably, of course, these alternate consciousnesses are filtered through the human and there is no escape from our own minds, but placed on a sliding scale it’s definitely towards the ecocentric end of the spectrum. Also arguably, this retreat from or occlusion of our own biographical selves is achievable for white people in a manner unavailable to poets of colour; Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation has at its heart this very problem, of recognising the essential shiftiness of selfhood while being compelled by colonialist politics to navigate someone else’s fixed and false expectations.

A brief, hopefully relevant aside: in the first six reviews of Falling Awake returned by google, Oswald is compared to: Don Paterson, Ted Hughes (x4), Tennyson, Homer, Marvell, John Clare, Whitman, Larkin, Beckett, Dylan Thomas, Heaney, Blake, Eliot, Dickinson (x3), Anne Carson, and, bizarrely, Claudia Rankine. Of note here is that if you make your favourite poets public reviewers will take that little shortcut to heart, also that this list has many men. In some ways it makes sense: Oswald is a classicist, and in an interview with Max Porter the poets she names are mostly male, Ovid, Hughes, Clare, Shakespeare and Edmund Waller outnumber Dickinson and Jorie Graham. Graham is the only living poet and one of only two from the last century. Judging by that same interview, in which she agrees with Porter’s statement that ‘I think it’s one of the great problems of our culture that we aren’t allowing people to think in certain ways’, Oswald doesn’t seem much taken with recent British poetry or its adjacent culture, arguing ‘We allow [poets] to be marketable, which means they must be categorised in order to be sold’. Those statements need a lot of unpacking: maybe ‘we’ indicates reviewers and publishers, and as ever it’s not clear who imbues these individuals with powers of censorship, but the fact Oswald reaches so far back into the word hoard so matter-of-factly seems significant. As Charlotte Runcie argues, Oswald ‘has made a career of writing powerfully about earth, strength and physicality – tropes many poets would earmark as masculine’: it’s a powerful thing to acknowledge that dividing subject matter into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ piles is nonsense. The fact that such topics remain gendered, however, is an indicator of how entrenched such gender norms are in anglophone poetry, and how important is Oswald’s occupation of that space. Perhaps the fault is not with poets being faced with either engaging hundreds of years of canonised poetry (some of which isn’t terrible) and being fixed in a hierarchy of dead men for life, or working further from the mainstream and being ignored/wilfully misunderstood. Reviewers could work harder to take poets on their own aesthetic terms and not be so eager to quick-fix someone’s authority/authenticity by invoking the dead. (I realise I mentioned Beckett earlier – I hope that was sufficiently contextualised.) What’s important, I think, is that Oswald gives gender essentialism exactly the respect it deserves; when in ‘Fox’ the poet mentions that the fox arrives in the poet’s garden:

‘in such serious sleepless
trespass she came
a woman with a man’s voice
but no name’

there’s probably some manner of reclamation work going on. As Runcie also points out, addressing gender so directly is not Oswald’s usual way. The fox appears ‘in her fox-fur’ and ‘her black gloves’, depicted in women’s clothing in a notably similar way to the swan in her ‘black feet … in their slippers’, is referred to by female pronouns and ‘trespasses’ in an effort to find food for her cubs (‘hungrily asking’):

‘as if to say: it’s midnight
and my life
is laid beneath my children
like gold leaf’

On one level it’s an uncanny encounter with the wild, a moment in which the comfort of the human is contrasted with the uncaring objectivity of nature; but gender is woven into the short poem’s fabric. It doesn’t seem a grand leap to read this as the female poet’s unwelcomed (‘no name’) intrusion on the comfortable ‘house’ of the anglophone canon; that it appears to be an exercise in self-sacrifice also rings true, considering the recent ignorant outbursts from such literary policemen as Private Eye and the Spectator (not to mention the much quieter, more respectable exclusions by the TLS and LRB, as noted by the VIDA count). Falling Awake may be primarily concerned with the difficulty of maintaining consciousness, but it bears in mind how this difficulty intensifies where it intersects with gender.

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The book’s finale is ‘Tithonus’, mentioned above. The book’s pages collaborate in the performance, as page numbers are discarded, not exactly replaced by a vertical line somewhat like a musical stave, denoting measures of time. Like much of the collection, ‘Tithonus’ is largely unpunctuated, except where space on the page is unable to represent pauses in speech (Falling Awake is rather remarkable in being so closely tied to traditional lyric yet so focused on recreating a human voice in action). Beyond the innovative presentation, though, is a profoundly sad telling of the myth. The poem is superabundant with skilful and keenly observed renderings of the dawn’s beauty into language:

‘here come cascades of earliness in
which everything is asked is it light
is it light is it light
the horizon making only muffled
answers but moisture on leaves is
quick to throw glances
and bodiless black lace woods in
which one to another a songbird asks
is it light is it light

 

 

not quite’

It is also keenly aware of Tithonus’ suffering among all this beauty, his inability to speak back to it (‘like a traveller staring through a / newspaper mouthing the headlines’), to communicate in it, only to observe it over and over in its constant variability. By the time the dawn has fully risen the poem  has considered the dawn from an incredible number of angles (‘every morning the same repeti- / tion spreads its infection a kiss gives / off a swoosh’), allowing humour and beauty and death a similar weight, Tithonus’ final, unbearably humble ‘may I stop please’ pulls at my heart even the third or fourth time round. It’s a remarkable piece, and I can only hope a live performance (which was staged with a harpist) gets recorded for posterity. One can dream. In any case, the poem’s tension between death-wish/acknowledgement of beauty reverberates throughout the book, quietly but firmly, and forms a powerful undercurrent, a constant reminder of the stakes in play. Runcie notes in her review that Oswald is at a remove from the London/BBC poetry scenes, and it may well be true that Falling Awake moves at right angles to the any of the prevailing aesthetic winds, to the point of feeling adrift in time. But it is a powerful, thoughtful, often funny book, with a significant message about the natural and human world.

Further reading:

Charlotte Runcie – review in The Telegraph
Max Porter – interview in The White Review
Theophilus Kwek – review in The London Magazine
Alice Oswald – lecture, ‘The Bearer-Beings’: Portable Stories in Dislocated Times

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Vahni Capildeo – Measures of Expatriation

Full Disclosure: None. First encounter with Capildeo.

‘the sense that this incident is one of many, that the personal is historical, that ‘you’ are a stone already worn down by the water-torture drips, is what Rankine seeks to convey about the predicament of the non-‘white’-skinned individual whose daily life cannot be individual, cannot be pure and spontaneous – cannot be lyric – in so far as it is subject to the encasements and flayings of racialised perception.’

– Capildeo, “On Reading Claudia Rankine”, PN Review 228.

Review: Right in the middle of Measures of Expatriation, in the fourth of the book’s seven sections, is ‘Louise Bourgeois: Insomnia Drawings’, a response to an exhibition of the artist’s work. The poem’s first section is titled ‘Felt Pen’ and offers explanations – of varying conviction – for the artist’s iconic choice of instrument:

‘‘Because a red felt pen is Freudian.’
‘Because felt is fuzzy, and she’s female.’
‘Because red is menstrual.’ ‘Labial.’ ‘Dangerous.’ ‘Primal.’’ […]
‘Because a red felt pen is
a substitute for the phallus,
and also an American flag stripe
signifying the absence of France.’

Capildeo offers a further possibility:

‘Because it was bloody well there,
and in a fix or in a fit, the artist
fiercely repurposes whatever is to hand.’

In a state of either pressing necessity or mental unrest, the artist transforms quotidian junk into acts of resistance. Measures of Expatriation aims to unravel some densely knotted and poisonous ideas and manages to do so with wit, patience, and an often bone-dry sense of humour. Underwriting everything, though, is this determination to hook every theoretical abstraction back into the living, breathing world of unstable but powerful signs. It’s noteworthy that in this passage above, Capildeo is not ruling out the possibility that each of the anonymous suggestions might, on its own, contain a nugget of truth; far more important than the pen’s symbolism, however, is the fact that it was used at all, that the threat of silence is far more pressing than the triumph of one theoretical network or another. The fact that those few lines carry so much freight is true of the collection at large, it’s a long read and a dense one, and every word has clearly been agonised over. Just thinking about the mental labour involved to produce this book makes my head hurt. Yet the challenge seems to be part and parcel of the book’s purpose, and it would be naïve to think that its substantial and sustained challenge to the imposition of restrictive identities (racial, national, gendered or otherwise) would be easy reading.

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And yet the sum of its dense, allusive and syntactically outlandish linguistic performances is an extremely human book. Even when obscured by layers of persona or dramatic irony, Capildeo is a thoughtful and curious guide through her poems’ ideas; the profusion of prose texts in this collection seems to me to be evidence of a will to empower the reader, to spell out her arguments in much plainer fashion than in the more recognisably ‘lyric’ pieces. Looking back at Capildeo’s 2013 collection Utter shows a far greater faith in the column of left-aligned text most commonly recognised as ‘a lyric poem’, and it may be that the greater reliance on non-traditional poetic forms in the new book is continuous with her strategy of ‘fiercely repurpos[ing] whatever is at hand’.  As in Capildeo’s reading of Rankine, the poet and her writing have been disallowed from comfortably inhabiting what a reader of canonical Anglophone poetry might recognise as lyric. As Capildeo explains, ‘If this is lyric, lyric must rise as a spring which acknowledges sedimentation, an inspiration which knows it breathes in shared, polluted air, which sings its body of ‘you’ because its ‘I’ is treated as an ‘is not’ or a ‘they’’. The knock-on effect, of course, is that talking about the content of the work, its revolutionary substance, is deferred as the form it takes must be scrutinised, must first defend its right to claim lyric space. In other words, instead of getting bogged down in questions of whether this is poetry, ask why poetry needs to take such radical form.

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It’s noticeable how often the book returns to questions of belonging, of feeling at home either in one’s own skin or in the place one lives. In ‘Too Solid Flesh’ (from Hamlet’s soliloquy: ‘O, that this too too solid flesh would melt / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!’), the poet appears to be suffering from an acute bout of depression, one that connects homesickness (‘She four-thousand-miles-away-across-the-ocean hasn’t been herself lately’) with a feeling of physical disconnect:

‘I am feeling out of touch with my body: it feels like something I have been given to look after. When I bathe I feel that I am washing it, not that I am bathing’.’

The poem explores several scenarios in which it is not so much the poet’s inability to ‘acquire weight’ that is at fault, but the world itself fails to fill the gaps in the poet’s perception. A ghoulishly disfigured member of the displaced Arawak people appears in a dream, ‘her flesh no longer covered skull’: ‘‘I’m as solid as you are,’ she said loudly and tonguelessly. […] But I was alive, and she was not.’ As Sandeep Parmar explains, the scene complicates a simplistic power narrative, forcing both poet and reader to locate themselves in a much broader understanding of historical violence. On that note, it’s probably not coincidental that the next figure to beset the poet with social expectations is an ‘Armed Forces man’, someone sitting at the crossroads between social and gendered authority:

‘had the kindness to ignore the others at the dinner table, in order to explain to me how I might acquire density: essentially, I was the same as any woman, if we could put aside the intellect.’

Like many other figures in the scene, the Armed Forces man is partially disfigured in the poet’s (apparently) malfunctioning perception, ‘His head not only disappeared; it also came apart.’ This inability or refusal to acknowledge him as a full person has the effect of stripping him of his surety, his unquestionable authority: it’s certainly grotesque, but there’s also something funny about him taking on ‘the aspect of a pegged grapefruit of which one quarter had been eaten’. The poem also encounters a half-faced literary agent, advising the poet to sell the mangoes, coconuts, yams, rum and ‘a grain of salt’ that fall magically out of her books. Selling images of her assumed Caribbean identity are figured as the only business-friendly means of acquiring literary weight, in a world where women in academic posts:

‘trundle towards the apex of a career, wild for the literature that has been written, for no more need be written, for literature is the province of the dead, and how can I have something to add to it?’

Again, the poet’s capacity to enact significant change, to assert her right to shape her own identity and narrative are circumscribed by the norms of literary culture, which will only let her participate with colonial strings attached, and academic culture, which in its over-emphasis on traditional anglophone literature excludes counter-canonical thinking by design. If it all sounds heavy and worthy in summary, the experience of reading the poem is one of following a sharp and wise observer through a series of experiences so ludicrous that comedy almost feels like a coping strategy as much as a literary one. The sequence’s penultimate tableau is a near-fatal attempt to acquire Tamiflu from a wilfully obstructive health bureaucracy that leaves the ailing poet a ‘childless, no-news nowherian’. And yet it finds something hopeful in ‘An older woman’s voice whispers disapproval in my ear’:

If you see the pictures like Auntie Sati had […] we never covered ourselves up. Covering ourselves up, that is a new thing. Maybe it is a Mulsim thing, maybe it is a Western thing. […] I do not know whether what the older voice says is true.’

Given the emphasis in ‘Too Solid Flesh’ on distorted perceptions of reality, it’s possible that the poet’s final scepticism is redundant – how much of any of this is ‘true’? Yet the reminder that behavioural norms are arbitrary, relative, and subject to change permits a note of real hope, so that even the subtly comic wordplay in:

‘‘Black,’ my mother says darkly, ‘is a colour of joy.’ Kali is black. Black contains all the colours; it is the ultimate colour.’

also contains sincere optimism, a reassertion of a meaning that runs contrary to the (Western) norm. The poem’s last word, ‘This has been thought for you’, makes me want to punch the air.

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In the title poem, ‘Five Measures of Expatriation’, Capildeo examines how language itself conspires in racism, how the words ‘Expatriate. / Exile. / Migrant. / Refugee’ are applied to different bodies with different political goals in mind. As Sophie Collins notes in her review in Poetry Review, ‘colonial forces behind national languages are foregrounded throughout, the pervasive myth of an essential ‘mother tongue’ debunked’. In this poem, Capildeo contrasts the arbitrary, artificially fixed boundaries of political entities with the living realm of language:

‘Language is my home. It is alive other than in speech. It is beyond a thing to be carried with me. […] Language seems capable of girding the oceanic earth, like the world-serpent of Norse legend. […] Yet thought is not bounded by language. At least, my experience of thinking does not appear so bound.’

The collection is full of such moments of rhetorical power, in which Capildeo demonstrates an excellent ear for rhythm, for the impassioned and genuine, something like an intellectual call to arms. More often than not, however, such moments are immediately deflated by the mundane or ridiculous, as the impulse to keep a sense of proportion does its work. In ‘Five Measures…’, the next words are the children’s-book-like ‘One day I lost the words wall and floor’, though even these are shot through with the will to overwrite meaningless boundaries, ‘There seemed no reason to conceive of a division’ (noting that the Trinidadian response to the formation of Pakistan referenced in ‘And Also / No Join / Like’ also operated on ‘the lines of what had not been a division’; the linguistic and the political are continuous). Capildeo is extremely careful to never let the messiness of reality be erased for the sake of political cleanliness.

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As Amanda Merritt notes, that same messiness occasionally looks more like plain confusion, and there are certainly times in Measures of Expatriation where I found the poems’ rejection of conventional syntax or deep etymological punning a little too dense to follow. However, where these strategies hit their mark, the book rewards the necessary close readings, including the wonderful ‘Un Furl’, which might be the most heartfelt language-love-poem I’ve ever read, which begins:

‘Any love
meant as equal
is momentary
momentarily unequal
is equal
if love
reckons time
knows not equals’

Given the collection this poem appears in, the sincerity of the quest to formulate a working and positive definition of a healthy romantic partnership is an absolute sucker punch. If any sticklers for formal convention were to read the book’s dreamy and powerful short stories (which Collins beautifully names ‘itinerant prose pieces’) and ask where the poetry is, where, ultimately, is the lyrical work for which all this unlineated writing is trying to create space, one may point right here. It’s a green shoot in a desert, it’s the feathers on the book’s cover flying again. This may be a thoroughly polyanna reading of a collection that is under no illusions about exactly what kind of world it lives in, or about the structures that hold its worst offenses in place. There’s something deeply heartening, however, in the fact that a full half of the book’s poems are dedicated to friends and peers (if Shakespeare’s ‘Weyward Sisters’ count), asserting a community, a federation of individuals where a white-centric culture would see an undifferentiated ‘they’. Measures of Expatriation has an unshakeable grip on what anchors the poet to her humanity in spite of constant dehumanisation.

This is not an easy book by any reckoning; it is long and densely written, it often leaves the reader without footholds and deviates from recognisable tradition. Parmar argues that ‘Capildeo’s integrity and intelligence put her several steps ahead of publishers, academics and critics who might foolishly marginalise her work in Britain’, and I’m pretty darned excited by the idea that this book could open new possibilities in terms of how we read poetry, and what mainstream poetry is capable of discussing. That means pushing readers out of our comfort zone, asking important questions about how such comfort is constructed, who it benefits and who it excludes, questioning the morality of what we (by ‘we’ I mean particularly privileged readers like myself) take for granted every day. I can’t think of a better definition for the work of poetry.

Tl;dr: if you like to have your assumptions challenged, if you enjoy sharing the ideas of a deeply thoughtful, witty and principled writer, read this book.

Further Reading: Sandeep Parmar review, The Guardian.

Amanda Merritt review, London Magazine.

Sophie Collins review, Poetry Review (Summer 2016).

Sara Hirsch & Ben Fagan – Made to Measure [Fringe Diary Part Two]

Full Disclosure: Saw Hirsch’s show at last year’s Fringe, which I really enjoyed. She also performed at this month’s Poets Against Humanity, which is a show I helped to write (and is way funnier/less awful than the card game). Fogan is a new poet to me.

Review: Made to Measure begins with Hirsch jogging in place, headphones in and beaming aggressively. ‘Do you write every day?’ ‘Are you discovering coffee shops?’ ‘When was the last time you swam?’, like a jobseeker’s interview funnelled through aspirational Guardian supplements. The show is partly coming-of-age story (trying to wear clothes that don’t fit, literally or figuratively), partly a missive against a culture increasingly hostile to people under 30; maybe it’s more about how difficult it is to come anything resembling ‘of age’ while retaining the kind of beliefs and principles that made you want to write poetry shows.

I saw the show with Andrew Blair (ex-Godfather of the Edinburgh Poetry Scene), who described it as ‘Spaced but with poets’, which I would absolutely watch the heck out of, and is decently accurate. Hirsch and Fagan are both excellent at their chosen profession, even if ‘profession’ doesn’t mean ‘living’, and if watching two capable and curious minds hammer against a system that undervalues them and their skills feels less tragic it’s only because it’s so familiar.

Narratively, Made to Measure follows Fagan growing up in rural New Zealand and moving to London, where he and Hirsch rent a flat. The question of ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ haunts the show, and underlying the snappy comedy and near-flawless chemistry between the performers is the uneasy feeling that the stakes are extremely real. Like Paula Varjack’s Show me the Money, the disappearing possibilities of secure and fulfilling work, stable housing and material comfort are weighed against the increasing difficulty of continuing to make art. The distance between ‘what you want to be’ and ‘growing up’ are at times painfully distant.

All that said, it’s also a remarkably uplifting piece of theatre; the fact that childhood dreams are given equal space to the realities of bill-paying and keeping up with your peers is weirdly heartening. A recurring motif is Hirsch’s little brother’s dream (played by Fagan with wide-eyed brio) of being a train-driver, which he sort of got to do when he was three – it becomes a kind of emotional anchor, a way of re-centring yourself in a culture that wants to stamp out any dream not in its own image.

The performance I saw on Friday 12 was extremely smooth and beautifully realised. Made to Measure’s conclusion, involving a (very neatly done) turn to camera, did feel a little abrupt, perhaps puncturing a bit of the show’s momentum. At the same time, the fact that it allowed a very direct address of its central concerns gives some indication of how urgent those concerns are, and was maybe worth the slight veer in tone.

Tl;dr: Made to Measure is the best two-hander poetry show I’ve ever seen, an excellent chunk of theatre that feels timely, curious and generous. Go see.

Made to Measure is on at 3.05pm every day from today (17) – 27 August, Silk Upper, 28A Kings Stables Road.

Further Reading: Sara Hirsch’s website

Ben Fagan’s website

Paula Varjack – Show Me The Money [Fringe Diary Part One]

Full Disclosure: Varjack was one of the first performers I saw when I moved to Edinburgh, but I don’t know her personally.

Review: A couple of nights ago I went to see Paula Varjack’s Show Me The Money, a show about how artists in the UK survive, either by their art or not. I’ve seen a few versions of the show now, and it’s immediately apparent that Varjack has thrown everything at it. There’s an urgency to the operation that’s struck me on each viewing, that what’s at stake is at once stark and utterly mundane; this person may or may not continue making art.

So the show begins by asking what an artist is, whether it’s even a real job – Varjack interviews Dan Simpson’s father, a cab driver, about how he would respond if his clients approached the matter of payment the way commissioning organisations did, with predictable exasperation. Maybe that’s the biggest thing to take away from Varjack’s reams of interviews – no one seems surprised that things are the way they are, that art in this country is microvalued and deteriorating, that artists often have two, three, more other jobs and still live hand to mouth. The fact that wanting to make art not only requires poverty, precarity, in many cases sacrificing a stable home life, seems a given. Varjack mentions early on that the younger artists she interviewed tended not to have a plan for the future, there was a sense that writing or creating was something one could only do for so long. One artist talked about how around the age of 35, one by one his friends stopped making art; the question of how long someone can physical or emotionally sustain that kind of lifestyle seemed to have a very concrete threshold.

Show Me The Money approaches the fraught domain of arts council funding tongue-in-cheekly, lampooning the language of application forms (‘this piece will include the excluded, whilst simultaneously being engaging for all’) and imagining council offices as a cross between heaven and the mailroom scene from The Hudsucker Proxy. Behind that, of course, is a serious point – if arts councils don’t have active connections in living, breathing scenes, their main point of contact is through a series of essay questions and budget plans that don’t necessarily align with traditional artistic skillsets.

The show is bleak viewing, and Varjack’s ability to draw desert-dry humour out of the situation is admirable. Happily, she knows the power of optimism, hope, and (more importantly) getting organised; the Manifesto for Artists in a Crumbling Arts Economy near the hour’s end focuses on the need to support your fellow artists, for honesty, bravery, compassion, empathy and a bunch of other things that reminded me of precisely why I spend my free time on this stuff.

Further reading: The Show Me The Money tumblr is an excellent resource (Varjack: “Yesterday I realised that it’s not a show I want to make, what I want is to start a movement”), and although her interviewees are not introduced by name during the show, Varjack’s full video archive is available on Varjack’s Vimeo page.

Show Me the Money ran from 9-10 August, Varjack and Simpson Presents ran from 6-13 in Banshee Labyrinth. A list of her upcoming shows is here.

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky With Exit Wounds

Full Disclosure: None. New poet to me. Review copy purchased with help from supporters on Patreon. Just a wee heads up that the book and the review discuss domestic violence and implied sexual abuse.

Review: There’s a wonderful podcast and interview with Vuong on LateNightLibrary where Vuong argues that all of a poet’s subject matter should be in service of the questions the poet wants to explore; the most important part of the process, then, is having a clear idea of what those questions are. In the most general sense, the poems in Night Sky… are concerned with how the past informs and shapes the present, how one moment irrevocably changes the next; while it’s possible make a rudimentary catalogue of ‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘war’, ‘love/sex’, ‘America’ poems, the collection is way more interested in how these categories overlap or intersect. As Christopher Soto points out in a review in Lambda Literary, Vuong repeats the same building-block images – ‘moon, sun, mouth, lips, teeth, body, time … fire, burn, black, bright … kneeling, kissing, hair’ – across a multitude of poems, giving the impression that, despite a great variety of tone, form, or narrative perspective, the whole book is cut from the same cloth. A cynic might suggest this is an indulgence of the poet’s writing tics, but it feels purposeful: the first and last poems in the book feature the narrator on their knees, the former in an act of voyeurism (‘I watched, through the keyhole, not / the man showering, but the rain // falling through him’), the latter in an act of apparently humdrum, loveless sex (‘my knees / scraping hardwood, / another man leaving / into my throat’). Elsewhere in the collection, kneeling figures appear with notable regularity, in postures of surrender, prayer, love, or in one memorable image, saving a beached dolphin. I think the book’s vocabulary behaves in the same way as its themes – the reader is given a followable thread that allows us to see the same image or person or thing from different angles, challenges us to read again what seemed to be wholly comprehensible. Above all else, I think, Night Sky With Exit Wounds is a book that refuses to accept simplified formulations of complicated ideas; the act of allowing a person to mean multiple things at once seems synonymous with the book’s conception of love.

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More on that later, maybe, as to focus too much on the book’s theoretical framework would be to misrepresent a lush, visceral, human book of poetry. The collection features several poems about or in the voice of the poet’s father; it is clear from these pieces that he is capable of committing horrific acts of violence, not least towards his own family. Vuong, however, does not paint him as a pure and irredeemable monster: in the poem ‘In Newport I Watch My Father Lay His Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back’ he ‘kneels to gather the wet refugee / into his arms’; in ‘Always & Forever’, he leaves his son a handgun, for ‘when you need me most’ – the poem regards this gesture with remarkable ambiguity, managing to convey both its intended warmth and its chilling, estranging effect without explicitly passing judgement either way. The poem notes how ‘His thumb, / still damp from the shudder between mother’s / thighs, kept circling the mole above my brow’. I don’t think this is a lurid detail for shock value; I think this is consistent with Vuong’s strategy of seeing multiple motivations in action simultaneously, or his depiction of his father as someone who does not draw, or at least enact, clear distinctions between sex, violence and familial love. Vuong writes with a narrative efficiency many short story writers would sell a kidney for. In ‘Prayer for the Newly Damned’ the poet witnesses his father ‘pressing a shank to another man’s throat’, strongly identifying with his victim:

‘Am I wrong to love
those eyes, to see something so clear
& blue – beg to remain clear
& blue?’

Later, there is ‘a boy kneeling / in a house with every door kicked open / to summer’, with ‘A knife touching / Your finger lodged inside the throat’. The rendering of the scene –  which for want of more detail seems to imply the poet being physically threatened by his father – is characteristic of Vuong’s style. Simply spelling out the act of violence might fix it in realistic space far too neatly; giving the reader just enough detail to piece the scene together themselves (particularly in light of information supplied in other poems) allows or requires a more engaged kind of meaning-creation on the part of the reader. It also permits disbelief or wilful ignorance; the active decision to believe your own senses, to acknowledge what is certainly present in the text, is itself a hugely uncomfortable, perhaps even painful experience. Vuong articulates the silences and elisions that trauma occasions to powerful effect.

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The act of witness seems a vital cog in the book’s engine, the poet as a keeper of memories and stories both personal and historical, including several pieces in which Vuong watches his parents or speaks in their voices. What’s remarkable about many of these early pieces is how seamlessly Vuong sidelines the observational self; the poems’ narratives are given central focus, and whatever impressions the reader gets about the real-life poet are fleeting, and only substantiated much later in the book. ‘Aubade with Burning City’ sets the evacuation of Saigon in April 1975 against another obliquely written scene of (probably) an American officer and a young Vietnamese woman, (or girl, given the recurring image of ‘Milkflower petals […] like pieces of a girl’s dress’):

‘He fills a teacup with champagne, brings it to her lips.
Open, he says.
She opens.’

In ‘Headfirst’, the poet’s mother  asserts:

‘When they ask you
where you’re from,
tell them your name
was fleshed from the toothless mouth
of a war-woman.
That you were not born
but crawled, headfirst –
into the hunger of dogs. My son, tell them
the body is a blade that sharpens
by cutting.’

Late in the collection, in the poem ‘Notebook Fragments’, Vuong notes:

‘An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists.
Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me.

Yikes.’

Although, as the latter poem’s title suggests, this is one thought among many, and an uncharacteristically blunt one at that, these lines make one of the book’s latent ideas explicit, that each of what could be considered its central ‘themes’ are deeply connected. The murderous masculinity-cult of 1968’s John Wayne-in-Vietnam movie The Green Berets (‘Self Portrait as Exit Wounds’) feeds into the power dynamics between the nameless American and Vietnamese characters in ‘Aubade with Burning City’. The suffering brought upon Vietnamese women informs their conception of the body as ‘a blade that sharpens / by cutting’; implicitly, it dulls by not cutting, it becomes less of a weapon the less it is used as a weapon (maybe it’s no accident that literal knives appear in the hand of the poet’s father throughout the book). The poet’s renderings of love are haunted by this idea, the physical body given primacy over the emotional states it inhabits; in ‘Eurydice’, the speaker self-rebukes, ‘Silly me. I thought love was real / and the body imaginary’. In ‘Because it’s Summer’:

‘the boy who finds you
beautiful only because you’re not
a mirror’

while ‘Notebook Fragments’ has a scene with a ‘high school English teacher’: ‘I could eat you he said, brushing my cheek with his knuckles’; ‘A pillaged village is a fine example of perfect rhyme. He said that.’ The undercurrent of each of these poems is similar to Claudia Rankine’s rendering of the present-self and the historical-self suddenly and disastrously meeting; these actions by the English teacher might be benevolently meaningless from his perspective, but for Vuong the entire sexual encounter is tainted by historical significance:

‘I kissed it [the teacher’s scrotum]

lightly, the way one might kiss a grenade
before hurling it into the night’s mouth.’

It’s worth noting that the book references dissident political poets such as Nguyễn Chí Thiện and Edmond Jabès, and blends into its lyrics a kind of compassionate resistance, insisting on love in the face of violence. Where love is not set upon by historical forces, it is threatened by the toxic mores of contemporary America. ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ is written entirely in footnotes, as reference numbers hover on a blank page, in the voice of a gay man murdered in Dallas. A poem whose content borders on the downright halcyon:

‘& this is how we danced: our mothers’
white dresses spilling from our feet, late August

turning our hands dark red. & this is how we loved:
a fifth of vodka & an afternoon in the attic, your fingers

through my hair – my hair a wildfire’

is titled ‘Homewrecker’. There are precious few moments in Night Sky… in which uncomplicatedly positive moments of love emerge unscathed.

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After all of this, the book’s penultimate poem is ‘Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong’, taken from fellow Copper Canyon poet Roger Reeves’ poem ‘Someday I’ll Love Roger Reeves’ which itself is taken from Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘Katy’, written in the voice of a six-year-old who says “someday I’ll love Frank O’Hara’. That the poem has already passed through several hands is part of its meaning, the perhaps never-ending process of learning to love someone whose culture has decided should not be loved. The poem itself does not have a logical narrative progression, and is more akin to ‘Notebook Fragments’ than the book’s other accounts of (imaginative) memory. It places more significance on individual turns of phrase:

‘Ocean, don’t be afraid.
The end of the road is so far ahead
it is already behind us.’

‘The most beautiful part
of your body is wherever
your mother’s shadow falls’

‘Here’s a desk
with the gimp leg & a brick
to make it last. Yes, here’s a room
so warm & blood-close,
I swear, you will wake –
& mistake these walls
for skin.’

That the poem’s closing image is a combination of writing-room and body feels like a culmination of the book’s intent. That a book that spends so long detailing suffering and loss should have at its climactic moment such an image of defiant persistence is a little extraordinary.

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Vuong’s palette is rich and sensuous, and, as Soto’s list of motifs implies, his poetic vocabulary often leans towards the personal/confessional/generally sincere. Whether you can tolerate occasional stumbles into political heavy-handedness (‘Of Thee I Sing’ is written in the voice of Jackie Onassis and maybe lands too heavily on its closing ‘American dreams’),or metaphors that don’t quite stick the landing (e.g. ‘my hand, filled with blood thin / as a widow’s tears’ from ‘Thanksgiving 2006’), will very much colour your enjoyment of the collection. The flipside is that when these poems do get their calibrations right, as in ‘Anaphora as Coping Mechanism’ or ‘Queen Under The Hill’, they are heartwrenching, all heightened realities and emotional devastation. That said, Night Sky With Exit Wounds is not a tragedy-memoir, and it would be a mistake to equate emotional turmoil with aesthetic achievement. The book’s argument against racial, sexual and gender inequality is at the heart of its poetic project, from its insistence that ‘Yes, you have a country’, its acknowledgement that ‘from men, I learned to praise the thickness of walls. / From women, / I learned to praise’, to, in ‘Ode to Masturbation’, ‘sometimes / your hand / is all you have / to hold / yourself to this / world’. Given the book’s stakes, it may well be that heartfelt sincerity is the only viable option, a very real survival strategy or coping mechanism.

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Okay, tinfoil hat time and then we’ll call it a day. I think Night Sky With Exit Wounds might owe as much to musical composition as poetry. There are so many recurring themes and leitmotifs that a musical kind of attention to patterned meaning seems to be meaningfully rewarded. (I might well have reached the saturation point for exegesis and am projecting hugely, but the book seems to bear this theory out.) To show you what I mean, take the shifting meaning of the eponymous ‘exit wounds’. They appear in several poems, each instance slightly modified from the one before: its first appearance is in ‘Always & Forever’, a literal gun held by Vuong which makes him ‘wonder if an entry wound in the night // would make a hole wide as morning’. Second, it informs an entire poem, ‘Self Portrait as Exit Wounds’, in which a series of tableaux from the Vietnam War impact on the poet’s self-conception, Vuong finally ‘lower[ing] myself between the sights’. In the excellent ‘To My Father / To My Future Son’, the stars are ‘the exit wounds / of every / misfired word’. Finally, in ‘Logophobia’, ‘I drill the ink / into a period. / The deepest hole, / where the bullet, / after piercing / my father’s back, / has come / to rest’. In a book so full of guns, bullets, wounds and generally being violently passed through, that the final word on the matter (indeed, where the matter rests) should be in a moment in which bullet and word are synonymous, seems significant. To say what, exactly, would probably put too fine a point on it, and I’m sure you’ll have ideas of your own; my main point here is that the book seems to encourage this awareness of repeated significant phrases or images (try it with kneeling figures, maybe, or what the book sets on fire), interconnected verbal patterns that mirror the interconnectedness of the book’s themes.

Tl;dr: In any case, Night Sky With Exit Wounds is a bit of a special book, and the folks at Jonathan Cape have pulled off a tidy bit of business by signing him up. Highly recommended.

Further reading:

Interview and discussion on Late Night Library Podcast

Michiko Kakutani – review in the New York Times

Stephan Delbos – review in Body Literature

Christopher Soto – review in Lambda Literary

Jeff Nguyen – review in The Rumpus

Interview with Vuong (in Vietnamese) with Vien Dong Daily

PS: If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing this, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, and you can cancel at any time. Thanks for reading.

Denise Riley – Say Something Back

Full Disclosure: Saw Riley read at the Scottish Poetry Library in May this year.

“The only constant is a commitment to the thing that is song. This is in some way linked to the persistence of hope. Then as I get older this whole business of ‘song’ only becomes still more mysterious. It is a plain bright mystery.” – Riley, interview in Shearsman (2014).

Review: Say Something Back is Riley’s first poetry publication since her Selected in 2000; since then she has been more regularly published as a scholar of language and feminist theory. A great many poems in the new book seem to originate as critical or creative responses to other poets and artists; a cursory glance turns up Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Heinrich Heine, Michelangelo Antonioni, Wallace Stevens, the singers Little Eva and Johnny Nash, the writer of the biblical Proverbs, Yeats, Shelley, Neruda, Wordsworth, Blake. It’s perhaps remarkable that Riley has produced a book of such emotional immediacy and intimacy among the shadows and echoes of other highly revered artists; the overriding presence of so many major works of grieving or solitude may be artistically enabling for Riley, their commitment to song (or something like song) a last redoubt against silence. Perhaps they are part of the book’s ability to literally ‘say something back’. The book’s title and epigram, for example, is from WS Graham’s Implements in their Places’, another site of complicated exchanges of impression/expression:

‘Do not think you have to say
Anything back. But you do
Say something back which I
Hear by the way I speak to you.’

Graham supposes that he understands his companion by the modulations in his own responding voice. The exchange is fulfilled only by its continuation: he speaks to ‘you’, who does not have to say anything back, but does, which he hears in his own speech; in four lines Graham has made a little perpetual motion machine, expression that creates expression, understanding that creates understanding.

1 Corinthians 13:11 reads:

‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. [12] For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.’

It’s a complex little passage, not least in the English translation’s rendering of time; it’s not immediately apparent in verse 12 which is the action of the child, and which the adult, and the latter line about knowing and being known seems a continuation of Graham’s thinking. Here’s how Riley renders those lines in Say Something Back’s first poem, ‘Maybe; maybe not’:

‘When I was a child I spoke as a thrush, I
thought as a clod, I understood as a stone,
but when I became a man I put away
plain things for lustrous, yet to this day
squat under hooves for kindness where
fetlocks stream with mud – shall I never
get it clear, down in the soily waters.’

For a kickoff, this is a wee bit marvellous. It rejects Saint Paul’s neat moral system, literally muddying the waters between innocence and maturity. After reading the rest of the collection, the image of the poet under a horse’s feet, searching for understanding mostly in vain in horse-water feels emblematic of the book’s repeatedly failed attempts at finding solace; the lament or frustration of ‘shall I never / get it clear’ is beautifully ambiguous. Emphasis is as much on ‘repeatedly’ as ‘failed’, however: like Beckett’s Didi and Gogo, part of the book’s emotional power (and Say Something Back made my heart sore like few others have) comes from Riley’s capacity to face one disaster after another and stay standing, stay saying.

AW2

A cynic, of course, might read this as a bit of an echo chamber – surely what is said is at least as important as its being said at all. This tension between comprehension-by-expression and outright futility is, I think, at the heart of Riley’s sequence ‘A Part Song’, an elegy for her son. Much has been written on the sequence already, not least in Steph Burt’s excellent piece for Poetry Review; Burt describes how these poems ‘find force by seeking accuracy, and never minding whether they’re awkward: they are like rigorous twelve-tone compositions that, somehow, also work as pop songs you can hum’. It’s an apt comparison: ‘A Part Song’ functions in part by tiny, subtle shifts in tone that simultaneously make it stranger and truer, discordant and real. Riley’s control over these shifts allows her tableaux to run from profound understanding of aging and dying:

‘Each child gets cannibalised by its years.
It was a man who died, and in him died
The large-eyed boy, then the teen peacock
In the unremarked placid self-devouring
That makes up being alive. But all at once
Those natural overlaps got cut, then shuffled
Tight in a block, their layers patted square.’ (part (iv))

to a tiny, haiku-ish sigh of a thing:

‘Dun blur of this evening’s lurch to
Eventual navy night. Yet another
Night, day, night, over and over.
I so want to join you.’ (part (xiv))

What each of the registers in ‘A Part Song’ have in common is a complete economy of vocabulary. Even when words or phrases are jarring and awkward, they still fit, they do their allotted work. In most poems ‘Dun blur’ and ‘navy night’ would sound overwritten or lacking weight, but here they are part of a broader network of meaning, and in the realm of this section of the poem, counterbalance the blunt force of that last line. Here’s part (ii):

What is the first duty of a mother to a child?
At least to keep the wretched thing alive
– Band
Of fierce cicadas, stop this shrilling.

My daughter lightly leaves our house.
The thought rears up: fix in your mind this
Maybe final glimpse of her. Yes, lightning could
.

I make this note of dread, I register it.
Neither my note nor my critique of it
Will save us one iota. I know it. And.’

This section is characteristic of Riley’s tone and attitude – bleak humour, self-correction, a capacity to confront the horrendous and render it (almost) mundane, to recognise one’s final powerlessness except in one’s continued survival. It documents the grieving mind (heart?) in action, and with heartbreaking economy lays out an entire dramatic arc in the poem’s last four words. I don’t remember anyone writing so little and saying so much. In part (v) the stakes are matter-of-factly life-and-death:

‘A fat-lot-of-good mother with a pointless alibi: ‘I didn’t
Know.’ Yet might there still be some part for me
To play upon this lovely earth? Say. Or
Say No, earth at my inner ear.’

That ‘inner ear’ speaks as much to me of balance as of the imaginary-audible (note the ‘lovely earth’ on one hand and the funereal/burial earth on the other), and the turn between pity and the refusal of pity, solace and the refusal of solace, still makes my stomach drop on third, fourth, fifth reading. These lines read like a private rumination, with all the cruelty and clear-eyedness we reserve only for our own low ebbs, finding our own weak points and pushing down hard.

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This reading alone, however, overlooks Riley’s wit and humour, which is no less precisely deployed, and no less legitimate as proof of the genius at work here. The first lines of part (vii), for example: ‘Oh my dead son you daft bugger / This is one glum mum.’ This line-and-a-half feels like a pressure valve being released, a sheaf of drafts being torn, the poet throwing up her hands and summarising her project as glibly and reductively as possible. There’s a kind of delight behind their dull thump. The book is full of these moments, as the poet unweaves literary mystique and renders her own writing/grieving as ‘idiocy – this banging on and on / Against such shiny crimson unresponse’, ‘my prancing and writhing in a dozen / Mawkish modes of reedy piping’, ‘where next could this call turn, massing and purpling as low thunder, though just / whiny to stopped ears’. It reminds me of Sophie Mayer’s ‘Silence, Singing’, a lyric essay connecting patriarchal attitudes to prayer, grieving and women’s voices, particularly how ‘stopped ears’ respond to the latter. Mayer connects Mary Sidney’s ‘De Profundis Clamavi’, her ‘ernest, vehment, cryeng, prayeng,’ to the cultural devaluing of women’s voices Anne Carson discusses in ‘The Gender of Sound’. In Mayer’s words:

‘no-one likes to hear a woman’s ‘vehment, cryeng’ – which is too often how women’s writing is apprehended. Confessional, over-emotional, nonsensical, hysterical. But Mary Sidney insists that ‘cryeng’ is also ‘prayeng,’ a protestation of the individual relationship with God – or, in a secular sense, the right to speak and be heard.’

Riley seems absolutely in conflict with this cultural impulse to be silent, and her willingness to express the barbs of an internalised critic but lament publicly anyway is a deeply heartening protest. In ‘A Part Song’, Riley does what few male poets ever do in their elegies; not just addressing the form’s prosaic inefficacy at reviving the dead, but questioning her own capacity to honestly turn private mourning into public art with a straight face. By poking holes in her own enterprise she seems to push away from the grand works of mourning of the canon (one poem is titled ‘Oh go away for now’), and hold fast to her own sense of proportion and perspective. However self-mocking or self-negating are Muldoon’s elegiac epics, they remain epics, not least in scale; they retain the ambition of grabbing a reader by the lapels and pointing at how seriously they take their solemn playfulness. Riley’s ‘one glum mum’ is content to wager her ostensible literary skill, to bank on us reading her duff notes as strategically duff. In other words, Riley puts into action the right to cry vehemently and be heard.

3 DRJ

Outside of its opening sequence, Say Something Back is a series of short lyrics about loss, with a few commissions/occasional pieces – to my reading ‘The patient who had no insides’ is one of the weaker sections, for example, but maybe does important work in providing breathing space among the denser lyrics. The book doesn’t exactly follow a narrative, and I’m fairly confident that two different readers could pick their favourite half-dozen without their choices overlapping. They are, happily, exceedingly quotable:

‘The souls of the dead are the spirit of language:
you hear them alight inside that spoken thought’ (‘Listening for lost people’)

‘Next you’ll expect me to take you around
introducing some starry goners. So mother
do me proud and hold your white head high.
On earth you tried, try once again in Hades.’ (‘Orphic’)

‘It sits with itself in its arms. Out of
the depth of its shame it starts singing
a hymn of pure shame, surging in the throat.
To hold a true note could be everything.
Getting the hang of itself would undo it.’ (‘An awkward lyric’)

These selections, of course, distort the lines’ meaning by taking them out of their full context. I’m personally drawn to moments where Riley allows herself to be boldly declarative, gothically dramatic, or more openly parabolic; these moments are so powerful, however, because of the sheer struggle to give them voice, and quoting them in part kinda misses the point. I think this might be at the core of the book, the reason why critical opinion (thus far) seems so unreservedly positive; yes, this is a book of mourning, of near-hopelessness, but it’s also a book of survival, of unexpected beauty. Here’s ‘Percy’s Relique; on the Death of John Hall’s Peacock’:

‘Rare! Raoaark! Rare! You were adornment.
You were Brook Mill. Its visitors were yours.

You Shelley to us duller poets, Percy. Flare!
Go, glittering!’

The sudden full-hearted goofiness of celebration is breathtaking. I’m more than aware of my optimistic tendencies, so I’m willing to conceive that this might be a selective reading, but I take the final words of the book as its last word on grief:

‘What to do now is clear, and wordless.
You will bear what can not be borne.’

The poem holds in balance what can and cannot be survived, perhaps lending equal weight to both meanings. Say Something Back bears the unbearable with wit, humour, moments of blazing intellectual strength; whether it was written with this effect in mind is, I suppose, ultimately academic: this is one of the most thoughtful, generous, authentic accounts of grief and its survival I have ever read.

Tl;dr: Say Something Back is extraordinary, a book of real significance that I can’t recommend enough.

Further Reading: Interview with Riley in Shearsman

Review by Steph Burt in Poetry Review

‘Silence, Singing’ by Sophie Mayer in The Wolf

PDF of Anne Carson’s essay ‘The Gender of Sound’