Powerfully Commendable: David Appelbaum on Katie Cappello’s Perpetual Care


perpetual care

Perpetual Care, Katie Cappello, Elixir Press

Before abstinence come the rituals of excess. There is the indulgence in flesh (carne) before the long Lent. Only after is resurrection from the grave possible. What if the flesh one eats is one’s own body? What if, ‘devouring myself bit by bit,’ as Katie Cappello writes in ‘When We Get to Coachella’ in her graphic collection, ‘[t]here are fingers in my stomach/holding there. I cannot leave.’ [‘Lament for a Blood Clot’] Then the carnival is perpetual and the care becomes a testimony to dance of death. It is a danse macabre.

The special eroticism of death is vivid and arresting, and the multitude of forms a proof of the libido’s power of command. The great researchers into the human soul have found this to be true. Little of the senses escapes its enticing scrutiny. In the text, it is after Hurricane Katrina, a political nadir and a wreck of culture. Abstinence has been brought by an act of God coupled with human incompetence. The city of New Orleans, still in its Lent, looks at its watery grave and begins its business of cleanup. Cappella’s eye is keen for details of the dance, for instance, ‘the mechanized claw of the garbage truck/struggled, leaking dog out into the street.’ [‘How to Drive Through Texas’] The scene calls Heraclitus to mind, where in hell one perceives by smells. The matter of ‘how the dead become smell/settling into membranes’ occupies her mind. [‘A Changing Spell’] Impressions are as fleeting as smoke and she confesses, ‘I can’t find a dream to hold on to.’ [‘Summer Wedding Dream’] The cityscape grows apparitional. Perpetual Care is filled with ghosts, ghost stories, lovers who are ghosts. One can love the dead but who are they? They leave signs, ‘a blue ring in the tub, an empty/toilet paper roll, back mold/misted on old sponges,’ more telling evidence of an absence, and by the time we turn to take a closer look, ‘what is left of me is coming loose.’ [‘A Ghost Abandons the Haunted’]

Perhaps abstinence morphs into apocalypse Old lore returns in the form of strange, unnatural marriages. There is the girl who is wed to a snake and dies for it. Death in fact has become lovely, luscious, trying to outdo itself by seizing the realm of the inanimate—‘this room squirms/a living thing.’ [‘Room 203’] In fact, there is the constant morphing of one thing into another, in excess, suggesting that our usual demarcations—eros, thanatos, presence, absence—have been superceded by the calamitous upsurge. It remains a question that repeats in different voices, or as the voice of one lament of Cappello’s asks: ‘Was I struck, dying, in the new spring night?’ [‘Lament for White Lions’]

In such a time (now?), language too dies and comes alive, like the ‘old drunk [who] says he can change a tire in three minutes.’ [‘Hilary Street Cemetery, New Orleans’] Or come alive and dies, flat, misplaced, overused. Words from the old world, which moves ghost-like behind the yards and porches, the Grateful Dead shirt fluttering on a clothesline, the men drinking Dixie beer, like Cappello’s grandmother’s vickravatz: ‘a word like forearms/trembling on porcelain.’ [‘Inheritance’] The language is beautiful the way it struts across the line, showing itself off, against all odds a survivor. Perhaps that is what it takes to make poetry. It is powerfully commendable, a hammer:

And you are a hammer knocking on the gate, the tongue
swinging joyfully in the cave of a bell. [‘Room 203’]

Taut: Gwyn McVay on Lisa Jarnot’s Night Scenes


night scenes

Lisa Jarnot, Night Scenes, Flood Editions

If one word can sum up the poems in Lisa Jarnot’s second collection, Ring of Fire (Zoland Books, 2001), it is “taut.” In two, it would be “tightly wound,” from the terse prose poems in the “Sea Lyrics” section that meditate on dislocation and violence, to the terrifying “The Age of the Velocipede,” an uninterrupted three-page apostrophe telling a “wounded animal” what it is not. So upon opening Night Scenes (Flood Editions, 2008), and discovering in its night sky (the endpapers beautifully continue the cover’s starry-sky motif) what Hank Lazer, in his review for Ekleksographia, correctly called “an odd iambic joy,” one might well blink and wonder whether this is a completely different Lisa Jarnot. The first poem, “Sinning Skel Misclape,” reads like Susan Howe and Allen Ginsberg dancing together on nitrous oxide:

O sinning skel misclape thy lock
from frenzied felbred feefs
and longitudes of long tongued fuels
unpebble-dashed deceased.

Yet “deceased” escapes its denotative meaning to a great extent, because the other nouns in the stanza are either coinages, or the objects of coined verbs. How does one “misclape” a lock? Is this a mechanical act of burglary, or an Alexander Pope act of hair theft? It’s not a question the reader is encouraged to ponder, because the ballad meter dances us around in a “tradition for the form of those / belingered, cheerful, nigh.” And as cheerfully as the late Ginsberg, the first section of the book takes up rhyme, meter, and image, and breaks them down to a purity of play with phoneme and morpheme that is altogether—what’s the big theoretical word for this?—fun.

In the second section, the speaker of “What I Want to Do” claims her desire is to commit “Normal shit / like a normal person,” but luckily for the reader, any normal shit happening here is not done in a normal manner at all; it is done like Lisa Jarnot playing. Thus, we get “Whole Hog,” a set of 50 numbered couplets combining observation of the phenomena of farming with curious aphorisms, indeed koans, like “A true relation marries its dead” or “One heifer ceases to vanish.” Part three returns to the vocative mode and the curious love poems of the first section, adding a shorter-lined, Creeley-esque voice, as in “Bee Ode” (“Be free, or / something like that”), and the anagram play of “Temerity Lady.”

So in searching for a single word to describe Night Scenes, I happily concur with Lazer and choose “joy”—even visible in the elegy that closes the book. Many of the poems are dedicated to friends, possibly even inspired by party-game writing prompts: who knows? The attention to the texture, what the food industry calls the “mouth-feel,” of the language, succeeds in the poet’s movement toward play and joy; one of the book’s dedicatees is Lee Ann Brown, whom Jarnot credits in an afterword with “releasing me back into the spontaneity and joy that had been so much at the root of my love for Allen Ginsberg’s work.”

Whatever Brown and the other peers and friends mentioned in Night Scenes did for Jarnot, it worked. This is a book about a lot of normal shit, but painted in a lovely, decidedly abnormal, work of careful craft that will keep me reaching for Night Scenes (not to the exclusion of Jarnot’s other books, but because it’s just that cool) over and over.

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Gwyn McVay is the author of Ordinary Beans (Pecan Grove Press, 2007). Her work appears most recently in Ripple Journal, Salt River Review, and Letters to the World: Poems from the WOM-PO Listserv (Red Hen Press, 2008).

Self-Fiction: Gary Charles Wilkens on the anthology American Hybrid


american hybrid

American Hybrid, ed. Cole Swensen and David St. John, WW Norton

Poets have always been fiction writers. I don’t mean those of us who are also novelists. I mean the stories that poets have told themselves about their art itself, at least since Plato, to allow them to get a handle on its slipperiness and make it their own. With entries from Philip Sidney and William Wordsworth, the process of course kicked into high gear in the early twentieth century with Modernism’s open attempt to redefine what “poetry” meant, and all the counter-redefinitions in the hundred years since. Like music, poetry saw a flourishing of styles in the just-finished century, such that it made sense to ask someone what “type” they liked. Formal or free? Raw or cooked? New Formal or Language? A thousand forks were introduced to the pie, a process that Cole Swensen and David St.John try to stuff into a new poetic self-fiction in the latest anthology from Norton, American Hybrid.

In the first of two introductions, one by each editor, Swensen presents the rationale for yet another anthology of contemporary poetry thusly: the two-camp model of American poetry, whether the camps are presented as formal vs. free, traditional vs. Modern, Mainstream vs. Radical, New Formal vs. Language, is no longer valid, because “the contemporary moment is dominated by rich writings that cannot be categorized and that hybridize core attributes of pervious ‘camps’”. American poetry today is a “thriving center of alterity,” and today’s poets “often take aspects from two or more (traditions) to create poetry that is truly post-modern in that it’s unpredictable and unprecedented mix.” This is anthology introduction speak meaning that contemporary poets pick and choose from the smorgasbord of styles history gives them, and by and large do whatever they want, with little allegiance to ideologies or schools. A poet might combine a narrative thread with verbal experimentation. Or she could mix fragmentation with the rules of a villanelle. Or insert rhyme into open form. Hybrid poems blend the expressive potential of language-as-language with the potential of language to express recognizable human emotion. According to St. John’s introduction, we “are at a time in our poetry when the notion of the ‘poetic school’ is an anachronism, an archaic critical artifact of times long gone by.” Thus, with a boom and a crash worthy of any Modernist manifesto, the editors announce the birth of a healthy, squalling Third Way in American poetry.

The irony of this is two-fold: immediately after labeling the new poetry uncategorizable, they proceed to categorize it, to define features that, like the features of countless revolutions before it, are sure to set into concrete. You can see it now: pick-and-choose-and-combine as a formal expectation, as critical rubric, as a bludgeon to beat down the new. By recognizing the style, they begin its slow strangulation: think of what had happened to Modernist fragmentation by the 30s. Secondly, and perhaps in keeping with the book’s emphasis on creativity coming from contradiction, this new way is nothing but a seemingly random and idiosyncratic mixing of old ways. To blend schools and ideologies is to recognize those schools and ideologies in the first place. In other words, hybridization is too slip-shod to call a way, or a movement or a style, it is simply the numerical collection of isolated writers plugging away at doing what they want. There is, paradoxically, no style to set. It’s very Zen: the School of No School. It’s very PC: “ It seems therefore antithetical to both the project and spirit of this anthology to suggest that one poet’s way or understanding of hybridization can be judged as ‘better” or ‘more important’ than any other.” If that is the case, have the editors done anything more than collect those poets writing now that they happen to like? Is there any evidence in the poetry here collected that “hybridization” actually mixes styles? Is the result any good?

The answers are sort of, kinda, and it’s hit and miss. Arranged alphabetically and given short and informative bios, the 70-plus poets here collected are indeed a diverse bunch. Perhaps surprisingly, the first poet to stand out as fresh and interesting is Rae Armantrout, usually counted as firmly Langpo in orientation. If you are surprised to learn that a well-established poet like Armantrout is in an anthology about a new wave in verse, you should know that the editors have decided to include only poets with at least three books under their belts. One might think any new way would be the product of the young and fed-up rather than the old and well-fed, but St. John explains that they made this rule in order to “show the historical depth and vitality of the concept of hybridization,” in spite of the fact that earlier Swensen had presented hybridization as a product of the 1990s. And by this line of thinking, in what also seems a commercial move, we get John Ashbery. Historical confusion and big name motives aside, poets like Armantrout are represented by gems like “Generation” (in its entirety):

We know the story.

She turns
her back to find her trail
devoured by birds.

The years; the
undergrowth

Looking for hybridization, we note both the strong central image of the birds, and the highly fragmentary nature of the scene. We don’t know precisely what this is about, but neither are we mystified by Langpo gymnastics. A quiet, subtle think piece. Her poem “Scumble” experiments with the meaning and sound of its titular word, without ever puzzling us: “What if I were turned on by seemingly innocent words such as “scumble,” “pinky,” or “extrapolate?” Armantrout has found a happy medium in these poems between the need for recognizable meaning, sense-making, and the equal need for new meaning, making new senses. Ashbery’s offerings, by contrast, do not seem to drink very deeply from the sense-making well: in his poem “Of Linnets and Dull Time” no more than two lines in a row seem to have anything to so with each other. We go from “I feel sorry for anyone that has to die” to, a few short lines later, “The beautiful shape of the toilet interposed/ a viability as the air-raid drill ended.” I have never understood Ashberry’s poetry or why it is so popular, and trying to trace lines of hybridization within it only gives me a headache.

There is, therefore, hybridization in American poetry, but looking at the verses in this anthology shows that it is not as wide-spread or as radical as the editors fervently wish. There are poets who legitimately mix styles, such as Molly Bendall, who in her poem “Conversation With Eva Hesse” employs limerick-like rhyme and repeated lines, only to break into the plane of the poem with “Is this piece finished?” “It’s too bright and beautiful” is the response, making the poem nicely self-referential and post-modern. Michael Burkhard’s “The Rearranger” combines a narrative about AIDS with several twists on language and form. These poems and several others by other poets identifiably use a mixture of techniques not usually mixed, and are in fact hybrid. Many of the selections in the anthology, however, read as your standard mainstream free-verse or quasi-Langpo. The editors, in attempting to explain the hybridity of these texts, frequently use the word “unravel” to describe what happens to traditional narrative or structure. Some poems never seem raveled to begin with, such as Norma Cole’s head-scratcher “Floating By,” but other times the unraveling is very literal: expect to be turning the book in your hands to be able to read Gillian Conoley’s “from The Plot Genie.” You will notice that so far all of my examples are in alphabetical order. That’s because American Hybrid, like any anthology, contains a lot of varied material and the D’s are about a far as you will get on your first reading. Enjoy Stacy Doris’s football diagrams.

Should there be a second reading? Yes. Ultimately, despite the conceptual and evidential difficulties noted above, American Hybrid is a solid and intelligent effort at doing what for poetry or an individual is the hardest task: looking in the mirror. Swensen and St. John deserve your money for making a smart and honest effort. Swensen’s Introduction should be required reading for all contemporary poets, and this book, warts and all, should be on your shelf. Enough examples exist to demonstrate that American poetry is, slowly, painfully, changing, and American Hybrid is the best self-fiction about it we have so far.

“Excursions: Five Short Story Collections (Recent & Vintage) that Take You Places” by Steven Wingate


Since the glossy magazines have recently come out with their summer “beach reading” list, this first installment of mine covers analogous territory: books that, while by no means escapist in their intent, offer readers an escape from their own worlds and an immersion into others. Writers are always discovering their characters (and themselves) in the combustible seams between the familiar and the unfamiliar, and readers are no different. You’ll notice in the capsule reviews below my proclivity for escaping into the combustible seams of Africa. I’ve included a bit about how each of these books ended up on my shelves—there’s always a story about how books end up on our radar and in our hands, isn’t there?

 

            Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, by Ben Fountain

            (Harper/Ecco, 2006

 

Sometimes you just meet people. At the 2008 AWP Conference in New York last year, as I searched for a place to devour my bagel and coffee between panels, I ran into a pleasant, unassuming gentleman from Texas named Ben Fountain. We talked about our books and he told me to come by the booth where he would be signing his—which his publisher, amazingly, was giving away for free! I swung by, picked up Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, and got so hooked on the first story that I had to be nudged forward twice in the signing line. Fountain’s collection has been racking up awards (PEN/Hemingway, B&N Discover Great New Writers Series, Whiting Award) and the work is so good that I’m not even jealous. It sparkles on a sentence level, and Fountain never lets his characters off the hook easily. He makes them fight their way through every trap they set for themselves, and in doing so brings us to varied international locations ranging from Haiti to Cambodia. Even the lone American-based story—which tells of a military wife who must share her husband with the Haitian voodoo goddess he has ceremonially married—resonates with the swirling world beyond.

 

            Whites, by Norman Rush

            (Knopf, 1984)

 

“You’ve got to read Norman Rush’s Mating,” a friend told me, though he refused to loan me his copy of the book. He showed it to me, though—a big, intimidating 500-ish pages that was far too thick for my mood at the time. Awhile later, I saw Rush’s Whites on sale for a dollar at a used bookstore and pounced on my opportunity to “date” Rush as an author before “Mating” him. Whites turned out to be a sock in the jaw of a book, 150 pages of humanity in its rawest state.  Rush spent time as an ex-patriot in Africa, and published these stories in the 1980s to strong, well-deserved critical acclaim. The way colonialism’s legacy has played out in the intervening quarter-century has done nothing to dim the power of his stories, since he writes less about Africa and more of human beings in extremis: the tourists of “Near Pala” coming to grips with the true value of water in the desert or the desperate wife of a bureaucrat in “Instruments of Seduction.” After finishing it, I quickly dispensed with my prohibition against huge, door-stopper novels and picked up Mating—also set in Africa—which did not disappoint.

 

            Apologies Forthcoming, by Xujun Eberlein

            (Livingston Press, 2008 )

 

I met Xujun Eberlein by mail; she sent in a wonderful nonfiction piece to divide, the magazine I was running at the time at the University of Colorado, and we knew each other virtually until meeting (where else?) at an AWP Conference in Atlanta. This collection of short stories won the 2007 Tartt Fiction Award from Livingston Press, and was published this May. My first sensation upon reading it was of getting completely lost in an alien culture—in this case, China during and after the Cultural Revolution, in which the majority of Eberlein’s stories take place. At first, when I saw its protagonists (primarily educated women “relocated” to rural areas) making decisions based on very un-American things like avoiding government scrutiny, I wanted to grab and shake them back to their senses. But by the end of the book I understood their lines of thinking and behavior, and this alone makes Apologies worth the read. At a time when the world has its eyes on China, Eberlein intimately examines the underbelly of cultural and personal change that—intentionally or not—led to the nation’s surge in world power. I often found myself feeling, as I read her collection, the sense of a national culture in tumult breathing its last before being paved over by a newer, shinier, but no less tumultuous one.

 

            Disturbance-Loving Species, by Peter Chilson

            (Houghton Mifflin, 2007)

 

I found out about Peter Chilson because I’ve been stalking him, sort of—in a literary sense. He won the fiction prize from Gulf Coast magazine, then I won it shortly thereafter; he won the Bakeless Prize for Disturbance-Loving Species, then I won it the next year. What’s up with that? Given the circumstances I had no choice but to read Species, predominantly about Americans in Africa but balanced out by stories of Africans transplanted to America. This book reads like a direct descendant of Whites in its closely-observed depiction of two complimentary cultures rubbing up against each other, and it updates the earlier book’s themes by virtue of coming out nearly two decades later. It’s amazing, reading the two collections side by side, how much the surface of the Africa/America relationship has changed without the core changing at all. The sentences throughout Species reflect the tension of its subject matter, and Chilson’s own experience in Africa (as a Peace Corps volunteer and a journalist) shines through. But my favorite pieces were those that took place in the US—especially “Toumani Ogun,” the closing story about a former West African warlord who ends up running a gas station in Portland, Oregon. 

 

            Looking for a Rain God, ed. Nadeźda Obradović

            (Simon & Schuster, 1990)

 

Back in the days before children overtook our lives completely, my wife and I liked to take turns reading aloud in bed. The last book we read in that fashion—and perhaps the first one we’ll read when we pick up the habit again—is this tremendously varied collection of tales from sub-Saharan Africa. The collection includes some authors from the continent who have made names for themselves in America, including Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe (author of Things Fall Apart) and Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o (author of The River Between), but it also offers a taste of African authors whose names will be unfamiliar to readers here. My favorite was “Heart of a Judge” by Sierra Leone’s R. Sarif Easmon, which features a colonial judge and an ingenious talking rat. Although this title is out of print (and no longer fully contemporary), it is an excellent time capsule of African literature before the turn of the century—and before Wole Sonyika’s 1986 Nobel Prize started to bring African literature to a broader audience. If you can’t find this title in your library, Obradović also edited a similar anthology for Anchor books in 2002.

 

______________________

 

Steven Wingate’s short story collection Wifeshopping won the 2007 Bakeless Prize for Fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and was published by Houghton Mifflin in July, 2008. He spends his analog time in Colorado and his digital time at www.stevenwingate.com.

The Caedmon Room IV


Nate Pritts is the author of Sensational Spectacular (BlazeVOX) & the recent chapbook Shrug (MSR Press).  His new book, Honorary Astronaut, will be out from Ghost Road Press in the fall of 2008.  The editor of H_NGM_N, Nate works in advertising.  You can find him online at http://www.natepritts.com.

 

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Andrew Mister

Hotels.

Fewer & Further Press 

http://www.fewfurpress.blogspot.com

 

There’s something that is so recognizable & yet hard to annotate in the tone of Andrew Mister’s work.  There’s a bit of James Schuyler in the way Mister is able to, again & again, craft poems that find the bright side without making it seem like they’re finding the bright side, poems that are straightforward & clear acts of gratitude, simple acknowledgements communicated without succumbing to the disjunctive syntax or ironic posturing that mars so much of contemporary poetry.

Hotels, in an equally clear-headed and clear-hearted design by Jess Mynes and his vitally important Fewer & Further Press, presents poem after poem of Mister piecing something together, developing it as the poem develops disarmingly.  Consider the end of “Comfort Inn” as a good précis to Mister’s work:

We are so lucky

                                    to be here

 

            We are so lucky to be standing here

 

                        We are so lucky

                                                            to be standing

This sequence is stunning on so many levels.  Notice the way that each tumbling line adds a different perspective on the same base; notice the way the stumbling momentum itself serves to engage the reader almost physically, jerking our way toward a revelation that is both humble & epiphanic.

Hotels is full of poems that are so recognizably human it’s almost painful and, of course, amazingly beautiful. Painful to realize we live in a world where we are forced to take comfort in lives that are nothing more than “15 boxes of books,” and beautiful to realize that it’s enough, that “[t]he light loosened / into an embrace” can still make the difference.

 

Problematic Indirection, Trina Burke on Paige Ackerson-Kiely


Trina Burke holds an MFA from the University of Montana and an MA in creative writing from Western Washington University. Her work has appeared recently or is forthcoming in 580 Split, The Southeast Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review and Phoebe. She works as a freelance editor in Seattle.

 

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In No One’s Land

Paige Ackerson-Kiely

Ahsahta Press, 2007

 

Paige Ackerson-Kiely’s author’s statement about her debut In No One’s Land engages in problematic indirection, “I find it difficult to discuss In No One’s Land or my work in general in any way that isn’t prefaced with: ‘I might have had a nebulous feeling about something, I don’t know what—I remember it was small and fleeting—at one time or another, but that, my friend, I cannot say with any certainty.’” This is a refrain we hear all the time from young poets: “I’m not the one to talk about my work” or “I can’t really articulate what I was trying to do” or “It just came out that way. It’s a mystery to me.” All such statements seem to be translations of “Don’t look at me.” But Ackerson-Kiely takes a stab at more substantive commentary later noting

David McDuff in his book Ice Around Our Lips described other work of Gripenberg’s era as ‘the elaboration of an austerely beautiful nature poetry in which man is portrayed as a lonely, alien guest awaiting reabsorption into a cosmic night.’ Although I would never embolden my own verse in such a lofty and lovely description, [my emphasis] I cannot help but feel that there is some relationship there—if only because I clutched at it so unbecomingly…

While we can appreciate that nice, fat slice of humble pie, we must also wonder if this sort of exaggerated humility is genuinely benefiting either writer or reader. It is as if the poet does not wish to commit to a reading of her own work. I can certainly sympathize. How many times have I criticized artist statements as useless, self-indulgent, or flat-out inaccurate? And how many times have I made similar claims of ignorance about my own work? As a reader, I am not entirely drawn in by these milquetoast attempts at creating a context for the work. As a writer, I am frightened by the mirror being held up to my own face.

My capacity for the purposes of this review, however, is as a reader, and as such, I have to wonder whether an author’s resistance to making a solid statement about her work belies an underlying lack of commitment to making a statement in the work itself. To address this properly requires me to leave author’s statement behind and look to the book itself.

 

            Ackerson-Kiely takes her title from a line by Finnish writer Bertel Gripenberg translated as “In no one’s land, with no one will I stay.” The opening prose poem, “Foreplay,” locates itself in a motel room indicating a displacement of the speaker from what is familiar. Ackerson-Kiely deftly condenses images leading the reader through a thicket of unbalancing associations: “The sheets are not soft reminders of human capacity for forgiveness with their random tufts like a father roughing up his boy’s hair; son you’ve made me proud. There are times when an absence of pride means the lion is eating his cub.” The stage is set as un-homey, unfamiliar, and un-familial as throughout we are constantly given foreign lands—Minsk, Spanish, Berlin, the Baltic, etc.—to disorient us.

            The arc of the book can be traced by examining each of the five sections that are book-ended by stand-alone poems. Section 1 sets up the question of the speaker’s separation or individuation from others:

You weren’t anywhere I was planning to go. (6)

 

When I need you you don’t come running. ( 8 )

 

So that the last woman

left

in the bar

is the same woman

in the bar earlier

saying

yeah, I’ve got some abandonment issues. (9)

The second section progresses into the desire for shepherding, a gathering together which ultimately goes unmet:

They will call all of us in

on cold nights,

though no one calls

to me specifically. (15)

 

You are a hero, heroes help others. (16)

 

The sheer numbers acquit you,

turn away from your glib matter while

quietly the stars undress in the dark,

(there are thousands, thousands). (19)

 

Nights from now I will join the river.

I will say current and it will be mine,

as a man turned away at the door. (21)

Section 3 is tricky to categorize as themes of worship, power, guilt, and, particularly, sexual shame or shamelessness develop. Perhaps instructive here is Ackerson-Kiely’s author’s statement, “Admittedly I am uncomfortable with worship in all of its various incarnations yet I struggle with keeping desire at bay, as desire feels like a less informed version of worship.” The poems “Privacy” and “Prayer for Singularity” repeat the phrase “our father” introducing the theme of paternalized male dominance and eroticized subjugation, which is layered into a larger lexicon of prayer, hymn, and Old Testament references. The disparate notions of the bodily and the spiritual create an awkward tension that is, nonetheless, pleasing—

At least 20 minutes a day

In the bathroom come

Shooting

 

up Father

 

Is he red and dead

Done Father,

 

whose art

Is simply not your name. (30)

 

To need to be pushed inside

of something to become

alive. (36)

 

If I knew the world was going

to end, I’d just run out into
the street and fuck the first

chick I saw, says

a teenage virgin. (31)

 

shame is not a silent bride

rolling her eyes at a fitting. (39-40)

 

I am frightened of the intimate thing. (41)

 

Tell me how they approached your hand, which you pretended held food, but was merely a closed fist.

The relationships in this section are fraught with power struggles, fear of intimacy, and separation of bodily from spiritual desires. One might argue these are the central tensions of the book, and the purpose of section 3 is to name overtly the stakes.

It would make sense, then, that section 4 would complicate the stakes further progressing the arc of the speaker’s journey. I’m not sure that this is the case. The poems of this section largely deal with the absence of what should be there and the implications of the seen and unseen. Rather than moving toward resolution, the speaker continues to both desire and create distance at cross-purposes.

You

are Jerusalem—

over there. (46)

 

wanting a reason to stop

and say:

 

Man, I could stay

here forever. (51)

 

I am talking around the fact that you aren’t supposed to be here, in flesh or in my capacity to imagine my flesh as yours—touching me the way you would pull back the smallest bit of which from a kerosene lantern. Make it fucking darker. (55)

The use of “fuck” in this last excerpt attempts to voice the speaker’s frustration, but is unnecessary. The voice already exhibits the speaker’s growing impatience with how desire never quite meets reality, at least, not without force.

The final section of the In No One’s Land provides little relief. In the opening poem, “Greenland,” the speaker attempts to pin down the act of dying through a series of increasingly lonesome and desperate images, the most disturbing of which could be a portrait of the speaker herself: “Dying is a woman so alone in a city that she does not think we see her adjusting her undergarments as she walks, head bent so that her hair falls across her face like the relief of driving snow just when you needed a reason to turn in for the night.” This is not only death, but voluntary death by means of self-isolation and willful dismissal of what is outside oneself. I doubt if any book can entirely dwell successfully in this brand of isolation.  

            In No One’s Land could have been a commentary on the distinctly American manner of recognizing every land as our own, of assuming our right-to-be-there, of ignoring the ownership and population of other places, but it’s not. It’s too grounded in the speaker’s “I” throughout to be a significant commentary on society, culture, or, more generally, the external world. Even the “You” is not really characterized with the landscape internalized as everything is sucked inside the persona of the I—location, people, objects. Ackerson-Kiely has not written a humble book. Her speaker is firmly at the center of things and anyone or anything else populating the poem is simply flowing in orbit around her. The speaker is not placed in a larger context as one of many, but rather is one of one—THE one.

Everything in the book is defined by or in terms of the “I,” which is not to say that Ackerson-Kiely’s speaker is an example of the Martin Buber’s concept of the I-I  attitude (“Some live in a strange world bounded by a path from which countless ways lead inside. If there were road signs, all of them might bear the same inscription: I-I”). The “I” of this book is observant and aware of others. Some of the most moving passages are those in which the speaker simply observes another person living a moment or enters into such a moment as a way of metaphorizing her own experience. For instance, in “Interrogation” the speaker inhabits a multitude of conditional statements leading up to the question at the center of the poem: “Did you really love him?” Her answer:

I would have to say yes—hands feeling around my clavicle

the way a woman with a pearl necklace

fondles that pearl necklace

except that I haven’t got one

and so lightly pinch at the skin

in a way that leaves a trail of red

inching toward my throat

which is slowly closing now

which is almost completely shut. (63)

The speaker has taken the speculative situation and entered into it through the guise of “a woman,” becoming the woman who loved the man. It would seem, then, that the speaker does have experiences with others, rather than simply using them, talking at them or of them.

In addition, there is a smattering of outward-looking or not-quite “I”-centered prose poems. A better way to characterize these poems might be to say that they are “distanced from the speaker” by addressing a mitigating “you” that may or may not be self-reflexive. These include “Foreplay,” “One Type of Hunger,” and “Greenland.” These are somewhat odd choices, since “Foreplay” is the introductory poem of the book and “One Type of Hunger” and “Greenland” are the opening poems of their respective sections. “Economics Theory” and “After Hours,” the last two poems in the book, are somewhat like “Foreplay” addressing a “You” that may or may not be reflexive (i.e. the speaker) or the reader. The final poem, “After Hours,” ends with a “thank you” that seems to break the frame of the poem, addressing a “you” outside of it. A nod (a finale bow?) at the end of the speaker’s journey?

And so, in the end, how does it all hang together, if the introduction of the idea of individuation does not progress to a resolution? One would expect the speaker to find a way into community with others or, alternatively, a way to accept her isolation. The book does neither. “After Hours,” (75) set in a restaurant, dwells in the isolation, “Where are heart and soul hanging out, someone singing sweetly, someone picturing you in your undecorated room eating from a bag.” The line is not punctuated as a question, rather as a statement of unlocation. The waitress, who is a character in the poem, asks “Will there be anything else” and the question, of course, holds more than its quotidian meaning. The answer, two lines later: “No, nothing else / thank you.” I suppose one might read into this an acceptance of or resignation to the isolation that has plagued the speaker throughout the book. Maybe I’m not satisfied because it is, especially in this cultural time and place, a sort of horror movie ending where the protagonist not only doesn’t prevail over the forces of evil, but is recruited by the dark side. She not only accepts her fate, but embraces it with gratitude.

 

 

Notes

Ackerson-Kiely, Page. http://ahsahtapress.boisestate.edu/books/ackerson-kiely/ackerson-kiely-author.htm

Buber, Martin. I and Thou. New York: Touchstone, 1970. 11