Pleasing Mothers: Megan Burns on Laynie Browne’s The Desires of Letters


Laynie Browne, The Desires of Letters, Counterpath Press, 2010

To a child, the letters of the alphabet are a doorway to the written word. Another type of letter represents an exchange, a one-sided conversation from the writer to the reader. Laynie Browne’s The Desires of Letters notes that letters also document and keep track of things, whether it is memories or the identification of bombs dropped on Iraq. Browne’s book is a catalogue of the world for her children before they are even aware of the world around them. It describes their childhoods with the backdrop of the Iraqi war not intruding, but breathing quietly in the distance like some macabre relative not invited to sit at the dinner table. The book is a series of letters, in the loosest definition, addressed to real, fictional, and unidentified recipients. Browne states: “One shouldn’t desire letters.” But what should the mother desire, an impossibility like a world not at war or filled with atrocities.

Browne follows a form first penned by Bernadette Mayer in The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters (West Stockbridge, MA: Hard Press, 1994). Mayer’s book experiments with using the letter not only to document the nine months of her last pregnancy, but also as a way to create poetry that forms an exchange between intimates where the reader is the interloper trying to piece together the exact narrative. As each letter is addressed to a different anonymous recipient, the narrative is consistently interrupted leaving the reader to wonder who it is that is desirous to please and who the “others” are in the conversation. Browne adopts Mayer’s form, but her book is a furthering of the conversation. It’s not an attempt to rehash Mayer’s experiment as much as it is a nod to the lineage Mayer’s work inspires much in the same way that Browne acknowledges several matriarchal (and some patriarchal) influences throughout her book. The book illustrates that the topic is still viable: mothers are still struggling to write, writers are struggling to mother, and everyone is at odds over these notions of desire and pleasing others.

While Mayer’s book experiments with reader expectations and prescribed notions of pregnancy and mothering, Browne’s book plays with reassembling texts and making sense of the violent world that her children occupy. There are frequent references to invisible work whether it is mothering or writing poetry; there is an urgent need to draw attention to the absurd notion that important jobs are given the least value:

She appeared to be Autumn as she opened the door. The way she stooped or stopped or carried or tied a child or a parcel crying, the door opening or closing, the wish not spoken in the tunnel, the present in the eye of the child who didn’t want to put down his drum or his rehearsed refusals his unrehearsed opening and closing of the door. (144)

The letter symbolically is a place of containment; it is the placeholder for the mother’s hurried and often interrupted thoughts. It mimics exchange, but the real exchange occurs between the reader and writer. The irony is that a letter presupposes some response while the text, in most cases, elicits no such return. Instead the letters serve another purpose. They literally provide a ground for the writer to extract her sources, mix and reconnect them, and ultimately to create with language some shield to defend against the madness of the world around her. The benign day to day mothering of small children represents one form of madness, but the larger threat comes from the violence of the war abroad: “The teacher said, for everything that is in the world is also in you, the Senate’s actions, the unborn victims, the presidential nominee, the pregnant women, the terrorists in flight school” (181).

In a reversal of classic texts, the war takes a backseat while the mother and her little ones occupy center stage. Mayer’s groundbreaking work intended this response, one in which writers would continue to celebrate the invisible duties that women perform while not ignoring, but simply relegating war to what it truly is: a terror that threatens the precious livelihood of the family. Browne arms herself with handfuls of letters, ready to fight the battles of modern life with the tools of those gone before her, from Dr. Seuss to Hildegard of Bingen and from Gertrude Stein to Bernadette Mayer: “The desires of letters is to impress upon the reader a purpose or sentiment, to convey information, to draw a picture, to persuade (89).” Browne achieves all of these purposes, but more importantly she continues the conversation from one generation of writers to the next in the spirit of carving out some sanity and hope in a world gone wrong.

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Megan Burns has a MFA from Naropa University and edits the poetry magazine, Solid Quarter (solidquarter.blogspot.com). She has been most recently published in Jacket Magazine, Callaloo, New Laurel Review, YAWP Journal, and the Big Bridge New Orleans Anthology. Her poetry and prose reviews have been published in Tarpaulin Sky, Gently Read Lit, Big Bridge, and Rain Taxi. Her book Memorial + Sight Lines was published in 2008 by Lavender Ink. She has two chapbooks, Frida Kahlo: I am the poem (2004) and Framing a Song (2010) from Trembling Pillow Press.  She lives in New Orleans where she and her husband, poet Dave Brinks, run the weekly 17 Poets! reading series (www.17poets.com).

 

Living Body: Dan Rosenberg on Tomaz Salamun’s There’s the Hand and There’s the Arid Chair


There’s the Hand and There’s the Arid Chair, Tomaž Šalamun, Counterpath Press

If you come to a book by Tomaž Šalamun expecting a straightforward story, a clear narrative, a mind that progresses like the mind of a depressed newspaperman, I pity you for the frustration you will feel upon reading one of the most important contemporary European poets.

But if you feel, in some secret part of your gut, that violets should indeed carry mythological importance, that the metaphysical is hiding poorly in the everyday, reading Šalamun’s latest book, There’s the Hand and There’s the Arid Chair, will be like gargling soda from the Fountain of Youth. In these poems, Šalamun continues to engage in the kind of serious play that has inspired a generation of young American poets and won him awards and praise from all over the globe.

“The frontier is my living body,” Šalamun declares, and indeed the landscape he creates in this book is as promised. It is a frontier in that we are on the edge (of reason, of beauty, of coherence, of the divine):

It has to do with the race.
Who is faster.
God with his sand or we with our tongue.
Sand is the tongue of fire.
Tongue is the fire of sand.
Fire is the sand of God.
I’m falling.

And throughout the book we are located in the landscape of Šalamun’s “living body”: he pulls into his poems everything around him, be that friends and family, dreams and visions, chance occurrences, whatever he’s reading at the moment; the bodies of these poems are living because they are honest to the actual, perceived world, as if seeing (true seeing) were a kind of religion.

All this is to say that Šalamun’s poems don’t read like anyone else’s poems, despite the fact that many poets turn to him as a kind of untethered patriarch (I’ll admit to combating dry spells in my writing by bathing in his). He takes the wild leaps and juxtapositions of surrealism and infuses them with the philosophical and metaphysical weight of someone who feels the heavy hand of history on the back of his neck.

We can play the game of “what if,” and say Šalamun is what would have happened if Whitman had been born into a politically unstable Eastern Europe, or if Tzara had grown up at all, and then grown deliberately and joyfully senile while traveling the globe. But ultimately the only way to understand Šalamun’s poems is to dive into them. There is playfulness here (one poem, “Afternoon, at the Table, above the Underworld,” begins, “I sewed pants, / I sewed pants and tore off the thread with my teeth”), but the playfulness often turns dire, rendering the poem a necessary utterance instead of an exercise (later in the same poem: “I sewed pants and blinded you in an instant”).

At his best, Šalamun creates this sense of necessity in his work through unexpected precision. We get the sense that his poems are stallions, not quite broken; he’s partly riding them and partly just holding on. The friction between those two poles – between the fact that Šalamun is the creator of little worlds and the entirely likely probability that he’s as surprised by them as we are – generates an energy unique to Šalamun’s work. This is the first stanza of “Sun That Heats the Other Sun”:

Goddess who took me
and dispersed me as powdery snow,
ate me as an apple and
forged me in the tree,
stop!
Kill somewhere else. I
regret. Do you hear me,
I regret now, I regret!

And here is the last stanza:

My palm poisoned all living waters,
me, who is your
orgasm, white beauty.
My mind is cardboard,
you, who are nothing, whose paw was
hidden in joy and
a hurricane that resembled a
small sunny bird.

Depending on your taste, he can sometimes slip too far toward either pole, appearing too controlled and clever, or too chaotic and directionless, but those slippages are the danger and the price of striving for greatness. When he succeeds, which is far more often than anyone should succeed, his poems invite almost Biblical readings; every turn, every syllable, opens itself up for exploration: “You sigh like bellows, but everyone already / fled the bellows.” And we are implicated; we are launched in medias res; we have been emptied of everyone before we even had a chance to know they were with us. No wonder this poem ends with repeated, obsessive warnings that he, the voice, the poet, is dangerous. Šalamun empowers language. It’s risky stuff.

As a book, There’s the Hand and There’s the Arid Chair hangs together more than most of the other collections of his poems we have in English, though it feels less unified than the wonderful The Book for My Brother. The poems range in length from a couple of lines to a couple of pages. They range in tone from joking to earnest to prophetic. They reference cultures from all over the world as well as Šalamun’s private life. This diversity, held together by an authoritative voice that is comfortable everywhere, makes the book feel like an entire cosmos.

This collection benefits greatly from offering poems translated by nine different translators, all poets themselves, since approaching Šalamun through a variety of lenses allows us to get closer to him than we could in the hands of a single translator. Šalamun’s voice is a chorus (sometimes a Greek chorus, sometimes a Whitmanian multitude) by itself, and these translators have each channeled it in their own unique ways. They have worked admirably to give us texts that feel like Šalamun in all his protean splendor.

Each poem invites the reader into a strange new world where the divine meets despair, where “Women and death are sisters,” where a poem can end, delightfully, comically, and somehow (How does he do this?) honestly, with the line, “I am hugging you.” Because, ultimately, in the worlds of Šalamun’s poems, the human and the divine, the ecstatic voice and the analytical voice are one. As he proclaims at the conclusion of “Poem,” his little worlds embrace and revel in the contradictions of a fallen humanity, created in the image of God: “My poetry is no longer credible, / not for a long time. // It rots from the sheer glowing.” This may not be philosophy, or science, or religion, but I believe in it anyway.

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Dan Rosenberg’s chapbook, A Thread of Hands, was published by Tilt Press. His poems have appeared recently in Verse Daily; Third Coast; 6X6; Conduit; and elsewhere. He is a Ph.D. candidate at UGA in Athens, Georgia.