Still Life on Water: Megan Burns on Motion Studies by Brad Richard


Motion Studies, Brad Richard, Word Works, 2011

One of the central motifs in Brad Richard’s Motion Studies is the examination of the visual arts and their ability to transmit an emotion that transcends the bounds of space and time. It’s a subject taken up by many poets, the close examination of paintings and photographs, but in Richard’s hands this act of seeing into the painting delves deeply into personal trauma and the philosophical theory that time is not divisible and therefore, change is illusory. The study of motion that an artist attempts to replicate in paintings and photographs is translated into words as Richard uses these studies to push language to the shattering point. What emerges from the break is a stunning and deep resolve to enter into a communion with art that allows us to look ever more deeply into our own small lives. From his family history to his personal trauma after Hurricane Katrina and from Whitman’s lineage to painter Thomas Easkin’s obsessions, Richard weaves together these disparate thoughts into one line that points to “the telling a bridge back to that crossing” (75) or in other words, the story that we are always making of our days.

Divided into four sections, Richard begins with a sequence of poems about daguerreotypes and ends part one with his first poem titled Motion Studies, which outlines a recurrent theme of time caught in the act of happening. He uses the philosophy of Zeno to outline in a series a poems the idea that “time is composed of instants too small/ and dense to divide” (24). Richard returns to this idea throughout the book adopting Wittgenstein’s play on words that objects are either what we define them as or not; an idea that hearkens back to the painter’s or even the photographer’s desire to capture time. The daguerreotype in its day was a type of magic bringing forth an instant, but Richard argues this illusion is just one part of the greater illusion that time is moving past us and that we are not always trapped ourselves.

The next section begins Richard’s long examination into a painting by Thomas Eakins, Swimming, which is the cover image for the book. In several poems, Richard returns again and again to the painting and Easkins’ life outlining his interpretations, research, and his characterization of Easkins’ world through characters such as his wife. This continued meditation on this one painting provides Richard with a way to explore his own complicated relationships with his family, his desires, and his grief. The view he imagines of Easkins watching several young males naked in the water echoes Whitman’s celebration of the male body. The beauty of the male body and the gaze on it by the male speaker is a complicated terrain in both Whitman and Richard’s time; and perhaps, unfortunately, what makes these poems so compelling: the need to normalize and draw attention to the beauty of homosexual desire. Richard compares the male body to the works of art he admires: “their art/ like yours, to exclude yet hold me” (57). The proximal distance between the viewer and the art is repeated and redefined as the speaker notes the distance between himself and the bodies that he admires; in this case proximity is far outweighed by an abstract distance bounded by cultural norms and attitudes. In this section as well, the mark that Hurricane Katrina has left on the poet appears suddenly in a poem called Waterlines, and from this point the book’s examination of art is always tempered with this personal sorrow. Richard closes with his second poem titled Motion Studies, a temporal examination of his family’s past that includes an uncle who had to be hurriedly buried before his family could reach him due to a flood. These male bodies take all forms in Richard’s book; like Whitman, he sings of the lover, the artist, the father, the brother, the son, and the corpse.

In the next two sections, Richard returns again to this complicated notion of time being indivisible, and he continues his intense examination of Thomas Easkins’ life, which in turn informs his own ordering of his memories and experiences. In the third poem titled Motion Studies, the speaker returns to the uncle whose burial was not attended due to a flood and this event is transposed over his experiences with the flooding of New Orleans in 2005. Time folds and repeats, and the speaker notes that a journal the uncle kept that was swept away by Katrina’s floodwaters was the nexus for writing these poems. Again, art replaces what is lost and attempts to make sense from what is seemingly random. Richard in his book is able to order the images that inform his life so that they recur in rich, descriptive ways, a point that belies the chaos and disorder that often accompanies any reality. The book closes with the fitting image of the speaker swimming in a pool speaking to someone in an imagined letter about the destruction of New Orleans. Swimming, art, trauma, beauty, survival: all swirls round in these poems, and Richard reminds us: “And where their motion shatters/ on the river’s wrinkled face/ let my image swim against decay” (30). Like the painter and poets before him, Richard contends with nature in its beauty and destruction, and he makes with his poems a stalwart against the coming end, an attempt to capture motion and to still the moment.

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Megan Burns is a poet, performer, essayist, and editor. She edits the poetry magazine, Solid Quarter, which is dedicated to poets working in the tradition of the long poem. She has been most recently published in Trickhouse, Horseless Review, Callaloo, New Laurel Review, and the Big Bridge New Orleans Anthology. 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, have run the weekly 17 Poets! Literary and Performance series since 2003.

A Monster of Home–Megan Burns on Moose Jackson’s The Loup Garou: A Lunar Cycle


The Loup Garou: A Lunar Cycle, Moose Jackson, Lavender Ink, 2010

Imagine the overgrown back lot of a vast park in a city that sat for weeks underwater and then spent four years trying to absorb the damage and move forward. In that space on October 9, 2009 an audience gathered under the oaks in New Orleans as the sun rose and listened to a story of a man and a beast, a story part myth and part achingly real, a story about the very land the tale takes place on and an ominous prediction of more loss and sorrow. Moose Jackson’s cycle of poems that make up the text of The Loup Garou were intended to be intoned, performed, and howled outloud. Its history as a drama is told in the foreword by director Kathy Randels and by the author in the introduction. Nevertheless, the text of these poems has their own performance within the pages of this book, and it’s one that allows for an intimate exchange between the wolf and the reader. These 28 poems along with the prologue take the reader on a journey, a sacred transformation occurs analogous to the waxing and waning of the moon in the revelation of the main character’s desire to understand this sickness that he has acquired from his history and from his roots. The prologue opens with a murder and then sets up the idea of searching back to unfold the story, beginning at Day 1:

there’s a rhythm to this wrongness;
paced at intervals of 28 nights
but what day is this, what quarter o’ the moon?
how this song gonna begin?
gotta get back to day one…

And so the poem begins its cycle of Sebastian Couteau trying to make sense of these intervals where the beast takes over. The reader, familiar with the werewolf myth, will recognize aspects such as the full moon’s effect, the bite or injury that causes the curse as well as the silver bullet, but Jackson also complicates the traditional tale by weaving in the narrator’s personal history and his family’s tie to the land. This is a loup garou story, a Cajun twist on the traditional tale that sets the beast in the swamps and parishes of Louisiana. The Catholic Church and his family’s own dark history flesh out the personality and paint the tale of this cursed man. Day 1 begins in the monastery where he seeks refuge after he awakes confused from another episode, but only several days pass before he begins to recall his name and his childhood:

when I was a boy
I saw the loup garou
I stabbed him with my knife
and he showed me his true face

Jackson ties Cousteau’s story back to Quebec where the Cajun people lived before being forced from their land. He begins to draw a parallel between the wolf and the people; the wolf is a metaphor brought to the bayou just as their religion and their way of life travels south with them. The wolf embodies the darkness of these people, and it is a necessary chapter to their way of life. By Day 6, the tie between the wolf and the land begins to take shape:

Let them oilmen come to drink our blood
while the land
disappears beneath our feet?

This theme of the double bind of living off the land and also destroying the land mirrors Couteau’s life with the wolf. As much as Couteau is the wolf and therefore all the primal, murderous rage that it entails, so are the people of Louisiana a community that lives off the land and also the land’s worst enemy. The “oil men” offer money and jobs, and the people accept this offer even if it kills their home. This doubling is played out in the body of Couteau, the wolf is destroying him but to destroy the wolf means destroying himself. So too, the oil men invite the destruction of the very land that the people of Louisiana live on, but to deny them would mean a loss of jobs and food for families.

Jackson manages to embody his message in Couteau literally as we witness in the arc of poems his swaying indecision between revulsion and acceptance of what he is: “Yes, I have killed men/ I have eaten of their flesh/ why be ashamed?” he tells us and then he turns to survey the world around him: “I drift through a nightmare land/ refineries shooting infernal flames…past a parish piled with cheap construction/ oil spill corruption/ whole towns turned toxic by high water.” It’s hard to delineate where the nightmare begins and ends: in Couteau and in the land around him. Couteau travels in his search from St. Bernard to New Orleans and from Plaquemines Parish to Bayou la Fourche; he searches in places that are near extinction and in places that may soon pass into the land of myth much like the loup garou. His travels link Louisiana making it apparent that the sickness invades the whole state; the wolf uses byways, canals, and outlets to access this area highlighting how the water binds the land together. As the wolf, he is quite literally the bringer of death on these waters; but conversely the waters are being killed by the people who dredge and exploit them.

This parallel between the two drives home the intertwining story of the mythos of a people who are quite literally defined by and bounded by the land. The loup garou, like the Cajun people and other peoples of Louisiana, is defined by his land; if the land is destroyed then so are the people and their stories. There is no option here of a mass exodus; the land has become a vital organ that once stopped will shut down the entire body. There is no way that Moose Jackson could have predicted the oil rig explosion of 2010, but there is the prescient sense that it is alive in these pages. One could point to the role of the poet as seer, but more accurately the case should be made that the poet reveals what is right in front of us. In this case, Jackson has taken our gaze back to the primal, back to that which we fear and hope will fade with the night; he demands that we examine it unflinchingly and woe to those who try to ignore or silence the beast. The Gulf oil disaster is just one result of our misuse as Jackson reminds all of us: “This aint just about survival no more/ It’s about redemption./ You gotta get right with us/ The Wolf is at your door.” In the end, we have to examine our own faces and see where the wolf sneaks through: are we some poor monster howling in the night licking our wounds or are we linked to the land like any living thing who calls it home.

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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).

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).

 

RESILIENCY BY DEGREES: Megan Burns on Summer Brenner’s I-5


i-5

I-5: A Novel of Crime, Transport, and Sex, Summer Brenner, PM Press

Summer Brenner enters the dark underworld of the sex slave trade in this fictional account of a young Russian woman’s attempt to escape from bondage as she is transported across a stretch of highway, the I-5 of the title. From the first page, Brenner inundates the reader with the sensory experiences of Anya, an illegal immigrant from Russia who has been lured to the United States with the promise of jobs and money, but who finds herself forced to perform sexual favors to pay off an undisclosed debt to her captors for her transport and upkeep. Descriptions of the enclosed life that Anya leads as well as the control exerted over her least decisions and movements help to portray the hopelessness of her life as overtly as the descriptions of the sexual escapades that she is supposed to perform with agility and acquiescence in order to earn her freedom do. Her character is intriguing because she is able to objectively present the atrocious scenarios of her life interspersed with the hints and shades of past horrors of a different order left behind in Russia.

As Anya’s world is explored through a series of mishaps that occur along the I-5, the reader slowly learns the pervading knowledge that Anya carries within herself: she will never be able to escape as the outside world is as dangerous and untrustworthy as her own secret world as a sex slave. The only sex scene in the novel ironically occurs not when Anya is “working,” but after a car accident that leads her and her captor to a nearby prison facility for medical attention. The scene illustrates that even the law as represented by the prison sergeant is complicit in the abuse of Anya, if the opportunity presents itself. As Anya kneels before his unzipped pants with her breasts exposed, the scene encompasses the violent mindset that allows these women to be treated as objects: “The sergeant observes from above. It is only two feet, but it feels like a great height. A spectacular aerial view over an inviolable law. Not his law but nature’s: women are born to satisfy men” (80).

Anya, who has been working for four years at this point in the story, is surprisingly strong willed and spirited in comparison to other girls such as her friend Cerise, who is presented as an example of a woman completely broken by her circumstances. Fear of being deported and sent back to a country where her brother was picked up and murdered without cause by the authorities keeps Anya imprisoned as much as the violence does that she will endure if she does not comply. Anya truly believes in her ability to pay her debt and earn her freedom, and the turning point in the novel is her dawning realization that this promise that she has clung to so fervently is actually a lie. Nothing else truly penetrates the thick shell that Anya has created to preserve her inner self as much as the hint that she may never be free.

Brenner begins her tale with a mysterious sound that Anya hears repeatedly while locked in her hotel room for days on end, and towards the end of the novel, the source of the sound is revealed to be the tones of the traffic light signaling for the blind. “She laughs sadly. ‘I fantasized it was a bird.’ Anya thinks she should have felt sorry for the bird, but instead she hated it. Now that she knows it’s for the blind, she hates it still. She wonders if she is a bad person. She doesn’t think she was born bad, but life has turned her. She has even lost pity for the blind” (172). Symbolically, Anya is blinded by the lies of her captors, and ultimately her survival depends on her ability to respond quickly relying on whatever senses she has left at her disposal. Brenner braves a subject matter that is not easy to embrace, and she manages to create a character that is neither cliché nor uninspiring. I-5 moves at a clipped pace towards its conclusion, and the reader is wholly invested in finding out how Anya finally resolves her life.

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Megan Burns holds a MFA from Naropa University and edits the poetry magazine, Solid Quarter (solidquarter.blogspot.com). She has been most recently published in Callaloo, Constance Magazine, and YAWP Journal as well as online at horseless press, shampoo, trope_5, Exquisite Corpse and BigCityLit. Her book Memorial + Sight Lines was published in 2008 by Lavender Ink.