Tangible Poetic Gold: Suzanne Ondrus on Aracelis Girmay’s Teeth


teeth

Teeth, Aracelis Girmay, Curbstone Press

Teeth is a stellar book filled with energy that is certain to leave readers impatiently waiting if not begging for more poems from Girmay. Aracelis Girmay is no stranger to the poetry world having published widely and appeared on the radio in New York City. Surprisingly, however, this is her first book, which leads one to the common sense belief that some things take time and some things are worth the wait. Girmay charges minute details such as cooking oil that “buckles” seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary, “snow falling/like rice flung from the giants’ wedding.” Girmay is a poet that takes her keen perception of the ordinary and focuses it into the international political realm.

Girmay’s work has an international focus that is not touristy. She goes beyond her own Eritrean, Puerto Rican, and African-American origins to explore deep issues on a human level. Her poems are set in Palestine, Chad, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Belarus, Ghana, and the U.S. addressing war, politics, working conditions, culture, atrocities, and her own family. Girmay makes American political complaint and retaliation simple, but very moving. The book’s opening poem Arroz Poetica she shares news from a friend who tells “that all people against the war should/send a bag of rice to George Bush,/& on the bag we should write,/’If your enemies are hungry, feed them.’” Girmay continues to excavate the atrocities of this war and realizes that her enemies “are not hungry” but “ride jets to parties” and “talk of war in neat & folded languages/that will not stain their formal dinner clothes/or tousle their hair.”

Girmay personalizes death in Arroz Poetica through naming the Iraqi victims and giving their ages. She goes on to addresses these victims one by one, as if pointing, telling them individually that she will not forget “because your name is the name of my own brother,/because your name is the Tigrinya word for ‘tomorrow,’/…because my students are 12, & because I remember/when my sisters were 12.” Sadly at the end she realizes that “a bag of rice will not bring you back./A poem cannot bring you. & although it is my promise here/to try to open every one of my windows, I cannot/imagine the intimacy with which/a life leaves its body.” Girmay is sincere and really ponders this subject. These deaths are permanently ingrained so that “when I say ‘night,’/it is your name I am calling,/when I say ‘field,’/your thousand, thousand names,/your million names.” The weight of the numbers killed is felt in the expanse of the night and field. The words “night” and “field” become a simple but powerful prayer.

Girmay’s simple but striking political observations continue in Ode to the Watermelon, set in Palestine, where it is illegal to wave the Palestinian flag. Instead of waving their flag, Palestinians put watermelon halves on knives and hold them up “against Israeli troops/for the red, black, white, green/of Palestine. Forever.” And like a flag, this fruit’s ”Black seeds star red immense/as poppy fields.” Girmay works with a seemingly simple tourist observation, but renders it as politically significant. Girmay also turns to labor problems and segregation. In In the Cane Fields she addresses workers’ risk-taking for love. Her unnamed characters’ courage is expressed by their self definitions: “I am a steel-blade woman./You are a steel-blade man.” They are ready to die for their love, should the “Boss Men follow/down the dirt red road,” and “accuse us of blackness & of love.” The strong characters demand that should the Boss Men pursue them, “let us live again, sweet,” and “haunt these fields.” It is a bit uncertain if this is a contemporary situation or if it is the echoes of slavery, but this is nonetheless a moving poem suitable for either interpretation. In What Brang Me Here a revenant narrator, explains that he was lynched for drinking water from a white fountain. He simply explains that “God said, “Drink the water.”/& I just drink the water.”

Girmay takes some surprising subjects like a student’s misspelled card or the letter B and goes crazy with them, taking us along on this roll of thought that creates meaning from the sure joy of language poetry. In For Estefani Lora, Third Grade, Who Made Me a Card she takes an enigmatic word ‘Loisfoeriari’ that her student wrote and meditates on how it could be Latin for hibiscus, a mode of transportation or a drink by implementing it humorously in sentences. For example, “How are we getting to Pittsburgh?/Should we drive or take the Loisfoeribari?” Finally, this roll of ideas leads her to realize that the phrase the student means to write, is really “love is for everybody” and readers see the wisdom of a child’s confused expression.

In Ode to the Letter B Girmay moves from clever imagery of the B as a “Half butterfly, two teeth,/sideways: a bird meet[ing] the horizon” to a witty analysis of how with B “Blouses would be louses,/& Blow would be low.” This reader finds few points of critique. Perhaps Girmay’s use of the period followed by the ampersand is questionable because it seems to work against her long flowing lines. Her use of the period and ampersand is jarring; it is like having a stop and go sign at the same time, making readers back track instead of continuing forward.

Aracelis Girmay in this reader’s mind is definitely a poet to keep an eye on. She is clearly a young poet who is not only filled with much promise, but also one who has clearly delivered much tangible poetic gold “of a jar filled with/the sweet of stinging bees.”

The Ordinary into the Fantastic: Suzanne Ordus on Larissa Szporluk’s Embryos & Idiots


Embryos & Idiots, Larissa Szporluk, Tupelo Press

embryos-and-idiots 

 

Embryos & Idiots, Larissa Szporluk’s fourth book in ten years, creates a myth about the fall of a mythic creature, Anoton. The book’s title comes from Paradise Lost, Book III and refers to those who are immature or without intelligence. Remember, Paradise Lost, Book III deals with the fall of Satan. Here, though, Szporluk seems to be addressing the fall of demons. Her themes are destruction, atonement, evil nature, and relying on others.  Though the book’s title and section markers come from Milton, the work stands on its own making the story readily accessible. Landscape apparently sparked Szporluk’s story more than Milton, when asked in an interview about the story’s inspiration she cited a small mountain, Monte Circeo in Sabaudia, Italy, that according to her “looks like a gigantic head staring up at the sky.” In fact, this gigantic head becomes the main character, Anoton. Anoton falls from grace by betraying his mother. He tells the king his Mother is harboring plant and animal life, a grave offense in the strictly mineral Kingdom of Od, and as a result, his mother is killed. In revenge, Anoton’s Father beheads him and from his severed head an island is formed. 

 

The first section lures readers in by closely following Anoton and his story of the fall. In Boulders, the opening poem, we get a luscious description of the inside of the human body. Anoton knows that his Mother is hiding forbidden insect life:

      He knew she was hiding a bee. He could hear it

      zapping inside her, trapped in the amber

      nook that led to her mineral uterus.

     

      He had been born with that sound,

      the rain of maracas, maraud of a rose, and so lived

      in his mind with a wax city, silver hives

     

      of see-through honey, …

Szporluk’s imagination is vibrant, turning the body into stones and minerals capable of encasing insect life. Her use of the words “zapping” and “trapped” evoke the buzz of a bee in closed quarters snagging readers with her vivid story and ideas. 

 

She steps the mineral aspect up in Pornography, a poem where we truly feel the Mother’s pain summed up brilliantly in one word—pornography—and in one image—her brain in a jar. Here Anoton’s mother’s brain, “in a flask of boric acid,” is on display in the royal courtyard and has “zithered the air/like luciferin, a glowing warning.” In general, titles do not contribute significantly, but here the title is perfect for the poem fully resonating with the Mother’s pain and violation as it perfectly and succinctly describes this act of publicly displaying the brain, an intimate and private organ. The mineral descriptions caustically penetrate both the displayed and the viewer.

 

Anoton’s confession of atonement and remorse to his Mother in Stars and Marrow in a simple and touching way lets readers enter Anoton’s own brain.  He explains to his Mother that:

          There is so much good

          in the worst of us, so much bad

          in the best.  I found succor in the devil

          when the angels cooked my head.

Anoton is acknowledging how unexpected family betrayal is. Surprisingly he tells his Mother that he has suffered like she did. With the poem’s intimate letter style, readers feel privy to Anoton’s confession. While the book’s section one focuses primarily on Anotons story, sections two and three widely crack open Anoton’s myth, so that “everything starts talking,” ranging from the historical to personal. We hear from a mental patient, knight, a seed, God, clowns, Joan of Arc and witches. Szporluk should be applauded for her wide application of Anoton’s story, but it have been nice to have stayed longer in Anoton’s fascinating world and story. In any event, readers will be impressed by how Szporluk accessibly weaves Anoton’s fall through these different characters.   

 

Readers will enjoy traveling to the kingdom of Od and experiencing the wild things that happen there as Szporluk’s language is honed and meaty. Like Anoton’s betrayal, Szporluk also deals with tough moments in life as seen in the last poem, Satan at Length. We glimpse miracles not only in Satan’s mouth, but also in the struggling introspective poet, giving promise of more stellar work to come, when Szporluk says:

          I dream of the seaside,

          of the lone ravine of my own

          dead yawn, like a room

          with nobody else, and I know

          why I’m last in line,

          after the cattle.

This is a poet truly capable of turning the ordinary into the fantastic and carving complete worlds on grains of sand.