The Territory of Naming: Lynne Thompson on Ann Fisher-Wirth’s Carta Marina


Carta Marina, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Wings Press, 2009

Any decent dictionary or thesaurus will tell you that the word map may be utilized as either a noun or a verb. As in “flat representation of the earth’s surface, or a part of it…”; as in “to arrange in detail, to depict, to portray”. The perfunctory reader of Ann Fisher-Wirth’s Carta Marina might assert that it’s a book of poems that provides interesting particulars of the earliest-known map of Sweden (“A/Contains in this most ample region/The Isles of Scandia”), among other seemingly narrative biographical details. But Fisher-Wirth enters the territory of naming and action of personal and national history, current and past, with such lyric precision, such intensity, and, unexpectedly, with the thrill of the unknown, that the reader is transported beyond the superficial tease that the lovely cover of this collection depicts.

Unobtrusively, however, the poet guides the reader in the opening poem: “First/notice…” This enjambed instruction has the effect of slowing the reader’s pace so that taking the journey at a leisurely pace is a mandate from the very beginning. That sense of leisureliness creates, at least for this reader, a kind of tension that propels the action (which is secondary? which primary?) of the compilation.

Next, Fisher-Wirth prepares the reader to embrace the necessary flexibility inherent in the element of time that is so crucial to the book’s underpinnings. The first poem, as with others that follow, is untitled but dated: “October 14th”. The reader is locked firmly into a timeline but surmises, instinctively, that past and present will surely have a hand in the narrative (“Dreams coming down now, atomies of dreams—“) and the reader is not disappointed in this supposition. Intertwined within the narrator’s story of her sojourn while on sabbatical (“in Sweden ten months, two gone already—“), are fragments of e-mails to and from a former lover (“yes, you were 19 and I was 18”), now residing, these many years later, in Paris. With one deft move, the poet effectively and beguilingly conflates memory with current reality, a reality shared with her husband who has joined her in her academic quest in Scandinavia. By October 19th, the narrator has locked the reader into a meditation on lost time as she begins to separate mindfully from the task at hand—to chart Swedish history as revealed by its earliest cartographer—so as to recapture “the thread of [her] life….”

Her secret begins to reveal itself when the narrator provides the reader more than a hint (“…wilder than Olaus Magnus’ Norway/the ultrasound/bloody red screen…”) of a never-forgotten relationship and its aftermath which are at the heart of these poems; of the boy who “never tell(s) her why he vanished” as she—always aware of current reality—harkens back, traveling full circle, to the map “lost for many years”.

For this reviewer to tell more of the tale is to deprive the reader of the wondrously-writ mysteries of Carta Marina’s “angel with the stubborn underjaw”. Rather, I’d prefer to quote Fisher-Wirth as she writes “you will gallop me to the edges of the map/and I will lie down there…” Take this book, “hover at the threshold”. Savor.

*

Lynne Thompson won the Perugia Press Book Prize for her first full-length collection of poems, Beg No Pardon which was also awarded the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award.  A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a frequent reader, both locally and nationally, Thompson is also the author of two poetry chapbooks:  We Arrive By Accumulation and Through A Window. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals and anthologies including Sou’Wester, Indiana Review, Ploughshares and New Poets of the American West. Thompson is the Director of Employee & Labor Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Observing with Unclouded Vision: Mimi Albert on Alicia Kozameh’s 259 Leaps The Last Immortal


259 Leaps, The Last Immortal, Alicia Kozameh, trans. Clare Sullivan, Wings Press, 2007

Around the middle of the 20th century, aspiring writers began to cultivate the topic of sexual experience more fully than ever before in the history of mainstream Western literature, and give it back to us as art. For years, anyone who wrote about sex with a candor similar to Miller’s or even Joyce’s, found his (or her) work banned from American publication. Such writings were accessible only to a fortunate few who were able to find them in Europe or through “underground” sources, and smuggle them into Great Britain or the U.S.A., where they ran the risk of being confiscated as “obscene” by the respective governments which had banned them in the first place, and ultimately, destroyed.

Today, in the dawn years of the 21st century, we have come so far from that time, only a scant half century ago, that some of these books even seem a bit old-fashioned to us. Leopold Bloom admits to having a “French letter” stashed in his pocketbook; his wife Molly masturbates while dreaming of her lover; Miller focuses his considerable powers on the geography of cock and cunt; the jaded 21st century aficionado reads on and shrugs, seeking even more novelty in his or her reading matter.

But what’s left for the writers who follow? Are there any more undiscovered territories to explore? What about the shock to the senses brought about by a clear look at the eroticism of pain? A lot of “alternative fiction” of the late 20th and early 21st centuries seems to involve sado-masochism, following the lead of writers like de Sade and the anonymous author of The Story of O. It seems likely, however, that even this material may lose its novelty eventually, if only because of the frequency of imitation. So it may come to pass that even the impact of descriptions of torture, sexual and otherwise, for the sake of recreation (or even art) will probably also pass.

Nonetheless, watching the development of our literature over the decades might suggest to an observer that as a reading public, we believe that addiction or pain on some level leads to salvation, perhaps even to a kind of sainthood. Is this possibly because, until now, so little of real import has happened to any of us (those, at least, who constitute the reading public) on this safe, huge continent for such a long time, or at least to those of us on the more privileged levels of society? We are observers of catastrophes like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Haitian earthquake and other forms of world anguish, but has this really touched us? By and large, many middle-class Americans—those who constitute the reading public—seem to have dissociated ourselves from our histories, and with a few, die-hard exceptions, we don’t even want to read about them any more.

So our fetish becomes words: words upon words, expanded consciousness for the sake of expansion; expanded experience for the sake of experience. Which leads to a singular quandary: that no matter how diligently we try, it’s virtually impossible to write without focusing on subject matter. Impossible to write, literally, about nothing.

Perhaps this explains why there has been such a recent influx of literature fueled by a recognition of the changes being wrought in what, to us, have often seemed distant regions undergoing unspeakable struggles. Many of the authors of such work, among whom I count novelists Elif Shafak and Salman Rushdie, journalist Anna Politskovskaya and poet U Sam Oeur, among legions of others, present and past, have indeed gone through life-altering experiences; not as the result of some e need for self-development or self-revelation, but because they tried to express something in their art that was punished by repressive and powerful opponents. Rushdie was forced into hiding because the Muslim theocracy issued a fatwa for blasphemy against him after publication of his brilliant novel, The Satanic Verses; Cambodian poet U Sam Oeur lived through Pal Pot’s epoch of the killing fields, from which his poetry emerges as a cry of rage and anguish. And in October, 2006, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who had written about the injustices wrought by Putin’s regime in the Chechin war, was murdered while alone in her Moscow apartment.

For such writers, day-to-day life became a series of flights, due not only to the pursuit of interesting content, but to the relentless need to survive. And we, the American reading public, have gradually begun to realize that the messages brought to us by such survivors may well be the first notes of authentic urgency being struck in our world, awakening us to a reality based less on the quest for pure experience than on the quest for continuing existence — as a people, as a society, and as a species.

Placed where it belongs, beside the work of such prophetic authors, Alicia Kozameh’s newest book, 259 Leaps; The Last Immortal, (Wings Press, San Antonio, Texas), glows with authenticity and poetry. Kozameh was born in Rosario, Argentina, to an affluent family with origins in Catholicism, Judaism, and both Greek and Lebanese cultures. Despite relative wealth and position, however, Kozameh’s family was deeply affected by the severe disability of her younger sister, and at 17, Kozameh, a brilliant student of philosophy and literature at the University of Rosario, decided to leave her family’s home. Becoming deeply involved with the political struggle raging in Argentina at that time, she joined the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, was arrested, and spent the subsequent four years — the late 1970s through the early 1980s — detained in an underground prison in her native city, and then the Villa Devoto prison in Buenos Aires. After years in captivity, she was finally released through the intercession of Amnesty International and similar organizations, and given sanctuary first in Mexico and then in Los Angeles, where she still lives and works today.

Many of Kozameh’s previous books and stories deal with her experience of imprisonment; her current novel, 259 Leaps; The Last Immortal, explores her experience of exile. Heavy and deadening as these ordeals might seem, there is little of either quality in the exquisitely written, soaring novel which Kozameh, through the medium of Clare Sullivan’s translation, presents to us. It is executed, perhaps in itself like an act of escape, in tiny steps, in stages, but in each of which is a leap of consciousness, a leap of geography, and a leap of self.

As in the use of space in Abstract Expressionism, the space between Kozameh’s leaps is important; each represents the breath which the author takes between actions, those moments in which she—and we—can take the time to integrate the enormity of where she is coming from, and the direction in which she still moves.

“You absorb not quite half,” she writes of first entering this brand-new, sun-dazzled American city—L.A. “Less. Much less. You manage to absorb a sixth of what happens. Your head, surrounded by a bright light, the bright light of Los Angeles, that doesn’t quite blind you, that surrounds your temples but doesn’t quite grab hold of them, your head deflects what’s going on to the right and left, letting everything that won’t be recovered escape into the shop windows along Santa Monica Boulevard. That first vision, the one that can never be recreated, fades as you move from place to place. The car moves forward and your brain dozes, confronted by the hunger of your naïve, deluded eyes. What you didn’t see today you won’t see tomorrow. And there’s no way to be tomorrow what you were today, and the sun’s begun to set.”
This is the first leap, from which we progress to the second, which reads:
“It seems to go down red, reddened.”

There is nothing monotonous or artificial about Kozameh’s literary voice. It replicates the wonder and bewilderment of the exile, states which it is difficult to communicate, even to oneself. The tremulous music of this inner narrative permeates every line, so that less explanation is necessary than one might imagine for the reader to participate in the experience of being totally alone in an entirely new country; stranger to the language, the customs, the food, the people: everything.

Kozameh plays with words; mimics and repeats herself. And laughs. “You absorb a sixth,” she repeats, in the 17th leap. “Or less.” But then she goes on: “And even though Los Angeles is a city on wheels, no one’s forcing you not to walk.”

There is a wonderful play of language and image in her prose; at moments it is almost poetry in its word-play, and yet the content is integrating with the continuum, a developing story of her unfolding experience of exile. She writes of whatever she sees: cars, hair curlers, everyday things like “…a piece of soap, an abundance of cigarettes, some worn-out, clean underwear, a two-week old letter from a five-year-old son and, above all, more and more male and female prisoners. That more than anything: the rest of the Argentine political prisoners….You see them peeking out of the little holes in the curlers used by people who straighten or curl their hair…peeking out of all the other orifices that exist in this city. Which is the most spread out city in the world. All the holes: in the trunks of trees. In the clothes of the homeless. In the heads of crazy people. In the sewers where all the anguish pools up. You see them. Yes, you can see them.”

The leaps, as the narrator accustoms herself to her new life, become longer, more complex. They encompass the arc between the present and the past; they hazard the future. Every sentence of this remarkable book is filled with objects, memories, identities, scenes: a formal dinner in which the narrator sits stiffly over her plate, chewing lettuce beside her millionaire employers and their children, until they ask her what has brought her to America, and she tells them. Which then causes yet another transmutation, another leap; the dinner party turns into something else, with both the wealthy patrons and their children gathering around her, weeping, promising to look after her, gifting her with a new typewriter and immense, wonderful bars of soap. Soap! After years in an underground prison, soap cannot seem as simple to Alicia as to those who read her book; how can feel the silence of the private bathroom to which she is led in order to wash, the immensity of the large, white, sweetly-scented slabs as she rubs them against her skin; their beauty and significance.

American politics begin to motivate and call forth more leaps, some explicitly political, some brazenly observant, as if the narrator finally dares to take a long look at this country into which she has escaped. She places herself in the midst of the 1980s, of American partisan politics: the husband of the household in which she works as a servant, the progenitor of its fortune, is a Reaganite. The wife’s for Carter. For a month or so they do not speak, because of these differences. And then Kozameh takes yet another leap:

“…Until he asked for forgiveness,” she writes, “and received it. You see this phenomenon in Southern California all the time, don’t you? I saw it time and time again in those days: forgiveness, second or third or fourth chances, the abiding freedom to change one’s mind (because of course it’s the land of freedom) at any moment and under any circumstance, forgetfulness, or some other weakness of the heart or mind. And, who knows, probably also in Northern California, and in the North, and on the East Coast, and in the rest of the West, and in the rest of the South, and ultimately, in the lower strata from which this country grows, upon which it rests, and in the vast blue sky, the lid of the great frying pan in which its citizens were frying little by little.”

Alicia Kozameh, dropped into the most “spread out city in the world” by a munificent engine of rescue, reveals herself in this book as one of our most exceptional observers. She deciphers our lives with an apparatus developed long before she ever got here. Her tools include a vaulting lyricism, irony, self-comprehension, the capacity for endurance; and last but not least, laughter. Observant of the present she remains cognizant, always, of what is not seen, of what remains still trapped in the dungeons of the present and the past. Those who did not escape. Those who did not survive. Observing with unclouded vision the two selves who write this book, she sees–and makes us see — “one trying to reconstruct herself and the other one, well-intentioned and ready to contribute to the happy ending,” but still in shadow, “imperturbable for an infinity of time.”

Ample Substance: Maria Espinosa on Pamela Uschuk’s Crazy Love


CrazyLove

Crazy Love, Pamela Uschuk, Wings Press

Pamela Uschuk is the author of four volumes of poetry as well as numerous chapbooks, and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, Her work has been translated into a dozen languages. She has been featured at international conferences, has spent years traveling, and has taught creative writing to Native American students on reservations in the west. She is currently a professor of Creative Writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado

Her poems in this 84-page collection are dense and richly textured. The work has an improvisational quality. She may leap from a single image to contemplations far removed, winding through a trajectory of vivid memories, and reflections. Everything is grist for the mill—material that other writers might put into diaries, memoirs, or novels may be compressed into a few lines or a poem.

Nature in its many forms permeates her consciousness, from a single flower, a tomato plant, a trapped bird, to mountains, sky, ocean. This love of nature mingles with love of husband, family, and friends.

In “Saving the Cormorant on Albermarle Sound.” She writes:

Numb and saturated by spray, it is now
I love you most, love your thick purple wrist
Straining to hold the bird above hungry waves,
Love the deft gentleness of your swollen hand
That cuts brutal knots without wounding the bird
Who stares at you resolute as its barbed restraint

When finally, through the last styrene twist,
You fling the huge bird free…
We are stunned….as we paddle back to shore
Above the condemned rows of sea bass and all
Those snared in darkness we’ll never see.

Social and political concerns run throughout her work, as in “Sunday News on the Navajo Rez.”

Stopped at a gas station outside Gallup…
and a white pickup pulls up.
The woman my age, wrapped in a red Pendleton coat…
Oh you hear something about what happened up in Colorado
We trade what we know about the monster avalanche
That closed Highway 40…
We don’t have much time for news here
What with the baby goats and lambs…
her fingers
tapped out the names of her daughters, especially the last
ready to head with her company
to a desert, far across the unknown globe, where villagers
also raise goats and avalanches take the form
of a roadside waiting to explode.

“Flying Through Thunder” presents the overwhelming awareness of nature as at once a reality larger, more durable than human emotions, and at the same time tender, ephemeral as a flower. It progresses through images that stir thoughts and memories, shifting back and forth from the storm through which her plane is actually flying

From expectant sunflowers, mountain bluebirds, western meadowlarks….
the small turbo prop pitches toward glacial peaks…
I remember the way my stomach dropped as a child pumping my swing higher…
my brother dared me to jump
Bombs away. We’re hit. Jump. Jump….
How could I….foresee
that in a few years my brother would be
drafted to paratrooper school
to ruin his young knees
when he landed just off the training mark
preparing for Vietnam?
When the army found out he attended rallies, preached peace. He
was shipped to Da Nang, to dousings
with Agent Orange
to the burning of village peoples, to daily mortar attacks
and sniper fire he still fights…
Now as the plane lunges, engines
steady above the Continental Divide.
I regard razor backed ridges
older than memory
vaster than scars. They comfort me
in their lack of pity…

She is able to condense entire life stories into a few lines, as in “Bell Note” written in memory of her father.

Sometimes, Dad, there is no loneliness like an ad for the superbowl
all those coaches blunders you’d cuss out
or the lies of politicians on TV
smiling as they staggered like possums
on the sides of reasons highway…
[…]
Remember driving cross-country year
after year from Michigan to Colorado….
What did you say to Mom, who sat
knitting or reading in the back seat, when
she’d startle like a rock dove, head
jerking up at us with her shriek
“We’re going the wrong way!
That field’s on fire. It’s heading
right for us!” Maybe her delusions knew that
the fire was always heading for us, her heart,
that you’d always keep her from the flames.

With their multiple images and swift traversals of thought, her poems provide ample substance for reflection. They are best savored when read slowly, preferably several times, in order to absorb their full impact.

*

Maria Espinosa is a novelist, poet, and translator. She has also has taught Creative Writing and English as a Second Language. She has published four novels, two chapbooks of poetry, and a critically acclaimed translation of George Sand’s novel, Lélia. Her novel, Longing, received an American Book Award. Dying Unfinished, her most recent novel, just published by Wings Press, deals with the characters in Longing from a different perspective.

Motherhood & Art: Mimi Albert on Maria Espinosa’s Dying Unfinished


dying-unfinished

Dying Unfinished, Maria Espinosa, Wings Press

“We spend so much energy hiding from the truth,” Maria Espinosa writes in this splendid new novel, Dying Unfinished. Espinosa, whose previous novels include Longing, Dark Plums, and Incognito: The Journey of a Secret Jew, refuses to allow herself, her readers, or any of the characters in this tangled and absorbing story to hide. From the first page to the last, she uncovers the hidden motives, unspoken passions, and many disappointments that too often bruise people who have been together for a long time.

The narrative is delivered by a variety of voices framed by different combinations of characters during different periods of their lives and even on different continents. The novel opens with Eleanor, a mother and daughter as well as a mistress and wife, traveling on a commuter train from suburban Long Island to meet her lover in a New York City bar. We glimpse Eleanor as a beautiful young woman as the story unfolds, being courted by Aaron, the man who becomes her lifelong husband as he attains prestige in the difficult world of modern art. Theirs is far from a simple story of adultery and retribution; Aaron is chronically adulterous and the relationship between them, while not quite “open,” seems not only to continue but to thrive in the warmth shed by their mutual deceptions.

When children come into this marriage (Jesse, Howard, and Rosa), they respond differently to their parents’ world of shadowy truths and half-told lies. Howard becomes practical and hard-working leaving the more artistic and volatile Jesse to encounter problems. Jesse falls ill with polio in one of the many epidemics of the 1950s; he also rebels against his family’s web of deceptions by making his own choices and being true to his own desires. But most volatile and most important to the story, is the daughter, Rosa, several years older than her brothers and too gifted and spirited to be contained within any conventional restraints, even those of literary description.

The story of these lives and the art created by them might seem overly complex were it not for the clarity with which the narrative is told. Espinosa takes the reader directly behind the eyes of her characters; she leads us into difficult relationships (Eleanor’s with her lovers, Rosa’s with a variety of men to whom she turns for solace as she grows into a troubled womanhood). But each episode is concisely contained and crystal clear in its telling as when Rosa finds herself in a whirlpool of self-destruction leading to her becoming a desolate ward of a mental institution; these scenes are gripping, vividly depicted, but never overdone.

By the time the book comes to its conclusion, the reader knows that somehow mother and daughter have achieved the reconciliation they have always sought achieving it through motherhood and art as has Espinosa becoming the first publisher of her own mother’s poetry, which heads many of the chapters of Dying Unfinished. It is a fitting homage to the struggles of these two women and a fitting ending to a difficult yet creative journey.