Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Lighting the Shadow. Four Way Books, 2015. 136 pages. $15.95.
This fourth collection by Rachel Eliza Griffiths transforms what the eye sees; as a gifted photographer as well as poet, this poet is definitely up to the task. The majority of these poems display emotionally subjective meaning: the speaker nimbly drops into moments of import and rapidly gifts image after image, with the splendid attentiveness of her language bringing the reader close. Other poems do reveal their interiority to the reader, using a mixture of lyric and narrative in language that bends the knowable, such as “The Woman and the Branch”: “Carrying the glass / inside my skin to school, I was young. / Show us what you have, the world said.” The theme of womanhood appears immediately, with four poems in the first section using some variation of “woman” in the title, and one discovers that womanhood is essential to nearly all the poems. Griffiths builds thematic layers to create intersectionality, for history is a crossroads for women—the history of just-passed moments and ancestral history, too. Another theme is violence, but rather than relying upon terrifying physical spectacle, Griffiths translates trauma into beauty, and, in turn, presents political transgression. As one reaches the end of the book, Griffiths continues to braid political images through her lyrics, threads that tug the reader through mentions of various forms of abuse: police brutality, violence towards women, and various instances of inhumanity. But throughout this book, glimpses of joy: “Sometimes prayer.” Last words: Though themes reoccur, what is most striking about this collection is Griffiths’s amazing innovation. She revisits themes, yet her familiarity is never stale—she never writes the same poem. Instead, in the words of the ancestors, she “troubles” the moment. —HFJ
Patrick Ryan Frank. The Opposite of People. Four Way Books, 2015. 80 pages. $15.95.
Patrick Ryan Frank won me over to his broadcast when, in “Commercial for a Weight-Loss Plan,” he imagines what really happens between dieters’ before-and-after photographs. The gap advertisers blithely skip past is filled, according to Frank, with “the swearing of a girl who kicks the slow / untrained dog of her body, then feels bad / and feeds it every sweet scrap she can find.” Frank’s scathing sympathy is all too familiar: we project ourselves ambivalently onto characters flickering across our small screens, seduced but also horrified by our own fascination. Frank’s second collection pays tribute to television-watching in poems that are often short, funny, and strongly metered. His is a retro project—don’t we all just binge on Netflix now?—but the book’s wistful mood deepens its meditations on television trickery. The best poems, in fact, remind me of Philip Larkin’s envious sense of having lost out. “The Comedian Takes the Stage,” for example, presents a memorably cringe-inspiring monologue—who gave this guy a microphone? The intermittent “Patrick Ryan Frank as . . . ” series is also especially well cast. In “Patrick Ryan Frank as the Alien,” for example, Frank manifests with a “theramin voice,” inspires disgust in the heroine, then reflects, “No one / lives beyond the planet of himself.” C’mon, tune in—this is smarter and more entertaining than that reality show you’re streaming. —LW
James Byrne. Everything Broken Up Dances. Tupelo Press, 2016. 76 pages. $16.95.
Poets are makers making them attuned to creation’s dark opposite. What’s a poet to do with damage? Mourn, sing, and dance is one answer from James Byrne, whose Everything Broken Up Dances tours the wreckage of the early twenty-first century—Burma and Syria and Libya but also New York and London. In the Greco-Roman ruins of Sabratha, Libya, the persistent remainders yield a lyric ambivalence between making and breaking:
my face sang
in the glasshouse of the tragic actor
and was neither healed nor lured
by the attending lyre of Bacchus
or Concordia’s matted scarf of serpents
I sat in the mosaic hall of the three graces
smelling out the tarry bitterness of human meat.
Some poems sing, others fire staccato shots in a barrage of sensory detail, recollection, and damning impressions:
mirrorlicker. you snooze, you win.
A loud selfie to cure worrywarts.
the dust particulates. no tallying
the bodycount. scene in Damascene.
hearse ears. silence is a threshold—
the buzzfeed echoes like hills.
This is a poetics of witness that exposes a gruesome and ecstatic truth. Poems are built on the bones of others. This may not, however, be cause for only alarm. In “Night,” set in Lattakia, Syria and dedicated to Adonis, darkness provokes a question: “How to rinse out the ears of the world / so the world might see itself in this night?”
How indeed? Bombs burst and bullets ring out nearly every day of late. Byrne poses questions evermore urgent because the answers are evermore uncertain. —JC
Eduardo Chirinos. Medicine for the Ailments of Falcons. Trans. G.J. Racz. Literal Publishing, 2015. 174 pages. $19.95.
Eduardo Chirinos curiously begins his nineteenth and final collection of poems in 1385 with the story of Chancellor Pero López de Ayala, once taken prisoner by the Portuguese army. Chirinos and his longtime translator G.J. Racz tell us the poet’s body sheltered the chancellor as a “lodger.” Chirinos reveals:
I wrote these poems as a prisoner for this inmate, beneath the somber flapping of a mordant, demanding raven or, perhaps, a falcon that demanded medicine to treat its maladies and alleviate its ailments, as did I.
What follows are twenty-eight poems that blur the line between the poet’s lived and unlived experiences, mirroring the sense of both captivity and displacement from his own body. Although written during Chirinos’s battle with cancer, Edwin Madrid in the Latin American literary journal Cuadernos hispanoamericanos tells us: “This is not a book strictly about his ailments, but about the possibility of writing while ‘a lodger’ undermines his body” (my translation).
Chirinos followers will find the poet’s signature themes of music and animals interwoven with a particular focus on colors, senses, language, and world literatures, as if the poet were trying to experience them on the deepest possible level. In “On a Poem by Victoria Guerrero” he writes:
“All combinations are perfect tonight, all
combinations are possible.” I read this sentence
over and over (on page 19, dated 9/2) and I think
about López de Ayala in a Portuguese prison,
about all the colors in the world, about the words
I should be able to pronounce without stumbling
Cyclophosphamide, Methotrexate, 5-fluorouracil).
The poetic subject constantly turns through new and old memories and, while López de Ayala is not explicitly present in all but two poems, we’re never quite sure who or what is behind the pen at any particular moment. Yet, one thing remains quite clear: this is a collection of poems beyond just one body. “I write about animals / to forget my body to escape from myself,” Chirinos divulges (“Poem Written on the Seventh Day of Autumn”).
Racz’s skillful translation has the feel that it too hosts a lodger: Chirinos’s original Spanish. This act of an inner and outer body, total surrender to another’s words is unique to exceptional works of translation. Here, Racz gives English-language readers the gift of reading the great Eduardo Chirinos one last time. —OL
Jesus Castillo. Remains. McSweeney’s Poetry Series, 2016. 107 pages. $20.00.
If you are a fan of quiet and meditative epic poems, then you should have Remains fall into your hands. One of Castillo’s critiques of contemporary poetry is its tendency to be solipsistic and cryptic, “The subject matter and context of a line can be mysterious, but the feelings in it, the intentions behind it (multiple and contradictory though they may be) should be clear.” Remains covers a plethora of mundane thoughts in unelevated language over its six sections. Inspired by Silliman, Lerner, and Spicer, Remains is a long collection of short vignettes following no clear pattern or organizational structure. The project is structured in what Castillo calls “self-sustaining sections” which were first contained on index cards. While there are phrases or single lines that may stand out from one vignette to the next, there are no clearly quotable elements or phenomenally outstanding markers from any section that give insight to the collection as a whole. What readers are left with are rain-covered emotional responses and the overarching themes of exile/loss, technologically induced loneliness and societal alienation—fractures and fractals of contemporary life. The lack of headings or titles outside of the numerical sections also leaves readers with no hints of how to prioritize or categorize the self sustaining sections found on the page—a truly democratic, nonhierarchical presentation of the work. As with any good meditative practice, you leave the last page of this collection with a mind empty of the concerns you began the process focused upon and full of the possibilities of the process itself. —SO
Khadijah Queen. Fearful Beloved. Argos Books, 2015. 120 pages. $16.00.
Khadijah Queen’s compelling third collection (she is also the author of three chapbooks) examines the power of fear, its damages and outcomes. “In some bodies / you are not learned but I learned” she writes in one of the “Dear Fear” poems appearing throughout the collection. These epistolary poems—there are eighteen—are one of the threads that structure the book, along with the title poem, which is interspersed section by section through the collection. It is a rich and complex book, an aggregate of modes and formal patterns. In writing about the book, I find myself having to resist words like “interwoven”—even my use of “thread” feels overly delicate for a book as robust as this one—because I think Queen is up to something more complex than weaving a seemingly seamless garment here. The shifts between and among different poems and modes and voicings here sometimes abrade and often unsettle—as a reader, I found myself telescoping between intimacy and distance. In the hands of a lesser poet, this might make for cacophony, but Queen is a virtuoso of voice, and these intimacies and distances are also between voice and body. The title poem details a love affair continually under siege by one lover’s fearful history: “Bleed nothing: she pulls back at the slightest hint of / annihilation.” In “Coronado,” the imperative voice—“Ask a woman who has had her nipple bitten off if she liked it”—suggests both the denials of a social order that refigures sexual violence as pleasure and the denials by which trauma victims sometimes reckon with unspeakable acts. The body is not just written about but metaphorically indexes interior life, from the “girl [who] checked herself in the mirror for emotional seepage” to the “18 [tender] places in muscles for collecting / hurt,” a reference to a diagnostic tool for fibromyalgia, a condition Queen writes about in a handful of poems in the volume. Because Fearful Beloved is not an easy read, its rewards are significant ones. The final poem tells us:
I think I’ve discovered your secret & a secret
weapon against you, which isn’t a secret
if you listen—not you, fear
but us, as you—deciding how to exist.