Book Review: Fady Joudah’s Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance

Kenyon Review has just published my review of Fady Joudah’s latest book.

You can read it here: https://www.kenyonreview.org/reviews/footnotes-in-the-order-of-disappearance-by-fady-joudah-738439/

The review begins, “Fady Joudah’s “Traditional Anger (in the Sonora)” exemplifies two currents that run through his books: profound compassion and enigmatic phrasing. This poem—from the May/June 2016 issue of Kenyon Review, now included in Joudah’s latest collection Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance—opens with a seemingly-simple question: “Because you wait for what you asked for / how lonely is pleasure?” Though the title signals anger, this question belies a level of nonjudgment. This query—at what price do we get what we (think we) want—could apply to numerous situations, and it therefore touches the core of what it means to follow desire. This is one great joy of reading Joudah’s poems: we’re presented with snapshots from a life—walking in the desert, or a spider’s web spun in the handlebars of a bicycle—which get recounted and examined with philosophical and meditative intensity.”

Summer Reviews: Joudah, Perquin, Gerard

Alight
Fady Joudah (Copper Canyon, May 2013)
ISBN: 978-1556594229
78 pages
Joudah’s second book of poems transforms small moments into profound ruminations. From the daughter who “wouldn’t hurt a spider” because “She said that’s how others / Become refugees isn’t it?” to the joy of making a sibling laugh so hard she pees, this book focuses on, and requires empathy for, the human condition. Here, intense anguish is met with compassion and beauty, “I left the car fuming / stepped out to see the tree was blooming,” and the speaker in these poems brings wisdom, if not clear answers, “Don’t believe the sound of the sea / In a seashell believe the sea.” Longer poems with tight, short lines propel the reader through pages of profound statements structured simply, “you are either prosperous / Or veteran in the field.” The occasional prose poem either captures a short story, as in the profile of a violent student in “Listening” which ends with the speaker nostalgic for baby sounds in his native tongue, or the prose poem creates another kind of world—one replete with the sound play of English with a dream-like quality: “leaves would in their butterfly dance belly-up as they hit the grass and become reservoir for rain or dew or black boots.” While the methods and forms of this collection are constantly changing, the message stays the same: Love one another. Time is short.

Textu
Fady Joudah (Copper Canyon, December 2014)
ISBN: 978-1556594762
118 pages
Prize-winning poet and translator Joudah composes a series of 160 character-long poems in his compact third book. Mythological and literary references abound in these short-lined, fragmentary poems containing mostly couplets: “King Lear’s daughters / wanted him revolving to hospital.” The writing constraint sometimes produces wildly oblique lines like “Whoview bin talking 2? / A fistula is an isthmus // Heavenchew an app for it? / We shed light then leave its husk behind,” and sometimes produces longer chains of 160-character poems that tell a more complete story, like the poem about an aging couple which states, “if he dies before me I won’t go to his funeral / I won’t know his wife // if she dies first / I’d help him hurry waiting // hold his hand again / for longer.” These poems often reflect on relationships between a doctor and patient, or are told from the perspective of a healthcare worker: “When we learn how an infant in the womb / sleeps precisely in a parent’s pose // say with fist closed / pillowing the temple” These touching moments of human suffering and wonder provide a brilliant counterpoint to the more language-heavy play, showing virtuosity in a short space. This is a delightful, quick read.

The Hunger in Plain View: Selected Poems
Ester Naomi Perquin tr. David Colmer (White Pine Press, May 2017)
ISBN: 978-1945680052
74 pages
David Colmer picked poems from Perquin’s first three volumes (and added some new poems) for this debut sampling in English. Ester Naomi Perquin is currently the Poet Laureate of the Netherlands and she worked her way through creative writing school as a prison guard. Her third book, Cell Inspections (2012) documents stories she heard on the job. Most of Hunger’s poems are positioned in a first-person perspective, which gives the sampling from Cell Inspections the feel of persona poems rather than documentary poetry. Titles in this section are often person names: “David H.” “Dennis de K.” “Bart V.” In what Colmer renders as a conversational, almost prose-like tone, Perquin’s speakers reflect on their crimes: “Them catching me; it can’t have been the loot. I didn’t keep a thing / and I definitely didn’t live off it.” There are moments of aestheticized, poetic language, like the last lines of “Michael van W.”, which gave Colmer the title for the English collection: “I’d look like him. Wearing this madness that drives me, / the hunger in plain view.” The original book Cell Inspections won the prestigious VSB prize, and this section is by far the most compelling work in the book. Some of the other poems—like the short monologue of a nosy neighbor who feigns keeping to herself or the two-page long untitled meandering recount of a wrong number call— “What if I said, Yes / yes, it’s me, Richard. Is that you, Mom? / It’s been so long”—might have a stronger resonance in performance than it does on the page.

The Art of Creative Research: A Field Guide for Writers
Philip Gerard (University of Chicago Press, February 2017)
ISBN: 978-0226179803
240 pages
Gerard illustrates the research process through a multitude of vivid examples—gathering data from upwards of 50 writers across three genres about their creative research process—in order to elucidate the paths and possible pitfalls while brainstorming, planning, and completing research-intensive creative writing projects. For example, in “Troubleshooting, Fact-Checking, and Emotional Cost” Gerard points out that while there are mistakes we can avoid with due diligence, making factual errors is inevitable. He gives the example of “a poet portraying a Victorian woman hanging her chemise on a wire coat hanger (not invented until 1903).” He explains that “it’s hard to know what people didn’t know in a given period.” The real-world examples bring the book to life. Because his research for this book so methodically practices what he’s preaching, it’s a compelling, illuminating introduction. For example, the author’s interviews with Nomi Stone provide details about the extent of her anthropological research on war games (four years!), while evidence from his own writing also gives great background for the nonfiction and fiction examples. While his case studies tilt toward prose writing, the general advice applies to poets, too. Poets mentioned in the book include Carolyn Forché (he talks about her recent memoir about The Country Between Us), Rita Dove, Lavonne J. Adams and Nomi Stone. The last chapter, “Breathing Life into Facts and Data on the Page” could be particularly valuable for undergrad classes because it covers how to move from gathering a mess of information to creating a vivid account on the page. Gerard states that the book is “aimed in part at professional researchers and writers,” though writers already researching as a part of their work will not be surprised by most of the advice and guidance in this volume. Each chapter ends with a writing exercise or three, which again makes it a suitable text for students.

Review of Mg Roberts’s Anemal Uter Meck

New at Full Stop: a book review of Mg Roberts’s Anemal Uter Meck. You can read the full review here: http://www.full-stop.net/2018/01/16/reviews/laura-wetherington/anemal-uter-meck-mg-roberts/. There’s a nod to Wendy S. Walters as well as a reference to the super-marathon reading Zack Haber helped organized at the E.M. Wolfmann Bookstore some years ago. A special thanks to Eleanor Gold for her editing.

Review: Jennifer Tseng’s Not So Dear Jenny

Not so dear Jenny
Jennifer Tseng
Bateau Press (February 2017)

 

Bateau Press’s latest prize-winning chapbook arrived in the mail and it’s a humdinger. Jennifer Tseng’s Not so dear Jenny incorporates some of my favorite elements: found text, intense attention to music, and really long titles.

The titles, like “If I lose in Superior Court, I will appeal myself” and “Do NOT try any sleeping pills under any circumstances,” are witty and chatty (often) sentences that make me want to hear the speaker’s life story. Many of the titles are taken from letters to the poet from her father, which, she says in an essay, are full of phrasing that initially seems to be slightly grammatically off, but which, as stand alone sentences, hold exquisite poetic nuance. Take, for example, “Good medicine tastes bitter. You should not feel hurt. You should feel being deeply loved.” The last sentence in the title is not ungrammatical, it just isn’t the way most English speakers would express that idea. The insertion of “being” technicolors the sentence, conveying the sense of an ongoing action. Rather than using the perfect tense, the “you” in this sentence is in an continual state of reception. It’s an ever-filling cup, that sentence: “being loved.”

When Tseng talks about these non-native English moments in “Dearest Jenny: Reading My Chinese Father’s English Letters,” she notes that these formulations “are the opposite of immigrants, they make more sense outside their native context. They make sense as islands unto themselves.” In translation, folks often talk about what cannot carry over from the original language, but here the author’s talking about the inverse. Rather than a translational subtraction, in her father’s sentences we get a surplus of meaning. Second language learning creates an abundance. Again, an ever-filling cup.

The book is full of striking language from her father and those subtle, deeply poetic word choices are heightened by Tseng’s lyrical ear. In “ If I lose in Superior Court, I will appeal myself,” the speaker ends the poem with

The part which is sacrificed
Floats like an orange on the water.
Which part of me pines away?
Which flayed swimmer?
The swimmers’ hunger is unified.
If you win, where will you begin?

The repetition of the question mark creates an inflectional epistrophe. The anaphora and repetition of “part” (in this section but also further up in the poem) create a sound pattern. Then the iambic last line, with its mid-line and end rhymes, disrupts that pattern, thereby signaling the end of the poem. This chapbook is full of similarly tight, skillful songs that are by turns funny, mysterious, and flush with familial love.

Charles Osbourne’s W.H. Auden: The Life of a Poet

 

PAPERMAC, 1982, £4.95

ISBN: 0 333 329546

At the Great Writing Conference in London this summer, Kate Coles gave a talk on revision. She mentioned W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” and detailed Auden’s change from the famous line “We must love one another or die” to “We must love one another and die.”

When Kate told this anecdote, I realized I don’t know nearly enough about Auden or his work. After picking up W.H. Auden: The Life of a Poet, I’ve gleaned a few things:

  1. Auden first changed that famous line, then cut the stanza altogether, and later pulled the poem entirely from his complete works. As Auden explained it, “The whole poem, I realized, was infected with an incurable dishonesty—and must be scrapped” (195). Many folks think Auden’s revisions didn’t make his poems better.
  2. Auden thought that a poem starts “in the guts and only flowers in the head” (96). That is, in order for a poem to work, the instinct has got to lead the intellect and not the other way around. The challenge of writing is that “just when the Daemon is going to speak, the Prig claps his hand over his mouth and edits it” (96). Amen.
  3. Reflecting back on his political poems, Auden believed that “Political social history would be no different if Dante, Michelangelo, Byron had never lived. The arts can’t do anything about this. Only political action and straight journalistic reportage can. I feel a little guilty,” he continued, “about some things I wrote in the thirties. Nothing I wrote against Hitler prevented one Jew being killed” (291). Here I thought about June Jordan’s Berkeley commencement speech, “Of Those So Close Beside Me, Which are You?” wherein she describes a party where Ralph Ellison had a similar revelation about the worth of his writing and then didn’t write much after that. June recalls his presence quieting the room when he asked the company to, “Look at Germany! All of that music, all of that poetry, and those novels and the paintings and did any of it ever stop a single Nazi from pushing a single human being into the oven?” Perhaps the arts won’t ever change politics. But I can’t imagine going through rough times without poetry and paintings and novels and music. Jordan says later in the essay, “I do not accept that immersion into our collective quest for things beautiful will cripple our own abilities to honor the right of all human beings to survive.” Yes. Poetry may not create the change, but it creates the balm. And we need both.
  4. Auden wrote a pornographic poem, “The Platonic Blow,” which was eventually published as a small booklet with drawings by Joe Brainard.
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