A slightly terrifying amount of reading

“Admit that Mexico is your double, that she exists in the shadow of this country, that we are irrevocably tied to her. Gringo, accept the doppelganger in your psyche. By taking back your collective shadow the intracultural split will heal.” (page 108)

“This land was Mexican once/ was Indian always/ and is./ And will be again.” (page 113)

“So this is what happened to someone living at the border like me: My ancestors have always lived with the land here in Texas. My indigenous ancestors go back twenty to twenty-five thousand years and that is how old I am in this country. My Spanish ancestors have been in this land since the European takeover which pulled migration from Spain to Mexico. Texas was part of a Mexican state called Tamaulipas. And Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and part of California and Colorado, were part of the northern section of Mexico. It was almost half of Mexico that the U.S. cheated Mexico out of when they bought it by the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. By doing so they created the borderlands.” (Interview, page 274)

The above quotes are from Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Fourth Edition. The book was first published in 1987; I encountered it a couple of years later, in graduate school, although I can no longer find my first copy. I’ve been meaning to reread it, because I’m advising a senior who wants to make it part of her thesis next year.

This was definitely the week. I’m sickened by U.S. gun violence and epidemic hatred without having a new or insightful word to say about them, but it felt just slightly sanity-restoring to spend time with Anzaldúa. After all, how can there be a “Hispanic invasion,” as the Texas shooter alleged, in a place to which the U.S. government has only the most recent and most dubious of many claims? Aside from the book’s reminders about history, it’s also big-hearted and wise and full of insights about language, culture, queerness, trauma, depression, artistic process, sacredness, and dreams. Plus, I loved remembering my twenty-something astonishment at its hybrid of prose and poetry: holy shit, you can do that?!

I’ve done a slightly terrifying amount of reading and rereading this summer. Some of it was planned: I wanted to know queer theory better for a course I’m devising; I had to process some of the literature of “postcritique” and more ecocriticism to revise Poetry’s Possible Worlds; and I always use academic breaks to catch up on recent poetry collections and throw myself into various novels, serious and escapist and everything in between. Health issues made me need books more–and made writing harder. My son goes to college in a few weeks, and friends are undergoing similar transitions, so I’m extra-emotional; reading is work I can do when my concentration is poor.

Otherwise, a lot of what I’ve been doing boils down to paperwork: moving galleys along (because I used to write things!), proposing courses, and sorting out plans for the larger-than-usual number of conferences I’ll be a part of this year. I organized a panel called “Uncanny Activisms” for the C.D. Wright Conference–check it out. Now that I’m fully off the AWP Board, I was part of three proposals for that highly competitive conference, too, and two were accepted. The one I organized but will sit on the sidelines of is called “Big Shoes: New Directions at Old Magazines,” featuring Melissa Crowe of Beloit Poetry Journal, Gerald Maa of Georgia Review, Wayne Miller of Copper Nickel, Emily Rosko of Crazyhorse, and Beth Staples of Shenandoah–having played a small role in changes at the latter, I’m excited to hear what everyone has to say. The panel I’ll speak at is “Teaching in the Confederacy,” organized and moderated by Chris Gavaler, also featuring Lauren K. Alleyne, Tyree Daye, and Gary Dop, in which we’ll talk about the challenges and responsibilities that come with regional links to white supremacy. Plus I’ll have a Shenandoah table to sit at, and at least one new book to sign…more on that soon, I hope!

In the meantime, thank god for Anzaldúa and all the other writers who have been challenging my thinking and just keeping me company. I’ll sign off with a few pictures of artists’ books from the Serralves Museum in Porto–we had no idea they had such a great collection until we stumbled on the exhibition.

Books read since May (first poetry, then fiction, then nonfiction, not including chapters, essays, and other short stuff):

5/1 Kaneko, The Dead Wrestler Elegies (planning for his visit)

5/4 Youn, Ignatz (Krazy Kat fandom)

5/5 Xie, Eye Level (strong reviews)

5/14 Miller, Emily Dickinson’s Poems As She Preserved Them (teaching prep)

5/18 Larsen, What Penelope Chooses* (fandom)

5/18 Hayden, Exuberance* (fandom)

5/18 Selznick and Whitman, Live Oak, With Moss* (comics version, teaching prep)

5/18 Seay, The See the Queen (teaching/ visit prep)

5/18 Alleyne, Honeyfish* (teaching/ visit prep)

5/23 Camp, The Turquoise Door* (campus visit)

5/23 Nguyen, Ghost Of* (good reviews)

6/4 Nelson, The Freedom Business (forget where I bought it!)

6/10 Frank, Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country (bought at a reading)

6/12 Bashir, Where the Apple Falls (research)

6/17 Campbell, Noctuary* (fandom)

6/18 Rekdal, Nightingale* (fandom)

6/20 Bashir, Gospel (research)

6/21 Gray, Radiation King* (received review copy)

6/22 Schwartz, Miraculum (found it on my shelf)

6/23 Phillips, Reasons for Smoking (found it on my shelf)

6/23 Honum, The Tulip-Flame (found it on my shelf)

6/23 Baker, waha / mouth (fandom)

6/24 Phan, Reenactments* (fandom and research)

7/1 Choi, Soft Science* (for review)

7/4 Matejka, The Big Smoke (found it on my shelf)

7/8 Satterfield, Her Familiars (reread for research)

7/11 Bray, Small Mothers of Fright (research)

7/12 Ginsburg, Dear Weather Ghost (research)

7/12 Ginsburg, Double Blind (research)

7/13 Dawson, Big-Eyed Afraid (fandom)

7/14 Legros George, The Dear Remote Nearness of You (found it on my shelf)

7/15 Calvocoressi, Rocket Fantastic (found it on my shelf)

7/16 Ali, Sky Ward (research)

7/17 Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard (bought at a conference)

7/20 Winslow, Defying Gravity (by a friend)

5/3 Herriman, Krazy & Ignatz (teaching prep)

5/8 LaValle, Destroyer (teaching prep)

5/19 Garstang, The Shaman of Turtle Valley* (local writer)

5/28 McLaughlin, Bearskin* (local connections plus Edgar win)

5/31 Atkinson, Transcription* audiobook (friends’ recommendation)

6/17 Walton, Lent* (fandom)

6/22 Crouch, Recursion* (NYT review)

6/23 Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (reread for teaching)

7/1 Hubbard, The Talented Ribkins (gift)

7/7 Kim, Miracle Creek* (reviews)

7/12 Ginsburg, Sunset City (research)

7/19 Ray, Whiskey Tales* (translator is a friend)

7/20 Rosenberg, Confessions of the Fox* (daughter’s recommendation)

8/1 Adieche, Americanah (teaching)

8/3 Waters, The Little Stranger (fandom)

5/? Gay, The Book of Delights (fandom)

5/21 Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (reputation)

5/22 Davis, Why Art?* (gift)

6/4 Hayles, Chaos Bound (research)

6/10 Atkins, The Laws of Thermodynamics (research)

6/10 Polkinghorne, Quantum Theory (research)

6/22 Darling, Je Suis L’Autre: Essays and Interrogations (research)

6/22 Kiefer, Nestuary (fandom)

6/24 Anker and Felski, Critique and Postcritique (research)

7/10 Vargas, Dear America* (teaching)

7/14 Moore, 16 Pills* (pressmate)

7/17 McSweeney, The Necropastoral (research)

8/7 Anzaldúa, Borderlands/ La Frontera (reread for teaching)

Poetry at the Border: Ann Fisher-Wirth

This blog’s intermittent “Poetry at the Border” feature returns with two excerpts from the powerful new collection Mississippia striking large-format collaboration between poet Ann Fisher-Wirth and photographer Maude Schuyler Clay. While focused on a specific state, this book is full of borderlands and hinges: between poetry and photographs, between history and the present, and among races and realities. I’m fascinated by the relationship between word and image here–each poem, untitled, is coupled with a photograph, and the pairings tend to defamiliarize rather than illustrate one another. Next to “He ain’t done right to whistle,” for example, is an image of a ruin. So is the racism that led to Emmett Till’s murder a gutted edifice, still standing but increasingly fragile, doomed to be pulled down by kudzu? If so, what’s a person to do about it?–Look at it, surely. Head-on.

The voice-driven poems in Mississippi also urge us to listen to one another; while including dialogue and depicting multi-voiced negotiations, they sometimes possess an eerie quality, too. This is a spiritual collection, both in image and text. Many of Fisher-Wirth’s poems suggest how mundane world borders a more mysterious one or, as in the second poem below, describe someone in extremity praying for intervention. Words are bridges, creating connections between people, or perhaps among people and the other-than-human world.

from Ann Fisher-Wirth:

There are a number of poems in Mississippi about race, in a variety of voices. Specifically, the two poems here, “He ain’t done right to whistle” and “Well you know back then”–are companion poems, which embody two very different responses to the murder of Emmett Till.

At the heart of Mississippi’s Civil Rights history is Emmett Till, an African American boy murdered on August 28, 1955, at the age of fourteen. He had come from his home in Chicago to visit relatives in the Delta town of Money, Mississippi. Reportedly he spoke to or whistled at twenty-one-year-old Carolyn Bryant, the married proprietor of a small grocery store in Money. Several nights later, Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J. W. Milam came and got Till from his great-uncle’s house, and took him away to a barn. There they beat him and gouged out one of his eyes, then shot him through the head, weighted his body with a cotton gin fan tied around his neck, and disposed of his body in the Tallahatchie River. Three days later, Till’s body was discovered and retrieved. It was prepared for burial in Tutwiler, Mississippi, and returned to his mother in Chicago. There, she insisted on an open casket funeral, insisting that the world see what had been done to her son, and images of Emmett’s barely recognizable face were broadcast all around the world. Bryant and Milam were acquitted in court; subsequently, protected from double jeopardy, they admitted their guilt in an interview in Look magazine. Emmett Till’s death and the worldwide horror that it awoke became a pivotal force in the African American Civil Rights movement. The Money store is now in ruins.

“Well you know back then” mentions Mose Wright. He was Emmett Till’s great-uncle, and he acted with enormous courage when he stood at the trial to identify Bryant and Milam as the men who had taken Till. Nevertheless, the jury took only 67 minutes to acquit.

afw1

He ain’t done right to whistle
and talk hi y’all baby and filth
to Carolyn Bryant even if he come

from away he ought to known
how we do around here and I sure
as hell don’t believe his uncle

shoulda stood up and pointed out
Roy and J.W. in that courthouse
I am so blessed tired of people

students and all coming down here
to interview us just because we
was alive then making out like this

is a bad town y’all don’t know
what we do for those who know
their place why just yesterday

Polly I said to the woman who
takes care of me my husband don’t
use this red tee and these shoes

take em for Brewster as for the rest
why that was a long time ago
most folks dead and store collapsed
to ruins why you raking it up again

***

Well you know back then couldn’t noafw2
black man see justice
down here

so when Mr. Wright come out that door
after standing up in court and
pointing out the killers he

was marked for a dead man
had to hightail to the station
leave his cotton in the fields

and get on out of here
I was just a kid
didn’t think like my folks

was ashamed what they be doing
so when they was talking that night
over chicken and collards

saying get the sheets
go rough up some a them teach em
what’s right I snuck off

hid in my closet prayed Pray Lord
didn’t have no words
for my misery just Pray Lord

***

If you’ll be in Tampa for the AWP, come see Ann and other Black Earth Institute Fellows read from 4-6:30 at the Attic. I’ll be joining them briefly as an About Place contributor.

afwphotoMississippi is Ann Fisher-Wirth‘s fifth book of poems; it is a poetry/photography collaboration with the acclaimed Delta photographer Maude Schuyler Clay. Other books include Dream Cabinet, Carta Marina, Blue Window, and Five Terraces. With Laura-Gray Street she coedited the groundbreaking Ecopoetry Anthology, with an introduction by Robert Hass. Former President of ASLE, recipient of senior Fulbrights to Switzerland and Sweden, she is a fellow of the Black Earth Institute, and has had residencies at Djerassi, Hedgebrook, The Mesa Refuge, and CAMAC/Centre d’Art Marnay. She teaches at the University of Mississippi and directs the minor in Environmental Studies. She also teaches yoga at Southern Star in Oxford, MS.

Early in her career, Maude Schuyler Clay assisted the photographer William Eggleston. She received the Mississippi Arts and Letters award for photography in 1988, 1992, 2000, and 2016, and the Mississippi Art Commission’s Individual Artist Grant in 1998. The University Press of Mississippi published Delta Land in 1999. Her work is in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and The National Museum for Women in the Arts, among others. Mississippi History was published by Steidl in 2016; another book is forthcoming, and Maude will have a major solo show at the Mississippi Museum of Art in 2019. She lives in the Mississippi Delta.

Poetry at the Border: Leona Sevick

leona
Leona Sevick

My British immigrant mother didn’t oversee our swimming lessons. Having grown up poor, visiting the kind of beaches where you’d make a fire and boil tea to warm up, she was scared of the water. Instead, it’s one of the very few things I remember doing with my father, who swam daily at the Y. He was a decent teacher–he gave us all driving lessons, too–but if you got too good at something he’d put you in your place (teaching me chess then giving me a salutary trouncing because you wouldn’t want a five-year-old to get cocky, for instance). You hear my ambivalence, I’m sure. All of my father’s gifts came at a price, like wishes on the monkey’s paw in that famous old short story.

Reading Leona Sevick‘s terrific new book, Lion Brothers, brought those memories back vividly: standing in the chilly chlorine-blue water in my yellow one-piece, practicing breathing between strokes. Her poem “It’s No Wonder We Never Learned to Swim,” below, places her immigrant mother at a literal fence, watching her children work with teen swimming instructors. The scene suggests, however, more serious boundaries between a woman who grew up in South Korea and her American daughter, who would prefer to put those unnerving differences away. The past is dangerous and frightening to the speaker, her mother’s hands both “lovely” and “gruesome monkey paws.” When the mother enters the poem midway through, even the lines get shorter, enacting ambivalence about her power. I admire this book’s intelligent darkness, its focus on the cracks and rifts between people trying to love each other unreservedly. I know the word “unflinching” is a blurb cliche, but it does come to mind.

About this poem, Leona writes: My mother moved to America in 1970 from her home in South Korea, a stranger to this land and to its language. No matter how much she wanted to blend into the culture of our small town, she never managed to. Everything separated her from our neighbors: her accent, the food she ate, her unusual beauty. She worked seventy hour weeks to make everything available to her American children–baseball, dance classes, swimming lessons. Still, she always remained on the perimeter; her anxiety for our success, for the kind of happiness that eluded her, written in plain language on her lovely face. She never imagined that her anxiety created impossible expectations for her children. She never guessed that it’s what drives us, even now.

It’s No Wonder We Never Learned to Swim, by Leona Sevick

It was hard to focus with her standing there,
the other mothers off smoking Benson & Hedges.
No wonder our thin arms and legs could never do
what those tanned teenagers wanted them to do.
Breaststroke, butterfly, backstroke, the crawl
eluded us, our faces cocked toward the boundary
where our mother stood unmoving.
Her long, lovely fingers locked around
the chained link, her white palms dry and stiff
as gruesome monkey paws.
Lord knows she had reasons enough:
a drowned-at-seventeen brother, for one.
But faced with that choking blue,
we wished she’d kept them to herself.

Leona Sevick is the winner of the 2017 Press 53 Poetry Award for her first full-length book of poems, Lion Brothers.  Her poems appear in The Journal, Barrow Street, North American Review, The Florida Review, Poet Lore, and other magazines. Her work also appears in the anthologies All We Can Hold: Poems of Motherhood (Sage Hill, 2016), Circe’s Lament: Anthology of Wild Women Poetry (Accents, 2016), and The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks (Arkansas, 2017). Sevick is the 2012 first place winner of the Split This Rock poetry contest, judged by Naomi Shihab Nye. Her chapbook, Damaged Little Creatures, was published in 2015 by FutureCycle Press. Sevick earned a doctorate in English language and literature at the University of Maryland in 2002. She is provost at Bridgewater College in Virginia.

Poetry at the Border 2: Cynthia Hogue

orconsPoet and translator Cynthia Hogue on how borders work:

Events today around border issues have brought back personal experience so eerily and uncannily as to seem to me the return of the repressed. The events recounted and per/formed in the excerpted poem that follows, “The Green Card Is Not Green,” happened twelve years ago to my immigrant husband and me, when we were navigating the complicated bureaucracy of post-9/11 legal immigration. I think that more Americans today are aware of the challenges—of late the impossibilities and indignities—of any attempt to immigrate to the U.S., than Americans were so long ago. I, at least—whose first husband had actually been deported for illegally immigrating to the U.S., but courteously, all-but-on the honor code, asked to leave the country at a time of his choosing—had a rude awakening discovering how things had changed in the decades since my first marriage. I naively thought that as an American, I could call Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) and sort things out. No, indeed. Even for a native English speaker, the new Department of Homeland Security was a maze. I called again and again, only to end up confused and frustrated. My husband could not do it at all because he could not yet understand English spoken by Americans (including naturalized citizens). Or perhaps it was the bureaucratic diction and tone. I’m not sure. He could not understand, and although I am an English professor, I discovered to my shock and horror that I had trouble too. 

How in the world could someone who had no translator available, who was coming to the U.S. believing the glossy representations of the freedoms for all purveyed around the world, manage even to receive the information they needed?  

The poet of the Southern Border, born on the U.S. side of the Mexican-American border in Nogales, Arizona, Alberto Álvaro Ríos, observes that the border connects as well as separates. The power asserted at borders, however, certainly at U.S. borders today, tries to stabilize identities into “us” and “them,” and to separate off those who are categorized as “them” in order to impose an order and even a uniformity on those who are categorized as “us.” But as my poem tries to explore, borders are artificial and identities are nothing if not fluid at borders, which expose that fluidity as well as try to impose labels. Borders destructure “us” and all that tries to bestow order and clarity, exposing how disorder borders order. Borders are liminal zones, literally betwixt and between categories. In the terrain of suddenly visible edges and interfaces, the speaker of this poem issues a critical re-characterization of the newly marshaled, militarized border that the State, our State, had created. The State discovered all those years ago that borders disorder order, to invoke a poem by Harryette Mullen. The American citizen wife I was twelve years ago trusts that all the imperial will being marshaled to close U.S. borders will be similarly disordered, frustrated, enacting re-visionary connections it could not imagine were possible (because the imperial will lacks imagination) and did not intend (because, although authoritarian, it is blind).

Cynthia_The Green Card Is Not Green (003) hogue heuving me

The attached excerpt of “The Green Card is Not Green” preserves the poem’s visual play. Below is a still shorter passage to give you a taste, but you should really check out the whole book Or ConsequenceHogue is one of our best literary artisans of gaps and erasures, but for all her interest in pain and silence, I find enormous light and peace at the center of her work.

from “The Green Card is Not Green”:

A border that divides also connects,
the buffer imagined, arbitrary,
opening where one can cross the line
and become, quite suddenly, other.

I enter a strange country
and myself become strange. Étrangère.
At that moment, my Resident Alien husband becomes Citizen.
We are, between us,
two beings of determinate but shifting identities,
always in transit, self-shifting,
one of us word-less,
one of us defined by prohibitions

expressed in abstractions
all having specific consequences:

You are invited to submit
an application for an extension
of the red tape in which to encase
your green card.

You are not permitted to cross our borders
without an endorsement that the conditions
on your green card have been approved
for removal.

*

The permeable border is lethal without endorsement.

I wanted to endorse you but the Homeland must authorize your petition.

You will pay x and then go to z. You cannot go to y.

You can call us but the phone number we give you has been disconnected

(you will have to call to find this out).

A receipt must be with all questions, and we will tell you that you can not ask questions

in person without an appointment although you can

(you will have to come here to find this out).

If you make an appointment, we guarantee the directions we give you

will cause you to go to the wrong place,

and then we will have to say:

You have to go back to where you came from.

If it is happiness you are free to pursue it but there not here.

If it is unhappiness you must dwell there.

If you cross our borders we will hold you without charge,

for a time to be announced at some time

to be determined in the future.

Poetry at the Border: Jane Satterfield

I hereby launch an intermittent feature of this blog–“Poetry at the Border.” Each post in this series will focus on a poet who worries some kind of threshold. Borders of various kinds are always relevant to poetry–crossings in genre, sound, language, and psychological states as well as of national/ cultural identities and traditions–but this topic has assumed so much political urgency lately that it never leaves my mind.

satterfield bookI chose Jane Satterfield to kick off this feature because I’m reading her excellent new collection, Apocalypse Mix, available now from Autumn House. I’ve been following Jane’s work for years, admiring not only her verse collections but her inventive prose in Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond (Demeter Press). (Jane and I share similar transatlantic family connections and semiformalist lyric dress sense, plus she writes about motherhood and rock’n’roll–what’s not to love?) Apocalypse Mix is a book about tricky proximities, the foremost probably being the author’s childhood near Andrews Air Force base, as the daughter of a British mother and an American air force reservist. Many poems address war and migrancy head-on. The porous boundary between past and present is also of urgent interest and, more surprisingly, between human and other-than human animals, in an arresting sequence about the military use of dogs, pigeons, horses, and other creatures during the Great War (“Bestiary for a Centenary”).

I asked Jane to describe a border that’s important to her and to her writing, and explain why. Here’s her response and a poem.

Years before the current travel ban that continues to play out in the courts and in the IMG_2289.JPGnews, I drafted an early version of this poem. I couldn’t shake the memory of the summer day in London in 1995 when I filed for an American passport for my UK-born daughter, and a stranger—a Muslim woman whose command of English was limited—reached across the cultural divide with a kindness that shows what unites us as women, daughters, mothers. As a dual US/UK citizen myself—I’m the daughter of an American service man and British mother of Irish descent—I often look at ways that this legacy plays out in the maternal body and in the larger body politic.

The borders we draw on maps and carry in our minds can empower us or forge division.

Although we gravitate toward tribes that signal safety and belonging, the human story is the story of migration—one where crossing borders both real and metaphorical reshapes our collective destiny.

Triptych

I had a day’s Underground pass, forms
to be filed for your passport. Soon,
we’d fly back to the States
if your paperwork was in order.
Your father stood watch in the embassy, ready
to call us in when needed, while I wheeled
you ‘round the garden in summer’s
equatorial heat. I shifted the sunshade
over your face.
Down the path, a stranger neared,
shopping bags in her hand, head scarf
adorned with flowers, petals scattering,
light and dark.

In this time before fear was everywhere,
what was the reason she caught my gaze?

§

Nearly two decades on, my screen flickers with images
of crowds and crusades, flags set aflame,
placards facing off outside the same American embassy:
“Afghanistan’s the graveyard of soldiers!” “If you want
Sharia, move to Saudi!” Rage tilts toward
extremes. Citizens are advised to review
the Worldwide Caution, stay current
with media coverage. The camera pans across
the roiling crowd, one side against the other: Londoners
who’d banish all immigrants, Muslim protesters
garbed in white.
                                   How to speak
of what we share, what separates us?

If there’s a woman in that crowd,
I don’t see her,

§
but I remember the day
I waited with the pram, how you blinked
as I pulled back the sunshade and you tugged
your tiny bonnet, fist clenched unfurling.
In time’s reflecting pool,
water gathers, builds to spill . . . That stranger,
alone, hesitant, reached in to touch your face—
What was her past? A dream of mosquito nets,
acoustic flashings of rain? The cardamom pods
she’d bought for her mother?
She saw
a mum with a pram and neared, touching
the face of a stranger’s baby, smiling
as she said beautiful,
as she said blessed.

*There are some indented half-lines in this poem that WordPress won’t indent–apologies for the vagaries of blog formatting–but I trust this poem’s acoustic flashings still scintillate.

Jane Satterfield has published five books, including Apocalypse Mix, winner of the 2016 Autumn House Poetry Prize. She is the recipient of an NEA poetry fellowship, the 49th Parallel Poetry Prize, Ledbury Festival Poetry Prize, and more. With Laurie Kruk, she is co-editor of the multigenre anthology Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland (Demeter Press). Satterfield is married to poet Ned Balbo and lives in Baltimore where she is an associate professor at Loyola University Maryland.