Wednesday, February 18, 2009

HALF LIFE OF MEMORY, by Lizz Huerta


My first impression was this: Some of the hardest-edged "love" poetry I've read. On second and third reads I became more aware of the tender moments, but the first read felt a bit like an eloquent punch in the guts. Lizz Huerta writes about subjects common to verse--such as love and femininity--and she uses lyrical language that recalls a classic approach, but the tones of these poems are often cynical, sometimes even savage: "hate-fuck me in the morning so I am reminded the rest of the day/ suck the knuckle lover, we'll lick the blade clean" (from "love like a dirty, dirty switchblade"). Read the second line aloud and you'll notice the way it inhabits the mouth, the exaggerated way it animates your tongue and your lips. The words are brutal, but they also carry a sensuous sonic-resonance. It's an interesting juxtaposition that comes up again and again throughout the course of the chapbook.

A nameless ex-lover often serves as the focus, as if the poems are being directed at him in a chronicle of memory, but rarely is he the recipient of the narrator's harshness. In fact, Huerta's tenderness (which I noticed more the second time around) is often offered to those who have jilted her. Sometimes the tenderness is pure: "I would note the shape of your mouth as you slept and knew// knowing as I did the intricacies of your distaste, what bells were ringing/ what the day would bring, and woman as I have been and cunning// would place my body into our mouth to bring about forget, turn you suckling" (from "pacifier"). Sometimes the tenderness is coupled with a wry twist: "Despite these reasons and the others we adhere ourselves to I ask that you/ stay well knowing that even when another is in my mouth, you are in my heart" (from "the new fidelity"). In either case, it's remarkable to go from scathing to gentle states so rapidly, so completely, and yet to have both tones feel at home in one volume.

And how is it that the book manages both tones, and others as well? I think it might come, in part, from a certain rejection of cliches. Huerta writes "not so long ago I was done so hard that when I stood up all of the romance fell out/ of my body and because of all the blood, I never noticed." (from "little song for dissatisfaction"). It's a revealing statement of lost innocence, or lost naivete. But people who reject the romantic side of love sometimes drift into other cliches, and other over-simplifications. Huerta also resists that path. For example, Huerta often portrays her sexual self as acquiescent ("my place, it seems, is beneath you," also from "little song for dissatisfaction"). By the end of the chapbook the reader might feel like they've got her figured out. And then, in the second to last poem ("antediluvian") we read: "see it there, at the edge, how her hand beckons like a fist, curled into a gesture/ that at a glance, looks submissive."

Too quick to judge her as one thing--submissive--we might fail to notice she's actually getting ready to knock us on our asses. With good writing, things are seldom as simple as they seem.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

EREMITE, by Scott Cairns (from Poetry, January 2009)


Thirteen years ago, when I first became interested in writing as an art, it was poetry that drew me in. At the time I responded most to poems focusing on ideas and poems that had plot. I read a lot of Bukowski. Eventually those same interests--expression of ideas, storytelling--lead me into prose, and for a long time the only 'poetry' I paid attention to was hip hop, especially the verse of emcees like Mr Lif and Jus Allah:

Headline: Bush steals the presidency
He needs the backing of the media what could the remedy be?
The country's headed for recession reminiscent of the Great Depression
Are lives worth a world of power? Easy question
Planes hit the towers and the Pentagon
Killing those the government wasn't dependent on
It's easy to control the scared so they keep us in fear
With their favorite Middle Eastern demon named Bin Laden this year
--Mr Lif

The power that I hold in my hand
could fold a frying pan,
the air and sand do as I command.
And if I want the night to last,
across the sky mass
clouds don't even allow light to pass.
--Jus Allah

I even wrote some of my own rhymes. But for the most part, my writing focused on prose--initially memoir and eventually fiction. The fiction writing reached a peak about a year ago, when I began work on a novel. I wrote about 25,000 words, which I estimated as a third of what I'd need to tell the story, and then I became overwhelmed by the mass of the work. I didn't know how to move ahead. It felt like too much weight to carry. And I didn't want to work on any other fiction because I didn't want to abandon the novel. I spent several months without writing much creative work at all.

And then I started looking at poetry again. A few words would come to me, and I'd feel fascinated by the way they fit together, the rhythms produced by accented and unaccented syllables, the way repeated sounds can bend the speaker's mouth. I became intrigued by the challenge of fitting meaning into such a sonic form, and I started jotting down little word-compositions in a notebook. I could focus on the minuscule, an entire piece comprised of less than two dozen lines. It served as an excellent antidote to the poison my novel had become for me. I was writing again. Poetry.

On a whim I decided I'd try to read a bit more poetry, to see what other people where doing with it. The January 2009 issue of Poetry Magazine, which is shown above, was one of the first things I picked up. I bought it because it was cheap (less than $4), because I'd heard of it before, and because I recognized some of the contributor's names.

So far, the poem that set the deepest hook in me is EREMITE, by Scott Cairns (on page 309). Here's the first half:

The cave itself is pleasantly austere,
with little clutter--nothing save
a narrow slab, a threadbare woolen wrap,
and in the chipped-out recess here
three sooty icons lit by oil lamp.
Just beyond the dim cave's aperture,
a blackened kettle rests among the coals,
whereby, each afternoon, a grip
of wild greens is boiled to a tender mess.

The rhythms, and especially the sounds, strike me as beautiful, and I am especially intrigued by the clever usage of internal rhyme.

I went to the POETRY magazine website, and saw that they're offering a valentine's special subscription rate: something like $17.50 for a year (11 issues). I signed up for it. It's the first literary journal I've ever subscribed to.

Friday, February 6, 2009

THE GAP IN THE LETTER C, by Kate Small


The San Francisco State University Creative Writing Department runs an annual fiction chapbook competition, and prints the winner in a limited run. The results range from good (THE TILT, by Robin Romm) to not so good (DESERT STORIES, by Coby Hoffman). In the case of THE GAP IN THE LETTER C, by Kate Small, I'd say the results are pretty close to excellent. (At least so far. I've only gotten a quarter of the way through.)

A lot of the intrigue inherent in C comes from the way Small cultivates disjunction. Here's an example, from the first story in the book: "five full immersions".

I pull back from the regional manager but there's nowhere to go. He steps forward. We freeze, his name tag tangles in mine. It's awkward, like something happening to shy people at a party. I turn my face to the side, my ear pressed to some fake woodgrain on a cupboard. I think of Heng-Jin's statue of the Virgin next to Trung's plug-in Buddha, maybe two feet away from my head on the other side of the wall. Heng-Jin used to light candles, Trung used to give them oranges. I hear my breath come out in squishes; I see parts of me, a hip, an elbow...

I've seen other authors use this sort of thing before, usually in tense moments, to heighten the sense of a character's confusion, to reveal the way the mind scatters its thoughts, focusing on disconnected details here and there. Kate Small does it all the time, in moments of stress and moments of relative calm. The result is a world seen through a prism, each cell of which is a close-up on one feeling, one visual detail, one thought or sound. Instead of a panoramic, in which the reader is given a wider view, Small compels us to piece together the larger picture from its smaller parts. And the parts she gives us don't fit together easily, or in a familiar way--we have to read between the lines, to interpret, to deduce. Small makes the reader an active participant, instead of a passive observer.

In my ever-evolving definition of "literature," I often include a clause relating to the idea that it rewards extended involvement, it continues to give something on the second and third read. Small's writing achieves this by giving clarity in fragments, and asking the reader to take part in the assemblage of story. It's an enjoyable process. It merits participation.