Image of Abu Dhabi street

This summer into early fall I received three gifts: a chapbook from Eléna Rivera, a chapbook from Brenda Iijima, and an anthology edited by Lisa Samuels and Sawako Nakayasu.

I am grateful not just for these, but for all the comp copies, friendly emails, chapbooks, reviews written, and editorial work that has buoyed me since becoming a poet—a perpetual becoming that keeps getting fueled by the work of others. The output from the many tentacles of “the poetry community” is remarkable. There are challenges in a creative community where gift culture is dominant—there is a tremendous amount of unpaid labor, and it’s good to remember that many among us don’t always have the time and resources to be as active as others. Sometimes we need seasons of rest and retreat. But there is a lot to celebrate—even as energy and output fluctuates—and this is a space to give some thanks.

Image of two chapbooks and a poetry anthology.

*

LE SOUCI FORMEL/the formal concern by Eléna Rivera, Belladonna* Chaplet Series #211, 2017.

I remember a poetry reading in Chicago a handful of years ago where the illustrious editor, educator, critic, and writer Patrick Durgin introduced Kenning Editions author Jesse Seldess. Patrick said something like this: “There are some poets who, when I think of them, I think of their voice, I hear them and the way they sound. Among them are Roberto Harrison and Jesse Seldess.” As I read Eléna’s chapbook, I hear her voice. It is deep, careful, well-paced—it is as if Eléna places sounds on the page, in the room.

The stanzas comprising LE SOUCI FORMEL/the formal concern are of varying lengths, but they are mostly groups of couplets. These blocks of utterances run sometimes down the left, sometimes in the middle, sometimes on the right. The pages are not totally full, and while lines begin in capitalized letters, they don’t necessarily find conclusions as sentences. It is not wild, formally, but it is not perfectly neat either. The work sets up the pairing of form and body—biological body and a literary corpus—in the chaplet’s title and on the first page: “My page was full of holes/or did I mean ‘my body’?” The second page moves us into questions of more than one language: “This poem preoccupied with architecture/of things interior in relation to each other//Must be committed to what is at stake/what’s possible for an artist to do//‘The actual execution of the sentence’/In what language? ‘execution of . . .’”

“Execution” indicates mastery and violence at the same time. And yes, mastery is a kind of violence. There is violence all around and within this poem, and so it is notable that I also read a sureness; nothing is too angular and none of the pace and language is hesitant, fearful. There is almost an ease of language. What comes across, to me, is an unwavering expression of the desire to make meaning: assessing old or received forms and making new ones in gestures of both evolution and invention.

I enjoy the work’s movement between anecdote and philosophy and, as the poem catalogues certain memories and poetics, there is this question’s generosity: “And what if it all was beautiful?” This might be an ethical problem, as in, how is it that we make beauty out of violence and what does it mean to do so. What if we look at violence based on gender, as this poem does, and assess that those experiences may now feed our work? Certainly, this awareness isn’t an endorsement of hurt, trauma, pain, injustice. But it might be a poetics—a way of being and making. Indeed, I turn the very next page to read, “For in the end art led the way/back into embodiment […]” The work seems to revolve around this generative problem: “My longing for forms/perturbs, sticks” and I love that it is plural: “forms.” This prepares the way for the last line of the chapbook: “A solitary march becomes universal.”

These eleven intense, graceful pages came to me as an invitation to take form, shed form, again and again as a person, a writer, alone and with others.

*

SWAMP SWAMP by Brenda Iijima, above/ground press, 2017.

In the photograph on the cover of this chapbook, Robert Smithson stands behind a woman, Nancy Holt, who is looking through a camera, operating it. Bob Smithson, arms folded, squints to see what she may be seeing. He is directing. As a project of resistance and disruption, Brenda has listened to Holt and what it means to not hear her clearly. And so Brenda doubles the film—hence the title SWAMP SWAMP—inserting an imagined texture, a talk-back session emanating from Holt, from the land itself, and from the forces of history.

I recall the Smithson show at the Whitney that Brenda refers to in her short essay at the end of the chapbook—and I distinctly remember loving the physicality of this film. The audio was disturbing to me as well; as if Holt was being pursued by Smithson’s ever art-forward purpose. I may have given over to the work, in a sense, deciding that the tension between them added to the disturbing rattle of the blindingly tall stalks of marsh grass. All of these memories mean that I was happy to revisit this work with the arrival of Brenda’s chapbook.

SWAMP SWAMP begins with the italicized line “Just walk in a straight line,” evoking obedience, discipline, and the language of poetry itself. It is Smithson’s voice. There’s an air of dismissal in the word “just,” and that word comes up again in the directives, indicating that Holt was taking some risks, displaying hesitancy. The first line is a directive to ignore the poetics of the meander, but Brenda, happily, intervenes by responding to all the directives with a lush interiority, and with historical remembrance.

Brenda writes the swamp as place and relationship—even though the site was really a marsh, as she points out. She returns the site to the complex ecosystem that it is, resisting easy access, comprehension, and the view that would call this site “nowhere”: “Some would call this no-man’s land—it is precisely the reverse.” At first I thought the reverse of “no-man’s” might be “everyone’s” but I don’t take Brenda’s project to be a universalizing gesture—so I came up with “yes-woman’s land” as a kind of “reverse,” though Brenda recognizes this land as already-inhabited, not empty, and so the text establishes itself as a North American post-colonial reclamation.

There are also snippets of Holt's autobiography: “My house was Tudoresque—a brick and stucco edifice. And the formative years, carefree—blithely unaware of what privilege consisted of besides the tree lined streets of the neighborhood where I would play unrestrained. How straight a line! How straight can I enter—logic to do with the body often foregrounds mechanistic functions, meanwhile hormonal impulses steer corporeal mass, meter motor control.”

It is glorious to me that Brenda has brought both “privilege” and “hormones” into the work—and in such close proximity! Yes, a body is not just mechanical—it is comprised of the perforating combinations of mechanics, chemistry, feedback loops.

Importantly, though, a woman’s body, as Brenda writes, is variously “unrestrained” according to class, color. And so Brenda moves this work away from a predictable and perhaps tired white feminist reclamation project that would position Holt as only oppressed vis a vis Smithson. Holt, spoken through Brenda’s voice, is, in fact, not without privilege. And so the complications gather.

I have always thought of Brenda’s poetry and editorial work to be pedagogical, an invitation for more voices, more inquiry, and an invitation to leave the traces of inquiry inside the work. And Brenda’s mode of inquiry always involves the body: a sensual epistemology. The chapbook’s culminating statement provides information on the project’s origin and this gesture of disclosure has the potential to inspire other projects. Her statement/essay concludes with this:

“A whispering subtext—an underlying dimensional reading into the triangulation: Robert Duncan’s poem of utopian yearning to return to the meadow of his imagination. The contrast between Duncan’s ideal meadow with a space that can’t hold out against chaos, disturbance, domination and appropriation—that is constantly managed and defined by historical ramification, lives in layer of relation and recognition.”

Reading this work, I would add that “a place of first permission” (Duncan’s line, quoted by Brenda) may also be a site, upon review, of misrecognition. Brenda’s work here takes the slippage of mishearing and misrecognition as the perhaps ideal site for poetry.

*

A Transpacific Poetics, Edited by Lisa Samuels and Sawako Nakayasu, Litmus Press, 2017.

To begin, here are the names of all the contributors, in addition to Samuels and Nakayasu: Don Mee Choi, Melanie Rands, Jai Arun Ravine, Yan-Wen Ho, Murray Edmond, Susan M. Schultz, Eileen Tabios, Craig Santos Perez, Corey Wakeling, Lehua M. Taitano, Stuart Cooke, Sean Labrador y Manzano, Barbara Jane Reyes, Myung Mi Kim.

I won’t write a full-fledged review here, but it will be hard to hold back because I really appreciate this volume! Today I am scheduled to speak about poetry in a core curriculum course on “migration” and I am bringing this text in to that class—it’s been so generative to my recent thinking on place, being a visitor, and working with “third culture kids.” Here, in this blog space, I’ll offer a partial response with the hope that this may point readers in this book’s direction.

It is exciting to read an anthology in excess of location—an anthology that breaks away from single language, single nation, single land mass, single genre. As such, the volume’s terrain is rich with “in-betweens” and instead of romanticizing that positionality—instead of calling this terrain unique and only tragic—the work asserts the historical and contemporary fact of exchange and the movement of peoples, materials, language, and culture. This volume circulates around and over the Pacific. I work for a school where the history department organizes their courses and concentrations by oceans—so I think this anthology is in dialogue with that and hopefully provides a conceptual blueprint for future anthologies and poetics.

Lisa Samuels’s introduction begins with a discussion of the ocean as site itself—and of course it is not empty, though its unknowability to humans “challenges our ability to see it as place” and this provides us with “one example of the challenge of perceiving what exceeds single identity […].” Another useful theoretical construct is Samuels’s articulation of the “digitas” and the “code-level English-dominance of the internet.” I am also interested in her neologism “settlementopia.” Samuels writes, “I mean settlementopia to be involved with ideas and experiences of settlement and what you do with it now and, again, who gets to say.” It’s not dystopic nor utopic, she explains. Samuels is theorizing the experience of transit—one of choice or force, pain, newness, exile or opportunity, legal or not, spurred by economics, war, transit as actual, virtual, and as an imaginary. She asserts that settlementopia “does its work amidst loud global ‘progress’ rhetorics of managerialism and efficiency.” I love this purpose for poetry. It feels very true to me as a person who is sometimes called an expat, who is certainly temporary, but who is not unhappy and who does not have a clear plan for where I’m going next. I want to say that I am not doing Samuels’s essay justice here—it is so generative and generous—but I’ll leave it for now, again with hopes that others will read closely and take on some of its theorizing.

Further inside the book, I am drawn to “All the Identity Answers” by Ya-Wen Ho, which begins, “This list is written by a list-maker.” This asserts “maker” as writer and it asserts that writing at the root of the identity-formulating and “deforming” enterprise. Items on the list include “a queen of vehicular slumber” and “a dedicated recycler.” These statements are fresh, almost youthful statements—language someone might use on social media to describe themselves. Seven pages in, complications emerge. The text plummets into a graphically beautiful but illegible layering of text, and redaction enters the scene. But the text climbs back up into legibility in its final page; nearly everything is clearly re-written, including “a person who gets asked ‘where are you from, really’” and “a dual passport holder” and “A person perceived as Asian; an Asian; a faux-Asian; a Taiwanese national.” Toward the very end of this text block there are sequences of numbers—perhaps the state’s and the banking industry’s “code” for the specificity of this “list-maker.” Here I thought of Trisha Low’s The Compleat Purge: a maximal autobiography where everything is given away—a hyper-gift, perhaps born of the impossibility, also, of the question “where are you from?”. “All the Identity Answers” ends with “an identity fractal; a person; Ya-Wen Ho.” And so, with a tone of sincerity, the work comes down to rest on one person, one name.

I also noted Jai Arun Ravine’s stunning excerpt from The Romance of Siam: A Pocket Guide, published in 2016, where the first page of stutter sets up the difficultly to come: the nexus of skin color, tourism, study and art-making abroad, being transgender, being Thai, and not being Thai. I was happy to see excerpts of familiar texts by Craig Santos Perez and Myung Mi Kim reprinted here as part of this conversation.

The book’s culminating work is by Sawako Nakayaso, co-editor of the volume. Nakayaso’s “Outro: If And” does one of my favorite things in poetry—performs the rolling, boiling, continuous shape of thought that begins with “if” and wants, almost expects “then.” But her work keeps causation at bay until the field of possibility takes over and we realize that to come into port—to reach a concluding link in logic’s heavy chain—we are going to have to be multiple in our utterances and readings or altogether shirk that desire to arrive and stay put.

What I find interesting in Nakayaso’s work here, as with many works in the volume, is the tone of inventiveness. The language turns up in energy, again and again. I realize that my statement is not very precise. Let me try again: it is not a volume dominated by lament, even as political atrocity and colonial and imperial legacy are recognized. This sense I have needs some more consideration. But I’ll say here that for a person who has thought a lot about sentiment and migration, displacement, the refugee, and colonial legacies, I noticed that this volume doesn’t argue for return, for homeland, nor does it seem to fear one of globalization’s biggest tropes: the fear of homogenization. It takes the transpacific frame as generative, multiple, site of energy, history, and the new: a totally inspiring poetics.

Originally Published: October 16th, 2017

Jill Magi is a writer, artist, critic, and educator working in text, image, and textile. She is the author of Threads (Futurepoem, 2007), Torchwood (Shearsman, 2008), SLOT (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011), Cadastral Map (Shearsman, 2011), LABOR (Nightboat, 2014), SIGN CLIMACTERIC (Hostile Books, 2017), and a scholarly monograph on textimage hybridity:...