Warlords Are Not the Only Tyrants
My Favorite Tyrants, by Joanne Diaz.
University of Wisconsin Press. $16.95.
My Favorite Tyrants by Joanne Diaz is a tightly crafted collection concerned with how narratives — historical, political, familial, and personal — are formed and shared. What do we privilege in different tellings and what do we omit? When and why do we falsify? The book opens with the exemplary “Larry David on Corregidor,” in which the speaker, on a tour of Corregidor Island, finds herself unable to silence her inner dissident and let the tour guide deliver his sanitized spiel:
The last thing the island of Corregidor needs is my correction,but when I climb the staircase of the lighthouse and see the ruinsof what were tennis courts built by Filipinos for American officers,the scent of sampaguita flowers wafting around and abovewhere the net once drooped, I have to ask: The courts were built by Filipinoswho served in the front lines, but they could not play on them,not go near them? And though I know the tour guide’s answerbefore she says a word, I cannot stop myself.Who ordered the tennis balls? Who restrung the rackets?Who swept away the puddles early morningsduring rainy season? In the distance, we can see the pathof the Bataan Death March where thousands died, malarial,diarrheal, bloodied by brutal force in a procession that violatedevery convention and rule of decency; and to the right,the haunted Malinta Tunnel, where the ghosts of soldierswho typed and radioed and telegraphed underground for monthsare shooed away by the “sight and sound” show three times each day.I would have done better to ask about the separate barracks,the single row in the back of the island’s movie theater,the ward in the old part of the hospital — but still I’m preoccupiedwith the tennis courts, and in the moment that the tour guide staresat my fourth question, I realize that I’m behaving like Larry David,great dissenter in all things mundane, fighter for no one and yetresister to everything beyond his own skin, symbol for allthat refuses to be corrected, straightened out, made right.
If that seems like a hefty excerpt, bear in mind that it comes from a hefty poem. Diaz’s multi-page poems tend to be long-lined, their complex sentences spilling over stanzas. What’s impressive is that they never seem baggy or shapeless; each one proceeds with seeming effortlessness along a meandering, but carefully planned, trajectory. In these lines, Diaz gives us a cinematic view of the island’s ruins and its history as filtered through a stubbornly inquisitorial speaker, who, like the comedian and writer Larry David, takes her righteous commitment to accuracy to the point of absurdity. She wants an accounting of not only the broad historical injustices the tour guide neglects, but all the mundane specifics of that inequity. But historical narratives cannot be comprehensive — choices must be made, details neglected — and however well intended, biases typically guide those decisions. The picturesquely decaying tennis courts seem poignant in light of how many Americans died during the Bataan Death March, but look quite different when considered in light of the treatment of the Filipinos who built them.
Such selective narratives shape our present and our future. In “Pyrrhic,” Diaz begins with “Art can make war look wrong, but most of the time / it doesn’t.” She then presents a rather different version of Keats’s Grecian urn, one where the depicted figures gradually work themselves from a dance into a frenzy:
The kicks get harder, thenthey’re on their knees in a circle, and then up again,stronger, ready to throttle the man who must havewronged them.
The phrase “must have” stresses how, in the absence of other details, those who participate in violence, those who record it, and those who internalize that history assume that force is justified. War, mob mentality, and aesthetic fervor are bedfellows in this poem:
The men are young and this is a songof war, a military drill meant to ruin the worst tyrantever known to man. For the pyrrhic to work,it has to thrill every bone. It has to feel like sexor food or applause until they’re numb to cowardice.The driving beat has to make the enterpriseseem clean — no blood on the shield, no innardson the pike, no burning flesh to smell like cooked meat,no orphans, no widows, no crime.
Like the music that stirs these dancers to violence, the artistic presentation of war as glorious and victorious, without lingering consequence or victims, doesn’t just sanitize war, it promotes it. Poems like these show Diaz’s gifts to her best advantage; she is adept at revealing the hypocrisy hidden behind slick presentation. In “Adamantine,” the ludicrous rebranding of cremation remains as “cremains” gets the mockery it deserves, and in the scathing and funny “Thank You, Brian Williams,” the speaker mocks the newscaster’s simplistic and nationalistic interpretations of current events.
Warlords are not the only tyrants. The majority of My Favorite Tyrants concerns family, particularly the long second section, “Elegy,” which paints an affecting portrait of the speaker’s deceased mother and her father’s grief. By their very nature, elegies run the risk of sentimentality. Diaz avoids this danger by approaching the mother through surprising avenues — as in “The Nurse,” where the mother’s corpse is clinically assessed for organ donation, or “What My Father Eats,” where the mother’s handwriting left on labeled freezer meals gives us a glimpse into her childhood, “The Palmer method // that she had learned from the nuns as a girl; / the careful grip on the fountain pen’s nib.” Moments like these suggest it is only through multiple points of view that we can begin to create a clear picture of the past. In “Barbershop,” we’re given directions to the barbershop where the father gets his haircut, the streets and buildings revealing how national, community, and personal history are intertwined:
then drive around the rotary,built around the tree beneath which George Washingtonallegedly sat — is there any town in the former coloniesthat doesn’t have such a tree? — and keep turningpast the old town hall, which is the new library, thenthe old library, which is now the senior centerwhere she got her flu shot the day before, then pastSweeney’s funeral home where she is now.
As impressive and admirable as Diaz’s precision is, there are times when some of the poems feel a touch overworked. The depiction of Detroit via the Roman pantheon in “Motor City” is humorous but strained, and the end of “Dog Whisperer” snaps the poem shut too firmly. Some of the greatest pleasure in the volume can be found when tones of passion, humor, and bitterness break through the finely crafted lines, as in the ending to “Two Emergencies”:
That plowman?Of course he heard the splash,the sounds of a drowning man. But hehad no idea how to swim, no interestin knowing, and you’d have to bea goddamned idiot to abandon your horseand create two emergencieswhere there was just one. Why nottend to your own horse. Why notgo home to a crappy toasterthat sticks every time you push the lever.
Second Childhood, by Fanny Howe.
Graywolf Press. $16.00.
In Fanny Howe’s latest book of poetry, the stakes are familiar while the heightened tension is new. Howe’s poems have always concerned themselves with the uneasy relationship between flesh and spirit, but in Second Childhood the aging body and the prospect of diminished physical and mental capabilities create a sense of emotional urgency in contrast to Howe’s austere and distantly oracular voice. The title of her latest volume recalls the Biblical injunction to “become like little children” in order to “enter the kingdom of heaven.” But dotage, that other childhood, haunts this book, and lends the title an ominous tone.
The eponymous poem, “Second Childhood,” begins with a charming speaker whose childish outlook becomes worrisome as the poem progresses:
I have a fairy rosary called Silver who answersquestions when I dangle her in the sun at the window.So I’ve asked her if I have a big ego and she swingsfrom side to side to say no.We have other children for friends.We don’t understand why we are here in the worldwith horrible grown-ups or what the lessons are thatwe’re supposed to learn.It’s not helpful for us to hear ourselves described inreligious, geriatric or psychological terms, because wedon’t remember what they mean.One cruel female said, “Don’t laugh so much. You’renot a child.”My cheeks burned and my eyes grew hot.
This speaker initially seems to be a child surrounded by other children, lacking that “big ego,” and pitting herself against the “horrible grown-ups.” But as the poem progresses, it appears we may be witnessing an adult experiencing the painful incomprehension of mental confusion. Of course, Howe is too smart for this to be the only possible reading — it works just as well as a description of ontological despair — but it’s in these dual moments of delight and dread that this collection really sings.
The rest of the poem, like the book overall, is on more familiar ground. The rebelliousness and attentiveness of childhood is likened to a kind of mystical reverence, while the facts, obligations, and authority of adulthood are portrayed as stultifying, even dangerous, constraints:
For example, last night I dreamed I was on an airplanethat was open to the sky and a storm was comingfrom a hive of stars, and I wanted to sit beside mydaughter to watch the wind as we strapped ourselvestight to the invisible seats and stayed awake in the air.If we had been grown-ups, we wouldn’t have beenable to see the stars or the storm. We would haveperished.So my commitment to childhood has once again beenaffirmed.Read the signs, not the authorities.You might think I am just old but I have finallydecided to make the decision to never grow up, andremain under my hood.We are like tiny egos inside a great mountain of air.Pressed upon by the weight of ether, we can barelybreathe.
Howe’s line breaks follow the curious logic of dreams. The mundane airplane is revealed to be “open to the sky,” and the familiar phrase “a storm was coming” is immediately turned on its head by “from a hive of stars.” After this, it’s not much of a jump to accept the speaker as simultaneously an adult woman and a child. It may be harder to accept the poem’s insistence that growing up is a choice, and the book’s argument that childishness is the gateway to the metaphysical. Whether you find these ideas comforting or impractical is probably a good gauge of your own level of stultifying adultness.
For the most part, the poems in Second Childhood are spare and emotionally muted, the lines prosy with precise yet informal diction. Reading a Howe poem can be like eavesdropping on the inner life of a glacier — her words seem beautiful and unassailable, with a curiously unyielding clarity. The book’s overall tone is that of loss, but it’s through that loss that we discover continuity. Howe demonstrates that just as a single word contains many (“dearth, end, earth, ear, dirt, hen, red, dish” — the word appears to be “tarnished”), every thing contains in its present the entirety of its own history, such as in these lines about a city in “A Vision”:
A layer cake sagging underthe weight of accumulated dust, dirt and now grass.Each layer had been purchased at the cost of decades,even centuries of hand-hurting, back-breaking slavelabor. Caveat emptor!
It’s a real delight to watch Howe reveal these hidden histories, as well as the multitudes within even everyday objects:
Everything was in the banister:crows on branches, crickets,architects, handsaws and democrats.Red moon at 3 a.m.— From Progress
Yet in other poems, like “Loneliness,” Howe eschews this density of imagery and meaning in favor of an almost essayistic style. While “Loneliness” is probably one of the better loneliness personification poems you’ll ever read, it still has lines like, “It takes your hand and walks with you. It lies down / with you. It sits beside you.” Apt, yes, but not nearly up to the high bar Howe sets elsewhere. Even in her capable hands there’s a faint whiff of the self-help book here. Regardless, when the worst charge you can level at a book is that some of the poems are merely very good instead of excellent, it’s safe to say that you’re in the hands of a master.
Rome, by Dorothea Lasky.
Dorothea Lasky’s poetry has always depended on a passionate and playful voice. But in her latest collection, Rome, the voice is curiously subdued. Gone are the hyperbolic metaphors common to previous work, such as, “I am a fireball / That is hurtling towards the sky to where you are,” from “Poem to an Unnameable Man” in Black Life. In fact, gone are most metaphors entirely. Never an ornate writer, much of Lasky’s language in Rome is stripped down to the barest nouns and verbs. What’s left behind is puzzlingly void, though occasionally invigorating.
Lasky’s primary poetic device is repetition, which she’s praised in the work of Gertrude Stein and the hip-hop artist Drake. Rome provides ample examples of that device’s strengths and weaknesses. In “What’s Worse,” Lasky first evokes a common party game, asking which is the worst of two possibilities:
What’s worse — a cheap man or a cadWhat’s worse — a man who eats the fingers or one who does notWhat’s worse — doggy style or up the assNo, what’s worse — his face or the face of the individual
As the possibilities become more extreme, Lasky uses the refrain to steer the poem toward romantic and existential pathos. By the end, the questions have become answers, and the poem transmits a certainty that’s both pessimistic and pleading:
What’s worseTo be endlessly waitingTo be endlessly waitingWhat’s worse — nothing or nothingWhat’s worseWhat’s worse than nothingWhat’s worseNo, what’s worse
Throughout the poem, the language is straightforward and clear, each option succinctly rendered. The anaphora is purposeful and effective; the repetition of “to be endlessly waiting” reinforces the idea of waiting, and the repetition of “nothing” serves to highlight how meaningless the options have become.
Yet as successful as Lasky’s use of anaphora is here, her reliance on it in other poems can come off as singsong and even facile. In “There Is Nothing,” here quoted in its entirety, anaphora seems to take the place of substance:
I remember how he looked when I ran to meet himI remember sitting with our heads touching and the night treesI remember how I went and walkedIt meant nothingIt means nothingThere is nothingBut thisBut this
The effect of the poem depends on the reader finding tiny shifts of meaning to be revelatory — “meant” to “means,” for instance. Unfortunately, the payoff is lacking. Much of the poem is closed off to the reader — the situation is rendered in only the broadest of strokes, filtered through a speaker who isn’t forthcoming on the details. It makes for a strange sort of intimacy — on the one hand, the poem makes us privy to a private moment between two people. On the other hand, why that moment is particularly important is a mystery. Lasky tells us it means nothing, and I’m not inclined to argue.
In this poem and in others, Lasky advocates for a plainspoken sincerity, unburdened by irony or archness. It’s a sincerity that’s very aware of just how sincere it is. This is a kind of boldness, but that does not make the poem’s sentiment any less cliché. This poem is not an outlier — many of the poems read like diary entries not meant for public consumption:
You talk of thingsTo myself and othersYou think of thingsHer long tanned armsYou will realize you love meBut it will be too lateYou will cry out for meI will be long gone—From The Rain
“Things” may be intended to convey the banality of the you’s speech and thinking, as well as the objectification of the her’s “long tanned arms,” but coupled with a general lack of detail and familiar sentiments this ostensibly personal subject is rendered anonymous and generic.
In many of these poems, the situation could be any breakup. The circumstances or participants are less important than the archetypes and the customary actions. One day you’ll realize you love me. You’ll miss me when I’m gone. This is a conscious effort on Lasky’s part, at least as suggested by “The Empty Coliseum,” where the confessional poem is figured as a kind of abject display put on for the entertainment of others:
Even when I can speak no longerI will make in full the anonymous IOr I will make you in full in the anonymous II will fill the poems with great painAnd then suck out the meat so that they are onlyShells with only the memory of meatSo that they are only the memory of bloodSo I will spill my own so as to make a fresh memory
Here, the poem suggests that the I and the you are interchangeable; it’s only the appearance of emotion that matters, the shell left behind once all the substance is removed. This poem is far more interesting than the poems it endeavors to explain, precisely because it doesn’t adhere to the poetic it espouses. The syntax is surprising and fresh, the abstract is viscerally and concretely rendered, and the emotion is intense but controlled.
Much like a collection of B-sides, there’s a diversity of work here and, conceivably, something for everyone. A few poems like “I Am Eddie Murphy” have the humor and energy of Lasky’s previous work, while poems like “Complainers” and “I Want to Be Alive” are both bawdy and bracingly acerbic. The pleasingly plain lines in “The Art Deco of the West” pack an emotional punch, and “The Amethyst” is strange and evocative. But mostly Rome’s popularity will be ensured by poems like “Depression” and “Sadness,” which have a blank non-specificity that allows any reader with a passing knowledge of either condition to slip right in.
MxT, by Sina Queyras.
Coach House Books. $17.95.
By all rights, Sina Queyras’s MxT shouldn’t work. Diagrams and equations, many of which will remind you of half-forgotten science classes, preface each of the book’s many sections. Even the book’s title is part of a fictional equation, “Ohm’s Law of Grieving,” which we are told is “Feeling = Memory × Time,” where “A potential difference of 1 unit of Feeling will force a current of 1 Memory through a resistance of 1 unit of Time.” Such devices run the risk of seeming gimicky or overdetermined, or at best merely clever, but in Queyras’s hands they are more than stylish window dressing. They provide a formal structure to extremely diverse material: epistolary poems, lyrically associative prose poems, imitations, and elegies, with subjects ranging from grief to photography to Frederick Seidel’s penis. More importantly, they promise an analytical distance from which to comprehend loss and its memory.
MxT generates its force through the perpetual denial of this promise. Over and over, the poems present a detached and clinical façade, only to have it break down or prove useless. For example, “A Manual for Remembering” instructs the reader on ways to encounter memory while remaining safe and insulated: “When remembering it is best to wear pants without cuffs, boots, gloves, safety glasses and a feeling helmet (shade 10 or higher).” As the poem progresses, however, these instructions become increasingly elaborate, fantastic, or impossible:
Never touch a banana slug, or cedar melting like lava. Beware of a failed city tumbling into the bowl of an upturned tree. If ferns adorning each dull ache are wet, apply a Cowichan sweater zipped up to the first branch.
The constant reminders to guard against memory reinforce its dangers, and our inability to follow the directions suggests that no amount of precaution can truly protect us.
Queyras writes, “Art is about framing things. But then what? // I see now that a woman has to frame herself or be framed.” These poems depend on the reader’s realization of the vast gap between the frame and the framed, the disparity between how we present ourselves and how we truly feel. Queyras often heightens this disparity by mixing lush, almost overblown imagery with harsher language, such as this excerpt from the “Emotional Field” section:
Doubt my rain, my love, eat my fear, my inside ferns, my nub of cock, my root lungs, my green callus, my water columns, my sea cucumber .... my lining in hooks, my hooked metaphors, come lichen, come moss, come caper, come cougar with your soft portals, come doe with your thin springs, come childhoods with your fist of leashes, come, my modernist loves, and latch a past in a Jell-O mould, float my heart in a rose bowl, my sincerity in a flan, I would be ornamental for you, I would spread, I would, like the hook of barbed wire, my other half useless without the knot, and coil my lamp for you.
Queyras matches her language to her subject perfectly, juxtaposing the squishy (nubs, sea cucumbers, does, childhood, and Jell-O) with the prickly (cocks, hooks, fists, and barbed wire), creating a tapestry of textural and tonal contrasts. This allows her to use words or lines which might seem sentimental were they not alongside violent or sexual imagery.
“Emotion Frame Dimensions” is a series of elegies in the style of the eulogized subject, more channeling than ventriloquism, that often draws attention to an author’s obsessions. “Sylvia Plath’s Elegy for Sylvia Plath” employs many of her images — tulips, balloons, cutting boards — and invokes her sonic flair:
You will have writhedAcross the page for a hard couplet, a firm rime, assHigh as any downward dog, and cutlass armsLashing any mother who tries to pass: let’s be frankAbout the cost of spurs, mothers like peoniesWhirling in storm drains, families sunk beforeReaching open water. The empty boudoirWill haunt, but not how you imagine it will.
To write an elegy for Plath, using Plath’s diction, might seem inherently satirical. But these imitation elegies aren’t interested in mockery; they instead call forth the dead, once more, to speak. The section’s final poem, “Elegy Written in a City Cemetery,” is a cento created from elegies written across centuries. Each borrowed line is footnoted, making the poem’s provenance as important to the poem as the lines themselves. The poem’s temporal scope and seamless joining is a testament to Queyras’s skill, but even more so to the universality of grief.
The city you graced was swift.43 Now that the Summer of Love has become the milk of tunnels; 44 now that the chestnut candles burn,45 so may the trees extend their spreading.46 There is blessing in this gentle breeze.47 What need of bells to mark our loss?48 Shall I go force an elegy? 49 The dead sing Turn the lights down sweetly.50 No more for us the little sighing, nor the grand.51 All the new thinking is still about loss.52
43Marilyn Hacker, ‘Elegy for a Soldier.’
44Larry Levis, ‘Elegy for Whatever Had a Pattern in It.’
45Jon Stallworthy, ‘Elegy for a Mis-Spent Youth.’
46Tibullus, ‘To Priapus: Elegies 1. iv,’ trans. John Dart.
47William Wordsworth, The Prelude.
48William Wordsworth, ‘Composed on the Eve of the Marriage of a Friend in the Vale of Grasmere.’
49John Donne, ‘An Elegy on Mrs. Bulstrode.’
50Terrance Hayes, ‘Stick Elegy.’
51Ezra Pound, ‘Threnos.’
52Robert Hass, ‘Meditation at Lagunitas.’
Rebecca Hazelton is the author of Fair Copy (2012), winner of the Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry, and Vow (2013), from Cleveland State University Poetry Center. She was the 2010-11 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison's Creative Writing Institute; and winner of the “Discovery”/Boston...