Winter Poetry Roundup 2016
Monitored Properties by Florencia Castellano Publication Date: October 1, 2016 Publisher: Ugly Duckling Presse
The image of the Spanish cowboy in Florencia Castellano’s Monitored Properties is striking. This Western figure of lore has become uncommon in popular culture and is even less popular in contemporary poetry. The topic of Castellano’s work piqued my interest, and the author’s polished execution kept me hooked.
An untitled piece from the collection embodies her work perfectly with three short words: “calm / silence / cicadas”. Her work undergoes few tonal shifts, uses little embellishment, and drips with an air of familiarity despite describing a lifestyle that is unfamiliar to most. Castellano’s style is consistent, which makes the fluidity of the poems’ subject matter even more engaging. By maintaining a steady rhythm and a captivating voice, readers can become truly immersed in the scenes and emotions that Castellano lays out for her audience.
At times, the author makes the reader envision being a cowboy; elsewhere, she puts you in the position of those that love (or long to love) them. But at her best moments she is able to do all that at once. In “Mogambo Takes Part in a Historical Fact,” she writes, “that streak of sunflower oil / on the cowboy’s forehead / imitates sweat / but there was no communication with the Father / family ties yes but with leather / what a bloodline!”
Many of the ideas Castellano puts forth take repeated readings to dissect and comprehend, but her most beautiful work defies comprehension. In “How the Cowboys Operate,” Castellano describes a scene tinged with the sense of personal violation. The poem is easy to enter into, but as it closes, she writes, “it’s a piece of chicken between the teeth / that detaches quickly / when toothpicks enter the universe / named after a car”. I may never know Castellano’s true meaning behind these lines, but the imagery stays with me, even now.
While much of the collection’s allure lies in its novel subject matter, certain poems struck me by their universality. In “Where Did All the Cowboys Go?” Castellano speaks of grief and provides a poignant portrait of the vulnerability that comes with it, writing, “widows cry like Sicilians / the bravest ones walk around / in bikinis in a boxing ring / with signs that say // LIES / FEAR / FORGIVENESS / ENVY.” Monitored Properties packs immense feeling into its 39 bilingual pages (each poem mirrored by Alexis Almeida’s English translation). Castellano’s affecting voice carries through each word of her poetry, leaving the reader to reflect over her emotive lines and the lingering images they portray. Each poem holds a subtle power that commands attention at first glance and maintains it long after the book closes.
Lady Be Good by Lauren Hilger Publication Date: October 16, 2016 Publisher: Civil Coping Mechanisms
Lauren Hilger’s Lady Be Good boasts elements of elevated style while also aiming for personal intimacy. At times, this combination is successful, and areas of her work make the heart ache and also expand. But as in any relationship, the heart (and the mind) can grow weary of constantly being tugged in two different directions. In one instance, her work places the reader in rooms of historical and philosophical grandeur; others have you walking alongside her, pondering over interpersonal relationships and life itself. While many of her poems are strong and striking, the style and impression throughout her pieces are often so scattered that it is sometimes easy to want to set this collection aside. Despite all of this, the majority of the work demonstrates Hilger’s definite promise.
Where the work truly soars is in its displays of sentiment. Hilger has a gift for picking an almost universal feeling and framing it in such a way that makes the reader pause and look for personal moments where those emotions can be placed. In “As Aubrey Beardsley,” Hilger’s first line references Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, for which the artist Aubrey Beardsley provided a number of erotic illustrations. The tone of the poem has an air of refinement from its start, but makes you return and reevaluate once Hilger inserts herself in the first person, writing, “It happens when I sit deep in the curve of his life—it won’t work out very well / for either of us, / I’m afraid.” At first glance, the poem seems like it might just be examining a motif in Wilde’s work, but Hilger draws the reader in by using those lines to introduce the unsettling feelings that come with being a hidden or lustful force in another’s life and ultimately reframes the poem in its entirety.
Hilger often brings up other figures, films, art and literature in her poetry and names poems after historical artists and works. While the introduction of these outside elements can aid in setting up the reader’s reception and understanding, they can draw the reader out of her work as well. Upon reading casual mentions of Descartes and Kant in her piece “Problem of Plague,” I thought of how a reader unfamiliar with these names would have to stop and research just to be able to unpack the poem. The same frustration arises when Hilger intertwines long stretches of common vernacular with sparse use of elevated language. Paying respects to a group of influences through allusion within one’s own work can help change the pace and tone of a poem, yet in Hilger’s work these mentions, combined with a dusting of florid language, become distracting. These diversions often pull the reader from the scenes that Hilger worked so hard to construct.
The collection has a bit of everything; Hilger plays with form, language, setting and an array of themes. The details in her poetry are dense and intricate, yet the sheer quantity of poems presented is exhausting. The book would have benefited from the exclusion of some pieces, or perhaps some form of reorganization. Despite this, Lady Be Good is a rewarding read. It is cinematic, elegant, and at times even seductive. A captivating debut.
Exit, Pursued by Dalton Day Publication Date: November 15, 2016 Publisher: Plays Inverse Press
Dalton Day’s Exit, Pursued is an adventurous collection of one-act plays. The plays consist mostly of dialog between two characters, ME and YOU; Day uses this construct to explore feelings of intimacy, loneliness, existential wonder, and other emotions. At times, this can lead to treacly preciousness, but for the most part, Day’s writing treads on just the right side of cryptic, letting unexpected actions and images steer the plays into dream-like territory.
Day’s poetic instincts often kick in with a jolt of humor, as in “One-Act Play In Which An Architect Is Present.” In this piece, YOU tries to get ME to think back to childhood, only to be rebuffed at every turn. “When you were little, what was the one thing you wanted to accomplish?” YOU asks. “But I’m still little,” ME responds. This continues as Day explores what it means to grow up (“When you were busy looking forwards instead of backwards”) and ends when YOU cuts ME off:
ME: But I’m still—
YOU: A slam dunk.
Describing the work presents the same grammatical difficulties that the plays themselves demand, keeping the reader off-balance with unexpected verb conjugations for ME and YOU. This is a neat trick that keeps the reader from glossing too quickly through the exposition at the beginning or end of each piece. Often, this information is vital to the flow of the play, as in “One-Act Play In Which Squinting Is An Appropriate Response To Sudden Brightness.” The piece begins with the following stage directions:
YOU & ME are being mauled by bears onstage. The word “mauled” means something different to YOU & ME than it does to the audience. It is very confusing.
Why does the word “mauled” mean something different to YOU & ME? The reader can only guess. In both description and dialog, Day rarely lets readers in on the whole story. Even when discussions seem fairly straightforward, intention often misaligns with what appears on the page. Consequently, conversations slide in and out of comprehension. “Things are like other things, & this is how we know them,” YOU says. “Like how, eventually, all of us run or walk into the caves,” ME replies. The fun lies in teasing out the meaning.
The titles, too, exist on separate planes, serving as mysterious teasers to the pieces at hand. Only through repeated readings do connections between the title, stage direction, and dialog appear. Consider the aforementioned play: between the “sudden brightness” of the title, the bears, and the caves, a link is established. Then, at the end of the play, Day leaves us with the following image:
ME & YOU each open a bear’s mouth & crawl inside. The audience leaves. The audience is so happy.
Many of the works juxtapose whimsy with violence and companionship with despair, cloaking the words with uncertainty. Is the audience really happy? Is the reader? Are we happy because we have been presented with cute imagery, or because we have returned to the cave? Day’s masterful use of short, declarative statements creates an odd sense of satisfaction in the reader, even when the emotional weight of the material is still being digested.
If Sartre’s No Exit and Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead were combined and then shattered into 41 fragments, it would look something like this collection. Clever and thought-provoking, Exit, Pursued demonstrates an assured command of language and strong use of imagery in its exploration of human relationships. A delightful read.
efg (exchange following and gene flow): a trilogy by Valerie Hsiung Publication Date: December 1, 2016 Publisher: Action Books
Valerie Hsiung’s efg (exchange following and gene flow): a trilogy defies review. It is a defiantly inscrutable book, 100 pages of dense poetry that moves to its own hidden logic. Names, quotations, and allusions are littered through, giving the impression that this is a book that Hsiung has crafted for herself and perhaps a circle of acquaintances. However, I have doubts that anyone besides the author really knows what many of these poems are about. Fortunately, this is not a bad thing.
The book is split into three parts: “Naturacide,” “exchange following and gene flow,” and “J’etais Enfant Jadis (I Was a Child Once).” The first section consists of mostly one- or two-page poems that cover wide ground in both style and content. Some poems seem deeply personal, such as “No More Words.” “Do you know how sorry I am?” the narrator asks. Later in the poem, she writes:
When I find you, it won’t be the end I’ll have to tell you how sorry I am. But then right before the sorry comes out, we’ll remember that we could never speak to each other and the silence’ll be a deep grave we both can at last sleep in without the monster digging us up and up again, as he will do in real life because I made a mistake.
Hsiung is at her best when she is at her most straightforward. She displays skilled use of imagery and metaphor, transforming common emotions into fresh insights and raw wounds. Many of the poems address a past relationship, and although the details are hard to parse, enough of the meaning comes through for readers to grab on to.
Other poems in this section include short, fun pieces such as “SOMEBODY,” which consists of the sole line “’s baby over here!”and straightforward vignettes like “Child, Summer is Dying.” These poems make for a refreshing contrast to the bulk of the work, which is far denser. Wordplay and consonance is often prioritized at the expense of coherence, which makes for a lively read but one that leaves little lasting impression. Consider the poem “LOVER,” which closes out with the following lines:
you are good, as opposed to me – it communicates the merry-go-round, the merry one. no offense – bruisen ganglia – a gang of blue – no – hydrangea – defense as gangrene.
Word salad of this kind permeates the book. The psychedelic imagery that these associations create is fun to explore, and Hsiung’s talent keeps the reader from floating too far out, but it demands time to really parse through and contemplate—more time than I was able to allot for this review. I imagine that repeated reads will be rewarding and will reveal depths that I am currently able only to scrape at—and if not, at least there is joy in the exercise.
The second part of the book consists of longer, more experimental poems that play more heavily with space on the page. This section is even more difficult to penetrate, though readers who make it this far won’t be surprised or turned off. The third and final section, however, presents a significant shift. Here, Hsiung switches to prose, crafting surreal stories in straightforward language. This was my favorite section, although this may reflect my own preference for narrative. Pieces such as “on power,” which tells of tanks that massacre a town, and “Jimmy,” who was “A star that was also a plant,” leave a lasting impression. And while many of the narratives retain their shroud of mystery, recurring characters (zombies, Madame X) lend the notion that there is substance to hold on to, even as lines like “In the gauntlet of marshmallow you pace” keep things pleasantly weird.
In sum, efg is a book of remarkable scope and breadth. Hsiung’s language is engrossing and offers much for readers to engage with on a line-by-line basis. This is a great book to come back to over a long period of time and pore over, each page its own miniature voyage into Hsiung’s imaginative mind.