By Abriana Jetté
Brooklyn, NY, USA
Plato said "Poetry is closer to vital truth than history." This assertion is still ever present. We learn as much about the sacrifices, advancements, and errors of the past through Sappho, Shakespeare, or Ginsberg than we do when we flip through the pages of an historical document. I am a poet, essayist, and educator from Brooklyn, New York, and since I was young child attending poetry courses on Saturday mornings at a local community college, I have devoted my thinking to the craft. Somewhere, separate from a thousand others at their desks, or hovered with pen and paper on top their laps, the voices that will define the future are writing. And I am reading.
The voices highlighted in this column vary in regards to subject, tone, and training, though Caitlin Doyle, Dariel Suarez, and Binh Nguyen happen to be alum of the M.F.A. program at Boston University, also my alma mater. The matter is not pure coincidence, though I did not meet all three while I earned my degree, I was exposed to a plethora of intellectually challenging, line-defying, beautiful poetry there, and indeed it was one night, avoiding writing on my own, when I first read Chloe Honum, with my laptop warming my knees, in my dark, dingy, one-bedroom split. The congruencies between Caitlin Doyle, Chloe Honum, Dariel Suarez, and Binh Nguyen can be found in each poet's meticulous attention to lineation. Their graceful sonic play, and the ability to entrance readers from title to finish merits their work to be recognized, and placed apart from the rest.
Music and Metaphor: Doyle and Honum
It is common for students to insist that what defines a piece of writing as "poetry" is the use of rhyme. While some educators and writers squirm at that notion, poet Caitlin Doyle smiles. It should be noted that while Doyle's devotion to musicality is the edifice of her poetry, she uses rhyme as a device to puncture the expectations of the physical world. Much like music, rhyme infiltrates the soul, touching the listener or reader in a nonverbal, ecstatic way; as Doyle says, "rhyme has long infiltrated every aspect of human discourse." While producing work both cosmopolitan and mythic, Doyle teases that other infamous misconception about poetry: the belief that a poem that appears accessible on the surface is thus easy to comprehend. Beware of such deceptive ease, for Doyle's poems, whether playful or serious in tone, always possess layers of complexity that reward multiple readings.
In "The Doll Museum," a memorial of sorts for those forgotten playthings of youth, Doyle manipulates the duality of rhyme as she evokes the tone of childhood while also adding a haunting layer to the subject matter: "Soon, they lay on tables in the yard / with price tags. Even then they looked alive, / survivors with no sickness to survive." Not all of Doyle's work uses rhyme as the source of its melodic effect. She produces formlessness with as much frequency and skill as she composes rhymed poetry. The discordant free verse poem "Self-Portrait with Monkeys" echoes, "rattling like maracas in a child-size fists," rapturing readers into a sensorial cosmos of sound and sight. Whether forging poems in free verse or using traditional formal tools, Doyle creates cadences that act as testaments to the traditions of our beloved craft.
Doyle's technical approaches vary widely, and so do her subjects and tones. Though wit and playfulness are a hallmark of her style, she frequently explores more serious territory. She examines history, popular culture, and personal experience, all with equal commitment and depth. Her lines manage to skillfully combine a lightness to the tenors of darkness. Michelle Aldredge, the editor of Gwarlingo, recently made an assertion that captures the tonal complexity of Doyle's work:
"She shares Flannery O'Connor and Faulkner's Southern-gothic flair for unsettling (sometimes comic) domestic scenes. The Brontë sisters, Isak Dinesen's tales, and Christina Rossetti's 'Goblin Market' also spring to mind, for in Doyle's modern-day rhymes, there are most certainly goblins lurking in the forest and madwomen hiding in the attic."
For Doyle, formal considerations and rhythmic effects exist in a rich and complicated relationship to one another. Indeed, the form of "The Breakfast In Heidelberg Series" directly contributes to its wit. The piece abounds with short snippets of imaginative and comical lyricism: "Said Fellini to Houdini / 'Have you seen my martini?' / Said Bernini to Houdini / 'Or my beach bellini?' / Said Houdini to Bernini and Fellini / 'Your bellini? Your martini?'" From there, the series continues to gather sonic momentum as it bursts with wordplay, addictive rhyme, and funny pairings of unlikely figures throughout history. Readers learn quickly that only in Doyle's world can Brueghel, Hegel, Auden, and Gable share a bagel – as well as a poetic purpose. The series exists in a realm of pure sound-pleasure, while also commenting cannily on how the contemporary mind, during this age of information overload, often processes both history and language in a highly associative (and sometimes comically jumbled) manner.
When I first heard Doyle read "The Breakfast at Heidelberg Series" at a Writer's Conference in the Hamptons a few years back, my perceptions of poetic limitations exploded. Since that summer of 2010, Doyle has received residency fellowships in poetry from the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, the Edward F. Albee Foundation, and others, and she has been awarded the Amy Award in Poetry through Poets & Writers Magazine, a prize given every year to three emerging poets under thirty. She has taught Creative Writing as the Writer-In-Residence at St. Albans School in Washington, DC, and as the Emerging Writing Resident at Penn State University, Altoona. In the fall of 2013, Doyle will hold a fellowship as a Writer-in-Residence at the James Merrill House. Recently, Doyle received a grant from the John Anson Kittredge Foundation for her manuscript in progress, "Tea in Eden."
Though I never met Chloe Honum, I feel I have been granted access into portions of her soul for I have read her, and reading her is an intimate sojourn across waters and between selves. Honum, who attended the Sewanee Writers Conference along with Doyle in 2011, is a recipient of the coveted Ruth Lilly Fellowship. She is a Ph.D. candidate in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University, and holds an M.F.A. from the University of Arkansas. Honum has received numerous honors, including an Isabella Gardener Residency Fellowship from the MacDowell Colony. Her manuscript, "The Tulip-Flame," was a finalist for the 2012 Yale Younger Poets competition.
Her paratactic poem "Spring" manipulates the breath and vitality of readers, controlling everything from heartbeat to body temperature. Confronted, first, with the jarring disclosure of "Mother tried to take her life," the quickness of the following caesuras speed the reader through the first stanza, until, when enjambment finally twists its way to the last line, the comparison of her childhood home to "a wet coat/we couldn't put back on" chills the reader to the nape. After a shiver down the spine from the image of trying, the mind is enshrouded in a numbing reality. Death is a whisper, and lingers between lines; this seems the antithesis of Spring. And yet a soulful musicality permeates the poem. Tough as it may seem to swallow, the speaker has come to an understanding regarding her mother's need to live, to exist, to breathe in a world far separate than our physical one. In all, "Spring" manipulates verse and metaphor to demonstrate the prismatic perceptions of grief.
Honum's work reveals just enough, and it is in this beautiful simplicity where the three selves (most present in the collection) collide: the daughter, the former lover, and the ballerina. Little by little images add up. A deep intellectual sadness resides between pieces. "It's later, driving home that vertigo/sets in," she writes in "Ballerina, Released," a fourteen-line poem that reconstructs the classical conventions of the sonnet. The poem reveals the chaos of the mind when, like a ball of yarn unraveled, it is both liberated and tangled. On this rainy night, all three selves are emerging, or, perhaps are yearning to emerge. "How can I sleep," the poet wonders, when the "moon is spinning in a sack of mist." The speaker's "red tutu a flame/in a cave," is a pop of color in an otherwise gray poem, and poses as a seductive distraction from the true issue at large: the speaker is lonely. There is no cure for such a malady. The truth Honum confronts is haunting; when a daughter misses her mother, not even the rain's cadences offer her peace.
The Tulip-Flame's trajectory delivers what other first collections only promise; that is, everything. Universal images of petals and cigarettes become intensely personal. She attributes her interest in beauty and loss, particularly what happens when "the two cohere,...how they interact, what happens when they touch" to her childhood on the North Island of New Zealand. The gift of New Zealand's natural beauty has certainly blessed the poet's creativity with remarkably poignant awareness to natural imagery. In The Tulip-Flame, the stars are vivid, and moonlight falls onto the rocks, it is the pain that resides and the people who disappear.
In "Evening News," scenes of all too familiar hometown horror bombard the speaker until she feels prompted to turn off the television and step outside. In the wake of the grand sky before her the speaker is reminded of what she no longer has, "Tonight it crosses my mind / how gone you are." The realization, sudden, yet a seemingly daily thing, prompts the reader to feel disconsolate, hopeless. But a mother's love is never absent, and the stars, the speaker feels, picking our chins back up, "if stars say anything, say Otherwise."
A shimmer of bravery sprouts from each of Honum's poems. Cathartic from start to finish, she unleashes a small part of her subconscious, revealing layers of the selves she has had to be through various years of her life. When speaking from the mind of a well-trained, and one imagines, pointedly graceful ballerina, Honum's work is dynamic and unpredictable; when recollecting the past from the memories of a mournful daughter the musicality of the lines lull readers into an empathetic nirvana. In all, the tension is fragile, but the poems are tough. Sparse yet delicate, her work focuses on the elegant grace of loss, an art the poet has perfected. The spirit of The Tulip-Flame has sustained, has been flung through twisters of heartache, and with bras croise, has survived. When asked for a one-sentence synopsis of her manuscript, Honum responded, "Come back."
In a way, the dichotomies present between Caitlin Doyle and Chloe Honum's work mimic the demands of our contemporary world. We don't want to settle. There is no good reason to sit still. Both poets held positions as Writers-in Residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, Florida, and received fellowships to the Sewanee Writers' Conference. Together they sway on the seesaw of poetic sensibility. Witty and candid. Tried and true. Music and metaphor.
The Language of Distance: Suarez and Nguyen
Dariel Suarez, who studied under Ha Jin and Leslie Epstein at Boston University, earning an M.F.A. in Fiction, is no stranger to poetry. His chapbook, "In the Land of Tropical Martyrs," whispers something sacred, an island willow's song a few days before a storm. His poetry and prose collide in the space between the ethereal and the tangible. Suarez, who was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has had work featured in Gargoyle, 2River View, Versal, the Coachella Review, and many other journals. In the Fall, he will once again teach Creative Writing at Boston University.
In some ways Suarez's work is particularly Cuban, especially in its ravishing sensuality. The corporeal, lust driven poem "Chasing the Animals" begins, "She preferred bees, / their small bodies, delicate wings", and as the plosive beat from "preferred," "bees," and bodies," creates rhythms of lure that buzz down the spine, the mouth widening "wings" loosens the reader's lips. The poem is wild and carefree, a portrait of two lovers destined to struggle. The distinct American characteristic present in Suarez's voice, that particular determination to conquer (though in Suarez's case, what is mostly conquered is memory), can't be ignored. Throughout each poem, he reproduces the spirit of immigration and emigration while contemplating the trials of preservation and risk.
"The children have no books / but their grandfather's books..." he writes in the titular poem of his chapbook, offering no judgments, rather remembering, meticulously, the "devastating drone, like propaganda." The free-verse style poem arouses senses of smell and taste as mothers "crack and whisk the eggs," and a "country awakes/to the scent of coffee inside dim-lit kitchens." Aesthetically speaking, the poem's structured five-line stanzas mimic the stasis of a community whose progress is on pause, that is, until the mention of fathers, who "just try to keep themselves from drowning." The exclusivity of the men, a line all on its own, placed just far away enough form the "apron-strapped grandmothers" illuminates a country under perilous control, a world in which man's only chance to rebel is in his art.
"My grandmother wrenched the heads of cradled chickens/as if she were a performer," Suarez writes in "Out of Earth," juxtaposing the customs of a venerable woman to a mode of entertainment. Perhaps this mockery of custom is what charges the poet in Suarez as the speaker realizes that "we children laughed and cringed and begged her for more." The poem has no particular form or order; four-line stanzas build into eight, mimicking the functions of the mind. Attempting to comprehend the voices and spaces of his past, Suarez resurrects his earliest cognitions, picking "nameless fruit" from the branches of his consciousness. In the Land of Tropical Martyrs is a vivid display of memory on the page.
Binh Nguyen, like fellow Boston University Alum Suarez, finds awareness in the kitchen; perhaps such scenes of domestic solace feed the poet's collective sentiments of loss. Nguyen's mystifying use of melody creates eddies of nostalgia on which the reader drifts. The first two lines of "Souffle au Couer", an opus to memory, to life, and to culture, spark a familiar image in the reader's mind-scape: "Always it begins in the kitchen. Kerosene wets / the wick, and silhouettes trot across the room." The sizzle of the wick hisses in the reader's ear. The following soft, internal rhymes of "murmur" and "inertia" establish an aura of reverie. Sweet scents of the past seem to linger, but the poet's memory has no windows. The past suffocates.
Within the containment of "Souffle au Couer" the poet erupts. Divided into four sections, the poem experiments with matters of lineation, stanza form, and dissonance, disassembling and scattering the past in an attempt to comprehend the night, and nights after, a significant loss of innocence, of place, and of peace of mind. Thoughts collide throughout the poem; winged things remind the speaker of earthly matters. Readers are told the "Pesky quails / have been meddling again ... / ... their tracks, remnants / of worms". The atmosphere of the poem is unsteady, it seems nothing, not even people, truly speak to one another, only "disintegration answers." Nguyen examines and reexamines a land, home, a self, and of course, the murmurs of the heart in "Souffle au Couer." Section through section, Yeats' phrase "things fall apart" poses as a mantra of sorts, for my mind. Neither Nguyen nor readers find satisfaction in the discovery that it is "impossible to know what secrets the wind / tells the night."
Nguyen grew up intimately with Mahayana Buddhism, and fell into her love for musicality and language by memorizing Sutras, so it is no surprise that her own work meditates on such numinous and timeless quandaries. "But the artistry lies in being non-sacred, sub-celestial," Nguyen writes in her poem "Selves." The subsequent five-four-five-four-line stanzas set a rhythm for readers, instantly hypnotizing and lulling the senses with the compressed, yet boundless first two lines, "It does not matter which way the pendulum swings. / Time passes nonetheless." The multisyllabic "pendulum" is the source of control over the reader's mouth, so by the time he/she reaches the lyricism of "the errant breeze; the transient clouds stacking" the tensions and nerves acquired by contemplating eternity have settled. Philosophically ambitious, tone is crucial in "Selves" as it is when reciting a prayer. The poem's sonic clout heightens its cathartic intention.
Nguyen transforms tailored or ragged suits to serve as yet another symbol of the concealment of the self, or selves. In "Tailor," a poem of sparse, mostly monosyllabic couplets, Nguyen weaves memories and reveries. She writes, "You dressed the living, the dead / and me /… and I was so thin / that anything would do—." The poem is particular and spare in its bare form, but confessional enough in its description of a barely-there-physical frame. Echoing the difficulty of conceptualizing the speaker's true individuality, as seen in "Selves," the astonishing lightness of Nguyen's work shines when the speaker strips away tangible objects from her memories and expounds on her own temporality.
Linguistically graceful, Dariel Suarez and Binh Nguyen tease the boundaries of the poetic line. Sonically and aesthetically, they cross borders within individual poems, mingling the foreign with the familiar to produce collections suffused with tenderness, courage, and intelligence. Their poetry serves to say something imperative about the dislocations and disassociations of our time. Nguyen is a recipient of a Gates Millennium Scholarship, and currently lives in London, England. Her poetry can be found in Salamander, Poetry Ireland Review, CALYX, and many other journals. Most recently, Dariel Suarez founded the online literary magazine, Middle Gray, and is working on a collection of short stories set in his hometown in Cuba.