By Abriana Jetté
Brooklyn, NY, USA
What's so special about poetry or prose or reading in general is that it is one of the few events that occur in our lives in which we are able to do, physically, nothing at all and still experience a surge of emotional intensity. It is a powerful moment, to develop empathy for an unknown speaker in a nonverbal way. The art reminds us we are human; the moment is as human as it can get. The voices highlighted in this season's column share a dynamic intelligence, made clear by their imaginative, authoritative voice and incomparable manipulation of line. Rebekah Stout, Jonathan Escoffery, Lisa Hiton, and Megan Fernandes hail from across the nation: Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, and Boston, still their poetry is universally intimate. In short, their words remind us we are human.
Discoveries and research in the fields of mathematics and science have offered modern society the capability to discover truths in otherwise mysterious dimensions. Poetry, with its beloved restraints and freedoms, has done the same. When the arts and the sciences merge, a transcendental experience follows. Megan Fernandes, who earned her M.F.A. in Poetry from Boston University, completed her Ph.D. in English from the University of California at Santa Barbara. Fernandes draws inspiration for her creative work from her knowledge in the molecular sciences. By understanding the intricate functions of a cell, she enhances her ability to capture the intimacies of complicated milieus. She is one of those rare intellectuals whose syntactical charm separates her from the world of scholarship, solidifying her role in the arts as a pertinent, influential poet. Fernandes is the author of two chapbooks, "Organ Speech", published by Corrupt Press, and "Some Citrus Leaves me Blue", published by Dancing Girl Press.
Categorically speaking, much of Fernandes's work falls under the umbrella of "Cognitive Poetics", a contemporary term meant to define work that engages interdisciplinary sciences with perceptive interpretations of literary texts. But the term is nothing but a term; Fernandes's poetry resists being defined. Drawing inspiration from Lewis Carroll and James Joyce, the fantastical worlds exhibited in Fernandes's poetry transform readers into explorers of literary terrain. Her trademark is a strange, carefully modulated language combined with contemporary poetic construction.
In "Twin", Fernandes's lines are long, and her imaginative experience is extensive. The poem begins:
"When Alice slips through that looking glass, she drags her cruel twin behind her,
a young brunette with varnished glass nails, whiskey in her voice, a whore in blue."
Sonically, Fernandes is a master. The assonance of "varnished glass nails, whiskey in her voice" composes a comforting rapture, a device purposefully used to ease readers into accepting the forthcoming "whore in blue." Visibly prosaic, the length of the poem's lines further entrances readers, spinning and shooting us down alongside pure-blonde Alice and her "cruel", to say the least, twisted, sister. In this fanciful world, Alice's counter-part "skins fawns in the dunegrass" and "eats Humpty Dumpty raw." If Carroll's Alice is the quintessential model of Victorian childhood, Fernandes's creation of her twin sister can be a metaphor for her subconscious, the alter-ego, a recognition of the animus, and the acknowledgement of the ignored self. The poem is a philosophical, sonic, and logical puzzle pieced together backwards. "Twin" exemplifies Fernandes's duality: the literary scholar and the imaginative writer.
Fernandes is also capable of utilizing fictional landscapes as segues into her personal life. In the tightly woven twenty-five line poem "The Anti-hero", the speaker carries around a "sweet potato / in [her] purse for a week." Throughout the hustle and bustle of the speaker's daily sojourns, the neglected potato is pounced on by her cat and secretly caressed when she walks down the street. "Here is the thing that grew in the ground", the speaker notes. As the seemingly straightforward poem is read and reread, the ignored potato transforms into a metaphor for the nugget of poetic sensitivity pulsing beneath even the most mundane episodes of the speaker's life.
Fernandes's recreation of Mumbai in "Queens" offers an intimate snapshot of an otherwise foreign city. What I love most about "Queens", which begins, "In Mumbia, I get headaches like darts", are the unexplored aspects of experiences the speaker bravely confronts. While "Twin" twists the conventions of a fictional setting, "Queens" anthropomorphizes the verisimilitude of the physical world. The poem is short, varied in line length, and ultimately, a heart-wrenching discovery of the unwritten rules of the world. Gypsies attempt to attract the speaker, promising her fortune and love, but the speaker is wise, and knows better than to trust such women. Most impressively, the poem's power is earned in its paratactic, wrenching ending:
"I know what you do with little boys behind blue-rutted buses.
I know what you make little boys do.
I know you are queens and not gods."
Capturing the essence of the human voice is no small feat. One is lucky to accomplish this once in every three or four poems. Lisa Hiton, who recently earned an M.Ed from Harvard University, reaches a heightened sense of intimacy through her skillful use of the vernacular. In "Tuesday", Hiton's poetic sensibility is enhanced by her filmmaker's eye. Striking chords within our own memories, the beautiful juxtaposition of present tense domestic fulfillment and maternal sensuality captivates readers within the first three lines. "Tuesday" begins:
"You wear a yellow bathing suit
You leave the butter melting on the stove
sizzling in the kitchen"
The mouth-watering, hearty aroma of sweet butter on the stove invites readers into a familiar scene. The language of food is the language of love, so the "you" in the yellow bathing, quickly transforms into a symbol of nourishment. The ability to divert attention from off of the woman's stimulating body and onto the butter is a testament to Hiton's talents. It is in the moment of linear fragmentation, the extended breathing room between butter and melting, combined with the calculated enjambment, in which the poem's metaphysical truths about familial relationships exist.
In a way, cooking mirrors the art of poetry. One adds ingredients (words) in precise measurements, mulling over additions, taste-testing each flavor to ensure satisfaction, and then, suddenly, after it has reached the table (or has been submitted), it is gone: the exhausting efforts of creator vanished with consumption. Of course, this is the point of it all: to eat it up. The premise of "Tuesday", an ordinary day, focuses on the necessary assistance of another during a time of need. Burrs have found themselves wedged into the speaker's hands; the woman in yellow must pause from what she is doing to take them out. It is trademark Hiton: a delicate reflection of authentic experience.
Hiton's six-line poem, "Egyptian Daydream" demonstrates her ability to handle time, space, and emotion through line. Every moment in the poem counts, every word holds a world of significance. The poem's voyeuristic and dissociative beginning, "No one seen under the arch", locates readers in a foreign land, though mystic and familiar in legend. Because of its mysteriousness, Hiton is able to guide readers' minds; the poem's mostly monosyllabic beat controls the rhythm of our hearts. Alone on a line on its own, the distinct "chicken shmaltz" left in the pot is an indication, and testament, to the survival of the spirit and the people of a mythic, mystic, and writhing history. In six short lines, Hiton recreates the language of a land, illuminating an ancient world.
When Hiton is sparse, she is magnetic. The lyrical "Arlington" begins with a simile of romance:
"Loving you is like waiting for a train
In the dark tunnel of my being."
The enjambment that occurs after the first line emphasizes the waiting the speaker has had to endure, as well as her endless patience for love. The poem's conclusive syntactical opposition enhances the chaos the speaker feels, and like passengers who have been switched from a local to an express, the final lines of the poem instruct us to turn around, retrace our steps, and reread the poem again. "Arlington" ends, "Am I to leap? Am I / to leap now?" Her eloquence and concentration penetrate the readers focus. In the past, Hiton has been nominated for a Puschart Prize, and received fellowships from the New York State Summer Writers Institute and the MU Writing Workshops in Greece.
Speaking of Greece, the poet Rebekah Stout, who has claimed residencies in Minnesota, Wyoming, England, and most currently Cambridge, lived and traveled throughout the antiquated country as a Robert Pinsky Global Fellow in 2011, the same year she earned her M.F.A. from Boston University. Stout, who has been an Assistant Poetry Editor for Slate, and a Lecturer of Creative Writing at Boston University, as a reader and writer of poetry, is unparalleled. I have yet to read a poet who displays such consistent delicate clarity, and who is able to articulate this clarity with as much grace and authority as she can. It is difficult to dissect what exactly makes Stout's poetry so good because every line shimmers: in all possible senses, she is a damn fine poet.
A poignant reflection on history, Stout's "In the Garden", won the Poetry International Prize in 2009. Braiding narrative, ethereal lyric, and the stuff of life, the poem navigates through worlds of memory and loss. The first stanza begins:
"This is how it went after the war:
those left dropped their whistles, torches,
guns, their implements of trade, their sweethearts,
and began to dig"
The resonance of symbols found in the litany of things dropped, "whistles, torches / implements...sweethearts...", because of their collected harmonies and contrasting images, thrusts readers into dimensions of empathetic grief. In the world of the poem, there are lovers and soldiers and, later, even children to care for. In four, four line stanzas, Stout balances the triumph and suffering between man and nature.
"In the Garden" crisscrosses generations, and meditates on the gathering of folk in the same place over extended periods of time, through lifetimes and thereafter. The syntax of "In the Garden" moves from moments of earthy tenderness to realizations of stark actuality. In this way, the poem's symbolic clout resides in its representation of the cyclical nature of both human beings and mother earth. "In the Garden" is fueled by what the speaker knows for sure, "This is how it went", and her oblivion, "No one knows who lost patience first." The acknowledgment of the unknown brilliantly appears in the first line of the third stanza, slicing the center of the poem, organizing the losses. This skillful balance of content adds to the dimensions of "In the Garden": the mysteriousness of an ordinary place is illuminated because of Stout's exquisite architecture. The poem ends with an illustration of histories colliding:
children play and a few
sit cock-eared to the grass, saying, "So quiet I can almost
In "Alzheimer's", readers are located in the midst of shambolic memory, inside a tortured mind, as Stout directly confronts the concept of loss. Our tongues slow down over the dissonant sounds of "burnt offering", "charred skull", and "synapses slipped the wire cage", an oral undertaking that resembles the complicated act of remembering for any Alzheimer's victim. The structure of the four unrhymed couplets creates enough balance to contain the anguish felt by the "her" of the poem, whose eyes are "watchful but not detached", and whose "body is an accident." Because of this compression, Stout also emphasizes the minimalistic grasp of memory associated with the subject, and, in general, the disease. Readers wonder how many times she's forgotten her beloved dog has passed. By the end of the poem, readers become sick with remembering. "Who but the clock / to lick these wounds?", the poem asks. In all, Stout's words seem to seep out from some collected soul of the world, her work defines what is inaccessible, even more, ineffable. She finds something interesting in everything.
"I've let him out to graze in the diminishing light", begins "This Horse", a graceful retrospection on growth and youth. In the poem, Stout creates an individualized universe, a childhood dream infused with the burden of responsibility. Her extraordinary knowledge of particulars, the horse's "chaff" and "hocks", the way in which he eats, "his tongue dividing and dividing", assist in the poem's ability to capture the delicate, personal process of the self evolving.
Side-by-side with the speaker, readers depart from reality, traveling from adulthood to childhood and back to "out-growing" the horse again. The imagination of "This Horse" is magical – the grass runs wild; the horse grows faster. Alive are these moments in the speaker's memory: the horse's "big belly" in fields of grass, the rough truth that life is at times as challenging as it is rich. As abstract as parts of "This Horse" may be, the poem still manages to be deeply personal. The speaker's fascination on "this horse" who "once fit in the palm" of her hands, and the subtle slips of eroticism, primarily focused on the horse's mouth; first, "he trusts his lips", and then, "so much chaff / falling from his lips", offer moments so eloquently sparse readers can't help but feel the hoofed bronco's great influence. The poem even ends on the horse's command of the speaker to "feed him an apple": the crisp anticipation of a bite leaving readers wanting more. Through its free-verse design, "This Horse" weaves consciousness and the countryside, feeding on the tensions discovered in retrospect between the past and present of the same self.
With all our efforts, poetry reminds us that the self, as hard as we may try, is mysteriously fickle: our wants, wishes, goals, ideas, hair-color, wardrobe, even our memories change too often to remain defined. The self, indeed, is multi-faceted, composed of influences from our friends, siblings, interests, and of course, our parents. In his work, the poet Jonathan Escoffery illustrates the history of twentieth-century Jamaica, an island of curry, cabbage, seductive beats, and kaleidoscopes of mountain and sea – a world slightly unfamiliar to the Texas-born and Miami-raised writer. Still, the cadence of his parents' hometown is intrinsic in his voice.
A phonetically original recounting of the difficulties and blessings of an underdeveloped city, "Gully Surfing" plunges "Down the cement, crescent-shaped wall" into the memories of a poverty-stricken so not surprisingly spectacular time during which the youth (young children and children pretending not to be so young) skate and slide and roll around in tires through dumpsters and over "washed-away garden decor" just to reach "the river run off." But the view from deep down in the gully painted "the world above [as] a war-zone", and images of the "scores of homeless men" flood readers' minds. To command readers, and make issues like war and poverty new, Escoffery reinvents language, presenting both visual and sonic duplications of island vernacular.
It is not the speaker of "Gully Surfing" that entices readers, but the language of the tales he was told as a child
"of goats he'd found
drowned in the gully
after the flash floods struck.
To find dem, all unoo afi do
is look fi di john crow"
The ramshackle land of the poem, with all of its garbage and animals and secret-gathering spots, combined with its colloquialisms, transforms into a character all of its own, charming readers with its exciting, though dingy, world. Readers don't inhabit "Gully Surfing"; "Gully Surfing" inhabits us. Like an irresistible short story, Escoffery's poetry, because of his magnetic control of pitch, tone, and rhythm, demands rereading.
The percussive rigor of "Language Arts" reads like a song: the song of two selves. It begins:
"If I say no instead of nah when responding to X on certain street corners in certain
corners of the world, I become N times as likely to have my brains plastered over some
real estate agent's bus stop bench advertisement."
Escoffery's decision to compose out-stretched lines and elongated stanzas winks at the required essays assigned during adolescent Language Arts class, but the wit is not for wit's sake. The line's length also manipulates the air readers may swallow between syllables, creating a vertiginous whirlwind of syntax. The plosive "bus stop bench" melded with the friction of "agent" and "advertisements" assist in building the poem's momentum. Stanza by stanza, "Language Arts" boldly confronts the stereotypes and prejudices developed in America based on the way one speaks. The instances presented in "Language Arts" are as horrifying as they are realistic, warning readers that we should be careful with what we say. A touching caveat: language is a delicate thing. The speaker the embraces the terminology of
"the lesser language; the what dey dos, the que tals,
the wha' 'appen bredrens, the hey ya'lls."
The enchanting foreignness highlights the undeniable significance of crooked speech. The exotic, other-world language is a topic of many issue-writers, what makes Escoffery stand out is his seductive rhythm and exactness.
In part because of his fiction background, much of Escoffery's work flaunts irresistible character. Take, for instance, "The Dish-washer", a dramatic rumination from the point of view of a dish-washer at Hooters. The poem begins on the image of a sucked-dry piece of meat:
"Somewhere between a gnawed-on chicken bone
and a residue-caked wooden plate
you awake to the reality",
and ends only after a humorous yet lamentable recollection of why a job at Hooter's seemed like the best option for the speaker. Another irresistible feature of Escoffery's work is his willingness to have fun, be dangerous, and play with language. There aren't many poets out there brave enough to compose a rhythmically enchanting poem about the regrets of a "grown-ass man" who works in the kitchen of a restaurant. "The Dish-washer", in all of its theatrical glory, serves one purpose: to speak for a sect of people who otherwise may not have had a voice. Poem after poem, readers are confronted with surprisingly fresh, and beautifully phrased, ideas. Escoffery, who is earning his M.F.A. from the University of Minnesota, is currently a Fiction Editor at dislocate Magazine, has been a Community of Scholars Program participant, and a two-time recipient of the DOVE Summer Research Fellowship at UMN.
Readers of Megan Fernandes, Lisa Hiton, Rebekah Stout, and Jonathan Escoffery honor the belief that poetry should evoke semantic, linguistic, and emotional power. Separately and together, their poetry is resilient, seductive, and historically imperative. They are, to be frank, poets to watch this year, and, if we are lucky, many years to come.
The poetry of Megan Fernandes, who will be teaching a feminist theory and technology course at Brown University this fall, can be found in Guernica, Memorious, RATTLE, Redivider, and many other journals. For more information on Fernandes, visit: megfernandes.wordpress.com/.
Lisa Hiton, who earned her M.F.A. from Boston University, has poetry forthcoming or published in Hayden's Ferry Review, Linebreak, DMQ Review, The Cortland Review, and many other places. For more information on Hiton visit: lisahiton.com/poetry-features.html.
Rebekah Stout has been the program director for the Favorite Poem Project. Her poems are featured or forthcoming in Salmagundi, Slate, and Poetry International. To hear Stout read "This Horse" visit: slate.com/articles/arts/poem/2013/06/_this_horse_by_rebekah_stout.html.
Jonathan Escoffery, who is currently teaching Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota, has had his work appear in Interrobang?! Magazine, The Coffin Factory, Middle Gray Magazine, Sliver of Stone Magazine, and many other places. His songwriting is featured in the movie, Totally Baked. For an interview with Escoffery visit: blog.lib.umn.edu/creawrit/main/2011/10/1st_year_mfa_profiles_jonathan.html.