By Abriana Jetté
Staten Island, NY, USA
During my junior year of college, I worked at the local bar to help save money for a semester abroad. It was Fall and the Catskill mountains and fresh water lakes were just minutes away. People flocked from across the states to witness the metamorphosis of color amongst the trees, the dazzling variety of red and yellow leaves for as far as the eyes can see. It was then, during a stunning Saturday afternoon, families and students wandering and marveling all over the place, when I realized the fascinating and frightening power of change.
Fall is the season to move on. We pack away bathing suits and tank tops to make way for pens, pencils, and clean sneakers. We let go of the daze brought on by the long summer haze for the rush of the new school year. We pick the last bits of the harvest before the cold comes in.
Letting go is not easy. Whether the act is found in the scooping up and tossing away of the pile of unnecessary papers kept on the desk for too long or accepting the end of what may have once appeared to be an endless romance, mankind's instincts are to hold on and keep close. Even in the process of losing weight, the final few pounds are often the hardest.
In the exhale between the then and now, poetry is found. It is not a quick leap from present to past, but a zooming in on, a freezing of time, space, and sound. The poets I want you to get to know this Fall have unpacked the ordinariness of their lives in such a way. Karen Paul Holmes, Carey McHugh, and Ire'ne Lara Silva confront the universal, inescapable crisis of change in the same way a leaf unfurls: stunningly, naturally, without warning.
There are three things I need from my poetry: a reflection of the ordinary, a critical claim through content or sound, and an image on which to rest the colors of my mind. It may appear to be a simple list, but its demands are not easy to find, unless, of course, I am reading Karen Paul Holmes.
One of the most telling signs of a true poet is the urge to write the moment the words appear; no doing the dishes or finishing the vacuuming first. No thinking about whether or not the sounds blend. In fact, at first, my own writing process feels more like a listening process: I listen to hear what I think. I keep listening to understand. Karen Paul Holmes's first collection of poetry, Untying the Knot, followed such a process. This is poetry that serves to tame grief. This is poetry of passion, and passion's loss. Paul Holmes has described the book as "her therapy…her way out." She wrote it in a journal kept by her bedside, documenting the days as they passed, noting the distances built by divorce.
Divorce. This is the sign of the ordinary. Half of the marriages created fall apart. It is neither exceptional nor unexceptional to stay with a partner: an equal amount of people experience both, or so statistics suggest. Paul Holmes allows the ordinariness of divorce to shine in the title of "Telling My Mother", which summarizes the narrative of the poem: the speaker will tell her mother why she and her husband divorced. Throughout the poem, the occasional broken syntax directly relates to the slow deterioration of the speaker's relationship to her partner and her own self. It begins:
"She's 85. Upsets make her heart palpitate
so we watch what we say."
The casual turn of phrase through the word "upsets" attempts to diminish not only the gravity of the speaker's loss, but also the mother's empathy. Likening the divorce to the terminology used, perhaps, for a stomachache or bump on the forehead, the word also forces the reader to pout her lips, mimicking the act of the heartbeat.
Thematically the poem details the cautiousness with which we speak. Words unsaid from mother to daughter reverberate through the lines. What is described is the opposite of letting go – it is the holding in, the consumption of grief and pain. The speaker tells her mother:
"He wants to separate for a while…depressed
since thyroid surgery. I think
he'll be back."
The mother leaves. The truth remains untold. Until a few months later, in Appalachia, when mom returns. He calls. The former husband asks our speaker to tell her mother hello, but she "does not give her his regards." Finally, when mother and daughter are lost on the drive home one evening the words come out:
"He had an affair.
He lives with her now."
The words startle even the speaker. Her contact lenses fog, "the road is a blur, but no slowing down." The mother and speaker "pass thick dark pines, cliffs, the fast Nantahala", thankful to bear witness to such grand scenes of nature. There are no tears. There is no regret. The ex husband and the ex friend now live together. The truth comes out as simply as that. "Telling my Mother" speaks as much about the aftermath of divorce as it does to the power of the parent/child relationship. It is a poem that relies on the speaker's ultimate self-awareness, a recurring theme for Paul Holmes.
"1961" also concerns itself with the satisfaction of the speaker's sense of self. The poem calls upon the torture of certain beauty rituals to reflect inner pain. The speaker writes: "My bubble-permed mother / had birthed three curled girls" except for her brother who, along with the speaker, "was straight." After the first reading of "1961" the pun on the straight hair becomes glaringly obvious, but not cliché, just smart. Though her brother
"didn't have to suffer
the ammonia stench
the parting, pulling, winding
of strands into submission
the terrible tooth-edged rods"
he may have wanted to, for "every Halloween" he now "dons a Dolly Parton wig / outrageous falsies / spike heels…" The memory with which the speaker recalls her grooming rituals cringes behind the neck of this reader. The "parting, pulling, winding / of strands" lends itself to the motion of braiding a small child's hair, the tugging back and forth of the innocent child's body. Throughout "1961", an eagerness to control and tame is juxtaposed to the speaker's refusal to be still and conform. A simple comb transforms into a "tooth-edged rod" recounting the tears of tangles – that sort of beauty, for the speaker, is the opposite of pleasure.
As the title of the book promises, Untying the Knot showcases an unraveling of the self. It confronts the chaos of change with ordinary speech, deepening the personal connection between reader and speaker. It follows a speaker who tries Zumba for the first time and almost goes on a date with a cowboy. It is a collection of new starts and old habits, an inspired work that teaches its reader that it is okay to move on.
The poet Tom Lux has said that Untying the Knot is written with "grace, humor and self-awareness and without a dollop of self-pity," and William Wright says the book "possesses the potential to teach us ways to navigate and ultimately transcend the difficulties of divorce and the feelings of loss and grief such division engenders." To support poets and writers, Karen Paul Holmes hosts a critique group in Atlanta and a Writers' Night Out in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She received a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation for Emerging Artists, and her work has been featured in Caesura, Atticus Review, Falling Star Magazine, and many other journals.
We are reflections of nature. We take from our environment as much as we need, and we attempt to emulate its beauty in our own idiosyncratic ways. I imagine Carey McHugh looks out onto the world and understands the dramatic impact of the slamming of a door or the honk of an irritatingly loud horn. I imagine that when McHugh gazes outward, she ignores that door and horn and listens, rather, to the soft pull of the daisy's petal as it reaches towards the sun. I imagine she hears the earth.
American Gramophone, McHugh's debut collection with Augury Books, translates the sounds of the voiceless. Syntactically she is a rough, lyrical poet who offers a sense of truthfulness and fact to the reader's limitless imaginative landscape. In the collection, the changes of the physical world coincide with the speaker's emotions, and the reader's empathy is built upon an immediate recognition of the intentional transformation of idiomatic speech.
"You could say it was an adjustment. Like a tree
uprooting inside me"
begins "And Now: the Uneducated Hog." The poem is a riveting account of a wild spirit finding solace in her beliefs. What better way to describe the gut feeling of growth than likening it to the break in the fiber of one of humanity's most treasured life-offering plants? The line is one of those perfect moments connecting language, image, and experience to document the invisible act of change. McHugh reaches even higher into the universe to describe the speaker's inner turmoil when she writes, "Even the sun put me to sleep." Just as her imaginative landscape extends out into the unchartered universe, McHugh pulls her readers back to earth. The speaker reveals that she "was content without a knife. / but then, she "couldn't walk / across a field without dreading roundworm." The reader can almost feel the squish of the slime beneath her feet. Such unexpected, sharp imagery and language should be expected from McHugh: she is a treasure chest of dichotomy, a trove of unparalleled syntactical skill. Further down, the speaker boldly exclaims:
"I couldn't stand in a river
without quoting Deuteronomy. The scarecrow
Thus far in the journey of the poem, readers have been inside the body and outside in a wide, vast field. They have experienced the paranoia of walking amongst slimy, backless creatures and have admired the view with a scarecrow. Throughout the poem, ghastly intonations bombard the reader's vision, but for good reason. The poem's last sentence haunts in its disobedience, it shouts to the reader with poignant honesty, and the reader can't help but trust such a vindicated speaker. "I don't want whatever you want most for me", the speaker says. And neither does the reader. All the reader wants is more McHugh.
"If it gets out that when you squint you can see" is just one example of meticulously placed vernacular. The title, which can or can't be considered the poem's first line, literally gets behind the reader's eyes, forcing a rereading of it once or twice to make sure it was read right. The poems true first lines read:
"the empty spaces of the trestle bridge shudder
under the train's iron, you will understand"
This "you" who follows McHugh throughout her work, offers a daunting, inexplicably universal connection between reader and speaker, rich with subliminal undertones. Remnants of the prophetic follow the speaker and the you throughout the collection, whether through quoting books of the Old Testament or serving as the other's direct apostrophe. Together, the speaker, you, and reader, come to understand what's real.
"If it gets out that when you squint you can see" further demonstrates McHugh's ability to combine sound and image as the speaker exclaims, "I need a heart with more cabinetry", McHugh writes. The hollow echo of an empty wood cabinet forces the beat of the reader's lips. Something, someone, requires fulfilling.
These acutely sharp images are some of American Gramophones finest features. The collection listens to the past. Sometimes playful in form, sometimes straight and to the point, it is a culmination of traditional American free-verse song and contemporary tough, cutting-edge verse. It is a must-read this Fall.
Carey McHugh's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, and Tin House. Her chapbook Original Instructions for the Perfect Preservation of Birds &c. was selected by Ray Armantrout for the Poetry Society of America's 2008 New York Chapbook Fellowship. She lives and works in Manhattan.
Change is not all together communal. Some of the most significant changes in our lives are private, emotionally taxing experiences. The changes Karen Paul Holmes discusses in Untying the Knot mostly revolve around her newfound adaptation to single-life and Carey McHugh's changes, for the most part, appear sonically and call back to some sort of object or image, but the changes Ire'ne Lara Silva endures exclude the outside world. Throughout her work, Silva concerns herself solely with the body, and, as if language were a periscope, she focuses so deeply within that the reader can almost make out the blue-veined, thick blood that the speaker is made of.
The same voice echoes throughout "pancreas", "liver", "nerves", and "skin"— short poems composed in couplet form that focus on the particular functions and failures of the body, one of the most prominent themes in Silva's work. Silva is keen on exploring the unexamined qualities of the internal human landscape, still, the speaker feels no moral obligation to explain to the reader why. Hints of diabetes and an inability to digest properly pepper the lines, but are never explicitly stated. This ambiguity adds to the universality of Silva's work. If you've ever had anxieties over this vessel that holds life, you can relate to her poetry. "pancreas", an ode to the organ sandwiched between the stomach and the spine, begins:
"you have been sleeping again little warrior"
It's hard to tell if the speaker believes her body is weak, for she fights on and on for it to work, a terrific sign of strength: "years now i have lived on foreign insulin", she confides. The purposeful lack of punctuation, as well as an unorthodox orthography (all I's are lowercase in Silva's work) disambiguates the content. There is a higher power at large who Silva answers to – the body and its organs and intestines are out of her control. Not a comma or period is too be found in the small poems. However, Silva's reliance on circumlocution helps to focus the reader's attention on the words that really matter. For example, "liver" begins:
"lean I dream you lean see you lean and dark
brow furrowed ferociously inspired sculptor
ferociously creating ferociously shaping each…"
Rather than leave the reader with a sense of closure through content, Silva turns to exquisite technique in order to avoid being open-ended. Perhaps the reader may not always be aware of what exactly is causing such ailments within the speaker's frame, but the reader knows where to put her focus. This is necessary. It pushes the reader to empathize stronger with emotion than experience, the perfect path for poetry.
As corporeal as Silva's content is, it is still lyrical and delicate. She offers "flower petals and trilling birdsong" to the pancreas and "milk thistle" and "flax" to the liver as a form of thanks. The speaker's imagination, like the body, is rhythmic, romantic, dependent, and illuminating. All of Silva's strengths come together in one of my favorite poems, "shame: a ghazal in pieces."
If you have ever read this column before you might already know that above all, I adore form. To condense, manipulate, and concentrate so thoroughly requires intelligence and attention – it is the mark not only of a great poet, but of a great artist.
Technically a ten to twenty-four line poem of Persian origin, the ghazal often offers readers poetry of mythical or romantic themes. Often the ghazal is composed of monorhymed couplets, but they don't have to be. Often the poet's name is repeated within these couplets, but it doesn't have to be. Silva takes advantage of such asterisks. It is not her name that is repeated, but, you may have guessed, the word body. And the poem is not written in rhyming couplets, but in prose form. A prose ghazal, a ghazal, technically, thought not aesthetically, in pieces.
Like in any ghazal, Silva's harmonious syncopation of rhyme and refrain work together to create something beautiful. Unlike in any other ghazal, the speaker only speaks of herself. There is no room for romantic love when one is working on self-love. Right away we are told of the speaker's beliefs:
"a body should have its wildness yes this body"
Sticking to what works, Silva's manipulation of words and lines remake the sounds of language. With each pop of the "b" the word body changes, from yours, to mine, to the speaker's, to the universal body of all readers. The speaker confides:
"say we have made ourselves sick"
and the debilitating bodily functions found in "pancreas", "liver", and "nerves" haunts the reader's memory. This is a body that does not function the way the speaker needs it to. This is a body that takes work to survive.
The length of the prose poem, which often extends to the margins of the page, can make it difficult for individual lines to stand out to readers. Squished together like a paragraph, part of the appeal of prose poetry lends itself to the purposefully indistinguishable aspects of the work. This is the opposite for Silva's prose poem. Every line shimmers. With each glance, another melody intoxicates the reader. "shame: a ghazal in pieces" is one of the most playfully smart poems I've read in a while, and the best part about it is that it finally offers readers the poet's firm opinion on her self. In this play on form, the reader comes to understand what the speaker has always thought of her own form, her body, body of wildness and beauty
"live live live my story which is only triumphant because i am still"
Linguistically rich and terrifically smart, Ire'ne Lara Silva's poetry enters in the reader's body and never leaves. She lives in Austin, TX, and is the author of furia (poetry, Mouthfeel Press, 2010) which received an Honorable Mention for the 2011 International Latino Book Award and flesh to bone (short stories, Aunt Lute Books, 2013) which won the 2013 Premio Aztlan, placed 2nd for the 2014 NACCS Tejas Foco Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for Foreward Review's Book of the Year Award in Multicultural Fiction. Saddle Road Press will be publishing her second collection of poetry, Blood Sugar Canto, in January 2016. She is the recipient of the 2014 Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award, the Fiction Finalist for AROHO's 2013 Gift of Freedom Award, and the 2008 recipient of the Gloria Anzaldua Milagro Award, as well as a Macondo Workshop member and CantoMundo Inaugural Fellow. She and Moises S. L. Lara are currently co-coordinators for the Flor De Nopal Literary Festival.