By Abriana Jetté
Staten Island, NY, USA
Just shy of a month ago I opened my eyes to the early morning sun, the season still the same, nothing out of place, except it was the first moment I'd wake and see the world as a married woman. My husband did not stir, but I sat up, wide-awake. Since then, the concept of the other has been on my mind.
Two sides to every coin. A defense for every claim. Implicit and explicit. Beauty and terror. Of course, life isn't always so clear, but I'm not speaking generally here. Poetry is not a very general thing, and what I am talking about really is the way the craft advocates for duality, how even in its finite, published state it is malleable. Two standard ways of approaching a poem are by exploring its explicit (shape, structure, stanzas, meter) and implicit (its philosophical knowledge) nature. Readers can evaluate the studied (form) knowledge and the natural (emotional) knowledge simultaneously or separately. It is just one of the great pleasures of reading.
What I'm drawn to most about this season's poets is their ability to conceptualize the other in distinct, touching ways. They approach language and poetry as a star-studded event, twisting syntax to suit their story. And the narratives are never typical, rather experimental, intriguing, intellectual sojourns. The poets this season have all taught me a thing or two about recognizing the other. This Winter, let the words of Cynthia Marie Hoffman, Ki Russell, and Alexis Rhone Fancher be the other you turn to keep you warm.
Childbirth is another one of those events that works through opposing emotions: pain and joy. Not only that, the extraordinariness of giving birth is obviously intertwined with complex internal, chemically inspired reactions. In short, the act of life is a science, Cynthia Marie Hoffman's most recent collection, Paper Doll Fetus, which combines prose and verse poetry, utilizes the language of science to speak for the miracle of human existence. And the idea of mortality is just the beginning of the many ideas and abstractions Hoffman's work puts forth. Whether bound to this life or the life of letters, Paper Doll Fetus performs its role as the brainchild to Hoffman's fiery imagination.
Anyone who knows anything about American history knows there are (at least) two sides to every story. Not so long ago, women, living, breathing, fully-dressed surviving in the flesh women, were burnt at the stake over suspicions of actually not being women at all but witches. I'm sure you've heard of the Salem Witch Trials, and you might remember the name Cotton Mather, a notorious demagogue and supporter of the hunt. Of course, the Salem Witch Trials weren't just about magic and sorcery. They aroused the idea of the powerful female spirit, enhanced the miraculousness of the women's body, and fed into the hunger for justice and equality. But not for Mather, and not for many. Mather is notorious for denouncing the medical and scientific capabilities of women, and once declared that "no midwives can do what angels can." Hoffman, considering Cotton Mather, the witch-hunt, and so much more, titles her poem with those words.
Composed in couplets, "No Midwives Can Do What Angels Can" wrestles with the horrors of childbirth through tough, gnarled language. The poem runs with Mathers's assumption that angels are capable of helping along with the birthing process. Hoffman sets up binaries throughout the larger scope of her work, but perhaps none more prevalent than the experience of divine intervention and the miracle of birth expressed through the harsh, sharp, and, at times, horrific language of the poem. It begins:
"Wicked are her knuckles beating at your door. She sniffs
your broken water she summons a monster"
from the woman's womb. It isn't until halfway through the poem that Hoffman identifies the woman specifically as the angel, so the first reading is an experience of shock and question and surprise and relief. Aesthetically, the poem is concise and clear, with lines of similar if not equal lengths occupying each couplet, but sonically, the poem explodes. Hoffman incorporates fricatives and nasals in every couplet, perhaps to dramatize the tension and mimic the pursed lips of the newborn. In the poem, "knuckles crack", "dust quickens", "time draws nigh", and "the baby cries." The poem succeeds most when it memorializes the "women swinging from the gallows" whose cracked necks have saved future.
Even in her prose poetry, Hoffman manages to distort language, creating unique, rhythmic recreations of alphabetic language. The incorporation of imperatives in any piece of writing allows the speaker to control an authoritative tone above the reader. It's every writer's not-so-hidden-secret. Tell the reader to do something. Do it. Hoffman's prose piece "The Face Has Seven Holes" employs such rhetoric, and in doing so makes good use of its audience. From the first murmur of the title itself, readers physically communicate with the poem, counting the nostrils, eyes, ear lobes, and mouth, making sure we check out.
Condensed, the poem offers a lengthy, horizontal occupation of page much like that of the paragraph. It begins:
"Someone is talking to you. Look at her face when she's talking to you. Draw a star. Start with the right nostril."
It becomes clear that the structure, the exhaustion of space, is meant to recreate the tension building between the "you" and the "her" in the poem. Though the sentences appear one on top of another, they read quickly, like bullets, like daggers to the mind. Hoffman's choice to spell out the numbers like "thirty-five forty-two" also contribute to testing the phonetic and sonic boundaries of readers' minds.
Hoffman's work has been reviewed in Sabotage, The Philadelphia Review of Books, Guernica, and many other leading journals.
As well as Paper Doll Fetus, Cynthia Marie Hoffman is the author and Sightseer, as well as the chapbook Her Human Costume. Hoffman is a former Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, Director's Guest at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, and recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Wisconsin Arts Board. Her poems have appeared in Pleiades, Fence, Blackbird, diode, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere.
Poetry speaks the language of the in-between, the unseen, the mythic, magic, nonrealistic universal truths of human experience. It's supposed to give voice to that sort of thing. It's supposed to be the place we turn to for escape, release. And for that sort of poetry, we need not look much farther than Ki Russell. In much of her work, Russell reconceptualizes traditional folktales, peeling away at assumptions and horrors to unveil brief glimmers of beauty. A few of the legends Russell has tackled include, but are not limited to, Little Red Riding Hood, T.S. Eliot's notorious creation, J. Alfred Prufrock, and the eastern European myth of Baby Yaga. "Einjeder Engel ist schrecklich", wrote Rainer Maria Rilke. Every angel is terrifying.
"Midnight Scenes" exemplifies how Russell addresses those illogically intimate thoughts that enter our psyche during the day's darker hours with crystalline precision. The poem utilizes the space on the page as a stage for the lines to perform. It is late. The air is heavy. The poem begins:
"The ceiling fan dips to kiss me.
I melt into my mattress and the springs close
over my head."
This sort of manipulation of free-space is more than playful; it is purposeful movement, a type of alphabetic symbiosis. It maximizes the moments in between the language, which is the power of silence.
A graceful synthesis of sight and sound continues throughout the "Midnight Scenes." The narrative transforms into an erotic dreamscape. The speaker holds her sleeping lover's hand in hers, swallowing his fingers like "ten long pills / no water to flood / them down" her throat. The image is clear yet confusing; warped, yet imaginable. During the journey in between lines, a sense that readers need not take the actions described too literally develops. Space functions like the darkness; it shares secrets to those who look hard enough.
The poem fluctuates between moments of ethereal grandeur ("aurora borealis smears the Missouri sky") to the blatantly corporeal; the ending scene includes the speaker "grappling a hook" into a toilet bowl perched "12 feet above the floor." Its last two sentences are the shortest, most concise of the poem. The speaker, after struggling to set herself free and let go of those metaphoric ghosts, "yanks [her] tibia free." Right after that, "it ignites."
The "The Antlered Woman Responds", the title poem of Russell's 2014 collection, confronts similar issues of identity. In the poem, Russell further demonstrates her finesse in maneuvering between Whitmanesque language and the grotesque, from panoramic to up-close. Moving again from the large to the minute, the poem begins with the speaker's declaration that on "misty-gray, not-dark, not-light days" she will feel "bone sprout" from her "temples."
A few things become clear while reading the poem: 1. The speaker knows what she should do (like keeping her "eyes on the ground"). 2. The speaker won't listen to her own advice. And 3. The speaker of the Antler-Woman series asserts herself through her mysteriousness. Like a deer caught in traffic, the language is capable of stunning readers. Russell writes:
"I am the respiration of the grass
and my animal alphabet
fails on a regular basis."
Unafraid of leaping from the previous image of "the trench coat" to describing the breath of grass, reading Ki Russell guarantees in reader's delight through elements of linguistic and imagistic surprise. At the end of the poem, readers are told the speaker is "a glittering, gathering mass, / an antlered woman dodging traffic." Flight, fight, or fright? Reader more of Russell, then decide.
Recently, Russell has stretched the boundaries of her creativity even further by mixing prose and poetry in her hybrid novel The Wolf at the Door. In the book the protagonist, Lana, a figure resembling Little Red Riding Hood, undergoes a journey of self-discovery through cross-cultural mythological connections.
Ki Russell teaches writing, literature, and creative writing at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Oregon, where she resides with her husband and children. Her full-length poetry collection Antler Woman Responds was released in June 2014 by Paladin Contemporaries, and in 2011, Medulla Publishing released her chapbook, How to Become Baba Yaga. Ki co-edits poetry for Phantom Drift and serves as a peer reviewer for Whale Road Review. She holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Ki researches fairy tales and then butchers them for her own purposes. She steals time from grading to wrestle with words, converse with the cat, dance with the dog, and paint.
I have the power to bring the dead back to life, the power to distort facts and transcend time; I have the power to make you smile wide, and, within a matter of moments, make your entire body feel like it's about to burst out and cry.
What am I?
Alexis Rhone Fancher's latest chapbook State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies, surrounds the death of her only son, Joshua, who died at the age of 26 after battling a rare and always terminal form of cancer. The chapbook is eight years in the making, an opus of grief, art, and healing. Eight years, twelve poems. And though they may have taken their time to be written, they take mere seconds to penetrate the reader's psyche. Each poem is a sucker-punch to the stomach. At moments taut and clear, at other times a labyrinth of suffering, "State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies" is more than an example of the ways art purges us from pain, it is an indispensable, intimate lesson on mourning.
Memory. I am memory. The "splinter-sized dagger that jabs" at the heart, as Fancher describes it in "Over It."
It is almost impossible to summarize "Over It"; Fancher locks years into a few moments. Structurally, the poem's catalyst reveals itself directly in the middle of the free-verse poem, which lacks stanzas but unravels itself enjambment by enjambment in twenty-four lines. "Two weeks after he died," she writes, "a friend asked if I was "over it." / As if my son's death was something to get / through, like the flu."
But before readers know why or what the poem is about, before we reach the middle, center, core of "Over it", the speaker offers a confession. These days she has "liked the pain, the dig of remembering." It is a truth to which we can all relate. For some, it is the glimpse of a life well lived that makes the reverie of the deceased bittersweet. For the speaker in "Over It", it is the "jab jab jab that reminds" her she is still alive. Pain stimulates like that. And intangible as it may be, memory is the edifice for pain.
The memory of Josh's spirit emanates through "Over It", and a glimpse of the poet's boy develops from the description of the "hip-hop beat of his defunct heart" to the mother's helpless and hopelessness without him. She asks "Now what am I /
supposed to do? I am dis- / inclined toward rehab." The line breaks here are some of the more notable throughout the poem, so I'll isolate them further:
"Now what am I
supposed to do? I am dis-"
The absence of her son is the absence of herself, her sine qua non, and without him the speaker reveals (though perhaps not purposefully) that she is in Hell, living a nightmare. Just as the enjambment between "I" and "supposed" causes readers to pause further on the disassociation of who the speaker is/is meant to be, the forced breath added by the dash between "dis" and "inclined" makes readers focus further on "dis", a word whose etymology traces back to the Roman god for the Underworld, Dis, which some readers may recognize from Dante's "City of Dis." "I am dis-", the poet writes, hailing herself as the keeper of the Dead. Maybe this interpretation is too close, too layered for the poet's own intentions. The poem's unlayered final moments speak the loudest. Honest. Harsh. A table turned scenario readers root for. Fancher writes:
"You know what I want?
I want to ask my friend how her only daughter
is doing. And for one moment, I want her to tell me she's
dead so I can ask my friend if she's over it yet.
I really want to know."
Fancher's work is relatively informal, but a sense of sprezzatura, or a graceful carelessness, defines it more accurately, for me, than "free-verse" or "nontraditional." Throughout State of Grace, Fancher has written clear-eyed scenes of suffering, especially in "Death Warrant", which follows the speaker as she arrives at the courthouse to explain her son's ticket which "was about to go warrant." She describes how she
"...explained to the judge
that he was in the hospital, dying.
Someone in the courtroom gasped.
Someone grabbed my hand."
"Death Warrant" reveals the red-tape of the law, the ineptitude of those distanced from treating human beings as human beings – "good", the judge responds, when she finds out the speaker's son is in the hospital – it is a shorter poem of three, concise stanzas that each embody their own scene.
The trajectory of Fancher's work does not live in the past. The opposite is true: she is ever-present. She has described art "as her only job" – she is a prominent Los Angeles photographer, she has even photographed over seventy LA poets. In fact, if you live in Los Angeles, you've heard of Alexis Rhone Fancher, and not only that, you've read her work and admired her shots. Her first collection of poetry, How I Lost My Virginity To Michael Cohen and other heart stab poems (Sybaritic Press, 2014), is erotic, aesthetically and conceptually arousing, an entirely different experience from State of Grace. It just goes to prove Fancher is capable of anything.
Alexis Rhone Fancher's poetry has been published in Rattle, The MacGuffin, Slipstream, Fjords, H_NGM_N, great weather for MEDIA, Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles, Chiron Review, Quaint Magazine, HOBART, Menacing Hedge,and elsewhere. Since 2013 she's been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and four Best of The Net awards. Alexis is poetry editor of Cultural Weekly, where she also publishes "The Poet's Eye," a monthly photo essay about her ongoing love affair with Los Angeles.