review: AN ARRANGEMENT OF SKIN by anna journey

Sometimes being a poet means something inside you snaps, but not like a balloon too close to the ceiling. It bends and begs and burrows, and you, flailing like a sad firefly, break all the things you’re not supposed to break, trying to find it. You start with the things that keep you sane, and move outward, until the most feral version of yourself is alone on the phone with a stranger.

You call a stranger because of the shame, or because other lines have been cut. You’ve cut them, with the breaking. Except the phone call isn’t really about the things you’ve done—it’s not about the recitation. It’s asking someone, anyone, if you can still exist apart from your mistakes. Can you see me? Can you hear me?

For Anna Journey, it starts at the University of Houston, during the last year of her PhD program.

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review: TELL ME HOW IT ENDS by valeria luiselli

This review was originally published at Ploughshares on 3/9/17

Here’s a challenge: tell me a story, without knowing the beginning, middle, or the end. Now, tell it in your second language, or one where the handful of words you know transforms you back into a child. No, let’s say you are a child. Let’s say this conversation will be recorded, and what you say—and how you say it—will determine where you are allowed to live. Let’s say you came alone.

This situation happens every day at the immigration courts in New York City, where novelist and essayist Valeria Luiselli volunteers as an interpreter. In her expanded essay Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, Luiselli outlines the intake form for undocumented minors. The procedure, on paper, is simple: Luiselli presents the questions, the children speak, and Luiselli transcribes their answers in English for the lawyers who will fight to secure their legal status.

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review: IN FULL VELVET by jenny johnson

This review was originally published at Ploughshares on 2/3/17 

The trope with invoking the muses is that it is always a request. Whether it is pleading or demanding, pedantic or indignant, the epic tale is something owed. For her debut collection In Full Velvet, poet Jenny Johnson’s address begins with “Thank you,” and it is radical, as if a muse might peer over the edge of her throne and say, “My, those are words I have not heard for some time.”

“Dappled Things” spans eight pages, each with two stanzas. In a meditation too specific to be anything but genuine, Johnson names gratitude for everything that is “still somehow / counter, original, spare, and strange,” like “the alien markings on my girlfriend’s cheek and how / they form a perfect triangle.” She comments on the weirdness of “[generating] a realm / where we can always see, never see” and the optimism that remains relentless despite all: “Where’s Hope? Hope’s a weed, obscene / on my head, springing white hairs.”

When Johnson does ask for something, it is from herself, rather than the universe. With “Summoning the Body That Is Mine When I Shut My Eyes,” she employs the oddities of nature to remind her that she is here now, sentient and present:

Come belted kingfisher flapping
Come lavender asters wheeling
Come loose, a sapling lengthening
Come honeysuckle Come glistening

Each image has a sense tied to it, perhaps with the hope that conjuring these things can remind what a privilege it is to witness them.

The title poem, as the cover implies, explores the vascular skin that grows on deer antlers during their development. Here, again, is a fascination with the body: “Gut a body and we’re nothing left but pipes whistling in the breeze.” Johnson describes watching a scientist severing the wing of a cassowary (“Because it made me want to turn away”) and quotes a taxidermist giving instructions about deer:

Now we’re going to put a puncture in the tip.
So, we’re not just hitting the one vein.

That’s what we want to see.

It is gruesome but Johnson is reaching for something, trying to understand the oddity of being alive. “Love, we are more than utility, I think,” she writes, and it is both a declaration and a question. “I know my body’s here,” she writes, “when the turkey vulture comes out of the thicket, wings spread wide, smelling all of it.”

However, it would be wrong to categorize this book as a collection of “nature poems,” as it were. “The Bus Ride” is Johnson’s joy of looking at her girlfriend as the light comes through the window, making her glow. “In The Dream” is the transcription of a nightmare that begins with her “alone in a dyke bar.”

In “Souvenirs,” the last stanza is about an ex-girlfriend calling years after a bad breakup. Now living a thousand miles apart, the ex-girlfriend asks Johnson’s permission to build a model of her new home. The ex-girlfriend is a sculptor and wants to use sugar cubes but does not know the measurements. Johnson does the work with grace:

I cannot explain my consent
that evening, alone, at home,
the yellow tape unspooling, I measured closet widths,
calculated the feet between hedges—
I wanted her to craft it perfectly to scale.

If In Full Velvet is a map of Johnson’s mind and memory, it is one worth saving. Johnson is precise with herself, patient with others. These poems celebrate the feeling of spinning in tight circles until all that is left the spiral, rushing from the inside out.

review: UMAMI by laia jufresa (translation: sophie hughes)

This review was originally published at The Rumpus on 9/8/16

Dr. Noelia Vargas Vargas, MD explains it like this: “There are two basic human conditions, being a child and being a procreator.” Inhabiting both conditions, see, makes you two people—a daughter and a mother. Dr. Vargas Vargas chose, for much of her life, to be “only” a daughter—an eternal offspringhood, as she liked to tell her husband Dr. Alfonso Semitiel, PhD.

It is 2002, and if Dr. Semitiel’s life were a photograph, its caption might be “Sabbatical as Grief: To Be a Widow Is To…”

It is 2003, and Marina Mendoza starts going to therapy to learn how to get angry. She takes her medication, smokes her cigarettes, and makes names for colors that don’t have names: blacktrick for electric black, scink for “the pale pink after you pull off a scab,” briefoamite for “the ephemeral white of sea foam.”

As translated by the great Sophie Hughes, Mexican author Laia Jufresa’s debut novel Umami is a kalaeidoscope. In four parts, five characters tell the story of the last four years within their hovel of Mexico City, the Belldrop Mews. The millennium arrives and leaves trauma in its wake: Pina’s mother leaves, six-year-old Luz drowns on a family vacation, and Dr. Vargas Vargas, famed cardiologist, dies from pancreatic cancer.

But Umami is not a dystopian treatise or hipster metafiction. It is not one of those books about a group of people who come together and decide that life is good because they laughed at the same joke at some picnic. The Belldrop Mews folk—though they see each other every day, though they share their separate grief—are not a family. They are fragments of four separate families struggling through their own fog.

The book starts with Ana in 2004. She is twelve and has negotiated her way into staying at home in Mexico for the summer. Per an agreement with her parents, she will plow, plant, and tend the yard—the goal is to build a traditional milpa—while her brothers are in Michigan at “camp.” Camp, here, is not kids in cots getting eaten to death by mosquitoes, but more “just a coded way of saying that my siblings and I spend two months with [Mom’s] stepmother, Grandma Emma, swimming among the weeds and feeding pebbles to the ducks in the lake by her house.”

It is three years since Luz’s death, and Ana’s mother Linda Walker still won’t leave the house. “She gets worse in the summertime,” Ana writes. “Like a dirty river carrying trash, the summer drags the anniversary of my sister’s death to our door. She was the youngest.” Luz, in her own chapters, is the little one who speaks with honesty, her voice rough like a dog tongue: “They all start talking weird when we come to the lake. And that’s why I’m not going to speak English. I’m never ever going to speak English.”

The book contains two mysteries. One, it seems, is for Jufresa’s audience: What are The Girls, mentioned in Dr. Semitiel’s chapters (and in one of Ana’s)? The other is for Jufresa’s characters: Why did Luz drown if she knew how to swim? English is a constant source of tension. Marina wants to learn and takes lessons from Walker for a brief time. Ana judges her parents on whether or not they can hide their accents when they speak their spouse’s mother tongue.

“English takes the edge off things, makes them feel less serious, a bit like scribbling mustaches on photos,” Marina thinks. She is distraught when her favorite bands are “changed from abstract poetry to random nouns.” To her, “translation simplifies, it schematizes: something that seemed potentially profound falls from grace and lands on its head, turning out to be nothing but a doodle.” As for the people who speak English? “Bilingualism confirms what she’s always suspected,” Jufresa writes. “If gringos were drawings, they’d be drawn with markers.” In other words, they are childish, not lasting, meant to be outgrown.

In a novel that is so wholly Mexican, in philosophy and setting, it is both comforting and disconcerting when totally American art appears. Marina’s favorite bands include Smashing Pumpkins, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Cranberries; Dr. Semitiel names his laptop after Nina Simone; Pina’s mother Chela plays Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” during the last family car ride Pina can remember.

Grief, though, is neither defined by culture nor constrained by time. Yes, Jufresa could have written Umami the “normal” way—a single perspective in chronological order with first person the whole way through—instead of this backwards telescope, alternating voices and switching perspectives between first and close third. That version of Umami would be a dark, bitter thing, like molasses in the coffee grounds. Instead, Jufresa and Hughes offer a version that is complex without weight, a saffron purée. Dynamic and delicate, Umami draws our attention without pretense.

review: THE OTHER ONE by hasanthika sirisena

This review was originally published at Heavy Feather Review on 8.20.16

Some wounds never heal. In her debut collection The Other One, all of Hasanthika Sirisena’s characters find themselves in situations where they have lost something that cannot be replaced, whether it is a sense of safety, a family member, or their own mind. Set in Sri Lanka and America, Sirisena uses the decades that the country spent in civil war as a prism (though we are fractured, we remain) rather than a blackout (war takes hold of everything).

The balance is a delicate one—how to speak about war, have a collection centered on war, that does not become repetitive? A mercy that Sirisena offers readers is that her stories do not take a moral stance. A mercy that Sirisena offers her characters is that, save for one scene in the first story, the war happens mostly off-screen.

True, there are some middle-class characters, but the majority of Sirisena’s figures are more like Anura in the first story “Third Country National,” a maintenance worker at an airbase. Anura, a drifter who can speak little English, is among a group of thirteen, with colleagues from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Nigeria, India, and Bangladesh. The base itself is in Kuwait, but “the average Kuwaiti was too wealthy to work [there].” To say it plain, Sirisena aims her focus on the characters that in movies function as “the extras.”

Perhaps to maintain a panoramic view, Sirisena pens most of her stories in the third person. However, her first story where she allows us to enter the mind of young teen Sonali emerges like a buck from the wood, enchanting and singular. Sonali is Sinhalese, the eponymous Chief Inspector’s daughter. Her boyfriend Siva is a Tamil. Both of them are medical students at the University of Colombo.

Of course, there is tension and not a small amount of angst—“Since that night, Siva’s behavior toward me has changed, and I know what he thinks: I am Sinhalese and I cannot completely be trusted”—but Sonali’s desire to understand the chaos around her offers insight to readers who may not know the particulars of Sri Lanka’s history. To Sonali, the war is still abstract, malleable, even though “twenty years of civil war makes us jump at our own shadows” and “everyone has stories like Siva’s.” Readers can crawl along with her as she tries to see her father as a person beyond her daddy: “I have never spent any time, until now, wondering what my father is capable of.”

“Treble Seven, Double Naught,” the last story in the collection, is the shortest but seems to come with this warning: “Never forget where you came from.” Chamika leaves for the states to escape the war and finish school and never comes back. Instead, she lives alone in America—sometimes dating women, sometimes not. She has not spoken to her aunt’s niece Amanthi for twelve years. When she gets a mysterious message from her estranged aunt claiming Amanthi needs to borrow a large amount of money, Chamika does everything she can to find her.

After too many rounds of international phone tag, Chamika goes to Vermont herself, showing up at Amanthi’s doorstep. Her husband is there, makes an excuse, attempts to turn Chamika away. Chamika insists that her family is worried. Christos is cool in his response: “That’s surprising, because her family hasn’t cared enough to call for a long time now.” Then, “When was the last time we saw you?”

When Christos calls Amanthi, he does not give Chamika the number. Instead, he hands her the phone. Amanthi asks if it is a trick. “It’s me, Chamika-akki,” Chamika says. Into the silence, she says, “I’m sorry, nangi, I waited too long to call.” Does Amanthi forgive her? Does a family ever understand when one of their own goes across the world and never returns? Is it true, as Chamika insists, to remain Sri Lankan apart from Sri Lanka?

“It was far easier to be Sri Lankan in America that it had ever been in Sri Lanka,” Sirisena writes. “There you were bound by far too many social obligations; you were always doing things for people.” In America, she could shape her Sri Lankan identity as she chose: “She maintained her freedom while also praising the culture and tradition and telling stories about how wonderful her childhood was.” Because, as Chamika says, “nobody knew about Sri Lanka to contradict her or cared enough to grill her.”

With The Other One, Sirisena explores the stories of Sri Lankans who leave and those who stay. As she does with the Sri Lanka’s history, Sirisena does not choose sides. Rather, she offers us characters at crossroads, causing us to question what it means to deem somewhere home.

review: A BESTIARY by lily hoang

This review was originally published at Ploughshares on 6.24.2016

 

Not all rat mazes have corridors. For the Morris water navigation task, it is as it reads: a rat must learn to fare in water. It is placed inside a pool and must swim to the other side. Once the rat learns its path, the scientist adds a solution to the water, causing it to become opaque. The hypothesis is that the rat will be confused. However, “despite changes to the environment, rats swim right to the platform.”

Lily Hoang is a first generation Vietnamese-American. A Bestiary, her debut collection of essays, is not about rat experiments, though they appear in some cases (as the above garnered from “On The Rat Race”). In meditations comparable to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Hoang both approaches and avoids her sister’s death (drug overdose), her failed marriage (white man she calls Chris), and a destructive on-again, off-again relationship (white man she calls Harold).

She has made attempts, like the rat, to find her way back home, but the paths didn’t lead the way they promised. “I had wanted to be a good wife, and for the most part, I was,” she writes, “but the fact that my marriage was a catastrophe doesn’t change.” As for Harold, he is a stubby lighthouse with broken lamps and both of them know it, but she remains. In “On Scale,” she does the math: “The weight of my love measured against the weight of my life without him measured against his betrayal and all the terrible things he’s told me over the years. In the end, no matter my options, I know I will choose Harold.”

Suffering, she tell us, is a virtue in Vietnamese culture. It is right and true and noble, a thing required of all women. Hoang points at jade bracelets, describes how when she was young “my mother would cuddle me closely when I was sick. She would say, ‘Shhh, shhh,’ and tell me that she wanted me to give her all of my sickness, so that she would be sick and I wouldn’t.” This inherited anguish—the pain and pleasure it inspires—seems to be a birthright, one that clashes with Hoang’s ideology as a feminist.

In “On Catastrophe,” she introduces us to Other Lily: “She would succeed in all the ways I have failed. She would not be a professor. She would not be divorced. She would be a good daughter.” Other Lily is a medical doctor, does not have “bad skin” or “a head full of white hair” or “do something as shameful as smoke cigarettes.” Other Lily “saves two lives and loses none”; Other Lily “is in love. And all her loyalty and love is reciprocated, an equal distribution of desire and faith.” Other Lily is perfect, the embodiment of our “better” self, the one we have always been told we should strive to become.

Actual Lily is feral and flighty, ferocious in her inner life. However, she also writes, and not without effort, “Face the facts: there is no Other Lily, and I’m pretty satisfied with my life.” Here, she stresses an essential point: she is not an either/or but a both/and. Winding, whimsical, and wild, A Bestiary tackles race, womanhood, and memory with a precision that pinches right at the veins.

review: A BESTIARY by lily hoang

This review was originally published at Heavy Feather Review on 5.25.16

When it comes to writing, Asian women in America are given two choices. The first, of course, is the one where her exoticism oozes from her skin like bark slathered in sap, where she is delicate like dishes that only see food during holidays. She is an Asian woman with Asian parents who adore her and they have made a life possible only through this bootstrap-raising that the Puritans wrote about in their diaries. The second—also damning—is the one where she is angry, wild. In this narrative, her lack of decency begets what she deserves: no marriage, no children, no medals.

Lily Hoang knows these expectations when she pens the essays that comprise A Bestiary. To introduce the collection, she writes, “Once upon a time—shh, shh—this is only a fairy tale.” In the first essay, “On the Rat Race,” the princess appears, and it is not her. It is Hoang’s dead sister, who is never named, not once—in this essay, or any of the others. Instead, Hoang writes:

My sister died nearly three years ago.

I have stopped asking why before once upon a time began.

I have renamed her my dead sister.

If there is love beneath this pragmatism, confusion, and frustration, it is affection Hoang keeps close. For us, she displays her dead sister’s troubles—ones, it seems, her parents have difficulty recognizing. Later in the essay, the mother praises Hoang’s dead sister for using the meat carver on Christmas and Thanksgiving. “She’s the only one who’s ever used it,” Hoang reports her mother saying, “She was so talented!”

However, it is a mere meat cleaver, and Hoang’s sister was only in San Antonio for a few years, had only borrowed said cleaver a few times, before she died. Hoang also adds no adornment to her sister’s addiction: “Towards the end, my dead sister stopped discriminating: any opiate would do, anything to subside her pain.” Here, Hoang recognizes that her sister’s hurt could not be contained—not by drugs, not by her, nor the lover and two sons she left behind. The night before she finds “my dead sister seizing on her bedroom floor, before she went and died,” Hoang describes how she “heard her crawling along the carpet,” opening bags and zippers. This whole time, “I didn’t open my eyes.”

Pretend, make-believe, fantasy—shh, shh—is a theme throughout. “On Scale,” the final essay in the collection, is especially brutal, a litany of cruelties inflicted by Hoang’s ex-husband Chris, her lover Harold, and how she always stayed. “The weight of my love measured against the weight of my life without him measured against his betrayal and the terrible things he’s told me over the years,” Hoang writes. “In the end, no matter my options, I know I will choose Harold.” In other words, it’s not that she doesn’t know. She knows. She just can’t escape it. “My selflessness is a flaw I inherited from my mother,” she writes. “I suffer very well; my altruism can leave bruises.”

Some essays read as vignettes or parables while others dare even the most free-form lyric essays. “On the Geography of Friendship” with its movements (i.e., “Fugue” and “Allegro Non Troppo”) unfolds like a suite; “On Measurement” is an ode to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” Main characters—her dead sister, ex-husband Chris, lover Harold, and close friend Dorothy—appear often, in the way the same actors play all of Wes Anderson’s characters in his films.

With A Bestiary, Hoang takes the illusion of the Asian woman we all recognize—meticulous, string player, passive—and skewers her, without pity. In this fairy tale, Hoang is a “bad feminist” and her sister is the Sleeping Beauty. Vibrating with energy but never maudlin, Hoang repels, and dazzles—an amazing debut.