review: STOMACHS by luna miguel (tr. luis silva)

This review was originally published at Ploughshares on 7.14.17

Let’s romanticize purple. Let’s use it when something is so maudlin that it becomes gaudy, to describe a thing that contains copious amounts of weltschmerz. Let’s have this consensus: purple is not the way you (should) want your work to be described. But there are times for sadness and severity and all things bleak, and what do we do then?

Luna Miguel might not have solutions but Stomachs reminds us that melancholy is not always destructive. Translated from the Spanish by Luis Silva and published by Sacramento indie Scrambler Books, Stomachs is Miguel’s first poetry collection available in English. While some covers mean to obfuscate, the design here is blunt—even belligerent, gnarly and grotesque. In a reproduction reminiscent of old-fashioned film, the same image is produced over and over: a naked woman splitting herself open at the abdomen, blood stains trekking toward her navel. It announces that this collection is not for readers seeking cute haikus about cats, or the heartbreak that would rather focus on coffee mugs left in kitchen sinks. This is the ugly kind.

full review here

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.

full review here

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: YEAR OF THE GOOSE by carly j. hallman

This review was originally published at Ploughshares on 3.11.16

Many children grow up reading Aesop’s fables. With cute animals illustrating life lessons in short, minute-long stories, what’s not to love?

Slow and steady wins the race.

Please all, and you will please none.

Better no rule than cruel rule.

In her debut novel Year of the Goose, Carly J. Hallman investigates whether or not unbelievable amounts of money can, in fact, buy happiness. (No. The answer is no. And here’s the other thing: in this story, the goose is evil.)

Set in a stylized version of China, Goose follows a series of rants and confessions from a rainbow of outrageous characters: the heiress to Bashful Goose Snack Company, China’s most successful corporation; China’s most innovative organic hair farmer, now in hiding; the soul of a monk now inhabiting the body of a turtle; a prized hair model, who has recently decided to leave the industry and pursue something—anything—else. Each story is more earnest and strange than the last.

Take Kelly Hui, for example: twenty-four, only offspring of Papa Hui, founder of Bashful Goose Snack Company and China’s richest man. With an Hermès bag in one hand and a degree from USC in the other, she is sick with the type of ennui that only plagues the ridiculously wealthy. To prove to her father that she is fit to continue the family legacy, she asks him to sign the check to sponsor a government-sanctioned Fat Camp, which she aims to run. What better way for Bashful Goose to appease the public than to sponsor this altruistic activity?

Alas, things unravel in ways she did not anticipate:

Yes, if any one of these campers had looked up, her or she would have watched in horror as Kelly and Zhao successfully stuffed [Camper] Nine away in the storage closet, and then returned to the boys’ dormitory building, where they emerged mere minute later dragging the corpse of another of their fellow campers, Camper Fourteen, and then rolling him too across the courtyard where his body would meet the same fate….”

How many of the campers die? The first death is a genuine accident: Camper Fourteen slips in the shower. “He lay there for many minutes,” Hallman writes, “and in one of those many minutes, his ghost left his body.” Camper Fourteen’s bunk-mate Camper Nine is the one who finds him. He screams until Kelly and her camp partner Zhao arrive, until they make him stop:

Camper Nine shut his mouth and then opened it again, releasing the beginning of what would’ve surely been another long scream had Zhao not tackled him to the ground, pulled a small club from his pocket, and whacked him in the head.

No, Year of the Goose is not for hearts with paper armor but neither is it an ode to violence, or a skewering of China. Rather, it is a critique of decadence in all its forms. In one section, an official in Macau can comprehend nothing but the feast in his presence, not even his Rolex or his Armani suit:

No, he thought of food, just food, of the platters of sashimi before him, of these elegantly-displayed, beautifully cut pieces of raw fish, of the drool that pooled around his gums.

All of it is there—naan, hair crab, dim sum, “platters and plates and pots and spreads as far as the eye could see.”

Loud and lush and laugh-out-loud funny, Hallman does well leading the circus of her own making. Year of the Goose is an addictive, delightfully dark novel.