Recommendations from our Editors:
DAN BEACHY-QUICK on Mercury, by Ariana Reines
DANA LEVIN on Meme, by Susan Wheeler
CAITLIN HORROCKS on Ayiti, by Roxane Gay
Mercury, by Ariana Reines. Fence Books, 237 pp., $12.
Ariana Reine's Mercury reflects your own face back to you before you open it up. Its mirror-surface cover not only parallels the quicksilver substance of its name, but also likens opening the book to—impossible as it may be—walking into a museum to find that one of Jeff Koons's giant, ultra-polished bunnies contains on its back an invisible latch, and within the rabbit are poems. You could step inside and read. Those poems might be like these poems, evocative in every way of their namesake: trickster god of lyric poetry, alchemical mystical principle, nineteenth-century cure for venereal disease, thermometer's measure, messenger and gambler, childhood plaything that poisons the child who cannot help but touch it. I cannot say that I love this book, even that wholly I like it—but I also suspect it is in its way remarkably uninterested in my approval. Part of its hermetic nature is exactly its involvement with itself, within itself, veering from the pornographic that seeks the obscene as a measure of poetry's external reach, to the cryptic ciphers that trust that sexuality is also a transformative principle embedded deep within the very secret of signs and those who speak them. Mercury is a book untamed, untamable, compulsively readable and often repellant, and to finish it is to find yourself staring back into your eyes, the book just a mirror in your hands.
Meme, by Susan Wheeler. University of Iowa Press, 96 pp., $18.
One of the most thrilling and inventive books of poetry I've read all year, Susan Wheeler's Meme is a tour de force of speakers and speaking. From the idiomatic mesmerations of "The Maud Poems" to the discordant hurdy-gurdy songs of "The Split," this three-part collection, Wheeler's sixth, is a formally restless work exploring the emotional inadequacies of elegy and lament, our poetic "memes" for grief and loss.
The book's first section, "The Maud Poems," introduces Maud (Wheeler's mother, the back of the book tells us), a woman who can wield the vernacular with barbed gusto:Who rattled your cage? No, I do not have a Q-tip up here. Go ask your father. Wait—you're going downstairs like that over my dead body.
Wheeler practices elegy as possession. As this section drives on, we are in thrall to a vigorously disappointed spirit to whom people are either idiots or a means to an end. In the course of twenty-odd poems we are asked to move over ("the light was in my eye"), pick up something from the floor, take the broccoli out of the freezer, and check the ham. Maud demands, "get me another ice cube while you're up" and "Honey, will you hand me my lighter?" Maud is an irascible critic, a maker of colorful threats and demands. She feels wholly alive in Wheeler's hands.
Each Maud poem features a core of lyric interiority voiced in a completely different register. I read these poems as the interior meditations and perceptions of one often on the receiving end of Maud's vim and venom, the medium of her presence on the page. The juxtaposition of Maud's voice and the voice of the poet creates a conversation of cross-purpose: they talk past and at each other; often the lyric moments seem private thoughts beyond Maud's ken:Mind your own beeswax or you'll be tarred and feathered right here and now. Ray, the dog's got something in her mouth. While you're up, would you check the ham?
You and the beast's belly, its short sleek fur, its odor of a world beyond the curb. The tail rises, the fur fans out—
No, just see what the temperature is up to. Oh, I'll do it.
That's what I was afraid of. Dan, she skunked me.
After the virtuosic performance of "The Maud Poems," you'd think a softer interlude might be in order, a palate cleanser after Maud's acidic feast. Wheeler opens the second section of the book this way: "In the intimate turn, the beloved's breath, she's suddenly there. Whore." Shock and thrill! "The Devil-or-The Introjects" brings the ill spirit of "The Maud Poems" to full froth. I'm not sure if the "she" of this section is "Grammy," Grammy and Maud, the Devil, or what, but no matter. I've rarely encountered such dread and malevolence on the page. The "she" of these poems would scare the sass out of Lady Lazarus.
With "The Split," Meme's third and last section, Wheeler presents a Threepenny Opera of love and loss, where "the beloved sturms to his drang" in a cabaret of limericks, rhymed quatrains, ballad refrains and other traditional forms. Coupled with more contemporary maneuvers—the strike-through, the Q&A, the self-interview-and time-honored approaches such as pun, anaphora and list, "The Split" coalesces into a formalistic vaudeville of love's slings-'n'-arrows, the grotesque performance of an agonized heart:I picked up a gal in a bar.She said she'd ignore my cigar.But when I was doneRelieving my gunShe said I was not up to par.
. . .
He drove me (nuts crazy bats)—with his medicines, his cleaning jags, his thin-band watch loose on his wrist,his calls to his "work-friend" Peg.
I hated him like I hated lice. Absurd, in other words: regret.
You can feel a terribly wounded sensibility inside "The Split," utterly caricatured and utterly heartbroken, a sad clown applying the memes of poetic expression as make-up. For is not a meme (a "unit of thought replicated by imitation") a kind of camouflage and habitation? A way for us to hide, cloak, misdirect, a way to speak when the true words cannot be spoken? Maud's generous employment of catch-phrase and idiomatic "sayin'" initially signifies a homey and harmless presence, but soon enough there's no mistaking the meanness and self-satisfaction thrumming under the gab. Maud's biliousness is a felt fact, hidden by speech. Thus it can remain unacknowledged by Maud and everyone in her funny, bitter, scary, know-it-all orbit. For the sensibility behind "The Split," the memes of poetic expression seem the only way to both "say what happened" and not crack-up entirely on the page. For this reader, the tension between the compulsion to speak and the felt inadequacy of available forms "to speak it true" drive the engine of Meme. It's an exhilarating ride.
Ayiti, by Roxane Gay. Artistically Declined Press, 126 pp., $9.
Like many readers, I first encountered writer Roxane Gay via her nonfiction: her astute blog posts at HTMLGiant; her honest, hilarious blog, i have become accustomed to rejection; or her essays on The Rumpus ("What We Hunger For" is a must-read). This Renaissance woman recaps The Bachelorette for the Wall Street Journal and edits the literary magazine PANK. Gay is miraculously good at reaching through the anonymity of the Internet and creating a sense of herself as a real person: a palpable, funny, wise one, who is worth reading on a seemingly infinite variety of subjects.
In the story collection Ayiti, her subject is Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. The collection roams between flash fiction and longer stories, between experimental shapes and traditional narrative, between humor and deadly, heart-rending seriousness, and between highly specific character dilemmas and larger strokes of social and economic injustice. The book is "about" Haiti, but it is also about love, dignity, identity, and the cost of survival. It does what all good short fiction collections do, bringing readers into other lives at points of pain or triumph or indecision.
Like Lucien, who has fled Haiti for Miami, who spends nights wandering the aisles of the local "cool and bright and white and clean" 7-11 store. Or the narrator of "Things I Know About Fairy Tales," an abduction survivor who tries to extract meaningful lessons from the promises of childhood princesses. Even when, as in a story like "The Harder They Come," the two main characters are a "we" chorus of Haitian women, talking about "the Americans," the language is gleefully specific and observant: "They ask us to take their pictures and they point their cameras at us so when they return home, they can have their friends over for wine to show off all the dangerous places they have been."
As a reader, I often find myself admiring flash fiction, but wishing that the story continued past the punch of its ending, into the repercussions. Gay's collection contains many flash stories capable of converting skeptics like me, where the frame is small but perfectly chosen: one devastating story, told in the form of an expenses ledger, made me, in the words of another reviewer on Amazon, "want to curl up and eat my own heart." There are many characters in Ayiti willing to eat their own hearts to survive, or to extract those hearts and try to decode the changes, to understand what their own perseverance has wrought in them. Gay depicts every heart with power and compassion.