The Singing Rituals: Four Books by West Branch Contributors
The Glimmering Room, by Cynthia Cruz, Four Way Books, 92 pp., $15.95.
The Tribute Horse, by Brandon Som, Nightboat Books, 104 pp., $15.95.
Spitshine, by Anne Marie Rooney, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 80 pp., $15.95.
Ain’t No Grave, by T. J. Jarrett, New Issues, 91 pp., $15.
because I prayed
Ritual enacts myth. Ritual exalts us from the profane to the sacred. We hold our collective and personal rituals close. We wash our hands over and over and over. The ritual of language (“because I prayed / this word”) creates our need for something to happen (or keeps something from happening). Yet Frits Staal, in Ritual and Mantras: Rules Without Meaning, argues that rituals are essentially meaningless. For Staal, rituals are pure activity; they are movements and words simply happening, without end. Yet even if we take Staal’s argument as true, does that stop us from wanting? What can we gain through ritual, particularly the ritual of language? Cynthia Cruz, Brandon Som, Anne Marie Rooney, and TJ Jarrett participate in the ritual of language despite the potential for meaninglessness. These four collections derive strength from breakage and silence—from that which we’d rather not look at. Language—down to the word level—becomes the ritual through which they attend to this breakage. The act of writing becomes a ritual in itself, erasing silence. These poems sing of a world imbued with repetition, obsession, and history, and they trust in forces both within and outside the self.
The cover of Cynthia Cruz’s The Glimmering Room features Elizabeth Huey’s painting “The Cyclothymic Forest” (2005) in which two young girls in red stand upon black rocks in a forest. Wearing masks, they look out into the forest around them without eyes. In an interview with The Wild, Huey speaks about her desire to communicate stories and emotions wordlessly: “I wish mind reading was an accepted and reliable form of communication—less talk, more telepathy.”
Cruz’s The Glimmering Room is as close as we can get to telepathic verse. We touch a word as we would touch someone’s forehead—with purpose. In her second collection, Cruz sings of forgotten voices—the voices of young women, the underworld of childhood, the blurry line between fairytale and reality. Throughout, these narratives swarm, repeat, and accumulate. She brings to light a poetics of grime and dirt, singing of a grotesque world we want to turn away from. Mina Loy in “Aphorisms on Futurism” declares: “LOVE the hideous in order to find the sublime core of it.” There is definitely a love for the hideous here; in this world, the hideous glimmers. Cruz sees the traumatic and ugly world around us as a “kingdom.” This kingdom is imbued with charged language.
In the opening poem, “Kingdom of Dirt,” she writes: “Death, / Disguised inside me, already, // As sleaze. / Grime and her magnificent seed.” Here, death transforms into sleaze, into a sick trick. This disguise recalls Leda the swan—the “grime of her magnificent seed” echoing W.B. Yeats’s “How can these terrified vague fingers push / The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?” Yet, with Cruz, there is something more terrible at hand. Death is already inside, already an intruder.
The poem continues, conjuring this kingdom:
In time or out of time,
Groom of the Underworld, please
Come with me
To the discotheque at the end
Of the world. Piss-
Elegant at the halfway
House for the trashed and gone galore.
Meet me in the love-
Burned orchard ...
I’m struck by the word “Glamorine.” To return to Loy, there’s sublimity in this neologism. Cruz celebrates what she creates: “glamorine” is close to glamorous, to chlorine, to morphine, to “galore” which we read later in the poem. This word feels lacquered, covered in a sick shine. The speaker continues to traverse this underworld, shining in the dirt, “piss-/elegant.” Everything is not what it should be. The orchard is not paradise, not the Garden of Eden. It is “love-burned”—burned by that which should sustain us.
In this underworld, Cruz creates a ritual of loving the hideous. This ritual recalls Sylvia Plath’s question: “What ceremony of words can patch the havoc?” The ceremony that occurs in The Glimmering Room is one of narrative and repetitive imagery. We meet characters such as Toby and Billy throughout. We are met with imagery creating underlying narratives that expand like dinosaur sponge toys. We live in the world of the laundromat, the engines in Fresno, the dirty couch. Indeed, ritual is evident through the repetition of particular poems. There are sixteen poems entitled “Strange Gospels.” Cruz’s epigraph from the Gospel of Thomas reads: “If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.” These poems do just that—bring forth in order to avoid destruction.
In one of her “Strange Gospel” poems, she writes of eleven-year-old girls living in a dangerously adult world. In the “Kingdom of Dirt, “how can one understand love, sex, violence, and power? How can one leave this nightmarish world? Cruz writes:
Oh God of needles, God of
Hand jobs, blow jobs, pearly
I am diseased with this
Recurring dream that is
This prayer is a pleading ritual—a call for a cure from the disease of abuse. Throughout these poems, we come back to the image of burning something down. From “Eleven”: “The traveling minstrel show / Called girlhood— // I burned it / Down to the ground,” and from “The Great Destroyer”: “The commonplace cruelties of imperfection. // This is the story of how I burned it down.” By burning down a nightmarish world, will something kinder arise? This fiery world is alive with agency; indeed, she is telling us how she burned it down. In “Welcome to the Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics,” Lara Glenum writes that the “grotesque engages the body as a biological organism.” In this way, death and life returns to the body and the animal; Cruz’s burning is akin to a forest fire. In “Breaking Glass,” she engages another natural force beyond fire—a hurricane: “That warm slop of honey. / Seeping. No way to stop it / And its gorgeous hurricane of bees.” Here, we can hear that sticky, buzzing wilderness in the “love- / Burned orchard.”
To return to Loy, destruction can create light: “OPEN your arms to the dilapidated; rehabilitate them. YOU prefer to observe the past on which your eyes are already opened. BUT the Future is only dark from outside. Leap into it—and it EXPLODES with Light.” Cruz’s young women leap into a glimmering room, full of light and empty of silence. This explosion of language, ritual, and narrative accumulates into a blinding sun—a sun that simultaneously burns and cleanses. In The Glimmering Room’s last poem, “Gone, Galore,” Cruz takes that leap into the future, hand-in-hand: “Strange sister, // Walk into the white sun / With me.”
2. Mute Knot
Brandon Som’s debut, The Tribute Horse, is the winner of the 2012 Nightboat Poetry Prize. If Cruz’s world is full of a “gorgeous hurricane of bees,” Som’s is full of the ocean, of sound waves carrying across the ritual of lineage. In the preface, editor Kazim Ali writes of Som’s ability to traverse boundaries: “In the poems that follow, Som continues to explore the ways that bodies cross boundaries—the zone between the known and the unknown for one kind, or planet-wide bodies of water like the Pacific Ocean for another.” This exploration and boundary crossing necessitates a brave voice—a voice that understands that the ritual of retrieval destroys silence. And silence must be avoided at all costs.
The Tribute Horse begins with echoes of Angel Island, an immigration detention center operating between 1910 and 1940. Poems written by Chinese immigrants are carved into the walls of Angel Island’s facilities—a permanent record of interrogation, pain, and disillusionment. An anonymous poem from 1911 reads: “Guards and officers: watching me closely, like wolves. / News and letters: not permitted.” Note the focus on “news and letters” being kept out of the immigration center; indeed, without language, how can one feel connected to the world? This state of interrogation and regulation is where The Tribute Horse begins.
In the first poem, “Elegy,” Som sings of his grandfather’s migration: “My grandfather’s grave in scorched grass has two names in the gravestone’s granite: one with strokes—silent and once forbidden; the other lettered—a stowaway vowel between one aspirate, one liquid.” Som uncovers a history in language and sound—“a stowaway vowel.” He continues to meditate on his family name as if chanting it into existence, akin to his grandfather memorizing his “paper-name” into truth. Som writes: “My grandfather, aboard at twelve, practiced a paper-name. What ensued was a debt of sound.” Som’s poems attempt to pay that “debt of sound,” down to the cent: letter, syllable, and character stroke.
“Coaching Papers,” The Tribute Horse’s most notable poem, engages a ritual of naming via sound. During this period, the immigrant Chinese community used “coaching papers” to help new immigrants through the interrogation process. Oftentimes, immigrants memorized the information on the paper during the voyage and threw them overboard before arriving. Som writes of this practice, “haul[ing]” in the papers thrown overboard:
Said, my name was a seine net,
torqued by pitch & drawn closed.
Said aloud, my name swallowed me.
Aloud, my name kept me in its net.
Nights, I hauled the wet nets: names
silent & breathless across my desk.
Nights, I mended trawling-tears.
I took needle & thread to names.
This passage addresses the literal act of speaking as a kind of net. This net is both safe and dangerous (“my name swallowed me”), and has a haunting quality. The speaker repeats this name again and again, almost without sound, through the act of writing: “Silent & breathless across my desk.” Writing is a means to conjure the history behind a name. This ritual of speaking out loud allows for potential change, as if one could gather all the coaching papers into one cohesive whole. In turn, the ocean acts as a loom for lineage: “I took needle & thread to names.” Even the use of the ampersand draws us visually closer. There is awe in the act of threading, as we begin to see the larger history behind each name: “I dove & scissored a broomtail / long as the breath my lungs held, / long as the vow vesseling vowel. / Breath to blood, breath fathomed me.” The lushness of Som’s language rolls off the tongue, as we thread together “vow vesseling vowel” sonically. This kind of speaking—“breath fathomed me”—is seemingly pleasurable, yet also difficult: “long as the breath my lungs held.” There is exasperation here, recalling Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s speaker in DICTEE: “The entire lower lip would lift upwards then sink back to its original place. She would then gather both lips and protrude them in a pout taking in the breath that might utter some thing. (One thing. Just one).” Yet, where Cha’s diseuse or speaker sputters in staccato, Som’s speaker observes the breathlessness of interrogation, which is awash in waves: “Sign here or breach & breathe. // Fiddle slack the mute knot. / I sift spindrift for sound’s wave.” By signing documents, one gives up this freedom of breath and voice.
These waves of sound also point to Som’s playfulness in breaking down the material of language. “A name / is a persona, per son, per song,” he writes, allowing us to make new associations through language. We see lineage (“son”) in song; we see the individual impact (“per”) behind a larger history of immigration. Salman Rushdie, in Imaginary Homelands, writes of memory as “broken pots of antiquity” which can be reconstructed. By threading and breaking the material of language itself, Som seeks to reconstruct pieces of texts to create new experiences—even if the “seams” are visible so to speak. Indeed, his poem “Bows and Resonators” uses numerous sources, including pieces from Angel Island poetry, Wallace Stevens, and more. In choosing these particular sources, Som threads together his history and selfhood, celebrating the fragment as the starting point. As he writes in the book’s last poem: “spinners need spools, dear finch.” And with these spools, he repeatedly “mend[s] trawling-tears” through tribute and song.
3. Feral Fuckery
Akin to Cruz’s “glamorine” and Som’s “mute knot”—words that appear impossibly synesthetic—the title of Anne Marie Rooney’s collection Spitshine asks us to see, taste, and feel the body’s viscera in all its glory. Throughout Spitshine, Rooney changes our use of idioms, playing with our expectations. In this way, her “ritual” is to surprise and redefine our procedures of form and “correct” language. Her opening poem “Domestic” includes lines such as: “I would never water the ankles of anything” and “I would crater the kitchen.” Such torqued language—moving “crater” from noun to verb—demands our imagination. This immediate dismantling of language creates an addictive forward moving energy, despite the obsessive quality of return. There are numerous poems that repeat with the same title, including “Domestic.”
This forward moving energy is particularly hypnotizing in poems such as “Instructions for Wooing Me (Monster That I Am).” In this poem, Rooney gives the reader instructions to create a new ritual to abide by. These instructions recall the grotesque poetics of Cruz, particularly her desire to heal and destroy at the same time: “I balm / and bomb.” Moreover, there is a celebratory voice here—a voice that is uncontainable in its desires. This is a voice that declares with assured sensuality and joyful vice: “I am the chugging gin of the universe” and “In your mind I burn like thirty watts of unstrained honey.” This is a world at its most raw and honest—“unstrained”—state. The rawness extends to the constant conversation between “you” and “I,” with the speaker demanding to be seen. She writes with the clarity of fact: “You are dreaming / of me now.”
Throughout, desire becomes a ritual the speaker abides by. This desire always returns to the self, rather than pointing outward. Anaphora and litany spill over many of these poems, building force. Take for instance this section from “Hasp Pastoral”:
My trick punch. My bum smile. My soddered
and still-sticky. My indexed perennials. My pedals
need oil. My mischief in the kitchen. My android
of desire. My vaulted breast-stuff. My bedtime
lure. My throe in the wrong. My throw me a bone.
Rooney’s lines are often long, as if language can’t help but desire more language. While these poems are located in the domestic spaces of the home, the language is anything but familiar. Freud’s uncanny kicks in from time to time, where the kitchen is made unheimlich —a bit uneasy. Our familiar idea of a kitchen is transformed into an unfamiliar place of mischief and “vaulted breast-stuff.” And in poems like “Grudge Pastoral,” the speaker threatens the “you” with the consequences of not abiding this new, uncanny domesticity: “I will make a feral / fuckery of you.”
As with Som’s sustained engagement in “Coaching Papers,” Rooney’s longer poem, “The No Reward Sestinas,” shines most. Rooney toys with the sestina form, rethinking “singe” as song and returning to words as if turning a Rubik’s cube. This repetition spins us around in a kind of sexy kaleidoscope: “I do it, that come—to” and “Do that to me once more.” Later, the self interrupts the poem, claiming matters of the heart: “the—my—heart” and “a—my—heart.” In Rooney’s notes, we discover that these sestinas were inspired by the diaries of Hannah Cullwick, a Victorian woman who was in a sadomasochistic relationship. Desire seeks out the body and the word outside of so-called “normative” relationships. To recall Sappho: “this word: / I want.”
Yet such desire and celebratory sensuality is not without vulnerability. The lush body is susceptible to breakage; language can’t necessarily make what you want occur. From “Sabbath for a Dry Season,” she writes: “No one is bleeding behind that tree. / No one is writing poems to stop // that make-believe blood.” In other words, these poems seek out the real blood—the blood that runs in the forefront, for all to see. From “Lake Sonnet”:
Though from there the summer breaks
off, it felt sharp and bright through that last hour,
like glass fired to gold before it breaks
against its own heat.
This sharp brightness creates a kiln of beautiful breakage, breaking “against its own heat.” The heart becomes the focus of Spitshine particularly toward the end—a kind of turn inward. In “What My Heart is Turning,” we come back to desire and a demand to be seen, touched, and heard: “this arch in the chapter, this book in the morning, this pitch, this fever, this city’s / on fire), be fearless, touch me and that turning sun.” The absence of punctuation in that last line demands us to draw closer, hands roving for that arch of language.
When I think of ritual, I can’t help but think about ghosts. I grew up celebrating Tomb-Sweeping Day, where my family cleans, feasts, and prays over the graves of our family members. I always wondered: what does such ghost-work accomplish? T. J. Jarrett’s Ain’t No Grave struck me as a book of immense haunting power. Jarrett does what we are often afraid to do: ask questions of the dead. In Ain’t No Grave, the dead rise in a limbo-world. As the title suggests, there is simply no grave for the dead. In an American landscape (and seascape) fraught with the legacy of the Middle Passage, slavery, and continued racial violence, Jarrett brings forth the ghosts and the ghosts speak. To return to Freud, there is another kind of uncanniness at work here. The unheimlich is that of premature burial. The dead should not be dead.
Jarrett, like Cruz, Som, and Rooney, reimagines and redefines what language can accomplish, so that language feels more alive and closer to some kind of raw truth. For instance, the title of the first poem is “Interrobang” rather than “interrogate.” With this reworked word, Jarrett creates tension through the violence of a bang versus the border of a gate. The poem begins: “Come now. Interrogate the mixing bowl / of my throat. Claim what is left in it.” The throat is interrogated—that which is vulnerable and interior. This throat is strangely a mixing bowl, as if combining all the ingredients for speaking. And such agency (to speak or to choose not to speak) is necessary. As with Som’s work, there is a clear desire to record, to make stories heard. In this way, we must also “annotate uncertainty and awe.”
In this space of violence and uncertainty, a ritual of note-taking arises. Jarrett brings forth histories that are simultaneously personal and collective; they can’t be separated. These layered histories draw us into intimate traumas. From the poem “Middle Passage”:
And in the dark, I lay long and still with you.
It was damp in that dark and
We lay one grain of sand against another
Until we were whole. Solid.
Indistinguishable—dust for dust, soot for soot.
The intimacy of laying side by side expands into an uneasy wholeness. Within the terror of the slave ship, the collective voice is one of horror. How can someone become “indistinguishable”? By not existing as a singular voice? “Dust for dust, soot for soot” recalls the idiom “an eye for an eye.” Yet what kind of justice is at work here? There is no justice here—not in a vessel that carries the soon-to-be dead. Yet, that single “I” does speak and declare, “I lay long and still with you.” This focus on speaking is key, curtailing a dangerously deafening silence. In “How to Speak to the Dead,” Jarrett creates a moving account of conjuring voice. She participates in the ritual of bringing something back to speak. The poem operates as a set of instructions: “This is how it works: They talk. You listen.” Listening to the dead also creates an entire community of voices—all linked together through history: “They’ll say: nothing gone stays gone here; you are never / alone in death.”
We often think of the ocean as exemplifying freedom, but Jarrett’s ocean is one of forced migration. In the poem “Sea,” Jarrett writes: “Exile says: // Find the sea / in everything.” This is not migration; this is exile. And exile, like the sea, is everywhere. The ocean permeates and “cross[es] the cane fields.” From the ghosts of the Middle Passage, we move to the ghosts of the plantation fields. History washes over, hurling a wave over each generation.
A question arises in this world of ghosts: in conjuring ghostly voices, what can language offer? Jarrett imagines poetry as a means to actively weave together silenced histories. Poetry and writing is felt. Writing is of the body—just as powerful and alive, if not more so. This recalls Joan Didion’s assertion that “we tell stories in order to live.” In “Sea,” Jarrett writes of her grandfather cutting sugar in the field. This stark image becomes an ars poetica, its last lines echoing the poet’s responsibility to “tend” to history: “Pen in hand, / I tend each / sweet row.”
Another question arises as we continue to read: how can one explain racial violence? How can one explain a history that will continue to occur—without reason? One of the most powerful poems in the book focuses on a child’s understanding of slavery. The lengthy title of the poem sets up this inquiry: “After I came to Bed, Unable to Understand Why Mike Brady is Beating Kunta Kinte on Television, My Grandmother Explains: A Lullaby.” Jarrett’s poem references actor Robert Reed who plays Mike Brady in The Brady Bunch and a slave master in the miniseries Roots. This poem is written like a lullaby, juxtaposing the soothing song of a lullaby with blunt racial violence. The poem begins: “Hush now. No tears,” as if anticipating the pain that arises from witnessing violence. The child in the poem can’t understand how these two worlds can co-exist—that of love (The Brady Bunch) and cruelty (Roots). Instead of a clear explanation, the grandmother can only offer uncertainty. The poem is imbued with images of ghosts and smoke:
A fist is what you make of your hands.
Light and smoke were filling the valley.
The ghosts passed through.
The moon poured out.
I was brotherless and alone.
The house choked on the smoke.
Here, the moon—which should steadily light our way—pours out.
This transformation of the natural world into unnatural trauma also occurs in “Concerning the Divinity of Trees,” in which echoes of Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” reverberate. Jarrett writes: “I am certain in heaven there grows a tree / whose only fruit is tears.” The tone suggests comfort, yet the idea is anything but comforting. The taste of that tree is terrifyingly visceral: “iron and salt.” The speaker imagines an entire orchard of these trees, these bodies. We cannot turn away from that which is so plainly in sight. In a 2012 interview in Mosaic, Lucille Clifton speaks about how she cannot write about trees and not see the history of lynching: “I was asked once to write about landscape and the beauty of the trees. But I cannot—I will not—close part of my vision. I know what my history has been and it is a human history. Every time I see a tree I know somebody used to hang on that.” Jarrett also sees the American landscape as haunted by such torture and death.
Yet, again, language offers a means to bring this haunting to light. These poems write in and into the darkness. From “Flashlight” later in the book: “With it, I would write / words into the darkness until / I could fill the room with them.” Words become a light to see and read by. Like Cruz’s, Som’s, and Rooney’s collections, Ain’t No Grave includes several poems with the same title such as “Ruin.” The last “Ruin” poem gathers brightness: “She could shine the brightness back at Him.” This light is illuminating, offering us a glimpse into the future. With light filling the room, Jarrett honors these ghostly voices through language, song, and murmur.
Jane Wong is the author of the book Overpour (Action Books, 2016). A Kundiman Fellow, she has received awards from the Fulbright Program, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Squaw Valley, and the Fine Arts Work Center.