Dan Beachy-Quick on Bitter Green, by Martin Corless-Smith. Fence Books, 96 pp. $15.95
EG Means on Sympathetic Little Monster, by Cameron Awkward-Rich. Ricochet Editions, 88 pp., $15
Matthew Pitt on So Many True Believers, by Tyrone Jaeger. Queen's Ferry Press, 194 pages, $16.95
Bill Riley on Ciao, Suerte, by Annie McGreevy. Nouvella, 96 pp., $13.
Hasanthika Sirisena on Corona, by Bushra Rehman. Sibling Rivalry Press, 154 pp., $14.95
In the first poem of Bitter Green, Martin Corless-Smith writes: “love is a severed foot.” The line gives ample clue to the concerns of the short lyrics to follow—the woundedness of love, and the loveliness of the wound, which is to say, the old agonies that have kept in mutual embrace those ancient opposites, eros and thanatos. But the line reveals more than thematic concerns. So quietly it places Corless-Smith within the traditions whose various songs fill his own. In ancient verse, the erotic lyric tended to be a half-foot shorter than the epic hexameter, and so, quite literally, “love is a severed foot,” falling short, as it must, of heroic measures, casting us back into our own lives as maybe merely our own. Love’s line gives us over to our experience of love; the severed foot that is at one glance a deprivation, at the next seems an excess, so that love shows itself truest when it behaves the least, and is, as in Haraclitus’s fragment, always “too much, and not enough.”
In a book slim enough to fit in a back pocket and wander with through the daily world, its cover a painting by the poet’s own hand, one feels almost as if, reading it from day to day, that the poem’s are a journal of one’s own keeping, and these lines written by another’s hand, have just as truly been written by your own. “I have written / my own curse for other mouths and mine,” Corless-Smith notes, hinting, I suppose, at the fact that the events most intimate in any given life—love, sex, betrayal, loss, death—belong equally to us all. Easy to claim such admission as affirmation, as company where we thought we were alone, but Corless-Smith refuses the easy comfort of singing his songs in another’s mouth, or finding another’s song in his own. What is most in common is not shared. He’s instead profoundly aware that Catullus and Propertius, that Suckling and Marvell, that Sappho and Clare, all sing each other’s songs alone, as we sing them, too.
Of course, love’s severed foot hurts most because the beloved other that would make complete what by itself is partial has gone missing. In bliss one leaves the confines of oneself for an instant so brief it shouldn’t qualify as a form of eternity, yet it does. But when that blissful other has departed—by breakup as of lover, by death as of mother—then one’s sole self drops back into brute time, ragged with the sensation of timelessness still burning in heart, mind, and nerves. One wants consolation, but only gets that light that reveals again and again the condition of being lovelorn. When Corless-Smith writes,
remote oblivion dressed motherhood with love
and made the lover smile when you embrace
but memory in search of consolation after loss
could only conjure masks and not one face
he speaks of the ongoing wound driving song through these poems. If one had time enough only to forget, to allow oblivion in, then the mind could dress its harm in past happiness. But when memory works through itself to find the solace it seeks, it finds mask after mask that only point at the loss of the face that wore it. It is if, Corless-Smith suggests, one must forget in order to find again the beloved face. But how make yourself forget?
A poem of a single line addresses the deep irony of these love poems sung to one who will not hear them: “Play for her tonight she cannot hear.” The poem, whose basic trust in the world is that it will be received by another, knows here it sings but to itself, sentencing the singer to that self-regard from which the poem is meant as release. Or, at least, as ease. It is as if one must learn to hear the song you sing not as the one who is singing it, but as the one to whom it is sung. But maybe that’s what time is for. It makes you other than yourself. Or maybe that is why the birds return:
The muses have been
Hear all morning
A wren, a swallow and
I have been confounded with
And anxious over family
And business of the world
I take no part in my success
Or in my son’s
I am confounded here in
A wren, some swallows and a robin
They alone, as Dickinson has it, sing the tune without the words; and should love not only sever a foot, but also cut open an ear, we too can hear in these curses that fit also in our own mouths, some melody beneath the words, an openness almost infinite, that removes the self from its self-regard, and tunes the ear to that music lovers have always heard, the birds’ own songs, whose pleasure is no one’s, or is it only mine, or just this me who is everyone, to hear the brief oblivion. For the ancients knew that the Muses, born of memory, give forgetting as the gift of their songs.
Sympathetic Little Monster, by Cameron Awkward-Rich. Ricochet Editions, 88 pp., price unavailable at press time
Cameron Awkward-Rich’s debut Sympathetic Little Monster is a must-read. At times lyrical, confessional, critical, and mythical, this book defies categorization.
There is a nameless girl and a little boy cleaved from their own shadow. There are those who would view the nameless girl and the little boy as ghosts, seeing but not seen, and treat them as objects, seen but not seeing.
Residing in liminal, transitional spaces, the girl and the boy tell us stories. The girl climbs a tree then becomes one. The boy boards a train, is reminded of another boy who, falling in love with his own image, disappears into the dark. “You were a girl & then you/weren’t. You moved into a boy & the/girl moved into misplaced language.” The nameless girl and the little boy merge and come undone, remaking themselves as one and another. And again.
In “Faggot Poetics” Awkward-Rich urgently frames the book’s central question: how do we understand our desires and construct our identities in the face of explicit and implicit racial and gendered violence? “How the skin is broken/or breaks because the body just wants/what it wants: to be a hallway/where men hang their photos/on the wall...To want to own the image of the man/but not the man? To bask in that memory/of what first nailed you to the dark?”
Sympathetic Little Monster is about love as much as it is about desire, about learning to love yourself: “A ghost becomes/a boy becomes a body/of water, everything that shines.” Ranging from prose to free verse, the poems move across the page at times fragmented, at times syntactically full, here unfolding, here spreading across the page. In so doing, the poems coalesce around a shifting scape of identity, locating the self at the in-between.
Here, gender is a temporary place of (un)rest for the weary traveler, “a field of signifying roses” that you can walk through or you can burn to the ground. And Awkward-Rich sets the roses ablaze, exposing how quickly subject can be transformed into object, petal-embers in another’s cruel mouth.
A girl “dreams of dying & wakes up an image.” A boy becomes a man named “Awkward” is “made into a thing & sutured to it.”
Desire is a rose that must be uprooted, must name itself for itself.
The poems in Sympathetic Little Monster thread new narratives against the culture of oppression against Trans, Queer, Black Americans, against the falsely constructed distance between you and I, against the violence of being addressable, of seeing, of being seen. The poems ask us to heed our ghosts, to refuse to objectify or be objectified, to sustain complications, to take the petal-embers and “throw her to the sky. Let her scatter & drift down. Let her coat/your pink tongue.”
“You know the words” and yet you need desperately to hear them speak through the poems of Cameron Awkward-Rich.
So Many True Believers, by Tyrone Jaeger. Queen’s Ferry Press, 194 pages, $16.95
At the tail end of this book’s first story, the protagonist, Jeremy, connects his delusions to those of a fallen lover—a victim of the Heaven’s Gate cult, whose members tied their fates to Comet Hale-Bopp’s trajectory: “On occasion, I too must comfort myself with a lie.” This insight is immediately followed by the next story title, “Liar’s Lullaby,” a narrative again populated by Jeremy, now accompanying a nurse with a predilection for IV drugs to her best friend’s wedding. Some stories later, Jeremy will have swapped that nurse for the betrothed friend.
As the above account suggests, this collection’s narratives are rife with messy episodes, carrying us geographically from Orlando’s steamy sinkholes and swamps to an Arkansas lake, or Denver’s wispy altitudes. Jaeger offers a poet’s investment to connectivity, though not merely in terms of recurring subjects, but also in the sight and sound of syntax. An early image recalls the cult victim paddling a canoe, seen in retrospect to be navigating between two worlds. This could indicate Jaeger’s comfort in ferrying between belief and lie, and his characters’ unsettled sense that the ardor of their beliefs may not preclude those beliefs from degrading into falsehood.
“These Are My Arms” is the book’s literal and figurative center: Jeremy is back, married, a father, and working at a private school with “no admissions policies, including either skill or drug testing.” As Jeremy considers the daily litany of fears, diagnoses, and lodged complaints he faces, Jaeger oars his character into Donald Barthelme territory: “Labeling helped the parents quantify and qualify their failures and celebrate and publicize their successes.” Later, Jeremy turns such scrutiny on himself: “He had no particular big and dark secrets, more like an endless trickle of failures, indiscretions, and humiliations.” By story’s end, the teacher wishes for a wintry storm to permanently encase his family inside their home.
Throughout, Jaeger deploys sumptuous lyric bursts, cutting dialogue and humor, and an acrobatic approach to time, as when Ginny, the adolescent protagonist of “Ghost Image,” predicts she may always conjure the episode of desperate, hungry passion she is currently enjoying, like some re-run of love. It’s a prescient insight. Is there a better barometer for our beliefs than the material we find ourselves continually constructing and replaying?
Ciao, Suerte, by Annie McGreevy. Nouvella, 96 pp., $13
If you want your heart broken in just around an hour’s time, ordering a copy of Annie McGreevy’s debut novella Ciao, Suerte is your best move. The stunning book that moves from central Argentina to Patagonia to Madrid and back in under a hundred pages is so true to everything that disappoints us about love that it doesn’t need a word more.
Ciao, Suerte is the story of Beatriz, who is hunting for her grandson Miguel. Miguel’s parents were kidnapped in the Dirty War in Argentina, with Miguel in utero. Post birth, Beatriz’s son and daughter-in-law are killed post-delivery, and Miguel is adopted by a wealthy family in Patagonia. Beatriz, like many Argentinian grandparents whose revolutionary offspring were captured and grandchildren scattered, has never given up looking. Twenty-three years later, in 2003, Miguel is located in Madrid, studying at a university and falling in love with a girl who might just leave Madrid—the only city that Ines has ever known—for him.
But, as I said earlier, the book is less about the characters—well-crafted as they may be—and more about how love can never quite measure to our dreams of the thing. The connections we imagine that traverse the dinner table on the third date or the phone lines late at night often fall short of what we’ve added to them in our own mind, at least eventually. Beatriz has been looking for Miguel for twenty-three years. They’re family. But blood, as Beatriz finds, is no substitute for experience. And sometimes love, as Miguel and Ines find, isn’t even enough.
Corona, by Bushra Rehman. Sibling Rivalry Press, 154 pp., $14.95
When a friend recently pushed Bushra Rehman’s Corona on me, he declared it a cult classic. I thought at the time this was an odd label for a book that is only three years old. It also seemed a potentially terrible burden for such a slim novel to bear. What a pleasant surprise to find then that Corona does indeed live up to these possibly outsize expectations and provides as well many subtle, intimate surprises.
At the center of this novel in stories is the protagonist, Razia Mirza, a young Pakistani woman navigating the precarious identity politics of a post 9/11 America. Through the course of the elliptical and episodic narrative, Razia simultaneously attempts to break away from the rigor of her upbringing and assert herself as a woman and Muslim in a culture that directs hostility at both. The result is a picaresque that places Razia in potentially terrible situations to which she applies her considerable wit and intelligence to comic effect. In one story, Razia and her friend hitchhike only to find themselves trapped in a car with two over-sexed missionaries. In another, Razia endures life in a squalid apartment with a jobless boyfriend she loves mainly because her family doesn’t want her to be with him.
The strongest section of the novel is set in the Bhangra party scene in New York City. Here the writing—always spare and precise—captures the energy and vitality of the dance halls: “There were plenty of sardars and black-pants girls. The sardars wore beards, turbans, button-down shirts and jeans. The black-pant girls wore stilettos, straightened hair, and of course wore tight black pants. There was an endless stream of them coming from NYU.” Razia falls in love with another desi, a regular among the dance crowd, only to be told he will be returning to an India that offers him more security and opportunity.
Perhaps, though, Corona’s greatest accomplishment is to avoid many of the clichés of the immigrant narrative. Razia does not fall out with her community only to be accepted by a larger, tolerant American society. She doesn’t eschew American culture to find safe haven in cultural traditions. While Rehman makes clear the strictness of Razia’s upbringing she also renders the Muslim community with dimension and compassion. Razia by the end is back where she started. In a lovely flashback to Razia’s childhood, we see the neighbors of Corona, Queens, in all their diversity, converging on an abandoned bread truck, sharing the hot rolls with each other.
Cult classic connotes a certain level of subversiveness. The subversive in Corona is captured in prose that avoids the lavishness we’ve come to associate with writing by and about South Asians and in its unwillingness to redeem its female immigrant protagonist. The designation also implies a narrow audience—a South Asian novel for South Asians. But, a limited fan base for this remarkable novel would be a shame. All readers can learn from the exquisite rawness of this moving, often sublime work.