Liz Kay recently posted some wise words about “rejections.” I especially like her point that a rejection isn’t really an indication that the poetry you submitted isn’t good; rejections can indicate a lot of things. Her thoughts on how to react to conditional acceptances are valuable as well:
Diane Raptosh’s American Amnesiac examines the struggle for identity in a world where there’s so much of it around. The technological, media-driven world offers us selves at every turn, every time a television is turned on or a mouse is clicked. Raptosh shows what happens when stable identity evaporates and the self encounters forces that try to shape it.
Her protagonist, Cal Rinehart, has lost his memory so completely that his name is simply a piece of information he picks up from his surroundings. Distanced as he is from that identity, however, he comes to consider the name “John Doe” and what it means to be an anonymous person without distinction or definition:
The name’s John Doe. And I am a place, the holder of a pose.
All selves serve as other people, and I’m no exception.
Calvin J. Rinehart must be some fabulist’s rendition
of a different face. Or turn of mind. I’m John, complete
with silent middle h. (5)
The silent letter hints at the tension that drives American Amnesiac. Are we silent at our core? Or does modern life deny us the ability to voice ourselves? Raptosh’s work is challenging because it interrogates the most fundamental thing about our experience: that it is unified in the self. Cal is unable to pull everything that happens toward him, to filter it through a familiar singularity. In Raptosh’s work, the unambiguous pronouncement of stable being is not possible. Instead, the poems here reveal the extent to which our surroundings attempt to speak for us.
Shattered subjectivity has been with us since modernism, of course, but what makes Raptosh’s book so compelling is the extent to which the world is less of a backdrop and more of a pulsing and adaptive membrane that tries to shape us. Cal’s haunting Google search is a memorable example:
Last night I was looking for bean recipes. I forgot how to spell fagioli.
The laptop came at me with its unease: Did you mean: fragile? (35)
The environment in which these poems take place is not the poet’s natural world of trees and valleys and streams, nor is it the contemporary family of so much twentieth century poetry. Instead, Raptosh creates a world that emerges from the internet, song lyrics, blogs, and SAT analogy tests. Though some references seem almost random, they succeed because they replicate the randomness of modern experience. And in a disturbing way there is a sensibility to this electronic background information. In a sense, the book challenges the reader to enjoin the struggle facing its protagonist. We must sift through the crossword puzzles, news blips, and wordsearches to recover what we can of meaning when so many are thrust at us.
On one hand, Raptosh destabilizes any comfortable answer, leaving us with only questions, only the search: “I continue to organize files into masses of clues” (27) or “The self is a thousand localities / like a small nation” (66). It is only the effort of organizing stray and disconnected experiences that comprises contemporary life. The clues are never solved, just amassed. Identity is the act of living rather than any cohesive, underlying self. Identity is epistemology not ontology.
On the other hand, however, something inevitably remains:
I’ve survived my own extinction, like a freak marine
reptile. I have to feel what I think or I can’t find who
I want to become. I wax into what I listen to (64)
The “I” still speaks, though he is dispersed into the world. He waxes into what he listens to, but he nevertheless survives. This persistence is based on a new, interconnected sort of being that touches everything around it. At the end of the book, one might view Cal/John Doe as a sort of “powerful entity” that exceeds himself because he is not tied down by selfhood. He points out that “Some cultures avoided the true names of powerful entities / and hailed them obliquely. Or labeled them Nameless” (72). Though Cal is nameless, he is so because he acquires too many names rather than losing the one he had. He is diffused, a “bouquet of vowels [. . .] whose sounds yield great notions” (72). American Amnesiac is an epic poem of sorts – to the extent that our age allows the possibility of an extended and culturally unifying narrative – and it asks us to consider notions of greatness that run counter to our usual veneration of the individual. Cal’s loss of identity is an unsettling, ominous, and particularly American condition, but, in Raptosh’s hands, it also opens up the possibility of a positive transformation.
-American Amnesiac was published by Etruscan Press in 2013.
One of the ongoing goals of Hartskill Review is to conduct a thoughtful and informed discussion of how poetry works. Toward that end, the “Commentary and Reviews” section will be expanded in future issues. More details are available on the bottom half of the submissions page:
As always, Hartskill seeks new poems, as well!
It’s here! The inaugural issue of Hartskill Review is now in print! It features the work of Jeffrey Alfier, Franklin Babrove, Les Bernstein, Kelly Cherry, Joan Colby, Anne Colwell, Wende Crow, Michael Dittman, William Doreski, Neil Ellman, Thomas Erickson, John Grey, David M. Harris, Scott Honeycutt, Jane Hoogestraat, Nicole Johns, Cambria Jones, Whittney Jones, Ashton Kamburoff, Haley Lasche, Mercedes Lawry, Kendra Leonard, Issa M. Lewis, Duane Locke, Ricki Mandeville, Corey Mesler, Caridad Moro, Quintin Overocker, Roger Pfingston, David Nelson Pollock, Diane Raptosh, William Reichard, Steve Roberts, Anne Lovering Rounds, Don Russ, Penelope Schott, Marian Kaplun Shapiro, Marianne Taylor, Caitlin Thomson, Nahum N. Welang, and Pier Wright. The cover photograph is by Tracy van Eijl.
You can find more detail about how to order a copy on the Issues page.
If you are a contributor, your copy will be in the mail soon! Thanks go out to all the talented people who made this publication possible!
Laurence Lieberman has a beautiful and moving poem called “Exodus of Butterflies” in Valparaiso Poetry Review, available here.
It is a lengthy poem of 99 lines tied together by a narrative involving a tree. In more cases, “a poem about a tree” is not a great sales pitch for a poem (at least for me), but Lieberman’s poem works because of its odd and idiosyncratic imagery. Winfred, the artist intent on capturing the tree’s great spirit before it is cut down, spends time beside the tree to understand the variety of its experience. Rather than offering a plain description of natural processes, however, Lieberman gives us the striking imagery of Winfred’s dream:
Winfred dreamed that he sleeps
beside the fallen tree and awakes to find
the long zipper running
across his abdomen has burst open, releasing
a stream of twenty-two butterflies
(varicolored, and of many wing designs)
from the long slit in his belly.
What makes this a profound perspective, I believe, is that it is intensely human at the same time it is a nature poem. That is, Lieberman does not suggest that the spirit of the tree is only in the tree; it is in the human being that observes the tree, as well. This is a different than nature poetry that seeks to escape the human and enter a clear and crisp world of nature. Though the image is one of escape (e.g. the butterflies), it is an image of humanity and zippers and dreams and art. It is an image of connection, contiguity, and imbrication. Winfred understands the tree more deeply after spending time with it, but also after attempting to represent it, to capture its relation to the human imagination.
Lieberman ends the poem with a similar thrust, emphasizing the connectivity of human with environment in describing the “super-charged light” that Winfred sees. Lieberman even calls out these lines of connection: “Brain rays are lines / diverging from his eyes to the tree’s / widely branching puffed-out / top.” The poem insists that one must be willing to open one’s self up to nature in order to connect with it. This occurs not by shedding human subjectivity but rather by understanding humanity through its necessary relations. Winfred’s transformative aesthetic experience occurs as a result of letting nature, through the bright light, enter him:
He is tough,
a strong bold witness.
He looks back at the light, unflinching. Never
averts his eyes. It is a glory to him
to have come upon
this fierce gush and dazzle, at last. This holy
blaze! Famed light of his ancestors…
The light does more than return the image of the tree; it is suffused with humanity in the form of “family elders” who have come before him, who have understood the communion with nature that is part of what it is to be human.
Arian Katsimbras has a new poem published at Thrush called “Of Stone and Glass.” You can find it here.
The poem considers young love and exploration, but it does so from a perspective of loss, with the poetic speaker thumbing through memories. He remembers the kids as they kiss, but he is also forced to recognize the march of time that inevitably disrupts or destroys these things. Though the present is bereft of romantic connection, tomorrow is even less fruitful: “Tomorrow I will begin / to guess a violent kind / of guessing, like naming / what’s empty.” The speaker names (and counts) the world, but its tangible objects seem ever more removed. The loss of love is persistent, a promise.
The poem ends with the image of the kiss and the loss that follows: “I think of mouth and mouth / and that if I listen close / enough I might hear / them bang together, break / like bone cages, break / like stone, like window.” The kiss–the thrill of connection–is figured as a breaking stone or shattered glass. Whether sturdy or brittle, the kiss cannot be reclaimed and seems to keep sounding in the speaker’s mind like a recurring echo–a very powerful image.
Hartskill Review is now accepting submissions. If you write poetry that is intriguing, moving, ambitious, haunting, compelling, subtle, layered, and resplendent, please consider submitting to Hartskill Review. The first issue is slated to come out on April 1, 2014. See the Submission Guidelines for more details.