Wednesday Dec 13

JuliaBouwsma-2015 As I sit here composing my annual retrospective column for Connotation Press Volume VI, there is a restless energy surrounding me—the wind picking up for a sudden summer thunderstorm. The sky has darkened, and I am watching the violent tossing of maple limbs reflected in the mirror of my computer screen. Even my dogs feel the impending shift in the atmosphere: one goes to hide in the bedroom; one paces the kitchen, weaving himself through the table legs; one licks and licks at the floor. The breeze through the screen door lifts the hairs on the back of my arms.

I rifle through the book review columns of this past year, flipping pages in search of a pattern. Many of the recently reviewed titles share an energy much like what I feel in this pre-storm air: a force that is seismic and dense with motion, a brewing transformation both primal and corporeal. In Mihaela Moscaliuc’s second collection of poems, Immigrant Model; in Sawako Nakayasu’s collection of flash prose, The Ants; in Meg Willing’s review of Bianca Stone’s Someone Else’s Wedding Vows; in Keetje Kuipers’ The Keys to the Jail and Jeffrey Davis’ Revising the Storm; and in T. Geronimo Johnson’s second novel, Welcome to Braggsville, I see movement taking place on both micro and macro levels. I see journeys, migrations, and evolutions—both those of individuals and of entire cultures and nations. I see the struggle for change depicted as a body moving through time and across history, moving both inside and outside of itself—a body that continually shapes and is shaped by what it touches, and that through this process becomes its own text.

Mihaela Moscaliuc’s Immigrant Model (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) is a book of journey in the most literal sense, guiding the reader between her Romanian upbringing under Ceaușescu to the survivors of Chernobyl to her current life in the United States and abroad. As Connotation Press’s May 2015 review observes, “Moscaliuc’s journey—never governed by simple chronology but by the cycling and unrelenting needs of bodies connected through blood and story and landscape—demonstrates an unparalleled and often harrowing physicality. This is a book that leads from the tongue and the belly, from the survivor’s instinct to taste and to tell.” Indeed, in poem after poem, Moscaliuc explores the two forms of sustenance without which the self cannot survive—narrative and food—one so often sacrificed for the other: “Mother has scraped the / newspaper ink off the smoked sausage she’s been saving for Christmas. / I know I can’t ask what she bartered for it.” Each poem is a quest for an organic form—a body that tells its true story, that reflects every place an individual has been and everything she has seen. In language as sensual as it is rife with threat, Moscaliuc’s speaker navigates a labyrinth of mass and individual exoduses, of botched escapes and returns, until, at last, “She wakes up full, pellet of fur and bones at her breast, / brand new, eyes speckled with blood.”

We experience the immigrant’s journey in Sawako Nakayasu’s The Ants (Les Figues Press, 2014—reviewed in the September 2014 issue) as well, but this time it is through a very different set of eyes: those of ants, the smallest of bodies. As they attempt to navigate a world that is disorientingly large and continually changing, Nakayasu’s ants serve as a foil—or perhaps parody—of the confusion manifest in human society. They must constantly negotiate their surroundings in each new situation, taking on a vast array of roles: immigrant, engineer, novice recruit, seasoned soldier, even both writer and written work. Nakayasu interacts with her subjects playfully and with deep compassion, expertly allowing the physicality of her insect protagonists to mingle with that of the book. Again and again, their bodies either swarm the text or march steadily along as “and and and and and…,” always in search of whatever nook or cranny might serve as home. And because formal choices are never coincidental in The Ants, Nakayasu’s vignettes act both as separate, tiny beings and as parts of a larger whole, moving in a studied and unifying rhythm toward some greater sense of connection. Which is fitting, because, in both writing and in ants, “parallel is beautiful and black becomes green and lines have a natural inclination towards returning, and towards each other.”

Such arcing parallelism also finds its way into the architecture of Bianca Stone’s Someone Else’s Wedding Vows (Tin House/Octopus Books, 2014), as deftly crafted metaphors swing toward and away from one another like tectonic plates in a feat of precarious yet perfect balance. “Bear with me, because I want to start at the beginning. The creation-of-the-cosmos beginning—which starts with the movement of space,” opens Meg Willing in her March 2015 review. “In some esoteric traditions, this nascent universe had a strong desire for motion and started to flow. Inertia, with its inherent resistance to change, tugged against that flow and tension was born. Through the pressure between these two opposing forces, vibrant new planes of existence emerged.” Stone’s debut collection, Willing goes on to explain, is “an exploration of the self—often estranged—and its capacity for love,” an exploration fueled by its own contradictions, in which “the friction between what can be and what cannot be” is used “to propel the poem forward.” Stone’s poems are an idiosyncratic mixture of simple, flat statements (“And there are no clouds in the sky. / No airplanes.”) and lush and startling images (“Your head is split down the middle by a brook; / each hemisphere, divine, witchy…”). As Willing notes, Stone’s work “pulsates with its own extraordinary verve,” and indeed the motion embodied in her poems is less about journey or endpoint than about the rippling currents of the magnified moment—every absence revealing the present and every abstraction exposing the concrete, like the constantly shifting aperture of camera held in just the right set of hands.

In Keetje Kuipers’ The Keys to the Jail and Jeffrey Davis’ Revising the Storm journey is primarily psychological, and the landscapes to be crossed are composed of memory, of regrets, of individual topographies of shame. Here, in these two titles, motion takes shape as a repetitive and cyclical—perhaps obsessive—process of recollection and self-flagellation, the past and self dissected and analyzed again and again. For both Davis and Kuipers, this practice is a necessary step toward self-knowledge, and shame is even a type of sustenance, as in Kuipers’ “Letter to an Inmate in Solitary Confinement”: “Sometimes I put my fingers in my mouth / and chew on what they’ve done.” But such motion is also a great violence against the self—“Let us turn memory’s blade against ourselves,” commands Davis—and ultimately such thinking, prolonged, becomes at best an exercise in futility and at worst a trap. “It’s not my fault, but / it might be. Should I keep changing until // I become something that has an other?” asks Kuipers. And so it is something of a relief when both books eventually give way to the currents pulling them ever forward, out of the isolation of past shame into a shared future, where, as Davis puts it, “With others, I will wade / waist-deep all day, for the small / paradise of watching someone / run their fingers along the belly / of what was once impossible / to touch.”

T. Geronimo Johnson also confronts shame in Welcome to Braggsville —using knife-sharp parody to slice open the tangled web of personal and national shame that obscures our understanding of America’s horrifying racial history. Four UC Berkeley students—D’aron Davenport and his three friends, Louis (Loose) Chang, Candice Marianne Chelsea, and Charlie Roger Cole—visit Daron’s hometown of Braggsville, Georgia to protest the annual Civil War reenactment with a “staged lynching.” When the “performative intervention” goes horribly wrong, the consequences are drastic both for the self-appointed “Four Little Indians” and for a social order constructed on an impeccably arranged architecture of carefully constructed silences, facades, and unspoken rules. Welcome to Braggsville holds no punches, and every aspect of contemporary American culture is a target. As Connotation Press’s June 2015 review notes, “Johnson’s energetic and unending barrage of popular culture, historical, and literary allusions—with its coded, amalgamated language and inside quips—is simultaneously one of the novel’s greatest strengths and one of its greatest challenges. The technique is disorienting, too much to process. But it is meant to be. Johnson’s particular variety of satire packs irony like a wad of cotton into an open wound. His style mirrors the onslaught of the media, where heartbreaking atrocities are presented alongside attention-grabbing but ultimately distracting scandals until we lose all ability to process, prioritize, or even react.”

“…At last you'll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking,” writes Audre Lorde. And in the end, that is all I can really say about any of these commanding titles—that these authors have opened their mouths and voiced their truths. That there is great power in sound—in observing, owning, and speaking. That the voicing of such truths—both personal and universal—is perhaps the real only way to bring change. This has been a year of wondering how much more injustice we can take in this country. We are so very ready for change, so very thirsty for it. And so I hope you will enjoy exploring the books discussed above, as well as all of other books reviewed in Connotation Press, because we need every single voice to be heard. As we need and must welcome, too, the sharp rain now drumming the roof and the thunder now cracking the swollen, summer skyline.

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Julia Bouwsma lives off-the-grid in the mountains of western Maine, where she is a poet, editor, critic, small-town librarian, and farmer. Her poems and reviews can be found in: Cider Press Review, Colorado Review, The Progressive, Puerto del Sol, RHINO, Salamander, Sugar House Review, and other journals. She is the Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact and the Library Director for Webster Library in Kingfield, Maine.