In the May issue of Connotation Press:An Online Artifact, we find, among other surprises, Richard Nixon with “laughing gas coloring his lips / blue with white blotches”; a woman’s Bengali landscape where “the light is a sewn-shut mouth”; and a boy in a whale bone corset whose father burns his crossing-dressing son’s lingerie in a field. The ten adventurous poets in this selection include Lauren Berry, Sean Bishop, Meghan Brinson, Elizabeth Colen, Norman Dubie, Tarfia Faizullah, Todd Fredson, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, Saeed Jones, and featured writer Sarah Vap.
Within the haunted lyricism of Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s poem “The Door,” fragments of personal history reveal the complicated relationship between memory and desire: “Someone we wanted once / will be a stranger or a ghost. Even if they say, Come back, be / young again, we will not listen. Desire tells a story / that is longer than we can bear.” Whereas Goldberg writes of distant passions that have lost their urgency with the passage of time, Saeed Jones evokes the frenetic immediacy of infatuated lovers. In his poem “Kingdom of Trick, Kingdom of Drug” Jones portrays the otherworldliness and violence of the erotic encounter: “In bed, we keep combat boots on, scrape our shins / climbing each other—which is to say: I dream I’ve dragged a tree / into bed with me.”
Both Lauren Berry and Tarfia Faizullah weave narrative strands that interrogate psychologically fraught family histories within the realm of the grotesque. In her poem “Falls Church, a Hard to Name Event,” Berry entwines beauty and horror as her speaker travels to her mother’s Virginia landscape to make peace with a violent past, only to uncover “A feeling // like tongue lapping winter bark.” Throughout the eight sections of Faizullah’s poem “Namesake,” landscapes vacillate between Bangladesh and Texas as speakers shift between several generations of a Bengali family. “When grandmother died,” Faizullah writes, “Father sobbed in the West / Texas Area mosque. I listened behind the wall // separating us from the men. The clock ticked / behind him, inside him, mounted on the teal // and gray walls.”
Cerebral and sly, playful yet elegiac, Sean Bishop torques conventional myth in his sequence of ten sections, “To Throw the Little Bones that Speak.” In the poem, Bishop’s posthumous speaker searches the surreal underworld of a black bog for the “boatlady Karen,” a kind of gender-bent, mythic ferryman. Bishop weaves both irony and pathos into his speaker’s bravado: “Let’s play the game where there is no death. Let’s trust / the few signs that we’re still alive: // soul sloshing like backwash in the breathing body, / this cat’s incessant scotchbrite kiss, // the old bread growing out its fur.”
Whereas Bishop reinvents Hades in his stark self-elegy, Meghan Brinson contemporizes the ukiyo-e of Edo-period Japan, where “In the floating world, some versions of us / can touch.” In “Cures for Loneliness,” Brinson writes of a father who “ties a sail to a bicycle,” the “grassy battlefields” of lonely girls, and a speaker who unfolds the “ruinous origami” of mail sent from a war zone.
In Elizabeth Colen’s prose poem “A Drowning, 1984,” we find a slippery, cinematic vignette, written in second person, that begins: “A woman with wet hair walks by. You want her to be your mother. And so you follow her.” Colen adapts the conventions of film noir: the title evocative of a crime drama, the stark color contrasts, the character’s face obscured by darkness, the psychological uneasiness of a Dutch angle. The mysterious woman’s features keep shifting: “you change her hair brown to red. You change her lipstick, which is easy from the back.” At the end of the poem, Colen conjures the grotesque as her figure morphs into a shape-shifter: “You call out mother, but she doesn’t respond. You call out monster, but she keeps moving ahead.”
Featured writer Sarah Vap explores motherhood’s peculiar liminality in her wildly associative lyric poems, ten of which are included in this issue of Connotation Press. In her interview, “This Split and Splitting Mind,” Vap coins the term “feministmotheraphorisms” to describe a genre of short lyric poems that counter Judeo-Christian masculine traditions of the aphorism’s “high wisdom.” In one poem, Vap writes: “The bed smells like gasoline where my husband slept last night. / My baby wakes, two bodies over, and says: lawnmower. // My older son, half asleep responds: Who is she? She’s beautiful.”
Todd Fredson and Norman Dubie engage political as well as natural landscapes in their work. Fredson dedicates his poem “The Ocean’s Gate” “to the soldier photographed asleep between battles at Khe Sahn, 1968,” and imagines the dream realm of the now-peaceful soldier: “The world is colossal enough: // blinking through the field of yellow-flowering / flax, his son empties the dog’s ashes / into clouds of thistle and the white / wall of afternoon sunlight...” In “A Military-Academic Complex,” Dubie invents a docking station for aircraft amid a warring cosmos in which swirls “a sweet meat of hurricane pecans” and where such specters as Oppenheimer, William Burroughs, and Burroughs’s dead wife—who’s been shot through the adam’s apple—make cameo appearances in this futurist danse macabre. Dubie ends the poem with a wisecrack from the posthumous Grace Kelly, who offers us both gallows humor and hope in what may remain of humanity’s potential: “The ghost queen of monaco saying / well if those flyboys have the flu / everything is still possible.”