There is often a stigma regarding self-published work. I am not ashamed to say that I read it, if it looks interesting. After all, I read junk emails that catch my attention, as well as every cereal box that sits at the breakfast table. The ones worth savoring and recommending – those emails that make you “lol” – are sent on to friends as an endorsement. The book I am considering here is worth far more attention than a silly email. Walt Whitman published his own (multi-versioned) Leaves of Grass. Robert Browning, Carl Sandburg, and Gertrude Stein published at their own expense as well. In that spirit, indulge me in pointing out things worth noticing in a recent book by a delightful new African-American poet.
Darlene Anita Scott’s Breathing Lessons 101 is actually a bit of a teaser. It is a hardback 8 x 8 coffee table book of 20 unnumbered pages, containing the title poem of a larger collection that she is working on. It can be ordered from the author at email@example.com for $20. I have heard her read her poetry at festivals and have read some of her work in manuscript. She is a poet I will watch expectantly.
The “breathing lesson” of this book is a metaphor for living in a troubled and confusing world. The poem is laid over photographs by the author to create a synthesis of eye and mind. The first line (and page) – “This is your liver on Heineken” – references the photograph behind it, which is a close-up of a woman’s torso, showing the bare skin from the navel stud to the hip. It is not the liver (thankfully), but it represents anatomically where the liver is located in one’s body. It is a literal representation that Scott turns playful on the next (black) page when she adds: “and when the boy’s buying: Guinness.” What began sounding like a cautionary public-service announcement becomes a commentary on beer economics and male-female relationships.
The book is made of a series of “This is” statements, concerning “the girl,” whose body “turn[s] itself Legend,” who deals with sadness, renewal, scars, and, ultimately, the language that we become in that meditation. This meditation moves the reader through a series of images both literal and mental. Nearness and distance are fused in “a brown body orbiting / dangerously close to your prudence.” As the imagery moves from cosmic to linguistic, the you named in the poem grapples with syntax to the point that, in the final this-is statement, “you conjugate the verb to fit your longing.”
The structure of the book, separated into small thoughts – zero to thirty-three words per page – facilitates the meditative mood. These thoughts are joined with images on which the words rest, or sometimes an image is presented alone, as reinforcement or exemplification of the line preceding. Some of the photographs are body parts, as mentioned earlier, some are landscapes, some abstract; but all are integral to the message of the poem. The synergy of word and image makes Breathing Lessons 101 a pleasant, thoughtful book, one that leaves a reader wanting more.
Stan Galloway, author of Just Married (unbound CONTENT, 2013), his first collection of poetry, is the organizer of the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival, scheduled for January of odd-numbered years. His reviews of poetry have appeared such places as Christianity & Literature, Paterson Literary Review, and Referential Magazine. He teaches English at Bridgewater College, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
Cape Cod Poetry Review Volume II features cover art from Suzanne M. Packer and new work from Marge Piercy, Kathleen Spivack, Jane Wong, Hannah Oberman-Breindel, Maria Nazos, Alice Kociemba, Kathryn Kulpa, Ryan Butler, Chuck Madansky, Alana Folsom, Barry Hellman, Maggie Cleveland, Katy Sternberger, Lorna Knowles Blake, Deirdre Callanan, Rosanne Shapiro, Elaine Cohen, B.T. Lamm, Janet Gardner, Rachel Baird, Robin Chapman, Timothy Gager, Brian Folan, and Jason Curzake.
Copies are available for $12.00 via postal mail (email us at firstname.lastname@example.org) and through the following local bookstores:
Market Street Books in Mashpee, MA
Cultural Center in South Yarmouth, MA
Brewster Bookstore in Brewster, MA
Yellow Umbrella Books in Chatham, MA
Titcombs Bookshop in Sandwich, MA
Orleans Booksmith and Musicsmith in Orleans, MA
Provincetown Bookshop in Provincetown, MA
Wellfleet Marketplace in Wellfleet, MA
Symposium Books in Providence, RI
Sandra Ridley’s The Counting House (BookThug, 2013) is a powerhouse collection, establishing its tone within very first words: “A husha. A husha” (“A General Tale”). The poetry is an ekphrasis work of artist michèle provost’s installation piece ABSTrACTS/RéSuMÉS: An Exercise in Poetry. The ekphrasis is mixed with a bit of plunderverse to create a loose narrative that spans throughout the four poems. The essays given by provost—Michael Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and the Roud Folk Song Index—offer a lens that spurs on the other three pieces as well. Readers can understand the lens through these basic points: Ridley draws mainly on the idea of panopticism from Foucault and its concept of self-imposed discipline; this is then paired with de Beauvoir’s feminist critique of women as “Other” in a Subject (Man) – Other (Woman) dichotomy, in which women will never be seen as equal partners as long as they are socialized to believe in femininity as inadequacy, with male traits as the definition of strength and power.
The first poem, “A General Tale,” centers largely on the Roud Index, working with the haunting repetition of folk songs like “Ring Around the Rosie.” Ridley grabs onto phrases like “a husha,” “fall down,” “blackbirds,” and “posy” to embed a tone of imminence. “Lax Tabulation,” the direct ekphrasis piece, is styled like an accountant’s tabulation, each part constructed with phrases pulled from provost’s provided essays. The spaces between lists create caesuras that further play with space on the pages as breath-markers. Even more curious—the poems can be read horizontally or vertically, resulting in two voices. The third and fourth poems, “Testimonium” and “Luxuria,” heavily allude to the Foucault and de Beauvoir essays. Ridley takes up Foucault’s discussion of pancopticism and sets the speaker as the guard figure in the concealed tower, observing prisoners in the surrounding cells. The subject—“my Darling”—becomes one of these prisoners, which is where Beauvoir’s Second Sex comes into play; the Darling, as woman, is trapped in this cell of domestic household, disciplined by her supposed lover, whose “Affections will become more harmful” (“Testamonium”). The woman, always under the gaze, slowly becomes “Other,” just as de Beauvoir’s essay theorizes, through almost animalistic (and abused) imagery of “bitten hands” and “bitten lip” as well as through the constant interruption made by the second person pronoun that addresses the lover (and reader).
Ridley’s style is what brings the ambitious collection its success. Her choice to play with space, as if scoring the poems herself, creates a rich duality between pauses and punctured fragments—in this collection, her periods work more as commas, but provide a stilted rhythm that is essential to the tone. Her consonance of d and t throughout also add to the sound of stuttering as well as implications of violence and discipline. The rhyme throughout is subtle; slant and internal rhymes work as indicators to the reader—in fact, the major shift in Darling’s narrative is signaled with internal rhyme, falling on “reward” and “accord” in XXVII of “Testimonium.”
Slap-dashed versus reward.
She shall decide how long this will last and conclude.
Her own accord.
This shift characterizes the return of agency to Darling, the rebellion of de Beauvoir’s second sex. Asides work positively as insight into what isn’t said, perhaps due to an implied oppression. The collection—which begins with the words “A husha”—begs to be heard in its silence, within the white spaces of the pages.
The Counting House’s final lines are no less satisfactory, as its words are left to echo in readers’ ears when it pleads for something that can be believed in: “Rain. // Grief. // Skin.” (“Luxuria”). This sentiment then reappears on the final page in a slab poem of three new repeated words in various orders, inciting the effect of a tombstone to mark the collection’s end. Whether or not readers are interested in the greater philosophy of the pieces, Sandra Ridley’s strength in tone and the ways in which the mood—formed within the first four words—is built and maintained, should be entertainment enough to keep the pages flipping.
– ML Wolters
I received Sara Deniz Akant’s Parades (2014) at the perfect time—just days before Halloween. I’m not sure if this was the solid marketing of Omnidawn Publishing, or mere coincidence, but this chapbook will haunt you, not only with images of ghosts speckled from the first page throughout the book but also with remnants of dead white men whose metered verse feels fragmented, torn, and echoing.
Not that this is actually their metered verse, as one might get with an actual erasure collection, but one can pick up on traces of Poe here—the “scratching wall” in the poem “Mark,” and the line “no it’s not so very raven, such thin walled bones” (“Finga”), or even Twain when describing “Sawyer gadgets” in “Machines on the Move.”
Winner of the Omnidawn Poetry Chapbook Competition, one of the many feelings left upon the reader will be that of frustration. What’s experimental about it? The bizarre forms, the abandoned syntax, some foreign languages here and there, a more challenging demand for comprehension, and an extra use of keyboard symbols. What wasn’t? The rhythm, the rhyme, the strange lurking of late Romanticism and the occasional return to formalism and syntax. As is the case with most experimental poetry, we won’t “get” all of it. Oftentimes, I felt like I was reading an erasure poem—except that it often bounced with metered rhythm and rhyme. Poems like “The Baboon,” while skating across the page looking fragmented with all its chunks of white space, at the same time, sounded quite villanelly.
Admittedly, some of the typographical choices that have become set within the poetry felt to me a little gimmicky—meant more for ornamental decoration than to enhance some of the poems. This was the case with poems like “Uptron,” “Itgara 2.0,” and “April Ltd.” In one case, the poem “^ Wilbaso ^” felt successful with all of its bizarre carrots, inching the eyes upward in verse “half-trolling^the eies,” and certainly much of the forms used by Deniz Akant felt new, straying from your typical Academy tercet/couplet into centered, justified wide margined prose pieces, followed by less marginalized prose poems broken with repetitive hyphens (which just look like really long lines). Essentially, Sara Deniz Akant is reworking what we know of the prose poem in many of these pieces, but much more fragmented, and a lot more caesuraed. Comprehensively, the collection moves from what feels like an establishment of setting, piecing itself together through a collection of character-driven poems marking the dead from abandoned spaces, and turning on itself in dystopian machinery. At least for me.