Friends! Help Me Welcome MLT Editing Services into the World!

 

Friends! Again, more time has passed than I would have liked before writing to you… As I said in my last couple posts, I have been spending much of my time this summer figuring out my life as a mother and as a writer (and now a teacher!), but I have also put a great deal of time into launching something new and pretty awesome:

MLT Editing Services is my new business where I offer editing, outlining, consultation, transcription and long-term/writer’s assistant services for resumes/CVs/cover letters, poetry, fiction and novels. The website officially launched on Thursday, August 20, and I already have a few projects underway, but I am attempting to spread the word as much as possible.

If you would be so wonderful, please share the information for MLT Editing Services’ main website, its Facebook page, or my Twitter feed, as those will be the primary places for updates on services.

Thank you all so much for your support! More poetry and stories soon!

Until then, All Best,
from me.

 

 

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Hey!! A New Feature is Coming to My Blog Very, Very Soon!!

 

Yesterday evening, I wrote a sort of long-time-no-see post, followed by a post that very well may have opened a huge door for me. I shared how a poem from my earlier writing life had hugely intersected with a specific incident from my day yesterday, and I came to a realization after sharing that post: I had known before that being pregnant and becoming a mother were changing me as a writer… but I had failed to realize that I also have something to say about that process. Something that may be entirely worthwhile to write about and, ultimately, for you to read about.

11751772_10153427067727118_1443220781355402859_nThere are many secrets involved in being and becoming a mother—many misconceptions, many questions left unanswered (until experienced), many details left unnoticed, despite how beautiful and raw they can be. Becoming a writer first and a mother later in life gave me the opportunity to re-explore what it means to be sentimental, what it means to write about passion, joy, and what it means to be gentle or angry or vulnerable. I wanted to push the limits on what it meant to write about these experiences, and write about them well, and honestly. I wanted to thoroughly explore what it meant to be pregnant, and a new mother, and many of the resulting poems made their way into my circulating poetry manuscript.

These are the sorts of things I want to talk about, and how they became involved in the writing process. Not only how we write about these things, but the ways in which they change how we write. How I’ve changed as a writer in becoming a mother… and perhaps even ways in which being a writer has challenged my thinking as a mother.

Now don’t worry, if these subjects aren’t your “thing,” because you won’t see these posts all the time. Rather, every once in a while, in-between the rough draft poems and the book reviews, I might post something like, “Hey, here is something I just learned as a mother, and here’s what it’s got me thinking about as a writer.” I’m tentatively thinking of titling these posts “First She Was a Poem” or “Cadence on the Swings” (both of which feel fitting, to me). I hope this interests some of you as much as it interests me.

Until Later, Best ~ from me.

 

 


First, She was a Poem: Cadence on the Swings

 

11742658_10153453969622118_953100391710070779_nI had a bit of a moment today, and I really have to share. In the picture to your left is my beautiful, nine-and-a-half-month old daughter, Cadence (yes, like the title), and she had her first turn on a swing today—one of those little, infant-safe ones on a backyard playground set. And then it hit me:

I wrote a poem about this.

Now, that may not sound like much to you, but here’s the thing: I wrote “Cadence on the Swings” during my second year of my undergrad, back when “Cadence” was just a name I was madly in love with, back when I didn’t even know my husband existed yet… and back when my mentor first took me really, really seriously as a writer.

I originally handed this poem in as my final poem of the semester, before handing in a portfolio two weeks later of new and revised work, and I got this poem back, only with parts underlined that he loved and a note that said, “This poem is so dense! You need to be in graduate school.”

And so there it was: my future, laid out for me.

And now I have a beautiful little girl to share it with: my Cadence on the swings.

Thanks for listening, all.

 

CADENCE ON THE SWINGS

 

She peeled away the web between
her toes. The skin seemed to stretch,
transparent, and finally break,
lying in her fingers like a
used rubber band. Her throat was tight
then, forcing gills to grow at her
neck, stubble on her chin. The
water would swallow her lips, her
lungs, as her mouth opened in wide
gulps, street salamanders, a salt
water lake. She couldn’t
understand why her mother would
turn on the defrost at the same
time as the heat, as though to glimpse
the driver behind her, planning
to pour its lights in a
triangle around her as her
legs wrapped around one support of
the swings. She recalls she screamed when
she realized she couldn’t untie
her legs, the accordion knees,
her finger-trapped body.

 

 


Writing My Summer Away: In the Early Days after My MFA

 

10985421_989606764925_3672885219015003963_nHello, everyone!

Needless to say, it’s been a while—sorry for the radio silence. As some of you know, I graduated this May with my MFA in Poetry from Western Michigan, and my life since then hasn’t quite been what you would have expected. As my younger self, I would have expected myself to have a full-time job lined up, to still be working in publishing, and to have long-since figured out these routines of writing-every-day and getting-things-published. But that is not the deck I was actually given.

Some things have been better, though unexpected, and some things have been, yes, disappointing. Despite the title of this post, I have not been writing my summer days away; in fact, I have not written a full, revised poem since the last I wrote for my thesis (granted, that poem was written two days before my graduation reading and was added at the last minute). In part, this has been because I simply needed a break away from deadlines—finishing and revising a thesis, knocking out a book review every week, writing other articles to build up a portfolio, etc—but it’s partly because I have been the b-word: busy. Traveling (to Croatia, finally), settling into my house (yes, making it a home), finishing up my job at my previous press position (so part of my summer was dedicated to publishing, at least), and “simply,” well, being a mom.

Now I know some of the writers out there are cringing, and before being placed in my current shoes, I would have cringed, too, when someone said the above things. How could there not be time and inspiration and motivation and all the other tools we need to write while traveling or simply being at home? And how do you not have energy and time while caring for a child? Well, since Cadence was born, I have had to put my foot in my mouth, repeatedly. I am not going to go on and on about how difficult and time-consuming it is to be a mother, or to move into a home and fix it up, but I will say that my life has grown to be different and unexpected from what I had originally envisioned for myself. Am I disappointed that life didn’t go my way? I have my days, my moments, small things I wish had gone differently. But I am growing into myself, and my surroundings, and what I have been given. And you know what? It’s all turning out to be okay, and fulfilling. I’m reaching the point where I’m happy enough that I want to write again. I haven’t been able to say that for a long time, admittedly. I was writing, but rather mechanically, and I’m beginning to feel that burn in me, a sort of ache, that has me chomping at the bit to write something down. I’m going to hold out a little longer, a few more days, until the itch buries itself a little deeper and then I’ll probably knock out a few poems in one sitting, grab ten collections off the shelf to read, and then I’ll be back in my old rhythm. I’ve just needed some time to settle into my own skin, outside of the deadlines, to figure out what I want and how I’m still going to be someone I want to be without getting the original things I wanted in the sense of location and vocation and what have you.

So I guess what that means for you, dear readers and friends, is that you’re going to start hearing from me again—very, very soon. I have several books sitting out waiting to be reviewed, and there are books I want to read, just because, and I really need to get back to writing—both poetry and research. And maybe, just maybe, when I send work out this round, I’ll have good news to share with you all about issues to check out that have my name in them.

Until then, All Best ~ from me.

 

 


The Division of History & Fiction: Reading Kristy Cambron’s A Sparrow in Terezin

 

Kristy Cambron_A Sparrow in TerezinIn Kristy Cambron’s A Sparrow in Terezin, the second novel in the A Hidden Masterpiece Novel series, two central female characters, Sera James and Kája Makovsky, bridge the gap between a past genocide and a present-day criminal investigation. Kája previously fled her home, escaping the Holocaust; Sera is dealing with a situation that may put her future husband in jail; and it is when these two stories find their crossroads, and these two women take support from one another, that the story becomes truly interesting.

As a writer, I find historical fiction to be involving, but tricky. There is a certain line that has to be crossed, in the interpretation of history, filling in the blanks, and creating believable, realistic characters—but also there is the preservation of history to consider. Beautifully, this feat is attempted and achieved in Cambron’s novel, in which Kája’s escape and return to her home country, accompanied with Sera’s journey, is riveting.

I apologize that this is a short review, but this novel is truly about the story, and I do not believe in spoilers. I recommend taking the time, slowing down, and reading this for yourself. The novel is somewhat narrative-and-detail-heavy in several places, but these moments are well worth it, as they offer a great amount of depth for the rest of the story. Kristy Cambron is certainly a novelist to look out for.

 

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NOTE: While I read Kristy Cambron’s debut novel, The Butterfly and the Violin, I did not review it and did not include it as part of my above review, despite A Sparrow in Terezin being its sequel, as a part of the A Hidden Masterpiece Novel series.

 

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KRISTY CAMBRON has been fascinated with World War II since hearing her grandfather’s stories. She holds an art history degree from Indiana University and has fifteen years industry experience as a corporate learning facilitator and communications consultant. Cambron writes World War II and Regency fiction and placed first in the 2013 NTRWA Great Expectations and 2012 FCRW Beacon contests. Her debut novel, The Butterfly and the Violin, was nominated for the RT Reviewers’ Choice Awards’ “Best Inspirational Novel” of 2014. Kristy makes her home in Indiana with her husband and three football-loving sons.

 

 


“The Way Poetry Evokes Things / Only Potentially There”: Perception, Identity & Heritage: Reading Allan Peterson’s Precarious

 

Allan Peterson_PrecariousIn the quiet moments, when we stop to take a breath and think, we may realize that all of our thoughts, our questions, our hopes, are connected—that is to say, back to two main ideas: Where am I going? and Where have I been? Again, as if to say something toward longevity, What am I leaving behind? How will I be remembered? Whether or not we want to admit our involvement with these questions, they are always there, always looming, and they impact where we go, who we become, and even how we perceive where we’ve come from. They impact what we do and what results from what we do. The irony of this is that not all things can be controlled, nor left to chance, but the same way we are sometimes challenged to perceive all of our decisions relating back to those two opening questions, we are sometimes motivated to prove the opposite. We want to prove our actions can be impulsive and unrelated to our lives, and we expect some occurrences to be left without explanation. For instance, when we imagine something as being precarious, we think of its synonyms, something that is “insecure” or “dependent on chance”—something “dangerous”—and perhaps that is Allan Peterson’s point in the titling of his collection, Precarious. These poems are rooted in the exploration of connection—of the identity, of connection through the landscape (via geographical exploration) and one of heritage. What’s more, Peterson’s poems are passionate in their study of these elements, as well as images and the greater concept of isolation, particularly as it relates to a narrator searching.

I love these poems, their introspective nature on the external, the inevitability of it, and, of course, their deeply-intellectual involvement with image. I will admit, it took several readings for me to feel as if I were truly grasping the sensation of these poems—not for lack of interest, but for their intellect. We say this often about poetry, but truly, these poems are layered; they appear to spend their time in the act of observation and introspection, and they surely do spend time here, but they are also greatly involved in considering our connections across landscapes and heritage, and consider how little we can do in forbidding these connections; these poems, in the end, suggest that these connections cannot be severed but only realized and built upon. That is an ultimate challenge for our humanity—realizing what we are, knowing what we cannot change, and ultimately, making the best of it. Then, when we are able to mobilize that idea, and bring it to something as visual and feeling as poetry, that seems to be a step in the right direction.

What I found myself fixating on the most in my reading of Peterson’s work was his use and complicating of images. If we take, for instance, of my favorite of his Precarious poems, titled “Heat Escaping through My Head,” we can see not only the inevitability of connection, but of the beauty, and the complexity, of it:

 

HEAT ESCAPING THROUGH MY HEAD

 

Granite remembers fire like Gulf sand

the mountains of Carolina

Ilex leaf shadows on weathered wood grain

reconstruct fragments

of a Qashq’ai rug so that this remembrance

might drift in

below the angel’s warm garden o’s woven

that the calories

might escape like a lace scarf

But freezing now

the stiff plants have turned to lettuce my heart

sticks close recalling

thoughts of the tram that cannot leave its wire

 

I love this series of images and their relationship—how one element remembers another, impersonates another, and how we connect deeply to, both, the natural and the mechanical elements around us. It truly is impossible to avoid earthy relations, which are both beautiful their lasting and troublesome in their loss, but they also help to define us, what is important to us—in this case, the outdoors, nature, the ability to travel; it’s telling. And Peterson’s poems naturally work in this fashion, giving us snippets of understanding, giving us man-made locators, such as a Hardee’s or a Books-A-Million, or more natural, if man-named, places like the Carolinas, as well as creatures we coexist with, dogs and stingrays… Despite the time we appear to sit fixed, thinking about the message and sentiment of these poems, we are actually firmly surrounded by living beings and goings-on, all the time, on every page. It’s astounding, really, even a feat to have been captured.

Which brings me to another element I found myself returning and returning to—as I started referring to them, mile-markers, places the narrator has been that more easily locate the reader to a place, if a not a time, and there’s that unusual element of elevated connection to another human being when we discover that they, too, have been out of town to a particular spot—how we suddenly have something more to talk about, a new point of insight. And these idea is interweaved into some, if not many, of Peterson’s poems, through his references to particular geographical landmarks, store and dining locations, and even pop culture. While some writers may steer clear of such references, fearing whether or not they will bring a heightened awareness or cloud the sentiment of the poem with other references, Peterson uses these fearlessly, and they become more so the side commentary that might appear in a conversation of another subject, contributing though not stealing focus. These small inclusions make for even more honest poems than they were originally, and they create for us references where the narrator has been in the body and where the narrator is currently in the mind.

Because along with intellectualism and the act of reflection, there comes a certain amount of personal isolation. While these poems are lovely and explorative, there is an element of loneliness and perhaps even a certain of sadness, intertwined with observation and admiration. It reminds the reader of our and the world’s impermanence, as well as the questionable nature of identity, after-life and religion. In giving these poems the opportunity to connect through relatable and familiar places, references and acts, the reader is given a greater opportunity to relate, and while this does not occur in the poems themselves, there is a suggestion of evolvement on the part of the narrator, as readers “get to know” the speaker through reader, introspection and familiarity with references.

Allan Peterson handles writing about extremely sensitive and personal topics—the things that most shape us—with surprising ease and continuation. While I have focused more so on the value of the image and the connections made to readers on the part of the narrator, these poems also do beautiful work in answering questions about the role of heritage and a higher power in our beliefs, everyday lives and identity. These poems are complex, imagistic and feeling, and there are beautiful parallels of self and sea, natural and man-made places. These poems take time, patience and thought, but they are well-worth it. You read them, and you find yourself sinking, taking it all in, and you come out on the other side all the wiser. These are poems that should not be missed; take the time to read them; they’re worth it.

And before I go, I would like to share with you two of my other top-favorite Precarious poems, because they deserve and need to shared with more readers, and interestingly-enough, they are placed in close proximity to “Heat Escaping through My Head,” right at the book’s center. Cheers.

 

FEELING LIKE THE AFRICAN

 

Where I am, with me is

Frances to whom my muscles are attached,

dogs that perk with a whistle,

catching urgency from whatever state I call.

Even the strangest will do the same:

And what has flown low below me, stingrays,

loons, hooded mergansers

the almost frozen wolf eel ribboned in the depths,

whose beauty is my god’s

revenge on austerity, whose cloudy wrist tells time,

white as a moonstone.

But I have no god. It is just me feeling like the African

figure full of nails

that says the future is likely all rust and worms, muscular,

attentive, but with extra dogs.

 

DON’T FORGET US

 

Autotomy in spiders is a voluntary act.

With such surprises, anticipation should have them

humming like the truck of wear-dated carpet

that idled all night in the Hardee’s parking lot.

Yesterday at the falls above the old quarry

a man put a running shoe on his plastic leg

for a fleet and normal look the way poetry evokes things

only potentially there, things attached for survival.

Then what was taken from the cliff became a lake

bathers spun down to on a single string.

What comes after is unknown, how a spider throws a leg,

us leaving our pennies where they fall.

What could it cost the present if a few heads were missing,

discovered eventually black as frostbite,

meaning don’t forget us, we are leaving things behind.

 

*

“The way poetry evokes things / only potentially there” is taken from Allan Peterson’s poem, “Don’t Forget Us,” as it appears in Precarious (42 Miles Press, 2014).

 

ALLAN PETERSON is a visual artist and poet living in Gulf Breeze, Florida, and Ashland, Oregon. His poetry has appeared widely in print and online literary journals. He has published five full-length collections and seven chapbooks. Honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the State of Florida and ten nominations for Pushcart Prizes, as well as a variety of poetry prizes and appearances in anthologies. He also has a lengthy record of visual work in national, regional and invitational exhibitions. His mixed media work has been represented in corporate, university and private collections.

 

 


My Attempt at a Definition Poem while Reading Allan Peterson

 

This is why I love reading: it opens so many doors.

While reading Allan Peterson’s Precarious (published by 42 Miles Press, 2014), I began to consider less-than-common terms, synonyms that are so interesting and unique that we often do not use—for instance, why use the term “precarious” when we could just as easily say “dangerous” or “unsafe” as they are more commonly used in the mainstream?

Intrigued by this thought, I looked up the definition of “precarious” in my old, old, old dictionary and loved what I found—so much so that I wanted to write a poem, and not just a poem, but a series. I began to consider those less-common, lovely synonyms of words we so often use, looked them up, and began to write a set of dictionary poems that each begin as definitions and then spin off.

Anyway, this is not revised, but it is the first from the collection, all of which are titled “DEFINE” and then open with the word researched.

 

DEFINE

 

                precarious          —to be

not securely          (surely)              held

or in position        —dangerous

likely to fall; collapse; dependent

on chance; uncertain

uncertain; insecure; unpredictable; risk-

y; hazardous; dangerous; un-safe un-settled un-stable un-

steady; (I’ll bleed the wine right out

of you);              shaky; (both bees

and limbs like trees, left falling

left falling—collapsing        across

your driveway, lightning          struck, or is it

the other way around, your chimney

smoking,          like birds—the raven—left calling

left calling;          return)

 

 


Reading Allan Peterson

 

CONTINENTAL

 

We were sinking

The windows were filling with cities

as if poured into glasses

No one was thinking of drowning

No one thinking air ship

but there we were submerging

A captain turned off the cabin lights

We folded our tables    headed down quietly

The moon holding its breath floated up

 

KNOWLEDGE FIRST

 

We call it knowledge first to be nice, then superstition

if it’s theirs, then demonic if it means contradiction.

Remember the Tree of it, how dangerous, how nothing stays

in its place once you know feathers drop symmetrically

so the skimmer doesn’t fly in a circle. The very idea

of its place is the forcing of facts into a philosophy

someone is paying to maintain. The moment the sugar

crystals surrender to syrup out of sheer curiosity

they start to rebuild again drying to a small city on the knife.

Lilacs are massaged along the fence by windy hands.

You can see them give and moan from their fingers.

This is what they told us we’d die from, wasn’t it

—love, teeth first in the pinnate leaves, then the hickory

chewing on its lip lies to us again. How after dying it recants.

 

FEELING LIKE THE AFRICAN

 

Where I am, with me is

Frances to whom my muscles are attached,

dogs that perk with a whistle,

catching urgency from whatever state I call.

Even the strangest will do the same:

And what has flown low below me, stingrays,

loons, hooded mergansers

the almost frozen wolf eel ribboned in the depths,

whose beauty is my god’s

revenge on austerity, whose cloudy wrist tells time,

white as a moonstone.

But I have no god.   It is just me feeling like the African

figure full of nails

that says the future is likely all rust and worms, muscular,

attentive, but with extra dogs.

 

*

 

all from Allan Peterson’s Precarious (42 Miles Press, 2014)

 

 


To the New York Times Book Review, Domestic Violence is Never Funny: A Response Review of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau

 

Jill Alexander Essbaum_HausfrauReaders, let me explain first that I am not one to contest reviews, whether overly positive, unconstructively negative, or anything in-between. But when a review makes a claim that is societally problematic, I have to respond—not to the review as a whole, but to its thematic issues. A week ago, a review appeared for the New York Times Book Review that left many writers enraged, which led to an angered discussion of the role of domestic violence in our society and literature, as well as how we view it and how we should talk about it. The review was in response to Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau, and within it, there were aggressive and misinterpreting claims regarding victim responses to domestic violence, as well as the definition of an effectively-portrayed central female figure. The NYT reviewer (who I have decided will remain nameless in this response review, though I don’t doubt that it would be easy for you to find their name, if you were to pursue it) marked the novel as “banal,” stated that it contained “all the charm of a sink full of dishwater” and (my favorite) claimed that it contained “rogue humor”… in reference to (get this) victim response in a situation of domestic violence. AKA: the main character’s response to physical victimization (or, if you haven’t read the book: the breaking of her nose) was funny. Readers, this claim upsets me. As I stated before, I understand the purpose and placement of constructive reviews, and even at times negative reviews, but I cannot account for one that is as problematic as this. Written in a snarky, jabbing and entirely-unconstructive fashion, the NYT reviewer offered us little by way of actual insightful discussion and instead led us down a very problematic path of not only misinterpretation but also a misrepresentation of the widely-spread societal problem that is domestic violence (and the widely-varied responses to it). My response review will be very different from my usual reviews, as it intends to be in conversation with the previous NYT reviewer’s review, mostly as a means to interpret and constructively engage with the previously-made claims.

Hausfrau is, in reduced terms, the story of one woman’s descent away from a seemingly-perfect, happy life to one of destruction in the form of disloyalty and self-exploitation. The main character, Anna, finds herself unsatisfied with her life with her husband and children and begins to explore other means of gaining happiness: at first classes and therapy, and eventually sexual relationships. The novel largely functions as a piece of self-reflection for the main character and, in my opinion, explores the effects of severe depression. Though this story does fixate on the sexual, as the NYT reviewer so grotesquely pointed out—they referred to the scenes of sexual exploration as graphic and compared Essbaum’s writing to the “erotic stylings of E.L. James”—its sexuality is in keeping with the process of Anna’s introspection and decline, a more physiological form of something like The Bell Jar than Fifty Shades of Gray, if you ask me.

The NYT reviewer also argued that any engagement with the novel was rooted in the opening line, “Anna was a good wife, mostly,” and that readers were spurred on by the proposition of reading about Anna’s flurry of sexual excursions, and discovering less than such was a disappointment of dramatic proportions. Not so. While I will admit that there is a great appeal to the mostly of the first line, I highly disagree that this is all a reader may sign on for, unless they are specifically looking for a run-of-the-mill weekday afternoon drama. Because the truth of the matter is, as terrible as some of our behaviors may be, with or without marriage, and with or without depression, those behaviors are often less than sensational, and even promiscuity does not always (or even often) equate with many lovers, but perhaps the inclusion of one or two. The sensational is in the reaction of the harmed—the wronged husband, in this case. I will agree that one of the grander moments of the text is in Bruno’s discovery about his relationship with Anna and one of their children, though not at all for the reasons the NYT reviewer suggested. To summarize, they claimed that in the moment when Bruno discovers one of his children is not his own, he breaks Anna’s nose, to which she “simply” realizes that he must have found out about one of her relationships and then thinks “only,” “Huh,” which the NYT reviewer found humorous and simple-minded. Readers, this may be a brief moment, but it is hardly simple. This is a moment of confession and regret, violence and self-deprecation, and contains grave surprise and shock. This moment is not humorous and does not mark Anna as simple-minded or as an equivalent to the other Ana of Fifty Shades. Rather, this is a mark of domestic violence and the quiet, subdued behavior that often ensues.

And this—this—is certainly the most important point I need to make—the reason I wanted to write this response review in the first place: domestic violence, of any kind, for any reason, is never funny. Ever. Not even a little; not even a chuckle’s worth. Because it involves pain and victimization and harm and is a form of physical and emotional robbery. For anyone who has been in this position of receipt knows that there is no humor to be found here, but also that, depending on the situation in which it happens (or even depending on how long it’s been going on), the response to the situation will widely vary—and let me tell you, a simple “Huh” is anything but dumbfounded. This is not plain or simple-minded behavior; it is a symptom of abuse. It is an expression of suppressed shock. Let me remind the previous reviewer that this simple response occurred immediately after Anna’s nose was broken; I highly doubt she was thinking about formulating a long and thorough response to the events that had just occurred. Such a reaction would be better suited for a later time and is largely demonstrated in the final pages, when Anna performs a thorough recounting of her life while waiting for a train that is finally late.

Which brings me to my final thought—I have my doubts about whether the NYT reviewer finished reading the book, because this piece deserves so much more credit, discussion and interpretative work than the reviewer offered. To invite a legitimate moment of humor of my own, this book is not just a pretty face—not just a lovely cover, not just the story of a housewife (nor is a book plain for having been about a housewife and domestic concerns; nor is being a housewife and performing as a housewife plain), not an over-sexed drama, and certainly not a comedy. It’s a deep exploration of a life that has become untethered, and of a woman truly seeking answers for her condition and struggling to move past a series of mistakes and finding a way to start over—for herself. For the NYT reviewer: if you became bored along the way, if you didn’t bother to finish reading it, if all you really took from it was sex and misappropriated responses to domestic violence… then you seriously did it wrong. Read it again.

 

JILL ALEXANDER ESSBAUM is the author of several collections of poetry, and her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry, as well as its sister anthology, The Best American Erotic Poems: From 1800 to the Present. She is a winner of the Bakeless Poetry Prize and recipient of two NEA literature fellowships. A member of the core faculty of the Low Residency MFA at the University of California, Riverside, she lives and writes in Austin, Texas.

 

 


The Waking, Danger & Consent of the Body & Love: Reading Lisa Mangini’s Bird Watching at the End of the World

 

Lisa Mangini_Bird Watching at the End of the WorldWhen we spend a lot of time reading poetry, I know we can become critical of the pursuit of love and the defining of boundaries in poetry—but sometimes, a poet chooses to address these exact topics, and they get everything right: they create something new, something meaningful, something entirely worth reading, whether it is within the context of poetry or not. Lisa Mangini makes this exact achievement in her premiere full-length collection, Bird Watching at the End of the World, as she addresses danger as it relates to the body, various forms of physical awakening, and hope, and the complications that come along with it. These poems are incredible, and unique, and lovely, and they invite us with such great ease to consider questions of our reality, of our awareness, and our consent.

Because this is a complex collection, I found myself beginning to categorize the poems, in a sense. While the collection is much deeper than this, I began to see the collection as exploring two story lines: the medical ups and downs of Mabel, who is primarily addressed as a “you” in her poems, and the otherwise growing-up of the central narrator, focusing on childhood, sexual awakening and the maturation of a romantic relationship. What is so fascinating about these two story lines is not only how they explore varied themes, but how these two story lines complicate the themes of the other.

For instance, there is the role of danger that appears in these poems, in the form of the medical, the mechanical and the everyday. As an example, I would like to share one of Mangini’s “Mabel” poems, a poem titled, “This is Your Body Speaking (ii),” which appears in a series of poems by the same name, inserted throughout the first section of the collection:

 

THIS IS YOUR BODY SPEAKING (ii)

It is impossible, you think, to identify
anything in this nearly all-black
celluloid of your guts. You think back
to tenth-grade biology, but can recall
only the stench of formaldehyde,
the serene look upon the piglet’s face.
You think you recognize the white tines
of ribcage, the twin kidneys, the long
crinkled streamer of small intestine.
But on a large slab of gray, you see
the white mass—which you do not
recognize from any diagram—
round and obvious as the moon,
and somehow, whatever it is,
know it can shift the tide inside of you,
send everything swaying in its pull.

 

Though this poem doesn’t overtly represent every form of danger addressed in this collection, it touches on the medical and, in some ways, the mechanical. Like many of the medically-focused poems in this collection, there is a thorough examination of the body and isolates its parts: “the white tines / of ribcage, the twin kidneys.” And there is also a hint of the mechanical in the “formaldehyde” and the “large slab of gray,” even the reference to “any diagram,” which not only points us to man-made products and scientific exploration but the acquaintanceship of the body with these objects. Some other poems more thoroughly explore the mechanical, though, as well as the everyday, in the form of a car or an MRI machine, even a shopping cart or childhood heirloom. These forms of danger lead us to a place not only of fear, but of isolation and intrusion. These poems are wrought with feelings of fear, pain and sadness, yes, but due to the isolation of a person that occurs during an MRI, or while riding in a car, and due to the isolation of body images, there is also a sense of hopelessness and loneliness. These poems are incredibly focused and lovely in their authenticity and thoroughness, and these explorations of areas and reckonings with the body are among the most memorable aspects of these poems.

And these explorations are deeply, deeply connected to the various forms of awakening that occur in these poems—the sexual, of course, and the medical, too. Several of these poems—again, not the one I have included in the review—address sexual awakening, the strangeness of it, the things that surprise us, that we fail to expect, but even more poems explore the strangeness of medical procedures, which in a way interact with our bodies in the same ways as sexual intercourse: disturbing, disrupting, surprising, intruding… But little is said about our agency and our ability at consent, because so much about medicinal procedure is implied as agreeable after signing paperwork, despite all of the intrusions that may occur, depending on a body’s needs. Understandably, it’s strange to think of these procedures in this way, but I feel Mangini’s poems do explore the medicinal from this strange angle, largely because it is a viable concern—besides the fact that it is interesting to think about. So much about these poems is rooted in truth and the strangeness of truth, which can be so deeply explored through our physical connections to the world and where truth resides.

Despite all of these remarks of intrusion and danger and negativity, there is also a sharp glimmer of hope—even if it is complicated. Beginning in the second section, poems about a successful, healthy, long-distance relationship begin to appear, and they are both lovely and extremely hopeful. However, staying true to the other poems in the collection, there are slighted reminders of isolation contained in these poems, as you will see below, and there are also poems that seem to operate in another dimension, describing a similar long-term couple in the third person, but who are also struggling with a terminally-ill partner: the reappearing Mabel from the first section. So while hope is invited into the collection, there are still reminders that hope can be compromised with other goings-on in our lives, and that hope isn’t as “simple” as a successful relationship (though, obviously, successful relationships are anything but simple—but let’s leave that for another conversation). Here is one of my favorite “relationship poems” from the collection, “Every Time We Go to IKEA”:

 

EVERY TIME WE GO TO IKEA

it’s raining. It starts as a light spray
across the windshield, so slight the wipers squeal
against the glass. But there’s no fighting

against the allure of clean lines, the illusion
of better organization, despite that no
number of cubed shelves can tidy up a life.

And every time, there is a young woman
assessing the sturdiness of a crib, sometimes alone,
sometimes with a man or her mother beside her,

and I do my best not to meet your eyes. Every time
we weave through the model kitchens, I make a bee line
to the sink—farm apron, stainless steel, undermount—

and press my palms against its cool basin; if it’s not
crowded, you’ll lean your hips along my back, rest
your chin on my shoulder, trying to see what it is

I’m seeing. We’ll look for a chest of drawers
for your apartment, debating Malm versus Hopen,
birch finish or espresso, and I’ll scribble

their dimensions in inches with a tiny golf pencil.
We’ll emerge with a cardboard box on a dolly
to a downpour, and against your wishes, I’ll insist

on moving the car to the loading area myself. Every time,
I will lose a sandal while running in the slick lot
and have to turn back to retrieve it. We’ll maneuver

the box in some impossible diagonal in the back seat
of the sedan, wipe the rain from our faces, prepare
ourselves to go home and build something.

 

In this particular poem, there is a much greater focus on hope and the beauty in the mundane (that promise of going home to “build something” is just gorgeous to me), but there are subtle moves of concern in the poem, too: the concern for sturdiness early in the poem, which also makes us think of the possibility of something falling through, as well as that lost sandal at the end, which makes us think of someone isolated, or lost. Though they are small moments, and though they are routine, they still remind us of the foreboding that can lurk in the background. In the same way, there is the foreboding of the medicinal that appears in the alternate version of these poems with Mabel and her partner.

To me, these poems are just tremendous explorations of what it means to be alive, the beauty and hope of being alive, and often the isolation and danger that comes along with it. These poems are so fixated on reality, and our various forms of waking and awareness, and invites our questions of consent and invasion of different forms of our bodies. There is foreboding, and warning, intertwined with how we live and breathe, how we love and live, and there is the reminder of beauty, too, no matter how complicated it might be. At its most basic, these poems remind us that there is very little to come to us that can remain simple, that in no way becomes complicated, but these poems both consider how dangerous that that can be, but also how okay those complications can be. Take the time to read this collection. It’ll have you on your toes, wanting more of some things, and cringing at others, while all the while enjoying the ride. You won’t be disappointed.

 

LISA MANGINI holds an MFA from Southern Connecticut State University. She is the author of three chapbooks: Slouching Towards Entropy (Finishing Line Press), Perfect Objects in Motion (Red Bird Chapbooks), and Immanuel Kant vs. God (Red Bird Chapbooks). She teaches English composition and creative writing part-time at Southern Connecticut State University and Asnuntuck Community College; she is also the Founding Editor of Paper Nautilus. She was raised in Enfield, Connecticut, where she lives still, traveling frequently to Central Pennsylvania. This is her first full-length collection.