Full-Length and Micro Reviews of Works by Timothy Liu, Betty Adcock, Barbara Presnell, Biljana D. Obradović & Beth Copeland
Timothy Liu, Luminous Debris: New and Selected Legerdemain 1992-2017.
New York City: Barrow Street Press, 2018. 213 pp.
Review by Dorothy Chan
Timothy Liu's Luminous Debris is exquisite. If the title of this New and Selected promises a legerdemain, then the reader will certainly not be disappointed with how we enter this collection through a sequence that mimics a deck of tarot cards. The collection's opening poem is titled "The Lovers" and starts this poetic tarot deck at zero. In the world of Liu, do lovers merely represent lovers or, as following the order of tarot, are they "fools" as well? If Roberto Tejada's foreword is any indication, then yes, Liu's lovers are also "fools": "Liu writes poetry 'as if everything said...were a lie,' summoning scene changes and voices into collision-hymns of distress and degradation. He stages the poetic performance of an abject self in situations that serve political purposes, both racial and sexual" (i). Yes, Liu's lovers are "fools," but of course it's more complex than a speaker navigating new territory; I argue that Liu's speakers expect the unexpected and possess a clairvoyance, all the while critiquing many aspects of western culture and assessing their own complexities. In Liu I read what's pretty, what's ugly, and what's harsh. I also read what's "unruly," as observed by Tejada. And, the "legerdemain" of this New and Selected lies in the mixed curation of the poems: while most New and Selected collections are chronologically ordered, Liu's collection breaks that mold, giving the audience a new experience.
"We love badly," states the speaker of "Ariel Singing," a poem that consists of seventeen lines, a majority of which consists of iambs. Liu's lines are precise, and when his speaker delivers a short sentence it's heartbreaking: "We love badly" and "It is all I want," for instance, are sentences that stick, and sentences that reflect the themes of the collection. In "We love badly," I think back to these lines from "After the Storm" (from section 2, "Coins"):
Renewed by morning air now pouring in
through a torn screen, we wake to dawn's
cold invasion, so many birds outside
it sounds like a tape of Brahms on cue
or review, that unrest of something
always searching. Once my heart rate
slowed when I fell in love, altering
the scale of pitch (69).
Liu's couplets are gorgeous. They win in their simplicity: who could forget something as beautiful as "something / always searching." The speaker's internal longing mixed with the renew "by morning air" and the "cold invasion," along with the reference to Brahms completes this longing--this "always searching." If Liu's speakers lament that "We love badly," then they are "always searching" as well. And of course, I'm drawn to the beautiful and unforgettable "Once my heart rate / slowed when I fell in love, altering / the scale of pitch."
Though Liu's speakers are unabashedly realistic about the world, they still leave enough room for tenderness. Two important turns also occur in "After the Storm," which mark major characteristics of the poet's work: 1. The speaker makes references to the canon of poetry, and 2. The speaker draws parallels between the mother and the lover. Liu references Emily Dickinson: "Yet fascicles / sewn up by Dickinson's hands survive / the grave," but what I appreciate even more is Liu's reference to Hsu Chi Mo who "went down in mountains covered with mist, / how words go out of print" (70). Liu makes several western canonical references throughout this collection, which is fascinating when these references are coupled with images and synesthesia of eastern origins. For example, tarot card VI: "Naked" includes several italicized sections: in "White Blossoms," Liu's speaker gives us: "Does your face still shine when you speak / my Chinese name? If I told you / three apricots have fallen to the ground / where we once walked, that I ate" (13). And in "A World Made Out of Absence," his speaker delivers: "No news from you, only the voice of Whitman / on the radio last night--a recording / Edison had saved on a cylinder made of wax" (16). In Liu, the synesthesia gives us parallels, for instance, the sacredness of the speaker's Chinese name, as opposed to the speaker's English name, which makes the lover light up. It's soft gestures such as this that create voltas in the work--again, the simply-structured lines serve the poems well, further highlighting the synesthesia and sensation from multiple senses.
"After the Storm" also draws parallels between moments the speaker had with his mother and moments the speaker has with a lover: "Nor the heads / on pennies buried in the earth we found / while planting bulbs--one with the date / of my mother's death and another with / your birth. Or was it merely a dream" (70). Similar turns also strikingly exist in "The Silence." In reading "The Silence," I'm overwhelmed with the both the vividness and haunting nature of the opening stanza:
She took the spareribs out of the oven
and set them steaming on a plate
before leaving her apartment.
I didn't know how long to wait,
tore into cold meat when I decided
my mother wasn't coming back. (74)
Liu's turns always serve the highest purpose: there's an emphasis on the "I" of "when I decided" followed by a stanza break, followed by "my mother wasn't coming back." I'm floored by the mundanity and smell of "spareribs out of the oven" combined with the carnal, "tore into cold meat when I decided / my mother wasn't coming back." It's the carnal nature of "tore into cold meat" that really brings this tragic scenario to light. In fact, the speaker's "I decided" isn't a decision, but instead, a tragic clairvoyance that cannot be prevented. And the speaker's full awareness of this brings even more weight to the poem. Liu's speaker gives us another purposeful turn that comes in section 4 of this poem: the stand-alone line, "The silence is the agony" (75). But before this turn and this section, Liu's speaker brings in the lover in a poem about the mother:
Yesterday morning, I was leaning
over a kitchen sink, my husband
upstairs sleeping. Between his snores
muffled under a down comforter
and a portable electric heater that kept
our bedroom warm, I knew
I could sob as loud as I wanted
without disturbing his dreams. (74)
Again, "without disturbing his dreams"--Liu's speaker seamlessly enters multiple realms as parallel scenes are drawn from lover to mother and from mother to lover. Liu also transports the audience through different realms via different time periods, which makes me think of the standout poem, "Middle-Class Realia as Iconographic Vanitas." I love Liu's mix of references, and modernizing Vanitas is not only decadent, but also tongue-in-cheek. "Vanitas" is a smart twenty-first century kitschy commentary: "Desire zeroing in on that Furby eBay auction / while smut chat gets caught up / in the Hegelian carpet roll--the secrets of your life / scrawled on Post-it notes that fell / off your dash--" (85).
For lack of a better word, Luminous Debris is luminous, from Liu's simplicity of line that reveal inner desires and regret from lover to family, to the poignant scenes in poems like "Bisexuality" ("His credentials? He says he did it / with a boy or two long before / his pubes set in") and "If Everything I Said" (in which the speaker's coming out affects a relationship with an old friend) to social commentary that ranges centuries to Liu's humor in poems such as "Fucking Ass in the 19th Century." This collection gives us what is sad, what is beautiful, and what is lasting--I highly recommend this book.
Dorothy Chan is the author of Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018) and the chapbook Chinatown Sonnets (New Delta Review, 2017). She was a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship. Chan is the Editor of The Southeast Review. Visit her website at dorothypoetry.com.
Betty Adcock, Rough Fugue
Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2017. 62 pp.
Review by Vanessa Loh
The collection begins with a talisman. A powerful and wordless source of vision and illumination. "Talisman" is the introductory poem in Betty Adcock's Rough Fugue and could be taken as a guide for the reader throughout the entire work. The poem serves as early counsel to be receptive to the immaterial and to what is nearly buried--just as the talisman, an elk antler, was buried and dormant along a Colorado trail.
the elk antler trembled as I dug it out, then
woke in my hand like a dowser's wand--
Lifeless and preserved, this talisman offers not so much good fortune as the fortune of insight. Or maybe, more vaguely, legibility. Or faith in legibility. Maybe simply tenacity. Nothing is as it first appears in this collection of poetry. Even words cannot be taken at their surface value--poems often leverage second or third definitions along with primary meanings to produce richer uses of words and more dynamic poems. The word talisman derives from the Greek telos/telein root, meaning to bring to completion or to an ending point. A rite. And the collection's patient and gradual offering of poetic themes does have an air of carefulness and ritual. Taken together with its vernacular meaning, talisman means more than a good luck charm, more even than protective magic. It suggests enough illumination to carry something to a point. The poem closes
with shadow like old snow, it's the rough
image of the night-tined candelabra
whose blown fire led me to see in the dark.
The poem conveys the immaterial power of the unseen and the unknown, manifest in the elk antler and also in language and poetry. From another early poem, "Meditation/Elegy":
All words contain a tree,
language a rooted branching
on the paths of breath.
The word for book began with Latin
liber, name for the inner bark
of certain trees the early Romans found
to be the best material for writing on.
Much poetry is an implicit commentary on language. In this instance Adcock comments on language directly which, in the context of this collection, is especially self-reflexive. A moment of meta-commentary, somewhat circular, but also radiating. Just as the elk antler, which was the buried thing, is also the divining wand that illuminates, so too language illuminates meaning in the world obscured by language.
...art and language in a dance, world
reflected, made, remade, undone,
returning--tethered still to origin.
Considered alongside the cue from the collection's title, this passage could be an allusion to a fugue: fugue in the musical sense--a subject introduced in the beginning of the work, then developed and repeated with variation. In the context of this particular poem, we also get a glimpse of a psychiatric fugue, which is characterized by unexpected travel and amnesia regarding one's identity. As though words could travel unexpectedly to unpredictable destinations, or be put to unpredictable purposes. We use words and forget their previous incarnations, which often remain latent in their usage. Not only is it impossible to visualize "art and language in a dance," but trying to work out the conceptual imagery recalls us irresistibly to Yeats's "Among School Children"--how can we know the dancer from the dance?--and thus makes a point about change and the essence of being.
The volume is divided into three sections, titled "Arguments," "Widow Poems," and "Garments of Light." Each section is a unity unto itself, a small collection, which functions together with the others to create a wider, more dynamic perspective. The first section, "Arguments," sets up the foundational ideas as vital tensions rather then pat axioms. So as a musical fugue is playing out in poetry and language, the movement of themes accumulates into something akin to a medical fugue--or, the kind of presence that is at once present and not properly present. The poem "Small Prayer" considers our relationship to the immediacy of the physical earth as having grown distant: "the blue round / as small as a child's ball." Vastness "argues" with constriction and what is lost is appreciation for the unknowable aspects of a comprehensive view.
Now we do with it what we will,
forgetting how its vastness left us
The relationship brought into focus here between "speechless[ness]" and "worshipping" is as poignant as it is insightful. It brings to mind a statement by Marcus Aurelius: "This you must always bear in mind: what is the nature of the whole and what is my nature and how this is related to that." The poem is witness to our misguided sense that we can conquer distance with "rockets," "satellites" and "wires." It shows how our perspective widens when we admit our smallness and our inability to comprehend the whole view--because we are part of it rather than the objective observers we sometimes imagine ourselves to be. We are humbled to speechlessness, and then by our speechlessness. The vastness of the universe is, after all, not a description of the universe but a picture of our own smallness.
Let the earth grow large enough again
that only clouds and stories can
encircle it entire.
This is a plea for a greater sense of presence. We cover the world in stories only when we are in the world. This is really the melody, or the structuring concept to which the poems keep returning. I am reminded of Rainer Marie Rilke's advice to his young poet: "cling to Nature...to the little things that hardly anyone sees, and that can so unexpectedly become big and beyond measuring...then everything will become easier, more coherent and somehow more conciliatory for you." Stories made from small materials close at hand can honor the vastness and movement found in nature in a way that technology tends to stagnate.
The second section "Widow Poems" explicitly foregrounds the grief that attends a different kind of loss. True to the style of a fugue, the concentrated matrix of the first section begins to elaborate different aspects of the foundational arguments. Situated in the middle of the section's ten poems is a series of five poems with titles beginning "The Widow..." The first of these poems, "The Widow's House," describes a couple's home that "seems to be coming apart" after the husband's death. After the first half of the poem describes the unmoored state of the widow's household possessions, the following lines anchor her grief in a kind of certainty:
She has asked so hard for him,
crying out in the night, weeping into
pots on the stove, roses in the yard.
This simply stated futility with which we meet another's death is the eye of the storm at the middle of the page, a point of clarity amid the disorientation of loss. As in other parts of the collection the recognition of being powerless motivates story-making that is ultimately profoundly true. "As if in the grip of a slowed / tornado" the widow imagines herself as part of the debris of a former life
confetti in some kind of decelerating
celebration: music, books, conversations
shredding in the wind that memory
always becomes--unfastened, recasting,
disheveling as the end of lovemaking.
The untidy agony of one's life in suspension is less traumatic fitted into the structured chaos of a tornado. The weightiness that often comes with feeling disheveled is leavened by the surrender implicit at "the end of lovemaking." Other "Widow" poems in the series include flickers of T.S. Eliot and homage to Wordsworth, as the widow tries frustratingly to find sustenance, not so much in her new future, but in her new present.
At the heart of the final section is the repose of harmony. The poems portray a sense of being in accord with nature despite elements beyond our control. "Pastoral" tells the story of a young man who inherits his great-grandfather's farmland and his commitment to restore it as he begins married life. The story is an update on the classic--he works a welding job to pay the bills, his wife goes out with her girlfriends one night. As she drives home in teeming rain the reader, not the wife, receives a vague foreboding: "Nothing / of what is the case is in her mind or can be so." While this line is precisely not a presentiment, it attunes the reader to something imminent and unknown. Two verses later, the delivery:
perfectly still black night in which he is facedown
in pasture mud, pinned by the sky's deadbolt.
The refiguring of the word "deadbolt" returns it to its origins: not a lock promising security, but a bolt of death. The idyllic is shattered. But decidedly not by modern technology. The light touch of the poet makes this almost a peaceful tragedy.
This wise and sophisticated collection reaffirms the value of story-making. Adcock's poetry reminds us of the patience needed to attempt the never-ending task of being present where we are. That we don't miss the poetry there.
Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. Trans. George Long. Ed. Duncan Steen. Naxos AudioBooks,
Rilke, Rainer Marie. Letters to a Young Poet. Trans. M.D. Herter Norton. New York: W.W.
Norton & Company, 1993.
Barbara Presnell, Blue Star
Winston-Salem: Press 53, 2016. 84 pp.
Review by Katherine Watkins
Where imagination meets primary-source evidence, Blue Star, Barbara Presnell's most recent collection of poetry, emerges as a moving homage to Presnell family history. Many poems feature characters based on the poet's relatives and ancestors, most notably William (Bill) Presnell, the poet's father, who documented his wartime experiences as a Sergeant during World War II through photographs, postcards, letters, and journal entries. These and other family relics serve as entry points to the past, creating a factual baseline for many of the poems, Presnell's creativity then supplementing the missing details. Both personal and transcendent, Blue Star has something to offer all readers through its complex treatment of loss, yearning, fear, and resilience. For example, one piece, "In the Kitchen We String Beans," juxtaposes what ought to be a tranquil domestic scene--four women stringing beans on a kitchen table--with the reality of wartime violence that exists "in some faraway country" but confronts the women nevertheless via the newspaper they use to line the table where they work. "They [the beans] mound like a grave on today's front page, / covering the news that a soldier was hanged." There is more to this collection, however, than the terror and destruction of war. There are moments of great tenderness, levity, and even humor, as in "How to Cuss in French," where a school boy, presumably a fictionalized young Bill Presnell, doodles restlessly in French class, unaware of the relevance the language will hold for him when he becomes a soldier in a few short years. Taken as a whole, Blue Star wins readers over with its raw and poignant testament to the significance of family ties and the uncorrupted sweetness of home in a harsh and uncertain world.
"Speaking of the World," a review of Biljana D. Obradović's Incognito
Cincinnati: WordTech Editions, 2017. 112 pp.
Review by Brendan Egan
In "At the Supermarket," Serbian-American poet Biljana D. Obradović describes an unpleasant encounter at a Nebraska grocery. The speaker and her friend are admonished to "speak American" by a local shopper, prompting a meditation on the invisible weight the women carry as international academics in America. In Incognito, Obradović explores the prismatic vision of a true cosmopolite. Many poems here describe the particular complexity of a Serbian expat's life in the United States with an emphasis on the social upheavals of both nations. In the post-Katrina gardens of New Orleans, for instance, she finds longings for distant lilac bushes and the comforts of family. Likewise, in remembering parents lost during the years of the Kosovo War, she sees the escalating American conflicts in the Middle East.
Such layers of imagery, history, meaning, and emotion are seamlessly overlaid throughout the collection, creating a sense not of fragmentation, but of integrated experience. "The Festival of Politeness," in which the speaker, having fled flooded New Orleans to North Carolina, is asked to sign a petition "to make/Asheville the most polite city in America," perhaps best illustrates this sense of working to make whole what seems otherwise shattered. The poem reflects hopefully but pragmatically: "I have been temporarily (dis)located,/ (dis)placed to this city in the Black mountains./ Call me a Black mountain poet now."
Incognito also dexterously sews samples from Italy, China, France, and India into Obradović's kaleidoscopic quilt of verse. Clearly, she has seen the world and she can speak of it. "At the Supermarket" concludes with the polyglot friends putting things in perspective for that shopper who insisted that they "speak American": "We moved on to the bread shelves, satisfied of our revenge, / and continued chatting in the language we had chosen for the day."
Brendan Egan lives in west Texas, where he teaches at Midland College. His stories and poems have appeared in Yemassee, Threepenny Review, Quarterly West and other places.
"No One Gets Out Alive," a review of Beth Copeland's, Blue Honey.
Milton, Delaware: The Broadkill River Press, 2017. 98 pp.
Review by Allison E. Brown
The poetic voice in Beth Copeland's Blue Honey is as much the voice of a mystic as it is that of a mourner. Blue Honey contains three sections, each of which explores life, loss, and the aching yet tenuously triumphant healing that often blooms where grief is planted. While the three sections focus on the speaker's parents' struggles with Alzheimer's, on their deaths, and on the disintegration of the author's marriage, the poems themselves focus on the minutiae of daily life. From this seemingly commonplace material, Copeland deftly weaves together strands of meaning until events like a childhood bee sting or a lost wedding ring become emblems of the richness of memory and the fullness of familial bonds, even--especially--in the face of grief and loss.
Throughout Blue Honey, Copeland's accessible and conversational voice combines with an ever-present undercurrent of spirituality. The volume's third poem, "Water into Wine," introduces us to the speaker's parents: two Baptists who imbibe with restrained glee...but who must hide their alcohol stash from the prying eyes of fellow churchgoers. "Hymn" tells us that the speaker's ailing father "spoke to God in a chapel of sycamores," while "Grief" shows us that, while no longer able to speak, he "still sings O bear me away on your snow white wings." Because of this emphasis on the spiritual, the poems in Blue Honey take on an almost prophetic tone. Copeland's speaker becomes a sort of Priestess of the Everyday; her voice shepherds readers through the pain of loss with gentle, neighborly, narratives--a first-person intimacy combined with a third-person omniscience.
Blue Honey opens and closes with the image of bees. The volume's opener, "Good Intentions" narrates the aftermath of a bee's death, while the volume's final poem, "Sandhills Gold," explores the afterglow of a parent's life. As "Good Intentions" reminds us "no one gets out alive." But, as "Sandhills Gold" reassures us, the sweetness of a family's love and life remains long after the sting of death has faded.
Allison E. Brown teaches English at Midland College in Midland, Texas and is completing a Ph.D. in English at The City University of New York. She studied poetry under Tina Barr at Rhodes College, and her current scholarly work focuses on early American poetics, alternative narrative strategies, and Native American literature.