General Motors, by Ryan Eckes
(Split Lip Press, 2019)
General Motors opens as a series of vignettes of “chase scenes” through Philadelphia, where transitory particles collide with one another and quick associative leaps carry beauty, but also speak the reality of living in the shadow of liberty. Eckes writes “we’re surviving, so there’s a show. some lines i grow jealous of. bills flow thru my body, wet day dreams. you can have that line . . . the vast pastures of irrelevance. the pervasive motorization of petty individualisms.” For Eckes, that we’re merely “surviving” means little in the face of institutionalized class oppression:
“we’re doing unpaid work in the courtroom while temple university’s lawyer attacks us for being poor. his tongue is a wet dollar. you have no power—it says so right here in this poem you didn’t write. therefore, you should have no power—you can just go home.”
These meditations on labor and struggle in the face of an illusory American Dream are singularly important and reach into the heart of poiesis. In doing so, they come to understand voice and creative agency as potent critiques against the powers intended to keep us at bay, and through this the book shows us a way within and among the failing systems we live under.
Burn Fortune, by Brandi Homan
(forthcoming from Clash Books, 2019)
This necessary and utterly captivating text surpasses our understanding of what the coming-of-age text is and can do. Against the backdrop of rural Iowa in the mid-90s, Homan depicts the experiences of a high school girl as her life begins to unravel after trauma. She spends her summer days in the sweltering heat detasseling corn for five dollars an hour for her boyfriend’s abusive father, and the world she lives in is rife with sexism, misogyny, and violence. It is a world of pain, but nobody’s watching. Somehow her experiences seem so commonplace that they go unnoticed by those around her, including her all-too-absent parents who remain almost ghost-like at the edges of the frame. A victim of rape, the narrator finds empowerment in watching the films of Jean Seberg, a real-life movie star from her hometown of Marshalltown, Iowa. Images of Seberg in Paint Your Wagon, Hello Sadness and as Joan of Arc in Saint Joan perforate the text, and these images sustain the narrator and carry her through the everyday horrors of life in the Midwest:
“About the burning? Joan could have taken back what she said and did. But when faced with prison all her life, Joan gave them the big fuck-you. I said what I did for fear of the fire. Joan chose to burn.”
“Four Essays”, by Marty Cain
I have read this chapbook over and over. Cain’s poetic, gripping prose is unlike any I have read before, and his merging of creative and critical inquiry is astounding. For instance:
On one level, poetry mediated trauma for Wordsworth. But on another level, the ‘smoothness’ he describes is, as far as I’m concerned, wholly absent from the narrative he relays in the Prelude. Like any Arcadian space, it’s not one that is truly sanctified or idealized; rather, it is contaminated by anxiety and violence, both tangible and imagined: a meadow made from a drowned man’s face.
These essays leak into the imagination and the critical mind with deftness and dexterity—they delve into trauma and the body and time with the force of knowing and unknowing, with a meditative gaze that even causes us to tremble:
I come back from the dead. / I come back from the dead to eat men like wind. / I come back from the dead to burn down the cottage. / I come back in the manner of a vengeant uncle. / I come back in the manner of a slobbering hound. / I come back with a pen and stab Freud in the eye. / I come back with a poem to flay the state.
Cain’s is an important, resonant voice that will stay with us and hold us for a long time.
In an I, by Popahna Brandes
(Sidebrow Books, 2015)
Brandes’s writing reminds me of that moment in Un Chien Andalou when the knife slices the eye—she cuts through what it means to see and live in a singular body in a philosophical-poetical and riveting manner that is truly compelling. In an I shows us how the I is a cave, or maybe it is a hollow skull looking out on a world like a blank page, where language comes from.
The frame of this book is centered around The English Speaking Cultural Experimentation Society of the Lowlands, a state-sponsored “laboratory” for art and research, which is like an experimental residency where “[p]rocess is what matters” and “one is not to know what one is going to find out.” The narrator’s encounters with the participants there—especially her relationship with Ila—reveal as much as they withhold, and I find myself turning the pages furiously, utterly addicted to finding what will come next. Brandes writes, “‘if we are describing time with language, it’s obviously inclusive. Syntax is a trace. Clauses create static, but they are moveable. Recently, a forensic scientist told me that he doesn’t consider death an end, but rather a pivotal moment, important because of what it changes, not because of what it terminates. Death, in this context, is an axis, a moment to chart when different hosts and bacterial elements shift, proportionally change.’”
This is a work that reminds me how “I am stapling myself to a substance that begins as matter and then, in its half-life, becomes a memory and another book to be written.” Extraordinary.
Famous Children and Famished Adults, by Evelyn Hampton
This book is not only innovative in its approach—its chapters embody and impersonate diverse voices that are at once humorous, strange, and idiosyncratic—but in its scope. Truly, everything is within the reach/poetic range of everything else. We exist among these characters as they bury the dead, drive to Dairy Queen, listen to roommates have sex, and contemplate shadows, among other intricate occurrences that remind us of how anything could happen every day. This novel revels in the unexpected, and Hampton’s language carries the dream that comes before and after us, the confusion and confounding nature of our planet, lives, and actions. Hampton writes, “[e]arth is such a strange planet, riddled with volcanoes and our mistakes. We who live here rarely know our own motives until much too late, after our actions have had time to acquire a dire direction and shape.” The voices unearthed in this work will continue to speak with us after we close the book, showing us how the oddity of the everyday can reveal the beauty and bereavement of our waking lives, which we spend mostly trying to figure out the plot. We are like these characters, each of us a different persona filled with other personas, finding a voice.