An Array of Possibilities

A Brief History of Fruit by Kimberly Quiogue Andrews

University of Akron Press, 2020 

 

A Brief History of Fruit

 

My copy of Kimberly Quiogue Andrews’ A Brief History of Fruit soon ran out of page corners to dog-ear. After reading each poem, I had to read it again; I didn’t want to misread any lines or miss any new words. And when I finished this collection, I returned to all the words I had circled, delighted not only by the poems in what has become one of my favorite collections of the year, but by how much they had taught me. A small sampling of the words this collection added to my vocabulary:

 

corrugate

brackish

bougainvillea

aqueous

whuffling

misprisions

copula

 

As I searched for my circled words, I found myself rereading each poem, and then the entire collection, in its entirety. It is a collection that rewards re-reading. Andrews signals her attention to the meanings of words—and asks for readers’ attention to the same—in poems such as “n: Shield, or Shell Covering”:

 

Swaddling provides a newborn with a sense of the womb’s safety.

I fold countries around myself, false familiarity, some serene carapace.

 

That “carapace” is the noun from the poem’s title: an object with a protective function, a kind of casing. But Andrews finds the tension between a swaddled baby and a suffocated self in a suffocating country in a way that feels both heartbreaking and necessary. The poem renders this tension using a series of long couplets drawn across the page, with the second line of each couplet pairing carapace with a rhyming, rhythmic, hypnotic sequence of modifiers: crystalline, serene, unseen.

 

In “The Collapse,” Andrews combines her playfulness about the meanings of words—“Ravine (n): a place where it is difficult to build condominiums”—with a formal inventiveness that uses the page as a way to think critically about what white space means in the poem and in the world. Through these formal choices, Andrews makes the connections between whiteness, capitalism, and ecological disaster both evident and non-negotiable. The poem opens with an epigraph about Manila’s infamous mountain of garbage, the collapse of which killed hundreds, maybe thousands of people in the summer of 2000. Andrews, though—whose mother was born in the Philippines—follows the epigraph with a passage that suggests an impatience with the need for storytelling as a rhetorical device:

 

Is it alright if I just go ahead and say

that the moral of this story

will have something to do with the scourge of capitalism? Will you keep reading?

 

This poem is frenetic and challenging, cataloging Manila’s financial growth and environmental ruin with an anger that at times transforms into reverence: “all hail the need for condominiums / all hail Manila’s 10,000 tonnes per day.” These images, stacked one on top of another, threaten their own form of collapse, mirroring the compounding pressures of capital and climate change.

 

If there is a feeling of helplessness that comes from the magnitude of the current disaster facing us, what Andrews does so well across the collection is face these impossible catastrophes. She arrives to the page with new ways to communicate loss, absence, and grief. The language with which we understand the climate change that may destroy us is also the language we use to understand the elements that give us life. Andrews converges these lexical groups in “Pastoral,” where words such as “environment” and “field” and “America” can and do hold a number of meanings:

 

By field, I mean both the expanse across which

[] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] []

and the sum of all possible relations between a person

and the objects in their environment

 

The punctuation of a double bracket [] translates to an array in JavaScript, and I think of array here as a kind of absence but also as the formation of possibilities, answers, and meanings—a box to be filled. The poem does not concern itself with sense so much as it does with sound, which props open the door to the poem. The arrays provide the fill-in-the-blank-ness necessary to push the reader toward a range of meanings:

 

By America, I mean the sighing sense of moving from body to

[] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] []

 

A Brief History of Fruit is inventive, textured, and deeply interesting. One of the many powers of this collection is the way it navigates possibility. Andrews writes into questions such as, How do we name ourselves? How do decide who we are? How does one name and navigate the world? These poems are fervent explorations of the capacity for language to name what can’t be named and to help us understand tensions that, as argued by Diane Seuss—who selected the collection as winner of the Akron Poetry Prize—do not “resolve; [because] to resolve would equal self-abandonment.” And to pretend to resolve the questions at the heart of this collection—for one, “What does it mean to live in a country?”—would be far less interesting than what Seuss rightfully says that Andrews does so well: to “inventory a parallel history.”

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Pollarding & Animal Spirits

 

Pollarding

In this unwitting dawn. In the begonia
I put in the poem because of its incantatory

 

sound. In the vine I thought was a sweet

pea—to put a sweet pea in the poem—

 

but was actually a weed, common vetch.
In the still early summer heat like gentle

 

pressure on the forearms and wrists.

 

 

A trio of military planes screams overhead.

I squint into the glare and the leftover

 

cosmetic product on my hands flashes
in a type of dim recognition. Wash it off. Who

 

is going to read about botanical misprision.

There’s a war on and I am the yellowing

 

pages of Bishop’s National Geographic.

There’s always a war on and its location

 

is not a function of place but of people, plucked

for the vase or the oven, wilting or burning or

 

eaten as a delicacy. The word of the day

is upward. The word of the day is all cops

 

are bastards. Who am I to say what we should make

of the clay at our feet, minor gods with shovels

 

and grass seed, with kilns and molds, the joints of

our fingers curling around some texture, releasing

 

it in the checkout aisle or through the window

that backs the checkout aisle.

 

 

After adrenaline, a comedown just like any
other high. You’re sitting on the floor in a hoodie

 

and biting all the skin off your lips. Outside,

the day continues to mulch itself, there are

 

robins, someone is invoicing someone else

for another order of rubber bullets.

 

The symbolic vulture will not arrive

 

 

To hunch in the middle distance. Sorry,
I’m back now, I was on the patio this whole time,

 

my mouth is bleeding and the roar has faded
such that it might be mistaken for an air conditioner,

 

the mechanical hum of comfort
in deeply inhospitable environments,

 

a fueled and speedy monarchy, it’s coming,
I tell myself, get up, it’s well-rested and armed

 

to the teeth literally but also and importantly
for my purposes metaphorically, a giant blossoming

 

of dipshit noisemaking. It doesn’t have to go
to the office and it is responsible for the existence

 

of Phoenix, Arizona. I wobble on my feet

like a newborn anything. I am melancholic

 

about structures. Look: no matter what you grab

out of the kitchen drawer, it can be used

 

as a lever. In what follows, we’re on the side

of the ice, those tropical begonias be damned.

 

 

Animal Spirits

“If the animal spirits are dimmed and the spontaneous optimism falters, leaving us to depend on nothing but a mathematical expectation, enterprise will fade and die.” —John Maynard Keynes

 

 

 

 

Enterprise withering on the vine. Enterprise left to rot in the sun.

Out of its carcass, a cooler wind—

 

 

 

 

/ / /

 

 

 

 

If the world is bad to you, you are sad.
If the world is good to you, but you know about the world, you are sad.
If the world is good to you, and you do not know about the world, you will not be sad.
If the world was bad to you but it is no longer, it is easy to forget about the world, and easy to

forget you were ever sad.

 

O dripping globe. What we’ve blamed

on the elements. On the accident
of our cells rather than the rapidity

with which we turn water to cement.

 

 

 

 

/ / /

 

 

 

 

The idea that the brain is the seat of the soul is older than most people think it is.

 

The history of naturalizing economic activity is exactly as long as you think it is.

 

We were made for money / / we were made of money

 

 

 

 

/ / /

 

 

 

 

Falling through a substrate,
the gentle “u” of the body as it faces upward. The hands and feet like a dancer’s, directional.

 

On the curb, a man turns over shovelfuls of dampened sand in a wheelbarrow. The sound is like

stiff fabrics hung too close to one another on a line. A recursive intimacy.

 

A brief and wild optimism, and then the grinding sludge of machinery, its unmatchable

excitation.

 

 

 

 

/ / /

 

 

 

 

A bull in the blood.
A bull made of blood, made of air, air carried in the blood air seated in the brain.

 

The brain a bull. The world a bull with its hooves on the world.

 

O beast that could be gentle. Asleep in the beige autumn of the shaken head, slow wading

through the pool of counter-liquefaction.

 

Abolish selling.
In the hand outstretched, these cool bristles
like a hand broom, a horned smoothness and the scent
of fields and a fire recently extinguished. This animal pause.

 

 

 

 

/ / /

 

 

 

 

Frenzied acquisition of undergarments,

small vases, linens, soaps, followed by the hatred of stuff—

 

 

 

 

/ / /

 

 

 

 

The dog on the surface of the water, the dog on the silver of the coin.1

 

 

 

 

 

1See Robert Burton, in Anatomy of Melancholy, on rabidity: “That in Hydrophobia they seem to see the picture of a dog still in their water” (222).

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Through a Landscape of Carbon

Artist Statement

 

Storms Will Come #4 is the fourth in a series of twelve small print/paintings on Formica, created between August and Election Day 2020. A lighthouse holds the promise of guidance and stability in a turbulent world; it is built to withstand assaults. While I was working on this image, with the lighthouse itself in peril, ashes from the California wildfires were falling on my studio skylight. Images of flames and floods came to dominate the series.

 

Pitch XVII was born from envy. Always true to itself, regardless of the circumstances, the tuning fork became transported into a visual world of smoke, ruin, and desolation. Rather than tranquility and selfsame identity, the Pitch series explores turmoil, the billowing of emotion, a scientific instrument at a loss in a broken world. Pitch XVII is a monoprint, part of a larger series.

 

Soot and Soul. After the Storm #3: The work of a printmaker moves between the extremes of soot and soul, between the stain of ink and transcendence. The journey is through a landscape of carbon and soot, with the triumphant soul captured in the grime of ink. This work is part of a larger cycle, executed on panels of Formica, combining printmaking techniques and painting.

 

Lying Awake. First Night evokes the territory of the imagination, when thought is submerged and rendered helpless. When one is surrounded by darkness and silence, the outside world peels away, and vision originates from within. Logic and reason become scaffolding. It is soothing to draw on solid stone when capturing such a nebulous realm. This stone lithograph is the first of a series of seven. There is text included of one of my poems in the background of that print, just as a whisper. The full text is included here for reference:

 

Harvest Me

 

When I’m dead or dying,
harvest me.

Like a peasant

that picks the tubers

from a dry patch of land.

 

Plunder me and give me to the poor.

To the drunks and the addicts

the liver, the kidneys.

Peel back the skin and

gather the tissues.

Scoop out my heart

and collect all my bones.

The lame will be walking

the blind will see.

 

But don’t touch my soul.

Promise you won’t touch my soul.

I want it set free,

released from its tethers.

 

By the time that

I am dead or dying

my soul will be ready for flight.

 

Storms Will Come #11 uses graphite for the candles above water, a most tender medium, and scraping for the submerged part. For the sky and the flood below, I applied tusche, a fatty liquid designed for use on lithographic stone. On Formica, it revolts, separates and fractures, capturing the fragility of life, our disparate fates.

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Interview: John Sibley Williams

John Sibley Williams is the author of As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize, 2019), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, University of Nebraska Press, 2019), Disinheritance, and Controlled Hallucinations. A nineteen-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Wabash Prize for Poetry, Philip Booth Award, American Literary Review Poetry Contest, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize, Confrontation Poetry Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: The Yale Review, Midwest Quarterly, Southern Review, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, The Massachusetts Review, Poet Lore, Saranac Review, Atlanta Review, TriQuarterly, Columbia Poetry Review, Mid-American Review, Poetry Northwest, Third Coast, and various anthologies.

 

Daniel Lassell corresponded with Williams last year, near the release of Skin Memory.

 

Daniel Lassell for The Florida Review:

Your newest book, Skin Memory, has a lot of subjects and themes that emerge throughout the reader’s journey. I found many poems touching upon topics of family, parenting, loss, home, violence, privilege, and societal and ecological concerns—all of which seem to buoy, contrast, and converse with each other. Which was the subject/theme that compelled your poetry most when writing, versus which emerged most clearly when editing the collection for publication?

 

John Sibley Williams:

What an interesting question. It’s certainly true that during the editing process, while sifting through a hundred or more poems in search of common themes and structures, unexpected threads emerge that weave seemingly disparate explorations together into a single tapestry. Of course, each poem tends to incorporate more than one theme, using the overt to subtly imply a more foundational concern. For example, when discussing parenting, societal gender expectations or our destruction of natural landscapes may be seething beneath all that talk of cradles and lullabies. When I mention the freedom of youthful play, say swinging from a tire trying to toe the clouds, that same tree will likely be shown in an ugly historical context. No poem can be boiled down to a singular theme. So, in this regard, editing isn’t so much trying to force pieces together as it is recognizing the varied themes in each poem and seeing which, both overt and implied, belong together. A collection should read like a river, not a puzzle. In a way, it’s an act of witness. And, at least for me, this isn’t dissimilar to my writing process. I never set out to write a particular kind of poem or to explore a specific theme. They emerge naturally, as if the connections were already there waiting for me to see them. All we can do is write about what haunts us and to do so as authentically and with as much vulnerability as possible. Every theme you mention was equally important, was equally a driving force, behind both my writing and editing.

 

TFR:

“A collection should read like a river, not a puzzle”—I love that. And Skin Memory certainly does read like a river too, easing readers between poems as if on a raft, encountering rapids and wet clothing along the way. Poetry acting as witness is a beautiful thought as well. It makes me think more specifically of your poem, “Death Is a Work in Progress”—a heart-wrenching portrayal of a mother, the decline of the human body. It harkens back to your earlier collection, Disinheritance, which explores this subject of mortality in great detail. Can you speak a little more to this relationship between parent and child, life and death, in your poems? It seems to be a theme in your work that you return to often.

 

JSW:

I’m thrilled that you recognized these overarching themes across multiple books. In the end, we write about what haunts us, what keeps us up at night, what stalks our mind’s periphery, just out of sight, emerging from the darkness to remind us how fragile we really are. A bit like wolves, perhaps. And what better way to explore fragility than through discussions of the body and our intimate relationships? I’m terrified of no longer existing. Like everyone else, I’ve lost and know that the more I love, the more I have to lose. There’s this double-edged sword, this balancing act, between wanting to open my heart to the world and fearing such an act’s consequences. And I fear my own body, how it will naturally react to age and disease. But it’s exactly this impermanence that makes each breath, each embrace, each poem meaningful. So, I suppose, most of my poems to varying degrees try to walk that tightrope. Skin Memory includes poems about my children, specifically the traits I may be passing down to them, that were passed down to me. It speaks of my father, whose father was a rough man, and how all that tumbles down to my own young son. And, with “Death is a World in Progress” and many of the poems in Disinheritance, I witness the steady mental and physical deterioration of my mother. These are simply different lenses through which I consider the same central question. I just can’t tell if I’m not loving enough, or loving too much, and what the full consequences to either are.

 

TFR:

Indeed, Skin Memory does resonate in all of these areas. As a father myself, I am increasingly drawn to poems that hold the subject of parenthood in conversation. Having spent time with your earlier books and reading up to your most recent collection, it seems that since becoming a parent, you might have undergone a personal shift. Of course, any artist should evolve in their art; but I also recognize a palpable difference between Disinheritance and As One Fire Consumes Another, which published in Spring 2019. Not to digress too much, but was Disinheritance written before or after you became a parent? As One Fire Consumes Another seems to drive more of a political message than your earlier work does (at least more overtly). No doubt it has much to do with our political moment, but Skin Memory also seems to act as a continuation in this focus. How would you characterize your poetic growth over time?

 

JSW:

I agree with you that, as writers, we should try to push ourselves into new, often uncomfortable themes. Growth is probably inherent to writing for a long period of time, but I still worry about stagnation, by which I mean writing about the same themes in the same tone using the same structures. It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing what about what we’re already comfortable with. As One Fire Consumes Another was an attempt to break out of my comfort zone by focusing, to a degree, on our current cultural and political climate. But, more importantly, I meant to explore my own place in that culture, which includes culpability, guilt, privilege, and family history. Skin Memory continues on those themes, though less directly, incorporating my my children and mother, with a greater degree of intimacy.  I feel Skin Memory exists somewhere between Fire and Disinheritance. Structurally also, as my earlier work was predominantly free verse, Fire… was newspaper column-like prose poems, and Skin Memory incorporates both, with the addition of more standard prose poem structures. So, in terms of growth, I feel experimentation is key. Sure, plenty of poems end up on the cutting room floor. Not all structures I’ve played with ended up feeling authentic to my voice. But we have to keep pushing, testing, and rethinking our preconceptions about our own work.

 

As it pertains to parenting, I’m not really sure how my work has changed. I write less, sleep less, can concentrate less. Raising twin toddlers is even more exhausting than I could have imagined. But within the stress and anxiety, I have expanded my definition of love to such a degree that I can no longer say I’d experienced it before my kids. My heart is more troubled but fuller.

 

TFR:

I think “more troubled but fuller” is a profound way of describing the interconnectedness of parenthood and love. And I hadn’t considered Skin Memory as a balance between Fire and Disinheritance until just now, but it sort of is. It’s the wave that settles after the body enters a bathtub. If we can, I’d like to explore your thoughts on the prose poem, since you mentioned form. My first poetry teacher was David Shumate, known for his prose poems, so my introduction to poetry is inextricably tied to this form—I’ve come to feel at home in it. But for others, the prose poem might represent or conjure apprehension, confusion, distain, etc. In Skin Memory, there are several poetic forms other than the prose poem, but I’m interested in why—when selecting the right vehicle to meaning—the prose poem felt like the best fit.

 

JSW:

Well, apart from the poems in Fire and Disinheritance, which were a set structure, I don’t begin a poem knowing in advance what it will look like on the page. I often experiment with various arrangements before, for whatever intuitive reason, something clicks and the poem screams, “This is my form; this has always been my form!” So, the simplest answer to your question about knowing when a prose poem is the best vehicle for a particular piece is, well, intuition. But, to be more precise, a lot of it, for me, has to do with three things: flow, the tension created by line breaks, and the sound of the poem when real aloud. Poems that are more fragmented or dense with metaphorical imagery may require more white space to allow a reader to digest each line, place it in its larger context, then move on to the next line. Other poems, especially narrative ones rich with connected imagery that doesn’t take as many huge leaps in logic, may thrive more with longer lines. But even this simple answer isn’t really accurate. Sometimes abstractions can be squeezed together, running one into the next with no room to breathe, to create the desired flow. Sometimes a straightforward narrative can be shattered and reassembled into something visually unrecognizable. Perhaps the easiest way to describe it is that: flow. How do I want the poem to read? Should it drive, propel? Should it strike with short staccato knives? Should it slowly, steadily paint a massive portrait out of smaller components? All this leads me back to intuition. Our ears know how a poem should be read. Our eyes know what the poem wants to look like. Listening closely and equally to both seems to strike the right balance, at least for me.

 

TFR:

You certainly do seem to have an intuition for what works on the page. This attention to flow, or cadence, seems to drive a lot of the poems of Skin Memory. Is there ever a disagreement between these two realms of the page and the tongue? In developing your intuition, does this mean finding a comfortable balance between your voice and poetic style? How does one develop their intuition?

 

JSW:

I think creative intuition simply comes from writing and studying others’ writing for so long that that various elements (and organs) learn to listen to each other. Over the years and decades, you learn to step away from yourself and trust the page. The poem begins to speak to you before it’s even written. Of course, all of this is an internal process, but it begins to feel as if your poetic decisions are born of an outside force. I wonder if that’s what some people call “the muse.” But it’s really just muscle memory. It’s having failed and failed and occasionally succeeded for long enough to unconsciously recognize when a poem is working and when it’s not. It’s the ear and eye thriving in a symbiotic relationship. Less and less of our creative decisions become conscious ones. We just know. And, sure, given the subjectivity of any artistic work, we still fail plenty. But I have found most of my newer poems that don’t quite work fail because I inserted myself into them; I didn’t shut up and listen to what the poem wanted to say.

 

Perhaps because of this “trained intuition,” I rarely find discord between the appearance and sound of poem. They both come pretty naturally, without me having to force it much. Admittedly, in trying to push myself, I do experiment with structures I end up abandoning because they don’t look or flow right, but I usually recognize this incongruity early on and find a more fitting structure before poem’s end. For sound, part of my composition process involves reading aloud every line over and over to ensure the lines that follow match the auditory tone and rhythm. Our ears know what sounds awkward.

 

TFR:

That makes sense. Somewhat relatedly, what are your thoughts on the accessibility of poetry?

 

JSW:

That’s a great question, and one on which opinions vary greatly. I suppose the subjectivity of “accessible” can be cause for this divide. For example, many have argued that down-to-earth poetry that paint personal narratives with clear, everyday language is the cornerstone of “accessible” work. By that definition, I suppose I prefer more challenging literature. That’s not to cast judgment, as such work is indeed valuable and is many people’s introduction to poetry. It’s all a matter of personal resonance. But I feel this common description limits the definition of the word. There’s also emotional accessibility. Even if a poem is fairly abstract, surreal, or bursting with what Robert Bly called “leaps” in logic, that emotional core that unites the disparate elements can be accessible. That heartache, grief, turmoil, doubt, celebration. That bit of light that filters through and puts into perspective darkest night. Even without a followable narrative or commonplace language. To me, that is the kind of accessibility I enjoy reading and tend to write toward. It’s that honest, vulnerable, universal core question, around which the other poetic elements whirl, that makes all poetry, regardless of its structures and rhythms and themes, inherently accessible.

 

TFR:

I like that way of looking at it, and indeed there are several opinions out there. For me, I tend to go back and forth. I agree that challenging literature can be fun, and doesn’t have to be the first form of poetry someone encounters. On the other hand, word choice is one of the things that separates poetry from other written art forms, and therefore, word choice is what makes and closes off meaning. In this vein, when a poet intentionally closes off meaning, it becomes a question of whom is getting closed off from that meaning and why. In this realm, I guess a discussion of accessibility can’t go without acknowledging privilege too, as we are both white males. In this modern age, how should a white, male writer compose poetry? It seems like there’s a duty to explore and dismantle our own privilege in art—and in living in this world more generally. The poems of Skin Memory do their part to confront difficult realities, privilege being one of them. For example, “On Being Told: White Is a Color Without Hue,” “We Can Make a Home of It Still,” “On Being Told: You Must Learn to Love the Violence,” and “Inviting Fire in Northern Michigan in December” all seem to interrogate privilege in some form. Even the book’s title encourages an exploration of racial and societal disparities. How and when does it make sense for a poet to rail against their own privilege in writing?

 

JSW:

This could not be a more crucial question. Privilege comes in so many forms, most invisible until you shine a light on them and see their hazy edges. Gender, sexuality, race, religion, socio-economic status, family status, and even these have gradations. They all combine to give us a cultural advantage or disadvantage, and exploring my own advantages and how they contrast against those born or raised without them is a central theme of my work. Even when it’s not overtly discussed, as it is in the poems you referenced, that recognition of privilege and what it means as an individual and a member of a larger community hums beneath all my poems. In the end, it all comes down to a mixture of self-awareness and empathy. It’s a balancing act between witness and action. All of us whose privilege allows us the space to write freely, who aren’t judged by superficial qualities, who needn’t fear police or politicians or bosses who could withhold that one paycheck that makes our children go hungry, we need to investigate how we got where we are and what we can do to expose such inequities. The question is how. How does one explore privilege from the inside out? Often met by controversy, some privileged poets have chosen to adopt another’s voice, to attempt the persona poem. I feel confident that these attempts are well-intentioned. However, I don’t feel that’s my place. If I have not suffered as so many others have, who am I to speak in their voice? Instead, I write about privilege in two ways, by discussing my own safe white lineage and by writing about others (instead of writing from another’s point of view). And when writing about others, I don’t hide the fact that my perspective is inherently tinged by privilege. That’s what I mean by combining self-awareness and empathy. So, in short, I passionately agree with you about the necessity for poets to consider their own privileged status in their work. However, all this said, I don’t believe in shoulds. Who am I to demand every poet write about these themes? If a privileged poet writes exlusively about gardens and alders or the grief of a loved one’s passing, that is their choice. We write what we need to write. And not all of us need to write about our privilege. But I do. It’s one of the ghosts that haunts me. The only way I’ve found to deal with it is by looking it square in the eye and admitting my role in its creation.

 

TFR:

Thank you for your thoughts in this area. “A balancing between self-awareness and empathy” describes well, I think, what poets of privilege can do in their work. And I know the topic of privilege can be a difficult one to broach, since it’s one that touches every aspect of people’s lives (and indeed, we as white males do bear a shitload of culpability for the wrongs of this world). For this reason, I do think it’s a conversation worth having. As more underrepresented voices continue to enter the literary firmament, how best could writers of privilege welcome them? What new voices have you read recently that you’re super excited about?

 

JSW:

The literary establishment has been making great strides but still has much more to do before underrepresented voices become as mainstream as those voices that have dominated our landscape. I don’t work within that establishment so cannot speak to the steps they are taking. I have read articles critical of how major journals and organizations still approach underrepresented poets, and I continue to hear such stories from peers who have attended national poetry conferences and felt tokenized. Luckily, it seems many presses and organizations are opening their doors wider than ever before in terms of offering awards, open reading periods, specific book series and issues, and other avenues open exclusively to underrepresented poets. In terms of what you and I can do, I have spent the past few years reading almost exclusively books by contemporary poets who do not fit the traditional white, male, CIS, able-bodied model. And these are the authors I teach in workshops and classes in hopes of opening students’ eyes and hearts to new perspectives on culture, identity, and politics.

 

I don’t even know where to begin a list of my favorites, but here are a few I feel everyone should become intimately familiar with: Ada Limon, Tracy K. Smith, Jericho Brown, Fatimah Asghar, Tarfia Faizullah, Jenny Xie, Ocean Vuong, Craig Santos Perez, Safia Elhillo, Joan Kane, Abby Chabitnoy, and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, whose book Cenzontle (BOA Editions, 2018) is one of my all-time favorite collections.

 

TFR:

I agree that expanding one’s knowledge of the world through reading is a great place for anyone to start—and for those in teaching roles, assigning a wide array of literature that both includes diverse populations and challenges traditional norms is an equally important approach. And what an amazing list of poets you’ve shared, too. We truly are living in a golden age of poetry right now, Skin Memory included. Before we close, are there a few lines from Skin Memory that you’d like to share for readers new to your work?

 

JSW:

Well, in keeping with the themes of our conversation, I’d like to choose two selections that deal with privilege, history, and my responses to them.

 

The first is from the collection’s titular poem, “Skin Memory,” in which I address the incredible Inupiaq poet Joan Kane and wonder about the effects of my race’s privilege as compared to how her culture has been treated.

 

Because you are what song breaks open your throat and because

the same century burns a different mark into me. For now I can just

listen. To how choreographed our forgetting. To the dark little

narratives of this is mine / yours, in that order. Can you sing this

country its name?

 

The second is from “There is Still,” in which I investigate Mark Strand’s celebrated closing lines from “Keeping Things Whole”:

 

We all have reasons

for moving.

I move

to keep things whole.

 

In response, my poem explores time and privilege in recognizing how, while swaying in a tire swing, the speaker realizes that same tree may have been used for different kinds of…rope. And it changes the way he approaches the tree…and himself. The final lines of “There is Still” read:

 

We / all have reasons, Mark. I hope I am / swinging to remember.

 

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Foliate Light

 

 

My endeavor is to pursue a photographic image that embodies natural and immediate expression. My aim is not to produce the sensational or the intellectually novel, but to validate a point of encounter, a tenuous fragment or impression.

 

The beginning is often a highly chaotic and kinesthetic activity in the process of discovery. I acknowledge a kind of readiness for images more so than the existence of a muse or the notion of inspiration. This readiness requires looking intently at my surroundings; a humility of purpose and acceptance; and a quiet, though often exasperating patience. I do not seek a particular image but rather encourage the image to arrive at my threshold. I allow the light, shadow, color and composition to form organically, in a place somewhere between a vibrant reality and the recesses of my unconscious. I relish this elusive aspect of emergence and honor this transient beginning.

 

Each photograph evolves in its own unique manner. There is no delineated, predictable order or destination; there are few preconceptions. The initial inception is expanded, combined with newly discovered associations, and gradually finds a voice of intent. Even though I encourage states of intuition, ambiguity, and randomness, I must acknowledge that defining formal or aesthetic decision-making occurs; my creative process is not purely automatic. Formal devices are employed to clarify and strengthen that emotion which first compelled me to photograph. However, any analytic construction is subordinate to the original gestural responsiveness.

 

In the final image, when the photograph is delivered to the viewer, it is transformed into a new, autonomous existence. And, at its best, the image retains the freshness and spontaneity of the original vision.

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Relationships

 

My work is contemporary and figurative. Through image-making, I explore what it means to be a human being and to be part of the universal human experience, touching on relationships between people, with nature, and with the environment around us. I see myself and others in a constant cycle, always fracturing, fragmenting, and reassembling ourselves over time. All my work—both art and writing—falls somewhere on this experiential spectrum.

 

When I begin to paint, I imagine myself walking on a beam of light. I work completely intuitively and without reference to anything around me. I look at the blank canvas and simply begin to draw what I “see.” After sketching the image in pencil, I patch in color. I choose acrylic paint because it dries quickly so that I can paint out and paint over, working in a collage-like fashion. I can also use acrylics to create a stained-glass effect by hand-rubbing areas with very, very thin layers of color.

 

I know I am on the right track when I feel the presence of some energy, then come into relationship with the canvas as it begins to communicate itself to me. As I transform the original vision, the final piece emerges. I never begin a painting with an idea. The ideas come later.

 

These 9” by 12” paintings, part of a larger series titled Relationships, are the result of a special challenge I set for myself in 2019. I’d been working on much larger canvases, and I wanted to make smaller, more intimate, almost miniature works. I hoped to prove that a small painting could have as great an impact as a large one.

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The Crypt of Civilization

“It’s the size of a swimming pool,” I said, “and locked in stainless steel. Locked for six thousand years, in fact.” I was telling my son about the Crypt of Civilization, a time capsule in Atlanta. We were in the basement, sorting his toys into piles. An overdue project, because now he used electric razors; he studied for the driving test. I picked up a tiny plastic mare and her tinier plastic foal. I asked, “Do you want them, your Horse and Baby Joe?”

 

He shook his head. “Sounds ambitious,” he said, “that thing in Atlanta.” He was burning through the matchbox cars and the doll that looked like a businessman, the Lincoln Logs and the book in which the bear is forever snoring on. Discard, discard, discard.

 

“These are in there,” I said, holding up a log the size of a finger. “In the Crypt of Civilization.”

 

“Why save a bunch of sticks?” he said.

 

I kept talking. Other items in the crypt: recorded birdsong, aluminum foil, ashtrays, the form of a woman’s breast, a “Negro doll,” a piece of soap in the shape of a bull.

 

“Jesus,” he said, taking a pterosaur from my hands and tossing it with the discards. “Are you kidding me with that list?”

 

I shrugged. “It was 1940,” I said. “Not a great year for time capsules.” I didn’t say: As if there have been so many other, better years. Our hopes and our hubris, the human experiment laid bare, thanks to the Crypt of Civilization.

 

His class did a time capsule once, back when he was in the first grade. A moment in time, or, as the principal said, a moment in conversation. “What will we choose?” she’d asked. We were gathered in the gym on parents’ night, the thick heat of September rolling in through the propped-open door. “Will we choose something that says how far our civilization has come, like light bulbs, or will we choose things from today, from here in 2010?”

 

Later, his dad and I joked. Let’s put in some guns. A bottle of DEET. A white guy billionaire, maybe Jeff Bezos. But our coal hearts burned away when our son chose to add his stuffed lion. Other kids picked the yearbook, mechanical pencils, a photo of Phillip Stanning, the third grader who’d died of leukemia the year before. His parents gave the school their permission.

 

“Why tell me this now?” my son asked when I reminded him. He glanced at the clock, wanting to go upstairs, but I was thinking of stories unearthed. Of conversations between a dreamed-of future and the best and the worst of our past.

 

And what of the forgotten capsules? Conversations never had, conversations still in the earth, magnolia roots pushing against old tin boxes, letters in bulldozed attics, bottles left floating eternally at sea, through storms and under scorching skies. A metal ball orbiting the earth, the silence of that, its secrets tucked in like a heart.

 

“Mom,” he said. “Let’s be done. Let’s give it all away.” It was like this more and more with us. He looked forward, to the car he’d soon drive and the girls he’d soon kiss and to more distant visions—college, roommates, drugs, maybe—while I held his Horse, his Baby Joe and said, let’s build ourselves a capsule.

 

I scooped the discard pile my way. “I’m saving these,” I said, the Legos and the frog blanket and the board book with a dollop of oatmeal on it, long hardened into milky cement. The toys that came later—the stacking robots, the sticker sheets. He knew it would end this way, and I did too. An hour used or wasted, depending on who you asked.

 

“Time,” he said, standing up. “You always talk about time.”

 

As if this was so boring. As if time didn’t start and stop and shift to the left, didn’t corrode and make you whole. Didn’t change little boys who cried as they buried their lions into bigger boys who thought that Lincoln Logs were sticks, discard who they were for who they would become again and again and again.

 

And what of Phillip Stanning’s parents? Sometimes I wondered, across the hurried years, as the elementary school collected artifacts from one class and then another, moved from one principal to the next. As the Crypt of Civilization sat in its deluded wait. What did time become for them that April afternoon when they put their boy into the ground, when they tucked away that last thing with him, that final conversation, that favorite plushy bird?

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There They Are

my mother, my father. Her skinny
blue wrists, his ear caressing a cigarette.     In the beginning,
it is already too late,    but there is hunger & no time
to waste.    All they need are six hands, three mouths, a clockwork
yearning for locks of their own, windows square & fresh.    In the beginning,
my cry breaks my father, who flushes red at my fall, opens my face in search
of his mother.          Grasses, grasses on a country
road, hawthorn up to their waists,
aflame.     The crying of no mothers.  Temple bells hung
by the wind.    An October without moons,
a feeling I’ve been here before.  Dew on the page.
Windows billowing   wax paper.
Fall’s charred eyelids.     Toes pressing down my own wet
imprint.    Begin the world without a bang.
Water, air,   the Earth split into an egg,
elements halved for light.      No mothers, just two figures on a bicycle
for one.   A sweaty country road. Stoves that won’t start,
boxes of damp matchsticks.     Strain of a blue wrist
untucking cigarettes from his lips
prayer of hands inside the ashes of mothers,
single finger curving to a hush.    Careful,
hold the glass up to one eye, split the nucleus
with the other, explosions muted by winged lungs.
Put down my pen.    Unfold my eyes.  Count backwards
before legs, before longing, until I hit a snag in the web,
open,   to find my palm full of tears.
Once, there were no mothers. Trace the outline,
one, two, build a family from hunger.                   Listen, a cry, mine,
dragging her mother’s last breath up the jagged washboard as he soaps
my throat clean, baptizing his mother’s blackened lungs.
My mouth opens       to wake their beginning & just like that
blesses our downfall.
There, stretch the canvas, spread oil thin-thin
into our crevasses, what’s that in the distance?       No mother,
not the moon,      just six hands bent over a clock face with no opening,
porcelain spoons    raised to another’s lips,    tap – tap we widen
our insides until ink forks our edges.        In the beginning,
an October without night. Windows torn
open with flashlights. Hawthorn dawning a mother’s last breath.
Let me begin   again,

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Tell Your Mother

I grew up in a flash by your mother’s side.

 

Tell her I loved her deeply, like bells sounding in the distance, like the secret I had to rush to tell her. I loved your mother at the Lutheran summer camp where we got real with our Bibles, where we rehearsed on the Palace Theater stage in the wings while we murmured our parts and pantomimed our choreography before the curtain parted. As best friends, we made space for anything to happen to us, as long as it happened to us side by side, or was documented through letters that we posted in the mail that arrived steadily like ants creating a trail.

 

Tell your mother to tell you how we cut images of what you must be going to look like from magazine pages in the 1990s, how we clipped around your round face and big eyes from baby-food advertisements, certain it was  going to be you.

 

The first I saw of you was a roiling under her skin, kicking while she filmed her belly, feet stretched far before her.

 

Tell your mother to tell you the time, in the charged balm of adolescence, when we lay in a hammock on the fourth of July, watched neighbors tilt back in lawn chairs and for some reason, while we rocked  in the weave of the hammock, while sparklers crackled, and dry as a bone but intoxicated surely by the elation at simply being alive side by side, we laughed so hard at something that rocked us nearly over and to the ground, we peed our pants and tumbled down while fireworks shot up as the floodlight clicked on as the adults chatted, and I consider that place in the grass on the Clintonville lawn that exists with our imprint on it still, the sound of the dresser drawer opening for her to replace my clothes in the room she shared with her sister. We stayed up as late as the night would have us then paraded into the morning hours, just as we paraded from the hammock, our lack of shame like capes behind us.

 

Ask your mother if she remembers learning how to solve the problem of a house fire. The firemen brought a trailer filled with theatrical smoke to the library parking lot where we filed before the door like books to be shelved. There is a way out, we learned, if you crawl under the smoke, if you test the metal doorknob with the back of your hand. We crawled through the hallway, snickering always, toward the trailer exit where, successful, we’d hop out into the clear air having passed the test, and it was this way that we jumped from our tenth birthdays to our twelfth, and now years later we are here, the fire behind us, and you due in her arms in a matter of weeks.

 

When you arrive, she will feel your warm cheek with the back of her hand. Tell your mother that when you arrive, I will step back as she lights the firework fuse of your little life, that I will do my best to be a bellows to your flames.

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A Refusal of Despair

Ill Angels by Dante Di Stefano

Etruscan Press, 2019

Paperback. 122 pages. $16.00

 

Cover of Ill Angels by Dante Di Stefano.

 

Although published more than a year ago, Ill Angels, with its indomitable refusal of despair, may be one of those books we need to read in the year of escalating climate crises, social, political and cultural warfare, and the resurgence of and the promise of more biological pandemics. Ill Angels does not wince in the face of the terrible cruelties that haunt the world, but it also does not cede ground in its insistence on hope.

 

On the one hand, Dante Di Stefano’s second book of poetry is a neoromantic paean to possibility, to faith in a future embodied in children and teenagers (especially his students). On the other hand, a countervailing, or perhaps complementary, tendency in Ill Angels finds Di Stefano celebrating the present and presence, represented as much by the distant indifference of inanimate objects (“Jubilate Pluto”) as the proximate insouciance of wild animals (“The Porcupine Climbing the Apple Tree”). Because Di Stefano is all too aware of the cruelty that lies beyond his classrooms—see, for example, “Verruckt,” “45th,” and “O Trampling Empire”—he insists on a love that is the equivalent of ungrounded theological faith.

 

This means that at times Di Stefano echoes the passionate declamations of a Ross Gay, a Cyrus Cassells or an even earlier John Clare. But unlike Gay, Cassells and Clare, Di Stefano’s aestheticized fervor is more metaphysical than quotidian, his tender poems to his wife and his children notwithstanding. This unadulterated sincerity has its risks: many of these poems approach a too-sweet sentimentality, and a few, unfortunately, broach the border, weaving back and forth between good taste and self-indulgent rapture.

 

Fortunately, the balance of this book finds Di Stefano celebrating his good-faith fantasies— “I know all prayer is merely the patter / of little feet coming down the stairwell / in a daydream of a future household”—with well-crafted, often playful, metaphors and similes, bolstered by over-the-top alliteration and assonance that wink at pop culture icons like Bob Dylan and Dolly Parton, to say nothing of literary warhorses like Swift, Pope, and Hopkins. Still, Di Stefano’s unrestrained gaiety in the age of what he aptly names “Stump Speech” demands a robust defense, and while a poem like “And Why This Ridiculous Happiness?” takes a giant step in that direction—there’s no gainsaying the stunning transcendence of lines like “If you speak to eighth graders as angels / and to angels as eighth graders, already / you have become fluent in paradise”—I can’t help but wonder at this excessive faith in language, in poetry, that sidesteps—not overrides—doubt. For that faith seems to depend on delayed endorsement, on retroactive belief: one hopes for love and happiness, and when it happens one believes it appears, in hindsight, as predestined.

 

Di Stefano implicitly acknowledges this slippage between faith and imagination, which is why he also knows that joy can only be truly joy if it is utopian, literally nowhere, unchained from time and space. At the same time other slippages—between past and future, between presence and absence—enable a kind of manic happiness, a man inebriated on both the past and future. Di Stefano and his beloved wander among his “memories of imagined futures,” adrift between innocence and suspended disbelief: “for now we listen / and nothing can curb the sound of this band / as it plays ‘I Ate Up the Apple Tree.’” And if such a postlapsarian moment could last, the two would always be nearing “the Mardi Gras of / an Eden we’ll be forever leaving.” The traditional secular realm of this nowhere is, of course, art. Thus, we are to “imagine the string, / attached to a red balloon painted / in oil on muslin, a gentle tether / that holds us nowhere amidst the cosmos.”

 

To be fair, Di Stefano is not always this overweening and serious. Several poems find the poet in a comic, jocular mood, however much these light flourishes veil darker political and cultural realities. These modest reprimands are best captured in punchy lines like “I think I dated the national debt / on a dare for a week in middle school; / I didn’t like the way she chewed bubble gum.” Ill Angels is peppered with these kinds of tongue-in-cheek delights, and for this reader, sweet tooth aside, they leaven the saccharine confections. As a whole, Ill Angels suggests that Di Stefano is, in the end, an Omni-American, to use Albert Murray’s phrase, a true believer in the country’s destiny which, for Murray (as well as fellow travelers like Ralph Ellison and the recently deceased Stanley Crouch), redeems its past. One implication of this story of redemption is that racial, class, and gender differences evince democratic diversity more so than they do intractable hierarchies. For example, Di Stefano’s odes to jazz greats like Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins focus less on their aesthetic achievements than their populist implications. In practice, then, the Constitution is an open-ended document: “Anyone who opens her mouth to sing / erases and rewrites the preamble.” For Di Stefano, this is hope, and hope is only love in action (to paraphrase everybody from M.L.K to Cornel West). Ill Angels thus unites religious, political, cultural, and domestic faith under one flag—hope—and, like Jesse Jackson, who once proclaimed the same during his 1988 presidential run, Di Stefano wants to keep hope alive.

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