After Daddy

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

–Genesis 2:24

Every mornin I ask Mama,
Why do your eyes look like torn

screens? I say, Mama your flies

are gettin in the house again.
I swat at my ears, then
lift the toilet lid and find clear
wings floatin, black bellies pinned in
still water. Go on and pee, she says. Don’t
need to flush ‘em first.
When Mama scoops her coffee
grounds, she buries a family alive
while coughin antennae up onto
the shelf of her molars.
Says it tickles when she bites down.
The dog snaps at the air.
Each time he catches one, we three circle up

and howl. Our songs blanket the buzz through

the afternoon and shimmy the ash in the mantle

urn. By then we’re good and exercised,
arms quivering from reachin, palms gut sticky.

Mama, is this called slap-happy?
She tells me to go wash up for dinner.
She prays: God, bless this food to
our body. Bless those who cannot be
with us today.        Amen.
I pinch a maggot outta my
pie and wonder how many get
past our lips unseen.
Every night, as she’s fallin asleep,
I lean in slow and close
and I tell my Mama,
Mama, I think we got ‘em all.

 

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Fish Run

We were an inch onto the Van Wyck Expressway when the boro taxi barreled past us down the left lane—going sixty, maybe sixty-five. I’m only guessing, since Jack Sr. braked so hard to dodge it that my head hit the dashboard with a smack like fireworks behind my eyes. I wasn’t much for thought afterwards. James, who was sitting in the back of the van with the dolly and the netting, let out a bark of a laugh that cracked the air. Jack Sr. swore, guiding us onto the shoulder, yelling—“For God’s sake, James, stop laughing, Ren, are you okay? Jesus Christ, can you hear me, Ren?”—while I tried desperately not to puke, as I had never been hit so hard in my life. In my mind, I was still thinking of first impressions. I’d only just met Jack Sr. and his grandson James, only just disembarked the red-eye from Seattle-Tacoma an hour ago and climbed into their van from the January night. If I puked all over Jack Sr.’s dash and windshield I’d be forgiven, probably, but not forgotten. Jack Jr. would never let me live it down. Fucking Jack Jr. It was his fault I was here, alone in a van with his father, in the first place. I reminded myself that I loved him or some shit.

 

We’d been stopped on the shoulder for a couple minutes. I opened my eyes, the top of my head pounding viciously under my fingers. “I’m okay,” I managed to say. Another taxi sped past, jamming its horn for four uninterrupted seconds to let us know we were motherfuckers. I tried to find my hands stretched out in front of me. The dizziness had mostly abated, not quite the pain. “Wasn’t wearing my seatbelt. My fault. I’m okay.”

 

“Oh, Jesus, fuck, oh, Jesus,” said Jack Sr. a couple more times, working through—I assumed—how to tell his absent son that his boyfriend had been hospitalized after only eighteen paltry minutes in wintertime Queens. We went on like this, not listening to each other, until gradually the road and the blue-black sky sat completely still and solid in my view. It was about to snow.

 

 

It had been Jack Jr.’s idea for us to visit his family. I would fly to JFK from Seattle; Jack Jr. would come straight from his work trip in Toronto. “Easy,” Jack Jr. called it on the phone as we bought our tickets. “Spend the weekend with my parents, go home together. This is what richies do, fly all over, compound their airtime.”

 

“Who the fuck says that?”

 

I had packed, made my way to the airport, called Jack Jr. one last time, boarded. My phone blared when I turned my cellular back on when we touched ground at three a.m. Five missed calls, two texts. Snowstorm. Blocked in. A slew of voicemails documenting an hour-long fight to get to the airport through the Canada snowdrift, after which a saga of delays and road closures had resulted in Jack Jr. being marooned at the hotel until at least the afternoon. Which led me, alone and palpitating, to baggage claim, then the Terminal 2 pick-up carpool where Jack Sr.—the sixty-five-year-old, shaved-headed Korean fishmonger—clapped me on the back, herded me into his refrigerated van, and gave me what was now feeling like a concussion. This was all very funny to James, who was recording a video of us with his phone.

 

“Don’t sleep.” Jack Sr.’s palm was cold as a pumice stone on my forehead. “Definitely don’t sleep. I heard that’s bad for you.”

 

Behind us, more cars swerved, screeching their horns. Jack Sr. appeared afraid to move us any farther. I didn’t know anything about New York. There were hospitals in the city, of course, but did I dare ask to be taken to one? Was I a pussy? Jack Jr. would say I was, I know he would.

 

“You know what?” Jack Sr. said suddenly, posing the question with a mischievous smile before he’d even asked. I saw it a mile away. He was about to ask me to come along for the deliveries. “Why don’t you come along with James and me this morning for the deliveries? Fish market’s only an hour from here. This way I can keep an eye on you, make sure you’re okay.”

 

Jack Jr.’s family owned a sushi restaurant in Fort Lee. He’d told me this on our first date the previous year. “Huge Korean population, Fort Lee.”

 

“But,” I remembered saying, “sushi is—”

 

“Sushi is whatever the white man says it is,” Jack Jr. said. “Haven’t you heard? They can’t tell us apart.”

 

Jack Jr. said things. This got him into trouble, but also made him one of the more memorable people I’d ever met. That’s what I ended up telling my friends about him. Meanwhile Jack Sr. still ran the place himself. Still made the trip across two rivers to the New Fulton Fish Market in Hunts Point in the middle of the night twice a week to secure the fresh catch. “He loves talking about it,” Jack Jr. said to me. “Loves. I’m really sorry.”

 

Back in the van, Jack Sr. was still waiting for an answer. James was busy editing his footage. I forced a smile. Jack Sr. beamed as though I’d just asked to be adopted. He jerked the van back into gear, and as we rocketed off down the freeway, he started asking me where I’d grown up and did I speak Korean okay and were my parents still around. While I, jet-lagged, tried to keep my eyes open and wished that Jack Jr. had made his goddamn flight.

 

 

They made the fish run every Tuesday and Thursday, Jack Sr. told me over the van’s deafening engine. Always Tuesday and Thursday, around two or three in the morning before the best of the vendors sold out. He listed them off his fingers: sea bream, snapper, Scottish salmon, Spanish mackerel, sweet shrimp, king crab legs, trout roe, littleneck clams, razor clams, abalone. “Tuna, Jesus, the tuna,” Jack Sr. said, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. “Fifty pounds of tuna a week. It’s all people want to eat. Can’t make it fast enough. You like spicy tuna, Ren? Nice sriracha mayonnaise, scallions—”

 

“Not my favorite,” I managed to say.

 

Jack Sr. got a twinkle in his eye. “You know, Jack and I did the fish run for eight years, up until he left for college. I think he got used to it by the end, maybe even liked it. That, or he lied better than his brothers.”

 

He let out a booming, forceful laugh, which I didn’t doubt for its authenticity. Jack Sr. seemed like the kind of guy who laughed like that no matter the joke. He tapped the mesh behind us. “You okay, James?” James nodded silently, engrossed in a portable PlayStation. He was decked in black sweats, socks, the same slippers I’d worn to the shower in my college dorms. He had soundly ignored us after the initial hysteria of my head injury.

 

“My eldest boy’s son,” Jack Sr. indicated as quietly as he could over the engine. “He’s some kind of…whatever the fuck it’s called—Ticker Tocker. Right, James? How many page-hits on that video of Ren hitting his head?”

 

“That’s not what they’re called,” said James.

 

“You know, he gets stopped outside the mall for pictures,” Jack Sr. added. “He’ll take that video down if you want him to.”

 

“It’s really no trouble,” I said.

 

We hit a new patch of the highway that screamed against the wheels at regular intervals.

 

“Four boys, you know,” Jack Sr. said. “I’ve got hope one’ll come back to Jersey. But I suppose Jack loves Seattle.”

 

He said this while looking at me, waiting, I thought, for me to respond. I could give him only a placating nod, afraid to tell a lie. Fuck if I knew what Jack Jr. wanted.

 

 

Jack Sr. didn’t have an accent. He told me as we rounded the river how he’d come over when he was three and had only been back to Seoul twice in his life. He’d lived in and around the tri-state area for sixty years, furthest being Seneca Falls for a period in his teens. He unfolded a long-winded account of the all-white high school of his youth, and I gritted my teeth against an ache in my neck that hadn’t gone away since the plane. I guess it hadn’t been Jack Jr.’s fault about the snow. He’d been nervous about the work trip anyway. I hoped he was at least sleeping well, one of us ought to. We turned off the highway, coasted onto a sprawling flat of asphalt, miles wide. In the distance loomed the green-topped mile-long warehouse, serviced by slow-moving trucks that pulled away from the industrial loading bays on its side. We slowed to a stop across two parking spaces. Jack Sr. ordered me to sit tight while he and James opened up the van. With a wave he summoned me, put an arm around my shoulder and walked me up, leaving James to lug the dolly up the incline. I stamped my frozen feet against the ground. Our breaths dispersed chains of fog around our heads.

 

“Shit,” Jack Sr. said, looking at me. “You got a hat?”

 

He clicked his tongue, not waiting for an answer, and swiped his own. Over my protests he jammed it on me. After the roar of the van and the hollow din of the freeway, my ears rang as they adjusted to the silence. There were a couple others, guys working in pairs and groups of three. Several were already on their way back, dollies laden high with cellophane-wrapped iceboxes on wooden pallets. The market had moved from the Financial District in 2005 and was now twice the drive for them, Jack Sr. told me as they approached. “Worth it for the quality, you know,” he said—rubbed his pointer finger and thumb together in front of my face as he said this, illustrating for me. “You wouldn’t believe how many scam artists buy frozen,” he said. “Five-star restaurants in Manhattan! All frozen.”

 

He pointed up to the shadowy guys loading the trucks up front. “These guys, they know what they’re doing. Almost definitely mob guys. I mean, it’s the Bronx.”

 

James, tugging the dolly, batted Jack Sr.’s arm down before I could.

 

Inside, the warehouse swelled into view, colder than the chill outside. Down an open walkway in the middle lay hundreds of tables, stacked boxes packed with ice, tanks spilling water out onto the floor and into the drains. We were hit by the smell first, nothing like the supermarket: entrails, brine, chum. Scallops pulsing in saltwater vats. An octopus wholesaler, laying each tangle of white and purple tentacles out like cabbages. Away from the tables were teams of guys breaking up the larger catches. Gleaming portions of red tuna cut straight from the carcass by samurai sword. Grouper and Pacific halibut speared on hooks and hoisted into the air by chains. Every so often Jack Sr. stopped near one of the tables, engaging in hushed conversation, after which several sleepy-eyed men in rubber aprons and boots would load an icebox onto James’s dolly. Jack Sr. opened each one, taking a metal hook off the dolly’s handle and hoisting a fish out of the ice by the gills, examining it carefully before laying it back down. We moved further inward, beyond the traditional fare: the specialty guys cracking open sea urchins flown in from Hokkaido, Santa Barbara, orange flesh bared to the lights as we passed. Tanks of red frog crabs, flat fish carpeting the bottoms of the glass, snails in buckets on the floor, jellyfish, red-spined sea cucumber.

 

“Anything special you like? We’re doing a little dinner in the restaurant, when Jack gets in.”

 

I declined, politely, avoiding eye contact with a tank of conger eels. I could tell it disappointed him. We crossed to the other end of the hangar, by which time James’s dolly was full. I could hear him struggling to drag it alongside us. “He’s okay,” Jack Sr. assured me, when I stooped to help. “Kid doesn’t play any sports. Told his dad it was a mistake.”

 

I couldn’t remember if Jack Jr. had ever told me he had a nephew. More than one, I was sure. He was the youngest of his brothers. It was something of his that I’d envied, shut up in my room when I visited home, reminded of the quiet nights, my own parents in bed by nine, television to fill the silence. I had never even shared a beer with my father. Jack Sr., now, he could talk for days if somebody let him.

 

“You should hear him go on about you, Ren,” Jack Sr. said to me. We were out of the warehouse through the hangar doors. I caught James’s eye for a moment, mutual commiseration, pleased to think that for a split second we could be allies. We reached the van and started loading. It was nearing four in the morning.

 

“Jack’s never brought anybody home before,” Jack Sr. said, tossing James a bundle of bike cables to tie it all down. “We were worried for a while whether he ever wanted to…you know—”

 

Of course, we’d only been together a year. I hadn’t even realized his birthday was coming around until I’d looked it up myself. And here I was. It was fast but not unreasonable. I hoped. Anyway, Jack Jr. would surely not meet my own father until way, way further down the line, considering my parents barely spoke English. My father asked only occasionally if I was dating these days, wanting no more than a yes or a no, and—I’m sure—only because my mother had made him.

 

It had happened so quietly, the week after I’d come home after college and told them. I didn’t know the word in Korean. After several failed attempts I gave up. “Ho-mo-sex-u-al,” I said carefully, looking between them across the kitchen table. My mother made dinner that night, my father bloviated over the news. He was in high spirits that weekend as the South Korean president had recently been imprisoned. We said goodnight and the next morning continued on without interruption. A month later, while I looked for roommates in Seattle, my father said something about a sum of money they’d saved up for my wedding that they wanted me to use to pay rent. “Why now?” I’d said.

 

“It’s not like you’ll—” my father trailed off, realizing I was looking straight at him. After a minute or so, he shuffled away to the kitchen. It took him another week after I’d started working to call me again. “I didn’t mean,” he said in English, which is what he did to avoid long conversations.

 

“I know,” I told him. He hung up.

 

Jack Sr. laughed, nervously, as I hadn’t said anything.

 

“Hey, Ren,” he offered, timidly, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

 

“No,” I told him, coming to. “No, it’s not that, it’s—”

 

We ran out of things to say. James shouted from the other side of the van.

 

 

The restaurant, still dark, was tucked behind a Chinese bakery. James, nodding off in the back with the fish, let me relieve him, and at six a.m., Jack Sr. and I hauled the pallets to the kitchen. A crew of sleepy young guys met us there, rubbing their eyes in with their forearms. They grunted in agreement with Jack Sr.’s observations, double-stock of the salmon this week for the white customers, dirt-cheap mackerel for the Asians. They set to work breaking it all down, filling the glass bar out in front with fresh cuts. It was almost five. The place was small, barely enough room for ten tables, but smelled warm and real. Jack Sr. had a few newspaper clippings up by the doors, reviews from their opening weekend, a feature in the local Fort Lee Times. A pot boiling on the stove. Jack Sr. pressed a bowl into my hands. Kimchi jjigae like my mother made, simmered a couple hours with tofu and pork belly. I brought breakfast out to James in the back of the van and sat with him, slurping the dregs and last grains of rice at the bottom of my bowl.

 

“I can’t believe you let him take you along today,” James said, after a while.

 

I shrugged. “I think I’d rather have the coma, in hindsight.”

 

James smiled, fleetingly. “He wants to give it to Jack, the restaurant,” he said.

 

“That’s good.”

 

“He really did like it,” James said. “That wasn’t a lie. Before he moved to Seattle they did all the runs together.”

 

The soup, scalding hot, felt good collecting in my stomach. My fingers, which had been numb for hours, were starting to regain their color.

 

“How many views on that video, by the way?”

 

James dug out his phone. “14K. Nobody’s awake.” He looked at me. “I really will take it down if you want.”

 

 

The van putted through the polished development by the river. I glanced up at the houses, wondering if anybody could hear, remembering that if Jack Sr. had been clanging and roaring through Bergen County in his demented fish van for twenty years already, he wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. We let James off by a white house near a dense line of trees. They’d all be over for dinner: James’s father, Jack Jr.’s two older brothers. I felt relieved. There wasn’t much more I could do to embarrass myself. James said his goodbyes. Seized with a whoosh of hot blood through my ears I held my fist out through the open window. James considered it, then bumped his knuckles against mine. A fresh dust of snow had fallen over the green lawns as we pulled away. The sun peeked lazily up over the suburbs and their manufactured tree lines. Jack Sr. slowed us to a stop in front of the left side of a brick duplex along a massively inclined road. I felt the van’s weight redistribute as its brakes groaned their last whisper. I made a move to open the door.

 

“I hope I didn’t scare you back there, Ren.”

 

I glanced longingly up at the house, the beds inside. Jack Sr. made a couple motions in the air with his hands, starting and stopping to say what he wanted. My limbs felt filled with sand. I tried to let him know I understood.

 

“Your parents must be happy about you guys.”

 

I went to nod again, but looking across the seat divider at Jack Sr., staring fondly at me, stopped myself. I was speaking before I realized I was. I didn’t want to say it, too tired to stop myself. “They love me,” I said. “It’s just…I don’t get the feeling they understand, sometimes.”

 

It had come out of me in one breath. Shame bloomed up inside me. I wanted to be shown to a bed as fast as possible. Jack Sr. took his key out of the ignition. I realized that I was still wearing his hat and pulled it off me, handing it to him.

 

“You know,” Jack Sr. said, kneading the wool cap between his fingers, “Jack didn’t live with us for about three weeks after he came out to his mother and me. We never told him to go and he never said he was going to, but—” He tried to laugh. “We were different, things were different, which…well, you know.”

 

And I nodded, because I did know.

 

“He came back, we said we were sorry and he said he understood. Pretty soon after he started coming along for the fish runs again.” Jack Sr. smiled at me.

 

The van gave a click as he unlocked our doors and slid out to the ground. I followed him up to the front door where we left our shoes and tiptoed onto white prefab carpeting. Jack Sr. ushered me through the door closest to the kitchen, still dark, imbued all throughout with the cool blue light of the morning. Jack’s childhood room. A desk stood pushed to the corner, facing the window out to the street. Snow was starting to fall heavy outside, blanketing the van and the curb. The room looked sanitized, a space once made for four boys, dwindling as each left home, repurposed now for the erstwhile son home for a couple days at a time. Just one bed left. Still some books on the shelving above the bed. Plastic soccer trophy on the windowsill. Jack Sr. put his hand on my shoulder. One last time he felt my head, the back of my neck, and I let him.

 

“I’ll wake you if Jack calls.” The door shut behind him.

 

I stayed put, thinking Jack Jr., if he were here, might have put me on the sofa outside or at least might have swept the room before I’d come in. I’d seen only one picture of his from high school. A lanky kid cradling a basketball, T-shirt under the school jersey, gaps in his face and arms where he’d since filled out, grown to size. I wondered if this was the very same bed and suspected that it was if the soccer trophy—on further inspection, National Storytelling League trophy—was any indication. I lifted the covers, maneuvering myself inside. I didn’t fool myself thinking the pillow smelled like him, it couldn’t have. I lay still, looking up at the dark crease, the meeting of the wall and the ceiling above. I closed my eyes, turning my head to push my nose into the sheets, and thought about what I was going to tell him.

 

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Review: Bone Music by Joel Peckham

Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2021.

Paperback, 90 pages, $18.00.

 

Bone Music

 

Joel Peckham’s latest collection of poetry, Bone Music, is his most daring yet, looking with utter honesty at the cartography of healing following substantial loss. Readers of his past work will recall that over a decade ago, the poet experienced a car accident overseas in which he lost his wife and eldest son. In Bone Music, Peckham continues his excavation of grief, sharing a full spectrum of emotions in which he maps the contours of love, joy, fear, sadness, loss, and abundance. These incantatory poems explore both sound and movement in their making of meaning, as readers become in many ways seated in a raft while wave after wave of ocean rocks and lulls and spins—just as any good music does.

 

Bone Music has a tight focus, concentrating on memory and healing, of rage and the numerous navigations en route to forgiveness, both of others and oneself. The collection has a strong theme of motion, with numerous poems that feature vehicles. In poems such as “Suffering Tape,” Peckham proves himself to be, once again, a god of sound and alliteration: “I could see myself spool out to blues and reds with golds of early evening sun and shadow as I shook and took the shape of starlings flocked or the flame of sunfish staring up at night from the windshield’s blue-black pond.” Here, readers are treated to a feast of momentum, a furious dance on the page.

 

Yet, this collection, is not intended as simply a quick read. It asks the reader to dwell in the poems, reading them again and again, steeping in the words as a cup of tea grows more potent over time—as memory also grows and fades and becomes in its potency, clearer and not in its being. The book contains two sections: the first, The Quantum Soul, seems to function as an exploration of the interior, of memory and soul-searching, our cosmic relationship to mortality and philosophy, and the second section, In Case of Emergency, as a deeper probe into the nature of life. The latter is an unabashed look at the poet’s own failings and guilt, how one seeks to repair damages, despite repeated trauma, with a will to better one’s self.

 

Bone Music opens with “Prologue,” in which the line breaks emphasize a kind of rhythm, where the ending line “and was lost” sets the stage for what is to come—a book about various kinds of loss. The five-part “The Wreckage That We Travel In” is particularly astounding, beginning with these lines: “The world must take us by surprise—in spite of all the warnings, all evidence. Even a man shaped by loss takes each new blow in bafflement.” The poem is the reader’s first glimpse of a fascinating form that Peckham echoes throughout the rest of the collection, wherein what seem like prose poems exhibit sudden line breaks in the middle of a sentence:

 

. . . a matter of perspective and a sheet of glass all that separates the one from the many, this life from the next—what could send us crashing, flying into it? As a boy hurtling

 

up 93 with my father to visit his father in the nursing home, I loved to stare directly at the trees until they blurred and I could feel that killing speed and imagine I was me and not me and me . . .

 

Here’s another example from “In Case of Emergency”:

 

. . . When everything is always at my earlobe breathing

and heavy and hot with lungs as full as any long distance runner’s, wild-

ness is just another kind of intimacy,

 

an intimacy of layering upon another and another: not one clock

but thousands—all ticking, all chiming . . .

 

The result of this style mimics a memory, somewhat corporeal, as one thought leads to another, at times without clear transition, yet always with a certain profoundness. Poetic form, even at times in a subversion of form, is exceptional in this collection, and Peckham caters to readers who might also be poets, giving overtures to craft in poems like “RE: Like a Box”: “And if a poem is not salvation it might just be its metaphor: it does what a metaphor does: sheds it skins and slides away….” As a result, many poems become a lesson in poetry writing without compromising the core messages of the collection. Bone Music aims to bring readers along, to help them in their own personal quests.

 

We glimpse Peckham’s searching in poems such as “Suffering Tape,” where Peckham proclaims: “I learned what breaking meant, how it was transformation; it was crackling; it was resonant.” Or in “Going Sideways,” where the lines  acknowledge and reach for greater meaning beyond self:

 

I do not travel backwards

 

easily. I circle back in widening arcs

 

to the same songs, the same pictures floating from between the

covers of the same books, the same unfinished arguments,

 

to the same desert highway under the same stars reflected on the

same dead sea.

 

Bone Music intends to take readers off the deep end, to dive into the waters of what living means when grief has followed a person for so long.

 

Perhaps the most encapsulating poem of the collection can be found in its ending. “The Locomotive of the Lord” is the poem the whole collection builds toward, in that it moves the reader from constellation into a singular picture: “This life is a beautiful / accident made of accidents we try to shape.” Bone Music closes with a precious message of gratitude for what one has, this precious life, including all that is not in the same way anymore but evermore precious in its existence.

 

In closing Bone Music in this way, Peckham offers a path forward. The acknowledgment of pain, even of continued pain, becomes oddly a comfort—and a source of healing through which one may fully grasp and find joy. Bone Music, as a result, becomes a guidebook for the grief-stricken. By reaching for the grayer edges of human experience, Peckham turns readers toward honesty instead of simple answers, which makes for a lasting poetry collection.

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Scranton 1929/Pontelandolfo 1861

Of the many ways in which the old man is disappointed with his daughter-in-law, her cooking is actually the worst. So when he enters his son’s apartment and is greeted by Emilia—an Austrian!—who breezily announces, “I made something special for you, Pop,” it takes all his restraint to nod, to smile, to use his stilted control of English—the only language they share—to say, “Thank you. This makes me happy.”

 

His son’s apartment, however, is no disappointment. Wood paneling, open space, a mild improvement over their first place in Wilkes-Barre, his grandsons huddled around the Philco enjoying a ball game. The old man has never appreciated baseball, but he’s proud Tony and Frankie do, that they’re American in a way he never could be. He nods at them—he has never given affection to little boys—and shakes his son’s hand. Carlo’s grip is strong, and the old man reddens when his son pulls him in for a hug, how free he is with his emotions not only with his family, but with everyone he encounters as one of Scranton’s premier plumbers. Once a week during the old man’s visits to the Cataldo Club, he is annoyed when someone compliments his son’s handiwork and says how friendly he is. Friendly. It’s not an Italian word.

 

The old man joins his son at the table and wishes he didn’t have to smell whatever it is Emilia is cooking. The whole apartment reeks of garlic and tomatoes, and he knows exactly where this is headed. “It’s red sauce and meatballs,” Carlo says to confirm. How many times he’s been served red sauce and meatballs by smiling buffoons even though no one in Italy would ever serve red sauce with meatballs. “Yes,” the old man says, agreeing that red sauce and meatballs is indeed what his daughter-in-law is preparing, “red sauce and meatballs.”

 

“So,” his son says, leaning back, “the boys were asking about the old country today. Weren’t you, boys? Come here to Pop.”

 

“No, we weren’t,” Tony pleads in his singsong voice.

 

“The Yankees!” Frankie cries.

 

“Boys.” Carlo snaps his fingers, and they turn off the radio and fall in line around the table. At least Carlo isn’t friendly with his sons. The humiliation! “Tell them something, Pop. Come on. Anything.”

 

Emilia calls from the stove. “You ever run into my parents visiting from Austria?”

 

An Italian would only greet an Austrian with spit or gunfire, and the old man is astonished that the next generation can name all of the New York Yankees while understanding so little about where they came from. The old man knows he has to reveal something but finds himself drawing a blank. He doesn’t like remembering life in the before time. How to convey an entire sunken world through one single memory? He looks at his family, and the same image as always rises—chicken, not prepared by a family member, not served in a bar, but a freshly butchered bird roasting over open flames, the way the flesh popped, how it smelled beneath the stars among the camaraderie of other soldiers. The old man remembers not Favazzina, the southern village where he grew up, not his fisherman father or the stiff stench of his clothes, not his mother forever in a nightgown, making the sign of the cross no matter what news was delivered, not even the caresses of curly-haired Gianna, the girl he assumed he’d one day marry. No, the old man remembers being summoned from his parents’ home, conscripted by the northern government post-unification. He remembers Pontelandolfo, a village very much like his own, how the powers-that-be explained that revolts across the southern half of the peninsula had to be crushed, that the citizens of Pontelandolfo had banded together and murdered forty soldiers. A message must be delivered. Unification, no, the entire soul of newborn Italy depended upon it!

 

The old man observes his grandchildren and their occasional glances at the silent Philco. He looks at Carlo and Emilia, wondering what they picture when they hear words like “Italy” or “Austria,” perhaps some vague dream of a simpler life, holy soil they know they’ll never step foot in. How could any of them understand marching as a group of five hundred, entering Pontelandolfo armed and ordered to kill? How could they imagine the old man as a young man surrounded by his comrades, mostly teenagers unaware that they’d even been liberated, how they opened fire on the town’s clergy, men, women, and children? His family couldn’t feel the weight of the torches, how the old man and his giddy friends hurled them through the open windows of houses, the dissonance of screams, how the heat from the burning village coupled with the August sun made the old man feel like he’d tumbled outside of his body arriving somewhere that didn’t count, not really, where anything could happen and where everything would be forgiven. They burned Pontelandolfo to dust, and, as they listened to the gunfire and cries, they feasted. Chicken roasting on open flames just beyond the fighting and all the wine they could drink. Later, the old man wondered if the government had plied them with food and alcohol just in case the soldiers were considering joining up with the people of Pontelandolfo, who resembled their own families praying for their safe returns back home. But the truth was they would’ve followed orders no matter what, that they loved being told what to do, that at the end of the day none of these decisions were theirs. It was the north. Always the north.

 

The old man remembers the priest they hung outside the village, how for the rest of the evening he and his friends took turns shooting at the rope above his snapped neck, how they missed and missed, laughed and laughed. He looks at his moon-faced family and wonders what exactly to say about that.

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bye bye

—after “American Pie,” sung by Leslie Cheung, a Cantopop star who died jumping off the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong

 

boys always

haunting the gas

 

stationed at

the kum & go

 

come around yelling

happy july, all

 

these lives you haven’t filled

in all these teeth

 

a faith so deep you can

die in it, like a boy so

 

high up he thought the

swimming pool was full

 

and god willing, he

dived in it. in a

 

preemptive strike, patriotic, partirons                                                              

and party on! miss 中国

 

in 中西部,

i dismiss

 

their existence, a flotilla

with more in common

 

with a root beer vanilla

concoction than the

 

spanish armada, though

that too was a whipped

 

cream loss. dq stands

for disqualification—three

 

strikes & the cup is half

mosh pit half military

 

campaign—god is in the

good fizz—& the bottom

 

(beyond the caffeine &

fresh sugarcane) is concrete.

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Review: The Clearing by Allison Adair

Milkweed Editions, 2020

Hardcover, $22.00, 88 pages

 

The Clearing

 

Allison Adair’s debut collection, The Clearing, is a tumble down a familiar hillside that leaves the reader giggling or stuck in a blackberry bush. It is the sting of antiseptic on a hundred bramble scratches, but it is also the kiss on a forehead covered in bandages. The Clearing is painful at times, since it is a catalog of victimhood, loss, and domestic violence—desperate circumstance that sometimes ends in tragedy.

 

“Mother of 2 Stabbed to Death in Silverton” begins, “The woman was overheard in the town hall saying she was afraid / to do it, once and for all, that he would, like he’s said, and he did.” Adair shows little interest in overly intellectualizing sentiments. Instead, the sharp truth—like a late-night phone call—is often delivered deadpan, and the poetics do not suffer in the least. In fact, the plainspoken portrayal of surgically precise metaphors either jars the reader or leaves them misty-eyed. This poem ends on the neighbor’s front porch, “It was an accident, he said, I never meant it. They stood there still / as newsprint.”

 

I fear I am fixating on the grotesque, perhaps because it is captured so extraordinarily, but in truth the poetic landscapes found in The Clearing are equally delightful—the voices often nurturing and celebratory, even when wrestling with fear and darkness. In “City Life,” the narrator and her daughter are learning to live in a city full of rats: “For her, death / is the longest nap imaginable, / maybe four hours. But we always wake / at the end.” And no matter where Adair leads us—toward a mining disaster, a recurring dream, or a historical reenactment—there will likely be animals there to keep us unnerved or entertained. “I thought I knew the sound of darkness, / the slow leather collapse of a bat’s wing / folding into itself, the swollen fucking of a cloud / of them wrestling for space on the cave’s drapery.” In Adair’s world, the creatures morph continually, and the lines are winding and tourniquet tight.  “A ruined animal will drag itself miles only to become / a desiccated hutch, burrow of maggots, coyote trough.”

 

Adair’s phrases are rural incantations that swirl in the throat like heavy smoke, and each image is refreshing as a gulp from the backyard spigot—worth returning to again and again. And beneath each poem lies a meticulous sonic foundation. There is a rhythmic precision, too, that shifts in accordance with the whims of the poet. The reader is aware of their own slow breathing, for example, when an animal is trapped or desperate. At other moments, the rhythm almost mirrors the image, such as in the closing of “Gettysburg”: “The caterpillar inches along, lost / in its sad accordion hymn.” And while there are deeply personal poems in this collection, Adair is as—if not more—interested in writing about historical events and rural places, such as “Silverton, ”a town in Colorado with no more than seven hundred residents. These poems are not unlike blue whales with hearts as big as rental cars. Winner of the 2020 Max Ritvo Poetry Prize, The Clearing is a light show all its own, pungent and beautiful as a prairie fire. It is a collection one shouldn’t risk lending out, if they ever want to see it again.

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The Ballet Audition

She appeared in our Leningrad apartment one afternoon, at the start of my summer break, when I was ten years old. I was showing my self-made Mary Poppins costume to our next-door neighbor Nata, leaving the door into our apartment wide open. When I came back, she was sitting in our kitchen. My mother was fussing with the tea cups wearing her ancient blue sports pants with the material on the knees stretched out like two deflated balloons. Mom said, “Say hi to Galina Vasilievna.”

 

Galina Vasilievna came to borrow the 500+ page JCPenny catalogue; its cover showed a model in a white beret, white sweater and a white coat. It was 1985 in Leningrad and women loaned to each other fashion magazines from beyond the Soviet border: mostly Burda from Eastern Germany, or, more rarely: Bazaar, Vogue, Elle. The most coveted magazine was always the fat American catalogue because it allowed the fullest entry into the Western fairy tale. Catalogues showed beautifully proportioned tables, chairs, sofas, dolls, dog mats, and human beings built for ordinary lives and attainable for anyone in the US, for a price. That week was my mom’s turn to keep, for four long days, the catalogue that came to us from a friend of a friend of a friend. It was our last day to host it.

 

“I hear that everyone in France is into bold, large patterns and bright colors. Orange, black, yellow. Stripes! That kind of thing makes you look years younger,” my mom said.

 

Galina Vasilievna did not respond, but smiled politely. Her long neck and straight back made her look regal, even haughty, but her eyes displayed a restrained playfulness, the kind you see on the face of a kid waiting for her turn to use the swing on the playground. A large oval amber pin in her low bun pulled her entire physical presence together with precise dignified finality. She was not in a hurry at all and seemed to enjoy herself sitting on our too-low-for-the-dining-table sofa with a red brick replacing a missing leg. At the same time I was certain that she would never visit us again. This certainty felt vaguely connected to my feeling of shame because we had an old, stained oilcloth with lilacs on the dining table while she was wearing an ivory silk blouse with three pearl buttons on its cuffs. It was as if she flew into our kitchen straight from The Hermitage ballroom. Only a short moment ago she sat at a grand piano in a long, light blue dress and played a nocturne by Chopin, simultaneously reciting Pushkin’s poetry.

 

I thought my mother should feel envy sitting next to this woman who was about her age, but, observing my mother, I could tell that she didn’t feel it. It was a disappointing realization for it was proof that important things were beyond my mother. The thing beyond her, right in front of us, was the elegance of this woman. Of course I didn’t call it elegance then, and while I didn’t know the right word I did ask the right question.

 

“Are you a ballerina?”

 

I asked this question still wearing the Mary Poppins costume: my friend’s mom’s long brown dress, with a belt to keep it in place, and a large collar I made out of ivory linen napkins with lace trimmings. On my head I had a gray men’s hat that my neighbor Nadia let me borrow. Mom waved her hand behind Galina Vasilievna, signaling to me to take off the hat because it was not polite to talk with someone indoors wearing a hat. But I knew the real reason: she thought the hat looked ridiculous and now felt embarrassed on my behalf. I stubbornly pretended I didn’t see mom’s signals and kept the hat on. I kept it on because I loved it. I imagined it made me look sophisticated.

 

Galina Vasilievna asked me to sit next to her and then told me that she used to be a ballerina and danced in the corps de ballet of the Mariinsky Theater, and that now she taught ballet at the House of Culture Ballet School. She asked me about my costume and it turned out that she adored everything about it. “You have a good taste,” she told me. I could hardly breathe inside the fog of euphoria, and my voice sounded unnaturally high when I blurted to her that I wanted to be a ballerina too.

 

I went to the Mariinski Theater twice with my classmates, our school’s “culture outing” program. We saw The Sleeping Beauty in the first grade and The Swan Lake in the second grade. More recently, while visiting my friend Vera, I watched the TV ballet Anuta, based on a Chekhov short story “Anna on the Neck.” It was one of those ballet productions made for TV only; they were very popular back in the day and completely ignored in my own family. That night, every female member of Vera’s family—two sisters, her mother, aunt, two grandmothers—sat down to eat dinner in front of the TV to watch that ballet, but after the mushroom soup Vera was eager to make an escape back to my flat. I wanted to stay to watch Anuta to the end, but Vera said that ballet is the dumbest art form because dancers are mute. “Watching a Chekhov short story ballet is like watching an orchestra and not hearing a peep,” she concluded. I couldn’t get her cruel comment out of my head, and, later, when she offered to let me read her copy of Great Expectations, I told her that I no longer like Dickens because he is “stupidly judgmental and can’t enjoy things in the moment.”

 

That day, in our kitchen, Galina Vasilievna asked me to dance for her and point my feet, and do a split, and then a “bridge,” a deep bend backwards. I took off my hat and performed each request with a manic grin on my face. At one point my linen collar fell on the floor because it was not stitched to the dress. I was ready to do anything for her and was hoping for more requests or maybe even corrections, but suddenly she turned to my mom, and her tone of voice changed from a violin to a bass.

 

“Your daughter has remarkable feet and she is very flexible. Would you consider enrolling her at our school? We are auditioning girls her age in two weeks.”

 

That night I pulled the blanket over my head and entered the living room of the great Maurice Petipa, the choreographer behind The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, and other classics. I saw his room on TV in the film about Anna Pavlova, who was born in 1881 and became one of the most famous ballerinas of all time. In the film, Petipa’s living room is exquisitely furnished in pastel colors, and the great man himself, in a white vest with a black bow, is elderly, bearded, and aristocratic. He presides over harmony, refinement, and culture. In this room, ten-year-old Anna Pavlova stands before Petipa, an enormous painting of Tzar Alexander III behind her. Petipa bows to Anna, and her audition for the Imperial School of Ballet commences. She shows him her flexibility, her eyes radiate pure deadly voltage of happiness, and she wears a long navy dress with a tiny white lace collar snugly wrapping her neck. Afterwards Petipa concludes that she is ready to be admitted into the ballet school.

 

Two days before my audition a very unpleasant thing happened to me. That day I was sent to my grandma’s for the weekend and accompanied her when she went to her hairdresser, located inside a supermarket, a ten-minute walk from her flat. Grandma, or babyshka, as I always called her, had weak, swollen feet, and it always took us forever to walk because she had to make frequent stops to rest. Our trail was muddy since that particular suburban housing area was relatively new, still under ongoing or abandoned construction, and it had rained recently. Every time I jumped over the mud puddle babyshka predicted that next time I would slip and fall. Babyshka’s weak legs could not jump over puddles and sometimes she ended up stepping right in the middle of them. As we walked she was telling me, again, about walking to the Neva River with a metal bucket for water in freezing cold during WWII when Leningrad was under the Siege.

 

On the way to the main artery Budapeshtksaya Street, where the hair salon was located, we took a short cut through an inner courtyard surrounded by Soviet-style block apartment buildings. When we passed through this courtyard we walked by a big, black rectangular bunker, a leftover relic from WWII. Being near that bunker made me feel cold horror every time. Babyshka often told me about the war, and the Leningrad Siege: about babies in tiny coffins on sleds, and how all the cats, dogs, and rats were eaten and all the furniture burned to stay warm. That bunker was once a place of safety, but it was jet black, had no windows, and its corners were rounded, making it look even creepier. I once saw a scary old man without a leg peeing into the lilac bush next to the bunker. He was wailing quietly, pitifully, like an abandoned, hurt animal.

 

At the hair salon it turned out that babyshka had arranged a haircut for me as well, free of charge. I rejected this plan because I was growing my hair out for a ballet bun. It was already difficult to do a bun with my shoulder-length hair. Babyshka and the hairdresser took turns trying to talk me into the haircut, “a little clean trim,” but I refused to budge from my decision. Our walk back was longer than eternity because babyshka did not utter a single word, stopped even more frequently, and sighed deeply.

 

When my mom arrived to pick me up she was furious. When will we have another opportunity to visit a hairdresser? Free of charge! And by the way, according to experts, trimming hair regularly helps hair grow fuller. And why did I have to upset babyshka, babyshka who wants me to look my best, babyshka with a weak heart, elevated blood pressure, and swollen feet. I pretended that I hadn’t been listening, but in fact I heard everything distinctly, saw each word in my mind’s eye as if it were written in large, red, throbbing neon letters. I began to worry about babyshka and watched her every move, half-expecting to see her collapse before my eyes. I knew I was a criminal and secretly feared that I would now suffer a punishment I deserved. Just in case God existed I prayed to him to punish me in absolutely any way he wanted, but not during the ballet audition. I then began to feel really ashamed of myself. How could I be so cold and heartless and think about my audition when babyshka’s health was more important than all of ballet and opera combined?

 

Back at our place, while my mom chatted on the phone with her best friend, I locked myself in the bathroom. I had a big scab on my knee from the time I fell from my friend’s tall bike. Earlier that day babyshka would strike my hand every time I wanted to remove even a tiny bit of that scab. So, while my mom was on the phone, I got to work and successfully removed the entire scab, and then enlarged the wound, removing healthy skin all around it. The area on my knee was large, red, and throbbing. I looked at it and imagined the audition committee, including Galina Vasilievna, looking at my knee with revulsion and pity. It was painful to bend the leg. I wanted to scream because—obviously—I was a complete idiot.

 

The day of the audition arrived and we exited Petrogradskaya subway station and then stood in a long line full of girls, ballet buns, tight-lipped moms spilling out of the building onto the street. Moms were checking out other girls to assess their thinness. Girls were checking out other moms to assess thinness of girls in the future. Looking around I thought that every mom in line was far inferior to my mom. My mom was beautiful and very thin. Natasha, my classmate, once told me that when she grows up she wants to look exactly like my mom. This memory made me feel a little better, but I was still amidst the sea of thin girls, many flexible like chewing gum because they took gymnastics at elite Soviet gymnastics studios, having been stretched by their parents for ballet and gymnastics in their infancy. Yet, I was certain that Maurice Petipa would never want a chewing gum.

 

House of Culture Ballet School was not the impossible-to-get-into Vaganova Ballet Academy, previously The Imperial Ballet School from which Anna Pavlova had graduated, but it was easily second best in Leningrad. Ballet was the USSR’s space program inside the Imperial Russia spacesuit, and only a handful of schools were allowed to carry out its mission. At these schools bodies were trained to fly for swan roles, training was free of charge, and the mission rested on a belief that ballet ought to be developed only in the right body. Those who got in were Chosen for the Future.

 

In the dressing room I got undressed down to my tank top and underwear, affixed a new Band-Aid to my knee, and entered the studio when my name was called. The judges presided over a long table. One of them was Galina Vasilievna. She wore the ivory blouse I remembered, and her head was lowered to her notebook, where she was making notes. My heart was jumping out through my throat, but I managed to do the plies, the tandus, I pointed my feet, arched my back, jumped up from the first position, then from the second, galloped across the room. When I lifted my right leg to the side, the woman who had measured my height, neck, and length of arms, held my leg by the ankle, slapping my knee hard, on the Band-Aid, to make me keep it straight and then lifted the leg as high as it could go. It went so high I could see my toes just by slightly turning my eyes to the upper right, but when she let go of my foot it did not want to stay in the high spot and fell to the floor with a forceful bang. In panic I looked at the judges, wanting to see Galina Vasilievna’s reaction, and saw that the ivory blouse was not Galina Vasilievna at all. Inside the blouse was an old woman with a skinny neck and a long, pointed nose.

 

Afterwards, in the foyer, I waited forever for the results to be posted. At last, the woman who had slapped me on the knee pinned the list to the wall next to the closed door of the studio. Girls and moms poured to the list, and most girls were crying. At first I couldn’t see anything, and then I could, and read the list again and again because my name wasn’t there. I kept re-reading, stubbornly, refusing to budge from my spot, and other girls were pushing me to make room for them.

 

My mother came up to me, held my hand, and we walked outside. We walked back to Petrogradskaya subway in silence. She then said, “You know, dear, these people are experts, they know best and they can tell if ballet is right for you. What about diving? I know you love it too. You can start with a diving group at a SKA pool in the fall. My friend Lusya knows someone who coaches the diving team and they can probably take you.”

 

Her words helped me enormously. I held onto what she said as if it were a rope I could use to climb out of a dark pit. I started thinking about Lake Kruglovskoe and imagined climbing to that secret high spot we discovered with Masha and Lera, the spot we called “insanity flight.” I pictured myself walking along the south side of the cliff, where an old bicycle could be seen sticking through the water because it was the shallow side of the lake, ankle-deep. I imagined walking to the highest point and then jumping into the lake, straight onto the rocks, feeling my legs break when I land. I lie on the rocks with my legs broken, no: one leg broken, shattered to pieces below the knee. I’m looking up at the sky, hearing someone call my name, searching for me, but I’m lying there completely still and silent, slowly slipping out of consciousness.

 

Interrupting my story my mom said, “Well, what did you expect, dear? It’s no use grieving so dramatically. Mary Poppins would never despair like that.”

 

“Mary Poppins graduated from the world-famous ballet school of Madame Corry,” I said.

 

I never read the book by Travers; my knowledge about Mary Poppins derived entirely from a popular Soviet film loosely based on that book. In that film Mary Poppins takes the children to her old ballet school and introduces them to her beloved ballet teacher Madame Corry, who never ages. The actress playing Madame Corry was a Bolshoi Ballet ballerina in real life.

 

I wanted to be left alone with my story and not talk, so I said, “It’s okay. The upside is that now I can get a haircut. A short bob with bangs, like on that model you liked.”

 

In my story my mom was rushing to the cliff looking for me and eventually she saw me from above. I was very small, very still, and way below.  She saw that my leg had been totally shattered and thought that I might be dead. When I got to this point in my story I started to cry in real life. My whole face was wet, even my hands, even my dress.

When we reached Pionerskaya subway station I suddenly realized, with a satisfying jolt of insight, that the stone I land on after I jump is covered with slimy moss. When I land I slide off the stone with full force.

 

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Garbage Day

Out the window a squirrel’s noshing on a quesadilla,

paws clasped around a tortilla shard as if mid-prayer

 

its prayers were answered. I’m making dinner again:

salmon filets like flagstones made from moon,

 

a cube of butter in the skillet spreading its skirts

while on the cutting board an onion heretics the air.

 

The truth is sometimes I call your name because I need you

to come look at this, look at how alive I am,

 

and sometimes how alive I am can only be seen
by what’s happening around me: two people cheering

 

for a dumpster-diving tree rat, one’s hair

waterfalling onto the other’s shoulder, joy

 

like a school of minnows swimming overhead—

another glorious day where we have nothing to bury

 

besides our appetites. Listen:
the dishes in the sink aren’t going to elope

 

tonight. Let’s admire the sky’s tablecloth,

its chorus of spilled salt. Let’s clasp

 

our bodies like two hands praying

and crisp the edges of grace.

 

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The Night My Number Tripled

in my recent bloodwork chart, I saw it and I fled.

Panic ripped through me like sallow gas

 

and as an animal would,

I must have believed

I could hide from my own leaking math. Pregnancy

 

or tumor—those were the options

and I wasn’t sure which one I wanted

less. Around and around I went

 

in my apartment parking lot as if pursued

through carmine alleyways. Oh, my blood

and its mutable omens. My brain and its end

 

of days. It didn’t matter

that the dusk was beautiful in the early

rainy season when the sky takes

 

on the plush and tropical hues of stone

fruits so I could remember that I lived

in a place far but not too far

 

from the ocean. Magnolia flowers sat

primly in their teacups. Gray and white

birds shone where they flew like lights

 

off moving water. It started to get dark.

My parents couldn’t find me.

My boyfriend was asleep

 

halfway across the world. I walked as if to leave

behind my body, though I understood

I had to receive what it offered me.

 

So this is what it means

to be alone, I said inside myself

and to myself as a violet wind pushed through

 

the palm fronds above me, initiating a sound I recognized

like the rustle of dry grasses

before a storm, as the first

 

stars opened their eyes to nightfall

the way an apocalypse can mean

to reveal.

 

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Review: Wicked Enchantment: Selected Poems by Wanda Coleman

Black Sparrow Press, 2020

Paperback, $15.95, 224 pages

 

Wicked Enchantment

 

One of the few good things to come out of 2020 was Wicked Enchantment: Selected Poems by Wanda Coleman, skillfully edited by poet Terrance Hayes. Describing Coleman’s work is not an easy task. Her outspoken work stretches for miles and leaves shockwaves where it lands. Hayes describes her as a “grenade of brilliance, boasts, and braggadocio.” Having lived on the edges of the poetry elitists, her body of work often neglected, she was still referred to as the unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles by those who valued her work. A native daughter of L.A., born in 1946 in the Watts neighborhood, Coleman also wrote novels, nonfiction, and short stories. Known mostly for her poetry, she left behind a large volume of work and a legion of fans.

 

Wicked Enchantment includes selected poems from eight of her published collections. The book opens with an illuminating section entitled “Wanda In Her Own Words” that includes quotes from her other writing and interviews. There, Coleman says, “My delicious dilemma is language. How I structure it. How the fiction of history structures me. And as I’ve become more and more shattered, my tongue has become tangled . . .  I am glassed in by language as well as by the barriers of my dark skin and financial embarrassment.” Thus, the book is off and running, and delicious dilemmas of many kinds run through the entire collection.

 

Coleman’s voice as a Black woman fighting against gender and racial oppression is undeniably striking. Through poems like “Essay on Language,” Coleman gives the poetic middle finger to naysayers and cowards, “trying to be the / best i can spurred by blackness but they keep telling me the / best fashion in which to escape linguistic ghettoization / is to / ignore the actuality of blackness blah blah blah and it will / cease to / have factual power over my life. which doesn’t / make sense to me . . .” In those lines, she mocks the ivory tower advising her to take it easy and to be nice. Instead, she is “spurred by blackness” to sniff out racisms and other degradations, and she doesn’t hesitate to make them plain and clear. In “Essay on Language 6,” Coleman writes,

 

there are those who have no passion but who

are sensitive enough to sense the void within

and therefore must imagine passion. i often find

that among that kind, there are those who

detest the truly passionate out of an envious rage

that has always faced us passionate ones.

 

Sometimes the poems are surprising, laced with humor and irreverence. The title alone of “I Ain’t Yo Earthmama” suggests trouble, and then the first line throws down the gauntlet: “boogers are not my forte.” Exactly whose forte are boogers? Despite her claim, Coleman does quite well with boogers, at least as a jumping off point. From there, she goes on to combine Poseidon, experimental sex, and vomit in this juggernaut of a poem.

 

Coleman continually pushes into new territory, seeking poetic freedom. In “Dream 924,” the speaker drives a car, “and i’m flying as the speedometer / needle presses urgently against the edge. ah – the power. i / am looking for the answer. and i move forward . . .” In that speeding urgency toward freedom, Coleman has picked up descriptions like, as Hayes has described her, a “flesh-eating poet,” while others have described her as simply mean. Coleman’s intensity can be felt throughout Wicked Enchantments with lines such as “pseudo-intellectuals with suck-holes for brains” (from “American Sonnet 3”), but it’s the quiet moments in poems such as “The Saturday Afternoon Blues” where Coleman’s mastery is best experienced:

 

saturday afternoons are killers

when the air is brisk and warm

ol’ sun he steady whispers

soon the life you know will be done

 

This languid summer scene, which could feel invigorating, instead showcases Coleman’s adept ability to layer grief within quiet, even sunny, moments. To hark back to the speeding car from “Dream 924,” that same car that pushes the speed limit is perhaps most powerful when simply idling in the sun, all its inherent force just waiting beneath the hood.

 

An already strong collection, the book hits hyper-drive with the inclusion of work from Coleman’s last book, Mercurochrome. In “American Sonnet 94,” she writes:

 

weeper. this is your execution

weeper. this is your groveling stone

weeper. yours is the burst & burnings of a city

 

With each “weeper,” followed by those strangely indefinite almost percussive periods, Coleman hits a bass drum of sorrow, and the propulsive music continues throughout the book’s final section. The poems here jump as if alive, as if charged from within. “Thiefheart” is full of stunning one-liners—“i’d steal the t from the end of time”—and ends with a line that seems achingly prescient, given our current American moment of racial discord and political upheaval: “i’d steal the poison from this muthaland.”

 

Coleman’s poems are electric and profoundly inspiring. They make readers want to write poems, to read more poems, to have more faith in poetry—more faith in the difficult task of living—and to shove this book into as many hands as possible. If someone is disenchanted with poetry, or with the state of the world, I recommend reading Wicked Enchantment. Wanda Coleman’s poems turn on the lights. They set off sparks.

 

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