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Sara Johnson
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I first encountered Lynn Xu’s work in a church in Seattle, which was fitting, as her reading was as close to a spiritual experience as a poetry reading can possibly get for me. I am not typically floored by poetry readings, but I savored every pearlescent syllable, as if each word could be grasped somehow beyond sense and sound—word as star-crumb, vibrating stone, dew-eye on a blade of grass. The poem she read was “Lullaby,” which she dedicates to Charles Baudelaire: Lie me down to heal in sleep, do not let me wake In sin, the tongue Cancels another year, another painted storm In the coral caves, some pious poet Drunk on vapors Swatting tomb-bats in the nightwood, would that Wayward bark sunned white Be also thunder, a hill of bones drumming—thud Thud, a wake Of buzzards braiding into the loosening skull—the redoubled fists Of students like an island in the bramble chained—I have been told To reason, lawless, empty, without rights— But I am old Not age, I have been told To match its columns by our footfall, prophet—I am not The straw or garland of our Sirens, not the brow Of holly, nor the warble Of any lark By the time the buzzards were “braiding into the loosening skull,” I found myself intoxicated, caught within the sonic current, the vibrant (and fascinatingly strange) gust of images. Xu writes of her work at the Poetry Society of America: Several mirrors and revolving doors away, some blue planet shades into our sky. Intoxicated by this, as if by its own clairvoyance, the poem displays its plastic powers—fluoresces and, over time, decays. Still a transient and delicate substance, language nevertheless secures for us a strong interior, sharpness against our natural world. Of course, its occult successes in this regard must meet an equal measure of unsuccess: such that the leafy dark in the Courbet retain its phatic life, and the crisscross of rubble in Egypt not beautiful to the point of transparency or terror. Sometimes, a poem is made to furnish restlessness. That word—“restlessness”—emerges again in an interview at HuffPost, and indeed a sensation of restlessness whirs through the density and intensity of the language, its shifting sediment like thought-material stirring in the subterranean dark of an unconscious mind. A mind in the process of dreaming, or remembering. The title Debts & Lessons is an allusion to the first section of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, wherein he pays tribute to those who have instructed and influenced him. Xu's book circles around inheritances—of languages, histories, traditions, minds, memories—both implicitly and explicitly conversing with them. The section “Lullabies” (the source of the poem I heard), for example, is a gathering of poems dedicated to literary influences: Hart Crane, Frank O’Hara, Gu Cheng, Celan, Apollinaire, Artaud (to name a few, and to show the range). Or, for example, the section “Night Falls” engages implicitly with the inheritance of language, offering a sequence of linguistically hybrid poems—in Chinese and English, two languages Xu grew up speaking—set... Continue reading
Posted Aug 22, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Source: McSweeney's Some of the most affecting artwork—or, at least, the art that really “gets” me—is the art that haunts. Not many scenes in literature have stuck with me quite like Ovid’s tale of Actaeon, the hunter who became the stag in his own hunt. The hunter whose own hounds dismembered him. The precise moment in that scene that haunts me is his scream, which lies somewhere between man and animal, which “has a sound, although not of a man, yet such as a stag is not able to utter.” Why can’t I shake it? In his 1919 essay on unheimlich, or the ‘uncanny,’ Freud writes that he is not so much interested in “the theory of beauty, but the theory of the qualities of feeling." The uncanny, he continues, “belongs to all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror. . .that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar. . .Something has to be added to what is novel and unfamiliar to make it uncanny." Freud builds here on the definition of unheimlich originally proposed in 1906 by Ernst Jentsch, who identifies the peculiarly unsettling sensation as one arising in “intellectual uncertainty; so that the uncanny would always be that in which one does not know where one is, as it were,” and especially “‘doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate.” He reveals “heimlich” to have two definitions, one being “familiar” and the other “secret,” and concludes: . . .among its different shades of meaning the word heimlich exhibits one which is identical with its opposite, unheim- lich. What is heimlich thus comes to be unheimlich. (Cf. the quotation from Gutzkow: “We call it unheimlich; you call it heimlich.”) In general we are reminded that the word heimlich is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which without being contradictory are yet very different: on the one hand, it means that which is familiar and congenial, and on the other, that which is concealed and kept out of sight. Certainly these early nineteenth century considerations of unheimlichkeit would be foreign to Ovid. Still, The Metamorphoses consistently demonstrates an ‘uncanny’ brand of horror that, once experienced, intrudes upon their “fairy-tale”-esque aura. Transformation here, when a form of violence, leaves human bodies in a liminal state between human and “other.” Such metamorphoses are thus incomplete. Not quite human, not quite animal, they are often Dr. Moreau-vian or Frankenstein-ian abominations which, once fully imagined, become unsettling to behold. Apollo can still hear Daphne’s heart beating behind the bark of the laurel tree, like the tell-tale heart of a dismembered body still beating beneath the floorboards. Lycaon retains his human eyes. Conversely, Juno cuts Argus’s many eyes from his severed head and uses them to adorn her bird. The familiar has been transformed into the strange, yet still evokes itself. This is the realm of unheimlicht.... Continue reading
Posted Aug 21, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Electron micrograph of the honeybee. Credit: Annie Cavanagh. Source: wordlesstech.com When I was a graduate student living in Oregon, a colony of bees built a hive in the wall of my garage apartment. I didn't notice their presence until one day I came home to find them swarming around a hole in the siding in a bulbous-black and unnervingly loud mass. Some days after that I’d find about a dozen of them inside my house. They'd crawl across walls and windows, confused about how exactly to get back to their hive. They’d pace up and down the screen behind the sliding glass door—my only door—and (because I had a slight fear of bees) I’d spend an embarrassingly long time debating how to free them without getting stung, or if I should leave the house at all. While my landlord secured a beekeeper to transport the colony, I became obsessively fascinated by them. Once I pressed my ear against the wall and listened to their hum and swell. I wrote a poem about them. I read Virgil's fourth Georgic, wherein "bees own a share of the divine soul and drink in the ether of space" and "the rotting blood of the ox has brought forth bees." I also discovered cool facts about them, such as: They can barely see red, but they can see a mystery color—UV light—called “bee purple.” The International Bee Research Association explains: “When you look at a white flower, the petals just look white. But, when a bee looks at a white flower it also sees lines that guide it down to the nectar—these lines reflect UV light and are invisible to us, but to the bee they are 'bee purple.’” In 1997, a mathematician named Barbara Shipman proposed that bees can not only perceive quarks, but that they use these quarks to choreograph their dances. Even if bees can’t see quarks, they can see polarized light, which allows them to navigate using a solar compass. They can sense the position of the sun, and use that information to communicate—or “dance’—the coordinates of food sources to other bees. They conduct all these complicated calculations and navigations with a brain the size of a sesame seed. As this list at Mental Floss notes, bees’ brains “stop aging” when they “do jobs usually reserved for younger members” and they can “recognize human faces.” Their brains also "rewire" themselves when they adopt new tasks. Bees have been to space (my own personal dream)! Discover Magazine reports: "On the April 1984 Challenger flight, 3,300 bees, housed in a special but confining box, adapted perfectly to zero gravity and built a nearly normal comb." But the bees wouldn't defecate out there; they held in their excrement for seven days. The bees have been disappearing en masse, abandoning hives that still have live queens, capped brood, and ample stores of honey and pollen. Colony Collapse Disorder is real, unfortunately, and the cause—at least the theory of the moment—appears to be a class of... Continue reading
Posted Aug 20, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Deep in the midst of the most recent Israel-Palestine conflict, Noah Berlatksy asks over at The Atlantic if anti-war art is truly possible. His qualified answer is that it is not possible—or is "nearly impossible"—to create anti-war art because art inherently "makes its subject interesting and arresting and meaningful" through narrativization, beautification, or aestheticization, as he demonstrates through a series of (cherry-picked) examples, including the famous "Dulce Et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen (1917) and the less famous "Peace" by Rupert Brooke (1914). "[I]f war becomes a source of meaning, it seems like people, and nations, will continue to try to find meaning in the glory, or the ugly truth, of war," he argues. Because art creates "meaning," and "meaning" legitimizes the act or object to which it is attributed, and gives that act an illusion of purpose, it follows that art that aestheticizes or strives to "mean" cannot be "successfully" anti-war. Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987), for example, packages war into a bildungsroman, which he claims renders it subservient to a tangentially relevant narrative, which thus compromises its anti-war message. Even art that is non-narrative, fragmentary, or explicitly gruesome often aestheticizes war, which makes it "appealing" to consumers, and this appeal, he implies, negates any work the art does to complicate or combat the war machine. For Berlatsky, it all comes down to the problem of "beauty" (and its lesser counterpart "aestheticization”): art inevitably tempers the brutality of war and atrocity by filtering that brutality into something structurally, psychologically, and emotionally palatable. I commend Berlatsky for asking the question itself. The need for American poetry that at least considers state-sanctioned violence and its ramifications—the terror it inflicts on both non-Americans and American soldiers (see this article on working for the drone program)—is pressing, particularly as our local police forces continue to militarize (with the help of the Pentagon). It may not seem to the people (or poets) of the United States that we are "at war," with all our pleasant distractions and domestic quagmires, the almost tyrannical allure of both televisual and online entertainment, our gun problem that fuels our mass-shooting problem, our police brutality problem, our (entangled) problems of poverty, classism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia, with 9/11 now thirteen years past, Bin Laden assassinated, and our still-ongoing War on Terror happening distantly Elsewhere. Yet our nation is, indeed, engaged in multiple military conflicts. A poet in my doctoral program is on a leave-of-absence because he is serving overseas again; our drones remain active in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. We subsidize other countries' operations. In response to the rise of ISIS, President Obama has again authorized airstrikes in Iraq. Binh Danh, Untitled (In the Realm of Pain), 2005. Image courtesy of www.cpacphoto.org/ Many projects exist online—such as The Holocaust Name Database, Humanize Palestine, and Naming the Dead—that identify victims by name and age (and sometimes a smiling photograph) to remind viewers that they were human beings before they were victims, soldiers, or "collateral damage." He loved birds like... Continue reading
Posted Aug 19, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Ascending eruption cloud from Redoubt Volcano. Photograph by R. Clucas. Emily Dickinson wrote to T.W. Higginson in 1862: I cannot rule myself, and when I try to organize—my little Force explodes—and leaves me bare and charred. This expression is quite violent, and erotically so, the burnt-raw and vulnerable body becoming a figure for the Self destroyed by sublimity. Therefore hath the curse devoured the earth, and they that dwell therein are desolate: therefore the inhabitants of the earth are burned. The image of the body spontaneously combusting—gorgeously apocalyptic—is perhaps a product of its historical moment. As Beth Doriani notes in her book Emily Dickinson: Daughter of Prophecy, a “rhetoric of apocalypse infused” the United States during the Civil War; the national atmosphere in which Dickinson wrote carried the threat of apocalypse, and perhaps her work arises as much from this surreal threat—this fear—as it does from faith and hope (that fragile “thing with feathers”). Dickinson in fact has a poem titled “Apocalypse,” but in my mind 1247 is the poem that most potently demonstrates the expanse of her apocalyptic imagination: To pile like Thunder to its close Then crumble grand away While Everything created hid This — would be Poetry — Or Love — the two coeval come — We both and neither prove — Experience either and consume — For None see God and live — What has always struck me most acutely about 1247 is the way by which it becomes the demonstration of its own words: the poetry itself “piles like thunder” and then “crumbles grand away” in the aftermath the last line, which sounds like thunder at its loudest and deepestcrack! through the air, knocking me to my figurative knees with its force. For me the power of the last line has nothing to do with meeting God but with meeting annihilation. The “God” in the last line of this poem invokes in my mind any supremely annihilating (yet generative) force: the pyroclastic flow, the risen sea, the nuclear explosion, the supernova, the black hole at the galactic core—whatever might leave me literally bare and charred if I were to meet it. This poem leaves me wanting to be bare and charred, to face the Thing—the “god”—the would destroy me. But also notable about 1247 is the conspicuous lack of discernible speaker or addressee. The human being is not situated at the forefront of the world of the poem, or separated from any other class or species of life. The human presence instead hides with and within—and thus disappears into—“Everything created,” and so fear of annihilation becomes an equalizer, while both poetry and love, despite being “human” endeavors and concepts, become somehow inhuman or distanced from the human creator; they become earthen forces beyond human control. In what is perhaps his most famous series of lines, Rilke says that “beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are barely able to endure, and are awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.” Denn das... Continue reading
Posted Aug 18, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Mar 27, 2011