Myself and Strangers: Surviving 2017 with Poetry
Keegan Cook Finberg
Reviewed: Nicole Sealey, Ordinary Beast (Ecco, 2017); Sheila McMullin, daughterrarium (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2017); Layli Long Soldier, WHEREAS (Graywolf Press, 2017).
Mentioned: Solmaz Sharif, Look (Graywolf Press, 2016); Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016); Donika Kelly, Bestiary (Graywolf Press, 2016); Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Duke, 2017)
Hello. My name is Keegan Cook Finberg, and I am the new Reviews Editor for the Southern Indiana Review. I’ll be writing a column about books for the site. The title of my column comes from Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans. It’s a sentence that Stein herself quotes in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, “I am writing for myself and strangers.” To say this is an important moment in poetry for myself and strangers would sound like a platitude. It would sound like not enough. But this is why I wanted to start a review column, and further, I am finding that this is why I write.
For this first column, I thought it would be appropriate to think about first books. And, as we are nearing the end of the year, I’m thinking about books published in 2017. Some of my favorite debut poetry collections of 2016 resisted placement into standard poetry camps, and this is a theme for 2017 as well. In 2016, we were given Solmaz Sharif’s Look, which contains difficult avant-gardism woven with personal tenderness and scathing political critique. Ocean Vuong seems a card-carrying confessional poet, but Night Sky with Exit Wounds, with its flare for image repetition, broken lineation, and collage, does something decidedly different. Donika Kelly’s boundlessly intersectional Bestiary also came out last year, full of magical animals and hybrid poetics.
Speaking of books about beasts, and of debuts, Nicole Sealey’s new collection Ordinary Beast does some of my favorite things. Exuberant in its testing of forms and boundaries, the poems somehow manage to be both urgent and meditative. For example, “Hysterical Strength” one of the many poems in the collection that is almost a sonnet, begins with a hitchhiker surviving being struck by lightning and ends this way:
my thoughts turn to black people—
the hysterical strength we must
possess to survive our very existence,
which I fear many believe is, and
treat as, itself a freak occurrence.
In this white supremacist environment, black people must muster unreasonable strength—their perseverance is not a freak occurrence, but rather an act of studied will. With our country’s history of racism embedded into everyday institutional fabrics, and a political environment where being black can prove fatal depending on who you happen to run into or what street you’re on, Sealey turns to hysteria for the means to survive. “Hysterical” of course means uncontrollable or impassioned, but it signifies a feminized illness as well. The word not only recalls frail Victorian women, sick and bed-ridden because of their nerves, but also it comes from an Ancient Greek word that means “wandering womb.” It refers to a malady that supposedly affects only women, specifically women who cannot control their uteruses. Here lies the source of power—what makes people “sick” can make them strong. The notion of “hysterical strength” mirrors “freak occurrence” in that it plays with ideas of institutional misdiagnoses and oppression through pathology. Despite who pseudoscience, institutional bias, and systems of control have told us is smartest or strongest, this poem reminds us that studied hystericals and freaks are the ones that survive this sick earth.
If the collection is urgent, it is also full of play. Sealey shows that the ordinary state of the world is its destruction, and yet she creates gorgeous centos, erasure poems, sonnets, and sestinas out of the rubble. The title of the collection comes from Sealey’s version of Albert Camus’s philosophy that we must “imagine Sisyphus happy,” that we must move forward with our small work and daily tasks. We may perhaps take one night of being “inconsolable,” but when we wake up in the morning, we must be glad to be alive and to toil at meaningless work, just so that we do not die of unhappiness. There is nothing magical about it:
We fit somewhere between god
and mineral, angel and animal,
believing a thing as sacred as the sun rises
and falls like an ordinary beast.
At times the collection seems to mock the futility of poetry, despite the ways in which Ordinary Beast exhibits poetry’s very power. “Underperforming Sonnet Overperforming” parodies poetry about poetry, for example. But as a whole, Ordinary Beast points out the violent and the unrelenting, the horrible and the scorching, and also uses poetry as a reason to keep living. As Sealey puts it, tonight we “cut/ and salt the open,” tomorrow, we “promise to circle to ascend”; we “promise to be happy tomorrow.”
Sheila McMullen’s daughterrarium lets poetry cast its spell without question. It gloriously indulges. The book combines and recombines grammars, working with, through, and against language in ways that place it squarely within the great feminist avant-garde tradition—we read Stein here, we read Alice Notley. Yet we also read something terrifying, tender, and totally new. The poems are about surviving sexual abuse, assault, cervical cancer, everyday misogyny, and they are about asterisks, parentheses, quotation marks, brackets, blanks, and toggling font sizes.
This interest in the marks of words, reminds me of what Claudia Rankine (another poet whose debut collection was on Cleveland State Poetry Center, by the way) said to an interviewer who asked her if it was hard to write about race: “I find it interesting to look at language itself and think about what language can do.” McMullen looks to the limits of the lexicon. daughterrarium’s women are bad women in variation. They are “Bad Women, thought drawer variation,” “Bad Woman, planning someone’s falling variation,” “Bad Woman, in the beginning variation,” “Bad Woman, beneath vision seaweed variation,” “Bad Woman, reverse ghost variation,” and more. McMullen runs out our grammars to reveal something, to see what they can do about women, for women.
I admire this collection’s risk, and it is so risky that it is at times opaque. For example, it begins with “Tapering”:
The day woke with a (*)
not a star, but a satellite
The poem will use this evocative * several more times but this jolting morning is our first clue for *. Things don’t orbit around *, but rather * is in orbit. As “Tapering” continues, the * morphs, and takes on its own logics. The * becomes the satellite that orbits the speaker, her mother, her sisters, all women. It is depression, pain, the aftermath of abuse, the orbiting material that ultimately becomes the survival that women must muster. It haunts, it won’t leave:
My sister also said *
we think because of our mother; (I)
feared * and (I) held *
(I) interrupted *:
For all its moments of experimental opacity—for example, the repeated refrain “Olgy, oh olgy olga, there are far too many people/ In the world to love you and only you”—the collection has candor, a straightforwardness that is at times nauseating, especially in scenes of sexual abuse. It is political, direct, and militant. In italicized sections, the speaker (a daughter captured in her terrarium of sweet flowers of condescension) grows up:
For me I realized
I realized I was angry
and realized late
It was like
that time at Halloween
We were at the bar
I heard screaming
A movie was playing
There was a man simultaneously
raping and murdering a woman under a sheet
Before I would crawl into myself
or would know not to look
But this time
I didn’t know
I clawed at the screen
and it felt good
This is the awakening of the speaker, of a daughter; it is a woman coming into anger. She is angered not only at her own sexual abusers (“Others took joy out of my body/ when I did not”) but at the representations of women that surround us. She is furious at what is entertainment in a bar on Halloween, and in this moment, she grows claws. In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed writes that feminism “can allow you to reinhabit not only your own past but also your own body.” She tells us that feminism allows you to “expand your own reach…we might learn to let ourselves bump into things; not to withdraw in anticipation of violence.” In this poem, before our eyes this daughter with claws begins to figure out how to feel good. At the end of daughterrarium, the horizons change. The daughter may be surrounded by flowers but also, as the daughter puts it, “I put the ginger flower into my mouth./ Orchards bloom inside me.”
A dodging awareness about the power of poetry and its unlikely alchemy is a theme that also runs through Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS. “‘Real’ poems do not ‘really’ require words,” Long Soldier whispers in her poem “38.” Like McMullen’s book, there are passages written in square political directness (for example “38,” the story for the largest “legal” mass execution in U.S. history, showing the impossibility of telling a direct, true story through a directness so true that won’t show the truth). The book has been hyped so much already that I feel a little sheepish singing more praises (it was recently named a finalist for the National Book Award) but it fits into this feminist debut power trio beautifully.
In Long Soldier’s collection, I see Gloria Anzaldúa, Nourbese Philip, Solmaz Sharif, Harryette Mullen, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, and it is influenced by several indigenous works as well—Long Soldier pulls language from Zitkála-Šá, for example, and she mentions gaining inspiration from Simon Ortiz in an interview. Like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, it is a collection about grass and about North America and its varied people. But unlike Whitman’s work, Long Soldier’s book is about “grassesgrassesgrasses,” and the systematic genocidal oppression of native peoples in the U.S. Long Soldier is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and the poems provide a portrait of North America that is not the one we usually see. The official guidelines for how people should conduct themselves at the Standing Rock camp are tenderly explained, President Obama’s almost secret 2009 apology to all Native Peoples is revealed and interrogated throughout the book, and we are reminded of the many injustices we might not know about because they have been covered up in our retellings of history. For instance, “the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation was included in the film Lincoln; the hanging of the Dakota 38 was not.” By referencing acts of state-sponsored genocide, Long Soldier tells a history that is also an experience of people and of the earth.
It is in “38” that we discover that the collection’s focus on grass and “grassesgrassesgrasses” comes from trader Andrew Myrick’s famous 1862 remark that the starving Dakota tribe, dispossessed of land and resources, should eat grass. Then, “When settlers and traders were killed during the Sioux Uprising, one of the first to be executed/ by the Dakota was Andrew Myrick./When Myrick’s body was found,/his mouth was stuffed with grass.” Long Soldier writes, “I am inclined to call this act by the Dakota Warriors a poem.”
This revelation of poetry and of grass brings new understanding to poems like “Look,” This poem is in the first part of the book, “These Being the Concerns,” which is a sort of dictionary.
a green hill
’til I pull
stalk ’n root
The symbol of grass, this idea of damaging to the root, and a desire for repair or wholeness, is crucial to the collection. In the last section of the book, the speaker tells a story of a toothache. After government funding for Indian Health Services is cut, the speaker’s only option is to have a tooth pulled that could have been otherwise saved. She writes “the root of reparation is repair. My tooth will not grow back. The root, gone.” This early lyric poem “Look” ends:
shake the dead
I so want the light
do I so want it
The collection urges us to move back and forth to truly take it in. Likewise, Long Soldier’s interest in language and its connection to history—to “shaking the dead”—runs deep. She is bilingual (though she worries she knows Lakota only in “pieces”) and has dual citizenship, being a citizen of the U.S. and also of the Oglala Lakota Nation, which she reminds us, is in our country but an alternate nation “with its own government and flag they raise to their own national songs and sing in their own languages, even.” The last section, “Whereas” is Long Soldier’s response to the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans (Obama’s near-secret apology), and it follows its form, performing a close reading of the statement and its refutation at the same time. Sometimes the poems mock its language, other times erase words or add to them to devastating effect, at each turn pointing out the futility of the “resolution.”
Long Soldier uses words to make borders, boxes, and pieces across the pages in this part of the book. Eventually, we read:
(4) I have thought carefully about certain terms in English, the language in which the Apology is written. Likewise, since the Apology is issued to Native people, I have considered Native languages. For months, I dwelled on the word “apologies.” As you may already know, in many Native languages, there is no word for “apologize.” The same goes for “sorry.” This doesn’t mean that in Native communities where the word “apologize” is not spoken, there aren’t definite actions for admitting and amending wrongdoing. Thus, I wonder how, without the word, this text translates as a gesture—
And this is where the collection seems to rest, between word and gesture. Mirroring the “disclaimer” at the end of the Congressional Resolution, she reminds us at the end of the book that these words—both Layli Long Soldier’s words and Congress’s—do not support any claim or serve as a settlement of any claim. Claim here refers to money but also to assertions, to a poet’s “grassesgrassesgrasses.” As Long Soldier shows us in “Look,” it seems that only true action may shake the past alive. Or, as she puts it in a poem about her father apologizing to her, a true apology is “opened bundle/or medicine.” Only actual reparations, an act that opens and gets to the root, would make the “real” poem that does not require words.