Matthew Johnstone

Brenda Shaughnessy’s fifth collection, The Octopus Museum, is an immersive tour of social and ecological calamities, as well as an elegy for the present. Told from a distant but impending point of crisis by speakers who seem both strange and familiar, the book is composed of several galleries through which Shaughnessy grants glimpses of an unrecognizable world. The reader sees a tally of America’s destructive conditions, including our blindness to the environmental and social repercussions of consumerism. In “Our Beloved Infinite Crapulence,” the speaker depicts this shortsightedness:

“I should pull out my earbuds, and hear the world (my first love, my favorite store).”

Throughout this wondrous, flowing book, Shaughnessy’s world pleads with the reader to “stop already. Stop if you can,” while steering the reader toward another, equally important certainty:

“Knowing how to change—not color or mind or body or action but

perspective—and refusing to do it is how species vanish.”

Continuing his exploration of the sound and sense of language, Willie Perdomo’s The Crazy Bunch is the retelling of a single summer for a tight-knit group of young men. An energetic musicality of language is on full display, electrifying every exchange. Drawing heavily from the luminous, sonic explorations of the Beats, Perdomo paints his crew with a vernacular that, like those countercultural poets, defines itself against regimented communication:

“Stories started their

premises on the stoop, broke arcs by the time

they reached the uptown express, and the real

was played & buried by the time it got

directions.”

If “We Real Cool,” the iconic eight-line poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, had bloomed into a full-length collection, it might be The Crazy Bunch.

The title of Lee Ann Roripaugh’s latest collection, tsunami vs. the fukushima 50, refers to the 50 employees who remained on site at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant after the devastating 2011 tsunami. Tsunami, it becomes clear, is the vast entity formed by the prism of narratives merging through each poem in this collection. From the start, the personified Tsunami is sketched as polymorphic. Whether we see it through a contemporary, media-saturated lens (“call her the meme ”) or as an environmental lamentation (“a rising tide of salt tears / for the world’s fractured core”) or as Frankenstein’s creature (it “turns and faces / threatening villagers with / their flaming sticks”), Tsunami is personified and portrayed as both protagonist and antihero.

As in a Cubist painting, Tsunami seems to be no one particular thing. This book utilizes an innovative, fragmented diction that defies traditional prose as it attempts to invent a profound language to make sense of the senseless. Refracted in these scenarios are the manifold ways in which we attempt to define Tsunami and understand such a tempestuous entity. By giving the cataclysmic a voice, Roripaugh offers a path toward liberty through the chaos and confusion:

“sometimes I find myself hiding inside

a hibernating tsunami siren, paralyzed

and mute . . . trying

to wake and unquiet myself free”

Ilya Kaminsky’s widely anticipated second collection, Deaf Republic, is an intoxicating and wondrous formulation of strength in chorus through a community’s “silence / which is a soul’s noise.” After a deaf boy is gunned down by a soldier from a nameless army occupying the town of  Vasenka, the townspeople begin an insurgency against their occupiers:

“Our hearing doesn’t weaken, but
something silent in us strengthens.”

Kaminsky, himself a near-deaf poet, offers an eccentric yet elegant response to trauma with Deaf Republic. In “To Live,” the reader learns that resilience and hope require an active imagining because “The heart needs a little foolishness! / For our child I fold the newspaper, make a hat.” To keep sorrow at bay, characters combat the evils of the world by inventing angels. Visions crop up amid the commonplace, as in “A Bundle of Laundry,” in which “Snow pours out of the sun.”

In these sincere, striking poems, Kaminsky posits the beauty of this world as essential—to inspire those who, unlike the people of Vasenka, don’t require beauty to merely exist. “Our country is the stage,” Kaminsky announces in “Gunshot,” and he warns against an idle or uncritical engagement with the world. “Search Patrols” addresses this complicity and its unknown repercussions:

“The crowd watches.

The children watch us watch.”

This collection places its most deliberate examples of optimism in its lowliest moments, affirming our ability to be stirred and incited by profoundly disheartening events. Kaminsky’s collection asks, “How do we live on earth?” He answers: We are resoundingly as complicit in the good as we are in the bad.

April’s celebration of poetry offers us the chance to see the world differently. These four collections invite us to pay attention to larger social and cultural issues, explored in distinct ways.

Edgar Kunz’s debut collection of poems, Tap Out, is as much an act of storytelling as “a catalogue” of the formative emblems of manhood—boys shaping their own idea of it, men trying to assert, and instill it, and the poet’s attempt to develop a coherent picture from all of it.

Tap Out is filled with attention to the physicality of its characters who carry out their teachings in impulsive, quasi-ferocious states. Kunz’s straightforward verse is captivating in assembling contexts for these hard men—graduation, the silent space of a truck’s cab, boys milling around a used condom left in a gutter, a supply closet, working alone after all other employees have gone home. These are intimate scenes with men that struggle with intimacy, charging quiet moments with intensity, and intensifying quiet moments. The poem “Close” captures this activation as a father vigorously attempts to show his son how to park:

The quality of the storytelling here is in interlacing narrative with speech: we register emotional depth from this visceral moment, “exhaust / and brake light pooling around our knees.” As in “My Father at 49, Working / The Night Shift at B&R Diesel,” which begins, “There’s no one left to see his hands . . .” these moments unfold around the reader and the poet with the same starkness as they do for the poet and his father. What flourishes in these near-empty scenes are the crevices, hands “gnarled / as roots dripping river mud,” a “Split nail grown back // scalloped and crooked,” “The stitch- / puckered skin,” the life a body shows.

For a young boy drawing up a how-to list of masculinity until he’s able to embody those traits, the language used to depict male figures in Tap Out is only slightly less evocative than the depiction of their physicality. In almost every scene hands function as the most vivid image—representative of one’s ability to labor, and proof of one’s physical competence, and, with it, worth. The poem “Deciding” lists the qualities of youth in a descriptive tapestry to this end: “us, brothers / our sometimes father, / our breath knit and drifting, / our useless hands . . .”

Tap Out can  be read as a reckoning with the past at the pace of the poet’s unfolding of the frayed material out of which has been fashioned an image of masculinity. In the titular poem, it’s the young poet whose existence is challenged as he’s forced to refuse defeat by “tap out” during a wrestling match. It’s a moment of extreme selfhood borne of a physical breaking point that enables him to forge his own footing: the poet envisions himself seeing himself “small and trembling,” speaking to himself, and in so doing, resisting the imposed, accumulated definitions of the masculine forces in his world: “Not you. Not you.”

ALSO ON BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Kunz for Tap Out.

Edgar Kunz’s debut collection of poems, Tap Out, presents the poet’s attempt to develop a coherent picture of boyhood and masculinity.

Poet Edgar Kunz discusses the central themes and narratives of his debut collection, Tap Out.


In your collection, the storytelling feels organic. These traits remind me of Robert Creeley’s “I Know A Man,” which operates at breakneck speed—until it doesn’t. In your poems “Again,” “Franklin Free Clinic,” “Blue,” and “Graduation,” the reader and the poet seem to move in unison, as if witnessing something fixed from the backseat of a moving vehicle. What do you hope is accomplished in rendering these events as poetry?
I love that Creeley poem! Incredible to hear him read it. (There’s a good recording on the Poetry Foundation website.) He leaves a real pause at the end of each of those hard-enjambed lines. It’s jerky, breathless—exactly how you might feel in that erratic car.

When you’re a kid, you have almost no control over your days. You go along because you don’t have a choice, and eventually, you come to this burgeoning sense that grownups might not always know what they’re doing or why. And then you get a little older and realize, yeah, they definitely don’t know. Then you become an adult yourself and you think god I have no idea what I’m doing. These poems are, among other things, trying to be true to that progression. They move from childhood to adulthood without losing, I hope, that sense of bewilderment. Who the hell is driving this thing?

A teacher told me once that to be alive is to be at sea, to be grasping around for mooring and not finding it. Poetry can open up that space in people—a good poem sends us reeling. I love prose, too, but I’ve found poetry to be best for the kind of efficient, unsettling work I want to make. I have something to tell you and I’m not going to waste your time.

I’m hoping you can speak to some of the concerns that your poem “Graduation” seems to raise: How is it possible to go through life unscathed, and how do we find healthy ways to express our “desperate, / public struggle for happiness?” 
I don’t think it’s possible to remain unscathed. If you’re living a full life, you’re getting burned over and over. If you’re lucky, those burns are soothed by friends, lovers, books, long walks, good drugs. And you draw on your courage, your stubbornness, to keep going. The problem with the father in “Graduation” is that he’s convinced of the specialness of his own pain. He’s consumed by his addictions, sure, and also by his narratives. You can see it in the poem “My Father at 23, On the Highway Side of an Overpass Fence” most clearly: There’s a story [the narrator] tells himself—a story of victimhood and helplessness paired with a poisonous masculine ideal—that derails and ultimately destroys him. Of course, he’s also a product of an economic system predicated on the oppression of an entire class of people. The longer I live in the world, the more I feel like I can understand how he came to be the way he is in the book. For everything else he is, he’s also a man at the mercy of this churning machinery—chemical, narrative, economic—utterly beyond his control.

The use of the central image of hands seems to function as a physical indication of experience and worth in these working-class environments. As a poet, working largely from memory and feeling, what is the definition, or the sign of experience? Is this book offering an alternative image or marker for masculinity or adulthood?
You can tell a lot about what kind of life a person’s living by looking at their hands. My grandfather and grandmother on my dad’s side ran a woodworking business together in Upton, Massachusetts. Their hands were callused, scarred, thick with muscle. In his working years, my father’s were, too. These days I’m a teacher, so my hands reflect that. There’s a poem in the book, “Natick,” that addresses this directly—the father and son are riding together in the father’s work van and the father holds up his hand and tells the son to press his palm to it. It’s a scene of first recognition. The father tells the son he has “piano hands” and the son is ashamed—by his own gracefulness, his difference. I’ve always hated that writing poems isn’t more physical. My sweetheart and I bought a tiny 100+-year-old rowhome in Baltimore this summer, and she jokes that we got it so I could have a never-ending source of projects. She’s not wrong. I’ve internalized something about work—that it has to be physical, it has to leave you sore and out of breath. I’m starting to understand that writing poems can be like that, too.

It seemed to me that the book was wrestling with how much we discard of what our parents show and teach us, and how much we then work to define these things for ourselves, even at the cost of failing in our ways.
I think that’s the central question of the book: Is it possible to entirely leave behind where you come from? And if it is, what will it cost? As a kid in a chaotic house, I became obsessed with escape. First, it was into a girlfriend’s house at 17, [then] taking classes at community college, then enrolling at a far-off college I applied to because it had a pair of beat-up Chucks on the brochure. These decisions weren’t fully-formed, but they kept me moving, and they kept me studying literature. It’s taken a long time to build a life that makes any kind of sense to me, and these poems chart that trajectory. They move from a troubled childhood to a troubled—and lucky—adulthood.

A big difference between the rich and the poor is that the poor are one failure away from ruin. One possession charge, one missed loan payment, one blown head gasket—stuff that folks with wealth or access to wealth can shrug off will leave a poor person stranded. I’ve never had much of a safety net, so I’ve been very lucky to dodge any major setbacks. If I weren’t white and a man, I don’t know where I’d be. I’ve fought for my chances, but I’ve also been told time and again—in language, and also through opportunities offered, breaks cut—that I’m worthy, that I deserve success. A lot of folks are told the opposite.

In your collection, instability is caused by a variety of things, chief among them—alcoholism, drug use, depression or some amalgam of these. Could you tell us more about the estrangement, loss of clarity or the deterioration of mental health that the narrators of these poems experience?
I think most artists feel estranged from the world: it’s this distance that allows the world to come into focus. For me, writing poems is an attempt to see clearly, to make connections in a reality that often seems totally incoherent. The poems reach toward meaning, and they mostly don’t find it. They settle for articulation. When I sit down to write a poem, I have some level of control over what enters and how the elements are arranged—which is to say nothing of the will the poem exerts on me, or how disparate elements snap together like powerful magnets, or how a memory or idea will enter suddenly and disrupt everything. That’s part of the pleasure, too. As the poem begins to reveal itself, the seemingly random fragments of experience start to cohere. When it’s going well, it’s totally unlike everyday life. It’s exhilarating.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Tap Out.

Poet Edgar Kunz discusses the central themes and narratives of his debut collection, Tap Out.

One of Albert Einstein’s most well-known nonmath assertions is that “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” to which a reader of Hala Alyan’s The Twenty-Ninth Year could easily add—shaping and expressing that knowledge takes some imagination, too.

Alyan follows up her acclaimed 2017 fiction debut, Salt Houses, with a collection of poems that explores the intimate concept of aging through narratives that form a compelling, central admission: that the recklessness of youth and the experiences from which we create personal truth are necessary to the formation of wisdom. And that no definition is as self-taught or as personal as that of wisdom.

The poems assembled in The Twenty-Ninth Year tug “the humble out of something wild” with an elegant and stylish range of forms. Alyan moves through a bevy of ecstatic, formative moments—burgeoning alcoholism, anorexia, abrasive cultural dissonances, her own sexual identity and filial tension, all interwoven by the intensity of experience. In this process of gathering the past at the feet of the present, the emotional dynamic of how “every wound reveals its own repair” is a countenance of wisdom.

To what degree are we the authors of our own biographical fiction? The poem “New Year” raises this conundrum: “There was no / family emergency. There was no migraine . . ./ I made him up. I made it all up.”

To reveal yourself to yourself requires not only a vast amount of subject matter from which to draw but also its myriad sources and the struggle of imagination in composing the past from a position of witness. In “Transcend,” Alyan speaks to the fragments of truth and the labor of their recollection: “There are a hundred videos of the same moment shot from a hundred different angles. I watch every single one.” An arrival at the truth is important, but just as important, Alyan seems to say, is the manner in which we augment truth as we seek it.

The world threatens with hordes of hidden traumas, but our time and experience in these places, and with these events, carries wisdom. Alyan tells us nothing is completely hidden that still carries its story: “[our] bones are 206 instruments. There is a song in each one.”

Rilke’s aged lines from “The Archaic Torso of Apollo,” a poem rife with the judgment of life’s lashings, are a sincere summation of life, spoken with sincerity: “there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.” But after three decades of bright and ecstatic youth, and distilling her own certainty from all of youth’s uncertainty, Alyan bestows: “There is no place you cannot sing.”

In The Twenty-Ninth Year, Hala Alyan offers a new poetry collection that explores aging and the recklessness of youth.

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