A curated literary guide

Week #18 / 1st – 7th May, 2017

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Sunday Review: Admission Requirements

a poetry collection from Phoebe Wang

[ McClelland & Stewart / 2017 / 105 pp ]

Bodies are difficult. Bodies of work often more so. Phoebe Wang’s debut collection of poetry follows several bodies—her own, her family members’, plants, animals, rivers, lakes, buildings—and asks them all a pertinent question: what does it mean to be admitted? Welcomed? Allowed space within spaces with parameters to breach? There may never be a complete answer to this, but Wang seems to think it pertinent that we keep asking these questions, and I’d have to agree.

An important part of being anywhere at all lies in the fact that you cannot possibly be anywhere else. But this is only true in terms of the physical. The mind wanders, the heart strays, whatever turn of phrase you like—regardless, the point is that it is an intensely human desire to be in two or more places at once. Even (and often) in small moments, we are incredibly aware of how large everything is, how we diminish in comparison. ‘PSA’ starts with:

It’s hard to imagine the world could be
so far gone when the neighbours are doing their best

to keep their Highland terrier from ruining someone’s
freshly painted exterior.

And carries readers through a day of details, all normal parts of checking the news, grocery shopping, etc., but with them comes the quiet realization that you are so small in this, and you often feel much smaller in comparison to everything you might encounter.

Since I read the majority of this book in a public park on a particularly nice day, I was aware of how I was so small, surrounded as I was by so many others, in the shadows of trees and city buildings. Being aware of your surroundings is difficult when one is drawn into a book, but Wang’s work often had me looking up, observing, distracting myself—not because it wasn’t enthralling, but because it was encouraging me to observe. I wanted to be like Wang, who pays attention to the space around her with astounding detail. From carefully curated gardens to sites of historical reenactments, her work takes you to a new place with the turn of a page. But this isn’t travel writing—the focus is not on the place itself, but the details there, tied to emotions, memories, problems one may face with family, friends, themselves, society as a whole. If you spend too short a time reading one of these poems, you’ll miss the details. Three poems about invasive species in Ontario—‘Scotch Broom,’ ‘Jack Pine,’ and ‘Invasive Carp’—offer a reminder that while some things are welcome in spaces, many others are not. ‘Scotch Broom’ in particular addresses the fact that:

We hold your success against you.
Each spring is a trial by fire. Yellow flags
highlight a cautionary tale.

However, there are no ruins or wastelands in Wang’s poems—maybe a few reconstructions, perhaps some revivals, but everything feels full, well-worn, lived in. Even dealing with the difficult spaces, as she does in ‘Wreck Beach’ when encountering a littered beachfront, there are traces of people, plants, animals. Wang doesn’t leave anyone stranded. There is always something or someone to keep the reader company.

What does seem absent from Wang’s collection is a sense of comfort. Despite the poems ‘Yard Work’ and ‘Conversation Pieces’ that bring forward images of long-gone childhood homes and travel anxiety, readers are reminded that the sense of being alien to, and often alienated from, one’s surroundings never fades. But in ‘Application Form,’ a poem that mimics what one might see on an official form for entry into any given space, we are told “Don’t limit yourself to the space provided,” a strangely soothing line in an otherwise worrisome work. Wang’s poetry assures us that wherever we are, for however long, spaces linger long after we have moved on.

Visit McClelland & Stewart to purchase the book.

Reviewer / Terry Abrahams

Five Things with Lisa Mecham

1. The last thing that made you smile.

My friend Michelle Burleson’s television pilot script ‘Kimchi Rhinestone.’ There’s nothing more satisfying than reading work by someone you care about, someone you root for, and having it exceed your expectations. She is funny as hell and we need more female-driven comedy in the world.

2. A secret.

Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be a meteorologist. I still love local newscasts, the talking heads with Cheshire Cat grins and bright, polyester outfits. Growing up, it was mostly women who “did the weather” and to me, they told the future. Dancing their arms across maps, raising winds, conjuring storms. Even now, the day’s temperature can predict how I will feel in the world. If I can’t have control over my life, at least I can know what’s coming.

3. The last thing you wrote.

A poem about ewes rejecting their lambs and the extreme measures farmers employ to “encourage” attachment. By that I mean, I wrote a poem exploring maternal ambivalence.

4. Favourite city.

New York City (especially in the spring and fall). I suppose that’s a clichéd answer but I’m in a constant state of piqued-curiosity when I’m there. I love walking on The High Line. And all those fancy galleries tucked away in Chelsea where you can walk in and view Koons and Rauschenberg and other funky artists I have never seen before. Meandering through Central Park when the sun is setting.

5. What you’d place in a time capsule.

If someone found a time capsule in the future and it was labeled “2017” and I wanted that person to know exactly what this moment in time feels like, I would stuff it full of barbed wire.


Lisa Mecham writes a little bit of everything and her work has appeared in Catapult, Amazon’s Day One and BOAAT, among other publications. A Midwesterner at heart, Lisa lives in Los Angeles with her two daughters where she’s finishing a book about mental illness in the suburbs.

My Mother’s Mouth

poetry from Alexis Bates

I don’t know which is true so I am mouth moving / stuttering / silence.

Part soliloquy, part drama, and a blend of memoir and poem, “My Mother’s Mouth” is soul-ripping and unapologetic in its own flesh. The poem’s insecurities and abuse isn’t glossed over or subtle—you see the danger and suffering in the italics and slashes. Long poetic forms are a beast of their own, and this poem is truly alive and untamed. I’ve stated before that I anticipate only the best in the future of poetry from young writers, and Alexis definitely shines and shatters expectations of what a poem can reveal.

Visit Luna Luna Magazine to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen

Some Hill

poetry from Cheyenne Nimes

Nimes’ prose piece is a paradox: it is a tight, compressed, symmetrical, orderly poem about wide, unruly, brachial, and immense expanses of time and space. She starts us in the flint-filled velds of our ancestors where “No one’s from here; no one’s left here.” She sweeps us forward, quickly, to our TV-blue-toned modern times. You may not be able to say for sure when we are, where we are in the poem. Who is this new Hominid? Have all these millennia of evolution taken us anywhere more significant than where we started? A perfect paradox: for all its precision of form, Nimes’ poem doesn’t give tidy answers.

Visit Threadcount to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby

Questions for My Mother

poetry from Zoë Fay-Stindt

vertebras still healing like fractured roof shingles
you can’t climb to fix. In this town, the swallows follow you
everywhere.

In ‘Questions for My Mother,’ notions of femininity, family, and the past are explored. The passage of time, the inevitable collection of more; more knowledge, more scars, more experiences. Where identity and physicality, or the body, align, and where they split off in separate directions. To whom are we willing to disclose pieces of ourselves, stand at the crossroads of two identities, as mother and woman, and find something as rare as plain honesty?

What I found beautiful about this poem was the sense of closeness in the observational nature of the language. What the individual discloses about themselves, and how the narrator, the external, can reveal so much more of the whole picture. Like creating an image of a person using only reflections, only indirect photographs. How it can sometimes feel so much more real.

Visit Winter Tangerine to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong

Stillborn Godhead

poetry from Moira J.

Sometimes, basic symbols of nature and humanity must be stand-ins for great violence. At least, that’s how I feel after reading Moira J.’s poem, ‘Stillborn Godhead,’ in Third Point Press. Ostensibly a small, magical story about clouds and rain, it is nonetheless a story about survival: My mother gave me her knife, / she has taught me that hope is vicious,” they write, and the poem goes on to detail how the speaker must exsanguinate a cloud for their family to continue living. Imagery of childbirth and weather has been necessarily mutated into a language of survival, set within a circular narrative that approaches the precipice of hopelessness. How does language bleed like this? How do we form these poems that are both the blade of the knife and the handle? I don’t know, but poems like this are continued evidence of poetry’s mysterious and transformational power.

Visit Third Point Press to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein

Argyria

poetry from Natalie Scenters-Zapico

It’s daring to begin a poem with a “you” immediately. There seems to be an implicit trust that the reader will want to live inside this persona, even for small moments. But the concept of argyria feels so fantastic and surreal in this space that I fell into this poem completely. When Scenters-Zapico brings the rare skin condition close enough to blight you, it’s hard to walk away from this poem unscathed.

Argyria gives a grey that makes you “think of dying as an alien”, but we are given what alien means in this context - “not the alien they called you / as a child because you had no papers, but the alien / they called you because your ears are removed from your head.” This sense of othering is one that the poem builds on. The you’s decision to poison themself doesn’t just come from a desire to be wealthy (as exhibited by the next line) or to distract from their inability to be accepted in this country. There’s a belief that the silver is inherently more valuable than the you’s physical self. The question—“will argyria turn you toxic?”—feels punchy because there’s the implication that the you has been tainted from the start in other’s eyes. This condition elevates the sense of othering beyond just a national difference. It says, “I’m not afraid of silver killing me.” It says, “I, and people like me, can retake control of fate.”

From the first line on, the poem has been tilting towards agency for the you, their family, and their community. Even though their sense of self-determination is distinctive, it gives us the opportunity to consider the many ways people respond to and resist oppression. We inhabit a body that’s been fighting for power all along. If we release a tired exhale at the end, how much more must the you's community long to be seen as legitimate? Becoming the you allows us to be an emotional conduit, so don’t just shake it off. Sit and be moved by it.

Visit The Awl to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse