A curated literary guide

Week #35 / 28th August – 3rd September, 2017

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Sunday Review: Fourth Walk

a chapbook from Jessica Bebenek

[ Desert Pets Press / 2017 / 32 pp ]

I dedicate this book to the Great Horned Owl couples whose lives taught me what it means to be an owl[.]

It’s not unusual, of course, for the eye to wander. I was drawn to the cover of Fourth Walk before anything else, having seen it several times in images online before finally holding it in my hands. The headless body of what can only be understood as a dead bird is in stark black ink on the already sparse cover. The written image of the bird itself appears—alive, and, to Bebenek, meaningless—in the poem ‘This is the Morning of a Meaningless Sparrow at the Window.’ Here, readers are not introduced to a sparrow as such, but rather to the narrator’s grandfather as he lies weakening, unrecognizable (and yet intensely familiar) to her. Fourth Walk is about, ultimately, the death of a loved one—and a look at the home grief makes for itself in Bebenek’s narrator, in her friends and family members, in her own home, even in her city.

Bebenek deals with grief in the way that many do: slowly, and sometimes not at all. The attention to detail matched with emotional response and expression found in these poems can sometimes feel jarring; other times, natural. Bebenek’s neat line breaks and pacing, coupled with her careful choice of words, create narrative poems that read with confidence. No abstractions here, though metaphors are utilized, and emotional response is generous. Narrative poetry can contain its own world or be a part of a larger whole, and Bebenek has achieved a neat balance of both in Fourth Walk.

Maybe I’ve just been listening to too much Fiona Apple, but Bebenek’s poetry brings to her music to mind. Like an exorcism of emotion, the poems within—like ‘In Waking’ and ‘On Melancholia’—express expression, meaning, to me, they are efforts in understanding one’s own feelings. As simple as it may seem, such a task is difficult.

What brings the collection together is the poem ‘Hospice.’ The last stanza reads:

I lied. There was a fourth walk, but it confused itself
with heart beat, the brain instructing the lungs to pump
within a vacuum. The feet finding sheets of stone beneath
themselves and these stones leading
around the side of the house, through several doors,
an accommodating hallway,
back into the room of the poem’s origin.
It was a room containing all the bodies I knew
in varying states of decomposition.

And so the poem ends. Bebenek’s beautiful control over the narrative leaves readers without wanting more or needing less—again, a balance is achieved that makes reading easy and enjoyable without being mundane.

The chapbook’s final poem, ‘Secondhand Elegy’, ends with the lines:

When we touch now in public
it’s polite, with a lightness

tinged by our letting go.

Whether hopeful or desolate, lost or at peace, the narrator has, in part, moved on from both the physicality and the emotional strain of her situation. To grieve is to eventually accept grief’s presence. Although it may never fully leave one alone, acknowledging it is there is one of the many steps in being able to accept it. Bebenek’s poems are an exercise of this, in my reading, anyway—here is an attempt to make grief palpable. I can hold this sadness, and flip through its pages, and once I’ve had my fill, put it back on its shelf and let it rest.

Visit Desert Pets Press to purchase the book.

Reviewer / Terry Abrahams

Five Things with Adrian Matejka

1. The last thing that made you smile.

Car karaoke-ing Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ with my daughter this morning. The roof was open, the sunlight flickering in and out as we rode under the variously textured tree canopies on the way to her school. It seemed like the whole town (including all of those trees) was dancing with us.

2. A secret.

My daughter and I crush the rap interlude in ‘Rapture’ in tandem almost every morning on the drive:

And you get in your car and you drive real far
And you drive all night and then you see a light
And it comes right down and lands on the ground
And out comes the man from Mars
And you try to run but he’s got a gun
And he shoots you dead and he eats your head
And then in you’re in the man from Mars
You go out at night, eating cars…

Basic and kind of confusing narratively, but it’s still classic.

3. The last thing you wrote.

The first draft of an essay about stanza possibilities and right now, it’s just as boring as it sounds. There might be something salvageable in this part because it’s not clear actually a poetry craft essay yet:

Since the backyard trees are as new as the house and my mother hasn’t hung curtains yet, there is sunlight everywhere in the brand new kitchen: on the counters, the immaculate tile backsplash, the silver handles on the refrigerator that will soon be covered with fingerprints and ketchup. Different geometries of light lining up and off of the smudgeless edifices make the room seem even more transcendently fresh. Every unused kitchen appliance glows with newness and we glow being near the untouched buttons and knobs. That’s when my brother figures out that a small, silver door in the kitchen wall is actually a laundry chute. He keeps opening and closing it as if he expects something to magically appear inside.

4. Favourite city.

Seattle, with its blue, serrated skyline of mountains behind its real skyline of serrated and tech-filled buildings. My hometown of Indianapolis (Circle City represent!) is a close second.

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

John Coltrane’s Ole on LP and the wind-up robot on my writing desk. Gil Scott-Heron’s Black Wax on VHS. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai on VHS or DVD. The flower my daughter made for me out tissue paper when she was 5 and thought everything looked like a flower. Steven Hager’s Hip Hop: The Illustrated History of Break Dancing, Rap Music, & Graffiti—the one that includes the fold-out break dancing instructions. The igneous rock I stole from the Craters of the Moon National Monument on a dare from my friend Kevin. The “Yes We Can” T-shirt I got after donating to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and the Barack Obama “I inhaled. That was the point” refrigerator magnet that’s still on the side of the icebox. A PS4 with 2 controllers and Star Wars: Battlefront. Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN, and a handwritten transcription of ‘HUMBLE.’ I just realized I’m making a middle-aged, me capsule instead of a time capsule, so I’ll stop there.


Adrian Matejka is the author of The Devil’s Garden (Alice James Books, 2003) which won the New York / New England Award, Mixology (Penguin, 2009), a winner of the 2008 National Poetry Series and The Big Smoke (Penguin, 2013), was awarded the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. The Big Smoke was also a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award, 2014 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and 2014 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. His new book, Map to the Stars, was released from Penguin in 2017.

Unstable Systems

a poem from Mary Biddinger

When I was smaller than everything, nothing was easier

My normal practice of finding poems to write about involves serious scrolling through an endless Twitter feed of magazines and memes, so when I saw a fellow poet retweet the inaugural issue of Gold Wake Live, I was happy to find two poems by heavy-hitter Mary Biddinger. Her poem ‘Unstable Systems’ at first read appears logical, systematic even. However, as the speaker presents “a lecture titled / “Damn It, Sometimes You Have to Leave Your City,” the real error is found in their human audience, some “too in love to listen”.

With a compact, crowded appearance and mostly even lines, the mention of words such as “floating necklaces” and “boxwoods” conflict with all the “diagrams” and “math”—things that shouldn’t be unstable or uncertain. No matter where we are in life, if we’re walking down a city street enjoying its mess, or out in some open country with puffy clouds, ‘Unstable Systems’ is a poem worth returning to.

Visit Gold Wake Live to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen

Stardew

a poem from Melissa Goodrich

Imagine you receive an invitation to leave your 9-to-5 life. A magical missive to uproot, adventure, explore new lands, and grow into the real hero you are. Don’t we all dream of it? Even an inkling of that adventure is all you need to appreciate Melissa’s Goodrich’s ekphrastic poem ‘Stardew,’ about the role-playing game Stardew Valley. Answer the call! Go spelunking, build bombs, mend fences, jump into a hole you can’t see the bottom of, befriend the dwarf, and spend time fixing busted glasses. The Player lives outside the purview of our real everyday life—yet she is haunted by existential questions. She’s made choices that have defined her course through the world and the game, so wonders about the choices not made. She contemplates the future she cannot see. And that is where the specifics of the game become immaterial and exactly the reason anybody can enjoy it, because Goodrich’s poem is fundamentally about us, how even where the fantastical is possible the fundamental remains: Does what we do make us who we are? What will we nourish and what will we destroy? Who will we love? How will we spend our days? How will we spend our hours?

Visit Cartridge Lit to read the poem.


You can also read an interview with Melissa about the poem here.

Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby

Of Spanish and My Grandmother

an essay from Ursula Villarreal-Moura

On our weekly six-mile walks, my friend and I often touch upon my fear that I’m captaining a ghost ship of my family’s heritage. In a country that considers us less than.

This week I have for you an essay that was recently published in Catapult on family, language, losing a grandmother and what that means for the tenuous ties that connect history and heritage with the future. Villarreal-Moura explores many different themes in this essay, from the reoccurring question of dating, marriage and race, to the almost inexplicable closeness that a relationship with a loved one can create, not only to a language, but to a person. Love as its own great, mutual entity.

What I couldn’t fully appreciate was that there is, in fact, a certain comfort in engaging with a person who has a similar cultural background or history. While it can be rewarding teaching someone your traditions, there’s also something to be said about understanding, without explanation, a holiday, a phrase, a food, or a song. My grandmother’s fragility was a stark reminder of our origins and what I stood to lose. In case I was oblivious, her disease made sure to repeat the same question over and over.

Several themes are explored repeatedly within this essay, the struggle to maintain ties with a language that has already begun to fade within the family, the loss of a loved one mirroring the language, ideas of family and marriage and continuing legacies. In this essay, Villarreal-Moura illustrates a particular progression of grief in her life, and all the interconnected ties of conflicts and worries that stemmed out of its memory. In retrospect, things seem to take on their own threads, their own sense of linearity and coincidence and purpose. While the adequate words to explain or lay bare grief may not be possible, reflection can place things into a sort of order that is meaningful, that almost makes sense of the world and our own places within it.

Visit Catapult to read the essay.

Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong

Fragment

a poem from Archilochus

Sometimes you think, “Celebrities, they’re just like us!” but really, no, they’re nothing like us. Really, I feel most like a celebrity when I take my iPhone out of its clunky rubber case. What hits closer to home is the thought: “ancient poets, they get it, too,” and I am so happy Asymptote Journal unearthed this incredible fragment of a poem written 2,500 years ago by Achilochus. It’s about a solar eclipse (I wonder if we’ve had one of those recently?) and it’s weird as hell. It somehow goes from “Nothing’s unreasonable” to “Terrible dead has fallen upon men” to “walking creatures, having sex with dolphins.” This might technically be a fragment, but in today’s aesthetic, it’s about as whole as a poem can be.

Visit Asymptote to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein

The Bearded Lady

a story from Jess Zimmerman

I’ve jokingly referred to beards as face candy in the group chat, simply because of their ability to up the attractiveness of actors, musicians, friends, etc., that I was once meh about. Yet there’s still a social taboo about feminine people having any kind of facial hair because it pushes against our ideal of “softness.” This is a seeming inspiration for ‘The Bearded Lady’ where young girls are so desirous of beards (that they don’t have to hormonal makeup to grow) that they recreate them out of anything they can find. In this satire, we’re urged to consider how we alter ourselves just for kudos in the community.

Early in the story, we’re given a view of the beard that’s won out: “Elspeth’s friend Meera has the longest, softest beard, made of hundreds of tiny strands of dark red silk.” As someone who constantly worries when shooting selfies in a crimson robe, I can tell you pure silk is ridiculously easy to crinkle. Meera’s beard strands are likely so close together that you almost can’t differentiate them just to downplay the wrinkles. But I also see Meera’s mother going through painstaking measures to make sure that the beard looked well-pressed and lush, even in its length. Even Meera herself would have to gingerly position it throughout the day for optimal smoothness. Beauty here feels most tied to personal attention to grooming. When the maintenance is higher because better materials are used, so is the payoff.

Even though going above and beyond in adornment seems to be the way to win, Briana goes as close to natural growth as possible. After Briana’s mom gets her a prescription for Rogaine, “there’s a soot-smudge of downy dark hair on the rim of [her] jaw, which is studded with fresh-looking pimples.” The soft strands that have appeared on her chin can’t fully distract from the pimples that begin to populate her face. Given that she’s a teenager, she’s already going through the ravages of puberty, but the Rogaine is unprecedented. We’re unsure if continuing would bring more hair, more pimples, or some unseen shift. Briana gets closer to the idol than the girls who pull beards on and off at will, but there’s no clear indication that she will be deemed pretty. It’s gutsy to risk negative body changes in the name of beauty, but we encounter it all the time.

The story culminates in the girls of the town finally meeting their idol. Elspeth realizes that all the fabric surrounding the Bearded Lady is discarded beards, and the Bearded Lady is indiscriminate in her choosing: “black beards, violet beards, metallic beards, beards made of yards of watered silk, beards of real human hair.” The Bearded Lady does not care how much time you’ve spent grooming, building, or loving your beard. When met with all these parodies of herself, she simply returns each girl to her before-beard state. Note that I didn’t say “natural” because when it comes to beauty, we’re all an amalgamation of standards. Even when we push against those that we believe are “too much”, we still find some on the scale that jive with what we can afford and lean into them. But the world can push back against our choices, like the Bearded Lady’s snatching faux beards and implying, “you’ve gone too far in enhancing yourself. Try again.” It’s this push-pull of personal preference and social acceptance that can make beauty so unwieldy. Yet like the girls, we still reach.

Visit Paper Darts to read the story.

Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse