A curated literary guide

Week #36 / 4th – 10th September, 2017

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Sunday Review: Take Me Back

a chapbook from Chekwube Danladi

[ Akashic Books / 2017 / 30 pp ]

Chekwube Danladi’s debut collection of poetry is full of anthems; poems tolling selfhood with unwavering honesty. In their poem, ‘Phenomenology of Excess,’ language fronts for no one while wading through catalogs of essence.

I have three shades of lipstick.
All plum. Fog swirled me on the

way here. And I still smell like wet leaves.
Beyoncé, who I only tolerate,
careens overhead. Liquor has

been tender with me. This night in Chicago,
unrelenting queers do battle. I am
too dark for the studs. Too

femme for the femmes. Only the white
people want to take everything from me.

Chekwube is unwilling to sidestep the margins they inhabit. Idiosyncrasies exist for the speaker alongside a sexual reality haunted by colonial ghosts. Here we see how choice unfolds when there is a deficit of agency.

Some of Chekwube’s colonial ghosts speak. In ‘Leopold II Defends his Philanthropy Under Le Association International Africaine’ the voice of the Congo’s crowned butcher takes the stage.

How can I explain this meat as a blessing?
A tracheal cutting. Minced sacrifice.
I am a giver of cauterized nubs.
Compatriots, feel free to call me a hero.

And the rubber is nothing. Rite. Good feeling.
Wealth. I give the earth new limbs to knead
sacrifice. Collagenous tissue percolated in muck.
Weak carcasses a dark cutter.

Atop his podium made of blood and gristle, Leopold confesses his imperial triumphs. The soil beneath his feet is red. Chekwube marks an inescapable truth by refusing to divorce the human being from the mythology built around him. Chekwube’s work is relentlessly layered in that everyone I encounter in the book feels linked to the past and simultaneously consumed by the present. Everyone, even the long-dead, feel simultaneously close enough to touch, and expansive enough to never fully know.

In their poem ‘I Used to be Called Olivia,’ Chekwube excavates an old comfort.

I dug my own unbecoming, as much as you:
Thirst became ritual, the wallop of
water soaking into the earth, myself wafting off as dust—
an openness invited inward—blue and, enough.
I imagine childhood a swamp,
wet, my small self, nappy hair
doubled with cockleburs,
easy name lilting—spineless and clean—
much suckling the shame quickly,
new abode forming, holding.

What could be more brave that entrenching oneself in the filthy mire of comfort? The landscape of the former self is a treacherous one, and Chekwube tends to it with the spirit of someone who can no longer compromise, even for the sake of their own emotional safety. This is not a self-drag, but a parsing and pulling of poison from sustenance.

The poems in Take Me Back urge me to rid myself of the colonial masters that smile back at me when I look in the mirror.

Visit Wesleyan University Press to purchase the chapbook set.

Reviewer / Xandria Phillips

Five Things with Jenna Le

1. The last thing that made you smile.

Sitting on my apartment balcony sipping loose-leaf Earl Grey, with the billowing gray and rain-scented open air on two sides of me, the tree-darkened undulations of a New Hampshire mountain range to my left hand, and my apartment building’s community garden just below. I know nothing about gardening, except that my father was a hobbyist gardener when I was a kid, and I like looking at green things. Someone has set up a pyramidal-shaped scaffolding in the community garden that looks like a little swing-set for tomato plants. When, on the sidewalk below, someone I recognize walks past, carrying a kitchen trash bag to the dumpster, it takes me a few seconds to identify their oblivious figure from my odd vantage point, but then I remember that I know and like this person, and I grin.

2. A secret.

I have a stuffed animal, a plush manatee the length of my forearm, that I got at a souvenir shop near my sister’s home in Florida. Before leaving for work in the mornings, I cover it with blankets because manatees are susceptible to cold stress syndrome.

3. The last thing you wrote.

Eight lines of rhyming doggerel about whales because I was giddy to discover that rostral rhymes with nostril.

Before that, this haiku: “months after our pho date / in my sandal / a jalapeno seed.”

As I understand it, pho made in Vietnam is traditionally seasoned with a variety of hot pepper native to Southeast Asia, whereas the pho of Vietnamese Americans is often seasoned with Mexican jalapenos, due to these being more readily available in the U.S. As a Vietnamese American, I get an extra little frisson from seeing the experiences of my people reflected in English-language poetry. I think the English-language haiku tradition, in particular, could use more infusions of jalapeno.

4. Favourite city.

Even though I lived in Minnesota until I was 17, I think of Boston as the city where I came of age because I was so emotionally stunted until I came there to attend a math camp when I was 15. Being in Boston makes me happy on a subdermal level, like how you feel when you listen to the music you grew up with, the songs you learned to dance and kiss and fumble to.

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

This is a horrible answer, but the poetry books of myself and my friends. When I was a little kid, I used to collect things, obsessively, compulsively—postcards, stickers, Chinese paper cuttings, blank floppy disks, Barbie dolls with Asian features—but it never really made me happy. So I suspect time capsules aren’t happy, either. So maybe I’d place a kiss inside, to cheer it up.


Jenna Le a daughter of Vietnamese refugees, lives and works as a physician and educator in New Hampshire. She is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011) and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Anchor & Plume, 2016). Her poetry has appeared in AGNI Online, The Best of the Raintown Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Denver Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, and Massachusetts Review, while her essays and criticism have been published by Burrow Press, Fanzine, Pleiades, Poetry Northwest, The Rumpus, and SPECS.

Siri the Party Girl

a poem from Macy French

Siri, wild thing, clad
in your pixelated mini skirt

Ever wonder what would happen if the voice assistant in your smartphone had a life outside your own? Macy French’s imaginative poem shows us a different side of Siri, a Siri that “lets her hair down”. This poem delights in its balance of technological words and down-to-earth tone, giving us moments in a mundane life, and being over-connected to needy people. As society becomes more reliant on artificial intelligence, we could one day find ourselves like Joaquin Phoenix from the movie Her, sitting next to Siri at the bar as “[s]he orders a Jack and Coke”.

Visit Gravel to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen

Salinger Kids

a story from Ioanna Mavrou

Today at the gas station, the young attendant returned my change with a “thank you, sir!” As a tall woman with short hair, I’ve had my share of busy, service-industry people mislabel me with their standard salutations; but it was the first time an attendant didn’t push past that first American heuristic for “man” to recognize female cues, and repent their mistake with a flustered, “sorry, sorry, I mean, ma’am.” The young man looked at me and didn’t see me. It was a disembodying moment of invisibility. Fresh from that encounter, I read Ioanna Mavrou’s ‘Salinger Kids,’ an uncanny echo of my own experience. At a social gathering, the narrator, full of passion and relevant commentary, lobbies to participate in a conversation between two men, but is actively ignored. Mavrou understands: you want to be immune to it, of course, “It bothers you, but it doesn’t. Fuck them, really. Who cares.” Yet, invisibility is unsettling. The narrator’s gender isn’t specified, the reader gets no other clues, either, about why it might be happening and just as it occurred in my own experience, all that is left is speculation. The unanswered questions, the worst-case scenarios of racism or sexism, and Mavrou leaves the tension unresolved, echoing, again my own experience, when all you have is: “And you can’t figure out why. You don't know what made you invisible to them.”

Visit Paper Darts to read the story.

Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby

A Decline in Natural Numbers

a story from Kristen Arnett

Now when she twists the knot, the hair pulls loose, slippery like dishwater.

There’s a sense of subtle foreboding interwoven with routine that signals what's to come in Arnett’s short story. ‘A Decline in Natural Numbers’ centers on the personal, interpersonal, and emotional struggles that come with loss. Brianna is drawn first and foremost by the things she loves to do, defined by the self as passion. Arnett renders the effects that her loss of words and memory recall has on her family in heartbreaking starkness.

Cards cover the table in slick piles, and M O T H E R comes and pets Brianna’s head while she looks at them and tries to remember the words. The man still wants to look at them and M O T H E R says okay, Mike, I think that’s enough for one night, don’t you? Look at her – she’s tired, she can’t do this anymore right now, and then the man says goddamnit, Maggie, why can’t you just let her try?

The world rendered through Brianna’s eyes are a series of letters and faces, things that are familiar but that you struggle to put something concrete to. The sensation of having a word on the tip of your tongue, but without that moment of recollection when you get it. The story, told from her mother’s perspective is an illustration of grief and blame, the feeling that, when it comes to matters of love and blood, one is always at fault. That there should be something to turn things back, to undo the unknowable ways time changes us.

Visit Pithead Chapel to read the story.

Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong

Those Seventy-Two Bodies Belong to Us

a poem from Roy G. Guzmán

Donald Trump continues to push an agenda of white supremacy. Some days that agenda is less subtle than others, but it continues all the same. Today marks a particularly cruel and unjust (though no less unsurprising) move on his part, specifically in regard to immigration.

Today is also the day that Roy G. Guzmán’s poem ‘Those Seventy-Two Bodies Belong to Us’ went live at Poetry and the timing couldn’t be more heartbreakingly appropriate. The poem references the San Fernando massacre, and in a Facebook post, Guzmán writes:

As the living, we cannot forget those who've died for us to be here. The violence that happens at the U.S./Mexican border affects people from other countries as well, people who themselves are running from political and social chaos in their own countries.

The ripple effects of violence are always in motion, a tide that flows and never seems to ebb. Recognizing, naming, remembering, and honoring the dead is but a first step, and a forever necessary one.

Visit Poetry to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein

God Breaks the Heart Again and Again Until It Stays Open

a poem from Sandra Cisneros

When I first read this poem, I was instantly drawn to how provocative and fresh the images felt. For a poem that seems to be asking the same question again and again—“what if breaking my heart open only shows how ill-suited it is?”‚ we’re given opportunities to approach this dilemma from different angles, and question the heart’s capacity to both love and be loved, hurt and be hurt.

The second line is one of my favorites: “what if my heart is a piñata trashed to tissue and peppermint shrapnel?” Of course, using “shrapnel” makes us consider sharpness: these aren’t the full, round candies that were first planted inside, but rather the popped-to-pieces slivers that are left. These bits might slice our tongues open if we sucked. Neither the piñata or candy can fully be reformed, and yet peppermint can soothe the throat and refresh the taste of water. When broken, like some of the bullets pulled out of soldiers’ bodies and made into necklaces/mementos, it still finds a purpose. I’m sure some of the other candy is only intact because the peppermint was hit first. We keep circling around these concepts of targets, sacrifices, and leftover battlefields, though brought to this smaller scale. The heart is now more like an altar, but you can still only take its offerings gingerly. The sacrifice here feels hard won, but doesn’t that show it’s real?

Yet we’re forced to question if openness is really needed in a following line: “what if my heart is the creepy uncle’s yawning zipper?” While violence has come up in former lines, it usually has already happened by the time we witness the heart. We don’t see the piñata intact, or the 7-Eleven before its daytime robberies, but instead deal with the aftermath. Here, we’re drawn to liminal space between calm and possible violence, which creates a real anxiety. No one wants to look into that space because we’re not sure if we’ll find boxers, skin & body hair, or genitals moving. But we could also just see darkness, a void where shadows lurk but we can’t find anything recognizable, and that’s even more horrifying. If the zipper can expel a yawn, what can it take in? Even in its sleepiness, we question how openness can make the heart dangerous to behold.

I admire Cisneros’ specificity, namely for the way she lets us zoom into an image and decide how it’s textures make us feel. I have to ask, what would your compare you heart to this week?

Visit The Art Divas to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse