A curated literary guide

Week #37 / 11th – 17th September, 2017

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Sunday Review: A Portable Shelter

a short story collection from Kirsty Logan

[ The Association for Scottish Literary Studies & Vintage / 2015 / 192 pp ]

I’m going to tell you a story,” Ruth announces to her unborn baby, one day when her wife, Liska, is at work. It must be done this way, in secret, because Ruth and Liska have made a promise to one another: only truths, no stories for this Coorie, this tiny clam, this fattening mollusc. And so Ruth begins one day, a truth wrapped in a story, just so the hermit crab of a growing child within her will know of love, and why it doesn’t always work out.

So the ritual begins. A story during the day, in the shelter of their sea-beaten cottage in the north coast of Scotland; and at night, under a different cloak of secrecy, another story, one told by Liska—whispered in bed to the pregnant belly of her wife.

And in that, Kirsty Logan’s A Portable Shelter becomes a thing that lingers between dream matter and the waking hours. As readers, we never quite find out who Ruth is, who Liska is. But the shape they do gain they do so through the stories they choose to share; be it tales of witches, of a ghosts hiding in the smallest cupboards, or even the sober tale of childhood magic turned sour with adulthood. At times the stories are clear in what they are, fairy tales with beginnings, ends and a moral. At other times they blur at the edges, weave themselves in and out of memory and magic and folklore.

A portable shelter is what Ruth, at one point, calls her pregnant self: her heavy belly, moving her Coorie from the one town to the other, from the one room to another. A shelter, anywhere. But with every story told, every universe we as readers are pulled into, the stories themselves become the shelters we’re allowed to take refuge in. I mean this less fantastically than it sounds: the point of view we take on as we dive into Logan’s world, is that of the couple’s unborn child. And in that sense, we become the child the couple frets over, whose future and life and love they so dearly want to protect.

And that’s, really, the crux of this magical work: it pushes you into a story as though it could be a shelter from a harsher truth. Yet the moment you’re inside, the sheets are pulled off of your makeshift tent and you find out you’re not sheltered at all, and are closer to the ugly heart of the truth than before. But, “ugliness is not to be feared,” Liska is quick to remind you. “A scar shows you have survived. A nightmare shows you what you love too much to lose.” In fact, “The uglier the better. It’s beauty that hides the danger.”

The two start their storytelling in secret, each thinking the habit to be a deceiving one, one that would make for a foolish child that believes in what is not there. But as the days, months, weeks progress, both Liska and Ruth in turn find: stories are not a shelter from a certain truth, but rather the shape truth takes when it tries to give shelter. In one of the stories, a village of women tell themselves a story of a Mother of Giants, who takes their hungry children when they leave them out in the woods. The Mother of Giants feeds the children, keeps them in her kingdom. But the story is a cloak, one that barely covers the ache of reality, and one day, one of the women begins to tell a different story: “Once there was a village of brave, wise, loving women,” she starts. “They were brave because they made hard decisions without the comfort of stories. They were wise because they knew when to give life, and when to take it. They were loving because they did what was best for their children.”

A Portable Shelter is a collection of stories about stories. It tells you something about the act of telling, and warns you of the dangers of tales in the form of tales. At times it’s a whirlwind, at others it’s a day without a breeze. If you’ve ever longed for a fairy tale that unpacked the small and the achy of the human condition as much as it did the big, then this one is for you—and for yours, and for everyone else you know.

Visit The Association for Scottish Literary Studies or Vintage to purchase the book.

Reviewer / Yael van der Wouden

Five Things with José Olivarez

1. The last thing that made you smile.

I don’t remember. I smile a lot. Here’s a brief list of things I can remember making me smile recently: how pretty Lake Michigan is, texts from my partner, random tweets, food, the SOLAR ECLIPSE, ice coffee. Shout out to ice coffee.

2. A secret.

Lake Michigan isn’t a lake; it’s an ocean.

3. The last thing you wrote.

I wrote many, many emails yesterday for my job. Shout out productivity.

4. Favourite city.

There are so many cities I love. I’ve lived in New York. Shouts to The Bronx. I’ve spent time in Los Angeles. I hear good things about Columbus, Ohio. I lived in Salvador, Brazil for a month. Fortaleza is beautiful. But for my favorite city, I’m going to go with a surprise pick. My favorite city is Chicago, Illinois. I know. I know. I surprise myself sometimes. Why did I choose Chicago? Chicago is the most beautifulest city and Capital Of The Universe. Shout out to thin crust pizza cut into squares. Shout out to Coyote’s in Pilsen. Shout out to The Elastic in Logan Square where me and my friends used to pay $5 to watch our friends rap. All those rappers were like superheroes to me. Shouts to Il. Subliminal. Shouts to the basement in Nate’s old house where we used to watch old poetry slam videos. Shouts to Halsted St. Shouts to the sushi spot on Chicago Ave. Shouts to the brilliant teens I work with at Young Chicago Authors. Plus, my mom doesn't live too far from Chicago. Hola, Ama!

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

If I’m building a time capsule, then this is what I’m putting in it. First of all, I’m taking this video of Scottie Pippen dunking on Patrick Ewing. Take a seat, Spike Lee. I’m taking Natalie Díaz’s When My Brother Was An Aztec. I’m taking a gallon of mild sauce. I’m taking Andre 3000’s guest verse on “Int’l Player’s Anthem.” I’m taking Crystal Galindo’s artwork. I want to take the group chat, but the future doesn’t need to know what’s in the group chat, so instead I’ll pack poems by everyone in the groupchat. I’m taking another gallon of mild sauce. I’m taking the Chicago skyline. I’m taking Joseph Chilliams’s guest verse on Noname’s “Forever.” I’m taking Toni Morrison’s books. I’m taking Toni Morrison’s essays. I’m taking Rita Dove’s poems. I’m taking Hayan Charara’s poems. I’m taking Patricia Smith’s poems. We’ll need to make room for Gwendolyn Brooks in the time capsule. Aracelis Girmay’s work has to be in the time capsule. There’s so much I love, but mostly books. We’ll need Nayomi Munaweera’s Island of A Thousand Mirrors. I don’t know what to pack in a time capsule, but I’m packing Hot Cheetos just in case.


José Olivarez is the son of Mexican immigrants, the co-author of the book of poems Home Court, and the co-host of the poetry podcast, The Poetry Gods. He is a graduate of Harvard University and the Marketing Manager at Young Chicago Authors. A winner of a 2016 Poets House Emerging Poet Fellowship and a 2015 Bronx Recognizes Its Own award from the Bronx Council on the Arts, his work has been published in The BreakBeat Poets, Vinyl Poetry and Prose, The Chicago Tribune, & Brooklyn Magazine, among other places. He is from Calumet City, IL, and lives in Chicago.

Kitty Genovese Names Her Fourteen Wounds

a poem from Jennifer Martelli

A bouquet of asters: so many wounds gathered close. And still: who knows
          which one was the fatal one?

It wasn’t that long ago that I first watched The Witness, a documentary that follows the brother of Kitty Genovese in his attempts to demystify and solve the mysteries about his sister’s murder. What his journey revealed was what we knew all along—Kitty was a real woman, a truth that Jennifer Martelli also explores in her poem. With colors described as “first amber”, “new moon sky”, and a “single blue oculus”, we are dragged into the scene of the murder. Especially powerful is that ending line, “a woman calling kitty, kitty, kitty”. Martelli’s poem doesn’t give into the urban legend, and refuses to let the reader stand by like an apathetic eyewitness.

Visit Third Point Press to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen

Four Poems from Ozark Crows

poems from Carolyn Guinzio​

Carolyn Guinzio is an accomplished artist and writer who melds the written and graphic world into interesting hybrid pieces that are often catalogued under poetry even though the word is too paltry to capture the sensation of consuming them. A murder of crows, both dark and ghostly, crowd branches, cut across the white page, as lines of prose intersect at odd angles, giving the impression of conversation, disagreement, and the cacophony of a chorus. The crows comment on the natural world: the actual environs of their natural habitat, but also on the metaphorical one—the state of being and the relationship of oneself to another. The crows on the page are not purely graphic; they have something to say, just as the words themselves are elevated by the interplay of imagery. Is it poetry? Is it art? It doesn’t matter. The harmony of the words and images is sublime.

Visit superstition [review] to read the poems.

Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby

Heritage

a poem from Kaveh Akbar

                                                                                                    it’s a myth
that love lives in the heart           it lives in the throat we push it out
when we speak           when we gasp we take a little for ourselves

It’s not often that a poem is published with the background and research and grieving process involved is included with it. ‘Heritage’ is a poem that stems from cruel truths, the reality of the unjustness that happens regularly in the world, and the way those events and places can become attached to us. The human body’s capacity for grief once or twice removed, the ability for events to have farther-reaching impacts than anticipated. The cutting potential of injustice.

                                                                                          may God beat
us awake     scourge our brains to life     may we measure every victory
by the momentary absence of pain

Akbar discusses the role that time had in the creation of this poem. Anger and sadness in its immediacy and the adjusted influence that time can have on a poem, the difference between inhabiting a poem and borrowing someone else’s words. Akbar crafts painfully beautiful verses as vessels for grief, creating a mirror that reflects and amplifies Reyhaneh’s story, her strength and certainty of mind in the face of something terrifying and unfair.

the body is a mosque borrowed from Heaven           centuries of time
stain the glazed brick           our skin rubs away like a chip
in the middle of an hourglass

Visit Poetry Society of America to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong

Aposiopesis [or, The Field Between the Living & the Dead]

a poem from Michael Wasson

After several readings of ‘Aposiopesis [or, The Field Between the Living & the Dead],’ a blade-like beauty of a poem by Michael Wasson, I thought, I don’t know how to enter this poem — it’s speaking to me, but I’m not quite sure how. I reread the beginning (“I cannot / tell you how / to begin / but here / is the body”), and I reread the definitions and interpretations of “aposiopesis,” and resaw the poem as a latticework of fragments.

Wasson’s economy of space and rhythm is so masterful here that the points of departure (of fracture, of aposiopesis) are barely noticeable. Here is a meditation on existence, on death and living and the blurring of the two such that the binary fades and a sort of shimmering overlap remains. Deeper still, a melancholy, or perhaps an acceptance, a mindfulness of the unknowable being known in small, fleeting moments.

Visit Poetry Northwest to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein

Sasha Fells the Wildwood

a poem from Sasha Banks

My family camped out this past weekend in the Smokies, and in order to keep critters that could eat through the trees out of the environment, the site only allowed pre-treated wood for fires. Here we are, pretty vulnerable to attack in the woods, but the trees of all things get protection? Sometimes I can’t shake the feeling that trees may not have been as bloodless as they appear. We were in Tennessee after all, passing trucks & shops that proudly displayed the Confederate flag and those whose eyes lingered too long for comfort.

I muttered parts of ‘Sasha Fells the Wildwood’ to shake off my anxiety, especially when the site fell to pitch darkness, because the speaker not only knows the long history of trees and violence against black bodies, but is actively breaking that connection. We’re spinning in her paranoia of death, even while holding the axe. But she channels this feeling into the chopping that creates “a clean cut” from all “its noosed unions” to skin like hers. The repetition of “I’m swinging this axe” throughout is almost a battle cry: the speaker doesn’t just want to do it, but wants others to know why she’s chopping. The callout also implicates others in this history, asks “how are you addressing this?”

She shows us what’s tree-made in the house and mentions that the trees “shifted shape.” Yet these trees are still not harmless. Notice how at least half of her list involves items that could mortally injure you if you were thrown from them, and the nightstand & vanity feel especially treacherous in their ability to house a gun. Danger can lurk in literally any crevice… The short & jarring stanzas throughout pour us into a new space in each until we’re cut and flipped out, much like the wood. In this mirroring, we can feel the slice.

In her dreamscape, she encounters herself “and Jesus / pulling nails out of our feet” and Coretta “calling for Martin / to come down from a sycamore.” Here, even your body is turned against you as its weight makes it impossible for you to survive on the cross or in the noose. You’ll always be pierced or marked, and the forest will always be silent & “smirking with no mouth.” Isn’t that enough to make you pause?

Visit Body to read the poem, or Brooklyn Poets to listen.

Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse