Sunday Review: Tell Everybody I Say Hi
a chapbook from Tess Liem
[ Anstruther Press / 2017 / 20 pp ]
Tess Liem’s writing isn’t so much an answer as it is an unstated question. These poems dare readers to question themselves on a level they haven’t really ever done so before. In short, if you relate to Liem’s narrator, you might have some thinking to do. While drawing from the deeply personal, the feelings Liem pinpoints are, in many ways, universal—but it’s the specifics within that caught my eye. In this all-too brief chapbook, Liem turns the focus inward: here, the intrapersonal abounds. From quiet contemplation to loud internal proclamations, Liem’s writing is intensely human.
And to be human is, in part, to make note. List poems accomplish this by breaking away from free verse, working to read less like poems and more like thought processes (though the two are already remarkably close). In ‘New Superstitions,’ Liem writes reminders, quick and a little sad, but the most striking is the final one listed:
write a note to yourself
I, too, am capable of being unkind
like a wasp
There’s something haunting and important, I think, about realizing that you yourself can be the cause of hurt, of harm—and it takes a more striking tone when included in an otherwise innocuous (but nonetheless touching) list poem.
That being said, let me make it clear: Liem’s narrator isn’t afraid to address themselves, to be open to their own interpretations, reactions, thoughts, wants, actions, emotions, everything. Unafraid and unabashed, the narrator recounts moments with clarity. In ‘Handful,’ the narrative takes us on the same journey as its characters, feeling as though we are getting caught in the rain after going to a friend’s apartment to water their plants, too. But Liem makes us pause as the narrator turns inward: “The gap between expectation & what the rain felt like on my face / was hysterical.” This is a feeling only Liem’s narrator can completely understand: it doesn’t need to be explored here. It will live on only in memory, one that the reader was privy too, but didn’t entirely share. Like a good friend telling you a story, some part of it will always be just out of reach.
There’s a domesticity to the poems, too, a yearning for the simple that’s so often out of reach in our lives; in ‘Everything I do is political, especially when I stay home,’ Liem’s narrator brings our attention to the situation of being a body, queer, woman, or otherwise politicized:
& so when I stay home
everything I do is political
because I’ve been reading
about the ethics of space & because
sometimes I lie on the floor
until you text me asking me why I’m not out
& because sometimes we have sex
with most of our clothes on.
The return to the domestic scene of shared intimacy is a reminder that the politicized body is still just that: a body, and sometimes, a body needs to lie on the floor instead of facing a world where it might not be welcome. Liem’s poetry is a welcome reminder that sometimes it’s fine to take some time to yourself. Lie on all the floors, ignore all the texts, question all the facets of your life, and revel in the day-to-day act of being a being.
Visit Anstruther Press to purchase the book.
Reviewer / Terry Abrahams
Five Things with Anaïs Duplan
1. The last thing that made you smile.
Honestly can’t remember. It was something at Marcus Garvey park, where I smile a lot with my dog, Chester, who also smiles. We are learning to love dog parks, as neither of us has oft been up for it in the past—what with all the socializing! But we’re doing it. And in general, moving to New York has been very good so far, maybe because we are doing so much more socializing.
2. A secret.
^^ That up there almost felt like a secret, hehe!
3. The last thing you wrote.
^^ That up there. I’ve been trying to write this goddamn book of essays, which is very, very hard. I like to be challenged and it certainly is one of those things. I also wrote a chapbook recently, which is here now in the world. Shameless plug. Please read it! It is one of the last things that I myself wrote. Other than that, I’ve lately taken to writing things on very big pieces of paper, so as to never have the experience of pagination while I’m writing, which helps me to write more!
4. Favourite city.
Hehe, it’s New York. For sure. Everything is very good here. I like to be with people and New York is a good place for that. It’s not a good place if you don’t like to be with people, which some people don’t—and that’s cool too.
5. What you’d place in a time capsule.
Wowow. There are many factors to this question for me. For example, when are we imagining this time capsule is going to be opened? Like in your mental image—when you imagine some future being finding the thing you put into your time capsule—like, when are you imagining? Or maybe there’s some timeless object, so that it wouldn’t matter in what era some future being found it? For me, I guess I'd bank on something simple, like a wristwatch.
Anaïs Duplan is the author of Take This Stallion (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2016) and Mount Carmel and the Blood of Parnassus (Monster House Press, 2017). They are the director of the Center for Afrofuturist Studies, an artist residency program for artists of color in Iowa City. They are also a joint Public Programs Fellow at the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Museum of Modern Art.
a poem from Traci Brimhall
“I’d never seen a man grieve like that
for an animal”
A name as fragile and sacred as life itself, ‘Fledgling’ may sound delicate, but even the poem tells you to “[l]ook, but don’t touch” and rather just observe a parent and their child among the vibrancies of fruits, plants, and animals. Balancing between the mundane and the delicate moments of domesticity, the poem has its own turn at the admission of “[w]hen the cat / your ex-wife gave you died, I was grateful.” There’s an allowance of vulnerability that makes this poem so different from just a mere reflection of experience. From the names of baby birds to thinking about the world outside a plant pot, we understand all the degrees of intimacy and why “we risk it” all in our life.
Visit Poets.org to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen
a poem from Carling Berkhout
Nestled in a collection of four poems, Carling Berkhout’s ‘Flightless Gosling’ is a gentle elegy to the past. The poem soothed me, the lines “how beautiful it is that the wind howls bedtime lullabies” akin to my own thought about how it feels to find a good poem—how lucky we are for the poems that howl bedtime lullabies. Tonally, the poem is sweet and sharp, as interested in tender-hearted moments of the past as it is with rough rawness of the now. For every lullaby there are splintered bones; for every bird escaping the bounds of earth there is the flightless gosling. Her poem soothes exactly because it’s balanced. We can trust Berkhout to capture the duality—the honesty—of a moment: when we are suffused with the love we once felt, and hold in ourselves as well, the great grief of what we lost.
Visit Anti-Heroin Chic to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby
a story from Shasta Grant
“Coming here seemed like a good idea, since I was driving through town. That wasn’t exactly true, but it was only two and a half hours in the wrong direction.”
In ‘Good Enough’, Grant explores the alienness of a long delayed reunion, the picture coming together like a set of ill-fitting puzzle pieces falling into place over time. The story unravels in short bits about the past spaced in with the present. This story, seen through the eyes of a mother who left her family long ago, doesn’t seek a happy ending or redemption or spontaneous change in its characters. I revel in the quiet reality, the sheer ordinariness of both their lives so much after the fact.
“The day I left, the kids sat quietly on the sofa and watched me pack my things. Their father and I had picked up that plaid sofa on the side of the road. Someone decided it wasn’t good enough anymore and pinned a sign on it: FREE.”
There is something sad, something irreversible and decided about where these two women stand at this point in time, and it’s made clear that no force of fiction can make anything otherwise. The mother’s new life is notably absent from this story, leaving the scene as confined and remote as the town she’d left her family in. The dialogue seems to stretch miles, two strangers peering over at each other from a distance of years and miles and countless unquantifiable small lifetimes.
“I wished I could tell her something beautifully sad about leaving: that I waded in an ocean of grief or that the loss rested in my heart like a heavy stone. I was happier after leaving and I couldn’t tell her that.”
Visit Pithead Chapel to read the story.
Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong
a history of walls
a poem from Karla Cordero
Karla Cordero’s ‘a history of walls’ is a diptych. There are two visions of a wall, the first in a back yard and the second between two countries. And within those two visions is a deep current of violence—the “dead blood” color of the fence, the birth of a “wet tombstone,” the starving children.
There is little here that needs to be explicit. The proposed wall between the United States and Mexico is a continuation of white supremacy and its inherent, incessant violence. What should be a familiar childhood memory of losing a toy in a neighbor’s yard is a cutting metaphor for the suffering inflicted on immigrants on either side of the border. The last image is of tongues as “a sea of small pink hands reaching for the sky,” and I hope that image stays with you as it stays with me: as a necessary and unsettling waking dream that demands a response.
Visit Tinderbox Poetry Journal to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein
a poem from Lucian Mattison
I love when a poem can blend two seemingly separate or disparate ideas into one interwoven & nuanced point-of-view. The sense of the domestic falling apart adds tension to the larger context of election day because they define home on multiple scales. How do you feel comfortable when outside forces try to take your livelihood?
Even from the opening, there’s a sense of inevitability: “If we woke to water rot, / fallen oak crossbeam / bisecting the breakfast table, // a nest of ants shattered / like a chandelier on tile, / I could hardly fault the architect.” The speaker knows that their family’s solution for killing the ants won’t be forever sustainable, but in fact, could take the whole house down. But this only partially effective homemade remedy is what they’ve got, and they run with it. I’ve heard my aunt in a more rural part of Louisiana woke up one morning with her comforter almost completely covered in ants and just the retelling had my skin crawling. So, I bit my nails at the options: have your home be inhospitable now or later. Who can fault them for choosing to dispel the ants now instead of themselves?
One of my favorite parts of the poem comes almost halfway through: “Tio Carlos / keeps saying, ‘honesty // is a jail cell, crooks the wardens,’ / as election ads preen television screens / with images of grandmothers.” It’s clear that these politicians are trying to appeal to the emotions of their constituents by implying they’ll show deference to their elders by sustaining them. Yet, this is not a news story where we see the candidates reaching back out to their communities and discussing future plans. Rather these are planned & marketable dispatches to the public. The keyword for me is “preen”, aka putting your best face forward while shying away from less than favorable light. If honesty is guarded by crooked wardens, you can bet they keep their jail cell locked and in sight. If they’re the ants slowly overtaking this country, they’re going to multiply while the citizens can only vote & protest to the best of their abilities.
The last lines are somewhat ambiguous in blending issues of the domestic and political: “a thin line scorches / a perimeter surrounding the house, / as if slowly cutting us out / of the country like a torn elbow patch, / dead ants in lines.” If this family’s willingness to tackle issues head-on also coincides with some fervor for honesty in politics, they’re a seeming anomaly in this country of crooks. They, in fact, may be the ants dead in the end. Yet, we need these defenders who say, “I’ll soak my house to the bone if it means being safe from those who want to harm us.” We need this family cutting themselves out of the overarching country to stay intact. This wrecked home is still a home, and these small victories are still victories.
Visit Puerto del Sol to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse