A curated literary guide

Week #53 / 1st – 7th January, 2018

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Sunday Review: I Am Made to Leave I Am Made to Return

a chapbook from Marwa Helal

[ No, Dear & Small Anchor Press / 2017 / 30 pp ]

Inventor of form, flipper of tongues, Marwa Helal is a visionary poet. To call Marwa’s work global would be a misreach, with majesty, she writes for and from the cosmos. The foothold into these poems is a kind of transience. I Am Made to Leave I Am Made to Return magnifies voices in conversation across eras and oceans.

On a more micro level, Marwa’s poetry demonstrates a rhythm of contemporary terror and anxiety in the United States.

in the first world

people arrive at cubicles in a rage.
at day’s end, they
punch bags
hanging from the ceiling
fight their reflections in the mirror,
sprint on padded treadmills,
while a cop sleeps outside in a car—
its engine running.

Marwa’s particular economy of language amplifies a capitalist compartmentalization concerned with coping minds through the day’s tedium, through night’s barrage of doubts. This voice voyeurs the reader among gut truths. Subversion preys in the switch of the the eye behind the scope.

Marwa’s language evades questions and answers. It lives by process and repetition. In ‘write this instead’ Marwa shows us how every instance carries an emotional and intellectual inheritance.

and you do what you always do when this happens in public, you disassociate switching to the fantasy of having a particular baldwin quote printed on billions of small cards and dropping them via drone all over this country. you are fantasizing about how you are always fantasizing about this but the quote is always changing and the location is always changing then you are thinking on home and language and how in some ways they have come to mean the same thing.

When I read this poem I feel I am communing with a contemporary prophet, a marginalized seer bound by the same constraints that restrict my mobility and freedom; the unearthly overworked, underpaid, taking public transportation, reevaluating and reevaluating and reevaluating.

In ‘ )[[:”.’.,:]](REMIXED ’ Marwa draws the black curtains that partition us from the universe.

words are heart chambers where they are grasping clenching clutching for air just air as we stare all we do is stare and stars stare back with eyes inverted as night exits day exits night exits day have you seen ancient temples where confusion transforms into clarity black sights doubts knowing feeling drawing shapes from punctuated forgetting diffusion is a healing through the slippery osmosis count sheets of music on music of music and wash their atomic

In the world as told by Marwa Helal, there isn’t a single lapse in connective tissue, and subjectivity reigns supreme. How profound to think that when the human surveys its surroundings, the surroundings survey back. We are both small and infinite in the eyes of the stars, and time labors on whether we note it or not.

The boundaries between interstellar and interpersonal marred, I return to Marwa’s language to witness something powerful tremble itself into existence.

Visit No, Dear & Small Anchor Press to purchase the chapbook.

Reviewer / Xandria Phillips


a poem from Franny Choi

If ‘capitalism distances us from our senses,’ Franny Choi’s poem ‘Quarantine,’ reminds us of the boon that comes with minor acts of resistance under the weight of larger suppressive systems. Like the scent of onions; the touch of sandpaper; skin; the groan of a trash receptacle emptied; breathing; a burn. For Choi, to feel—the sensory affect of the physical and the material—is to live. A survival, a sort of resistance.

There is a density to the images clustered in the first half of the poem—“the cow’s fear,” “the stones that formed in the child’s body,” “hands in dank soil,” “the cop’s boots,” “the plastic-wrapped meat and the mouse traps”—juxtaposed in repetition of “because I did not have to.” An expression that contrasts but familiarizes the conditions that follows and makes even more striking the line, “because my job was to stay clean and thankful and mostly imaginary / I have been / stealing / what little I can.” Here is burden in gratitude masked by debt, desperation, a longing, and willingness for more. Here also, Choi gives us an assemblage of things that touches us in more ways than one. “Onions,” tears. “Sandpaper,” a friction that smooths. “Handfuls of skin,” how intimate. The “hurried breath,” like hope, feels immediate but strained. And “hot knives,” like hope, is sterile and torrid.

In anticipation of the coming year, I try to imagine how hope may look. What form will it take shape in? How will it feel? And even then, what is its worth? I consider what it means to have witnessed the end of one year and the beginning of a new one. How to then confront ugliness and still welcome beauty, because isn’t that what hope appears like in the face of resistance? Us, living our best lives, day to day, in the worst timeline in however way that is.

Visit Poets.org to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Philippe Pamela Dungao

New Year’s Resolution

a short story from Lydia Davis

My new year’s resolution is to learn to see myself as nothing.

At the length of a single paperback page, this substantive prose piece takes just two minutes and twenty seconds to read. Or to listen, if you let Lydia Davis read it to you. The good people at Conjunctions have provided us with an audio clip of the author reading this story at Bard College. What’s quite curious about this clip is that her reading of the story departs from the print version. It isn’t much—only three small differences. In one, Davis substitutes the word “something” with the words “more than nothing.” Here, on this page, the meanings of these words are essentially indistinguishable from one another. But in Davis’ context, the change in word choice threatens to alter the meaning of the piece entirely. In another, Davis writes, “You spend the first half of your life learning that you are something after all, now you have to spend the second half learning to see yourself as nothing.” However, what she says aloud is, “[N]ow you have to spend the second half learning the value of nothing.” To my mind, seeing oneself as nothing is wholly unrelated to learning the value of nothing. Perhaps to her, it isn’t. What do I know? Nothing. Or is it “less than something”? We can only speculate as to what caused the difference between the text and her reading. Perhaps Davis sought to revise the version that made it to print—an auditory editing, marking lines in red ink with her own voice. Or perhaps Davis was merely reading from her own notes.

For a version that’s faithful to the text, listen to Lydia Davis read the story at Penn. For the curious Bard College version, listen at Conjunctions.

Contributing Editor / Melissa Mesku

A Correspondence Between Laura and Dale, 1989

a poem from Kolleen Carney

Will you think about me
when you’re wide eyed and unknowing

A short-lived tv show with an amazing revival series, Twin Peaks reigns supreme in the world of pop culture. The story of the strange events in a Pacific Northwestern town inspired countless tv shows, movies, books, and now this poem by Kolleen Carney Hoepfner. I admit that I loved reading this poem not only for its subject matter, but for its lyrical sound and beauty. You can even hear the soft echoes and repetition that encapsulates the show’s atmosphere, such as in this stanza:

and remember my name           like a dream
where nothing makes sense       but in a way does           in a dream way
When it is in our house again will you scream

You don’t need to watch Twin Peaks to feel the connection in lines such as “[w]hat does it mean when we emerge together / with twigs in our hair and mouths” or understand “the rush of stars”. To emphasize this dimensional connection is the number of times hands are mentioned throughout the poem: “[y]our hand is gentle”, “[y]our warm hand”, “hold my hand”—a simple act of hand holding means so much to the speaker. For this poem, all you need is an open mind under “the void and cloudless sky”.

Visit Occulum to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen

To Do List

a poem from Christine No

So you named a man Home
Forgot that home is a construct

—like Love. Still, you stayed while he took mallet to foundation
Renamed you: Rubble, Heap, Broken Tile Girl

This week, a wonderful poem published in The Rumpus by Christine No on time and death and family and relationships, and all their burr-like entanglements. After reading this poem, I realized I don’t encounter enough longer poems, ones that really ruminate and fold in multiple recurring threads and thoughts into one larger entity. It’s the length that really reflects the complication of all these ties we bear to others.

So you haven’t made the
Short drive home
Scared of what other silence she’s
Tucked in the lines on her forehead,
Gathered around her mouth:

—You are too old to be wanted

The contemplation of passing time and age, where we love and who and how we love. Notions of age and cut-offs, to be “too old”, or having spent too much time, things that cannot be pulled back from the abyss over which they’ve passed. The intertwining of things we lose to time, our worries over wasted or misplaced love. This poem seems all-encompassing of an entire decade, what it is to be growing through transitory periods, instability and uncertainty. How notions of home are constructed, held aloft but indistinct, the things we find in one another, the things carried across three generations of women.

All that you’ve neglected? This to-do list:
32 years of misplaced construct
The punctured disappearances
Your empty hands

Visit The Rumpus to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong


a story from Esmé Weijun Wang​

It’s a new year, which means (some) fresh energy and (some) fresh perspective. Clocking our emotional cycles to a mostly arbitrary calendar is a bit weird, but it’s how we’re presently wired.

‘Revere,’ a short story by Esmé Weijun Wang in Lenny Letter, is a rather somber piece to write about in light of the new-year dynamic of refresh and renew, but it hit me hard and it’s taken a few weeks to wrap my mind around why, exactly.

The memories we hold, the non-physical things that give shape to our emotional realities that are housed in our bodies, are nonlinear. We live and relive people and places and things, constantly, whether we know it or now. A hurt from childhood, a trauma from an adult relationship, disappointment and joy and expectation—they’re not physical things, but, they sort of are.

This is a roundabout way of saying ‘Revere’ is about love and loss and how these things shape us continually whether we want to or not. A brief but incandescent love affair, wherever it ends up, is embedded in our weather systems. We might experience the same storms (love, loss, etc), but we erode and regrow differently. We can compare our landmasses to each other, but the soil is different, the air different.

Here is when the narrator realizes she’s fallen for Ellie:

And that is the moment I think of when I think of how I met Ellie — not the shock of blood, or the wet skirt that clung to her legs, but our reflections in the mirror when she looked, and how our eyes met when she saw me looking.

What’s so powerful about this story is how, within a straightforward framework, such a deep emotional reality is created. There are questions that aren’t answered and don’t need to be answered, because our own experiences and wishes and disappointments fill in the rest, forwards and backwards.

Here’s hoping your new year includes growth in as many directions as possible.

Visit Lenny Letter to read the story.

Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein


art from Devan Shimoyama​

In truth, I lack fervor for the new year. An arctic cold front has gripped New Orleans and has reduced me to a shiver in bed; silver that usually hugs my fingers keeps sliding round and round my hand. It’s a time where the universe seems to be calling me to hibernate and recalculate while my eyes are constantly reaching for anything warm, and the ‘Sweet’ series certainly delivers. Men & boys are rendered at the barbershop, most of the collages offering sunset-colored hues. Their tears are glossy crystal, a move also employed by FKA Twigs’ Water Me; I consider how both perspectives are simply asking for space & existence. Can the femme body be allowed its emotion, gesture, and speech? Can the femme body be loved in spaces where masculinity reigns?

The glint of gold & silver glitter make what would otherwise be matte hair pop against faces, the hair holding a defined shape & gesture that speaks to us directly. After all, if you’re gonna suffer being uncomfortable at best and silenced at worst, shouldn’t your crown gleam? Some cuts feel just barely controlled: a smooth side taper while the rest spikes out in glory. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I know the little plastic roses that cover their eyes wouldn’t be tasty, but the light pinks feel so much like soft, braided candy. Some hair feels like a spilled strawberry milkshake that we could lap off the scalp. Even the speckled chair calls ropes of Nerds or candy bark to mind. These intentional links to the candy-shop against the silent, crying body are such a stark juxtaposition. How often do we turn to the sweet for comfort, washing the taste of a bad day out our mouths? How often is the sweet matched with celebration, some willing reward for surviving? Too often we want to rob the femme body of sweetness, but here it rightfully cloaks each frame, a fire that can’t be put out.

Visit Instagram to check out his work.

Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse