A curated literary guide

Week #54 / 8th – 14th January, 2018

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Sunday Review: Listening for the Soft Music in Michael Schmeltzer’s Blood Song

a book from Michael Schmeltzer

[ Two Sylvias Press / 2016 / 106 pp ]

Often, with books, especially collections of poetry, titles are overshadowed by countless other elements. The design, the narrative, the poems themselves and their craft. But one way I know a book is truly special is if, days or weeks in its aftermath, I find myself pondering just how poignant the title is to the collection. A small detail, yes, but titles give the whole volume a larger clarity for me.

Michael Schmeltzer’s Blood Song is one of those volumes. A collection that does not shy away from the garish and the grotesque, but not from the soft music of yearning either. The poet, in this book, displays his skilful precision, balancing the world’s violence with its melodies. The speaker says it best himself in ‘The Memory of Glass’:

When I speak of the sacred
I conjure the exact scarlet

of a tanager

ruined by the windshield
of an oncoming car.

And while this tension, this contrast, is not uncommon in books of poetry, Blood Song has a distinct sound. Schmeltzer’s speaker elicits such familiarity and nostalgia that I, a Nigerian who has spent all my life within my country’s borders, get the sense that I know these parts of the speaker’s life. Yet, this book is evened out by the incorporation of a sense of wonder so vivid that I am left wondering where in the world this could exist. We, the readers, are not alone in this questioning, as the speaker tells us, seemingly in confidence: “I’ve been here most of my life // and am no less lost.”

Blood Song is a fluidly spinning top, hypnotic. At times, the wounds are ones we know all too well, perhaps even “the childhood-specific / cruelties we inflict,” and at times they are strange and marvelous. In some moments, the speaker sings to us in ethereal voice, and then suddenly we recognize it as our mother’s song, our elegy, our love song. The mood of the collection flickers like a brave candle. I cannot help but trust the poet and his speaker to lead me on this journey. And what a journey it is.

In this volume, we witness our speaker grow from a child, into “an adolescent / who mistook light // for safety,” into a man, a father who seeks to provide some semblance of this same safety for children of his own. He tells us:

When my daughter whimpers
in her sleep

I jolt awake. I am afraid
of the dreadful things she dreams

Here we see the preceding knowledge, the familiarity, the wisdom that comes with age. But in Isaac Newton’s Teeth, he confesses: “I don't know enough / about the order of things / to say which came first.” This sense of losing track of time is integral to the work, and to Schmeltzer’s genius. In the reading of the poems, and in the poems themselves. My first reading of Blood Song was somewhat accidental. I only meant to flip through, because I, in fact, should have been studying for a test (I always say the benchmark for great poetry is its ability to distract you from terrible things). I read the opening sentence, “Suppose we are not made of fire,” and was possessed by some bird of curiosity. The imagery, the speaker’s tale, the musical confusion—everything combined to make me get lost in time.

One poem in particular that calls out strikingly to me is ‘Portrait of My Father, Shirtless.’ In my mind, it explores the simultaneous communion and disconnect between parent and child, the one that is observable between the speaker and his parents, the one that he is forever attempting to calibrate with his daughters. In speaking of his father, the speaker says “He did not bleed. We were not the same.” Again, blood as a prerequisite for familiarity, but not with a negative focus. The same tenderness that drives the book.

Michael Schmeltzer’s Blood Song is crafted with a gentleness that never fails to release an ache somewhere in me. In the closing lines of the poem, ‘Some Nights The Stars They Sour’, our speaker instructs:

Little bird, little god of flight,

land on the branches
of my splintered fingers. Do you remember

our inheritance, our names? I whisper them
as a reminder; hear and know. Here and now,

slit your feathered throat
so you pronounce us properly.

This seems to be a soft guide on singing the Blood Song. The questions of names and inheritance bring forward the same intimacy that is consistent in this brilliant book, convincing me that we all have our own songs of blood, and they are not so different from this.

Visit Two Sylvias Press to purchase the book.

Reviewer / Logan February

Yosra Strings off My Mustache

a spoken word poem from Melissa Lozada-Oliva

I think about the most womanly thing we’ve ever done and it’s live, anyway

There is nothing quite like the bond shared between women of colour. How we navigate our desires, our heartaches, and also our joys in a world that has left so little for us. How we carry the shame in our identities and our bodies and fold them within ourselves. How this bond comes in many forms—often times unspeakable, in small acts, quietly.

In Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s ‘Yosra Strings Off My Mustache,’ it comes in the form of hair removal and the roll of string tucked in Yosra’s pockets. The poem paints a scene of two women in a bathroom, huddled together with a string between them to thread off the strands of hair that “looks like the subtitles to a foreign movie with an actress [she] will never look like.” Here are our bodies, made abject/foreign/other, all within the context of desire, of loving, and being loved. Here is a scene that feels more intimate and more tender than what a public bathroom often holds, touching all the ways we have been taught to carry ourselves. It feels both like exile and sanctuary where two women—Yosra, Middle Eastern, and the speaker, Guatemalan-Mexican—find some semblance of escape from the world outside, learning how to “forgive every space [they] enter.”

If the act of hair removal is likened to the ways women of colour experience race, womanhood, and femininity, it too extends as a metaphor for the care and love we share between each other and how it may look. “This isn’t opression,” Lozada-Oliva tells us. “This is I got you / I believe you / I always have.” Her voice is comforting. I am thinking about what it means to write off the shame we carry in our bodies, how then can we pluck it off strand by strand like the body hair in Lozada-Oliva’s poems, how then each pull is an act of care, and how letting it grow is love, too.

Visit YouTube to watch Melissa Lozada-Oliva perform the poem.

Contributing Editor / Philippe Pamela Dungao

Worldly Placelessness

an essay from Cher Tan

[T]aste gradually becomes the same everywhere.

It has become a truism that certain cafes in Berlin or Hong Kong have the exact same aesthetic as Airbnbs in Portland or Melbourne, right down to the mason jars, unfinished wood tables and Edison pendant lights. A phenomenon first coined by writer Kyle Chayka as “AirSpace,” this uniquely un-unique aesthetic continues to dominate around the globe, particularly in places that want to convey “comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset.” Haven’t traveled far? Not to worry; AirSpace is, quite frankly, to be found anywhere. You’ll know it when you see it: Even in Tulsa, it will look like Tulum or Tel Aviv.

In a recent essay, writer Cher Tan gives the notion of Airspace an added liminality. “A flat white sits in front of me, its latte art a perfect laurel, like the flat white I had in Penang four years ago, like the flat white I had in Prague two years ago, like the #flatwhites dotted across the Instagram landscape in Nanjing, Budapest, Turku, Chechnya. Where was I? Sometimes I could hardly know.” It makes for a kind of placelessness, one that, Tan says, “haunts every street, both as a spectre and a foreboding of the future.”

Read the essay at The Lifted Brow.

Contributing Editor / Melissa Mesku

Post Abortion Questionnaire-Powered by Survey Monkey

a poem from Susan Rich

If I could unhinge myself from myself,
attach to bookshelves, sever
my tongue, I would watch

It has been less than a year since I graduated from my beloved MFA program, and during that time, I worked on their print journal called Qu. Scrolling through my MFA friends’ social media feeds, I decided to look at the works Qu recently published. Susan Rich’s poem is immediately affecting with the title alone—however, the combination of the poem’s format and form truly leaves me reeling. How each italicized question at the beginning of the stanza enhances or detracts from the following lines requires no explanation. “Do you feel guilt or sorrow when discussing your own abortion? / The cabbage is a blue rose” is the perfect example of the poem’s ability to blend the objective and subjective.

‘Post Abortion’ exists in the rare space where time and pain “tumble down the mountain / precipice” without stopping. Each time I re-read this poem, I become hyper-aware of my own vulnerabilities and exposures, ultimately echoing the poem’s truth: “[i]f my own voice falters, tell them / I tried not to live inside the clock / or under the skin of pomegranates.”

Visit Qu to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen

The Giant Gets Her Period

a poem from Su Cho

Writing my Wilds recommendation for first time in 2018, I’m so pleased to start the year with Su Cho’s poem, ‘The Giant Gets Her Period.’ Last week was a wash for me with a standard fare head cold—Cho’s poem is the elixir to being enfeebled. Menstruation doesn’t put a dent in the giant. It expands her; it boosts the heft and rattle of her jumps; it is a reason to flex and expend energy. The giant becomes a model for how it could be for all people who experience periods, and all people with bodies. I feel like this is a good way to move into 2018, remembering the sheer might of the giant: to be undaunted by ailments, learn the scope of one’s body and revel in the power of it.

Visit Dirty Paws Poetry Review to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby

Life, Without

a story from Lynsey Morandin

But he doesn’t know what I know. He doesn’t know that nothing has sprouted, that there are no roots. He doesn’t know that inside me it’s a desert,

Today I have a beautiful flash fiction by Lynsey Morandin published in Jellyfish Review. Part fable, part metaphor, this short but succinct story takes on a very real conflict and adds an almost mythical quality to it. In ‘Life, Without’ we see the body as dug earth, life not as a sudden spark, a hurried and hastily present suddenness, but as slow and planned expectance. This story is not only an exploration of the dually edged term, “barrenness”, but also a re-framing of the ways in which we view the creation of life, painted in divisions; the internal and the external, the spoken and the unspoken. What we know but do not say, what we say but cannot know.

This is always the time he loves most. This is when he can show me pictures of the perfect planter pot and talk about a house with more light than the one we’re in now.

It’s almost surprising the different ways the analogy can be extended, to the types of flowers anticipated, to the parallel of flowers as gifts, offerings that accentuate distinct moments of life. What we give at birth, at love, at death or loss or misfortune. It’s a particularly heartbreaking note, the want, the hope, the irreconcilable ways nature exists carelessly, unbothered by us.

I’ve never seen anyone want anything so bad. That’s why I keep my mouth shut and smile when he tells me daylilies are his favorite but that he knows I love peonies.

Visit Jellyfish Review to read the story.

Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong

A Traumatic Photosynthesis

a poem from Erin Taylor​

Just the title of this by poem by Erin Taylor in Cosmonauts Avenue is enough to resonate and beckon. It’s a mouthful of syllables—“a traumatic photosynthesis,” both the title and first line—that conjoin two disparate, depthless languages and worlds. It makes for an unsettling logic, the electron transport chain overlapping with the rippling of trauma through our physical and mental selves, the injuring of a process at once far removed from humanness and one of the reasons humanness exists.

[…] my bones
have found a place in a mausoleum
called childhood. an epitaph reads
“she tried to hold the sea in her arms
and only drowned.” the city built of
what has always been left under my
pillow elects a mayor with purple
skin, bruised over by time. some
people are softer than others,
some hide it well while others not at
all.

The poem is a long, sinuous river of surreal and lyrical exploration of the body, the self, and how the two overlap and how the two can live on different planets without knowing the other exists.

[…] i am a body awoke,
i am a city created out of every person
who has ever fingerprinted my skin.
skin cells that grow plants, skin cells that
shed only during the winter. the bruised
mayor erects a monument to the moment
my mother first saw me and a monument
to the last time i saw my mother.

There is a resounding tenderness here, a true ache. The body is a linear, physical thing while the self is not. This dream-like world couldn’t exist without flesh, without a heart pumping blood to the fingers and creating words that attempt to bridge something, like the speaker’s spine:

my spine builds a bridge between
two lovers, when they fight they take
apart bit by bit my straight and narrow.

The poem returns again and again to the image of a city built from the speaker’s baby teeth, teeth which emotionally and physically represent change and transition. The poem bridges that past, and somehow, beautifully, concludes with children playing amongst birds, the light of the sun.

Every time I read this poem it speaks to me a little differently. Like a dream, I remembered it one way last night, and another way this morning, and will remember it in yet another way later today, and I am so grateful for its existence.

Visit Cosmonauts Avenue to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein

Blue Light

music from Kelela​

As an afrofuturism & grotesque fan, it’s unsurprising that Kelela’s ‘Blue Light’ was right up my alley from the very first frame. She reminds us how closely the “strange” and the erotic are tied when her locs become unwieldy in their growth, stripping her of her dress until they’re the only fabric coursing around her. The post-breakup period of her cloistering from connection ends. These are moments of revival for the tactile & sensitive self whose “discipline is slipping.”

This isn’t the first time Kelela’s full-on sheen makes her ethereal. Consider ‘A Message’ where the lighting feels dark enough to ward us off. Flipping between black & white and red & blue, we get the sense that she’s warning us not to inch in too closely, her eyes dark pools that we’re liable to fall into before we can reach her space. Unlike the you that’s “so clear” to her, the guarded Kelela is anything but. “Blue Light” feels considerably more inviting with the calming, oceanic blue of the background swimming across her skin as well. Draped in a jeweled yellow that spins to sunset oranges and pinks under our gaze, her deep red claws also accent warmth under her skin-tone, slightly shattering the alien allusion she’s put forth. The wrapped pearl ear cuff calls us back to the sea, but more importantly, beauty being created under pressure. This moment of rapid unfurling doesn’t appear random, but a result of just how much has been held in.

Her body continues to undo this vision: her locs feel so grounding and earthly against the cool tones of her face, chest, & back. When they surround her body by roping her limbs, I sense a completion. Though ‘Blue Light’ is composed towards a new lover that makes her “chains come falling down”, she’s centered in her sensuality, which grows and envelops her completely until we’re brought to the last moment—her almost completely sheathed in hair. She’s unable to make eye contact but fully gives into the vulnerability that comes with letting your guard down in a new relationship. I daresay we’re encountering the pearl getting made.

In her performance at Gasa Gasa, the backing blue lights felt moody but honest: I could read her movement & expression best in them. So whenever she says, “baby, keep the blue light on,” I’m brought again to her enrapturing presence: one that commands every frame, one that makes each gesture feel weighted. Who wouldn’t want to see her illuminated?

Visit YouTube to watch the video.

Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse