Somehow, it is April. It’s been several months since my last update on here, which runs counter to my philosophy of just posting whatever.

Rather than endlessly repeat my theoretical approach to posting on this blog as an evasion of posting on this blog, I suppose a real update I can provide is that I had to go to the ER recently and underwent surgery, which I am recovering from. For the past (tw0?) week(s), I’ve been unable to even sit at my desk, so I’m far behind on work and life. I ended up having to miss my creative writing workshop/group twice in a row, which was profoundly depressing since I really value that space. For me, being a part of that workshop has really specified what a writing community can mean.

When people refer to the writing or literary “community,” they’re often describing the visible contours of literary twitter or booktok or the like–a loose collection of self-identifying readers and writers rebounding within a social media space. I think there’s something special to that kind of literary community–especially with poetry, generous readership is a prerequisite for any kind of meaningful engagement. There can be a sort of old-timey kindness to lit twitter–strangers sometimes encounter other strangers in sincere consideration.

In turn, generous reading often leads to generous engagement beyond the parameters of one’s visible work. If I’m going to make the time and space to read your poems, I will most likely make the time and space to listen to your little gripes and tiny joys. Of course there are limits, and no one is really operating under the impression of true intersubjective exchange, but getting to know one’s words almost invariably involves getting to know one’s life.

In that sense, I really do think that literary twitter or other social media communities deserve valorization as communities. I am quite bored of people attempting to disqualify social media as inauthentic in the face of their 15-year-old writing group or MFA cohort or what have you.

But there’s a special kind of engagement that we created with the writing workshop that, to me, feels like a uniquely vital space of engagement, as opposed to broader communities like lit twitter that are overwhelmingly white and vulnerable to all kinds of terrible people you need to tiptoe around. I don’t have to do that careful and tired dance of couching everything I say with preemptive defenses or appeals to the universalized reader–instead, we can attend to each other’s lives, as writers, humans, subjects under various systems, etc.

I think the guidelines we wrote did a pretty good job of providing a vibe check to the kind of space we are constructing, and I’m perpetually grateful to all the other attendees who make the space possible. I often think about the workshop as a little oasis for engagement and support that exists in difference to the logic of normative existence/survival, where the pressures of everyday life are not erased but taken into a space where they can be experienced differently, like sound traveling through water instead of air.

I suppose I am just sitting in appreciation of all kinds of communities, even those that are not apparent to their members (e.g. nonsovereign relations across borders, species, etc.).

That aside, here’s some other things that have felt like oases in my time of pain and exhaustion:

1. Amy Jannotti’s audio blog/podcast The Poet Girlfriend: Personally, podcasts are a hard sell–I have difficulty concentrating (in fact, audiobooks are completely illegible to me) and find myself overpowered by feelings of restlessness. PGF is pretty much the only poetry podcast I’m listening to–it tackles compelling and relevant topics while still remaining anchored in the poet’s personal practice and observations. I possess no technical language for describing how and why a podcast is good, but this is a phenomenal podcast from a poet whose work I love.

2. Paige Morris’s short story “Apples for Tigers”: As an eternal Paige simp, I was elated when she brought a draft of this story to workshop and pumped for when it was published at Honey Literary. I revisited this story a few times since, and I am always blown away by how deftly she weaves the miraculous with loss and grief. Terrific writer, human, [insert sentimental Justin mumbling]. She is the best.

3. Solmaz Sharif’s Customs: an excellent collection with two standout poems–“Patronage” and “An Otherwise.” Lines from those two pieces have been bouncing around my empty skull for weeks.

4. Jacob Geller is one of my favorite video essayists, and I’ve been slowly making my way through his videos. His work has such a distinctive voice that combines solid analytical lenses with an artfulness and generosity toward whatever media he’s talking about. Most of the shows, books, and games that he talks about I have never personally consumed, but he’s able to properly contextualize them and snugly fit them within overarching themes that have expansive implications. I especially like “Fear of Big Things Underwater” and “Fixing My Brain with Automated Therapy.”

5. Lauren Berlant’s On the Inconvenience of Other People: Berlant has been one of the most significant influences on my critical/imaginative perspective, so reading their final book is a bittersweet experience. Very, very slowly making my way through it–the first read of any of their monographs is always a slow one for me, taken in alongside the faltering steps of improvised life.

Well, a rough post slorped out after months of inactivity. Looking to get back into a regular rhythm, excited for all the things yet to be read and written and lived.

Movements across Grief and Vulnerability, with Phillip B. Williams’ “Final Poem for the Deer”

Poetry’s landscape is carpeted with moons, and beneath each poet’s moon is the poet’s deer, dipping its head into silver waters. Some people roll their eyes and take both moon and deer as hopelessly expended images or a juvenile rite of passage before the real artist settles on more mature imagery. But in my view, calling either moon or deer cliche is a crass–obscene, really–dismissal of their evocative power and the imaginations that draw themselves up to speak to moon, to deer.

Deer have always featured prominently in my memories and imagination. I grew up in the suburbs of Deerfield, Illinois, and saw them cutting across cul-de-sacs and drinking rainwater from yard fixtures. A high school teacher recounted how a friend of hers was killed instantly when her car collided with a deer on a dark mountain road. I remember a grisly story told gleefully by a speaker I have forgotten–a huge truck hit a deer with such force that it sucked swathes of deer flesh into its grille and hood. I think of Lara Flynn Boyle recalling one of David Lynch’s directions during the pilot of Twin Peaks: “Think of how gently a deer has to move in the snow.”

Few poems move with such grace as Phillip B. Williams’ “Final Poem for the Deer.” If deer have been calcified into cliche for many of our imaginations, then “Final Poem for the Deer” animates the figure of the deer into its own elusive, nimble self, rooted in both majesty and vulnerability.

The poem begins with a claim-counterclaim structure that integrates the deer as cliche as part of its enduring power: “Deer asleep on the side of the road. No, deer / dead there as always, preserved in the Book / of Symbols.” A poem more anxious about cliche might hold the dead deer at a distance and instead insist on something more vibrant, suffuse it with vitality to try and make it come alive in the writerly sense. Instead, the poem refutes the initial image, taking us into what some might call cliche, making us grapple with why the dead deer has its privileged place in our imaginations.

This is immediately followed up by a series of confidently proceeding deer images with surprising lateral movement, whether within sentences through evocative imagery (“Deer with its flies and uncanny / arrows in its sides like compass needles, or / fleshless wings”) or the jump from one to the next and the next: “Deer a white-tailed gnostic in the woods. / Deer you get lost in. Deer with a ribbon / of brass bells around its neck and an iron / sword in its antlers’ altar.”

The dexterous use of line breaks too, blocks out the solidity of things until the last moment, making the experience of reading it feel like flitting through dark underbrush. In the aforementioned lines “Deer with a ribbon / of brass bells around its neck and an iron / sword in its antlers’ altar,” I love how “Deer with a ribbon” is set up as a discrete image, which is then transformed into “brass bells” by the next line. While this first line break withholds the defining material of the object, the next break divorces material from form “and an iron / sword,” giving us only the solidity of iron before allowing us to grasp its cutting edge. This swerving unpredictability effected through Williams’ discerning lineation is such admirable craftsmanship and just plain fun to read through. The poem remains attentive to the mechanics of definition, how meaning is accrued through a poem’s progression.

While the poem’s deft navigation is effortlessly produced through its technical sophistication, the work seems largely uninterested in the theatrics of nimbleness. Rather, the poem takes up the complexity of grief and loss as labile and enveloping—the distinction between the dead and those who grieve them is explicitly elided with the “dead carrying the dead.” The poem leaps between who is dead and who is grieving—in one of its most distinctive images, “The father sits up / in his casket, startled, his funeral full/ of his sons, no, his one son repeating / like a paper cutout.” These lines are so powerful to me because, even when the dead sit up at their own funeral, it is still a funeral; there are still so many others to grieve.

And yet, while the poem stays attentive to grief, it is not immobilized by it. The dead father’s casket is a deer and we see it “marching out the church to where / the earth is gentler to flesh, strips it patiently.” In my mind, one of the poem’s greatest insights is that death offers more than complete stillness, albeit remaining as death. It shows how seeming contradictions between loss and life are not caught in a deadlock but are the concatenated heartbeats of living in irrecuperable contexts of depredation.

Reading “Final Poem for the Deer” reminded me of the fleet-footed work of grieving that brings us in relation to ourselves and others, all implicated in loss, a “forest of sons / in which the deer tilts its decorous head / into the father’s grave and sips.” Here is a poem where one can encounter the deer at the height of its evocative power, weaving its way through grief and vulnerability with dignity and tenderness.

Quick November Update + Now on Tumblr

It’s quite funny that my last post begins by talking about how it was already September. Well, here we are all the way in November! Quite frankly, I’ve had some of the most intensely stressful and dreadful months lately. Chalking October up to a total loss.

Another aspect of my own inability to write here is an unfortunately enduring mindset that my posts should be “substantial,” in the sense that they are intellectually and/or emotionally engaging. At its core, that is what this space is for me–a little notch cut into the immense, protean face of the internet where I can think about writing and reading and a general life of thought and feeling. I’ll feel a vague pressure–entirely emanating from myself, mind you–that those are the only posts worth working on, and the rest are polluting the “real” content.

I recently talked about blogs with some folks at Heung, ranging from privacy/security issues to its place within one’s writing practice. It helped me process the fact that I maintain this space to give myself a little reprieve from the urgencies of everyday survival so I can write whatever I want–quotidian ephemera included. I often feel as if things are closing in around me and simply writing, while not a radical break or even suspension of pressing forces, is a way for me to remain in sensitive tension to bleakness and wonder and the cavities therein.

It just feels nice to go back to a type of post where I don’t need to edit or even proofread. Of course, my generative reflection posts on writing will continue (slowly writing a post on a Phillip B. Williams poem) but I kinda like kicking back and just going with the flow here. A microblogging modality transposed (back) into blogging.

My final note here is that I created a Tumblr for this blog, which will mainly display and link back to the content I post here. I also might do super tiny updates or Tumblr discourse-specific posts there. Think of it as a continuous drizzling of this site. The link is here.

In the Works

Somehow, it is September already. I spent nearly all of August suspended–waiting for the appearance of anything that would orient me in time and space.

As are many periods of ostensible inactivity, I think I spent the last month latently processing ideas and projects yet to be. A month in the works. As such, I figured I’d briefly reflect on my current projects–not necessarily believing that they’ll surface into visibility or even survive the process of being constructed but just to acknowledge that things move even in stillness.

I’ve been slowly thinking through a potential post on a Mariana Enriquez short story. I am working (faltering, really) on a lyric essay collab for a forthcoming Heung anthology (!). My bloodshot eyes sweep ever-slowly across lit mags, looking for the next poem to write a generative reflection on. I am trying to drink more water. I’m drafting some guidelines and a description for our workshop. I’d like to look up at the sky more often and not just feel like I need to fall asleep.

Speaking of the workshop guidelines, I scheduled a boring admin meeting earlier today since I needed other brains to bounce ideas off of. This document has been in the works for months but I just couldn’t bring myself to draft it out beyond a few pitiful stubs. It was very humbling that people showed up for a rather dry meeting to share really discerning insights on the workshop and what it ought to be. Despite my marrow-curdling exhaustion, their contributions really animated me to make some substantial progress. Another visceral reminder of how great and miraculous community can be.

As for this space, I’m planning on getting out another poem-propelled reflection this month. Probably a bit on the shorter side, but we’ll see. Until then.

Cursory Thoughts on “BIRTH OF A NATION” by Jameka Williams

For the last few weeks, I have been thinking about Jameka Williams’ poem “BIRTH OF A NATION.” It so vividly ranges from eroticism to histories of violence, from the vitals of the “erotic self begun” to the slavery and extinction brought to bear by the nation. These elements are not merely juxtaposed but intercalated through Williams’ language, providing a prismatic view of their intimate implication.

For example, “Midnight’s moaning music / sweeps” proceeds with a pleasurable, sensual alliteration that transitions after the line break into both an extension of its original context and a new discursive plane: servitude. This imaginative fragmentation is a proliferation into new contexts that still retain powerful, accumulative threads. It’s one of the things I admire most about this poem and poetry in general.

Take, for another example, what follows after the speaker’s refutation (“Keep it.”) of the nation’s terms: “If / fucking is like the founding of an empire, let us fuck like we are the / patient American bison, lumbering toward hysterical extinction, from / the Rockies to the eastern seaboard, ecstatic & grieving at once that we / have run out of country over which to drag our vulgar bellies.”

Instead of directly reproducing the simile of empire, the speaker turns askance: “let us fuck like we are the / patient American bison.” This turn to another imaginative field is not sanitized of the established links and linkages of empire deployed earlier in the poem, but carries them forward into a different context where encounters with violence can play out anew.

What’s so brilliant about this turn to the bison is its immediate familiarity with the violence of American settler colonialism. I remember the first time I saw old photos of bison skulls piled into mountains–I could feel the solidity of things around me blur a little, and I felt the pull of the question: what other bones have we piled and forgotten? As the years passed and I saw that photo over and over, those immediate feelings dulled into hopelessness or cynicism or futile anger that lives like irritation. Through Williams’ poem, however, the surprise surfacing of the bison as a simile for fucking made me re-confront those congealed immediacies in a way that even direct photographic evidence cannot. The vicissitudes of life and death under empire–homelessness, ecological destruction, endangerment/extinction, survival–all are brought out in the space of just a few lines.

To put it another way, this poem really has what Mary Gaitskill defines as style, delivered through an interaction with a bookstore owner:

He considered style to be the “inevitable by-product” of the writer feeling their way through the shape of their creation, through word choices and small decisions as well as big ones. I didn’t like the term “by-product” because it didn’t sound central enough — style mattered to me even then — and he said that he meant it in the way the appearance of a plant or flower is the by-product of its most essential inner workings, that there is simply no other way for the flower or plant to look according to its genetic structure.

The beauty and imagination of Williams’ poem, along with its unwavering, multi-eyed gazes at histories of violence, could find no other form while achieving the same things.

Furthermore, I appreciate Williams’ achievement here as a kind of intervention to Gaitskill’s definition of style, and to the ways in which many writers approach craft–as fundamentally deracialized and de-politicized. If something like race does appear, it appears as ornamentation, epiphenomenal.

In Gaitskill’s essay “The deracination of literature” (which I quoted above), she takes to task the notion that language in stories should only be deployed in service of plot–that descriptions of scenery or secondary characters or anything else seemingly superfluous are no longer justifiable in the lean economy of contemporary prose. In direct opposition, Gaitskill valorizes eloquent, lengthy descriptions since they can, in addition to “practical and useful functions,” also “give words to what is wordless and form to what is formless through creating pictures and images that irrationally make a connection to the deeper body of the story.” Language is more than the propulsion system for a plot–it textures and contextualizes forward movement into a journey.

She continues:

Writing is a rational process of connected thoughts and ideas, but great writing comes from a stranger place; an interface between the intensely intimate perception of an individual and the social and natural worlds. It is related to the rational mind but in a way that dreams are related to thought—  poetically and irrationally. It is through poetic and irrational means that the unseen world of your story gets radically illuminated, like a burst of music can illuminate a scene in a movie or TV show.

Needless to say, I quite like the distinction she makes here. But this definition of great writing is also couched within a criticism of (what she feels like is) a societal misperception brought on by “iPhones and the constant staring there at.” At the heart of Gaitskill’s critique are the ways in which the interface between the individual and the world is disrupted.

This brings us to a rather strange place when she mentions teaching a novel by John Updike: “I was teaching a novel by him which was hard for students to read partly because he was sexist and backward in his racial attitudes, but even more because he described his worlds very, very densely.” The major factor was that students today are apparently no longer attuned to deep perceptions of the world around us. This interfacing failure is the heart of bad craft, yet it’s strange to me that Updike’s racism and sexism are relegated as an ancillary difficulty in reading rather than his own fundamental failure of writing. In other words, the failure of perception that inhibits the students’ appreciation of Updike’s work eclipses his own fundamental failure in interfacing with the world.

To be clear, I think the quick passing over of Updike’s sexism and racism was to retain a focus on the essay’s scope and rhetorical positioning–I am not attributing a malicious intent on Gaitskill’s part. Yet it’s disheartening to see such a relegation regularly performed in essays on writing, and there are many craft essays that locate bigotry as a surface-level distortion one must wade through to get to the real, analyzable elements of writing. If writing is an elaborately constructed building, bigotry is just a bad paint job diligent readers should ignore, so they can step inside and truly assess its structure.

For example, in one of the most annoying tweets of all time, Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “‘Othello’ is a great enough work of dramatic art that, if the racial element were entirely removed, the play would still be a profound accomplishment. That Othello is a ‘Moor’ could be made–almost–irrelevant. Disagree?”

What’s so revealing about Oates’ tweet is that she views the racialized component of Othello as an external ornamentation that could conceivably be “removed” from the play. In addition to the essential historical context of how contemporary English dramatists and audiences perceived blackness, Othello’s racialization is discursively embedded at every level of the play. One of the most basic readings of Othello is that Iago introduces him to the ocular regime of racism–that truth is immanent and read on the surface of things. Othello falls for Iago’s deception (and falls within the general structure of the play) precisely because he has been inducted into the logic of truth-as-surface (he believes the appearance of the handkerchief is evidence of his wife’s infidelity), when the play begins with him doing the exact opposite–eloquently defending himself in front of the Venetian senators, forcing them to confront him beyond the surface of his skin.

But for Oates, there exists a great play and then a draping of a racial element. What kills me is the coy “almost” in her tweet–which seems to barely cover an obscene “I wish.” In Oates’ imagination, the play is equally as compelling as simply a deception of cuckoldry between two nondescript white men. I would argue that it is a fundamental failure of perception to flatten Othello in such a way. Imagine how little I was surprised when Oates tweeted, a few years later, “all murders are ‘hate crimes.'”

In short, I have been thinking about what does and does not qualify as a crisis of craft, and why. Jameka Williams’ poem really resonated with me because its composition is so indelibly contoured by an understanding of race and histories of oppression, and it shows how those elements give meaning to the technical moves she makes throughout the piece.

Finally, I think of the American bison, dragging itself through an empire of the dead and dying, and all the writers who see and feel nothing but a vague contempt for bad craft.

Things Continue

About a couple weeks ago I got incredibly sick and I’m still feeling exhausted from it. I also have an annoying (or scary, depending on context) residual cough. It was somehow not COVID.

Aside from causing me to fall behind on work, I’ve had a blog post in the pipeline for a while now that has been continuously delayed by my fatigue. It’s about a fantastic poem that I’ve been thinking about and then transitions to a discussion on style, Mary Gaitskill, and other notes on craft. I’m aiming to get it out in the next week or so, just so I can get those fragmented thoughts down and I can move on to the many other things on my plate.

Continuing to hew and hack and blunder forward with the workshop space, and I’m always grateful for all the people showing up, leaving comments/feedback, and being generally supportive. It’s one of the few oases where I can sit down and write, but even more importantly it helps me retain a really lively connection with a writing community. I’ve always sought out workshops, writing circles, reading groups, etc. wherever I go, and I’m forever thankful and appreciative to most of the people I’ve shared space with. But this workshop in particular feels special. Good times in the ruins of the present.

Well, this is just to say: things continue. The attrition but the life-sustaining things too.

Casual, bloggy updates on this site are still rare but I’m using this space however I see fit. Better than logging onto Twitter and seeing what horrors await me there. I was telling a friend about this ramble-blog and said “sometimes you just have to claim your space.” So–here I am!

Rats, Writers, and Menial Magic

Last week, we began to hear things in the walls. At first, just gentle scratching and a smooth sound of sediment, like time passing in an hourglass. Then, the thumping and gnawing that sounded like roadside construction caught in our bathroom wall. We conjured up concerned neighbors who would dutifully report the noise before things got out of hand, and in our greatest flight of fantasy, imagined a landlord who would remotely care.

This week started off with the super unceremoniously beating a rat to death with our broom (we threw the broom away). I cleaned off the bathtub, most disturbed not by the blood but by the amount of fur left behind. The rats continue to swarm in the walls though, and we only have a thin layer of newly-applied plaster as defense.

This whole experience made me think of an animal studies class that I sat in on, where we discussed pestilence–animals are thought of as pests when their movements and lives interfere with human activity. I wonder what lives could be made, or buildings constructed, that could accommodate the gnawing of rats. There must be mountains of essays out there about rats as anti-capitalists.

My mind moves from rats to writers. The other day, a submitter’s cover letter included how many times they had been rejected from their local university’s MFA program. While I really do believe that writers need to stop constantly self-deprecating and/or fetishizing misery, there’s always something charming about these claims to rejections–they’re forward moving, with the lightweight seriousness of significance extended beyond the pinpoint of the momentous event, and often followed by a “maybe this time or next time.” I also love the sentiments that are something along the lines of “I hope, at least, these poems will bring some kind of joy to you.” If I have learned anything, it’s that the substance of living is constituted by tiny joys that seem to have no hope for surviving beyond themselves.

Finally, after conversations with a friend, I have been thinking about the menial and the magical, the menial as the terrain through which the magical surfaces. I’ve viewed tarot and other practices as a hermeneutic exercise that can reorient people or re-sensitize them to otherwise subterranean things. Much in the same way, I like the idea of significance being cohered around sirens, a passing dog, or pigeons wobbling in the street. I know nothing about actual magical practices, but I’ve been a longtime believer of what Kathleen Stewart calls “worlding,” trying to feel out illegible modes of being. Feeling in proximity can collapse linear cartography, time, all kinds of seemingly ossified boundaries for what is possible. I think there’s an interesting and generative homology between the two, so I’m continuing to learn lurk about more through friends.


Following a discussion with friends about, among many other things, Lauren Berlant’s introduction to Cruel Optimism, I’ve been thinking about the distinction they make between the situation and the event, and how this can be applied to creative writing as aesthetic mediation.

One of the foundational interventions Berlant makes in Cruel Optimism is an insistence on examining the present as an immanent affective experience: “One of this book’s central claims is that the present is perceived, first, affectively: the present is what makes itself present to us before it becomes anything else, such as an orchestrated collective event or an epoch on which we can look back” (4).

The present, then, is always under revision, a site of emergence where genres and conventions for processing, organizing, and understanding “what is going on” are contested. One genre of emergence that Berlant attends to is the situation, which they define as: “a state of things in which something that will perhaps matter is unfolding amid the usual activity of life. It is a state of animated and animating suspension that forces itself on consciousness, that produces a sense of the emergence of something in the present that may become an event” (5). The kineticism of the situation is contrasted by the event, which is a congealed organization that defines what has happened.

Following Berlant’s definitions, moving writing, for me, is able to take an event and turn it into a situation through aesthetic mediation. Whether it’s a walk through the park or the loss of a loved one, the writing I remember the most is able to shake loose the bounded expectations of the event by deploying language that insists and illustrates how something else may be happening here.

Furthermore, I really love the conditional language Berlant uses in describing the situation–it “may” become an event, it “perhaps” might matter. Often times I will bounce off writing that exchanges one event for another–what is produced is not an open site of contestation oriented towards a significant perhaps but yet another calcified structure that neatly circumscribes worlds of possibilities, one box nested in another.

I think using Berlant’s language here is particularly useful for thinking about writing with greater stakes than producing a pleasing turn of phrase (I’ve always been dissatisfied with defamiliarization as the reigning conceptualization for crafting language). All writing is enunciated in relation to the political, and the structures of intelligibility rendering even the most “apolitical” piece come into greater relief when we think of the situation/event. There are so many stories and poems desperately in need of liquefying their assumptions–of people, places, wars, the familiar comforts they take for granted that might be doing active harm to illegible others.

I’ve been reading for a lit mag, which has provided many opportunities to think about aesthetic mediations of the situation as a genre of emergence. I think I am mainly attracted to writing that can point to other modalities of being in the world or being with others–when the ostensible theme or point or plot is always a little at odds with itself, and it provides the feeling that somewhere in its ecosystem of language, we might perhaps sense something more.

Brief Reflection on Titles with “Depression, with Figurative Language” by Matthew Tuckner

Titles are hard. If I have a poem that is unsteadily listing, I’m often tempted to slap on a title to compensate, a desperate triage for clarity or emphasis. Or, if the poem seems squared away, the title is immediately ushered out of the room, and even though it beats its tiny fists against the door, no one can be bothered to let it back in.

I personally value titles that are echoes, refractions, an adumbration of the poem’s grammar. Sometimes, it is the poem’s central image, or an ancillary phrase that grows larger in your mind as you read on, or perhaps a conversational aside that can clue you into its offered mode of reception, like the dark of a theater or the new sign at a fading dollar pizza place that reads: $1.50.

Titles can also be a bid for specificity, a contextual anchor that asserts an address. I get sad when the title of Langston Hughes’s famous poem “Harlem” gets swallowed up and exclusively referred to as “Dream Deferred.” I think for some people, it’s a way of removing the continuing legacies of racism, segregation, and the Harlem riots from their readings in favor of a more palatable “universal” relatability (most annoying disguised as a purely artistic appraisal of a self-enclosed aesthetic object). More often, it’s a neglectful forgetting that the poem itself staunchly opposes.

All this to say I love titles in dynamic relation with the rest of the poem. Matthew Tuckner’s “Depression, with Figurative Language” made me pause to appreciate how titles can so actively shape my experience of a poem:


When a Bengal tiger was found living
————atop a mountain of chicken bones in the back
room of a Harlem apartment, police officers
————rappelled from the rooftop by rope swing
& shot it full of ketamine. As the photograph
————shows, the first dart only served to further
anger the animal, fixed jaw-open in this square
————of image I fuss over like a loose tooth
in my months of magical thinking.
————The tangled latticework of the window bars
the tiger lunges toward, swathed in shadow,
————the gray bricks of the building lashed
with the afterlife of rain, the fangs latched
————onto the borders of the frame as a gesture
of fear those without hands can only express
————through the mouth. Nowhere to be found
is the man who first carried the tiger
————into the building swaddled in a blanket,
feeding it clumpy milk from a bottle,
————leaning his face closer for a sample
of its stale breath as it snored in his lap,
————assembling a sandbox for the cat
when its muscles erupted into a landscape
————of steep hillsides he tried his best to tame
with the braided hair of dolls, discs of cow liver,
————strips of tablecloth sprayed with cologne
he tasked it to find hidden behind
————dressers, tucked under the rug, slipped into
the gap between the wall & the tank
————where he kept his saltwater crocodile.
Sometimes he’d crack open the door, turn
————his head away & dip his hand into the hungry
mouth waiting there, letting it gnaw
————at his skin until he could trace the warp
& weft of the cuts with a pen. He kept it
————secret nonetheless, blaming the gashes
he couldn’t stanch on the neighbor’s stocky pitbull,
————pouring vinegar on the wood floor
to disguise the smell of piss, lying
————to the cops as they came pounding at the door,
trying to stash in his closet what
————in the end took six men to lift.

In this poem, the speaker “fuss[es] over” a real-life incident in the early 2000s, where a man raised a tiger in his Harlem apartment. Personally, if this were a prose piece simply titled “Depression,” I would read it as a clarification of character motivation: depression as the reason for such a seemingly bizarre, desperate, and doomed action. This certainly still comes into play, but the title’s emphasis on depression with figurative language exceeds simple self-description (e.g. the figurative language of “when its muscles erupted into a landscape / of steep hillsides”) and instead invites the reader to make broader associations across the poem’s lines and images.

Refuse and waste as lived environment–a “mountain of chicken bones,” “the smell of piss”–makes me think about how squalid accumulation can become an effortless byproduct of depression. A sense of grasping, lacerating hurt is found in the tiger, “the fangs latched / onto the borders of the frame as a gesture / of fear those without hands can only express / through the mouth” which is then (self-)inflicted onto the man, as he dips his hand into “hungry mouth.” As the poem’s title sat in my mind, I immediately thought of how I have been implicated in appetitive self-woundings and lashing out.

Of course, these kinds of connections are not solely stewarded by the poem’s title. While I can’t much attend to the language in this brief reflection, the irrevocable forward motion of helplessness–the growth of the tiger, more mountainous and voracious, completely unable to fulfill what the man sought to nurture in himself–draws you in through a vividly rendered claustrophobic expansiveness (of waste, wounds, and deception) and the language already provides many footholds for expansive connection.

But for me, thanks to its title, such considerations did not feel external to the poem’s logic, but stitched into the piece itself, in the movement between title and body. I found myself making circuits between the poem’s lines and the title, each indentation an invitation to think of the hidden, what else we try to stash away until, finally, others must carry them out.

Fragments on Hips in _Postcolonial Love Poem_

I’m in the process of reading Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem and she frequently returns to hips. I used to feel a little bashful about returning to the same image throughout my own writing, but Diaz’s poems here are a reminder of how multivalent a “single” image or word is–how variform its expression.

In the titular opening poem, the hands of the speaker’s lover sweep their body: “Where your hands have been are diamonds / on my shoulders, down my back, thighs–.” This sensuous sliding down turns the speaker into a snake (“I am your culebra. / I am in the dirt for you.”) and we slither to the lover’s hips, a scene of gushing plenitude: “Your hips are quartz-light and dangerous / two rose-horned rams ascending a soft desert wash / before the November sky untethers a hundred-year flood– / the desert returned suddenly to its ancient sea.”

Coursing movements across desiring bodies echo throughout. In “These Hands, If Not Gods” the poem opens with: “Haven’t they moved like rivers– / like glory, like light– / over the seven days of your body? / And wasn’t that good? / Them at your hips–“. These lines take the distant glories of God–the accomplishments of a higher realm–and bring them into the immediate register of the sensing body.

In “Like Church,” hips are not only a zone of feeling or a scene that opens up into desire, they actively seek out the speaker: “Her right hip / bone is a searchlight, sweeping me, finds me.” In these lines, the speaker is swept (up) and recognized, in and by desire. I love the intimacy of finding oneself recognized by the body of another.

The last instance I’m thinking about is in the poem “Ode to the Beloved’s Hips”: “What do I see? Hips: / Innominate bone. Wish bone. Orpheus bone. / Transubstantiation bone–hips of bread, / wine-whet thighs. I love these lines–moving from an x-ray view of the hips, what is ostensibly below the surface, into metaphor, into wish bone, myth bone, into the hips as a sacrament, the intercourse of communion.

I am only about halfway through, but already these poems are so rich that I needed to write something about them, just as a kind of reflexive processing. I’ve barely accorded a sentence of reflection on the different lines I have highlighted here, but that just means there’s more for me to return to when I finish the book.