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‘Space Invaders’ by Nona Fernández: Mutations of Reality

To replicate child-like bewilderment rather than to simply retell it is an enviable feat—one that Nona Fernández masters in Space Invaders (88 pages; Graywolf Press; translated by Natasha Wimmer). Bordering on autofiction, the short novel calls upon Fernández’s childhood in Chilé in the ’80s during the turmoil surrounding dictator Pinochet’s unseating, and looks at how those times pervade the lives of the fifth-graders who center the story, and manifest in unexpected and devastating ways

The young community faces police brutality and various other traumas, culminating in the disappearance of Estrella—a well-loved peer who vanishes without explanation. The story is primarily composed of various recollections of Estrella in the form of dreams and memories, while copies of her letters to her best friend Maldonado conjure her presence directly. Fernández’s narrator, a man named Zúñiga, relays stories of Estrella that continue to haunt his adult life as well as those of the others. These stories blur the line between fact and fiction, as Zúñiga tells us:

“If dreams and memories were truly different, we might be able to identify its source, but on our memoryless mattresses everything is mixed-up and the truth is that it doesn’t really matter anymore.”

Fernández’s effective and purposeful confusion of Estrella’s memory distills the narrator’s idea of the truth down to nothing but raw, subjective emotion. Some of the most memorable accounts of this collective’s childhood are obvious mutations of reality, mutations which might more accurately convey the heightened emotions the children experienced. The only person in the group to have ever visited Estrella’s home, Riquelme, has a terrifying dream of a “green, glow-in-the-dark hand,” inspired by Estrella’s father’s prosthetic hand and the classic video game Space Invaders that he played at her house. The hand, meant to resemble the bullets which erupt from the game’s laser cannons to kill the aliens, chases and obliterates Riquelme and his fellow “extraterrestrial children.”

Estrella’s father, who we see being tried in 1994 on the same television Riquelme played the video game on, turns out to have served an instrumental role in the murder of communist militants resisting Pinochet’s rule. It is the wooden hand that gives the man away. Fernández slowly and elegantly untangles the backdrop of the children’s lives in this final section, expressed through video games and school plays. It is only with Space Invaders that Riquelme and the rest are able to faintly grasp any reason for the senseless violence of Operation Condor as it quietly “disappears” their loved ones.

The chapter “Game Over” indexes the children’s individual experiences with the aftermath of injury, loss, and death. There are disappearances, funerals, beatings, anonymous threats, police searches—each of them having a profound and violent effect on both an individual and group level. Zúñiga concludes the chapter by reflecting on the fluid temporality shared by the victims of this cruelty:

“Time isn’t straightforward, it mixes everything up, shuffles the dead, merges them, separates them out again, advances backward, retreats in reverse, spins like a merry-go-round, like a tiny wheel in a laboratory cage, and traps us in funerals and marches and detentions, leaving us with no assurance of continuity or escape.”

As the children’s conceptions of the people and things they love, such as Estrella or Space Invaders, are skewed and made unrecognizable by political pretense, the guarantee of what the narrator labels “continuity or escape” is undermined.
Ruminating on the framework of the novel—portioned into “First Life,” “Second Life,” “Third Life,” and “Game Over”—it’s clear Fernández is relating her experience of Pinochet’s Chilé with the lifecycle of the player’s spaceship in Space Invaders. There is no ceiling to the high score; there is no cap to cruelty; there is no true end to that game; there is no escape from a scarring past. Space Invaders reveals how a child’s memory of a tragedy can accurately reflect the pain of the experience even when it does not necessarily reflect the truth.

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‘On Valencia Street: Poems & Ephemera’ by Jack Micheline: A Return to San Francisco’s Core

“The art world is so fucking boring it could make your heart cry,” writes the late Jack Micheline in On Valencia Street: Poems & Ephemera (133 pages; Lithic Press; edited by Tate Swindell), and it’s a phrase that neatly captures the vibrancy of Micheline’s gut-wrenching artistic project. On Valencia Street contains an array of unpublished work by the honorary Beat (Micheline purportedly derided the label of “Beat poet” as a “product of media hustle), as well as varying pieces of memorabilia, including drawings of a Basquiat-Johnston lovechild, posters for live readings, and nearly illegible notes written on napkins. Micheline’s aesthetic sense of San Francisco’s Mission District, and its streets which he so valued, has been faithfully and thoroughly catalogued here.

Though often regarded as one of the less nuanced poets of his time, it is Micheline’s straightforward style and eerie emulation of his historical moment that lifts his work off the page. Proclamations like, “The rich and poor will all die broke / We will all go naked to our maker” are the sort of moments of vulnerability and truth that endow Micheline with a profundity that defies the skew of language’s mediation. The directness of excerpts such as “You dead souls work here / No one laughs / Man gone” in “Poem on My 39th Birthday” achieve their poignancy by its plainness.

Such concepts, beautiful in their skeletal state, surface in nearly every piece and color Micheline’s work with the foundational qualities of the human condition. Distilled in “[Untitled…]” are his notions of life, death, and love: “People / Die / Because / There / Is / Nobody / To / Love / Them.” The poem is placed next to two cool-toned and slightly torn diner napkins, splattered with the blood-red figure of a boy, and in this juxtaposition a stripped down and strikingly pure emotion emanates: Micheline is not condemning the world but mourning for it.

As the book progresses, with the touch of a masterful hand, it gently elaborates and textures Micheline’s basic poetic themes. Near the end, a spread features two posters with a description of a reading: “4 Jacks / 4 Wednesdays,” listing Micheline as the last performer in the lineup. This dialectic of individual experience and homogeneous identification is an apt metaphor for Micheline’s poetry. Although his topics are some of the most common calls (as common as the name “Jack”) to poetics, they are animated by Micheline’s studied and spontaneous subjectivity. Similarly, the physical journey of discovery editor Tate Swindell undertook to produce this book, digging through old boxes in the Tucson garage of Micheline’s son, is echoed in the experience of reading On Valencia Street.

It has been twenty-one years since Micheline’s fatal heart attack during a BART ride between San Francisco and Orinda. In a moment when the city’s cultural legacy seems to be pulsing more faintly, the reproduction of his principles is affecting. His essence, possessed by the aspirations of his subversive city, finds hold in this new look at his work.

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‘We, the Survivors’ by Tash Aw: A Grim Portrait of Life Under Late Capitalism

The latest novel by Man Booker long-listed author Tash Aw offers a grim portrait of contemporary Asia under late capitalism. We, the Survivors (336 pages; FSG) traces the life of Ah Hock, a Malaysian-born citizen of Chinese heritage living a quiet life of solitude on the other side of a murder sentence. Ah Hock relays his story to a young journalist looking to shed light on the circumstances that led to Ah Hock’s violent crime, a crime he himself doesn’t quite understand. The murder is ultimately connected to Ah Hock’s former career as second-in-command at a local fish farm, as well as his longtime friendship with Keong, a hotheaded boy from his childhood village.

By most appearances, Ah Hock was once the portrait of success: raised by a single mother and accustomed to backbreaking labor in his youth, he eventually settled down with a wife and worked his way up the ranks at a booming fish farm. Yet his achievements do little to relieve the pressures of working class life at a time in Malaysia when climate change is rapidly affecting agricultural industries, and companies are increasingly relying on undocumented workers.

Ah Hock manages the foreign employees at the fish farm; these men, from countries such as India and Bangladesh, are often susceptible to illness and death due to strenuous labor, low wages, and poor living conditions. The migrant workers are treated as outcasts, even by Ah Hock. But for all of Ah Hock’s success, he is not so dissimilar to these workers, suffering as they do from the illusion that upward mobility is within reach. In reality, they are at the mercy of countless economic factors entirely outside their control:

“…the feeling of anxiety, the knowledge that the entire town depended on trade from faraway places, goods being bought and sold by people we would never know. Some politician in America decides that they can’t buy Malaysian rubber gloves; suddenly ten factories in the area have to shut down. The Europeans want to save the fucking planet so they ban the use of palm oil in food; within a month the entire port is on its knees. Life continues, but you feel it slipping quietly away, and you worry that it’ll never return. And because of that fear, you feel caught in a suspended state. On the outside, life seems normal, but inside it’s drawn to a standstill.”

Told in a conversational tone, We, the Survivors is peppered with pop culture references to Hong Kong stars like Andy Lau and Leslie Cheung, and presents a matter-of-fact acceptance of life’s harsh circumstances. Through their repeated interviews, Ah Hock develops something like a fatherly affection for the young woman recording his narrative, though there remains between them an invisible barrier defined by her privileged background and urban life versus his more rural, impoverished existence.

Tash Aw’s skills as a writer lull us into a sense of comfortable familiarity with Ah Hock, which registers as disturbing when one remembers he is a convicted murderer. There are no easy answers at the end of We, the Survivors—and there shouldn’t be: this is a stark rendering of Southeast Asia in the 21st century, a region barreling toward an uncertain future at the speed of modernity. It’s an outlook shaped by the ravages of climate change, by a society that treats its migrant population something subhuman, and by rampant corruption. Yet thanks to Ah Hock’s striking voice, the novel is never less than a pleasurable read.

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‘In the Dream House’ by Carmen Maria Machado: No Mere Confessional

Carmen Maria Machado’s new book, In the Dream House (264 pages; Graywolf Press), begins with a statement of intention. Machado, the author of the acclaimed story collection Her Body and Other Parties, tells us she has written a memoir to add her story of queer domestic violence to the catalog of contemporary literature: “I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon,” she writes, “and that it can look something like this.”

Depictions of intimate partner violence between women have been largely left out of our collective culture, Machado tells us, warping our understanding of it as a phenomenon. It was imperative, then, that she share her own story of abuse. “I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice;” she writes, “measure the emptiness by its small sound.” Machado then considers the value of the memoir as a genre, noting its unique capabilities to uncover and contextualize truths. Fundamentally, every memoir is “an act of resurrection.”

She both summons the past and reanimates her former self; she bends genre to her will, excavates meaning from chaos. She reconstructs the limits of form and narrative and structure, delivering a spectacular literary performance.

In often harrowing detail, Machado recounts an abusive relationship that commandeered her life. In graduate school, she met and fell for a beautiful woman, who remains unnamed throughout the book. Instead, she is referred to as “your girlfriend,” or, more chillingly, “the Woman in the Dream House.” Their courtship is lovely and lusty, something plucked from a dream: “Sometimes when you catch her looking at you,” Machado writes, “you feel like the luckiest person in the whole world.” But the relationship quickly devolves into an emotionally, verbally, and psychologically abusive one: “Sometimes when you catch her looking at you, you feel like she’s determining the best way to take you apart.”

Throughout the memoir, Machado refers to her past self in the second person. It isn’t until she has escaped her abuser and regained her agency that she reclaims the first-person pronoun. There are two Carmens, she tells us: “I was cleaved: a neat lop that took first person […] away from second.” In the Dream House, then, is an attempt at wholeness, at reconciling these two selves. “I thought you died,” Machado confesses about her other half, “but writing this, I’m not sure you did.”

Machado wields language like a weapon then applies it like a salve. Her craftsmanship is especially evident in the structure of the book, which is styled as a series of vignettes, each playing with form and centered around a specific genre or trope: “Dream House as Lesbian Pulp Novel,” “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure,” “Dream House as Chekov’s Gun,” to name only a few. With each iteration of the Dream House, Machado opens a new avenue of literary exploration. But this isn’t about showing off Machado’s ability to deftly vault between genres (though she certainly can). Every new incarnation of the Dream House gives us a new line of sight, another perspective through which we can construct reality.

Machado dissects the complexities of abuse, love, sex, and violence, all through a distinctly queer lens. She realizes that abuse at the hands of another queer woman feels like a unique betrayal — torture at the hands of one of your own. And because abuse between queer women is so widely ignored, it becomes easier to perpetrate. “I am doing this because I can get away with it; I can get away with it because you exist on some cultural margin, some societal periphery.”

In the Dream House is no mere confessional: Machado also widens her aperture to analyze our larger culture. She tackles depictions of queerness and abuse, from Star Trek to Vertigo to Gaslight, investigating the ways in which abusers ensnare and manipulate their targets. And through a plethora of footnotes, which connect moments in Machado’s life to Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, she irreverently considers how tropes manifest in reality. The footnotes are a sort of book-long wink, a running joke with literary roots; they are painfully clever.

Spending time with Machado inside the Dream House can feel uncomfortable, even claustrophobic—this is by design. It’s on us to linger in that discomfort, to feel—even just temporarily—as trapped and forsaken as Machado has. (This is the resurrection that memoir is capable of—not just the resurrection of people and places, but of ephemeral feelings.) Reading her memoir could in a sense destroy you, but it will reconstruct you, too, leaving you better than before you found it.

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‘The Promise’ by Silvina Ocampo: Remembering How to Die

In The Promise (120 pages; City Lights Publishers; translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Powell) the nameless narrator, after falling over the handrail of a transport ship, recollects her life in a disparate series of largely character-based vignettes as she waits to drown or be rescued at sea. As she comes to in the ocean, she promises Saint Rita that in exchange for her life she will commit to publishing a book documenting a “dictionary of memories that are at times shameful, even humiliating.” And so the lone novel by the prolific Argentine author Silvina Ocampo (1903-1993) becomes a brief study of memory, examining how those facing imminent death attempt to plug the holes of their past with the many meaningful scenes—minutiae reimagined, acquaintances revisited, and action relived—that constitute a life lived.

Perhaps what’s most interesting and impressive about Ocampo’s investigation of the mind is just how collective the retelling becomes. Our protagonist does not so much retell the scenes of her life as recount scenes of the lives of others in relation to her, acting more as a voyeur than a direct participant. Even when a potent sensual memory is conjured it is not the narrator’s memory that’s evoked but the imagined memory of another character,:

He caught a whiff of her hair that emanated a dirty brush smell in the heat, like the heads of those people in his childhood kneeling in confessionals, smelling of cheap perfume and powders, of barbershop pomade.

This tactic raises intriguing questions about what is real and what is imagined in one’s mind. Ocampo, whose sister Victoria founded the legendary literary journal Sur and whose husband was Adolfo Bioy Casares, suggests it is not merely the fact of what happened, but rather the reality of a feeling that may or may not have occurred that stamps itself indelibly upon us.

Entire passages, pages even, repeat themselves throughout the book. As Ernesto Montequín states in the introduction, this repetition is by design, and serves to offer additional perspectives or small variants to the narrative, reshaping the narrator’s identity. In short, this tactic demystifies the idea that memory is stable, suggesting its very nature is nebulous.

The protagonist also seems acutely aware of the revisions taking place. A distant unpleasant memory in Palermo is now fondly remembered:

Those times when I felt unhappy now seem so joyful, when my nephews would get their hands so filthy playing with dirt that when we’d return to my sister’s house, instead of taking a bath or going to the movies, I’d have to clean their nails with Carpincho saddle soap…

But while most of the “action” of the novel lies in a fictionalized past, the most intense moments arise when the narrator takes the reader back into the present, into her drowning. Often whole sections and trains of thought are sharply cut off, jolting us out of a reverie such as in this passage that follows a particularly emotional encounter between two characters: 

Poor Irene. She didn’t like the water. Sometimes we would go swimming in the river, but she almost always stayed on the bank. What would she think of the ocean, this ocean that surrounds me! She would have died a thousand times over already. There’s too much water to cry. Wouldn’t my eyes drown?

As The Promise unfolds, we learn this is not a story about an individual’s persistence, but rather the persistence—sometimes to the point of being oppressive—of the memory of an individual. Her “mental journey or itinerary” through her past begins as a way of staying awake to stave off death, but soon morphs into something altogether different. Later, when she appears to finally be ready to accept her fate, her mind rejects the idea entirely. “Dying is the only sure thing. Now I can finally die. But how to do it? It’s as impossible as ever.”

These are the moments that elevate The Promise into a higher echelon of letters; simultaneously, death proves evasive and nostalgia serves as a survival tactic. All the while readers get to witness the wondrous tightrope act Ocampo performs, traipsing back and forth between past and present. It’s soon evident that failures and inconsistencies along the way are not cause for concern, but reason to celebrate the potential of our own memories.

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‘Black Card’ by Chris L. Terry: A Satirical Look at Racial Identity in America

Chris L. Terry’s new satirical and funny novel, Black Card (272 pages; Counterpoint), challenges ideas about race and identity as it follows its unnamed mixed-race narrator as he navigates the complex world of the punk rock scene in the American South, trying to understand where and how he can fit in—or if he can ever fit in. Structured episodically, Terry’s novel manages to address specific and thematically relevant incidents of the narrator’s life minus an overwhelming page count.

“I was finally black again,” the novel begins, in 1997. “I sat on my bed, waiting for proof. Gray smoke oozed under my bedroom door and through the crack where the windowpane met frame.” The novel itself—like its opening line—walks a tightrope of humor and introspection. In Black Card, race is something one can lose or keep, and to obtain it you need an ally not unlike one found in a video game: somebody who tests your knowledge and then hands you a necessary item for the next task. The ally here is Lucius, who, after reviewing the events of the last few months, finds that the protagonist is finally entitled to his Black Card.

“I hereby bestow you with this Black Card. Carry it with you, as proof that you’re one of us, because …” He squinted and started to read from the back of the card, “This card entitles the brotha or sista who bears it to all black privileges, including but not limited to: Use of the n-word, permission to wear flip-flops and socks, extra large bottles of lotion, use of this card as a stand-in for the Big Joker in a spades game, and most important, a healthy and vocal skepticism of white folks aka crackers aka honkies. To be renewed in five years, upon evaluation.”

Five years later, the twenty-something protagonist finds himself crashing with his band at the home of a family that throws around the n-word like confetti at a wedding. This scene serves as the apex of a section of the novel where the narrator has already had his white bandmates ask him asinine questions about black culture, been mistaken for light-skinned famous and non-famous black men, and asked to perform all of the rap songs at karaoke night for the all-white audience. Because the narrator does not say or do anything about any of these indignities, he loses his Black Card.

“This ain’t your first time playing dumb tonight,” said Lucius…“It’s not yours no more. You let those crackers act a fool and didn’t say a damn thing. Your pale, mixed ass just sat there like some sorta white boy. So, that’s what you are. You ain’t black no more.’”

With his Black Card revoked, the narrator sets out to reclaim it. This literal quest allows Terry’s novel to explore the concept of identity, those we choose (like writer or Cross-Fit enthusiast) and those thrust upon us (like those associated with the color of one’s skin).

Eventually, the narrator is liberated from his vexing quest when he realizes there is nothing he needs to do to be black. He is black, and therefore everything he does is black and part of black culture, whether he plays hip-hop or punk rock, or works in a coffee shop or goes to college. “It was black people listening to black music. I was a black person playing black music. My experiences were black, even though they weren’t the ones I’d seen on TV and pieced together from Lucius.”

Black Card’s critical look at racial identity in America sees the cracks in everything and calls out everyone, the narrator included. It’s a brilliant comedy that speaks to what America is right now.

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‘Mickey Rourke and the Bluebird of Happiness: A Poet’s Notebooks’ by W.S. Di Piero: A Literary Time Capsule

The relationship between a writer and their notebook is a strange and sacred one. W.S. Di Piero has been keeping a notebook since he first started writing, and, in the poet’s own words, his notebooks have taken on many roles, including “workshop, interrogation room, [and] monk’s cell.”

In Mickey Rourke and the Bluebird of Happiness: A Poet’s Notebooks (Carnegie Mellon University Press; 88 pages), we are treated to selections from three decades’ worth of De Piero’s notebooks. Through this collection, Di Piero hopes to “craft a shadow self-portrait composed of hopped-up episodes from my mental and emotional life.” The resultant book is a literary time capsule that brims with stray observations and confessions, citations and criticism—an intimate space for Di Piero to “say small things intensely.”

While Di Piero occasionally recounts his daily life (interactions on public transit, meetings with friends, overheard conversations on the street), he more frequently journals about poetry as a practice and form. As a critic and poet, he places poetry in conversation with other art forms, like painting and music, and puts himself in conversation with countless other poets, such as Wordsworth, Yeats, Baudelaire, and Keats. He is also amusingly opinionated about the role of the poet: “I think the poet’s work,” Di Piero writes, “is to tell the struggle, to attempt to reveal the order or our dream of it.” Examining the life of the poet, then, is an act of introspection; when Di Piero writes about “poets,” he is really writing about himself.

Each decade brings new interests. The 2000s, for example, see Di Piero writing often about cityscapes and transit; the 1990s, melancholy and Italy; the 1980s, childhood and Van Gogh.

Fascinations wax and wane throughout the years, but Di Piero’s curiosity remains constant. A sense of place is also continuous throughout Mickey Rourke: each entry is “saturated with wherever I was writing” at the time—indeed, the author brings places like San Francisco, Bologna, and Chicago to life in lovely detail.

Di Piero’s more diaristic writings prove to be some of his most engaging. In the 1990s, he is clearly struggling with depression, or as he calls it, “clinical melancholia.” His meditation on his own bed is one of his notebooks’ most moving entries:

The bed is the best and worst place. It’s the island where you’re safe, if not from the serrated confabulations of your own consciousness, at least from the afflictions the world beyond the bed will, you’re certain, bring you. It’s the worst place because the longer you’re there, the more it loves you, the more it renews its sticky torpor. It’s a safe place to consider killing yourself.

Di Piero often revisits certain ideas, sometimes in nearly identical words. In the 2000s, for example, he quotes Kierkegaard: “The whole of existence frightens me;” and in the 1980s, he recalls William James’ “horrible fear of my own existence.” He also repeats several maxims again and again, like this one about loss: “Writing about loss thrills and energizes because loss is another form of transformation.” It makes one wonder what it is about these repeated phrases that affect Di Piero so intensely. “For this here book,” Di Piero writes in the postscript, “I picked notes having to do with matters I still go round and round and that still lose my sleep.” This raises the question of how much of Di Piero’s journals have been expurgated, and why he’s “picked” certain entries over others.

Unlike other vignette-driven books, like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, the fragments of Mickey Rourke rarely connect with each other, and their order feels insignificant. But in this way, the book channels the true nature of the human mind: disordered and random, riddled with obsessions. “The entries,” Di Piero writes, “are undated floaters—that’s how they come into and live in my consciousness.”

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The Common Reader’s ‘James Baldwin & American Democracy’: Another Country, Another Time

The Common Reader James Baldwin issueNobody knows his name.

The literary and political legacy of James Baldwin is going through a revival through works like Raoul Peck’s Academy Award-nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, and director Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk.

Add to this, the newest issue of The Common Reader: A Journal of the Essay, published by Washington University in St. Louis, and its eleven essays that further explore the lasting work and meaning of the author.

High points of the issue, titled James Baldwin & American Democracy, include Cecil Brown’s piece, “With James Baldwin at the Welcome Table,’’ in which Brown recalls his days as a young novelist hanging out with “Jimmy’’ in Paris and at his St. Paul de Vence home in the south of France.

According to his biographer, David Leeming, Baldwin, then under attack from more militant—and heterosexual—activists and writers like Eldridge Cleaver and Ishmael Reed, was “so used to the crisis of the younger black writers that during his first meeting with Brown he said, ‘I thought you would hate me.’”

But the younger writer paints a portrait of a generous host, welcoming everyone from Miles Davis, Nina Simone, James Jones, and William Styron to the local mailman and village doctor, who became a drinking buddy, as he forged a writing life away from the parallel pressures of American racism and the pressures of being a representative of “black identity.’’

Gerald Early’s essay, “Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation: James Baldwin, Bessie Smith and the Power of the Essay,’’ recalls the shock of recognition he felt growing up in Philadelphia when he first read Nobody Knows My Name and found a kindred spirit separate from other works of art being held up as iconic. (He later wrote an essay called “The Color Purple as Everybody’s Protest Art’’ that paid homage to Baldwin’s critique of Richard Wright.)

He compares Baldwin’s belated appreciation of Bessie Smith to LeRoi Jones’ play Dutchman, in which a black middle-class character trying to seduce a white woman on the subway offers a final speech: “[Whites] say, ‘I love Bessie Smith.’ And don’t even understand that Bessie Smith is saying, ‘Kiss my ass, kiss my black unruly ass.’”

And he locates Baldwin’s vision, and importance, outside contemporary standards of wokeness, category, or sexual preference: “There was always this sense of doubt about one’s racial identity in Baldwin, a sense that, after all, one can be, in spite of it all, a stranger to one’s own people, hopelessly so, or that maybe one might want to be a stranger to one’s own people.’’

Some of the other essays here are less successful, lapsing into an academic speak to which Baldwin would probably lift an amused eyebrow, but circling back to the complex love-hate relationship the author had to the American experiment.

William J. Maxwell’s “Teaching Baldwin Teaching: Three Class Notes’’ recounts his experience dealing with his “most influential student’’—a young woman who had spent the previous months on the front lines of the Ferguson protests—who vocally applied today’s standards of acceptable writing about gay identity to works like Giovanni’s Room, which she saw as internalized homophobia—“and I thought, under my breath, that she was not entirely wrong about that.”

Maxwell, a professor of English and African-American History at Washington University, takes in the critique, and recognizes that “there may be nothing more poignantly and gallingly estranging than a dearly departed exemplar who on second glance almost—but not quite—flatters the mood of the present.” Life is complex. Or in Baldwin’s words: “just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world.’’

Reading the various essays (and it is good to have them, even if many lack the first-hand verisimilitude of Brown and Early’s work) I’m reminded of an exchange between Dexter Gordon and Baldwin that Maxine Gordon, the widow of the great tenor saxophonist (and author of Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legend of Dexter Gordon) related at a recent Monterey Jazz Festival panel moderated by Angela Davis.

“They ran into each other at a party,’’ she said, “and Jimmy called out, ‘Hey Dexter, I keep reading that we’re expatriates. I thought we were just living in Europe.’’’

You can’t go home again, but you can’t leave it, either.

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‘The Painted Forest’ by Krista Eastman: Thoroughly Acquainted with the World

Krista Eastman nonfiction The Painted ForestKrista Eastman had been living away from her native Wisconsin for many years when she began writing her essay collection, The Painted Forest (144 pages; West Virginia University Press), and it was during this time that she began to consider the meaning of home. Once she left the small, working-class town in which she was raised, she told Poets & Writers, she found she often “had to explain myself and my home to others, putting a complicated place onto maps where previously there’d been nothing at all.” That’s when she “became interested in the role of telling about a place, in talking back from the periphery.”

Eastman began asking herself what it means to be from Wisconsin, from the Midwest, or from any place at all. And what does it mean to leave one’s home, or to return? Though the nine essays of her book, she attempts to find answers, tapping into geography, history, and myth-making to do so, all while seeking out the least known corners of the country.

In the first essay, “Insider’s Almanac,” Eastman considers how we define being from a place and what distinctions exist within that sense of belonging. “Who is the more thoroughly acquainted with the world in which he lives?” she asks. “Whosoever can produce the most detail.” The Painted Forest proves Eastman to be thoroughly acquainted with the world in which she lives; insatiably curious, she renders people and places in exquisite, elaborate detail.

Reading her extraordinary descriptions, it’s clear Eastman writes not just to inform her reader, but also to make sense of her surroundings, to create meaning and narrative where there previously may have been none. The opening lines of the prologue, “Scrap Metal,” in which she recalls driving through her hometown as a child, display Eastman’s gift for immersive narration:

This tubby steel machine, this 1978 Chevy Malibu station wagon, careens a large family forward, makes tinny the sound of our quarrels and questions while highway approaches and then unfurls behind, approaches and then unfurls. It is from this wagon that we view the sculptures, the scrap metal forms welded at weird angles onto themselves, forms that groan at ground in the way of all heavy equipment, but forms whose slanted reaches skyward warp and mock the object of industry.

Most of the collection’s essays deal in hyper-specificity, focusing on little known locations and hidden stories. Eastman is drawn to eccentricity and complexity, and she revels in the act of uncovering. “My writing,” she told Booktimist, “[has] a tendency toward putting off-the-map oddities at the center of the universe.” She actively constructs her own universe by uncovering obscure histories and geographies, and letting in light.

Mostly, she attempts to play with our ideas of regionality and universality, challenging notions about which corners of America—and the world—are worthy of exploration. “The Midwest,” writes Eastman, “like many of the earth’s places, tilts toward under-imagined and overly caricatured, that it might not be a definite place at all.” This is one of the collection’s most important considerations. While Eastman spends much of the collection considering physical space—natural wonders, art objects, landmarks—she also delves into the psychological space each region occupies. The Midwest and many other places, she argues, are less defined by their geographic boundaries as much as their cultural and mythical ones.

The best essays in The Painted Forest are the most personal ones. Ultimately, it’s when Eastman taps into her own experiences that we are treated to the most moving moments of the collection. Take this reflective aside from the titular essay, in which Eastman returns to her hometown:

Born here, from this place, I knew how to move across the land, how to be raised up for the purpose of letting go, to be lifted and lowered, gathered and then released: to roll down and then to work my way up again, to the top of the ridge, to the modest view of more hills, to the shortest glimpse of eternity.

Sometimes The Painted Forest gets bogged down by its most distinctive features—Eastman’s descriptions and specificity. The florid language and narrow focus in excess can grow tiresome. Regardless, The Painted Forest remains an intricate portrait of place and belonging. Eastman is making an offering to us; she is sharing something special, a part of herself. “One way to share your home,” she writes, “is to place it carefully, in a controlled way, onto someone else’s map.” That is just what she’s done—and for that, we should be grateful.

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‘Blackfishing the IUD’ by Caren Beilin: Inflaming Technologies

Caren Beilin nonfiction Blackfishing the IUDJust over halfway through Caren Beilin’s newest book, Blackfishing the IUD (165 pages; Wolfman Books), she states the simple truth that we have already learned, have already felt and suffered with, over the course of our engagement with this work: “Reading is ruining my life.”

Recounting her own experience with medical gaslighting, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the copper intrauterine device (IUD), and what it means to have metal—a toxic thing, an inflaming thing—placed in the uterus, Beilin’s text is part critique, part personal essay, and part platform for the stories, worries, angers, and generous advice of other affected women. Her voice is unique, but her story necessarily isn’t; it’s a facet of this memoir which makes it both highly particular and eerily resonant. At times, Beilin’s work reads as a manifesto, at others, a poem. But always, as a plea: “…what is copper combined with woman?” she asks. “What does the IUD do when it is not doing that sentence? The womb is wet. It rusts.”

Reading this book will ruin your life. Not because the information will be new to many of us, but because it takes things women have known for some time, that they have felt burning in their abdomens and fuming in their blood, and grants them transfiguration. The relegated-fiction of online forums, systemically dismissed internal nervousness, visible and invisible pains—all of these things and the copper trail which follows them are reinstituted as meaningful. Here, meaningful means allowed to hold something. To contain truth, and to mandate that these truths, in these forms, be accepted as legible. Copper becomes a readable subject, as does the woman’s body, and the woman’s voice, emanating from that same entity which we must learn to trust. These things have always been trying to talk with us. Blackfishing demands that we listen, and that we say something back, even (or perhaps, especially) if it is just, I believe you.

This project is life-ruining in the sense that things must sometimes be shredded to be understood. Beilin takes her subject to its extent: her descriptions of pain—the pain brought on by her copper IUD and subsequent RA, the emotional pain of navigating the medical world—and the routine dismissal of that pain, are almost impossible to sit through without, at the very least, a break, or, more severely, intermittent panic attacks. Breakdowns at the thought of the birth control in one’s own body, and what it might be doing when it doesn’t perform “that sentence,” the sentence of Planned Parenthood and other providers, the phrases and gestures which market the IUD not just as healthcare but as a political proclamation. “Now we are awesome cyborgian women, feminists with metal we enjoy in our womb.” Blackfishing isn’t a testimony against birth control, nor against the right of all people to access it. But it does throw necessary skepticism at the way reproductive healthcare institutions wield the concept of choice. Choice is important, necessary. But perhaps the choices we have are very, very bad. Are inflamed.

Beilin, whose past works include Spain and The University of Pennsylvania, employs tactfully constructed prose, as beautiful to read as it is horrible—and overwhelming—to sit with. It incites anxiety, but also, invites community. To read this book is to never be alone, to find things funny as well as terrifying and to, at last, situate invalidated fears in a legitimizing network of corroboration.

Blackfishing the IUD is a little book from a little press (the wonderful Oakland-based Wolfman Books). A podcast series will accompany its release, as if its own smallness can acknowledge itself. The effect of reading Blackfishing is unfathomably vast, but like any well-executed critical project, it does not pretend to be an end, an answer, or enough.

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‘The Tradition’ by Jericho Brown: Bursts of Ecstasy and Longing

Jericho Brown The TraditionTo some extent, every poet creates a persona. Think of Berryman’s Henry, for example. But Jericho Brown has done so more fully and convincingly than most. Born Nelson Dimery III, he answered to the name Jericho in a dream. In that dream the name allowed him go through a door. He later learned that the loose translation of the name is “defense,” and he discarded his birth name and became the unmistakably singular poet Jericho Brown. In the same way, he has transformed his evangelical fundamentalist upbringing into spirituality, physicality, and song.

This transformation is showcased in his latest book, The Tradition (110 pages; Copper Canyon Press), recently selected for the National Book Award Long List. Brown’s voice is nuanced, proud, and profound. His work has an offbeat formality, a love of rhyme and blues. It proclaims its own construction, as in the poem “After Avery R. Young”:

The more you look like me the more we
Agree. Sometimes you is everybody.

The blk mind is a continuous
Mind. There is a we. I am among them…The blk mind
Is a continuous mind. I am not a narrative
Form, but dammit if I don’t tell a story.

The poem ends:

Blk rage. Blk city of the soul
In a very cold town. Blk ice is ice you can’t see.

This little punch at the end occurs in many of Brown’s poems. They praise, they explicate, they beseech and beguile, but they won’t let you be. The book is a varied texture of canny observation, the political, and fierce, incantatory praise. The love poems are especially strong:

All that touching, or

Barely touching, not
Saying much, not adding

Anything. The cushion
Of it, the skin and
Occasional sigh, all
Seemed like something worth
Mastering.

So skillful, and the word choice of “mastering” leads to the next, surprising passage:

…I’m sure
Somebody died while
We made love. Some-
Body killed somebody
Black.

Brown himself has said, “Every love poem is political. Every political poem must fall in love.” And this poem turns next into something more complex, more unknowable, while the reader follows, led by rhyme, by line break, by image, to a tender, unexpected conclusion—a virtuoso performance in a short love poem that encompasses so much.

Sometimes, reading this book, the bursts of ecstasy and longing remind me of Christopher Smart; sometimes they remind me of no one but the poet himself, loving, longing and twisting in his being. The presence of the poet is inescapable, even for himself, as in the wonderful poem “Dark”:

I am sick of your sadness,
Jericho Brown, your blackness,
Your books. Sick of you
Laying me down
So I forget how sick
I am. I’m sick of your good looks,
Your debates, your concern, your
Determination to keep your butt
Plump, the little money you earn…
…I’m sick

Of your hurting. I see that
You’re blue. You may be ugly,
But that ain’t new.
Everyone you know is
Just as cracked. Everyone you love is
As dark, or at least as black.

As every love poem is a political poem, the poems in The Tradition hammer home a message: We are imprisoned in our history, and there is a lot of wreckage—the compound debris of old wrongs, of perception, of the body—to clean up:

… I can’t
Blur your view
Of the pansies you’ve planted
Outside the window, meaning
I can’t kill the pansies, but I want
To do the killing. I want you
To heed that I’m still here
Just beneath your skin and in
Each organ
The way anger dwells in a man
Who studies the history of his nation.

This vision of an inescapably fraught context (as with “mastering,” the choice of pansies as the flower here is anything but accidental) permeates the book:

Like the viral geography of an occupied territory,
A region I imagine you imagine when you see
A white woman walking with a speck like me.

*          *          *

…Gratitude is black—
Black as a hero returning from war to a country that banked on his death.
Thank God it can’t get much darker than that.

The strength of his work is enhanced by Brown’s deftness with rhyme, by how well he uses it to underscore those punches. This is nowhere more evident in his dramatic reinvention of the sonnet that he calls the Duplex. These fourteen-line poems are couplets made from cut lines of old poems of nine or eleven syllables. (You can read Brown’s essay on the form https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2019/04/invention.) But briefly, the lines form an intricate rhyming, echoing pattern, each one building on or twisting the line before, with the first and last lines the same or nearly the same. My favorite of these appears on the back of the book, and like all of them it’s titled simply “Duplex.” The first and last couplets give you a sense of the form:

I begin with love, hoping to end there.
I don’t want to leave a messy corpse.

…In the dream where I am an island,
I grow green with hope, I’d like to end there.

And I’d like to end here, too, by saying The Tradition has a lot to say, and says it in a unique and powerful voice.

Jericho Brown will be reading at 12:10 p.m. on Thursday, October 3, as part of the Lunch Poem series at the Morrison Library in Doe Library at UC Berkeley. Admission is free. Brown will be reading later that day at 7 p.m. at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco, sponsored by the Marin Poetry Center.

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‘Hard Mouth’ by Amanda Goldblatt: What Grief Can Do

Amanda Goldblatt novel Hard MouthWhen Denny, the twenty-something narrator of Amanda Goldblatt’s first novel, Hard Mouth (242 pages; Counterpoint Press), flees Washington, D.C., for a mountain cabin to avoid witnessing her father’s final cancer-ridden days, the reader hesitates to judge; after all, who’s to say we wouldn’t do the same in Denny’s place? We all grieve in our distinct ways, and in that regard Denny’s choice seems as sound as her father’s to reject treatment for his third round of cancer. After ten years of watching her father slowly decline, she realizes, “I needed an out…I did not yet understand that courage was unrequired in making such a decision. Only a dynamic cycle of folly, and an inability to break same.”

Although Denny tells no one about the cabin, she does not leave the city alone: sporadically making himself known is her invisible friend, Gene, a sort of vaudeville comedian with a long string of ex-wives and a habit of making his opinions known. Denny realizes her imaginary companion is just that, but, unable to connect with her co-workers and on edge from the stress at parents’ house, she finds Gene’s boisterous presence a welcome counter to her isolated existence. “I know: Gene was there and not,” she shares. “Like faith, or air. I only believe in one of these things, but—he was a modern convenience, a thing that you could use unthinking, on most days.”

Despite her impulse to flee from the dreariness of urban life—the rude passengers on the subway, the stifling crowds and empty chatter during happy hour—Denny would scarcely classify herself an outdoorswoman. “I am not a naturalist. I only wanted to leave,” she states. “…this wilderness walking was just an unremarkable commute. There was a greenish vestibule, a gray and gray and brown vestibule. I moved through this landscape like a mall-walker in poor condition.”

Still, a desire to leave the world behind does not alone mean one is equipped to survive in the wild, and much of the tension and excitement in Hard Mouth comes from watching Denny—in many ways, an average millennial—fend for herself against the unexpected developments that arise: sudden rainstorms, hostile animals, and the arrival of a suspicious guest named Haw. Even as Denny forms an attachment to an injured cat she calls Thingy, and less so to the potentially dangerous Haw, there remains at the back of her mind the notion that, in many ways, her sojourn to the middle of nowhere has been a death wish. “I wanted to be dined upon by some animals,” she admits. “What better penance could I offer to the world?”

Hard Mouth recasts the traditional adventure novel as an intense psychological portrait of contemporary malaise. Unlike so much writing about nature, the book remains decidedly unromantic. For whether she’s stranded in the depths of a mountain cave or yelling at a man-spreader back on the subway, Denny’s first task is to contend with herself. The narrator’s troubled mind is laid bare on every page through Goldblatt’s unflinching gaze—there’s little glamorous about Denny by the time her journey leaves her half-naked and caked in mud, but she is vividly real. And the pain of witnessing a loved one’s slow degradation is rendered excruciating enough for us to believe Denny would prefer the physical hardships of repairing a torn roof or scaling a watchtower in a rainstorm over having to say good-bye to her father. Grief can do that.

But Denny finds “the secret was that no matter what I did, I was alive,” and life is waiting for her on the other side of her mountain excursion. Along the way, she might be shaped for the better through tending to the wounded Thingy, letting go of the phantom Gene, and confronting Haw. For Denny, her journey is brutal but rewarding. For readers, though, Hard Mouth is all reward.

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