Review of FOLLOW ME TO GROUND by Sue Rainsford

by Helen Patterson

If you’re looking for a new Halloween read, consider Irish writer Sue Rainsford’s debut novel, Follow Me to Ground, winner of the 2019 Kate O’Brien award. Follow Me to Ground is the strangest and most unsettling book I’ve read this year, and Rainsford’s precise, descriptive prose will haunt you long after you’ve finished it.

Follow Me to Ground has the timeless, dreamlike quality of a fairytale. In this fairytale world, our narrator, Ada, is a supernatural creature living on the fringes of human society. She is uncanny, powerful, and, from a human perspective, almost unchanging.  

Ada wasn’t born; she was made by her father (who was himself made by his father) from branches and other natural elements. Ada and her father are healers who live apart from the human villagers, whom they call “Cures.” Whenever Cures are ill, they visit Ada and her father, who can put them into a kind of stasis, open them up, and cut out most kinds of sickness. Severely ill Cures are put into stasis and buried alive in The Ground, a hallowed space in Ada’s garden that can mend those buried there. Most Cures emerge from The Ground days later completely well, but, as Ada learns, The Ground is also dangerous and unpredictable. 

In many ways, Follow Me to Ground is a coming-of-age-story. As Ada becomes more aware of her otherness and how uncanny her existence is from a human perspective, she feels that something is missing from her life. She develops feelings for a Cure named Samson and starts sleeping with him. Ada understands, like the creature-wives in many other fairytales, that she and Samson cannot be together because they’re not the same. And yet she can’t help herself because her feelings for Samson are hers, and they help her begin to individuate herself: “Foolish to fall in line with a Cure’s girlhood and imagine such feelings belonged to me. But I had been living a muted kind of life, and I had gone all this time without meeting someone who’d fall asleep, of their own accord, beside me” (93).

Unfortunately for Ada, she discovers she has powers and desires her father lacks–this realization paired with her determination to assert herself as an individual has potentially grave consequences.

Follow Me to Ground is told almost entirely from Ada’s perspective, but her narration is interrupted by brief passages about “Miss Ada” from the villagers’ perspectives. Though I initially found these passages jarring, I think they help to emphasize Ada’s strangeness by offering other points of view and opinions about her life. Rainsford’s lush yet concise prose gives Ada a compelling voice as narrator, though; there isn’t a single extraneous word or phrase. The reader gets tantalizing, vivid glimpses of Ada’s world and inner life, and yet there’s still an air of mystery as Ada and the reader both struggle to discover who she’s becoming. 

Some of Rainsford’s most successful passages are about Ada’s interactions with the Cure bodies she heals. These passages are lyrical but unsettling, and in some places they read almost like body horror. When Ada opens up a Cure woman named Lorraine to relieve her menopause symptoms, she describes the process: “The skin of her stomach fell easily apart, its elastic long gone. The ovaries were all sinewy and very small, lined with the deep grooves of a peach stone, and her womb shone with an unseemly wet” (125). Ada’s hyperawareness of bodies and how they work and her growing awareness of her own body are at the beating heart of this fascinating novel.

If you like eerie books that linger after you’ve read them, I recommend Follow Me to Ground. And ifyou enjoy this book as much as I did, Rainsford has a second novel, Redder Days, coming out in March of 2021. I’m planning on purchasing it from one of my local bookstores.

Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.

Follow Me to Ground
Sue Rainsford
Scribner, January 2020 (Originally published 2019, New Island Books, Ireland)
Hardcover, 199 pages, $25

On the Wings of Whispers: A Review of Gail Hosking’s RETRIEVAL

Gail Hosking’s newest book–Retrieval–is, as she says in one of the poems, “a requiem that refuses to end.” Told by an editor that Viet Nam is passé, Hosking refused to be silent, ultimately producing this bloody rose of a book, fragrant with gunpowder and grief, thorny with loss and love. In its pages, the victims of ViệtNam’s war, the dead and the surviving alike, take shape and speak, to each other…to her.

It isn’t only the men of the war who speak. Hosking will remind us more than once that women too suffered from this forgotten war. One of my favorite poems, “Madame Thi Speaks,” articulates the lonely grieving of “young sincere girl,” who in her loss of her “Dear Lover” burns “paper objects,” burns them in a fire for his “afterlife.” She who is “invisible/in books…never forget[s].” And through Hosking’s meticulously detailed collection, we remember, as well.

This was, for me–a long-ago resident of old Saigon, daughter of one of the early, infamous “police advisors” to ViệtNam–a poignant book to read and review. By today’s standards, the ViệtNam war is an old conflict. So much has happened since Johnson and Nixon poured millions of dollars into a country not even half the size of Texas. Panama, the Gulf War, Kosovo, Bosnia…9/11, Afghanistan, the Iraq War…Syria. A pandemic.

But war was, is, and will probably continue to be an everyday part of American life. And despite the time since the ViệtNam conflict, Hosking’s poems resonate like newly struck bells, ringing clear and true 50 years later. The poem “He Says War Again” underscores the ubiquity of armed conflict: “Soon helicopters will again/swoop up the wounded and dead, tracers/and bombs, machine guns and bodies–/you’ve seen it in the movies–another battle/never completely resolved.” It could be any of a dozen American “engagements,” peopled by the ghosts Hosking evokes so vividly, the ghosts who “guard the breeze.”

In another poem–“On the Bus to Da Nang”–Hosking contrasts a former soldier (a fellow traveler on her pilgrimage to ViệtNam) with “a woman older/ than [the] memory” of Hosking’s old childhood forts, which mirror, in turn, the bombed-out foundation of an old American military building: “her clothes the same/black pajamas my father wore sitting on the floor/in southern Illinois.” Deft juxtapositions of now with then echo Hosking’s own swings between times and places. “Split Frame” pairs her uncle putting on his coat for work, and his drive with Hosking to the train station, with “a frame of tiger-striped soldiers waiting/on the runway, their rucksacks and weapons/ready for the long flight ahead.” There is an inevitability to her poems that is as final as the loss of her father. Or the ongoing nature of war.

Yesterday’s ideological divisions, outlined in various poems, predict today’s similar polarities: “The factions/of a nation alive, rendered from each other/like fat from soup. Everywhere I look/the world divided, a double feature showing/simultaneously in the same theater.” Shades of most social media these days, not to mention family arguments. Hosking’s keen insistence that ALL wars matter, that the soundtrack Marvin Gaye lays down for the ViệtNam War era remains evocative (and relevant) decades later, underscores the various conflicts of our own troubled times.  Her poem “What’s Going On?” links her mother’s wait for a husband who will never return to the burning of Detroit to the griefs of so many families shattered by loss, even now. All scored to Marvin Gaye’s timeless lyrics and melodies.

As a scholar of war literature–often focusing on the too-ignored poetry coming out of the ViệtNam conflict–I have bemoaned the dearth of poetry by women, who were also victims of that bloody mess. Not only the dead–almost 11,000 ViệtNamese women, or the almost 10,000 American women who wore uniforms–but also the wives of the lost, the MIA, the maimed, the PTSD sufferers. The women who grew up without fathers, the mothers whose sons never returned. More than 58,000 American men died or were “lost”–MIA–in ViệtNam. Each one was (and often still is, as Hosking helps us remember) a loss to those who knew and loved him. What Hosking’s beautifully tragic, tragically horrific postmortem of her own anguish reveals is the visceral engagement of women with war, on all its levels.

Despite her disinterment of bodies, her eviscerating griefs, her bitter anger and hard-edged memories, Hosking retains absolute control of each line, each stanza. One of the (many) elegantly crafted poems in Retrieval is the pantoum “Situated at the Limen,” my very favorite of her collection. It’s not as transparent as other poems in the book, nor is it as overtly war-based. And yet, close rereading reveals the “silence of emptiness,” the “treasure” left behind…where? The repetition of “emptiness” in half the eight stanzas, with “disappearing” also repeated, and the culminating image of “everything known/becomes everything lost, nothing imagined before,” leaves us–like Hosking–a resident of a liminal space, existing in the “narrow place” of waiting, waiting for transformation.

Full disclosure: I am slightly obsessed with war, having grown up in a war zone, having lived in war zones. As the daughter of a lifer veteran, the sister of another, and the wife of a Marine deployed to the DMZ around the Tết offensive, war is part of my life. So I may be predisposed to love Hosking’s book.

But that’s not the only–or even the largest reason–I find it so compelling. Hosking leaves us, at the close of her book, with a grace note of a lyric poem, “Sometimes.” In it, she lists the ways in which love manifests: “like a wind I can barely hear”; “in the form of milk gravy on my toast”; the gift of a typewriter sent by my father/from a navy ship in the middle of the South China Sea”; “a prayer I offer/my sons as they grow into men.” And sometimes, she leaves us thinking, “love is the surprise of my mother’s whispers/long after she’s gone: fly, Honey, fly.

On the wings of Hosking’s requiem, sung sometimes in whispers, we do just that.

Gail Hosking was born on an army base and spent her childhood as a military brat. Her award-winning essays and poems have appeared in numerous journals, and several of her pieces have been anthologized. She also has a memoir and a chapbook. She lives in Rochester, New York.

Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in NimrodSpoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.

Retrieval, by Gail Hosking. Charlotte, NC: Main Street Rag, 2020.

Unsung, Part 2: Thomas James and Letters to a Stranger

by Colin Pope

Letters to a Stranger
Thomas James
Graywolf Press, 2008 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1973)
Paperback, 108 pages ($16)

Most anyone who’s engaged me in a conversation about lyric poetry has endured my screeds on Thomas James. I’ve written about him on this very website before. I will continue to write about him after this blog posts, and I’ll continue to recommend him to anyone who’ll listen. He’s underappreciated and stop-you-in-your-tracks phenomenal. The people who find him tend toward rabid fandom.

Perhaps this fervency has something to do with the stories behind Letters to a Stranger, his first and only collection. In the reissued book—part of Graywolf’s flagging “Re/View” series, which publishes forgotten books of exceptional merit—Lucie Brock-Broido provides an introduction that does some justice to the mythos surrounding the manuscript. Her version echoes one I heard in grad school from one of my professors. Upon publication, the book was largely ignored; it received a single negative review and went out of print after the first run. Then, for the next 35 years, the book existed solely as a re-Xeroxed artifact passed around between creative writing teachers, grad students, and poets lucky enough to know someone. It was nearly impossible to find a physical copy; Brock-Broido writes of searching for four years before stealing a copy from a library in Pittsburgh. Later in life, she contacted a friend at Houghton Mifflin to find out more about the book’s provenance. Beyond a record of a literary agent in Illinois recommending the manuscript, there’s nothing. No editor is named, no pathway to publication, no notes on ordering or editorial suggestions. It is as though the book appeared out of thin air and evaporated just as quickly.

The story of James himself is similarly mysterious. Born Thomas Bojeski in 1946, he grew up in a tiny house in Joliet, Illinois, with his parents and five other relatives. James came from a working-class family and was raised poor, eventually working as a night watchman in the same factory where his father was a security guard. Both his parents died within ten days of each other in 1972. Not even two years later James placed a .45-caliber gun to his temple and pulled the trigger; like Sylvia Plath—his largest and most obvious influence—James died at age twenty-seven. But the evidence for his suicide is a bit muddy. As Brock-Broido writes, “No one in the family believes that Thomas killed himself.” Though he was right-handed, the gunshot wound was on the left side of his head. He was also found lying in bed, which, to surviving family members, seemed a strange place for him to shoot himself.

The oddity of the book’s background, however, means very little next to the power of the text itself. In some ways, its survival represents a grand reprieve for the legacy of Plath’s Ariel. One of the first, stupidest criticisms of Plath’s work went something like, “She wouldn’t have been remembered if she hadn’t killed herself.” And yet James took his own life (maybe) and his book survives on its own obvious merits. What I mean is that, since the age of the printing press, such soulful, haunting poetry always seems to find its way into the collective memory. Just as Neruda’s work spanned continents and languages, so was James’s work destined to span time.

And, not unlike Neruda, one of James’s talents is the ability to relabel or remake for his own poetic purposes. I’m thinking here of Neruda’s Odes to Common Things, a book that contains poems dedicated to and about the poet’s socks, the spoon, soap, the gillyflower, the tomato. James performs from a similarly taxonomic impulse, though his poems frequently consider people and processes rather than objects: “Waking Up,” “Old Woman Cleaning Silver,” “The Bellringer,” “Frog,” “Dragging the Lake,” “Dissecting a Pig,” “Wild Cherries,” “Cold August.” Plath shares this approach, to an extent. But whereas Plath skews toward the familial, domestic, and deathly, James tends toward the ghostly, the haunted, and the undead. In the lone review Letters received, the reviewer attempted a putdown by claiming James a “pale Plath.” This seems, in hindsight, an apt description if we think of James not as an imitator but a gothic, ink-and-quill-by-candlelight poet of his own methods and preoccupations, inspired by Plath the same way H. P. Lovecraft was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. Like Plath, but paler, more grotesque, more averse to the light.

Most of my favorite poems in the collection revolve around death—James writes about death with startling clarity of mind and stark revelation. Take the poem “Snakebite,” which begins:

Now I am getting light as cotton candy—
Out of two red holes in my heel
Infinity pours, goodbye to all of me.
It was pleasant to watch my leg begin to swell;
An incredible headiness washed over me,
I didn’t feel a thing. The color of a bluebottle,

 The sky hit my skin like water from a pitcher.

What I’m struck by is the precision of the language as set against a seemingly imprecise, chaotic situation. The victim here appears either already placidly unconscious or accepting enough of their death to study it as a phenomenon occurring to the body, separate from the mind. When I say haunting in relation to his work, this is what I mean: there’s a clinical separation between mind and body that is at once frightening and beautiful. I feel connected to the mind that imagines this death in a way that makes me scared of myself, for myself. For example, while I’ve never witnessed a snakebitten person dying, I somehow know they’d turn “the color of a bluebottle.”

Similarly, James’s most famous poem, “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh,” enacts the persona of a dead young woman witnessing her own mummification. It is grotesque, but grotesque in the same way we find true crime grotesque, in the way we’re fascinated by murder stories and medieval torture devices. After an opening stanza wondering about the world she’s lost—“Is it still there, that place of mottled shadow, / The scarlet flowers breathing in the darkness?”—the woman gives the reader a glimpse into the process by which her own body is being preserved. “They washed my heart and liver in palm wine,” she says. “My brain was next.”

My eyes were empty, so they filled them up,
Inserting little nuggets of obsidian.
A basalt scarab wedged between my breasts
Replaced the tinny music of my heart.

The narrator, at first hesitant, nervous about what she’s lost, appears now to be enjoying the process. Whereas the eyes and heart are temporary—“empty” and “tinny”—the objects replacing them seem eternal, lasting, made of obsidian and basalt. The next line: “Hands touched my sutures. I was so important!” The poem’s ability to imagine this dying as a pleasant violence speaks to James’s own seeking for comprehension of death. Aren’t we made “important” by death? Don’t we lie still in death as people attend to us, as though we’re royalty? And, perhaps his biggest question: why be alive when death gives you importance and eternity?

By contrast, Plath seems to me most concerned with what death means for her, alone. She wants to throw it in the face of her parents and the society they represent. James, on the other hand, appears to want to examine the very nature of death and what it means to be human and have knowledge of your own mortality. This is not to say Plath’s work doesn’t contain this question as well; rather, James makes this one of his central focuses. In doing so, his poems attain a singular voice that, in a surreal, unbelievable way, enact the very seeking toward which they strive: what does it mean to be mortal in a universe that privileges the immortal? This second-to-last stanza of “Mummy of a Lady” seems to address the question; think of the story of James’s work making it back into print, into my (and hopefully your) hands, and how this seems to demonstrate the power to which great poetry aspires:

 Shut in my painted box, I am a precious object.
I wear a wooden mask. These are my eyelids,
Two flakes of bronze, and here is my new mouth,
Chiseled with care, guarding its ruby facets.
I will last forever. I am not impatient—
My skin will wait to greet its old complexions.
I’ll lie here till the world swims back again.

Colin Pope‘s debut poetry collection, Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral, is forthcoming in May from Tolsun Books. His poetry, essays, and criticism have appeared in such journals as Slate, Rattle, Ninth Letter, The Los Angeles Review, Best New Poets, and others. He holds an M.F.A. from Texas State University and a Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University.

 

Staying with Your Authentic Emotions

by Courtney Spohn

On June 24, 2020, I listened to Sarah Jane Abbott, a children’s and middle-grade editor, during one of the Highlight Foundation’s Writer Chats. Abbott said her publishing house is looking to publish happy stories now because, as moderator Sarah Aronson said, “we all want to be happy right now.” I heard this and wondered what types of books I’ll read to my young son a couple of years from now. Are we going to miss the emotional import of this moment because we’re looking for happy stories? As a poetry editor, I want to read happy poems only if they are genuinely happy poems. I want to read sad poems, grief-filled poems, angry poems, love poems, hopeful poems only if they are genuinely sad, grief-filled, angry, full of love, hopeful. I want to encourage all poets to feel the emotions they’re actually feeling and write their poetry accordingly.

Please “go there” when you feel safe enough to do so. I’ve read quite a few poems recounting difficult, even traumatic, events that seem to be autobiographical, and I’m stopped when a writer relies on the experience to speak for itself or when the writer wants to put a lesson or moral on it before the experience feels ready to be packaged in such a way. Conflicting advice that I’ve given and read is to “show, don’t tell.” When I’m reading about a difficult event, I want to know what meaning the writer finds in it. When we’re looking at a personal experience in a poem, I want to hear more than the details of the event. I want to hear how the writer feels. And how does the writer see it now? These are not questions that need to be answered literally. I want to hear clues about how a writer put their hand to paper after something damaging happened to them. How did you do that? And why? Again, these are not literal questions looking for literal answers. Tell me through emotions—I believe this is how we understand each other.

I also believe we skip over a few emotional steps when we try to package our experience in a way that makes it look culturally acceptable—we can look virtuous, for example, if we say we learned a lesson or deepened a value, like forgiveness. Yet our experiences, and where we’re at with them, may not honestly be leading us toward cultural acceptability. Many of us feel the tension between saying what we mean while wanting to feel a sense of belonging in a community. So we observe the community’s rules and may hide the parts of ourselves so that we can hold on to the sense of belonging. I encourage writers to write what they really mean—to express how they really feel. Tell us about the conflicting emotions or the emotions that many people (I like calling those people “idiots”) tell us are “too much.” Tell the truth about where you are and see what happens in your writing.

I share this to encourage writers during hard times—when that battle between being true to themselves or their community feels like an all-or-nothing proposition. Many of us understand a wide range and depth of feeling and have the capacity for all kinds of stories, not just the happy ones. Please trust your authentic voice and, when it feels right, please share this voice. Our authenticity helps develop our sense of connection.

Courtney Spohn lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she has participated in various poetry readings. With Sheila e. Black, she has a poem published in Otoliths. She is a life coach and blogger at courtneyspohn.com.

Nimrod Literary Awards Results: 2020

The editors of Nimrod International Journal are delighted to announce the winners, honorable mentions, finalists, and semi-finalists of the 42nd Nimrod Literary Awards.

Nimrod Literary Awards: The Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry

FIRST PRIZE: Rebecca Foust, CA, “Blackout” and other poems
SECOND PRIZE: Janine Certo, MI, “Home Altar in the Year of a Pandemic” and other poems

HONORABLE MENTIONS:
A.D. Lauren-Abunassar, PA, “Victim Impact Statement” and other poems
Richard Michelson, MA, “A Horse-Cure” and other poems

Nimrod Literary Awards: The Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction

FIRST PRIZE: Mohit Manohar, DC, “This Has Not Been Enough”
SECOND PRIZE: Gage Saylor, OK, “Jailbird”

HONORABLE MENTIONS:
Carol Dines, MN, “Grace’s Mask”
Hayley Lynch, KY, “The Tremendous Machine”
Grace Newman, NY, “Initial Consultations”

Nimrod extends deep appreciation to all who submitted and would like to congratulate all winners, honorable mentions, finalists, and semi-finalists. Selecting the poetry and
fiction finalists was a task that dominated the lives of Nimrod’s editors all spring.
They approached their mission with dedication and discretion, reading and
rereading the final group, comparing notes, and speaking for favorites. The
finalists’ manuscripts, without cover letters or names, were sent to the judges for 2020. Kaveh Akbar served as poetry judge, and Joy Castro served as
fiction judge. They chose the winners and honorable mentions from the finalist
groups.

The 43rd Nimrod Literary Awards competition begins January 1, 2021; the
deadline is in April. We welcome your submissions, knowing that each
year brings new discoveries, often from those who have submitted to the
competition before.

All entrants not previously contacted by Nimrod about their work may consider
their work released at this time.

Fiction Finalists
Jean Ferruzola, WA, “Burn Brightly and Rise”
Jessi Phillips, MI, “Anything You Ask Me To”

Fiction Semi-Finalists
Kristyn Childres, IN, “The Northeast Kingdom”
Alice Hatcher, AZ, “Caesura”
Sasha Hom, CA, “Always, Peanut”
Alex Hughes, OK, “Crown”
Grace Spulak, NM, “More Than Bright”
Nicole VanderLinden, IA, “Fiddler”

Poetry Finalists
Jubi Arriola-Headley, FL, “Peacocking” and other poems
John Blair, TX, “Seeking Dr. Einstein” and other poems
Chuck Carlise, MI, “Solana” and other poems
Jehanne Dubrow, TX, “Metamorphoses”
Benjamin Gucciardi, CA, “I Ask My Sister’s Ghost to Write Her Own Elegy” and other poems
Youssef Helmi, FL, “Scarf” and other poems
Caroline Mei-Len Mar, CA, “Dream of the Lake” and other poems
Jessica Pierce, OR, “We all have our work to do” and other poems
Sean Reynolds, IL, “The Year My Voice Began to Crack” and other poems
Frances Richey, NY, “Bloody Mingo County” and other poems
Darius Simpson, CA, “Yea I Did It” and other poems
Alice Templeton, CA, “Youth Sermon” and other poems
Theresa Q. Tran, OR, “Mercy” and other poems
Jeanne Wagner, CA, “Speaking in Tongues” and other poems
James Wyshynski, GA, “Counting Out the Cost” and other poems

Poetry Semi-Finalists
Yasmine Ameli, MA, “History Lesson” and other poems
Yvonne Amey, FL, “Bad Brains, a Woke Mosh Pit, and a D.C. Haiku” and other poems
Shannon Austin, MD, “Dollhood”
Diane Beck, CO, “History of Winter” and other poems
Imani Cezanne, CA, “No Crowns Allowed Through TSA” and other poems
Lauren Coggins, SC, “Eating Light” and other poems
Marsha Truman Cooper, CA, “The Rapture of Bees” and other poems
Marissa Davis, NY, “When the Blood Came” and other poems
Tyler Dunston, NY, “8 lines in the Grace Church garden” and other poems
Bernard Ferguson, FL, “juxtaposition with death” and other poems
Jana-Lee Germaine, MA, “Learning Curve” and other poems
W.J. Herbert, NY, “The Latin Lesson” and other poems
Anthony Immergluck, WI, “Madre Matryoshka” and other poems
Karen Kovacik, IN, “Farsickness” and other poems
Susan Landgraf, WA, “Out of the Roase Garden” and other poems
Kathleen Michael, VA, “Cowbird” and other poems
Amy Miller, OR, “The Church of the Hair Salon” and other poems
Oak Morse, TX, “Sashay” and other poems
Gail Newman, CA, “Two Men Talking” and other poems
Wendy Scott, PA, “Two Body Problem” and other poems
Emily Van Kley, WA, “Affidavit for Self-Care & Other Questionable Ephemera” and other poems
John Walser, WI, “Give yourself over to the trees, to the sun” and other poems
Amie Whittemore, TN, “First Self-Portrait with the Artist” and other poems

In These Uncertain Times, Libraries Are Still Here

by Rebecca Harrison

What is a public library with no public? When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the physical doors of our 24 library locations, the leaders and employees at Tulsa City-County Library quickly posed this question. And, almost as quickly, they began formulating answers. As the adage goes, a library is more than a building. It’s something bigger, fiercer, more idealistic. With our customers forced to stay home for the foreseeable future, we adapted nimbly, reminding those in our community about our myriad online resources. Folks could check out one of our thousands of eBooks to help manage the endless tedium of quarantine. They could visit our Facebook page for virtual yoga classes, book talks, and even gardening advice. If you were feeling pressure to use all this newfound free time to pick up a new hobby, the library could point you to digital books on knitting, drawing, or playing guitar. We leveraged our social media reach to connect with our customers, to let them know that even when the world seems to be falling apart, we’re still there.

Then, right on the heels of a historic pandemic, the world shifted again. The 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre occurred in the midst of a global awakening. Again, the public library recognized its duty to provide access to information and to guide our customers to resources to help them navigate important topics like the Black Lives Matter movement, anti-racism, and white privilege. Our staff set to work developing nonfiction and fiction book lists on these topics. Our CEO, Kimberly Johnson, issued a statement voicing TCCL’s support for the “collective action to end systemic racism.”

But it’s not just our library. Libraries all across the nation are stepping up; if you’re not local to Tulsa and haven’t looked to see what your library has been up to, you might be surprised to find out they’ve been quietly making a difference in your community. Let this be a nudge for you to check out what your library has to offer—as we face these times of uncertainty and disruption, I am proud to be part of an institution that strives both to serve and to lead.

Rebecca Harrison is the manager of Adult Services at the Central Library in Tulsa, Oklahoma. When she’s not at the library, you may find her writing, reading, or marveling over how cute her cats are.

Book Review: Mohja Kahf’s MY LOVER FEEDS ME GRAPEFRUIT

by Britton Gildersleeve

In this time of virtual realities—and real isolation—it’s a small miracle to “get away.” Reading Mohja Kahf’s book My Lover Feeds Me Grapefruit is a perfect daytrip to a life almost certainly different from most of ours right now. And beautifully so.

Kahf, a Syrian-American Muslim, offers windows into her daily life: several poems on various Muslim holidays (Eid, Ramadan), many on foods familiar to those of us fortunate enough to have spent time in the Middle East. There are poems of language, and poems of bodies, and poems of desire. Some poems are braided from each of these parts. One of Kahf’s shorter poems—“Olive Oil & Thyme”—lauds friendship, comparing it to bread dipped first into olive oil, then into thyme, sesame, and sumac. The spice mix is a riff on za’atar, a spice familiar in Arabic cooking, and becomes an image of a “lifelong friendship / never the same flavor twice.”

There is much of eating, of desire, of sensual beauty, of sex and its progenitor lust, in Kahf’s vivid poems. Here you’ll see eroticism in a grapefruit, that it could become a “tender membrane / exposing rose-glistening / grapefruit flesh / wet wedges opening. . . .” Who knew a date could transform, when seen through the lens of Kahf’s poetic eye, into a woman’s inner body? And who but Kahf can help you see a man’s body as a sonnet?

Even language takes on a languid nature—“Can we speak together over time and space / naked of our names?” the poem “Woman-Crisp” asks. “Say you have been entrusted with a packeta / A word to give to me / I am ready // Text me from your Galaxy / Message me from your apartment of fire / inside the sun . . . Hurry! Before I fry / into burnt woman-crisp // All that needs to be written is a single word.” And we are left conjuring a word that might save her. . . .

In the Author’s Note at the end of her book, Kahf highlights the “poetic foremothers” mentioned in a few of her poems; her note is its own poetic polemic. Kahf (rightly) impugns the “racist imperialist heteropatriarchy” for not “listening” to Arab women poets. And she asks, “How can I, plus the roving writing crowd of Arab women alongside me, write the body within a world that wreaks violence on brown and black bodies?” And Kahf succeeds, eloquently, in writing the body.

Drawing from centuries of varied literary heritages, Kahf is intimately familiar, as her work demonstrates, with quotidian Arabic experiences. Ramadan is eloquently summarized as “slow-ticking day . . . blink-quick night.” Having lived through several Ramadans in two Muslim countries (Algeria and Saudi Arabia), I love that metaphor—the days move so very slooowly, and the nights of feast and family are over in a blinking of moments.

Agile dance of rhyme, rhythm, and the musical interplay of idiom and prayer and science scaffold one of my favorite poems from the book, “Moonbopped.” Kahf deftly juggles references to Michelangelo ( “he careens / twirling into chapel walls and smearing paint”) with “the moon / lumped me a great big shiner just today / bopped me clear / into the electron-humping subatomic Quark-o-sphere.” Jazz riffs, sub-atomic physics, Renaissance greats . . . each as necessary as a line break, as the lack of stanzaic white space. Do not be seduced by gorgeous images alone—this is a writer who knows her craft.

Perhaps the most evocative poem for me is the final one in the book: “Bury Me in Arabic.” Kahf articulates the rhetorical flourishes of so many mannered exchanges with Arabic friends—“Always multiply the gift— / ‘welcome’ to ‘two welcomes’ / ‘a hundred welcomes and kinship and ease’ / ‘Keep offering tray after tray of words.’” How vivid is that? Words piled like dates or pistachio and honey sweets, on an inlaid tray, offered in largesse to friends and family.

Kahf then turns to the reply and response of ritual politeness that far too many of us have lost the inclination to take time for:

Wishing a sneezer “mercy” is a three-step dance
They reply “guidance and rightness of mind”
You match “guidance for you and me both”
When you cough you get “health”; top it off
“health and vigor!” or raise it  to “two healths!”

But the wryly poignant double-play of the title is fully realized at the poem’s close, when Kahf moves from “burying” us in the formalized exchanges of Arabic social conversation to the poem’s final stanza, where “May you bury my bones” becomes a beautifully succinct metaphor for “supreme love / and has no utterable answer.”

It seems very appropriate these dark days to look through Kahf’s eyes into rooms filled with such love—of all the daily happenings in a full life. That it is also a life with which too many of us are unfamiliar is a bonus. I, for one, am grateful to remember.

My Lover Feeds Me Grapefruit
Mohja Kahf
Press 53, April 2020
Winston-Salem, NC
Paperback, 84 pages
Price: $14.95

Mohja Kahf is a professor of comparative literature & Middle Eastern studies at the University of Arkansas. The author of the novel The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, Kahf has two other poetry collections, as well as a nonfiction work. She is the winner of a Pushcart Prize, the Arkansas Arts Council Individual Artist Award, and the 2020 Press 53 Award for Poetry.

Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in NimrodSpoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.

Time and Tomes: Thoughts on Expectations

In 2018, I made the choice to keep track of all the books I’d read in a single year: when I started them, when I finished them, those sad few I abandoned prematurely. I’m surprised and only mildly horrified it never occurred to me to do this before.

In 2018, I read 30 books.

In 2019, I read 23.

And as of early March of this year, I had finished only two.

This put me on the concerning track toward failure. I was not on pace to meet my annual goal (the one I had imposed on myself with no consequences awaiting me one way or the other) of 30 books, and thinking back on my previous years’ quantitative accomplishments filled me with shame. But wasn’t there something to be said for the fact that the two books I had finished were both nearly 800 pages?

The first was a modern classic: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. The second was a classic’s classic: Middlemarch by George Eliot. As friends plowed through novel after novel, I worked to bat away the expectations I had of myself and embrace the slowness, the difficulty, and the late-arriving gratification of moving through a longer work.

I sought to retrain my brain and reframe my thinking—where before I saw plodding and drudgery, I now aimed to see precision and diligence; where there had been dread, there now was expectancy.

As with all feats of persistence, satisfaction’s counterpart is sacrifice. It’s similar to the way you discover new depths and capabilities within yourself when training for a race. Except when you’re reading, not only are you learning those things about yourself, but you’re also learning them about the characters and the author. As with real people—and who’s more real than fictional characters in whom you see your own self mirrored?—you have to spend time with them to afford them the opportunity to change. If you write them off, you’ll never see how they could have surprised you or what they could have taught you in the end.

However, for me, this practice of endurance came at a cost. The more I progressed with these works, the more frequently I had to forgo starting new ones . . . or doing basically anything else. But, over time, the more I chose to wrestle with the task I had set for myself, the more I grew to appreciate this act of discipline. And the thing is that I was choosing. It wasn’t a mandate someone else had put on me. It was a deliberate choice I was making to chip away at a goal I wanted to meet. I had nothing to prove to anyone but myself—though, of course, we’re often our own cruelest critics.

The concept of expectation is something these novels brought to the forefront of my mind, where it’s stayed, inconveniently, throughout this strange spring of 2020. As time unspooled before me and with the agency to fill it as I willed, I found I gravitated toward books and away from nearly all else. This brought up the question, Why do I do those other things at all? Yes, there are standard obligations, but why have I bowed to others’ expectations and placed them unflinchingly upon myself? It’s questions like this that I continue to ponder and hope to have some answers to by the time life is back to “normal.”

I continue to sift through the difficult notion of expectations, and as I do, it is a cognizant choice to weigh each day, and each new book I pick up, on its own. Comparison is the thief of joy, as they say, and I fight daily to unfetter myself from my tendency to compare and instead aim to see things anew, as if for the first time. This is freedom.

Structure is good. Boundaries (such as those imposed by a quarantine) can be healthy and often spark creativity. Choosing to draw lines around your life—the things you eat, your reading selections, the music you let wash over you all day, whether you will or won’t text that person after all this time—can be helpful in crystallizing what you really want. Goals are worthwhile, but they and expectations are not equals, and I’m learning to measure myself against the former rather than the latter.

My reading goal for this year is to complete 30 books. My expectations for this year? Simply, to read.

Andrea Avey, a native Tulsan, was an English teacher for five years and now works in the private sector. She devours literature and writes as often as she can.

Unsung, Part 1: Anthony Madrid and I AM YOUR SLAVE NOW DO WHAT I SAY

by Colin Pope

Every so often, emerging poets break into the high-culture zeitgeist, usually via a profile in The New Yorker or a review in the Times or a feature on NPR. Such poets are vaulted to the forefront of poetry, and we are encouraged to believe these are the best new poets in America. But in the list of recent years’ hot poets, you won’t find the name Anthony Madrid. His face doesn’t grace the cover of trade publications. He doesn’t, as yet, have a Wikipedia page. When I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say was published, the book didn’t appear on any “Best Poetry Books of 2012” writeups that I could find. What I mean to establish here is that, like many remarkable emerging poets, Madrid’s first book went underappreciated amid the noise of the larger poetry machinery.

Personally, I find an almost direct correlation between the hype a debut collection receives and my disappointment in its contents. I don’t think this has to do with the actual quality of the work, but rather my elevated expectation of it; if a poet is being celebrated in such a public way, then I expect the work to be not just good, but irrefutably, innovatively brilliant. Rather than celebrating a 26-year-old’s first book, perhaps we should be celebrating a mid-career poet’s third or fourth with this level of public visibility. Or even a 76-year-old’s fifth book. Alas, one suspects the inner workings of such marketing choices are flavored by an admixture of nepotism, publishing politics, and the all-too-American belief that simply because something is new, it’s better than anything old.

I Am Your Slave debuted eight years ago now, which before wasn’t very long in poetry years. When I discovered it, I excitedly discussed the book with poet-friends, only to find none of them had heard of it. I tried to relate to them the collection’s piano-wire-taut structure, its upending of the ghazal form, its raucous language and toying with aphoristic phrasing. Then I got out my phone and pulled up the first poem from the book I could find. It was one entitled “In Hell the Units Are the Gallon and the Fuck,” the first lines of which are:

THE unit of wine is the cup. Of love, the unit is the kiss. That’s
   here.
In Hell, the units are the gallon and the fuck. In Paradise, the drop
and the glance.

I read the title and first lines aloud, then defied anyone not to admit their interest in reading the remainder of the poem after such an opening.

To put it simply, Madrid is a genius of the opening line. This is a specific form of genius that’s graciously reader-facing; we feel invited into the poem’s world via the introduction of its voice and logic. But beyond all poetic explication and analytical hullaballoo, what’s gripping in these poems is that they are genuinely fun to read from the get-go. And since many of the poem’s first lines are also the poem’s titles, one need only see a selection of these titles to know what I mean: “Most Living Creatures Leave No Ghost,” “Their Fulminations Are Mere Theater,” “Time We Rolled Out That Exquisite Carpet,” “Heaven Help the Right-Handed Man Who Has Had His Right Hand Cut Off,” “No More Epigrams Against Sluts,” “Jam Me in Hot Hell,” “It Is a Perfect Day and I Must Waste It,” “Now That I Know I Am To Be Destroyed By a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl,” “Fuck Buddha I’m Buddha Nobody’s Buddha Quit Talking About Buddha,” and I could go on. These are random examples from the 60+ poems in the collection.

I think, as a poet and reviewer, I’m supposed to care more about why these poems are fun. I’m supposed to pick apart the particular devices operating on the words, the tonal precision in the faux-revelatory arcs of these not-quite-ghazals. Indeed, not doing so does feel like a bit of a cop-out. But, as you might be able to tell, the poems are fun because they are also funny. They point to the frequently ludicrous nature of the modern human experience and background it against Eastern philosophy and mysticism, the results of which are often downright hilarious. And I’m not about to attempt an explanation of humor. Take these sections from “I Am No Longer Cut to the Heart”:

She said to me proudly, “I mean to ruin you for other women.”
She was what
These morons call a “consummate technician.”

Here’s that boy with the demon sideburns and the slicked-back black hair
And a shirt like from the bodyshop, complete with cotton
racing-stripe namepatch.

I say to him: “Approach me, my child, and thou shalt be my
chosen delegate,
For thou art seventeen feet tall and tricked out with half a mile of
tattoos.”

See? There’s something about the persona behind these poems that affords a wry, smirking awareness of its own pomposity while simultaneously attempting earnest understanding, like a quixotic, dissipated guru.

I use the term “persona” loosely here, since these are indeed ghazals, a form that inheres ruminations that, traditionally, culminate with the poet’s employing their own name in the final lines in a sort of self-reflective revelation of their place within their own thoughts. For example, the ending of “Let’s Watch This Liver-Colored Devil”:

A book is a dead thing. Take it to bed, you’re asleep in a minute.
Whereas, if a friend is lying next to you, talking—you stay up all
the night.

That’s the way to write, MADRID! Be like a pillow-talking friend—
A good friend, full of question and answer, head propped up on
one hand…

But via the collection’s praxis, we discover that this is not the poet, so to speak. This is an idealized and discrete performance of a self-wrestling to comprehend its own bearing. In another poem, “They Do Out of Anger That Which We Do Out of Love,” the ending further demonstrates the poet’s performance of dueling identities: “MADRID, like you, I stand accused of the worst kind of / recklessness. / I have unleashed upon the world the full force of my infantile / allure.” This is Madrid talking to the persona MADRID, or vice versa. To me, these lines read as the type of conversation one has in the bathroom mirror when seeking to separate the hedonistic impulse from the rational, as in those moments when we are about to do something entirely stupid and irresponsible but, knowing our nature, will probably do it anyway.

As you might guess, Madrid’s prosody and language are downright enviable. Few poets can bring to bear all their gifts with such consistency. Part of the brilliance of the collection lies in its ability to deploy these gifts without sacrificing anything to the form or the humor; this is one of those rare books with no weak poems. In its loony and wild logic, I’m reminded of a similarly incredible book: Charles Simic’s Pulitzer-Prize Winning The World Doesn’t End. But there’s a funnier, more prescient voice here, one that deserves far more recognition than what it’s received.

I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say
Anthony Madrid
Canarium Books, 2012
Paperback, 117 pages ($14)

Colin Pope is a Ph.D. candidate at Oklahoma State University. His poems, essays, and criticism have appeared in or are forthcoming from such journals as Slate, Rattle, West Branch, The Millions, Best New Poets, and others. His collection Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral was a finalist for the Press 53 Award and was released in 2019 from Tolsun Books.

 

Review: NEW SUNS:ORIGINAL SPECULATIVE FICTION BY PEOPLE OF COLOR, Ed. Nisi Shawl   

by Helen Patterson

I’ve started reading more speculative fiction recently, and I’m not alone. Speculative fiction is hard to define, but this umbrella term generally refers to any fiction about a world different from our own. These alternate worlds can be set in the past, the future, or a world that seems like our current one—until it doesn’t. Within the last decade, speculative fiction has become increasingly popular among both literary and mainstream readers and writers. The rise of speculative fiction has coincided with an increased demand for diversity in writing, leading to an explosion of creative new stories.

New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, edited by writer Nisi Shawl, is one of the anthologies that’s come out of this growing demand for diverse speculative fiction. The title refers to a quote from the inimitable Octavia Butler, which is included in the frontmatter of the anthology: “There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.” As promised, each piece in New Suns glows with its own inner radiance.

One of the best things about anthologies is their ability to help us discover new writers. My two favorite stories in this one were by writers I had never read before. “The Shadow We Cast Through Time” by Indrapramit Das is one of the most original combinations of dark fairytale and sci-fi I’ve read. The story is told from the perspective of Surya, a descendent of human colonists. Her world contains demons, mind-altering spores, and hagtowers—living structures made from the bodies of the dead. In Surya’s world, the demons, the hagtowers, and even death are not feared; they are part of the place, and the humans who live there accept and mythologize them. When it is time to die, most humans willingly walk to the hagtowers, ready to become part of these structures. Surya does not dread death because “all worlds need death if humans must tread on them” (182). For me, the most alien part of the story isn’t the setting but this attitude toward death. So much of contemporary American culture is obsessed with avoiding or delaying dying; it was refreshing to read a story in which death, though not desired, is accepted more readily as a natural process. I’m afraid I’m simplifying the story too much, but I don’t want to give anything more away. You will have to read it. Das writes with lyrical, almost hypnotic, prose, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his work.

In my other favorite story, “Kelsey and the Burdened Breath” by Darcie Little Badger, Kelsey inhabits a world like ours but with one key difference: when humans or animals die, their “last breaths,” or “shimmers,” are released. No one in the story knows where the last breaths disappear to, but most last breaths instinctively escape to the sky and float upwards, out of sight. Kelsey makes her living by working with her own pet shimmer, Pal—the last breath of her sheepdog—to round up new shimmers and help them float away. Shimmers are naturally lighter than air, so Kelsey’s job is usually simple. Pal roams buildings where people or animals have passed away and herds new, confused shimmers into a room with a window. She then opens the window and releases them into the air. Unfortunately for Kelsey, some breaths break the rules, cease floating, and become burdened breaths. Reader beware: “the act that made a last breath burdened was so terrible the word ‘murder’ didn’t do it justice” (259). The story has dark moments, but the overall tone is light and gently humorous.

Every piece in this anthology is expertly crafted and offers new perspectives. That being said, my other favorites from this collection are “The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex” by Tobias S. Buckell, “The Fine Print” by Chinelo Onwualu, “The Robots of Eden” by Anil Menon, and “Harvest” by Rebecca Roanhorse.

In the afterword to New Suns, Shawl offers advice to anyone who enjoyed the anthology and wishes to read more diverse voices and perspectives: “Would you like more of what you’ve read here? Wider constellations, greater galaxies of original speculative fiction by people of color? Then seek us out. Spread the word. Wish on us, reach for us, and yes, let us gather together in the deep, dark nurseries of stars. Let us congregate. This is how new suns are born” (274). I intend to follow Shawl’s advice and discover more work by these writers, and I know that other readers and writers will do the same, especially in these uncertain times, as a pandemic rages around us. In the worst of times, we can acknowledge suffering and the severity of our problems even as we let stories expand our horizons and keep our minds open and curious.

Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.