Essay

TSUNAMI FROM SOLARIS

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TSUNAMI FROM SOLARIS: ESSAYS ON POETRY BY AASE BERG, TRANSLATED BY JOHANNES GÖRANSSON AND JOYELLE MCSWEENEY

Swedish poet and critic Aase Berg’s new collection, Tsunami from Solaris: Essays on Poetry, beckons readers into a mountainous range of essays covering poetry and the human experience. Edited and translated by Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney, each essay swells with an introspective metamorphosis. The collection features an expansive scope of enlightening ruminations, including musings of wounds and scars; pregnancy and motherhood (“that cute, paradisiacal madness”); subversion of the patriarchy and capitalism; playfulness; joy and suffering; adulthood; the awe-inspiring madness of children; and the nature of language and a poem’s landscape, all which offer readers new lenses and modes of thinking—to employ for the creation of poetry—to experience the world as a human being. 

Berg advocates for wonder and protests patriarchal seriousness. Provocative questions undulate throughout the collection: “is language a game?”; “should one in certain moments avoid writing about or depicting angst about mortality?”; and “why is the poem such an insult to the cruelty of life itself?” She leans toward a trickster poetics: “the poem is formless, a protoplasm, a jellyfish, an amoeba that glides around and ignores the human race’s grave chronologies.” As poetry is a playground and “language is a living being,” each essay is full of breath and enrapturing choreographies of meaning. Berg writes that “the playground is the garbage heap of the patriarchy,” and Tsunami for Solaris is a call to action for all writers to “steal back the yellow, happy, pathetic joy,” to play and play madly without boundaries or fear. 

Action Books.

—Review by Samuel Binns

ALL THE FIERCE TETHERS

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ALL THE FIERCE TETHERS BY LIA PURPURA

Each page of Lia Purpura’s newest essay collection, All the Fierce Tethers, demonstrates what happens when life itself is scrutinized beneath the lens of a proverbial microscope. With the revelatory combination of Purpura’s detail-oriented eye and imagination, she is able to cast a brilliant, transformative light on even the most quotidian aspects: a tin that once held mints “[c]ould be put to good use and serve again, holding buttons, coins, pills;” the dollar bills used at the grocery store can evoke a wonder of their previous purchases, the possible “bribes they sealed, drugs scored;” and when a hawk dives into grass and emerges again with a mouse, she meditates on the blood from the kill. The “sun falls on the spot where I know the blood is. Someone climbing this tree on a bright day in fall wouldn’t notice a thing, the red long gone to shadow or moss.” Purpura examines this predator/prey relationship: “the piercing and tearing was urgent and bloody, and—no proper animal would think to note this—there was no anger, waste, or meanness.” She guides the reader in this illuminative way, covering a vast and eclectic range of subjects, from prayer to irony, beauty, even to the once peaceful, now extinct Dodo.

All the Fierce Tethers is both a marvel of language and a treatise on our taking the time to stop, look around, and pay attention to our surroundings and, concurrently, to acknowledge the interconnectedness of life and its objects. Written in vibrant, luxurious prose, Purpura leaves her readers looking at the world in a distinct and more vibrant way.

Sarabande Books.

—Review by Nicholas John-Francis Claro

THE COLLECTED SCHIZOPHRENIAS

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THE COLLECTED SCHIZOPHRENIAS BY ESMÉ WEIJUN WANG

In this collection of essays, Esmè Weijun Wang examines schizophrenia through a myriad of lenses, some directed at the conflicted medical community, some at pop culture, and others directed acutely inward at her own experiences with schizoaffective disorder. Far from becoming repetitive in theme, each essay tackles narratives the reader might be familiar with (Nellie Bly and David Rosenhan’s infiltrations into psychiatric hospitals, the Slender Man stabbing in Wisconsin, the murder of Malcoum Tate, media representations like A Beautiful Mind and Legion) but probes and troubles the reader’s underlying assumptions by creating a textual space for intimacy/empathy in the confusion, pain and pursuit of understanding her own experiences. She posits after her diagnosis, “Because How did this come to be? is another way of asking, Why did this happen?, which is another way of asking, What do I do now? But what on earth do I do now?

Wang raises important questions about the future of understanding the schizophrenias. She notes conflicts in future research between the APA’s mental health handbook DSM-5 and the NIMH’s Research Domain Criteria project; between those who would fight for involuntary hospitalization and mandatory treatment, and those who want to protect individual autonomy; and between the perception of the schizophrenias as “signs of mental illness or psychic ability.” The Collected Schizophrenias is illuminating and important—not only because it educates and challenges—but because it forces us to consider how much we still have  to work to undo historical and systematic damage, to challenge our own broken, misguided partiality towards what it means to be healthy and sane.

Graywolf Press.

—Review by Joy Clark

WE BEGIN IN GLADNESS: HOW POETS PROGRESS

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WE BEGIN IN GLADNESS: HOW POETS PROGRESS BY CRAIG MORGAN TEICHER

We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress, a new book of essays by Craig Morgan Teicher, takes readers on a poetic journey through the development of voice by examining how the works of several poets changed over the course of their careers. In this insightful and delightful collection, Teicher looks at his own poetic development alongside others to show how our voices develop together: “Poetry is a conversation, an extended one, occupying, perhaps the span of an entire life.” His collection moves through these three sections—Beginnings and Breakthroughs, Middles and Mirrors, and Ending and Enduring—highlighting the poets Sylvia Plath, W. S. Merwin, francine j. harris, and Louise Glück, and referencing many more. Between these chapters, a constellation of connections weaves together their histories to show how poets both influence and are influenced by one another—how some poetic voices keep growing even after death, as others continue the conversations they started. Teicher’s essays present many things that change the ways that poets write over the course of their lifetimes; other writers, new knowledge, new perspectives, the desire to stay relevant: “Seeking to extend their conversations, to home in more precisely on what they believe and feel to be true about language, poets change their poems.” Not all poets change for the better, Teicher points out, some reach their peak and then stay within the same style, and some become over-confident after reaching success and then decline. The remedy for this is to keep exploring: “A poet’s voice must indeed be found; each poet must venture out to find it.”

Graywolf Press.

—Review by Gwen Mauroner

HEARTH: A GLOBAL CONVERSATION ON COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, AND PLACE

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HEARTH: A GLOBAL CONVERSATION ON COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, AND PLACE EDITED BY ANNICK SMITH AND SUSAN O’CONNOR

Hearth: A Global Conversation on Community, Identity, and Place is a multidisciplinary and multicultural anthology, edited by Annick Smith and Susan O’Connor, exploring the physical and spiritual manifestations of home in the era of the Anthropocene. This compilation of poems, stories, and essays—divided in three primary sections: “Heart,” “Earth,” and “Art”—moves us to rekindle our local and global communities. Dedicated to those who have lost their hearths and seek new ones, it explores themes of vagrancy, displacement, expatriation, immigration, family, climate change, technology, politics, loss, and discovery. Contributors include: Geffrey Davis, Gretel Ehrlich, Jane Hirshfield, Barry Lopez, and Bill McKibben, who provoke with questions of community and open doors to a wider discussion for making the world a more nurturing place. And a small but wondrous section of landscapes, from Brazilian photographer Sabastiao Salgado, supplements the conversation.

The anthology explores the full weight of the spaces we inhabit, the spaces of belonging. “Our hearth is our home in ever-expanding circles of connectivity—local, bioregional, continental, planetary, solar, galactic, and cosmic,” writes Mary Evelyn Tucker. It has always been a gathering place, a shelter, and a sanctuary that provides refuge. But from climate changes, wars, refugees, evolving technologies, to natural disasters, for many, the hearth becomes problematic. Here is a book for our real or imagined hearths, prompting us to discover and redefine them. Gretel Ehrlich offers: “Home is anywhere I’ve taken the time to notice. Where there is no ‘I.’ It shouldn’t be called a sense of place, but a flat-out, intimate sensorium where Emerson’s dictum suddenly makes sense: ‘I am nothing. I see all.’” Hearth serves as a guide and a tribute to our collective struggles and the many possibilities of home.

Milkweed Editions.

—Review by Samuel Binns

IDIOPHONE

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IDIOPHONE, BY AMY FUSSELMAN

In the one-woman ballet that is Idiophone, Amy Fusselman dances sensationally. As in any good ballet, Fusselman’s success rests on hundreds of small, flawlessly executed movements. The building blocks of her performance—her first, second, and third positions—are short, straightforward sentences, whose careful construction and brilliant layering enable Fusselman to leap widely. On the stage of this book-length essay, she moves gracefully from the Nutcracker ballet’s past and present to her relationship with her mother and children, her history of alcohol abuse, a slit gong (the titular idiophone) from Vanuatu, the state of female artists, and more.

Above all, Fusselman is curious, deftly mining white space and static to craft a book of whys: (“[w]hy,” she asks, “can’t you just leave one world and move into another?”) and hows and whats: (what, she wants to know, do you do “[w]hen your way of being is an affront to other people? / when your way of writing is an affront…”) It’s to Fusselman's credit that she is as interested in the guts of these questions, their undersides and wiring, as she is in their answers, as well as the vantage points from which they are posed. For Fusselman, no space or person is too small—or too large—to inspire. She is as apt to look to Tchaikovsky for answers (“I need to message Tchaikovsky. I need to message Tchaikovsky about having almost nothing to go on…”) as she is a pair of imagined mice or boxing legend Joe Louis. The result of such wide-ranging inquiry is an essay that sparkles with vulnerability, humor, and insight. “I will be a magician,” Fusselman tells us, “…who explains my tricks.” And what a delight for us to be here with her, under her top hat, her spell.

Coffee House Press.

—Review by Elizabeth DeMeo

RISING: DISPATCHES FROM THE NEW AMERICAN SHORE

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RISING: DISPATCHES FROM THE NEW AMERICAN SHORE, BY ELIZABETH RUSH

In her important new book, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, Elizabeth Rush shines a light on the people who make their lives in our country’s most vulnerable places—its disappearing shorelines and wetlands. While she illustrates the landscapes using vivid language and explains ecological principles in engaging and illuminating prose, her real strength lies in her ability to step back and let her subjects do the talking. Because wetlands have long been difficult places to build, Rush explains they “have historically offered shelter to those who literally couldn’t afford to live anywhere else,” and many of these people are now out of options. She offers these communities their own agency by including interviews and chapters told from their perspectives. Rather than portraying herself as a hero, she admits that “as a white woman and nonfiction writer, I also know that I have blind spots, biases, responsibilities...I know that simply walking away is a privilege not always available to my subjects.” With compassion and empathy, she searches for solutions alongside climate scientists and experts and constantly asks who those solutions benefit and, most importantly, who would be left out. Rush pushes for answers that benefit all parties. She questions flood insurance policies that require residents to use their payouts to rebuild in the same flood-vulnerable places over and over again, as well as the temporary solutions that allow waterfront properties to retain high property value and thereby attract rich buyers and drive out longtime residents. She insists: “Our collective security will be arrived at, should it come at all, as a result of our ability to reckon with our country’s history and how it has left so very many bodies unjustly exposed to risks that only continue to mount.”

Milkweed Editions.

—Review by Gwen Mauroner

BETWIXT-AND-BETWEEN

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BETWIXT-AND-BETWEEN, BY JENNY BOULLY

In Betwixt-and-Between, Jenny Boully captures writing life as if from behind glass: sometimes reflecting the often indistinguishable human loves and losses. Boully’s fractal essays were written over the course of her own writing life—some are more than fifteen years old and some only recently formed—and all reflect a measure of truth about the stages within a writing life. In “The Poet’s Education,” Boully looks directly back to her time in grade-school with transient children, MTV’s 120 Minutes, and formative poems by Lucille Clifton and Donald Justice. In “On the EEO Genre Sheet,” she contemplates the connections between being mixed race and writing mixed genre. Later, in “On Writing and Witchcraft,” she morphs into her one-time belief that herbs and spells could make her desirable: “the craft of writing as getting someone to love me despite how dark I might be.” Several of her essays, such as “Fragments,” present correlations between love, heartbreak and writing through its obsessiveness and focus on “the brittle nature of things” that “makes us love them and wish to preserve them.”

Boully’s main concern in this collection, however, seems a kind of preservation, whether in her personal essays or her more academic ones. She writes of her connection to the desire to transmit oneself across the galaxy, and in “On the Voyager Golden Records,” she says: “[p]erhaps I believe that by building this monument of remembrance I can propel myself into the future and make it so that I truly exist.” It is this preservation of moments, images, and thoughts that make Boully’s writing a glimmering landscape, a series of more-true-than-true snapshots which capture what it means to exist simultaneously within and without the page—a kind of existence that can only be shown through imagined loves, daydreams, moths, memories, hunger, outer space, and electronic bleeps.

Coffee House Press.

—Review by Joy Clark