Madeline Vardell

SOFT SCIENCE

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SOFT SCIENCE BY FRANNY CHOI

Soft is not the word that comes to mind when reading Franny Choi’s Soft Science. Donna Haraway’s “excruciatingly conscious” might surface rather, yet Choi offers us this mode. Then, what is soft science? what is it if not a science with give? Her collection necessitates a giving away to and an absorbing of while her speakers perform by the same intake of information on the internet as a smart bot. Choi moves inside and beyond the hegemonic barking that storms online platforms—squashing that which falsely clicks into place, bending over to screenshot before all that which has brutalized—as she examines life in the age of smartphones and SmarterChild through the many-sided lens of Asian femininity and queerness. Some of her poems fracture language and white-space, revamping familiar forms, like her glossary and sequence of Turing-test poems. The structures of these forms act not as the bones of the book, but a chrysalis that signals an ongoing state of becoming. Opening Soft Science is the following quote from Haraway, which anchors and gives a lens to our understanding, “We are excruciatingly conscious of what it means to have a historically constituted body.” Choi’s Cyborg poems most overtly interrogate the ways in which the (female) body is constituted, man-created, and expected to perform thusly. Note here, in “A Brief History of Cyborgs,” how the speaker is described as much like a machine as the scientist’s machine-turned-daughter is human: “I once made my mouth a technology of softness [. . .] I made the tools fuck in my mouth [. . .] until they birthed new ones. What I mean is, I learned.” A few lines later, we see the daughter-bot’s manner of learning runs parallel: “The scientist’s daughter married the internet, and the internet filled her until she / spoke swastika and garbage . . .” Even with her insistence that humans are cyborgs, Choi doesn’t forgive anyone for their participation in racism, garbage politics, rape culture, and the commodifying gaze. Instead, Soft Science becomes a study of how the internet is the window to the collective unconscious and the smart (soft) bot, programmed by only what is found there, a mirror.

Alice James Books.

—Review by Madeline Vardell

TSUNAMI VS. THE FUKUSHIMA 50

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TSUNAMI VS. THE FUKUSHIMA 50 BY LEE ANN RORIPAUGH

The poems in Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50, by Lee Ann Roripaugh, serpentine and shed glowing skins as they engineer glimpses of Okuma, the town left-behind, and the displaced persons in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. In these pages, the tsunami towers as so much more than tidal waves of water, embodying female rage and pain. The pain inundates and varies as those affected by this disaster and Roripaugh’s poems mythicize the tsunami and those caught and displaced. As her poem “tsunami in love: kintsukuroi / golden joinery” explains, in epigraph, the Japanese tradition to aggrandize broken things by restoring them with gold, Roripaugh also restores with aggrandization but pipes not gold into the cracks and cavities, rather a lush density of sounds: “the bent tin cup’s / cool sluice of rinse / poured over skin’s / delicious prickle.” Her poems are thick and slick with crystalline assonance and velvety consonance, so whether they speak of rape and rot, or tsunami snark, they do so with rhyme and lilt.

On the Tsunami in all her grandeur, she is “slippery and apocryphal / as Butler’s lesbian phallus,” or the man nicknamed the hulk for his daily search for his family in the nuclear zone: “I no longer care about being exposed [. . .] maybe it will make me stronger [. . .] like the weird profusion of / of too-bright and hardy flowers . . .” In this manner, the collection oscillates between tsunami portraits­­—from an origin story to tsunami during her emo-phase—to portraits of those who’ve lost their loved ones, their home, their life. These two poles create a balance; one extreme magnifies the tsunami, and the other re-centers this disaster, this collection in the tangible. Gives a body, a face, and a mouth with which to speak to the ex-inhabitants of Okuma and imbues them with lore and repute, which is also an aggrandization—a kiss of golden joinery. With Tsunami vs the Fukushima 50, Lee Ann Roripaugh has written us poetry to infect us as we consume with a momentous voracity that turns its own page.

Milkweed Editions.

—Review by Madeline Vardell

LYRIC POETRY IS DEAD

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LYRIC POETRY IS DEAD BY EZEQUIEL ZAIDENWERG, TRANSLATED BY ROBIN MYERS

So the rumor goes, Lady Lyric is dead. Ezequiel Zaidenwerg reports every way how in his sensation, Lyric Poetry Is Dead, with space for conspiracy theories to report of her sighting and escape. Each poem broadcasts anew; gossips and stirs the pot; one ups and redacts, chronicling narratives interspersed with Argentine history, celebrity and lore. The bilingual edition from Cardboard House Press, translated by Robin Myers, transmits to English the experience of reading Zaidenwerg in Spanish (a worthy feat) and includes drawings by Carmen Amengual and notes from poet and translator alike. The poems all begin in similar ways: “Lyric poetry is dead. Or so they say” but diverge in tone and cadence, and not only in story, so one never tires of reading or grows to expect the next line. There are moments of hilarity, like this one from the poem that opens the book which ends with lyric poetry’s liquidated estate and her properties include an “incredible variety of mirrors.” In other moments, the poem becomes accusatory and gives pause as the reader is charged with murder, and still other poems circumvent death entirely and boast of lyric poetry’s resilience: “but she is alive and she / is always coming back.” Lyric poetry becomes both the vehicle for Zaidenwerg to reimagine many histories and allude to other literary greats, and the poetic subject and star of her own legends. Just so, Lyric Poetry Is Dead is waiting to rise up like Lazarus and delight you over and over again.

Cardboard House Press.

—Review by Madeline Vardell

BRED FROM THE EYES OF A WOLF

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BRED FROM THE EYES OF A WOLF BY KIM KYUNG JU, TRANSLATED BY JAKE LEVINE

What if wolves behaved like humans? What if humans behaved like wolves? In Kim Kyung Ju’s dystopian play, Bred from the Eyes of a Wolf, translated by Jake Levine, this hypothetical comes alive. The outcome is not for the prudish or light-hearted. Kim newly approaches well-known narratives—from the archetype of the middle class family in Korean culture to the classic Greek Myth of Oedipus—to present an uncannily familiar and unfamiliar nuclear family, shitting together in a world where language is forbidden. The contradictory representation that unfolds forces the audience to confront taboo subjects and make new judgements. What’s morally allowable in a world of humanish wolves? What’s ethically grotesque and what’s just gross?

Kim layers more than classic archetypes here. He builds his post-apocalyptic pastiche with meta-awareness and the cockroach-like systems of civilization: capitalism and castigation. His wolf family highlights their cognizance of their own humanity when the mother warns her son: “Be careful! / Any animal that takes the path of humanity / always results in a scene filled with blood!” to which her son bemoans: “Fuck! Just like a human that thinks he is an animal, / I never recognize the trap.”  And then, there’s no short-supply of self-referential jabs at the deadbeat poet, or the censure of writing by an authoritarian government. Near the end, two policemen, in cyber suits and Orwellian practices, arrive to make arrests. From Policeman 2, “This mother and son, / they are like languages that live / in one another’s background. / [ . . . ] It’s suspicious.” Policeman 1, now suspicious, “Language is forbidden! // You are all sentenced to space dust!” Translator Jake Levine howls the play into English and leaves readers a closing essay to ensure that nothing from this new and untried Korean fable is missed.

Plays Inverse Press.

—Review by Madeline Vardell

LANGUAGE IS A REVOLVER FOR TWO

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LANGUAGE IS A REVOLVER FOR TWO BY MARIO MONTALBETTI, TRANSLATED BY CLARE SULLIVAN

The bilingual chapbook Language is a Revolver for Two by Peruvian poet Mario Montalbetti, translated from the Spanish by Clare Sullivan, explores the systems of language as an economy—how language behaves through supply and demand. What exists within language’s economic bounds and what exists outside? A sardine, the need for love, the dawn coming down “orange as a ripe papaya” shattering on the pavement? Here, the study is of the ways language moves collective and the violence thereof: “my words are a knife / chilling when it enters your heart / laughing when it enters mine.” As these lines and the title suggest, the violence is throughout but it is thematic, controlled, and shared. In one poem, Montalbetti’s speaker burns nocturnal, kept awake by an anonymous no, and in another, is a pilot, smashing the poem-plane to bits while claiming: “all your poems end, / trying to express a private sentiment / in public language.” Though small, this brief collection observes the everyday and leaves us with grand questions—how does the market of language affect the quotidian, the supreme, and what escapes the system?

Ugly Duckling Presse.

—Review by Madeline Vardell

AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF DEATH

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AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF DEATH BY KIM HYESOON, TRANSLATED BY DON MEE CHOI

Have you heard yet what death has to say? Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography of Death, translated by Don Mee Choi, tells just this. In forty-nine poems, each representing a day, Kim captures death’s cycle between life and reincarnation: pages filled with wings and shadows, female laughter and weeping, bloody rabbits and dead mothers. In the skewed scape of this book, life merges with death. Poem “Already, day twenty-eight” enunciates this in a single couplet that serves as a microcosm of the entire collection: “You are already born inside death / (echoes 49 times).” Death is mommy—stolen from child—and death nurses as child born the moment there was life. Yet, death seems on a quest to shed the corporeal: “They say birth is always a plunge / and death is always a flight / so take off [. . .] now are you liberated from yourself?” But no peace is found in this autobiography born from too many deaths—deaths, Kim explains, caused by the rigid authority of a cruel government. In these elegies death is mercurial, never embodies a single mode nor size: sinister and cartoonish; gargantuan and petite; lonely and longing for privacy. “Do you want to be a friendly corpse? / Do you want to be a scary corpse?”

Other concerns surface—who misses you in death? what remains of your life: “this morning the nightgown hiding under the bed / is sobbing quietly to itself . . .” During this cycle, death is cast as something of life’s ex, a cast out trailing the patterns of life lost and translator Don Mee Choi distills the collection with magnetic energy, granting English readers access to the relentless rhythms that Kim transcribes. For Autobiography of Death will continue haunting your thoughts long after the close of the 49th day.

New Directions.

—Review by Madeline Vardell

GOD WAS RIGHT

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GOD WAS RIGHT BY DIANA HAMILTON

Diana Hamilton’s collection, God Was Right, delivers a series of essayistic poems proffering meditations, arguments, and direct addresses like never-ending conversations inside her speaker’s varied mind. Curious and compelling associations are found here between Flaubert and baby goats; lists of the ways a woman might like to be kissed, and arguments circulate on the point(lessness) of poetry, etc. As one poem puts it, “the speaker’s saying ‘fuck you’ to her // academic readers in their own tongue.” Hamilton also offers us many other critiques—by way of her speaker’s thorough observation—of graduate study, the handsy steering and grooming for a single school of thought, the male gatekeepers of academia and publishing alike, one’s own able-bodied privilege and how all of this—even the speaker’s voracious analysis—is reductive, chases its own tail, unable to set down the monocle of study.

Even so, the poems in God Was Right are jammed with humor, seeming to anticipate would-be criticisms and who can be upset about the roasting when Hamilton also roasts herself? One lyric spouting announces, mid-monologue, “I think a lot of poetries have conspired against the monologue” and it’s this cheekiness that sustains our attention. Her honesty is addictive too, in poems like “Autobiography of Fatness” when her speaker sees her desire to write about her own could-be fat body as a way to side-step power and privilege. By admitting this, her speaker can do neither, is held in account. There is so much accounted for in this collection, appraised on one page, only be reappraised and found to the contrary on the next, and that’s what life is like—at least a life spent in and out of books. A series of readings and re-readings that pain and nourish us. As Hamilton’s final poem tells us: “Why does God tempt us to think about it too much if he doesn’t want / us to? // Because he wants us to suffer” but suffering is never the end, and of course, Hamilton tell us it is right for us to make our coffee and to continue.

Ugly Duckling Presse.

— Review by Madeline Vardell

SKY WRI TEI NGS

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SKY WRI TEI NGS by NASSER HUSSAIN

From Coach House Books, Nasser Hussain’s collection SKY WRI TEI NGS operates within the three-letter bounds of existing airport codes. His resulting poetry is inventive, playful, and never breaks form, making the read a bit of a grownup Where’s Waldo as the eyes try to spot the words inside these trios. Sketches of the globe with flight routes drawn between airports appear throughout—as if to show us the journey the poem has traveled to come into being.

But Hussain’s poems do more than merely play with language and airport codes, they play with familiar narratives too—riffing and rewriting them—from biblical stories to famous poems and poets. “TEN DRR BUT TON (FOR GER TIE)” is one such example, a whimsical allusion to and after Gertrude Stein: “ROA STA COW; MUT TON; BRE AKF AST; SUG ARR; / CRA NBE RRI ESS; MLK; EGS; APP LES; TAI ELS; / LUN CHH. . .” There is even a Dr. Seussian poem, “THE CAT THE HAT,” still composed from airports, but in all lowercase for an emphasized feeling of story-time. To its end, SKY WRI TEI NGS is always clever, often funny, and globally conscious, and without doubt, the perfect companion for your next delayed flight.

Coach House Books.

—Review by Madeline Vardell