alexis David

The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us from the Void by Jackie Wang

sunflower

By Alexis David

In Jackie Wang’s dreamy collection of poems, The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us from the Void (National Book Award Finalist), Wang casts her own spell over us, the reader. The book contains a series of dreams. When I was young, my sister would always tell my family her dreams at breakfast. Both my sister and Jackie Wang appear to have a deep intellectual inner life. Dreams are a way of sorting out the chaos of this rich interior life.

Wang writes her dreams in an immediate present tense that is both intoxicating and disorienting, “A woman is trying to kill me. At first she acts friendly but then turns on/me. She is spying on me” (33). When I review books of poetry, I spend a long time with them. I carry them around with me to the places I go. While reading Wang’s work, I found myself at a coffee shop with my husband and two of our friends. We were talking about ghosts. Suddenly, a woman with a tattoo of a ghost appeared in the line. We all noticed this and found it strange. My friend tells me that she believes in ghosts and she tells me that after a person dies, you have 40 days for them to stay in this realm and then they must go to the next sphere. I found this incredibly interesting. It reminds me of Jackie Wang’s work, which is so influential on the reader, that I found my syntax changing to replicate hers.

I bring up ghosts because Wang’s poetry is otherworldly. It is partly academic, partly fairy tale and partly just badass. In “Survivor Trauma,” the speaker wakes up from a dream, unhappy to be awake.  She says, “I like the person I was in the dream” (26). There is a sense that the speaker feels more truly herself in her dreams, even if they are, at times, unsettling and otherworldly.

I don’t read poetry in a New Criticism kind of way. I am deeply curious about the author. Because of this, I often search the web for biographical information. I found a talk by Jackie Wang about “the oceanic feeling.” Romain Rolland first used this phrase in 1927 in a letter to Sigmund Freud. It is the feeling of being one with eternity and appears to be related to the Lacanian theory where an infant does not perceive itself to be a different entity from its parents.

Wang’s interest in “the oceanic feeling” may in part dictate an entire book spent dreaming, “In the dream I mutter/Capitalism is not a bed of sunflowers/as I hobble around Wall Street/in broken high heels” (21). This image is beautifully encompassing of the book: undertones of dream states, of longing for a different economic system and oppression of women—the high heels that are broken.

Additionally, this is partly a book of pilgrimage, of a speaker who has “always been without country” (1). In “Life is a Place Where It’s Forbidden to Live,” the speaker is a traveler, someone who is on a journey to “The Asian market,” “the Palace of Snacks” (1). In “The Phantasmagoria of Failure” the speaker talks about “a fellow lost-girl” who “when I hear her speak another/language to her mother. . . it indicated she had been transplanted” (84). It is tempting to say that this is a collection of poems from a writer of color looking for identity; this may be partly true, but Wang writes with a disassociation that I am guessing comes from her view of “the oceanic.” Instead of the speaker trying to fit into a particular country or region, the speaker is searching for something better, a limitless feeling. However, there are also thematic impulses of not fitting in, “D calls to tell me I’m not a real person of color” (14). This book may also be addressing both the loneliness of dreams and the loneliness of perceiving yourself as someone who doesn’t fit in. In “[A Moment Breaking Loose from the Past Becomes the Voice Inside Your Head,” Wang writes, “Here/there is no Friend/just the soundless reverberations of/the disappeared, an errant herd/of revenants who roam the page in search of a body faithful/enough to hold the memory” (124).

Often from waking from a dream, I feel exhausted. My own dreams are strenuous and tiring. Wang’s dreams are more invigorating. They read like small police dramas, like journal recollections with the people in them going by letters instead of their real names.

Perhaps there is a constant need for dreaming: “I said we had a shared dream” (17) or a need for “the oceanic” as a means for connecting with other people, even if these people are, like a figure “Angela” who is a “decapitated angel”(23) that the speaker carries around with her. In writing down her dreams and turning them into poems, Wang plays with the idea of logic. Both dreams and poems don’t often follow our waking life logic. Wang’s poems unnerve us, but also soothe us. This book of poems will unsettle you and by the end of the book, you may feel that you have woken up into a strange new morning.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Sunflower-Cast-Spell-Save-Void/dp/1643620363

Alexis David is a fiction writer, poet, and illustrator. She has published the chapbook, The Names of Animals I Have Loved (Dancing Girl Press, 2019). She holds an MFA in fiction from New England College and a MA in education from Canisius College.

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The Unowned Spaces in Corey Van Landingham’s Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens

love letter

By Alexis David

It is twenty degrees outside; my feet burn cold on the tile floor entranceway to my house. However, I am finding warmth in Corey Van Landingham’s book, Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens. How can you not? It contains such phrases as “star-thistled land in California” (1), “at night the Old Poets’/syllables stair-stepped/around my room” (3), “I studied my father like a god/I didn’t believe in” (17) and finally, “There’s hope in the study of things. That a lost world might stay a little longer” (26). That last line best captures Van Landingham’s book—a study of the lost world that is the past. By both observing the world around her and transcribing it, she invites us into unexpected, unexplored spaces.

When I read poetry, I also often like to read theory. In this way, I can place poetry in the great, wide landscape that is American poetry. In reading Landingham’s work, I am most interested in the idea of an open or a closed text. In Lyn Hejinian’s 1983 talk, “The Rejection of Closure” she grapples with the difference between the two. A closed text has one definite meaning (a detective story), whereas an open text has multiple meanings (certain poems). Heijinian, a language poet and critic, states, “I can only begin a posteriori, by perceiving the world as vast and overwhelming; each moment stands under an enormous vertical and horizontal pressure of information, potent with ambiguity, meaning-full, unfixed, and certainly incomplete. What saves this from becoming a vast undifferentiated mass of data and situation is one’s ability to make distinctions. The open text is one which both acknowledges the vastness of the world and is formally differentiating. It is form that provides an opening.” Van Landingham does this beautifully in her work. Her poems operate as windows that you don’t just look at, but crawl through, uncertain, where exactly you are.

In an interview with Emilia Phillips at 32 Poems, Van Landingham comments, “Language that is too conclusive, that does not call anything into question, lacks permanence. Questions that are easily answered don’t stick around. And the same goes for poems. I am uninterested, ultimately, in answering. Complicating something is much more compelling to me, as a reader and a writer.” Van Landingham certainly complicates her subjects, which is, in many of these poems: America. She examines our complicated civil war, a rough and tough definition of masculinity and our landscape—those places that connect the East to the West.

Van Landingham starts this collection with a prologue poem entitled “Desiderta” (1). In Latin, it means things that are longed for. In many ways, this is a collection of poems about longing. In small ways, there is a longing for money, or at least, income equality, “Long nights I would make my phone/bright and watch the simulated/stock ticker make senseless/money for people I will never/see” (3). A longing for companionship, “Even I, pure in my loneliness,” (18). A longing to be immortal, “When we saw our language/carved in stone, we fell in love with it a little/and hoped ourselves, too, permanent things” (21). And a longing for the future, “If there is a future and I exist in it” (1). This is a collection of poems that watches the world around it and transcribes it into poems, strange boxes of words that we enter, viewing ourselves and the world that Van Landingham creates.

So, many of Van Landingham’s poems read as critical observations.  In “The Goodly Creatures of Shady Cove” the speaker watches boys jumping into water. A boy catches a fish with his shirt and kills it. Van Landingham writes, “For the first time, the girls are terrified of men” (7). Here is a definition of masculinity: brute power, a cruel desire to kill for no reason other than to exert power over something less powerful. But, then Van Landingham twists it, complicates it, “Will you sidle next to the young/women and say something gentle?” Here is a mind that can see both the good and bad of a person, of people. Later in the book in “{Pennsylvania Triptych},” we get a similar empathy for people who go to a civil war museum, “Facing it, the cylindrical room that holds us close to the past, you might forgive a little” (49). Here, the past is tricky, “We want to think we are a benevolent kind ” (49) but perhaps “the problem might be that art outlasts us” (52). There is a sensation in the book that Van Landingham is a skeptical ghost looking at all of time happening always. She approaches the civil war as an empathetic critic watching museum-goers and instructing them to “Leave behind the liter-Cokes . . .leave behind/the texts, the seventh grade history. See with what valor the/men in gray rise towards Pickett’s Charge to be picked from/earth like ants” (42). She turns the poem with these two gorgeous lines, “None were/embalmed with honey. Their horses bloated under heavy rain” (42). Here the speaker exists in the complicated space of being sympathetic to the death of confederate soldiers but also creating an eco-poetic book which gently scorns humans and instead admires “the trees—dwarfing our toy drama. They rise in plumes, toward . . .some/thing” (43). Perhaps rising to the higher power that this book prays to, asking us who does own the heavens. Is it a space created by Gods or by humans?

The title of the book indicates that this is something epistolary about this collection and even more, that the letter writing is for love. In “Love Letter to the President,” Van Landingham, combines adolescent romance with death, animals and masculinity, and power with politics. She beautifully transitions from a “79,000 lb” “monster” (22) humpback whale to a president who “keep[s] your data close” (23). Van Landingham has an easy time moving us from “the names of boys I did what with”  (22) to the “names of the first men I ever loved” (22). It’s as if Van Landingham places images delicately in our mouths. The sweetness spreads, then the sourness. This is a complicated love letter, a complicated open text, but one that ultimately picks us up, moves us to new unexpected, unowned spaces where we end up feeling refreshed, warmed, and delighted by her keen eye.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Love-Letter-Who-Owns-Heavens/dp/1946482617

ALEXIS DAVID is a poet and fiction writer who holds a BA from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, an MA in Education from Canisius College and an MFA from New England College. She published a chapbook called Animals I Have Loved. Links to her published work can be found here: https://alexisldavid.wixsite.com/alexis/writing

References

https://32poems.com/prose-features/living-world-interview-corey-van-landingham-prose-editor-emilia-phillips/

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69401/the-rejection-of-closure

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Summer Reading Recommendations 2021

Top ten book reviews based on readership of North of Oxford

scott

A Little Excitement by Nancy Scott

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/04/01/a-little-excitement-by-nancy-scott/

erotic

Erotic by Alexis Rhone-Fancher

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/03/01/erotic-by-alexis-rhone-fancher/

danish

Danish Northwest/Hygge Poems from the Outskirts by Peter Graarup Westergaard

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/04/01/danish-northwest-hygge-poems-from-the-outskirts-by-peter-graarup-westergaard/

red rover

Red Rover Red Rover by Bob Hicok

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/01/01/red-rover-red-rover-by-bob-hicok/

RAZOR WIRE

Razor Wire Wilderness by Stephanie Dickinson

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/05/01/razor-wire-wilderness-by-stephanie-dickinson/

American Quasar CoverA Camera Obscura Cover

American Quasar by David Campos / A Camera Obscura by Carl Marcum

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/06/01/american-quasar-with-poems-by-david-campos-and-art-by-maceo-montoya-a-camera-obscura-by-carl-marcum/

world

The Likely World by Melanie Conroy-Goldman

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/02/01/the-likely-world-by-melanie-conroy-goldman/

HunleyCov

Adjusting to the Lights – Poems by Tom C. Hunley

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/03/01/adjusting-to-the-lights-poems-by-tom-c-hunley/

savant

The Philosopher Savant Crosses The River by Rustin Larson

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/03/01/the-philosopher-savant-crosses-the-river-by-rustin-larson/

come

Come-Hither Honeycomb by Erin Belieu

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/02/01/come-hither-honeycomb-by-erin-belieu/

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The Likely World by Melanie Conroy-Goldman

world

By Alexis David 

In Melanie Conroy-Goldman’s novel, The Likely World, Mel lets a drug called “cloud” spread over her mouth and wrap her in a state of forgetfulness. The story is told in a braided narrative between the years 1988 and 2010. Mel is a woman whose mind has been fogged by substance abuse and is boggled when a man she doesn’t recognize shows up at her house. A single mother, she struggles with whether or not she should revert back to her addictive, pre-sponsor (Emily) behavior, or if she should adapt to a modern definition of pure motherhood, one where she tucks herself into a neat little drawer and her child becomes her new drug, her happiness, her everything.

In The Likely World, Conroy-Goldman has created a fictional drug that explores why, we as humans, want to forget parts of ourselves. Mel’s job is working for a man named Lew who asks her to create a tidbit of narrative that entices the viewer to click on a pornographic image. Once the viewer does, code is embedded into the computer and is able to replicate itself. This is similar to the drug Mel is using. That need she has, that we have, to forget, to smooth ourselves out, to become ideals of ourselves, to become the people in porn, which isn’t sex but the likeness of sex, the false beautification of sex: perfect people in perfect images whose entire objective is to arouse the viewer. Technology mimics real life but falls short. Isn’t the use of drugs always an attempt to either flee or enhance the actuality of perception? Drugs are an escape, a way out, a glossing over of all the problems we have: “a drug like that, it could smooth you out. All the awkward moments, all the missteps, cloud could fix all the times you got it wrong” (33). It sounds perfect, right? Except for one thing.

In The Likely World characters become ghosts of themselves. They show up to meetings missing hands, missing personalities, becoming people unable to recognize one another’s faces, unable to remember moments of their own past, always living in some kind of strange forgetfulness; their brains are always trying to piece together the whole story.

Conroy-Goldman’s postmodern novel beautifully speaks to the complexity of real life and addiction. Similar to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, it’s a novel about addiction with an affinity for the strangeness of modern life, an investigation into modern brains, which are treated as computers with intricate and complex webs of synapses. Infinite Jest takes a capitalistic look at the future and creates a book with an encyclopedia of citations and endless references: paths that follow paths to more paths to more information, i.e. the internet. He reinvents the form of what a novel can be. Melanie Conroy-Goldman challenges the form of “novel” by writing one with a hole in the center: Mel is a character looking for Juni’s father, the boy she went to camp with, Lew’s video, and a man who came to her house in a SUV.  There is an overwhelming sense throughout The Likely World of trying to get at the center of something. Mel’s daughter, Juni speaks in a type of gibberish, common to babies born whose mothers used cloud. Juni becomes a misfiring computer. The inability of her daughter to speak in real words is another hole, another post-modern stylistic choice: nothing, no one is whole.

This novel is ghostly and strange to read now, during the pandemic, during the post-Trump years, during our technological explosions. After reading it, I felt triumphantly happy for real life. I went to a picnic for a friend and saw that no one there was using their cell phones. I was elated to remember the faces of my friends and how they look in real life, outside, in the natural world, not on zoom, not on photographs on the screen. Perhaps Conroy-Goldman is commenting on our modern lives: put down your phones, give up your addictions, rebel against the attention economy and engage in the actual, real world: the one that already surrounds you. 

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Likely-World-Melanie-Conroy-Goldman/dp/1597098086  

ALEXIS DAVID is a poet and fiction writer who holds a BA from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, an MA in Education from Canisius College and an MFA from New England College. She published a chapbook called Animals I Have Loved. Links to her published work can be found here: https://alexisldavid.wixsite.com/alexis/writing

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