red hen press

Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me by John Weir

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By Charles Rammelkamp

In the story “Katherine Mansfield” John Weir writes,

I don’t really understand friendship. If you’re in extreme need, I’m your best friend. Otherwise, I’m not there. There’s no second act in my life, but there’s a first and a third. I don’t do middles. I’ll stick around to fall in love and watch you die, but nothing in between.

Having lived through the slow, horrific death from AIDS of his close friend David, the author is experiencing a kind of PTSD. He feels survivor guilt. In “Humoresque” he writes: “My friends died and I didn’t.  Or: I should have died and didn’t. Or: in 1984, I figured I’d be dead I  five years; who didn’t?” Similarly, in the title story, “Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me,” he writes: “I’ve watched friends die, and I have never been any help except to hold you and say, ‘I’m sorry.’”

The first part of this collection, called “AIDS Nostalgia,” includes seven of the eleven interconnected stories, almost all of them alluding to Dave. Indeed, the very first story, “Neorealism at the Infinplex,” begins: “My friend Dave died of AIDS in the fall of 1994.” In “It Must Be Swell to Be Laying Out Dead,” he tells us, “He’s the first person I speak to each day, the last one at night. Phone calls early and late. Every day for the past five years has started and ended with Dave.” In “Scenes from a Marriage,” he helps Dave in the bathroom at a Broadway theater as he sits on the toilet, “his pants and diapers on the floor.”  His care of his friend is intimate and visceral, up close and personal. He feels helpless but responsible, anguished.  “How can I help him? I’m not a doctor. He’s my best friend, but he doesn’t want me to touch him.,” he notes plaintively.  Later in “Scenes from a Marriage” he writes, “By 1994 in New York City, AIDS had become routine, even as it stayed occult, a minority affliction.”

Yet Weir is also very funny, witty, especially in the voice of the manic, wisecracking David. He writes, “Now he’s dying, and I’m jealous. I’m competitive with Dave’s death. It’s all he cares about: dying, not dying.” And Dave, frustrated and desperate, lashes out at his friend/caregiver: “I’ve got news for you. You’re not the Messiah. You’re a fag. I’m a dying fag. I win the Suffering Sweepstakes. You think this is happening to you. Well, it’s not.”

“Katherine Mansfield” is a story about his romantic relationships soon after David’s death. Besides Marc, a successful singer/songwriter who regards Weir as his muse, there’s Phil, a younger guy he meets in an acting class. These relationships are doomed from the start, of course; Weir is too traumatized by death. He notes wryly about Phil, “A relationship that consisted of acting exercises, and an age difference big enough to span Madonna’s career, isn’t equipped to survive….” Elsewhere, he describes random furtive encounters in peepshow booths.

Movies, musicals, and stage plays are alluded to throughout these stories. Three of the stories – “American Graffiti,” “Scenes from a Marriage,” and “Humoresque” – are movie titles, as is “Imitation of Life,” the title of the third section, which contains only one story, the ominously titled “It Gets Worse.” “Katherine Mansfield,” by the way, is the name of the narrator’s friend Marc’s band; it does not allude to the British modernist writer, though Weir’s literary allusions abound, from Barthes and Foucault and Vladimir Mayakovsky to Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allan Poe, Thoreau, Stephen Crane, Robert Frost, Eudora Welty, Jack Kerouac, and so on.

Weir humorously channels the gay trope of worshipping camp actresses. In “American Graffiti” he writes, “I was an actress. I yearned to be. I still do. I wanted especially to be an actress in 1970s Hollywood movies. Those women!” He goes on to name-drop “Jane Fonda, Jill Clayburgh, Ellen Burstyn, Barbara Harris, Cicely Tyson, Carrie Snodgrass, Cloris Leachman, Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Diahann Carroll, Karen Black.” He compares himself to Tippi Hedren in The Birds.

The three stories that make up part two, “Long-term Survivors,” also focus on death and dying, including his mother, now in her 80’s, and an on again/off again lover/survivor named Scott.  His mother lives in a retirement community and has just suffered a brain hemorrhage. “My mother is a movie star without a movie to star in,” he writes in “Humoresque.”

Just as in real life – indeed, it often feels hard to distinguish between fiction and memoir and essay in Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me – the narrator is involved in gay political causes, protesting with ACT UP for AIDS research and care, and with Queer Nation, notably a protest outside the Russian Consulate in New York against Vladimir Putin’s Medieval laws against homosexuals. “We’re here, we’re queer, we’re only drinking beer,” they chant, as they pour out Russian vodka onto the pavement.

By far the most affecting stories are the ones that describe being bullied and called names in his rural New Jersey schools. Not yet even sure of his sexuality, he is nevertheless singled out and tormented by other schoolboys who taunt, “Faggot!” “Fairy!” “Fruitcake!” “Homo!”  “American Graffiti” takes place during his graduation from high school in 1976. As he crosses the stage to receive his diploma, the taunts are audible to all. The story is about his friendship with a girl, Lottie, whose parents seem to assume they are a romantic item. It’s a confusing time for both. The final story in the collection, “It Gets Worse,” takes us back to an even earlier time, in middle school, when the taunting began. “I was president of the fourth grade,” he writes, “my peak. Downhill since.”

Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me is entertaining and heartbreaking by turns, always a gripping read.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Nostalgia-Killing-Grace-Paley-Fiction/dp/1636280293

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Sparring Partners from Mooonstone Press, Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.

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The Skin of Meaning by Keith Flynn

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By Lynette G. Esposito
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The Skin of Meaning by Keith Flynn published by Red Hen Press, Pasadena California is, according to Quincy Troupe, author of Ghost Voices Keith Flynn is a brilliant, bodacious poet at the top of his sonic, linguistic game in his new volume of poetry The Skin of Meaning with poems that dance of the page in arpeggio of light, gripping the reader’s imagination, and taking American poetry in a new exhilarating direction. This is high praise, but this volume of poetry delivers.
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In one hundred and eighty-one pages, Flynn covers themes of faith, violence, the justice system and more.  He unafraid to be frank and clear in his images and message. In his poem Climate Change on page fifty-three, he discusses what God sees when she observes what is happening.
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                           If you want to know
                          what God thinks about
                          Wealth, then closely
                          observe the people
                          She decides to give to us.
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He proceeds in the ten-stanza poem filled with color and image to show how the premise works. In the seventh stanza he speaks of a scorpion necklace and in the final stanza of a polar bear seeking a berm of ice to rest its skinny fur on. The expanse of the poem is broad and inclusive with references to nature in its many states.  His skill with linguistics and suggestion is successful.
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On page one hundred and seven, Flynn expores the theme of Stylish Violence.
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                         Into this life I am poured
                         a trip wire, and the tears
                         I shed yesterday, whose
                         circumference are everywhere
                         have become rain.
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He is speaking of the conflict of the poet to create lasting beauty and what this entails. He uses situation and image to reveal what poet goes through mentioning witches and beach walks, a long arm around how a writer is affected. His final stanza brings closer:
                    ……….
                     No one is immune to the drive=by,
                     the random spree, the knock at the door,
                     and the stranger, straddling the original
                     choice, with a whirl-wind for a voice.
Flynn captures the wide boundaries and internal demands the poet faces when he creates.
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Flynn also shows violence in the too common occurrence when a deer is hit on the road in his poem The Long Black Road on page one hundred and thirty. The poem has seventeen stanzas that are all couplets.  He opens the poem with:
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                   Having been chased into the roar and clash,
                   trapped on the Pennsylvania Turnpike,
                   even the 10-point buck, agile as he was,
                   could not escape, no way to fudge this.
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Flynn has set time and place clearly with a situation that can only end in a negative manner.  It does.  The buck is shot in the head to put it out of its misery, The couplets go through the steps of the buck going down and on-lookers and responders dealing with what has happened.  The final couplets are vivid.
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                  One wrong move from death’s certain broom
                  Damn things ought to learn, the trooper said,
                  and turned his back on the night.  All the drivers
steered past, thankfully trapped behind their steel
                  and glass, their futures fixed and their suitcase
                  packed, right foot firmly planted on the gas.
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The tragedy of the buck and the lack of emotion by those passing by gives the reader a death chill the image is so poetically cold.
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This is a wonderful book of poetry.  It is well worth more than one read.
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The Skin of Meaning is available from https://redhen.org/book/the-skin-of-meaning/
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Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University, Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. She has taught creative writing and conducted workshops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Esposito holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois and an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Rutgers University.
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American Quasar with poems by David Campos and art by Maceo Montoya + A Camera Obscura by Carl Marcum

A Camera Obscura CoverAmerican Quasar Cover

Two New Titles from Red Hen Press

By Greg Bem

As we continue to live our days through the latest chapter in our ever-unfolding, shared pandemic, and emerge from the darker months toward the light of the summer, two new titles from Red Hen Press arrive, and they are fantastic. These are not necessarily optimistic works of poetry, though they positively invite us to return inward and see the universe reflected within the self. I cannot recommend them enough.

The words of these poets who stare across the facets of existence, from the limitless sky to the great expanses of desert are pushing, pushing forward to question, reflect, and question further. These two distinct collections of verse, honoring many paths of the literary canon, are bountifully lyrical and entrancing. They arrive in our times of collective need, and shine upon the worlds that have continued to exist, worlds complex and beyond our human conflicts, burdens, and shadowy loss.

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“[. . .] plunging further into a continuum you recognize as your own.”

(from “[* * * *] No 4 [ Fata Morgana ]” in Carl Marcum’s A Camera Obscura¸ page 70)

A Camera Obscura by Carl Marcum is a book that feels full, feels like it is inspired by life itself (minutely and grandly) and the pact of pondering through a poet’s daily travels. This collection is filled with lines that stop us dead in our tracks, seek out the closest distance—the inevitable horizon—and beg to the nothing and the everything around us, “Why?”

It is an existential book, but it also takes the reader far from the gentleness of existentialism and philosophy. A sense of imperative action fills in the gaps between each stanza and leaves the stark poetry shivering in the zone of illumination, exposed like epiphany, insight, resolution. Poems often start with small keys that twist and unlock fuller worlds through textual portals. Insight is provided into recesses of our daily existence. One example is “Word Assimilation” (page 48):

If you’re looking for truth here, it’s only in passing.
If you’re looking for her, she’s in a room dreaming.
If you’re looking for them, imagine no English.
If you’re looking for work, see me at the door.

Marcum explores the border between the root of existence and the fringe, the tangential, the subtext. What is front-and-center and what is leftover, and why, becomes a series of questions that leads us to catharsis through their answers. All of this, provided in the narrative of the poems, opens further and further, a poetic field that is meta and direct at once.

Marcum’s work moves through the multilingual shadows, operating somewhere between Spanish and English, finding harmony (and harmony’s antithesis) within the translation of language and everything that occurs after. The poems in A Camera Obscura feel almost spontaneous. And yet they are process-oriented, just as the world is sculpted by infinite processes, infinite moments of translation, just as the hushed blend of cultures do their dance and the poet finds the self within that hush.

The poet’s voice is strongest in its acts of defiant questioning. Just as many before Marcum stared into the heavens and demanded answers, so too does he look upward and outward through his poetry. The cosmos is, throughout this collection, a grandiose muse, often starting and, subtly, ending each poem. In “Ojo de Dios” (page 60), Marcum begins: “Simple to understand: a star like our own that’s shed,” and closes: “Whose gaze is this? Whose soul growing exponential in darkness?” These are brilliant flashes calmed by darkness, by potential, by a sense of the beyond. The speaker grows through descriptions, through the process of describing, and by the ultimate loop into self-reference.

Time collapses into blank
& buzzing light. Something is bound to happen.

(from “Purgatory Adjacent: A Dreamscape,” page 39)

There is much to discuss with A Camera Obscura and, as its title alludes, much that alluded and cannot be directly seen. Overall, the book is an exceptional collection of elegant, intelligent verse. Each page, each poem unfolding, the lines felt monumental and momentous, creating worlds of text that last with flight and weight, paradoxically. Still, the joy resonates with the poet’s care intact upon each page. It leads to something, if not identifiable, still curiously certain in its sustained presence.

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All the mirrors are broken. and the sun refuses to show you my shadow.

(from “A Town Hall in America in Five Movements: II. The Condition of My Heart,” page 29)

There is also much to discuss with Red Hen’s additional release featured here, American Quasar. The work features visual art by Maceo Montoya and poetry by David Campos. It is a wholly different but familiar work, one that aligns well with Marcum in its concerns and forays. The cover of American Quasar features a figure, back to the viewer, hunched over and staring at some distant horizon, with stars spilling down into the frame. It is a mesmerizing image, and one that aligns with the core of the book and its many visceral images, which are scattered throughout the book, neither dominant nor submissive to the poetic text.

The book is divided into two sections: “American House Fire” and “Quasars.” The former includes distinct themes of transformation and disintegration within the poetry and its American images. The text focuses on ecology—namely drought and rain—and seeks to examine the objective and poet’s landscapes of America. Drought and rain, deprivation and provision, serve as accessible carriers for the larger conversations of the United States, the region, and beyond.

Within American Quasar is a world of dissipation and disappearance just as it is a world of discovery and identification. It is about seeing, about understanding through definition, and about incomplete and undiscernible truths. Campos’s work “This American House” (page 37) is a fantastic example of the poet’s commitments, as it evokes mixed desire and cynicism at once:

When I dream of America, it’s only as big as a house, a home where all our roles are left on the doormat. I don’t just wipe my feet, I scrape off the crumbs of my desires and leave as is my unkempt mouth.

The poem is attached to another image of a figure by Montoya, this one a silhouette, who is bathed in light or fire, and the image contains a single textual caption: “there was no judgment” (which is also in the poem). The tone contains multitudes: stoicism, fatigue, solitude, and reverence, to name a few.

Each poem draws out a core, undeniable question: how many stories within the context of America, of the United States, of the “house fire” proverbial and literal throughout the West, emerge through writings like these? Campos’s writings, alongside Montoya’s art, investigates humanity in an age of barred immigration, barred inclusion, militarized borders, and the ongoing narrative against connection, love, and compassion.

How long has it ben since America looked
into a mirror and saw its true reflection?

(from “Historian of Buried Stars,” page 45)

A later poem, “The Dormant Quasar in Our Center,” is matched with a similar figure to the one described above, but features a stronger, invigorated stance with vertical stripes that move upward and downward, dynamic and static together. The poem closes, “Please. Tell me / the unraveling sky hides no stars. // Tell me it gives all its breath to the empty.” (64).

Campos explores the world and, much like Marcum described above, reaches a newfound symbolism of the external and internal. Campos’s strength is in the visual, the image-oriented approach to crisp, clean verse. He connects to greater phenomena using extended metaphors and loops of images and ideas. It is a poetry capable of blending the microscopic and macroscopic into a single, unifying understanding. The result is the emergence of allegory, mystery, and beautifully complex imagery, as with the work “The Human Condition is a Drought” (page 17):

is this why the rain has stopped? Are there no more names left in our mouths?
The only water left is in our blood; everyone hides a knife in their pocket.

American Quasar holds a marvelous place in the contemporary Latinx poetry canon, one that can be examined again and again. Both it and A Camera Obscura make great readings as the sky opens up and beckons us into the possibility of life throughout the summer.

You can find the books here:

American Quasar with poems by David Campos and art by Maceo – https://redhen.org/book/american-quasar/

A Camera Obscura by Carl Marcum – https://redhen.org/book/a-camera-obscura/

Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at gregbem.com.

The Likely World by Melanie Conroy-Goldman

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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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The World Began with Yes by Erica Jong

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A Desire for Wholeness, the Wholeness of Desire: The World Began with Yes by Erica Jong
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by Larissa Shmailo
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In the nineteenth century, literary women who made their sexual desires known died gruesome deaths, such as the arsenic anguish of Emma Bovary and the decapitation by bourgeois rail of Anna Karenina. In Fear of Flying, Erica Jong’s second-wave feminist classic of sexual liberation, Isadora Wing gets away with sexual exploration with her body and soul intact, one of the first major heroines to do so. However, twenty-first century #metoo messages confirm that female sexuality remains a place fraught with danger and a rising tide of antiabortion laws warn that women’s bodies are still not their own. Safe physical desire is still an intellectual and grey-shaded literary exercise, and Jong’s fantasy of the “zipless fuck” with no deleterious sequelae is still mostly fantasy:
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The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not “taking” and the woman is not “giving”. No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.
— Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (1973)
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Jong goes on to explain that it is “zipless” because “when you came together, zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff. For the true ultimate zipless A-1 fuck, it was necessary that you never got to know the man very well.” Perhaps because as real men often can’t hear a woman’s no, they may also be unable to hear her yes. Jong ensures that they will with The World Began with Yes.
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Like Isadora Wing, we search for wholeness – physical, intellectual, sexual, and spiritual. And with Jong, we demand a place in the world for our bodies, free and unfettered, alive and abounding in zipless pleasure. The World Began with Yes guides that search, and frequently and successfully finds that happy terra firma where a woman may be whole, body and soul. Like the Rumi of the book’s epigraph, Jong’s poems are sensual and simple, philosophical and drunk with life. They eagerly and ebulliently engage the other. With no little joy, we find that here the zipless fuck has evolved: we can know the object of our desire and be known, have our lust and eat it, too, and from that dialectic, create an interdependent synthesis, a greater us:
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It was always yes,
come in, welcome, eat me
merge with me, love,
let’s join to make another
little bubble of us
who will seem like us combined
but turn out to be another.
— “The World Began with Yes.”
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The 77-year-old Jong sings a joie de vivre absent in the depressing muses of younger poets. Her themes are from an existence that is both every day and sacred, personal and universal. Grandchildren and goddesses cohabitate. The main thrust of all the poems is a dervishing passion, an elemental dance of mysticism incarnate:
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If we could imagine
beyond our body’s
borders,
we would remember
our connection
to the sea —
how we join
molecule to molecule
in the rush
to be together. …
—“One”
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To bring her happy news home (she rejects the televised type), Jong employs wonderful sound values: assonances, consonances, internal and end rhymes. Elegantly arrayed, these emphasize the sensuality of the “Yes” poems and their celebration of the “fierce force of life.” Insistently of the body, the poems banish shame and guilt.:
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We are made

to break each

other’s boundaries &

save each other’s
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skin

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for sin

does not exist

unless you insist

on death.
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—“Spanking”
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Connection, physical connection is the path to the soul and disembodied phantoms may type, but do not love:
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What is a Facebook friend?

Without smell, without taste,

Without smile, without guile.

Is a Friend a friend?

—“Facebook Friend”
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True to her avocation as writer, language, that physical portal of the psyche, that spiritual touch, is a leit motif in the Yes collection. Like Rumi, Jong has drunk the wine of her poetry:
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Poetry is
the most important
meal of the day,
without which
we sicken,
we starve.

—“Your Eggs”
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And
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Language

is more than a garment.

It is the poet’s skin.

It is hair.

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It is flesh.

It is us:

—“Emily Dickinson: A New Daguerreotype”

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Poetry is truly for Jong “the Word made flesh,” a tactile and universal transubstantiation; Jong concludes in “Writing Poetry,” “we r all / writing / one poem.” And as William Carlos Williams had it, you may indeed die miserably spiritually and sensually for want of what is found there.
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In The World Began with Yes, it is as though Jong is trying to physically touch us with her words, to wake us, hug us, spank us. The Yes poems go mano a mano, toe to toe, skin to skin with their readers and are a right continuation of Jong’s mission to free the female body, to claim the full rights of our physicality, to endow us with the zipless joy of communion, union, sex. There is a transcendence beyond the fears of #metoo and the defiant waves of feminism, a hope for a joyous and liberating us. If we are to fight, then we are to remember what we fight for, the rush of dandelions, the effortless fall of rose petals, the knowledge of ourselves and the other as we dance the poet’s Sufi dance.
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Larissa Shmailo is a poet, novelist, translator, editor, and critic. Her new novel is Sly Bang (Spuyten Duyvil). She is the author of three collections of poetry and is the original English-language translator of the Russian Futurist opera Victory over the Sun.

http://www.larissashmailo.com/

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