Review ‘Somnia’ / Alan Baker for ‘Litter Magazine’

SOMNIA Knives, Forks, Spoons Press / Sep. 2019

“Somnia” by Maria Stadnicka, pub. KFS. 74pp. £10.00

Maria Stadnicka was an established poet in Romania before moving to the UK and gaining a reputation as an English-language poet. This collection is therefore resonant with European and modernist echoes; the text references Camus, Symborska and Emil Cioran, among others, and the influence of surrealism is evident throughout the collection. The poems are written in the plainest language, without much rhetorical embellishment; and yet, as in the best poetry, the meanings are hard to pin down and the poems have a depth of field which stays with the reader after the book has been put down. The poems address war and dislocation in an unnamed land which could be many places, but reminds the reader of the Balkans conflict of the 1990s. The encounter between everyday life and shock of conflict is presented in a dead-pan tone:

On both sides of the frontline,

orchards bloom.

People buy and sell goods,

occupy central squares…

Business as usual.

Gunshots, grenades, mortars.

(from “Landscape with Buses”)

Everyday scenes have a sinister air, enhanced by surreal imagery:

I went to town and took pictures

of people in queue at the shopping mall…

The sun kept in its corner and watched

the autumn busking indoors

when a beggar stopped, asking everyone

for directions to the nearest abattoir.

(from “Particulars”)

The poems are clearly ‘about’ something; the encounter between warfare and everyday, often banal scenes from normal life, and the trauma of flight and dislocation. But this is not plain reportage, and whatever political message it carries is delivered with a lightness of touch that doesn’t propagandise or browbeat the reader. On the contrary, these poems are understated and retain an air of mystery; they give us insights into lives and experiences that couldn’t be delivered in any other way except in poetry. They also encompass the guilt and powerlessness of those viewing events from a distance:

…to become responsible

for a bullet wound, though we have

no memory of ever using a gun,

in the name of each person wishing to be free.

(from “The Gift’s Legacy”)

Many contemporary poetry books have a ‘theme’ – maybe it’s something suggested in creative writing classes – and so often the theme becomes more important than the poetry, leading to predictable and programmatic writing. That’s not the case with “Somnia”. The poetry remains poetry, its light lyricism and pleasure in words defeating attempts at literal interpretation. Here’s the complete poem “Mundane Evil”:

There was a wake going on

in a floor crack. So much old wood

talked back in mother’s tongue

through the opening that I thought

to wait longer for the right moment

and then a close friend pointed out

the rupture took shape, got wider.

My womb coughed out pieces of rubble.

This is a strange poem. The last line could be seen as a metaphor for the perpetuation of violence from one generation to the next, but that’s only one interpretation, and in fact the line, and the whole poem, is elusive and mysterious and strangely compelling. The remarkable thing about this collection is that it tackles the very specific issues of violence, dislocation and trauma in language that is as elusive as that in the poem above. It is poetry rather than documentary.

Stadnicka is not a native English speaker, and it’s interesting to speculate on the properties of poetry written in a second language. In an email to the reviewer, Stadnicka had the following to say in this subject:

“I suppose … my poetry is ‘other than British.’ The metaphoric range is different, the feel might be different, even though I use the English language when I shape my poems.”

What might “other than British” mean? One thing already mentioned is the influence of European modernism and of surrealism, that latter being a movement that never really took firm hold in British culture (the poetry of David Gascoyne notwithstanding). Another feature might be the quality of the language. The flat tone and plain expression make the description of the subject matter that much more powerful and lacking in any sensationalism. There are no poeticisms, and that may be one of the benefits of coming to the language afresh, from a different linguistic basis. It’s hard to imagine someone raised in the UK having written poetry like this. In the same email, Stadnicka says:

“It is impossible to discuss my writing without considering the impact oppression and dictatorship had on me as an individual. Once you experienced life in an orphanage with children dying of AIDS, or you are woken up at midnight to take part in a practice drill for an eventual nuclear attack, once you experienced dictatorship, there is no turning back when writing.”

This is outside the experience of most UK-raised poets; it inevitably affects the poetry, and therefore adds something new to British poetry in addition to the cultural influences mentioned above.

The poems are short and have individual titles, but the collection has a broader architecture; it’s divided into four ‘movements in F minor’ and has an epilogue and a prologue. The overall book is dedicated “to Cain and Abel, and all their neighbours”. The prologue is in the form a witness testimony, and the epilogue is also addressed to “your Honour”. So the book – to put it grandly – is putting humanity on trial. The four movements have distinctive features. The first movement, allegro, introduces us to world of dislocation and conflict, in which “the bullet hits the edge of my book / then sinks into earth like a poem”. The second movement, largo, slows the pace down and shows us a more personal side to these experiences: “When I collected my father’s ashes… I thought to keep them hidden in a pencil case”. The third movement, scherzo, addresses the ways in which art confronts the experience of war; there is a poem called “Kafka”, and another, “Lieder for Two Pianos” in which “half-swallowed lullabies found you / growing hazel-eyed whispers inside my body”. The last section is called “finale” and deals with consequences:

         Orphans but free, the cloth says

then keeps talking to me

about the people I once loved,

who vanished during a blast

as if they had never existed.

If the description of the four movements above makes the collection seem formulaic, this is certainly not the case. This poetry is mysterious, and individual poems can have an almost spiritual effect, like  Zen koans or proverbs. In the last movement, the title poem “Somnia” gives us an executioner falling asleep “with his back against a sharp blade”. In this poem, the violence comes from sleep and dream, and therefore from the human sub-conscious. The poems throughout the collection have a dream-like quality, and despite their directness and plain-speaking – or maybe because of it – offer a sense of mystery, and psychological insight.

© Alan Baker 2020, ‘Litter Magazine’ 1st March 2020.

Somnia is available at Knives, Forks and Spoons Press and pre-order here.

 

Beyond the language of race

 

 

The American poet Layli Long Soldier’s debut collection Whereas was initially published in 2017 by Graywolf Press, Minneapolis. It was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award, and it was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Poetry. A year later, it received the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award and the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize.

Published in the UK by Picador, the collection is a response to the Congressional resolution of apology to Native Americans, which President Obama signed in obscurity in 2009. There were no Native Americans present to receive the apology, as most never knew an apology was made. In an introduction to the title poem, Long Soldier admits that the book was written as a ‘response directed to the apology’s delivery, as well as the language, crafting and arrangement of the written document’ (p.57).

Whereas is built on poetics which refuses the boundaries of reading a racial identity. At the same time, it challenges the making of a nation by transforming the page to withstand the tension of an occupied body, country and, more specifically, an occupied language. Indigenous languages are an integral part of the American lexicon though their systematic silencing continues today.

‘Rocking, in this country of so many languages where national surveys assert that Native languages are dying. Child-speakers and elder-teachers dwindle, this is public information. But her father and I don’t teach in statistics, in this dying I mean. Whereas speaking, itself, is defiance.’ [from ‘Whereas Statements’, p.75]

Whereas includes the acknowledgment of writing as a visual act in forms that take on physical boundaries like footnotes, brackets and stitching, disrupted prose blocks. The poems are shaped or fragmented like grass blades or hammer, or boxes.

be

cause

when I

sweat over

diction James

Welch guides me

his angle a marginal

slope corner arrange

 

ment:

[from ‘Part I. These Being the Concerns’, p.17]

Long Soldier constantly reminds readers of their physical and linguistic bodies, whilst she builds the poems as fields, or people.  This is an unsettling collection which questions English syntax and grammar, disrupting the language at its deepest levels of symbolic representations and meaning. What made me read the book over and over again is the sense of linguistic protest of an artist facing a weaponised American cultural system. As a result, Long Soldier turns the language into a weapon which unearths a deep sense of identity loss, subtly going on under our eyes but unnoticed and unspoken about.

‘WHEREAS I heard a noise I thought was a sneeze. At the breakfast table pushing eggs around my plate I wondered if he liked my cooking, thought about what to talk about. […] There at the breakfast table as an adult I looked up to see he hadn’t sneezed, he was crying. I’d never heard him cry, didn’t recognise the symptoms.’ [from ‘Whereas Statements’, p.65]

Long Soldier is usually referred to first as a Lakota or Oglala Sioux poet, then a concrete or experimental poet. However, her poetry navigates further ahead, excavating, as The New York Times acknowledges in 2017 ‘the language of occupation.’ It also defines a new concept of language created for our own personal narratives. A language which knows no boundaries and restrictions, as our own narratives or pains, know no boundaries and limits. Whereas is an exceptional example of poetry which brings one, face to face, with the possibility of courage in writing. I am now back to reading it. For the fifth time.

©Maria Stadnicka, 2019

Review published in Stride Magazine, 24 June 2019.

Ourselves of Nothing

The Country Between Us firstly appeared in 1981, published in the US by Harper & Row, at a time when the conflict in El Salvador had finally forced its way into public awareness. At the time of publication, The Iowa Review placed the collection among the most notable books of a young poet in recent years. The book received the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award and it was the Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets. The collection has been reissued this spring in the UK, by Bloodaxe Books.

Structured in three parts, ‘In Salvador, 1978-80’, ‘Reunion’ and ‘Ourselves or Nothing’, The Country Between Us explores the socio-cultural devastation of a country ripped apart by civil war. Although Carolyn Forché worked as a journalist and investigator for Amnesty International, and was closely involved with the political struggle in El Salvador, her poems are personal, immediate, and moving. The collection resists the temptation to sensationalise, and responds to Wittgenstein’s definition of poetic relevance through a masterful use of a language of information which does not, however, give information:

If we go on, we might stop

in the street in the very place

where someone disappeared

and the words Come with us! we might

hear them. If that happened, we would

lead our lives with our hands

tied together.

[from ‘San Onofre, California’]

The horrors of war Forché relates are referenced with subtlety and control of the language. In the poem ‘The Visitor’ she only suggests the cruelty of a civil war, in which ‘There is nothing one man would not do to another’ (p.17), whilst in ‘Message’ she alludes to the war’s impact on people struggling to establish a sense of normality:

Margarita, you slip from your house

with plastiques wrapped in newsprint,

the dossier of your dearest friend

whose hair grew to the floor of her cell.

Leonel, you load your bare few guns

with an idea for a water pump and

co-operative farm.

[from ‘Message’]

Forché builds her lyrical power through subjective connections established between herself and the events unravelling in front of her eyes. History becomes therefore meaningful and relevant to readers, who construct references and personal connections. Her directness brings in focus César Vallejo’s poetics, as well as Pablo Neruda’s and Miklós Radnóti’s, through her ability to correlate cultures and transcend times:

When we listen

we hear something taking place

in the past. When I talk to her

I know what I will be saying

twenty years from now.

[from ‘The Island’]

Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of Forché’s The Country Between Usemerges from her ability to confront politics and history, beyond their national and cultural boundaries. It reaches out to a readership who might not ordinarily read poetry. The strength of the collection is underlined by the honesty in exposing human suffering. It is done with sensitivity, maturity and without condescendence. A collection which opens a wider range of questions about the meaning of history:

It is either the beginning or the end

of the world, and the choice is ourselves

or nothing.

 

©Maria Stadnicka, 2019

Published in Stride Magazine, 29 May 2019.