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.

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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.

 

Carrying the World

A chisel, a hammer, a lyre; reportage, intimate feelings, quips and criticisms. Maria Stadnicka’s poems are clusters of consciousness, graphic, material images of our world. Her language assaults, bends, cajoles, thrusts a saber into the darkness of the very language she employs to explore death, degradation, the non-recognition of the human individual, war, urban violence, in short, the all-too-present context of our daily lives. Is there an element of grace, a lyrical thread, an invocation of human beauty? Yes, if one can continue to believe in this beauty while contemplating the profound alienation and marginalization that characterizes contemporary Western societies.

Although Stadnicka writes in English, her native language, Romanian, is always close to the surface of the words, forging and sculpting the associations that create the poems’ presence. Her language mirrors the human mind, elliptical at times, obsessional from time to time, fragile and reflective when the moments present themselves. ‘A moon of salt unravels / the shadow between years, / unfolding a passage / grey chapter about mortality’ offers a lyrical entrance to the book. The reader moves swiftly into the core of Stadnicka’s vision, ‘the wounds of freedom’.

One of the most beautiful poems in the book is ‘Restituto’. Transformation of thought and body occurs as the voice of the poem articulates the ars poetica, an incendiary gesture born out of an already-condemned historical contex:

I covered my face with black ink
rounded all my possessions up
set fire to everything.

The gods hid in a poem
with a fresh loaf.

Just us now slicing away
to the end of my days.

What concerns Maria Stadnicka? How do these strangely forced collages that are hermetic and yet entirely exposed allow the reader entrance to her world? She is speaking about the discontinuity of personal space and the intrusion of economic and political forces in an individual’s life that leads to fragmentation and, ultimately, to the dissolution of one’s reality. The chance for the existence of a future or even the future is removed. Literature becomes the communication and solidarity that permit the step towards wholeness. In Stadnicka’s poems social, personal, and literary landscapes are fused and at times must be forcibly dislocated, both repositioned and torn apart, so that one can continue. The reader is drawn to the quote from Czeslaw Milosz that frames the book: ‘So much guilt behind them and such beauty!’

The title poem, ‘The Unmoving’, dislocates the predictability of images and pulls together the motifs of Stadnicka’s poetry. A book slips, the world is seen as ‘a time-capsule sent flying into space’, a missile wakes the ‘half-dreaming’ narrator, someone is walking down the motorway, people materialize with a dog for sale, ‘The music absorbed what was left of Rana Plaza’ and the reader is once again confronted with the Savor Building collapse that killed 1,134 people in Bangladesh. The narrator is displaced and ‘The ground settled between reference points.’

In a sense, The Unmoving is a defense of the marginalized, the poor, the displaced and disabled. The poems create a sense of urgency and mystery. The only escape from the imposed absolute of non-being is resolution to go forward illogically and irrationally free. ‘For the first time, I / walked. Blind, absent. / I became tomorrow.’

@Andrea Moorhead, 2018

Review published in ‘Stride Magazine’.

‘The Unmoving’ is available here.

Questionings, rememberings and imaginings by Rupert Loydell

Imperfect, Maria Stadnicka (52pp, Yew Tree Press)

http://www.yewtreepress.co.uk/Yew_Tree_Press/books.html

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Imperfect-Maria-Stadnicka/dp/095620385X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1497303213&sr=8-1&keywords=maria+stadnicka

The simple grey and black cover of this book –texture perhaps taken from a tree or wall, with a white crack or line separating author’s name and book title – is in many ways apt for what the reader find inside: a collection of beguiling, uneasy poems that probe ideas of love, politics and human experience.

The work reminds me of Charles Simic’s and Yannis Ritsos’ poetry (I don’t mean it is derivative), and also the gentler end of Vaska Popa’s work. There is the same clarity of images and voice with little metaphor or allusion. Instead a kind of surrealism is at work in the direction the narratives take, in the thought processes being evidenced with their jumps and asides, their sometimes awkward and surprising conclusions. In ‘Settlement’ the narrator has ‘no further questions’ for God, so instead offers him a ham sandwich; in ‘Bad Luck’ the poem moves from a fall through Googled medical self-assessment to burns and then self-immolation, but even as the house burns a neighbour pops in to talk about the weather and running out of tea bags. In ‘Good Bye Then’ Clara’s ‘giggle melted in a slice of bread’.

As Jay Ramsay points out in his back cover blurb, in many ways this poetry is ‘other’. This may be because of Stadnicka’s experiences growing up in Romania, the effect on her of the Cold War, a slight awkwardness in the details of English (e.g. ‘Good Bye Then’ or ‘it stopped me / understand the real life’) or simply her poetics. Whatever, Stadnicka has now found a home in Stroud, in language, and clings on to a hope that underpins the poems, even if this is belied by poems like ‘The Calais Sea’, where

After weeks and weeks of travels,

for the last time, I put my bags down.

I am done with hope.

The lingering tragedy

of what I could be if

we had the right words for tomorrow.

Elsewhere, in a world of inevitable death, madness, broken families, soldiers, barbaric politics and dehumanization, even when there are ‘no other survivors’, ‘even without a language’, Stadnicka defiantly demands that she ‘go on / being allowed to hope’. And does.

This an exciting and urgent first book of poems, that gives me hope for contemporary poetry. I look forward to the next instalment of Maria Stadnicka’s questionings, rememberings and imaginings.

Copyright: Rupert Loydell 2017

http://stridemagazine.blogspot.co.uk/#!/2017/06/questionings-rememberings-and-imaginings.html

‘Imperfect’ is now available ….

 

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This is it. The book is done, the summer arrived. ‘Imperfect’ is published by Yew Tree Press, Philip Rush, Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK and printed by Andrew Morrison, Stroud, UK. Price: £10 with free P&P.

http://www.artistsbooksonline.co.uk/andrew_morrison.shtml

Curator: Jay Ramsay

Photography: @Joss Beeley

Please order the book at mariastadnicka@yahoo.co.uk