In Search of Mariachis by David Shumate

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In Search of Mariachis In Search of MariachisDavid Shumate; Epiphany Editions 2012WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder Since I blogged about Russell Evatt’s We Are Clay last week, Epiphany Editions have re-launched their website with order buttons, previews for each book and a design much more reflective of the aesthetic of the print editions, which are things of absolute beauty. In Search of Mariachis is a masterpiece of the book designer’s art, so if you are as afflicted with book lust as I am, it might be worth ordering for that reason alone.

I was also pleased to get it for the contents, however. David Shumate is a prose poet of some renown with two full-length collections out from Pittsburgh University Press, which — I should point out for the uninitiated — is one of the best poetry presses in the country. And reading this collection was a pleasure only partly attributable to the fine homebrew with which I lubricated my reading. It had fairly typical proportions of poems I liked a lot, poems that did nothing for me, and poems I thought were O.K. but not earth-shattering: roughly a third in each category. A more exacting reviewer might condemn the book for not being amazing on every page, but I personally feel a lot of poetry reviewers need to chill the fuck out. I enjoy an experimental spirit, which means taking risks and sometimes (often?) not quite making the mark.

One of the things Shumate does in this collection that doesn’t always work for me is play with notions of exoticism, as signaled by the title. In poems such as “Waking Up As a Buddhist,” “Curry” and “Darwin’s Beard,” speculations that are presumably intended to sound humorously ill-informed just strike me as inexcusably ignorant, especially in an age of smart phones, Google and lots of actual Buddhists and Hindus in our midst. I have a hard time seeing these sorts of people as exotic any more, I guess. “Waking Up As a Buddhist,” for example, begins:

Sometimes you may wake up and find you’ve become a Buddhist. You realize its [sic] illogical because you’ve never taken lessons in Buddhism or had a Buddhist sprinkle water on your head or do whatever a Buddhist does to become a Buddhist.

As day goes on the bliss wears off, and that night you even have un-Buddhist dreams.

But in your final dream a deer comes and licks your face and you’re a Buddhist again. Your heart so full of compassion you feel like calling up your enemies and thanking them for being alive.

So at the end “you” recognize compassion as being more central to the religion than bliss, which had proved so transitory. The poem in fact wouldn’t be a bad critique of the mind-set of novice Buddhists, had it not been framed as an exercise in magical realism.

“Talking to the Woman in the Yellow Kimono” finds the narrator “at a loss for words,” which isn’t entirely inappropriate given the extent to which Japanese do in fact idealize wordless communication. The narrator considers raising stereotypical Japanese subjects with his interlocutor: flower arranging, haiku poetry.

But that might appear to be empty flattery. So when she bows, I bow back. And I sip the tea she’s poured for me. Thus we build our little pagoda of silence. Plank by plank. A structure so fragile, a single syllable would bring it crashing down.

Again, a good conclusion for an O.K. poem. But there are a number of poems that kept my interest from start to finish, so perhaps I should mention a few of them instead. “The Immigrant’s First Day of School” is a pitch-perfect mix of the predictable and the unexpected: “You learn the name of the desert you walked across. The history of the night.” And the ending was a little gut-wrenching:

Your teacher points to the place where you are living now. It is green and seems situated in the center of things. You take home a few sheets of paper. Your mother meets you at the bus. She’s wearing her colorful shawl but looks like she has shrunk.

Another poem take the narrator-as-avatar-of-the-exotic-other idea to its logical extreme. In “The Village of Miraculous Happenings,”

We’d like our lives to return to normal. We’d like the rains to fall on their own rather than each time the librarian claps. We’d like our thoughts to be private again. We’d like our deaths to take us by surprise instead of always being foretold. We gather in the chapel to pray for this daily.

The notion of people with lives so magical that they are beset by busloads of tourists being reduced to praying in vain for normalcy is a delightful conceit. The collection is liberally sprinkled with thought-experiments like this. A couple of others that struck me as especially successful were “The Meek,” which supposes that the meek really are going to inherit the earth, but of course are too meek to claim it, and “After They Plundered the Language,” which imagines the aftermath of a marauding barbarian horde which “made off with a thousand precious words.”

There used to be a gentle word we spoke when we wanted to be intimate with a lover. It conveyed both good faith and desire. Now we must paint our faces red. Do a little dance. And set a hat by her door.

As these quotes demonstrate, Shumate has a strong preference for short sentences or sentence fragments. I personally find the effect a bit monotonous, and wish he would have varied the sentence structure a bit more. Still and all, this substantial, attractive and entertaining chapbook assumes a place of honor in my growing collection of prose-poetry.

We Are Clay by Russell Evatt

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We Are Clay We Are ClayRussell Evatt; Epiphany Editions 2012WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
The title poem, I learn from Google, was originally titled “That We Are Clay.” Would it be too far-fetched to suggest that losing the “that” is emblematic of this poet’s progress from the slough of bull-slinging toward a firmer ground of revelation? Yes, it would. Still, winning the first chapbook contest from a magazine called Epiphany ought to count for something — especially when the hand-sewn, letterpress-printed result is as beautiful as this one is. And the element of bull still present in the otherwise unaltered text of the poem could well constitute an evasive maneuver. It begins:

We Are Clay

I am a city pigeon. One
step ahead
of dogs. Always
on the lookout
for bread.
Don’t test me.

He’s kidding himself, right? Clay pigeons are targets for shotgun practice. But this pigeon tries to distract us by retreating into the realm of the theoretical:

I wonder what you are
if I am a bird.
The lady throwing
bread, breaking it off
in pieces? The crumbs
falling to the ground?
This is sex. I’m not
the pigeon. I’m
the clown
with the camera.

Clowns were once numbered among the priests and shamans; clowning can be a serious business. “The bigger the room, the louder God’s voice.” That’s the whole of a tiny poem titled “Huge Catholic Cathedral.” Another poem, “A Playground Skirmish as the Beginnings of War,” betrays the influence of Vasko Popa’s Games:

The men stand in a circle until they realize
this isn’t a conducive scrimmage
and disband. One plays hopscotch. Another jumps
a thick rope.
Still another does the hula.
One man sees this and tries it with barbed wire.
Doesn’t work.

In “Man,” the games become more serious yet. A boy dislocates his little finger in a neighborhood game of football, and his father turns away from his Sunday television and “wrapped his arms around the boy so he couldn’t move as the pinkie was popped back into place.” The boy thinks he hates football now, but soon enough he’s back playing with his fingers taped together “because that’s just what he needed, to get back out there, not let anything stop him.” So American, this vignette. Especially given its placement in the collection between “Victims’ Bodies Arrive at Airport” and “Bad Water.”

One of the things that sets the U.S. apart as a developed nation, of course, is the extent to which religious discourse and belief permeate our society. It’s always bothered me that so few of our poets seem willing to grapple with this aspect of the culture. So I was especially pleased to see Evatts returning time and again to religion, as in “Ancient Civilization”:

When you say
missionary

I think of sex
then God.

Is this important?
Is the hour

upon us?

This is in the context of a relationship between lovers who do not want to commit and barely manage to communicate, which might or might not be a metaphor for something else. In “Noise Control,” the poet himself pauses to wonder if the central image is a metaphor, which I might’ve found annoying if that image (of a deep-sea “monster” that may be killed simply by bringing it to the surface) hadn’t been so compelling. Still, this kind of mock-wrestling with meaning is all too common these days, especially among younger poets, and therefore probably wouldn’t interest me so much if it weren’t for the counterpoint it offers to the truth claims of religion referenced in so many of the poems. The book ends with a shopping trip for “Groceries in the Afterlife,”

a place where you wander, pushing a cold steel cart in front of you with a stuck wheel, a place where the lights flicker and the freezer units hum hum hum.

I read the book to Rachel over Skype, and we each liked a number of the poems, but often not the same ones — which is unusual for us. I think that speaks to the high level of experimentation here. Evatt rarely plays it safe, and he never shows all his cards. How seriously are we to take poems such as “Huge Catholic Cathedral,” or one called “I Told You So Sonnet” with its 14 extremely short, unrhymed lines about what would happen if the sky actually fell? Is he putting us on? Does it matter?

Perhaps we readers are like the people in “Sketching People” — but which ones? Because, as the protagonist explains, there were two kinds of people: those whom he tried and failed to depict on paper, and the ones he actually did depict who failed to appear, and may not even exist. “My drawings would not change this.” It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from a failed god — which is to say, a clown.

Movie Plots by Nick Admussen

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Movie Plots book kit

This is syncretism at its most perverse — idiosyncretism, if you will: the word made celluloid, the world herky-jerking past in a series of unplayable movie pitches. Our hero is an author with half a mind to leave us in the lurch. You print the pages yourself following instructions on the web, fold them into the stiff gray cover they send you in the mail and prick your fingers with a needle sewing it together, all for five dollars: Epiphany Book Kit No. 1. Thirty poems square as movie screens, albeit mostly taller than they are wide, set in a font from 1680. I start them while I am making breakfast and overcook my eggs, but the eggs, eaten with “Murder Mystery,” are still delicious. It is not the first time I’ve read the poems, but it’s the first time I’ve read them in the intended order. This time I see how each movie begets the next, but I lose the sense I had the first time of being in on the joke, perhaps because I am imagining how I would film them: Nick’s text as script for a documentary narrated by someone more sonorous than God, or perhaps dribbled out into closed captioning while something entirely different plays on the screen, such as footage from a minicam strapped to the head of a dog or the security cameras from a 24-hour peep show, though the latter might be so meta as to cause a feedback loop. Without reopening the book, what stuck with me? Bullets getting married, a knife-ship big as a house, a superhero named Peace who saves the day with one eye-popping blow, the Zhuangzi butterfly turned into a sci-fi virus, the wit, the energy, the sense of things flying out of control, the desire to stay in the theatre for another long read.

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read four of those books, one a week starting April 3 — or even just one of the four. Details here.