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American Diaspora

Virgil Suarez and Ryan G. Van Cleave

Poetry of Displacement

(University of Iowa Press)

The Entire Hidden Field, Sparking and Rumbling

I looked it up: diaspora is the dispersion of people from their original homeland, which sounds like a typically academic word and notion, but within the context of this wide collection of poetry, it’s useful. In their introduction, editors Suarez and Cleave describe their desire “to delve deeply into the most personal of topics: home” and the United States as “a culture so dominated by speed and movement, it’s no wonder that when we finallly stop to take stock of our lives, we are distanced, fragmented, uprooted lost . . . a nation in self-exile, its people carried on waves of anonymity and yearning.” Their two and a half page opening note is a smart, observant and compassionate piece of writing in and of itself that more editors could use as a model for their introductions.


Suarez and Cleave go on to admit that their anthology, like others, is “by no means exhaustive on the subject of diaspora and, more specifically, exile” and they’re right. Another similarity between this anthology and virtually any other is consistency: there are lots of poems for readers to individually skip over, discard, or shake a head at, poems we’ve heard before, predictable poems, poems ruled by subject matter, annoying poets who think they’re cute, concluding declarations of obvious irony (“this city of angels / so far removed from heaven” from Luis Rodriguez’s “City of Angels”) that end up being anti-climactic and non-insightful. There is Stanley Plumly’s “Farragut North” which reads like expository name-dropping. But he does get a little somewhere: “it became a question of whom to identify with most, / the wanderer or the welcomer.” There are lukewarm poems with a single shimmering grain like the closing of “Coral Way, Near the Roads” by Orlando Ricardo Menes: “Idyllic memories are merely a jeweled noose.” And there is another poem about jasmine, which the world needs like . . . well, fill in your own dirty little analogy.


Valleys are unavoidable, and some readers will certainly like poems I don’t and despise poems I cherish. No sweat, especially since the overwhelming majority of the collection is so refreshing.


There are new (to me) poets who I’m now very glad to have encountered. In “The Emigrant” by Katherine Sanchez, the speaker inhabits each element of the scene, shifting around to speak through four mouths; it could also be looked at as each figure taking its turn speaking, as a kind of quartet. Susan Thomas has a poem called “New York Public Library” which is the anthology’s most pleasant off-note, turning the invention of Ex-lax into a kind of fable, a somewhat lighthearted surprise amidst the poems of remote suffering.


There is a discussion of the displacement of one’s own presumed dialect in Allison Joseph’s “On Being Told I Don’t Speak Like a Black Person” which hits the strong chord “Now I realize there’s nothing/more personal than speech.” The burglar in William Baer’s “Breaking and Entering” enjoys a relaxing moment or two in a victim family’s living room, by himself, where it feels “like home,” another interesting paradox of placement, this need for other, for else, this at-home feeling of elsewhere, the ability to feel whole by knowing fragments, moments.


“The Pallor of Survival” by Laure-Anne Bosselaar is a retrospective lyric-narrative that begins wondering what happened to a childhood friend, then suddenly jolts into the mental slash that arises from a sense of religious and physical betrayal and assault:


. . . I’d seen
what the nuns did to her when she confessed
she masturbated: bending her over, pulling down
her panties to ram the longest part of an ivory crucifix
into her, hissing: HE is the Only One Who Can Come
Inside You — No One Else — You Hear?


The poem’s construction is startling for this, probably the book’s most graphic moment, which is bookended by descriptions of an autumn that is “flawless.”


Marianne Poloskey’s “Colors of a Free Life” investigates how childhood itself is displaced by war, most notable for its brilliant juxtaposition of weather and human conflict: “If the sun shone/during air raids, it seemed/God was mocking us.” Another particularly close metaphor, intimately physical, and to use an abused word — real — comes in Vivian Shipley’s “Digging Up Peonies”: “. . . Like prying / out potatoes with my fingers, I dig up tubers / as if I could lift my father, seeded with cancer, / if only for a day from gravity, from ground.” Especially in an anthology whose subject is at once so politically and personally loaded, such a saving of sentiment is to be admired: I’m moved by Shipley and Poloskey’s crafting of emotion. The danger is the issue, the chest-feeling, the subject overtaking the art so that both are lost, and along with them (and most importantly, the poem, poet, and reader). Robert Creeley’s famous adage “form is never more than an extension of content” has an important inversion concerning delivery.


Halvard Johnson’s “Guide to the Tokyo Subway” is one of the best poems I’ve read in a long time — his is the number one example of an unknown-to-me whose poem I flat-out love. It’s eight sections of a kind of disembodied, imagist lyricism that reminds me of Pierre Reverdy, floating through a place haunted by transience, a place of constant arrival and departure. Like airports, train stations, bus stops, subways, the sense of arrival, although present, is far outweighed by that of leaving and waiting, of a humming emptiness. Just some great stuff in this one: “that incredibly / personal disaster” which is never named, “cherry blossoms / glisten in lamplight”, and this from the third section:


there’s a circle line
around the central city
on which you could ride forever
for a one-stop fare


but the trains here don’t
run all night long
so you must get off somewhere
—be quiet, be quiet—
don’t ask me where


This guy’s good. Another poet I will unabashedly admit I feel honored to have read, due entirely to this anthology, is Liam Rector with his poem “David’s Rumor”, a persona poem from the point of view of a schizophrenic whose drawings, he believes, will be included in “the upcoming publication / Drawings of Schizophrenics in Closed Institutions.” In this case, the displacement is within one’s own mind, where “Schizophrenia, / in this book, is another way of saying / “across the hall” and the Prufrock-like refrain “If I could find the right line, I could balance my entire design” may be one of the few things the speaker can hold onto. There is also a poignantly dislocated line — “if I draw lost enough to listen” — that I wish I’d written.


As for some more established, well-known and familiar-to-me poets, there is the precision of Eric Pankey: “In time, thunder unshackles the rain. / The tassels of pollen fall.” Pankey keeps the fading art of word choice (what better than “unshackles” and “tassels”?) alive, not to mention music that means: “The jay, a blue throb in the holly,/Will scold as it bolts.” “California” by Paul Hoover, himself the editor of a good anthology, Postmodern American Poetry, is somehow detached yet detailed as its tour guide-like narrator scans the state.


Let me say it in my mix of fine art awareness and dumb Virginia Beach punk dialect: Martin Espada rules. Both of his poems apparently come out of his experience as a tenant lawyer in the Boston area, “Mi Vida: Wings of Fright” being a succinct narrative of humility and compassion, and “Thieves of Light” — a poem of conscientious, generous mischief, one necessary function of today’s “political” poets — the story of three strangers who “smuggle electricity” for a woman at the mercy of a seedy landlord. Everyone who reads this, read Espada.


Timothy Liu’s “Thoreau” floors me. The speaker-son has AIDS, and his father’s wife is ultra-homophobic. The night before the poem’s speaking they “read/Thoreau in a steak house down the road/and wept” — it’s an unusual scene, and the poem is so simple on the surface, yet dense in its depths, both lament and protest, bond and departure, social, literary, deceptively simple in its form (a kind of loose syllabic free verse with a slight but masterful variation at the end, and some subtle internal rhyme), just an emotional and poetic knock-out.


Angela Ball’s “Towns” seems to have Heraclitus as an ancestor with its profound close:


I heard of a faraway
ancient village, a conversation
between a Buddhist and a feldspar man
who said, “If we take this mineral,
it will help your villlage.” The Buddhist
replied, “Yes. But our village
will not be here.”


Ball’s poem both laments the passing of and de-myths the existence of small towns: “What about the little towns / so full of themselves once? / The people — this is crucial — / don’t think of themselves as alive / in the center of things.”


It’s no surprise that an anthology of this kind would come along sooner or later, but that shouldn’t take away from its merits. This book needed to happen, both for its subject matter and for its delivery (and -ance). There is obviously more, but I’m most pleasantly surprised by the array of talents, many of whom are young and relatively unknown. I’m no formalist, but it is also interesting to notice how many of these poems are in traditional and more experimental form — sestina, canzone, prose poem, sequence, villanelle, syllabics, simultaneous — tempting me to draw a connection between poetic form being a balm for physical and emotional dislocation, but I know it’s not that simple. To come back to Creeley, and borrow from Hughes, form is just another tool, not a crystal stair.


The last poem I’ll touch on is Michele Wolf’s “Seizure” which bears witness to the body’s sort of displacement from itself, and within the context of the entire anthology, is also an interesting wordplay. The narrative begins with the coming together of a one night stand, where the two strangers are awakened in the middle of the night by the partner’s seizure, estranged from his/her own body, not remembering but knowing what has happened, and apologizes to the speaker. It ends “Over the distance, I rested / The flesh of me next to the field of you, / The entire hidden field, sparking and rumbling” which seems to me to be the most important type of poetic gesture this anthology can make — to find connections and consolations between strangers, and among the movements right outside, and inside, our own homes.

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