Chap Nook 9: Stein, Neuman, White

[Mary]:, J. Hope Stein (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2012)

In [Mary]:, a new chapbook from Hyacinth Girl Press, J. Hope Stein imagines the relationship between Thomas Edison and his sixteen-year-old bride Mary Stilwell. The poems rely on a diverse array of forms and tones to reveal unlikely correspondences between invention, devotion, the erotic, memory, and death. On one hand, Stein’s chapbook reads with the lyric giddiness of newlyweds going nuts with each other’s bodies: “In sticky July, we roll in a bed full of newspaper. Thomas stands tipsy in lit bulb light—His penis still glazed & exotic—This is when Thomas gets his most enormous ideas!” On the other, the poems deftly shade naïve effervescence with the consequences of the power imbalance between Thomas and Mary, the imbalance a result of difference in age and sex. From “Invention of the Electric Chair”:

“Let us agree, there are the things we can see & the things we can’t”
Husband pulls my coat—Splays it—
over my lap (& the-now-what-are-we?)
Ouch!—I am sitting on someone’s knuckles.
The persistent fist opens
under my skirt (& the now-what-are-we?),
I begin to settle into its fingers.
Husband says, “This is what we call the electric chair.”

Stein’s chapbook rolls whimsy, pleasure, and dread into each page, and, more importantly, it situates these complexes of feelings on a large historical scale—the push into a 20th century, urban modernity, a familiar everyday existence underwritten by Edison’s inventions. Stein writes from the point of this radical shift with a compelling ambivalence: “Thomas says, ‘We are not ourselves—we are only a conglomerate of tiny men who work in the factory of our bodies’….Thomas closes my mouth with his fingers—I hold onto Thomas’ wrist—His pulse is a tiny man walloping— // How can I forgive you? (if you won’t say what it is that you have done?)”.

–Joe Hall


The Busy Life, Laura Neuman (Gazing Grain Press, 2012)

The prose poems in The Busy Life, winner of Gazing Grain Press’s first annual chapbook prize, speak several different languages, among them postmodern theory, American consumer speak, and talk therapy. Laura Neuman’s poems pay attention to reading and writing the self, the poem, books, and the Other. The poem “phase diagram” ends with lines that call attention to the reader’s complicity in the book’s existence:

This book will keep you sexless, warm and dry in all kinds of inclement weather, as long as you keep reading it—you are reading it, right? Just keep reading—don’t stop—whatever you do.

Continually calling attention to the physical object of the book, Neuman also draws on the postmodern tradition of writing about writing. A poem called “city” begins, “There is no longer any possibility that we will ever locate ourselves absolutely. Not on bodies, on paper, or on the streets.” Alongside her attention to deconstruction, Neuman cultivates an aesthetic of looseness, wandering, randomness—of seeking open space in which to search for “ourselves,” un-locatable as we may be. However, references in nearly every poem to geometric shapes, patterns, rooms—“Thanks for being in this room with me” (in “a structure with a recognizable iconography, like a pop song”)—suggest, conversely, the speaker/poet’s efforts to identify specific spaces and places. This central contradiction feels distinctly postmodern. The Busy Life’s two main goals necessitate and obfuscate each other, each bearing the other’s trace.

–  Lucy Biederman


Unrest,  Simone White  (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012)

In terse, allusive lines, Unrest reports from the fault lines of learning, writing, reading, knowing—more specifically, engaging in such acts while Black in America. A letter of the alphabet—the first step into the world of written knowledge—introduces each poem. White’s poems are broadly referential, drawing on journalism, the “Western canon,” song lyrics, contemporary poets, historical texts, slave narratives, and critical theory, and the book includes a standard bibliography. Being literate, being lettered, being well-read are all compliments, but compliments complicated by American history: who is “educated” and why? What knowledge is “valid”? And what complex and dangerous things has “being educated” meant for African-Americans since their first encounters with white supremacy? These questions are highlighted by the fact that some of these poems, especially isolated from the series, seem partial and encrypted. Here are the first lines of “E. TWO LEAVES OUT OF LEAVES”:

priceless shame trash no one could have known
priceless. not one more day about the business of pretending
hedgerow spunked is knowledge.

Other poems in the series decode the risks and teach us how to read them, as these lines from “M. LET THE RIVER RUN”:

On one hand, I feel knowledge as an air, a sound the mind makes when it makes it; what sustains and relieves another natural thing doing work in the main order. This does not make me a lung tissue. It hurts me,

savage commerce in aspects. They will want me to say, here, about the person I saw somewhere, do the thing about music, then animals, then domestic work. A brute set if ever. I reject an ashy death, not to say childless,

not to say, as if I could be so late to thinking, all the fat was sucked out.

These poems reject the determination of subjects as “acceptable” or “unacceptable” for some people (here, Black women) to learn, to read, to write. They are located in a body that reads and gets horny and ages and talks on the phone to family, and they show how these basic aspects of life and love are constantly complicated and even interrupted by attempts to manipulate, direct, use and control them: “If not in the scarf-skin, where does it ‘reside’? Do objects have business / ends? In our parade clothes, shall we go to business, only?” and “The wrong medicine / swelled eros, pinced and cracked her thin shell / absurd like a loon’s egg on a broke up pond, / already dead.” If to meet her own needs the poet must meet someone else’s idea of her first—“Grateful sharp, not low, for reading and being lettered under lamps and deeply affable at first light”—how might that constriction surround her success?

If we say someone “knows the alphabet,” we technically mean they know the basics, but usually we mean they know much more than that, in the same way we might say someone is “no fool.”  It’s a deliberate understatement, and this is in some ways an understated text—chewy and concentrated in its dictions and syntaxes. Unrest is a book of banked fires, a book that knows much more than it is saying. More, maybe, than it would like to have to know.

— Kate Schapira