“New Spring” by F.J. Bergmann
This poem speaks to a darkness hiding under the brighter promise of the title, and the idea and hope of spring. The piece finds a land that is suffering under the threat of a dragon that soars above before descending to feed on farmer and village. For me, the poem has a more narrative focus, showing the events leading up to the decision of a small group of people to try and defend themselves, and break the curse that winter has brought. To do so, they have to make some rather difficult and violent decisions, including choosing who among them might have to act as bait to bring the dragon close enough to successfully destroy. And for me there is a great sense of change that is wrapped up in the cycles of weather and the appearance of the dragon. On one level, it’s a rather unprecedented event, this force of nature unbound, seeking to destroy all before it. At the same time, it’s not separate from the larger natural world. It’s awakening and rampage is something that can happen, and does happen, though it means the people pay a dear toll. I like how the dragon is in some ways linked to the winter, and to this particularly bad winter, because the cold at times can seem like a living thing stalking people, aiming for them. And these villagers have come to the decision that something needs to be done, mirroring in some ways rituals and festivals to try and bring the spring back. It makes me think that, in the future, this might become something that is reenacted symbolically, but for the moment is deathly real and immanent. It’s a nice visceral read, and leaves off on that sign of hope, that spring might return, though this year at a very high cost. A find read!
“Shoegaze + Suburbia” by Lawdenmarc Decamora
For me this story evokes a sort of nostalgia and grace, a false hope and false prosperity that hides a deeper loneliness and insecurity. At least for me, suburbia embodies this sense that maybe through sameness, through a shared sense of identity, people can pretend to all be successful. But that, in the attempt, it strips away a lot of personality, and individuality, and makes things very much about displays of wealth and conformity. The poem for me captures this in the way it paints this area as a “basement of employment/hopes”, as a place where “To live comfortably is to fall in love/with euphoria”. And shoegaze as an idea fits into this because it implies a diverted gaze, eyes down, trying to avoid the notice of everyone else. It speaks to me of distance, and a failure to connect, of living in isolation even when surrounded by people. Which contrasts for me with the narrator of the piece, who is a professed academic and poet more interested in words, in flow, in human connection. There’s a way that they speak, that they reach for something beyond the sterile, beyond what’s aimed at proper employment or presentation. And I especially like the way the piece ends, because so much about suburbia for me has to do with grass. With lawns. With that unbroken way that then meld and move, sweeping from lawn to lawn in a way that is supposed to link everyone together, but really which creates this sort of border between everyone of space that’s not supposed to be used. That’s supposed to be mowed regularly but not really walked on or played in or anything like that. It’s purely ornamental, and yet the narrator implies that they want to fill that space. With people. With friends. To have a party that has no place in suburbia. And it’s a wonderful exploration of what the suburbs mean, and how perhaps to subvert them.
“Life and Death on the Rocks” by Alexandria Baisden
This is a rather long and beautiful poem about Death. And Life. And the sweet romance that they share, darkened as it is by grief, and fate, and entropy. But brightened by hope, and by desire, and by the willingness to act and to fight for something vibrant and colorful and, well, alive. The Death here is literally named Grim, and yet for all their duty and their burden, they are a bit of a softie at heart. Especially when it comes to Life, their love. The two make for an interesting couple, and I love how the poem builds up their relationship, their draw and their power and how they see each other, not quite perfect because they are so different and in some ways so opposite. But that’s also what draws them together and keeps their relationship strong. What keeps them both strong even as time passes and their clocks begin to wind down. At least, when Life’s clock does. The piece explores what it means that Death here is not really offered the same promise of relief as everything else. I’m reminded of “Death, Be Not Proud” and how it imagines a very lonely fate for Death, for when everyone else is gone it’s really only Death and the void. And I love how that, then, plays into the idea of cosmic life and death. That Death and Life go through the cycle until Life itself is extinguished, at which point it’s just Death until they are able to find Darkness and perform that one last death that actually brings Life back. The big bang in all its glory restores Life, that even with entropy cannot be eternally suppressed. And it’s a fun and moving poem that’s definitely worth checking out!
“YUAN: the Origin of a Family Name” by Yuan Changming
This poem structures itself around the spelling of a name. A family name which, when deconstructed, breaks out into building blocks the author uses to build up their identity. Or, if not their whole identity, the parts that have been passed down, that come to them from the past whole, to form the foundation on which they build the rest of who they are. If the specifics of how they live can be envisioned as a house, then that house to me stands as their personal name, and their family name becomes the land on which the house is built, the part that builds cultural identity. And here that process is complicated by the borders the name has crossed, the distance it has traveled. And that family name then has changed as well, absorbing all that history and meaning and becoming more nuanced, more loaded with importance and layers. And I love how the piece exposes that, one letter at a time, moving through the various ways that the name reflects the family history of the narrator’s ancestors. How, by the time it comes to them, those four letters are so much more than just bits of alphabet. They are each important, vital to the whole, which then becomes a gestalt, more than the sum of its parts. The end result for me is a poem that really looks at what goes into family and into culture, and how all of these things are then attached to every person in the form of a name that means something different for each person, but which can be used to trace back what it means to have that name through an unbroken lineage, reaching toward a past now obscure, but still felt through the ripples of time and family. A great read!
"nakajiru” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires
This piece also looks at family, but I feel in a much more direct and intimate way, focusing on the relationship between the narrator and their father. And for me, the focus is a lot on the aspects of the father, his role as musician but also more deeply a connection to music and language and a sort of poisonous hurt that cannot be long ignored. As the poem moves, it reveals that the narrator and their father...well...perhaps haven’t always gotten on the best. The father seems not only aloof but like he doesn’t exactly take care of himself, and he’s got a finger that’s falling apart to prove it. And I love the contrast between the beauty and care of the father’s music and the sort of disregard that he has for his body, necessary as it is to produce that music. His finger seems to me to be rotting, to be infected with something, and while he’s able to express something like sadness, there’s also an unwillingness to show weakness, perhaps. And the narrator can feel that weight of expectation, the way that the ghost of their father’s finger seem to point at them in accusation, in pleading. For me, the poem is very much concerned with the changing myth of parents, of the father. With that moment that can happen where the childhood image of a parent slips and takes a new examination by the child’s adult self. Here the narrator seems to be getting a peek underneath the careful mask that their father wears, and it shows a very complex man who defies being reduced. The title of the poem means middle, and that’s where I find the narrator. Trapped between parents, between expectations and reality, between what they want and what’s expected of them. For me the poem has a feel of being caught in this one beautiful moment, with this beautiful music, and knowing that it can’t mean for them what it means for their father. And I’m not sure exactly what has come between these two, but I get the feeling that it’s a chasm as wide as difference, that they are two very different people, not really what the other needs, but that’s family. In any event, I think it’s a bit of a haunting and yearning piece that is very much worth spending some time with!
“Ocean’s Child” by Sarah Ang
The theme of family continues here, though in the form of a woman thinking of her sister, now gone, and what it’s like to live in the wake of that loss. And to me it’s a story seeking to make sense out of something that doesn’t really make sense, because here the sister is described as a creature of the sea, as one linked to the waters, always destined to return to them, always pulled in that direction. And for me this does something to mask the grief that the narrator feels, that the family feels. By wrapping the loss itself in a story, in a fairy tale. The sister was destined to return to the sea, to rejoin with the water. Which is beautiful, and haunting, and just seems like something that can’t be argued with or bargained with or prevented. The sea and its magic are simply too powerful, to all encompassing. Which doesn’t erase the hurt of the loss, but it does put it into a context that might be easier to handle. Otherwise the loss would have to be taken in other ways, and the question of why would have to be answered. Why the narrator’s sister? Why so young? What kind of a universe would allow such a thing to happen? This story, this way of framing what I read as an early death, through illness, accident, or other. And as a way of dealing with grief I think there’s so much power to the poem, the way that it captures the sorrow and pain but also turns the focus to magic, and to awe, and to the beauty that remains. It’s a piece that feels like grasping for hope. Hope that the sister is not gone completely, even if the narrator never sees her again. That somewhere in the water, in the rains, the narrator can still feel the traces of their sister, and find comfort. And yeah, it’s a wonderful poem!
“The world is a stage, and the script must change” by Julie Nováková
To me, this poem focuses on the ways that art can be alive with political power, using metaphor and language to challenge the status quo and push for justice, and yet how sometimes the very same work can feel like a foolish endeavor, people playing pretend on stage while others watch unmoved. The poem’s focus seems to be, after all, on war and theater. Acting and fleeing and the different ways that artists can fight against oppression. Not always successfully, as has been the case sometimes in the past when artistic communities have stood up against corrupt and authoritarian regimes. Indeed, because of the power they have the emotions they can evoke, artists and actors are often targets of government censure, and the narrator of this piece seems to be trying to avoid that fate, forced to run because war is sweeping, because theater might seem just make believe next to the bullets and blood of dictators. And this actor feels powerless in the face of what happens, despite knowing and believing in what she does. She’s left to put together some way of making sense of what doesn’t make sense. Because life is not always like a play on stage. The tragedies don’t always resolve into something beautiful and fitting. And comedy can seem a lifetime away. Once off the stage, life is often messy, is often cruel, and often seems to prove the futility in trying, because all one’s careful effort can be erased by the flight of a small hunk of metal. A single spark. But there resides the hope I feel is in this poem, too. That art does matter. That actors can make a different with their craft, and their words, and their metaphors. That they can inspire, and can refuse to give up, and can take even senseless tragedy and create from that a meaning and a message and a reason to keep trying. So yeah, it’s a poem that I feel gets at the power of art in times of violence, in the face of violence, and though it’s not an incredibly happy piece, I don’t think it’s a bleak one. Instead, it finds a fragile but lasting beauty that keeps going, even when all seems lost. A fantastic way to close out the poetry and the issue!