by Christopher J. Adamson
Confessional Sci-Fi: A Primer, by Kirsten Kaschock, 70 pp., $18
Lake Michigan, by Daniel Borzutzky, 88 pp., $15.95
Inquisition, by Kazim Ali, 104 pp., $15.95
The circumstances under which prose becomes a poetic form should be loose and perhaps even a bit arbitrary, like a body is. Some are tempted to see prose poetry only as those wee titled paragraphs, rich in image and lyric logic and pithy profundity, written after Baudelaire’s “little poems in prose” of Paris Spleen. A more expansive view of prose poetry, however, could encompass elements like narrative, character, and length—as Borges’s Dreamtigers does, for example. Such a view would complicate the moment at which, and the reasons why, a longer piece written in prose is not a lyric short story or a lyric essay but actually a poem. The difference between these already shakily defined literary genders is subtle, more felt than argued, but nonetheless important. Important to whom?
To me for one, and also, I believe, to Kirsten Kaschock, whose fourth full-length book of poems, Confessional Sci-Fi: A Primer, emphasizes how the speakers’ lyric interiority reflects larger concerns about embodiment and femininity and how one moves with a (gendered) body in the world, and is written in prose.
It is a haunting and smart book, divided into five long sequences of shorter fragments. In the first piece, “Oh, Lorraine,” Kaschock’s poet-speaker uses the future tense to imagine leaving her husband and children to live in a derelict hotel called the Divine Lorraine, and beautifully twins the “sa(l)vaged” exterior and interior of the hotel with the less literally savaged emotional interior of the speaker. The second, “A Bedroom Community Diary,” is a narrative in abcedarian prose fragments that illustrates, like a David Lynch film, dark perversions and violent delights in American suburbia. “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter” takes the form of a fable, an allegory of the metamorphosis of a young woman named Myrtle; and “After Museum” takes its structure from a museum tour, moving from a lobby to multiple surreal galleries. Finally, the last sequence, “Windowboxing,” engages in figurative and ekphrastic ways with the body, both the speaker’s own and those of dancers she “choreographs” in dances on the page. “I make [the dance] this way: I put a glacier on the stage. // It melts.”
As a poet, Kaschock has a gift for unexpected and revelatory similes. One of her characters sobs “haltingly, as if corseted”; in a flooded basement “baskets rushed between the rooms like midwives”; one speaker commands her lover to “Touch me in the morning, see if I will respond, rise up like a tired plant given water.” She is also a musically playful poet, effectively delighting in the textures of her own kennings and inventions such as “Lapdance lazuli,” “Winnuendo,” or this passage, from the poem “Abandance” in “Windowboxing”:
As in many other poems in the sequence, Kaschock here uses her lyricism to illustrate how women’s bodies move, how they are observed or “read” by others, by the world. The poems in “Windowboxing” draw their impetus from the sonic nearness of widow and window, a readymade metaphor Kaschock gleefully explores: “The illusion of transparency is a problem, as it is with women, vellum … Window, like woman, an invention.”
The “problem” of gender is, in fact, a constant in all the pieces in Confessional Sci-Fi. Kaschock writes in “Windowner” that we “would prefer I not discuss ‘men’ or ‘women.’ The genres,” yet she does discuss them, as I have discussed “prose” and “poetry” here, but in ways that, also like the book’s form, resist essentialism.
Kaschock’s poems reveal how such essentialism is inherited from the bodies that have raised us, which we model ourselves after or consciously reject. “Women carry the worst of their mothers with them like loaded revolvers in beaded handbags,” she writes in “A Bedroom Community Diary.” There are many mothers like loaded guns in this collection, including the Fisherwoman of “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter,” whom Myrtle leaves because “Myrtle wanted anything but to be slave to another woman’s life. She did not wish to be her mother’s helpmeet, soul mate, shut-in.” Including the mother in “A Bedroom Community Diary” who hires men to kill her husband. Including the speaker of “Oh, Lorraine,” who is herself aware of what her children will think of her, of how they will discover her three-month abandonment “decades later in therapy and accuse me.” Kaschock complicates this maternal commonplace with chilling vulnerability a few fragments later in the sequence:
When the doctors removed my first child from me, by allowing me to push (it was necessary that I be allowed), it got very cold. A sudden dry cabinet was in the space I had up until that point not recognized as space. The cabinet grew. When, in three years, I walk into the Divine Lorraine, her emptiness will greet me like a daughter.
The emptiness inside the speaker after the birth of her child—it is the space the daughter occupied in her mother’s body, it is the daughter herself, and it is the speaker’s “genre” as mother. Cyclical emptinesses: “Before I was mother, I defined myself as human. My mother knew I was no such thing” (“Windownfall”).
Of all the memorable, evocative moments in this book, those that I find most arresting are those in which the speaker reads her body in light of how similar bodies are read by others. Toward the end of the collection, in the poem “Windon’t,” Kaschock brings our attention to a video on YouTube of a woman being flogged. The speaker describes the woman’s movement in the video the same way she has described the movement of her dancers in previous poems, and thus is able to see—and also wholly unable to see—in this woman a version of herself.
When the speaker asks if she is “animal,” she is interrogating the condition of her embodiment. Her lyric self, the self that questions and makes connections and who is represented on the page, is not in all ways connected to the speaker, to her body. It raises fascinating questions about how the body and the mind, the dancer and the poet, can be reconciled in form and substance and legibility. I think Kaschock’s attempts at reconciliation here—for they must always be attempts—are important, and a pleasure to read and engage with.
While Kaschock animates the bodies of dancers in her formally inventive prose, Daniel Borzutzky reanimates the bodies of the dead in his latest collection, Lake Michigan. Actually, reanimates is not entirely accurate, for Borzutzky’s dead are not permitted to die. They stay animate, feeling all of life’s suffering. This is the central conceit of Borzutzky’s book: imagining a secret prison on the shores of Lake Michigan on Chicago’s northern border (modelled after the real Homan Square “black-site” on the city’s west side), Borzutzky inhabits and speaks in chorus through the imprisoned dead, the tortured dead, the dead perpetually abused and exploited by the many apparatuses of state power such as banks, militarized police, and politicians privatizing public services and spaces.
This is how the collection reads throughout two sections called “Acts” and nineteen poems called “Scenes.” The devices Borzutzky consistently wields—the we-they dichotomy, unpunctuated lines or paragraphs of varying length, anaphora, refrain, catalog—risk becoming overly repetitive, expected, boring. Yet they don’t. Instead, Borzutzky’s devices beget something like a religious litany from the dead who are not permitted death, rest or freedom.
We refuse to collapse into the privatized cellars of humanity and there is no name for where we will go when we refuse because there are only names for private bodies and we say let us collapse for once and for all let us collapse but our bodies refuse and we thank the police officers for this gift called life
The fascist, doublespeak form of irony in thanking police officers for their brutality, praising their “boots and nightsticks,” is at the core of Borzutzky’s argument: within the current American systems of power, “we” have lost the right to our own bodies, especially when “we” inhabit bodies of color, of the undocumented, of the homeless, of the poor, of the marginalized. In wishing that our bodies might “permanently collapse,” the speakers appropriate the diction of neoliberal capitalism, of unquestionable market movements, just as they have been appropriated into the privatized system of violent debt-based servitude to and exploitation by power.
Throughout all of this, Lake Michigan itself deepens in the periphery. The first Act of the collection begins with an epigraph from Simone de Beauvoir describing the city and its lake in blissful, Romantic tones: “in the sunlight the waters reminded me of silk and floating diamonds … There was nothing to remind one of the squalor with its human wreckage … Chicago appeared as a city huge, wealthy and gay.” Botzutzky quotes this in order to juxtapose these tropes of beauty and wealth with what he sees:
It is an effective critique of the lyric inclination to beautify what must remain as it is, ugly. In fact, in Borzutzky’s hand beauty becomes a form of complicity, a method of distraction, a way to silence truth. As he writes toward the end of the collection, “At dusk they line us up and tell us about the beauty of the trees the beauty of the leaves the beauty of the sand the beauty of the water the beauty of the skyline the beauty of the wind the beauty of our hate and fear.”
Hate and fear are ever-present in this book, and what beauty the poet can find exists in the bodies of the oppressed he speaks through and in the act of speaking itself. In what is one of the most interesting passages in the book, the speaker leaves the sheltered cove of the collective “we” to venture into the more vulnerable singular. The shift in perspective permits Borzutzky to complicate the “they” as well, which in many other Scenes is monolithically, uncomplicatedly oppressive and villainous. The “they” in this moment takes the form of a boy:
What is the “hope” earned by this figure of the silent oppressor, this figure who has lost the innocence of the oppressed? Let’s think. Here is a brief moment of empathy, a moment to acknowledge the ways in which the apparatuses of power work diligently to control those both outside it, the speaker, and within it, the “boy-soldier.” At the same time, Borzutzky draws our attention to language, to speech, to the “impossibility” of representing the world in words. Yet, despite this impossibility, the attempt to represent must be made; the response to injustice, the “scream,” the bite. Silence is death, and “we,” as Borzutzky’s central conceit prohibits us from forgetting, are forever dead, trapped in power’s unstoppable control, praying for “collapse.” As Borzutzky has the mayor of Chicago say elsewhere: “We do not want to merely retain your bodies we want to recondition your bodies … Nothing is more important than your bodies … Your bodies are our machines.” So, the boy-soldier’s hope? Perhaps it is the false hope of complicity, the hope that if one acquiesces to tyranny, one will be spared its bullet.
In the hands of a poet less attuned to the effects of his or her formal choices, this would be an aggressively moralizing and repetitive book. Instead, it is a moving litany that reminds its readers not only that to live within twenty-first-century economies of power is to suffer constant dehumanizing violence and oppression, but also that to scream, to shout, to sing against it is one way we can claim our bodies back.
While Borzutzky engages collectively with the body politic, the polis and the police, Kazim Ali’s latest book of poems, Inquisition, takes a more conventionally lyric—that is, personal—approach in more conventional verse forms to engagement with bodies political, spiritual, and physical. The lens through which all these bodies are explored is the poet-speaker’s own “Queer, Muslim, American” body, to quote the book’s back-cover blurb. Yet Ali is not so dependent on such categories in the poems themselves. In fact, his speakers resist identification, classification, belonging.
In this first stanza from the poem “Origin Story,” one of the best in the collection (and which I would have placed first in the collection), the poet-speaker outs himself as the kind of liar all poets are: a liar who brings coherence to chaos, who belongs only to his body’s “breath” and “sin.” From here the poem follows the movements of Ali’s mind, taking its readers from an airport in Mumbai to scenes of the poet-speaker’s birth in Croydon, England, to his family’s eventual settling in Buffalo, New York: “city of poets / The city of Lucille Clifton.” At this point the poem turns its focus to the speaker’s mother, who has suffered a stroke:
From this confession in the company of his mother’s broken body, her silence, the speaker ends the poem with a declaration of his “mother tongue”:
I am compelled to quote “Origin Story” at length because I believe it represents this collection at its best: long poems, associative in their logic, that provide Ali’s voice its most confident, direct, honest, and graceful vessel. These long poems braid and thus transform the poet’s consistent obsessions, his images and themes, drawing connections between disparate concerns whose only similarities lie in the poet’s mind. For a reader, to be permitted access to these similarities is thrilling and poignant. This is a technique of creative nonfiction, of the essay, but Ali wields it incredibly well in verse. The way “Origin Story” moves from the speaker describing his mother as “not yet verbal” to the final invocation of the speaker’s “mother tongue” imbues the latter, a well-worn trope, with the best kind of new significance, unique to its context. There are several such long essay-poems in Inquisition, including “Amerika the Beautiful,” modelled after Robert Hass’s poem “Bush’s War” but altering the catalytic phrase to “Trump’s America”; and “Marie’s Crisis,” a Frank O’Hara-reminiscent meditation set in a gay bar of the same name after the Pulse Nightclub shooting. These are among Inquisition’s true achievements.
In the many short lyrics that surround these long poems, Ali’s concerns are more devotional, engaging the present “I” to an absent “you” that is often God or a lover or the speaker himself. At their weakest these short poems read like rehearsals for the longer works, but at their best they have the earnest mystery of forms of prayer, as in this passage from “Sent Mail”:
Ali’s belief, “burning beneath the surface” of these poems, is not just that the body is a spiritual vessel; it is also that the body’s desires, functions, identities, and movements are also part of that divinity. In this way he crafts a greater queer devotional poetic from the texture of his lived experience. When, in “Amerika the Beautiful,” the poet-speaker’s Muslim uncle says that the speaker’s queerness is a spiritual “disease,” the poem responds by linking queerness with spiritual practice. The relationship the speaker describes with God is deeply rooted in the devotional tradition, where the erotic and the divine are frequently conflated and intertwined, but queered.
Regardless of the “closeted” nature of the speaker’s spirituality, the impulse here is similar to Kaschock’s when her speaker asks “Am I, Mother, animal?” It is an impulse upward, toward the divine, God and Mother, in order to affirm the body’s divinity in its most fundamental, animal, “wild” form.
The sacred wild body leads the reader to the last poem of Ali’s collection, the more abstract long poem “Apasmara Climbs to the Mountain Lake.” Alluding to Hindu mythology—Apasmara is the “dwarf of ignorance” whom Shiva suppresses by dancing atop—the poem revisits and makes mystic familiar conceits: the poet-speaker’s lack of a hometown, his feelings of exile and of otherness, his mother’s voice “allowed” like prayer “through the pulse of world-noise.” Here the speaker identifies with the ignorant Apasmara, describing his ignorance and suppression as necessary conditions of having a body.
The figuration of God’s body, once erotic, is here masochistic, recalling Borzutzky’s bodies that thank the police for beating them. Ali’s speaker, however pathetic and “unloved,” continues to look upward, seeking like Apasmara “height.” In contrast to “Origin Story,” however, where the end of the poem finds the poet-speaker jarred in embodied guilt, the end of “Apasmara” finds him moving through that pain and shame and all the body’s other attendant uglinesses to a final assertion of life.
Ali could not have found a more direct way to end this book, yet it is effective, moving even, because it says simply what those of us with bodies long to hear. Our complicated ugliness, our ignorant snarl, should not be relinquished; our “poor unloved” bodies should not be relinquished; our brute wish to continue is what makes living possible.
Christopher J. Adamson is a California-based poet, critic, and essayist. His writing has appeared in the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and publications including ZYZZYVA, Boston Review, Southwest Review and previously in West Branch.