(Dallas, TX: Deep Vellum Publishing, 2019)
Deep Vellum — known for publishing award-winning translations out of its eponymous bookstore in the historically neglected neighborhood of Deep Ellum in Dallas, Texas — has come out with its first ever chapbooks of original poetry. With Fatima-Ayan Malika Hirsi’s EVERYTHING GOOD IS DYING, Edyka Chilomé’s El Poemario del Colibrí/The Hummingbird Poems, and Mike Soto’s Dallas Spleen, the independent publisher has put its money where its mouth is, in a manner of speaking. Though the publisher has an international appetite when it comes to manuscripts, Deep Vellum has also championed art made by locals. This trio of chapbooks is the fruit of long years of labor — and politicking for the importance of the literary arts within a community. The books have been birthed in conjunction with the City of Dallas’s Office of Cultural Affairs, whose grant funded their production, after Deep Vellum lobbied the city to include the literary arts when thinking about supporting cultural projects financially. That is, putting its money where its lip-service so often is.
The books feature the work of three poets, all Dallasites, from a diversity of backgrounds and traditions — academic, cultural, and poetic. They also feature different configurations of the concepts embodied in the words each poet chose when asked about the starting point for the poetry within their individual chapbooks. Rage. Joy. Narrative.
For Hirsi, EVERYTHING GOOD IS DYING is about the rage she feels confronting the daily realities of being alive in this historical moment. Her poems are timely, informed, and often full of fury. As one poem’s title declares “hell hath no fury like me”. But if all the poems contained were screeds and rants, then reading the book would be tiresome, even tedious. Instead, Hirsi’s poems are often funny — in how they point out the obvious in novel ways — and even charming. That word might be too precious, but for someone charmed by clever turns of phrase and poetic skill, the poetry in EVERYTHING GOOD IS DYING is, in fact, quite charming throughout. Take for example these lines, which appear in “Revised OKCupid Profile”:
Reading the news
despair cozies up to me
like a cat wanting attention
Last week it got in my car
I noticed an ad for The Masked Singer on the back of a bus
It took a moment to process reality no joke
this was a real show gathering enough viewers
to warrant grand advertisements through traffic
At my mother’s house a morning show
discussed the previous night’s episode
Smiles Laughter Total surprise
We can forget the world is burning because some
celebrity wore a rabbit suit
There’s a joy in the narrative here — which isn’t the same thing as being happy, or naïve, or ignorant. But as Hirsi herself said at the launch of these chapbooks: we must find joy in the moment; it’s all we have left. Her poems offer little moments of joy — while still always acknowledging, even drawing their main force from, the fact that the world is indeed burning. As she asks at the end of another poem:
How do we find a happy ending
if we are the villains unable to flee
our own nature
Edyka Chilomé answers that disquieting question with the idea that joy is a profound act of resistance. Her work El Poemario del Colibrí/The Hummingbird Poems is explicitly founded on an unfettered joy she discovered within herself while grappling with the rage she feels as an artist, an activist, and as a descendent trying to reracinate herself in the soil of her ancestors. In choosing to write bilingually — as her title with its duality suggests — the poet intentionally works to build a bridge between generations forced apart by the vagaries, victories, and viciousness of history. She wants her narrative to resonate with and be accessible to both Anglophones robbed of their native past as well as Hispanophones who’ve suffered the same fate, all while encouraging their children to assimilate into “American” culture without losing themselves entirely.
Chilomé says in her epilogue: “Everything I write is a practice in contemplative discipline. I wrote this (book) mostly as a reminder to myself to practice the honoring of joy in an age where we are inundated with images and stories that numb us or keep us addicted to anger and sadness.” So where Hirsi draws on those “images and stories” and refuses to be numbed — and is instead enraged — Chilomé resists the temptation to be “addicted to anger and sadness” by writing. As one of her poems puts it:
of a bird
wise and tender
fierce and illuminated
By offering El Poemario del Colibrí/The Hummingbird Poems, the poet is arming her readers as well — with a constant song of joy as resistance.
In Dallas Spleen — the third part of this remarkable trio — Mike Soto also arms his readers, but in a radically different way than his fellow poets. Where Hirsi’s work embraces her rage and Chilomé’s draws strength from her joy, Soto’s drives a relentless narrative from poem to poem. Written in stand-alone chunks of prose poetry, Dallas Spleen is a dystopian vision of the world to come. A world of “Voluptuous austerity”, to borrow a phrase from the poet. Soto writes: “It could be the last / Sunday on earth, but it isn’t. The streets could be under curfew, but / they aren’t. Several blocks of silence.” These lines encapsulate the eerie familiarity deployed throughout the work — of a place not quite alien enough to dismiss, but not so recognizable as to trick the reader into missing the immersive, discomfiting allegory.
Along the string of narrative pearls, the poet deftly warns where his beloved hometown — and by extension the reader’s world — may be headed. Dallas is both a real place and a stand-in. Both a victim and purveyor of “(v)oluptuous austerity,” as in this poem:
A city of beauty & functional fitness that embraces quality of
life. Content to be held in the present. Thriving while long term
remembering is held at bay. Voluptuous austerity. Modern Love the
next level of human progress, where it will be won or lost. To be
free of the past one must be firmly out of its reach.
Soto warns against not only austerity — voluptuous or otherwise — but also, like Hirsi and Chilomé, he resists being content with only the present by forcibly remembering a time before, the Dallas of his youth. The work’s narrative “I” watches and wonders and puts the pieces of a lost Dallas back together — if somewhat imperfectly — from the shards of the past left over from the destructions a future present demanded. It’s as if Soto has turned himself into Dallas’s spleen and is processing out the bad bits through poetry, through noticing, observing, commenting — he’s cleaning the blood, the lifeforce of his city, like an organ designed to do just that for the health of the body politic.
In another set of lines, he seems to capture a thread running through all the chapbooks, the throughline of a narrative composed of equal parts joy and rage: “(…) Once, having to walk home in the swaths of darkness / between the light towers, I found what must have been an old neon / sign intact & illuminated. When I got closer I saw it read, FREE / DELIVERY. (…)”
These three poets from Dallas all ask — in their own unique ways — free delivery from what? What are we being delivered from in this historical moment? and is that deliverance worth the price we pay, even if that price is free? Poetry may not save us, but when done this well, it can shine a light into the darkest corners of reality — and, hope against hope, show us a way out of the shadows of our own constant making.
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p joshua laskey currently writes in Dallas, Texas. He is co-founding Artistic Director of Theater Galatea and founding co-publisher of Indomita Press as well as Associate World Literature Editor for The Literary Review. His published work includes original, adapted, and translated plays as well as original and self-translated short stories, flash fiction, and poetry. For his work, he has received the Toyon Literary Magazine Multilingual Award in Translation, Multilingual, or Spanish-Language Writing, which was awarded to a self-translation of one of his short stories. Find out more at www.pjoshualaskey.com.