Refuge by Ming Holden (Kore Press, 2018)
Ghost of by Diana Khoi Nguyen (Omnidawn, 2018)
Oil Spell by Claire Marie Stancek (Omnidawn, 2018)
The rich tradition linking poetic voice and alterity dates back to Homer, his epics, and his invocations to the muses to sing not to but through him. For many poets writing after him, the voices that inhabited literary texts were not their own, but instead an otherness that speaks through the poet, who is only a vessel. For H.D., this presence was the unconscious mind. Jack Spicer, on the other hand, described it as radio transmissions from outer space. For practitioners of collaborative writing, this otherness was instead a “third voice” that belongs to both of the collaborators and, at the same time, neither of them.
This conceptual framework, in which the poet is merely a conduit, challenges our beliefs about the ownership of language and literary texts in a way that is entirely provocative. The problem, however, is that responsibility and agency are entirely displaced. It becomes difficult to hold the writer responsible for words that are not their own. Three recent hybrid texts, however, skillfully combine a rich tradition that links poetic voice and alterity with a sense of social responsibility. Ming Holden’s Refuge, Claire Marie Stancek’s Oil Spell, an Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost of reframe this poetics of otherness as a form of activism and advocacy. For Holden, Stancek, and Nguyen, the otherness that speaks through the poet is not the unconscious mind, or radio transmissions, but rather, a collective voice, one persistently threatened with erasure.
For these three talented creative practitioners, the poet becomes a conduit for collective utterance. “Let us rise,” Stancek declares in Oil Spell, as though speaking for the many disparate voices that will be unearthed, and placed in conversation, over the course of three polyphonic texts. And as these dispatches are “sent over many waters,” the poetic text serves a documentary function, becoming a kind of ledger that resists the elisions of history. As Nguyen herself states, “Let’s admit without embellishment what we do with each other.”
* * *
In Ghost of, Nguyen presents narrative as a kind of conjuring. This is because all of speech is a shared endeavor, as one cannot form words without borrowing from a larger historical imagination. “Let me tell you a story about refugees,” she writes midway through the collection. The speaker of Nguyen’s poem serves as a vessel for these kinds of shared utterances, the book a ledger of all that has been elided by historical writing in a more traditional sense.
It is the space of poetry that offers an opportunity to close the gaps and fissures of more traditional histories. What is especially compelling about Ghost of is that this imaginative labor is made visible as Nguyen avails herself of a wide range of experimental forms. Histories and narratives appear with palpable “hollows,” a “separate space” within each text that is left untouched. As the book unfolds, the reader discovers the missing piece – that “lost glove” – in close proximity to the “empty house,” the “negative space” whose silhouette matches the shape of the language that “drifts” apart from the rest.
Nguyen writes, for example, in an untitled piece midway through the collection,
ng: a n oce
an o f sou
nd b etwe
en w aters
Presented with a smaller text circle on the facing page, Nguyen’s formal choices speak to the ways that narrative, and the stories that make us ourselves, persist. They manifest against – and in spite of – erasure. “There is, you see, no shortage of gain and loss,” she tells us. As the book unfolds, Nguyen shows us, tangibly and viscerally, how history’s elisions shape – and circumscribe what is possible within – narrative. Her work poses what is essentially a profound question: how violence shapes – and in some ways makes possible – meaning, and how our lives would mean differently in a more just society.
A “poke berry,” a gift. “Like some strange music, the world starts up again around us,” Nguyen writes.
* * *
Holden’s Refuge continues Nguyen’s compelling exploration of collective utterance and social responsibility. Taking the form of a book-length lyric essay, Holden involves the reader in the shared narrative she creates through her evocative use of white space. In many ways, the discrete episodes that populate “Refuge,” and the cavernous space between them, mirror the book’s descriptions of disappearing traditions, stories, and ways of life. “No one positioned to inherit their space,” she writes, “Simple.”
Yet Holden complicates the seemingly “simple to describe” movements of history. “Violence and its aftermath disrupt the very systems of the mind,” she tells us. Like Nguyen, she makes visible that “aftermath”. At the same time, she places the reader in an active role, involving them in the task of rebuilding that “mosaic that might best honor” those who have been silenced.
What’s more, Holden fearlessly and honestly confronts the ethical problems inherent in speaking for the other. She writes, for example, when discussing her work for “Survival Girls,” a humanitarian organization that provided arts therapy to women,
Through my attempt to comprehend, the woman who is the referent, the woman violated, has been violated here.
Here Holden raises what are essentially profound questions: Does the task of documentary poetics, and the shared histories that it often creates, empower, or does it take away agency? When does a shared history or collective utterance become an act of violence or appropriation? As Holden considers these complex ethical problems, her innovative approach to prose writing fully does justice to the complexity of her thinking. In Refuge, it is the white space, that “disturbance,” that “trauma,” that makes room for the other to speak.
* * *
Like Holden and Nguyen, Stancek envisions the act of conjuring as a kind of resistance. Drawing from many of the contemporary cultural moment’s “dark energies,” she interrogates the unique possibilities of poetry, and its specific artistic repertoire, for effecting social and ecological change. For Stancek, language is both a “lucif blast” and “illumination, a spark that floats down” to meet us. With that in mind, Oil Spell prompts us to rethink how language is used, bearing us from the utilitarian model we’re familiar with to a linguistic structure without ownership, hierarchy, “solitude,” or “abuse.”
Stancek’s anti-utilitarian approach to language manifests visibly in her presentation of the work on the page. By availing herself of a wide range of experimental forms, she jostles the hierarchies we associate with language and parts of speech, offering us only a “stray thing” and the “ravages of time.” In many ways, this dismantling of hierarchies becomes an invitation to the reader, a pathway into the book’s imaginative work. For example, she writes,
Electrocution and airplane strikes shepherds BARNACLE GOOSE
with guns ON THE GRASS UNDER CORVUS CORONE
THE SHADE OF SOME HIGH TREES hurry into construction
NEAR THE RUINS cones overturned
Here the audience is prompted to find meaning, and create cohesion from the “electrocution” and “ruins” of a séance. For some readers, the task may prove disconcerting, even discomfiting, yet this is precisely the point of the poet’s formal experimentation.
In such a way, Stancek raises compelling questions about the nature of voice, alterity and appropriation: When does the poet have permission to serve as a conduit for the language of others? When does this kind of divination become an appropriation of voice, narrative, and identity? And when is it an act of service, a form of resistance against the erasures and elisions of history? As Stancek considers the ethical problems implicit in this kind of artistic endeavor, she offers us a poetics of conversation, dialogue, and response.
The text then, becomes merely a conduit, as the reader speaks through the fragments they are given. Stancek, like Holden and Nguyen, conjures through – and is conjured by – her accomplished and innovative approach to poetic craft. As Stancek herself writes, “full moon goodbye.”
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Kristina Marie Darling is the author of twenty-seven books of poetry, most recently Ghost / Landscape (with John Gallaher; BlazeVox Books, 2016) and the forthcoming Dark Horse (C&R Press, 2017). Her awards include three residencies at Yaddo, where she has held the Martha Walsh Pulver Residency for a Poet, as well as a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, a Fundacion Valparaiso Fellowship, and three residencies at the American Academy in Rome. She is the recipient of grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund. Her poems appear in New American Writing, The Harvard Review, The Mid-American Review, Poetry International, Passages North, Nimrod, and many other magazines. She has published essays in Agni, The Gettysburg Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Iowa Review, The Literary Review, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She is Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Quarterly, Associate Editor-in-Chief at Tupelo Press, and a contributing writer at Publishers Weekly.