Harm by Hillary Gravendyk (Omnidawn, 2011)
This book was gifted to me by my friend Harold Abramowitz. It’s a difficult book to describe and I’m not sure how to describe how it so sensitively and generously explores the possibilities for hurt and pain by the human body, but also the capacity for growth and love. There is this constant tension between life and death, between hurting and healing, on a general and molecular level that leaves the reader with these pointed sensations, like needle pricks. What of the body when the world is crumbling? What of the world when the body within is failing? Even more intensely sad and heartbreaking since Hillary Gravendyk died in 2014. I regret not knowing more of her before, but am grateful for her words now.
Ahead the sky is winnowed to its smallest feature. Starred with damage, the body. What was promised, what was revealed. A long staircase of wounds. Behind: unseen error. Or accident. Harm winking on, a neon sign that says closed. Pain glused to each window. The rooms shadowed with harm. You offered anxiety, a harness made from are. Curved handle, intention. Harm a kind of adhesive. Skin clusters around the opening, ridged and thick. There are lighter and darker marks. They disclose. Paper echo, gesture. Bleakness along the spine of narrative. Harm flat as a swept floor. As a drawn planet. A bright story is requested. What will be touched? Machines, that flashing support, a threaded needle. And the body, sutured to harm.
We sat on the reluctant
roof, watching miniature neighbors
set fire to each other.
A warm wind on our
foreheads. Cherry bomb
I held the heat in my hand
like an apple—
a temperature, a
Appetite, a front
Mauve Desert by Nicole Brossard, translated by Susanne de Lotbiniere-Harwood (Coach House Books, 1990, Reissued 2015)
This book is phenomenal. I’m not sure where to begin, just that, you, dear reader, should read it. Margaret Atwood says of the book, “In Mauve Desert, Nicole Brossard writes from the point of impact; from the collision between languages, between forms and ideas, between cultures and genders. Her effects too are the effects of collisions: brilliant sparks and white hot fragments, alarm and the possibility of danger, and a momentary light in which we glimpse the bizarrely distorted faces of strangers, which turn out after all to have been our own.” Indeed, there are these places there the language deceives and collides, closes and then opens up these layers within the space of possibility in terms of thinking, but also movement. Partially, it’s a quest story. Partially, it’s a story about desire. And partially, it’s a story about the very stakes of creation: life and language, our bodies stretched out between and over these open spaces, and how we become distorted when we face the landscapes we both love and loathe. The book has a rather complex structure, layers that weave, and so, an excerpt from the very beginning of the book:
The desert is indescribable. Reality rushes into it, rapid light. The gaze melts. Yet this morning. Very young, I was already crying over humanity. With every new year I could see it dissolving in hope and in violence. Very young, I would take my mother’s Meteor and drive into the desert. There I spent entire days, nights, dawns. Driving fast and then slowly, spinning out the light in its mauve and small lines which like veins mapped a great tree of life in my eyes.
I was wide awake in the questioning but inside me was a desire which free of obstacles frightened me like a certitude. Then would come the pink, the rust and the grey among the stones, the mauve and the light of dawn. In the distance, the flashing wings of a tourist helicopter.
Very young I had no future like the shack on the corner which one day was set on fire by some guys who ‘came from far way,’ said my mother who had served them drinks. Only one of them was armed, she had sworn to me. Only one among them. All the others were blond. My mother always talked about men as if they had seen the day in a book. She would say no more and go back to her television set. I could see her profile and the reflection of the little silver comb she always wore in her hair and to which I attributed magical powers. Her apron was yellow with little flowers. I never saw her wearing a dress.
Ashagalomancy by Abraham Smith (Action Books, 2015)
It is true to say that there is no one who writes like Abraham Smith. He is a singular and enigmatic and humble and supremely generous individual. There are few writers who, in their writing, create entirely new systems of thought, language, fortitude, song, myth. The writing is cosmological, so much more than what we can see. In this category I might include Will Alexander, Jose Lezama Lima, Helena Blavatsky. I heard Nick Demske once describe Abraham Smith as a “maniac prophet.” I think I agree with this assessment. Johannes Göransson says of the book: “Smith confects an entire mythic system, singing into existence a universe made of the ruins of the last one, whatever’s lying around the yard. Ashagalomancy shows us the poet at the height of his powers, a poet of reach, tenderness, ambition, a gimlet eye and a vatic voice.” Beautiful, stunning, utterly moving and moved.
IN THE OLD DAYS the bears
fuego rocked in house fires
fell out the back doors
why how did we how come move the sweet confidant campfire
into the sweeter nested into the sweeter rests of the dead
and dig a cave there
and roast the cruel the missteppers there
pretty pretty beautiful in their fuego throes
gifted feathers answer dark
hair attention bolt gold
roots of fire foretell the flower
garden gonzo with not meant
surprised that’s not mint? rune o’wild onion
the woods in winter is a silent fire fair distance lives there
i think a fire dances well is in goodly communion
beautiful in its undulating freaks and rags
i think a cheater plays with fire
i think a fired cheater is tyro via oxygen
i think life is a quick at the great big something nothing all
eat shit that’s a fiery thing to say
oxygen myth that’s weirder emergence
oxymoron digit ducat shut me off boys
if anything i will go against the heart
as a drowned ear as a third dais to
venerate caw caw if anything the heart
is a campfire it tends to take a skill to tending
tho there is this beginner’s luck
about how this and that lean
you can’t just throw it all on there
why not that broken shovel handle too
no a fire requires maximum coaxing
tilt it learn the bird lean nest logic
a Y a V a fallin in love
with a stranger’s shadow ides
and nudging the unreality of yr shoulder again
now that no one will ever know
words are birds of snow not clay
and the hot silence of strangers’
envelopes lit on fire
wit da business end of a smutty cigar
Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles by David L. Ulin (University of California Press, 2015)
A really dazzling and profound meditation on Los Angeles, the spaces within the city, but also the unique characteristics of this particular city which we are forced to reconcile in different ways. I really appreciate how the essays in this book are inquisitive and patient. In a city which we usually are rushing through in a car, the slow walking pace allows one to appreciate, gaze, wonder, ask questions, feel. Bookish writes on the book: “In Sidewalking, David Ulin brilliantly reflects on the city as experienced by someone with a need to walk, a need to savor streetscapes, registering signage, vistas, vegetation, fellow citizens. And while Ulin walks, he thinks: processing traces of history, architectural styles, street plans, demographics, changes. A longtime L.A. Times book critic, Ulin, intimately familiar with the best that’s ever been written about this sprawling, layered city, also artfully folds in the perceptions of others. Memories, observations, bygone L.A., 21st-century L.A.—Ulin’s superlative tapestry makes this the latest of great literary takes on the City of Angels.”
And another excerpt:
from Falling Down:
What do we talk about when we talk about Los Angeles? Is it the city? Is it the county? And what of all those independent municipalities (Beverly Hills, Inglewood, West Hollywood, Santa Monica, Culver City) that exist surrounded on all sides by L.A., neither a part of it nor apart? “Seventy-two suburbs in search of a city,” Dorothy Parker once quipped. The same, to be sure, is true of its history. Founded in 1781, it remains, for all intents and purposes, a twentieth-century dreamscape, reliant, in the most concrete terms imaginable, on the interplay of speed and light.
Here we see what walking offered: a way of keeping the city bounded, of making it small. To move to this place had been, for me, a kind of culture shock. I needed a mechanism to rewrite the landscape in terms I could understand. Only a few months after I arrived, I spent an afternoon with Carolyn See at her home in Topanga Canyon, where she presented a first glimpse of a psychic map of Los Angeles. I had already read her novel Golden Days, with its admonition about the “real” L.A., which “had its thick, coiled root downtown, and on the east, little underground rooflets; obscure Mexican restaurants. Then a thin stem, the Santa Monica freeway, heading due west and putting out greenery, places in this western desert where you’d love to live—if things went right.” Such a vision appealed to me, with its whisper of Manhattan, another long and narrow corridor, bound on the southern side by the freeway and on the northern by the Hollywood Hills, stretching from downtown to the beach. I could visualize that, I could see it; it felt like something I could grasp…