Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo
Sundress Publications, 2016
Your Daily Horoscope by Nik de Dominic
occident by Gillian Olivia Blythe Hamel
Called Back Books
Two weeks ago, I finished reading Paul Metcalf’s strange hybrid work I-57. I’m still unsure about all of my thoughts on the odd work—its mix of quotation, generative poetry, fiction/memoir, and driving log; its simultaneous critique of and advocacy for Americanism and manifest destiny; its similarly complex critique of and interest in how the masculine figure occupies space; the way Metcalf uses history and fact to both build and erase an understanding of location—but there is one aspect of the book that does feel secure in my mind. Throughout the book, and possibly throughout his entire ouvre, Metcalf proposes a distinct relationship between the written word, the self, and the space a speaker or reader occupies.
In I-57, the narrator, who we can identify as a Metcalf-adjacent speaker, tours the area around Interstate 57 in the days surrounding his 57th birthday. The photographs, poetry, and prose in the book envision the interstate as a spine for the region’s people and economy, mirrored by the spine of the book that holds together the pages and words, mirrored by the spine of the speaker and of the person reading the book. Each of these informs our understanding of the other through the book, and the book seems to argue that our path to understanding ourselves is contained within these passages from one form to another.
I thought of this relationship when recalling a reading I recently participated in at the Poetic Research Bureau in the Chinatown neighborhood of Los Angeles. The other readers that night were Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, Nik De Dominic, and Gillian Olivia Blythe Hamel. As I listened to each author share work from their recent collections, I was entranced by the bodies of work each of these authors presented that differed in marked ways but which, that night, came together to present a new and joint body of work existing in the negotiations between our shared space, our shared languages, and our shared selves.
Bermejo’s debut collection of poems, Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge, begins with a goodbye:
“Solano Says Goodbye”
I moved to Solano Canyon to feel close to history, to coax Chavez Ravine ghosts from darkness, to ask hills to speak. By day, I explored trails and encountered discarded mattresses, old shoes, water bottles, loose newspaper pages: signs that ghosts were not ghosts at all. At dusk, the canyon swelled with coyote ballads and cactus lessons, but at night, lost objects and the left-behind people they belonged to danced around my bed. Night air was strange with spirits. Always a curious girl willing to see a path past its bend, I’m ready now to turn around, pack up and find a place more like home. I leave this for those who want to find home too, but can’t.
The poem is a tracing of what is, what isn’t, what was, and what is imagined. Ghosts are sensed as ghosts, then recognized as bodied within objects, which themselves become ghosted back into the language of the poem, and finally the sounds of Bermejo speaking the words. Each poem is a welcome and a goodbye, looking forward to the next thing that arises in the poem as it simultaneously leaves the last circumstance behind.
These questions of home presage a core concern of Bermejo’s work: the ability for one to find and choose one’s home, Or, more specifically, the right of a migrant to survive their path across the desert to the United States. The poems move between Bermejo’s personal concerns building her life in Los Angeles and her outward advocacy for the dispossessed and imperiled. Both desires are to build a home, but the starting point of each requires different challenges.
Near the center of the collection, Bermejo presents the reader with a longer litany poem “Things to Know for Compañer@s: A No More Deaths Volunteer Guide”. Each page presents a short prose piece headed with the question “Did you know?” Each page offers facts, suggested memories, shared experiences, and the realities faced by migrants from the perspective of one wandering the desert hoping to help:
Did you know?
There will be a moment when you fantasize crashing water gallons down on the rocks, throwing off your pack, collapsing on the trail and quitting. This is when you are to stop and rest. There are people in the desert who are never allowed to rest.
This litany destabilizes an origin point of speaker and receiver. These could be statements made from Bermejo to us, her reader. These could be statements made by the person tasked with preparing Bermejo and the other new volunteers about to brave their task in the desert. The realization of this destabilization emphasizes that our current states of existence are tied to circumstance rather than our bodies. The reason one of us is not a migrant and another is is due to the vagaries of birthplace and global economics and politics. Bermejo asks us to do more than sympathize or empathize with another. Bermejo’s poetics forces us to encounter the tenuousness and negotiation of each of our bodies and consider the connections and disconnections between them. It insists on an ethics of the individual and humankind.
De Dominic’s work offers another path for thinking about the body and the self. Reading from two series, his debut chapbook Your Daily Horoscope and a new series with the shared title “Dear Wolf”, De Dominic sets the body as a locus point that shifts between, or perhaps contains, or perhaps emits, both hope and degradation.
During the reading, De Dominic alternated between the two series, threading the concerns of each series into the other, asking us to consider the conversation between the two. The series from Your Daily Horoscope presents our complex hopes for our own futures and the futures of our loved ones:
The Mayans called,
they want their calendar
back. Some say the stars
are a scam. I sell snakes’
oil and lullabies. I say we
believe whatever we want
to believe. A man will email,
it may be me, saying he’s
of a distant relation,
that if you give him a dollar
he will return tenfold:
do it this time just to see
what happens. I have faith
in our spectacular possibility.
De Dominic is reaching toward a faithfulness, or at least asking the recipient of the poem to be faithful by placing hope in something as simple (and hopeless) as a chain letter. While the hopelessness of the situation is clear, De Dominic isn’t being ironic. The point isn’t whether or not the dollar is returned. The point is “our spectacular possibility” that we can access through having faith, as hopeless as it can ever be.
While reading and listening to De Dominic’s poems, I find myself eliding between multiple states. At times, I am the speaker of the poem. At times, I’m the recipient. And at times, I’m an interloper accidentally overhearing the private conversation of two others in a close relationship. This tripling is intended: we are always all of these things. I am the I, the you, the we, and the person sending the sad email filled with the hopelessness of hope.
De Dominic intertwined this series with the series “Dear Wolf,” which offers a different method of positioning and writing the self and body:
Janna says Los Angeles like an old movie star or someone flying in and bringing a couple of keys, with two Es to a Z. I’m not sure where she picked it up. She’s from California. Neither of us despite living in New Orleans for ten years knows how to say New Orleans. In New Orleans, people never turned an age, but made that age. How old you make? I made 21. Life was not passive, but a birthday an achievement. Maybe it has to do something about the French verb faire and the same way people there make groceries. But the French is ‘to have,’ as in I have 21 years. I wonder if how we say a place changes the place. I wonder if how we say a place changes a place.
Where Your Daily Horoscope elided my self with various positionings and pronouns that propelled me toward hope and faithfulness, “Dear Wolf” is sobering, concretizing the body into the physical form that will eventually fail all of us. The speaker is the speaker and not myself, who we realize over the course of the series is dealing with a failing body. The recipient in this poem is a specific, named person: De Dominic’s partner Janna. We aren’t asked to hope here. We are asked to confront the reality of our situation: racism, poverty, violence, health. We are asked to confront our embodiedness honestly, to understand the ways we are complicit in the failures, and to understand the one common thing we all share: we will die.
Hamel’s debut book, Occident, begins with the speaker in the act of looking:
I have a sight-line—men and water nightly. I speak only to myself.
while I follow tail lights, I learn language against us, speak only
when repeating or repeated. I wonder daily what I’m good for.
rewriting herself I find the you between letters
which is to say my name, backwards—I thought to say
over and over. I do not say your name aloud. selfish and inward
repeat the scene, a stagnant face, I’m clawing no intent to find.
I don’t speak like I am ending.
Hamel’s reading was more than a presentation of a spoken version of her text. Hamel read in front of a video projection that presented her own body as a silhouette against the screen, her voice merging with the sound of the film, the images initiated by her words accompanied by the images entering our eyes. The effect caused an inability to locate an origin or locus point. What thought is coming from the film, what reaction from the meaning, what engagement from the sound, what feelings of interaction from the overall performance?
This presentation emphasizes the speech act of the poems, how saying something can be an action and create a new reality. The poems and the act of presentation reinforces the ability of language to circumscribe the self. The verbs in this poem show a progression of action of defining the self: I have, I speak, I learn, I wonder, I find, I thought, I do not say, I claw, I don’t speak. Whether we intend it or not, every word we speak is an act of circumscribing ourselves.
And Hamel’s work probes this realization, questioning its efficacy and questioning whether that language can effectively transcribe our complex and ever-changing selves. The language in poems present borders and then trouble these borders, these abilities to locate a central, stable point. The I is the you is the we is the that is the this:
I fail myself—though you’re not the last
—and I go without a you. who knows
the curvature of our letters. which is to say,
none of us. I break the game and break
on the lines, the landforms at sea
where ourselves are wrecked. one made
of water, one blooms. I misunderstand all of us,
camera angles, but I see the mist uncover.
I am sure of this.
Nothing is certain and Hamel is sure of nothing save that she can watch the mist uncover. What is uncovered is unsaid and unsayable. Saying—this act of delineation—is clarifying, but the clarification reveals a void or an emptiness. As Hamel’s reading concluded, I could only be sure of one fact: the body itself is an empty vessel, concerns of the existence or relevance of a soul dispatched. Each of us is as a pronoun, nearly but not quite meaningless until we are placed in a context. Until we are named. Until we watch our bodies fail. Until we gather a hope for the future. Until we find a home and until we help those around us find a home.
After the reading, as after many group readings, there was a feeling of closeness among the readers and between readers and audience. Something was shared, something received, and in a way everyone present had been joined together by our physical presence, by the space, and by the language. And when the readers raise vital and challenging questions about the solidity of the self—as Bermejo, De Dominic, and Hamel did that night—that feeling is intensified. One fact of the reading that I cannot help but read too much into, despite its commonness, is that we all read in alphabetical order by last name, tying the speech act that named us to our bodies to our ordered presence at PRB, the language tracing itself into our bodies and our bodies tracing back language into the space surrounding us.