Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Chase Berggrun, R E D

I was thirsty

I was a country of queer force

rushing east to see the strangest side of twilight

I was a woman                        in the usual way

I had no language            but distress and duty

I have been taught to doubt my mother and fear tradition

but my queer tongue       would not     could not shut up (“CHAPTER I”)

I am very taken by this new erasure by New York poet and editor Chase Berggrun, their debut collection R E D (Minneapolis, New York, Raleigh: Birds, LLC.: 2018), a follow-up to the chapbook Discontent and Its Civilizations: Poems of Erasure, published by jubilat in 2012. And yet, to describe this book as purely an erasure would be to reduce, or even misunderstand it, as R E D is as much a book of reconstruction, of rebuilding, as Berggrun writes in “A Note on Process,” to open the collection:

R E D consists of twenty-seven erasure poems. They were produced using a system of formal constrains: text was erased while preserving the word order of the original source, with no words altered or added, according to a strict set of self-imposed rules. The poems use as a source the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker.

As the text of Dracula, a classic Victorian-era horror novel soaked with a disdain of femininity and the misogyny of its time, is erased, a new story is told, in which the narrator takes back the agency stolen from her predecessors.

This work was written at the same time its author had begun their own gender transition. As they were discovering and attempting to define their own womanhood, the narrator of these poems traveled alongside them.

I’m fascinated by the idea that such a book could emerge from a Victorian novel (one might presume that seeking the counterpoint against such repression would be an obvious target), especially Dracula, a book reworked and re-envisioned by multiple writers, including Winnipeg poet Dennis Cooley, who riffed off vampires and blood in his own Seeing Red (Turnstone Press, 2003). Berggrun’s project, on their part, is a far more intimate revision, writing on and through their own reconstruction, including their own gender transition; writing out a story of a narrator rebuilding their whole self from the ground up, utilizing the remains of the old self, and both eliminating and repurposing materials as required. In an interview conducted by Dan Brady, posted in November 2017 at Barrelhouse, Berggrun describes some of their thoughts on erasure:

I’ve been intensely studying poetic appropriation, and erasure in particular, for kind of a long time, and it seriously terrifies me. It scares me how easily it can become violent, and how often people use it in a violent way. It’s a poetic form, certainly, but it’s inherent politicality is both potent and dangerous, in a different way than, say, a sonnet in iambic pentameter. Not to say that any formal device is apolitical, but the way erasing interacts with another person’s work is an especially risky enterprise. Solmaz Sharif wrote a brilliant and important essay on this: required reading for anyone considering using erasure. This Robin Coste Lewis lecture is also incredibly necessary.

I tried to engage with Dracula in many other ways before I started to erase it: erasure was my last resort. Erasure is undeniably connected to the tools of white supremacy. It’s very, very easy to fuck up. I don’t believe, and never have believed, that every artist has a right to alter, appropriate, or work with any text they want: we’ve seen the racist result of this kind of mindset again and again. Kenneth Goldsmith, a person whose work and attitude I deeply abhor, is a product of that kind of thinking. John Gosslee’s erasures of Hoa Nguyen’s work, et cetera, et cetera. Examples are everywhere.

Berggrun’s language is staggered, direct and intimate, even as they use Stoker’s original words, in his original order. One can’t imagine Stoker writing, as Berggrun reveals in their own “CHAPTER XV,” such lines as: “I was surprised when unconsciously I imagined // the way his sperm dropped in white patches / which congealed as it touched my body [.]” I’m startled by how rich and how strong this collection is, and how deeply personal and intimate, which allow for such powerful results. And curious how Dracula, again, became the source material instead of any other particular title, although Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (1823), another book of creation, might miss the point, being a book of creation out of dead parts, instead of a book that simply revealed what had already been there, albeit hidden or repressed. R E D is a book of declaration that forces “I am here,” even as we witness this stunning and revealing metamorphosis.

One time I tried to take a human life

I tried to kill my own body      through prayer

I left behind        a brain

a brain that a man fashioned for me

determined to destroy this woman’s nerve

I found in his absence a silence

like a blush-bright smile (“CHAPTER XVIII”)

Monday, May 21, 2018

Ongoing notes: late May, 2018

[I made a gazpacho the other day, as the wee girls made birthday cards for their Oma]

I’m behind on everything, but utilizing part of the long weekend to catch up on some reviews. Christine took the girls to her mother’s cottage, allowing me nearly two full days of work. Huzzah!

Working on reviews, short fiction and an essay on the (so far) twenty-five years of above/ground press

Portland OR: I’m going through Cincinnati poet Caylin Capra-Thomas’ second poetry chapbook, Inside My Electric City (YesYesBooks, 2017), a follow-up to her The Marilyn Letters (dancing girl press, 2013). Gracefully produced as a square, softbound title, “A Vinyl 45,” I like the quiet hesitations in Capra-Thomas’ poems, composed as a staccato series of small gestures, from the observational to the more intimate breath. Given that 2018 sees her as the writer-in-residence at The Studios of Key West, as well as the Vermont Studio Center, where she was awarded a fellowship, I’m hoping that one doesn’t have to wait another few years for a third selection of poems; might a full-length collection be in the works?


            was a gesture towards                          the post-magnificent.
Courting gleam                                    we swallow them
in the copper afternoon.                      Our necks bulge
            like kingsnakes                                    with mousedeath.
We are not choking.
                                    We are settling our accounts.

Toronto ON: Montreal poet (by way of Ottawa) Lauren Turner’s debut chapbook is We’re Not Going To Do Better Next Time (2018), produced by Kirby’s infamous knife|fork|book, a press and bookstore focused on poetry and poets. Another softbound chapbook, gracefully produced, I’m intrigued at the increase in chapbooks produced as softcover, whether YesYes, knife|fork|book or Vancouver’s Rahlia’s Ghost Press, moving a direction separate from the hand-sewn items by, say, Cameron Anstee’s Apt 9 Press, or those presses that hold to the classic folded and stapled. The poems in Turner’s debut write on disillusionment, with both love and the body, and the narrator Delilah, who manages, despite herself, to be completely overcome, writing from that in-between of belief and disbelief, fully aware, or even forced to finally admit, that either is entirely possible.


There was intoxication at first. A love to be regulated
to rooms made dark by smoke and other people’s limbs.
Those are exciting places. Where nights go to stagger.
Hours drain away with the lowballs. They’re pressed close
as twinned thieves, magnetic in their newness. He’s soft
with the hands and god his neck smells good. Buoyant in gin,
in hunger, she needs it all to kill so delicately. They meet
on a Sunday and left their phones for dead, no sick notes
forged to bosses or paramours. A love to repel outward.
They cluster in his bedding like a shared lung until dusk
air expels them. Mornings spent picking the bones of his
cupboards, whiskey in nescafé. The world, a silhouette
on the curtains. Delilah washes her dress in bath water.
Wants to wear what he does. Mimics her lilac hair
into a man bun and laughs. It’s so nice, everything.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

rob reads w Tanis MacDonald at Ottawa's TREE Reading Series, June 12, 2018

In case you haven't heard. I'll most likely be reading snow day, the prose poetry sequence I composed from January to March, which also appeared as a chapbook (I had originally aimed to launch my new Salmon title, but the book has been delayed). Might we see you? Everything begins at 8pm (open set, featured readers). See the link to further information via The TREE Reading Series website here.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Annick MacAskill, No Meeting Without Body


One hungry afternoon
I ate an entire orange peel,
told my sister it tasted like the sun.
The neighbor gave birth to twins
and my mother returned with blood under her nails.
As crass as a teenager, my grandmother
moved in. Her moonlit flower-picking
became an escape attempt
that failed. We made six apple pies
one weekend. No one
could say no. I implored the skies,
tied my hair in twists
every night so it would curl.
Every morning the curls fell limp,
an argument I couldn’t win.

Lyric precision and lyric polish aren’t, as I might not really need to explain, the same thing. And while my interest in the lyric doesn’t necessarily gravitate towards the polish of a more straightforward line, there is something about the poems in Halifax poet Annick MacAskill’s debut, No Meeting Without Body (Gaspereau Press, 2018), that compel my attention. Her poems are narrative, sure, but hardly straightforward, achieving an accumulation of thoughts and movement, as well as the occasional narrative disjunction and disruption, composed as polished poems both precise and slightly jagged, slightly off; punchy and visceral. She knows how to compose poems that suggest one purpose, and provide something slightly different (such as her attempts to twist certain Canadian standards), all while moving through a series of meditative, first-person lyric narratives. The poems in No Meeting Without Body range from good to compelling, and often with such a nebulous difference between that it becomes difficult to articulate. Needless to say, there are a couple of poems here that left me breathless.


Cortege of Ukrainian pontiffs and delis
and storefronts boasting embryonic
commercial success and water pooling

where tawny leaves blocked the drains.
You were asking why we call the month
September, coming back from a friend’s

Apartment and kissing me as if you expected
answers along my gums.
I tracked the whale sounds

of your indifference and the ways crowds
lifted their feet for us to follow. A man
on the sidewalk held a sign that said

Will Poet for Food. You referenced your treatise
on disappointment with a hand
on the small of my back, your eyes

on what you swore was a cormorant
hanging in a butcher’s window. Later
I lost three years and the sight of you

to a bottle of Shiraz. But fall, that’s permanent.
I was on your street at the wrong hour
and you smelled of pine.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Emilia Nielsen, Body Work

At the edge
of the logging road nothing
but tall grass, movement,
a shape out of focus
sharpening – a bear cut
on its hind legs sniffing
the wind. Might have been
standing in a patch of sapling alder
coated in dust, or cottoning fireweed,
for the softness of seed fluff.
Might have wailed
showing pink gums and milk teeth
as the car cut into morning.
But it faded back into grass
where it first emerged,
fur licked and glowing. (“Done”)

I’m impressed by poet Emilia Nielsen’s sophomore collection, Body Work (Signature Editions, 2018), a considerable leap from her Gerald Lampert Award-nominated debut, Surge Narrows (Leaf Press, 2013) [see my interview with her around such here]. Nielsen is a British Columbia poet set to join York University in Toronto this summer as Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Science, in the Health and Society Program, and her Body Works writes the body as both a topic of study and of revision, managing both to articulate and rewrite, re-stitch and map an intricate series of patterns across the skin of each page. There is a meditative quality to Nielsen’s poems, but one akin to the language fractals of poets such as Margaret Christakos, Sylvia Legris or Christine McNair, composing pieces that concurrently seem less constructed than disassembled for the purpose of study and labelling, and precisely jumbled, jagged and staccato, as she opens the sequence “Dermographia: (Desire)”:

More than some accounting of notches, scrapes?
This birthmark, that mole. More than description
(decorative script).
                                    To stray, surface. Dig a little.
Become floozy, flimsy: dermographer?

Nielsen’s lyric sequences exist as explorations, picking and pinpointing of minutae around the body, and are remarkable for their vibrancy and sheer precision. Much as in Legris’ ongoing work, Nielsen’s cavalcade of body-study revels in language and in such exacting precision. As she write in the sequence “Surgical Notes”: “That I fuction well without an organ / but don’t have the know-how to stitch / a button back in place. Lacking how-to / to do a tidy job.”