Strange Countries

If poetry is the news that stays news, its daily headlines concern how the strange stays strange: the strangeness of countries, the strangeness of language. Strange not in the sense of foreignness, but the strangeness of the familiar. Poetry is not here to exchange in the ordinary markets—in fact, it perennially resists market—yet it touches everything ordinary. Each day, everything is new(s), and poets record.

These two collections—One Strange Country by Stella Hayes (What Books Press, 2020) and Emporium by Aditi Machado (Nightboat Books, 2020)—offer readers experiences of strangeness, open windows and doors into other ways of seeing and experiencing the sensible world. Hayes and Machado show us something magical about the world we might think we know, additional facets of the American poetics that can sometimes ride towards narrative and lexical sameness. Towards magic, then.

I. One Strange Country by Stella Hayes. What Books Press, 2020. 78 pages. $15.95.

Histories—personal, national, literary, natural—deepen and enliven human experience inasmuch as they document the kinds of creatures we humans are, and how our actions—from who our grandparents married, to the wars around our families, to the art that was made—have shaped the times we live in. (See how I must use m-dashes to connect the separate clauses even as numerous, interweaving histories connect us all.)

The speaker in Stella Hayes’s One Strange Country is someone born to a particular kind of history—born both by the circumstances of their birth, and born into their knowledge of that history. The understanding that human loss functions as separation as well as what lies just beyond experience is an axel around which Hayes poems orbit. In the opening poem “Out of the Frame,” an unnamed “she” comes into focus: 

She turns away out of the frame, slipping
out of a rough seam, folding laundry into canopies
blotting out first me, then her own hologram

which keeps splitting and splintering off.

If the “she” is a mother, and if the “me” is a child, we are in history’s pull as the two are separated through memory and narrative alike. There is a dreaminess in the images of “slipping / out of the rough seam” and “folding laundry into canopies,” a lightness and airiness to what feels like a child’s proto-memory, recounted in tercets. The “me” observes that the “she” brushes “the grime / off her white teeth…doesn’t floss” (what odd, small things we remember). The poem closes on the lines:

What’s the use now that the shadows 
are too wide. As postwar boulevards
releasing light into tunnels. Go quickly.

Wide shadows, suggesting a lateness in the metaphorical day, stretch into European boulevards. Though light is “released” into tunnels, the poem urgently ends on the imperative “Go quickly.” Into what? Into the speaker’s history, into what we do not know about each other.

The poem “Monolith” reads like a riddle poem—“I am in a memory, in the generation I lived among you. / I stand against a world that has no use for paper”—but there are many poems in One Strange Country that render the speaker’s world mysterious from within scenes of the ordinary. In “Sunday Morning,” for example, there is a strangeness at the edge of everything:

On this winter morning
black birds do not lullaby with a song
they do not fly south to sever

their wings from a black world
their cooling bodies recoiling
in flight like dying angels

Hayes’ reader might dismiss the tone of the above stanzas as a lyrical reading of a silent morning, perhaps melancholic, but the attention itself is colored with experience—the speaker reads her world as something that has come after everything else for her, as we might say “aftermath.” There is coffin imagery inherent in the exquisite lyric of the next two stanzas: “the deaf rustle / of the outstretched sheet” and “the bed a box / pillows two shapely squares / the mattress releasing its coil like a lung.” The speaker assures, 

it’s not a difficult morning
the room is not cold
the walls are not hospital white

the toast coated in butter and jam
offers nutrition
the smell of coffee just bloomed

Even as the speaker ticks items off a list, the negations creep in: “there’s no talk of theology / no game of chess set // no commitment made to a morning service.” This Sunday morning, then, is what it is because of the dozens (possibly hundreds) of other Sunday mornings that come before it in the speaker’s memory. The morning is thrown into relief: “the two children at breakfast / eating French toast sunk in butter and syrup” (what an incredible verb here, “sunk,” as a ship is sunk, as a boot in mud). The last three stanzas crescendo, the speaker’s voice becoming clarion:

it is not a difficult morning
the soul stands up to being made extinct
it’s not a difficult morning

it’s not without hope
the newspaper turned to a particular page
it’s not a difficult morning

it’s not without hope the coffee pot
turned off the pan cooling
the kitchen halted to a stop.

 “Sunday Morning” inverts readerly expectations in several ways—in part because of the darkness integral to the morning, family breakfast scene, in part because the language of the narrative calls something good by virtue of single and double negation—the morning is “not difficult,” is “not without hope.” It reminds me, as a reader with a language proficiency in Russian, how languages themselves have character and shades of meaning particular to themselves—how caution and negation (saying “not bad,” for example, rather than “good”) can be part of a culture through the nature of its language. Hayes grew up outside of Kiev, Ukraine, and as you read deeper into One Strange Country, Russian literature and language grow on the page. 

Hayes’ poetry, like a shark in blue water, circles the idea of happiness, of love. In “Happily” the speaker says: 

If you wait for me
The oak tree will
Make a crown
Chockfull of crystals

If you wait for me
I’ll donate my eyes
to endless
Scientific experiments
When I die

The lines are playful and measured by phrases, by breaths. And whereas the first stanza above turns on the surreal image of an oak tree making itself a crystal crown, the second stanza’s imaginary eye donation is real to the point of being darkly humorous. Throughout One Strange Country, the poems display an emotional agility, equally met with lyric precisionism and a variety of tone—these poems feel like new eggs to me—perfectly shaped, brittle surface and soft interiors. 

In “Once,” the speaker “is awarded an ordinary happiness. / The one, inalienable. / The one we’re born with.” But as in many of Hayes’ poems, there is a twist, a complication of the subject. The happiness in question is, the speaker recognizes, “The one in which the insane / are jacketed / when they first arrive.” The happiness is “The one that is removed. / From you, when // you move, from / child to adult.” That the poem is titled “Once” speaks to the finiteness of the speaker’s experience—I want to suggest the darkness in Hayes’ poetry is a relatable darkness, an acknowledgement of privation that enters all our doors whether we invite it or not. In “Don’t Tell the Women,” a ghazal, the repeating word is “unrequited”—a word that speaks to the emotional investment of these poems, this speaker:

When I discovered nihilism, I held on for more light.
The good it did — the sound of the moon, unrequited.

The pockets are overflowing with knowledge, replacing the sun.
I make up ruins, humming — unrequited.

In the poem “Underwater,” the speaker confesses: “I could become predator or savior / If I am emptied / Of the people I am / Forced always to commit to love.” I find myself wanting to use the figure of a tightrope to name how the speaker balances between emotions, commitments, and histories in One Strange Country. The reader experiences this balancing act formally on the page in several poems: “In the Footsteps of Telemachus,” “Not Having Left Paris,” and “At Onegin.” All three poems are stanzaic and double-columned on the page. They are dramatically narrative, there are scenes and characters, and one travels with the speaker as she travels. There is a feeling of rush to the narratives of these poems as well—an overspilling of language, of experience; each poem feels like a small film. Formally, the columns reminded me of reading a newspaper. Curious and wanting more context, I wrote Stella and asked about the column-form, and she had this to say:

1) I believe it started as a childhood memory – years of being indoctrinated in Jewish scripture.  In Chicago, our first American home, I studied in an orthodox Jewish academy, and the first half of the day was dedicated to religious study. Each morning would begin with prayer, the rabbi would take out the Torah which is represented in a scroll, with double text running horizontally. We recited prayers from our bilingual English-Hebrew readers, represented in double-columns. (2) I am concerned with brokenness, an insertion & representation of tension, of fracturing. The poet Erica Wright sees my double-column poems as broken text which resonates with me. (3) It must be parallel tracks of two languages in my mind — Russian & English. And (4) The double is a recurring theme in Russian literature in authors like Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Nabokov (he hated the use of the double but weirdly used it too) which I studied in college and has interested me since.

Doubleness is vital to the experience of reading One Strange Country—one feels pulled with the speaker as she is pulled between languages, countries, and memories. Hayes’ poetry shows us that yes, a person can exist in multiple places at once—this is how history acts on the body. Human lives are interstitial, why should our poems be any less so? To close on a question that is also a statement, also a description suggestive of the collection’s innate lyricism:

        do I dare
    the scenes of you to unplay

           the brain to anchor to anything               at all
          the water lilies to harvest

the hair to unpin               the bed to unmake
        to make a stranger                of you

II. Emporium by Aditi Machado. Nightboat Books, 2020. 112 pages. $16.95.

Emporium is a book that revels in its mysteries and serious language play. As a material object, Emporium is minimalist in design: a matte, pale blue cover, title and author listed in small font. Open the book: no table of contents. There is both a resistance and a pleasure in these design choices—a smiling refusal to play into certain publication conventions. A black page with white titling in quotations first greets the reader: “Herewith the Prologue.” There is already the sense that Emporium will do some things and not others, will deny the reader the meeting of some expectations and yet will not leave the reader without instructions—or, rather, an introduction to what is about to begin.

The first word in the prologue is an “I.” The “I” exists in narrative—but what kind of narrative? Or, more to the point: how many kinds of narratives? The “I” relates:

I came along a silk route. I came low like low things. Slow, farcical
leaves rimmed the trees. Some chic birds. I came along a long way,
bolstered by merchants and prophylactics and an obscure shade
that became my practice.

The rolling l’s and o’s bring the reader into Emporium’s soundscape. Hanging enjambments link the wide-lined, almost prose-shaped prologue. The enjambments link points in a personal narrative, stops in a journey (“Sometimes I’d stop / to confer with magnolias,” “I’d stop at theatres / and watch the facsimile faces twatting by”) while the silk route ribbons throughout the prologue’s verse stanzas. As the book’s title suggests, this is not going to be a collection of simplicity or oneness, but of the collected and amassed many, of plurality. What is the “obscure shade” that “became my practice”? The slippages of shade as literal and figurative, the shifting meanings of “became” as notation of being/existence or of attractiveness, overlay the narrator’s story. There is a delight in being with the unknown, accompanying a Steinian voice (sui generis in terms of the logic of the narrative):

                        I was arriving,
words appearing on points of fact. Prickly or vine-like, I proposed
this and that. I was told nation or rhapsody or wear simple clothes.
I heard those statements as limpid fugues, traumas wandering 
out of musical bars. I had no purchase on those points.

Words always have multiple meanings, but Machado’s lines draw them out, provoke and invoke them, leaning heavily into shades, layers, contraries. Materiality and form, significance and signifier blend as the speaker feels her way through her narrative, the physical world she experiences breaking through and transforming her praxis—“the clematis reminding me / I was to pursue a sound.” The prologue closes in an overflow of sound, the speaker noting “Up ahead, the emporium, up ahead. All those / haptic divinities. All those sounds I came to quell…” Yet once the speaker utters the verb “quell” (“to end or stop, to calm or reduce”), she uncovers the wellspring, the fountainhead out of which flows her narrative:

questioning, comment, comment, comment, quell, quelle
laine, quel lin, quel coton, quel satin, quel crin, quel chanvre,
quel cachemire, quel velours, quel tweed, quelle flanelle,
quelle dentelle, quel calico, quelle mousseline, quel
serge, quelle jute, quel jacquard, quel Brocard,
quel cuir, quelle soie, quel soi, quelque soit, 
quelque soie, quelle soi   

“Quell” slips into the French interrogative adjective “quel” (“what wool, what linen, what cotton, what satin, what horsehair, what hemp, what cashmere…”), and even more interestingly: silk (“soie”) and self (“soi”) mingle as “goods” in the speaker’s catalog of fabrics and material: “quelle soie, quel soi.” While the closing of “Herewith the prologue” can be enjoyed simply for its sonics and repetition, the layers unfold if the reader sits with them. Emporium is open to not-knowing, and to listening, in a distinctly anti-capitalist way. It reminds me of poetry’s power as well as poetry’s uselessness where institutions and systems are concerned. As the poet Kay Ryan noted in an interview at the Paris Review:

It’s poetry’s uselessness that excites me. Its hopelessness…Prose is practical language. Conversation is practical language. Let them handle the usefulness jobs. But of course, poetry has its balms. It makes us less lonely by one. It makes us have more room inside ourselves. But it’s paralyzing to think of usefulness and poetry in the same breath. ¹

If the word “useless” sounds like an immediately negative quality, it is only because we have tied the concept of value so thoroughly to the notion of “use.” Why is use the paradigm? This is one of the many questions that Emporium invites its reader to consider.

In “Social Gesture,” the speaker “agree[s] to look upon the city,” and relates how “I struggle to see / how each body is separate, no precision / that isn’t imprecision.” The Old English/Old Norse letter thorn appears in this sequence, unsettling the sense of a modern alphabet, reaching back and commending a much longer historical view to the reader. Yet the speaker does not fetishize language, but invokes touch as intrinsic to experience:

First a word, then an idea. First a body,
then an idea, then a word. First touching,
then more touching. Touching as the precision
of bodies delving into imprecision, ‘this strange

If you have ever shopped for fabrics, it is impossible to not touch the bolts, their folds draped expressly for this purpose. To touch is to know.² Machado takes her reader to this kingdom of touch and other senses, to

(…Sweet herbs & cow patties. Sweetness the provocation & chief style of
the poets. The extent to which history inscribes industrial products is perfume,
one writes, cupping silver. Petals, petroleum, idioms profuse & tangled in
the neck, a goblet. History paves the emporium & porous the gemlight.)

Perfume touches the body, and is even transferable across bodies—it permeates our touch (I remember how once, my baby came back from a nursery visit, smelling like another woman’s perfume). The permeability of human life and the fantasy of separateness comingle with market in ways at once tangible and intangible, the final section of the poem reading:

The emporium moves by shift of wind.
Shuffles its constituents. Atomizes
in concept, not material, yet how suggestive,
how like a pleasant sea, that fine spray.

The reader can feel the final line—“that fine spray”—brushing their skin, the concept of the emporium moving like a scent in the air, “not material” but “suggestive.” Emporium is a book that calls upon the reader’s physical senses to be read well, its rich descriptions and sonics alike illustrative of the speaker’s words in “rhapsody”:

Like I’m shifting out
of one desire
into another

I love the word “slippage” for thinking about Emporium, because silk slips—and the self as well.³ There is much interplay between the self’s conception and the influences that constantly swirl around a person. The lines immediately following those directly quoted above are “And the things that carry me back / do not carry me back whole.” There is a sense in which it is impossible to talk about how good Emporium is, because it is a text scribing “All those / haptic divinities,” and the experience of reading it is larger than reading, is an experience—the poems seem to float above the page: all voice, and scent, and touch. This is to say, even while Emporium is open to intersections with theory, it is a felt text—and knows it, and acknowledges itself, perhaps nowhere as strikingly as in “Epistle to the Efficience”:

     and so I under the starry metaphor, I inside
the pregnant description, I amid the tenable scents,
I feel simply feelings. Under the arbor,
     I sniff the arbore-
scent, I enter its porous wisdom, the crackling in
cinema equal to kindling, for
     in some sense
I am reporting on a country, peeking over the fence,
shrieking, look! look! an interiority! 

In some sense, indeed, the speaker of Emporium is reporting on a country, on the world, on a life—on silk, on self. A thickly-textured, richly-sensed collection, Emporium is porous and deft, as aware of the  limits of the self and language as it is the potential to be alive and awake to the physical world and the powers pulsating through it. 

¹ Kay Ryan, The Art of Poetry No. 94:

² The poet Aracelis Girmay, in her poem “Elegy” writes: “Listen to me. I am telling you / a true thing. This is the only kingdom. The kingdom of touching.”

³ Machado wore a silk shirt while writing the poems of Emporium, which adds an interesting element of practice and method.

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