Editor’s Corner: July Summer Reads and the Poetics of Reckoning

Debut collections from two LR contributors: Rajiv Mohabir’s THE TAXIDERMIST’S CUT and Kenji C. Liu’s MAP OF AN ONION.

This month, our Summer Reads include Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut (Four Way Books, 2016) and Kenji C. Liu’s Map of an Onion (Inlandia Books, 2016), two remarkable debut collections that feel so fully conceived, so urgently and articulately expressed, that one hesitates to call them “debuts,” as these are clearly two poets who have been at this for longer than the term “first book” implies. Deeply theorized, expertly crafted, and placed squarely in conversation with the poets’ respective family histories, cultures, and discourses of science and post-colonialism, these works draw the reader into a thoroughgoing investigation of what it means to be human, delivered into a specific time, body, and cultural milieu. These poems are the maps they have fashioned for themselves, forging a poetics of reckoning in pursuit of generational and lived truth.

 In The Taxidermist’s Cut, Rajiv Mohabir’s lines, both sinister and lovely, function as cuts that reveal and divide, shimmering with the erotics of violence. Transfixed, one finds oneself unable to look away, arrested by the elegance of the language and the way, when held to the skin, it causes the body to shiver with pleasure. The line, the body, the text, the means by which bodies make and destroy themselves; “Pick up the razor. // It sounds like erasure.” Formally, the couplet features prominently throughout, raising the question of what’s joined, what’s split, what adheres together and what pulls apart. Stitched through with found text from Practical Taxidermy, The Complete Tracker, and other taxidermy-related manuals, the poems confront the body with a mixture of scientific detachment and intimacy, as the life of the body—its homoerotic desire, its violation—is rendered in acute detail. Members of Mohabir’s family, past and present, drift in and out of The Taxidermist’s Cut, as, marked by a pilgrim poetics of wandering, the book moves through the West Indies, the South, boroughs of New York City, reckoning with memory, desire, and histories of conquest and slavery. These poems are breath caught from the throat, blood cut from a wound—the cry that follows, in pleasure, in pain, indistinguishable from song.

Kenji C. Liu’s Map of an Onion, a work deeply textured by memory and place, maps its own set of explorations beyond and within cartographies of language, national borders, and the body. Like Mohabir’s, Liu’s subjectivity is shaped by multiple histories and homelands, all impressed upon a poet who writes with deep sensitivity to the pre-colonial realities of place, drawing us into greater awareness of what it means to be American, immigrants, humans. “Ghost maps are hungry maps,” he writes, tracing lineages and interlocking histories through time. It’s a mapmaking of the self, a “search translated between my family’s four languages.” Marked in places by profound longing (“Home is on no map, and explorers / will never find it. That time has passed”) the poems, in their searching, take us from Mars to Moscow, suburban New Jersey to the World War II Philippine jungle. The book itself, neatly sized and beautifully produced, fits compactly in the reader’s hand and brings to the body an awareness of itself as a artifact translated across cultures, yet possessing a language all its own. Map of an Onion, too, concerns itself with the act of incision, especially of paper, “the surgery of documents” cutting ruthlessly across land, sea, and families. What binds and what breaks—folded, torn. “Taste your own / luscious // fissures,” the poet says, the places where selves meet; the sinew, cartilage, and tendon of bodies that are bound and, simultaneously, transcendent.

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What books are on your summer reading list? We’d love to hear about them! Leave us a comment below or share your best recommendations with us on TwitterFacebook, or Instagram (@LanternReview).


Becoming Realer: The Spirit of the Sky

Becoming Realer: Identity, Craft and the MFA is a column that explores issues of poetry, theory and writing craft in relation to the personal experiences of Saint Mary’s College of California Creative Writing MFA candidate and LR staff writer, Kelsay Myers.

"The Spirit of the Earth" painting by Kristopher H (via Escape Into Life)

A few days ago, I told Rebecca Eckland that the main difference between us is that she comes from Nevadan dust and dirt, and I come from Michigander cows and cornfields. “One of my favorite teenage descriptions of myself was ‘I’m a skyscraper in a cornfield,’” I said. She laughed and told me that “I’m a star over a basin” was one of hers.

I’m a skyscraper in a cornfield struck me because of its clear imagery, though I consider myself a horrible imagist. My weakness with image is one of the major reasons I didn’t consider my poetry writing very good. When I first started taking poetry classes as an undergraduate, I struggled against, resisted and fought at every turn writing to the image rather than to the idea, as I’m an idea-oriented person. I t took me three years of writing to fully embrace the power of the image. And yet, here is an example of a much earlier self-description that captures my alienation from my environment and insatiable desire to stand out in a larger-than-life way with starkness.

Why this image has come back to me now, I have no idea. My hunch is that all of the memoirs I’ve been reading in the program have put me on my own memory excavation. And, why not? Living in the Bay Area has shown me, even more than living in Nashville, Tennessee, that we cannot escape where we are from. It comes with us.

Maybe it was reading Kristopher H’s artist statement on Escape Into Life. His paintings, like the one above, depict an imaginary place called “Iblard,” based on the work of a Japanese artist, Naohisa Inoue. He says that Iblard is “an imaginative space which everyone possesse[s] and yet [is] trying to run away from. A space about imagination and possibilities.” I wonder if we have to leave a place in order to see its possibilities, or if we create that space from our own imaginations.

Or, maybe it was the LR Blog prompt from November 12th. It asks us to describe an old pair of shoes that symbolizes death without ever saying “death” in order to explore image, metaphor and description. This prompt made me panic a little because I think that were I to attempt it, I would fail. I would write death. I would get lost in abstraction, or meditate upon the concept of death. I would probably leave out the old shoes entirely.

But, no matter what the impetus was, image and description have been on my mind since one of my first workshop meetings with my advisor. She asked what I do with an image when one comes to me.

“I try to write a poem about it, or make it into a metaphor,” I said.

“The other option is to make it into a scene,” she told me.

Scene is what I’ve been trying to work on this past semester because I’m awful at it. I panicked at my advisor’s statement too because it took me three years to grasp the power of an image. How long would it take me to get a scene? Would I ever master it? More realistically, would I ever be decent enough to pretend I’d mastered it?

My hunch is that I won’t. And yet, there was a star over a basin in Lake Tahoe. A skyscraper in the cornfields of Lowell.