SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: NO

no


from NO
By Ocean Vuong


TORSO OF AIR

Suppose you do change your life.
& the body is more than

a portion of night—sealed
with bruises. Suppose you woke

& found your shadow replaced
by a black wolf. The boy, beautiful

and gone. So you take the knife to the wall
instead. You carve & carve.

Until a coin of light appears
& you get to look in, for once,

on happiness. The eye
staring back from the other side—

waiting.



HOME WRECKER

And this is how we danced: with our mothers’
white dresses spilling from our feet, late August

turning our hands dark red. And this is how we loved:
a fifth of vodka and an afternoon in the attic, your fingers

sweeping though my hair—my hair a wildfire.
We covered our ears and your father’s tantrum turned

into heartbeats. When our lips touched the day closed
into a coffin. In the museum of the heart

there are two headless people building a burning house.
There was always the shotgun above the fireplace.

Always another hour to kill—only to beg some god
to give it back. If not the attic, the car. If not the car,

the dream. If not the boy, his clothes. If not alive,
put down the phone. Because the year is a distance

we’ve traveled in circles. Which is to say: this is how
we danced: alone in sleeping bodies. Which is to say:

This is how we loved: a knife on the tongue turning
into a tongue.



Today’s poems are from NO, published by Yes Yes Books, copyright © 2013 by Ocean Vuong. “Torso of Air” previously appeared in BODY Literature, and “Home Wrecker” previously appeared in Linebreak. These poems appear here today with permission from the poet.


NO: Anyone who has already sensed that “hope is a feathered thing that dies in the Lord’s mouth,” should get their hands on NO. Honest, intimate, and brimming with lyric intensity, these stunning poems come of age with a fifth of vodka and an afternoon in an attic, with a record stuck on please, with starlight on a falling bomb. Even as Vuong leads you through every pleasure a body deserves and all the ensuing grief, these poems restore you with hope, that godforsaken thing—alive, singing along to the radio, suddenly sufficient. —Traci Brimhall, Our Lady of the Ruins


Ocean Vuong is a recipient of a 2013 Pushcart Prize as well as fellowships from Kundiman, Poets House, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Poems appear in Poetry, The Nation, Beloit Poetry Journal, Passages North, Quarterly West, Denver Quarterly, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the 2012 Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. He lives in Queens, NY.


Editor’s Note: I’m just going to come right out and say this: Ocean Vuong is one of the best and most important poets writing in America today. I have not been so moved as I am by Vuong’s words since I first read Li-Young Lee. This poet has changed my life. He has renewed my belief in American poetry. That it can be emotional and heartbreaking. That is can be beautiful and full of hope. That modern American poetry can—and does—matter. In my humble opinion your poetry collection is simply not complete unless it houses both Vuong’s groundbreaking chapbook, Burnings, and his newest release from Yes Yes Books, NO.

NO is a surprisingly experimental collection, yet Vuong remains dedicated to the lyric and the narrative, guiding us through its formal twists and turns through emotive language and evocative imagery. Throughout its pages the poet intimately explores themes of love, sexuality, and belonging against a backdrop of devastating loss. It is a brilliant and beautiful collection, a true heartbreaking work of staggering genius. As the book’s publisher did when reading through the manuscript for the first time, when Ocean Vuong says NO to you, be prepared to say “Yes Yes!”


Want to see more from Ocean Vuong?
Buy NO from Yes Yes
The Poetry Foundation
Interview in The Well & Often Reader
Ben Lerner on mentoring Ocean Vuong, Brooklyn College

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SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: SPRING!

photo 3Spring’s first flowers spotted this week in New York’s Jefferson Market Garden.


WITH A BUNCH OF SPRING FLOWERS
By Kate Seymour Maclean

In the spring-time, out of the dew,
      From my garden, sweet friend, I gather,
      A garland of verses, or rather
A poem of blossoms for you.

There are pansies, purple and white,
      That hold in their velvet splendour,
      Sweet thoughts as fragrant and tender,
And rarer than poets can write.

The Iris her pennon unfurls,
      My unspoken message to carry,
      A flower-poem writ by a fairy,
And Buttercups rounder than pearls.

And Snowdrops starry and sweet,
      Turn toward thee their pale pure faces
      And Crocus, and Cowslips, and Daisies
The song of the spring-time repeat.

So merry and full of cheer,
      With the warble of birds overflowing,
      The wind through the fresh grass blowing
And the blackbirds whistle so dear.

These songs without words are true,
      All sung in the April weather–
      Music and blossoms together–
I gather and weave them for you.


(Today’s poem is in the public domain, belongs to the masses, and appears here today accordingly.)


Kate Seymour Maclean (1829-1916): Born in Fulton, New York, seemingly as “Chloe Ann Seymour” and educated at the Falley Seminary, Kate Seymour moved to Canada a few years after her 1857 marriage to Allan MacLean of Ingersoll, Ontario. She was well known as a poet in her day, producing three volumes of verse and publishing frequently in Canadian and American magazines. Her first book, The Coming of the Princess, And Other Poems (1881), is prefaced by Graeme Mercer Adam, then editor of the Canadian Monthly. Loyal to her adopted country, MacLean became a strong advocate of the “Canada First” movement. She died in Toronto at the age of 86. (Biography courtesy of The Simon Fraser University Library.)

Editor’s Note: If you are an avid reader of this series, you have faithfully read along as I lamented this year’s winter and dared Mother Nature to bring on the spring. This week, spring has finally arrived. The cherry blossoms are bursting in all their glory in Washington D.C., and here in New York City there is warm weather and sunshine, the first cherry blossoms have been spotted on the trees, and spring flowers can finally be seen lining the streets and blooming in the parks.

If you read this series, you know how we on the East Coast have suffered this long winter, and you know how anxiously your faithful Editor has awaited spring. Today I am happy to report that SPRING IS HERE, and in its honor I offer you “A flower-poem writ by a fairy,” “sung in the April weather,” “Music and blossoms together.” To celebrate spring’s arrival, here is a poem in the form of a bouquet, “gather[ed] and weave[d] … for you.”

Want to see more by Kate Seymour Maclean?
All Poetry
Public Domain Poetry

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A Review of Catherine Pierce’s The Girls of Peculiar 

Pierce Girls of Peculiar

A Review of Catherine Pierce’s The Girls of Peculiar

By Jennifer Dane Clements

Catherine Pierce’s second poetry collection, The Girls of Peculiar, resurrects the gangly and awkward ghosts of adolescence, in turns honoring and questioning those young spectres. Indeed, it is impossible to read The Girls of Peculiar and not consider one’s own unglamorous coming-of-age, from the sensation of “a globe welling up inside” to “that red ache that came from lying/to our mothers.”

For me, The Girls of Peculiar harkened back to the brick school buildings and blue carpeted halls where my own teenage years were spent. But Pierce’s words ring universal:

Last year you weighed more. This year you’re as tall
as you’ll get, and there’s a boy whose eyes are poisoned
marbles. You’ve photographed him again and again
but you can’t get the poison right. You’re sixteen.
You say this again and again but you can’t believe it.
(Fire Blight)

I went to a high school built by women, for women. There were the things we were told, that we were strong and intelligent and the leaders of tomorrow, and would not be stifled by gender inequity. We were taught by incredible women and introduced to women who defied the expectations of the world. We were bound to the women who had walked those carpeted halls before us, phantoms of girls past that we, like our predecessors, were destined to become.

We never cooled
with twilight. We were busy prowling
by the river; sending our lit eyes into tree hollows,
beneath parked cars.
(The Delinquent Girls)

And there were the things we knew that we didn’t have to say, that perhaps our parents and teachers didn’t wish to acknowledge. Some of us had eating disorders, or inflicted self-harm, or saw shrinks for diagnoses we didn’t have to secure medications we didn’t need. We identified as adults in ways that ranged from noble to naive. We had sex with older men. We pulled all-nighters on school grounds with the strange and forbidden blessing of our teachers. We hung out in rough parts of town, oblivious to how our uniforms marked us as young and entitled and unattainable in ways we couldn’t know. We wielded our small rations of power in a dozen micro-rebellions a day, then tucked in our shirttails and learned algebra.

We were all flavors of adolescent girl kept in one place, and nothing has quite captured that dynamic as accurately as The Girls of Peculiar.

But I’m so tired of the small steps–
the pentatonic scale, the frequent flyer
hoarding, the one exquisite sentence
in a forest of exquisite sentences.
There is a globe welling up inside of me.
Mountain ranges ridging my skin,
oceans filling my mouth. If I stay still
long enough, I could become my own world.
(Because I’ll Never Swim in Every Ocean)

Poems like “Dear Self I Might Have Been,” “Before the Reunion (Her Lament),” and “Postcards from her Alternate Lives,” look backward, from a vantage point informed by several decades. Resisting the nostalgic, they instead acknowledge the difficulties of youth, moving into the “long highway days of your twenties” and beyond. Each of these poems serves as a postscript to old yearbooks, answering the question of what we’ll become: One girl writes speeches for the First Lady. One girl married the bus driver. One works for the CIA. One remains a virgin at 30.

For some of us, the school-age moments feel lifetimes old; for some of us, as close as this morning’s latte. But The Girls of Peculiar has nothing to do with wanting to return to those days–its poems are elegies, truthful monuments to the myths, the expectations, and the anxieties we carried in youth.

This is every house on your block
lit from within, each bedroom window
shining with safety and you outside
in the icing dusk, knowing nothing
will ever warm you….
The Future? This is The Future
If you were here, you’d know that.
(The Girls We Were)

Twelve years past high school, I am tempted to wrap a copy of The Girls of Peculiar and send it to my school’s newly appointed headmaster, the first woman to oversee the school in decades. Pierce’s collection seems the briefest and most comprehensive reminder of how burgeoning adulthood feels to “the delinquent girls,” and “the quiet girls,” and “the drama girls,” and then all of them together–a manual of understanding and a call to empathy.

Let these strangenesses be like the impossible lizard’s
tail: gone forever, because how could it be otherwise,

and then reappearing, iridescent and blood-warmed,
because how could it be otherwise?
(For This You Have No Reason)

And what could be more vital to someone newly charged with overseeing all of those girls, and all of the peculiars in which they–for the moment–reside.

 

Catherine Pierce, The Girls of Peculiar. Saturnalia Books, 2012: $14.00.

***

Jennifer Dane Clements received her MFA in creative writing from George Mason University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language & Art. A writer of prose and plays, she has been published in WordRiot, Nerve, and Psychopomp and has had plays produced by Capital Repertory Theatre (Albany, NY), Creative Cauldron (Falls Church, VA), and elsewhere. Clements currently works at a theatre-service organization and serves as a prose editor for ink&coda. More at jennifer-dane-clements.com.

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The house

laaa 582The house

By Hannah Phinney

They took the house away from us. I was an inkling there. I dragged my doo on the floor there. I sprouted opinions there, grew awkward and greasy-faced there, went back there after mutating into a psych-majoring, bourbon-swilling, semi-autonomous being. My dad’s two hands and my mom’s two hands built up that house – hands and minds soaked in youth, rigged with hope. Minds scalloped even, perhaps, with bits of love. Soon after the beginning: an unvarying downward trajectory. As if characters and plot all plucked from those austere, canonical novels we had to read in high school English. Dad forking hay bales of bad decisions onto the field of his life. Trying, once or twice, to talk money, to muddle the mirage. Mom a child with ears finger-plugged, a child self-sequestered in her room, skipping dinner.

So they took the house away from us. They came and they said, This house doesn’t belong to you anymore. Yes, you built it. You raised three kids in it, you had your dogs and your horses and your land and your happy times, but that doesn’t matter now. Shitty things happen, we’re sorry. But you’re adults and we’re adults. We have our jobs to do. Here’s your thirty days.

And they began to take the house away. Its adobe walls began to belong to others. Walls bleeding desert colors and marital antipathy. Hemorrhaging malamute death – mom’s crazy bedroom scrawls (“They are near…who they love…”). My childhood memories draining (eviction notices like leeches and walls like sick skin). Its terra-cotta floor tiles, dented and sunk by decades of ripened discord, turning anonymous. Its succulent-bedecked patio, its front yard cacti, its sprawling acreage…being absorbed by the faceless and nameless.

They took it away. But first we had to pack up all our stuff. Boxes of very old vitamins, shop tools, unopened DVDs. Conglomerates of ancient computers and Christmas junk. Grandma’s silverware. Humidifiers. House plants. Five closets’ worth of clothing. Ten rooms’ worth of furniture. One-gazillion framed photos. We dumped it in storage, we carried it with us. The house stayed there.

I look out now from between the bars of my irrevocable adulthood. I have no choice but to be strong and in control – no choice but to distain those mistakes. But there are nightmares that persist, that curl me into fetal shapes. The house haunts my dreams. The house, and how they took it from us.

***

Hannah Phinney recently received her M.A. in linguistics from San Francisco State University. She is currently slinging booze and writing flash fiction while deciding whether to spend another decade in school. Her semi-surrealistic/sci-fi/“disturbia” prose and poetry can be found at: http://kingzoko.wordpress.com/.

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SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: ONLY RIDE

OnlyRide-Front

from ONLY RIDE
By Megan Volpert:


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Picture 1

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Today’s poems are from Only Ride, published by Sibling Rivalry Press, copyright © 2014 by Megan Volpert. “You are suspended” was first published in This assignment is so gay, edited by Megan Volpert and published by Sibling Rivalry Press. These poems appear here today with permission from the poet.


Only Ride: If Denis Johnson had written Tuesdays with Morrie, it’d feel like Megan Volpert’s book of prose poems. Clawing its way out through this minimalist checklist of suburban malaise is an emphatically optimistic approach to growing up. These tiny essays carefully detail how to avoid becoming one’s parents, how to manage a body addled by disease, and how to keep having the best possible time in life. After all: this is the only ride there is, and we can only ride it. Volpert’s is a story of Springsteenian proportions, a gentleman’s guide to rebellion complete with iron horses and the church of rock & roll.

Megan Volpert is the author of five books on communication and popular culture, most notably about Andy Warhol. She has been teaching high school English in Atlanta for the better part of a decade, and is currently serving as her school’s Teacher of the Year. She edited the American Library Association-honored anthology This assignment is so gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching, which is currently a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Predictably, www.meganvolpert.com is her website.

Editor’s Note: Megan Volpert’s Only Ride is a no-holds-barred journey through personal history, with sage wisdom bursting from its rough-and-tumble seams. The book is less Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and more Get a Grip and Ride Like it’s Your Only Ride. This is a book about how to live life. Suck it up and move past the childhood issues that scarred you. Don’t just cope with illness, thrive in the face of it. Live life full throttle no matter what it throws at you, because life is short and living demands fierce courage.

Throughout her journey Volpert takes personal and political stands, inspiring her readers to do the same. Sometimes you’ve just gotta smash things, because “a deep frustration that hurls pottery against the concrete floor… is not the thing to bottle up in shame.” Sometimes a teacher has a responsibility to teach more than just standard curriculum. As “the only openly queer faculty member in [a] public Southern high school,” Volpert is “fully equipped to teach both English & tolerance,” and she’ll write a student up for failing the latter.

Brimming with humor and hubris and wicked wit, the greatest gift of this book is the life lessons it relays. Stand up for what you believe in. Move past life’s bullshit and face adversity with a battle cry. Let go of the small stuff. “Many things annoy me,” Volpert confides, “but I seldom get really angry because now I just feel so lucky to be alive.” And we all should, the implication echoes. In a world where “[d]eath knocks twice: once for introductions & once to take you away,” why waste your precious life letting things get your goat? Having faced death, the poet gave her goat away; she has no goat to give. And we would all be well served to follow her example. “After all: this is the only ride there is, and we can only ride it.”

Want to see more from Megan Volpert?
Official Website
This assignment is so gay
Sibling Rivalry Press
FRONTIER PSYCHIATRIST

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Yes, Actually, There is a Huge Problem with Pink

Pink

Credit: The Pinkalicious Cupcake Cookbook

Yes, Actually, There is a Huge Problem with Pink

By Kirsten Clodfelter

One afternoon when I was out with my daughter, then nine months old, a woman stopped us to gush over my “handsome baby boy.” No worries—it’s definitely hard to determine the sex of an infant just from his or her face, and my partner’s genes, at least in regard to physical appearance, seem to be far more dominant than mine. But when I smiled and corrected this stranger, instead of laughing it off, she demanded to know why I didn’t have my little girl in pink. I must have missed that parenting memo dictating all babies be dressed in the appropriate color so that their gender is easily identifiable to any random person you might interact with for a total of 90 seconds and then never again. Apparently the blue and green floral-print outfit my kid was rocking that day was just not cutting it.

In a recent article for New York Magazine, Yael Kohen proposed that the color pink, princess culture, and girliness in general are getting an unfair shake. Kohen’s piece responds to a feature for the New York Times that examines how toy companies are embracing the market shift and working to put toys like this new line of Nerf Rebelle bow-and-arrows into the hands of girls, riding the coattails of popular strong female characters like Katniss Everdeen and Princess Merida.

The Times article explores how the makers of toy weapons are tapping into a goldmine by targeting girls and potentially leveling the playing field in the process, but still the piece asks, “Do they have to be in pink?” Answers Kohen in her own article, “Well, no: Of course they don’t ‘have to’ be pink. But when we treat pink — and the girls who like it — with the condescension that question implies, what are we really saying?”

Writing for Slate‘s Double X, Allison Benedikt responded in kind, charging that by “do[ing] everything within your power to steer your daughters away from anything that has the stink of ‘girly’ on it,” all these “mildly feminist” moms engaging in princess-shaming are acting out a “weird sort of female self-loathing,” and it’s no wonder, then, that little boys equate girliness with being lame.

Good job, feminists, for once again making men hate you. But Stout and Harris’s piece for the Times doesn’t actually shun girliness. Instead, the authors ask readers to examine how marketing so-called aggressive toys to girls through the implementation of sexist stereotypes both “challenges antiquated notions and plays to them deeply.”

Sharon Lamb, a child psychologist and play therapist quoted in the Times piece, notes the dichotomy of this aptly when she asks, “What I don’t like is the stereotyped girlifying of this…. Why can’t they be rebels and have to be re-BELLES? Why do they need to look sexy when aggressing, defending the weak or fighting off bad guys?”

The problem with pink, of course, isn’t with the color itself or that some girls embrace girliness with abandon, it’s with the way pink is used again and again as a singular representation of girls’ interests and how this furthers a gender divide that hurts both girls and boys. I don’t see Katniss or Merida sporting a pink bow, but when toy manufactures co-op these models and remake them solely as something overtly girly, what they’re communicating is that the these types of strong, independent female roles are only valid when they’ve been glamourized, that to be a fierce girl without simultaneously valuing or respecting or embracing your femininity is only a fiction.

As my own daughter has grown beyond infancy to establish and vocalize her preferences, our household has accumulated an impressive collection of Thomas the Train shirts and Elmo memorabilia. But her dad and I also gladly fawn over Angelina Ballerina, with the understanding that we have no idea yet what kind of person our daughter will be, and we want her to know that there’s value in all different identities.

But it is important that those preferences come from her, that they exist as a genuine reflection of her desires rather than as a product of institutionalized sexism that she believes should be her preferences or that she is habitually guided to think are her only available options. It is true that plenty of girls like pink, but maybe for some girls this becomes ingrained because, from a very young age, they’re shown repeatedly that in order to identify “appropriately” with their own gender, boys get versions of toys that looks like this, while girls get this.

Benedikt reports seeing a troubling trend among the moms in her community who roll their eyes when they witness an oversaturation of pink, and certainly no four year old (girl or boy) needs to be shamed for picking out party accessories that would rival even Pinkalicious. But I think Benedikt might not have dug deeply enough to notice that what’s irritating these parents isn’t simply that some little girls might be perpetuating a stereotype by liking the color pink.

One problem is that all gender-specific versions of toys are not created equal. In an informal examination of the Toys “R” Us website in 2013, Elaine Godfrey points out how children’s toys discourage girls from STEM fields at an early age. Nested under the site’s classification of “building toys” for girls, Godrey found Lego sets like Lego Friends Olivia’s House and Cra-Z-Art Lite Brix Sparkle Salon (also available in the Radiant Runway edition, of course). For boys, though, the retail behemoth offered Lego City Space Shuttle, Lego City Space Center, and the “Builders of Tomorrow” set.

Melissa Atkins Wardy wrote an excellent piece on Lego’s culpability in this type of inequality for CNN last year:

But that still leaves the market wide open for children such as my daughter, who want more female “minifigs” in gender-neutral packaging. Instead, LEGO clearly distinguishes which sets are aimed at boys or girls, and our children take in the colors on the packaging and placement on the shelves through a cultural lens. They get the message loud and clear. LEGO is the second-largest toy manufacturer in the world; gender parity matters in a product that is consumed and loved by so many children.

This is a problem, too, for boys who have an interest in items marketed exclusively to girls. As Joanna Schroeder detailed in an essay for The Good Men Project, with the Easy-Bake oven’s most recent transformation into a product that’s purple, adorned with flowers, and features only girls on the box, “It’s almost as if Hasbro is saying, Hey boys, just in case you thought the home might be a great place for you to feel comfortable working, we want to make it clear that you simply don’t belong here.” (If the packaging and commercial are any indication, it would seem that Easy-Bake ovens are also only for white girls, and preferably ones who are blonde.)

And if parents are not as thoughtful and diligent about working against these types of tired gender stereotypes as is Schroeder, who discussed the shortcomings of gendered marketing with her two sons at length, what probably happens instead is that a boy with an interest in cooking who wants an Easy-Bake oven is told, “You don’t really want that, it’s for girls.” I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s instances like THIS, and not Benedikt’s “mildly feminist” mom bubble whispering apologies about the excessive pinkness over the heads of their princess-crown-wearing children, that are subtly or not-so-subtly encouraging boys to think that princesses and “the stuff girls like [are] lame.”

The solution isn’t to ban pink or to ridicule girls who identify more with the sparkly Leona the Unicorn Fairy than with One Crazy Summer‘s resilient Delphine, but we do need to make sure that these diverse representations exist and that they are both accessible and familiar to children. So that a girl who doesn’t care for pink won’t have to feel like any less of a girl for coveting the blue version of a toy instead of the pink, we should urge companies to use advertising that features kids of any gender playing with toys in a wide range of color themes and aesthetics. It’s silly that this isn’t already a standard practice, and for this reason we should laud businesses when they do it successfully.

Companies choosing to market toys through the reinforcement of gender stereotypes has significant consequences for young children beyond hampering the creativity, comfort, and boundarylessness by which their identities should be formed. Take, for example, the nine-year-old boy in North Carolina whose school administrators recently argued that by bringing his My Little Pony backpack to school, Grayson was making it nearly impossible for bullies to resist targeting him, that essentially he was baiting his aggressors. Or look to eight-year-old Sunnie Kahle, who was recently kicked out of her Virginia Christian school for looking and acting too much like a boy.

As kids get older, this type of divisive thinking contributes to why girls who excel at or show an interest in certain athletic programs are labeled as butch or as posers of their more sports-savvy male peers, or why girls who wear pink or show an interest in high-fashion are frequently taken less seriously in an academic or workplace environment.

I absolutely don’t begrudge any five OR fifteen year old girl (or boy) who idolizes Sleeping Beauty’s ultra-feminine Princess Aurora, but those girls aren’t hurting for cultural representation. Rather than rushing to defend all things pink and princessy, I think we might do better to lobby instead for providing more diverse and inclusive toy options so that no child, regardless of their gender-identity or their preferences, feels discounted.

***

Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA from George Mason University. She has contributed writing to The Iowa ReviewBrevityNarrative MagazineGreen Mountains ReviewstorySouth, and The Good Men Project, among others. Her chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, was published last year by RopeWalk Press and is now available for Kindle. Clodfelter writes and lives in Southern Indiana with her partner and their awesome, hilarious daughter. KirstenClodfelter.com@MommaofMimo

 

 

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A Review of Bushra Rehman’s Corona

bushra rehman corona

A Review of Bushra Rehman’s Corona

By J. Andrew Goodman

Bushra Rehman’s Corona is a witty and moving story of liminal spaces and the narrator Razia’s abuttal with the thresholds of sex, ethnicity, and place. The novel follows Razia from her childhood in New York City and through her dangerous initiation to adult independence. She was expelled from her home after refusing an arranged marriage by her orthodox Muslim parents, and her long search for a new home frequently begs the question: What am I willing to compromise for freedom? After reading Rehman’s quick and elegant prose, the wide world seems intimate, awaiting the will of one displaced woman.

The title, Corona, refers to a poor neighborhood in Queens, New York, whose hegemony shifts generationally between different ethnicities—Italian, Puerto Rican, Korean, and Pakistani. Razia, her family, and nearest neighbors are Pakistani. They are unified by their faith and the generosity of Razia’s father. He is the owner and butcher at Corona Halal Meats. Their Muslim community holds two books in high esteem: the Quran and the tab her father keeps of goods he’s given away.

In one scene, Razia brings tea to her father and his friends, as she does every day at lunch. She notices her father always eats the least, takes his tea last, and cleans up after everyone, including the thoughtless imam. Razia is endeared by the small sacrifices her father makes for the sake of courtesy and the authority of faith. When he weeps during prayer, Razia feels closer to her father than before:

The azan came through over the loudspeakers. Men and women everywhere came out on the street. Everyone in the neighborhood tilted their heads and listened. Out of basement apartments and six-floor walkups, Muslim men started walking toward the sound, pulling their topis out of the backseats of their pockets.

The sun went down, and the clouds bent low over the buildings. I stood in front of the masjid and held my father’s hand. The light was turning pink and darkening, and I saw my father was weeping as a sleepy, blue light settled on everything.

Rehman softens the image of Razia’s father and displays the neighborhood’s solidarity, writing such moments with a deep reverence and tenderness that intensify our ambivalence toward Razia’s home.

Outside of Queens, as a young adult, Razia is defined by her romantic relationships. She substitutes the comforts of home with men, women, or drugs. She isn’t fortunate in the affections of men. Through a series of boyfriends, she travels the breadth of the United States—New York City to San Francisco and back to the Atlantic coast. Her first relationship after refusing the arranged marriage begins well enough; Razia and Eric escape the tumults of their respective homes, but their relationship deteriorates as they fail to hold jobs and as Eric becomes volatile and belligerent. Razia realizes the world she inherited is not fatalistic; she decides hunger and escape are more agreeable than abuse.

Razia is thirty or near thirty before she meets Ravi, a man she believes she can love despite his inability to always please her sexually. He is “on loan” from India, a decade-long student with a visa. He is heavy, hairy, and can answer questions with encyclopedic diction; he and Razia also share the same political views and maintain a moderate respect for their parents’ religion. During a sleepover at a mutual friend’s, Razia says Ravi looks good, even in traditional Muslim sleepwear. Ravi reminds Razia of her father and uncles, she confesses. Her childhood home is always on her mind, and Rehman’s writing makes the ugly, tan brick under the railroad tracks tangible upon utterance.

Finally, their relationship plateaus. Ravi explains he wants to see other women before he leaves the United States, but Razia wants them to be exclusive. She has, at last, found something she has been looking for. The moment has potential for derivative melodrama, but Rehman delivers the two lovers from each other with cool, comedic, and empathic dialogue. At every turn, there is an appraisal and a concession. Razia has to run shorter and shorter distances.

Razia eventually returns to New York, but not to the mythologized neighborhood she loves. She learns there are degrees of separation, and decides for herself how close she must be to her family and where she grew up. She will not agree to an arranged marriage, but to a truce, to the small comforts of conditional love. Razia’s home is as constant as the North Star. On clouded nights, when the oldest navigational tool is rendered useless, will we circle around it, lost, or stoop to build our fire.

Bushra Rehman, Corona. Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013: $14.95

***

J. Andrew Goodman is a recent MFA graduate from Murray State University and an intern for the independent literary publisher, White Pine Press. He currently lives and works in Louisville, Kentucky.

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