A Lean-To Upon a Once-Was

Paula Cisewski’s poetry book, The Threatened Everything (Burnside Review Books), is on the smallish size, trim-size-wise.

It fits easily in my small hands and seems to be littered with hearts—although upon closer inspection those hearts are less than sweet. None of that prepares me for the first poem, “The Apocalypse Award Goes To.” Variously, each section of the poem offers, then withdraws the award to:

First, “my newly betrothed and me . . . It was already the apocalypse, and we already felt appropriately minute.”

Next, the award is given to “most grown people,” who are described as “kaleidoscopically unsafe.” Then, the “animal kingdom,” then “doctors who specialize in treating Prolonged Apocalypse Stress Disorder,” so that finally the poem includes everybody. But these are just the bones of the poem; it’s shot through (literally, in one case) with interruptions. This is a poem for this moment, I think—which, given the time invested in writing a poem, revising, getting it into some editor’s hand, pre-production, and publication of a book, shows some strange sort of prescience on the part of the poet. That I should find it in my hands right when I needed it. Because the poet stopped me to say, “For statistically what percent of the parents pushing strollers on this sunny boardwalk have guns tucked away in holsters? For bullets rip through every modern poem, even the ones where shot or gunis not stated explicitly.”

These are just the bones of the poem; it’s shot through (literally, in one case) with interruptions.

As I was digesting that, thinking of a friend who I recently learned is nearly always packing, who I’ve begun to hug more carefully, the poem clobbered me with, “Another patient in this waiting room switched on the news and I immediately began leaking. Oh, well. It won’t be the first time a poet has leaked through her own poem.” The poem talks about the practice alarm for the apocalypse. It asks, parenthetically, “What if we need the alarm while the practice alarm’s going off?” and later, “(Those sirens are just on TV, aren’t they?)” These are the questions of worriers and I’ve embraced my suppressed worrier-self of late. This poem is the frontispiece for the entire collection—mixing technology and pop-culture references, sly jokes, relatable fears, and the constant sense of unease and disbelief that has come to characterize the current political and cultural moment for many of us. As the poem says of the apocalypse, “It’s a slow burn. Some of us have mothered whole people through it, others have died of old age in it.”

This poem is the frontispiece for the entire collection—mixing technology and pop-culture references, sly jokes, relatable fears, and the constant sense of unease and disbelief that has come to characterize the current political and cultural moment for many of us.

Cisewski’s book thereafter is divided into three sections: Field Guide to Austerity and Surroundings; The Wolf/Cave Problem; The Laughing Club. In the second section, twins are everywhere. There is a “good one” and a “bad one” and they are the same person, finally. The speaker of the poem “The Good One” is like that soft-sewn children’s toy that has the face of Little Red, and the Wolf, and if you flip it over, also the Grandmother, all in one. After one kills the other waiting for the “old woman” to arrive, she realizes fingerprints differ even on identical twins, so she undertakes to sever hands and sew them on, becoming all one person in one body: “whether or not I had ever been / the good one no longer mattered.” Other imagery from that tale recurs in other poems in this section—the kitchen shears, the animal inside the girl-speaker (like an echo of Carter’s retelling of the tale). All this reminds me of Carol Clover writing of slasher movies, “What makes horror ‘crucial enough to pass along’ is, for critics since Freud, what has made ghost stories and fairy tales crucial enough to pass along: its engagement of repressed fears and desires and its reenactment of the residual conflict surrounding those feelings.”

The final section of The Threatened Everything ends with laughter, a cathartic kind of laughter. It is not joyous, but the kind of laughter that occurs after too much stress, too much pain, when the body and soul is wrung out and doesn’t know what else to do. In the poem “Suddenly Laughter” it’s described as an “intersection / at terror and comfort.” Laughter is a “familiar wrecking ball” that “pummels / your heart’s hollow / business center.” The poem ends with the word “relief,” but we don’t feel any relief. Rather, we’ve decided to laugh, because we don’t know what else to do anymore.

The final section of The Threatened Everything ends with laughter, a cathartic kind of laughter. It is not joyous, but the kind of laughter that occurs after too much stress, too much pain, when the body and soul is wrung out and doesn’t know what else to do.

Similarly, in the poem “Humans, Dogs, Apes and Rats” we have a description of rats and the insistence that they laugh. That they have laughed “since before / humans even resembled // ourselves.” Before our culture, or technology, before we gathered to exchange ideas, “or irony, way / before irony.” And then, for those of us uncomfortable with rats, there is the description: “a wriggling pink pile / of bald rodent babies, // the size of several / opposable thumbs.” This is laughter that rings true and unsettles, as many poems in this section ring true and unsettle. Like the poem that includes Obama’s joke about Orange not being the new Black, but of course that’s exactly what happened, and it’s not so funny after all.

But I can’t end on that note, although this was a poetry collection that seemed to meet me where I was, deliver gut-punches I wanted to receive, right in my pale fish-belly. I have to tell you about my favorite poem. In the first section is the amazing “Revolution Prairie” which takes up the imagery of weeds and root systems and limbs and desire.

Consider the right of way of weeds,the root system’s defiant grip,

that they’re only called weeds becausewe didn’t buy them with money

or decide where to plant them.A flowering without

a boss, like our lovepopping up everywhere

(I wish I could read the whole poem aloud to you . . .) Suffice it to say, the weeds burst forth; the poem concedes a mower could cut it all down—the weeds, us, the words that are weeds that burst out of us like sentences of things that need to be said, popping up everywhere. But the poem ends with a call, a promise, and a declarative: “Burst forth with me in this narrow vista / of the threatened everything.”

The Threatened Everything by Paula Cisewski

The Negative Space of the Page

In my Survey of British Literature class in college, I remember learning several new words reading Milton.

He’s credited with introducing several words to the English language, but I remember one he didn’t invent: amanuensis, “a literary or artistic assistant, in particular one who takes dictation or copies manuscripts.” The image is familiar – blind Milton, leaning back in his chair, surrounded by his daughters. There’s a painting in the New York Public Library that shows Anne, Mary, and Deborah, each engaged with their father’s work. Milton wrote Paradise Lost, and later works, with the help of a number of amanuenses. His daughters, a nephew, and some people paid to do the work. But I was most interested in his daughters then – and now.

The stories that make up our histories are ever shifting. One story is that the muse would visit Milton during the night, and he’d repeat lines over and over to himself, getting them right, committing them to memory, until someone arrived to write them down. He described his own process in several places. The youngest daughter, Deborah, worked with some biographers later in her life, so some of her impressions may have survived. Other biographers wrote of how the daughters hated their father: his demands, the tasks he set before them, his hypocrisy about the very notion of liberty, his re-marriages, the household where he kept them prisoner. Milton was a man of his time perhaps. Perhaps somewhere between the voice in blind Milton’s head, and the hand that wrote down the lines, some whiff of Anne, Mary, or Deborah survives.

Emily Bowles’s chapbook His Journal, My Stella explores a similar situation in some ways. The relationship between Esther Johnson and Jonathan Swift is introduced in a prefatory note to Section I. “Miss” establishes some basic parameters for their relationship. It is a fatherly, mentor relationship. She is eight. He is an “authority.” Later, perhaps, their relationship changes. The poems in Bowles’s collection traverse the grid of this shifting relationship, between powerful established man, and “pliant, pleasurable” Stella – who wants to be seen as “more than a child, better than a woman.” The deftness of these poems is the way they are sketched only, paired with modern-day experiences and relationships, stretched across the negative space of the page, leaving the reader more gaps than knowing. The repetition of “Miss” to signify young unmarried woman/girl, and “miss” to signify something lost, and the line-ending that splits “miss / take” recur over and over to fragment idea and thought and concept. Who can know what happened in Milton’s household? Who can know what was in Stella’s heart? Or Swift’s? The opening note makes clear: “This is and is not something we now refer to as grooming.”

The deftness of these poems is the way they are sketched only, paired with modern-day experiences and relationships, stretched across the negative space of the page, leaving the reader more gaps than knowing.

Another classroom wells up at me in the poem “Misogyny in Rabelais.” The speaker has “missed / The Point.” The speaker has gone off topic, writing about something she shouldn’t have, questioning something outside of the poem. This is not an approved topic. “It is not valid,” the “[male] professor” points out. The final stanza of the poem is arranged in opposition to itself, a form that happens again and again here: “you” aligns itself with one margin, but the story occurs on the other margin, in the gutter of the page.

By the end of this poem, the speaker has become fragmented, both second-person (a person to see through) and an “I” still inhabited. She is two-personed, unable to withstand the weight of male authority, but uniquely situated to watch her failure and write it down.

She is two-personed, unable to withstand the weight of male authority, but uniquely situated to watch her failure and write it down.

While the story of Stella and Swift forms a framework for Bowles’s collection, the poems aren’t confined by that relationship. Many of the poems don’t reference that relationship explicitly but could be about it. Or not. They navigate the see-saw between specific and universal, but all traverse scaffolds of power, and specifically the power between men and women, that differential in romantic and sexual relationships, in marriage. Each poem calls forth “an act of sexual / textual / violence.” I said the poem “Misogyny in Rabelais” reminded me of a classroom – it does. A graduate school classroom where I asked if we could talk about a poet’s ethics, and the professor said that “wasn’t an interesting question.” An undergraduate classroom where a visiting poet told a round table of eager women poets that “no one wants to read about these things”; he told us, we earnest women-college students at our glossed wood table to “think about your audience.” We had been rapt.

Power and authority can have long-reaching effects; power and authority can silence.

In the article “Experts in the Field” published in Tin House, Bonnie Nadzam writes about abusive men in the writing world – and she touches on exploitive practices and the long-term effects they can have on students’ writing, careers, and voices. Power and authority can have long-reaching effects; power and authority can silence. As mentors, those who seek to harm can control their victims into their future. They are gate-keepers – they control access to jobs, residencies, contracts, networks. Most importantly, they can control access to our very selves, and the way we see ourselves. Through their reputations and classrooms and programs, they can “[teach] the rest of us how we should tell our stories.” In several poems, Bowles gives texts, criticism, judgement literal weight: “I wore the allusions, / those critical garments, / until they didn’t fit anymore.”

Bowles takes on structures beyond the classroom and criticism, exploring marriage and the home. In “Cedar Waxwing in Our House” the speaker finds kinship with a cat, noting the way we choose kitty litter and grain-free food to further divorce the creature from the wild – leaving us all “neutered.”

          Domesticitycan feel like a form ofterrorism, and sometimesa feral urge creeps inon mouse feet or cedarwax wings.

There’s that fragmentation again – separating words we expect to see together, perhaps the way the bird’s wings were separated by jaws and claws. In the short poem “I Went Missing,” Bowles makes of words fragments, so they can be read multiple ways. I like to imagine hearing this, as well as reading it, inserting a long pause at the line breaks, giving the page its due.

It was a misstaketotakehis name. I wentmissing when Imisstookmyselffor his Mistress.

Perhaps the speaker of this poem is Stella, perhaps it’s the poet, perhaps it’s any married woman who regrets marrying. Or not regrets entirely, but just wonders about things lost in the joining. Things like names and the identities they signify. I appreciate the slight form, the symmetry of the lines.

The final section of Bowles’ book, Section IV, is titled “Missed.” The note describes how Stella fell ill, died. Swift lived on and mentions of Stella continued. Perhaps she lived on in his fiction, fictionalized. Perhaps she animated Gulliver’s Travels. A poem from this section complains “I am an envelope, sent back and forth / between men . . .” Perhaps whoever survives ensures their version of the story survives, but it isn’t that simple, not between women and men. Not when the context of history has its own rules, in its own places, and one party holds more cards than the others. Not when the negotiations take place behind closed doors in dimly-lit rooms. Witness Deborah, Milton’s surviving daughter, whose voice still wasn’t strong enough to trouble her father’s legacy much.

The Best I Ever Had

Oh, Romance, you are the best I’ve ever had.

It started as these things usually do, I guess. A Susan Johnson paperback left out at the home where I was babysitting. A friend’s mother with a subscription to Harlequin Temptations that she kept in the top left hand section of her book shelf. She noticed my fixation, the way I couldn’t walk past that shelf without slowing down to a crawl. She loaned me one and that one led to…this.

My bookshelf was under my bed. (It still is.) And at that time, with my McNaught’s and Garwood’s I also had the Stephen King starter kit: Salem’s Lot, Pet Cemetery and It; the first three books in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and a tear-stained copy of Ordinary People.

What I’m trying to say is I wasn’t genre-specifc.

And then my sophomore year of high school, my best friend’s boyfriend committed suicide. My world fell apart. In every possible way. And I couldn’t fix anything. Nothing made sense. Except those romance novels under my bed. I dove deep into those Happily Ever Afters. The heavy, wild and hard emotions that all got tied up at the end gave me some closure at a time I could not find any of my own. They gave me a safe place to experience my grief and my guilt and fear.

I dove deep into those Happily Ever Afters. The heavy, wild, and hard emotions that all got tied up at the end gave me some closure at a time I could not find any of my own. They gave me a safe place to experience my grief and my guilt and fear.

When I went on to college my box of books came with me and slipped under the bed in my first dorm room and then again in my first apartment off campus. My sophomore year of college (honestly, what is with sophomore years) a friend of mine was killed by a drunk driver. And again, I dove deep. Thank you, Elizabeth Lowell, for getting me through that time.

Romance would have my undying devotion for getting me through those two years alone.

I would look back at it fondly, if I’d somehow left it behind. But I didn’t. Romance has grown up with me. College graduation, my year abroad, negotiating a long distance relationship and then a marriage that we can’t say WASN’T begun for immigration purposes. My parents. My brother. Unemployment, first jobs. Pregnancy. Babies. Toddlers. Musical beds. Sleepless nights. Bullying. Etc… etc… etc…

There was always and without fail a romance novel illuminating something powerful about the experience I was in. Even if it was just hope for an easier tomorrow.

Romance has grown up with me. College graduation, my year abroad, negotiating a long distance relationship and then a marriage that we can’t say WASN’T begun for immigration purposes. My parents. My brother. Unemployment, first jobs. Pregnancy. Babies. Toddlers. Musical beds. Sleepless nights. Bullying. Etc.

Romance has comforted me and excited me. It has eased my boredom (which let’s not pretend that’s not a HUGE deal in those days at home with a baby) and kept me up nights with its drama. It’s walked me through thorny parenthood problems and made me a better friend. A better wife.

And I could make some winky joke about sex, here. But that’s far too easy. And romance deserves so much better.

The romance authors I love are like deep-sea explorers, sending their submersibles down into the murky deep only to return with their hands full of language for things that are all too often considered unimportant. Or trivial. They show me – over and over again, how important nuance and specificity are to describing how we feel so we can understand what what we feel.

The romance authors I love are like deep-sea explorers, sending their submersibles down into the murky deep only to return with their hands full of language for things that are all too often considered unimportant.

(If you don’t think that is a big deal I would argue that maybe you’ve never suffered from anxiety or post-partum depression or even something as mundane as shame. Or fear.)

And, perhaps the real gift is that those romance novels have shown me that we are all deserving of love. And happily-ever-afters. And forgiveness. And orgasms.

Guilt is a very big word. And so is love. And fear. And desire. And my favorite authors show me time and time again the far reaches of all those emotions, where everything overlaps. And we’re all just humans trying our best and sometimes screwing it up. And, perhaps the real gift is that those romance novels have shown me that we are all deserving of love. And happily-ever-afters. And forgiveness. And orgasms.

I don’t know what I would do without romance novels. And if you’re curious… these are the best I’ve ever had:

Elizabeth Lowell: Only You, Only Mine, Only Him, Only LoveJudith McNaught: Something Wonderful, Once and AlwaysLaura Kinsale: Everything she wrote, ever.Susan Elizabeth Phillips: Dream a Little DreamJR Ward: The Black Dagger Brotherhood SeriesMegan Hart: Broken

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To Genre with Love

As I sit and consider my favourite book genre, I think of how I never really understood what genres meant when I first started choosing what I wanted to read, and how liberating that was.

I’ve always loved reading, and with parents who propagated reading as the ultimate learning tool, I often found myself from a very young age in a bookshop or library, given free rein to choose whatever I wanted to read. My parents did not have English as their first language, and thus did not really care what I read, as long as I read. Lacking guidance in school (growing up in Malaysia) and supervision at home, I never explored literature through its canons. Rather, it was whatever the bookshops and libraries around me stocked. And as a child, my only criteria then were that the books were of my reading ability (or a little harder), had a nice cover, interesting title, and a premise/plot that was new to me. Outside that, anything goes.

The two books that propelled me into exploring literature more rabidly as a child are Roald Dahl’s The Enormous Crocodile and Susan Hill’s I’m The King Of The Castle. Though both are mainstream children’s books, they proved to be special to me, as they introduced me to what I would realise later to be the types of books that I like – books that push my boundaries of imagination, knowledge, and understanding of humanity.

The tricksy characteristics of the Enormous Crocodile, or how the elephant, Trunksy spun Crocodile on its tail and propelled it into the sun was mind-boggling for my eight-year-old self. Though I had read fantasy stories before (Enid Blyton and fairytales), this mixture of reality and fictional imagination acted as a catalyst for my love of science fiction and fantasy later in life.

The boys’ relationships in I’m The King Of The Castle were a brilliant introduction to psychological thrillers and horror that would come to be my love during my formative years. It was here that I learnt about human behaviour, social triggers, and the many faces of humanity that are reflective of real life. My understanding of the world comes from fiction, and I am still constantly looking at fiction for new stories that would allow me to learn more about the world.

They introduced me to what I would realise later to be the types of books that I like – books that push my boundaries of imagination, knowledge, and understanding of humanity.

So from these two books, I journeyed into different realms; soaked up romance novels, fought through crime thrillers, was kept awake by horror, as I made my way through the genres to science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction. Science fiction (or hard science fiction) still remains my true love today. I don’t think I’m anywhere near a science fiction specialist, but I’m definitely a massive science fiction fan at heart, with Frank Herbert’s Dune firmly in its centre.

My understanding of the world comes from fiction and I am still constantly looking at fiction for new stories that would allow me to learn more about the world.

I’ve read it countless times, and yet it still entertains, teaches, and opens up new understandings of humanity to me. The far-fetched worlds that are grounded in our own world’s sciences are precisely what I feel is the perfect form of escapism. It is in these surreal worlds that we can scrutinise humanity and its actions without judgement, but with acceptance.

The best I’ve ever had? Well, it’s got to be science fiction as the ‘imaginative extrapolation from the possible’.[1] After all, ‘cutting edge sci-fi is sci-fi that dares you to think differently’.[2]

The far-fetched worlds that are grounded in our own world’s sciences are precisely what I feel is the perfect form of escapism. It is in these surreal worlds that we can scrutinise humanity and its actions without judgement, but with acceptance.

[1] Quote taken from Michael Segal (reader)’s comment on my novel Sun: Queens Of Earth.[2] Why Cutting Edge Sci-Fi Is Often Penned By Marginalized Writers, www.theestablishment.co

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How Fantasy Ignited My Reality

I fell in love with fantasy when I started reading the Harry Potter series as a kid.

A fourth-grade classmate brought Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fireto school for our teacher to read aloud. She only read one or two chapters, but it interested me enough that I got my mother to buy me Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Chamber of Secrets was a wonderful reading experience. My mind became filled with flying cars and broomsticks, Hogwarts castle, and mythical creatures. Sparks flew from the wands of Rowling’s witches and wizards flew into my imagination, where they bounced around and created a craving for more fantasy fiction.

Still, when it came to fantasy fiction, I didn’t think characters of color could exist. I had been taught through reading itself that the realm of fantasy was only for white men and women, and I’d never thought to look for anything else.

While waiting for the next Harry Potter book, I wanted to read stories of epic adventures, gods and mortals, with well-written female protagonists like Hermione Granger. I consumed novels from the Dragonlance series, books on mythology, and female-lead books like the Song of The Lioness series. However, I read very little fantasy fiction with people of color in it.

In fact, I can remember only one moment when the existence of people of color in fantasy didn’t feel strange to me. I was reading Lirael by Garth Nix, a book that is part of a trilogy. I saw a description of the book’s protagonist, Lirael, that said her white skin “burnt” when outside and that she had long, straight hair. I looked at the cover and thought that she looked a little like my mother, who is Vietnamese. Even though she seemed racially ambiguous, I thought she could have been Asian.

Still, when it came to fantasy fiction, I didn’t think characters of color could exist. I had been taught through reading itself that the realm of fantasy was only for white men and women, and I’d never thought to look for anything else.

Once, I bought a fantasy trilogy with characters of color without realizing it. The Farsala Trilogy by Hilari Bell featured a setting and characters that were inspired by Persian folklore—but years of reading fantasy with white characters had taught me to read them as white.

By the time I found a fantasy with a protagonist of color whom I was able to recognize as such, I was in college. I was browsing the adult section of my local library at random when I found The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin. I decided to check out the book when I turned it over and saw the author was a black woman. It had never occurred to me that a black woman could write fantasy novels with characters who looked like black people.

This book blew my mind just as much as reading the Harry Potter series had. Instead of seeing a white cast of characters, I saw more brown than white. Not only was there a brown woman of color protagonist with curly hair, but also a fantastic mythology involving two brown-skinned gods and one white one. The plot involving these characters and more added even more color. I imagined the gods dressed in silver, yellow, and black and their universe as a limitless rainbow of planets and stars.

While The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was part of a trilogy, I didn’t read the other books until much later. I believed that fantasy authors of color were a rarity… I gradually forgot about the book.

Not only was there a brown woman of color protagonist with curly hair, but also a fantastic mythology involving two brown-skinned gods and one white one. The plot involving these characters and more added even more color. I imagined the gods dressed in silver, yellow, and black and their universe as a limitless rainbow of planets and stars.

It took me getting tired of seeing the same old faces and plots in fantasy to start searching for alternatives. I did online searches and gradually found fantasy books with black and Asian characters and authors.

It occurred to me that there were probably other people who, like me, didn’t know these books existed. Since I had a personal blog where I was already reviewing books, I started reviewing books with authors and characters of color. Soon, I was focusing on black speculative fiction, especially after I discovered independent black authors on the web. These authors would show me that not only was it possible for people of color to exist in fantasy fiction, but also they didn’t need society’s permission to do so.

A few years after I discovered black indie fantasy authors, I learned that this same lesson applied to black indie comic creators and artists. The first fantasy webcomic I read by a black creator was Agents of the Realmby Mildred Louis. Agents of the Realm sparked an appreciation for comic artists and creators of color that I hadn’t felt since I read Japanese manga.

After I discovered more fantasy webcomics with people of color characters and creators, I became fully immersed in comics, both mainstream and indie. The titles that made the most impact were Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson and The Legend of Bold Riley by Leia Weathington. These comics made me see American comics in a new light by showing me how diverse creators can create diverse stories and characters that appeal to me. They also inspired me to spread the word about comics as a freelance writer—and they helped me understand what the fantasy genre meant to me.

These authors would show me that not only was it possible for people of color to exist in fantasy fiction, but also they didn’t need society’s permission to do so.

Fantasy gave me a wild imagination, entertainment, and a sharper mind. It showed me that magic could exist in this world, another world, and in myself.

Fantasy gave me a wild imagination, entertainment, and a sharper mind.

I fight for diversity in the fantasy genre because I didn’t know I could exist in a fantasy world or make my own until I was an adult.

Even though their sparks seem small, marginalized readers and authors have as much magic as everyone else. The more magic we acknowledge, the more fantasy will ignite reality.

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