I discovered Black Ocean at AWP Chicago in 2009 and I adore their books. Well, BL #18 contributor Feng Sun Chen recently published Butcher’s Tree with Black Ocean, and it might be my favorite yet. When I received my copy, publisher Janaka Stucky had tucked in a copy of his Ahsahta Press contest-winning chapbook, The World Will Deny It For You.
Books in the mail. The joy that will never wane.
Maybe it’s because the two came in the same envelope, or because I read them back to back, but I became very interested in not really comparing them, but just observing them together.
When I interview publishers, I always ask them what they look for in a manuscript, what a poet has to do to rise above the pile and distinguish herself. When I asked Stucky that question, he cited the “strange exuberance,” the “paradox that deeply resonated,” of several of Chen’s lines:
I am small, I am small. Here comes the parade! All that beauty!
I want to die! I want to die!
I want to die! (p.6)
Consider, then, Stucky’s lines, “Touch everyone you encounter and know / You touch nothing” (p. 6), the paradox of desperately reaching out, even in the knowledge that it is futile.
Is it any wonder this poet-publisher wanted to publish that poet?
Paradox, nature, mysticism and spirituality, and loss of human connection are all themes in both Stucky’s chap and Chen’s full-length. Stucky and Chen are both fond of aphorisms forged in pain and grounded in natural imagery. Chen’s speaker admits, “I want to be alone just long enough / to feel the trigger of longing and the mistake of it” (p. 44). Stucky almost replies, like a kindred, with his own advice: “Hide in the woods / Turn into the trees / The trees will die” (p. 6) and, “Watch me become / invisible as I guard the yes / you left behind” (p. 9). Again later, he may as well be responding to Chen’s less overtly forlorn speaker:
You will dream of the knife standing
At the window like she used to
And the knife will become her in a phosphorescent dress
And she will become the moon in the black sky
And the moon will leave you (p. 28)
Both poets even evoke a weapon—a trigger, a knife.
The tendency toward aphorism, specifically in Chen’s poetry, often comes with a haiku sensibility: “My true face is that of a potato. I have many eyes, but see nothing” (p. 43) and “Eyes are like rubber tires. They take you places. / Do a lot of traveling. I try not to puncture mine, but they leak” (p. 50). Her title itself, Butcher’s Tree, suggests the duality of human and natural; the “milk newts” on p. 35, for example, or section titles such as “Milk Vein” (her re-use of images, by the way, is to the echo effect of cohesion). Further, she made me reflect on how human it is to glut on nature, to distort it. Is it blood or beet juice in “The Quest”? “How many times can night be described,” she asks, “without throwing it away?” Then answers herself: “Purse of pelvic bone jangling / with something collapsible / and quiet with groundwater. That is night” (p. 59).
Stucky’s collection, being shorter, has a stronger singular theme—someone left the speaker reeling in the aftermath of a failed relationship. Indeed, everything works forward from the page three proclamation, “you are long gone.” Stucky accomplishes the mean feat of successful double negatives that don’t sound contrived—”Nothing cannot pass through me” (p. 9) and “We never don’t know anything about someone” (p. 15)—because the fact of the lover’s absence plunges speaker and reader alike into the only certainty there is: uncertainty. He speaks to the departed: “The moment you arrived you were / already leaving” (p.26), but also, “When you are away / you are not away” (p. 24). Again with the natural imagery truing his sentiments, the speaker imagines, “Our child is a vulture—a black speck in the white sky // All the things we don’t have circle our house at night” (p. 31).
The references to magic and brooding philosophy in The World Will Deny It For You resonate because we are in a place where no sense can be made of the broken heart, the shattered existence. Stucky’s speaker is back and forth between despair—”We are drowned / We are drowned” (p. 17)—and spite—”Watch me poltergeist … My white hands / Haunting any house you build” (p. 9). More advice to the rest of us, or perhaps himself: “Build your impossible fort full of secret magics / designed to let others in” (p. 8), because the others will always be let in, right? How do we know? “I create the oracle,” he tells us (p. 24).
Superstition and myth abound in Chen’s poems as well. A punch drunk Prometheus persona recalls, “My livers could fill whole oceans ... I have become a huge liver. A liver of it” (p. 9). Direct and indirect references to magic and lore function in much the same way as in Stucky’s poems—abstraction grounds more abstraction when utilizing the props of ritual, “a dress made of leaves” (p. 5), “Wolf Teeth,” “loud blood and a few edge bells” (p. 13). “You are the soup that fills my skull,” she intones (p. 34). The poems themselves become a kind of witch’s Book of Shadows, the place where a lifetime’s worth of knowledge, recipes, remedies, spells, and songs are contained, a bible about how not to follow a bible.
But I want to follow Chen, further, because Butcher’s Tree is smart (“Concering Repetition” is a favorite poem) and sleek with craft. Her long poem “Grendel is a Woman” is a tour de force, but even a simple simile becomes extraordinary in her hands: I don’t need to know precisely what “I flutter like an ax” means to be utterly affected (p. 14). And I want more poems by Stucky, more and still more strangely, exquisitely rendered turmoil, like his (itself haiku-esque) “Suicide Balm”:
Your lipstick strapped tightly to my chest
I run into a crowded restaurant
And plug it in
Write faster, poets.