Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from I Offer My Heart as a Target/Ofrezco mi corazón como una diana by Johanny Vázquez Paz, translated by Lawrence Schimel.
Paz offers a lament of identity and appearance; the recurring usage of “they”—both displaced and omnipresent—suggests the narrator’s feeling that her light skin and hair are seen as a curse. She is a “discordant note:” unwanted and unwelcome.
They saythat I don’t look like what I ammy white skin lonely cloud in a shady skymy hair rays of a Nordic sunmy hips narrow lacking substance and sugar.
They saythat I pronounce words differentlymy diction is too properwithout changing my arr or dropping my essesvery Castilian and beyond mockery.
They saythat I don’t represent the folklore of the peoplethe patriotic symbols, the plátano stainnot even my people recognize me as a daughter;I’m the enigma of a badly conceived graft.
They call me milkman’s daughtergüera, gringa, polacaglass of milk, Casper the Ghostdiscordant note, alien beingthe white sheep in a coppery herd.
“Milkman’s Daughter” is excerpted from I Offer My Heart as a Target/Ofrezco mi corazón como una diana, copyright 2019 by Johanny Vázquez Paz, translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel. All rights reserved. Used with permission of the author and Akashic Books (akashicbooks.com).
Here are four notable books of poetry publishing this month.
The War Makes Everyone Lonely by Graham Barnhart
“Unlike life, / war can be survived.” Barnhart’s debut is full of these sharp, solemn touches about war and the shadow of military service. A former US Army Special Forces medic in Iraq and Afghanistan, Barnhart’s book shares the spirit of Phil Klay’s story collection Redeployment: testaments to the lasting memories of lives burned by violence. When he ends one poem “the guns were loud–loud like gods applauding,” there’s an acute sense that Barnhart is especially skilled at capturing the encompassing feeling of war. In the excellent titular poem, the narrator says his sister “had been receiving a lot of calls / from strangers” asking for Elisha, since her number was listed on an escort site. Meanwhile, the narrator, deployed in Afghanistan, sits “in a little plywood room painted red, / hung with pictures of the other guys’ wives.” Bored, he repeats twice that “nothing ever happens.” Barnhart, true to his title, is talented at crafting moments of loneliness–both in scene and in line (one poem, “Survival and Evasion,” is sapped of moisture, so that its lines feel soured and clipped, the perfect tone: “Day nine: turned our tongues to chalk / with unripe persimmons. Used them to bait / a snare instead.”). One of the most important debuts this year.
I Offer My Heart as a Target (Ofrezco Mi Corazón Como Una Diana) by Johanny Vázquez Paz (translated by Lawrence Schimel)
“Love my scar / discover in its ugliness the perfect geography / where tears find their bearings with laughter.” Paz compels us to look closer, and longer, at bodies worn, stressed, and hurt. Often her narrators are hurt by men–in the shadows and under the light, in the past and in the present. “And they say that I let them,” one narrator laments, “by not squealing madly / shouting my panic / to my friends / saving my family / from the shame.” Paz creates a sense of shared shame; after all, her narrators have inherited so much from their family: “I don’t know at what moment / my sisters inhabited me, / when they looted my room / to install their own belongings / and furnish me with their dreams.” She ends the poem: “I am a hundred women in one / hybrid of virgin possibilities / and I feel on my skin the pain and the laughter / of all the warrior women I inherited.” Paz’s book is full of tradition, tension, and rage: “Without strength to fulfill the vengeances / I wreak every night in my sleep / when I dream that I am another woman / who doesn’t awaken in me.”
Gatekeeper by Patrick Johnson
Fragmented and fractured, Johnson pushes this book to its structural limits–and the result is a successfully jarring and disturbing collection. This is a book of the internet, and of our internal selves: of pursuit, lust, and a closing into the spirit. Prose-poetic pages offer intermittent, dramatic scenes that create a narrative through-line for the book: the narrator, curiosity piqued by the possibilities of the hidden and deep web, begins searching and stalking that space. Johnson’s vision here is a world that we all dabble in–at the least the surface of it, on which these very words are being read–but Johnson pushes us lower, invites us in, and wonders what would help when we follow this medium to its logical (or illogical) conclusion. “We talk for months without exchanging names,” the narrator says of his relationships with Anon, a phantom voice, a source of distant intrigue. Johnson takes on a breakneck feel in the book, and when he steps out from the online space, as in poems like “black mirror (slowly),” the dystopia remains. Even though the narrator takes a break from the computer, he longs for a return: “This desire, an impulse, undoes me.” Is this digital love? Gatekeeper offers uncomfortable possibilities.
Life Poem by Bob Holman
Holman wrote Life Poem in 1969, when he was 21. There’s been a lifetime between that manuscript and now–a lifetime during which Holman has been an activist, poet, professor, promoter of poetry, and more. When Holman cites the Jesuit critic Walter Ong, S.J. in his foreword (“life fits into poem the way that meaning is nested in sound”), it feels like we are entering into a pleasant and quirky time capsule, and Life Poem delivers in the book proper. “desperate now, i’ve started to write everything that comes into my head” the narrator begins, and he does collect varied streams and rivers of consciousness in looping lines. “what if i laughed louder? / could you believe me then?” the narrator asks, his lines frenzied but never inane, delivered with dizzying wordplay (“university students of the world, ignite!”). Other sections are deceptively, powerfully solemn: “we’ve begun pulling men out of Viet Nam! / hooray! we shout, yea, the boys are coming home! / only they aren’t coming home–they’re being sent to the Middle East / wars should be fought under supervision of mothers / and all the boys must be home by eleven.”
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Jeff VanderMeer, Annette Hess, Perumal Murugan, Olaf Olafsson, and more—that are publishing this week.
Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Dead Astronauts: “VanderMeer returns to the hallucinatory world of Borne, where an all-powerful company has ravaged a metropolis known only as the City, in this lackluster novel. Into this unpredictable landscape come three astronauts, Chen, Moss, and Grayson, determined to explore their otherworldly environment, which is watched over by a mysterious blue fox that seems capable of transcending time and space. After the first few chapters, fragmentary subplots bubble up: there is Charlie X, a rogue astronaut from the expedition fighting to hold on to his memories amid a creeping amnesia; a massive sea monster awaits its death; a mysterious journal containing knowledge of demons that foretells the coming of the monster Behemoth is passed between survivors; a total darkness called Nocturnalia threatens to engulf the dead city; and a shapeshifter confronts a cosmic duck over ownership of the journal. If this sounds overstuffed, it’s because it is. It’s certainly among VanderMeer’s most experimental work, but the novel never coalesces; the characters and concepts are too loosely sketched and the prose is both grandiose and oddly humorless, punctuated by lines such as ‘A fox is a question that must be answered’ and ‘The duck represented a paradox.’ This diffuse novel reads like unused notes from Borne and feels incomplete.”
The Story of a Goat by Perumal Murugan
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Story of a Goat: “This superbly fabulist tale from Murugan (One Part Woman) dives into the inner life and turmoil of a Asuras, a fictional farming village in rural India, through a small but determined goat and her unlikely caretakers. A large, mysticlike man gifts a rare black goat to an old farmer one day on his way home from the field. When the old farmer brings the malnourished goat home to his wife, she quickly gets to work caring for the goat, whom she names Poonachi. It’s not an easy start for Poonachi, who must deal with the abuses of the village children, refuses to suckle, and is attacked by a tiger. But in the hands of the old woman, Poonachi eventually thrives alongside their older goats and becomes her inseparable companion. As Poonachi grows older, she learns that life is filled with struggle and suffering, but also that it holds moments of beauty and love. Anthropomorphic Poonachi lets readers into many of her thoughts and experiences, including a vibrant view of life under a government regime that banned black goats (which supposedly can’t be seen in the dark) and oversaw long periods of famine and food rationing. Murugan explores the lively inner life of an observant goat in this imaginative exploration of rural life under the caste system.”
The German House by Annette Hess (translated by Elisabeth Lauffer)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The German House: “Hess’s strong debut follows Eva Bruhns, who works as an interpreter at the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials in 1963 Germany, in which German defendants have been charged with crimes they perpetrated at Auschwitz during WWII. Eva becomes emotionally invested as she interprets the testimonies of Polish witnesses from Polish to German, but she doesn’t understand why her parents, Edith and Ludwig, owners of the German House restaurant, don’t seem to care about the trial. As Eva continues her work and makes a trip to Auschwitz along with other members of the trial team, she uncovers secrets her parents have hidden from her about her father’s work during the war. The period detail is impressive, but the highlight is Eva, a complex and thoughtful woman who finds herself in the midst of a significant moment in history. This novel will appeal to both WWII fiction fans and those seeking historical novels anchored by a strong, memorable heroine.”
The Sacrament by Olaf Olafsson
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Sacrament: “Olafsson (One Station Away) offers a mesmerizing and powerful look at abuse in the Catholic Church through the eyes of an elderly French nun called upon to revisit a two-decades-old case from 1987 in Iceland. Back then, Sister Johanna Marie, brought in to investigate because she had learned the language from her Icelandic college roommate, discovered that priests engaged in abhorrent behavior with impunity. Now, in 2009, she would rather tend her convent’s rose garden, but when a Cardinal calls upon her to obtain new evidence from a witness who will speak only to her, she agrees to help. The circumstances of the original case are vividly recalled: during an investigation of a priest accused of abusive behavior, the priest fell to his death from a bell tower. Johanna is concerned now about what this witness remembers and what he will reveal. Besides the investigation particulars, the reader discovers why Johanna became a nun and why she had to mask her feelings for her college roommate—a hidden love that impacted the rest of her life. The author shines a light on the enigmatic workings of the Catholic Church and, in an astounding dénouement, delves into the balance between justice and vengeance, and the power of conviction, absolution, and redemption. This is an incisive novel.”
This Is Happiness by Niall Williams
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about This Is Happiness: “In glorious and lyrical prose, Williams (History of the Rain) spins the tale of one 1958 season in the village of Faha, County Kerry, where young ‘Noe’ Crowe, only 17 and already departed from the seminary, has washed up with his grandparents. The story opens on the Wednesday of Holy Week with the cessation of an almost constant rain, relieving the villagers of their life ‘under a fall of watery pitchforks.’ To add to this wonder, the electricity is finally coming to Faha and with it a lodger at Ganga and Doady Crowe’s house. Christy McMahon is a man of broad experience who seems ‘as if it was he who told the world the joke of himself’ and a perfect companion to Noe. During that late spring and early summer, Noe assists Christy in signing up the locals for electric service, and they spend their evenings on a quest for music at countryside pubs. Most important for Christy is his attempt to gain forgiveness from Annie Mooney, now Annie Gaffney, widow of the village chemist, a woman that Christy left at the altar decades before. Meanwhile, love springs on Noe unawares as he comes under the thrall, in succession, of each of the lovely Troy sisters, daughters of Faha’s doctor, whose attention Noe needs after an accident. Noe’s reminiscences of that period are full of beauty and hard-won wisdom. This novel is a delight.”
I Offer My Heart as a Target by Johanny Vázquez Paz (translated by Lawrence Schimel)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about I Offer My Heart as a Target: “In the introduction to this piercing and timely exploration of gender, violence, and social justice, novelist, poet, and critic Rigoberto González writes: ‘The survivor speaks her truth, or rather, writes her way to truth as an avenue of expression.’ As the book unfolds, readers witness the role of language in creating truth from a variety of aesthetic vantages, ranging from the philosophical to the image-driven: ‘To smoke in another language causes a cancer that spreads; first the lips, then the tongue,’ Paz explains in ‘Diaspora of Words.’ Throughout, she calls attention to language as a reason for those in power to exclude, and effectively disenfranchise, those individuals beneath them. Yet language also appears as a source of understanding, connection, and community: ‘We went to live to indulge the enemy/ to resist nights of storms and orphanhood to hear the silence of the lips/ sealed by the ignorance of the language.’ To understand others, individuals must first learn how they organize, structure, and understand the world around them through language, Paz suggests. ‘Against all prognoses,/ we survive,’ she proclaims in this moving book that, with Schimel’s skillful translation, highlights resilience in the face of oppression.”