Book Review: Lace & Pyrite by Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Lace & Pyrite:  Letters from Two GardensLace & Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A short chapbook of beautiful epistolary poems between Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Ross Gay. Ostensibly about their individual gardens, the scope of these poets’ poems frequently expands in breathtaking ways.

Nezhukamatathil is reading at the University of Arizona Poetry Center next week and I wanted to sample some of her work before then. Pleased to discover in the process a new favorite poet. I also read her Lucky Fish collection tonight and it was equally as wonderful.

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Book Review: Lucky Fish by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Lucky FishLucky Fish by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s most recent collection of poems (I think) concerns itself with autobiography, genealogy, geography, relationships, motherhood, and nature, among other topics. I love her sense of humor; poems like “Dear Amy Nehzooukammyatootill” and “The Mascot of Beavercreek High Breaks Her Silence” include unexpected humor along with more serious, lonely, and heartbreaking observations and revelations. I know when poems are working for me when the images suddenly erupt in vivid virtual reality in my mind and I gasp; several poems in this collection had those effects on me. It took a few readings of the first stanza in “A Globe is Just an Asterisk and Every Home Should Have an Asterisk” before the asterisk-shape of a flat cut-out of a globe in manufacture that would later be “pressed into a sphere” arrived in my mind’s eye, and I immediately loved that image. I was also really impressed by how she taught me to read with early poems poems later in the collection. For example, there’s a description of witches as wearers of eel-skin in an early poem that I recalled when a woman in a later poem was described as wearing eel-skin.

Nezhukamatathil is reading at the University of Arizona Poetry Center next week and I wanted to sample some of her work before then. Pleased to discover in the process a new favorite poet. I also read her collaboration with Ross Gay, Lace & Pyrite, which was also fantastic.

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Movie Review: Everything is Free

[This movie was removed from YouTube. If it goes back up, I’ll update the links. The video he added soon after, How to be a Slut in America – Part 1, is every bit as interesting.]

When I say that Brian Jordan Alvarez’s new queer film Everything is Free—now available for free but age restricted on YouTube—is not afraid of penises, I mean that as high praise, and this is your opportunity to bail out of this review if this isn’t subject matter you’re comfortable with. You also might want to bail if you don’t want anything spoiled; come back after you’ve watched the film.

And when I say this film is further evidence that we are in more than just the Golden Age of Television, I mean that there are so many great web series and independent films and really video content of any kind. There’s a lot more crap out there because it’s easier than ever to capture and edit video, the price of software and hardware has plummeted, the number of platforms has multiplied, and many more people from many different backgrounds are releasing their video visions to the world, but the good stuff is better than ever, too.

[Spoilers ahead.]

Everything is Free comes from the brilliant mind of Alvarez, who wrote, directed, edited, starred in, and composed some of the music for his film. Alvarez is known for his comedy, and his latest effort is really damn funny, but it’s also full of drama, art, surrealism, and heat. Like really fucking hot moments of sensuality and nudity doing more than just titillating the viewer. The unexpected appearance of an erect penis in a YouTube video is a proclamation, a vulnerable character moment, kinda funny actually, hot, and happens as the drama escalates into homophobia and violence.

Ivan (played by Alvarez) is a gay American artist living in Colombia. His best friend and his friend’s brother, Cole, both straight, come to stay with him. As they begin to meet other Americans in Colombia, Ivan finds himself attracted to Cole, and is surprised by Cole’s tentative interest in return. As the relationship sputters and halts to a start, Ivan and Cole soon face an unexpected obstacle that adds a lot of tension and takes the film in unexpected directions.

What I find refreshing about Alvarez’s work is his unapologetic approach to depicting queer experience. I didn’t realize how much I hide and apologize for my own queer sense of identity until I started watching Alvarez’s YouTube videos. I also didn’t recognize  how much I have normalized on heterosexual ways of being, including monogamy and nuclear families. Ivan crafts a family of friends around him, and experiences his sexuality without apology, even to the ostensibly straight brothers who drop into his world. He expresses attraction, tests limits, has multiple partners, and isn’t afraid of being in love and lust. There’s a line late in the movie when Ivan asks why he’s the one being made to look crazy because he’s in love with a straight man that really resonated with me. I have also found myself in love with straight guy friends, relationships made all the more confusing by a level of intimacy and dependence that developed between us that straight guys don’t talk about and frequently end up lashing out unprovoked as they struggle to understand and set their own limits. It’s so refreshing and comforting to see this explored in Everything is Free.

The direction and acting are fantastic, but I am also impressed by Alvarez’s editing and color choices. There are surreal and artsy moments that make the film even more fascinating, and will lead me to watch it again to derive additional meaning. There’s a lot to think about here. I thought the end felt slightly tacked on and more hopeful than necessary, except it’s also really funny and satisfying in it’s own way.

If you’ve seen previous web series and shorts by Alvarez, then you have seen many of the other actors in this film. It’s always wonderful to see Stephanie Koenig, Jason Greene, Jimmy Fowlie, and the rest of the gang. They all work so well together, with a style that’s part improvisational, part pure joy.

So when I say I’m looking forward to seeing more of Alvarez’s films, it’s because he has matured into one of my favorite writer-directors, and I’m learning a lot about myself in the process of appreciating his art. This is a Golden Age of Creativity and of diverse voices describing experiences that haven’t been explored enough.

Movie Review: Juste la fin du monde (It’s Only the End of the World)

I have been eager to see Juste la fin du monde (It’s Only the End of the World) from my favorite director, Xavier Dolan, for so long, and yet I somehow missed that the film has been on Netflix for months. Stupid, stupid…

My goodness is this a rich, complex, brutally emotional movie that I need to watch a hundred more times. The director’s framing of most of the shots is so claustrophobic, a parallel to the angst and hurt that lies within this family on the day the middle 34-year old son returns home after a twelve-year absence to tell them he is dying. The film builds tension through Louis’ one-on-one conversations with each of his family members, which really are monologues as each family member fumbles to express their hurt and confusion about why Louis chose to distance himself from them and eagerness to have him back in their lives. By the end of the movie, the tension is so painfully high as we wait to find out if Louis will utter the words he’s there to say.

As Louis, Gaspard Ulliel is a master of expression, his wet eyes, grimaces, and small smiles conveying how all the things he really wants to say are bottled up behind his face and his two and three-word responses to his family members’ monologues. I was also moved by Marion Cotillard as the sister-in-law that Louis has not previously met. The actor plays against type as a shy woman attempting to navigate the deep waters of this dysfunctional family. Nathalie Baye, Léa Seydoux, and Vincent Cassel are also fantastic. Cassel’s character is particularly unlikeable, but his story arc is fascinating even while he is so brutal. Seydoux broke my heart. The matriarch, played with such life by Baye, and the relationship between mother and son were less of a focus in this film, which was unexpected based on Dolan’s previous films.

Xavier Dolan continues to surprise me with his evolution as a director (and writer and actor.) He has always had a mature eye despite his very early start and success. As he approaches his late twenties and a new chapter in his career, I’m running out of superlatives to describe his work. If you haven’t seen his films yet, I highly recommend them all:

  • J’ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother)
  • Les amours imaginaires (Heartbeats)
  • Laurence Anyways
  • Tom à la ferme (Tom at the Farm)
  • Mommy

Now I am even more eager for his highly anticipated English-language film, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan.

My First Published Poem: “Roadside Freak Show”

Impossible Archetype Issue 2 cover
Roadside Freak Show
Impossible Archetype issue 2
21 August 2017

Today was a perfect day: after sharing the spectacular solar eclipse this morning with friends among the large crowds gathered at the University of Arizona campus, my very first published poem became available online in the second issue of the wonderful LGBTQ+ journal Impossible Archetype! The issues of this journal are available as free PDF downloads. Packed within issue two are so many fantastic poems; I’m still amazed that my poem “Roadside Freak Show” is included among them.

I have much appreciation for the instructors and writers at The Writers Studio Tucson who offered helpful feedback on early drafts of this poem. They helped me find the best way to navigate the tonal differences in my early drafts between factual information, protest, and lyricism. I learned a lot about considering readers when I start revisions of my poems. Good poetry can be opaque, have lots of different meanings, and make the reader work to read it, but the poet also has some responsibility to make their poems in some way accessible to diverse readers. I write for myself in the first few drafts, but then I take a step back and try to imagine what strangers coming to my work will see. It helps to have fellow writers as first readers to offer their critiques. Frequently there are images and phrases that make sense only to me, that end up offering no means by which a reader can come into the poem, too.

Yellow monster print on concrete at Bowlin's The Thing? roadside attraction, March 18, 2017
Yellow monster print on concrete at Bowlin’s The Thing? roadside attraction, March 18, 2017

I did research for this poem. On a Saturday in March, I drove southeast of Tucson to visit The Thing and experience for myself the weirdness that is the United States roadside attraction. I had been talking myself out of going for several months for various social anxiety reasons, but I knew as soon as I arrived that I had made the right decision. I took notes and pictures while I followed monster prints to the three sheds packed full of dust-covered items behind glass, hanging from the ceiling, standing behind metal dividers, or inside a cinderblock coffin. Without experiencing this place, I wouldn’t have been able to capture the atmosphere and horror I believe are important components of my poem. I wouldn’t have made the necessary connections between the roadside attraction, its history, and current events. I’m now convinced that research must be part of my writing process. I had a lot to think about when I came home from my weekend trip and my poem improved so much in subsequent drafts because I had personally experienced and documented the place.

Banner and cinder-block coffin containing The Thing at Bowlin's The Thing? roadside attraction, March 18, 2017
Banner and cinderblock coffin containing The Thing at Bowlin’s The Thing? roadside attraction, March 18, 2017

The biggest surprise, of course, was how the other items at this roadside attraction frightened me more than The Thing. I wasn’t actually expecting any real fear at all, but the disturbing things collected there forced me to grapple with the very idea of roadside attractions. You can’t walk in to find a mannequin of Hitler in the back of a vehicle and other mannequins in scenes of torture and not feel a little terror.

The Thing under glass and reflected banner inside a cinder-block coffin at Bowlin's The Thing? roadside attraction, March 18, 2017
The Thing under glass and reflected banner inside a cinderblock coffin at Bowlin’s The Thing? roadside attraction, March 18, 2017

I found The Thing itself incredibly poignant. A crafted thing “from fabric and plaster, / more pile of dirt and wet cardboard / than realistic human skeleton” suggests many things about the creator of it, the era it’s from, the era it finds itself in now, the roadside attraction, and these United States. It calls attention to various issues and themes like racism, cultural appropriation, art, and commerce. It’s beloved by, though it’s also meant to frighten, travelers and children. And it’s surrounded by the reckoning we still haven’t had with our country’s past.

I felt like it could be me someday. There’s nothing attractive about that prospect.

Looking Ahead

on August 21, 2017, before

I’ve seen the eclipse already.
I’ve seen how it begins:
the radiant sun, the vanished
moon. See how they are going
to collide, the many decisions
the moon made, the sun in its
place and bright and not waiting,
but willing. I’ve seen the introduction
by the sky, the first tentative kiss,
the way it can flare. the way these two
spend their two hours together: intensify,
more colors than imagined, gray and blue and yellow,
white, too bright, scalding, frigid passage of time
together, orbits constrained to a circle and collapsing
in, leaving everyone else outside, in the dark,
afraid, unprepared, caught in traffic, under
moon and sun timid reconsidering recoiling
while sleeping birds cry out in alarm
and howling coyotes transform into humans,
into bats, into umbrellas, and whine when
they are coyote again. How they pull
apart, not easily, with great pain,
groping, mistaking legs for fingers,
tripping, huddling, finding stars
in the vastness, making a run
for it. Get away from me!
Apart. Hot and cold. Lonely.
Remember those good times?
Remember how they kept coming,
these eclipses, these holes
in the sky, brief beginnings
and long endings? It’s there
behind your eyes and mine,
the twirl never-ending.
So brief.

Condemn

Condemn

Condemn

when necessary

Condemn

Condemn white supremacists kkk nazis
whatever name gone by Condemn
always

family and friends Condemn
when necessary
yes parents siblings relatives
grew up with them
no blood loyality
grew up with
friends
no loyalty
friends and coworkers
no loyalty
Condemn who needs Condemning

always

Condemn

no loyalty when hate is involved
no loyalty to hate

Condemn

these and more

clergy religion spirituality new age supernatural dogma
atheists scientists eugenicists creationists bad science dogma
pseudoscience academics philosophers written oratory any media dogma
politicians authority figures the white house dogma
public figures celebrities loud figures news anchors
news channels reporters news not news but commentary too much opinion
artists poets writers writers and tellers of jokes
jokes religious jokes race jokes gay jokes trans jokes
rape jokes blonde jokes hair jokes body jokes dogma
Condemn jokes that need Condemning

Condemn

free speech not the right to but the practice of as blunt weapon
as free speech without free response

Condemn Condemn! white supremacy right now

Condemn the worst in you your hate your parents’ hate born
in you Silence your complicit saliva ancestors blood evil
awash in colonization sending the worst upon your current shores

there are more shores than these

Condemn all our garbage-strewn shores awash in plastic patriotism
without free response without basic decency or cleanup without open borders

and Protect them

awash in oily rationale and devil advocacy
breaking waves of ignorance and measles
the red tides of daily horoscopes celebrity worship
amusing ourselves to death
free markets without free response
capitalism without critique
occupation conquerer text books
limits to freedoms facts no limits to guns prisons opinions
the weighted rebalancing of unbalanced perspectives
commentary ad-supported neuroscience marketing
gamification notification surveillance shadow dark webs
social network algorithms mob addiction
relentless crash of polluted waves

Condemn

no loyalty when hate is involved
no loyalty to hate

Condemn

when necessary

each other

it’s necessary

always

involved

Condemn