New collections to make life more lyrical.
Poetry frequently draws upon myth, folklore, and archetypes, but the narrative poem often lives in this self-referential sphere of story through the lens of story. I find the best narrative poets who employ this type of meta-narrative are doing the work of interrogating other stories, creating a tonal and subject tension via the poem’s structure. And the master poet creates whole new worlds and mythologies.
The collections in this month’s roundup give us a different cultural lens through which to view typically European narratives. Each poet takes on three separate mythic stories, deconstructs them, and then breathes into them new life through their own deeply personal experiences.
Sasha taqwšəblu LaPointe first came to my attention with her debut book, Red Paint, a coming-of-age memoir rooted in her Coast Salish background, family history, and love of punk music. These themes are echoed throughout her new poetry collection, Rose Quartz (Milkweed Editions), which is told through the wrappings of Eurocentric witchcraft and fairytales. LaPointe, however, subverts these tropes with the Indigenous perspective and a young woman’s search for a meaningful identity amongst shards of childhood trauma and growing up in Washington state surrounded by the ghosts of ancestors, dead rock stars, and decaying Seattle pop culture.
LaPointe uses a Tarot card — along with a different crystal, like the titular rose quartz — to subtitle each of the book’s four sections. As a casual student of Tarot, a divination tool tracing back to 15th-century Italy that has become synonymous with many archetypes within the Major Arcana, I’m intrigued by this decision. LaPointe also references the Minor Arcana, which contain the four elements (suits) like a deck of cards, traditionally going from ace to king.
Her first section, “Black Obsidian Ace of Wands,” points toward the beginning but also toward spiritual success, as the wands represent spirit (fire), and obsidian is an intensely protective stone. I relate this pairing most strongly with “The Canoe My Grandmother Gave Me,” the poem functioning as a guide for the entire collection. The canoe is a sacred vessel for the Coast Salish, who were master canoe crafters, and the poem’s story centers a hugely important Indigenous archetype, the grandmother. It begins with a prose-like anecdote:
“When my grandmother hit the record button on the cassette recorder, it startled my great-aunt. What is it? What does it do? It’s going to capture the language, my grandmother said, to keep it. My great-grandmother thought about this a long while. As a child, she traveled by river, by inland waters to relatives, to bring them fish, to carry the news. She looked down at the cassette recorder and nodded. Ah, she said. This is just a different kind of canoe.”
What I love about this is that could have been its own poem, but LaPointe instead thrusts the reader into another story — with her mother and grandmother in the Space Needle’s restaurant, as LaPointe looks out the window and recalls her sexual assault and subsequent learning to stay silent, to leave the canoe of language/power onshore, but also realizing the path to learning that language is always there waiting for her.
The moral and meaning of fables or fairytales tend to lie in the tragic consequences for the character (often a child or woman) due to their actions or inaction. Jessica Q. Stark has an experimental take on this dynamic in her latest collection, Buffalo Girl (BOA Editions), which traces the story of a Vietnamese mother and daughter through different versions of “Little Red Riding Hood,” accompanied by powerful collage/erasures (as if this were a children’s edition of illustrated fairytales).
Stark winds the narrative of a mother who only becomes a mother in the sharp teeth of U.S. imperialism, the collection’s speaker likely the daughter of a union between a young Vietnamese woman and a white U.S. soldier whom Stark refers to in the first poem as “what’s his name” and purposely disappears in some of the erasures featuring black-and-white photographs of the woman (Stark’s actual mother).
What is particularly compelling in an overall compelling collection is how Stark’s speaker embodies, indeed embraces, the wolf, its claws and teeth (in an inversion of victim/villain), as well as the almost violent continual use of red (a pointed play on and interrogation of the “Red Menace”), the endless hunger of an empire bloodying everything in its way. In “Hungry Poem,” she writes:
“It wasn’t exactly like we were poor, by we were hungry/knock-off saltines, knock-off Cheez-its, knock-offs of knock-/offs going stale (eat them) on lined shelves what survival/textures into blood wouldn’t be called grace or any/timid plume we were a fucking wolfpack/for a free sample, so hungry hungry for gorged a/belly without price-tags bits of bone in our/teeth/and our hair.”
It reminds one of the Indigenous people’s Wendigo, which Robin Wall Kimmerer likens to a monster of endless hunger in Braiding Sweetgrass. What do we become, these wolf cubs of late-stage capitalist empire, our white fathers willing to devour an entire country with napalm?
Rosanna Young Oh takes us on a similar, yet wildly different, journey of personal and epic mythos in The Corrected Version (Diode Editions). European myths and fairytales also make their presence known but with a subtle touch. The collection centers an immigrant Korean father, who owns a small grocery store, and his daughter growing up working in the store and seeing him leave his dreams behind to pave the road to hers.
In “Picking Blueberries,” as father and daughter sort through “240 pint boxes of blueberries/in less than desirable condition at a discount/so they could be repacked, repacked, and resold,” he tells her, both their hands stained blue, “‘You were not meant to live this kind of life.’/But nor was he — a man with a mind made wide by books,/who as a child rose with the sun to read by its light.”
The poet’s intimate knowledge of the immigrant struggle and yearning builds her identity into a place where she and her family must carry their own myths with them. “Creation Narrative” is a poignant poem, simply listing different types of produce sold in the store, as if the inventorying of these foods and the financial promise they represent is an integral part of the speaker’s being, as if she’s listing all the bones in her body.
In “The Problem with Myth,” Oh reinvents a haunting tale with the bones of stories such as “Little Red Riding Hood” and the Greek Leda. It’s reminiscent of other mythologies — including the Celtic Selkie — and touches on the capture of a woman, the murky waters of consent, and the familiar arguments among families over the portrayal of creation myths. She writes:
“In the story my mother tells,
the angel never returned to heaven —
the woodcutter stole her cloak of wings while she bathed by the mangroves
and took her as she shuddered in the wilderness.”
Angela María Spring is the owner of Duende District, a mobile boutique bookstore for and by people of color, where all are welcome. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and you can find her most recent poems in Muzzle Magazine, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Pilgrimage, PANK, Rust + Moth, Radar Poetry, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Her essays and reviews are at Catapult, Lit Hub, and Tor.com. Follow her on Twitter at @BurquenaBoricua.