Book Reviews, Features

Michelle Peñaloza: “Little Ghosts, Little Hidden Fires”

resize_imagePost Subject: A Fable
Oliver de la Paz
University of Akron Press, 2014

Post Subject: A Fable, the latest collection of poems from Oliver de la Paz, is a highly controlled and obsessively organized collection. Each page contains an epistle-cum-prose-poem of three stanzas addressed to “Empire,” each beginning “Dear Empire, / These are your _______”.  These poems are cataloged in sections—titled Address, Atlas, Ledger, Zoo and Zygote—with each poem composed of near-abecedarian subjects. Epistle by epistle, Post Subject: A Fable demands that an Empire behold its ashes, boardwalks, canyons, devotees, engines, and so on. The book represents a fraught correspondence, a catalogue, noun for nounof the consequences of empire.

Two epigraphs introduce the collection. The first is from Edward Said: “…history is made by men and women, just as it can also be unmade and rewritten, always with various silence and elisions, always with shapes imposed and disfigurements tolerated.” De la Paz pairs this with a quote from Henry L. Stimson, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” De la Paz thus plays with the idea of what the reader is privy to and what “should” be hidden or private. From the start, de la Paz cultivates a space for an accessible intimacy that still manages to navigate the unwieldy contexts of complex history and its many “disfigurements.”

Reading Post Subject: A Fable one perceives an homage to Italo Calvino’s luminous Invisible Cities, Calvino’s fingerprints discernible in the lush details of each highly ordered epistle and in the eerie, vibrant poems that create the worlds within worlds. Like Calvino’s Marco Polo, the speaker names Empire through various modes of description, micro-narrative, and lyric. Still, there is no Genghis Khan here to reply to these missives. De la Paz inducts his readers into the world of Post Subject: A Fable via a one-sided, curtain-pulled-back correspondence. His own Marco Polo, the speaker-on-the-ground (or in some cases in the sky, in the sea), rewrites the breadth of Empire’s conquest.

Ghosts populate this landscape and continually haunt the speaker. In this sense, these ghost represents a consequence of Empire. The first prose poem, titled Address, achieves this with elegiac longing:

These are your ashes. We’ve carried them for years in baskets, urns, boxes, and lockets. A fine dust clouds our skies. A lock of your hair is hemmed by a selvedge. The cloth adorns an altar in your finest shrine.

And it ends with a haunting image and tone of supplication:

Come back from where you dwell. In the days you have left us, we’ve nothing to do but count the elements: it is not raining. It is raining. A garland of flowers dries on marble.

As Post Subject: A Fable progresses, the speaker’s modes of reportage shift and expand, creating a collage of wide-ranging atmosphere and tone. In “These are your bridges,” the speaker’s observations meander philosophically: “We drive over. Boats pass / under the struts, careful not to brush against the sides as a kind of / intimacy or love. There is so much love between boats and what touches their hulls.” The epistle concludes with a question: “Who will love the boats beyond the river but these / bridges, their memories, riveted and clean?”

Sometimes the epistles allude to a specific narrative and/or figure in scene. In “These are your atolls,” the speaker tells the tale of an artist “walk[ing] back and forth talking to herself” who “finds, trapped in a tide pool, a small jellyfish.” The epistle, “These are your docks,” strikes a different chord, though it is representative of the collection’s lush imagery and lyric gestures:

Evenings, fishermen spread their nets to dry. Occasional birds snare legs in the webbing, and the men make a game of it as they toss bits of shell, side-arm at the gulls. Low tide brings the riff-raff beneath the docks and the heat from their bonfires burn the hairs off the nets’ fraying cords. The smell of burning nets and fish scales is elemental—the ocean sets its wild tendrils off into the spray.

Meanwhile, from inside the hulls of the boats, the ocean sounds like a child’s stomach. So many hungers fill the open seas.

In “These are your dissidents,” the speaker presents Empire with an accusation via a question: “What shall we do with these bodies at the gate?” And regarding Empire’s “devotees,” the speaker remarks, “What little monsters you have made. They favor you. They draw your praise.” The epistles of Post Subject: A Fable accumulate into a larger interrogation of the cost of empire, yet often with some desire toward tenderness, some balance of awe, defiance, and resignation. In “This is your tomb,” the speaker confides: “By coming here, I was hoping for nearness. For a coming back. I am somewhere in the middle.” Then later, in “These are your scribes,” the speaker declares to Empire, “You are dictating in a far off place. Your mouth adjacent to the microphone. The texture of your voice, as painful as particulates in the air.”

The relentless progress and constellation of modes used throughout Post Subject: A Fable is overwhelming. The epistles operate like Mark Rothko’s abstract fields of color—sometimes organized as a continuum of the same hue, sometimes cast in dramatic contrast. The structure of Post Subject: A Fable allows for variations of image, tone, and mode, all executed with an intimacy that is at times crystalline, at others esoteric. The poems are like the jellyfish that appear throughout the collection—“thousands of these little /ghosts…little hidden fires”—impossible beings of various size and shape, buoyed in a sea of toxicity and danger.

Michelle Peñaloza is the author of two chapbooks: landscape/heartbreak (Two Sylvias Press) and Last Night I Dreamt of Volcanoes (Organic Weapon Arts). Her poetry can be found in Asian American Literary Review, New England Review, TriQuarterly, Pleiades and elsewhere. She is the recipient of fellowships and awards from the University of Oregon, Kundiman, Artist Trust, 4Culture, Hugo House, and Literary Arts, as well as scholarships from Vermont Studio Center and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, among others. Michelle lives in Seattle.