Daily Postings
literature : interview

Belle Boggs & Mike Scalise

"The perceived aversion to a male-centered illness narrative had to do with antiquated ideas about who should and shouldn't be vulnerable to a failing body, and what that vulnerability means."

I've known Belle Boggs for years, first as a teacher then as a wonderful fiction writer, and in 2012 our respective forays into memoir coincided—both of us pulled to personal stories by events that overtook our ability to clearly process much else, in our writing lives or elsewhere. For Belle, it was the journey of childbirth, or, more accurately, natural childbearing alternatives and the evolving influence of birth culture, which she channeled into the sprawling, hopeful, and moving book The Art of Waiting (Graywolf Press, 2016).

My book, The Brand New Catastrophe (Sarabande, January 2017), details a health disaster in my early twenties with acromegaly. The illness first amplified, then destroyed, my body's ability to produce hormones. Belle and I both embarked on stories about our bodies betraying their nature, and I thought often of her while writing my own, wondering what mysteries she'd uncovered. We'd both been turned into bloodhounds searching for our bodies' true purposes, and it was surprising, with our respective cases closed, to compare notes on what we solved, and what we didn't.

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literature : first proof

From Such Small Hands

by Andrés Barba

It was once a happy city; we were once happy girls. They used to say: do this, do that, and we did it, we turned our hands, we drew, we laughed; they called us the faithful city, the enchanting city. We had proud eyes, strong hands. People thought we were just girls then. We used to touch the fig tree in the garden and say, "This is the castle." And then we walked to the black sculpture and said, "This is the devil." And then we'd go back to the orphanage door and say, "This is the mountain." Those were the three things: castle, devil, mountain.                

That was the triangle you could play in.

And there was the hall mirror.

And our summer dresses.

And the night they changed our sheets and it felt so good to climb into fresh-smelling beds.

And the days we got sanjacobos for lunch: breaded fried ham and cheese.

It was as if we were all one mouth eating the ham, as if our cheese was all the same cheese: wholesome and creamy and tasting the same to all of us. The cheese was happiness. But then we had class after lunch, and it was long. And the time between lunch and class, and then between class and break time, passed slowly, suspended in the air.

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literature : review

Tókȟaȟ'an: To Lose, to Suffer Loss, to Be Gone

by Gillie Collins

Wordplay as dissent in Layli Long Soldier's Whereas

Over the course of twenty poems, Layli Long Soldier's Whereas (Graywolf Press, March 2017) provokes discomfort—that woozy, nauseous feeling that comes from confronting one's naiveté for the first time. "Now / make room in your mouth / for grassesgrassesgrasses," the book begins, and the earth seems to shudder.

Long Soldier, who is Oglala Lakota, writes poems that respond to political events, from protests at Standing Rock to the 2009 Congressional Resolution of the Native Americans. Formally, the poems are eclectic: some are straightforward prose poems; others invoke unexpected typefaces, margins, footnotes, and borderlines. They testify that the ground we stand is still disputed and English is a weaponized language.

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literature : review

Shadow Selves

by Frances Richard

Palimpsests and invocation in Marjorie Welish's So What So That

Marjorie Welish's new collection So What So That (Coffee House Press, 2016) includes a poem titled "So That: So What." Another is called "Aesthetic Education," while in still others the author ponders "Turbulence, how to use" and reminds herself, or the reader: "Avail yourself of cause and effect. // And trouble." In short, Welish is fascinated—as has been her wont in a long career as a poet, painter, and critic—by the forces that have shaped her as an artist. Her writing is marked by the legacies of multiple modernisms and by sly misprisions and recursions, an obsession with logical forms that flip abruptly into their shadow selves.

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literature : first proof

Stan, Standing

by Thomas Chadwick

Stan, standing on the rug by the mirror by the door, nursing a weighty head cold that's come up sudden overnight, drinking coffee from an unwashed mug, staring at his reflection in a mirror that once belonged to his mother's brother, but which has been a mainstay in the hall by the door since Stan moved into the flat two years previous when his parents dropped round a job lot of his Uncle's things—including the mirror that Stan's at now—all on account of Uncle Al having downsized, heavily, again, after another still more devastating divorce that no one wanted to discuss yet, especially given how cut up Uncle Al had been over his first divorce, a stretch of time that involved weeping and mealtime silences and Stan getting home from school to find his mother and her brother sat out on the cold patio so that Uncle Al could smoke, something Stan's mother never let him do in her home even if Uncle Al clearly did so in his, or at least had done when he owned the mirror Stan's looking in on now, with that yellowing toward the edge and those stray burn marks on the frame as if Uncle Al did—as Stan suspects he did—stare himself down in the mirror as he smoked, before stubbing out on the frame and storming from the house, a thought which Stan finds concerning as he looks in on the mirror, sipping, sniffing, standing, wondering about today being the day of his brother's wedding.

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literature : review

Play On

by David Hobbs

Music that never was in Nathaniel Mackey's Late Arcade

No, this new thing I'm trying goes back to a story Yusef Lateef tells about the days when he was first in Mingus's band, a story I was deeply struck by when I first heard it, a story I think about from time to time.

The thing with Nathaniel Mackey's "new thing" is that it isn't, and doesn't, I don't think, want to be. Late Arcade (New Directions, February 2017), is the fifth volume in an ongoing, open-ended epistolary fiction collectively called From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. Like the previous installments, it is a series of letters written by a visionary horn player, N., who lives in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, addressed to an Angel of Dust. While Mackey's fiction has always had an eye on the past, the first installment appeared in 1986, five years after the story it depicts took place. We're now thirty years on and the story has only progressed by four. As a result, the quotidian elements of N.'s letters have only become more radiant, as if Mackey's interests in music, mysticism and the recent past have been distilled to their most potent forms.

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literature : review

Theoretically Personal

by Sarah Hoenicke

Resisting confession in Yiyun Li's Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life

"For years I have had the belief that all my questions will be answered by the books I am reading," Yiyun Li writes in her latest effort, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (Penguin Random House, February 2017). But, as Li concedes, books "only lead to other books." Dear Friend, too, could lead its reader to any of the writers written about in its pages—William Trevor, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bowen, Thomas Hardy, Ivan Turgenev—but the books and authors are so intricately connected to Li's thought process that it would feel wrong to take them solely as recommendations. Dear Friend, dubbed a memoir, is a collection of autobiographical essays on Li's reading life and the meditations therein.

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literature : interview

Eleni Sikelianos

by Srikanth Reddy

"Poetry is contested space, and the battles about what is allowed to go in and stay out are important."

The title of Eleni Sikelianos’s latest collection of poetry, Make Yourself Happy, is a timely imperative for the new Dark Ages in which we find ourselves. Haunted by the 20th century’s dismal record of global species extinction and an uncertain world-historical future ahead, this book uncovers new forms of resistance to apathy and despair through a return to the etymological root of "poet" as "maker." Whether Sikelianos is writing about making a paper globe, making a family, making a statement, or making yourself, she surveys the field of human endeavors to find new prospects for care amid precarious political contexts.

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literature : review

The Dreary Coast

by Ed Winstead

Difference and hyperbole in Mohsin Hamid's Exit West

I have always found the ancient practice of placing a coin in the mouth of the dead very striking. The term for such a coin is Charon's obol (the obol being a classical Greek denomination with a uniquely unimpressive name), and its purpose was to pay the toll for passage to the afterlife. It's sort of charming how literal it all was, and a nice reminder of how much a metaphor can weigh, how it can warp the scaffolds of our imagination and the things we rest upon them.

The metaphor at the center of Mohsin Hamid's Exit West (Riverhead, March 2017) serves a similar purpose. It takes the form of a door, through which our protagonists, Nadia and Saeed, flee their home. However, this is not a standard door. Nadia and Saeed walk through it in a building in an unnamed city that's cracking in the vice of war, and they walk out of it onto the island of Mykonos, in the Cyclades, off the southeast coast of Greece—"It seemed miraculous, although it was not a miracle, they were merely on a beach." That door, and the other doors that follow, are the only extraordinary things in the book (discounting the war they flee, the gigantic community of migrants they find themselves a part of, the reshaping of the world in turn—which seem somewhat less extraordinary these days). This is not a criticism, though.

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literature : review

Circles of Influence

by Rosa Inocencio Smith

Unreliable truths in Carl Frode Tiller's Encircling

"Having someone to live for is what makes us human," muses Arvid, one of the narrators of Carl Frode Tiller's novel Encircling, out this month from Graywolf Press. It's a characteristically "banal but true" statement, deceptively simple and yet deeply resonant in a novel where a man's identity hinges on other people's memories. David, Arvid's estranged stepson, has just lost his memory when the novel begins, and his psychologist has placed a newspaper ad calling on David's friends and relatives to explain to him who he is. Three people who knew him twenty years ago as a teenager answer the call—Jon and Silje, both friends and former lovers of his, along with Arvid. They write letters that in Silje's words "contain enough imprints, leavings and traces … for [David] to recognize something of that time and follow the trail back."

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literature : first proof

The Red-Shanked Douc Langur

by Tammy Nguyen

This visual narrative, arranged into a scroll format for online viewing, is the first chapter of Tammy Nguyen's fiction Primate City—a duet of artist books that draws upon a 1969 US military intelligence proposal to modernize Danang City. The work also makes use of Vietnamese mythology and geography to implicate this document in shaping the current geopolitical climate in the South China Sea. In 2014, Nguyen visited Danang City and learned about the animals who would become the protagonists of this story.

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literature : review

Hunger for Wholeness

by Jenessa Abrams

Deconstructing self-made myths in Melissa Febos's Abandon Me

The word colonize is derived from the Latin colere, meaning, "to inhabit." Melissa Febos's memoir, Abandon Me (Bloomsbury, February 2017), contends as much with inhabiting emotion and historical colonization as it does with the desires and consequences of abandonment itself. Whether she's examining an impassioned love affair, her Native American ancestry that's been subjugated by a dominant narrative, or societally imposed notions of fatherhood, her fixation with abandonment evolves into an exposé of what we can discover when we are most alone with ourselves.

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literature : review

Fast & Loose

by Kyle Paoletta

Earthquakes, rain of blood, and other fun things in Jean Echenoz's We Three

We Three (Dalkey Archives, 2017), Jean Echenoz's cavalier narrative experiment available this month for the first time in English, is a product of a certain prehistory in its author's career, penned well before he won the Prix Goncourt or had any of his novels, like 1914, become required reading in French schools. We Three was originally published in 1992, as his star was on the rise but before it had found its place in the French literary firmament. Perhaps that explains why, while reading it, one can't shake the feeling of a gifted writer intent on seeing what he can get away with and then fudging in a plot around the fun parts. 

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literature : review

After the Massacre

by Carlos Fonseca

Staging historical justice in Hernán Ronsino's Glaxo

Sometimes history looks to fiction in order to bury its specters. Latin American literature seems to agree: from Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo to Valeria Luiselli's Faces in the Crowd, it would appear that Latin American fiction is the last ground where the battle for historical justice can be staged. Hernán Ronsino's arresting Glaxo (Melville House, 2017), brilliantly translated by Samuel Rutter, revives this powerful tradition by immersing us in a world where the possibility of justice and forgiveness is always tainted by remorse and vengeance. In one of the four monologues that compose this short but delightfully structured novella, Vardemann—the town's barber—catches the sight of a kid playing outside as he gazes through his window:

Then I see Bicho Souza’s son, alone, moving through the rain with a green shotgun, made of plastic, playing at war and facing up at long last to those endless ghosts in the cane field.

The scene condenses, in the poignancy of its imagery, the novel's capacity to stage violence as something inherited, repeated, and displaced. Like Bicho Souza's son, we are all kids ignorant of the dangerous games we play. Like Vardemann's painful witnessing of a kid playing war, we readers are asked to face up to the endless ghosts of Argentina's history. In doing so, Glaxo sketches a spectral crime story where history, far from something abstract, is embodied within a terribly tangible landscape plagued by memory and guilt.

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literature : interview

Rachel Cusk

by Alex Zafiris

"For these books to work, the reader needs to play at least some role in the 'writing' of them."

Transit (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017) is the second in a recent trilogy of experimental novels by the London-based, Canadian-born writer Rachel Cusk. The first, Outline (2014), presents us with a deeply receded narrator. Only minimal facts are provided: Faye is a novelist who has separated from her husband, has two children, and is teaching a writing class in Greece. She barely speaks. What we learn about her surfaces through her interactions with others and their reactions to her. The rest we must assume through our experience of reading her words and via our own assessments of life.

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literature : review

Macho Memoirs

by Daniel Pearce

Taking writing to the mat in J.D. Daniels's The Correspondence

The early writers of epistolary fiction saw something in the letter that many of us who still write letters intuitively accept: that few forms besides the diary and the guttural yell lend themselves so readily to lapel-grabbing declarations of despair, vulnerability, and murderous rage—all private extremes in no short supply these last months. But the key innovation of those early writers was to compose seemingly candid letters intended for an audience of more than just the addressee.

That the canon of epistolary fiction is so male-dominated makes a certain sense when one considers, among other things, how much intimacy male self-expression stereotypically requires—since authenticity can only manifest itself as a confession to another, the explanation might go. This may also explain the magnetism of the letter form for a writer like J.D. Daniels, whose excellent debut collection, The Correspondence, consists of six "letters" that plumb macho themes all too accustomed to being listed as such. (In describing the book, one can hardly refrain from the tired, book-jacket-ready coupling of "masculinity and violence," which is by now enough to make any reader tap the mat.) But the letters that make up The Correspondence are, like most letters, about much and little, limited only by the associations the writer chooses to indulge: teaching, deciding not to teach, drinking, not drinking, self-hatred, self-love, friendship, and rivalry. Daniels moves so nimbly between topics and episodes that only athletic metaphors come to mind.

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literature : review

You Don’t Know Jack

by Ammiel Alcalay

Doing justice to Jack Kerouac in Todd Tietchen's The Unknown Kerouac and Jean-Christophe Cloutier's La vie est d'hommage

When Jack Kerouac died in Florida in October of 1969, it was a local event in New England. The Boston Globe clipping that I still have, "Jack Kerouac's Days on the Road Are Ended," has a Lowell dateline, noting that "last night this dreary old mill city, dominated by factories and tenements, sadly remembered its native son." Of course, Kerouac's "days on the road" had ended long before. By the time On the Road came out in 1957, many of the books Kerouac is most well known for were already written but unpublished (and once they did come out, many went out of print during and after his lifetime).

Only now, at a remove of more than 45 years, are we starting to get a fuller picture of the enormity of Kerouac's achievement, and the extent to which it has been misunderstood, denigrated, and distorted. Because of the vastness of Kerouac's archive, held in the New York Public Library's Berg Collection, the need for serious textual scholarship and intelligent editing has been paramount. While Kerouac himself was a meticulous archivist, organizing all his work carefully, the editing quality of the posthumous work has varied, sometimes wildly.

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literature : first proof

One Poem

by Jacquelyn Ross

Now through next Friday, your perpetual struggle for recognition drives you to all-time lows. A conversation you have with an old friend will remind you of why you do what you do and refresh your creative direction. Beware of self-doubt, but be comfortable using ultramarine blue, at least until Neptune completes its rotation on the twelfth of February.

As Pluto moves into its ninth orbit around the sun, creative spirits are high. Keep impulses in check by remaining steadfast in your search for a more elegant solution, however understated. True progress is often meditative rather than prolific. Potential avenues for research may include lounge furniture, garden design, cabin porn, bus shelters... note the importance of exterior, interior, and spiritual structures. Take great care in the kinds of shelters you build.

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literature : review

Spectral Reality

by Saul Anton

Distance and searching in Katie Kitamura's A Separation

Like her earlier work, Katie Kitamura's latest effort, A Separation, is woven of taut, sturdy sentences that probe the folds of everyday life. It is, however, a departure from her previous novels' focus on men. This time, she opts to explore the inner life of a married Londoner who goes to an island in Greece in search of the skirt-chasing husband she recently separated from.

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literature : first proof

From Shot-Blue

by Jesse Ruddock

She hated the narrow dirt mile between their trailer and town. She wanted to erase it the same way she might spit and rub a number off the back of her hand. Rachel didn't own anything, but it was a lot to carry on soft ground. The mud and gravel road was thawing from the top down. It peeled under her steps like skin off rotten fruit. Its dampness rose into her shirt in a mix of sweat and dew that didn't feel good. She would abandon the table and chairs, the bed and mattress. The lamps were useless; where they were going, there was no electricity. But she couldn't abandon everything. They needed their bags of clothes, a handful of cutlery, and the pair of tins heavy with flour and sugar. In red-licorice cursive, the tins read Merry Christmas. But they weren't Christmas tins, she used them all year.

Tristan wasn't allowed to help because he made her think. She didn't need to think but to walk the mile. Yet back and forth to town, thoughts of him persisted, distracting her and biting into her shoulder more sharply than any strap. She thought of how he didn't run for the sake of running like other boys. She couldn't even picture what it looked like when he ran. And he didn't try to lift things just to see if he could. He was ten years old and had never tried to lift her.

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literature : review

Borrowed Time

by J. T. Price

On Doctorow: Collected Stories

If you know the "Bye-Bye Blackbird" moment from Michael Mann's powerful 2009 gangster film Public Enemies, then you know the work of E.L. Doctorow. Deep within the author's 1989 prize-winning Billy Bathgate, a gangster at the edge of a rocking boat, his feet firmly planted inside cement, hums the tune that figures prominently in the film. Like many of the writers of film and print who have lifted from his work, Doctorow was an accomplished serial borrower in his own right. The central plotline, amid a cornucopia of them, from perhaps his most famous novel, Ragtime—a fiction that could not register as more relevant in the era of Black Lives Matters and Between the World and Me—stemmed from Heinrich von Kleist's early 19th century Michael Kohlhaas, which in turn was based on newspaper reports out of 17th century Germany. On the page, the stylistically versatile Doctorow had fun: roving through time and space, sifting for recognizable texture, then with a light touch, investing his narratives with wit and perspicacity. Facts are danced with, twirled and dipped, in service to the work, making it all feel real when Doctorow is at his best. Doctorow was often at his best.

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literature : interview

André Aciman

by Gary M. Kramer

"Obsession and fantasy, like desire and fear, happen in the mind... the most powerful, fixated erotic organ known to man."

In his remarkable fourth novel, Enigma Variations, André Aciman continues to explore themes of alienation and panic as his characters brazenly explore shameless thoughts about their carnal and emotional longings. The effect is a more relatable understanding of what motivates obsessive, neurotic behavior, and how identities and desires shift to achieve self-worth and actualization. The book takes a prismatic approach to revealing the life of its protagonist, Paul, through five stories that recount his relationship with various men and women over time. Paul is compulsively in his own head, where fantasies, both erotic and flighty, coexist. Aciman initially explored the search for identity in his exquisite memoir, Out of Egypt, which captured the personal journey of his family into exile. The theme of "recapturing the past," which haunted his family, is echoed in the Enigma Variations, albeit to a lesser degree. Here the characters grapple with time as well, positing statements like, "The past is a foreign country," and, as a teacher asks, "Have you drunk the wine of life?"

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literature : review

Futurism, Hashtags, & the Old Wild West

by Jeffrey Grunthaner

Douglas Kearney's buck studies recasts worn out notions of black masculinity.

Douglas Kearney's buck studies (Fence Books, 2016) remaps the 20th century in a project that is both lyrical and epic, personal and historical. The work references a cacophonous range of topics including vintage pop songs, Modernism, #blacklivesmatter, and Italian Futurism. Fiercely committed to identity politics, Kearney recasts historical personae to create a chorus of complex identities throughout the text, reassigning sacred figures and characters to the circumstances of a later time. In a section called "Ecce Cuniculus," a humorous retelling of the Stations of the Cross, Jesus becomes Brer Rabbit. In "Mane," the first poem in the collection, Stagger Lee's "hard bad rock song" guns down Billy Lyons, a tragic misuse of bravado inserted into the same imagistic plane as Eddie Murphy's "The Nutty Professor" character: "what a man what a mighty badman. / Lee as some Herakles! Herakles!"

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literature : review

Projectile Poetry

by Zoë Hitzig

War, worship, and capital in Danniel Schoonebeek's Trébuchet

"Never let a serious crisis go to waste," retorted Rahm Emanuel, then-Chief of Staff, when questioned about the Obama administration's post-recession economic plans. What he meant at the time was that the 2008 crisis offered an opportunity to introduce deep, systemic changes to the status quo. Nearly a decade after the crisis, neoliberalism is stronger than ever. The curious refortification of neoliberalism is the subject of economic historian Philip Mirowski's Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste (Verso, 2013), that takes its title from Emanuel's quip. Mirowski's thesis, in broad strokes, is that neoliberalism survived the financial crisis because it's no longer a school of thought that some adhere to more than others. Instead, we are all neoliberals now; neoliberalism is somehow within us. We inhabit "entrepreneurial" selves—as evidenced by our self-promotion and self-branding on social media. We instantiate the inherent logic of neoliberalism on a daily basis, unable to see our own positions inside of it. 

Danniel Schoonebeek's explosive sophomore poetry collection, Trébuchet (University of Georgia Press, 2016), is a Mirowskian call to arms that challenges our contemporary American brand of capitalism and demands that we confront our own role in perpetuating it. Trébuchet defines itself in its prologue as "a book like the earth you might salt if you warred against you." Schoonebeek's vision is one in which we "war" against ourselves and destroy our means of production thereafter, as Rome sowed salt in the fields after conquering Carthage to render the following harvests unyielding. He communicates his vision in incendiary poems that range from curt lyrics evoking antiquity ("Archilochos," "Telémakos," "Chorus," "Trojan") to prose poems written in present-day legalese ("Poem with a Gun to Its Head"). The poems scour the page in formal novelty—four have gutters down the center, one is an erasure, one is a diagram, one is horizontally rendered, and the final poem, "Dark-Eyed Junco Was Her Name," takes place over 43 pages, many of which hold just a handful of words. Often, Schoonebeek grapples with contemporary politics head-on in poems such as "Glasnost," "Reaganomics," and "Neutrality." But these critiques also take place within the context of an abstract, universal "kingdom" about which the book tells a folktale. This kingdom perennially destroys itself, only to rebuild the elements of war and capital: "new monuments / new gasworks and watchtowers, / new barriers, new thrones, and new battlements."

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literature : interview

Marcelo Morales

by Kristin Dykstra

"There was no capitalist reality segregated from socialist reality. There was one reality, period."

Marcelo Morales, born nearly twenty years after Cuba's 1959 revolution, is younger than many island writers whose works have been translated and circulated abroad. Part of his acclaim is his willingness to addresses the twenty-first century in prose poetry that boldly takes on both public and private aspects of Cuban history.

His newest poetry collection, El mundo como ser (The World as Presence, University of Alabama Press, 2016), appears deceptively straightforward as compared to Cuba's writerly tradition, which is so rich in stylistic complexity. We see, through the eyes of Morales's speaker, how a dystopic Havana confronts a moment that feels suspiciously like the end of its own history.

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