by Dena Rash Guzman
Hologram Press (2017)
It wouldn’t be contentious to say the political poem has changed dramatically this century. While there is still the rather straight-forward, traditional poetry of protest, what has become more and more common are works at once expressly political while being aggressive personal and vice versa. At almost every level–the single poem, the chapbook, the full poetry collection, the poet herself, and the reader/audience–it is expected of poetry not to be merely beautiful, resonating with dynamic emotive energy but also a mindful critique of culture implicating all of us in successes, failures, guilt, and pride. Some of the best contemporary poetry exists at the crux of engagement such as Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce, Kaveh Akbar’s Portrait of the Alcoholic, or Whereas by Layli Long Soldier to name a few among many.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s definition of political poetry is now the default setting for all poetry that matters, “Any poetry that works to interrogate its speaker’s own engagement with the larger world—a poetry that helps and perhaps sometimes forces the reader to see their own complicity in the way systems of power are constructed and reinforced.” As a reader, turning away from the esoterica and navel-gazing has been the first and easiest way to resist the ugliness and hostility that’s dominated US culture over the last few years. Contemporary poetry as realized “if we think about politics as its own realm, and assume that it doesn’t affect us—we’ll soon find out that we are mistaken” and as our poets speak we are beginning to hear.
To this end, it would behoove us all to listen to Dena Rash Guzman’s second poetry collection Joseph from Hologram Press, a book that “is a study of a woman’s response to oppression. It veers from empathetic, lovelorn, furious, and hilarious.” These imminently accessible lyrics written in plain speech but imbued with a lashing satirical tongue and an eye for anomalous metaphor that somehow feels easy and natural make up one of the best poetry collections released this year.
The poems of Joseph are biting and funny like ‘Fuck It, I’m Going for a Manicure, joseph‘
roses r red
violets r blue
the only cure
is a few isolated stag colonies
inhabited by men who have mutated
to survive solely on Doritos
or ‘Your Body is Powerful, joseph‘
Your body crushes
my body, Joseph.
A real man you are,
my God, so staid.
An eagle transposed
over a flag.
The man. The man.
The motherfucking man.
but they are also nakedly intense as in ‘I’m Leaving You Again, joseph,’
The less I understand your love
the better I feel about not deserving
it or anything, for I born rotten
and I’m not interested
in you or us or the sum of terror,
of your body talking up my errors.
Rash Guzman presents us with an immediately authentic voice, an “honest throat,” that isn’t so much struggling to define itself or gain independence from the eponymous antagonist but rather striving to propagate outwards into the world unfettered. The obstacle to the protagonist’s radiance isn’t just the amalgam Joseph (at once abstract and particular) but the speaker’s attachment or entanglement with her own emotions and judgments towards the amalgam. We can see this in ‘Aftermath Comes Knowledge, joseph,’ where the speaker pulls back to an origination myth in an attempt to pin down the initial parameters of the Joseph dynamic:
first midnight on earth
eve wakes, turns to her only public
adam contributed a rib to her gig
a boon procured by god
eve says adam, murder is in this rib
adam grunts and rolls away, so new
and washed clean of sin
first made for him
eve sighs & tries to sleep
to keep to the right
even in dreams wondering
what is left? another world
or a fence?
No one is Joseph. It would be a distraction to attempt to pin down who it is. Quite simply, these poems are addressed to a suspicion of being, one that inhabits or takes possession of real people like a demon. Joseph isn’t Everyman; Joseph is ‘Yes, all men.’ The patriarchal objections arising to these poems only confirms the fact. But, the speaker is striving to get readers as well as Joseph to see as in ‘Do Not Hang Your Hat On Me, joseph’ that “It’s not all about you. It’s not about you at all” or “Perhaps men need to spend some time not imagining themselves as the hero (or villain) in every story.”
Throughout each poem there isn’t so much an attempt to carve out space or win a portion but rather to reveal human relations are not a zero sum game. Creating space for oneself never detracts or takes away from another only seeming so when the other doesn’t see the world as infinite mutuality. So even though Rash Guzman gives use some wonderful aggression, her poetry is more appropriately confrontational positioning itself immediately in the face of patriarchal mores and norms.
The strength of Rash Guzman’s work is its balancing of accusation with implication. Perhaps the greatest tension in Joseph is the speaker’s wild oscillation between those two poles, being fully aware of what is being done to her and fully conscious about her own role in it. This is a feminist poetry tracking a kind of double consciousness or, perhaps more accurately, the enculturation of misogyny.
Reading Dena Rash Guzman’s Joseph is an act that is at once cathartic and shaming. For these reasons, it is a superb collection that discomfits appropriately.