Two strains run through this issue of West Branch: personal interiority and power. Most of the poems, with nonlinear narratives, seemingly unrelated images, and a variety of traditional and more unorthodox forms, are concerned with the former. It’s harder for these private and original forms to reach the reader, and so I find myself more interested in the latter theme explored in this issue: what happens when people become aware of their relative weakness in the world they live in.
In Michael Derrick Hudson’s account of a battle between the Lakota and the U.S. Army,
. . . Our silver dimes will get hammered
into earrings, our boots chopped into buckets. A United States
cavalry pennant in shreds, plaited red and star-
spangled blue in the braids of Sitting Bull’s second wife’s hair.
To be more exact, the speaker of the poem is “Drunk in Bed Reading a Lakota Account of the Battle of Little Big Horn.” The drunkenness may be why the “Lakota account” actually sounds like one written from the perspective of a U.S. soldier, even though the facts—representing the Lakota victory—are correct. But no matter. What I like about the lines quoted above is how they stretch further than their immediate meaning and their directness. On one level, that’s just what happens when you lose a battle: your stuff then belongs to other guy and his wife/girlfriend (shown with great audiovisuals here, of course, with “hammered,” “shreds,” and even the more subtle “plaited,” though also more insidiously suggestive of violence). On another level, the “civilization” being pushed onto Native Americans—dimes, boots, cavalry pennants—were dismissed and remade into what they actually considered useful and beautiful. And the lines in the beginning of the poem are just plain fun: “as my horse oofs to her knees. Another arrow // thfffts past my ear. No matter how hard it gets, it’s not tragedy // if you can’t remember what you wanted here. . . .” Hearing the oofs and thfffts in the poem, I’m almost wiping my brow and thanking the Lord for my life, and I’m also wondering why I’m out here in Montana getting killed.
The migrant worker in Piotr Florczyk’s “Elsewhere” isn’t afraid to make the natives’ rhetoric his own: “Now that Poles have conquered an island / without firing a single shot— / ‘Ireland’s beautiful,’ ‘The people kind.’” Takeover is a common word hurled at foreigners, but the immigrant speaker in the poem seems to say, “Well, it’s kind of true, but can’t we be friends?” He takes us through his workday and his frolics; the romantic is woven with the grit:
Do you miss our old apartment, Love?
Once, I stood beside the chimney,
thirty feet above the ground, cleaning guano
off the siding with a squeegee.
Working as a bellringer, “[t]he pay was low, but the view to die for.” He rang for his host country’s every “national holiday, tragedy or triumph,” and waved to the tourists pointing their cameras at him. The immigrant experience in the poem is individual, yet not exoticized, or politicized with a heavy hand.
Naira Kuzmich reveals another, and more somber, layer of the immigrant experience in “Miles to Exit.” Sarkis, an elderly immigrant from Armenia living in Los Angeles, is teaching his fifteen-year-old grandson Armen to drive. Sarkis brims with anxiety about Armen’s lack of an ordinary masculinity and the dangers and uncertainty this must mean. Of Armen he thinks:
The boy does not run. He does not lift weights. He does not swim. He does not, does not. Armen sits. Armen stays. His teachers describe him as nice.
Armen rebels in his quiet way against Sarkis’s push for him to drive. Sarkis’s fears seem inextricable from his narrow daily experience—we only see him interacting with other Armenian immigrants—and therefore his unfamiliarity with the imagined, and menacing, Los Angeles. He cannot imagine how Armen will survive in Los Angeles, but when he compares his grandson with the grandchildren of his Armenian immigrant friends, it seems that he cannot imagine how Armen would have survived as an Armenian either. This is Sarkis’s immigrant experience: neither here nor there.
The men from the West Virginia mountains in Matthew Neill Null’s fast-moving “Gauley Season” come into contact with the outside world through the visiting whitewater rafters. In addition to the economic boost that these rafters bring, the world also intrudes in the form of pollution, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the EPA. In the beginning of the story, a man and his daughter from a Washington, D.C. suburb die in the rapids. The reason for their deaths is a stark illustration of the power struggle between the disenfranchised local and the man behind a desk in the capital. Null’s writing is lyrical and superb.
This issue includes a substantial section of book reviews, some academic and some more personal, but all thoughtful. Whether you’re looking for work that engages with the world or is more concerned with the private realm, West Branch has something for everyone.