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Published: Wed Dec 14 2022
Anne Neely, Summer Cycle (detail), oil on linen, photographed by Julia Featheringill
In Discussion: AGNI 95 Reviews AGNI 95

During the past two and a half years—as so much has changed, only to change again—I’ve often asked myself the same question: What do I most want “back” from my old life? The answer has remained consistent even as I’ve “re-entered” an adjusted version of my pre-pandemic life . . . and struggled mightily. It’s to be together (again), to be in discussion (again), and to be happy (again).

This year has brought us at AGNI a deeply earned occasion for happiness: our fiftieth anniversary. As reviews editor, I wanted to work out what a “reading” or celebration, as part of the year’s rejoicing, might look like in reviewing. I’m thrilled to bring you, today, into that space: a folio of four AGNI 95 contributors responding to, and celebrating, other work in the issue. The generosity of this engagement—the sort one might have with AGNI in one hand, a coffee or beer in the other, and friends across the table—represents a path for extending the conversation about each issue beyond its publication date: a way to keep the party going.

As this folio / celebration space took shape and filled up, I came to understand each reviewed piece anew: lit through the eyes of others, they revealed new aspects of themselves. These reviews made me want to read the underlying work again—and also the work of our four reviewers from the same issue, in order to see the newly summoned shapes of connection between them. I wanted to bring the eight of us together and talk, and talk, about where the work had carried us before and could carry us again. Though from a distance, the project has tended to each facet of the wish I’ve held for myself, and for all of us: to be together (again), to be in discussion (again), and to be happy (again).Rachel Mennies, AGNI Reviews Editor

 

The authors below:

 

Mariana Villas-Boas on “The Last Train” by Koye Oyedeji

Koye Oyedeji’s “The Last Train” gives us characters who want to rescue (but don’t) and characters who want to be rescued (but aren’t). These dramatic mismatches force a question: What is it that we want when we want to save? Oyedeji turns a suspenseful commute home into a daring exploration of just that.

Through Malik, a young writer-in-the-making, we watch a threatening chase through the D.C. public transit system. The chaser is Raven, a student who has failed out of their arts high school. She has suffered all kinds of hardship, mocked by classmates for being too poor, too incapable, too loud. Malik describes both himself and Raven as outcasts, but he is quick to differentiate her as someone insufficiently touched by shame. (What shame means to Malik isn’t entirely clear, but it surfaces as essential to dignified survival.) The one chased is Mr. K, their ambitious but pretentious teacher, who has a “distinctly African” belief in the salvational power of education and imposes strong expectations about how students should “comport” themselves. Mr. K generally expects positive outcomes. Malik tends to factor in disappointment. While Mr. K’s “Jesus-flex” annoys Malik, Raven laps it up with an eagerness that proves too strong a temptation for Mr. K’s ego. She becomes his pet project until lack of progress risks making him look bad and her needs encroach too closely on his personal life. He ultimately supports her being invited to leave the school—and Raven, though used to being trampled, isn’t inclined to let him off the hook so easily.

Throughout the bus-metro-train pursuit, Malik follows his writerly curiosity as he tries to figure out exactly what harm Raven intends to inflict on Mr. K. Malik tells himself he’s trailing along just to see what will happen, but there’s an undercurrent of something else—nothing as cheap as pity for Raven, and there certainly isn’t friendship between them, but there is what he describes as “trust” (and what we might describe as recognition of a commonality). Malik knows “the Ravens of the world sometimes don’t get their version out there, unless other people are there to confirm it or tell it for them.” Even as their teacher is exposed in his cowardice, Malik wants to be the one to step up for Raven and tell her story, if life will give him the space to enact this small mercy.

While the collapse between Mr. K and Raven stems from the unrealistic, oversimplified roles they’ve given each other (as rescuer and rescued), Oyedeji allows the relationship between Malik and Raven to flow in all its messy ambiguity. Malik knows he can’t change Raven’s circumstances, but he can “rescue her from this pathetic [pursuit] shit” and “try to talk to her about pride.” Pride is maybe the only thing he can offer her and, more important, it’s something she can offer herself. Benevolent realism causes fewer wounds than blind idealism.

In Malik’s desire to save Raven is an unspoken desire to be saved himself. Isn’t that what we all want when we endeavor to save another person—a karmic promise that the other would save us, if roles were reversed?

The final confrontation in the story takes place in a carriage, which is both a trap and a space to move forward. As evening falls, the carriage windows are both reflective and a frame to the outside world. This is where the hope trickles in. And so Oyedeji does the best he can for these characters and their troubles: he gives them space to “breathe again while still being young and Black.”

 

Issam Zineh on “Dear Person Who I Loved, Back When I Mistook Letters for Love” by Carrie Cogan

October 2022
Baltimore, MD

Dear Carrie,

I came across the letter you wrote to the person you loved back when you mistook letters for love. If nothing else, it reminded me of the West I never visited—which, while I’m happy you were able to leave, I regret not seeing in person, especially when cast in your light of red dirt and yucca. Clearly you’re better off for having moved on, but I still long to have been there, even with the ghosts and alienation.

It sounds like you’re trusting again (which is great). Which came first, leaving or openness? What I’m trying to ask is . . . what’s changed? And in what order?

I’ve been thinking about tenderness lately. It started this past spring with something Bobby said. He was talking about that part of “A Treatise on Poetry” where Milosz writes about a “new diction”:

      Because only it might allow us to express
      A new tenderness and save us from a law
      That is not our law, from necessity
      Which is not ours, even if we take its name.

Bobby, in passing, wondered whether writing could “escape the laws of necessity that bind us and justify the violence of the world.” I think I’m quoting that right. I can’t help but think about it as I read your letter, with its moments of vulnerability and unexpected kindness. What’s the name of the bakery that donates trash bags of unsold pastries to the Dorothy Day House? I can almost smell the crushed lemons you wrote about and taste the “fist-sized cakes.” It seems like the people you’ve met have shown such readiness to give.

I love Chicago for you. It’s funny how you refer to him as your suitor. A “towering punk”? I wouldn’t have imagined it. The time he drew chalk lines for you to pitch pennies at . . . and when you both timed how long each bird stayed on the wire. These are happy moments, yes? Oh, and I’d definitely count 7-Eleven Slurpees as “lunch.” Would you say you’re in love with him?

I watched a reality dating show last night in which the participants were very careful about how they used the terms in love and falling in love. As in “I’m in love with you” vs. “I’m falling in love with you.” The distinction seemed an important technicality that could be useful later. I’m guessing they’re terms of art—some previously agreed upon gradations of goodbye. I’ve also noticed people using “grace” more these days: “Grant yourself a little grace,” etc.

You seem well on your way in your re-humanization project. God, I hate how that sounds. Maybe I should say it like this: it moved me to hear you’re learning to be with others again. There’s a crudeness, maybe even a cruelty, to the version of individualism we’ve inherited. I think a resistance to narrative is a stay against that damage. A tendency toward humor might work in the same way, come to think of it.

Isn’t it amazing to be reinstated in our own bodies? Isn’t love the most radical act of the imagination? Doesn’t it make all the difference in a world quivering with cynicism? The difference between “Can I hold your hand?” and *“*Will you hold mine?”

With best wishes,

Issam

 

Jacques J. Rancourt on “N. Oxford Avenue” by Issam Zineh

“We speak of struggle / in the third-person possessive,” Issam Zineh writes midway through his poem “N. Oxford Avenue.” Rather than to teach us a lesson in point of view, Zineh is speaking to how we talk about tragedy with our children and prepare for it ourselves—and how trying to create distance from an ominous future somehow, ironically, brings it closer.

In the subsequent stanza, Zineh comments on another way that we wield language when speaking of disasters. When, in his childhood, the speaker’s mother warns him, “You can’t go to the bathroom here alone” because “they found a kid my age dead in that bathroom,” it’s either that “someone shit in his mouth” or that shit “was found in his mouth.” Active versus passive voice, the difference in proximity and distance those imply. Later in the poem: “How much damage an unattended world could do to us” (no specific actor) is contrasted immediately with “& we could do to one another” (active voice).

Zineh’s poem amends itself constantly. Consider how innocence is undercut time and again by the scalpel of his line breaks: “A game of hide-and-seek / could run a little long & change us”; “[The neighbor] cared for two sweet cocker spaniels. She once / showed up with a butcher’s knife”; “He ran after a ball / without looking & all he could do in that airborne moment was / notice how sunny it was.” In this last example, the act of the speaker’s friend running after a ball is altered at once by the boy being struck by a car and hurled into the air, and altered yet again when, in a moment of physical traumatic shock, Zineh writes how this boy becomes aware of the gentle weather, the weather being “a narrative of the body.” It works brilliantly that this poem, which is engined by its turns, opens with an image of the speaker’s friend literally turning in the air. Even words themselves shift and transform from innocent to macabre back to innocent: the “shit” that fills the murdered child’s mouth morphs into children who “sit” on the stoop, scanning the sky for UFO’s. That imagined threat redirects their attention from the hidden, all-too-real threats that haunt this “unattended world.”

But it’s the final turn that peels us away from memory—and the past tense—into a present where the speaker has survived childhood and now has his own children to worry over. Here, the longer, languid, shifting syntax of memory is juxtaposed against short, declarative sentences as the speaker runs through the potential threats that hover at any given moment just out of sight: “I imagine / my house on fire several times a month. I run / drills in my head. It happens at night. The blaze / starts mercifully downstairs.”

I have no children of my own. Or to put it another way: I have more than sixty of other people’s children, who, as a teacher, I try to shepherd through the drudgery of their early teen years. During active-shooter training before the start of the school year, the cop at the front of the gymnasium told us we run through these drills because, when a shooter walks through the doors, “you won’t have time to reflect. You either act or you don’t act.”

Where I’ve taught, it’s never been explicitly said that I should use my body as a human shield, but phrases like “parents entrust the safety of their kids to us” suggest exactly that. Being a teacher in 2022 means imagining myself in the moment of hot panic. Which of my instincts will fire off? Will my sense of self-preservation get the best of me? “I run drills / in my head.” Act or don’t act. Hero or coward—which will I become?

Reading Zineh’s poem on a flight home, over ground where tragedies were undoubtedly unfolding in real time, I choked up reading the final lines: “We wake the girls. / Break the bathroom window. I jump first. She throws the children one at a time. / I catch who I can.” Time spent worrying cannot stop tragedy from striking. But when it does strike—and it will—we do what we can, the best we can, by salvaging whatever and whoever we can.

 

“A Day in the Life of Someone Saying Goodbye”: Andrew Zubiri on “Florida, Farewell” by J. Martin Daughtry

J. Martin Daughtry’s essay “Florida, Farewell” is a rhapsodic variation on a travelogue, about Daughtry’s visit to a small town in Florida for his father’s final send-off. The essay traverses a less-explored enclave on the state’s west coast—but still the setting feels like the Florida of a tourist’s imagination, with its characteristic topography, Disney-level theatrics, and afternoon thunderstorms.

Daughtry’s journey begins with a geoscape overview—from the sky, through the air, and down onto the water—then enters Brooksville as though for leisure. The reader soon realizes this is anything but a pleasure trip. The meandering serves to delay the essay’s culminating act: Daughtry cremating his father.

While many cremation narratives begin afterward, focusing on ashes being spread on water or poured off a cliff, Daughtry brings us directly into the macabre mechanics of the burning itself. He travels to the crematory and, once he’s confirmed the body’s identity, agrees to help the funeral director cremate the corpse. When the roller fails, they must “muscle him in.” The author writes: “I find myself in a grunting battle of force against friction and mass, me against my father at the bitter end.”

A clever shift to second person situates the reader in the abrupt aftermath: “you” falling into the void of grief and isolation.

Sounds enhance the narrative. Lyrics, for example, add to the essay’s subdued atmosphere: while the beats of the Cuban son ease him out of the enormity of the task that lies ahead, the lyrics pull him right back in. Meanwhile, the buzz of a vibrating phone occasions memories of his youth—where we glimpse Daughtry’s relationship with his father—and the “hiss of tires” and their “dopplered whoosh” aid in the story’s transition between reverie and reality.

Several times, the author evokes the narrow liminal zones in life: the peninsula of Florida, which interrupts the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic; the beach, where land meets sea, and where the author “trudge[s] through the sand, the lone beachcomber in wingtips and slacks”; the military garrison that kept the Seminole people away from white settlement within; the cardboard that separates Daughtry from his father’s head as he pushes the body into the furnace.

Daughtry ends on an unplanned trip to a mermaid show at Weeki Wachee Springs. This diversion reminds me of the Filipino custom of “pag-pag,” literally “shaking out” the negative karma picked up from a wake, funeral, or burial. One does this by making a detour to a mall, restaurant, or some other place before returning home. Watching the ersatz mermaids gives the young girls in the audience a momentary escape, and Daughtry perhaps an essential one.

Daughtry immerses us in his Florida as deeply as he describes being immersed in the aquatic show. The essay is “like good theater. . . . [T]he illusion feels more real than the world itself. . . . For a split second, it is true.” The arrival of a thunderstorm, a fitting closing curtain for an essay set along the Gulf, makes the last moments somehow less rueful: sometimes a downpour to soak and cleanse the spirit is what one needs to start letting go.

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