Tidal. Josh Kalscheur. Four Way Books. New York, New York. 2015.
Winner of THE FOUR WAY BOOKS LEVIS PRIZE IN POETRY
Josh Kalscheur sets Tidal in Chuuk State. Chuuk State is a small island that is part of the Federated States of Micronesia. Think west of Hawaii/Marshall Islands and east of Indonesia.
Chuuk State has both a rhythm and a language all its own and Kalscheur is immersed. He has gone inside the stories, legends and miseries of a culture on the fringes of the western world and found a world not so different from our own.
I slung rocks into the roadside mango tree,
as the rotted clumps aching to drop what was too sweet
to hold any longer. I played my ukulele
and the strings broke. I sat and watched you.
The engine in the truck you rode whined
to a stall. Let me tell you this had nothing to do
with your thighs or the chewed pulp-red betelnut
wedged in your cheek, spat like sickness
into the jungle. You'd come this way before,
a turtle shell comb lodged in your hair, singing
acappella. You think I wanted to fuck you,
lead you to some concrete showerhouse and sing
a love song into the blossom tucked behind your ear?
It's true. You could've raised your eyebrows
and meant yes. You could've tugged on your skirt
for the men at the corner. I stripped a ukulele string,
sacrificed the neck, lobbed a mango your way.
It wouldn't fall but floated to the cliff above
the road, sweeping down and cutting wings
into its skin. It flew back to the branch. It looked past
where I sat on the carcass of a Honda, past the sway
of banana leaf, to the wall of mud behind me
and up the striated wall to the cliff again. It waited
for the ocean to sing to the shore, for exhaust to gray
in the sky and disappear. And then it fell softly
into the wind, the trail of juice and flies running after,
buzzing and catching in the braids of your hair.
The specifics of place dictate food and influence everything that shapes culture. Place shapes how you see/appreciate the sun, how you walk across the ground. Tidal both microscopes in on a specific time and place, Chuuk State, and telescopes out to encompass all that big world beyond all that big blue sea.
Beer and men and women and desire - that is a universal story. I assure you that when we finally meet aliens and are taught their strange language by our new overlords, we are going to discover the same fault lines. Alien beer and alien men and alien women and alien desire.
With Tidal Josh Kalscheur has both broadened our scope with his loving mural of a strangish yet familiar land and reconfirmed our long held belief that we are all the same silly meat.
She dives off the dock along on her lightest day
of bleeding and even the leaves in the guava trees
shake free, even the mangrove branches crack
and clutter the shore. she breaks the waves clear
and turns a funnel of foam still, her song lost
in clouds of spray. Her mother wants to stop it
in the taro patch, twist the roots and squeeze saltwater
through raw cracks and veins that keep
leaking to the mud below. The clan must be saved
somehow. The sisters bury the rotting breadfruit
and wait for it to sweeten and run. The undertow
pulls shadows from the surface of the seafloor,
moving in blocks with schools of yellow-fins.
The aunties dry the seaweed caught in the coral.
They want to cover her piece by piece, heal her.
The brothers do what they can with dust
they rub off a tree they won't name. They take it
to heart when she grows sick and pats their cheeks
with the back of her hand. She wants a shift
in the night-wind, a distance to rush through
the way a fishbone threads a palm. She wants
to massage herself with swordgrass and bent stems,
to wait for harvest to swell and cleanse her.
Tidal is a both a celebration and a lament, but it feels more like an eulogy than a prayer, Kalscheur has a big emotional investment in Chuuk State; it is a small corner of the world but for the length of this good read it becomes the center of the universe. Kalscheur has a tender affection for his islands but that never tempers the fear of change nor the desperate clamor for it.
The women wrap their dresses under their shins.
Their voices leave the meetinghouse for tree-beds
and cracked sheet metal roofs. Plumerias cover
the floor where a basket of money sits, where my father
shakes hands. Braided fronds loosen on the fence
by the road, and girls who knew my brother well
crouch by the wall looking in, their hands red
from plucking the rusted wire of a window.
I'm watching my mother fan the face and touch
the mouth with oil. I'm watching my cousins
who wear collared shirts pass a bag of betelnut
between them. My oldest uncle leans on a pipe,
his arms bulging from the sleeves. The generator clicks in
and shadows fade from unpounded nails
and sagging beams. I'm told they found him
two compounds from here, by the dying breadfruit tree,
by the house of a girl he went with, a spot he swept
the leaves from. In the waiting line aunties ask for plates,
for the bin of pig meat. They ask if I've had enough.
I remember shoving him to the edge of his truck
in front of my father and bruising his knee.
He slashed a V into my arm and ran off
to carve his canoe. And on the tables, flies pull bits
of fish from bones left by men I'm told are uncles.
I've never met them. Men file through with bags of rice.
Boys sit by the door or wait in picked-apart cars
alive with tapioca growing from the engine
or through springs under the seats,
where even the floor is rotted out and blooming.
Josh Kalsheur's Tidal is both the beautiful bloom of the flower and the inevitable descent of the petals to the dirt below. Island life doesn't sound ideal but Kalscheur certainly makes it sound real. Today's book of poetry thoroughly enjoyed this trip.
ABOUT THE AUTHORJosh Kalscheur has published poems in Boston Review, Slate, jubilat, Ninth Letter, Witness, Blackbird andBest New Poets 2013, among others. A graduate of Saint Olaf College and UW-Madison, he teaches classes at both UW-Madison and Madison College in Madison, Wisconsin.
"Some great books of poems feel driven by the play of language, endlessly inventive syntax propelling us headlong down the page. Other great books feel driven by conviction, the poet enraptured by a world that feels bigger, messier than the language at hand. Josh Kalscheur's Tidal is both these books at once. Set from start to finish in the seductively claustrophobic culture of Micronesia, the poems make the act of recording the world seem indistinguishable from an act of the highest imagination. Every perspective (male, female, old, young, outsider, insider) is rendered here in a language whose inventiveness feels inexhaustible--syntax, line, and diction colluding to build poems that are themselves the world in which the poet walks. This world, the world of human suffering, human folly, belongs to all of us, but the language--pulsing, tender, giddy, suave--is Josh Kalscheur's alone." -- James Longenbach, judge
reading at the Midwest Writing Center's SPECTRA poetry event
Rozz-Tox, Rock Island
October 29, 2015
Video: Therese Guise
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