Ten Poems About East Asia & Kitsch Nebula Ampersands And, by Ralph-Michael Chiaia (Coatlism Press, ISBN 978-0-9802073-0-9, pb, $13.95)
The press release for Ralph-Michael Chiaia’s Ten Poems About East Asia & Kitsch nebula Ampersands And calls it a book of experimental poems. What do we make of such a label? We could consider any free verse poem experimental or any genuine attempt to say something new and personal in any form as an experiment in language. But obviously something more specific is meant if we say “experimental poem.” Something that is out of the ordinary—perhaps extraordinary—and displaces the familiar.
As the title may indicate, this book is two chapbooks in one, and the first section—Ten Poems About Asia—is fairly familiar unless you count the poems. There are twelve. The titles are place names from
It’s moving like its [sic] set to bhangra music:
all the massage parlors, clothing stores,
schoolgirls in uniform, perverts.
It’s seething like a flu patient
yet calm as a Buddhist in prayer
wearing his shaved head and saffron robe.
Or of individuals, as in “
She’s up early to go to law class
in her tank top and skirt
The Imam sings.
After a movie
she’s on the grass with a notebook under her
looking at the twin Islamic star towers.
The Imam sings.
And the snapshots cannot avoid the history of the last half-century. In “
. . . the Khmer Army,
took all the guys wearing glasses,
the doctors, the teachers,
to labor camps
the killing fields . . .
one little girl still retains
the moves of ancient Khmer dance
her mother kept its secret in her blood
throughout the labor camps
of the Khmer Rouge.
In the second section of the book, as again the title may indicate, the poems are more consciously experimental. Sometimes with subject matter—“Ode to the Pillow,”
“Ode to the & sign (the ampersand)”—or sometimes with form as in the four parts of “Conversation between Person and Mushroom” scattered throughout the section. The poems in the second section abound in wordplay, as the opening line or URL of “Error 4(♥)9, 357”:
or the intricate assonant music of
it’s damn tough to tie one on
easier to untie bras
regret it the next time you see
her, an unending ethics question:
restraint. Better to get slain
by indulgence rather than restraint. (“Mind Slain in Nebulae”)
Chiaia’s formalistic experiments appeal to our curiosity, but his experiments in conjuring a familiar world in a personal language are compelling. We get both in this nicely produced book from Coatlism Press. The press and Ralph-Michael Chiaia are new to the small press world, and I look forward to more from both.