Examining the “mortal coil,” to crib from Shakespeare, is an impossible task to say the least. Or to put it in more contemporary terms from my childhood: “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” Thankfully, Tess Liem’s debut poetry collection Obits. never reads like a carpetbagger’s manifesto, showing up to morbidly juggle funereal vernacular in clever ways. Instead, the poet deftly balances her own personal memory mine and her use of source material, blending them into a highly engaging voice.
Earlier in the collection in “Dead Theories,” we see the poet looking back on what we can assume to be her callow youth when she dyed her hair blonde. Without acrobatics or disturbing line breaks, the poet describes her affection for a female high school friend with natural blonde hair: “All the boys who had crushes on her / would make out with me at parties / then offer to give her a ride home.” Later the stanza ends with “All we all wanted was her sandy attention.” What materializes for the reader is a living obituary for the poet’s own adolescence. This self-focus is only temporary, however, and quickly vanishes as the poem rolls out a list of dead blondes and the objects of clothing they used to own.
I got an Anne Carson vibe to the scholarly tone and dreg-like atmosphere of some of the pieces such as “After Baudelaire,” with its litany of malice towards a certain dead poet, which gleefully ends with “a light in your awfulness.” And the linguistic acuity of Obits. is so pared down at times that you can almost see the bone: “One written & not published / is a non-notice, / is anon.”
Like Obits., David Turgeon’s novel The Supreme Orchestra (translated by Pablo Strauss) is full of diverging nuance reassembled for a larger scope. Jewelry heists, erotic artists, subliminal messages in dance music, and temporary marriages converge in a distracting blitz of genre and tone. What do these variables all have in common? They’re each components of life in constant movement and add to the novel’s intrigue as everyone races towards the titular prize: a giant diamond worth millions called The Supreme Orchestra. While not a thief in the literal sense, Émilien Surville is a minor nobleman working to broker the purchase of the diamond on behalf of the Prince. He seems corrupt, yet is also a meticulous and patient individual. The writing here exudes a neat and tidiness befitting such a character: “The transaction would take place on the wedding day, early in the morning, in a discreet location to be determined. The diamond would be in a small black case.” These exacting details written in another style might drag down the fun for the reader, but Pablo Strauss’ translation of David Turgeon’s writing keeps the novel aligned with a well-choreographed heist film or, more fittingly, reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh’s convivial 1930 novel Vile Bodies.
Not Extinct: Keeping the Sinixt Way is a beautiful hybrid of story and art (its rectangular shape will for some harken back to those illustrated primary school books). Marilyn James and Taress Alexis and the Blood of Life Collective have collected First Nations stories which are enhanced with illuminating artwork. In “Swara̓k’xn, Frog Mountain,” Alexis tells the story learned from Eva Orr about an elder in the village who prayed for the drought to end and a little frog, Swara̓k’xn, who appeared and promised that if the people dug caves they would survive. And so they did. After the snow melted, the drought ended and one of the tiny frogs grew into the Swara̓k’xn mountain, a symbol of love the frogs showed for the Sinixt people.
Not Extinct acts as a reminder of the need to respect not only fellow humans, but the environment we share, grow, and often, unfortunately, destroy. In stories such as “Coyote Juggles His Eyes,” Alexis tells of animals and humans working together to create a just society. In just a few short sentences, the world is revealed in new light. Countless animals and species we may take for granted in daily life are given wonderful backstories, such as the mosquito who bites in order to remember the dead.