Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Recuerdo de Leipzig. Review: Dismantle from VONA. On-line Floricanto. Military May.

War Souvenir
Michael Sedano
The 69th Infantry Division fights its way across Germany toward Leipzig, killing soldiers, children, and old men sacrificed to slow Patton's advance while Hitler’s surviving troops fall back to defend Leipzig, the empire’s final bastion. For the rest of his life, killing those people haunts the machine gunner on the Sherman tank named C’est La Guerre.

Two hours before dawn the troops saddle up. Infantry soldiers check their ammo, armored cavalry take their seats in their Sherman tanks. The 777th Tank Battalion will lead the battle. The radio crackles inside C’est La Guerre. “Prepare to move out.” The driver starts the engine, holds the brakes and gooses the pedal. The tank rocks and shakes. “Move out!”

Initial resistance hits them a within a mile from their bivouac. These aren’t kids. C’est La Guerre booms cannon rounds into fortified positions while the machine gunner fires toward the smoke, raising thick clouds of dust and blood. Infantrymen move in to mop up, but by then C’est La Guerre is downrange, advancing on new targets.

Fifteen hours later, C’est La Guerre roars up to the front steps of Leipzig City Hall. The war in Germany is won.

Generals and politicians plan a meet-up between the Russians and the U.S., later deciding to give back with signatures what C’est La Guerre has taken with blood. The tankers of C’est La Guerre don’t know that yet. They’ve been ordered to the rear and park next to a surprisingly undamaged estate.

It seemed years that C’est La Guerre had rumbled past the mansion, but it has been only a few hours. The machine gunner remembers targeting his .30 calibre on the house but not firing a round at the empty home. He is relieved he hasn’t killed children, women, and old men who might have thought themselves concealed and safe behind the easily perforated walls. The machine gunner knows how easily.

The machine gunner walks inside. Rear echelon troops have stripped the home bare. The place stinks from its use as a latrine by soldiers seeking a private place to shit. Some jerk has savaged the household china that now lies shattered across the floor. Shards crackle under his boots, kicking pieces of crystal that tinkle across the rubble glinting like jewels. He shakes his head at the destruction and turns to leave when his eye catches a dim golden glow on a dark shelf. He squats to find two small gold filigree vases, untouched by the pendejo’s mindless destruction. The machine gunner cradles the delicate pieces and carries them to C’est La Guerre.

In 1962, one of the vases hit the floor in Redlands, California. My dad—the machine gunner on C’est La Guerre—shattered, too. I know the outlines of the story, but that day he tells me the story of the vases again, this time in chilling detail, of killing, the final battle, and the dead. He picks up a piece of bronze glass, and looking through it toward the sky, his voice shakes from memory of moonlight shining through bodies machine-gunned on a ridgeline. Niños héroes.

Thoughts of that conversation echo as I packed up my parents’ house. I wrap the surviving vase in soft cloth and place it in a box with mom’s china and crystal. I lose track of that box and dream frequently of the vase, pained by its absence. Yesterday, my daughter finds the bundle of cloth nestled among shattered crystal. She unwraps it and brings the Dresden glass vase into the light again. She sends me a foto, which is all I need; her grandfather wants her to have the vase.

I stare into the bronzeness of its color and hear my dad’s words, “When you get drafted, I hope you don’t go to war.”

Review: Dismantle. An Anthology of Writing from the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop. 
Ed. Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela. Philadelphia, Thread Makes Blanket Press, 2014.
ISBN 978-0-9897474-1-7

Michael Sedano

Unless you are a voracious reader with infinite subscriptions to chapbooks, literary journals and independent publisher lists, there’s likelihood many of the authors anthologized in Dismantle: An Anthology of Writing from the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop, will be unknown. It’s not a pity, because now, owing to this book, readers enjoy in a single cover, access to dozens of new writers who have been waiting up to fourteen years for you to find them.

In other words, Dismantle is a cornucopia of lost or hidden talent brought to light in this outstanding collection of compilations from VONA’s fourteen years of workshopping dedicated to developing writers-of-color. But The New makes the reviewer’s task all the more challenging. The book’s plethora of sparkling new voices and undiscovered poems and stories draw blood in a struggle to highlight one or two over all the others.

Then again, it’s the nature of anthologies that everything in one has already been chosen, in the process of winnowing submissions to the published few. For Dismantle, those choices fall to Poetry Editor Andrea Walls, Nonfiction Editor Adriana Ramirez, and Fiction Editors Camille Acker and Marco Fernando Navarro.

There is one name, and chapter, that, it seems, everyone knows. Junot Díaz’ introductory essay, on the whiteness of MFA programs, raised a social media ruckus when it went viral. One pendejo went to Díaz-the-MIT-Professor’s assigned readings and trumpeted the lack of writers of color Díaz assigns, implying hypocrisy because the list overwhelmingly includes anglo writers. Other gente picked up the unbearable whiteness theme sympathetically, chiming in from all corners of the MFA globe, “mine is/was too white!” and "that's why I quit the program."

Most agree with Díaz' thesis, that VONA offers welcome change and opportunity.

Other than Díaz, many of the 47 published writers may be names you see in print for the first time. Eighteen of the writers are reprinted, including three from big publishers, Norton (Maaza Mengiste), and Houghton Mifflin (Minal Hajratwala and Justin Torres).  And, upon reading the contributor bios, it’s a safe assumption Dismantle won’t be accused of being “too white.” Like the Spanish-surnamed, most writers carry what appear to be WOC names (writers of color), viz., Vanessa Mártir, teri elam, Vibiana Aparicio-Chamberlin, Kimberly Alidio, Jennifer De Leon, Ky-Phong Tran, David Mura, David Maduli, Kenji Liu.

There’s a familiar principle in panels of public speakers and anthologies, Primacy and Recency. Primacy, the first person to speak or the first piece in a collection, sets the standard for those who follow. An editor would want as the lead piece something that draws readers to turn the page. The last piece will be a capstone, the final impression one takes away from the event or the book. Those are the best two spots for performers, and could be effective as a strategy for anthologies.

The principles aren’t effectively employed. Editor Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela runs her Preface after Díaz’ Introduction. Fortunately, Johnson-Valenzuela limits herself to a pair of pages, but coming hard upon Junot Díaz’ nine page diatribe, the anthology gets off to a clunky start. I’d forego the Preface in favor of an Afterword, thus allowing the selections to speak for themselves, then closing the collection with the editor’s validation of her work.

Dismantle kicks off with poetry, a stinging piece of subdued anger from Torrie Valentine, “To the white woman on the plane who doesn’t understand my discomfort when she asks if she can touch my hair”. It's a fabulous kick-off.

Valentine explores the titular white woman’s motive, seeing her not as a curious bigot but as a person of possibilities, not phenotypes.

What will you do now
your hands in the dark thick of my hair
tracing the spine of a curl.
Your sleeve brushing my face.
If I were your lover I would begin
to undress you, unbutton your blouse
the warmth of you suddenly there.
And you surprised at how easily we give in,
search my eyes for something
more than your face
something more than you
fingering a coil near my ear.

The final literary piece—there are bios, credits, an afterword, too--is likewise a poem, “To My Future Son” by Kenji Liu. A father’s wish for a son’s manhood describes the desperate struggle a first-generation immigrant sees, a scion trapped between two worlds, lured by the glitz and ubiquity of the new world that devalues the father’s in favor of a reductio ad anglo.

inside concrete, men spin and flex
like WWF wrestlers, hollow and fearsome
and always performing. son, you do not have
to empty yourself like them, fists squeezed
so tightly your tenderness becomes
a sickness, constricted and hard
in your liver. this is the price
of manhood, to be a stone quivering
inside an egg. you will be told
to choose from a stir fried lineup
of kung fu gangsters, dumb-asses and
anti-sexy uncle tongs. these are men
made from the politics of other men
who only worship themselves.
if you choose manhood, many
will reward you, but really, who wants
to be a plastic action figure, muscular
yet with only one move: a head slam?

The poem fittingly closes the anthology with reminders its subject matter is not your standard Unitedstatesian literary array, but products of thoughtful writers who have assessed the consequences of multiculturalism and see them clearly, in writing. Liu might as well be addressing his fellow writers in advocating a person remain constant in their self-reliance, therein finding personal resources to become a man of his gente, or a writer for diversity. It's the core principle of VONA workshops.

Writers and readers can learn more about VONA workshops and the organization’s goals at www.voicesatvona.org. “VONA/Voices, the only multi-genre workshop for writers of color in the nation, brings writers of color from the margins to a community where their work is centralized and honored. Join us at the University of California, Berkeley for a week of writing workshops.”

On-line Floricanto

In the four years La Bloga has run the popular On-line Floricanto series, this is my favorite poem.

Appreciate Your Military Month

May is "National Military Appreciation Month," capped off with Memorial Day to remember the killing and the dead.

Remember? My Dad could never forget them. And his wish came true, I was drafted and did not go to Vietnam.

Who the heck wants to see their children go to war?

From this Veteran's perspective, if politicians genuinely want to appreciate the military, Bring the troops home now, every one from everywhere. Provide good jobs for Veterans, and reform the Veterans Administration to care for our wounded children and parents.

The machine gunner's wish: his son did not go to war when he was drafted.


Manuel Ramos said...

Very nice, Em. Moving story and a beautiful poem. Another great post.

Amelia ML Montes said...

Thanks for this posting, Em. As usual-- so many great topics. I just received _Dismantle_ and look forward to reading it all. Gracias!

jmu said...

So, what was the 'toon on the desk about? And you needed a haircut, soldier.