BY EMILY CINQUEMANI
It is a gift to find a space that will hold what is difficult and contradictory without demanding resolution. When teaching, I often share a Randall Jarrell quote from his essay “Levels and Opposites” — “poetry loves contradictions, real ones.” More than just craft advice, this quote has always been, for me, an affirmation of the necessary work that poetry—or any creative work—does. It looks beyond the constant pressure for answers, binaries, and categorization. It demands the truth: paradox is part of what makes us human and whole.
In his poem “Six Square Blocks,” David Baker writes, “I’m thinking of the imponderables tonight— / Such a paradox.” The writers and artists in this issue foreground the imponderable. They hold me in beautiful, challenging, and unresolved spaces. In Uyen Dang’s poem “Yolk,” memory soaks our tongues and coats our teeth. In Cleo Qian’s short story “ZEROS:ONES,” we meet a narrator living in Suzhou and facing contradictory truths about her ancestral home, her relationships, and herself. In Agnes Enkhtamir’s “Kegels Make a Woman Smarter” we follow the distressed inner monologue of a speaker who insists, “My life is so easy. Immorally easy.” Rather than fitting into a neat box, these poems and stories sprawl beyond their confines. They come alive with the mess and realness of carrying thoughts, feelings, and ideas about oneself that refuse to sit together neatly.
In this issue, we also see the paradox of joy and pain coexisting. Ashunda Norris begins her poem “Gethsemane Painted Black,” “gardened / governed / & alive beyond myself,” asserting an aliveness that both defies and exists alongside ever-present governance. In Rochelle Hurt’s essay “Quipu Womb (The Story of the Read Thread in Athens),” red is the blood of a mother’s womb, the red thread of fate, the red blood of violence, and the red blood of cancer. In Gustav Parker Hibbett’s “Bald,” a moment of defeat in “the bathroom’s ugly light” contains hope and tenderness.
This issue also contains the stunning work of our 2023 Djanikian Scholars in Poetry and our Anthony Veasna So Scholars in Fiction. If you, like me, seek a sprawling and honest aliveness in creative work, look no further than these emerging writers. My own mind buzzes with the line “Sure, my mind works as a hive” from Willie Lee Kinard III’s “Rhapsody, or Revelation, or Cerberus to the Fireflies.” These writers’ works bring us to a school for runaways. They ask us to sit with the trauma and choices women face—from running away from danger, to traveling alone, to facing illness, to deciding whether or not to be a mother. They ask us to face the impending climate disaster. While I cannot list every world these stories and poems create for us, I can tell you that each one is compelling, nuanced, and real.
This attention to what is nuanced and real carries over into this issues Enlightenments section, where Monica Youn and Aekta Khubchandani discuss containers for what can’t be contained and Elisa Gonzalez talks with Jennifer Grotz about poetry’s limits and resilience. Lisa Russ Spaar explores the second collections of Rita Dove and Solmaz Sharif and André Naffis discusses poetry as an “archeology of memory.” The truth of paradox shines through in these interviews and commentary. As Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach so beautifully states in her conversation with Allison Blevins: “I feel the pressure to reconcile parts of us that seem wholly separate, but the more I write about these varying parts, the more I realize each aspect of myself is interconnected with all others.”
“There’s a part of myself that I’m trying to understand,” writes Djanikian Scholar Kelan Nee in “Through the Glass Darkly,” “Maybe it’s simple. Most things are.” With this level of clarity and precision, the writers and artists in this issue lead us into mystery and complexity. I return to what I said at the beginning of this letter—reading and working on this issue has been a gift. I’m so grateful to be able to share it with you.