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In Her Terms by Toti O’Brien (Cholla Needles)

In Her Terms by Toti O’Brien (Cholla Needles)

     To experience Toti O’Brien’s In Her Terms is to enter into the physical and mental space of someone else’s reality, to feel what it is to be that person, the good and the bad. This collection is about many things, but much of it comes down to what it means to be a human being today. Much of that is made explicit by the way she relates to the physical world within her body. We are allowed to see both the pleasures and pains of staying alive. Equally, she invites us into the vastness of her intellectual and emotional world as she discusses what it means to be a multilingual artist. In Her Terms is an inside, often gritty, often exuberant look at what it means to live the life that she has lived. 

     Part of what drew me into her collection is the way that O’Brien allows me to see the world through the lens of artistic multiculturalism. She is an Italian, whose relationship with words brought me insight on how language affects perception. The poem ‘Terminology’ explores this concept:

As I struggle to translate into 

my mother tongue the word “soothe” 

one I so like that during a conversation 

I’d produce it at every turn 

uncaring of why 

I can’t possibly find a proper 

equivalence. The two words

 that in my vernacular come nearest 

to “soothe,” if translated in English 

are “comfort” and “caress.” (3)

Of course, “comfort” and “caress” are weak approximations of the word soothe, and she, who is a master of words, helps us to see the beauty of our language and the limitations of it too. These meditations on words work directly with meditations on the power of art. One of her arts is poetry after all. But she involves herself and us in sculpture, music, and dance. All of these draw us into her intellectual and emotional life. Each helps us to understand how creative meditation and action can help us to experience life more fully.

     Another motif that runs through the collection is how the poet relates to her body and invites us to experience greater humanity through a kind of physical empathy. In one poem, she brings us along through a medical examination:

            Do not breathe. 

You can breathe now. 

Hold still. 

Close your eyes. 

Now follow the blue light.

The AC is running wild. 

You are freezing.

Leave, or you’ll get a cold. (28)

I find the discussion of the air conditioning as interesting as the moment by moment of the examination, what it feels like to be looked at as a collection of parts as opposed to a person. In the moment, the animal that is our body is affected as much by the chill in the doctor’s office as it is by the impersonal probing. We are also invited to see her sexuality and her body as it dances.  

     Toti O’Brien’s In Her Terms is beautifully intimate and exceptionally vulnerable. It draws us into the personal space of O’Brien’s world, taking on the subtleties of life that often go unexplained.

John Brantingham January 4th 2022

Now Voyager by Cynthia Anderson & Susan Abbott (Cholla Needles Press)

Now Voyager by Cynthia Anderson & Susan Abbott (Cholla Needles Press)

Now Voyager is a collaborative project as part of Cholla Needles’ series of books that combine art and poetry and have included poets and artists like Cindy Rinne, Kendall Johnson, and David Chorlton. Anderson’s poetry is illustrated by Abbott’s art and the result is poems that are enhanced by the surreal nature of Abbott’s watercolor paintings and paintings that are given spiritual context by Anderson’s poetry. Anderson, who lives in the deserts of California near Joshua Tree National Park captures the reality of living in this wild and extraordinary place. Her poetry is at once a journey into the mystical as it is an appreciation for the natural world  and her relationship to it.

     Anderson’s poetry is not universally positive; she takes a look at her own carbon footprint and anxiety about living in the desert where too many resources are being consumed by the people who love living outside the boundary of the city. The prose poem “Future Archaeology” imagines a future where anthropologists look over the remains of her community. A narrator describe the destruction of society:

The water was what kept the desert alive. When it ran out, the locals had no choice but to get in their cars and drive away — heading for the coast, where the water wars began. There’s nothing here worth further study, we’ve seen it all before . . . We’ll let the desert bury this town, let the sandstorms do their work.

However, if these passages and others like them present a hopeless vision of the future of humanity, it is hopeful for the future of nature. Here the desert is the most powerful force. It is not, thankfully, the desert that people have destroyed. They have only destroyed themselves, and the desert takes back what should not have been there in the first place. 

     While there are anxieties about her effect on the natural world, the heart of this collection is her joy for the beauty of the natural world. In “Early Earth,” she describes our planet when it was young:

         From deep space

         the view is clear —

         hardly a cloud

         to hide the surface.

         . . . 

         Already life pulls 

         nitrogen from air

         to build the biosphere

There is a love here not just of the earth as an object of beauty but for the science of it that has created our world. She blends mystical and scientific throughout so there seems to be no difference between the two. The chemistry of the earth, the physics that go into it are seen as magical.

     Cholla Needles has created a community of artists and writers to the east of Los Angeles that should be recognized and commended. It is a group of people who are working in collaboration to build something bigger than individual books. They are forming a new vision of the desert and its people.

John Brantingham 25th June 2021

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