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Purgatory Has an Address by Romaine Wahington (Bamboo Dart Press)

Purgatory Has an Address by Romaine Wahington (Bamboo Dart Press)

Romaine Washington’s Purgatory Has an Address is Bamboo Dart Press’s newest release. This new imprint of Pelekinesis Press publishes many poets and writers from Inland California like Stephanie Barbe Hammer, Cindy Rinne, Kendall Johnson, and Dennis Callaci; Washington’s newest poetry collection shows why they focus on the overlooked writing of that region of the United States. Purgatory Has an Address is an emotionally sensitive look at the purgatories that people live through, often suggesting a strategy for those times that has worked for the poet. This collection that looks at the pain of the world might have easily ended with a kind of cynical hopelessness. Instead, Washington’s work is life affirming and suggests the kind of courage that it takes to be alive.

     The poem “Saguaro” is emblematic of this hope as it discusses the way saguaro cacti seed and take root in the harsh climate of the desert, and it works as a metaphor for the toughness a person needs when facing the difficulties of life.

I take root 

where the ground is

hard and angry

spits the sun

back in its face

drought drenched

tap root i

burrow beyond

ancestral bones

to anchor 

a sturdy revoir

of hope (26).

Time and again, this strength seen in this cactus in the face of cruelty is offered as the way to survive and even find purpose and meaning in those purgatory times of our lives. Early in the book, childhood with all its isolation is met with defiance. As we move through the book, all aspects of life are met with this determination until she explores the aging of her parents and her parenting in a world that is dangerous and racist toward her son.

     She explores the idea and need for community while also showing us why community can seem beyond a person’s reach. One of the central journeys of the collection is the search for her missing biological parents. She is searching for people who have no name and did not name her. She cannot even look for herself. She becomes so isolated that “the clerk tells me to wait / for my number to be called / right now i am a number” (24). She is stripped of her essential humanity, and she is unsuccessful in finding her birth parents. However, she is not unsuccessful in creating family and community. She has a son and adoptive parents whom she loves. She moves to Inland California, which is hot and filled with cows, and the Santa Ana Winds, similar to the sirocco, that she calls “the devil’s breath.” While others often complain about it, she writes, “If it weren’t for the devil’s breath, / I’d never know where we are, and / Just how beautiful” (62). These words are the last lines of the collections, and they summarize what I love about the collection: how she is able to take something that seems objectively difficult and horrible and find the way through by finding its beauty.

     Washington’s work is life affirming and poignant. Purgatory to her is to be a place. Whether that place becomes one of torment is determined by the strength we have when facing it.

John Brantingham 18th April 2021

Chaos and Ash by Kendall Johnson (Pelekinesis Press)

Chaos and Ash by Kendall Johnson (Pelekinesis Press)

In a world where movies and books often treat trauma casually and even glibly, Kendall Johnson’s Chaos and Ash from Pelekinesis Press gives us an inside view of what it truly is and what treatment actually looks like. Johnson is someone who understands trauma. He is a Vietnam combat veteran and a former firefighter who rushed into the chaos of wildland fires in California. He later became a trauma psychotherapist and consultant specializing in big events. He was a second responder to 9/11, the Rodney King uprising in Los Angeles, wildfires across the United States, and the Northridge earthquake. He is someone who has spent a lifetime dealing with his trauma and others’, and where other books I have read treat the concept as an aside, Johnson’s book gives it the weight it deserves.

     That Chaos and Ash is a fictionalized memoir in flash and a few other forms is appropriate to the way he helps us to understand what trauma is. It is fictionalized to some degree to protect those he worked with. He does not describe the real events of his patients, but creates out of a lifetime of therapy. It is flash vignette because there is no clear throughline, nothing easy that we can find. There is not one simple thesis statement that can help us to understand the concept. Instead, what he deals with are fragments and moments that often do not make a logical kind of sense on top of which, he has not fully recovered all of the memories that he is trying to work through in this book. Much of what happened in Vietnam is coming back to him, and while a half-remembered event in most memoirs would not work for me, in this collection, that half-memory is the point. What we are getting is what it is to be inside the mind of someone suffering from this pain, and it is not easy, and it is certainly not clear.

     Beyond the flash, Johnson uses a few other forms as well to open up what he is talking about through the way he says it. He is also an abstract expressionist painter, and a number of his pieces are scattered through the book, giving us another path into his experience. He has poetry here and there. Later, he includes open letters to the NRA and Congress, one to parents and teachers, and a third to incident commanders. These take his artistic expressions that might be interpreted in multiple ways and add a more direct argument as to what he sees as the problems with the way society is working, how it throws us off balance. These multiple approaches help us to understand what he is talking about in a number of ways.

     This is not a pornography of violence and trauma. Johnson is not simply laying out his and other people’s pain so that we might gain a kind of vicarious experience. He is creating a fiction based on his life so that others might see what moving forward means. He is making the point that this is not something to be cured through a couple of sessions of therapy. In fact, he is showing us that the concept of being cured is absurd. There is no such thing as leaving it behind but rather he is looking for ways to move forward through this kind of pain. 

     The main character who like Johnson is a trauma psychotherapist who has been to Vietnam himself is in therapy himself, and his psychologist helps him to deal with both the pain he lived and the secondary trauma of those who work with trauma survivors. He speaks to his therapist about the role he is expected to play and how he gets through it:

“I’m expected to project an attitude of ‘I’ve seen it all and know just what to do.’ That’s half the magic.” I felt myself going on the defensive a little. “And when I’m not OK, when I’m scared of the situation and don’t know what to do, I fake it. I guess I manage to selectively dissociate, to take note of my feelings, and then put them in a closet somewhere and get on with it.” 

“You certainly got good at that in Vietnam. And paid a price for it—you’ve been disconnected for years. Amnesia. Our work would have gone more quickly if you hadn’t been dragging around a pretty big sack of leftovers.” 

I took a breath and let it out slowly. “It may not be perfect, but I guess I get by.”

Over the years, I have enjoyed popular nonfiction psychology books, but none of them have shown me what real pain looks like as this fictional account does. Those books are often neat and their discussions give observations that are meant to be definitive. This is a discussion of how messy psychological pain is, how his experiences in the past are rubbing up against the way he is trying to help people in the present in his practice. Psychologists have often presented themselves as godlike, able to clearly and easily point to this or that and solve or at least identify the problem immediately. Johnson lets us know that such an attempt does not make a lot of sense because problems are layered upon other problems and the psychologist is just a human being trying to see the patient through the foggy lens of his past.

     For me, Chaos and Ash was refreshing. It is nice to have someone speak truth about something that should be taken seriously and so often is not.

John Brantingham 3rd January 2020

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