Minding the Gap

Julie Choffel
The Hello Delay
(Fordham Press, 2012)

Michelle Naka Pierce
Continuous Frieze Bordering Red
(Fordham Press, 2012)

Julie Choffel and Michelle Naka Pierce, both recipients of this year’s Poets Out Loud award, imbue their work with binaries of meaning, multi-perspective angles, a dissonance of language, and an inherent human longing that is akin to people talking separately at the same time­­­­—each of us missing the texture.

Choffel engages her readers in a constant game of catch-up across the pages of her first poetry book, The Hello Delay. She immerses her audience in a world where the boundaries of meaning are necessarily divided, a world in which “pronouns are disasters” and repetition is replaced by something more startling than facsimile: the familiar is defamiliarized; endless iterations of the same thing appear differently.

Throughout The Hello Delay, passages are quoted and dialogue is used, but no one is identified. People miss people as often as they mistake the representation for the real thing. “If Everyone Came To Me” epitomizes this epistemological struggle: “and once out of flowers, used fake ones. sanctioned the struggle between the two and watched them battle it out.” In “Part Golden, Part Hidden” Choffel writes that “the murmuring delicacies at the end, of statements or scenery never complete what they set out to, say”—a statement about the incommunicable that she seems to only answer with more longing in “I Will Whisper”: “that’s okay but what are they saying down the street and lost on you, lost on you, lost on you.”

Is there any wonder that flora become a recurrent image throughout the collection of poems? Plants take time to grow. The gratification of reading The Hello Delay arrives later. Julie Choffel’s poetry may have, as she asserts on the first page, “no camera,” but it has a Ouija board in its place: Choffel’s work doesn’t present the material world, it presents all of its mysteries; it haunts you.

Michelle Naka Pierce’s Continuous Frieze Bordering Red takes the image of its title and imitates its floating borders. Choffel’s boundaries are Pierce’s borders. Both of this year’s Poets Out Loud winners deal with gaps in meaning, but Pierce’s work personifies the absence with its arrangement. It can be read as a frieze, from various angles: vertically or horizontally—the first line running through 68 pages and back to page one’s second line to repeat the process. From pages 21 to 32, small, footnote-like poems at the bottom of the page can be read separately, or they can interrupt the reading experience.

“The point is to feel dizzy and unstable while you’re reading it,” Pierce says. “The point is to feel like a hybrid by the end of it.” Pierce, of Japanese and American descent, imbues her work in accents with “invisible words,” “languages not easily recognized,” describing hurried travelers “minding the gap” “within an (un)familiar territory,” “caught between the lines.”

This poem—there is only one here, with various iterations—is not just a scene at an airport, it is an investigation of incongruence, an attempt to “sketch a shelter out of fragments.” Inspired in different ways by Mark Rothko and Judith Butler, Pierce contemplates what it feels like to be outside of her skin. Her speaker moves through bodies—both literal and figurative—and Pierce seems to pose the question: If each part of your identity can be disassembled, can the self, the identities we place on and take off like clothes, also be put back together again?

Contributor

Chris Campanioni

CHRIS CAMPANIONI has worked as a journalist, model, and actor, and he teaches literature and creative writing at Baruch College and Pace University. His “Billboards” poem that responded to Latino stereotypes and mutable—and often muted—identity in the fashion world was awarded the 2013 Academy of American Poets Prize and his novel Going Down was selected as Best First Book at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards. He edits PANK, Tupelo Quarterly, and At Large Magazine and lives in Brooklyn, where he wrote his new book, Death of Art (C&R Press).

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