This Great Violence
In the Gun Cabinet
(TAR Chapbook Series, 2016)
In Mike Lala’s In the Gun Cabinet, action and feeling is dodged like a bullet is dodged before it penetrates the surface. Its serial poems are shifty figurines of experiential soot. There are no explosions because guns don’t do that, instead they spark inside. And their power—the stuff that kills—happens in the strength with which it enters space or a body.
These poems are always wrestling to gain power in order to “forge a dialogue because (reason only goes so far)/ the mind requires power over not only others but over its own experience.” A violence is imposed on a family and language struggles to get at what has become of it.
But how do you recreate the experience of violence? How do you say what needs to be said?
“I wear my language trailing like a bride’s train….
a bride’s train extending to the lip of the stage.”
As language is theatrical, so is the body, in ways that can elude the individual. In the consciously shaped poem, “The Armory,” some force is literally pressing into the language that tries to work its way out of a space. In the action of the poem, the speaker is pushing doors open while night blooms, Moses parts water, paint chips scatter on the ceiling, even air rips at ears. But there is no escape, only tension. We cannot get away from the facts of ourselves. “I turn; my body follows.”
This is a world of sharp color—black, white, blue, red—and texture—wood appears often, as well as images of drawers and veils. We are in the theatrics of the body as well as of the mind. Memory plays tricks on us and recollection of trauma is deceitful. Mike Lala has proven that form can do much more than we thought by subverting our expectations.
In the Gun Cabinet is an astonishing act of formal accomplishment. Besides its accurate fluidity, these poems make even words disappear, sometimes having ink fade off the page, and other times, text such as “on the mantle, a photograph” appears cleverly before our eyes, as though it were an illusion.
“what parts of the story were you told”
“what parts of the story
did you take to be your own”
This shiftiness mimics a kind of figuring out. The final curtain of the book breaks even further from the expected and presents a short staged play—the dialogue between I and M, indistinct people that interrupt one another and mimic actions like a mirror. Could they be two sides of the same person? Echoing the poems, they discuss similar themes with self-awareness and a critical eye, like all language which knows it is a performance.
“in the gun cabinet, the bodies you inhabit through your life
stand up like guns inside the doors”
Could these bodies be words? In the Gun Cabinet lets us imagine a world where words, inherent in the ability to hurt, could also protect us with their theatrical power.
There is nothing cliché about Lala’s violent world. It is so beautiful that I want to live in it. Where language fails—we are often reminded that it does—text is replaced with visual snapshots of rich, dark colors, almost like ink stains, or paints spilled together. That is what recalling hurt is like, as Lala writes, “a veil at the edge of experience.” Early in the book he asks, “how will my work speak from its place to this/ great violence.” In the Gun Cabinet is proof that he’s figured it out.
SIMONA BLAT is a student in the Poetry MFA program at Columbia University, and is the founding editor of the Brazenhead Review.