There is no secret sad thing to eviscerate…
to stab the moment
during the wind-dreams
of these trees…
How fast until the next beautiful random
that mends the pattern to things
as they are?
from Cynthia Arrieu-King, “All My Creys”
Almaty, early February, in my squat Soviet-style building (hardy in earthquakes, I am told), my temporary kitchen. A bowl of Uzbek apricots, a view out to the in-progress apartment complex. In a transforming Almaty, height and spire and gleam is the norm, mirror of mountains, modernity. The construction workers arrive at 6AM, work Monday through Saturday, affix sheet metal to concrete. From my bedroom, I can see the Ritz Carlton’s slim column, next to the luxury mall where empty storefronts alternate with Prada boutiques, Porsche dealerships, a movie theater screening blockbusters in English. Daily, I run alongside empty canals, dubbed a river, Esentai, that the mall takes its name from. I pass the city’s pensioners and students, who move gingerly around the black ice, eggs and bread visible through their plastic bags.
In late February, I fly to Hyderabad, where I climb Golconda Fort. Each level of stone reveals more of the cityscape, as well as pink blossoms, amorous couples, grandmothers in saris picnicking with their grand-babies. In the structure’s guts, crushed water bottles. I drive to HITEC City, where no block (if these stretches of mega-highway can be designated as such) is unclaimed by a company campus: Novartis, Accenture, Verizon. I jog Necklace Road, pass young men interval training in workday polos and chinos, pause to squint at the Buddha statue in the center of the Hussain Sagar lake.
Since my arrival to Central Asia on New Years’ Day, I have been communicating in Russian, passively immersed in Kazakh, and so my circuits are shorting, but the juxtaposition - old/new, raze/replace - iterates itself again and again, until my traveler’s eye sees only repetition, homogeny in all the variety, novelty. It could be the peripatetic brain, culture shock, a slipping grip on language that is slowing my ability to see. That will pass, as novelty cedes to semi-familiarity’s blindness cedes to intimacy’s gift of real sight. Things. As they are.
How are they? “How is it over there?” people ask, meaning, I think, politics, corruption, currency, nationalism, culture, danger. And now, with events in Ukraine and Russia, the new Silk Road, and the upcoming presidential elections, there is ever-mounting pressure behind these inquiries. I want to answer honestly, to observe clearly, and to locate concrete expressions of what I read about in the streets I walk, get lost on. But while I simultaneously feel on edge, unnerved, my impressions still lack grounding. Like first drafts, a fumbling to locate the amorphousness of emotion in language and image. Not to be trusted. What will stick?
What is the form — is there a form? — to unite an intuitive sense of atmosphere with the daily — the procurement of milk, or the museum docent, in traditional vest, snoring softly in her chair next to the Socialist Realist landscapes, or the philology students that brush past me in skinny jeans, sharing headphones, all of us hurrying under an archway depicting the smiling President in pastels, a multitude of multiethnic beauties beside him, all of it rendered more dreamy by the pastel palate, past the university’s television screens that loop, from what I can tell, official speeches, dedications, ribbon-cutting ceremonies?
It’s this recognition of difficulty — uniting form and ambition — that distinguishes the poems in Drunken Boat 21. From Annie Paradis: “We are becoming again/past the zones/and the tunnels/the government is in our blood…I’m sorry/it does not give/me chills/like the old days/and the old things.” These poets manage, inside the parameters of compression and impression, to fuse Didion’s “objects” with - I’m loathe to call it social commentary (too didactic) — with conscience, a pointing-out of the necessary co-existence of not-rightness with lived, anyway. From Anthony Cirilo’s exquisite (and not in ways expected) The Miniaturist: “no small task a clipping of the maid’s hair on the sly little by little while she sleeps but the war continues outside there is less and less each day in dreams we are terrible and complete.” Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr.: “Ruins like this are where they were, you can feel/how it was when they were here and real, how solemn/and clear it must have been. Matthew Olzmann: “It would have been easier to stay with the fleet./There's confidence in numbers. Consider the armada/of stars as they burn heaven above us,/so certain as they scorch their way through infinity.” And, oh yes, yes, Kimiko Hahn: “Like the elephant shark, I must possess/a primitive system…like them/I’ve not/been granted/immunity/yet carry on as if/nothing will/fuck with me.”
We’re especially proud to feature work from (new to us) poets like Paradis and Cirilo with crackling poems by Kimiko Hahn (it’s impossible not to continue reading when “Circumspection,” opens with “Unlike the Komodo Dragon/ I have not bitten/Sharon Stone’s/husband's toe”) and a tender, affirming, epic love poem from Matthew Olzmann. You’ll also find an arresting collaboration from Sharon Olinka & Wayne Atherton, as well as work from Matt Morton, Corey Hutchinson-Reuss, and many others.
Special gratitude and congratulations to assistant editor Nicholas Wong for his work curating this issue and the release of Crevasse, his forthcoming collection from Kaya Press. Many thanks, too, as well as our (all-volunteer!) reading and production staff, and to you, of course, the readers. Enjoy the issue.
Michelle Chan Brown