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Violence and Healing: “Flintknapping” in Conversation with Aremu Adams Adebisi

Aremu Adams Adebisi challenges his readers to reimagine grief, conflict, and hardship in his poem “Flintknapping”. Inspired deeply by the vastness of the human experience, Arabic poetry, and the voices of his five older sisters, he inspires his readers to journey with him: “My writing style is not decided,” he states in our interview, “I say it is nomadic and unrestrained. It goes where the themes go, where the language goes.” In constant exploration, Adebisi unearths newfound lyric and meaning from his original ideas. This freedom is ever-present in “Flintknapping”. The haunting couplets and cryptic lowercase letters are constant throughout the piece. However, upon closer look, one senses a spontaneity to his writing style. “[L]oudly, loudly, ever so loudly” is both ruminative and sudden. It is a reference to flintknapping itself, the act of shaping a blade. 

He begins and ends with ostensibly despondent questions that illustrate his willingness to sit with discomfort and uncertainty. He asks at the very beginning, “ever heard about the therapist who murdered the depressed?” At first glance, this could fill a reader with despair; however, the progression of the poem reveals the simple job of the therapist: to chisel away at the grief until one discovers its beauty. 

Adebisi enjoys how the poem “explores the different forms of healing and breakage to a fault”. “It’s like a dance, starting with the movement of the head, then the stretch of the arm, then the stamp of the feet, then all of these parts at once — like that, the poem reads procedural and I love every bit of its procedures.” His depiction of the blade and its many uses reveal this procedural nature. “I love blades,” he states tersely in the poem, “How they cut away from your body, make sure no body parts are in the cutting path or interfere with it. The subtlety of flesh-tearing, the grand opinion it holds, unfazed. A blade’s last urgency is not blood, but dust.” We watch the blade, from its first urgency to its last. 

The simplicity of the blade is striking. Adebisi’s use of these familiar symbols makes the poem all the more captivating and relevant. When asked to give advice to growing writers, he emphasized the importance of writing despite the writer’s constant inclination to search for new words before doing so. “I should also add that diction does not make poetry, but coherence,” he insists, “A poem with incoherent diction is nothing but a stone to a golden piece of simple coherent words.” 

Adebisi takes his own advice, emphasizing the symbol of the blade throughout the poem. He distinguishes between “blades” and “flowers,” indicating that there are varying degrees of violence that conflict and coincide. “Anything with teeth is a blade,” he declares, “Anything with fingers has pines or nettles or awls or saws.” At the poem’s end, he asks “what do we have to live for when the end is coming in with thistles?” The thistles are the blade’s soft counterpart: cutting and soft, much like death itself. We possess teeth and fingers alike, meaning that we are all subject to the violence of one another. We “nurture flowers with blade hands” regardless of what we intend. Even with our most delicate and treasured beings, we cut in a blade-like motion. This happens daily, as we live through “nights with claws, days shackled in teeth.” 

This does not leave Adebisi despondent, despite the unanswered question that he poses at the very end of “Flintknapping”. I believe Adebisi finds strength in recognizing this impact that our days, nights, and companions have on us. “[G]rief has never been the enemy,” he reflects in the poem. His love of the blade is a love for humanity, a love that can compel us to heal from grief.

Skye Tarshis
Skye Tarshis

Skye Tarshis is an eighteen-year-old first-year student studying at Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and Bienen School of Music. Her writing has been featured in high school publications such as BeaconInk and The Beacon Beat, as well as choral works written by composers André de Quadros and Pulitzer prize-winning Ellen Reid.

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Hannah CajanDig-Taylor, Romantic Portrait of Natural Disaster

Disasters seem to be on our collective minds lately. We are surrounded, it feels, by endings, fractures, faults, and failures. As fires blaze, storms rage, and a pandemic sweeps the globe, it feels only appropriate to contemplate the nature of catastrophe.

On its surface, Romantic Portrait of a Natural Disaster by Hannah Cajandig-Taylor does just this. Lines like “when a world dies/nobody is around to hear it” and “Everyday/ is the end of the world, each season/ braiding a noose” may give readers the impression that this work is a dirge or some celebration of despair, but upon closer inspection, it is so much more than that. 

Cajandig-Taylor weaves threads of environmental writing, meteorology, personal experience, and emotional vulnerability together with a depth, and resonance that left me stunned in the best of ways.

One of the most striking things about Cajandig-Taylor’s work is her masterful use of persistent images and themes. The lines never feel overburdened or weighty. Rather, visions of constellations and clouds fuse seamlessly with the earthy crunch of tectonic plates. Space and meteorology play a major role in Cajandig-Taylor’s poems, but earth, flora, and images of haunting and decay make consistent appearances as well. These elements blend together to complicate the line between human experience and the nonhuman world so that companionship is found in a stone and love takes on the energy and danger of a raging inferno. Each theme is masterfully sustained throughout the sequence, appearing for a moment, disappearing, then returning when you least expect it like elements of a well-orchestrated symphony.

The other striking element of Cajandig-Taylors craft is her surreal, often transgressive style. Romantic Portrait of a Natural Disaster, like some of the best poetry in my mind, is constructed of moments that feel deeply true without being precisely placeable. Each page is a tantalizing, illuminating web that asks as much from my own experience as it tells of hers. Cajandig-Taylor’s use of couplets and ever-shifting articles invites the reader into each poem. While it may not be the most approachable of poetry for those used to linear stricture, the lasting resonance Cajandig-Taylor achieves is more than worth the initial opacity.

Romantic Portrait of a Natural Disaster’s theme of fragmentation and brokenness extends to realms far beyond the merely physical. Elements of the book were influenced by the increase in natural disasters stemming from climate change, according to Cajandig-Taylor, but much of the final impact developed organically. Supernovas and wildfires condense into a vulnerable, deeply felt meditation on personal fragmentation. The world comes to reflect the body, the poet reflects the world, and all are in the process of crumbling, over and over. Cajandig-Taylor wrestles with the question of “Am I falling apart in the right way” throughout the book, and each line, each moment seems to be another attempt to make sense of endings. Strangely, though, the work is not bleak. There is melancholy, certainly. There is trauma and sadness and all the sharp, painful moments that reality seems to heap on us. Yet each disaster is followed by another moment, another experience of the world and often a recognition of the beauty that lies within even the small moments.

In one of my favorite poems of the collection, “Self-Destruction & Other Disasters to Think About”, Cajandig-Taylor rolls through a staccato litany of images and feelings which build until the narrator and the world collapses; “the collapsing/ of stars, a black hole born from oblivion. My body,/ with its slumped posture on the closet floor.” But just when it feels like the weight of the world will crush everything, there is a reprieve. “I think about paradise…about the desert/ writing songs with my name.”

These moments, along with the book’s overall construction, presents a complex and mature message. Yes, it is implied, there is destruction. The world is full of endings and catastrophes, but that is not all there is. After each catastrophe, there is something else, some room for joy or simply life. Cajandig-Taylor said that she hopes this book shows those experiencing trauma, anxiety, or those who just feel buried in the weight of disasters that they are not alone. That it is possible to take ownership of their experiences and, if not fix them, at least learn to live beyond them.

As I mentioned at the opening of this review, Romantic Portrait of a Natural Disaster feels both timeless and like just the book for the time we are living through. So much is happening in the world right now that I find myself struggling just to keep up with it all, much less process the maelstrom of emotions elicited by them. We as a people need space to mourn, to feel the weight of the world and the urgency of what faces us, but that cannot be all that we do. Cajandig-Taylor’s poems give that space and catharsis to begin the long journey of processing the many internal and external traumas that exist right now, but also ensures that they don’t become an eclipsing force. Yes, this book says, recognize the disasters. Look them in the face and make them part of yourself. Then, once the tears have fallen, continue on. What more can we do? And right now, what more do we need?

Brandon McWilliams
Brandon McWilliams

Brandon McWilliams is a student at Seattle University, where he combines his passion for writing and the environment.
His work has appeared in Hidden Compass MagazineBay Nature, Fragments, and the Seattle Times. When not writing, he works as an environmental educator, climbs tall things, and cooks needlessly elaborate meals.

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Caleb Nichols, 22 Lunes

Quite often, western culture uses the moon as a symbol of love. Feelings associated with the moon include connectedness and stillness even if love is not reciprocated. 22 Lunes by Caleb Nichols is quite similar to the moon in that it illustrates a story of love—the intricacies described are both physical and emotional, and yet, this depiction of love offers moments of pause whether the collection is read as a full narrative or individual stanzas. Through his attention to form and the use of simple yet touching language, Nichols indulges his audience to embrace feelings that we might associate with the moon. 

The form of the lune (or the American Haiku) is identified in its physical shape and rhythm. With the 5-3-5 rhythm, the poems in this collection follow the pattern poet Robert Kelly originally assigned to the lune while also creating a crescent moon shape. Nichols explores the lunes’ conventional shape and diction that amplifies the moon’s gravity:

“Waves ebb as they push in, 

moon-pulled, 

break on shore, reform.”

Nichols emphasized that his choice to use the lune as a form for this collection of poetry was the result of a decision to reimagine poems that did not originally work in other forms but could be evolved into the lune. Nichols emphasized that it is the freedom in poetry that allowed him to “kill [his] darlings” to transform those darlings into a new story through a genre-bending form.

The language that Nichols used, which also added to the effectiveness of his chapbook, was simple enough to be accessible to multiple types of audiences but complex enough that new meanings would be revealed each time the lines are read. A beautiful example of the success of Nichols’ language: 

“possibility 

becoming 

probability.”

These lines (emphasized by Nichols as lines that encompass the full meaning of the poetic narrative) show how love can be beautiful in the “[possibilities]” of being “transformed into mist” because love is near and dear but the “probability” that results is a “possibility” that love will become a memory. 

Those possibilities and probabilities are also complemented with music in Nichols’ audio version of 22 Lunes. Each poem embraces unique sounds that reinforce feelings of being pulled by the moon. As a musician, Nichols has intertwined his love for poetry and music, allowing more chances for audiences to connect and understand his artistry. In doing so, Nichols believes that offering multiple modalities of poetry will only reinvigorate the reader/listener experience and encourage publishers to think about including audio alongside text and visual art. 

Listen and reflect: softpeople.bandcamp.com/album/22-lunes

Morgan McGlone-Smith
Morgan McGlone-Smith

Morgan McGlone-Smith is a Rhetoric and Composition master’s student at Salisbury University. As a lover of all things writing, Morgan tutors writing in her university’s writing center.
When she is not teaching, learning, or writing, Morgan likes to go down research rabbit holes, dance in her kitchen, and care for her plants.

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A Portrait of Mike Jon

When opening Mike Jon’s portfolio, you are met with nearly one hundred faces looking back at you. These are Mike’s portraits, each of which, outside of being cast in black & white, captures the unedited truth of his subjects, whose expressions evoke sincerity and range. Some faces appear coy and flirtatious, while others emerge with more drama and sensuality.

Perhaps Mike’s most charming portraits are those that capture the bashfulness of his subjects. In one series, in particular, the same woman appears across five images, in which, behind both her glasses and the hands covering her face, she appears to be giggling, at once shy and hyper-aware of her being photographed. There is no forced, unanimous theatre expressed across Mike’s portraits, instead, each image emotes on its own – they are void of romantic augmentation and, instead, flush with irreplicable strokes of reality. 

This authenticity is by design. Within the first few minutes of my conversation with Mike, we’re on the topic of honesty. He tells me he does not “glamorize” nor is he “embarrassed by blemishes”. Instead, he prefers things “documentary-style […] raw, gritty” as to best “capture the truth of a person”. Naming those featured in the portraits – each of whose complex truth Mike is invested in capturing – subjects, fails to convey the artistic philosophy at play. Mike isn’t recruiting models, he’s bringing people together. When I asked about his studio, Mike explained “My space had become this church, and I was the reverend […] people came to congregate.” This community gave Mike a new idea for a series: much like you would at a local congregation, host and friends and family day, in which each member invites a nonmember. The product of this practice, as Mike puts simply, “My family just grew.” It is this family, new and old, that assembled to appear in the portraits. 

Outside of the members of his church, Mike aims to capture the breadth and depth of Baltimoreans. Mike describes two cities to me – there’s Charm City Baltimore, picturesque Federal Hill, cutsie, whitewashed tourism. And then, Mike explains, there’s the Baltimore he knows – Sandtown, a neighborhood whose history is marked by both prolific civil rights riots and widespread poverty. This Baltimore is where Mike doesn’t want to miss a shot, where he carries his DSLR, aiming its lens at the essence of the streets – “the culture, the people, the sensibilities”. Mike’s body of work is inextricably tied to this place, as he says best, “Sandtown is a part of me, and thus is ultimately a part of my art.” 

While Mike’s art has largely materialized in the medium of photography, at the core of Mike’s creative genius is filmmaking. Speaking to Mike about his navigation between the two mediums revealed to me another trope of his artistry – practice. Mike tells me that before November of 2019, he didn’t consider himself to be a photographer, someone who, in his mind, “dedicates a certain amount of time to studying, to practicing…” Additionally, Mike’s aspirations lied closer to filmmaking – he had originally thought he might go to film school, but decided against it after being unmoved by the senior thesis showcase. And thus, last fall there existed in Mike meticulous energy, a dedication to better himself and refine his “creative engine”. Video is 24 frames per second – “If you can take a single frame”, Mike reasons, “then you’re going to be a better filmmaker.” 

The success of Mike’s deliberate, patient work ethic is beautifully apparent in the trajectory of his portfolio. While Mike’s early portraits are captured through photography, today, he creates the same raw, intimate portraits in the form of short films, cinematic vignettes of a pastor, an athlete, a dancer, a homie. Mike works from the same vantage point of truth and honesty, he’s just expanded his threshold from 1 frame to 24 per second. 

Sophia Brill
Sophia Brill

Sophia Greco Brill is a rising junior at Pitzer College pursuing a major in History and a minor in English & World Literature.