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Larissa Shmailo

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In Paran
by Larissa Shmailo   

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Category: 

Poetry

Publisher:  BlazeVOX [books] ISBN-10:  9781935402107
Pages: 

74

Copyright:  Jan 2 2009

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"From under the El in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to her window seat on the Harlem Line, Shmailo is right on track with poetry that dances with love, death and desire. The proverbial urban poet, Shmailo masterfully mixes the beauty and the gritty, in New York City."─Doug Holder, Ibbetson Street Press

“Reader beware: these are poems that lurk. Larissa evokes a stark, incisive view of the mad world where “graffiti burns my thighs / and I run through the clotheslines that flap on the roof” and you will not escape it by closing her extraordinary book. “I will slash my wrists,” she tells us, “and from my wrists will come ants and tired shopkeepers,” and we believe her. Writing doesn’t get much better than this.”─Jackie Sheeler, Talk Engine

“In these visceral wanderings into Larissa Shmailo's narratives, we venture through the teeming back alleys of Brooklyn on through the poet's labyrinthine youth until we reach the trepidatious poetic psyche of a woman who has lost in love but keeps on gambling with a strength to envy and behold. In Paran is not here to soothe─this is a book willing to discomfit and excite anyone who has grown too comfortable, inciting them to ‘forget the right answers/consult necromancers/allow the forbidden/ignore the guilt ridden/unlearn all the learning/embrace this new burning’”.─Amy King, I’m the Man Who Loves You

'Larissa Shmailo invites the reader to “imagine a use with me for all that doesn’t fit.” Her poems, alive with discomfort and broken pieces, teach an art of compassion without illusion. ─Robert Viscusi, winner, American Book Award,Astoria

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Larissa Shmailo's blog

Larissa Shmailo: In Paran

Over the last month, I have spent a good deal of time with

Larissa Shmailo's In Paran

, released by

Blazevox

this year. I have had a hard time coming up with a workable angle, although I like the book very much. Shmailo incorporates elements of many different strains and styles, but I think the overriding characteristic of the book is its

affirmative

tone. This does not preclude a tragic element, but the book wraps its tragedies in a gauze of playfulness and whimsy. There are many poems in the book that, if one were being uncharitable, one could call

cute

; it would be more charitable (and more accurate, as far as I am concerned) to call them

charming

. The lightness of the book

is

charming, much in the manner of certain

New York School

poets (and Shmailo is, in fact, a New York poet.) Shmailo's extensive use of rhyme and anaphora tie the book in to what is commonly known as spoken word poetry; but this is

spoken word with chops

, from a poet who has clearly done her homework and is as comfortable with

John Milton

as she is with

Bob Holman

. There is also a certain kind of resonance with the kind of poetry we have seen from someone like

Dottie Lasky

, only done with more depth, solidity, and

gravitas

. Much of the book addresses real-world themes directly- love, aging, poverty, an engagement with different mythologies (often with a sense of them being debunked.) The book is enjoyable for a variety of reasons, but there is a fundamental pleasure that Shmailo takes in language that is impossible to hide and (for me at least) impossible not to be seduced by. Language is found to be ultimately redemptive, a means by which the poet can transcend the bounds of material reality. There is not a sense of futility at work, but of triumph, of being able to say things that need to be said. Writing these poems seems to have been palliative for Shmailo, and the joy of a kind of

release

shines through every line. Because she has the chops to make them stick, the poems not only convey this sense of release but allow us to share it. The book, as a whole, is cathartic, and takes us on a journey where pain is acknowledged but pleasure is never forgotten.

The first poem in the book,

Personal

, is characteristic:



I want to know
what makes you
tick.

I want to know
what makes you
fickle; I want to know
what makes you stick.

Tell me

which ion propels you
which soothsayer spells you
which folksinger trills you
which hardwood distills you
which downward dog twists you
which protest resists you
which neural net fires you
which siren desires you

which villanelle sings you
which jailbreaker springs you
which Uncle Sam wants you
which calculus daunts you
which lullaby lulls you
which confidence gulls you
which apple you'll bite from
which hither you'll welcome

what
makes
me

forget the right answers
consult necromancers
allow the forbidden
ignore the guilt ridden
unlearn all the learning
embrace this new burning

to know
what
makes you
tick.

What I especially like about this poem is the way that edges of maturity show up to redeem what would otherwise be child-like. There is a dark subtext in lines like "unlearn all the learning" and "ignore the guilt-ridden" that let us know in no uncertain terms that this is a

voice of experience

. Yet all the gravitas is balanced by a kind of

pure delight

in rhyme and anaphora, which gives an unmistakable impression of the upbeat, the positive. "Which apple you'll bite from," of course, is a manifestation of the

Miltonic

that I have already alluded to. There are also intimations of

Personism

, but untwisted by

sideways motion

, expressed with admirable directness. This is the rare kind of poem that can be equally good read on a page and spoken aloud. Shmailo has just the right blend of savvy and smarts to create something

durable

enough to sit on the page and

accessible

enough to work out loud. Shmailo's mastery is not the kind that comes easily, and in fact this is a deceptively simple poem. It would be easy to say that the atmosphere of the thing is rather cliched, until you look at the anaphoric bits and realize that

not one cliche is included

. All the "ions" and "neural nets" are not there by accident; they are the work of an excellent craftsman (or crafts-woman) who knows how to construct something interesting that yet breezes by as naturally and easily as you please. In fact, this is a poem that on a certain level

encourages us to take it for granted

. You can breeze through it without noticing all the intriguing bits, but it takes time and effort to fully appreciate the care that went into its construction. It cannot be anything but the product of many years of hard work. In poetry, as in everything else,

making it look easy

is a very difficult trick to pull off. Shmailo does it here. An even more bravura demonstration of this complexity-that-seems-simple is in

The No-Net World

:



Deep in your heart, you always believed
There was a barrier, a secret shield
Keeping you safe from the street
Secretly, you knew
Your good shoes and your warm lined gloves
Kept you apart, and safe
From the man with the cup in his hand
And the boy with the cardboard sign
And the woman with the bloated legs
And the girl with the begging eyes
From the weathered madwoman railing at God
And the shadows at the ashcan fires
From the need to ask, no choices left:
Mister, can you please...?

What did you, from the cushioned world
Of buffers, alternatives, other ways to turn
Of loans from family friends
Of credit cards and healthy children
Of grocers who smiled because they knew how well you ate:
What did you have in common with the concrete world of need?
Secretly, you knew, so surely you believed
You could never fall so low

Welcome to the no-net world.

Then I got fired one day
I got fired one day
Lost my job and then my house
I got fired one day.

Now your debts mount up like garbage and a layoff's coming soon
And you have to see a doctor and insurance just pays half
And your folks who lent you money just can't help you anymore
And the loans are coming due; still, the force field is there,
In the lining of the gloves, in the good if now used shoes
You will never stand like that goddamned bum
Holding the door at the bank
Too tired to whore or steal
Saying, Please ma'am, please ma'am, please...

Then I got HIV
I got HIV
They found out
I lost my kids
I got HIV

You would never see
Hunger on the face of your child
When she came home from school there would always be
Apples and rice and chicken and beans
Milk and carrots and peas
Now there's two days left till payday and just one last can of corn
And she's home, laughing hungry, hi, I'm home, ma, what's for lunch?

Welcome to the no-net world

Are you hungry? Good:
Ready, set, line-up, let's go:
You can get on line on Monday for the lunch meal that's on Tuesday
and the shelter line's for Thursday but you have to sign up Monday
But you stayed there just last Wednesday so you can't come back till Friday.

And the Food Stamps place is downtown
And the welfare place is uptown
And the Medicaid is westside
And the hospital is eastside
No I can't give you a token
No I can't give you a token
No I can't give you a token
Don't you know you'll only drink?

Hell, yes.

Like a child praying to god
You believed in forever
You thought home and hearth were,
Not for everyone of course,
But surely for you:

Only in the nightmares
Rare unremembered dreams
Did you stand by the door of the bank
Saying
Yes ma'am, God bless you ma'am
Please.

Don't get sick.
Don't let anyone you love get sick.
Don't be mentally ill.
Don't lose your job.
Don't be without money for a second.
Don't make any mistakes.

Welcome to the no-net world.

The greatness of this poem to me is how it is simultaneously very

now

and also very universal. We

are

in the middle of a Depression in America, and the reality that Shmailo paints, while not pretty, is accurate for a large number of people. There are few things

less humane

I can think of than the way America deals with its sick and impoverished. Millions of people run around without health insurance, and to live in this day and age without health insurance is very much a

no net

existence. So I can comfortably call this an

American Depression poem

, circa 2009. The refrains and repetitions give the poem a jazzy edge, that lightens things up significantly, and reminds me of

Auden's Refugee Blues

. Yet the poem seems too earnest as a whole for me to call it post-avant. I do not consider this, however, to be a problem, as the earnest quality of the poem makes it more engaging and (let's face it) we do not want creepy

all the time

. This poem has many things about it that align it, not only with spoken word poetry but with all forms and manners of

oral poetry

, going back to

Whitman

and through the

Beats

, and in fact Shmailo has recorded this. It is

incantatory

in the best sense of the word, a poem that could knock an audience dead at a reading, just as it knocks me dead when I read it in her book. Maybe this is because, unlike many spoken word artists, Shmailo sneaks sophistication in the back door- there is an edge here of self-consciousness, a "you" speaking to "you," implying a continuing interior monologue. The "I" is not a typical lyric "I" either, but a generalized I meant to signify characters in the poem, is if this were a kind of Greek chorus. All in all, as with

Personal

, this is a complex construct that seems simple. It may wind up being one of the signature poems of our era, and I feel that it deserves to be.



In Paran

is a very rich read, and I cannot do justice to it in a review of this length. I will only point out a few more strains at work in the book, that animate it, and hope that some people who read me may seek it out. Shmailo is based in New York, and many poem in the book demonstrate a

genius loci

engagement with New York (and Brooklyn) such as

Williamsburg Poem

. There are more current events tackled, and some historical events too, such as in

Exorcism (Found Poem)

, which deals with the

My Lai

massacres during the Vietnam War. The essential thread running through all these strains is Shmailo's voice, which never wavers either in the directness of its engagements or in its delight in language. This book is highly recommended to anyone who has any doubt that poetry in 2009 is as vital as it has ever been. It has all the populism of

Ginsberg

, and then some. If the stars align correctly, it is my hope that the people will come.


Excerpt

Vow

We will love like dogwood.
Kiss like cranes.
Die like moths.
I promise.




Professional Reviews

Larissa Shmailo: In Paran
Over the last month, I have spent a good deal of time with Larissa Shmailo's In Paran, released by Blazevox this year. I have had a hard time coming up with a workable angle, although I like the book very much. Shmailo incorporates elements of many different strains and styles, but I think the overriding characteristic of the book is its affirmative tone. This does not preclude a tragic element, but the book wraps its tragedies in a gauze of playfulness and whimsy. There are many poems in the book that, if one were being uncharitable, one could call cute; it would be more charitable (and more accurate, as far as I am concerned) to call them charming. The lightness of the book is charming, much in the manner of certain New York School poets (and Shmailo is, in fact, a New York poet.) Shmailo's extensive use of rhyme and anaphora tie the book in to what is commonly known as spoken word poetry; but this is spoken word with chops, from a poet who has clearly done her homework and is as comfortable with John Milton as she is with Bob Holman. There is also a certain kind of resonance with the kind of poetry we have seen from someone like Dottie Lasky, only done with more depth, solidity, and gravitas. Much of the book addresses real-world themes directly- love, aging, poverty, an engagement with different mythologies (often with a sense of them being debunked.) The book is enjoyable for a variety of reasons, but there is a fundamental pleasure that Shmailo takes in language that is impossible to hide and (for me at least) impossible not to be seduced by. Language is found to be ultimately redemptive, a means by which the poet can transcend the bounds of material reality. There is not a sense of futility at work, but of triumph, of being able to say things that need to be said. Writing these poems seems to have been palliative for Shmailo, and the joy of a kind of release shines through every line. Because she has the chops to make them stick, the poems not only convey this sense of release but allow us to share it. The book, as a whole, is cathartic, and takes us on a journey where pain is acknowledged but pleasure is never forgotten.

The first poem in the book, Personal, is characteristic:

I want to know
what makes you
tick.

I want to know
what makes you
fickle; I want to know
what makes you stick.

Tell me

which ion propels you
which soothsayer spells you
which folksinger trills you
which hardwood distills you
which downward dog twists you
which protest resists you
which neural net fires you
which siren desires you

which villanelle sings you
which jailbreaker springs you
which Uncle Sam wants you
which calculus daunts you
which lullaby lulls you
which confidence gulls you
which apple you'll bite from
which hither you'll welcome

what
makes
me

forget the right answers
consult necromancers
allow the forbidden
ignore the guilt ridden
unlearn all the learning
embrace this new burning

to know
what
makes you
tick.

What I especially like about this poem is the way that edges of maturity show up to redeem what would otherwise be child-like. There is a dark subtext in lines like "unlearn all the learning" and "ignore the guilt-ridden" that let us know in no uncertain terms that this is a voice of experience. Yet all the gravitas is balanced by a kind of pure delight in rhyme and anaphora, which gives an unmistakable impression of the upbeat, the positive. "Which apple you'll bite from," of course, is a manifestation of the Miltonic that I have already alluded to. There are also intimations of Personism, but untwisted by sideways motion, expressed with admirable directness. This is the rare kind of poem that can be equally good read on a page and spoken aloud. Shmailo has just the right blend of savvy and smarts to create something durable enough to sit on the page and accessible enough to work out loud. Shmailo's mastery is not the kind that comes easily, and in fact this is a deceptively simple poem. It would be easy to say that the atmosphere of the thing is rather cliched, until you look at the anaphoric bits and realize that not one cliche is included. All the "ions" and "neural nets" are not there by accident; they are the work of an excellent craftsman (or crafts-woman) who knows how to construct something interesting that yet breezes by as naturally and easily as you please. In fact, this is a poem that on a certain level encourages us to take it for granted. You can breeze through it without noticing all the intriguing bits, but it takes time and effort to fully appreciate the care that went into its construction. It cannot be anything but the product of many years of hard work. In poetry, as in everything else, making it look easy is a very difficult trick to pull off. Shmailo does it here. An even more bravura demonstration of this complexity-that-seems-simple is in The No-Net World:

Deep in your heart, you always believed
There was a barrier, a secret shield
Keeping you safe from the street
Secretly, you knew
Your good shoes and your warm lined gloves
Kept you apart, and safe
From the man with the cup in his hand
And the boy with the cardboard sign
And the woman with the bloated legs
And the girl with the begging eyes
From the weathered madwoman railing at God
And the shadows at the ashcan fires
From the need to ask, no choices left:
Mister, can you please...?

What did you, from the cushioned world
Of buffers, alternatives, other ways to turn
Of loans from family friends
Of credit cards and healthy children
Of grocers who smiled because they knew how well you ate:
What did you have in common with the concrete world of need?
Secretly, you knew, so surely you believed
You could never fall so low

Welcome to the no-net world.

Then I got fired one day
I got fired one day
Lost my job and then my house
I got fired one day.

Now your debts mount up like garbage and a layoff's coming soon
And you have to see a doctor and insurance just pays half
And your folks who lent you money just can't help you anymore
And the loans are coming due; still, the force field is there,
In the lining of the gloves, in the good if now used shoes
You will never stand like that goddamned bum
Holding the door at the bank
Too tired to whore or steal
Saying, Please ma'am, please ma'am, please...

Then I got HIV
I got HIV
They found out
I lost my kids
I got HIV

You would never see
Hunger on the face of your child
When she came home from school there would always be
Apples and rice and chicken and beans
Milk and carrots and peas
Now there's two days left till payday and just one last can of corn
And she's home, laughing hungry, hi, I'm home, ma, what's for lunch?

Welcome to the no-net world

Are you hungry? Good:
Ready, set, line-up, let's go:
You can get on line on Monday for the lunch meal that's on Tuesday
and the shelter line's for Thursday but you have to sign up Monday
But you stayed there just last Wednesday so you can't come back till Friday.

And the Food Stamps place is downtown
And the welfare place is uptown
And the Medicaid is westside
And the hospital is eastside
No I can't give you a token
No I can't give you a token
No I can't give you a token
Don't you know you'll only drink?

Hell, yes.

Like a child praying to god
You believed in forever
You thought home and hearth were,
Not for everyone of course,
But surely for you:

Only in the nightmares
Rare unremembered dreams
Did you stand by the door of the bank
Saying
Yes ma'am, God bless you ma'am
Please.

Don't get sick.
Don't let anyone you love get sick.
Don't be mentally ill.
Don't lose your job.
Don't be without money for a second.
Don't make any mistakes.

Welcome to the no-net world.

The greatness of this poem to me is how it is simultaneously very now and also very universal. We are in the middle of a Depression in America, and the reality that Shmailo paints, while not pretty, is accurate for a large number of people. There are few things less humane I can think of than the way America deals with its sick and impoverished. Millions of people run around without health insurance, and to live in this day and age without health insurance is very much a no net existence. So I can comfortably call this an American Depression poem, circa 2009. The refrains and repetitions give the poem a jazzy edge, that lightens things up significantly, and reminds me of Auden's Refugee Blues. Yet the poem seems too earnest as a whole for me to call it post-avant. I do not consider this, however, to be a problem, as the earnest quality of the poem makes it more engaging and (let's face it) we do not want creepy all the time. This poem has many things about it that align it, not only with spoken word poetry but with all forms and manners of oral poetry, going back to Whitman and through the Beats, and in fact Shmailo has recorded this. It is incantatory in the best sense of the word, a poem that could knock an audience dead at a reading, just as it knocks me dead when I read it in her book. Maybe this is because, unlike many spoken word artists, Shmailo sneaks sophistication in the back door- there is an edge here of self-consciousness, a "you" speaking to "you," implying a continuing interior monologue. The "I" is not a typical lyric "I" either, but a generalized I meant to signify characters in the poem, is if this were a kind of Greek chorus. All in all, as with Personal, this is a complex construct that seems simple. It may wind up being one of the signature poems of our era, and I feel that it deserves to be.

In Paran is a very rich read, and I cannot do justice to it in a review of this length. I will only point out a few more strains at work in the book, that animate it, and hope that some people who read me may seek it out. Shmailo is based in New York, and many poem in the book demonstrate a genius loci engagement with New York (and Brooklyn) such as Williamsburg Poem. There are more current events tackled, and some historical events too, such as in Exorcism (Found Poem), which deals with the My Lai massacres during the Vietnam War. The essential thread running through all these strains is Shmailo's voice, which never wavers either in the directness of its engagements or in its delight in language. This book is highly recommended to anyone who has any doubt that poetry in 2009 is as vital as it has ever been. It has all the populism of Ginsberg, and then some. If the stars align correctly, it is my hope that the people will come.



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