The Operating System

6th ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 2 :: LESLIE PATRON ON LISA DONOVAN

HAPPY POETRY MONTH, FRIENDS AND COMRADES!

For this, the 6th Annual iteration of our beloved Poetry Month 30/30/30 series/tradition, I asked four poets (and previous participants) to guest-curate a week of entries, highlighting folks from their communities and the poets who’ve influenced their work.

I’m happy to introduce Janice Sapigao, Johnny Damm, Phillip Ammonds, and Stephen Ross, who have done an amazing job gathering people for this years series! We’re so excited to share this new crop of tributes with you. Hear more from our four guest editors in the introduction to this year’s series.

Hungry for more? there’s 150 previous entries from past years here! You should also check out Janice’s piece on Nayyirah Waheed, Johnny’s piece on Raymond Roussel, Phillip’s piece on Essex Hemphill, and Stephen’s piece on Ronald Johnson’s Ark, while you’re at it.

This is a peer-to-peer system of collective inspiration! No matriculation required.
Enjoy, and share widely.

– Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Managing Editor/Series Curator

LESLIE PATRON ON LISA DONOVAN

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Maybe sometimes we must accept that a story, a history’s only record, is one marked by what voids.” 

When I first met Lisa Donovan 9 years ago, we voiced straight up we were opposites. We were part of the same tiny writing workshop, and admitting our differences was a relief to us. We didn’t have to struggle to get each other’s work; we could just be allies. One thing that joined us was a shared insistence that we were not confessional poets. While I noodled with fairytales and anagrams, Lisa overlaid images of Agnes Martin paintings with poems she typed onto vellum. It has been 7 years since I’ve seen Lisa, and our contact in those years has been warm but spare. And yet, our work has come into strange harmony. And while I wouldn’t say either of us is channeling Anne Sexton, we are both now “engaging the personal” as a workshop instructor might say.

Recently, while struggling through a lyric essay about the history of floods in my hometown, I found myself savoring one book in particular: Lisa’s astounding Red of Split Water: a burial rite. Gorgeously rendered, it is a watery book—made up of rivers and dampness and creeks that resurface—with a pull I’d describe as strong currents. Lisa deftly examines the burdens of memory, lineage, and trauma from all angles. Let us imagine what is under dust, the dirt the dead and what’s witnessed, she writes. And later: Do you know what blood may haunt you? It is a question so resonant I’d tattoo it on my skin. She invites us, her readers, to witness her witnessing. Watch me, she writes, like a taunt.

In my own fledgling essay, I was attempting to unearth, through research and imagination, how a 1911 flood might have affected the family of my grandmother, who was then in amniotic fluid in utero. I was also researching a time when 5 cousins drowned in a boating accident, a wound passed down through my ancestry. My grandmother and her siblings are long gone now, and I felt stumped by the limits of what I could not say for sure of their lives. Why not turn to Lisa, my supposed stylistic opposite, for inspiration? In the notes section at the back of the book, Lisa reveals what records became inaccessible to her: archives of field notes regarding the Chumash peoples, court reports, therapist’s notes, pictures, and memories of family members. Despite this, her narrative persists. She writes: Maybe sometimes we must accept that a story, a history’s only record is one marked by what voids. Just like that, Lisa named the exact words I needed to hear.

I found myself in awe of the elegant way that Lisa, in engaging past memories, holds space on the page for the blanks and disruptions.

I found myself in awe of the elegant way that Lisa, in engaging past memories, holds space on the page for the blanks and disruptions. Brackets like so [    ] replace missing words, and periods cut fragments at and. Epistolary poems reach into the past, but leave out the recipient’s name and also the name of the letter writer. Such omissions turn limits into sources of intrigue. When the speaker reveals I can’t tell you what happened, I wonder what’s holding her back. Rather than obscuring the buried, unsaid, or unknowable details, she calls them right out.

It also spellbinds me how the speaker of Lisa’s book makes plain that she is molding a narrative.  I’m casting the body of mourning, turning it into unsightly forms, she says. The verb to cast has many meanings, I reflect. Among them: to shape and to discard. These definitions cross my mind again when I read I’ve left you in the image of a barn, door half open. Out of this casting, comes empowerment, the ability to curate a scene and then split.

Red of Split Water is a book-length meditation on an event that occurred when Lisa was just 5 years old. We drift through the story in fragments like we’re touring the speaker’s real mindscape. Chronology and time remain mysteries. At the very end, Lisa encloses a more straightforward narrative of the event she’s engaging, a fascinating choice that reminds me of albums with liner notes.

Lisa’s book came to me when my prose needed an awaking, and her singular style inspired me to try out new things. I find myself recommending her book to everyone I meet.

An excerpt:

I’m not opposing minds, but I wonder at the splitting. From what past is the [    ], and what future is she waiting? If she is the river, then who is the river rushing after? Is this an after-event and if so what is the task of writing? I’m awaiting the task. I’m wishing for the river. Please be still, concrete. I’m writing this without want, with my back against a wall, my neck aching. My hands create the motions while my wrists fold at the corners. I’ve got two bodies for comfort and company. In comfort I ask for release. In comfort I drown. My mouth is open. My eyes dried. I turn from the light and say I tried, now didn’t I?

LESLIE PATRON lives and writes in San Jose, California, where she founded the place-based journal Cheers from the Wasteland. Her writing has appeared in littletell, Entropy, Weird Sister, Harp & Altar, La Petite Zine, and others. She recently self-published a book-length lyric essay called MOBS: A History of St. James Park. She is the Social Media Editor for 1913 Press and is an active member of the San Jose zine community.

Want more? Go back to Day 1 : Michelle Lin on Chen Chen or onward to Day 3 : Rachelle Cruz on Dionne Brand

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