Sundress Reads: Review of Corner Shrine

Chloe Martinez’s chapbook Corner Shrine (Backbone Press, 2020) is a poetry collection that plots a vibrant historical timeline, inviting readers to embark on a journey across South Asia while focusing on the ephemerality of life. As the winner of the 2020 Backbone Press Chapbook Contest, Corner Shrine evokes existential questions, challenging grandiose perceptions of human civilizations by drawing upon imagery of ancient shrines and nature’s transience. At its heart, Martinez’s collection acts as a dialogue between tourists and the places they travel to as she complicates modern conceptions of spatial history.

This collection of poems finds its strength by fabricating a tangible world marked by Kabul’s gardens, monkey-filled train stations, and the sounds of India’s fishermen toiling away as tourists rest on balconies overhead. Martinez touches on unspoken aspects of tourism against beautiful portraits of South Asian realism. Through an intrinsic link between this foreign place and its history, an overarching narrative drives Corner Shrine by plotting the tourist’s development from self-interested to self-aware. By the end of the collection, the tourist contextualizes their place in history. In the first poem, the narrator addresses the reader as a tourist who takes a photo—”Not a story. Not an image. It is a map. At the end of the hallway, / a balcony” (“The Mirror Room, Mehranagarh Fort”). The image of the balcony reoccurs throughout the collection, referring to biases tourists often hold when they visit a country for the first time. Moreover, through class privilege, the tourist is physically “above” India’s fishermen and working class.

The narrator goes on, “[the] Mirror Palace… it wants an audience. / Here you are, alone with your ten thousand selves” (“The Mirror Room, Mehranagarh Fort”). The mirror, like the image of Sheeh Mahal, is a map that will lead the tourist to self-realization. In fact, Martinez exposes a paradox in her collection: the tourist, too, is a spectacle. When the tourist is alone and standing against the historical backdrop of the places they visit, they must face all the parts of themselves, including their biases and class privilege. In the collection’s first section, the tourist is not just an unreachable spectator, which is an idea that Martinez plays with in “Learning Experience.” Here, the narrator retells the moment she first interacts with the Indian landscape—she falls from a train, which is perhaps a nod to the collection’s second section, appropriately titled “Disorientation,” and represents the tourist’s journey to self-awareness.

 Although each poem stands alone, the collection is divided into three sections. The first section, “Ten Thousand Selves,” humanizes the founders of ancient empires by reimagining the creation of architectural marvels. Here, Martinez weaves together poems from the imagined perspective of Babur and Shah Jahan with the tourist’s perspective. In this way, the narrator both minimizes and aggrandizes the tourist’s presence by contrasting their perspective with that of royalty. In “Babur at Agra,” the narrator imagines that he “walked the fragrant pathways, / thinking of where he slept in the open air.” Similarly, the narrator describes that the reader “[arrives] at night. The road snakes up the mountain / to cool air” (“Reaching Hills Station in Late August in Rajasthan”). Martinez masterfully shifts the sentence subjects to complicate power dynamics between the tourist and their landscape. In the previously stated line, the narrator grants Babur agency as the subject. However, the road—i.e., a part of the South Asian landscape—becomes the subject when the narrator tells of the tourist’s arrival. This shift suggests that, although the tourist previously possessed a sense of hubris, a country’s natural history always acts with agency, preceding the present.   

The second section, “Disorientation,” engages with the Indian landscape more intimately, reflecting the beginning of deep cultural recognition. She writes, “It’s Diwali… / …the strange light makes / bicycles, poster-gods and me look ethereal and cheap” (“Diwali”). Here, Martinez makes an interesting link between the bicycle, perhaps a symbol of modernist progression, false poster-idols, and the tourists themselves—compared to the elegant tradition of Diwali, these objects lose their value. Similarly, in “Eight Past Lives, As I Recall Them,” we see a radical shift toward transcendentalism. The tourist finally contextualizes, not only themselves, but the many who comprise the South Asian landscape, into its grand history. This section romanticizes the labour of the many by making them subjects of poems: the thief, the killer, and the painter, to name a few. The narrator compares themselves to the woman in Rilke’s Die Gazelle, who “stood in a lake, naked. Her face / gewendeten: turned back to look at you” (“The Poem”). Naked, stripped of material security, the tourist finally sees themselves belonging to the landscape.

Chloe Martinez’s Corner Shrine paints a vibrant picture of South Asia’s most historic sites, nestling travelogue-style poems between reminscences of its colourful landscape. A poignant analysis of the tourism industry informs her command of language and imagery, made up of India’s “gorgeous ruins” diffused by dynamic wordplay. Stressing the importance of belonging—that even the most minute details have a purpose—the narrator memorializes color while using homophones to add layers of meaning: “Red a ring I stole / from a gift shop in high school,” later continuing, “Red the sandstone palace, / even under whitewash. I never stole anything else” (“Palace Gate”). The narrator suggests here that once they “read” or perceive India’s beauty, they experience a radical change in values. Like the tourist’s journey from indulgence to awareness, this collection will inspire readers to reflect on their own spiritual journey. 

Corner Shrine is available at Backbone Press

Crysta Montiel is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto in Canada, where she studies English Literature and Philosophy. She previously worked as an editorial intern at Ayesha Pande Literary Agency. When Crysta’s not digging through treasure troves of queries, she’s completing her Criterion Collection bucket list and playing with her cat.

Sundress Reads: Review of The Death Spiral

How do reflections of a past humanity co-exist with the present, or grow into our future? Author and professor Sara Giragosian asks this question between the lines of her poetry collection, The Death Spiral (Black Lawrence Press, 2020). By evoking visceral convergences, repetitions, and breakdowns of organic matter, Girgosian situates America in the Anthropocene—not just as a space of mass extinction and climate change, but also as a point of political upheaval, colonialization, and cultural erasure.

Nomadically waltzing between seedpods, crosswinds, rock membranes and raptors (both extinct and living), The Death Spiral recognizes the Paleolithic and present as migratory states rather than time periods. In this malleable temporality, love and death become ingesting and ingested things that creep into us all, causing us to ask of our surroundings, “If there are cracks in the world where spirits pass through, slow this scene—let me live in the still / when you hover in mid-air to drink the honeysuckle in.” You will find this stillness at the closure of the collection, after forming a truer understanding of the fossilized and forgotten—the echoes of national mistakes Giragosian amplifies with words that rip and free.

The Death Spiral is divided into three sections, each with its own balance of urgency and upliftment. In the first section, “Emergency Procedures,” Girgosian brings awareness to the exile of the Yup’ik (the earth’s first climate refugees), the deep traces of systematic racism present in the US Law Enforcement Oath of Honor, and her great-grandmother’s story as a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. Amongst these considerations, Giragosian presents family history as a victim to colonialism, terror as a person with favorites, and God as a force as “anonymous / and intimate as a nurse who can deliver pain / or take it away.” In this open-faced recognition of cruelty and fear, Girgosian reminds us that “Nature is neither cruel nor moral, / but she’s irrepressible / as a kink in the nervous system”. The presentation of this ambivalent yet unstoppable natural force feels like the modem by which we are told to trace our truest form of history with tactile diligence, remapping the ancestral land that has been too often erased. It is a triumphant, if pained, call for justice.

The second section, “To Kingdom Come”, makes its presence known with the gentle propositional poem “Origins.” Here, the first line theorizes, “suppose we / were intimate / before the Bang / all of us / you and me / and the cosmos / cramped in at a point / finer than an atom.” The connectivity of a collective comes to the forefront, making us aware of the ways our dreams, movements, and actions pulse out a vibration we are capable of feeling with humble acuteness. Traversing dark and dirty energy to travel through towns including Terlingua Texas, Beacon New York, and the Rio Grande, Giragosian encompasses the experiences of immigrant families facing a “wild-eyed” America “rehearsing his blunt sand trap quiz.”

This presentation of a restrictive, nationalistic consciousness contrast the moments of connectivity Giragosian proposes at the beginning of this section. By doing so, Giragosian shifts between first, second, third person plural perspectives, as well as the anonymity of a character called E., in order to dare exclusionists to “private tour your way around my mind / too gaslighted by Sparkle the Racist, Boo Boo the Homophobe, and Frisky the Sexist / to be any good to you now.” The multiplicity of perspectives allows readers to hold an orbital view of American discrimination at the same time that Giragosian asserts connectivity as a source of understanding and love. Ultimately it is the hopeful message of connection that makes headway through the title poem, “The Death Spiral”. Here, Giragosian evokes the courtship ritual of eagles to propose, “Suppose that to marry is to defy death / talon to talon, / to promise to learn together the art / of freefalling as mutual deference.” The feeling of interlocking talons—another instance of deep connection—is not just a plummeting force in this poem, but a mutual respect with the power to fall upwards. By spotlighting this action, Giragosian suggests a similar move for our communities—an activism which freefalls with mutual deference.

Thus, in the final section, “Father Absence,” The Death Spiral  takes a step past connectivity to ingestion—embrace. Here, Giragosian writes of a sort of decomposition in which nature fits into humanity, and vice versa. She writes to a T-Rex stillborn to say, “And when your ghost squirms / in my spleen, I know the foreboding’s inbred.” Backcountry situates in a human “I” narrator with gill slits, bat bones resembling a grandmother’s hand, and memories are either from a former life as a Galapagos Marine Iguana, or as the detritus of organic matter. What Giragosian accomplishes in her final section, and throughout The Death Spiral as a whole, is a sensation that our history, pain, deaths, memories, and mistakes are all shared, traceable, organic matter. In writing The Death Spiral, Sara Giragosian illustrates the past that we, as a community, must recognize as traceable, breathing, and still waiting for honest representation.

The Death Spiral is available at Black Lawrence Press

Hannah Olsson holds a double BA in Cinema and Creative Writing English from the University of Iowa. During her time in Iowa, Hannah was the president of The Translate Iowa Project and its publication boundless, a magazine devoted to publishing translated poetry, drama, and prose. Her work, both in English and Swedish, has been featured in boundless, earthwords magazine, InkLit Mag, and the University of Iowa’s Ten-Minute Play Festival.