The use of foreign language in this book is worth mentioning—Greenwell includes Bulgarian not just as a cheap device to evoke place (although it does lend the story much realism and authority). The words are deployed with poetic precision: such as in the rhythm of chakai, chakai, chakai (wait, wait, wait); they are used to characterize people, such as Mitko’s love for the word podaruk (gift); and to reflect the narrator’s to make sense of his world (strahoten means awesome, a word “built from a root signifying dread”). Most importantly, it is used to cut deeper into the core of the narrator’s emotional question: priyatel means both friend and lover—which one is he really to Mitko?
In one of the last visual narratives to grace the pages of Richard McGuire’s 2014 graphic novel Here, a woman in 1957 is depicted walking across a room over the course of several spreads. Her walk is juxtaposed with and transposed over fragments of other scenes from years ranging from 1620 to 2005, scenes that—through their shared space on the page—take place both throughout the prism of the past and also simultaneously in a static present. The woman walks across the room until she reaches for a book and, in the novel’s final frame, states, “…Now I remember.” Readers can only make sense of this phrase by returning to the book’s beginning, where the first line reads: “Now why did I come in here again?”
In her well-known TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie argues for the importance of a multiplicity of stories, voices, and perspectives in order to do justice to the fullest range of experience and explode reductive stereotypes of people and places. “Stories matter,” she says. “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and malign. But stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
These poems certainly elicit skepticism, but they are more than simple conceptual or design exercises. They have an oddly effective way of opening up. This is the sort of art you think you could easily make, but when you sit down to it, you make something of horribly poorer quality. Artful elimination requires a deeply tuned dedication, a kind of mental conditioning. This is how John Beer—former assistant to Lax and editor of this collection—roughly describes it in his wonderful introduction: during the writing of these poems, Lax led a spare, if not ascetic life on the Greek islands, handwriting notebooks worth of work—several poems a day—from which he would later select and typeset only the very best “worthy of preservation.”
Don Lee’s prose is not pretty, or even particularly effortless in his novel. He tends towards wordy, didactic passages and heavy-handed, eye-rolling dialogue—one racist bar customer calls Eric a “Chinese wonton” (297). His characters remain characters, never fully embodying the human beings they wish to represent, and many seem to step in only to move the plot along or provoke an epiphany from the myopic narrator. But in failing to write movingly about ethnicity and/in art, Lee has also managed to succeed.