Manoleria by Daniel Khalastchi
Tupelo Press, 2011
(21)And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.
(22) Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary:
(23) And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness.
-1 Corinthians 21-23
In the poetic consciousness of Manoleria, the first book of poems by Daniel Khalastchi, there is no way for us, as human beings, to separate our own emotional well being from the tragedies, terrors, and corporeal miracles of the community we are a part of, whether that community is right outside our door, or in the televised distance. This is where, to me, the above excerpts from 1 Corinthians fit with Khalastchi’s poems. Our personal decisions, despite what political discourse, or American values may try to teach us, inherently affect the communities we are a part of. Again and again in Manoleria, we encounter personal agonies made public, emotional agonies made physical; the speaker resigned to a punishment meted out by a community, often as seemingly routine entertainment:
the blade pick up speed. I
calculate how long I’ll have
to reach between cycles. There
is a heckler behind me loudly
singing Little Woman
from Tokyo. After I am fixed
with a blindfold, he quiets
down like everyone else. The children
holding sparklers are asked
to stand back.
-from Deficit Ante:
explain my body has
hemorrhaged; I spill and leak
fluids of dark reds and taupes,
and my back has been nested
by hills of black ants. There
is laughter, and hitting, and
removal of clothes. I lie in
the shade of a beached
clipper ship. The women
form lines. A man in a hat
distracts all their children.
-from Actual Draw Weight
My left wrist is tied to a
bumper. My right, to a horse
drinking water. The car and
the animal face opposite
directions. There are two
women with flags raised high
into the night…
we start to pull away, even I
There are often no consequences as deep-seated and as painful, as the emotional violences we cast upon ourselves out of regret and guilt of our own actions, and it is this disquieting self-participation and social impotence, along with the physical manifestations of emotional violence, that are so affecting to me as a reader of Khalastchi’s poems. The speakers in Manoleria are always, in one way or another, active participants, in their own punishing spectacle, just as we are active participants in the political and communal discourse of our city, our state, our country, our world, whether we want to be or not. The fact that we are all parts of this same body means that our actions intrinsically impact those around us, and if the speakers are not punishing themselves directly(“A Series of Movements:”), or are not finding manifestations of their emotional state wrought upon their own flesh(“What’s Done:”), they never struggle, never argue, never beg for mercy. The speakers seem resigned to a fate they feel they deserve.
Throughout my time with Manoleria, I found myself constantly asking the same two questions: 1) Why are these speakers being punished, or punishing themselves? and 2) Why do they let themselves be punished so easily? And, while re-reading the book again, I find my favorite answer in both the form and content of Manoleria’s first poem “The Maturation of Man:”
Because stretch, because reach, because weak
the growth spreads like sick sheets on a line. Because
quiet. Because broken down. Because phone
calls, mothers, because children scream
softly they still want to touch me. Because
sirens. Because cameras and tanks.
Though the more traditionally “narrative” poems that make up the bulk of the collection continue to discuss personal pain made public/political, and anxiety and fear commodified into community event, our first encounter with Manoleria is a poem not so much full of violence toward the physical body as violence done to the body of the poem itself; rips and tears in narrative, pinprick punctuation seizing up, redacted divides in conversation.
The language, an eloquently steady warning-march of a beat and the looping “Because…” clearing us a path to the idea that our human world marches forward technologically, politically, economically, emotionally, militarily, and there are inevitable consequences to those actions that we may not think about, may not imagine, may choose to ignore, or perhaps are just unable to understand until they have become corporeal in front of our very (live or televised) eyes. We are biologically expert at getting caught up in events larger than ourselves, but we are still all accountable, all complicit, and all must decide for ourselves what being a part of a larger community means to us and how to actualize this idea. The inherent anxieties and frustrations of this self-reflection, its moments of extreme loneliness and sadness, its feelings of inconsequence and impotence, are, as Khalastchi reminds us toward the end of Manoleria, one with the powerful, individual stake we each have in each other:
I am leaving. Soon. Because here
in my building the hallways are feral. Because
deep the incision we fall back the night.
-from “With Regret, They Make Moves to Sell My Kidney:”
And despite the achings and thrashings, despite the self-laceration, despite the torturous spectacles that inhabit Manoleria, these poems know that very real, very positive changes can be generated by each of us, even if it is just within our families, our own bodies, and that those changes too effect the body politic surrounding us. Khalastchi has written a book at once blood-boiling and fever-breaking, at once self-lacerating and community-minded. It is not we that are falling back—despite the wounds we’ve suffered, despite the leaving soon—it is the night that is retreating from our approach.