Spiders, Neon Lights, and Poems to Keep You Up at Night
The stage setting for literary journals changes according to the mood of the play. Some present themselves as a candlelit meal in large tapestry laden dining halls. Others are grand tours in mossy lands. The Bitter Oleander trades in grand sumptuousness in favor of dark happenings that can be found at a glimpse in mysterious rooms. It's a shady motel with a fancy view. Skeletons dance the Charleston and rattle their bones. Spiders wear bellhop hats and eagerly carry your luggage while love or murder goes on in the next room.
Peering through these surreal images seems like a recipe for disturbed sleep, but it's a terrible beauty. It's a fiddle played over a fire, a mourning wail. It's mud on secret treasures. Much of the poetry can appear almost unseemly, but it has the allure of fresh catacombs. Despite your trembling, your curiosity begs you to venture in.
Established in Fayetteville, New York, in 1974 , The Bitter Oleander has devoted itself to featuring the work of poets of all stripes as long as the voice offers fresh perspective, even when that perspective is from the corner of an alleyway. The majority of the work is presented as short vignettes, with the various poems and stories acting as the strange and colorful inhabitants of this haunted hotel. Walking the halls of the Spring edition (Volume 18, No. 1), makes voyeurs of us all as we peer into private rooms with broken locks.
Anthony Seidman presents several prose poems that offer an exhibitionist look into a five o'clock shadow day that includes a visceral description of waking up ("Sitting on the edge of my bed, my soles throb, dreading the weight of this hulking frame that will lumber to the toilet in order to urinate a liquid no longer belonging to a bladder ensconced in entrails...."), the leering neon light mourning of a now defunct massage parlor ("I'd put my palm against the wall, and the Massage Palace throbbed, happy ghost-groans in a heat the magenta of igneous rocks and smoke like the surface of Venus."), and the humbling comparison between venomous spiders and the common North American house man.
One of the journal's strengths is the sizable number of translated work included in the issue, valuable contributions that are often missing from many American literary anthologies. Georgian poet Maya Sarishvili's "Look At Me" is a Grimm fairy tale perspective of a miserably pregnant pig. The imagery is disturbing not because it is gruesome, but because it renders so much pity for the incapacitated animal. In a similar vein, Chinese poet Yi Lu paints a beautiful portrait in the forlorn "Thinking Of Your Birth," comparing the setting of the sun to the memory of a red streaked newborn. Memory plays a hand in Yi's "One's Own Sea," which revolves around the conundrum of trying to keep a memory so perfectly preserved that it may be carried around like a souvenir. The lines, "But I came from somewhere else / having sat on a bus for hours / and I need to take the sea back with me," are so relatable, you can't help but feel amused when the third stanza reports, "is now beside my brain / beside the city-bound bus / beside my desk / my bed / like a large wok of boiling water."
The Spring 2012 issue features Estonian writer Kristiina Ehin. It's like having a cup of coffee with an amazing new acquaintance, though Ehin has multiple credits to her name. The interview spans her upbringing and the culture of Estonia, as well as how it informs her work. Much of it is inspired by a native song form called Regilaul, also known as Runo song, tunes that convey self-contained poems and stories, even going so far as to recite her poetry while being accompanied by a singer. Her work is steeped in mythology and dark folk-tales. Her short story "Patterns" is an amazing and dark piece about a woman who has the uncontrollable tendency to bite the arms off of each of her husbands, who all happen to be named Jaan. "Cushions" is a surreal case study on what happens when the only thing that two people love more than one another is the sound of their own voices. As Ehin puts it: "It was a particular kind of deafness—we were able to distinguish all the other sounds in the world, but we were totally deaf to each other's voice." Their agreed upon solution is to shove massive pillows in each other's mouths, an action fueled, not by fury, but by love. It results in a fairy tale ending that is so abrupt and dreamlike that it scratches in the back of your mind like a disturbing insect. The work of Kristiina Ehin is unsettling, yet the dark beauty strewn throughout ensures that the literary world will make way for such an intriguing artist.
The Bitter Oleander has its roots in tradition with branches streaming up towards the experimental light. It lives up to its name; the Oleander shrub after which the journal is named is poisonous and can be fatal when ingested, yet certain sects of people have been known to utilize it as a cure. So it is with literature that reaches outside of comfortable norms. The same sentences that can leave your belly cramped can often relieve you of other, more serious sources of pain, even if it means bringing hints of nightmares to the light of day. While some wordsmiths seek inspiration from rolling hills and gentle flowers, others find it from furtive looks in neighbor's windows or the things that may live under the bed. If you're the latter, you may very well find a comfortable space in the dusty halls of The Bitter Oleander.