I have always appreciated the ability for small poetry presses to publish innovative, socially conscious lyrical projects. Sheela Sitaram Free’s Fractured Clocks, Bones, and Windshields is evidence and exemplary of the quite dynamic works appearing out of Plain View Press (also the publisher of other Asian American literary works including Cecilia Manguerra Brainard’s Magdalena and Pramila Venkateswaran’s Behind dark Waters). For me, the collection has three main movements; in the first, we are given a very specific Western regional frame, that of Southern California. The midpoint concentrates on death and mourning, where the loss of a daughter and a father’s death in a car accident (the titular windshields) surface as ordering rubrics. The final and major poetic sequence brings us to the recent terrorist attacks that occurred in Mumbai. It is clear that from reading the collection that there is a strong performative quality to the work, as the cadences emerge when certain poems are read aloud. Indeed, the capitalization of particular sections serves to ground the reader that there is emphasis to be made at certain moments, increasing impact to a listening audience. As a reader, I was struck obviously by the initial sections that start in what is called California’s Inland Empire. Anyone whose driven through this area knows that it is an interesting space of “edge” suburbs, and probably the one of the first places to have suffered from the housing bubble that occurred with the onset of the global economic crisis. Free captures the quite precarious nature of living in this area in “I Burn You Burn We All Burn Together,” where the lyric speaker intones:
“In California, who knows –
Our lungs gone to hell in a hand basket of a man-made rage against the innocent skies—
Big #’s, big dreams, big hopes, for life again
here, for 729,000 acres gone in a burn, 2600 homes gone in a burn,
20 dead and still counting, across San Bernadino, San Diego, Fontana, Santa Clarita, Claremont, Simi Valley” (15).
The places she does specifically name are all inland areas of Southern California that butt up, for the most part against mountain ranges and so, for anyone whose lived in the area, the summer after a wet season, it’s brushfire territory. The phrase that seems most pertinent in this excerpt to me is “big dreams, big hopes, for life again” as these outlying areas consistently get targeted for these fires and yet people remain rebuilding their homes and others continue to move out to these areas in hopes of better deals and better financial investments.
As Of Fractured Clocks, Bones and Windshield’s moves into its middle arc, the readers are pushed into the devastating framework of loss and melancholy. We are prepared for such a shift by two poems in particular, “Prozac One” and “Vicadin Bitch,” where there is a sense immediately of pain and emotional relief that comes with tragedy. In “In the End Zone,” the lyric speaker directly confronts one loss:
“Wailing from deep within my womb
in fits and starts
you tear through your placental memory
into your new reality
in your end zone.
Rasping breath from deep within your faltering lungs,
in fits and starts,
you clutch onto your cranial memory
with blue extremities
in the end zone.
All of this, caught on tape
book-ending your brief life
for this maternal, wallet-memory
which, for five years after you flickered out,
livens each minute, each day, each year,
into my end zone” (51).
The repetition of “end zone” serves as an interesting linking device, where forms of termination are all queried. In the first, the physical death of the child is explored, the literal termination of her life. In the second, the “blue extremities/in the end zone” suggests more particularly the place of the child’s body being pushed to the limits of exhaustion. The final stanza therefore brings the notion of the “end zone” to the psychic space of mourning and loss, where the speaker finds herself haunted by the daughter’s passing. This general mid-section contains a number of poems meditating upon this loss, including “Please Don’t Sleep” and “You Stole My Daughter’s Funeral.” The shift to the loss of the father appears in a set of poems in which we get a sense of the lyric speaker’s father dies tragically in a car accident. This moment seems to be the one referenced in the collection’s title. I excerpt a portion from “So Many laps to Go”:
You went, clutching your bleeding heart
before I remember laying my head in your lap,
on the grassy knoll, after the drunk ngo rammed
our spanking new car at the crossroads –
still dangerous after 44 years
Daddy, you died after trying to save Saigon
from itself (67).
What is interesting here is that it seems that the father has traveled to Vietnam to complete humanitarian work (as an army physician), which ironically becomes his physical undoing. This loss is the next that echoes throughout the collection and through a number of poems, as the lyric speaker in “Kaboom,” laments “He went in a flash/ his watch survived forever./ Ten years later, no court material in hell/ fixes that./ As sure as hell/ the sky went opaque on us./ Drink and drive, you know the nuts off someone./ There is NO responsible drinking BUD” (66). The lyric speaker’s mother also suffer catastrophic injuries, so this crash becomes an ordering moment that echoes across time and space, the very “fractured clocks” of the collection’s title.
The collection concludes with “My Mumbai oh My Mumbai,” a narratively inflected lyric sequence that explores the terrorist attacks that occurred in late November 2008. I end this review then with some of the powerful words contained in that piece, part of Free’s specific anti-war politic:
No one knows—
who/why/when, the 24/7 news cycle spits out, over and over,
as an inarticulate, distraught, local man wrests the microphone
from the frustrated CNN Sarah Sider.
Here, real at last, in all our faced but only for a second:
“Let us speak, let us speak, so the whole world knows.”
This hydra-headed virus now connects us all in one simple,
tragic, bloody, brotherhood (125).
The strength of Free’s poetry is in its “g/local” approach. That is, not only does it move across domestic US terrains, but travels to various areas of the world including Vietnam and India, reminding us of the unique milieu in which we leave, where technologies arguably provide ways to collapse time and space at unprecedented speeds. The collection leaves us at this incredible and rich juncture, where collision inasmuch as it portends loss also grants us a wider perspective to negotiate this “brave new world.” These various geographies continue to query the boundaries and boundedness of “Asian American literature,” reminding us of the importance of transnational migration and global conflict to the creations of textual and lyrical terrains.
For more on the performative nature of Free’s poetry, please see this link:
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