[ The story survived upstream of me]
Jerika Marchan scatters words like driftwood. Her images float like household goods carried away in a flood. SWOLE is aware of its own interest in water: the book opens with a river, floats the reader through pages of disaster and struggle, and then pumps the water out, emptying its pages and leaving the reader to clean out their basement again.
ALL OVER haze
what I saw
Is SWOLE a single poem or a collection? A coherent book exploring a single theme, or an experimental attempt at dislocation and sensory overload? The answer is: yes. At times, SWOLE is inaccessible, even illegible. Reading between the lines is more rewarding, and reveals a kind of logic or sense behind Marchan’s disjointed composition-by-field: to get across its feeling, its meaning, its unique kind of literary prowess, SWOLE needs to jolt its readers out of a strictly literary headspace. If anything, Marchan’s work tries to meld the written word with oral tradition, an urgent task in the face of the disasters (environmental and personal) that SWOLE presents. Writing preserves a kind of memory, while the songs, bars, and snatches of dialogue that she captures demonstrate an organic communal response to disaster. As the early years of the Anthropocene give way to the continuous, river-like flow of disaster and communal collapse, Marchan charges readers with the urgent task of understanding and preserving the everyday lives of those who might have no other advocate.
Repetition is Marchan’s favorite sonic device. Her pages often beat on a single phrase spelled dozens of different ways, morphed, and transposed—an effect that instills the book with a sense of weariness and dread. The disasters are doomed to repeat; saying a phrase contains all meanings and possibilities at once, but writing destroys them by choosing one, and thus needs a whole page to transcribe the same range of meaning (in some respects, trapping the reader). To the extent that SWOLE has discernible characters, they convey this same sense of weary repetition as they try to get on with their lives. [ Tired Ghosts] is one of the last major passages in the book, and CRANK is always SEZing across the page, without ever really changing the basic situation of the people involved. They evacuate, spend a sad month in a hotel, and return home to do it again.
JESUS JESUS JESUS
y’all pushpin heart don’t burn
as good as you think
SWOLE reads like a diary. Some pages are nearly blank, like a notebook hastily scrawled by somebody writing to themselves, collecting fragments—a commonplace book for the Instagram age. Its physical presence, as a slim volume with an Arial title, a beautiful matte cover (replete with colorful, glitched-out design), says nearly as much as its words can. Its fragments scan, at times, like Insta-poems. Rather than presenting them as discrete units, the gestalt nature of the book forces the reader to reflect on the presence of these poems not just as individual lines, but as a medium in itself.
YIELD UR POLITIX
UP TO MEME
Those readers who can find their way through SWOLE—and not all will—may be delighted to discover that it is from the American South, about the South, but escapes the tradition of the Southern Gothic, of necessarily being “Southern” writing at all. Frankly, this book is difficult, defies tradition, defies reading out loud, and at times doesn’t make literary or linguistic sense. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether it is worth the challenge and what place this sort of book will have in their personal canon. SWOLE is intensely personal, even as it reaches towards community, communication, and a new tradition. Its greatest achievement probably has yet to be seen, and at the very least succeeds when it inspires the all-important question: what comes next?
Brett Belcastro is a writer and community organizer living in Western Massachusetts. His writing has appeared in Cobalt, AMRI, and the Platform Review.