Review by Zein Sa’dedin
You would be hard-pressed to find someone who does not have a song that triggers a particular memory, a song that immediately takes them back to a specific time and place, a song that transports them into the visceral corners of memory. In Our Earliest Tattoos (University of Arkansas Press, 2018) by Peter Twal, LCD Soundsystem’s ‘All My Friends’ does just that, but amplified.
The winner of the 2018 Etel Adnan Prize, Twal’s debut collection navigates a world in which the past is just as alive and violent as the present and the future. His poems negotiate memory and the after-effects of trauma and technology in all their fragmented glory.
Each of the song’s lyrics become poem titles, expanded and transformed into a world of their own. Within each lyric, Twal creates a tightly constructed world for its speakers to roam and thrive. With an ear to musicality, Twal’s collection has its finger firmly on the pulse of this decade’s cognitive dissonance, as the collection examines our constant nostalgia for the past and our obsessions with futuristic technology.
In their editors’ preface, Fady Joudah and Hayan Charara write that ‘Twal’s sonnet is his operating system […], his echo.’ Though not every poem in this collection is a sonnet in purest form, Twal repurposes the fourteen line structure to his own advantage. The poems’ use and intentional misuse of the form feel entirely Twal’s own.
Twal manages to solidify his poetics as uniquely imaginative and infinitely generous in scope, his lines expanding and contracting how ‘The Mars Rover zooms into the mirror, tightlensed / yelling Action, yelling Action.’ Each poem is steeped in a seemingly sentient nostalgia, rooted in remembered details that are balanced only by Twal’s intuitive sense of wonder and his vast imagination.
It can be tempting to read Twal’s work in search of linear narrative and logic. The strength of his characterisations as well as the sonnet sequence tradition can lead the reader to approach the collection assuming some sort of continuity. Twal, however, ensures that the poems exist just barely outside the realm of lucidity. The poems border sense but refuse its totality. To reach any level of emotional or tonal comprehension, the reader must surrender themselves to the wonder of language – allowing the fragmentations to guide and confuse on equal terms. The poems, if anything, demand a renunciation of authority.
In ‘Made a Fool on the Road’, Twal’s speaker announces:
I eat the book
feeling by feeling the piecewise way we forget
people cutting them up, hiding the memories in our freezer.
Indeed, reading this collection ‘feeling by feeling’ is arguably the best way to approach its non-linearity, its gaps, and its bleeding wounds. It allows the poems to expand and contract on their own terms. The resistance to a logical narrative cohesion becomes central to the collection’s exploration of memory, ‘the piecewise way we forget / people.’
Instead, emotion becomes the poems’ driving force. At the very heart of Twal’s poetics is, in fact, ‘this zipperless heart // forever binge-breathing’ and generous. Like the phantom limbs lingering throughout the book, the absence of sensation becomes the sensation of absence. Each phantom limb, each memory remembered, is then given a life of its own.
In ‘Years Trying to Get with the Plan & the Next Five Years’ the damage that memory can enact upon the body is made explicit:
Just like you, my reanimated corpse, violence of memory, the Frankenstein
come to kill me.
Twal’s poems renegotiate the body’s relationship to memory. Not only does the body remember, but memory then re-bodies the body. Memory necessarily reconstructs the body, which then enacts irreversible violence. In a possible attempt to heal, the body in Twal’s collection often merges with technology as the natural turns bionic and vice versa. In ‘Where Are Your Friends Tonight’:
removes shards of you from my skin like splinters, sews my face back onto my face
& asks if my arm was always a camera.
In ‘Except in Parts’:
You drew an X across
the square of my chest, said hold still, I’m trying to dig
my wayout of this CGI shell.
Like a ‘montage sequence’ we are shown episodes of fractured and remembered dialogue – momentary expositions in which the characters and images seem to enter and leave at will. As readers, we are shown glimpses. Though the poems constantly look upwards into the sky, inwards into the body, and backwards into the past, they remain remarkably grounded. Their images repeat, each poem containing them in new ways throughout the collection.
Each repetition becomes a site of remembering (both as recollection and also as re-membering). The poems reflect upon their own language, each image and phrase evolving with its recurrence as the language begins to pile upon itself simultaneously giving and altering meaning each time.
Death, the Mars Rover, and God become part of the collection’s ‘personified universe / that pile of phantom limbs’ in which ideas of memory, sentience, and personhood are renegotiated. In one poem, ‘Death deals with dandruff same as us & sheds / skin in the shower, too.’ In another, Death / trades in his scythe for a cell phone.’ The Mars Rover ‘phones home’ at one point after ‘spending a half-life / thumbing through pictures on its phone’ in an earlier poem.
Twal ends his collection with a return to tenderness. His final poem, ‘You Always Knew You were Tired’ reads:
If I have to relearn my body I will
with a mother’s amazement clapping together her baby’s feet
If with a mother’s amazement clapping together her baby’s feet
I relearn my body—
Each stanza exists as an altered reflection of the other, enacting many of the collection’s concerns formally. Though there is usually pressure on a writer to end their collection with a bang, Twal chooses to end on a promise of self-care, a re-orientation of the body towards self-affection. The speaker acknowledges both the foreignness of their body as well as their distance from it. However, the speaker pledges to be both patient and kind with their newfound body in ways that echo Twal’s poetic generosity.
As the collection explores acts of violence made visceral through memory or trauma, though it does with skill and tenderness, to end on an overwhelmingly and explicitly kind note becomes significant. Having explored repetition, remembrance, reconstruction, Twal insists on ending with the promise of recovery.
Peter Twal’s debut collection is attuned to the desires of its language, to the minutiae of selfhood, manifesting in ways that inevitably urge its readers towards kindness. Twal writes with an intelligence and skill level that remains awe-inspiring. The world in which these poems wander is well-crafted, fascinating, and deeply personal. However, what remains most memorable to me is their generosity. The poems give us their deepest fears, their desires, their heart, and ask us only to be gentle – both with them and with ourselves.
Zein Sa’dedin is a Jordanian poet currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Her poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Muzzle Magazine, Winter Tangerine, Sukoon Magazine, Breakwater Review, and others.