Tuesday, December 20, 2011



ALIENS: AN ISLAND by Uljana Wolf, Trans. from the German by Monika Zobel
(Belladonna Chaplet #140, Brooklyn, 2011)

I don't know German and so can't comment on the translation aspect. Having said that, I absolutely LOVE the premise of Uljana Wolf's ALIENS: AN ISLAND, another wonderful chaplet from the wonderful Belladonna Series.

I've read a gazillion (so to speak) immigration-related poems, but Wolf's ALIENS make the premise fresh! The epigraph introduces the basis of Wolf's project:
...on Ellis Island, fate also appeared in the guise of an alphabet. Public Health officers gave arrivals a rapid examination. On the shoulders of doubtful cases, they chalked a letter indicating the nature of the suspected disorder.
--Ellis Island / Georges Perec and Robert Bober

The referenced "alphabet" was a list of one or two letters that referenced certain health conditions, for example
G             conjunctivities

CT             trachoma

SC             scalp (fungus)

S             senility

Wolf created prose poems keyed off each of the 17 elements, and from such offers a moving portrait of the Ellis Island experience. For instance
X             suspected mental defect

x marks the spot? you bet. we are convicted by simply being present, at the drop of a hat, at the top of steep steps, in six seconds everything's revealed: we are the spot itself. rotten islands. wrapped in rags, sick sea in the body, imbecile, unstable, at best left to twist in the wind. a fluttering ticket stuck between our teeth, name, passage, the treasure map. we are the treasure, we dug ourselves out. inside the luggage room: "one glance at the bundles and i know it all. the knots reveal who tied them, their trembling hands."

Here's another resonant example:
SC             scalp (fungus)

"take your wig off." after thirteen years of experience, nothing appears alien to him, hairdos don't, towels, towers. in the light of the entrance hall, on the scalp of the frozen lady--he sees honey combs, yellow and crusted. "therefore the name: favus." his younger colleagues step forward--their name on the other hand is "watchdogs of the golden door." they point at the knob, wave her away: "sorry lady, contagious skin disorder." now only the glow of her fungus comes close to the golden door.

Wolf's project is effective for showing the results of her research (I don't think she just imagined what ended up in her poems) that make us empathize with those who traveled through Ellis Island, even as her poems also make us pause to reconsider the (larger) implications of various phrases, such as, from "K             hernia":
what needs to be concealed. ... first a victim of pogroms, now of anatomy onboard. ..."i believe a doctor can find any disease he's looking for."


Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects as she's its editor, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere to reviews of her books. Her newest book SILK EGG: Collected Novels is reviewed by Zvi A. Sesling in Boston Area Poetry Scene; by Michael Leong in Big Other; by Alan Baker in Litter; and by rob mclennan. Stephen Hong Sohn also reviews SILK EGG along with two other books, NOTA BENE EISWEIN and FOOTNOTES TO ALGEBRA: Uncollected Poems 1995-2009 at Asian American Lit Fans.

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