Natalie Lyalin - A bizarre ecosystem, one in which beaver humans, boy birds, a super dolphin and a mathematic horse coexist harmoniously

Natalie Lyalin, Pink & Hot Pink Habitat (Coconut Books, 2009)

«When you pick up PINK AND HOT PINK HABITAT go directly to the table of contents, look at the titles there, you want to read the poems called by these names, then go to the first poem, being afraid is a good thing, then go to "Watch the Village," and then find the poem where it's written: we do not need a/country. We can destroy ourselves here. Somewhere in these pages Lyalin writes, "I start the time machine." Well, she does, and the heart machine and the brain machine, her poems can go anywhere, and they choose to go where it matters. These poems are gorgeous, surprising, full of necessary knowledge and feeling.» - Dara Wier

«Natalie Lyalin's poems are animated by an urgent, slightly deranged whisper. In the dead of night, when the inane games have finally ended and the "normal" kids are all asleep in their bunks, she calls over to you (Are you awake? Can you hear?). She's asking you to shake off your sleeping bag and go out into that pink and hot pink habitat to commune with the headless boy birds, the beaver humans, and the ghost of Otto Frank. I suggest you do it.» —Travis Nichols

«In Pink and Hot Pink Habitat, Natalie Lyalin makes heat. The pages and words rub at each other to make something more than fire, more like a bomb, more like a thousand bombs going off at once. This poet is more than bombmaker though. She herself is the bomb she constructs and sets off upon your reading. In these poems, Lyalin enacts the old work of Flaubert that “The artist must be in his work like God in his Creation, invisible and all-powerful, so that he is felt everywhere but not seen.” When you are done with this book, your own life is more than bombed out. It is more than a “dusty” “gem” sitting in front of you because “Your family is in flight.” You yourself are transformed into a bird rising out of the fire, a “Miniature Life of a Raven,” where Lyalin has made “stars for your teeth,” where your old ideas are nothing more than “ancient dust on velvet.” — Dorothea Lasky

«YOU STUDIED ecology in seventh grade, memorizing the biomes for your science test: the chaparral, the rainforest, the tundra. You learned about the delicate balance of life, you imagined yourself into each exotic environment from your cold, smooth desk under the fluorescent lights—but you never imagined any place quite like Natalie Lyalin’s Pink and Hot Pink Habitat.
Lyalin’s is a world you will want to inhabit. As the title suggests, the book is a bizarre ecosystem—one in which “beaver humans,” “boy birds,” a “super dolphin” and a “mathematic horse” coexist harmoniously. Lyalin’s vigorous, sparkling language is the life force pulsing through these poems, bringing into balance the wildly disparate creatures that inhabit them. Many of her poems do contain animal imagery, but there are syntactical beasts stalking these pages as well: phrases and clauses as unexpected and marvelous as the blue-tongued skink. “In the nebulous of pushpins you stand sideways.” “The leaf of you, the bend, the fire flicker for the Kazak.” “The electric gems show their horseness, / their speed ability.” In lines like these, we can start to understand what Lyalin means when she says, “language comes in prisms and I cradle it as an animal mother.” Crystalline vision is nursed by organic energy, and the result is something otherworldly yet still somehow familiar.
That flock of sheep is puzzle hearts. I wait after school for safety.
I put cotton in my ears and float to dimension x7y giga heart maggot.
The sweetness factory. Everyone is a flower and human rafts come to shore.
The sleep language is what the eyelids did to each other.
In the above excerpt from “Misarubka,” we are unsure whether to feel unsettled or comforted. The image of “wait[ing] after school for safety” evokes both an idyllic suburban childhood and the threat of violence that necessitates such precautions. There is something tender about seeing sheep as “puzzle hearts,” but “dimension x7y giga heart maggot” is about the creepiest name for a fantasy-world ever imagined. Are the “human rafts” a delightful image suggesting that we can save one another, or are they bloated, drowned corpses? Lyalin suggests that we should “break [our] arms off” and “row to shore,” which is perhaps exactly what navigating this book requires—that we repurpose ourselves, imagining new possibilities for parts of us that we thought we understood. The shore on which we find ourselves will not be listed in any ecology textbook, but it will be worth exploring.» - Erin McNellis

«Poems can be like jokes, which is another way of saying I can interpret the world with my subjectivity. Everyone knows about expectations, undermining expectations in helpful / interesting ways; I laugh when I feel something sublime, and what is sublime can also be small and fragmentary. That’s not to say that the sublime is jokey; but joke-construction feels a lot like a poetry move to me.
Lisa Jarnot has a phrase in her poem “Ode” in Ring of Fire, “The rest of the balance continuing huge,” which I take to mean that everything that happens leaves me irrevocably altered; my head is not the same, and sometimes this phenomenon seems more obvious than others. A poem is a singularity, an axis, an invisible door to a new way of living. A joke is a language maneuver; it may not be hugely significant, but it alters the way we consider certain combinations of sounds, even when it does so almost imperceptibly.
I’ve been an interested reader of Natalie’s poems for six years now. I didn’t get into this whole discussion of jokes because I think Natalie’s poems are particularly jokey. On the other hand, Natalie’s poems seem to exist on the most serious end of the possible joke continuum, providing us with beginnings and endings in which the gap between our expectation and the language provided produces a moment of real electrical charge.
Let’s look at Natalie’s poem, “Vision,” which begins, “The world was not yet discovered.” In this beginning, we have a premise, a thought experiment, a mirror that looks back at you severely. Where are you in this conception? What are you thinking about? She goes on, “It traveled in a galaxy of dinosaur bones and other fossils. / Embedded and waiting. Waiting for decades / when the skirts were different.” This is not a joke; it’s the only good joke. Look at how much time we cover and how much we have changed. Natalie concentrates the vast array of possibilities down from a little world in a galaxy to differences in skirts in the sliver of geologic time which is represented by the tiny, sublime, human lifespan, of, for instance, Mr. O, “In his light blue rental car.” I love the immenseness of the particular here, how sad and ordinary details can be. It’s not a joke; it’s the opposite of a joke, which is not unlike a joke, actually.
As the poem goes on, things get very quiet: “The world lay silent. The giant squid was silent. / The continents were silent. It was quiet as he boarded the plane for home. // It was quiet in the diamond mines, it was quiet in the coal mines.” I’m amazed by at the build-up here, the amazing creation of tension out of images and repetition, as though I am viewing photographs of these scenes in the utter silence of my weird brain. What follows all of this silence is astounding, hilarious, and sublime – a joke which expands to fill the entire space available, “The rest of the balance continuing huge.”
In Natalie Lyalin’s first full-length collection of poems, Pink and Hot Pink Habitat, poetry provides the protocol for dealing with one’s own personality.
Mostly, there is awareness. When the poem “Miniature Life of Raven” ends with the line, “He is aware of his un-mammothness,” it’s a cipher; a reader subsequently goes back and shines that sad phrase back on the history that preceded it. To be aware that one is especially unlike a mammoth is to evaluate oneself on strange terms, but these are the terms one is handed down over generations, and when it is impossible to explain that evolution clearly, in factual terms, that’s when we lean on poetry and the imagination.
Often in Lyalin’s poems, the question of how a person evaluates or situates herself in the world is quite literally a question of scale, as in “Vision,” where, “The world lay silent. The giant squid was silent. / The continents were silent. It was quiet as he boarded the plane for home.” These sentences are lucid, but the moves the mind has to make from one to the next are jarring; it’s like playing with the focus until you get it just right, but on a gigantic scale. The maps one would need to make in order to chart what happens here are impossible and impossibly wonderful to imagine.
In “Otto Frank in Macy’s” those leaps of scale turn into leaps of time:
at conception, before heartbeat, being human
Otto, flying, Otto at ten in the bathtub,
at fifteen, a head-on portrait, at twenty learning
in a tight jacket,
The way we move through time creates a rhythm that can be complicated by reality. Time works this way – ten, fifteen, twenty, etc. – in its scientific regularity, but the vignettes which make up our personal histories are far more irregularly spaced. As I follow Otto, as the poem picks up speed and the montage shifts from scene to scene more and more quickly, I get the sensation that someone else’s life is flashing before my eyes, and yet for a moment it feels like my own.
Awareness tends to lead to a restructuring of reality itself, as in “Calf’s Blood,” when Lyalin writes:
It’s as if we linked arms and closed together / all in agreement that this is no longer
our continent / and it is no longer our continent
The imagination – and, therefore, the poet – has the ability to alter experience, and that ability comes with some pitfalls. Given the chance, we don’t always create sunshine and flowers. “Me in Prison” starts, “I suffer and make things worse. Freak myself out.” And yet, that suffering gives our heads a chance to redeem themselves. There are time machines and freight trains, dioramas and continents, and always the brain, toting along the heart for good measure.
The lines
Accidentally I start the time machine. I rattle along and visit dead relatives.
Mrs. Bernstein, my symmetrical head is on that freight train.
come at the ends of poems (“Me in Prison” and “Goose Necks for the Baby Baby,” respectively), not at the beginnings. By whisking the speaker away from one reality into another, they carve out a space after the poem in which I might insert myself to consider what the implications would be were these speakers me. Rather than offering solutions to suffering, Lyalin’s poems take a more useful tack; they are the written record of a psychic leap from trouble to something else. Being aware, as usual, has the capacity to make you feel troubled, anxious, fearful, etc., but desperate times call for desperate measures, and these poems aren’t afraid to see where the brain will go when pushed.
The word, “Habitat” in the book’s title, instead of evoking shelter, provides a space for this experimentation, and so the poems tend to present us with strange situations and ask us, what now? “Two Jackals” begins:
The jackal dressed me in the storefront,
a jacket and wide belt and lace-up shoes.
To a customer nearby I mouthed, “Don’t
leave me.” The jackal’s sinister intentions,
she did not want me to speak.
The poem goes on to resolve itself like a virus might: just when we begin to imagine a possible resolution, it mutates and changes. Lyalin’s poems acknowledge the awful truth that we may not be able to control whether it becomes harmless or more destructive. In “Misarubka,” the speaker tells us, “I wait after school for safety. / I put cotton in my ears and float to dimension x7y giga heart maggot.” This is, in some way, the normal instinct; when you are scared, just imagine being someplace different. And yet, it’s twisted by the awareness that being scared is serious, and doesn’t just go away. The imagination helps, but what will we find there? “The stay on x7y giga heart maggot is / brief. / The mothers turn icy.” And how do we get there in the first place? “x7y giga heart maggot is best reached by a river / of schools and numbers. Break off your arms. Row to shore. / Hallelujah.” These last lines are like a horror movie version of “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore,” except, of course, that the original, a slave-song, is terrifying too, and so Lyalin enters herself into the long human tradition of tragedy, in which we create art in the face of all kinds of suffering.
Through poetry, through awareness, people get what they need to survive. In “White Reading Helmet,” Lyalin writes, “See, he found some loophole in the grammar. He held that flapping fish and fondly.” Contrast that with the final lines of “The Animal Passage”:
Across the street a child goes missing,
a cheekbone is implanted. Is the mother mad when she finds the child.
He is pearl scattered in the grass, combed and glistening.
Redemption and despair can each be presented as beautiful because really each situation is unique and exists somewhere on a continuum. Sometimes, as in the first stanza of the long, final poem, “Dune and Swale,” what we are aware of is simply the thoughts of the speaker.
I’m thinking of my teeth right now and the white sparks they give off as they glint in the sunlight of my jaw. I’m thinking of the chariot race and white rabbits. I’m thinking of an ocean, of a hurricane, of a boat ride, of an assassin, of a field, of a snow drift, of a forest, and of my skin as it rests here in the star throne.
In this case, the tone veers toward the epistle; rather than choose between a presentation of redemption or despair, calmness or anxiety, Lyalin pays beautiful attention to the simple fact of language itself, and the act of communication. It seems, finally, that one deals with one’s own personality by constantly placing and re-placing oneself in the world through a deep sense of scale, constantly being aware that one is here now, and now, and now, and in relation to this, and this, and this.
In the poem, “Jeffrey Bloodhound Sans,” Lyalin writes, “Words that do not yet exist. Alibubo. Bubsigtree. Grivstalbikt.” Each moment exists as language, in poetry, where we can create the world with words that pop into existence when we say they do.» - Seth Landman

«Water Experiment In Two Parts
A scientific study reveals: water is alive.
Equal amounts of water is poured into three identical containers.
Zelig Berken died fighting in world war II.
Equal amounts of rice is poured into each container.
Zelig Berken was twenty years old.
The first container is told “I hate you.” The second container
is told “I don’t care about you.” and the third container is told
“I love you very much.”
While Zelig Berken was away at war his entire town was evacuated.
The rice in the first container turned black. The rice in the second container
bloomed. And the rice in the third container rotted.

Water is poured into two identical containers.
The first container goes home with Scientist A.
The second goes to church with Scientist B.
The next day, a droplet is extracted from each container.
The droplet from the first container shows nothing of significance.
The droplet from the second container shows formations of stars
and giant flowers.
Faith is difficult to write. Science is difficult to write. Both are equally on the line of being either fascinating or boring. You have to have each inside you to speak of each in a way, which is easily mistaken.
Characters with unique names are inventions: some would say like faith and science. Much of certain schools of writing asks that characters be defined as parts: look, motive, idea, size. These creations of character invariably fail. Creating a character, then, with a unique name, who operates in a text on terms left uncertain, allow that character to become larger than a body or a human, and left to the untraceable, what we are given. This, again, is like faith, and like science, and perhaps less difficult to write, but more prone to being poked at.
When you google the name ‘Zelig Berken’ in quotes, the only thing that comes up is Natalie Lyalin’s graduate thesis. This is known as a googlewhack. This is also known as creating, but more so, the making of an instance. A singularity. Though he may likely exist for the author in another state, in the building of our texts, Natalie Lyalin creates from void.
And yet it is not clear even after reading the sole instance in which Zelig Berken exists, what or who he is. We know he was 20 years old, and died. We know he left his town and the town was evacuated in his absence. His position in the text is almost happenstance, a causal alignment in the midst of something put forth as a “Water Experiment.”
In the environment of the poem, we learn that environment around water, which is named alive, affects the nature of the water. The nature of the water, then, in turn, affects its environment, a dual feedback system wherein the inanimate, previously benign object, in its conditioned state, creates “formations of stars / and giant flowers.” The affected system affects the system that gave it its affect.
Natalie Lyalin, in the process of pressing buttons on a machines, or perhaps using her arm to drag a stick over paper, has developed, in an economy of words that describe, and therein define, a human body of a void, and a magical (though I prefer: true) property to one of the most abundant presences in our midst.
Zelig Berkin exists. The small stirrups in our language affect our air, our earth, and beyond our air and earth, systems.
This poem is an object that wakes beyond the object of itself. It, in having been written, and printed from the mind, propagated, is an act of not only great faith, but of knowing. The paradox of both.
For me, this faith is not about religion, despite the instance of the church. There are many churches. There are people whose presence or nonpresence creates voids of homes.
What, if anything, are texts for but to make paradox. To create instances of air that did not previously exist. Even outside the realm of the entertainment, in camps where fabrication is intended to comment on its system, there is often a hard lack of the instance, of the glyph, of texts that are not text so much as they are space, and in that space, creation, and in that creation, not an inherent God, but the not necessarily plain-faced mode of exhibiting understanding, concentration, and, the oft-smited and overworked faculty of love.
Love in literature is often cheapened. When we can touch something that shows the interaction of the human with the human, we call it heart, we call it what we write for.
Here, though, in a calm and unassuming column of short undemanding sentences, Lyalin invokes the heart as both spectator and parent, foreigner and neighbor, hoped and clinical, endless and brief. She has the faith, the heart, to give the reader the rope, to invoke in sentences a space that does not demand a pulling, a want, an oh, but somewhere else. The unassuming, the notion of touching rather than prescribing, or deciding, is to me a greater science, a gift that does not demand that it be opened, and goes on regardless, beyond its box. However its presence hits you, whatever of your own faith you might apply, that is up to you: you at or against its face.
I thank her, it.» - Blake Butler

"Because Natalie’s book gave me lots to think about concerning gender and place, these were the starting points of the interview, after the jump.
When I think of gender and place, I think of public and private selves and spaces. Natalie, how do you negotiate between public and private–in terms of gender and/or/in-conjunction-with place–as a poet?
- Wow, what an interesting question. As you noted, you and I are both from the South, where typified gender ideals are quite prominent. My family’s eastern european background certainly adds to a very conventional idea of the female gender role. I think for me gender is an action, or reflex, that I participate in and create daily in public and in private. That is, I consciously and subconsciously see what it means to be a woman, or feminine, and I do whatever that is–I participate in the world-wide construction of the female gender. I’m obviously drawn to some things that would be considered typically feminine–the title of my book and the magazine I edit (GlitterPony) being prime examples of that. As I write this I’m looking at a vase of fat pink flowers, and that makes me really happy. Just writing the words ‘fat pink flowers’ makes me want to write a poem! And that instinct has given me trepidation. I have wondered if someone would assume my book is a princess-scape because of the title and the illustration of the unicorn on the cover. But then, I’m not really writing for that person, so I try to not entertain that ‘what if’. The whole notion of gender “normalcy” is quite frustrating because I do not think that a woman should or does like the color pink, or glitter, or makeup, or wants to be a mother, or even has a vagina. Gender is so constructed that it is hard to see where the stereotypes begin and end. So I’m aware of the gender in my poetry, that it reads as feminine, but I’m also aware of the violence that exists in my writing. I think that is also a part of my gender construction, but I know that many associate violence or physical power with the male gender. I think that violence is a nice juxtaposition to the fluffiness of some of the poems in P&HPH. I like the idea of this book and its title and the severed head on p.12. I’m certainly not a violent person in public or in private, but in a private poetic way I’m very violent, at times. The poems are a place where I’m the strongest and I can do whatever I want, and there is nothing to be afraid of. I certainly do not feel this way as a woman out in my daily life. In that sense, the idea of power and safety come together at the intersection of place and gender. I feel powerful when I construct my own landscape. I think I feel a loss of power as a woman in my public and private life, but I have tremendous power as a poet in my constructed landscape.
Something early on in your answer, about your origins, has brought me to my next question, which you are, as always, free to reject. Would you mind telling me a little bit about your mother w/ regard to poetry, gender, and place? Maybe a little emblematic story, if one comes to mind?
- To be honest, I’m not sure how my mother figures into my poetry. I know she figures very prominently in my life. She and my father had some very traditional views on gender and I would say that her concept of gender leans in that direction as well. But for whatever reason my poems focused more on fathers than on mothers. However, I recently realized that I stopped writing about a father figure and began writing about a mother figure. When writing P&HPH I literally could not stop writing about fathers–menacing and looming fathers kept popping up in the poems. But with my new poems I finally wrote something about a mother. I had this really strong image of my mom in a house watching the news and it just struck me–the silence of the house, and the foods she eats, and how she’s there. I got a really wonderful poem out of that “psychic” viewing of her. And I think I felt a relief that mothers finally found a way into my writing. It’s almost like I had no room for them before.
[Here I gave Natalie a choice of three questions.--McD] I’m thinking about what you say about being drawn to the typically feminine, but having trepidation about that–and I’m thinking that there seems to be a similar fraughtness expressed in P&HPH in regard to place, wherein you play with/disrupt/upend the appropriateness of situations to their settings. I don’t know how to make this into a question, but would still love to hear your answer.
- I began to answer another question having to do with gender and wrote a lot, but then stopped because talking about place and this idea that you bring up of upending the appropriate was really calling to me. I don’t write my poems actively contemplating notions of gender, though I obviously find gender issues in poetry/life to be complicated, compelling, and absolutely necessary of our attention. Place and landscape are much more imminent in my mind. The desire to upend and disrupt place is a power play. I find this to be a really pleasing gesture in writing. For example, in the poem “Goose Necks for the Baby, Baby,” I place a severed head on a freight train. I am both frightened and liberated by that image as the head I’m cutting off is my own. I see that moment as taking back some power that was lost. I will be the one to dismember myself. I also find interest in the uncomfortable, the thing that startles you on the page. It’s like the moment when you bite into an apple and discover a worm. This is the same principal I feel drawn to in my writing. I like to set up a beautiful space and then turn on a weird light that casts a strange shadow.
I think you’ve said something important about poetry and power, something that perhaps non-poets don’t think about, and that perhaps not many poets talk about. Might you say more about poetry and power plays, poetry and consolidating power? I’m thinking at this point that there is no real need to stick strictly to gender and place, though they are nice things to keep in mind. So please feel at liberty to range as far as you’d like in talking about poetry and power.
- I think the relationship between poetry and power is unique for each poet. I’m not sure how many of the poets I know write because they want to feel powerful. Although I recognize this pursuit in my writing it is really a small part of it, and certainly not often conscious. And as much as I like to believe that I have power in my poems there is also the real possibility that they have power over me. Some poets are possessed by their poems and have no choice but to keep writing. I can think of several poets like this, but Osip Mandelstam comes to mind first. He died because of his poems and that is something I’m not prepared to do, and I’m ashamed to say that.
So poetry is powerful. But the concept of power is very relative because it is also close to boasting, cruelty, and oppression. And on the other side it is close to weakness. Weakness and submission are also a type of power. Which makes me think the following: I’m not sure if a great poem or poet has to be powerful. I think it is more impressive when weak poets write powerful things.
Poems are quite powerful and often dangerous. For one, after coming into being they no longer need their poet and survive fabulously on their own. This is wonderful and also creepy! Somewhat similarly, I recently met a poet in Tel Aviv who told me that the government was watching her and her fellow writers and she was serious. Because there are many instances of governments monitoring and silencing poets I’m sure that poetry is actually quite dangerous and very powerful. Again, I come back to Mandelstam.
What do you think about when you think about your audience?
- When I think of my audience I start to blush. I do not think about the audience when I write because then I would worry about cursing or saying something gross. But now, when I am not writing a poem, I am thinking of them and it is strange. I want them to feel something when reading my poems, and I want them to understand, but in their own way. We do not need a unified understanding, but we should all feel something when reading, I think. I felt a great deal when writing the poems, so the biggest concern would be a flatline from the audience. I wish I could look at them more, but I have a hard time looking up when I do a reading. A live audience makes me dizzy, but the abstract audience is super. I float things out to them and they occasionally send back some flares.
How do you deal with endings, as a poet? As in, what kinds of endings are you drawn to? Or as in, what do you think a last line or thought in a poem should and/or should not accomplish?
- Okay, endings: Endings are quite instinctual, and my instincts are to cut things early. This is because I visualize my endings as a camera zooming out of a shot. I like endings that suggest a continuation post textual ending. So, the poem’s ending is akin to that part in a tv show, not quite the cliff hanger, but something like it that is kinder. I don’t like the idea of leaving a reader in torment over what happens past the last line. I want them to be on steady ground and do the work of determining where this poem was going. I also like the “gong” ending. The one where no continuation is possible because the poem is its own perfectly horrifying or beautiful universe and when you look up from the page to the sound of gong. There is nothing before this poem and nothing after.
I think of Joyce Carol Oates’ ending in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and any Joy Williams ending. After reading their work it is clean slate time. What could possibly exist outside of that?» - Interview with Amy McDaniel