by Ayten Tartici
Published by Verge Books, 2013 | 90 pages
Limbs of the Apple Tree Never Die, Joel Felix’s first book of poems and the first publication of Chicago’s Verge Books, follows two major courses. In one, Felix takes us, via a series of short essays, through a “Self-Guided Civil Rights Tour.” In the other, we encounter a series of poems named after apples—Roxbury Russet, Spitzenburg, Dulcet, etc. In his exploration of these twin subjects—civil rights and apples —Felix plumbs the depths and difficulties of moral and ecological growth within the confines of late empire.
The essays here are classically styled, focusing on outward detail so as to illuminate the inner world. The book begins, “Two kids fish under a bridge from the hood of a car,” quickly shifts to ruminations on Virgil and the stirrings of the “lyric mind,” then turns to interstate highways and Cairo, Illinois, “where Jim and Huck Finn thought they could raft upstream, slipping off the Mississippi and up the Ohio, to freedom.” Felix continues by outlining his major line of inquiry—how to think the praxis of civil rights:
In the center of town you look north to see the South, as the rivers wedged this part of Illinois below a jut of Kentucky. Power creates many forms of enslavement, but this brown river once held all the desperate hope of deliverance form the horror of slavery. What is lost when we lose the horror that once made this boundary terrible? And what is the point of art that can’t touch the living wound of this history?
Limbs of the Apple Tree Never Die is a sustained attempt at forging an ethical stance between the protest of refusal and the simple, numbed witnessing of this fallen world.
During his trip south, Felix reads through Martin Luther King’s Why Can’t We Wait and the Roman poet Lucan’s epic The Civil War, weaving both intricately into the book. Felix works hard to perform his discomfort with the possibility of sentimentalizing King’s work. When he finally gets to Montgomery, Felix enters King’s church but finds it difficult to walk through. “In Rome,” he writes, “I was never uneasy about exploring the naves of every church; here, it felt like a blasphemy to Christianity’s role in civil rights.” This last statement helps explain Lucan’s presence. Writing during the fraught and decadent age of Nero—who forced the poet to commit suicide at the age of 26—Lucan’s Civil War is an epic that dramatizes the impossibility of heroic action in the age of empire. Felix reads the The Civil War’s power in “its glimpse of sub-rational order. The enemy is not found among the actors. [The Civil War] finds its power not by favoring moral order but in inventing a new kind of public reception of history as enslavement without end.” It is this notion of “enslavement without end” that marks Felix’s conception of life under empire, and its resonances echo throughout his text. If we are estranged – from ourselves, from our neighbors, from King’s Christianity, which saw all equal together upon a mountaintop – how might we nonetheless create, together, an ideology of freedom?
Felix puts forward an answer to this question in his apple poems, which maintain the declarative simplicity of his essays, while emphasizing a lyric inquiry that pushes through the everydayness of things to explore emotions, relationships, other more fleeting aspects of being. At first, the apple poems seem separate from the sections on civil rights—as if Felix is retreating from the desperate subject matter of his southern tour. They are no such thing. In these poems we watch the problem of civil rights infect the everyday, the attempt made to do penance to history in the briefest moments of the quotidian. In the unforced, quiet emotion of Roxbury Russet (Apple), Felix moves from raking leaves in fall, to an image of dolphins he came across somewhere, to, finally, the drama of a whale “looking to eat”:
Maple, ash, and service
raked up to my waist,
a silver sun
brings the place
to its senses,
in cold storage
the months now
found in the pen
book small wonders
of the basement
dancing before the half-open eye
on the wall of the whale
in cold ocean
looking to eat—
The poem turns on the interaction between the pleasant chores of raking and writing, to the cold ocean, in the eye of a whale. For Felix, daily work or daily writing are always done in the wake of a whale—civil rights. In the next poem—Baldwin (Apple)—the image of the pen returns. This time, rather than from leaves and a library, the pen comes from rice and a belly:
What in rice raises
pilasters of San Diego
a pen left in the belly
years to break through the rightness or wrongness of
Here, the poem turns more heavily towards explicit political and historical engagement, as the pen leads Felix to think about traffic lights—invented by Garrett Morgan, the son of former slaves. The poem continues: “purchased by the Wheatley family // raised as Phyllis / in Massachusetts.” Wheatley is Phillis Wheatley, who with the 1773 publication of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral became the first published female African-American poet. Slavery is shown to infest the poem and, more generally, the act of writing poetry:
poems praised by George Washington
never once talked about slavery
are slave poetry
In America, Felix suggests, poems not explicitly about slavery are slave poetry.
Felix writes in his Afterword that his apple poems practice “some kind of ancient field poetics [that grafts] constituencies of democratic violences and fleeting fantasies of liberty in the languages of everyday performances, uncontained but conditioned by geography.” The poems move between Felix’s sight—always grounded in easily parsable images—and often abrupt and difficult to immediately incorporate exclamations – at times seemingly excerpted from a child’s journal: “I like big orange / birthday cake / at dawn.” Felix’s here is perhaps satirizing the fleeting liberty capital affords—orange cake rather than orange juice in the morning. Within the political context of the book, these images thud horrifically in their quickness and ease.
Limbs of the Apple Tree Never Die includes other poems that are neither essays nor named after apples. In Seps, images of horrific snake attacks in Lucan are interspersed with text from the US Army’s Manual of Warfare and journalistic accounts of an American killed in Fallujah:
Jim, he got bit, only his gear
was left by the small fire
as the poison burned through his veins—
Deangelo, his eyes pancaked
when the venom pushed the sockets out.
We hurried from that boy’s
and more and more bitter shrubs and cracked rock dust
by contract of private military consultancy,
As the poem proceeds Felix refocuses this outward horror inwards, towards the lyric body, subject here first to the military violence of Lucan and Bush, then to the cultural violence of television:
I, it happens, the only human winner
on last year’s Man versus Beast (Fox).
It was I who defeated the chimpanzee
at the obstacle course
I who have seen a buddy beg
for the goods of his household
netting his intestines with his hands
as all my labor
as I hung from the light pole
that came on anyway
on a bridge crossing the Euphrates.
I die here unready
for war without war,
Deep in the poem we encounter what is perhaps the most emotive passage of the book, Felix’s sad witnessing of the American lyric body:
We were taught to hate ourselves
in tight gymnasiums,
not cry out when the church windows
are shattered by bricks.
I will not cry out, but I am held back
by my body,
like the forty-four dwarves pulling the airplane.
In another, eponymous poem, the imagery becomes increasingly mythical. The poem’s, and the collection’s, title is sourced from Virgil’s Georgics—“Even Virgil heard / the limbs of the apple don’t / know how to die,” and concerns the fact that apples surprisingly produce less palatable fruit when they are planted than when they are grafted. In this, Felix finds this volume’s central metaphor: though the lyric today can be grafted together from that which came before, it is too late to be purely planted. For Felix, we inherit our lyric voice as already grafted to “lore your fathers farmed”:
to the pyramid of boys lashed together
sodomized by the spotless feet of
stags in uniform
presenting the badge,
what it tortures out
and what it
expansions for husbandry
Writing is constant witness to violence perpetuated against the lyric body. The battle for civil rights continues.
—Let the seed speak all it knows
in the ruin of its breed
as no better security exists
than for the dead
Devin King is a writer, musician, and teacher working in Chicago, IL. His long poem, “CLOPS,” is out from the Green Lantern Press, Chicago, where he is now the poetry editor. A new chapbook, These Necrotic Ethos Come the Plains, is out from The Holon Press, Chicago. General info available here, and previous MAKE reviews available here, here, and here.