Winner of the 2017 California Book Award in Poetry
Aja Couchois Duncan is a Bay Area educator, writer and coach of Ojibwe, French and Scottish descent. Her writing has been anthologized in Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative (Coach House Press), Bay Poetics (Faux Press), and Love Shook My Heart 2 (Alyson Press). Her most recent chapbook, "Nomenclature, Miigaadiwin, a Forked Tongue" was published by CC Marimbo press. A fictional writer of non-fiction, she has published essays in the North American Review and Chain. In 2005, she was a recipient of the Marin Arts Council Award Grant for Literary Arts, and, in 2013, she received a James D. Phelan Literary Award. She holds an MFA from San Francisco State University and a variety of other degrees to certify her as human.
‘The first thing to grow isn’t always pretty,’ writes Aja Couchois Duncan, but the teeth of survival go for exquisite jugulars in this debut collection: images of oceans below our skins, deserts swimming in desire, and always, always, a vast and frightening hunger. These poems hiss with life, the sharp edge of alphabets that won’t be tamed. My heart almost can’t bear such precision; Duncan’s split tongue pierces the page. Such gratitude is a stunning gift.
In Aja Couchois Duncan’s quest to re-envision a living mythology that gives body and voice to those vital presences that have long haunted the margins of Western knowledge and experience, we, too, are given a chance to reformulate and reassert our relationship to ground, to wind, to language, which Duncan shows us—through a graceful and vigilant thinking line—are all one and the same. There is an intelligence here that I’ve been missing in contemporary poetry, one that writes into a we, an I, a you, a she, a he acutely aware that these categories are constantly re-directing themselves toward the unknown and are always only ‘a fraction of.’ An extraordinary debut.
In this collection Couchois Duncan carves, re-ignites and empties the notions of America, First Peoples, Time, Physical Evolution and most critically, the core assumptions of Woman and Being. How do we know, ‘without the thread of history?’ She asks. English / Ojibwe crash against each other and scatter the in-between explosions and exploitations, and usurpations—all of this damage and displacement forges and props to some degree an ‘extinct womb’ where ‘god is not allowed.’ Is ‘emergence,’ birth, genealogy possible? This text is a mind devouring set to investigations—cast in a careful and precise aesthetic of line, stanza and framed silences on the page. One of Wittgenstein’s questions would apply here—How do I know I am touching my fingers? That is, How do I know I begin and where I end? What terms? Aja finds ways—an incredible and exacting tour de force!
Restless Continent is a mesmerizing feast. Catastrophe and prophesy, the narrowing points of equilibrium, balance us within a rush of epic investigation in ethics—in everything. This stunning image-ridden verse, heads full-on into a revelatory world ‘cleaved, split into spider’s back.’ Here, with Aja Couchois Duncan’s searing poetic, we ‘swim into it.’ There is a music here, somewhere between Dark Water Rising and Tanya Tagaq. Nothing like this. Alluring.
to cross time is not to mark its curvature but its scales the crepuscular death of iridescent things opening in this moment which has happened has not happened not exactly brilliant but lingering we make months of ourselves weeks take days call it luck or sarsaparilla the past has no referent but scent sweet is not unlike bitter when you bite down on it a hummingbird is such a femme thing but she can hurt you too
Alone in an Elevator…
The elevator is the last frontier. There are Indians and buffalo. Bring your shotgun and something to roast over the fire. You are Custer and Geronimo, Red Bull and General Jackson. You are in an elevator. You may not breed. The buffalo are waiting in the mountainside. The Indians are inside your skin. There are two types of elevators, hydraulic and cable of which the hydraulic is most likely to fall. You are in an elevator. The lights go out. Someone is breathing beside you. When the elevator door closed, you were alone. Now you are not. We all carry our relatives inside of us. When the elevator falls, drop to your stomach; cover your head. Don’t worry about the person breathing beside you. No one survives an elevator fall. If you die without breeding there will be one less Indian. Indians are important. Without us, team mascots would only be reptiles and four legged mammals. Without us, there would be no popcorn. There was a movie about an Indian. She was guiding the canoe. She was from a different tribe; you wouldn’t have understood one another. But she knew better than to get into a hydraulic elevator. That was one of the lessons you lost along the way. The other lesson was more esoteric. Something about humility or was it history. Listen to your ancestor. She is on the floor beside you. She is holding your head in the crook of her arm.