Red Miss Takes, or A Little Pink In Your Cover/ Color Scheme
by Wendy Vardaman
- Robin Chapman, the eelgrass meadow, Tebot Bach, 2011
- Ching-In Chen, The Heart’s Traffic, a novel in poems, Arktoi Books, 2009
- Fabu, In Our Own Tongues, University of Nairobi Press, 2011
- Nikky Finney, Head Off & Split, Northwestern University Press, 2011
- Matthea Harvey, Of Lamb, paintings by Amy Jean Porter, McSweeney’s Books, 2011
- Karla Huston & Cathryn Cofell, Split Personality, sunnyoutside press, 2012
- Amy King, I Want to Make You Safe, Litmus Books, 2011
- Noelle Kocot, The Bigger World, Wave Books, 2011
- Julie L. Moore, Slipping Out of Bloom, WordTech Editions, 2010
- Jennifer Tamayo, Red Missed Aches/ Read Missed Aches/ Red Mistakes/ Read Mistakes, Switchback Books, 2011
- Lesley Wheeler, Heterotopia, Barrow Street Press, 2010
This mash-up review of recent books by twelve women started out as a couple of collections I was asked to write about a while back, got interrupted by founding a poetry press and bringing out another poets’ book, became an article about irony and sincerity in recent women’s poetry, got interrupted by taking a daughter to college, became an article about a couple of more books I said yes to reviewing, got interrupted by putting together and submitting my own still unpublished second book of poems, became a little pile of books with oddly similar cover color-schemes—some randomly acquired, some purchased, some sent, got interrupted by bringing out the 2013 Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar, became an article about communities of reviewers, got interrupted by various essay projects, became a larger pile of books by women whose covers included red or pink, a lot or a jot on the front or back, or warm white in one case, got interrupted by bringing out several issues of Verse Wisconsin, became a series of notes on those red/read books, got interrupted by summer and painting the house (bright yellow with a red porch), visiting my mother, cleaning the house, too many projects at work, kids home from college, etc., etc.
The color red variously connotes debt, anger, sex, evil, love, war, revolution, passion, guilt, sin, courage, sacrifice, beauty, martyrdom, warning, conservatism, Communism, prostitution, royalty. There is seeing red, raise a red flag, paint the town red, be in the red, better dead than red, red tape, red letter day, red faced, caught red-handed, red state, red alert... It’s a very conflicted color. Does a cover color seem like a rational basis on which to build a review? Maybe not, but I wasn’t feeling rational when I worked on this essay, and I’m not sure that makes it any less of a connecting/convincing heuristic than anything else. Because I ended up writing about a lot of books, I paired them for ease of comparison, identifying as I go some pressing issues or red threads, in contemporary women’s poetry, especially the nature of humor in these books, the pressures of sincere and ironic language, the relation of fact and fiction to that language, narrative strategies for arriving at one or the other pole, or, impressive feat, balancing on a wire between them, juggling plates all the while, like a mother on a weekday evening.
First up? Extreme ends of the sincerity-irony axis, which in this case correlates with personal-impersonal, religious-secular, mom and not-mom. For the record, I often write and choose to read sincere/ personal/ god/ parent poetry. I like it and identify with it. It troubles me when people (men and women) feel like they can’t write/publish about their children/being a parent, or their publishers tell them they can’t. It’s not inherently sentimental material, and even if touches on sentiment/ sentimentality, so what? It’s a matter of balance, of degrees. I also write and choose to read some ironic/ impersonal/secular/ not-mom stuff. I don’t privilege one of these over another, and honestly? I’d kind of like to see them come together, more often—humor in sincerity, god in irony, impersonal parents sincerely seeking comic divinity. But I digress. This axis is an important one in women’s poetry right now, and I put these first two books together in part for the purpose of demonstrating this aesthetic distance, as well as for underscoring the choice.
Searching for safety/ refuge in the face of panic/ pain—literally and metaphorically—is a dominant theme in Slipping Out of Bloom, by Julie L. Moore, and I Want to Make You Safe, by Amy King. For Moore the answer is God/ the transcendent, for King it is something like the engaged consciousness which poetry both manifests and helps to create. Both foreground broad philosophical questions—metaphysical and epistemological. The books, for opposite reasons, are also the two I found most difficult in this large group—the one for its familiarity, deep sincerity, and almost uncritical theism; the other for its insistent impenetrability and ironic language, whose denotative and connotative planes, so distant and jarringly distinct, thwart understanding and frustrate reading, if reading is the attempt to understand. Ultimately, the rewards of both books rest more in their poetry than in their philosophy/ideas, and both excel at the craft of sound and image.
Here is Moore’s lyrical opening poem, “Becoming”:
Spring-thick with snowy
blossoms, the ornamental
pear tree slowly slips
out of bloom, sloughing off
petal by skin-soft petal, bleeding
green as leaf after spear-
like leaf thrusts through,
laying down one life
for another. How
willingly it becomes
The s-sounds at the beginning and ends of words, the l’s, enact the visual image of petals dropping; likewise the subtle repetition of petal, leaf, becomes. The poem sets up both the tone and subject matter of Slipping—change, the transience of material beauty, the pain under the surface—sloughing off, bleeding, spear-like, laying down one life for another.
It’s a sensibility grounded in faith, though rooted in sensory experience and the observation of the natural world, particularly moments of transitions, as in “On the Ground in Ohio,” about a Labrador among a flock of geese: “And oh, she wants/ to go—to sprint, / split their assembly in two,/ and try, just try, to soar with them/ as they burst into form.” Or here, a description of a beam of light dividing the sky in “Sighting”:
It divided dark clouds,
plunging like a swimmer
particle by particle
into one steady stroke,
a beam as sudden
as a lightning strike,
into the cornfield below.
Things torn in two—a maple “like a shell split open,” a sister after a terrible bike accident, the flock of geese, the clouds—all lead in the book’s third part to the poet’s own mysterious illness which challenges her faith, though not always, it seems, in a way that truly opens the possibility of doubt, as she lies to her son about the terrible pain in order to reassure him that his prayers have been answered: “I wonder how to inspire his faith/ Without lies like the one I just told.” In some ways, this section of Slipping is the most interesting with its focus on pain and illness, but the challenges of the pain, though real, can also feel like a struggle in hindsight, one that has already been overcome, rather than something that is unfolding and uncertain. Someone else may succumb, as in “Agony of Healing,” in which the poet attends the funeral of a friend who commits suicide, but the why isn’t a struggle, so much as an assertion of meaning that comes from a deeply held faith. “I could have swallowed hard,” she writes, noting the “lure of surrender,” but instead “entered into the agony of healing.”
While Part IV of the book is filled with other even greater challenges to faith, particularly the problem of evil as it involves children—from playing with matches and guns, to criminal child abuse in the name of godliness, to teen suicide, Part V moves toward resolution, celebrating “things unseen” and arriving at joy and delight without a fully convincing struggle, after drama depicted as adolescent or childish, rather than laughter: “It’s after all the whining//And stomping of feet, of course.” Delicate poems, sensitively written—Moore has a wonderful ear and an eye for what the poem looks like on the page, too. That’s apparent in this last section, as the narrator reaches for peace/equilibrium, and the final poem, “Reasons to Stay” adds up what the world offers—its various sensory enjoyments and concludes:
Surely, these are all good
reasons to stay.
I don’t love this world so much
that I want to stay forever.
For all of its differences, Amy King’s I Want to Make You Safe, approaches many of the same questions as Moore—about fear, pain, belief, the lyric, nature, also with well-crafted lines grounded in sound, but with a deeply ironic, rather than sincere, sensibility. In contrast to Moore, metonymy reigns, meaning is under- rather than over-determined, and the usual syntactical path to sense is again and again short-circuited. It’s a difference in aesthetic and in worldview. For Moore, meaning inheres in the universe due to the existence of divinity. For King, meaning is illusion and delusion, something we trick ourselves into, the existence of god unlikely and beside the point. Poetry shows the seams (& the seems) in language. Her difficult poems require repeated reading to tease out any meaning, which is the point. So much the point that I wonder why I persist in such an exercise (meaning-making) under the circumstances—why not just sit back and enjoy the sounds, the images, the leaps, line to line, stanza to stanza, poem to poem? I just can’t stop myself is why—I want my meaning. I can’t say that I always enjoyed the process of making it, but the poems are well-made and often humorous, and they create endless opportunity for intellectual work outs.
Here is “Some Pink in Your Color,” which opens the book, and, like Moore’s opening poem, contains a fruit tree, pain, and god:
Did you know I’m in this hospital bed?
I’m not. I’m in the same light you stand in,
much the same way I’m in the waist of your Carolina
watching from the screen across the bed
whose pulse is worn down with an IV to the head.
We are all snow birds atop
the cherry blossoms of August.
Springtime in Washington D.C.
passed too fast, nearly in the flash of Rose
brushing her teeth over the bedpan.
No adrenal gland has known such cortisol,
such heartbreaking I love you O my God,
so many soldiers on the brink of their lives returning!
Are we still talking to the same god?
I can’t imagine the heart anymore
now that it presses my ribs apart,
a balloon of such gravity I ache for stars in a jar,
wasps whose love reminds me of fireflies tonight.
It’s evident from a single reading that the poem resists interpretation and straight-forward meaning making. We can read its individual components, for the most part, for a kind of sense, and certain lines may stand out as meaningful, even profoundly so (e.g., "I can’t imagine the heart anymore"). And yet try going from any one piece to another—often signaled by the line break—and you will have trouble leaping its gap. Getting over the chasm of stanzas is even more challenging. The opening line seems clear: “Did you know I’m in this hospital bed?” So far, so good—“I’m not.” The invitation to ordinary meaning is followed by a denial and an obstacle to closure. And the images themselves are knotty and gnarly: “I’m in the waist of your Carolina”—is that a woman or a state? What does it mean to be in someone’s waist or waste? Perhaps a T.V. remote? Television is mentioned next, but note that the “I” is watching from the screen. Or does watching modify Carolina, rather than I? And the next phrase, “whose pulse”—what/who does that modify? And then another difficult image “IV to the head”; then “snowbirds atop/the cherry blossoms of August”—but cherry trees bloom in March, and snowbirds are people who go south for the winter; then “balloon of such gravity.” Stanza 3 includes a line of dialog, something to catch hold of: “I love you O my God,” followed by “so many soldiers” suggest the language of television—soap opera, news. And then comes the killer question: “Are we still talking to the same god?” followed by the final, almost comprehensible stanza, so deliberately packed with clichés that it fairly implodes on opening with its heart, balloon, stars in a jar, and fireflies. But the wasps? Wasps whose love reminds me of fireflies? Off/on? Fickle? Fragile? Easily caught? Easily trapped? Easily exhausted? The title, “Some Pink in Your Color,” sutures two racially charged phrases, “some pink in your cheeks” and “some color in your cheeks.” And makes some sense, though I’m going out on a limb here, of “We are all snow birds atop/ The cherry blossoms of August”—citizens (because aren’t we talking about war, contemporary America, empire, democracy, politics?), who want ease and easy refuge, though its moment, like “Springtime in Washington, D.C.,” which also perhaps refers to some mythical, better time for America, is over. I go through this exercise in part to illustrate the level of difficulty of a typical poem.
The use of public discursive terms from economics and politics, is, with irony, the feature of the language that creates the most distance from Moore’s diction, much more grounded in the domestic/the everyday/the ordinary/the personal, as well as the personal (and reliable) narrator. In poems like “All Moons are a Scrumptious White Silver,” we have phrases like “The bourgeoisie have their exploitations,” “cosmopolitan production of consumption,” “a gentle take-over, a feel-good merger, / a kindly razor.” Some poems, like “The Destiny You Choose Is the One You Live Through,” are even more explicitly political in their diction, if not necessarily more so in their sense.
The poems in Part 2 of the book traffic in diction of the natural world, but that post-pastoral landscape contains the human body/action/ consequence, as well as plants, animals, the elements. “Why the Wind,” for example begins, “Goes in with/complete androgyny—/ O fuzzy city,/ Dear communal map,/ are you made of calcium/ or fire-based fifty proof?” “Thank God You’re Connecting Things,” enjoining us to do just that, moves from field to cotton gin, to the plant and picking to slavery: “Am I that hideous/to nature,/ a vagrant released/ to pass the egg along,/ to spin its threaded/ words/ between a growing child/ and thorns that cling,/ about a silence/ every doll tries to sing,/ every limb longs to breathe,/ every fabric moves to speak: origins in fields,/ slaves to do these things.”
The ironic voice is, it seems to me, difficult to control and to maintain. A little can go a long way. At times it seems profound and profoundly imaginative. At other times, it wears on reading, becomes cynical, self-parodic, almost formulaic or fashion-driven. The first time I read the book, I would read random passages aloud to my teenagers, just to see what they got and how they felt about it. Here’s one such passage from “How Will My Enemies”: “They can pile the salt/ of their characters into flickering mounds,/ set little blazes toward the great causes of hope./ Hope the cake won’t blow back/ into their nostrils, their snorting eyes,/ turn their tear ducts into swampy envy, these tiny engines of me./ I’m McCarthy and Homeland Security incarnate./ For them, I’m the regal eagle to shoot their buttery/ bullets at. I wrap the false shroud of Turin about the aping hang of their panting heads, flaunting the sum of all I can want.”
There are many things to admire here about the language/the movement/the imagery/ the metaphor and the density of all of those things, but by the time I read the long final poem, “This Opera of Peace,” I am longing for a little of the straight forwardness found in Moore. Instead the end is as difficult as the beginning, the "I" of the poem indeterminate and shifting, though the language and the images intrigue, requiring us to struggle for sense. Or maybe that’s just the reader projecting her own unnecessary struggle onto the poem. It concludes: “I will marry you and take/ You to crucify continents,/ the least of which we/ will return to seated as/ homeless on the park’s blue/ grass among pond blackberries/ growing wild off the side/ of a haloed embankment,/ burrowed in hollows,/ unseen by lovers, swatting/ the puddle dew nearby—/Until, grooming and mewing/ we birth the baby wren,/ full of downy coos,/ the tiniest nest within our mouths’ open bellies,/ thinning now, we love.”
In contrast to the collections of Moore and King, Heterotopia, by Lesley Wheeler, and the eelgrass meadow, by Robin Chapman, are located in the (vast) middle ground with respect to diction, narrators, and tone. Much of their approach to poetry is (like Moore) about telling a story and (unlike her) incorporating fact-driven content from science and history, locating the complicated and sometimes conflicted but nonetheless constant/concrete/considerable/consubstantial narrator in some sort of mostly conventional space between the worlds/words of private and public discourse. And it’s the weight of these facts, their substance/substantial nature, that makes both books feel so solid and, really, the fact of the facts that is the essence of their sincerity.
Heterotopia and the eelgrass meadow as titles each provide metaphors for the poet’s conception of that contextualized identity. Chapman’s is a biological trope, as in this excerpt from the title poem:
And what if we are no more than ribbons of grass,
waving in the tide?
We could be an eelgrass meadow, subtidal zone.
Our roots would clutch sand. Our leaves
would soften the waves, transmute sunlight to food,
decay to a rich and rotting broth.
The larvae of ghost shrimp
would browse among us, beginnings
of story; and in the dark abyss our bodies
would nourish the rattail fish.
Throughout the collection, Chapman the scientist asks us to reconsider the boundaries of our identities, our life span, our notion of human—boundaries, I think, that are significant to Wheeler, and King, too, in their different ways.
Heterotopia likewise problemetizes human identity, albeit with metaphors drawn more from social science—geography and history. Heterotopia is in one real sense, Liverpool, where the poet’s mother grew up and immigrated from, but it is also the imagined Liverpool, constructed in her stories, and the Liverpool the poet visits as an adult. Here are some lines from the book’s first poem, “Forged”:
When she says stove she means fireplace,
a great soot-blackened maw. When I say
Liverpool I mean an unreal city, purified
of reeking detail like a fairy tale
or a film set, rotted and peeling
like cheap furniture handed down. A girl
might safely climb into the leaping
flames, now rinsed and mythical,
cooled by duplication. I cannot
even place the telling—
It’s impossible to identify where exactly the line between truth and fiction is in the stories Wheeler tells and remembers—she can’t be sure, but she is sure to identify that there is a line, that it’s blurry, but that despite the blurriness, “Some history may/be true. Even mine.” “Truth” in Wheeler and Chapman’s narratives is complicated and possibly unknowable, although it (probably) exists. Still, it is important to both of them to problemetize truth, and both create complexity through content, perspective, and multiplicity of form, rather than by the disjunctions of King’s language.
Chapman’s collection, like Wheeler’s, begins with large philosophical questions, personalized in the figure of Spinoza and the God of Spinoza who “thinks/ on the God of all, the seen/ and the unseen, the far-away and the near”:
thinks how God must be immanent
in all of nature, ocean, each faint star,
with infinitely many other attributes
we can’t conceive or see,
so—no providential God, no immortality
or rescue for us; for his heresies
excommunicated at 24 by the Portuguese Jews
of Amsterdam, who don’t want
more trouble than they already have—
rivalries, the sea at their door.
(“The Philosopher of Clear Sight”)
“Praying to the God of Spinoza” links the understanding of God/ divinity to caring for the world and to environmental science:
Here the equations of global change
alter ice to water, rainforest to sand,
in our calculus of money and oil that omits love—
we are another face of your face;
let us imagine you, original source, exact,
watching the unpredictable outcome
for all life’s creatures
in the sunlight and dusk of this tiny blue ball.
Wheeler’s poetry also places its humans in their environmental context, as in “Concerning the Liver Bird,” an imagined bird connected to Liverpool:
The ancient Britons, those mythical birds,
called the place llethr-pwll, or slope by the stream.
Perhaps they trained cormorants to dive for fish.
Perhaps one day, long before liver birds,
a few women perched on some rocks
to delouse their squirming children,
exclaim at a naughty tattoo,
enjoy a bit of sunshine before the climate changed.
Imagine the light bending over the estuary,
flickering in coppery golds and greens,
while the air in their mouths tasted of salt,
and a sweet-voiced mother began to sing.
And while Wheeler’s poems draw on more historical material than Chapman’s, Chapman includes history. World War II and her childhood experience of living in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, daughter of one of the scientists who created the nuclear bomb, are an undercurrent of much of her poetry, as the British WWII childhood of her mother is for Wheeler. Indeed, Chapman’s work is a fact-filled and feeling critique of the atomized sensibility/ compartmentalization that led to the nuclear age and to the notion that devastation could somehow be used for good. In “Will Safety be the Sturdy Child of Terror?,” she links a speech by Churchill on the bomb to research on animal behavior that fails to respect its subjects. Here is an excerpt from “Strontium-90 After WWII”:
Project Sunshine, run by Army empiricists,
looking for signatures of strontium-90
in the bones of newborn dead, stillborn babies,
6000 shipped from around the world to measure
exposure in leg bones and backbones. There,
the cumulative record of 800 bomb tests pluming
Poems like “The Whale Becoming the Angel of the World in the Field of the House” offer a different way of thinking, involving connection, communication, wholeness, and love, rather than fragmentation and fear.
Wheeler’s approach in Heterotopia is more “literary,” employs a wider variety of forms, makes use of personas. She talks about her mother, but also writes from her perspective and from the perspective of other imagined characters. One section of the book, “The Calderstones,” is a crown of 14 linked sonnets, mixing personal narrative, history, and natural history. Here for instance is #7:
“Anny ur-gar, bols, buns,” the rag-and-bone man spat.
The salt man, too, with barrow or horse, came
in an old brown coat that their turnips and fat
might have some savor. He lived in the same
briny town and knew how tears preserve the dead,
how money is stained with sweat, how bland are the roots
that fatten underground. Salt can be mined
from caves in the Dungeon south of Liverpool
or evaporated from the tidal waters,
but three pounds of coal must burn for one pound
of salt to be boiled from the sea. Teach your daughters,
translate for your sons. It’s an incoherent sound,
the shout of the unshaven man in the dirty cap,
but he has what you need and he sells it cheap.
Section three of the book, “Legends” is a set of historically located family narratives set 1940-1962, the year the poet’s mother came to the U.S., employing first and third person narration. Wheeler’s descriptions deftly paint the deprivation and desperation of post-War Britain, as in “Sunday Afternoon in Liverpool, 1950”:
The aspirin at the heart of the jar.
The chipped-paint cupboard under the sink,
where mum keeps lye in a lemonade bottle.
The back of my hand in the rainy light.
Everything white has gone gray:
The narrator, “Fifth in line/for the crossword,” dreams about escape: “One day I’ll knock the coal soot from my shoes,/ bleach my hair, and lift my body too.”
Chapman’s poems, after forays into childhood and history, take up residence in carefully observed natural history. In poems like “Cevannes, Vallongenes,” “Harlequin Frogs,” and “Edge Effects in Old-Growth Forests” her artistic/scientific eyes come together powerfully, observationally as well as metaphorically:
strip the Pacific northwest.
The Douglas firs left,
over five-hundred years old,
begin to die back
at the new edges of meadow.
Even as blueberries take hold
and the black bears forage,
the microbial net
shrivels to dust
sun like a knife
slashing through forest.
Wheeler’s book winds to closure in loss—of oral culture, of certain sounds, of memories—but also in play in the final poem, “The Forgetting Curve” about “the exponential nature of forgetting,” but also about a child. Like Chapman, she makes science personal, brings theory to bear on individuals:
The girl on the swing wants to try
this hypothesis. Maybe the sky
looks different past this curve of the earth. Maybe
the stars are flowers torn from a branch—
suspended in the blue breeze as notes
on a staff, preserved until they can be sung.
In the final part of eelgrass, “Beginning Again,” Chapman also attempts to create/craft a language for reimagining a more holistic relation of human/earth, drawing wisdom from other species, as in “In the Teeth of the Wind.” Like Wheeler, Chapman has a fundamentally hopeful and sincere sensibility. Though she imagines her dead father telling her to “lighten up,” she can only do that by engaging and grappling honestly, long and hard, rigorously, factually, with human darkness, offering us, after that struggle, the light in “The All of It,” a poem oddly similar in its imagery to “The Forgetting Curve,” about a model of the universe, “against a dark blue backdrop of ignorance”:
Still, the dark blue backdrop
offers hope of god or natural law
where beginnings are small enough
to hold us all, the way the mind
can hold the drinking glass
or the newborn child
that love set going
from incomplete halves.
The Bigger World, by Noelle Kocot, and In Our Own Tongues, by Fabu, are quiet books in their own ways. In contrast to the poets considered thus far, Kocot writes character-based, fictional poetry driven by narrative. Fabu’s poetry, based like Wheeler’s on family stories and personal narrative, gives readers access to three generations of African American women’s experience which is meant to be emblematic of the larger group, not just herself, and the experiences are sometimes those of her family, sometimes not. Like Moore, Fabu’s stories—and Kocot’s to an extent—are grounded in religious experience, or the idea of God for Kocot, though that faith challenges Fabu to political/community activism, while Kocot, the author, doesn’t exist in her poems. They are stories set in motion by characters who exist independently from her. Humor plays a large role in both of these collections, though in an understated way, Kocot balancing carefully, interestingly, between sincerity and irony. The diction and tone of each author often takes on a deceptively simple, even child-like quality as a storytelling strategy. Kindness—of humor and behavior—is key. Their humor not only undercuts at times how seriously we take the narrators of their poems, but also equalizes the relation of poet-reader-character, as opposed to a text like King’s, in which the poet’s knowledge privileges the speaker and alienates the reader, who must try to find the poet/ meaning/ humor in a mirror-filled funhouse of language and image.
The first section of Fabu’s book, “My Granny Spoke African with a Bit of Southern English,” is the strongest. Fabu’s ability as a storyteller is displayed to its full here, as she speaks of and through Effie Florida Cunningham Partee, but also about the larger narrative of slavery that shaped Effie. This section begins with these lines:
Like seedy cotton inside a beige hull
Grandma Effie was a sturdy southern plant
thrivin despite hot sun and burnin segregation
watered from an ancient well and female sweat
my Granny spoke African with a bit of southern English.
Chiren best ‘member dat family be more den youren lives
Especially effecting in the next several poems about slavery and reconstruction is Fabu’s ability to catch a voice and its particular language, as in “I Be a Woman/She Be a Woman,” in which the narrator describes her terror and attempts to avoid her owner’s sexual attention and eventual rape:
i be so skeered breaths jerkin my body
when massa start payen me special attenshion
i doesnt knows whut to do
but i tries to act dumb n not understandin
all de same
i gets away from round him soonest possible
i skats down a different cotton row n pick dere
come sundown i heads for de quarters
i rubs my hands ober n ober ober n ober
i moans i groans i rolls round on de dirt floor
i gets up n goes out back de slave quarters
i throws soil pon my face n pon my head
The symbolic and literal fact of rape is crucial to the story of a grandmother from a sharecropping family that “could pass for white” but found it beside the point: “all decided to stay Black/just because they were.”
The stories of the poet’s mother, Bernice Partee Carter, are embedded in the history of the Civil Right’s movement and the continuing history of American racism. Here is “My Mama Spoke Southern English with a Bit of African”:
Churned pale yellow butter from fresh cow’s milk
is how Mama spoke.
Her young skin scorching in fields picking cotton
out of four bales, three for Mr. Taylor
one for family.
Mama kept memories she never told.
Teen bride of an army soldier from the North
she ran hard into marriage
escaping seasonal schooling and Jim Crow laws.
“Marching with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” is a persona prose poem told from Bernice’s perspective. “Georgia in My Mind,” is set on a 1950s bus as teenaged Bernice, now an army wife, makes her way to the back with two small children.
In section three, poems set during the poet’s life, stories shift back and forth between childhood/adulthood and in and out of the personas of other people, including Mr. Eugene Clemons, one of the striking sanitation workers who bring Dr. King back to Memphis, and the child poet. “From a Little Brown Girl” is particularly effective, as it describes her terror of the grown up world from the child’s point of view—father in Vietnam, mother marching in Memphis:
Little brown eyes watched
on Easter morning
soldiers in tanks rumble through our neighborhood.
This poem helps readers to understand the activism inherent in the poet’s childhood. That activism is tightly linked to spirituality in poems like “Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” which describes the place King occupied in her home, in pictures, books, magazines: “I saw you in a color photograph/with a fancy gold frame/on my Granny’s living room wall.//You hung right beside Jesus.”
There’s not necessarily a lot to smile about in this context, and a smile doesn’t always signal humor, as in “Magnolia Smile”: “What Miss Effie taught/growin up/ ceptin to always smile/ that magnolia smile/ waxy white/ with a little yella inside.” “Southern Love,” on the other hand, is full of wry humor; positioned in the section about the poet’s mother, we might read it as a persona poem from her:
I want love to be like a good pot of greens
pick the tenderest parts
separate from the hard stem
wash gently and thoroughly
removing every bit of dirt and grime
rinsing over and over and over
with the clear clean water of forgiveness
season with savory meat, herbs and spices
and then simmer, simmer, simmer.
Or in “Chicken Frying Lessons,” more understated humor arises from the unfairness and irony of the situation:
She [Mama] said
chicken lets you know
when to turn it over
if you rightly hear that certain hum
not just chicken frying sounds.
We Black folks
listen for what others
don’t hear and don’t hafta hear.
They chicken burn, they get another
or go out to eat.
The poem concludes: “Do the same with white folks/listen for that certain hum/not words they never say out loud.”
The collection ends, not surprisingly for a domestic narrative, in love rather than politics, and the image of the magnolia and what it represents, “southern contradictions.” The love the flower most truly represents, however, is not romantic love, but that of mothers and daughters, whose bond transcends both language and death, as in “Family Visits,” set after the deaths of her mother and grandmother:
it is through small rituals
that grandma and mama
in the morning
picking and cleaning
greens for evening supper.
follow their work
my knees bend to their faith.
created from their cotton dresses
Noelle Kocot tells wonderful, fable-like stories in The Bigger World, complete with characters, plot, dialogue. Really, I wonder why they’re lined at all; they read like prose poems or flash fiction. Like Fabu, the poems are mostly free verse, deliberately prose-like and accessible, the rhythms quiet. Written for story-telling. Except that the content isn’t exactly what you might read at bedtime to your children. Here is the opening poem, “God Bless the Child”:
Horatia hated children,
Fat children, short children,
Tall children, small children,
Skinny children, long children,
Any type of children, she despised,
And avoided them completely.
If a child was to be at a gathering,
She wouldn’t go. If one of her
Friends had a child, she’d stop
Talking to her. Then Horatia became
Pregnant and gave birth to a full-
Grown man. It was an easy birth,
Despite what people believed.
The man, her son, proved to be
A good and loyal son, and when
Horatia got old, he was there
At her side, playing mahjong
With her, taking her for walks.
Once when they were walking,
Horatia was met by a sea of children
In summer camp tee shirts. They
Smelled so good, and seemed so happy.
She was so overwhelmed that
She started to cry. “Is this what
I’ve been avoiding?” Horatia asked
A sensibility conditioned by Flannery O’Connor, by postmodernism, by the Coen Brothers, expects something horrible to happen to Horatia, undeserving mother-recipient (aren’t we all?) of her child’s kindness. But the plot of the poem veers in another direction
Her son, who looked
Her age now, noticed her tears and said,
“Mother, I do believe that you never
Once allowed me to be a child,
But I forgive you, seeing as how you
Were never really a child yourself.”
Horatia felt at peace, finally, after so
Many years of bottled-up hatred
And fear. She and her son walked
Silently on, not out of the flames
Or anything, but just walked on.
Hatred and fear yield to the peace of understanding that Moore's narrative also sought. Horatia's son’s kindness is Grace itself, an unearned gift.
Story after story features odd and sometimes magical people with limited imagination, intellect, heart, who come, through something like grace and nothing like justice, to a sort of balance with each other, themselves, the world. There is Todd and Francine in “Life on the Mountain,” who marry to have “a lot of good years together” after Todd helps her chase away “the patchwork of Francine’s/ Dark thoughts,” and Rick, a traveling “polyamorous shaman/who moonlights as a detective,” and Pandora who finds, after the “ugly spirits” fly out of her box, “love at the bottom.”
It isn’t easy to read Kocot’s tone. Is she serious or cynical? Gently poking fun or soaked with irony? Kocot’s poetry has been compared by some to Matthea Harvey’s, and their work seems most similar to me in their humor, and the general uncertainty in which we receive it. In comparison with King’s poems, which also use surreal imagery and move associatively, the stories make sense, and we know what is going on, at least on some level. That entry point makes the poetry seem more open to sincerity, less completely ironic, though the language itself, particularly the images and metaphors, may work in the other direction. Here is “Persepolis”:
Janice rose up like a ruined city.
She defied her limbic system’s
Wanton tricks, put something
In her belly and then waited.
Nothing rhymed with ego-death.
The ground was a smoking crater,
And names rose from the ashes
One by one. Janice found her
Own name floating toward her
And she blinked. The smoking
Crater symbolized something,
What she didn’t know. It couldn’t
Be her heart—that would be too
simple. Her soul body-slammed
Another soul, as if to say,
I am alive, I’ve missed myself sincerely.
What is it to rise up “like a ruined city,” to defy the “limbic system’s wanton tricks”? These are unexpected images, mysterious language, and yet the poems remain accessible, too. We can understand their ideas, which are, nonetheless, interesting: “Nothing rhymed with ego death…I’ve missed myself sincerely.” And that is perhaps the serious heart of these unpoem-like poems—their reimagination of a shifting “self,” as in “On Becoming A Person”: “Bruno fell in love with his ill-/Begotten self. ‘Self, I proclaim/You shiny leather, and I love/The way you fit my migration. / Go to it!’ His self had other plans.” Eventually Bruno’s self leaves in a taxi, and he becomes happy, saving “The world from its self,” and becoming useful. Or in “The Love that Lasts After Death,” Rita is a troubled do-gooding woman who aspires to be the person others think she is, achieving that by becoming a seagull for a while who decides to rejoin humanity, becoming better in the process.
Not everyone in The Bigger World can improve. Rex, for instance, in “Kind Regards,” is a cruel, King Richard III-like psychopathic character who dreams of death rather than life and makes “plans that no/One in his right mind would ever understand.” Tongue-in-cheek or serious? Kocot’s engaging and engaged fables enact an uncertainty that is a bigger world, calling on their readers to hold onto contradiction, rather than certainty, and to imagination itself as the path to enlarged spirits, which, in the bigger world, certainly do exist, whatever their reality. The accessibility of her stories is the ballast to the oddities of their characters, and vice-versa. Surrealism balances straightforward morals.
Split Personality, by Karla Huston and Cathryn Cofell, and Jennifer Tamayo’s Red Missed Aches Read Missed Aches Red Mistakes Read Mistakes (whose palimpsestic title I borrow for this essay), are two experimental projects akin to the poems of Fabu and Kocot in their insistence on the female body on the one hand and in their storytelling, fictional/quasi-factual/familial. They are both collaborative projects in a sense. In Split Personality two authors create a single persona, Thigh, in whose voice they write together seamlessly. [Red Missed Aches] is a collaboration between text and visual material: drawings, photos, and art, between art that is created and found art, and between languages: Spanish, English, Spanglish. Whereas Huston and Cofell’s character creates a certain self-absorbed interiority, Tamayo’s reaches out, body imprisoned by body, signifiying citizenship and witness.
The poems of Split Personality are carefully crafted free verse with lots of sounds to sink into—fun, and sometimes dazzling, word paintings. Both Huston and Cofell excel at this kind of poem, and their joint effort is not less than the sum of its parts.
Here’s the second stanza of “Digging in the Fat Box”:
maybe the neighbor
has forgiven the scale pitched
into the hydrangea, crackers
crumbled in the bed, cheese hidden
in those shoes. Or maybe it’s not
about the fat clothes at the bottom
or the slim jeans waiting to be filled.
Her aching belly.
Maybe it’s about wanting
to be filled, the friction of two thick
sticks rubbed together to create sparks,
the heat that rolls between her hands.
Or from the title poem:
I’m a swift walker
a queen bed rocker
a girdle stalker
a spider smacker
a monkey pile
a trip down that girl’s aisle,
a stay at home mom-o-phile.
I heard Huston and Cofell do a reading of their chap. The process itself was possibly as interesting as the product, as was their reading. Cofell performs with a band; Huston is a quiet reader. Together they crafted something that was lovely in the ways it came together and moved apart, emphasizing one, then the other poet, reading alternating stanzas at times, at times lines, or even parts of lines, back and forth. Collaboration of this sort affords poets a whole new way to think about themselves, what they do, to move beyond ego and its confines, the kind their character Thigh insists on. It’s kind of a shame that the chap itself doesn’t record their process, or their voices, but you can find these elsewhere, in for instance, qarrtsiluni and Poemeleon, where some of the poems and commentary on them have appeared.
The humor of the project and of Thigh (like a lot of humor) is more apparent out loud, I think, than on the page. Her concerns are physical—herself, her body, her looks, her men, and the authors treat her throughout with good-spirited fun, even in her pettiest moments, as in “Flea Market in Dickeyville.” She is appropriately a “Makeup Girl” who wonders if she could “give away half her body” in “She Contemplates the Venus de Milo” “to be an endless beauty,” a comically serious, or seriously comic, poem about the lengths women go to be “beautiful.” Thigh is in the middle of a mid life crisis, and that, in the context of suburban Wisconsin, is humor enough for two authors, in poems like “Learning to Dance in Poetryville,” or “Lost in Waukesha”:
Like a flock of confused birds,
Thigh finds herself running head-
long into the dark, the sky a shawl
of witches, caught in this spell
of minutes repeating,
The poem ends with the gently mocking “this/is only a temporary loss in the suburbs,/this is not the detour of her life,” and with the sincere certainty that our lives are indeed detours.
Red Missed Aches, winner of Switchback Books’ 2010 Gatewood Prize, is a stunning, border-crossing project, moving from text to image, poetry to visual poem, English to Spanish, poem to play. A red thread literally runs through the book, stitching one part of the collage to another, or making, in one case an erasure of a “Welcome to the United States” card for immigrants. Her language—Spanish, English, Spanglish—is likewise a collage, raw and stitched together, creating as red/read sutures a sense of difference and displacement, but recreating from that an aesthetic based on dissonance. Like Fabu’s collection, Red Missed Aches is autobiographical, though the word hardly suffices when the self depicted is so embedded in community and so deeply related to mother, to culture, to language, and to law:
I’m not talking because everyone is talking for me & on top of everyone else. Roled into the corner of my grandmother’s arm, I am a shape & everyone’s voice is in my head like my own.
Dropped into a hostile legal and aesthetic system in which the self is torn, erased, punctured, ripped, dehumanized, the author represents these truths, talks back to them, and dramatically punctuates her text with the recurrent image of a face (her mother’s) collaged/stitched onto the Virgin Mary. The captions keep changing: e.g., “Play surgeon o seamstress & feel all (this) please her”; “Does someone have to be the author. I’d rather not take this as mine”; the final image has no caption—perhaps so you can create your own?
Although this is a serious book, it is also extremely playful, in a way, perhaps, that challenges our notions of humor: what is funny in the world of undocumented worker, arrived here to earn/yearn/be spurned? Characteristic to the text are the bilingual puns, the sliding from one language to another, and the irony, layers and layers, of the undocumented/illegal immigrant’s situation:
All tease words are declared by me. Usted me deja en un blanco. I jam left in a why one by you. La lengua maternal, usted es negada. I forgot you for a ways & between tongues is wear I stalled. The mother tongue, I denied her so always. Olvidada para siempre. I am embarazada by speaking to my correlatives with it.
(from “Lengua, Material”)
Or in “(Mouth, her)”:
I’ve maid it a cross! All the way to the Sands Hotel, Resort & Casino.
I heard you assigned mi a number. Thank you! But I got one here. It was heard to get. We had to lay!
The poem ends: “I try to mamorize the population, the presidents, the articles I’ve read in newspapers. Even the national him no. That’s how I become a peoples but I may be mistaken.”
Humor is inevitably shadowed by pathos, as when the poet relates the story of her birth and the source of her Anglo name:
You are giving birth to me in the elevator, Mother. You are not making it in time. You have done yoga & meditation & you have picked out a name—after a character in your favorite TV show, Hart to Hart. “She is a woman who knows how to take care of herself.” Her hair feathers out with a shine.
Birth in Bogota is followed by leaving:
Two girls on a boat. In utter silence. Shhh! Utter silence! Everyone was leaving. They were scattered everywhere & you didn’t want to be left behind.
Like Split Personality, Red Missed Aches focuses intently on the female body: vagina/ clitoris/ the red thread/ sutures required by birth. And the rules, always the rules, the laws about what a woman can & can’t:
We can’t masturbate to Oprah or NPR
or Sesame Street.
We can’t masturbate to Julia Child or pastry puff.
We can’t masturbate to lakes, or trees, or flowers.
I’m trying to tell you we can’t masturbate to anything.
The women have sewn their lips shut.
The two-line “(Meta, whore)” cuts in different directions: “I have no vaginal canal/ to speak of outside of metaphor,” as does another two lines positioned next to a red stitched line that signifies the lips—of the mouth, of the vagina—sewn shut: “Mother, bodies are places that were utterly hurt & utterly landscaped. All together now, bodies are places. Utter it:”
The story takes us from place to place in Tamayo’s childhood, Texas, Puerto Rico, New York, and pain to pain, the mother’s abusive boyfriend and employers, school, separation, legal residency, always located in body, in tongue. The book proper ends with these lines: “Wear me like laundry. I am dress that fits just you let it. Come pair!”
Come pair/ compare / comprar (Spanish for to buy) signaling the twinned identity, along with the (attempted) purchase of this mother-daughter as domestic labor/slaves. The book actually ends, though, after the “End Notes” and the Acknowledgments with a drama poem/ trickster story of Coyote, figured as an immigrant smuggler of Mother, and Baby J. The final words are those of the immigration officials: “Are you trying to enter this country illegally? Where are you coming from ma’am?”
Having moved through fictional-autobiographical & autobiographical-fictional female bodies, the signifying humor of heart ache (think of Zora Neale Hurston’s memorable, “I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen, and I have licked out all the pots”), I want to focus on a second pair of experiments with poetry/fiction, each of which, like Split Personality and Red Missed Aches, has a narrative arc/the vestige of a plot, both of which focus on a relationship that, like the genres of the books themselves, crosses boundaries with respect to gender and sexuality, asking, literally, what it means to be human.
Matthea Harvey’s imaginative Of Lamb is a surprise in many ways following her award-winning Modern Life. First it has the look of a children’s picture book—hardback with lots of illustrations by artist Amy Jean Porter and small fragments of text on each page that add up to a story of the relationship between characters from a nursery rhyme, Mary and her lamb. Harvey is after all, besides a poet, also the author of a quirky kids’ book, The Little General and the Giant Snowflake. But this lamb also refers to Mary and Charles Lamb, the late 18th/early 19th c. brother and sister who lived and wrote together. And Of Lamb is an erasure of A Portrait of Charles Lamb, by David Cecil, a book Harvey chose at random on a bargain bookstore table. As the words Mary and Lamb kept occurring on page after page, a “warped retelling of the nursery rhyme emerged,” and she hit on the idea to do an art-poetry collaboration. Harvey did a white-out of the whole book, each page, and then selected, with Porter, 106 pages which they arranged into a story. Beneath the biography of Lamb by Cecil, Harvey explains, are layers of erasure, nursery rhyme, painting, and the deeply dark story of Mary Lamb, who killed their mother, wounded their father, and spent three years in an institution in the late 1700s. Their own strange relationship—they lived together again between the death of their father and Charles’ death, madness, dark thoughts, taboo relationships, and the love that can sometimes be a (temporary) stay against these forces, are the dark heart of the book, weirdly and deliberately at odds with the sometimes pastel, sometimes elementary-school reader palette of the illustrations, which are in turn at odds with many of the images in the gouache paintings: lamb drowning in a flooding bathroom, nettles, thorns, flies, lamb transformed into a snarling possum. As lamb, rather than Mary, descends into madness, the colors do shift—more wintry, more gray. Lamb himself constantly changes color, and the amount of human in lamb, the amount of lamb in Mary, changes too.
In a few of the early paintings, they look their most harmonious meeting somewhere between animal/ human—pronouns change too: “Mary shut his eyes to the future and ardently turned to animal satisfactions.” When lamb leaves, Mary is, ironically, more lamb-like than lamb. Later in the story lamb comes back to Mary, and having contemplated and rejected the possibility of children together, Mary becomes mentally ill:
In the next room,
In the house,
In the next room,
the very next room,
Her illness produces cruelties different but parallel to those of the real Mary Lamb:
Should I tell you
I watched her eating
a bit of cold mutton
in our kitchen?
The contrast between the paintings on this page and the text is particularly brutal—both funny and cruel: Mary eating a little pink lamb on a stick, like an Easter candy or a popsicle. Later, lamb licks at the melted treat on the ground. The text on that page? “Year by year/he appeared fatter,/ but Lamb was not/ full of fun.”
The back and forth between fun/funny/light and serious/dark early in the text gives way at the end to the latter, a painting of a snake paired with this sobering thought on thinking:
The Life Contemplative
is unwholesome food—
a snake in the temple garden.
Though there’s a certain uncomfortable frivolity in the text—the butting up of text and art, of children’s book as a genre and the story of both the Lambs and Of Lamb, the contradictions and grotesqueness emanate not so much from the poet and artist as from the contradictions in the Enlightenment turning Victorian Great Britain that they point to: the madness and the denial of madness at its center, setting humans at the center of the universe, men above women, adults above children, thought above emotion, soul above body, whiteness above all. Harvey’s writing is always filled with images of halves—half this/half that, fractions, strange characters, fictional elements and the exploration of boundaries in form and content.
And yet quirky and imaginative as it is, like her previous work, there’s something a little off about Of Lamb. It’s erasure of narrator in part? Of poet? The balance between irony/ sincerity here, as in Kocot, as in Harvey’s previous work is difficult to read, as are some of the jarring clashes between material like nursery rhymes and picture books on the one hand, and themes like bestiality, incest, madness, cannibalism on the other. In any event, one of the fascinating things I get from this project is the way Harvey’s poetic voice/ treatment of material comes through, despite writing with words from a randomly chosen book.
Like Of Lamb, Ching-In Chen’s first book, The Heart’s Traffic, a novel in poems, is an experiment, a narrative, the story of a relationship between two characters, Xiaomei and Sparrow, kaleidoscoping through a multitude of poetic forms, Eastern and Western—from the sestina to the Zuihitsu, though there is, as in the dense poems of Amy King, no easy story here. It is fragmentary, fragmented, written in riddles, and riddled with holes. The purpose of that fragmentation—narratively and symbolically—is a little easier to understand than in King, and there’s a range of difficulty/ accessibility in the poems, so that a reader has more toeholds, more points of entry into Chen's work, though the individual poems can be quite forbidding, and the totality is certainly not easy or straight forward. Signs appear and disappear, like Sparrow, like love, like the self/ identity, the word Coolie, a recurring note teased apart, signifier and signified, the syllables and the sense into Coulie, Ku Li, Gruel Tea, Cruelty, Cold Feet, Chew Me, Coo/Glee, Cooly. It’s a word on which the weight of the book hangs—the burden of not just the Asian American experience, but the experience of writing “the” “Asian American” experience. Here is “Cruelty: a riddle”: “So you think I’m going to write about my mother in her kitchen, delicate love and the family meal. Here in my banished heart, there are no mothers or kitchens.” So be warned, this is not Maxine Hong Kingston or Amy Tan or Monica Sone, not a domestic rendering of “the immigrant experience,” though there are certainly debts to especially Kingston in her mythic mixing of fiction and truth-telling.
If Harvey’s Of Lamb is an erasure of a single text, Heart’s Traffic reads like an erasure of a body of literature (as well as a body), as in the ironically mythical “Cooled Ghee: a riddle,” the only poem in “Makeshift Family Myth,” the book’s first section, a new gloss on the experience of Asian American men coming to the U.S. without their wives and families as “temporary” workers:
Long ago, two temporary fathers lived in an unmentionable land far from home. Under the tear-dry sun, the thin father from the North sang the songs passed down from his youth in his clear voice. The tall father from the South collected the elements of water, sand, dirt, and green for his stories with no end, no matter how wide the field grew in the night while they mumbled to their lost families.
This is a story, like Tamayo’s, of investing in a culture, of building a country that wants your body and your labor, but not your mind; that uses people like objects. One father’s legs turn into tree trunks. The fathers grow tired of each other, of having no friends, no mothers. The idea of “choice,” of choosing, is problematic, as they work on, attempting to buy themselves back:
The two fathers ground their shoulders to the bottom of the dirt field, their sweat libations to free themselves of their contract….Arriving at the end of their contract, the fathers discovered unexpected fees and circumstances.
The circumstances include relatives who finally follow them, although relationships, culture, dynamics have shifted irrevocably: “‘Do we even remember how to push our voices into the morning?’ They’d left the sounds fluttering between them in the back of their histories where their families stayed.”
Mystery mysteriously and mythically rendered is a hallmark of The Heart’s Traffic, and Chen experiments with different forms throughout, incorporating traditional but torqued ones, as well as inventing forms. “Knots,” a double-sestina, is a two-voiced poem arranged in two columns, that uses darker/lighter type to signal which character, Sparrow or Xiaomei, is speaking. Column two is an “explanation,” a commentary on the notes in column one, though nothing is really explained, including the exact rules of the form, which works both across columns, as well as one twelve-line stanza to the next. The pair are school friends, girls, but the way they are spoken of, building a nest, meeting at trees, hiding things there, they might almost be birds. Especially Sparrow:
They build a nest,
The form, the relationship between the girls, its nature, their own identities, are knots for the reader to work out, puzzle through, involving tragedy, sexuality, gender, immigration, coming of age, all against the background of the founding story of the coolie, meaning slave and “contract laborer,” the etymology/spelling/origin of which is itself mysterious, the word becoming a racist slur, the “coolie trade” parallel but different in its particulars to the slave trade.
“Some Say” foregrounds the mythic sensibility at work in the relationship between the girls, the unknowing, the uncertainty—who is Sparrow? What is she? What happened to her? And yet one thing is certain: the longing, the loss, the grief:
No one says, I will miss her my whole-long life.
I will carve a door in my dream, an entrance that belongs only to her so I can tell
her again and again how I wish we never fought over the stars the night she fell
out of my life.
The discursive poles of The Heart’s Traffic are wildly split, too, ranging from that dense and knotted language to the grade school report language of “Coolie, A History Report,” also a two-column poem. Here is the second column: “They/built the/railroad, but// couldn’t/ go/ to// the/ party./ They/ were/ sad/ and/ mad.” These poles of language represent a spectrum of competence/comfort, as well as many kinds of relationships in the book, culture to culture, friend to friend, living to dead, self to other, self to self. “The TrueTale of Xiaomei” seems to ponder the relation of the poet and Xiaomei, her character, as avatar:
This woman with my face is not mine.
I do not love her and she does not love me.
Xiaomei narrates her “Outlandish True Tale”:
We a lovely family bought passage on the steerage section of the airplane,
here to start a romantic,
that classic immigrant story that breaks their little Pilgrim hearts
and who could say otherwise—
This particular poem, like the book itself, raises questions about truth and fiction, storytelling and audience, and the problem of trying to negotiate an identity, not so much around the stories of the ancestors and the family’s expectation of you, as in Maxine Hong Kingston’s groundbreaking autobiographical work, but negotiating an identity, a space for yourself even to exist, given the expectations of the audience and the story itself:
How do you know I am not secretly in love with this face,
which I have never hated,
as you first imagined.
The task of the individual writer isn’t so much telling “the story,” but this:
To love your own violent histories
the remembered soup of your failings,
and to forgive those who have failed before you,
The last poems in the book, “How Sparrow Became Firefly” and “Inventing the Tiger,” arrangements of sounds and words on the page, write into a youthful, elastic poetic language intent on reinventing the relation of poem to narrative, poetry to activism, truth to language, not content to erase history or poet despite a society/system intent on erasing all that lives, and the book’s final words literally lift off for flight:
What is consigned must be digested thoroughly,
the pulp hung from the frame.
Opening from the fray—
Intelligent and imaginative, The Heart’s Traffic is an impressive first book of a talented younger poet. I look forward to reading future work from Chen.
I heard Nikky Finney read at the AWP conference (Associated Writers & Writing Programs) last winter in Chicago, just after the announcement that Head Off & Split, her fourth collection, had won the National Book Award. Fiercely intelligent, ferociously funny, Finney’s poems, like the poet, insist on meaning, significance, relevance, research, insight, truth. Finney read that evening without a single comment, allowing the poems to speak themselves. Her final, enormous words were the epigraph to Head Off & Split, a postcard and command from Toni Cade Bambara in hospice: “Nikky, Do not leave the arena to fools.’” I don’t think many American poets could have followed Finney that night and not seemed irrelevant, foolish, out-matched. She should, in any reasonably intelligent orchestration and planning, have had the last word.
There is no disappointing, no unnecessary poem in this deep, dense collection. Weaving personal and historical material together, fiction and autobiography, different kinds of narrators—often in the same poem, the prose poem and the lined, dialogue and devices from theater with observation, ethnography and public record with the imagined, human and non-human, Finney’s poetic voice and vision is that of the steady, watchful eye, the camera. But the camera as human, as language-camera, as poet-framer. It’s a method that foregrounds the relationship of poem to photograph. The mode, the tone of Finney’s stills is critical and often satirical, whether or not the lens is turned on herself or on history.
There is a one word Latin injunction/caption in between the Table of Contents and the Acknowledgments, Veritas. That is to say a noun which could mean any of the following:
Truth. Reality. The Truth of Nature. Integrity. Sincerity.
The title, Head Off & Split, refers to the language of fishmonger and packaging for consumption, beheaded and boned, ready to cook. It simultaneously references the poet-daughter, always leaving home, as well as the head itself and its various connotations and denotations, and the destruction of body/ truth/ the truth of the body in American culture as our nation’s founding myth and practice. Each section of the book uses “head”—“The Hard-Headed,” “The Head-Over-Heels,” “The Head-Water.” And in Finney’s mind, thinking isn’t the opposite of feeling, but the opposite of not-thinking: the thing that allows us to be conned by politicians, the media, oppressive systems, the coming-of-age narratives of our culture alike.
Rosa Parks, the heroine of the first poem in the stunning series of poems on political subjects in “The Hard Headed,” is redefined as first and foremost, a thinker: not in a rarefied and detached way, but in an extraordinarily ordinary one. The use of facts, about and in the person of Parks, is relentless and powerful:
By forty-two, your biases are flat, your seams are inter-
locked, your patience with fools, razor thin.
By forty-two, your heart is heavy with slavery, lynching,
and the lessons of being “good.” You have heard
7,844 Sunday sermons on how God made every
woman in his image. You do a lot of thinking with
a thimble on your thumb. You have hemmed
8,230 skirts for nice, well-meaning white women
in Montgomery. You have let the hem out of
18,809 pant legs for growing white boys. You have
pricked your finger 45,203 times. Held your peace.
Finney deftly satirizes our mainstream, media delivered beliefs about Parks and her actions and the role she is expected to play, as she replaces those flat, caricatures of Parks with something rounder, more solid, more human, and even worthier of our respect:
A woman who believes she is worthy of every
thing possible. Godly. Grace. Good. Whether you
believe it or not, she has not come to Earth to play
Ring Around Your Rosie on your rolling
circus game of public transportation.
The bus driver is a fool; the society that sets the game in motion is foolish; and we are foolhardy to take any of it for reality.
The poems that follow “Red Velvet” in this first section of the book form one of the most biting, damning indictments of the American political system—and our heads of state—ever written and include these pieces: “Left,” a portrait of people abandoned to Hurricane Katrina; “My Time Up with You,” a confrontation between a newsman and Mayree Monroe, a woman who refuses to leave her house during a hurricane despite orders to evacuate; “Plunder,” a 19-section poem of 14-line sonnet-like pieces in the persona of George W. Bush at his final, foolish State of the Union address; and “The Condoleezza Suite,” a devastating quintet of concertos about Condoleezza Rice, a woman whom I take to be the poet’s Doppelgänger: intelligent, educated, talented, ambitious, childless, but ultimately squandering her power selfishly and foolishly. Each of these masterworks could, and should, be endlessly unpacked, each a portrait of a single person, each a critique of American politics, culture, racism, the arts.
“Left,” for example, isn’t only about Katrina and the foundering of Civil Rights ideals in the U.S., but also language divorced from communication, discourse and utterance from people, perhaps, or maybe that’s just how it seems to me, Language Poetry itself:
The woman with pom-pom legs waves
her uneven homemade sign:
Pleas Help Pleas
and even if the e has been left off the Pleas e
do you know simply
by looking at her
that it has been left off
because she can’t spell
(and therefore is not worth saving)
or was it because the water was rising so fast
there wasn’t time?
Eenee Menee Mainee Mo!
Catch a— a—
The low-flying helicopter does not know
the answer. It catches all of this on patriotic tape,
but does not land, and does not drop dictionary,
Regulations require an e be at the end
of any Pleas e before any national response
can be taken.
“My Time Up with You” is a play-like two-character poem with dialogue and careful descriptions of body language, an ethnography of a conversation between a young white man and an older black woman, and a clear-headed, darkly comic commentary about interracial communication, especially the failure of whites to understand blacks because they do not have to:
The old woman, three times his age, points, then
claps her hands like a much younger woman.
When she does her top teeth shift, slip. She stands.
Using both hands she smoothes down the cotton
fabric from hipline to another invisible mark just
above her knee. She does this in one fluid motion.
This is the oldest signal in the Western Hemisphere
between an old Black woman and whosoever
her company happens to be.
My time up with you her standing-up legs and
smoothing-down hand signals say. But the young
“tom brokaw” has not studied his field guide
to Black women.
“Plunder” is likewise a marvel of technique and critique, satire and wit, a searing portrait of an empty-headed president whose vision of himself is psychotically divorced from reality. If there is any justice, the poem will be an eternal touchstone of that disastrous reign. And Condoleeza? A woman who “won’t not even when no one is/ looking, sideslip or walk the white keys with only/ the fingers of her left hand” when she plays the piano? A shoe has the last words on her, as Rice browses for pumps and ice skates in Manhattan while Katrina rages:
I knew from Inauguration #1
she was not the kind to trade places
(even in her mind) with anyone held hostage
on a roof by good old army corp levee water.
Her exquisite Saint John suits shouting into
the television screen: “Stranded bodies &
hard-headed water are not my department!”
Although Finney’s keenness continues in the next section when the material becomes more personal, more about the body and love, her language precise and surprising, it’s not until these two tributaries come together—the personal, the political—in section three, “The Head-Water,” that her poetic power and imagination are fully displayed. “Dancing with Strom” is a particularly marvelous blend of scholarship and literature, poetry and politics, vernacular architecture and poem, satire and introspection. “Penguin, Mullet, Bread,” is a narrative in which personas—penguin and poet, shift and collapse, likewise the book’s title poem, “Head Off & Split,” the penultimate piece wherein the poet-narrator becomes fish:
The fishmonger lays me on the table He chooses a
smaller knife for the rest of my drive The skin of my
torso is peeled back to reveal What is left What it will
take for me to leave them behind The 803rd time
How can I drive back to my life ahead Each time the
leaving hardens the soft tissue of my birth This time
he says He will only take the head and the pearl green
eyes Next time he says The lungs The heart sac
The liver Will all have to go along What can you do
in this life without the parts you need To feel the bend
in the road? I am head off & split Perfectly served
The daughter Home as expected Without children
of her own As unexpected
The last poem, “Instruction, Final: To Brown Poets from Black Girl with Silver Leica,” reminiscent of Cade Bambara’s instructions to Finney in the epigraph, elaborates how not to abandon the arena to fools and explicitly connects Finney’s work as a photographer to that as a poet through framing, watching, carefully choosing: “Be camera, black-eyed aperture…. Watch your language!” she writes. “Careful to the very end what you deny, dismiss & cut away. // I have spoken the best I know how.” The poet witnesses, but convincing poetry, like photography, is more than point-and-shoot.
Poetry for Finney, as for each poet considered here, is serious and important in the weight it accords language, as well as in its power to open the imagination and to connect us more fully to ourselves, to others, to what it means to be human. Her voice and her approach have a commensurate, convincing power, as does her subject, Truth itself, as well as how we know, what we know, and what we do as a result. Wisdom, understanding, and certainty are negotiated between individuals and community: “The grandmothers were right/ about everything” (“Left”). But this is a hard-earned truth, as we know from the opening poems about Rosa Parks, about Mayree Monroe, about Katrina. Accessible, though precise and sometimes difficult, language in her work is a given: Everything is at stake here, and understanding what is said, unsaid, and not said, all crucial, is over and over a matter of life and death. Facts and clear-headed thought are necessary for understanding and for right action, and facts—historical, scientific, observational—play a privileged role in her poems, though so do character, story, perspective, persona. Challenging and satisfying is the combination of fact and fiction, of gravity and wit, that Finney marshals to arrive at what is simultaneously comic and no laughing matter: the poet in Head Off & Split takes back the knife; the poem, or perhaps the Truth from which it’s cut, is the fish. “Careful to the very end what you deny, dismiss & cut away. // I have spoken the best I know how.”
Wendy Vardaman (wendyvardaman.com) is the author of Obstructed View (Fireweed Press), co-editor/webmaster of Verse Wisconsin (versewisconsin.org), and co-founder/co-editor of Cowfeather Press (cowfeatherpress.org). She is one of Madison, Wisconsin's two Poets Laureate (2012-2015).