The gestural lyric and beyond
A review of Amy King's "I Want to Make You Safe"
Amy King’s poems are written from a place without an overview. The opposite of Olympian, this poetry is down here with the rest of us, mired in the details, some of which may be tedious while others astonish — a poetry just trying to keep its head in the air, mainly for survival’s sake. Sometimes those details come in lists, like this one from “The Strange Power of Lying to Yourself”:
I don’t know. A bunch of things. The mail, a bi-racial couple,
songs about a boyfriend who doesn’t understand, Thai people
gathered, mostly transsexual, sushi for the masses, bacterial
moments of half-crazed drunk when no one touches
your bag or wallet across the bar, a lovely candle refusing
to flicker, one wind, one shirt, one sky teeters
fireflies asleep between paperbacks,
their names that SOS me,
a painter’s bird red as plumes,
a bodily silence in dead-layered flesh,
and a hole, among other things, as I am a learning actress. (18)
This breakup of lived experience into a scatter of oddly vivid yet disconnected fragments — registered with greater or lesser accuracy by a good deal of contemporary poetry, but rarely with quite the conviction that King brings to it — may have something to do with what Fredric Jameson famously diagnosed as one of the symptoms of postmodernity, namely that “waning of affect” whereby the supposedly stable bourgeois self has devolved into a congeries of depthless intensities. In retrospect, though, Jameson’s periodization (and therefore his whole argument) seems less than convincing. After all, this rejection of full-bodied representation in favor of a direct rendering of sensations was already the intention of modernist abstraction in painting; in 1947, for instance, Clement Greenberg had seen in Jackson Pollock’s art “an attempt to cope with urban life; it dwells entirely in the lonely jungle of immediate sensations, impulses and notions, therefore is positivist, concrete.” And of course Pollock was just going further along the path the Impressionists had already started on more than seventy years earlier, not long before Rimbaud’s Illuminations showed that something similar was possible in poetry. Today King, like many of the rest of us, is still trying to cope with urban life; and Greenberg’s astute turn of thought, in which what might have been thought utterly private and subjective (“immediate sensations, impulses and notions”) turns out to be what’s most evident and “concrete,” is just as applicable to her poetry as to Pollock’s paintings. King’s poetry is full of emotional content, sometimes harsh, often poignant — and for that matter consists of almost nothing but that — yet it never demands that you feel along with it. Instead, the feelings brush lightly across your skin like a passing cat.
When I read King’s first full-length book, Antidotes for an Alibi, in 2005, I noticed a series of basic words that recurred through the book — woman, love, God, sex, mother, child, man — and that seemed to structure its emotional plot. In I Want to Make You Safe, by contrast, such recurrent words don’t make themselves felt; they’re probably still there but more subtly. Yet the emotional tenor of her verse remains evident and I can’t help suspecting that words like love (the book’s final word), death, art, earth, and body occur more often in I Want to Make You Safe than in most of the new poetry that comes my way; even in those poems where such words don’t occur, they somehow seem to be lurking somewhere in the background. The puzzle is how King manages to square her work’s emotional openness with its semantic obliquity. I don’t think it’s entirely a matter of technique. It’s more an awareness that words were not born to be filed away in dictionaries and retrieved at leisure, but to lie heaped up around us waiting to be scooped up by the handful in the spontaneity of a linguistic gesture that can make do with whatever verbal objects come to hand. Thus a certain degree of arbitrariness or at least approximateness is not simply acceptable but absolutely essential to her writing — otherwise, the calculation of the gesture would cancel out its import.
There’s a paradox here: to make her poems work, King must be accurate in her arbitrariness, precise in her approximations. And she almost always is. It may be hard to specify why — but it becomes clearer in contrast to the relatively rare instances where things go awry and one senses the poet making a mannerism of her own method. One poem where this happens is “Our Eyes Register the Light of Dead Stars,” which overuses the device of combining a noun and adjective (or adjectival phrase) catachrestically: in short order we find “a glassy sun,” “the stewing universe,” and “our glassy brow,” followed by “That devil’s tuxedo promise,” “piano fire cures,” and “soft-focus silt” (20). As Kasey Mohammad pointed a number of years ago, “it is very unlikely that two different people will ever have exactly the same sense of when catachrestic language produces a dynamic poetic effect, and when it simply produces uninteresting noise,” but in this case I’d suggest that the quick succession of similarly structured catachrestic phrases gives off a clangor that diminishes one’s interest in the poem to the extent that it feels too mechanical (but on the other hand, if it were a mechanical effect that was desired, not mechanical enough); this diminishes rather than accentuates what is always the real content of King’s poetry, which is the concrete world of our everyday lives with its unfiltered sensations and sudden shifting microemotions.
Given that King is in this sense a poet of the concrete, of “sensations, impulses and notions,” it is not surprising that hers is a lyric poetry through and through. At a time when the lyric is widely denigrated and often practiced in a defensive mode if at all, her insouciant confidence that it will serve any end is heartening. Typical of the lyric, her poems are compact: mostly self-contained structures of a single page or at most two. But I Want to Make You Safe brings something new to King’s work: a pair of longer poems (the title poem and the final one, “This Opera of Peace”), allowing her lyrical impulse greater range. For a poet like King, whose subject matter by definition resists extension, the poem is most easily drawn out by dint of juxtaposition. After all, the shorter poems are already built out of juxtapositions, so the difference between a long poem (or, rather, long-ish: we’re talking about poems of eleven and thirteen pages here) and a long one is more about the decision to cut than anything else. The important thing is maintaining concentration — first the poet’s own, then the reader’s. In parts of “This Opera of Peace” King seems to be experimenting (very successfully) with the way more elaborate syntactical structures — the poem’s first section alone is twenty-seven lines long — can be used to maintain attentiveness through time while asserting a multiplicity of sensations in relation rather than simple juxtaposition, so that
This opera of peace
whirls and whorls around us
stretching darkness into light (75)
I’d love to see King continue “stretching” like this. The poetics that she’s been working with over the past decade seem ready to morph into a different sort, perhaps even stranger and more exigent. The prospect is electrifying.