When the Brits say, I’ll get you sorted out, they mean, in the voice of a formidable nanny, You are a mess that will no longer be tolerated. Sorting myself out is one of my deepest pleasures, as if in separating laundry, silverware, and monthly bills, I bring order to a self burrowing in confusion. When I was little, and living with my pistol-packing packrat of a grandmother, I would resort to choosing a single drawer in her chaotic house and sorting the silver dollars and sticky pennies from cough drops, green stamp booklets, tongues of Doublemint, and single stockings shot at the heel. The drawers would be quickly re-filled by Maw Maw’s limitless detritus, so I would begin to list: my faults and bad features; what we needed from the Winn Dixie; cities I would some day visit, by ranking. To list, then, is an activity I begin with anticipation, and one that will most likely have to be pried from my clutching hands.
And yet, as a writer who has grown old in the shell, scarcely if ever “emerging,” I find it hard to list “emerging” writers—who am I to connote that adjective to poets further along the road? I think, with the reader’s kind permission, I would like to change the criteria to “emergent”– poets at various stages in the continual artistic process of coming into being. These women are all members of my imagined writing community, for, as Lynn Hejinian wrote, “At stake in the public life of a writer are the invention of a writing community; [and] the invention of the writer (as writer and as person) in that community.” This imagined community, in my opinion, provides readers with the “indeterminate threshold, the shift” (in Ann Lauterbach’s words) that precludes the uncomfortable realization of a new perspective.
- Jane Wong
I begin with Jane Wong, a former student of mine at Bard College, whose first book, Overpour, is appearing this year from Action Books and whose work is included in the latest Best American Poetry. I keep up with her poetry via the Internet and I am always fascinated by her unaffected depictions of self – unaffected, I mean, by the current resistance to personal experience and family narratives. I like, too, the way she avoids the big finish, the fillip that signals redemption or axiomatic closure. Instead:
And still, my incomplete
metamorphosis. Half-heron, half-
cabinet. Moss growing through wings, doors. The heavens
open. All around, trees rising
exponentially. Apologetic, these shadows of excess
In the portrait above the mantel, my face is turned to the side
from “Posthumous Portrait”
- Tonya Foster
I’m also mightily impressed by Tonya Foster’s first book, A Swarm of Bees in High Court, which creates a Harlem that is both real, and, unsurprisingly, a symbol for a long history of love and death; bullets “Blot a page, train an eye to/follow.” I’ve long been a fan of her work, which reads with syllabic certainty and the feeling that these words are hard-won, set down with deliberation and certitude and fear. Using puns, Southernisms, the grammar of real people and the vocabulary of academics, her work mourns quietly:
Nots form this woman
who sugars her mustards, who’ll
want but never ask.
There’s so much going on in Foster’s work, and always, it seems, her articulation of complexities are equaled by lyrical and formal skills—modified haiku, tercets, etcetera—and a kind of myth-making, a recognition that the lives of ordinary and extraordinary people deserve the heightened language that attempts to describe them:
These yawns into which we enter as into a harbor—
Come. Go. Don’t. says the vocal oceans which usher
each us, so unlike any ship steered or steering into.
A habit of place and placing a body.
Which choruses of limbs and wanting, of limp
linger in each syllabic foot tapping its chronic codes?
from “In Tongues”
- Sina Queyras
I’ve been reading and rereading Sina Queyras’s Expressway. Here are poems that drag the Romantic poets into our world of roads and roadside trash and the hopeless roar of traffic—go, go, go. Her enjambments are nothing short of masterful and her forms echo Eliot’s “Marina,” Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, in ways that are lyrically and conceptually apt:
What sympathy of sounds? What cricketing
Of concrete, what struck rubber, what society
And shifting birdsong sweetens spring’s tumult?
The joy of forward, the joy of onward, the endless fuel:
The circles, the ramps, the fast lanes, the cloverleaf.
One senses that, for Queyras, this is poetry of both language and experience, with respect (or disrespect) for the real world, “the publick road” and the “metrical arrangement [of] a selection of the real language of men”:
The roar of tires is the rhythm of my day, the woman said, every fourteen cars a sonnet. Behind her the city slickened: vehicles everywhere, idling, honking, revving, stiffening themselves against her.
from “A Memorable Fancy”
- Jane Mead
Some of the most devastating elegies I’ve read are Jane Mead’s poems for a dog, Toby the Stray, in her last collection, Money Money Money Water Water Water. Mead’s unabashed sentiment inspires me—poetry is so rarely nowadays about unalloyed love:
He squeaked when he yawned, he sighed when he slept—
our bear, our lion, our soft-eyed prince.
and the bottom of his feet like brown sugar.
[…] He showed me where my heart is,
and the bottom of his feet smelled like brown sugar.
from “Toby the Stray”
- Jean Valentine
More elegies: Jean Valentine’s new collection, Shirt in Heaven, exhibits a nearly perfect lack of insecurity, a confidence that allows her to elegize authors, family, and ghosts, as she projects herself onto objects and others with near-mystical identification. Her imagination, Blakean in its generative power, works imaginatively within a voice I want to emulate—a voice devoid of any insecure let-me-educate-you, let-me-explain undertones. Grammar may break down, but the force of a sentient life never does:
Why do they call the dead
two days after you died
we talked on W. 17th Street —
Then everything complicated,
swift & gear.
from “When I Woke up, My Friend”
- Cole Swensen
And more from the Afterlife: When Cole Swensen, in Gravesend, asks, what is a ghost? her answers reveal belief, a kind of call and response, unmoored from single meanings of life and death and hauntings. I want to define things, as she does, in images so right, and yet so not-literal: a “tangled electric,” a “radiogram of the air,” a “broken window,” “a knot in the otherwise smooth flow of time.” Ghosts are examined so exhaustively (titles of poems include “Etymology,” “Varieties of Ghost,” “According to Scripture,” “History,” and my favorite, “Ghosts in the Sun”) that they redefine their subject, as if “ghost” were a prism for multiple perspectives:
…more widely a tendency
to recur, which is a kind of clock that stopped the endless circling
that traces a circle there in the dust in the floor…
from “The Ghost Is in Itself”
I want, too, to steal those ghostly absences, the caesura dislocating every line. The overall feel of this book is like what Swenson describes in “Crowds,” as a ghost passes through a woman. She senses his fingers “inside my chest” and asks:
…will you ever be
a sound in an empty house an inexplicable mark, that, washed off, glows dark.
So many more poems and poets could be on this list, poets with duende, whose work enacts “a struggle not a thought”: the phenomenal concrete poetry of Shira Dentz; the poetry comics of Bianca Stone; Dawn Lundy Martin’s latest, Life in a Box is a Pretty Life; anything by Sueyeun Juliette Lee or Miranda Mellis or erica kaufman. Or, the books I’m reading now: Louise Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night and the lamented C.D. Wright’s The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures—but I must stop. As the key card at my hotel here in Mandalay tells me: when the blue light
turn the handle. open the door
Let my last words be: Think of these poets as blue light. open the door