by Amy King
Litmus Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-933959-23-8
Reviewed by Sally Rosen Kindred
Editor’s Note: Sally Rosen Kindred’s review of Amy King’s new book, I Want to Make You Safe, recommends it for its visceral as well as intellectual take on politics and the politics of language. Her review intrigues me to become more familiar with this poet's work, I want to read this book. ~Stephanie Brown
“We think we know things,” writes Amy King in “Follow the Leader of My Silken Teeth,” a poem from her fourth full-length poetry collection, I Want to Make You Safe. The poem continues, and those things we only think we know come tumbling mystically and rhythmically out:
Animal shapes. The songs of undiscovered tribes.
How to hold baby diamonds. Scratch the fur off why.
Read the delicate membranes of spirit guides.
Pilfer dreams’ pockets.
If I thought I knew things before I picked up this book—if I had relaxed into the grasp I thought I had on how my own language produces what I know—then I know better now. The poems in this collection go to charged and lyrical work to re-think and expose the language we use to construct the world around us, breaking that language down into fragments of utterance often turned at new, exciting angles. They ask persistent, slippery questions: “Are we still talking to the same God?” and “[W]ho creates the pattern of what seems?” They shake us awake to “The Familiar” (the title of the book’s third section) and call into question our assumptions about how we use language to understand nature, gender, and violence.
Of course, the question of how language writes our experience is not a new one. The poems acknowledge a cultural and linguistic history, including the legacy of Claude Levi-Strauss, whose Mythologiques are alluded to several times in the work’s first section. Levi-Strauss’s structuralist ideas—his notion of universal laws governing myth, his opposition of “the raw and the cooked”—are called into question by a speaker who points out in “The Identity in my Crisis” how hard it is to know what we know when we are ourselves part of, consumed by, language: “too eaten am I to be holding on/ to a product I conduct in the language of fathers.” In the place of a beginnings myth comes the sometimes dangerous, sometimes playful record of a struggle to inscribe and reinscribe a start to things, as in “A Bruise That Stains the Teeth”:
The mythology goes a branch took root
and gulped the sleeve of the planet in signature orgasm.
Eve, she wrote. Big bang, he noted.
In “The White of Sacre Coeur Against A Blue Parisian Sky,” a speaker “for your listening pleasure” will be
telling you mythologies
that include how we are the sores of hope riding
the backs of tomorrow, mountain peaks we climb
and shout the names of those to come and those who’ve been,
each of us who happens to be the world’s greatest against every
shade of sky, and every sky that cradles our dying heads, still living.
The rousing energy and outward movement of these lines, the tension between hope and suffering, reflect the ambitious scope of the poems, which enter a world of war and consumption, of defining and re-defining human and animal rights, a historical moment that includes Baghdad and China, “poultry programs with antibiotic-baked chicken” and a “post-lesbian wedding.”
The poems in this collection engage seriously with the idea of perception and perspective, their syntactic fissures suggesting the trouble with understanding the world through a linguistic filter that blocks out essential elements and leaves us with missing pieces. In “Why the Wind,” the poem questions
Why the wind
is air thick with tongues
that lick a bleat
into what gets spoken
pieces we’re missing,
Or not built with, I cry
to remember what I saw
in the very ether
we disappear in.
In place of what’s missing, language deposits a more palatable or acceptable version of nature and death. In “Bows at the end of Death,” the poem begins, “In eventide, we demand the lying down.” The poem “The People of Things,” self-consciously announces the intention of a poem to construct a landscape and force it into a particular kind of representation:
I have the pleasure of requesting that you just
recall a lawn of lemon and pear trees
which won’t always be so obvious nor
The self-conscious language of invitation exposes the work of a “nature poem,” which assigns to nature the meanings of beauty and nostalgia.
One of the strengths of this book is the reminder of why the questions of culture and language matter: there is much at stake in the covering over that happens with language, particularly in a cultural climate of violence. In the book’s title poem, King refers, I assume, to Staff Sergeant Dave Bellavia’s recounting of the brutal deaths of Iraqi civilians in a candy truck crushed by merging U.S. Army vehicles:
When the army trucks ran over the candy one,
Iraq was all it never would be.
Into reddest rose blooms
a serious business….
The poem uses a collage of fragmented images and events to talk about violence—violence of war, the violence humans commit against each other, animals, and the violence of language so global and powerful that it may even be experienced as divine, “the imprint of God’s/ shattered fist.”
Some of the book’s strongest poems address the violence of our historical moment; other standout poems point to art and artists—the work of David Wojnarowicz in “The David Witness,” the installations of Janet Cardiff in “Follow the Leader of My Silken Teeth.” In the latter poem, one of my favorites in the collection, art is momentarily a violent form of immersion:
And suddenly, art is a hand planted from the wrist
down into the earth’s epidermis.
As the images take on power and earthy “r” sounds repeat themselves, art consumes the viewer, but that the viewer, too, consumes and digests, almost in a reverse process, in this arresting, morbid image:
Ground emerges from my silken teeth….
Dust becomes us,
the hand that takes root, the horn-throated beetles,
and the apple-black herons.
This rich imagery drags mortality into the body’s engagement with art. A problem I sometimes have with poetry that exposes language enacting its cultural work is that inexorable bend toward the cerebral: I’ve got to do so much thinking, I lose track of the more visceral experience of the poem. Immersion in image works in tension with the exposure of the artifice of language in this fine book, which I admire for its ambition, its syntactical wisdom and play, and the ways it was able to send me on a journey through the language of its heart that’s like a heart in the book’s first poem, “a balloon of such gravity I ache for stars in a jar.”
Sally Rosen Kindred’s first full-length poetry collection is No Eden (Mayapple Press, 2011). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Quarterly West, diode, and Hunger Mountain.