BOOK REVIEW

by Robert Philbin
 

A queer poetry is the province to surpass identity and inhabit multiply, to open to the scary other self I think that I am not and find another way to be.  -Amy King (1)
 
Slaves to Do These Things
by Amy King

Published by BlazeVOX
Book design
by Geoffrey Gatza
Cover art by Orna Ben-Shoshan
First Edition
ISBN 10 : 9781935402312
Library of Congress Control Number: 2009925613

When you visit poet Amy King's Facebook page, the new lost generation's global coffee house, digital version of that warm well-lit place, you encounter a friendly professor of literature with hundreds of friends and an active social and academic life loosely centered on her writing. It's also the kind of page you tap into, a hub to what one might call the post-post modernist New York School of Poetry, particularly if modernist monsters of the last century like Frank O'Hara, de Kooning's late paintings, the ever vibrant John Ashbery, or soulful John Coltrane make you nostalgic for your battered paperback edition of Les Fleurs du mal. "A shudder at the grim years of claustration," Baudelaire, the papa modernist wrote of his adolescence, "The unease of wretched and abandoned childhood, the hatred of tyrannical schoolfellows, and the solitude of the heart."(2) That "solitude of the heart" has been a breeding ground for poets ever since.

Should you encounter Slaves to Do These Things, Ms. King's most recent volume of poetry, you are in for a treat, a "queer" post-modernist excursion through "claustration and solitude of the heart" we have all experienced if we are honest enough and inclined to the authentically lived life, especially if one happens to be "odd" or "queer" by Ms. King's definition. Personally I like to think we are all "odd" and "queer" by her definition, but I fully understand how important it is to stake out some new and valid artistic turf, as Ms. King does in a recent lecture, The What Else of Queer Poetry:

The what else welcomes imaginative confusion, especially the kind that confounds categorical identities, so that I might make new inroads via what it means to relate and create new perceptions that suck out the distance or insert fecund gaps. I want to come up close and personal to all that interests and all I encounter; I want to shake the categorical foundations of certain knowledge in the queer campaign of what else.

One encounters in King's work the inevitable struggle to locate the deeper, authentic personae -- both hers and the reader's -- which emerges from the contortions and minutia of the mind fuck one struggles through to locate and celebrate the authentic self in a culture that is not only intolerant of the "odd," but has shaped the "queer" to be self-denying, self-loathing, suspended in a perpetual state of penance, a permanent sinner begging alms along the road to Oz.

There's also a rich and interesting tapestry of contemporary poetic syntax at work here, energized and sympathetic to Baudelaire's unease with modernity. In much of "Slave" time is suspended in a unique world of the conscientiously queer Catholic girl who struggles through the unavoidable confrontation of suppressive tradition against self in the often violent quest to authenticate one’s self and locate an acceptable existential context and culture, queer or otherwise. Here's King on one root cause of the difficulty with confronting the authentic self in the creepy jungle of traditional mind fuck:

...Mother Mary, O contrary,
why do you never exist? Why
the business of insisting
a fear of eternal flames
from hollow fangs that
would render the spirit deaf?. . .

The code of this particular belief system breeds a permanent state of self-doubt for the transgressor of the holy mother of all tradition. The doubt is built in: Mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. King writes primarily of the inner mind mired in this tradition as a “queer" consciousness emerges out of the didactical minutia of emotional honesty in conflict with cultural history. "Give me the child for his first seven years," the Jesuit arrogantly portents, "and I will give you the man." (Or woman, as the case may be.)

King traces this interior struggle, illuminating the contortions the expanding young mind encounters in the process of discovering an authentic definition of reality within which to locate the self. We are each of us, after all, Slaves to Do These Things we have to do to in the face of small daily inhumanities unfolding all around us, but "queer" folk have it particularly hard going. It's not easy to gain perspective on the self in these lean days of America's declining empire, but King reminds us that surviving psychological collateral damage ultimately becomes a strength, a refuge in the process of self authentication, and it doesn't matter if the struggle focuses on gender, sexual identity, race or class. We are all both suspect and heroic at some humane level of self-realization and that implies we discover the critical insight, self validation includes the acceptance of "the other". In that sense, we are all slaves rowing our way toward the same light. There is something of Whitman's heroic struggle for self in an earlier America in King's chronicling rhythms:


...we walk with the spine
of poster-child lips, we suck dew-
drops off pewter, sour the wine,
shake the harbor’s sinew,
kick crumbs from pale shoulders,
and shoot bottle rockets of faltering
love. We swell and precede,
lit to age the coming America.


To "age the coming America" indeed. Where are the artists willing to take on America today? Where are their voices heard, shouting? Her book, as visceral to this reader as Frida Kahlo's most memorable images, certainly contributes to America's maturation. These 38 "queer" poems argue the validity of poetry as a healing art form, and King places herself in the fray as framed by an introductory quote from Baudelaire:


Conceive me as a dream of stone:
my breast, where mortals come to grief,
is made to prompt all poets' love,
mute and noble as matter itself.
–Charles Baudelaire, “Beauty”


King certainly "prompts poets' love" when she illuminates birth, generation, acculturation -- how the self is delivered into a particular context, to be part of the "imperialist retching" we call our wider culture; and she delivers the "queer" goods on several interesting levels: the intimately physical, the aggressively psychological, biological, cultural, political -- King's hardened imagery and painfully precise language is inventive, coming right out of a history of "self" confrontation with the "norm" -- think Whitman, Dickinson, Lorca, Vallejo, Ginsberg, O'Hara, Ashbery to name a few -- each progressing from the other, feeding the next, triggering King's visceral connections to the reader:


Stitch me clean, remove
the fist from your saddle
and steer me
with the sweet sweat of birth.


And:


Now scoop her here,
listen to the sea’s shell
repeat a fish-like
backbone
breaking, your teeth
at the innards of life.


Kings's poetic odyssey of self discovery from early childhood to "queer" confrontation with culture, to the realized strength and voice found in locating the "authentic self" is richly textured, often lurid and intriguing because her imaginative leaps, synapses and connections push the reader in and out of reality, memory, the purely imagined and viscerally authentic to arrive at a tenuous and vague resolution which ultimately solidifies our sense of empathy and identity with the 'queer". We are all the better for the process of course; regardless our "normality", we are dutifully aged for the coming America. King's idea of "slaves" trapped in acculturation, habit and ultimately human relationships, surfaces here in the poem, “Failed To Include”:


Not quite as chilly today
as it is tomorrow
upon your return
to the city where
you slay me, you slave me–
& I begin to wait. I wait on you,
your every necessity and dream-blown romance.


We are all slave to love, slave to ideology, slave to belief, but are we not also slave to "queer"? Slave to the future unfolding in terms of the increasingly humane arriving new with each generation? Slave to justice? Ms. King unfolds her narrative of sexual realization, self identity "smothered by years of breaking loose/clouds of longing against/every loyal thing,/measuring wildness by the muddy sky". She's a post-modernist who survived the oppression of tradition as well as the deconstruction of modernism and arrives comfortably with the acceptance of life as something distinct from culture; but without the allure of the Romantic, the tactic of escape to avoid the uncomfortable confrontation of the "queer self". The confrontation of the "slave self" -- slave to anything -- is a contiguous moral act in the modern world; it is also heroic and ultimately without resolve. We are all works in process, after all, and here is Ms. King's poetic strategy:

Queer poetry strives to complicate the other, confound how we know that other, so that we might, however fleetingly, explore the other towards an even greater effort: to imagine what else beyond this other self.

This not to say King operates outside tradition. No real artist can ignore it. The reader encounters hints and echoes of Whitman, Dickinson, the beats, the New York Poets, and also something of Shakespeare's icy gaze and tight cadence, as in this from “Be Good and Be Country”:

When the grapes are in their wrath, I lie
low in my headless socket to see your faces
through age’s predictable reading glass.

And, from the same poem:


But I’d rather wrestle your entire corpus
than fuck someone for the sake of holes
that empty after me and footnotes
that fuel the rolling whites of your ripe-
eyed torso, applauding its seeded limbo.

She is a believer in residues, the mark once made remains a scar, a reconciler of the secure and warming virginal, the merciful Christ, the transgendered deity:

God nervously awaits
on the other side
in her mocha acetate
A-line with hand-dyed lace,
and subtle snake bows
tugging at the hemline.

from “When Catholic Girls Go Riding.”

I have difficulty when confronted with words like "God" and "soul," echoes of the Catholic mind fuck -- they are immediately polemic, fighting words, manipulative assertions long atomized by neuroscience and cold logic; but every artist is absolutely free to play endlessly with ancient meanings, and King remains warmly verbose, given to listings, startling juxtapositions, jump cuts, slow fades without irony, cold hearted quips, seductive intimacy, prodding, pushing the edges of male acceptance of her pointed female point of view; the "norm" which is never normal versus the "queer" which to her is always a moveable feast. She draws you into her queerness until she becomes your iPhone camera, lesbian full of language, revealing her insides, her humanity on display, and reading this interior history is a liberating experience, a cave drawing for the straight male reader otherwise incapable of imagining the unjust and complex gestalt of pain that a queer state of mind implies. King also moves us beyond all of that, she breaks down barriers when she writes deeper and she writes beautifully, as in “Anarchy's Tiptoe”:


My grandmother was a gambler
from Holland like Baby Mountain
wandered the banks of the Seine.
Our theaters and music halls drew
passing widows who sang
from these pleated hills.
They housed small Dutch dolls
with black-brown eyes the color of shiny marmite.


And from “We Are Great Songs”:


The body’s prospects turn proteins
into peptides and bacterium
to carbon. We cleanse the other like
the moon is replete
in her remembrance pool:
our memoirs in broken lines
of the people she is
and the people she sweetens.


King's work is the poetry not only of liberation, but of repressive histories undone, anarchy reached through hard work, pain and internal logistics; the juggling of the mind, the navigation of the spirit in search of something genuine, something approximating love, all of which is clearly on parade in Slaves to Do These Things, and it resonates with the reader so honestly and truly that he or she is forced off center, compelled to rise up, liberated from one's personal grasp of the status quo.


American empire is in decline, and the poet knows it, you can feel it at the edges of the work, but King implies something more: what she calls the "What else of queer poetics" and that "What Else" points us in the direction of what comes next in the endlessly humane process of expanding the social legitimization of the authentically human. The "self", in the end, as each of us might choose to define it.


Robert Philbin

___________________________

notes
(1) The What Else of Queer Poetry, Amy King, lecture, 2009,
forthcoming in the next issue of Free Verse http://english.chass.ncsu.edu/freeverse
(2) Baudelaire, Joanna Richardson, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1994, pp. 30-2.

 

Copyright © 2010 Robert Philbin

Robert Philbin was educated at St. Agnes Cathedral High School, studied literature and philosophy at Dickinson College, and Humanities at The Pennsylvania State University. He lectures frequently on subjects pertaining to the Humanities, and his published essays, reviews, political commentary and poetry are available on line. Among his plays, Finca Vigia was recently produced at The Little Theater; Buffalo Dancing was produced at Open Stage; and his play, Finding Utah was produced by The Park Slope Theater, Brooklyn. He is currently developing a mixed media poetry - graphics project with New York artist Joseph Nechvatal.