|Arsenic Lobster poetry journal||
I Want to Make You Safe|
Litmus Press, November 2011
I went to sleep last night thinking about how I Want to Make You Safe, the title of Amy King’s latest collection, can be read two different ways: 1) the desire to protect someone from harm, or 2) the desire to render someone harmless.
This morning, as I browse back through the collection, both of these readings stay with me—particularly in the middle section that shares the book’s title and especially in the head-spinning eleven-page poem that bears the name, too. The title poem unleashes a fury of nouns: from antibiotic-baked chicken to atomic bomb, barbed wire to bleating whip, hate to heart attack, torture to tumor. It ends on an image of a moon’s harp shaped / by my rib cage missing / its limbs, pleading: Please reattach the orifice if / I’m ever to hold your love.
Following this wild read is a section titled “The Familiar,” which fulfills its promise with more readily accessible poems. But most of the works in this 38-poem, 87-page-strong collection concern themselves with defamiliarizing; the writer who coined that concept—Viktor Shklovsky—is even named in the fifth poem. After all, as King pens, again in the title poem: Proof is the poet’s burden / to tell but write beneath.
Major themes, however, can be unpacked. The first poem “Some Pink in Your Color,” can be read as prologue, briefing us that a sudden awareness of mortality will play a leading role. These are poems suffused with, if not specifically about, the sense of vulnerability engendered by the failures of the body. And what do we want most when we begin to sense our end? Often it’s to ensure, post-us, that our loved ones and our legacy are left, respectively, in good hands and good order. Which leads to a third, less obvious, interpretation of the book’s title: the desire to make one’s legacy safe. As if to confirm this reading, King’s second poem begins: And suddenly, art is a hand planted from the wrist / down into the earth’s epidermis (“Follow the Leader of My Silken Teeth”).
The desire to leave one’s house in good order—or in the poet’s case, to develop her art as fully as possible in the time alotted—is even more apparent in the midst of “Butterfly the Gnarled”: Parasites bed my inner lining— // A plural centipede burrows outbound, / crawls the spine of my hand / tells my pencil to move along, give out lead.
It’s no secret that King recently suffered a health battle with the H. Pylori virus, which caused all sorts of complications, including arrhythmia. Those lines from “Gnarled” can easily be read as reference to said battle, but note how nicely they work on a metaphysical level, too. It’s one of the many things King does well here: elevating the personal to the symbolic.
Might King’s interest in defamiliarization result from having to unlearn the baggage that accompanies being ill for so long—to rejoin and relearn the world of the living? Is it her mission to wake up her readers, to jolt us, too, into feeling reborn—into seeing things, as we thought we knew them, anew? Shklovsky says: “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” (Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” Theory of Prose).
Entering these poems does require cultivating a sort of ’beginner’s mind,’ not only to suspend learned notions of reality but also to best navigate King’s steampunk syntax. Take the line: The mythology goes a branch took root (“A Bruise That Stains the Teeth”). Does the mythology leave as a branch takes root, or does mythology dictate that a branch took root? A syntactic fog, then, occasionally films the familiar, but more often it’s the rapid-fire, sometimes scattershot nouns and verbs King deploys that result, substance-free, in a pleasurably altered consciousness.
Consider these lines from “This Opera of Peace”: Just like milk is / the mythology for baby cows, / the savior of women is / some kind of pillow on / which to lean when / the scenery grows loudly gone, / parameciums of bombed out / limbs and heads chiseled / off by unseen twigs. The ensuing line offers a tongue-in-cheek apology for this bit of profligacy: I meant, milk is a moth / like the moon is most often / seen in summer. Another thing King does well, by the way, is play.
The poem continues, once again positioning the lens on the desire to write one’s own biography: When I put this pen to the ink / of my nostril, this stamp to the letter / of your song, this gesture / to the math of your sock / the rocket marked with cigarettes / burns for its journey.
And burns for its journey it does! The music, not just in “Opera,” but sounded throughout the entire collection, is outright symphonic—its classical manners made even more notable for being dissonantly yoked to surreal, sometimes grotesque imagery. With this collection, it’s indisputable that King is a queen of sound, her sense of rhythm and arrangement exquisite and innate.
Indeed, the flexibility of her sentences give “complex compound” new meaning—the subordinate and coordinating words poetry normally shuns deployed to dizzying effect: Sight was borne around the dying / stars, bass organs pounding out / babies from a glassy sun / against the stewing universe / within our gassy brow (“Our Eyes Register the Light of Dead Stars”) .
It’s easy to get distracted by the lushness of these sentences, particularly when King shifts into list-mode, which she does, often and enthusiastically. In “Life Is a Bus” the better part of the poem is one long, run-on sentence broken into 17 lines, each a call-out to life’s unsung moments: So we should eat like pioneers: / honey and lavender milk, clover hibiscus / pupils on the sole of our battleship boots, / the way we cry / at the smell and size of book sometimes / a beer’s head held in place by its pint.
But just when I began to lose my way, I happened upon a poem called “Thank God You’re Connecting Things,” and began to notice subtle trailblazers flagging otherwise disparate poems together. First: many of the images (bleating lambs, terra cotta, moths, milk, the color green, rabbits, pillows, various stinging insects) act as leitmotif, making comebacks in various poems. Second: King ocassionally recycles lines from some poems as titles for others. “A Bruise That Stains the Teeth” and “The Worm by the Ember That Glows” are one such pairing and “Men by the Lips of Women” and “The Godless Sunburn” are another.
Most titles, however, are recontextualized fragments from the same poem which they frame. The title “Why the Wind” is extracted, for example, from the phrase: Why the wind / is air thick with tongues / that lick a bleat / into what gets spoken. In resisting the urge to give the majority of her poems unique headlines, perhaps King is harking back to Shklovsky’s manifesto: “Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.” Maybe she hopes to “impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.”
And it’s the way King relentlessly strives to give sentience to the ineffable that makes me so fond of her book: how it dwells in the interstitials, sharpening the focus and holding it close on those moments that happen in-between. King seems keenly aware of this as she writes: No matter how hard I hold it, the segues / keep coming—life’s little hollows, harbors I rub my fingers against, / birthing new turbulence to erase what never comes or is imminent. (“The Birth of Tragedy”).
Because I was speculating on the book’s title before I drifted off to sleep, it’s no surprise that I dreamed myself into a party at King’s house. She was serving something extravagant, like lobster thermidor, and we were all feeling quite jolly and fêting a full-color concrete King poem in the shape of a whale that had just been published in The New Yorker. The wine flowed freely and the guests were so in love with life and each other that at some point, it seemed destined to become an orgy. Alas, I woke before that came to pass, but in the meantime, I have I Want to Make You Safe, which tastes of latte milk and sunshine on rewind (“The Birth of Tragedy”). For like a modern Dionysus, King seems to arrive ecstatic from some place just beyond the borders of the known—her pen, like his thyrsus, festooned with ivy, dripping with honey.---
Review by Lissa Kiernan, Poetry Editor (originally published in poetrycoop.com)