an omnibus review of first books of poetry, by Jacob Strautmann
an omnibus review of first books of poetry
We want a first book of poems to stake the poet's territory (hopefully making it our territory) and sing. In Robert Pinsky’s 1987 essay “Responsibilities of the Poet” he offers a rubric by which a poet is bound to answer and bound to make new: that is, witness or “answer for what we see,” and transform, “the challenge of what may seem unpoetic.” Neither vertex is without its own pitfalls. Witness in poetry may turn too readily to journalism or information. Transformation may move the dial too far, into incomprehensibility, the art talking to itself and no one else. But four American poets have recently published first books that clear a space in which to converse and to be heard.
The geographies these poets cover in their first volumes indicate American poetry’s current global scope. Sally Wen Mao’s Mad Honey Symposium offers Soviet Russia, the Black Sea in 401 B.C., Tibet and Boston, among others; Jamaal May’s Hum gives us Detroit and war-zones in our current limitless war; Ailish Hopper’s Dark-Sky Society shows us Washington D.C., (and briefly) Dublin, Ireland, and Alabama; and Kirun Kapur’s Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist investigates the Partition of India, the Eden of Cain and Abel, and an immigrant arriving in New York in 1965. The new American poet announced in these books is one unafraid to witness and transform far and wide.
Sally Wen Mao turns her back on the expectations of her gender in Mad Honey Symposium, and she aligns herself with another figure that appears and reappears throughout the book as a surrogate violence maker and mentor, the fearless honey badger, feminine throughout, and terrifying. Consider the threat as the speaker inhabits the inimitable honey badger's voice; her animal is woman and nursery rhyme and nightmare:
Spit me out, larger beast—find my paws
on your jaw, on your hipbone, on your feet.
Find my breath in your beehive.
Find my mouth on your pendulum.
Find your pendulum knotted, gutted.
Out of its socket like a blood-dipped
locket. Find the waterbuck heaving
in the swamp. Find gashes. Find heat.
Find skin molting but you won't find me.
But there is a conflict for Mao's speaker. Despite refusing the figure of a Queen bee, her avatar lives from honey. And so, the book follows the search for more of the honey (its growth as a symbol redoubling and spiraling), through science, autobiography, history (for example, Xenophon's story of an entire army of men on all fours purging themselves of it), through theft, and, ultimately, through flight. Mao's "Migration Suite," a ten-part poem, offers one result of this search, the impossible escape from our own stories:
Here are my bloodstained sneakers.
Here is my wing made of wood and wire.
Am I a crying kvetch in an animal's disguise?
How can I bear it, the flaws I don't know?
Early in the collection, in "Apiology, with Stigma" (her readers wouldn't be faulted for first reading "Apology, with Stigmata"), Mao indicates how she differs from the pack of girls who would be Queen, "They think: wouldn't it be terrific, to be/wanted like that. Wouldn't it be terrific//to be stroked and adored":
...But one girl turns
the other way. At lunch she eats green tea mochi
on the edge of the field, scouts unpopulated
places—a lemon tree, barberry bush.
Dreading assemblies and cafeterias, she ducks
under the library's front steps, smuggling
field guides or National Geographics
with covers of jewel beetles and capybaras,
counting the minutes until recess is over
and biology begins. The price of sincerity...
The nod to Elizabeth Bishop's young girl discovering in a National Geographic that she too belongs to the tribe of women ("Their breasts were horrifying.") is soothed by the arrival of biology class and the plunge into the scientific. Often, the precision and dictions of science allow Mao a way to mine the deeper strata. Mao's investigation is vertical—into the myth of the self or the connotations carried in a single word.
At 106 pages, Mad Honey Symposium is a hefty first book, and finely balanced. In plumbing individual words, conceits, and stories, it is as if Mao sets the language spinning, reverberating, and we leave the book wanting to hear more.
In Jamaal May's Hum, young men survive or succumb to the violent expectations of manhood in the context and grip of the Rust Belt. In “The Boy who Bathes the Dead,” a boy digs up his buried toy soldiers, putting each into a separate ziplock body bag, making a ritual of re-animating them, removing the dirt, in a cycle drawn from life:
finds him afterwards filling a sink to rinse
the crevices and metal joints, worried
he bathes the plastic infantry too carefully.
As if they had families. As if they were men.
Military recruiters may find easy volunteers in American communities whose economies have never recovered the closing of their factories, as in May’s Detroit. He tries to ward off this choice for an 11-year-old boy in a later poem in the collection, “Pomegranate Means Grenade”:
This is the same thumping anxiety that shudders
me when I push past marines in high school
hallways, moments after their video footage
of young men dropping from helicopters
in night vision goggles. I want you to see
in the dark without covering your face,
carry verse as countermeasure to recruitment videos,
and remember the cranes buried inside poems
that hung in Tiananmen Square—
This carrying verse is exactly what May’s young men struggle with, and their burden is also the hope they have to imagine a new world. This dual burden and hope carry into May's erotic poems ("I am asking if you are like me"), into the fraternal, in his older men broken by jail or drugs or war, in the ghostlike potential remaining in a circuit board left in the snow. Sometimes the world is a direct reflection; during the nationwide protests sparked by the police-shooting of Michael Brown, May's poem "Man Matching Description" was traded often on social media. He describes a humiliating confrontation between poet and police on a "southern road":
because the baton is long against my window,
the gun somehow longer against my cheek,
the vehicle cold against my abdomen
as my shirt rises twisted in fingers
and my name is asked again—I want to
screech out, Swan! I am only a swan.
This is a man in danger of not being heard because he cannot speak, but May's characters often do speak eloquently, though the danger is no less. In his "Athazagoraphobia" subtitled "Fear of Being Ignored," May develops another compelling self-portrait in Whitman's shadow:
Look for me
in scattered windshield beneath an overpass,
on the sculpture of a man with metal skin grafts,
in patterns on mud-draggled wood, feathers
circling leaves in rainwater—look. Even the blade
of a knife holds my quickly fading likeness
while I run out of ways to say I am here.
In Ailish Hopper's Dark-Sky Society, in the poem "View of the Capitol from St. Elizabeth's," Hopper views Washington D.C. through the personal lens of her father's illness ("Dw dr/ Dw dr/ he says, eyebrows raised") and the public threat of atomic extinction inherent in the capital city. But it is through Hopper's torquing of language, refracted through her short lines and strong enjambments that the DNA of her theme is laid bare. In the final section of "...St. Elizabeth's," entitled "Disappearing Inc." she offers:
And my father's: a page
blank. Once, there was
beautiful ink laid there
The punning of "Inc." and "ink" is no clever overlay. It also thematically reaches back to the first section of the same poem in which the statue of the Lincoln Memorial is scaled and then imagined post-bomb, "Missing/chiseled wave of hair//laid across//his forehead." Lincoln is again called forth by the three letters of his name that survive, and, in the lacunae, she honors her father's writing through his illness. The public and personal intertwine because they have no space in which to exist separately.
This concentration on syllable is used to even stronger rhetorical effect in the moving "15 1/2" where the poet recounts watching her "old-school,/Alabaman" aunt interact with an "ebony-skinned man" stumping at her doorstep for a progressive cause:
A yankee, from DC, I watched
as if I could discern the cause.
All Progress, un-
as the goldfinch, when young,
colored, early spring.
Here both the hard enjambment at "un-" and the preceding consonant loom over the proceedings. While simultaneously indicating the comma (or pause) that blocks the formation of the word "sun" she also creates the sound of the particularly southern patriarchal and sometimes pejorative "son." The future color of the goldfinch ("sun") and the hope in "transformed" are well hidden in the false hospitality she witnesses. Her awareness of this is likewise wrapped up in her transforming adolescent body.
The speaker can never step out of her own skin. In "Ways to be White in a Poem" she acknowledges this and finds the reader's ear attentive and sharing of a national guilt:
And, maybe you, too—
whoever you are—reading this
Do not touch
Do not drink
From the same cup
The same canniness that registers the "inc" in "Lincoln" is here in the line breaks: taken together they are the received warnings of white America (that some may mistake, at first, for another century’s problem), but broken apart—the empty existence of not touching, not eating, not drinking rattles anew. "From the same cup" transforms before us (within us?) from an admonition, to a hope, to a fact no one is free of.
In Kirun Kapur's Visiting Indira Gandhi's Palmist, progress is the progress of family tied to the backdrop of history in much the way a farming family might be tied to what the land yields. One of the histories Kapur uses is that of Eden. Kapur's sympathy in “First Families: Cain and Abel” is with Cain as he considers his mother: “She only half knew what she was doing,//but she knew she was right. She loved right/more than she loved my father.” Cain inherits the trait of his mother's rebelliousness, that is, her sense of right; as he unites his brotherly lot (to bring forth the fruit of the ground) with eros, he becomes unbending and a primary actor in the family history:
But when I saw
the girlish legs of early carrots,
the bent wheat shake
its head as it lunged upright again,
when my mother ran out with her feet still bare
in search of the first
purple irises, then
I became guilty of anything.
In exploring the pantoum, she follows in the footsteps of John Ashbery and the Kashmiri and American poet Agha Shahid Ali. Kapur’s variations within the repeating lines open the form up to meditation and argument to beautiful effect in poems such as “The History Family,” “Bollywood for Lovers,” and “Polaroid City.” But it is in the poem-as-conversation where Kapur (acknowledging the ultimate conversation between Prince Arjuna and Lord Krishna as they “pressed pause//on the great battle” between family members) transforms and makes new a much older religious form. At times she uses it as a reporter might pulling at the truth, or a daily interrogation at a deli, or, in “Dancing with My Father,” a matching of wits between father and daughter. We hear the poet cross-examining her father about the 1947 Partition of India, to learn more about his regret, to learn more about him. Her father evades her grim curiosity and answers from his tradition, a frustrating force for the poet to reckon with:
But if you could go back—
explain, persuade them. Convince
even one uncle or niece. One stranger.
The whole world is maya,
illusion and dance.
Well, if you could stop the illusion.
The Upanishads say...
I don't care what the Upanishads say.
What do you say? If you could go back,
if you could stop the illusion that was their death.
I don't know who raised you
to be so crude.
Surely, my crudeness is an illusion.
Kapur's poems startle by juxtaposing the mundane turning of seasons with the heavy legacy of history. [Editor's note: See also Kapur's poem "Art History", which appears in this first issue of Jam Tarts.] Individuals are never let off the hook: brothers are torn apart, a kidnapped young woman is found but barred from returning to her family by her brothers. But it isn't the perpetrators of those wrongs that receive the poet's attention. Kapur is reminding us the survivors and witnesses must tell their story.
As snow falls on Kapur's father in New York in "The American, 1965":
On 133rd—between the Mormon boys
And the shawarma shop—the sky opens
And sends flakes falling from a wide darkness.
My father's 40 years unravel:
Hail over green sugar cane;
A rose-red wedding sari, deliberately unwound;
Carved into mountain walls, the basalt lips of God;
A neighbor, hanging by his turban
From a flowering black plum tree;
The 25th day of monsoon rain;....
All of human history is here in Kapur's couplets: a crop destroyed, the promise of desire and wound of violence, the image of God’s mouth built into "walls" that define us, can separate us, perhaps inform us of the reason a man (somebody's brother no doubt) is hanging from a plum tree, as the seasons continue unabated.
Each of these books suggest a similar communal atonement for the hardest truths about us. When May writes, “Hold a pomegranate in your palm,” or Mao writes, “We’re still parked on the tarmac,/but here I am praying/for the error that binds us here,” they do not bear witness from afar but inhabit the scope of their songs. Mao, May, Hopper and Kapur ask their readers to unravel it and hear, and keep hearing it.
Jacob Strautmann’s poems have appeared in Solstice Literary Magazine, WebDelSol, AGNI Online, The Appalachian Journal, The Center, The Boston Globe, Salamander Magazine, Poetry Northeast, and SpoKe. Two poems are forthcoming in Quiddity. He is a contributing editor to Salamander Magazine and the managing director of Boston Playwrights' Theatre at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre at Boston University, where he also teaches poetry, fiction and playwriting.
(Editor's note: In this first issue of Jam Tarts, see also "South Garden" by Jacob Strautmann.)