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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Amy King's Slaves to Do These Things, reviewed by Ana Božičević


[Ed's note - Amy and Ana are partners, but I'm a big fan of both as people and poets, so that's trumping any pretense of objectivity. And this is an awesome book besides.]

Alone in a Crowd: A Tragicomedy of Pronouns in Slaves to Do These Things by Amy King

I am one. The first time one gives Slaves to Do These Things a read, one circles every pronoun in the manuscript. Who are these Is and wes and hes and shes, and why does one so badly care to know? One circles and wonders: they turn, a key. The book’s epigraph quotes from Baudelaire’s “Beauty,” where “all poets” shipwreck against beauty’s stony breast, “mute and noble as matter itself.” Is this book’s multiplicitous troupe of characters really an army of slave-poets doing beauty’s magnetic bidding, all punished because they made an attempt to attain it? (In this scenario, beauty is the kind of siren whose absence of voice is lure: she tempts one to imagine the words she would sing, if only she could, that poor “soul that suffered from being its body” sans merci.) Or are the pronouns of Slaves just you and me and other people-next-door in the desert of “office boxes/that cloister us apart?” America’s historical agency of slavery casts a long root-shadow across one’s conjectures. In his Coldfront Magazine review of King’s last book, I’m the Man Who Loves You, Matt Hart writes: “one such complication is in how the book’s ‘I’ and ‘you’ are constantly shifting positions, clanging and banging against one another, and at times even disappearing altogether.” In Slaves, this rhetorical tool grows out of antinarrative’s special effect into a thesis, an MO: the lyrical you and I weld into a plural us and they: and then they’re given tools. Everyone’s implicated and put to work. In a book of five Acts, one hears from soldiers, teachers, journalists, terrorists, Kerry and Miller, Claude Cahun, photographers Cindy, Nan and Diane, Miss California (“opposite marriage”), the philosopher, people of many cities, your mother. Along the way, rhetorical propaganda, decoy-definitions, and streams of Oscar-Wildish oxymorons with a laughing void at their center, attempt to explain away and divert one from what’s really happening (and what’s that?):

    The actor is a second life
    of people drawn
    on the achievable with fiction.
    The characters are fleeting
    when an actor’s flame
    blows the shortest immortality.
    But the audience pants on.
    (“State of a Nation”)

The poems behind King’s titles – “Miracle on the Hudson,” “Stimulus Package,” “Brooklyn White Party” – deliver, betraying their promise of hip bombast, the kind of clarity that only a puzzle thrown in the air can attain. But never do they fully elect a hierarchy wherein the author makes her pronoun-actors slash word-animals do all the dirty work. From poem one, in which the I’s bosom suckles “the world’s new adults,” the populist poet accomplishes what Baudelaire’s immortal Beauty, that classicist goth femme, cannot: she accepts her characters into her body, and allows herself to be populated. The flâneuse rolls up her sleeves and joins the chain gang. This is the kind of ego-nixing, egalitarian authorship Baudelaire and Poe were both pleasantly sickened to envision: King is the (wo)man of the crowd. As signaled by her titles (“The Psalms called ‘Breath’,” “The Memory Skin,” “The Taste of Light & Our Digestive Tracts,” “When the Bread Is in My Body”), the membrane between the outside world of light, others’ noise, bread and symbols, and the body’s bowels and breath, is tenuous and permeable. Their landscapes intermingle as the poems’ speakers travel “ear canals,” “the scalp of dirt lots and sand,” “the harbor’s sinew:” “the coming America” knit by slaves and itinerants. Flesh is a setting, a history continually rebirthed and resuffered, and a meal:

    People are friends,
    as are all animals. In memory of this,
    I bake them into shapes and a spoon-
    shaped cake to taste the world with.
    (“The Taste of Light & Our Digestive Tracts”)

In the same poem, King delivers her version of Whitman’s “I am large, I contain multitudes”: “I’m portable. My mind travels/ the verse and valleys of whole people.” As she shudders from one life to the next “on the people’s chariot,” the author shoulders the burden of her pronouns’ narrative misfortunes and ecstasies: story-fragments swirl around her body like human bacteria. And profoundly, this book is about sickness. One happens to remember that Slaves was written in and through a year of illness; its populism can be read as a sickbed out-of-body experience, its lists of things and people as ingredients in the soul’s diet regimen:

    sea sick, salt off, flesh sag,
    liver dip, bile wish, throw soap,
    row out, hope vest, that’s all
    I know, dyed rose, spoon light.
    (“Doctor Starch”)

In Slaves, King’s familiar cosmopolitan epicurism is tempered by a body-imposed humility:

    But you don’t know how
    much you love
    the sun until you find
    you’re dying beneath it…
    (“Brooklyn White Party”)

But this book doesn’t settle for simple salt-of-the-earth platitudes. The soul (a word that appears in it ten times – outranked by “God,” with fifteen apparitions) is sickened not just by the muteness and symptoms of the body, but from not being allowed to inhabit other bodies with whom she suffers as witness, their double and echo chamber: her inverse of to colonize is to love. The body’s separateness is itself a symptom, and ultimately an illusion, as the poet makes like “the same electron…in two places at once.” And bodies are alchemical cauldrons designed to digest “grief, through [their] / voids, trimmed with wind:” physics’ evolving definition of matter changes the consistency of Beauty’s breast from rock to air. King’s poems enact a history-conscious, fierce, funny, and ecological body politics in which the queer ability to refashion identity is just what America, and her grammar, need: “a unisex of truth bearing” to replace “those granite masters/of needlepoint” when “they mirage America back.” We don’t need masters or a god; and in fact, as the epigraph to Act III makes clear, “Selling one’s soul to God: is to betray the Other.” In “The Fear of Hope Is Also Beautiful,” God is a sugar daddy: to love him is to become “deadline,” an object of commerce. Slaves proposes a joyous cross-identification that, though sometimes painful, is never a transaction. Where her previous books tended to breathlessly pack experience into textual blocks, Slaves allows for more air and reverberation: it listens as much as it speaks until, at its end, funnel-like, a unified we “sing for the love we bring,” back to a childhood of art and “happy, in fact.” So the inclusiveness and porousness of King’s lovemaking with her country heightens with her each new book, and one wonders with whetted appetite which state her troupe will next elect to pitch its tent in, and play its selves out.