Years ago, a lover read me a John Ashbery poem, “At North Farm.” We were sitting at his kitchen table, and my head was on my arms, and his voice as he read was ringing through the old wood, through my hands and into my head; the poem and his voice walked through me arm in arm.
A few weeks later, I asked him to read me the one about the cat again. He had no idea what I was talking about — the poem wasn’t about anything, as far as he could tell, even if it had a narrator — I mean, speaker — who puts out a dish of milk at night. He still reads poetry like a perfect kind of pop music, near-meaningless lyrics that nudge you toward a feeling and let your own mind suggest the rest.
I accepted that here was another thing I knew nothing about, and that though I might like a good poem or pop song every now and then, I’ll always be on the anxious, vigilant look out for characters and narratives — in essence, I will always want something to interpret. I want to know what it’s all about.
So it was a relief this year to be given Eileen Myles’s Inferno. I started reading it almost as soon as it was in my hands, and I couldn’t put it down. Inferno is, of course, “a poet’s novel” and so it hit me at the perfect half way point; Eileen is the poet, Eileen is the narrator, and the book is about her and New York City and poetry and sex and love. I felt all shook up by the messy intractable beauty of some of the lines, but even more so by the willfulness of this narrator, this character, this poet writing herself into being. “So I’m beginning to wonder about the book I’m in”, this poet, Eileen, says in the middle, and I think to myself, yes, what is this about? And she answers: “You always get to know how the real person fared,” you come away knowing that something happened. And because she wrote it down, in some way it also happens to you, the reader. This, it dawned anew on me, is what it has always been about; some magic thing is transferred from the page to your mind, and room is made for the richness of a new feeling or thought.
Afterward, I was changed and ready to explore. Guilluame Morrisette’s I Am My Own Betrayal was a great next step — a combined poetry and short fiction collection on the theme of willful alienation that reads with a warmth and humor I wasn’t expecting from this Montreal based member of the so-called “Alt Lit” community. Here’s a real good part from “I Don’t Know What A Poem Is But It’s Not Preventing Me From Writing Poems,” one of my favorite of his poems — perhaps for obvious reasons: “and licking your face/ is a sensation poetry cannot reproduce/ but fuck nature I rejected nature.”
Natalie Zina Walschots, another Canadian poet, tickled me with her newest book, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillians, getting down into deliciously crackling and submissive syllables the eros of imaginary evils—I just melt as she supplicates to King Pin: “my body / a blister / that you squeeze”.
Michael Robbins’s Alien vs Predator is like an album I’ve played on repeat; the poems are hard and funny and stuck now like ear worms in some old part of my brain. They’re sitting there waiting for when I just really need to catch up to my breath by hiccuping along to the short stepping swagger of “My New Asshole” until I hit that humbling, defenseless last line…or for when I’m hit with the urge to be pushed further into the delight and despair of being alive today, being not quite punk as fuck or as hard like metal in this mercurial and fast moving world, by tugging petulantly on the black jersey sleeve of “I Did This to My Vocabulary.”
And of course, I went back to Ashbery, too, to page through his Selected Poems and give myself over to his about-nothingness, to the seeds of feeling that are planted by language.
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