SEPTEMBER 6, 2013
SINCE THIS MONTHLY COLUMN devoted to pairing and exploring second books of poems — one published 20 or more years ago, and one appearing in the past couple of years — first appeared in November 2012, we’ve delved into some of the reasons sophomore efforts are worth examining and reexamining. With the older texts, the retrospective close rereading of a poet’s second book has offered a chance to position the author’s evolving sensibility in the context of a couple of decades or more of apprenticeship and maturation. Revisiting entire second books is a way, too, of recovering a poet’s work that may not have been subsequently anthologized or included in “new and selected” volumes, or that has been lost in other ways, often through vicissitudes of taste and publishing. In what ways do these “second acts” fulfill or swerve away from the inklings of a debut book? What is germinating there, if anything, that will come to bear or be subverted in subsequent, much later work? What has been the influence of these fairly early books, not only on the author’s career but on his or her cohort and poetic heirs? With more recently published second books, there is significant pleasure in focusing on the tension between the inaugural and the following book, and on anticipating what might come later. What is revealed as the poet makes a kind of jeté, a leap, an imprinting — the landing of a second foot?
Ai (1947–2010) — who was born Florence Anthony but who, for personal reasons, later changed her name to Ai Ogawa (“Ai” is the Japanese word for “love”) — was in her mid-20s and had recently graduated from the MFA program at the University of California, Irvine when her first book, Cruelty, appeared from Houghton Mifflin in 1973. Comprised almost entirely of first-person dramatic monologues — “The Tenant Farmer,” “Tired Old Whore,” “The Country Midwife: A Day,” “The Hitchhiker,” “The Dwarf,” “Child Beater,” and so forth — the book garnered immediate attention and praise for its ruthless, daring expressions of damaged, dangerous, vulnerable, and even evil personae. Often overheard in moments of psychic or physical emergency, her despairing and desperate speakers neither offer nor are granted poetic fluency, justification, explanation, or salvation. Manifold in gender, age, and demographics, and representing a spectrum of “types” (in the vein of Randall Jarrell’s “A Sick Child” or “The Woman at the Washington Zoo”; Anne Sexton’s redux of Grimm fairy tale heroines in Transformations; and Rainer Maria Rilke’s monk, beggar, and blind man), the poems are confessional but not autobiographical — or if autobiographical, then in a veiled, masked way.
Ai once described herself as “1/2 Japanese, 1/8 Choctaw, 1/4 Black, and 1/16 Irish,” and this sense of a fractured ancestral heritage and identity may account, in part, for her fascination with and empathy for these other “I’s,” these other Ai’s. The New York Times noted in its obituary for Ai (after her death from complications of an undiagnosed cancer in 2010) that “the proportions are telling too, for not quite adding up to a complete person.” Ai’s ability to speak humanly while avoiding the personal confessional/narrative mode in vogue in the 1970s makes Cruelty an especially distinctive book for its time. Of her poems, Norman Dubie wrote that “one after another surrenders all importance to the poem, not the hungry self!”
Cruelty, then, was a demanding and original debut whose many fine poems were nonetheless sometimes difficult — because of their unflinching evocation of violence, degradation, and sociopathy — to take in all at once. Where would, or could, such a relentless and ferocious sensibility — at once dispassionate and deeply felt — lead? Over time, could courageous poetic forays into shocking states of being become gestured? Gratuitous? Self-parodic?
Ai’s second book, Killing Floor, the 1978 Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1979. In the collection’s 24 poems, Ai continues her use of dramatic monologue, but begins to allow what Andrea Barrett has called the “angel of history” to inform and inhabit the dramatic lyrics as well. Mixed in among poems whose narrators, like those in Cruelty, represent anonymous or generic characters (“The Kid,” “The Mortician’s Twelve-Year-Old Son,” “The Woman Who Knew Too Much,” and “The Expectant Father”) are poems whose speakers or settings are historical and drawn from a wide range of cultures, centuries, and cultural contexts — Stalinist Russia, Hitler’s Germany, revolutionary Mexico, 16th century-South America. Leon Trotsky, Yukio Mishima, Marilyn Monroe, and Emiliano Zapata are just some of the voices sounded in these almost neo-Biblical poems — poems in which, as Guy Davenport wrote of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, “you can hear mortality whetting its scythe behind every line.”
The poem “The Gilded Man,” for instance, is given in the voice of Lope de Aguirre (“El Loco”), the cruel Basque Spanish conquistador who kills countless South American natives in his quest for El Dorado, the mythical Golden City. Part two of “The Gilded Man” recounts the endgame in 1561, in which Aguirre, after burning the city of Barquisimeto in Venezuela, kills his own daughter Elvira (whom he calls Vera Cruz), rather than risk surrendering her to his captors:
2. Barquisimeto, Venezuela, October 27, 1561
Today it rained vengefully and hard
and my men deserted me.
My kingdom was as close
as calling it by name. Peru.
I braid your hair, daughter,
as you kneel with your head in my lap.
I talk softly, stopping to press your face to my chest.
Vera Cruz. Listen. My heart is speaking.
I am the fishes, the five loaves.
The women, the men I killed simply ate me.
There is no dying, only living in death.
I was their salvation.
I am absolved by their hunger.
El Dorado, the kingdom of gold,
is only a tapestry I wove from their blood.
Stand up. My enemies will kill me
and they won’t be merciful with you.
I unsheathe my dagger. Your mouth opens.
I can’t hear you. I want to. Tell me you love me.
You cover your mouth with your hands.
I stab you, then fall beside your body.
Vera Cruz. See my skin covered with gold dust
and tongues of flame,
Transfigured by the pentecost of my own despair.
I, Aguirre the wanderer, Aguirre the traitor,
the Gilded Man.
Does God think that because it rains in torrents
I am not to go to Peru and destroy the world?
God. The boot heel an inch above your head is mine.
God, say your prayers.
By introducing this and other historical voices into this second book, Ai permits her readings of power, play, and violence to bleed between the personal and the political. For example, consider the effect of encountering “The Gilded Man” after reading a poem like “The Mortician’s Twelve-Year-Old Son”:
Lady, when you were alive
I’d see you on the streets,
the long green dress with the velvet flower
sewn dead center between your breasts
so tightly I could never get a look inside.
Now the gas lamps half-light the table,
washing the sheet that covers you with shadows.
A few strands of your dyed red hair
hang nearly to the floor,
as if all your blood had run there to hide.
I lift the sheet, rub the mole on your cheek
and it comes off black and oil on my hand.
I bend over your breasts and sing,
love, sister, is just a kiss away.
I cover each nipple with my mouth.
Tonight, just a kiss away.
The pairing shows the ways in which violence — in this case, psychosexual and iconoclastic tension (the boy’s mouth, de Aguirre’s boot heel above God’s head) — can collapse the distinctions between Eros and Thanatos, brutality and tenderness. The feat of this second book — and a vision Ai, at her best, would carry into her subsequent volumes — is the way in which the individual (real or imagined) is not diminished by even the most abject and horrifying human acts — filicide, suicide, murder, ritual, and sacrifice. Rather, the individual is given voice in a world in which violence is perceived not as an interruption of civilized existence, but as a prior, intrinsic, and terrifying truth of it.
Kiki Petrosino, graduate of the University of Virginia, the University of Chicago, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and currently a professor at the University of Louisville, defies the belief held by some that undergraduate and graduate writing programs are often to blame for the decline of American poetry. Petrosino’s work is mercurial, smart, antic, and culturally savvy; her risk-taking poems possess a historical and humane lyrical temerity that is irresistibly awash with soulful moxie.
Petrosino’s first book, Fort Red Border, turned its lush, unexpectedly gorgeous diction and quirky wordplay to an array of subjects — the afro, saints, secret ninjas, the word “Or”:
Or oreo, or worse.
Or spork. Or smorgasbord.
Or tender lure of colored blood
Or Moorish curve of orchid.
Or fork-scraped pate, or orphic word.
Or minor saint in darkened
poems which, though mostly stalked by Eros, course with social currents as well. The opening series recounting the speaker’s imaginary affair with a figure named Robert Redford (Fort Red Border is an anagram for Robert Redford), for example, allows the speaker to flirt with themes of fame, privilege, hunger (the book is full of references to food), desire, and identity, as does a sequence of Valentine poems. Here is the first half from one “Valentine” putatively concerning a rejection slip from a magazine, a venue like The New Yorker, with a Dickinsonian, iconoclastic audacity to match:
Today I got rejected from the Bible.
They sent a special envelope, which turned to palm ash
when I opened it. A whiff of frankincense floated down
from the wreckage, & a girl’s voice said:
Thanks for the look.
We’ve no room at present, but
Your poems are stylish & convincing.
We hope you’ll try us again.
Stylish? Convincing? Sounds pretty nice.
But riddle me this — Agnes:
Why. Does this always. Happen.
Just tell me — since you’re so smart.
You probably don’t need that Bible gig —
What with your solid gold Camaro & your hunting dogs.
But me, Agnes? I’m not like you.
I can’t afford to lick ambergris off my servants’ bellies all day.
I do need the Bible.
It’s a personal need, Agnes.
You’ve placed so much of my friends’ work.
Take the Pentateuch.
You’ve tucked The Book of Nico right there, between
Leviticus & Numbers. Which is fine, OK, but did he really have
to have his own book?
Agnes, I’m asking
Petrosino’s second book, Hymn for the Black Terrific (which takes its title from Melville’s description of “the black terrific Ahab”) is just out from Sarabande. As with Ai in her sophomore collection, Petrosino invites the “angel of history” into her feisty and agile poetic theater, a move which allows her to more fluidly address, with characteristic humor and verve, issues of identity (racial, cultural, and sexual). Here is the opening poem, “Personal Style Monologue”:
The doctor is in. Martinis are out.
Dirty is in. Stripes are out.
Absence is out. Driving is in.
Black lung is in. Angry is out.
Bacon is in. Sparkles are in.
Elbows are in. Wasp waists are in.
Portugal is out. Velveeta is in.
The Strokes are out. Kiss is back in.
Time travel is in. Going out is out.
To be in is out. To be out is still out.
Blondes are in. Blades are in.
Vampires are in. Gullets are out.
The power is out. Darkness is in.
America is out. American is out.
The dark is here.
At the powerful heart of the collection is a series of “Mulattress” poems, each of which incorporates this sentence, taken from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia: “They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odor.” Petrosino ends each line with italicized words from the sentence, sometimes changing Jefferson’s language, homophonically or otherwise, to fit her meaning, so that Jefferson’s quotation becomes a trellis for each poem. Here are two examples, the second of which is addressed to Jefferson himself:
I didn’t know my color till they
called me by its dirty name: a coin secreted
in the body’s bank. Now I move less by
gathering names to swelter in the kidneys
or in the lake behind my teeth, & more
electric-wise, crackling in air. I can show you by the glands
how I surpass my proofing dish. Of the skin
there’s nothing more to confess, a fact which gives
me leave to sing I want to tell them: A
colored body confirms a bridge, so very strong
across the synapses & disagreeable
to caliper. Still, between us, this human odor.
I want to talk about your house, how they’ve
painted it ‘oyster white.’ As if home were a pearl secreted
about the sand-grain of your bed. You speak less by
the declarations of the body (the kidneys
& the red-gold gallop of your tongue) & more
by your French partitioned doors. When I walk by the
library, even your chair turns its spine. My fabulous glands
weep a little, under the arms. Strange how the cabinet of the skin
you hardly registered, until you did. Which gives
me such a headwound. When I think of all them
crystal tumblers nobody’ll ever use again, a very strong
loneliness takes me up. You’re so sharp & disagreeable
to hold. Je t’adore.
Perhaps what is most important to note about Petrosino’s second book, and what makes me eager to read whatever she will subsequently write and publish, is the way her historical and cultural savvy, and especially her “head wound” ire, are both honored and alchemized by an irrepressible appetite for the salvific beauty of language and the world. In a poem dedicated to the poet’s teacher Dean Young, “Cygnus Cygnus,” Petrosino writes,
you taught me to be warlike
in my songs & still to praise the palm-sized stars
brooding over their great darkness
To be a poet is to surface plainly
from the wound of sleep. To observe how thickly feathered
the heart, how small & bright the planet of human thought
Petrosino puts this yet another way in “Herd Girl’s Favorite Flower” (a poem from a series whose titles are inspired by actual and invented names of Chinese dishes), and it’s hard not to see “the eater” in these poems — part Song of Songs Shulamite, part pantheistic Whitman, part ninja /pirate/goddess — as the poet:
Who says the eater must halve herself to heave through lace & eyelets? Let her be large & engaged to anything with blood in it. Shall she marry? Yes, down to her last atom. Shall she travel on the sea? Yes, & her huge parasol shall break like chitin in her jaws. See how she chomps through trash & tempests, how she gallops toward the next good time. Her bridegroom? Rather her sea-shanty. Rather her opera, agog with gongs. Here she plummets, my hearties. The very world’s reversed.
In these second books, then, Petrosino shows us the hymn in the human, Ai the love in even the most abject and degraded “I.” In bold and soulful ways, each embodies poetry’s inimitable and essential “re-versing” of our fervid, killing, beautiful, terrific, and terrible world.