The Poetry of Embarrassment: On Three New Collections

By Eileen G’SellDecember 5, 2023

The Poetry of Embarrassment: On Three New Collections

The Leniad by Nathaniel Rosenthalis
Midwood by Jana Prikryl
The Shining by Dorothea Lasky

SINCE THE ROMANTIC PERIOD two centuries back, lyric poetry has long been presumed the genre most suited for expressing intense and powerful emotions. For anguish, there is Keats; for longing, Whitman; for exaltation, Neruda; for rage, Plath (and Sexton). And so on. Gravitas is the route to greatness; direct address is key.

Since the so-called “confessional movement” of the 1960s and ’70s, many waves of American poetry—among them, the New York School, ecopoetics, and Language poetry—have renounced overt grandeur and confrontation in favor of subtler, less declarative registers. It’s also worth noting that many key “confessional” poets themselves rejected the label, and that Black Arts poets, among other marginalized voices, were and are destabilizing the self-certain first person in all sorts of strategic ways. With today’s poetic landscape whorled by a maelstrom of political exigencies surrounding vulnerable populations and impending environmental collapse, it is no surprise that the lyric “I” presents itself as more urgent and necessary than ever, a resurgence of a “confessional” tenor with new contemporary motives. Who has time for evasion when the clock is ticking? Why ruminate on a minor feeling when the world is in ruins?

Though sometimes overshadowed by a poetics that screams, cries, and gnashes teeth (often very movingly), a more pensive, oblique, and scattered lyric impulse endures. Exploring minor emotions in a time of trauma, these are the poems of a first person who doesn’t seek to come first—if they seek the reader’s approval at all. I call this inclination the “poetry of embarrassment,” wherein lyric poets plumb the depths of often overlooked, nuanced, or less spectacular affects such as embarrassment, boredom, or annoyance, rather than centering trauma or glorifying redemption. Three recent volumes, authored by very different poets at varying points in their careers, exemplify this lyrical penchant for understatement, as it has surfaced, and survived, many waves of American poetry: The Leniad (2023) by Nathaniel Rosenthalis, Midwood (2022) by Jana Prikryl, and, to a lesser but no less provocative extent, The Shining (2023) by Dorothea Lasky.

Rosenthalis writes from the perspective of a gay, Jewish man in his early thirties about casual sex, filial loss, and alienation; Prikryl writes from the vantage of a middle-aged mother coming to terms with infertility, infidelity, and mortality; Lasky’s ekphrastic verse, inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film of the same title (itself adapted from Stephen King’s 1977 novel), mingles horror with a feminist psychological landscape, ultimately sublimating trauma into arch metanarrative. All three poets wield a lyric as overtly terse and plainspoken as it is syntactically daring, and, to varying degrees, they eschew confession in order to excavate new forms of interiority—one in which the smallest observation or remembered detail assumes great importance.

In Rosenthalis’s The Leniad, the minor and minute become epic in scale. “The sex in my books is never merely hot,” declares the Dennis Cooper epigraph, implying that the sex we’ll soon read about will be much more meaningful. But it might be more appropriate to take this declaration as an ironic hook: this is a book in which arguably everything is “merely.” Like all human experience, the gravity of carnal pleasure—and its consequences—is advisedly downplayed. In other words, sex can be merely devastating or transcendent, just as it can be merely pleasurable; no emotional aftermath is granted greater weight. Divided into four sections, the book reads less as a cohesive offering of the self than as a sustained mediation between the self and that which exists outside it—from a bird, a snow shovel, or a hatchback to the bulge in a lover’s summer shorts.

The bulk of the book is a 38-page poem titled “The Leniad,” about a man named Leni who “eats at a restaurant with an ex,” “travels on a bus between cities,” and “keeps a journal.” Incorporating demotic paraphrases of Homer’s Odyssey, Rosenthalis’s title poem is hardly as dramatic, and when it is, it’s in the hypothetical quotations Leni jots down on the bus for a poem of the future, such as, “Your eyes are horns or ivory when you try to stay unbreakable, when your heart is busy breaking.” But is Leni’s heart breaking? Is the poet’s?

More than anything, what embarrasses Leni seems to be his inability to fall in love. Where numberless volumes of poetry explore the wretched, glorious throes of falling in love, out of love, or out of favor with the beloved, Rosenthalis sticks to the nagging feeling that such vulnerability and ardor are out of reach. Sex is an end in and of itself, stripped of overriding pathos. Refreshingly, whether in third person, as in “The Leniad,” or in first person elsewhere, Rosenthalis’s subjects aren’t ashamed of wanting cock, sucking it, or wanting many to suck theirs—nor do they treat their pursuit as a sign of valor. “No such thing as noticing no small thing,” ends a stanza in “The Leniad” as our reluctant hero removes his jeans and “opens his mouth”—for sex, speech, or some other “mere” experience.

When the “I” raises its small-hatted head outside of quotation marks, Rosenthalis levels his losses such that even the death of a parent seems like yet another vicissitude that, even if tragic, is no more untimely than any other. In “Byzantium,” the first poem in the book composed of a trio of couplets spreading longer and longer, we learn in the first line that “[o]nce, I had a mother and a father,” only to discover, a stanza later, “one went away.” In the following poem, we learn, in the context of the speaker reflecting on an app-based sexual encounter with a stranger: “He is dead, my father.” The opening poem, named for an ancient Greek city, the heart of an empire, bluntly declares that the nuclear family is squarely in the past, suggesting from the outset that The Leniad is not a book that is going to dwell on the speaker’s fatherlessness to provoke pity but rather to liberate the speaker from filial duty.

In “Of His Mistress upon Occasion of Her Walking in a Garden,” an ekphrastic poem titled after an artwork depicting Henry Constable (Shakespeare’s presumed lover), the speaker acknowledges that, unlike the painting’s subject, he has never been in love. The poem “Another Swan” (perhaps a wry play on Marianne Moore’s “No Swan So Fine”) suggests that sexual conquests, however lovely, are neither novel nor earth-shaking. “Sky-neutral and bone-ready,” says the speaker of a tryst; lust lingers in the wings while a rote performance of exposure is all that is exposed. Rather than a grand divulgence to the reader, here eros errs on the side of diversion.

“No one can be all the words they are to themselves,” begins “Coda,” the last poem in the book. Rosenthalis’s speaker does not seek to be “all” of anything; in plumbing the pleasures of language as its own erotic schema, The Leniad is deliberately anticlimactic. If sex is a stage for self-actualization, then it is merely a relentless dress rehearsal. To Rosenthalis, sex is resolutely anti-epiphanic, not because it is demoralizing but because the relationship between the self and the body has always been awkward and incomplete. “Although the body serves me, and me it, and the body can betray,” the speaker concludes, “still they go together.”

In Prikryl’s Midwood, the body and betrayal go hand in hand, but rather than reading as an indignant account of marital infidelity or fortysomething ennui, the book comes across more as a curious, if occasionally agitated, inquiry into the empirical mind of she who has been possibly, but not intolerably, wronged. “[D]iminishing myself itself a triumph,” says the “I” in the third poem titled “The Noncello,” one of a handful across the volume named for the same Italian province, their identical titles blurring the individual potency of any single poem for the sake of the series. “I slowly concluded / deserving you was not my problem” shares the speaker in “And Hardly” (like many titles, fairly oblique), addressing an auditor, we infer, of elite social class. The poem “Tall Tale” describes the scene of a “little depression.” Realizations are never total in Midwood; suffering is never trauma.

In “Midwood 20,” one of 24 poems of the same name that quietly unpack the theme of mortality visible at midlife, Prikryl writes, “[T]o hint that this is what they are, like me // annoying strivers / in constant danger of making bad choices.” Like The Leniad, Midwood often circles back to the same conceit, not from a sense of urgency or obsession so much as from the assumption that no one poem can truly nail it down or set it free. “[E]ach line has been an accident,” the speaker tells a budding poet asking for advice in “The Ruins.” “[I]f I remove myself, my will ruins it […] though waiting / can be a mistake that generates willfullness.” If a poem succeeds, it is not because of the poet’s distinct genius but because of her courage to embrace the contingent and incomplete. Like her “accidental” verse that blithely flouts normative syntax, Prikryl’s poems are sublime, however small.

“I felt such tenderness for you and knew / it wasn’t returned—this as usual I couldn’t understand,” the speaker reflects in “The Theater,” about a man of admirable “confidence.” “Confidence” is not what the voice in Midwood projects, and by the end of the book it’s clear that it might well be overrated as a virtue—if it is one at all. In its unassuming nature, Prikryl’s “I” invites our confidence as a result. In “Vertigo Zoom,” “a soaring feeling of inadequacy” is not just a fleeting sensation but also speaks to the embarrassment undergirding the book’s larger poetic project, one that does not emerge from a space of despair but from all too rational insecurity. “I’d never have his depth or sharpness of perception,” admits the speaker of “Little Room,” presumably a reference to a couple’s therapist’s office. Rather than lament this lack as self-defining, the poem ends with the speaker observing the obtuseness of her partner, who “leaned back / against the armrest by now absorbed in something else.”

Like The Leniad, the poems in Midwood are plainspoken and often terse—less as a way to withhold the vulnerable than as a meandering method of accessing the speaker’s nimble brain. In “First Wife,” the speaker interrupts her own narrative to observe “what terrible / choices I’d made all my life with pants,” as though this quirk were just one in a long series of character deficiencies. In downplaying her victimhood and offhandedly relaying her flaws, the speaker asks less for the our pity or indignation than for our warmth and good humor. “I washed Fred’s decanter while the whiskey / was in it, that was a mistake,” ends a poem called “Gently Spilling.” While filled with such endearing admissions, Midwood is no spill-all.

By contrast, Dorothea Lasky’s seventh book of poetry, The Shining, a feminist proclamation mediated through Kubrick’s film, would initially seem a real outlier. How could horror—or female indignation, for that matter—ever feel understated? And indeed, after The Leniad and Midwood, Lasky’s speaker feels damned direct: “I am a very paranoid and awful person,” begins a poem called “Marriage,” “[d]ragging my knee behind me like a large curse.” But even here, the speaker shifts to a lesser emotion than we might anticipate: “Oh I’m a monster too / And a reticent one,” she writes, as though, even in monstrosity, her indolence will outweigh her evil: “I’ll spend the rest of my days on the sofa / But my love I’ll give you the chair.”

Unlike The Leniad and Midwood, The Shining swings between the register of offhand comment and raw disclosure: “I am so wholly unprepared for this / I was told I’d have a lifetime,” admits the speaker in the opening poem, “Self-Portrait in the Hotel,” the complaint more self-deprecating than demanding of our sympathy. “Now the whole thing is coming at me / I can’t even see myself in the mirror.” The motif of thwarted preparation suggests that it’s not necessarily the horror that is so horrifying in this book but the lack of predictability. Unlike The Shining, life—and death—lacks a screenplay.

Lasky has been heralded as a Gen-X successor to confessionalism, but in The Shining, she marries a more subdued exposition with her signature Plathian confrontation. “Poetry I too dislike it,” says the speaker in “Poetry Hates You Too,” aping the bookish Marianne Moore, “But I dislike him more.” A few lines later, “dislike” turns to hate, with “Poetry I hate you too / But little man / I hate you more.” Rather than self-aggrandize or self-immolate, as in traditional confession, poetry here becomes apprentice to a larger feminist project of dismantling patriarchal power.

“Trauma has always been a part of my poetics,” Lasky muses in “Snow Maze,” startling us with her candor rather than courting our sympathy. Throughout The Shining, superlatives and pathology abound with Sextonian verve: “We are the dumbest animals / In our sick lakes,” she writes in “After the Party.” And yet, a few poems later, in “Framed Pictures,” we learn that “[t]here’s a buffet breakfast somewhere / That no one cares about.” Lasky’s neglected speaker is both owed her trauma and willing to conflate it with a basin of hash browns and powdered eggs.

The speaker is aware of her own bravado, downplaying it lexically as though embarrassed by its sincerity: “Icky lousy horrible dread / Is what I feel every day of my life,” says the speaker in “Going Through the Mountain,” one of the closing poems. “So I wrote a book so scary / It would mimic real life.” But, of course, telling the reader that these are “scary poems” dilutes the terror. She does not seek to scare us so much as underscore that life is scary, and that her attempts to capture its “icky […] dread,” however awkward, are the best that she can do. Rather than scare the reader, The Shining offers us the chance to reflect on how horror, as a genre, is most powerful when it exposes real-world corruption and inequality.

Whether it’s Lasky’s “icky dread”, Prikryl’s “little depression,” or Rosenthalis’s hypothetical “heart busy breaking,” can there ever really be a poem of minor emotion? In so many ways, poems themselves render any emotion, however small, mighty on the page. With its cliff-hanging lines, shape-shifting stanzas, and ocean of white instead of a frame, the poem is a kind of textual spectacle: Look at me, the poem says, I have something to say. For a poet to devote such a form to one or more minor emotions is essentially to call attention to the power of the poem on the page, beyond what the poet says or even feels. I may not be handing you my most ecstatic, suffering self, confesses the “poem of embarrassment,” but I am no less worthy of being heard.

LARB Contributor

Eileen G’Sell is a poet and critic with recent or forthcoming contributions to JacobinPoetryThe BafflerThe Hopkins Review, Oversound, and Hyperallergic, among other outlets. Her first volume of poetry, Life After Rugby, was published in 2018; her second book, Francofilaments, is forthcoming in 2024 from Broken Sleep Books. In 2023, she was a recipient of the Rabkin Foundation prize in arts journalism. She teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.


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