Monday, May 21, 2007

Book Review: Amy King: Antidote for an Alibi


One thing I sometimes find missing from post-avant poetry is a sense of intimacy. As the directly personal is (often) evaded, language/linguistic insights take the place of human insights; sharpness of thought is conveyed, rather than subtlety of feeling. We don’t get close to the poet, because he/she shows no desire to get close to us. Post-structuralism made “getting close” seem suspect; we’re used to regarding text as “just text” or “merely text”, rather than transparently revealing a constitutive subject. Amy King stands out from the post-avant pack, because she has achieved a very difficult feat in this book, Antidotes for an Alibi-- somehow, she has taken the conceptual assumptions of post-avant and humanized them, made them intimate. Her poetics foregrounds the human and the humane; yet her writing avoids overt attempts at transparency and is free of clich├ęs. By threading together strains of Surrealism, Confessional poetry, and Lang-Po, King has created an original combination, which fulfills the requirements of conscious, post-avant textuality and also a perceived hunger for humanity. These poems are eclectic, electric, and not easily categorized. They burn with a strange and luminous intensity.

Many of the most unique moments in these poems occur when humor and pathos collide. As King writes in “Homage to the Ballad”, “I am in love for the next time in my life.” Humane impulses mix themselves with zany metaphors and ellipses, as in “I lick melting suede feet” and “My days/ should have been game/ show contestants.” These are both images of vulnerability, unconventionally expressed (in a manner that might have pleased Apollinaire or Max Jacob). King expresses the uncertainties of daily life and the unfairness of human relationships, but always with surprising twists. King’s titles add complexity to her constructs; as in “Homage to the Ballad”, which shows the post-modernist’s concern with self-conscious representation, poems as “made” rather than natural, forms (in this case, the ballad) as expressions of artifice. Yet King’s own position in the poems is consistently more vulnerable than sly or ironic; some of her confessions are right on the surface, like “I confess/ to shaking like a lost dog at the feel of nothing at/ all against my skin” from “In Love with Someone Else”. In a book slanted towards post-avant, this naked honesty is a bold move. It pays off big-time for King. We find ourselves drawn in, rather than repelled; comforted rather than confronted; intimately contacted rather than cloyed. In poetry, even post-avant poetry, a little genuine honesty goes a long way. King’s bravery is outstanding and admirable.

King does not shy away from the first person singular. However, her presentations of “I” are in keeping with the vulnerability displayed throughout the book. She is a resilient survivor, tough even in weakness: “If I were you, I would wait for me.” King’s self-perceived vocation as an artist is shot through with modesty and self-mocking humor: “I cage the dog’s bark in caffeinated sketches/ as I lip-sync my first name when asked.” Were King self-satisfied or self-obsessed, her self-references would grate. Because she presents herself (and her “I”) in such modest terms, this self-referential strain becomes deeply sympathetic. She writes, “I’m learning to give disappearance an honesty”, and that process is enacted in these poems. King effaces herself, but sans the Baroque drama of Plath or the acrid bitterness of Sexton. King proves her own maxim, “there are many ways/ to die without death”; each trial she goes through seems like a skin she must shed, a former self that must be left behind. She often ends with a resolution, as in “Sixteen Things You Should Know”: “I will not make love/ until I am in it.”

As you might have noticed, these poems are full of aphorisms. King’s knack for memorable lines is striking. They do not seem gratuitous either, but evolve organically from individual poems. One of the most delightful aspects of Antidotes for an Alibi is that each poem has a unique identity. King’s voice— vulnerable and triumphant, Surrealist and Confessional, post-modern and traditional— unites the poems. It is a voice with no definite precedent. King’s voice feels right for 2007, but it is hard to say why. I, personally, feel that this is what we need more of— flesh and blood, self-consciousness within limits, wild imagination, aphorism. This is a polyglot poetry of many traditions; a book to be read and reread. As such, it can only be judged a success.

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