Great collections of poems often cohere around a central story. But it’s also natural for poets to resist narrative—to break down homogenized forms with their imaginations, returning the reader to the energies and feeling-tones of language itself. After all, the best poets tend to trouble conventions, including those they find necessary. At least, that’s what makes three recent collections so compelling. Maw Shein Win, Chiyuma Elliott, and Katie Peterson are lyric poets who discover astonishing ways not so much of telling stories as giving them original form.
To understand the uniqueness of Maw Shein’s Win’s second full collection, Storage Unit for the Spirit House, consider how the book opens. For her epigraph, Win quotes a passage by Qiao Dai, a PhD candidate in the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies at Berkeley. In this passage, Dai defines nats, animist deities important to Burmese Buddhists:
Nats are spirits believed to have the power to influence the everyday life of people in their orbit. The vitality of this belief is embedded in the rituals, including people’s worship in daily life, the role of mediums, and the holding of nat festivals. The list of 37 official nats (they were integrated with Buddhism by King Anawrahta in the 12th century) includes only some of them. Because nats hold sovereign power in particular geographical locations, small shrines called spirit houses are often placed in a village or even inside or near a worshipper’s house where offerings can be made to a local nat …
Following Dai’s description comes Win’s opening poem, “Spirit House (One).”
the nats have stolen my hair
mosquito net winds itself around limbs
watch clumps of black hair blow across the room onto balcony
the house on Inya Lake presses down on my neck & back
smell of jackfruit & sweet orange consoles me
eat semolina cake under crackling palms
hear the cousins gossip: she is so idle, not as enterprising as her four sisters
sometimes I cannot bear to watch these sunsets
There’s a lot to admire here. Win has a talent not only for delivering vivid details but conveying sensations, rendering the saturated atmosphere of her scenes themselves. She’s a master of arrangement: in those last three lines, the joyful image of eating semolina cake rubs up against the moment of awkward self-consciousness created by the gossip; taken together, these seemingly opposing tones inform the final line, so the statement about not being able to bear the sunset, which in another context might sound sentimental or melodramatic, makes for a strong and subtly ambiguous ending.
This structural cunning informs the larger picture, too. Having placed Dai’s descriptive prose about the housing of spirits who “hold sovereign power in particular geographical locations” directly before “Spirit House (One),” Win makes a connection and strikes a contrast. The juxtaposition suggests an understanding of large religious and historical forces, while the poem, even as it picks up on the epigraph by including the nats in the very first line, houses the reader in a specific scene. By virtue of skillful placement, and without any expository fuss, Win has begun to convey an urgent story, which her next poem, “Storage Unit 202,” continues to unfold:
the rental faces another house
when she arrives there are wild turkeys
in the street
it begins to rain
the storage unit in El Cerrito holds
pinned moths in cases
brass castanets, tin pants
a box of cork buttons
she swims laps in the thunderstorm
Moving from Burma to Northern California, Win now introduces immigration to the story, even as she avoids any overt exposition. Just as Dai’s epigraph contrasts with “Spirit House (One)” so that poem gives way to something entirely different—an American suburban landscape that appears both lonely and strangely beautiful, as in the eerie image of swimming laps in the thunderstorm. The tone here feels melancholic, but not entirely: a storage unit might seem the opposite of a spirit house, and yet, in reading this book, I’m left delightfully unsure of that.
There’s no obvious narrative plotting in Storage Unit for the Spirit House, and no rhetoric about “the issues” of culture, economics, race, immigration, spirituality, and so on. But neither is there any escapism. Where other poets might employ argument, Win places the reader so fully in the moments of her poems that we feel her concerns from the inside out. After all, her formal practice, her arrangement of disparate details into new and vivid shapes, turns out to be consubstantial with the act of arranging a life, putting oneself together out of what has been inherited or found. Throughout the collection—and particularly in such poems as “Tower,” “Hut,” and the title poem—Win’s lines gain depth and dimensions as she makes her art from encounters with thepreviously unknown.
Poets as skillful as Win, Elliott, and Peterson reinvigorate our sense of what stories do.
Like Maw Shein Win, Chiyuma Elliott amazes by her ability to pack her poems with meaning, even as they appear condensed and uncrowded. Elliott’s talent shows in her construction of original metaphors. Take the opening of the first of Elliott’s two poems titled “When I Was a Wave”:
I was willing to drink anything.
I found myself out gazing at stars.
I played them like harps,
I said promise me,
and he left his clothes
on the shore, he waded in.
What I heard was polyphony.
Elliott can get an entire poem to pivot around a single word, and here she does so twice. The reference to “fishnets” both continues the wave metaphor and evokes fishnet stockings, introducing the erotic scene that then begins. At the end of the passage, “polyphony” affects another shift, suggesting the richness and intensity of the experience.
Elliott’s skill for managing the connotative energies of single words and phrases corresponds with her ability to elicit the expectations of storytelling: “Let me tell you a story,” the poet says later in “When I Was a Wave.” But, in an Elliott poem, expectations are likely to be imaginatively thwarted. While “Landscape is a Word with Fraught Connotations” and “The Lion Wheel” offer excellent examples of this knack for surprise, maybe “Dear Ilium” illustrates it best. Beginning with a semi-mythical record of public woes, the poem gains force as it concludes:
The signs said fuck 12, the seconds ticked past.
The thoughtless old ships rusted in the bay.
We lost we won we painted
new ships and faces on plywood,
and the birds wheeled and sang.
What’s a victory, what’s a garden?
We burned some cities,
we shattered some glass.
The graffito referred to at the beginning of this passage, “fuck 12,” is code for “fuck the police”—a meme that developed after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Its presence in these lines suddenly and dramatically invokes the specific agonies of contemporary America, and while the poem returns to the more general, lyrical diction with which it begins, that reference informs the lament of the final lines. It’s because she’s so artfully surprising that Elliott manages to do something very difficult here: she convincingly and movingly speaks in the first-person plural about urgent subjects, and yet she never sounds the least bit rhetorical. In the work of a poet as a good as Chiyuma Elliott, imagination and subjects aren’t opposed: they vitalize one another.
Invitations to the Voyage
Katie Peterson’s Life in a Field engages the expectations of storytelling overtly. Almost entirely in prose and interspersed with three luminous folios by contemporary photographer Young Suh, the book centers around the story of a girl and a donkey. Peterson, who has published four previous collections of poetry, has now written a fable with a seemingly simple premise: two beings meet each other, nothing much happens, and everything does. In her introduction, Rachel Zucker amusingly recounts trying to explain this setup to friends: “The girl is a real girl and the donkey is a real donkey, but of course they’re not real-real because its poetry (well, prose poetry) and a donkey in a poem is a poem-donkey … but in this case not just a poem-donkey because the book neither anthropomorphizes nor exoticizes the donkey (or the girl), which allows the donkey (and the girl) to feel real, true, embodied, actual.”
Much of that feeling of the “real, true, embodied, actual” comes from the lucidity of Peterson’s prose. Here, she describes the girl’s life:
At first, everything had the structure of a blessing. People kept giving the girl what she needed. At the bend in the path, a river with clear water. A beautiful education. An inn at sunset. A spectacular blueberry pie in a perfect circle with a crust so flaky that the last sunlight filled its layers, which had been gently separated by the fork delaying the conclusion of the slice.
Peterson’s mastery shows in her seemingly effortless movement from statement to particulars, and although these sentences are fragments, she handles verbal energies exquisitely—delaying the conclusion of the slice of pie just as she delays the conclusion of the sentence.
Compare that description to Peterson’s introduction of the donkey:
There was no childhood for the donkey, but he was brought up. They brought him to his feet, on the first and second day, and on the third day he stood for himself. He was made for labor. The people were just trying to help. They wanted him to be himself faster.
“Made for labor,” the donkey might seem the opposite of the relatively privileged girl. By pairing the two of them, Peterson creates a dynamic imbalance, a big asymmetry that can’t help but suggest such immense themes as economic exploitation, systemic racism and misogyny, and climate catastrophe. But, as with Win’s cunning arrangement of particulars and Elliott’s construction of complex and far-reaching metaphors, Peterson doesn’t disguise such themes so much as she lodges them in the actual and messy feeling of lived experience. This antischematic tendency shows in the way she questions narrative itself. Life in a Field begins with the sentence, “In this story there is a girl and there is a donkey,” but the narrator soon begins to argue with her own framing: “Maybe it wasn’t a narrative at all. Maybe it was a sequence or a constellation. I think the storyline came after that fact.”
Peterson’s penchant for throwing quicksands of doubt beneath her storytelling, even as she tells a story, may seem a familiar postmodern move. But this poet does something different: Her undermining of narrative works not merely to show up familiar habits of mind, or to prove the illusory nature of our attempts to make meaning. Instead, by questioning storytelling, she moves toward an even more powerful form of meaning-making—ritual. The book ends where it begins, in the field with the girl and the donkey, and yet with a marriage rite:
The girl does not think. Pictures pass through her mind. They associate freely, which means, in an order she has yet to discern.
The donkey brays. He kneels in the field. The image so radiant in reinvents religion as an accident.
I marry you Time, purger of fortunes, handmaiden of ruin, enemy of mothers, unwilling melter of glaciers that surround us, as we sleep, with the cold clarity we need to continue on this earth.
The boldness of this ending, the directness with which the prose points to its own meaning, seems to me hard won. Without sacrificing her intellectual acuity or her salutary feeling for how the facts of the real word disrupt our storytelling, Peterson manages something breathtaking—she writes as a contemporary devotional poet. As they embrace mortality, the narrator, the girl, and the donkey lead the reader to a moment of genuine wonder, in which we do in fact approach an order we have yet to discern. Peterson gives her reader a sense of the otherworldly that feels so real because it’s entirely rooted in the world.
Poets as skillful as Win, Elliott, and Peterson reinvigorate our sense of what stories do, and of how they might be challenged, reinvented, sculpted into entirely new forms. Such engagement with stories feels fresh and searching because it’s impelled by necessity.
This article was commissioned by Eleanor Johnson.