There’s a common belief that moments of public agony are good for poetry. Political turmoil, so this wishful thinking goes, galvanizes an otherwise private art and lends it a new charge. Voices seldom heard until now suddenly surge to the forefront, while audiences beleaguered by debased political rhetoric seek refuge in poetry.
I like this script as much as anyone. It’s reassuring to think the literature you love might also be a social good, working to ameliorate the outrages of the day. But I’m leery, too. Like every age, ours has its period style. As poetry clamors to be heard in the era of tweeting tyrants, it too often leans on the reader’s agreement about the issues, gathering its energy from important topics but failing to channel that energy into original form. The tactics of argument function as a starter kit, from which the poem neither becomes its own thing nor makes a compelling case.
It is refreshing, then, to discover contemporary poetry that finds political resistance in the recalcitrance and malleability of language itself. Regardless of style or affiliation, the best poetry of our moment gains distinction not from content, but from what content demands—the renewal of poetic resources. Through wildly different approaches, ranging from associative fragmentation to verbal collage to autobiographical narrative, new poetry collections by Myung Mi Kim, Lisa Jarnot, and Ahmad Almallah reconcile the urge to render and address social and political life with the desire to make the poem a self-sustaining work of the imagination. For all three, these seemingly contradictory impulses come together to fulfill our desires about the political power of art, without sidelining poetry’s formal possibilities.
At first glance, Myung Mi Kim’s book-length poem Civil Bound might appear completely untethered to familiar points of reference. Her lines, at times winnowed down to one per page, are spare and yet eruptive. The discombobulations of conventional grammar are so radical in these poems that the poet often seems to be working in the tradition of John Cage’s “chance operations,” which allowed an element of randomness into artistic decision-making.
But Kim, who has now published eight collections, is no apprentice, and has invented her own avant-garde approach. In a development that gained its full scope and subtlety with her 2002 collection, Commons, her practice makes room for necessary subjects like capitalism, ecology, and imperialism. She renders such subjects not on the level of topics but of the word, the syllable. Take the following passage from Civil Bound, six lines distributed across two pages (with the page break indicated here by an asterisk):
larynx and feral irritants
effacement of oh, father mother, the, we
the Great Lakes
silt slit syllabaries
Despite the absence of traditional syntax, and despite the big leaps between images—which in fact break through the phrases only in fugitive glimmers before all points of reference shift and recombine once more—a set of preoccupations still becomes evident. Kim is obsessed with the ways that language remains inextricable from the body. The line “larynx and feral irritants,” for example, sets the organ of human speech production (the “voice box”) alongside a phrase conjuring wildness, disruption, intractability, potential harm. A similar moment of provocative juxtaposition occurs at the end of the passage, when “silicate,” a salt that is a major component of the earth’s crust, morphs first into an identifiable geographical feature (“the Great Lakes”) and then, by way of a deft and astonishing moment of anagrammatic playfulness, crumbles down into “syllabaries,” a set of written symbols for the sounds that make up words.
Could it be that Kim’s acute sense for how language can prove both singular and embedded comes from personal experience, having immigrated to the Unites States from Korea at age nine? I’d guess so, and yet her poems themselves are not biographical lyric. In the world of Kim’s poems, language and environment, strong emotion (“oh, father mother”), and factual objectivity combine. This fusion of outside and inside seldom resembles what John Ruskin once called the “pathetic fallacy,” the tendency of some poets to project too obviously their own state of mind onto objects outside of them. In Kim’s lines, that balance remains more troubled, more precarious, and more reciprocal.
And Civil Bound does more than merely suggest such connections: Kim sets them in active relation, so that to read her poetry means to reckon with and also to feel the ways in which language implicates speakers and listeners, writers and readers. Take the following passage, which Kim strings across four pages (page breaks again marked by asterisks):
It is conceded that an interoceanic canal through any of the isthmus passes of the western hemisphere is a necessity for the present and prospective commerce of the world.
sounds produced by using air from the lungs
if the air is pushed out
if the air is sucked in
scolding wings removed cuts flushed
abuts agricultural sunken medical
1 pair gloves
3 yds calico
1 deck cards
The Settlers Ledger
Ft. Union, NM
This passage unfolds by alternation. The quote at the opening comes from a US government document addressing surveys conducted to ascertain the viability of what, 40 years later, would become the Panama Canal, though conceived at that earlier date as running through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in southern Mexico. This keys the reader into a motif, the brutality that imperial mercantilism inflicts upon the environment, and thereby sets up a rhyme with the later section containing the ledger from Fort Union. But, at the same time, these repetitions operate as grounding for the more eccentric and more visceral lines that intervene, in which the metaphor of land and body takes on a violent intensity: “choke canal.” Kim’s protest against oppression is ferocious in these moments precisely because it hasn’t been flattened by a rhetorical scheme.
As Civil Bound rises to its full elegiac power in the concluding section, composed around the refrain “accept of these waters,” the poem returns both art and the world to an original strangeness. And yes, some might underline that the focus on accepting “strangeness” or the “stranger,” including those we might have the grace or simple humanity to accept from across the water, suggests Kim’s timely political commitment. It does. But the power and dimension of that commitment are defined by a resistance to the merely relevant, a dedication to the imaginative act.
It is refreshing to discover contemporary poetry that finds political resistance in the recalcitrance and malleability of language itself.
Lisa Jarnot’s A Princess Magic Presto Spell may seem even less political than Civil Bound, on its surface. Composed of disparate patches of language, Jarnot’s poetry resembles collage—but there’s a central subject here, too. As Jarnot explains in the afterword, she began the book after her daughter’s birth, in 2009. She gave herself the task of writing three words a day, and then each summer “combined those phrases into the individual sections of this poem.” Even without the benefit of the afterword, though, the cyclic rhythms of family life—its joys and sorrows, moments of boredom and chaos—are palpable as not only the book’s theme but also its form.
For many years now, Jarnot has written deft and insouciant lyrics that recall her New York School and Black Mountain predecessors, forebears in the avant-garde. But in this collection, style runs deeper than style. The balancing of disparate tones suggests ethos as much as method, as this book is about living conscientiously in the present: a moment characterized by thrilling variety delivered at Mach speed, but also by horror and outrage. The proper nouns that pop up in this collage include al-Qaeda and Ted Cruz, as well as Eric Garner. If joy proves the ground note of this poetry, it’s a precarious joy.
Consider a passage from “Trim Roses, Mary,” the final of the book’s nine sections. Here, the linguistic playfulness shades into a ritual injunction, directed at both the poet and the reader:
find a solitude
near the chessmen and the tax returns
where the llamas dream
in a luxury gay space communism
find a dead wood’s postcolonial guerilla exegesis
in the mobs of vindicators
find the root fallacy
of the music that can carry it
and for the “weird but true”
read “the world tree”
As with the verse movement in Kim’s Civil Bound, Jarnot’s sudden shifts of tone and reference vivify a central conviction. Faith, the centering vision of “the world tree” or mythological axis mundi, here depends on the “weird but true,” the spontaneous overflow of odd delights (“llamas dream”) that reinforce that center by virtue of their winning eccentricity.
While Kim and Jarnot find in their experimental methods a way to write a poetry of conscience that never turns sententious or programmatic, their approach has no inherent superiority. Sometimes autobiographical narrative delivers just as much surprise and subtle strength. The poems in Ahmad Almallah’s debut collection, Bitter English, relate the story of a Palestinian man who, having immigrated to America in his youth, finds himself torn between his life in the United States and the family and language he left behind. Consider the opening lines of the title poem, the first in the book:
that I own no one language cuts me through
that I find this english tongue I use day after day
boring, in construction, even in poetry, cuts me
in the middle of sentiment and sentence
I do not understand this sound, I stumble
as I say to myself I will ignore these english words
emptied today, I walk down the street catching
my hand in the air, greeting faces I know I don’t know
A reader might suspect dramatic irony here: the speaker who declares his deep frustration with “this english tongue” at the same time employs it—not only with the remarkable grace of his plain style idiom, but also in a roughly pentameter line and a quatrain that call to mind the long history of English verse. And yet the bitterness and estrangement are real, and the poem doesn’t work to cure but to render them. After all, estrangement from the English tongue, as well as frustration with forms of poetic convention, remain characteristic of much great poetry in English that we too easily call part of “the tradition.” Ben Jonson, for instance, referred to the English sonnet form as “the tyrant’s bed.”
That’s the great contribution that Bitter English offers to our moment: Almallah knows that great poems are often made by the poet’s integration of two seemingly inharmonious ideas or tendencies. Throughout his collection, such challenging doubleness appears in the recurring image of the man with two passports. It also makes for tonal dualities. In the stunning prose poem “The House, Searched,” in which the poet relates stories of his and his wife’s family homes being searched by the military, Almallah writes, “I won’t use the words machine gun or M16 … they sound way too overdramatic.” At one point the poet even admits that he unaccountably finds the anecdotes of the house searches very funny. That may seem like denial brought on by shock, but here Almallah also shows that, unlike rhetoric, poetry returns events and human emotions to their unclassifiable weirdness.
Maybe the best example of Almallah’s talent for using apparent contraries to create depth and dimension comes from the short lyric “Map.” In this poem, the poet admits that, for all his estrangement from English and from his life in America, Arabic and his family life in Palestine also resist his attempts at understanding. Flying from Amman to Jerusalem, he looks at the Arabic words on his display screen and thinks:
I can’t read them anymore:
to be there
These enjambed lines slow down the delivery of the sentence, conveying the surprise and weight of this moment without any didactic finger-wagging. Here, Almallah conceives an emblem for the best poetry of our moment. Like Kim and Jarnot—like any poet who would write with political commitment that runs deeper than mere topicality—Almallah works to restore a rightful perspective, level with the land and those who live there. This is no sentimental or populist conception, in which art serves the requirements of subject matter and concludes when full authenticity has been achieved. Instead, the poem ends with a beginning, an undertaking of intellect and imagination: “to read.”
That curiosity is what these three poets have in common. Despite their different methods, they share a dedication to the abstract, formal nature of poetry not as a means of escaping contemporary life, but of giving it reality.
This article was commissioned by Eleanor Johnson.