Monkey Lightning, by Martha Zweig. Tupelo Press. $16.95.
Explaining how his mother died, Lolita’s Humbert Humbert offers: “Picnic, lightning.” Perhaps that’s why Martha Zweig’s Monkey Lightning makes me think of picnics. Like ratatouille, her work gives off one flavor, then another, and tends toward the acidic. Like wine, she induces dizziness. Like taffy, she demands a long chew:
Dummy, you know you know
better than to stoop into your own
dark car like that & start.
Asking for it!
These delightfully complex lines set “dummy” against the assertion of intelligence “you know you know.” The word develops a second possible resonance—“crash dummy”—once we hit the car in the third line. At the end of that line, we might suspect Zweig has braked too soon (“start”? Doesn’t she mean “start it”—start the car?). And the teasing fourth line, swerving in just after, knows we’re asking for “it.”
At her most delicious, Zweig serves a poetry of forks, of mixed metaphors and divergent definitions. She claims to be “meek as you-know. Me, reportedly,” but when it comes to overhauling idioms, she’s nothing of the sort: is that line claiming she’s “meek, as you know”? Is it sarcastically insisting, “you know me, reportedly”? When fostering such confusions—slowing our reading to a grand-still—Zweig seems like the “bee’s news,” her work an electrifying “ringling & brotherly circuits.”
Reading Zweig, one often feels “nitwitted with wonder,” but sometimes one feels merely like a nitwit. To wit:
To be sure, those civilizations
that dicker novelties, notions, along
my original impulse would swoop
around to appear to my eyes
if they could, but they are too small.
Yes, to be sure. Perhaps aware of her own elusiveness, Zweig asks, “Really, does the world cry out for narrative?” Yes and no: poems don’t need to tell stories, but they should still tell someone something, especially if that someone is trying her best. Alas, Zweig! As she writes: “You’ve picked // your obliquer way.”
Obliqueness, of course, can be appropriate, considering how incomprehensible our world is, how unlikely our births and mysterious our deaths. Zweig has long marveled—along with Alice in Wonderland—at how strangely people come and go around here. In her first book, Vinegar Bone (1999), she writes: “he / remembered about being born: it / was cold suddenly, / someone helped.” And in another poem: “Often they both could swear / they overhear their / deaths converse.” Now, in Monkey Lightning:
same way the opposite stunt
slicked being from nothing once.
A stunt, a swipe, a pass: through casual terms, Zweig evokes the casualness of our arrivals and departures. Her style here is “slick” indeed, in marked contrast with the gumminess above.
In another description of birth, she’s likewise “slick, quick, & slipped”
through the twice-
chink-in-things some nicety struck between not-
being & being, to this: ah!—
the ungodly side, where the food is.
Warm bodies here rub the warm body I’ve got. I’m amazed.
Such amazement caffeinates several of Zweig’s poems. A disciple of the Jesuit priest and rhythmic jack-in-the-box Gerard Manley Hopkins—who praised “All things counter, original, spare, strange; / Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)”—Zweig asserts that “surprises abound this world!” and asks, “Who knows how, now?” Charged with the grandeur of God, Hopkins saw fit to father-forth his own words, and Zweig follows suit: “Who in the rosydawn town blinks / awake fullgrown?” she asks. In her latest collection, fuller grown, she constructs a maze of amazements where surprise abounds.
Lighthead, by Terrance Hayes. Penguin. $18.00.
The title of Terrance Hayes’s second book, Hip Logic (2002), alludes to a logic that’s hip and to the logic of hips—a logic of shifting and twisting that jazzes up his lines throughout. In Lighthead, his fourth and most recent collection, Hayes continues to tweak and torque, sneaking in a “sliver-thin silver fish,” sitting with a “silk slick black back- / talking cousin.”
In Lighthead, Hayes looks—and sometimes talks—back to ancestors both poetical and political. He writes one poem, “The Golden Shovel,” both after and, in a sense, before Gwendolyn Brooks: each line ends with a word from Brooks’s “We Real Cool.” After running through Brooks’s poem once, Hayes recommences, but permits her final words to sprout hyphens (so that “we,” for example, splits into “we- / akened”: a weakening of the word that also evokes ache). In “The Golden Shovel,” Hayes’s poetic precursor seems to limit his parameters, marking the ends of his lines—but it’s a cage whose bars he can bend, even shatter. “What we / break is what we hold,” he writes a few lines later.
In this rollicking, refined volume, Hayes holds in his ear not only the resonances of predecessors like Brooks and Hayden, but also the tones of African-American discourse—that exploration of hyphenation—more generally. When he spots self-seriousness in such conversation, he parrots and parodies. As he writes in his third volume, Wind in a Box (2006):
When I consider the much discussed dilemma
of the African-American, I think not of
what sleek dashikied poets
and tether fisted Nationalists commonly call Mother
Africa, but of an ex-girlfriend who was the child
of a black-skinned Ghanaian beauty and Jewish-
American, globetrotting ethnomusicologist.
—From “Woofer (When I Consider the African-American)”
The “common call” is not his: Hayes telescopes inward from generality to particularity, from “the African-American” to a single person whose history calls for three lines of summary—lines that, as they unwind, nearly snag in their increasingly detailed description.
One of Lighthead’s headiest poems responds to a similar situation—an African-American speaker’s call for reparations—by refocusing its spotlight on a fruit that, like Hayes’s ex, suggests universality through its distinctiveness. I speak, of course, of the wacky yet well-loved avocado (another picnic treat). Distracted from the speaker’s talk, Hayes muses:
The roots of the avocado tree
can raise pavement, so it’s not too crazy to imagine the fruit
as a symbol of revolt on the abolitionist flag. We are all one kind
of abolitionist or another, no doubt. And we are like the avocado too
—From “The Avocado”
Framing politics in terms of produce, the poet combines the glibness of Frank O’Hara—who shaped some of the brisk, breathless work of Hayes’s first volume, Muscular Music—with the hilarity of June Jordan’s “Notes on the Peanut”: “let me / interrupt to take your name down on my / pocket peanut writing pad complete with matching / peanut pencil.”)
For all his attention to poetic roots, Hayes’s work exhibits a refreshing rootlessness. It can wander from one tradition to the next (Hayes writes poems inspired by the “pecha kucha,” a Japanese business presentation format). It can suddenly shift subjects, as here: “I’ll eat you to live: that’s poetry. / I wish I glowed like a brown-skinned pregnant woman.” Such turns, if surprising enough, can lead to confusion—but Hayes is one of those rare poets whose mysteriousness more often pleases than frustrates. Take these lines, from his lovely, elusive pecha kucha “Arbor for Butch”:
In the far south where history shades everything,
there are people who fear trees. I once heard an old man say
I may be black as a crow, but I’m white inside.
Nowhere else does the sky do what the sky does there,
where the graves are filled with dirt the color of fire.
Tuned in to the sounds that precede and surround him, Hayes is a gifted mimic: his poems offer imitations of ad campaigns, cd copy, job applications. (Some efforts—like “Anchor Head”—feel less about semantics than about sonics, granting Lighthead the feel of a variety show, with music breaking up the acts: “Adam’s / dim boogaloo to birdsong / and what the bird boogaloos to.”)
Hayes’s interest in impersonation might stem from the insight that social participation is itself performance. One of Hip Logic’s most cutting poems was “Squawk,” a complaint offered by a ruffled Big Bird who turns out to be, under his costume, a black man. In this latest collection, the speaker in the poem “Tankhead” asks an actor to dress up as General Patton (the wwii general nicknamed “Old Blood and Guts”), donning a “huge, mightily polished helmet bobbing on a head / twice the size of the body.” “Our best Patton performer ever was a thin Asian girl,” the speaker adds. In Lighthead, Hayes plays a quite serious, and marvelous, game of dress-up.
View from a Temporary Window, by Joanie Mackowski. University of Pittsburgh Press. $14.95.
Like Hayes, Joanie Mackowski explores shifting boundaries through shifting sounds. In View from a Temporary Window, rhymes split into half-rhymes; consonants reorder themselves; vowels darken, lighten, and disappear. Louis MacNeice glimpsed “ghosts of rhymes” in the poetry of his contemporaries; I spotted similar phenomena flitting through Mackowski. “Portrait,” for example, begins with the solid rhyme pair “stable” and “table.” The next rhyme pair is “dinner” and “near you.” But is that a rhyme pair (or is it just the wind)?
From just such uncertainty about what’s what, View derives its odd perspectives. One poem transforms a driver into her car; another turns a woman into her husband. Like guides to puberty, the book describes alarming bodily changes in calm tones: a man whose hands have swelled three times larger than his head merely wonders, “Is symmetry useful?” In the face of such nonchalance, even our surprise (as someone, say, pulverizes inexplicably into ash) starts to waver. Is this normal, after all? we might ask.
These examples spring from the six-poem sequence “Case Studies in Metamorphosis,” and yet View from a Temporary Window reads, on the whole, like a strange and tender textbook of changes. The common etymology linking “metamorphosis” and “metaphor” comes across throughout: via the latter, Mackowski systematically suggests the former, devising an internally consistent mythology—an update on Ovid—according to which, for example, hands routinely turn into maple leaves. “I dream of winter,” she writes, “the maples / drumming their glass-gloved fingers on the sky.” Another poem mentions the “bare maple’s faint thumbprint.” Our philosopher of symmetry stands “with his hands / splayed on either side of his face like bare / maples lining a drive.” Such episodes prompt a question familiar to Macbeth fans: what does it mean to turn into a tree? In Mackowski, the self is endlessly flexible, open to reformulating and rephrasing—rather like a poem.
Mackowski’s first book, The Zoo (2002), suggested a similar interest in transformation, but also captured a cautiousness she seems to have outgrown. Comparing herself to a heron, she wrote: “Wouldn’t it be nice to fly off into the distance, // to shed the body’s tinsel and disappear”? If she were writing the same poem in View from a Temporary Window, she might simply narrate the poem as a heron and flop off without further fuss.
Her poem “The Larger” describes one of the book’s boldest transformations. In a cataclysmic yet affirmative metaphor for our Edenic tumble, the speaker falls, and in falling makes a world: “where my glasses shattered there spread / a seacoast. . . . / Now my legs subdue / that dangerous sea.” One suspects Mackowski of drinking Wallace Stevens’s special tea over at the Palaz of Hoon: “I was myself the compass of that sea,” Stevens writes in his paean to self-containment and self-expansion. “I was the world in which I walked. . . . / And there I found myself more truly and more strange.” Stevens and Mackowski pull a similar trick: through impersonal poems, they suggest that people are the world.
Mackowski prevents her cool surrealism from growing tiresome by describing such various unrealities in such various ways—and by attending so consistently to sound that sense, if it occasionally does grow repetitive, has earned some leeway to do so. Still, it comes as a relief when Mackowski allows emotional immediacy into “Walking in the Dark,” this volume’s apogee. The speaker’s mother suffers from a memory disorder: “My mother can’t remember / who I am,” she writes. “It won’t matter if I’m gone / thirty minutes or thirty years.” Treading the landscape, she describes “the firm- / ament loosening.” Here, as elsewhere, place is person: not just the landscape but also her mother’s consciousness is eroding (and her own might be too as, unknown by another, she becomes unknown to herself).
Generally, Mackowski might feel rather chipper about such a predicament—she might contend she has no self to know. In “Vision,” she sees a double of herself walking down the street, and concludes:
I would have preferred
another vision, say of the gossamer fissure
in the corneal membrane that gilds
us together, to peer out through that.
What holds us in one piece is, paradoxically, a split in our corneas—a split that “gilds” us together like something precious, permitting our singular views from our temporary windows.
I Was the Jukebox, by Sandra Beasley. W.W. Norton. $24.95.
Midway through her new collection, in a poem called “The Cutting Board,” Sandra Beasley tells a deceased loved one:
I am granted
a curtained hour
to pack the picnic basket
of your belly: bread, oil,
cooling lamb, pour of wine,
wild rice, peppers
red and sweet.
The most stirring of Beasley’s poems take place in curtained and uncertain hours, hours that revive the dead and that tip love toward loss, and back again: death becomes a trip for which Beasley can pack a basket, and reality’s contingencies fade into a fantasy of wine and lamb.
Such fantasies inspire the fugue of interweaving forms—dramatic monologues, love poems, “failed poems”—that constitutes I Was the Jukebox. Speaking for eggplants and pianos, writing love poems to Los Angeles and Wednesday, Beasley brings the inanimate to life. She writes of war and oxidation and sand—sources of destruction both sudden and gradual. And her “failed poems” suggest, for the most part unfairly, that her own poetic efforts are prone to collapse.
Perhaps as a countercurrent to the disintegration constantly threatening its speakers, Jukebox is filled with efforts to catch and clench. A woman presses her hand against her lover’s back “as if he were a child / who needed catching.” In another poem, someone who has miscarried muses, “she has always known her fingers to be a net / she could not lace tight enough.” In “Osiris Speaks,” the god—scattered into his component organs—prays: “Isis, every fish in that river is a child / of mine. You are my net. Hold me.” Beasley’s poems express the desire not only to be needed, but also netted, held together as oneself—often by someone else.
Or, in the case of her rhythmic, wrenching “The Translator,” to be held together with someone else, as someone else. This poem about fusion nests one dramatic monologue within another: Beasley speaks as a translator, whose job is to transmit the words of still another writer. In a sly way, “The Translator” is a love poem, first winking toward prostitution (“He paid me . . . / To give him please. / To give him thank you”) and then hinting at domestic intimacy (“I ate at his table. / I moved into his basement”). Since it’s a love poem by Beasley, it’s also an elegy:
I can’t breathe, he said, so I said
I can’t breathe. My heart, he said,
so I said My heart. It was my wrist
the nurse held, my chest
under the stethoscope. I’m sorry,
said the doctor, and my throat
became a coffin
they could not open.
His failure to breathe becomes hers; his heart becomes hers; he becomes her—and all the while, the act of merging itself merges with dying.
If nearly every poem in I Was the Jukebox is an epitaph, nearly every epitaph offers some graveyard humor. Beasley writes, “I don’t fear death / But what I’m really picturing / is Omaha.” It’s hard not to smile at those lines (unless you happen to be from Omaha).
Beasley’s attraction to lightness can render her poems overly simple, converting her shadows, to paraphrase Elizabeth Bishop, into shallows, and occasionally inviting cliche. Conclusions like “Love, come and get me” or “keep the sky from falling” deflate the complex efforts preceding them like ill-fated soufflés. Her lightness works best when it dapples her darkness—and when her darkness, as it often does, feels truly deep.