I’m a Sherwin Bitsui fan because his poems have a calm murmuring forward motion that I deeply trust and a surrealism that feels older than French and may be engaging both poet and reader in scarier transitions than the deliberate disordering of the senses not that I am dumping on Arthur Rimbaud. But Sherwin Bitsui writes “in” Native American in as unambivalent a way as I write in Boston-ese or something else. And since he is also reading a whole tradition of European and South American literature or maybe Spanish or maybe it’s language poetry I simply love that there are many kinds of disordering animating and rerouting factors erupting and surging and patterning his poem from line to line. He codes this richness coolly. His poem “Asterisk” opens with these head-scratching lines:
Fourteen ninety something,
which heralds an ensuing world of distrust, observation and possibility. But he dispenses with the puzzled affect right away: “and no one can pick it out of the lineup…” darkening his almost Jewish comedian’s coy meander onto the stage. Yet the indeterminate ‘something’ seems permanently hired to investigate the whole world -- it prowls the poem:
something lurking in the mineshaft—
and motor oil seeps through the broken white line of the teacher’s loom.//Something can’t loop this needle into it. I love that “this.” Is it the writing line, this needle, as it’s held in the fingers of the narrator, is the narrator’s camera pointed at something unmistakable in the hand of someone else that we know and who are we? Sherwin’s intimacy disorders everything a tad and allows us to lightly graze over a universe of discrete harsh things, and strangely beautiful: “asterisk water towers invisible, / while fragrant rocks in the snout remain/unnoticed in the bedroom, /because the bridegroom wanted in, /Pioneers wanted in, /and the ends of our feet yellowed to uranium at the edge of fear.” There’s such cascading toxicity in his poem. Whole stories can be imagined from Sherwin Bitsui’s quick moves. His poetry is almost bad in its dedication to risk. The ends of our feet are not our toes necessarily. Language is doubling throughout his poem, assigning guilt and gently letting complicitude lap the hungry consciousness of the reader. Am I the bridegroom reading this, wanting desperately to know more than the partial and shifting landscape the poet semi-allows. Sherwin Bitsui occupies consciousness in a drifting and sound way. Environmental crimes, personal ones and the collective damage of that something which happened in history recently or long ago leave each of us and everyone in a new world in which we must manage to speak with each other as best we can while not handing over the keys of our desires and demands too readily. His complexity and ease is exactly this. His “asterisk” beckons and will not give it up. His punctuation on the horizon makes me watch. What am I to do.
Eileen Myles was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1949, was educated in Catholic schools, graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Boston in 1971, and moved to New York City in 1974 to be a poet. She gave her first reading at CBGB's, and then gravitated to St. Mark's church where she...