The Authors of Our Own Unknowns:
Self-Invention in Women’s Poetry
by Raena Shirali
Saudade, by Traci Brimhall. Copper Canyon Press, 107 pp., $16.
Barbie Chang, by Victoria Chang. Copper Canyon Press, 97 pp., $16.
I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean, by Shayla Lawson. Saturnalia Books, 133 pp., $16.
In an increasingly heightened capacity, American citizens and poets are concerned with heritage as a means of making sense of their positionality and identity. Genealogy and DNA-testing sites enable folks who pass and benefit from that privilege to align themselves with the marginalized; conversely, those same sites are at the forefront of significant societal progress—for example, revolutionizing criminal investigations. Who we are and who our ancestors were is a popular preoccupation and, to a point, valid investigation; there’s the adage about history, from which we purport to want to learn. But what are the implications of looking for meaning in pasts we do not know, cannot know, must invent in order to access? Recently, poets in positions of privilege who have written in the personae of the marginalized have received varying degrees of criticism—and rightly so, when those poets fail to acknowledge their privileges on the very same spectra of marginalization. But for those whose histories have been erased—by colonization, and the whitewashing of history, and white supremacist expectations and standards, and capitalism, to name a few—perhaps it is more honest to invent than to report. Recent collections by Traci Brimhall, Victoria Chang, and Shayla Lawson consider the abstract forces that shape identity. Some are knowable. Others are necessary fictions. In a moment where the project of the persona poem is being questioned, where identity is alternately wielded as a tool of inclusion and a tool of oppression, it is imperative that we shift our gaze toward intentional and politically mindful self-invention. Each poet discussed here considers a diverse set of influences on identity—for Lawson, those are music and Blackness in America; for Chang, they are grief, assimilation, and a model of Americana that’s at once dated and contemporary; and for Brimhall, ancestry and heritage are the source of mythological reinvention. Each text asks how we identify ourselves in a world of so much multiplicity, a world where labels and movements seem to matter above individuality and self-discovery. What holds these collections together is their extension into the void of identity, like a hand thrust blindly into a pool. When we reach into the ocean, what unknowns do our hands drag back? What do we let go of, or reject willfully? What binds us to that loss?
Shayla Lawson’s I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean is fundamentally inventive, borrowing Ocean’s discography as an organizational structure; each section title mirrors or distorts one of Ocean’s album’s names, and the poems’ titles borrow from his track lists. Indeed, the great undertaking of this book is its attempt to articulate a self that is infiltrated by countless cultural influences, by incorporating those stimuli intentionally into the poems themselves. The “Liner Notes,” too, mimic the nominal structure of album notes, and include excerpts from the Bible, articles documenting Frank Ocean’s life and career, Foucault, Stanley Kubrick films, research on whales and dolphins, and Kemi Adeyemi installations, among other sources. Frank Ocean’s lyrics are italicized throughout the collection, though often only a handful of words from any given song are incorporated into its corresponding poem. In innovative uses of white space, indentation in otherwise traditional-leaning forms, and harsh enjambment throughout the book, Lawson examines Ocean’s own preoccupations (race in America, solitude, longing), while concurrently filling in the gaps (through a perspective that considers femininity, for one). Tellingly, in “the ocean is ENDLESS”—the book’s longest and most ambitious section, written as a kind of lyric essay and building endlessly on references cited in the Liner Notes—Lawson writes: “In fact, Frank Ocean has always been imaginary—a character, a projection …” What, then, does it mean to incorporate Ocean’s words alongside our speaker’s? Can a projection be authentic? Throughout I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean, Lawson explores these queries through conflations of the artist and his art, the poet and her influences, and the persona and the poem.
Imbued as we are throughout this collection in the language of mythology, history, religion, and pop culture, deeply personal moments allow us to break through the surface and catch our breath. “Pink Matter” is the first contemporary love poem of the collection, following references in previous poems to: “Drinking the Kool-Aid,” “the River / Styx,” “Allāhu Akbar,” “Jesus,” “Jerusalem,” “indemnity claims at Allstate,” and “Al Green.” A wave of referents builds us up to “Pink Matter’s” crest; indeed, to read this book is to swim in an o/Ocean to which our speaker’s identity is indebted. And that debt includes heartbreak. Lawson writes, seemingly of an ex-husband:
We don’t ask to become oceans. Blueness and depth are passed to us by ancestry, heritage, and experience. They roll through us like waves, like the formal experimentation exemplified in these stanzas. These intimacies with myriad stimuli extend further in Lawson’s live performances, too. In a recording of “Forest Gump” on Vimeo, Lawson stands stage right, uses a podium, and is accompanied by a white man on backup instrumentals, covering Ocean’s original song. Where there is verse, Lawson recites. Where there is chorus, Lawson loops back, sings alongside or instead of her Ocean. In the video, the poet recites: “—a reason to turn this story / to a record. The wilderness / that fills everything else.” The ocean is vast, and yet, it is a container: an apt metaphor for this collection writ large—an endless swaying, somehow contained in these pages.
The beat propelling this collection forward is its broader critique of race and the media, and the intersection of the two as another pop culture emblem in the speaker’s life. In “Strawberry Swing,” Lawson mourns the shortcoming of our cultural attempts at reclamation and revolution: “that ‘black / lives …’ I do not know // how to ask you to / love me yet.” Exploring the space between violence done to the Black body and ever-elusive societal progress, Lawson approaches the treatment of Black men in America in “Old Terror.” In a piece formally structured after Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” the poet uses the language and physicality of music as a figurative tool:
This divide—between the silence with which racism is treated by the powers that be, and the music & cacophony & rage generated because of that violence/silence—eventually manifests as Lawson’s primary preoccupation. But to arrive at critique, we must begin with elegy. And before elegy exists something held dear. In “Nights,” the speaker documents adolescence in all its familiar lushness; these girls are “up / in [their] rooms signing bootleg love / letters in Cherry Coke lip / balm & the slow grind / of [their] tears.” What is tender is afforded its share of joy, but playing “Best Supporting / Actress” in “someone else’s musical” takes its toll. Lawson writes, “Some Days / the only way being a black girl feels / magic is that it isn’t / real.” Later in the collection, our speaker “look[s] at pictures of white / people & wonder[s] what it feels like to / land.” To land, as in, to exist removed from the tide; to have one’s feet on the ground; to not be oceanic, or blue.
Discussions around race, desire, and identity in Ocean’s own work are rendered transparent and hypervisible by Lawson’s poetics. In “Novacane,” Lawson is candid, writing, “Frankly, who hasn’t been numbed by a life / time of violence.” Given that the previous poem confesses “I do not want to be / the chalk-drawn street,” we can read this numbing as a result of our inundation with images of police brutality and Black death. Frank, too, is versed in this elegy. As he sings in “Nikes”—and as Lawson cites in the first lines of her poem—“RIP Trayvon. That nigga look / just like me.” If we understand music as elegy, we should be further grateful for Lawson’s textual processing of grief and its extension into cultural critique—for her consideration of both is her commentary on individual identity. She incites: “The gap / between protect & what they choose / to protect // —America.” She does not shy away from placing blame: “The media is alive / because someone else is / dead.” She returns to imagery: “What color / will you fire / when you die?” Yes, she assures us, one vessel—one artist, one book—can hold these multitudes.
The most compelling instance of the conflation of Ocean’s and Lawson’s writing occurs in “I Miss You,” where all the “I”s (but not all references to the self [e.g. “me”]) are italicized, and by extension, sampled from the song. Here, the poet’s muddying of the line between self and Ocean manifests in nearly obsessive insistence; “I” is Ocean, and “I” is speaker, and how do we parse out music from our lives? To extend this question further, how do we learn who we are if not through art—our representation or lack thereof therein, the art we build private intimacies with and around? What, for Lawson, is an ocean? This question is one the poet herself poses in “Scared of Beautiful,” where queries about the nature of the o/Ocean scaffold in complexity. First, she asks, “How blue is the Ocean,” then, “How / blue is the ocean when we do not see / the Ocean.” And finally, “How blue is The Ocean / when it is the only way of mentioning / our own abandon?” The o/Ocean holds within himself/itself: our grief, our desire, our longing. It is authentic precisely because it is a projection. But as a Black writer—and for Frank Ocean, as a Black artist—the reach of the ocean’s symbology inevitably crests in the collection’s penultimate poem, “Futura Free”:
There is no consideration of one’s personal connection with o/Oceans without historically reckoning the true relationship between African diaspora and voyages across them. It is telling that we leave the collection sunk in a question that does not beckon an answer. To read I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean is to feel the weight of history, fluid, pressing down on one’s chest. Here, we sit with a poet in contemporary meditation—meditation implying an attempt to focus, which hypothetically limits our view of the periphery—but Lawson refuses to concede that such focus must be myopic. Our artistic selves are not myopic. Our existences are intersectional—this text reckons with lost love, over- and under-representation in the media, Blackness, Southern upbringing, and toxic whiteness, to name a few. Lawson writes, “In the midst of all we can record, what do we actually witness?” Maybe what happens when we try to document our full identities or full selves is, ultimately, a loss. This collection posits that such a loss is worth attempting. It asks that we take stock of what we are carrying, hold each record up to the light, and attempt to see the self reflected in it.
If Lawson’s work attempts intentional meditation and arrives at sensory overload, Victoria Chang’s Barbie Chang manifests her world-building capacity through formal limitation. Chang’s signature aesthetic is an unmistakable four-part act, within which she carefully orchestrates multiple turns per poem, rendering each piece both unified and multifaceted at once. Each poem in this collection is titled with a simple declaration (e.g. “Barbie Chang Vows to Quit”); subsequently, the poem’s first line unwinds the title (“Barbie Chang vows to quit watching / the Circle as they go to / lunch”). As the poem progresses, Chang refuses to terminate sentence or thought, traveling to unexpected endings and moving between diverse subjects. Literary figures appear throughout—Mr. Darcy serves as Barbie’s nearly disembodied love interest; Anne Carson and “new poets taking selfies” are referenced—as do a litany of broader societal concerns, including but not limited to: model-minority myths, power, concession, racism and sexism (and their intersection), and the very human urge to assimilate and fit in, in spite of it all. If Lawson’s work reimagines the o/Ocean—expansive, yes, but limited by its container—Chang’s is a series of tributaries that begin with Barbie and are defined not by their beginnings, but by their meandering paths away from and back to the self.
Barbie Chang invents in order to discover, but maintains its connections to our world in doing so. Consider the author’s name and the collection’s title as a manifestation of this duality—“Chang” is consistent; the nominal and symbolic distances between “Victoria” and Mattel’s “Barbie” seem vast. Indeed, of the collection’s four parts, the two that speak with and through Barbie are lengthier and more layered, while the “Dear P.” sections seem to address a separate speaker’s child—further embodying the book’s titular duality. In yet another level of separation, in Chang’s (as opposed to in Mattel’s) version, Barbie is the name of someone who attempts to fit in, rather than the template itself. We encounter an almost-familiar woman endeavoring to navigate an almost-familiar world, presented to us initially in pseudo-storybook language; the collection opens with the line, “Once Barbie Chang worked on a / street named Wall” and introduces us to “beautiful thin mothers at school” whom Barbie nicknames “the Circle.” Though we do not see the inhabitants of the Circle in the flesh very often, their omnipresence in the book can be distilled as, “another Smith a former / beauty queen,” as well as by the trappings of their society that are shared with our own: Skype, treadmills, “Evites Paperless / Party Posts,” Walmart, Craigslist, Cinderella, barre classes, and The New Yorker, to name a few.
While Barbie is an invented character in a partially invented world, a contemporary author’s concerns surrounding the banality of assimilation clearly pervade this text. When “Barbie Chang’s daughter befriends the / new girl at school” but the friendship falls apart because of the Circle’s meddling, “Barbie Chang / can no longer play dead because she / must be seen to play dead.” We may interpret this line to mean that Barbie must come to her daughter’s rescue, now that she has been rendered invisible—and, therefore, alive. Though the poem purports to boast a primary concern pertaining to “Barbie Chang’s Daughter,” it ends with Barbie “on a hill with binoculars / waiting for deer and see[ing] someone else /…watching her instead.” She wonders, “does that mean she / exists or that she’s a deer.” Barbie’s concerns surrounding the white gaze and being Othered are coupled with incredible grief—mirroring the actual sensation of feeling seen only when rendering one’s differences invisible, which is to say, when assimilating.
Indeed, the unwinding, never-ending sentence-poem is just one facet of Chang’s bent toward defamiliarization throughout the book. Take, for instance, our protagonist’s full name: Barbie Chang. The name is familiar & yet Othered by the very inclusion of a surname, and is a microcosm of the author’s macro-examination: of the Asian self defined by what it is not (prominently, whiteness and suburbia). When we meet the Circle in “Barbie Chang Parks,” we are told that, “Barbie Chang knows / that an outline of a tree can never be / a tree that the opposite // of her fate is to not be born when she / says she wants to be.” It seems the very rendering of duality in the writing of Barbie Chang poses a question about Barbie’s possible existence. What is it to write an outline, or a character sketch? We may conceive of Victoria’s representation of stereotype as a rendering of its lack. One poem that examines Barbie Chang’s absence as the locus of her definition is aptly titled without a subject: “Is a Windcatcher.” In it, Chang writes:
Chang’s signature form in this text—the indented couplet—is a manifestation of destabilized duality, a line looking up at its stanzaic accomplice from a stance askew. If to be Other is to be signified by one’s deviation from the norm—by the left-justified line—are Othered folks ever able to define ourselves originally, on our own terms? Or, Chang asks, what “is a signified / without a signifier”? Elsewhere, Chang shows us Barbie “thinking she could / outmaneuver her / loneliness thinking she could overcome / being classified thinking / she could be an agent of her own / classification.” We vacillate between existence without a defining norm and existence in spite of it. To even entertain such a contemplation is a lonely act. “Is a Windcatcher” ends:
Here, the child’s belief that what they behold exists only for that purpose is equated with the male gaze—naïve and self-centered, a gaze that is ultimately one of erasure and silencing. The poem’s initial question—do women exist when we aren’t being objectified—is one the poet goes on to answer: the moon is there even when we cannot see it. This answer moves beyond reassurance. The answer achieves truth.
One of Chang’s many strengths in this collection is her vacillation between waxing philosophical and grounding cultural commentary in the moment; in “Barbie Chang Can’t Stop Watching” and “Barbie Chang Keeps Watching,” Barbie closely follows the (of our world) “Ellen Pao trial,” wherein the first-generation Chinese immigrant and former Reddit CEO was ultimately ruled against in a gender discrimination lawsuit in Silicon Valley. Barbie’s feelings therein are rendered aptly complex. In the former piece, she reminisces on existing in an office space, where she “kept quiet because by / speaking she would / become a victim something projected / upon.” Silence and invisibility can be tools of power, Barbie considers, being that the contrasting vision of an Asian woman pointing out the tools of her oppression results in her being silenced anyway. In “Barbie Chang Keeps Watching,” Barbie’s internalized racism rears its head—these are moments when the Circle speaks through Barbie, despite her imminent turn to being “done worshipping the / Circle”:
There is danger in being projected upon, and there is danger in asserting agency. There is danger in being desired and objectified, and there is danger in being invisible. Ultimately, the power of persona rendered in third person is that Victoria Chang’s voice is Barbie’s when she writes, “always the same binary argument / racism or incompetence is / there a third possibility that when we / have seen something so / many times we no longer recognize it as / injustice.” These shifts between “achieving” persona and commanding her own authorial voice pose Chang as one of the most compelling authors of self-invention in our moment.
In part, Chang’s aptitude lies in her rendering of the poem as both argument and answer, emotionally educational but not didactic. But to highlight those moments is not to say that this collection is entirely without the act of questioning—in particular around Barbie’s parents and their mortality—or that liminality is not a prominent trope in the text. Barbie’s parents, who are presented as either ailing or deceased throughout the collection, offer a site for an extension of the speaker’s internal contemplations surrounding selfhood and autonomy; in “Barbie Chang’s Father Paid,” she wonders, “if a person is so edited that they are / unrecognizable can you / still love them.” What an apropos description of an aging relative, or a persona proximal to the self: “unrecognizable.” To not recognize is to be stuck in a feedback loop of longing and grief. In a final example of the embodiment of that liminal space, following a contemplation of “the women at school” who “pretend to be wealthy,” Chang achieves scathing critique of external (political) influences in “There Are Lungs”:
Traci Brimhall’s Saudade investigates identity not by digging the self out, but with a different type of excavation—one that burrows into the earth, toward lineage, toward histories that invoke religion and colonization. Of these three collections, Saudade is the least preoccupied with the realities of our current moment, the most invested in the fantastic and mythological. Here, heredity is a jumping off point from which to look beyond the author’s supposed lived experiences; Saudade is explicitly devoted to reconfiguration. While Brimhall does not personally identify as a woman of color, she employs autobiomythography—a move whose origins Brimhall attributes to Audre Lorde—in this exploration of Brazilian mythic culture and the woman (her mother) that her identity is indebted to. The sections of this book are literally and graphically divided by a family tree. The branches and voices we have access to are those of Maria José, Thomas, Sophia, and Don Antonio—an illusory ancestry who cope with forces of colonization, rubber plantation fires, lost daughters, and floods. Tercets account formally for the overwhelming majority of poems in Maria José’s sections, while Thomas speaks in the language of church, in declarative single-stanza blocks. Sophia speaks of desire in couplets, and Don Antonio arrives at a more authentic consideration of longing in single-stanza blocks where every other line is indented. In this way, Brimhall differentiates speaker’s voices aesthetically, accounting for the fact that these voices can tend to blend together (after all, these personae all originate from the same pen). Yet another tonally diversifying move occurs in Brimhall’s authoring of a series of poems whose titles begin, “In Which the Chorus…” These pieces are spoken by a series of Maria’s (Maria de Lourdes, Maria Helena, etc.) who redirect us back to the motivation behind Saudade’s broader exploration: “We sing history in reverse so the story might end in birth.”
Writing into heritage, for folks whose backgrounds are not documented, inevitably involves writing into unrecorded spaces. It is no surprise that investigating invisible territory involves the inclusion of popularized mythology alongside the personal, or that the interweaving of the two creates a lived history. Saudade lends validity to the supernatural; in one poem the speaker “Sight[s]…the Mapinguari,” another documents “The Unconfirmed Miracles at Puraquequara.” Notably, our speaker must admit that she is “an extra in [her] own story and envious;” we both can and cannot locate the actual in these archaic spaces. But it is through Brimhall’s use of persona throughout the text that the line between truth and myth is intentionally blurred. “The Heart in Jeopardy Fabricates a New Fortune” is written in Sophia’s persona, and though it incorporates “Ouija board[s]” with “misspelled … answers,” the poem’s eroticism is very much of this world:
This diction is of our moment; this blasé rendering of consent and debasement is, too. Throughout the collection, poems that veer toward contemporary utterance nonetheless include “a mermaid’s daughter,” or “Seduction by the Boto,” a mythical dolphin who becomes a man in order to entice women. But despite our inhabiting of fable, Brimhall overtly expresses her desire to “witness, record, recite.” Like Lawson, she acknowledges elegy as an origin of inquiry; she reassures us, “You can grieve something you’ve never seen.”
How do we grieve what we have not experienced? Can a projection be authentic? Maria Madalena offers a lesson in “In Which the Chorus Tries to Be as Clear as Possible”: “There is no fairy tale here to invite you to meaning, only the fantasy of the past you made in your image.” The past constructed in the author’s image is perhaps never so wrenching as in poems that engage with miscarriage and the loss of children to the elements (which notably include the natural, the animal, and the female). In “The Fate of My Seven Dolls,” the speaker is gifted the titular objects, which “arrive from America the day of … [her] mother’s funeral.” Even the mention of the States, occurring halfway through the collection, marks a moment of lines blurring between imagined and lived histories; furthermore, the dolls’ fates hold frightful parallels to the varied lots of actual girls and women. They are objectified and murdered and abandoned; “A capuchin steals one from the cradle,” “One I dress in mud / and forget it by the river,” one is “nail[ed] / to a cross as a gift for the priest.” The poem seems to end with a comment on female infanticide, or at least the dangers of being a daughter, or the increased responsibilities of protecting daughters from inevitable danger:
Appearing in the second of Maria José’s two sections of dramatic monologue, this poem marks a continuation of the lost-daughters thread. The first poem in Saudade, “The Last Time I Saw My Daughter’s Eyes, They Were on the Back of a Moth’s Wings,” ends with our speaker pleading, “Where is she?” and John the Baptist’s head, in response, “open[ing] his mouth to let down the flood.” This sublime longing for what has passed is both a weight we cannot put down and an overpouring, a mirroring of trauma’s reverberation. As Brimhall writes elsewhere in Maria José’s second section, “I want to go back further, before / the denouement, before the climax, to the action / rising beyond the river, past the dead lining the docks / like an inventory of loss.” But no matter how insistently we rewind, damage is braided through these histories. Perhaps one excavation of heritage comes in the naming of those losses, the multiplicity of that naming, the refusal to stop attempting to invent histories for the dead. Or, as Brimhall writes in “Reluctant Fugue,” we can be “the authors of our own unknowns.”
Fitting, then, that when we do hear of Saudade’s speakers’ fathers and mothers, their descriptions are mired in ambiguity. In “Misbegotten,” Sophia conjures lyrical classifications for each of her parents, ranging from a “father … made of gold” to a “mother / sing[ing] the dark circles from his eyes.” In “Revenant,” Maria José recounts her own parents’ love story, ending with a lyrical plea to the lost mother, a call for belonging, for ownership of her narrative: “Let me inherit her fevered hips. Let me be all wing and stolen / and saved … Hold the curtain back while I enter.” Whether in Sophia’s or Maria’s voice, though, these parents are the purveyors of myth, which collapses the assumption that myth is untrue, as well as the assumption that myth is necessarily of the past. Another exploration of lore, “After the Boto’s Autopsy Reveals a Nautilus Where the Heart Should Be” begins with a “whirlpool giv[ing] back the past,” and therein, Maria José declaring, “A colony / can’t disinherit the empire’s sin.” Drawing these parallels simultaneously—that of parent and child, that of empire and colony, that of past and present—is perhaps Brimhall’s greatest authorial feat. In a collection collapsing the very binaries of history, identity, and authorship, the author’s invention truly is our only, and sacred, anchor.
Brimhall is also an author preoccupied with turns of phrase, and her sense of humor enters these myth-scapes in grounding and vivacious capacities. “Revenant” begins: “My mother met my father when she fainted after spying / a stain on the barroom floor in the shape of God’s left testicle.” Such moments of levity are fleeting, though; we return, always, to elegy, to seeking, to prayer. Maria José, elsewhere, narrates: “When I Go to Prison to Meet My Father,” “they bring a Spaniard with a glass eye and tattooed fingers,” but the speaker is convinced it’s a mistake—this man is not of her blood. Nonetheless Maria is the agent of her intimacies—she “imagine[s] love, and then [she] feel[s] it.” This quote—this moment of conjuring a connection from ether, from absence—speaks to the project of Brimhall’s third collection. If Lawson documents identity in artistic and scholarly stimuli, and if Chang investigates a proximal, defamiliarized persona, for Brimhall, identity, broadly, is determined by what you can summon intimacy for—and that includes her engagement with personae as well as her engagement with Brazil. As a first-generation immigrant myself, this notion resonates with my own connection (or lack thereof) to my mother’s motherland. It’s there, but also not, and if I don’t summon it, who will? Even when we do not recognize our ancestors, or kin, we hold this binary of belonging versus feeling alienated at our very cores. Or, as Maria Thereza says in “In Which the Chorus Whispers the Rumors,” “Her tongue swells until she … begins to speak in we.”
In an interview with Sierra Nevada Review, Brimhall refers to the book’s relationship to her mother’s stories as both “homage and disfigurement.” It strikes me that the tension we experience as authors of mixed identities around this notion of authenticity is directly related to Brimhall’s articulation of her retelling of her own lineage’s narrative. We feel the sense that we cannot own what we cannot know, but in utter contradiction, so much of what we hold in our cultural heritage is unknown, unspoken, and above all, unrecognized by Western society—a society built on colonizing and erasing foundations. Even in moments when I feel Brimhall’s poems slipping down, down the rabbit hole of imagination—even then, I hold this thought close: that we cannot delineate parts of our heritages accurately because so much of those stories has been erased, was never written, or already exists as a watered-down version of the truth. The role of the author now is to reverse that cycle. Each collection considered here does just that. Brimhall says, in the same interview, “I surround what I can’t say with what I can.” Perhaps even as we retain a critical eye toward how histories are being documented, related to our authorial privilege and apparent ancestry, we must hold as a central tenet that poetry is a place for mindful invention. Or, in Brimhall’s words, “Fiction is one way of knowing. Dreams are another.”
Raena Shirali is a poet, teaching artist, and editor from Charleston, South Carolina.Shirali is the author of GILT (YesYes Books, 2017), winner of the 2018 Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award. Learn more at www.raenashirali.com.
Poetics of Whiteness
by Christopher Kempf
I Know Your Kind, by William Brewer, Milkweed Editions, 80 pp., $16
Wonderland, by Matthew Dickman, W.W. Norton & Co., 96 pp., $26.95
The Second O of Sorrow, by Sean Thomas Dougherty, BOA Editions, 72 pp., $16
The Cold and the Rust, by Emily Van Kley, Persea Books, 77 pp., $15.95
One benefit—unlooked for, perhaps, but not unwelcome—of contemporary America’s contentious political climate has been the growing recognition that poetry matters, that reading and writing poems can constitute a form of civic engagement with the capacity to disrupt entrenched thinking, re-route feeling, and, in so doing, imagine into existence a more just society. Particularly encouraging, of late, has been the increasing visibility of poets from cultures historically under-represented in the canons of American literature. Immigrant writers, non-conforming and transgender writers, differently-abled writers, writers of color, working-class writers, gay writers—all, recently, have found greater, more widespread acknowledgment of their work, and though aesthetic representation has hardly secured the full rights owed any human being, these writers have done much to wrest language from those forces that would, unchecked, silence them.
Accompanying this surge in under-represented poetries—and concomitant with the imperative, now, to represent them—has been the important insight that white writers, for their part, have yet truly to understand whiteness itself as race, have yet, that is, to attend to the discursive and material construction of white identity insofar as it is produced by—and, in turn, reproduces—culture-wide systems of hegemony. While Claudia Rankine has been the most vocal advocate for writing about white identity, the call for more self-aware examination of whiteness has cut across demographics, from Cathy Park Hong’s critique of a “post-identity” avant-garde to Ailish Hopper’s challenge, in the Boston Review, to “rewrit[e] race and racism […] showing not just whiteness—but what it is to be awake, and disruptive, inside it.” Nor, of course, is the felt need for closer attention to what Toni Morrison, in 1992, called “literary whiteness” a new phenomenon: as early as 1920, W. E. B. Du Bois had written that “the discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing.” Such a “discovery,” as Rankine, Hong, Hopper, and others make clear, must nonetheless continuously be rediscovered—resurfaced, dragged, however reluctantly, into the light—if the production of “whiteness” is to remain permanently visible and, therefore, susceptible to critique.
Though white writers have largely ignored white identity as a subject, it is important to acknowledge that a handful have been examining whiteness for some time. Long before Rankine’s work brought whiteness writing into the spotlight, Philip Levine and Jim Daniels were exploring the formation of white, working-class identity in the erstwhile industrial cities of the Midwest. Tony Hoagland has been inhabiting—and exposing, and admitting to, and questioning—certain forms of white chauvinism since the early 1990’s. And Martha Collins has dedicated nearly an entire career to documenting how whiteness is constructed over and against notions of an inferior black identity. Despite her unflinching attention to the consolidation of whiteness, however, and despite, too, the verve of her formal innovation and the courage of her self-critique, Collins has yet to receive a single major prize in American poetry—no Guggenheim Fellowship, no National Book Award, no Pulitzer. Yet Collins remains, quite simply, the gold standard in whiteness writing, laying bare how persistent forms of hegemony reproduce themselves through social institutions. Collins’s work is all the more admirable, it seems to me, given the increasingly high stakes in writing about race; our contemporary cultural penchant for outrage can make it difficult, at times, to engage in the discomfiting but necessary work that writing frankly about white identity entails. For writing about whiteness means writing beyond self-righteousness toward self-implication, writing to excavate the depths of white experience in all their multidimensionality in order, in the end, to unfasten the hold of that experience on our society.
When we look away, however—as Collins does not—from the more insidious features of white culture, we not only lose the opportunity to overcome them but risk being dominated by those features, or, worse, risk ceding discussion of whiteness to those who valorize it over other races and ethnicities. As Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux put it, “coming to terms with both our personal shadow and the collective one is one of the important ways the artist can function in relation to his or her own art, and in relation to his or her culture.” It is not surprising, perhaps, given the risk in doing so, that a younger generation of American poets has been largely unwilling to follow Collins’s lead. Unable—or unwilling—to weather the social and professional consequences of mishandling whiteness writing, younger white writers have tended to steer clear of one of our most important, if complicated, poetic subjects. Such risk may explain, of course, but hardly excuses the continued invisibility, in American poetry, of white identity explicitly considered.
The four collections taken up in this review, then, represent an important first step toward greater reckoning with the ramifications of white hegemony. Indebted to a tradition of which Collins is the foremost practitioner, these collections are nonetheless part of a new “poetics of whiteness” which tracks the coming-into-whiteness of the lyric subject in a context of opioid epidemics, resurgent white supremacy, and post-NAFTA recession. As some of the work here deals, as well, with working-class whiteness, it reveals how class structures intersect with, complicate, and qualify racial experience, particularly with respect to whiteness. Discussion of “working-class whiteness,” it should be said, has not always meant equal—nor elegant—treatment of race and class, and the genre, in poetry, has tended to elide explicit, self-conscious examination of white identity in favor of narrative witness to the lived practices of the working class. The presumption, in other words, that “working-class whiteness” is as much about whiteness as it is working-class identity is, sometimes, a mistaken one. At their best, these collections help clarify how working-class identity intricately cross-cuts racial experience, how, for instance, it both fosters racial resentment and, at the same time, contributes to the formation of cross-racial alliances.
While there is little pleasure in remarking the limitations of such work, measured assessment is critical, I believe, if we are to channel a poetics of whiteness toward more substantive, more truly ethical engagement with its subject matter. We do ourselves no favors, as a discipline, by uncritically lauding poetry because of its subject matter or because of the identity—or online presence or professional influence—of its author; rather, what seems necessary now is careful evaluation that might encourage white writers to engage identity in ways more nuanced than tortured mea culpas and to do so for motives more noble than back-patting bonhomie. Ultimately, we need more poets, not fewer, writing skillfully and responsibly about white identity—this review is offered in the hope of encouraging it.
Set in Oceana, West Virginia, one epicenter, among others, for the nation’s heroin epidemic, William Brewer’s I Know Your Kind explores whiteness through the effects of global economic transformation. In the wake of widespread deindustrialization, formerly prosperous coal manufactories like Oceana became mired in prescription painkiller abuse, a trend well-documented in American media and which, after crackdowns on OxyContin and Percocet, led, in “Oxyana,” to a heroin overdose rate three times the national average. What was left, in other words, after the mines closed and the mills downsized and after a so-called “globalized” economy moved elsewhere, was addiction, just as what was left, in many of these same places, was a working class made vulnerable, as Donald Trump so keenly perceived, to race-baiting and to the redirection of economic disaffection into racial resentment. Neither unemployment nor drug addiction, of course, are exclusively “white” phenomena, but Brewer’s investigation of these issues takes place in a town that is 97% white, and whiteness itself—figured as a kind of snowy amnesia—becomes, throughout I Know Your Kind, a structuring metaphor for the ravages of addiction. “Someone threw my head into a wall,” Brewer writes in “What We Can Replace”:
As these lines suggest, I Know Your Kind frames drug addiction as a means by which white identity is both shattered and consolidated, a form of self-salvage that takes on greater immediacy, for the figures in this collection, when one’s membership in the mythic “white working class” becomes imperiled. “Oblivion,” Brewer writes elsewhere, “is all we have.”
Indeed, Brewer seems to have adopted “oblivion” itself as a formal principle in I Know Your Kind; it is always winter in this collection, and we are always, on a tonal level, scraped clean by Brewer’s language, exposed to the emptiness of a world—which is also an internal condition—rendered in haunting lyricism and clear, lapidary imagery. I Know Your Kind excels when this imagery hews closely to the lived experience of addiction. “Three hours I’ll pace my hideaway alone,” the poem “Ode to Suboxone” concludes. “Then walk // and wait in line for you and, when I’m told, stick out my tongue.” Throughout, these poems possess the gravity of Anglo-Saxon lament, but whereas the “I” of a poem like “Wulf and Eadwacer” strikes one as intensely private, Brewer’s “I” is a collective persona, a transplant of the lyric speaker into the consciousness of Oceana itself. There are moments, particularly later in the collection, where we miss the sense of a self-conscious poet-figure who might, however briefly, step from behind his curtain—moments, that is, when the collective “I” feels too abstracted, too stylized—but I Know Your Kind is less interested in this kind of poetic frankness than in something like the brooding, communal interiority of Spoon River, a town in which, as in Oceana, residents are intricately knotted together in their shared suffering.
If Brewer eschews deconstruction of his collective “I,” however, he nonetheless problematizes his own aestheticizing of others’ economic—and, frequently, all too physical—hardship. The “speaker” of these poems, such as he is, possesses a voice at once removed from and embedded in Oceana’s heroin epidemic, a multi-directional poetic gaze trained on Oceana yet glancing skeptically at poetry’s mining-like excavation of the town and its residents. It is difficult, for instance, not to associate poetry itself with the tourists in the collection’s opening poem, “Oxyana, West Virginia”:
Elsewhere, Brewer treats this commodification of poverty more discursively, leveling, for example, a wry, self-conscious warning in the poem “Naloxone.” “Let’s not get carried away,” he writes. “Let’s stop comparing everything / to wings.” The admonition is an important one, and one which I Know Your Kind might, I think, have heeded a bit more faithfully; for, despite moments in which poetry’s extractive procedures are questioned, the collection has a tendency to beautify addiction with recognizably “poetic” imagery. While heroin overdoses can involve gasping for air, a discolored tongue, vomiting, seizures, constipation, delirium, and death, they are tidily figured, in I Know Your Kind, as a “steam engine / of dementia,” an experience in which “the sun had gotten lost inside his head.” Exhibiting the ecstatic image-making that hampers many of American poetry’s youngest—and most celebrated—names, I Know Your Kind too frequently permits prettiness to stand in for more substantial thought, a formal miscue which takes on ethical import when it hinders Brewer from doing justice to his engagement with underprivileged mining communities.
Despite this lapse, however—one common among first books—Brewer’s I Know Your Kind remains one of the most important and powerful instantiations of an emergent poetics of whiteness; documenting white identity as it intersects with economic despair—and with substance abuse and regional character and American history—the collection is shot-through with language which enacts, for its readers, a sense of exposure and of loss. At once ancient and au courant, I Know Your Kind reveals a heretofore overlooked aspect of white identity, and it does so, more importantly, with bracing writing and a powerful sense of community. I am hardly the first to call it—as indeed it is—a remarkable debut from a poet with much to teach us.
Whereas Brewer examines whiteness through the collective consciousness of Oceana, Matthew Dickman does so, in Wonderland, through the experiences of two childhood friends who become participants in white nationalist movements. What Dickman tracks, particularly in the collection’s title sequence, is the coming-into-whiteness—and, thus, the coming-into-racism—of two figures who stand in for broad segments of the American middle class; locating the roots of “white power” in existential fear, suppressed rage, familial violence, and self-hatred—without thereby legitimating such movements—Dickman frames racism as a form of higher belonging that allows its practitioners to consolidate their own identity by directing it against an external “other.” Here, for instance, reproduced in its entirety, is one section of a “Wonderland” sequence which, throughout the collection, reveals both the rhetorical and material construction of white identity:
Here, Caleb’s aloneness provides the pre-condition of racial hatred, as one form of identity is literally inscribed across his skin; his swastika taking embodied form, Caleb’s own body is activated in the service of white supremacy and, at the same time, defaced, subsumed in a tradition that overwrites both him and others. If Dickman’s genealogy of “white power” is somewhat simplistic—economic anxieties are elided, racism is positioned as a psychological maladjustment rather than a systemic condition—he nonetheless does much, in this new collection, to uncover certain methods by which white hegemony reproduces itself.
We are not accustomed, I don’t think, to conceiving of Dickman—despite his Portland roots, hipster credibility, and ties to Clint Eastwood—as a writer of white identity. A voice-driven poet of teenage love? Sure. A troubadour of American popular culture? No doubt. But in Wonderland Dickman grows up, returning, with a darker, more critical undertone, to adolescent experience well-trafficked in his earlier work and revealing how, as citizens, we grow into various forms of whiteness just as we grow into sexualities, political beliefs, and income brackets. “Children,” he writes, in what might as well serve as the collection’s thesis, “are always / in training for something.” To be sure, Dickman sometimes falls back into the preciousness that mars his earlier writing, as when he professes that he “can’t listen to anything / because I’m like a fuzzy bumblebee / bouncing off all these stamens.” And the charm of Dickman’s hyper-talk style, usually winning, is sometimes compromised by a still undeveloped ear for line and rhythm. But this is, despite these shortcomings, important and laudable work—impressive in its emotional range, admirable in the candor of its social observation, and surprising in the torque and twisting of its language.
Moreover, what makes Wonderland crucial, I think, as an investigation of whiteness and white hegemony, is Dickman’s willingness to humanize—and, in so doing, to understand—white nationalism without exempting it from thoroughgoing critique. In a letter to Denise Levertov written in October, 1971, Robert Duncan argues that “the poet’s role is not to oppose evil, but to imagine it,” contending, ultimately, that only by experiencing the perverse thrill of evil do we guard against it. At a time when much of our own poetry has been reduced to one-dimensional invective, Dickman imagines white supremacist movements in the multidimensionality of their reality. “He must feel like he belongs,” Dickman writes in another of the “Wonderland” poems:
There is certainly contempt in this passage, but balanced against it is also an undercurrent of empathy and self-critique, a recognition that white hegemony is a shared social practice, an “angle we all know”—in place of self-righteousness, we might say, Dickman gives us self-implication. Yet behind Dickman’s skilled critique of white identity lies a fierce love for and commitment to human existence, to making right this one world we share. In one of the collection’s strongest poems, “A Very Good Dog,” Dickman imagines another form of childhood training, a “date” with his mother which serves as entrée into the world of death and desire:
The poem is not explicitly—or even implicitly—a poem about white identity, but it powerfully testifies to Dickman’s ability to yoke personal experience to broader social and cultural phenomena. This is our one world, he suggests, and while he is critical of the violence to which, in this world, we subject one another, he also throws into stark relief our potential for—and the beauty in—ultimately undoing that violence.
There is a trope in working-class writing, as old as Odysseus, in which the speaker/hero returns after many years to the town from which he has escaped. He is, by this time, a changed man—wealthier, worldly—and the encounter is charged, typically, with the gravity of reminiscence and the frisson of economic schadenfreude. Sean Thomas Dougherty’s thirteenth collection, The Second O of Sorrow, centers on the speaker’s return to the Rust Belt of his youth, examining masculinity, class entitlement, and communal belonging in poems marked by vibrant imagery and exuberant language play.
The most compelling poem in the collection, however, treats another kind of homecoming. That poem, “Biography of LeBron James as Ohio,” is a masterpiece in contemporary whiteness writing, unpacking the mythology of a figure who seemingly transcends both race and class yet remains ineradicably marked by both, called home, the poem suggests, to the conditions from which he escaped. LeBron, of course, did come home, returning in 2014 to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers after a three-year stint with the Miami Heat, and while the poem is too long—magisterial, I would call it—to reproduce in full, it bears sustained discussion for its dynamic investigation, through LeBron, of race, class, work, religion, and that particular nexus of all these things that is NBA superstardom.
The poem opens by situating LeBron within a larger history of the speculation and appropriation of black people and culture, a history from which the speaker does not exempt himself. “[M]e & my colleague,” Dougherty writes, “the psych-prof drove across Eastern Ohio / just to see this kid from powerhouse St. Vincent, / grown out of rust-belt-bent-rims, tripped / with the hype & hope & hip hop.” In just these few lines, one gets a sense of the depth of thought behind this poem, a sense of the racial and economic complexity in a “white working class” heralding, as a kind of savior, a black son of a single mother. LeBron, in art as in life, metonymizes the American myth of upward mobility; “he is the toll-taker, & / he is the ticket out,” Dougherty writes, gesturing, quite subtly, to the “toll” which that particular myth has exacted on this country’s working class. If LeBron, that is, is “white / & black & brown & migrant kids working farms,” he is also “corporate / chugging down green bubbly Sprite, running in Beats head / phones, he is Dunkin his donut, he is Nike, witness, ripped.” Here, in lushly material language—and alluding to Nike’s “We Are All Witnesses” campaign—Dougherty frames LeBron and his success as re-appropriated instruments of global capital, a figure plucked from the masses in order, ultimately, further to immiserate those masses. While much contemporary poetry relies, detrimentally, on reductive moral binaries, Dougherty dwells, in this poem, in ambivalence and uncertainty: documenting the multivalent nature of a figure who is, really, just another worker from northeast Ohio, Dougherty meditates on the shared, interconnected construction—and the deconstruction—of race in the United States. If the poem is, in name, a poem about a black man from Akron, it is also a poem about a white man from Cleveland, a poem, in other words, about race as cultural praxis, as relation.
In many ways, the poem is representative of the collection as a whole; the high-octane language I’ve just quoted, for example—running on a cocktail of pop culture and theology—extends throughout The Second O of Sorrow, a collection heavy on prose poems that feel anything but prosaic. The complexity of the poem’s thinking, however, seems absent in much of the other work here, poems that tend toward easy moralism and a tired anti-academicism. “We have no need for more literary theories,” Dougherty writes, “When cops kill us and the government has slave detention camps up and down the border […] The words professor and poetry are at war.” One can read this, I suppose, as a commitment to poetry as social action, a form of politics apart from the oppressive exercise of class and racial power that is, apparently, literary theory. But literary theory, from Frantz Fanon to Lauren Berlant, has time and again provided the language with which to oppose precisely the exercise of power to which Dougherty objects. Moreover, Dougherty’s tidy bracketing of mental and manual labor—as if the bureaucracies of academia were distinct from the “real world”—reads as a form of working-class primitivism, idealizing the underprivileged as somehow more “authentic” or “committed” than other laborers. Against this ethical posturing, Dougherty’s political optimism comes across as cheap platitude. “Never forget,” he writes in “Far from Any Classroom,” “To shape a breath. The chest must rest. Before it rises.” It is difficult, it seems to me, to take such high-flown optimism seriously given the shakiness of its intellectual foundations.
The Second O of Sorrow is most effective, however, when it avoids reductive oppositions and grounds itself, instead, in the multidimensionality of working-class culture, particularly insofar as such culture remains cross-cut—produced through, enlivened by—issues involving race and gender. While the Republican Party has made brisk business of channeling working-class experience into racial animosity, Dougherty shows how shared labor—even shared social space—can facilitate cross-racial dialogue. The poem “Down the Line,” for example, is, to my mind, one of the most successful examples of the “bar democracy” genre. “Bill from the West Side Biker Gang is arm wrestling this huge Dominican dude,” Dougherty writes in that poem. “They are laughing as they call each other motherfucker. Motherfucker is everybody’s middle name here.” Here, in an after-work dive bar, Dougherty finds an America at once singular and multiple, unified and diverse; but he also, importantly, points to the tenuousness of this moment in the poem’s conclusion, when “the jukebox and everyone shouts back as if they know the only words that might save us, She’ll be cool and twice as gone—”. If the crowd—Puerto Rican bikers, white veterans, “Vlad the Slav”—speaks, for a moment, in a shared voice, that voice is the voice of corporate America, a pop-cultural vernacular manufactured, in three-minute bits, to placate and pacify the American working class. The Second O of Sorrow is at its best when it lives in precisely this ambivalence, when it eschews the packaging of platitude and documents, instead, the vibrancy and diversity of a working class that can only, like LeBron, be witnessed.
Like The Second O of Sorrow, Emily Van Kley’s debut collection, The Cold and the Rust, follows its speaker as she returns to her working-class hometown on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a place inexorably wedded to larger economic realities. Mapping what Richard Hugo would call the “various grays” of Midwestern sky and psyche, Van Kley charts, too, the productive estrangement of class mobility by which, in many cases, working-class poetry is fashioned. In the remarkable poem “Flight Path,” Van Kley watches her seatback flight tracker as she descends into Detroit, framing poetry itself as a kind of figuration indicative both of familiarity and of distance. “O computerized throwing star,” she writes of her digital plane:
A savvy poetic rendering of figure-ground perception—in which, essentially, one identifies an image from its background—“Flight Path” reads formerly industrial cities like Detroit as a kind of economic background to the digital “new economy.” As she watches her plane grow smaller, the speaker herself becomes abstracted:
Of the collections taken up in this review, The Cold and the Rust feels the most autobiographical, but this personal focus simultaneously makes room, in its field of vision, for keen thinking about class, gender, and geographical displacement, thinking Van Kley conveys in sharp, confident language. “We observe from a distance,” she explains in “Sarracenia, Purpurea,” “unclear on the line / that divides the monstrous from the sublime.”
The Cold and the Rust is also, among these collections, the least explicitly concerned with whiteness; Van Kley seems interested, here, less in the construction of white identity than in how class difference mediates social—including gendered—being. In the poem “Weight Training,” a boy waits to carry his great-grandmother’s casket, holding a pair of gloves his aunt has given him for grip. “This year,” Van Kley writes, “he has grown // three inches, has learned the weight / of a rival team’s skinny tackle […] But these are the wrong kinds of strength now.” As he contemplates his own mother’s death, the boy becomes an image of the gender-defying work of familial care:
Admittedly, a significant portion of Van Kley’s writing is dedicated to what critics in the 1980s labeled “Kmart realism,” a mode grounded in the “gritty” details of white, working-class experience and which often, in ways Van Kley does not, fetishizes that experience as a locus of social authenticity. But Van Kley’s work is most important, it seems to me, for its careful witness to what, in the fashionable jargon of our own era, we have come to call “intersectionality,” to the ways in which race, class, gender, and other forms of being interpenetrate to produce variegated effects. “Last of the Month,” one of the collection’s strongest poems, is an understated, complexly self-aware meditation on social difference at the Department of Social and Health Services. “If you need / an interpreter,” Van Kley quotes from a government form, “write / your language and dialect / in plain English on the dotted / line.” Whereas bureaucratic language administers citizens in order to assimilate them, poetry, Van Kley suggests, stands as a form of attention, of care, that might hold together disparate cultures without eradicating their difference.
At the same time, poetic interiority allows for the kind of self-examination Van Kley performs so brilliantly throughout The Cold and the Rust. Avoiding both the fetishizing of working-class experience as well as sententious self-righteousness, Van Kley warns us—and herself—against finding safe beauty in the lives of the underprivileged. “But don’t go judging / her lovely,” she writes in “Premises.” “Don’t go hanging / the winter sun above rows / of bombed-out Chevys.” Van Kley’s measured, often quite moving deconstruction of the work of poetry is most powerful in the poem “Your Guess is as Good as Mine,” a poem set in an Upper Peninsula ski resort where the speaker, a waitress, watches “the ice sloughing & spraying” off an ice sculpture. “What to say,” Van Kley asks, “of the bird that begins to emerge, / crook-necked, flightless, the pocketknife / the man unfolds to reveal its eyes?” Associating aesthetic beauty with violence, the image of the flightless swan—perhaps the most traditionally “mythic” of creatures—undercuts any notion that art might serve, somehow, as a form of transcendence; like the waitress who watches it take shape, the bird exists solely within a context of economic oppression, and, like her, possesses little opportunity for escape. If violence, however, is linked to aestheticism in negative ways, it is also, like art, a sign of life, refashioned throughout The Cold and the Rust as a marker of some defiantly human hope. In the poem “Rules of the Game,” Van Kley describes “certain ceremonies” involving “the first smelt of the season.”
The Cold and the Rust is itself a ceremony of such gravity. Though the collection, like many first books, is overly invested in deliberately weird language—“nights slake & burn,” “the lake vasts & voids”—it is nonetheless a sensitive, finely calibrated recording of how working-class whiteness refracts through, and in so doing transforms, various modes of social being.
In the March 2013 issue of POETRY, Reginald Dwayne Betts argues, in the first sentence of a poem titled “What It Is,” that poetry, as he puts it, “ain’t about risk.” Risk, he says, “is living below the poverty line in the worst part of town; risk is raising a black boy in a town with laws like Stand Your Ground.” Poetry, he goes on, “is about language, words, about being as honest as you can on the page.” Betts’s own words are a sobering reminder that what we do, as writers, remains a form of entitlement with consequences far less severe, in most cases, than other modes of social being. Yet in confining “true risk” to situations involving physical violence, Betts ignores the many ways in which language itself exists as a material practice, one with far-reaching effects and real-world consequences—writers would hardly bother if the case were otherwise. In writing honestly about white identity, writers do, it seems clear, take significant social, psychological, and economic risks; these risks are of a magnitude far smaller than those outlined by Betts, of course, but they are not insignificant, nor should they be ignored. For risk, I think, is inherent in any truly meaningful political exercise—it is a risky thing to engage race, including whiteness, beyond packaged diversity and proper moral posturing; it is a risky thing to excavate the depths and depravities of white experience, to “imagine evil,” as Duncan put it, in order more fully to combat it. Any real understanding of whiteness, however—and, concomitant with it, any understanding of race in all its fraught complexity—must traverse precisely these depths. We might, as a literary community, facilitate such work by lowering the temperature on our culture of outrage and indignation, by providing writers a critical, even contestatory, hearing absent the ad hominem vitriol such work sometimes generates.
If, in other words, we are to understand whiteness in the multidimensionality of its reality—understand, for instance, why Midwestern workers might vote, time and again, against their own interests—writers must be enabled to risk frank, unflinching attention to precisely those aspects of white identity that challenge cemented liberal shibboleths. For such shibboleths have done little, as these past few years demonstrate, to dismantle those systems of oppression with which white hegemony is interlinked. What these four collections help us see is how intricately white identity intersects with—is reinforced by, comes under threat from—lived experiences of gender and class, a lesson the Left, for all its moral perspicuity, has yet truly to understand. Only by acknowledging the conflicted, sometimes unpleasant nature of white identity can white writers—working alongside a tremendous crop of new poets from traditionally under-represented backgrounds—help advance anti-exploitative justice in all its forms, help critique whiteness, that is, as it is constructed by and as it reconstructs culture-wide systems of oppression. In the meantime, an American poetry canon reduced to ethical pieties remains no art at all, at least insofar as we understand “art” to be marked by an inexhaustible exercise of the imagination and by a keen sounding of the depths, as well as the heights, of human experience.
Christopher Kempf is the author of the poetry collection Late in the Empire of Men and a doctoral candidate in English Literature at the University of Chicago. His work appears in The Believer, Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, and elsewhere.
Virgin, by Analicia Sotelo, Milkweed Editions, 91 pp., $16.
Well-Fed: The Lyric Wit of Virgin
“[Y]ou know,” writes Analicia Sotelo in “My Mother & the Parable of the Lemons,” a persona poem whose matriarch-speaker warns against self-compromise, “someone is always well prepared // for the sacrifice, and someone else / is the sacrifice.” It’s this dynamic—between dominant and domineered, power-holder and pawn—that proves central to Virgin, a collection that interrogates reductive female archetypes such as maiden, daughter, mistress, ingénue, wife. Drawing on religious symbols, classical myth, and the South Texas landscape, Sotelo’s poems reveal and subversively resist performed femininity. If the formula sounds familiar—a writer re-imagines plots revolving around characters like Ariadne, the Minotaur, Persephone, etc., and invokes public figures like Frida Kahlo and Salvador Dalí to dramatize private history—what separates Sotelo’s work from others like it is a combination of rigor and ruthlessness, as well as a biting sense of humor that emphasizes our human inclination for self-contradiction. “I wasn’t made for morals,” declares “Theseus at the Naxos Apartment Complex, 6 a.m.,” “I was born to do things right.” But what is right, really? Right for what? And for whom? What’s more, who has the power to define what’s righteous and how does gender inform such demands, particularly those social and familial pressures placed upon young women and girls?
“I’m afraid wherever I walk, it’s purgatory,” confides the speaker of the collection’s opening poem, “Do You Speak Virgin?.” Virgin’s readers recognize purgatory, of course, as a kind of holding cell necessary for justice; that Catholic site of detainment where, as St. Catherine of Genoa suggests, souls are often content despite stasis due to their desire to please God. In the literary version of Purgatorio, Dante renders a very different place—a terraced mountain where sinners earn their salvation through hard labor—calling it that “second kingdom in which the human spirit is made clean / and becomes worthy to ascend to Heaven.” Neither occupants of the misty waiting room mystics have described as a combination of shadow and light, nor the ringed island rendered by Dante, the “virginal” tropes that Sotelo writes against occupy a kind of purgatory nevertheless. Because their personal conduct is the subject of ordained judgment, they act according to expectation; their appeasement comes from meeting others’ expectations of what it means to be “good,” i.e., sexless, conformist, pretty, pleasing. In “I’m Trying to Write a Poem about a Virgin and It’s Awful,” Sotelo rewrites the often idealized “good girl” out of isolation and “idleness.” The prose poem moves quickly via wordplay, each modification reclaiming a degree of agency. Perhaps the greatest pleasure comes from Sotelo’s use of setting. While the writer-speaker first locates her twenty-five-year-old subject “at the edge of a lake,” Sotelo allows the virgin to succumb to her desire by entering the water where she feels “the joy of being bare and naïve among the tiny neon fish.” This immersion, however, triggers judgment: “The men sounded like cynical seabirds,” recalls the narrator of her male critics, “When / they said Virgin, they meant Version we’ve left behind.” Where is a woman’s place? Sotelo’s adversaries seem to ask, to which she responds by upping the stakes. Rather than leaving her virgin in the lake, a body of water contained, Sotelo opts for someplace wholly unrestrained: “… I took her to the rush of the sea. She waded in and waved at me.”
Although “I’m Trying to Write a Poem about a Virgin and It’s Awful” ends with a baptism of sorts, the women at its center (both writer and subject) still occupy a between-ness. They’re often pulled between fulfilling gender-based expectations and meeting their own needs and desires. “To divulge is dangerous, but it’s also chimerical,” observes Sotelo in “Trauma with a Second Chance of Humiliation”; “One side of me says, Destroy. The other, Be gentle.” There’s great pleasure, however, in Sotelo’s negotiation of these areas of limbo. In “Purgatory Tastes Like Eggs” (note how the title strips “purgatory” of its place-based definition, transforming it instead to some ingestible thing either savored or rejected), Sotelo turns the lyric love poem on its head and defies expectations about what happens in domestic spaces. The poem, which stages a scene between what is presumably an insomniac pair of lovers, opens by framing itself as a loose gag: “A man walks into my kitchen in athletic shorts,” begins Sotelo, “That’s the joke—a man, in my kitchen—.” Within the first two lines, Sotelo brandishes her subversive wit disguised as self-deprecation: cohabitation, it seems, is a joke, as is the idea of a man in the kitchen, that room where women have long been expected to demonstrate domestic virtue. Cast as a “stranger,” the poet conflates her lover with an absentee father who “slips out for a smoke” after taking a phone call at 2 a.m. when “the sirens call, his pocket vibrates.” Does the interruption denote an emergency, or a band of seductresses? Is the man a hero or villain? For the speaker, it doesn’t seem to matter. “Hello father. Goodbye father,” she indifferently muses in the poem’s shortest sentences before dryly observing, “When I’m with a man, I drag the yolk right out of him.”
Given how convincingly Sotelo adopts the colloquial flatness of the joke-mode, I’d hate readers to miss the formal intelligence and musical integrity of “Purgatory Tastes Like Eggs.” This poem of a dozen floating tercets spaced with hard returns that take on the physical appearance of stacked monostichs is terrifically organized in terms of sentence variety and sound. Although end-stopped, the individual lines feature fragments, dialogue, declarative statements, observation, a series of questions. There are simple and complex sentences, phrases that begin mid-thought. Via internal and end rhyme Sotelo binds words like look, fork, smoke, yolk and their counterparts father, stranger, mirror, hair. At the heart of the poem is the egg, an image that figures heavily throughout the book. At its heart, the yolk is sun-like, vibrant; the egg itself, a symbol of fertility and resurrection. Reading Virgin, I couldn’t help but to think of the egg’s shape, its whiteness, in relation to the Eucharist. Communion nourishes the soul; the egg, the body. In “Purgatory Tastes Like Eggs,” a woman in the dead of night cooks two portions but feeds only herself. Whether or not she’s ultimately abandoned by the man or drives him away doesn’t matter. Like her counterparts throughout Virgin, the speaker in “Purgatory Tastes Like Eggs” isn’t infantilized or treated as some girdled Victorian possession; rather, she’s intuitive, quick-witted, spirited, unapologetic. Forget idealized and passive femininity. Forget the sexless Holy Mother, the good girl’s self-restraint. Neither relegated to her father’s house nor handed over to the convent for safekeeping, some version of Sotelo’s female figure is turning up at neighborhood barbeques and karaoke bars. She’s exploring museums, keeping her appointment at the doctor’s office. She’s seated at a game of chess, pawn in hand. Well past midnight, she’s standing in the kitchen frying up whatever the hell she wants to slap on her own bright plate.
Shara Lessley, a contributing editor, is the author of Two-Headed Nightingale and The Explosive Expert’s Wife. With Bruce Snider, she is the co-editor of The Poem’s Country, an anthology of essays on place and poetic practice. She lives in Oxford, England.
Whiteness & Desire: Where Ownership Lies
It is no surprise that Analicia Sotelo’s Virgin has received positive critical reception ranging from a New York Times Book Review article to a PBS News Hour feature; as the latter notes, “her work challenges the two-dimensional feminine stereotype” in the age of #MeToo and popularized intersectional feminism. Sotelo’s is a voice we have been craving without knowing how to articulate that desire—it’s mythological & youthful & critical & innocent & true. In a fitting and artfully-navigated example of her penchant for blending modalities of diction, theme, and tone, “Expiration Date” borrows from the parable of the Arc in its reimagining of the demise of the white, heteronormative, couple-privileging society within which our speaker—and we—are forced to reside. Creating great counterpoint, the speaker laments couple-activities in couplets: she is “sick of potluck drinking // under the stars with the weeds brushing / their blond hair against my ankles.” It is no mistake that our speaker is sick of blond anything; other poems in Virgin feature titles like “Trauma with White Agnostic Male.” For a book so weary of the white male gaze, so through with gendered and multicultured expectations around marriage and maturity, Virgin is not without its appreciative nods—namely, those related to what we can taste, what we can experience, what we can hold when we may not have a person to hold us. Here, despite what our speaker wishes sunk, she confesses, “I like … / the fine bourbon jam they’re saving.” “They,” being “acquaintances … “coupled up / like hamsters with advanced degrees.” Significant that, though “Expiration Date” functions as a breakup poem between the speaker and this “they,” the couples are still within arm’s length of the speaker. Try as we might to divorce ourselves from heteronormative, monogamous existence, we are connected to those systems; we recognize their trappings, almost with tenderness: “your Foucault, your baseball caps, / your grandmother’s velvet couch.”
Flipping the term for women who are somehow past the age where they could be conceivably found desirable by a partner, “Expiration Date” engages in the rhetoric of accusation, hardly considering the interior factors that have led to our speaker’s alienation from couples. For a gaze shifted internal, we may turn to the tonally biting poem, “My English Victorian Dating Troubles.” In contrast to the couplets of “Expiration Date,” this poem boasts liberal spacing between each (single) line, no stanza breaks, and a series of confessions pertaining both to romance and to the speaker’s Otherness:
Here, the speaker’s hesitancies concerning romance and desire are conflated with her relationship to whiteness, and a kind of unavoidable descent is manifest in the line breaks around “sink into it,” a line that is both imperative and tonally brimming with resignation—yet another of Sotelo’s deft renderings of dichotomy. Further frustration is expressed in previous lines, where I imagine Sotelo’s speaker struggling to make sense of her position in this homogenous sand & inevitably only sinking further. Remarkably, the poet casts the all-too-familiar lamentation—of women of color seeking to interrogate and make sense of their desires as defined by predominantly white forces—alongside self-satisfied humor. She writes, “O gentlemen / I am the angel/whore of kale chips … I am completely in character … the kind woman / you’ve invented / for your own troubled purposes.” Beyond the angel/whore dichotomy being aptly rendered ridiculous by Sotelo’s frank placement of the slash mark, these final lines of the poem indicate an attempt at reclamation, at pointing the accusatory finger at the self and at the culture that created it simultaneously.
How do we own our desires when those desires are shaped by white, American standards and expectations of beauty, behavior, and romance? “Why does the twenty-first century feel like this?” Virgin is contemporary utterance, is curiously familiar portrait—a jumbled mirror where the speaker must grip and not let go of the tangible (“I will devour your pith helmets / as well as these enchiladas”). As Sotelo herself notes, “See, there is a white man / in every single one of us.” The speaker in Virgin doesn’t seem to want him there any more. And neither do we.
Raena Shirali is a poet, teaching artist, and editor from Charleston, South Carolina.Shirali is the author of GILT (YesYes Books, 2017), winner of the 2018 Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award. Learn more at www.raenashirali.com.
After spending the past year immersed in Jane Eyre, I recently started reading Charlotte Brontë’s personal correspondence. I was in search of the mind behind that wit, that anger, that passion. I was surprised, then, to find the following, written in 1854 during her honeymoon and sent to her close friend Ellen Nussey:
I think those married women who indiscriminatingly urge their acquaintance to marry—much to blame. For my part—I can only say with deeper sincerity and fuller significance—what I have always said in theory—Wait God’s will. Indeed—indeed Nell—it is a strange and solemn and perilous thing for a woman to become a wife. Man’s lot is far—far different.
Only a few days after encountering Brontë’s letter, I began Analicia Sotelo’s Virgin, where I read these lines: “This is the darkness of marriage, // the burial of my preferences / before they can even be born.”
Sotelo shares Brontë’s ambivalence about marriage and love throughout her debut collection, where she side-eyes couples at a party, performs the traumatic myth of Ariadne, and rehearses a mother’s received wisdoms. “That’s what marriage is like, you know,” the mother in “My Mother & the Parable of the Lemons” insists. “Someone is always well prepared / for the sacrifice, and someone else / is the sacrifice.” And later: “remember: // a mother will always love you, / but a man can draw you in.” But Virgin doesn’t just warn of what happens if a woman may “become a wife”—these poems declare that it is a strange and solemn and perilous thing for a woman to simply be.
Take these lines from the opening poem, “Do You Speak Virgin?” where the speaker finds herself the fearful observer of her own wedding, which she describes as “some hell”:
Virgin certainly presents to us those lengths and depths, though Sotelo’s mind isn’t necessarily one I would describe as frigid. In fact, the candor, charm, bathos, self-mythologizing, self-awareness, and self-scrutiny found in poem after poem seem to be anything but. For all the “minor emergency of the self” uncovered—one of the collection’s highlights is hunting and pinning down the smaller, more mundane traumas faced—Sotelo courts shame and brutality, never flinching from the pleasures from which they may have started.
I want to return to that initial “darkness of marriage,” which reveals Persephone’s plight with a certain coolness. Here is “South Texas Persephone” in its entirety:
Similar to the bride in “Do You Speak Virgin?,” Persephone (or the Persephone-tinged speaker) seems to be peering down on herself in her future hell. The vision is somewhat terrifying, yes, and fitting—Satan’s geese-murdering lake, the silent clinging. But there’s also something removed and dreamlike here, something unsettled. Perhaps because this is envisioned before the ground ever opens up. Despite the fantastical, mythic setting, the situation presented is also delightfully mundane—a scene that could be plucked from nearly any earthly wedding, a familiar dread.
There have been countless Persephone poems, which make forging new territory here difficult. Satan’s evil is well-rehearsed, as is Persephone’s horror. Persephone staring into the kaleidoscope of her future fate, however, and finding herself in some South Texas bar slow dancing with the devil? This is the kind of transformation one can expect when reading Sotelo’s poems. “To divulge is dangerous, but it’s also chimerical,” she writes. This could be a mantra for this book, which is rich with sacrifice and transubstantiation, the kind divulged in Brontë’s vision as wife, as woman.
—Corey Van Landingham
Corey Van Landingham, a contributing editor, is the author of Antidote and the recipient of a 2017 NEA fellowship. A former Wallace Stegner fellow, she is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Cincinnati, and a book review editor for Kenyon Review.