Punks, by John Keene. The Song Cave, 234 pp., $20.
Eggtooth, by Jesse Nathan. Unbound Edition Press, 136.pp, $24.
An Eros Encyclopedia, by Rachel James. Wendy’s Subway, 160 pp., $18.
What is the point of this review? I’m not talking about its value, not trying to raise any sticky persistent questions about the necessity of criticism. Instead I’m asking, more humbly, what is this review’s goal? What am I, right now, trying to accomplish? What are you, reader of this review, looking to find? Is it critical insight, clever reading and explication? Is it something more insidious, a scintillating takedown? Is it gossip? Is it taste? Is it recommendation (review as Yelp)? Is it validation (review as blurb)? I ask because I’m no longer sure. I’ve written a good number of reviews over the past nine or so years, not nearly as many as most critics (I let my membership to the National Book Critics Circle lapse), but more at least than all of my writer friends. About one long-form review-essay a year. It has been a pleasurable activity, an annual ritual I enjoyed and took seriously. Right now, however, it is feeling more heavy, uncertain, wobbly. Before I continue, I need to clarify it.
I read some books I enjoyed this year, interesting in all the right ways, good subjects (objects?) for a review. But to try and write my own words about them—words commenting on the books’ words, explications of their words, appreciations of them—it seems to me now an odd endeavor. The books have their own words, which speak for themselves! Why do they need mine? Gertrude Stein, to whom I am becoming more akin every day, said about modern art, in a lecture called “Pictures,” simply: “I like to look at it.” Later she writes about an oil painting,
[…] the fact remains that for me it has achieved an existence in and for itself, it exists on as being an oil painting on a flat surface and it has its own life and like it or not there it is and I can look at it and it does hold my attention.
This is my theory of art and criticism. First, art exists, in and for itself, in its own life. Like it or not, there it is. Your liking it has no bearing on its existence. Even the artist’s life has no bearing on it, interestingly. Second, you can look at it (read it, etc.), and maybe it will hold your attention. And maybe, third, you will enjoy the hold it has. For me, the two conditions beyond a book’s existence have to be true to merit me writing about it. Not for every critic, certainly! No, I’m realizing that the goal of my writing about writing is to explore how it holds my attention and why I like it. The simplicity of that, the clarity, the childlike mood of curiosity—all this I should reflect in the writing. I want to be less pompous, less professional, less “smart.”
Maybe this kind of review will be useful for you, reader, in forming your own thoughts about what holds your attention, and why, and the effects of that holding (in stillness, cradled). Not aiming for usefulness for the poets themselves, sorry to say, because the books discussed here exist for themselves, remember, not their makers. If so, great. But really, you’re along for the ride. The true subject of this review is me. Liking, attending.
John Keene’s Punks, winner of the 2022 National Book Award for poetry, holds my attention immediately, from the Alvin Baltrop photograph that is on the cover. It is a photograph of three Black sailors in the Navy, and it is a photograph of the desire between them. The photo manages to capture and portray this desire in its immediate thrilling electric current. The sailor on the far right is looking at the camera and sticking his tongue out, provocatively; it juts to the left. The sailor to his right, in the left of the frame (next to the third sailor, who is cropped out of the book cover) has his body faced away from the tonguing sailor but his face—and, importantly, his eyes—are fixated back at him. It is an intense, intrigued, longing stare, or it is a momentary furtive glance (no less intense) that the photograph has fixed into a stare. The current of desire runs from the sailor’s eyes to the other sailor’s tongue. The center of the picture is not one of the men, it is the space between them, where desire thrives and magnifies.
It is an incredible photo, and incredibly apt for the cover of Keene’s book. Many of these poems live and run and falter and rejoice and suffer in desire’s space between. And, importantly, the bodies in Keene’s desire-ecosystem are Black and male. “You have smallish hands for a brother, he says,” begins a poem on fisting,
but beautifully. Manly; compact; soft as chamois, velvety but copper-woven, almost golden-red, the Indian blood glows in them; the veins so large they snake beneath the skin like fresh creeks[.]
(“You Have Smallish Hands for a Brother”)
The poem’s attention to the sexual body is, necessarily, an attention to that body’s skin tone and ancestry. Not just sexy, Keene’s eros extends and encompasses all of life’s domains, as it really does in life, and to write of that extension feels honest and powerful to me. For example, in a poem called “Suit,” in which the speaker mourns for a dead friend:
If sorrow is a suit, its weight is incalculable. One day he’s gone and you put it on. One day he’s gone and it sews itself inside you. […] and you finally realize you are carrying another body, his body, your former body, your bodies together, in and on you, and this slows you, and stills you, weighs more than two bodies or many bodies inside your body[.]
We might describe this as the eros of grief: the carrying of an absent body within ourselves, the distance and weight of that carrying.
In another of my favorites, “Why I Love My Father,” it is the fraught distance between father and son that is electrified:
As these first lines reveal, the love the speaker professes in the title is difficult, painful, complicated. Not redeemed by the father’s charm. The parent lacks some essential unspecified quality in his relation to his son. The poem is difficult too, its lyric propulsion not in clarity (as in the sex poems of Punks) but in shifting interrogation, searching. “How does it end, do you / forgive? Nothing clears the air like a leaving. I live // with what I was given, waive claims, decline / the chain. Truth is a valid way of beginning.” As a reader, this resists me, resists my reach for understanding, but also feels deeply accurate in how one forgives and loves and lives, having had a difficult parent. How to live with the difficulty of what one is given? Out of my reach, the poem compels me to keep reaching.
Punks is a big book, containing what seems to be decades of Keene’s poetic writing in verse and prose, which delights me. It is the rare “New and Selected” that rewards cover-to-cover reading, with its breadth and depth of theme (a depth often rooted in the experience of the poet-speaker’s racialized body, his queered body, and his desiring body, and the intersections of all of these) and its formal play and range. In this way, the book feels monumental. What more need I add.
An egg tooth is the sharp protuberance on a bird’s beak with which it breaks the shell it was born in, before it hatches. Eggtooth, Jesse Nathan’s debut book of poems, similarly pierces—both the shell of the poet’s birthplace, rural Mennonite-haunted prairie-woodland Kansas, and me. Less expectedly, the book’s title poem, “Eggtooth,” conjures (hatches?) John Donne.
What fascinates me most about this is the fact that the voice of Donne, the seventeenth-century religious-erotic poet, affords something essential to twenty-first-century Jesse Nathan. But what?
Donne doesn’t seem an obvious source of poetic influence these days. What does Nathan, who writes so lushly of the histories and ecologies (both cultivated and wild) of Kansas, need in Donne to break his shell? “Eggtooth” is the only poem that mentions Donne by name, but he is all over this book, mostly in the form of the seven-line stanza that Nathan’s notes tell me Donne experimented with in several of his early poems. Nathan uses this stanza enough in the book for me to want to rechristen it the eggtooth stanza, so I will. The eggtooth stanza contains four pentameter-ish lines followed by three trimeter-ish ones. “Seven,” John Donne says in Jesse Nathan’s conjuring, “sponsors creation but / also vice.” The eggtooth stanza is ornate, highly musical, finding (as I hope the above quote illustrates) a kind of Marianne Moore-ish delight in expansive description and rare words like “caruncle.” I think, in this context, Nathan’s delight in these things, in stretching the bounds of our common ecologies of language, in trying to describe something until words are exhausted, might be called devotion.
Donne famously (to me anyway) equated religious and sexual ecstasy. He pointed out what we might call the eros in the distance between God and humanity—also, good to note, between the “Old” and “New” worlds; as a person of his time Donne was obsessed with European colonization and would’ve seen in Kansas, if he could’ve imagined it, a “virgin” land ready for white people, to borrow that unforgivable metaphor. (Thanks for this information is due to my undergraduate self, who once wrote a seminar paper called “The Erotic and Celestial in John Donne: A Convergence of New Worlds.”)
These are elements present in Eggtooth: the genocidal settler-colonial projects in nineteenth-century Kansas, yes, also the more interior projects of erotic self-discovery in a contemporary bookish boy on a farm. Vice and creation, and they must be confronted together; the worlds converge. My favorite moments in Eggtooth are those when Nathan’s speaker (that bookish boy) confronts his queerness. Not surprising that his experience of Kansas is as a place where everything is not just spoken but stopped “in the language of a straight line,” as Nathan writes in the brilliant breathless long poem “Between States.” It is a place with “the unstated contract of ‘freaks for export only’”—
Despite confessions of the speaker’s own participation in this system of culture—the violent forcing of land into straightness, the grids of agriculture and of school bullying and of silence—the book ultimately reveals the poet’s kinship with the freaks. It ends in California, in something like exile, land of beauty and heartbreak. Land of weeping on the freeway.
This from “Aubade Within Aubade,” in which the speaker is left by the lover with whom he moved to San Francisco. Left too, suddenly and painfully, by childhood. “Was that love we had, or just a stab at escaping” the lover asks. Good question.
I think this is why the eggtooth stanza feels to me so fresh, and, if often challenging, so important for this book: it isn’t straight. It jags and cuts and squiggles. It’s like a body, queer and odd and often too much, and it doesn’t forget—because it can’t! (because how could it)—where it comes from.
Eros has been an important thread in this review, like it or not, and so it is that I turn my attention to Rachel James’s An Eros Encyclopedia. What is an encyclopedia? It is an education. In James’s book, the speaker’s eros education comes from childhood memories as much as from adult sexual encounters. Hers is an eros of thought: the profound desire to know if her wild thoughts and wild feelings are shared by others (by this reader: yes). Also, as in Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet and Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic” (both cited in the Encyclopedia’s bibliography), her eros is the profound desire to know herself.
The book, like one long poem with page breaks in verse and prose, moves almost narratively deeper into the speaker’s—no, narrator’s—psyche. Almost narrative, but not: there are scenes and characters here, but no arc of plot, no resolution. The conflict, too, is intuited rather than clarified, conveyed in associative frenzies of thought. There are flashes of childhood trauma, especially around a father who (it seems) is something like a cult leader or (less intensely) just deeply involved in new-age rituals: ayahuasca ceremonies, hypnotic past-life regressions, and being “led up a mountain” by a guru, all of which the narrator (as a child?) is involved in. Also flashes of fleeting adult relationships, but only the sexy parts of them.
Instead of direct narrative, we get beautiful passages like this, of the narrator as a child:
I grew up twirling in a circle with raised arms. Twirling was thought to be a conduit, if not to god, to a sense of being in the correct location. A shadow forms out of blocked light. First planets, then clouds, then mountains, then trees or buildings, then my arms raised and spinning.
Or this, of her twirling as an adult:
Longing for a neighbor to watch TV so I can listen through the walls. Go to Greece or become a Greek column. My lips Corinthian and the sea curls around me like a tailor draping fabric and I’m lying ass up in a huge shell blissfully waiting. It’s not fake like a commercial it’s just unexpected.
I will admit it: I love this for how close it is to my own current experience. This is the voice of my moment. Lyric in its descriptions and figurations—how unexpectedly accurate and gorgeous is “My lips Corinthian”—but also attuned to the dumb lonely shit I do most days. Blissfully waiting. That’s my life, too. I’m sure I’m not alone in this … or I feel less so, reading it in James’s voice.
Bliss is important, where it is and where it isn’t. But this speaker’s bliss is passive, at an impasse, not quite ready to act, a beast waiting to emerge. Where and how else James’s speaker waits: listening to the “Slow flutes of the health insurance hotline,” “working on bird feeders and reading the comments on pages like ‘How to Build a Flexi-perch Squirrel-proof Birdfeeder for $10 or Less,’”or in one of her father’s ayahuasca circles:
We drink again. Moans and yips. I think I am standing but wake up on the floor. The circle moaning for me. Hunched on my hands and knees I feel bestial. Hot pools and heaving.
So begins one of my favorite movements in the book, in which (as I learn in poet’s notes that are much more alive here than such things usually are) James borrows language from the first line of The Odyssey from “the previous sixty or so translations.” And thus I see this book’s intelligence is as “bestial” as its narrator, hunched and calling out for a muse.
“There is no consensus on the English translation of polytropos […] the Ancient Greek word which appears in the first line of The Odyssey,” James’s note continues. From my own research I learn that polytropos is a recurring description of Odysseus; it literally translates to “many turned” or “much turning.” Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate the work into English, rendered polytropos as “complicated.” James’s narrator is polytropos in the extreme. This is why I love her. She turns radically, with no warning, and turns again, from one wild thought or experience or memory to the next, with no context (just as thoughts often emerge), and a reader, seduced by the voice, follows this turning and attempts to make meaning from it. Just as I believe the narrator herself attempts to make her thoughts meaningful. Only attempts. Not necessarily successfully.
But meaning is overrated. Instead of meaning, “She begins time. Now in the slippery mud she is filled and fills, pouring incantations of the future into the past.”
Amelia Ada is a trans poet and essayist living in Los Angeles. Her essays on poetry have appeared in Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, and frequently in West Branch. She spends her days as a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California, and as the co-host of the podcast You Shouldn’t Let Poets Lie To You.