If you are looking for a book of poems to take to the beach, i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together is one to consider. Its mint-green and pale-gray cover even looks like a day at the ocean in early summer—cool and brisk and fresh. But if the contents of this book are a visit to the beach, it’s not a boardwalk with ice cream shops and Victorian facades—it’s an ill-advised, itchy kegger on the sand, and waking up to a smudged sky, tangled with a stranger. It’s getting your car towed, and dropping your phone in the water, and walking home along the highway. This is a book of bad decisions and bad nights, narrated with fierceness and emotional clarity and alacrity of description.
These poems are about disconnected sex, anxiety, loneliness, drugs, and depression. They contain a deep sense of confusion about being a living person in the world. But the darkness of the subject matter is not as oppressive as you might think, because the observations are cool, effervescent, and clear. The poems of this book emanate from a single voice triangulating itself within a world of the Internet and parties and relationships and being an identity. They tell a story of going out and partying and being alone and looking at a computer screen and being with just one other person, and trying to attach meaning to that. Taken together, they feel like a record of one personality, over a specific period of time, an accumulated mass of looking and documenting, like photos kept in a box.
What I particularly love about these poems are the many moments of emotional noticing—noticing and stating with zen clarity experiences that we all share. “untitled 5” reads, in its entirety:
I am looking at people who are dancing and touching each other
I am drinking vodka with ice and feeling incredibly fucked
I wonder if anyone feels more lonely now than they felt an hour ago
when they were alone in their rooms looking at things on the internet
Over and over throughout this collection gonzalez does this well: describes an exact emotion precisely. By stating what feels, in retrospect, obvious, her understated noticing gives us, as readers, a way to rediscover and recognize emotional situations we inhabit. She often writes about wanting to feel something or of wanting an emotional experience, desires that feel specific to this young, connected-but-separate generation of introspective, isolated introverts: “you are interested in people who, when thought of years from now, / will cause you to recall certain, specific, crippling emotions.”
I like best when these emotional-noticings feel both wise and unexpected; when I am taken unawares, and am convinced on a gut-level of their truth. Like when she writes, “I am constantly reaching towards some nebulous goal / I am not a mean person / I am not a bad person / I am only okay.” These emotions are recognizable and stated simply and cleanly, and feel fresh and revelatory. The sentiments are revealed with a gently-unfolding logic which is appealing and successful. Occasionally, the emotional observations, which are so central to this book, do fall short of feeling wise, and feel more—almost—trite (or like they could appear on a button from Hot Topic): “I wonder how it is possible that there are billions of people in the world / yet I am the only person on the planet.” But, while the observations occasionally feel too familiar, that somewhat deadened, recycled quality is part of the texture of this world.
Another kind of noticing I was drawn to in this collection was the perception of the concrete world. Because they were few and far between, and felt very different from the bulk of the world of the book, I was most drawn to descriptions of growing up in Los Angeles. In “untitled 4,” gonzalez describes one material vision of the city:
there was this house I used to see when I was a kid
I believed a witch lived in this house
this house had many lawn ornaments
large men wearing wife beaters
with tattoos on their arms
sat on the porch and drank malt liquor
These objects almost feel sacred, perhaps because there are so few of them throughout the book, or perhaps because these objects (lawn ornaments, dilapidated houses) don’t appear too often in poems; they aren’t just the backdrop for emotional experiences, but they are, themselves, infused with feeling.
These poems are best when they do both kinds of noticing at once, the emotional and the physical, as in the book’s opening poem, “mortal kombat,” which begins:
I am thinking about those tiny clams that bury themselves under wet sand at the beach
I identify with the tiny clams
I want to bury myself under wet sand
my cat is giving me a disapproving look
I pick up my cat and forcibly hug her
my cat meows loudly and jump-kicks me as she runs away
I think I would like to be a cat
I want someone to forcibly hug me
I want to jump-kick them and run away
This poem uses simple anaphora to tie together abrupt and continuous turns that occur line by line. So that an elaborate emotional state is imparted through these accrued turns. And the effect is satisfying because on initial reads all this poetic architecture is not something that one pays attention to; the power of the whole is greater than its parts. But elsewhere in the collection, as the poems accumulate, the poetic seams do begin to show, especially as the poems use the same moves, and occupy the same subject matter. For example, many poems end with hyperbolic metaphors:
“I wanted to cover my entire body with the world’s heaviest blanket”
“I feel like 400 dead jellyfish in the middle of a freeway”
“I want to have an emotion that feels like being slowly punched in the face for 3 years”
It is a strategy for ending a poem that becomes very recognizable once it has happened several times; so, while lots of the images are startling or delicate or strong, the strategy loses its impact as the collection progresses.
A larger sense of similarity—in subject matter and in approach—emerges as the poems progress through this collection. Some of the repetition feels like a thematic pattern being woven; some of it feels like a retread of the same themes or ways of using language. Generally, the poems are totally enjoyable and very readable—a magnanimous window into a particular personality and a life, a poetic document of a stage of youth—but I will be excited to see how gonzalez’s range develops and varies as she continues to write. And if you do decide to order a copy of “i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together” for your summer vacation, you’ll find plenty to dog-ear and underline while laying in the sand.