Why I Chose Nikki Wallschlaeger’s Crawlspace for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club

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I’m always interested in the work of poets who use form in subversive ways, and while it’s true that the sonnet has long ceased to be just a love song, what Nikki Wallschlaeger does with it in her new collection Crawlspace, soon to be released by Bloof Books, is brilliant. The book is a collection of fifty-five sonnets, and the hard limit of fourteen lines per poem (except when she chains them together in longer series) acts as gravitational force for poems that might otherwise go nova.

But before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your copy of Crawlspace, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Nikki, you’ll need to to subscribe by April 20!

Let’s have a look at “Sonnet (28),” which first appeared at Elective Affinities:

A circlet of murdered boys marching over your head.
Just like the ’50’s cartoons we used to watch as children
waiting to see what would happen if the angry chicken
crossed the road. Birds speed when you’re blacked out,
they’re our golden oldies we haunt you to remember
when you finally come back to consciousness, my little
cracked snowglobe. But you go home to your bungalow
far away from where I live, where the good folks serve
King Cotton casseroles at least once a week for dinner,
clicking of food handled by the bagboys you ate.
I am usually betrayed by teachable moments in the valley,
there’s bound to be someone playing an acoustic guitar.
The roosters shooting over their Canterbury prune wine
it comes in elegant bread puddins of my heart’s sweepings.

If I may return to my earlier metaphor, the form here envelops the helium and hydrogen of racism and violence, the “circlet of murdered boys” and the “good folks” who “serve King Cotton casseroles” and creates powerful heat and light from their fusion, but in a controlled way instead of the expanding destruction of a star in its death phase. That, along with the “oh shit, could that have been me?” reaction I had to “there’s bound to be someone playing an acoustic guitar” pushed home the way these poems challenge me as a reader.

While these sonnets don’t generally adhere to the requirements of iambic pentameter and ABAB rhyme schemes, many of them do retain the power of the closing couplet to look back and comment on the poem as a whole. For instance, “Sonnet (10),” which first appeared at The The, lists the names of cribs: “Hampton, Worthington, / & the Shenandoah,” which evoke a very white, upper middle class perspective. There are “rollerbladers / wearing Fight the Power cotton tees,” which makes me think of white people (like me) who reach back to claim a piece of a cultural heritage that rose in opposition to the very thing they benefited from, namely white supremacy and structural racism. So the closing lines, “Somebody has a new idea / about 21st-century slum clearance” hints at the quieter (unless you live there) side of racism in the form of gentrification. It reminds me of lines from A Tribe Called Quest’s “We the People”: “N—s in the hood living in a fishbowl. / Gentrify here, now it’s not a shithole,” and the chorus where Q-Tip lists all the groups that must now go because white people have decided a neighborhood is desirable.

Crawlspace is a potent book, and I look forward to discussing it both with our members and with Nikki Wallschlaeger at the end of May. And remember, to receive Crawlspace and join in our conversation, you need to subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by April 20!


Brian Spears's first collection of poetry, A Witness in Exile, is now available through Louisiana Literature Press, and at his personal website. He is the Poetry Editor for The Rumpus, and teaches poetry at Drake University. More from this author →