The speaker of The King doesn’t play into the randomly generated poems and discursive ironies of her generation; she lifts the curtain to the production, exposing the history of language’s (and romanticism’s) disintegration.
It was unfortunate that among the many preserved legacies of female American poets, one finds a preponderance of poems in which birth is used only as a metaphor. H.D., Dickinson, Niedecker, Laura Riding Jackson, Mina Loy, Moore and Stein all birthed incredible poems, but few, literal babies, with the exception of Plath’s disturbing paeans to maternal love. It’s no longer so unfortunate, thanks to a new cache of work emerging in contemporary poetry, in which the experience of motherhood (far from idealized) is transmitted from the mind (and body) to poetic practice; anthologies such as Not For Mothers Only and The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood have also helped pave the way for challenging verse that tackles head-on, rather than avoiding, the experience of motherhood shared (who knew?) by nearly half the percentage of the global population since the beginning of time.
Children, like any being in whom the powers of actualization and articulation are nascent, keep us close to the ground of the self before the self is understood (if ever) to be a construction: an underrated perspective, to be sure. In the Elvis, Yeats, and Donald Winnicott-haunted pages of “>The King (Don was the 20th century psychoanalyst who differentiated between the “perfect” and “good-enough” mother, less famous, though undeservedly so, for his brilliant formulation “There is no such thing as a baby—only a nursing couple”), the reader finds, among other antipodean glories, pastoral landscapes that break apart psychically when you touch them. From “Talking a Walk with You”:
“Windy morning/ when there is nothing wrong with me/ faint smile/ faint agitation . . . ” This poem vivisects itself as it continues: “ . . . shapes in nature/ (rest in peace)/ there’s no call for making something./ Walking uphill this is your mind/ it is not enough anymore to be a figure/ in a landscape.” Of the umlaut of identity (one’s name), the speaker says:
a portal to anonymity
I can’t tell you the name
because it is of no
It dawns on me
that you would always
The name in question is not of no importance, it is of no self-importance: one of the many subtle inversions in The King that may be overlooked, at great loss to the reader.
The cult of domesticity, and what Wolff describes elsewhere as part and parcel of the “coming to terms” with subject matter takes on new wings in The King. The poem “It,” in its entirety: “You have to find a good/ recipe, one that’s not too/ sticky, or brittle,/ or calcified./ I guess I never thought too much/ about baking cookies./ Well think about it.”
The luxuriance of feeling trumps the occasional dead-ends of discursive thought, in The King; the relative value of sanity (as contrasted with the irrefutable claims of kinship) also bears down under scrutiny: “I don’t care if you think I’m crazy,” says the speaker of “A Page from Cathy’s Book.” “I am crazy/ but our sons will be brothers.”
Queenly, the speaker of “Everyone who is a god—” ushers in her pantheistic throng, while speaking to the necessity of an irony that provides a necessary leaven to many ills, including enmeshment with the other: “come before me:/ suckling, toes, gesture, magisterial handling/ of snake and scepter, sister/ of mercy just don’t make/ me eviscerate myself/ I rely too much on the irony/ that comes from inside.”
The speaker stays the reader’s hand from mistaking a constructed landscape for “reality” (reality as chimera rather than fact) though an interrogation of what it means to be natural, and, perforce, made: “To the question,/ your only possible answer:/ She’s natural,/ The sweater is deep black/ The sleeves are casually pushed up/ naturalistic . . .”, and the creator’s thrill of invention and the crises of the mechanical creation(s) of the “Maker” constitute The King’s loaded gun. Agonizingly, from “The Lord is Coming: All bets are off”: “ . . . loving god or man all out of proportion/ to his creation: windup toy,/ stuffed dimension . . . glass animals of God/ hauled before the tribunal/ nailed into position/ freed from the freedom/ in the service of which I have been.” The threshold between sensation and interpretation proves itself not only perceptible but provisional: “Audiovisual/ one word now. Hand out/ for greeting, demand made upon me/ I register as erotic. Experiment/ in shared reality: We gather together/ to ask the Lord questions . . . Mother let me sit and stand/ stand for a moment/ while I regain perspective . . .”
The speaker of The King exaggerates dualities before denouncing them (content vs. form, surfeit vs. emptiness), in laconic poems so rich in humor that not quoting them in their entirety seems a sin. “Gored by intent.”: “Bored by content./ That’s why I love/ transvestites—/ or perhaps I am bored/ by transvestites/ their thin disguises.”
The King/Lord/Other of The King lives outside the body of his mother/maker, yet their connection is intrinsic: Buddhists, says the speaker, call this (living with with what we have made) suffering, yet this relation, as does any intimacy of intimacies, challenges the parameters of linear thought and logic, leading the speaker of The King into a place where artificial boundaries do not so much dissolve as shimmer—a true seeing, a true interrelationship. “He feels just the same as I do/ about everything” (from “Different People Feel Differently”); “Today he tasted blood,/ perhaps for the first time./ His own blood./ In his own mouth”; and, from a thirdly interrelated moment “Is it funny for you to know/ you are the only one who comes inside me?/ A more significant, lasting King of Kings,/ I’ll let you do the talking for me/ You know what it’s like inside me.”
Here, not only the boundaries shimmer, but the contexts: erotic, metaphysical, parental; these morphologies are the closest thing to bliss a reader (and an unborn baby) can know, a deeply attenuated aural “inscape,” to quote Hopkins, that defies description.
The speaker—as a metaphor for language—“walk[s] the junkie’s walk (tilted)/ yet somehow my unborn child/ is protected”—this effect is at times jarring, but more often becalming or sublime (the tone of the longest, and last seventh section, Depth Essay) as the speaker reformulates her amniotic bond to the King. How do I encourage religious practice? the speaker of “Attitudes at Altitudes” asks. “With my sentences . . . / Vantage point . . ./ Plate-blue sky . . . / Plateau of clouds . . . / Good God./ They trail off.”