Organized into five “acts,” Slaves to Do These Things is, ostensibly, theatrical in terms of its development—though the dramatic action isn’t always quite clear. That’s alright. Mystery plays are rare at present.
You might say that God is in her details—not that that means what you think it means. In Amy King’s Slaves to do These Things, hunger is the prime mover, hunger for food, for sex, for better parties: “The stomach demands its vision,” she writes in a poem called “The Taste of Light & Our Digestive Tracts.” But somehow, the sum of these hungers, or perhaps merely a component in all of them, is a hunger for something that goes by the name of God. In King’s poems “God” is the name for many things: a love like a “tear-soaked armpit,” a nervous woman “in her mocha acetate/A-line with hand-dyed lace,” ourselves—“memory’s mud” that makes “gods of us from the dust.” God is an excuse with “readymade arms.” God is with us, God is dead, God has abandoned us or sent his “little mice” to “gnaw beneath the wooden/four-poster.” God does not exist or perhaps it is merely that God is you, reader:
that this space is blank, though
not intentionally so. It is so
because you are not yet in it,
though you are here with
your eyes, which exist,
taking all grammars in, as I omit.
“When the Bread is In My Body” literalizes this relationship between hunger and God. Its referent—many of King’s allusions appear to come from Catholicism—is the act of communion, ingesting a thin wafer of starch that represents (or actually is in some traditions) the body of Jesus. In King’s poem, however, the act of eating invokes not transcendence but memory, a tumble into the dreamscapes of the personal: “When the bread is in my body,” she meditates, “I tend to leave you.” But the poem ends with an apostrophe, an invitation to the reader to inhabit the same spaces that seemed too far to reach only a line before: “I take the corners of your mouth,/lead you into pastures/of mules into men in books.” The speaker has taken on the role of God in the twenty-third psalm, who “maketh me to lie down in green pastures,” an impish allusion that suggests that the God of King’s poetics is very much of the earth and of history, a complex feature of collective memory:
and bodies buried breathe
into bodies living on
those with bread and flesh enough,
and the talk of time to grow upon.
We are in God and of God because we are God and because we need a way of conceiving something outside ourselves:
We can’t remind the lover
to love any more
than we can love ourselves
without the lover
Organized into five “acts,” Slaves to Do These Things is, ostensibly, theatrical in terms of its development—though the dramatic action isn’t always quite clear. That’s alright. Mystery plays are rare at present. By calling King’s work dramatic (which it is), I don’t mean to imply that it is in any way narrative. If there is an arc to each of the acts, its colors are muted, evocative of an emotional progression rather than a plot. At a guess, the first act deals, roughly, with ideas about body and soul: “we suck dew-/drops off pewter, sour the wine,/shake the harbor’s sinew.” Meanwhile, the second act seems to meditate on innocence and experience: “bits of paper/turned to lost voodoo an orchestra/until I come of age.” In the third act, passions (in both senses) of ritual take the stage:
We rise in the bulbs of night
to build our crosses and tie ourselves
to rosaries that balance
out what we think we’ll never need
Dramas of patience and prayer characterize the poems in the fourth act: “time’s sandbags/that prick with passivity’s angels” and “Allah, creeps, amen.” The fifth act asks questions about how we know anything and what to do with knowledge in the first place: “this forever/project of waking up.” Then there are poems that seem to play out their own separate concerns within the space of each act. For example, “Stimulus Package” and “State of a Nation,” though they refer to the concerns about emptiness and faith that pervade the book, think about the personal in the political as well: “I come for you on the people’s chariot/interpreted in nightgown.”
As I’ve said, these hypotheses about the arc of each act are just that—hypotheses—for even within individual poems there are variations in texture and tone. Some readers may find this obscurity frustrating. I enjoyed it immensely, precisely because it offers you a little room to breathe. What I am describing here is my Slaves to Do these Things. Your Slaves to Do these Things might be a very different book. You might say that this is true of any number of collections—that none of us draw quite the same conclusions from our experience of reading them. You would be right. But in the case of King’s work, the disparity is exaggerated. These aren’t the kind of poems that take you on a guided tour; they’re the kind that drop you in the wilderness with a map and a compass for friendship. Do you like that kind of thing? Perhaps you find it merely frustrating.
Parataxis is the mechanism by which much of this spacious interpretive room is achieved—perhaps a nod to the New York School poets, who seem to be her major influences. By layering unexpected images and sounds together with manic glee, King creates a porous textual fabric that often leaves readers to decide what’s going on in the gaps between one fragment and another: “tea bag, growl pouch, pound out,/sea sick, salt off, flesh sag,/liver dip, bile wish, throw soap.” King’s pleasure in the contours of language is palpable. One criticism you might level at this collection (though I’m not at all sure my whole heart is behind it), is that King’s poems are too generous in their laissez-faire read-how-you-will aesthetics, the tapestries too full of sound and empty of sense. If you like arguments in your poetry, you won’t find them here. King has too many questions to ask (and too much fun asking them) to worry overmuch about agitating for answers. For her, the beginning is the word and the word is (what else?) God.