Rumpus Poetry Book Club board member Sean Singer on why he chose Lea Graham’s Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You as the July selection for the club.
Lea Graham’s Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You is kitchen-sink full of allusion, percussion, and forcibly smashed fragments, but it there is an intelligent, human voice speaking in all the poems, and the poems mass together to express infatuation for not only other poems, but the world.
Her book begins with an epigraph from Richard Siken’s Crush, a book that was also interested in the violence of being enamored with people, and those peoples’ force and noise. Her book ends with an allusion to Jack Gilbert’s The Great Fires. So, Lea Graham is also interested in language, and how it can be compressed or expanded to look at sex and its consequences. But, like other crushes—perhaps from adolescence or high school or even Facebook—the poems reflect the giddiness, the being overwhelmed with joy, of obsession. Her poems give voice to those obsessions, as in “Crush #421,” a poem that shows most of the threads in the book:
Alone, waterfalls read Prohibir Actividades Amorosas &
college kids from Poughkeepsie bought
the beer: Pollution is a dirty means to a radiant sunset like your smile
& You must be tired—you’ve been running through my mind all night
& Wanna fuck? Crossed legs on a bud back
to the city through cloud forests; rivering, their stories germinated,
coalesced—what grows shared—bromeliads, bougainvillea, bleeding
hearts: bract & spine, caudex & corolla, stamen,
calyx, carpel. Sitting at a bar next to a man with hair the color of
speech & honey & semen, his appetite straight-up Dionysian. He
said: You’re hot
Although the sign tells visitors: “amorous activities are prohibited,” the bar is filled with cheap, unimaginative pickup lines; it’s a meat market and one of the speaker’s paramour’s gets the last word. In terms of form, too, the poem is tricky and wonderful. The structure of long tercets allow the narrative to branch-out into stories that germinate into plants. Like spores that float through the air to plant their seeds on the backs of bees, Graham’s language here breezily moves past the pickup lines through a botanist’s diction. The plant parts become almost like human bodies wrapping around each other.
Graham’s various crushes themselves take of a kind of passionate tenacity, through neighborhoods, to other countries, and through visual arts. The mind moving through the poems is omnivorous: her interests show thinking that is akin to a giant sieve. Moisture seeps through the surface, and pieces of solid knowledge rest at the bottom. For example, in “A Crush on the Venus of Willendorf,” the speaker says: “Knees fricase, feet / shift, shuffle, impossible / to pull out, away from this / story before story: Magna mater? / Divine whore?” The poem employs the obscure verb “fricase,” as in “to rub”, and the interesting slant-rhyme (shuffle / impossible) along with the phrase “to pull out” with its sexual connotations before its exit wound of rhetorical questions. Is the Venus a nature goddess or something more bound to an unworkable gender bargain—is she divine or the vessel for a sexual fantasy? Gods have no bodies, and the poem in a clever and terrific way poses the difficulty of the crush. A crush is a fantasy, and therefore reveals more about the person with crush, but its source is the person she has the crush on. Like a teenager, the situation is ridiculous, but also deadly serious. Even our choices of whom we pursue, sleep with, and love are political.
Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You creates energy by relentlessly kneading its central questions. It mixes sophisticated word choice with images gleaned from mythology and popular culture, but these blur past the reader, like images seen through the window of a train. For example, in the prose poem “Bridge Jumping / W4M / Poughkeepsie (The Walkway)”, the speaker admits: “But I keep thinking of you like Colomb & Williams thought of Wayne C. Booth, writing his voice into the third edition of The Craft of Research years after he died. I imagine you might fish endangered sturgeon & dream of Guernica on Thursdays. If so, write to me. We could go to sea in a sieve, double the blind, buck your tiger, bell my cat, leap this dark—” For this speaker, her crush whispers like a half-remembered dream; it is almost academic in her re-imagining, yet remains intoxicating.
A crush is more about releasing that energy that about creating something that will last. This is ironic because Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You keeps giving, and becomes more crushing and crushable upon each reading. It’s a good choice for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club because it’s playful, original, and respects a reader’s intelligence. It mixes high and low, leather and lace, caffeine and alcohol, in a creative, swirling, surprising way.