In the last section of her new book, I Want to Make You Safe, Amy King quotes Shakespeare, To give yourself away, keep yourself still, an adage that in many ways sums up the poems in this, her fourth collection. The poems ride a current of energy and association, surrealistic imagery and disorder, and King presides over this rush and insistence of language with authority and intelligence, yet manages to evoke a stillness that gives away her insightful and passionate search for meaning and connection in the confusion that is life.
It would be easy for a reader to become lost in this swirl and rush of syntax and images, but King provides enough narrative thread to hold on to in the complexity of her work. Readers will not get straight paths and easy to follow directions, rather, the meaning in these poems comes incrementally, randomly, surprisingly. Even these lines forget straight lines, she writes in “This Opera of Peace.”
King’s poems present a challenge, the kind that is invaluable to anyone who cares about the new, the experimental, the inventive. I love the invitation to view and participate in her emotional and intellectual connection to the world—man-made and natural , political and personal. Her perceptions cast a wide net—and her images are striking. In “I Came to Steal the Darkness,” she begins,
On my oyster afternoon
the sea’s a safety, how we rise
then the grass returns, dune again
and the short history of summer
The poem leads to unexpected places but that opening has put us at ease with the journey.
The poems I find most compelling are ones where King grounds the complex and abstract with the familiar and concrete as in “Mockingbird Sways & Bicycle Hangs.”
But the mockingbird sways and the bicycle hangs
before a walk to the pond after supper.
Brie and crackers.
King’s commitment to language and all its possibilities is evident in each of the book’s four sections. She plays with language frequently–such a lovely cross to wear, she writes in “How Will My Enemies”. And in the title poem, she extends the metaphor of blessings to a humorous take on redemption,
A choir of bless yous and bona fide cleansing
like my own bowl
weevil arches and spends
blueblood mornings with me.
She describes her view of language accurately in the line, We yank at triggers cascading. King’s poems do cascade down these pages, and flow into a body of work that takes in darkness and brightness, humor and play and seriousness– and one is never sure when the trigger will catch, the bullet fly. The bullets are not always metaphorical. King’s political awareness is everywhere in her work; she talks about war—our daily experience of it and, at times, indifference to it.
Our insensitive species, we grow evermore
Lattice-worked with diseasing interests.
and so it goes—Are you right for democracy’s
chief this-and-this, a dream world window (“I Want to make You Safe”)
In “This Opera of Peace,” King is acutely aware of the rocket marked with cigarettes burning for its journey on Baghdad. Bullets that loosen their tune are songs that insist on knowing. That insistence drives King’s poems and gives them their power.
King’s ability to find the right words to express her uncertainties and confusions and lay them down not to make sense or create a unifying theme carries the reader on a journey of discovery and insight. Proof is the poet’s burden/ to tell but write beneath she writes in “I Want to Make You Safe.” And this is exactly what she does in this collection—she tells but writes beneath the obvious and predictable. Language here is as valuable for its music and sound as it is for its sense. That the written sound is the new cover-up she writes in the same poem, perhaps gives evidence that she knows that poetry after all, cannot reveal the truth we like to think it is after no matter how hard it tries. King’s poems do what John Ashbery said of his own work—they create the experience of the experience. And like Ashbery, King captures a range of situations—political, personal, cultural, religious, social as well as the ethics that inform them.
King’s affection for the world is authentic even through doubt and uncertainty as she indicates in “I Hear Like Names Falling,”
If I make people feel good, will they
do good? What’s my motivation?
How long does good last?
What stage do we pace in the process?
Next time I’ll ask forgiveness, instead of permission.
Innovation is at the heart of these poems, and King’s ability to see through the surface to the deeper and often disconnected intricacies of life make them pleasurable and powerful to read. She writes in “The World’s Babies,”
A poem is a hat with no thumbs
I wear upon my head, night’s cap of fool’s gold to harvest.
King provides just enough information and concrete imagery for the reader to hang that hat on and succeeds in her effort to make surface yield something that is not exactly surface. (“The Birth of Tragedy”)