Richard Hugo in his seminal essay “The Triggering Town” writes, “Most poets write the same poem over and over. Wallace Stevens was honest enough not to try to hide it. Frost’s statement that he tried to make every poem as different as possible from the last one is a way of saying that he knew it couldn’t be.”
Lara Egger’s debut collection How to Love Everyone and Almost Get Away with It (University of Massachusetts Press, 2021), a winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry, amplifies Hugo’s argument in her poetry about her desires failing to fuel and sustain connection. Despite writing essentially the same poem, Egger has compiled a worthwhile collection through her playful breakdown of overused, misheard, or misunderstood language into her own expressive language—especially over desire—and more pervasively through her poetic leaps of connection via her compressed, layered, associative style and her extended metaphors.
Unlike the range of longing from Li Young Lee’s sensuous love poems to Sharon Old’s eroticism, Egger’s poetry of desire accretes with compressed layers of language. At the same time, Egger literally pulls apart words, as in “The Accident,” where
Someone points at a roof window
and yells skylight. Someone else draws
a sky light and whispers moon.
She transforms the interjection of that compressed word-entity of something made by humans into some whispered broken entity of something more natural. It’s as if Egger enacts in her poetry a compressed, human-created loving into broken, natural desire.
Her taking apart words is even more direct in “Eleven Days in Alicante,” where
The word for blooming is brotando;
the sound, perhaps, of effort, forcing its way—
Find an expression for this.
The second line hesitating and even stumbling in its broken rhythm with caesuras undermines the previous line’s declarative “blooming,” usually associated positively with the truism of love in bloom. The second line then forces a new dash in direction, searching for expression in all “this,” a wonderfully layered ambiguity, as if this search can perhaps resolve this tension in language, and by default in desire. The language and syntax here and elsewhere in the book are both distant (i.e., a Spanish word in an otherwise English poem) and intimate like desire.
Egger acknowledges this tension and search, perhaps finding expression for it later in this poem:
I want him to know I’m sorry.
Brotando: by definition, sprout, burst forth, grow quickly but
in context, as between us,
blooming: flowering, budding, opening—
glowing, as with vigor,
as with pain.
There’s a gulf between her desire and her ending of it (i.e., an apology of the breakup)— it’s represented in the only long blank space in this poem. Such a skilled use of blank space—without it, readers cannot easily infer that her longing is still ever-present, even in the breakup.
She knows the intimate and distant tension cannot be resolved. The Spanish word, filled with all the usual clichés of sexual desire and vigor, evades a defining, sustaining intimacy and ends in pain. Her desire cannot get away from the ending tail line of pain. She’s caught up in desire, as are readers.
Egger’s poetry skillfully enacts over and over the tension between what Egger seems to consider her flings of tainted desire (e.g., one-night stands or affairs), which veer toward intimacy, and the apparent consequential loss of any meaningful connection, which veers away from it. In “The Mondegreen,” she forgets “your name the moment / we were introduced.” Her poetry then soon spirals into a fragmentary desperation encapsulated by its syntax, movement, and momentum of her language:
By the time I’d had enough to drink
the DJ kiboshed the wedding. Pawn shop
funeral urn, mutinous Skittle
in a velodrome, breathless love
on an inflatable bed. To be in a downward dog
and realize I never knew your birthday.
The body’s keenest memory
is its sense of smell. To spill
a phone number on a cocktail napkin.
To hike solo across hindsight’s tundra
and to never, not once, play dead.
The last lines strain syntactically, especially the last line splitting the infinitive, adverbially dividing (“not once”), and omitting the subject of this sentence like a remnant of longing.
Egger continually disrupts love clichés, especially through the nine “A New New Guide to . . .” poems spread throughout the book. These poems seem to dissolve banalities involving love and break off from Egger’s compressed style, opening up a more breathable space for the reader. In
“A New New Guide to Heredity,” for instance, there’s the failed experiment of the blue rose, its main image, harnessing the rose as worn symbol of love. A space opens up for Egger as well to begin once more the affair of her poetry.
Egger’s sentences jump from one point to another, perhaps mirroring in her language how the speakers jump from one bed into another—the next temporary stop is wherever desire leads her to be. Her most signature style is a compressed directness amid associative richness, as in “Whistling Dixie” (just one of many places):
. . . When I meet you, song,
why are you always in such a hurry?
Someone should do something about those fire ants.
Unshackle this trapeze. Commemorate
my compulsions. I like it when restaurants
put my leftovers in tin foil
shaped like a swan. My smokestack lungs
can still whistle a dixie or two. To an oyster,
the wave’s lash feels like flocked velvet,
so there’s that to consider.
It’s a poetry of compulsion in a delirium of simple strong statements, a compulsive emphasis in its momentum. Where it ends one hardly knows.
One can also become lost in the Egger’s sea of associations, as in “Because I am stuck in My Own Syntax”:
. . . Abstract is the crowd
gathered around the painting. Science says
my blue is not the same as yours. The beach was quiet
except for the vowels lingering like sea foam.
In this room, all the windows are open-
ended questions. I remember the vodka, how it was
always warm, how we drank it nice and slow.
She traverses a full range of associative wandering here, which ends in this intimate setting with the speaker and her partner in the context of a swirling desire. The full effect of the universe converges into the personal—whether the ends of desire feel warm as here or feel shameful and judged as in other parts of the book. Egger frequently makes these effective turns to the personal.
To get to her truths of desire in relation to herself, Egger’s poetic leaps of association are not enough. She employs metaphor, which are “notoriously reliable witnesses.” There’s strength and beauty in her extended metaphors weaving throughout her poetry, as in “Another Version of My Confession,” where the speaker begins, “My affection is a tabloid on sale at register three” and proceeds into the supermarket aisles and into other associations, as in
I tally my indiscretions; dog-eared romances
steadily expiring like glove-compartment coupons;
or at the end where
. . . When the night manager closes up
he pulls last week’s scandal from the rack—old stock
but his wife likes to read them. I write Catastrophe’s name
in steam on the shower door. I offer to give him a ride home.
There’s such lovely depth in “him” as well as a resonance of closure in the consonance of “m.” Here and elsewhere, Egger participates in her own downfall within desire.
Over and over, she indulges in desire. In “Boy George Is My Spiritual Animal,” she thinks of her “father’s affairs. / Yes, I am always asking for it. Lipstick sorrow shimmering.” In such strong confluence of sound, she basks in self-pity. While she doesn’t seem to take responsibility for desire in her collection—it’s learned when young, fated, hereditary, or uncertain—she ultimately accepts the consequences of an insatiable appetite for desire. In “How to Love Everyone and Almost Get Away with It,” she’s
so hungry I devour duplicity. Being a person with loose ethics
has its benefits.
In a broader sense, while this book speaks to the infidelity of language, especially in terms of platitudes involving love, ultimately, it’s about breaking language down and making poetic leaps into Egger’s own fidelity of language via her recycled translation of desire:
. . . Maybe I was wrong to say I loved you,
even if it was true. Here are my translations: recycle them.
This same recycled poem moves toward an expression of her unashamed ideal self, never quite getting there but always striving to do so, where at the end of her collection, she’s also
waiting in a line [for her own performance] that never ends.