Slaves To Do These Things
by Amy King
BlazeVOX [books] 2009
Reviewed by Mike McDonough
The Earth Mother Talks Back
Louis Zukofsky spoke of the unwritten histories of “a,” “an” and “the,” but today’s installment of “Watch Your Language” concerns that innocent little preposition “of.” My dictionary lists ten definitions of “of,” but I’m confining myself to those hyper-conscious phrases that turn a straightforward descriptive phrase into a metaphor of a metaphor, and threaten an infinite regress.
In a workshop, Paul Violi had us break a page into five columns and write an adjective in column two, a concrete noun in column three and an abstract noun in the last column. Once these words were chosen, we plugged “the” in column one and “of” in column four, thus creating an overwrought phrase such as “the slimy toothbrush of faith” (“The fickle finger of fate,” anyone? anyone? Bueller?). As these phrases piled, up along with the groans, I came up with “the copper bathtub of justice,” which was maybe one of the bearable ones, but I figured out later that the horror wasn’t the overwrought vocabulary as much as what that innocent preposition was being forced to yoke together against its will.
Amy King’s Slaves to Do These Things takes these “of” phrases a step further and turns them into a symbol of a symbol such as “the brick of my revolving heart’s axis,” which resolves in terms of Violi’s exercise to “the brick axis of my revolving heart.” Don’t get me started on the chummy use of the possessive contraction for very abstract terms. These displacements effectively undermine both the concreteness of the brick, and the symbol of “heart’s axis.” They create a glimmering, repelling surface by flipping the normal syntactical spin, and not letting the reader closely contemplate any one of them. It becomes a force field separating you from what is described.
Her long stanzas often make us despair of a resting place, and deny us the childish pleasure of counting. Instead of a freight train passing by (coal, coal, lumber, lumber, fuel, boxcars, snake eyes, “the pure products of America, anyone?”), you get a procession of painted stage sets that come from who knows where to end up buried in our attics. King wants us to see the horror of that multiplication, its artificiality, and lack of purity. For the sake of this endless fluidity, it seems King gives up the possibility of piercing the reader in the heart.
Early in his career, at his most doctrinaire, Borges wrote an essay decrying the infinite regress of describing a metaphor in terms of a metaphor. He wrote “The defenders of this verbal doubling may argue that the act of perceiving something—the much frequented moon, shall we say—is no less complicated than its metaphors, because memory and suggestion intervene; I would retort with Occam’s restrictive principle: We should not multiply entities uselessly.” For Borges, the tragedy of these multiplied entities is that they make the cosmos a house of mirrors; like the scholastic complications of enumerating the hundreds of angels needed to move the celestial spheres, they serve only to show us what insignificant creatures we are! In contrast, once you’ve read Robert Hayden on the Middle Passage, you take the word “slavery” in its most physical, literal sense. The word becomes a rock, a prison, a wound. Though we break, we bear the weight of the world like Atlas.
For King, Borges’s argument against is an argument for. She constantly uses this self-conscious, regressive syntactic displacement to create what she describes in one poem as a “false encounter.” The defense for the metaphor of a metaphor is that it describes the insularity of the thought process, and shows us the ways that we are forcefully separated from our world. Freed from describing any historical condition of involuntary servitude, and quickly pushed off stage by her ever shifting sentences, fraught phrases such as “gusts of slaves” float between the abstract and the concrete like a layer of smog. Her poems create a world that never quite has a floor.
Another “of” phrase I circled in an advanced state of despair was “the taste of memory’s slag” (which might resolve in terms of Violi’s exercise to “the tasty slag (or slaggy taste) of memory”). As I tried to analyze my discomfort with King’s language, I wanted to change this line to something like, “I taste coal, slag, memory,” which is certainly more egocentric and omnivorous (“poet, be like god”). But when I asked why this construction should be “better” than King’s, I realized, as Graham Robb points out in his biography of Rimbaud, that all these years I had taken to heart the stanza quoted by Olson in “The Kingfishers:”
If I have any taste at all,
It is only for earth and stones.
Dinn Dinn Dinn! Let’s eat the air
The rock, the coals, the iron
without considering the answering stanza:
Enough of these landscapes.
What’s drunkenness, friends?
I’d just as soon, in fact I’d rather
Lie rotting in the pond
Beneath the horrible cream
By the floating woods.
Amy King lives compassionately in that soberly answering stanza, trying hard to look her (and our) spiritual alcoholism in the face. Like Walter Benjamin, she wants the reader to confront “the forever project of waking up.” Her finely mocking metonymies “The philosopher, a pompadour, / speaks without moving his lips” question the metaphysical evasions of philosophy and poetry. Sometimes, her speaker sounds like an earth mother figure mocking the ecstasies of men:
Shadowed by the nagging
hope is that we women
will prepare the canal
for you to slip back through & into.
Such is the plight of the dodo
staring down the barrel,
demanding life to speak.
Sometimes the earth mother is more forgiving, and the body and the soul get along, and our artificial memoirs become a natural process like digestion:
The body’s prospects turn proteins
into peptides and bacterium
to carbon. We cleanse the other like
the moon is replete in her remembrance pool:
our memoirs in broken lines
of the people she is
and the people she sweetens
For King, though, we suffer from growing up more than being male or female. The philosophers she mocks are not exclusively male, and both genders suffer from being in their bodies. In these poems, the vulnerability of a girl is not very different from the vulnerability of a boy when both are “pressured by an adult perspective.” The book cover then becomes an apt illustration of inaptness: The soul builds donkeys and birds of wood, the spiritual generality longs for the physical particular as if language were yearning for its speakers and trying to create them. And though we know our encounters are false, that our donkeys are wooden, this is where King’s over-multiplications shine as a deliberate strategy, by embracing the artificial, the childishness of the play, until our wooden birds actually fly:
when I die,
play the boy on the soul
of that death and use
my memory’s mud
to make gods of us from the dust.
Robert Duncan wrote “Soul is the body’s dream of its continuity in eternity—a wraith of mind. Poetry is the very life of the soul: the body’s discovery that it can dream. And perish into its own imagination.” Amy King approaches the same territory from another direction. Instead of resting in either the urbane or acerbic irony which she displays throughout the book, instead of the magic alchemy of art, of ecstasy turning stone into living flesh, King ultimately tells us that:
… I am still feeling
the walks between steps
drowning in part,
footed forever with this
forever project of waking up.
By embracing our inadequacies, our postmodern lack of certainty, Slaves to Do These Things is a smart, compassionate take on contemporary anxiety and longing— which is what you get when you talk about “the soul that suffered from being its body,” and take the idea as seriously as Amy King does here. And to think that all this drama hinges on the tiny word “of.”