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Amy King

Amy King is a poet, teacher, and activist living in New York. Boston Globe listed her most recent collection, I Want to Make You Safe, among the Best Poetry Books of 2011.

Blurbs

"I'm portable. My mind travels / the verse and valleys of whole people says the poet. Correct! Readers of this book will discover their own memories. They will melt in them, amazed, lullabied, dramatized, shocked that they exist. Amy King is a true bard."

– Tomaž Šalamun

"Smoke n’ hott, these poems emerge as . . . audible diamonds that cut, where Rock is King & candor disarms paranoia, or, in King’s case, downright dismembers it. . . . The reader wants to shout, GO DUENDE!!!"

– Jeni Olin

"Amy King's poems seem to encompass all that we think of as the natural world, i.e. sex, sun, love, rotting, hatching, dreaming, especially in the wonderful long poem 'This Opera of Peace.' She brings these abstractions to brilliant, jagged life, emerging into rather than out of the busyness of living."

– John Ashbery

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Featured Book

Slaves to Do These Things

This is free verse at its finest.

02/22/12

The title of Ms. King's most recent collection of poems never fails to evoke sentences uttered by women I grew up with, usually spoken while they toiled at women's work, sentences beginning with “I wish we had” or “We should have.”  But these poems have little to do with women's work or America's shameful past (or present), except obliquely.  One could say, confronted by the intentional queering of their language, that they have little to do with anything, except obliquely, but somehow, by some poetic alchemy, using this skewed approach, King's poems end up having to do with everything: the culture wars, Brooklyn, our sham economy, ecology, our actual wars, fashion, sex, patriarchy, food, God, loving a woman as a woman in the middle of this whacked milieu, none of them simply about any one thing, all of them managing, like a kaleidescope, to make a pattern of some fragmented vision glancing through a mixture of themes.

Upon first reading them I found myself disoriented, and, I confess, a little spooked. How'd she get in my head like that? Her syntax performs a mimesis of the subconscious. Sentences jump ship midstream. The epigraph for the book, from Baudelaire, is a clue that we're in for a wild ride: get ready for dreamtime. The dream comes to us in the form of a five-act play. Each act has an epigraph: a poem title or phrase, the attributions of which are listed at the end of the book (adding to the sense of mystery that pervades it), which casts its spell over the poems in that act and encourages a perception of narrative arc or progression, despite the uncertainty the reader may feel at the end of any particular poem as to whether she has grasped anything more than her own shadow.

My ability to receive the meaning embedded within these poems varies according to my willingness to walk in the dark. Sometimes I get nowhere, and sometimes I get to the end and they make total sense. But even on the days when I find them opaque, they give pleasure. By King's admission, these poems underwent more conscious polishing than her previous collections. The language is crisp in the mouth and often downright fun to say. She uses every tool in the poet's toolbox except regular end rhyme. This is free verse at its finest. And on the days they do make sense, when like a jeweled puzzle box something clicks, opens, and is revealed, I feel myself in the company of a thinking, caring, feeling human being who grasps the world's ugliness, grapples with its demons, transcends her limited identity, and still manages to engage the beauty of a tulip and find herself, with her lover, happy. Such a presence is good company, indeed.

To enjoy the speaker's journey it's not necessary to realize that the book was written during a protracted illness -- the course of the journey, of descent and resurfacing, is archetypal -- but it does help explain a poem like “You Believe in Everything,” in Act IV, which seems to be about the speaker, apparently not as recovered as she'd hoped, having trouble holding her food down, out late at a cocktail party. Of course, like the rest of the poems, this one is not really about its surface narrative and ends: “There. Now you've / subsumed just how much / I love the way you tune. / Allah, creeps, amen.” The fact that King is a lesbian is another aspect of her umwelt and aids in the attempt at semiosis with her poems. The way she herself imagines her way into the umwelt of the Other in her attempts to understand those who hate her renders her perception of the world universal. One gets the feeling, as one does with the best of poets, that King has tapped in to that part of herself, her ground of being, which she shares with all of life. As mystics have always reported, this leaves one, “happy, in fact” (the final words of the final poem, “We Are Great Songs”).

But enlightenment is a moment-to-moment enterprise, and saddled with these bodies and all their attributes, sometimes bedridden, sometimes confronted with irrational hatred of one's simple being, it can feel like serious work. She closes the first poem of the fifth act, “Anarchy's Tiptoe,” like so: “Enclosed in this forgotten basement, / the galaxy is an awfully big place, / and I am still feeling/the walks between steps, / drowning in part, / footed forever with this forever / project of waking up.” Indeed that is the biggest project, one that might be the most worthwhile project a human being can “foot.” And one that leaves the idea of “slaves to do these things,” or anything that would deny anyone their human rights, unthinkable. Good books help us wake up to that which is best in ourselves; this is one of them.

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