Sunday, November 25, 2012

Kim Addonizio: Telling The Unknown

I've waited over a decade to write about Kim Addonizio. It's not that I've been deliberating about the value of her poems--like the work of Dorianne Laux, I fell in love with them the first time I heard Kim read from Tell Me (nominated for The National Book Award) in 2000 at City Lights Bookstore. I immediately read everything in print and online by her. The fact is that her poems so powerfully affected my early work that I've had to distance myself from her influence for some time, in order not to feel that I'm guilty of plagiarism. Indeed, I have begun poems with lines from her work (always giving her credit) and, most recently, Matthew Dickman selected a poem of mine for Best New Poets 2012 that has the epigraph, "After Kim Addonizio." The poem, "Break," charts the emotional arc from an innocent game of pool to all of the complications that can come from any passion gone bad--in the same way that Addonizio writes about shooting a gun in her poem, "Target." I even started my poem with the same phrase, "It feels so good," ending line one with "to break a rack of pool balls," instead of "to shoot a gun." After that, the poems diverge down two different paths, although they do share some of the same emotional arc. I'm sure that Addonizio's poem is a better one, but I enjoyed "answering" her poem with my own, and was delighted whenever Dickman selected it for the annual anthology.

I only relay the above story to let readers know that my delay in writing about Addonizio in no way reflects my opinion of her work. On the rare occasion I find myself staring at a blank page, I have my own personal favorite poets to read who always make me fall in love with language again, and who inspire me with new ideas to write about: Larry Levis, Michael Waters, Malena Morling, Dorianne Laux, and Kim Addonizio all are on that list. Addonizio's special gift to her readers is that her body of work is infused with a language of hunger, a language of need, a language of love--not with a sentimental language of the heart, but of a visceral language of the gut--not in narratives that immortalize the lofty ideals of "the heroic few," but in stories that reveal the manic, ephemeral, tortured pleasures that we all borrow from whatever world is given to us.

How else to describe the following two openings (I could have shared dozens), that pull at us to enter the poet's world, to feel her passions, to lie awake recounting her obsessions, to act upon her compulsions--until we are not content to merely listen, but are moved to rise from our seats, mount the stage, and with our own voices answer her words with our own--because the world she is writing about is our world, as well.

The Numbers

How many nights have I lain here like this, feverish with plans,
with fears, with the last sentence someone spoke, still trying to finish
a conversation already over? How many nights were wasted
in not sleeping, how many in sleep--I don't know
how many hungers there are, how much radiance or salt, how many times
the world breaks apart, disintegrates to nothing and starts up again
in the course of an ordinary hour. I don't know how God can bear
seeing everything at once: the falling bodies, the monuments and burnings,
the lovers pacing the floors of how many locked hearts. I want to close
my eyes and find a quiet field in fog, a few sheep moving toward a fence.
I want to count them, I want them to end.


You know how hard it is sometimes just to walk on the streets
...downtown, how everything enters you
the way the scientists describe it--photons streaming through
...bodies, caroming off the air, the impenetrable brick
of buildings an illusion--sometimes you can feel how porous you
...are, how permeable, and the man lurching in circles
on the sidewalk, cutting the space around him with a tin can and
...saying "Uhh! Uhhhh! Uhh! over and over
is part of it, and the one in gold chains leaning against the glass of
...the luggage store is, and the one who steps toward you
from his doorway, meaning to ask something apparently simple, "What's the time," something you know
you can no longer answer; he's part of it, the body of the world
...which is also yours and which keeps insisting
you recognize it. And the trouble is you do, but it's happening, among the crowds and exhaust smells,
and you taste every greasy scrap of paper, the globbed spit you
...step over, your tongue is as thick with dirt
as though you've fallen on your hands and knees to lick the oil-
...scummed street, as sour as if you've been drinking
the piss of those men passing their bottle in the little park with its
...cement benches and broken fountain.

In conclusion, I share "Flood," the ultimate poem from Tell Me. If you can read it aloud by yourself at night in bed after making love to your lover who is now asleep beside you, and turn the light off, roll over and go to sleep yourself, then you are probably not called to be a poet. If you can read it sitting alone waiting for the bus that will take you back home after breaking up with your lover for the first time or the last, close the cover of the book, put it in your purse or pocket and pull out the cold, day-old sandwich you've been holding, stand up and get on that bus for whatever coast you're heading to, dozing dreamless between stops for the next 20 hours, then you're probably not called to be a poet. But if after reading the first few lines of the poem, you can barely hold it still in your hands, can barely make it to the end, before you start feeling all over your body for a pencil, a pen, a napkin--start writing somewhere, in the margins of the page you're holding if you have to--and write and write like the waters rising in the most fierce storm you've ever witnessed, without stopping, until your lover wakes up or leaves or returns, or the alarm goes off, or your boss calls wondering where you are, or your bus breaks down or arrives or doesn't...

Then you might be ready to answer the call of the poet. The call of every poet who has ever written. The call of Kim Addonizio. "Tell me!" You don't know enough, you say? You don't have to know. You just need to live. Live and tell. In the words of Kim on her dedication page (for Dorianne):

Let us sing together: know? We know nothing.


The light illuminates nothing, and the wise man teaches nothing.
What does human language say? What does the water in the rock say?


How images enter you, the shutter of the body
clicking when you're not even looking:
smooth chill of satin sheets, piano keys, a pastry's glazy crust
floating up, suddenly, so the hairs along your arm
lift in that current of memory, and your tongue tastes
the sweet salt of a lover as he surges
against you, plunges toward the place you can't
dive into but which is deepening each moment
you are alive, the black pupil widening,
the man going down and in, the food and
champagne and music and light, there is no bottom to this,
silt and murk of losses that won't ever settle,
and the huge unsleeping fish, voracious for pleasure,
and the soundless fathoms where nothing
yet exists, this minute, the next, the last
breath let out and not returning, oh hold
on to me as the waters rise, don't be afraid,
we are going to join the others, we are going
to remember and tell them everything.

In the words of Larry Levis: "I'm going to stare at the whorled grain of wood in this make it confess everything!"


granddaddy said...

Reminds me of that amazing poem by another of your best-loved poets Malena Morling, whose enjambment just won't make it into this box. The poem is "See High Above". I have great difficulty excerpting from it because it is both short and beautifully connected. So I won't deface it in that way at the same time I am defacing it by failing to reproduce its arrangement on the page:

You step outside

into the early morning

            in autumn—

And at the exact same instant
 a scrap of paper

floats over—


High in the blue

blustery library
of the air—

You look up
 and you see it rushing

and lifting

even higher

into the transparent layers

             of the sky—

And at once,
you know

it is a message—

A message

that there is no message.
The scrap of paper

is just a scrap of paper!

             It is weightless

and free—

The world is just

the world—
And you are exactly

who you are—
Also floating now

high inside

the invisible
balloon of
another moment.

When the universe calls, what does human language say? What does the poet say? Like the God of Hafiz who only knows four words. They are no message, and, truth be told, they are not even words. They are an invitation: Come dance with me. The best poetry extends the same invitation. Morling and Addonizio and Levis are just some of the ones your Widening Spell is introducing me to.

Terry Lucas said...

This makes me happy.