American Literary Review
Spring 2011 (173-79)
Sharks in the River
Milkweed Editions (2010)
Mouths of Grazing Things
University of Wisconsin Press (2010)
“Those people are wild, just as we call wild the fruits that Nature has produced by herself and in her normal course; whereas really it is those that we have changed artificially and led astray from the common order that we should rather call wild. The former retain alive and vigorous their genuine, their most useful and natural, virtues and properties, which we have debased in the latter in adapting them to gratify our corrupted taste.” —Montaigne, “Of Cannibals”
Reading contemporary poetry often feels like being trapped in a cell-phone conversation with someone too insecure to spend a moment alone in quiet contemplation and who must, instead, use up our minutes confessing every thought that occurs to him while moving through space and time. There are the garrulous living-room slide-show tour-book poems, break-room chit-chat poems about TV shows, movies, the news, or the epic adventures of shopping at big-box stores, guess-you-had-to-be-there poems about the hilarious and/or inspiring things that happen when trying to teach students about poetry, as well as the ethereal poets’ poems of pure description, which are sometimes nearly as provocative as a freshly Windexed window o’er looking a suburban backyard. So much is tame, plodding, provincial, and boring, and even the seemingly loosest, oddly-tabbed, anti-formal, Elliptical, or “experimental” poems stink of artifice. We seem to have nearly forgotten the taste of the pure, savage fruits of nature, and in our affluence, leisure, and decadence we have stocked up on genetically-modified high-yield hybrids manufactured in the synthetic chemical fertilizers of creative writing classes. High fructose style, tone, diction, and syntax corrupt the general palate until we mistake the fake for the real, and prefer it that way. While not completely escaping the hothouse the current contemporary style, the rude, rugged, and sometimes savage poems of Ada Limón and Jennifer Boyden are considerably wilder, more authentic and more invigorating than the common fare.
Ada Limón’s Sharks in the River arrives amply blurbed with praises emphasizing her ability to capture the metamorphic flux of things. This is accomplished by mixing equal parts magical realism, nearly Frank O’Haraish Manhattan moods, and the eros of being young and attractive. However, in this collection, the excitement created by Limón’s untamed verbal dexterity is a bit mitigated by the over-determined shaping of the manuscript around the theme of water. In nearly every poem there is a river, a creek, an ocean, and these serve as mystical, mythical boundaries or places where strange, scary thoughts and creatures reside. Like water, many of these poems’ lines spill out across the page, willy-nilly.
Limón is best, however, in her little lyrics that actually look like traditional poems on the page. In “Crush,” for example, first published in The New Yorker, sensory description of persimmons becomes a perfect objective correlative for the mistakes and disappointments of love and attraction:
really eat them. Or you
wouldn’t want to. If you grab
the soft skin with your fist
it somehow feels funny,
like you’ve been here
before, and uncomfortable
too, like you’d rather
squish it between your teeth
impatiently, before spitting
the soft parts back up
to linger on the tongue
like burnt sugar or guilt.
The sonnet-sized “Drowning in Paradise” manages, perhaps, to mix too many metaphors in rapid succession, but we excuse that as a consequence of the “fueled up fluster coming on.” Everything in the poem seduces: the hibiscus “coos out / its swollen-mouth flower song / to the rare bee holding its tongue,” oceans “collide / here in the bellies of white islands,” and the speaker, deliriously walking “into the water’s / frothy rim” wants to be consumed by it all:
Come here shark. Come
here barracuda. Love the sweet artifacts
of this body. Carry me in the world-class
rattle of a wave. I want the big bite, one
restless, tooth-filled mouth to take me down.
In “Overjoyed,” the poet identifies with waxwings too drunk after an “orgy of red buds” to make it home. “This life is hard,” Limón writes, but like those birds obsessed with sucking the sweetness out of every ripe thing, when she happens upon
some jewel of pleasure, I too want
to squeeze that thing until even its seedy heart
evaporates like ethanol, want to throw my
bird-bones into the brush-fire until,
half-blind, all I can hear is the sound
of wings in the relentlessly delighted air.
In the other strong poems in this collection—“Sharks in the Water,” “High Water,” “Rescue Animals,” “Hardworking Agreement with a Wednesday,” “The Same Thing,” and “Big Star”—Limón writes of the hurly-burly of big city life and its associated anxieties and paranoia. While one often feels somewhat water-boarded by the constant presence of the watery theme in nearly every poem in Sharks in the River, it is a charming book, as is Limón’s voice, which speaks to us as if we were all really human beings after all.
More savage and interesting is Brittingham Prize winner Jennifer Boyden’s The Mouths of Grazing Things. Boyden’s poems are lyric meditations on varieties of wildness and wilderness—could be of forests, love, creatures, objects, or parochial school. There’s something tempting and barbarous wherever Boyden looks. Take “Orectic,” for example. The poem hints at a creation myth none knows, but if it existed it would explain a certain lack in us. Its unnamed, unknown gods made a singular mistake—they’d imagined we’d remain happily naked in our “one big garden,” but
They never counted on our needing a sound
for longing, too. They gave that to the loon,
to wild dogs whose teeth throb
from the light of the moon.
While desire in Boyden’s hands is tinged with pain, misery is colored with pleasure, as in “Regret,” where transforming fallen trees into firewood conjures a startling image:
The chainsaw grip and roar
speaks to the spinning whetstone
inside me. They converse
until something demands
to be oiled. Deeper in my body,
a little knife
sharpens itself and prepares. So sharp,
it says, nearly ready. Soon
it will ask me to feel it.
In “The Moss,” Boyden walks Thoreauvian paths. While she sits with the moss “asking for things / absolute and unbroken,” others are busy, busy, busy elsewhere:
Along a city’s main street, people carry
themselves as if nothing
they hold can spill
as they board the trains.
Meanwhile, the poem continues,
I am here, placing my head
against the sex-wet springiness of the moss,
listening for the furred voice of a forest, last call
of a god I can’t remember how to love unless
it’s with my body.
The savage things of nature are again impressively explored in “I Wonder if I’ve Told You Everything, “Admission,” and “Counting on Your Presence,” and in the book’s final poem, “Stone,” which ends:
But a stone is only body. A brute shape
left by the ice age that is never coming back
to claim it. All of them live
so far past the first tree. Yes, they would allow me
to warm myself on them in the mornings.
There’s nothing else I can take
from them, so complete is their hulk.
This one is splitting sharply down
the middle. This one’s crying out for milk
or blood. They are not gentle. They do not
mean to be.
Boyden’s world is full of ungentle things, even indoors. In “Vandals” a broken-into apartment is covered with primitive hieroglyphs meant to be deciphered:
They wrote it all down for me
in the living room on the walls.
They wrote who gave it up and who wanted it
most and a phone number. They told me
where to stick it, how to like it,
what the consistency was.
“Something to Go By” tells the grim tale of a girl’s spotless, unnamed, unclaimed corpse. With no tattoos or burns, her body provides no history of pain by which to identify it:
It is not good to have been
perfect. It is not enough
to have loved the birds most
when they sang so darkly it almost wasn’t green
Mercy, to have pushed her down the stairs
or thrown the knife that scarred.
Anything to get her home.
The Mouths of Grazing Things also includes several enchanting childhood-anecdotal poems: “Making It Big, Standing Back to Be Sure,” about some unspecified lacquered neighborhood-kid made rubber-necking monstrosity: “The drivers-by pumped their brakes, / collided anyway, and lay wrecked, but still looking,” and “Will There Be Police,” in which Sister Mark’s attempt to get her students to rectify their already immoral lives by forcing them to plan their own funerals fails as “Kidder Diggs would one-hand me / from my underpants.”
Both Limón’s and Boyden’s natural grace and style make most of what piles up an reviewer’s desk seem wholly desiccated, mawkish, and grotesque. These are not sickly, timid poets who stay indoors and watch others living and breathing outside their windows. They do not fear the elements or the unfamiliar, and like Thoreau, they know the value of getting lost. “Not till we are completely lost, or turned round,” he writes, “do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature.” Though nature is vast and strange, it is home, and Thoreau reiterates that “Not till we are lost . . . do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” Both Limón and Boyden seem to have realized where they are and where to find themselves, for as Limón writes in “Ways to Ease Your Animal Mind,” “This fevered mess of world / is well-done. Lean in and nuzzle / its exceptional need to be yours.”