Amy King — “The Missing Museum”

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Missing Museum — Amy King (Tarpaulin Sky, 2016)

“The strange rain outside awakens
the strange rain within.”
Amy King

“RAIN RAIN TIRESIAS BLIND WORD-RAIN
inside clouds black wrap me rain
Tiresias witchman shapeshifter shaman
Leland Hickman (TIRESIAS, I:1) (circa 1966)

I first met Amy King when I was teaching English as a Second Language at Nassau Community College for two years. After I finished my Ph.D. at UCSD in 2004, I was unable to find any substantial teaching jobs in California. The economy had disintegrated to the point where voters turned the governor out of office, and elected a movie star to replace him. Linda and I moved to Long Island, New York and rented a couple rooms upstairs in a huge brick house owned by Lenny Durso, an old friend from the glory days of Los Angeles independent bookstores. Lenny had been the last of the original three owners of Intellectuals & Liars Bookstore in Santa Monica to run up the white flag. The store went out of business in 1979, and Lenny returned to New York, where he eventually started what amounted to an extension program at Nassau Community College. He offered me a full-time job teaching, and assisting him, at the English Language Institute (as it titled itself). Linda and I arrived in September, 2004 the day before classes started.

Except for Lenny, no one in ELI was directly affiliated with Nassau Community College. Those who taught at ELI were non-adjunct adjunct faculty, if that term makes any sense. What it meant in effect was that I taught at NCC, but was not a member of any union, nor was I eligible to join any union. I was teaching 18 hours a week, plus working 20 hours of desk job assignments for Lenny. Every once a while, I would wander over to the building where the English Department was located. One afternoon, I noticed a flyer for a reading by two of the English Department faculty, one of whom was Amy King, and I was fortunate enough to adjust my work schedule so that I could attend. I had no idea what kind of poet she was eager, but I starved to hear some work read live. She read from her first book of poems, Antidotes for an Alibi (2005). Her publisher, Blazevox, went on to issue two more titles, I’m the Man Who Loves You (2007) and Slaves to do These Things (2009).

At the reading for her first book back in 2005, I was impressed with her astute flippancy. In using a word that has almost nothing but negative connotations, I want to emphasize a touch of appropriation. Whatever else might be said about her poetics, I noticed from my first hearing a sense of a poet “playing for the whole casino.” This is an expression I use to demarcate the difference between those in contemporary poetry who are hard at work at the nickel, dime, and quarter slot machines, and those who are playing for nothing less than to take over the casino and ultimately change the house rules. Amy King’s flippancy radiates from her askance gaze at the disjuncture of gender roles and social power, in all of their cultural and political ramifications. She demands a meritocracy that glistens with the body’s head-on grappling with exaltations; nor are the inner coils of poignant yearning to surmount, and be surmounted, in turn, by the touch of another, of any less urgency. King believes whole-heartedly in the efficacy of a poem as a resistant object of personal recourse. If nothing else avails itself, the poem’s temporary embrace has the power to suffice, and enable one to endure. This existential gesture is underlined in King’s use of Samuel Beckett’s mantra: “I can’t go on. I will go on.” Not blindly go on, however: King’s “strange rain” empowers the kind of self-assigned shape-shifting invoked in Leland Hickman’s Tiresias, and takes it several steps further.

Her latest volume, The Missing Museum, is an uneven collection, which is not necessarily surprising. King is not interested in the predictable, or in hewing to strategies that she is comfortable with. It would seem as if she would prefer to make each poem recalibrate the horizon lines of life’s contingent absurdities. “Horizon lines” plural: not simply the one in front of you, but to the side, behind, and underneath, as well as the illusion of an apex. “Pussy Riot Rush Hour” swivels on a tour of all those perspectives.

Just write. Stop worrying.
Twitch from the corporate fondle,
bake a cake for the women in prison,
go to the bank when no one’s looking
to discover what you don’t want there.
You know all of this, so why do I ask?
I’m asking because you need to hear
again and then some how you’re not
above anything, how you are not
nothing but the roar of clouds overhead,
the din of a bodega at let-out hour,
the smell of a smile unwashed
and the compression of panties beneath
too-tight tights drawn to impress
the boss into a holiday off. What we
won’t do for a little piece of ourselves,
for a shiny glimmer of heaven behind
the stacks of computer boxes and books
that tell us nothing of literature. ….

In instructing the reader as well as herself, she models the tempestuous conditions for writers embedded in the post-avant. King has unflinchingly propelled herself along the river of a huge canyon of contemporary poetics: on one side, John Ashbery and the alignments of various New York School poets, and on the other the Language poets. Coming of age as a poet well after the publication of In the American Tree, King’s poems exemplify the flippancy needed to survive the travail of daily life.

Perhaps, though, flippancy has a page limit. The pair of five-page poems in The Missing Museum need a more intricate argument to sustain their length. It’s gratifying to see her interest in poems longer than the usual academic set-point, but both the rhythms and images need more complexity in their mutual undulations. The shortcomings of the longer poems, however, do not detract from the distinctive verve of her best work, which especially shines in the final section, “Sorry the Sex Is so Bloody.” I would recommend that anyone unfamiliar with King’s poems begin, in fact, with two poems from that section: “A Woman Is an Act” and “Your Heart, The Weight of Art,” and then read “We Will Never Fully Recover” and “Drive By,” which appear in earlier sections. This quartet of poems will help the reader liberate herself from unsuspected impositions of language’s possibilities, and enable her to find a new footing in her own life. Each of us needs to be more thoughtfully flippant, and Amy King shows us how well it can be done.

In readymade life sexual dimensions hold against us,
Could not map us out of eleven dimensions.
They would just go on forever, smudging the details down,
wearing us the fuck, most pleasantly, out.
(“The Stars Are Calling, Skin Sacks”)