Here’s the deal: you are perfectly welcome to tell me that you hate poetry, as long as I’m allowed to hit you upside the head with a copy of Hannah Faith Notess’s collection The Multitude in response.
I’m asking permission to assault you with her book because Notess’s work effectively counters every single one of your arguments against poetry. You say you don’t like poetry because you think it’s too vague? Many of Notess’s poems are as clear and as narrative-obsessed as anything you’ll hear on This American Life. Think poetry hasn’t been relevant since the days of powdered wigs and witch-burnings? Notess writes beautifully, and often, about video games. (“Yoshi (A Pastoral)” is a tribute to Mario’s dinosaur steed that ends: “Dearest friend return/to the place we first met/and I will be reborn/and reborn and reborn.”)
In recent years, readers have confused the idea of “accessible” poetry with “friendly” poetry. Billy Collins, for instance, writes facile, eager-to-please poetry about dogs and is in return roundly praised as one of poetry’s greatest champions. when in fact he’s a pandering schmuck. Notess doesn’t pander, and her work is not by any means simple; if you hold it to your ear, you can hear The Multitude creaking under layers of texture and meaning.
The Multitude is obsessed with friendship and understanding and faith. The latter, especially, shows up again and again. (Notess is also the author of Jesus Girls, an anthology of memoirs by women who grew up evangelical.) She contrasts the resurrection of Mario with that of Jesus, and she equates St. Augustine with Pac Man. It’s this conflation of the divine and the quotidian where she finds her tastiest conflicts, as in “A Natural History,” about visiting a national history museum as a child:
How boring evolution seemed; how long
its squiggly creatures took to surface
from brown pools onto the muddy bank,
while back at Christian school the brontosauri
galumphed through Eden, upending flocks
of peacocks and passenger pigeons, still sleepy-eyed
But say you like a little obfuscation in your poetry. Say you’re looking for poetry that strikes not like a lightning bolt but rather as a slow, sly smile from across a crowded room. You’ll most likely enjoy Sarah Mangold’s Giraffes of Devotion, a poetry collection inspired and drawn from an oral history as told by Mangold’s great-grandmother, who was the wife of a Navy man at a time of tremendous American expansion in Asia. Told in erasure and remixing, it’s a document of empire as told by an eyewitness and shaped by someone with a modern understanding of the sins of the past.
Some of the more straightforward pieces in Giraffes focus on the kind of thing you’d expect a lieutenant commander’s wife stationed in Shanghai to complain about: the inadequacies of the help, the loneliness of life away from home. But other passages are as vital as if the events happened yesterday. One evening, a placid dinner is interrupted by gunshots, and an injured “Chinese woman” is brought, bleeding, into the house as help is summoned. “I don’t know what kind/of a lady she was/No she wasn’t as a matter of fact/I think she was French.” Even with a woman twisting between life and death as she bleeds from gunshot wounds, the interrogator demands to know what her racial and cultural identity is. Not: “did she die?” Rather: “did she deserve to get shot because of who she was?” It’s an ugly question, an American question, and Mangold wisely leaves ambiguity in the poetry, a space for the reader to insert herself and make her own judgments.
But sometimes poetry should be work. Some of the best poems require you to prize them apart with your hands, to read them aloud in an attempt to shake the meaning out. Amaranth Borsuk’s Pomegranate Eater is that kind of a dense text, a collection that rewards your dedicated reading with explosions of discovery. Borsuk loves wordplay (titles of poems include “Another Surface to Air Missive” and “A Pop, a Hiss, Apophasis”) and artful juxtapositions and mirroring sounds that produce bizarre soundscapes where meaning is destroyed and reconstructed by familiarity. From “Pomegranate: Rimon’s Rhyme:”
You’re nothing but a bad pomme, grainy
fruit (not pome), a globose berry from
which we’ve garnered garnets
Say those lines out loud and dig on the internal alliteration. Then read it closely and soak in all the different ways to describe a pomegranate—a bad apple, a stone-laden fruit, not one of those vulgar fruits of a flowering tree (the word “pome” could represent either the botanical name for a fleshy fruit or a purposeful mangling of the word “poem.”) These are poems that are in love with the mischief language can create.
Aside from their shared Seattle provenance, there’s likely no quality that ties Borsuk, Mangold and Notess together. Each is different from the other on virtually every measurable level. But perhaps it’s that lack of shared experience that identifies them specifically as Seattle poets. They do not share a past. They’re writing from three disparate geographies. But they’re here now, and when you take in their work all at once, they make each others’ work stronger. Cities tend to do that; they showcase our differences, even as they bring us together
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the LA Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant