Slaves to Do These Things by Amy King
(BlazeVOX Books, Buffalo, N.Y., 2009)
[First published by A Trunk of Delirium, a subsidiary of Le-Pink Elephant Press, Eds. Suzanne Savickas and Cheryl A. Townsend, April 2010]
Between the Acts
Amy King's third book of poetry, Slaves to Do These Things, published by BlazeVOX paints a visceral and rich landscape of modern urban living. King's language is part incantation, part allegorical song. Her images possess a unique crispness that is apparent in the form they embody. These poems are crafted in the lengthy columns of the New York School but still retain lyric qualities.
The reader is thrust into a tour de force in the first Act, as the tone of King's opening poem "Psalms called Breath" is a pronunciation of the things making us human. The reader travels upwards in near song as King makes mention of the daily minutia of human existence.
We play life
until delivered, and then
turn swirling puddles
of earthworm guts 1
In the first few poems one reads about diversity in the city and its manner of providing a sense of anonymity and freedom as well as constriction.
We stretch against the office boxes
that cloister us apart 2
These lines give the reader a sense of the city, which is like an army in coordinated flight. King's poetry is extremely personal and self aware; often times the speaker directly addresses the reader. In "Psalms called Breath," the reader is handed a primer of sorts:
I hold to confusion
that this space is blank, though
not intentionally so. It is so
because you are not yet in it 3
And thus the reader is asked to become a surveyor of individualized life, as King's poems act out the diverse roles and characterizations of modern day living. Although King’s poetry is political in nature, her poems are hopeful in their handling of issues. The poem "Failed to Include," ends with a collective image of American patriotism, seeming to suggest that America will continue to march forward despite current impediments.
We swell and proceed
lit to age the coming America. 4
In "State of a Nation" King’s writing takes on a performative quality, as her audience becomes actors in domestic roles, roles that are of a familiar nature to every man and woman.
When I die,
Play the boy on the soul
of that death and use
my memory's mud
to make gods of us from the dust. 5
King’s forthcoming and unabashed sense of hope is pervasive throughout Slaves to do These Things. If the first Act is the celebratory music of a march, then the second Act is King drawing us to a screeching halt where she divulges in the tender and personal. It is here that King's language maintains a sense of preciousness. She is unguarded in her expression, unafraid of appearing too vulnerable to her critics. King’s refusal to sacrifice the honesty present in her language may cause her work to be viewed as overly sentimental. If this is the risk that she takes she is successful. If anything, the second Act dives straight towards a painful truth that is raw and beautiful.
"The Always Song" demonstrates King's ability to craft language under the influence of the lyric tradition. It is here that the speaker becomes nostalgic in an embrace with " the other."
But I am savage, outside.
Never once did pools of light
sway this way 6
In "Cow", King establishes language as the carrier of an image’s connotative multiplicity.
Quiet with eyes
could I explain
anything at all–
by the night
of the rain
I sparrow, then fall. 7
With an expert delicacy, King uses the image of the sparrow to encapsulate a feminine identity, an identity that is in a constant state of flux throughout the book. King’s presentation of the feminine self is internally conflicted. Often the feminine is skewed in perception, only to embody the disappointment of expectations not met by a world that perceives them as less than they believe they are. King interestingly enough sidesteps the domestic. However she does acknowledge the quiet pressure it places upon the development of male and female identity. King’s sparrow image dually represents the universal matriarch, or the Gospel of Mary. In the Bible Anna, Mary's mother sees a sparrow while lamenting to God. King's poems can be read as wistful laments or appeals to a world that is deconstructed in modern conflict.
There is no scarcity or sparseness in King's strong language as she sets out to create the varied landscape of a cosmopolitan city. In Slaves to do These Things is a collection in which we see King tackle a variety of heavy subjects. It is with the beauty and controlled strength of King's surrealistic language that she is able to examine controversial topics such as gender and personal/political in the context of a post-modern world. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a poet that challenges reality using the words our world uses to construct modern identity. With that in mind, I wish to close with a favorite poem from the fifth Act, " We are Great Songs." King uses this poem to describe America under a feminine lens.
We have come fully
round to the child again,
her hands, our love, this art
the gaze that watches
us leave things out, a story
untold, partial life implied 8
King, Amy. Slaves to Do These Things. BlazeVOX; 2009. p.13.
Ibid., p. 14.
Ibid., p. 58.
Ibid., p. 29.
Ibid., p. 41
Ibid., p. 91
Erika Moya's poetry and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in UNSAID Magazine, 2River View, Qaartsiluni, Le Pink Elephant and Holly Rose Review. Her poetry has been featured in the Best American Poetry blog.