SOMETIMES I READ (AND LIKE) POETRY THAT I DON’T “UNDERSTAND”: PART ONE

Okay, you’ve got me, this isn’t really a review.

But one of the reasons I wanted to blog my reactions to what I’m reading these days is because I often get intimidated by reviews I read in the finer literary magazines of our time.  They read like academic papers and use words like ‘dialectic’ and ‘hegemony’ a lot.

My negative reaction to those words makes me feel like the so-called, dreaded anti-intellectual and then I feel shitty about myself and not smart and also guilty for being such a terrible Scrabble player–writers are supposed to be good at Scrabble, but I suck, trust me, I have been looked upon with sheer disgust (“‘Cat?’  That is your word, Jenny Drai?  ‘Cat?’  Margery here got ‘xylophone’ and she is just an accountant.”)–and then I try to read a few pages in Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, because, you know, that’s an important book that everyone should read (it is), but I soon drop off to sleep (um, the writing is a little dry), and when I wake up, I’m like, Jenny Drai, you are so lame, you might as well just give up and join the Tea Party.  But then I thought, if I had my own blog, I could write in words that I understand.  You know, I could respond to the poetry as me.

I then promptly wrote a review of a chapbook that, I think, comes off sounding like an academic paper (the review, that is, not the chapbook).  The funny thing is, I really responded to the poetry in question (“20 Paintings by Laura Owens,” by Elaine Bleakney.)  But I dampened my enthusiasm enough to write a “proper” analysis.

As somebody who writes reasonably intelligent, engaging poetry (or so I’ve been told by enough people and editors to believe it), but who won’t be getting into MENSA anytime soon and doesn’t even qualify as the proverbial “gifted” person, I would still like to put in my two cents worth about poetry.  (I admit to having once had a lot of baggage about my perceived level of intelligence; my own mother mocked me horrifically over my SAT scores.  Now she lies about it and tells people I did better than I actually did.)

So I had all of this swimming around in my mind when I started reading “Sirenomelia,” by Sara Sutter (Dog Year, 2013)and at first I was overwhelmed because, bowled over by the writing as I was, I wasn’t exactly sure how to approach it.  And there I went down that whole, Jenny Drai, you’re so dumb, road.  But I’m not sure I am dumb.  I just feel things instead of thinking them.  So my actual reaction was more like, “Holy shit I love this and want to take a bath in it and perfume myself with this,” but then scared again because, “Holy shit it I don’t understand this in any traditional sense of the word ‘understand'” and that’s when I remembered that some poets (Pattie McCarthy being a great example), the best poets, if you ask me,  forge sense on an anvil of their own making instead of merely adhering to some preconceived notion of it and so it takes time to collect what they give you.  In “Sirenomelia,” we get a lot of layers: congenital otherness, hermaphroditism, the familiar and the supposedly monstrous, heraldry, transgenderedness, weird erasure that leaves us with half words, and a series of linked, vivid, incredibly lucid poems, all titled, “Field.”  I’ll leave you with one and come back another time to say more about the chapbook as a whole.  (You can read another poem from the book at the Dog Year web site.)

FIELD

 

For her dirty hands,

they punished my grandmother.

 

Unpainted shields on the field of honor.

At night I round up her tools–

 

chains, love, constancy, peace,

–honor them with thoughts of use.

 

In continental Europe, a dormant beast

names a heart shield.  Three leopards

 

on a stem of hearts.  She tore the boards

with her teeth.

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