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Three new books thread feminist impulses through narratives of precarity and desolation.
Lines the Quarry
Omnidawn, $16.95 (paper)
Page Hill Starzinger
Barrow Street Press, $17.95 (paper)
Go Find Your Father / A Famous Blues
Ricochet Editions, $15 (paper)
Bad poetry that engages with politics and power structures is not in short supply. But three new collections from Page Hill Starzinger, Robin Clarke, and Harmony Holiday offer welcome reprieves: they explicate the political realities of centralized money, power, and cultural production with honest-to-God soulfulness, accomplishing with intellect and energy what lesser collections might do clumsily and off-the-cuff.
Fiery, stark, and hyper-self-aware, these books thread feminist impulses through narratives of precarity and desolation. They turn away from the familiar figure of woman as nurturer and reject common questions about women and poetry—whether motherhood is a source of artistic energy or an impediment to productivity, whether poems about domestic and family matters are significant or suspect, consequential or cute. This is not to say these writers argue for a barbaric femininity. Rather, they aggressively present landscapes of impending collapse—environmental calamity, economic desperation, or cultural distress—and situate women within those landscapes as the prospective ends of the line.
• • •
“Every good marriage begins in tears,” Starzinger writes in her collection Vestigial. The poem in which this aphorism appears addresses the Kyrgyz custom of marriage by abduction—a man pressing the woman of his choice into marriage by kidnapping and sequestering her. But this dubious maxim might also apply, figuratively, to many other poems in Starzinger’s collection, which investigate wedlocks of all stripes: the marriage of social order with the carceral state; the marriage of economic investment with slash-and-burn expansion; and, perhaps most important for the speaker of these poems, the marriage of environmental and geopolitical trampling with threats to female fertility.
Beginning with its title, Vestigial announces itself as a collection concerned with relics of the past that have outlived their utility. Starzinger refracts much of her political outcry through the lens of the reference book, an institution of definitive knowledge that has been rendered obsolete by the profusion of decentralized sources. The first poem in the book, “Collectio,” opens, “Let’s review. / Which reminds me of a little-known fact.” And so begins a series of devotedly obscurantist venturings, which rifle through historical trivia and plumb the Latinate origins of words: we are told that the outmoded anopticall meant “Not in the field of vision,” and that the seventeenth-century colloquialism foremelting was the “antecedent for / invisible.”
These and other words and phrases defined in Vestigial are tokens of its obsession with invisibility, which extends to the tone of the collection as a whole: the flesh-and-blood speaker of these poems is all but subsumed by the torrent of linguistic history and current events. The book is largely cool in tone, sternly directing the reader to look toward and then away from sites of historical and biological ravage:
Flowing from the biblical site of the Garden of Eden, the Shatt Al Arab is
drained, diverted and fetid, not reaching the Persian Gulf. . . .
The Lenape paddled
out to meet the explorer. Matrilineal, the tribe,
calling their primary crops The Three Sisters . . . .
I still have three small eggs attached
to one fluid-filled follicle. Don’t tell me
when they disappear.
Typically a symbol of renewal and the promise of the future, the egg recurs in Vestigial as, instead, a broken thing, an inert reminder of a once-fertile past and a future of uncertain legacy. “LeWitt sketched diagrams. The turtle lays eggs. Me? —” she writes in “Terroir.” Earlier, she introduces the marbled murrelet, a seabird that lays its “single egg in crowns of coastal conifers.” It is an insecure practice that, in combination with assaults on the marbled murrelet’s habitat, has rendered the species endangered.
This emphasis on eggs and fear is reminiscent of Rachel Carson’s forewarning, in Silent Spring (1962), of the eradication of the bald eagle; DDT was weakening the shells of its eggs, making healthy gestation impossible. Throughout Vestigial, we see snippets of such devastated landscapes, narrated by a speaker who elsewhere fixates on domestic scenes devoid of children. “We can draw cuts. A new world. A tower. / This is our cutting. No baby. No / nursery.” With grace and full-throatedness, Starzinger yokes the speaker’s individual narrative of childlessness to a broader sense of moving forward through a world unwelcoming to life.
• • •
Robin Clarke, too, is interested in how Western industrial development has ravaged modern landscapes and their inhabitants. At one point in her recent collection Lines the Quarry, she posits a reality show called God or Greed, in which the audience surveys the damage and “votes: natural disaster or CEO?”
Like Starzinger, Clarke is drawn to the form of the reference source and the cold comfort that accompanies searches for answers. Several segments of the book are direct enumerations of mining disasters and industrial accidents, rattled off with an encyclopedic quality that recalls a compulsive disorder or an anxiety-induced tic. The book begins with an index of American workplace compensation claims for the year 2006:
917 assemblers & fabricators
150 athletes & sports competitors
1,104 car mechanics
4 writers & authors
The list ends with 3,316, the number of claims filed by “retail sales persons.” That this statistic occupies the final line is not an accident. The book winds its way, large-scale, through multiple theaters of American labor and exploitation and then turns to the poet’s mother, who worked at a sales counter and suffered from lung cancer. The poems in Lines the Quarry, at once thorny and deft, make sure we understand that these two occurrences—working at a sales counter and suffering from lung cancer—resist compartmentalization; in our contemporary moment, one cannot be fully disentangled from the other.
Where Starzinger’s collection is even in tone, Clarke writes with a raw and frenetic command of her facts, suggesting a scraped-together life in the unforgiving economic climate of the modern day. The book is particularly powerful when it toggles between the family narrative and the horrors of the American corporate machine:
The opposite would be a candidate available for rejection. Images should be sharp. In twenty-six years, never “went on vacation.” The phrase has been popularized by news crews & Warren Buffet. To put your picture in the paper we require residence & occupation. My mother was a cashier & Phi Beta Kappa; my father was an engineer with Hepatitis C. The toll-free number does not really hook people up. When they threatened to take the kids, my Mom chose Listerine not whiskey.
This poem is typical of Clarke’s style of splicing together seemingly unrelated memories both commercial and domestic, relying on sheer proximity to make her larger points—namely that the late-day glorification of the Puritan work ethic (“never ‘went on vacation’”) reifies labor conditions that harm lower-tier workers. The Warren Buffets of the world might do well never taking a break, but that is no kind of helpful prescription for the cashier suffering from “the famous Pittsburgh / haven’t-got-the-time-for-pain” syndrome. In a system where it is as difficult to slow down as it is to get ahead, substance abuse and scrambling are de rigueur.
The book comprises essentially three poems, composed of long sequences that pulse quietly forward and back in their imagery of productivity and illness. Bitterly conjuring the idea of a low-level employee as a work animal prodded forward to the point of exhaustion, Clarke writes:
To push & give your best. To rest & know how to recharge your batteries
A little break technique I call “clean up my to-do.”
But it was a tumor, pressing on her neck & shoulder
Twice as likely as white collar workers to smoke tobacco
The heel spurs conjure the image of a person treated like an abused animal, shocked forward and forward to the point of exhaustion. In “clean up my to-do” we hear the voice of the worker—presumably the mother—taking advantage of her scarce break time to, well, continue working. And then the poem moves seamlessly into the voice of the daughter, uncovering for herself and for the reader the link between low-wage labor and illness. This sort of smoking-gun evidentiary move is not particularly common in poetry today, but, with poets such as Clarke infusing outrage with subtlety and compelling semantic slippage, we could use more of it.
• • •
Starzinger and Clarke have given us books that incisively lament the conditions of modern life. And so Harmony Holiday’s new collection, Go Find Your Father / A Famous Blues, is at once both corollary and departure, a similar project of lamentation over degradation but with a new element of high-headed optimism. The book takes the shape of two slim volumes bound together, reading inward from opposite sides and meeting in the middle. Go Find Your Father is mostly a compilation of epistolary prose poems, addressed “Dear Dad.” These poems are dominated by the figure of the eponymous father—Holiday is the daughter of the late musician and songwriter Jimmy Holiday, and a number of the poems are laid out copies of royalty statements reflecting money owed him. The more formally adventurous poems in A Famous Blues are primarily odes to African American icons: Thelonious Monk, Prince, Sonia Sanchez, Bigger Thomas, “James Baldwin, James Baldwin, James Baldwin, James Baldwin.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the most compelling treatment of icons here is Holiday’s discussion of fictional characters invented by two white men. George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess—which enters both books several times in Holiday’s explorations of music and money—exemplifies the co-opting of black culture by a largely white theater establishment. In one of her “Dear Dad” poems, Holiday alludes to the jazz standard “Summertime”: “The living is easy, my pa’s rich and my mother’s good-looking. Close enough.” Her famous pa—as we are reminded by each royalty statement and agitation for the return of publishing rights—is not so rich, his family’s living not so easy.
Holiday’s multiple references to the opera, about the down-and-out residents of the fictional African American community of Catfish Row, serve as shorthand for her struggles with the commercialization and commodification of blackness. In the collection’s most striking poem, “a white girl who runs away from home . . . decides to become a black prostitute,” plays at being dehumanized, learns “what it feels like to be called beautiful and not believe it.” Here, as elsewhere, Holiday writes eloquently of how white America has profited from its own construct of black inferiority. Pondering an attraction to the “Porgy archetype,” she writes:
I’ve been through enough with black men and black myths that I need to believe there are some practices that can lure them and me too, out of posttraumatic slave syndrome and into something a little healthier.
Throughout the project, Holiday intermittently invokes slavery as both a literal historical evil and a metaphor for the music industry’s economic dominance over artists. At stake here is African American ownership of African American cultural production and the self-determination that comes along with holding the rights. In A Famous Blues, a sweeping list poem called “Who Can I Say You Are, Starshine” assigns a type of blues to Cornel West, Dave Chappelle, Theaster Gates, and many others. Some of these assignments function as quick jokes—“The Criminal Minded Blues (Mos Def) / The Extra Name Blues (Yasiin Bey)”—but the cumulative effect is almost a mnemonic recitation, a way of singing the names of icons so as to preserve them in memory.
Holiday intersperses her poems with photos of her parents, childhood mementos, and musical staves, a formal technique that suggests a sort of Afrocentric commonplace book. The volume’s gritty, deliberately thrown-together structure feels like a necessity, given Holiday’s aggressively conversational idiom. She cobbles together a lost history from fragments and then recites it, daring to voice a tenuous hope of having something to pass on.
The speakers of these three collections know how hard it is to get just a fraction of what you are owed. And they know what to do with the money when it does come: you put it where your mouth is.
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