Initially, many of these poems, most of them ekphrastic (see, for example, Enlightenment), felt fragile. Perfectly constructed, but not ones I could find my way into. There were no lines that stood out; everything depended on everything else.
Slowly, as I begin to get some sense of the rhythm of the pieces and recurring motifs started to appear (her father, being mixed race, etc.), I found them more accessible and those poems opened up the whole collection for me. For example, from “The Book of Castas,” on being of mixed race:
what do you call // that space between / the dark geographies of sex? // Call it the taint – as in / T’aint one and t’aint the other – // illicit and yet naming still / what is between.
I’m not doing Trethewey’s spacing justice, but you can see how those lines would have to be unpacked carefully. The same is true for the whole collection.
There are a lot of things this book is – On the bestseller list. Well-illustrated. Explicit. Bold.
Here are a few things this book is not: Good. Poetry.
For those who have suffered any kind of sexual trauma, Kaur’s voice will likely be refreshing. Welcome. Needed. This pieces (mantras? affirmations? fortune cookies?) read once daily could, I imagine, genuinely be useful for such people, especially girls and women.
For those looking for poetry? For the well-turned phrase? For the innovative use of form as it relates to content? For the best words in the best order? For thoughts, insights, or ideas that are both inviting and challenging? For art?
There are a few moments that suggest Kaur may have a future – but a very few. More often, her words are pretentious and banal. Even the epigraph and note to the reader are nauseating.
If this book helps some people, great. If it serves as a gateway to more poetry for others, wonderful. If its success allows Kaur to take a break to develop and refine her skills, awesome. Otherwise. . .
Some poetry books are collections; this one is a book. Odum’s versatility is amazing. Whether the poems are vulnerable, as in “For Straight Men with Bi Friends Pt. 3” and “Suicide,” or more direct, as in “Lessons” and “Redshift,” the intensity and insight are always present. “Masculinity be like. . .” is a master class, and a poem I will use with my students. “Poplar Tree” is a worthy companion of “Strange Fruit” and also worth closer examination.
There’s a lot of wisdom here. You’ll read this one with a pencil in hand and want to punch the page often when you find things that are true. I’ve heard Mr. Odum read a few of these out loud; that’s the only thing better than reading them yourself.
Lane’s powerful poems are as sharp as their single column format. There is no hiding here. Lane does no behind form or metaphor (though there is no lack of either), and the reader cannot hide from poems that often sound (and I’d love to hear them read out loud) that they are a direct address. No, not address, well, “call.” Maybe that’s the call of the title.
The first poem that really made me sit up and take notice was “Indigenous Black Boy” because it seems, so accurately, to describe many of my students. (Full disclosure: Lane was kind enough to visit my classroom, long after this book was published.) Speaking of the person from the title of her poem, she writes, he
This captures the intense contradictions of my students. She’s just right.
“Calling Out,” which is dedicated to everyone from Trayvon and Tamir, had another stanza that stopped me cold with its truth –
Again, precise, cutting, and true.
“Not Here/ Not Now” discusses “the sludge / of misogyny.” What a perfect word. I will never call it anything else. “Privilege” absolutely made me feel exposed. “Body Parts,” with these lines – “white people/ turning / our remains / into ancient / artifacts” – should be brought before every museum I know. The poem, in surprising prose form, “Just Beacuse It Happened Doesn’t Mean It Has To Be” is worth the price of admission all by itself.
You need this –
Buy Calling Out After Slaughter
I have confidence that when it comes to poetry, the Pulitzer committee must know more than me. I didn’t enjoy this collection at all. I found it overly clever, deliberately obtuse, and generally dull. There are definitely some entertaining moments (Oh who cares about right or wrong / when Aphrodite flashes her nipples?), but they seem like a triumph of style over substance.
This was the one, and I mean, one exception –
That dusty bubble gum, once ubiquitous as starlings,
is no more, my love. Whistling dinosaurs now populate
only animation studios, the furious actions of angels
causing their breasts to flop out in mannerist
frescos flake away as sleet holds us in its teeth.
And the bus-station’s old urinals go under
the grindstone and the youthful spelunkers
graduate into the wrinkle-causing sun. The sea
seemingly a constant to the naked eye is one
long goodbye, perpetually the tide recedes,
beaches dotted with debris. Unto each is given
a finite number of addresses, ditties to dart
the heart to its moments of sorrow and swoon.
The sword’s hilt glints, the daffodils bow down,
all is temporary as a perfect haircut, a kitten
in the lap, yet sitting here with you, my darling,
waiting for a tuna melt and side of slaw
seems all eternity I’ll ever need
and all eternity needs of me.
Gay does a remarkable job of sneaking up on you. A poem is one thing, and then it is another, and then it is both – the two topics (one is often nature) blend easily because of an overall absence of punctuation. And that’s one of the problems here. Similar to Billy Collins, too many of these poems take on the same pitch. A few, like the title poem, stand out. Gay is fond of the quotidian hip fake. Poems that, from their title, seem to be about the ordinary, turn into more. The titles are deceptive – “sharing with the ants,” “becoming a horse.”
Interesting poems here, but not wholly engaging.
Here. Read this one. It’s plenty.
“Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude”
The title captures the essence of this collection perfectly. Beauty juxtaposed with violence. The beauty of nature and of love, and in particular, of the love between men. The love between a father and a son, and the love between two men. Both beautiful and both sometimes violent in emotion, if not action. And the Vietnam War, always and irrevocably, lingers in the background. From “Into the Breach” —
It’s simple. I don’t know
how to love a man
a thing to be beaten
It’s tough to pick a favorite. “Trojan,” “In Newport I Watch My Father Lay his Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back,” and “Anaphora as a Coping Mechanism” are all outstanding. So are “Torso of Air,” “Logophobia” and “Devotion.” See, it is hard to choose.
“Devotion,” like others in this collection, is inspired by Greek mythology. Here are the closing lines from the closing poem of this essential collection (I may not be able to capture the proper spacing):
&so what – if my feathers /
are burning. I
never asked for flight.
Only to feel
this fully, this
entire, the way snow
touches bare skin – & is,
Poets.org – Vuong
Poetry Foundation – Vuong