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America’s new poetry of place

Discussed in this essay:

No Matter, by Jana Prikryl. Tim Duggan Books. 112 pages. $15.

Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, by Jake Skeets. Milkweed Editions. 96 pages. $16.

The Twenty-Ninth Year, by Hala Alyan. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 96 pages. $15.99.

A photograph by Adam Pape from his monograph, Dyckman Haze, which was published last year by MACK

A photograph by Adam Pape from his monograph, Dyckman Haze, which was published last year by MACK

Poetry at its best may speak to you no matter where or when you live. “There is no Frigate like a Book,” Emily Dickinson claimed, “to take us Lands away.” The strongest poems seem to cancel out time and space, crossing vast distances that separate poets anywhere from readers here now. Dickinson’s claim must be true in some ways, since none of us live in medieval Anatolia, ancient Beijing, or nineteenth-century Amherst, and yet we read Rumi, and Li Bai, and Dickinson herself. As three new books of American poetry—three of 2019’s finest—show, poets can also derive their styles and their powers from their particular locations: they can discover that their inner lives depend, strangely and ineradicably, on where they live. One poet’s—one reader’s—home is alien territory to another; the same poem can thus bring one reader to self-recognition and inspire in others sustained attention to unfamiliar lives.

Jana Prikryl’s No Matter—her second book, following The After Party (2016)—owes much of its strength to her life in New York City, a life that, as she tells it, resembles many others but feels distinctly hers. She can make the city seem to welcome us, as it has welcomed her, albeit with melancholy undertones: “Sibyl” begins, “Hello / stranger / Who was it / got away if / you fled here.” That poem accompanies readers on a delightfully leisurely subway ride, presumably on the 1 or the A: “Get off early, walk a little / on the sealed pavements / at an ordinary pace.” “Inwood” remembers “very specific longings for the hills / of Manhattan.” (Those hills exist only north of 110th Street; Inwood begins around 201st.) “How pleased is the subway,” muses another poem, “to lose the distinction / of being alone in being under everything.”

Come here feeling sad and alone, Prikryl’s city says, and we can be alone together; we can share our fears and enlarge our strength. Because most New Yorkers’ living space will not hold yards of cans, tarps, bottled water, “In this city friendship’s / the main mode of disaster prep.” The city repeats such double-edged invitations over and over, as Prikryl repeats her poems’ titles (six are called “Sibyl,” five are called “Friend”). “Greenpoint” remembers a loud night in that Brooklyn neighborhood, where others’ distress seems blasé: “A siren was widely ignored . . . you could hear it all the way to Vinegar Hill.” Sometimes Prikryl’s city ignores you. Sometimes the city keeps its promise, and sometimes it lets you down—it’s complicated, like Prikryl’s deliciously complex syntax, sliding in and out of her introspection, up and down with her particular moods, like the wind “kicking a plastic bag / as high as the window cleaners at 57th Street, bringing hands / to lapels . . . and everybody all of a sudden fought to hold a disassembling trapeze.” The wind does that sometimes.

We are in the territory, here, of previous poets who loved New York—the exuberant Frank O’Hara, the quiet James Schuyler, the optimistic Walt Whitman—territory whose internal variety, including its harsh textures and loud sounds, has often bolstered its appeal. “Who doesn’t love a winter / heat wave through its period aroma?”* To read this book is not to encounter a woman already at home in Manhattan and Brooklyn but to see how she learned to feel at home there: she shows and tells herself how to reconcile its danger, its expense, its crowds with its promise of better lives for all. Prikryl (who is also the poetry editor of The New York Review of Books) prefers Manhattan street blocks to avenue blocks “because the streets are briefer, more self-possessed.” Her city glows not only with its “magnetic nearness to centers / of power” but with “forms / the shy find beneath them, scattered / about underfoot,” rewarding the noticers, those who slow down as they walk: “lucky you turned when you did / and saw the ceiling of the Brooklyn Bridge / not ten feet above.”

Nor does her city exist just for tourists and visitors: “At some point you have to walk to work / over those sheet metal cellar doors,” the ones that allow loading in and out of basements (especially for restaurants). What impedes a confident pedestrian provides essential access for food service workers, and life in a big city means acknowledging privilege, making room for other people, lots of other people, who in return give you the chance to be yourself. It’s a good deal for some, a bad one for others, and almost all of us, at some point, might feel tempted to “depopulate / the city and be every man himself? / Give that man a raise.”

But Prikryl is not a man: she is a woman from an immigrant family (she moved from Czechoslovakia to Canada with her parents at age six), someone who came to New York as an adult, and her demographics inform the emotional life in her work—just as they did with Whitman. Another poem called “Sibyl”—short and perfect in its way—starts with a dropped or malfunctioning iPhone and ends in a racist dystopian future that might also be the American present day:

I have a case

If you know the code
you can try it up to three times
thrice her shadow fades in my embrace
and then it’s locked, good luck

I think there’s an Apple on Sixth
you can map it on my phone
if you have a way to verify your picture ID
is yours, you’re fine

They accept three forms of resemblance
one) bottle of imported wine
two) pair of authentic Levi’s (right size)
three) exit visa

If they also accept resemblance
as a phenomenon, you’ll not
be interned with anyone
who doesn’t speak your language

“Case”: phone holder, but also argument, and also prosecution. “Code”: phone passwords, but also social conventions that divide elite in-groups from out-groups (as in the play and film Six Degrees of Separation). “Resemblance”: photo I.D., but also the way we see ourselves—or fail to see parts of ourselves—in poems. “Your language”: American English, of course, but also the subtle, familiar, particular language of Prikryl’s particular poems, whose variety of sentence shapes invites us in, then dares us to keep up. She can stop short on two- or three-word sentences, in the manner of Robert Creeley, but she can also unfold a one-sentence sonnet like “Stoic,” each line longer than the one before: the poem, about “what pain is for,” concludes

. . . how else play
fair in capture the flag, a touch of the surface there then rush back

to your side and interviewed hugging the trophy you’d not ask they hear
the question sealed inside your version—it was hard and my own momentum

toward undoing kept me from it—though you’d want to ask, you’d be dying to know

The poems evoke intimacy, low-key success, small trophies, urbane comfort: but comfort can deceive. The delights of recurrence, the lowest-key of low-key pleasures, the ordinariness of “ordinary days,” while elsewhere “refugees are weaned in camps,” are privileges, even dangerous distractions: “I like ordinary days. / On ordinary days I don’t need to think about things.” What should we do? What can we do? What if, in some ways, there’s nothing we can do? “What was wanted of you?”

This mood of political wariness, this sense that perhaps the apocalypse has started (but hasn’t yet hit us where we live), recurs throughout No Matter. So does the sense that some of us can survive, that love is still real, that it’s still worth trying to keep our friends and to raise kids—kids who could also feel at home in the city. One of Prikryl’s longest efforts, “2016,” celebrates the birth of her own child, who “glows / when I smile, he plants his whole face / in my neck, the locks / of abstraction on visible things collect around him.”

No Matter sounds, to me, like the way we live now—for certain values of “we,” ones that include Prikryl, her family, me, and mine. Other slices of New York may feel like a grind, or an obstacle course, or a combat zone, but Prikryl’s city is like my own—it compensates for its demands and rewards extroverted resilience: “the city that lights each debut / so professionally and choreographs / each entrance a celebrity, alone.” I used to live in Manhattan (in Inwood, in fact). I like No Matter very much. I am not sure how much I could like it—how far I could see into it—had I never lived in New York. And that is not a knock on the book so much as a description of its tactics. Readers who recognize the twists and turns it follows should not forget—indeed, the poems, for all their introspection, keep telling us not to forget—that other people lead other, harder lives.

Some of those people live around Gallup, New Mexico, in or near the Diné (Navajo) Nation: their emotional worlds—in Jake Skeets’s memorable first book—require a language far from Prikryl’s supple, subtle, almost-comfortable terms. His poems use short sentences, noun heavy, hard-edged, and harsh; the characters who inhabit them are often Diné men who have sex with men. Here is his poem “Afterparty”:

We tank down beer. Eyelids lower and lower. He lets me

feel beneath his basketball shorts,
          sorrel fields along his thigh.
Burrows in our bellies heavy and heavy from rolling rock
and blue ribbon. Aluminum ghost coaxes his kiss. Candle
left lit. He mouths the neck and lip of another
cold. My tongue coils on the trigger before its click.
Corn beetles scatter out
          no longer his bones.

Everything, for Skeets, becomes an image; everyone, in Skeets’s work, seems to search for ecstasy, or escape, or oblivion, and every image can stand for any of those. Drinking is sex is target shooting is immersing oneself in myths and visions, visions that might confuse non-Diné readers, almost as Prikryl’s neighborhoods and subways might confuse readers far from New York.

And yet some of Skeets’s scenes could make sense to anyone able to parse the plain sense of his lines: “boys swim in lake water / coming thunder / they hold the other / try to hear a heartbeat.” The same boys “burrow roads for hot wheels / discover entire towns / / in damp soil.” Can they, will they, find an adult world equal to their imaginations? Will they find one in Skeets’s landscape? Or will they find only melancholy lovers, like the ones named in Skeets’s lengthy book title, Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers? Can Skeets, can any of Skeets’s characters, disentangle eros from self-hatred? Perhaps; perhaps not, as in the sonnet-like ten-line poem called “DL N8V 43SOME.” “N8V” means Native, “DL” that he’s not open about his sexual behavior (“on the down low”): “Gasps / for air between the cries / / were his fists, punching holes / in every wall.”

Sex is supposed to break down walls, to open people up, and it does, for Skeets, but it’s also scary: it feels illicit, “too loud,” “criminal.” As in the poetry of D. A. Powell (whom Skeets quotes), erotic energy provides ways to live, reasons for living, access to religious experience: “Swallow God—come, downpour on canyon wall.” Sex is like CPR, and revives men who might otherwise feel dead: “I palpate his chest . . . My tongue runs across his shoulders, stone bells affixed to bone.” What it cannot do is alter geography, or history, or the economy: men and boys drink to excess and unwisely; they may be “staggering out of American Bar” and fall down, “fetaled in big snow / beneath I-40.”

Gallup is sometimes called Drunktown, an impolite reference to Native alcoholism, as in Sydney Freeland’s feature film Drunktown’s Finest. Those drunks are the “Sleepers” in Skeets’s poem by that name, whose title also refers to Whitman’s great poem “The Sleepers.” Both Skeets’s short poem and Whitman’s lengthy one address the democracy of death and the democracy of sex, the way that both lust and mortality level the class distinctions of daylight society: “leave the body beneath tractor trailers in the cutleaf,” Skeets invites us, “and look to the wounds in our bellies, / climb through.” Gallup also has coal mines, and coal plays a role in Skeets’s imagery, his sense of collective injury and collective guilt: “We bring in the coal that dyes our hands black not like ash / but like the thing that makes a black sheep black.”

The weight here, as always in Skeets, falls on the nouns, and on the curt adjectives that bookend them (“black . . . black”). If Prikryl thinks in extensions, about people who may be hurried but always find time, Skeets thinks in blocky, short noun phrases, in lines always liable to violent curtailment: his “men are not the teeth / of their verbs / they pry nouns open with a belt buckle / to take a sip.” That belt buckle could become a tool of violence, even of child abuse, until it becomes something else, a means to pleasure: there is no pleasure in Skeets without danger close at hand.

To see all the way through some parts of Skeets’s poems, you need to be able to decode Diné: “tsi’naajinii nish?i / pronounce the ? as water whistling through shadow / on black bark.” Whereas Prikryl’s lines zigzag and spill down the page like the complex street plans of Brooklyn or Lower Manhattan, Skeets’s may stand alone, or in small, solid blocks, in the negative space of the page, “left on the white space,” as isolated or stuck as some of his characters can be, where “train / tracks / and / mines /  split / Gallup / in two.” At his best, he relies less on the shape of the page than on the sounds of words, the evocations, noun by noun, of these difficult spaces, where some of us feel at home even in distress, where many of us will never be.

These poets do not just write about a place: they tune their language to it, making its sounds and its tones reflect the feeling of living there. Some poets have sought that kind of attunement at least since Robert Burns in the Scottish Lowlands, or William Wordsworth in Cumberland; they may write for residents, or for émigrés, or for people who will never live there. Skeets, writing far from the centers of book publishing, about people with few advantages, sometimes seems to revel in the way his poems will not explain themselves to every outsider; Prikryl, writing a quieter kind of poem, cannot help noticing her relative comfort. Both poets have not only reflected a place but have invented sounds that fit their lives there.

What about poets who feel they don’t quite belong anywhere? What does a poet do who wants a style attuned not to one place but to displacement, to multiple nations, to frequent travel, to blurry, confusing arrays of privilege and harm?

Hala Alyan is hardly the first poet to take on those questions (consider Ovid’s Black Sea, or Byron’s grand tour), but she does well by them. The speedy prose poems and long, wiry lines of The Twenty-Ninth Year link Alyan’s Palestinian heritage, her peripatetic family history, her travels across the United States, and her own emotional ups and downs: in and out of a marriage, out of alcoholism, into recovery. (The poet’s family had settled in Kuwait but relocated to the United States after the Iraqi invasion in 1990.) A single poem, “Armadillo,” takes us into “the basement of our Maine house,” to “Vierzon, three hours south of Paris,” past “the Doha villa,” to Kuwait, to Scotland, as if the poet couldn’t help traveling, couldn’t settle down or fade into any sort of background, kept stealing scenes: “I’m flighty, yes, but every klepto is a romantic at heart.” “Pray Like You Mean It,” one poem’s title admonishes; two pages later, Alyan has to tell herself “You’re Not a Girl in a Movie.” Neither an impoverished refugee nor a willing migrant, Alyan remembers her family’s constant uprootings, their sense of displacement in the United States, which are often comic and greater than her own: “My grandmother / / asking the Burger King cashier / for pommes frites”; “My mother / / dressing me as a / Pilgrim for a school trip.”

Alyan may live in New York now, but her poems do not put down roots (like Prikryl’s or O’Hara’s): they stay in motion, zipping between the many regions that have shaped her life. That’s not just a matter of proper nouns (though it is that too) but a matter of jump cuts and curtailed sentences, of poems whose grammar, also, will not stay put. In “some Brooklyn teahouse a woman asked / about Beirut and I was talking about blackouts & virginity before I knew it / in some ways I will never stop being a drinker.” Nor will she stop telling “our worst stories.” The line continues, “this is mine . . . I just hated being ignored.” Those lines, like many others in her collection, are hard to reproduce in a magazine, because they rely on irregular spaces scattered like fallen coins across the page. Alyan is fizzy, volcanic, always unsettled, devoted to doomed loves. She writes a poem “On the Death of WWE Professional Wrestler Chyna,” “the first woman I wanted to touch,” another in memory of a self-destructive childhood friend:

I envied you topless in the Barcelona sea, your hallucinogens, the way you danced like an animal caught in its own net . . . I’ll burn Berlin to the ground. I’ll take you back to Texas and find a motel Bible to steal.

In prose poems, in long-lined couplets, the lines spark and zap and speed up as they go on: these forms have no built-in stopping points, nor do they require lengthy sentences—they can just stop and go, stop and go, overshoot, spiral, return. Alyan is also a novelist, and a clinical psychologist working with trauma; she seems to have spent time in hospitals as a patient as well: “I loved the paper gowns, too, my slept-in body discarded / and remade into jail bait.” She makes familiar ideas about Arab-American diaspora, exile, rootlessness (as explained, say, by Edward Said) into companions for her own deep restlessness: “sometimes I wear a cowboy hat sometimes a kaffiyeh I like / to be the warm engine in America’s boat.” The analogies for her excited poems include Byron and Ovid, but also the pop singer Halsey, glittering, vulnerable as a chrysalis: “maybe I’m more like Manhattan than I want to admit: prettier when lit.”

“Lit,” here, also means “drunk”: what for Skeets is a social problem—alcohol dependence among Native people (especially closeted men)—is for Alyan a personal spiritual dilemma with spiritual solutions; she names some poems after twelve-step elements (“Step Four: Moral Inventory”), and those titles are not at all ironic. Her language is less estranged, less compacted, than Skeets’s, less comfortable and less careful than Prikryl’s, because she has to keep talking, has to keep going, otherwise she’ll collapse or backslide. The poems are strong enough that most of them must have been very carefully revised, but they feel as if they had been written on the run, in one go, by a poet with people and places to see and to flee. One of those people seems to be Alyan’s ex-husband: “You wanted me thin, so I ate. You wanted me sober, / / so I drank. I’ve always liked my lies.” Her complicated truth emerges in these lines connecting place to place and era to era, drawn to symbols of chaos, flight, danger, rebirth: in modern Syria, or in Alyan’s heart, “the wolf sleeps in his wolf palace”; in the Oklahoma of her memory, “Heaven is a tornado siren cancelling school.”

The philosopher Edward Casey has suggested that—at least for some of us—we cannot feel as if we live in our own bodies until we acquire a sense of location, some notion of where our body resides. “Just as we are always with a body,” Casey writes, “so, being bodily, we are always within a place as well.” That sense of place may be a sense of the sacred: Casey points out that makom, one of many words for God in Biblical Hebrew, can also mean “site” or “place.” To feel rooted, to know where you are and where you belong on earth, can also let you know where you are in a divine order, in the entire cosmos. To find God is to know your place.

None of these poets promise to help us find God. Few twenty-first-century poets do. Instead, two of them show how they live where they live, among others who belong there, and how to stay there. (Skeets recently tweeted about his decision to stay on Navajo land: “I’m swallowed by a 5/5 course load & service. . . . But I get to teach poetry to Diné students at a Diné college on Diné lands using Diné thoughtway & that is such a gift.”) Alyan and her mercurial phrases seem to belong nowhere, at least for now: they show how it feels to keep on going, to identify with people, or peoples, who cannot stay in one place. That migratory restlessness, now, as in centuries past, is a source of style: it, too, can take us lands away. And it puts the lie to factitious complaints about how some poetry is universal, while other poets depend on identity: everybody has multiple identities (I am an extrovert, a teacher, a writer, a trans lady, an anxious person, a friend, a wife), just as everyone has a place of origin, and everyone who isn’t homeless has a home. That home may inform their language, their cadence, their forms, whether or not we notice it. We need poets whose places seem like home to us, poets in whom we recognize our own lives, whether we are Diné or Brooklynite (or both). We also need poets in whom we don’t: this triad shows how, far more than in earlier decades, American poetry can give many of us what we need.

This article incorrectly quoted lines from Jana Prikryl’s collection of poems, No Matter. The correct lines are as follows:

who doesn’t love a winter
heat wave though its period aroma

its settled questions
smell so accurate the warm blast

carries something more, antiquity
of future time, the matter settled

is a professor of English at Harvard. Her books of poetry and literary criticism include Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems (Basic, 2019) and Advice from the Lights (Graywolf, 2017), an NEA Big Read selection.

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November 2019

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