Bryan R. Monte
AQ30 Spring 2021 Book Reviews
Kim Addonizio. Now We’re Getting Somewhere, W. W. Norton, ISBN 978-0-393-54089-5, 96 pages.
Colin Bancroft. Impermanence, Maytree Press, 978-1-913508-09-8, 29 pages.
As editor of Amsterdam Quarterly I have the privilege of reviewing poets’ books whether they are just starting out, in mid-career, or have had decades of acclaim. Two poets, one each in the first and last categories are Colin Bancroft and Kim Addonizio respectively. Addonizio’s new book Now We’re Getting Somewhere, is scheduled to be released in March 2021 by W. W. Norton, a well-known, independent, American publisher, whilst Colin Bancroft’s pamphlet (Amer. English: chapbook), Impermanence, was released in October 2020 by Maytree Press, a small British publisher. Both, in my opinion, are well worth AQ’s readers’ attention.
Now We’re Getting Somewhere is Addonizio’s fourth poetry book from W. W. Norton and her eighth poetry book in total. It is divided into four sections: ‘Night in the Castle’, ‘Songs for Sad Girls’, ‘Confessional Poetry’, and ‘Archive for Recent Uncomfortable Emotions’, the third section being the most minimal, experimental, and incongruous, which immediately drew my interest due to my graduate school immersion in post-Modernism criticism which places the most emphasis on focussing on erasures, gaps, holes, or inconsistencies in the narrative style to identify the most significant parts.
Now We’re Getting Somewhere is dedicated ‘To the Makers’ who Addonizio informed me in her interview in this issue, are the poets (from the Greek word poësis) or ‘those who make rather than break things’. It has two epigraphs—the first from Leonard Cohen song referencing a leader’s untrustworthiness and the second by Elizabeth Taylor referring to alcohol, beauty, and sex.
The first section starts with a bang with the section’s title poem, ‘Night in the Castle’. Danger is present from the very first line with a ‘scorpion twitching on the wall’. The speaker, who is ‘on an artist’s grant’ to write in a medieval, Umbrian castle, wonders if she ‘should slam it with this book of terrible poetry’ (the one she’s writing or reading?) or ‘murder it with my sandal’ since ‘I gave up on mercy a while ago’.
However, in the sixth through eighth stanzas, the focus changes to the poet’s fantasy of what would do if she had the power. She imagines herself as ‘an underage duchess whose husband has finally died / of gout’ … or maybe ‘She might even have poisoned the duke’ to have ‘more secret liaisons with the court musician’. Then she fantasizes about what she would do as ‘a feared & beloved queen ordering up fresh linens & / beheadings’. Her fantasy is re-enforced by further punitive desires of ‘locking up bad poets in their artisanal hair shirts’ and ‘torturing academics with pornographic marionette performances’.
The poem ends with an imaginative leap in its penultimate and final verses. ‘(T)he scorpion is still there twitching blackly / reciting something about violence and the prison of the ego’ and the speaker imagines ‘the clashing armies on the wide lawn outside / sinking down into history & then standing up again’ as does the castle to this day.
It’s a good summary of Addonizio’s past themes and concerns, external and internal; her wider awareness of artistic, geo-political, and historical power which is reinforced in other poems in this section. These include the themes of the global travails of people of colour in ‘Black Hour Blues’, ecological, planetary degradation in ‘Fixed and In Flux’ and ‘The Earth Is About Used Up’, migrants working in dangerous conditions in ‘Comfort of the Resurrection’, and gun-toting, religious racists in ‘Grace’. In ‘Animals’, Addonizio explores and destroys Whitman’s naïve trope of the natural world’s beauty and deceptive harmony. However, three poems later she remarks on its surprising comforting in ‘High Desert, New Mexico’ where horses ‘stand outside and wait for you to come / with a single apple’. Moreover, ‘In Bed’ the poet realizes that sex and love aren’t worth as much as lying in a Proustian bed ‘between cork-lined walls / writing very long sentences in French’.
The second section, ‘Songs for Sad Girls’, contains a series of poems about women’s search for sex and lasting companionship—from the gothic and exotic narratives in ‘Wolf Song’, ‘Ghosted’, ‘All Hallows’, and ‘AlienMatch.Com’ and highly imagistic on-liners in ‘Ways of Being Lonely’, (which I consider one of this book’s best poems), to the more realistic ‘August’, ‘Winter Solstice’ and ‘Small Talk’, the terminal line from which gives this book its title. ‘Songs for Sad Girls’ also contains one of Addonizio’s most well-known poems, the sonnet ‘To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall’, which is one of Addonizio’s most quoted poems on social media. ‘Résumé, is a tribute to Dorothy Parker’s poem of the same title about suicide. However, instead of listing the disadvantages of using razors, rivers, guns, etc., to kill oneself, this poem discusses the failings of rehab, lovers, and friends to help one stay sober, the poem ending with the couplet:
You’ll soon be subtracted;
You might as well drink.
As mentioned previously, the third section’s, ‘Confessional Poetry’ is the most minimalistic and experimental. This poem, with a few lines spread over 13 pages, is a meditation on various subjects such as the real power of writing, the importance the poem’s space to the poet, self-pity, dealing with traumas, public bathroom sex at a conference on pornography, censorship and men’s criticisms, rape, pollution, drinking, and inspiration. Some of my favourite lines in this section are: ‘Writing is like firing a nail gun into the center of a vanity mirror’,… /‘or beating a piñata selfie… so you can pet the demons that fall out’, and five pages later… ‘Not wearing waterproof mascara while you’re being tasered’, as well as two lines, three pages later I quote in their entirety because of their resonance with most poets:
I really like feeling something when I stagger into a poem
& having a place to lie down & cry.
Some lines in this section are more compelling than others, but that’s what one would expect in this rather experimental section. These poems are perhaps not as taut and strong as the surrealist, one-liners in ‘Ways of Being Lonely’ in the second section, but they are more urgent, naked, raw, and personal.
The general themes of desire, decay, disease and death are interwoven in several poems in the fourth section. More specifically, this section addresses the themes of ageing, alcoholism, the impermanence of love, and the poet’s musings and concerns about her legacy. The poet repeats thrice in ‘People You Don’t Know’ the phrase ‘the early delusional phase of love,’ yet that does not keep the speaker from entertaining the thought of going with a ‘stranger’ at the bar to a room ‘with a creeping mold … with a parking lot view.’ In ‘Ex’ the poet says when she was younger she thought:
…nothing could ruin our love which is what everyone /
thinks at first
but it turns out everyone is wrong
In this section’s title poem, ‘Archive of Uncomfortable Emotions’, the poet adds:
The I’m sorry I gave you those blow jobs and did you not understand the
meaning of “reciprocal” feeling
Here the poet imaginatively catalogues other feelings of loss:
The trees are no longer my friends feeling
The my friends are no longer my friends feeling
The once I was a nineteenth-century Russian novel but now I’m a frozen
chicken entrée feeling
Her poem ‘Still Time’ mentions Keats’ last days, and after his death how ‘they take his body out and burn the wallpaper.’, her own loss as a child of a plush lion, her parents, as an adult, and how she ‘finally stopping sobbing in the bathroom at weddings’ and then circles back to Keats’ again, and rues she ‘can’t go back to 1821 and invent streptomycin / or stop the poet’s kindly doctor from bleeding his patient’. She does however, ‘see the flowers on the ceiling, the same ones Keats held / for weeks in his fevered gaze.’, and realizes ‘That’s as close as you can get’.
Mortality comes up again in ‘Happiness Report’ where the poet writes: ‘I hate the term bucket list’. She also regrets that ‘it’s too late to drink myself to death at a young age’.
In ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You John Keats’, the legacy theme is especially strong. Here the poet, fantasies she could ‘fall through a wormhole or get knocked on the head or go though / some stones in Scotland… with medicines sewn into my in pantaloons’. She describes how she would make Keats ‘forget about Fanny Brawne & the big difference in our / ages … (and) lie on the grass & drink French wine & you lay your / head on my breast’. Later she says she wants to be ‘a woman from the future changing literary history forever / …while you steer our little boat out of Lethe / & into the lilies / trailing my hand in the canonical water,’… and that she doesn’t ‘want to stay in this world watching Truth bound and gagged on the / railroad tracks’.
This legacy theme is also mentioned in ‘Art of Poetry’ where the poet imagines her work discovered ‘sometime before the death of the sun’, which will be ‘display(ed) in a luminous floating interdimensional sphere’. Her mortality is reflected upon at the poem’s end:
The days & nights keep drunkenly arriving, the guests are all dying
& I’m starting to feel pretty sick.
Yet another poem, ‘Little Old Ladies’ begins with:
We know we’re supposed to shut up now and tremble off
into the wilderness of a golf course on the edge of a retirement community’
She describes the sight, sounds, and smells of the aged delinquents ‘pissing vodka in our bedpans / Pulling the fire alarm, wandering out into traffic’… no one ‘wanting to breathe us in.’ This fourth section contains poems attempting to imagine and perhaps negotiate the end before it comes.
On a final note, two aspects of this new volume, of which I personally wanted more, were Addonizio’s inventive sonnets and more poems about Italy. Perhaps her investigation of the strictures of the sonnet and her Italian ancestry might help expand and define her sense of her past, present, and future, and help give the book’s last section a more positive or at least a more balanced perspective.
A poet who first came to my attention when he submitted two poems, ‘Marsden’ and ‘Atmosphere’ to AQ27 is Colin Bancroft. As I read these two poems, the whole room and my usually whirring mind stopped as they captured my attention—which is my test of whether I want to publish someone’s poetry. The bio he sent noted an upcoming pamphlet, Impermanence,, which I requested from his publisher, Maytree Press in Scotland.
I must say I am very impressed with this collection. Its Turneresque cover, by Kevin Threfall, depicts an autumnal landscape ablaze with soft focus swaths of green, yellow, orange, and red, and a long white house or barn at its centre, reminiscent of Turner’s lone ship in fog. This cover is definitely an attention grabber.
And Bancroft’s twenty-three poems inside are just as arresting. Though many are composed in rhyming verse, the range of subjects they cover and the voices they include are far from the usual fare. ‘Tethered’, the first poem, describes, on one level, a channel storm about to blow a couple’s tent down. On another level, it addresses the couple’s relational tension. In the next poem, ‘Pheasant’, the speaker is parked in a layby to clear his head. He hears a pheasants call, thinks it’s a bit ‘mechanical’ and likens it to an instrument recording of a ‘Your broken heartbeat.’ The poem ‘Absence’ almost seems to describe the Impermanence’s cover. ‘Just the blank canvas / Of fog, primed with rain…Trees loom as ragged patterns cut / From this fine cloth of mist.’
‘Mis-en-scène’ contains the thoughts of a young man waiting to enter an amusement park or museum he visited as a child, with his partner, who is a few weeks pregnant, planning his future family. He imagines ‘The cot, the pram, the bike, the toys, the pets, / And all the untold stories that would unfold’. Unfortunately, ‘Three days later / there was a change to the script and we were left / With our plotlines torn,’. ‘Snapshot’ makes an interesting if not uncommon comment on marriage. Set at a café reception in the Borderlands, the speaker comments how ‘that it’s all downhill from here.’ In the next poem, ‘Fallen’, Bancroft’s poetic language becomes more inventive, where he compares a dead tree in a hedge to a skeleton ‘which we let it lie there for days in state upon its ground / Touching the earth at last, where its shadow once reached.’—a fitting elegy.
His poems ‘Marsden’ and ‘Atmosphere,’ both at the centre of this pamphlet, are about gradual and sudden change. The former is about an abandoned village on ‘a windswept headland’. The latter is about the discovery of an overnight snowfall and its effect on the speaker. These poems were originally published by Amsterdam Quarterly at https://www.amsterdamquarterly.org/aq_issues/aq27-beginnings-endings/colin-bancroft-marsden/ and at https://www.amsterdamquarterly.org/aq_issues/aq27-beginnings-endings/colin-bancroft-atmosphere/. They still have the ability to stop me in my tracks, which is why I decided to publish both in AQ27’s Beginnings and Endings issue. Other poems, such as ‘Overgrowth’, ‘Ambleside’, ‘The Clearing’ and ‘Criccieth’, all succinctly describe the feeling of the English country-, lake-, or seaside.
Next however, come three poems, which were real surprises: ‘The Broken Tower’, ‘After Frankenstein’, and ‘Census’. In the first, the speaker steps out of himself and imagines the life of Hart Crane just before he committed suicide. In the second is in the voice of a young woman who goes to bars, bringing various men with different physical attributes home to try to reconstruct a past, lost lover. The last describes the squalid scene a census taker noted a century or so before. It this ability to step outside of himself into different personae and eras, in addition to his description of natural scenery and relations closer to home, which set Bancroft apart as a true poet. AQ