Poets I’m Reading This Month, Part 2

by Jeff Oaks

The second book I wanted to talk about briefly is (another friend of mine) CM Burrough’s book The Vital System. In certain ways, as I said in the last post, it’s tonally and structurally different from Stacey’s book. In other ways there are connections: both books are “about” the problem of the body; both books are full of transformations; and both books are rich.

Here’s the first poem in Christina’s book, called Dear Incubator,.

These poems take place in interior spaces, in intimate spaces, in the folds of the body, between bodies. It’s much more concerned with silences, with absent and sensual bodies. It’s a poetry of metaphor. One of the sentences I wrote about it when I was first starting to read was this one: “There’s a kind of quiet between the body and the mind that the voice tries to explore”. It is deeply self-reflective, self-interrogating.

Whereas Stacey’s poems take place more often in public spaces and out loud, CM’s take space in whispers almost, in fits and starts, fragments, scraps, and as interior monologues. These poems are all about touch, taste, the inner spaces of vaginas and throats. The fingertips and the mouth appear and reappear, testing, tasting. If Stacey’s poems are nearly stand-up routines, with their own particular humor and painful revelation, CM’s take place off-stage, in spaces that are simultaneously blank and full of potential flood, change.

I should say it’s taken me a longer time to feel like I was ready to really read The Vital System. I had to be quiet enough to listen to it, it feels like it’s made of such delicate stuff. With all the work, teaching and administrative, that I’ve been doing lately, I haven’t felt like I had enough quiet in my body to do it justice.

It’s also a book that I think needs to be read as a book, as a series of correspondences between mother, daughter, lover, self, sister, and culture. Stacey’s book I think might have an advantage with many readers here in that it can be read in pieces more easily, even though it too is deeply about the body.

And saying that one of these books might “have an advantage with many readers” there reminds me of something that occurred to me in the shower today:

It’s not that poetry is dead. It’s that it’s vitally alive. It’s enormous and huge. It has ten thousand heads, ten thousand voices. It’s so vitally alive in fact that anyone raised on the poetry that came before the Modernists (which is most of the people who graduate high school, I’m guessing, and then who don’t have to take anything like a creative writing class in college) wouldn’t recognize much of what is happening in poetry as poetry. You can always tell those people by their objection that “it” doesn’t “rhyme” or “scan,” as if those things were the sole determinant of a poem, a notion that’s been done away with by at least a century of poetic practice. But poetry has been enlivened by so many other arts that it’s old relationship with song is now only one of its forms (and one that I still love, by the way). But poem as spell, poem as stand-up routine, poem as collage, poem as sculpture, poem as protest, poem as letter, poem as story/narrative, and on and on and on, those other kinds of poems often get dismissed as not “real” poems. I’ve done it myself until I make enough space in my life to be quiet, be receptive, take some time. I don’t want that to sound too condescending of those people who say they don’t think X’s poems aren’t “real” poems, as if they’re just overworked folks who deserve pity, because I do have poets I love and poets I don’t love, even poets I have strong feelings against. I have nothing against making personal lists. I just don’t love the public lists, the proclamations by people who haven’t read a poem in years that the art is over, finished. From my point of view, that is a ridiculous assertion. There is so much incredible work going on I won’t plumb the depths of in my lifetime. I love that there is work that might strike me in different ways, that the current proliferation of aesthetic possibilities is enormous. Although next week, when I arrive at the annual Associated Writing Programs’ conference in Boston, when I walk into its Bookfair where a thousand literary presses and journals will be displaying new books, new issues, new broadsides, new websites full of new writing, I will have to catch my breath for a second against the sheer dizziness of it all, before I again dive in.

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