Both first books by young women, For Your Safety Please Hold On by Kayla Czaga and The Things I Heard About You by Alex Leslie receive the now de-rigeur overblown adjectives in their back cover blurbs: brilliant, potent, innovative, astonishing, great, remarkable and extraordinary. Yes, all these. I wish this practice would rein its gushing horse in. I truly enjoyed many of the poems in these books and the poets are obviously talented but such excessive epithetting just does a disservice to the poems/poets, placing poetry outside the realm of art and into a space of advertising that frankly only smacks of schmooze.
That said (phew!), here’s my hopefully more respectfully realistic reactions to these texts:
1/For Your Safety Please Hold On
These books both have birds on the cover – I just noticed – (and of course I am hearing in my head that skit from Portlandia – “Put a bird on it!”), Czaga’s like an embroidered tablecloth and Leslie’s swallows kiting away from a tumbling body. Subject-wise there is nothing startling about this work: mother & father poems with their immigrant tinge (“he learned English from an Eaton’s catalogue…he speaks to keep the world in place”), other family types (my fave being The Religious Aunt), riding on the bus, drinking coffee, having allergies, struggling through Heidegger, that kind of quotidian, highly accessible, sometimes hum-drum, often o totally material.
But yay, Czaga has an ear! Her pantoum, “Song”, has lovely queries in it like, “Can I sing without words/and still be song”, “The Religious Aunt” revels in words such as schmuck, ruckuss and hubbub while “The Decorative Aunt” holds the line “a sorry tank of tilapia and flat screens” and the bang-on nostalgia of “Gone is the VHS. Gone is the Whir” zips to a beautifully surreal ending where she recalls the “plastic black cassettes with windows/I imagined mini actors trapped/ behind, fondly waving goodbye.”
Although her Gertrude Stein doodles in the For Play section felt snoozy to me, quite a few poems fall clunk at the end (“the way she curled/beside you in bed, warming your cold/feet between her calves, while snoring”) and I never really synched up with her rambling theoretically-obsessed barista in Bible land of the final piece “Many Metaphorical Birds” (though some puns are hella funny: “Jeremy is Hegeling with a customer…Adornoing his pastry case,”) Czaga, especially when she soars into Larkinesque attentiveness, definitely possesses a talent beyond the I am telling you this flatness of many MFA grads. She doesn’t have to worry that her “world is running out of poetry” at any rate.
2/The Things I Heard About You
While Czaga’s foray offers a range of styles and forms, Leslie’s is one intense experiment, stretched out to book length, an endeavor I swooned to the mood of at times, while at others felt bored by the sameness of. The book’s description calls these “black out” poems but to me they are “erosion” poems, not falling under the principle of erasure so much as re-configuration, from expansiveness to silence.
I love how Leslie drew her inspiration from John Thompson’s Stilt Jack in relation to the goal of seeing how “small a poem can be,” though often I think her longer versions of the pieces are the stronger ones. She begins with a beautiful grief-groove in which her “skinned days” following a loved one’s death are attended by the solace of music piped within her “small theatre of mourning.” These dwindling riffs of sorrow are powerful, mirroring the cycles of loss where “lyric becomes ingrown.” This first one is in five parts but the remainder of the pieces in the book are in four, each one but the last (often only a line or a few words) ending with the italicized command, “smaller”.
My faves were the second segments of “Exile Garden” (“cochlear, you branched syllables”), “Debris for Children” (“Lichen, with its/exacting noose….this edge-claim flowering in your cartilage”), also of “The Ocean Will Take Back” & “Builder”, the whole of “Alert Bay to Port McNeill” (“Flute, you, arms out, loops for our ocean”), and the third section of Sightline (“the analgesic eye...Are you back for your mouth, again?”). There is matter here: memory, relationship, ecology, oppression overcome, beauty, but it is the experiment of paring down to fragments of saying that is the core, I preferring when the flesh still graces the bones of Leslie’s fierce and Marlattian landscapes.