July 21, 2012

What the Water Gave Me

Amy King

   About her most recent book, I Want to Make You Safe (Litmus Press) John Ashbery describes Amy King's poetry as bringing “abstractions to brilliant, jagged life, emerging into rather than out of the busyness of living.”
    King was honored by The Feminist Press as one of the “40 Under 40: The Future of Feminism” awardees, and she received the 2012 SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities. She organizes “The Count” and interviews for VIDA: Woman in Literary Arts and teaches English and Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.
   King also co-edited Poets for Living Waters with Heidi Lynn Staples and currently co-edits the PEN Poetry Series and Esque Magazine with Ana Bozicevic.

The Boating Party by Mary Cassatt
   A recent visit to the Baltimore MOA afforded me the opportunity to bask in the beauty of Degas, Monet, Seurat and other favorites. Impressionists’ are easy to love. Perhaps a little less easy surrealist art is an acquired taste. I don’t love poetry for its measured formulaic success in making a mark of beauty I love it for the way it makes me feel. This is the same thing I love about the strange.
   I might hang a print of the painting above in my living room or use it as a palette for a color scheme. But “What the Water Gave Me,” by Frida Kahlo is at times ‘unbeautiful,’ even incomprehensible. How am I to understand the strange images that float above the legs of the bather in Kahlo’s painting? My relationship with Kahlo’s work has evolved. And when I view it I view it in the context of the artist’s story.

What the Water Gave Me by Frida Kahlo

   Liz Hager blogs about Kahlo’s painting and about it she writes, “The painting is one of Kahlo’s most visionary and disturbing; the sophisticated water fantasy provides the vehicle for a densely-packed portrayal of the artist’s subconscious. It’s almost as if she crammed her entire life into this bathtub scene.  Kahlo returned to the same symbols over and over; many of the items included here can be seen in her other paintings, some without much alteration.” 
     Someone recently asked me why I love Amy King’s latest book, I Want To Make You Safe. That was weeks ago and I’ve mulled over my response. Why do I love the strange stuff of Amy King's voice?

               Without a sex-o-nista season, the pizza is burning
               the other room down, and these cracks aren’t
               as pungent as the crack the great state of Ohio deserves
               when you rock ‘n’ roll over; so grab your poles,
               go by the lake, and eat up to embrace whatever organ
               makes you gyrate those hips, lace those long legs up
               to our waists and turn out a turntable on this party face,
               sans with or without us, our great groaning lusts a marked
               increase in the moon’s ancient pull by the top of the stairs (69).
   I love it because, just like Kahlo's painting, I Want to Make You Safe is a collection of odd images floating in a tub above the bare legs of the narrator. The observer is alone in the artists head. King's poems are dream poems. When we are in the dream it is not odd at all; we don't question absurdity. That is how I've learned to see Dali too. In magical realism we suspend our disbelief. In surrealism and with the absurd we suspend our expectation of the expected and allow for the outlandish with the commonplace and other uneasy match ups. Such art forces us into a stream of conscious response and it is there that the meaning, if any, happens. 
   King’s voice is the body under the bath-water soaking beneath floating images both soft and hard. “Hello Lady Bird/ Hola, Smashed Guitar Parts,/ I take these strings to this neck/and cut the tumor in half—love is a surgery/ in participles, pus-filled insects./Additional commands keep the planet well-heeled.”
   Peculiar as the voice of I Want To Make You Safe may be; it is an accessible voice with its casual declarations, “A dandelion seed also looks for corners to lie,/so here am I/a seated tin can/with intrusive mice to lend a hand,”(38)  and conversational tone: “You think I am she. She is you and everyone who adjusts too well, (63).
   This is a book from the author more than by the author. It revives the unconscious experience where the mind jettisons a million thoughts into existence simultaneously and leaves the reader to select, to order, to give attention to what matters in the moment.
   Interestingly, Frida Kahlo made separate paintings of many of her “tub” images. I get that sense with King’s poems too; each piece contains the potential for tangents and journeys. 
   I like King's poems because they are semiotic: We think we know things. Pilfer the lint of dreams,/uproot every yellow, follow stigmata for dust./We have always been the first fruit and the first to rot./We are the ones that read the signs after we bury them./(5)
   I like King's poems for their asymmetry: Ohio is equidistant from the religious saviour/I've become and the promise of America's decrepit/class. The "critique of political economy" dangles/from the arch of my hot-pants tongue. Pencil lipped,/we're left wanting what? 
   I like the feminist King in the poem, “Men by the Lips to Women.”

I am the love you light yourself with
and my gender is powerless in this,
We are metered only by our own machines,
While the book is a clock that forgets mechanics.
Her hands can count but would rather wipe warm dew,
The pall from your lips and kiss the lids,
Of your eyes from sleep. Here am I, is he,
with yoke and shadow removed, she is, her in me,
apart from you, man reading men by the lips of women. (31)

   The voice of the narrator feels interior, talks to herself; we cannot censor this dream, this voice allows all; she speaks the tongue of the contemporary god. King tells me that she likes Ana Bozicevic’s (King’s life and work partner) take on her work that she " scats out these casual masterpieces of rhetoric, then promptly forgets where they came from, makes experiments at careful authorlessness seem funny and humorless in comparison." 
   Be assured that despite I Want To Make You Safe’s surrealistic feel King does not kiss to be clever. These are not facile poems; they are written in the context of contemporary queer narrative.
I like I Want to Make You Safe because it is intelligent. King does tip her hat and in a way she reinforces what I’ve been thinking. One of the names she drops in her work is Claude Cahun’s. (9)  Claude was born Lucy Schwob. She began making photographic self-portraits at age 18 and continued doing so through the 1930s. She took the name Claude Cahun and assumed a sexually ambiguous identity. During the 1920a Cahun lived in Paris with her life-partner Suzanne Malherbe. Cahun and Malherbe (known as Marcel Moore) worked their art together, making sculptures, photomontages and collages and writing collaboratively.
   André Breton, founder of the Surrealist movement, called her “one of the most curious spirits of our time.” Although she produced a huge amount of work, as well as significant writings, Claude Cahun operated on the fringes of the Parisian Sureallist (sic) movement. It was not until the 1980's that she was discovered (by François Leperlier), and soon became seen as a forerunner to queer theory and feminist art.” 4.
   It is easy to draw a parallel between Calhun/Maherbe and King/ Bozicevic since both pairs of women shared their art and their lives. Both are pace setters in their respective communities and both seem committed to art and an innate right to self-identify.
   In his Surrealists Manifesto, Andre Breton says, “"Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express -- verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner -- the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern." 5
   And there is other evidence to support the idea that King’s writing is dreamlike. Her poems feature an element of surprise they include unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur. Andre Breton believed that Surrealism was above all a revolutionary movement. Perhaps the same is true of King's work.
And there is other evidence to support the idea that King’s writing is dreamlike. 
   Analyzing last night’s vivid dream is daunting; but re-dream the dream and the strange is readily accepted. Amy King’s poems are like that, they are not easy to understand; don’t try.  Instead read them in the way you might a dream where the odd and discordant becomes part of the landscape. And then read them again, closely.

A brief chat with poet Amy King:

Bluemoon Northeast: I’d like to include one of your favorite poems from IWTMYS here, which poem do you chose today?

Amy King: “The White of Sacre Couer Against a Blue Parisian Sky”

Bluemoon Northeast: I note that you do some name dropping in your poems. Among the names dropped are: David Wojnarowicz, Tina Modotti and Claude Cahun. Each of these artists and writers share a strong and specific artistic identity and a reputation of being something of an activist or revolutionist. How do you see yourself and your work in this context, that of being and artistic revolutionist and an activist?

Amy King:  I think the labels are intricately linked – there are simply gradations of each. For instance, one can be seen more as a “cultural worker” via art. But the art work can resonate among folks and inspire action, which echoes the “activist” label. I’m quite fond of artists, though, whose work and life somehow speak similar political messages. Watch out for a paper I recently wrote on the life of Leonor Fini, an artist who never officially subscribed to being a member of the Surrealists, though her work and life certainly resonated politically and still inspire others, like myself, to be an independent agent when the group one is affiliated with reinforces / requires various oppressions.

Bluemoon Northeast: What other poets or artists feed your muse?

Amy King:   Loads. Right now, I’ve been engrossed with the work and lives of a loose-knit group of artists: Frida Kahlo. Leonor Fini, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo. And many more.

Bluemoon Northeast: What is next for you?

Amy King:  I’m testing the waters of poetry still, integrating more “real life” material of the aforementioned artists’ lives into this upcoming work.


The white of sacre coeur against the blue Parisian sky
marks passageways that blur whenever we enter this city's face.
By our bankrupt dreams, we hold out for starkness,
remember its eyes to dine in.
But I'm of little use to persons undercover, craving
in these buildings' recesses the corners of smiles,
eyes that bulge behind curtains, looking for anything
that will pull the cork, boil the blood
of displeasure tightened by the work of pleasing bosses
and each neighbor whose fence moves a little closer
each year, moaning to stroke the package
left nightly on my doorstep--of pearly liquid, bottled and tied
with a ribbon the color of fairy dust.
They, a secreted them, would have us die to erase that glow.
Mostly at the height of moon's night do her shady limbs
work across properties and lawns they guard with their lives,
whatever these are, whatever they become, however they burn.
For your listening pleasure, I turn as old as I was born,
stroke the bumpy skin of our whisky illness, manage the pyramids
we've never climbed or crawled within,
enter the Morocco never wrapped by your feet
kissing pebbles, visiting your veins, telling you mythologies
that include how we are the sores of hope riding
the backs of tomorrow, mountain peaks we climb
and shout the names of those to come and those who've been,
each of us who happens to be the world's greatest against every
shade of sky, and every sky that cradles our dying heads, still living.


After an artifact of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum Before we left Oswiecim, went to work elsewhere for the devil, and we left you to ...