Amy King’s poems aren’t a walk in the park. They’re a hustle down a city street, an unflinching look at what can be found: a rusted car, a lawn chair, a bright thread snagged on a fence. They’re not always pretty, and they’re rarely easy, but they force us to see that which we would discount to the detriment of our own cognizance.
In her fourth poetry collection, I Want to Make You Safe (Litmus Press), King encircles intimacy with broader existence, placing the narrator in conflict with a wider world that often breaches her secret, treasured private life. The weight of injustice, gender inequities, the demands of a coldly capitalist society—as these concerns creep into the lines, King unfurls her activist colors with a quiet pride.
That’s not to say that the book eschews the poetic for the purposeful; it doesn’t. But King unapologetically reminds us that the “big issues” generally reserved for “political” poetry affect our daily existence in ways we often forget. “We are each dislodged by another new industry,” she writes, “that no longer holds the indigenous raw, / the remotest zones, the last upswept corners of an immigrant globe” (7). This, in the midst of a poem about a waitress’ daughter with a fondness for fried shrimp and peppermint pie. The bourgeoisie and the right-wing, the property owners and the “American promise of a flat sky’s mouth / opening and surrounding itself in one flat gulp” (14) are all inseparable from the minutia of these characters’ lives—a truth of our own lives that we’d like to forget.
Love, then, is a direct challenge to the chaos spiraling around us. But it, too, is fraught: there is envy and violence, passion and alienation. Men and women dance around one another in King’s poems, struggling to separate the intermingled identities of lovers: “You think I am she. She is you and everyone who adjusts too well. / The hint of another country turns your head” (63). In a world where human relations are governed by social dynamics, the fight to make a relationship of one’s own feels quite daring.
Even the act of writing probes the boundaries between compliance and rebellion. As she writes in the long poem “I Want to Make You Safe,” “Proof is the poet’s burden / to tell but write beneath” (44). Yet even writing is subject to the mores of the world. In a beautifully grotesque moment, “A plural centipede burrows outbound, / crawls the spine of my hand, / tells my pencil to move along, give out lead” (12). What emerges on the other side of these lines, however, is not what the establishment—or often the reader—would expect.
The vertigo-inducing about-faces disorient the reader in an apt recreation of our ever-quickening world. Where other poets offer an intense focus, King relies on juxtapositions to produce, if not “meaning” in the conventional sense, resonance. Exhilaration, indignation, and confusion—all result from her words, and all force a closer look at the ways in which our lives vibrate to the pitch of countless factors.
King’s poems reveal a fidelity to language—fresh, cerebral language—that is frequently lost to narrative in contemporary writing. She writes, “little braids of wishes fall around the carcass of serendipity” (21), and to a lover, a wish to “enter the Morocco never wrapped by your feet” (11). Little flickering images delight the reader: “opal green butterflies, a swamp snap of lightning,” the “hairless creatures, blind, between our toes” that grow from a sense of wonder (53). By contrast, “the dust that snakes / its poisonous husks / into silken lungs” (20) simply reverberates with danger.
In spite of the language’s crispness, the poems are at times difficult to navigate. Where the abstractions pile up, particularly in the absence of an overt human presence, readers will struggle. “Why the Wind,” for instance, asks “O fuzzy city, / Dear communal map, / are you made of calcium / or fire-based fifty proof?” (29). Even in the context of the poem, the images are difficult to reconcile with one another, much less to draw into an understanding.
When King’s abstractions toe the line of directness in Part 3, “The Familiar,” though, the collection really catches fire. The fragments of contemporary life coalesce into moments sufficiently realized for the reader to inhabit. We walk a segment of the Appalachian Trail, “make the music beneath the bushes burrow under the stars” (51); we are the lovers who “make love, even in the thicket of sex” and we know how “the fields of our envy blaze beneath a brindle moon” (59). Here, the emotion runs deepest, and the proof most powerful.
Ours is an abstract, difficult experience—not “safe,” by any means. Yet as Amy King reminds us in I Want to Make You Safe, to overcome the chaos surrounding us, we must first perceive it to the fullest. Understanding is the key to resistance.