May 2012

Lightsey Darst


I Want to Make You Safe by Amy King

Safe: the word derives from the Latin salvus, from which we also get salvation; the conjectured Proto-Indo-European root of salvus, sol-, meant whole. But if salvation triggers damnation, so safe sets off its opposite. Search for "safe" in our collective id, i.e., the Internet, and you get gun safes, thrillers, acronyms composed of fear. Search for "make safe" and you're given schematics for disarming bombs and querulous suggested searches: "make home safe," "make gun safe," "make money safe," "make a secret disguised safe," "feel safe," "hidden safe."

 So what does Amy King mean by calling her latest book I Want to Make You Safe?

Briefly, nothing easy. She may offer "I write quietly when asked," but don't take her up on it: what King means doesn't so much blur, in the pastel style of much contemporary poetry, as explode, its spiky shrapnel zinging everywhere.

The explosion starts at the cellular level. Early on, a diligent reader, I puzzled over "Its fingers sign their names with wind / in pyramid skins harboring our pupils."

"It," I think, from the lines before, is art, but what is a "pyramid skin," and how would it harbor pupils? Is this some tortured reference to the Masonic symbol on the dollar bill? Or does she, by pupils, mean students, in which case we have, what, moneyed, prematurely aged students envisioned as alien beings, body-snatchers?

King's "apple-black herons" really did it for me here: if herons can occasionally be black (more charcoal, though, not the glossy sable of a blackbird), apples do not come in that range, nor do apples and herons have much in common in their way of reflecting light. I can only make this make real-world sense by wrenching the situation: a wizened, rotten apple, a heron at dusk. But this is not what anyone would usually mean by "apple" as an adjective.

If strange things happen to words here, these acts are mere warm-ups for the grammatical orgy to come. Here's King making a triple jump, each step removing us further from the literal: "My sputum knows the throats of all who cross us out."

There is a sort of grand metaphor practiced in epic (that is to say, not in centuries) in which the writer moves us into a simile, lulls us with an indulgent description, then abruptly moves us out of the simile in a different direction, gleaning something new from the comparison. King may be doing that in a highly compressed form; it's hard to follow her closely enough to tell.

King's characteristic move is a preposition chain, as here:

bass organs pounding out
babies from a glassy sun
against the stewing universe
within our gassy brow.

Or here:

These little braids of wishes fall
around the carcass of serendipity we meant to spoon
from the belly of a lightning bolt

Prepositions typically connect; their variety clarifies relations among the objects of the world. But King's prepositions distance, sever, confuse; she makes every point of connection a back alley, a trap.

This isn't to say there aren't pluckable plums in King's English: "a lovely candle refusing / to flicker," or "a Roman ruins kind of day." Evidence (the beautiful and comparatively easy "The David Witness") suggests she could write you something rather sweet, if in a restrained classical mode, but she won't, possibly because "If I make people feel good, will they / do good?"

Echoes across the poems -- phrases of obscure, insinuating intent, like "fusion is the only thumb" -- make me suspect there's some deeply-laid scheme behind it all, something more than the usual political situation (Guantanamo gets name-checked), but I'm too confused to fathom more than her top inch. That is, I remain too confused. I can (as above) explicate the sources of my confusion, but an understanding of cause and effect won't save you here, as when we build "shelters to stop the bombing." I'm lost a little too deep to seize at straws of content -- which just might be what King means by "Criminal digging at buried light / at risk of soul at risk of loss."

What I might be digging for, or whether it's even me that's digging, I can't say, but I know the feeling. At least, I know it now.

But back to my earlier, simpler question about King's title -- come to think of it, isn't "make safe" what mobsters do in movies? You know the scene: the old lion raises his rusty head, asks the young bruiser, "Did you make him safe?" The bruiser, wiping blood on his handkerchief, grins and nods. Should we, then, guard against the poet's homicidal desire? The "you" provides an alternative: we may be eavesdropping on an address. And I did think I saw the glow of a beloved in some lines: "How can I never see you again?" King plaintively asks. In this light it may be relevant that "safe" now means "attractive," "good," even "yes," in slang -- an example of the extent to which the security industry has overtaken the collective imagination? Possibly. But you'll have to dive further into King to find out. And this is murky water: who knows where or how or whether you'll come out.

I Want to Make You Safe by Amy King
Litmus Press
ISBN: 978-1933959238
87 pages