Amy King’s irascible and incantatory sprawlfest, The Missing Museum, which won the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Prize (a fact which alone makes it the Heavyweight Champ of World Poetry as that year’s TS Prize anointed literal dozens of books of astonishing breadth and beauty as finalists and semifinalists), begins with a one-poem prologue/manifesto, the beautiful, frustrating “Wake Before Dawn & Salt the Sea,” which reads like a sonnet that refuses to restrain itself to quite the syllables required and yet still manages to convey precision and restraint, and which tells a reader everything about poetry: explicitly, that it is useless, it is fuckworthy, it is love; implicitly, it is the only choice that can be made by this glib, driven, passionate, jaded speaker, or anyone with any intelligence and heart. It is a warning and a dare: “We are not edges of limbs or the heart’s smarts only.” It is a fitting introduction to this book of poems that, as it demands, wrestle and make love, and which unsurprisingly leave the reader breathless, dazzled, exhausted, and slightly bruised.
This, of course, comes as no surprise to those familiar with King’s work. It is uninterested in evenness and regularity. It is adroit and sharp and scream-y (often in literal caps) and rampaging. You don’t disgorge a poem entitled “PUSSY PUSSY SOCHI QUEER PUSSY PUTIN SOCHI QUEER QUEER PUSSY” because you are trying to lull your reader with luxe, calme, et volupté. And yet King’s work is for me memorable because, amid all those sharp blades and swears, her light step is frequently, unavoidably beautiful, with lines that you want to lick until they melt: “SHE WRITHED IN THE SEA BESIDE ME.” This kind of lubricious sonority makes you wonder if King needs handlers to get out of readings unmolested lest enthused listeners try to lick her. Not that this is what the poem is angling for; it just seems to be a by-product of the relentless courage and curiosity with which this work confronts, well, everything. Some examples of “everything” include sex, drugs, drinking, love, war, writing, belonging, identity, America, myth, ordnance, New York, social media, string theory, stop and frisk, writing, love, war, sex, depression, violence, self-doubt, art, politics, and even a subtle jibe at New Jersey that makes those of us allegiant to the Apple swell with pleasure and with the wistfulness of missing it.
If, however, you are not familiar with King’s work, I refer you to the two excellent and complementary reviews of this book on Goodreads, which I found during errant Googling when wondering where to begin this review. They are disonnant but symmetrical, being both written by older white men called John A. The first John A., himself a writer, is pithy: he gives five stars and repurposes a couplet from King’s book into a description of it: “”My, how her reach has grown./Like gunpowder aches in the calyx’ eardrum.” It’s coy but certain praise. The second John A. begins by calling the author “Mrs. King,” which will demonstrate to you that he lives on a planet I call Getmedafuqout, and continues with: “This is a pretty good collection. I heard chiefly about King through her University status as a professional feminist…”
…I can’t even be irritated by this characterization because I’m too busy being delighted by its unintentional hilarity and re-reading the piece “A Woman Is an Act” in light of its status as screed of the Professional Feminist: “You don’t even know/you’re falling into what you build,/made of what you fuck,/guilt for pleasure,/ how you capitalize and see the others of us/through the pores of such efforts…” O John the Second in your omniscient banality, meet Amy King and her quiverful of zingers, each line making an arrow sing; she is both adroit and trenchant, a sad contrast to your plodding paternalism (“an excellent effort,” finisheth John). And yet notoriety as a Professional Feminist, if King has it, seems to fit. The Missing Museum closes with an all-caps poem that forges rough chains of its claims and concerns, saying, among other things,
YOU CAN’T GIVE UP PUSSY IF YOU WANT TO LEARN.
THAT WHICH WE FEAR LOVES US BACK AND CAN TEAR US APART.
I’M NOT HOLLYWOOD. I’M NOT A BEAUTIFUL BOUNTY.
I OCCUPY SPACE.
O Reader: in this gorgeous and terrible moment, the space occupied is called you.
Amy King is the author of the poetry collection, The Missing Museum, co-winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. King also joins the ranks of Ann Patchett, Eleanor Roosevelt & Rachel Carson as the recipient of the 2015 Women’s National Book Association Award. She serves on the executive board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and is currently co-editing with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology, Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She is also co-editing the anthology, Bettering American Poetry 2015, and is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.
Genève/Geneva Chao is the biracial, bicultural, and bilingual author of one of us is wave one of us is shore (Otis Books | Seismicity Editions), and Hillary Is Dreaming (Make Now Books). Chao is the translator of Gérard Cartier’s Tristran and, with François Luong, of Nicolas Tardy’s Encrusted on the Living. Chao’s forthcoming manuscript is called émigré.