Reading Margaret Christakos’s poetry on the page is like reading sheet music. You don’t get the full effect until you hear it. And when you do hear it, when you read it aloud to yourself, you realize that the music is wildly experimental and takes some participation. Christakos, in What Stirs, challenges you to meet her halfway. There’s nothing passive about these poems.
One key can be found in “Andalou,” a short poem that is relatively straightforward: “Eleven weeks to the day, I held / Her or him like a branch. / Like a tipped word. Through the window / Is another window.” The image of a window seen through a window is key to understanding the original structure of most of these poems. When you look through a window, you see an understandable world filled with familiar images. But when you look through Christakos’s window, you find yourself looking through a second, fragmented window where the familiar is broken up, diffused.
Take, for example, a passage from “Used”: “In department store windows it’s They / happen in lack like blubbering like / large punk bowtie blabbering They don’t / know what will happen its own / many-featured lack.” Christakos breaks up language much like jump cuts in a film. (A blurb on the back cover attests to this as well.) That cinematic sense becomes more evident when you hear it read aloud. Other passages in the same poem don’t make the literal meaning any clearer: “Be a letdown Always match Cleverly / match the gaunt Be up up / vain All the cleverly the punk / bowtie with some nice elbows Zesty / Almost gaunt.” What we have is language calling attention to itself, language for language’s sake. This is poetry for the graduate school crowd, not the Billy Collins crowd. Whether that’s a good thing depends on your definition of poetry and how inclusive you find it to be. I appreciate the effort, but I don’t find these poems enjoyable.
At the start of “(I Really Don’t Think You’re) Strong Enough,” Christakos writes, “Something inside me was screaming Write / you fool! Tell the whole damned / world how you / feel! Something inside / says there’s something / better than this.” There are occasional flashes of beauty such as this. And there is humor, such as this line from “Lost (‘Immortal’)”: “Living this long’s going worse than planned.”
Margaret Christakos is a poet worth following, but you proceed at your own risk.