The epigram for Slaves to Do These Things brings up the quiet matter of love. In the poem that King quotes – Charles Baudelaire’s “Beauty” – the poet likens himself to “a dream of stone.” His hard breast is made to evoke love from other poets. This love, being “mute and noble as matter itself,” is one with the body it has inspired. In “Beauty,” the matter or subject of poetic love has merged with the matter or atoms of the body. The meeting place of atoms and ideas is familiar territory for King whose poems explore the line between the concrete and abstract. In King’s poetry, however, matters of all kinds – intellectual, material and political – are not always noble, and rarely are they mute.
If they don’t speak, it seems more a matter of choice than of necessity. In “The Always Song,” the name of a forest leaves behind silence when it “walks through tall brown grass.” The word by going into the opposite of what it means – a treeless field rather than the woods – loses its purpose. In its wake come questions about the power of language. Can words really further our understanding of the world by naming its parts? King could address these doubts – “I could say / much about the part of not knowing” – but ultimately doesn’t. After offering a few descriptive lines about the woods with its “tracks and traps,” the speaker moves on to different matters. The explanation offered for this sudden exit is brief: “But I am savage, outside.”
This explanation on the surface doesn’t make sense. What is more savage than giving voice to “not knowing” in a forest where the wild and hermetic live? The word “savage” is rooted in the Latin silva meaning “forest.” But for King, the civilized thing to do would be to follow the “tracks” of the poem and go to where the lines appear to lead: into a meditation on doubt within the realm of nature. Instead, she wanders from the obvious path in this poem and throughout much of Slaves to Do These Things. Her words, far from seeming enslaved, keep veering off unexpectedly, dropping their given tasks. In “This Coffin’s Bucket of Soil,” verbs move in new directions to give us “a tooth biting down / the street that pierces / the row-boated brain.” The connections in these lines are at once sharply precise – this street, being unforeseeable, does pierce – and strongly confusing. The lines cause a laborious action, like a rowing of a boat, in the mind. At the poem’s end, the verb “to go” turns from the expected adjective to head for a noun, leading “wherever the foot goes ghost.”
Clearly, King is trying to reach a new reality in these poems, but the past haunts the old words that she must use to get there. This familiar conundrum for innovative poets shapes both the frustrating weaknesses and wonderful strengths of this notable book. When the words, taking sharp turns, don’t get enough momentum to make new connections, the result can be cumbersome. The words begin to seem like things – mere excess matter – barricading any path into the poem. In “Bleed Another Mouth,” for instance, King gives us a stanza of over fifty lines that contains a plate
of pork fat and greased potatoes
sunk through a sea below
the reaches of ankles,
dull hooks, and coffee punctured
floats into hardened coral,
an ossified limb some jetty
past pig-like remorse
The downward movement from the plate to the sea, rather than being dynamic, feels like the obvious effect of heaped-on images weighing down the lines. The poem ends up more dryly hallucinogenic than compelling.
But when King does succeed in turning words into new matter, she immediately pulls us back into a world that turns with an absorbing contradiction. Her world seems new, and is, but it moves in the same incongruous way as the real one, turning swiftly while appearing to stay still. While turning, it draws us in without inflicting the pain that Baudelaire speaks of in “Beauty.” His breast of stone bruises those drawn to it; in the translation from the French that King quotes, his chest is “where mortals come to grief.” The successful poems are kinder, being fashioned not from stone but from the moment. They are also closer to immortality than any isolated statue will ever reach since the moment, when it comprises all matter, holds the future in its entirety.
In King’s moving poem “Cows,” all time is held in a single night. A woman is beneath the moon. The speaker, in proximity to her, has “milkweed impulse / to smell her hair within.” Into this scene come cows that “shock” those “closest / in clover.” With the shock, language begins to turn, drawing the reader into a youthful “we”: “Turning to me, / turning to girls / we were sudden, innocent.” This “we,” as it turns from the past to the present, begins to fall apart. The matter that has gathered around the speaker – the night and sky – disperses:
Quiet with eyes,
could I explain
anything at all –
by the night
of the rain
I sparrow, then fall.
The speaker is one with the night as a sparrow, a new verb, that falls. We – what the word means at its most capacious – have come together and now must fall apart with the night.
The book often moves like this sparrow, going from ethereal realms to material ones with a sudden fall. None of the poems settle in one place long, being quick like birds. In its scope, the book is as wide as a sky above a field. What unifies the poems beyond style is a question that repeats in between the lines: What really matters? Jesus said God sees every sparrow fall, but King’s poems sometimes give the sense that no one who “matters” is watching. In these moments, the people who take care of matter – the body and its needs – have been isolated from meaning and power. This sense of isolation comes in “State of a Nation” as a theatrical show comes to an end, the curtains closed:
We hold on to the value
of a vote, a soliloquy, a sword,
and the lights after curtain.
When King successfully lets go of and transcends the “value” of this theater, the poetry takes flight. The language moves into a moment, profound on the page, where the sparrow is being watched and is watching.