Margaret Christakos. What Stirs (Coach House 2008).
Margaret Christakos is a kind of domestic bricoleur, a subtle constructionist of a poet, with a fine sense of how formal constraints can bring structure to all the ‘gathered’ material in her poems. What Stirs brings together a number of sequences all asking the question posed early in the book: ‘Just how many ways can hind senses be smarter / than Internet spam?’ The many ways she responds to this make for a sometimes funny, sometimes delirious, occasionally somber reading experience.
As it seeks new ways to deal with the commercial & social noise that surrounds us all in today’s civic world, What Stirs re-visits many of the thematic sites of her earlier books: the erotic life under pressure from the domestic duties of motherhood & the call of art or writing, feminist critique of those & the internal conflicts imposed by family love, the difficulty of finding any kind of ‘pure’ (lyric) language for the feelings arising in a world consumed by consumerism. Thus one of the few more or less conventional lyrics in What Stirs, ‘Andalou,’ is retrieved from an early collection, Not Egypt (which I remember liking because its lyricism was stringent & unconventional):
Eleven weeks to the day, I held
Her or him like a branch.
Like a tipped word. Through the window
Is another window.
In the midst of a midden of found language, this stands out, but it also reminds readers that poetry will continue to try to find a way toward such feeling even as it has to rip apart & use as building materials the awful anodyne & affectless language of the contemporary marketplace. Sometimes Christakos just removes some piece of syntax from found sentences, sometimes she simply mirrors & thus parodies the language of diaries, e-messages, etc. In ‘Turret Door,’ from ‘Little Latches,’ the phrase ‘hyphen dash’ replaces ‘latch’ in phrase after recognizable phrase in which the latter occurs; it’s great fun in an oddly unsettling way.
Formal play underwrites each section of What Stirs. Sometimes, it’s a small trick, as in ‘Air Index,’ where each poem’s title begins with ‘Air’; the next word in the title generates the imagery & language of the poem. There’s a lot to interest readers here. The title poem is a long apparently ‘autobiographical’ remembering of events & conversations, carefully contained (& constrained) in long-line couplets. But Christakos has so undermined the power of ‘I’ by this point that taking it as anything but highly constructed would be foolish. Thus, although it seems to be addressed to a possible potential lover, it slips out from that all too quickly
You will care about me as your narrator, not as your buddy or tour guide. I
can’t be your laundress and I won’t suck you off. You are a shallow
consumer if your palm is starting to perspire, already, before your arse
is even warm. What chair did you pick and why is parallel to my gaze
flickering to the thudless basketball hoop. I had a feeling. I had a strong
feeling of swiveling to the left then lifting my chin and recovering from
a long blink.
How this beginning shifts into a kind of meditation on desire, love, of family & lover, & poetry as itself an act of desiring takes the piece into the meta-. It above & beyond its seeming narrative.
‘(I Really Don’t Think You’re) Strong Enough’ plays a game with search engines that many others have also done, but introduces both a careful play of line & an ingenious interruption to make it her own.
Taken hold of something inside me
do you have any more? There’s
something inside me
you all stare
but you’ll never
see I smoke
because I just want to feel
something inside me That is how
[I cant seem to get the middle four lines there to indent, but they do.]
Although there are many different approaches to the concept of the poem in What Stirs, it is a single & singular book, held together by both Christakos’s continuing interests & a subtle redundancy of imagery & reference. What Stirs is a fine addition to her oeuvre.