Antidotes for an Alibi

Amy King’s first full-length collection, Antidotes for an Alibi, insists that we examine the deceptive clarity of our actions and the goals that motivate us. How does one actually get from “A” to “B”–and is there ever really a “B”? What color is the white space between “A” and “B”? Upon closer inspection, surface realities reveal themselves to be porous and fragile, layered with textures and grains that lead the eye on varying pathways. So what are we to do in a world of newspaper narratives that instruct us toward tidy endings, murmuring that such endings are possible and even inevitable?

These poems greet us with leaking giraffes, dogs that lick lye, the Lone Ranger, the inhabitants of Dishwater Island, an unmarried wife and a Sikh cab driver, all acting within a familiar environment of telephone messages, factory work, walks through woods, red robins and hummingbirds, war zones and American histories. Both the characters and their shifting frameworks combine and overlap to point out the strangeness we tend to overlook for clarity’s sake. King wants us to reconsider the possibilities of current events, to see that Truth is no longer a series of fixed notations in black and white, but is a shape-shifting, multi-faceted chain of perspectives. Her poetry celebrates the multiplicities that sing within the surface of every object and action; she aims at delectable surges, so that readers may touch and revel in the uncertainties of a complex world in motion.

I admire Amy King’s poetry tremendously for the way it manipulates apparently plain language into thoughtful audacities. But her work is never in love with its own spiky cleverness. Quite the opposite: it is marked, even at its most pointed or witty, by an austere refusal to giggle at its own surprises. I first came to understand King’s poetry, quite appropriately, by the accident of seeing what the British call “English mosaic” on a lamppost at the northeast corner of Eighth Street and Broadway in Manhattan. “English mosaic” is what happens when someone willfully creative takes pieces of porcelain, china, earthenware – ordinary, rare, or irreplaceable – smashes them (that violence being essential to rebirth) and forces the pretty shards into new relations to one another. That lamppost seems the perfect tangible representation of King’s work, which takes up the tactile and moral world we perceive, holds it tenderly for a moment in a cherishing embrace – the better to dash it against a hard surface and rearrange the new fragments in strange, indelible ways. Reading King’s poems makes the eyes smart in every sense of the phrase: readers are compelled to see as possible juxtapositions they never would have envisioned on their own. “English mosaic” also describes the cool fun King has with plain nickel words, artfully reshuffled. Hers is not a surrealist’s art – she does not embrace chaos – but she does want to make readers feel that the comfortable rug and chairs they sit on have somehow grown ambulatory and are threatening to walk outside into the yard to sniff the air. Nothing is quite safe; nothing remains the same – deliciously so.

–Michael Steinman has written and edited six books, including The Happiness of Getting It Down Right and The Element of Lavishness, which was selected as a NYT Notable Book in 2001.

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