I attempted to read Amy King’s I Want to Make You Safe (Litmus Press, November 2011) while sitting quietly in the quiet of my slightly comfortable chair. I tried to read Amy King’s I Want to Make You Safe while lying quietly on a king-sized bed, thirty stories above ground (it’s quiet up there!), in a room devoid of interior and exterior sounds: no radio, no television, no texting, no wondering mind. I attempted stillness. & failed. I finally managed to read Amy King’s I Want to Make You Safe, the first time, at a bar in Brooklyn during happy hour, then on the (incessantly crowded, persistently noisy) downtown 6 train. King’s book is not quiet; hers is an aesthetics of sound fractured, fragmented, compounded, mixed, remixed, sampled, jointed, yes, even anointed. (Check out the cover of this book, it’s sparseness of image, this blaringly red background, these glaringly gray figures, mouths open. Caught mid-pounce (whose in danger? (you must be asking yourself!)).
There is a ferociousness and power in this cover art (the title of the book, too), which reflects the baseline emotion in these poems: vehement protection (but of whom? from whom?). The opening poems propose “safety” could be a willingness to retreat into the imagination, a willingness to take control of uncomfortable situations by repurposing them. In “Some Pink in Your Color,” King leaps out of the passive position of being stuck in a hospital bed, to the active (and activist) position of poet, lover, philosopher, healer. “Did you know I’m in this hospital bed?” she coyly asks, only to quickly rebound, “I’m not. . ./I’m . . ./watching from the screen across the bed/whose pulse is worn down with an IV to the head” (emphasis mine, 1-5). Here is the spirit, mind, heart, and imagination transported to the moving figures on the television, gazing at the body left behind in the bed. The poet returns to gaze and comment upon this body, compassionately, without pity, but with genuine curiosity and frustration: “I can’t imagine the heart anymore/now that it presses my ribs apart” (15-16). The body that disappoints, disappears; this act/ivity temporarily frees the speaker to live outside of the body long enough to understand it.
Connecting the body to art (as that which comes from the body, which lives in the body, which defends the body, which deceives the body, which destroys the body, which provides passageways to forgive the body, to recreate the body) art to philosophy (what is the body, what are its limitations, its excesses, can we discard the body) philosophy to politics (who owns the body, who has rights to the body, who deserves (health) care for the body) carries us (noisily) through these (full-bodied) explorations. No subject is forgotten in these poems—“pyramid skins,” “undiscovered tribes,” “baby diamonds,” “meadowlands,” “mortgages,” “stigmata,” “religion’s aftermath,” “horn-throated beetles,” “lint of dreams,” and “first fruit”—and yet, this is not a poet who supposes to know: “We think we know things” (the former images and this line is from the poem “Follow the Leader of My Silken Teeth”; a poem that, to be noted, calls upon the visual work of Janet Cardiff, whose art, according to Cardiff’s website, “depends on the active participation of the viewer/participant for its full realization”). In this collection, King is a poet who wants to provide safety, to be safe, and who seems to insist that safety is knowledge and action (“Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” may be a great essay to have by your side as you read these poems, as well as “Poetry is Not a Luxury” and a series of astronomy articles, a series of physics articles, some piles of books on holistic approaches to health, on mathematics, on assemblage, and a few government websites on immigration, security, dispersion of wealth, and a few of those magazines we love to pretend we don’t see (celebrity rags)).
King’s poems “hear mountains moving inside” and “move mountains too” (“Bows at the End of Death,” 16-17). At their core, these are love poems, love that we’ve forgotten how to talk about in public: unfiltered compassion. From the beginning, where King re-contemplates the history of (the) birthing (project) (“a cavity/just as clean as we birthed from a hole, far ago,/an embryo buried in the roundest tree hollow” (“The Identity in My Crisis,” 18-20), to the long titular poem (“Let them grow, these future kids/my womb to fill, my womb well hid,” 13-14), to the final long poem, “This Opera of Peace,” these poems wander through the ugliest fields, the most beautiful fields, to compose a kind of manifesto of love. “I’m carrying a baby/wren beneath my tongue/in the hollow of my head/back to you” (286-288), the poet says, after lines and lines moving in and within and out of “the reserves of suffering.” The poem (and the book) concludes
Until, grooming and mewing
we birth the baby wren,
full of downy coos,
the tiniest nest within
our mouths’ open bellies,
thinning now, we love (303-308).
What is safe? An exigent act, a refusal to become the (hospital) bed you’re lying in, the IV feeding your veins, a noise that begins with a clash of roars. An understanding that “we think we know things” and that we may be wrong about who needs the protections.