The title poem in Amy King’s Kiss Me with the Mouth of Your Country presents a border that’s hard to cross. Appearing at the beginning of this chapbook, the poem draws us into a dream while simultaneously keeping us out. This twist starts in the first line where the speaker directly addresses the reader, or so it seems at first. It soon becomes apparent that she is talking to herself: “Do you suffer the sea and yes, / in a special way I do...” The sea here offers up a quick series of images, some of which are both realistic and dreamlike. We learn of the deployment of “confessing soldiers” and “the corners / of our displaced breaking weapons.” The Iraq War with its profiteering—its mercenaries and defective equipment—seems to be coming through the surface, refracted through collective guilt. Then again, it is almost impossible to distinguish between surface and depth in this poem and in King’s work generally. She tends to use sound and image with a force that churns through words. “The old guard goes to easy chairs,” one stanza begins; then the pace quickens: “seventh inning slump, / but even now, / this pump ushers rosy veins…” While mapping the “country” in the title, King draws upon a passion that moves forward through internal rhymes. She pushes from “slump” to its antithesis “pump” to blur style with meaning.
One thing is clear: these lines are lyrical. The title poem ends with this sung instruction:
You must fall a little in love
with the singer to love her song.
You must follow the entire
before you enter her parts.
The poems in this chapbook—twenty-one in total—present a complex and beautiful country to love. King takes each poem to an unusual end, using rich, specific language. She often employs internal rhymes and clear images that move from the concrete into the abstract or from the visual into the auditory. In King’s work, language is breaking apart before our eyes and in our ears. This fracturing mirrors how words routinely are broken in both public and private. Meaning splits off from sound as people unthinkingly lie to themselves and others. The practice is occasionally unavoidable and always pathetic. “Equivocation envisions escape,” writes King in “No Man’s Land,” a poem from her second book, I’m the Man Who Loves You.
The poems in I’m the Man Who Loves You, published just last year, are much different from the ones in this new chapbook. The most obvious distinction relates to how King cracks open language to fuel her poems. In I’m the Man Who Loves You, the poetry sometimes becomes so fierce that it moves into the inflammatory. While exploring the violence of American culture, for instance, King brings up lynching and rape. Phrases such as “a giving tendril of smiling nooses” and “raping each other / with permission, hence the perils of war” draw upon a brutality that runs deep in this country. At the same time, these words recreate some of the strategies that allow racist and sexist violence to continue. The people who are holding the “smiling nooses” are obscured from view. Are they smiling themselves? We don’t know, but the fact that they are hidden makes racism seem like something other than the result of human action. Rather, it looks as natural as a “giving tendril.” As far as raping “with permission” goes, it is impossible to do, except in the imagination of the rapist. King uses this phrase while referring to the work of Goya:
This Goya painting resembles carnival friends
running wild, yapping Brooklyn Ale, raping each other
with permission, hence the perils of war.
Were it not for the aesthetic context here—the Brooklyn coolness, the link to Goya—the phrase about rape would be blatantly offensive. Similarly, war provides the rapist with a context in which to freely express his beliefs. Someone else’s country is broken, like Goya’s Spain after it was invaded by France. Laws are suspended, leaving the rapist to take advantage of the chaos.
What if the logic of rape showed up in a context that revealed its human consequences? Or what if the focus were to move from the instruments of racism to the people using them? I’m the Man Who Loves You inspires such questions but does not so much as pause—the style is breathlessly dense—to allow the reader to contemplate them. King isn’t concerned with breaking down social structures with questions. She is more interested in translating those structures into a lyrical and often queer tongue. This strategy allows us to see the world in new terms, but as soon as the translation becomes inflammatory, some questions arise: Who is most likely to be jarred by such language? Are these readers in denial about racist and sexist terrorism? Once again the poetry seems immune to such considerations. Questions end up buried beneath the fiery push of the style.
In Kiss Me With the Mouth of Your Country, the language never reaches such a fevered pitch. It doesn’t have to. These poems don’t rely so heavily on language for their energy and form. King has taken up other tools to move her poems forward: a sense of setting, a strong mood, a memorable voice. In “Hands Half Face”—the third poem in the chapbook—the speaker talks to the reader with an intimacy sharpened by urgency and suspicion:
Don’t think of me,
I won’t think of you.
You baby pinprick,
Rain from the roof of my mouth—
I’m not terrible for them,
I’m terrible for you.
The reference to “them” in the last two lines gives the poem a sense of conspiracy. Maybe the voice is a whisper. It certainly is distinct and draws us into a secret that we don’t know and don’t quite trust either. The “baby pinprick”—unexpected and sharp—keeps us away. King is repeating the pattern from the first poem where the reader, having been pulled in (“Do you suffer the sea”), is then left alone (“and yes, / in a special way I do…”). In the first poem, the movement of emotional reaching and retreating echoes the ebb and flow of the sea. Here the pattern can’t sustain a comparison to something as powerful as the ocean; as an image, the “baby pinprick” is too coy and indistinct. (Is a pin pricking a baby, or is the pinprick little?) The power of the line rests entirely on how it sounds and feels on the tongue. You baby pinprick, / Rain from the roof of my mouth— The words get tangled up when spoken and do what that second line promises: they make you salivate.
What happens in the next stanza is why this chapbook is a breakthrough for Amy King and a pleasure for poetry lovers. The words become rooted in the body. The poet’s characteristic quickness remains but is no longer so airless. This movement of the word into the body happens through the mouth. The palette’s “rain” from the previous stanza is followed by a storm of sound:
With swarming thunder,
soil fans itself dark
below your window’s belly,
your eternal flame,
your lost ache
regained by touching you.
The language is becoming grounded in breath. The descent of the lines into the body is quick like lightning, but in an electrifying change, thunder is what is coming down into the “sudden fertile / soil.” The hands and mouth are connecting both to the past—“the lost ache”—and to others—“regained by touching you.” The words are turning into the sound of something hard to translate: sexual memory and need.
King goes on to reveal the setting in the next and last stanza of the poem. She creates this setting with images that achieve a miraculous balance between opposites: they are both inanimate and alive, intimate and distant:
I am that hand,
that terrible half face
through wooden rooms
under clapboard drains
within the frames of mirrors.
I am that pile of ash
that blows back into you.
King is letting us into the poem where the speaker is addressing us directly without wavering. Gleaning ourselves in the mirror—each of us alone—we find that we have become part of this speaker. We are trapped in a home and nowhere too. This house, which King draws in bold lines of clapboard and ash, does not feel solid. It holds a face that isn’t quite solid either. This face is “terrible” because its image is scattered, a half here, a half there.
Kiss Me with the Mouth of Your Country is a potent work not only artistically but politically, more so than King’s earlier poetry. Instead of loaded words, we get moments that bring us into a body where the borders shift. In this “country,” the “I” and “you” suddenly change because the line between the two keeps moving. The borders here are insecure because they are defended by private, piecemeal methods—“a pile of ash / that blows back into you.” This “country” is the body of a woman, and it stubbornly remains in quotes because it is a permeable thing, especially when trapped inside the home. Laws about rape and incest, ineffectual in practice, help keep it that way, as does the sexist culture. As a country, this body looks real enough, but because its borders don’t mean a great deal, it isn’t. Near the end of the chapbook, King returns to her earlier more cerebral style, turning images at a manic rate, but this idea of the body and its borders lingers. The poetry is haunted by it, like a house haunted by the idea of not being there.