Happy, In Fact: Amy King's Slaves to Do These Things

Time is a funny thing. It's only really there when you aren't paying any attention to it. Take notice of the passage of time, and it freezes in place, neither future nor past but rather the oppressive weight of a nowness that is paradoxically both never ending and impossibly fragile. There is a sense of this troubling temporality that shoots through all of Amy King's Slaves to Do These Things, which obsesses about temporal passage and what it does to us in a continual iteration of images. This "caughtness" by time is captured in lines like:

Buried by Midnight
I am a warm
fly in amber.

from "Miracle on the Hudson"

or

Usually no one goes
close enough to notice
the noise of biding time,
a vastly off-white habit
from patience.

from "Anarchy's Tiptoe"

What matters in these images, and others, recurring throughout the poems in this book, is that they establish time as a framework within which the entirety of the poet's concerns are found. This temporality is compounded by the sectioning of the book into the usual five acts of stage drama, forcing the rhythm and expectation of a linear dramatic narrative onto the inherently nonlinear scraps of theater contained within each Act. Here then, are the slaves, the characters and persons collected within King's poems bearing under the weight of the master time, and also the master of the poet who is never far from the page. Because these poems are in no way about time, but they are within time and the concerns of lust and love, sex and death, growth and evolution are all made heavy by the burden of time's whip upon them.

These poems are aware of their temporariness as well as their temporality, made all the more so by King's deft skill with language. I have remarked on occasion that Amy is possibly the most important poet of my generation, and that high praise verging on the admittedly hyperbolic is nevertheless borne out by the precision and focus of her language here. Into a bare ninety odd pages she has crammed the entirety of what matters about human existence with a clarity and compassion that still allows the words on the page to breathe and the subjects to expand beyond the words into the wider penumbra of meaning. And there are no simple images here. A line about sex or love or time can easily transform itself into a comment on lust, on the nature of embodied existence, on the problems of wrestling with the divine; eg:

I don't want sex, real
or just to mind fuck—
but to take
care of the furniture, now
while we lie here, infested.

from "Just To Mind Fuck"

These lines scream out for close reading. Note the line break after "take" imparting on it the double meaning first of theft, the idea of forced alien possession, followed closely by "care of the furniture" a twist so subtle in it's queering of expectations that it could have come straight out of Tender Buttons. Still further, note the comma's of the final two lines and the vertical juxtaposition of the words "now" and "infested." In many ways this is the heart of these poems, what counts for life in the enslaved existence of the infested now. Even here in the satiation of lust in all of its immediacy, the weight of temporality attaches and infuses everything with its fatality. What we are left with are the superficial and servient tasks of caring for the furniture in a futile effort to forestall the coming entropy.

But this is not the only problem of time, for it is also generative, a theme that King returns to repeatedly, although perhaps most starkly in the poem "Survival of the Fittest" wherein the state of motherhood and the furthering of the species is held in contrast to the necessity of death and evolution's brutal indifference to the desire of the inseminated, a truth King equates ultimately with extinction. She writes:

Such is the plight of the dodo,
staring down the barrel,
demanding life to speak.

Here the double duty is done by the verb "to demand" both deployed as request and command. It is both the plea of the threatened to be allowed to survive and the righteous condemnation of the condemned that this life which has done it such wrong justify itself in the face of the plight it has wrought.

Slaves to Do These Things is a lace doily of such densities, and King makes repeated use of various repeated images and metaphors to tie them altogether and give the whole work a striking continuity. Again and again she returns to frozen time, to certain animals, to clothing and sensuality, as a sort of substance from which she forms meaning. Reader's familiar with King's critical writing will be aware that her poetics are heavily informed by Queer and Feminist critical theory, and that influence is strongest in this work in the subtle occasional motif of horses. Horses here serve to strongly evoke their present association with girlhood and feminine aristocracy, but King makes no bones about their essentially enslaved status, again queering the image of horse as beloved companion to something more like a docile servant, or indeed slave, which stands in for queer and woman, harnessed by the master to do the work it doesn't feel like doing itself, and nevertheless doing it with greater efficiency and care.

I'm wary of being too reductive of the density of King's language however. While it is clear in the text that there are through lines to be followed, they function almost like a motif in a fugue, or a pedal point on which to return as King stretches out into the hinterland of language to draw on the deeper and more transcendent aspects of being. In this, I detect a resistance to a dialectical reading, because while ultimately what I think King is concerned with here is the nature of becoming by moving against time as a sort of point of resistance, what she is not interested in is sustaining such artificial constructs as the Master Slave dialectic itself, or of the notion of dialectical development altogether. Rather, in reading this book, what I have the sense of is an attempt to collapse all such structures as inherently stultifying. King repeatedly invokes inversions of typical imagery that could be read in such a manner, for example making "gods from the dust." And she is clearly aware as she works that there will be those readers who will try to fit her work into such a mode. Some of what she writes even seems like a direct challenge to such an attempt, at one point again returning to the notion of theft and calling "language the arm of behavior" again not so much collapsing thesis and antithesis, but denying that relationship from first principles. Instead, an almost Nietzschean demand for manumission is made against such structures, even, ultimately time itself, and this liberation comes, I think, through an embrace of time not as master but as medium, and a reinvocation of the self as something akin to song, an unfolding melody over time, which is the image evoked by the final poem in the book. For the song, of course, the lyric which carries it moves over time, but is not brought on by time but by a thinking act

untying wrists
you know aren't yours,
not in name or by word
but by the jugular
of an etched over dream that
you bare them with...

from "We Are Great Songs"

Of course saying that, I've barely scratched the surface. There is truly a deep dimension of complexity in the pages of this book, and repeat readers will reap great rewards.