- "Alone with America"Lauren K. Alleyne's Honeyfish, Kyle Dargan's Anagnorisis, and Arthur Sze's Sight Lines
criticism, poets, America, Lauren K. Alleyne, multicultural, Kyle Dargan, race, Arthur Sze
By Lauren K. Alleyne
New Issues, 2019
87p. PB, $16
By Kyle Dargan
104p. PB, $18
By Arthur Sze
Copper Canyon, 2019
80p. PB, $16
Much has changed in America and American poetry in the nearly forty years since Richard Howard published his expanded edition of 1969's Alone With America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950. The 1980 table of contents itself tells a significant tale of those changes: forty-one poets under consideration, six of them women, not one a person of color.
I note this not to single out Howard for these egregious oversights, since the canon is legion with similar anthologies from this period privileging poetries in the white, Western, mostly male-dominated canon. As Howard himself states in his preface to the enlarged edition, he deliberately left "the [second iteration of the] book as it was [in the first edition], unplundered by hindsight," acknowledging that "the perspectives of these essays date—that is perhaps their liveliest claim on our interest now, for without a history, what is any criticism?"
Howard's essays do indeed "date" an unforgivably narrow historical literary worldview that poets, critics, and editors of the past ten years, in particular, have worked assiduously to remediate. But Howard's title, Alone With America—taken from historian Perry Miller's 1952 Errand into the Wilderness—continues to haunt with fresh prescience.
Miller's well-known study explores the consciousness of the first European settlers in America as they began to evolve, often against their will, into something other than European: "They looked in vain to history for an explanation of themselves … . Thereupon these citizens found that they had no other place to search but within themselves…. Having failed to rivet the eyes of the world upon their city on the hill, they were left alone with America."
The reciprocal exchange of energy—inward, outward—that poems (political and personal) depend upon seems contingent on there being some sort of remotely recognizable starting point, some "reality" to acknowledge, resist, transform. America has no doubt always been unrecognizable to many of its denizens—a nation in which it feels at times almost impossible—despite advances in technology and social networking—to feel anything but alone. That America often feels particularly obdurate for many citizens in our twenty-first-century moment poses particular challenges for poets attempting to write about it.
Each of the three books under consideration here—all written by people of color during, in spite of, and in response to a Trumpian political climate of denial and fear, a time of immigration chaos, escalating gun violence, and all manner of contentious [End Page 160] gender, racial, and environmental imperilments—confronts in its own way what it means to create art in an especially unfathomable America.
Lauren K. Alleyne's first book, Difficult Fruit, came out from Peepal Tree Press in 2014. Honeyfish, winner of the 2018 Green Rose Prize of New Issues Press, extends the project of Difficult Fruit—sonically rhythmic songs of ire, becoming, grief, petition, and longing for justice (and love) in a world of racial, cultural, and gender bias. Of the three texts under review here, it is perhaps the most fervently elegiac.
Many of the poems are written in memoriam for ghosted beloveds—lost family members and friends—or on behalf of victims of racial, gender, and other hate-based violence: historical figures such as Trayvon Martin, Alesha MacPhail, and Tamar Rice, but also mythical ones, like Io. Other poems concern terror: neo-Nazi and alt-right demonstrations, mass shootings, immigration wars, Klan rallies—anyplace "someone decides / to ignite America / into some again-burning / greatness." A series of self-portraits allow us to see a speaker (daughter, lover, citizen) who is as vulnerable and passionate as she is angry: "I'm a woman with skin," Alleyne writes in "Self-Portrait with Burning Crosses," "that summons crosses and flames. / Which is to say I...