A FEW YEARS BACK, two debut poetry collections made Portland noteworthy to the minds of the nation's literati, though for different reasons. Portland poet Emily Kendal Frey's The Grief Performance won the Norma Farber First Book Award. Then, in 2012, Octopus Books released Balloon Pop Outlaw Black, the first book of poetry by Patricia Lockwood, who has since been named the "Poet Laureate of Twitter" by HTML Giant and become one of the most widely read poets of her generation.
Both Frey and Lockwood have recently published follow-up books, and they're reading together at Powell's on Friday, July 11. Since her debut, Frey's been working in poetry's traditional avenues of chapbooks and collaborations. Meanwhile, Lockwood blew up online: @TriciaLockwood has over 44,000 followers on Twitter, and while she's been published widely in print—New Yorker, Poetry—it's her online presence that has made her famous.
Lockwood's new book, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, takes many cues from the internet. Her first book traded in the kind of obscurity familiar to readers of contemporary poetry—odd, idiosyncratic images; references to the outside world that only added interior layers; language games that ignored the rules.
Homelandsexuals, on the other hand, trades in internet-age obscurity. In "Search 'Lizard Vagina' and You Shall Find," there's a nod to the very 2014 feeling of being about-to-know, rather than not-knowing. Lockwood plays with this idea throughout the book, presenting knowledge as something both dangerous and horrifyingly easy to obtain.
In this collection, all knowledge is carnal knowledge. In "There Were No New Colors for Years," the advent of "neon" colors backgrounds the way one "jealous... uncomfortable... sexually helpless" generation fears and abuses the next.
Sex and sexual violence are, for better or worse, ideas attached to Lockwood's career: Last year, her poem "Rape Joke" was published not in a literary journal or a print magazine, but online at the Awl, the injection point for what became a viral infection of poetry on the internet. Timely, complex, powerful, the poem is a wide, uncomfortable grimace.
Much of the book focuses on sex and comedy as weapons—so although it's funny, it's also aggressive and subversive. Often blowing up an outrageous idea (like casting Dickinson and Whitman as the father and mother of American poetry, respectively, in "The Father and Mother of American Tit-Pics") until it's so multifaceted and difficult that it overwhelms the joke, Lockwood bashes competing ideals until the joke is indiscernible from the diatribe.
In "Revealing Nature Photographs," Lockwood offers a poem about pornography, sexual violence, and the environment. The poem coins the term "supernude" uses unnerving language ("nature is big into bloodplay/nature is into extreme age play"), and makes one wince and grin in equal measure: "nature getting paddled as hard/as you can paddle her, oh a whitewater rapid with her ass/in the air, high snowy tail on display just everywhere."
Language like that has no place in Sorrow Arrow, the latest from Emily Kendal Frey. Frey's clipped lines offer cropped images. She turns the momentary momentous by stripping the poems down even further than in her first book.
There are a lot of "I"s and "you"s in Frey's poetry, but images so specific as to imply the personal ("my father in the strawberries," "I dig babies up from under strawberries," "I dig holes for babies") are shrouded in a poetic form of obscurity: no Google search is going to illuminate this string of references.
Frey's poems work to dissolve the poet into the world, so that a poem, an event, an object, an idea, a desire, the writing of poems, and the writer of poems are the same thing—or at least wrapped together in some gauzy binding that hides the borders between them. These poems have the quiet certainty of a mind wandering comfortably, noting everything and excising what isn't necessary.
Frey relies on images, but sometimes drops lines of narrative or even a full-fledged metaphor. In these cases, she turns a phrase with the best of them. In lines like, "I want to cut up photos of flags/send a stripe to you," or "I leave the room so hard it burns a hole in the bed," she seems suddenly, viciously alive, granting the poems just the flash of agency they need. While Frey doesn't tackle issues in the same way as Lockwood, she also gets her shots in at the patriarchy. The fact of her piercing, observant eye is enough, but she offers these lines: "When a woman talks/A few people listen/I'd like to suggest that when a woman talks we listen."
Read the Mercury's interview with Patricia Lockwood.