These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.
25 of 100: Sweet Insurgent by Elyse Fenton (2017, Saturnalia Books)
Quick, personal thoughts:
- The diversity of subject matter in this is stunning. I’m enamored by how this clear, singular voice speaks to war, illness, motherhood and sex. Even as we are shown how volatile and precarious life can be, Fenton delivers lines that are tender both in what they reveal and in how they convey vulnerability: “I never planned to love like this.”
- The poems in the first three sections of Sweet Insurgent challenge me. By the fourth and final section, I not only have my footing but also the language/approach in those poems is somehow easier for me. Prior to that, while I find footing in some lines and images, I am primarily carried along by sound and mood/tone. In so many cases, as in the example below, my limited understanding doesn’t frustrate me: it makes me even more curious. The sound (raven, ravening, raveling, rave rave) and voice are incredibly strong and enticing, and I want more time with them.
- I am really beginning to feel drawn to long poems, and Section III of this is a single long poem titled “Human Shield.” Each section starts on its own page, and each has its own form/shape. One is only two lines long. Another is split into two separate columns. The words in another arranged like steps/stairs. I’m aware that long poems need some kind of driving element to spur the reader forward, and in this one, the arrangement of text is one of the tools Fenton uses to pull the reader into the next page and the next.
Lines I want to remember:
- “October deer step // soft-shod through the frosted noose of breath that ropes / each hornless head.”
- “we were infinite / as glaciers ransacking a moderate slope”
- “Easier to imagine the big peace- // able bodies of whales — their cargo, / their bioluminescent wattage — // than a mother’s attendant grief. A hunger / so vast the whole goddamn ocean pours // black & guppied & vigilant into your throat.”
- “God is rubble. … // Mud ramparts slipping / down the skinned rungs of your name.”
- “as if / love were // the least harm we could think in this world to / do–“
- “The man who held three girls / captive for years lasted a few weeks in prison. // Even now, no one has invented a name / for the child carried up from the basement / in the ambulance driver’s arms.”
- “you stick your finger down // the baby’s throat. How wrong / to believe you are dislodging death. / You, the god who put it there.”
- “afternoon refusing / to steady its half-ladle of light against the glass.”
- “smoke rising from trash fire like a / pried- // free soul–“
- “Living on earth in the age of the 6th / Extinction just means more extra- / vagance all round. Tourists / of Destruction, we’re here to buy / sunshades, microscopes, decorative / wall mounts”
What others have said:
- Kevin Prufer on the book’s back cover: “Elyse Fenton writes such musically nervous, muscular, formally adept poems. They inhabit a familiar world of war, mortality, an unsettled natural landscape—but filtered through an uneasy mind, quick to identify the double standard, the complexity beneath the comforting narratives we tell ourselves. These poems are alive to our historical moment, inspiring us to re-think our place in a constantly shifting political, natural, and ethical world.”
- Mary Szybist on the book’s cover: “Fenton has the rare fortitude and heart and willingness to really absorb and grapple with news from both near and far, and with exacting intelligence and deep knowledge of history and myth. Sweet Insurgent reminds us that the difficult is not impossible.”
Where some of the poems from this collection live online:
Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!