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Crawlspace

[Continued from Age of Glass]

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Face me in your sonnets so I can permanently grieve
is really what the roses say to the antebellum purling
dog tags of myself.

– Nikki Wallschlaeger, “Sonnet (36)”

Etymologically, each stanza is a “room” into which the poem invites us. And Nikki Wallschlaeger’s recent full-length collection Crawlspace (Bloof Books, 2017), as per its title, asks us into uncomfortable spaces:  the crawlspace as a marginalized interior-within-an-interior that nevertheless provides access to the hidden wires that power the whole damn structure. A crawlspace is a place of cramped and unseen work. This is a book that takes on labor and systemic inequality and injustice, wealth and gender, specifically through the lens of women of color in America.

Wallschlaeger’s “crawlspace” is enacted in form as well as content; each poem is titled simply “Sonnet” and numbered. The book begins with fourteen line poems with a twelve line stanza followed by a couplet, then segues into fourteen line blocks, then begins to stretch its poems across multiple pages, though (except for one poem that intentionally breaks the form off early), each new page is still a fourteen line section. Many of the poems end without punctuation, a move that pushes against the emphatic and defiant content, which one can read either as a kind of mic drop, or as a kind of enactment of exhaustion with the way things are (the book begins with an epigraph from Lucille Clifton: “all of us are tired / and some of us are mad”). I feel Clifton’s presence here, and perhaps Audre Lorde, and perhaps Harryette Mullen, and maybe Bernadette Mayer’s sonnets, but the collection seems to proceed most directly from the influence of Wanda Coleman, particularly her American Sonnets. (That the last poem ends with repeated references to the inherent contradictions of wealthy liberal Los Angeles culture is emblematic of the hypocrisies and contradictions examined throughout the collection, but also feels like it could be read as a very subtle final nod to Coleman’s own critiques of Los Angeles.)

Eschewing the strict rhyme and meter of “traditional” sonnets, Wallschlaeger uses tone and enjambment to great effect; “Sonnet (9)” begins:

No boudoir photo in this country
could convince me
that America is the best place
to fuck.

And ends:

The most crafted ending of all
is usually the electric fence (17)

These poems are moving and sharp-edged, filled with pop culture and sound play that bubbles at the surface of the molten emotional core (“That hope is just another bloated moat / is worth the ringworm”). As in the sonnet collections by Terrance Hayes and Anna Maria Hong that I looked at in my past two posts, Wallschlaeger seems to conjure the sonnet to subvert the expectations of what a poem should be or do or celebrate (“Writing under the constraints of your oppressors, whoever they are. / You start to articulate through the gold hippo lick of their loving war”; “Children, it’s time to scream for as long and loud as you can / treading water in the crap thickets of an evaporating formula”). There is a particular attention to the excesses and superficialities of a culture of conspicuous capitalist consumption (“Let me fix you a lunch plate / of force-ripe”), and an interrogation of the cultural moment’s consumption of or demand for or rewarding of a particular performance of black womanhood:

My joy, private owned. My hair I only let down at home
that civic part of me mined for pickaninny ghost filling
remains untouched by the chewing Roman city for now. 

Sir Philip Sidney’s “Sonnet 31” ends looking heavenward: “Do they call virtue there ungratefulness?” Wallschlaeger’s “Sonnet (31)” ends in action: “I help carry trade secrets to / the river, where swans are consolidating their rage.” Neither Wallschlaeger’s sonnets, nor her swans, will settle for their “expected” roles in poetry, and we may be grateful.

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[Continued in “Pros[onn]e[t]”]