Review & Writing Prompt for Amber West’s Hen & God
by José Angel Araguz
Reading Amber West’s Hen & God, I found myself becoming more and more engaged with the ways in which West’s poetic sensibility is able to subvert expectation through a singular mix of conceit and voice. Each poem in the collection establishes a narrative and quickly pivots it toward an emotional momentum. In “Misery Index,” for example, the poem begins:
We started measuring misery
in 1963. An economist traced its origins
to 1948. Our misery: 11.49.
A year later, we were far less miserable: 5.10.
This straightforward beginning develops into a narrative about how lives are affected by misery, and vice versa. The turn in the poem comes in the final two stanzas, when West incorporates language from Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech, which was delivered and televised on July 15, 1979:
We won’t forget 1980, our most miserable year.
June, in particular, the cancelled trips, too many
weddings, and Misery’s 32nd birthday—
a crisis of confidence. Suddenly every baby
made her breasts ache, the threat
nearly invisible in ordinary ways.
Since then we’ve done our damnedest
to stay under 10.0 while everyday Jimmy
builds and builds. Each home sweet home
an apology we can’t quite accept: the smell
of 20.76 on his neck, its taste on his lips.
What is remarkable here is the way in which the poem moves misery from an abstract concept to a palpable, human matter. The braiding of words from Carter’s speech helps do some of this work by creating an interesting juxtaposition. The speaker’s voice, which seems to speak matter-of-factly to the reader regarding misery, handles the elevated language of the italicized quotes in a way that feels bittersweet. What does “a crisis of confidence” mean in the face of human misery? What does that phrasing ignore or smooth over? This national moment of private misery being addressed publicly is pushed in a nuanced manner; the result is an ending that brings misery closer than a televised speech could.
In “Happy Hour,” a similar use of voice as fulcrum into pathos occurs. Here, an embalmer unloads his daily woes, stating: It’s not the kindest living. The play of an embalmer saying this line about “living,” his words charged with double meaning, serves as a jumping off point for the speaker and embalmer alike. The speaker goes on to detail the embalmer singing as he drinks; it is a scene out of a poem by the likes of Charles Simic or James Tate. Yet, as is evident in the final stanza below, what makes this poem stand out is the way in which West allows the embalmer to have the last word:
The lights go up at two
I help him to a cab
he whispers Jo
next time I go
I’m coming back a crab
with a shell like bone, but red—
a bloody shell as thick
as the skin is thin
on a baby’s chin—
a gull would rather eat a brick
Another facet of this collection’s use of conceit and voice can be found in the more personal atmosphere of “He Visits.” This poem presents a scene in which the speaker remembers the childhood visit of an otherwise absent father. Hailed from the bedroom, “where they seem to stay / for days,” the speaker remembers being asked to “Bring some grapes for your daddy.” The narrative develops from there, and memory meets child logic in the form of a question the child-speaker asks: “How come / you never got married?” The father, in the arms of the mother, responds:
You think we should be married?
he answers, gazing at her
smiling as she gulps
He kisses her left hand
holds it in the air
There. We’re married. You happy?
I nod, watching my mother’s eyes
narrow as she swallows
something, I think
the size of an apple
This act on the part of the father to “marry” the mother is an imaginative act, but it is one that mocks the gravity and innocence of the child-speaker’s original question. And while the adult-speaker can unpack this moment for its complexities of intimacy and emotional entanglement, West deftly ends the poem with an image seen through the eyes of the child-speaker. What occurs in this scene can almost be seen as a tug-of-war over narrative. While the father “answers” the question with a gesture toward affection, the child-speaker’s intuition feels something is off; the poem’s closing image becomes a metaphoric tug against accepting the proposed narrative of the father’s gesture and looking for what else there is to see and note in that moment.
Such moments of insistence and exploration drive Hen & God. Whether elegizing public and personal deaths or recalling previous relationships and friendships, West’s ambition to live up to the claim in “Poem as God” that “I am god and my ears / are the wings of the world” makes for compelling poetic moments throughout.
Writing Prompt: Along with “Misery Index,” a number of poems in Hen & God make use of found language. The poem below stands out for the ways in which borrowed, factual language is blurred and made intimate as the poem develops.
On your own, pick a local bird whose presence is so abundant you almost neglect to notice it sometimes. Conduct some research on the bird, taking notes on whatever facts appeal to you as language and phrasing. Then, freewrite about a past relationship, love or otherwise, staying close to memory and how things have changed in your life since that relationship. Try braiding in some of the language from your research. Like in West’s poem below, feel free to follow the images and leaps spurred on by this mix of languages.
Artifacts of Our Affection by Amber West
When I notice mold in my toothbrush mug
I remember the pigeons
roosting in the airshaft:
their toilet, their nest, our bedroom view
dusk and dawn
Monogamous, amorous, pigeons are known for their soft cooing calls
Once I had
three mugs, gold-trimmed
blond carousel ponies
painted on each side. A gift from your parents
our last Christmas. I thanked them
politely, might’ve even cooed
Slaughtered indiscriminately, the passenger pigeon
became extinct in 1914
One shattered in the sink
I sold another on the sidewalk. The last survives
demoted: bathroom workhorse
Servants and slaves often saw no other meat.
Pigeons in your dreams suggest
You left the photo I gave you
in the emptied dresser:
us against the wind on Golden Gate Bridge
you are taking blame for the actions of others, or may express
a desire to return home
but you took the bread maker
the banjo engraved with a golden eagle
Once used for carrying messages, pigeons represent
gossip or news. It is thought they may navigate by the sun
I take down the cloth paintings
we bought in India. Pigeon
this message to the moon:
There is no true scientific difference
in the afterglow shuffle
bedroom to kitchen
between a pigeon and
your Valentine bathrobe remains
each man it embraces.
Poem includes found language from the following sources:
“Passenger Pigeon” entry on reference.com
“Pigeon” entries on dreammoods.com and in Encyclopedia section on infoplease.com
“Pigeons and Doves” entry in Rainforest Bird Index on rainforest-australia.com
José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and the author of six chapbooks as well as the collections Everything We Think We Hear(Floricanto Press) and Small Fires (FutureCycle Press). His poems, prose, and reviews have appeared in RHINO Poetry, New South, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. He runs the poetry blog, The Friday Influence, and teaches English and creative writing at Linfield College.