Friday, April 22, 2011

Review of Annalee Kwochka's "Seventeen"

by Scott Owens
(first published in Wild Goose Poetry Review)

Poems by Annalee Kwochka
Running Poet Press

I wrote my first short story in twelve years the other day. I didn’t set out to write a story, but a scene that nearly materialized in real life refused to be dropped in my imagination, and as I began ‘disburdening” myself of it, it insisted on being prose. You may wonder what any of this had to do with a review of a book of poems (I know I would). The connection is that just as I’ve learned through 30 years of writing that the writer often has little choice in what or how they write, young Annalee Kwochka has already, at 17, learned that the writer has even less choice in deciding to write. “Mona Lisa Muse,” the opening poem of her precocious collection, Seventeen, makes that clear. “Poems,” she says, “are the fierce and ravishing aunt / whom you revere / but shrink from . . . . / Her knock is a tiny hammer on your skull, / so you’d better get that door, / . . . because this poem / has arrived.” So, too, has this poet.

The poems in Seventeen demonstrate Kwochka’s arrival in several ways, one of which is her versatility. From tankas, to ars poeticas, to typographical poems, to performances pieces, to dramatic monologues, Kwochka’s poems are consistently fresh, evocative, and surprising. Her “Window Seat at the City Bakery,” for example, masterfully uses spacing to control the reader’s pace and create impetus just where it should be. The way “Details” appears on a line of its own three times, and the way “forward” follows the push of white space after “To bear life,” and the way the parallelism of the last four lines create a satisfying sense of place (“Sitting somewhere on this planet, / This continent, this country, / This city, this street, / This seat by the window”), all work together to convey Kwochka’s own understanding of Mary Oliver’s imperative that, for the poet, paying attention is tantamount to prayer.

And Kwochka pays attention to the two things that are most important for a poet to pay attention to if her poems are going to be effective: imagery and language. We’ve already seen her attention to imagery, and in the wonderfully playful “Entry #1 from the Dictionary of Teenage Variations on the English Language, and an Example in Context,” we see her attention to language as she dissects the linguistic habits of mother-daughter communication.

Kwochka’s versatility is one not only of style but also of subject matter. She “pays attention” to nature in poems like “Window Seat” and “Green River Tanka,” to personal issues in poems like “Advanced Placement: Psychology” and “Burning,” to issues of relationships in poems like “Storms” and “Advents,” to social issues in poems like “Laws of Motion: Wake-Up Call” and “Laws of Motion: School Reform,” and to political issues in poems like “Seque for My sisters in Iraq” and “Exposition and Protest.”

It is through Kwochka’s willingness to explore, experience, and relate such a range of topics and influences that she is able to make statements that belie her youth, statements that express a greater understanding of the complexities of human existence than one would expect from one of her age, statements like this one from “Advent” that add a third dimension to Oliver’s equation of prayer and paying attention:

I need to love even though it hurts,
I need to love until it hurts
Because there is so much hurt here,
And loving is a better way to pray.

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