Though I dislike binaries, they do have their organizational uses. In terms of where the poets under review direct their energies, Chelene Knight and Shannon Quinn are emotional introverts, using a speaker’s own version of interiority as the poem-impulse. In contrast, Peter Midgley is an emotional extrovert, a poet whose speaker is more interested in witnessing the drama outside the self.
As debut poets’ works, Knight’s and Quinn’s poems often read as poetry bildungsromane, replete with childhood anecdotes or summarized events. In Questions for Wolf, Quinn writes in a lively free verse packed with medical, natural, sexual, and religious images as these pertain to the development of selfhood—the book can, in a reductive sense, be read as the details of how a mentally ill speaker became relatively comfortable in the world. Problematically, the big-hearted moments can become uncontrolled. For example, the rather palpitatingly titled poem “Strong Roots in Casual Devastation” begins: “Our night sky inspired a wild fidelity / in her safe cracking thunder—mercy for loud goodbyes / and other dark geography of our mouths.” A little much. But it’s probably her strategy to reach transcendent moments like the following, taken from “be found not saved”:
choose your small vanities carefully
for these are the burning times
and you have not been cast in a starring role
in this end of the world apocalyptic scenario
know that perception is simply facts on a sliding scale
and you are a small beautiful principality
at an already overcrowded table[.]
The same risk of overswinging is involved in both aforementioned poems, but in the latter Quinn’s speaker is tough on the self, providing labile emotion a necessary counter in wisdom.
Knight’s Braided Skin is slightly more formally varied than Quinn’s text, reliant on free verse in the main but with a fair number of prose poems and sequences within. Autobiography comes in the form of family history, with poems written to previously inhabited locations or involving parents. Displacement is a strong theme, as the speaker writes about parents who are probably the same parents mentioned on the book’s inside flap (an African American mother and an Indian father violently exiled from Uganda). Knight clearly has a good ear—not common in our crop of poets—and this quality rings out clearest in her prose poems. Because of this ear, I’d encourage the poet to bet the farm on it and embrace form more, to use her musical gifts to the fullest but to lose the prose tether that often makes a poem too linear to really astonish. Subservience to form in those with an ear pays dividends—the poem reaches beyond what we as poets could ever hope it to be if we only had ourselves to say. The poem starts speaking for itself.
Containing mostly short free-verse lyrics, Midgley’s sophomore collection Unquiet Bones cares to relate less about the speaker directly and more about what the speaker sees and is affected by. The poet mentions an anecdote of travel in which the speaker is mugged by a desperate young man; several poems concern areas of Africa where violent conflict is presently or has recently been occurring; in “the accident,” the speaker states: “On Monday after school, I saw a neighbour cover the blood with sand. / It oozed through to the surface, / turned black in the sun.” In these three lines is Midgley’s key technique—the speaker doesn’t drive the poems through anecdote so much as witness violence and yet record it with an awareness of what violence is. The poet’s representation of violence and trauma is a delicate demonstration of poetic facts. Midgley’s other main theme is that of positive relationships with others, be they lovers or friends, but the poems are so short, and so interested in the other person, that they aren’t as interesting as their violent cousins. The same documentary impulse that is the strength of the former poems becomes a weakness in the latter—we need the current to reverse back into the self. And my congratulations on the lines “arsenals of alphabet lie buried / beneath alexandria and alex”—now that’s beautiful.