LEA GRAHAM Reviews
Beloved Idea by Ann Killough
(Alice James Books, Farmington, Maine, 2007)
[First published in Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics, #6 (Spring 2008): 273-277, edited by Brian Clements]
Ann Killough’s Beloved Idea is like a costume party for the investigation of national conceptions and convictions. We slip the metaphor on—be it “underpants,” “ octopus,” “exile,” or “the horsemen.” We zip it up or pull it over our heads, move around in it, imagine ourselves as that figure or in that configuration, and become part of the speaker’s analysis of her concerns for and about “the nation.” The nation being another, or rather, the other character in the book: part father-figure, mother-figure, lover or distant relative. (The last being a kind of relative to whom you’re not sure how you’re related: the mystery “uncle,” who comes to family events, eats all the food, laughs loudly at his own jokes, and tells you what you should do with yourself.) Each metaphor works to help us unpack the attachments, beliefs, and yearnings of a country—both the power elite as well as “the people.” Killough wants us to think about “all that we hold dear” from the inside out. She wants us to understand her mind’s search mission for what we believe essential in this country and the way that figurative language contains it. Then she rolls on to other referents, so that we are constantly slipping into, moving on toward another comparison—the actual abstraction transformed a few outfits ago or at a different stage of the party, so to speak. She crafts this serious task artistically, exploratively; critiquing the nation’s ills, “the metaphor of the wound…that…never healed,” an “unspeakable opening” in a compassionate, sharply intelligent and (sometimes) even humorous way (3). She wants to talk about it.
In “[Underpants],” the speaker begins with “the manly underpants of startling size” and uses them to launch her argument—one in which we have no idea how long or far the flight:
As though a row of overweight fathers had flown through Brookline in
their underpants and gotten caught in a clothesline
The kind of fathers that run the world by means of secret meetings on
every continent flying over the seven seas in formation like Canada geese.
But now had to fly with no underpants, their international penises
hanging down like unusable landing gear (12).
What is secret and unknown, and what is exposed is Killough’s delightful exploration, her thoughts traveling through adverbial, prepositional, conjunctive, and figurative terrains suggesting possibilities that take on political or ideological weight with each turn.
She always rejoiced at the sight of the underpants.
They seemed to offer a kind of hope, although she wasn’t sure what.
Perhaps the kind of hope that is normally offered by undergarments
hanging on a clothesline with their seamed faces broadcasting a story of
organized and intimate renewal.
Of how somebody is thinking ahead.
As if they were a testament to some rigorous belief, perhaps in the absolute (13).
The metaphor is used whimsically, fantastically—and yet, begins in a place that “hang[s]…on the porch across the alley from her bedroom,” and so begins in the daily, the matter-of fact; yet, as launch for the political imagination that ends up “over the seven seas [and]…never again…able to land,” taking on the weight of the absolute, a “succession of hopes of protection from the humiliation of nakedness, / a succession of humiliatingly naked and public hopes” (13). What has begun as mere underpants has become the “foundational” metaphorical hopes or ideas of a nation.
In “[(The) Horsemen],” the allusion from the book of Revelations “come[s] galloping” at us from the outset, and runs “like metaphors gone completely amok”(25). This is a poem of ends and the exploration of a nation fascinated and desirous of the horrific, or “the end metastasis of the imaginary” (25). The poem rides Revelations’ horsemen to Faulkner’s Light in August, to The Wizard of Oz’s mantra “there’s no place like home,” leaving the poet only hope, and cantering on,
and thus like the godfather at the end of her poem beheads the horses
one by one and leaves them in the bed of her nation wake up screaming
my darlings wake up little Susie (26)
Slipping on one referent after another, we see the connect-the-dot like movement of a nation fascinated with, almost hoping for, an end as horrific as the referents she includes: the Apocalypse, the Civil War, The Godfather saga. Meanwhile, she begs the nation to wake—as Dorothy, as the Everly Brothers’ little Susie—who has fallen asleep: the first, knocked out by a cyclone, dreaming somewhere over the rainbow; the second, who has accidentally fallen asleep at the drive-in, “[whose] goose is cooked, [whose] reputation is shot.” We see through these referents the starkness, the horror of what will become of us if our national imagination continues in its desire, its tradition of the Horsemen, traditionally known as war, pestilence, famine and death. Whether our unconscious yearnings for a fantastical “someday,” or our (not so) innocent dozing has caught us off guard, the end of our national troping is the bloody heads of the innocent.
Killough’s Beloved Idea exceeds style, fad, and mere political bad mouthing. She makes serious inquiry into her means of exploration. She is interested in finding out what stops us, starts us, how we get side-tracked along the way, how we are misled. Her metaphorical costumes, or the various fittings, and dressings she tries on are also a figurative journey through our nation’s conceptual, literary, and historical map. The poems’ various dresses double as “dressings” for “the wound” that she begins with, a metaphor, she tells us, that “was still safe with in her/ poem…turning out to be a manger like all the others” (4). Her own poems are an inquiry into themselves, as she says, “as though the poem had begun to cooperate with the authorities behind her back” (4). In “[Octopus]” she tells us, as in a voice over:
She didn’t know what to do about metaphors, she really didn’t.
They were so demanding,
And delivered so little in the end,
And yet one was still obsessed by them, seeing an octopus
Every time one closed one’s eyes or said the wrong name,
Feeling its soft suckered arms against one’s skin,
Especially the skin of one’s face, one’s mouth,
Inside one’s mouth and down one’s throat
Over and over, like the reversal of creation (16).
Beloved Idea is an exploration of how language can be used as obstruction to creation, as a stall on the way to true imagination. These are compassionate poems that smartly insist we scour our language, our figurative speech, our culture from high to low. We are party to a mind, in these poems, whose examination of language as costume looks closely and honestly at the material used, its purpose, and its end transformations.
Lea Graham is the author of Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You (No Tell Books 2011) and the chapbook, Calendar Girls (above ground press, 2006). Her poems, collaborations, reviews and articles have been published in journals and anthologies such as American Letters & Commentary, The City Visible, Notre Dame Review and The Capilano Review. Her translations are forthcoming in The Alteration of Silence: Recent Chilean Poetry through the University of New Orleans Press. She is Assistant Professor of English at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and a native of Northwest Arkansas.