A riddle: Where does diatribe end and song begin?
Answer: Each begins and ends in the mouth.
They begin and end, that is, in the mouths of poets slinging language around. At times, these words land with a direct hit on a specific target without too much worry for collateral damage, friendly fire, or even the self. At others, these words can be flung helter-skelter—not carelessly, but rather as echolocation, orienting the poem and the mouth behind it, catching its bearings, an experience pieced together in little moments. Such little moments revel. In their bawdiness, edginess, “holiness,” they revel. In Giving Godhead and Serenade, Dylan Krieger and Brooke Ellsworth ask what their revelry looks like, even when it comes with more than a smidge of caustic urgency to evaluate social circles, relationships, and the self.
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Dylan Krieger’s debut collection, Giving Godhead, is a scathing takedown of organized religion and American evangelicalism. But that’s only the surface of things, a surface that does not do justice to Giving Godhead’s balancing act of mordant critique and playful iconoclasm. The crass sexualization of the book’s title is but a teaser; Krieger plumbs a reservoir of these registers, mining them for puns that sting, burn, erode, and stain. In “sons of david,” she wryly explains that “this is what they mean by hellfire: one old doG with two tricks— / death and texas” before evoking a spiritual remixed: “swung low / sweet carrion, waiting for to bury my bones.”
Such a balance, Krieger confesses, comes easy, having grown up in a fervently religious Midwestern household, as the notes of her book make clear. Another poem, “sacred sucre,” claims this point even more explicitly: “so arrest me, it’s too easy to blaspheme / what already reeks like decomposing mystery.” Blasphemy, to be sure, is Krieger’s m.o., but this is a blasphemy, her poems starkly insist, which is well earned and, what’s more, paradoxically and “heretically” life-giving and life-affirming, to the extent that, as she writes in “peri-,” “I only feel alive / when I’m going down on america.”
It’s easy to read Giving Godhead simply through Krieger’s biography. The book’s acknowledgements take aim at (or elicit some abject affect for) her family and “the entire congregation of Calvary Temple (AKA Southgate Church) in my hometown of South Bend, Indiana” for “providing real-world inspiration for these poems.” These details help explain Krieger’s in-depth knowledge of religious lexicon and the trauma of Bible-Belt Americana, but the book surpasses this limited specificity by surrendering over to irreverence writ large. The closing piece, “Sacreligion Manifesto,” speaks volumes all its own: “MY RELIGION IS IRREVERENCE. WHATEVER YOU HOLD DEAR, POKE A HOLE IN IT.” Let it be done. Can she get an amen? Amen and amen. For a final and lasting blow, Krieger ensures that her takedown does not rest on a particular religious or cultural ideology alone, but rather through any weltanschauung that dismisses one identity in favor of another. Consider “snooze the news”:
white as snow
my bared g-
Such a blur of rituals—of blood-letting, of ethnic cleansing, of jihad—provide a vantage point with which to view American violences still running rampant, especially, Krieger implies, when it comes to queer femininity and the literal and ideological attacks that seek to stifle it.
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In Serenade, another debut full-length collection, Brooke Ellsworth presses us to consider whether the interior self (and selves) can be held dear, whether this too is susceptible to hole poking. The eponymous poem of the book literalizes this possibility in a similarly sexualized action as Krieger’s: Ellsworth, to wit, baldly professes,
Grounded for finger-fucking, we took our without-airplane hands to the
to align like
down the neigh
This desire, however, is not easily won: wanting does not always result in getting. Ellsworth oscillates between stable and unstable selves. The poems range from proclaiming, as in “Fucking Island,” that “I can go home in the winter and be totally impersonal” to a fraught closeness with personality in “Flaca” where, with “Two burned masks, there are two of me.”
For all of this, though, there is a desire that binds it together, a desire that situates the blurry body and the voice emanating from it. We get a snapshot of this desire in “Joke,” where “I fill the bed with blood. You’re a liar you text back. ha no you’re right, I wake / up this parody and I want myself so bad.” And while the conversation that unfolds via text message is one of digital encounters, “Joke” ends – in a punchline? – by turning that encounter into one much more internally sourced: “Some days there’s so much to love explains the boy in me.”
It’s this dance with the self that Ellsworth’s Serenade sets to music. And what she gives us is a deftly choreographed testimony. A testimony of a lyric voice in the process of self-actualization and individuation, and Serenade revels in the uncertainties and precarity of that defining process. At times, Ellsworth’s poems sound out with certainty and confidence, as in “Queensboro Plaza,” where
Here we slid into the heat
Where sentences come from (me)
I found my intimacy in the midden of the clinic, you don’t know
but I know when to remain online
Yet at others, as in the ending of “Good News,” Serenade invites its readers to keep everything in check:
I’m a liar
I tell you I am
Simultaneously an origin for language and its mindless liar, Ellsworth’s poems indulge in their ability to have it both ways, to offer prose-y aphorisms and propositions before dissolving into lyric, often within the same poem. The sharp turns of this style—from blocked language to sharply enjambed lines with little warning to signal the shifts—deftly navigate the meeting place between argument and reflection.
While they may vary at times in their point of attack—whether top-down like Krieger or inside-out like Ellsworth—Giving Godhead and Serenade march steadily onward as attacks nonetheless. Each its own trumpet sound. Each its own debut of things to come.
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A riddle (Take Two): Is “lyric” sounded for the speaker or for others?
Answer: It sounds out for itself, from the mouth, tasting sometimes sweet and sometimes sour, in the mouth and out of it.
Jacob Schepers is the author of A Bundle of Careful Compromises (2014), and his writing can be found in PANK, The Destroyer, Verse, The Fanzine, Burning House Press, and elsewhere. He is an MFA and PhD candidate at the University of Notre Dame.