My My is Kristi Maxwell’s seventh book of poetry within the past twelve years—her output is extraordinary. I come to this book with particular familiarity and admiration of Plan/K, her fifth book, which plays with constraint and riffs on transcripts of pirate-pertaining texts.
If you are already familiar with her work, you will find that this newest collection sustains her penchant for word awareness: often in her work, an elaboration happens through ambiguities/multiplicities of diction and/or presenting a similar sounding or looking word proximate to [nearly—if not actually—interrupting] the instigating one. Her work showcases a mind that observes through articulation and re-articulation through the new word that the previous wording leans toward; the experience of the speaker is one that acknowledges how language [an output of the mind’s associations] shapes response to stimulus; I want to say lingual empiricism.
My My—the title is exclamation [possibilities of exasperation or surprise or shock: all or any awe], echo [possibility of stutter or repetition for affirmation], and tautology [circular affirmation] of mining belonging.
Keeping the resonances of the book title in mind, the poem “Night with Dill, Lemon” seems to particularly categorize what is and is not the speaker’s “mine”: “my mattress topper on a borrowed mattress”, “magazine, also not mine / though made mine by mine eyes’ / word habits”, “yellow table, also not mine”, “my hus- / band and I do not own each other / either, though we owe each other” [and as shown here, the evolution of the word “own” to “owe”] and more. This is a speaker considering and chronicling impact of agent and environment and circumstances, an ownership of decisions—“the food / I prefer to eat having never had a / heart” and “I am among those with choices and new- / ly less in debt, […] / having made a list to aid me in // the grocery store a five-minute walk from ‘my’ house.” Here a cynicism of possession/ownership evolves [which could be for various reasons: the newness of the situation, feeling that the singularity of “my” would be overstatement, etc.]. But there is also celebration of a shared having/making: “a fish dressed in / an aluminum onesie that kept it warm after ex- // iting the oven’s womb [….] / We are not the first to eat / our young.” But the same theme of food and offspring can describe unease: “I finish a poem as if it // were a nightcap meant to appease the infant / anxiety determined to spoil the / milk of sleep.” This is a real landscape: objects and concepts shift meanings and emotional valence depending on what is possessing one at the time.
I want to also take a moment to admire that poem title: “Night with Dill, Lemon” [from a line midway through the poem about preparing the aforementioned fish]; the capitalization works well to upgrade the ingredients to a proper name [last name Dill, first name Lemon]—a playfulness of wit that appears in Maxwell’s work frequently.
Considering the other poem titles, there is a range: some with the playfulness of “Night with Dill, Lemon” such as “My Fingernails are New to Me”; some that are two of the same words in a row, like the book title [such as “After After” and “Without Without”]; some that are long [such as “Poem Starting with a Misreading of the First Line in ‘The Glass Essay’”]; some with “or” that give a sense of uncertainty or choice [such as “Mangrove or Bramble” and “It’s Either Maintain or Destroy”]; some that are brief without giving a taste as much as the others, such as “Aubade.”
The title styles are diverse, and I’d say the poems themselves also employ varieties of forms, while still giving me the feel for having one [or at least primarily one] shared speaker.
There are poems that are consistently left aligned, with conventional punctuation, and forming one long stanza, such as “Accountability.” There are poems that have the lines appear double-spaced [no extra spacing to indicate stanza breaks], left aligned, and no periods, such as “On Working It Out.” There are poems that use no punctuation and instead have hits of the tab button to yield spatial caesuras and the language moves with lyrical quality, as in “Or the Light is a Creak in the Cloud’s Sound-Scape / A Creek in the Cloud’s Landscape” [what a title there!].
There are prose poems, such as “After After” composed of multiple brief paragraphs and “Offhand Hands Off” made of a single block of paragraph. There are intriguing sestinas, such as “Elegy for Threatened Words”, whose six end words were chosen “in response to reports that the CDC was being pressured to exclude certain words from its budgetary requests”, and “On the Common Suffixes of Towns”, which uses six of these suffixes [and homophones to these suffixes] as line endings.
“Weren’t None of Us” employs some radical shifts in form within the same poem: what begins in a prose poem form against both margins becomes enjambed, brief lines against the right margin, then a longer lineated couplet against the right margin still, and then a shift to the left margin:
The object is not lost but it feels lost.
The object is not lost but it feels loss.
The object is not lost but I feel lost.
The object is not lost but I am a host to loss.
A hostage of it.
The anaphora is powerfully used here to highlight the tweaks as the expression continues: the object transforms into sentience in the second line, the speaker is aware of contradiction between state and feeling in the third line, and in the fourth line a new definition of self emerges. To have is to also be able to lose; to define oneself by what one has—or hosts—is to also define oneself by absences. “A hostage of it” emphasizes the power the “it” has in this paradigm of being.
The poem continues with a shift to the right margin again, followed by an intriguingly shaped stanza that is primarily against the left margin with long lines that approach the right margin, interrupted with lines that begin instead from the center of the page; for example, the last lines of the poem:
The never-never plundered, and the laundry done. The den of done stuff
done made new. Dung makes new
as its fertile-lazing self. Our own manure-selves,
coaxed toward growth.
“plundered” again examines a state of possession, while “laundry done” combines object and task into completion. “done stuff / done made new” considers how the task has refreshed the object. And then we move from laundry to a new load: Dung. The body’s refuse—what the body had that’s been purposefully lost. And while it doesn’t have direct refreshment potential as laundry does, it has function for growth of plants and other life. “fertile-lazing” is a great pun: it’s not like dung is active in its contribution. “Our own manure-selves, / coaxed toward growth”: ah, the exhaustion of life [social and biological] and its possessions and responsibilities—we feel like shit. And from this, we’re expected to continue to grow.
My My shows how it is possible to have fun with and run with what language [and its associations] does, while still discussing what can be sincere concerns. Consider these lines from “In a Pickle”:
There were threats of jail-time
There were threats of Jell-O shots, too
One came to fruition one bore fruit
One blurred fruit and hoof Huff on
“jail-time” evolves into “Jell-O shots”, although we do not know which one “came to fruition”. Gelatin indeed “blur[s] fruit and hoof” as Jell-O, while also sounding motivational: “Huff on”.
See also the following from “From a mouth in which prayer and error rhyme”:
a jacket off a jacket rewriting the hare a jackrabbit
See also the following from “You’re the Only Audience I Ever Needed”:
we blow a tire we blow a shot a nose an ambiguous it
See also from the book’s final poem, these first lines from “Without Without”:
In an inbox, bumblebees are dying
like lights in a light-soaked room in the midst
of an energy drought, power out
any moment, even the sun, a pimple on course
to be drained—so the light rightly praised,
the light “bathed in” by those of us
This portion begins more object-association/metaphor [“sun” to “pimple”] than word association, but it still propels through sound. See the poem’s end:
[…] Your allegiance
to technologies that have not served the bees,
that may well not serve you,
that may well corrode. The hive mind
no suitable asylum. The bees will not be last.
At its end, My My is an expression of worry, of ecological anxiety.
Overall, My My has a speaker interested in how language itself builds the world [“What do you think the Cheshire cat’s / grin was made of if not the word teeth?”], how language builds the self [“My name is pregnant / with small I’s”], how we use language to cope and move forward [“I name the moon Houdini / in order to treat the day / as its magic”], and allowing wit and playfulness [“Language always the jester”] while still acknowledging that “The laughability tempers / the tragedy, but does not change it.”
Vanessa Couto Johnson is the author of Pungent dins concentric, her first full-length book (Tolsun Books, 2018), and three chapbooks, most recently speech rinse (Slope Editions’ 2016 Chapbook Contest winner). Dialogist, Foundry, Softblow, Thrush, and other journals and anthologies have published her poetry. A Brazilian born in Texas (a dual citizen), she has been a Lecturer at Texas State University since 2014.