Erika Meitner
(BOA Editions Ltd.)
As we've told you before, and no doubt will tell you again, there are poets and there are Poets. The poets are everywhere, popping out from between the shopping center asphalt edges like milkweed, showering the rooftops with pigeon shit, sneaking into the dressing rooms to peep at us through the cracks. These poet poets write lines that end-stop, occasionally use rhyme and rhythm and symmetry and a weird wrong metaphor to convey their stuff. But it is stuff (and nonsense) and you know you know they Just Don't Have It.

Oh they fool most of the people most of the time, so they end up with prizes and commendations and parties and openings (sometime closings) and prime poetry spots in the Best Magazines and sometimes whole pages in the Accepted Literary Magazines. But when you spend time with what they have put down so nicely on the page, you find that there is no there there at all. For every Larkin and Plath and Dubie and Szymborska and X. J. Kennedy and Ginsburg there are a hundred Penn Warrens and Duffys and Glücks and Kumins and Grahams and a innumerable other bilious poseurs. They are everywhere. They are legion.

And they represent a terrible flummery. Pride in the ghastly is what it is.

The way to discover the real Poets is to go to the heart: seek out the places where they hide. Avoid those Best American (or World!) Poetry of 2015; stay away from the honors and medals and Pulitzers and Lannans and Bollingens and Poets Laureate and Yale Youngers and Pen Prizes, what S J Perelman called "those ladies with three-barreled names one meets at the Authors' League, the PEN Club, and so forth."

Go to the secret places on the internet, find the secret magazines that are willing to experiment, to test the new and roiling waters, the storm waters just off shore behind the lighthouse. Places like Tin House. Whiskey Island. AGNI. Crab Orchard. Painted Bride. River Styx.

And RALPH. Here! Here!

And you know you are there when the all of a sudden the quiet voices reach you, have something to tell you. No, not about the flowers and mountains and trees and the birds, all the iambs of yesteryear. You want stuff that talks the life out of you into you, the salt-mine we call life which ain't out there, it's in here. Where we've been all this time --- trying to get out, not able to get out, only get used to it.

The Poets help us do that.

§   §   §

Although she has been publishing for several years, this is the first time we have stumbled over Erika Meitner's poems. She has what it takes. She can write about a GTC and Doppler effects and typography and the air of the subway station,

    because you remind me of an approaching
    subway brushing hair off my face with
    its hot breath.

She can write about cell phones and spray paint and "The Latin root of mercy" and her Yiddish grandmother who came from Yiddishland: "We are in my grandmother's shtetl in Poland, but everyone is dead."

She can write about love in anonymity and the love of anonymity,

    that brick wall out my bedroom widow
    on Smith Street mornings when I'd wake
    next to godknowswho but always someone

    who wasn't a mistake . . .

She can cram a whole experience into two lines, the experience that you and I had seven years ago when "going West"

    meant taking a laptop and some clothes
    in a hatchback and learning about produce . . .

The key to the work and worth of a Meitner is that it feels right. She can throw in an aside that will resonate with all of us who have that touch of fear that nestles a snake inside all parents' hearts, with

    The poem in which I go into Walmart and buy the baby an olive-green cap that looks suspiciously like Fidel Castro's
    The poem in which I could eradicate the fact that I ever went into Walmart and bought anything so the baby can one day start a revolution . . .

And she allows us to know that sometimes she is not so sure that she is it, that she should be the one that you pick (for a job? for a peccadillo? for a lifetime of this or that?):

    I choose someone else over me every time,
    as I'm sure they'll finish the task at hand, which is to say that whatever is in front of us
    will get done if I'm not in charge of it . . .

What she has done here is to give us a little of her self-doubt without it getting out of hand: clobbering us with it. For if you are going to tell us about your self-doubt you have to do it gently, not gouge yourself (or the reader) in the process.

Or, something equally delicate, like liking one of your students, liking him a bit too much. I did that once, where you're trying maybe to hide it but maybe not hide it too much, because, "He is both more / and less striking without a shirt on" and

    I try not to look at his beautiful terrible chest,
    the V-shaped wings of his chiseled hipbones . . .


He is working in an office, which might as well be outer space. I am the mountains. The last time I worked in an office, he was ten.

Here she is thinking love or lust and you know it because it is all over the place (just where it should be) in her words. And also because it aches. Has an edge of shame. As love or lust or whatever the hell it's supposed to be has to be there squarely on the edge.

§   §   §

Meitner likes playing with and at and around the edge. Spend a few moments with her in the WalMart Supercenter where it was a trip to get the "Pampers, tube socks, juice boxes, fruit" (has she been sneaking peeks at my shopping list?) where she casually tells us about the store in Springfield where "a macaque monkey named Charlie attacked an eight-year-old-girl" and the Walmart parking lot in LaFayette where "grandparents left their disabled two-year-old grandson sitting in a shopping chart" . . . and the McAllen Walmart where "a woman tried to sell six Bengal tiger cubs to a group of Mexican day laborers."

We all know that WalMart is about happy shopping with "even the faces of plastic bags, which wink yellow and crinkle with kindness." But the trick Meitner has come to has to do with ismack-dab in the midst of happiness comes despair, just your regular normal blow-your-brains-out despair, the one where we buy our Pampers yet find a cashier "who says she is grateful for small mercies," lets you join in, (on your knees perhaps?):

    I nod in assent, Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison. The Latin root of mercy
    means price paid, wages, merchandise, though now we use it as

    compassion shown to a person in a position of powerlessness,
    and sometimes forgiveness towards a person with no right to claim it . . .


--- Lolita Lark
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