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Satellite Convulsions: Poems from Tin House

Tin House started publishing in 1999, when I was writing home security software and playing mandolin in Raleigh, NC. I wasn’t writing much poetry, and I was reading even less, especially in the literary rags, which bored me to tears. When, three years later, I did start writing and reading again, I was in St Mary’s County MD, writing software for the Navy and living in an efficiency apartment in a bar parking lot, the nearest Borders 50 miles away, Barnes & Noble even further, and no major universities anywhere near. Not much chance of browsing the racks even if I’d wanted to.

I’ve since moved three miles north, and my life is much better, but I’m still in St Mary’s County. It didn’t seem altogether strange that I’d never heard of Tin House until I got an email asking if I’d like a review copy of Satellite Convulsions: Poems from Tin House — yes, blogging has its privileges. Of course I said yes.

But when it arrived, I was more than a bit taken aback to see listed on the cover Billy Collins and Rae Armantrout, Sharon Olds and Seamus Heaney, James Tate and Charles Simic: it seems I may have been more isolated than I had thought, and what in the world were those people doing in the same book, unless it were a classroom survey anthology of recent poetry — and those are dreadful things, governed either by ideology or a commitment to demonstrate the stinking breadth of contemporary verse. But though Tin House may well get academic or government grants (I don’t know one way or the other), it depends at least partly on subscriptions and advertising, which is to say it depends on readers, who put up money in expectation that Tin House’s editors will delight them. And they have delighted me.

Most of that delight comes from delightful poems. In the Foreword, Associate editor CJ Evans claims “Poetry can be as sexy as any scantily clad youth,” and Olena Kalytiak Davis proves it in the four Francesca sonnets reprinted here, especially “(And More)” and “Francesca Says Too Much.” Another of the four, with a title even longer than this apology for not typing it out, is available online from Tin House # 26. I don’t know where the hell I’ve been that I didn’t read Davis before (oh yeah — St Mary’s County) but I want more. Satellite Convulsions would have been worth the cover price for nothing more than such a discovery.

And she’s not the only one. Here’s the second of Victoria Chang‘s “Seven Infidelities”:

After ten years. He must known
her body, that she shaved up to
the thigh only. He spent five hours
at the gym each day recruiting
his neck muscles, lifting riverbeds in sets,
as they flowed past her house, like muddy
veins. Where she stood every day to see
if he drove by.

I love unsaid and half-said things here, the gym-rat’s obsession with cleanliness and exhibition implied by her shaving “to the thigh only,” his stiff-necked pride, neither seeing the other except as absent.

Mark Doty‘s “To the Engraver of My Skin” ends “I’m here / for revision, discoloration; here to fade / and last, ineradicable, blue. Write me! / The ink lasts longer than I do.” I typed out a copy to send to my tattooed step-daughter, and I’m almost afraid to send it.

I read the title of Sharon Old’s “On the Hearth of the Broken Home” and almost didn’t read the poem — but I did and it reminded me of the power she has at her best: “If I ever / dreamed, as a child, of everlasting / love, these were its shoes: one dew-licked / kicked-off slipper of a being now flying, one / sunrise-milk-green boot of the dead, / which I wore, as I dreamed.” These were its shoes!

I don’t want to go on just quoting striking snippets (though the temptation is there), and I don’t want to give the impression I liked everything in the book. I didn’t — but almost without exception even the poems I didn’t like did something, they moved, they had a real voice. I’m disappointed but not surprised that there’s so little formal verse, but Tin House is hardly unusual in that.

Indeed, perhaps the best thing, for me, about reading Satellite Convulsions is how the collection challenged some of my own prejudices:

  • Surrealism leaves me cold, but the title poem, by Ben Doller, just knocked me out.
  • The cleverness of conceits extended beyond the length of, say, a sonnet, often wear my patience, but Wislawa’s Szymborska‘s “Love At First Sight” manages 44 lines of increasing depth.
  • Erin Belieu‘s “In the Red Dress I Wear to Your Funeral #8” ought to be the kind of poem I most dislike, but though it’s built of scraps of political manifesto and “consciousness-raising” rhetoric and its syntax is as fractured as that of the most stereotypical post-modern texts, somehow an authentic voice emerges. I don’t know how: I want to know how.
  • Epiphany after meandering is one of the worst clichés of contemporary free verse, yet Jill Bialosky seems to earn hers in “Pumpkin Picking,” perhaps because of the striking metaphor of the pumpkin stem as umbilical cord just before the end.

The editors had nine years of poetry to choose from (Charles Simic’s wonderful “Interrogating Mr. Worm” appeared in the first issue), so perhaps it’s not surprising there’s so much good poetry. But they had to pick them for publication in the magazine, and editor Brenda Shaughnessy recalls editor-in-chief Win McCormack asking “But can’t poetry also be effable?”

It certainly can.

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