Refusal to ‘Know’
Tell Me, Kim Addonizio. BOA Editions, 2000. 90 pp. $12.50.
Kim Addonizio’s third collection begins with an epigraph from Antonio Machado’s Proverbios y cantares: “Let us sing together: know? We know nothing,” which reveals where Addonizio has arrived in her work. Tell Me is her most philosophical and formally ambitious collection to date; the poems here are not as narrative or lyric as earlier work and, as the epigraph intimates, the pieces do indeed “know nothing.” Instead, Addonizio navigates various uncertainties – personae are uncertain about their circumstances, their actions, their relationships, and in some cases the places in which they find themselves.
In “HA,” the speaker asks questions we know will never be answered, showing her own trouble in the moment. But it is the characters she observes that are even more deluded, even more in need of a knowledge they do not yet possess:
Why is there something rather than nothing?
If God is good, how is it that the weed of evil
takes root everywhere, and what is there to keep us
from murdering each other in despair? Why is pleasure always
a prelude to pain? The bartender takes your glasses, tells you
it’s time to get out. You stumble through the door,
and there you are in the cold and the wind and a little snow
that’s started to fall. Two losers stand in a corner.
One turns to the other and says, Why did our love end?
The other can’t answer. Why do they torment me? he says.
The snowstorm begins in earnest but still they stand there,
determined to stay put until they finally get it.
Rarely is anyone satisfied in an Addonizio poem.
Another way to understand Addonizio’s vision is through the voice of “Virgin Spring,” a poem inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s movie of the same name. Just as so many of Addonizio’s personae do, the speaker here meditates on watching someone who herself performs a sort of voyeurism, regardless of her motive of self-preservation. Even as the poem’s speaker watches the movie and the other sister, she tries to understand the relation between watching, not being involved, and surviving. After the poem details several acts of murder, rape, and betrayal, the speaker considers the other sister, the sister of the original murdered girl, and her act of witnessing the crime:
the other, dark-haired sister, the pregnant one, who had been a few
yards behind on the road
to church that morning, who had followed the men and watched
from a safe distance
while they erased the girl, her prettiness, her spoiled ways, her
I don’t know what to make of the sister. She’s the one who knows
the world is brutal
and goes on, scattering seed for the hogs, the one who says
nothing, the one who survives.
The perspectives here are layered like fun house mirrors, prompting us to ask what is real, who is perceiving whom, and where is the moral core of the poem. Implicit here is the narrator demanding tell me what is real and what is right. Such implicit echoes of the book’s title are a constancy that holds this collection tightly together.
However, in spite of the final assertion of “Virgin Spring,” there are many poems wherein Addonizio’s varied witnesses act, decidedly say something and, nonetheless, survive. Perhaps it’s how they say it. The poems’ narrators use words that run through this book and echo its core uncertainty: somewhere, something, whatever, somebody, sometimes. Not only do the formal poems invite repetition into the telling, sometimes the very words that are repeated tell us that these poems and their details and aphoristic moments rest on flimsy ground. On her Web site, as well as in her workshops, Addonizio has stated that she is uncomfortable with sentiment, epiphany, and answer, and so the personae in these poems, just as the readers, are left to muddle through and live with few answers and many questions. In “Collapsing Poem,” even though the narrator acts and appears decisive, she still does so with a burden of uncertainty:
. . . maybe you don’t care about them yet.
Maybe you need some way
to put yourself in this scene, some minor detail
that will make them seem so real you try to enter
this page to keep them from doing
to each other what you’ve done to someone,
somewhere: think about that for a minute,
while she keeps crying, and he speaks
in a voice so measured and calm he might be
talking to a child frightened by something
perfectly usual: darkness, thunder,
the coldness of the human heart.
But she’s not listening, because now
she’s hitting him, beating her fists against the chest
she laid her head on so many nights.
And by now, if you’ve been moved, it’s because
you’re thinking with regret of the one person
this poem set out to remind you of,
and what you want more than anything is what
the man in the poem wants: for her to shut up.
And if only you could drive down that street
and emerge from the fog, maybe you
could get her to stop, but I can’t do it.
All I can do is stand at that open door
making things worse. That’s my talent,
that’s why this poem won’t get finished unless
you drag me from it, away from that man;
for Christ’s sake, hurry, just pull up and keep
the motor running and take me wherever you’re going.
As she shows in “The Numbers,” it can be edifying to lament and sing what one does not know:
I don’t know how God can bear
seeing everything at once: the falling bodies, the monuments and burnings,
the lovers pacing the floors of how many locked hearts. I want to close
my eyes and find a quiet field in fog, a few sheep moving toward the fence.
I want to count them, I want them to end. I don’t want to wonder
how many people are sitting in restaurants about to close down,
which of them will wander the sidewalks all night
while pies revolve in the refrigerated dark.
. . .
I’m tired, I want to rest now.
I want to kiss the body of my lover, the one mouth, the simple name
without a shadow. Let me go. How many prayers
are there tonight, how many of us must stay awake and listen?
Perhaps the spirit of the poet and the book is best described in a final poem, “The Witness”: “she’s only … someone who will remember / each detail with perfect clarity / after the worst is over, / after it’s too late to save anyone.” As a writer and witness, Addonizio has ambitiously revisited both the breathless meditation that was prevalent in The Philosopher’s Club and the traditional formalism to which she has gravitated since her first publications; the structural and thematic complications of Tell Me result in a fierce, beautiful book.
Gabriel Welsch reviews poetry and fiction regularly for Small Press Review, and other criticism appears in Contemporary Poetry Review, Harvard Review, Mid-American Review and Missouri Review. His poems and stories have appeared in Many Mountains Moving, Mid-American Review, Carolina Quarterly, Cream City Review, Antietam Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Quarter After Eight and elsewhere.