Kim Addonizio’s Eclectic Wisdom: A Review of Now We’re Getting Somewhere

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Now We’re Getting Somewhere
By Kim Addonizio
(W.W. Norton Company, 2021, 81 pp, $26.95)

Spanning nearly thirty years and accumulating numerous awards along the way, including the John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award, a Pushcart Prize, and Guggenheim Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, Kim Addonizio’s poetry proves itself a descendant of the poetic voices of Sylvia Plath, Dorothy Parker, and Anne Sexton. However, describing and analyzing her work according to the prosody of those poets would be inaccurate. While Kim Addonizio’s work contains elements of her predecessors’ poetry, especially razor-sharp wit, she confronts misogyny, racism, classism, climate change, and pollution while delving into the personal problems of everyday existence, such as depression, loss, and loneliness, in poems that vary in style and register. Her new collection— remaining true to form and a career’s worth of expectation—surprises, questions, teases, and satirizes with a voice as vibrant and as clever as ever.  In a word, Now We’re Getting Somewhere is eclectic: equally funny, powerful, and philosophical. Indeed, Addonizio demonstrates her eclecticism throughout the collection. Epigraphs from Leonard Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor appended before the table of contents setup a scale on which the poems fall, from the deeply personal to the outright political, but this is not to say that these poems lack nuance. Instead, the pieces in Now We’re Getting Somewhere complicate each other and deepen already profound moments.

For example, the first two poems of the book, “Night in the Castle,” from which the first section takes its title, and “Black Hour Blues” prime the reader for a collection that will invoke form and formlessness in ways that will mirror the extremes of the public and private, the political and personal. Notice the first six lines of “Night in the Castle” stretch across the page, a technique which Addonizio began incorporating with Tell Me, suggesting C.K. Williams’s essay-like poems, with images galore and personal asides, and, to a lesser extent, Whitman’s poetry:

I’m not sure what to do about the scorpion twitching on the wall Maybe I should slam it with this book of terrible poetry

or just read aloud to it until it dies of histrionic metaphor bleeding out on the ancient stones in a five-octave aria

If I get a little drunker I might try to murder it with my sandal I gave up on mercy a while ago

Though the lines are reminiscent of Williams and Whitman, Addonizio makes this style her own. By eliminating punctuation and depending on capitalization to indicate new sentences, she characterizes the speaker, highlighting her meandering mind, which allows the poet to explore such themes as entitlement, loneliness, and depression through a series of turns before returning to the scorpion that symbolizes so much, including control, death, and sexual desire:

Meanwhile the scorpion is still there twitching blackly Reciting something about violence & the prison of ego

& I can hear the clashing armies on the wide lawn outside Sinking down into history & then standing up again

Addonizio’s first poem expands ever outward, preparing her reader for a collection filled with possibilities that, given the allusions to Rumi’s “prison of my ego” and Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” can be spiritual.

By the next poem, Addonizio has her reader thinking that every piece will sing jazz-like— crescendos and decrescendos, accelerandos and ritardandos, improvised for the moment, and after taking in the whole collection, she delivers on that promise. Analyzing the book poem by poem showcases the poet’s mastery of formal composition as well as free verse. In “Black Hour Blues,” Addonizio writes a nonce version of the blues poem form in which she repeats the word “black” in every line until the final two lines of the poem, instead of having a traditional refrain, and as the poem lists the ways that black people, the indigenous community, immigrants, the environment, and the poor meet disaster, the rhymes unravel to reflect the ways that the Western world has failed them. She accomplishes this without losing the form’s music:

Black Deepwater Horizon pelican and dolphin. Through Standing Rock a black worm crawls. Black Baltimore Mali Iraq Sudan Cambodia Sinai Selma Uh.

The darkling beetle raises its black back and runs Through the black Ghost Ship and Grenfell Tower ruins. Black Syria Somalia Ferguson Uh Attica Gaza Yemen Huh.

Though the poem lacks consistent stresses per line or a meter that one would expect in song, Addonizio maintains the poem’s structure through anaphora, assonance, alliteration, and rhyme. Though some readers might think that the author’s listing leads to confusion and fails to expand upon those tragedies, she does so deliberately to emphasize and bring attention to the injustices. The poem ends on a note of invocation to justice: “Blindfolded goddess, long sword drawn / nowhere in the Oh come down come down.”

In the space of just two pages, Addonizio presents the reader with the aforementioned poems, which fall on different sides of the personal-political spectrum. Their proximity might also suggest that no separation truly exists between the two. This pattern continues through the book’s first section, which contains so many gems—“Animals,” “Grace,” and “High Desert, New Mexico,” to name a few— but the variety of themes and subjects maintains a reader’s interest throughout the collection.

High Desert, New Mexico” transitions from the hum of capitalistic epicenters to the natural world and examines human existence from its point of view, its value in our spiritual lives:

Temple of the rattlesnake’s religion. Deluge and heat-surge. Crèche of the atom’s Rupture. Night blackens like a violin And bright flour falls from the kitchen of heaven.

The imagery deepens with meditation, and the reader realizes that the world, though darker with age like the varnish on a violin, also finds redemption. Flour falling from heaven’s kitchen alludes to the idea of manna and spiritual nourishment, which unites desolation with growth, and Addonizio adds to the religious experience by employing monorhyme through the sonnet, expressing the interconnectedness of what humankind divides into the natural world and civilization. Insisting that human nature and nature are the same, she writes that one can “almost forget the shame of being human. / Smoke tree. Sage. Not everything is broken.” Bringing in more of her own poetic influences and centering on finding the divine in nature, Addonizio alludes to Dante: “…Abandon / your despair, you who enter here forsaken. / The wind is saying something. Listen.” The poem never arises to the level of sermonizing, nor does it scold. It illustrates and implores.

Written from 2015 to 2020, during the Trump era and the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the collection can be read through the lenses of isolation and frustration, pervasive feelings across the United States—giving the title, Now We’re Getting Somewhere, a secondary, ironic meaning. The most useful way to read this collection is analyzing it from both the political and personal, a weaving together of the public and private worlds that create our realities, but Addonizio does not pander to political in-groups or obscure her work with esoteric allusions. Her collection’s exploration of public and private lives underscores an accessibility found throughout her career, making this collection read almost as a long-awaited conversation with an old friend.

Direct addresses to Whitman in “Animals” and to Keats in “I Can’t Stop Loving You John Keats,” and even one to her own guitar make the personal seem even more so to poet-readers, who tend to have similar relationships to their influences. In an interview with Fringe Magazine from 2010, Rachel Dacus asked Kim Addonizio, “What is the purpose of poetry?” She responded, “What is the meaning of life?” As a poet should, Addonizio answers subjective questions and the experience of living with poems, not soundbites.

At times, exploring life through poetry can lead to contradiction, but the poet does not shy from it. What the reader discovers in “High Desert, New Mexico” opposes the argument the speaker has with Whitman in “Animals.” Beginning with a Whitman epigraph, “I think I could turn and live with animals,” the speaker of “Animals” proceeds to lampoon the quotation:

O Walt you were wrong, they aren’t placid or self-contained I just watched a spoonbill make carpaccio out of a frog & crocodiles dining on wildebeests trying to cross the Maro River

It’s wrong to say O in poetry these days which makes me want to have a loud orgasm right here in an unashamed animal way

Through humor, Addonizio satirizes herself through Whitman. The tongue-in-cheek poem, while on some levels contradictory, proves that people may be just as driven as animals are by impulse and instinct, despite civilization.

Even if one reads such poems as inconsistent, the disagreement between them exemplifies the sometimes contrary ways people can perceive the world and this is especially true when it comes to the personas in different poems, which allows Addonizio to embody a Dylan-Roof-type bigot in “Grace,” reminiscent of Patricia Smith’s poem “Skinhead,” and also affords her the flexibility to write from the perspective of a person who explores despair and ennui through the phrase “in bed,” originating as a joke made by adding the same phrase to the end of wisdoms found in fortune cookies. This versatility permits poems like “Résumé” and “To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall” in the second section, “Songs for Sad Girls,” to surprise the reader, like a note bent just so in a guitar solo.

Written after Dorothy Parker’s most famous poem of the same title, “Résumé” takes Parker’s witty poem concerning suicide and envisions it as reasons one should drink. Besides providing the collection additional humor, the piece offers the reader a momentary pause from the more serious pieces that precede it and offers a formal, lighter poem between free verse, changing the tempo of the collection:

Friends are distracted; Aging stinks; You’ll soon be subtracted; You might as well drink.

These change-of-pace poems tend to be among the most memorable, adding to the eclectic experience of the book, but Addonizio not only changes styles or speakers to direct and renew attention to the poems but she also modulates theme among poems in the same section so that the reader never senses a lull in the poetry. For example, she counterbalances “,” a humorous take on online dating with one of the book’s most touching poems, “To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall,” which Addonizio refers to as a “fourteen-liner.” The poem, at first glance, appears to be like so many other free-verse takes on the sonnet, but Addonizio’s use of line breaks and spare punctuation propel the reader into the spiraling misery of the woman the speaker addresses. One feels the poet is speaking directly to her heartache and devastation, that the reader is the subject of this poem. We are. However, the poem does not simply spiral out of control. Through assonance, half-rhyme, anaphora, and alliteration, the poet structures what seems to be entirely chaotic:

if you swam across a river under rain sang using a dildo for a microphone stayed up to watch the moon eat the sun entire ripped out the stitches in your heart because why not if you think nothing & no one can / listen I love you joy is coming.

Of course, words like “river” and “ran” immediately resonate, but further inspection reveals more alliteration. “Swam” and “sang” emerge, as do “stayed,” “sun,” and “stitches,” but “microphone” and “moon,” along with “nothing,” “no” “can,” and “coming,” are also present. Though some might argue that a few of these words need to be closer to each other to hear the alliteration, they are fewer than ten syllables apart, many others being much closer. The persistent second-person pronouns also reverberate, demanding the reader’s attention. One also notices the assonance present throughout the poem. The long “o” and short “a” sounds occur throughout the piece, echoing the sobs of the poem’s subject, and half-rhymes like “nothing” with “coming” and “sang” and “stayed” create the structure on which the music can close. The result of such careful crafting is a powerful message that remains with the reader—that someone in the world loves you, that happiness is on its way.

“Confessional Poetry,” the book’s third section, arrives as the biggest surprise and change of pace. Addonizio spreads one poem of thirty-five lines over thirteen pages. These pages, with no more than five lines of poetry floating on each one, provide ample time to meditate on the words and explore why the poet chose such an experimental approach to layout. The white space acts as a kind of tacet, a long period of rest or silence in a musical composition. Addonizio seems to imply, in a John-Cage-like way, that the reader’s own mind becomes part of what confessional poetry is. Though the poem itself is more of a short lyrical essay on what constitutes the confessional poem, the piece also subverts and satirizes the confessional mode—the poetry itself and the reader:

I woke up this morning from uneasy dreams & put on three pairs of tiny …….high heels Embed me in plastic, pass me around

Put me onstage so I can stand over a grave trap & a man can explain what’s wrong with me

Rape me by the light of the moon shining over a nuclear reactor pool

Is there a single idea in my pretty little head?

Lets have another cocktail & find out while I remove these sticky bandages

The risk of dividing the poem over so much space makes sense because it allows the reader to interpret the speaker in two ways: the speaker as one person on a journey or a series of speakers that transition from page to page. Indeed, the poem itself could be mistakenly interpreted as a series of smaller poems for this reason, but the poetry works better as a divided whole because many of the pages do not work as single poems, nor would the poem work if the white space were removed. Without the added space, the poem would stagnate, become one-dimensional. The additional ways to read the poem pay off only because the poetry needs it. If the piece had been lineated according to a traditional layout, the speaker’s lists of what confessional poetry is would fizzle into “sloppy, boring, grotesque, unfuckable feelings,” which only stresses the point Addonizio is making: that confessional poetry is hardly private and, in many ways, a cooperative enterprise between poet, poem, and reader; therefore, a confessional poem is like any other: “No, the confessional is a mode among other modes.”

By the fourth section, “Archive of Recent Uncomfortable Emotions,” the sprawling verses of the first section return. The subtle bookending tricks the reader into thinking that the collection returns to the same emotional spaces visited in “Night in the Castle,” but the last section expands on those spiritual and self-exploratory themes. “Ex” recounts a past relationship that the speaker only remembers as if it had been “a hangover [she] sweated out,” but the poem goes beyond the memory of the relationship, what she thought it was and could have been, and she permits the reader to see how such significant moments in our lives can come to mean little to us and still be a testament to our endurance:

Mostly I think about how little I think about him now

like he was just some decorative saltwater display in an overpriced lobby or a hangover I sweated out in a single low-impact cardio weight routine when once he was the creature who swallowed me whole

in a huge religiously significant way

Through biblical allusion, Addonizio reminds us that even our little-remembered failures shape us, resulting in wisdom and growth we fail to recognize. The poet reminds us that many experiences test the faith we have in ourselves and God.

“The Miraculous” works as a mirror image of “High Desert, New Mexico.” Instead of a tranquil desert setting, Addonizio sets “The Miraculous” in a bar populated by an untalented band and drunks, all sinners in their own way. The speaker then talks about her brother’s failing liver and about “someone’s loud lover / swearing to Christ and the bar to get sober.” As the poem progresses, the setting transitions to the natural world, representing, among other things, the speaker’s body, the cost of human “progress”, and the spiritual world, making this poem an amalgam of the political and personal:

…I go down to the mouth of the river

ugly with waste. Yellow foam and trash. A tanker crawling the horizon. What does it bear— oil or chemicals. I was taught a man could walk on water. That if I listened, and unhinged my heart, I’d hear a presence stirring the air. And I do: God, the murderer making things perfectly clear.

Through a polluted river mouth, a tanker at sea, and the wind, the speaker hears God, and like “High Desert, New Mexico,” the sonnet employs monorhyme to establish the divine interconnectedness of the natural, spiritual, and human worlds, making them one, even in sound. Given those connections, the poet leaves the reader wondering if the speaker blames God or humanity for the tragedies she witnesses in the poem. Again, Addonizio surprises us because the resolution of the poem ultimately points to a culpability in everything and everyone, including the reader.  Of course, this piece, like so many in the collection, focuses on the struggle of being alive and the innumerable ways adversity, whether spiritual, political, personal, or social, finds us and how people, especially women, can live with it.

“Stay,” the last poem of Now We’re Getting Somewhere, closes the collection with another twist. After witnessing bigotry, loss, sexism, ecological disaster, temptation, spiritual awakening, and a crisis of faith, Addonizio provides comfort to her reader:

Please wait for the transmissions, however faint. Listen: when a stranger steps into the elevator with a bouquet of white ……..roses not meant for you,

they’re meant for you.

Again, the poet finds the spiritual in the mundane, and she arrives at that spirituality through an examination of the ugly parts of living, requiring multiple lenses, an eclectic mixture of styles, voices, and poems to arrive at her message.

Now We’re Getting Somewhere reflects living, its profound moments of grace and disgrace, and the collection’s power comes from the poet’s ability to find beauty in the same things that terrify us. The work, painfully funny and solemn, provides poignant wisdom during a time when wisdom is in short supply.