Miami is the best place to be during National Poetry Month, no question. I’ve only lived here two years, and I have already willingly consumed prodigious quantities of the local literary Kool-Aid. Thanks to P. Scott Cunningham, founder of the annual O, Miami Poetry Festival, and a diverse and committed group of south Florida poets, every day of the month of April is dedicated to multiple poetry-centered events throughout the city, from Miami-Dade County in the south stretching north to Broward and the Palm Beaches.
This year I was invited to read for O, Miami on April 7 at a venue called the Edgewater Poetry & Athletics Club. I would be reading in the company of two alliteratively named poets—Denise Duhamel, a friend and colleague at Florida International University, and a visiting poet, Stephanie Strickland, joining us from New York City. Most O, Miami events showcase multiple poets as opposed to single featured readers. They tend not take place in academic settings, in the spirit of bringing poetry out of the schools and into the streets. And most O, Miami events include at least one south Florida poet reading in concert with at least one poet from out of town. The idea here is to infiltrate the lives of south Floridians with poetry for an entire month each year, exposing them to the richest possible variety of creations passing under the banner POEM.
Though I teach and write poetry and consider myself well-initiated as a contemporary reader of the genre, the work of Stephanie Strickland was new to me. In anticipation of our meeting, I promptly secured a copy of her most recent book, Dragon Logic, which thrilled me with its name and further delighted me with its cover: green and notched as if the book itself were the scaled back of the mythical, fire-breathing reptile. Are dragons a kind of reptile? This shows how much I know. I opened the book, imagining that I was going to sit in my favorite chair and read it cover to cover. But as it turns out, Dragon Logic isn’t a book you actually read. Reading implies that you, the person with pen in hand and eyes roving left to right across the page, are directing the enterprise. Dragon Logic is instead an immersion experience—a baptism by fire, if you will—and I found myself surrendering more than reading, allowing the poems to dazzle and dismay, to affect and provoke without attempting to contain them or reduce them to something less than their compound beauty. You might say, in more seductive speak, that I let these poems have their way with me.
Later, I returned to the book looking through the lens of poetry itself. I should call this the meta-lens. By way of invocation, Strickland opens her collection with these words: everyone knows that dragons don’t exist. After allowing these poems to seep into my consciousness (for they are very intellectual), to get under my skin (for they are also very visceral)—to linger the way all the best poems do (after-resonance of a gong strike, kaleidoscope of colors under closed eyelids…)—I thought of how, for many, perhaps for most people, poets don’t exist. Not really. Not in the same way as accountants or dermatologists. How can you be a poet? What is the job description? What are the required credentials? Most poets I know don’t even introduce themselves that way. They teach, they’re professors, they work in literature. There is a pervasive sense in the population at large that poets, like dragons, are mythical—or at the very least, medieval—something from another time. Maybe we once existed in fully realized forms, but now we’re extinct like the dinosaurs. Is a dragon a kind of dinosaur? This shows how much I know.
Poetic Adventurers, I’d advocate a three-tiered approach to your encounter with Dragon Logic. The first time through, permit certain passages to speak to you without attempting to translate or decode. In other words, don’t look up words. Don’t berate yourself for being stupid. There’s something oracular here. You might find yourself lingering over small phrases like tea leaves in the bottom of your cup. For instance: “a tissue of histories.” I let the assonance soak in first, then the concept behind it—multi-valence of our overlapping stories, densities of time and space, the limited, perceptual cross-section we can glimpse of any given. Then: “UPSTART stars / of themselves could not (and cannot) / hold it together.” I let the consonance soak in first, then the concept behind it. I never think of stars as “upstarts,” or as “start-ups” for that matter. What, after all, is the business of the sky? Strickland surprises me in that all matter matters in her work. The vast cosmos, the miniscule body: in all their scope and all their intricacy, Strickland welds the macro and micro together with striking, bedeviling, astonishing pairings of words: “haranguing electrons,” “calyxical / spaces,” “menstrual black,” “requisitely / male,” “newly unchrysalised.” Or this—“now a padded package / opening to spill gores of silk / crumpled moths falling from the parachute.” How many times have I seen a packing envelope severed to this end without seeing the poetic implications therein? The image as poem rather than in poem. The familiar made strange again.
On your second encounter with this book, refuse to boil ideas down to their thinnest broth, their simplest ingredient. Instead, allow ideas to boil over. Allow for froth and bubble, toil and trouble. All are present here. For instance, what happens when I enter this book (for it is a place) as a poet? I come to see the analogy between poets and dragons clearly: “wordhoard treasure here be dragons rather / die / a wooden barb may be parried but a verbal barb cannot.” Like dragons, poets are presumed to be ephemeral (sticks and stones [like wooden barbs] may break my bones, but words [a verbal barb] will never hurt me), yet they too breathe fire, don’t they? Certainly, Strickland does: “there is a zombie at the wheel / who finds acceptable all risk / / (his flesh looks like mine )// a crinkle monkey in the swamp / mind tricky and brisk / / (his moves feel like mine).” Watch/hear/feel how her language singes, crackles, and burns.
Redux: What happens when I enter the book (for it is many places simultaneously) as a queer person? I come to see the analogy between queer people and dragons clearly: “some powers are only otherness-viewable / some only multi-otherness-realizable.” There are some, many perhaps, who don’t believe queer people exist—not really—who don’t accept that our lives are just as common and just as complex as those of other people. If our difference cannot be seen (is not “viewable”), how can our lives be known (“realizable”) to others? We must not remain mythical, the Politics of Visibility suggests. A comment on assimilation, perhaps: are we our own worst enemy in this regard (e.g., “the Dragon not letting exist that which longs to exist”)? So much lip service is paid these days to queering texts and queering space. Is it fair to say these poems instantiate that queerness—constitute a queer text, comprise a queer space—regardless of the orientation of their author? Might queerness manifest as “dragon logic,” and vice versa?
No matter who you are, I can attest: you will find in this book what you need, if not necessarily what you thought you were looking for. It is the paradox of the periscope, Strickland’s periscopic poetics perhaps: poems that permit you to look over fences and walls (and all manner of real and imagined boundaries) without overlooking anything: not Science, not Religion, not Literature. And not their kindling either, the sparks from which they spring: Eschatology, Teratology, et al. It is all here—from Mister Rogers’s neighborhood (the book is a place, many places simultaneously) to Diamond Head, the Harbor, and back again. Even Beatrix Potter appears, alongside William James and James Turrell and Schrödinger’s elusive cat. So many complex cameos, but none at the expense of lyricism, the “MEASURABLE pleasures” of sound. Dragon Logic is rife with invigorating, alliterative energy throughout: “at the end of each exposure,” “big black bra both silk and industrial,” “to love liquidity via language.” To this end, but not only this end, Stephanie Strickland surprises me. There is no key she will not sing in and no song she cannot transpose. I pronounce her: Stephanie Strickland, songstress, sui generis.
If possible, for your third encounter with this book, place yourself directly in the poet’s path, somewhere inside her Promethean orbit. Like I was that night in April, with dozens of others, at the Edgewater Poetry and Athletics Club. It turned out the venue was actually a house occupied by visiting Cuban poets with a swimming pool in the yard (Poetry + Athletics). We sat on a basketball court in folding chairs, watching the night come down like a curtain. Denise read, and then I read. Behind us, geckos strobed across the yellow stucco walls. At dusk, Stephanie rose like one of her own poems: “Fireflies arriving moon green,” and then “sound fills urban / space,” and then “Silence: Fire towering.” She is a petite woman of enormous presence, which is to say a paradox, which is to say a human being—both like-us and unlike-us. A captured audience: she held us rapt as she began to read aloud:
keep a pearl
in the air untouched
if yes then no if no then yes
untouchable between them
sustained between them
the flow of air
The dragons might have stood for anything—fear and longing, say, or desire and indecision—but in the gloaming, they were real dragons, as green as the geckos on the wall. Binary dragons: “if no then yes if yes then no.” Everyone saw them that night, which is to say saw ourselves in them, which is to say experienced a baptism by fire and moon-glow, sweat and delectable illocution. Two dragons and a single pearl appeared, suspended in the flow of air before us.
A parting thought: the last poem in Dragon Logic is called “Unsolved Problems.” It is my favorite. Stephanie did not read this poem to us that night; she did one better. She manifested it. This poem asserts: “mysteries bear / in mind have no relation—thus / any linkage—whatsoever / to unsolved problems.” In other words, a mystery is not a problem. In others words, we can be in the presence of a mystery without the mystery becoming a problem, a nuisance, something we are required to solve. Rather, a mystery is an experience, an immersion, an acute perceiving without the means (or perhaps the necessity) to articulate what is perceived or how. Is a poem a kind of mystery? Is a dragon a kind of mystery, too? Is “dragon logic” a way of presenting, even inhabiting the mysterious without resolving it? (if yes then no if no then yes) I won’t profess to know.
Julie Marie Wade is the author of Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Colgate University Press, 2010; Bywater Books, 2014); Without: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2010); Small Fires: Essays (Sarabande Books, 2011); Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2013); Tremolo: An Essay (Bloom Books, 2013); and When I Was Straight: Poems (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2014). A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council, and a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Wade teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University. She is married to Angie Griffin and lives in Dania Beach.
Ahsahta Press, 2013
$18.00, paperback; ISBN 978-1-934103-45-6