Living Review: Hey Folly by Mary Margaret Alvarado

(Note: a living review is one intended to occur over the lifespan of a book — one naturally encounters a book of poems over a year or a decade rather than a day or a week, in which sense to fully review a book for purchase shortly after it appears can seem a disingenuous proposition, if a valuably disingenuous proposition. This review form is intended as an alternative, a record or representation of one reader’s ongoing relationship with a book. It is meant to expand and alter with time, each response integral to the whole and thus not replaced but amplified or reframed by a later thought. Check back. –AS)

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(available here)

There is something off-kilter about this book of poems, something singular in the relationships of part to part, speaker to world, familiar stance to bizarre extrapolation. A poem here bristles, not defensively, but in the sense of a motion made. It crackles with wit and sonic explosion, twists of diction and sudden bursts of rapture. A poem here is an experience worth waking up for, worth being knocked off your feet by.

In the opening lines of the opening poem, “[The Chapter of the Inner Apartments],” an instance: “I’d been on that hill, grazing. / It was time to return / to my cell. I returned / to my cell. Got so still / I flew. I wore incorporeal / backseam silks, jessamine / slathered my nape.” The first four lines establish a familiar sort of speaker in a familiar sort of condition — it’s an imagined situation, not to be taken literally; the lines move in half-sentences, the sentences move responsively; the line breaks set up a micro-drama of small pauses. While it’s a pleasing sequence, there’s nothing unusual in it. In the last quoted sentence, something shifts. A particularity emerges — what are backseam silks? who says jessamine, much less slathers it on a neck? I’m turned around here by the tight-hewn sound of the language, turned into the face of some unexpected details that tell me this speaker is not ordinary.

The speaker seems aware of this oddness — later in the same poem, “But I was weird / against the door / when I got together / my usual refrain / addressed to a pomade / composite named Frank.” Now there’s a way in which oddness can become a sort of badge, and rapidly lose its genuine quality thereby. In much of the poetry I read, an address to a pomade composite named Frank would be something far less than promising. In these hands, it becomes, oddly, a springboard to a sort of beatific rapture of an ending to the poem: “all I wanna do / is eat dinner rolls & get / beatific” leads to “How one & beatific — flash / blindness, a groping / — how one for one thing / is what we get & get”. Now where did that come from? How did I get to this wonder from that pomade composite? I wouldn’t mind staying a little while in this kind of jarring complement of tones, and in the following 80 pages, I’m able to do just that.

There’s a similar skewed familiar in the final poem of the book that I’d like to think more about, but will note for now. In a form borrowed from Alice Notley — “”Her velvet shed” “She eats sedges” / “Her feet paddle” “We are unsettled” “By the fact of her!”” — the small addition of regular usage of the exclamation point makes a gigantic difference in how I read these lines compared with the lines in Notley’s “The Descent of Alette.” What it adds is a weirdness, a counterpoint to the hard-breathing flattening effect of the insistent quotation marks. So that the poem can get silly — “”They are beatboxing” / “& play accordion” “as if each is” “A haunted Balkan” — while retaining a touch of desperation.

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What kinds of effort make for awareness?

What amount of a hot book is hustle, getting out on the road and the internet enough to make other poets, other readers, take notice and push you further out into the world?

I ask out of a lifelong concern for the books I encounter in libraries, the nearly anonymous single volumes of poetry, never checked out in two decades. One or two per author, anonymous presses, and the covers say they teach somewhere.

I ask because this book is so much better than those books are, so much more alive, humming with the singular perspective of a strange and lovely sensibility.

And yet, with all respect to the publishers, who did a good job with this book, I’d never heard of Dos Madres press until I received this book. When I look at their website I see that, in spite of the fact that Hey Folly came out mere months ago, it’s already moved off their list of new releases into catalogue obscurity. One has to click three times to get to it. It hasn’t been reviewed anywhere.

Here’s a book that anyone reading it would agree demands acclaim and a wider audience. Because this is the week of the infamous Harper’s article that launched a hundred stirring rebuttals, here’s a book that would serve as a counterpoint to that thin and unhappy appraisal of our vibrant poetry — if only one could find it.

A beautiful and accomplished book. Published by a small independent press. Whose author is a mother of young children, who can’t — just can’t — hit the road to promote her book without making sacrifices that any parent will tell you aren’t worth making. And which author would likely say anyhow, that kind of promotion isn’t the point.

There must be some way to alter that equation. To make certain this book gets to the readers who need it. Who will recognize the strangeness of this poetry, and its value.

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