Practically Porcelain: TFT review of “Dear Editor” by Amy Newman
The concept behind Dear Editor, by Amy Newman, should be painfully familiar to anyone who has taken part in the precarious dance that is the process of seeking publication. Every poem in the collection takes the form of the submission cover letter, that inevitable, often obsequious kind of awkward-but-essential piece of epistolary. The brief descriptions of the work in question, in this case poems from X = Pawn Capture, a presumably fictional narrative by a presumably fictionalized Amy Newman, become the device that in its permutations— and eventually in its absence—drives the work as a whole. I can’t help but be reminded of the high-concept poetry of the late Paul Violi (the author of “Submission,” a poem dressed in the same costume) and the inventive kinds of approaches found in Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s or Peter Davis’s Poetry! Poetry! Poetry!. What is particularly successful about Dear Editor is that it doesn’t fall into the easy trap of being insular or snarky about the field of poetry itself, but with its self-reflexivity is able at once to satirize and empathize with the plight of the struggling writer. And beyond that, the poems— these letters—as they develop and with each iteration, start to point to concerns far graver and grander than merely the hassle of getting published.
Much in the way a chess game always begins with the same configuration, self-imposed constraints become the source of this collection’s invention. There is something inherently appealing and absurd about the situation that the reader is brought into, but it is in the repetition and variation of key elements that a certain kind of pathos is revealed. X = Pawn Capture, so tells us “Amy Newman,” revolves around “a particular kind of chess game played within my family,” the significance of which—in a manner mirroring the anxious voice of a writer attempting to ingratiate herself to the gate-keeping editor— constantly changes. It is at times “a game my grandfather once insisted that young children shouldn’t play,” elsewhere “a game not of skill but of worry,” or a “lyrical exploration of chess moves and the desire to know the world’s inner workings in a language unencumbered by doubts.” In the letter dated “17 October,” you get this almost painfully solipsistic, emotionally fraught ramble:
I picture the chess board as the field on which my grandparents first made love, and atop this, the series of black and white squares represent commitments and arguments and unholy sacrifices for the children who will never live up to their hopes: the chess pieces are grandchildren that further disappoint them.
The grandparents cast a shadow of guilt, of the un-redeemable, on the speaker, seemingly judging her while pantomiming a cold, loveless relationship. The old world they represent, becomes personified by the Saints and martyrs whose stories— and essentially unattainable ideals— then become woven into an adolescent narrative: “Mary of Egypt might have danced with men she didn’t know well, or kissed, as I have, football players from her high school, without any real desire, because how embarrassing to have to say no.” A strange matrix of guilt and desire, or perhaps the absence of desire, manifests as visions haunting “Amy” as she is kissing a boy:
what appears over his shoulder when I unclench my eyes then: the flashes and flecks and the face of Saint Theresa against a backdrop of pretty lace, and Saint Dorothea wearing her headdress of roses and pears, nodding and calm, their arms practically porcelain, and their stubborn haloes like platters as they appear on the holy cards because they existed before artists understood how to render perspective?
I like how the visions here immediately arrive as objects: “practically porcelain” arms with “haloes like platters.” Their appearance immediately (and surprisingly) terrestrial, mediated, more the representations of saints than saints themselves. And of course this sense underlies the work as a whole, a level of representation always hangs between the author and the reader: we are forced to rely on the cover letter to make our own judgments. X=Pawn Capture on “19 November” is “a manuscript about how chess may be a metaphor, and in this case the dry and silent intellectual play of the board acts as the absence of my grandfather’s desire. If my grandmother gets to have a metaphor, I choose the calendar that hung against the cellar door.” In the self-consciousness, here, a kind of metalepsis: a movement between different levels of narrative and the associated anxiety. On “18 February,” for instance, it is “troublesome… that I am so taken by the emergence of lady saints who show themselves to me at times, although to the workshop class these visitations would be foolish fancy and I should write no more of them.”
Such moves become especially fascinating when you consider who the “editor” might be, and how much agency this figure— and by extension the reader— is given. In “3 April,” the editor seems to become increasingly god-like, somehow set into a Catholic seeming cosmology:
Yet I seek Your Substance in the mailman’s scuff and trumpery of his walk away without leaving a sheet of paper bearing your response to my queries, that bit of flesh I would so gratefully receive for I am not worthy to… But I trust you hear me; that is my faith. Please consider these poems for publication.
And as the letter progresses, this kind of supplication— I am tempted to use the word ‘submission’ in its more frequent connotation— to a divine “Editor” achieves a remarkable, somehow humble desperation. “You know my stubbornness is a silhouette,” she writes, as if finally shedding hope, “my tiny mortal weakness in the shadows Your Trees cast.” In the end, I’d like to think that the divine, here, stands in for the promise of communication through writing itself. Nothing done by mortal hand can truly stand in for the promise of art, for a true analog between interior emotions, longings, desires, and the work itself as it is cast off. There is something equally hopeful and hopeless in the effort, and it is captured in all of its wonderful imperfection, here:
I would like to know passion, to know it in the same way saints know the world, which is to say in the most pure and untouched version as it hovers and penetrates, before it is reduced to dry ink in a single file of letters.
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