I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say is a masterful book. Subtitled or retitled 580 Strophes: Libri Sex, the book states its structure: hundreds of couplets in six books—which is exactly not to state its unity. Unity and identity are in fact the questions at stake both within and across poems; and as the title promises, turnabout is fair play. The language itself is both master and slave, and the book as a whole both begs our attention and commandeers our consciousness.
Perhaps the first thing one notices is that the poems don’t make sense. Generally composed of six to ten couplets, they begin in the middle of things, stay in the middle of things, and exit with a parting shot, generally a mocking commentary from an invisible bystander. What is one to make of a poem that leaps from the cost of subway trains to the release of “that eerie torchlit blackbird” to an “eleven leggéd SUN” which is told to cease “threading needles with camels?” And this just halfway through the first poem! One makes, through patient attention, a play-space and a space in play. It is not just that anything can happen in these strophes, but that lyric enclosure no longer applies. And endings are not meanings; they may “sum up” in off-sides banter, but they do not provide coherence.
List-poems are a good analogue, such as Whitman’s, and certain songs in the Bible; so are analocuthons like Christopher Smart’s paeon “To My Cat Geoffry.” The book’s speaker calls its pieces ghazals and is clearly admiring of and invested in Arabic poetry, but the ghazal’s rhymes and repeated words have been excised. The couplets are all disjunction, all the time. The poems leap from long-limbed declarative sentences to asides, statements of fact and opinion, invitations, exclamations, questions, and apostrophes: So that the effect of all these leaps is not only constantly to create and destroy universes, but to give the shimmer, across the Bedouin desert, of metaphor (the identity of disparate elements) by way of constant juxtapositions.
Sometimes the poems explicitly weave metaphoric or harmonious unities that depend upon the subterranean connections of ambiguities (leaves, poems, books), even while disavowing them: “See how the stubborne damzell doth deprave my simple meaning”(8)! And sometimes a relatively clear pseudo-biographical narrative teases itself out; more often, one strophe picks up the subject of the previous, and proceeds as it were by error. The non-Western music of the single note, multiplied to a kind of infinity, creates its own space, and the ear that can hear. The poems give and do not give themselves up, mounting a “voluptuous resistance”(44) to our mastery and understanding, all the while dispensing accessible “Golden Advice”(3).
Madrid’s book sets out to be a new sacred text, referring, for starters, to the Devil’s Dictionary, and ending with the Apocalypse: “For my mission is to alter the course | of human personality. // Babe, don’t touch the curls”(104). “Speaking gorgeous English into [our] glasses”(62), the language in these poems stands out for its unusual embrace of ancient idiom, as if to encompass the entire history, not just of poetry in English, but of poetic traditions everywhere, especially of pre-industrial societies. Trusting perhaps that everything important has already been thought and said, all traditions are fair game: “HINDUISM! That fractal religion with gods sticking out of the gods!/ Every time you open the faucet, you get a sink full of gods”(66). The speaker, as full of questions as answers, intent on earthly embrace, confides, “you’re seeing me after the accident”(38). The book, despite its rangy habits, is seamlessly, carefully put together; it has the shape of spiritual quest.
If unity and coherence are subverted within the poems, the (same) question of formal identity appears as the problem of the speaker. And it is not as simple as a certain wandering; no, there are onlookers, questioners, wise men, and gamines in the works, and some of them are us, and the speaker is most of them. Furthermore, if we ventriloquize or animate the text, mirroring the kaleidoscopic fragments as we turn them, then who is addressing us? Who calls us “you?” And if we inhabit the “parting shot” of the final couplet in most poems (for someone calls our speaker “MADRID”), we are standing somewhat outside the drama our attention begins.
As if our own participation is not complicated enough, the poems rapidly shift ‘persons’ very like Ashbery shifts pronouns, undermining and multiplying the subject; a Madrid poem moves, say, from third person plural (“These were not born to be lovers”) to first person plural (“We have no word for the provocative dimples”), strophe to strophe, thence to a “you” which toggles from specific address (“O traveler”) to the more general “you” of ‘anyone’ (“you can have it either way”)—which is an implied first person—moving toward an explicit first-person “I” (“I am free to play Lady Godiva”), thence pivoting toward an apostrophe (“Oh, violet thong underwear”), and finally landing nimbly, one foot on the third person (“It’s about time MADRID turned a few heads”) and one on the second imperative, “Just look at him”(70). Such deft and complex movements are, perhaps miraculously, never confusing; we innerly speak this way, self-dramatize this way, and the demotic and the classical rhetoric are one.
The speaker, in various states of address, is complex, multiple, ironic, calculating, and sincere all at once. The speaker’s “I” or “we” speaks to no one, or to us, or to himself. Someone else calls him “MADRID.” Unless he himself calls himself that, standing aside. Who poses? Who opposes? This doubling is reminiscent of Berryman’s speakers in the Dream Songs: Henry, who talks to himself, and Mr. Bones, who comments on the proceedings and addresses Henry, and whom Henry sometimes answers. But while these devices somewhat transparently separate Berryman’s speakers from Berryman, some poems in Madrid’s I Am Your Slave complicate matters by either presenting a straightforward, unnamed “I” in the mainstream lyric vein, or declaring the identity of the “I” with MADRID. Except that the name’s been changed, as if garbled in a dream: “I am the invincible poet MARDUD”(85). The poet’s triumphant self-naming (in the poem at hand) is both entirely sincere and justified, and entirely undermined by the fact that “I am to be destroyed by a seventeen-year-old girl”(84).
Whitman said “I” and meant ‘all of us’; Dickinson said “I” and meant ‘each of me’; and ever since, it has grown very hard to say “I” and mean a subject understood as single, private, self-determining, and factual. As one poem puts it, “The cracked ego cannot be patched. It is too late for the individual”(98). Madrid’s speakers get to say “I” by being fictive, ironical, swift, kaleidoscopic, and dependent upon our attention (readerly). These are the true poems of sincerity, as piercingly sincere as Byron and Dickinson, as knowing as Catullus and Frank O’Hara. “And now MADRID is wearing a spacesuit. He forged it in this poem’s first couplet”(97). And he’s a self-loving cross-dressing transgendered bisexual beauty queen when he isn’t starring as an historical Arab poet, the Buddha, or a minor Hindu prince. As his speaker puts it, “let the foundation of my fame be my openhandedness”(15).
Melanie Hubbard’s publications include We Have With Us Your Sky (Subito, 2012) and Gilbi Winco Swags (Cannibal, 2008). Poems have appeared in Fence, Swink, Typo, horse less review, and Strange Machine.