Kate Colby’s “I Mean”

For a long time, I thought poetry became so in the editing stage, and then I changed my mind, because of life and time, the temporality of the everyday, and the possibilities present or presented there. The poet just going at it and producing a text without worrying too much about the object at the end of the spree is interesting to me again, as the meticulous editor tinkering away at swaths or scraps of text was before. Both of these writing styles feel flexed in I Mean (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015). They slide in and out of the foreground to construct texts that feel split in some invisible, methodological dimension; a split that is symbolically mirrored in the book’s physical division.

The book is horizontally organized into two parts: “I Mean,” a long poem that takes up the first two-thirds, and “The Longest Division,” a series of self-reflexive narrative essays about Colby’s life, writing practice, and theoretical concerns. This book is bottom heavy. Painstakingly constructed prose supports a towering poem whose repetitive stanzas, most of which start with the refrain “I mean,” stack up on one another like windows in a high rise. Its pedagogy is very academically sound. It is exemplary of everything certain poetry people and teachers want poetry to be. It is full of self-analysis, questions and questioning, breaking the wall, abstract claims that reach far outside of themselves—and the subsequent admittance that she doesn’t really know what these claims mean, honesty, references to, and criticisms of, many other theorists and writers and artists, self-negation, chattiness to quell the academic, measured prose, weird words, generally, a very healthy balance of poetic play and meaty theory, and often a blur of the two. At times, the work feels like it can easily be broken down into a heap of tropes that feel like a list of boxes being checked. But, for what it is, it’s practically perfect for what it might allow the classroom, the book club, the like-minded writers to dissect, debate, and discuss about the text and this thing called poetry.

Why do I write and read poetry? This is a big question. I don’t know how to answer it in any meaningful or provocative way. Colby really, really tries to answer it for herself. This is not an easy thing to do, so I don’t want to dwell too much on her answers. I don’t know how to articulate my devotion, so maybe this is why her answers make me uncomfortable and slightly bored. I think it was Clark Coolidge who said that what you don’t like about somebody else’s writing is usually what you don’t like about your own. But there’s just something flat about Colby’s search for “moments of euphoric clarity,” and trying to reach the essence of the thing, and trying to contain the thing to make something unquestionably complete and true to life while writing in a “perpetual state of emergency” because she paradoxically knows that she is unable to contain a constantly fluctuating world. On the spectrum of contemporary poetry, where Conceptualism is the crowning glory of one end, this book is on the other side; an inverse ideology to help balance everything out.

Colby grew up in Massachusetts and lives there today. Two of her previous books, Fruitlands and Beauport (Litmus Press; 2006 and 2010) are about New England. Citing two of her heroes she writes:

Howe writes into New England, Creeley writes from it. Neither tries to contain it. I try to contain it over and over again in fits and moments, like jars of fireflies jammed on the nightstand . . . The exhausting availability of information and the speed at which it continually shifts and flattens the perceptual landscape of our cultural present makes me want to zip myself into [a] close round world. I can breathe my own air there, smell my own breath.

All this shifting overwhelms her and is the source of her struggle, which is perhaps why Colby cites these intimate lines from “I Mean” as successfully euphoric:

I mean the moment
a woman exhales
and slides beneath
her mounds of bubbles

Small moments, small victories. Colby is obsessed with moments because only in them will she be able to succeed in articulating an essence or containing something whole, even though this aim is somewhat thwarted from the beginning. But I admire the idea of working from or towards an impossibility. She sets up Howe and Creeley as predecessors, willingly containing herself to the niche of New England writers. Colby does not want to be global, or can not, she needs place to stabilize her:

In my own fight for perspective, I keep trying to describe what achieving it feels like to me—weightlessness, punching through a self-healing wall, the screech of feedback. The success is momentary by nature because there’s no permanent state of perspective to be had. Even the most sweeping prospect must accommodate pervasive change, but perspective also requires a vantage place.

This vantage place can be New England, or Massachusetts, past or present, or even her home, all of which are present in “I Mean”. World within worlds. Colby:

When I was just starting to write poetry and looking for a way to think about it . . . I encountered a Chinese puzzle ball. Painstakingly carved by hand from a single piece of ivory, a puzzle ball consists of nested concentric spheres of different symbolic motifs that move freely inside one another. By gently manipulating the ball with a fine tool, the spheres’ corresponding holes can be lined up to allow you to see into the ball’s center. This seemed like a useful analogy. I could close my loops while nesting worlds within worlds interminably . . .While I want my poems to do and undo things both individually and collectively, creating a self-contained object does require some sort of closure of each poem’s system. By nesting them and letting them reflect and refer back to one another incessantly I can have my terminal zingers and have them eat one another, too. These inter-referential relationships between the poems and me are facilitated by our common place.

“I Mean” consciously sets up a list of moments—scraps of speech, events, reflections, whatever—to approach the whole. Each moment is a star in the constellation of her life and the sky they cover is wide, but generally focussed around poetry, theory, home life, and the writing of this particular poem. Reading the poem, Colby was always one step ahead of me. Every criticism or idea that I had was addressed, which was quite an eerie and humbling experience. For example:

Initial impression: she is using a very colloquial refrain that is practically a filler word, like ‘like,’ kind of a non-site of language that means nothing, it is familiar, and kind of searching, desperate, and very accessible.

And then . . .

I mean I’m going to talk about it
I mean talk about it
by talking about
talking about it
I mean write about it
I mean scrape it all towards me
with the edge of my hand

. . .

I mean I have an important
question: is this important?
I mean there are no stupid questions
only precarious piles of them
I mean I don’t think

Ok, so she is being very self-reflexive and defensive.

And then . . .

I mean just putting it out there

. . .

I mean you can’t make this shit up
I mean it’s Cartesian
I mean the sum
I mean gestalt
I mean more
I mean soul
I mean stab
pen through paper
I mean repeatedly
I mean stomata

Cartesian split, twoness and doubling.

. . .

I mean 1:1:1

Everything is on an even plane of importance, no culmination, only ebbs and flows, little moments of energy and release.

And then . . .

I mean I’m just saying
I mean you can pile words up
and wrap the referents around them
I mean that’s all you can do
I mean I do try to
“wrap my mind around” things
I’m okay with that phrase
I mean I once saw Martha Stewart
wrap a turkey in puff pastry on TV
I mean it looked great

Martha Stewart on tv equal to theoretical ideas about language.

And then . . .

I mean to be
of two minds

. . .

I mean what I thought was the ocean
is only my body
I mean either a vase or two faces
I mean most illusion is optical
I mean for figure or field
I mean a mirage
is dependent upon
both sea and sky
but not neither
I mean to morph

Addresses the twoness, doubling. The big split, poet and mother? Navigating realities rather than being so carried away by one particular thing, be it poetry or mothering or the cosmos or theory.

. . .

I mean just think of all
the neglected information
crushing in from the edges

She can’t write everything and this bothers her.

. . .

I mean the jang of sleigh bells on a front door
pulled closed with haste and effort. Warm lamps,
smell of roast, tinkle of ice against glass, laughter
from the kitchen. Stamping your feet, breathing
and brushing the snow off.
I mean I want to write Christmas

That’s pretty bougie. But I guess that is part of her everything, uncensored. But is everything as important as everything, equal to everything?

And then . . .

I mean I recuse myself
from my interests
I mean they’re conflicted
I mean all over the place
I mean static

Gets kind of tired after a while, you don’t need the I means by page 45, you stop reading them, becomes an annoyance, stuck in a feedback loop.

And then . . .

I mean all the way
I mean further / more
I mean all the ways
I can think of and those I cannot
I mean I mean in all the ways I can think of
I mean I wish I could think of more
I mean mean more
I mean what if I deleted all the “I mean”s?
I mean I’m trying to overwrite
I mean both on top of and too much
I mean add that to the stack

And then . . .

I mean X ≠ X
I mean everything is unique
I mean every instance
of every thing is unique

And then . . .

I mean I’m totally making this up

And then . . .

I mean what if I changed
“I mean” to “I need”
I mean “I want”
I mean “I believe”
I mean if I wrote these poems
I mean in addition
I mean would they collect
in similar fashions?

Takes it all a bit too seriously for me. Her life isn’t that interesting, it’s pretty inaccessible.

And then . . .

I mean I’m not that interesting

A strange intimacy. Theoretically. Theory is very important here; poetry is bound to it. She explains her relationship to theory as follows:

Earthworks and conceptual art are opposites in so many ways—one quintessentially material, the other equally immaterial—but both are absurd and insufficient in their comprehensive inaccessibility and resistance to containment in a frame. I want these qualities in writing. I reach for outsized physicality to a degree that only theory can satisfy, and only in theory. So I continually find myself describing what it is that I’m trying to do while trying to do it and also make it huge.

(The one step ahead also happened in the prose writing. In her first essay, “Rainbow Swash,” I had the thought, “This is like a bad imitation of Susan Howe.” And then: “I recently gave a reading with Susan Howe, whom I’m often compared to because of our common interest in the early history of New England.”)

Theory is a well that she is not afraid to dive into, headfirst, with no means of clawing her way out. Her poem is suffused with it, but by the end of it, I felt like I wanted more particulars, more Martha Stewart, more embarrassing details, more bath, more self and less self analysis.

This is a big book for Colby, she is trying to lay everything out. For those who are a fan, it is a must read. For those wanting to write better expository prose, a must read. Her prose is flawlessly elegant; each word seems positioned and arranged with tweezers, as in “For me, writing about where I’ve been and where I live is both an indulgence and a form of resistance—I can voraciously parse my own impetuses while thwarting my yen for hermeticism” and “Picking through and heaping up the weft.” For those working on a thesis in poetry, a must read. But farther than this? It is perhaps too concerned with the kind of poetry written while sitting down quietly at a desk with a pen, not a thrilling view, very slightly inaccessible, very white-washed, very sitting on a reading table in front of a fireplace as someone curls up under their woolen blanket, very someone slips the book back into their tote and contemplates their poetics while riding the subway home after a candlelit reading with craft beer and cheese, say, at Ugly Duckling, very tweed, very vintage boots, very spiced egg nog, very watching the surf crash on the beach, very professor, very round glasses, very nautical stripes, very cowlick, very 5 o’clock shadow, very on the rocks, very I read a lot of articles, very put the book into my overflowing bookshelf of slim poetry titles, really very perfect, very sigh, very internet alienation, very Poetry Project, very mid-30s, very listen to me but don’t, but these are all things Colby knows, that this is a text that doesn’t give too much of a shit about being trendy, something that’s not afraid to be honest about itself, something that paradoxically lacks and is full of confidence, something that’s both comfortable and stuck, something that is not trying to persuade, sacralize, or dogmatize process or ideology, something that wants to hide away and live in its own bubble but is desperately trying not to, like, I guess, we all do.

Submit a comment