We live in the era of the hybrid poem. At the turn of the millennium, poets began making a renewed case for the synthesis of experiment and tradition, updating T. S. Eliot’s call in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) for a new world of political and aesthetic commitments. But what at the start of the 21st century seemed like a radical proposition—fusing two poetics that seemed inherently opposed—has now become the predominant mode of a new generation of poets.
The publication of three recent, widely celebrated poetry collections has cemented the rise of what we might call the “metalyrical”: poetry that interrogates the conditions of its own expression. Stephanie Young’s Pet Sounds, Ariana Reines’s A Sand Book, and Julian Talamantez Brolaski’s Of Mongrelitude—though wildly distinct from each other stylistically—share a certain self-reflexiveness about the poetic genres and conventions on which they draw.
These poets straddle the line between performance and authenticity, deconstructing rather than fully abandoning the lyric self. Their poetry feels personal while at the same time treating personality and intimacy as animating fictions—objects of poetic inquiry rather than givens of the lyric. Contending that intimacy is conveyed through form as much as content, they investigate poetry’s I-you address and proximity to song in new and surprising ways.
Of the three books, Pet Sounds is perhaps the most explicit in its examination of intimacy. The first poem in the book—a short, lyrical poem called “Congenital”—helps frame the stakes of the book as a whole by highlighting how language enmeshes the personal with the structural. The refrain of “Congenital” (“I come to you”) recalls Bernadette Mayer’s “First turn to me.…” and helps situate the poem as, at first glance, an erotic love lyric.
But Young’s poem also takes its figurative language from Marx—“capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”—as well as from various institutional cultures, including finance and academia. Its intimate I-you address is refracted into the platitudes of the corporatized university, its evocations of passion are shadowed by the threat of eviction, and its bodily fluids mimic the flows of global finance. By casting the love lyric through the prism of 21st-century capitalism, “Congenital” insists that even those matters that seem most private (sex, love, care) are structured by outside forces.
But despite this foundational assumption of Young’s Marxist-feminist poetry, Pet Sounds complicates any sense of easy causality between public and private. In the third line of “Congenital,” Young frames the object of her inquiry as “the shape togetherness [i]s taken by.” The passive voice here renders the problem of togetherness impersonal and unspecific—a matter of abstract theorizing.
A few lines later, however, Young revises her language: “the shape our togetherness took / not exactly our decision / not exactly not” (emphasis mine). This subtle grammatical adjustment resituates togetherness within a specific context and life narrative—it is no longer a purely theoretical problem, but one that is lived and felt by a particular we. The shift suggests that the surplus of actual relationships can’t be wholly contained by any theoretical construct or category.
These poets straddle the line between performance and authenticity, deconstructing rather than fully abandoning the lyric self.
This tendency toward resisting containment appears in Young’s relationships not only to other people, but also to poetry itself. Throughout the title poem, we get the sense that Young is testing out certain poetic forms and modes. “These aren’t exactly // sonnets,” she writes, “I tried, but they didn’t turn.” Her attempt at elegy is, likewise, “premature.” Traces of the form remain, but the timing is off.
If these modes don’t quite fit Young’s project, neither do the normative categories and life narratives she likewise only partially inhabits. At one point, Young refers to “her husband,” a descriptor that, she acknowledges, doesn’t feel quite right. But neither does “partner,” a term she tells us she once used and then abandoned. Elsewhere, she is “wifeish”—an approximation of the straight coupledom she and her “husband” act out, often in the company of others, but that doesn’t fit them. “Queer” doesn’t either, really.
A counterpoint to this abiding sense that, as Young puts it, “nothing fits” is the wild specificity of lived experience: the pet names the poet and her partner give each other; the pet names they give their pets; their relationship to music, which is at once personal and shared; the sets of associations that accrue around stories and memories and conversations. At one point, Young acknowledges the “basic shittiness of private language”—she is as uncomfortable with the kinds of things one feels licensed to say in private as she is with the very fact of privacy itself. But alongside this discomfort is a quiet sense that intimate human bonds—and what gets communicated within them—contain subversive potential.
If Pet Sounds speaks in a quiet register, subtly reinforcing some of the book’s central concerns, A Sand Book shouts its revelations like mantras. “I say what I see / This is my power,” the speaker of Reines’s long poem “Thursday” proclaims—a description of the poet’s métier as much as the prophet’s. Cassandra, the seer not believed, feels like the unnamed spirit presiding over A Sand Book. But in Reines’s retelling, the prophetic speaker addresses her skeptics with self-assured swagger. As she writes in “Thursday”: “I don’t care if you think I don’t know what I’m saying / I know what I’m saying.”
For all the boldness with which Reines inhabits the oracular mode in moments like this, a closer look at A Sand Book reveals a profound uncertainty about poetic voice and an almost obsessive interest in interrogating the relationship between a disclosing self (a lyric I) and a listening/consuming audience (a lyric you). In “To the Reader,” a poem explicitly concerned with lyric address, an almost erotic longing to disclose is counterbalanced by a canny self-awareness about the speaker/poet’s own artfulness. “I am burning / With desire to make myself known to you,” she says at the end of the poem, but not before asking whether “you [can] take / Seriously one at once so arch and so // Strange, so frank and yet so withholding.”
A section of another poem, “Dream House,” similarly evokes the strange dance of artifice and authenticity, of lyric self-disclosure and concealment, that seems to preoccupy Reines:
I was naked except for culture like everybody else in my generation
I come from a broken home like they do and I hide it, serene
At the joystick in the command station of my so-called self
Except I try openly to hide only badly whatever it is I think is wild that I’m
Doing my best to reveal by not really hiding though hiding.
Women hiding or disguising their inner lives is something of a motif in A Sand Book. What many of its poems share is a hyperalertness to the conditions that structure how and what one self-discloses.
A short poem called “You Know What Comes Next” reveals how poetic concerns like voice, lyric address, and confession are always constellated through structural forces like gender. Alluding to Girls creator Lena Dunham, its last lines read:
‘I was trying to find
My voice’ she moaned
Do it with your male
Style genius I mean
Your fat stylus I
You can find.
Here, the particular kind of nakedness we expect from confessional or autobiographical art is juxtaposed with the troubling responses that autobiographical art made by women sometimes elicits: the expectation that it conform to a particular style or notion of genius (often coded as male) or that its maker fit a certain standard of beauty.
While A Sand Book is not autobiographical in any straightforward sense, it is invested in processing a cultural obsession with (highly mediated) self-disclosure and in carving out a space for candor and connection in a world that often feels inhospitable to both.
Where Reines aims to cut through the inhospitable layers of language and cultural production, Brolaski takes a microscope to them. Of all the poems in Of Mongrelitude, “fried-eyed / banned poetry words” operates most explicitly as a metalyric, directing our attention beyond the poem proper to the longer generic histories and unwritten aesthetic codes that structure poetic expression and readerly reception.
The poem’s list of hackneyed or embarrassingly intense words that contemporary poets should avoid (words like “aperture” and “gossamer”) seems, on its surface, like an interdiction. But it’s also a provocation: an impish embrace of a “groan-worthy,” overly lyrical diction that flies in the face of current poetic tastes. The poem’s ambivalent relationship to these “banned poetry words” highlights a central problem of the book: how to reconcile inherited forms and vocabularies with the singularity of poetic voice.
Crafting a voice from, as Reines puts it, “whatever / You can find” seems a good description of Brolaski’s magpie lyricism, which crossbreeds various dialects, vocabularies, rhythms, and traditions. In doing so, it pushes lyric to its limits, often forcing it as close to music as it can get. Using language that feels centuries old and hypercontemporary at the same time, Brolaski reassembles and recodes tradition for a new, queer audience—creating a kind of cant that discloses even as it obfuscates.
Music is at once the centripetal force holding poems together and the centrifugal force separating words from their semantic function. Sometimes, Brolaski’s songs pack a more straightforward, bluesy punch: “when will springtime come on in ta-la tala tala / winters gonna do me in ta-la talaa tala.” Sometimes, they’re all tongue-in-cheek country twang:
if I’da been a ranch
they’da calld me bar none
a fecund desert
full of heartless so-and-sos.
But often they rely on a more intricate compositional structure, fusing medieval cadences, Poundian abbreviations, and a gristly, waggish slang that’s hard to situate. Take, for example, the end of “tho the rivulets be finite, the tokens are talkin” (take the title, for that matter!):
but who manages to mock the pain away
daub thir way btwn raindrops
in all queer excesses, surriously
a duvet upon.
Or take the beginning of “automat metropolis”: “check it, princez.”
The epigraph to “automat metropolis” is part of a poem by Erica Lewis. It helps situate Brolaski’s lyric obscurity within a longer history of coded language’s use within marginalized or subcultural communities: “we could sing right outloud / the things we could not say.” In other words, translating prohibited subject matter into another form of utterance both protects the speaker/singer from censure and binds them to a coterie of listeners who understand.
In “on loneliness,” Brolaski interrogates the relationship between concealment and communication—and, more explicitly, between ornament and authenticity:
D. says that loneliness is a disbelief
in the possibility of Love
I hid it so well
I hid it from myself
no ordinary sorrow
but—say righteousness is impassable along a pollen path
a belief in being comely
a kodachrome you would take from me
along w/ the ill-fitting hats
and my belief in myself
as some kind of speculative cartography—
composed of trees
—except the distress is authentic
In these lines, the plainspoken intimacy of the poem’s references to a particular person (D.) slowly morphs into something more mannered and elaborate, until we arrive at a self as “speculative cartography”—a map of externalized symbols and allusions. It sounds almost like a description of the writing process: a gradual and imperfect translation of feeling into a set of signifiers and objective correlatives. But by the end of the poem, we’re called back, bluntly, to the real feeling behind the scrim of language. “The distress,” Brolaski reminds us, “is authentic.”
The interrogatory, metalyrical modes of Pet Sounds, A Sand Book, and Of Mongrelitude are built to accommodate this ambivalence between a desire for authenticity, on the one hand, and the inescapability of cultural and linguistic mediation, on the other. They accommodate other kinds of ambivalence, too.
For Young, the sustained attempt to think beyond the heteronormativity of the nuclear family—to imagine forms of love and care that are configured otherwise—exists alongside a profound longing to return home. This kind of longing is most closely approximated by music, but not simply or straightforwardly, for music is a charged topic as well. Reines, for her part, seems most ambivalent about modern technology, social media, and the place of poetry in the 21st century. Brolaski places ambivalence front and center in Of Mongrelitude. Indeed, the title itself frames the book as a meditation (à la Montaigne) on mixedness of various kinds—from trans and cross-cultural identities to hybrid forms and contradictory affects.
All three poets are willing to attend carefully to what’s most troublesome and hard-to-reconcile about the subjects they take up, and the ambivalent tone they share feels at once deeply personal and thoughtfully attuned to historical circumstances. As invested in feeling as they are in form, their metalyrical projects point beyond themselves, insisting that context and motives matter as much as poetic mode.
This article was commissioned by Chris Nealon.
Featured image: Couple hugging and using smartphone near sea on sunset (2020). Photograph by Roman Odintsov / Pexels