If you've never enjoyed poetry once in your whole life—if even the word "poetry" makes you want to fall asleep, or die—you should read Karen Finneyfrock's new book of poetry, Ceremony for the Choking Ghost. Finneyfrock (a local slam poet, Hugo House writer in residence, and novelist) writes poetry with muscular verve and narrative push. The depth and breadth suggested in just a few polished images placed next to each other will make you reconsider what poetry can do.
Finneyfrock is a natural storyteller, which means that the airy detachedness that many associate with poetry is nowhere to be found. Each of her poems is fixed, rock-solid, in space and time. She tells the story of Lot's wife,
...an ocean has dried itself on my tongue.
So instead I will stand here, while my
body blows itself
grain by grain back over the Land of
and imagines a lost city built by elephants, "trumpeting river water over their/rapturous hides." Her vision expands to observe galaxies with "the legs of pole dancers,/the arms of Sufis" and contracts to the personal: "My vibrator acts like a furious/moth, beating itself against my clitoris as if I were a bug light."
Even in occasional seizures of cliché ("The Newer Colossus," a poem about immigration told from the point of view of the Statue of Liberty, reeks of poor poetry-slam impulses taking control of the author), she finds some clear new vision tucked inside ("My optimist heart corrodes in the salt wind").
Finneyfrock's best poems are works of memoir. Ceremony returns, again and again, to the death of her own sister, Beth, by heart failure:
...I prayed for a car accident
on the highway, a gang shooting that
missed the chest.
Heart transplants are always a result of
and satisfied hearts won't work.
Taken as a whole, the stories in Ceremony form what Hollywood types call "a character arc," a narrative about the guilt of living when other, more worthy souls cannot. Finneyfrock's voice is confessional without the cloying exhibitionism of a memoirist, and self-assured without the cockiness you find in many modern poets.
In Reality Hunger, David Shields claims that he has grown frustrated with novels because "you have to read seven hundred pages to get the handful of insights that were the reason the book was written." Finneyfrock's poems, then, are Shields's perfect novels: a shelf full of long, elaborate, heartfelt books that have been whittled down to their bare, sharp skeletons.
Karen Finneyfrock reads Fri March 12, Elliott Bay Book Company, 7 pm, free.