by Colin Pope
Every so often, emerging poets break into the high-culture zeitgeist, usually via a profile in The New Yorker or a review in the Times or a feature on NPR. Such poets are vaulted to the forefront of poetry, and we are encouraged to believe these are the best new poets in America. But in the list of recent years’ hot poets, you won’t find the name Anthony Madrid. His face doesn’t grace the cover of trade publications. He doesn’t, as yet, have a Wikipedia page. When I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say was published, the book didn’t appear on any “Best Poetry Books of 2012” writeups that I could find. What I mean to establish here is that, like many remarkable emerging poets, Madrid’s first book went underappreciated amid the noise of the larger poetry machinery.
Personally, I find an almost direct correlation between the hype a debut collection receives and my disappointment in its contents. I don’t think this has to do with the actual quality of the work, but rather my elevated expectation of it; if a poet is being celebrated in such a public way, then I expect the work to be not just good, but irrefutably, innovatively brilliant. Rather than celebrating a 26-year-old’s first book, perhaps we should be celebrating a mid-career poet’s third or fourth with this level of public visibility. Or even a 76-year-old’s fifth book. Alas, one suspects the inner workings of such marketing choices are flavored by an admixture of nepotism, publishing politics, and the all-too-American belief that simply because something is new, it’s better than anything old.
I Am Your Slave debuted eight years ago now, which before wasn’t very long in poetry years. When I discovered it, I excitedly discussed the book with poet-friends, only to find none of them had heard of it. I tried to relate to them the collection’s piano-wire-taut structure, its upending of the ghazal form, its raucous language and toying with aphoristic phrasing. Then I got out my phone and pulled up the first poem from the book I could find. It was one entitled “In Hell the Units Are the Gallon and the Fuck,” the first lines of which are:
THE unit of wine is the cup. Of love, the unit is the kiss. That’s
In Hell, the units are the gallon and the fuck. In Paradise, the drop
and the glance.
I read the title and first lines aloud, then defied anyone not to admit their interest in reading the remainder of the poem after such an opening.
To put it simply, Madrid is a genius of the opening line. This is a specific form of genius that’s graciously reader-facing; we feel invited into the poem’s world via the introduction of its voice and logic. But beyond all poetic explication and analytical hullaballoo, what’s gripping in these poems is that they are genuinely fun to read from the get-go. And since many of the poem’s first lines are also the poem’s titles, one need only see a selection of these titles to know what I mean: “Most Living Creatures Leave No Ghost,” “Their Fulminations Are Mere Theater,” “Time We Rolled Out That Exquisite Carpet,” “Heaven Help the Right-Handed Man Who Has Had His Right Hand Cut Off,” “No More Epigrams Against Sluts,” “Jam Me in Hot Hell,” “It Is a Perfect Day and I Must Waste It,” “Now That I Know I Am To Be Destroyed By a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl,” “Fuck Buddha I’m Buddha Nobody’s Buddha Quit Talking About Buddha,” and I could go on. These are random examples from the 60+ poems in the collection.
I think, as a poet and reviewer, I’m supposed to care more about why these poems are fun. I’m supposed to pick apart the particular devices operating on the words, the tonal precision in the faux-revelatory arcs of these not-quite-ghazals. Indeed, not doing so does feel like a bit of a cop-out. But, as you might be able to tell, the poems are fun because they are also funny. They point to the frequently ludicrous nature of the modern human experience and background it against Eastern philosophy and mysticism, the results of which are often downright hilarious. And I’m not about to attempt an explanation of humor. Take these sections from “I Am No Longer Cut to the Heart”:
She said to me proudly, “I mean to ruin you for other women.”
She was what
These morons call a “consummate technician.”
Here’s that boy with the demon sideburns and the slicked-back black hair
And a shirt like from the bodyshop, complete with cotton
I say to him: “Approach me, my child, and thou shalt be my
For thou art seventeen feet tall and tricked out with half a mile of
See? There’s something about the persona behind these poems that affords a wry, smirking awareness of its own pomposity while simultaneously attempting earnest understanding, like a quixotic, dissipated guru.
I use the term “persona” loosely here, since these are indeed ghazals, a form that inheres ruminations that, traditionally, culminate with the poet’s employing their own name in the final lines in a sort of self-reflective revelation of their place within their own thoughts. For example, the ending of “Let’s Watch This Liver-Colored Devil”:
A book is a dead thing. Take it to bed, you’re asleep in a minute.
Whereas, if a friend is lying next to you, talking—you stay up all
That’s the way to write, MADRID! Be like a pillow-talking friend—
A good friend, full of question and answer, head propped up on
But via the collection’s praxis, we discover that this is not the poet, so to speak. This is an idealized and discrete performance of a self-wrestling to comprehend its own bearing. In another poem, “They Do Out of Anger That Which We Do Out of Love,” the ending further demonstrates the poet’s performance of dueling identities: “MADRID, like you, I stand accused of the worst kind of / recklessness. / I have unleashed upon the world the full force of my infantile / allure.” This is Madrid talking to the persona MADRID, or vice versa. To me, these lines read as the type of conversation one has in the bathroom mirror when seeking to separate the hedonistic impulse from the rational, as in those moments when we are about to do something entirely stupid and irresponsible but, knowing our nature, will probably do it anyway.
As you might guess, Madrid’s prosody and language are downright enviable. Few poets can bring to bear all their gifts with such consistency. Part of the brilliance of the collection lies in its ability to deploy these gifts without sacrificing anything to the form or the humor; this is one of those rare books with no weak poems. In its loony and wild logic, I’m reminded of a similarly incredible book: Charles Simic’s Pulitzer-Prize Winning The World Doesn’t End. But there’s a funnier, more prescient voice here, one that deserves far more recognition than what it’s received.
I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say
Canarium Books, 2012
Paperback, 117 pages ($14)
Colin Pope is a Ph.D. candidate at Oklahoma State University. His poems, essays, and criticism have appeared in or are forthcoming from such journals as Slate, Rattle, West Branch, The Millions, Best New Poets, and others. His collection Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral was a finalist for the Press 53 Award and was released in 2019 from Tolsun Books.