Book Review: So Late to the Party by Kate Angus

It has been far too long since I’ve written book reviews, and I am more than ready to get back into the rhythm of reading and responding. Ideally I would love to start posting one book review a month. For June, here at the beginning of real summer, it is with great pleasure that I offer my first website-official book review: Kate Angus’s So Late to the Party (Negative Capability Press, 2016). I’m grateful to Kate for introducing her book to me and sending me an advance review copy to peruse.

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So Late to the Party talks to us softly and dangerously, like a friend on the phone late at night. Longing and loss, the struggles of selfhood in our anonymous, shifting modernity, the compelling urge to genuine friendship and romantic connection, helplessness in the face of suffering, encountering the watery mirror-surface between past and present, the untamable demon of desiring, the flat, looming horizon of death – Angus’ subjects are so deeply personal that they become affectingly universal.

I love how these poems build and rely on each other. Like a mosaic, each sliver of image and insight coalesces and contrasts into the larger picture. Like swirls of paint across a canvas, or two currents merging in a turning whirlpool, the shards of everyday life and the vertigo-inspiring deeps beneath them sweep us up and away. Angus’ strong narrative voice assures us of her company on the ride, but she’s no more in control than we are; just a steady voice helping us make sense of all this flurry of input.

In the opening handful of poems, Angus establishes the emotional arc of the book, setting off a series of deep resonances that build like complex chords, to be rounded out by the end. The events, thoughts, and feelings of these poems link a profound chain of causality and contingency: things come together and things fall apart; one incident leads to, depends on, another. The strange blooms of art and vanishings that are as deaths (“Paintings”); longing as loneliness and the deep, powerfully feminine urge to “unseal everything”  from the edges out (“Satellite”); the leprechaun gold of mutual use contrasted with the hard, real currency of genuine interest and care (“Thank You Again, Brooklyn, For The Free Coffee.”) These opening strands come together at the end of “Thank You Again, Brooklyn,” braided together:

I don’t want it

to be just a trade, your smile. On those days
the windows of one’s overpriced apartment
twerk in their ill-fitting frames.
Let the building tumble. This will be one way
to learn equanimity: such a flowering
of dust at our feet.

Angus’ often long lines are a good fit for her voice and the stacking of many small elements together to build the content of her poems. Occasionally, a poem’s structure stands out as a distinctive expression of content. “Intimacy,” for example, interlocks two columns of lines to create a wrapped up, finger-laced impression. Here are the opening lines:

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A truly urban book, So Late to the Party wanders the streets, bars, and apartment buildings of Manhattan. But this is not the generic city of stereotypes. The Manhattan in which these poems moves is by turns as close and familiar as the narrative voice itself, bitterly foreign (such as when billboards “vulture the streets,”) dense with crushed-together human lives in all-around apartments, an augur of the empty promises of consumerism, and as (un)comfortable as one’s own skin.

In that setting, the voice in these poems seeks connection and meaning, by turns making it, finding it, discarding shallow substitutes, and tracing its footprints while not quite connecting: “There’s no absolution for inaction. I wake up / to daybreak cold and sunny, an empty vestibule” (“In The Morning, I Buy A Dress”).

Amid the grays and browns of cityscapes, concrete and neon, stores and siren song of consumerism, natural images leap like quick fish: light plays flickering tricks, appearing and disappearing at whim. Water pools are brackish cisterns, clouded, “a bad penny,” an anti-scrying pool. Mute animals – birds, dragonflies, horses – scramble about the edges of vision and feeling, while some, such as the fish in “Complicity,” remind us of the unavoidable gravity we exert on each other, whether we know or like it or not. Guilt and choice, the little deaths encircled inevitably in the heart of life, spin through this city “whose wars mostly happen very far away.” And always, the undercurrent of everything, the hum of money and need, the drive for possessions needed and desired, for security, the leaning and striving of a thing-eaten society driving its members on to ever-greater hunger.

The energy in the collection picks up up a notch about a third of the way through, especially around “Hollywood Poem.” The twists and turns of the poems, connections falling like squares on a Jacob’s Ladder toy, come faster and tighter. In counterpoint to this increasing beat, like a light flute over drums, are the poem titles themselves. They are an excellent, distilled example of Angus’s gift for keeping a little darkness in her humor and a little humor in the dark: whether it’s “To the Mustache of the Guy in the ‘Che Guevara Is My Homebody’ T-Shirt at Odessa’s Late the Other Night,” “In the Award-Winning Movies in My head, We Are Infinitely Better-Looking and Everything Makes Sense,” “You Keep on Working and I Will Continue Thinking about Wolves,” or my favorite, “I Have not Yet Composed A Lullaby For The Fretful Baby In Her Stroller On The Street But I Did Write A Tiny Love Song For You, American Heritage Dictionary.”

It’s difficult to choose “favorites” out of such a strong collection, where every poem is such a striking combination of thought and imagery, but I did find myself returning again and again to a particular handful: “Letter to My Younger Self,” “If the Dead Bird in the Gutter Rises Up,” “Ghost Heart,” “I Was Given A Tiny Dragon,” “Sublation,” “If My Life Were a Radio, Lately I Would Prefer Another Station,” and “Wild Rabbits Have Sharp Eyes,” particularly. These poems speak to the myriad inner selves that inhabit a person with an urgent energy, but with enough space for thought and reaction between. Undoubtedly I’m drawn to these poems because of my own experiences, quirks, and preferences–how, after all, could I resist fine wordplay, dragons, science-inspired poems, and Velveteen Rabbit references?–but I also see in them a striking set of qualities as individual, structured pieces of thought and vision: vision-as-interpretation and thought-as-the-world, making sense of the world, embodied and ensculpted.

The issue of wanting cuts through all of So Late to the Party. Whether it’s the physical needs of the body, food and sex and rest, or the “infant” heart that won’t stop wailing, negotiating, chastising, begging, giving into want forms some of the most potent moments. In the latter half of the book, the image of the wolf turns up again and again, as well as echoes of the wolf like fur and teeth. Bite and hunger, want in physical form, dog the speaker’s steps and harry her to and fro.

As the theme of wanting grows more intense, “Fresh Hells” ups the ante with a nine-step take on Dante’s Inferno: nine layers of disastrous wanting, never wanting the right thing, always wanting too much. Following on the heels of hell, God enters more directly and frequently into the poems as the book draws to a close, counterpoint and companion to unsatisfied wanting. The beloved, lover and spiritual thirst-quencher, moves and turns away amorphous, like a figure in a dream. Disappointment is the handmaiden of want, “everything one long scream of isolation” (“A Little Gothic Tale.”) Until at last in “Cosmo Magazine Tells Me I’ll Be Alone All My Life,” the eluding revelation stands finally still, bare in full sight: “My god. / No wonder so many people I know are unhappy. / People love each other all over the world / and yet most of us are still dying.”

So Late to the Party closes with meditations on death, and the losses that are like – that might as well be – deaths. Passing through and among these many deaths, the speaker finds in the final poem, “In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb,” that moving forward, through the dark, is still possible, and the passing itself orders somewhat all the dragging-down singularities spinning about and inside her:

“This means the day is moving

all around me and I am going toward the night,
but also further: maybe to a lighthouse near the sea.

[…]                                           It is time,
and I am almost ready to begin.”

In So Late to the Party, Kate Angus has created a rich voice that meets the world where it is: confusing, overwhelming, and sometimes unbearably sad. Wise with endurance, thick with portents and symbols, this voice is much-needed travel companion, a tangible whisper of fellowship on the rocky gray way. This is a book to keep near at hand, to consult and talk to, to read and consider again and again. It is a striking and compelling accomplishment.

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