A Piece of Good NewsPoetry
Reviewed By Andrew Seguin
- Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (2019)
- 96 pages
Currency, as both coin of the realm and concept of exchange, haunts and animates the poems in Katie Peterson’s probing new book, A Piece of Good News, her fourth collection. From this rich literal and figurative vein, Peterson mines the many forms of interchange—cultural, economic, familial, linguistic, political, sexual—that color our lives as individuals and as members of clans, couples, marriages, nation-states and workplaces. Each relationship mints its own form of currency, these poems suggest, and an individual must reconcile the value she brings to each with the value ascribed to her contributions by others. We are all traders, then, and the act of trading is the real currency, allowing us to form bonds greater than whatever goods—goods in the largest emotional and intellectual sense—we exchange.
I had a lust for what was distant.
We were in love. We crossed the border
in broad daylight and the color
of the currency deepened
but didn’t change. The night before
we made love in my sister’s bed.
This stanza, from the poem “The Border,” opens the book and introduces the nuances of Peterson’s exploration. “Lust” is not “love,” and this discrepancy immediately falls between the “I” and the “we.” Is the other person on this journey equally ravenous for travel, or just going along? Why are these lovers not sharing a bed of their own? And what border is being crossed, where the currency is familiar yet more profound? Provoked by straightforward sentences laced with subtle internal and end rhymes—“lust”/“distant,” “border”/“color,” “broad”/“deepened”/“bed”—the atmosphere is poised yet tense, as if this relationship’s contours are still being mapped, though shared vantage points clearly abound. The trip will become another.
Yet we feel we are at the beginning of a fundamental exchange between two people, when pasts and habits chafe before settling into alignment, a feeling that becomes more certain when the poem ends, “We talked about people we fucked / when we should have been / sleeping with each other.” The deftness of this distillation is remarkable. Two distinct ways of talking about sex, “fucked” and “sleeping with,” are woven into lines that lament the need to discuss lovemaking rather than engaging in it. Language, as much as sex, is intimate currency between two people, and the words that each deploys originate from different registers, indicate different values. We understand that “people we fucked” feels transactional, transitional, compared to “sleeping with.” And that “sleeping with” connotes sex while also denoting sleep, when the body takes its most profound rest and trades consciousness for near-unconsciousness. Sleep, too, is a cherished form of entrusting yourself to another person.
The fact that there is another person, that love is possible, is this book’s good news. Much of its pleasure can be found in the ways that Peterson celebrates that possibility, noting shared moments between lovers such as “He recycles her bottle of vitaminwater / watching a crested yellow flicker,” and “What she likes is that he likes this place. / The ocean happened here / first, though pioneers claim they did, and a couple // had coves named after themselves.” The pleasure studs the language, too, for throughout the poems Peterson’s ear patterns disparate nouns like “vitaminwater” and “flicker” into memorable soundscapes. She builds long and beguiling sentences that turn and switch back like grand staircases. Often, the expectations she sets with an opening phrase are subverted by the end of the sentence. In “Provisioning,” which again centers on a couple traveling in a car, Peterson writes of the couple’s argument:
I took the side of the icicle
melting at midnight on a day
when work had taken it out of everyone
sweet enough to notice.
There is wonderful and strange logic at work here, heightened by the enjambment. The seemingly simple image of the icicle is refracted with each additional line that adds a new qualifier to it. It may take a moment to parse, but the slipperiness of the image, and of the logic, is fitting. The speaker is on the side of being “sweet enough to notice” the effort required to exist in difficult conditions, and the inevitability of diminishing. This is also a deeply playful formulation—how many people take the side of icicles? It indicates a willingness to escape logic and rational thinking, to leap into the natural and ethereal. For a reader, there’s nothing better than leaping alongside a mind that moves that way.
Such movement—intellectual, syntactical—is central to the book. For in thinking through the difficulties inherent to sustaining love, both romantic and familial, and how such interpersonal relationships are cast upon the body politic, A Piece of Good News is at its most rigorous and profound. The utter complexity of human emotion is never shied away from, as in “Filibuster to Delay the Spring,” an elegy for Peterson’s mother that begins with the declaration that her mother never voted for President Obama. We realize later in the poem that it’s because she passed away before she had the chance, a striking notation of how grief is also the realization that not only are the dead gone to us personally, but are gone as citizens, unable to partake in civic life.
Peterson is equally unflinching about love and marriage having an economics, as in “Paul Bowles”:
In the Central
Valley, my husband teaches
his students. Husband,
a word from the Normans.
Younger than the word wife.
This morning we had to borrow money.
It made me want to say
to him, “Did you know
the things you’d have to do
if you came to my country?”
Notions of possession—“my husband,” “his students,”—are subtly introduced. Then, from an etymological and historical consideration of husband and wife we move to an economic consideration, and this economic one is tied to a national one, the question of immigration. The husband is in the wife’s country, America. What is more American than borrowing money? This land of opportunity is a land of credit, where even the educated and gainfully employed must leverage themselves against interest rates and shifting financial markets to secure shelter. These are perverse conditions for love to thrive in, yet they are as common as gravity. Love rises. We marry, then, to celebrate it, but also to form a union against the economic and political forces that might pressure a partnership towards dissolution. “Paul Bowles” is the last poem in the book; its final line reads, “In times like these, no one asks for sugar.” This is not a bitter ending to the poem, nor to A Piece of Good News. On the contrary, it sustains the collection’s extraordinary tenderness by admitting nothing less than the fullness of our world and the breadth of human experience within it—exactly the approach that transcends times like these.
Andrew Seguin is the author of The Room In Which I Work, selected by Calvin Bedient as the winner of Omnidawn’s Open Prize. His other work includes the chapbooks NN and Black Anecdote, as well as a series of cyanotypes inspired by Moby-Dick. A former Fulbright scholar, Andrew lives and works in New York City.