Poetry Sunday: “Dear S—” by Alexandra van de Kamp

Comments by Contributing Editor Susan Cohen

A poem for June, commencing the season of summer travel. And a poem that is a journey.

Like the best of trips, Alexandra van de Kamp’s “Dear S—” exposes us to both the strange we find alluring and the strange we find disturbing, and by the end we are looking at the world in a slightly different way.

As writer Laura Kasischke describes the poems in Kiss/Hierarchy, van de Kamp’s second full-length collection: “The work is unfailingly precise and memorable, but there’s also just enough coloring outside of the lines to keep the reader surprised, or a little troubled…” Or, as Dean Young, another poet known for disruptive, associative free verse, said in an interview about his own work: “I think to tie meaning too closely to understanding misses the point.”

“Dear S—” generates tremendous energy from its unexpected turns and the sensation of witnessing a writer surprising herself over and over. Alexandra van de Kamp does an excellent job of detailing her own process of leaps in the Poet’s Note she wrote here.She makes clear that she set out with no predetermined destination or trajectory, allowing herself an exhilarating freedom to be led by her ear.

Still, she shaped with care. The shape of this poem reminds me of a slalom course—specifically, the short block of S curves on San Francisco’s Lombard Street the tourism office likes to call “The Crookedest Street in the World.” We once lived at the bottom of it, and slept with one ear open for the cars that took the curves at high speed, hoping none of them went airborne and ended up in our apartment.

I can practically hear van de Kamp’s tires squeal as she takes the tight turns in one controlled skid after another. The precision steering is most obvious in the way she uses enjambment—carrying a sentence across lines—to slalom between the placid and the unnerving:

It’s June and the green
blackens so quickly, the trees like
drugged servants bending their arms
in the evening.

With the same control, she brings together the childhood memory of that odd friendship ritual and its confluence of taste and knowledge, ultimately plopping us into the Mediterranean by way of dinner—in a sequence that makes its own vivid kind of perfect sense:

Saber in Spanish
is both to taste and to know—escargot
scripting its particular knowledge
down your throat. The Mediterranean
Sea is polluted, sabes tu?

This confident balance of control and free association accomplishes more than sheer rocketing speed. It takes us into the writer’s brain so we can watch it at work. Equally interesting, it frees us to bring in our own associations and understandings.

The truth is that whatever a writer’s intent, readers always bring themselves to a poem. But some poems, like “Dear S—,” seem to invite us. As it quickly abandons a linear logic and establishes its own, it unfetters our imaginations. Our childhood rituals, scenes from noir films that stuck with us, and seas where we swam swarm to fill in the blanks.

By the time we get to “shattering the bright panes” of the private cove, I’ve been sufficiently alarmed by hints of menace along the way that my mind rushes to glass shards, danger, and then to an idyllic cove my family and I found years ago on the Greek island of Corfu—where we all almost drowned.

Sometimes I’m frustrated at my inability to convey to people what they are missing when they tell me they read books but not poetry. It isn’t exactly joy. It’s deeper than pleasure. A poem can be a journey, and sometimes that journey is also an adventure, with all that adventure entails.

So, may your summer be full of exciting discoveries, and may that include the travels you take inside many, many new books of poems.


Contributing Editor Susan Cohen’s most recent book of poems, A Different Wakeful Animal, won the 2015 David Martinson–Meadowhawk Prize from Red Dragonfly Press and can be ordered at Amazon, Red Dragonfly Press, or Small Press Distribution here. She was a newspaper reporter, contributing writer to the Washington Post Magazine, and professor at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism before earning an MFA from Pacific University. Her poems appear widely in journals and anthologies, including the Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, and have received numerous honors, including the Rita Dove Poetry Award and the Milton Kessler Poetry Prize. Her website is here.

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