Rebecca Hazelton's HobbyHorse

Dear Editor

Almost all the prose poems in Amy Newman’s Dear Editor share the same form. They begin with an invocation: “Dear Editor, Please consider the enclosed poems for publication. They are from my manuscript, X=Pawn Capture…” and end with a benediction: “Thank you for your consideration, and for reading. I have enclosed an SASE, and look forward to hearing from you. Sincerely, Amy Newman.”

This form is a familiar one to any writer eager to have his or her work published, and it’s easy enough to imagine why a writer might begin to equate the unseen and all-powerful editor to an unseen and all-powerful god. Submission of work becomes submission to a divine will, cover letters become prayer, a parallel that is certainly flattering for editors. For anyone who has sent off a batch of envelopes or received a list of contest finalists on which your name does not appear, this conceit will make you smile.

If that was all Amy Newman intended, however, this conceit would quickly wear thin. Pleasingly, these poems aren’t just speaking to working poets. While there are references to workshops, and more than one meditation on the inadequacies of language, the book is not primarily concerned with publication and poetry politics. The “Amy” writing these letters seems to write only in hope of a response, but has no real expectations of one, as in the lines, “Oh you are indeed just, and I understand your silences. Still, I wish for a response, some kind of sign, even just some change in the weather, something in the way of an answer from you.”

Because it seems that neither the book nor the letters will ever be seen by anyone other than the editor, the act of submitting becomes an act of confession. As the book progresses, the poems increasingly reveal details about the speaker’s personal life, her fraught introduction into male/female sexual relations, and even her own possible sainthood, manifested in visions and even miraculous healing. Meanwhile, the other central characters, the speaker’s grandparents and their twin obsessions—his for chess, hers for saints—are seen from every angle, and the speaker’s appraisal of their relationship continually shifts. It’s this constant reevaluation that keeps the formal device of the “Dear Editor” letter from growing stale.

The book opens with an illuminating quote from one of Emily Dickinson’s letters to Thomas Wentworth Higginston: “Is this, sir, what you asked me to tell you?” Hesitant and supplicating, this quote echoes the book’s concern with uncertainty. Like Dickinson’s letters, Newman’s poems blend poetic and epistolary expectations—ultimately reading as a strange hybrid of both.

This is more than a formal uncertainty. Though at times tonally light and humorous, much of the book is devoted to profound uncertainties: familial, personal, historical, epistemological, and linguistic. Straightforward prose unfolds into lyrical fantasy, in which the known is quickly destabilized into a surreal and oftentimes menacing series of images:

…I picture the chessboard as the field on which my grandparents first made love, and atop this, the series of black and white squares represent their commitments and arguments and unholy sacrifices for the children who will never live up to their hopes: the chess pieces are the grandchildren who further disappoint them. For the time the board is actively telling the story of their meeting, like cinema, it flashes with trees and words, subtitles which I am imagining entirely. And my grandmother’s dress opens to its inside lining, against which the projector shows her when she is young, and opening again her dress, and inside that dress the dark lands of her upbringing, with, if you look into my head, into my imagination, tiny figures approaching who will not be friendly.

It is a powerful moment. The “facts” of the past, the commitments, arguments, and sacrifices, hover like a grid beneath the grandmother and grandfather. The subsequent narrative is an admitted projection, in a quite literal way: “like cinema, it flashes with trees and words.” In trying to see the past, the speaker must necessarily create it, “subtitles which I am imagining entirely.” In this imagined history, the grandmother’s dress opens to reveal an earlier self, another projection, and that self opens her dress to reveal further mystery, peopled by unknown and unfriendly figures. The poem suggests that the dark lands of the grandmother’s upbringing, though unknowable, remain with her and shape her in the present. The poem highlights the difficulty inherent in trying to understand the past, and implies we can only do so through a combination of memory, fact, and invention.

The book beautifully conveys a sense of the “dark lands” of the speaker’s upbringing as well, for as slippery as the past might be to the speaker, the present is an equally confounding series of variables, the unknown “X” of the proposed manuscript. Summing up her own place in the world, the speaker says:

A road is a line going forward and back, and behind my head is an arrow pointing thusly, toward what I picture as parents. And I am offspring, shooting like an arrow toward my grandfather’s dining table, trussed up with the slanting afternoon ticking the ashes from his cigar’s diminishing shape. Am I right sir? Is this how I should represent myself on paper?

Even as the speaker attempts to render her place in the world as a sensible and easily understood path, she hesitates, and draws the whole enterprise into doubt. In a book that begins with an appeal to a higher being, we are left with no clear sign that there is anything fixed or knowable, which, of course, means we must proceed on faith.

Contributing editor Rebecca Hazelton is the author of Fair Copy (Ohio State University Press, 2012), winner of the 2011 Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry, and Vow, from Cleveland State University Press. She was the 2010-11 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison Creative Writing Institute and winner of the “Discovery”/Boston Review 2012 Poetry Contest. Her poems have appeared in AGNI, The Southern Review, Boston Review, and Best New Poets 2011.