Robert H. Winner Memorial Award - 2018
Fourth of July
In America, we like our flags fried
and rolled in powdered sugar,
which is why fireworks always remind us
of bombs, the shock and awe
of a mighty nation. After the parade,
I feel an overwhelming urge
to take a hot shower, Americana
like grease over everything. If you asked
two of us the same question, you'd get
six different answers, depending
on which side of the news you're on.
On the outskirts of town, a band is playing
well into the night. Some of us are sleeping.
Some would kill us in our sleep.
Airea D. Matthews on Elizabeth Knapp
In Muriel Rukeyser's The Life of Poetry, she famously asserted "American poetry has been part of a culture in conflict." Elizabeth Knapp's wry, smart and broad-ranging sonnet sequence deeply interrogates the articulations of American empire in our everyday lives. The speakers, in their wandering and rumination, recognize the ephemeral absurdities of our contemporary attentions yet willingly implicate themselves in the spectacle of Americana. At stake are the subtle (and not-so-subtle) aggressions that simmer on every American stove: indifference and inattention. If Rukeyser was right, and Americans are in perpetual war, these poems insist the warring is against the self, and that self is fixed on distraction: "Because we can't get away / from ourselves fast enough, we let shiny / objects distract us, all that we see but dare not / touch. . ."
As these poems lithely move from an exterior American life to the interior, I was reminded of the ending to Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus: "One must imagine Sisyphus happy." Once hope and expectation are evacuated, all that is left is whatever lies before and behind. As in "Meditation," the final poem in the manuscript, and the only poem that breaks from the sonnet sequence: "Settle down now, sadness. It's time for bed. / You asked for evening. Well, here it is." This work trades hope for a belief in whatever dark beauty American culture offers. And, through the deft and loose deployment of the sonnet, Elizabeth Knapp registers the heartbreak of an unrequited love, one in which the beloved country is wholly incapable of loving you.