2022 Shelley Memorial Award
Selected by Rick Barot and Calvin Bedient
In Toxicon (published last year in tandem with its epilogue, Arachne, on a newborn’s death), Joyelle McSweeney emerged with a genius for assault that was no longer carnivalesque (as in Percussion Grenade, 2012) but, instead, tragic. She joined the small party of the great poets of the disease and evil of being, and not just of the human being, pathetically evil, but that of the cosmos, which even the molecules, in one of her poems, ask to be excused from, but no dice. The sheer scope of the book’s powerful indictments is breathtaking. Nothing is safe from her rhetoric, which wrings necks.
Nonetheless, the poems of Toxicon are shapely, if far more ready to splatter than the neat stanzas of The Red Bird (2002). Where Percussion Grenade all but required parataxis, Toxicon tightens up formally against invasive things, everything toxic, corrupting, spoiling, devastating. Writing like a champion boxer, with clean, sharp jabs, is what gets you through. The force of her lines, her imagination’s daring, her phrasing’s shuddering vigor, are exhilarating.
No one would write so tragically beyond pity, so on the offense, except from profound grief that the gentle qualities that people have lived and died for are trodden bested by the violence in things. But weeping, defeat––these are not allowed. The thing is to be the Anti-, the Excoriator, the Equal to. McSweeney has an extreme sensitivity to being pressured, come at, taken advantage of. Even dawn is a terrible ordeal: comes the sun’s detonations. But it is this abnormality that makes her alert to every bullying thing.