The OF Blog: 2012 National Book Award finalist in Poetry: Tim Seibles, Fast Animal

Monday, November 05, 2012

2012 National Book Award finalist in Poetry: Tim Seibles, Fast Animal

I don't know what
I'm becoming:
from calm to fear
my mind moves, then
moves. Out there
is the place – streets,
storm drains, stores –
where everybody 
goes:  I point at that

then that.  There
are enemies of the world
in the world.
Know what I mean? 
I see them on TV.

– from the first two stanzas of "Later" (p. 3)

If only a single syllable could be deployed to describe Tim Seibles' 2012 National Book Award-nominated poetry collection Fast Animal, "kinetic" would be it.  Throughout the collection, the narrators are in movement, going from place to place, emotional state to emotional state, calm to fear, confusion to clarity.  The poems feel as though they would be best read in a breathless rush, perhaps with the reader herself moving about while engaged with the poems.

Seibles charts a semi-biographical voyage in these poems, beginning with this bit from "Born":

Is this 
how it begins:

a cry that
does not know

who's crying:  consciousness
filling your head (p. 7)

In this and subsequent poems, the narrators express confusion about the world in which they move.  Is it a place worthy of settling down in, or should it be upended, tossed about, made into something new?  The poems of Fast Animal do not skimp on the confusions of youth, such as this bit from "Terry Moore":

...That paperback you found, Nurse

Nadine – the way she treated her patients: (what
exactly was a blow-job     and how long would it be
till we knew?)  Our fathers were scary men – younger

than we are now – and ready to make themselves clear 
without saying anything, especially when we got too cool
to listen, too big to hear.  Did they believe in sex

the way we were starting to? (p. 14)

Seibles' poetry is simultaneously male-universal (speaking to the fears of rejection by women and worries about our bodies) and yet race-specific, when he discusses the perils and curiosities involved with interracial love in "Allison Wolff":

I can't remember Allison's voice
but the loud tap of her strapless heels
clacking down the halls is still clear.
Autumn, 1972:  Race was the elephant

sitting on everybody.  Even
as a teenager, I took the weight
as part of the weather, a sort of heavy
humidity felt inside and in the streets.


In so many ways, I was still a child,
though I wore my my seventeen years
like a matador's cape.

The monsters that murdered
Emmett Till – were they everywhere?
I didn't know.  I didn't know enough
to worry enough about the story
white people kept trying to tell. (pp. 49-50)

"Allison Wolff" perhaps is the most emblematic poem in Fast Animal.  Here the raw emotional state of youth is laid bare, yet coupled with "loud" images, that of the tapping of Allison's strapless heels, clacking as she moves; the "heaviness" of racism, appearing here in the guise of a humidity that pervades the soul and then wafts out into the streets to grab another.  The fear and worry here is palpable, but it is mixed with youthful yearning and confusion:  after all, what harm does a couple in love holding hands pose to any other than those who fear love itself?

Seibles, with the possible exception of Cynthia Huntington's Heavenly Bodies, is the most "personal" of the five National Book Award poetry finalists.  There are moments of triumph intermixed with more subdued moments, if not quite defeat, then rather something akin to a sigh of resignation before the struggle is resumed once again in another poem.  The poems build up one another, as themes introduced in one poem, perhaps with a question or metaphorical shrug of the shoulders, is explored further later on the collection.  The result is a collection that is much stronger than the sum of its parts.  Fast Animals, along with Susan Wheeler's Meme, might be one of the two strongest collections in this year's shortlist.  Certainly it is a collection that will be worth re-reading multiple times in the years to come.

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