Continual Guidance of Air by Holly Amos
H_NGM_N Books, 2016; 61 pp
Reviewed by Davy Knittle
Holly Amos’s debut collection, Continual Guidance of Air, opens with a poem that is part elegy for animals killed, processed, and eaten by humans, and part ode. In the poem, “What’s dark is not always lightless,” Amos writes, “Every story is about a piece of star laid down / on this planet in fur or feather. Every bit of it later put / into a mouth. For each one in particular // there are millions I can’t see.” The impossible scale on which humans consume animals turns the animals in the poem into a galaxy, in which once-living creatures become pieces of star. This first poem has all the features of Amos’s poetics: attunement to a big question (in this case, the injustice of eating animals; Amos is a vegan and animal rights advocate), reverence for the small scale of individual living things, and an orientation toward the biggest scale on which all living things exchange air with one another in a frame too expansive to feel anything but celestial.
The poems in the collection negotiate emotional extremes between anger and reverence, taking up interpersonal sweetness, and the intensity of being in a body alongside the poems’ engagement with animal rights and the ethical treatment of living things more broadly. In “Between Eating & Feeding,” a poem that takes up the Chicago foie gras ban of 2006–2008 and its subsequent lifting, Amos writes, “we rename things & it doesn’t / get on us.”
Other poems pivot to think about the kinetic force of being and feeling in a body. In “Specific Motion,” Amos writes, “what owns the movement / that body makes.” The poem “[a movement that lacks directional orientation and depends upon the intensity of stimulation],” includes the lines, “& today I feel very close to the city / the way it is thick & hurting with your name.”
Amos’s poems are interested in the potential for symbiosis afforded to humans and their environment, whether through the alignment of their politics and their choices, their attunement to the pure pleasure of being in a body with the capacity to move, or their connection to what surrounds them. (This is a book with deep love for and focus on Chicago—a Chicago more affective than spatial.)
These poems take pleasure seriously. All decisions that govern what your body does in the world are important to Amos, who concerns herself with the ways of being that tune our human bodies to how we exchange information and energy with the planet’s other material. There’s something gorgeous in these poems about finding the right balance of decisions, of pushing your body to a limit that makes it something new, that expands the range of what there is to feel.
The poem from which Amos draws the book’s title, “My feet in continual guidance of air,” is one of several in the collection about distance running. Amos writes in that poem, “120 minutes // where I own every strengthening // fiber, where I am devoted to my own / body.” The temporal unit of these poems is the moment: a moment that feels excellent, a remembered moment that slips off when you try to put it on like a coat, the moments in which you make the small choices that add up to what you get to be and stand for. These poems are invested in a way of being in a body that feels physically good in a way that is ethically sustainable, both metrics for Amos that are powered by a devotion to trying, a belief that effort is worthwhile on its own.
These poems add up what’s around them, joining one thing to another, going back to revisit and accumulate, desiring to account for the past and orient toward the future, to be efficient and fair, to be dogged and sweet, to take the locus of the body as the smallest and largest frame. In “About the west & the wetness in my hair,” Amos writes:
One time a frog died
when he couldn’t jump out
of the crawl space
& I failed my future self
for only just now feeling it
That future self, of course, is the present speaker of the poem, a kind of jumpy, stop-motion continuity that’s also how Amos shifts scales. In the poems, it’s possible not only to read a younger Holly Amos but also to get a sense for what matters to her and how some of the ways of thinking and being in conversation with one another root her to the planet.
In addition to Holly Amos the vegan and animal rights advocate, Holly Amos the distance runner, and Holly Amos the friend and partner and younger self, there are moments of Holly Amos the former cocurator of The Dollhouse Reading Series, a fixture of the Chicago poetry scene over the past few years. A poem addressed to Dolly Lemke, the cocurator of the series, puts Amos’s thinking not only into the context of memory or self-reflection or interlocution with the reader but also into the form of what’s shared between friends. In the poem, Amos turns her focus to the superabundance of feeling, the big-hearted attention that attunes these poems to suffering and wonder alike. In “I tell Dolly,” she writes, “My ears hurt // from being so full.”