Mr. West by Sarah Blake
Wesleyan University Press, 2015; 128 pp
Reviewed by Joanna Novak
“I grew up saying, I listen to everything but country/and rap” is not a line one might expect to encounter in Sarah Blake’s Mr. West. After all, this collection is a testimony to the power of music to connect the most disparate lives. Yet, in her juxtaposition of personal history with public excavation, Sarah Blake’s Mr. West is an "an unauthorized lyric biography" (her words)—and a muted billet-doux to Kanye West. Do not be fooled by the black-and-gold cover (surely, the Louis Vuitton Don would approve) or any other suggestion that this book’s experimentation or subject matter is all about bling or extravagance. Blake’s Mr. West is a nuanced, subtle, and profound glimpse into celebrity and artistic creation.
Mr. West is divided into six sections, each organized around a crucial event in West’s life, like his near-fatal car accident in 2002, after which he rapped through a wired-shut jaw on “Through the Wire.” Also recounted are his mother’s death, his romances with Amber Rose and Kim Kardashian, and the notorious incident in which he … interrupted Taylor Swift. Concurrently, Blake chronicles her own life: her young marriage to her husband, rap-loving Noah; her impending motherhood; her aims as a writer; her sympathy toward West.
Blake is clearly a great admirer of West, his art and his personage. You read this in her poem, “The Week Kanye Joined Twitter,” for example, a meditation on history and personal evolution, the development of a body (perhaps the speaker’s in-utero child), that begins with extinct giants—“We find there are fewer dinosaurs/when we learn how the skulls age”—only to loose the narrative thread with an address to Kanye: “You begin tweeting./I learn about your suits, videos/jets, pillows, the new words you/picked up overseas.” Blake’s admiration is tender, almost motherly as she sweetly remarks on a Kanye quip: “You make a joke/about a crown so lovely I see/it on nymphs in daydreams.”
And yet this is no mere panegyric. Mr. West is, more deeply, a serious investigation on celebrity, self promotion, narcissism, mythmaking, obsession. Blake can be simultaneously detached, clinical, and politically engaged, as when she collects a swath of racist, violent YouTube comments directed toward West, after his infamous Taylor Swift incident: “not only is he a freakin/pubic headed idiot, I bet his_ breath/smells like shit!!!” “As found on youtube.com …,” Blake notes, providing the full site URL.
As varied as these poems are formally (this sestina-writer was happy to see “Twilight: Starring Kanye”), a muted tone unifies them. For example, in “Kanye Raps, “,” Part 2,” Blake writes: “Achilles.//I couldn’t see it before/because I’m Achilles.” Blake’s tone—part reverent, part meditative—counteracts the gaucheness, the grandiosity that has become a signature of Kanye’s persona.
After all, this is the man who has dubbed himself “Yeezus,” who has declared “I am God’s vessel,” who—for that matter—has a song entitled “I Am God.” Blake’s approach to her subject reifies West’s lofty claims. See, for example, “Teeth,” where Blake writes, “Kanye’s gold teeth are like toy soliders for a little emperor tongue.” Or “Mythic,” where Mr. West enters the Garden of Eden: “Eve gave Kanye the apple—after Kanye was formed of dust from the ground.”
But if Blake reifies—and, at times, deifies—West, so too does she memorialize her own experiences—as a woman, as a life-giving wife and mother. In “So Kanye Transformed Himself, Producer to Superstar,” Blake writes:
What do I know about being saved?
In one game I watch Noah play,
he points his gun at his friend and shoots him to heal him.
My grandfather died despite treatment.
My mother’s treatment did everything it should.
And I’ve never been in danger.
Blake goes on to quote West (who “[wonders] if [he] believes in heaven” and “[knows] he believes in Jesus). In italics, Blake’s speaker addresses West, an apparitional responder (“I know you believe angels are with you”).
Gentle, maternal Blake is most movingly passionate about Kanye when she writes about his mother, Donda. Perhaps her own pregnancy informs this empathy; perhaps she feels that protectiveness of true fans the world over: she wants to do right by her idol. In “Kanye’s Skeletal System,” for instance, Blake’s italicized interlocutor considers: “Kanye, did your mother, in her hands/hold your broken face?” And in the section of Mr. West titled “Dear Donda,” Blake draws on West’s mother’s memoir, Raising Kanye, to trumpet a mother’s devotion to her son, a fan’s commitment to her star.
Blake’s book raises questions about mythology, about identify, about family, about celebrity, about fandom. About the fan’s anointing of celebrity, the fan’s endowing of celebrity, the fan’s possessiveness of celebrity. What does celebrity grant to us? What does it demand of us? What does the fan owe her celebrity? What tribute can she make? What life, what lines can she give?