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Gregg Murray on Kristin Abraham

Disappearing Cowboy Tricks: A Few Notes on Kristin Abraham’s Debut Poetry Collection



It’s a playful sock in the gut, but when you see the bruise later it’s clear that she got you pretty good. Part of this trick is that it hurts more than you wanted it to. The more you touch around it, the more it hits home, the more it feels.


“Cash on the Barrel,” a poem from Kristin Abraham’s The Disappearing Cowboy Trick, exemplifies a poetics of openness where idiom and expression spread across imaginative landscapes. While this poem hits home in no uncertain terms, it also leaves some splainin’ to be done. By you, though, not her. As with the rest of Abraham’s book, confessional, mythological, and feminist modes inflect this vignette, and each freighted phrase chugs and begs a history and future where the rails crisscross. The reader is then left to play in the negative spaces. In “Cash,” Abraham perhaps suggests her own poetics as she explores the relation between a knife-thrower and his partner:


He told her this much when he found her—it’s not about trust or

love; it’s about position. They depend on their separateness. He

trains to throw around a particular space that she may or may not

occupy, and she knows she is never really there.


Thematically, the pairing is another iteration of the hero/damsel couple that shapeshifts throughout the text. But it leaves the reader with so much more. How does the hero pursue his damsel, as a “target” or opposite? This is a poetics of space, of timing, of deliberate distraction. It sets you up with an image and then indexes the blank page. At one point Abraham ends a short poem with the cryptic, “Arrow/ arrow,” as if performing this empty signifier, as if deliberately pointing to the unknown.


Here’s another trick: Despite the narrative feel, Abraham’s aesthetics is collage and snippet, phrase and haul. It’s suggestive of situation, avoiding the prescriptive. It’s about feeling, not fact. Some of the best new experimental American poetry—found in journals like PANK and DIAGRAM, in my opinion—thrives on this blurred suggestiveness. It doesn’t just understand word, it understands line and stanza. It dusts off angular meaning, letting it diffuse and settle into deeper conversations. It knows its dagger is in the present, yet knows too that this is just a pinch of what words can do. So, unhooked, it does all kinds of stuff, namely trusting poetic rhythm, electric and suggestive diction, and metaphor, metaphor, metaphor to engage the galactic unconscious.


It has been said that the crux of the philosophical position of epistemological relativism is the difference between making and finding meaning. One does not discover the Meaning or Truth of these poems. By playing with them, one discovers in much the same way as a game of twenty questions played in reverse. Rather than having something in mind and asking questions to discover what it is, one asks questions and makes a series of decisions about what the thing isn’t. By indirection the reader direction finds. Take Abraham’s “Bigger than a Bread Box”:


A man who thinks

about awe, stops to

think, just a moment,

in the canyon; armadillos

scuttle by like bald little

men, everywhere on their

toes. But he’s not thinking

about them, their shyness;

he’s looking for the negative

spaces, needing a little more.


You don’t know what it is. Is it bigger than a breadbox? Decide. This is how one (en)gauges the relationship between hero, stranger, story, Little Red Riding Hood, the cowboy, the speaker in this collection. Abraham insinuates that meaning is not fixed; it’s an ever-changing field of difference. You don’t “read” this type of poetry. You play with it. “She was / a pear-shaped / sound.” Exactly!


Abraham studied Ramon F. Adams’s Cowboy Lingo, an excellent poetry guide to a mythologized Western vernacular. Her mythologized West is a dreamscape in which the speaker explores, primarily, a romance with the “hero.” This narrative is systematically exploded in a collage aesthetic that disrupts its own subplots. I find a disassembled thematic ur-narrative stitching together many works of an emerging American poetry, including Arlene Kim’s What Have You Done To Our Ears To Make Us Hear Echoes?, Matt Schumacher’s The Fire Diaries, and Robert Seydel’s Book of Ruth. What excites me about this emerging American poetry is that, at its best, it engages its aesthetic with postmodern playfulness while returning to the more intricate lyricism that made us love modernism in the first place.


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