I Am Not a Poet

I Am Not a Poet: 15 Years of Street Roots Poetry & Art

Street Roots (2014)
200 pages; $16

Reviewed by Anna Rasmussen

I Am Not A Poet blooms out of brokenness. This remarkable book features a selection of poetry and art collected over the last fifteen years by Street Roots—a biweekly paper providing Portland’s homeless community with income opportunities as well as a platform for publication. The poems are striking constructions of witness that provide an intimate account of the speakers’ thoughts and experiences. The introduction aptly comments, “The subject matter is sometimes dark—but always genuine—a reflection of the human cost of homelessness. These poems are also hopeful, offering a glimpse at the resiliency of the human spirit.”

In many ways these poems revolve around the speakers’ complicated relationships with feeling and place. There is a deeply confessional element present in the language: reflections full of epiphany, meditation that informs realization. Compelling emotional moments are framed in an incredibly visceral conception of place. Setting unfolds in a bouquet of images: cement flower beds, blonde roses, mosquitoes pumped with blood, the earth soaked with rain, a trellis of stars. One particularly strong voice in the collection, Kareem Ali, projects a sense of deep emotional meaning on the landscape of his poems. In the midst of his “orphaned olive branches” and “exhausted doves”—we find the spirit of a speaker present in the image-objects themselves. Everything is the vessel for personification. “On the beach,” Ali writes, “The wind coughs into a skeleton of trees / forcing starfish to sleep like gnomes.” Here we are met with an uncanny sense of reality—images of the everyday anxious with restlessness. The connection between place and emotional projection is insistent. And at times it’s as though materiality has dissolved and place is emotion.

One outstanding element of the conception of place in the collection lies in its depiction of an “outdoor” that occupies a magical range of industrial and celestial. Ali’s poem “Trail” begins, “Summer rain / And tulips shagged in a monsoon of light / and swallows / Peeling back the skin of moon / Revealing the soggy / Arch and ark of evening.” We find ourselves in the middle of a mind actively engaged in wonder. The metaphors are unexpected and bright—there is a real sense of physicality in the “skin of moon,” which like our very own body is malleable and shifting. This opening, as in many poems in the collection, paints an astonishing portrait of the elemental in everything. There is a challenge embedded in this restless eye/“I” to absorb our surroundings more carefully—to greet each day with more intention: “There is the keen beauty / of green in so much / ugly grey emptiness” (Jay Thiemeyer).

Many of the poetic narratives detail the realities of poverty, addiction, absence, and pain. All corners of life are observed with vulnerability. Robert M Hensel writes, “Bare bodies stand naked, their bones clanging in the wind.” Lines like this echo with open fragility—and in this exposure there is an intense bravery. The raw nature of this witness reminds us of the need to live with care and observation. At especially revealing times, the poetic gaze turns to the reader: “To you all who are the public / Three times you passed me by on the road” (Witch One). In the midst of the industrial-pastoral we are made to think of our role as citizens, as members of “the public.” The poem requires an interrogation of our interactions with the world—it asks us to examine how to act as socially responsible citizens. Poetic language that may feel hyperbolic or overly abstract in other contexts instead serves as the emotional scaffolding necessary for a project of this significance.

As the title suggests, I Am Not a Poet approaches craft not as occupation or vocation—but rather as the occasion for witness. Poetry is agency—it is a rare and beautiful kernel that transcends the spheres of public and private. Each of these poems spring from the generosity of the writer: flowering invitations. This collection takes personal pain and renders it with an art that feels both sacred and necessary—“Enter this magic,” Karen Goodyear writes, “Where the invisible vanish, honored guests appearing.”

Anna Rasmussen is working on her MFA in poetry at the University of Minnesota. She writes about the desert and bodies and light.