While driving through West Virginia, the speaker in Erika Meitner’s poem, “Austerity,” listens to Blue Öyster Cult, beckoning her reader to “Go off the fiscal cliff with me, baby. I’m ready.” And so, as I re-read these poems, I’m thinking of current political predicaments, the odd and now seemingly trivial crisis of the “fiscal cliff” in 2013, but more than anything, I am thinking of what will soon be playing in my car’s radio to feed me as I reluctantly embrace another morning’s commute. Built in 2007, my car lacks the Bluetooth equipment and speaker and headphone jack offered in newer automobiles. Lacking an alternative, I find myself scrambling through an ancient gray binder of CDs, a treasure I’ve collected and lugged around since 2007—certainly, many poets will appreciate the benefit of such struggles, often thriving under formal constraints.
Oddly, the albums I’m most often drawn to are not “albums” at all, but rather the idiosyncratic mixtapes received from friends. Certain mixtapes are more evocative and become greater than the sum of their parts, evoking a particular mood and feeling—whether of sadness, pure energy, or delight, in part through unexpected association—and in some ways, a great mixtape feels as though it has captured the essence of the particular person who inspired it. As Lewis Hyde notes in The Gift, “When we say that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,’ we are usually speaking of things that ‘come alive’ when their elements are integrated into one another.” Such is the case in Meitner’s work, as fragments of language and culture decay and erupt by association.
Holy Moly Carry Me is Erika Meitner’s fifth full-length collection of poetry, and thinking of this volume as an elegant mixtape does not feel like a stretch. Often, individually and collectively, its poems represent an amalgamation of samplings—coalescing into a reading experience suffused with the speaker’s private griefs and unexpected delights, a humor of juxtapositions, as the poet anticipates when her reader needs a mood change when to fade slowly in or out.
The opening poem in the collection, “HolyMolyLand,” perhaps best encapsulates Meitner’s sampling (the title itself is derived from a project by an artist named Kim Beck titled “Holymoley Land”), as it probes various etymologies and theories behind the usage and emergence of the exclamatory phrase, “Holy moly.” In this expansive poem, a reader will encounter Corinthians, Isaiah, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, clippings from The Guardian, Yiddish phrases, Marvel Comics, Elton John, Homer, and a German thrash metal band, named Holy Moses. The poem is told in paragraph segments and covers four pages, threading the idiom through historical experience before concluding and opening up personally:
There are things I will never know. There are stories past telling.
No matter how much testimony we gather. No matter how many details we proclaim.
Yet Meitner is always willing to search subjects, settings, and ideas to exhaustion and invites her reader to experience the search with her. Throughout this poem, the poet tells us many things, and I never feel as though she is not also delighting or being knocked off balance by discoveries and associations.
Successful poetry collections often manage to build rapport with their reader quickly, which reciprocally can fail and diminish the entire collection if broken by later poems, especially when the poems feel personal in nature. There is all variety of approaches to establishing rapport and different types of reader-writer relationships, and, admittedly, I do not really understand how the fragile process works, but these moments often teach experientially how the poet wants or needs to be read across the collection, adding heat to the poems that precede and follow. In the poem, “Dollar General,” Meitner produces one such moment:
[…] Near a pyramid of cookie tins,
there’s a kindergarten teacher I also recognize
from my son’s school, out with her teenage son,
loading up on frozen pizzas and Sunbeam bread.
What are the details I’ve left out? That I’m not
poor. That I’ve never had to buy food
at the Dollar Store at the end of the month.
That I’ve been relentlessly straightforward lately,
which has to do with my need to explain
exactly what happened.
The insistent admonition of the self and the speaker’s limitations, the unvarnished assertion of their intentions in the moment—to capture, catalogue, and omit no part of lived experience while expressing doubt—challenges the often-certain tone and voice in these poems. The moment crescendos sonically with its internal rhyme of “poor,” “store” and less pronounced “straightforward.” Moments like these are what elevate Holy Moly Carry Me from great to excellent. Faith and doubt interweave with concrete details—the brand names of products and stores in which they are being acquired—we hope, in this compilation, a deeper and truer understanding of the world might emerge from the details and can trust the writer not only to produce such moments but also to admit when they’re not coming. In short, moments like this help a reader trust the “I” of the poems in a way that makes their flaws more visible and triumphs more believable, and this collection is often at its most compelling when the speaker is at their most vulnerable.
To echo the poet, What are the details I’ve left out?
Within Holy Moly Carry Me, Meitner splices private and political with public record, lived experience, and history. There is reportage. There are rhetorical reversals. There is playfulness—for instance, the poem “And Still We Gather with Infinite Momentum,”opens with “The Promised LAN is the name / of a wireless network that pops up / on my phone….” There is the specter of the Syrian refugee crisis, and there is gun violence. There are ekphrastic poems and a double sonnet. There is the Old Testament and New Testament and the Holocaust, and these huge moments of enormous contemporary and modern consequence are often found in commonplace and daily occurrences, which at their best, may inspire a greater social conscience and awareness in its attentive reader.
This is a well-populated collection; the breadth of its content is prefigured by the smorgasbord of guns, fruit, and flowers that adorn Holy Moly Carry Me’s cover—a sort of post-modern still-life. Upon rereading, I can’t help but imagine Erika Meitner’s process as akin to a poetic detective—whether deposited in Dollar General, a museum, the aquarium with her family, sitting at the doctor’s office, or at the precipice of a great personal or historical moment.he takes it upon herself to record and probe the world for poetry, unveiling an ever-expanding prism of experience.
This morning, having read too long, I will be late to my job. Whether I scan the radio or my gray disc binder, in that quiet that ensues in between tracks, holy moly, I will carry these poems with me.