In this new age of the carnivalesque, understatement might be a greater currency than overstatement. So if I say that Dylan Krieger’s “Giving Godhead” will be the best collection of poetry to appear in English in 2017, you can trust the understatement, aside from the casual assertion of prophecy. Seamlessly mixing the religious with the obscene, determined to create a new form of the grotesque that marries autobiography to personal and national trauma, Krieger’s book is easily among the most inventive and successfully performative works to appear in living memory.
Krieger’s title and her dedication to “all god’s / little trauma children” seem to indicate a specific trauma at the heart of this collection, although it is never addressed directly. Rather, it haunts the entire collection, as the inherited God of both Judaism and Christianity becomes (as the Marquis de Sade once wrote) a being defined by the inherent violence of his son’s conception. The father who sent “down out of Heaven this respectable part of himself” embodies an act of violation and generation at once, and in the logic of both Sade and Krieger thus partakes of those things we have come most to treasure and to fear — on the one hand, the bread and the wine, communion and transubstantiation; on the other hand, violent intercession, assault and rape. Each shares a part of the other’s reality. In a more conventional narrative sequence, even a sequence of poems, this interpenetration would acquire sequence and evolution. In Krieger’s collection, by contrast, it acquires a new poetics rooted in the recent rise of the Gurlesque movement, with its dramatic wordplay growing out of fury, sexual violence and paradoxical self-assurance.
The first section, “Quid Pro Blow,” makes the case that drives the collection — roughly, “You abused me” (and the entire first section reads the “you” on both macro- and micro-scales) “so watch what I do to you.” But if the primal wound to the speaker here is physical and psychic, she is not out for physical revenge. Rather, she takes on a kind of underground Zohar meditation, as in the poem “rectifire”:
Then she goes further, wondering if what some of us might quaintly call “original sin” in fact invokes a “surprise, surprise: forced consent isn’t anyone’s crime but the fire’s / hanging right above our heads.” The Fall here is perpetual forced consent from birth; rape is one consequence. The problem with rape in “Giving Godhead” is that, unlike the “forced consent” of being human, rape won’t stop giving: the “rape dreams” she cites (in “swaddling plot”) lead to an anxiety of influence when God, unable to bear the burden of his story, creates the Flood and simultaneously sets in motion the motion in which “the Old Testicles always give rise to the New.”
Rape dreams, by a variety of names, haunt the first section of the book: In “biblical umbilical,” when the narrator tries from childhood to imagine a cord back to the divine, she learns in the end “no one’s guarded by — an angel but a bomb.” The shift in scale here is clearly intentional, as the poem foreshadows the expansion in the second part of the book from individuals and dreams toward the larger problem of human lineage, set partly in the language of 20th-century analytic philosophy. The third section explodes that larger problem with its conclusions about the impossibility of conjuring any legitimate answer to the First Question: “Why?”
Krieger’s poetry echoes her earlier academic scholarship on the Gurlesque — a movement that, according to Arielle Greenberg, “was born between about 1960 and 1982 (it was a long labor)” and that came into focus in Greenberg and Lara Glenum’s 2010 anthology, “Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics.” The Riot Grrrl scene was loosely connected, but so were “elements from Sesame Street childhoods, Goth, punk, grunge and ballet class,” Greenberg explains in her introduction. Artifice and camp (“from cosmos to cosmetics,” as the poet and critic Daniel Tiffany has written, in a phrase Glenum quotes in her own introduction to the anthology) — anything that might be anti-objectified or hyper-objectified in protest, anything that might be re-embraced as a claim to power rather than submission, anything that might have roots in fear and contamination and nevertheless be nurtured into a celebration of resistance — became part of the movement. But one sentence near the end of Glenum’s introduction is of particular interest when it comes to “Giving Godhead”: “Gurlesque poets,” she writes, “owe a great deal to Emily Dickinson, the original Goth girl.”
Above all, “Giving Godhead” makes an implicit case that, if Dickinson had been able to turn her rage at the mysteries of the world outward and also invited the sea to follow her inside, she would have blown the lid on creation as a direct precursor to Dylan Krieger. Krieger’s lack of a direct precursor, despite the abundant literary, religious and philosophical references embedded in the ingenious wordplay of her collection, is part of what makes “Giving Godhead” completely remarkable. Not sui generis — the rape dreams came from somewhere. But the places where they go in this book are places I have never seen any poet go before. “Giving Godhead” blows several giant craters out through the walls of our inherited and now somewhat cowed Western selves. It is a bomb with an angel behind it.