The Authentic Readership: On Amy King’s “Calling all agents”

Calling all agents (from amy king’s alias)
Amy King

When they come unexpected,
love and letters unsettle
as if to blow penciled hues
that prick the pupils of one
who scans a dying horizon
for wooden branches of floral text.
Hold out the web of your impulse;
turn what stands before you to Braille.
A built-in face would never last
the length of the imprisoned’s recipe—
though every striptease proves
the paper’s palpitations never-ending.

Canned matter is the newest hype
that we can miss the silence without,
so acutely put pin to word
& begin exhuming the body.
A branch overhead rattles
its one death’s leaf,
and we label the wind
an instrument to grief.

Love letters, spelling meter, insist
a figure stands by the forest’s edge,
dusk-lit with glowing orb–perhaps
a cigarette—until in the stare too long
a peacock grows
from budding tendrils
that preen and nest in the folds
of wholesome damage, your eyelets.
It is a bird’s eye view that sees you
lying in the open spine,
flat & abridged,
a crisis that brings you to this:
rising to blindness as witness,
the embryo of what’s already come
delivers the map for a return visit.


Our concern is the “agent,” the active reader, who does not accept “canned matter.”

That’s about all the concern we can pinpoint at the start, because it isn’t clear whether we can “call” true readers or not. The very first line: “When they come unexpected;” “love” and “letters” unsettled might be the sum total of any individual, really.

The consistent metaphor in this poem is that of trees, a forest. Our presumably true reader is initially trying to see those trees particularly: “wooden branches of floral text.” We know something is amiss from the first stanza; all the imagery is physical, emotional. The “hues” “prick,” the “built-in face” might be staring inward at the stomach, staring and simultaneously burned by that “recipe.” The physical imagery – the idea of material hitting more material to cause sight is right out of classical atomism – leads us to the ambiguity of a “striptease” and “the paper’s palpitations.” Are we really looking at the world, or just navel-gazing and enjoying that a bit too much?

Our speaker tells the audience to “hold out” the “web of… impulse,” to read the world by means of touch. This may not be good advice, but it could be the only way through the problem. The direction is towards the world, away from the self. The key is that the impulse is unreflective: if it turns out to be too self-centered, well, at least you’ve learned who you are in the world.

The second stanza presents the crux of the matter:

Canned matter is the newest hype
that we can miss the silence without,
so acutely put pin to word
& begin exhuming the body.

“Without” could refer to where the silence is: it is beyond us, and “canned matter” – perhaps within us – blocks our access. “Without” could also result in: “without canned matter… the newest hype.” That latter reading indicates that hype only exists because we, as individuals, make it work. We find all sorts of excuses to miss silence. Either way, the meaning is nearly the same: the true reader has to be intensely personal, but also able to step beyond himself. This corresponds to the hype/silence distinction, but in the most unexpected way described above. Not many in the social sciences blame individuals for giving into hype, or see “silence” as constitutive of the universal, the whole.

To “acutely put pin to word,” then, is to see the self as having been consumed by hype, and aiming to fix that. “Exhuming the body” is exhuming the canned matter that to this point has been oneself. We now have another strange problem: how far can the true reader, seeking the authentic, go with this process? The grotesqueness of the imagery is not an accident.

The singularity of the leaf as death is distorted by our labeling the wind. This marks a settling, however. We might have gone far enough. “Love” and “letters” now combine in the third stanza, and words are defined by their internal order (spelling) and external ordering (meter). But this is not a nice, neat process either: to combine is to posit intelligence. Now we want to see the forest, not just the trees, so there must be more than the light of the sun. There must be a figure like us – ours being the only sort of intelligence we recognize immediately – nearby. This time the eyes are affected not by what they take in, but by what they don’t take in. The peacock flowers in the absence of anything actually seen.

How did we move to blindness as promise? It isn’t even clear Oedipus learns anything when he blinds himself. We think we’re not seeing anything, we think the eyes are being damaged by absence. That’s exactly the wrong thought: we’re actually seeing the framework, the “eyelets” are holes within the “tendrils.” If it sounds reversed in the poem, consider how elaborate things can be folded in multiple dimensions.

And consider that we are beholding a bird now, beholding us. The framework, to truly speak, is animate. And we do not quite know the nature of its soul. The confrontation has no easy ending; we can’t quite look in the eyes of a bird and tell everything. We can only tell that we’ve hit an impasse, that we’re more vulnerable than we thought we were, and we need to revisit. Note that navel-gazing and base desires have dropped from the picture: the text is now its own concern, and we are in the midst of it, called.


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