Shelter In Place by Catherine Kyle / Spuyten Duyvil / 978-1-949966-40-4 / 84 pages
Shelter In Place is a book which investigates safety while being under attack. Catherine Kyle divides the book into three sections: Bunker, Fortress and Seige, all dwellings to seek refuge while in a war. Shelter In Place labels the wars which we, in the twenty-first century, are a part of. Wars over habitat destruction, wars of totalitarian power, and perhaps, most of all, as this is a book of poetry, wars on language.
The first step in solving a problem is identifying what the problem is. And the problem is this: language is under attack. In this work, the work of using poetry to activate people into change, Kyle is not condemning others, but rather reflecting a world which she is not only a part of, but a world where she is a poet, someone who attends to language. Kyle showcases our social media-influenced syntax to show us how this new use of language might be constricting the complexity, vibrancy, and connectivity of our interactions. In the poem, “Word of the Year,” she references “face with tears of joy emoji” as being the word of the year because it ¨best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of the time.” This is startling because this reference, like many parts of our current cultural moment, violates a common assumption: emojis are not words. Or, now, when all rules feel changed, are they? Sometimes it feels that we are living in a world turned upside down. In this, our era of Trump, we begin to realize that our agreed upon frameworks of interaction are now being questioned (ex. policy is proposed via tweet, everything is for profit, equality feels like a long abandoned dream) and we, sometimes having no other choice or are simply too exhausted to continue to protest, implicitly agree: so okay, emojis are words. Kyle uses this poem to comment on our collective isolation, “We had a feel the other day/and heavens was it noxious.” She continues to define emotions or “Feels” as “the unmitigated contraptions alarming in our chests.” She then pinpoints something I identify with quite strongly, “We wanted to do something, say something, touch something, hold something, revel embodied.”
Kyle is a poet of her generation (my own generation too) and pinpoints our collective need for movement, for change. She mixes in the tone of the 19th century by using the word “feels” and the phrasing “Heavens was it noxious” to turn the cold 19th century human into the twenty-first century one: highly emotive and seeking connection through technology. In fact, we have so much emotion now that we turned our language into a code of emotions. We don´t write each other handwritten letters but instead, send each other little Morse codes of meaning: heart face, sad face, cat face smile, thumbs up. And in this, there is something of the 1950s American past that she is hitting on. She juxtaposes this war on language with a tone of an earlier time. We are no longer hiding in our bunkers or practicing duck and cover at our schools, but instead we are bunkering down into our apartments, trying desperately to find meaning from technology.
Kyle furthers this by writing poems that reference a fake Twitter account for a person named Moloch and in doing so defines the two sides of the war from which we are seeking shelter. A tyrant has a twitter account using capitalized letters of command, “the ppl who tell you I am a villain are BAD, BAD PPL–THE WORST!” We all know who makes these hyperbolized statement, a person Kyle defines as an “old world god” who eats children and simultaneously, in Kyle’s poem, someone who received 162k likes.
In the physical text, Kyle includes heart icons to represent our new form of communication. In a time when we only have a choice to “like” or “be angry” or to “laugh face” or to “heart,” perhaps Kyle shows us that poetry is the expression of complicated emotions that migrate between lands of happiness and anger and sadness into new countries of joy, confusion, remorse, guilt, shame and wonder. Poetry is a land which can hold complicated thinking. Poetry is a country full of abstraction. Poetry is where we go to be free. Poetry is the refuge we seek.
Most pleasing to me, Kyle´s book shows us how poetry can sliver out and frame the pieces of the natural world that are left. She points out that instead of using photographs (aren’t we all a little overexposed?) we need poetry to allow language to reverberate, to resonate inside of us. Kyle writes of the “slumbering wreath of magnolia blossoms,” “the star line,” and the “chartreuse luna moths.” This is a welcome refuge for me. This is what I want when I am sheltering in place. I want to be surrounded by the natural world. Poetry becomes the window into these wild spaces.
In her poem “Candle and Laptop,” she shows us how we fill up our small city dwellings with bits of nature, “our succulents poised on apartment windowsills/suction the starlight again. Are open as nocturnal/waterlilies, drinking the arid dusk.” Our bunkers are our apartments, our couches, our little, cozy rooms that we hide in every night after work. And we fill our shelters with reminders of the more natural world; the one we are in danger of losing. We see that the most important war we are in is the war which will destroy our natural world, “So we shelter what we can. We shelter the cat,/her licked whispers. We bunker in the glow of buttercup/and agate blue.”
Kyle’s poetry resonates because she uses the collective first person, we. Reminding us that we are in this together. Reminding us that we can win this war together. Reminding us that even though a totalitarian tweet monster exists, there is a significant and powerful we. And, most importantly, that we are this we. Everyone reading this book is part of this we. Kyle’s Shelter In Place is a mirror that reflects ourselves back to ourselves and she includes herself in this reflection. She is there, right beside us, the Greek chorus, holding up a mirror and telling us the truth.