While Standing in Line for Death

reviewed by Stephanie Burt

CAConrad is known in some quarters—and rightly so—for “(Soma)tic poetry rituals,” physical, social, and mental exercises—somewhere between yoga and performance art—that lead Conrad, and might lead you, to compose new poems. Like some of Conrad’s other collections—but starkly with more tragic overtones—this one mixes prose about the rituals and their occasions with the sets of poems that follow from them. What emerges begins in heartbreak and elegy, with the death of Conrad’s partner Earth—probably in a homophobic hate crime—during the 1990s. Soon enough, in poems as in rituals (which involve eating crystals, blowing bubbles, or mapping ants’ paths), Conrad conceives of Utopian affirmations, rejecting existing human institutions (meat-eating, patriarchy, war) in favor of a newly wild flourishing. “[N]o one knows where I am in the morning and I like that,” one page begins; another exclaims “I don’t want children to inherit the earth / I want them to snatch it from heedless / adults.” Sexually explicit, playful except when in mourning (and sometimes even then), devoted to all animals including “Odin’s ravens,” Conrad may be our Ginsberg, as well as our Yoko Ono (whose work Conrad mentions), teaching us not so much how to write as how to live outside a great machine: “if you can’t believe in your poems / leave them at home until you / learn to deserve them.” Even for skeptics about procedures (or crystals), it’s a disorienting pleasure to follow these prose musings and their intuitive verse results, as their creator tries to make a “poem…worth the heart of a mountain.”

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2017.