Forthcoming from Solid Objects on September 28, Samuel Amadon’s Listener is a prosodic exercise in how far the poetic “I” can stretch when the object takes on the power of the subject. This process both begins and ends with an evocation of the epic tradition that is anything but naïve or hackneyed, despite how enervating tercets can sometimes be. Rather, Amadon seems to question the poet’s role in an increasingly alienated society, bluntly stating that “[he]’ll talk / Of the pointlessness of poetry” in the opening poem, “Listener.” Moreover, Amadon positions the poet as a listener. Instead of following Milton’s muse-laden footsteps and proclaiming something along the lines of “I thence / Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,” Amadon states: “Let my ears be part of this. Let me be the listener.” This is an emptying out of self—not a filling or an act of projection—that I find particularly refreshing in 2020 when listening seems to be the rarest commodity of all, particularly in the population of white male writers and academics from which Amadon hails.
Yet, this is not to say that Amadon abandons all sense of self entirely. Rather, his quest is to ensure that “What started // As a bubble, ends as foam.” I choose this quote because, over the course of Listener’s five sections, the I of each poem gradually multiplies, increasingly exploring a polyvocal identity that is firmly rooted in our daily reality. Instead of floating off in some idealistic globule singing praises for a romantic cult of self, Amadon applies his imagination to more pertinent problems of the twentieth-first century, listening to and identifying with the problems we all face in day-to-day life, “negotiating / the anticipated movements of a crowd” and “plot[ting his] direction/ In electric grids.” By doing so, Amadon also notably engages with the Whitmanic tradition by exploring how one poetic “I” can account for multitudes as well as how and to what extent the technology of scripture allows the poet to oracalize. But he also deviates from Whitman in important ways. In place of pompously creating an epic catalogue that is just as much about keeping people in their place as it is about unity—or engaging in a form of emotional tourism while attempting to access and claim other’s subjectivities—Amadon admits that sometimes “in [his] anxious hour” he wonders if “[he’s] not a bunch of selves, nor even one person.”
It is his candid modesty that allows Amadon to escape Whitman’s paradox of containing multitudes. In other words, instead of rooting his poetics in a monomaniac obsession with subjectivity that often denies individual mobility within the context of our roles in society, Amadon allows himself and his readers to explore our shared objectivity. Listener surveys what it means to have a body that exists in and moves through space alongside other bodies—not how many people can be held in one unit. I find this approach striking because of how Amadon’s depiction of our objectivity arguably counters much of the doomsday discourse surrounding the alienation and reification we face under late capitalism in America, without denying our predicament. Though Amadon must “walk a floor laid between glass brick walls—” and “stand behind the yellow line while parts of an express // Train pass,” he is also a “tomorrowman” who “[has] tomorrow / Things— // [His] tomorrow limbs in [his] tomorrow clothes, // The tomorrow words [he] know[s].” In Listener, narrow paths and dictated borders become spaces of possibilities, become virgules gesturing to a potentiality we can feel but not name—at least for now.
For Amadon, this potentiality is not found in the distant, abstract utopian future as outlined in Leaves of Grass,“When the psalm sings instead of the singer, / When the script preaches instead of the preacher.” Amadon is already a tomorrowman who is able to proclaim:
I’ve sung the future into me.
I hold a limb in another time, and when
I listen through it,
I hear the calendar hymn.
Amadon’s “when” has already arrived and is constantly arriving. However, although this all sounds pretty nice, it also profits a question that is particularly important in the current moment, when we find ourselves living under a police state responsible for the murders of countless BIPOC, when borders are bloodier than ever and billionaires are profiting from a pandemic that has ravaged our country at the expense of those who need aid now more than ever: “How do you know if you’re hopeful for a future / That’s already here?” Though Amadon may not directly provide an answer, I would like to believe he outlines one in Listener’s final poem, “Twentieth-First Century.”
Much like “Listener,” “Twentieth-First Century” is composed primarily of tercets and is an epic in its own right thanks to its portrayal of an often-fraught quest through the modern world in which “the signs in/ the community garden ask joggers to/ keep out, as if limits weren’t absurd.” After much meandering, going from the voting polls to the mattress store to “the air above the keypad of an ATM machine” amongst other places, the poem takes an unexpected turn as Amadon leads the reader to the poem’s final stanza:
[sic] The bus turns
around in the lot, stops, and opens the door. The driver
says we can get off and then back on if we want.
If it were my car, I’d have a pile of glass carafes in
the back seat, aprons, work shoes, golden photos
of dewy gardens in southern New-England,
elephant-colored etchings of trash heaps, a corbeil of
diplomas, some fake and some real, matted together
on the seat from the rains, because I have
no windows, no doors, no car, and nowhere
I mean to go. These are the words I walk
around with, because the ones I want
are gone. We already found them, if you remember.
We brought them out in front of everybody,
and we burned them right up.
Though much could be written about this conclusion, I will do my best to keep it simple by focusing on the final stanza. The final stanza is deviant: it is a quatrain, not a tercet, and it expands the narrator’s stance from one of alienation to one of solidarity by leaving behind the “I” that dominates the rest of “Twentieth-First Century” in favor of a “We.” This shift is important, not only because the addition of a fourth line meaningfully reflects an expansion of solidarity that perhaps can lead to a new kind of epic, but also because it reminds us that we have already embarked on that quest—for better or for worse. As Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently stated, “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Who is to say that light cannot come from fire or from language, that solidarity is not synonymous with love, and that we are not already all tomorrowpeople capable of singing the future into our bodies, of oracalizing the tomorrow we wish to move through? It is time to honor John Lewis’s legacy and get into some good trouble. If you do not believe me, do not know where to start or simply want to be reminded that we are not stuck in Weber’s iron cage, you should read Listener and meditate consciously on being a tomorrowperson, stop wallowing in a discourse of reified alienation and start acting in solidarity—no matter what role you think you play in society. Tomorrow has already arrived, and there is no more time to waste.