What Snakes Want. Kita Shantiris. Mayapple Press. Woodstock, New York. 2015.
Kita Shantiris can burn, baby, burn. There is something unique in her poetry kitchen, something akin to magic. Her poems are plenty fine narratives about the this and that of our monkey dance, strong and articulate.
If it were just that, Today's book of poetry would be satisfied, but What Snakes Want contains a higher gear that kicks in at precisely the right moment. It is a hard and quick slap to the face, Cher snapping a young Nic Cage's head back like a bobble doll in "Moonstruck" and saying "Snap out of it!" Shantiris body slams us with some tidy resolutions, some small puzzle piece that implodes on contact with your reasonable mind.
I'm looking for a photo of you from Burma.
One that was shot after combat.
One where your cheeks are lined
with sweat and fear like the treads
tanks make driving through mud.
Deep in the jungle, I'm looking for a way
to forgive you for the monsoons
and all you leeched from us.
Something to illuminate
the explosions that followed.
A way to forget all the nights
I pretended my bed was a ditch
and sleep had already killed me.
A way to forget you brooding in the doorway
like a panther in one of your way stories.
Someone inside me kept watch
while you taught us to make bedrolls
the way they taught you in the army.
If I didn't learn quickly, you might strike
with your unpredictable paw.
You waged hand-to-hand combat
with the furniture and anyone big enough
to question your authority.
Now you are a prisoner
of your wheelchair.
I'm going to push you as fast as I can.
It's time you knew how it felt
when you gunned the blue Ford to ninety.
You're not driving anymore.
You're mine for interrogation.
Kita Shantiris is a sniper. A poetry ninja. She gets in close for the kill when necessary. Shantiris reminds us again and again and again of the empowering generosity to be found in good poems. What Snakes Want glows with liberating discovery, villains are uncovered and named, heroic acts of redemption and failure, dark and fetid.
It's all in Shantiris' What Snakes Want. Today's book of poetry was reminded how much we like to be surprised, how much we appreciate being challenged. What Snakes Want delivers with every poem, all of them enlightening, aimed at the sun and all that blue - or aimed at so much of that dark we abide because we must.
Rear View Mirror
You grabbed the past in your hands
by accident. You were looking straight ahead
as if nothing were in the mirror.
It had been a night of happy hallucinations.
Furniture in my front yard to make room for dancing—
windows wide open, hips slightly in synch,
sweat and reggae infecting everyone.
The cops called it disturbing the peace.
You split after we carried the bed in.
You'd almost made it to the off-ramp
when a black and white pulled even.
You smiled at the officers like you were innocent,
made a smooth move adjusting the mirror.
They laughed when it broke loose
and everything behind you fell into your lap.
What Snakes Want made for a very spirited morning here in the Today's book of poetry offices. Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, took the helm and assigned the poems with her typical moxie and jam and elan. Kita Shantiris was given the "star" treatment, and for good reason. What Snakes Want vibrates with a rebellious and generous intelligence. Think of PJ Harvey playing anything.
The morning reading was full of knowing smiles and then the other kind, sublime moments. Just like Today's book of poetry asserted when we began, Kita Shantiris can burn.
What Snakes Want recognizes how much violence occurs without it being named or recorded. How much is endured in silence. Many of the poems in What Snakes Want are "giving sorrow words" as Maryse Holder both said and knew too well. Shantiris breaks down some of the dark standards of quiet acceptance, bites back a bit, she has an alternative.
Nothing is more fattening than solitude.
My heart growls
stripping the cupboards.
Dear Wilhelm, I have tried
trading peristalsis for passion—
walnuts and sausage,
babka and schnapps — Homer
when my stomach balks.
Each word is a lump.
Let's not bite at my delusions.
If you could see me
in this orgy of distraction,
you'd say, my friend,
I want love too much.
No. I want too much
to be deserving.
Oh, if my blood were lighter.
I'd open a vein and float.
Today's book of poetry just liked the way Kita Shantiris got it all down on the page, accessible as a phone book back when they were a much needed Rosetta. Darkly detailed and forgiving at the same time.
Like all the poets we like best here at Today's book of poetry Kita Shantiris offers light and hope. No innocent glee, Shantiris is still aware of the undertoad, its dark allure.
ABOUT THE AUTHORKita Shantiris, also known as Kita S. Curry, is an American poet and psychologist. Published in the U.S., Ireland and England, her poetry has appeared in Ambit, Crannóg, the Fish Anthology, Poetry, Poetry Northwest, Quarterly West, The Moth, Slipstream, Wisconsin Review and other journals. Her poems were included in The Border, a collection of three poets’ work published by Bombshelter Press (1984), and two were anthologized in The Faber Book of Movie Verse (Faber & Faber 1993).
After a long hiatus focused on her career as a psychologist, Kita resumed writing again. In 2012, she won 2nd Prize in the Ballymaloe International Poetry Contest, and she has twice been a Runner-Up in Fish Publishing’s contest (2011, 2014). Her first full-length poetry collection, What Snakes Want, was published by Mayapple Press in 2015. It received Honorable Mention in poetry from the Eric Hoffer Book Award, was a finalist for the INDIEFAB Award, and was shortlisted for the International Rubery Award.
Psychologist Dr. Kita S. Curry is CEO of Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, a non-profit in Los Angeles (www.didihirsch.org). Its Suicide Prevention center, mental health and substance use programs help more than 90,000 children and adults each year. Kita brings personal and professional experience to this work. Suicide has taken the lives of three relatives; when she was young and uninsured, she first sought treatment for depression at a community mental health center in Philadelphia.
Frequently interviewed by the media, Kita has been honored for erasing the stigma associated with mental illness and bringing services to communities of color. She was selected for California’s Advisory Committees on Suicide Prevention and Stigma and Discrimination and has served on the boards of several advocacy organizations—most recently the National Council on Behavioral Health. She currently serves on the Steering Committee of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Kita graduated Phi Beta Kappa, cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania with a B.A. in English. With the support of an NIMH fellowship, she earned a PhD in Psychology at UCLA. Her husband, Peter Curry, played guitar in the long-running surf band The Halibutsand currently plays bass in Grammy-nominated Los Straitjackets.
BLURBS"Something edgy and intense haunts Kita Shantiris' poems, always threatening to flare up just outside their frames. Like a great auteur, she teases us with implication, with slow builds, the sneaky reveal, with what you can't yet see. Or, she'll give us a flash of aftermath, letting us glimpse "a tub of red water" where the violence has already taken place. Carefully orchestrating her pace, Shantiris lets things dawn on us, which contributes to the sense of delicious discovery one has in reading this collection. Wanderlust, an ode to coffee shops, an erotic poem set in a gaudy Laundromat, a child lying in bed hearing her abusive father come home…it's all here, articulate, compressed, suspenseful. "It takes brandy to center me/glowing alone here." The reader will likely find herself glowing along with these poems."
—Amy Gerstler, author of National Book Critics Award winner Bitter Angel
"One could spend a lifetime with Kita's new and powerfully personal book of poetry, What Snakes Want. The poems speak of a life replete with love, loss, pain, honesty, insight, longing, sensuality, and a deep unabashed unsentimental appreciation for the very gift of life itself. The poems are accessible yet abound with rich imagery, beautifully wrought observations of the natural world and of our very human behavior, and they do so with an intensity of feeling and care that ultimately resound with hope as they reach in and touch the soul."
– Ed Harris, actor, screenwriter, director
"Already recognized with awards, Kita Shantiris is a poet whose work in this book glows with a naked, scalpel-sharp intelligence and a refreshing delight in language. Full of startlingly good poems—"The Last Lake" comes to mind and "Milking the Adder," the source of the title, especially. What Snakes Want is a fine collection, and one of the most exciting I have read in recent years."
– Patrick Chapman, poet, A Promiscuity of Spines: New and Selected Poems
Selected readings from What Snakes Want
Video: Bob Bowdon
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