CAConrad’s newest collection of poems, Amanda Paradise: Resurrect Extinct Vibration (Wave Books, 2021) does an excellent job capturing the contemporary moment from a psychic perspective that is both deeply emotional and political. What makes Conrad’s work especially unique is the ritualistic work they undergo to produce poems; they perform very specific and personalized rituals as a way to connect with the larger psychic energy of the universe and create poems from what is uncovered. In Amanda Paradise, Conrad worked with extinct species in particular, as well as loved ones who had passed away and who also had a connection to animals. The book is split into three sections. The first section is comprised of longer poems, the second section consists of poems written when the COVID pandemic was at its height, and the third section is a series of small chapters where Conrad talks about the brutal murder of their boyfriend Earth, eco and heterosexual violence, and how they go about creating and performing rituals. Amanda Paradise is not only timely because it is situated within the COVID pandemic, it is timely in the sense that it puts forth new ways in which poetic work can be created through ritual and engaging with psychic energy. It is the way in which Conrad approaches poetry in this collection that makes it truly impactful.
In order to get a deeper understanding about the poems, it is important to start with Conrad’s poetic process. Their poems are composed from notes they gather while performing rituals that they develop themselves. Conrad came upon the “Resurrect” rituals while they were utilizing their ritualistic work to overcome a deep depression they entered after their boyfriend was raped, tortured, and set on fire in Tennessee in 1998. Here is a description of the ritual that brought them to “Resurrect,” a series of rituals that engage with extinct species:
I was sitting on a forest floor in New Hampshire when I realized that this man I loved, who had changed his name to Earth, died from the very same wounds humans inflict on the planet: he was bound and gagged, beaten, tortured, raped, then covered in fossil fuels and set on fire. This connection brought a flood of grief. After my tears subsided, I lay flat on the fallen leaves, feeling my breath sync with the soil beneath me and with the wind, birds, insects—and as suddenly as I had burst into tears came a lavish shower of peace. It was extraordinary, instantly feeling these connections in my body.
Conrad talks about several rituals they performed. To connect with their deceased hunting dog named Whisper, they drew a picture of her, wrote secret notes to her, made a kite out of these items, flew it, removed her image from the kite, placed it under their pillow and had elaborate dreams. To connect with their garden plot in Philadelphia that had been destroyed in order to build a condominium, they went into the basement of the building to the exact spot where their garden used to be, bringing along old photographs of it and fresh string beans, laid on the ground, stared up at the ceiling imagining the roots of their vegetables hanging where there were now pipes and wires, and ate the string beans. Afterwards, they burned the photographs, and drew a spiral on the floor with the ashes.
In the first section of the book, the poems are longer and showcase Conrad’s style of poetry which is both lyrical and in the vein of stream-of-consciousness writing. Another unique feature of Conrad’s work is the interesting shapes their poems take on the page. They talk at length about how they came to write their poems in this way in the last section of the book. “Acclimating to Discomfort of the System Breaking Beneath Us” is a poem that shows what Conrad does poetically in compelling ways. Here is the first part: “I do not take any / calls except from / the century we are in / when there is no bible in my hotel room / it makes me sad to have no place to put / my filthy poems for future guests / it is important to let them know / everyone should burn with abandon as soon as the heat is available / be a self-stylized alarm clock no one can shut off / be the storm Love places in someone’s home.” Readers will immediately notice how the poem shifts frequently. In this particular poem the shifts occur through locations: “the century we are in,” “hotel room,” “alarm clock,” “storm,” “someone’s home.” The poem enacts movement primarily through its images rather than voice—the speaker’s tone remains even all throughout the poem. Aside from the absence of punctuation and capitalization, the steady tone of the speaker is what makes this poem stream-of-consciousness in nature. However, there are moments where the speaker’s lyrical voice shines through: “c’mon wind knock us around / we are a tide that cures ills.” The end of the poem is especially lyrical as the speaker refers to those they met who were alive in the 19th century: “I met some of them / they are all gone now / as we hold on to / the side of one / another howling down / the velocity of seconds.” However, it is important to note that the speaker does make one distinct tonal shift just past the midway point that helps to open up the poem in poignant ways: “when you told me you had been looking for me / we pressed through every / invisible barrier between us.” These lines really shine through as being the central moment of the poem: the speaker addresses the “you” in an intimate manner that deepens the poem on an emotional level.
The middle section of the book, 72 Corona Transmutations, are short poems that specifically engage with the COVID pandemic crisis. Conrad wrote these poems while indoors using crystals and explains that “these poems came out whole, often with no editing necessary.” The poems in this section are truly written in the moment, which makes them even more compelling. What also makes these poems interesting is how Conrad connects the COVID virus to AIDS, as well as the dystopian, oppressive nature of government-as-empire. Here are some examples: “it was over half my life ago / since I told this many friends / I hope we all survive / we did not that time / but I say it again / I hope we / all survive / I hope we / all survive” (page 28), “the government says to / practice social distancing / as though that had / not been their / message all / along” (page 34), “a pause / in the / heartbeat / of empire / or never going back / to paying for wars / we pretend are / not happening” (page 54). Conrad also tracks their personal experience of living through the COVID pandemic in poignant ways: “singing / got into / everything / until finally / my mind / could not / rob me of / the day” (page 45), “neither virus nor / the tornado can / stop the other from racing across the country / there is a tree in Kansas / I hope to see again” (page 64). These poems are brilliant not just because they track a moment in time that is turbulent and violent, but also because as poems, they are very direct and concise while also being lyrical and poetic, which is a difficult feat to accomplish given the harsh context under which they were written. These poems serve as wonderful lyrical pieces that also document the physical and political brutality of the COVID pandemic.
Amanda Paradise is an important book poetically and politically. CAConrad does an excellent job of fusing their innovative, but very much down-to-earth poetic technique with their politically-engaged sensibilities to create work that speaks to the aesthetic and political concerns of the contemporary moment. Conrad’s strengths as a poet really shine through in this collection: psychic in nature, but utterly grounded, personal and political, lyrical and stream-of-consciousness, passionate and impactful. It is safe to say that Amanda Paradise will more than likely become a definitive text in terms of how poetry effectively articulated the COVID pandemic as a symptom of a bigger issue: governmental violence that affects not only humans, but animals and the earth itself. And yet it is also noteworthy for the way in which Conrad utilizes their poetic voice as a force for empowerment and strength, as a way to resist and transcend political oppression. This is what truly makes their work special and meaningful.
August 22, 2022