I used to think being passionate was one of my faults. I’d be embarrassed by how much I cared and by how much it showed. That fire would come in waves, starting as a tingle in my shoulders, then my chest, shooting up through my neck and flushing my face. Overcome, I’d hang my head and breathe into the embers in my chest, ashamed. There are hundreds of reasons I could posit as contributions to my fear of passion, and my inability to see value in it — too many reasons to pick through. Lately, though, I’ve come to reason that the only difference between fear and love concerning the self might be perspective. Changing your mind to change how you feel. Or in the case of poet Kai Coggin’s new title, “Incandescent,” it’s the difference between darkness and light. Passion and apathy. Silence and voice.
In “Incandescent,” the voices behind the poems are passionate. They don’t over-rationalize humanity or pan its essence through long-winded metaphors. Sometimes they’re overcome with uncontrollable emotion. Sometimes they can’t say anything at all. Sometimes they find fire and life in the unexpected, in a slosh of memory, in the cycles of the natural world. Coggin champions those spirited voices as necessary now more than ever — as the ones who bring us together in a world of division and hatred — and it’s this championing that makes her speakers approachable. They are searching, feeling and hoping, just like the rest of us.
And, if the poems resonate with the intensity of spoken word performance, it’s no coincidence. “Incandescent” embraces the craft of poetry as a radical act, drawing on its oral traditions and channeling a history of feminism and social justice in the wake of a chaotic political climate. In “Take a Knee,” for one, Coggin offers a rebellious incantation of the national anthem as a response to Colin Kaepernick’s well known act of peaceful, silent protest. In another poem, “Unnatural (S)election,” Coggin writes:
“trump will never be my president,/
I cannot even give him a capital letter,/
he is improper,/
not a proper noun/
to wear this crown as/
the face of democracy,/
These pieces echo popular poetic narratives: writing as protest, putting out little lights (poems) into the world, telling stories to remember who we are. Still, there’s a tension — an overwhelming urgency to make a lasting impact in a world that seems inextricably bound to destructive cycles. There’s a tension between doing “the work” of social justice and the sinister suspicion that words are helpless in the face of global trauma. It’s the gap between that call to action and the feeling of hopelessness that’s so central to Coggin’s collection.
“I don’t know/
if I should write this/
on a computer/
typed into the void/
who will find it/
in all of the rubble/
who will take/
when the skies/
have fallen over head/
will a poem last/
longer bound in paper/
or screamed into the wind/
and who will hear it/
when we are all fire and oblivion.”
— “When everything is about to burn”
Above all, Coggin’s speakers are sensitive ones — so boundlessly empathetic that the act of observing daily injustices becomes seared into their own individual awareness. Many of the compelling poems in this book occur on the cusp of epiphanies, through events that alter reality. As the speakers contemplate loss through memory (or lack thereof) — a cross-country move, a father leaving, becoming a woman, introducing a naked body to the night air, a first kiss, a first love — Coggin’s speakers stand in for transformation itself; memory becomes survival, distance becomes closeness. And, as in “In Search of Salt,” pain becomes something beautiful.
“If I knew a butterfly needed my salt/
in order to produce an egg,/
in order to create another colorful airy winged being,/
I would sit outside/
and think of all the saddest things,/
or perhaps stare directly at the sun,/
until I could nourish/
every thirsty thing with my tears,/
an open flower,/
the nectar I offer back to the earth.”
Coggin’s speakers also touched on the ironies of activism in the digital world; the isolating effects of grief and how it challenges the voice. Protest poems are necessary, and it’s clear that these speakers are overwhelmed by the weight of a personal responsibility to dissent — and to speak up for others, to tap into some collective conscience. At times, though — particularly in poems like “The Same Words Again,” “Pussy,” “Women in White,” or “Where are the Warriors” — the individuality of that voice tends to get trampled in the rush. It campaigns the cause, slips in and out of the collective voice, and sometimes gets lost entirely. I believe in responding to hatred by finding joy and hope in solidarity, but it’s not necessarily that chant that tends to catalyze long-lasting changes or meaningful action. Sure, it sustains the struggle, but it’s the underlying, swelling personal riot I long for in this collection. That’s the voice and the story I want to hear.
Reading “Incandescent,” I was reminded of a favorite card from Rebecca Campbell’s “Work Your Light” oracle deck. It’s titled “Break the Chain. Ancestral Patterns. Healing. Rewriting the Future.” An excerpt from the description says, “The thing to notice when ancestral healing comes up is that you cannot heal another person, but your own healing can cause another person to choose to heal. Energy is freed up.” “Incandescent” thrives on that very idea: the notion that in order to heal the world we have to heal ourselves first. Breaking patterns of fear and hate and dismantling unjust systems, Coggin suggests, requires not only perseverance, but light and rebirth. And, in such close communion with the collection’s speakers, their fire burned hot enough that it beckoned me to accept my own.