“ATLiens and ‘american’ Identity”: Jacob Collins-Wilson Reviews Kamden Ishmael Hilliard’s MISSSETTL

MissSettl, Kamden Ishmael Hilliard’s debut book of poetry, unfurls language—it’s a book that seeks to play with sound, words, meaning and form all while trying to fight, to throw haymakers and knock “yt” America into a manifestation resembling respect and ethics, or at least acceptance. It is also a book of love poems, directly and indirectly, to lovers, self, pop culture, but at its heart, it’s a book that loves to play, because when everything worthy is burning down, might as well dance.

Experimentation is always evolving. That’s what we love about it. It can give us the feeling we had when we first fell in love with books and didn’t know which authors or titles were famous or “good” and instead approached every book with excitement about what might happen. MissSettl reminds of us that feeling because it is so untethered to rules we were taught. It has no qualms with writing a word, that word sparking a memory and then chasing that memory even when it wanders away from where we were and gets lost. Or, it will take the same momentum, the same sound-play, and do its best to burn down everything wrong with america: it’s oppressive, shitty, “yt” hetero-expectant pewpew prision capitalism. It has no allegiance to Art or Literature or Poetry and will instead choose to do exactly what those three assholes tell us not to do.

MissSettl’s best moments come from the longer poems, the poems that Hilliard allows themselves to fully chase a whim and then come back to chase another. The long ending poem, “SELFI . E .” is not simply a selfie or self-portrait in poem form. It meanders into formative memories, disappointments, old television shows, wanting to be desired in the way we used to look forward to our favorite tv shows when we were teens, school, racism, america to name a few. It doesn’t shy from large social issues and pulls no punches:

ma and i are about the last minute shopping and it’s about the dessert
though it’s not about the apple pie .   cause the apple pie is about
baseball           which somehow makes my throat feel a bit noose-y .

Subversion. Calling american traditions out, showing how intertwined racism and american-past-time are. In the same vein, Hilliard will make equally cutting twists of language but they also feel absurd, or silly, playful: “mostly something I’d read in the paper , read/as long as I’m not the dead headline and sinker .” Hook, line and sinker. Such a no-reason action, but that’s part of the point too, part of the truth of this book, of language, of trying to be a person in a fucked up world, trying to be a black body in a racist country, trying to be non-binary while “Forced into plastic gender  I am against. the M/F -er like/I really am. against. the good plastic (off there ever/ was )”. This poem, and the whole book, challenge to you take someone seriously even when they’re making jokes, even when they’re angry, even when they’re rejecting everything you’re offering, and that is something our country right now is simply not able to do. This is a book that makes you fight to stay with it. It makes you enter on its terms, not yours. It’s the antithesis of the opening of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.

On the other side, the shorter poems, other than the love poems which are much more straightforward, are difficult to enjoy because they’re too smooth to get a grip, like a fish. But I like that. I like art that resists me, art that insists on itself. Too many people do too may thing for too many other people and MissSettl is for Hilliard, or for IYKYK. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. And that’s dope. But those poems tend to flow over the reader like water: they’re nice and soothing, but only for a little bit. They can grate, or torture, with their obscurity and play. They resist and fight, but they are their own. Vygotsky’s “Theory of Cognitive Development” in education says there are three circle in our learning. The inner circle is things we can do by ourselves, the next outer circle is things we’re able to do with some help and the final circle is things we can’t do, even with help. Hilliard short poems are in that second circle, which is called “The Zone of Proximal Development”; we can almost stay with them, almost understand, but we need some guidance to truly see what’s happening holistically. It’s a nice space: challenging yet a few things to make us feel comfortable. A lot of experimental poetry is firmly and purposefully in that outside circle of “I can’t make sense of any of this,” and Hilliard doesn’t touch that realm, even when leaving us wondering. Here’s an example of a short poem in its entirety called “DOING TOO MUCH LIGHT (FANTASTIC !)”:

    Shhhkmrp in2o need’s freeze , where i apologize
4 any gold standardsa goodness , which darn’t like
       the party’s going around to toast amid
     American red eyed mourning .

       There is a list of things to forget about
  the beer , the nearbeer , the queer unfurling experience
of having had come a – top the Jumbotron’s earILY
    loud arguments 4or sugar ,
    for the presence uv sugar , for what lies fallow
    of full food certification .

    I’m exhausted by “ light .” “ Fun ,” too .

The gub ’ mint will not stop shutting
  up abt my problems & I still need to sober
   my problems , drive amid them ,
    & ice down the party before it goes limp
in choppy morning waves .

This poem is difficult, though not impossible. We just need some touchstones, some guidance. Though even without help, we can enjoy the language, the shifting, the phonetics. Who doesn’t love “gub ‘ mint”? But poems like this one in the book do lack a depth. That’s not a critique. They have different goals, or no goal, and that’s fine. It’s time to let poetry exist.

Maybe that’s the beauty of MissSettl: it takes on seriousness with the voice your parents used when they were “serious” but adopting that voice inherently means it all as a joke … but frfr. MissSettl uses big words and made-up words because they’re all the same. MissSettl explores first loves, sexual identity, identity, the absurdity of definition, and is constantly seeking to exist without the need for definition, without the need for justification. It’s ironic that so much slang and oddity in poetry must be considered experimental, so much punctuation play considered weird, different, new, but Hilliard isn’t interested in those ideas and instead just want language to be able to be what it wants to be, which is always played with, always evolving.

In the end, MissSettl is like a book by a modern, person of color version of e e cummings if it had only his love, erotica, and “next to of course god”-esuq poems in it. It’s malicious if you’re prejudice, it’s warm if you’re a lover, it’s awake if you got a drive, it’s asleep if you’re laying in the shade. But it’s also difficult. It resists being yours in a way great poems feel like they belong to you, like they’re inside you. Not to say MissSettl isn’t great, but it’s the kind that keeps its own ownership. It’s the kind that allows you into their house, but asks you leave when they want. It is a book for itself. A book for Hilliard. And I love it for that.

MissSettl, by Kamden Ishmael Hilliard. Brooklyn, New York: Nightboat Books, June 2022. 96 pages. $16.95, paper.

Jacob Collins-Wilson writes reviews, poetry, and is working on a novel. He also builds furniture and homes. You can reach him at emailingjacob@gmail.com.

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