In her tough and winning poems, Cecily Iddings presents an agreeable surface because she's required to by law. It's not quite as if she faces prison time for disobeying, but she's still under duress—though the law she labors under isn't written anywhere, its power is nonetheless tremendous: it governs which and whether people are “preferred” and thus comes to determine their “quality of life”: work offered, food eaten, friends shared, lovers loved, if any. Her code of conduct springs from the collision of the rigid, reifying logic of consumerism with the volatility of feeling inherent to all human interaction: she inhabits a mentality where one is forever preparing a face to meet the faces one meets, a society flattened, both online and in “real life,” to a game of strange exposures in which failure always feels pervasive and irreparable and “success,” if it ever comes, is fleeting and nebulous at best.
But this atmosphere or ambiance or theme is not what sets her poems apart—consciously or not, all contemporary poetry has to embody and reflect it to some extent, and not always for the better, aesthetically speaking. Instead, her verse derives its distinction and its durability from a careful, deft attention to phrasing and sound, an intelligence both daring and discreet, and above all else from a tone embedded in that music and that sense which can be best described as plucky—brave, smart, optimistic, but above all grounded. Though not especially guarded, her poems are nonetheless prepared—spinning and flipping between unhappy, playful, and politically reflective moods, vaulting from domestic to demented to demonic, they always hit the ground precisely and decisively. By being direct, definite, open, and unobtrusive, their performances of the first person singular become a conduit to shared experience; through the charm of mutual recognition they resist the isolation and disorientation they depict. If they accept the “self,” they accept it not as an atomic fact but as a challenge, as a presence with a history whose resolution lies beyond its bounds: only on the skewed and terrifying common ground of culture can the individual clarify her motives and potential for activity.
Of course, this calm, keen presentation of an open-ended “I,” this willingness on the part of the poet to transform her personality into a catalyst of popular reflection must bear some resemblance to curating self-shot photos on an online social network: the desire to be desired lies at the root of not just human language but contemporary image capital as well. Where Cecily's poems diverge from the culture that frames them and pervades their vision, though, is in her persistent exercise of distinctly unpopular faculties such as humility and what used to be called conscience—the influences of Bishop and Auden in her work are subtle yet unmistakable, as are those of certain female poets (Scalapino, Howe, Hejinian) affiliated with the Language movement. She plays with the line between the public life of poetry and corporate publicity not in order to erase it but to highlight its persistence: both cultivate anxiety, damage, and dissatisfaction for their own ends, but the impulses that drive each discourse are opposed to one another: the former's civic, generous, and recuperative, the latter's private, stingy, and sadistic. The strife between these modes of speech and action, as her poems demonstrate, can take place anywhere, on any scale (a city skyline, married life, a classroom, a stadium, a car ride) and their aesthetic force is based not in evading or eliding the conflict but in its confrontation and articulation. These poems, which seem so unassuming and eager to please on one's first reading, reveal themselves, examined once again at closer range, as labored, grim, and stung by the delight of common truth. In the end they look, to my mind, very likely to endure.
Cecily's first book, aptly titled Everyone Here, was published by Octopus Books in 2014. It's an honor and a joy to introduce her.