Everything I love stands with death
at its heels so let me just tell you the truth:
I am bitter. I do not get to leave…
From “Poem at the End of the World (or Last Week’s Dream)”
It’s no surprise that the back matter for Karisma Price’s phenomenal debut, I’m Always So Serious, includes extensive praise from numerous award-winning poets. To put it simply, Price offers a collection that should be in the running for every poetry award available this year. She writes with incredible precision, yet every poem feels impossibly natural, almost inevitable, as though the words were only ever meant to exist exactly as Price arranges them. I’m Always So Serious is among the best debuts in American poetry, and Price has established herself as one of the most preeminent voices of her generation.
The collection takes its title from a series of poems carrying the same name, each one compounding on the traumas that Price embodies. The first poem in the series begins with a dream in which the speaker longs to own a mansion in New Orleans. As the poem progresses, Price uses metacommentary to explain that
Looking back, this poem
was only supposed to
be about my sinuses,
how, even in my dreams,
I sneeze at the sight
of untended weeds, flowers…
The speaker goes on to say that “The nightmare is supposed to be my allergies,” but every time she sees the rocking chair on the porch, she sees “blood. It rocks like a heart-/beat running from whatever/is inside that mansion,/or behind it with a whip.” The effect is chilling, as Price exemplifies what she means by the title, finding herself unable to write a poem without generations of trauma and violence inserting themselves into the lines.
One of my favorite elements in I’m Always So Serious is Price’s use of litany. While list poems can feel disjointed and lack rhythm, Price employs the form brilliantly. In “Self-Portrait,” Price builds tension as the list lengthens, offering brief phrases filled with power and history. The speaker describes herself as “the wailing tambourine/that replaced [her] uncle’s gun,” as well as “a poem that doesn’t mention/the word father or water or drowned.” Returning to these images after a first read, it becomes clear that Price writes the poem toward an idealized or aspirational version of the self, one that she comes ever closer to as the collection progresses.
I’m Always So Serious ultimately resists the brevity of a review, as every page offers phrases or images that beg to be shared. “Prelude to Separation” is a haunting poem about burying the speaker’s grandmother, only to be forced to leave her behind when a storm approaches Mississippi. As the family leaves her body behind, the speaker laments, “God does not slap the ground./The audacity. He won’t break it open.” Later in the collection, the speaker in “This Is a Song for the Good Girl (or the Lonely)” remarks,
What is a man but a pocket
full of rose thorns
They are always so afraid to bleed
I do it without being asked
Even the lack of punctuation in the poem resounds, harkening back to the final lines of “After the 1916 Film,” in which the speaker explains, “I scare away all the punctuation//I am a sentence that is not allowed to end”
Karisma Price puts forth a collection far beyond what any reader expects from a debut, writing with technical mastery and a profound understanding of the human condition. I’m Always So Serious is a book you won’t want to put down, one that you’ll feel desperate to share and reluctant to part with, even after you’ve read it half a dozen times.