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Review – poems for my fbi agent by Charlotte Geater

If ever I needed a distraction, it’s now. I have never needed poems more than I have this past year, as the isolating effects of the Covid-19 outbreak continue to sink in. It’s almost difficult to read Geater’s debut pamphlet poems for my fbi agent (Bad Betty Press) at this time, such is the dark and surrealist nature of the work, but the poems lift so effortlessly from the page – are so musical, human, and satiric – it’s hard not to be drawn in:

my FBI agent is underpaid & would like to sell
my soul/data/camera roll
               but i never do anything interesting.
my agent has never made
          love on the clock, is nearsighted
and shaky with a gun.

(‘sympathy for my FBI agent’)

This journeying into the Lynchian world of a near-useless agent and the poet they pursue is welcome escapism. Yet there are deep ties to reality, and the socially isolated ‘norms’ we’ve all come to accept. It’s like reading about the two loneliest souls on Earth – and this is the sad, yet brilliant, humour of the book. The world-weariness that underpins the concise, delicately poised language these poems use to describe the agent’s and poet’s encounters – though fantastical on the surface – is both comic and relatable. Indeed, I recognise my own worn and repetitive self, particularly in the speaker. Some moments echo what was once my own declining mental health, and will surely resonate with other readers too:

let me know if you’re finding it difficult to see
or if anything about my current set up
or tone of voice
makes it hard for you to interpret the feeling
of any particular scene
in front of you

like the mint plant in the kitchen

i am desperately trying to keep alive

(‘i tell my FBI agent an old communist joke’)

The book isn’t just about a poet and their FBI agent, of course (but nothing is obvious here). The agent wants to know so much about the poet, and yet the poet already knows so much about the agent: agent is tired yet persistent in their efforts; poet is sexually charged and ‘stripped down’ for access (‘my FBI agent watches me take off my shirt’). The two are connected; their story is one long breath, exhaled from the first poem to the last.

As with every new book of poems, I’m looking for collective depth. In some books, you unfortunately never actually find it but, with Geater, it’s there from the beginning. I love how many readings this pamphlet can take. My first was for the sheer pull of syntax. I’m on my fifth now, and I’m still unpicking the tenuous lace that interconnects each poem.

Scattered on many pages throughout this book, I have written the phrase: ‘they want to be seen’, and perhaps this is the depth at the heart of it. The more I read poems for my fbi agent, the more poignant it becomes. As well as being wonderfully funny at times, disturbing at others, it is deeply moving: a flagship in the dark asking ‘did you know there’s a world / out there’ (‘my FBI agent watches me take off my shirt’)? A world which the speaker, perhaps, longs to be a part of.

There’s a crying out of the human soul here. Of needing to be seen. Distance – and the cold reality of social media – is a central theme, and begs the question: how far removed from ourselves or each other have we become? Who are we in this online world; what marks do we make, and what do we lose?:

an archive of keystrokes / is that what you see
and I wonder what red means to data. i wonder about loss, about

the losses that you know …

(‘my FBI agent talks me through my facebook ad settings’)

As the collection advances, the poems become more flesh-like, graphic, almost sinister: ‘the rest of my character / is soft flesh, my beating // the moment your knife knicks’ (‘my FBI tells me about the bureau’s diversity policy’). This is a crucial shift in tone. Initially, Geater lulls you in with wit and tenderness, and then, unapologetically, homes in on real human pain. There’s a dismemberment of sorts: a dismantling and re-mantling of the physical and spiritual form:

form is form is /
drop down to me on your knees

and say: i am older now

and my heart is a soft hiccup
and you can tell who i am from my voice
and some mornings would have murdered me for it
and some days would favour

me with a pink token, a rash of flowers
and say:

my lady, i see you for the thing you are
and it is for you i fight

(‘my FBI agent tells me about the bureau’s diversity policy’)

There’s a real, romantic ache within this collection, carefully intermingled with obsession, mental instability, and some violence too. Geater has crafted a sickly, surrealist pull reminiscent of that in Kafka’s The Trial – a world at once unrecognisable and recognised. A similar question is posed in both books: will the speaker ever be free? The final poem releases a glittering sense of both letting go and being freed, though there’s a downfall. It’s a surprising close: echoing ill-fated voyagers, from the Ancient Mariner to Amelia Earhart, but this final, twisted bind is beautiful. It’s here, in the closing lines, that I feel FBI agent and poet – the seeing, and seen – suddenly fuse into one. And then I wonder: perhaps they always were?

Helen Calcutt is a poet, essayist, and professional dance artist. She is the author of three volumes of poetry. Her latest, Somehow (Verve Poetry, 2020), was a PBS Winter Bulletin pamphlet 2020, and a Poetry School Book of the Year 2020 (longlist). 

poems for my fbi agent, Charlotte Geater (Bad Betty Press)

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