Say Them With Me: Disruptive Lyricism in Jos Charles’ a Year & other poems reviewed by Cassandra Whitaker

Say Them With Me: Disruptive Lyricism in Jos Charles’ a Year & other poems reviewed by Cassandra Whitaker
December 26, 2022 Cassandra Whitaker



“Say Them With Me: Disruptive Lyricism in Jos Charles’ a Year & other poems”

Jos Charles’ third collection, a Year & other poems (Milkweed, $22 ), is a movement of poems through loss, bookended by poems that both frame, reflect and revisit the title poem, “a Year”, composed in disruptive lyrics, by month.  Through syntax and arrangement, Charles’ poems impose grief’s disruption upon language, mimicking how grief disrupts, while using lyric to balance or undercut grief’s weight; natural and city landscapes provide emotional perspective, both diminishing the speaker while providing relief from grief.


If one thinks of Feeld as self-translation (into Chaucerian internet English), then one might think of a Year&  other poems as self-erasure. One could also think of a Year & other poems as a companion collection to Feeld, the National Poetry Prize Winner and Pulitzer Prize Finalist[1].  Many of the poems in a Year were composed in 2016, their final forms beginning to firm up as far back as 2017[2], before further revisions that ultimately comprise “a Year”. Both books upend readers’ expectations. And like the poems in Feeld, the poems of a Year are best read aloud; a gift from the poet to the reader. The exclusion of punctuation forces the reader to consider the images, the position of images in relation to each other, and (often) implied context. This brief interruption forces the reader to reorient and re-read, re-imagine. The poem, and the collection as a whole, aches.


Many of the poems of  “a Year” employ side-by-side imagery/lines, which impose a kind of existential game upon the reader, a playful kind of agitation: do we have a rhetorical balance, a comparison or contrast, an associative leap, or an equivocation?  Sometimes this brief disorientation to assess meaning is dependent on the meaning readers assign to language and syntax. In the poem “I had not”, from “February”, contains the line “I wore bathing suits still on the porch of the world”, which without punctuation is an invitation for the reader to play, assigning the modifier “still” to either the subject “I” or the prepositional phrase “on the porch of the world”, or perhaps both. Still implies both time and lack of motion, or perhaps both, which those who have grieved can identify with. Charles also uses side-by-side positioning of language for equivocation. In “April”, the poem “The river is cold” the poet folds space by describing poetry as a “room” with “a charwoman/at its feet”. The idea that a poem/the poem employs a woman to clean it is a remarkable image/concept on its own, one that pushes back the patriarchy. When Charles sidles up the expanse of the sky to poetry’s feet by placing the images together side by side without punctuation, “at its feet   Under the blue blue sky”, the poetic gesture both suggests that poetry is bigger than nature and at the same time so much smaller, subservient even, to the everlasting sky. This poem ends, “Dead things/sink in the sky alive”, an ending that forces reorientation to determine the syntactical meaning of sink, while considering the opposing “dead” and the “sky alive”. Creation is nature, Charles reminds, and sometimes nature’s work is repurposing of life, and reminding one of one’s place in the universe.


The syntactical disruption also reflects and centers transness; queerness is at the heart of her work, expressed by form. To be queer in cishet culture is to do the work of what Hil Malatino calls disorientation[3], where we are “pushed to confront, over and over again, how the world in which we find ourselves is constructed in ways that refuse, exclude, elide, or overwrite our sense of existence…how we cultivate a tolerance for such repetitive and insistent moments of disorientation“. Just as the speaker must orient her experience throughout “a Year”, so must the reader.  At times, “a Year” feels like Dante moving through an emotional hell, for besides grief the speaker struggles with the “madness” of moving, trying to find a job in transphobic America, the 2016 election, all while doing it without the dear love of chosen family.


The serial poem, “a Year” is a reorientation towards hope, in segments that chronicle grief, a move, and early transition. The death and suffering of chosen family members is the emotional exigency of the collection and the title poem ”a Year”. Identified in the second poem in “January”, Charles’ friends are dead or struggling, “Rosemary/dead  Naomi at the clinic/Leah in hospice in bed/ & debt”, the “you” populating many of these poems, a dear unnamed love. Because they are so brief, the early poems shimmer like a fever dream, hallucinatory, sometimes absurd, as time elongates with loss, the speaker coming to as if lost, “Months/I move in you”. Is absence emptiness? Can grief be overcome? Is there enough love? Charles doesn’t answer, only illuminates. Charles’ lyrics gesture towards hope, exemplified by Charles’s penchant for extending a line out into the whitespace of the page like a handshake or a lifeline in the middle of poems that are both profoundly sad and hopeful.


The poems of “a Year” either gesture towards lyric, or embrace lyric earnestly. Either impulse functions to keep the elegies aloft, from becoming too heavy with loss, becoming windows for Charles’ warmth and playfulness to enter. In the poem “Gone mad for weeks I linger”, from “May”, Charles uses both perfect and off rhyme in the lines “Awake absenting the here I make   A man asks me to feint///Asked to eat a peach on screen   I write for days my love///is like a raven o’er the flood (& there is never not a flood)” lines that suggest both temporal dissociation and a possible questionable, transactional, online relationship. The peach and the raven, of course, poetic winks, the implication of feint, that choice to repeat “flood” in the same line, keep the content, light, diverting and distancing from “the madness” of the poem’s exigency, a move, financial woe, lingering grief, and hormonal changes.  In the opening poem of “February”, Charles addresses “you”, the dead, “Heard a pool deflate/On Monday you would be/twenty-eight”, a rhyme that invokes love and whimsy in the same gesture as it invokes elegy, before pivoting to an incongruous image, real-life absurdity, “Open///door electric fan in it”, a moment where the mundane becomes a touchstone of grief, a moment where if the friend were alive, would be a connection, a laugh, shared happiness.


Throughout “a Year” Grief’s many emotional registers are present, including anger.  Early on, a poet “throws a book” into “a thresher”, perhaps a self-referential image or commentary about the poetry community, or perhaps simply a gesture of grief and futility for when a loved one is lost, even art cannot move us to forget the loss.  Later,  in the poem from “March”, Charles recalls the act of creation, one suggesting frustration and suppression:


The hour has an understory
I was a child pulling grass in the understory
dissembling until we met  When I’d
pull branch to ledge & sing all
afternoon one song
atop another


In this short lyric, anger flashes as the speaker tears grass out of the field, singing as children sing; for in this poem the child hides, and does not emerge until after the genesis of the relationship with a dear loved one. Before this relationship, the speaker was naive, hidden, and closeted. Charles undercuts this suppressed anger with the act of creation, song; it is one of the many times the poet reminds that agency can be found in creation, and that creation can heal, despite anger, despite powerlessness.


Hope in the collection often turns up green, the speaker finding solace, wonder, delight, and perspective in nature.  Nature both diminishes humanity and validates humanity. In “February”, “mesquite trees” are equated with the “afterlife”, and in “December” there are mountains that “mind even us”, a hopeful strength in a world where the sky is “ashen”. When the speaker addresses a loved one,  “You touch/the stone it could be any/stone   I live on”, the poet employs the image of stone illustrating comfort, closeness, intimacy, and also diminished ego, distance, and coldness.  Nature reminds the speaker of how grief affects not only our experience with physical spaces, finding perspective in contrast to the vastness of space but also of how grief affects our experience of time, how it elongates and becomes a measurement, “were you alive/last when it rained” Charles asks in October, ten months into Rosemary’s death. Charles does not answer. In one of the more whimsical and haunting lyrics, the poet synthesizes nature, art, memory, and grief in the opening poem from “April”:


I put you in a poem
You climbed the giantest tree


I put a dozen grapefruit into a tree
You ate every one There is a letter


in a desk I cannot know
One day I will


The unread, unknown letter, all that goes unspoken between two people who love each other waits.  A future anxiety that only can be satisfied by a Christian framework of the afterlife, a framework Charles pushes back against, subtly offering up the craft of poetry as the framework to navigate grief instead. The whimsical choice of “giantest”, the joyful action of eating fruit, of which there are 12, balances elegy.  This poem is later reflected in “A Fantasy”, at the end of the collection, a dynamic poem about climbing a tree, the use of gerunds engendering a breathlessness to the poem, a cathartic joy.  In both, the speaker, the child, is diminished by the enormity of the tree, and the act of climbing is an act of transformation.


Visually, the white space of a Year entrances, a kind of emptiness contains the poems. When one looks at the physicality of the poesy, the shape of the poems, at times, resemble silhouettes of buildings against the sky, or perhaps windows in the houses along the street where the poet lives; content suggests the latter, for often Charles’ speaker wanders the streets processing loss. Coupled with the wandering/discursive quality of Charles’s prosody, the lack of syntactic cues, it’s hard not to think of the poetess walking around in the dominant white space, the desert, where bright sunshine and heat oppress the arid landscape. This visual quality adds to the enormity of the expressed grief and draws the reader toward the text. Additionally, Charles chooses to double space many of the poems in a Year, amplifying sparseness and emptiness. A comment on California? A comment on late-stage capitalist America? A reflection of grief’s cognitive patterns? Charles may mean all of these and none of these, instead driven by aesthetics, which is largely how the prosody operates, via white space, the poems are crafted as if they are made of light, and in a sense, they are lanterns for the lost that Charles holds high, gesturing over here, over here, the coming darkness imminent.


The opening suite of the collection, three poems, written in 2020, serves as a kind prelude to “A Year”, harmonizing with the collection’s themes. The landscape of the poems are sparse with trees, lit with city lights, Christmas lights, where language can sculpt ”a mountain cut out of the sky” but is also  weighted with the “names of the dead.” Charles composes “it could not matter less if you look/where up from floors restingless plotless green” a delirious syntactic folding of space, looking up from the floor at the Christmas lights “loom<ing>…a yoke…”.  The newer poems of the collection remind agency is achieved with language, freedom is there if you can name it, for “words might sculpt sculpt midair”; out of this grief arises song. The opening poems position the speaker in contrast with nature, and human nature’s nature, a city, a house, spaces populated by bodies and made empty by the absence of the body of the speaker who in each of the three poems is either arriving or departing or both, appropriately, as the speaker of “a Year” is often on the move. The speaker is tiny, oppressed by the enormity of grief and healing and the enormity of the physical space.  The “other” poems, at the end of the collection. gesture beyond the serial poem “a Year”, often addressing language, and form, a sub-theme of “a Year”.  Placed at the end of the book, one cannot help but hear the echoes of “a Year”, but only one of the poems in the final section seems to be a true epilogue, “A NOTE on language”, where the speaker realizes that she “Never having lived/among but beside form/I no longer look where/the city lifts a little further” an image that synthesizes queerness/transness and the craft of poetry with the word “form”, a self-accepting appraisal and gesture outwards to the natural world, the choice of “lifting” is a hopeful gesture towards flight and freedom. In those final poems, grief is no longer “weather” but “atmosphere”, the poet gestures up towards the stars, as if returning from the underworld, changed.


Once Jos Charles described herself as an agitator, and a Year &  Other Poems continues to agitate, the use of adjacent lines and imagery force readers to reorient their experience to navigate the poems as the speaker navigates grief. Through disruptive lyrics, Charles challenges and invites readers to read the poems aloud to experience them, a gesture of love and openness, acceptance and warmth, say them with me, participate in my experience, participate in my humanity, say them with me.

[1]Robbed , I say, robbed of a Pulitzer. Aaron Smith and James Allen Hall warmly summed it up on The Breaking Form podcast episode, “Aaron Awards the Pulitzers”: “Jos Charles…would have been such an inspired award” for the reinvention of language. “Name another book that as original or does that. No, there’s just nothing.”

[2] From the reading at The University of Arizona Poetry Center, Jos Charles, July 27, 2017, (

[3] Side Affects: On Being Trans and Feeling Bad, by Hil Malatino, University of Minnesota Press, 2022.

Cassandra Whitaker (they/them) is a trans writer from Virginia whose work has been published, or is forthcoming, in  Michigan Quarterly Review, The Mississippi Review, Foglifter, Whale Road Review, Conjunctions, Evergreen Review, and other places.