amphetamine heart

“Amphetamine Heart” by Liz Worth: profanity would only get in the way.

Amphetamine Heart (Guernica Editions, 2011) is poetry of experience. The poems in this book are intensely physical, bristling with visceral participles: hanging, waiting, convulsing, slavering, salivating, chewing, crawling, leaking. We are taken on a journey through the dark night of suffering through a seedy reality. It’s a rough ride in poems that are punch-to-the-gut real in language that is “raging/ uncontrollable/ hypnotic.”

With their very physical description of hard reality, these are strenuous poems. They are raw, but not ugly, voicing a kind of haunting, decaying beauty. Liz Worth has a skill for conjuring up scenes without being overly expository. Through vibrant imagery, she provides a whole history with a few words. By describing a t-shirt as “the barely-there threads,” she suggests a world of poverty, of marginal people in worn-out clothes without the resources to replace them, inhabiting an apartment that’s like a “cancerous womb” with “a mattress thrown in a corner.” We are gripped by a decadent world.

In spite of the grittiness of the reality, there is no complaining, no sentimentality. Although in a couple of pieces, such as “Boozecan” and “Sustain,” there is a sense of reaching bottom, of desperation, on the whole the characters in these poems are not victims of circumstance, instead there is an embracing of experience. There is no forcing, but a voluntary surrender: “Let the snake swallow me” Worth concedes (italics mine).

The whole book is dripping with sexual imagery and energy, and there are a few mentions of the “molecular thunder” of pharmaceuticals (even the book’s title Amphetamine Heart contains a drug reference), but the intent is not to titillate or shock. The personae here relate to the world in a physical way through sex. Although there is an occasional hint of a desperate sensuality, of greedy appetite in which “We devour stars”, there is a greater sense of people trying to connect to each other, and to reality, through sex, of taking comfort in physical contact. It’s not the sex or drugs that are important, but the craving for sensation: “I need your body heat,” “Just touch me,” Worth pleads (italics mine). There is also some sexual ambivalence, for while a few poems, such as “Caught,” are addressed to a woman, others are written without gender markers to an unidentified, androgynous ‘you.’

In this intensely experiential world, physical contact binds the self to reality, but it both frees and imprisons. The sex and drugs are used to disrupt reality, but they offer a false promise. “What pours into me pulls me back,” back into exactly what the persona intended to avoid: the bleak reality of dead ideas.

These poems go much deeper than mere obsession with sensual excitement. The need for sensation masks an inner life striving for expression. Throughout the book, a repressed inner being is trying to reach the surface, to breathe, to be free. The machinery of the real is breaking down and the true self is tunnelling out. This tension between the external and the internal is summed up in title, Amphetamine Heart: the dynamic relationship between sensation and emotion.

The struggle of the true self emerges as a search for an authentic existence. Physical sensation can capture “the illusion of an image, but not its essence.” For that essence we must descend into the unreal. Liz Worth presents us with a hallucinogenic world of “dying dreamscapes,” a time lived through dream imagery. This is writing from the edge of consciousness, that half-world between sleeping and waking. The dedication gives us a clue: “for my old friend insomnia.” We are led down tenuous trails in the dark, left balancing on the knife-edge of oblivion, striving towards a half-remembered desire. The line between sleeping and waking, between the dream and the real, is blurred.

Liz Worth uses unusual modifiers and surprising constructions to give tantalizing hints at suggested meanings—“to communicate / in ambulance shards”—creating language that evokes rather than explains in order to express things that can’t be said in ordinary language, the way the “geometric leopards crawl up our nasal passages.” She ingeniously involves the reader through simple shared experiences “like fingertips to a temple,” but takes them in unexpected directions: “poised and blurring into white spider legs.”

In spite of its otherworldliness, Worth doesn’t indulge in any high, formal, or obscure language. On the contrary, she uses very accessible expression, with conversational contractions and standard punctuation, making the poems engagingly readable.

Before the Thaw

Gone to hoard migratory bird bites,
she drew her parameters
around an empty stomach,
staked boundaries
so far north she froze out punctuation.
While searching for the meaning of beasts,
she was mugged by assertion;
that was how her movements came to be distributed by
tongue agitators and
hands of second sight.
In her expedition, before the thaw
she’d disturbed feathers,
broken tertiary planes,
breathed too heavy on coverts.
The oils of her oxygen tarnished the stems.
Previously they’d been polished with intuition;
she could only spread hypochondria,
rendering all time spent in soil
counteractive.

In a book dealing with marginal characters, one would expect some profanity (I’ve lived in a poor neighbourhood and, having heard the junkies and drug dealers arguing outside my window at two o’clock in the morning, I know how integral profanity is to their conversations), but there is none. This is not out of propriety or politeness, but simply because it is not necessary. Profanity would only distract and Liz Worth is interested in much more complex and intriguing language, in expressing meanings that go far beyond anything that could be conveyed with shallow profanity. Profane language keeps us on the surface and Worth wants us to peel back the skin, to feel the pulsing vein below the superficial.

The book writhes with an undercurrent of arcane references—Satanist youth, ritual, the tarot, second sight—bringing a sense of the strange and wonderful, of seeking the truth beyond the physical, of “mumbling truth and true intent.” The thrust of these poems, and the source of their strength, is in seeking freedom from the constraints of reality. The book rips the world open with “a gut hook knife”.

It’s unfortunate that the intensity of the content is not captured in the book’s cover. The cover is decorated with three small red hearts that on first glance look rather like Victorian valentine hearts. To judge the book by this cover, one would expect a volume of sentimental love poetry. The interior boasts some much bolder graphics.

The scenarios in Amphetamine Heart may delight you or scare the crap out of you—or both. If you want to be taken down strange pathways into half-envisioned insights, then Amphetamine Heart is the book to take you there.

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