The cynic (or is it the realist?) may look at Sarah Blake’s first volume of poetry, “Mr. West,” with a skeptical eye toward its interest in pop culture: The book is about Kanye West. It is also about contemporary media, motherhood, appropriation, infatuation and race. But it is mainly about Kanye West. Yet neither the cynic nor the realist need worry that Blake is merely using that mercurial genius as an attention-grabbing gimmick. No, “Mr. West” is a book that is in utterly good faith. That doesn’t quite make it a good book, however.
The first poem, a prologue, is titled (with characteristically prosaic plainness) “ ‘Runaway’ Premieres in Los Angeles on October 18, 2010.” It begins with an epigraph from MTV.com in which Kanye speaks about the dearth of women in his life after the death of his mother. Next follow the first words from Blake herself, and they are not propitious: “Kanye is 33. If he were Jesus, he would die this year, / and be resurrected.” In a self-dialogue, Blake responds portentously: “I can’t unthink this thought.” That’s too bad, because the emphasis on Kanye as a martyr and a divine figure is the least compelling part of the book.
Near the end of the poem Blake reveals, “I am two months pregnant,” and answers herself in a final line: “The two of you, tied to this week in my life.” But this is to start in medias res. Blake’s real beginning, after the prologue, is a strong one. Most people who write about rap feel the need to share their origin story, situating themselves in a culture — where you were when you first heard what. In “Like the Poems Do” there is a brisk naïve version of this tradition that brings dry humor to its honesty: “I grew up saying, I listen to everything but country / and rap.”
Yet Blake’s status as a novice has its advantages, all the more so as she is undefensive about it. For one, she avoids the corny use of hip-hop slang out of context. For another, she is engaged in discovering her subject, rather than insinuating, as does many a putative expert, that she already knows it all: “Another / way to say beautiful things that I have learned tonight.” Everything reminds her of Kanye: Italy, musical terms beginning with con, Horus and Paris and Hades, Adam and Eve and the Minotaur. (She is also good at lists.) A drive “along the Juniata” yields “a rock face / following a bend in the road,” which brings forth talk of God — “But first I thought of Kanye’s head / singing, singing, singing into that rock.” When she “can’t draw a parallel today between you and the branch I saw on the sidewalk,” she realizes “some days I shouldn’t write about you.”
The central connection Blake makes (and the main strength of the book) is between herself, as impending mother to a son, and Kanye’s mother, Dr. Donda West. A touching elegiac strain is evident throughout these poems of motherhood, although in this triangle of affection, with the two women as the base, Kanye is still the uppermost point: “Donda made it seem easy in her memoir. / To love Kanye. To unconditionally love him.” There is Donda’s concern for Kanye after his infamous post-Katrina remark (“George Bush doesn’t care about black people”) and the delicacy with which she holds his head after his car accident, not letting on how bad his swollen face looks: “She controlled her expressions. . . . / Women are familiar with how not to scare / someone who’s in danger.” Dr. West’s example brings Blake some prenatal fears: “I’m afraid I will be a horrible mother because / I am a horrible woman.”