My Kafka Century
Arielle Greenberg
Action Books, $12

Classic fairy tales are almost always cautionary, but they offer scant solace: even if you avoid getting eaten by the witch, you will still be living in a black forest filled with witches and worse. Arielle Greenberg’s My Kafka Century bristles with similarly grim threats and matter-of-fact strangeness. In “Me and Peter Lorre Down by the Schoolyard,” she writes in the voice of a pair of pederasts, detailing the garish excess of their methodology: “Know us, our terrible noses, our clown makeup: / we have no papers. We crawled out of the rat-hole.” As the title of the poem indicates, Greenberg is often as funny as she is frightening, and while she regularly references the tropes of folkloric horror, she is equally willing to add contemporary details and diction to her infernal potions. In “Shirley Temple, Black,” the poet receives a photo-portrait of the child star in which she “looked a little spooked,” and on which someone has written in script “that was supposed to be like a kid’s / but was more like a psychopath’s.” From there the speaker notes, “And I knew then that she was an ambassador to cannibals, / the entertainment director on my losingest cruise, / the shutters of my eyes banging on their ruffled hinges.” Greenberg’s poems often begin in whimsy and conclude in anxiety or terror, two tones she manages to induce with a preternatural calm, which in turn exacerbates rather than soothes the reader’s nerves. My Kafka Century is also as thick with the fog of Old Europe and the fate of its Jews, as the title would suggest—at one point the poet mentions how “the hole in my heart will gasp a song of old world violins”—but Greenberg expands upon this history to achieve a mastery of the dynamics of dread not limited to a single place or age. In “Honey,” she writes of being suffused “with time, / as another god passing through the many perfect / crypts and ambers I house beneath my skin.” It is in time, in these “crypts and ambers,” that Greenberg keeps treasures to inspire pleasure and nightmare both.