I Was Waiting To See What You Would Do First
by Angie Mazakis
Publishing Details: University of Arkansas Press, March 2020
Finalist, 2020 Miller Williams Poetry Prize
Like nesting dolls, the poems in I Was Waiting to See What You Would Do First contain scenes within scenes, inviting the reader over and over again to sharpen focus on minute details that, though small, reveal much about human perception and imagination.
Angie Mazakis handles these layers of revelation with great tenderness. Her poems wander in the way that a curious mind wanders, so that even though they often end very far from where they started, they are anchored in the familiar, referring to experiences we all share: a moment of distraction in a coffee shop imagining a conversation with someone across the room, or a narrative built around the expressions of the cartoon people on the airplane seatback safety guide.
Disclaimer: I went to school with the author of this book and consider her a friend. I still paid for the book on my own and have not been compensated in any way for my review, and I don’t believe my association with the author has colored my view of the book. But I thought you as readers should know about any potential bias.
When I first saw the title and cover of this book, I knew it was going to be amazing. The whole thing felt like it summed up my life: waiting, frozen, curled in the fetal position while the world exploded around me. I love poetry because it can convey that feeling of being deeply and completely understood with just a few words. In this case, with nothing more than a title.
What I Liked:
I find it so difficult to talk about poetry, which is probably not a great sign that my Master’s education in poetry did a whole lot for me. But I think it’s because poems like Angie’s speak to something inside you that you aren’t quite ready to acknowledge in yourself, so it can be difficult to explain why they work. But I’ll give it a shot, because this book is incredibly special and I want to do it justice.
I Was Waiting to See What You Would Do First does three things incredibly well: unique vehicles, flow, and perfectly integrated humor.
Okay, let me explain what I mean by unique vehicles. Poems are ideas and feelings and images, and they need to be carried to the reader in a vehicle of some kind. Some poems read like a diary, for instance, or I’m sure you’ve seen the trendy “voicemail poems.” It’s sort of like form, except some poems can have a very particular vehicle without necessarily being a form of any kind. For example, “Variable Expressions” from this book uses facial expressions to talk about loneliness and the chasm of distance from one human to another. It isn’t written in form, but it has a very particular angle that it uses to get its point across, and that’s something Mazakis does incredibly well throughout the whole book.
Each poem comes to you from its own existence. It is a world unto itself and you are simply allowed to immerse yourself in it for as long as you like. “Illusions of Self-Motion” explores the narratives we tell ourselves that may or may not be truly real through various illusions that humans experience where they think they are moving when they really aren’t. “RFI (Request for Information)” uses a request for information form as a way to express a desperate need for their to be meaning and order in the world. Each poem is uniquely its own, and that was wonderful to read.
That comment might make it sound like the book must be disjointed, merely a collection of poems that don’t necessarily go together, but that’s not the case at all. The different vehicles of each poem make them distinct from one another, but there is a consistent tone throughout that ties the book together.
I’m not sure it’s possible to describe the tone of a book of poetry without using metaphor, but I’ll try: the tone of I Was Waiting to See What You Would Do First is hesitant and a bit sad, like the title implies. The whole book feels like the speaker is tentatively speaking into a void, half hopeful that they won’t be heard, and half hopeful that they will.
This is seen in so many ways. The consistent use of facial expressions rather than dialogue or action, the recurring theme of hypothetical situations, and the constant questioning of the speaker, for starters. It’s beautiful, because that’s how life really is, for me anyway. Life isn’t definitive action, it’s thinking and thinking and overthinking, and then overthinking that overthinking. These poems might not reflect how we act, but they are an amazing window into how we process our lives.
Finally, if this is seeming a bit heavy or pretentious, I assure you it isn’t. Because Mazakis is the queen of the wry edge. Where some poets might stray into the self-indulgent or self-pitying, Mazakis uses her wit to keep the poem from descending into angst. Instead, many of her poems ride that line where you don’t know if it’s going to make you laugh or cry. Maybe both.
What I Disliked:
I promise I will stop doing this someday, but it’s impossible for me to pinpoint anything wrong with this collection. Each poem is beautiful on its own, and they are even more beautiful together. I finished the book and came away feeling like I needed to create something, or call my mom, or have a good cry, and that is what good poetry does. It’s an incredible book, and if you have any interest in poetry at all, I cannot recommend it enough.
You Might Like This Book If…
- …you love poetry
- …you’re just starting to process some trauma and want a poetic guide
- …you often feel like you’re waiting, trapped, or regretful
- …you are a classic overthinker who just wants someone to commiserate with