Connie Voisine, Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream, University of Chicago Press
At its best, Connie Voisine’s Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream is a probing second volume from a gripping poet. Two of the book’s strongest poems are also among its shortest: “The Invisible Man Remained” (which charges into visibility with the word “invisible”) and “Love Poem” (which features careful tercets, ending with a proclamation about animals, who, according to Voisine, “believed this pour / was absorbed by the grasses and trees, geraniums, / air, and see how much and why I lose myself to you”).
Too, I find myself enjoying Voisine’s typographical experiments: instead of feeling contrived, as formatting idiosyncrasies sometimes feel, Voisine’s demonstrate a useful relationship between form and content that well serves each poem that they are employed in. Take, for example, the following selection from a stanza in “The Bird is Her Reason”:
You must know
how, in adulterous love,
one begins to feel fatal, beautiful. The edges of your body
become a tense meniscus and
in a kind of pain you fear this love
can only lead to death—
In this selection, not only do the carefully strung lines well embody the sense of “a tense meniscus,” but the word “death,” too, is effectively enacted by the dash that follows it. This language is meticulously selected: for instance, the word “pain” is usefully modified by the phrase “a kind of,” resulting in a tone that is capable of sustaining loaded words like “love,” “fatal,” “beautiful,” “body,” “death,” and even “pain” itself. This tone is significantly bolstered by Voisine’s formatting decisions. The narrative and the lyric merge here: we are always conscious that a story is being told, but the white space nestled within that story draws our attention to the silences that breed it and the well-developed lines it contains.
At its weakest, though, Voisine’s otherwise captivating volume slips into belabored meandering. While the weaker poems in the volume do manage to display Voisine’s able grasp of the narrative poem, their shortcoming lies in the way that their reader can feel their muscles strain: the conjunction between the narrative and the lyric, in other words, is not always fully realized. Lines like, “The world was a dark scroll unrolling beneath / and the plane could become a vehicle you’d use / the way a gnat uses its wings, with a three-dimensional / fluidity and the world might feel to you / the way water must feel to a dolphin” (from “The Early Days of Aviation”) puff up, filling with the audible effort to portray a sense of the vast and crucial.
The reason these few bloated lines strike such a discordant note is that many of Voisine’s poems do effectively convey this sense: the feeling that to read them is to teeter dangerously close to an important revelation. When Voisine successfully accomplishes this—as, in fact, she does often—it is when she does not seem to be trying, as is the case through much of “WeatherCam—the Horizon,” which begins unassumingly:
On the ten o’clock news, the weatherman replays the florid day on a loop
filed from the top of the News Center Building, plays and super speeds
that whole day. Suppose he played the real one—the man at the Rainbow Mart
singing country with K-BUL . . .
We know that we are reading something quite important: yet, we are not overtly told what it is. After this opening, Voisine embarks on a lengthy catalogue, which falters in a quasi-Whitmanian landscape—although, unlike Whitman’s, Voisine’s catalogues seem unnecessary. In the stage setting of “WeatherCam—the Horizon,” there are “wet rotten leaves pulled from beds of irises in the alleyway” and there is “chaos blooming,” nestled amidst “the marrying of ketchups” and “the polishing of shoes,” drumming home—with perhaps a few more strokes of the hammer than necessary—the greater sense of an “undoing.” After a certain point that is fittingly punctuated by the word “undoing,” this poem loses itself in its megaphone, completing its overwrought terrain with a “newscaster who weeps while she announces: there are babies / just unburied, alive, you can claim them at the corner of . . .”
The subsequent stanza slides by, and after it, Voisine deftly recaptures the reader’s attention with a sharp dash, which is followed by a new stanza that begins with the word “no”:
no, he shows us the day from the point of view of the WeatherCam,
pointed at the horizon: a narrow cloud or two whizzes by,
the blue shifts in place like a woman who cannot bear her
body, and we are overcome by how even these sterling, western
heavens change, how at dusk the traffic below stills to a bright sluice
as the sun abandons its chase—the skyscrapers, the highways,
the glowing dome of the State House.
Here is Voisine’s vision and capacity for poetic storytelling crystallized into crucial details: details that fall comfortably into a category best characterized by James McMichael, who calls Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream a book that “generates and sustains a momentum all its own,” a book that is “as down to earth as what we all walk on.” In these couplets, Voisine accomplishes something rare: the feat of generating a world that is both uniquely her own and is populated with details that a broad readership could easily picture. The word “no” is a pivot: we return not only to the narrative of the weatherman, but also to the larger narrative of “shifts in place.” We leave behind the world of the overdramatized sobbing newscaster and the catalogue in which she is housed, a catalogue that seems to try too hard to become part of a Modernist–Post Modernist tradition in which there must, it seems, be at least one set of rotting leaves in every text. In leaving the earlier tone, we enter forcefully into the universal sense of a body that is “overcome,” a body which—like the WeatherCam that drives the narrative—scrolls along a horizon filled with the recognizable (“the glowing dome of the State House”) tinged with a sense of the brand new (“these sterling, western heavens,” “the traffic below stills to a bright sluice”).
Voisine sustains this tone successfully through the rest of “WeatherCam—the Horizon.” Although she occasionally provides a few details that bog down the pace of the text instead of promoting its central actions and concerns (an “artist’s sketch of a young, / thin, Caucasian man seen leaving a truck” is one strangely politically-correct example), she deftly builds the poem toward its conclusion:
[ . . . ] the smaller things that we will
never mention now, take us through to the other edge of the day
where we will see what the weatherman knew all along: the locust
and magnolia flowers, still tender, more bud than bloom, crisp
and dying on a branch’s sheath of snow, the skies, again, that forgetful blue.
Perhaps the secret to Voisine’s work lies in the first couplet I have printed above: the reason some of Voisine’s details are excessive is because they belong to the category of “things that we will / never mention now,” and by mentioning them, Voisine breaks her own poetic pact. The primary purpose of these “smaller things” is to “take us through to the other edge”; and yet, when Voisine names them, endows them with lengthy catalogues in which to feed and grow fat, they overcrowd her more subtle craft, which reveals itself in stanzas and lines where those such “smaller things” are notably absent.
If there were fewer bloated details—if those details were pushed to the background, giving the reader a sense of unrest as opposed to painting a vivid, Baroque image that screams, “There is unrest here!”—Voisine would consistently dazzle, as she does in much of “WeatherCam—the Horizon,” in “Love Poem,” in “The Invisible Man Remained.” At times, too, the poems seem to work too hard to belong to the Literary Canon, with a capital L and a capital C. In “The Early Days of Aviation,” there are lines of intelligently executed perception, introspection, and revelation, such as “I could tell you this was the year that I too / flew through a darkness, but at the time / I only felt ugly, inarticulate.” However, this reader finds herself disappointed when such moments blur amidst others whose greater purpose appears to be a sort of catcall to canonized literary and philosophical motifs. Take, for example, the following lines:
The world was a dark scroll unrolling beneath
and the plan could become a vehicle you’d use
the way a gnat uses its wings, with a three-dimensional
fluidity and the world might feel to you
the way water must feel to a dolphin.
It was too cold in that hotel, wind
snaked through the cracked-framed windows
and faded drapes.
The impulse here to define the “world,” the references to a “gnat” and a “dolphin,” the mention of an edifice in disrepair and a wind that “snaked” amidst “cracked-framed windows” and “faded drapes”: this section envisions itself within a canon where such images and references are historically engaged, and suffers from it. One gets the sense that Voisine has included so many literary references in her volume in order to anchor her world in other worlds that have somehow gained a sought-after legitimacy—in other poems, we meet hawks, snakes, apples, Isabelle Archer, David Copperfield, Marie de France, Coleridge, and Keats, to name a few—rather than including them because they are vital to her poems. In truth, in its finest moments, Voisine’s work is strong enough to stand without these allusions—their invocations, as a result, can easily be interpreted as manifestations of insecurity as opposed to necessary in themselves.
I mentioned earlier that two of the strongest poems in this book are among the shortest ones. There is one poem that is a glaring exception to this rule: it is the book’s long poem, “First Taste.” I believe that the reason many of Voisine’s short poems are successful is because a short poem mandates excision: there is no room for excess in a piece that is so small. “First Taste” is far from a short poem—it is ten pages long, with six lengthy sections that feature tercets, with the exception of the concluding one-line stanza. It also continues to demonstrate Voisine’s ability to craft a narrative poem in a lyric voice, and is a highly intelligent text with memorable and crucial moments—Voisine’s particular gift for rich endings is especially rewarding here, as the long journey taken through the poem ends with:
[. . .] —but you entered it as one enters
water in the summer, without fear or guile—and the brief glory of the door
flung open, the whoosh of air through the subway car,
the in and through every suffering you felt fully and well,
this is what you try to recall, organize.
In a sense, however, “First Taste” is a short text, at least compared to what it might have been: as Nicholas Christopher notes, the poem is “rich and compressed as a novella.” “First Taste” is a short novel of sorts, compressed first by verse and second by Voisine’s knack for compression. The triumph of “First Taste” is a logical extension of the triumph of other instances of reduction by pressure, a phrase that suits Voisine well, and, tellingly, is a phrase that I have taken directly from the definition of what it means to “compress.”
In the words of Mr. Bones, the world of Voisine’s Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream is—like the title of the volume itself—stuffed. There is much to admire in this second volume from an unquestionably skilled poet, including Voisine’s aptitude for astonishing shifts, for crafting frank confessions for her speakers, and for both the narrative and the lyric sensibilities. This quality of stuffed-ness, however, accounts for both the highs and the lows of this book, which sometimes feels as though it is straining against its belt buckle with too much ingested and too much said. I found myself unable to write about this book without weaving back and forth between pleasure and critique—though I searched for a way to separate the positives from the negatives and discuss each category in turn, it is a credit to Voisine’s capacity for cohesion that such an interpretation was impossible. Voisine demands a reader who processes her poems with a full acknowledgment of the fact that her book is a complete organism: the individual poems in the volume function much like organs within a larger creature. When an organ falters, the entire organism feels it, and when an organ works well, so too does the organism. A reader of Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream must follow the instructions for reading that the book itself prescribes: to be immersed in all aspects of Voisine’s full-to-bursting volume.
Sumita Chakraborty is the Assistant Poetry Editor at AGNI Magazine. A resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts and a graduate of Wellesley College, she writes poems and criticism, and plans to pursue graduate studies in English literature in the future. She has a poem forthcoming in BOXCAR Poetry Review.