Colosseum, Katie Ford, Graywolf Press
In an essay titled Against Sincerity from her collection of essays Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry, Louise Glück writes that poetic truth is importantly distinguishable from “honesty and sincerity.” She explains that honesty and sincerity connote a sense of “‘telling the truth,’ which is not necessarily the path to illumination.” She offers a definition of “actuality”—“the world of the event”—and goes on to suggest that:
When we speak of honesty, in relation to poems, we mean the degree to which and the power with which the generating impulse has been transcribed. Transcribed, not transformed.
On the contrary, the “true” is something quite different: it is “the embodied vision, illumination, or enduring discovery which is the ideal of art”:
The true has about it an air of mystery or imperceptibility. This mystery is an attribute of the elemental: art of the kind I mean to describe will seem the furthest concentration or reduction or clarification of its substance; it cannot be further refined without being changed in its nature. It is essence, ore, wholly unique, and therefore comparable to nothing. No “it” will have existed before; what will have existed are other instances of like authenticity.
The true, in poetry, is felt as insight. It is very rare, but beside it other poems seem merely intelligent comment.
No matter what the poet has seen or lived, those experiences alone cannot merely be placed onto the page in order to create a compelling poem. The stuff of what happened, what happens, and what is happening serve only to prompt the poet into conversation, and in order to enter the realm of the true—the mysterious, the imperceptible, the refined, the insightful, the vision embodied, the discovery—those narrative particulars must undergo a crucial transformation from fact into art. Based on Glück’s compelling analysis, I wonder, too, if a successful poem in fact operates on three levels. Lurking behind it is the trigger (what Glück refers to as the “generating impulse”); on the page lives that impulse molded and crafted into verse; and within that crafted verse lies the insight.
Katie Ford’s second volume Colosseum enacts the transformation from actuality to insight in, fittingly, three sections. Her trigger is Hurricane Katrina and all that followed (and still follows) for the city of New Orleans, and Ford’s admirable poetic accomplishment is that she does not simply rely upon those events alone to propel her book. Such a subject that could easily coax a poet into submission and prompt them to believe that the event is all that is needed to create the poem. Instead, in Ford’s hands, we feel as though we have stumbled upon a discovery, upon illuminations. The three sections of Colosseum function as the three levels of a poem: the first, entitled Storm, presents the trigger in a jarring, exact, and stimulating fashion. The second, entitled Vessel, begins with a quotation from Marina Tsvetaeva, which informs us that “to want is what bodies do / and now we are ghosts only,” and fully demonstrates the poet’s capacity for transforming the event into the poem—in short, the Storm enters the Vessel. The third, entitled Colosseum itself, is the volume’s climax, its large discovery.
Not only does Ford’s three-act book effectively manifest the process of approaching what is “true” in poetry, particularly in relation to the specificities of her trigger, but her individual poems often do the same. Take, for example, her short poem Ark from the first section, Storm:
We love the stories of the flood and the few
told to prepare us in advance by their god.
In that story, the saved are
always us, meaning:
whoever holds the book.
Here, the word “flood” is not the sum total of the poem’s objective. It enacts the same purpose that the flood of Hurricane Katrina enacted for the poet: to generate this poem. Correspondingly, the word “flood,” placed in the first line of Ark, generates the rest of the text. Coupled with the many storied references evoked by its title, this poem asks us to consider the rising of water as a backdrop for what will emerge. Ark is elegantly crafted into succinct, graceful verse: it has been carefully meditated upon, and everything unnecessary has been excised. The event has been named, appraised, and turned into verse, and what will follow is an exploration of the after-event; not a rehashing of the actualities or, necessarily, an “honest” response, but the “true”—the “insight.”
As the trigger—the first level of a poem’s operation—instantly arises in the beginning of the poem, it is fitting that the insight lies toward the poem’s end. The phrase “the book” in the last line and the saving of those who hold it in the penultimate line are not only Biblical references, but also more global ones, referencing all of those books that each of “us” would consider the book. To be sure, the Biblical tonality is significant here; yet, I believe that even more significant is the quiet universality implied by the lowercase “b” in the word “book.” Ford does not limit the definition of the phrase “the book” to “the Book”—instead, she allows for a broader resonance. This is the discovery, the insight that lifts the poem beyond the world of stories told “in advance,” beyond the world of “the flood”: those who hold the book are the ones who will be saved, and those people are “always us.”
This insight itself speaks to the existence of Colosseum: out of this flood, the survivors emerge clutching books. In this fashion, Ford’s volume enters a dialogue with itself. The discovery in Ark is one of many in Colosseum. Ford does not fall into the trap of providing her reader with a way to pin her down with ease: her illuminations are varied in tonality and content, exploring a vast arena of aftereffects and ruminations. To return to the significance of the volume’s broader structure, consider the several other poems in the first section of the volume, Storm. The poem Tell Us is prompted by the moments before the eye of the hurricane hit New Orleans. It informs that “the barest accident of you // will stand before its organized eye / therefore ready yourself // but do not panic / you cannot be ready[.]” Another short poem, Earth, is only four lines long: “If you respect the dead / and recall where they died / by this time tomorrow / there will be nowhere to walk.” Fish Market asks, “What is there now to eat?”
All of these poems illustrate the trigger. Like Ark, they certainly possess illuminations. However, largely, their central action is to inundate us in the word of the “organized eye,” the starvation, the flooding, the streets filled with the dead. The first section’s turning point occurs with the poem Vessel, which shares its name with the second section of the book all the while residing in the first. Vessel reads as a sort of ars poetica: “We were hardly vessels / what we took in could not be,” Ford writes:
and so we spat it out as dogs spit out
the wretched fish the only meat
we were not mules
though we put stores on our backs
thin mothers in frames
we were never vessels
but I wanted so much to be and swallow and
Vessel discusses the experience of having ingested something “wretched”—indeed, of having the “wretched” be the “only meat” available—and of putting “stores” of “half-finished stories” on “our backs.” It deals with the questions: What happens to the event? Who is the poet in relation to the event? Most importantly, it does not provide an answer: the question, the mystery, and the intrigue are left intact. We know what has been “wanted,” but want itself is an enigma. We know what we “were not”: “mules,” “vessels.” What we do not know is how the event—that “wretched fish”—transforms into the poem when it enters the poet, and this question is compelling enough to handle the weight of the second section of Colosseum. The poem Vessel tells us that the second movement of the book is about to begin. Ford’s attention turns from the trigger to the poem: instead of focusing most heavily on the storm, we will consider its vessel.
In the second section, Ford’s typographical decisions become riskier as if to explore not only the question of how actualities become truths but also the question of how the form of a poem can contribute to the eventual goal of an insight. Correspondingly, the first poem of this section The Shape of Us references a continued narrative question of the shape of the body and the land, as well as uses the inclusive pronoun “us” to imply that the title also concerns the shape of the poem. “Something please tell me I’m wrong / about impermanence,” pleads the speaker. The next poem, Crossing America, is written in tight couplets; Division, which follows, is a successful, carefully strung prose poem. The Vessel Bends the Water features lines that themselves bend around indents, and Koi curls similarly. (Note, too, that the title of The Vessel Bends the Water continues to prod at the questions asked by the earlier poem Vessel from the section Storm: how does the poet—the vessel—bend the event—the water?) Spring Wish makes good use of an Emily Dickinson quotation as an epigraph: “As from the Earth the light Balloon / Asks nothing but release—,” from Dickinson’s poem numbered 1630. Dickinson’s full poem follows:
As from the Earth the light Balloon
Asks nothing but release—
Ascension that for which it was,
Its soaring Residence.
The spirit looks upon the Dust
That fastened it so long
As a Bird
Defrauded of its song.
In “As from the Earth the light Balloon,” Dickinson issues a mandate: she urges us to allow our balloons to lift above the “Dust”—to, so to speak, let our minds transcend the actualities. Ford’s invocation of this particular Dickinson poem is more than simply an epigraph. From this point forward, Ford’s poems are highly conscious of Dickinson’s earlier text. In Spring Wish, Ford writes:
It is a far wish, a spring wish,
and so the people of the parade let go of
balloons they dreamt were their minds,
not the minds they woke to find writing in the gravel,
but rising tangerine minds, porcelain white, blue
of a sky in which to be absolutely lost.
So much pleasure I remember
when mine slipped from sight
but could be imagined almost perfectly and gone,
warm on the string where I’d held it.
The anticipatory lack inked onto whatever page
was left of us. We sat in the middle of it: trespass.
We laid down in the middle of it: falsity.
When you touched me,
I felt nothing. The day so beautiful
it struck me across the face.
“As from the Earth the light Balloon” influences both of these poems. Spring Wish specifically speaks of “rising tangerine minds” in opposition to “the minds” that we find “writing in the gravel”; “the people of the parade” release their balloons and dream themselves transformed. In Cemetery, the mind is uneasy on the ground: when it is “inked onto whatever page” was left, it feels itself a trespasser and a falsity. We watch as, with the help of Dickinson’s poem, the circumstances described in the first section of Colosseum morph into the yearnings of the second. We watch as the relatively steadfast formal style of the first section becomes the mélange of styles in the second, and as crucial inquiries tease along the pages.
According to my suggestions that the third level on which every poem operates is the insight and that Ford’s volume embodies this three-fold approach, the third section of the book should manifest the idea of the true. It does. By titling both the volume and its third section Colosseum, Ford implies that in this section, we will see evidence of how the trigger, which has already become the poem, becomes the volume’s central illuminations. The third section takes the local seeds from which the book originates and begins to trace its still-warm string through global landscapes. In the section’s first poem Overture, we hear language of “dynasty,” “paper lanterns,” and “calligraphy”; of “persimmons and pomegranate”; of “flooded rice fields” and a “stoic, unconvinced world.” In Overture, Ford’s speaker concludes the poem by addressing the world—not one person, not a deity, not a natural phenomenon, and not the reader: “My stoic, unconvinced world, / world of the paper heart, / is it that you don’t know grief / or haven’t had enough of it / that you let yourself / be governed so?”
After Overture, Ford presents the book’s long poem, which is also its title poem—nestled in the title section. It is not, as long poems go, a very lengthy example: it runs for four pages and features seven sections, all but two of which have only one stanza apiece. It is carefully paced to expand further the book’s purview from the one tragedy it is based upon to a world of tragedies. This action can easily go awry: by continuing to expand the focus of the text, the volume runs the risk of feeling extraneous, as though a hodgepodge of places and things have been melded together to provide the book with a larger purpose. Yet, Ford avoids that particular trap: her language continues to be scrupulous and precise, and, to quote from Spring Wish, although New Orleans has largely “slipped from sight” in this last section, Ford’s poems force the triggering subject to remain “warm on the string” where she—and therefore we—have “held it.”
I said to myself: Beyond my husband there are strange trees
growing on one of the seven hills.
They look like intricately tended bonsais, but
enormous and with unreachable hollows.
He takes photographs for our black folios,
thin India paper separating one from another.
There is no scientific evidence of consciousness
lasting outside the body. I think when I die
it will be completely.
The above selection is the fourth part of the poem Colosseum, and it demonstrates the broader reach that I have spoken about such as the “bonsais,” the “thin India paper,” the discussion of “consciousness / lasting outside the body” and what it is to die, as opposed to dying “completely.” I do not mean to suggest that Ford’s earlier sections did not have as weighty an impact as the third; they certainly did. Ford’s individual poems as we have seen each contain their own illuminations. I do believe, however, it to be the case that because this third section embodies the concept of illumination itself, its illuminations are larger. It is as though we have been offered small, glowing lamps throughout the book, and now, here, in the section Colosseum of the book Colosseum in particularly in the poem Colosseum, we receive one large lamp with several filaments all deeply glowing. While our memories retain what Glück calls “world of the event”—Ford makes sure they do, even bringing up New Orleans by name in the poem Snakes—we have, in fact, left it.
One of the most remarkable poems in the third section is Duomo, a title that refers to the Italian cathedrals of fame and has strong tonal echoes of the word “dome” (like the Louisiana Superdome in which thousands of Katrina refugees were housed in the aftermath). In fact, Ford uses the word “dome” in the poem: “The aurora / was beautiful on those killing spirals, quiet / as maize-light on the apostles / settled in caverns of the great dome / built on the copper edge of the middle ages.” True to form, even the “dome” is not just a “dome”: it comes from the “copper edge” (a unique yet sharply accurate descriptor) “of the middle ages.” Ford’s way of leaving—or, more accurately, transforming—the world of the immediate while reminding us of its significance resonates in every moment of Duomo:
But we move unhearing, unheard, in cruel
ambiguity beneath the amber-letting trees
draping house to house,
weeping down the thought
of yellow morning—
how yellow will come
over everything, over you and me
as we wake, over a Florence gone,
unreachable to us now—gone the bridge
that survived the war,
its diamond shops and paperies,
paisley waterspills curved over parchment
how oils seeped out o the ghost rigs
and left slow blankets over egrets and gulls feeding
on the blackened cargo of the surface.
was beautiful on those killing spirals, quiet
as maize-light . . .
Duomo makes good use of the formal experiments that took place in Colosseum’s second section—it has a bit of the prose poem of Division and features the indents tested in The Vessel Bends the Water and Koi. Duomo is the epitome of the multi-filamented illumination of which I spoke earlier: it draws upon Florence, upon the aurora borealis, upon a vast world of images and poetic traditions, the feeling of the event warm on our hands, that event magicked into the poem, that poem lifted into, as Glück says, an “air of mystery or imperceptibility.”
I wrote this review in late August and early September, and I couldn’t help being struck by the fact that as I wrote, a new hurricane—Hurricane Gustav—was making its way toward New Orleans. A New York Times article that was recent at the time mentioned a woman who spent two days in her attic during Hurricane Katrina: “‘I’d rather play it safe than sorry,’ she said, ‘because I know what sorry feels like.’” (“If you respect the dead / and recall where they died / by this time tomorrow / there will be nowhere to walk,” writes Ford in one poem. In another: “What is there now to eat?” “My stoic, unconvinced world,” she says in another; she speaks of a “reckoning so slow you aren’t even frightened” in yet another. “Where will the water be? I whisper. / Where won’t it be, it answers.”) The book’s parting words:
Deadly to believe a heaven
might include you.
You had a heaven.
You were its gods.
These lines turn us back to the poem Ark, in which the phrase “the book” is used (with that telling lowercase “b”)—by calling each individual “you” its own Pantheon. This is how Ford transforms the actualities into the truth: the localized becomes global, the singular becomes plural, the mortals become their own gods, and all books are the book. Ford’s meticulous and evocative framework asks us to consider the process of creating a poem even as her texts refuse to surrender the palpable sensation of its circumstances. “I wanted so much to be and to swallow,” Ford writes, crafting her volume in a manner that asks, repeatedly, how the poem can be made.
I have cited extensively from two books: one, of course, is Katie Ford’s Colosseum (Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2008), and the other is Louise Glück’s Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry (New Jersey: Ecco Press, 1994). All of the quotations from Proofs & Theories come from the essay Against Sincerity, which can be found on pages 33 – 45 of the book.
I also quote an Emily Dickinson poem, poem number 1630, from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1890).
Finally, the New York Times article that I reference can be found online, at the following URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/31/us/31orleans.html?ex=1377921600&en=44c8be844c80528d&ei=5124