Questions of Voice: Lex Runciman on Jessica Lamb’s Last Apples of Late Empires and Rob Schlegel’s The Lesser Fields

Jessica Lamb, Last Apples of Late Empires, Airlie Press, 2009

Rob Schlegel, The Lesser Fields, The Center for Literary Publishing/University Press of Colorado, 2009

A successful poem negotiates many interrelated questions, among them diction and syntax, line length, stanza form, rhythm, music, and rhyme. Each of these questions feeds into the most vexing and most central one: the question of voice. Put simply, it resolves to this: what does – what should – any given poem sound like? What should this poem sound like? When the answer (or answers) begin to resemble each other, when readers can detect and recognize various consistencies in those answers, then we can say that a given poet or a given book has achieved a defining voice. In that way, we can distinguish a poem by, say, Mary Oliver, from one by Charles Bukowski. Recent first books, by Rob Schlegel and Jessica Lamb, enact interestingly different answers to the question of voice.
Jessica Lamb’s Last Apples of Late Empires presents readers first with a three stanza quotation from Anna Akhmatova, the first stanza of which goes like this: “Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold, / Death’s great black wing scrapes the air, / Misery gnaws to the bone, / Why then do we not despair?” Thus the first voice in this book is Akhmatova’s enlisted in service to all that will follow. Even this single stanza makes announcements about content, stance, and form. We’re reminded of the book’s title: this is the last of the late. As the Akhmatova opening line says: “Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold.” Yet, perhaps in contrast, the images carry a pleasing and imaginative particularity — “death’s great black wing” for example. And the rhyme of “air” and “despair” tells us we ought to listen for the music of language.
That is this book’s opening voice and stance, and yet as an opening (not a closing), this initial quotation also implies a denial of what it proclaims. We have not even gotten to the book’s first Jessica Lamb poem, after all; we are at a start, not an end. This book may begin from a condition of lateness and depletion, but we have been set up to see how all that follows might relate to or refute those conditions.
The first actual Jessica Lamb poem in Last Apples presents a narrative that is an exercise in divergent points of view. It sets itself literally inside a car, inside the consciousness of a woman who has attended a party with her partner/husband who now drives the two of them home. Neither speaks. The woman feels herself go “unfastened from her life /…. The whole way home she is no one.” The reasons for this are not clear. Her partner does not notice. He is, after all, operating from inside his own perspective, his own solitude. Thus, the first poem in this book enacts the odd human estrangement that can arise, perhaps must inevitably arise, even in the most solid of relationships. The two of them arrive home, it’s late, “He pays the sitter, locks up the house / looks in on their sleeping child,” all the while entirely unaware that this person to whom he is presumably devoted has had a disquieting experience of dislocation. “…Come to bed / he calls to her softly.”
The opening poem in Last Apples of the Late Empire establishes, it turns out, quite a bit about the book that follows. It will be a book of and about narratives of experience. It will be a book about the push and pull of isolation and togetherness, intimacies and distances, emptiness and the wonder of its opposite. Its poems enact narratives of what happens, not from selfishness or self-indulgence but from an enduring and felt sense that so much of experience — here particularly so much of a woman’s experience as person, partner, and mother — simply cannot be prepared for, cannot be anticipated: “He is three when a pox / takes over his body. / … / [His] is the look I must have had early in labor / when it dawned on me there would be / no bargains. I had no choice …” (from “The Door”).
The central effort of the poems in Lamb’s book must be in fact our central effort: even now still early in a new century, don’t we also feel beset by the sense of ending, a feeling that is the inevitable result of profound and ongoing cultural change? In the humdrum mix that is a continual bombardment of news, selling, and distraction, we lose a personal, felt sense of self. The poems in Last Apples of the Late Empire know this. But the book’s success lies not in aims, not in its effort to sound and maintain a fully human and personal “I” within the unpredictable mix of family and time and awareness of mortality — many contemporary books of poems share such aims. This book’s achievement rests squarely in its creation of a nuanced, distinct, ongoing sense of surprise – a stance towards experience that registers hard truths, absurdities, delights, and is not without a its own wry humor (for an example of the latter, see “The Center Groton Record”). The surprise requires thought in response. Hence, the narratives in this book are just as fully efforts to think — to wonder about and feel — as they are efforts to narrate.
Consider for example this short poem. It’s called “Saved II” because it follows immediately after a somewhat longer “Saved I.” Each poem narrates an example of a childhood experience marked by unfairness. Here is “Saved II”:

When Margaret’s house burned up
with little brothers in it
we watched from the classroom window
saw the smoke and her face
seeing the smoke and were silent
but not as ashen as she was, not sobbing. We were
whole. It was Margaret who had rips in the knees
bruises on the arms, dark circles under her eyes.

No doubt she knew she was born to suffer. But just
to be safe, we would hate her.

One surprise here is the terrible action — a house fire. But the deeper, more shocking surprise comes from a recognition of the degree and character of childhood insensitivity to poverty and to grief. Instead of compassion, the common consensus the poem give us is “we would hate her.” The narrative is clear enough. The poem’s complexity lies in the adult speaker’s two decisions: one, to recall this event and response, and two, to offer it now without any comment whatsoever. In this absence of comment or judgment, readers have to do the work. The poem offers a narrative, but what it seeks and provokes is thought about that narrative.

Lamb’s poems work in a free verse idiom that cannot quite locate the ready ease of prose nor indulge in the luxury of predictable form. Yet they do establish and maintain a way of thought and feeling; they gift readers their experiences. For a little while, as we read, we go out of our solitudes.


Where Jessica Lamb’s poems make essentially familiar (if also unique) meditative and narrative stanzas around a central “I,” Rob Schlegel’s poems begin in more elemental ways — in direct observation that harkens to the Imagists. Whereas Lamb’s poems urge us to hear and identify with a particular speaker — a character almost, Schlegel’s poems urge us to attend to images within a barely construed time and place that may be quite unwilling to yield to narrative.

In such circumstance, the self is a problem rather than a source, as this book’s title poem, “The Lesser Fields,” makes clear. It is as though the problem of where must be addressed before the problem of who: “Sun peels paint from one side of the vacant house / and the fields turn fallow in the absence of tractors.” That is the entirety of the opening stanza in what is a poem of three such stanzas. We have an observer, certainly — but not yet an “I.” We have an observer reminiscent of Edward Hopper as a Westerner. The second stanza shifts from sight to hearing: “A sudden wind disquiets the chimes / and the half dead cottonwood pays dearly…” And already it is clear this poem – and this book – ask of us a particular kind of listening, one that hears and notes the long i in “disquiets” repeated in “chimes.” This small sonic richness plays off against the word “fallow” in the first stanza. We begin to sense this landscape as not quite so forbidding as we might first have thought. This is the level of attention, even the level of drama, that Schlegel’s poems establish. We are not operating here inside the relatively comfortable confines of narrative.

And what of that cottonwood in the second stanza? It “…pays dearly // from its empty pockets; its heavy branches / nod bluntly threatening nothing but the public road.” Indeed, as this opening poem’s title tells us, this is an “Economy of Winter.” In its method and even somewhat in its sensibility, this is Stevens-esque, wintery in its own way. And yet in its own way it also echoes the opening gesture of Jessica Lamb’s book: both start from evocations of absence or difficulty. Both opening poems imply books as the extended recording of and response to such conditions.
The Lesser Fields recognizes a contemporary reader’s yearning for (and to some extent an expectation of) an “I” narrator, even if what that “I” narrates is not the “what happened” that Robert Lowell’s poem “Epilogue” referred to. Thus, the second poem in The Lesser Fields establishes a speaker who is “here and not here,” a speaker who says “I breathe away / the parts of myself I no longer require.” This sounds surer than it turns out to be, for in its remaining twelve lines, this poem and this speaker acknowledge a wish that those seemingly unnecessary parts of the self might return. Return in what form? As “fish / orbiting globes of algae,” fish that might rise to a surface of “what I imagine will be my skin — // surface film or epithelium; body I fold / my body into; gravelcloud // and rainstem – a water unending…” The poem continues for five more lines, but the quoted material is sufficient to make it clear that a two line declaration (“I breathe away / the parts of myself I no longer require”) requires a response six times as long. It is an at once quiet and astonishingly insistent response: quickly shifting, evocative, and ever larger in its implications. In this poem, the self turns out to need quite a bit; the narrative here is the effort to name it.
Where Jessica Lamb employed narratives of event, Rob Schlegel enacts narratives of image. Lamb’s poems ask us to inhabit and see anew our shared world. Schlegel’s poems ask us to attend to and follow the progressions of a mind, a mind puzzling over how to rightly be in a world seen as essentially regardless of human presence. Schlegel’s poems reflect and make a world in which, because any action could too easily prove wrong and time allows no pauses, the self remains a matter of temporary constructions: “Guardian, give me safe direction. / Release these palms from the public barnacles / and turn this voice into something more / than a scheme of pennies. // I am just a boy weighed down with fear” (from “Secrets Objects Share”).
Really The Lesser Fields is not as severe a book as may have been implied. The image world never escapes the quotidian one (how could it?). And when the quotidian does make extended appearance, this allows for the recognition of other struggling people who might register their own voices. One such voice belongs to an elderly widow whose son, Jerry, has also died, a woman who mistakes the speaker in “People Live Here” for her own Jerry, and who says at one point “living … is a person at a time” and at another “Just wait until the next rain, she said, / things will look the way they look again.” As readers of this book, we may or may not believe her assertions, but they register as a damaged yet persistent courage.
Happily and despite considerable differences, The Lesser Fields and Last Apples of Late Empires share elegance and eloquence. Jessica Lamb’s poems make an eloquence firmly grounded in the intimacies of human relationships; they bespeak an effort at the fullest sort of understanding of our happinesses and griefs, our limitations, and how the self isolates and participates and touches. In The Lesser Fields, Rob Schlegel’s poems move with a brisk, supple, and often dazzling imagistic clarity at once demanding of readers and yet seemingly effortless on the page. In Schlegel’s hands, a poem titled “The Lives of Rot” becomes, somehow, an evocation of all life in motion. Eloquence does not come easy. Both of these books make poems that ask us to call on our own recognitions and experiences and to bring them into relation with what we read. The pleasure of these books lies in the richness of relation thus created. Books of smaller ambition might merely confirm experience we already know well. Both Last Apples of Late Empires and The Lesser Fields ask more of us than that and thus deliver more in terms of reward. Among the many forms of eloquence, it is a happy thing not to be forced to choose.