WALKING THROUGH THAT VALLEY: James Reiss on Jonathan Thirkield’s The Waker’s Corridor


wakers corridor

The Waker’s Corridor, Jonathan Thirkield, Louisiana State University Press

I.

A poet in his mid-thirties whose first book wins the Walt Whitman Award has a lot to celebrate. His book comes wrapped in the blessings of its sponsor, The Academy of American Poets; it is all but guaranteed to be reviewed, not relegated to Dustville among dozens of other debut volumes; and it will forever be linked with Whitman, whom Emerson famously greeted in 1855 “at the beginning of a great career.”

At the start of his gig on Parnassus Jonathan Thirkield may not yet be our preeminent bard, who happened to be from Brooklyn – Thirkield’s a Manhattanite. But even a casual glance at “The Waker’s Corridor” reveals its awesome precocity, along with its flaws. From time to time if Whitman slipped, so does Thirkield – and who doesn’t? – even when the causes for their pratfalls are as different as banana peels and black ice.

From the get-go, let me say that I’ve seldom read lines of poetry quite as fresh as Thirkield’s. When George Orwell declared, “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print,” he might well have been hoping for language as unusual as what you’ll see in the very first chiseled lines of Thirkield’s book; here’s the beginning of the sonnet-like “Streamside”:

A perfect scene: a voice unwarrantedly
sweet exiting the shade: a man’s red mouth
rough cheeks white skin: in wood – a gondolier
plays the scattered pieces of his fiddle-form
in broken light and audience estranged
from living sound: but sweetly arcs his song:

Aside from the opening gambit, “A perfect scene,” an essential but perhaps a slightly hackneyed turn of phrase – as well as “rough cheeks,” which could be scripted from a Gillette commercial – these lines sound new-minted. The man’s voice being described as “unwarrantedly / sweet” alters the common adjective “unwarranted” – as in “Your cruel remarks are unwarranted, Don” – to an adverb I find exotic. Furthermore, the man’s voice is “exiting the shade,” rather than “emerging from the shade,” “shining forth from the shade” or some such crap. In context “exiting” could almost be called a neo-geo locution. Lines 3–6 depict a man in the midst of singing an opera or an operetta like Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers.” But notice how the image, “the scattered pieces of his fiddle-form,” evades plainspoken photo-realism and evokes something more visually abstract or surreal. The penultimate quoted line in isolation, given its continued iambic-pentameter underpinnings, suggests the first canto of “Paradise Lost,” partly because of the inversion of the verbal “estranged.” At any rate, the sixth quoted line rounds off this portrait, which turns out to be of a son and his father, with panache and a nostalgia emphasized by the “sweet” in line two becoming “sweetly.” Please notice the Spenserian echoes in “sweetly arcs his song.” Considering these half-dozen splendid lines, I’m red-faced – red-mouthed? – when I say that the seventh line of Thirkield’s little elegy is sappy as can be. “[W]ith the innocent abandon of a child” is thematically central to “The Waker’s Corridor,” but that doesn’t prevent it from being the tritest line in the book. Thank goodness, it’s the only howler I’ve detected in sleuthing through 84 pages.

The opening sequence of eleven 14-liners, “Fatherland,” uses colons the way A. R. Ammons did lo these many years ago, to give the impression of a continuum. Rather than interrupting the “flow” of things with those stop-sign punctuation marks, periods, Thirkield creates the illusion of A giving the green light to B, B giving the green light to C and so forth. The result may be something like Whitman’s catalogues incorporating multitudes, although Thirkield steers clear of Whitmanesque parallel-structured lists. He doesn’t steer clear of sequential narration, rhyme, iambs and, as Mark Levine writes in his blockbuster blurb, “formal procedures.”

Still, Thirkield’s formalism is a whole nuther sort of ism than the one I associate with, say, the Expansive Poets of the 1980s. Of the 41 poems in this book, 23 have titles followed by numbers in parentheses as in: Upstate (7:127). If you’re citing a passage from the Bible, you refer to chapter and verse, i.e., Psalms (23:4). Yea, though Thirkield has walked through that valley – “The Waker’s Corridor” is surely about the shadow of death – in his day job he is a Web designer and refers to more than half the poems in his book by the number of their stanzas and lettered characters. To describe “Upstate” as having seven stanzas seems ho-hum enough. To specify that each line in “Upstate” has 127 characters, minus spaces, bespeaks an obsession with form unique to an era of Twitter. Not one line of the prose poem “Upstate” approaches the maximum limit of a Tweet, 140 characters, yet the poem’s choppy, retarded sentences and fragments suggest Twitter’s newspeak. Here is the first full basket case of a line from “Upstate” – count the characters (minus spaces) for yourself:

The mental institution was funny. The way the mad are funny. From the cement recreation area. She could not see beyond the figures. Left by felled trees.

“Upstate” is certainly not funny ha-ha! It recalls a boy – one of Thirkield’s high frequency words throughout is “child” – visiting his father in a sanatorium. Whereas the poet takes pains to depict the woman in the first stanza with a compassion he expresses in subsequent stanzas – only then to focus on his emaciated, exhausted father – his modus operandi is as cold-blooded as a king in his counting house. I don’t know much about the tools of a Web designer’s trade, but perhaps the “sodal” – a “modular java irc bot” – which Thirkield gives thanks to on his acknowledgments page, has something to do with formatting his “stanza/character” poems. Whether he uses a techie’s tool or counts out his characters on his fingers, his poems press the digitized envelope in ways I haven’t seen. Back in the 1980s, without using a computer, the excellent Cincinnati poet David Schloss labored to justify both the right- and left-hand margins of his poems. More recently, another Ohioan, now transplanted to Charlottesville, Kevin McFadden, came out with a strenuous first poetry collection, “Hardscrabble,” much of which is based on brilliantly recast anagrams. Well, Thirkield sings in his chains like a different sort of sea. In fact, to belabor the pun, he represents a kind of sea change in poetry.

What does Thirkieldian poetry entail? Two-thirds of the way through “Lilac (9:111)” a line and a half put forth an ars poetica: “You read. I am, for you in ink, the voice / undressed. Tear this sheet from this whitewashed stone. Wear it!”

First of all, then, these poems present “the voice / undressed.” Recall Yeats, in “A Coat,” celebrating the poetic “enterprise in walking naked. ” Recall also Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey’s 1969 anthology, “Naked Poetry: Recent American Poetry in Open Forms.” Somewhere beyond Yeats and Berg/Mezey, Thirkield’s voice is attuned to bare feelings, particularly grief. The disorder and early sorrow of a twelve-year-old who lost his father to suicide pervades every single page of this book. The fact that its poems are “dressed up” in costumes sometimes as elaborate as Pavarotti’s only underscores their transparency, how well they fit a tragic libretto. To switch metaphors: as if robed in the emperor’s new clothes, Thirkield accompanies his father’s ghost across the stage in his very own revival of New York’s Circle Repertory Theater, which Papa Robert Thirkield co-founded in that same Berg/Mezey year, 1969. Naturally, “Hamlet” features prominently in Thirkield fils’s book, as do Edgar and his father, Gloucester in “King Lear,” along with Miranda and Prospero in “The Tempest.” Which brings me to Point Two:

More than a little of Thirkield sounds Shakespearean. Take, for example, Thirkield’s colloquial iambic-pentameter line, “Now turn our thoughts to bangers and to mash”; or else “A bout of grief whirrs the priest i’ the rib cage”; or certain lines that distill the essence of a song sung by a Globe Theatre actor: “I had a clock it woke all day / in hiccupped white embattled cries / I broke my glasses on the street / to blind my sense of dignity” – these four tetrameter lines are part of “Father’s Song.” Obviously, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree; young Jonathan is haunted enough by his dad to have inherited – or deliberately acquired – his old man’s thespian gifts. The thing is, the son’s grins and grimaces aren’t the poetic equivalent of “staged” gestures that derive from, say, Stanislavsky’s method. If all the world’s a stage, one thing seems sure: the emotions infusing Thirkield’s book are not programmed but real.

A dozen “Mystery Plays” constitute the poet’s homage to the medieval York Cycle of dramas popular centuries before Shakespeare. No wonder the superb scrivener of historical poems, Linda Bierds, chose “The Waker’s Corridor” as this year’s Whitman winner. Thirkield’s “Mystery Plays” pilfer from Bierds Territory, which is vast but includes the fifteenth century, as slyly as a cat burglar. Here’s one of them in its entirety:

IV. The Chandler’s Play (6:36)

On the wall, a horse tied to a change-house,

Tiny. A candle in the glass above, its flame

The same burnt hay sloping across the whole

Encaustic pasture: snow patched, trees to

Hazel strings, a bird trap. Unpeopled now,

Three crooks lean against a flat muted sky.

II.

Short but not sweet like “Streamside,” “The Chandler’s Play” is not so much a play as it is a description of a painting in a candle maker’s house. Notice the painted horse “tied to a change-house,” possibly a tallow factory, in synch with the sinister “bird trap” in line 5. Notice the “encaustic pasture”; this hot beeswax painting, a style famous as far back as 100 A.D. in Egypt, may well have been completed by the candle maker. If his landscape bristles with the hayfields and pastures Brueghel relished, the countryside is “unpeopled,” sans Brueghel’s vast unwashed crowds of Flemish peasants. Instead, three shepherds’ lonely “crooks lean against a flat muted sky.” Auden might have appreciated how these stringent musical lines complement his own deceptively nonchalant “Musée des Beaux Arts.”

Notice also that “The Chandler’s Play,” along with Thirkield’s eleven other mystery plays and some other verse here, is double-spaced. This style of printing has gained favor with various avant-garde writers. I can find no reason why the format is deployed except to give a poem some airy space between its lines. It may be merely a waste of paper, but poets are experimenting with ways of making a reader plow (like Auden’s “ploughman”?) through lines more slowly and deliberately. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the poem comprised of stanzas with an equal number of lines has lost favor among the new millennium’s upstart crows, who, like Thirkield, have resorted to other means of expressing their obsessions, their rage for order.

It’s as if the phrase “Alles in Ordnung,” as well as its Dionysian twin, “Gefühl ist Alles,” reverberate as rallying cries throughout this book. Accordingly, Thirkield uses German, at one point fractured, to set his ducks in order. He’s more of a Wunderkind than an enfant terrible, even if his surname is Danish, not Deutsch. And the title of the second section of his book, “Abendland,” reminds us that German speakers refer to the Occident, or New World, as “evening land.” Americans call Japan the “Far East,” despite its being west of Seattle. So it makes sense that, for Germans, the land of the setting sun is a locus of darkness.

No doubt about it: “The Waker’s Corridor” (as opposed to “The Walker’s Corridor”) is, in the mightiest sense of the word, a “dark” book. It is dense and sometimes nearly impenetrable, like an infernal dark forest. Its 100-plus-line title poem, like many of the most nakedly emotional pieces here, is not a stanza/character Kunstwerk. Rather, it is an insomniac child’s rite of passage, a sleepwalker’s tour of a house during a night of thunder and fantasy in New York City; his parents are away, while a neighbor woman baby-sits, cracks an egg in “a simple white bowl of German design” and tries to reassure herself and the child that “it was thunder,” not the world’s end. The child’s mind fills with names of distant places, and suddenly the waker’s corridor turns into the Wakhan Corridor, an area in northeast Afghanistan so remote that only Osama bin Laden and the CIA may have heard of it. As the poem chuffs and rumbles on its far-reaching itinerary with nary a blooper of a line, nary a phrase that is not musical or painterly, you may realize that the ”corridor” in Thirkield’s book title is anything but narrow and confining. Nope, the Northeast corridor – that parochial hall of mirrors – opens out onto a Great White Way reaching beyond the stars because, at under forty years of age, Thirkield is one of those precious few poets who has arisen from dogmatic slumber and is fully, intensely awake.

*

James Reiss, whose last name rhymes with “peace,” grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. http://www.jamesreiss.com/

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City-of-the-Broad-Shoulders Bard: James Reiss on Mark Perlberg’s Waiting for the Alchemist


waiting for the alchemist

Waiting for the Alchemist, Mark Perlberg, Louisiana State University Press

June 23, 2009 marked the first anniversary of Mark Perlberg’s death. I missed his memorial service last September, but as a newcomer to the Windy City I’ve been aware how keenly Perlberg has been missed. It’s been more than forty years since he helped found Chicago’s Poetry Center, together with Paul Carroll, Paul Hoover, Lisel Mueller, and others. For years he was its president and spiritual CEO. Ever since Ruth Lilly willed what finally totaled two hundred million dollars to her own pet charity nearly seven years ago, Chi Town’s—and perhaps the entire nation’s—major sugar daddy, as far as verse is concerned, has been the Poetry Foundation with its magazine, “Poetry.” Still, the impact of Perlberg’s brainchild is felt in every program sponsored by Chicago’s comparatively minuscule Poetry Center. Moreover, Perlberg appears to have long been a benevolent presence when it came to supporting local poets. He and his wife Anna’s house on Stratford Place was one of the safest havens for City-of-the-Broad-Shoulders bards of all stripes.

It may be no surprise, then, that his fourth book is as generous and unpretentious as he must have personally been. I never met Perlberg in the flesh, but, on the basis of this book, I’m betting he was as nice a guy as the poet who was once described as a Boy Scout, William Stafford. If many of our most renowned poets have been self-absorbed jerks—to use a polite term—not every renowned poet conforms to this stereotype. I don’t want to make exorbitant claims for Perlberg’s work here, only to point out that his short, self-effacing poems are pretty damned sweet and worthy of your $17.95. Appropriately, reviewing for “Gently Read Literature,” I’ve read Perlberg’s final book with what Chaucer and medieval writers called gentilesse; my essay is more of a tribute or appreciation—surely moreso than a review by, say, William Logan.

The first poem here, “Orchids and Eagles,” is a pared-down free-verse sixteen-liner about a power outage on Perlberg’s summer vacation haunt, Vinalhaven, Maine. While he’s playing cribbage by candlelight, he recalls a hotel dining room in Morelia, Mexico—which happens to be the home city of Mexico’s current president, Felipe Calderón. A déjà-vu moment takes him back thirty years and leads him to his fourth quatrain:

What is memory? Praise it. Praise its strings and loops
of orchids floating in the night above the old Mexican town—
and yesterday—that pair of eagles, drifting,
floating above the island, dallying with the wind.

This upbeat finale, given the down-in-the-mouth, even nightmarish, ways the poem might have unfolded, is characteristic of Perlberg’s unflappable good cheer. Readers yearning for Larkinesque sarcasm may not rest easy with the nostalgia infusing this poem, along with others here. The image of eagles “drifting” brings to mind our south-of-the-border neighbor’s flag emblazoned with its coat of arms, an eagle devouring a snake. Rather than following its initial rhetorical question by defining “memory,” the stanza turns into an incantatory psalm of praise for “la recherche du temps perdu”—or, if you prefer Mexico’s lingo, “la busca del tiempo perdido”!

This is not to say that Perlberg is Panglossian, but that he is one of those rare birds who, to paraphrase W. S. Gilbert, takes life as it comes. Face to face with terminal leukemia, the septuagenarian Perlberg’s longest poem here, “Song of the Platelets,” steadfastly refuses to rage against the dying of the light. Instead, “Song” dramatizes conversations Perlberg has, principally with an African-American nurse, Benina, and with an unnamed volunteer, a retired rabbi who has come to comfort him at the hospital. Like her poet patient, Benina is a diehard looker-on-the-bright-side when she tells Perlberg, “‘Now come platelets—be nice. / We need to get this young man / outta this place for New Years. / Talk to your platelets / Mr. Mark. Talk to them!’” Later when the rabbi advises Perlberg about “‘Hashem, / God the merciful,’” the poet grouses, “‘I hate to say this to you Rabbi. . . . / Even the sublime 23rd is a cop-out, a pipedream. / I ask myself, do I want it read at my funeral? / It’s poetry, not promise.’” (As urgent and moving as John Updike’s final hospital poems are, they steer clear of dealing with life-and-death Biblical textual issues.) To top things off, Mr. Mark throws us a tidbit of déjà vu, like the one in “Orchids and Eagles”: insomniac and alone in the wee hours, all at once he remembers

a long ago attic in the big brick house
my father built above the river and died in soon after.
Somehow, the house is ours again. I am ten.
I open an attic door and walk out under the eaves.
They are there: trunks, dismantled beds, pictures
turned to the wall, toys, games, my lead soldiers.
No one is home.

Just shy of eighty years old, with six more months to live, Perlberg is borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Whether this is “great” poetry is, as I’ve suggested, not my concern. For that matter, my image of boats “borne back ceaselessly into the past” echoes the famous ending of “The Great Gatsby,” the title of which uses the term “great” ironically. I’m far from ironic in declaring that I admire certain of Perlberg’s painterly details—after all, this is a man who interviewed Chagall for “Time” magazine. I’m happy to see that he’s mighty fond of such visual effects as the way light bounces off water, or orchards lend color to mountains, or lawns give off their green effulgence. In all three cases, on pages 17, 37, and 53 he employs forms of the verb “stipple” to evoke his ocular excitement. The speaker of the book’s title poem, “Waiting for the Alchemist,” hopes to “discover the philosopher’s stone,” but in his everyday glimpses of Nature, he’s already struck gold.

Please note that I’m using the present tense of the verb. Timely as they may be, Perlberg’s best poems, like all good art, burn with a hard, gem-like flame. We’ll be able to read them years from now, and I predict that their dirt-simple plain style will weather well. It’s true, Mr. Mark’s unadorned prosiness has been described as the period style of late twentieth-century mainstream American poetry. This style has been associated with such 1960s white male practitioners as Robert Bly, James Wright, and, yes, William Stafford, But Perlberg mines its monosyllables to give us the following unique haiku-like nuggets of imagery and insight in “More,” a mini-triumph that ends up poignantly recalling Frost’s “The Oven Bird”:

I pin a yellow cottonwood leaf
on my brown cork board
and that’s the fall.

I keep a chunk of an old oak lobster pot
with rusty nail holes
and that’s the sea.

I have it from a cardinal, the Roman kind,
diminishment, too,
is a form of growth.

**

James Reiss won two Zeitfunk awards, in 2007 and 2008, from the Public Radio Exchange for his 169 reviews of independent producers’ programs for public radio.

“Aiming for Parnassus / and the Solar Plexus”: Constance Merritt on Betty Adcock’s Slantwise


slantwise2

Slantwise, Betty Adcock, LSU 2008

With its allusion to Emily Dickinson’s memorable dictum “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—,” Betty Adcock’s sixth poetry collection clues the reader into its method and much of its matter: Art generally, the art of poetry particularly, and the poet’s vocation are of central concern here. In Letter to a Gifted Poet, for example, Adcock expounds the nature of poetic gift:
Know this first: the gift is worthless
you’ve been unwrapping all these years,
unlayering a Christmas paper gorgeous-patterned.
Or shroud-plain as clouds. Or soft dark
as velvet marked with wine or blood.

Each time, you‘ll keep the faith, something
will turn up – – something material and sharp
as money: a knife, a pair of marble eyes,
a tree, a roofed pagoda, a bone, a flute.
Nothing ever does.
There is more of this poem that I want to quote and will. A moment ago thinking to be judicious in my quoting, I considered leaving out the last three lines of the first stanza, but quickly realized that to do so would obscure the signal qualities of Adcock’s work: her facility for wedding argument to song, her artful transubstantiations of metaphor to matter, and her weird amalgamation of gristle and grace in diction and tone. For it is in those three lines that the metaphor of gift—undoubtedly once fresh, but worn by time and hard use into cliché—is returned to earth as matter and, thus, imbued with fresh meaning for us. It is a hard truth this poem is telling, and here the speaker pulls no punches: “Know this first: the gift is worthless”, and though you continue to hope that something might turn up, “nothing ever does.”

But of course, there is always the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” to be accounted for so that “nothing ever does” is rendered ambiguous. Nothing ever turns up and that nothing always turns up; nothing in the first sense being a no-thing, an absence, and in the second, perhaps not a thing per se, but still something. And this ‘something’—whatever it is—that nothing is may still prove engaging:
Nothing does its dance
with you again: no paycheck, no crown
of laurel, no dragon slain, no downed
champagne. Just this unshading over and over,
the heart opened like a pomegranate […]
Essentially private (“No one will know you’ve opened this”), the gift is this process of unlayering, of peeling back the million veils of ego with its thick rind of strivings until duly danced by nothing one arrives at compassion (“the heart opened like a pomegranate,” “the one / serviceable tear”) for ‘the going away / of any part of things” and transience being in the nature of things, for all things.

Adcock approaches this radical conception of the poet’s task more explicitly in Ars Poetica on an Island in the Cyclades. There after owning that silence “is part of what I want, but only / part” and rejecting it as “nothing but posing, / another blind door heavy as irony [,]” the speaker turns to the task of elucidating what she does want: words that “wear belief sheer / as a pair of wings, serious as the silver / on the underside of olive leaves / in April wind.” Again, I note the specificity and, what’s more, the aptness of Adcock’s images in the passage above and in the following:
Even the thyme
on the mountain utters a fragrance
meant to be known, and the goat
cries out his fear of becoming
stone – – all things are longing,
like lost children, for a path
as if through the rubble of war
(a path that is only the breath
and the music of breath),
a way back to themselves enlivened,
aghast, unrepentant, spoken anew.

Even that which crouches lifeless,
mineral or granite or empty seashell
desires to enter memory, given voice
even if only for the length of a syllable.

My wish is to finish
with poems pale as their paper, to begin
with the letter A, to leave
nothing out.

According to this poetics, the poet’s task is to become the longed-for path through which all things can be enlivened, spoken anew. Possessed of Keatsian negative capability or the strict self-discipline of Stevens’s Snow Man, the poet apprehends in all things the intention to be known and the longing to be long and obliges by offering the brief refuge of breath.
In fact, though it is only now becoming clear to me, this notion of poet as path, as a living archive of the past, is also the subject of this volume’s opening poem “Little Text.” Set off from the first section of the book, the poem functions as a prologue or overture, introducing the structuring images and leitmotifs of the volume. Here text is introduced as scripture or poem or textile or body, while needle is parsed as leaf of a conifer; indicator on a mechanical instrument, as: a compass; and sewing implement – – a nesting of figures that recurs throughout the book. The poem begins by tracing the course of a single pine needle in the forest, calling forth the full grown pine and the entire woodland habitat in the process. Later in the poem we learn that this is a landscape from the speaker’s past, to which she has returned after a long time away (“so long gone I can’t remember bare / footlogs across the gar-infested creeks / or the heron thrust up white for magic”) to find it utterly changed:
This present chain-saw battered
earth, town-rent, tracked and fired
with pitiful need,
this water
displaced and broken into use.
Hand over hand, image by image, one thing becomes another until “air smeared with smoke,” “with a grease / redolent of human hope,” reveals itself as palimpsest reflecting traceries of scenes from the past: “a naked / walking child, bark-colored women[.]” Here is the fourth and final section of this poem:
What am I but the visible door
onto that corridor incarnate with the ache
of cypress and ty-vine, raccoon and fox,
bat and buzzard, hanged man, red child,
world flesh sutured with our small past,
inscription after inscription missed
or grasped dreamlike in the unsteady
sensing the body is. And the body is
already arcing backward, describing,
darkening into path.
In the context of geometry describe means “to draw or trace the outline of: to describe an arc,” but a further meaning seems to require admittance here: the body might also be de-scribing or un-writing itself, becoming more and more a part of world flesh, the darkening path.
In “Diagnosis,” one of the most breathtaking and provocative poems of this volume, Adcock elaborates this theme of body as archive, path, visible door, taking the measure of this weighty gift. “Perhaps we die of an overload of stories” full stop, the poem begins. This is an intriguing proposition, the kind a lesser poet might be tempted to save for a late epiphany in the poem’s endgame, but Adcock leads with trumps and has moxie enough to make good on all her bids. Not only does the poem’s speaker catalog some of the stories she carries, she also locates them within her own body:
My half-Indian great-grandmother sits
in my knees, an ache like too much prayer.
The madwoman gone for next door
is a mutter in my wrists. The spinster who made
bread for us children – – she spread every slice
with the word of a wrathful God – – lives now
in dreams I still recount. I’m trying yet
to find that dark jam sweet.
Another great-grandmother who suffered the ravages of the Civil War in Georgia weakens the speaker’s spine; “the wagon she drove alone / with her five children to Texas / shakes my marrow loose.” “Nature,” asserts Emily Dickinson, “is a haunted house – – but Art – – is a house that tries to be haunted.” I am not sure that Adcock would accept Dickinson’s too neat dichotomy between Nature and Art, and in the poetic vision Adcock proffers in Slantwise, Art, or at least, this particular artist has no need to try to be haunted; she just is. “All that we never / asked to know can enter the body, can enter / and fill and stay.”
As with individuals generally, surely a poet’s sense of the world, her experience of boundaries between self and other, and her conception of the poet’s task are deeply rooted in the soils of personal history and in the idiosyncratic climate of temperament, but in her poem “Why White Southern Poets Write the Way We Do” Adcock connects at least some of the coloration of her present leaves back to cultural roots. The poem responds to the why of the title with a series of clauses beginning with because:
because every one of us has at least one
relative who plowed poor with a mule – –

because the dead still enter our sleep as columns
of figures on the debit side of the ledger,

and darker voices carry what we cannot speak:
black ghosts, smoke in the twilit live oaks – –

because we found broken words everywhere
rolling like loose beads under the chiffonier,

and we weren’t suspicious when our breath
restrung them in patterns heavy as Scripture – –
Note how the ledger image in the second couplet quoted above serves as both bridge and barrier between the flanking stanzas. The ledger might record the downward spiraling debt of the poor white relative and the price of the blacks whose ghosts still haunt the landscape, as well as a moral ledger, balancing the books between blacks and whites. Also note the utter rightness of the appearance of the old-fashioned chiffonier in the couplet about broken speech. And, finally, here again is the singular blessing of breath.
No review of Slantwise would be complete without a discussion of the extraordinary poem “Fallen,” a poem about the February 1, 2003 crash of the space shuttle Columbia into deep East Texas woods. The poem is an elegy not only for the seven men and women who lost their lives in the disaster, but also for the end of a certain kind of chivalric questing: the birth and death of heroes, our triumph over nature, scientific messianism. After setting the tranquil sylvan scene “our shining myth” will shatter, Adcock bids us to imagine the wreckage, admonishing us not to seek refuge in the old myths:
Imagine the torn, deer-haunted woods
where a severed foot still in its boot
was driven into mud. Imagine rags of flesh,
the heart found near a logging road,
the arm in underbrush, insignia beside
an upended helmet filling with icy rain.

Buzzards led the searchers – –
don’t recoil – – do
not imagine this is a story to be tamed by naming
heroes who died for country and some further bourne
worth dying for.
Don’t imagine this is anything
beyond the old arc snapped, covenant entirely
broken, our ships no more than silver needles
trying the boundless haystacks of the stars.
But of course we do not want to imagine. Rather than see ourselves as we really are – – frail, frightened, ephemeral, oxygen addicts, dwarfed by cosmic vastness and self-exiled from earthly nature, our one true home – – we gallantly struggle to keep up appearances:
the astronauts sent out
as latter knights to press
our argument with airlessness
and make a grail of the mirage our image is,
among the novas and the planetary shrugs.
Slantwise is a deep and delightful collection of poems; one could easily wander here for pages and days and years. On a first reading one is most often delighted by Adcock’s obvious delight in and care for the music of words, with poems here and there – – “Why White Southern Poets Write the Way We Do,” “1932,” “Roustabout,” “Told by the Madwoman Who Stopped Making Quilts,” “Diagnosis,” “Fallen,” “Backyard: Evening Variations,” “Names,” “Housecats” – – flashing out like meteors or knives. But with further acquaintance it is the music of thought, the depth of compassion, the breadth of vision that captivates us and bids us return again and again.
Preparing to write this review I had imagined that at some point I would rail, however politely, at the incommensurateness between Adcock’s prodigious poetic gift and her rep in the poetry world, but somewhere along the way, chastened by the little poem called “Choice” that closes this remarkably artful volume, I changed my mind. Many are called, but few are chosen, reminds one ancient text. While under the aspect of time, one may choose to be famous, under the aspect of eternity, fame may choose us. Firmly rooted in time, Adcock figures the choice this way:
Towers of ambition, a few big pines have toppled
like temple columns, long mysteries forgotten.
One massive oak, pulled altogether out
by some relentless wind, has taken with it
companion saplings, dogwoods growing sidelong
from great knots of ripped-up earth and roots,
living on to spring again their delicate,
precipitate promises.

No heavenward soaring, just this
grounded life,
slantwise, burgeoning and brief.
In lieu of attending the “Convention of Professional Poets,” Adcock chooses to remain at home, ever solicitous for “the one moment graced with the given, / the one line stammering with light.”

The Word is the Thing: Laurie Junkins on Sally Van Doren’s Sex At Noon Taxes


Van Doren comp.indd

Sex At Noon Taxes, Sally Van Doren, Louisiana State University Press

“A linguaphile’s dream” is the description that comes to mind when reading Sally Van Doren’s first book of poetry, which won the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets in 2007. Beginning with the palindromic title Sex At Noon Taxes, this collection is all about words and the myriad grammatical devices within the English language. Van Doren’s remarkable ear for rhythm and sound is immediately apparent, and the reader cannot help but be pulled into her obvious sense of joy in language. The strength of this book is the way she fits words together in often surprising ways to create new and delightful effects of sound, rhythm, and syntax. She does not shy away from lowbrow references, either, if they contribute to the fun, as in “Pasture”:
Categorize a cough.
Catch a calf, laugh,
fart. Forget the phonics
of the focal/fecal. Phrase

fashion and effuse. Frigid
sapphirine captures the
fragment.
In this example, as in many of the other poems, the sound and rhythm of each word is depended upon heavily for effect. Rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance, even parts of speech – no trick of language and poetry is left unused. These are tools available to any writer who has been to middle school, but Van Doren uses them in a way that is truly special.

The emphasis on word play and sound combination is a strategy akin to l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e=p=o=e=t=r=y, to which Van Doren refers – with an arguably appropriate lack of clarity of meaning – in the poem “Story”:
Once you forgot
syncopation and
an enemy stomped
on your bigamist

poetics. Convert
to anomaly. Purge
l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e,
purse and narrate.
Several of the poems in the collection not only make use of the grammatical tools of the English language, but also attempt to define the very devices they use. Poems such as “Preposition,” “Conjunction,” and “Pronoun/Preposition” are obvious examples. From “Pronoun/Punctuation”:
He who parsed us left us with a floating
colon, an ellipsis enjambed by a full-stop.

We had paced with a question
taped to our backs; in post-op

it slimmed to an exclamation point.
Commas shadow us; brackets enclose

our parentheses.

Van Doren’s nod to the l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e=p=o=e=t=r=y aesthetic seems appropriate given the way she tends to use words as objects separate from their meanings, but even such accomplished word play can’t carry an entire collection. By the point at which we reach the three poems on parts of speech, the reader begins to feel as if he or she has picked up an eccentrically-written grammar book. Too, when the trope makes up all the content of the poem, the poet’s self-consciousness is glaring, as is a certain lack of depth – an absence of emotional connection, tension, or transition. At first the reader may be so taken with the skillful use of language that she would overlook the lack of substance, but when there are dozens of one-dimensional poems in a row, the shallow nature of them becomes readily apparent.

Toward the end of the collection, Van Doren depends less on linguistic devices and more on image with a dash of the narrative that, in particular, deals with matters of women and girls. Here, Van Doren’s use of figurative language is well-wrought and interesting, and her lyricism is well-crafted, but these poems also lack emotional resonance or charge. Van Doren sets up a scene, situation, or question in each poem, but then tends to stop or trail off too early, failing to surprise, transform, or emotionally engage the reader.

Despite these shortcomings, Van Doren has a command of language and an ear for musicality that few contemporary poets can claim to possess, and this is no small accomplishment. It should be remembered, as well, that this is her first collection. When her work develops the substance to match her use of language, it will be a knockout.