Somewhere, Somewhere: Oriana Leckert on Christie Hodgen’s Elegies for the Brokenhearted




Elegies for the Brokenhearted, Christie Hodgen, WW Norton, 2010

Elegies for the Brokenhearted begins in a rush and never loses momentum. It is crafted with galloping long sentences, clause within clause within clause, that swerve the reader away and then back and then away again. The characters are so sharp, their scenarios so poignant, their interactions so painful and real… This book is a devastating joy.

It’s a novel in stories—or, more accurately, in elegies—direct addresses by Mary Murphy to five central people in her life, which tell the stories of their lives, or at least those periods where their lives intersected with hers. This nested-story structure is a kind of herky-jerky stop-and-start format that can sometimes be jarring, but Hodgen makes it work beautifully, telling us always the story of Mary while making it look like Mary is telling us the stories of those around her.

Mary herself has lived since childhood in an almost impenetrable halo of silence—silence as rebellion, silence as a defensive coping mechanism, silence as a sarcastic attack. She always lets others speak for her, or no one at all. And yet the whole book, written in second-person direct address to each person being elegied, seems to be Mary’s attempt to reconcile the silence she’s spent her life ensconced in, to make others see how important they were to her—once it’s too late for it to matter.

Every character herein is consistently striving, reaching out in wrong-headed ways for more, yet secure in the conviction that he is meant for something better, easier, more rarefied. Each person knows that she is infinitely more special than the mundane and bitter circumstances in which she finds herself, time and again. But most of them do nothing to hasten their transfiguration, adding to the general sense of despair and frustration that permeates the novel.

Another marked similarity between the novel’s disparate personalities is how each is obsessed with death. Uncle Mike only gossips about friends who have died. Carson, Mary’s college roommate, decorates the wall above her bed with a constellation of Polaroids of her deceased relatives. One of Mary’s mother’s dependable morning rituals is reading—and mocking—the obituaries in the local paper. The entire book, of course, stars a cast of characters who have passed away.

One more overarching similarity between everyone is a desperate, suffocating loneliness, coupled with a near-hysterical inability to love. And yet the whole book is a vindication, in a way, of all this sorrow, all this despair. That Mary, who has spent her life silent and resentful, can recollect and reify these small, sad, bitter lives winds up speaking to an inherent beauty in all of us. Her ability to penetrate the layers of meanness, of abuse and anger and petty fury, and to render people real, is a parting gift, a gift to those parted, an indication that, despite everything, for a time they were truly understood.

At one point in the narration, Mary states, “Even the evocation of loneliness was something undertaken with the purpose of communicating it to someone, who would hear it and perhaps understand it.” This is a beautiful summation of the crux of this sad novel—no matter how alone we are, no matter how we despair, in our private moments, that we will die without ever having made a true connection with another living soul, someone has been watching, someone has been affected. Someone, somewhere, if only for a little while, has understood.

*

Oriana is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn with her longtime boyfriend and their two dogs. She edits for a slew of publishers, including McSweeney’s, Random House, NYRB, Melville House, and many more. She writes a blog about Brooklyn art and culture at www.brooklyn-spaces.com, and she reads like a maniac.

The Verge of Catharsis: Carrie Schindele-Cupples on Suzanne Rivecca’s Death is Not an Option




Death is Not an Option: Stories, Suzanne Rivecca, WW Norton, 2010

In Suzanne Rivecca’s story collection, Death Is Not an Option, characters make their way through murky situations and scenes that are heavy and humorous all at once. Every moment has the awkward potential for disaster and the characters are terribly concerned about the moral impact of their choices. The result is that all these young women are on the verge of a catharsis and about to find a new version of the truth.

“Death Is Not an Option” follows high school senior Emma. She feels disengaged from her classmates on a year-end group retreat, a regular response for her around her peers. From freshman year on, she dreams of leaving the Midwest and her religiously-confining surroundings. She wants to go to college far away from Catholics, but finds herself in fits of inexplicable tears every time she thinks about the move.

Emma is constantly resistant to give in to these moments of raw feeling. The truth, as Emma comes to see, is that she is on a different page, farther back in the story from the rest of her class. Even her friends have moved ahead of her: “They have all simultaneously crossed over to the land of those with outward feelings, soft and malleable and unashamed, pure and cushiony as marshmallow fluff.” (38) When during a sharing circle, she finally starts to cry, and her classmates and faculty think “At last, at last,” (39) their misunderstanding of her grief is another wound, another moment sharply articulating her desperation. All along she has told herself that escape will save her; the new truth reveals that there is no such escape.

Certain stories in Rivecca’s collection hold more emotional depth and clarity; in fact, as a reader, it is easy to see the writing improve in confidence and complexity after this initial piece. This title story starts weakly because of many pop-culture nods littered throughout the text. One example of this is the “Lush sounds of Free Willy” (37) mentioned half a dozen times. These references cheapen the tale of a young girl’s startling revelation that she should “go back to Muskegon with the Jesus freaks and die a thousand deaths every day because that is the only cure for [her] incessant, debilitating, and constant sense of futility.” (40) The story ends with a transformation, although highly dramatic, and relays her humbling and bitter acceptance of a new future.

As the collection moves forward, the stories become fully developed, intimate disclosures of guilt and fear. Rivecca’s voice becomes mature and reflective while retaining its droll tone. “Look, Ma, I’m Breathing” explores the duality of a childhood lie and a true account written about that lie. Isabel, the title character, has written her memoir and considers it a truthful framework in which to access her past. “She wanted people to squirm under the weight of it, knowing they couldn’t bring up her past in any but a literary context, knowing that, eternally she had the last word. A last word with a large print run.” (157)

Isabel needs to box in the truth, trap it in words on a page. Although as we learn more about her, we find that this tome of truth contains moments of what might have been, rather then what actually happened. With a fictionalized ending, her memoir, about a lie, is partially imagined itself. Does this make it any less true? Her moment of clarity, after nights trying to pin down a subject for a new book, is shared: “[She] knew that nothing would ever come out of her more purely or clearly than things like this: these distilled episodes, these illuminated lamentations, sculpted in all the right places, these testimonies of harm.” (173) This final insight acknowledges that she is the person in the pages of her writing, though she felt different and separate before.

And sometimes, the truth is there from the beginning and we watch the character shove it out of the way several times before the final confrontation. “None of the Above” begins with a young teacher, Alma: smart, thoughtful, and committed to her students’ growth and well-being. When a young boy, Peter, in her class exhibits signs of abuse, she starts to investigate. While Alma struggles to identify the source of his injuries, throughout the text the reader can see several clues leading up to the boy’s revelation that he shares a bed with a tiger:

For a while she [Alma] organized arts-and-crafts activities in the half-conscious hope that he would unwittingly betray himself through a nonverbal medium…. But he [Peter] drew sunny skies and houses with smoking chimneys and large striped animals frolicking on the lawn. Alma knew the signs. Abused and neglected children were (a) withdrawn; (b) developmentally delayed; or (c) ‘acting out,’ a term she despised for its jargony inexactitude, but she knew it when she saw it. And Peter was none of the above. (194)

Alma ignores the fact that Peter is not exhibiting any behavior of an abused child aside from the markings on his body. Eventually, she confronts Peter and asks him to share the truth with her. “Peter… all you have to do is tell me the truth. You’re not going to get in trouble just for telling the truth.” (205) Prophetic lines as we find at the story’s end. When Peter divulges that he has a pet tiger cub, Alma hears something completely different. “She sat there and trained her practiced, tempered gaze on Peter as he looked her in the eye and informed her, without preamble or disclaimer, that he’d been attacked by a tiger. Actually, he never used the work attack.” (205)

Where does this moment leave Alma, in her search for answers? Angry and disbelieving. “What it came down to was reliability of perspective; she trusted no eyes but her own.” (209) But her own eyes keep missing the facts. In the events that follow, tension escalates because Alma is about to find the truth manifest from what she understood to be a tall tale. The most prescient moment is when Alma reveals her true feelings and faces the tiger:

She felt terror…dutifully and more or less truthfully. Terror for the boy’s safety and for her own. But in those first few seconds, she had not been afraid. She had felt a dark drumbeat of uneasy commiseration. Not between her and Peter, but between her and the tiger…. She had looked into the tiger’s face in broad daylight and thought, aghast, What are you doing here? (222)

Alma’s discovery, not an elephant in the room, but a tiger, sickens her more than her grisly imaginings of wrongdoing by Peter’s parents. “None of the Above” is my favorite story in the collection for its subtle insinuations and heavy metaphor. When Alma sees the tiger, the glaring truth, she reacts: “And she felt that the least she could do was touch the animal, that she owed Peter that, and when she was close enough she extended her hand.” (221) She confronts her new understanding, as frightening as it is, that she should have seen the truth all along. This is the strongest story, perfect for wrapping up the collection.

Rivecca has written thoughtful fiction here, with fully developed characters seeking candor and revelation. In all these stories, Emma, Isabel, Alma, and the others, realize that the truth is floating around the edges of our moments, a ghostly presence about to show itself.

*

Carrie Schindele-Cupples is a librarian in Oregon and runs the Springfield Library Foundation Author and Music Series, a venue for promoting authors and connecting them with the community.  Her favorite thing to do is read aloud to her husband and dogs, pretending she is on Selected Shorts.

A Voice to Be Reckoned With: Philip Belcher on Sandra Beasley’s I Was the Jukebox


I Was the Jukebox, Sandra Beasley, WW Norton, 2010

If Sandra Beasley’s first collection, Theories of Falling, showed something of this poet’s promise, her second collection and winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize, I Was the Jukebox, makes clear that we are in the hands of a talented writer with a strong voice, a vivid imagination, and a bright future. This new collection is all about voice, and Beasley’s is unmistakable and clear.

Beasley’s organization of the forty-five poems in I Was the Jukebox hints at the formal strands weaving through the collection. The volume is divided into three untitled sections of fifteen poems each. Formal and thematic elements tie the sections together. Each section, for example, contains one sestina. One of this poet’s great talents is the dramatic monologue, and each section contains its share. Each section also contains one poem claiming to be “another failed poem,” although none of them is. Finally, Beasley includes in each section one or more “love poems”—for college, oxidation, Wednesday, and Los Angeles. In these poems and others, Beasley is fully in charge of her lines, her syntax, and their interplay.

Although Beasley’s fondness for formal elements is not limited to poems written in inherited forms—in this collection, the sestina—the sestinas do offer the clearest example of the poet’s formal dexterity. Unlike many contemporary poems written in traditional forms, Beasley’s sestinas have no need to sit and yell from the corner, “Look at me, look at me.” Even a reader unfamiliar with the sestina’s formal requirements will enjoy these poems for their music and their narrative force. Beasley writes sestinas with apparent ease; she forces nothing to meet the form’s demands. The first few lines of “The Platypus Speaks,” one of the three sestinas, display the poet’s humor, imagination, and commanding voice:

As far as the duck-billed platypus goes,
I’d like to point out there’s no other kind
of platypus. You don’t say horse-hooved deer
or moth-winged butterfly. A beast should be
her own best description. I deserve that,
having survived a hundred thousand years

of You would make a fine-looking hat. . . .

Another poem displaying Beasley’s facility with form is “Fugue.” As suggested by the title, this poem incorporates repetition of multiple themes—here, hands and mouth–and plays them against each other in contrapuntal dialogue. The musical atmosphere in the poem is heightened by the repetition of only four letters at the beginning of the poem’s eighteen lines: T, I, A, and H. Every line is end-stopped, and each line but one includes a complete sentence. Yet, nothing is forced.

In “Vocation,” Beasley reveals with a flourish her confidence with formal technique and her commanding voice. The poem’s eighteen lines employ significant repetition, but two other features reaffirm that Beasley is a poet intent on cultivating language with subtlety and care. First, “Vocation” highlights the poet’s fine ear. Beasley ends lines with “mall” (line 2), “Decimal” (line 7), and “calling” (line 14). “People” closes the poem with a chime. The poet expands this music by echoing sibling sounds throughout the poem: “Brahms,” “small,” “all,” ‘falls,” “want,” “long,” and “on.” Second, this poem reinforces Beasley’s finely tuned and quirky sense of humor:

. . . Once I asked a broker what he loved
about his job, and he said Making a killing.
Once I asked a serial killer what made him
get up in the morning, and he said The people.

For an example of this poet’s imaginative reach, one need go no farther than “Immortality.” The speaker describes her existential predicament as being one yellow marble indistinguishable from many others. She is “waiting for someone to chalk lines of play, waiting // for the thumb of God.”

Notwithstanding Beasley’s musical prowess, ease with both traditional forms and free verse, and imaginative humor, it would be a mistake to focus only on her verbal skills. She has infused I Was the Jukebox with a political voice, as well. In “Antietam,” Beasley describes a school trip to the Civil War battlefield. “Our guide said that sometimes, the land still let go / of fragments from the war—a gold button, a bullet, / a tooth migrating to the surface.” In an understated description of the magnitude of suffering recalled on that historic site, the speaker notes, “We tried to picture 23,000 of anything.” Other poems, including “The World War Speaks” and “Making History,” address similar political themes. It is in “Antietam” and “The World War Speaks,” however, that Beasley misses a note. Each poem ends with lines announcing closure too neat for the subject. In particular, “Antietam”’s final sentence—“Sometimes, at night, I feel / the battlefield moving inside of me”—just misses its intent to suggest that the battle has affected the speaker permanently. Readers will not accept easily the leap from one of the bloodiest battles in history to a child’s embodiment of battlefield horrors as a result of pieces of “gravel lodging / in the skin of my palms”—gravel eventually absorbed into the speaker’s body. Still, this is only a nit in an outstanding volume of poetry.

I Was the Jukebox deserves praise for two reasons. First, the poems themselves are a delight. Beasley’s eclectic imagination and love of language are on full display in these poems. The poet has an insatiable curiosity and draws on an impressive range of source materials, from mythology and history to observations of contemporary culture and language. Second, this collection promises that poetry readers have much to look forward to in Beasley’s career. She is already a significant talent, and one cannot help but anticipate her future work with excitement.

*

Philip Belcher has published poems in a variety of poetry journals, including, most recently, Shenandoah.  In 2005, he won the Porter Fleming Writing Competition Prize in Poetry.  In 2007, his chapbook, The Flies and Their Lovely Names, was published by Stepping Stones Press.  He attended the Sewanee Writers Conference in 2008 and is a third semester student in the low residency MFA program at Converse College.  In that program, he is working with Nick Carbó, Denise Duhamel, Sarah Kennedy, and R. T. Smith. Since March 2000, Philip has served as President of the Mary Black Foundation, a private foundation serving Spartanburg County, South Carolina.  Formerly the Associate Director of the Health Care Division of The Duke Endowment in Charlotte, N.C., he is a graduate of Furman University, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the Duke University School of Law.

Speaking Erasure: Mark Danowsky on Marilyn Hacker’s Names


Names, Marilyn Hacker, W. W. Norton, 2009

Marilyn Hacker went on a trip to the Middle East and recorded her experiences in “Names.” In this collection, Hacker works to find a female voice within traditional literary forms to show that not only can this voice be found, but that it can prevail. In an interview with Karla Hammond, Hacker explains that any literary form is problematic for the female artist/writer as it has been created under a patriarchal system, society. In Hacker’s own words “a woman in patriarchy is always on enemy territory, or at least territory not her own.”

One of Hacker’s goals is to find the female voice that has been neglected throughout history. She speaks of the “erasure of women” and explains that women writers “are reclaiming the idea that a poet is speaking to and for other people.” Hacker is troubled by the way that poets, especially male poets, have a tendency to focus on their personal lives in a self-fulfilling manner. She discusses how the feminist writers of today cannot allow themselves to be distracted by self-reflection and other egocentric interests because there is a higher cause, once again, to speak to others and for others who do not have a voice.

In the collection, Hacker works with several traditional forms. Glose or glosa is a style which dates back to the late 14th century. Glosa traditionally begins with a short passage of up to four lines called a cabeza or texte that is borrowed from a well-known poet or poem. In this case, Hacker has done her own translation of lines from international poets and uses them as carbeza. As is traditional with the form, these lines make repeated appearances within the body of the poem. Another style Hacker works with is called ghazal, which was traditionally used in countries such as Persia and throughout South Asia.

Hacker has said that she “like[s] the tension in a poem that comes from the diction of ordinary speech playing against a form.” She goes on to explain how these “traditional forms or, for that matter, invented forms aren’t in any way inimical to women’s poetry, feminist poetry, or contemporary poetry.”

Some might think it is surprisingly or at least challenging for a writer who is a professed feminist to work within the patriarchal construct of traditional forms, but perhaps Hacker feels it is the very act of finding her voice amidst these constraints that ignites the feminist spirit.

A Taste of “Names”

The title poem “Names” has a more uninhibited feel than the other works in this collection. There is a sincerity in its diction and the manner in which is presented to the reader, not hidden behind a veil of metaphor:

from “Names”

A giant poplar shades the summer square.
Breakfast shift done, Reem smooths her kinky mass
of auburn curls, walks outside, her leaf-print dress
green shadow on post-millennial bright air.
It’s almost noon. I smell of sweat. I smell
despite Bain-moussant and deodorant,
crumpled and aging, while recognizant
of luck, to be, today, perennial
appreciating trees. The sky is clear
as this in Gaza and Guantánamo
about which I know just enough to mourn
yesterday’s dead. The elegies get worn
away, attrition crumbles them into
chasm or quicklime of a turning year.

Some of the excerpts Hacker chooses for her “Glose” poems I found of particular interest in and of themselves. In a section from “Nettles” by Venus Khoury-Ghata, Hacker translates, “the death of a sparrow has blackened the snow / But nothing consoled her / Who is the night among all nights? she asked the owl / but the owl doesn’t think / the owl knows.”

from “Glose”

No dark god was there, and no god of light.
There are women and men, cruel or fallible.
No mild friend picked up the telephone at the right
moment; some Someone was unavailable.
The morning which paled from an uneventful night
would have been ordinary, except that she chose.
Interrogate the hours, invent some oracle
flying overhead, read fate into its flight.
We think the snow was blackened by dead sparrows,
but the owl doesn’t think; the owl knows.

from “Ghazal: Across the Street”, which I found to be one of the better of its kind begins:

Three cops-what are they waiting for across the street?
I’d make some quip, but you’re not with me, or across the
street.

Sedentary traveler, facing my window
blinds rise on provinces I still explore across the street.

Who’ll move into the newly renovated four-room
flat (opposite mine) on the fourth floor across the street?

I bought Le Monde late afternoons at the newsstand
replaced by one more pricey menswear store across the
street.

Without That Bottle of Tequila: James Tolan on Kim Addonizio’s Lucifer at the Starlite


Lucifer at the Starlite, Kim Addonizio, WW Norton, 2009

Nearly forty years ago the renowned translator of Zen poetry and under-appreciated poet Lucien Stryk was giving a reading at the University of Pennsylvania. The room was nearly full. As he was about to begin, Barbara Hernstein Smith took the last seat in the front row. She had recently published to much acclaim the critical book Poetic Closure: A Story of How Poems End. Stryk had been introduced to her earlier and was forewarned that she was planning to attend his reading. Afterwards, she came up to him amidst others with whom he was speaking, said, “You end well,” smiled, and left. When the story was recounted to me twenty years later, Stryk was still clearly delighted to have elicited her endorsement of his own poetic endings. Ending poems is tricky business and when the Romantics tossed out the summary couplet a couple hundred years back, things got a whole lot tougher. Many poets go on too long, over explain, appeal to sentiment, stretch toward epiphany, or just fold up shop. Kim Addonizio in her fifth collection is a modern master of endings. To close the title poem:

For every forward step a stumbling.
A shadow over every starlit thing.

To end “Storm Catechism”:

The waters will be rising soon.
Find someone or something to cling to.

“Verities,” included by Billy Collins in Best American Poetry 2006, ends:

A stitch in time saves no one.
The darkest hour comes.

From “The Smallest Town Alive”:

in my pocket a glowing coal

I am trying to crush
into a name.

And finally, “Crossing”:

I light another silence in my head.

These lines constitute what she terms in “Book Burning” “ravishing sentences,” but herein lies the crux of this collection; how can a poet who can write such stellar endings, who has been awarded, as the jacket liner notes, a Guggenheim and two NEA fellowships, who publishes through W.W. Norton be content with a collection of poems which do not live up to the endings previously mentioned. Auden famously noted that poetry makes nothing happen, but in a collection of poems by an accomplished poet things should either happen or the ravishing sentences and lines should come in droves and not be relegated to the role of little beauties set to save the prosaic musings that precede them.

The German critic Georg Groddeck in his essay “Charakter and Typus” claims that Western literature after the 16th century became increasingly attentive to human reactions. And this is what Addonizio gives us repeatedly in this collection, be they to a poet she and a friend label “a poser” “after drinking too much Sancerre” (“Book Burning”) tothe deaths of November 11, 2004 which she chronicles along with the rain:

O everyone’s dead and the rain today is marvelous!
I drive to the gym, the streets are slick,
everyone’s using their wipers, people are walking
with their shoulders hunched, wearing hoods
or holding up umbrellas…

or in “The Little Dog Upstairs That Never Never Quits Barking”

has suddenly quit. And in the quiet
I wait for him to resume, imagining him
(for I have seen him—his tight white curls,
his anxious, mashed-in face)

staring into space, too sorrowful now
even to cry out, settling
with a sigh in the leopard armchair,
facing the wooden indifference of the door.
Poetry after all is a form of barking.
Yap, yap, yap…

“Yap, yap, yap” indeed. Lawrence Ferlinghetti once wrote a gem of a short essay entitled “Modern Poetry is Prose (but it is Saying Plenty).” Addonizio’s collection is consistently prosaic but comes up well short of saying plenty. Besides ending well, Addonizio can also succeed at playing well with received language as she does in “Verities”:

Into every life a little ax must fall.
*
Sticks and stones will break you,
and then the names of things will be changed.
but she can also fail in this regard as in “The First Line Is the Deepest”:
Into the valley of Halliburton rides the infantry—

Why does one month have to be the cruelest,
can’t they all be equally cruel? I have seen the best

gamers of my generation, joysticking their M1 tanks through
the sewage-filled streets. Whose

world this is I think I know.

That Addonizio can weave together her own versions of Longfellow, Eliot, Ginsberg and Frost in six lines is a sort of victory, but this sort of play is more adolescent than telling, more giggle than gravitas. When she writes in “Veritas” though that “into every life a little ax must fall,” the giggle and the gravitas arrive in tandem. The line is more than merely clever; after the initial imagistic and linguistic delights the weight of the image adheres. Such double edged images and lines are few in comparison to the ones that miss.

Addonizio in her earlier collections drew much deserved praise for being edgy and provocative, but this collection reads like that of a poet whose edgy aesthetic has been compromised by a newly comfortable bourgeois lifestyle spent driving to the gym, listening to neighbor’s dogs, sipping Sancerre, playing with inherited language, and recalling a bawdy past. Groddeck wrote of those poets and writers who focused almost exclusively on human reactions:

They write of what is out of the ordinary, they make their art from extreme mental states. This is of course understandable. Only a person with really sluggish blood could put up with the average interior state of the human being without yawning, and to make art out of it is impossible.

This is precisely the hazard of a poet whose aesthetic is chiefly confessional. If her life is not in some way extreme, be that extremity circumstantial, as in the case of poets who find themselves in the midst of a compelling historic moment, or psychological, as in the case of a poet such as Addonizio whose book jacket blurb describes her poems as “house parties with the doors thrown open, people holding bottles of tequila in their hands, saying “Come on in.’” As someone who read Addonizio’s earlier work with interest, such a description of that work seems apt, but now that she seems well-medicated, mentions of Xanax among other anti-depressives abound, comfortably ensconced in her success, and sipping white wine, the house party and tequila are no longer apparent, and what humane reader would wish the return of extreme states of mind for a poet they have previously admired? The problem is without that bottle of tequila, these poems are lacking in necessity, fire, passion, and song. While Addonizio earned her reputation and success through the quality of her earlier work, Lucifer at the Starlite throws into question whether she can succeed still without that former provocative edginess. The answer so far is clearly not, that is unless one is a reader with sluggish blood or a poet at ease with Xanax, a glass of Sancerre, and a cozy fire.

Purchase Lucifer at the Starlite

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James Tolan is an Assistant Professor of English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College-City University of New York, where he co-chairs the Writing and Literature program.  His poetry has appeared in American Literary Review, Atlanta Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Fulcrum, Indiana Review, Margie and other journals as well as a number of anthologies, including The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary Poetry. He lives in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.

The Good Old Days That Never Were: Martha Engber on Alice Fulton’s The Nightingales of Troy


Alice Fulton, The Nightingales of Troy, WW Norton

One can almost taste dust when reading Alice Fulton’s The Nightingales of Troy. The book of interrelated short stories is not about the Dust Bowl, a dusty planet in a sci-fi tale, or a dessert. Rather, the dust is of the type kids find in their grandmother’s attic. Not just any attic, either, but the attic of peeling two-story clapboard houses like those found in old upstate New York towns along the Hudson River.

The stories carry readers through a century of women in a family settled in the Troy area where Fulton grew up. The book begins with Mamie Flynn Garrahan, who in 1908 milks the cows even though she’s in heavy labor preceding a birth she may have to endure by herself.

The book then follows the lives of Annie’s daughters to a granddaughter grieved by her the distortions of her dreams and her mother’s impending death. All the stories have about them the feel of old, brittle wallpaper and banisters polished to a sheen through years of hands sliding along the wood. The theme throughout reflects a sense of nostalgia, not for the good old days, but rather the real old days. The heartaches of loves lost, the killing silence of propriety, the ignorance of mental illness.

One by one, the characters experience joy that’s within their grasp, only to see happiness slip away into a life of making due. There’s Charlotte Garrahan, who gladly treats her fiancé to sweet suppers from the Sweet Shoppe where she works, only to discover the splintering distance between her family of modest farm roots and his moneyed Connecticut clan. Then there’s Annie Garrahan, who’s lifted to Florence Nightingale status largely based on an innocent, yet potent optimism, only to fall, forever crippled, when she fails to rescue a small boy.

The book is reminiscent of Alice Munro’s View From Castle Rock, a collection of interrelated short stories about an extended family that travels from Scotland to settle in Canada where, through the decades, the family continues to evolve according to the changing culture and landscape.

Unlike Munro’s effort, however, Fulton’s book, through the depiction of times past, begs an odd comparison between the standard literary treatment she uses and new emerging forms of literature. Highly-detailed, subtle and focused in the minute inner workings of characters, Fulton’s style in this endeavor gives the impression this type of storytelling has surpassed its time; that though still the bedrock of highly-respected literary journals, riskier and more innovative writing beckons elsewhere.

Jason Mashak on Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch


Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch, trans. Chana Bloch & Chana Kronfeld, W.W. Norton

Dahlia Ravikovitch’s more than a half dozen books, released between 1959 and 2006, together in one volume, are not only rich with imagery, but serve also to liberate her audience from complacency in regard to social injustice. Her poems enlighten readers about major ongoing social issues (e.g., the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, poor attempts at parenting, or depression), but in a way that is far more journalistic than didactic.

Intentional or not, the title Hovering at a Low Altitude evokes the English idiom “flying under the radar,” a metaphor for living one’s life against the grain. Ravikovitch (1936–2005) clearly witnessed the aftershock of the Holocaust, and so her stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict alone is enough to understand how, for a Jewish poet living in Israel, she might be among the minority for her almost prophet-like admonition of atrocities committed by her own countrymen in the years that followed. Ravikovitch’s first two books, which read like poetic rabbinical responses, would not seem out of place in the Old Testament, somewhere between Psalms and Ezekiel, two books that provided her early inspiration.

In one of Ravikovitch’s more complex highlights, “A Jewish Portrait” (from her 1987 book True Love), the raw delicacy with which she uses to describe another person seems also to be a self-portrait, and the translators’ footnotes explain that the original Hebrew contains ambiguity that allows the image to be interpreted as that of either a Diaspora Jew or a Palestinian refugee. In “Adloyada in Manhattan,” she writes, “and the Arabs wanted to throw us into the sea / as usual / and we took away their land / as usual,” maintaining an objective view of a conflict that has ravished her homeland for far too long.

In her work, a sort of biblical-style repetition combines with lyrical sensibility, prophesy, and erotically charged images that can at times remind one of Leonard Cohen’s work. Consider the implications of the final stanza of “And Sympathy is All We Need, My Friend” (1987):

Everyone’s thirsty for love
and whoever won’t pour a glass of water for the thirsty
is doomed to gag on his own spit
to the end of his days.

God is love, after all, and Ravikovitch’s is a verdant world, where “There’s a god hiding behind the rain,” and love and desire are often represented in relation to water. Yet, the freedom that comes from sailing into such an ocean of potentiality comes with a price, as these few lines from the title poem in her posthumous (2006) book Many Waters suggest:

The bread grows stale.
A plague erupts inside her.
The sail is torn.
Fresh water’s gone.
Maybe a native canoe will come
bearing maize
or something to chew on[…]
She’s gone astray.
This ship
is the Dahlia Maria.

The title of the poem (and book) references lines in both Psalms and Song of Songs, the latter suggesting the poem’s allusion to love. Though adept in her biblical imagery and character studies, Ravikovitch’s poetic strength tends to manifest in her own experiences and observations. She returns often to a landscape of ships/sea/fields/birds/fire/wind, and her own experiences are more evident when she starts to describe more than her own homeland. When she portrays Hong Kong, Australia, Chad, Cameroon, etc., and mentions topics well known to Czechs (marionettes and a character from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which debuted in Prague), she seems attuned to more complex patterns in the world.

Ravikovitch’s battles with depression are evident in such poems as “The Beginning of Silence,” where she uses verbs from one of Ezekiel’s visions to describe ‘silence’ moving across objects in the room, finally to envelop both land and sea. Eventually, she notes “the silence shrieks inside me / and I shriek inside it,” and the reader may wonder if her bouts of depression could have been caused in part by obsessive-compulsive tendencies, as lines from “Poem in the Arab Style, Perhaps” seem to indicate:

Even the smallest thread on the floor can rob me of rest.
No way to maintain a sense of order.
[…] the defects are right there before you,
and that’s what disturbs the eye,
dispels any rest.

Translators Bloch and Kronfeld, both Hebrew scholars, extensively footnote, providing a rare and interesting glimpse into the complexities of translation in general, as well as a tangential study of both ancient and modern Hebrew culture and linguistic transformation that often grants countless layers of depth to Ravikovitch’s work. As well, they inform readers of Ravikovitch’s (sometimes subtle) references to other poets she admired, such as Leah Goldberg, Yona Wallach, and Chaim Nachman Bialik. Remarkably, Dahlia Ravikovitch seems to have envisaged a greater overall literary window for her work – timeless (without ephemeralities) – than many other poets of her century, and this is precisely why her work will continue to resonate long after any particulars that she wrote about are gone.

HE’S BETTER THAN THAT: Jason Pettus on The Great Perhaps by Joe Meno


Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography

The Great Perhaps, Joe Meno, WW Norton

So before anything else, let’s acknowledge that I have a complicated relationship with the work of Chicago wunderkind Joe Meno; I rather disliked his literary debut, for example, the popular punk-rock coming-of-age tale Hairstyles of the Damned (prompting not exactly hateful letters from his passionate fans, but rather these lengthy treaties on why I should change my mind), but then ended up being completely bowled over by his 2006 The Boy Detective Fails, writing a gushing love letter that remains one of the most-read reviews since starting CCLaP to begin with. And that brought me to the attention of WW Norton, publishers of Meno’s latest novel and his national mainstream debut; and for one of the first times as a critic, that scored me one of those much-desired “advance reading copies” (or ARCs) of the book, sent to reviewers months in advance for the benefit of bigger outfits like Publishers Weekly who need that long a lead time. And what I discovered, receiving this ARC out of the blue without even requesting it, is that it produced emotions in me even more complicated than before: because if Norton is going out of their way to send me one, it most obviously means that they think in advance that I’m going to like it and give them a bunch of good publicity (because let’s face it, CCLaP ain’t exactly Publishers Weekly, and doesn’t just merit ARCs automatically most of the time unless there’s an agenda behind it); and that made me distrust the book going into it, and wanting to judge it by a particularly high standard; but then that made me feel like I was going overboard, and suddenly made me want to take it easier on the book; but then that made me feel guilty about being so easily manipulated by a mainstream publishing industry that regular readers know I often have a lot of ideological problems with. Whew — who knew a free book would cause so much freaking angst?!

I mention all this for a legitimate reason, actually; because I ended up having this strangely schizophrenic reaction to said book, entitled The Great Perhaps and which finally got officially released earlier this week; I intensely liked little bits of it, intensely hated many more longer passages, and in general found myself simply bored and disappointed by the vast majority of the manuscript overall. To tell you the truth, I found myself saying several times while making my way through it, “You know, I think I’ve actually read this before — only that time it was called The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen and it was a f-ck of a lot better. Oh, except for every fifth chapter, which is instead a near-complete ripoff of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. Sigh.” But then I’d stop and think, “You know, perhaps I’m judging this too harshly because of unfairly high expectations;” but then I’d read another ridiculous chapter-sized digression or come across one more cutesy yet utterly pointless illustration and think, “No, no, I’m not being unfair, I’m not, Meno really has turned into the very thing I dread the most in the literary community — one of those clever snotty little postmodernism professor sh-ts — he has, he has, and the entire world of book lovers is a little worse off for it.” And then I’d read another chapter and change my mind again; and then I’d read yet another chapter and change my mind yet again.

Because let’s be clear, that the theme of this book is one that would make any snotty ’90s academic postmodern PC Augusten Burroughs fan proud — it’s a dark comedy about a quirky dysfunctional family (roll eyes here), with a healthy dose of magical realism added to it all (groan audibly here), plus with random diversions set throughout history thrown in willy-nilly (angrily mutter “J-sus” to yourself here), where a whole series of weird crap happens not to propel the story but simply for the sake of being weird (roll eyes again here, then get smacked by annoyed hipster sitting next to you at coffeehouse). And yes, I understand that some people actually like such stories, but I do not, I do not at all; I believe, in fact, that snotty irony-laced postmodern academic fiction is actually killing contemporary literature, and that one of the many causes of novels having less and less cultural cache these days is precisely the proliferation of this precious little Jonathan-Safran-Foer-style unreadable pabulum. That’s why so many people over the years have become such passionate fans of Meno in the first place, after all; because no matter how you feel about his past books, there’s no denying the startling freshness he’s brought to them all, and also the way that the strange details in admittedly almost all of them have usually been an integral part of telling that specific tale.

But here, though, the strangeness feels arbitrarily tacked on most of the time, added randomly just so that each character will have their own “thing” — a dad who faints at the sight of clouds, a mom who has anthropomorphized her laboratory animals, a daughter obsessed with ’70s revolutionaries and who is constructing a pipe bomb as a class project, another daughter who’s a budding Evangelical Christian and who slowly comes to realize that she’s actually a lesbian. Not a single one of these details end up having much to do with the overall plot or themes of the book, and there is very little about how the story ends that would change if removing any of these aspects; and I just hate that, I just f-cking hate it, when overly clever authors feel this need to prove to us that they too blew fifty grand on a largely useless Masters degree. As regular readers know, I’m generally an adherent instead of the Realist school of literary thought, and ultimately feel most of the time that language should serve in literature as the mere code that it is; that the point of words on a page is to cause as little attention to themselves as possible, so that we as readers can just simply interpret them into visual images (and conceptual ideas*) in our brain as quickly and smoothly as possible, which of course is where the actual communication in the storytelling process takes place, not on the page itself.

Now, that said, I’m of course sometimes a fan of a well-turned phrase, which is why my reaction to The Great Perhaps is more complicated than simply disliking it; for example, despite its aforementioned similarity to Kavalier and Klay, I was really charmed by the story thread concerning the family’s now doddering patriarch, a comics-obsessed first-generation German-American who through flashbacks we watch grow up in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood in the 1930s, who eventually gets shipped off by the government to a German/Japanese “domestic concentration camp” in Texas during World War Two, which turns out to easily be the best-written and most fascinating section of the entire novel. So what a shame, then, that Meno clutters up the rest of the book with so many Clinton-Era PoMo cliches — from the fact that all the characters secretly love smoking when no one else is around (really? in 2004?), to radically liberal academic parents (the whole thing’s set in Hyde Park) who share way too much info about their personal lives with their embarrassed conservative kids, to the atrocious habit among middle-aged academic authors to overly add the word ‘like’ to dialogue to signify that it’s a teenager talking. (And seriously, middle-aged academic authors, we get it already — you’re threatened by teens and so feel the need to make them all sound like morons. WE GET IT ALREADY. NOW STOP.)

In fact, I ended up having such a bad reaction to The Great Perhaps, I did something I’ve never done before in the history of CCLaP; I re-read from start to finish a book that I’ve already reviewed here, Meno’s last novel Boy Detective, just to make extra-double-sure that I wasn’t overreacting to this newer one, or maybe remembering that previous book in a better light than I should. But you know what? After reading it a second time, I realized that I really am right to have had this reaction that I have; that Boy Detective really is just brilliant in this way that Perhaps is not, for the exact reasons that are completely missing in this newer manuscript. Consider…
–Although just as weird, the strangeness in Boy Detective is always done in the direct service of the actual story — not a “magical realism” tale (which I’m growing to despise more and more with each passing year), but an out-and-out fairytale, where all attempts at reality are simply done away with to much better and more humorous effect. (For those who don’t know, the book’s main conceit is that all the famous child detectives of Mid-Century Modernist literature were actual people, and to a fault all grew up to be neurotic messes, but with Meno doing so much more with this idea than even seems possible at first.)
–The message of Boy Detective is a complex, symbolic one, open to a lot of interpretation; while the message of Perhaps is fairly obvious and badly telegraphed, summed up as, “White people have been dicks for a very, very, very long time, and none of them actually think that they’re the ones being dicks.”
–The pieces of Boy Detective’s story fit together like a tight jigsaw puzzle, all of them having a rock-solid internal logic no matter how externally surreal they may be; but in Perhaps, many of the even ho-hum details need to be stretched to the limits of believability in order for Meno to make his point. (To cite just one excellent example, ask me how f-cking ridiculous it is that an aerospace engineer could actually work for years at McDonnell Douglas [one of the biggest defense contractors on the planet during the Cold War Era] without knowing that the planes he was designing were to eventually be used for violent purposes, an insulting slap in the face to the people like my father and his friends who actually were aerospace engineers at McDonnell Douglas during the Cold War Era, and who were under no illusions whatsoever about what their jobs were.)

So when all is said and done, then, I’m afraid I’m just going to have to give The Great Perhaps an only mediocre score today, and to declare that I was just awfully underwhelmed and disappointed by it, after getting so excited about Boy Detective just a couple of years ago. And if Meno ever happens to read this, may I please, please encourage him to go back to what he’s best at — coming up with concepts of breathtaking originality, then executing them in flawlessly bizarre ways — and to stop listening to all his buddies down on campus who have obviously been whispering that what he really needs to write is yet another whiny little screed about miserable academe assholes who no one in their right mind would ever possibly give a rat’s ass about. Meno is better than that, he’s much better than that, and it’s frustrating as hell to spend 400 pages watching him forget it.

QUALITY OF HIS HARVESTS: James Reiss on David Baker’s Never-Ending Birds


never ending birds

Never-Ending Birds, David Baker, W. W. Norton

Reading David Baker’s ninth book of poems is like stepping into a museum diorama in which fauna and flora, including such minutiae as the streaks of a tulip, are on permanent display. The setting is central Ohio, but where are its official Buckeye trees? Although Ohio’s state bird, the cardinal, is mentioned once and there are plenty of avian creatures throughout, the overall mood of the book is probably too somber for your ordinary latte-sipping ornithologist from Columbus. Many poems seem steeped in the zeitgeist of olde New England or give off the dank scent of a British fen during Cromwell’s reign.

Yet Baker is a dyed in the twenty-first-century American Midwesterner who has coped with such challenges as divorce and fathering a teenage daughter in an era of Ohmygod and Beyoncé. He’s also spent time in “the financial city”—Central Park and Madison Avenue in the Big Apple—and a woman named Page has advised him, “You should write about the city.” How is it, then, that a rural sadness clings to him like a scarlet letter sewn by Puritans? Rather than shrug and write urbane odes to joy, how is it Baker utters cris de coeur notable for their creepy élan?

First of all, take the book’s last poem, “The Resurrection Man,” a meditation on grief and death that begins with echoes of the obscure, wacko seventeenth-century health educator William Vaughn: “Let [this body] asswageth furie of the mind / with our hoard of bones.” The poem’s speaker busies himself rearranging dead deer bones he’s found on his property “in a sort of crèche / in the barn,” though an unnamed female companion, possibly his daughter, refuses to visit the site. Aware as he is that his “deeryard” is weird, toward the end of this 111-liner the speaker nevertheless returns to his initial exhortation, “Let this body taketh / away sorrow,” and urges his companion to join him in building “a footbridge over // the creek” near where he’s assembled the bones because “we will all lie down, soon asleep.”

It would be easy to call this poem surreal. On the contrary, “The Resurrection Man” comes closer to Poe in its use of Gothic elements to deal with anguish and mortality. Characteristically, Baker steers clear of the confessional mode in addressing midlife-crisis material as personally unsettling to him as the issues behind “The Raven” were to Poe.

One consequence of Baker’s viewing his autobiography through a glass darkly is that some of his work tends to rely on external sources. If Eliot provided endnotes for “The Waste Land” because his publisher needed material to fill out what would have been a skimpy chapbook with too many blank pages at the end, Baker’s antiquarian interests as an antidote to me-me-me confessionalism result in the reader flipping to the back of his book to four pages of Notes. Unlike some of my colleagues, I find such page-flipping tedious, just as I continue to find Eliot’s endnotes a drag.

But enough of esoterica! Two-thirds of Baker’s poems have no endnotes whatsoever and are a pleasure to read, even if their subject is heart-wrenching. For me the book’s title poem is a joy in every sense. It’s accessible, straightforward—not elliptical like many poems here—with only one possible dictionary toughie, “olio,” which means “hodgepodge.” Plus, it’s one of the precious few poems in the book I’d call optimistic, even cheerful. Here’s “Never-Ending Birds” in its entirety:

That’s us pointing to the clouds. Those are clouds
of birds, now we see, one whole cloud of birds.

There we are pointing out the car windows.
October. Gray-blue-white olio of birds.

Never-ending birds, you called the first time—
years we say it, the three of us, any

two of us, one of those just endearments.
Apt clarities. Kiss on the lips of hope.

I have another house. Now you have two.
That’s us pointing with our delible whorls

into the faraway, the trueborn blue-
white unfeathering cloud of another year.

Another sheet of their never-ending.
There’s your mother wetting back your wild curl.

I’m your father. That’s us three, pointing up.
Dear girl. They will not—it’s we who do—end.

How cunningly these couplets go about their business. Like a professor at his chalkboard with a pointer, the speaker shapes his tableau, initially by describing fluffy, amorphous clouds in a huge Gainsborough sky; segueing to one enormous swarm of birds on the wing in autumn; to his cast of characters, the three Baker family members “pointing out the car windows”; et cetera, et cetera. Please pay special attention to the way Baker revels in counting backwards, e.g., “three of us, any / two of us, one of those just endearments”—in addition to his terrific antepenultimate line. Like a couple of his Midwestern forebears, Theodore Roethke and James Wright, Baker everywhere risks sentiment, especially in “Dear girl.”

By the time you reach the end of this unique divorce poem—for instance, it totally eschews Snodgrass’s conventional stance in “Heart’s Needle”—you may be unaware that Baker’s apparent free-verse lines are actually anything but “free.” You may be used to blank verse sounding like “That time of year thou mayst in me behold” or “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.” Nonetheless, the 10-syllable grid that underlies most lines here—and ever so many lines in other poems in this book—means that Baker and Milton share more than a Puritan ethos in their poems about lost paradises. But if Baker is a formalist, he’s far from unreconstructed. His sly blank verse is remarkable—ars est celere artem.

Moreover, Baker’s last line, split by dashes, has oodles of savoir faire. Throughout his book Baker punctuates lines with em dashes; at times he begins and/or ends a poem with a dash, as if to emphasize the poem’s fragmentary nature. Perhaps no one other than Emily Dickinson and Frank Bidart has relied on dashes as much as Baker, though Dickinson and Bidart use these punctuation marks quite distinctly. Baker’s dashes in the last line of his title poem are reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop’s parentheses in the final line of “One Art”: “though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” Baker and Bishop’s use of what I’ll facetiously call “lineus interruptus” is a dramatic gesture, all but a caesura, which recasts the content of their lines drastically. In other places Baker’s nervous use of the em dash recalls a fastidious late-Henry-Jamesian obsession with qualifying each and every assertion.

In fact, Baker’s ability to hold several ideas in his mind simultaneously leads him, like Linda Gregerson, to use parentheses sometimes back to back (but always with the aim of opening up his poems) (to ghostlier demarcations). In the middle of “Tis a Fayling,” a poem about the failings and guilt of one of America’s greatest crackpot Puritans, Michael Wigglesworth, Baker flashes forward, in two consecutive parenthetical remarks, as well as a third, from 1669 to the Iraq War and the covert operations of the CIA in Venezuela: “Of my shame. . . , / I carry (see men / flying, as if swallows wing-shot) (a boy / in Baghdad coddling his mother’s eye in / his palm) blood on the egg (now of Black Ops / in a narrow valley, beneath the swept / mountains of Caracas).” For all this Gustav Mahler-like switching of time signatures—and Mahler changed signatures as speedily as he altered his walking gait—the coherence of Baker’s sentence is clear. Over and over, not just in “Tis a Fayling,” Baker resorts to the word “thus,” like a refrain, to establish a cause-effect link between A and B or Y and Z. Some poets, like Philip Schultz, rely on parataxis, often the ampersand, as a poem’s coat hanger. Not so Baker, a rara avis in his insistence on the whys and therefores of things. With frequent fragmentary syntax, despite his love for monosyllables, he’s one of the more conspicuous black sheep in his generation of mainstream poets enamored of the plain style.

Because of the way “Gently Read Literature” is formatted, I can’t quote a stanza or two of Baker’s to show how he deals with another trend prevalent among mainstream poets of his generation, the poem composed of stanzas with an equal number of lines. Well, Baker emphatically opposes the trend with his five-space indentations. All I can do here is describe how he takes quatrains and prints their first two lines flush left, while indenting lines three and four. Or else he prints the first ten lines of a poem with eleven-line stanzas flush-left and indents the last line. Perhaps most offbeat of all, in “Horse Madness,” he prints eight ten-line stanzas with the second and ninth line of each stanza indented. The effect of Baker’s indentations is not only visual; each indented line is a startling emotional leap.

These leaps comprise one important distinction between “Never-Ending Birds” and a book that could be its cousin, “Lord Weary’s Castle.” In his second collection, which won the Pulitzer Prize, Robert Lowell caught the intensity of the Puritan tradition in poems like “Mr. Edwards and the Spider.” But only Baker can leap two pages from his intensely dour first line that uses roman lettering, “I hate the world,” in “Posthumous Man”—a line borne out of anger and dismay because of failed marriage—to the italicized line, “I hate the world,” written by Keats in a letter to his lady love. Only Baker can credibly bring together Fanny Brawne and the ex–Mrs. Baker, poet Ann Townsend. I don’t think his empathy for Keats is in any way self-aggrandizing or patronizing. Likewise, when Baker juxtaposes bits of the nineteenth-century religious mystic Polly Collins’s story with his daughter’s, this doesn’t constitute, for me, evidence of what critic Joshua Clover, in another context, referred to as “compassionate condescension.” In contrast, I find Baker’s yoking together disparate characters and events evidence of a kind of neo-metaphysical poet, i.e., John Donne with an architect’s compass in one hand and a computer mouse Googling in the other.

To switch allusions from the seventeenth and twenty-first centuries to the Celtic twilight of the late nineteenth: at this point in fewer than two decades Baker has planted nine bean rows. Considering the quality of his harvests—they’re homegrown, they’re tasty and wondrous to behold—I hope he continues to work in his garden (as assiduously as he has) for at least another twenty years.

Another Mother: James Reiss on Rebecca Wolff’s The King


the king

The King, Rebecca Wolff, W. W. Norton & Company

For the past two hundred years young poets have greeted each moribund fin de siècle with a burst of energy in the new century. At the end of the 1790s those upstart collaborators, Wordsworth and Coleridge, pledged to deal with “the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation” – as opposed to the poetic [unreal!] diction of their predecessors. Likewise, by the early twentieth century Pound declared his intention to eschew prolixity and “use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation”; he offered “In a Station of the Metro” as his two-line textbook, while Eliot flew in the face of genteel Victorian “parlor poetry” with one shocking simile, “Like a patient etherised upon a table.”

The first decade of our new millennium is about to come to a close. Why should we think poems will continue to be written as they have been since, say, Adrienne Rich – as if poets were bakers using the very same cookie cutters? One doesn’t have to pore over Harold Bloom’s “The Anxiety of Influence” to realize how essential it is to go beyond reverence of one’s elders toward one’s own identity. Inasmuch as young Poet X may be enthralled by Louise Glück or Charles Simic, by Poet X’s thirtieth year (s)he must be forging a name that is more than a forgettable X (from a generation known by this letter) in the smithy of her or his soul.

Let me, as President Nixon used to say, make one thing perfectly clear. Rebecca Wolff’s plainspoken new poetry collection is as brilliant and original as any book I’ve read by a poet in her generation. Speaking of Gen Xers, I think of Wolff’s contemporaries in Marvin and Dumanis’s recent anthology with its judiciously rebellious title, “Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century.” Some noteworthy contributors to “Dangers” include Joshua Beckman, Erica Bernheim and Brenda Shaughnessy – a motley crew dedicated to the proposition that all poets and poems are not created equal. It has been noted elsewhere that in this anthology the “collage poem,” pasted together as a latter-day “heap of broken images,” wins out over the epiphanic narrative. Still, there are exceptions; for example, collage poems don’t abound in the oeuvre of Terrance Hayes or, for that matter, Wolff. As far as I can tell, by now in her third book Wolff has amply developed her gift – to quote Pinsky’s phrase – “for gorgeous poetic gab.”

In “The King” when she describes her son Asher’s birth, she glances back at Plath and Olds but never long enough to be Plathean or Oldsesque. The only writers Wolff names or alludes to directly are Alice and Henry James, Yeats and, yes, dear old Wordsworth – though she wryly admits, in an iambic pentameter line, that she “never knew that poem [‘The Daffodils’] until now.” In fact, Wolff seems to be as comfortable referring to Elvis “the King” Presley as she is to leprosy-ridden Gehazi and “the receding backside of Yahweh.” She doesn’t swallow the pablum that “God is good” – or mention “Allahu Akbar” at all – but she cites Mahalia Jackson, thereby suggesting these poems are spirituals wailing the gospel – according to a “straphanger.” Although she says almost nothing about the Big Apple – “no one ever / believes I am from New York City” – street-smart and skittish as an alley cat, Wolff modulates her meowing metaphors to blend with the feral screech of New York subway trains.

On the other hand, she tells us her mother is from Tennessee. Must it therefore be true that Wolff understands Graceland as well as being in a state of Grace, a hypothetical Volunteer State she’d prefer to volunteer for but finds herself enlisted in a far more graceless reality? It’s as if she placed a jar in Tennessee, and in that jar she stored cookies, mother’s milk and other down-home goodies. No matter that her poems are sometimes difficult to cozy up to, written in her chiseled shorthand: her book is a coherent if unconventional, critical paean to motherhood. “The King” has a narrative arc starting with a Lamaze class and ending with Asher years later grown into a toddler asleep not far from his newborn kid sister, whom Wolff fully introduces ex machina in the last two lines of her book (though she foreshadows the sister in an earlier poem).

In case I appear to be describing “The King” as Wolff’s version of Dr. Spock’s “Baby and Child Care,” let me dispel this silly notion. Poem after poem here, to alter Hugh Seidman’s book title, stands up and sings. Take the beginning of the monorhyme 16-liner, “Third Poem of the Day: Insanity”:

I’m pregnant, you see
and it takes a lot out of me
and puts a lot in – three
has some ecclesiastical trinity
to it, and I provide, for free,
the third. Don’t you think that it be-
trays an underlying vulnerability?

This would be Tin Pan Alley doggerel were it not for its theological swagger, along with its hint that the speaker is crazed with prenatal anxiety. Actually, this loony tune concludes with a line that could come straight out of Donne, Herbert – or Anne Bradstreet. Like so much in “The King,” “Insanity” scintillates with religiosity.

Or, if you’re accustomed to thinking that the New Formalism went out with the 1990s, here’s Wolff’s offbeat take on traditional forms in the final 20 lines of her 44-line “Breeder Sonnet”:

wake up wake up wake up

he said and slapped me

I deserved it/I was sleeping

in this defensive posture

Are you meant to be born
Were you meant?

a
b
a
b

c
d
c
d

e
f
e
f

g
g

It’s as though existential questions about Asher, along with the speaker’s gaggle of quandaries about being a breeder, were resolved by unalterable law, the rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean sonnet. Just as in “King Lear” the Fool’s lunatic mummery comforts mad Lear on the heath, so too Wolff and her fetal son may outlast the pains of pregnancy thanks to a template, the wordless rhyming cries of a heart gone bonkers.

No one has written about pregnancy as disturbingly – but never whiningly – as Wolff. Allow me to interrupt this essay to mention an unfortunate intramural coincidence. A writer from Los Angeles, whose given name is Rebecca and whose surname is Woolf – as in “Virginia Woolf”; note the different spellings – wrote a memoir about childbirth titled “Rockabye: From Wild to Child.” I bring this up to emphasize the huge distinction between Woolf and Wolff. I’m going to quote two passages and ask you to decide who’s who. Incidentally, I’ve arranged the West Coast Woolf’s prose into lines of poetry:

I am on drugs

on an airplane

mentally

and there are some other things wrong with me

perennially
I have control over them

How’s the soup today?

**

I. Am. Pregnant.

Me, pregnant.

I am going to have a baby.

There is something alive
in my body,

and one day it will have a name.

Holy shit!

How is that possible?

**

Did you pass the quiz? It was a piece of cake, right? The first seven lines are by our prize-winning New York State Writer’s Institute Fellow, the author of the book under review here. Her trope or factual statement about drugs, her mentioning “things wrong with me,” defy “Ladies’ Home Journal” stereotypes about pregnancy, whereas the second sequence of eight lines belabors the obvious. Rather than rag on “Rockabye,” which has sold well since it came out in 2008, I’d like to dwell on the virtues of the first snippet: its off-kilter omission of punctuation, except in the seventh line; its wordplay with a kind of Hopkinsesque enjambment and alteration of meaning between lines two and three; its use of parallel, rhyming adverbs in lines three and five – and don’t forget the rhyming “me” in line four; its subtly ironic tone in line six, followed by an out-of-left-field rhetorical question in line seven – which is not the end of the poem but a segue line to a scene in “the poor park,” where druggies sip soup from Styrofoam cups and the pregnant speaker walks “the junkie’s walk (tilted).”

Nobody, least of all the Los Angeleno Woolf – whose baby’s name is not Asher but Archer! – has written postpartum poems as grueling as her namesake mom from the trenches of the Empire State. Wolff’s poem in ten parts, “The Letdown,” begins with an epigraph: “A tree whose hungry mouth is prest / Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast.” These notorious lines from Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” begin sappily (!), but Kilmer’s momentary stay against chaos precedes Wolff’s “disappointment,” “emergency,” “‘death / instinct,’” “crazy dream,” and so forth. Having to wean Asher from breast milk leads Wolff to pose contradictions:

it’s like I lost the baby
it’s not like I lost the baby
at the beginning I wished
sometimes I’d lost the baby

How can any man comprehend such bereavement? As one of the book’s longest poems, more clearly a collage than most other pieces, in places “The Letdown” comes close to showcasing Wolff’s gothic proclivities, evident since her debut book, “Manderley.“ But “The Letdown”’s lurid meanderings, like the Hudson River near Wolff’s home in Athens, New York, circle around a woman whose feelings have been concussed. Come to think of it, Wolff uses various forms of the word “feelings” at least 15 times during the course of “The King.” If “thinking is dry, and frivolous,” she longs to be alone “at last with [her] feelings” – recalling Keats’s magnificent exclamation, “O for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!”

I’m happy to add that, while it’s no barrel of laughs, this book offers up quite a few dollops of humor. One poem’s title, “Raised by Wolves,” puns on the plural of Asher’s surname; he uses his mother’s maiden name. The title also of course refers to the legend of Romulus and Remus’s upbringing. Finally, it depicts the Rebecca Wolff/Ira Sher residence in Athens – not Rome – NY as a house on a cul-de-sac between two graveyards. No wonder the speaker freaks out at the slightest disturbance, sitting as is her wont nel mezzo del cammin. Sure, she drags her son “screaming down the road,” but edgy vaudeville high jinks, even screwball comedy almost prevail here.

Half-a-dozen other short amusing poems give the lie to the notion that psychopharmacology makes for a stale, humorless life. Towards the end of “The King” one of my favorite mini–laff riots involves wonderfully cumbersome jargon, the sort I associate with August Kleinzhaler, when Wolff describes her children – by now (surprise!) she has two – who sweeten her life and

dismantle anxiety apparatus

with

positive resource installation

Am I the only one who finds this satire on psychobabble devastating? Zoloft be damned: Wolff can be funny as a shrink on acid. (She can also turn tenderly nostalgic about old boyfriends or what she liked about childhood: “Tartare, salted on the butcher’s white waxed paper; avocado / eaten from its shell; statues one can never learn too well” – note the stately embedded heroic couplet, half-hidden by the line break and the semicolon.)

For me one last amiable aspect of “The King” involves the final line of “A Page from Cathy’s Book.” Wolff addresses her close friend and Fence Books author Cathy Wagner (alas, omitted by, though honorably mentioned in, Marvin and Dumanis’s anthology): “I don’t care if you think I’m crazy // I am crazy // but our sons will be brothers.”

The image of Wolff’s and Wagner’s young sons Asher and Ambrose romping together like brothers in Athens, NY or Oxford, OH makes me smile.

**

James Reiss, Emeritus Professor of English and Founding Editor of Miami University Press, taught at Miami University in Oxford, OH for 42 years.