Prose from Poetry Magazine

Four Takes

by D. H. Tracy
Azores, by David Yezzi. Swallow Press. $24.95 cloth; $12.95 paper.

The poems of Azores are in both senses composed, and even at their most lyrical or despairing they are conscientious of having your ear, as though spoken from a podium. They have a preternatural equanimity that would be boring if it were not for their reliable, air-clearing connection to the poet’s inner shit—the poet being poisoned by displeasure in others’ fortune, and by the diabolically unerring detection of faults in himself he is helpless to correct. He finds himself the kind of being who thrills to see a naughty shape in a cloud, and then feels it necessary to avert his gaze. Sensitivity leaves him without resistance to minor setbacks and trivia—it is a dismal morning at the office, the hero sulking at his desk:

He thought then of a book he’d read last week,
in which a character takes his own life
by hammering a pair of scissors through
his sternum with the heel of his shoe.
He felt the flesh above his heart and tried
to visualize the passage of the blades.
He looked down at his shoes. The toes were scuffed.
—From In the Morning

The poems generally share the character of this passage, a certain bluntness in their piercing. Verse cantilevers plain diction. The dropped metrical foot in the fourth line, and the break “through/his sternum,” get the tone of casual extremity right. The scuffed shoes, trumping the macabre, represent the regressive forces exerted by the mundane even on the awful. This sense of not being able to sink to the occasion is recurrent in the book, and at some level recapitulates the passage in The Death of Ivan Ilyich where Peter’s thought, on preparing to leave for the funeral service, is that he will miss his nap. Conscience sends in the blue helmets—“You feel ashamed, or rather think the word/ashamed,” Yezzi writes—but in one’s relationships there is no escaping what A.R. Ammons calls “a slightly dispersed but indisputably/tinctured core of brutality.”

In grasping this brutality Yezzi finds a way to write about relationships not found much in poetry, the iffy connections with acquaintances, couples, and places, cemented with convenience and jealousy as well as fondness. Romance will always have the limelight, but I think Yezzi’s tacit statement is correct, that these shallower relationships, failing in droves, contribute the bulk of the sadness to life. Yezzi finds a respite in the sailing voyage of the title sonnet sequence, reveling in the elements as much as such a poet is able (I kept picturing Philip Larkin trying to enjoy himself on a sailboat). By the end, though, “shoreward-days” assert themselves as “a habit that we can’t unlearn.” The poet retains his emotional and formal poise amid this resignation, as if to say that poetry about our limitations need not be subject to our limitations—as if the poem were a place set ever apart from brutality. This faith is more stark in Azores than it was in The Hidden Model (2003), which was more invested in the lives of others and in the life of language; its presiding spirit was Auden rather than Larkin. I do miss the unsociable impulse of the earlier “Aporias” and the sheer weirdness of “Woman Holding a Fox”—the unrelenting steadiness of Azores can impart the sense that an indifference to communication, with which the rest of the world overflows, has been corrected to a fault. It is odd to read a poet so systematically not talking to himself about loneliness; but it is heartening in equal measure to have the record of perseverance before the torments of unexceptional adversity.


Nomina, by Karen Volkman. BOA Editions. $21.00 cloth; $16.00 paper.

Nomen: the middle, and so inmost, name, as in Gaius Julius Caesar. Volkman’s imperative in these poems is uttering nomina without, if possible, reference to humdrum names; she writes in deprivation of particulars, in an effort to talk about certain conditions and the nature of them—mourning, wandering, misfortune—with a purity unavailable to a dramatic or representational approach. As she puts it in Spar (2002), “I am asking the most edgeless questions, so words will keep them, so the green gods in my mind will lull and lie.” The project is Symbolist, with the “opacities,” “limpidities,” and “polarities” of Symbolist abstraction; the book is the densest, most obscure I have read in a long time, though that is not to say it has a simple or antagonistic relationship to meaning. The poems have a ratiocinative component, where the obscurity is obscuring something, and a Steinian component where it is not. In the former there is a centripetal tendency in the syntax, form, and recurrent vocabulary, and one senses that the writing is in fact taking the shortest path between some two points, somewhere. While I cannot supply a reading for phrases like “cardinal animal in an ordinal net” and “fallow nominal of a touchless near,” they somehow succeed in suggesting they have one. Occasionally, this part of her voice that strives to name will up and hand the stage over to wordplay: “Nice knuckle, uncle. Nice hat, hornet.”

Pouring these alternate impulses into sonnets (and fairly tight ones) is an odd and winning maneuver, and the poems of Nomina are much better for it than the invertebrate prose poems of Spar. A lyrical confidence sometimes surfaces, now prim, now expansive, the fluencies recalling Dickinson and Crane:

Sad sirens burn and sigh,
caressing the umber inner of a thigh—
unfolding in the flimmer of their hair

the swimming timbre, the wakeful stare
loosens its wooings, and wakes to die
drowning mutely, hollow as the sky.
—From Sweetest bleeding

Crane’s influence seems especially clear, the poem “Retinal snowfall” reading as a rendition of “Voyages 1.” Where this lyrical confidence subsides, Volkman slogs her way a word at a time through some more or less private thought process, and language-painting becomes an increasingly frequent escape. The poems paradoxically lose mystery in the course of becoming more opaque. It is an unusual case of a poet’s being more appealing in a rhetorical mode than in her mother idiom.

Even in this personal idiom, though, Volkman shows the formal sincerity that encourages one to in some sense give her the benefit of the doubt. The one limitation of Nomina that compromises this sincerity is one it shares with much nonrepresentational poetry, namely, the tendency to invoke certain topoi (wind, oceans, skies, seasons, voyages) for an associated emotional fragrance the poem would otherwise have no way to access, its objective correlatives being restricted. Gestures of sudden intimacy (“And you—”) often appear as a corollary to this tendency, though in Nomina these are not unearned:

What acrid, airy sea
will give the whither anchor, heed the calling
for harbor, shore, to stall the listing lee

of always-motion, infant and appalling?
My infinite late, dark nascence: Tell me,
will there be an end to all this falling?
—From Lease of my leaving

My eyes crossed during my first encounters with Crane as well, but that work resolved so strongly for me it has become difficult to draw conclusions about difficulty as such. But I do sense that in passages like this one, at her least submerged, Volkman is following the most promising of her threads.


Fragment of the Head of a Queen, by Cate Marvin. Sarabande Books. $13.95.

The world of Fragment is in part one of horses and town criers, a fairy tale setting without the fairy tales. The tales that do exist are fairy-tale grim, mostly about relationship dysfunction, recrimination, and gluttony for romantic punishment—you could say they investigate what happens when the irresistible urge to love meets, in a man, an unlovable object. The dirty laundry, within the pseudo-anonymity of Marvin’s methods, is flown from a flagpole; Siegfried Sassoon is notably more gentle on the subject of trench warfare than Marvin is on the subject of love. She understands from the outset that a life lived at a certain level of passion is bound to make no sense, and will have topsy-turvy notions of what is appealing and what isn’t. “Marvel at the corrupt!” she writes, “Make disgust your/lust and cast your fresh pain to the trash!” And:

I am like a table
that eats its own legs off
because it’s fallen
in love with the floor.
—From Scenes from the Battle of Us

Notwithstanding this directness, her style is comprised partly of ancillary, thrown-off gestures—the lines are bristly and seem to radiate from the armature of the poem rather than be it, like sparks flying tangentially off a grinding wheel. The poems have very little inertia; as they begin there is never that sense of a locomotive leaving the station. Marvin unmutteringly brings in disjointed fantasia, personification (especially of rooms and windows), and a hyperbolic projection of feelings in which “The world felt bad” and “Every leaf looked/like it needed a cigarette.” This energy clears space, and has the unexpected effect of mitigating the self-absorption; the poems are not as solipsistic as their single seething emotional life would imply.

“Dear less-than-a-man,” she writes, “I think with my blood.” Only she doesn’t, quite, and the nature of Fragment’s speech acts seems to me its big question. The book is part voodoo doll, to be sure—I suspect when it went to press some ex-boyfriends somewhere got spontaneous nosebleeds—and she does write best from the inside of experiences, whose passions correlate closely with the intensity of her language (though “A Brief Attachment,” a wary, medium-heat poem about a same-sex crush, is an exception and one of her best). But she does not go over to pure curse, and she seems to want a connection to a frame of reference outside of her, even the exoneration of some independent tribunal—although she is not interested in the thorough post mortems or courtroom reconstructions that would allow such a judgment to be seriously offered. At times propriety couldn’t matter less; at others, it is the bottleneck:

Reader, do I border on the obscene? Have I forced
you to give up your sympathies in exchange for more

lurid curiosities?
—From Muckraker

If the answers were no, she would have no poem. I am of two minds about Marvin’s unsettledness, which is sensate and alive but limits the quality of psychological insight she can sustain: for all the presence of the poems, one is left in mind of what they cannot talk about rather than what they can. I can infer only in general terms what she feels—frustration, rage, disappointment, righteousness—even though the book is principally about her feeling. In avoiding the pitfalls of self-interest by a kind of excess, Marvin resigns herself to a patchiness, even coarseness, in her understanding of experiences, especially the experience—love—that matters most to her. Perhaps this is to say that Fragment of the Head of a Queen is just that—but I remain curious what the whole head would have been like.


The One-Strand River, by Richard Kenney. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95.

Fifteen years have passed since Kenney’s last book, and The One-Strand River finds the author having deviated some from his last known trajectory. After The Invention of the Zero (1993), I would have guessed Kenney’s poems would spiral farther out into the dismal reaches of the Thomas Pynchon/boy genius nebula of literature. Time had other plans, and although one must factor out certain quirks, losing every third poem or so to a gimmick of some kind (“This poem is no fun,” etc.), Kenney has developed a capacity to be at least intermittently restrained, and the result is not only the entry of affection and wonder into his poetry but their coexistence with mordancy and mischief. Real feeling and satirical bite result.

The texture of the writing is defined by verbal impetuousness, a lunge for the aptest comparison at any cost in baroqueness—on the highway he watches “a lone deinonychid biker” whose shadow “writhes like a count’s cape/Caught in a belt sander.” The mood is defined, contrarily, by wariness and moderation amid midlife shoals where “Churlish/Thoughts bedevil me, often,” although he has to admit “ambrosias/Yet decant.” Kenney’s fascination with data certainly still exists, and he cannot resist mentioning hurricanes on Jupiter and saying “the Middle Holocene” instead of “now.” The data are not purely for show-off, but are pressed to serve as metaphors for experience and inner life, where they have the pitiably inadequate quality of a precocious child trying to insulate itself from uncertainty. They are no different ontologically from the stuff of religion or indeed fairy tales: “All linchpins shear.” The problem is worse than that, since the things which affect him most—a glint in the eye of a laughing child, the scent of soap on a passing woman—are irreconcilable with a certain empirical idiom of public speech. With knowledge and meaning no longer overlapping, questions of right conduct become absurdly underdetermined (“the poled pirogue//Of Humanism slips the everglade/Of endocrine function, doing/Its very best”), and there are no grounds for deciding in what ratio one ought to be a creature of instinct and of reason:

Oh to live ignobly!
Not pig-
Like, quite, nor bleating,

Braying, mewling, really;
Neither, though, thoroughly
Morally:

Not for a life of pure sensation
Per se.
—From To Circe

The overall impression is of a slightly louche, roué, self-hating polymath, a role he plays much less consistently than Frederick Seidel but perhaps with more vulnerability. Kenney’s touch is not always light enough for vers de société or deft political incisions (it is in cases very crude) but when he can bring himself to leave something unsaid, the results are aqua vitae. This happens in “Critical,” “Security Council,” the academy sendup “Challenges & Opportunities” (“Sousa’s//To be replaced, we learn, by !Kung plainsong”) and in “Alaric Intelligence Memo #36,” where the fiction is a sleeper terrorist filing a report to his superiors. Through this exercise Kenney is trying to decide what he has invested in his latter-day Rome: “Their warrior class, insufficiently manned,/Is mad, responsive, and under command”:

Their poetry barks. Their faith, a ruins,
Ghost-infested, affords no womb
Of future. In sum: however skilled,
They are overripe. My Lord, strike soon.

Addendum: proud to have served your will,
I have lived too long among them. I am ill.
I am infected with dreams. At the first moon
Of conquest, I respectfully request to be killed.

That “Addendum” falls on a page break—until then, the poem seems truly out of control. But the ending exposes the internal struggle that has been taking place, charity fighting disgust to a draw. The poem is not about uncertainty or vacillation, but agonized and clear ambivalence, and in imparting such ambivalence to a public voice Kenney has made me rethink my suspicion that the art is ill-suited to the interestingness of the times. Not only is it not playing catch-up, it is, evidently, actively clarifying.
Originally Published: October 23, 2008

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This prose originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

September 2008

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Biography

D.H. Tracy's poetry and criticism appear widely. He lives in Illinois.

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