Self-portrait as Ruth, by Jasmine Donahaye.
Salt Publishing. $23.95.
How about a poem that connects anal sex and Jerusalem’s Western Wall? “Fetishes,” in Jasmine Donahaye’s second collection, will make readers run screaming (perhaps in outrage), or else fascinate them. This elegant little poem is in fact a complicated comment on gender, sexism, forbidden things, and access to and uses of sacred places, bodily and historical. (The mechitza is a screen separating the sexes at Orthodox synagogues and at the Western Wall, where women are allowed only at one small section.)
The cock, rearing up
trembling and twitching
nubbing towards home
and the anus with its little deceit
that it wants out
when it really wants in.
The mechitza, which you can
see through, but through which
you may not be seen,
and the wet redness of the cunt
with its retreat upon retreat
At the Western Wall:
should I not
Many of these beautifully-written poems—all easy control and allusive storytelling—are about Israel, especially its occupation of Palestine. Donahaye, who lives in Wales, is the daughter of a kibbutznik and grew up in England but has spent long periods in Israel and the US. She’s not one to shake her head and sigh. Even when appearing merely wishful, Donahaye handles her subject with brisk particularity. In “Water,” she stops, thirsty, into a shop in Jaffa, the historically Arab city, now part of Tel Aviv. The shopkeeper smiles at her sympathetically:
I could stand here and drink, and drink
and for a moment
it might be enough:
he an Arab and I a Jew,
and water simply water.
That’s not merely nice, though. Water and water rights are a huge political issue in the conflict. The poem also gains force by its proximity to other, tougher poems. The ultra-dark “Israel v. Palestine: a sonnet” makes fine use of that form’s expedience of argumentation to show a couple sharing roast pistachios across a table, “our fingers / occasionally arriving at the same time,” and arguing about the Six-Day War, the British Mandate, the Intifada, and the Warsaw Ghetto—in other words, Israel’s very right to exist; its justifications for its crimes:
and two old Quakers are eagerly listening in
but there’s nothing to say to them
because this is the private conversation:
a glimpse of your tongue, my body
empty with want, as you stand over me,
your hand on my throat, holding me down,
everything I care about gone.
Who do the Quakers represent? Those who believe peace is a matter of arguing reasonably till consensus is reached? The worldcommunity at large? Who’s “you,” and who’s “I,” to Donahaye? Her political sympathies are obviously with the Palestinians, but by refusing to identify either side exclusively as victim or aggressor, she keeps the poem from becoming propaganda.
Donahaye’s long narrative, “Remembering Baba Yaga,” is less explicitly political than some of her shorter lyrics. She tries to recallparticulars of the Slavic folktale about a malevolent witch and a good little girl at the same time she remembers her grandmother’s misery at visits from a Russian émigré who revolts her. Moving back and forth from real life to fairy story, identifying with its heroine, Donahaye considers the ambiguous motives behind wrong and right action, and what it means to be good. The witch’s living house, which stands on chicken legs, warns the girl to run away, then chases her on Baba Yaga’s order. Is the house, who serves the witch and helps the girl, good or bad? What about the real-life grandmother, an émigré herself who is polite to her visitor but reveals her disgust for her—perhaps as a matter of class, perhaps as a rejection of her own ethnicity or history—when the visitor has gone home. Writes Donahaye:
I understood that to be good,
which meant to want to
do good, was a lie, that
even in escape there was no escape.
The final chase of girl by witch is recounted in fragments. Twice, Donahaye’s imagery goes military: driven by Baba Yaga, the house “pounds along / behind” the escaping girl “like artillery, like an implacable / army”; the witch comes “like a dragonfly, / like a helicopter, dodging through trees.” The incongruous similes suggest pogroms, the Holocaust—and also the use of helicopters by the Israeli army against civilians. Neither the real nor the fairy story leads to clarity. The girl rides a magic horse to safety, pulling out of its ear a mirror which, thrown behind her, becomes a lake the witch can’t cross. The witch, however,
does not drown.
In all the versions, with their uncertainties,
I absorb this irresolution: the Old Woman stops,
she turns back, but she is not vanquished.
She will try again; she may still catch the Girl.
Collected Poems, by Ciaran Carson.
Wake Forest University Press. $19.95.
Ciaran Carson’s Collected Poems is a slab of a book—not something you’d want to fall asleep reading in bed: it could break your nose when it dropped on you. With its compact weight and stiff, nearly two-inch-wide spine, this may not be the best way to read this prolific and very fine poet’s best work. The lack of index is unfortunate to those of us who have read a lot of Carson and want to go back easily and often to our favorites. Small irritations aside, it’s a necessary volume. Carson, who was born and still lives in Belfast, and grew up speaking Irish, is a poet of witness to the Northern Irish conflict. He’s also compulsively playful, a colloquial, ultra-literary storyteller, who changes his formal game with almost every book.
Early on, in the seventies, Carson wrote mostly unrhymed, sonically-tight, lyric narratives of medium-length lines in simple diction. In “Twine” he remembers, in childhood, his “father’s postman sack / Hung on a nail behind the kitchen door.” The father is absent and longed-for; on his rounds, his “hands / Were blue with cold. Soon he would return, / His hands would warm me.” By the late eighties, though, Carson had developed the long-lined narratives of The Irish for No—now out of print as a stand-alone volume—and Belfast Confetti, still possibly his most essential work. In both books he tells stories of individuals against the backdrop of British occupation. His anthology piece, “Belfast Confetti,” which appears in the earlier book, not as the title poem to the later one, is outstanding. Rioters hurl “nuts, bolts, nails, car-keys” at riot squads; Carson compares this “confetti” to “exclamation marks,” an explosion to “an asterisk on the map,” gunfire to a “hyphenated line,” while escape routes are “blocked with stops and colons.” Carson can’t escape the street violence, can’t escape writing about it, doesn’t know how to proceed: “What is / My name? Where am I coming from? Where am I going? A fusillade of question marks.”
Some of the poems in The Irish for No are heavily iambic—odd in a long-line form we associate with Whitman’s heaped-up singing surge, Ginsberg’s indefatigable incantations, or C.K. Williams’s personal-political prose-tone narratives. By the time Carson writes the book Belfast Confetti, his music within the ultra-long line is suppler and perhaps more subtle. “Ambition” is outrageously rich in detail, rollingly digressive and latticed with imagery that holds the poem together. It begins on a mountain hike with the poet’s father, a heavy smoker and storyteller. Dad, a postman, has spent time in prison for tampering with the mail:
His humour was to take
an Irish ha’penny
With the harp on the flip side, and frank a letter with it. Some
See the joke.
Metaphors are so extended and elaborate that they replace the apparent reality of the poem. Early on, the father wanders off, and the poet considers the progress of time, which he compares to a mobile checkpoint where “One soldier holds a gun to your head. Another soldier / Asks you questions.” Military references are everywhere, though at one point we seem to be at Wimbledon watching tennis—it’s on the soldiers’ TV: “There’s a tiny puff of chalk, as the ball skids off / The line, like someone might be firing in slow motion, far away.”
Time is like the occupying soldiers who are watching tennis, which is like war. Carson is so deliberate, so fastidiously lackadaisical, such a good yarn-spinner, and so fully there wherever he pauses, that he never loses you. Seeing where he’ll go next is enormous fun. But reality is unreliable; so is mood and language, as we slide from Dad’s proverbial utterances—“God never shuts one door . . . but he opens up another”—to his stark descriptions of prison: “I walked the iron catwalk naked in the freezing cold.” Eventually we get back to the mountain, almost more symbolic than real by now, and this image of reconciliation, or failure of reconciliation, or continuing life, or approaching death:
I found him yesterday a hundred yards ahead of me, struggling,
as the blazing
Summer hauled him one step at a time into a freezing furnace.
And with each step
He aged. As I closed in on him, he coughed. I coughed.
He stopped and turned,
Made two steps back towards me, and I took one step forward.
Carson continues using long lines in First Language and Opera Et Cetera, in the service of, among other things, abecedarian sequences and razzle-dazzle improvisations on Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Rimbaud’s Le bateau ivre. The poems are on average shorter now, with Opera Et Cetera limiting itself to five couplets per poem. They’re even more playful, even gabbier. Puns, jokes, Chairman Mao, loaded Lügers, castanets. “Methadone and moonstone,” “dimples and pimples” on golf balls. References to Europolitics, science, literature. Names of strains of Mexican marijuana. There’s also a new sense of distance and less explicitly personal matter; narration gives way somewhat to lyric stasis. The I’s, he’s, and she’s seem hardly individuals, as the language swirls around them. In the rhymed sonnets of The Twelfth of Never and in the couplet-driven For All We Know, a poem sequence / spy novella / love story and Carson’s most recent book, there are individual poems of great power, especially when a sudden “I” torques the description personal. Here are the first and last two lines of “Banners,” from The Twelfth of Never, in which the speaker surveys the Borodino battlefield from Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia, then compares it to his homeland:
For all that died from shot and sword, more died of disease:
Plagues, dysentery, miasmas, suppurating grot
And for a moment I thought of dear old Ireland:
Fields of corpses plentiful as dug potatoes.
But it’s in Breaking News, from 2003, that Carson made his work newly urgent. These ultra-short-lined poems look, typographically-speaking, like William Carlos Williams. But rather than sharing Williams’s interest in setting, in written language, what the ear hears against what the eye sees, Carson delivers notational set pieces, telegraphic in their terseness, poetry blipped as the latest news. His subject is again Belfast, haunted by nineteenth-century imperialist wars and rebellions. Here’s “Francisco Goya: The Third of May 1808, 1814”:
he is not
Neither is Carson blindfolded, ever. At his best he’s better than almost anyone.
Poemland, by Chelsey Minnis.
Wave Books. $14.00.
Chelsey Minnis has a nice trick of seeming simultaneously ironic and sincere, of expressing emotion while parodying it. She’s not interested in narrative event, though the sets of sentences that make up Poemland, her third full-length book, imply stories behind them. This appealingly reckless, mannered, girl-in-girl-drag performance is made up of hairdos, lipsticks, cigarettes, jewelry, candy, private parts, money, and copious drinking. I’d say Minnis is a bad girl, or grrrl, or gurl, but who isn’t these days?
On each page of Poemland are no more than six sentences, most ending in ellipses, divided by white spaces. Every eight to eleven pages, there’s a double-sided black page decorated by a bar code, which sometimes feels like a deep pause—or commodified blackout—but mostly acts as a reader-friendly graphic design decision in a title-free book of poems.
Fortunately, Poemland always seems to be talking about sex, even as it purports to be about the mind at work on poetry. The dominant mode is declarative: “This is when I talk and talk boringly into the tape recorder but point to my vagina.” Part of her act is obsessive self-absorption, though she takes pains to show ego as construct and strategy rather than a clear window pane through which something essential is revealed. She doesn’t take herself too seriously, even when dealing with the big subjects: “If you die everyone tells a sad story about you!” She seizes on comic words, uses them to dark purpose: “The swinishness of others is legendary . . . // . . . // Death will come to end swinishness. . . . // But my swinishness will continue in my poems!” There are remarkable similes: “It’s like trying to drink a bottle of champagne in a roadside bathroom . . . // While holding on to a handle attached to the wall . . .” And there are fragments of story: “A woman is cry-hustling a man & it is very fun.” Great invention, “cry-hustling.” That sentence seems less personal than her admission that “With this book I have made a very expensive joke . . .” This isn’t strictly true—Minnis’s willingness to push way too far belies the work’s status as joke. But the book jacket cover displays its title as a bar code, to remind you poems are for sale.
Poemland isn’t repetitive, exactly, but doesn’t get anywhere much, and hasn’t much of an arc. The experience of these poems would probably be similar read in any order. Those are choices, not failures. The overall effect is of a mind circling sportively in a small space. But this apparent aimlessness inside of a repetitive format has its built-in hazards (as do most sonnet sequences). Best bits make lesser bits seem unessential. By the end, attitude trumps content. Reading thirty pages of Poemland may be as satisfactory as reading the whole thing. Minnis’s underlying argument might be that life (writing, desiring, self-obliterating) is erratic, repetitive, and arcless. Making too much of too little is authentic. Poemland is written against the showboating profundity of other kinds of poetry, even as it embraces poetry like a toxic lover.
The Lions, by Peter Campion.
The University of Chicago Press. $18.00.
The lions on the cover of The Lions are a detail from the Ishtar Gates to Babylon, located in modern-day Iraq. Peter Campion is much concerned, in his second book, with American aggression, military and ideological, including our current wars. “War without end is about to begin / again,” he writes in the title poem. This book’s ethical force cohabits with an almost seasick sense of vulnerability in poems tonally-cool and morally-hot, with highly-worked surfaces that give way to occasional, surprising colloquialisms.
“The Lions” is a complex meditation on how we experience, get lost in, find ourselves irrelevant to and culpable for, public events. The poem zigzags from time to time and place to place, an act of retrieval: how did I get to this point? How did we, collectively, get here? What now? Childhood memories are the lens through which history is considered. The poem begins with a younger version of the poet-speaker taking coats at his grandmother’s party. One invitee doesn’t show up: Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense who presided over the early years of the Vietnam War. In an imagined flashback, McNamara—a friend of the family—holds the poet’s infant mother in his arms during her baptism:
His spectacles two pendant discs of light.
His parted, slicked back hair. The priest intones
the liturgy for Catholic godparents:
“The saving water is your tomb and womb . . .”
Then this, then this, then this. East Asia plumed
with chemical fire. Me sitting here.
American anxiety, domestic and public, and its self-feeding speciousness, is everywhere. Lions fantasized by the youthful poet-speaker stalk the party, “svelte messengers of dream / . . . / Whatever terror lay behind them wasn’t there.” In another passage, dreamy and violent, delicate and disturbing, Campion recalls coming upon a couple having sex on the beach: “I can see her strawberry pubic hair / beneath her t-shirt. / And a man is coming / out from the shadows kneeling over her. / It happens so fast, their blur of rupture: / like that he’s thrusting into her.” Over ten gripping pages, “The Lions” circles, backtracks, quick-cuts, till party, fear, imaginary lions, real war, family, sex, and violence infiltrate and infect one another. Finally, Campion returns to the scene of accidental voyeurism, and the woman’s alarming climax among “the broken sheets of sizzling surf / and the honeysuckle dripping and rosehips.” What kind of America is there, among the soaking flowers?
Campion dares a lot of things generally hazardous to poems, to good effect. Animals, for example—so often used in poems to make nature reflect human emotion. But in “In Early March,” Campion opposes what he calls “our mist of sentiment” regarding the natural world. “It happens in our ignorance,” he writes, opening a gulf between animal and human. His deer are not mirrors for humanity. They’re infrastructure:
Fringing the steep calderas and
the blacktail deer descend.
Trembling. All systems on alert.
White concrete banks of the reservoirs
then corridors of power lines
fall to this circuitry
like the channels through silicon.
Though our estrangement from
nature means nothing to them.
Campion often exits to metaphor, but never strains for significance. In “Lilacs,” he remembers when “It used to burn, especially in spring:/the sense that life was happening elsewhere.” Now he’s found a partner; they live among “freeways and cellular towers,” but there’s a smell of lilacs from the park. Are we to hear that the poet has found the answer in love? Happily, not. The lilac smell surrounds them
as if it were fulfillment of desire.
But not fulfillment. Just the distance here
between us, petaled, stippling to the touch.
The difficulty of actually picturing this and other Campion images is important. The effort they take to parse—the feeling that they don’t quite balance out as equations—has to do with Campion’s vision of the way things are. His complications come in quick incremental shifts of image and syntax. Read too quickly, “1980: Iran” may appear to be an expression of the sub-political vague disquiet the average American feels when watching anti-Americanism on TV. The demonstration the speaker recalls watching as a small boy “seemed/far off: a caterpillar/brushing against the buildings.” A flag is burned. The imagery changes, interestingly hard to follow. The “kerchiefed faces” flee from but also keep approaching the flame:
I remember how this
wrapped down my ribs
each time they played the clip.
It snaked against an emptiness
the way the bodies spiked
around their rags of flapping ash.
The boy rides a trike, loses his “plush of assurance,” hears a John Lennon song on the radio while his parents fight in another room, “their battling a whip lash//of operatic gush and silence.” This poem is about the making of Americans, our hunger for might, maybe for truth, and our fatal blindness. The dread the poet-speaker feels “watching the fire eat the colors//out of the demonstrators’ hands” teaches him that his home
beyond opinion or belief
the center of the self (that made
all foreign powers enemies.)
And if the fighting meant
abasement cruelty disguise
I would need to fight for it.
Campion’s meticulous poems have dangerous edges. He’s a major American poet in the making, if not already made. These poems took awhile to like. I hope I’ve made clear how delighted I am to have read them.