Into These Knots, by Ashley Anna McHugh. Ivan R. Dee. $22.50.
The best poems in Ashley Anna McHugh’s first book have a startling freshness and emotional pounce. “Cairns,” a seventeen-part sequence, is her centerpiece; its poems, many of them rhymed sonnets, weave several strands, but the most taut and powerful of these dramatize an incident between “Jake” and his laid-off father that turns into a bitter fight about shame and control:
His father glared him in the eye, and held
the armchair hard. “Let me take care of May.”
“And I told you I didn’t want your pay.
You hear me, boy?”
“Just let me get this month.
Don’t be so goddamn dense.”
“You watch your mouth.”
He should have just shut up.
“Quit being proud, Dad—”
“Pride’s the only thing I’ve got.”
Into These Knots won the New Criterion Prize, for a manuscript “of poems that pay close attention to form,” which it does, but unobtrusively, allowing rhymes to fall like a pat of butter on meat-and-potatoes monosyllables like “here” and “clear,” “one” and “gun,” and half-rhymes like “month” and “mouth.” Stanza forms vary, but there are stanzas: couplets, tercets, quatrains, some longer forms, such as the sonnets in “Cairns.” McHugh doesn’t overreach: not much time travel, few identity changes that a thousand years of English poetry haven’t set us up for, little Coup-de-dés-ish juggling with the visuals. There are signs she’s been reading Larkin (whose “long slide” turns up in an airplane poem) and Frost.
What these poems do, movingly, is enact, in simple language, the pain of a narrow range of universal human situations—death, love, despair—without overlooking, in small ways (rhythm, level of diction), their potential for comedy and thus tonal range. The book begins with a hunting accident involving a deer, an apple tree, and, yes, a father, followed by a poem voiced by an “I” and a “she,” whose repetitions enact despondency’s circular ruminations:
I say, Without a God there is no hell.
There’s only this—. She rustles for her keys.
The apple tree sheds petal after petal.
She says, Let’s take you to the hospital.
The petals spin like sparks. I close my eyes
And say, Without a God there is no hell.
—From “Into These Knots”
One of the best, also longest, poems is the Frostian “One Important and Elegant Proof,” a fusion of narration, dramatic and interior monologue, and dialogue staged in a therapist’s office. Not all of it works; the portentously italicized ticking of “the clock” and the unconvincingly unresolved finale, for example. Thoughts and speech however are perfectly pitched. The subject wants and doesn’t want to be there (“‘This isn’t something that I thought I’d do. / People just kept on telling me I should.’”) and the therapist’s silence isn’t helping:
“I grew up Christian, thinking things made sense.
You know? To someone. God? If not to me.”
that he might ask a question. No.
She sat up straighter in the silence.
“My father’s Protestant, my mother’s Catholic.
But neither practices. I’m not religious,
not really—but one time, when I was living
in Vermont . . .”
Me too, I gulped reading this, impressed by McHugh’s command of speech rhythms and withheld emotion—and then laughed, wryly, when “A Song for the Suicidal” revisits (presumably) the doctor’s office and provides a noirish checklist of ways to end it all:
Testing his nerves she told him,
“Sure, I’ve wanted to die—.”
And the doctor interrupted,
Asking her “How?” (Not “Why?”)
Straight razors in the bathtub.
Falling. Pawn-shop gun.
Wrong way on the freeway—.
Taking every last one
Of the sedatives in her bathroom.
Plunging from bridge . . .
McHugh pulls off a hard thing: she peels back layer after layer of a tense situation until the reader, implicated, flinches. The best poems are stripped down, gleaming raw wood. They have this in common with Larkin (though without Larkin’s layers of ironic self-commentary and prismatic refractions of diction) and also with Frost’s funny, painful, factual, disabused dissections of human nature. True, some things are less successful. There are so many epigraphs I decided they must be intertextual strategy: if so I don’t buy it; these poems don’t need those crutches, even when it’s easy to sympathize with the urge to foreground potent quotes from impeccable sources like Dante and Proverbs. McHugh’s unemphatic wisdom about human relationships sends shivers down my back in a number of the overtly personal narratives and narrative-lyrics, but other lyrics feel like exercises, their imagery (“lilacs,” “a wave’s white lash,” “the thunder-prowled horizon”) shopworn, the reason for the poem’s getting written unclear. Maybe this has something to do with poem placement: an early seven-line lyric called “Ars Poetica,” despite its “shells sea-worn” and “blood-rushed ear,” feels like the perfect bridge between the poems on either side of it. But for me, the big successes of McHugh’s book come when the poems have the grace to be awkward. They sound like no one has ever spoken quite like that before.
Radial Symmetry, by Katherine Larson. Yale University Press. $18.00.
Am I the only person who reads poetry books from back to front, and gripes when a collection makes me read it left to right like an essay or a memoir? Katherine Larson, happily, lends herself to being read a poem at a time, page thirty-five or page twelve, and going off to chop parsley while her special effects seep in. Radial Symmetry, the most recent winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize and the last of eight selections by Louise Glück (much praised by the winners for her generous attention to the final product), is a first collection attentive to externals (“always the dialectic of inside/outside—” Larson puts it), except as the things that catch Larson’s attention reflect the poet—modestly, attractively—back to us. Here’s part of “Low Tide Evening”:
that south of Galway, where they strayed
through terraced shales and grey-blue
limestones searching for fossils, the sea
licks pale lichens off the rocks
and everywhere the spirits are hungry.
Say you leave a crust of bread on your plate.
A hundred of them could last for weeks on this.
A woman reticent about herself, you would say, but perceptually and ethically involved in the world.
I don’t know if Larson is a scientist—“Love at Thirty-two Degrees” finds “I” at a lab bench dissecting a squid—but she has a naturalist’s objective, though hardly dispassionate eye: less rambunctious than Marianne Moore’s gusto, but with the same precise attention to word-as-almost-thing (think of Moore’s “The Fish”); indeed at times she ventures into the territory of language qua language, say in the “Ghost Nets” sequence (named, with an ecologist’s passion, for “lost or discarded gill nets...for the way they continue to indiscriminately trap and kill organisms from seabirds to porpoises”):
Memory. The invention
of meaning. Our minds with deeps
where only symbols creep.
Her syntax curls out like a tentacle—preposition, article, noun—liquid, pellucid, tentative, meditative:
We stay and make a temple for him
of pink anemones. We drink the leftover wine. And we stand,
still at odds with the world, like distinguished topiaries.
—From “Of the Beachcombers Under Airplane’s X”
Lines, long and short, are orderly (I’ve always pictured Moore’s cupboards as neat, Bishop’s full of clutter and half-drunk whisky bottles; this is Moore territory) with mostly crisply functional line ends and wind-chiming sonorities (“their reds a requiem for bone,” “oyster crates/in estuaries” and “trilobites and trembling lotus”). Diction and syntax are what you’d call lyrical (with a dash of the biotechnical; e.g., “dinoflagellates”) in the vowel-transparent, liquid-consonantal, Petrarchan tradition, sometimes crossing the line into the too-delicate, -pretty, -polished, though Larson, alive to the risk, reprimands herself in “Ghost Nets”: “Not perfection...but originality” and elsewhere comments: “If there’s anything a coast imparts, it’s patience/with imperfect lines.” Her rare forays into earthier diction (“We bury our shit like surgeons/in the cold sand of the dunes”) can make what’s described sound precious—though, with a quick stroke, she’s capable of satisfying our thirst for the quotidian with a shot of context: “Early that morning, I watched the postman on his bicycle delivering letters,” or “I look at the sea and eat my toast.”
A traveler—Africa, the Galapagos, Italy—Larson is not free of poster poverty, as in, “The sanctuary with/its silver offering bowls, the lepers singing” (“Lake of Little Birds”); overall, however, her ethics of vision respects difference and maintains distance—or diffidence—occasionally yielding to the temptation to round things off with a resonant, though not unchallengeable, statement, such as, “Each time the intimacy becomes greater, the vocabulary less” and “Either everything’s sublime or nothing is.” Is this true? Is it profound? I don’t know, though it sounds nice. Sly touches of humor ruffle sober tones:
Death and I
are shopping for emicungwa
at night, in the market.
The street children are out
stealing watches again
—From “The Oranges in Uganda”
Radial Symmetry keeps messy human relationships at bay—but not always: “Yes, Paul, I spend too much money. / I cheat on everyone I love” (“The Gardens in Tunisia”). Throughout the collection a reticent speaker is variously denoted as “I,” “she,” or “you,” and, like the floating pronouns in Arthur Sze’s work, Larson’s give a fragmented, deconstructed idea of the poet/speaker, portrayed as just one more element in the natural world her poems inhabit, a human observer no more central to the overall argument than “freeze-dried seahorses.” Occasionally, however, a speakerly “I” who sounds like a psychologically delineated character with the usual nightmares and guilt emerges; then I’m less beguiled, because Radial Symmetry is, it seems to me, only glancingly a book about human relationships.
Katherine Larson’s poems are on the whole finely balanced between subjective and objective, perception, emotion, and intellect. Her language is precise, and delicate as watercolor, or the print of jellyfish from Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature) that decorates her cover. Wallace Stevens (“The imperfect is our paradise”), another poet of elegant linguistic surfaces, words and lines, roughed them up, in part via rapidity of execution and the ludic. The carefully tended but also troubled surfaces of Radial Symmetry make it an impressive collection, with hints of depths and broader developments in store.
The Eternal City, by Kathleen Graber. Princeton University Press. $16.95.
Propped on the printer, a book open to a still life crammed with objects: a jar of olives, wine glasses, figs, some disquietingly amorphous loaf-shapes, a knife. My favorite Chardin—The Silver Goblet—its composition stripped to a few resonant essentials, I can’t bear to look at for long: it’s too numinous. Katherine Larson’s poems resemble it; Kathleen Graber’s world, rich in clutter, is like Chardin’s Jar of Olives: a canvas that celebrates excess. A finalist for last year’s National Book Award, The Eternal City is a study in how much a poem can hold (no accident, those suitcases in her poems), as one item or thought yields, metonymically, to the next:
Sometimes we are asked to prove who we are.
Just this morning at the library I had to open
my passport & ask a stranger to vouch for me
so that I could take home a book. If you live
long enough, you realize that you are not
the person you were. Here in this kitchen—
a kitchen I might in conversation call mine—
I own exactly one sharp knife & the wooden spoon
I use to stir the sauce. A greasy tin kettle, pulled
from the back of a cabinet, soaks in warm water.
The days are like no days I have ever known.
Would I like things to be better? Yes.
But what does it matter? Intent seems so small
This is roughly half of “The Festival at Nikko,” a relatively short poem with a typically heady mixture of the concrete and the speculative, as well as of Graber’s formal tendencies: door-like shapes, long lines, paratactic and un-paragraphed, because where and why does one stop digressing when everything leads, as in a book by Sebald, to everything else, the wooden spoons unabashedly sidling up to the eternal questions, and all of it “only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and,’” as Elizabeth Bishop wrote in her somewhat more traditionally coherent but also encyclopedic poem, “Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.”
What holds these poems together? Why don’t we get bored (I didn’t get bored)? The character of the speaker, for one thing: down-to-earth but bigger than life, a hoarder of stuff and thoughts. We want to correlate her responses, explicit and implicit, to the conditions of life at the end of—how many?—millennia of human history. She doesn’t just mop the floor and soak greasy pots; she reads—and books, serious books (movies, art), are jumping off places for poems. So Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations provoke reflections on everything and the kitchen sink; not hard to see her affinity for Walter Benjamin, another Great Accumulator, to whom three poems are dedicated. Augustine, Issa...there’s even a spot of product placement: Pepperidge Farm and Ziploc. As to formal glue, although these poems have only the loosest organization, as if to demonstrate that chaos is woman’s natural condition, sonics usefully grease the paratactic machinery: modulation of vowel and consonant sounds, syntax and rhythm (print a poem out as prose, it doesn’t work; the lineation works with and against syntax, and is integral). Modulations of time, too, through adverbials and tense shifts:
In three weeks I will be gone. Already my suitcase stands
overloaded at the door. I’ve packed, unpacked, & repacked it,
I wept all morning
—From “What I Meant to Say”
Less successful is the device of beginning each new poem in the title sequence with the last line of the previous one: feels gimmicky. Nor, when Graber tries her hand at stanzas, do I buy it; maybe because her hyperbolic world seems more one of inclusiveness rather than of divisions and hierarchies, the line ends, white space, and two-steps-forward-one-step-back style of poems like “Un Chien Andalou” don’t (yet) work, for me, as well as the duffel-bag-holds-all style.
Closure? Seems unlikely. It can however be suggested when a seemingly lost poem circles back to the clump of trees it set off from: “Book Six” of the title poem begins and ends with dreams; the question in “What I Meant to Say” is whether to pack or not to pack The Complete Shakespeare, and in the end Shakespeare makes the cut because “There are tragedies I haven’t read.” True, some poems feel a little baggy; more often, however, Graber imposes enough formal restraint on a long wandering poem to keep it from being totally centrifugal, and her jumbles and juxtapositions produce new ways of seeing things and purposeful, delightful, comic exposures of life’s rummage sale side. Chardin’s heteroclite objects are a reflection upon the relationship between multiplicity and unity, the editor of Chardin says, while the more simplified composition of his late Silver Goblet posits “the existence of an ideal order.” Graber probably has no more than fleeting nostalgia for an ideal order, but she has some definite ideas about the riches of the everyday, and an aesthetic to match.