Collected Body, by Valzhyna Mort.
Copper Canyon Press. $16.00.
She folds her arms because in a house
of such uneven walls nobody
should be expected to learn handwriting.
The poems in Collected Body contain a lot of lines like these, and I’m not sure what to make of them. On the one hand the exuberance of the surrealist images and their puzzles of juxtaposition tantalize; on the other, they quickly feel like too much of a good thing.
Mort’s thought is associative: her writing has a pleasant enough randomness from image to image, motifs whose relationship to a theme, hint of argument, or narrative, however, can be hard to pin down, unless “the body” of the title suffices. I would say not. In the lines quoted above, for instance, from “Unter den Linden” (Valzhyna Mort grew up in Belarus and came to the US in 2005; Collected Body—how does a body get collected?—is her second American book and the first that she has composed in English), the speaker is a girl whose chest one day “will fold into breasts”; “her uncle limps, stutters, and winks”; there’s a hint of an extended family that speaks to the reader’s techno-nostalgia for family soups, preferably cabbage, and villages without a CVS in sight. “Two lindens keep the kitchen window busy,” the girl “holds her pen like a spoon. Her pursed lips/frown at the horizon line”—nice conjunction of horizon line and lines of writing, and an ambition to grow up and be a writer confirmed by the poem’s presence on the page. It’s a slice of autobiography, a category into which other poems also fall.
One’s pleasure comes piecemeal, in evocative details, for instance, that make domesticity palpable: dishes “bleached in sour cream,” and “women constantly chopping vegetables.” Surrealism is up to its nearly century-old tricks: objects come alive (“lipstick smiles at me,” “the tower clock clears its throat”; colors are Fauvist (“a red oyster,” “pink vomit”) with black accents, and there are not-so-startling juxtapositions: “lips repose like two seals/in a coastal mist of cigarette smoke.” Violence is predictable: there are recurring tropes of blood—“blood like a dog-rose,” “dripping-on-the-floor blood”; wounds “darken,” someone runs “from the man who lies/inside the ripped-open body of a bathtub.” Bruising is endemic.
On the other hand, there’s at least one piece of excellent advice: “Do not eat the fruit from your Family Tree.” And Mort’s sexuality is refreshingly earthy, celebratory, and guilt-free. How not to like reading about a woman who “moves through dog-rose and juniper bushes,/her pussy clean and folded between her legs” (“Crossword”), or one who is:
rough and indifferent toward her full breasts,
as if she were brushing a cat off the chair
for her old father to sit down.
It bothers her, what did he find there after all?
So she touches herself under the towel.
It is easy to find where he has been digging—
the dug-up spot is still soft.
—from Sylt I
If Mort’s book were a painting the canvas would be red and black and expressionistic. The question is whether it makes enough use of the mind’s shaping faculties; that is, whether there is an underlying intellectual structure holding everything together and making individual poems add up to something bigger than their separate parts. Cascading with images, poems can feel self-indulgent:
and the new day is at the town gates
like a trojan horse
that carries inside it the whole army of the sun
our men take it to the central square
their naked bodies like god’s index finger
This is true even when one is chuffed by sheer proliferation and gusto:
—flowers are biting my back!—
the longer I look on the coins of your nipples
the clearer I see the Queen’s profile.
—from Jean-Paul Belmondo
The best parts of this book might be its prose sections, possibly because prose syntax makes its own structural demands. The first, “Aunt Anna,” nineteen pages long, describes a figure from childhood. Here the imagery delightfully distinguishes Mort’s writing from similar projects in the naturalist-realist vein:
To see Aunt Anna you have to step back; you have to glimpse a ghost slipping through the long narrow corridor of her body—her face vanishes as abruptly as it appears.... Even to the happiest of news, she shakes her head and weeps.... Aunt Anna rediscovers the technique of breathing through a prayer, when her breath sneaks in unnoticed, disguised among Catholic rhythms.
And “Zhenya,” in the second prose portrait,
leans like an old village fence, almost kissing the ground, and a shred of green cloth, scudded by the wind around the grazing, has finally caught hold of one of the boards and hangs on it—Zhenya’s jacket.
These evoke Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles, or Hélène Cixous’s recent “fictions” of an Algerian girlhood, though Mort’s writing is (as yet) narrower in scope. Too long to be called prose poems, though they make use of poetic technique—sensual imagery, repetition, sound—they make one hope that a full-length piece of prose, not necessarily either fiction or nonfiction but some hybrid beast, is in the works.
Janet’s Cottage, by D.H. Tracy.
St. Augustine’s Press. $24.00.
Wide-ranging in its interests, Janet’s Cottage has the technical accomplishment of a mature work, yet the poems never feel varnished and mounted on a wall. It’s the live fish, flopping on the grass, just before the angler removes the hook. And it is D.H. Tracy’s first book and it has won the New Criterion Poetry Prize.
Over a far down a transport drops
eight paratroops for practice, as if
a girl had plucked a dandelion gone to seed.
Neither gone to storm nor drought the day
takes its terrifying middle way,
terrifying to all but Janet, who commends
the tousling politesse of light and shadow, and pretends
the easel is the world and the world
the easel. Is it or is it not pretend?
The village houses, seen from the hills,
or even from the street, inch closer on such quiet days
to hamlets made for model trains
of matchboxes and of cotton wool, and of
a meticulous variety of love.
Enter from the east a model train,
as quiet as a cloud.
These lines from the fourth section of the title poem show the poet’s management of syntax, his throwaway use of rhyme, and other sound effects (for example, the soft popping plosives in the first three lines, the sharp ts lower down), his ability to half-hide big words, like “love,” and to understate all the work an adjective like “meticulous” does. One might not notice these things. The lines also show Tracy’s commitment to the human figure, her landscape and objects, and to description: indeed, reading the whole poem—and others—the obsessively-added small brushstrokes of description might seem at times to lose the thread of a poem’s argument; this, I think, is one of Tracy’s quirks, a sign of complexity rather than a flaw, rough edges which keep poems from feeling either reductive or too polished, allowing them—especially the long-lined quasi-narrative poems—to sound like a particular voice, rather than the product of a school.
“Janet’s Cottage”—the poem, but this is generally true—has a mysterious point of view. We never really know where we are, though we may suspect England from certain vocabulary items—coombs, downs—nor who is describing the scene to us in such tender yet somehow detached detail. The poem’s structure is as layered as a painter painting himself painting a picture: the speaker can seem far away looking down on a miniaturized landscape (putting one in mind of Bishop’s “Poem”); yet we also seem to be inside the Janet character looking out—and Janet is of course a metaphor. The spatial layering pours over into enigmatic layers of time: is this a memory, a dream, is it now? All of the above? Realism and fantasy are hard to comb out. Questions are effectively used to evoke doubt about what is happening, but also as a metaphor for skepticism itself, about the scene, about life, about art: “Is it or is it not pretend?”
Though he clearly isn’t a dogmatic formalist, which is just as well given his passion for detail, Tracy handles form and rhyme with brio. A dramatic monologue, called “The Neighbor Discusses Parkinson’s,” the casualness of the title already comic (the comedy heightens something darker), is in rhymed couplets:
The average age of onset: fifty-eight.
The actuarial tables propose a date
but I’ve already beaten odds.
will you. Fatal and degenerative
differ in that one will let you live.
There’s a translation of Horace and a wittily playful, stuttering poem to the tune of “Miss Lucy had a steamboat.” There are lists, like “To England,” which starts off in England “To islands and the elements in all their desperation,” and ties up in America with its “Quakers in the Delaware Valley.../and East Anglians in New Haven who would hang a boy for wanking.” Other poems—“One Connecticut,” for instance—string together non-sequiturs:
The dinosaur prints cannot calibrate their novelty.
Reservoir three inches low.
A Greek girl I really loved has moved to Iowa.
Such poems let the reader tease out what’s going on between the lines and make this exercise seem worthwhile: there are “clarities of incoherence” (Geoffrey Hill).
Janet’s Cottage has little overt personal history (and no good scouring the internet: you might end up, as I did, at a meeting of the League of Women Voters in Norwalk, Connecticut) and makes scant use of the first person—some of the poems in which Tracy does deploy an “I” are, or might be, in someone else’s voice. Still, reading Janet’s Cottage one feels oneself in the presence of a mind with the capacity to shape poems from surprisingly diverse materials, preoccupations, and dictions. Words are used sparely and precisely, as in “Vanitas: Bells”:
On the mountainside, a manzanita leaf
may enfold a squirrel skull,
and the campanile in the distance
may not be ringing; and the air is full
of that which bells break: of grief,
and the quartering harriers’ patience.
Or they run wilder, as in the loping, long-lined poems of which “Janet’s Cottage” is an example. So absent a Wikipedia entry, one can still ferret out clues about this discreet poet who ranges geographically from Sana’a to Moose Jaw (which, as it happens, is where this reader’s father grew up) and lexically from “fuck-all” to “emergent,” which is to say that the book itself constitutes a sly—and, ultimately, very winning—portrait of its author.