I don't think brevity will ever go out of style.
Dangled above
the traffic's rasp:
a contrail
a crow
a nail gun's echo.
Sappho Hears
makes it
it won't be long
before everyone
"June" is by Joseph Massey, from a new chapbook called Within Hours (The Fault Line Press) and "Sappho Hears" is by Gloria Frym, from a chapbook called The Lost Sappho Poems (Effing Press).

The delicacy with which these poets pursue their aims is tonic; next to them, almost anyone else seems garrulous. But the delicacy yields different results in each case: Massey is a solitary, hard listener of the environment, while Frym is always speaking to and about an absent lover (hence, the persona of Sappho). Massey tries to efface himself; Frym never lets you forget there's a person yearning there.
The poems I quote above are about presence as an ear; each poet has a comment too about sobriety. Frym:
Sappho Mourns
I drink spirits
men give me
substitute for
the shelf empties
the vessel
smashed against
the stone
she would still
be mine
had I followed her
... and Massey:
Autumnal Equinox
Sober for once, for what—
for the words to budge.
We spent summer propped up
by each other's stuttering.
There are seasons here
if you squint. And there's
relief in the landscape's
sloughed off cusps of color
fallen over the familiar
landmarks, the familiar
trash—things that last.
Both poets here wield irony as pathos; both recognize inquiry as that which we flee from, that sometime did us seek. Deliquescence vies with flintiness. Pick your heartbreak.

Originally Published: November 29th, 2007

Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...

  1. November 29, 2007

    I want to read more of both writers now! With such small samples and such salient effects in each poem I find myself drawn, perhaps hastily, to the poets who seem-- each terse in her- or himself-- to have served as models: Creeley, Niedecker, perhaps the early Reznikoff (the Rez I like)... it can take a while before I see, with such short work, what makes the poets themselves.
    Should Graham Foust enter into this discussion of new miniaturism? Does the line re-start with Armantrout? Or should I shut up about precursors before I've read more of each of these new-to-me writers? Probably the latter-- but I wanted to say something about these neat poems right away.

  2. November 30, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    These are neat poems. There is a whole tradition, really, of writing in the voice of Sappho--the lacunae seem to open up imaginative spaces--but most don't rise to the occasion. I think these do, and they share a quality that the best syllabic verse has--a careful weighing out of syllables against words (as opposed to against feet) and line length. (It occurs to me that maybe in this sense all miniaturist verse is syllabic, even if it is in "free" numbers of syllables.)
    "Sappho Hears" is a little gem--and isn't it true, too, about how Sappho (and the poet generally) turns life into lyric. Right from the get-go, there is the interesting texture of "gossip" (a surprising word in context anyway)--those ss's framed by guttural and plosive which really one wouldn't be as like to hear in a "thicker" line--and all the gossipy ss's lengthening into the more resonant "song." There is the careful framing of Hears and hears, the chime of song and long, the way "it won't be long" is the longest line in terms of words, the expansion of syllables over a word into the longest word, the tri-syllabic "everyone"--you feel the gossip rippling out. Too much scholia to pour on such a slender thing of course--anyway, thanks for sharing these. It makes me want to go back to haiku stanzas!

  3. November 30, 2007

    What a lovely utterance!
    "There are seasons here / if you squint."

  4. November 30, 2007
     Aaron Fagan

    Thank you for these. And thank you for the Ashbery piece in The Nation. Particularly, grateful to see Girls on the Run discussed with serious consideration.

  5. November 30, 2007

    Thanks everyone. I agree Sappho has quite a grip on our imagination: for the lacunae; for the fact that she was a rare celebrated female poet; and perhaps because it represents the triumph over a long period of time of so small a thing as the lyric voice. Small, I mean, in comparison to politics, encapsulated in that wonderful fragment pitting the value of military ships against the person of Anaktoria. How I love what that means for us!
    Steve, I'm struggling with your question because I think the success of this mode depends so much on small vagaries of personality. Everyone does it a little differently, so it almost seems like employing a structural form than a style. Does this make sense?

  6. December 1, 2007
     Simon DeDeo

    The funny thing about the use of Sappho here is that the gaps are entirely extrinsic to her own work -- I mean, there is nothing fragmentary, cracked, interruptive about her when history allows her to keep going. Far more than most, the uses made of Sappho seem to really confuse the inner and outer.
    When I'm in a grouchy mood, I think of this kind of use of Sappho sort of like a 31st century historian digging up -- I remember Hugh Kenner making this point -- Yeats.
    Once out of nature I shall never take
    My bodily form from any natural thing,
    But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
    Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
    To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
    Or set upon a golden bough to sing
    To lords and ladies of Byzantium
    Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
    Of course then I have to think of Radi Os -- Ronald Johnson's erasures on Paradise Lost. (i.e., Paradise Lost.)
    I suppose, then, in the end how I want to tell people to read Sappho is not as the kind of Niedecker minimalist that she's often taken for, but as a complex, large-voiced poet (of Hymn to Aprhodite) worn smooth by a complex, heavy-handed history. (My favourite bits are the ones from the grammarians who quoted her to illustrate a construction.)

  7. December 2, 2007

    Any of you read Laura Sims (that possessive: would it be Sims's or Sims'--the latter sounds better but I think the former clunky one may be right) book _Practice, Restraint_? Gawd. Talk about spare infusions. Gorgeous. I hope a lot of people are reading her.

  8. December 3, 2007

    I actually argued the same thing in class once, Simon, and got stony silence. Of course, I brought up the fact that Sappho didn't write in fragments just after a fellow student made an eloquent speech about the essential correspondence between lesbian writing and the fragment, so maybe my timing was off...