Here in upstate New York near the St. Lawrence River, bordering the expanse of that fabled northern land called Canada, I was awestruck by sunrise, the first sunrise after the solstice!
crack the red wax open
read note readdress dispatch
so he enabled the correspondences
of others and to be so occluded
by the flux of words gave pleasure
as crescendo filled the branchings
flickering the quilled exchanges
until one particular melody exhausted
silence and called out spontaneous
abyssal the flame hatches

That’s from the Irish poet Trevor Joyce’s new book What’s in Store—a three-hundred-plus-page veritable bodega. (I discovered it through my favorite blog here, entry for Dec. 13.) There are translations and reworkings of: “Folk Songs from the Finno-Ugric and Turkic Languages,” “Anonymous Love Songs from the Irish,” the Chinese poets Ruan Ji and Lu Zhaolin, as well as maybe half a dozen other sources. There are also short lyrics addressed to friends and loved ones. In light of all the Harriettalk about constraints and sonnets, one of the endnotes provides a tonic to too much purely formal ambition:

The many thirty-six-word poems scattered throughout this volume springs from an attempt to write a large work under rigorous constraints. … When I realized that the centrifugal forces had overpowered my original intentions for overall coherence, I published some more under the title “Ana” (as in Shakespeareana, Joyceana, etc.). Here I’ve allowed the princple of dispersal to overcome completely my initial nostalgia for order.

Not rage for order, as in Stevens, but nostalgia for order! I was reading Trevor Joyce concurrently with Laura Riding Jackson (did anyone have a greater rage for order?) and felt as though I were taking the measure of the gulf between my own attraction to (her) purity and my delight in the fallen state of poetry as it is. What’s in Store takes advantage of so many different forms and methods, trusting sheer accumulation to ward off the failure of coherence, that finally you really do get a clear picture of what Ben Friedlander in this comment thread called “quality of mind.” What else matters in the end? That Riding’s quality of mind shines through the failure of poetry to achieve her impossible standards—this is the miracle available to us, even though she was shockingly ungenerous about it.
Here’s another little miracle: language acquisition at its most banal. First, we sing before we can speak. This I learned from my first child, and now my second sings himself to sleep at night with (literally) la-la-las and yeah-yeah-yeahs. At seventeen months, he really doesn’t have any words. Or he didn’t, until last week he effectively made a musical request:
“Doe a deer. A deer.”
—the song “Do Re Mi.” It’s all he asks for; he can see from our bursts of laughter that we’re pleased with him. As I am with the notion that we don’t need language for basic necessities. We need it to ask for extras; for felicities. Like music. Or your mind: show me your mind.
Two more posts, and I am going emeritus on Harriet.
Doe, a deer!

Originally Published: December 23rd, 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. December 27, 2007
     Simon DeDeo

    Trevor's poem you quote has that kind of cryptic-crossword puzzle diction -- when I read "so he enabled the correspondences", it activates my solver's mechanism and I'm like "hmmm... seven letters..."
    Actually, that's a pretty good clue. In cryptic crossword rules, a solution would be "let hers".
    Ange, it's been a real pleasure reading your posts on harriet, and I'm sorry to hear you'll be going emerita!

  2. December 27, 2007
     Simon DeDeo

    PS: here is a valedictory clue.
    Seraphim, not a learner, preceeds a poor topsy-turvy milkman to go emertia. (10)
    seraphim : angel
    not a learner: "L" is the sticker in Britain affixed to cars driven by those with learner's permits, i.e., drop the "L".
    poor milkman: "no milk"
    topsy-turvy: key word for anagram

  3. December 27, 2007

    Oh, Simon, I'm a crossword junkie, and you warm my heart.
    [throws kisses, bows...]

  4. December 29, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    Is there anything more fascinating for a poet than to watch a child's evolution of language? The bilingual phenomenon has also been wild to witness. I remember that Jason used to babble in two languages, even before he had words. He would babble in strings of English-sounding syllables and phonemes, and then switch and babble in strings of Greek-sounding syllables (complete with Greek gestures). It is all very humbling--to watch someone for whom all language is poetry and all speaking is making. I'm getting sad now that he is starting to "correct" some of his baby neologisms...