Divide These, by Saskia Hamilton.
Graywolf Press. $14.00.
However hard I tried, I couldn’t make Saskia Hamilton’s first book, As For Dream, matter much to me. The poems insisted on an atmosphere of reverence and solemnity they couldn’t fill with content: it was like chamber music without the music. And so when I opened her new book to discover the same eency-weency, haiku-like, white-space poems, I thought, “Are we really going to do this again?”
We are really going to do this again, and Hamilton’s tenacity makes me doubt my old impressions. Divide These is superb. The atmospheres and stage-sets of Confessional poetry are here (deathbeds, love letters), as is the suggestion, from poem to poem, of abstracted Confessional narrative. Poems at the beginning of the book describe the sensation of beginning; those at the end describe the experience of ending, settling, becoming still; and those in the middle function as tonal analyses of being in-between (several of these are set on a boat in a canal). But unlike the speakers in normative confessional poems (think of Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” or Lowell’s “Skunk Hour”), whose disclosures are often explicitly theatrical, Hamilton’s speakers (if that is what to call the strange almost-voices that not-quite-say her poems) seem actually dismayed by being heard or overheard or whatever it is we readers in fact do or half-do to them. I’ve made the above statements deliberately tentative: so carefully and incrementally calibrated are these poems, that statements feel somehow coarse in their company.
As is the case with most poets worth taking seriously, people exist in Hamilton’s poems, and they exist to have things happen to them: they die, fall in love, quarrel; debris falls on them from above, and smoke fills up the elevator shaft (several poems here suggest 9/11); we are told that they chat idly (“of old cooks and dogs”) and “bicker” and “pray.” But like Stevens, Hamilton despises the conventions of represented immediacy: to have someone up and speak in a poem seems unnatural to her. The plain reality of being alive is mediation: language, gesture, thought, all of it adds texture to the world it otherwise wouldn’t have, and sometimes it obscures the world. When Hamilton writes about people and events, she leaves these layers of mediation intact. Her poems can seem therefore blurry or distanced, and not only when they describe the view from an airplane window:
Seventy lakes below.
Houses at the edges.
—From Not Known
Plenty of poets of my generation share Hamilton’s distaste for stagey immediacy, and they’ve crafted a period style to express those distastes. But Hamilton’s poems share virtually nothing with the poems of the period style: there’s no collage, no frenetic signifiers, no chain gang whimsy, and the thinker she seems most interested in is, of all people, Freud. What strikes me as crucial about Hamilton is her refusal to buy wholesale either the clichés of putting people in her poems or the clichés of keeping them out. It makes for a lonely poetry of tentative, wrong-end-of-the-telescope impressions: but it’s an authentic idiom, and it’s Hamilton’s alone.
First Hand, by Linda Bierds.
Marian Wood Books. $25.00.
When Walt Whitman reviewed Leaves of Grass he had the cunning to do it anonymously. Linda Bierds’s cunning extends merely to calling her grandiloquent review of her own First Hand an “Author’s Note and Acknowledgments.” “As they trundle through the centuries,” she writes, “swaying this way and that, from wonder to foreboding, the poems in this book rest most frequently at the inscape of science. It is there...that their interest and questions lie, their praise and disquietude.”
I am sure Bierds thinks she’s being factual and dispassionate in describing her poems, but given that her book is partly about the inevitable affect-content of “empirical” science, it’s not irrelevant to think for a moment about the problems of disguising marketing as fact. It takes an excess of tenderness for your own work to describe it as “trundling” and “swaying” rather than simply “moving,” and even “moving” would preempt the reader’s judgment (the poems are often pretty static, it seems to me; they might not have seemed so if I hadn’t been prompted to think of them as trundling or swaying). “Wonder” and “foreboding,” though they mark aspects of the poems’ experience of the world, suggest a few possible responses we might be so good as to consider having towards these poems. Ditto “praise” and “disquietude.”
Bierds is interested in the analogies between science and art or, more accurately, between scientists and artists. She likes personality enthralled to obsessive inquiry, the voyeurism of looking at someone looking at something. In “Prologue,” the boy Galileo—yes, that Galileo—saws through a hailstone with his father’s violin string “because there is nothing sharper at hand.” It is with a sense of being crushed by some massive object that I inform you of the following: the hailstone stands for nature, the violin string for art, but—here’s the twist—the string, since it’s being used as a scalpel, stands also for scientific inquiry. The hailstone melts before little Galilieo can describe it properly: he’s brought it indoors and fouled it up with his warm-handed science.
The potted Newtons and Mendels and Galileos in this book all come festooned with quotidian incident, but it’s incident read backwards from genius, so it feels rigged and “poetic.” “At my elbow, black tea,” Mendel says. Fine: but must Bierds really go on to make the poor man describe it as “the mahogany sheen of contentment”?
Directed by Desire, by June Jordan.
Copper Canyon Press. $40.00.
“Odi et Amo,” writes Catullus. The late June Jordan’s defiant revision of that slogan is, “I will love who loves me...I will hate who hates me.” Jordan’s poetry might best be described as the lyric wing of her political activism: there are no Catullan excruciations here, only excoriations of those she hates and dewy celebrations of those she loves.
The poems in Directed by Desire therefore fall into two categories: the braced and the slack. One kind of poem snarls at power, while the other documents the back-stage bonhomie of the revolution. The first sort sound like this:
and see me black man mouth
for breathing (North and South)
I am black alive and looking back at you.—From Who Look at Me
The second sort, its lingo borrowing heftily from Frank O’Hara, sound like this:
Wanting to stomp down Eighth Avenue snow
or no snow where you might be so we
can takeover the evening by taxi
by kerosene lamp by literal cups of tea.—From Inaugural Rose
In Jordan’s world, “there is nothing left but the drippings/of power and/a consummate wreck of tenderness.”
Hates, loves, power, tenderness: Jordan’s binaries banish all the recombinant effects of actual reality, where one might well feel a creeping adoration for brutes and a wayward disgust for victims, or find, within oneself, little victim-zones and little brute-zones. These transgressive feelings, totally elided by Jordan, give personhood its distinct texture: without them all is mottos and counter-mottos.
The love poems here light the candles and put the soft slow music on, but Jordan’s virtuous politics still set the mood. I cannot know what it is like to be a bisexual African-American woman in this republic, but surely no intimate life, no matter how imperiled by the mainstream, traffics entirely in bromides like “how should I/subsist/without the benediction of our bodies/intertwined” or, a few lines later in the same poem, “I am my soul adrift/the whole night sky denies me light/without you.”
The many poems in this book dedicated to friends and students create the impression of a coterie audience too enthralled by Jordan to judge her work, and a poet who won’t stop mugging for them. Indeed her sensibility is armored against judgment: by the logic of a Jordan poem, my resistance merely allegorizes my ignorance. “I Must Become a Menace to My Enemies” goes the title of one poem. If Dr. James Dobson should write a single excellent poem on his way down to the hell that surely awaits him, I’d rather read that poem than a lifetime of mediocre work by an admirable and courageous person. If that makes me an enemy, then all is surely lost.
The Black Beach, by J.T. Barbarese.
University of North Texas Press. $12.95.
It is not easy to write a poem on a quotidian occasion, a poem that is both intelligible and intelligent, grave and dynamic. If you choose the everyday as your subject matter, you risk inconsequence; and some poets fear inconsequence so powerfully that they ballast poems bearing titles like “Hearing Roy Orbison on the Tape Loop at Starbucks” with references to the Holocaust. “It was Mozart they played at the camps/over the roar, the oven hiss,” writes Barbarese. And in a poem about his daughter called “On the 7-Something to Penn Station,” he conjures children on a train to the camps, their “puddled feces/on the plank floor.” “Make-believe stars,/they count them,” he writes. “They cannot breathe. They cannot sleep.”
I am not Theodor Adorno or Hannah Arendt; I bring no special authority to this question. I’m not bothered particularly by, say, Plath’s manic holocaust-tic, her gruesome holocaust minstrelsy: I think a case can be made that great poets like Plath are greatest when they go too far. But I am also a person who thinks vaguely—and, mercifully, without any personal experience to draw from—that genocides usually shouldn’t be subordinated to metaphor.
The Holocaust kitsch here is symptomatic of a larger problem, if you can believe that. All of Barbarese’s poems move according to one of two patterns: from gritty to pretty and from pretty to gritty. If there is a field of wildflowers in the first stanza of a poem, you can be sure the second will be about a truck driver. Here is his description of “Joy”:
sometimes shows up where nothing was
the way wildflowers will
suddenly be where nothing was
on the banks of the highway hills
for some over-the-road truck driver,
who happens to sort of half-look
past the angles of his fingernails
down the cover of the matchbook...
This zero-sum poetics finds the Holocaust necessary because the sweetness on the other side of the seesaw is so huge. I’ve said it before in print, and I say it here again: gritty-pretty has got to go!
Pennyweight Windows: New and Selected Poems, by Donald Revell.
Alice James Books. $18.95.
Donald Revell’s selected poems, Pennyweight Windows, contains some of the most interesting American poems written in the last twenty years. Revell at his best is a writer of unusual intellectual rigor and great lyric poignancy: his mind is tuned to adages and axioms, pre-Socratic mind-tricks and the gnomic observations of Thoreau; but he has a big, vulnerable heart that tries to live in our world among our entanglements. His is an outsider-poem of homemade and sometimes homespun materials, and like many such things, it’s pretty strange and obsessive and credulous and, for all of these qualities, moving.
Revell, who was born in the Bronx, studied at Buffalo, teaches in Salt Lake City, and lives (with his wife, the poet Claudia Keelan, and their son) in Las Vegas, is perhaps the first great poet of our deracinated academia. His poems are full of things he’s had to commit to memory because his books are in his office, hundreds of miles away. His attachment to place is post-ironic: he thinks of being stuck somewhere in the desert as the basic American condition, no worse for him because his desert is real. He has the defiant inner life of a person consigned to live in places where his books aren’t sold in the bookstores, and the booming confidence of a railway evangelist. He would have broken earth at Fruitlands, and been one of the very last to abandon Brook Farm.
A utopian from the very beginning, Revell’s imagination is drawn to the pastoral, which as a genre only pops up after the good days wane. His best books are his last several, beginning with Arcady, a book-length pastoral elegy for his sister. These poems are alternately cryptic and naked, swinging between those poles often in a single poem:
The farm has a big father
No needs remain
Walking among the living
Who sometimes cry
I know the breeze from the air vents
Moving the tall plants
(This is Las Vegas still
Still in the airport)
Is not the ghost of my sister
Come to say all’s well—From Tooms 3
Revell’s best poems, despite passages that confound, are bracingly simple, in the way that completely realized poems are simple. He’s hot in pursuit of what Emerson called “the science of the real.” I don’t know how a poet gets the authority, in our day and age, to say “My soul rejoices and goes” without provoking disgust. And why, when Revell uses words like “happy” and “joy” (as he frequently does in these poems) does he sound a lot like Schiller and not one bit like Hallmark?
Company of Moths, by Michael Palmer.
New Directions. $16.95.
Michael Palmer is a Modernist. The last time I checked, the rest of us were somewhere west of post-modernism, nearing the coast; and so reading Palmer is like hearing old favorites played on the radio. Palmer’s poems are syntactically shattered, rhetorically angular, and difficult with a capital D. They offer tremendous class and dignity, the conferred dignity of durable forms. “Experimental” poetry like Palmer’s, its discourses and discoveries now thoroughly mapped, its readers hungry for the familiar cues and prompts, can no longer claim any social function, subversive or otherwise. This is high aestheticism, not an avant-garde. Palmer, with his self-conscious fin-de-siecle stylishness, his coterie of philosophes living and dead, is our Walter Pater.
The poems in Company of Moths, then, are Works of Art. You can’t be wayward in a frame, and Palmer’s poems are all framed ornately by a disjunctive poetics now ratified by one-hundred years of practice. Poems therefore vary only within the poetics; they never invalidate or even much complicate that poetics. There is a great pleasure in the drivenness and seriousness behind Palmer’s poems, but a curious skeletal quality to the poems themselves (he might as well just hang the empty frames on the wall.) They’re hard, sure: but their hardness cues modes of reading and understanding that are by now familiar to any reader of Zukovsky or Pound.
But in our moment of compulsory silliness, it’s wonderful to encounter poems that gesture reverently here to Wittgenstein, there to Stein, that echo Stevens (“O Gerardo Deniz, tell me, if you know...”) and Eliot (“weary of the endless nights in cheap motels”). A series of nine poems called “Scale” chooses William Jamesian grammatical counters for its titles: “And,” “As,” “Soon.” These poems suggest that consciousness can be analyzed in terms of small temporal events—the “notes” on Palmer’s scale, likely to be lost in his more elaborate compositions, are here sounded, held. I am sure that if I had read the same “800-1000” books Palmer read in writing Company of Moths (his own estimate), I’d be able to map the entire Palmer genome, but that is never the point with a poet like Palmer. The point is rather to enjoy his lyric decadence, his connoisseur’s relationship to some of the older new ideas. Find some poems here that seem congenial and attractive, and, on some splendid afternoon of our new century, enjoy a little art for art’s sake.
Playing at Stillness, by Rhina P. Espaillat.
Truman State University Press. $14.95.
I had an argument in the letters section of this magazine some months ago with Adam Kirsch, who had claimed in a piece on Pound that somehow Modern poets were compromised by being obsessed with the conditions of modernity. That seemed to me like saying bicyclists were obsessed with handlebars; Kirsch smartly retorted to the effect that analogies like mine, by suggesting that modernity was not a construct but an inevitable context, were symptomatic of the problem.
The poems of Rhina Espaillat demonstrate the hazards of ignoring modernity or viewing it as a mere artifact among artifacts. That an American person can write a poem about Queen Anne’s lace without some acknowledgment, at some level of syntax, diction, tone, rhetoric, or form, that William Carlos Williams also wrote such a poem, and further that his poem is one of the seminal short lyrics of Modernism—this seems to me very peculiar. But here, bicycling blindly into the wind, is Espaillat’s own “Queen Anne’s Lace”:
You rise, angelic, from green
meadows where the sun
beats its brass drum and shadows fall
like small change
out of the wind’s pockets.
The noonday bird leans earthward
from his cloudy perch,
but you, whose feet are nailed with stones
to the brown
grain of the meadow, you
rise with clean upturned faces,
you levitate on
the scorching breath of summer, white
moving in place like prayer.
What can be said for this? If you like it—if, genuinely, you prefer it to poems like the ones Saskia Hamilton and Donald Revell write; if it speaks to you more powerfully than the best poems of Michael Palmer; if finally you don’t much like the torrential, driven plainness of William Carlos Williams and like rather a lot images of “angelic” flowers and “prayerful” wings; if this seems to you the way poetry should be written and would have been written if not for the academicians and the French, if not for modernity and its obsessives—if you like this poem, then by all means, have it. I see no reason poems like this shouldn’t be written and even published, if people want to read them.
On the ample evidence of poems with titles like “For My Son on His Wedding Day” and “The Poet Makes Chicken Soup,” Espaillat seems like a delightful person, and her book is full of small kindnesses. When (in “Answering to Rilke”) she quotes Rilke’s famous mandate, “You must change your life,” here is her response:
Nothing to go, Rilke. Maybe it’s good
for change to surprise us in the mess we’ve gathered.
Figuring out that much is a beginning.
One can imagine an entire series of these poems: humble “answers” to manifestos, fit to be carved in driftwood. (I’ve just thought this one up: “Make it new!” says Mr. Pound. And I say, “Thank you, no.” You like?) I can’t agree with Tim Murphy, who claims (on the back of this book) that Plath and Sexton are Espaillat’s “inferiors,” but I’m sure not surprised, given the dismal discourses of propriety and hysteria that still surround feminine creativity, that he named those poets in particular.
Shadows of Houses, by H.L. Hix.
Etruscan Press. $15.95.
When you read a good poem you admire it; when you read a great poem, you fear it, because something of the original fire of composition has been transmitted. There are many good and admirable poems in H.L. Hix’s Shadows of Houses, and some very good, memorable, teachable poems about the mingled wonders and horrors of living in the world. But there is also a great poem in this book, “The God of Restlessness.” It is odd and sad and profound and pitch-perfect and muscular. In its synoptic sweep it recalls Piers Plowman, the Georgics, and Ammons’s Garbage—and yet its nose is so close to the earth that it feels also like a sonnet by Clare: it’s one of the best poems I have read in years.
“The God of Restlessness” is a poem about power, even infinite power (such as that wielded by gods) allied to momentary whim. You want your gods patient and focused; you want their logic to be transparent and traceable. You want restless things to be impotent, or at least to lack the power to enact their passing fancies. You get neither of your wishes in Hix. Instead you get:
god of pierced nipple . and golden eagle tattoo
god of trilobite tapeworm . archaeopteryx
god of lost in the blizzard . and found at spring thaw
god of couldn’t sleep . truant god burn-unit god—From The God of Restlessness
Divine immanence is more often figured as benign, as in Smart or Emerson or (except for a few marked examples in the great catalogues) in Whitman. Doesn’t bounty imply blessings? But in Hix the world is overflowing with reality—and lots of it, more than half of it, is horrifying. Hix has learned from George Herbert the wages of constant, churning spiritual change, and so badly wishes to be free of this mercurial state that, like Herbert, he asks to be made inanimate:
make mine that moment between . after the black wall
of nine-mile-high-nimbus clouds . blocks the western sun
but before the storm attacks .
Of course the real “god of restlessness” is consciousness itself, sharpened into discrete events by the imagination and memory and all the consequent emotions these states compel. Hix’s poem has found, of all things, a new, really ingenious way of representing the jabs and parries of thinking as it simultaneously provokes and fends off feeling. The poem’s two-hundred plus lines are all divided by caesurae with sonic continuity across formal units provided by alliteration and internal rhyme. In theory the Anglo-Saxon mannerisms should wear thin. In practice they are a perfect way to sustain the poem’s sweep (necessary to suggest the sheer largeness of its represented world) while preserving the vulnerable scale of an actual, singular mind and voice.
The most remarkable thing about this poem is its moral gravity, attained somehow with a total lack of didacticism. “Moral” episodes are not ranked above or below “mere” worldly phenomena; there is scripture but no exegesis, a game going on but nobody calling the plays:
. after storms sweet ozone smell
red horizon that haloes . this ancient sea floor
twin salt tracks tears trace . down the contours of your face
thrown from the convertible . into a new life
of parkinsoned syllables . scars like wildflowers
echoes in the room . that memories once furnished
seizures nightmares withered legs . and three fewer friends.
The rigid caesurae (enforced by the vertical “seam” of dots running up and down every page) fracture reality into atoms. At this sub-cellular level of perception, we never know how things are, or should be, built. The atomic sameness (despite wild disparity of reference) of phrases like “red horizon that haloes” and “scars like wildflowers” deny the human story the emphasis it would ordinarily demand. The world of this poem (“Anglo-Saxon” insofar as it suggests, fancifully, a culture tested against primordial rage) hasn’t yet been sorted into appropriate and inappropriate causes for grief.
You can’t do justice to this poem in a brief review; and real justice would entail describing the wonderful sonnet-sequence, “Spring,” that makes up about two-thirds of Shadows of Houses. “The beautiful/and well-fed have grounds for lament,” writes Hix. Perhaps: but very few poets have the untroubled authority to say so, and the talent to make us weep.
Poet and critic Dan Chiasson is the author of five books of poetry: The Afterlife of Objects (2002), Natural History (2005), Where's the Moon, There's the Moon (2010), Bicentennial (2014), and Must We Mean What We Say: A Poem in Four Phases (forthcoming). A book of criticism, One Kind of Everything: Poem...