Curious Specimens: An Exchange
"When I am allowed to look in on the haphazard and dangerous moments of decision making, well, that is when I find a poem to be most alive."
Cate Marvin & Joshua Mehigan
Editors’ note: “Curious Specimens” is the second of a series of exchanges in which we are bringing poets together to discuss new books. The format is as follows: each poet chooses a book he or she can wholeheartedly support and writes an eight-hundred-word review of it; the exchanges follow the completed reviews.
Spacecraft Voyager I: New and Selected Poems, by Alice Oswald. Graywolf Press. $15.00.
Cate Marvin: Given the fact that I disallow my undergraduates the use of the word “eddies” in their poems, I did not meet the prospect of Alice Oswald’s American debut, Spacecraft Voyager I, with anticipation, even more so because the “eddies” mentioned in the jacket copy are also “swirling.” These sorts of descriptions can turn a reader off to a poet of “the natural world” (what’s left of it, I can hear the not-too-distant voice of my most cynical reader / self muttering). As such, the initial poems in Oswald’s collection were made to face the demands of a most unsympathetic audience. But wait. First, I should say that the title of the collection is misleading, as only one of the poems (and a new one at that) addresses the subject of the Space Voyager. All of Oswald’s poems exist, quite potently, in this world. And they make an extraordinary thing of it. If Oswald is a nature poet, then we’re all nature poets.
The book is in four sections, the first of which proffers poems culled from her first book, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile. Will you just trust me if I tell you that these poems are amazing? I reread the cautiously titled “Poem” many, many times to try and trick out just how it did what it did. There are spaces in the poem where something happens, and it’s nearly impossible to put one’s finger on just how the damage has been so potently presented. Here are the two stanzas that begin the poem:
You ask me why did I lie down
and when and never rose again.
I of the bluebells
layed on a succulent mattress, frown.
These two sentences are most exacting and extraordinarily revealing. How I adore a mystery told through tenses! Oswald puts us at the mercy of those tricky verbs: the transitive lay and intransitive lie. The initial couplet suggests that, first, the beloved wants to know when the speaker lay down in addition to why she lied down. The speaker’s response hints that a death has occurred, as she “never rose again” — it’s a figurative death, of course. The genius follows in the second stanza when the speaker describes herself as “layed on a succulent mattress, frown.” We know that she has been laid, that the “you” is the one she lay with, and the past tense of lie suggests passivity on the speaker’s part, as well as a certain aggressiveness on the part of the beloved. It’s quite a coup, especially when you consider the fact that the word “layed” doesn’t exist. It does now, thanks to this poem. The quick addition of “frown” imparts the mood of the entire poem in one word:
here I give up the difficult dice
of friendship and I crook my knees
into a zed beneath the trees.
Too easy? Not really. You try to make yourself into the end of the alphabet in three lines and get back to me.
The poem on the immediately following page does not have a title, nor is it readily apparent, the way the book is printed, that a new poem has begun. So I was convinced, at first, that “Poem” swerved oddly (and, I thought, wonderfully) as it moved into the headlong language of “since love is round and man misshapen,” which turns out to be the first line of a new poem:
since love is round and man misshapen
it may not always accord and if I
and I do furiously reprove myself
hackle up and without impulse cry
or if after I hum for hours
all cold and odd and feign mad
and vanish with jacket on my head
and your calm hands just lift and let it by. . .
— From Since Love Is Round
There are many other poems in this collection that merit such scrutiny, such as Oswald’s prizewinning “Dart,” a book-length poem on the River Dart in Devonshire which speaks from the many perspectives of those who traverse it, and which may be a true contender for the “How-Can-We-Outdo The Waste Land” prize. But here, at the beginning of Oswald’s growing body of work, we find the speaker obstinate, furious, and completely unconscious (beautifully so) of the demands her strength of character makes on this misshapen world. The typographically concealed and untitled poem I mentioned above unravels most attractively by managing to remain, on close inspection, grammatically tidy. Here is the ending:
I say a miracle a notion at risk
and grown of and aloof to faults and a
terrible demand is love but if you ask
something of refund on your gentleness
and in good time take secretly
another girl and say so guiltily . . .
then leave me I haven’t such forgiveness . . .
When I am allowed to look in on the haphazard and dangerous moments of decision making, well, that is when I find a poem to be most alive. There are no “eddies” here — rather, many edges. No “swirling,” but derangement paired with true verbal cunning. She’s brutally good.
Joshua Mehigan: Well, to be perfectly honest, I found “Poem” abnormally clumsy and melodramatic. For instance: “my half-replies, /seduced by visions, vaporise.”
But I do like this, from “Dart”: “I stand / and try to get the dragonflies to land / their gypsy-coloured engines on my hand.”
And this, said by a water nymph:
woodman working on your own
knocking the long shadows down
and all day the river’s eyes
peep and pry among the trees.
Unfortunately, Oswald’s brilliant moments are hard to snatch from the spate of words that is “Dart,” or to sift from the plentiful imitation-brilliance found there and elsewhere. Her poems exist in this world in that they’re crowded with primordial things — sea, stones, shadows, bones. But really these stones and shadows belong to a dreamy iconography that quickly becomes tedious. Eventually everything is put in the service of awestruck rumination. Oswald’s conspicuous style, sometimes elliptical, sometimes stream-of-consciousness, can make her (and her characters) sound almost sibylline. A little goes a long way, and the book has 145 pages.
CM: Oswald’s “dreamy iconography” reaches back to Yeats’s Celtic Twilight mode (a category into which “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” falls), touches on Elizabeth Jennings’s mid-century revival of this mode, and might be compared with Medbh McGuckian’s densely sensual, anti-logical poems. Saying that “Poem” is “abnormally clumsy and melodramatic” begs the question of what constitutes a normal poem. Is a good poem always graceful? How does one define grace? Must poems always meet the expectations of meter and lineation? I’m not fond of the “normal” poem, whatever that may be. I prefer curious specimens: clumsiness is deeply human. As Hemingway put it in his Paris Review interview, “Almost no new classics resemble other previous classics. At first people can see only the awkwardness.” You say that Oswald’s poems strike you as “tedious,” but poetry doesn’t provide immediate gratification. Finding Oswald’s Selected Poems arduous reading at 145 pages suggests a reader unprepared to recognize and appreciate a vision at great variance from his own. Such a reader feels free to change the channel when he feels he is not being entertained.
JM: So, either I find Oswald spellbinding or I’m shallow? Anyway, you’ve misunderstood me. I meant that “Poem” is abnormal for Oswald. I’m surprised you burdened it with representing this book, which I think contains much stronger stuff. Still, I don’t know how you can lack fondness for normal poems without first defining “normal.” Should poetry always be eccentric?
However you care to define “grace,” there’s a difference between artful ungracefulness, like “Back out of all this now too much for us,” and clumsiness. Clumsiness is when the wizard’s caught pulling levers. “Poem” leans toward the latter, and I think we’ve both given lines supporting that opinion.
Nowhere did I suggest poetry must be versified. That would certainly be a silly criticism of “Poem,” which is mostly tetrameter, often rhymed. All the same, I don’t think the meter you didn’t hear saves Oswald or her officially-approved models from tedium. The tedium lies in the mannerisms I’ve described, and in the sprawl of “Dart,” which is less Waste Land than a catalogue of sporadically compelling, desultory impressions inspired by a river and its people.
CM: Inherent in the phrase “abnormally clumsy” is the assumption that you have an idea of what “normal” is; likewise, when you use the word “clumsy,” you have your own idea of what constitutes grace. The question of whether poems should be normal or eccentric makes it sound like poetry operates at only two speeds. But if I were to throw my lot in with either, I’d choose the eccentric. Normality was what drove editors to smooth out Dickinson’s verse. Don’t we admire Hopkins for his derangement of the line?
It’s hard for me to understand how anyone could find “Dart” — or any of Oswald’s poems — tedious. This exhilarating poem charts a river’s life through the shifting voices and perspectives of those whose lives and work are affected by it — a millworker, a swimmer, ferrymen, a water nymph. Then there are the boat voices which ask:
why is this jostling procession of waters,
its many strands overclambering one another,
so many word-marks, momentary traces
in wind-script of the world’s voice,
why is it so bragging and surrendering,
love-making, spending, working and wandering.
Drunk in Sunlight, by Daniel Anderson. The Johns Hopkins University Press. $16.95.
JM: In preparing for this exchange I combed bookstores and websites for a recent and praiseworthy book by a youngish, established poet. Most of the new poetry I saw I could not imagine anyone reading with pleasure, and this is not just a critical pose. There seems to be a greater purity of badness lately, and also a new brand of publicity that goes beyond hipster gingerbread and parading of affiliations to include the poetry itself.
Daniel Anderson’s poems totally lack the meretriciousness found in four-fifths of the poets I surveyed. He avoids kids’ stuff such as impenetrability and typographical tricks. He never cries, “Get it?” and always writes about something. He is what he is, not in the sense that his narrator is artlessly him, but in the sense that he’s human instead of a voice from the beyond. He doesn’t indulge in the type of black-and-white alienation left over from the period in this generation’s lives when one could be brooding instead of scared. He has wit rather than mere cleverness.
Anderson doesn’t handle his fairly basic material as if it were groundbreaking. His deceptively plain style, modeled on spoken English, accommodates both “Priam’s loins” and “crap.” His delivery is what makes the poems absorbing. It involves skill in two oft-neglected areas, storytelling and verse technique.
The narration proceeds with nouns and verbs, and isn’t deflated with a lot of exposition. Anderson understands the storyteller’s art of amassing vivid details that later amount to something: “armored stalks of thistle”; “autumn’s chilly padlock gray”; dandelions that are no longer “teeth of lions scattered on the lawn, / But silver geodesic ghosts”; and, from a nighttime airplane, “vacant lot and spot-lit salvage yard, / Smokestack and the Methodist spire.”
One easily overlooked but dominant feature of this method is the narrator himself — a likable guy, sensitive, restrained, observant, seeking good things, noticing bad and ambiguous things. It’s a personality you might sometimes wish your real friends had. Of course if you step back and look at the poems from an artistic perspective, the persona shows itself for what it is: a device. No one is so authoritative and decent without revisions. The reason to stop and notice the artifice is that it distinguishes these poems from what people now think of as lyric poetry, where the poet cares as much about his own feelings as his readers’.
Anderson’s poems are conspicuously located, and their location is another rich vein of detail. Two-thirds of this miscellany is set in small towns, often in an ordinary home. This the reader gleans in passing from details like sprinklers and dogs. The species of community is told by dandelions, bugs, and names like Ohio and Magnolia Street. Nature of a middle-class American variety supplies the moral landscape: not mountains and prairies, but yards and ponds.
It’s regrettable but unsurprising that this idiom is touched by sentimentality, as it also is in Sherwood Anderson or even Theodore Dreiser. But then sentimentality is a scarcely avoidable part of the story. The poems occasionally capitalize on it for irony’s sake, and in fact Anderson doesn’t hesitate to recognize things that go beyond poignancy into horror. In “Ripeness Is All,” a senile “one-time maven of the Junior League” winds up outdoors in boots and gloves only. In “Sea Glass,” young bankers shooting at bottles on Nantucket discuss a rape-incest legend: “Of all the women I would want to rape / My sister is the last.”
Milieu, narrator, and the dreads and yearnings concealed in both, compose much of the book’s interest. But there’s another important feature of these poems, and that is Anderson’s skill with versification. Most would call it “formalism” without qualification, but it’s worthwhile to notice what he’s actually doing. Many of these poems are in traditional lines or stanzas of equal length. Others are mostly consistent; for example, tetrameters interpolating pentameters. But about half the time, though Anderson’s lines are most often unequivocally iambic, their lengths vary from as few as two to as many as six beats. In this, he resembles very few poets today. Occasionally poets writing before Modernism did it (Milton, Dickinson), and a few writing during the free verse revolution occasionally did something similar (Stevens, Eliot). Whatever you call it, it’s distinctively flexible without sacrificing the regularity Anderson makes use of to counterpoint the rhythms of his plain style. It has an interesting, improvisatory feel, but argues itself better than free verse that’s really just typographically altered prose.
“Old Stone Houses” shows Anderson’s command of narrative and versification, and his gift for endings. Here the poet imagines someone drawing curtains at dusk:
But not before the long last gaze
Into a brief bewilderment of snow
Where coal-black grackles mapped the eggshell sky
This is the way it ends sometimes,
The day grown flat and lusterless as tin.
And this is true both looking out, I think,
And looking in.
CM: I don’t agree that American poetry is in so dire a state as you suggest. Our idiom has produced such an astonishing variety of poetic styles and species lately that I get a little giddy thinking about it. Having searched far and wide for a book deserving of attention, you managed to end up pretty close to home. Drunk in Sunlight admirably follows up January Rain, Anderson’s first collection, which won the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize. The main pleasures in his new work can be found in lovingly rendered descriptions of landscape, as well as the way in which Anderson involves the reader in the speaker’s thoughts and perspectives while sustaining a melancholy sense of isolation. I did shrink from poems that settled for complacent epiphanies, like “Aubade,” an homage to Larkin in which the speaker settles down before “fresh juice, sweet butter on my toast, / And an absolutely boring peach preserve” and exclaims “how excellent it is to be alive.” I don’t give a fig that the speaker is “likable” because the stance is insincere. Nevertheless, it’s an exceptionally well-crafted and humane book.
JM: My problem wasn’t finding books worth attention, but finding recent books by youngish poets writing well-crafted, humane poems. Anyhow, the isolation you mention is important. One of Anderson’s preoccupations is the never-fully-resolved enigma of other people, which he evokes beautifully in poem after poem. Loneliness also deepens Anderson’s unease at life’s transience and his gratitude for simple graces, which I think are his big themes. Either or both might turn up in the beauty of sunlit pastures seen while bicycling alone, or in an afternoon spent relaxing alone, or — infrequently — in love, which is among the loneliest conditions the book describes. Also, outright or in passing, these poems often have something to say about middle-class America, which is linked with both contentment and delusion. “Thorns. Thistles” illustrates Anderson’s special brand of ambiguity:
I have, I’d speculate,
One hundred sixty-five of these
Late-day harmonic moments left —
Of iced tea and the Adirondack chair,
Of pure and undistracted ease,
Until a car horn’s blare,
Or the gun-crack slamming of a back-porch door,
The day’s commotion coming home at last.
One hundred sixty-four.
CM: You say that “nature of a middle-class American variety supplies the moral landscape”; the speaker’s dilemmas are the “contentment and delusion” (I would add, disillusionment) of middle-class life. Which readers are included? Who makes up this middle-class? Despite the repeated use of the pronoun “we,” which muddles the speaker’s moral stance, some of Anderson’s poems ignore the larger world. The passivity merits examination. In “Sea Glass,” for example, the speaker sees himself as different from the men who joke about a fraternity gang rape: he’d like to tell those guys that “they’re full of crap” — but he doesn’t. Yet sometimes this works to great effect, as in “À la Belle Étoile,” a poem that glows from within the passenger cabin of an airplane:
The clenched young woman sitting next to me
Will walk the beige and hollow length
Of her apartment building hall
Jangle her copper keys, and formulate
The very last thing she should have said —
Exact and ruthless — to her new
Ex-lover sleeping soundly in his bed
This time of night in ice-bound Montreal
Where she would rather be instead.
JM: I think “middle-class” is clear enough here. I also think you might be confusing context and audience. Hopkins’s audience presumably isn’t limited to Jesuits, for example. You suggest Anderson’s poems aren’t inclusive — an interesting inversion of values. Beyond the walls of academia, he could win a garland for inclusiveness. He never uses opaque language or ideas, or turns into a teapot mid-poem, as some of us occasionally do. But he also doesn’t accept middle-class complacency. “Sea Glass” questions the passivity you claim it accepts. The whole point is that the speaker doesn’t chastise the bankers joking about rape. He’s been weighing the notion that seawater grinds glass blunt in an hour, and this becomes metaphor. Seawater blunts glass as time and distance tragically blunt the sharp edges of brutal realities like rape and goons who joke about rape. The poem ends with a sense of helplessness familiar to most compassionate people. Anderson is prudent to avoid turning it into a facile morality play.
Cate Marvin was raised in Washington, DC and earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Houston, an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a PhD in English and comparative literature from the University of Cincinnati. Her poetry collections include World’s Tallest Disaster (2001), which won the Kathryn A. Morton Prize...
Poet Joshua Mehigan grew up in upstate New York and earned a BA from Purchase College and an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. He is the author of the poetry collections The Optimist (2004), winner of the Hollis Summers Poetry Prize and finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize,...