Prose from Poetry Magazine

Who Needs to Hear A Quagga’s Voice?

Two poets look past their bewilderment in a damaged world.
"This isn't your standard alas-the-endangered-owl poem, trying too hard to pull the heartstrings."
Twigs & Knucklebones, by Sarah Lindsay.
Copper Canyon Press. $15.00.

Twigs & Knucklebones is a rare thing in poetry—a very good read. Fans of Sarah Lindsay's previous books, National Book Award finalist Primate Behavior (1997) and Mount Clutter (2002), will find here what they found there, only more so: freaks of nature and freakish nature, far-flung and underexplored places, things scientific and sci-fi, real things that seem invented, imaginary things that seem real. Orchids that grow underground. The introduction of starlings to America. Cities of the dead. Life on Jupiter's moon.

Lindsay's poems are as narrative as poems can get—they tell elaborate stories—but aren't at all confessional. Lindsay uses the word "I" to refer to herself or a poet-speaker in very few poems. Her voice in Twigs & Knucklebones is omniscient yet intimate, super-literate and flawlessly graceful, like a really good lecturer who knows how to entertain an audience while speaking on complex subject matters. In a sense these are "Research & Development" poems. One suspects Lindsay reads an article, for example, about a species of extinct zebra, then writes "Elegy for the Quagga." But the R&D never overwhelms insight or music. "Krakatau split with a blinding noise," writes Lindsay, of the volcanic island's 1883 explosion. "Fifteen days before, in its cage in Amsterdam, / the last known member of Equus quagga, / the southernmost subspecies of zebra, died." A little later, "Who needs to hear a quagga's voice?"

The poet does, and by the end of the poem, so does the reader—and can't. It feels like a kind of wound:
Even if, when it sank to its irreplaceable knees,
when its unique throat closed behind a sigh,
no dust rose to redden a whole year's sunsets,
no one unwittingly busy
two thousand miles away jumped at the sound,
no ashes rained on ships in the merciless sea.
This isn't your standard alas-the-endangered-owl poem, trying too hard to pull the heartstrings. The very name of Lindsay's extinct beast is alien, and comical enough to have built-in resistance to simplistic resolutions. Also: "no dust . . . no one . . . no ashes." No apocalypse. The Krakatau imagery has plenty of resonance with atom bomb tests. The world didn't end with the extinction of the quagga—or the invention of the bomb. But Lindsay's poem gets at that secret worry that we're waiting for the other shoe to drop. "Elegy for the Quagga" is about our own inevitable extinction, individually and as a species, and our sense—terrible, freeing—that maybe, after all, we don't matter.

What does matter? The lightheartedly doomy Lindsay is obsessed by this question. The book's middle section, long enough to stand on its own as a slim volume, is a series of poems titled "The Kingdom of Nab," an ancient and vanished civilization which Lindsay invents out of whole cloth. It's ingenious stuff, whether focusing on the girls of the kingdom, its artifacts, or on the modern-day scholars who study Nab's ruins and texts. "Nadine hears her thesis crumbling," writes Lindsay in "Certainties," when a scholar character discovers that a great Warrior King of Nab, "at the time of his supposed conquests, was eight years old, / the regency held by his mother." Nadine, it's easy to feel, could stand in for a poet struggling toward a poem that refuses to work, or anyone who has seen a goal dissolve the closer she gets to it.

Nab is fertile ground for Lindsay's recurring theme, the ephemeral nature of all things, including great empires. Sometimes too recurring, maybe. But as delivered by the capable, unsentimental, secular-seeming Lindsay, the poems feel political: if you write about a vanished civilization, even an invented one, you're writing allegory about contemporary power and empire. No mere working out of a conceit, "More Than Water" transcends allegory to get at a human response to specific, but semi-obscured, crisis. Here's the poem in its entirety:
She was only putting things in her song
to make it longer—
I love you more than playing battle,
I love you more than apricots,
I love you more than my yellow dress,
I love you more than fish,
I love you more than water—"
but her mother slapped her mouth, twice.
She didn't know why, then,
or why they served so little for supper
and stared at the dish
as though it might be angry.
She hadn't been in the fields to see
the line of mud, like a dead snake,
shrinking in the water-ditches.
No poem in Twigs & Knucklebones is a bad one, and virtually all are remarkable for their sheer interestingness. Lindsay's delight in imaginary and unknown worlds, her compulsion to write exactly what she doesn't know, removes her poems completely from the tired confessional anecdotalism of so much narrative poetry. But the I-less Lindsay needs to find some other way to make her poems perform as poems rather than as (invented) encyclopedia entries or nature feature articles beautifully written in medium-length lines. A few poems suffer from excessive good-idea-ism, by which I mean that the motivating idea is too visible, as in "The Museum of Damaged Art: Audio Guide." This poem is entertaining—
Welcome to the Museum of Damaged Art,
an ever-growing monument
to the intersection of circumstance with design.
Painting by Barnett Newman: slashed.
Painting by Kazimir Malevich:
green dollar-sign sprayed on.
—but there's nowhere to go with it really, except back outside to, of course, the damaged world. Which seems both the right place to go, and also the obvious one:
Observe on your left the beaten grass
where not one stone is left on stone
of the building that stood here once, before ours,
and on your right the city skyline
and distant mountains, faint in the corrosive haze.
"The Museum of Damaged Art: Audio Guide" would be the standout in almost anyone else's collection. But Lindsay's best poems are those that allow for some readerly identification beyond the spectator sport of Lindsay's ingenuity. In the sci-fi poem "Valhalla Burn Unit on the Moon Callisto," maimed patients on Jupiter's satellite "come / and linger in the courtyard, / with its soothing views of a thoroughly fireproof world," and doctors are "qualified for this post by the loss / of an irreplaceable love; / they aren't homesick for an Earth they could ever go back to." There's a post-apocalyptic feel here, but no explanation of the nature of the apocalypse. Instead, the poet makes the impersonal account achingly personal:
No atmosphere. That's why the sky is black
          all day, which does tend to bother the nurses,
          the aides, the kitchen staff, the housekeeping crew,
          all of whom are encouraged to miss their planet,
and when they cry, are to do so hunched
          over sterile vials meant to preserve
the healing proteins found in common tears.

Things on Which I've Stumbled, by Peter Cole.
New Directions. $14.95.

Peter Cole, an American MacArthur Fellow who lives in Jerusalem, deals in matters that come with capital letters. Truth, Morality, Jewishness, Art and Art's Responsibility, Love, Zionism v. Palestinian Nationhood. On the last of these, a subject that dominates this book, Cole is not easy to pin down. Certainly if poets were the acknowledged legislators of the world, AIPAC would have sicced itself on him long since. He told one interviewer he lives in Jerusalem not for religious reasons but because "I had a sense that my own poetry was going to come out of a Hebrew tradition, and that, in order to really explore that fully and properly, I had to learn Hebrew, and to learn Hebrew I had to come here." Cole, also a translator of Hebrew and Arabic poetry, founded Ibis Editions, which publishes both Hebrew and Arabic literature in translation with the express intention of having the two literatures considered side by side. And he's clearly deeply disturbed by Israel's aggression against Palestine. Here are all four lines of "Israel Is," which first appeared earlier this year in the Nation:
Israel is he, or she, who wrestles
with God—call him what you will,

not some goon (with a rabbi and gun)
in a pre-fab home on a biblical hill.
Cole's "Palestine: A Sestina" begins with a reference to the late left-wing Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said's book The Question of Palestine, and two of its end-words are "Palestine" and "pain." Most modern sestinas read like workshop exercises and go on about five stanzas too long. Not Cole's. His music is too strange. The sestina begins in the passive voice, and relies mostly, though not exclusively, on abstractions:
Hackles are raised at the mere mention of Palestine,
let alone The Question of—who owns the pain?
Often it seems the real victims here are the hills—
those pulsing ridges, whose folds and tender fuzz of green
kill with softness. On earth, it's true, we're only guests,
but people live in places, and stake out claims to land.
The itchy diction, working its way through the repetitive, circular, interweaving form, comes rather triumphantly to mirror the tortuous, intractable, complex nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Cole's interest in Israel and things Hebraic is not limited to contemporary politics. Quotations from Hebrew texts—sacred, poetic, philosophical, profane—interspersed with Cole's own commentary, make up much of the title poem, "Things on Which I've Stumbled." "Poetry and all that garbage," the poem begins, and proceeds through a magpie's nest of textual scraps through which we see glimmers of humanity's urges and longings and wonderings. "Tell me, what is man / if not dirt and a worm," goes one scrap; "the gold brocade is very pretty / but not what I wanted exactly," goes another. The material "Things on Which I've Stumbled" is based on comes from the Genizah Research Unit in Cambridge, England. A geniza, Cole explains in a fascinating footnote, is a storeroom for old and discarded sacred Hebrew texts; according to Jewish law, these cannot be thrown out, but must be given ritual burial. The Cambridge geniza contains not only sacred texts but poems, personal letters, contracts, and shopping lists, and was almost burned as being "nothing of any interest or value." Cole ends his expansive collage/retrieval project of a poem with the words "These are things on which I've stumbled." In a further footnote he adds a quote from the Bahir, an ancient, anonymous, mystical work of Midrash: "This refers to things that a person cannot grasp unless they cause him to stumble."

Stumbling to get steady, misunderstanding as a way toward understanding: these themes underlie the austere and rigorously pleasurable "Notes on Bewilderment," fifty semi-aphoristic speculations which add up to a kind of moral, literary, and political mindscape. The "Notes" are five more-or-less tetrameter lines each, with a regular rhyme scheme. Ranging in his references (Spinoza, Rothko, Machado, dead Jews, dead Palestinians) and dealing with Big Questions, Cole's mind is continually not made up:
The bereaved speakers droned on and on about
"humanity," entitled by their grief.
Not having to suspend anything in
the way of disbelief, I sat listening
but left with the faint hope I'd brought in doubt.
There's a lot of close-reading fun to be had here, but what's particularly striking is the last line's deliberate fuzzing of whether hope or doubt wins out. Did he leave with the same faint hope he brought, doubtfully, with him? Did he leave doubting even that faint hope? Did he leave hoping that he'd introduced doubt to the speakers? Cole, determinedly unfunny, is very witty.

Cole's long poems are, I think, the showcase for his abilities, but he is also partial to short lyrics, especially in non-English forms—villanelles, ghazals. "Improvisation on Lines by Isaac the Blind," a villanelle, contains lots of vague lyricism—"the scent of the almond blossoming," for example, and "light trapped in the tree's sweet braid." Many poets would settle there, with a pretty-ish kind of landscape painting in words—you know, joy of nature, persistence and/or loneliness of the human spirit as mirrored by the tree—chicken soup for the soul. Cole, however, takes it here:
Only by sucking, not by knowing,

can the subtle essence be conveyed—
sap of the word and the world's flowing.
A surprising and complicated nugget of idea—enfolding suggestions of God, infant, sex, and epistemology—changes the nature poem into something else quite decisively.

Things on Which I've Stumbled is a difficult book. But Cole's determination to forego poetry's traditional sensual pleasures is invigoratingly tendentious. His embrace of abstraction, like these lines from "What Has Been Prepared," can make the eyes cross, at least out of context:
     Bound to bless—
with a measure of terror—
with the frankincense of slippage
     and the ambergris of sense,
     the steady flame of bestowal
and the choice words of a spoken sentence.
His attention to subjects like purity and divinity—in those words themselves, and not through objective correlative or imagery—is likely to be off-putting to many readers steeped in Modernist tradition, particularly that of Williams's "No ideas but in things." But Cole's struggle to move beyond that tradition through a blend of formalism, Hebraicism, poetic midrash, and Modernist collage is deliberate and marvelous to witness.

"What Has Been Prepared" is possibly the most resistant of the long poems in this book. Far from rejecting the autobiographical "I," as so many contemporary poets anxiously, automatically do, Cole pays close attention to the workings of his own mind, picking and picking at the scab of his own aesthetic strangeness:
     the untroubled classical mind's not mine:

mine is always leaning
        into a certain wind
    from when
or where I'm not quite sure—
"What Has Been Prepared" is a kind of manifesto on writing, thinking, translation, textual exegesis—and on Middle East politics. It moves back and forth between lineated ponderings on ethics, aesthetics, and metaphysics, and vivid, sensual, prose-poem politics. I think it's part of Cole's wry wit that he saves his most poetic poetry for prose. The pause and slog of the verse lines become necessary to set off the prose. These stately, tough-minded lines—
The swine holds up its parted hooves
as it brings destruction on
(in the Rabbis' teaching),
     as if to say:
     I am pure

and prove its moral standing.

And so the twisted kingdom
as it wreaks its havoc
          looks as though it has
convened a higher court of justice.

Its lawyers tell the world it's clean.
—lead to this rhythmic, concrete, tough-minded prose:
Making the empty desert bloom. Virgin soil. Although we need just a little more room. All that oil; all those countries. A narrow waist was once its pride. Now it's wide and the world's against it. Nothing upsets it. Not apartheid in its midst, not its lies, not the fence. Cutting the land like a local Christo.
There's something admirable, and oddly charming, in Cole's old-fashioned impulse toward synthesis. Yet for Cole, everything is always also falling apart. This isn't poetry that makes you go "ahhh." It makes you think, and think hard. Cole's immersion in unclarity is idealistic, and clarifying.
Originally Published: December 30th, 2008

Daisy Fried is the author of three books of poetry: Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice (2013); My Brother is Getting Arrested Again (2006), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and She Didn’t Mean to Do It (2000), which won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. She has been...

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  1. February 24, 2009

    Hmm, very cognitive post.

    Is this theme good unough for the Digg?