Prose from Poetry Magazine

Devastation and Digression

A review of Colosseum by Katie Ford and A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck by Greg Williamson.
"Do you need to witness or partake of suffering to write about it?"
Colosseum, by Katie Ford.
Graywolf Press. $15.00.

Katie Ford’s new book, Colosseum, takes its title from a startling meditation on the Colosseum in Rome. “Built for slaughter,” the building saw gladiatorial combat, execution, and wild beasts tearing each other apart, and when the Roman Empire fell and the arena was left untended, exotic plants spread over the abandoned ground, sowed from seeds in the waste of the beasts. Caught at some oblique angle within the poem, another set of reflections concern the mayfly, whose four hundred minutes of life and physical slightness are set against its survival “through antiquity with collapsing / horses, hailstorms and diffracted confusions of light.” The tiny mayfly and the massive tiered structure of the Colosseum are both cycles of destruction and renewal, turning slow and small, like the wheels of God:
                    When it is finished it is said
the expiring flies gather beneath boatlights
or lampposts and die under them minutely,
drifting down in a flock called snowfall.
Against the backdrop of constant mortality comes the real tragedy, spiritual desolation, which numbs the voice, renders it hoarse and hollow, the speaker clutching at the straws of objectivity and remoteness: “If I remember correctly,” “I said to myself.” The site of suffering is no longer the arena without, but the injured soul within: “When one is the site of so much pain, one must pray / to be abandoned.”

Ford’s collection has at its heart the more recent tragedy of New Orleans, blasted by Hurricane Katrina and then flooded. It is in three parts, the first dealing with the storm, the second with flight and return, and the third with grief. My apportioning seems rather crass: Colosseum is characterized by lyricism and fluidity, and its narrative rises out of a tangled confusion of events and objects. Much in the manner of a disaster, we are never entirely sure of sequence; we live through dark days and random happenings which must be pieced together intuitively, for they hardly belong together logically. Tragedy wipes out all linear notions: time, history, inheritance. One disaster merges into another, one victim into another. In a remarkable prose poem, “Division,” flight from New Orleans is within a landscape of constant geological movement: creasing, dividing. Catherine of Siena lived in hills like this, muses the lyrical voice, scouring her throat raw with twigs, so the communion she so desired would be felt:
She scalded herself at the baths, ran away to a cave, shoved twigs into her mouth so that when the host traveled down her raw throat she would indeed feel something, even a god breaking inside her.
Colosseum is a study of the psychology of survival. We are left in no doubt. This matter goes to the heart of the human condition, our condition:
We love the stories of flood and the few
told to prepare in advance by their god.
In that story, the saved are
always us, meaning:
whoever holds the book.
At its most immediate this is simply the attempt to grasp the cup of grief which runneth over: the woman who uses the wind to open her wrists; the desire to be an unthinking vessel with no heart to be torn into “strips of weed” (“Vessel”). But then there are the seismic shifts in our understanding which happen slowly, over time. There is nothing of permanence. People are lonely in their suffering. In the sonnet “Injury,” which opens with the plastic curtains around hospital beds, the injury is the transparency of those same curtains: “the thought we could not be harmed” has been felled and the convention of the sonnet is nothing more than a terrible empty irony.

Tragedy and devastation are hard things to write about in poetry, which doesn’t of course mean that they shouldn’t be attempted. There are terrible risks: voyeurism, sensationalism, the simple overbearing fact of the event. On the other hand they are the stuff of poetry: Homer, Shakespeare, the poets of WWI in Britain, Mandelstam, Celan—all have provided a poetry that stands at some oblique angle to the suffering. Do you need to witness or partake of suffering to write about it? I think perhaps you do, if only to find the correct oblique angle from which to write. Katie Ford’s is a finely-wrought lyrical beauty, a poetry of detail and care, but she has set it within an epic arc—the small wheel of individual life revolves within the larger human epic. And though we know that she has felt everything on her own pulse, still nothing is personal—the poems rise up through the clutter of the receding floods to become observations on the universality of suffering.

A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck, by Greg Williamson.
The Waywiser Press. $22.00 cloth; $15.95 paper.

Greg Williamson’s book A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck is a very different endeavor. The collection is not a whole “themed” narrative, but a series of sonnets. The sonnets are all similar in structure, having two quatrains in rhyming couplets and then a sestet. As far as I can see the last four lines are always rhymed ABBA. I mention this rather technical business now because the principle of sonnet structure seems to define the collection and provide its thrust. The poet uses this rigid structure for short meditations on phenomena in contemporary life, almost all with a single word title, beginning the book with a sequence on the “elements,” loosely speaking:
You wanna run a windjammer, you’ll need wind,
And wind is simply air that’s flowing from
High pressure zones to lower ones to find
Its atmospheric equilibrium.
     —From Wind
Williamson’s buoyant voice is constant—we’re given a blast of amiable poetry on each page, the sonnet form providing a degree of pressure which might not otherwise be there. We’re invited to admire the poet’s agile rhyming: “Bermuda grass or fescue?” is rhymed with “Couch Potato to the rescue” (“Man”), and Williamson has compensated for his traditional structure with slang, neologisms, technical and scientific words, and a good deal of fun:
Dogs smell very well, they sniff things out
With glee—dead birds, butts, bugs, the garbage can—
But we gross out, won’t even talk about
BO, bad breath, feet (his feet), farts (“young man!”)—
     —From Smell
There is little point in searching for great depth in these poems. They are playful and quick-witted, but the arguments they pursue are mostly on a single linguistic level. Even the propitiously named “Soul” fails to rise into metaphysics. More enervating for the reader, though, are the technical lapses: clumsy irregular lines (“Where you have wound up having to pay / for sex”) and extremely strained rhymes, which are disguised as clever jokes. It is hard to fully rhyme sixty or so sonnets, and the effort nearly killed the poet, one suspects. Much padding is needed to prop some of these lyrics, including superfluous bracketed comments and digressions. It is an odd thing that the sonnet, designed to hone the poetic argument and pare it back, has in this case served to blunt the edges of the poems.

The other problem with the sonnet form as it’s used here is its monotony. As I mentioned, Williamson uses the same structure over and over, even using the same phrase at the volte-face. Many, if not all, of the poems set up a historical precedent in the first two qua- trains and begin the sestet with “Until”: “Until, grades in, you ditch Foucault and foot” (“Criticism”), “Until one day there’s no room left of you” (“Space”). Every page has the same readymade shape. It is quite impossible to talk about the form reflecting and heightening the content, as it does, for example, in Katie Ford’s “Injury,” because the shape is imposed. The poet has made a decision to write a certain sort of sonnet, and the subject matter is almost immaterial.

I found myself thinking a great deal about form after reading A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck. I imagine Williamson would justify his use of form by referring to the great collections of sonnets. Are they monotonous? The fundamental difference is in the depth of the poem. A sonnet is a small cage made of some precious material. It suits a certain sort of poem, which combines static utterance with dynamic emotional development and mines the tension between the two. Often the reduced space means that words have to work twice as hard, and are milked of their every meaning. The sonnet should tackle matters central to our lives, the irreconcilable truths of our existence. And then of course there is a sublime gentleness in the most miraculous sonnets which somehow takes the harshness out of this impossible labor. It is unfair to compare any newly published poem to a classic. Poems need to grow and take root a little. But Williamson’s energies and breadth of vision might have been better served by another, looser form which allowed him to speak the truths of our lives without euphemism, without digression.
Originally Published: January 30th, 2009

Poet, playwright, and translator Sasha Dugdale was born in Sussex, England. She has worked as a consultant for theater companies in addition to writing her own plays. From 1995 to 2000, she worked for the British Council in Russia. She is author of the poetry collections The Estate (2007), Notebook...

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