Prose from Poetry Magazine

Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?

A review of The Kingdom of Ordinary Time by Marie Howe and The Earth in the Attic by Fady Joudah.
"How does a poet temperamentally inclined to orient his or her lyric towards the larger social arena avoid being rendered vague, insipid, or solipsistic by modesty?"
The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, by Marie Howe.
W. W. Norton. $23.95.

The Earth in the Attic, by Fady Joudah.
Yale University Press. $16.00.

The titles of new collections by Marie Howe and Fady Joudah remind me of Hamlet’s “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Is there an algorithm out there that poets use to generate these titles, balancing on the knife-edge between irony and paradox? I am also reminded of Emily Dickinson, with her floods folded away in drawers, her sumptuous destitutions. But whereas Dickinson’s poems feel bigger and wilder than their small spaces, as though they might erupt from them, the poems of Howe and Joudah are more decorous, somewhat domesticated to the fields of lyric assigned to them. Still, the tantalizing paradoxes of these titles are more than a device designed to snag the attention of browsing book buyers. Rather, they suggest an essential uncertainty about the ability of contemporary poetry to locate itself in a shared social or public realm, to address the larger issues of injustice or violence, or questions of faith, in a manner that is not simply private, bombastic, or self-dramatizing.

This uncertainty has its roots not only in the question of poetry’s audience, over which so many hands have been so long and wearisomely wrung, but also in an understandable distaste for the conventionally heroic, a tradition which has been steadily undermined by writers since WWI. And yet, how does a poet temperamentally inclined to orient his or her lyric towards that larger social arena avoid being rendered vague, insipid, or solipsistic by modesty? Poets like Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop accomplished it by making description—as a form of investigation and sympathetic identification—the center of their art; W.H. Auden, wary of poetry as the language of enchantment, rejected the seductive self-flattery of the bardic role and advocated the poet as citizen; and some contemporary poets manage it through a tonal flattening of affect and a taste for irony. The latter, however, like any diet, can pall, suggesting the risks that face poets when their means, their ways of making, are restricted but their ambitions are not. Both Howe and Joudah attempt to escape this bind: Howe by creating a persona that is savvy, casual, intimate, unpretentious, and Joudah through the language of dream.

The “kingdom of ordinary time,” as it is mapped in Marie Howe’s third book of poems, is comprised of what might be considered several provinces. First, and most obviously, there is the spiritual, where ordinary time signifies the absence of the miraculous and the divine, when “One loaf = one loaf. One fish = one fish,” as Howe writes in “Prologue,” and “the so-called Kings were dead.” The uses of attention, which was compared to prayer by Simone Weil, to dignify the quotidian, even the squalid, has long been a project of American poetry. But the kingdom of ordinary time can also be understood personally, even politically, as a point in which certain illusions, whether personal or historical, must be left behind and the individual (or nation) abandon its notions of itself as somehow extraordinary, pure, its ideals uncompromised. Howe, in a poem titled “What We Would Give Up,” asks a group of college students in Florida, “What would we be willing to give up to equalize the wealth in the world?” and tries to answer for herself a few stanzas later:
Would I give up the telephone? Would I give up hot water? Would I give up makeup? Would I give up dyeing my hair? That was a hard one. If I stopped dyeing my hair everyone would know that my golden hair is actually gray, and my long American youth would be over—and then what?
As can be heard in the discursive tone and seen in the long prose lines above, one of the things that many of Howe’s poems seem willing to give up is any traditional idea of the lyric that includes concision, or that subjects the poem’s materials to pressure, particularly that of silence. The tone of the poems in the first and third sections of the book reminds me of Frank O’Hara, resolutely anti-poetic in their chattiness and apparently artless transparency of statement, while quintessentially urban in their inclusiveness. Like O’Hara, like Whitman, Howe welcomes the highs and lows of modern city life into her poems. One word for this is democratic; another is distractible, as Howe acknowledges in “Prayer,” one of my favorites in the collection:
Every day I want to speak with you. And every day
    something more important
calls for my attention—the drugstore, the beauty products, the luggage

I need to buy for the trip.
Even now I can hardly sit here

among the falling piles of paper and clothing, the garbage trucks outside
already screeching and banging.

The mystics say you are as close as my own breath.
Why do I flee from you?

My days and nights pour through me like complaints
and become a story I forgot to tell.

Help me. Even as I write these words I am planning
to rise from the chair as soon as I finish this sentence.
The risk of Howe’s method, of course, is that some poems can feel like mere transcriptions—yadayadayada. But the rewards are intimacy and the kind of tonal variety one feels when talking to the greatest of friends, whose conversation can embrace the election, the prose of Elizabeth Bowen, a short history of photography, and a summer afternoon’s quest for the perfect sandal.

The tone and strategies of the poems change and deepen in the book’s middle section, a short sequence called Poems from the Life of Mary. The Mary poems are contemporary unrhymed sonnets, which make use of the form’s compression, movement, and shape on the page. And the sonnet as a kind of theatre seems the appropriate vehicle for poems in which Mary speaks from the center—as the center—of the Christian drama. Her body in several ways represents a window between ordinary time and sacred time: first she’s a girl, a seeker in the world; then she’s the mother of Christ. Her womb is divinely full, then it’s mortally empty.

Howe’s first name, Marie, is a cognate of Mary, and it’s not difficult to see how the figure of Mary reaches towards Howe’s experience of motherhood as well as her experience as a daughter, writing of her own mother’s death. It is the variousness of Howe’s book—conversational, worldly, human, vulnerable—that enables her to write about the more difficult issues of faith or injustice which also concern her. The very distractions that often get in the way can force room for the sudden swerves and calms of attention to more urgent matters, as the final poem of the book, “Mary (Reprise),” suggests. The last image readers are left with is that of Mary as she is often painted in Annunciations: an angel appears, distracting her from her reading, a finger keeping her place in her book, but also, “keeping the place of who she was when she looked up.”

* * *

If Howe’s poems are expansive and discursive, the compacted, imagistic poems in Fady Joudah’s book, The Earth in the Attic, which won the 2007 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, pull in the opposite direction. While reliance upon image is rooted in early traditions of Arabic poetry, the use of image in Joudah’s work feels reminiscent of the Deep Image poets of the sixties, where it acted as an enlarging gesture intended to resonate from the silence of the pages’ white spaces. Similarly, his images can be tinged with surrealism, which is apt given that the landscapes he writes about are those of exile, loss, peril, in which the experience is one of disorientation and displacement.

Though never specifically named, the poems’ landscapes suggest Darfur, where Joudah practiced medicine as a member of Doctors Without Borders, and the landscapes of his own exile as a Palestinian-American, whether nostalgic or alienating. Sometimes this refusal registers as a kind of frustrating decorum, but when combined with his gift for image (which can also be read as a form of tact), Joudah’s best poems reach for and achieve a mythic quality in which the elemental is revealed below the ordinary details, as in these lines from “Atlas”:
Let me tell you a fable:

Why the road is lunar
Goes back to the days when strangers
Sealed a bid from the despot to build
The only path that courses through
The desert of the people.

The tyrant secretly sent
His men to mix hand grenades
With asphalt and gravel,
Then hid the button
That would detonate the road.

These are villages and these are trees
A thousand years old,
Or the souls of trees,
Their high branches axed and dangled

Like lynched men flanking the wadis.
The poem concludes: “If you believe the hoopoe / Is good omen, // The driver says, / Then you are one of us.”

As admirable as these poems are, they can feel circumscribed in their technical means. Even reading the book for the first time I found myself longing for greater variety of tone, music, rhythm, and syntax. What some readers will call incantatory began to feel, at times, somewhat repetitive, making me appreciate those moments when a more colloquial voice, usually another speaker, was introduced in a poem, as in “An Idea of Return.” This juxtaposition provides a revivifying counterpoint to the more interior, lyrical voice of the poet. I also found that the dream-like quality of Joudah’s images can seem random or obscure, the associative link lost through imprecise grammar or syntax, as in these lines, also from “Atlas”:
                              the dust gnaws
At your nostrils like a locust cloud
Or a helicopter thrashing the earth,
Wheat grains peppering the sky.
I sorted it out, but my first couple of reads left me with the image of nostrils thrashed by a helicopter.

My intention here isn’t to nitpick—neither dream nor myth necessarily release their meanings easily. At times, however, I felt abruptly thrust from the world of the poem when, rather than deepening the experience, an image called attention to itself and to the poet’s image-generating capacity. And while no language is off limits to poetry, Joudah sometimes makes use of a medical lexicon that is natural to him as a doctor, but that doesn’t always feel fully naturalized to the poems. These occlusions reduce the power of his work, which needs to be received whole and unadulterated, viscerally, relying as it does on the sensuous and intuitive mode of image rather than, say, argument.

In their different ways, the poetry of Howe and Joudah—courageous, yet constricted by limits either real or imagined—reveal the difficulties of writing poetry during a time when the imagination and its works are opposed by various fundamentalisms: economic, which reduces art to what it earns; political, which scorns its lack of utility; and religious, which fears its ambiguities. And while both poets find a way around these challenges, the significant sacrifices—of intensity, of rhetorical flexibility and depth—suggest that these are indeed the poems for our distracted, balkanized, and lonely time.
Originally Published: January 30th, 2009

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