Prose from Poetry Magazine

Long Sight and Reading Glasses

Rachel Zucker’s Museum of Accidents, Joan Houlihan’s The Us, and Brenda Hillman’s Practical Water.
Introduction

Reading unfamiliar poetries means de facto accepting a tricky plural: one that denotes the contingency of poetic form, and implies the possibility of thinking about poetry as much as through it. Maybe one reason British readers are often resistant to international writing is that this notion of “thinking about” disturbs a customary empiricism. Our contemporary poetry mores translate a deep-seated empirical tradition into twin concerns: with craft, and with presenting concrete example rather than abstract argument. “Muscularity,” that Leavisite term of endearment, pictures the poem as material: the poem is the concrete particularity of these words, in this order. As Auden said, it “makes nothing happen”; its business is simply to be its own perfect incarnation. No coincidence that Don Paterson, arguably the most brilliantly-influential poet working in Britain today, turns William Carlos Williams’s vision of the poem as “a small (or large) machine made of words”—that is, a producer of affect, of something beyond itself—inwards, into “a little machine for remembering itself.”

Museum of Accidents, by Rachel Zucker.
Wave Books. $14.00.

The Us, by Joan Houlihan.
Tupelo Press. $16.95.

Practical Water, by Brenda Hillman.
Wesleyan University Press. $22.95.

Reading unfamiliar poetries means de facto accepting a tricky plural: one that denotes the contingency of poetic form, and implies the possibility of thinking about poetry as much as through it. Maybe one reason British readers are often resistant to international writing is that this notion of “thinking about” disturbs a customary empiricism. Our contemporary poetry mores translate a deep-seated empirical tradition into twin concerns: with craft, and with presenting concrete example rather than abstract argument. “Muscularity,” that Leavisite term of endearment, pictures the poem as material: the poem is the concrete particularity of these words, in this order. As Auden said, it “makes nothing happen”; its business is simply to be its own perfect incarnation. No coincidence that Don Paterson, arguably the most brilliantly-influential poet working in Britain today, turns William Carlos Williams’s vision of the poem as “a small (or large) machine made of words”—that is, a producer of affect, of something beyond itself—inwards, into “a little machine for remembering itself.”

It’s easy to see how abstraction can be a high road to cliche and un-clarity. Great ideas like love, truth, and justice are emptied of content as they circulate in political and commercial discourse. On the other hand, as the Australian poet-activist John Kinsella suggests in his clearly instrumental poetics, reading poetic complexity might equip us to decode, and challenge, those very discourses. (Nothing new here: Shelley makes a similarly instrumental case, in A Defence of Poetry, for the usefulness of practicing imaginative sympathy.) In a distinction too easily forgotten, abstraction—that gesture of finality with which the concrete realm is lifted away from, or refused—differs from abstract thought, which breathes movement into and within the conceptual realm. Practice (“craft”) does produce the poem. But it’s difficult to work out how we can be sure what’s produced is fit for purpose unless we accept that the poem has a purpose. This struggle to fix the locus of poetic purpose, or meaning—whether it’s internal to the text, or what it would mean to say it could be extra-textual—is central to contemporary British poetry.

Encountering the unfamiliar also demonstrates the extent to which reading a poem means thinking in its terms. Sometimes—when the poem feels unappealing in one way or another—this collusion seems more like discipline than consent; but it locates the reader within a poem’s semantic frame, as an element which therefore shifts what a poem can be. The Atlantic Rift does make a difference to what “American poems” can be for a British reader. It is significant that these three volumes have clear affinities to other North American work, but less in common with much contemporary British writing.

*     *     *

An immediate recognition of their high production values is non-trivial, too. Rachel Zucker’s Museum of Accidents is trimmed to a satisfying and unusual square; Tupelo Press has given Joan Houlihan a quirky “hand-print” running head and a folksy title font; Brenda Hillman’s classy Wesleyan hardback is intricately laid out and studded with photos. Such attentions signal that this writing’s worth taking seriously. And there’s certainly a self-consciously serious note to these collections that’s an ocean away from the jokey reflexivity of, say, Hugo Williams’s wry deprecations, Wendy Cope’s sharp gaiety, or Alan Brownjohn’s anti-heroic Ludbrooke. Nor is much joie de vivre on display. While Houlihan has a dark allegory from a primitive world, Hillman’s and Zucker’s predominant tone is of concerned struggle: with meaning, and with what is expected of a middle-class woman in America today:

                          if I can’t have the baby what have I—

                                          O

When I looked in the notebooks there was nothing there.
               —From
“Welcome to the Blighted Ovum Support
                            Group”
by Rachel Zucker

Of course, most poets are confined by a particular diction, and indeed register. The trick is to convince the reader of its universality; therefore of its necessity. Hold to the student rule of thumb that material must earn or deserve gravitas, and it’s easier to be convinced by the seriousness of Zucker’s compounded miscarriage than it is by the overstatement with which she trips over her three-year-old. Pace Adorno, we do understand that it’s inappropriate to use the same tone for the Holocaust as for your kid’s broken wrist. But possibly Zucker is too preoccupied by the way everything seems to return her to mortal terror to notice the danger of crying wolf:

later, A will say he was not scared.
he will laugh when I remind him he said he was going to die.

later, he will die, and I know this.
                —From
“More Accidents”

These are poems that count blessings by worrying that they might be lost:

Question:

Are you the type of person who, when you hear a child
   suddenly died—
say a two and a half-year-old girl with a room full of toys—
   wants to have another?
                                                                         Just in case?

                —From “What Dark Thing”

“Sunday Morning,” thoughtfully worked out over nearly a hundred lines—“a kind of monogamy” as the poet herself calls it—fluently evokes a situation that, frankly, seems pretty much as lucky as it gets. Pregnant again, the narrator rests while her husband, whom she still desires after thirteen years, comes and goes, doing household chores. Yet et in Arcadia: has his desire waned, or can it still match up to a fantasy in which “you / thought I was sexier than Britta Phillips and you sang like Dean / Wareham and the crowd went crazy”?

This tonal consistency must be read as a poetics. But there’s something as much willful as simply willed about it. A suggestion of project hovers, as if to trump the mere words. Several of Zucker’s poems struggle towards, rather than articulate, meaning: “What Dark Thing” opens, “The world is a place to buy things. // Resist. /// Even if it means your happiness.” A poetry of process, such as this is—and with which British readers are now familiar, though we’ve tended to understand such extraordinary protagonists as Jorie Graham, for example, as rugged solo pioneers—is concerned with trajectory. As such, it must conceptualize the poem as a whole, as if from outside, rather than moving with and within it. In other words, poetry of process postulates a metapoetic viewpoint for both poet and reader.

I find myself wondering whether the real project of this kind of writing is in some way about, rather than within, poetry; that is, aiming toward or summoning it? Some possible evidence: Zucker’s frequent references to writing practice suggest it’s something of an end in itself. Moreover, an outsider’s ear detects a jog-along reliance on conventional prosody, as if to demonstrate “poetic-ness.” Zucker doesn’t deviate from the kind of decent rhythmic expectation that has succeeded syllabics as supplier of low-dose formal integrity. In an example quite at random:

I have everything. even a job.
               a child. a child. notebooks I cannot quite
get down.
                —From “Long Lines to Stave off a Suicide”

Against the grain of a certain British consensus, I’ve no trouble hearing this sing-song steadiness differentiate itself from prose. A line-break such as, “What if my darkened nipples / intrigued you?” nicely inflects that question, with its micro-pause signposting the semantic swerve as possibility momentarily lifts off. Generous columnar poems, like “Paying Down the Debt: Happiness,” where alternate-indented lines throb down the margin, clearly score a particular wide-rangingness. Nevertheless, Zucker’s emotionally-alert, ever-so-slightly vatic diction remains a determinant. Smoothing over variation, it seems determined to contain rupture: from inconsistency to existential loss of meaning. In the cumulative chaos of “To Save America,” for example, melodious repetition saves the day even where the poem moves beyond conventional sense.

If melody secures your poetic integration, the alternative to tunefulness is presumably fragmentation, as in “Long Lines to Stave off Suicide,” or the eleven-page report on “More Accidents,” frustratingly connected by ampersands. Though these connectives serve, both aloud and on the page, to convey that speech-act’s tangential nature—the prompting “and” operates like an “uh-huh”—they also drop the ball. Hey, the reader wants to tell the poet, it’s up to you to make the sense here. Yet, if the boundaries of a poem extend beyond its text to include both the reader and whatever possible meanings that text can make of the world beyond it, all sorts of open forms and unprescriptive ideas are consistent with its project. This might explain Zucker’s curious resort to a post-Beat poetics I’d thought confined to countries which missed out on the freedoms it represents first time around. Underneath the wordiness and borrowed machismo of “Hey Allen Ginsberg Where Have You Gone and What Would You Think of My Drugs?” is a serious exploration of anti-Semitism, or rather of how to live in the new insecurity of a post-twin-towers era: “how fast . . . // can the doctor switch the refugee gene back on?” Yet the piece’s clunky rhyme-play, tedious verb-alisations (“He insomnias the nights”) and grammatical reductio ad absurdum leaves it almost “smothered . . . to smithereens” (“Paying Down the Debt: Happiness”). Where Zucker stops telling it slant like this, she’s an altogether finer poet.

*     *     *

Joan Houlihan’s narrative sequence The Us is so slant that its short poems require marginalia to explain what’s going on: their language fails them. Houlihan employs that translationese with which Anglophone cultures so often characterize distance. Just as, in English films of the forties and fifties, Nazis talk bad English among themselves to indicate that they’re speaking German, Houlihan has circumlocution and lousy grammar indicate that her narrator is, as an opening “Argument” puts it (borrowing a form of sixteenth-century English origin: presumably Long Ago and Far Away can seem all much of a much-ness in twenty-first-century Massachusetts), one of “a group of Primitive People [who] is captured by a group of Advanced People.” Toe-curling enough; but the poems themselves further translate these terms, into “the us” and “thems,” while the narrative I becomes “ay.” Some grammatical insecurity results, since “us” is sometimes used, like a proper noun, in place of we—and “thems” for they—but “ay”’s frequent deployment of “me” and “mine,” as in “Ay would lift mine hand and voice / to see him turn again” (“Crawls on mine cloth”) seems inconsistent. (Its incidental secondary effect is faux-medieval, since what the text really wants to say is my: but that’s a whole other difficulty.) Other characters, named with a pseudo-Celticity (more Long Ago, etc.), include a mother, “g’wen,” and a younger brother or “brae.”

It’s difficult to convey how embarrassed one feels for The Us. Any idea that this is a bold linguistic experiment crumbles before its lack of thoroughgoing-ness. If a point’s being made, however clumsily, about human experience in an age before subjectivity separated itself from collective suffering, why isn’t agency figured differently? For example, “ay” seizes his chance to escape from “thems” just as we’d expect. There’s a linear narrative. The book attempts nothing like the synthesis that Aboriginal Australian dreamtime narrative, say, enacts. Despite an auspicious cover image, whose ochred handprints suggest sympathetic magic, realism remains undisrupted. Instead, language is muddied and slightly dislodged. The sequence opens:

Us nest fine a weather long
between the heat of kin
the least of us in huts built round with stones.
A sky-hole takes the cook-smoke through.

This is neither make-it-strange re-visioning, nor the radical literal-mindedness which allows Australian Les Murray to speak “creaturely” in Translations from the Natural World. Nor is it conceptually strange. Writing slant has generated a clumsy semantic smudge—are the stones around the outsides of the huts, perhaps as defenses, or are the huts themselves circular and stone-built?—and there’s the ugly clatter of compound nouns against each other. But at least it’s comprehensible. On the other hand, a passage like “Thems stood and looked at him/who emptied out,” with its problematic intimation of diarrhea, requires a gloss: “Ay watches the/death of/thems leader.” Further confusion, and at the level of narrative structure, results when, after being hit over the head, “Ay came back simple, milded by wrong.” Surely catastrophic brain damage must render the narrator unreliable? Yet Houlihan makes no play with this idea: her marginalia are baldly corroborative throughout.

*     *     *

Brenda Hillman’s Practical Water represents an altogether more sophisticated project. The most complex of these books, it earns that complexity, rewarding careful, multiple readings. Being led by intellection, Hillman is free to accelerate linkages between idea and image to the point of synthesis. In her opening poem, “Partita for Sparrows,” for example, flight-paths fling temporality back and forth:

flying from awnings at unmarked rates
to fetch crumbs from our table half-spinning
back to clefs of grillwork on external stairs
we would descend much later.

And while the sparrows’ later deaths (so suggestive of both New Testament and Anglo-Saxon parable) memorialize the deaths of “the resisters” in past world wars, in life they create a continuity with those historic cultures—Roman, Gothic, Renaissance—in which they appear “from the margins / of a painting.”

If history is the public and collective, Hillman is historically engaged. She is herself a “resister.” Through her identification of the witness role of poetry with resistance, an explicit poetics of instrumentality emerges:

A shaking doubt has instructed you
       to address the long wars
       with short cries

Not to live against earth
You who have so little time

You to whom others have written
                —From Economics in Washington

Section titles—“Of International Waters,” “Of Communal Authority,” “Of the Months When you Work & the Months When you Can’t,” and “Of Local Creeks & Aqueducts”—identify her work as respectively internationalist, socially-committed, conscientious, and eco-poetic. She writes out of and to the society in which she’s located.
There’s something Shelleyan in the wordiness of each phrase within Hillman’s onrushing thought. As she says:

The mind was split & mended
Each perception divided into more

& there were in the hearts of the water molecules
    little branches perpendicular to thought
                —From Practical Water

So it’s no surprise that the legacy of Shelley’s ideas about the poet as “legislator” is explicitly explored in “A Violet in the Crucible”—and refigured through a woman’s experience: “he means / if you don’t survive this way there are others,/he means send the report with your body—.” But this writing moves far from the European tradition. In “The Eighties” Hillman writes that, “Our daughter . . . had 24 ear infections in one year so why were you not supposed to write mother in your bio.” Yet she doesn’t—like Eavan Boland, the Welsh poet Menna Elfyn, or indeed Rachel Zucker—repeatedly work over a singular maternal identity, but moves away from and returns to it. This ability to be simultaneously explicit (stating a case) and open (exploring what that might entail) extends to her use of apparently-affectless concrete detail. “Phone Booth” concludes:

Why did we live so fast
The booth hid our ankles
We twisted the rigid cord
As we spoke
It made a kind of whorl.

The silence into which this topples impels the reader to take over responsibility for meaning-making.

Hillman’s diction is tough. Often brutalizing the language with elisions, it gainsays her sometimes over-scrupulous attention to the way text is placed on the page. She’s quick to junk articles (“Minnows mix artless but best domains / with minuet fear” in “Tiergarten Scenes”) and even unnecessary verbs (“& if life had visited you/What would it have said/Peril stressform carbon joy”). Such concentration of diction and thought crystallizes effectively in tropes such as binaries—“I learned to write in a hot desert during the cold war” (“The Late Cold War”)—snapshots, like one of “Sacramento Delta” where “Pheasants fly into ditches; / fields bubble & broaden,” and the proverbial: “A molecule steps perpetually // into the present.” However, it’s in the book’s watery fourth section that—perhaps to capture that liquidity, the wildness of “sleeping upside down in ERUTAN/NATURE, or the necessity of anarchic eco-activism—that she makes her most radical formal experiments. The extraordinary extended action-poem, “Hydrology of California,” seems loosely to map this “green thought.” Here, as elsewhere, Hillman uses tropes of responsiveness and responsibility to locate the individual within the collective:

Visit us now o vole     before the w & x   visit us now rhinichthys
   osculus
   visit us
now alluvial   alluvial bearded spangletop   bees in their boxes &
   we who
had lived were implicated between   slopes   We climbed the
   dome & went
home w/a history of
glaciers in a book

The British reader experiences a kind of dislocation in thinking through poetry that so explicitly sees itself as engaged with extra-textual principles—that seems almost to view poetry as meta-experiential, rather than the ideas it deals in as meta-poetic—and is willing to adapt and adopt forms accordingly: from concrete poetry to daybook “album.” But pricking the conscience is a traditional literary strategy, familiar the world over. And contemporary culture needs thought about the state we’re in. If writing of the caliber of Hillman’s best is achieved through the rehearsal and repetition of an enabling poetics—one which destabilizes traditional readerly passivity, perhaps even allows readers to think the world differently—that’s probably a reasonable bargain for poets and their readers to strike.

Originally Published: February 1st, 2010

Fiona Sampsonwas born in London and trained as a violinist. Her early musical studies and professional career as a musician in Europe influenced her editing and writing. She studied at Oxford University and received a PhD in the philosophy of language from Nijmegen University in the Netherlands. Her poetry collections...

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In
  1. February 3, 2010
     Henry Gould

    Maybe part of the reviewer's problem with Houlihan's book is her unfamiliarity with "language history" out here in the sticks - specifically the dislocating encounters between native & foreign cultures/languages in colonial New England. Houlihan's narrative of an escape of "ay" from "them" sounds (I haven't seen the book myself) like an ironic turn on the popular capture-&-escape narratives of those times (Mary Rowlandson, et al.). Also perhaps an escape into "prehistory" from a literary milieu overfull of historical echoes & mandarin sophistication...

  2. February 4, 2010
     Henry Gould

    "If writing of the caliber of Hillman’s best is achieved through the rehearsal and repetition of an enabling poetics—one which destabilizes traditional readerly passivity, perhaps even allows readers to think the world differently—that’s probably a reasonable bargain for poets and their readers to strike." & while I'm here, making comments, I have to say that the above sounds awfully patronizing toward readers, in general. "Perhaps even allows readers to think the world differently"? Excuse me. & I find the distinction between "instrumental" and "non-instrumental" poetics a little problematic. Aristotle's "pity & fear" analysis tried to determine the mystery of how a work of art - a representation, a mimesis - achieves an effect of intellectual-emotional affect - which MOVES us. It is mystery and art. Whereas "instrumental" has an awfully mechanical-didactic (& patronizing) sound to it. To these ears, anyway.

  3. February 4, 2010
     eugnee sharmito boylos

    What does "think the world" mean? That's awful.

  4. February 9, 2010
     Basil Freeman

    I tried to hack through the oratorical jungle of Ms. Sampson's three reviews with little success. She can't be British schooled! Such flatulent, ad hominem screeds (especially the "review" of Houlihan's The Us) are unworthy of POETRY. Why were they published? The embarrassment is all theirs.

  5. February 16, 2010
     Ken Boe

    I enjoyed this review's weaknesses as much as its strengths.

  6. February 26, 2010
     James Sutherland-Smith

    Fiona Sampson's criticism has always oscillated between the vacuous and the pretentious. The whole second paragraph actually means that poetry in Britain wonders if it is any use. There's a very good essay by Geoffrey Hill "Caveats enough in their own walks" which locates the issue as far back as the seventeenth century.
    In Sampson's favour she does give short shrift to some dreadful writing if the quotes in her reviews are anything to go by.

  7. February 27, 2010
     Colette Olney

    Lads, lads! Give her a break. "...the vacuous... the pretentious? At least she's reading the stuff. Why ask unneccessary questions? Ask yourself what does 'nit-picking' mean? Does such an activity not confirm relationships?
    I just wish Sampson would hyphenate words like rule-of-thumb; italicize de facto - that sort of thing. Spelling is a bit of an issue too. 'Diarrhoea' - no? Nevermind. No hyphen intended. Best, C.O.

  8. March 4, 2010
     A-S. Z-D

    I sent in a letter by mail one week ago. I
    hope some of it will be posted here, and
    made public. In it I describe with great
    precision the way this reviewer misses the
    point of Houlihan's book. Her review
    repelled me. I do not understand why it
    was published. Please, readers, do read
    "The Us," you will see it is one of the best
    of our time!

  9. March 25, 2010
     Lauren Whitman

    I also sent a letter about the Houlihan book and I see it's not in this issue (April). The letter they published is a great takedown though. It's so clear compared to Sampson's answer which, like her review, is filled with some of the most convoluted and pretentious prose I've ever read. Is this what we get from Britain now? What comes through her response is an obsession with political correctness and a lack of imagination.

    LW