Beautiful Fierce Cheats
Temper, by Beth Bachmann.
University of Pittsburgh Press.$14.95.
At a time when so much reality is “virtual,” or merely “unscripted,” it is perhaps natural that we thirst for the genuine, the authentic. But “authentic” is a curious word. An “Authentes” in Greek comes to mean someone who acts on his own initiative, a doer. But originally it appears to have meant a murderer. (In most mythologies, murder is among the very first “acts” of man.) Is it coincidence that authenticity has its roots in blood, in the shock of violence?
Beth Bachmann’s Temper doesn’t need the imprimatur of this reviewer—it won the 2008 Donald Hall Prize in Poetry, and the 2010 Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and has garnered quite a bit of buzz. Enthusiastic blurbs adorn the back cover from luminaries such as Lynn Emanuel, Natasha Trethewey, Nick Flynn, and Michael Collier. Her work is “fiercely distilled,” “compelling,” “stark, startling, and objective.” Against the cover’s ferrous red, her author’s photo is cadaverously gray, and the haunted eyes stare out at us from smudgy dark circles suggestive of bruises, the lips playing da Vinci-like between a scowl and a smile.
That this marks a strong debut there can be no doubt—the writing is, as advertised, clear, stark, compelling, and distilled, looking on death with a cold, even clinical eye. Bachmann weighs her words, and turns them over in her hands to reveal all their facets. “Paternoster,” the scene-setting poem in the collection plays on paternoster as prayer and as fishing line. This sets us up for what is, essentially, a murder mystery:
I’ll start with the thing dragged up: the body of my sister.
I’ll give you the location: the tracks.
The red treble designed to mock blood, to stick into the skin: one suspect—
Put this begging in your mouth, a decade of loaded beads.
Bachmann plays out the line like an expert angler, and the reader is indeed hooked. “Let me tell you a story,” Bachmann says, tugging at our attention. But this is a true story. Although these poems are not “confessional” (confession is precisely what is withheld), they are predicated not only on “this really happened,” but “this really happened to her”—on the horror of their authenticity.
Don’t get me wrong: this is efficient, unadorned writing of an all-too-rare directness and clarity; the trinity of elements aptly united in the “treble” hook, the pun of “our father” electrifying in its shock, “decade” beautifully made to do double duty both as a unit of rosary beads and the narrative’s setting in time. What follows keeps up both the narrative rush and lyric power of this opening—this is one of those poetry books you are compelled to read cover to cover and all the poems in order. But the lure—the murder mystery she hooks us with—is also the complication. As the reader is given clues to what is ultimately unsolvable—last phone calls, images of a teenage girl’s body in the grass defiled by a dog (images that can be disturbingly ambiguous and erotic: “Some would call this heaven—a teenage girl half-naked / in the grass.”), muttering vagrants—the reader becomes viewer as well as voyeur. We cannot help but be interested, and be queasy at our own curiosity. While it is true that some of the writing is clinical, this is balanced, or rather off-balanced, by other writing that is gorgeous. The sense of “mystery” as an unsolved crime is juxtaposed with mystery in its ineffable religious sense.
Michael Collier says that:
Bachmann works the charged margins of the mythic imagination, but with a terrifying difference. For her, myth is also fact: a murdered sister, an accused father, and an inconsolable mother.
Does it make the poems more terrifying or less that they are based in fact? Would this book be diminished if it were based on a fiction? (Yes, but why?) The Iliad is fiction (if with some basis in fact), and devastating in its truth about humanity and violence. What does it mean that some of the power of these poems, of our sense of their courage or restraint (all that reticent white space on the page), is because they are written out of a devastation few of us can imagine? What is the difference between the authentic and the true?
That this book reads almost as a novel, with lyric moments and shocking scenes, should come as praise—the consistently high quality of writing, the pull of its directness. At the same time this polish and consistency in a first book gives me some pause. This is no criticism of the poet, whose discipline and technique are on display. But perhaps it is a comment on our contest culture, on the need for a book to be unified with a thematic hook, on the pressure to write books rather than poems. (Is it wrong to miss that occasional coltish awkwardness and promise of first books of yore?) How, for instance, does Bachmann proceed from here? It is true that not all of the poems in Temper are “about” the murder and its aftermath, but they are so contextualized that it is hard to imagine how they would read singly—if, say, first encountered in a magazine. What would a second book look like? A sequel?
There are poems here that can stand alone and don’t require the book’s arc. I quote my favorite, the closing poem, in its entirety:
No shepherds. No nymphs. Maybe just one:
the girl the fawn strips like a fisherman’s rose.
Death turns its mouth red. It can no longer lie
in the lilies. Not on my watch. The lake is filthy
with silver fish sticky with leeches. Lovesick,
I flick a feather into the water. No stones.
Only the one in my pocket, heavy as a tongue.
The source of this poem’s power is not in the authenticity of murder or its details—although we can bring these to bear if we wish (“Death turns its mouth red” suggests the dog that defiled the cadaver). Some of the poems in this book, for all their craft and restraint, get some of their frisson from the same source as reality television. But here we have metamorphosis, resonance, transformation, the alchemy of art. Bachmann is able—by a few simple, direct gestures toward pastoral elegy, invoking nymphs and shepherds by rejecting them—to connect her personal grief and tragedy to the whole tradition of English (and Western) verse and to the poetic impulse itself to make beauty out of sorrow. The distancing of this artifice, this frame, does not make this poem less powerful than others in this book—it highlights the abrupt vernacular, for instance, of “Not on my watch,” and in the pastoral setting, the ugly reality of the leech-infested lake, as opposed to a mountain spring of inspiration, is the more appalling. And the irony of the lovesickness, traditionally erotic in this genre, being sisterly love, makes that love the more tender. The pastoral emphasis on singing and piping makes the silence—the stone-heavy tongue—the more eloquent. This is not only authentic, it is true.
Silver Roses, by Rachel Wetzsteon.
“Posthumous” has acquired an “h” and come to mean “after burial/after death,” but originally it meant the latest or last born, a child conceived in its parent’s lifetime but born after the parent’s death. It is in this slightly more positive light I prefer to look at Silver Roses, Rachel Wetzsteon’s latest collection. Poets seem more than usually networked together through Facebook, so I doubt the news will come as a shock to anyone reading this that Wetzsteon took her own life over Christmas 2009 at the age of forty-two.
Perhaps none of that should have anything to do with this review, but because much of Wetzsteon’s poetry is autobiographical, if not confessional (“confessional” poetry, it seems to me, belongs to a certain psychoanalytical epoch, whereas the autobiographical in poetry has a continuous thread that goes from Hesiod and Sappho to the present), it seems impossible not to bring it to bear. I knew Wetzsteon slightly—we met once a year at a conference and exchanged pleasantries—but I didn’t know her work well. I had an impression of her poetry as Dorothy Parkerish, witty, urbane, with a lovelorn girl-about-town persona. This isn’t wrong exactly, but what I didn’t realize was what a range and depth she had, what formal facility and felicity, from abecedarians to prose poems, from syllabics and Sapphics to vers libre and nonce stanzas. Perhaps an alternate useful comparison would be Catullus, another well-read, urbane, witty, lovelorn flaneur with a knack for contemporary vernacular in elegant numbers. He also died in his prime (at thirty), some would say of a broken heart.
One of the pleasures of Wetzsteon’s verse is how she wears her learning lightly—it is the heart on her tough-cookie-persona sleeve—and flatteringly assumes her readers are as smart and well-read as she. I wonder if this has something to do with her background in academic but not mfa culture. (In Temper, for instance, we are informed at the back that “A sudden blow” comes from Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan.”) When Wetzsteon titles something “Freely from Wyatt,” she assumes we are all intimately familiar with “They flee from me that sometimes did me seek.” It concludes jauntily and tenderly:
Busily seeking with continual change,
lacking a chamber, naked, meek and sore
of foot, feel free to show up at my door:
I’ll find a shawl. I will not think it strange.
Wetzsteon published a critical study on Auden and his sources, so perhaps it is not surprising that she would exhibit formal flexibility and mastery, as well as a penchant for mixing references of high and low culture. A recurring trope is the poet as “screwball heroine,” with particular reference to the getting-back-together comedy (with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne), The Awful Truth. So in “Pursuits of Happiness” she violently yokes together screwball-comedy directors and metaphysical poets, with epigraphs such as “after John Donne and Preston Sturges.”
For all its jaunty bravura, there is more darkness, a darkness verging on chaos, in Sakura Park, her previous collection. In “And This Time I Mean It,” a free-verse poem with an iambic texture, she concludes:
But if my old friends
waved to me on my armored cloud,
a handshake with a new one took me
down, toward the street’s precise rough music,
down toward terror and truth.
This is scary stuff, but it is also something of an ars poetica—Wetzsteon’s music is rough and precise, and hurtles towards terror and truth. In retrospect it is hard to read some of the references to suicide tossed off lightly in Sakura Park—a haiku on cigarettes goes “Little suicides,/rest in peace: I’d rather find/mystery elsewhere.” Dorothy Parker also flirts with suicide in her verse, famously in “Résumé” (“Razors pain you; Rivers are damp.”) Would we read this verse differently if Parker had actually killed herself? It is certainly swart as opposed to light verse, but the weary affirmation at the close, “You might as well live,” would perhaps gain a crude irony. It would give a true poem the redundant whiff of authenticity. Perhaps Wetzsteon’s death gives an undue weight to morbid images that were indeed tossed off lightly or half-satirically. Don’t all of us write things that could look worrying to a psychologist but that for us are necessary, even therapeutic? Poetry is one place in our relentlessly cheerful culture where we are allowed to be honestly unhappy.
As Grace Schulman says in her moving introduction, the new book’s title, Silver Roses, “prepares us for light,” and it is true that this collection has more light, the proverbial sheen that foils dark clouds, the silver of the silver screen; but I think the title also prepares us for a certain nature morte coolness. In fact, chillingly, Wetzsteon has used the phrase “silver roses” before, in Sakura Park’s “Thirty-three”:
a snowstorm of cold images
counsels against excessive love of winter:
a glassed-in blizzard raging on a desk top,
a silver coffin heaped with silver roses.
In that earlier poem, the poet is also bearing a silver rose to a loved one:
Like you I know the pleasure of concealment:
I bore the rose, I bore the silver rose
to my loved one’s house, but kept it stowed
inside my frockcoat so the mirrors might show me
my own tight-lipped reflection, so violent, so silent.
It is a measure of Wetzsteon’s artistic maturity in Silver Roses that she revisits these same images but raises them out of a private, almost precious iconography to a level of crystal clarity and deep resonance. In the new book’s title poem, these images—the silver rose, the reflection in the mirror, violence (rhymed in the first incarnation with “silence” and in the second with “violins”)—are recycled, but now they are revealed to be props in a key allusion, Der Rosenkavalier. In Richard Strauss’s bittersweet comic opera, the Rosenkavalier is the young man selected by the suitor (a boorish baron) to bear a silver rose representing the suitor’s love to young, rich, innocent Sophie. That the Rosenkavalier is sung by a woman, a “trouser role,” allows for further farce of cross-dressing and mistaken identity. But the opera is shadowed with melancholy. For at the start, the Rosenkavalier is the lover of the beautiful Marschallin, a married woman of a certain age. She realizes, looking in the mirror, that her beauty is fading, and that her young gallant is destined to fall in love with another, younger woman. It is her realization of time and mortality, and her nobility in resigning her claims, that raise this from farce to the sublime.
In this poem, arguably Wetzsteon’s masterpiece, she employs all the levels of irony at her disposal—bringing in her father’s love of the opera, putting herself in the “trouser role”—cousin, perhaps, to the screwball heroine—and also in the position of the Marschallin (“but mirrors can be beautiful fierce cheats”)—at once the wooing lover, offering his/her love, and the woman of fading beauty, who must relinquish her beloved. This is all accomplished in envelope- rhymed, chiming octaves. The poem concludes:
And I am trying to
fathom the way I got from there to here,
the joy that snuck up when I’d sworn off joy:
we’ve made a sterling start, we’ve got a plan
to watch it on your satin couch downtown
and I’ll be there upon the stroke of eight,
bearing in my trembling ungloved hand
a silver rose for you.
The poem’s placement at the end of the book, and thus of her life, makes it a painfully optimistic gesture. But it is an inspired gesture thatripples through time; it reaches back to Keats’s hand, “now warm and capable,” and proffers the silver rose of love, of promise, the torch of art, to her true lover, the reader, and the readers yet to be born.
A.E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics at the University of Georgia and Oxford University. She has published three books of poetry: Archaic Smile (1999), winner of the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012), which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Stallings’s poetry is known for its ingenuity...