Charms, Prayers, and Curses
How Poems Think, by Reginald Gibbons.
University of Chicago Press. $25.00.
Do poems think?
Big question, one that has nagged people at least since Plato was grumbling about the dangerously loose thinking of poets in contrast to the rigor of philosophers. “There’s an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” he said in the Republic — but what exactly that quarrel was is moot — not least because Plato’s use of dramatic dialogue to make his case was itself poetical.
Much rides, no doubt, on one’s definition of thinking. Reginald Gibbons’s How Poems Think casts the net wide, assuming that poems think in all kinds of ways (abstractly, concretely, etymologically, metaphorically, sonically ... ), even poems with the limited attention span of — let me quote, for the fun of it, the beginning of Karen Solie’s neck-snapping “The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out”:
The perspective is unfamiliar.We hadn’t looked back, driving in,and lingered too longat the viewpoint. It was a prime-of-lifeexperience. Many things we knowby their effects: void in the rockthat the river may advance, voidin the river that the fish may advance,helicopter in the canyonlike a fly in a jar, a mote in the eye,a wandering cause. It grew dark ...
“Sentences in unpredictable but deep sequence in unpredictable but braced lines,” Michael Hofmann says of Solie, who keeps a dozen balls in the air at once and lands them with no-stress aplomb. Here is Gibbons on another poet’s comparable flash and dazzle: “[His] poetic thinking moves very fast from one image or allusion to the next ... in what may seem non sequiturs rather than a ‘logic’ of syntax, line, narrative, setting, or argument.” Ashbery? No. Gérard de Nerval.
How Poems Think, however, rests its argument in a quieter place, walking us through a (by now) altogether more user-friendly snippet of William Carlos Williams’s 1923 sequence Spring and All:
Pink confused with whiteflowers and flowers reversedtake and spill the shaded flamedarting it backinto the lamp’s horn ...
Gibbons points to the poem’s grace, its doublings, its darting movements, its phoneme repetitions and historical precedents, and to how its words, magically, poetically, seductively, coalesce to produce thought and feeling:
In his poem, Williams is giving the mere transience of the light from a lamp on a short-lived flowering potted plant its immortal moment, and its ... immortal ... articulation in a poem.... In rescuing the humble potted plant from oblivion, Williams performs an ancient poetic role, rescuing for a moment those of us who look at the potted plant with him.
Williams’s poem is the exclamation point of a book that digs into poetry’s rich, layered meaning-making humus. The oldest poems, it recalls, were oral: religious or magical contraptions — charms, prayers, curses — before they became tales of the tribe to be recited and embellished and handed down, eventually in writing, as exemplars (pop wisdom that irked Plato). Gibbons is “fascinated by the antiquity of poetry, or rather, of poetic thinking.... I mean the present-day practice of devices and structures of poetic thinking that were used long ago”; and his book is packed with poetry’s teeming underground life, here decaying, there sending up tender shoots. A little word like cumin gathers a jarful of observations: “The most ancient version of the word cumin was not very different in form and sound from our word.... The spell I might have chanted while holding my little cumin-seed sack would have been a kind of verbal apotropaic amulet ... pushing away ... a disturbing or dispiriting thought.”
Not much breath is wasted exhuming poetry’s fall-back mode, the rhetoric of persuasion (consider that diminutive debate, the sonnet, taking its Petrarchan turn or thumping its Shakespearean couplet on the table; or Andrew Marvell’s deviously cogent “To His Coy Mistress,” or, for that matter, any number of homely but witty poems by our contemporary, Carl Dennis). Gibbons is happiest sifting through the Mallarméan echo chamber of British modernist Mina Loy,
Onyx-eyed Odalisquesand ornithologistsobservethe flightof Eros obsolete—From Lunar Baedeker
or Basil Bunting’s to-and-fro-ing between Anglo-Saxon and Latin root words. Poems, Gibbons wants us to know, have more ways of thinking than culture-bound readers might dream of, and he lays out his goods for us to contemplate: antiquity’s feminine weaving songs, Russian rhymes (that lead, rather than follow or merely ornament thought), nineteenth-century French and twentieth-century English-language poems that glide from sound to sound or, like Russian dolls, nest small words inside bigger ones — “ox” inside “onyx,” say. There is a secondary text here, too, about working against the grain — one’s own or the assumptions of one’s culture — to enlarge one’s poetic practice and mode of thinking — something Gibbons set out as a young poet to do:
In California around 1970, when in my early twenties I was living about fifteen miles inland from the shore of that “peaceful ocean” that was both a body of water and an idea, I was often trying to imagine how to write a poem that would be better, more interesting, than what I had written so far.
How Poems Think’s first chapter, part memoir — I’d have welcomed more of this narrative/discursive mode — recounts a formative encounter with Donald Davie, a contemporary of Philip Larkin who came to teach in the US. Davie, Gibbons tells us, deplored the American confessional: “In lyric poetry ... what you are doing is making the personal impersonal. This is different from making the private public.” Later, Davie would confess his own struggles:
It is true that I am not a poet by nature, only by inclination; for my mind moves most easily and happily among abstractions, it relates ideas far more readily than it relates experiences. I have little appetite, only profound admiration, for sensuous fullness and immediacy; I have not the poet’s need of concreteness. I have resisted this admission for so long, chiefly because a natural poet was above all what I wanted to be.
“Just as the twig is bent the tree’s inclined”? No, says Davie. A true poem can be written by a mind “not naturally poetic”
by the inhuman labor of thwarting at every point the natural grain and bent. This working against the grain does not damage the mind, nor is it foolish; on the contrary, only by doing this does each true poem as it is written become an authentic widening of experience — a truth won from life against all odds.
Gibbons also cites the French poet Yves Bonnefoy on the challenges and rewards of translation as a means of enlarging one’s understanding of how poems — and languages — work: “Opposing metaphysics [ ... ] govern and, sometimes, tyrannize the French and English languages. [ ... ] English concerns itself naturally with tangible aspects,” whereas French poetry is “a place apart, where the bewildering diversity of the real can be forgotten, and also the very existence of time, everyday life and death.” The English language, Bonnefoy has said, in his preface to Emily Grosholz’s translation of Beginning and End of the Snow, is “so much more aptly fashioned than my own for the observation of concrete detail at a specific place and time, otherwise put, for the expression of the events of a particular existence.”
Thus a French writer appreciates the earthiness of Shakespeare or Keats. And English poets — Eliot, Ashbery — absorb French wit, abstraction, and stream of consciousness. How Poems Think struck me as particularly illuminating on how the associative thinking of nineteenth-century French poets trickled down into English poetry, shifting it “from representing lived experience, reason, and the world and toward creating an imaginative experience unique to the poem, by means of evocation, ellipsis, allusion, mood, impressionistically presented feeling, and so on.” Today, Gibbons speculates,
perhaps mood too has been discarded in favor of a kind of unmistakable poem-ness ... that has no referent or purpose beyond providing the reader with an experience of a particular way of suggesting a meaning that cannot be thought, or of not being meaningful at all in any expected way.
A beautiful line of verse is all the more beautiful as it means absolutely nothing, a literary friend told Marcel in Swann’s Way — and Marcel blushed to think that he in his innocence expected of poetry “nothing less than the revelation of truth itself.” Rimbaud, whose kaleidoscopic, not-meaningful-in-any-expected-way Illuminations John Ashbery not so long ago translated, is described by Thom Gunn (in “Shit”) as having
Coursed after meaning, meaning of course to trick it,Across the lush green meadows of his youth,To the edge of the unintelligible thicketWhere truth becomes the same place as untruth.
Making it new? Not necessarily, as Pound, translator of the Tang and the troubadours, knew: some of the new is the old stripped, painted new colors. Poking into cobwebby corners, weaving narrative into discourse, using assemblage, How Poems Think is a trove. I read it with a pencil — until I saw that underlining everything was the same as underlining nothing.
The Bonniest Companie, by Kathleen Jamie.
Reading the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie and Baudelaire in tandem last autumn I happened on an uncharacteristic landscape poem by Baudelaire and its germ, a poem he composed in his youth, and was struck by how well — if unexpectedly — the sentiment in them corresponded to Jamie’s achievement in her new book, The Bonniest Companie, as well as in her previous collection, The Overhaul. The closing stanzas of Baudelaire’s “Elevation” (my stab at a translation):
Behind the anguish and the vast chagrinWhose heaviness fills and weighs our lives down,Happy he who with a robust stroke canRise towards fields luminous and serene;The person whose thoughts, like skylarks singing,Climb freely each morning towards the sky— Who hovers over life, and effortlesslyKnows the language of flowers and mute things.
Jamie, like John Clare, one of her touchstone poets, is someone comfortable with the language of mute things, who turns readily for inspiration to what, oversimplifying (“everything that is is natural” as A.E. Stallings says), we call “nature.” People are less Jamie’s thing; they tend to potter about in the wings, gestured to now and then as a “we” or a “you.” Her poems are more, however, than felicitous snapshots of epiphanic moments involving deer, birds, or trees. Balanced between descriptions of objective reality and the expression of her own inner life, “The Shrew” (the small mammal) opens the new collection and illustrates Jamie’s complexity:
Take me to the river, but not right now,not in this cauld blast, this easterlystriding up from the sealike a bitter shepherd —and as for you, you Arctic-hatched, comfy-looking geeseoccupying our fields,you needn’t head back north anytime soon —snow on the mountains, frozen ploughed clods —weeks of this now, enough’s enough— but when my hour comes,let me go like the shrewright here on the path: spindrift on her midget fur,caught mid-thought, mid-dash
Precision, understatement, and humor — the sharp-tongued, sardonic kind also native to the Canadian Anne Carson, perhaps to Calvinist societies in general — are key. Constitutionally modest, Jamie is quick to pull the rug out from under herself: “take me to the river, but not right now”; “enough’s enough.” One hears the parental voice half-humorously taking the child down a notch until taking oneself down a notch becomes second nature. Jamie’s language is as plain as her “cairn of old stones” (“Glacial”) but it bristles with perceptual and emotional intensity, with the tones and customs of harsh places.
How does Jamie pack so much into her laconic lines? I ask (mindful of Gibbons’s How Poems Think), and come up with some tentative responses: 1) by no-comment juxtaposing of alternate realities: here, ultimate things (the sacred river, death), there, sensuous pleasure in the moment’s “frozen ploughed clods” and spindrift on fur; 2) by linking herself to a humble creature (“let me go like the shrew”); 3) by peppering poems with feminine signs and diction (“comfy-looking”; that shrew, again, co-opted from its traditional role as a scold: “a bad-tempered or aggressively assertive woman,” says my unreformed dictionary); 4) by the sounds and rhythms of her words — what Gibbons, probing historical parallels between poems and weaving, calls “sonic texture” (the nubbly “you Arctic-hatched, comfy-looking geese”); and 5) by gesturing towards pain (“when my hour comes”) without making a big deal of it. Much is implicit in Jamie’s reticent lyrics and, naturally, all the mute things are thingy — they are — but also metaphorical and moral. Some of Jamie’s critics speak of her wild creatures as mysterious others, akin to Ted Hughes’s roe deer, who “happened into my dimension.” I prefer to view them as part of a continuum of life forms, all of them — including, perhaps most of all, the human beings — largely inscrutable. Jamie’s realms, as she herself hints in “The Shrew,” overlap: the wind “striding ... / like a bitter shepherd”; the geese “occupy” like demonstrators or invaders; the shrew is “caught mid-thought, mid-dash” — a traditional female stance, but one whose ordinariness is relatively new to the lyric (the poem performs this state of between-ness by ending without punctuation). Bitterness and comfort, “The Shrew” commonsensically implies, are two sides of life. One senses that Jamie, a philosopher by training, would make a good Stoic.
Kathleen Jamie was born in 1962 in the west of Scotland. The Bonniest Companie is her seventh collection. Like The Overhaul, The Bonniest Companie’s poems are palm-sized: pebbles good for pocketing. Forget Les Murray’s “quality of sprawl.” This is an Arte Povera — like the sixties’ minimalists who made art of scrappy objects, Jamie is subversive in her use of domestic, often feminine, materials; in her stripped-to-the-bare-wood diction and organic forms, as well as in her incorporation of Scots vernacular to mark cultural confidence. The Bonniest Companie was written, she tells us in the notes, week by week over the year of the Scottish Independence Referendum. “23/9/14” was composed shortly after voting day:
So here we are,dingit doon and weary,happed in tattered hopes(an honest poverty)......................................................................On wir feet.Today we begin again.
There is also a translation into Scots “eftir Hölderlin” (easy to read along with Michael Hamburger’s English translation) and an overtly political/ecological poem punningly called “Wings Over Scotland” (“Glenogil Estate: poisoned buzzard (Carbofuran). / No prosecution”) that appropriates media materials.
Honored for her depictions of wild places and creatures that, indirectly, have a fair amount to say about people, Jamie can, when she likes, evoke human tensions more forthrightly, as in two poems, “Moon” from The Overhaul:
Moon,I said, we’re both scarred now.Are they quite beyond you,the simple words of love? Say them.You are not my mother;with my mother, I waited unto death.
and “Another You” from The Bonniest Companie, in which a sixties tune on the radio reminds Jamie of “Dad’s chair” and her mother:
your knitting bag, allneedles and pins .............................. I nevercould explain myself, nevercould explain............................ It’s seven yearssince you died, and suddenly I knowwhat the singers say is true —that seek as I might, I’ll neverfind another you. But that’s alright.
“Change, change — that’s what the terns scream / ... / everything else is provisional, / us and all our works” (“Fianuis”). Rugged and sensuous, Jamie’s lyrics belong to and enrich a European tradition that runs alongside the postmodernists, borrowing their techniques — voices like Philippe Jaccottet (Swiss-French) and Tomas Tranströmer (Sweden). Jamie has said that poetry for her is “about listening and the art of listening, listening with attention. I don’t just mean with the ear; bringing the quality of attention to the world. The writers I like best are those who attend ... Seamus Heaney, Elizabeth Bishop, John Clare.” A group into which Jamie’s quietly intense poems fit well.
Prodigal: New and Selected Poems 1976–2014, by Linda Gregerson.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.95.
Linda Gregerson writes long, shapely poems that often come in parts, requiring assemblage. She will begin with an X, jump to a Y, swerve to Z, but eventually the whole shebang falls into place — as associatively-thinking poems do not always do — because Gregerson is good at making connections that might be a stretch for less well-exercised minds: her arguments, however deviously constructed, are sturdy — once you put it all together you can sit down in it. If there are — and there are — strong feelings in these poems, they are governed by an equally fierce intellect. Nothing leaves this workshop that has not been subjected to quality control.
A reader unfamiliar with Gregerson’s work might want to start with the selections from her more overtly personal collections, The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep or Waterborne. Gregerson, storyteller that she is, will often ground austere, impersonal poems with allusions to something prima facie autobiographical (“When my daughters / were little and played in their bath”). Still, the reader who starts with the new poems, where the question of authorial distance can be problematic, risks skating over layers of thought and experience that the reader familiar with the earlier poems will intuit. “The Wrath of Juno (the house of Cadmus),” one of the ten new poems, sits as boldly on the page as a bibelot by Marianne Moore, the voices in its faceted quatrains rarely easy to identify:
It’s the children nail your heartto the planet, so that’show you nail them back.Alcmena in laborfor seven days. Think of the manwho thought up the goddesswho thought of that.And pregnantSemele, stupid with pride, consumedby the flames she had the gallto ask for, thoughI ought to have knownthat wouldn’t be the end of it. Who’llrid me of the turbulent mess that comesattached to a womb?
Based on episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, “The Wrath of Juno” has elements of dramatic monologue, soliloquy, and rant. The speaker rages — to herself? to a listener? — about a long, chaotic experience of the world. On another level she is our contemporary: a woman of a certain age who has learned to be skeptical, not to say cynical, about others (“Semele, stupid with pride,”) and the state of marriage, family, the polis, the planet. Gregerson’s range (rage) is immense; it encompasses history and literature, an ancient or the latest atrocity, wallpaper, and URLs. Mortgage payments chew the fat with “serotonin uptake” and “geometricians.” But when the somewhat autobiographical, if still seven-league-booted ironist dives underground the “I,” the “you,” and “the girl” become slippery, generalized, universal:
The planets make us what we are,which meansin turnthe parts I learned in Tunis and at Delphi mustbe surfaceagitations on a deeper pool.Talk to me, won’t you,what was it likein your other life?— From Pythagorean
One of my favorite earlier poems in Prodigal’s selection is “With Emma at the Ladies-Only Swimming Pond on Hampstead Heath” from The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep. “With Emma” is a wry exploration of mother-daughter relations that exposes the resistances and vulnerabilities of both with (I would guess, hard-won) equanimity:
In payment for those mornings at the mirror while,at herexpense, I’d started my late learning in AppliedFrench Braids, for allthe mornings afterward of Hushand Just stand still,...........................................I did as I was told for once,............................................She’s eight now. She will ratherdie than do this in a year or twoand lobbies,even as we swim, to be allowed to cuther hair.
A great deal happens in and between the lines of these plaited tercets. I admire — oh how I admire — the way the poem meanders reflectively and narratively (“shall we climb / on the raft / for a while?”) but ultimately ties all the ends up with a bow. I note the rich metaphoric content — of, say, braids and the word “cut,” and the celebration implied by the poem’s penultimate adjective, “honey- colored.” Gregerson has a vast reservoir of pity. She also has a reservoir of anger one could drown in. “For the Taking” is a poem about the sexual abuse of a child by a family member: “and we / who could have saved her, who knew // ... // we would be somewhere mowing the lawn // or basting the spareribs ... // ... we // were deaf and blind.” “Failures of attention,” as “Good News,” another poem in the collection, concludes, loom large in Gregerson.
If Gregerson’s poems, especially the newer ones, feel highly-processed, the more one reads backwards in time, the rawer they turn out to be, in their guilts, obsessions, hurts, sorrow, anger. Her multi-stranded patterns are suited to her anxious, thinky meanderings. They test life from different points along the way, like Proust’s shifting views of the Martinville spires; they worry at common human experiences in an attempt to get to the bottom of what Gregerson would probably acknowledge is bottomless, abyssal. The poems in Prodigal should be read slowly; if at first they seem to be (as they are) the product of restless, honest, exceptionally well-furnished and rational mind, they are also, it transpires, stuffed with explosives.
Poet and translator Beverley Bie Brahic was born in Canada and now lives in Paris and the San Francisco Bay Area. Her poetry collection White Sheets (CB editions, 2012) was a finalist for the Forward Prize. Her work has appeared in Field, Literary Imagination, Notre Dame Review, the Southern Review, the...