"This Side of the River"
An Annual Review of Books from West Branch Contributors
The Keys to the Jail, by Keetje Kuipers. BOA Editions, 100 pp., $16.
Swoop, by Hailey Leithauser. Graywolf Press, 80 pp., $15.
The Accounts, by Katie Peterson. University of Chicago Press, 104 pp., $18.
Incarnadine, by Mary Szybist. Graywolf Press, 72 pp., $15.
Public proclamations that poetry is dead spin people up. Cue online commentary, letters to the editor, fiery debates on blogs and Facebook. I find these declarations amusing. "Is Verse a Dying Technique?" asked Edmund Wilson in 1928. "Who Killed Poetry?" Joseph Epstein wanted to know sixty years later. "There is no longer, really, any formal innovation possible," asserted Alexandra Petri last January in The Washington Post. "The constraints of meter have long been abandoned." Is poetry beautiful, but pointless? Can it matter? Is writing by MFA graduates more assembled than inspired? Such hullabaloo strikes me as pointless. Poetry predates literacy. It has survived (and thrived) for how many centuries? As Donald Hall observes in "Death to the Death of Poetry," "at any historical moment, you write an article claiming that poetry is now in terrible shape, you are always right. Therefore, you are always fatuous." Hall goes on to recommend that, as admirers and authors of verse, we continue to "warm ourselves by the gregarious fires of our solitary art." Fueling the flames Hall champions are recent collections by Mary Szybist, Katie Peterson, Keetje Kuipers, and Hailey Leithauser. Each is distinct. Szybist's Incarnadine underscores the dangers of depicting the Virgin Mother as the female ideal, and in doing so wrestles with the tension between spiritual alienation and astonishment. In The Accounts, Peterson mindfully documents grief's intricacies from unexpected angles. The collection slowly accumulates moments of recognition by returning to, and reexamining, a fixed set of narrative fragments. Declares Kuiper in "A Beautiful Night for the Rodeo," "I told someone else / she could be that brave, and I'd show her how." The Keys to the Jail does just that, urging its readers to risk being thrown emotionally, and then to come up standing. Word play, extended metaphor, and forms that trill and leap leave readers of Hailey Leithauser's Swoop inebriated. Poetry pointless? I think not.
Critics deride the contemporary lyric as limp and fangless. I can think of no better poet to disprove this claim than Mary Szybist, winner of the 2013 National Book Award in Poetry. Throughout her most recent collection, Incarnadine, Szybist presses the devotional lyric not only via structural innovation, but also by wrenching Biblical narratives from their traditional contexts and restaging them as secular meditations. In doing so, Incarnadine tests the divisions between body and spirit, virgin and mother, as well as notions of godlessness and the ungodly. The book takes its title from the Italian incarnatino ("made flesh") and echoes Macbeth, whose murderous hand turns "The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red" (II, ii, 59-60). For Szybist, devastation often accompanies revelation: the angel Gabriel is figured as predatory; a woman throws her children from a bridge; an art teacher sexually assaults his young student; a mass of passenger pigeons eclipses the sun, shutting out "all other sound / with the thunder of their wings" ("The Troubadours Etc."). Although Szybist relies heavily on understatement and modest diction, her poems ask complex questions, namely, what's the cost of motherhood, of faithfulness and estrangement? And, perhaps most significantly, what's at stake for those who knowingly answer God's call, versus those who are simply chosen?
Szybist's reluctant heroine is Mary—both the Virgin Mother and the author herself. At times, the two are indistinguishable: "Someday Mary would like to think about herself, but she's not yet sure what it means to think, and she's even more confused about herself" ("Update on Mary"). The Mary of Incarnadine is, among other things, luminous, fragile, inhabited, haunted, exiled, and improbable. She is called on by the Holy Spirit and, on many occasions, violated. Incarnadine often revisits the Angel Gabriel's announcement of the Incarnation and depicts the Annunciation in many forms. In one version God's messenger and Mary are figured as a rare lupine and an endangered species of blue butterfly. Elsewhere, Szybist finds the pair in a kitchen. "Annunciation (from the grass beneath them)" stages their meeting on "clustered" clover and "crushed mint." Szybist also characterizes the Angel and Mary via excerpts from The Starr Report, Lolita, and Congressional records. Such episodes are disquieting. "Be afraid Mary," warns the poet in "Annunciation under Erasure," "The Holy // will overshadow you."
In "Annunciation as Right Whale with Kelp Gulls," Mary is less revered than Leda-like, assaulted. "Why wouldn't such sweetness / be for them?" asks Szybist of the angel-birds that "swoop down on her wherever she surfaces." One of several ecopoetic meditations, "Annunciation as Right Whale with Kelp Gulls" soothes its reader with sound, even as the title's ravenous birds consume the living she-whale:
I tell you I have seen them in their glee
diving fast into the sureness of her flesh,
fast into the softness of
her wounds—have seen them
peel her, have seen them give themselves
full to the effort and the
lull of it—
In the above lines, which open "Annunciation as Right Whale with Kelp Gulls," full and slant rhymes bind tell, peel, full, and lull. The dental sounds accumulate, gaining emphasis in the left margin via enjambment. Their euphonious counterparts, sureness and sweetness, are markedly different: polysyllabic, the abstract nouns temper the severity of the action both by sound and sensory appeal. Szybist employs this pattern throughout the poem: full is repeated, as is the word sweetness. Echoing these words in later lines are gulls and openness, which further characterize the predators and "tender, pockmarked" whale. Thanks to Szybist's sonic orchestration, the poem eerily calms the reader, even as the birds rip pieces of blubber and skin from their prey. On the whole, reading the poem is like watching a Hitchcockian scene set to Ravel's Mother Goose suite. It's both disturbing and somehow astonishing to witness the graphic consumption of the Virgin Mother. Still, Szybist reminds us that all is ordained: "For they do sit and eat, for they do sit and eat," she attests, "a sweetness prepared for them."
Part of Incarnadine's accomplishment is its thematic consistency and structural restlessness—the collection not only grapples with traditional forms (the villanelle, terza rima, an abecedarian, sonnets, and hymns), but also experiments with lyric prose, erasure, overheard conversations, concrete poetry, etc. "It Is Pretty to Think" is a sentence diagram. "Notes on a 39-Year-Old Body" scatters sentence fragments across the page. In "How (Not) to Speak of God," Szybist employs a radial structure to facilitate multiple readings of the poem's modifying phrases. Visually, "How (Not) to Speak of God" resembles a sunburst. Its center, ironically, remains empty—God, the subject of Szybist's meditation, is noticeably absent from the body of the poem. Because of this omission, each unit of speech reads simultaneously as an inquiry, and declaration or description. For example, when interpreted as questions, the phrases "who is enough [?], who is more than enough [?]," (emphasis mine) suggest longing and isolation. When read as qualifications, the same phrases depict an indefatigable and fervent God (as identified in Szybist's title) "who is enough, who is more than enough" (emphasis mine). One wonders how Szybist might read "How (Not) to Speak of God" aloud, given that its gradations hinge on the poem's physical layout. However, unlike many contemporary writers who use white space and visual components as ornament, Szybist's most successful experiments are strategic. The structure of "How (Not) to Speak of God," for instance, simultaneously evokes a God who arrives and retreats, as well as those followers who cycle through periods of faithfulness and doubt.
Although the word Incarnadine suggests something flesh-colored or pinkish, the mood of Szybist's collection is decidedly blue—"a blue darker than the sky above us, a blue dark enough for storms" ("The Troubadours Etc."). Even optimistic poems are laced with sorrow. "I had the happy idea to suspend some blue globes in the air" begins Szybist's catalog after Duchamp ("Happy Ideas"). A line break later, the speaker reveals that she hangs the "blue globes" only to "watch them pop." Throughout "Happy Ideas," Szybist charms her readers with the quotidian. "I had the happy idea," she writes, "that the dog digging a hole in the yard in the twilight had his nose deep in / mold-life." As is often the case in Szybist's work, what's ordinary quickly becomes extraordinary:
I had the happy idea to create a void in myself.
Then to call it natural.
Then to call it supernatural.
How effortlessly the above lines leap from the given to the unknown, from longing—our common human desire, that in-born "void"—to the supernatural. Szybist's simple sentences and diction make her observations seem inevitable. Such minimalism isn't without tension, however. While Szybist's tone is facile, the feelings conveyed are ripe with tension. Recounts the speaker of confronting her own image, "I had the happy idea to polish the reflecting glass and say // hello to my own blue soul. Hello, blue soul. Hello. // It was my happiest idea."
If "Happy Ideas" playfully acknowledges the sadness that colors the speaker's "own blue soul," elsewhere Szybist's spiritedness gives way to genuine despair. In "Holy," a daughter confronts the terrible fact of illness as it ravages her "beautiful, moon-faced mother." So wracked with grief at the prospect of her mother's absence, the speaker sits "winding blue tape around [her] wrists" to keep herself from falling apart. While the dramatic occasion of "Holy" is a parent's imminent death, its true subject is spiritual despair. The speaker not only acknowledges her alienation ("Spirit who knows me," she confesses, "I do not feel you / fall so far in me, // do not feel you turn in my dark center…"), she goes so far as to reprimand the Holy Ghost who "sleep[s] in the dark edges" of her dying mother's "shadow." Yet, despite her doubts, the speaker is willing to make any appeal to save her mother. "Spirit, know me," she implores. Two stanzas later she beckons:
Fragile mother, impossible spirit, will you fall so far
from me, will you leave me
This tercet serves as a personal testament, one richer for its ability to equally affirm and call into question the speaker's longing for and estrangement from God. Is the "fragile mother" to whom Szybist speaks the woman dying or the Virgin Mary? Is the "impossible spirit" the Holy Ghost, or a daughter's own inner vitality? The answer—and Szybist's gift as a poet—is both. The direct address resonates in multiple ways, thereby underscoring our fraught relationship with matters numinous.
Throughout Incarnadine, God exits and enters. His form, like Szybist's, is manifold. Although the Biblical players in the collection are familiar, Szybist makes strange (and more luminous) plots long accepted as given. "Even now I can't keep from / composing you, limbs and blue cloak // and soft hands," she confesses in "Hail,"
I sleep to the sound
of your name, I say there is no Mary
except the word Mary ...
Such devotion is key. How else could Szybist pinpoint the following moments in "Annunciation in Play" with such precision?
By the 8th second she is still repelling
every attempt, still deflecting (you can see
the speed, the skillful knee action)
his gaze. And she must know (she has to think
every second, there's no letting up)
this is only
How else could Incarnadine so gracefully, so tenderly bloody the waters long deemed holy?
The loss Szybist anticipates in "Holy" manifests fully in Katie Peterson's The Accounts. The collection, which won University of North Texas's 2014 Rilke Prize for a mid-career poet, documents a mother's transformation from dying to deceased. Although her body betrays her, the various accounts of her life—as wife, parent, ailing patient—survive as fragments recounted by loved ones. In many ways, Peterson's poetic impulse in The Accounts resembles that of a documentary photographer; she considers objects and scenes over many days (and even decades), taking stock of how they're impacted by changing circumstances and perspectives. Throughout the collection, the speaker revisits a robin's nest housed in a nook of her parents' patio umbrella. At one point, the absent bird is a means of characterizing a husband and father so distracted by his wife's terminal illness that he "acted like he wasn't even there, / and somehow kept everyone away" ("Nest"). Later, the image reflects the transcendent: it is "a blueprint of the first- / ever halo, before the angels // learned to work with light" ("Riot"). In "From the Nest," the titular object underscores the poet's task of turning "the sounds / the sick mouth makes / into prayer." Elsewhere, it becomes a meaningless "Symbol," evidence of language's inability to articulate our deepest human fears, guarded anger, and despair. Taken together these, and other entries in which Peterson mines the nest as metaphor, reflect an active and strikingly patient mind as it tries to make sense not only of what has been lost, but also how that loss inflicts change upon the record of a life.
Peterson isn't the kind of poet who rushes to make a claim; instead, she carefully measures the hours, minutes, even fractions of fractions of time. Divided into five sections—a sort of prelude followed by three acts and a coda—the book's title poem plots death spiritually, psychologically, and physically. Peterson frames the series by evoking the outer and inner, the natural and domestic:
The nest was at rest for a time, not being
made. Before the eggs were laid, it softened.
The robin sleeping. Inside the house,
the sound of laundry
in the dryer, the sound of a zipper
the apparatus, and shirts with buttons,
as well as napkins
and a tablecloth printed with blueberries
and stalks of lily of the valley, oval,
for the table with claw legs
and extra leaves for guests.
In isolation, the introductory section (in its entirety above) reads as description: clean, detail-driven, attuned to color, shape, and sound. Taken in light of the whole collection, however, the stanza's concrete imagery does more than set the scene. It also reflects the minutiae of a particular household while anticipating the loss to come. Peterson's nest "at rest" suggests disuse or abandonment; the "sleeping" robin, which elsewhere in the book is figured as mother, appears lifeless. It's no coincidence that the poet stocks the heat-filled dryer with items that are both decorative and practical: a shirt conceals the chest and what it holds (namely, the heart), napkins tidy messes, fabric dresses the oval table around which family members gather. That ripe fruit and funereal flowers adorn the tablecloth is telling, as are the "extra leaves" that make room for visitors who gather in times of celebration and sorrow.
"The Accounts" maps the mother's final moments of life. In one version, an arrival forecasts her earthly departure: "angels come, their hands / emerging from their wings like sentences…" Later, the poet identifies death as wilful act, one determined intellectually: "the mind makes a decision / to end its disorder." In the final account, Peterson narrates the failing body as a physical process. First thirst and hunger cease, she explains, and then "the heart shuts down before the brain." As oxygen-deprivation "shuts / the dreaming down," the speaker gestures back to the familiar bird whose home is now transformed into "a nest / of images" running through the dying woman's mind. Although the physical details suggest suffering, the speaker's mother doesn't feel "any form of distress." She does, however, exhibit a kind of delicate awareness: "The pathways to distress are blocked," writes Peterson,
but the senses doubled, the ears know
the house more than they ever did,
whose clothes occupy the dryer,
which voice accompanies water.
Mining brilliantly the poem's established imagery, Peterson transforms the domestic into metaphor. Dying, the woman experiences a heightened state of physical and emotional perception. She can listen, even from the distance of her hospital bed, to the subtle rhythms of her home's interior. The "house," of course, isn't just a building inhabited by her loved ones. It's also the body itself, so that what fills the machine is both the dryer's electric heat and the physiological warmth that sustains the human system. The chatter heard above the noise of the appliance's rotating drum comes from the voices of her loved ones, or perhaps even God, as the waters of life begin at last to dissipate.
In the final section of "The Accounts," the speaker directly addresses the attending angels, urging them to "be patient with this subject" (i.e., the cancer patient receiving medical treatment, and the topic of death itself). It's at this point that Peterson allows the dying woman to step outside her body, to watch the scene as if beyond the hospital walls and through a window "whose top right / pane frames what we call a family" (emphasis mine). Thanks to the line break and aural play, the family is defined by its pain. Grief, however, is quickly usurped by something more powerful. Again, Peterson turns to the mother bird. "If you [the angels sent to deliver the dying] stopped to look at the nest," claims the speaker—the nest suggesting the room filled with grieving loved ones—
you would see a sleep so purposeful
the ladder of adoration would reverse
and you would stay on earth.
If the "pane" Peterson uses to frame the family is expected, the poem's ending is anything but. Here, the mother's "sleep" (translation: death) is executed with such ethos, such grace and resoluteness, it has the power to lure God's attendants from heaven. The turn, particularly the ladder's reversal, is startling. Ultimately, the "adoration" housed in the penultimate line belongs to the mourners. However, the final line's iambs—"and you would stay on earth"—ache and pulse as they tempt the angels from paradise, while also making a final effort to "reverse" the mother's illness and keep her from leaving her family forever.
Birds and flight prove critical to The Accounts, as does soil and the things it holds. Backyard gardens, untamed wilderness, the failing body, bookish plots—Peterson returns to these throughout the collection. "I didn't come here to make trouble," declares "Earth" in an early poem, "I didn't come here to be / somebody's mother." At times, what rises from dirt consoles. "Never a gardener, she / became interested // in gardening…" writes Peterson in "When Fruit and Flowers Hung Thick Falling," a poem that ends as its subject falls to her knees, as if in prayer, and thrusts
her hands in dirt
feeling for roots
they no longer
when fruit and flowers
hung thick falling.
In some ways, the above couplets characterize Peterson, as she tends to the various accounts of a life lived: first as it flowers and thrives, and then later as it falls. The care with which she stages her mother in the garden and elsewhere is reminiscent of Stanley Plumly's striking elegy "Kunitz Tending Roses." "When he's kneeling," observes Plumly, "he's really / listening at the very mouth of the flower." As a poet, Peterson gives the same impression. She is a writer of great care and concentration. "The music of free verse is easier / than the music of the sonnet," she claims in "Ars Poetica: Fuchsia," "Which is why / I have avoided sonnets / in speaking of my mother— / to make the difficulty louder." Free verse or not, Peterson's music isn't easy; or rather, it isn't simple. It's rich, well-conceived, and reveals its maker as one of great integrity and intelligence.
"The end is in the beginning," declares Keetje Kuipers, "the ghosts shining through" ("Stowaway Future"). And so they do—lost lovers, abandoned desire, deserted places, and life's more difficult days haunt the six sections that comprise Kuipers' sophomore collection, The Keys to the Jail. As with Peterson, what interests Kuipers is taking stock of history. The poems not only ask who or what's gone missing, but also why. Granted, certain points are fixed even as time moves on. As the poet slyly observes in "Stowaway Future," "two dirty white horses on a hillside in April / were once two dirty white horses on a hillside in October." Here, as elsewhere in the book, spring (or any new season) doesn't necessarily renew what's been soiled in the fall. While The Keys to the Jail often chronicles failed relationships and various registers of grief, the poems recognize that the end is in the beginning just as the beginning is in the end; that is, Kuipers acknowledges the paradox that we carry with us the whole history of our various losses and undoings. Throughout the collection, finality doesn't exist so long as feeling drives forward. Death, whether physical or romantic, simply complicates the experiences of those who witness or survive it. "That unfamiliar sound is your body / becoming the taste of grass," writes Kuipers in "For All the Dead Lovelies," "The highway
is a ribbon, a ribbon is a snake, a snake
is sinew, and sinew is the river. The river
is a woman, a woman is a mother,
a mother is a tree, a tree is the mind and it
is a maze, a road, a street sign marked
Rome. And the little black birds
sit on the wires that run along it.
How can it be that we only live once—
If, as "For all the Dead Lovelies" suggests, "we only live once," there remains a connectedness between what was, what is, and what will be. In "Our Last Vacation" a couple hikes through a wilderness where all signs point to some inevitable demise. "It was the season of dead moles," opens Kuipers, "black silken pelts like evening purses / abandoned along the forest path." Soon the lovers turn up to play Keno at a bar where they overhear a wife "describe her time at the slots: / cherry, cherry, cherry, pineapple." The characterization of the machine is signature Kuipers. Throughout The Keys to the Jail, the poet exploits what's seemingly random to suggest something foreboding. In the poem and much of the book, life and love are a gamble. Yet even when emotional risk goes unrewarded there's pleasure, if only in recognition and resignation. Destruction isn't experienced in isolation, but shared: "You said geese mate for life, so if you shot one," writes Kuipers, "you'd have to shoot them both."
The most successful poems in The Keys to the Jail don't meander or reveal complicated back stories. Instead, they isolate particular moments of self-recognition and insight. Here's the last sentence of the nine-line poem "If One of Us Can't Live Like This":
A promise is a train lying in a field
for decades: we take pictures of the weeds
that flower around it and talk about the days
when it arrived with a whistle of steam.
Kuipers begins the poem with the given: a couple's ability to survive despite their domestic difficulties. "We might be unhappy for the rest / of our lives," concedes the speaker, "It's not inconceivable." The lover further admits there's no way to validate the depth of her partner's feeling: "How would I know," she asks, "if you call me darling in your sleep?" Predominantly conversational, the poem shifts dramatically when Kuipers defines the couple's vows to each other as an abandoned train. Although the lovers' covenant transforms into a runaway locomotive that's beyond its prime, the poet locates the metaphor clearly in the present. The train lives doubly, both among flowering "weeds" and in photos preserving its state of arrested decay.
One of the poems in The Keys to the Jail that resonates most for me is "Ought," a meditative lyric that unfolds with great precision. From its onset repetition propels plot as the speaker records recurring events of "each afternoon," "each evening," "each morning." Routine is so central to the speaker's existence that it's no surprise when at the poem's midpoint she confesses, "I ought to be sick of my life, I ought to be too bored / for words." As in "If One of Us Can't Live Like This," Kuipers stages a tonal shift by turning from the inner to outer world:
… Each day the red-tailed hawk sits
in his tree, cocks his head from side to side, takes
a low pass over the field and returns with a mouse
for his meal. The dogs bark at the deer, and the deer
don't move until the dogs have stopped …
And so, the predatory bird's act of self-preservation interrupts the speaker's crisis of ennui. The hawk follows its own rhythm, dictated by instincts for survival as the observers (dogs and deer) react and stand by, stunned by what they see and hear. All of this begs the question: does the speaker most resemble the predator or would-be prey? Is she both? Or, burdened by habit, is she numb to the wildness that surrounds her? With great urgency the speaker answers by adopting a declarative mode that echoes both Rilke (You must change your life) and James Wright (…if I stepped out of my body I would break / into blossom): "I ought // to be losing my mind with all this familiarity / with loving every damn thing I've come to know." I know few contemporary poets who answer apathy with an unabashed expression of joy. Because throughout The Keys to the Jail, Kuipers—for better or worse—privileges feeling above all else, the speaker's ability to honor the ordinary world and its cyclical plots as purposeful and joy-filled is convincing. For Kuipers, it's feeling that unlocks the cells that contain us. Lows and highs are of equal value, so long as they are acknowledged, fully felt, and accounted for. "We all want to know our worth, the value / of a tin can, a newspaper in the rain," begins "Letter to an Inmate in Solitary Confinement." "Try not to ask yourself / what this waiting means," Kuipers advises, "or why you're held inside it."
If pathos is Kuiper's primary impulse, Hailey Leithauser's is sound. Throughout Swoop, recipient of the Poetry Foundation's Emily Dickinson First Book Prize, music propels plot as Leithauser introduces herself as a writer of rich sonic entanglement. Even her titles sing: "Sex Alfresco," "Sex Fiasco," Sex Circumspect," "Sex Odalisque." For Leithauser, rhyme of all kinds dictates syntactic turns, and sharp puns are always worth pursuit. Swoop cherishes language. Excerpts "From the Grandiloquent Dictionary" inspire several entries, including a quatrain on "Metrophobia," the fear of poetry:
I, too, dislike it, or at least I find
too much of it bromidic and unrhymed,
muffled in a fog of cottony prose,
frightened of shadows or stepping on toes.
Leithauser's indebtedness to Marianne Moore is evident not only in her inclusion of the poet's well-known admonishment ("I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle," "Poetry"), but also in her precision and diction. One can easily imagine the word "bromidic" turning up in a line by Moore. While Leithauser claims that form scares off too many poets (many are "frightened" of "stepping on toes"), she's certainly not intimidated by it. Sonnets, pantoums, and villanelles present Leithauser with further opportunity for aural play. In Swoop, form is less restrictive than resplendent. The opening poem, "Scythe," reveals a portrait of its author, as well as the book's central conceit: "If it could speak it would offer / you excess; it would // offer you more." Unapologetically excessive, Swoop pulses more and more and more. It wants "what it wants, / and it wants it non- // stop" ("Scythe"). What "it" wants—what the poet wants—is bottomless as the score of desire itself.
Throughout Swoop Leithauser attunes herself to even the smallest noisemakers. The collection often meditates on winged things, including crickets, locusts, and bees. Like the insects, Leithauer's lyrics buzz. In fact, not even death can snuff out sound. "Was You Ever Bit By a Dead Bee?" begs one title, to which its speaker answers "I was, I was—by its posthumous chomp, / by its bad dab of venom, its joy-buzzer buzz." Although Leithauser describes the bee's postmortem sting as "an expired wire," it's clear that the cable is still partially live, its metrical charge well-felt. In other words, Leithauser's bee may hum a dirge, but it's humming still. However small, this discovery is magical. And in Swoop, little things always count. Leithauser's homage to "Jiminiy" characterizes the cricket as a "Dear small, pleasant time machine" an "intimate tenant of pantries / one-man chorus of soup bones and roots." "[P]leasant," "intimate tenant"—how beautifully (how naturally!) the direct address materializes from the word "cricket." Leithauser's characterizations are inventive, yet feel inevitable thanks to slant rhyme. The solitary insect transcends history; its song resonates through darkness and time. "[I]n what great labyrinth or garden, / what Zion of drainage and damp cement / did you calibrate first so dutiful an elegy," asks the speaker, "so sad a SOS?" There's real affection here and an arresting sense of wonder, both of which result from the poet's insistence on turning her ear to the ordinary sounds that surround us.
Reading Swoop, or rather, letting it rush over me, I can't help but hear the influences of poets like Kay Ryan and Heather McHugh. "Charm against Insomnia," a thirty-line free verse lyric in two sentences, echoes both. "Little mouse, little / gray hunger," the poem begins, "that nibbles / the night to a bony / toothpick, / little possibility / of impossible things, / glimmer of nothing / like hope…" Here, Ryan's sense of air and ease enters Leithauser's short breezy lines, as does her element of humor. The mouse's accolades, which ironically double as insults, include its status as the "small genius of bad teeth / and ice, / angel of wire, / of colic." As the speaker's state of sleep-deprivation mounts the poem becomes increasingly word-drunk, and so enter the little spurts of energy and idiosyncratic puns McHugh has made signature. Charges the insomniac speaker:
Bugger and sod off,
blister and suffer,
wither, fester, lackluster,
belabor, bellbind, be gone!
Besnuff (the wick), benight the speaker orders!—what playful turns of imagination that labor toward the well-earned exclamation point punctuating the poem. Again and again Leithauser's trochees (bugger, blister, wither, and so on) spill forward, enacting the speaker's frustration, as well as her lack of control. How badly she wants to sleep! McHugh's poetic objective, as she describes it, is to pursue "every surge of language, every scrap and flotsam." Leithauser's work certainly follows suit. The poems in Swoop are quick-witted, linguistically dense, and strive to mine the given for every shard of possible meaning.
Occasionally, Leithauser allows music to override logic or order. In such cases, the lines spin out of control and Swoop's poems feel like private play. There are also times when enjambment appears arbitrary. Why, for example, if they don't increase dramatic tension or facilitate rhetorical emphasis, would words like such, in, like, through, what, etc., be housed on their own lines? Yet, despite these quibbles, there's a great deal of pleasure to be had in Swoop. Leithauser's quick wit and talent for extended metaphor demand an attentiveness of readers. While the poems are conceptual, they're not without sentiment. Sex, love, and romance manifest throughout the book. "The Old Woman Gets Drunk with the Moon" in one lyric, while a villanelle in dialogue with Sydney (Astrophil and Stella 31: "With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies") and Larkin ("Sad Steps") humorously laments the "sob, O butter-colored breast, / not a tub but a ton of this / mellifluous, unscented lust" ("Paean: Moon"). As is clear in these lines, Swoop's acoustics reverberate like organ notes against a marble chamber. Stated simply, Leithauser's beats carry.
"Poets now are music makers, not mythmakers," charges Mark Edmundson in "Poetry Slam" (Harpers, July 2013), a claim he intends as a slight. And perhaps in certain respects he is right: it's certainly more common for contemporary American poets to draw from personal matters or observations, rather than create what Edmundson calls "a full-scale map of experience." Of the poets highlighted above, I suspect that Szybist has the ambition that Edmundson's after. Just two books in, her lyric gift, as well as her ability to dramatize and subversively complicate Biblical narratives, certainly puts this poet on the path toward a more comprehensive vision. But what, really, is wrong with Edmundson's bemoaned "music makers," i.e. those who pen more intimate songs, who chronicle mere fragments of experience? Visionary, political, or more personal in the way it underscores a particular moment of illumination, doesn't poetry's music contain multitudes? Tragic or comic, isn't the true lyric that which risks sentimentality but doesn't succumb to it? At their best, Szybist, Peterson, Kuipers, and Leithauser do just this. And to any naysayer sitting in a cubicle or coffee shop feverishly typing another article declaring that poetry is dying or dead, I offer the final couplet of one of Leithauser's lively sonnets, "Zen Heaven":
No lesson at the end, no dead dial tone.
No one in the tomb, no tomb, no tombstone.
Shara Lessley, a contributing editor, is the author of Two-Headed Nightingale (New Issues). Her poems and essays appear widely. She was recently the inaugural Anne Spencer Poet-in-Residence at Randolph College.
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