|Prelude to Bruise, by Saeed Jones. Coffee House Press, 124 pp., $16.|
|Bangalore, by Kerry James Evans. Copper Canyon Press, 96 pp., $16.|
|The Tulip-Flame, by Chloe Honum. Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 72 pp., $15.95.|
|We Mammals in Hospitable Times, by Jynne Dilling Martin. Carnegie Mellon University Press, 56 pp., $15.95.|
Any writer—any artist—knows that one of art’s great abilities is to make us care about almost any subject. We may have particular items we love and seek out—taxidermied birds, Civil War documents, coastal landscapes, sonnets, Greek myth, Amelia Earhart, Kanye West, sequences, trains, parenthood, etc.—those subjects and images that seem to speak to our lives symbolically or literally, or that simply provide an aesthetic pleasure. Fine. These are our extracurriculars. We can indulge in them when we like, and learn much from their deployment, but, if we are attending to the art itself, we also continue to look towards subjects and styles unfamiliar to us, even to ones that do not immediately seem conducive to metaphor or epiphany. We recognize that our native images and presumed reference points are not the only way into thinking. As Henry James said, “We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, his donné: our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it.”
Having spent the last two years looking critically mostly at books that dealt with certain subject matter, and books that built on poets’ earlier work, I approach my task here with the opposite intent. Given four first books, each attending to vastly different subject matter, symbol, and situation, how might their approaches reflect and illuminate this content? What might these books say to one another? Each poet, in a first book, claims a world. Each presents an origin story: overtly or implicitly, the poet is making a statement about the self-in-the-world, as well as about the poetic tradition. The angles from which these poets speak, and the lenses through which they view their worlds, consistently surprise and welcome us into broader ways of considering what poetry is, and what one can make of it.
Saeed Jones’s debut begins with a line from Kafka, “The man in ecstasy and the man drowning—both throw up their arms,” which launches the book into an emotionally gripping investigation of the self. The book’s title, Prelude to Bruise, suggests the intertwined violence and music that this speaker sees as his life (or perhaps more generally, as life). The inevitability of this entanglement is apparent from the beginning and underscored by Jones’s first poems, which create a sort of origin story for his speaker, often referred to as Boy. The final lines of his first poem, “Anthracite,” conclude:
With my palm pressed
to your lips, hush. When they hear
you, they will want you. Beware
of how they want you;
in this town everything born black
This poem gets most of the book’s subjects orbiting—race and blackness, threat and violence, tenderness and sensuality. It also establishes Jones’s lyrical movement, a fast-paced torrent down the page that turns on musical logic: half-rhyme, alliteration, rhythm. (And it suggests also, perhaps, a lineage: anthracite is an especially pure form of coal, which Audre Lorde taught us “Is the total black, being spoken / From the earth’s inside.”) Take, for example, the early poem “The Blue Dress,” which builds with a dream-like anaphora from the domestic (the dress in its closet in the house) to a vessel that can carry the speaker to sea:Her blue dress is a silk train is a river
The sensuality here makes the slightly disorienting quality of the imagery seductive, and the moments of repetition (“crystal bowls and crystal cups”), little stumbles in the forward movement, amplify the pitch of the speaker’s longing.
But Jones’s poems also have strong narrative inclinations: there is a story he wishes to tell, there are some things he is determined to have on the record. The boy likes to wear dresses. This fact, and his proclivities in general, anger his father, who shames and beats him. The boy might even be sexually assaulted by his father—this is a point on which I remain unclear and which troubles the narrative throughout. These are the central facts of the origin story. A “prelude to bruise,” certainly: it’s hard to imagine how else a child in this situation would think of his life other than as meant for endless hurt. On the flip side, there is the tender excitement of sexual exploration with another boy, the kind of awakening that alters perspective permanently: “I sank into the depths to see you / as the lake saw you: cut in half / by the surface, taut legs kicking, / the rest of you sky” (“Pretending to Drown”).
Many of the book’s titles use the term “Boy” for the main character: “Boy at Edge of Woods,” “Boy in a Whalebone Corset,” “History, according to Boy.” But the poems then proceed in first person, thus presenting their speaker as a persona. Since our inclination might be to take such revealing poems about adolescence as autobiographical, this technique provides a bit of distancing. Giving the character a generic name makes him a sort of mythical figure—the boy. There are other overt persona poems in the book, such as those in the voices of Abraham (father of Isaac) and Daedalus (father of Icarus), which provide parallels for looking at the damaged but still deeply rooted father-son relationship. We get the sense that Jones’s project is one of myth-making: he is claiming a space and legacy for Boy, who in his youth felt he was alone in the world and in his desires. To echo the “It Gets Better” campaign in which LGBTQ adults record videos intended for LGBTQ adolescents, these poems allow Jones’s adult speaker to look back on his childhood and canonize it, giving Boy a voice and a reason for pride in his own majestic origins.
Seeking out other parallels and contexts for Boy’s growing up, Jones also speaks, in the poem “Jasper, 1998,” in the voice of James Byrd after his murder. It is hard not to hear the influence of Lucille Clifton in such poems. Clifton’s own “jasper texas 1998” begins:
i am a man’s head hunched in the road.
i was chosen to speak by the members
of my body. the arm as it pulled away
pointed toward me, the hand opened once
and was gone.
Jones’s poem begins:
Go back: my throat still
crowded with dirt
and loose teeth
but I speak
(tongue slick with iron)
but I speak
in the language of sharp turns.
The poems share short, resounding lines and depict similar subject matter. (Clifton also had an abusive, oppressive father.) But Jones’s lyrical inclinations get wilder, more rhapsodic than this foremother’s; Jones’s poetry explores with full force the sensual body and position of a young man coming into the world. The music and power of his language and mythmaking remind me too of Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, and I also hear traces of Sharon Olds’s clear-eyed wonder at the body.
Jones has divided the collection into six sections that seem roughly to move the narrative focus from Boy’s body to the sexually awakened body to the faltering body to death. I found its dual allegiances to song and narrative to be both compelling and, at times, a problematic tug-of-war. Early in the book, as we get a narrative footing, the father poems are interspersed with what I take to be poems about early sexual experiences with a peer. But because both characters, father and lover (and imagined lover, at times), are often referred to only as “he,” and poems on both subjects share so much of the senses of shame and yearning, and because they often operate in the world of fantasy, there is no clear delineation between the two. It’s a tricky bind, because there is desire on the part of the son for the father to love him, and I would certainly not want to propose a simplification of or limitation on the emotional or metaphorical range that can be used for any subject, since this would seem exactly the kind of societal stricture that poetry so importantly broadens.
But, given Jones’s poetic priority of stating the facts in order to dignify and recognize this childhood experience, and given his facility with narrative in many other places in the book, I wish he had taken the narrative element farther in these early poems, such that the reader would not be left with the uncomfortable concern (but lack of certainty) that an even more intimate violation might be occurring. Later, the death that occurs appears to be that of the father, but may also be that of a lover. These strong lines open the poem “Dirge”:With my head half devoured
The palpable sadness—lostness—of the speaker gathers power as the poem continues, emphasizing Jones’s gift for music and lush imagery. But I am not sure, still, that I understand the details of the story—whose room, whose death, and from what—details toward which Jones hints as if he wants us to understand this context.
The end of the book, too, goes back in time to tell the story of Boy’s adolescence in one long poem, “History, according to Boy.” Here as well, the narrative seems important: Jones presents evidence of why and how his mythical speaker developed—and perhaps also offers a revisionist story of Boy’s triumphs, since according to the title he is now the writer of this history. But the relationship between the lyric inclination and the narrative facts remain strained for me—I wanted the book to go farther in one direction or the other, either to provide much more narrative and situational detail, or to relieve itself of that need to contextualize and just allow the music to lead.
Like Jones, Kerry James Evans presents a prelude of sorts: his speaker comes of age white and poor in the American South and joins the National Guard (as Evans did). The book, Bangalore—the title refers to a kind of military explosive device—is the space in which this voice reconciles the speaker’s sense of self with his upbringing; he questions the potential for individual betterment against the great bindings of family, place, and class. The first poem messily and grandly lays out some of the central tugs in the speaker’s life:
Bent over in a folding chair, my arm a rag of oil,
I scrape the carbon from my M16
with a pipe cleaner here in the armory
named after a young colonel
who hanged himself.
No one sitting here really knows
whether or not the colonel
was a homosexual.
I bring up my mother-in-law,
Outside the window the local convicts
have decided to mow down the lilacs
blossoming along the roadside.
We go back to talking about homosexuals
and homosexuality, and I say:
We are all a little gay, which lands me
on the floor in a wrestling position.
(“Lilacs and Razor Wire”)
The straightforward voice, unadorned and literal, engaged by action, is delightfully disarming. We immediately have the sense of being in a room with someone casual and real. (Also, given the episode related here, I feel an immediate kinship to the speaker as a bit of a misfit, the guy who can’t ever say the expected thing in his social context.) The poems are peppered with similarly unpretentious imagery—Mountain Dew and a ’92 Buick Le Sabre, Gatorade and Waffle House, Peterbilts, deer, IEDs, Walmart bags and cinder blocks.
Adrienne Rich notes, in What Is Found There, the political charge inherent in using the imagery native to one’s own life: “You yourself are marked by family, gender, caste, landscape, the struggle to make a living, or the absence of such a struggle. The rich and poor are equally marked. Poetry is never free of these markings even when it appears to be. Look to the images.” Rich is making the case that poetry, whether or not it acknowledges the fact, articulates the socio-political realities of the author’s class, gender, race, etc. Evans’s poetry never overtly states its political position, but he seems aware of the way such images “mark” him, and that these might run counter to the imagery commonly accepted as beautiful.
Yet there is beauty here, and clearly so. The end of “Lilacs and Razor Wire,” one of the strongest poems in the book, finds the speaker and his wife stranded with a flat tire on an unlit road at night. Evans says, “I pulled out a jack and tire iron, and I lifted our car from the road, / the words I offered of no use, so I asked her: Kneel with me, / our hands numbing on the lug nuts, the two of us, changing a tire.” When I finished this poem, I was relieved to find that the ending stays on the ground and doesn’t flutter up to look at the stars or moon, as it so easily might. Changing a tire is its own kind of reverie—the delicate choreography of working in tandem with the partner, the satisfaction of getting the job done.
Evans’s approach with regard to imagery becomes, as one moves through the book, a clear stance. In the first poem, referring to an event he heard about second hand, he states, “I would say more, but I wasn’t there. / I can’t give the image.” In such a statement he seems to be making Rich’s point explicit: one can only describe the world he knows. And to whom will he “give” this image? In “Operation Noble Eagle,” Evans writes “… this poem is for every dead American. / This poem is not for anyone who reads poems.” In “Elegy for the Kudzu Vine,” the vine of the poem becomes “a placeholder for a history not worthy of remembrance.” The project of the book, then, seems to become the speaker’s struggle with whether his story—his life—is worthy of recording, and if so, how, and for whom.
There is a palpable anger in many of the poems that often feels earned by the speaker’s circumstances and how difficult it is to transcend them, but I found myself struggling with its continual evocation, which becomes overpowering as the book goes on. Much of the violence seems both unredeeming and unexamined, which gives it a particularly bleak pallor. In “Blanket Party,” for example, the speaker (plural in this case—“we” being the Third Platoon) narrates a story in which they brutally beat “Private Shit-bird Jenkins” for “[wearing] underwear in the shower.” The consequence of this action, as the poem directly details, is that the drill sergeants allow Jenkins to get his revenge by fighting all of them, one by one, in a pit. I expect, from the seemingly traditional narrative and formal structure of the poem (a regular five-line stanza), that the ending will go somewhere at least contemplative, if not epiphanic, but Evans resists, leaving us instead with this:
One month later, he was discharged.
The barracks blackened with sleep,
and that darkness was broken
by a bugle. We’d killed our own.
If there is reflection here, it’s the dimmest kind. But why should I feel the need for these poems’ endings to redeem? This book brought me, as a reader and reviewer, up against all of my expectations of poems, making me wonder again and again if I was asking more of these poems because of their subject matter than I would of other poems. As a woman sheltered from direct contact with war, and coming from a much more comfortable background than Evans’s, I was made highly conscious of my own realities in reading this book. This is a triumph for Bangalore. It was in reading this book, more than any other, that I had to remind myself of Henry James’s requirement: we must grant the artist his subject. I repeated the mantra as I read passage after passage like this:
I would rather kill you than apologize to you.
When I say kill, I mean wrap det-cord around your face,
stuff your ass with a bangalore torpedo, stab a crown
of barbed wire into your head—make you wish
you could be reborn.
(“A Soldier’s Apology”)
Okay. Evans’s subject is war, and the war- and poverty-hammered souls of struggling Americans. I began to think of the voice of this book as, at least on one level, a depiction of the mind of post-traumatic stress disorder. The emotional detachment from other humans, especially the women in the speaker’s life (“I’m kicking my wife out of the house,” he fantasizes in one poem), that comes across in many of these poems is jarring, but when viewed through this lens, seems probably accurate.
On the other hand, at times Evans falls into the imitative fallacy here: the reader, unfortunately, experiences the depressive, violent mood through the poem’s language rather than empathizing, through the poem’s powerful language, with a man facing such experience. In other words, the poems may embody the feeling, but they often don’t investigate it deeply enough, or at all. Perhaps this book wasn’t written for those who read poetry, but as a reader of it nonetheless, I yearned to understand the speaker more deeply, and feel the rawness not just of his anger but of his struggle.
The final gesture of the book, the last line of the last poem, seems to recognize the long-felt need for redemption, and tries to take up the whole project of it in a single line: “Cup the moon in your hands and be healed.” “Lilacs and Razor Wire”—also a sprawling, many stranded poem in which the speaker finds himself outside, at night, under the moon—had an opportunity to end like this, but maneuvered deftly to a different image, just as luminous but much more particular. This final poem, “Embers,” defers to poetic tradition and cliché, giving us the low-hanging moon. I wanted in this final moment one of Evans’s surprising images instead, which he has given so freely elsewhere: some unnoticed glint in the darkness that would broaden my sense of where beauty might be found.
If Jones and Evans are concerned with presenting mythical narratives of origins, we find in Chloe Honum’s The Tulip-Flame another kind of focal point. While certain narrative threads seem important to the speaker’s perspective—she was a ballerina, her mother has died—overall these poems find their center in a study of form. The elegance and rigor of the language is so exacting that I hesitate, almost, to mention that it seems a language perfectly suited to a classical dancer. Honum invokes Sylvia Plath in her book’s epigraph, an appropriate nod to her poetic lineage. We hear the Plathian directness of syntax and sharpness of observation—she never swerves—from the outset. The first poem, “Spring,” begins thus:
Mother tried to take her life.
The icicles thawed.
The house, a wet coat
we couldn’t put back on.
Still, the garden quickened,
the fields were firm.
Birds flew from the woods’
The formality and distance of the first line—“Mother tried to take her life”—immediately sets the tone for these poems: we will not fall apart, even in the face of tragedy. (And who calls their mother “Mother”?) And so the poems do not falter. They keep to their forms, mostly alternating the exceedingly balanced quatrain with the directness of the prose poem. Tercets, couplets, and the occasional sonnet and villanelle are thrown in for variety, so that the overall impression of this voice is one of intense poise and balance, though rarely monotony. It is easy to imagine the influence of poets from preceding generations: perhaps Yusef Komunyakaa’s brilliant quatrains, or Rita Dove’s elegant descriptive lines. I also hear Louise Glück’s detached stance and tight lyric control—Honum echoes lines of Glück’s like “Once I believed in you; I planted a fig tree” (“Vespers”) and “It is not the moon, I tell you. / It is these flowers / lighting the yard” (“Mock Orange”). The device is an old but oddly moving one: the speaker, hurt, retreats to the world of observation, of careful factual statement, and uses the natural world around her to find ways back into the world of feeling.
In Honum’s best poems, the surprise is in how she observes the seemingly obvious physical landscape, how she charges each adjective and verb with its full descriptive task, rendering in spare lines a startling emotional interior. In “Assembling Faith,” for example, we are shown a turkey walking down a path. Each of the six short sentences that comprise this poem change our perception of the creature, then the poems moves into the larger question the bird represents. Here is the whole, brief poem:
A huge turkey came
down the path. Serene,
only slightly more
beautiful than ugly.
It looked as though
it had made itself
out of morning’s spare parts.
I wanted to put something
together like that,
without a mirror.
Waxy, red dribble—
and yet it glided
into the misty woods.
That this turkey becomes the metaphor for faith and doesn’t seem overstretched in doing so, and that this poem can accomplish this pairing of the concept and image so deftly, in such a short space, is testament to Honum’s lyrical gift. The turn from how it looked (“morning’s spare parts”) to the speaker’s existential claim (“I wanted to put something together”) is a confident move; the author trusts that we will follow her leap, and we do.
Where Honum investigates the natural world, the world of dance, and familial and romantic relationships, her poems turn up gems of images and insight. Where she becomes hyperaware of the dance performance as metaphor—life as a choreographed, scripted event—the poems lose some of their brightness and surprise. “Directing the Happy Times,” for instance, has many admirable lines, and its poise, as ever, is perfect. Phrases like “knock down the honeybee; on three, it bobs / a cork in water, that’s its time to shine” are a delight to the ear and imagination. But the overall conceit of this sonnet, that such times are “directed,” seems a bit too heavy a presence in the poem, turning its ending into a metapoetic statement: “It must be this precise, or, simply put, / she’ll get distracted, fail to read her line; // she will not laugh, the waiting stagehands’ cue. / Lights down. Enter the shadows who carry you.” All the world’s a stage—we know.
Further, when Honum strays farther from her most charged subjects, the language loosens as well. Lines like “I hope, / wherever you are, you don’t // dislike your memories of me” and “The hurt we’d cause / was always there, waiting // like death” (in “The Good Kind”) fall flat on my ear both in terms of sound and in their broad abstraction. But the sense of loss and yearning that Honum can access when she takes charge of the poem’s reins is powerful. The book’s final poem, “Come Back,” makes this case unquestionably, beginning with the oddness of its first line: “I can’t see all of any horse at once.” This expertly-crafted villanelle shows off all of Honum’s poetic strengths at once—the surprise of close observation and the lyrical exactitude of language. Its final stanzas end the poem this way:
The moon has flown and in its place a husk
clings to the sky. The horses figure eight
in single file. Through rain-sown drapes of dusk
I try to count them, climb up on the fence.
Their foreheads shine with pearly stars, ghost-lit.
I can’t see all of any horse at once—
they multiply, and shiver in the dusk.
“Come Back” leaves us with a palpable sense of the speaker’s yearning, but also of her fortitude: she never stops looking around herself for ways to translate and provide meaning for the interior world.
The title We Mammals in Hospitable Times sets up the reader for perspective of an entirely different scale. Not concerned with the individual life and its private origins, tragedies, and triumphs, Jynne Dilling Martin’s debut focuses instead on the world’s species, and our brief “hospitable time” on this warming planet.
Yes, there is a first person speaker, but we learn little about her other than that she is a fellow pilgrim, a traveler, a stranger in this land—as we are too, we soon realize—in the world this book creates. The altering of perspective and magnitude occurs from the outset when, in the first poem, “Reasons to Consider Setting Ourselves on Fire,” Martin addresses us directly: “Maybe, pilgrim, if I permit you to sleep on my floor tonight….” By the poem’s end, we are imagining things from the perspective of another mammal: “Undoubtedly the polar bears at the zoo both dream that all other / animals will discover, upon waking, their bodies buried in snow.” Certainly the correlation to human desire is clear—we anthropomorphize wildly in our attempt to make the world reflect our feelings. Why wouldn’t a polar bear imagine from the same egocentric perspective? To have this script flipped on us is playful, but more than that it is a reminder of the largeness of the planet, and of our small (though domineering) presence within it.
The basis for Martin’s book was a stint in Antarctica as a writer-in-residence supported by the National Science Foundation. One imagines the screed about climate change that might come out of such a residency—images of glacial melt and starving polar bears making a damning claim about humans’ effect on the planet. But we know this already. And Martin, thankfully, is not didactic. Yes, warming is occurring, but no inherent value judgment can be placed on that fact unless one takes a humanist stance: that our lives are what justify the planet’s existence. Martin takes a broader view, and it allows her poems to become strange and inquisitive, rather than polemical.
The poem most directly addressing global warming, “What Breaks First,” holds our interest because it shows us parts of the picture we haven’t yet seen:As the iceberg shears off the submarine periscope, the noise
Beyond the wonderfully fresh details (barnacle larvae swimming north!), the poem succeeds on its quick turns, like a skier carving hard down a slope. Each sentence shifts the direction, from the human level (our uses of the poles for espionage and exploration) to nature’s own purposes and accommodations to the changing climate. The long-lined couplet, which Martin uses predominantly throughout the collection, illustrates these dual perspectives well, and gives them the room to sit in close proximity to each other—each making the other strange—and enact their conflicting desires.
Human absurdity, conflict, and hypocrisy are also made plain in these poems. (“Be here now, / chants Ram Dass in the headphones of the astronaut,” she says in “Life May Have Begun More Than Once,” clearly reveling in the disjointedness of that twenty-first century mashup.) Martin’s interest is not only in what survives and how, but in how we explain our stories to ourselves, and what we will pass on as evidence of our passage through this world. We are, after all, storytelling creatures, even if we never have the distance from which to view the whole story. She muses, for example,The poison in a polar bear liver made the explorer blister and turn blue,
Martin’s speaker engages in the work of understanding our strange species in its cultural and natural contexts, and in doing so she gradually reveals more of her reticent self. Her narration allows us occasional access to her intimate interior world, but mostly through thought and dream (and what is a dream but thought, illustrated with images?). Her speaker would rather forge connection through thinking than through situation or experience. It is through her comments, at times elliptical and at times direct, that we begin to feel we know her. Her thinking is a ravenous hunger: she claws after ideas and new perspectives with the logic that these are freedom; these are the only way to transcend helplessness and misery. She says, in “Always Throw the First Fish Back,”If you can learn not to see all nets as snares, you can stroll
Toward the end of the book, the apocalyptic feeling intensifies as Martin imagines the new world humans might create on another planet, once “the polar seas … capitulate, / swiftly entombing the planet ...” Her odd imagination presents not only a possible life on Saturn, but also, in “Revelations,” a perspective on humans from Earth itself:You have given [your planet] roads and a seven-paged encyclopedia entry,
But these are not really science fiction poems. Rather, they feel anthropological. Instead of studying a certain ethnic group, like the Yupik, Martin’s population is all of us, humanity itself. Seen through such a long telescope, through distance and time, and then through an imagined future, we mammals begin to look quite strange, but also fascinating in our vulnerability and unquenchable desire.
We might think of Martin’s book as a funeral dirge for our species and planet, rather than an origin story of any kind: she chronicles ending after ending. And appropriately, perhaps, We Mammals in Hospitable Times begins with an epigraph from William Matthews that opens, “Because grief unites us.” But I don’t truly believe this is the argument of the book. Grief unites us, yes, but Martin shows us that wonder and delight unite us too. Her final poem, “Everything We Can See In the Universe Glows” (how about that for wonder!) ends with these compelling lines:Quartz cuvettes filled with seawater and lavender dye
It would be hard to say what unites these books by Saeed Jones, Kerry James Evans, Chloe Honum, and Jynne Dilling Martin, diverse as they are in subject and approach. But grief and wonder seem a good start.
Rachel Richardson is the author of two collections of poetry, Hundred-Year Wave (2016) and Copperhead (2011), both from Carnegie Mellon. Her criticism regularly appears at the Kenyon Review and the Poetry Foundation.