Imagined Worlds: Five Contemporary Poets
Shoah Train, by William Heyen. Etruscan, 96 pp., $15.95.
Metropolis Burning, by Karen Kovacik. Cleveland State, 72 pp., $14.
Zones of Paradise, by Lynn Powell. University of Akron, 68 pp., $14.95.
Quipu, by Arthur Sze. Copper Canyon, 88 pp., $15.
Chez Nous, by Angie Estes. Oberlin College, 72 pp., $14.95.
I Many American poets find history an important subject, either in sustained meditation or as part of the pastiche that makes up contemporary life and art.The "history poem" has become a sub-genre, however, that is often dismissed as the sort of poem one might turn to when casting about for new material. In fact, writing and redefining history is one of the more vital modes of current poetry in the United States, and a variety of historicizing appears across the spectrum of current poetries. Personal history is no longer the domain of lesser writers, and public history is no longer the property of privilege. Most poets even refuse the separation of the two, insisting instead on their complex interaction.
William Heyen's ShoahTrain continues the poetic project Heyen has been developing through several books: a lyric, dramatic exploration of the Holocaust and its continuing influence on Western cultures.These poems of witness have their sources in both the first-person narrator who governs the book and the characters drawn from history who tell their stories.The collection opens on "Prayer," a short despairing plea: "Lord of Shoah, / may we remain in Eden / where all that transpires later / forgets us, & always will again." But of course, we must live in the post-lapsarian world, and even if we wish for events to forget us, it is incumbent upon us not to forget them.
The act of writing itself is a problem for many of these poems. First, as an act meant to preserve an individual's thoughts, it is fraught with dangerous potential for action. In "Zeitpost," the poet, wondering what has become of the drafts of Mein Kampf, asks,"When words are written / in righteous passion / on fine paper made with linen— // when words upwell from injury & hate, / will they nevertheless exist / even if the paper on which they were written / decomposes?"Writing as an act of preservation, however, can also be fragile, even doomed, work:
Before the Nazis entered Warsaw,
Janina Bauman had to burn The Brown Book
which documented persecution of German Jews
in concentration camps.The book was bound
in hard dark cardboard.Always,
she'd remember how it hurt her fingers
to tear this evidence, which took a long time to burn,
but, page by photograph by page, did.
Then she cleaned out the stove, & spread
these ashes in her family's autumn garden.
The difficulties inherent in writing are compounded when the poet turns to his own family's history. How does one witness—honestly and completely—when one is implicated in the horror of the Holocaust? "Ghosts" seeks an answer in the speaker's memory of his mother's hidden "papers": "I saw an order signed by Himmler, / memos from the Ministry of Propaganda, / records of her Aryan ancestry / back to the eighteenth century..." Memory itself becomes a part of the ever increasing complications in history reconstruction. "After her death," he says,"the evidence vanished, / burned by her widower," presumably because he wants to obliterate the family's connection to Third Reich politics. Without the verification of documents, truths can be remade and retold, as in "Schnapps," which dramatizes the alcoholic self- fashioning of German soldiers after a mass murder in Dresden:
It's time now, isn't it, for us to drink?
Tell me a story, a story of long before
when tresses swam in Germany's golden rivers
& heroes paused at the shore on their steeds
in legends before the slaughter of innocents.
We will forget.We will click glasses.
Clearly, however, these soldiers will not—cannot—forget. Even the mythic stories are palimpsests, stained with the indelible truth of the "slaughter of innocents" that they attempt to erase.
Shoah Train is able finally, and surprisingly, to end its complex and harrowing journey at something approaching hope. The book is a testament to intense suffering in the face of horrific cruelty; the poems relentlessly layer voice upon voice, some poems even printed two to a page as though to waste any white space at all would be a sign of forgetfulness.And yet, the terror of these stories is not the whole story. In "New Morning," the speaker is touring a German bakery, and when the supervisor mentions that the ovens are run on gas, he is glad,"for once," to be the "only one" who makes a connection to the Nazis."Suddenly," he states,"our skylight is a prayer from God, / our air surely sweet with the odor of bread." The book closes on "Catbird," that talkative bird whose language is without the limitations and difficulties of human words.The speaker looks up from "[a]nother thick book of testimonies" to see the bird,"singing like crazy."This song encompasses the world without apology or self-reflection, and it is perhaps the greatest gift of possibility that nature can offer this poet,
losing track of its beginning,
never the melodies of final meanings,
but going on as though nothing
within its own singing could ever not remember
In her second book, Metropolis Burning, Karen Kovacik blends political and private histories.The three sections of this collection move between Poland and the United States, between the past and the present, so seamlessly that the instability of time and place becomes part of the book's project. Kovacik views much of twentieth-century Eastern Europe through her family history; the first line of "If My Grandfather Had Not Emigrated from Silesia," is the conclusion of the title's conditional:"I would have been born between Auschwitz and Krakow." This is not a collection of "family poems" per se, however.The weight of war keeps this work embedded in national histories.
The first section is titled "Warsaw," and that city is emblematic of Kovacik's larger concerns.The first poem, in an echo of the section, is titled "To Warsaw," and its list of metaphors positions both speaker and place:
I feel like an umbrella in for repair.
I'd rather be a telescope, to see past
the scrim of things American,
to smell past pickles, smoke, and grief
and understand the idiom of uprisings.
You are the map that exists and the ones that have disappeared.
You are the cigarette that makes the slow bus come.
You are the church and the candles in the church,
the bank and the money, the book and the words.
I avoid talk.
By "talk," the speaker seems to mean idle chatter, the tourist gab that marks many contemporary poems about travel and exploration of family background. Language, on the other hand-its slippery, tenuous, and yet necessary meaning—making potential—is one of the central subjects. In "Litany," for example, the tercets end with different versions of the same place name:"Varsovie...Warszawa...Warschau..." Just before the penultimate stanza, the speaker lands on "Warsaw," the familiar version for Americans.Yet even this word fails to comfort, as the name recalls "this city of cherries in summer / smoked prunes in winter / city halved by the Vistula's gray knife // whether burning or rising / its syllables are stiff against my teeth / its name a coal on my tongue."
Still, there are stories to be told, from the "Chernobyl Diary," which mentions, seemingly in passing, "We stop brewing coffee or tea and wet our / toothbrushes with tonic water," to the "Versions of Irena," who, at fifteen years old, "scrubbed the parlor of a short Nazi sergeant." Pain, suffering, and alienation haunt much of the book, but the poems are not simply catalogues of horror.Terror is certainly here; even in safe Cleveland, the speaker is aware, as she watches a woman hang curtains, that the windows she decorates overlook "a city that has never been bombed." The title, "During the Sorties over Baghdad," deepens the resonance of the ending—written in 1991, the poem has a double meaning when published in 2005."Requiem for the Buddhas of Bamiyan" laments the Taliban's destruction of the figures "who survived Genghis Khan's cannon, // who saw the British retreat, then Soviets and Americans."
Kovacik's vision, however, reaches beyond dismay at the destructiveness of humanity to the beauty that is also an element of our shared history. The "Song to Saint Ambrose" celebrates small creations—here a small statuette carved by an uncle—as acts of resistance to despair:
Born in Milan in 340
patron of beekeepers and candlemakers,
you stand before me in wood
Bishop, saint: I sit in my kitchen,
my uncle's honey blooming in my tea.
I am lonely here, the winter is dark,
I know all that I love will pass away.
Help me to bear my fate,
you who came in praise of the miniature—
cells of wax, cells of notes
humming before the choristers....
It is therefore unsurprising that Metropolis Burning,for all its attentiveness to the suffering that recent history has visited on the world, ends with a list of beatitudes in "Songs for a Belgrade Baker":
Blessed are the Slovenes, for they are the cake-makers
Blessed are the Croats, for they excel at fish
Blessed the Macedonians, for their black wine gave birth to philosophy
Blessed, too, the Bosnians for the subtlety of their tongues—who else would season veal with lemon and hibiscus?
Blessed the Herzegovinians, for their silver wine strengthens friendships
Blessed the Serbs, for their bean soup makes foreign clerics sweat
Blessed the Albanians for their love of cinnamon
And blessed are the olive trees and vineyards, goats and sheep, for they serve both parable and table
Blessed are the mint and dill, for they are the peacemakers
And blessed the yeast and sponge, the sour-gray loaves, for they have inherited the earth[.]
This poem makes a satisfyingly rich and inclusive conclusion to a complicated and troubling book; the list demands that we, too, include everyone in our hopes for a sustained peace.
Lynn Powell's The Zones of Paradise looks at personal history through the lens of the sacred. Biblical stories, and Renaissance paintings based on them, are central to the palimpsest this book creates. Assonance and consonance provide a musical luxuriance in the language; though divided into three sections of roughly equal length, the book looks fairly conventional.These lyric free-verse poems are mostly made up of neat stanzas, left-justified and typographically unsurprising.
The first poem in the collection, however, immediately disrupts any notion that this will be a wholly conventional book."Original Errata" begins inside the mind of God: "He thought He had made himself perfectly clear: / Let there be lust." This is a God who prefers "lovely ambiguities" to certainties and in the face of human misunderstanding has retreated from the world:"No wonder He receded / farther than the stars, farther / than the white room of Emily Dickinson." The only hope for this creation is the felix culpa, or fortunate fall, so the creator intervenes one more time:
... He greeted the first tenants
of the flesh, then paused beside the pear.
He wanted to confide a brazen sweetness—
the short, slippery slope
He had made for them
This "brazen sweetness" of love, of desire, of living in a sexual body, provides the tone for many of Powell's more personal poems.They are suffused with—I hesitate in these cynical times to use the word—a tenderness for the world that refuses to become sentimental. People singing to love songs alone in their cars might seem ridiculous to an onlooker, but the poet warns us not to indulge our sarcasm:
Well, go on, cast the first laugh, but,
after the crushed orchid of the slow dance
and the duet at the shaky ceremony,
have you ever slipped into a love song
anything but alone?
("You Don't Know What Love Is")
Powell reads quotidian matters through divine language and discovers the sacred in the everyday, but hers is not just another version of natural theology. The kinds of paradise this speaker can imagine are built on the observant imagination. Her son wants a heaven of "milkshakes and fries"; her daughter is warming up for the sexual encounter that "waits beyond the first threshold of touch."This speaker, for her part, simply looks outside and sees "an unpredicted bliss of blue." Is this a trustworthy vision of God? She believes so, but only for a mind given to "making meanings out of molehills," to wondering "how far to trust the cobalt happiness / that waits beyond these panicked clouds" ("Here &Yonder").
Family plays an important part in this book's exploration of what biblical meanings can inhere in contemporary life. It's easy enough to feel God in the garden, that "swig of Eden" ("April & Ecclesiastes"), easy enough even to flirt with the "handsome zealot" who rings the doorbell ("And the First Shall Be Last"), but making meaning of lovers, spouses, and children is a trickier task, especially under the weight of the mountain of sentiment that defines Western domesticity. Sexuality is a beautiful language, and it can undo the dangerous pre-scription of Genesis:
It doesn't take long to master
The technology of underthings:
The backward buckle and stubborn snap,
The Braille of hook and eye, small lessons
we learn in the dark, encouraged by moonlight,
mentored by lust.
But the mind, overdressed
for the tender weather, hangs back...
And it's a long fumble down through
years of undoing
until some sweet day the mind
is naked as the first draft of Eve.
Sexual love also, of course, drives human beings into time and the fallen world, and the tension between these states propels many of Powell's poems.The speaker's son becomes a "pint-sized Moses" when he drapes a shirt over his head during a hike ("Outside the Garden"), and during her daughter's illness a mother sees a "bold and brazen . . . Pharisee" in a common forsythia bush ("Rescue"). A husband's brain surgery leads a woman to a nearby art museum, where she studies an image of Eve and Mary,both our mothers in different ways;she ends with a prayer for the mortal body to the "Mother / of the warmth beneath the quilt and the gamy scent, / the rowdy baby and the stretchmark, / the stealthy tumor and the neurosurgeon's knife...."
If this book has a weakness, it's the sentimentality that sometimes occurs in the poems about family.That tendency is overcome, however, by the toughness with which Powell renders her ekphrastic poems. One of the best examples—and one of the best poems—in the collection is "Larder with Christ at Emmaus,"which focuses on a painting by Joachim Beuckelaer. Here, the risen Christ appears in a "scrap of background" with his eyes "shocked into pools of black." It is religious iconography, to be sure, but this is a deity forced uneasily back into the material world: "he's lurching through the archway, his half- / life of a heart panicked / by the recent chastities of cross and grave." As in so much of The Zones of Paradise, this experience of divine and aesthetic history happens in and through the ordinary present;"a smudge of spirit / is still stalling at the threshold."
The title of Arthur Sze's Quipu refers to a method of accounting or measurement—now long outdated—that has been used by many cultures: knots are tied into rope at various intervals. Quipu is also the controlling metaphor of both the construction of individual poems and the book's overall composition.The poems are separated into sections of differing lengths, and the poems themselves vary in length and appearance on the page.They have in common a structure of accrual, as sentence by sentence the poems braid threads of the personal, the historical, and the natural worlds. Sze's distinctive ability to morph syntax and diction is perhaps the brightest thread of all, and it makes of this collection a dazzling weave.
Although many of these poems are rich with description, most are held together by an overt observing consciousness. Many are governed by a first-person narrator who says, "I notice," "I sense," "I spot," "I learn," "I recollect," "I observe," even "I garner." These poems are as much about the construction of this narrator as they are about what is objectively experienced. In fact, whether what we call objective experience is really possible to achieve is one of the questions this collection raises.The senses absorb data and the mind attempts to order that information, but the resulting conclusions may be illusory.What to make, for instance of this catalogue?
say gnawed his teeth in his sleep;
say each spring he scraped peeling blue paint off the windowsill;
say the ocean flickers;
say a squiggly chalk line screeching down a blackboard opens a black rift;
say on a float house yellow cedar smoke rises in the woodstove;
say crumpled white papers ripple then burst into yellow twists of flame.
An argument might be made for connections between two lines; the link between "teeth" and "gnawed" is clear enough, as is the metonymic line from "woodstove" to "burn" to "yellow twists of flame." These knots of potential narrative, however, are passed over quickly. Attempts to sustain a narrative or make a sequence are frustrated as the poem veers into another register. What holds such a poem together? The imperative anaphora, which both demands reader participation and focuses attention again and again on the act of speaking as meaningful gesture.
Sze is not the kind of poet, however, who frustrates conventional syntax for the sake of a gimmick tricked out as experimentalism. People and things are everywhere, and bits of stories are embedded in the strands of longer poems:
When she heard the barking dog,
She shined a flashlight and spotted a porcupine on the roof;
As you would spotlight a deer;
A snake slides under the redwood boardwalk by the kitchen;
He kisses her shoulders,
Rubs the soles of her feet;
The mind aligns such slivers.
The task of making meaning of such fragments is part of the mind's—and this book's—work, and watching the mechanism of a mind at this work is a beautiful, complicated process.There is no fixed sequence or ending point, but there are endless possibilities for juxtaposition.
Some readers may find the lists that make up many of the poems frustrating rather than generative, may want the poet to guide them more directly toward some sort of closure, but to do that would be to write a different kind of book. Sze prefers to let out threads of meaning so slender that they can drift. "Solstice Quipu" begins with a weather map,"Hong Kong 87,NewYork 84,"then moves across an imaginary earthscape:
ashes accumulate at the tip of an incense stick;
mosquitoes are hatching near the Arctic Circle;
300,000 acres in Arizona scorched or aflame;
The aroma of genmai tea from a teapot with no lid.
It is not that the poem goes everywhere. It doesn't; the list scans its elements as though from an extremely powerful satellite.The particulars of such a list are less significant than the very fact of their particularity. As the poem goes on to say,"though things are not yet in their places, / the truth sears his fingertips: // the output of gold mines, / the number of sandals knotted on string; // orange globe of sun refracted through haze; // a two-year-old gasps at hummingbirds lying on a porch."
"Didyma: 7," near the end of Quipu, shows how repetition and list accrue meaning without forcing a single interpretation:
"Do-as-you're-told scum sucker, you're the reason there are hydrogen
yelled at the postal worker
behind the counter—
it leopards the body—
cringes at strangled
anteaters and raccoons hanging in the market—
it leopards the body—
wakes to pulverized starfish in his shoes—
it leopards the body...
Sze's poems leopard the mind as well, or to use the metaphor that drives the book, they knot the mind, even as those knots reveal themselves, one by one, as points on a larger scale of measurement.
Angie Estes's Chez Nous is also constructed in tangles and knots, but in this collection the knots are linguistic as well as syntactic. History—of civilizations and of persons—is not at the center of this book, but it plays an essential part in the complexly allusive world these poems create, as they twist and turn their way through association, slant rhyme, assonance, and consonance. These are playful poems, earnestly playful, and they take their game of language very seriously. From the first poem, "True Confessions," in which the speaker says that the "true / home of glamour, by which / I mean of course the grammar / of glamour, is Scotland / because glamour is a Scottish variant / of grammar with its rustle of moods / and desires," the book charts its own aesthetic territory.
Estes' poems seem reckless in their willingness to speed through any pun that gets in their way, but in fact they pick up and fuel themselves with whatever material they come upon. Allusions to literature, to history, to high culture and pop culture tumble one over another:
Because a little knowledge
is a dangerous thing, a little
Everest, a bit of
evidence, a little death, le petit
mort is a dangerous thing,
which is why Antony called Cleopatra
Egypt and not his Rome
away from Rome...
Etymology and pun can generate their own reality, though what it might mean and whether meaning itself is important are other, perhaps unanswerable, questions:
Taken literally, the shore would be
littoral and the ocean its Latin
lover, litura, erasure or
correction, clearing the beach
like a windshield with its big
glassy hands.Waving, yes,
but to whom? It's morning already
and all the worlds' a mess or else
("A History of Reality")
This is funny poetry, but it's also smart—stylish, intelligent, and sharp-–witted. The poems refuse to linger on their potential weightiness; philosophical moments-"What if / you paused for a minuet // instead of a minute?"—speed immediately into metaphor—"The dark / might sky, the blue might // star, the always / could open, the close // might earth" ("Kind of Blue").The title poem waterfalls into its opening line, driven quickly down the page by sound:
we say vive
la différence between morals
and morels: the accent,
spelling, shape of the mouth
whenever it eats or
speaks.According to Sargent,
a portrait is a painting
with something wrong with
the mouth, but chez nous
the paintings have
no mouths and do not need
to sing because what we call
Sometimes linguistic association pushes a poem along, with the same vertical speed:
In lieu of song, liaison:
let the usually silent, final
consonant of a word be pronounced
when followed by a word
beginning with a vowel, and pour out
the sentiment left at the bottom
of the glass when I've finished
the Beaune-Grève de
l'Enfant Jésus, claimed by the nuns
who once owned the vineyard to produce
wine as smooth as the Baby Jesus
in velvet pants. I meant
A few selections in this book do push linguistic dexterity so far that the effort seems more of a gimmick than an exploration. "Pattou's French-English Manual," for example, mimics short lessons in introductory French with numbered entries. Many of the numbers are missing, others are out of sequence, and the little lessons are divided by a section called "Pronunciation Helps." This poem seems more concerned with showing that the writer knows a foreign language than with showing anything about translation. Such moments, however, are few, and overall Chez Nous is delightful. In fact, the book reads deceptively fast; the poems are so clear on their surface that the slips and puns and embedded quotations slide by effortlessly. Almost every poem's ending, however, invites a return to the beginning. "Vis-à-Vis" is emblematic of the Möbius-strip quality of Chez Nous, beginning "What is always / looking back at itself: the s / of the tete-à-tete // sofa, a kind of sleigh / for two, never slight but sleight / of hand." It is not solipsistic either, however, because, at the same time, the writer's stance by the poem's end is outward:
. . .We'll always
have Paris, whether in Paris
or in pairs, but now, from where
I stand, face to face, here
is looking at you.
It may be, as Hayden White said in Tropics of Discourse, that "each new representation of the past represents a further testing and refinement of our capacities to figure the world in language," that history is a writing project enmeshed in its own historicity. How to turn a double lens on events of the past, to look at them and look at the self looking, is a problem with which historians and literary critics continue to struggle. These five books suggest, however, that poets manage to grapple with history—personal, political, and cultural—by making use of the ambiguities and disjunctions inherent in lyric. Troping, that serious game of multiplying meaning, may be our best tool yet for resisting forgetfulness.