This Side of the River
An Annual Review of Books from West Branch Contributors
By Ellen Wehle
Smack Dab in the Center:
Poems of Love and Desire
Beautiful in the Mouth, by Keetje Kuipers. BOA Editions, 91 pp., $16.
Tulips, Water, Ash, by Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet. Northeastern University Press, 88 pp., $16.95.
Door to a Noisy Room, by Peter Waldor. Alice James Books, 62 pp., $14.95.
At a recent Barnes & Noble event, a writer announced that love poems are passé. I was extremely sorry to hear it. While I do realize there's been a general turning away from poetry that deals with the biographical in favor of the intellectual/abstract, I myself read in order to hear about human experience. Considering that love lies smack dab at the center of our experience and is very hard to capture, I'm always drawn to work that tries to capture it. Apparently I still have some company. The following three books, all first collections by poets previously published in West Branch, explore a range of themes, but each pays special attention to love.
Much like the moon, love affairs move through phases. Longing, consummation, loss; each phase follows the next as relationships wax and wane. Keetje Kuipers' Beautiful in the Mouth charts this cycle of desire. Fittingly, the book opens with "The Light Behind Her Head, the Bright Honeycomb of the Sky," a poem of longing. "At night his long body works above me" the speaker says, the image highly erotic until we reach the next line and our understanding shifts: "late into the hours that make themselves / from dust, crafting the landscape out of midnight's cloth ..."
Not a lover but an artist—god is at work creating the speaker's city. She describes him spinning into existence "the cobblestone piers that part the water / at its glistening seams" in a tone that is half hunger, half rapture. By the end her hunger has swelled to encompass the entire world, a world that "hold[s] us all in semiprecious light." First poems bear a heavy weight in that they must set the tone for the rest of the collection. "The Light Behind Her Head" succeeds beautifully.
Landscape and Eros are again paired in "Driving Back into the City," a poem whose extremely long lines give the sensation of breakneck speed. The speaker and her lover drive "flying over the bridge into the maw of the city like a willing moth suddenly wrapped in fire" and we can almost feel the wind rushing past the car window. One sentence spans three stanzas and ends only when the lovers have at last reached home, their footprints "around the bed unfolding constellations, opening patiently against the floor." It's a powerful use of an end-stop, emphasizing the importance of this arrival.
In "Driving Back," as in many of Kuipers' poems, images morph and meld; a glimpse of the skyline "arching its neck on the horizon" dissolves into the lovers whose "thighs [rock] together like two moored boats in the night." In this dual exchange, the cityscape is personified, "arching its neck" like the throes of a woman in passion, and the actual woman is de-personified. As a result, the revelation in the final stanza feels utterly earned.
One of the most memorable pieces deals with love achieved. Fulfillment, it seems, poses its own dangers:
Because I have a good life,
because the scales are tipped too far
toward my own contentment, I ask my man
to put his hands around my wicker throat
Reading these five lines, I did a double-take—Did she just say that?—and my eye flew back to the top to start over. Such a provocative statement could have been bad news. We've all seen erotica disguised as art, where, in the absence of content, the writer uses sex as a cheap way to hold the reader's attention. But in "Bondage Play as a Substitute for Prayer" Kuipers has something substantive to say, her truth no less valid for being uncomfortable. When all goes well in our lives it's quite common to feel dread, a sense of This can't last, as we wait for the gods to make us pay. In "Bondage Play" the speaker is so filled with that dread that she seeks out her own pain, preempting the gods' punishment.
Her argument in defense of herself is surprisingly convincing. In part this is due to the Shakespearean diction, which somehow ameliorates the violence:
When beauty and pleasure cling
to my staticed legs, when fortune's grotesque
and comely filaments cloud my hair,
I know to ask for pain.
I notice, too, that the two excerpts quoted above follow the same structure. In each sentence, two dependent clauses (because/because and when/when) lead to a bald statement of need. Syntax, like diction, serves the poem, those suspended clauses easing me gradually into ideas I might otherwise reject.
Kuipers' weakest poems tend to be about the loss of love: "Across a Great Wilderness Without You," "A Farewell (Composed in Great Advance of the End)," "After We Say Goodbye." While these poems have promising moments, they're tonally off, flat where they should sing. Pronouncements such as "The phone's disconnected. / Just as well, I've got nothing to tell you" or "I carry a gun now. I've cut down / a tree" drop with a thud, too self-conscious to stir empathy. In addition, the imagery can be excessive, with images butting up against each other in awkward combinations. For example, take these lines from "After We Say Goodbye":
I was once so happy wearing a swimsuit.
We get older, walk out of each other's lives like collarless dogs,
become fodder for the past. So lay me to rest like a well-loved
mummy, with buckets of honey and bags of rice.
The conjunction of "dog" and "mummy" is jarring, and not in a good way. Most importantly, the loss poems ring hollow, with so much left unsaid that the reader is reduced to guessing. Of course, we can guess, in a general way. Breakups hurt. Anyone who's had a relationship can probably fill in the blanks and intuit the speaker's loneliness and regret. But it's the particulars, the nuances of emotion that give a poem reason to exist. Here, the speaker remains aloof and we come away feeling underwhelmed, knowing even less than when we started.
But these missteps are few. Overall, Kuipers speaks with verve and authority. Whether it's a blackout in New York City or July Fourth fireworks, she's able to find the deep core of meaning in events.
Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet's collection Tulips, Water, Ash tracks a dual desire unique to adolescence. The thirteen-, fifteen-, or nineteen-year-olds of her poems are fiercely hungry both for sex and for a nameless more which we understand to be life itself. Although it has no single speaker, one especially strong grouping of poems reads like a time-lapse photograph as we follow a girl through her junior high and high school years. In the first poem, "1982," she is still mostly child, in thrall to "mirrors and hair gel." Couplets move us in orderly fashion through her school day, from locker to "Fourth period, the class solved for x. I studied / a boy's neck, soft down and new scent." It's the only intimation of desire. In the remaining couplets the girl's attention is focused not on boys but on the concrete details of her existence ("Mown grass, peat dust, / fields cut to scrub and burn"), all of which shimmer with potentiality. The movement feels emotionally true, the lone mention of a boy's downy neck like the opening note to a song that won't be played for years.
Initially the next poem, "More," seems unrelated. Unlike "1982" with its first-person viewpoint, stanzas one through four of "More" describe a scene from the safe distance of omniscience:
under a waterfall: little silver fish
like teaspoons, at first a few and then
a dozen, then the school, the whirlwind,
the river a whisk of tarnish ...
In the fifth stanza, reading the lines "As if / they could have carried me off, under // the falls," we plunge into the water ourselves. What an exhilarating jolt to move from omniscience to direct experience with the use of the word "me." Suddenly we realize there's been a first-person speaker down there among the fish all along, which means we, too, are swimming. In "More," fear and desire and anticipation mix. The lush image of "a million poppies" is negated in the next breath by "a million rats," the speaker going on to clarify that "Even the former is frightening." Why? Because the field of flowers is too wild, too unknowable—too much. Like the other poems in the set, "More" hints at a riotous energy in the world and in ourselves, a force of desire which could, at any moment, rise up and overwhelm us.
"Persephone at 13" takes elements of the first two poems and melds them, with schoolgirls metamorphosing to fish and vice versa. Highly energized line breaks help the poet to pull this off. The opening stanza:
She can swim in and through,
tail flicking, down into the earth
of her own flesh, becoming in her descent
a cell, an electron, small thing spinning
in a great void. We're so far from solid, more dark
By breaking her second line on "earth," Stonestreet gives us time to process the strangeness of her image, this fish-maiden complete with tail falling through the center of the earth. Then we read through to the next line— "into the earth / of her own flesh"—and the old Greek myth leaps to the forefront of the poem; we are forcibly reminded that Persephone's story, in which she's kidnapped by the god of the Underworld, is as much about sex as death. Enjambment keeps the text moving rapidly down the page, form mimicking content. The motion continues beyond the stanza break and shifts seamlessly from earth's depths to outer space, the statement "We're ... more dark / than anything" evoking space's dark matter as the girl continues to fall.
Although "Persephone at 13" is told in third person, our speaker from "1982" and "More" shows up in the next stanza—or, at least, we suspect she's one of a class of biology students depicted in the stanza. Studying single-celled creatures, girls peer through microscopes at "little fish" whose restless, frantic movement ("jostlings in the hall") makes them sound precisely like the girls. Then the last stanza comes full circle back to the myth. Viewed under the microscope, the fish's hearts pulse ruby-red as pomegranate seeds: "those five / red jewels." That's magic of a high order, one of those leaps of association that arise naturally from a poem's sense, impossible to predict.
"Catapult," the last piece in the set, returns to a first-person voice: not first person singular, but plural. Our speaker is now a high school senior and speaks for her entire graduating class, her own experience inseparable from the group's. Escape is the thing, she says, then recounts their nights of beer-drinking and "fumbled" sex like a journalist reporting from the front lines. Just as the girls in "Persephone" hover on the brink of puberty, the teens in "Catapult" are on the brink of adulthood. They are stuck there, unable to cross over to their new lives. When the speaker describes them as each "a small thing /... spinning wildly /... here at the center of the known universe" it's not hubris we're hearing but, rather, dread. This particular center of the universe is a terrifying vacuum—you could spin there forever—an echo of the "great void" in "Persephone."
Stonestreet's fascination with science leads to some of her most accomplished work. "Left-Handed Universe: Variations" deserves at least a mention as the poem that convinced me to review the book. Flipping through my review copy, I happened to turn to this poem and read "What in our world might indicate the handedness of the universe? All / those quarks: left, right, strange. Everything leading into a spin." Straightforward, a question asked and answered, yet it snagged my eye so thoroughly that I couldn't stop reading. The speaker wildly zags from the human scale to the galactic, riffing on anything that could be considered Other as her jazzy "Variations" delivers surprise after surprise. Tulips, Water, Ash is a book that excels at such surprises, striking fresh sparks of meaning from line to line and, sometimes, word to word.
Door to a Noisy Room, by Peter Waldor, stands somewhat apart from the first two collections. Reading Kuipers and Stonestreet, I am always conscious of an event—narrative anchoring me in real time. Naturally, the writers may be conflating or otherwise altering events to suit their purposes, but in most of the poems the underlying presence of an event—an experience lived in real time—is unmistakable. Waldor's poems are lyric in that they don't seem to reflect lived events, but states of mind. They are also minimalist, with some poems comprised only of six lines and some lines comprised only of three, or even two, words. In fact, the poems' concision and mystery make them read like koans. Each provides the barest possible outline of meaning and relies on the reader to fill in the rest. How well does this technique work? It depends on the reader.
A friend of mine once studied at an ashram in upstate New York. As homework he was assigned a koan, which went something along the lines of The moon watches from the ocean waves, laughing. My friend was supposed to meditate on the line until he grasped its meaning. Several months later I asked how he was doing, and he told me he'd gone back to New York and begged his teacher for a new koan since this one stumped him. The teacher refused on the grounds that meaning lay within the individual. Similarly, Waldor's book may confound readers who are unwilling to bring quite a lot of themselves to the text. For those who are willing, however, the rewards can be high.
Consider the brevity of these first two stanzas from "Lips":
My love, our lips
are four knives
asleep in the drawer.
Last four left.
The rest out for
the usual butchery.
Twenty-one words total, and yet Waldor has managed to create an entire emotional realm. The visual of the first stanza is at once prosaic and surreal. Nearly everyone has seen those antique cutlery drawers with depressions shaped to safely nestle the various utensils. It's an interesting stretch to picture lips rather than silverware lying against the velvet, while the word "asleep" raises several possibilities. On a literal level, such silverware is used only on special occasions like Easter or Thanksgiving and is "asleep" the rest of the year. Metaphorically, sleeping lips suggest lovers who've gone a long time without kissing, which in turn suggests a relationship in jeopardy. The next line, "Last four left," again appears prosaic. All the other knives are gone because time has passed; after Grandmother's silverware is handed down a few generations, pieces do tend to go missing. But that reading is shattered by the final sentence. The knives have become anthropomorphic. Rather than being misplaced they have voluntarily gone out on the town looking for trouble, the noun "butchery" so perfect here that it falls like a blow. What a strange, sinister world we've entered.
In this type of poetry the margin for error or wastage is very narrow. However much I'm willing to engage as a reader, I can only succeed if the poet supplies a text where each word counts, alluding to a meaning which may lie beyond logic but is nonetheless discernible. Most of the time, Waldor produces. In "Lips" his choice of cutlery is deliberate— knives are so much more suggestive than, say, spoons—and in other poems such as "Sadder than Abraham," "The Guilt of Elevators," and "Night Sale" he shows the same care, laying each phrase down with precision. A particularly striking piece, "Hands," manages to compress sex to a single gesture: "Hand on hip— / open sesame."
The book fails in places where Waldor's hyper-compressed lines yield less than they promise. Here, for example is "Dancer" in its entirety:
I could never restrain myself
enough to be a dancer,
never let my fingers
snow on the back.
I could never adore the master.
When a partner was covered
with sores, I vomited.
When I have nothing to do
I do nothing.
No matter how hard I work or how much of myself I bring to this text, meaning eludes me. In the opening sentence, what does it mean to "snow" one's fingers? I picture ballet dancers and try to make the gesture into something a male dancer does as he lifts his female partner, perhaps fluttering his fingers along her back. But honestly, I don't see it.
The "master" in the fifth line could be the dance instructor or could be a spiritual mentor, like the "masters" who appear in several other poems. Either way, the line falls flat, as does the closing repetition of "nothing." "Dancer" and other poems such as "Brothel Guide," "Seriously," and "A Map" are throwaways. Individually they don't stand up, while as a group they appear self-indulgent and random, like half-finished thoughts.
Fortunately, Door to a Noisy Room is strong enough to absorb them. A year ago I taught a creative writing class focused on reader engagement, the idea that a reader actively creates meaning. For the Final my students had to read a poem cold and parse it, supporting their interpretation with quotes from the text. Since high engagement was key, Waldor made the perfect poet for the test. I assigned his "Blue Bells."
The terrible thing
about leaving paradise—
the thought I could
be entering paradise.
No tollgates, no fences.
Blue bells everywhere.
As many times as I've read these opening stanzas, they still send a chill down my spine. The expulsion from Eden is usually a tale of bitterest regret, the quintessential example of "having it all" and throwing it away, the mistake we never quite recover from. With a simple shift in perception, Waldor totally reframes the tragedy ... and that's why I shiver. Equally effective, Waldor pairs his abstract "terrible thought" with concrete nouns, swiftly fixing the poem in reality. Tollgates and fences are solid, easy to visualize, and modern, a nice contrast with the biblical "paradise." Then the clincher: "Blue bells everywhere." I sense the speaker's own shiver, his awe as he looks out over the Earth.
"Blue Bells" continues to unfold in the remaining stanzas, widening and deepening until there are a multitude of possible readings. In fact, grading my Final, I was surprised at how many different themes the students had found. Any test reveals as much about the text's skill as the reader's since it takes a truly skillful text to spark such rich responses. Door to a Noisy Room is a book well worth the effort it demands.
Love poetry may be unfashionable at the moment, but I doubt we will ever stop writing and reading it. And why should we? In the right hands, there's no reason it has to be predictable or "too small," as the writer said that night at Barnes & Noble. A love poem illuminates the heart of the lover, certainly, but can also illuminate the heart of a city, a world, a whole cosmos. These three poets demonstrate just what riches the form can yield.