The Known World
Sarah Kennedy on Joseph Campana, Jim Moore, Afaa Michael Weaver, and Daisy Fried
Natural Selections, by Joseph Campana. University of Iowa Press, 82 pp., $18.
Invisible Strings, by Jim Moore. Graywolf Press, 96 pp., $15.
The Government of Nature, by Afaa Michael Weaver. University of Pittsburgh Press, 80 pp., $15.95.
Women's Poetry: Poems and Advice, by Daisy Fried. University of Pittsburgh Press, 88 pp., $15.95.
A great deal of contemporary poetry concerns itself with its own construction, and the difficulty of syntax and complications of conventional meaning in such work have their value and beauties. Many poets, however, still explore the worlds, both external and internal, that can be known through traditionally sustained imagery and compressed, resonant diction. As media and an expanding number of electronic devices allow instant communication of knowledge and trivia, it might seem that the known world has expanded unmeasurably, but these poets have found that the world is made up of individual experience—and that the lyric may in fact know more about the world than any twenty-four hour news program or Twitter account can tell us.
Joseph Campana's Natural Selections takes the non-human world as its province, punctuating its short-lined meditations on history and literature with exempla from the animal world to build a slender but powerful collection of erudite poems. Largely set in the rural Midwest, the book intersperses personal lyrics about loneliness and isolation with lovely narratives in which the natural world is personified and charged with unexpected agency.
The opening poem, "Crow," sets up this mythic world in a rather sinister way, beginning with "Crow said murder and / then there was one." Whether the "one" means one more crow or one murder remains ambiguous. What becomes unmistakably clear is that the birds, and even the sky they inhabit, have always participated in the dangers of the world:
Sky said malice. Crow
saw it shining. Glitter
of the needful, glitter
of the wanting ones:
dark hunger dark in
The human world comes into this grim picture in the title poem "Natural Selections." This poem, in fact, recalls those crows as the speaker, having moved to a small community, finds himself an observer of the flora and fauna around him:
of dark thinking birds
without anywhere to
roost, climb to the top
of the sky, look down
and see everything:
how deeply small,
how slowly moving
without purpose or
origin or end. From
this distance you
can pretend you
are one of the sad,
one of the small
By the end of the poem, it seems, no pretense is needed. The speaker has concluded that "[n]othing here / resembles an answer" and alone later in the dark, he feels that animalistic, primal desire to survive despite being far away from a lover and stuck in an old house with a book that is falling apart: ". . . in / the darkness, I wanted so much / to live I would have killed to live."
This tension between the inevitability of fear and pain and the desire to understand and accept them holds the entire book together. "Owl" finds the origins of this tension in the beginning of time: "So the world began: it showed us / / nothing." The poem ends, again in the dark, with the realization that the world is made up of "silence: / ravenous, unmoved." "Omen," which follows, concludes that "You are drowning but / knowing so will not help you."
Despite a generally forbidding cast of characters, the poems at the end of Natural Selections discover a measure of grace in this bleak landscape. Birds, bloody and premonitory, give way to more inviting and hopeful creatures, for example the "Ladybug":
but what is
"Firefly" begins "Don't go out on me something said. It / was almost too small to be perceived." This charming but short-lived insect carries enormous significance as its light becomes metaphor for "the way a body struggles to retain / / life . . . in utter darkness" and a hero who "flew to the moon, / as they do in stories . . . ." The speaker asks, "Shouldn't the night win," and the firefly, whose answer is "No," suddenly enables the human watcher to see the stars: "What do you see, / in the sky, but countless bodies / / ripping themselves into light?"
By the end of Natural Selections, even "Snake" seems hopeful, not as the embodiment of evil but as an image of comfort: "Something wants / to curl around / / the whirling earth" and crows transform into boys, whose cry of "more" seems now to ask for more life, not more death. This is a wonderful book that wears its knowledge lightly—and the knowledge that it contains is substantial.
The world of Jim Moore's Invisible Strings is both the natural world of plants and animals and the interior world of an aging human being. Often quite brief—as short as a single line in one case—these poems are melancholy and self-reflective without becoming sentimental or solipsistic. This book might be best suited to readers of a certain age, on the far side of mid-life, but the poems are certainly accessible enough for anyone interested in how the human mind makes sense, and imagery, of its own past.
Very short poems really must deliver the punch of an epigram to earn the white space that they leave in a book, and for the most part Moore's brief ones deliver the goods. Here is "On This Cloudy May Day" in its entirety:
I keep thinking
maybe June is what I need
to make me happy.
The chronic dissatisfaction this poem ridicules is so true to some personalities that the lines seem almost perfect—with the addition of the title, of course. Likewise, "First the Good News" satirizes the pretensions of the speaker gently but pointedly:
the girls still wrap blue scarves
around their long necks,
then step out into the December air,
The bad news, though unwritten, is clear because of that "still": the girls don't pay attention to the aged speaker anymore. Moore has the good sense to end the poem where he does and so make the point of the poem even more poignant.
Even the one-line "Cold Gray October Sky" works:
I walk under it, head lowered, carrying four books I love.
Why? Because it immediately creates the tension between the weather and the mood of the speaker, who clearly, despite the temptation to give in to the clichéd mood of the month, still carries books—and still loves them. This wonderful little poem creates the atmosphere, both exterior and interior, for the entire book.
Not all of the poems do this kind of difficult work with tone, and a few of them try too hard, like "Poem Without an Ending":
Listening to acorns fall
such a lovely sound
I thought it was the whole poem
until I saw the girl in the paper
with the mussed hair
the bombed bus
no one bothering yet
to close those two black eyes
When he resists the temptation to make use of such obviously emotional images to invest his poems with gravity, however, Moore does a very good job of letting his readers in on the world of age and self-reflection. He's at his very best when the natural world enters the poems as setting, allowing the speaker to reflect on himself, rather than something he's read in the paper. The third short section of "Thanksgiving," for example, does this beautifully: "Giant pines in November sunlight: // sitting inside their shadows / what is death to me?" The haiku-like quality of these three lines is haunting and unpretentious, well worth the re-reading. The longer poems in the book, like "Thanksgiving," are frequently made up of short sections, and in these poems the natural world becomes more prominent, as in the final section of "Disappearing in America":
My single star is gone, the one
I like to call mine. Instead, a thick haze
of moonlight. Just as my mother did
when she was growing old, I sit in the darkness,
getting used to how little I can see.
Perhaps the best element of Invisible Strings is the refusal of the poems to give in to maudlin complaints about aging and death. The book never loses its sense of humor, or its pleasure in simple descriptions of the natural world, and the final longish poem, "My Swallows Again," is the perfect ending, made up of prose stanzas that seem to have evolved naturally from the short poems that appear earlier. Stanza five is simply "Staring at the cloudy sky, I try to act as if this sadness is just what I need." Stanza thirteen gives a glimpse into the foolishness of both the young and the old: "Stupid teenage boys grin their stupid grins and honk their horn at you while you stand motionless under your dark cloth. Thank God I was never sixteen." Stanza twenty-one is laugh-out-loud funny: "It may be that dying is a little like leaving Spoleto: all this confusion and worry about catching a train that is only going to Perugia." And then the ending stanza-sentence, which sums up this self-aware and self-satirizing book:
On the other side of the mountain, where I cannot see, I'm sure another old man must sit, just as I do now, like this on a couch in his bathrobe, lonely and happy.
One can only hope that books like Jim Moore's Invisible Strings can help us all to age as benevolently.
Afaa Michael Weaver has written a great deal about another sort of world—the world of human memory and its effects on the adult mind. His poems about family and race have become essential to the canon of contemporary American poetry, and his latest collection, The Government of Nature, extends his range to include lyrics and narratives on Eastern spirituality. Weaver's poems, carefully measured in rather long-lined, regular stanzas, are packed with detail about American history and culture—celebrations, food, famous figures and events, cars, and weather. The horror that often lies under the surface of the more autobiographical poems is always understated, which makes the clarity of literal meaning that he achieves all the more moving.
The second poem, "Evening Lounge," seems to be about the fantasy of a casual sexual encounter, but the narrator brings in so much more with his thoughts about his motives and desires that the poem becomes a sustained examination of what it means to be human. He has lived a "monkish life" and cannot imagine really bringing himself to ask a woman, "will you sleep with me." He has come to know that "the war of life is connected to the nervous system / of the world"—a world that has left him "wrestling with the angel, wrestling with memories / in the crevices and cracks of my body."
Memory is a central subject for this poet, and it permeates both his external and internal worlds. But memory is surprisingly not singular, or isolating; it is like the rain, which "joins with all of us, tendon, bone, / artery, vein, saliva, everything that melts and goes hard." Once he accepts that he writes "without color" because he must "obey the gray way rain brings / the past to us," he discovers his fullest self—and that he, like other people, now has a "face" ("The Ten Thousand"). The paradox of the speaker finding his humanity in solitary acts governs this book. When he is alone in the natural world, as in "Leaves," he is able to "hear the stories [the leaves] carry" in the lines of their veins—like the lines of the poems he makes. Being among the trees gives him "the pleasure of touch" that he has lost.
Anyone who is familiar with Weaver's earlier books knows his most difficult memory—a boyhood incestuous violation by an uncle. This terrorizing event is the subject of most of the poems in Part II:
my uncle like a chocolate bear in the dark,
bear that I keep close to me, carving
a dark father from questions I do not know.
In Part II, Eastern and Western spiritual traditions blend, sometimes colliding, in the poet's effort to make sense of his past. "What abbreviated paternoster," he asks, "do we summon / in the night when the hand upturns the sacred portion / of a child and mixes the nerves to make monsters, / uses them for what feels unnatural, abridges / and aborts the will"? He finds little in the Western religion to exorcise his pain. Instead, he turns, to seek a kind of "saintliness," to Eastern traditions that value all of life, both human and non-human: "lotus ponds, mountains, waterfalls, / divine insignia in closets, bedrooms, bathrooms— / these places a carnival I now name as redemption" ("The Government of Nature").
The poems finally achieve some measure of peace in the new forms of spirituality to which the speaker devotes himself. "In Raleigh's Brownstone Hotel" finds the speaker alone to do:
Taiji . . .
of prayers from dead hands, no one
to see me, to count me as strange,
a black Chinese moving in me.
The Christianity of America, by contrast, appears in the trite "I'm Blessed" on a license plate; it's become a series of "blank spaces in scriptures / where incest has no language." When he encounters the uncle of his nightmare childhood in the hospice where his father is dying, the poet has come to a remarkable place. The uncle "has the same way of smiling at a nephew / he has loved in ways he cannot understand," but the nephew can walk with the now-enfeebled older man without losing control of his temper. They go down the hall side by side, "me / looking to give him space but not so much / that he fall" ("In the Good Samaritan Hospital").
The Government of Nature is the second in a trilogy, but it is a remarkable collection on its own. Its reconciliations, of the divided self and of the individual with those who have inflicted pain, are hard-won, but the peaceful tone of this work makes that resolution perfectly believable—and make us all know ourselves better. "To Those Who Would Awaken," the penultimate poem in the book, perhaps expresses this complex state of mind best:
. . . there
is the power to give things new names, so you decide
this is not leaving but returning, that ends are
middles or that there are no points, no time,
so by the time you are miles away from leaving
it is only the eternal very first moment of anything.
. . .
. . . falling
to where you are connected with everything, and
it happens, the stepping out, mind full of seeing
yourself move out into the world . . .
. . . the arrangements of patterns under a brush,
a twisted calligrapher's stroke, all these things, walking
while the bones of who you are become roots.
The world of Daisy Fried's newest collection, Women's Poetry: Poems and Advice, is contemporary America, more urban than rural, more motel and mall than mountain. Fried's poems are always savvy, smart, and funny, and in her breezy free verse lines she captures the angst of disaffected young academics better than almost anyone. The seven-page opening poem, "Torment," is a self-reflexive story of overhearing her students' complaints about the current job market on a commuter train. "Justin" and "Brianna" are a couple of the least attractive young people one could find in a poem. Justin is jealous because "Soon-Ji / got three offers. Fuck," and Brianna is a toady who, seeing her professor, says, "'I didn't realize that was you with your hair up,'" then "high-fives" the speaker.
It's unsurprising that the poem Justin has turned in for class is a seven-page poem titled "Torment," and this clever meta-poetic twist prepares the reader for the rest of the book. Between caring for a newborn daughter, encountering Kissinger at the Louvre, and seeing a seventeenth-century hippopotamus in Florence, the speaker of these poems mostly thinks and talks about writing poems and teaching others to write them. In "Midnight Feeding" she can't feed the abandoned kittens living in her garage without thinking about poems. It's midnight, but she "refuse[s] / to look at the stars:"
There are too many
stars in poems you have to get drunk to write.
At the Louvre, she thinks, if she were a "different kind of poet," she would place "Kissinger in front of The Raft of the Medusa" ("Kissinger at the Louvre (Three Drafts)"). In "A Snow Woman," a poem directly channeling Wallace Stevens, she's "reading Stevens, as usual not into it" when she observes a neighbor building the snow woman.
Despite this sometimes predictable tendency to build poems on the fact of being a poet, Fried observes and details the sad minutiae of American life and language better than almost anyone. "Lyric" centers on a visit to "Cabela's—World's / Foremost Outdoor Outfitter" and shows in depressing detail the crass, grasping commercialism of most American leisure activities:
Cabela's . . .
. . . is a modernist gun megachurch
between interstate off-ramps. A bronze deer freezes mid-leap out front, and
rainy twilit parking lines give off geometric glow. Inside a fake mountain
rising far up to the ceiling. Stuffed wolves, lynx, stoat, white-tailed deer, ocelot
sniffingly posed among cardboard crags. Shopping carts and shoppers
double-wide in double-wide aisles, and strong: A heavyweight Amazon
pulls back the string of a hunting bow like pulling clingwrap
from the tube. Her camouflage is Deciduous Winter Forest Mix.
One might wonder why the speaker is in Cabela's to begin with, but the satiric point is made: this popular store provides a replacement for both religion and traditional domesticity (though whether those are better is not interrogated in this poem).
"Il Penseroso: The Fat Lady" features the poet back on the road, this time I-95, which is "rushing / up too superreal like a movie-promo / before digital got finesse." An italicized stanza reveals her writerly frustrations:
She was tired of sad modern endings.
She was tired of modern sadness and ennui.
She narrated things calmly and swiftly
life an easy-running stream
beneath the racing, jumping flux—
unnatural this hum of narration,
the way the sun's unnatural—unreal—
she wanted 19th-century endings—
believably happy wives—
turn the radio louder . . .
the problem might be she calls herself "she" . . .
What follows is an unhappy phone call, then an explosion which turns out to be an 18-wheeler's tire that has "blown / apart and now the truck limps / shedding tread that minivans, / Hyundais, Escapes, H2s swerve / to avoid, graceful conga / line of cars." The truck makes it to a rest stop and the speaker drives on, unhappy and full of ennui, presumably to write this poem, when she can get to a stopping place. One wonders what John Milton, whose "Il Penseroso" posits sober, solitary reflection as the way to the best spiritual life, would have thought of all this pointless American busy-ness.
But this is what Fried does best: she identifies the frenetic waste of time that makes up much of contemporary American life. It's not a happy or easy vision, and she forces her readers to encounter it in painstaking, painful detail. Academics and poets seem often to be among the worst of her characters—pretentious, self-pitying, and solipsistic. And we thought we were sensitive, right? Guess again. The long sequence of poems that make up Part III, "Attenti Agli Zingari," set in Italy in the early 2000s, reveal an American couple trying not to seem American in Europe in the early days of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Rome, attempting to "cleanse" itself of gypsies, is really no better at the end, and the poet sees the same sorts of waste and commercialism here that she saw at home. The end of the poem seems to locate her angst not in any particular place or culture but in "our twenty-first century, an afterbirth," and Rome, the site of her escape, is "like a man on an oxygen tank, / tubes shoved up his nose."
Just when a reader might think she can't take any more evidence of Western depravity and soullessness, the final long poem arrives: "Ask the Poetess: An Advice Column." It's shamelessly self-reflexive and meta-poetic, riffing on gender roles and bourgeois opinions about poetry, clearly the "feminine" art, and this is a large part of its humor. This Q&A poem is made up of hilarious and ridiculous—but sincere—questions that the "poetess" is asked, and her answers, as well as the ways she abbreviates their names in response, redeem all of the sadness of the previous poems. Here are just a couple of the shorter selections:
DEAR POETESS—I am a chemist. People at parties are always discovering
this and saying to me, "A chemist? My favorite element is Iridium." This is
driving me crazy.—OCCUPATIONALLY HAZARDED
DEAR OH DEAR—it could be worse. Imagine if you had to hear "A poetess? My favorite poem is 'The Road Not Taken'" a hundred times a year—LOVE THE POETESS
DEAR POETESS—But seriously, what's the difference between a male poetess and a female poetess?—IT'S THE CHROMOSOMES, HUH?
DEAR ITCH—Okay, there is one difference. A male poetess can say
"Gettin' soft, dude, gettin' soft!" while delivering a punch to another
male poetess's expanding gut. A female poetess can never ever ever say
this to her sister in poetry, with punching or without.
—LOVE THE POETESS
The book ends on a funny, almost happy note (you will have to read the book to find out what names the poetess is abbreviating in this group answer):
DEAR WOMB, OBSCURE, TESTY, TWIT, HEALING, NEOCON AND A-STUDENT—My answers to you, in order, are: no, no, no, no, no and yes!—LOVE THE POETESS
This "Love," which without the expected comma is both a closing and a command, is just right for this sharp satire on all of us. If the circumference of Fried's known world in Women's Poetry is rather small, it's because she has set her sights on the very heart of Western culture: our obsession with driving, shopping, and touring. But even as she hits us where we live, she salves the wound with a generosity that is almost redemptive. And redemption through a greater knowledge of ourselves and our various worlds, which all of these poets, in their different ways, provide, may be the best answer—and the best gift—that poetry can give us these days.
Sarah Kennedy, a contributing editor, is the author of seven books of poetry and the historical mystery The Altarpiece, Book One of The Cross and the Crown series (Knox Robinson Publishers.) Book Two, City of Ladies, will be published in October 2014. She teaches English at Mary Baldwin College.