Making the New Old: Five New Books
Gazelle in the House, by Lisa Williams. New Issues, 89 pp., $15.
A Several World, by Brian Blanchfield. Nightboat Books, 112 pp., $15.95
Incidents of Scattering, by Karen Lepri. Noemi Press, 74 pp., $15.
Money Money Money Water Water Water, by Jane Mead. Alice James Books, 128 pp., $16.95.
Errings, by Peter Streckfus. Fordham University Press, 96 pp., $19.99.
A few years ago, the scholar and journalist Louis Menand observed in an essay on Ezra Pound that the three-word phrase that arguably constitutes Pound's most lasting contribution to the pedagogy of poetry—"Make It New"—is also frequently misunderstood. The "It" to which Pound refers, it turns out, is the Old. In other words, Pound wasn't encouraging writers to write a poetry never before seen, but to reach back in time and unearth literary forms, modes, and traditions that had fallen by history's waysides. And then, of course, to use that knowledge to write a poetry never before seen. Each of the five books below aspires in some fashion to this goal, and even where the lines fall short, they derive interest and strength from building on the works that precede them.
Reading Gazelle in the House—Lisa Williams's third book, after the prize-winning The Hammered Dulcimer (1998) and Woman Reading to the Sea (2008)—is a bit like watching classical ballet: it takes a while to see the strength behind the delicacy. A few of these poems, it must be said, are simply too delicate; a good example is the titular poem, which opens as follows: "A gazelle in the house means tender, breaking / silence. An approach calibrating hesitation. Something / held out in the hand. Something bitter, exactly toward / a gazelle. You will bring things forward that are not / of your world ..." On a literal reading these lines explore the fragile tension one would expect from the presence of a wild, nervous ruminant in an enclosed space, though they border on the precious. Metaphorically, Williams could also be making a case for disruption as a kind of liberation; in this sense, the poem's later line "Let a gazelle / determine it all" could be read as a manifesto. It is surely no coincidence that the poem immediately following, "Thelonious," pays tribute to a jazz legend whose signature playing style—an "asymmetrical / ramble" and "backward drift of fingers"—was disordered and unpredictable, "part Ellington, part the end / of melodious as we know it." But many musicians are disordered and unpredictable without being Thelonious Monk, and some of Williams's poems, likewise, value their sound at the expense of their coherence.
Williams also retains a formalist sensibility, however (her first book was chosen by John Hollander for the 1998 Swenson Poetry Award), and the best poems of Gazelle in the House are, if not strictly formal, at least reluctant to abandon themselves completely to lyricism without some external constraints. The clearest counterpoint to the title poem is "Villa Medusa," which contains an epigraph from the nineteenth century German naturalist and illustrator Ernst Haeckel and hearkens to Haeckel's colorful illustrations of jellyfish, nautilus shells, and other sea life. Haeckel's most well-known illustrations resemble nothing so much as overly fecund tide-pools, and their lavish depictions of ordered, symmetrical forms provide Williams with a bridge between the organic and the scientific:
Down, the filigraic
combed from the briny womb
they whirled in, skeletons
like radiant spheres or suns.
Down, he drew them. . . .
And others fell
for them too: as ornament,
motif; a chandelier;
the gate of a world's fair.
Here, the central contrast expressed by the title of Haeckel's book—Art Forms in Nature—underlies and anchors Williams's poem, as it captures Haeckel's lavish sunbursts of organic matter in trim, meticulous couplets. Likewise "Sounding Line," which describes in six quatrains of terse trimeter the swift descent of a heavy plumb line tossed into the sea "through layers of photosynthetic / migrating cells and stories / of diatomic bodies," until it hits bottom and is pulled to the surface "where, in a repetition / like a watery palindrome, / you—bound and leaning—were reeling / the measured feeling home." The collection also contains a handful of classic sonnets, as well as two back-to-back poems, "Exhilarated, Walking Past High Trees ..." and "Experience," whose lines are nearly identical, but composed in reverse. The subject matter may be all too familiar, but the device is innovative, turning what might've been just another poem about the travails of young love into a unique and clever diptych.
In poems such as these, Williams is departing from her unquestioned ability to write untrammeled poems about insects, birds, and exotic mammals (which, make no mistake, are amply represented here) and doing the much more challenging work of writing against type. In "The Visit," then, another poem about curious teenagers with time on their hands, Williams summarizes a disappointing sexual encounter with the disarmingly simple parting observation "But that was her youth: big things vaguely done," a line that ends with no imagery but just the right amount of abstract thud. Likewise, the five-poem series "Suite for Bonnefoy," buried three-quarters of the way through the book, contains the hidden gem "Those Rooms Inside, Too Far for Me to Enter," which conjures a strong sensation of distance and loss using only the simplest of nouns—rooms, shadows, hands, light. In a book that clearly does not want for words, these self-imposed limits render the poem's subjects with a spare, clear imagery. Most unexpected, perhaps, is "Oceans," a poem that one might expect to be as teeming with life as one of Haeckel's illustrations, but that ends instead with the sober lines "—I simplify. Stay wavering / and many, a spectrum's harbor / more than 'azure indolence,' / each drop for each occasion your / inviolable firmament." If Williams's poems occasionally display an azure indolence of their own, it is lines like these that redeem them.
Surely if any writer should be permitted a decade between books, it is the poet. For Brian Blanchfield, that decade was evidently time well-spent: A Several World, his second collection, received the Academy of American Poets James Laughlin Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Blanchfield is an innovative voice, and even if he appears to have spent many of the last ten years fishing in Ashbery Lake, the result is hard to argue with. Take "Eclogue Onto an Idea," the book's first poem, which opens with the enigmatic lines, "Up ahead out here, and his affiliate, rival in the eyes, / someone near, but not our crowd, someone whom / you approach in a poem only / to the extent of his vantage out, to the verb open out / onto. To that extent, you fit into his / looking suit ..." These lines are missing Ashbery's avuncular humor, but the chattiness and air of desultory pontification that are his hallmarks are here, floating along in a lofty trail of near-abstractions, as if Ashbery were translating a poem by G. W. F. Hegel.
The centerpiece of the collection is a chapbook published in 2013 titled "The History of Ideas, 1973-2012," whose dozen poems are buttressed by epigraphs from "The Dictionary of the History of Ideas" and end with quotations from authors and scholars ranging from the remarkable (Temple Grandin) to the querulous (Antonin Scalia) to the merely prosaic (Malcolm Gladwell). Oddly enough, in some respects the poems from this chapbook—ordered alphabetically, with facetiously grand titles such as "Alienation," "Empathy," "Paradox," and "Time"—are the weakest in the collection, delivering a series of blocky stanzas that seem forever to be on the cusp of saying something compelling. Here for instance is the first stanza of "Empathy":
The rip in the piedmont came with a flue inherent.
The scent everyone said was mephitic, but we stayed.
From beyond its sediment apron, it was not an eye at all.
In the negatives it looks like fire, with hair of light above.
It's being weird, everyone says, looking down.
We're not boring holes, we're facilitating flues.
The stanza coheres in terms of both space and sound, its lines roughly pentameter length, each sentence ending with a note of finality, and each building on the one that came before, tossing sounds back and forth—piedmont, inherent, mephitic, sediment—until the last word of the stanza's final line, "flues," reaches up to the first and binds the stanza firmly and fully together. But it is not really clear whether the poem is actually going somewhere or simply running in place. "Open House," likewise, is a solid single-stanza doorstop of a poem that takes a couple's spontaneous visit to an open house and runs it through Blanchfield's unflagging phrase-making machine for two pages, at which point the reader is deposited more or less where she started, possibly wondering why she'd taken the trip at all.
Much better and thankfully more plentiful are poems such as the lovely "In Their Motions," whose tighter lines and slender proportions display Blanchfield's virtuosity to greater effect. "In Their Motions" opens on a dim setting enlivened by wordplay, "[a]t an intersection of lanes within a cemetery, / a corner quartered, a cardinal quad, a cross, from / above, the one star in the gloaming / bright in its area." The speaker, reading, is looking up the origin of an ambiguous word—fend. A few lines later, he finds it, and the explanation he delivers draws the poem to a lightly measured close:
Fend is only short for defend, of course,
whereas I had expected a fennel frond
or a foil or something inner forest feeling.
Who meant it first as doing without others
who might have helped? Jackson, Thomas.
1627, in his Treatise of the Divine Essence
and Attributes: they do not direct their brood
in their motions but leave them to fend
for themselves. Not far in you find
a place from which to view the broken
families, on the knitted moss and natural
gravel beneath the juniper and fir.
I wonder who they were.
It is a testament to Blanchfield's originality that he can compose a poem set in a cemetery, at dusk, with its speaker gazing at the broken tombstones contemplating the inevitability of death, that manages to come up with something new. And yet he does: a sentence from a seventeenth-century English theologian, finding a new use for an old word. In a few of the poems of A Several World we feel as if the lines are being dumped on us—but in this poem, and in most of the others in Blanchfield's book, they are presented as gifts.
In part this effect is simply a result of letting the poem breathe so that its imagery emerges more fully. In "Edge of Water, Nimrod Falls, Montana," for instance, a father watches his son clambering down the waterfall's rocky path to a swimming hole, making "his / buttery way down the rocks" with feet like "wet white dumplings." The pitted limestone of the falls is a "thousand-chambered console." And even without context or narrative, some of Blanchfield's lines are small marvels in themselves. Thus the last line of "Empathy": "Wool in the air a kind of krill for the whale of the hole." Thus the last line of "Space": "and made my wish in the water worsen for reaches beneath." A last line does not a poem make, but for sheer joy in the music that words can make in the right order, one might have to go to Hopkins to do better.
The best illustration of Blanchfield's abilities is almost certainly to be found in the half-dozen or so ekphrases and "Eclogues" that appear in this book. In "Pferd," the speaker at a museum encounters a horse in bronze by the modernist sculptor Marino Marini, its "hairless body so smooth the risen scoop / of orifice is more singular, ocular, and since / cleanly the spout and dress of tail has been, in / the signature stub above, arrested, / a medallion plumped, from there the line / leads the unrestricted eye beneath the rump to / the retractions of phallus in undercarriage / custody." Lovers of horses will probably not thrill to these lines, which describe their subject with all the warmth of a livestock appraiser. Yet anyone who has seen one of Marini's splayed, angular statues will recognize that Blanchfield is simply doing with words what Marini did in bronze. Even more enjoyable is "Eclogue Through the Night," which captures Blanchfield mining some improbable vein between Walt Whitman and Robinson Jeffers: "What one person would I put on board to hoist me up if leitmotif / and timing were hastening on and worsening my rural depot outpost past, / snowpatches in the ditch still, the fathered bootlaced boy in Wyeth worried ..." The lines are long but do not trip over themselves; rather, they stretch and expand, running on like the train that the speaker has boarded, heading into the night and speaking in sentences that lengthen until they abruptly draw up, short and clipped, to end the poem: "When you're ready you can tell me, if I can put the catch in late, / whose is your freight under all that breathing blanket. I'll sleep. Keep reading." Especially with poems such as these, most readers will be happy to oblige.
Karen Lepri's short, stripped-down debut collection, Incidents of Scattering, is composed of seven long poems that, true to the book's title, seem to have scattered themselves across the pages in a multiplicity of dissimilar forms. Lepri prioritizes the visual structures of her poems, and although she occasionally does so at the expense of their coherence, she cannot be accused of repetitiveness: in "As If Bodily Eye," the lines shuttle back and forth between indents as if on a loom; in "Elegy for Ice-Pleasure" they are squeezed into dense cubes of words, and in "Canto-Os" they travel horizontally, the poem's stanzas jumping from left to right across the page like a skipped stone. If Lepri's poems ever find their way onto a Kindle, she will have her work cut out for her keeping them the way they are. Some of the poems are so delicate on the page that they seem in danger of floating away, as in the opening page of the initially baffling "Fig. 1, Apparatus for Heat Obscured":
fig. 1 clean-crushed
your white mass seen
cast to a
the peals oh
these ragged clif—
fig. 1 herd of bells
lowing the azure
These lines, and many others in Incidents of Scattering, will doubtless present excellent targets for critics on the lookout for the next young Language Poet to skewer. On a more thoughtful note, though, they raise the familiar question of whether and to what extent a poem should rely on notes in order to make itself more fully understood. Several of these poems are more or less impenetrable without the name Lepri provides in the book's opening epigraph (and again in its final pages): John Tyndall, the Victorian experimental physicist and climate scientist whom she addresses as "j.t." in the lines above, and whose writings, especially his early work The Glaciers of the Alps, are this book's principal touchstone. Lepri's lines take on more substance when seen through the prism of Tyndall's work: the "white mass" of a glacier, the "peals" and other sounds of ice that Tyndall himself describes in his book, and the "minaret" of ice that did indeed comprise Figure 1 of the 1860 first edition of Tyndall's book.
The poem "Apparatus for Heat Obscured" draws most directly from Tyndall's work; each section begins with the apostrophe "dear j.t.," and Tyndall's own words frequently find their way into the lines, such that it can be difficult to tell where Lepri's language ends and Tyndall's begins. One section quotes directly from a passage of The Glaciers of the Alps in which Tyndall describes in surprisingly poetic detail the accumulation of a curtain of ice crystals along a window, and which Lepri has condensed into what sounds like a climate scientist's daydream: "the film of liquid / a pocket lens ... / cooled by air, and ... / a film commenced to / move at one edge; atom / closed with atom ..." Tyndall himself does not appear so plainly in the six other poems that comprise this book, although references to Alpine climatology are woven throughout: sections of the poem "Preluminous" bear titles such as "Crystallization and Internal Liquefaction" and "My Guide of the Finsteraarhorn," a reference to a peak in the Swiss Alps.
After all this detective work, it remains to be said what Lepri's poems are actually doing, and whether they are doing it well. Amidst all the lines about ice minarets and blue snow and loud glaciers, Lepri often writes in the second person—the book's opening line is "You say to the cup, begin"—and given the occasional appearance of an "I", one senses that the speaker in these poems is often addressing someone in particular (even when she is not writing cryptic letters to John Tyndall). These addresses are usually oblique and fragmentary, muffled and half-buried between other fragments. But on occasion they can be refreshingly direct. Take the third section of the poem that shares the book's title, an island of prose in a sea of two- and three-word lines:
What you lug to the side of our bed and lay down across me carries a heat I feel you leave, and when you lie your body bundled and low, mine buoyed, rising further from the center, lighter too. How could everything ever appear the same? How the pick axe in a flash of light? Sand dribbling from your fingers?
In terms of narrative, these lines are about as fulsome as Lepri's readers can expect. Yet it is also evident that Lepri is less concerned with crafting a narrative than she is with creating a tone or an atmosphere, here one of distance (where there should be closeness). The lines firm up when they are read aloud; only then do the three anapests of the opening phrase and the proliferation of soft consonants in the first sentence really emerge.
Indeed, Lepri herself is a more lyrical writer than many of her poems, with their word-spattered pages and jittery triple indents, seem to want to admit. Near the end of the poem "Hypotheses for Dwelling" Lepri writes, "Culled by wind, water // we mimic process: aeolian / fingers, alluvian // toes tracing sand- / sea's peak // & tips—succession / of grasses lost..." The word "erosion" is never used, but it is evident that this is what is being described, and when the poem finds "our own parts / spun & dispersed" the process turns inward with words that evoke both gentleness and a slow, piecemeal loss. "Hypotheses for Dwelling" is an odd but intriguing poem, peppered with words from biology and geology—reticular, karstic, cambium—that offset its more conventionally melodious lines. Contrast this with the far-reaching but ultimately unsuccessful "Canto-Os," whose row of "O" stanzas ("O chirplet," "O wavelet," "O toneburst") never quite rises above the fragments that compose it, leaving readers with little more than a vague feeling that they are being handed pieces of something that doesn't fit together. Given the title of Lepri's book, of course, that may be precisely the feeling she wants to evoke. But most readers will find themselves needing a stronger anchor. John Tyndall provides that anchor in many of the poems in this collection, and it is these, with few exceptions, that make the deepest impression.
Jane Mead calls her fourth collection a trilogy, and at over 100 pages, the three sections of Money Money Money Water Water Water have all the heft and substance of a novella. Yet the book is not so dense as its page count implies: every facing page is blank save for an italicized, punctuation-less four-line poem resting in the bottom left corner, which creates a series of vignettes that run parallel to, and provide a commentary on, the longer poems. As its title might suggest (and if not that, then Mead's current day job as manager of her family's vineyard in California), her latest collection is chiefly concerned with the earth, particularly the damage that occurs when the earth's interests are at odds with those of unfettered capitalism, and these marginalia poems allow her to provide some pointed commentary that might otherwise turn the book into little more than political protest: "Ditch company to sell shares / Shares of water to Audubon / For bird habitat on terms // Elsewhere offered to lettuce farmers." Yet the more interesting political angle here is actually the historical. The poem "Magna Carta" is composed entirely of lines from that foundational thirteenth-century document, serving to remind us how the fruits of the earth—"one measure of Ale, and one measure of Corn"—were once so inextricably bound up with affairs of state.
Mead's abiding concern with the earth is amply present in her longer poems, albeit expressed more obliquely. It sometimes articulates itself in song-like lyrics, as in the poem "Experience as Visitation," a dreamlike meditation on the natural forces that move the earth and sustain its life: "That which comes unwilled comes shining— / Pulls up the sun from out dark waters, / Moves through mist, a mind in motion— / (There is a harbor there, within you)." At times the tone is one of anger, which drives the embittered final lines of "The Narrows": "It is // time to hear the winded / rain against the windows / and know that not far away // the ocean is in angry mourning / and that you, for all / your wind and rain, cannot // even begin to hear it." If that is truly the situation, then we are in dire straits indeed. More often, the tone is fierce and oracular, as in the first two stanzas of "Dying of Stupidity":
Dying of stupidity we want must muster something—
Nothing stepping forward, nothing forgetting:
The subsequent prying a disaster, a bloodletting.
Anaesthetizing clatter where once we carried upward—
Neither to enlarge our souls nor put the world out—
Who watches over, let us go somewhere now together.
These lines might be merely curmudgeonly were it not for the rhymes of the first three lines and the almost visionary quality of the last; as it is, they impart to the passage and the poem a distinctly nuanced tone, one of dissatisfaction bordering on despair that nonetheless finds room for a kind of cautious optimism.
Most of the poems in this collection are not so plainly political, choosing to make their point through half-glimpsed encounters between the human world we've made for ourselves and the animal world from which we've made it. This is especially true in the book's third section, "Dorothy Pretending to Be Water / Dorothy Pretending to Be Sky," phrases that later form the opening lines of the book's last poem. Here, in and around the northern California farmland where the author lives, the scale is smaller and the stakes seem lower, and one is never quite sure if Mead is crafting a vision of how things used to be, or how things could be again if the world started paying more attention to water and less to money.
Mead's turn toward the personal can yield occasionally mawkish poems, especially when she turns her pen to her beloved farm dogs. (There is no dog on earth, much less one living on a farm, whose head smells "of redwood boughs / and the bottom of his feet like brown sugar.") More interesting by far is "Dorothy and Jane in Tesuque," a reflection on what sounds like a fairly idyllic childhood with a startlingly unsettling finale: "Now, pour the honey down my throat— / thistle-ditch of darkness, dream-door / to the sun: ours, the pit and sink // to nowhere. And nowhere my blind body." This sounds like an awakening of sorts, perhaps from the easy romance of the pastoral, perhaps from childhood to adulthood—the poem never makes it entirely clear. What is clear is that even where there is light there are shadows, and that for Mead, shadows usually produce stronger poems than light. Despite its concern with the environment, the most fundamental and interesting preoccupation of Money Money Money Water Water Water may be with the kind of darkness that grows not from the outside but from within. As Mead herself acknowledges in the long poem "Cove," "I came out of the dark hills / and the dark hills own me." The declaration suffuses Mead's book with a subversive brand of moral authority: the less earnest her speaker, the more likely we are to believe what she has to say.
Peter Streckfus's crisp little book, his first since his debut collection The Cuckoo won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 2003, is a delightfully idiosyncratic jewel-box of verbal surprises and minor epiphanies. Its best attribute (a rare one, surely) is its apparent unconcern with slotting itself into this or that subgenre of the poetry business, and the resulting poems fairly reek of originality, even when they don't perfectly hold together. The sensation is that of reading a poet who does not care one way or the other whether his poems are read, or by whom—no doubt untrue, but an impressive magician's trick nonetheless. More importantly, the space that Streckfus creates through his unique voice gives him room to play around in a poem, to experiment within it, without worrying about meeting the conventional expectations that too often constrain narrative poetry.
"The Lake and the Skiff," for instance, begins plainly enough, with the speaker addressing a figure—probably his father, who figures heavily in the book—with a son's request for a story: "Tell me again about the lake of the poem. / The little skiff. / In which you were curled, like an infant in its bed. // The dark canopy of sky rattling above. / Standing at your bedside, we recounted our tale to you." By the end of these five lines, the roles have suddenly been reversed; the father is ill, and it is his children who are now telling stories to him, perhaps because he is no longer able to speak: "You looked out through your eyes at us and blinked to show you heard." A few lines later, the poem takes another sudden turn, delivering what appears to be either a line from the journals of William Burroughs or a passage from Jung's Red Book: "Lord Marpa the translator said, 'Sons, if you do phowa, do it like this,' then a sphere of five-colored light the size of an egg ascended into the sky from a crack at the crown of his head." The move is entirely unexpected and reveals itself, after a little research, as entirely appropriate: Lord Marpa, the medieval Tibetan Buddhist sage; phowa, the meditation practice associated with the moment of death; and the speaker's father, immobile and silent, preparing for the end of his own life as his children look on.
"The Lake and the Skiff" is not the only poem in this book that vibrates on a quasi-spiritual frequency, nor is it the only one that takes the poet's father as its subject. The long poem in the book's first section, "Erring," is an exploration, subversion, and celebration of what Streckfus's notes inform us is his father's unpublished novel, Two Golden Earrings (whose last word, minus a vowel, also provides the titles of the poem and the book itself). Streckfus goes so far as to reprint pages from his father's manuscript, heavily redacted, such that the result looks a little like something out of Tom Phillips's A Humument, with a few words and phrases emerging from a blizzard of edits. The poem itself borrows so much language from the longer work—a picaresque, overly descriptive seafaring novel about a boy captured by pirates—that it is difficult to tell whose voice is the father's and whose is the son's, an effect that Streckfus almost certainly intends and that he more or less announces in the final lines of his preceding poem, "Patrimony": "Two bodies, two signs, for one voice. // Plato argues such a voice, because it exists as two, unchanging, is a dead voice." The voice that speaks in "Erring," arguably the centerpiece of this collection, is far from dead, and conjures some potent imagery: "I held myself, firstborn vulture from heaven. // A few seconds later, I heard a voice in my ear. // I felt my language torn from my mouth, writhing on the deck like an eel out of water." Taken as a whole, however, the poem feels somewhat less than the sum of its parts, less immediate and intimate than its wandering lines, as if we were watching a powerful drama unfold through the wrong end of a telescope.
The effect may be intended, but it is also worth noting that the better poems in this collection use the same device—the fusion of Streckfus's new work with a work from the past—to draw us in instead of keeping us at a distance. The second section begins with four fascinating poems that, as Streckfus remarks in a footnote, "adapt language" from an epic (and didactic) commentary on poetic technique written in medieval Japan over the course of 130 years. The first, "New Rules of the Oan Era (1372)," begins, "If one has linked kogaru, 'to burn,' to the word 'incense,' then one should not introduce 'crimson leaves' in a subsequent third verse, but use a word such as 'boat.'" The second, "Suggestions for a New Day (1452)," builds on the first, repeating the rules set down in the former and adding its own commentary: "In modern times there are those who contend that one should not link the word omokage, "image," to a word such as "dream" and then follow with "blossom" or "the moon" in a third verse...." Without going to the source, it is impossible to know how much of this language is original and how much belongs to Streckfus—just as the redactions in "Erring" keep us from knowing where the manuscript of Streckfus senior ends and the words of his son begin. But it could not be any other way—it keeps the poems from becoming mere puzzles, and more importantly, it produces a voice that, in its best lines, seamlessly blends the contemporary with the ancient. This happens as well in two of the book's most self-assured poems, "A Bridge, the Pilgrims" and "A Bridge, Election," which form initial narratives only to find themselves transforming into verse. Ultimately, Errings is worth reading not because it is free of missteps—it is not—but because even the missteps are the products of risks intentionally taken—not mistakes but deviations, and not errings but experiments.
Matthew Ladd is a contributing editor and regular poetry reviewer for West Branch. His first collection of poems, The Book of Emblems (2010), won the Anthony Hecht Prize. He practices law in New York City.