A Secret Informs the Pattern
|Dothead, by Amit Majmudar. Knopf, 120 pp., $26.95 (hardcover).
|Scriptorium, by Melissa Range. Beacon Press, 96 pp., $18.
| Black Anthem, Bruce Bond. University of Tampa Press, 92 pp., $14.
“What is it about order,” Amit Majmudar writes in the poem “Pattern and Snarl,” “that we love? This sense, / Maybe, that a secret informs the pattern?” Perhaps this inkling is the origin of the human impulse to make art within formal strictures. There is a tradition in poetics that views form as generative rather than merely structural, the formal constraints opening a space for the unforeseen. Richard Wilbur once said “if you put yourself in a position where you have to pay attention to all sorts of wild suggestions that come to you through the sound contract you have made, it can be liberating” (“The Art of Poetry, No. 22,” Paris Review), and A. E. Stallings notes that form “opens up all kinds of possibilities. Rhyme often leads you to write things that surprise you” (untitled interview, The Cortland Review). Wild, liberating, possibilities, surprise—probably not the first words most contemporary poets associate with rhyme and meter.
And yet this Apollonian approach has borne much fruit, and many poets who have worked in traditional form know experientially of what Wilbur and Stallings speak. If we tie the concept of structure or form to the sacred—to that “secret” that may “inform the pattern”—we might usefully think of the poem as a temple. As Denise Levertov has noted:
To contemplate comes from “templum, temple, a place, a space for observation, marked out by the augur.” It means, not simply to observe, to regard, but to do these things in the presence of a god. And to meditate is “to keep the mind in a state of contemplation”; its synonym is “to muse,” and to muse comes from a word meaning “to stand with open mouth”—not so comical if we think of “inspiration”—to breathe in. (“Some Notes on Organic Form”)
We tend to give formal structure short shrift these days. The opposite impulse, that of the bacchanalia—the utter freedom of automatic writing or drug-induced frenzy—might also open a poet to inspiration. We see a less extreme corollary to this approach in the predominance of free verse in contemporary American poetry. But perhaps working within a predetermined structure can also, paradoxically, open a poet to the voice of God, or the muse, or the duende—or at least the subconscious. After all, which religious tradition doesn’t have its ordered rituals, within which one might hope to meet God, speak with one’s ancestors, or apprehend oneness?
The poets under review are at least giving it a go, building orderly temples of words in the hope that a god will pay a visit.
The defining characteristics of Amit Majmudar’s poetry are incisive wit and inventive form. In the tradition of the Metaphysical poets, Majmudar’s best verse not only offers impressive linguistic ingenuity, but also profound engagement with the tension between our intellectual and carnal tendencies.
Majmudar’s exploration of form in his newest book, Dothead, comprehends prose poetry, free verse, erasures, and a shaped poem as well as rhyme, meter, and Eastern and Western recursive forms. His lyrical ability is on full display in many of these poems, often paired with incisive political commentary, as in “Ode to a Drone”:
riser, windhover over
Majmudar’s most effective poems employ his wide repertoire of techniques in the service of an important idea, be it personal, political, or theological. Too often, however, the poems in Dothead feel like mere linguistic exercises designed to see how far the poet’s wit can carry a poem, with little indication of a higher purpose (“Crocodile Porn,” “Save the Candor,” etc.). In “Abecedarian,” for instance, a long prose poem centered on the myth of Adam and Eve, the reader has to wade through an entire alphabet’s worth of sections designed for little more than graphic scenes and gratuitous sex puns. Majmudar figures the nishmat chayim, God’s breathing of life into Adam, as an “arousal” that amounts to “the first blow job.” He writes that “To get head is to have the lover’s thinking head sleeve your unthinking head.” The serpent in its ouroboros manifestation is called an “auto-da-fellatio.” The relationship of the Garden of Eden narrative to sex is an old story, and the eleven pages Majmudar devotes to it here are a major flaw in Dothead. Majmudar’s long prose poem “Azazil,” a retelling of Paradise Lost from a mystical Islamic perspective—which was serialized in The Kenyon Review and which I excerpted in my anthology, Poems of Devotion—has yet to appear in one of his books, and one could wish it appeared here in place of “Abecedarian.” If we think of a poet as courting a god, part of the poet’s (and editor’s) job is to recognize when a god has spoken, and when it has not.
Majmudar seems to have trouble with the long poems in this collection. “Logomachia”—which means a war of words or a dispute over words—contains compelling sections, including some quite lovely erasures of a scene from King Lear and some of Majmudar’s tightest wordplay:
Of all the metals, the ferrous to me seems
fairest. Aurum is more ardent, argent
rarer, but blood’s core ore, though everywhere ,
is precious air.
But there is little continuity between the sections, which include explorations of medical science, the aforementioned erasures, a series of “heretical” statements, wordplay on well-known philosophical and religious phrases, a fantasy on reverse evolution, and other oddities. It’s hard to follow a thread through the sections, and, mystifyingly, the section lettering follows a sonnet’s rhyme scheme (a, b, b, a, etc.). The sections ascribed the same letter do, in a sense, “rhyme” with one another, in that they cover similar subject matter or employ similar stylistic techniques, but the poem as a whole certainly doesn’t demonstrate the cohesion of a sonnet.
The best poems in Dothead focus their skill on matters of deep personal, political, or philosophical interest. “The Illuminator” is a moving elegy for the speaker's grandfather, a Qur’an illuminator. In Islamic tradition, the illumination of scripture is not allowed to contain any images of real objects:
All his life, his brush was forbidden cedar forests, clear-eyed falcons, horses, men . . .
[. . . ]
An alif must not be reborn as a leaf, nor a laam as a lamb, nor a baa as a sheep.
His grandfather develops cataracts and goes blind, having now to “[see] by feel his grandson, his living image”—surely a difficult fate for an artist. The poem ends with a touching revery:
Cataracts are waterfalls: When my father closed his father’s eyes,
Thousands of unpenned images, unpent at last,
Thrashed upstream to the breeding waters of his dreams.
Another elegy, for a poet friend of Majmudar’s, whose “last tercet [was] reworked like a last will,” is a moving ars poetica:
We write, we die, and what we’ve written dies,he said, but damn it those were blessed daysdeciding if a given rhyme would do.(“Steep Ascension”)
Majmudar’s own rhymes do their best work when they seem infused with high purpose or deep feeling, and so transcend mere wordplay.
Melissa Range’s first poetry collection, Horse and Rider (Texas Tech University Press, 2010), is a tough act to follow. Lushly lyrical, Range’s first book sings in the same vatic voice whether riffing on biblical language or exploring her rural upbringing:
Mountain reaper, with your weepy roots
seeping red, you’re an altar clotting the dirt
of Tennessee, ground like a Bible to me,
full of blood and wood and divinity,
peopled with exiles, saviors, horses . . . .(“Bloodroot”)
Horse and Rider is one of the finest first poetry collections in recent years. So expectations for Range’s second collection are necessarily high.
While Range’s formal abilities are amply displayed in many poems in Scriptorium, selected for the National Poetry Series by Tracy K. Smith, the collection lacks the thematic and tonal coherence demonstrated in Horse and Rider. Two sequences of poems are interspersed—I won’t say interlaced or intertwined, because they too often seem merely juxtaposed—throughout the collection: one is a lovely series (including sonnets titled for pigments) centered around theology and the illumination of medieval sacred texts, and the other a series about Range’s rural Tennessee family history and upbringing. The poems about manuscript illumination romp and sing:
Black as a charred plum-stone, as a plume
rom a bone-fire, as a flume of ravens
startled from a battle-tree—this lantern resin
the monk culls from soot to quill the doom
and glory of the Lord won’t fade.(“Lampback”)
Range’s poems about her rural upbringing sometimes rise to a similar level of lyricism, in a register meant to incorporate her childhood dialect:
Yanking my lank hair into dog-ears,
my granny frowned at my cowlick’s
revolt against the comb, my part
looking like a dog’s shank
no matter what she did, crooked
as the dogtrot path
out the mountain county I left
with no ambitions to return . . . .(“Crooked as a Dog’s Hind Leg”)
But often the poems in this sequence fall flat, and occasionally go embarrassingly out of tune:
I don’t hate how I talk, where I’m from, but they all do
their best to make me. It’s their last yahoo in a
yahooing world of smear, slur, and mar.(“Regionalism”)
It’s hard to imagine how the poet, or her editors, were happy with the phrase “last yahoo / in a yahooing world.”
Besides the lyrical discrepancy between the two sequences, it’s also difficult to parse their thematic relation to one another. Some of the poems in the collection consider the importance of vernacular and dialect, and clearly this has something to do with the history of scripture and its translation, but none of the poems about manuscript illumination seem to delve into the idea of vernacular. And those poems are so much about a life of devotion, both religious and artistic, the reader is left looking for a parallel in the autobiographical poems. Very little work or artwork, much less devotion, is in evidence there.
While many of the poems in Scriptorium demonstrate the lyrical and formal gifts Range so amply displayed in Horse and Rider, the two sequences of poems in this book are shuffled together like two decks of cards from very different games. Scriptorium is two halves of interesting and accomplished books. A little more patience might have allowed Range to complete both.
Bruce Bond’s Black Anthem is a collection of sonnets—150 of them. Such a sustained engagement with the sonnet form is impressive. Bond is one of our most prolific poets, with 14 poetry collections to his name as well as a substantial critical work, Immanent Distance: Poetry and the Metaphysics of the Near at Hand—and I don’t think there’s an established literary journal in the country that hasn’t published his work at least once.
Lest one wonder if Bond is merely churning out easy work, witness these carefully crafted sonnets. The sonnet form is a good host for Bond’s predilection for stately phrasing and complex ideas, as it was for Donne’s. The best of these sonnets are surprising and fresh, although the collection as a whole would be stronger had Bond pared it down to a hundred poems. There is some dead weight in the collection that feels either thematically redundant or simply less interesting than the stronger poems.
Bond’s take on the sonnet form is a loose framework that allows for various rhyme schemes and an accentual line that tends more toward tetrameter than pentameter. Every once in a while, the sonnet form is stretched almost to breaking, as in “Corpus Callosum,” where the initial rhyme is only completed in the tenth line.
The book opens with one of the collection’s strongest poems, which illustrates well Bond’s strengths and perennial themes (God, the body, memory, music):
The arguments for the existence of God
do not exist. Any god will tell you.
We give allegiance to the same blood
that floods the iris when it closes. True,
a bird might call you in the lost tongue
of your birth, pour its grief clean through
the hole that is its memory, its song.
It knows the heart that has no heart to argue.
It sings, if it sings, in the cardinal key
of the garden. Or in the dark whisper
of the soldier who lies still, his body
warm with morphine as you kneel to hear
him breathe, to take down his final story.
Dear God, if you are there, believe in me.
This poem channels through Whitman nostalgia for a lost Eden and a desire to believe in a spiritual reality in the midst of a world both beautiful—that haunting birdsong— and terrible—the pain and deaths of soldiers Whitman tended as a Civil War nurse. Expanding on the theological concept alluded to in the opening lines, the poem ends with a tender, Rilkean inversion of the usual religious formula: maybe it’s not our belief that matters after all, but God’s. Bond is fond of such inversions: “The watchmaker leans over the eye of the gear,” he writes in another sonnet, figuring God as the Deist’s proverbial watchmaker; “Even gods look downward when they pray” (“Small Hands of the Lesser Gods”).
In this collection and elsewhere, Bond frequently explores the existential strangeness of human consciousness inhabiting the body. Rilke’s influence is again evident in many of these passages, such as in “Monster,” where Bond writes of “the gaze that flits like a bird in a cage,” and in “The Middle Way,” where he figures the heart as a “strange beast [. . .] thrashing in its closet.” Perhaps the most beautiful instance of Bond’s investigations of the uncanniness of the body–consciousness relationship occurs in “Corpus Callosum,” where he examines the two hemispheres of the brain:
. . . the brain on its stem
drawn up as two that turn to one another
While I admire Bond’s engagement with metaphysical and philosophical inquiry, at times it can prove a weakness, when abstract language follows a logic that is doubtless clear to the poet, but which becomes overly difficult for the reader to follow:
And the piano asks, why, and she answers
with music she can not hear. It makes her
more distant, true, but like the music, more
imagined, and therefore near. Overheard
before we know it, name it: this lost thing
we shadow, this silence at the heart of song.(“The Theater Piano”)
But the best of Bond’s sonnets sing a haunting music, like birdsong echoing out of Eden, or perhaps the voice of a God who does, indeed, believe in us. And like the monk in “Book of Kells,” we might long “to worship Him, but so too the forms / of worship, this name inked in red, this wafer, / this sacrament of words embalmed in fire”—or these poems.
Luke Hankins is the author of a collection of poems, Weak Devotions, and the editor of Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets (both from Wipf & Stock). His latest book is The Work of Creation: Selected Prose (Wipf & Stock, 2016). He is the founder and editor of Orison Books, a non-profit literary press focused on the life of the spirit from a broad and inclusive range of perspectives.