G. C. Waldrep on Give Forest Its Next Portent, by Peter Larkin. Shearsman, 194 pp., $20
Dan Beachy-Quick on Transfer of Qualities, by Martha Ronk. Omnidawn, 88 pp., $17.95.
Sarah Kennedy on The Messenger, by Stephanie Pippin. University of Iowa Press, 70 pp., $18
Justin Boening on This Coalition of Bones, by Cori Winrock. Kore Press, 82 pp., $15.95.
Give Forest Its Next Portent, by Peter Larkin. Shearsman, 194 pp., $20.
Peter Larkin's new collection, following (for him) hard on 2012's Lessways Least Scarce Among, at first seems like a continuation of that earlier volume: these are poems less about trees than from the point of view of trees, or more precisely a human point of view distilled through a projective tree-ness into human language. It's intelligible on the level of the word (allowing for Larkin's nonce diction and archaisms), but on the sentence and paragraph level it ascends quickly into something that, like a tree, the human may only walk around, view, dissect, or disfigure: recoverable at the necrostic root but hermetic in its ramifications. The first five of these seven sequences, dated 2010-13, enact webs of unfiltering text: the reader's eye glazes, as in a natural landscape, searching for focus, particularity—but everything here is particularity. The grammar occults. "What is gathered here is disprocession," Larkin allows, deferring to "this mysterious bundle of unenforced coalescence," this tree, this alien, non-human life.
Larkin remains attentive to economies not of diminution, but of scarcity, as he whittled and defined that term in previous collections: scarceness is present on nearly every page, sometimes verbatim, often in cognate forms (sparseness, leanness, lack, rarity, unplenty). In "exposure (A Tree) presents," from 2011, he enacts a dialectic between scarcity and exposure, working literally and figuratively from the undermined root of a beech tree he observed over the course of several months—but one swiftly loses sight (again, literally as well as figuratively) of any actual beech, any actual root. The landscape recedes into abstract, all but mathematical textures. This abstracting effect is intensified by Larkin's almost monomaniacal insistence on eliding botanical and biological difference. One misses the exquisite specificities of Larkin's masterwork, Terrain Seed Scarcity (2001), in which the abstract tree-ness of both tree and forest pervaded in delicate counterpoint with specific species, locations, and literary precedents.
What a pleasure, then, to encounter the seventh and most recent piece in this collection, "praying // firs \\ attenuate," which is like nothing Larkin has published hitherto. It is perhaps the most human of his published cycles, if no less precise (or even severe) in its attentions. Positing prayer and industrial plantations of fir trees as tangent regimens, it deftly crisscrosses the seam of human and non-human endeavor, as if binding a wound. In form as well as lyrical idiom, this is new ground for Larkin—or at least in terms of the work he has allowed to reach publication. It is a quietly spectacular poem that builds on earlier cycles while transcending their focal concerns, in which "the scarce which seems / to have expected us" is acknowledged in ways that simultaneously evoke both Wordsworth and Celan.
As in previous collections, I keep returning to glistening shards of language plucked from the ecosystem of the text: "the co-enigma of gift," for instance (alongside "giftlessness," Larkin's coin for one of scarcity's many guises), as well as "the counter-abandonment," perhaps the most haunting phrase I have yet read for our ecological predicament. "The earth is also a privatory language," Larkin concludes, perhaps in gentle rebuke of those who have criticized the difficulty of his work—"not yet debarring the rareness of its concurrence."
—G. C. Waldrep
Transfer of Qualities, by Martha Ronk. Omnidawn, 88 pp., $17.95.
The word "intimacy" evokes a sense of the human, of the interpersonal, of that depth of vulnerable connection that makes a conduit between the privacy of one's own life and the life of another. Martha Ronk, in her necessary and luminous new book, Transfer of Qualities, explores more unexpected qualities of what an intimate life might mean—not simply our connections to others, nor, more solipsistically, one's relationship to oneself, but that far more ubiquitous relationship, so common as most often to go unnoticed: our intimate life with objects.
Ronk writes in essays (some quite short), relying on the form's ability to take measure of that which it weighs. So is the value of what is essayed found. Turning from the line as a primary unit, and the formal rigor of a poem in verse, Ronk gently hints that the sentence shares a more human quality, varying and adjusting and improvising as need may be, adhering to a grammar that ends, as life itself must, when the object is reached and the period closes the vision.
How often we lose not ourselves but the objects by which we define ourselves, things we imbue unconsciously with an identity more ours than their own. The formal quality of the object tells less than half the story. To describe an object fully—be it a cup, a bowl, a seashell, a photograph—bears the risk of including qualities far less than objective. Emotion not only gathers around things and our associations with them, but feeling, memory, hope and loss imbue themselves into the very substance of those things we call "ours." We lend them a portion of mind and in return they lend us a sense not of being in another order, but an awareness of our own thingness. As Ronk writes:
What I found was a flat piece of metal, corroded, pocked, and shaped quite like a cloud. I hung it over the sink in lieu of a window and looked at it. We wonder what, if anything, objects want, if our rearranging satisfies some hidden need not only of ours but of theirs ... So perhaps it is this—this time of seeing eternity that objects want and have no way of requesting, just as we have no way of guaranteeing either of them for ourselves.
Ronk knows that objects persist through time just as we must. She also knows that objects move through that span in ways that make our own vivid flicker feel all the more fleeting. From the discarded rag to the clothes filling a closet, from the water cup to the bowl an artist crafts, objects give those who live among them a mirror all the more accurate for not presenting us with our own reflection. Such objects show us that our desire for eternity cannot be fulfilled; the most one can do is rearrange the shelf, the furniture, the shape within which a life takes place.
Intimate wisdom of this kind permeates Ronk's collection. In the final, moving piece "Posada," Ronk writes about studying Kung Fu after learning her mother is dying. Kung Fu becomes the art that understands the fluidity of how an object can be used in time and space, and forces an awareness of her own body as an object, too. The body, too, is breakable, is a form; intimacy with objects introduces us to our own fragility. Ronk stops practicing Kung Fu because her body makes it known that she must stop: "The class had allowed me to imagine I could stop time and fend off fear; now it allowed me to understand, with effort and after many years, that I could not. It was time to stop and so I did." So the book ends, an object warmed by the hands that held it, a gesture as intimate as any embrace.
The Messenger, by Stephanie Pippin. University of Iowa Press, 70 pp., $18.
Stephanie Pippin's first collection, The Messenger, focuses on animals, particularly birds, and creates a mythic world that is grounded firmly in current times. These are tidy poems on the page, relatively short-lined and either single-stanza lyrics or longer lyric-narratives broken into neat couplets or tercets or quatrains. Pippin largely avoids gymnastics of diction or syntax, preferring the resonant image or haunting dialogue.
The book, in fact, is full of the dead and dying, beginning with the frescoes of Pompeii in "Afterimage." The speaker imagines the destruction and the terror of the people who died in the eruption of Vesuvius, but she ends on an image that will become central for the book: birds. Yes, the loss of human life is tragic, but what she cannot forget are:
these swans painted on plaster,
this sky of promiscuous wings,
when I still see them
deckle edged and rolling with smoke.
Swans are beautiful and memorable, of course, but most of the birds in Pippin's poems are predators, and the way they embody beauty and horror simultaneously reveals much about human life. In "King Vulture," the speaker, preparing food for the bird, feels "sorry for these small / creatures that come to me dead; // even as I clean them I turn their heads / away." However, she can't turn her face from the fact that she is also meat—and that she and the vulture are two of a kind:
This is love. He sees straight
to my heart and is still. We play dead.
All that is still is dead.
Fleeing owls that hunt them, mother mice abandon their nests ("Dwelling"); a dead dove becomes "the empty / husk of a message" about how death stops meaning altogether ("The Dove"); the corpse of a deer, covered with flies, seems to call to the speaker to "hear the sound / that was her breathing" ("The Kill"). It all begins to seem rather morbid—and on the most literal level, it is. But, for Pippin, death in the natural world is a force that drives the human speaker to consider the fragility and hence the importance of life. The "Stork," a creature that is live, and lively, "even clipped," shows "black / and then white" feathers and in its movement reveals the holy that inhabits even this ungainly bird: "his feathers / are holy things" and his head movement becomes an "annunciatory gesture / pale as the angel's sleight of hand."
The poem "Hatch" may sum up this book nicely: "It is hard to give birth / to yourself." And yet, this is what humans, in their animal bodies, must do continually, in action and in speech. We know what the birds and their prey only sense, that "The earth is frightening: immense and very old" ("Shiloh").
The many poems that feature a speaker with a pet, captive, or trained bird seem at last to forge unbreakable links between the killer instincts of owner and owned. Vultures, ravens, owls, and falcons kill because they must do so to survive and they do so without the compassion that humans often invest in small animals, at least the ones we ourselves do not choose to eat. The birds become the cleanest emblem of our own killer instincts. If only we could achieve such holiness, the poems suggest, we would be as pure as birds of prey.
Even the call of common finches is "a hallelujah chorus," and the speaker asks "Where would we go // when we die?" ("What I Wanted") without the example of the birds. A single feather makes the speaker feel that she has "cease[d] / being human" ("Pinion") as the meaning of her existence melds with the meaning of bird—singing, eating, flying.
The Messenger is not a long book, but this is perhaps fitting for a collection that meditates on the transient and the mortal. It is not, in the end, morose or morbid at all. In fact, "Elegy," near the end, though it is a lament for the dead, centers on the memory of grace that sustains the living and creates the possibility for its return, as though in return flight:
I see, I try to fit her
stem of new
grass in winter,
I name you green
. . .
of longing, the arc
of branches, new
buds like spines that catch
the wind and make
. . .
. . . I want
to walk backward into spring—
last year's turtle, the eld
coming close to the road.
At the lake I turn
and see a ghost. She is me
seen-through, like the jar
I raise; my hand—
she scatters, lifted
like ash by a breeze.
This Coalition of Bones, by Cori Winrock. Kore Press, 82 pp., $15.95.
Fractured, extravagant, and worried sick, This Coalition of Bones announces Winrock as part of a coterie of poets that proves art needn't be useful to be purposeful. Instead, artificiality and sublime lavishness serve as their own raison d'etre, their own means of transcendence. Their gaudy form implies a premeditation that stands starkly in opposition to the conventional "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" that has dominated so much of English poetry since the early nineteenth century.
The poems—forty of them, formally varied though often rendered in long-limbed couplets—echo the wry compression of Dickinson, the morbid histrionics of Plath ("To craft a mask like this means to stop / :: breathing long enough to make the self // beautiful somehow bloodless"), and the percussive rhythms of Hopkins ("we douse the ghost— / bark black; blow out their limn before dinner"). They pile assonance and alliteration upon kennings, irregular rhymes, and syntax. They often figure their own intricacies within other fastidiously made objects, such as medical machinery; the body itself, as hardened by scientific detail; and musical instruments
inside the piano of your wiring:
string pull, vibrate &
stretch through the muted organ
of your oh, your yes, your baby, grand
Perhaps Winrock's signature subversion, however, is her use of nouns as verbs, which feel at once strange and wildly precise—"If it's romantic to architect a thing // back into its bones—: imagine us in ruins / from the start." Unlike many other opulent poets of her generation, who often value fluidity of movement as much as they worship excess, Winrock makes poems that fracture to live—colons break up sentences ("Check : unconsciousness : for the romance"), backslashes crack open words ("In/Ferno Black/Out"), and words are cleaved along enjambed lines ("a blinked eye- / lash", "across bridges and sound- / board", "a charm of humming- / birds"). In these poems even the ornaments are adorned, like lifting an earring only to pull up a chain of earrings. It's a style lush and vital as it is impractical.
Such layered play elevates language above its usual end uses, away from anything that resembles simplicity or frankness or even reality—embodying, instead, the orientation of Stevens: "Experience, at least in the case of a poet of any scope, is much broader than reality."