Jane Brox on Trace: Memory, History, Race, and The American Landscape, by Lauret Savoy. Counterpoint Press, 240 pp., $25.00
Chet’la Sebree on Incorrect Merciful Impulses, by Camille Rankine. Copper Canyon Press, 80 pp., $16.
Shara Lessley on Disinformation, by Frances Leviston. Picador Poetry, 80 pp., $17.95.
During her early childhood in California, Lauret Savoy wandered freely—and unconscious of her mixed heritage—through the dry landscape of Southern California. The land did not judge her, or slam the door in her face, or turn away. But as her family traveled eastward in a move to her father’s home city of Washington, D.C., she began to sense the first intimations of prejudice. In a curio shop, she writes, “these people act as if she isn’t there ... When the girl reaches up with three quarters the woman avoids the small hand.”
The move from innocence to experience was also, inevitably, a move from wilderness to confinement. She couldn’t accustom herself to the strictures of the District’s urban landscape and aligned with that discomfort of place was her increasing awareness of histories silenced by conquest, which obscured the lives of her ancestors. The official silences she encountered were made all the more profound by her own family’s reticence about the past.
Silence abets the “official” story and a culture’s willful forgetting. In Trace, Savoy—a professor of environmental studies and geology—travels the nation in order to counter the silences, and to uncover a substantial past for her family, her ancestors, her country. In places as diverse as Madeline Island; Washington, D.C.; and the rigid border between Arizona and Mexico, she encounters place names obscured and appropriated, incomplete records, cemeteries fallen into decay. They are the wages of possession by others, and excavating them for meaning proves to be no simple thing: “It did seem easier to piece together the geologic history of almost any place on Earth than to recover my ancestors’ past,” she writes.
But perhaps the complexity of her exploration is the point: hers is a search, not for possession but inclusion—in history, in the land ethic, in culture—and Savoy, in a voice that is by turns analytical and meditative, recovers stories as she can, and teases out the implications of her findings as she navigates the permeable borders between the past and the present, the obscured and the known.
Incorrect Merciful Impulses, by Camille Rankine. Copper Canyon Press, 80 pp., $16.
Then it’s a heaviness
I borrow and am taught
In Camille Rankine’s debut collection, Incorrect Merciful Impulses, readers bear the weight of witness in poems that examine contemporary culture, identity, and reality. The collection develops with series of poems—comprised of still lifes, symptoms, and instructions for modern life—that seamlessly build into a crescendo of acceptance concerning our contemporary moment.
Formally diverse, the collection materializes through a variety of stanzaic structures, open-field poems that explore white space, and epistolary poems apostrophizing night and enemy. And, within these poems, the lines themselves oscillate between unpunctuated fragments and enjambed stream of consciousness sentences:
How does it end this way? One bite
invites another. Wounds scents the water
and the sharks come. I have been flesh
hungry and at sea. I have come down
kicking. The way sweet sinks
to the bottom. The last draw.
“Symptoms of Prey”
These poems lead readers through grief, longing, and existentialism as speakers contemplate the world around them. The tension of Incorrect Merciful Impulses is between the packaged, purported reality of contemporary life and the speakers’ perceptions.
In the opening poem, “Tender,” the speaker tells us, “None of this means what we thought it did.” And our reality is dismantled as catastrophes, the curse of “a long memory,” problematic romances, bombings, disease, fires, and death unfold in the poems. The uncertainty and loss the speakers are left with force them to come up with their own truths:
Despite the evidence
I’ve remained convinced: if the tree falls
as my voice falls, limp and unheard,
we are all done for.
“Papier-Mâché and Other Human Resources”
But even “the truth is incomplete” in Rankine’s collection (“The Problem of Death within Life”). The speakers walk the line of knowing and not knowing, understanding and not understanding—an effect created by the practiced restraint in these poems that allows readers to linger in lyric, leaving them with a sentiment as opposed to an explicit narrative:
there would be no other
apocalypse and here we are
“Failed Human Experiment”
And the sentiment readers walk away with is one of fatalism, in which, as stated in “Ex Machina,” “Every year is the year / the world ends.” Despite that sense of fatalism, there is a longing to still be in touch with this contemporary world where “the microwave will kill me, this plastic bottle, this air, / this meat, my debit card and its hidden fees” (“Little Children, My Apologies”):
Today, a near collision
with a stranger. How I tried to touch, be
known. To think a body moves me, moves
for me. To think it doesn’t. To think we are alone.
Today I feel an alien. If I could disappear.
Not a danger, not in danger. Belonging here. If I could
be the shape of your breath in the cold. What camouflage
have we. How we bury our living
within us. This precious ache I cradle, my treasure,
my dread. What barren, what beauty it makes of me.
But no matter how close the speakers try to get, they are never quite where they’re supposed to be or where they want to be in this collection. A half-life stands between them and their desires:
When there’s no one here, I halve
the distance between
our bodies infinitesimally.
“The Current Isolationism”
And, at the end of the collection, after we as readers traversed the gorgeous territory of these poems, we
have been destroyed
have been beginning
have been discovery, a new fruit
growing ripe within our skins.
Disinformation, by Frances Leviston. Picador Poetry, 80 pp., $17.95.
Concentration. Observation. Particularity. Recently shortlisted for the International Dylan Thomas prize, it’s with inquisitive description and robust similes penned in the spirit of Marianne Moore that British poet Frances Leviston’s sophomore collection enlivens seemingly mundane objects ranging from memory foam to an octagonal rug or paperweight. Contrary to its title, which suggests some form of artful deception, the poems in Disinformation strive toward exactness. In “Iresine” (also known as bloodleaf), for instance, Leviston likens the “shocking pink and plasticky-looking” plant to “something that would titivate an antechamber / or teach medics nerves, / its leaves contuse around their perimeters.” That the poet links the titular foliage to the bundle of axons facilitating human feeling and perception is no coincidence. Disinformation often questions our assumptions about what we think we know, as well as how such knowledge comes to light. The “brain-child challenged // too closely the brain,” claims Leviston in “Athenaeum,” a six-section poem that doesn’t hesitate to taunt the god of all gods, Zeus: “Let’s see what, if anything, you’ve managed / in the way of inner resources.”
At its heart, Disinformation explores of the disparity between fact and perception. “[O]ur knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown” concludes Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishouses”—a sentiment that could easily summarize Disinformation’s central tensions. Formally varied, Leviston’s work investigates not only contemporary moments (the title poem, for example, narrates preparations for a child’s birthday party as a radio program chronicling conflict in “occupied lands” plays in the background), but also the Acropolis and museums housing marvels of human history. In the book’s middle section, quatrains evoke Athena (born fully armed) and Minerva (goddess of wisdom) to suggest the continuity of birth and conflict, as well as their relationship with knowledge and misunderstanding. Yet, even as Leviston revisits classic stories, as well as both public and private histories, she resists inherited plots and moral pronouncements. Although “we communed with gods,” concedes a speaker in “The Golden Age,” such dialogue isn’t without consequence: “You would say yes,” the poem emphasizes, “In the golden age, / whatever was offered, you would say yes.” In Disinformation, nothing given is above interrogation. Even ennoblement of the animal world is called into question—“With muzzles made blue / by the blue saxifrage they cultivate a weakness for [...],” notes Leviston in “Caribou,” “[...] they show how thin our myths for them are.”
For all its intellect and acuteness, Disinformation isn’t without humor. “This gadget intrudes so nothing else can,” writes Leviston of an “IUD,” a device she later claims “plants a dull pea under the mattress.” In “Pyramid,” which links a multi-level marketing scheme to a half-built “hotel still missing / its penthouse, its punchline,” cranes
dangle claws on chains,
balanced by elevated breeze-blocks,
into the unfinished town,
fishing a pond
that hasn’t been stocked.
As in the above example, Leviston finds the curious bridge between the common and uncommon. Later in the collection, a honeybee becomes “a rampant lion,” an emblem “of form,” a medal “pinned to my thumb! / [...] instantly done.” The poet sees a “GPS” as a snow-globe, “Mantelpiece matryoshka,” and goes on to note “her pupa’s lacquered shine, / superglued to a painted knoll, brilliantly magnified // by an atmosphere of cerebrospinal fluid / under the smooth glass dome’s museum.” The couplets’ slant rhymes (“shine” married to “magnified,” “fluid” to “museum,” for example) surprise; their imagistic pairings delight. This intensity of sound and syntax (like Moore, Leviston adores compound modifiers and polysyllabic adjectives) is often deflated by more prosaic statements, many of which provide telling observations while resisting neat conclusions. By making a u-turn, for example, the speaker in “GPS” “triggers another storm” as the “compass boggles” the instrument. “Something big is about to make sense,” the final lines paradoxically reassure the speaker-driver, as well as Disinformation’s readers, “if we just keep going in the opposite direction.”