New Tales of the Tribe: Five Poetic Sequences 

 

Mille et un sentiments, by Denise Duhamel. Firewheel, 72 pp., $12.

fall, by Amy Newman.Wesleyan, 84 pp., $19.95, cloth.

A Magic Book, by Sasha Steensen. Fence, 80 pp., $12.

Motherhouse, by Kathleen Jesme. Pleiades, 104 pp., $18.95.

Sixty-Cent Coffee and a Quarter to Dance, by Judy Jordan. LSU Press, 80 pp., $17.95.

I

The long poem in America has been a sometime thing, but lately poets in this country have been writing book-length sequences.These are often made up of shorter lyrics or narratives that are bound together by a common subject or concern, and the poems have usually been widely published as individual pieces. Less often, such sequences are at their best together and make up long poems that are not traditional long narratives but variations or combinations of long lyric, linguistic exploration, satire, and cultural commentary.

Mille et un sentiments by Denise Duhamel (Firewheel Editions 2005) is a list poem—a book-length list poem.At seventy-two pages, it's not long, to be sure (the special-edition book is thin and narrow, a pleasure to hold), but the numbered, mostly single-sentence entries, each beginning "I feel," build enough meaning—sometimes paradoxical or self-contradictory—to give them satiric heft.What is being satirized? Gender identity,American culture, contemporary politics—not to mention the self-involvement inherent in the poetic task of the book itself.

Sentence is piled upon sentence—from the mundane to the meditative, from the narcissistic to the nihilistic—to construct this fast-moving poem. Duhamel begins, "1. I feel as though something is terribly wrong," and in fact quite a lot is wrong. Ignorance: "8. I feel ashamed that I don't know the capitals of certain states." Cultural embarrassment: "571. I feel like an ugly American, even in Seattle." Uncontrolled anger: "9. I feel like banging a hammer into her solar plexus when she whines."The self-imposed need to fix a stable sexual identity:"918. I feel heterosexual, to a fault. / 919. I feel that I've known I was a lesbian since I was two and a half." (Or: "356. I feel like a dirty old man. / 367. I feel like a dirty old woman.")

This speaker often feels unapologetically "just the opposite" (917) of whatever has just been stated. She actually feels "open" to everything from "writing in general" (401), including (but not, of course. restricted to) "free writing, sestinas, and haiku," "nonsense and . . . sense," "lists and inversions," "revision and revisionist mythmaking," "bribing the Muse," "melodrama and understatement," and "anecdotal poems about childhood." In the middle of this rumination on writing, she mentions that she feels open "to the fact that maybe there are already enough poems in the world" (446). But it's a momentary pause in the middle of a miniature meta-poetic trope: "436. I feel open to synecdoche, synesthesia, and sin. / 437. I feel open to miracles and the mariachi. / 438. I feel open to machismo, Mary Poppins, Milk Duds, and murder. / 439. In other words, I feel open to alliteration. / 440. I feel open to assonance as well. / 441. I feel open to acting like an absolute ass."

And so on. It's fey, it's funny. It's entertaining. But this sub-list is also a thoughtful play on how language morphs on the tongue or under the typing fingers. Much of Mille et un sentiments is constructed of such lists-within-the-list. Some seem quirky (see 716: "I feel like the Queen of Quirkiness"), such as the long sub-list of items about dirt that begins, "301. I feel like I've hit pay dirt," then quickly becomes involved in "dirt-eating"—"also known as pica or geophagy" (302). Dirt becomes an emblem or metaphor for bad relationships ("336. . . . you should scrape the dirty dishes before you put them into the dishwasher"), the commodification of culture ("338. I feel like a culture vulture who gets her culture dirt-cheap"), cultural appropriation ("368. I feel, maybe because I'm a white girl with enough food, that I'm a voyeur into the dirt-eating world"), and eating disorders ("I feel fascinated, though, by this dirt-eating concept . . . . / I feel that food has really fucked me up.").

Other sub-lists contain lists of characters from popular TV shows, mostly from the seventies, lists of alliterative words, from A to Z and back to A. Some items are antithetical pairs; some are short spins on a word or syllable ("I feel like the 'Or in Orlando, FL. / . . . like the 'Or' in Virginia Woolf 's Orlando. / . . . like the orgasm implicit in Orlando. / .../ ...like an Oreo").But how serious is this long poem?Well,that is probably the wrong question to ask of a book whose mode seems to be the achievement of meaning(s) by accrual. Nothing gets too much space, because everything deserves mention.What is privileged momentarily is shoved aside for the demands of something else. As satire of self, of society, and of semiotics, it works. We're not lost in the funhouse anymore; we live there.

II

Amy Newman's fall (Wesleyan 2004) is a different sort of list; it explores the notion of the word "fall" in its many permutations. In three parts, titled "—intr. intransitive," "—tr. transitive," and "—n. noun," with appendices, the book has a dictionary-like structure. Each poem can stand alone, and many of the poems have been published individually, but the sequence works best as a book-length series. A page-long definition from The American Heritage Dictionary opens the collection, and titles are taken in sequential pieces from this "real" definition.

The poems themselves are neat on the page, for the most part, left-justified and broken into symmetrical stanzas, with an occasional prose poem or list poem. Surprisingly, narrative governs many of them, beginning with the prelude poem "To move under the influence of gravity; / especially, to drop without restraint." This is not, however, chronologically-driven, plot-heavy narrative, but sequenced metaphor: "A body falls like a story: / beginning, middle, end," and the physical earth creates "the hard truth, the helpful ending." Of course, it's a short step from a story of a fall to the story of the Fall; the next poem begins "In the beginning" and launches a retelling, over the book's first section, of the biblical creation and original sin issuing from "the fallible human material."Adam's ability to imagine names for the animals and plants, to "tumble downward" and discover "the serious, rich blur of the coherent world," leads him to the word that hinges this poem to the next: woman. Newman's Eve is very Miltonic, defined primarily by her hair,"all that crazy, crazy, errant hair," a proleptic sign of the encounter with Satan. They are both twisted, literally—Eve's hair falls "in ringlets," and Satan "flexes and wreathes."

Part II intersects the story of Genesis with the beginning of a marriage and a mother's death from cancer. Like the other books under consideration here, Newman's collection is marked with a paradoxical tendency to deny the possibility of the very language of which the poems are made. "transitive" begins with such a gesture: the speaker opens with "In a series of poems I'm unable to write, a bride displays her interior," then goes on to tell, in a fragmented, lyrical group of poems, that very story. In "—fall back," the speaker reveals that she cannot know the details ("It was years before I would be born") and most of it may be made up. But the very creation through the act of imagining is linked unmistakably to the Creation of Part I.At her birth, in "—fall among," the speaker hears "the end of the garden" and feels "the sadness of the exile" as she is forced from the paradise of unity with the mother. Separation is made more excruciating as the mother falls ill and dies, a narrative impossible to reverse.

Is original sin to blame? Perhaps as much as anything.At any rate, it is one of the few literary places to point to, one of the central stories of death's etiology."I want /" says the grieving daughter,"all the families shattered by the Eve // to reknit. The myth of it." In this world of broken beliefs, though, the speaker senses the futility of language. She says, "These are errant, useless, impossible words." The mother is still dead; "life accumulates losses." In the context of such despair, deep in the heart of the book, the natural world is given a power of language that eludes the speaker."The grasses and the tree" are "articulate";"the yard" becomes "a manuscript of tropes"; the entire landscape is part of the "brilliant, cursive world"; the seasons are "reckless cliché[s]." Where are people in all this? Remote, removed, isolated from each other and from material reality.Words themselves mourn, missing "the body's / bruised human embrace."

The final section of fall, "noun," recovers connection through nomination—the act of Adam. We are told, "The tongue is an eye: / language is an eye."And in this final section, the two stories of this book intertwine through various metaphors for God and the acceptance that "love's wet seeds" are not always part of an unchanging Edenic world;they"begin a flaw."The apple recalls Eve turning to regard it and reaching to pluck.The result?—"I broke free." Finally, the "unmoored world" becomes a site of freedom toward which we must move. The "body and the God" are both necessary, both essential elements of the Word;now,an afternoon is"brilliant,""syntactic underneath the leaves." And yet the deconstructive thread remains, a shadow across the light when the speaker concludes that "it slayed me. I wish I could tell you."

By the end of fall, the dictionary conceit that ties the sequence together is almost superfluous to the book's trajectory.The poems are at their best when one follows another swiftly, allowing for multiple signification.The only flaw in the book's construction is the interruption of this accumulation of meaning with the occasional page startlingly different in its form. Such instances, however, mostly appear in the early pages and give way, as the book accumulates, to the rush of linguistic dexterity that characterizes Newman's writing.

III

A different sort of multiplicity governs Sasha Steensen's A Magic Book (Fence Books 2004). Printed in three large sections, "In Visibility," "Disaster of Doing," and "Spellings," the book displays the typography, now ironically conventional, that most readers recognize as "experimental": scattered words, syllables, and letters; chunks of text in the middle of large white spaces; disjointed or broken syntax. Individual pages sometimes sport subtitles (often in the middle), and sometimes lines, words, and parts of words are carried onto subsequent pages.What weights the book—and what gives it the feel of a book-poem—is its exploration of the history of magic, particularly as a traveling-show phenomenon in nineteenth-century America.The "Davenport brothers, boys from Buffalo" ground the narrative that winds its way through short lyrics, seventeen (or eighteen, depending on how one counts) "errands," quotations from newspaper accounts, prose summaries, and footnotes.

It's a story of commodification, in part: how the art of magic became the business of entertainment and went on the road. Some of the best sections of the book are the historical prose pieces that trace this uneasy transformation:

SomeAmericans claimed not to like the conjurers or the establishments in which they conjured. John Woolman,the great Quaker, insisted that the art of magic was of no use to the world.Where the devil dances on stilts to the tune of a hand organ.But even George Washington was a conjuring fan.The art of now-you-see-it-now-you-don't became firmly established as part of American life.

The difficulty of fixing historical events, however, is also part of the book's larger project and points to Steensen's training as a historian. Cause and effect,sequence of events,and the authority to make narrative all come into question, perhaps most dramatically in "A Misfortune."An "imperfect baby" is "hatched" in 1972—or is it 1964?—after a seven—month-or is it a fourteen-year?—pregnancy. The "monstrosities" include three mouths,"each with its own tongue," though the child has no head. (It does have a face.) The belly is "where its back ought to be, / and its legs where its arms ought to be."The burial takes place in 1962, the death in 1964.The sentence following this poem, which sits by itself in the middle of the facing page, reads "The thirtieth booke speaketh of Magicke, and certaine medicines appropriat to the parts and members of man's bodie."The conversation between these two parts suggests that the desire to stabilize meaning in text is unavoidably freighted with assumption, sensationalism, and bias.

This project is also, sadly, one of the book's weaknesses. Lexical and semiotic instability has been around as a philosophical concern for a long time now, and Steensen has little new material to offer in this arena. Her subject is an inherently interesting one, and the way parts of the book spin into related areas, decentering the book, questioning the very notion of centrality, is revealing and, well, amusing.Various hucksters peddle their magical wares in theses pages and they put on a good show:

Professor HARRINGTON, whose name is as familiar as "Household Words," has steadily entertained the people of New England for over a QUARTER OF A CENTURY with his WonderfulVentriloquial Powers and Magical Metamorphoses.

His letter of warning:

disappear

to where

you have shown

their language

is never-resting

...

A River.

A Bridge.

A little River.

A little Rivulet.

A Spring.

Is there a Spring?

Is there a River?

Is there a Bridge?

Too often, however, the self-consciously deconstructive rhetoric and syntax is transparent. It becomes, in fact, a bit mechanical, a bit gimmicky, and, perhaps worst of all, predictable. When one pun carries an entire short page of poetry, it had better be a good one, and "rect- / -angles" becoming (several beats of white space intervening) "wrecked tangles" is sophomoric within a book so invested in history. The words-spread-all-over-the-space page twenty-five, which may be titled "Seeming Impossibilities," though it's difficult to be certain, is just tiresome and self-important.The individual words are not particularly interesting (despite the uber-poetic "fruit," "seeds," "sanction," and "orphan") and, together, they don't do intellectually satisfying work. This is an experiment that plays mostly with the tab key on the pc. It's important to keep in mind, however, that A Magic Book is early work by a young poet who is surely casting about for her aesthetic and form; Steensen seems not to have quite gotten complete control of her subject, but her interests are wide-ranging and much of this first book is ambitious and intelligent.

IV

Like Sasha Steensen,Kathleen Jesme is deeply committed to explorations of historical figures and events. Her second book, Motherhouse (Pleiades Press 2005), spins through prose entries, quotations, lists, and prayer. Divided into eight interrelated parts, with an introductory poem, Motherhouse may best be called a meditation—on materialism, on God, on the possibilities of a community of belief.

A list of various instances of "The hour" opens Jesme's book, and the repeated phrase running down the left margin of the page even looks incantatory. Anaphora governs most of this poem, from "The hour of my brother's birth" to "The hour into which was poured—." Only a few lines depart significantly from this pattern,"The reeled-up hour," "The convex hour," and "The stone hour," which signals the repeated three-line clause "The hour I was silenced" near the end.As an introduction to a long poem (-sequence) the parts of which are often spare, often determined as much by the silence of white space as by the noise of text, this abundant poem is rightly set off from the rest of the poem(s). It is also rightly full of the things of this world that the rest of the book both forfeits and memorializes.

This spiritual memoir-in-verse is built on breathy sections of first- person meditation juxtaposed with diary entries and passages from religious autobiography, books of institutional order, and descriptive narration. Each part, tracing the speaker's journey away from secular life into a secluded sacred community of women, builds on small sound devices and rhetorical principles: list, repetition, antithesis, alliteration, conceit:

I had exchanged the qualities of land

the lake and trees for this flat prairie

that seemed—

 

nothing to catch the sound of the wind

every sunset visible

 

had exchanged the qualities of family:

my parents who made

these women who remake me

had exchanged desire for deprivation

didn't count the loss

or the love

Such a poetic journey seems fraught with the twin dangers of incomprehensibility and cliché, but Motherhouse elegantly avoids both by returning to the body, to the past, to the world again and again, even as that grounding is itself revealed as a perilous and difficult task."9/26 Tuesday. Feast of Sts Cyprian & Justina,Virgin Martyrs" begins "Slipping out is easy—it's coming back / into the body that requires the effort . . . ," but quotidian, concrete vehicles continue to point to the divine tenor of this book's metaphors. The meditative body becomes "like a bat" that can "split what's left of light."

The images that thread their way through these poems illuminate the book with vision, a love of creation that cannot quite divorce the body from the soul. For a writer, the tools—the physical, material means of construction—that record her experience of the divine are precious, but the desire to record it may be a sign of her failure—"The fountain pen: if Mother knew / how much it is loved / she would ask for / its sacrifice." Ownership, in the convent, is always suspect, as one passage from "The Holy Rule" reminds all the "sisters," who "when speaking of things for their use, shall not employ terms indicating personal ownership.Thus, they shall say our habit, our veil, our book."

As ownership, especially of written words, dissolves, so does the author-ity of the poet, or so logic might conclude. The logic of the secular world, however, unravels into paradox as childhood memories, and the family members left behind, reenter the present world as ghosts of meaning:"I walk / in deep snow along the Rainy River / my mother takes my hand"; "My father always ate / the entire apple—core, seeds, all: / I tried it once / because everything he did // looked pleasurable"; "behind our curtained windows // my brother starts high school, my sister considers / a bottle of aspirin // the Vietnam war creeps in everywhere." The poem belongs as much to the family as to the poet, as they people her imagination and prefigure the connections between and among members of the holy community. Family anecdotes speak to the quotations from religious authorities; the texts shape and frame domestic memory.Winding around them is the self-silencing voice of this narrator-"I am not to speak / . . . / Nor am I still silent."

Where can a book go from here? It would be easy for the poet to allow the language of the world to win out, or to simply end the book. But Kathleen Jesme does not take the easy way,even as the speaker starts to keep "scraps of paper" hidden in her books. "A kind of hoarding happens" to her (she does not seem to do it actively), and she discovers "one private place," her Holy Rule, ironically the one place "where no one ever looks." Her silence is broken in marginalia—"Why did I come here? /Whom am I seeking?"—and this silence cannot be kept concealed for long. She gathers so many tiny pieces of paper that "notes and little cards fall often."

She cannot help but wonder if she has failed. "I can't talk about it," she claims of the "card fallen from the prayerbook." But what she is to do about writing ("Oh, the handwriting") is the dilemma of this book's ending. What is the world without new words, the "garden without Adam"? The "problem of names" remains the difficulty.When this post-lapsarian speaker tries to apply words to the world, they come out wrong:"lion was smaller . . . / apple had a large pit / . . . / Others had sounds with holes in them." Unsurprisingly, the narrator leaves the convent, and "In the dark, the train clacking along / its only road in its only direction, away," she finally achieves the illumination she seems to have sought all the way through the book's journey:"all she could see / was herself .../ ...because the light / inside was so much greater / than the light without." This is not simple narcissism.The final section of the book has as its epigraph a quotation from Teresa of Avila: "I cannot say with certainty that I saw nothing." Neither can this speaker, or this book, make such a self-denying claim. At the end, "it can be admitted" that "she had a secret once." The secret is "like a stone" that she can carry in a pocket until it is "forgotten," but the act of forgetting is "how what we are / becomes unspeakable."What happens, she asks, if "running her hands down her body" she rediscovers the secret-the self, what we are, spiritual and material forms—and names it: "home / or God / or something // equally // hard?" There is no answer for such a question.There are only images-the "apparitions" of whiteness that seem to be the "mother," a snow storm that covers the trees so deeply and with such loveliness that they bend to the ground. Every image remains tangled in paradox, "weighed down, // some will break // with beauty—."

V

Brokenness is also one aspect of the journey undertaken in Judy Jordan's second book, 60¢ Coffee and a Quarter to Dance (Lousiana State University Press 2005). This long narrative sequence tells a story of poverty, violence, and degradation. Although it ranges through images of culturally torn twentieth-century Greece as the speaker engages her boss and co-workers at a restaurant, the book's center is street life in contemporary America. Made up of lists, loose sonnets, and free verse lyric, the poems wind their way across "years of occupation" and "the world of hookers, street walkers, working girls, whores, / pimps, tricks, & johns" to the truck where the speaker lives, at least when she isn't being harassed by the police to "Move on . . . Move on."

In such a world there are few places to which the speaker can "move on."The book is rich with detail about working homelessness; with a job as a pizza deliverer, the narrator exists on a strange threshold. She is employed, but she is without an address. It's an untenable position, especially if the job is not respectable in middle-class terms:"Jimmy says the pizza driver / is nothing more than a mouse / scurrying the city for our reward of another delivery." The animal metaphor, however, doesn't help the workers make sense of their economic plight, since the pizza drivers are "not nearly so fast" as literal mice.

The possibility of a helpful God is a distant dream. "Any god," for this woman, needs to be "as definite and definable as an all-night deli / / and sixty-cent coffee and free refills." She needs a deity who provides tangible evidence of existence, who will intervene in some recognizable way when a group of homeless people find themselves huddled in a bus terminal for warmth. One woman, afraid of the noise, covers herself with a baby blanket; a man "shouts at his buddies three rows down" that "another homeless person has tried to rob him of-" what? It turns out to be a plate, a small but useful object, a thing of value among the "bruised and broken people." But no god appears, and the homeless are left to "grow old in this race toward the grave."

This is a dismal vision of a world in dire straits. Even potential beauty is tainted with the wealth that creates it:"In Florida I thought to myself so this is America. / Palm trees swayed in wind like the last dancers / at a midnight ball, music poured / into the streets & people offered long-stem roses / to the sky."The speaker cannot be part of this lovely scene, filled as she is with hatred and fear of men, "Black men, white men, Hispanics, / that cop back in Ohio who arrested me." The book might, at this point, have begun to complicate its language by investing the misery of most of its characters with metaphoric or political significance, but the lists of victims and anecdotes of suffering continue. The narrator claims that "You don't get out of that life, not alive," and that she doesn't "have a story. Nothing / about economics or sexual freedom or choice."

And this, unfortunately, is the weakness of 60¢ Coffee and a Quarter to Dance. The catalogue of misery remains so literal that the book becomes more memoir than poetry. Good poems, of course, can be and have been made of witness—the personal is still political—but they are at their best when the autobiographical element has been transfigured through form and trope.The paragraph note at the end of the book states that the work is set "around a time of my life when, although employed by a Greek-owned restaurant, I was often homeless." The poet goes on to say that the characters "represent the failures of the past century and of the socioeconomic policies of the United States." That is a very tall order for any book, and her caveat (perhaps it is an apologia), "this poem is only my personal encounter with and representation of those failures," does not fully solve the difficulty of such a broadly ambitious project.As a sociological document, the book is filled with heartbreaking truths and observations necessarily corrective to self-satisfied views ofWestern culture.These are important—essential—stories to tell. But they are stories, however vehement the narrator's denial, and the sections lack the depth of linguistic and semiotic exploration that the best stories, and poems, contain.

Overall, these collections indicate a growing interest among American poets in sustained consideration of idea, language, and story. They refuse to be bound by traditional strictures of long narrative but make use of that legacy in the project they share—to generate more meaning through the accretion of fragments than each individual section, poem, or segment can itself contain. It's an exciting trend, one that promises to enlarge the already wide definition of what a long poem can be.


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