Five Poets in The Age of Anxiety
This Nest, Swift Passerine, by Dan Beachy-Quick. Tupelo Press, 72 pp., $16.95.
Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, by Tony Hoagland. Graywolf Press, 100pp., $15.
Other Prohibited Items, by Martha Greenwald. Mississippi Review Poetry Series, 64 pp., $11.
Shot, by Christine Hume. Counterpath Press, 104 pp., $14.95.
Clampdown, by Jennifer Moxley. Flood Editions, 112 pp., $14.95.
So many American writers are going in so many directions these days that it rarely seems helpful—and often becomes counterproductive—to speak in terms of schools or movements. For every devotee of James Wright or Robert Creeley, there’s an acolyte of Anne Carson; the would-be disciples of John Ashbery must contend with the newest crop of self-anointed Confessionals. We are too myopic—as most generations are—to clearly see whatever castes or hierarchies may be forming among our contemporaries, and many of us who write poetry have responded to the twentieth century penchant for manifestos by adopting that most unlikely of modern-day virtues: modesty. This virtue, I suspect, is at least part of the allure of popular favorites du jour Billy Collins and Kay Ryan—their work is understated, unassuming, and often self-deprecating—as well as the reason poets such as Bishop continue to generate critical interest even as her more bombastic peers, John Berryman in particular, have faded from view. Yet this quiet trend is not always the product of quiet minds; we may turn to a more humble writing because we fear that the poetic discipline itself is inadequate to articulate, much less confront, the ruthlessly neutral face of the postmodern world. Our modesty may be reducible to anxiety: anxiety for ourselves, for our children, and for the literary future of a country that no longer goes unquestioned as the center of the world. The five poets under question here—Moxley, Hoagland, Hume, Beachy-Quick, and Greenwald—have registered that anxiety, and in some cases internalized it, in profoundly different ways.
The cover of Dan Beachy-Quick’s fourth full-length collection, This Nest, Swift Passerine, makes it clear that its pages will be offering us “A Poem,” as opposed to a more humble book of one-page lowercase ones. It’s an ambitious announcement whose subsequent epigraph only raises the stakes: “Here we find ourselves, suddenly, not in critical speculation, but in a holy place, and should go warily and reverently. We stand before the secret of the world, there where Being passes into Appearance, and Unity into Variety.” The quote is from Emerson, who wrote these words as a warning to skeptics; for Beachy-Quick, it’s a somewhat more canny beginning since it serves as both an admonition to critics and a reminder that art—or perhaps Art, as Emerson would have had it—is mostly composed of appearances and variety.
For those who have grown accustomed to poetry that allows itself to be read, digested and forgotten in the course of a single page, the appearance and variety of Beachy-Quick’s Poem may seem more like smoke and mirrors. Yet the visual chaos of the work, whose terse, imagistic lines jostle for space alongside italicized blocks of prose and a liberal sprinkling of dashes and asterisks, is always controlled, nearly always purposeful, and immensely rewarding to explore. As the poet himself writes later in the work, “The healthy heart lives in chaos.” Near the beginning of the poem, at least, this chaos dresses itself in zenlike, punctuationless meditations on the natural world, which alternate with blocks of faux-scientific prose. After observing, for instance, “The eye is made of the light by which it sees. Every eye, and all the world which enters through the pin-hole of the eye, is 1,000,000 years and 8 minutes old,” the speaker trades out the science writer’s voice for the oracle’s: “My amber eye in this amber world / Sees wind seize the cloud and straighten / The cloud and with one gust circle / The cloud unto itself …”
Beachy-Quick further complicates this perspectival game by dropping in excerpts from several poets, philosophers, and theologians, whose words he appropriates in order to cast light on his own. The excerpts begin with passages from the Grasmere Journal of Dorothy Wordsworth, but they quickly expand to include Ovid, John Milton, Martin Buber, Meister Eckhart, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Simone Weil, and Henry David Thoreau, among others. The connective thread that binds them is a chronic obsession with what can be seen versus what cannot, and what experiences may arise from the act of seeing. Witness Dorothy Wordsworth’s moonlit walk through the woods, which yields “many many exquisite feelings … it made me more than half a poet. I was tired when I reached home I could not sit down to reading & tried to write verses but alas! I gave up.” Indeed. Beachy-Quick’s gentle satire is very much to the point, as exquisite feelings (alas!) do not a poet make. When he quotes a letter by Milton a few pages later, a compelling contrast emerges between the transcendent but ultimately sterile vision of Miss Wordsworth, and the detached language Milton employs to record the deterioration of his own vision:
It is ten years, I think, more or less, since I noticed my sight becoming and growing
dim And even in the morning, if I began as usual to read, I noticed that my eyes
felt immediate pain deep within and turned from reading as often as I looked at a
lamp, a sort of rainbow seemed to obscure it. Soon a mist appeared in the left part
of the left eye removed from my sight everything on that side.
Milton could console himself not only with the lines he drew from his stupefyingly disciplined mind but also with the thought that he was following the will of a watchful and omnipotent God. The modern writer wondering how long his own poetic visions will last, however, has much less to fall back on. At heart, then, Beachy-Quick’s ostensibly visionary work is conducting an earnest and very quotidian investigation of the literary devil that confronts us when we gaze at the blank page and find that nothing (or is it Nothing?) is gazing back at us. This isn’t simply glorified writer’s block; this is the abyss the writer faces when he occasionally dares to ask why, exactly, he has chosen to write at all.
In the present book, the first sensation that arises from such an inquiry is probably best captured in the words of Thomas Traherne, one of the excerpted writers: “Another time, in a lowering and sad evening, being alone in the field, when all things were dead and quiet, a certain want and horror fell upon me, beyond imagination.” For the uneasy mind, the amelioration of this feeling does not come easily. If it does, Beachy-Quick tells us, now in his own words, it is because we have learned to see the emptiness as something else, not as an abyss but a surface: “The blank page reflects. The pond could not hold Echo’s voice, but ink does. Every word mine equally yours. Nothing here has not been spoken before. But peering through the deepening pages, I think I see my own reflection.” Much ink has been spilled in analyzing the “anxiety of influence.” Yet for this poet, it is the very inescapability of influence, the knowledge that we are working in relation to a tradition, however fragmented or quarrelsome, that serves to redeem us. The point could not be clearer than in the book’s final section, which begins with three lines from Wordsworth’s Prelude. Beachy-Quick quickly interrupts, imitating the Prelude in form and cadence, and ending with a vision of his own:
when I neared the tree the whole tree flew
hundreds of black birds against the sky
occupying but a few feet in the air
flying in a single motion a single mind
until suddenly each bird unwove itself
and the mourning cloth dispersed
This is not necessarily a comforting vision. But it is an accurate one, one that acknowledges the poet’s desire—not always realized—to communicate with his literary ancestors, and one that pays tribute to the abundant variety of appearances the modern poem can wear.
To some degree, Tony Hoagland has been complicit in his casting as a clownish figure in the American poetry scene. The title of his latest book, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, could have been ripped from the cover of a Tom Robbins novel, and he shares with fellow jesters, such as Andrew Hudgins, a penchant for the juvenile and irreverent. Officious neighbors become “greedy six-year-olds / sucking the last half-inch of milkshake up through a noisy straw,” and “Poor Britney Spears” is described, in increasingly discomfiting turns, as “a pink, life-size piece of chewing gum,” a Roman “gladiatrix,” and “my adorable little monkey, / prancing for your candy.”
Hoagland’s portrait of America’s favorite train-wreck pop star is also indicative of his broader interest in the nation’s current political trends, as well as his fondness for what one might call (surely this guy has already fumbled his regrettable way into a poem somewhere) “Joe the Plumber” imagery: the poem “Complicit with Everything” chronicles the misfortunes of “the retired bachelor mailman Bill, // watcher of sports events and CNN atrocities,” and “My Father’s Vocabulary” begins by tracing its subject’s rustbelt roots: “In the history of American speech, / he was born between ‘Dirty Commies’ and ‘Nice tits.’ // He worked for Uncle Sam, / and married a dizzy gal from Pittsburgh with a mouth on her.” Lines like these run the severe risk of buying into their own kitsch, and in them Hoagland sometimes approaches Albert Goldbarth country, that cluttered wasteland of cheeky, Nixon-era misogynist jokes and plangent odes to the psychotropic weirdness of the sixties. At times he forgets himself and actually starts wandering into that country: in “Visitation,” for instance, the speaker recalls the body of a former lover by conjuring “the fine blonde purse of her pussy” and “the basilica / of her high, Irish-American butt,” images that could have been gathered from the cutting-room floor (or, let’s be honest, the pages) of a John Updike story.
But Hoagland’s occasional forays into nostalgia—and they are just that, occasional—are merely symptoms of a deep disquiet that, given America’s decade-long identity crisis, is entirely appropriate, and that the poet is usually brave enough to face head-on. The poem “Foghorn,” for instance, interrupts its own desultory question on the possibility of racial harmony with a blunt and ugly answer:
Now here we are in time for our own momentof unequal opportunity,which we will probably fail to understandor raise our best selves to.
If Hoagland is a clown, these two stanzas could be the scene in Poe’s “Hop-Frog” where the brooding court jester rounds up a ballroomful of horrified royals and sets them aflame. Yet the poem is rescued from its fatalistic conclusion by the “probably” that crouches halfway through the penultimate line, raising to the light a quiet moral challenge: will we, in fact, come to understand the moment we were born to? At first blush, Hoagland’s answer seems to be a sour, Larkinish “of course not,” especially when he chooses to speak in terms of the collective. Not at all surprisingly, such satirical poems as “Plastic,” “The Story of White People,” “Disaster Movie,” and “The Allegory of the Temp Agency” do not end well. At times, Hoagland is clearly tempted to take a Manichean view of his surroundings, as attested by poems like “Nature” (“I miss the friendship with the pine trees and the birds”) and “Wild” (“the bears inherit the earth, / full of water and humans and garbage, / which looks to them like paradise”).
But Hoagland is evidently quite aware of this all-too-human tendency to neatly divide the world between good and evil, nature and artifice, the free individual and the suffocating state, as well as the unfortunate products of that division—not merely lazy and facile people, for a start, but also lazy and facile art, which might be even worse. The poet says as much in “The Allegory of the Temp Agency,” whose titular painting (one we can only hope Hoagland needed to invent) depicts a pack of vulpine, bloodthirsty corporate moguls chasing down their employees. The real allegory, the poem explains, has nothing to do with predatory capitalists. “Rather, the painting shows that the artist was untalented, / and is an allegory of how difficult it is / to be both skillful and sincere …”
No statement could better summarize the difficulty faced by the poet—especially such a poet as Hoagland, who is very talented indeed, as this quietly self-reflective turn attests, but who is nonetheless drawn by temperament to value sincerity over technical skill. In this sense, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty is not so much anxious for America’s future as it is for its own, and for the delicate balancing act that books such as this one must maintain in order to create an art that, while evaluating the events of the day, is still worth returning to when the sun rises on the next one.
Apparently Martha Greenwald knows a thing or two about temp agencies as well. “You forgot to deduct his disallowed / meals, and forwarded one copy, not three,” she complains in the voice of “Joanne, From Travel Accounting,” and in a spate of poems from the second half of Other Prohibited Items, including “The Last Secretary,” “Addendum,” and “Memorandum RE: Garlic Salt,” Greenwald slips so naturally into the rhythmless drone of corporate-speak that one is initially tempted to follow suit and tell her to take a week off. Instead, one is gratified to find that she can slip out of it just as easily. The third poem of that triad, for instance, recalls an episode so bizarre that it’s almost disappointing to discover it actually happened—a snowbound city, its stock of melting- salt depleted, is rescued at the eleventh hour by the garlic salt reserves of a local spice distributor—and Greenwald recreates the story in the wondering lilt of a folk tale: “This was the beginning of things. / … That night, parsley / dusted moonlight fell down green, / melting dark sidewalks and streets.”
Similarly, the strongest lines in Greenwald’s debut collection are those in which the poet untethers herself entirely from the quotidian voice of the cubicle dweller and allows her language to approach the more rarefied realm of the purely musical. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, the effect is galvanizing—as in the description of a moving train in “Working the Narragansett Night Owl”:
the Westerly woolen mills gone, precisely on schedule—we’ll make the Mystic hold-back. Two quick track-switches,
the reading lights flicker once, then a rare trade—the ringof slow brake on smooth rails slurs to sail tack clanging
What visionsMight besiege an infant whose sustenance
This is what we might have read eighty years ago if Robinson Jeffers had stayed in Pittsburgh and written about trains instead of hawks in coastal California. That last full stanza is especially admirable, with its “ring / of slow brake on smooth rails” quietly decelerating into the music of sail grommets “clanging on masts.” Greenwald achieves a similarly lyrical effect in the final lines of the poem “Three,” whose tryptich of ten-line poems (or decastiches, if you must), each offering a snapshot of the poet’s three-year-old daughter, ends with the discovery of a stone resembling one the daughter had lost: “gray granite coat, mica-fleck eyes / wide set on a wide head—gone missing that day / she announced I’ll eat wind, then stood, mouth / agape to the squall, gulping the lake-effect bitters.” This last line is delightfully odd, not because the idea of a toddler doggedly attempting to “eat wind” is particularly strange (children do much stranger things), but because the words are so surprisingly musical: tonal but dissonant, so much so that they seem only barely anchored to the meaning of the phrase they create. They exemplify, in Frost’s famous dictum “language under pressure,” if not to the highest degree, then at least to a degree higher than one usually encounters in narrative poetry.
Even more successful are two rather uncharacteristic poems, “At Bracknell” and “1813,” inspired by Thomas Love Peacock’s Memoirs of Shelley and the clinical treatise A View of the Nervous Temperament, by the nineteenth-century English naval physician Thomas Trotter. The poems treat events described by Peacock in his celebrated biography: the first is an apocryphal account of Shelley, who, appalled at his wife Harriet’s refusal to nurse their infant daughter, unbuttons his shirt and attempts the task himself, and the second recounts Shelley’s nightmarish vision of a human body collapsing into old age. In these poems Greenwald’s imagistic dexterity shines through. Here is part of “At Bracknell”:
Falls from areolas black as eclipse? CratedStillborns, a cold winter hearth, soup bonesRising from a cauldron, geese resurrected,Feathered ghosts float in muddied broth …
In offering us the venerated English Romantic as he struggles with such bizarre and crowded visions, Greenwald effectively makes him human again, and she does so in quatrains whose muted precision stands in sharp contrast to the dark wintry scene they summon forth. A respite of sorts arrives in the last lines of “1813,” where Shelley, sequestered in a cramped carriage but momentarily free of his chronic anxiety at the prospect of growing old, turns to the window: “Outside the landscape was hedgerows and rills. / No pyramids or sphinxes squatted on the horizon.” Another foreboding ruin would nonetheless appear when Shelley wrote Ozymandias in 1818, and William Yeats’s slouching sphinx would rouse itself a century later, but for now, Greenwald seems to suggest, a relative peace prevails.
On the surface, this decisively nineteenth-century thesis is at tremendous odds with Greenwald’s poems of office drudgery, airport etiquette, and grocery shopping. Yet both speak to the instinct that causes us to fear what we cannot control, as well as the only slightly more powerful instinct that reminds us that we must control the fear. When the balance shifts, we’re liable to find something like what happens in the innocuously titled “FindAnyone.com,” which ends with the speaker’s recollection of a temp worker, addled by grief after witnessing the disintegration of the Challenger space shuttle, deliriously photocopying page after page of company minutes that she has decorated with childish cartoons of floating astronauts. We may hope that Greenwald finds a more rewarding job. But in the meantime, she has given us an almost unsettlingly relevant study of the jittery ennui that too often characterizes our waking days.
Shot, Christine Hume’s third book, offers its readers a vision of motherhood and family life that will strike some readers as horrific and others as simply accurate. Assuming, that is, that they can decipher it: Hume is a seasoned practitioner of what its historians call experimental or language poetry and what its detractors call nonsense. And Shot is not for the reader who hasn’t at least gotten his or her feet wet with Lyn Hejinian or Rae Armantrout. When the speaker in the book’s opening poem, “Incubatory,” asks, seemingly apropos of nothing, “Where is the nutrient in it?” an unidentified voice responds, “One third of your darkness reflects back. It listens to itself. Black syllables hatch. They flit into the tree. And again. Windwhipped hives, organizing.” That’s just about all of this review that some people will care to read before skipping over to the next one. Yet “Incubatory” is a good example of a poem that yields its secrets more graciously than one might expect, and by the time the third question, “Can you hear my lullabies?”, has established beyond any doubt that the first voice belongs to a mother speaking to her unborn child, the questions that follow—“Can you bear the sound of my voice?” and “What will leaving be like?”—seem not only to make perfect sense but also to explore a uniquely intimate genre of apprehension.
A similar dialogue takes place in “Somniloquy with Interruptions,” in which lines such as “One day I can feel my stomach and the next, where has it gone?” and “By her clock, I get the hang of my moodiness” will probably ring familiar to any mother. The poem’s titular mash-up of somnolence and soliloquizing deftly evokes the sleep-deprived mental state of early parenthood. Yet Hume seems to approach the experience more as an observer than as a participant, avoiding sentimental or epiphanic narratives in favor of fragmented, counterintuitive vignettes like this one:
How will I get you to stopLet me help you with that gunA tiger licks me everywhere his roar
is pure treatment …
Tell me again the storyof why you lied, why there is no oneyou cannot do something for.Medicine and makeup crowd the table,every hour hits its midnight—isn’t it just like you to be quietwhen I’m trying to hear things.
The imagery here is anything but coherent, though perhaps we shouldn’t expect coherence in a poem written in the voice of an insomniac. The tone, however, is perfectly coherent: Hume’s speaker sounds vulnerable but strangely detached, as if recording her sensations into a tape recorder as they occur. The dialogic form she uses is also worth noting. As one of the more shopworn tools in the language poet’s kit, it nevertheless remains one of the more versatile, and here it allows Hume to cut multiple syntactic pathways out of a single sentence: the meaning of the passage changes dramatically depending on whether we choose to read the italicized ‘interruption’ as part of the speaker’s original voice. (The effect recalls her use of footnoted ‘substitute’ lines in her first book, Musca domestica, which made the poems somewhat redolent of chapters in a “Choose your own Adventure” story.)
Parenthood, of course, often involves a partner, and most of the poems in Shot that don’t directly concern a child are instead concerned with the shadowy figure who was (we assume) involved in creating it. The seven-part poem “I’m Talking to You [To Be Read Silently Beside a Sleeping Person]” is most direct, even if Hume’s interlocutor remains stubbornly silent:
Those last two lines capture, with damning and clever precision, the sort of petulant stone throwing into which a lover’s quarrel—especially a one-sided one—can deteriorate.
So if the speaker seems to be talking to herself in more than one of these poems, the effect is almost certainly intended. If sight is the ultimate sense-paradigm for Dan Beachy-Quick, Hume seems to have chosen hearing: these poems are full of words spoken and ignored, offered up and snatched back, or simply repressed altogether. Such is the case with “Leash,” a peculiar homage to Ted Hughes’ Crow whose protagonist, ‘Tongue,’ after (it must be said) some really rather awful rhymes, ends up plaintively projecting its words into a void that, unlike Beachy-Quick’s, doesn’t return an echo.
Given Hume’s keen awareness of sound, it should not be surprising that Shot often cultivates it at the expense of meaning. No doubt this expense wouldn’t trouble the likes of Hejinian or Armantrout. For the average reader, though, it means that Hume’s poems will probably be most compelling on the imagistic level, where she is free to simply conjoin the musical with the muscular. When Hume is good at this, as the old rhyme goes, she is very, very good. “Between the Way Out And The Way Home” ends with the graphic flourish of the line “Blood knocking in your arms almost makes them float,” but only after we’ve heard the “Chant of feet,” “tungsten and fungus,” and a “Black river burning off acetaminophen / From forehead to eddy.” If the syntactic eccentricity of Shot will likely limit its appeal to only a few intrepid readers, those who do venture in will find some unexpected gems.
Jennifer Moxley is at the top of her game. There is not a poem in Clampdown, her fourth full-length collection, that an editor could justly excise without damaging the whole, and one could say nearly the same for her lines, which gather force from phrase to phrase with a measured, deliberate grace that is seldom seen this side of the second World War. Moxley pays direct homage to the poets of the New York School, particularly Schuyler and Ashbery, and the tinkly noise of their cosmopolitan ruminating is evident throughout. Yet the overarching tone of Clampdown, the undercurrent of moral urgency running beneath its polished blank verse and desultory half-rhymes, brings to mind an older mentor: W.H. Auden. Auden’s influence is perhaps most visible in a couple of formal poems whose rhymes lull the reader into a surprisingly unpleasant argument, as in the first and last stanzas of “Mother’s Day”:The most important work they sayis caring for the young,molding a soul to regret the dayyou looked into the sun …And yet I’d rather drift in dreadof dark oblivionthan forge a law in someone’s headthey’ll not recover from.
And what if we succeed? Then what. What if we,who are fond of thinking that our lives have beenhindered vigorously by scheming statesmenand entrepreneurs—scummy down to the one—find ourselves out on a stretch of open seawith none but a smooth trajectorythat looks to be of our own making?
Moxley’s rhymes are simple without being facile, and even less so the gloomy conclusion that they draw. Few mothers would agree that the parental responsibility to mold one’s progeny (which quickly escalates here to “forging”) implants in children a worldview from which, in a perfect world, all of them would one day “recover from.” But many writers would—and not just Larkin, who suggests something similar in “This Be the Verse.” But the judgment here, unlike Larkin’s, doesn’t fall on parents: the wrong is inherent not in the act of childrearing but in any act that necessitates control.
And this is where things start to get interesting. For while the desire to exert influence, to persuade or convince, plays a fundamental role in the most basic of human interactions, if left unchecked it can also mutate into something more insidious. Or, as Moxley states in “The Drip,” “As in trench warfare, / there is no progress. Only the inevitable end game / of a face-to-face with your double: she who awaits / across the checkered plain hoping to do you in.” Even minus that hat-tip to Baudelaire in the third line, this is a sobering—one might even say fatalistic—moral proposition: that even our conversations with ourselves boil down to primal power struggles.
It is a political proposition as well, if only obliquely. Moxley remarked in a recent interview that she does not think of herself as a political poet, but that she nevertheless believes there is an inescapable political element to the writing of poetry. Clampdown reflects this element from its very first line—“It’s very early in the century”—and the book’s nagging concern with the political dynamic between the state and the individual metastasizes into a full-on obsession in “The Occasion,” which unflinchingly charts the atmosphere of impotence and helplessness that overshadows a literary dinner party during a time of war.
Yet Moxley robs us—and rightly so—of the luxury of pretending that the way we choose to conduct our lives, in times of war or peace, can be determined by anyone other than ourselves. Here is the first stanza of “Our Defiant Motives”:
Stand before each other, self, but other,separate yet one, a missing measure found,a mirror in which no flaws reflect:join and quell this exhausted drifting,join that your kiss might align the starsand stop the planets from their wandering.
Few questions could more effectively capture the current national mood—or, for that matter, the current mood of most of the Western world, which has become so anxious for its own cultural survival that the anxiety itself, as in Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians,” has become a kind of perverse solution to our collective fear of losing ground. “Our Defiant Motives” presents us with a curious twist: a solution to the solution, as it were, a reminder that our individual lives, if we choose for them to be, are still very much in our own hands.
In this sense Clampdown, for all its dour prognosticating, is a work of wary optimism. Moxley’s gaze is usually fastened on our failings, even to the point of noting that our efforts to overcome those failings can force us into a sterile self-reflection: “The intellect at work can alienate the world,” she declares in “The March Notebook.” “This is the moment / we have ceased to feel the breathing of others / beneath our feet.” Yet to take these sentiments as the final words of an erstwhile existentialist would be to miss the point entirely: Moxley’s vision of the world is ultimately more Camus than Sartre, and—just barely—more Epicurean than Stoic. This is especially evident as one nears the end of the book, whose chronicle of human ignorance, selfishness, and parochialism gradually yields to the suggestion that we may not be so irredeemable after all. In “Epithalamium”—addressed to a newly- married couple, as its title suggests—Moxley captures the turn in a sextet whose own marriage of lyricism and prosodic restraint offers us, at last, a clear and welcome picture of redemption:
Perhaps more than any other book of poetry published in the past few years, Clampdown brings to light the invisible, internal war that has come to shape the twenty-first century American conscience: the struggle between the paralyzed anxiety for our future and the seductive lie that the future will somehow work itself out on its own. Between these two extremes, Moxley suggests, lies the difficult task of remaining honest, as much with ourselves as with others.