By Lisa Russ Spaar
(Persea, 96pp., $25.95)
Don’t Call Us Dead
By Danez Smith
(Graywolf, 96pp., $16.00)
By Michael Shewmaker
(Ohio University Press, 72pp., $16.95)
Lisa Russ Spaar has expensive taste in words. In Orexia, her newest poetry collection, she spells her ‘sulfur’ with a ‘ph’ and her ‘fetus’ with an ‘o,’ and she seldom seems content with any store-brand term when a more luxurious synonym is on hand. Reading Orexia, I marveled often at the sheer breadth of Spaar’s vocabulary. My own is fair-to-middling, but throughout the book, I had to stop reading and look up what came to an embarrassing number of words, including but not limited to, “bister,” “bobeche,” “bract,” “erose,” “furcula,” “gride,” “grisaille,” “lenticel,” “pileate,” “raceme,” “rasure,” “rick” (v.t.), “rimple,” “ruddle,” “starnel,” “storax,” “terroir,” “throstle,” “truckle,” “tutulus,” and “vertiver.” (In my defense, even my word processor’s spell-check function bats only .428 with the preceding list.) At times, Spaar’s whole poetics seems to be, If the fanciest words cost no more than the plainest, why not upgrade? And in this very profligacy lies the pleasure of reading her poetry.
Take “How I Might Sound if I Left Myself Alone,” the last poem in the new collection. Originally published in Poetry, “How I Might Sound if I Left Myself Alone” underwent two small alterations between its initial magazine appearance and its inclusion in Orexia. (1.) The second sentence of both versions begins “I see we must always walk toward,” but where the magazine version continues, “other loves,” the book version reads, more obliquely, “other rooms.” (2.) In the Poetry version, the fifth and sixth lines stand thus:
Orphaned cloud, fish soup poppling,
book spined in the open palm. Unstoppable light.
In Orexia, the lines are the same, except that the words “fish soup” have been replaced with “cioppino,” an Italian word for fish soup. Why make this change? Well, why not? Until the development of cheap and widely available synthetic pigments during the Industrial Revolution, the painter wishing to use vibrant blue in his work had to consider the expense of acquiring Afghan lapis lazuli. Likewise the ancient silk merchant, whose supply of the fabulously expensive dye known as Tyrian purple was dependent on the Byzantine murex harvest. By the historical standards of visual art, then, literature is remarkably egalitarian. The word “cioppino” costs no more to write than the phrase “fish soup,” and it’s arguably more interesting, if only for being less familiar. The replacement of “fish soup” by “cioppino” also demonstrates Spaar’s discriminating ear. Both terms includes a ‘p’ sound, which is then picked up by “poppling,” but whereas in “fish soup” the ‘p’ sound is terminal—and thus effectively erased by the initial ‘p’ of the word that follows—in “cioppino,” the consonant’s placement produces an alliterative onomatopoeia between the two words. (With due respect to one’s fourth-grade English teacher, alliteration is, needless to say, not the occurrence of the same sound at the beginnings of two or more words but rather the occurrence of the same sound at the beginnings of two or more accented syllables, e.g. “cioppíno póppling,” “Aláddin’s lámp,” “nón-monógamous.”) Spaar’s choice—here as elsewhere in Orexia—to preserve denotation while enhancing aural intensity gives us some sense of what she’s after, and what she’s after is most certainly not mere verbal clarity. Of course, it might be argued that while all words are free to use, some still cost more than others—if not for the writer then for the reader, who may have to set down the poem and fetch a dictionary. And to a reader hungry for literal meaning, attempts to parse or paraphrase the poems in Orexia yield little nourishment. Their power is not logical but cumulative. One encounters a phrase, an image, a list—fragments plucked from books or life and set down lovingly by the poet—and gradually, sometimes after maddening delay, one begins to receive an impression.
Reading Orexia reminded me continually of a passage in Ted Chiang’s celebrated novella, “Story of Your Life” (the basis for the 2016 movie Arrival). In the story, a linguist recounts mankind’s first contact with aliens, which are referred to as “heptapods.” The narrator discovers that the heptapods’ written language, Heptapod B, operates without reference to their spoken language, Heptapod A, and that its syntax works independently of the direction in which it is read:
For them, speech was a bottleneck because it required that one word follow another sequentially. With writing, on the other hand, every mark on a page was visible simultaneously. Why constrain writing with a glottographic straitjacket, demanding that it be just as sequential as speech? It would never occur to them. Semasiographic [non-phonetic] writing naturally took advantage of the page’s two dimensionality; instead of doling out morphemes one at a time, it offered an entire page full of them all at once.
And as with the heptapods, so with Lisa Russ Spaar. Even her punctuation resists any stable system of meaning. Many—I am tempted to say most—of the periods in Orexia conclude not independent clauses but predicateless subjects, subjectless predicates, and so on. The poem, “Morel Patch,” for instance, is made up of a 14-line list of verbless images. “Worry Yoga” concludes with the freestanding participle, “Stippled.” One cannot demand straightforward expression from such a poem, because such a poem is meant to be not interrogated but simply wondered at. In its opulence and ostentatious lack of function, a Lisa Russ Spaar poem is not unlike a Damien Hirst sculpture—say, For the Love of God (a platinum cast of a human skull covered in pavé-set diamonds and fitted with real human teeth), or The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (a 23-ton glass-and-steel tank containing the carcass of a 13-foot tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde). One might challenge the decision to construct such an artwork, but one can hardly quibble with its statement, seeing as its statement either goes without saying or doesn’t exist. Put another way, to debate the meaning of Spaar’s poetry would be as pointless as debating the meaning of birdsong. It surely means something to the bird, but whatever the message might be, it is not intended for us.
In the poem, “Once in A,” Spaar takes the idiom ‘blue moon’ as an opportunity to perform this same delirious trick. The poem’s meandering, much-enjambed sentences ape the form of an argument, diverting the reader while freeing the poem to conjure a pleasing, arational swirl of associations that transcend the notional subject:
Like the multiple orgasm
…. in which some never
will believe, the lexicon
yields up a trove
…. of speculation, tracing
the hue of the big O,
coming more than once
…. a month, to atmosphere,
an accident of ions and the eye,
like the sky, the argent
ridge of mountains.
Traditionally, the construction ‘once in a blue moon’ invokes the rarity (and perhaps also the arbitrariness) of the appearance of a second full moon in a single calendar month. Spaar’s poem, however, is not actually concerned with such straightforward thoughts. A glance at her syntax demonstrates as much. While she seems at first to be comparing “multiple orgasm” to the repetition of the full moon “coming more than once / a month,” the grammatical structure of the sentence actually likens the sexual experience not to the moon but to “the lexicon.” The explanation the poem provides for the origin of the term ‘blue moon’ is another misdirection. By “an accident of ions and the eye, // like the sky,” Spaar is presumably referring to the scientific phenomenon known as Rayleigh scattering, which causes the appearance of a blue color in a transparent medium filled with diffuse microscopic particles, an effect that accounts for the color of the sky, of woodsmoke, of blue eyes, and, under certain atmospheric circumstances, of the air between the viewer and the moon. Rayleigh scattering does not, though, have any bearing on the colloquial ‘blue moon’ that gives Spaar’s poem its point of departure. These muddlings and conflations might be a problem if Spaar were writing an essay, but as I said, her poem only presents the appearance of an argument. In practice it is something quite different:
…. ponder the Old English
…. “to betray”:
double-crossing old saints—
loneliness, love, the calendar—
…. tricking night into day
as though there will always be another.
The suggestion here that the term ‘blue moon’ takes its etymology not from the Modern English word for the color but from an Old English word for betrayal may well have historical legitimacy. A double appearance would seem to have more to do with betrayal than with blueness. But even here, the structure of the argument is just an opportunity for further play—with sound and sentiment alike. The appearance of a second full moon does not, of course, trick “night into day.” The whole poem is a sleight of hand allowing Spaar to borrow the rhetorical force of consonance and logical cadence to arrive at an emotional effect. And as with any good stage illusion, the best way to appreciate it is not to demand an explanation but to sit back and enjoy the show.
Granted, there are places where Spaar’s diction seems not idiosyncratic but simply wrong. In “Ignis Fatuus,” she introduces a scene in which hunters prepare the carcasses of rabbits and pheasants for eating. In the middle of a characteristically winding litany of images, she includes the phrase, “rank pad / of the soughed, fertile self.” To sough is to give a murmuring or whispering cry. It is of course possible that Spaar meant just this—“the rank pad of the cried-out, fertile self.” But perhaps more likely under the circumstances is the visually similar word ‘slough,’ which means to shed or to discard, as with a snake’s skin. Given that the scene described in the poem involves the literal skinning of animals, I am inclined to think that ‘soughed’ has mistakenly filled in for ‘sloughed.’ This is not to say that Spaar is a careless poet. The aurally dense, paraphrase-resistant qualities of even her most plainspoken lines suggest that missteps like the above are, conscious or not, part of a larger program. Indeed, if one examines Spaar’s choice of words closely, one finds throughout Orexia a wealth of such apparent substitutions: “cowled” for “cauled,” “craunking” for “creaking,” “prink” for “pinprick,” “swack” for “slash,” “swanked,” for “spangled,” “shiv” for “shank,” “unrefrained” for “unrestrained,” “unrelayable” for “incommunicable,” and “whelming” for “brimming.” Part of the cunning of these poems, however, is the ambiguous context that makes it impossible to say with certainty whether or not any given word has been set down in error. Spaar’s diction thwarts a cursory reading, and her syntax punishes a rational one. As I read and re-read Orexia, I came to suspect that I was better off embracing Spaar’s apparent faults than silently emending them. Didn’t Freud teach us there’s no such thing as an innocent mistake?
In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, the book that introduced us to what we now call the ‘Freudian slip’ (that form of casual misspeech whereby one inadvertently reveals one’s hidden feelings, e.g. He’s a thoroughly decent, upstanding shitizen), the unconscious as Freud understands it seems to consist almost exclusively of the secret expanse on which a given speaker charts his native tongue—words, phrases, syllables, and references cross-indexed by sound, sense, association, and obsession. The most intriguing poems in Orexia seem almost to illustrate this Freudian vision of the mind. Exemplary among these is “Temple Dictionary,” which begins with a simple attempt to look up a word:
Seeking “tresor,” from the Greek
thesaurus, store, treasure house
Two lines in, there are already signs that this trip to the dictionary is a feint. “Tresor” is an Old French word meaning ‘treasure.’ It is derived from the Greek ‘θησαυρός’ which, as the poem suggests, could be used to mean something along the lines of “thesaurus, store, treasure house.” These English words derive in turn from the Old French “tresor.” All of this heptapodal jotting down of associations makes a kind of paratactic sense when glanced at quickly, but it also prompts one to ask what, specifically, the speaker of the poem is trying to do. Is she looking up “tresor” in an Old French dictionary? If so, why are the Greek-derived terms she identifies written in English? More pointedly, why is she looking up “tresor” at all, if she already knows what she will find when she does? Perhaps she is “Seeking ‘tresor’” in a Modern English dictionary? In order to find it, she would have to look up one of the three italicized terms—“thesaurus, store, treasure house”—and refer to the etymology, but why then would she need to list all three when she can look up only one at a time, and any one of them would presumably bring her to the same, supposedly sought-after, root word? Furthermore, if she is looking up, say, “thesaurus,” then isn’t this the word she would tell us is “from the Greek,” rather than “tresor”? The next lines answer all these questions with the suggestion that the visit to the dictionary is either a coincidence or a pretext for seeking a different kind of treasure:
Seeking “tresor,” from the Greek
thesaurus, store, treasure house
I find this filament stem & venous stain,
last spring’s violet,
genital lapels held in tiny, kama sutric
kimono foldings, obeisant
to the word “thesis,” a setting down.
What matters about the page to which the speaker turns is, we discover, that it is the page on which a violet has been pressed and left to dry. As the poem goes on, we learn that it was left there by the speaker herself, who might, in the back of her mind, have remembered just this act when opening the dictionary. Her mention of the word “thesis” informs us that (1.) the dictionary is an English one, and (2.) she was looking up the word “thesaurus” after all, this being the only available option that is likely to appear on the same dictionary page as “thesis,” while also being the only one that nicely suggests the idea of substitution, as of one word—or task—for another. In its wandering, recursive operation, “Temple Dictionary,” as much as any other poem in Orexia, demonstrates the theme (if not the thesis) of all of Spaar’s fractured, booby-trapped, jewel-encrusted verse. Her poetry invites admiration but never escape. It permits us to loiter for a while across its surface but denies us any depth in which to lose ourselves. The poems in Orexia address sex, aging, and religion, but from beginning to end their true subject is nothing less, or more, than language itself.
* * *
Conditions permitting, when I read a book of poetry for the first time, I read it aloud. The first time I read Danez Smith’s sophomore collection, Don’t Call Us Dead, I was standing in my darkened kitchen in the middle of the night, rocking in place and whispering so as not to wake the infant cradled in my left arm. Even so, Smith’s charisma—stage presence, one might call it—was audible. Even that first time through, the collection registered as urgent, entertaining, of a piece. This is a poet, I thought, who knows how to work a crowd.
Don’t Call Us Dead is a collection distinctly of its age. It is not traditional, it is not universal, it is not for all time. It is a book meant for right now. As acknowledged in Smith’s notes, the poems borrow language from Erykah Badu, Beyoncé, Jericho Brown, Lucille Clifton, Lauryn Hill, Chinaka Hodge, Whitney Houston, Jodeci, Alicia Keys, and Ocean Vuong. One poem is based on a poem by Richard Siken. Another is an erasure of a song by Diana Ross. The epigraphs are from Drake and Sonia Sanchez. Only once or twice does Smith even refer to events that occurred before the 20th century, and nearly every poem chiefly concerns the recent past. There is an elegy (and a keen one) for a dead internet porn star and a multipart poetic response to a statistic the CDC released in 2016. This relative immediacy would of course be unremarkable in movies, music, political speeches, print journalism, social media, or TV. In such arenas, Smith’s subject matter would risk, if anything, being considered old news. But poets are a slow-moving species, and in a landscape in which Homer, Virgil, and Dante remain current, Smith has proven dangerously fleet of foot.
The second poem in Don’t Call Us Dead is a single page of nearly unbroken prose titled, “dear white america.” The salutation could double as a subtitle for the book as a whole, framed by what I think of as two sets of invisible quotation marks. The text is addressed to “white america” in the performative sense we’ve come to expect from satirical TV shows and schoolyard games like the Dozens (which itself makes a brief appearance in Don’t Call Us Dead). The poem confronts its ostensible subject with genuine grievances, but the confrontation itself is a performance for the benefit of a third-party audience, in this case those eager to take pleasure in Smith’s skillful, fiery send-up of “white america.” I note that the title occurs also within a second set of invisible quotation marks because, somewhat more curiously, and more in keeping with the moment of its publication, the poem is delivered for the benefit of an audience that enjoys hearing “white america” lampooned with the implicit understanding that much if not most of this audience is itself made up of white Americans. It is made up of white people laughing at the idea of non-white people laughing at the idea of white people being spoken to in this manner. Elsewhere in the book, Smith implies a substantially white readership with lines like, “reader, what does it / feel like to be safe? white?” Sometimes the implication is more forceful, as in a long poem about the afterlife of young black men who have died violently, at the end of which the speaker directly addresses the reader:
you are not welcome here. trust
the trip will kill you. go home.
we earned this paradise
by a death we didn’t deserve.
Such moments invite questions about the book’s ideal reader. One thinks of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, much of which is written in the second person, cleverly using literary assumptions of universality to dramatize incidents in which one race becomes invisible to another. Smith’s book considers such events with less focus than does Rankine’s, but this is at least in part because Smith’s poems are far more lyrical.
The primary aim of Don’t Call Us Dead is to get a reaction from its readers, whoever they may be. And for the most part, it succeeds. Not only a firebrand but a gifted comic, Smith is an adept practitioner of the one-liner and the double-take—“i can’t stand your ground,” “tonight, i want to take you / how the police do, unarmed and sudden”—and like a seasoned stand-up is always ready to follow a stale line with a fresh one. So even in moments when one gets the feeling that the target of the book’s rhetoric may also be its target audience, the voice of these poems is simply too quick, too sharp, too electric to second-guess for long: “when i was born, i was born with a bull’s-eye.” In lines like this Smith calls to mind the world-burning wit of the late Franz Wright, who wrote in the title poem of his own most famous collection, “If they’d stabbed me to death on the day I was born, it would have been an act of mercy.”
Smith has a flair for long titles, and the longest in Don’t Call Us Dead belongs to a poem that demonstrates as well any the poet’s rhythm, range, and ingenuity. A frank treatment of Grindr, “a note on the phone app that tells me how far i am from other men’s mouths” begins with two lines that cunningly juxtapose the carnality of the app with the loneliness of its users: “headless horsehung horsemen gallop to my gate / dressed in pictures stolen off Google.” Smith clearly knows that few if any lyric poems have ever offered their readers truly new moral instruction. The best move us instead with memorable language and images, showing us what we already know but from a different angle. At this trick Smith excels: “men of every tribe mark their doors in blood / No Fats, No Fems, No Blacks, Sorry, Just A Preference :)” At times, Smith’s Devil-may-care capitalization and punctuation exercise a corrupting influence on the poems’ grammatical clarity, but I have to admit that, in the line above, the sad smiley-face emoticon would be tough to improve upon. Smith’s great gift as a lyric poet is for sorrow couched in irony. The poems are at their saddest when they are also being funny. (The ones that stumble are those that take themselves most seriously.) So “a note on the phone app that tells me how far i am from other men’s mouths” provides optimal material for Smith’s light touch. Smith summarizes the self-advertisements of the phone app’s users in a merciless deadpan:
…. the three men who say they weigh more than 250 pounds
…….. fill their profiles with pictures of landscapes, sunsets
………… write lovely sonnets about their lonely & good tongues
men with abs between their abs write ask or probably not interested in you
In poems like this, Smith keeps a native impishness in balance with a lugubriousness that threatens elsewhere to water-log the book. The end of “a note on the phone app that tells me how far i am from other men’s mouths” even recalls Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale” (perhaps the greatest dirty joke in English literature) in a coda that wrings heartbreak from a subject that would be unprintable in most newspapers:
i sit on the face of a man i just met
he whispers his name into my lower mouth
i sing a song about being alone
That little “song” in the last line might convict the poem of bathos had Smith not, in the poem immediately preceding it, “a note on Vaseline,” described a similar sexual encounter with the lines:
remember this grip when men use the stuff
to prepare you for their want, when they leave you
throbbing, tender, & whistling from the wrong mouth
Truly, Smith’s strongest poems are at no risk of dipping from the sublime into the ridiculous. The ridiculous is already their chosen home. In its best moments, Don’t Call Us Dead is a tragedy played in the key of ridicule.
It is a tragedy that concerns two major sources of devastation in America today, sources the book decries and occasionally conflates: institutional racism and the HIV pandemic. In places, Smith’s instinct for controlling the audience subjects the poems to the false touches common to all demagoguery. Casuistry (“i tried, white people, i tried to love you, but you spent my brother’s funeral making plans for brunch”), paranoia (“they sent a boy / when the bullet missed”), and straw men (“what did i do wrong? / be born? be black? meet you?”) abound. In a long poem titled “not an elegy,” Smith even goes so far as to indict ancient Greek mythology:
think: once, a white girl
was kidnapped & that’s the Trojan War.
later, up the block, Troy got shot
& that was Tuesday. are we not worthy
of a city of ash? of 1,000 ships
launched because we are missed?
One might chide Smith for forgetting that (1.) the Trojan war was putatively fought between ancient natives of the Peloponnese and Asia Minor, (2.) Helen of Troy was, like the Trojan War itself, the product of a 3,000-year-old legend, and (3.) “1,000 ships” was a ballpark figure—rounded down from Homer’s likewise legendary 1,186—quoted by Christopher Marlowe for the sake of preserving iambic pentameter. But to behold such motes would be to miss altogether the beam Don’t Call Us Dead aims to consider.
A poet is not a shortstop. Poetic worth is measured not by avoiding error but by achieving greatness. Smith may at times get the facts wrong but almost always gets the feeling right, and feeling is the lyric poet’s bread and butter. Don’t Call Us Dead succeeds not as an argument but as a song. Its purpose is not to persuade but to inspire. The night of October 4, 2011, Jeff Mangum, reclusive frontman of the once-and-future rock group Neutral Milk Hotel, gave a free surprise performance in Manhattan at Zuccotti Park, on the site of the Occupy Wall Street protests. Mangum spoke a few encouraging words to the audience about their efforts, but his real contribution was to play good music to poorly sheltered protesters in the midst of an unlikely and ultimately doomed occupation. His songs kept them company and made it a little easier that night for them to carry on. In the end, this may be the highest function of political art. At least, it is the function of Danez Smith’s poems. Anyone who disagrees with Smith’s two broad theses—that (1.) the legacy of racist institutions continues to cause needless suffering to black Americans and (2.) AIDS is a scourge on the gay population of America at large and on the gay black population of America specifically—is unlikely to have his mind changed by Don’t Call Us Dead. Which is just as well, because the chief good of a book like this is not to change minds but to provide solace.
The single most affecting line in the collection appears toward the end. Smith’s treatment of big, social, ethical, and religious questions is fearless throughout Don’t Call Us Dead, but it is most potent when delivered with greatest precision. Five pounds of pressure are scarcely enough to knock a child back on his heels, but applied to the trigger of a pistol, they can reroute history. So it is with Smith’s poetry. When a poem takes on the greater political impact of the global HIV crisis, its picture of existence flickers, pixelates. But when it focuses on the contours of a single life, it lights up like a leaf under a magnifying glass. The short poem, “strange dowry,” tells the story of two young men meeting in a club, dancing together, going to bed, and ultimately sharing a brief, happy, domestic existence. The general situation is familiar across genders and sexualities, flushed with the caprice of careless youth. But the particular case Smith describes is different. It is distinguished by the intrusion of mortality. The poem is not Smith’s most refined. It contains a number of infelicitous phrases and outright misstatements. But the sentiment is inerrant. After the speaker and the love interest dance together—“for five songs my body years of dust fields, his body rain”—there is a moment of disclosure. The speaker tells him “the thing I must tell him, of the boy & the blood & the magic trick,” which is to say, the fact of an HIV-positive status. Then comes the heart-wrecking revelation: “me too……… his strange dowry vein brother-wife……… partner in death juke.” Juke! Since Bergman, has there been so immediate an evocation of the Danse Macabre? The next line holds the soul of the poem: “what a strange gift to need, the good news that the boy you like is dying too.”
For a young person infected with HIV—and with it the certain knowledge of personal mortality—it really is “good news that the boy you like” is already at home in his own death. As Smith notes elsewhere in the collection, albeit through gritted teeth, an HIV infection is “not a death sentence anymore.” But a positive test result does serve, like Jack Gladney’s exposure to the Airborne Toxic Event, as an inarguable memento mori. Particularly for a young person growing up in the death-denying culture of contemporary America, to be HIV positive is to know with certainty, if nothing else, that you will die. For the speaker of “strange dowry,” sexual gratification with someone who shares this knowledge is more than just the usual one-night stand: “we let the night blur into cum wonder & blood hallelujah.” Reading “strange dowry,” I could not help thinking of Whitman’s “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,” the shaggy dramatic monologue in which a father buries his son on the same Civil War battlefield “where he fell.” In Whitman and in Smith, the crisis of mortality—in which all speakers and subjects are, however unwillingly, included—elevates every participant, whether “bloodwife” or “son of responding kisses,” to the condition of brotherhood. For Whitman, hope resides in a belief that “we shall surely meet again.” For Smith, there is only the knowledge that “me & that boy lived a good life for a bit / in the mornings, we’d both take a pill, then thrash.”
* * *
There are perhaps more ways of writing poems today than there have ever been. Even as the family of poiesis has relinquished the old genera of dramatic, epic, and didactic poetry, the formerly narrow boundaries of the lyric have expanded to accommodate a genus of increasingly great range, incorporating old-fashioned vers libre, newfangled free verse, prose poetry, concrete poetry, exquisite corpses, cut-ups, confessions, slam poetry, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, found poetry, Flarf, conceptual poetry, post-avant-garde poetry, visual poetry, aleatory poetry, asemic poetry, code poetry, and now Instapoetry, among constantly proliferating others. Variant can hardly be separated anymore from species. A young person setting out to write poetry today may happily proceed down any one of an almost limitless number of paths and still arrive at a result his fellow poets will recognize, however grudgingly, as belonging to the taxonomic category of poetry. So it is always surprising to see a talented young poet choose, from among all those available, the path at once most difficult and least likely to result in success, either aesthetic or personal. Still, a small number do so every year. This past year, Michael Shewmaker was one of them, publishing his debut collection, Penumbra, a slender book of poems distinguished by stubborn, unfashionable end-rhyme and traditional, accentual-syllabic verse.
English-language poets have been writing in regular meter and rhyme for centuries. We’ve only been writing in free verse of any sort for a hundred-fifty years or so, and for less than half that time has free verse been the American norm. Other styles and methods are even newer. A young poet choosing to write what are known as erasures, for example, has far less precedent to contend with. Historically speaking, not very many erasures have been written, so anyone writing erasures today still has a fair shot at producing an influential or even important example of the form—one that might, say, represent erasures in the next relevant anthology. The same goes for someone producing what Kenneth Goldsmith calls “uncreative writing.” And doubly so for someone making videopoetry. For entrants in these relatively new events, the field remains wide open.
By contrast, a poet like Shewmaker must set his sonnets against those of Wyatt, Shakespeare, Donne, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Yeats, Auden, Frost, and Wilbur, to name just ten. Borrowing a concept from students of chess and tic-tac-toe, one might even suggest that formal verse has been more or less ‘solved.’ We are not likely to see many more surprises down this particular literary path. There really can’t be more than a handful of important sonnets in the English language left to write. Nixon famously said, “Finishing second in the Olympics gets you silver. Finishing second in politics gets you oblivion.” The same goes for formal poetry: first prize is immortality, second prize is nothing.
So reading a collection of contemporary formal poetry can feel like watching someone else’s child play a game of Operation. Every error produces a harsh, unmistakable buzz. It can be difficult for someone unfamiliar with avant-garde poetry to say with confidence if a given avant-garde poem is any good. Not so a ballad, or a string of tetrameter couplets. Not many people write old-fashioned poetry these days, but everyone knows how it’s supposed to sound. It takes a well-trained drummer to sustain a steady rhythm, yet any four-year-old can recognize the moment when the beat gets dropped.
All things considered, then, Penumbra shows Shewmaker to be a skilled and cautious prosodist. Reading his well-cut, understated lines, one gets the feeling this is a man who seldom overfills his plate at a barbecue. Take the sonnet, “The Neighbors Upstairs,” which appears early in the collection. In a scenario that immediately recalls Rilke’s “The Neighbor,” the speaker describes a boyhood memory of hearing footsteps and voices from the apartment overhead, while the rest of his family slept below. One gets a sense of Shewmaker’s delicate touch as—on the way to the Shakespearean volta that he sets up from the start—he digresses almost idly into metaphysical allegory:
Like the tired gods that pace above this city—
abolished and forgotten by the hand
that shaped them, prodigals who understand
the gravity of loss—they showed no pity
for those who slept beneath them.
In five lines Shewmaker conjures (1.) the exhausting repetition of modern urban life, (2.) man’s creation and expulsion by the gods whom he in turn created and expelled, (3.) the ancient use of a fall to represent said loss of innocence, (4.) the almost equally ancient image of faith as an expenditure of wealth, and (5.) his upstairs neighbors’ seeming disregard for his family’s peace, all in true rhyme with scarcely a metrical substitution and a foot-and-a-half to spare. And yet, as Greg Williamson says, when it comes to formal poetry, “You get no points for doing it right.”
Shewmaker’s technique is formidable, and he’s begun to develop a distinctive voice—which is twice as hard to do in meter and rhyme—as well as a variety of lyric and narrative tricks. But at times, as in the neighbors sonnet, one feels the cold edge of traditional verse’s intolerance for imperfection. In the last two lines, Shewmaker reiterates the poem’s remembered situation, bringing it into the present day and even producing a believable reversal—everything a sonnet’s closing couplet ought to do:
But now that I am older, torn by choices,
It’s difficult to sleep without their voices.
These are well balanced lines. Shewmaker keeps his vocabulary as simple here as anywhere else in the poem, pulling off the old stunt of reducing his terms’ complexity while increasing his argument’s. A medial caesura breaks the first line in a way that feels conversational while providing a breather before the final line proceeds uninterruptedly to the counterintuitive but inevitable conclusion. Shewmaker gets everything right, and then some. But somehow the end of the poem fails to satisfy. Something about the couplet falls a little limp, a little pat, on the ears. It’s always difficult to end a poem squarely on a feminine rhyme, and it doesn’t help that both rhyme words are the same part of speech. But just as doing it right gets you no points, neither does violating a rule of thumb guarantee an unhappy result. It’s possible that the problem lies in the rhythm’s lack of tension with the meter. Strong lines of iambic pentameter tend (as Nicholson Baker famously observed) to boast four distinctly accented syllables and one softer or merely positional accent, so that (as Nicholson Baker less famously failed to observe) the Anglo-Saxon four-beat line plays felicitously against the old French decasyllable, echoing the endless tug-of-war between the language’s Germanic and Latinate origins. (In the same tradition, Modern English poets from Shakespeare—“But let your love even with my life decay”—to Housman—“Night holds Hippolytus, the pure of stain, / Diana steads him nothing, he must stay”—to none other than Danez Smith—“today’s update: your dead flesh stitched digital, kid”—have continued to use alliteration to bind the front end of a line to the back, just as their Old English forebears used to do.) In the first line of Shewmaker’s couplet, however, the merely positional accent that falls on “Í” and the caesura in the middle of the fourth foot, just before “tórn,” result in the muting of not one but two stresses out of five: “But nów that I am ólder, torn by chóices.” This might not be so bad if the positional accents of “-cúlt” and “-óut” didn’t similarly weaken the second line’s meter: “It’s dífficult to sléep without their vóices.” As a result, the rhythm of the two lines feels a bit thin when spread over all those feet, and the concluding pair of feminine-rhyming plural nouns end the poem without a satisfying aural tension. Of course, prosody can explain only ever so much, and I belabor this question not to pick on Shewmaker but to demonstrate the challenge he has set himself. Poetry of this kind is something very few do well, and he does it better than most.
One of the best demonstrations of his skill and ear is a poem called “Automaton,” which, like many in Penumbra, loosely keeps the shape of a sonnet (while allowing for an unorthodox rhyme scheme, a few stanza-breaking caesuras, and an extra line). The poem is written in the voice of the titular machine, directly addressing its maker:
………… I am the hum
… and curiosity of cams, the thrum
of countless cylinders at work beneath
a form shaped by and for yourself,
into a small boy’s body.
On top of end-rhyme, meter, and alliteration, the poem makes rich use of additional consonance, assonance, and internal rhyme, and the typography that at times seems so disorganized disguises a careful order, one mimetic of the poem’s subject, mimicking an organic form while adhering to a clockwork regime:
……………. A doll,
you said, designed to imitate a thought—
a thought I may have had
………… had I been taught
to question my creator’s hand.
The poem is itself a sort of automated contraption, diligently paying out tidy statements about a machine with a human shape in the machine’s own voice. Its end restates the spiritual hollowness of both invention and inventor:
…………………………………………….. I am
my father’s son, the sum of all my parts.
By its own account there is no ghost in this machine, but the very emptiness of the subject lends pathos to a poem that insists on its incapacity for feeling. The automaton is, on one plane, the poem addressing its poet. But it is also the literal robot addressing its Daedalus. It is also the child addressing his father, mankind addressing its maker, and so on. Re-reading these lines, I can’t help thinking also of addiction, of the man-shaped machines from Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, in which “all the drinking machines would go to a whore-house and rent fucking machines. And your father would drag himself home to become an apologizing machine. And your mother would become a very slow forgiving machine.” “Automaton” displays an ingenious conceit that mirrors a nearly infinite number of asymmetrical relationships. It is an asymmetry not unlike that built into the sonnet’s division into octave and sestet, which Shewmaker’s poem has recapitulated and almost (but not quite) resolved with the inclusion of an extra line, ending in a recurring statement—“I am”—that unites creator and creation. To a friend who believes the so-called ‘rules’ of rhyme and meter limit the potential meanings of a poem, a thoughtful reader might recommend Robinson’s “The House on the Hill” and, for good measure, Shewmaker’s “Automaton” as well.
If it seems that I have focused unduly on just a couple of poems in Penumbra, it is because a collection like this retains little life as a collection proper. Shewmaker has written a book with a number of discernible themes, including family, rural life, obsession, doubt, and religion. But the poems here are well enough made that they will survive, if at all, according to natural selection. That is, some reader will fall in love with one or another of these poems and pass it on to his friends or his colleagues or his students, one of whom may select one for some anthology, which some other reader will pick up and dig through or give as a gift to some other reader who will find a favorite poem inside and Xerox it or memorize it or post it to social media. This is how poems that stick around actually do so: reading to reading, reader to reader. With Penumbra, Shewmaker has begun a bid for the long haul, and like any poet who makes this choice, he will probably fail. But unlike most, he at least has a chance—especially if he grows as much in the decades to come as his best poems suggest he might.
The first time I read “Automaton,” I was reminded of a similar poem called “The Machines Mourn the Passing of Humans,” another standout piece from another uneven and promising debut: A. E. Stallings’ Archaic Smile. It is a career like Stallings’ that I wish for Shewmaker. May he—like Stallings and Joshua Mehigan and Morri Creech, and Housman and Larkin before them—publish few books, and good ones, and may they be recognized as such. For a poet, there is little more one can wish.
I’ll close this review with some lines from the last poem in Penumbra. “The End of the Sermon” is a blank-verse dramatic monologue in which a weary pastor, or possibly ex-pastor, tells the story of the day he was struck by lightning, and of the strange dream that has haunted him ever since. It is not Shewmaker’s most finished poem, but it is one of the most memorable in the book. This is in part because it asks a question it cannot itself answer. It starts as a poem about one thing and, by following that subject to its natural conclusion, finds itself, in its final lines, to be a poem about something more important. This is, of course, how Zen parables work. It is also how Rilke’s poems work. Somewhat surprisingly, all three of the books in this review—Orexia, Don’t Call Us Dead, and Penumbra—deal with religion in honest and for the most part earnest terms. But where Spaar uses religion as a decoration (“Pelvis bone of St. What’s-His-Name / hoisted above famished fields for rain”), and Smith as a weapon (“if I must call this their fate / i know the color of God’s face”), Shewmaker takes up religion on its own terms, as a source of hope, doubt, and continual discovery. Many of the poems in Penumbra deal explicitly with faith, including nearly all the best and worst. The coincidence of such success and failure is a sure sign that the poet has found an enduring subject. So, by my lights, “The End of the Sermon” was the right poem with which to end the book. A powerful, uncertain work, it points the way toward the poet Michael Shewmaker might one day become:
In the persistent dream, I’m looking out
the attic dormer, where, beyond the fence-line,
a narrow stand of longleaf pines sways
under the gathering clouds—when, only just
before I turn away, a bright shank strikes
the tallest of the farthest trees.
…………………………………………….. It leans
and since I am removed, behind the glass,
since all is still, it falls in utter silence.
Who knows the awful mind of our creator?
I’ve seen that pine fall every night since then,
and every night I fail to hear the voice
inside that quiet.
…………………………….. But what is there to hear?
I’m through with prayer. Please don’t misunderstand.
I only mean to say that had you woke
like me, nameless and shivering in the rain,
you might consider what you’re asking for—
the steep price of briefly becoming light.
I came to in the middle of the pasture.
The tractor idled in the slackening rain.
I didn’t dream—or else, I don’t remember.
I spoke a single word. There was no answer.