One might profitably read Night Vision, the latest collection of poems by John Foy, as a protracted argument about the plain style. The language is so bare of ornament or ostentation that when, in “Englewood,” Foy writes, “The white-throated sparrow / gives up its seven-note song,” the two compound adjectives feel almost decadent. Foy signals from the outset the deliberateness and import of these stylistic choices. The second poem of the collection, “Killing Things,” presents in the first three stanzas a series of man-made manglings: Robert Frost runs a tractor across a bird’s nest, Philip Larkin runs a mower over a hedgehog, and Richard Wilbur runs a mower over a toad. Frost’s birds perhaps make it, Larkin’s hedgehog dies without suffering, and Wilbur uses the high style to glorify the toad, as Foy points out: “He used / the words ‘ebullient’ and ‘emperies’ / to talk about the life he’d compromised.” Foy’s fourth stanza is dedicated to his own enterprise and reads in full,
When my turn came, it happened in a field. I hadn’t known that I’d gone over it, but there it was, a rabbit much the worse for having been beneath the rotor blades. I’d laid its back right open to the bone, but it was still alive and looked at me, and then I had to kill it with a stone.
Only nine of the sixty-one words in this stanza are polysyllabic; the remaining fifty-two, including every word in the last line, are monosyllables. The understatement of “much the worse” is typical, as are the single end-rhyme’s strategically important position and pair of totemic words, “bone” and “stone.” “Killing Things” establishes a poetic succession: whereas other poets may reach for the empyrean, stylistically speaking, as a consolation for death, Foy will speak in the bare plain language of fact, and the fact is that death is an ugly, mostly merciless business. Whereas other poets may have been lucky not to have killed or to have killed quickly, Foy will be more honest: sometimes the dying thing looks you in the eye, and you have to pick up a rock and finish it off. The poem is a bold introduction to the book.
The entry for the plain style in the latest edition of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics suggests that writers and readers have associated the plain style with a truth-telling burden so urgent that only the unornamental will suffice. The question of Night Vision, then, becomes this: what is Foy’s burden?
The title poem gives us some direction. It gestures toward an unnamed “it,” “a shifting, black / on black, something just // a part of the perimeter,” that we cannot see but that is
. . . near you now, has somehow gotten in, at peace with what it does in the darkness, and why.
Death would fit the bill here, although suffering or cruelty might also. The predatorial implications are clear enough, and if we can’t precisely identify the predator, perhaps that is the point: the vision one has at night, as well as the night vision that enables one to see in the dark, both reveal a universal predatorial instinct that, whether it belongs to cruelty or death, will result in the same thing for all.
Varieties of predation, cruelty, and death appear throughout the collection, both in casual and crucial roles. In the aforementioned “Englewood,” the speaker says,
I’m learning now, at last, what you knew all along, that to be means only to be used up by those who need you most.
[right aligned in original]
In “Sorrow, Meister Eckhart Said,” a poem whose closing gesture (“but here / is what I want for you”) is that of Yeats in “A Prayer for My Daughter,” the speaker concludes,
. . . and I don’t want you to die,
but coffee in the cold dawn is good, and you may be called upon to fight, and sorrow has a way of coming out to find you.
Even in an ostensibly pastoral scene, in a poem about summer swimming, Foy writes, “It’s true / each summer some kid drowns, but still you love / the sky, the depths, the water’s mood,” and one gets the sense that for the speaker in these poems, no place is every really undarkened by the visions of the night. What peace we may find stems from “knowing to obey / means at its root only to listen,” which in this case means drifting off into death the way we drift off while listening to good music, or it consists of “hold[ing] out a hope / that it’s enough / to go on doing what we can.”
These are the burdens of the truth to which Mr. Foy dedicates his plain-style poems. It is a bleak vision, surely, yet there are consolations, and for this reader, they arise out of the style itself. For one thing, the plain style can suggest that poetry underlies even the commonest of utterances. The poem “OK, Chris” begins, “OK, Chris. Go out and hit the ball / just like you did in practice yesterday.” It proceeds through a series of baseball tips until, in the final three lines, it achieves its figurative resonance: “Let the shortstop know that life is hard. / Just listen for my voice out there, and know / I’m with you. I’ll tell you when to go.” In “The Answering Machine,” Foy imitates—or perhaps even borrows—the language of a voicemail message: “Hello, John. This is Father McRay. / I’m from the hospice, and I’m / the bereavement specialist.” The poem targets the inadequacy of this comforter’s offers, which include a 1-800 number, in the face of suffering: the speaker concludes, in response to Father McRay (whose name intimates the McDonaldization of pleasant rays of sunshine in a dark time), “We all have to die, and what / you’ve found to say is not enough.” The title itself is a poem in microcosm: do we really expect that any machine will be able to provide us with the answers we need? In poems like these, poetry is less about creating an adequate poetic language—which “The Answering Machine” may reject altogether as a possibility—and more about noticing the inherent poetic nature of language even in its most mundane contexts. This, in turn, suggests that our lives as they are commonly lived—like our language as it is commonly spoken—are replete with meaning, significance, and even poetry if we are willing to notice them.
The other major consolation available to Foy comprises the consolations of the natural world. The nature of these consolations varies. In “Dog,” the speaker celebrates a companion: “I put my face among your paws, / where all good smells originate, / and stroke the velvet of your ear,” he writes, later adding, “You live an unexamined life, / but that’s OK, you are a dog . . . and I am yours / and hope that you can smell this love / I carry around, no questions asked[.]” In “The White-Breasted Nuthatch” and “Night Heron,” nature functions more emblematically, providing clear guides to what human life is or can be. In “Few Days,” the speaker appreciates nature’s honest hardness:
How lucky that nature’s not around the bend or apoplectic and doesn’t ever need fentanyl or dope to make the end more bearable. Things do die violently, of course, but hurt is never the intent. The creatures of the field, even the bugs, they all must eat—each other.
Surely it is an intriguing coincidence that the same week I read Foy’s collection, I ran across these sentences about Whitman in John Hollander’s The Work of Poetry:
It is not only among the animals, in whose selectively described moral condition (“Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, / Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth”) the poet finds “tokens of myself.” (It might nevertheless be added that Walt Whitman did not eat his young, or remain incapable of knowledge of death or acknowledgment of anything.)
Where Foy diverges from the tradition of the plain style is in his technique. For practitioners such as George Herbert or Ben Jonson, technical perfection was both an aim and an achievement. Foy’s approach to versification is different. His rhyme and meter are staggered and gestural rather than fluid and perfect: he favors irregular line lengths and consonance or assonance as much as, if not more than, true rhyme. His use of rhyme is less systematic than organic or, ungenerously, opportunistic. There are moments of padding: “they want so badly just to get / to where it is they’re going” for to get where they’re going, for example, or “Then he went away to go / and play with the dogs in the rain and didn’t care” for he went to play with the dogs. The sonnet predominates as a form, although if one requires of it metrical consistency or a complete rhyme scheme, then ghost sonnets predominate. There are, however, moments of sensitivity in the handling of meter, too. Foy writes, “I prayed / for quick conveyance of my mother’s soul, / but what Christ may have done to comfort her . . .” and that last line metrically emphasizes the “what” over the “Christ,” making it clear that importance lies not with Christ’s identity or existence but with the results he can achieve. In another poem, Foy describes Ganymede as “too close to too much power far too soon,” and that repetition of “too” (counterpointed with “to”) in both stressed and unstressed metrical positions is the closest one can come in poetry to jazz syncopation of a single note.
Night Vision begins with two poems that situate the poet in terms of his art. In one, Foy identifies for himself both predecessors and reasons he rejects them by naming names: Frost, Larkin, Wilbur. Surely the dark pastoralism of Frost has its place here, as does the acidic plainspokenness of Larkin. I would add that Foy also reminds me of a certain strain in Andrew Hudgins’s early work, as well as the work of Robinson Jeffers. “Killing Things” is not the first poem in the book, however; that slot belongs to “Deer Rifle,” which also has a moment when it sounds the ars poetica note.
………………………………………………... . . The art of picking off briquettes and wooden boards was what you taught me as a boy, the craft and clarity and range, and how to hit the target cleanly and destroy.
That enjambment on “art” sticks out, of course, as do the words craft, clarity, and range. How telling, then, that the aim of such an art is to “destroy.” I will surely read Foy again, but when I do, it will be because his work tells me what a particular vision of life is like, not what living is for.
We move now from the plain style of Night Vision to a book titled Ornament, a debut collection by Anna Lena Phillips Bell and a winner of the Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry. In addition to its usual sense of “decoration” or “embellishment,” the word “ornament” has etymological resonances of equipment, “ceremonial dress” (according to the OED), and order, each of which could conceivably illuminate this book. (Even the ceremonial dress aspect, the most arguable of the bunch, appears relevant in “Strapless” and “Sunday,” the latter of which begins, “The blue and white dress / is perfect to wear on Sunday . . .”) It seems reasonable to invoke etymology here because of all the books I have read recently, Ornament most clearly positions itself in relation to several traditions: it is a collection of Southern pastoral formalist poetry. What interest me most, however, are not these labels nor the ways the book fits them, but rather those moments that express a desire to be touched by the otherworldly—which, in a way, should be the antithesis of a regional, pastoral, or formalist poem.
The regional self-identification is clear everywhere. The cover presents a needlework representation of a topographic map, and the jacket copy mentions “the foothills of the Eastern U.S., and the old-time Appalachian tunes and Piedmont blues” the author “was raised to love.” The dedication of the volume reads, “for my parents / and for the Piedmont.” There is the poem titled “Piedmont,” as well as two called “Girl at the State Line” about the North Carolina/South Carolina state line, and a poem called “I’m Going Back to North Carolina.” There are epigraphs attributed to Mississippi John Hurt, Tommy Jarrell, and Jean Ritchie, plus a three-page appendix called “Some Songs and Tunes” that lists musical sources of inspiration, and the entries themselves mention Tennessee, Kentucky, and the Carolinas. What to make of such regionalism is another matter. I have heard it said, as a critical commonplace, that Faulkner and Joyce were regionalists, and certainly regionalism need not suggest little ambition or limited resonance; on the other hand, regionalism even in its most universal applications insists on its particularity, as Bell does when she writes, “Let my beloved be enigmatic / . . . / so, swifty as possible, call each a name / fit for speaking: Blue Ridge, Oconee, Slate Belt, / River Bend, Chatham, Abbeville, North and, yes, / South Carolina.” Bell’s regionalism arises, I think, from her sense of the natural world and our need to find a place in it. At the end of “I’m Going Back to North Carolina,” she writes,
…………………………………………Let’s walk as the wild grape moves, with curving purpose, out from flared noon light to shade and back, breathing in the saving scent of honeysuckle, jewelweed, summer grasses and our sun-warmed hair, dizzying our senses, pulling us toward each other’s verdant bodies, summoning a salve, a word to keep us: we live here.
The meter requires that we emphasize the “we” and the “here” of the last line, a telling rhythmic emphasis, and the use of “verdant bodies” connects the speaker and her beloved to the natural world, “verdant” being a word whose first definitions pertain to vegetation. The pararhyme of “hair” and “here” musically makes a similar point: our very bodies are the products of places, physically and culturally. To ignore one’s “holy places,” to filch a phrase from Auden’s “Bucolics,” would be to ignore oneself.
Bell’s regionalism is thus intertwined with her pastoralism, both of which provide frameworks for discovering or describing some human relationship to the natural world. (For Bell, that relationship can be quite close, apparently: as she puts it in “Fall Swim,” “I thought you were the one. He means, the one / who’s always up for this, part lake, part human.”) The last lines of “I’m Going Back to South Carolina” exemplify well her pastoral mode—the “honeysuckle, jewelweed, / summer grasses and our sun-warmed hair”—but there are many others. Again, poem titles alone evoke the tradition: here one finds “Trillium,” “Trifoliate Orange,” “Limax maximus,” “Honeysuckle,” “Early Blackberries,” and “June Swim.” Bell presents the pastoral not just as a large poetic tradition, but also as a smaller domestic one:
I follow her paths past bushy azalea and privet,
countless snowdrops, daffodils. And her favorites, the variegated hostas—for each, she scribbled a name and a circle to mark the spot she’d planted it,
on typing paper, the flaps of old catalogues, envelopes— script so quickly written that even her daughters hardly can read it. Which map is the last one,
the true one?
The figurative potential of this mother-to-daughter transmission of knowledge is striking; the implications of the past tense are moving. As Rosanna Warren writes in “Negative Idylls: Mark Strand and Contemporary Pastoral,” “Lament is not incidental, but integral, to ancient pastoral.”
Finally, Ornament identifies itself as a formalist book in a variety of ways. The title itself suggests as much in that it may echo—and, through the accomplishment of the book, rebuke—Milton’s famous dictum that rhyme is “no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse.” Those endorsing the collection include Molly Peacock, Annie Finch, and Geoffrey Brock, practitioners who fall somewhere on the spectrum of the formal. Of course, the poems themselves are the final measure of the book’s formalism: one finds here blank verse, ballads, sonnets, sapphics, a ghazal, a rondeau, triolets, and variations thereof. Among the more interesting formal choices are a poem in unrhymed amphibrachs, a rondelet, a sonnet in anapests, and a poem that uses interlocking trimeter triolets as stanzas:
Is mine a gaudy God, one of bobbins, pins? Are you of salt and sod or mine, a gaudy God who—fingers thimble-shod, baubled, bezelled—begins— be mine, a gaudy God, one of bobbins, pins.
Are you of salt and sod, A fish, an element? Do leaves fall where you’ve trod . . .
One might wonder if a musician—and Geoffrey Brock notes in his blurb that Bell plays the banjo—would have a particular affinity for formal verse and whether that musical background would affect her approach to form. I note a few potential connections here: a tendency toward looser measures, the use of assonance (particularly with nasalized terminal consonants) and consonance rather than full rhyme, and a predilection for repetitive forms like the triolet or rondeau, reminiscent perhaps of the chorus in a song. Although assonance in place of rhyme is common in pop, folk, and blues songwriting, those looser measures and repetitions may also be related more purely to music as the linguistic corollaries of syncopation and theme and variation.
If these traditions—Southern, pastoral, formalist—appeal to a reader, then Ornament will be a satisfying book, but as I mentioned, I found something else to admire. A number of poems voice the desire to be touched by something otherworldly. One sees the possibility of it at the end of “Trillium,” where the speaker and her brother “walked among green leaf and flame-white petal, / careful that our feet did not catch fire,” or at the end of “Qualifications for One to Be Climbed by a Vine”: “. . . could I stand it? / Stand still and stay put for enough of a lifetime / for waver to wander toward me and find me, / describe me, in spirals, as road leading sunward?” One sees it in the negation of “Proem”: “But while we squint, our bodies / stay our bodies: earthly, matter-of-fact[.]” It is there, too, in the conceit of “The Royal Typewriter Company Delivers by Parachute, 1927”:
I tell you, when the Royal floated down, at first a speck emerging from the plane— a parachute, and hung from that, a crate that hid the black machine—I felt myself go light . . .
. . .
But all the stock reports it has produced, the stiff condolences, official deeds, are nothing when I think of all the words I almost saw, the ordinary air filling with silk and possibility.
It is there in what must be a one-of-a-kind instance of the best of something, the Best Poem about Slugs Having Sex, titled “Limax maximus,” which describes in unsettling detail the mating ritual of the great grey slug, which includes “exud[ing] / a double-stranded rope of sticky mucus, / thick enough to hold the weight of two.” The slugs mate midair, a moment in which the most bodily of experiences is also an unearthly one, and the poem concludes by describing these slugs as “slow aerialists on their gloss trapeze”—this, I will remind you, of slugs bumping uglies on a mucus swing. It is a marvelous poem.
“Wand” presents this otherworldly desire most clearly. It begins with two sisters playing with “yellow lightsticks,” which they throw “high / into the dark, to see their fluorescence against / the clouded sky.” The story is crisply told:
………………………………………….Hers had just fallen to the lawn again when I tossed mine up and it didn’t come down. Sideways, twenty feet high, it moved along the air toward the branches of the pecan trees, drew a neon trail over the monkey bars my dad had built, then dropped. She ran for the house, scared.
If readers feel confused by this unexpected sideways flight, they are simply participating in the speaker’s own confusion.
But I was busy: how had mine traveled? A bat must have carried it off—flown thirty feet to be convinced this was no snack—and let it fall. Triumphant, already retelling the story to myself, I followed her in to dessert, to the lit, warm space of my family, suddenly terribly dull, even as the wand, touched by the night world, began to fade in my hand.
That final image works perfectly. The embodiment of otherworldly power—the “wand,” she chooses to call it—starts fading only four lines after the word “triumphant.” Hardly has the experience happened before it is already becoming a story to tell and then a dim prop in the hand of a disappointed speaker. I’m reminded of the last poem in Rachel Wetzsteon’s debut collection, The Other Stars, which begins, “Coming back to the cave is when the hard part / begins. What can be said . . . ?” When one has brushed up against the other world, how can this one seem anything other than “suddenly terribly dull”? The image of that fading glowstick dazzles.
I find it fascinating that a poet who participates so willingly in what could be described as delimiting traditions—which define for the poet place, genre, and style—succeeds so often in capturing the longing for transcendence. For me, those are the best moments in the book. Good as it is to read celebrations of the idiom and music of a particular region, to savor careful depictions of the flowers, fruits, and slugs of the world, or to see a neatly turned rondelet, it is even better to discover that one’s body might be a road leading sunward.
Robert Pinsky’s latest collection of poems, At the Foundling Hospital, is a book preoccupied with names. Not only is there a poem called “Names,” but there is also another called “Mixed Chorus” that begins, “My real name is Israel Berlin. My father / Was a Roman slave who gained his freedom. / I was first named Ralph Waldo Ellison,” continuing through a transhistorical litany. In fact, once the reader notices it, the act of naming, proper names, and even the word “name” appear everywhere in the collection. In a younger writer, this would be called a tic; in an established poet, it is called a theme.
The word “name” and its variants appear, by my hasty count, at least twenty-four times in fifty-six pages of poetry—which is to say, on average, nearly every other page. Thus, in a poem that blends personal history and cultural history, Pinsky writes, “Pinsky like ‘Tex’ or ‘Brooklyn’ is a name / Nobody would have if they were still in that same place: those names all // Signify someone who’s been away from home a while.” In “The City,” he begins, “I live in this little village of the present / But lately I forget my neighbors’ names.” Another poem begins and ends with the line, “I gave my name and they took some blood.” “Glory” celebrates the power of poetry to immortalize by pointing out “The one who threw the stone farthest, / . . . was Nikeus, / Recalled now only in the poems of Pindar,” and although this could be one reason that names pepper the collection—as a poet, Pinsky is engaged in a bit of self-congratulation about the power of poetry—I think there are other, more deeply poetic, reasons for this pattern.
Naming is one of the primordial functions of the poet. John Hollander identifies it as “Gay, first work, every to be prior, / Not yet sunk to primitive” in “Adam’s Task,” a poem that wittily riffs on the tradition of Adam as—since he was the first giver of names—the first poet:
Were, in a fire of becoming, ……….Laboring to be burned away, Then work, half-measuring, half-humming, ……….Would be as serious as play.
With that “half-measuring, half-humming,” Hollander reminds us that poetry is both a technical endeavor—a feat of linguistic engineering—and a form of song. In its nature as both work and play, poetry echoes Eden: poetry’s play was the work of paradise. By contrast, Richard Wilbur acknowledges poetic naming as one way we attempt to gain control over a postlapsarian world of terrifying uncontrollability: “Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear, / Can also thus domesticate a fear.” The Edenic sense of naming eludes most poets, apart from the neologists, but Pinsky’s work seconds both Pindar’s and Wilbur’s visions of poetry: he writes with a clear impulse to memorialize, as the proliferation of proper nouns in his collection suggests, and also with the impulse to master a difficult and dangerous world.
There are pitfalls to this procedure. Some poems (including, for example, “Names” and “Mixed Chorus”) may suggest meaningful patterns but risk sounding like mere catalogues, and Pinsky has an irritating habit—one pertaining to nomenclature—of telling the reader what things mean:
Creole comes from a word meaning to breed or to create, in a place. (“Creole”)
Token meaning a least Irreducible particle Of meaning. (“The Foundling Tokens”)
Gewirtz, he told us, means a dealer in spices. (“The City”)
The saying is, “An enemy is as good as a Buddha,” Meaning, you ought to learn to attain tranquility From having someone against you. (“Cunning and Greed”)
Khoust: meaning sacred obligations between A stranger who accepts bread and one who gives it. (“Evolution of the Host”)
In old American movies they sometimes say
“Tomato” meaning a woman, a word like “cupcake”— Casual contempt we know to hiss at today. (“Running with Noodles”)
In that last example, Pinsky not only tells us what the word means but also how we should respond to it. This list, by the by, could continue. Yet the practice of naming allows him extraordinary economy. In a poem titled “In the Coma,” the speaker begins, “My friend was in a coma, so I dove / Deep into his brain to word him back.” (One notes with appreciation the anthimeria there.) Late in the poem, the speaker says,
I struggled to tell things back from decades gone. The mournful American soldier testifying About My Lai: I shot the older lady.
Viola Liuzzo, Spiro Agnew, Jim Jones.
Those three names, their own self-contained stanza, conjure an entire history, personal and public, one painfully juxtaposed with both the nameless “American soldier” and the nameless “older lady.” Even when the names refer to unfamiliar (or possibly fictional) people, as with the Lenny and Mike of “Grief,” so potent are names that we perceive them as allusions bringing with them an entire invisible history, exerting influence like dark matter.
Names here aren’t merely a matter of tics or technical resources. Pinsky has positioned himself as an inheritor of the democratic inclusiveness of Whitman. Twice he invokes the term “Creole” as cause for celebration:
……………………………………………... . . . Begetting and trading, they Had to swap, blend and improvise languages—couples especially
Needed to invent French, Spanish, German: and I confess— Roman, barbarian—I find that Creole work more glorious than God.
In “Running with Noodles,” Pinsky presents the pedigree of spaghetti: “Spaghetti with red sauce is Aztec and Chinese. / Noodles from the East. Gold apples from the West. / Creole inventions time makes pure.” That sounds like Whitman with a global perspective, the Whitman who wrote of grass “Growing among black folks as among white, / Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.” Both poets put this in terms of transactions—begetting and trading in Pinsky, giving and receiving in Whitman—but where Whitman sees an eventual unification in death (“They are alive and well somewhere, / The smallest sprout shows there is really no death”), Pinsky sees the possibility of a new creation: the Creole.
This Creolized Whitmanian inclusiveness characterizes the whole collection. The sheer amount of culture(s) in Pinsky’s poems—mythical, historical, literary, and religious figures, monuments, dance crazes, Thai restaurants and jazz clubs, comic strips, baseball teams, David Copperfield quotations, Native American visions, Yiddish expressions, and the rest—invites us to reflect on the ways all people embody a delicate balance between particularity and commonality: we are individuals with specific names, yet we speak a common language. We have personal histories and favorite books, yet we participate in systems of meaning and power much larger than ourselves. If particularity grants us identities, commonality grants us communities. In Pinsky’s poetry, we all find a place because, in his vision of the world, we are products of the most astonishing blend of cultures and histories: most especially in America, we are all “Creole inventions time makes pure.” Pinsky reminds me, in a way, of a poet very unlike him: Albert Goldbarth. Both have that Whitmanian sense of inclusiveness; whereas Goldbarth tends toward the zany, offbeat, and pop-cultural (or is it pop-cultish?)—he is, after all, a poet who includes back-to-back poems on coprophagia and “Evan’s Mother’s Urine” in To Be Read in 500 Years—Pinsky tends to sound a little donnish, more disciplined, and graver.
For all his celebration of our global habitation and our names, Pinsky makes no claim to dispel the tensions inherent in any balance between particularity and commonality. “Often I get these things wrong or at best mixed up,” he writes in “Creole,” and one might challenge the syncretistic impulse that allows him to write in another poem, “Your father Adam known also as Mākea, / Your mother Lakshmi known also as Eve.” (A writer who equates religious traditions that easily may just be taking none of them seriously.) And Pinsky knows that culture is not neutral:
……………………………………………….Our systems fed By long-dead life that rotted to our sweet crude—
Warmth, movement, light and all our musical racket. Lipstick traces. How we do. An airplane ticket.
High volume, gasoline roar, an amplified voice Keening its meaning—will we die of all this?
But Pinsky knows the poet’s real task. Poets do not solve problems or dispel tensions; they haunt us with questions, with possible futures. This book houses many such hauntings, but one makes especially clear the importance of both particularity and commonality, identity and culture. “The Robots” is short enough to quote in full and good enough to merit it:
When they choose to take material form they will resemble Dragonflies, not machines. Their wings will shimmer.
Like the chorus of Greek drama they will speak As many, but in the first-person singular.
Their colors in the sky will canopy the surface of the earth. In varying unison and diapason they will dance the forgotten.
Their judgment in its pure accuracy will resemble grace and in Their circuits the one form of action will be understanding.
Their exquisite sensors will comprehend our very dust, And re-create the best and the worst of us, as though in art.
Kelle Groom’s fourth collection, Spill, is also replete with names—both the famous, such as Georges de la Tour, Larry Levis, and Steve McQueen, and the less identifiable, such as Ross, Jamaal, Carolyn, and Sylvana (although one suspects, given that Groom works at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, that these latter might also be among the famous, but on first-name terms)—but names are only one indication of how much sprawl, how much titular spill, characterizes this book. There are dream poems, I-do-this-I-do-that poems, potent narrative poems, litany poems, loosely associative poems, meditative poems, love-gone-wrong poems, elegiac poems, and still others. Readers will find themselves in St. Petersburg, Dorchester, D.C., Charlottesville, Helltown, “the Citgo / beside the Bottoms Up bar” (which I believe used to be on South Dixie Highway at the edge of New Smyrna Beach, FL), “the psychic capital of the world” (which, for those not versed in Florida trivia, is Cassadaga), multiple grocery stores, many beaches, and more. There is much world in this book.
Groom works in a variety of modes, but perhaps the most noticeable distinction from the outset is that some poems are presented as fragmentary, juxtapositional, unpunctuated free verse with medial spaces, and some poems are not. What determines these distinctions defied my powers of detection. Certainly there must be advantages to the former mode, but I noted that the longer those poems go, the more one senses the trade-off in omitting punctuation and obscuring syntax. In some cases, the missing punctuation even causes unintentionally comedic effects:
…………………………………………………….The last time surprised when fast like a paper boat until I’d nearly passed two women who’d stood — dunes flying by on my right the foxes & coyotes red brambles cloud — reaching out her hand in mine one of the strongest
I’d walked on all summer
A reader could be forgiven for thinking, despite the line and stanza breaks, that the hand of the preceding line was being walked on. (Surely “walk on” here means “continue to walk” rather than “trample.”) I suspect hearing these poems read aloud would make clear the authorial intentions with regard to syntax and—no pun intended—pacing.
Groom’s juxtapositional strategies are, at this stage in our literary history, basically conventional; nonetheless, one of my main questions is how some of these jittery, frenetic poems hold together. Of course, one might ask that question of poems by Frank O’Hara or John Ashbery, too, and given the literary stature of such writers, we have presumably answered the question. In any case, it often seems what binds Groom’s poems together is personality—i.e., the thoughts, feelings, or memories experienced while composing the poem—or an undisclosed narrative. Results vary.
What you’ve always known: this dress this hair…………….. set me on fire Luanne said nothing …………………..sentimental Patty purple-streaked is on the phone with Stop & Shop …………………..ordering rose petals for the bed It’s easy they just pluck the roses fifteen dollars or you can do it yourself I lived in an old house down the shore sticky with hundreds of red ants mating in the ceiling …………………..dry wings falling in my hair
I like, individually, these images, but what do they add up to? Finding connections in commerce, hair, or presumed narrative provides connective tissue the writer has purposely omitted. Of course, none but the most insolent of poems would explain everything to you—that, or a poem by Pope—but on the spectrum of poetic argumentation, this poem’s argument (and I use that term loosely) strikes me as unclear.
Yet Groom’s skittery, sidewise movements are also one of her great strengths. The sudden swerve, the startling image, the unexpected association—these can be the very pith of poetry, and at the latter, in particular, Groom is superb. She describes being looked at “while I tried to walk through the reverb of Larry’s words, / Which was like having had sex & dressing too quickly, / Clothing askew. Everything ajar.” Is there a better analogy for the surprising intimacy of poetry—in this case, Larry Levis’s—or for the way we feel unprepared to return to the world that isn’t poetry? Is not “reverb” an exquisite choice? In another poem, “The face of a woman who lost her son is elastic / With her widening mouth as if screaming needs more room.” Groom is a skilled phrase-maker, and the first poem opens the collection with words rightfully included in one of the blurbs: “If someone must saw open / my chest I want all this light to be what spills out.” This affirmation matters, given how much the book refers to suffering. “St. Petersburg,” which begins with a narrative about the speaker and her boyfriend traveling, changes direction midway through: “The last time I was in a church, / my son had died,” the speaker says and goes on to remember how when young “the crosses and stars, / the moons and people” would put her
……………….to sleep in a forest ……………….where trees steadied me, as if someone
had reached out, the muscle ……………….in his arm in the palm of my hand,
so that I could get out ……………….of the boat for a moment while it took my son away.
That beautiful zooming in on a particular sensation—the muscle, the palm, which contrast so vividly with the bodily absence of the son—is remarkably effective; so, too, is the way the loss of the son invades the memory of the past so that it is the speaker-as-child who “get[s] out of the boat” as the son is taken away. So intertwined are the spilling light of love and the darkness of suffering, in fact, that I would nominate this remarkable passage about a beekeeper as emblematic of the book as a whole:
Paralyzed in an accident, he’d stung his arm over and over, a bee between his fingers like an electric cotton ball, a smarting peach, and the nerve regrew — he traced it, a red line on a map.
In seven crisp lines, Groom memorably captures the idea of pain as that which maps the routes of feeling. One could not ask for more from poetry.
I could include many other examples of Groom’s uncanny ability with metaphor, but I want to leave readers as many delights as possible, so I limit myself to one last one. In “The Face of Jesus,” the speaker writes of being thanked “for being the face of Jesus” by a local church responding to the speaker’s request for money (presumably to do good works). Understandably, the speaker recalls “many unkind thoughts / about my co-workers just that morning,” but then reconsiders:
I realized that a spirit would need hands to touch someone, and that the person who has those hands and that body can be flawed
and sick and crazy, selfish and withdrawn, and sad, and still be an instrument of love, like when a musician gave up
on teaching me to play Summertime, and simply laid his hands on top of mine, banged my fingers into keys.
The final figure, beautifully complex, alludes to the beginning of the poem—“I was thinking about why souls have bodies, / what can a body do that a soul can’t . . .”—and celebrates the power of our attempts at goodness while acknowledging the loss of agency and even the violence that such attempts can entail. (Not only is “banged” an angry verb, but “banged my fingers into keys” makes it sound as though the speaker’s body is being transformed into the instrument itself, a painful Ovidian metamorphosis.) I’d submit that the same ideas animate “Easter” by George Herbert: “Or since all music is but three parts vied / And multiplied, / O let the blessed Spirit bear a part, / And make up our defects with his sweet art.” (The OED cites this example of “vied” as meaning “to increase in number by addition or repetition,” which would make the rhyme redundant; I like better the idea that Herbert is using the verb in a more rivalrous sense suggestive of dissonance and harmony, a sense not only current but one for which Herbert is also cited in the preceding definition: “to match (one thing) with another by way of return, rivalry, or comparison.”) Groom’s image also invites us to consider the place of imitation in making art—after all, the scene involves music-making—and the nature of the relationship between good works and good work. Again, one could not ask for more from poetry.
Because Spill offers such various poems, readers may find both poems they like and poems they don’t. The question to ask, then, is whether the likable poems are of sufficient excellence to warrant patience and openmindedness with the others. This reader, at least, emphatically answers yes. I still have half a dozen passages I want to quote as proof of that excellence, and in the spirit of duplicity, I offer these last lines about a hotel room: “Two identical paintings // across from each single bed, / so that one can sit up and contemplate / a hazy landscape all to oneself.” If this one book holds at least two books’ worth of poetry in it—books and aesthetics that, whatever their commonalities, are hardly identical—perhaps it is so a reader can sit up at night reading in the preferred one before casting a sidewise glance at that whole other landscape.