A Memory of the Future
By Elizabeth Spires
(W.W. Norton & Co., 81pp., $26.95)
Eight years separate Elizabeth Spires’ previous volume, The Wave-Maker (Norton, 2010), from her seventh full-length book of poetry, A Memory of the Future, and in that time she has become even more attuned to the sacred element of worlds both seen and unseen. Much honored throughout a distinguished career (her awards include a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and two National Endowment for the Arts grants) and widely admired in her second calling as a writer of children’s books (The Mouse of Amherst, perhaps the best known of these, features Emmaline, a verse-writing rodent who shares Emily Dickinson’s home), Spires combines restless intelligence with an open-eyed wonder in poems of genuine discovery. In Spires’ vision—shaped equally by her Catholic upbringing, immersion in the Metaphysical poets, and deep interest in Zen practice—history and foreknowledge converge in ways that presage both an ending and a beginning, as when language itself is lost at some final threshold: “I will revel in a world/no longer particular./A world made vague,/as if by fog. But not fog” (“A Memory of the Future”).
For Spires, metaphor provides a lens that leaves her conscious of mortality yet guarantees a searching gaze: her poems seek, beyond the visible veil, the answers to lasting mysteries. One remarkable example is “Magicada,” which takes its title from a name for the seventeen-year cicada. The speaker asks, “Lord, when I am taken…/Will I dream the Eternity Dream over and over,/I who am so alone?” She imagines “familiar or unfamiliar footsteps/treading above [her] on hallowed ground,” then shifts to a marvelously rendered depiction of the brood’s last emergence from its subterranean hold: “Their song was not a song we knew./It filled the days and nights unceasing./It was not human. And then it stopped.” In the final section of this concise poetic triptych, Spires marvels at time’s passage—“Seventeen years!/Deep in the earth there is no ticking time./They sleep like tiny gods below us…/Will I see them again? Will I?” The “tiny gods” simile pulls us into deep time—years that reach back beyond human awareness and may reach forward just as far—as Spires fuses the commonplace of Christian burial with the insect’s dormancy and an emergence that mimics resurrection. (Of course, cicadas, like poets, sing.)
In “Snow, the Novel,” a striking lyric, Spires turns from the body to the world itself—“snow on the ground and snow silently falling,/the landmarks of a life vanishing”—through a speaker who, watching from an upper window, “knows/she cannot stay and cannot go”—from her house or from her life. Spires’ diction avoids unnecessary ornament as the speaker considers nonexistence, curious yet unafraid: “when Eternity unwrites me…/my tracks filling up as fast as I can make them,/then will I know the story in its entirety?” Knowing that story won’t be easy; the poet’s meditation foresees other vanishings—“When the last of the last ones go, if I am one/of the last”—and concludes by calling the present moment the “now that is snow ”—as if time itself were a snowfall erasing the past, and us. Anyone who has read Joyce’s “The Dead” is familiar with the use of snow as a metaphor for erasure; but, in Spires’ work, what might seem a conventional analogue resonates with epiphany—a hallmark of this poet’s sacramental vision. “Cloud Koan” restores the awe once felt by jaded air travelers—“Flying above them or through them,/we cannot penetrate their calm demeanor”—while the beetle in a pile of rough drafts evokes its ancient Egyptian counterpart: “So, scarab, how do you survive?/Yes, that is the question” (“Gold Bug”). In such poems, the alert innocence essential to a children’s author brings renewed force to familiar images and adult realizations.
Spires’ eschatological preoccupations—typically Catholic, if uniquely resonant—are balanced by her interest in Zen Buddhism, prompted in part by the poet’s discovery of Japanese artists’ books and by John Daido Loori’s The Zen of Creativity, according to an August 2015 interview posted at Kenyon Review Online. This makes sense. Beyond personal enlightenment, Zen’s focus on mindfulness and meditation draws a temperament inclined toward the end of things back into the present moment; and as the Zen experience resists articulation in language, a fascinating tension emerges for the artist whose very medium is words. In a 2018 interview at the Johns Hopkins University HUB, Spires acknowledges this tension by quoting Loori’s praise for Asian poetry and “the vagueness of its languages.” Spires observes, “I had never thought about the beauty of vagueness….But what if there are poems to be written in English…that are successfully ‘vague’ or general? I have not given up on specificity, but I am interested in exploring this further.”
Placed early and late in Spires’ book, the two poems entitled “Riddle” aptly suit this exploration: their strategy is to evade an unspoken secret till a solution transforms their hints into wisdom or metaphor (for poets, the same thing). While the later “Riddle” concludes, “I pray never/to outlive you,” reinforcing the speaker’s need to hold fast to her identity, the earlier “Riddle” admits to no solution before “I am changed into/particle or star, and you,/you drift away as if you/had never been there at all” (I’m skirting solutions, too, so as not to spoil a reader’s pleasure; the book’s end notes provide the answers). In both poems, a consideration of what comprises the self underlies the poet’s approach to broader, unanswerable questions.
Although the speaker of “The Sound of the Sea at the Shore” shares the poet’s interest in vagueness—“As one grows older,/there should be fewer/and fewer words to say.//Each one a few letters/but taken together/meaning something large”—this deliberate paring away of vocabulary (really, a stripping away of ornament) isn’t vagueness, exactly, despite Loori and Spires’ use of the word; it is movement toward the core of meaning, a quest for archetypes, a search for what’s invisible beyond words and beyond the senses—a search widespread among Catholic poets (and others of a mystical bent). In shedding misleading details that distract from enlightenment, the speaker seeks a childlike gaze: “Like a child I will sit here…//Can words, a single word,/save me or anyone?/I hold one to my ear,//a roaring shell that says/neither yes nor no./I listen.” The metaphor of word as seashell, its roar a sound that becomes a world, is made even more compelling through the poet’s simple eloquence and the calm pacing of Spires’ concise, unfolding tercets. What she terms “vague,” I would term an eloquent simplicity fully capable of evoking a complex response. The imagery of “The Sound of the Sea at the Shore” is no less powerful for being reduced to its essentials.
Though drawn to existential questions that transcend any particular era, Spires does not overlook the contemporary world. “The Amiable Child,” “Pigeon 7 A.M.,” “On Riverside Drive,” and “March: St. John the Divine” capture Manhattan’s urban landscape through small encounters rich with history: words engraved on a child’s headstone, the voice of an Upper East Side pigeon (“Gray note on a gray scale”), a Buddhist statue from Hiroshima on display in Riverside Park, or that moment on the Cathedral grounds when a white peacock spreads “its rippling tail”: “A dark-haired woman clapped/at the spectacle, and a Spanish man asked for the name/in my language, then held out his arms and said, ‘I love you.’” The speaker, amid strangers, finds herself sharing their awe, a connection transient but powerful, part of their common human bond.
By contrast, “The Streaming” strikes a darker note. “MASSACRE,” a capitalized headline, is the first word to tumble out in a flood of long-lined couplets that capture the information overload of technology, Times Square, and intruding memory. Nearby shops offer no shelter from the assault; homeless people haunt the streets, “so many of them, hands held out,” while the speaker averts her eyes from “what screams to be//looked at: the missing ones, the dead, the fires and the bombings,/everything ravaged, burned.” Yet the flood continues—in the lighted news loop scrolling above the streets, in a play interrupted by cell phones, in the lives streaming around her: “The needing-cessation but nothing ever ceasing. The wanting/to scream but not screaming.” After a ringing cell phone shatters a church’s silence, the speaker glimpses a girl in the nave whose book bag proclaims, again in capitals, “STAY HUMAN,” its chance message a crucial reply to the poem’s first word.
In a collection that is rich in poems of reflection and quiet power, “The Streaming” offers a jarring contrast—the perfect illustration of the chaos from which we must turn inward, seeking answers more substantial than those that deafen us with their din. Its message sums up Spires’ collection as a whole: while “a memory of the future” may seem a paradox, it is itself a Buddhist koan that invites us to contemplate deeper insights beyond reason. In a world where mortality is assured, past, present, and future remain inextricably linked, and the only way to stay human is to recognize that connection—to consider our place in a greater cosmos with suitable humility, and, like Spires, “[s]tunned by it all,” to “say/the words over and over/and step into the light again” (“Light Like Water”).