A Review of Emily Grosholz’s The Stars of the Earth

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The Stars of Earth,
by Emily Grosholz
(Able Muse/ Word Galaxy, 2017, 320 pp)

Early October of 2018 is a fraught time to be reviewing a book of poems by Emily Grosholz. Before I get into the beauties and pleasures of The Stars of Earth, let me explain: In a time of intense partisanship in poetry and everywhere else, amid the screams of social media, with the word privilege loud in public discourse and the poetry of identity brightly spotlit, it’s odd to be immersed in a collection so much more detached from the public sphere than my other reading. A first, too-speedy look left me almost put off by so much serenity, almost annoyed at so many decorative meditations on time spent in France, England, Italy, Holland, Germany, Jerusalem, and South America, chafing at them the way I sometimes do at Facebook friends’ travel photos. In the midst of Grosholz’s sometimes rarefied matter—ethics, number theory, fractals—and her untranslated use of tidbits in several languages, and her many dedications to names unknown to me, even her poems about simple pleasures like a yard in a leafy exurb seemed to exclude too many readers.

This reaction was an effect of the moment, and my error. The corrective that pulled me back was the warmth of Grosholz’s many poems about mothering. Those poems are also conveniently collected in a chapbook called Childhood, which isn’t my subject. I promise to discuss some of those poems in their context, so let me backtrack and proceed in an orderly way.

First, about the poet: Emily Grosholz holds an endowed chair in philosophy, English, and African American Studies at Penn State. Her list of recent scholarly publications, easily found online, is very long indeed. Her name has been linked with formal poetry for years; it appears regularly on lists of faculty members and presenters at gatherings like the West Chester Poetry Conference and Writing the Rockies, held at Western State Colorado University, and I first encountered her work in those places. It also turns up on the masthead of The Hudson Review. Yet though I met it time and again in poetry magazines, her poetry seemed little discussed in the last dozen years, the years since I returned to poetry. The librarians whose help I enlisted in my search could locate few reviews. Unlike other poets identified with formalism, she doesn’t turn up in a name search on, for example, Eratosphere. It’s been fifteen years since her last full-length collection, which explains why both a new book and a retrospective are due.

Next, about the book: The Stars of Earth is the overall title of a new-and-selected volume. It is actually Grosholz’s eighth book of poetry, comprising sixty-eight new poems and generous selections from four earlier books; it leaves out works in translation from the French of Yves Bonnefoy and special anthologies of her poems on specific subjects. The new poems appear first, under the title “A Year,” dated 2016, in twelve sections named for the months of the year, beginning with October. The selected poems follow, in groupings named for the books from which they’re taken, in chronological order: “The River Painter (1984),” “Shores and Headlands (1988),” “Eden (1992),” and “The Abacus of Years (2002).” This organization makes a kind of claim to be representing the earlier books. In fact the selections reproduce about two-thirds of each book as originally published, so that they seem less a “selected” than a “collected-with-judicious pruning.” The poems selected from each book are reshuffled into differently titled sections, and sometimes these suggest a re-seeing of the poems at the remove of many years; more about this later.

In terms of craft, Grosholz’s poems have changed only subtly in four decades and more of writing. The typical poem is fluidly metrical, though the meter varies from even to heavily substituted and loose. One difference in the newer work is more frequent use of a roughly seven-beat line, as in the book’s title poem:

Come away, come outside now, we whispered to the children
Who, that summer’s night, were plastered to the noisy screen
Of their electric muses, cell phone, television, texting, Word.
They tumbled from their couches anyway, half-roused, and followed . . .

I’m not sure why there’s been a switch to initial capitals in every line for all the work in this collection, but that’s a small matter.

While various meters appear in each book—and one or two prose poems, and the occasional stanza form—the most usual poem is an easy mix of pentameter and trimeter lines, at random rather than arranged in any sort of heterometric stanza pattern. To illustrate, here is a stanza of “Elegy,” dedicated in memoriam to Maxine Kumin:

On February first, I went outside
Stepping through pot-cheese snow to look for sprouts,
And there they were,
The tiny dark green tips of snowdrop spears

There is also plenty of unmixed blank verse of the sort that represented Grosholz in Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism in 1996.

And for a poet so strongly linked to the New Formalism, Grosholz is remarkably sparing with any received form other than blank verse; I can find in the book two villanelles and one poem—the title poem of The Abacus of Years—that hints at a slant terza rima in spots. The fourteen-line poems labeled sonnets have no clear pattern of end rhyme, and only the slightest of turns. Even a poem in ballad stanza, “A Bouquet for Buffalo,” is unrhymed. Rhyme appears in some poems, but randomly, as a surprise effect.

Randomness and surprise within that metrical flow are the chief virtues of this poetry. Clear description, clear narrative, and clear argument prevail; there’s nothing overstuffed with wild detail, whiplashed with mixtures of metaphor, or dense with devices of sound, like alliteration. But in the midst of such easy progress, we’re regularly delighted by a flash of slang or an artful stock phrase that contrasts with an elevated idea, or with a double meaning, or a surprise metaphor, or a sly allusion. “Spring Cleaning” is an example. Describing the mess of a yard in very early spring, it ends this way:

Weltering, paratactic, adjectival:
A great unseemly biomass, here and there
And neither here nor there. Too much for me,
Who should by now have set the leaf meal curbside
In conical matched sets fit for the vacuum
Cleaner truck, and racks of leafless sticks
For the great mulcher, with its gloved and goggled
Ministers, that seals the fate of spring.

More examples: a crabapple tree that used to bloom, “no, / To burst like a low budget, pale pink Vesuvius . . .” (“Where I Went, and Cannot Come Again”). An episode of shepherding children while “[h]olding a box of Kleenex and a grudge. . .” (“How Things Change”). An apostrophe to butterflies: “So we are all eternal, little buddies!” (“Ode to the Butterflies”). In a drive at dusk, the sudden memory of a line from Macleish’s “You, Andrew Marvell” (“The Always Coming On”).

There’s humor in the these poems, too, though it’s generally quiet and wry, as in “Morning Delivery of The Times.” The narrator goes out twice, looking for and not finding “the damned newspaper,” though she does find the small beauties of nature. She makes a third foray:

I went out again and discovered,
At the edge of the ballroom, a slight
Cotillion of snowdrops, dancing
Although they’d been covered completely
By blizzards, twice.
And after I bowed to the flowers
In admiration, I turned
And there at the foot of the driveway,
Much like a scrap of snow,
Or a speckled, swan-feather fan,
Lay the newspaper.

When Grosholz treats more academic or abstract subjects, she makes them tangible. “In Praise of Fractals” is a good example:

Compared with Euclid’s elementary forms,
Nature, loosening her hair, exhibits patterns
(Sweetly disarrayed, afloat, uncombed)
Not simply of a higher degree n

But rather of an altogether different
Level of complexity: . . .

Rarely, a poem is too plain, too detached, too much like prose to be effective as poetry no matter how important its subject. “Justice,” a poem about school desegration, suffers from this plainness:

What constitutes a decent education?
Du Bois took vehement issue with Washington
Because, he argued, civic harmony
Cannot depend on money-making alone.
It must be based on respect,
Public acknowledgement of the importance of justice.

A warmer way of treating the subject of justice comes from simple storytelling, in “After the Revolution,” a narrative about Grosholz’s adopted son:

Yet one day squiring my black-eyed second son
To a birthday party flung by a little duchess,
I found myself escorted out of the heated
Interior lined with sixteenth-century portraits,
Dotted by lamps and comfy brocaded sofas.
The garden roiled with nannies, mums, and hedges
As the maid explained she couldn’t offer us tea,
Not even in the kitchen. We swept away.

My examples so far are chosen at random, as if all five books were alike, which is not true. Their differences square with the different endings of the author bios of the original books: the author alone in The River Painter; author and spouse in Shores and Headlands; author, spouse and child in Eden; author, spouse and several children in The Abacus of Years. In case there are those who object to looking at a woman poet’s output through the lens of family life, marriage, and motherhood, I submit that Grosholz herself has been willing to frame it that way, in the essay “Do I Write as a Woman Poet, or as a Poet Who Is a Woman?” in Plume. All the books have a broad mixture of themes, politics and social justice included, but the later books include more of the broadly appealing poems about marriage and family that helped me re-orient myself to the book’s strengths.

All the older books are necessarily reorganized because each has been cut down by a third, which means that the poet asks us to see them a bit differently than in their original versions. Rather than go into detail about all four, I’ll use Eden—my favoriteas an example of the way the books change focus.

The twelve poems cut from Eden’s original forty mostly represented travel, and that theme is still there, but sharpened to two French locales, a good correction. In the two travel groups, the poems are placed continuously, without a page break for each new poem: a useful method of condensing. The original book seemed to be balanced on a sort of fulcrum, teetering back and forth between two poles: on the one hand, memories of a family of origin, with studdings of a time of travel before the start of the poet’s own family, and on the other a present reality folded in on the intimacy of mother and child. Ending the original Eden with its title poem (justly famous, easily found online) reinforced that sense of the book’s structure, a teetering between Edens. In the selected version, the back-and-forth sensation is gone because the poems are bundled into groups of like with like: childhood memories (“Revisiting Philadelphia”), trips to Paris and to Cassis, a small group called “A Son,” and another called “Home,” which ends the book. This last group includes “Eden.” But instead of placing it last, so as to focus on the unavoidable, unmendable sadness of human families—and to nudge us toward reading the book with that focus—this new grouping ends with “Proportions of the Heart,” a poem that takes off from the art of Japanese flower arranging and concludes with what seems to be an address to her husband:

So may you and I and our small flower
Flourish in the constraints
Space and number pose on families,
And make our tracery around the center
Of certain loss more beautiful and sure.

While this altered ending hardly sidesteps the fact of “certain loss,” it names it obliquely, defusing it with the beautiful and the sure. The effect is to lift the sadness imposed by lines like the ones at the end of “Eden”:

But I am powerless, as you must know,
To chase the serpent sliding in the grass,
Or the tall angel with the flaming sword
Who scares you when he rises suddenly
Behind the gates of sunset.

Such changes are probably unimportant, though, to the readers most likely to buy The Stars of Earth, which is an important and very pleasing overview of a poet more people should know.