Spells & Structure, Structure, Structure: On C. Dale Young’s Prometeo and Marcia Karp’s If by Song

/ /

C. Dale Young
(Four Way Books, 2021, 62 pp., $16.95)

If By Song
Marcia Karp
(Lily Poetry Review Books, 2021, 117 pp., $18.00)

In Prometeo, C. Dale Young’s poems are fundamentally expressive, seeking to do justice to what the poet describes as an inner “fire”— “fire in my heart, fire / in my veins.” He uses discrete formal structures to fragment, examine, and recohere various facets of his identity and experience, always in a reasonable tone, and always allowing for skepticism.

“I am, unfortunately, no saint,” he writes. “Fractured, divided to the quick, I am incapable / of being singular.” And elsewhere, “when a young man in a fey black jacket said / that we were made of the very dust of the stars, / I laughed. The hardened scientist in me laughed.” The poems resist transcendence—and yet often, in spite of this, open themselves up to the wonderful and the absurd. They worry that too much knowledge will destroy their impulse (Prometheus, anyone?). And yet as a machete, with a sharp, clean swipe, harvests a “fire of sugar,” poetry’s precision reaps, for Young, a reward sometimes sweet, sometimes astringent: the “odd joy / in deploying the right word.” When too much knowledge threatens, the poet is able to say: “It isn’t my job / to know. My job is to look, to look up.”

Young’s music works in a peculiar way. It wants very much to sound like talking—and a particularly rational, linear kind of talking which favors transition words. Most of his poems appear in stanzas of three or four lines, and most take at least two pages to resolve. They are methodical, with a strong sense of repetition that the poet balances with conversational gestures.

“On Nomenclature” for example, may want to lift away toward the ecstatic but has been carefully weighted on all sides with colloquy:

But it was only slightly more realistic than searching for the Holy Grail, by which I mean it was utterly ridiculous. On a small ship, sailing to Lima, we were told repeatedly

to keep an eye out for the Blue-footed Booby. Even the name seemed outrageous—but nature assigned no such moniker, humans did. The Blue-footed Booby, we were told, is

often sighted plunging head first into the sea here and, yes, it really does have light blue feet, brighter in youth and a duller blue as the birds age. Nature invented ageism

and, apparently, humans invented preposterous names. Case in point: the woman who, minutes after I delivered her baby girl, announced she would be named Marksalot.

She named her daughter after the fluorescent highlighter on her bed stand.…

This poem’s fascination with what is rare and outrageous gives it a quality of marvel. But the deadpan conversation in which it is couched (“but,” “only slightly,” “by which I mean,” “yes,” “apparently,” “we were told repeatedly,” and again, “we were told”) and the tendency to return from digressions mid-line keeps that in check.

This ballasting quality seems to occur in the rhythms, too.  “Apparently, humans invented preposterous names” is a remarkable, wry, anapestic line, with the /p/s requiring a crispness of articulation. It’s pleasant to say this line over and over in the mind.  But the next line about-faces the rhythm to begin on a strong stress: “Case in point: the woman who…”  And then an iambic line: “her baby girl, announced she would be named Marksalot.” The inversion on the last foot—the two stresses on “named” and “Marks”— forces a pause, like that of any good storyteller, before the punchline. And so the cadences are introduced and reversed, picked up and slowed down so that you can always feel the buoying sound beneath, moving toward the marvelous, but it’s being spun out over several lines, and restrained.

I think of Charles Olsen’s charge that, in a poem, “one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception.” In Young’s poems reflection leads to further reflection.  In “Nomenclature,” he sets out to talk about traveling and blue-footed boobies, moves into a memory and doctoring experience, is brought back into the present (where the speaker is watching the planes called Blue Angels fly over San Francisco), and then ends, surprisingly, with a meditation on the Holy Family. He allows the mind to cast a wide a net, and shifts from subject to subject within a poem. And yet, I felt that the primary tension in the poems came from resisting perception, which the poet seems afraid somehow will either not exist or will mean nothing at all.

In other words, Young seems to have an attunement to the miraculous and the tendency to seek solace in the interior world, but also a kind of love-hate relationship with these qualities of his own work. When another interior poet like, say, Denise Levertov uses the breath and speaking voice to reach a reflective stillness—a reverie or a point of apprehension—she might say

a very strong luminous arm reaches in, or from an unsuspected place, in the room with us, where it was calmly waiting, reaches outward. And though it may have nothing at all to do with us, and though we can’t fathom its designs, nevertheless our condition thereby changes: cells shift, a rustling nearly audible as of tarlatan flickers through the closed books, one or two leaves fall, and when we read them we can perceive, if we are truthful, that we were not dreaming, not dreaming but once more witnessing.

Young is often witnessing to this or that moment, bringing his poems to the point of accepting meaning that has come by revelation, or articulating a sense of the mysterious way that the whole universe works together. But he tends then to pull back, or end in disappointment. I found myself wondering whether the structures of poetry are constantly leading him (the practicing doctor) beyond the rational, or whether he needs to avail himself of all these structures in order to insist on the empirical.

In “Portrait in Nightshade and Delayed Translation,” he speaks of breaking down in front of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son (“Something broke. As cliched / as it sounds, something inside me broke”) on a family vacation to St. Petersburg years ago. He has a strange ecstatic communication with the Russian guard, who consoles him in a different language. But he concludes:

You see, I want this whole thing to be something meaningful, my falling to my knees in front of a painting by Rembrandt, a painting inspired by a parable of forgiveness offered by a father to his lost son.

But nothing meaningful has presented itself. Even now, after so much time has passed, I have no clue what any of this means. I still haven’t figured out whether I am the lost son or the found.

“On Nomenclature,” which seems to want to talk about angels and visitation, takes a turn toward the Holy Family at the end (Young is Catholic in upbringing, though not in practice; several of his poems depict both the influence of liturgical structures, and the abuses he experienced in the Church). The verbs in the poem shift toward the language of perception, from “I have to assume” to “I wonder” to “I believe”—

Like angels, they are rare and rarely seen. One must be desperate, I believe, to see one, the way poor Joseph was when an angel of the Lord appeared to him to ensure

he understood his wife was carrying the Son of God. Joseph named this child Jesus, though I am told it was really Yeshua. One of them means rare, means worth more than gold. 

There is that standard deflation as the poet returns to “I am told”—the verb of the skeptic that he used at the opening the poem. With some cleverness, the poet maintains a sense of significance in the final line, which feels lovely because of its chiasm (Yeshua/rare/gold) and allusion to ancient tradition, while in fact it says nothing much beyond fact. Without accepting transcendent meaning, the poem still achieves reverence.

But one also might look at it another way and say the poem is about to end when suddenly the Holy Family emerges. The poem embraces a digression which casts all of its observations into new light. We see that everyone in the poem has been visited by something rare and absurd—heavenly, even: airplanes, boobies, a miraculous child. So we might say that logic works overtime to connect and control the complex ideas of the poem, but angles in spite of itself into mystery. As the poet himself would put it, “despite my love of science, I still / at times, prefer mystery over certainty.”

We see the same tensions between transcendence and the rational in another of the self-portraits throughout the collection, “Portrait in Azure and Twine Unravelling” (the title is a play on one theme within the poem, the music of Ravel, which he unravels…):

………………………………………………….Everything was repetitive, and that is how it started, my trying to master

the language, the very words, fearful they would master me, instead. Azure, sinecure, the long u had me so early, and then the hard t one finds in repetitive, substantive, titillation. I always needed more and more words. Debussy once described Ravel as a man just like us, one who understands that repetition structures

the way we move through the world, structures our very breath, breath being that thing necessary to master song, language, the natural world around us. The first time I took a lover, she took time to watch me sitting of the edge of the bed mouthing the word more. After four hours she dressed and called me repetitive….

I find this sestina astonishingly good, even in its choice of end words which are overtly referential to the form. In the context of the book as a whole, we already know this poet’s penchant for restatement. We know his themes: language and its pronunciation (“practiced precision, all the words saved up / for a poem”), the desire for mastery of his subject matter (and the ways in which poetry challenges this), his DNA, his male beloved (another “repetition”). Therefore, arriving at this poem provides the reader the great pleasure of bringing together aspects of the person that were beginning to emerge, but hadn’t yet been said so clearly.

We feel as though the poet is really onto something in discerning a parallel pattern between his own life and certain fundamental structures of the universe. But then he unravels his argument:

………………………………………………….“Listen to me,” you said. “Music is more than the simple structures one needs master.” I chose language instead of music to master, all 171,000 words in the English language and more.

This morning, you caught me mouthing something other than more. Ravel was not a man like us. Really, I just needed a new word to master. My love, I’m repetitive. I sit here saying: “structures, structures, ……………structures.”

He reduces poetic labor to an obsessive habit. He had said, at the beginning of the poem, that “sometimes what attracts us is nothing more / than a marker of what is wrong with us.” And maybe what’s “wrong” with him is not his appreciation of Bolero, his Catholic upbringing, or his repetitive lovemaking, but, he wryly chides, his poetry.

These lines undo the gravity of their lead-up. You thought I was going somewhere grand? I just needed a new word to master. I just needed to write a poem that said the same thing over and over. You know me. This is the kind of thing I do.

And yet once more, the final lines suggest not just dry humor, but anguish. This speaking on the edge of the bed (that intimate, private place) sounds a bit like Hamlet’s mutterings, or Macbeth’s “poor player / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage / and then is heard no more.” There is a persistent desire for coherence and integration, for the discovery of significant meaning, for structure to matter, in so many of these poems. And much as the poet tends to undercut that impulse, and turn away from it to the life at hand, its presence is what makes these poems interesting. Allowing the reader to come alongside him in his quest to fragment and reintegrate himself beautifully and lyrically, precisely and compassionately, does matterat least to me.

I’m upheld by the poet’s remarkable fortitude when he says:

To be exact, to be precise, is a kind of purity at times, even if impossible. The stringency, the odd joy in deploying the right word: do you see? I never did this to break someone’s heart. Time after time, I have sought the courage, the resolve, to break my own.

“It is never easy, the truth. It has never been easy,” Young writes. And we need to hear of this difficulty (in the empirical and the suprarational realms) again and again. We need to be reminded of our limitations, but also our capacity for beauty and resolve.


The poems in Marcia Karp’s collection If by Song cohere against a different kind of a fragmenting impulse: not the conflicted interior world of mestizaje or the tension between the insights of science and art, but the lack of trust and permanency between an “I” and the “you.” They balance the intense pain of repeated fickle and unrequited love with the marvelous control of Elizabethan-style song.

If by Song offers the poems of a mature writer who has a long familiarity with the reconciliations, partings, and betrayals inherent in both human relationship and English syntax. Her great themes are loneliness and ruthless desire, and few of the poems caper with anything like joy. Most of them depict scenes of solitary home life, failed love affairs, and her own family’s devolution. But they do caper with what Sydney called “delightful proportion,” as in “Odd Little Woman:”

She’d like to be family. She’d like to be friend. She’d settle for species and fears she offends. Yet there’s nothing peculiar the others can see. (It’s gotten so she is embarrassed to be.)

She’d known joy as a child and remembered it when she was loved, and herself then, but not lately again. She’d been loving to love of all kinds, so it grew. Was it me, she wonders, or not, who withdrew? It wasn’t her plan to be so alone; still, she is, like a creature that’s fouled its home.

By distancing and pragmatism, combined with rollicking meters and a sense of ballad and spell, minuet and refrain, nursery song and invective, the poet is able to express unfortunate realities with “the well-enchanting skill of music.” If she does not exactly worry about winning us to virtue, she does excel at putting unhappiness and indiscretion to a tune—and thus into perspective.

In “Lover’s Spell:”

Helen had her heroes Kleopatra kissed a king But “Marcia makes men mad” Is not a brag the children sing

So let M be for mmm A for again R, our discretion C, charm and change I is indulgence Ahh, yet again

In, “Familiar Rhymes:”

How naughty to run the car with a hose …………..Returning the fumes …………..To the man in the car How lonely to sit in the fume-ridden car …………..Alone on a Wednesday morning

How silly to end with your head in a bag …………..A white plastic bag …………..The end of your life How awful to get the sack in the end …………..All done on a Wednesday morning.

The ironies between form and subject are apparent.

But what interested me is that this poet avoids misery. Rarely do the poems seem anguished, and bleak they may be, but never woebegone. She seems to achieve a state resembling peace in part by an ability to reconcile discord (titling a poem something like “To a Friend, Some Days after a Disagreement,” and choosing forms that resolve), and in part by understanding circumstance in light of the history of human experience. One speaker goes so far as to say:

I wrote the history of poetry and prose. Of poesy and prosery I wrote. Not all of it, just little bit I chose, although I thought about what I’d left out and wrote again and wrote some in.

Impossible to understand the whole of the human experience, perhaps. But poesy and prosery can make us privy to a great deal. And so even if the immediate relationships within the poems falter, the long relationships of the work—with Chaucer, Ben Jonson, Sappho, and the legendary Don Juan—and with those who translate the past into our own tongue (David Ferry, for example)—those relationships persist.

That is why she can end a poem like “Familiar Rhymes” by saying:

How long can we waste our breaths in our griefs …………..Pretending the world …………..Has yet to know griefs The car, hose, that Wednesday, the man in the bag …………..Have outspent hours they’re due of the morning

Of course, there is a horribleness to this, but also a lovely truth. How long, indeed, can we “waste our breaths in our griefs?”

Preferring situational irony to image, and linguistic game to moody evocation, Karp excels at exploiting the basic structures of the English language. In “My He,” for example, childlike rhymes and a range of simple pronouns convey a complicated adult affair. She plays the logic of grammar against the wiles of the human heart:

Once I was sad. Now I am glad you wouldn’t, or couldn’t because (you said) shouldn’t, and probably more. Because if you had, now would be after the fact. Too sad now would be. But I do (you don’t ask) have a he, with a wife of his own, and he does when he can and will do again when he wants, though (here’s truth for you) though I said I am glad, my he should be you.

This does a little lessoning as it relates a situation: teaching us what pronouns are (not just replacements for nouns, but relational words), how slippery a verb of being can be, and the efficiency with which a dependent clause can shift the force of a statement.

The poem demonstrates constant awareness of symmetry and asymmetry. The two halves of the opening line are beautifully, simply parallel in structure (“Once I was sad / Now I am glad) — and they immediately set up the past/present tension of the lyric. But they are not quite balanced. The object “you” gives more weight to the second half of the line, and pushes the meaning forward into the second line.

The third line both extends the basic clause to include an object, and splits that object into three verbal parts (wouldn’t/shouldn’t/couldn’t). But those parts are held together in opposing ways, first by a coordinating conjunction suggesting equal possibility (or), but then by an adverbial suggesting cause and effect (because). Again, this shifts the balance of the line. The three verbs are not equal, but instead the double “wouldn’t or couldn’t” has to balance against the single “shouldn’t.”

In the third line, the unit of the line takes precedence. Visually, we see clauses with repeated terms placed directly beneath each other:

because (you said) shouldn’t …………………….now would be after the fact because if you had ………………………………… would be

The repetition of a clause—with its end cut off—is a curious but effective way to convey, not just wistfulness, but pain. But the poet adds words, too, to keep the poem alive: “because” becomes “because if.

The poem can’t go on too long, however, because of its situation (“you don’t ask”) and emotional dissembling (“though / I said I am glad, my he should be you”). Yet the alacrity with which the poet gets honest within the poem is part of the sharp effect it can have on a reader. At “my he should be you,” we feel the unabashed persistence of the poet, and also an “oof” of bitterness and sorrow.

A student of David Ferry’s (to whom she writes an intelligent and complex homage), Karp handles syntax in a manner that speaks to her experience in translation. One of the latter sections of If by Song features translations from the Exeter Book Riddles and her riffs on well-known poems by Sappho, Horace, and Catullus. Under her hand, the meters tend to run particularly tight and swift, the tones more than a little desperate. She seems drawn to the voice of the love-sick turned sly and adroit—those who send their unfilled desire spinning back with a little acerbity.

Her “Hymn to Aphrodite,” for example—which she titles, “Come On, Aphrodite”—has the same kind of back-and-forth between the pronouns that we observed in “My He:”

you asked again then what hurt me to call you there here again

and what did I want most you do in my madness “Which girl should I trick aphrodi- siac love back to you,” you asked, “that cheater, ah, Sappho, her name?

Now she might flee you, soon she will pray on your name; she flings back your gifts now, wait, she will take you in love; she loves you not now, she will love you tomorrow though will what she will”

Karp’s version prioritizes a breathless kind of sapphics in which the expression of the prayer comes out compressed, self-interrupted, and intense—she really hears the tug-of-war within this meter.

As for universal insight gained from the ancients, “All Women Know” is a fairly good summary of Karp’s savvy sensibility:

Young Cupid, cock not your bow with shafts of gold nor lead. All women know it is not your arrow that finds a man’s bed. Become a shepherd if you would know why she says yes and she says no. ………………….All shepherds know the ewe will agree if the ram is strong, and the ewe, for the moment, is free.

Is this offensive, delightful, or just abashedly honest? It certainly views human folly and caprice as subject to the inescapable (though not necessarily encumbering) dictates of nature and passion, a notion around which Karp arpeggios—sometimes accepting, and sometimes rejecting, but always taking into account—in her many depictions of the foibles of friendships, family secrets, and love affairs.

The poems are very intelligent, but they do love a complicated turn of phrase and sometimes a bewildering conceit. There were a few times I thought of Sydney’s injunction against the philosophers: “he teaches, but he teaches obscurely, so as the learned only can understand him; that is to say, he teaches them that are already taught.” Consider a poem like “One of Life’s Mysteries” which I think is saying something about how elusive the self (the “subject”) can be:

Finally, the subject (at whom the instruction was aimed), breathing it out, said “No, not that, but this is the nature, the time, place, and name of the matter.” The other (who would better her friend) (breathing in this for that, continued, blind to her swerve in the matter, knowing herself—so all evidence points— only always the deep one, the fact one, the keen) kept up the correction.

Eventually the poem tells us that “the crime” is that the “subject” “lit out from the scene” or else “went dark to herself.” I can, with pondering (and I am happy to a ponder a poem) discern the two figures: one instructing and one eluding. I can connect the idea to the themes of other poems that surround it: shame and raw desire and aging. I am told later in the poem that one of the figures (the subject) disappears. But the scene, an apparently interior one, is obscure. And it is not uncharacteristic of these poems to present interactions according to dynamics and structures (interesting to puzzle out, but not always felt, aside from their music) rather than to animate them from within with flesh-and-blood sensuality. What they require is a reader who, as it were, has been “already taught” the pleasures of following an authoritative poet down complicated rhetorical pathways.

“Call for the Child, Call for the Dame” is another piece with a wonderful form—part nursery game, part Herbert-like wrestle and refrain—but complicated sentence work and a difficult-to-determine situation:

If she comes at all, blame-faced it is, absolving, she would, crime-done by crime-claimed. ……………………………………………………………………Call her to task.

If she bears it at all, she’ll cry why did I, why?, salting the docket to mush. ……………………………………………………………………Call her to arms

where she’d like most to be, and so will have none. She’d have you cradle to one. …………………………………………………………………….Call her to mind.

The main clause of the first stanza I’ve quoted (which is the second of the poem) takes some serious concentration to discover. In the end, the poem is a striking one about the different attitudes we might have toward someone experiencing shame—ending with a plea to call that person “to mind.”

But I would go so far as to say that the poems have a peculiar effect of being inwardly absorbed—only a little conscious of the reader. They are true to their forms, but they dissemble and arrange themselves according to music and ironies that please themselves. They are sometimes capricious. They never give up on meaning—in fact, they seem to multiply it—but they nonetheless operate for themselves first, and can sometimes be very private.

In this privacy, though—this shuddering, pulsating interior world which is not entirely given over to us—the reader also becomes aware of a certain freedom. One of Karp’s poems observes the vastness of the soul:

She’d been saying it for so long— and with passion, too— that there was a person inside every body, that every person was as surely the world as every other person was.

I thought of Petrarch climbing Mt. Ventoux and opening up Augustine:

“And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.”

And of how Petrarch then responds:

I was abashed, and, asking my brother (who was anxious to hear more), not to annoy me, I closed the book, angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned from even the pagan philosophers that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself. Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again.

And then I thought of another of Marcia Karp’s poems, titled “Evening Dance Class.” In it, the poet describes a friend trying in vain to participate with a group:

I see you stretching too long to the left, palms down when they should be up, the line of the newly enrolled moving here and you still there.

I see the swell of your ankle and tears and you, counting and keeping together with the intruders as best you can, ignored now, neither stopping nor dancing.

Here the poet’s role as seer comes to the fore—the one who observes the silent sufferer, the one who understands what is it like to be left behind by group motion. We are in a rare free verse poem, with a much more personal lyric “I.”

The speaker “sees” the dancer write a letter to her teacher about how hurt she is, but then the poem concludes:

But I can’t, because you close the door and play the music for yourself alone, see you just later, in spin, in time, alone, in tune, held up by light and lithe by your wrists in graceful sweep, afraid, in your dance, of no one and nothing.

It’s lovely to hang “afraid” out at the end of the longest line, to have its moment in that key penultimate line, before it’s mitigated by the final prepositional phrase.

If these poems are Marcia Karp’s turning of her inward eye upon herself, then there is a surely a figure there that is hiding and eluding: the shamed “she” that so often appears and disappears in the poems of identity. But there is also a dancer “afraid [pause] … of no one and nothing.”

So when I say Karp’s poems seem barely conscious of a reader I mean that this is both their difficulty and their appeal. They ask a great deal from us because they are demanding in their themes, syntactically complicated, descended from the Elizabethans and Metaphysicals in their forms, harsh in their depiction of the consequences of human caprice, full of awareness of an existential terror the nursery game barely keeps at bay, and often unforgiving in their sensibility. But they are also like music played for the self alone. They are afraid and unafraid, ashamed and unashamed, jilted maybe, but repairing and coherent.

And I think Karp understands that the poet skilled in “poesy”—the well-versed one who can capably sort through how this or that technique achieves this or that effect—eventually has to reach a point beyond discernment: at perception. These poems are technical expressions of betrayal, yes—but they are also something like the closed eye and the silent lips and the inward-attentive ear.

As the poet says:

……………………..My tongue, my English tongue. I closed my eyes and closed my hands so I might hear how English spoke on all those tongues. And underneath the tongues there is a mind that has no words. It’s there that language is. And that—above my English tongue, the his- tory of poetry and prose, the po- ems, prose, the knowing—that arose to call me. O.