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Sundown

In this empty air in this spacious room

afternoons when the sun

folds back, there is no shadow

of a doubt the shadow that in the long run

will fade, the shadow that for now remains,

is Daniel’s: talk enough

about someone, it’s like you want

someone else to fall in love with him.

 

……………………………………………………….Well.

Sundown was windless, it touched the reservoir,

like something brief

but intense. Rob and I made a fire—

and each piece of white birch,

each smoldering coal and flare? Staring

at them until sooner or later seeing

became a dark night to dig

to the top of. Rob took the words right out of my mouth

when he said, “You’ve been pretty stoned

all day.”

 

Nathan Blansett’s poems and criticism recently appear in Ploughshares, Los Angeles Review of Books, American Chordata, Southern Review, Bennington Review, and elsewhere. The recipient of fellowships and support from 92nd Street Y, Emory University, the Stadler Center for Poetry & Literary Art at Bucknell University, and The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, he lives in Washington, D.C.

A Pretext for Painting Flowers

— after Jonathan Barbieri

Almost clinical, the way it’s splayed out
On that table, gills dripping from the heave
And drag, and then the tail—

At least what can be glimpsed between
The shadows—warm, still attached,
Though later wrapped and sold, another day.

I hate it here. This gallery a fun box 
Of our fury, our folly, each brand of terror
And destruction: here, a son whips

A torque wrench at his father, strikes against
The temple, and there—hung beside the door—
A German soldier readies his grenade. 

Ruttish. Hypocritical. A smear of rib juice
On the lower lip. A guy who’s missed
His station, slinking through the tiled corridors,

The throng of traffic at Chapultepec,
A wet fedora and my breath hot on the glass. 
Look at me: no better cast than they.

Back out on the plaza, dogs prowl.
An Aztec warrior dances to a drum.
No wonder more wonderful than man.

Severed off from reason, compassion,
God grew vile and consumptive.
The rain falls. Pink worms brighten the dirt.

Jason Barry holds a Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics from the University of Oxford and an MFA in Poetry from Boston University. His poems have appeared in Barrow Street, 32 Poems, The Cortland Review, Poetry Ireland Review, Bad Lilies, Crab Creek Review, Poet Lore, Thrush Poetry Journal, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. His forthcoming chapbook, Fossil & Wing (Dos Madres Press), won the 2023 Wil Mills Award at the West Chester University Poetry Center and his poem, “Metro-North,” was selected by Ada Limón to feature on The Slowdown, a podcast supported by the Poetry Foundation. He has been offered artist scholarships and grants from Poetry by the Sea, Boston University, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Between the Hillocks

After Yue Fei

“A gentleman does not part with his qin1 without good reason.” – The Book of Rites

Last night,
The air was ice, but crickets kept on chirping through the cold.
They woke me from one thousand li2 of dreams—
I saw the third watch moon.

Shivering, I stepped out to pace the silent courtyard, alone—
I could not see a soul.

The moon outside my curtains shone like silver—
“Silver is the mark of honor,” I thought.

Experience, ancient hills, old pines, bamboo—
These block my journey home.

I wish I could express my worries on the guqin, dear…
But these days my friends are few,
So who would listen to my broken strings?

 

1 A qin, or guqin, is a classic seven-string musical instrument often associated with Confucius and favored by ancient and medieval Chinese sages and scholars as refined and well-suited to convey subtle emotions. This instrument is plucked on the player’s lap.
2 A li is an ancient Chinese distance measurement equaling approximately one half of one kilometer or one third of one mile.

 

小重山

昨夜寒蛩不住鳴
驚回千里夢 已三更
起來獨自繞階行
人悄悄 簾外月朧明
白首為功名
舊山松竹老 阻歸程
欲將心事付瑤琴
知音少 弦斷有誰聽

 

Chinese folk hero Yue Fei (AD 1103-1142) was a warrior poet — a master and founder of multiple martial arts, a studied Taoist, a great military strategist, a successful Song Dynasty general in the Jin-Song Wars, and a literary writer. Yue Fei fought a long campaign against the Jin Dynasty to recapture northern Song territory, but just before he retook the original Song Dynasty capital, his Emperor called him back for a peace treaty. In the name of preventing civil war and to avoid exile, Yue Fei returned to the new Song capital of Hangzhou, where the Emperor imprisoned and executed him on false charges. Amidst these troubles, Yue Fei wrote some of the Song Dynasty’s most memorable poems, including “Between the Hillocks” (“Siu Chong Shan”) and “Full River Red” (“Man Jiang Hong”) which is still beloved throughout China today.

John Ruskin Drowsing in his Stone Seat at Brantwood

. . . yet neither asking for pity; not, as ruins are,

useless and piteous, feebly or fondly garrulous

of better days; but useful still. . . .

      — Modern Painters

 

These days have been like cracked
plaster on old walls or canvases long
lost, but much can still be found
within the mind—although even I
sometimes find mine fading—like
the light along this little lake I have
so long loved, sitting here year
after year.
…………………I can get dizzy, thinking
of thought, what one ought—or ought
not—do or say. But I cannot think
my mind might really not be right,
have gone awry, or been eluding me
in the way it did those who so often
thought my thought oblique—obtuse.
Imagine that!
………………………What did they, really,
ever know? I know I’ve kept counsel
in the strictest order: safely intact.
I contradict myself only for the sake
of contradiction itself.  I’m never,
ever, really confused. I know what
I know. And the facts are the facts.
Truth truth.
……………………Some like to say that,
recently, I’ve been delirious, even
might be a little mad. I confess,
I’ve sometimes thought I’ve lost
so much that mind would only be
just a little less…
…………………………..Here, in my
favorite chair, turned tight against
this wooded hill, it isn’t always
easy to watch or see the fireflies
sparking in the dark through the
broken starlight—so like the lonely
stars themselves, burning, slowly
burning out, before they, or it, can
be caught.
…………………My only wish, now,
in these recent days of days, is that
William Turner would have put
me into one of his famous fiery
conflagrations—for I burn to burn.

Saving Time or Saving Yourself: A Memo to Students on AI

Around Thanksgiving 2022, an article in the New York Times about a prototype of a new AI program called ChatGPT having been released caught my attention. The write-up in the Times left little doubt about the transformative potential of this AI technology; and so, during the early weeks when anyone could try out this latest technological marvel (and in so doing provide its engineers with valuable data), I decided to feed ChatGPT some garden-variety essay prompts such as might conceivably be handed to undergraduates in the humanities: for example, “ What were the main consequences of the Russian Revolution?” and “Offer an account of Aristotle’s theory of tragedy” and “What are the principal features of conversion narratives?” With one exception, the results were delivered in less than a second, and the writing always had a boilerplate, “safe” feel to it that, at least in my experience, has become increasingly the norm for our current, risk-averse student generation. Only one essay prompt (“Write a detailed character analysis of Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov”) appeared to challenge ChatGPT’s algorithmic capacities at the time. Yet after about 15 seconds (an eternity in the nano-second world of AI), there it was again: another perfect specimen of the B+ essay: its prose grammatically correct, if unimaginative; its organization unobjectionable, if pedestrian, and its claims generally on target, albeit verging on the anodyne and (as yet) lacking substantiation with quotations, a shortcoming that, I understand, has since been remedied.

Like countless teachers in secondary and higher education, I found myself pondering ChatGPT’s ominous implications for the intimately entwined processes of thinking and writing, and AI’s likely corrosive impact on learning motivation and students’ powers of attention. Some six months on, with higher education now toiling under the more intense and near-ubiquitous glare of ChatGPT version 4, I decided it was time for a robust discussion with my undergraduates about AI’s impact on their academic careers and their evolution as learners. To help frame the discussion, I sat down the night before and, in a transient fit of inspiration, drafted a memo intended to help frame the conversation in specific ways. In particular, I wanted to avoid limiting ourselves to the all-too-obvious topics that routinely dominate public debate of AI: its “time-saving” utility, on the one hand, and its evident threat to academic integrity, on the other. To be sure, half-hearted attempts at specifying formal-ethical guidelines within which future student use of AI ought to abide are a noble undertaking, even if by now there’s a whiff of futility about them. Thus, with the AI genie definitely out of the bottle, it seemed more worthwhile for our classroom discussion to attend to the insidious ways in which AI threatens to erode a student’s very sense of personhood. – Here, in slightly revised form, is the ten-point memo I shared with students:

              

Of late, and with good reason, there’s been much talk about how AI threatens to render human beings increasingly obsolete. Yet the concerns, even fears, often expressed about this technology seem to be framed mainly in terms of efficiencies, as if AI were primarily a computational or economic challenge. No doubt, it is that, too, and already there are many areas where the efficiency of AI algorithmic systems far exceeds that of human beings (supply-chain logistics, commodities trading, chess, etc.). Yet what does the growing reliance on AI across a vast swathe of daily activities portend for us, considered not as economic agents but as human persons?

Take a simple example, no doubt quite familiar: an assignment is handed to you; the deadline specified is 4 weeks away; and as always you have a lot of things on your plate.

  1. Now, since this assignment requires reading for comprehension, concise plot summary, and critical evaluation (e.g., in a humanities course), you feel comfortable postponing work on it, knowing full well that ChatGPT is always available to bail you out should it come to that.  Already, then, AI has altered your behavior by establishing an implicit dependency, if not on its actual use then at least insofar as its mere availability allows you to look upon the assignment less as a challenge to you as a learner, and more as a task to be managed.
  2. Now that the assignment is just 2 weeks away, you realize that the text(s) you had planned to read and study in depth are too long and/or complex for that to be done adequately. Earning an “A” is imperative (or so you think), and with the available time rapidly shrinking and new tasks interposing themselves, you start relying on AI at least to offer plot summaries of texts you had meant to read. At this point, you are actively ceding agency to AI, which means that you are not learning the materials but, at most, digesting what the software generates for you.
  3. With the deadline just 5 days away, you rely on AI to locate summaries/abstracts of some required, secondary literature on the primary text. Finally, in what may seem an act of cunning or desperation (or one masking the other?), you feed the assignment prompts into ChatGPT and stitch together the results in ways that—to your caffeine-addled, sleep-deprived brain—seem to amount to a “solid” paper. You click submit at 11:58 pm. Finis operis!
  4. Now, if we ask what has been lost by proceeding in this way, some answers readily suggest themselves; others are less apparent but, I’d argue, of great consequence. It goes without saying that academic integrity has fallen by the wayside, but that’s arguably the least of it. Far more significant should weigh the fact that you have not actually learned anything, have not internalized any of the primary, let alone secondary materials.
  5. Less obvious but, I’d argue, far more consequential might weigh the fact that, in so proceeding, you have relinquished personal agency and the experience of intellectual achievement and growth, which can only ever be the fruit of sustained personal effort. After all, true learning is always a process in time. We remember what we have learned in no small measure because of the process, indeed the struggle, involved in mastering a certain task. It is precisely that effort which allows the fruits of it to become lastingly embedded within our consciousness. In the absence of any process – eclipsed by the instantaneous fruits of AI – we no longer build memories; and as a result, what used to be called “knowledge” reduces to the perpetual, algorithmically managed retrieval of mere information.
  6. Large-scale reliance on AI not only attenuates the contents of what we know (or think we know); it also forecloses on the ways that the traditional process of learning reveals to you who you are as a person. That is, in the absence of a sustained wrestling with the materials on which the assignment had asked you to focus, you have not learned anything new about your aptitudes or weaknesses, let alone your intellectual passions, which only an active struggle with the assignment can ever throw into proper relief. Worse yet, you have not experienced any joy such as uniquely arises from the very process of learning, from discovering one’s gifts, and from beholding the finished product of one’s personal effort.
  7. Now, looking ahead to the next generation of students (present-day 11th and 12th graders and younger cohorts) that will enter college in the coming years, it’s virtually guaranteed that the vast majority of them will arrive on campuses thoroughly habituated to AI shortcuts. Thus, there’s ample reason to expect that students graduating college after, say, 2025 will have a greatly diminished sense of who they are at the end of what should have been their most formative years. They will not have experienced their time in college as a development but, instead, as a relentless series of logistical challenges. What used to be a process of learning and intellectual and personal growth will have mutated into a barrage of disjointed problems in whose “solution” students, now routinely drawing on AI, will no longer recognize their own personal achievement and growth. Instead, future undergraduates are bound to experience their education primarily as a matter of compliance, of completing assigned tasks and projects that, precisely because they are now largely being discharged by AI, will seem for the most part meaningless or altogether incomprehensible.
  8. Extrapolating further, it’s not hard to imagine a point at which AI will cease to be a mere tool shaped and controlled by its human users. Instead, AI may find it increasingly pointless to have its tasks defined for it by computationally inefficient and generally unreliable bipeds. Already, the incalculable impact of this technology has prompted calls for a world-wide moratorium by some of its pioneering designers. Yet precisely because such coordinated action seems altogether unlikely, it is incumbent on each of us as an individual to ask: is it ever truly defensible to delegate to AI tasks that, if we were to undertake them, would allow us to grow, to become more aware of our potential, our passions, and aptitudes, and thus to expand the scope of meaningful and significant experience?
  9. Put differently, if we are really worried about a future dominated by AI to the point that it threatens to render us economically obsolete, shouldn’t we be far more worried yet about AI effectively atrophying our sense of who we are as human persons? That is, every time we decide, be it for tactical or purely opportunistic reasons (e.g., time constraints, high grades, extra credentials, etc.), to entrust AI with tasks that were specifically assigned to us, we relinquish another opportunity to deepen our understanding of who we are. Persisting on this path for any length of time is bound to result in a pervasive feeling of anomie, a dissociative state in which the meaning of our very existence recedes from view, mainly because we are no longer actively shaping or experiencing meanings. Instead, we’ve actively conspired in being reduced to mere relay stations for marketable information whose acquisition and circulation is dominated by considerations of efficiency and social competition. Henceforth, the very idea of education as a progressive formation of the human person will have been supplanted by one in which the individual student is but a variable in a competitive, impersonal process of professional credentialling.
  10. It seems only apt, here, to recall Dante’s characterization of hell as a place of total and eternal “self-entrapment,” a place or, rather, a state of mind that leaves each individual wholly isolated. More than anything, what defines those caught up in Dante’s Inferno is their total lack of self-recognition and their consequent inability to transcend their current, fallen condition. They no longer have any narrative to offer, for that would require a telos, a meaningful and significant vision of human flourishing such as can be realized only where it is generously and lovingly shared with others. Alas!, like the residents in the Inferno, contemporary learners no longer conceive knowledge as integrally related to both personal and communal flourishing but only as proprietary information; and once knowledge is appraised solely with a view to algorithmic efficiencies and socioeconomic competition, its “producers” (again, like Dante’s massa damnata) can no longer imagine a higher, normative good beyond their fluctuating, (pre-)professional interests. Having abandoned any sense of personal and moral formation, they will end up trapped in a world in which the only story that remains, endlessly repeated, is the one told by a professional resumé, one whose utter hollowness the arrival of advanced AI technologies now throws into stark relief. Inexorably, the story of AI will tell how human beings in the 21st century ended up engineering their own obsolescence or (in Dante’s theological parlance) their damnation. In the Florentine’s terminology, the sweeping and unthinking surrender of responsible agency to AI systems currently unfolding will be both our ultimate sin and our contrapasso.

Capital Improvements: The Initial-Caps Wars

Like all specialists, poets and critics can become greatly exercised over matters that look small to everyone else. Here is one such matter: whether a poet may observe the old rule of using a capital letter at the beginning of every line in a poem. I’ve been conversing with fellow poets online for almost two decades, asking about this every so often, and the answers always include a certain noisy angst. Among poets in the US (things in the UK seem less polarized) and especially among poets who work in form and meter, the warring camps cry aloud angrily:  You mustn’t capitalize—it’s reactionary! You must capitalize—it declares your allegiance with the tradition! Don’t capitalize—it interrupts the flow of the meter! Capitalize—it asserts the integrity of the meter and the line!

One reason the war grinds on is that combatants on both sides make huge generalizations that lack the support of evidence. And the generalizations harden into editorial biases and house styles. It’s time to probe those generalizations, see what there is to back them up, and where evidence is lacking, say so.

I’ll examine some typical claims, with the caveat that I’m talking primarily about poetry in English.

Claim 1: Line-initial capitals are just a printer’s convention.

This claim neglects a great deal of history. The use of capitals (or majuscules) to set off poetic units is much, much older than printing. It seems to date back to Roman antiquity and shows up in many examples in medieval Europe. To simplify—and probably to oversimplify—I’ll stick to examples of its evolution in England.

The wealth of manuscript material now available online makes it easy to see that, over the history of book-making in England, devices were added to poems to make reading easier. Imagine that we start with scriptio continua, in Latin documents, in which there is no space even between words.  Later, in manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels at the turn of the eighth century, we can see the beginnings of those spaces, and the use of larger letters that mark the openings of the gospel chapters. Our words initial (from initium, beginning) and capital (from caput, head, and so related to capitulum, chapter) descend from those early uses. Those letters are not only larger but also decorated, and they certainly draw the eye.

Moving on: in the tenth-and-eleventh-century book known as the Junius Manuscript, famous for heroic Old English renditions of biblical stories, we see capitals in more places. Enlarged, decorative capitals still mark the beginnings of poems, but small capitals also mark the beginnings of many paragraphs—and meter is marked, too, with dots between one half-line and the next. As Old English evolves into early Middle English and meters become more often accentual-syllabic, we start to see books in English using a changing assortment of tools to clarify meter. For example, the twelfth-century scribe (who was probably also the poet) of the metrical poem called the Ormulum uses initial capitals along with punctuation to set off metrical units: there are no line breaks, but colon-like marks appear at the ends of tetrameter units and periods at the ends of the trimeter units that follow them. Another book, a thirteenth-century manuscript of the early Arthurian poem called Layamon’s Brut, uses those same marks, but on rough-accentual half-lines. It uses capitals and red highlighting, too, but apparently for grammar rather than meter. Other thirteenth-century books, like this manuscript of the rhyming poem The Owl and the Nightingale, use not only line-ending (or sentence-ending) dots and red highlighting but also line breaks, with initial capitals on most lines. By the fifteenth century, when the making of books outside religious houses becomes a well-organized business, scribal practice becomes more settled, and we usually find that line-end dots are dispensed with, lines of poetry are broken, and capitals appear on every line, as in Corpus Christi College’s manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Not all late-medieval English books were so carefully made. Quicker jobs done in a cursive hand, rather than a book hand with detached letter forms, did not always have initial caps. One such down-market product—one I worked with for my own long-ago dissertation—reverts to red highlighting, with a sloppy red stripe drawn down the page through all the first letters of lines, actually making them less readable. But the high-quality manuscripts were the ones the first printers tried to imitate;  William Caxton’s first printed edition of Chaucer, set next to any of the famous Chaucer manuscripts, makes the likeness clear.

There is more, and earlier, evidence of line capitals in books made outside England, and a different timeline can be drawn. But this much is clear: Initial capitals in poetry came into printing because they had been used for centuries already to show metrical structure. In short: Caps as a convention came first; printing later.

Claim 2: Poets stopped using capitals on every line starting with the Modernists. Caps scream nineteenth-century “POESY.”

I regularly hear from people who have studied creative writing that they were told absolutely not to capitalize, on the grounds that line-initial caps are of a piece with Victorian poetic diction, inverted syntax, archaisms, and sentimentality. (Granted, those people were often told to abandon meter and rhyme, too.) But check that anthology you might have on a shelf, and you’ll find that not all poets from the Modernists on can be lumped together as abandoning capitals.

Quick-and-dirty literary history teaches that the groundbreaking noncapitalizers were William Carlos Williams and his contemporaries, and that this innovation burst upon the world in the little magazine Others, when Williams became its assistant editor in 1916. In fact, the trend away from capitalization starts earlier, with F. S. Flint, under the influence of French vers libre. For this information I’m indebted to Timothy Steele, whose current work in progress is a much more detailed and scholarly history of line capitalization than I can attempt here.  Flint, as Steele reports, used noncapped lines in a poem in The New Age in 1908 and became, in 1913, the first poet to appear in Poetry magazine without line caps.

Among the Modernists, though, there are also plenty of capitalizers. Some poets made their moves haltingly, settling eventually on lowercase. In H. D.’ s poems we can find a mix of approaches, and Marianne Moore started with caps and underwent a conversion. But many others stuck with line capitals.  Pick up T. S. Eliot’s Collected Poems, 1909–1962, flip its pages, and you won’t find a single line that begins with a lowercase letter. Skim through the Poetry Foundation’s offerings of Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein: yet more capitals.

A look through the various Norton anthologies might reveal whether, and when, there is a clear trend toward fewer capitals. Perusing my oldest one (of English Literature, second edition 1968) I see not one lowercase line-initial letter, not in Robert Graves, W. H. Auden, Louis MacNiece, Dylan Thomas, Donald Davie, Thom Gunn, or Ted Hughes, none of them guilty of “poesy.” Another Norton on my shelves (of Poetry, dated 1996) tells me more: poems that start some lines with lowercase letters appear only scatteringly until one reaches the poets born at about midcentury: Louise Gluck, Michael Ondaatje, Michael Palmer, Eavan Boland, Craig Raine, Jane Shore, Leslie Silko, Richard Kenney, Agha Shahid Ali, Deborah Greger—a long list that ends with Cynthia Zarin, but has some capped interruptions. Mary Jo Salter would be added to this non-cap list, but she is one of the anthology’s editors and has not included her own poems. So, line-initial mixed case looks less like a Modernist cause and more like a Boomer reflex. (Full disclosure: I am a Boomer.)

And what about poets writing in the twenty-first century? A. E. Stallings, the American living in Greece who was recently elected Oxford Professor of Poetry, has been using line-initial capitals almost exclusively from her first book in 1999 onward. Emily Grosholz, with an even longer career, used mixed case in her early books—but in her recent new-and-selected has gone back to line-initial caps. Flipping through Alfred Corn’s recent collected volume, which sums up fifty years of publication, I find from the outset an eclectic mix. In Dana Gioia’s collected 99 Poems, same. And Kim Bridgford, and Greg Williamson. Among poets of a younger generation, there are James Matthew Wilson, Ryan Wilson, Morri Creech, Matthew Buckley Smith, and (most of the time) Ernest Hilbert and Stephen Kampa. In the less formalist world, there are Lucie Brock-Broido, Tracy K. Smith, Jericho Brown, and (sometimes) Amit Majmudar.

In short: Any generalization about what “poets have stopped” doing will meet a hundred counterexamples.

Claim 3: Line-initial capitals in poetry interfere with reading comprehension.

This is the loudest claim of the cap-haters, who often grumble that cap-users must be too dumb or lazy to override the feature of their word processors that capitalizes after every hard return.

There are reasons to argue that capitals might make a reader pause. We’ve seen that their original purpose was apparently to do something very near that—to stand out to the eye. And readability research asserts that blocks of full capitals, LIKE THESE, are harder to read than words in mixed case. That dictum is now a commonplace of page design, especially of web pages. Might a vertical stack of capitals slow reading in the same way because they’re massed at the left margin? Might they misdirect because they don’t convey the usual information about sentence beginnings or about naming? Or does the brain tune them out (as quite a few readers report) because they’re irrelevant to the information? These are questions worth asking but unasked, as far as I can discover, as research questions in the psychology of reading.

Some readers claim that the visual bulk of capitals distracts them; Simon Armitage is said to have compared their use to bolting a fire escape to the side of a beautiful building. Others claim they don’t notice. But how well can we trust either claim? We’re all familiar with certain optical illusions, like the face/vase graphic, that demonstrate how tricky human perception is and how much our seeing depends on the way our attention has been directed. If you’re studying the effect of caps on comprehension and you ask readers directly how capitals affect them, their statements won’t carry much weight.

To investigate whether readers really are distracted or misdirected by capitals per se, a researcher would have to be careful of a great many matters: deciding what audience to test (experienced or naïve readers of poetry?),  deciding how to find and recruit members of that audience and select them randomly, deciding how simple or complicated or familiar or unfamiliar a text to use as a test piece, writing a script to explain the investigation, and presenting the text to each subject individually. Then how will distraction be measured? If it’s by eye movements, there must be eye tracking devices. If it’s by comprehension questions, a set of questions must be designed that includes enough distractors not to reveal that the effect of capitals is the real subject being studied.

Are we ever likely to get such research? It may be possible, but it would need to be done with the methods of cognitive psychology and linguistics.  In the next section I review two studies that at least graze the questions we’re interested in.

Claims 4 and 5:
Capitals interrupt the flow of the meter.
vs.
Capitals helpfully indicate a new unit of meter.

We have here two opposing claims. Do capitals support meter, or do they undermine it?

One would expect the fans of traditional form to argue that line-initial capitals help us see meter. So it’s odd to find traditionalist critics reporting that the contemporary student of poetry perceives meter—in poems with those capitals—poorly, and performs that poetry in ways that reflect no metrical understanding. William Logan, for instance, in The Undiscovered Country, describes a rather frightening example:

A colleague of mine once turned to me in the middle of a thesis defense and said, “Did you know that many of Wallace Stevens’s poems are syllabic? All the lines have ten or eleven syllables.” When I pointed out to her that the poems were in blank verse, she complained that I was trying to impose an academic scansion on these beautiful, rhythmic, syllabic lines. And I could not convince her of her folly.

The line-initial capitals in Stevens—he uses them both in blank verse and in free verse— seem to have had no influence on the colleague in question.

Garrick Davis’s observations (in the essay “The Innocent Ear”) of MFA students reading aloud certain translations by Spender lead the same way:

I was . . . astonished by two facts. The first was that the nine students who read had, not a variety of speaking voices, but a remarkably uniform delivery: they mumbled out the lines as rapidly as they could read them, oblivious to line breaks, or rhyme, or rhythm. Garcia Lorca was read, essentially, in the same monotone accorded an office memo.

The second fact was that the teacher, by invariably interrupting each student after a few lines to correct the speed and intonation of their faulty recital, was aware that these near-graduates of a prestigious writing program, these most promising of our young poets, had still to learn how to read poetry.

So according to these two, the long tradition of line-initial capitals has not apparently helped present-day readers to perceive meter, or to reproduce it orally.

By contrast, the actual empirical research—or at least the two articles I can find—suggests at least that line-initial capitals do something of benefit to the reader. When capitals are present, test subjects recall texts better, or they read passages aloud more slowly and carefully. Unfortunately, neither study made the exact comparison we want: comparing a text with both caps and line breaks against the same words, but with line breaks only.

David Hanauer’s 1998 paper was aimed at testing certain theories about how students read poetry. To test the truth of those theories, Hanauer wanted to know what features of a text subjects were actually paying attention to, and he used “verbatim recall” as a measure of that attention. Hanauer tested undergraduate subjects’ recall of four texts: (1) a short metrical poem by James Joyce with line-initial capitals, line breaks, and xaxa quatrains; (2) the words of the poem, but without capitals or line breaks; (3) a text with capitals and line breaks, but without the original rhymes and with a number of other word changes that disrupted meter; (4) the same text as in (3), without capitals and line breaks.

What Hanauer found was that subjects’ verbatim recall was worst for (2) and (4), the samples without caps or line breaks. It was better for (3), the sample with caps and line breaks but with word changes that disrupted meter and rhyme, and it was best by far for (1), the original poem, with its rhymes, meter, and formatting—a result that will hardly surprise lovers of meter and rhyme, although plain words like “meter” and “rhyme” appear not at all in the paper.

A more recent study by Stefan Blohm and others (2022) does include words like “verse” and “meter” and “prosody,” although its goal was to test theories of “discourse comprehension.” It was designed to probe the hypothesis that “readers adjust their reading behavior and their oral text performance to the literary genre.” The experimenters tracked readers’ eye movements and recorded their oral readings of forty-eight different constructed texts, none more than two lines long. All were in German, with the same set of words described to subjects as poetry (and formatted with line-initial capitals and line breaks) or as prose (formatted without capitals or line breaks).

Blohm’s results that speak to our initial-caps debate are these: Readers articulated poetry more slowly, with longer durations and more silent pauses. Eye movements, too, were slower with poetry. But evidence that subjects were perceiving meter was not clear: “ . . . we did not observe increasingly rhythmic articulation in oral poetry reading. Thus, our results do not lend support to the idea that strategic poetry comprehension per default involves constructing representations of systematic prosodic regularities (i.e., the metrical pattern).” The authors suggest several reasons why awareness of meter might not have shown up in their experiments, but the bottom line is that it didn’t.

So, do line-initial capitals obscure meter or support it? In short: What line-initial caps do, by themselves, to readers’ perception of meter remains a puzzle. Neither of the studies above tests what we want tested: caps and line breaks versus line breaks alone. The case is still unproven, the right research still to be done.

This leaves us with the sorts of claims about capitals that can’t be demonstrated by experiment, because they are simple assertions of opinion:

Claim 6: Formalist poets who don’t use capitals are silly. They’re just trying to ape free-verse poets so they can look avant-garde and hang out with the best people.

In the claim above, I’m paraphrasing a fairly prominent formalist critic, who shall remain nameless. Think about this statement a moment. How would you classify poets who are regularly published in The New Yorker and have been receiving major awards for many decades? Those would be some of “the best people,” wouldn’t they? I’m referring to Frederick Seidel and to John Ashbery, in his work before 1991. They used capitals, both for formal and free verse. And look also at Ted Hughes’s “Pike,” Gary Snyder’s “A Walk,” or Yusuf Komunyakaa’s “Facing It,” to name a few random examples. Or U. A. Fanthorpe (just on the edge of meter but not quite). Free versers and capitalizers all. Flipping through Sylvia Plath’s collected poems reveals not a single lowercase initial letter. The idea that metrical poets are being beaten down, oppressed by the hegemony of the free versers into using mixed case at the start of lines, is hard to square with the evidence broadly viewed.

Moreover, some formal poets choose not to capitalize in specific forms, or in translations of those forms. One example is Charles Martin. In his book Signs and Wonders, most of the poems do use line-initial capitals, but the poems in sapphics and alcaics have capitals at the beginnings of stanzas rather than lines. The translated sections of Ovid’s Tristia also lack line-initial capitals, even though that translation is in heroic couplets. There is no free verse in the book; the dividing line is between the poems related in some way to the classics and everything else. “Trying to look avant-garde” is clearly not an issue here, and mixed-case initial letters are used with older poetry, not newer.

Consider also Joshua Mehigan’s poem “Fire Safety,” a good demonstration that a formal poet can convey meter without the help of capitals or even of equal-measured lines. Stanza breaks and rhyme do the work instead. This can hardly be called aping free verse.

So where are we?

I’ve reviewed two claims that are, I contend, inaccurate, three that are unproven, and one that is just plain silly. I move now from claims about how readers will read the poems, to claims about how the poet feels about capitals while writing the poems. These are claims about associations inside the poet’s working brain, and it may not be possible either to confirm or to refute them. It is possible, though, to assert that there are better and worse reasons for defending one’s choice. The better ones, I think, make a connection between the choice and the poetry it produces.

Here, for example, are some of the reasons Alberto Rios gives for using capitals:

to remind myself that I am writing a poem;

to connect myself to history for a very brief moment before I go on to say what I myself have to say now;

to give each line—however subtle—its own authority;

to suggest that, although I may be telling a story, it is not a regular story, and certainly not prose;

to make my enjambment have to work honestly, and to give my end-stopped lines greater Moment;

to build up thoughtful pacing in a poem, suggesting or invoking a little more strongly all the reasons we break lines to begin with—breath, heartbeat, dramatic intention;

to recognize this use of the shift key as a self-conscious act, which raises the stakes for everyone and everything—the poem, the poet, and the reader;

to do more work in this small moment, knowing that work makes more things happen. . . .

In case you assume that Rios is speaking of metrical poems, let me present his example:

Teodoro Luna’s Two Kisses

Mr. Teodoro Luna in his later years had taken to kissing

His wife

Not so much with his lips as with his brows.

This is not to say he put his forehead

Against her mouth –

Rather, he would lift his eyebrows, once, quickly:

Not so vigorously he might be confused with the villain

Famous in the theaters, but not so little as to be thought

A slight movement, one of accident. This way

He kissed her

Often and quietly, across tables and through doorways,

Sometimes in photographs, and so through the years themselves.

This was his passion, that only she might see. The chance

He might feel some movement on her lips

Toward laughter.

About any of Rios’s reasons for capitalizing, another poet might say, “Well, it wouldn’t work that way for me!” And the point would be beyond argument, a matter dependent on each poet’s fickle muse. But who would want to deny to a poet any method that might have such benefits? Surely there is a lot to be said for learning tolerance of caps in reading, even if we choose not to use them, if the poets who do use caps believe so strongly that caps help produce better poems. There is even more to be said for teaching tolerance of caps in reading, so that we don’t cut readers off from centuries of poetry in English.

And for the capitalizers, surely an equal tolerance of the mixed-case metrical poet is in order. I haven’t found a manifesto that matches Rios’s statement but speaks to the other side, so let me try to put the case myself. I will be continuing to begin the lines of (almost all) my poems (which are almost always metrical) with mixed-case letters to remind myself, while I write, of these principles:

that sound, and not typography, must make clear that this is a metrical poem;

that the line break must be validly chosen for the syntax and must do its work by itself;

that the choice of a place to break should stay fluid during composition, and not be set up at the outset with a concrete monument;

that the poem should not be boxed into a meter it resists, but should be helped, gently, to find a form.

What then has my list of claims accomplished? Is it likely to change your mind about your own reaction to those line-initial caps? Perhaps not. But what I do hope for is less reliance on inaccurate or unproven claims and a more generous live-and-let-live attitude. A lowering of the noise level. A little more tolerance, in this most intolerant of times.

The Mountain

Barranco de Viznar

Men came to the mountain.
There had been an incident, a car outside,
a knock on the door as dinner was set.

The curtain was peeled back, the door
was unlocked, Yes? said someone.
You know what it is we want, said another.

May I see your papers? said someone.
No, said the other, our papers
are in order, Will you come out to the car?

Men came to the mountain
as the shadow crept down its slope in a slow
tide & the rows of olives went under.

Men came to the mountain, the lights
of their cars picking out shadows
slowly dancing around the trees & rocks.

Men came to the mountain
with their thoughts & their uniforms & a pen
leaked black ink into a man’s pocket

across a photograph of his children
& another caught his jacket
in the car door as it closed & said: Joder.

Men came to the mountain, the lights
of their cars picking out ruts
in the road glittering with water & frogspawn,

the flash of a swallow across the beam,
dense branches in the glare,
a spider curled in death like a dry leaf.

From down in the valley beneath the tight
terrace of olive trees, the voices
of children crying Marco! Polo! Tierra!

Nadie! rose with the scents of alpechín
& mimosa, the smoke from small
diffuse fires in the fields, the lights of the city.

Men came to the mountain;
some blindfolded in dirty smocks & some
in neat eyeglasses with oiled hair

& bored expressions checking their watches
& tapping the ends of their cigarettes
briskly against their watch faces.

Men came to the mountain. The mountain
did not move. Things moved on
the mountain; the trees & their shadows,

but the mountain did not move.
The stars rose & fell behind the mountain
but the mountain did not rise & fall.

Each day, shadows gathered in the hollows
of the mountain & the shadow
of the mountain lay down in the valley.

Things changed on the mountain,
but the mountain did not change. In winter
its slopes were covered in thin snow,

in autumn the trees on its facing slope
stood naked; in spring they were
clotted in green & the hard noise of birds

passed between them like saetas
with cleverly jointed verses & progressions
& a light wind stroked the branches.

Men had built a shrine on the mountain
with a little tiled dome & whitewashed walls
& filled it with images & candles

& on their way up the mountain some
stopped to light a candle & watch the red wax
melt & drip onto the floor.

Others had dug a well into the mountain
& ran a bucket on a windlass down
into the rock & stood in the white heat

with their hats in one hand & sweat
coating their hair drinking the icy waters
of the mountain with their eyes closed

& their faces raised as if they had stepped
from a dark room into the sun
& felt wind on their faces for the first time.

The dull brown underwing of an eagle
set the terror of its shadow
in motion through the horns of the rock.

At night they dreamed their childhoods
in the shadow of the mountain;
of their fathers as children playing

on the mountain; how their own children
would grow in the shadow of
the mountain walking up the mountain

beneath a sky that arranged itself
around the shoulders of the mountain,
waiting for rain that gathered

above the mountain, wind that poured
down the arms of the mountain, laying seed
in the soil at the foot of the mountain.

Men came to the mountain.
Some stayed on the mountain & some left
the mountain by way of the slow road

that winds down the mountain circuitously;
but even those that came down
the mountain stayed on the mountain

without knowing they stayed
on the mountain. When their children looked
into their eyes, they saw the mountain.

Their wives saw the mountain.
When they talked – about the news & work,
about the difficulties of procuring

certain comestibles & fabrics
for their mothers-in-law, about paperwork
& politics & money & the weather –

they talked only about the mountain.
About the height of the mountain & the long
winding road up the mountain

that ended against a face of the mountain
above which rose another face
&, it was said, the mountain’s invisible peak.

Above the city was the mountain. Time
changed on the mountain; aspects
& colour, but the mountain never changed.

Above the world was the mountain,
the silence of the mountain, the mountain
of the mountain, a line of cyclamen

in the darkness closing their dull white
eyes as the sun rose behind the
mountain & it was light before it was light.

Raincoat

I stood with my hand cupped on the head
of a parking meter, in a sprinkle of rain,
as if I wanted to turn it a little to show it
what I was seeing, a woman across the street
on the wet sidewalk, leaning into a very
brisk walk, wearing a transparent raincoat,
the stiff folds from the bag that it came in
still evident, like clear panes in French doors
through which she was pushing, her knees
and her ankle-high rubber boots out ahead
of the rest, the coat keeping the top part
of her dry though the thin, flying coat-tail
was too far behind to catch up with her legs,
which were pale from the chill. But what
I most wanted to point out was her dress
through the panes of that clingy, Saran Wrap-
like plastic, a light summer frock patterned
with flowers, red, yellow, violet and green,
tossing about in the wind of her walk,
caught up in that magical prism with her.

Becoming Poetry: An Introduction

[This is the introductory chapter of the author’s new book of criticism, published by Louisiana State University Press.]

This book, Becoming Poetry, does not advance an argument for some kind of mystical transmutation of poets into the body of work they have created over their decades at the craft. Neither does it confound that work with the poet’s biography, although readers have often treated poetry as a skeleton key to the lives of poets whose autobiographical poses have invited such an identification. Apparent confession in poetry did not originate in the late 1950s, but coincides with the history of lyric, from Sappho mooning over an unrequited love, to Chaucer complaining to his purse, Shakespeare bemoaning his two loves “of comfort and despair,” Whitman celebrating himself and singing himself, Dickinson recalling an indescribably intense psychic state as “like a Maelstrom, with a notch,” and onward through the twentieth century and into ours. The confiding intimacy poets establish with their readers creates the impression that here they are, upon the page, translated into the poetry they have given us.

That impression of presence is, of course, an illusion, and I don’t mean that pejoratively. All art requires illusion, and poetry depends on the illusion of a person creating the semblance of life: a mind thinking, a body feeling, and a sensibility expressing itself through language. It is a sheerly symbolic presence that, regardless of the degree to which it shares those traits with the poet, is actually a fiction, a phantasm, granted the illusion of real existence through the reader’s imaginative interpretation of markings on the page. The poet of the Sonnets, who woos his young man and suffers at the hands of his lady “coloured ill,” stands alongside Hamlet, Falstaff, and Rosalind as one of Shakespeare’s supreme created characters, regardless of how much the sequence may autobiographically confess. Dickinson, for many readers an intensely personal poet, wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1862, “When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean—me—but a supposed person.” A poet’s collection of imagined speakers and expressive voices does not equal or explain the biographical poet but constitutes part of what the poet becomes.

For becoming the work, becoming poetry, does not stop at the poet’s becoming recognized as the set of voices and personae readers encounter in the poems. Rather, I hope that the essays in this book, published over a period of more than twenty years, make clear that the argument for the staying power of a poet’s work, its likelihood to endure and enjoy a lasting identification with the poet, centers less on theme and character, and more on technique. Poetry does not present unmediated feeling, but in imagining a human presence, it creates an illusion of felt life through the devices and strategies available to the poet, an illusion that in turn creates responses in the reader. To take spontaneity as just one example, Allen Ginsberg’s “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” carefully creates an illusion of emotional immediacy, which Ginsberg achieved partly by replacing the initial draft’s “mystical” with the more kinetic “hysterical,” and partly by removing the commas that originally separated the now-hurtling adjectives. In the same way, Franz Kline’s black-and-white paintings, exactly contemporary with Ginsberg’s Howl, look emotionally raw in their giant gestural brushstrokes but, upon closer inspection, reveal fussy little edits in white paint, intimate articulations and corrections that Kline employed to shape his big black sweeps and swaths, perfecting the illusion of spontaneity.

Poems embody relations between form and impulse, technique and emotion, intellect and sensation. The apparently analytical methods of poetic technique, as Pound understood, ironically provide the means of communicating feeling. Technical expressiveness constantly furthers the imagined feeling of a poem, as when Shakespeare uses a single, rhythmically awkward metrical substitution to convey the realistically imperfect qualities of the woman his speaker loves:

Ǐ gránt | Ǐ név | ĕr sáw | ă gód | dĕss gó:

Mў mís | trĕss, whén | shĕ wálks, | tréads ŏn | thĕ gróund.

The mistress, the technique tells us, doesn’t possess a goddess’s perfectly tripping iambic gait but, as I suggest in one of these essays, tends more to trip trochaically over curbs. Alternatively, the conflict between technical virtuosity and feeling can thrill, as in Donne’s “A Nocturnal on St. Lucy’s Day,” when all the speaker’s clever intellectual invention of elaborate metaphors for absence, erasure, and nothingness cannot erase the fact of his love’s death, resulting in the poet’s pretense of failed technique that is actually, and paradoxically, a technical triumph conveying profound sorrow. Sound can introduce similar tensions, such as the discrepancy in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” between “Heard melodies” in the “sensual ear” and the “ditties of no tone” imagined by the “spirit.” His luscious-sounding, palindromic phrase “no tone,” in fact, describes lifeless silence, and its sonorous tolling in our ears predicts the speaker’s abandonment of the beautiful but lifeless, loveless world of the urn’s “Cold pastoral” in favor of our realm of sensuous life.

Because poetry’s most vivid illusions emerge through the skilled manipulation of poetic technique, the argument for any poet becomes a technical argument. If we value Shakespeare, Donne, Keats, and Ginsberg as poets, our admiration stems from their ingenuity in controlling form, language, sound, rhythm, image, and figurative devices in order to create an imagined universe that we recognize as uniquely theirs, yet one that also, necessarily, appears to participate in the larger world we all share. In this way, a poet who has accumulated a body of work becomes recognizable as the sum of the poetry and the totality of its strategies. For that reason, I have subtitled this book Poets and Their Methods. When we talk of Donne, Emily Dickinson, Edward Thomas, or William Carlos Williams, we generally do not mean the biographical person but the work that person has left us. The poet becomes the poetry.

Over half a century ago, the Shakespeare scholar Stephen Booth described Hamlet as “a succession of actions upon the understanding of an audience.” As a poet, I pay close attention to how poems work, how they operate as successions of actions upon the understanding of the reader, and how poets use the tools at their disposal to create a lyrically charged affective experience in our imagination. Those tools may range from the minutely technical, to the broadly thematic and stylistic, to the symbolic and allusive, and onward to the strategically structural quality of a single poem, a sequence of poems, or an entire book. An individual poet’s work over many years shows a larger structural quality as well. As readers, we witness a poet’s changing themes, obsessions, techniques, strategies, and styles as constituting a life in poetry. Many of these essays concern such lives in poetry and my subjective attempts to identify the essence and value of a number of poets who have become—or are in the process of becoming—their work.

The title section of this book, then, which contains half of its essays, examines volumes of poems selected from the author’s complete oeuvre as it stood at the time I discussed it, poets who had begun that process of becoming poetry. The opening section looks intensively at how particular works of particular poets operate, ranging in time from Shakespeare to a number of my contemporaries, including Andrew Hudgins, Paul Muldoon, and Mary Jo Salter. In one of these essays, I talk about Emily Dickinson’s poetic strategies next to my own, an exercise that taught me a great deal about what makes her art unique and inimitable. Since two of my essays deal with sonnet sequences, by Shakespeare and, in our time, Muldoon and Salter, I have also included an interview in which I discuss my own sequence, Danses Macabres.

The shorter concluding section considers just what we mean when we talk, often half-thinking, about “the music of poetry.” One of its two essays attempts to clarify the distinction between the two art forms through a detailed examination of what happens to poetic texts when they become songs. The other discusses listening to recordings of poets reading their own work—yet another way of becoming the poetry—and how that experience compares to reading poems on the page. The two pieces aurally extend this book’s investigation into the essential qualities of poetry and some of the poets who make it.

Unhappily, several poets I discuss are no longer with us, and their deaths have made them more purely their work. Unless we were privileged to be family or friends, the only way to know Phil Booth, Dan Hoffman, or De Snodgrass—all of whom taught me, all of whom, in different ways, played some role in helping me become the poet and the critic I became—is through reading their poetry. Poetry is who they became, and that is who they are. It may seem reductive, inaccurate, or inhumane to think of these gifted people, who loved, led lives, and had families, as what remains on the page. But looking at their poems, we see what they were and who they continue to be.

In 2020, when I published Loving in Truth, my own book of New and Selected Poems, I faced a highly subjective test of this notion. A dozen years earlier, when my collection The Long Fault appeared, I worried to my good friend, the novelist Sigrid Nunez, that the book, with its poems anchored in travel, historical events, photographs, works of art, and the omnipresence of death, might strike readers as impersonal. “No,” said Sigrid, “I think it’s a very personal book. Everything you love is here.” But beyond the themes that obsessed me, the strategies through which I turned those objects of love into poetry resulted in a book through which the poet in me could be discovered. Whether poets transform their lives into art or strive to explore themes outside the self, their poetry necessarily reflects who they are, mirroring their personal obsessions and their stance toward the world through the technical choices they make and the styles they devise and accumulate. Although it covers forty years or so, much of my own life does not appear in Loving in Truth; yet readers opening the book enter that life nevertheless. As I look through it, even as I argue that it is not the whole truth, it reflects me back, saying, “Yet this is you.”

Closing Up the Beauty Parlor

They came like cars today: a traffic jam of girls
with flawless faces, hopeful faces, faces flashing
smiling teeth that danced through bursts of breathless speech
about their dates, their plans for prom, their racy dresses
with awkward shoes and jewelry borrowed from their moms.

But now the piles of hair are swept, and now each apron’s
folded. She turns the lock, and now the lights are out.
Behind the deer-brown clapboard walls, she’s standing, wrapped
in roaring dark and acetone, to watch her sign
that’s flashing OPEN, siren-like, in red and blue.

And now she only thinks about the accident—
the clumps of hair across the windshield, bits of teeth
and jewelry on the road, her daughter folded, face-down,
against a ditch, her daughter’s face, her daughter’s face—
and prays to God she’ll never see another face.

                                                       Prestonsburg, KY 1983

Orb Weavers

Ubiquitous now fall’s in town,
They’ll vanish as the season ebbs.
Till then, we pay them due regard
And, working in the shed or yard,
Steer clear of where they, upside down,
Hang in the center of their webs.

Disturbed, they scramble to a rafter
Or drop and hide where leaves have fallen.
At times, fog beads their webs with wet,
And windblown twigs are all they net.
At times, balked of the prey they’re after,
They catch and dine on grains of pollen.

We read in the great wheels they rig
Epitomes of patient skill.
Some of us think of E. B. White,
Whose spider used her webs to write
Encomia for her friend the pig
And made him too renowned to kill.

Before they perish, they’ll prepare
A brood of future engineers:
They’ll find a safe spot to attach
An egg sac; come spring, young will hatch
And, casting silk chutes to the air,
Balloon away to their careers.

For now, these ancient ones remain.
Matrons of the autumnal scene,
Plump and attired in black and gold,
They spin, in night’s enriching cold,
Their galaxies of strands and reign
Under the stars of Halloween.

Meetings on the Sea Front

                                                      In memory of Edmund Keeley

In his 1914 poem “Exiles,” Cavafy (1863-1933) wrote:

In the evenings we meet on the sea front,

the five of us (all, naturally, under fictitious names)

and some of the few other Greeks

still left in the city….

The other day we read some lines by Nonnus:

what imagery, what rhythm, what diction and harmony!

All enthusiasm, how we admired the Panopolitan.

(tr. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

What’s going on in this poem? Who are “we”? In the Notes to their C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems (1975), Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard provide a plethora of dates and facts that set the general scene. Their note on “Exiles” reads in part:

The anonymous exiles of the poem cannot be identified precisely, yet their situation falls well within what Cavafy called “historical possibility.” The scene is set in Alexandria, obviously after its conquest by the Arabs (641) and probably shortly after the murder of the Byzantine emperor Michael III…by his co-emperor Basil I (867-886)…

There’s much more, but most relevant here is the note’s final sentence: “The “Panopolitan”…is of course the Egyptian-Greek Nonnus (5th c. A.D.?)…” Of course? I have to confess that Nonnus wasn’t a name I knew until I was invited in 2019 to be one of the forty-odd translators of Nonnus’s immense poem, Dionysiaca, an epic account of the life of the god Dionysus. Tales of Dionysus, edited by William Levitan and Stanley Lombardo, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2022. And although I’d been a reader of Cavafy’s work for many years, it was Gordon Braden’s introduction to Tales of Dionysus that sent me to “Exiles.” Cavafy’s short poem presumably refers to Nonnus’s very long poem.

Nonnus’s dates, like much else about this poet, are a mystery. But a likely floruit, as Keeley and Sherrard mention, is the fifth century CE. Thus the Dionysiaca, as Levitan and Lombardo point out in their Preface to Tales of Dionysus, is as close in time to a Renaissance poet like Ariosto as it is to Homer.

At forty-eight books and over twenty thousand lines, the Dionysiaca is as long as the two Homeric epics laid end to end. Although Nonnus wrote in Homeric hexameters, his poem is a monumental potpourri of modes and styles. Levitan and Lombardo observe that “…the Homeric Muses, daughters of memory, are not the only spirits presiding over this poem… Out of its formal epic frame spills a tumult of literary types: tragedy, elegy, didactic, panegyric, pastoral idyll, and the novel are all parts of this gigantic enterprise, each genre and its ancient instances coming to the fore one after the other after the other. A son of Homer to be sure, Nonnus is no less a child of Euripides, Hesiod, Callimachus, Theocritus, Longus, and Ovid, among many others.”

When my invitation to be one of the team of translators arrived, many of the poem’s forty-eight books had already been spoken for. The plot of the Dionysiaca is a rollicking ride, featuring not only juicy passages about the god’s complicated love life, but episodes from his war with the Indians. (Edith Hall notes that “Dionysus’s journeys were systematically reconceived by the Ptolemies as a sequence of colonial annexations extending to India.”)

Looking over the synopsis of each book’s contents which the editors had thoughtfully provided, I chose Book Sixteen, which, unlike some of the other books, appeared to be more about courtship and nature than about war. Possibly the relative brevity of this book was also a factor.

I began working on my translation as soon as the fall semester of 2019 at Rutgers was over. In February 2020, the Harvey Weinstein trial was in the headlines. It felt more and more uncomfortable to be reading and writing about Dionysus’ long-thwarted but ultimately successful pursuit of the nymph Nicaea, whom he rapes while she, having drunk from a river the horny god has turned into wine, is in a drunken sleep.

……….…being unaware

That lovestruck Dionysus uses liquor as a snare,

And spying the amber waters of the river loved by men

Who drink, she gulped from that sweet stream where Indians had been.

Then Bachically tipsy, and with her mind askew,

She reveled, tossing back her head, and saw the world as two.

Perceiving an expanse of lake, she thought she saw its twin,

And, dizzy, saw a double hill instead of only one,

Till, stumbling in the dust, she fell; and winged Sleep, beside

Her, overtook the maiden, soon to be a slumbering bride.

……….(Bk. 16. 242-251)

“Slumbering bride”: the phrase I used is in keeping with the numerous references to a bridal couch, an arbor, a bower, and so on which follow. But the bridal is a “Strange ceremony – like a marriage dreamed in someone’s sleep; / The maiden lost her maidenhead and never once woke up…” (266-267).

I enjoyed the process of translating, although Harvey Weinstein kept interposing between me and the lavish and expansive mythological tapestry I was at work on – a part of that tapestry that depicted sexual predation by a powerful male figure who uses first flattery and then violence to overcome an elusive young beauty. In any case, by the time I finished my portion late in February 2020, Harvey Weinstein was no longer front-page news. The pandemic was approaching.

Some dates from around then are easy to remember. I clearly recall Leap Day, February 29, 2020, when I taught a poetry workshop on The Lyric Leap at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center in Sleepy Hollow. Travelling on MetroNorth to and from the workshop took me through a Grand Central Terminal which at that date was still crowded. Even then, unless I’m projecting backwards, it felt strange to see the insouciant crowds in the station.

Soon enough, everyday life felt strange. As plenty of people have observed, time began to blur; it became difficult to pinpoint the many changes in all our lives. One change that affected teachers (though not only teachers) was of course the advent of remote teaching. In the prevailing murk that settled over us suddenly in March 2020, academic administrators leaned heavily on the verb “pivot,” as teachers were asked to adjust nimbly (“nimble” was another favorite word) to remote learning. We had entered the age of Zoom.

Early in 2023, we have yet to emerge wholly from the Zoom world, and I don’t think we ever will. For even though these days most teaching again takes place in the classroom, Zoom has become a familiar resource, a tool in constant use. So I have Covid-19 to thank for the fact that early in 2022, though it feels like longer ago, I was invited to join a weekly Zoom discussion of a long myth-based poem from the ancient world, a poem we read a couple of hundred lines at a time: not Nonnus’s Dionysiaca but the Metamorphoses of Ovid.

Our Ovidian group’s sea front was Zoom, and there were usually, though not always, more than five of us. Nor did we meet under fictitious names, though the technology would have allowed us to. (When, in 2020 and 2021, A.E. Stallings visited my Rutgers mythology class to talk about Odysseus’s visit to the Underworld, she labelled her Zoom square “Shade of Alicia,” and one or two of the students quickly followed suit.) But despite such minor differences, our Ovid group’s meetings offered distinct resemblances to the scene portrayed in Cavafy’s poem.

By now, our routine of weekly meetings feels so engrained that we seem to have been reading and discussing the Metamorphoses for years, as if our meetings stretched far back into the past and forward into the future. In reality, the end is in sight – we’re up to the long and beautiful episode of Ceyx and Alcyone in Book Eleven. Five of us live in New York: “However much smaller it’s become, / it’s still a wonderful city.” Some of us are in Italy; some in the U.K. Some of us are still teaching; some of us are retired. Some tune in together with their spouses; most of us join the group solo. Some of us knew each other before we embarked on this long cruise, others did not, but we’ve all made friends. So week by week, “… what with…books / and various kinds of study, time does go by….and our stay here / isn’t unpleasant because, naturally, / it’s not going to last forever.”

Our stay here: Cavafy’s exiles – “fugitive Byzantines meeting quietly…in what was by then Arab Alexandria,” according to Gordon Braden – clearly have extra-Alexandrian plans in mind. And what about us Ovidians? Does here signify our digital sea front? Or are we here as in this open-ended era that started with the pandemic and has yet to reach, perhaps will never reach, a definitive end? Or here in the lengthy, elaborate, and hard-to-encompass mythological phantasmagoria of Ovid’s poem? So often in poetry, as in life, the answer seems to be: All of the above.

The Metamorphoses is a work famously generative of echoes and resonances that range from Titus Andronicus to The Waste Land to Ted Hughes and Michael Longley, to name only a few successors. But early on in Ovid’s poem, as our group read about Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne, I was reminded of another episode in ancient literature I had only recently discovered and translated: Dionysus’ pursuit of Nicaea in Book Sixteen of the Dionysiaca.

Such an amorous pursuit was surely a well-worn literary trope. It was hard not to think of Keats’s “mad pursuit…struggle to escape,” a scene in the same mode. Nonnus and Ovid couldn’t have read Keats. Yet it seemed not impossible that Nonnus, living centuries later than Ovid, had read and been influenced by the Augustan poet.

In his Introduction to the Dionysiaca, Gordon Braden (also one of the team of translators) touches upon the complex matter of Nonnus’s many influences:

The poem is densely but playfully self-conscious about its own literary past. Epic conventions are conspicuously observed, specific Homeric passages quoted or imitated. It’s likely that if the records of classical Greek literature, especially post-Homeric epic, weren’t so tattered, the catalogue of evocations of Nonnus’s predecessors would be even longer. Some scholars think it should include nods to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which would be an un-paralleled instance of Latin influence on Greek literature (that library at Alexandria did have a lot of books).

Braden adduces reasons for thinking it probable that Nonnus composed his epic in Alexandria. And he adds that if this was indeed the case, then “in view of the considerable, if often chaotic, book-learning represented in his poetry, it is entirely likely that he had the assistance of the Roman world’s greatest library.”

Surely for the group of friends in Cavafy’s “Exiles,” the great library is one crucial feature that makes the city go on “being Alexandria still.” I like to think that the same group in “Exiles” who meet on the sea front in the evenings have often spent some time earlier in the day in the Library, for as the poem’s speaker remarks, “what with …books and various kinds of study, the time does go by.”

Leaving Cavafy’s little group of book-loving exiles sitting by the sea front and returning to Nonnus, with his long list of possible predecessors, it’s clear that whoever he was and whenever he lived, the poet of the Dionysiaca was an avid reader. And the “books and various kinds of study” available to him were various indeed. For if it’s a bit startling to think that Nonnus may have read Ovid, it may be even more unsettling to realize that in addition to the range of modes and poets already cited, there’s another plausible ingredient, historical as well as literary, in Nonnus’s murky biography and mixed brew of genres: Christianity. Braden writes:

At least two Christian churchmen possibly of the right time, more or less – a bishop and an abbot – were called Nonnus (maybe a nickname, something like “uncle”), and our author could conceivably have been one of them. The historical odds are certainly strong that our poet was some kind of Christian. It accordingly both is and is not a surprise that Nonnus’ name has also been consistently attached to a verse paraphrase (metabole), in almost exactly the strange style as the Dionysiaca, of the Gospel according to John. That attribution has sometimes been disputed but is now accepted, and it locates Nonnus astride the great cultural division of his time, though without giving us any clear indication of what to make of that…. All we can say with assurance is that as classical Greek poetry Nonnus’ two big poems share the same literary space, and for a poet with a strong sense of style that may be all that needs saying.

Note Braden’s delicate choice of words: “may be all that needs saying.” But even if Nonnus’s being “some kind of Christian” is no longer in dispute, other critics have evidently felt that there was more to say. That the poet who was both a Christian and the author of the Dionysiaca was therefore “astride the great cultural division of his time” can admit different ways of conceptualizing what such a double identity means.

In Hellenistic Culture: Fusion and Diffusion (1959), Moses Hadas is not specifically referring to Nonnus when he writes of the movement of cultural influences as “a sort of oscillation, with the pendulum acquiring added color or force at either extreme.” It’s striking that the image of the pendulum reappears in a similar context in Joseph Brodsky’s 1977 essay about Cavafy. Brodsky writes that the poet “did not choose between paganism and Christianity but was swinging between them like a pendulum.”

The sense of a dynamic process envisioned by both Hadas and Brodsky leaves more room for writerly imagination, and for ambiguity, than the image of a figure straddling the gaping maw of Braden’s “great cultural division.” For Hadas, there’s movement, not stasis, and the movement is inevitably back and forth. Hadas cites the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, who also envisioned cultural transmission spatially. Benedict writes:

We must imagine a great arc on which are ranged the possible interests provided either by the human age-cycle or by the environment or by man’s various activities…. Every human society everywhere has made such a selection of its cultural institutions. Each, from the point of view of another, ignores fundamentals and exploits irrelevancies.

Neither Hadas nor Benedict refers to Nonnus. But the classicist Edith Hall, in her 2015 study Introducing the Ancient Greeks, provides a helpful anatomy of how, given that he was both the author of the Dionysiaca and a Christian who turned the Gospel of John into Greek hexameters, we might read Nonnus. Her analysis assumes the existence of what Braden calls the great cultural division but also leaves room for Hadas’s oscillation – though as Hall presents it, what oscillates may be not so much the Dionysiaca as our reception of it. (Edward Said’s concept, in Culture and Imperialism, of contrapuntal reading is also relevant here.) The back-and-forth swing of the pendulum is replaced in Hall’s summation by a road that branches into three possible paths:

It was particularly common to accommodate pagan Greek myths and narratives to Christianity in the figure of Dionysus, a process exemplified in…a massive Greek epic poem called the Dionysiaca by the well-read Nonnus of Panopolis in Egypt in the fifth or sixth century A.D. The poem tells how Dionysus won many victories in India before returning to the Near East in a triumphal procession, and includes the pagan mythical foundation stories of many of its Greek cities. By Nonnus’s date, pagan worship was actually against the law, and so some scholars have seen the Dionysiaca as a serious defense of the old religion at a time when it was in terminal decline. But Nonnus also knew the Gospel of St. John and indeed paraphrased it in verse, which may mean he converted to Christianity after writing the epic. But there is a third interpretation, which is that the poem is a lighthearted and rather secular work, intended to be entertaining, and could have been written by a cultured Christian…

The members of the group meeting by the sea front in Cavafy’s “Exiles” would seem to lean toward Hall’s third interpretation: they admire Nonnus’s poetry as polished literary entertainment. The speaker does refer discreetly to the cultural division of the time:

Sometimes we discuss church affairs

(the people here seem to lean toward Rome)

and sometimes literature.

The group’s choice of topics appears to be either church affairs or literature, not both at once. Yet if (in Braden’s words) Nonnus’s “two big poems share the same literary space,” that is, style, perhaps there’s no need for Cavafy’s exiles to choose between these two topics. Can’t church affairs and literature not only coexist but also nourish each other?

In terms of history, theology, politics, and culture, the answer to that question is complicated. In terms of personal relationships, the fraught coexistence between Christianity and Hellenism presents complexities that can be addressed on the intimate scale poetry affords. Precisely such complications are one of Cavafy’s great subjects. Can church affairs and Greek poetry exist in harmony? Rather than answering this difficult question, Cavafy returns to it often, probing painful emotional territory in the process.

The speaker in “Exiles” delicately hints at the cultural and very possibly political divide between church affairs and poetry. The group members are meeting under assumed names; presumably they need to be careful of what they’re talking about. It’s even possible that shifting the emphasis of their discussions from one topic to another is a kind of cover. In more than one other Cavafy poem, though, the discontinuity between paganism and Christianity presents a painful challenge chiefly in the realm of personal relationships.

Consider Cavafy’s 1929 poem “Myris, Alexandria, A.D. 340.” “Myris,” like “Exiles,” presents as its background characters a select group of wealthy Alexandrian friends who share a love for Greek poetry, among other pleasures. Myris, a beloved member of the group, has died, and one of his friends (very likely more than a friend) is speaking:

When I heard the terrible news, that Myris was dead,

I went to his house, although I avoid

going to the houses of Christians,

especially during times of mourning or festivity….

I stood and wept in a corner of the corridor.

And I thought how our parties and excursions

wouldn’t be worthwhile now without Myris;

and I thought how I’d no longer see him

at our wonderfully indecent night-long sessions

enjoying himself, laughing, and reciting verses

with his perfect feel for Greek rhythm…

That “perfect feel for Greek rhythm” is almost identical to the phrasing of the enthusiastic little group in “Exiles” when they admire “some lines by Nonnus: / what imagery, what rhythm, what diction and harmony!”

But as he thinks about all the good times with Myris, the speaker also begins to remember an extra dimension, the unspoken or barely spoken differences, expressed in details of behavior that may have seemed trivial at the time.

We’d known of course that Myris was a Christian,

known it from the very start,

when he first joined our group the year before last.

But he lived exactly as we did….

He never spoke about his religion.

And once we even told him

that we’d take him with us to the Serapeion.

But – I remember now –

he didn’t seem to like this joke of ours.

And yes, now I recall two other incidents.

When we made libations to Poseidon,

he drew himself back from our circle and looked elsewhere.

And when one of us in his fervor said

“May all of us be favored and protected

by the great, the sublime Apollo”-

Myris, unheard by the others, whispered: “not counting me.”

In the presence of Christian prayers and lamentations, the speaker’s sense of belated alienation and his fear that he had never really known Myris become so strong that they drown out his immediate mourning for the loss of a dear friend with a different and more haunting sense of loss:

The Christian priests were praying loudly

for the young man’s soul.

I noticed with how much diligence,

how much intense concern

for the forms of their religion, they were preparing

everything for the Christian funeral.

And suddenly an odd sensation took hold of me:

indefinably I felt

as if Myris were going from me;

I felt that he, a Christian, was united

with his own people and that I was becoming

a stranger, a total stranger. I even felt

a doubt come over me: that I’d been deceived by my passion

and had always been a stranger to him.

I rushed out of their horrible house,

rushed away before my memory of Myris

could be captured, could be perverted by their Christianity.

(tr. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

“And once we even told him / that we’d take him with us to the Serapeion. / But – I remember now -/ he didn’t seem to like this joke of ours.” The references that reticulate Cavafy’s oeuvre can easily lead from those lines in “Myris” to a small poem from 1926, “Priest at the Serapeion.” The poem reads:

My kind old father

whose love for me has always stayed the same –

I mourn my kind old father

who died two days ago, just before dawn.

Christ Jesus, I try continually

in my every thought, word and deed

to keep the commandments

of your most holy Church; and I reject

all who deny you. But now I mourn;

I grieve, O Christ, for my father

even though he was – terrible as it is to say it –

priest at that cursed Serapeion.

Keeley and Sherrard’s Notes define Serapis as a Graeco-Egyptian god whose temple in Alexandria, the Serapeion, was “built by Ptolemy I Soter around 300 B.C. and destroyed by the Emperor Theodosius in A.D. 392.” These dates place the poem well before Nonnus’s probable floruit, but the hyphenated nationality and/or cultural mixture conveyed by “Graeco-Egyptian” or “Egyptian Greek” is often applied to Nonnus as well as Serapis. Whether we find ourselves in 300 B.C.E. or 392 C.E., these dates, and the names associated with both the building and then the destruction of Serapis’s temple, take us close to the heart of Cavafy’s imagination. Without disentangling or oversimplifying it, his vision presents a dense knot of cultural traditions with their attendant conflicting feeling of loyalty and loss, sadness and regret, guilt and confusion.

“Priest at the Serapeion” is a small mirror image of “Myris.” In “Priest,” a devout Christian feels guilty for mourning the death of a loved one who was not only not a Christian but was a pagan priest. In “Myris,” the speaker, a man to whom Christianity is obscure (“I’m not very familiar with their religion,” he admits) and perhaps threatening, mourns the death of a close friend or lover who was, in his discreet way, a Christian in his lifetime but who now, in death, seems to be more and more enfolded in Christian ritual.

The mourning in “Myris” turns into what we might now call complicated grief. Myris’s Christian faith, not much of an obstacle so long as the young man was alive and enjoyed the pleasures of Greek poetry, looms far larger once he is dead and out of reach except to the Christians who are filling his house. The tormented mourning of the Christian son in “Priest at the Serapeion,” also fraught with conflict, is another example of complicated grief.

Reading “Myris,” we sympathize with the grief-stricken friend who is speaking. Yet that friend’s emotional pain would be less believable if Myris too were not presented as a sympathetic figure. In “Priest at the Serapeion,” we feel for both the bereaved son and his “kind old father.” In both these poems, even if we hear only one voice and thus only one side of the story, our vision expands to encompass both sides of the cultural division between pagan and Christian – a division which the intimate scale and emotional charge of Cavafy’s poems transforms into something more like familial estrangement.

If we now turn back from Cavafy to the ancient world, it’s clear that Cavafy’s characteristic method of presenting both sides of an issue without necessarily endorsing one or the other turns out to be a helpful technique in navigating the often murky waters not only of the Dionysiaca but also of the Metamorphoses. For the cultural ambiguity which is both one of Cavafy’s chief preoccupations and also one of his poetic tools carries over into any reading of Nonnus’s or Ovid’s poems.

Commenting on Brodsky’s image of Cavafy’s pendulum swinging between Christianity and paganism, Edmund Keeley qualifies the figure of the pendulum, observing that that “one might modify the metaphor by suggesting that it is the speaking voice that does the swinging; Cavafy’s perspective is what holds the pendulum in place.”

Nonnus’s perspective isn’t easy to grasp. When, as I translated Book Sixteen of the Dionysiaca, the brutish face of Harvey Weinstein kept getting between me and the page, how was I supposed to think about Dionysus’ pursuit and finally rape of Nicaea? Was this passage (really more than one passage, for such scenes are replicated in the poem) titillating, shocking, ironic, tongue-in-cheek, indignant, purely antiquarian? A.E. Stallings’s ingenious poem “First Love: A Quiz” presents the story of Hades’s abduction of Persephone as a multiple-choice test. The final two answers to the last question on the quiz, what we should call “the place he took me to,” are:

  1. is called by some men hell and others love
  2. all of the above

It’s tempting to answer questions about the Dionysiaca in just that both/and way. How could I catch the tone of the text in my translation if I didn’t have a clear sense of what the tone was? What, as my students might have put it, was Nonnus trying to say? Given that it’s impossible to be sure, “all of the above” might well be the best answer to questions about the tone or intention of the poem. Braden’s notion of a cultural divide or Hadas’s oscillating pendulum offer imaginative space for precisely that sense of not only this but also that.

If my reactions to Nonnus vacillated, I wasn’t alone. Some of the quite colorful language used by the handful of earlier scholars who have written about the Dionysiaca captures the contradictory feelings the poem has aroused. In 1916, Lewis Parke Chamberlayne vividly conveyed the overwhelming effect of reading the poem – an effect which the passage of a century has done nothing to diminish. Chamberlayne described Nonnus’s “attempt to bring the weltering riot of his tropical fancies to some semblance of order.” H.D. Rose in his Introduction to the 1940 Loeb edition of the Dionysiaca was more censorious and moralistic. For Rose, the poem was “a faded and overcrowded tapestry, moving a little now and then as the breath of his sickly and unwholesome fancy stirs it.” Much more sympathetic was Stefan George, who, in his 1898 eulogy for his friend Stéphane Mallarmé, recalls the two writers’ shared admiration of “the hard-born verses of the hot-blooded Egyptian, which hum and hurry along like Maenads [and] filled us with more delight than those of old Homer.” Cavafy’s “Exiles” had yet to be written, but the shared pleasure in Nonnus’s poetry described by George somewhat anticipates the admiration of the little group of exiles meeting by the sea front.

“Tropical fancies;” “sickly and unwholesome fancy”; “hot-blooded Egyptian”: it’s easy to pounce on the outdated Orientalism such language of prior generations betrays. More interesting than our current trigger alerts, though, is the gap between various ways the poem has been experienced. Is the Dionysiaca a decadent relic, a faded tapestry in an airless room, or is it a vigorous, dynamic vehicle careering along? Depending on who is doing the reading—on their literary experience, expectations, and taste; and on their attention to such extra-literary concerns as history, religion, and politics—the answer might be well be: All of the above.

Although we know much more about Ovid than we do about Nonnus, nevertheless some of the same issues of reception arise when we turn to the Metamorphoses. In their After Ovid (1992), James Lasdun and Michael Hofmann collected versions by various hands of some of the many colorful episodes in the Metamorphoses. As is notorious, there’s a great deal of violence, much of it sexual violence – an abundance of what are now sometimes known as triggering moments – in the poem. Lasdun and Hofmann note in their introduction that among the poem’s themes are “holocaust, plague, sexual harassment, rape, incest, seduction, pollution, sex-change, suicide, hetero- and homosexual love, torture, war, child-battering, depression and intoxication.” The stories, the editors go on to suggest, “offer a mythical key to most of the more extreme forms of human behaviour and suffering.”

Whether “key” here means interpretation or etiological explanation, was it Ovid’s intention to provide such a key? The familiar question arises: What are we to make of – how are we to hear – the poem’s tone or tones? Ovid was exiled, he tells us in the Tristia, because of a poem and a mistake – carmen et error. But scholarly debate remains inconclusive about which poem (plenty of Ovid’s other work was also edgy) or what mistake is being referred to. Whether this famous and endlessly generative potpourri of stories is merely titillating, slyly subversive, profoundly ironic, intentionally shocking, subtly didactic, or some or all of the above, it’s impossible to be sure. And as for the vexed matter of intention, whether a central authorial perspective held any tonal pendulum in place, as Keeley suggests of Cavafy, was one of the questions we Ovidians tossed around week after week without reaching any firm conclusion.

As the months passed, our Ovidian group’s weekly meetings on the digital sea-front began to reveal roles and reactions among us readers that, as would happen in any seminar, became more and more predictable. One of us early on took on the task of the dedicated and good-humored Googler whom we soon came lazily to count on to look up genealogies, geographies, and alternate versions. Another was primarily interested in the history and politics at play in Augustan Rome: how would such and such an episode have been understood then? Another tended to ask commonsensical questions whose very practicality guaranteed that they couldn’t be answered, at least not definitively, either by us or by Ovid. Others sought clarity on Ovid’s view of women, or divine justice. Others were alert to verbal echoes both from Ovid’s many predecessors and his even more numerous successors; hence writers from Homer and Theocritus to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Frank Bidart, to name a very few, popped up in our discussions. I’m reminded of Eliot’s quote from and rebuttal of “someone” in “Tradition and the Individual Talent:” “Someone said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are what we know.”

As well as from the poems or images of paintings or sculptures that we sometimes sent around, all of us learned from one another; and part of what we learned was the multiplicity of ways this enormous and shape-shifting poem could be read. Our principal text was Charles Martin’s 2010 translation, but W.H.D. Rouse’s Loeb edition, Rolfe Humphries, Arthur Golding, and Stephanie McCarter’s new translation also put in appearances. When it came to comparing translations, just as when we compared our interpretations or impressions of given passages, there was room for fruitful disagreement. The “all of the above” principle seemed to hold.

As we’ve seen, the same principle holds for Nonnus. I’ve sometimes tried to envision a weekly Zoom devoted to the Dionysiaca, even though the unwieldy length of the poem makes such a project daunting. But who knows? Maybe, especially if a longer lockdown looms, I’ll suggest it. (A classicist friend recently told me how much she’d benefitted from a large discussion group that started early on during the pandemic; the discussion was memorably billed as the Herodotus Helpline, and I’ve just signed onto that.) Another and even more remote possibility for our next Zoom project occurs to me: Nonnus’s rendering (assuming it’s the same Nonnus, or even if it isn’t) of John’s Gospel into Homeric hexameters. But even if (a big if) the other group members were to agree to this choice, it would be hard to find a translation.

Yet in a way a Dionysiaca discussion group exists already, in the shape of a book. For Lombardo and Levitan’s Tales of Dionysus constitutes its own kind of group by the sea front. This collaborative translation is a sort of symposium, a chorus of voices whose renderings are inevitably to some degree also interpretations. In offering the different ways each of us heard and rendered Nonnus’s poetry, our choices as translators necessarily revealed our own influences and preferences. For example, when I almost intuitively decided to use rhymed fourteeners in rendering Book Sixteen, I had two splendid examples of translations employing just this prosodic choice – Kenneth Koch’s Ovid, which appeared in After Ovid, and Alicia Stallings’s Lucretius – ringing in my ears.

Translations can be thought of as stretches or leaps, as compromises or approximations, as the translator strives to render an often elusive original. Particularly in the case of a transitional figure like Nonnus, translation functions doubly, fostering both fusion – joining separate linguistic and cultural strands – and diffusion, spreading out the results beyond their original scope. The same could be said of translations of Biblical texts, as Hadas shows in Hellenistic Culture in his discussion of the Septuagint. “Greece,” said the poet George Seferis in an interview with Keeley, “is a continuous process.”

Process: both a noun and a verb. Greece and Greekness seem to function more like verbs, processes of becoming, than nouns which denote some fixed, static entity. Writing in 1931 about Cavafy’s relation to Greek cultural traditions, E.M. Forster uses energetic, almost aggressive verbs:

…Greece for [Cavafy] was not territorial. It was rather the influence that has flowed from his race this way and that through the ages, and that…never disdained to mix with barbarism, indeed desired to mix…Racial purity bored him. The civilization he respected was a bastardy in which the Greek strain prevailed, and into which, age after age, outsiders would push, to modify and be modified.

The term “race” is problematic now. Nevertheless, what Forster vividly evokes with his suggestive image of a continuous push and pull, an ongoing and dynamic process, is absolutely relevant in our own culturally fraught times. Like Hadas’s or Brodsky’s image of a swinging pendulum or Ruth Benedict’s vision of an arc, Forster’s tropes, like Cavafy’s ambiguities, refuse to stand still.

It makes sense that readers of Nonnus or Ovid also wobble back and forth. For as our group keeps discovering week by week, Ovid, whose dates (43 BCE-18 CE) place him on the cusp of a political revolution as well as close to the birth of Christianity, was another straddler between worlds.

If Nonnus found himself astride a great cultural division, then so have many of the people who have studied, if not his poetry, then his cultural milieu. Moses Hadas; Robert Graves; Edith Hall – all seem capable of a perspective that rejects binaries and refuses to oversimplify.

Is a coincidence that Moses Hadas and Joseph Brodsky were themselves situated astride of cultural divides? My father Moses Hadas (1900-1966), raised in an Orthodox Jewish home and ordained as a rabbi before he became a professor of classics, was a multi-culturalist avant la lettre. Reviewing Hellenistic Culture, Robert Graves (1895-1985), the famously versatile, learned, and iconoclastic classicist, novelist, poet, and student of myth, singled out for praise precisely Hadas’s unusual qualifications among classicists:

as a well-jumped-upon outsider, I rejoice if ever an eminent university professor – miraculously at home both among the classics and rabbinical texts – breaks academic convention and boldly bridges ancient gaps of knowledge.

Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) straddled not only cultural traditions but languages; he transformed himself from a Russian poet into an American poet who wrote eloquently about Auden and Frost as well as Cavafy.

Edith Hall (b. 1959), whose recent pages on Hellenistic poetry in general and Nonnus in particular are among the most useful I have read, is another figure who resists pigeon-holing. Hall notes in her Preface to Introducing the Ancient Greeks that “the study of ancient Greek culture has become painfully politicized. Critics of colonialism and racism tend to play down the specialness of the ancient Greeks. Those who still maintain that there was something identifiably different and even superior about the Greeks, on the other hand, are usually conservatives who have a vested interest in proving the superiority of Western ideals and in making evaluative judgments of culture. My problem is that I fit into neither camp.”

One other scholar quoted earlier deserves mention in this context. Lewis Parke Chamberlayne (1879-1917), who was my maternal grandfather, was another straddler of cultures. In his short career, Chamberlayne turned away from the Lost Cause bitterness of his venerable Virginia family and became an urbane philologist who earned his Ph.D. at Halle (writing in Latin on the Homeric Hymn to Apollo) and went on to translate Musaeus. Chamberlayne’s friendship late in his life with Columbia University’s John Erskine places him in the context of what was to become Columbia College’s core curriculum – a curriculum Hadas did much to develop. Chamberlayne died when his daughter, my mother, was two years old. My father died when I was seventeen. But the cultural reticulation holds – and beyond that, some kind of family tradition that seems to become clearer as I get older.

These meditations have meandered (perhaps pivoted is a better word) from Cavafy to Nonnus to Ovid, taking Zoom and other topics along the way. Any ending feels arbitrary; any one topic here could be considered at greater length. Thinking about literature and culture is, as Seferis said of Greece, a process, and hence ongoing. The weekly Ovidian sessions have been a predictable part of my life for a year now; but a more recent spate of events also feels connected to the themes that keep coming up.

Tomorrow night, for example, I’ll be one of the speakers at a panel sponsored by Columbia University’s Society of Fellows, entitled “Moses Hadas and Historical Black Colleges and Universities – Classics, Racism, Segregation.” My presence there is owing to the fact that in 1963 my father delivered a series of telelectures (precursors of Zoom) on Greek thought to southern Black colleges. Perhaps I have inherited the mantle of explaining what fusion and diffusion in relation to the study of classics might mean. One of the other panelists recently served as director of Columbia’s Core Curriculum. Another example: a couple of weeks ago, I was the recipient of a flurry of obscene and threatening email responses to an article I’d written on the second anniversary of the January 6, 2021 insurrection. The bulk of my brief piece was devoted to quoting Thucydides’s analysis of the civil strife in Corcyra during the Peloponnesian War. What set the angry letter-writers off wasn’t my mention of Thucydides but my own implied political views. The positive comments generated by this piece, on the other hand, all expressed gratitude for the writers’ having been exposed (or re-exposed) to the prescient insights of the Greek historian.

Another example: last week I participated in a Zoom poetry reading sponsored by Yetzirah, a “nonprofit literary organization dedicating to fostering and supporting… writers and readers of Jewish poetry now and for generations to come.” Each of the three featured readers spoke about her own complicated relationship to the Jewish tradition. Another example: a few days ago, a local group, the Morningside Poetry Series, celebrated my two recent poetry collections, Love and Dread (2021) and Pandemic Almanac (2022). Both those titles suggest precariousness. Love and Dread: both private refuge and public threat; Pandemic Almanac: a looming menace, but also the time-honored practice of keeping going by keeping track. In contrast to my previously published work, each poem in Pandemic Almanac notes the place, month, and year of the poem’s composition, so that the poems are located in time. Cavafy doesn’t note the date he composed his poems, but a date and the occasional place often make their way into his titles, from “Days of 1908” to “Myris: Alexandria, A.D. 340.” Poems, as Cavafy understood and as I am beginning to understand better, are located in, and testify to, history. And a final example: next month I’ll attend a Columbia symposium whose topic is “Why Read Great Books? Liberal Education in the Twenty-first Century.”

Each in its own way, every one of the events I’ve just listed pertains to poetry, to tradition, and to a fraught political and cultural moment; each of them testifies to some part of a larger historical process. I have a feeling that any one item on the list – the panel, the hate mail and fan mail, the Zoom reading and the book party and the symposium – analyzed at any length, would eventually connect somehow with all the others.

I hope to trace some of these and other connecting threads. For example, I have a few letters Robert Graves wrote to my father, in which the Aeneid and the Bible come up. Maybe the letters Hadas wrote to Graves can be unearthed in Graves’s archive; I’m friends with a Graves scholar, formerly my colleague at Rutgers, and I can also count on the help of a resourceful librarian in Columbia’s Rare Book Room. My father’s archive at Columbia is nugatory; there are incomplete transcripts of the 1963 telectures, and so far the Ford Foundation hasn’t been able to guide me to any other texts. I have thought of trying to issue a new edition of my father’s 1962 book Old Wine, New Bottles: A Humanist Teacher at Work, perhaps with a new introduction. I have a few of my father’s mostly brief and occasional unpublished writings. And there are other ideas. Maybe I’ll write a dialogue between the father I knew too briefly, the grandfather I never knew, Robert Graves, Cavafy, and Edmund Keeley.

Edmund Keeley (1928-2022) was a teacher and mentor and friend whom, for more than forty years, I did have the privilege of knowing. When I was a graduate student at Princeton, it was Mike Keeley who introduced me to Modern Greek poetry; all the translations of Cavafy I’ve used here are his and Philip Sherrard’s work. In 2018 I had the pleasure of writing the introduction to Nakedness is My End. This was a book of Mike’s elegant translations, both poignant and wry, of selected poems from the so-called Greek Anthology, a compilation of poems spanning the chronological arc from Archaic to Byzantine. More cultural straddling? Yes, but also a continuum. Diffusion, but also fusion. All the poems in Nakedness is My End share an unmistakable family resemblance.

Mike Keeley died in February 2022, not long after his ninety-fourth birthday and the day before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. By early 2020, it had become clear that we wouldn’t meet in person again. We spoke often, although to my regret I don’t think the name of Nonnus, or Cavafy’s poem “Exiles,” ever came up. But in the dialogue I am beginning to imagine, there will be time to discuss Nonnus among many other things. Our sea front won’t be in Alexandra, nor will it exactly be in the Zoom Room, though there’s certainly something unearthly about that platform. Rather, since what I have in mind will be a colloquy of the living and the dead, it will take place in what for some will be (as James Merrill [1926-1995] put it in Mirabell: Books of Number) “their desks in heaven” and for others “the schoolhouse of our lives below.” Come to think of it, I’d love to invite Merrill, a great Cavafy aficionado and, when I first knew him, in Athens in the Seventies, the friend of many Greeks from Alexandria, to join what I expect will be wide-ranging talks.

In Cavafy’s poem “Dareios,” set around 74 BCE, the court poet Phernazis, commissioned to write an epic poem praising King Dareios, who lived centuries before, is interrupted in the midst of composing a crucial part of his poem (what was Dareios’s state of mind at a moment of great triumph?) by the alarming news that “the war with the Romans has begun; / most of our army has crossed the borders.”

The poet is dumbfounded. What a disaster!

How can our glorious king,

Mithridatis, Dionysus and Evpator,

bother about Greek poems now?

in the middle of a war – just think, Greek poems!

And yet, frightened and distracted as he is, his mind leaping ahead to fearful scenarios, Phernazis does what poets do.

But through all his nervousness, all the turmoil,

the poetic idea comes and goes insistently:

arrogance and intoxication – that’s the most likely, of course –

arrogance and intoxication are what Dareios must have felt.

The poetic idea comes and goes insistently. Even in the middle of a war – yes, Greek poems. Wherever we can find them, we set up groups by the equivalent of a sea front. The reticulation extends; the process continues.

Issue 16.1

Literary Matters 16.1

Fall, 2023

 

Meringoff Prize Winners

 

Fiction

Becky Hagenston: Wild Creatures

 

Poetry Co-Winner

Ernest Hilbert: All the Usual Distractions

Ernest Hilbert: Air and Space

Ernest Hilbert: Nostos

Ernest Hilbert: White Cottage

Ernest Hilbert: Taphonomy

 

Poetry Co-Winner

Garrett Hongo: The Surfaces of the Sea

 

Non-Fiction

Hope Coulter: A Label for My Father

 

Translation

Diana Senechal: The Flower-Waterer Who Didn’t Believe His Flowers Were Beautiful (translated from the Hungarian of Csenger Kertai) 

 

Featured Poet

Didi Jackson: Praise Poem with First Line by Derek Walcott

Didi Jackson: canis latans / coyote

Didi Jackson: Dogfight

Didi Jackson: Bingo Cemetery, Green Mountains, Vermont

Didi Jackson: Glowing with Joy

 

Criticism

Ned Balbo: To Live for Not Yet Created Things: Measured Voices in a World of Discord

Maryann Corbett: Capital Improvements: The Initial-Caps War

Paul Dean: Julien Gracq: History in the Making

Rachel Hadas: Meetings on the Sea Front

Mark Halliday: Bleak Solace in a Poem by William Olsen

Maurice Manning: 17 O’Clock

Melanie McCabe: The Famous Sisters Break Free from the Dusty Pages of History in The Badass Brontës

Thomas Pfau: On ChatGPT

Jay Rogoff: Becoming Poetry: An Introduction 

J.C. Scharl: Turning Home: A Review of Aaron Poochigian’s Mr. Either/Or Books

Daniel Cross Turner: Still Looking: Dave Smith’s Late Poetry

 

Poems

Camille Carter: Evening Falls

Cameron Clark: Another Ophelia, Another Venus

Sarah Cortez: Good Riddance, Clyde

Morri Creech: American Sublime

Morri Creech: At Isle of Palms

Cally Conan-Davies: At Oyster Cove

William Virgil Davis: John Ruskin Drowsing in his Stone Seat at Brantwood

Michael Devine: Church Going

Jeanne Foster: From a Tuscan Farmhouse Window

John Foy: Sextina

Judith Harris: On the Anniversary of His Death

Toni Holland: Mothlight

Anna Maria Hong: New Year’s Eve

Kjerstin Anne Kauffman: Weathering

Kjerstin Anne Kauffman: Vestibule

Timothy Kleiser: Closing Up the Beauty Parlor

Ted Kooser: Raincoat

Ted Kooser: In Transit

David Lehman: Three Aesthetic Questions

Toby Martinez de las Rivas: The Mountain

David Mason: Huckleberries

David Mason: Dream Job

Ashley Anna McHugh: The Light of Autumn

Shane McCrae: The Player on the Bridge

Christopher Lee Miles: Against Sleeplessness

Carl Phillips: Yes

Carl Phillips: Mechanics

D.A. Powell: Space Race

John Savoie: Night Drive

John Savoie: Old Dog at Night

Grace Schulman: Witness

Grace Schulman: Voyeuse

Robert B. Shaw: Happenstance

Timothy Steele: Orb Weavers

Lesley Wheeler: Submicroscopic

 

Interview

J.P. Gritton: On Identity, Doubt, & Digging In: A Conversation with Fiction Writer Mesha Maren

 

Translations

Kelly Scott Franklin: Verses (from the Spanish of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer)

At Isle of Palms

A kingfisher flashed in the cattails. Sun
dazzled the spindrift hanging in the air
like a play of mayflies. Day was nearly done.
Our words were both acknowledgment and prayer.
What hovered in the syllables we spoke
that hour we wandered barefoot by the sea?
How much of us can language still evoke
now that the past and present disagree?
Each year some detail of that moment slips;
yet here we are, your name still on my lips.

On the Anniversary of His Death

I remember my father. I’m standing
at my window, watching him pass
through my reflection and beyond it.
Autumn. Time for sowing, as he clears
the debris off the garden bed
and adds in a layer of compost, then sends
his gloved hands into a sack to scatter
the seeds: wild cabbage, black-eyed Susan.
When he walks, I know his slow motion gait,
stooped over, then kneeling down
to inspect the soil where only a few dubious
marigolds still raise their clustered heads.
My face against the cold glass, I see him
turn to wave, as if to say he’s finished here
although the harsh light of the sun
strikes the window with such a glare
he cannot see me waving back.

“To Live for Not Yet Created Things”: Measured Voices in a World of Discord

A Gaze Hound That Hunteth by the Eye by V. Penelope Pelizzon (Pitt Poetry Series, 104pp., $18.00)

World Too Loud to Hear by Stephen Kampa (Able Muse Press, 134pp., $21.95)

Storm Swimmer by Ernest Hilbert (University of North Texas Press, 90pp., $14.95)

Satan Talks to His Therapist by Melissa Balmain (Paul Dry Books, 91pp., $16.95)

Some Problems with Autobiography by Brian Brodeur (Criterion Books, 88pp., $22.00) 

Wise to the West by Wendy Videlock (Able Muse Press, 116pp., $19.95)

In 2007, A. E. Stallings, the prodigiously gifted future Oxford Professor of Poetry (her term starts October 2023), published her commentary “Why No One Wants to be a New Formalist” at Poetry’s “Harriet the Blog.” Though irresistibly disarming, Stallings’ essay was also serious: her well-argued rejoinders countered then-current stereotypes about who was writing in meter and why anyone would even bother—stereotypes that, almost twenty years on, seem almost comically out of date. (News flash: those who write in meter may write in other modes as well!) Stallings, for the record, rejected “New Formalist” as a polemical term designed to diminish poets of metrical bent. (Drolly, she quipped, “I myself prefer the term ‘retro-formalist’, which at least sounds vaguely cool, like wearing vintage clothing and listening to vinyl, something so square it’s hip.”) Stallings, like others she mentioned, would agree that labels are for vintage clothes, not poets, and her light-hearted defense should have been the last time anyone needed to engage the subject. 

Today, poetry is more accessible than ever, which brings its own set of challenges—and not just for poets who write in meter. Small press books fill Amazon portals, lit-mags flash to life online, slams and Zoom readings proliferate, along with workshops real or virtual; book contests keep raking in submission fees, as much for survival as profit; and the profusion of poets keeps churning out verse, the universe constantly expanding. This lively growth of the art—in many ways a good thing—guarantees a numbing effect, and countless poets caught in this wave are outshone by exhaustively charted stars. It’s easier to explore a solar system than an entire poetic cosmos, however, and fortunately for metrical verse, there’s much to find. The poets discussed here, whose birth years span the twenty-year period from 1961 to 1981, have each published multiple books, and their new collections arrive as proof that metrical art—however you label it—is thriving. 

*

Penelope Pelizzon is no stranger to kudos, and in A Gaze Hound That Hunteth by the Eye, it’s easy to see why. Her third book is an absorbing, immersive meditation on the body, the natural world, global cultures (both historical and contemporary), and the deeply rooted, symbiotic relationship between human beings and animals (especially dogs). The poet’s literary knowledge—worn lightly, shared judiciously—ranges widely, as does her wit and prosodic skill. Pelizzon’s virtuosity underpins a collection that is urgent and elegiac, hilarious and harrowing, its detours into memory as vividly realized as the author’s obvious joy in literature and life. 

If the poet’s canophilia is what caught your eye, you’re in luck: dogs wander in and out of Pelizzon’s pages, going about their doggy lives, vividly embodying the human-canine bond. For Pelizzon, however, the subject is not an end in itself but a starting point for further inquiry. The title poem originates with cranky remonstrances culled from clergyman William Harrison’s “Of Our English Dogs and Their Qualities” in Holinshed’s Chronicles, the sixteenth-century source for Shakespeare’s history plays. Harrison’s objections to women who pamper their pets earns the poet’s rebuke: “How he despises us, // irksome older women trifling away all / treasure of time with our perverse / cossetings.” In five-line syllabic stanzas, Pelizzon’s witty refutations cascade through the centuries, touching on literature, Elizabethan history, menopause, the pandemic, art’s wellsprings, and, of course, dogs: 

Poor man. He’s better off dead, not here

………….forced to catalogue how, today,

………….………….………….I climbed off my broomstick

………….………….and smooched my leashed familiar

………….shamelessly on her damp nose, taking her

along to weed my pandemic victory

………….garden….

The poem’s convergences are striking. After mocking archaic laws in which a dog’s affection, too, might seem “like witchcraft,” the speaker climbs off her witch’s broom, further mocking Holinshed (her stand-in for all misogynist killjoys) by cultivating vegetative “charms” in her garden. (Pelizzon’s book, I should note, is dedicated to her “familiars.”) Of course witches—like Macbeth’s “weird sisters,” sourced also from Holinshed—are often depicted as old women: “how much I know / sieves down to me from men who winced at dames // soothing their hot spells or chilly wombs with love / minced into morsels and hand-fed / to pets…” The poem, puckish and pun-filled, traverses light and shadow: an Internet search for “false indigo” in this “season / of quarantined green thumbs” shifts to how settlers learned to dye cloth blue from Native Americans who died from exposure to European pathogens. What starts as a poet’s witty riposte to a centuries-old insult becomes an indictment of colonialism, a celebration of literature (“In Shakespeare’s uterus / of a mind[,] the chronicles / seeded this fruit”), and a defense of witch and bitch, woman and dog, joint targets and terms of abuse: 

………….……………………………………Good thing

……………………..the vicar didn’t catch me

………….next dawn, old bitch crouched beneath a scything

wind off the Gowanus canal, poking through

………….………….my mutt’s scat with a plastic straw

………….………….………….picked out of the gutter

………….………….to make sure the shreds of heir-

………….loom vegetable-dyed wool had made a safe

backstage exit.

Pelizzon, like the Bard, writes comfortably of the body, whether prompted by Canis familiaris or her own kind’s fleshly frailties. “Elegy for Estrogen,” inventively rhymed in irregular lines, laments the menopausal changes that men like vicar Harrison don’t want to hear about but which women have always endured: “Must…[a]trophies dwindle once- / trophied glades, whose rivulets / rinsed the helmets / of kings?//…This insistence / clocks can be stopped with resistance / insults…” In contrast, “Orts and Slarts” (that is, scraps and spillage, from Nottinghamshire dialect by way of D. H. Lawrence) turns to the body’s “eructations.” Afflicted with gas thanks to a meal of leeks, garlic, and lentils, the speaker declares, “Nothing’s / more humorous than an aunt / embarrassed, her innards muttering crass // blasphemies in some guttural proto-Nordic /dialect.” What is pain for her is entertainment for nephews, “avid hagiographers / who praise the body’s stinks and stews…” But the body’s rebellions have another side: there’s the “gaunt” father “whose kisses the chemo made radioactive” and the nephews themselves whose food allergies arrived by some unknown route: “(What poison came home / in sippy cups or pacifiers? / With milk in plastic cartons? / Toxins tasteless in the butter-sweet colostrum // warm from the nipple of a mama bear who’s breathed / what breezes off the golf course…?)” Here, low comedy unfolds against a backdrop of unknown dangers brought by the tainted environment beyond.

A past fellow of the Hawthornden and Amy Lowell Foundations, Pelizzon is a traveler (her partner is a U.S. foreign service officer). “Africa Hand” (the foreign service term for a regional specialist) presents a speaker who is self-aware and intrepid but discovers that “in Africa there isn’t any shortage / of gardens my stupidity can bloom in.” A “spacey driver behind the wheel,” she falls into a daydream trance imprinted by history and geography: “Drive / long enough, I start wondering how far /crows fly between Limpopo and Zambezi, / wanting to taste again the lambent-fizzy /ginger beers in Zanzibar, // imagining radio broadcasts of the last /songs of Songhai.” The word-play of “song” and “Songhai” (the latter an empire five hundred years gone), plus other references, shows both the drift of imagination and the reason why it’s easy for her handbag to be stolen at a stoplight. Like the title poem, “Africa Hand” unfolds by free association: a policeman’s eye-roll which the speaker interprets as meaning, “your naiveté / is dazzling; white people have their fingers / stuck in every pie; how come you haven’t / learned to keep your hands on your own shit?”; or the cluster of radio program daydreams that evoke Africa’s multiethnic heritage: “Caller three, Kanem’s // mosque was where? Who made Warka puppets / dance? Whence the silks in Kawkaw’s market?” (Kawkaw and other references easily Googled are all the more resonant—to my ears, anyway—in their succinct, throwaway form.) Ultimately, the speaker’s chance encounter with a venomous boomslang snake mistaken for a vine caps the poet’s honest self-portrait as a traveler: awed by the natural world, she’s always a little out of her element. 

There’s much else to admire here: “Gypsy Moths,” a fine eco-poem about the weather’s influence on whether a fungus fatal to invasive species will kill them soon enough to save the trees they feast on; “Ill-Starred,” triple-rhymed in haiku stanzas, that dissects the strange calm that follows a ski accident; or “Animals & Instruments,” an ambitious free verse tour de force that deserves an essay of its own, addressed ostensibly to the speaker’s students but ranging freely: from her youthful affair with an older composer through various travels, to the lion whose mane “smelled grassy, clean / as a dog’s head after he rolls in an August field” to favorite recordings, the memory of parents—even “the swaddled bébé of camel skull” purchased on impulse from a Damascus butcher. There is little that Pelizzon’s expansive vision doesn’t admit, maybe because, echoing her book’s title, she declares, “I am / a gaze hound that hunteth by the eye”—that is, a dog who, like greyhounds and related breeds, hunts mainly through sight and speed rather than smell and endurance (“The Soote Season”). Pelizzon’s speedy, vibrantly visual poems bear out this mischievous admission, as well as the alert vigilance relied on by hunting dog and artist. “What a curator / the mind is,” Pelizzon writes in “Animals & Instruments,” “restless, can’t stop building these scrappy /cabinets of curiosities when walking for an hour.” A Gaze Hound That Hunteth by the Eye is the superb result of this restless intelligence.  

*

Stephen Kampa’s fourth book, World Too Loud to Hear, confronts contemporary America with alarm and rage. A Hollis Summers Prize winner for his debut volume (2011’s Cracks in the Invisible), Kampa draws from a deep well of formal and metrical prowess. (He’s a professional musician and college faculty member as well.) His book-length critique is nuanced, outraged, compassionate, ironic; he sees what the rest of us do, but instead of wasting column inches and blog posts justifying the damage, Kampa deploys our oldest art form—verse—to resist the surrender to technology gone mad. Whether it’s the guns that Second Amendment obsessives hoard and glorify, or the black mirrors we carry and get lost inside every day, Kampa’s singular vision of clear and present danger is unsettling, poignant, and entirely persuasive. 

In syllabic quatrains, “The Collectors” sets the stage for the rest of the book by looking at how mass shooters and the wider culture are jointly trapped by paralyzing narratives. In choosing victims that he “had to” shoot, the murderer claims their narratives—“their stories now his stories”—in a mind-set much like that of gun collectors who regale listeners with trivia and tales of their own weapon’s history: it’s “a means / of owning it more fully.” Disturbing, too, is how we come to “own him”—that is, the shooter, one more “incomprehensible boy”: we’ve “collected another story,” adding to our list of locales that are now shorthand for senseless murder: “Jonesboro, Santa Fe, Parkland, Newtown, Columbine.” “Objects in a list are / always whispering into the ear of their neighbor,” Kampa concludes, quoting poet Lia Purpura and decrying our collective inaction by pointing out the repeating pattern. 

Other poems address gun violence, too. “The Offering” pairs villanelle refrains—“We offer them our thoughts and prayers” and “The room is full of empty chairs”—to enact the further repetition of empty gestures that solve nothing. My favorite, though, is “Face the Music,” a linguistic master class on the same subject. In response to a friend’s text query about the title phrase, the speaker (a fellow “word nerd”) turns to his laptop’s search engine. He scrolls through options—“reference / to a nervous performer,’”  “‘the practice / of drumming a soldier out / of his regiment,’” several others—only to light on “‘[t]he sound of gunfire or other / ordnance’” 

……………………and that’s all it takes,

I’m thinking of what I’ve been thinking of for two

…………days straight, the man who hammered

out his hotel windows and opened fire on a country

…………music festival, killing

more people than any mass shooter in “modern

…………American history.”

So this is history….

Like Pelizzon, Kampa’s mind leaps between subjects, using puns and twists of speech to make his case. The killings take place in “Paradise, an unincorporated (at root: ‘unembodied’) town / near Las Vegas, a city // enamored of chance.” As ironies and insights gather force in beautifully managed ten-line syllabic stanzas, the poet concludes, ruefully, 

…………Numbers keep ratcheting up

like a decibel meter reading: the world’s too loud

…………to hear. #heartbroken.

Gunfire. We’re facing nothing. What we won’t say is

…………music to somebody’s ears.

Much of “Face the Music” explores the political division intensified by social media. Kampa is especially outraged by its loudest voices: “the shouters-down, the shammers, the spin doctors, / the czars of twittle-twattle.” “More Furious, More Irrefutable” looks at the irrational fury that fuels far-fetched belief systems. In debunking conspiracy theories regarding jet contrails (they “aren’t governmentally dispensed psychotropic agents / bioengineered to turn the heartland American population gay or autistic or whatever”), the speaker wearily states the obvious; he knows, however, “We keep reading whatever feed fundamentally ratifies the version / of the world we want…” His core insight: “mostly we are waiting for a future that, in its / cataclysm, satisfies // all of our longing for some vindication of this apocalyptic dread.” You don’t have to be a Freudian to see the Todestrieb’s effects or to know that even delusions lend meaning to despair: to lose those beliefs, however false, “would be the/ beginning of what // none of us could survive.” This persistence of stubborn belief Kampa rightly laments and fears. 

The prose poem “Candidacy,” couched as a politician’s interview responses to a host named “Terry” (playful reference to NPR’s Terry Gross?), enacts and satirizes our divisions. Using the tired cliches of cable and niche radio, the candidate keeps returning to “America’s most pressing problem: dragons.” With each paragraph, the usual calls to arms are contorted to fit the guest’s agenda: dragons boast “impenetrable skin and unpronounceable names” and threaten “our very way of life” (italics Kampa’s). They’re even responsible for climate change, “[i]f climate change is real,” the speaker adds pre-emptively: “you can’t just burn America to a crisp like a rasher of bacon and expect it not to crank up the global temperature, am I right, Terry?” (To imagine the fictional candidate chatting on NPR reflects the media’s tendency to legitimize extremists.) While the candidate’s verbal tics suggest those of a former President, the poet’s deeper purpose is to examine how, in the age of Tucker Carlson and his ilk, media-driven speech can nudge partisans toward violence. Having said America is facing “a lot of problems with no easy solutions,” the candidate concludes with the “one thing” everyone can get behind: “Kill the motherfucking dragons.” When we think of the human targets who face similar real-life rhetoric, the poem’s critique becomes all the more chilling. 

Outrage, tempered by intelligence and craft, is hard to avoid in a book that serves as a cultural wake-up call; still, Kampa’s palette offers subtler hues also. “Obligations,” rhymed in six-line stanzas of varied measure, muses on how required duties, seemingly tiresome, actually serve as a bond between generations: “they’re ties, / Kin to the latticework that backs a chair / Or stitcheries that bind our wiles and wishes / In books we canonize…” After pointing out the bleakness of life without them, the poem ends with the heartbreak of a bereft mother, “Who’d give most anything— / For one more obligation: / The nightly braiding of a young girl’s hair.” (Kampa doesn’t have to say more for us to connect her to the book’s gun violence poems, though on its own, the poem would operate more broadly.) “Let Me Correct You” marries sympathy to social critique, its diptych contrasting the anxiety of kindergarteners forced to take standardized tests with the reference- and knowledge-free roamings of older kids at recess, who chant

Around some common flowers none can name

While others mumble, racked by imprecision,

Still trying to remember what the game

With ropes and jumping is. Hop rope? Jump thing?

They wander free. They pace a vacant lot,

Untroubled by a single troubling thought.

Stephen Kampa is one of our best younger poets writing in meter. Far from being the jeremiads of a Luddite, his poems are a cri de cœur that reflects rare gifts and empathy. Our culture is far from reaching consensus on technology’s rightful role; but Kampa’s poems refuse to accept the glib answers of industry magnates, politicians, or corporate interests who use the body politic to field test new apps and products. His isn’t a message everyone wants to hear. But a poem like “Gridlock (You’re Not Going Anywhere)” splendidly captures why any thoughtful person should defy this noise that threatens to drown us all. Invoking technobabble that would have seemed incomprehensible not long ago, Kampa sends his protagonist reeling from teleconference to parking garage and beyond, surveilled at every step, using or feeling thwarted by a plethora of devices, unsettled by his unnatural surroundings. Eventually, he suffers a break, escapes to the woods where he sees a bird—and so do we, through Kampa’s use of the second person: 

………………………Then it’s there,

a bird—what, a mockingbird? magpie?—

…………the likes of which you’ve never

seen (but could you name half a dozen?),

…………beautiful, to be honest,

and when it lands on a branch near you

and opens wide for song, you see in

…………its mouth the momentary

…………glare of a camera lens.

Yes, surveillance drones made to resemble birds are a real thing. Fortunately, so is World Too Loud to Hear: a book of authentic vision, terrific virtuosity, and unrelenting intelligence which we ignore at our own peril. 

*

As counterweight to Kampa’s unsparing social critique, Ernest Hilbert’s Vassar Miller Prize-winning Storm Swimmer explores the quieter rewards of fatherhood and memory—the sort of humane vision that online life threatens to eclipse. In this, Hilbert’s fifth book, storms (including interior ones) swirl and rage, potent in action or as lurking threat. In the title proem, “Without the sun the sea is tangled steel,” while “Pelagic” pulls the speaker into that open sea, “its rush and pull / The same as ever, though I have aged.” Hilbert’s poems unfold patiently, their surface calm disrupted by what roils beneath—chiefly, time’s relentless march and the poet’s concern for loved ones’ safety. “Pelagic”’s “linebacker waves” vie for attention with “the clouded yellow butterfly” that trails the speaker as he floats; soon, he’s “face down in the lapping / Amber glass, the pelagic summer roll of original sea.” The poem’s closure, fraught with mortality, is equally beautiful: “I imagine I’m in a world only / Ocean and sky, four billion years ago / Or in a time to come, floating without / The earth to save me, as long as I might.” “Voltage Crackles at the Edge” gives us the storm in action as perceived by the speaker’s young son who “says a lot of things / He knows must not be true…” The father’s tenderness is palpable throughout as he sees through his own son’s eyes: “The cat is wearing my coat, the sky // Is filled with cottage cheese,” and more, but, tellingly, as he shifts to his own voice, 

………………………we’ll live forever

And always be in love, right here, like this,

With waves that fly out

Ninety million miles to light

Up the book we read together.

As the son brings up monsters and the ghosts he says he’s not afraid of, the father inwardly agrees: “We’re ghosts, / But filled with spirit fire / That floats from somewhere else / And keeps us here for now.” The book they’re reading and the book they’re in become one, father and son joined in that intangible life conferred by literature we treasure. 

Other wilder poems are anything but domestic. This composer of lyrics and libretti for Stella Sung and Christopher LaRosa (among others), and the son of an accomplished organist, Hilbert is someone who, as poet and professor Daniel Nester writes at Best American Poetry’s blog, “hold[s] forth about metal bands of all varieties—hair, death, speed, thrash, parody, glam” with awe-inspiring expertise. “The Demon (Stercus Diaboli)” depicts a cover band musician who, as late-night Las Vegas blurs into the next day, carries “a banged-up basket” containing Pepto Bismol and a “lopsided avocado” while he stands in the self-checkout queue, dressed in sneakers, a bathrobe, and “full KISS make-up, / …Star Child tonight, / Tomorrow the Space Man, / Or the Cat, or the Demon, / My favorite…” (The reference to asafoetida, or “stercus diaboli,” aptly signals his condition: a key ingredient of Indian food supposedly once used in magic spells and exorcisms, it’s also known as “devil’s dung” and, on its own, smells terrible.) We don’t need to know what brought him to this state; it’s the character’s search for transcendence that matters, that Blakean road of excess meant for those, Hilbert writes, “[w]ho drive and dare / Whole lives to make / Just one beautiful thing happen.” (Other outstanding poems drawn from Hilbert’s pop culture interests and experience include “From the Balcony on Heavy Metal Tribute Night at the Trocadereo, 1870-2019” and “Monster-Mania Con 44” where “[z]ombies are common,” “T-Rexes get stuck in the revolving door,” and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, bumped inadvertently, snarls a threat “from his fishy face.”) The presence of exuberant enthusiasts side by side with introspective speakers makes Storm Swimmer all the more absorbing. 

“In the Hidden Places: In solsitio brumali” is one of several fine poems informed by winter’s bleakness and a Christian sensibility. The Latin subtitle, which translates to “the very dead of winter,” is a phrase that Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” borrows with other material from a seventeenth century Nativity sermon. The mood is solemn, with death palpable and the year “[a]t its nadir”: “Bach’s Mass in B Minor / Haunts with its cathedral heights / The all-day dawn of snowstorm.” This overheard music— a choral work composed during a period of royal mourning, from which Bach would recycle material for a Christmas cantata—perfectly fits the concise tercet; accordingly, it summons “[g]hosts of singers and song, composer / Of winter’s depths whose flights / Of light gather to new forms.” As he listens from his portico, the speaker’s surroundings are changed “[b]y a cold white whose reign / Is whole and pure as time”—and the barely visible sun—a “faint star”— unavoidably alludes to Bethlehem. “Stronghold,” another father-son poem, features a sleepy dad awakened by outdoor sirens in a post-Christmas “muddy dawn”; as a combative neighbor is arrested, he lies listening, glad of his “twice-bolted” home and the “young son” who is “[c]arefully stepping down from stair to stair.” Perhaps the best of these is “Last Star” which adapts the rhymed quintets of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Autumn Song” to that time of year when “the strangling sweetbriar / Sleeps in muddy banks of snow.” Hilbert’s bleak midwinter is gorgeous, but the poem’s fourth stanza is something special, reminiscent in sound and sense, of Louise Bogan, or even the Metaphysicals: 

To live for not yet created things

Is to live in an air that brings

…………Dawn through winter trees,

…………Sharp air that makes lungs freeze,

And sense a song though no bird sings. 

By questioning prayer’s efficacy, the poem places doubt and faith in balance—“Can one live in that deadly air / Before the light, without…much of a prayer, // and believe what’s yet to be?”—but Hilbert’s answer reassures: “We survive by what we cannot see / Because it isn’t here / Yet—hope that answers fear—/ As ash in earth sustains a tree.” The song sensed in the silence points toward the light’s return, and “[w]inter creeper and bull thistle” are only “dead for the time being”: “Out here, in cold, the weed / Aspires to come back, feed / On waste, reach farther, and grow deep.” Ernest Hilbert’s Storm Swimmer, so remarkable for its style and polish, is most impressive for its kindly, meditative depths. 

*

Melissa Balmain’s Satan Talks to His Therapist approaches family and culture from a satiric, often sympathetic perspective. The longtime editor of Light deploys her formal resources astutely, confirming that metrical command and expert timing, operating in tandem, are the wellspring of comic verse. Like her elders in light verse mastery (I think of Marilyn Taylor, the late Tom Disch, or the inestimable R. S. Gwynn), Balmain treads that fine line between comedy and tragedy in poems graced by telling details, surprising turns, and a keen sense of the absurd. Take the title poem, one of several inspired by politics: for most of it, the infernal patient speaks in iambic pentameter quatrains whose second and third lines form a couplet but whose fourth line points to the next stanza: 

Where there’s a henhouse, guard it with a Fox;

spawn loopholes, larceny and legalese;

and best of all, when there’s a new disease,

make sure fantastic numbers will be killed…

And yet (life isn’t fair!) I’m unfulfilled….

The poem’s punch line arrives through the fallen angel’s frustration with “that blasted man” (that former President again!) who, no matter what evil scheme the devil dreams up, ends up doing or saying it first; still, Satan concedes in the final stand-alone line, “At least some people give me all the credit.” What might have come off as a glib jab gains extra kick from Balmain’s excellent ear: “loopholes, larceny and legalese” are alliterative and also energized by pleasingly varied vowels. Plus, there’s the speaker’s voice, so suitably Satanic in its Schadenfreude: “best of all, when there’s a new disease…” Balmain is always most fun when she’s being bad, and who’s badder (if, here, a little crestfallen) than the Prince of Darkness himself? 

Of course “bad” can be a highly gendered term, as Balmain knows, a word used to shut down someone attempting to speak her mind. In “Five Ages of Woman,” pithy stanzas give new life to the issue: “Though all of the boys / are allowed to make noise / I am told to exhibit politeness / and poise.” Praised for being “cute” as an infant, the speaker comes full circle: “I gum pureed fruit / and regret I can’t shoot / all the nursing home staffers who murmur / I’m cute.” Sure, the stanza’s funny, but it also gives vent to frustrations bubbling underneath—with the double standard women live with, the indignities of condescension (and old age, too). Like Pelizzon, Balmain confronts midlife head-on. Lighthearted anapests open “To My Son, Upon Removal of One of My Ovaries”—“Was it lefty or righty that started you out / (with some help, naturally, from your dad)”—though, by stanza two, the college-age son’s pending transition away from family (and Mom) takes center stage. The tetrameter couplet sonnet “Memo to Self, in Middle Age” directs its barbs toward doomed cosmetic attempts to remain youthful: “drown every hair in L’Oréal, / balloon both boobs with MemoryGel / till your reflection swears to you / you’re not a day past thirty-two.” Efforts that are all in vain, as a subtle nod to Snow White’s stepmother confirms: “beware of gazing at old friends / who haven’t masked their age a bit: / they’ll do the job your mirror quit.” 

In talking about Balmain’s work, I fear I’m draining away its humor. Satire drags hypocrisy and power dynamics into the light so we can mock and endure them; situational humor and wordplay convert foibles and incongruities into laughter. But laughing is instinctive, not analytical. Explaining a poem may rob it of magic. Explaining a joke may rob it of wit. Explaining a light verse poem, however, threatens to rob it of both. It’s best to read Balmain’s poems in their entirety: try “Public Relations,” whose speaker hopes to savor untried vices well into her dotage; “Invasive Species,” which features cruise ship tourist-hypocrites who fancy themselves environmentalists; “Sidewalk Face-Off,” one of several poems about the pandemic that dissect COVID’s effects on social conventions; or poems of a more literary bent, such as “A Literal-Minded Virgin Reads Robert Herrick,” “Philip Larkin Tries for a Vaccine Appointment,” or “What Dylan Thomas Would Say If He Were Around for National Donut Day.” (If you guessed, “Donut, go gentle into that good night,” you guessed right.)

Humor may also serve as a defense against despair, as seen in Balmain’s poems about sorrow. One of the best is the collection’s final poem (“Why This Is the Poem of Mine That People Will Share When I Die”). The sorrow imagined will be felt for the poet at some far future date: “This poem has no news or namechecks in it, / no clues to decade, season, week or date— / which makes it timely if I die this minute / or make you wait.” It’s hard to resist a poem so pragmatic in its planning, couched as a thoughtful gesture, yet so on-target in its spoof of poetic ego. (I love the dig at impatient mourners-to-be.) Other poems, including some on the real-life death of her mother, are only light verse on the surface. Especially touching and fluently crafted is “To Mom, in the Beyond,” a sonnet which relies on delicate descriptions of beloved décor to provide an indirect portrait through belongings that serve as a memorial: “Each mantelpiece and shelf was also planned, / each ledge, nook, countertop, bare inch of floor, / or wedge of open air beneath a gable. / Even the sill behind the ping-pong table—/ those poor doomed tchotchkes!—was accounted for.” (In a line effective and affecting, Balmain concludes, “They’re all still there, of course: we’d hate to move them.”) And there’s outstanding description throughout the book. In “Supermoon,” hyped to be the “brightest yet,” the faraway satellite looks “completely mummified / by gas and vapor, deep and wide”; in “To the Blue Jay That Woke Me Every Morning…,” the offending bird’s discordant call is a “high-decibel, rusty-hinge squawk”; and in “On Looking at an MRI Cross-Section” (her own), Balmain writes, “a horseshoe crab / stares heavenward with jumbo-olive eyes (the pitted kind).”

It’s intriguing that, behind their wit and verbal play, her poems, taken together, yield some version of the author: a persona observant and smart who just can’t keep from speaking the truth—from being “bad,” as some might see it.  We meet neighbors, acquaintances, strangers, and family, while the poet navigates our shared world of political insanity, troubling losses, and daily small victories, all sharpened into punchlines and real poetry. For Balmain and the rest of us, humor proves a reliable, socially acceptable means of broaching taboo subjects or feelings—of stating what’s forbidden with a smile that is shared. She knows how to leave us with that smile, too, as in that pre-posthumous poem I mentioned earlier: “It barely mentions habits of ill breeding. / Its words are rarely of the vulgar sort. / And if you find it crap not worth rereading, / at least it’s short.”  Satan Talks to His Therapist is a serious book that’s very funny, and Melissa Balmain’s gift is being able to tilt toward humor without losing the ache beneath the laughter.  

*

Brian Brodeur’s fourth book, Some Problems with Autobiography, a New Criterion Prize winner, asks us to reexamine the relationship between poet and speaker, truth and fiction. Much here appears to be autobiographical: there are poems about family, public events, nefarious technology, marriage, aging, and much more. But things are not that simple. In a 2017 Writer’s Chronicle essay, Brodeur addresses issues of voice and personae: countering Eliot’s “The Three Voices of Poetry,” Brodeur proposes that a “fourth voice” emerges in persona poems that feature internal monologues or soliloquies. Such poems spotlight “the poet speaking as an imaginary character addressing itself within the context of a written text.” But we notice this fourth voice “only when the persona is significantly other”; if it isn’t, we hear “the poet addressing herself in thin disguise.” This fourth voice provides, to use Brodeur’s terms, either “dramatic confession,” which allows poets to express something personal from behind an adopted mask, or “dramatic possession” in which poets “subordinate” their own voice to that of the character they inhabit—or, depending on how you look at it, the character who “possesses” them. Which doesn’t mean we’ll know for sure which voice we’re hearing here: as Brodeur’s title poem asks beside a fountain’s eroding angels, “What if this tale isn’t yours to tell? / What if it is? The stone lips stay closed.”

Having Brodeur’s distinctions in mind, while not essential, keeps things lively. “The Carpenter’s Tale,” told in fluent terza rima, sustains its conversational rhythms admirably, its epigraph alerting us that the speaker is someone else: New York City Department of Education carpenter Kerry Breen who, during the worst days of the first wave of COVID-19, was on one of the teams that built coffins in the gyms of shut-down schools. (No wonder Brodeur resorts to Dante’s verse form.) The poet perfectly captures both Breen’s matter-of-fact manner and initial disbelief as he and his co-workers learn of their new assignment. Facing laughter and wisecracks, Breen’s supervisor “looks up from his clipboard and glares at me, / then gives us all the plans his boss gave him: / ‘We’ll be building coffins for the city.”’ Brodeur knows that his own “Kerry Breen” isn’t the same person who was interviewed by Chana Joffe-Walt on This American Life (episode 744—you can look it up); this poem’s “Kerry Breen” is an invention, a persona who allows Brodeur to express his awed grief at the human capacity to rise, humbly and heroically, to grim occasions despite incomprehensible loss. Or perhaps this is a case of fourth voice dramatic possession? It doesn’t matter; the poem is first-rate, its Chaucerian title spun into a Dantean purgatory of laboring souls performing a duty they never asked for: “We run through two-by-fours and they bring more— // wash, rinse, repeat. I mean, we’re getting paid, / but after so long it occurs to me: / my god, they really need this many made?”

Effectively couched as autobiographical is “The Doll” in which a nine-year-old boy finds the anatomically correct male doll that his mother, a social worker, uses to elicit information from sexually abused children. (The epigraph’s specificity, including date and location, suggest a true story, barring memory’s tricks or artistic license.) Its sestina form is perfect for the content: the boy’s tentative curiosities, the mother’s evasions (due mainly to the need to share only age-appropriate information about confidential, and terrible, crimes)—each question and answer advances toward an understanding evident to readers but out of reach for the son. Any parent who’s ever had to tell a child some awful truth about the world (and it’s always too soon, isn’t it?) will recognize the balance of love and dread that the poem traces: 

She’d give the girls the girl doll named Jeannine.

The boys got Kid. (That’s just what they were called.)

But they were only toys—I could still play.

Mom showed me how she’d teach the kids to use

the dolls—to point out, like a test in school,

the place where they’d been hurt….

Later, the mother slams the phone at news of another abused child, quietly venting her (likely long-simmering) rage, till now kept from her son. “The Doll”’s repetends are cleverly subtle: “call,” for example, becomes “anatomical” and “cubicle,” while “nine” becomes “Jeannine” and, finally, “strychnine” (the abusers’ deserved punishment, blurted out in her angry moment). Still, enough has been held back that the boy asks, in the final line, “why it was bad to touch a kid”—the answer readers already know.

Like Stephen Kampa, Brodeur, too, is a social critic as plainly seen in both his satiric impulse and the empathy that infuses his personae. Set in the distant future, “The Anthropocene Wing” unfolds as a docent’s lecture in some post-human culture when the loss of numberless species is traced to humanity itself: “the rise of this one species brought the fall / of all else: elm trees, breeds of waterfowl.” The speaker suggests a motive: “At first, we blamed a meteor, but now / strong evidence suggests the white rhino / and damselfly—that mankind wanted this.” (The Todestrieb again.) A skilled, concise sonnet like this one is the perfect vehicle for a dramatic confession (Brodeur’s term) in which the poet’s alarm at species devastation is best delivered by an invented voice ingeniously rendered. “Space Junk,” doesn’t require an identifiable persona, but the poem’s resigned wit, cosmic imagery, and elegiac tone convey the strangeness of watching once-vaunted wonders swirl endlessly in mundane routine: placed in orbit, they’re “abandoned, orphaned, multiplying, like us,” but fated to end “in a rapture of scrap iron and / spare parts…” “Like us” indeed: the satellites, too, experience a “rapture” akin to that of some evangelical Christians; the track they follow, an O around the Earth, is like a “mouth droning hosannas”; “[t]hey were never born so can’t be born again.” The language of faith, when applied to circling space junk (whether functioning intact or smashed to orbiting dust) ensures that their obsolescence and ignominies feel like metaphors for our own. 

Brodeur’s book of decisively fine poems is graced by formal variety and intellectual playfulness, subject matter both personal and public, and wisely skeptical takes on contemporary life. “Algorithm,” one of the latter, offers a high-tech spin on the old “suppose-our-lives-aren’t-real” hypothesis: “if our species is an avatar / doomed not to live but only interface, / it’s not impossible this super-race / might grope through its own simulated night.” If everything’s simulated, including oblivion, the question of what’s real might be moot anyway; more troubling, though, is that we may be simulations residing in some virtual past designed by more advanced descendants. (What would The Matrix’s Morpheus think of that?) Ubiquitous bar codes, too, receive Brodeur’s attention, their use in an unexplained health care setting hinting at a narrative untold: “what trapped infinities of ones / and zeroes might populate these X-dimensions / summoned by a cardinal chirp of light? / Never mind the snapped-on patient ID bracelet…” Here, what’s human is eclipsed, once again, by new technology, with readings gleaned from a scanner valued more than a patient’s name (“Barcode Ode”). 

“Midlife,” whose epigraph reads “for my wife,” recounts the inevitable question of longtime couples everywhere: which of us will die first? Things pale and white, losses and erasures, dominate the imagery—“I scoop and spill a cup of flour again / like chalk dust on the laminate’s false grain— // white as a tulle gown, white as smashed milk glass”— though it’s hard to surpass the opening couplet’s impact: “What is this wanting now to know which one / will be the first, who will leave whom alone?” “Days of 2018,” a sonnet sequence the author should be proud of, meticulously braids marital stress (i.e, frantic scheduled efforts to conceive) with isolating in place due to reports of an unsuccessful but still dangerous on-campus shooter (as he remains at large, active shooter drills ensue). The sequence touches on so much—miscarriage, mortality, the absurd inadequacy of our responses to gun violence (“[t]he woods where he was hiding were clear-cut / and TeacherLocks installed in every room”)—that it’s easy to miss the facility Brodeur brings to the project: rhymes and rhyme schemes surprising, slant, or unobtrusively pure; shrewd stanza breaks that vary pacing and form; and a voice that is as loving, ironic, or urgent as the narrative requires. 

I guess there must be people who belong,

who pull up to their faux-Victorian

in Shipshewana, crunching through dried leaves,

and think, as houselights flick on, This is me.

Brodeur is an English professor—like the poem’s protagonist—and teaches in Indiana, which is where Shipshewana is located. I’m pretty sure “Days of 2018” is mostly autobiographical. But when he writes, “This is me,” I have to wonder: is it? Throughout Some Problems with Autobiography, Brodeur grapples with the question and asks us—playfully, perceptively—to join in. 

*

Colorado’s Wendy Videlock is both a highly original poet and a visual artist specializing in vibrant alcohol-ink paintings of birds, beasts, and landscapes. There’s no one quite like her, though her use of internal rhyme and preference for brevity recall Kay Ryan’s work. The author of four previous full-length books (plus The Poetic Imaginarium, a compendium of essays and poems enhanced by whimsical color plates), Videlock is capable of lucent description, shining insight, gnomic reflection, and pithy narrative. She moves easily between free verse and meter, sometimes within the same poem; and though rhymes near, slant, and full almost always grace her lines, they often leap up in unexpected places. Her hallmark in Wise to the West and earlier books is the use of freely formal nonce forms that carry a sense of wonder. 

“Like you,” whose title is also its first line, embodies her method at work. One of Videlock’s shortest in the new book, it’s a small sonic marvel. 

I’ve been kissed

by tragedy and illness,

by clarity

and clouds of mist, by tiny gifts

and little trees

of amethyst, by bursts

of amaryllis, by anger’s fist,

by glimmers

of forgiveness. 

The intimacy of “Like you,”—its assumed bond with whoever’s reading—ensures connection even as the poem evades specifics. We fill in the blanks with our own life milestones while bright gems of language light the way: “little trees of amethyst,” “bursts of amaryllis.” A few letters fall or rise, and purple quartz becomes a flower, the magic of language demonstrated sonically. Every element is necessary: tragedy, illness, some clarity, small gifts, these make up every lifetime. Even, inevitably, anger and, if we’re fortunate, forgiveness, offered or accepted. Videlock’s ear is something special: her elegant single sentence gives us “kissed,” “mist,” “amethyst,” and “fist” as full rhymes, with “amaryllis,” “forgiveness,” and “illness” forming a trio; yet all share that short-i assonance (as do “gift” and “glimmer”), forming an aural unity that threads throughout the poem. In essence, that vowel sound pulls us through to those final hopeful “glimmers” that free us of guilt and pain.

The lovely “Figures,” dominated by two-beat lines, looks at figurative language, the raw material of metaphor. Its opening, a definition, signals Videlock’s focus: “A metaphor is not a wall / but a turn in the sudden / feel of it all.” No poet I know would disagree. But there’s more: metaphors for metaphor that are brilliantly playful: “the breath that comes / before the fall,” “a shapely reminder / that language is limber, / thought is a bridge, // the brain is a gate…” The more intuitive Videlock’s metaphors, the more magic they hold. There is, for example, a kind of pause before vehicle and tenor connect; there is a “breath” (like the kind we’re told we take when a line enjambs, or after certain punctuation). Or is it that last breath of Edenic air before expulsion from Paradise, our fall at the moment of knowledge? The poem’s closure is perfect: “the heart’s inclined / to the primal sound / of the undiscovered // waterfall.” Is the heart, then, like a listening ear, attuned to some fusion of language and the world? The metaphor strikes and resounds deeply, however simple it seems at first.

In the title essay of Poetic Imaginarium, Videlock observes, “It’s often said that an artist is just a person in love with her art supplies. For the writer, that means a sensitivity to and a love of language.” As words are the poet’s matériel, this is no surprise; more so is Videlock’s perceptive take on the connections between poetic language and the non-verbal, non-human world. In another essay, “The Language of the Land,” she points out how “the natural world” urges us toward “the very animating forces of literature.” Included in both books, her poetic aviary “Deconstruction” serves to demonstrate the aesthetic and visionary qualities that bring subject and speech together in a poem. Six stanzas (two seven-line stanzas first and last, plus four five-line middle stanzas) introduce Videlock’s feathered friends through internal rhymes and poetic equivalences shared in an authoritative tone:

The chickadee is all about truth.

The finch is a token. The albatross

always an omen. The kestrel is mental,

the lark is luck, the grouse is dance,

the goose is quest. The need for speed

is given the peregrine, and the dove’s

been blessed with the feminine. 

The title term, used loosely, is both critical methodology and a gauntlet thrown by those who resist its inherent suspicion of meaning. Is Videlock playfully pointing out language’s instability, the way syntax may be used to assert relationships that may or may not actually exist? Can any such relationships be said to exist anyway since words are arbitrary signifiers and the connection of “dove” to the real-life bird cooing on a ledge is merely an agreed-upon convenience? Or is Videlock disassembling the usual associations between certain birds and metaphors? I think she’s doing something else: gathering associations that do ring true while underscoring poetry’s power to bridge the gap between bird and metaphor, world and word. If you’ve spent time with one, the canary is “the bringer of ecstasy”—just listen to its song. “The loon is the watery voice of the moon”—how easily the line conjures the bird’s spectral cry on a moonlit lake. And the owl is indeed “the keeper of secrets, grief, / and fresh fallen-snow”: just visualize that pale raptor (probably a barn owl), inscrutable as she glides and listens for prey in a winter landscape. The option of saying one thing “is” something else holds a rhetorical impact that remains, for poets, a crucial resource—and, for readers, a source of delight.

Videlock’s love of poetic form is mirrored by her love of natural forms. “Radial Symmetry,” dedicated to Australian poet Cally Conan-Davies and inspired by her gift of a sand dollar skeleton, examines its “bone-colored circular form” with attention to its change from creature to aesthetic object: 

A velvet-petaled, skim-and-burrow

deep-sea creature becomes this:

a sun-drenched

clean design, conjuring thoughts

of transformation

and the sublime….

Concise, sonically precise, “Radial Symmetry” is a quintessential Videlock poem: intelligent, assured in pace, visually memorable. It’s not overtly ambitious; short poems seldom are. Still, it’s hard not to think of it as an ars poetica, one that other poets under review here might appreciate. A living creature, somehow, becomes a work of art and nature whose mysteries reach back and forth from sea to sky: “…At the heart / of the five-pointed star / five even tinier pores, where / the architecture // of the world appears to surge.” This celestial reach is how some of us think of art (or at least some art, sometimes), and the sand dollar’s radial symmetry (its pattern around a central axis) reflects a shape—a form—that’s ideal for what it is. Isn’t this perfection of shape what poets are reaching for through language—not just in metrical poems but poems of every sort? Through our words, we shape the silence, a voice contrasting with its absence, the poem on the page its twin and visual reflection. 

That voice inheres in the form a poem takes. Wendy Videlock, who is currently Colorado’s Western Slope Poet Laureate, concludes, “And should you crack / this fragile shell in half, as all / sea-children come / to learn, / five small doves emerge.” Those “doves” are literally the tooth-like segments rattling inside; but to call them “doves” is also a case of the mind at work again, seeking resemblances, seeking metaphors. Given a final line that almost makes it sound like they’re taking flight, maybe those doves are the magic that makes a poem’s form come alive: the rewards of a spell cast to brilliant effect, its secrets known to all the poets discussed here.

Turning Home: A Review of Aaron Poochigian’s Mr. Either/Or books

Aaron Poochigian is, poetry-wise, a jack-of-all-trades. He is a keen translator whose Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, is perfectly repulsive. He is skilled at turning out lean, smart shorter poems, as in the collection American Divine. Beyond all that, he’s proven that he can pen witty, gripping, action-and-adventure novels-in-verse—and not just once, but twice.

Mr. Either/Or: All the Rage (2023, Etruscan Books) is the sequel to Poochigian’s brilliant Mr. Either/Or (2017). Writing one of these books would be an accomplishment; writing two is a bit of throwing down the gauntlet, for there is nothing conventional about Mr. Either/Or, either the character or the novels. Professional poets will be as puzzled as video-gamers, but both groups ought to read these books (which is not something I can say about the vast majority of poetry books published today) and, if they can let themselves, will probably enjoy them.

Mr. Either/Or is Indiana-Jones-meets-Gilgamesh; All the Rage is Beowulf joining the CIA. The hero (identified as “you” in a provocative use of the second person, but later revealed to be “Zach”) is an everyman—a slacker college student who enjoys hamburgers and skipping class—except that he’s a super-secret agent defending the oblivious masses from baddies of all stripes. He’s not just “in the FBI”: over and over, Zach becomes the Last Man Standing between the future of humanity and some freakish threat, whether it’s aliens from an ancient star or our own slavish love of chaos. Along the way, he falls in with a trim, trigger-happy museum curator and grapples with his own demons: the specters of love, commitment, and settling down.

It doesn’t feel quite right to read a Mr. Either/Or novel alone in a lamplit room after work. These verse novels are tales, begging to be told—out loud, with skill—to an audience hungry for thrills, hungry for a hero(ine! we have both here), for quests and courage and the beating-back of the darkness that lives in the shadows behind our blue-lit screens. These are adventure stories—fun, wild, imaginative, exciting—that pit humanity against its fiercest enemies (which include, incidentally, humanity itself).

It comes across as an afterthought that these poems tackle some of the most aggravating questions of our time. Though Poochigian manages to slip in some sweeping evaluations of contemporary society and of human nature, it’s under the radar, or maybe more accurately, over it, playing around on a macro level, reverberating through the atmosphere. The courage it takes to fall in love and raise a family; the heroism of staying open to human connection in a fragmenting society; these things are in the air Mr. Either/Or breathes, just as the divine virtue of hospitality shapes Odysseus’ world and the Spear-Danes of Beowulf cannot imagine a world without the wergild. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the simply wonderful language. Poochigian is a rhyme-hunter, the Geralt of contemporary English’s torpid Rivia. Where there be aural monsters, he’ll unearth them. See the dazzling couplet “schadenfreude in a black Van Dyke. / Not hard to figure what the jerk was like,” which another poet might be tempted to make the capstone of a poem, is just a throwaway description of a guy’s portrait.

The cheeky commentary of lines like, “You are the man, but not quite everything / that happens in the world belongs to you. / Right now, in fact, outside your point…” lets Poochigian to introduce his heroine (“a fussy art historian named Li-ling / Li-ling Levine”) as a clear counterpoint to Zach’s (youthful male) self-centered obliviousness. That introduction is key to both books, for this is, at the bottom, a love story. It is the tale of two people brought together by fate (quite literally, in their case) who, despite their anxieties and fears, choose to love each other, and through that choice they discover who they really are. Li-ling is, of course, much more than a fussy art historian, just as Zach turns out to be much more than a scrawny failure. She is a wizard-warrior, bringing deep wisdom and canny battle tactics to the quests, just as he matures from a battle-minded secret agent to a man capable of care and commitment.

These novels-in-verse would likely make much more sense to readers of a different age, when “poetry” was less chummy with pretentiousness and when “verse” was a buoyancy springing to life from the mouth of a troubadour or scop. “Poetry” today generally refers to short lyric verses, carefully composed and presented in a delicate little volume with an artful cover. These little verses live quietly on the page, and may only be read aloud a handful of times, mostly by the author. This isn’t an attack on contemporary lyrics. I write these poems myself; so does Poochigian. But for most of human history, these slight little lyrics were only one part—and the smaller part—of the bulk of Poetry.

That is why these odd, bombastic novels-in-verse are significant. They are a tow-rope thrown from the great vessel Verse to contemporary English, unmoored from many of the traditions that built it. At one point, Li-ling askes a prophet recently saved from his own visions:

…………..“What are you going to do—

you know—out there?”, he answers with a shrug,

then says, “what every person does who lives

without a calling and without a goal:

breathe without knowing what I’m breathing for.”

With that, he walks out through your riddled door…

This is a description of the modern condition, not just for humans but for language itself. We’re all walking through that “riddled door” with no idea what is on the other side.

To the technical details: Each novel-in-verse showcases two forms: the heroic line of English poetry (often in rhyming couplets) and the alliterative line of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Heroic lines, obviously, continue to be penned, though not in as great a quantity as perhaps they ought to be, but the finely grained potential of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse is pretty badly neglected in contemporary poetry (Richard Wilbur’s “Junk” is one of just a few examples of effective contemporary alliterative verse), so I was delighted to see Poochigian playing with this form.

As in all his verse, Poochigian doesn’t merely use the form as a calling-card to showcase his writing as Poetry (capital P). Instead, he uses form the way it is supposed to be used: as a generator, a dynamo (you’ll notice my modern metaphors here) that makes power by pitting two structures—one moving, one fixed—against each other. A car engine pits moving pistons against a fixed cylinder; a microchip pits a fixed circuit against moving transistors. Poetry pits fluid syntax (meaning) against fixed form (structure); as in other technologies, if the fixed element is stifling the moving element, the thing doesn’t work. If the cylinder jams the pistons, the car engine is broken. If the form crushes the poem, something is off.

Formal poetry “works” when the tension between the syntax—the sentence, the sense of the words—and the form creates energy, that friction that makes a formal poem hot, electric.

Here’s what I mean. In All the Rage, while staring down an apocalyptic hurricane moving on New York, Zach learns that Li-ling, his “would-be wife,” may be pregnant.

You want to go to her; you know you should

but just can’t move to do it.

……………………………………………If you were

a better man, this wouldn’t be an issue.

You would duly climb in next to her,

embrace her waist, and pray for fatherhood.

As it is, diffident, you need some distance

to ponder what might be a wee existence

down in there, in her little Possum pouch.

The iambic meter gives these lines a strong emotional pull (who hasn’t felt, right alongside a rapidly escalating heart rate, “if I were a better man (or woman), this wouldn’t be an issue”?) The rhyme of distance and existence perfectly encapsulates Zach’s anguish; he feels himself pulled away from what really matters, what really makes life worth living, because of his very nature.

Poochigian pits his two forms—iambic pentameter and alliterative verse—against each other, using the friction between them to create shifts in mood, much as a film director switches camera techniques in different scenes. The heroic lines move the plot, describe characters, give background, and create space for the few, brief, pithy reflections on the state of the contemporary world and that great puzzle, Human Nature. The fight scenes (of which there are plenty) play out in spurts of alliterative verse. This is a good choice, giving us the poetry version of the hand-held camera shot in action and horror films: jerky, unstable, fractured and disorienting. Poochigian even chooses to hard-tab each half-line, adding a visual instability to the fight scenes as the alliterative lines crack across the page. See here, where a crew of aliens break down a door to a Manhattan apartment (a pretty normal situation in the zany world of Mr. Either/Or):

The hinged half of it

………………………………hits the wall;

the rest has ruptured

…………………………………………round the dead bolt

and tumbled toward you.

…………………………………………Twin male models

leap the woodpile,

………………………………one wielding

The Metal Thief

………………………………
3000.

Your Glock gets up

………………………………and goes again…

This is, believe it or not, pretty much formally correct Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, the kind of thing J.R.R. Tolkien enjoyed working in and Seamus Heaney famously managed to retain in his translation of Beowulf. It has the generous caesura between two half-lines bridged by a repeated sound (as in “Your Glock gets up / and goes again…” or in the “leap the woodpile / one wielding”). But someone reading it aloud will not necessarily notice the careful formalism of it; it’s rollicking, even jolly, and highly readable. Poochigian has accomplished something very unusual: he’s written contemporary formal verse capable of getting out of its own way.

Poochigian has chosen a hard road, though. Whereas verse, powered by meters, alliteration, and rhyme, used to be able to command our attention, stir our hearts, thrill our nerves, Poochigian is competing against television now. Coming as it does into a world inured against climax by the dopamine shots churned out by Marvel films, one wonders how Zach’s harrowing tales—in verse!—can hope to compete. How will an audience wearied by endlessly escalating CGI catastrophes (not just our world, but all worlds under threat!) ever be convinced to read a long poem?

Probably they won’t. But they should, because in a world increasingly dogged by disaster, Poochigian is offering us a lifeline.

Disaster fatigue is a real thing; after a series of catastrophic events, people just go numb. This is true in art, too; after the bombast of mid-2010s superhero films, people now describe the Marvel Cinematic Universe as “exhausting” and “relentless,” not to mention boring.  The crises we face—either in our own lives, vicariously through social media, or on the silver screen—have billowed out absolutely beyond scale. World destruction isn’t even enough; now every world is threatened, even every possible world. What kind of spiritual or moral—or even humane—posture is an average person to take to all this?

That’s what Poochigian’s verse novels are about: what normal people should do to get through the day. That’s what the best adventure tales have always been about. Odysseus is trying to get home from the longest commute in history. Beowulf is trying to help his buddy clean up for a party. Arjuna is trying to navigate some rough family dynamics. Gilgamesh—well, Gilgamesh just needs a friend. These problems, of course, become epic. The gods get involved. Monsters are spawned and defeated. But the central problems remain human-scaled: love, family, children (or lack thereof), home.

Those are the central problems of the Mr. Either/Or books too. After all the chaos and carnage, the weird and wild baddies, the colonies of sewer cultists and seven-layered prophecies of doom, our problems are, ultimately, the same ones we humans have faced since we started telling tales.

The word “verse” simply means “turn.” It’s from a Latin word that meant “furrowing” or “turning up the soil,” and it retains that meaning all the way up through its many forms. “Universe” means “one-turned,” or “turn-into-one,” and “multiverse” is “many-turned,” dislocation, a scattering outwards, a dissipation. Poochigian, by giving us a novel-in-verse, is showing us where to turn in the midst of chaos. I’ll let him summarize it, in this section from All the Rage where Zach returns to Li-ling’s flat after agonizing about the possible pregnancy and finds a villainess (“the embodiment of Doom”) threatening Li-ling (called the Doc here):

…………………………………………The shock

is just too much for you. You drop your piece

and tell the hag,

………………………………“Here I am, now release

my girlfriend—that’s the deal.”

……………………………………………………And then the Doc

starts crying:

……………………“Zach, I really need to live.

The test I took today was positive!”

That’s it; that’s the whole game. Sure, the world is under siege from madness and the very multiverse may be collapsing around us, but (as poets have always known) for every one of us, it ultimately comes down to this moment, to one very special life, one lover, one couple, one family. That’s the final turn: the turn home, to that most human-scaled thing called family. In the end, that’s why anything matters at all.

The Famous Sisters Break Free from the Dusty Pages of History in The Badass Brontës

The Badass Brontës
by Jane Satterfield
(Diode Editions, 2023, 80 pp. $18)

As someone who taught the novels Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre for many years, I was always striving to share with my high school students my own fascination with the Brontës. I presented lectures, shared intriguing tales of their lives, pointed out connections between those lives and the characters they created, but though I may have whetted the interest of a few, I suspect there were likely many who were more interested in surreptitiously scrolling through their phones than in contemplating the world of these sisters whom they felt had nothing in common with the world today.

It hasn’t been only teenagers who have been dismissive of my beloved Brontës. Plenty of adult acquaintances have turned their noses up at my mention of their novels. Boring, they say. Too wordy. And especially in regard to Wuthering Heights, I have heard more than once that it is full of irritating characters that are impossible to like or understand. 

If only Jane Satterfield’s The Badass Brontës had existed while I was still teaching! I would surely have woven its stereotype-toppling poems liberally throughout my units on Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. In these delightful and often surprising poems, Emily and her sisters Charlotte and Anne leap from the 19th century into our own, upending erroneous images of them as stuffy old scribblers of dusty literature and illuminating them as the iconoclasts they were. Satterfield’s deep research into these acclaimed writers informs the poems, many of which are based on diary entries, correspondence, or the novels themselves, while still allowing for ample imaginings and leaps of speculation.

The title poem, “The Badass Brontës,” sets the tone and reveals to readers immediately that the women they had imagined as buttoned-up and out-of-date were anything but. Here we see them as “up to here with aunt’s old-time religion,” with Anne “canoodling / in the crypts with her father’s curate,” Charlotte writing love letters “full of pretty filthy stuff,” and Emily making “time for pistol practice.” They hike for miles “slinging sweet iambics” and “go commando when they can.”

Emily is imagined as tattooed in “Emily Inked,” Satterfield drawing upon her knowledge of Emily’s skill as a visual artist and her love of nature and animals. We consider the possibility of Emily’s body emblazoned with “a hawk kiting” or “a wind-gnarled fir tree,” perhaps a “a hedgehog, all inky-spined” or “a girl, her brother fleeing / from the palaces of instruction.”

The poem “Spellcasters” springs from the poet Ted Hughes’s reference to the Brontës as the “three weird sisters,” an allusion to the witches in Macbeth. “Weird, you say? Well, fair enough” they saucily reply here. 

………………………If jumping

stiles is weird, we’ll take it—tired

of seams and taming, watch us curl

into a snooze with foxes, wake up

mouthy and magnificent.

They happily embrace their weirdness, revel in it and boast of it, because they “grew up / tossing elf-bolts, watching them skim / the surface of the stream, muslin dresses / hiked thigh-high…”

When introducing the Brontës to my students, I always highlighted how they both acquiesced to the sexist constraints of their time and rebelled against them simultaneously. Their novels pushed back strongly against the era’s social conventions, but as women during that time, the odds against their achieving any kind of writing success were steep. Realizing that their only sure path to publication and serious consideration by the literary community was to assume male pseudonyms, they adopted the pen names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.

“The Brothers Bell Plead Publishers Not to be Unmasked” is a prose poem that adapts some of Charlotte’s comments to a literary confidante regarding queries about the true identities of the mysterious Bell brothers. Especially interesting to me is the line, “Certainly it injures no one else for us to remain quiet.” What seems to be implied here is that their masked identities do indeed injure the writers themselves—in that they have felt forced to hide who they really were, to write undercover as men. How galling it must have been for them that people suggested that the novels might be “mere patchwork—one chapter the work of a miss or missus; the next born of a husband’s guiding hand, an editor’s sure and manly vision.” And yet, they continued to use the pseudonyms for the opportunities, the power, that those assumed identities gave to them. They intended to “preserve our incognito, our duty to speak unpalatable truths.”

The sisters for a time entertained the hope of starting a school, surely an acceptable endeavor for women of the time, but ultimately gave up the idea because they failed to attract pupils. “The Misses Brontës Establishment” reads like an advertisement for the school, promising benefits interspersed with pointed truths that they would never have been able to say out loud: “Success / for a woman relies on a balance / of headwork & housekeeping—it’s not enough / to sew straight seams from here to tomorrow.” What lay ahead for young ladies in the few professions they might enter? Future governesses must learn to hide their anger; teachers must find a way to be both docile and battle-ready, ever prepared to beat back rebellious students. Young ladies about to enter matrimony must prepare to “endure all kinds of love.”

Any young girl headstrong enough to aspire to becoming a writer is cautioned that she “must remain blameless— / The reading public tends to confuse unmannerly characters / with their creator.” How true that proved to be when a reviewer of Wuthering Heights maintained that the novel could only have been the product of a man’s mind, for only a man could create a violent misanthrope like Heathcliff.

Especially relevant to the present-day is the prose poem, “The Consequences of Desire/Brontë Bodies,” as it was written in the wake of the Dodd decision. Satterfield describes it as “a speculative sequence about pregnancy, contraception, and abortion” during the time the sisters lived. Emily is imagined learning about the herbs that could potentially end a pregnancy, “what acrid brew brings best results when a purge is greatly needed…” Anne, the youngest sister, wrestles with the thought that her own birth might have played a role in their mother’s death, noting that “Every woman knows a birth might mean her own trip to the grave.” Charlotte confronts the terror of her own impending death from undiagnosed hyperemesis gravidarum (severe nausea and vomiting) during her pregnancy, reflecting “I thought—once—I’d let out the seams of my best silk—this appears not to be the case—.” She tries “to imagine better days,” but now “even weak tea tastes like fear.”

It makes sense to me that many of these poems, written during the early days of the pandemic, find common ground between our own precarious, potentially deadly predicament and the world that the Brontës inhabited. Satterfield launches into “Letter to Emily Brontë” announcing “I’m writing this from lockdown” adding that: “The schoolyard / across the street is wreathed in yellow / caution tape.” Satterfield finds similarities in her current situation and the reality in which Emily lived, writing: 

Emily, you were no stranger

to contagion in a town of trash heaps & overflowing

pits. A fog-bound pestilence vapored through

low-lying towns, typhus & TB ravaged

boarding schools…

In “Gigan For a Pandemic Winter,” Satterfield makes similar connections and also employs one of the many different poetic forms found within this book. A gigan is an invented poetic form, requiring a poem of 16 lines and certain prescribed repetitions, as well as a distinct pattern of couplets and tercets. The required repetition in the form works well to help convey the constrained repetition of days spent under lockdown. The connection between the two time periods is beautifully encapsulated in the lines, “Sometimes a raptor / rose and fell, sliding between centuries…” Just as the speaker in the poem walks through “a broken canopy of days,” so “once three sisters watched the world / turn its direction, wrote through geographies of grief.”

Had Emily Brontë lived in the present day, surely she would have been a passionate environmental activist. Her love of the outdoors and the animal kingdom is well-documented, and, even in her own lifetime, the effects of encroaching industrialization were changing the moors that she loved so well. In “Spellcasters” the sisters hike “past all things mechanical,” past “the textile mills that drove / the fairy folk away…” They call on the spirits of the natural world to “Lift / toxins from the well” and to “roll back the besmirching smoke / that the ancient forest might rise again…” In “Emily Brontë’s Advice for the Anthropocene,” the heathered moors are seen as “a haven in / a century’s shrinking space.” In the present day, as “arctic ice melts, / shears off,” Satterfield asks us, “If Emily were here today, / what would she say?”

When I would tell my students about my first encounter with Wuthering Heights at the age of 18, about my romantic fascination with the tragic character of Heathcliff, some of those students would nod knowingly, having fallen prey to his strange charms themselves. But many more would shake their heads, aghast. How, they wanted to know, could I harbor this weird literary crush on such a cruel and unlikable person?

I laughed with them over it, conceding that my initial take on him while a teenager was heavily influenced by my own moody, what is now referred to as “emo,” personality at that point in my life, and that in rereading the novel as an adult, I was more properly horrified by some of Heathcliff’s vile deeds, such as the hanging of Isabella’s dog. But even as an adult reader, he still held considerable sway over me, a strong appeal that had to do with his mysteriousness, his passionate love for Catherine, and the unfair treatment he endured as a child.

How I wish I had had access to “Who is Heathcliff?” when giving my opening lecture about the debate over Heathcliff’s origins and racial background and the mystery of how he acquired his wealth during his three-year absence from the Heights. Had he once been “a castaway from Liverpool streets” or a “deckhand from a colonial ship” and “what profit or plunder” accounted for the fortune he amassed? Whatever his background, when we meet him anew, he becomes “The orphan transformed / to a country squire— / heathen & husband, hanger of dogs.” Once an abused foundling, one for whom we can feel pity and righteous indignation, Heathcliff becomes the perplexing mixture of “a landlord who learned / that a tyrant should crush / all within reach” and a brokenhearted and spurned suitor, “A dark thing driving his love to the grave.”

Although as an adult I could appreciate the social and cultural realities that drove Catherine to accept Edgar Linton over Heathcliff, I never fully lost my adolescent dismay at her choice, my longing for her to have thrown caution to the winds and to have embraced the man with whom she truly belonged. Heathcliff’s rage and pain after learning of Catherine’s marriage is given vivid voice in “Heathcliff’s Curse.”  His call for vengeance summons clouds to “begin to script a storm,” and ends with the anguished appeal to Catherine to “heed me, / haunt me, rise / into unrest, ghost my heart’s / tenantless realm.”

The Badass Brontës is a treasure trove for poets and teachers with an interest in form and a delight in the skillful use of various poetic devices. The volume includes persona poems, a villanelle, a sestina, prose poems, ekphrastic poems, as well as the aforementioned gigan. And the wealth of lush language—making use of alliteration, internal rhyme, assonance, consonance—makes the reader want to pause and speak certain lines aloud, just for the joy of hearing language constructed so artfully. Take for example these lines from the poem “Forfeit,” which references Emily’s lost hawk, Nero: “The hawk’s wing-beat’s rapid, /can’t connive a cage. When clipped, is stripped of dive / and plummet, grip and tear; heart feathered, fettered. Stutter / or hop-to-hand.” Read that one out loud to yourself for the sheer pleasure of launching such rich sounds and rhymes into the air.

Immerse yourself in this compelling book and the Brontës are no longer confined to the dusty pages of history. What reader wouldn’t be enchanted and intrigued by titles such as “Which Brontë Sister Are You?”—which mimics an internet quiz—or “Own the Charlotte Brontë” about a model home in a housing development, or “The Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever,” which centers on the famous Kate Bush song and famous video? For those with only the sketchiest knowledge of the sisters and their world, the book includes a helpful “Who’s Who in Brontëworld,” a succinct history titled “About the Brontës” and enlightening notes on many of the poems.

Satterfield gives her imagination plenty of space to entertain numerous visions of the sisters in the contemporary world, but one I especially like appears in the penultimate poem, “Rogue Dream For Emily Brontë” as it dares to create an Emily who did not die young, who did not suffer an untimely end that called a halt to her creative promise. “…the Emily I imagine lives on to old age, / studies wildlife and botany, becomes cartographer / and celebrated authoress who campaigns / for land preservation, women’s rights” and is “returning from another kingdom / where she and her sisters thrive.”

This collection fully realizes Satterfield’s dream and vision, as the sisters do indeed thrive on every page of The Badass Brontës. This book will greatly please both the hardcore Brontë fan and those who are encountering them for the first time.

Submicroscopic

A virus wants to replicate. It hates
to be lonesome. A virus wants to replicate
its genome, refold, virally reiterate
all a virus knows in its folds, helical, prolate—
in all the viral morphologies. Not great
for a nonviral body, these revelries, late-
night recombinations gathering mutations
while tonight’s desperate combo plays, but

hear it viral style. Genes will duplicate.
A pathogen’s life, if a gene relocation
machine really lives, is brief. It can’t wait
or fabricate more than a minor song. One pleated
sonnet; no crown. If there’s love, you can’t watch
it spike. Yet it wants. In its whisper, a catch.

Witness

Charioteer in a sun-yellow vest
drives a truck’s extended metal jaw
to lop off branches of a dying oak,

then slides to carve the wasted hollow trunk.
However frail, that tree won’t give up life,
hoarding its last breaths. A crowd forms,

mumbling about the end of fallen branches
and wider space for the pour of lucid sky.
A woman slips a scarf over her head,

silent, respectful of what will pass,
an oak remembering a single egret —
white flash on green – resting on a branch.

Why do we gather to watch brightness topple,
drawn to a tree that breathes just as we breathe,
and holds our handprints on its grisly bark?

And why should a wrecking ball and crane
call us to watch the fall of a great building
door by splintered door alive with history?

When God destroyed the cloud-high tower of Babel,
the people stood, not asking why, but staring
at scattered bricks and wondering just how

workers had planed their edges to hold fast
— as here we wait, as though a great oak’s dying
might reveal the mystery of our being.