Review | The Sounding Machine, by Patty Paine
Accents Publishing, 2012
Compelling arguments gather power as they unfold, offering keen observation, credible evidence, and a particular perspective to stake a strong claim. The best books of poetry do this too. Imagery, narrative urgency, heightened language, and, of course, form, enact an assertion, from the first line to the last, poem by poem, to persuade readers of a truth worthy of their close reading and consideration. Patty Paine’s first full-length collection, The Sounding Machine, capably plumbs several of poetry’s enduring themes to craft a penetrating argument about family, inheritance, and loss. Paine writes about the high costs of physical and emotional illnesses and the effects of cultural dislocation as she movingly depicts a family buffeted by cruel circumstances, both historic and personal.
Moving deftly between lyric and narrative modes, Paine organizes The Sounding Machine into four parts. At its imaginative heart lies the history of the speaker’s mother—war bride, immigrant, invalid, addict—a complicated figure by any measure. The book tracks insupportable loss and grief across a landscape scarred by violence and frustrated desire. Part One opens with “Ars Poetica,” an ironic gesture that offers both disclaimer and introduction to the poems that will follow:
The dark beyond the window is
not the same as the dark inside
a piano, a dark you can’t know,
just as your body, sitting there
beside the piano, is an enclosure
with its own unknowable dark.
This is metaphor
for nothing. Just as a bird is not
a conceit, no matter how hard we want
to feel wings open
The opacity of a darkened window, the possibility of music embodied in the silent piano, the impossibility of escape, even through art or imagination—to defend herself, the speaker must begin to name loss:
Even in death
a bird is not a blade that cuts
to the quick of our loss, it’s just
a splayed thing, something to be
Paine’s speaker doubts that she can depend on a poem for the heavy work of expressing grief or its longed-for resolution, hope; this disarming revelation heightens the feeling of intimacy between speaker and reader. One trusts this voice and the spare, conversational quality of the language in this poem:
I don’t mean
to be cynical, but there are days
when language is heavy
furniture you push around
a house made of nothing
but hallways. I’m not feeling
sorry for myself, if that’s what
you’re thinking. I just want
you to be careful, because
sometimes a poem can lie.
“Ars Poetica” hints in its last line at a reason to go forward in the unreliable mode of language, “into a rhythm of hope, hope, hope.” Thus, Part One of The Sounding Machine warns that scenarios tinged with ambiguity, difficulty, and unrelieved tension will follow.
In “Half-Korean,” Paine invites us into the liminal space occupied by a child uneasily straddling two cultures and two languages:
I was six when Charlie Hunter stuck his finger
in my face: Is your mother from North
or South Korea? I guessed South.
It’s a good goddamn thing.
Ten when Andrea Lombardy beat me
at the bus stop for being a gook.
In a beautifully rendered scene, the speaker recalls her Korean mother’s unsettled relationship with English and how in that place of unease there lodges a certain beauty:
My mother forbid Korean so I craved her
forbidden tongue, and would slip
from bed to listen to her and her friends play Hwatoo.
They sat cross-legged on a bamboo mat,
fans of glossy cards in their hands,
their conversation punctuated
by the thwack of cards against mat.
English staggered from their throats,
but Korean burst open
like ripe fruit.
For this child, segregated from the adult women by age, custom, and language, Korean becomes “fragile lotus blossoms, swollen plums,” the very sounds of the language sensual and satisfying, especially beautiful because they are prohibited and enigmatic.
Part One closes with the stunning “Prey,” a persona poem spoken by one “sliced from the herd.” The poem translates appetite, pursuit, and ultimately satiety through visceral detail, emphasizing the excitements of the relationship between predator and quarry:
It was my blood
glazing his muzzle,
my muscle and sinew
warming his gut.
When he lay down, I lay
with him, and together
we heard rabbits snapping
The transformation proves a more powerful ravishment, as the victim, guilt-free, yet complicit, is enlightened and fully roused:
We felt the sun loosen our back
and fell into a long,
where we honed in
on a gazelle limping
behind its herd.
Our claws tore
into a quivering
haunch, our teeth
When I awoke,
the air, clean
and dry as a crystal,
tingled with light
The poems in Part One bring to the stage players and thematic elements from which Paine will craft the poems that follow, marshaling a resonant vocabulary of characters, imagery, and ideas that includes a distant war and distant father, the notion of flight, the motion of cutting, the nuclear fusion of parents and offspring at odds, the anxiety of the cornered animal, and always, doubt about the capacity of language to serve as a route to hope, reconciliation, or even resolution. As the speakers voice these personal and universal concerns, a plangent and conflicted elegy materializes, one that mourns the failures of family and self as passing time blurs memories and turns all certainties inside out.
If the beginning of a book prepares readers for what will follow, subsequent sections must deliver on these promises. The poet puts the strong narrative impulse of The Sounding Machine to work in Part Two, a formally unified sequence titled “Oracle Bones.” Eleven tightly compressed prose poems offer exposition, backstory, and some foreshadowing. The distinctive voices of four speakers—mother, So Nyo; father, Robert; speaker, The Second Girl; and Dr. Fischer—allow Paine to reveal familial roles and relationships and also to describe the nature of the physical illness and emotional trauma that So Nyo suffers. In this short section we learn much about this family’s history and about the forces that are driving it apart. “Oracle Bones” closes with So Nyo’s lament, “My girls are lost to me. Oldest daughter in a foster home, youngest grows stranger every day. . . . She talks faster than I can understand, and all the time writing, writing, writing. . . .”
These last three words signal a shift in the collection’s structure and tone and lead us to the telling epigraph for Part Three, taken from poet Cheng Mengjia’s “Song of Myself”: “I crushed my chest and pulled out a string of songs.” In the second half of this collection Paine does just that, giving voice to resonant lyric; experimenting with breathing space (and white space on the page); and showing a way forward, out of grief, in part through poetry. Paine has given us the elements of an argument that will cohere even as it becomes more complicated. Among the standout poems in parts three and four, “Edge” and “My Mother Stepping from the Tub,” juxtapose aging with youthfulness, sexual appetite with isolation, and health with illness.
In a tightly packed seventeen lines, “Edge” places a damaged woman alone at a window; she “touches her stomach, / each scar mouths its terrible story // into her fingers.” She watches as her young daughter embraces a boy in the pool:
and her daughter is in the pool
being held in the trembling
arms of a boy. Swooping bats sound
out the bodies.
What a lovely and surprising detail, the flight of bats above the couple’s heads, seeking their warmth in the summer dark! As the poem continues, the couple, under the “unwhole / moon,” must break away from each other when the suspicious mother raps on the window:
In the cave of dark
water bodies fly apart, too soon
the mother says, too soon
for men and their bladed hands.”
This short poem conveys all at once the inevitable distance between mother and daughter and the enviable closeness of the couple, while it provides unexpected resonance in its materials: the transparency of the window behind which the mother waits, the translucency of water buoying the bodies of the couple. As the daughter pulls away from her mother, from a past of illness and loneliness, she is reaching towards a future less sorrowful, more whole—perhaps to be found in the arms of a boy.
“My Mother Stepping from the Tub” also places narrator and mother near water, but this time it is just the two of them. The daughter has glimpsed her dying mother in the bath, “a rain-drenched bird, feathers clinging / to the ruined architecture / of her body.” Yet the daughter, compassionate and increasingly self-aware, sees her difficult and damaged parent as
my child freshly bathed for
the first day of school,
but she is my mother, ravaged
by the ruthless industry
of metastasizing cells.
If she were washed clean
of the past, if I had known
there was so little time,
I might have held her
wrecked body in my arms.
The action in these last two lines suggests a powerful and familiar narrative, a “reversed Pieta”—Helen Vendler’s characterization of Ginsberg’s and his mother Naomi’s relationship in “Kaddish”—in which the child cradles the damaged body of the mother. Paine closes her poem by literally shutting the door on this difficult scene, a door whose “latch clicked like the shutter / of a camera.” Through this powerful and healing gesture, the reader trusts the perspective of the mother caught in the child’s gaze.
Inarguably, healthy human development requires the maturing child to separate psychologically from his or her family. Yet in even the best circumstances this process is fraught; when a family faces profound difficulties, such as those Paine writes about, it becomes a protracted and complex process. In The Sounding Machine, Paine frames a family history with history’s failures, the failures of the body, and the failure, at times, of language. Through skillful deployment of poetic craft and empathetic, original renditions of familiar poetic themes, The Sounding Machine portrays a resilient child and a fragile parent without self-congratulation or sentimental triumphalism. As Paine writes in the last lines of “Beneath Each Full Moon,” the final poem in this volume, in which the speaker dreams of offering up a sackcloth pouch of healing herbs as a memorial to her mother, “By morning / wind had swept the sackcloth out to sea.” Part of the pleasure of this collection lies in imagining both the sorrow and deep release that accompany this sackcloth on its journey.
Patty Paine is the author of one collection of poetry, The Sounding Machine (Accents Publishing, 2012), and two chapbooks, Feral (Imaginary Friends Press, 2012) and Elegy & Collapse (Finishing Line Press, 2005). Paine is an assistant professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar and the founding editor of diode.