SUSAN SETTLEMYRE WILLIAMS
Review | Jetty & Other Poems, by Talvikki Ansel (Zoo Press, 2003)
With admirable economy, the title Jetty announces two significant features of Talvikki Ansel's second book: the liminal vantage-point of the narrators of these poems and the curious ways in which the human world intersects with the natural. In this meticulous concern with the edges of things, Jetty carries on the excellent work of My Shining Archipelago, Ansel's first collection, the Yale Younger Poet winner in 1996. The earlier book included extended sonnet sequences about bird-banding in Brazil as well as the inspired fiction that Shakespeare's Caliban has become a gardener in England. In both of those sequences, Ansel examines an environment from the perspective of an observer not truly of it, one who straddles multiple worlds, often quite literally.
In Jetty she continues to speak from the in-between, the places of transition. Her narrators position themselves on beaches or lines of cliffs, in foreign landscapes. "Working from Catesby's Birds of Virginia," the book's concluding sequence, looks at the life and work of the transplanted eighteenth-century English naturalist and at a modern reader, significantly poised "at the edge of the field," ready to "climb over the stile / into the woods." "The Pond World" begins, "One year I landed by a pond, a small, shallow / pond. I could throw a rock across it . . ." The verb for the narrator's arrival suggests she is a creature of the air, and the water world she lights beside is landlocked. All three elements converge around her as the narrator locates herself on a dock, where she reads "a book called The Life of the Pond" and Ovid's myths of transformation.
Transformation is explored more fully in the sequence "Alcyone," based on the myth of a queen whose grief for her dead husband moves the gods to turn the couple into kingfishers, water birds, the "shapes" of whose lives are "flash of fish in the shallows, muddy nest cavity, / rock for perching." What is the true shape of these changelings, whose "young / . . . will not resemble their younger / selves"? Similarly, the title poem, "At the Jetty," examines shearwaters, who fly, "wing-tips inches above water," but do not nest in the usual sense. "Because they are winged but live in burrows / they sense more of the air and earth / than we will ever know."
Ansel brings this sense that comes from occupying borderlands to her poems about the natural world and, perhaps partly because of her outsider's sense of the wry and awry, avoids the traps of much poetry about the non-human part of the universe. Poets tend to impose a heavy burden on nature by requiring it (as if everything that isn't us could be compressed into a single "it") to function as a metaphor for humanity or as an exemplar either of what we should be or of the harm we have done by being human.
Even Elizabeth Bishop was not immune to these opposing tendencies: On one end of the spectrum there's the Baptist seal of "At the Fishhouses" ("like me a believer in total immersion"); on the other, her endangered and defiant armadillo with its "weak mailed fist." Her intelligence and scrupulous care (traits Ansel shares) keep these poems from sliding into whimsy or sentimentality; but, in "The Moose," arguably the greatest of Bishop's poems on animals, she avoids both anthropomorphism and sermonizing. From somewhere in a darkened bus, her narrator reports what she sees and what other people say, but Bishop herself refrains from imposing an interpretation on the moose. Ansel too, for the most part, presents her animals with restraint and without anthropocentric arrogance. Here's a stanza from "Kinglet":
I mention Bishop so specifically because, without obviously imitating her at all, Ansel shares many of Bishop's strengths: language so precise it becomes almost an ethical position ("the elegant forehead / of the octopus"; "dazzling golden pond scum"; the silhouettes of cows feeding after dark described as "their black shapes, star-less / crest[ing] the hill"); an unassuming but bemused persona ("I had to consult the I Ching / and couldn't find it. And // had thrown away the Go Fish cards / which always said only / unhappiness insanity despair" ); an affinity for the odd and askew. Bishop and Ansel inhabit similar landscapes, both physical (the northern Atlantic Coast, Brazil) and emotional, and often these landscapes function also as their narrative, their subject matter.
Like Bishop, Ansel is also beginning to construct a mythology out of her family and ethnic history. The third section of Jetty includes tantalizingly fragmentary narratives of Scandinavian settlers in North America ("Pilot Bread") and of her parents' magical meeting ("The Old Witch in Copenhagen," in which, without further explanation, "my father threw his gun / into the toilet at the metro, said: / I quit, I'm marrying this foreigner") and the wonderful, incantatory "Origin Charm Against Uncertain Injuries," which riffs on The Kalevala, the Finnish national epic ("Milkcharm, a charm for coming home, / I whortleberry, I blackberry, I strawberry").
While it is unlikely that Ansel will ever become a capital-C Confessional Poet, a more personal speaker—an "I" that is not obviously fictive like Caliban but is more than a nearly effaced observer—is also making her quirky presence felt in these poems. This is the voice that, in "After Pessoa," carries on an elaborate correspondence with the Portuguese poet ("He thinks it's strange / I write to him since he's dead"), that acknowledges, "I must live by water / I packed / what I couldn't forget / what I could wash and / use again," that apologizes for ineptitude in simple household tasks ("I will get better at this / I promise").
Talvikki Ansel doesn't need to promise to get better at what she does. In the much harder tasks of seeing, clearly and nonjudgmentally, the strangeness of the world and creating intelligent, artful poetry from that view on the edges, she is already expert. Jetty fulfills the promise of My Shining Archipelago and suggests pleasures to come.