SUSAN SETTLEMYRE WILLIAMS
Chapbook Reviews I:
Chapbooks, although short, should never aim for the poetic equivalent of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. At their best, and the five prize-winning books reviewed below certainly rank among the best, chapbooks don’t abbreviate; they concentrate. They focus more sharply than most full-length collections can, and certain themes and motifs stand in higher relief. In reading and re-reading these five, I have become increasingly aware of one particular shared characteristic: the interplay and tension of polarities, whether of expansion and contraction, history and myth, or the various possibilities of a single imagination.
What Remains, by Stuart Greenhouse (Poetry Society of America, 2005)
How can you say the urgent, shape-defying thing you have to say in a received structure of syntax and grammar? How can you say it without that structure? What Remains concerns itself on many levels, artistic, personal, even spiritual, with this tension between the need for form and the need to escape from it. Balance, in these poems, is not stasis but the interplay of competing forces, centripetal and centrifugal. In sequential stanzas of the long poem “My Lead Hat” (which is addressed to the hat), the narrator oscillates between these imperatives:
Elsewhere a child swallows the moon and oozes “stored light” from the pores of his body. In an ars poetica, poetry is likened to brewing tea, the form of the pot necessary to bring the water to a boil, and the steaming drink then “floating open.” Greenhouse observes‚ in a poem about a still life, “When it is time / for something to ripen / that means it is ready to melt / out of itself into meaning. ”The skin of the fruit holds it in until it is ready.
One of the most memorable poems is “Off on a Tangent,” an elegy for the poet’s deaf grandfather. The tension expresses itself here as David’s stone flying out of its sling‚ breaking the hold of gravity, of hearing (“a hypothetical line going nowhere / hearing can follow”), of mortality. “We place stones to show we had been here” Greenhouse says, but these are essentially monuments for the past. “Better a circle / to entrance,” he decides—the circle that the sling describes as it flings the tangent rock into space.
The imagery in this collection is strange and wonderful. Dusk shows up dressed in “navy blue pinstripe, felt hat in hand.” Peaches in a painting “aren’t very satisfying / to look at because they are painted / without scent.” Syntax is often disconcerting (“what sadness is to / what am I and the robin am”). In these and many other ways, Greenhouse torques up this creative tension between the vision that must be expressed and the form essential for the expression‚ inviting us to enjoy both the mold and the breaking of it, and the meaning that is found in the conflict.
Murmuration, by Sima Rabinowitz (New Michigan Press, 2006)
I expected culture shock, or at least jet lag, when I moved from Greenhouse’ s quirky Post-Modernism to Sima Rabinowitz, whose precise narratives surely occupy a very different area of the spectrum. But in Murmuration too the tension between limitation and release suffuses the work.
With her subtle psychological portraits of historical figures, including scientists and classifiers like Rosalind Franklin (whose pioneering work on DNA was largely uncredited during her lifetime) and Peter Mark Roget (compiler of the eponymous thesaurus), as well as with her exquisitely clean phrasing, Rabinowitz calls to mind Linda Bierds’ s recent work, notably First Hand. But mixed with poems of intellectual achievement are accounts of the nineteenth-century travel writer and adventurer Isabella Bird and the Fox sisters, spiritualists on the medicine-show circuit of the same period.
The tug-of-war between Apollonian control and Dionysian chaos appears most obviously in “How Time Was,” about an anarchist blown apart by his own poorly built bomb as he is apparently en route to destroy the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, location of the Prime Meridian. “The irony of inaccuracy, here, of all places,” Rabinowitz notes and later adds the further irony, “as if, like men, [time] could be made / to progress uniformly toward world order.”
Indeed, throughout Murmuration, the conflict is never simply external. The two poems about Roget’ s project—“naming, naming, naming, / that great (as in powerful, as in proud) science”—are titled “Desideratum” and they reflect an era in which, as Rabinowitz observes, “Everyone was driven / by some mad need to organize.” Even the Fox sisters played a role not only in bilking the gullible but also in the passion of their age for knowledge and exploration. In a varying refrain, the poet muses, “How to measure the distance / between telegraph and telepath,” “between science and séance,” or even, in the case of Katie Fox, an alcoholic, “between spirits and spirits?”
Ultimately, all the characters in Murmuration dream big, pushing the envelope sometimes beyond their own control. The title poem captures both the dream and its unforeseen consequences. In 1890 Eugene Schieffelin, a wealthy New York businessman, conceived the grand notion of importing to the United States all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare, including the starling (“murmuration” is the collective noun for a flock of starlings): ” “Birds, like poems,” says Rabinowitz,
Garnet Lanterns, by Sally Rosen Kindred (Anabiosis, 2006)
While Greenhouse and Rabinowitz explore the conflicting demands of control and expansion in various contexts, Sally Rosen Kindred locates Garnet Lanterns in a different tension, that between the “dream time” of Biblical myth, specifically (for the most part) that of Noah and the Ark, and the life of contemporary families.
As Mircea Eliade has argued, in performing ritual, celebrants do not merely re-enact myth but actually leave historical time and participate in the story. Writing that re-imagines religious stories is in some sense precisely that kind of ritual, and one that has been practiced to great effect by many feminist poets. Kindred’ s poems owe something to this feminist tradition—she includes poems called “Noah’ s Wife Remembers” and “The Raven’ s Wife” (who knows, as Noah releases the bird after the Flood, that “the scavenger moon and bruised sky light / are the last of your black-bell eyes she’ s going to see”)—but most are less ideological statements than meditations on what it means to be at the heart of such stories. In “Noah Waiting, Not Praying,” Noah ponders,
He reflects on God’ s “regret, doubt in us / that was self-doubt” and chooses to get drunk and expose himself in order to
Poems like these live beside God-haunted modern-day narratives like that of the mother of a sick child trying to reconcile her “boy’ s wet breath” with “God’ s / mean story” while she considers walking out into the winter landscape “over the bridge and the water’ s / wobbling covenant” (a nicely ironic allusion to the rainbow) and becoming, like the raven,“the bird that does not come back.” A young girl attends a church play of Noah’ s Ark during a rainstorm (“The drive over was thick with the hymns of wipers”). The gesture of a sleeping baby mimics the trumpeting of both elephants and angels, while his dreams recreate the imagery of Eden (“his grandfather’ s beard a dense garden”).
At their best, the poems of Garnet Lanterns allow us to see both worlds at once. The stunning final poem, “Animal Dark,” fuses the Flood and a contemporary disaster that, whether or not directly inspired by Hurricane Katrina, at the very least evokes the footage of its wrath (“a world swollen with loss,/ the bloat and rot of bodies bumping / the ark all night like dumb fruit”). While recognizing that, “somewhere to the left of this story” there may be divine purpose,
Charon’ s Manifest by Dan Albergotti (North Carolina Writers’ Network Chapbook Series, 2005)
Dan Albergotti, on the other hand, doesn’ t so much re-imagine myths as deconstruct them. Albergotti questions everything. In “The Age of Adam,” for instance, he wonders of the first man if he were “given the amount of hair one might grow / between infancy and adulthood? Or was he shorn?” Why, he asks, did God give Adam a “working penis” when Eve was not yet in the plans? For that matter, why not a ’57 Chevy for the couple to tangle in?
Albergotti takes delight in this sort of anachronism. A maenad first appears “standing next to the punch bowl.” Charon really does have a manifest here, if an inefficient one‚ for his cargo of dead souls. In “Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale,” Jonah is advised to “Work on your reports” and “Organize your calendar.”
As well as any in the book, this last poem illustrates Albergotti’ s sense of serious play, the jokes and puns that bring a reader around to an understanding of the life and death issues behind the fun. His last suggestion is that Jonah “Remember / treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes / pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.”
That conflict between easy wit and what’ s really at stake distinguishes this book from the merely light, a point made directly in “Dark Laughter,” a lover’ s quarrel in which the woman protests,“There’ s nothing funny about this”; and the man, who can’ t stop laughing, struggles to marshal his arguments, quoting Blake (“Excess of sorrow laughs,/ . . . excess of joy weeps”); “But I could not catch my breath before she left, / before joy could begin to bring me down.”
Albergotti pokes gentle fun at the mythic figures of his own calling, Orpheus and Shakespeare among others. “In the Era of the Sentence Fragment,” Eliot is called to account for what he began with The Waste Land: “Unable to do the police in different voices. / No more voices. No more makers, better / or worse, just “the dim blue sunrise of the television screen.”
In fact, much of both the sense of humor and the sense of loss in these poems circle around the idea and limitations of the poet as “maker.” A yellow jacket trapped in the room where the poet “would write a daughter” demands that the poet notice it too, dying “between window and screen” and make it live, “reborn / to fly around your daughter’ s fiery head.” In another piece, the poet unsuccessfully “tries to make the heron a god‚” not quite realizing that, in its pitiless immobility (“far . . . / from all the voices that beg for mercy”), the bird is already the scariest kind of god.
Several of the most effective poems examine and replicate the way that a poet makes art out of the raw materials of image and narrative. Perhaps my favorite of these, “The Present” mimics, through a series of evolving repetitions, the way that memory itself works. At the beginning‚ “My grandmother turns cartwheels in the hall / of the Methodist Home.” Later, it is “an old woman” who is “not my grandmother.” Then “my grandmother lies in a darkened room.” The speaker is first ten, then thirty-seven, no longer visiting the nursing home but Japan, where it is “Respect for the Aged Day” and, finally, “a boy is turning cartwheels in the hall.” Albergotti recognizes that these impulses to turn like Orpheus and Lot’ s wife, revisiting the past in “fierce acts / of futility,” is the essence of being a poet, finding wit and ultimate significance in memory.
The Making of Collateral Beauty by Mark Yakich (Tupelo Press, 2006)
Mark Yakich also plays with the implications of myth, but he does so with a difference. The stories on which he riffs are not received narratives but his own inventions, twenty-eight of the poems in his earlier full-length collection, Unrelated Individuals Forming a Group Waiting to Cross. Instances abound throughout literature of individual poems (Yeats’ s “Byzantium” poems are an obvious example) that allude to earlier work; but in an inspired move, Yakich casts the entire collection of prose poems that comprise The Making of Collateral Beauty, including the introductory “A Note on the Notes, ” as footnotes to the longer book. Each so-called note bears the same title as the poem to which it (more or less) refers.
Perhaps I should issue a quasi-disclaimer at this point: Both volumes are free-wheeling, free-associating Post-Modern books of the subgenre given to sampling familiar phrasing and situations from books and film. It is not necessary to have read Unrelated Individuals before attempting Collateral Beauty (although you will find much to delight you in the longer book as well), but it is nearly impossible for me to talk about the chapbook without frequent reference to its predecessor. The essential relationship between any two poems of the same name is that Yakich has discovered more associative storylines than he could contain in a single poem.
In a few cases, the prose poem constitutes a sequel to the original. More often, true to the nature of notes at the ends of poetry collections, it offers commentary on a single phrase or line, although it seldom lingers long in the neighborhood of the earlier poem. “The knife-sharpening of the pencil halfway through the poem really happened,” Yakich may say, or “The shirttail in the poem is real,” precisely the details about which no one but the author would care; and these are usually throwaways as he veers off into another narrative entirely. In “You Are Not a Statue,” the shirttail poem, Yakich plays with the notion that the earlier poem by that name is a translation, perhaps even a mistranslation, from the Danish, a language he claims not to know.
Sometimes the connections live only in Yakich’ s lively imagination and not on the page at all. Take, for example, the two versions of “Before Losing Yourself Completely to Love.” In its entirety, the poem in Unrelated Individuals reads, “Drop bread crumbs around your feet. / You will find yourself far away and hungry.” Here’s the “commentary” in Collateral Beauty:
Get the picture?
In short, Collateral Beauty is a virtuoso performance, serious play that demands a suspension of the usual expectations of narrative, allusion, and textual commentary. The tensions here lie in the multiple possibilities that any image or fragment of a tale presents to a truly inventive imagination and in the reader’ s willingness to sit back and enjoy the ride.