Review | Sight Map by Brian Teare
University of California Press, 2009
Like canaries in mineshafts, poets will respond to the air around them, one way or another. Sometimes, of course, they go by indirection, especially if they happen to live in interesting times. The Fugitives reacted to urban, industrialized society with nostalgia for rural and Metaphysical tradition. During the turbulence of the 1960s, some Boomer poets retreated into surrealism and Deep Image. Many contemporary poets, faced with the incomprehensible reality of 9/11 and its aftershocks and disillusioned by (take your choice) the narcissism of reality TV, where everyone gets to tell His/Her Story, or decades of the cynical manipulation of narrative (think Weapons of Mass Destruction), have abandoned storytelling for ironic allusion and a focus on the artifice of language—or LANGUAGE. On the other hand, some poets choose—or perhaps can’t help—engagement with the wreckage of old certainties. Brian Teare’s Sight Map makes a powerful case for such confrontation.
To be sure, Teare knows all the cool moves in the contemporary repertoire—including the strangled-at-birth or buried-alive narrative; fragments, ellipses, and gaps; and, of course, language as a crucial entity in its own right—but he puts these moves to decidedly unhip and extremely interesting purposes. In his remarkable first collection, The Room Where I Was Born, samplings from various types of fiction provided a psychological device that allowed his unreliable narrator to deny the truth of the devastating events he described. (It’s only a story; it isn’t real.) In his new book, Teare uses language, often at the level of the single word or part of speech, to explore a fragmented universe, with rifts running not only through the physical and emotional world but also between that world and God.
Certainly other poets work this territory, sometimes turning the subject into an ironic intellectual exercise. Few manage as Teare does to make the issue a test for both mind and heart. In Sight Map the speaker feels the loss of God and cosmic order with immediate and painful force. “God’s a pall,” Teare writes, “called down to mind the meaning / given a life. Once thought // the word makes mind too small.” Later, in “Lent Prayer,” he notes, with etymological accuracy, “the way prayer is root to precarious,” then, toward the end of the poem, puns, also accurately and without self-conscious cleverness, that “prayer is / route to precarious.” The map of Teare’s title illustrates a landscape of spiritual disintegration:
from thaw, we walk—o trees, trouble,
tremble at the roots of being, underneath,
under laws, the order of things
so deeply a violence and unnumbered like the snow.
Things seen are no longer evidence of things unseen.
Teare charts the seismic shift from centuries of absolutes and optimism. When Europeans felt free, during the Renaissance, to pay attention to the natural world instead of concentrating on the hereafter, the early scientists justified their endeavors by searching for the patterns in nature that would reveal the mind of God. Kepler sought a divine geometry in the movements of the planets. Newton experimented with alchemy in the belief that the transmutation of metals offered the clearest demonstration of God’s existence. (He didn’t know it was faux science.)
Long after Newton’s own mechanics moved God to the sidelines of scientific inquiry, the quest for correspondences, for an overarching order in the universe, continued. Consider the grail of a unified field theory, to which Einstein devoted much more of his career than he did to relativity. The impulse toward connectedness appeared in philosophy and literature as well, most clearly perhaps in the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, which explicitly informs the opening poem of Sight Map, “Emerson Susquehanna” (with epigraphs for each section taken from Emerson’s journals). But Emerson’s larger worldview shadows the entire book.
While the journal quotations make clear Emerson’s departure from conventional religion (“When we have lost our God of tradition ”) and his contemplation of a new, pantheistic relationship with the divine (“then may God fire . . . with . . . presence”), Sight Map seems to respond more directly to Emerson’s essay Nature, especially the chapter titled “Language,” where he sets forth three guiding principles:
1. Words are signs of natural facts.
2. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts.
3. Nature is the symbol of spirit.
But Emerson’s road map tracks paths long since rerouted, blocked by landslides, or simply abandoned. Word, nature, and spirit no longer mesh the way he envisioned. True, the language of abstractions is mostly metaphoric—as Emerson puts it, “Every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance”—but Teare observes
The way soul has
no certain etymology, how weirdly rootless goes
erasing syntax that holds
nouns in the sentence called landscape . . .
Words are reductive, just words, never achieving the power of St. John’s Word, Logos, defined in the HarperCollins Study Bible as “the divine principle of reason that gives order to the universe and links the human mind to the mind of God.” But Logos is just what Emerson perceives and Teare longs for. Although the first section of the long poem “To Be Two” is called “Certainty,” Teare’s world operates on the uncertainty principle. “I will watch [ / ] where I’ve been to disappear,” he comments with resignation.
Even apparent certainties don’t last. In “To Be Two” the lines, “There are propositions I / love with certainty and knowledge, both,” in the first part become, in the third, “There are propositions I can’t touch, can’t / love with certainty and knowledge, both,” as if the poet has finally filled in lacunae in the transcription of a damaged text.
Teare frequently employs repetition and partial repetition with such shifts of meaning. In the long poem “Sanctuary, Its Root Sanctus,” a complex of thoughts and images plays and replays in an interior film loop as the speaker walks around a lake and simultaneously walks “inside memory of his // movements inside me, and it is this fullness most resembles my experience / of God.” The many repetitions would become irritating if the phrases were fewer, shorter, or less interesting and if they didn’t so well express an intelligence struggling with an insoluble problem. “When is it the mind turns // from perception?” he asks himself as his mind continues to skate from observable details into obsession with emotional and spiritual loss. Religious ecstatics often use the language of sexual possession to express divine possession. In Sight Map the two—and the loss of both—appear as equivalent realities, neither merely a metaphor for the other.
Sexuality calls forth its own disturbing litanies. After a series of casual—and reckless—encounters (“he wasn’t a good idea”), the speaker of “Genius Loci” finds himself overwhelmed by numbers:
the numbers they gave you after
& you never called, the number of swollen nodes of the kissing
colds you got & later the number to call to get tested, the number of the bus
to the clinic, the number they gave you when they asked
you to wait, the number of questions asked, number of partners . . .
In the two middle sections of the book, Teare’s use of repetition expands to include repetition of images and a fascination with form and pattern, specifically, as in “Morphology,” with its epigraph “(Field Guide to the Ferns)” botanical patterns as a template for human form: “spine // bent—leaflets / arced on an axis—your / mouth the ground // he took root in” and “‘Fragile’—rhizomic / spreading // beneath—you / lay down.”
A series of poems on the white birch, with its pale, peeling bark, begins with the obvious comparisons to paper and writing, but gradually the images shift to something flayed alive (“curled bark a presentiment of pain”), an emblem of suffering:
Tearing back the bark you made
there a fire to heat the sentence
until meaning relented, ash
the syntax, ash the fifth
you lent it, which is metaphor
which is nomenclature, bark back-
ward curling as if you knew words from
damage. If only it had been real
fire you stole from the dictionary
of agony . . .
“How willingly // a shape takes the name it’s given // by the observer: a description / of what feeds on it,” he notes and later, “this life a screed of signs.” Here again, the poet is searching for those old correspondences that prove the universe is one. From classical times onward—into the present day in some circles—herbalists and protobotanists subscribed to what came to be called the “doctrine of signatures,” by which plants revealed their medicinal properties by their God-given appearances. (A molar-shaped leaf indicated a cure for toothache; red sap would treat disorders of the blood.) Plant names derived from these resemblances too: toothwort, bloodroot. But Teare’s contemporary distrust demands: “Faith, what is it / abides, what’s left of pastoral / but unreality. Ask artifice. Ask ornament.” When the pastoral is merely artifice and ornament, what becomes of Emerson’s assertion that “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact”?
Brian Teare searches hard for the revelation of those spiritual facts. The one section of the book not named by geographical coordinates, perhaps because it can’t be so easily located in the physical world, is called “Pilgrim,” and the first of its nine short prose poems ends, “The path follows far as the vanishing point. Wind’s edge, the map ends here.” Although the poet may discover only absence and uncertainty in the altered landscape, his quest is not, on that account, unrevealing. As every scientist knows, learning, however painfully, what doesn’t work provides its own illumination. Teare deserves kudos for his ambition in taking on the intellectual and theological history of the last several centuries. He deserves even more credit for creating, in Sight Map, a brave, moving, and richly rewarding work, illuminating both body and soul.
Brian Teare’s third collection of poems, Pleasure is forthcoming from Ashasta Press. His debut volume, The Room Where I Was Born (University of Wisconsin, 2003), won the Brittingham Prize and the Triangle Award for Gay Poetry. Teare was a 2003 National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellow and a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. His poetry has appeared in Ploughshares, Boston Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Pleiades, and Colorado Review.