Fear and Trembling in the Library: Five New Books.
Floating Life, by Moez Surani. Wolsak and Wynn, 96 pp., $17.
It Becomes You, by Dobby Gibson. Graywolf Press, 96 pp., $15.
Vanitas, Rough, by Lisa Russ Spaar. Persea Books, 64 pp., $15.95.
A Larger Country, by Tomas Q. Morin. American Poetry Review, 80 pp., $14.
In literary biopics, the bookshelves of poets are usually depicted as soothing backdrops, smooth walnut cases bathed in a mild golden light, before which the poet feverishly composes her latest work of genius.
In real life, as every writer knows, bookshelves are frequently sources of the purest fear and revulsion: each new verse or sentence one manages to grind out is immediately confronted by the hundreds of thousands of superlative pages gathered on the far wall, and on the bad days, every book on the shelf seems to be asking whether it's really worth the effort. Or, as Dobby Gibson puts it in a book under review here, "From the back of the books I love and am terrified by, / the great thinkers stare back at me / with little encouragement. / I am prepared to follow them anywhere!" In other words, no one is immune to what Harold Bloom famously termed the anxiety of influence. Yet this does not mean that all poets acknowledge that influence in the same way, or to the same extent. In fact, as the five books below demonstrate, a poet's handling of her relationship with her forebears can itself create fresh opportunities for distinction.
James Arthur's debut collection, Charms Against Lightning, is so confident that it almost seems to have sprung fully formed from the pen of its creator, though the crowded acknowledgments page testifies to the fact that it has been many years in the making. It is worth the wait. Arthur writes in a seasoned voice that still leaves plenty of room for humor and surprise. He also seems to be in no hurry to pay homage to his literary elders. While many first books tend to sprinkle in the names of well-known poets as a way of offering tribute to their mentors (or in hopes of assembling a pedigree), this book does the opposite. Arthur drops only two names in the entire volume, Richard Hugo and W.H. Auden. Hugo is only called up to act as the straight man in Arthur's joke: an epigraph quoting his prohibition of semicolons (from the handbook of poetic style The Triggering Town) is followed by the poem "In Defense of the Semicolon" which gleefully deploys the forbidden punctuation at every opportunity.
The invocation of Auden requires a bit more finesse. Arthur explicitly acknowledges the English poet's influence in "Aspirations," a nearly imageless expository poem that struggles, with startling bluntness, to articulate the ultimate goals of the practicing poet: "to address mystery / without being mysterious, / never expecting anyone / to know, speaking only for yourself // but not being self-centered, conducting yourself / as if your work matters, knowing nothing // makes nothing happen ... "That last line is a clear nod to the famous line ("For poetry makes nothing happen") from one of Auden's most familiar poems, his elegy for WB. Yeats. In "The Names of Flowers" on the previous page, Arthur makes a slightly less overt gesture with the line, "The roar in the garden is the grave," hearkening to Auden's brooding pronouncement "And the crack in the tea-cup opens / A lane to the land of the dead," from the poem "As I Walked Out One Evening."
Incidentally, it was Richard Hugo who named Auden as one of the very rare poets witty enough to make "music conform to truth," and who counseled young writers aspiring to greatness, or at least to a first book, to prioritize the poem's "music" over its message. In Charms Against Lightning, Arthur has heeded Hugo's advice on description if not on punctuation. The poem "Avocado," for instance, opens with a simple yet lyrical couplet: "In a bowl, blind as stones. / In their soft-skinned hides, holding seeds." The second stanza departs from its subject halfway through:
Carving an avocado makes a C-section, and the meat of the fruit slicks the stone. My brother and I were cut from the womb. Our mother would have died, twice.
This is the backbone of a smart poem: that sudden pivot that allows the reader to see an object from a different perspective, as the poet changes the palette or shifts the field of view.
But Arthur then goes even further, presenting a third and final stanza that is harder to connect to the previous two: "Happiness. You want seasons / and radio, want swallows dogfighting, / want to walk in a leather coat, / maple keys spinning down." There is music here--the autumn scenery of swallows, chilly walks and maple trees--but it is that last image of the spinning maple "keys" (the winged double seeds that helicopter to the ground in early fall) that brings the entire poem together in a single line, as it suggests not only the stones of the avocadoes (both are seeds) but also the births of the speaker and his brother.
Many of Arthur's poems also display a metaphysical penchant for naming and describing things and then immediately negating them, with results that are imagistically a bit anticlimactic (how could they not be?), but in other respects fascinating and fruitful. The book's fixation with absence is revealed early on, in poems such as "Ghost Life," which follows the speaker's shadow as it lengthens and narrows to near-invisibility, and "Utopia," in which the poem's antihero has finally achieved a longed-for anonymity ("This is another country, not an ordinary place, / where a man, no matter how exceptional / he felt, would finally be erased"). "Against Emptiness," which closes Part II, puts a more complicated spin on the concept, first declaring its titular subject "Denser than a dog. Volatile / like a torpedo, harder than a punch line," but ending with an enigmatic observation: "Can a man build a tower / out of air alone? He can. And the wind / will blow it away."
This sounds a little like the kind of statement that Zen acolytes are supposed to meditate on until they achieve enlightenment. But it also seems to imply that just because towers of air can be blown away doesn't mean we shouldn't build them. Arthur returns to this idea in "In Praise of Noise," which describes the cacophony of the busy world in loving detail, then quickly reduces it to "a symphony / no one wrote, confounding every pattern." In the final lines, the speaker then implores someone or something--the very noise itself, perhaps--to "teach me the song that no one can sing, someday / to be the song of everything." This is a roundabout way of putting it, but then again it is no surprise that a book containing no less than three poems with the one-word title "Vertigo" should be gazing at the world through an intentionally wobbly lens. And ultimately, Charms Against Lightning does seem to be genuinely pursuing the goal that Arthur states in the stylistically singular "Aspirations": to "address mystery / without being mysterious." Halfway through "At Klipsan Beach," in a line that echoes the oft-quoted opening line of "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop, the speaker declares, "We are, and then we aren't; / that's the mortal art." There's that pesky semicolon again. But the candor of these lines also imparts some necessary element of truth to Arthur's airy, intricate music.
Unlike the oblique epigraphs that open many books of American poetry, the one chosen by Canadian poet Moez Surani for his second book, A Floating Life, provides a surprisingly clear glimpse of the subject matter of the poems that follow it. It is lifted from the seventeenth-century Japanese writer Asai Ryoi, but its portrait of young writers "singing songs, drinking wine, and diverting ourselves in just floating, floating, caring not a whit for the poverty staring us in the face" is a fairly timeless description of the itinerant, booze-soaked existence that creative teenagers and aging bohemians like to imagine is the poet's true calling. More to the point, this description also captures the persona that Surani adopts in many of the poems of Floating Life. As the speaker declares in "Trinity Bellwoods," the penultimate poem, "Some say I am a great poet / but today, I am a great drunk / or great at being like a little boy." Kerouac couldn't have said it better, and readers' responses to Surani's book may substantially depend on what they think of the lifestyle that inspires it.
When Surani's speaker is not drinking, he is traveling. "Trinity Bellwoods," referring to a neighborhood in Ontario, is one of the very few poems that do not take place on a continent other than North America; the poems that precede it recount days and nights spent in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Egypt, India (Benares and Mumbai), South Korea, and a handful of other places through which the poet presumably has passed--or floated, as the case may be. Many of these cities, especially in Western Europe, serve as no more than stopping-points on what appears to be either a series of travel fellowships or a very speedy vacation, with the brevity of the speaker's stay in the city indicated by the brevity of his ode. Thus the early poems "Barcelona Harbour" ("So many / boats!") and "Parisian Graffiti" ("Pulling out, / I left my mark / on your city wall.") take up, in their entirety, no more than five lines. Similarly, the untitled series of fragmentary poems in Part II, which begins with a litany of cities ("Boston Buffalo / Seoul Milan Ottawa"), finds the speaker traveling by train between cities--Budapest, Prague, Frankfurt, Rome--more often than he remains in any one of them long enough to write about it.
"Barcelona Harbor" and "Parisian Graffiti" are also the first of many haiku-like poems in Floating Life, which occur most frequently in Part III. Here the book settles down, at least temporarily, in South Korea, and opens with a six-line poem presaging the placid surrealism that East Asia sometimes presents to Western eyes:
Walking to Munbaek, a dog barks at his other self behind the mountain. An ostrich frightens me.
In a nod to the elements of classical haiku, Surani often invokes the names of regions or towns to anchor these drifting phrases to a place--"Ilchulbong / and the yellow rapeseed fields," "Giunsa's elaborate, pale terraces." Part III is the shortest of the book's four sections, but its brevity places Surani's abilities as a poet in the most favorable light, particularly his skill at crafting unadorned, simple sentences that still convey warmth and sensuality. Here are two stanzas of the untitled poem that ends the section:
how from your room to mine, you will have laid flowers that I pass too quickly over to give either foot a petal's pleasure. And inhaling the air around your dark hair, I will stand with all my selves, and call you mother, sister, wife, daughter.
The language here is soft and musical, with both stanzas using the so-called feminine ending for the slant rhyme of "pleasure" and "daughter." Yet the structure of the poem has an austere quality, with no line containing more than six syllables until the last two lines, which expand to accommodate the speaker's almost mythic vision of his lover.
This dreamlike sensuality pervades much of Floating Life, with the speaker adopting a mode of expression that may remind readers (for better or worse) of the Coleman Barks translations of the thirteenth-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic Rumi. The poem "You Wanted," for instance, opens with the line "You leave me hungry for you" and ends, "Come. / Tilt yourself into me. / I can bear you. // Pure red. Pure white. / My vessel empty / save for you." Later, in "Narration of a Scroll," the speaker asks, "How did I get up the energy / to lie with you in such havoc?" For the most part, the writing here is serene and assured, and visually interesting enough that the few missteps, such as a description of a starlit night that ends with the disappointing cliche "I loved / them and felt / so free," can be overlooked.
Things start to unravel a bit when Surani sets himself the task of composing a longer poem. The overwritten "The Reunion," describing two former lovers who meet to make love again after a long absence, exemplifies the problem. Having set the scene and situated its players ("He touches her aged waist. // They find a seam of air, between kisses, and / a bed. Their legs found it."), the poem then stalls, unsure where to go next, and instead gazes about the room delivering a series of metaphor-heavy snapshots: "And her hip is a faucet / and his arms are a hoop," and as things progress, he "manages her wealth of hair / with the drawers of his chest" an operation that sounds both awkward and a little painful.
Perhaps this simply betrays a desire for Surani to write more of the slender poems that remain the strongest of Floating Life, but "The Reunion" seems to accomplish its sought-after portrait of rekindled love in the single couplet that closes the poem: "She sleeps with her mouth open / and each breath verifies his hand." More lines like these, and Surani's next book will be worth the cost of a few more travel fellowships.
In the final lines of the long titular poem that concludes Dobby Gibson's It Becomes You, the speaker finds himself alone in a movie theater on a Wednesday, watching the closing scene of a science fiction movie in which the aliens have apparently won: "The triumphant aliens wander / what's left of Wall Street / as you sit there just long enough / to read a few peculiar names / from the seemingly endless credits stream / out of some invisible bond / of courtesy and curiosity ..." The scene is sardonic but also strangely private, a wry glance at Hollywood's latest contribution to the perennially lucrative destruction-of-the-earth genre, paired with a fleeting moment of vague emotional alertness as the screen goes black and the credits start to roll.
The scene also provides a neat illustration of the two stylistic reference points between which Gibson's third book frequently shuttles. Generally speaking, It Becomes You is traceable to the chatty and amiable yet highly deflective style whose elder statesman is Dean Young--a style that originated with the famous first trio of the New York School (John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara), and which has since been christened with variations on the "second-generation" theme. It is a diffuse poetic fashion (some might say contagious), easy enough to imitate but difficult to make meaningful, and poems written a la maniere de Young tend to inspire delight and disappointment in relatively equal measure. For his part, Gibson is evidently eager to acknowledge his debt: the poem "What Follows Us Now Must Soon Enough be Carried" finds him reminiscing about eating oysters with Young in San Francisco, before the latter received a heart transplant in 2011, "kept alive in Texas / by a box of valves and lithium batteries / serving the functions of a human heart."
Many of the poems in It Becomes You remain committed, whether consciously or not, to what Tony Hoagland branded this "skittery" manner of speaking. The middle of "Waking in Someone Else's Clothes" provides a characteristic example:
We should at some point introduce ourselves, for though this is no longer sleep, it still feels like something to wake from, the sun repeating yesterday's pattern on the hardwood floor repeating yesterday's pattern on the earth, the cold making you want to give everything away except your unmade bed and a phone number. Deep inside these words are all the rituals and rites reenacted by their mere use, and deep inside the poet is the desire to celebrate and fuck that shit up. It's as easy as saying glass.
There is nothing objectionable about these lines: they are clever but not too risky, and they were clearly crafted with patience and care. Yet we long for something more. Poems such as this, after the meandering trail of odd remarks and stage-whispered asides, often conclude with a relatively irony-free line or two that strikes the reader as refreshingly honest and plain as a glass of warm milk. But the shift has the whiff of a setup. This happens at the end of "At the Ready," which begins with the signature evasiveness of Ashbery 3.0 ("Hush now, little one, daddy's flushed his Ambien. / And now the river dreams! / The beer chases the Bloody Mary, / but what fresh ceremony will chase all of that?") but ends with the cloying observation that "The binoculars at the overlook / may be worth the pay-per-view after all, / the scene unforgettable, if only for the feel / of the snowflakes on your lashes." A similar finale is staged in "Self-Reliance," which starts strong but ends with "the December dark, / which is the place I'll wait for you in the end, / our last candle in my hand."
Happily these lines are far from the best that Gibson has to offer. It Becomes You is replete with poems--"In Case Of," "Nocturne," "Beauty Supply," "Self-Reliance," "The Briars," and many others--that may assume an air of casual talkiness, but whose aims are more urgent and, yes, more honest. After taking stock of a life that has grown "a little longer / and more worn at the edges" the speaker of "In Case Of" recounts the events of the previous night in a cadenced and quietly elegant passage:
Last night, unable to name the trees by the river, we watched them shake in the wind and listened as their fruit surrendered, gently drumming the earth. The plants that had been set out by day were brought in for the night. The cicadas had fallen silent, though we didn't hear, exactly, when, or realize until much later what we had been missing.
The language here is so elemental and rhythmic that it takes a moment to realize something unusual has happened--unusual enough, at least, to silence the cicadas--though what that something is never quite emerges. It leaves us faintly unsettled, not only in that final silence but also in its tacit conclusion that the task of drawing meaning from our lives remains forever unfinished.
Gibson also has a striking gift for coining instantly memorable phrases that turn the mirror directly on the reader herself. Put simply, his best poems show us as we are, not as we imagine ourselves. In the opening to "Self-Reliance," he observes, "At some point, which is another way / of saying now, your tireless indecision / over what to do with your life / becomes precisely what you have done with your life." The middle of "Postscript" includes the blunt declaration "You can't bear to be alone, / but this is the best evidence you have / that you're still here." And in the closing lines of "Hum," Gibson imagines a time "Before there was a friend / to pat me gently on the shoulder / in that way that lets you know you're loved / but also being quietly asked to go." These statements are quiet but firm, and they stand as a welcome counterpoint to the comic-anxious ruminations that are scattered throughout the book. As Gibson writes in the long poem that ends this volume, "the cardinals work together / in obscurity like little poets ... They make no sign, other than the very absence of gesture / that has always been their most urgent signal." Such signals are by their nature easy to miss, but in this voluble book it is precisely the lines most likely to be overlooked that are also the most commanding.
It is tempting to say that the language in Lisa Russ Spaar's fourth collection of poems is brilliantly alive, and that the book should be read by as many people as possible, and simply to leave it at that. To add anything more is probably just gilding the lily. Yet a little gilding is unavoidable: Vanitas, Rough offers up page after page of complex, inventive poems thicketed with vivid words and lucid turns of phrase. Here are the first ten lines of "Christmas Stoup":
Ink slurs into byssal threads, split blue caskets of mussels scapular in ritual archipelago, butter, cream, the chowder pot a holy trencher on a night stour, bitter with advent, wilted cruxes, tarragon, bassinet of clamshell, shucked, fragile saddlebags, houses primeval: slughead, mantle, foot, all vulnerable, indomitable.
For many readers (including this one), Spaar's poems cannot be fully appreciated without a dictionary close at hand. Yet even those who can't be bothered to look up "byssal" (relating to the byssus, or silky filaments with which bivalves and mollusks cling to rocks) or "stour" (strong or powerful) cannot miss the poem's thick consonance, its glut of sibilants--byssal, mussels, scapular, cruxes, bassinet, clamshell, saddlebags--that bind these images together for eight rapid-fire lines before the softer Latinates of "mantle," "vulnerable," and "indomitable" emerge to clear the air and let in some light. The early work of Geoffrey Hill comes to mind here, as do the poems of Amy Clampitt (if only for Spaar's sheer zeal in the sounds words make), as well as--and not only because of his recent and still-painful passing--the earthy, layered, and stately language of Seamus Heaney.
There is much to discuss in Spaar's poetry, though one aspect that announces itself from the very title is her fixation with the imagery of religion and religious ritual: a vanitas, aside from being the Latin word for vanity, is a genre of painting that collects symbolic images of transience and death, most notably the memento mori of the human skull. Spaar is no moralist, though, and she usually invokes the language of the sacred in order to subvert it, as in these lines from "St. Saint":
All Hallows, solemn close of paschal drawers, wounded stare, the all-out decking of box stores. Fa la la, la la. O beloved departed, la-la, la-la, obligate me, after work, a long day in a body, passing beneath blooded lintels, maples, red oaks--
Whatever spiritual significance once attached to this jumble of sacred days--All Hallows' Day, Christmas, Easter, Passover--seems to have been supplanted by the holiday shopping season. "St. Saint" is one of a total of nine "St." poems, including "St. Chardonnay," "St. Vogue," "St. Bed of Snow," and "St. Protagonist," among others, all of which take the language of religion not as a reference point but as a point of departure. In "St. Tulip," as the flowers bloom they become "shiva-limbed, / sucking up water, they elongate, // ambrosial pneumatics." In "St. Chardonnay," Spaar declares, "Let this be merely / a drunken poem, // let a mythic figure sidle in, / cosmic, // marigolds in the mouth / & magnificent."
Yet when Spaar considers the secular, her language is no less electric. The tight, compact poem "Whether" opens with three couplets that are as mesmerizing as they are surreal:
Out of a kit of bones, the dog's half-cast opiate eyes ask can't you hear the moths, pelting the pear glass? & then there is nothing else I can hear. Bulbs opal and ignited as felted anus-stars, snow, spot the porch, blast the poplars: the thumbscrew aortal pulse of Philomela.
Such abundance of imagery nearly overwhelms the senses--who else but perhaps Frederick Seidel would liken snowflakes to "felted anus-stars"? Yet Spaar also recognizes the potential for such an onslaught to leave readers not dazzled but blinded, and the poem soon shifts to focus on its true subject, a mother's slow descent into the shadows of dementia, with language that puts a more banal face on the surreal: "Whose fork is this? my mother asked me, pointing to her cane / in the dark of the backseat last week."
Such juxtapositions of the humdrum and the outlandish produce some of the book's most memorable poems. "Bone Orchard Lunch Hour" deserves mention here, as does "God's Gym," which begins with the speaker driving in rush hour "past the strip-mall fitness center," with its neon letter "L" gone dark, but then swiftly embarks on a vision of the Shakers, the Christian sect known for both minimalist furniture design and their physically dynamic worship services, with their "glossolalia / of twitch and stomp ... the upper room of the heart emptying / into tongues of esophageal fire." One could list many other examples here, but let it suffice to say that Vanitas, Rough is a rich, rewarding book from beginning to end. If Spaar was ever merely a poet to watch, that time is long past. She is, and has been for many years, a poet to read--with a dictionary if you wish, but also, and more importantly, with joy and gratitude.
The title of Tomas Q. Morin's first book, A Larger Country, borrowed from Joseph Brodsky's poem "Variation in V," reappears near the end of the book in the excellent "Idiom of the Hero," a cento poem (composed by fusing the verses of other writers into a single work) with a title from Wallace Stevens and tercets built from lines by John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Hart Crane, Fernando Pessoa, and many others. "These things I have--a withered hand--/ foetor, sweat, the stench of stale oranges, / an undisturbed, unbreathing flame, // and tiny sky creatures buried under the snow. / They represent, I fancy, a version of heaven; / we commit them to memory, which is a larger country."
Historical memory plays a sizable (and at times almost occlusive) role in Morin's book: true to the spirit of Brodsky's metaphor, many of the poems in A Larger Country seek to resurrect names, places, and events--particularly those in Eastern Europe that suffered through the brutal legacy of Soviet rule--that time has begun to erase. The book opens with "Laika," named for the most famous of the so-called "Soviet space dogs" strapped into shuttles by the Khrushchev regime, but Morin is more concerned with Eastern European poets whose lives were cut short, such as Miklos Radnoti and Isaak Babel, as well as those like Czeslaw Milosz who were fortunate enough to find a new life elsewhere.
Despite this sober subject matter, Morin's poetry is as twenty-first-century American as it comes: conversational, affably digressive, and full of winding sentences that make small rivulets and eddies for his poems to drift through before drawing back to the subject at hand. Thus the odd horticultural fantasia "While Waiting for the Resurrection" finds Milosz "sleeping in the garden / behind our building ... held close by last season's tomatoes, your quiet face / already overrun with summer's weeds," and embarks on a series of observations concerning the benefits of Milosz's strong bones and "good Polish clay" on the garden's fertility, before thanking him in the final lines for "the salty soup you helped me make tonight / with the wild onions I pulled from your feet." The poem "Our Prophets" ventures farther afield, beginning with the speaker "reading / Gorky's remembrance of Tolstoy and devouring chicken / on a blanket in view of the muddy waters," then drifting into an argument in praise of homemade key lime pie (in contrast to "the impostor with the God-awful filling / tinted green by they of the white aprons / and souffle hats"), and finally turning back to dwell on an obscure remark by Tolstoy that Gorky recorded, concerning a talking parrot that spoke the dialect of a vanished tribe, which prompts Morin to ask, "what bird will speak for us if not our monkish / parakeet souring in the oak above us / like a cheap piece of pie / that calls out 'hungry, hungry, hungry'?"
As the titles of these two poems suggest, A Larger Country also dabbles in religious imagery, with varying success. A poem ostensibly about fly-fishing, "A Model for the Priesthood," finds the speaker "baptizing" trout fillets in butter after his friend has reeled them in, making him "an American John // to his American Jesus." A few pages later, in "Egg Ministry," a henhouse is full of "the faithful / clucking about the rapture, / and whether heaven is truly shallow and fresh / like a box of straw waiting for birth." These lines are hit-and-miss; satire is not Morin's forte.
His more effective poems, rather, are invariably subtler, such as "Winter," an ekphrasis based on a landscape by the Flemish Baroque painter Abel Grimmer, which begins with a reminder of how paintings once functioned as aids to devotion: "There is a church with a steeple and houses whose roofs / mirror the slope of the church's roof which is / meant to dominate the center of the canvas; / such was the nature of faith in the sixteenth century." Later in the poem, when this seemingly bucolic tableau is revealed as one of chaos and disorder, faith provides no solution. Instead, "you tell yourself the ice will crack, the snow melt, / and this is something which makes you feel better / because it is a scene you have witnessed before." The ambivalence of that last line--the cold comfort derived from knowing that violence, like the seasons, will always recur--leaves us uneasy, but in an age when moral certainty is more or less impossible to come by, this seems a legitimate offering for a poem to make.
The best poem in A Larger Country may be the eight-page sonnet sequence "North Farm," which broods over a small group of refugees--possibly Jewish emigrants escaping the Nazi regime--as they seek shelter in a war-torn town that seems no safer than the place they have fled. The poem opens with "black-gray bands of thick clouds / gathering like sheep thinned out with a razor," and infuses each of its settings with similarly ominous imagery: a street is littered with "the badly broken bodies of birds," and an eerily empty outdoor market holds "all of the animals who've been chosen / because they are the youngest and therefore the most tender." The poem sacrifices a bit of force with its intentional vagueness--we are never quite sure whether this is a ghetto, a labor camp, or merely a wretched village razed afresh by each army that passes through it--but its language is visceral and unflinching, and the speaker's weary tone is surprisingly believable, even though coming from a poet of Morin's young age. Ultimately, this volume may be the work of a poet who is still finding his footing, but in its grappling with the tragedies of the twentieth century as well as its absurdities, it also aims higher than many first books of its author's generation. That alone makes A Larger Country worth reading, and Morin a poet of genuine promise.