Elizabeth Arnold’s Wave House reveals a literary intelligence so fiercely independent and yet so central to my sense of contemporary literature that I’m tempted to use the book to stage my own little bastinado against a culture that rewards poetry containing “take aways.” There is nothing to take away from these poems. They are themselves, cutting their way into air as surely as physical facts. That’s why my tirade would be silly. These poems will outlive literary fashions, and such becomes obvious from simply reading the lines and sentences.
Look at what Arnold does with the early tenth-century Anglo-Saxon poem “The Wanderer.” Her translation of the poem stands at the heart of Wave House. Here are the opening lines:
Often for this one,
god help me
—yet my mind,
finds its scarred way
no one else here.
So spoke the wanderer,
Arnold makes tradition and innovation seem inseparable: I hear the thick, alliterative texture of the Old English poet and the canny compactness of modernists like Pound, Bunting, Loy, and Oppen, not to mention Arnold’s own contemporary idiom. Historical sense, Eliot called the poet’s indispensable skill, and Elizabeth Arnold’s talent for layering linguistic registers, which she understands and feels for their specific, time-endowed properties, shows such mastery.
It also corresponds with the personal narratives that stream through this book. A “land-stomper” herself, the poet returns from years away, including her time in East Africa, to attend to her widowed mother while her own health remains tenuous. Like the wanderer, Arnold’s attention dwells on loss not only of family but what she still seeks—home, exemplified by the lost world of her childhood Florida.
Arnold works to make sense, some kind of wholeness, that would admit change and fragmentation, include both familial roots and restless divagations. As she writes in “I Almost Died,”
I like where I am now
in the mountains
but I know I’ll go.
Her need both to find her home and follow her itinerant nature mirrors a simultaneous trust and distrust of personal narrative. Like Janet Malcolm, whose writing on psychoanalysis she cites as a source of her poem “The Phenomenon of Transference,” Arnold considers biography and autobiography manipulable, treacherous, morally suspect, and unavoidable.
That’s what amazes me about this collection. It’s not that Arnold reconciles contraries, it’s that she leaves the poor contraries no choice. This book will be, as the title tells us, both wave and house, a form for self and other, a container of the uncontainable. Such sheer ambition feels refreshing. There’s an intention so authoritative and far-reaching in these poems, a reckoning with mortality so fundamental, that the smallest writerly side-hustles—felicities of lineation and punctuation, briefly rendered images, anecdotes, slight modulations of tone—fold into a metaphorical whole.
Arnold can get even a single syllable to stage the central drama of her whole book. Consider how she sets the word or as its own stanza in “Cast Out Again.” Here’s the second of that poem’s three sentences:
In Bosnia—not that far
from where the Ancient Greeks sailed on the Adriatic
in Serbo-Croatian and Slovene, Jadran—
there are gravestones shaped like Egyptian obelisks with
knobs at the tops,
some like ours but thinner,
a little bit over, the stone dark.
The “—or” stanza forms a microcosm for Arnold’s big ambition. Wedging those two letters between two lands, as between dissimilar ways of seeing the world, she shows her willingness to “go out on a limb,” even to be “cast out.” Like many of hers, the line begins with an em dash, as if the poet’s venturing impulse preceded any known destination. Arnold has a beguiling confidence amidst uncertainty, and her talent for inhabiting in-between places, where received wisdom fails, shows in sentences that feel searching and fated, sculpted and unexpected—who could predict that the lines above would lead to the regionally particular shape of gravestones?
Arnold’s penchant for combining intention and curiosity, historical sense and contemporary immediacy, personal narrative and renderings of radical otherness, shows in the two long poems around which the book coheres, and “Elegy” and the aforementioned translation of “The Wanderer.” Both are big achievements, and “Elegy” is one of the major, tour-de-force poems of our time. Beginning with the Chicxculub asteroid impact more than 66 million years ago, then entering a description of the poet’s childhood home before returning to the geologic register and scale at the ending, the poem amounts to far more than a verbal feat or impressive “project.” Great pleasure comes from the confidence, the intellectual as well as emotional directness, with which Arnold employs terms such as “inundation surge,” “seiche waves,” and “iridium anomaly,” let alone phrases that double as descriptors of her own verse-movement, for example “flow-regime structures” and “solidifying drizzle.” Achieving the power and scale of epic poetry while remaining true to a modern worldview that’s personal, subjective, and often finds significance in the ordinary—this has been and remains one of the great challenges for poets at least since Wordsworth, one way that major poets prove their mettle. Arnold does so with “Elegy.”
And yet such mastery informs her shorter lyrics, too, poems that often begin from intensely specific moments. This play with scale feels poignant and beguiling to me, like seeing the entire sky translated into a tiny square bent across a loved one’s eyeball.
Consider how “The Way He Said It, ‘World’ ” takes off from its title to detail with convincing emotional force the effect one word, world, had on the poet when spoken by a weathered musician in a movie. (Right or not, I imagine Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart.) The poem concludes with these lines:
The way he said it
—a tune I’ve lived away from
almost my whole life—
pulled me out
of this entanglement,
this no man’s land of the North.
There’s wonderful surprise to the concluding line. It recalls Wallace Stevens’s “Farewell to Florida,” with its similarly deflating use of the word North, yet sounds Arnold’s own: she’s somehow both more casual and flintier than Stevens. It also seems both sincere and cunningly ambiguous. How much hyperbole or humor do we hear in “this no man’s land of the North”? How much unfiltered anguish?
What gets me the most about this ending, though, is how the exile’s curse, for all those subtle velleities, like the actor’s pronunciation of world, returns to the origin of lyric, its source in the bare stuff of speech acts. There’s an almost ritual feeling of potency in those acts. At the same time, and characteristically for an Arnold poem, the continuity depends upon discontinuity. I have in mind the feeling that this retrieval won’t be permanent, and the acknowledgment that the very experience of home, that rightfulness, might be something “I’ve lived away from // almost my whole life.”
It’s elucidating, then, to compare this poem with the one it precedes in Wave House, “On Manda Island.” Both poems center around specific, immediate speech acts, moments when the human voice gains tremendous centripetal force. “On Manda Island” starts with a description of elephants migrating near where the poet lived on the Kenyan coast. Here’s how the poem opens:
For three weeks
I eyed the mainland
choked by mangrove thickets
and the loud-mouthed weavers.
Elephants crossed the creek there
during the rains
—presumably for grass,
acacia pea pods
that must have been more plentiful on this side.
And here the poem takes a turn away from description, homing in on the poet’s own speech:
Elephants can swim.
Why did they stop
Maybe the current was too strong,
or the tides changed.
Are they gone?
This last line, returning to the fact of the poet’s speech in the present moment, reminds me of the opening of “The Way He Said It, ‘World.’ ” But where that poem observes a recovery, this one recognizes a probable loss. Opposite and similar, these poems reveal a sensibility that knows itself and its materials so well that the very things lesser poets fear when constructing a book, contradiction and repetition, become opportunities for exploration, for play.
Arnold’s amalgamations of history and present, self and other, conclusion and uncertainty seem to me the exemplary results of an intensely lyric sensibility. A young poet could go to school on this book. What continues to astonish me as I return to these poems, though, remains the seemingly instantaneous, almost unaccountable quickness with which Elizabeth Arnold transmits thought and feeling. These poems are both necessary, ineluctable, and utterly surprising. Reading them, I fathom the wonder Ezra Pound felt in 1919 at the castle of Excideul in the Dordogne, understand his praise in The Cantos for that simultaneous inevitability and undulant liveliness of the ancient architecture: “And the wave pattern runs in the stone.” I also hear a contemporary voice with extraordinary range and intensity, an intelligence that glimmers just ahead of the contemporary, in fact—like a wave a little beyond the others, like the future.
Wave House. By Elizabeth Arnold. Chicago: Flood Editions, 2023. 128 pp. $18.95.