It’s 2014, the 100th anniversary of William Stafford’s birth, and people all over the country are celebrating his life and work. Why Stafford, I wonder, when I don’t remember so much interest in 100th anniversaries for Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman? In three years, will there be this resurgence of interest in Robert Lowell? But then I realize: Stafford began writing later in his life so that, by the time he was publishing, the rest of his chronological generation were already established. In poetry, he belonged to the next generation. He was closer to us and there are many who still feel that connection.
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made.
I’m off! Or rather, I’m in! That is, someone is talking directly to me, and I can’t help but listen. Of course I’ll ask, I think, but right now I’m trying to decide what is more important—those mistakes, or when the river will be ice? The line break makes me hover between when I will ask and what I’ll be asking. Yet I sense the distinction will matter.
Ask me whether
what I have done is my life.
The pace has picked up; yet it takes a moment for the question to catch up with the voice. The repetition takes me truly inside, because this is the heart of the poem. This is the question the poet really wants me to ask—of him, and of myself. And the line break forces a hiatus as the eye turns on that “whether”—only to be pulled up short. Then the internal answer: “Of course it is! Of course it isn’t!” I can’t deny my desire to speak back. After all, this is intimate, and I’ve been invited. Enter my space, the poet entreats, in an echo of Robert Frost’s earlier plea: “You come too.” Then, in a quick shift, the poet steps back. Or, at the very least, his directive becomes ambiguous:
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
As the speaker mentally ticks them off, the “others” refers to his experience alone, and he leaves me to tick off my own versions.
But a new question hovers. What is the effect of their strongest love, or hate? Although Stafford does not give an explicit answer, he suggests a rhetorical one: no difference. None. In the end, your “life” is something other than what you do, and what others do to or for you. By now, Stafford is mostly talking to himself. He pauses a moment, then remembers us again as he shifts into a second stanza. Here, I surprise myself by sensing that, for all his return to “you” and “I,” at this point he is speaking to a far more general “us,” that the “you” does not quite mean “me.”
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait.
These lines try to reestablish the initial intimacy, assuming that together we will have the patience to wait for something to happen. But I find myself a bit reluctant, and he knows that will be the case, so he hands me not what he is seeing, but what we both know he can’t see. He locks me into a shared recognition.
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
The world offers up its implicit lessons. The hidden current must mean something to Stafford as surely as Frost’s back-flipping wave meant “the tribute of the current to its source.” What holds Stafford’s attention are the unseen deep currents. Shouldn’t the poem end here, with the two of us observing the same frozen river? But no, the poet still longs for dialogue. Either that or he wants to have his inscrutable last word.
What the river says, that is what I say.
The poet hands the poem back to the reader. The ending presents the same enigmatic speaker who refuses to say what difference others have made. He knows I will complete the exchange, if only to ask my own question(s): What the river says . . . and just what is that? The silence? The stillness? The implacable surface? The roiling underside? His non-answer says, in effect, “Read me as you will; it will make little difference in the end; we will all be left with the mystery of being, the life that goes on under the surface of the life that goes on.”
Stafford’s “You and I” differs from another famous opening, “Let us go then, you and I,” in that T. S. Eliot’s title—“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”—announces that if we do bridge that gap between reader and speaker, we will be meeting a fictional construction. The “I” is a first cousin, once removed, and by the third line (“like a patient etherized upon a table”), the reader is drawn into a private metaphorical space, but not an intimate one.
What happened to poetry between Eliot and Stafford? The confessional poets—W. D. Snodgrass, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg—had, in their efforts to move beyond the prominent modernists, a powerful influence on American poetry. Their voices were so strong that, first and foremost, they seemed to obliterate any turn toward symbolism. As they opened the door to previously taboo material, they explored an “I” intent on personal revelation. (I exclude Roethke and Berryman from the list above because, although their material was also highly personal, they often found ways to obviate the personal “I.”) The following generation—including the “deep image” poets—struggled to incorporate a larger world once again. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, as Stafford began writing poetry in his forties, he found a way to use some of the methods of the confessionals and yet maintain a healthy distance from them. In some early poems, he employs what might be called a “pseudo-confessional” mode by bringing an “I” to bear on peripheral experience (“Travelling through the Dark,” “Thinking for Berky”), but even that “I” recedes in favor of the communal. In his later work, Stafford perfected a way of allowing his voice to be simultaneously intimate and universal, personal and rhetorical.
“Ask Me” proceeds with recognizable authenticity. Here, I suspect, there was less surprise for the writer than there is for the reader. What interests me is the dynamic distance between writer and reader that expands and contracts over the course of the poem. The “I”—“mistakes I have made” and “what I have done”—is general enough to stand in for the reader, so we inhabit the poem simultaneously as the one addressed and the one who initiates the questions. Yet the poet keeps making careful adjustments to bring us close and, at the same time, hold us at bay. He confides, but could not be termed confidential. The poem itself remains intensely private. Referring to a season, but to no specific event, it remains stubbornly timeless. In fact, it becomes a poem for all time, and I believe it will be at the forefront of Stafford’s lasting legacy. As those of us who thought we knew him leave the scene, the ones who know they didn’t know him will still respond—because the poem has orchestrated a reaction by building in the need for a reader to complete it.
So often today’s poems rely on a similarly modified confessionalism: their mode is disclosure, but the effect is the opposite of intimacy; they tell all, leaving nothing for the reader quietly to take in; detail dominates. You put down the poem knowing more about the poet, but realizing nothing more about yourself. The recounted experience remains wholly “other” even as it has been so publicly shared. Or . . . they tell almost nothing, expecting the reader to fill in an implied psychology. I’ d like to look at how various poets handle the issue of intimacy, how the “I” enters their poems, and whether they give that personal space over to the reader or reserve it wholly for the voice we so carefully refer to as “the speaker.” And isn’t that term yet another layer of distance, however necessary it may be to make critical distinctions?
“Andrea Hollander knows what to hold back as she lets us in,” says Stephen Dunn on the back cover of Landscape with Female Figure, a selection of new poems plus work from Hollander’s three previous collections from the past thirty years. The poet “lets us in” with all the trappings of autobiographical material—material that borders on the confessional—then pushes back through a number of poetic gestures, a push/pull that weds internal and external as part of the book’s essential meaning. Note, too, that the book’s title suggests there will be an external objectivity in addition to any subjective view.
Maybe because Landscape with Female Figure represents only four books, it has an unusual uniformity. The subject matter—home, family, desire, and art—remains consistent, so the reader can actually observe Hollander’s development as a poet through her treatment of these recurring themes. This collection, however, turns the table on traditional “New and Selecteds” by thoroughly reversing the chronological order of the poems. The “new poems” section begins by looking at older material through an altered lens, with Hollander peeling back the past to root cause. The effect is a bit like watching Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, and since the subject here is a similar betrayal, watching inevitable deception from the vantage of prior knowledge is both painful and penetrating. The reader’s involvement is intense.
A marriage has dissolved. A woman is contemplating her new life, single, in a new part of the country. She looks at herself as an artist might see her: a “female figure” now posed in an unfamiliar landscape. Several poems adopt the position of the artist in order to see, as from outside, the changes that have occurred. Distance is their common denominator: “Perhaps we’re never who we seem to be” (“American Gothic”); “Shroud although nothing / can be hidden” (“Portrait with Purple Shroud”). “Retrospective” uses the double meaning of its title to take stock of a painting by Edward Hopper while the viewer, entering the loneliness of its landscape, searches for evidence of the painter himself. The “terrible” blank easel draws us in, but Hollander’s adjective hints at her state of mind as she conjures the page, waiting for the poem that will give some perspective, always in retrospect.
“Blue” almost acts like a still life, with color as its focus and an emblematic broken bowl at its center. The last stanza reiterates the ways that art—and poetry—can direct attention to the subject even as they redirect the gaze:
I stood holding two useless half-
truths in my hands, two blue
half-truths bluer than your blue eyes
I grew so used to looking into.
The break was clean, inevitable—
hidden beneath the glaze
a fissure that would someday
crack the bowl apart. If you
were reading this now, you’ d say
She’s talking about us again in her usual
The irregular rhymes are part of the way “Blue” builds its message of damage. Note the line break on the hyphen of “half-truths” as well as the “hidden” inexorability leading up to the large “if” that marks the breakdown of known patterns. “Useless” to “usual”—sound carries estrangement.
Hollander’s mastery of poetic rhythm and form is confirmed in these new poems. “Wander” does not wander, but proceeds in graceful couplets as the poet talks to herself in a complex orchestration of iambs, trochees, and spondees. In the familiar house, now dismantled and ready for the moving vans, the speaker admonishes a self made even more remote in the form of the second-person pronoun, “you”:
What you don’t know
you will never know. Look instead
at the fluttering pink blossoms, at the lichen
stuck to the limestone ledge beneath them.
Look at the pale thumbprint of the moon
“Look instead” not only initiates a pattern of ls, but its intrusion turns the reader outward just as the poet has begun to examine what she will “never know.” See with new eyes, she seems to suggest. Thus the reader watches a strong sensibility emerging as if from sleep. And then, in the book’s subsequent sections, the process reverses itself as, poem by poem, events such as the deaths of the poet’s parents, the marriage that seems, at the time, so complete, and the poet’s burgeoning desires are re-experienced by the reader in light of what happened later. Thus even the more predictable older poems are rejuvenated; the speaker steps between lives, so to speak.
Often, there’s an overlay of earned experience, as in the way time fuses in “Large Boulder above Honey Creek”: “The river / / isn’t really a river but a creek / my grown son named as a boy.” The speaker’s past is part of her present—something to hand to us with the benefit of hindsight. Further, the poet sounds for depths not available to the reader, then finds external perspective again to convey what she has discovered. For example, “In the Garden” employs the third person to watch a younger version of the self:
Later there were other men
and the hopes of a young woman
a little older now, a little more equipped,
steadying herself and more sure of her place
in her own life, not counting on
even the sturdiest looking
branch to hold on.
The poet effectively removes us from the scene even as she includes us in its significance. The irony is that, reading this in the Selected, one is already aware that her new confidence has been eroded; the “later” has been superseded by still another “later,” and all the poems are thus tentative, speaking to each other across barriers of time and circumstance.
Stephen Dunn’s observation describes a deliberate reticence, so what is Hollander’s relationship with the reader? First, despite an “I” that is anchored to experience, there’s also an active inner life to deal with. Hollander knows that what she has done is not the whole story. She explores her imagination in such a way that, although readers may identify with such private fantasies, they understand that desire is being opened up as an impetus to self-knowledge, not as a mere vehicle for re-enactment. They trust the poet to create a nebulous context for their shrewd participation. In Landscape with Female Figure, Andrea Hollander demonstrates how to distill emotion: holding back produces a kind of blurred impressionism, while letting in illuminates and clarifies. This is a perfect example of how a Selected can work, and why it can be imperative to look at a poet’s past work to understand—and fully appreciate—the new.
In The Exchange, Sophie Cabot Black presents a speaker for whom words are not sufficient to their task. Sentences break down into fragments. Vocabulary is called into question. Referents dissolve. Speaker and spoken-to merge. White space dominates as meaning spills into its “emptiness.” Nothing matters. Everything matters.
“There is no answer; there was no question”: the reader “overhears” and participates almost by proxy. The subject matter—in this case, the imminent death of a dear friend—shuns audience in favor of private struggle. The poems seem almost to refuse entry as the poet steps back in a desperate effort to find perspective. The only invitation resides in white space, a void made intimate by the stubborn inadequacy of words. Yet, these poems are wrought; they display their craft at every turn. The lines are broken to reveal their multiple possible meanings, the white space employed to bridge gaps between the known and unknown. Even the words that are never said begin to take on weight. So, as in the work of Emily Dickinson, audience is not addressed, but assumed in the poems’ very orchestration.
Telling us that she is facing the work of “the journey of moving toward” (“Atheism”), Black is asserting that this book will be a chronicle of sorts, that she intends to see her friend through each phase of his illness and dying, and, by extension, that she will be recording her own responses. The reader is almost peripheral to the project, as in the opening lines of “Love Poem”:
Which cannot be written tries anyway—
From one room to another, each time startled
And does not want to hear of the already
Passed through, the country of before.
Poem that at each door believes itself
In the room closest to the end
Where finally everything will be gone over,
Dismantled, held up, carefully laid back down
While talked into the beauty which can turn
In a minute. . . .
Almost peripheral, but not quite. There is a presumptive reader hovering in the wings of all these poems—someone who is being forced to share the sensibility of another. “Turning Away,” with its hint of the blank page, gives some sense of how we are to approach the speaker’s involvement:
If I stare long enough
Something begins to move. If I look away, even then
The image refuses to leave; wherever I turn
Always in the middle of all that white.
The exact (confessional) details are withheld: name, time, and town—though all the clues are provided in various ways so that those with even a modicum of prurient interest can read the “biography” into the poems. This might seem precious—a toying with the reader—if not for the fact of the poet’s essential honesty. Black does not spare herself. In exploring an almost-obsessive love, the speaker acknowledges that she wants to be the principal bearer of grief; she does not want to share this with the “others”; further, in “As Disciple,” she admits to a certain self-absorption:
. . . I wanted you
to fill my hands with all you know of me.
Again, the use of direct address shuts out the reader even as the poems really cannot exist without one. In “When It Comes,” an implied “I” insists on being the last person in the room, so to speak: “Whoever remains gets to tell the story // Until it is true.”
But what is the truth of a death? To whom does it belong? The book’s cover displays a sheep, trussed and ready for sacrifice, and what haunts from the outset to the final poem is the story of Abraham and Isaac. Black wrestles with its ambiguities from every angle, pushing the story to its limits, thinking always of the aftermath: how the two return to the world but not necessarily to each other. She looks for, and finds, contemporary examples, but even they are couched in the conditional: “Every time I begin with the story of a man / who is willing to kill his son” (“Analysis”). Black rouses the extended questions: how can a god of any compassion ask a parent to sacrifice his child? How can a parent of any compassion be willing to comply? How can a child trust such a father? If father equals god, how do you test the extent of love, which is somehow different from devotion? The poet, by turning to the familiar, terrifying story, hopes for resolution. What occurs, instead, is the realization that, in her story, one of the two will not return from the mountain.
When neither religion nor poetry satisfies, Black looks through a number of other prisms, seeking a metaphor by which she can come to terms with loss. She turns to language itself. Verbs hint at what is at stake: leaves “turn their backs on us,” a gate “cannot open,” a motel “kneels,” an ocean “beats its head,” and “we enter love . . . pulling the door closed behind us.” Ultimately, this is the story of requited love held at bay, or unrequited love made manifest. The poet admits that, if she could, she would exchange her life for his. Only in the impossibility—“Except I am not him”—does she look outside the parameters of their shared experience. Metaphor per se eludes her, but the vocabulary of finance offers an unusual extended investigation. Capital, leverage, market, equity, real estate, transaction, debt, profit, value, exchange—each is examined in the light of how we measure loss (and gain). By probing language in this manner, Black includes the reader in the pursuit. Her search can only be completed if we engage with and perceive the inherent ironies or obvious amplifications that arise from the particular juxtaposition. This is where public and private meet, where the reading becomes genuinely participatory.
The finality of death—its obdurate silence—is anathema to a person whose inner life is a kaleidoscope of words. “I Have Talked Too Much” voices an essential conundrum as the “I” faces an empty blackboard:
At the end
Only information, no longer in need of a host.
The specifics of Sophie Cabot Black’s self-examination may have made a precision of detachment, but by making her own demanding exchange she leads us back into the poem. The “I” can only give a one-sided story, but the poet can extend the inquiry. The mystery of another life—and how we connect to each other—is at the heart of The Exchange. The book ends with Isaac’s voice as he moves from the central casting of “I” to thinking of himself in second person. Speaking in measured, short syllables, he forces the reader into a tacit partnership:
And here am I
Who withheld nothing. And there the white
Always in the tree. You go
Where you need to go until it does not
Matter. You do not matter. There is
The window. Open. Now go through.
From the book’s inception, these poems were always heading toward loss. By introducing the concept of sacrifice, Sophie Cabot Black adds the element of gain. By sharing in her attention to craft and language, we, too, are able to go through.
Sean Hill’s Dangerous Goods also negotiates a deliberate distance between writer and reader, this time through the use of two vehicles: the postcard and the footnote. Scattered throughout the collection, a number of “postcards” allow writer and reader to meet in the somewhat rarefied realm of idea. Some are written to individuals, some to objects, but most are written to—or from—what can only be called “concepts.” The very natures of regret, listlessness, reconciliation, etc., are rather playfully illuminated. To some extent, the recipient of the “postcard” stands in for the reader (or writer), and the intimacy of communication is established even as it is removed. For example, the book opens with “Postcard to Wrong Address,” which takes up the delineation of the poetic “I”:
Yesterday I was, one place to begin
and Today I saw, another, but I
know I doesn’t matter to you. You
don’t know I or me for that matter.
But you are appropriate—
appropriately unfit like the not it
we sang out in our childhood games.
“Or me for that matter”—and there exists simultaneously a speaker and a person, both of whom occupy the speaking center of the poem. Remember, this postcard is to the wrong address, so the “you” is unknown—and this is a subtle way to move into more personal material while still effectively playing a game with the reader. The childhood games, we later learn, took place in a close-knit black community in central Georgia, and this fact is needed to establish the circumstances that drive Hill’s personal research—and thus the footnotes.
Hill’s use of the footnote is subtle. Not only does a footnote put some (psychic and physical) distance between the poem and its content, it also presupposes a reader who will need the information found there. A footnote includes us in the process and yet reminds that we are extraneous to the impulse. In this case, Hill wants to explore the ways in which he is, or is not, part of society.
One way for him to fix his identity might be to look at the history of his own community. In “Postcard from Reconciliation,” the speaker is spoken to:
You told me your name
rhymes with pawn most places, but sounds
like shone held in the mouths of some
of your friends down South.
The nation is divided in its pronunciations, and even poetic incentive is put in the mouth of a “character” (Reconciliation) who gives voice to motivation: “for fear of being alone, I’m writing . . .” The act itself is company. The poet lets his personal fears in through the back door, so to speak, and the reader’s task is to ferret out their implications.
Some poets are more private than others. Some are more interested in what they have discovered than in what they have done. Some are even more interested in ideas or concepts or opinions than in making their personal lives the basis for authority. Sean Hill fashions a sequence of poems on the establishment of Liberia—an independent country in Africa for those who were “freed after being owned before being born.” Not incidentally, some of the emigrants came from Hill’s hometown of Milledgeville. Following the lives of Sandy Gannoway and Allen Yancy, only two of the approximately 150 people who left central Georgia for Liberia in 1872, Hill provides a wide sweep of history—one that includes Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Daniel Webster, the Temperance Movement, and the American Colonization Society. Facts hover in the wings, allowing him to bring a combination of personal experience and public information to bear on lives he can only imagine.
The poems, freed from their footnoted material, somehow liberate the details they do contain; we delight in learning that the Schieffelin import/export brothers introduced sixty starlings into Central Park because they wanted to bring to the new world every bird mentioned in Shakespeare. The implications are not lost on Hill, for whom the idea of importing—whether people or starlings—has a personal resonance. The fact that Gannoway returned to Georgia in 1874 provokes the book’s central question: “Where does home come from / —the same place as race?”
Race may be a factor in a quest for identity, but Hill’s focus is on the effect of importation; Africans, kudzu, starlings, chemicals, and “killer bees” all become fodder for metaphor. He is no longer “down South,” and if the now-ubiquitous starlings can be seen in his front yard in Bemidji, Minnesota, are he and they not both transplants? How does he become a citizen? “Bemidji Blues” uses rhyme and repetition to turn, and turn again, the question of just where—and who—he is:
Blues here more likely the Nordic-eyes kind
than the blue-black of some Black folk back home.
Here so many lakes reflect the sky’s blue dome;
For the tall man, his blue ox, and now me, home
is Bemidji, though the blues here around
more the cast of a kestrel’s blue-gray crown
than the blue-black of my cousins back home.
The vacillation in “after James Wright” is “between living and looking”—but Sean Hill convinces us that he does both. If Bemidji has become home, the speaker surprises himself, and us, as his research unearths a photograph of three men lynched in Duluth in 1920. That date may now be close to one hundred years ago, but still, a lynching? that late? in the North? There is incontrovertible proof in a photo that was made into a popular postcard, yet Hill puts enough distance between the facts and his emotions that the reader is forced to examine “A Photograph Taken in Duluth” with the same measured assessment as the speaker of the poem. Then Hill moves closer, effectively summoning the reader to enter the scene. Like Yeats in “Easter 1916,” he memorializes the three by giving them their living names: Elias Clayton, Isaac McGhie, Elmer Jackson—three men who came into town with the circus, men whose “bodies violently shook / shuddered, sputtered blood on those close by and came to rest.”
The collection ends with “The Wall,” where the poet voices his lack of position on either side; instead, he calls it a way:
This wall like a blank page
with me standing behind it.
A way in. The “me,” here, positions the writer behind the poem, looking not at, but through it. So be careful. Dangerous Goods really may be a two-way mirror.
Linda Bierds has a poetic stance that is almost unique among contemporary poets. She has elected not to follow in the confessional strain of so many of her peers but instead finds a more sympathetic resonance with the philosophical concerns of the modernists. Except in rare instances, Bierds does not project an “I” that constitutes a “speaker.” Yet the poetic “voice” is hers; the rhythms are hers; the focus is hers; the insight is hers. We experience this voice as a tracking consciousness that might even be called a double vision—or a binary sensibility. A “characteristic” Bierds poem takes as its central character an isolated figure from the past and then explores that life, along with the forces of history brought to bear on it. Bierds does not speak as or for these adopted characters as is usual in a traditional persona poem, but instead fits herself into their circumstances. Because she does prodigious research, Bierds sometimes quotes verbatim, but more often she supplies what can only be called a sensibility. Her challenge is how to move the poem beyond mere biography and, at the same time, make information accessible. Choosing not to rely on footnotes, she carefully imbeds information so that the reader can infer what is needed through context and connotation—and is thus invited to participate in an act of imagination.
Roget’s Illusion, Bierds’s ninth collection, does not focus on a single person so much as it finds similar proclivities in a number of seemingly unrelated historical figures. Scientists, artists, inventors, explorers, writers—Roget, Dürer, Faraday, Pasteur, Audubon, Woolf—these individuals here are representative of their larger communities. In each instance, Bierds looks at moments when the subject’s world opens to reveal small mysteries. The book’s title would suggest Roget as the dominant figure, but what actually governs is his description of an illusion: “how carriage spokes rolling past fence slats / seem to be still, or turning backwards, or, better still / completely gone”—what scientists term “persistence of vision” and which makes motion pictures possible. The poems move from the prehistoric to the present, finding multiple instances of analogous fleeting phenomena. Bierds lines up dualities much the way Roget lined up words, incorporating synonym and antonym in his attempt at making a whole. But in “On Reflection,” Bierds lets Faraday state the obvious: “I will never contain the whole of it.”
At the heart of Roget’s Illusion, however, is a desire to glimpse the possible. As though taking her cue from Roget himself, Bierds makes use of an associative vocabulary and an inquisitive tone that allows her to step seamlessly in and out of other lives and other times. For example, “Navigation” depicts Virginia Woolf wavering between two titles for her book in progress: The Moths or The Waves. “If it is to be The Waves, then . . .” the poem begins, and moves from one choice to the other before opening to a sense of immanence:
And what is that feeling, shaking its wings
within her? Late day, the leaves and bread
and urgency, all the curious carved shapes
treading in place. If she took a step backward,
would they, in an arc, draw nearer, as a ring
might follow its planet? What then
would she make of the world?
Bierds transports us to a place where we are both in the scene and of it. The flickering of a candle—its waves of light, and heat; shadows on the walls of the cave; ring of a waterline left when tide recedes; comet; wave of dust kicked up by an astronaut’s boot; marks of an earlier drawing under a painting; flicker of bombs, thunder of planes; quick flight of swifts as they fill the chimney; flicker of someone appearing in the mirror; flicker of bacilli in the eye of the microscope; flicker of . . .
Bierds catches the ineffable moments of flux and fixes them with such attention to detail and image that the poems bring temporary order out of chaos. The world reveals itself as absence and shape, weightlessness and weight, “there then not.”
Again, Bierds elicits the reader’s involvement as she weaves various connections through the poems. Woolf’s moth is echoed in several other pieces where it repeatedly becomes the central image. Candles are the focus for several of the scientists. Mathematics serves as connective tissue for others. Repetition of image links the creative lives of people over time; within the individual poems, repetition (especially of the anapest) becomes the sound pattern that carries the message. There is a “formal feeling” as lines and phrases circle each other, move from poem to poem. Individual words are given similar treatment, so that such things as “shape” or “glass” or “dust” seem, themselves, to flicker in and out of the reader’s peripheral vision. The reader becomes a not-quite-dispassionate onlooker, an accompanist, expected to move with the moving mind of the poem—as in “1918 Huber Light Four,” where we encounter at a fair a replica of the titular tractor made of twenty polished woods. Each grain shines until
complete combustion, the perfect half-scale whole of it
clean as flames some candles offer.
How can we not recognize the reappearance of “whole” or “candles”? The poems talk across the pages, and this one ends by moving back to Roget and his illusion:
thin strands stretching out from a back-cast rim
to show that a stillness was turning.
Another way Bierds invites participation is via the use of humor. Jokes, like riddles, need someone to complete them. “Accountancy: Dürer in Antwerp” rather playfully (with the use of slash marks) tallies the painter’s days: “this many times have mummers amused me / / / / .” “Flight” is more serious, using two regular ten-line stanzas to explore the way an astronaut’s body can recover from weightlessness-induced atrophy. “Osseous, aqueous, cardiac, hepatic”— the poem opens on the sound of his heart beating and reproduces his devolution toward the embryo and back. For three years, freed from atmosphere, he was “extinct as memory.” The humor comes as he makes his way back into gravity: “I’m gaining ground, he says.”
Roget’s Illusion contains only two poems in which the “I” seems to be firmly rooted in the present, spoken by someone living (like the poet) in the Pacific Northwest, someone looking out her own window, framing her own world. “The Evening Star” begins with the afterimage of a snow-filled mountain, “part half-transparent moth.” Even then, the speaker is borrowing vocabulary from the other poems, conjuring the presences of Kepler and Dürer, invoking a lighthouse in England, until the piece ends back at home—but now located in a place where the speaking “I” has exchanged position with the reader:
The sun just down, the past
just words, and the first starlight so pale
on the dusk, I must turn to catch it peripherally.
The effect is a world of half-hidden congruencies. In Faraday’s notebook, the poet found the phrase “Correlation of the physical forces,” and if the book has a driving impulse, it is most certainly to find, and forge, those correlations. Yet they remain elusive, as when Faraday looks down on a set of “parallel tracks of a sleigh” and, between the tracks, at the horse’s hoofprints in the snow, and muses that
Perhaps there were
two horses, stepping in tandem down the hummock,
one set of hoofprints absorbing the other.
Is anything only what it appears to be? Does the future absorb the past? The questions hover.
Bierds ends the book with “The Shepherd’s Horn,” spoken mostly in the consciousness of Virginia Woolf’s husband, Leonard. The emotions, then, are not precisely hers, but are they his? In the final “scene,” he remembers Virginia:
How she had written The deer exactly match
the bracken. And then they do not.
“And then they do not” does double duty. Is this a continuation of Leonard’s consciousness, or the poet’s own knowledge of camouflage? Probably both. The reader participates by recognizing that Bierds is once again concerned with a fleeting moment of transition. At the poem’s conclusion, the distinction between speaker, spoken of, and reader almost dissolves:
For better or worse, beauty or pity—did he remember?—
how that bounding shape broke free.
Did he remember? To whom is that question addressed? It inhabits a timeless space in which Woolf’s world coincides with the poet’s concerns—and extends to include a reader who must imagine the deer suddenly stepping forth. In the end, the “illusion” seems to be the idea that we can fix anything in words. But words, as Roget’s original Thesaurus would attest, are subtle and flexible; they provide a vehicle by which we can step in and out of alternate worlds. We wonder that we can communicate with each other at all, yet from the evidence in this book, it is clear that spoken (and written) interaction has been one of the great human endeavors. Linda Bierds has been astute enough to catch that impulse in action, and accomplished enough to give it shape and weight and force.
Each of the four poets discussed here veers away from the intense self-questioning of the original Confessionals and, in varying degrees, they also avoid the non-interrogatory storytelling that characterizes the contemporary post-confessional mode. This may be less a deliberate choice than it is part of the poet’s individual sensibility, but there does seem to be a growing movement away from intense personal disclosure in favor of a kind of ritual distancing. When Robert Lowell writes, “I am tired. Everyone’s tired of my turmoil,” he speaks first for himself—his own debilitating frenzies—then asks the reader to become a kind of stand-in speaker, empathizing with the first-person circumstances while simultaneously realizing that they belong to someone else. These four poets begin with the premise that the self does not take center stage, but exists within a larger context. And this changes the way we read a poem. For one thing, there is a different kind of involvement; instead of identification with a “speaker,” readers begin to look for and sense the underlying concerns of the poet—the ideas and explorations behind the poems. It may just be that judicious distance actually makes the poem more personal. The effect is something akin to the experience of the original lyric: “Christ that my love were in my arms” is intensely private and yet so clearly universal.
*An essay-review of
Landscape with Female Figure: New and Selected Poems, 1982–2012. By Andrea Hollander. Pittsburgh: Autumn House Press, 2013. xii. 192 pp. $17.95, paper.
The Exchange. By Sophie Cabot Black. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2013. 77 pp. $15.00, paper.
Dangerous Goods. By Sean Hill. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013. 121 pp. $16.00, paper.
Roget’s Illusion. By Linda Bierds. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2014. xiii. 98 pp. $27.95.