Da Capo al Coda

From the beginning, I knew there could be trouble: a box of cheeky new books on my doorstep, all dressed in their shiny covers, waiting to be read. All week I had been ranting about the contemporary world—its lack of tradition, its misuse of grammar, its insidious technologies. One television ad talked about the motel’s recent “refresh.” I was certain those brash new books would be full of such travesties, and my trusty old dictionary had been published in 1976. The newer dictionary is heavier, taller, three times the volume, and that means I can hardly lift it from the only shelf it fits on. So I stick with the flimsy pages that, for thirty-eight years, have given me most of the words I will ever need. 

Oh, I’m aware that technology has outpaced my old red companion, and that I could just as easily consult online dictionaries. But that would feel strange. When it comes to technology, it’s nice to be able to revise with a simple “cut” and “paste” (I can remember retyping whole pages because of one mistake, usually making another in the process). It’s not so nice to read everyone’s private life spilled out on Facebook as though they were next-door neighbors and we were talking over now-nonexistent clotheslines. Well, then, don’t go on Facebook, you say, and I retort All well and good, but I’ve also encountered some interesting discussions and/or opportunities there. So change is . . . well, change: something we might be cautious of, but also something we need to open ourselves to.

Some people court the new, but for most of us, change requires adjusting over time. For example, in trying to protect its players from injury the NFL has come up with new rules that result in more penalties, more stopping of the game, more frustration for the fans. They’ll probably work out new ways both to protect players and let them play, but that hasn’t happened yet. In soccer, however, using a simple can of foam shaving cream to mark the line where players must stand during a direct free kick has made the game faster and less confrontational. All that jostling, the encroachments, the whistling, the stopping and starting—gone the way of the fast-fading foam. The only problem seems to be where the referees should store the can, and I’m sure that pretty soon their uniforms will sprout a convenient pocket. 

And what does all of this have to do with poetry, aside from the way Ray Hudson, my favorite sportscaster, can say, “There’s been an almighty monkey thrown into the wrench” or “He could make an onion cry”? 

When I spread out the contents of the box, I wondered what organizing principle my editor had used. The answer: they were all by people whose names he did not recognize. A quick glance told me I recognized only a couple—so, did that mean both of us had been settling for the familiar? That it was time to shake us up? Further inspection revealed at least a partial answer. Many of the collections were first books, and all the rest were second ones. We could let ourselves off the hook; how could we be expected to recognize those names? 

Not so fast . . . weren’t we keeping up by reading all the various traditional and online journals that were publishing these poets? No, we weren’t, or not as assiduously as we used to. There are so many people now doing it for us—prominently displaying the daily poem culled from somewhere else, throwing up the hasty review on blogs, proclaiming, propounding, proliferating.

It was clearly time for me to look at work about which I had no preconceptions. I decided to limit myself to first books, and I determined to document the process. What basic observations could I make? To begin with, I was surprised to discover that most of the poets were not as young as I had expected them to be. For years now the seminal age of forty set by Yale has been creeping lower and lower. Maybe that trend is reversing. Next, I found no direct correlation between how much I liked the work and how much I liked the work of the poets who wrote blurbs for the cover jackets. In fact, the opposite almost held true. Blurbs, I’ve decided, mean almost nothing—and their vocabulary is so similar that my old dictionary developed a healthy sneer over the lack of variety.

In general, first books have more individually published poems than subsequent books, and there did seem to be a correlation between the books I selected and prior publication. For the most part, the poems had appeared in good, substantial magazines. I was heartened to see a long list of regulars—Kenyon Review, Gettysburg Review, Missouri Review, AGNI, American Poetry Review, Rattle, Alaska Quarterly Review, New England Review, Crab Creek Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Barrow Street, Poet Lore, and CutBank, to name only a few—along with now-established online journals such as the Cortland Review and the ever-present Verse and Poetry Daily. But does noting external validation say more about me than it does about the poets and their publications? Since I came to that question after the fact, I suspected this was due to my preferences, not my selection process. There’s little I can do beyond trying to keep a semi-open mind.

With relative ease I divided the tall pile in half—those I needed to look at again and those I found nearly unbearable. Just what is “unbearable”? It turns out that I expect poetry to be more than prose with line breaks. More than a “story” with some vague insight tacked on in the final two lines. More than fragment, or odd combinations of words I must struggle to make sense of, and certainly more than trauma—however well dissected—for sensation’s sake. When I cannot hear any “echo” of meter, when there’s no pattern of sound, when the lines clunk along or make me roll my eyes, then I end up shutting the book. 

What other tendencies did I see? Aside from what I somewhat generously think of as an overall “innocence” concerning forms, throughout my original boxful, I encountered an epidemic of surrealism that even now perplexes me. Often, these poets seemed to be trying a bit too hard to see things slant . . . even deformed. In their hands, things do not work the way I expect them to. The world does not fall into place, slightly altered, the way it does in the hands of someone for whom even the surreal image is instinctive. Their gestures feel gratuitous, even learned, and I am left with the impression that many of today’s graduates are trying to manufacture mystery. 

As I began to whittle, I eventually narrowed my pile to the five books (just 12.5 percent of the total) that spoke to me in some way—probably my old ways, but with a new voice. For what it’s worth, I noticed that four of my “top five” books contained three sections (with the occasional prologue or epilogue poem thrown in), and all but one had a section of follow-up “Notes” to explain the sources or references for some of the poems. (The one that didn’t seemed to contain all that information in the poems themselves.)

I also realized that all of my selections were winners of contests, most for first books. Three had been chosen by a distinguished judge and the other two by a group of editors. I usually take no notice of contests, but I have to admit the judges were successful in discovering exciting new work and I applaud the presses that are willing to promote the accomplishments of previously unknown writers. I considered cutting another book to save space, but instead I determined to write shorter, snappier assessments with a focus on aspects of craft that might distinguish these new voices for the future. 

Then, because I hoped to develop an informed discussion, I tried to think of a favorite older poem that combined the real world with its actual mysteries. James Wright’s “To the Muse” came instantly to mind, and serves as an excellent prototype. It opens with simple, declarative sentences:

It is all right. All they do
Is go in by dividing
One rib from another.

Yet the poem undercuts any feeling of assurance. The rest of the first stanza increases the discomfort but does, in the end, reveal that the poet is speaking to an intimate—someone named Jenny the speaker has known over years. By the time Wright says “I lead you back to the world,” the reader is aware that Jenny has drowned. “Three lady doctors in Wheeling open / Their offices at night.” Rhythm—those three iambic ladies—carries the mystery forward. What follows (complete with wire, contraption, needle, tube) is an accurate and detailed description for medically treating a collapsed lung. There is also the mounting sense that this poem matters:

I wish to God I had made this world, this scurvy
And disastrous place. I
Didn’t, I can’t bear it
Either, I don’t blame you, sleeping down there
Face down in the unbelievable silk of spring.

Mutating from “I wouldn’t / Lie to you” to “I would lie to you / If I could,” the poem pivots on contradiction. Of course one suspects suicide (“didn’t” and “either” act as qualifiers). Now the line breaks disrupt the flow of sense; a string of commas replicates the flow of less-rational emotion; internal rhymes (“place” and “face”) catch at the ear; repetitions (“down there” / “face down”) push her further away as the “suckhole” of the second stanza is transformed into the “silk of spring.” Resurrection is only possible in the imagination.

“How can I live without you?” This plea is surely neither surreal nor symbolic. It’s a cry from the heart, but it’s not maudlin, not when it’s followed by “Come up to me, love / Out of the river / Or I will come down to you.” There’s that word “down” again. Because of the poem’s title, we realize that this is actually a subtle statement—that poetry tugs us under, connects us to the past and to each other, reveals the “scurvy” world as something to be wrestled with. By drawing on the world’s intrinsic images, Wright’s poem is an attempt at clarification, not obfuscation. My question becomes rhetorical. Why not strive for such an eloquent, intuitive mystery? 

_____ 

“This is poetry, not just words thrown together, not just ideology and hot button stuff,” says Dorianne Laux of Michael Mlekoday’s The Dead Eat Every Thing, her selection for Kent State’s Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize. The unexpected declares itself early—“you write poems / like they brass knuckles”—but it takes only a second glance at “Self-Portrait with Gunshot Vernacular” to realize that such language is how the poet denotes the raw realities of his old neighborhood, full of the actual juxtapositions that depict life on that side of the tracks. We step into the surprising and nuanced ghetto world of Polish immigrants, a superstitious grandmother, churches and curses and physical violence. 

A progression of other “Self-Portraits” (with subtitles such as “Wearing Bear Skull as Mask,” “July,” “Downtown,” “with Pollination,” “Fat Tuesday,” “with Blight,” “from the Other Side,” “with Power Outage,” “with Big City Religion,” “Wherein Everything Whirrs with the Spirit,” “after Drive-By,” and “Kneeling”) highlights or underscores the sense of then and now as the speaker explores his own background in light of a deliberate “otherness.” Under the mask of a bear, the human body goes through a series of imaginative transformations. “You are . . . you are . . .” on down the page, looking out through strange eyes. The poem ends by bringing a remembered boy back to reality:

but you are still just skull and imagined claw
to the world, just the dumb perfect body
of death. You stopped speaking long ago.
You haven’t eaten yet today,
and the world looks bright as winter.

The world wakes from hibernation. By skirting the perimeters of surrealism, Mlekoday preserves the visual even as he renews language. His cadences provide active energy, so it’s not surprising to discover that he is a Slam champion. So often, the vocal poems of Slam work only on the stage; they fail to persist as poetry on the page. Here, however, the poems incorporate the spoken word rather than rely on it. The long sixteen-section central self-portrait (“with Blight”) rollicks and repeats its way toward its final “Amen.” The s and r richness of one short segment demonstrates how written words might be doubly effective as they “flash” in performance:

When I was growing up, I thought
it was normal for police searchlights
to shine into apartment windows
every once in a while. A natural
cycle of nights. The way the moon
reflects in every river, makes itself big
before recoiling. They snaked across walls,
reshaped the shadows. Never any news
of what they were looking for, what they found.
Just the lights and then dark. Lights and then dark.
Lights and then dark.

If sound dominates this book, it is sound less in service of elegy than of reincarnation. In the third section, the dead materialize to make a claim on the past. Dogs still roam, the father still lies dying, Baba is “still bootlegging white lightning / nightly,” gunshots make their brushfire noises—such references haunt the old streets even as they define the meaning of “home.” Everything—every thing—is brought to bear on retrieving identity. Follow the intricate vestiges of device and craft into the tunnel of self: “Become the bridge / falling into the water.” “I, river, everything becomes me,” the speaker asserts in “Flood,” and then reiterates

               I, river, I,
I, I, I.
              My name
floods
              away from me.
I raise my feet to the table.
I listen to traffic and rain

and my pulse is both.

Michael Mlekoday has that rare voice that crosses the boundaries between public and private performance, and in “Maker” he explores the physical nature of those borders: 

Without mouth, the body is 
a closed circuit. Without 
meat, I eat only microphone 

& make 
                only sad boom bap 
-less sex.

 

The third, and final, section of The Dead Eat Every Thing begins to sound like an extended prayer, but its language is as lively as imprecation. Even as it is having fun with oddball adjectives and crazy combinations, it insists on being taken seriously. I believe this poet when he declares, “The halo is more / hard hat than headrest. Do not tell me / to rest in peace.” 

“Thaumaturgy” records, “I’ve never / seen the ocean” and Mlekoday’s online academic biography states, “He has never seen the ocean,” yet I take in the fact that this poet has seen “a bloodstain shaped like a wave.” Without skipping a beat, his ocean and mine are one. I predict that we’ll hear much more from Michael Mlekoday as he finds his way through the maze of possible directions his work could take. I hope he will not stray too far from this passionate spirit that engages ear, eye, mind, and heart. 

_____

If my perception is correct that recent first books are now less the province of the very young writer, then I should not be surprised that the content of first books has shifted to reflect the various concerns of adulthood: marriage, children, divorce, aging, etc. Kerrin McCadden’s Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes was selected for the New Issues Poetry Prize by David St. John, who calls the book “mature and tender.” The ubiquitous black plywood silhouettes found throughout New England might well be stand-ins for true-life experience, and are certainly substitutes for the various town characters McCadden includes in her register, giving them voice and/or finding insight into their circumstance and outlook. The silhouettes have been courting for years, he leaning against the trailer and she under the apple tree. They look sidelong at each other, carrying on their imaginary conversations. Aside from the fun the poet is having, there’s a basic human lesson built into their condition:

                                               They dream and dream, notwithstanding
the way the layers of plywood have gapped in the weather
over the years since they began trying to bridge the void
inside their outlines, which is all we are ever able to do.

McCadden divulges her core concerns in a series of titles: “How to Miss a Man,” “How to Say Goodbye,” “Love Poem Not for a Husband,” “Once, I Was Not Lonely,” and “Apology, Its Absence.” The list almost tells its own story, but each of these poems contains more surprise than confirmation. Throughout, the speaker measures emotion in units of geography: “This is the kind of island I was,” and “Here is the acre after the string of words and before / the reply.” “The Death of the Reader” unfolds with a variety of reasons the speaker can no longer read, mostly due to the demise of “the forty / open acres of marriage.” We do not need long to recognize the landscape of loss, but in McCadden’s hands loss is less primary focus than background, woven through daily sights and sounds, children and chores and choices. In “What I Said to the Night,” the speaker delineates the lonely plight of the single mother:

I walked upstairs, downstairs. I made myself

busy with Christmas, with a nap. I made
overtures to the night. I stood on the back
deck & threw my palms up in the cold.

Line breaks emphasize meaning here. “I made myself,” she announces; i.e., this is my doing. “Made / back / cold.” Winter creeps everywhere in the periphery.

Repetition belongs to McCadden as much as to Mlekoday, but hers is more a tangle of sentiment. “Here . . . here . . . here . . . or . . . or . . . or . . .”—the variations play themselves out against each other as the poet tries on alternatives, dresses up in different lives, thinks her way into might-haves and might-bes. In “How to Miss a Man,” the poet fashions an intricate scaffolding for argument: “Breathing is just a rhythm. Tell yourself this. . . .” Then, later, “Also, breathe. It is a rhythm. Walk / around the block. . . .” And later: “Your feet will take you. They can. If you listen / / they are a rhythm also. . . .” Even later: “Hold. Breathe. / / Hold. Breathe. Like that, like you are swimming . . .”—right up to her finale:

                                                                                                         You can draw two
lines on a graph that can never touch. This is what you are building.

“Ante Up” raises issues of parallel lives, of what she would give up: books, but not letters; the farm, but “not the paths / / worn into the fields.” More:

I would give up all the lakesides, but not the late afternoons.
The dusk sky, even, but not the swallows. The front and back door,
but not the neighbors. The map, but not the way here.

Here is an emotional terrain that McCadden mines with facility. The material may be fraught, but these poems are shaped and refined. A quibble: more than once, I felt as though the poem had ended only to find another line or two. McCadden’s strength is the stanza; she finds novel ways to organize and orchestrate so that we are not privy to spontaneous personal anguish but to the idea of anguish and how it can be added to the vocabulary. This is most evident in the middle section of “Insomnia,” where words themselves soothe and console: 

When the body is sleeping, there is sift, shuttle, meter. Shift,
treadle, metronome. Lift, settle, measure.

Sift/shift/lift combines with the voluble movement of the loom (shuttle/treadle/settle), and those sounds, in turn, remind us that poetry—meter/metronome/measure—offers a way to make sense through music and craft. I prefer this subtle suggestion to her more overt poems about poetry. I look forward to following Kerrin McCadden into new territory. We can rely on her for more than a rendition of life experience; we can count on her to create a reflective world for us to enter. 

_____

David Koehn’s Twine, selected by Jeff Friedman, won the May Sarton Poetry Prize, and Bauhan Publishing has done a beautiful production which highlights the more formal poems in the collection. Sestina, villanelle, sonnet, terza rima—Koehn has mastered them all, and then he’s concocted unique variations that provide a charge of energy. It’s almost as if he had taken a guide to poetic terms and experimented with every entry. He also finds ways to incorporate words that my poor dictionary has held its tongue over. “Camphorous,” “mycelium,” “globuliformis,” “hemimetabolous,” “scuppernong,” “thalassic,” “mirroneurons,” “pantagruelists,” “dithyrambic”: these spicy tongue-twisters add vim and vigor as they force the reader to “Jam / tongue into syllables.” There is no doubt in my mind that Koehn could take on any poetic task—anyone who employs the backward rhyme of “risen” and “resin” has my admiration—so my only question is . . . what is his underlying question?

It’s abundantly clear that David Koehn is fascinated by scientific phenomena. In addition, he loves detail: stanzas filled with movie lore, including names, dates, every other kind of specific; lines full of statistics; a plethora of things such as Red Man tobacco, Royal Crown Cola, hula-hoops, cisterns, raspberries, mannequins, mayflies, the Delta flight from Cincinnati. A glance at some of the titles—“The Taxi Driver,” “Swimming Laps at High Altitude,” “The Attempted Assassination of Jules Verne,” “The Graffiti Artist Settles in the Eskimo Village,” “Shopping at Williams-Sonoma,” and “Communications in Accordance with Article 5, Paragraph 1 of the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts, and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space Partial Pantoum”—shows such a wide range of subject matter that diversity itself seems to be the glue holding the book together. The contemporary “ringtone” is as endangered as the nearly-extinct lunch tins, clothespin bags, and VHF antennae. Often a moment is “defined by what it is not.” We are forced to look at each poem individually; each plays out on its own terms, and so often the terms are illuminated—and complicated—by invention. 

Koehn repeatedly distills the particulars of some moment. For example, “Cottage at Red Bluff” locates itself in the title, then locks in detail through intricate slant rhyme:

A picket fence, a white border, its shale steeps
Wind-whipped with mosquito husks. Askew, stairs step

Down to a beach of layered scales, the revenge
Of wave-packed shale, its beveled rock avenged

By mendicant winds thwacking the cottage’s shutters
A lopsided shipwreck of picnic, fire, and weather.

The rain’s squall line, a distant ghost net. Clank
Go the close-enough horseshoes. “Close enough,” we say,

“That is close enough.” Against the wave-worn veneer,
Parched on the edge of the water’s memory,

The abandoned plow on the beach, figurehead, prow,
Grandfather’s wake, spinning in the undertow.

Internal rhyme—shale/scales; whipped/ship; packed/thwacking/wreck/wake—is further reinforced by alliteration and assonance. Somehow this poem becomes all the more personal as we watch the poet at play, working his words. “Parched” suggests “perched” (probably because of the word “edge”) even as it harks back to water; water’s memory (and we do believe it has one) thus holds thirst along with the sense of several generations who have loved this place. 

The opening of “The Windmills of Altamont Pass” generates the whirling blades of repetition. The cyclical internal markers give the poem intellectual force:

The hills are the hulls of upside-down boats;
The rotations sprinkler the vineyard:

Herb garden, wine press, fishbones.
Canary date palms spread like an idea of

The rotations: Sprinkler. The vineyard’s
Tractor tires, now gardens, now sandboxes.

After thirteen such couplets, the poem again situates itself with its title for a closing tercet, reminiscent of the way a sestina gathers its end words or a villanelle marshals its potent lines:

The hills are the hulls of upside-down boats:
The windmills of Altamont Pass.
Herb garden, wine press, fishbones.

Poem after poem provides this kind of ingenious pleasure. We cross the threshold of a finely drawn personal world, colored by intense observation, and often underscored through levity. Endings allow Koehn to leave us shaking our heads: of a girl in white skates, “The strings of crystal lace, the thread of & and &”; of a suitcase with thirty-five cubic feet of space, “enough for any life.” 

Twine is an extremely accomplished first book. The ending of “The Aquarium at the Potluck” could serve as an ars poetica:

A shadow of light passes through the room like a shark. 
What is it that brings us together, and keeps us apart? 
What holds us in our frame, suspended? What art?”

I have to admit to being more smitten with the formal distances of the book’s first section. In the absence of a strong narrative thread, and in the presence of such density, I suspect the collection is probably just a little bit too long, maybe too much of a good thing. Shaping the whole as meticulously as the individual poems would have resulted in something even more impressive, but if David Koehn continues to give us this blend of the formal and the idiosyncratic, it won’t be long before readers of poetry easily recognize his name. 

_____

Winner of the Cider Press Review’s Editors’ Prize, Laura Donnelly’s Watershed quickly establishes itself as proficient. Craft, here, is more often than not found in its rhythms. I use the plural because there are two types of rhythm here. One is meter—the poetry flows with subtly accentuated beats. The other is the interrupted rhythm of thought—each poem builds its separate trajectory in order to follow its own deliberative process. Each is thus “personalized” by an interior voice as the two rhythms combine to establish what might be termed its “individuality.” The cadences of the spoken word leap off the page, and reading them becomes a kind of conversation.

Watershed begins with “Anamnesis,” a litany of what the speaker is “not forgetting”: swing set, fireflies, dance, fireworks, junior high—right up to “Not forgetting even our not-knowing.” From the outset, imperfect knowledge becomes an issue, and the speaker questions not only her own experiences but those of others as well. So much needs to be qualified; she retracts or corrects, equivocates, pauses to change direction, comments on her very hesitations—and all of this is in pursuit of a delicate precision, not of detail but of distinction. For Donnelly, nuance is accuracy. In “Letter from Stonington,” it matters whether a boat is called Hermitage or Heritage; it is important to know, even if one is not willing to say:

We fought on our way to the island.
             I don’t recall why, or I do 

now, something about motorcycles
             and death, but it doesn’t 

bear repeating.

This same tendency toward exactitude can be seen in the proliferation of qualifying phrases (“of course,” “but that isn’t it,” “as if”), and it’s also the source of self-interrogation in the form of clarifying questions. The reader is taken into the mind at work so that any observation about music, or painting, or even family, is really an exploration of the self.

The concept of “flickering” becomes a guiding principle. Thinking about Malevich’s painting of the knife-grinder, Donnelly applies his theories of movement to all of life. Everything is in motion, even the still life that can be animated, a bit like a flip-book cartoon. Even the human relationships that made Bonnard turn his wife’s head to allow her some privacy. Even the music—Casals playing Bach—where the notes “wait always / for someone to touch them again, for that / / same, not-quite-same-again flight—.” (This unexpected insight may be the best definition of “interpretation” I have ever encountered.) Later in the book, Donnelly returns to music, realizing that “scale after skeleton scale” can only approximate the “flesh” of the piece and might actually get in the way of what was heard. 

Endings may be Donnelly’s strength. If so, it’s because she earns them by building an intricate edifice of reflection that leads to their surprising truths. Sometimes the “I” at the end is an accumulated personality; sometimes the “I” is introduced to underscore the fact that there is an exterior sensibility paying its own attention to the poem’s underlying meanings. To quote endings might imply her way of “wrapping up,” but really her closures confirm and reconnect. They also surprise:

World no longer flat, I’ve seen how the wind blowing
one direction comes back to haunt from another.
                                                                                           (“Saint Reparata”)

And confront:

    Irresponsible want.
Irresistible spring that cares
nothing for what we have done,
what it does in return.
                                           (“Watershed”)

And extend:

It will shatter
if you walk through, someone warns.
It would shatter if I didn’t.
                                                  (“Once, in the door of”)

If anything, Watershed may be too short. Family members “flicker” in and out of the poems; even the works that are ostensibly about art or music often have familial underpinnings. Lost father, estranged brother, scientific mother, the lover who helps shape the speaker’s thoughts: they hover at the edges, broken into stilled components like the paintings Donnelly describes. They whet the appetite.

There are other issues left mostly to the reader’s imagination: childlessness, anger, absence, the singular poetic “O” of longing. Often, we are granted only the “meanwhiles”—the interstices that give the poems their latent energy. Laura Donnelly has such a sure way with orchestration that I believe she might well pursue the “nots” at the center of her work. Further exploration might satisfy some of the reader’s natural curiosity without destroying the elusive quality that lends tact and grace to this endeavor—and beyond grace, honesty. In “Possum,” Donnelly’s correctness in describing late spring in upstate New York makes her description of the animal that will come pressing its nose at the sliding glass door all the more convincing. Her realistic conclusion is yet another dimension in her inventory of negative capabilities:

                             But we take it
for what it is—not omen.

Watershed just may serve as a watershed. Or as a genuine omen. Laura Donnelly has waited long enough for this first collection that it has arrived with all the accomplishment of a later book. Her voice feels instantly necessary, even compulsory.

_____

Keeper, by Kasey Jueds, opens with a poem that deserves to be seen in its entirety:

First dark, then more dark
smoothed down over it.

First sleep, then eyes
open to the ceiling
where something circles. For a moment
you can’t name it. And for a moment

you’re not afraid. Remember

Blake’s angels, how they leaned
toward each other, and balanced
by touching only the tips of their wings?
Between their bodies, a space

like the one just after rain begins, when rain
isn’t rain, but the smell 
of dust lifted, something silent and clean.

Spare and elegant, a bit like a Zen garden, the lines circle and balance as the poem proceeds to open the world—that distinct smell that is rain, that knowledge of what rain can sometimes be. So it comes as no surprise to me that the University of Pittsburgh Press selected this book for the prestigious Agnes Lynch Starrett Award. This debut collection is nearly perfect—measured, never pretending to ask more than it can deliver, and yet producing poem after proportional poem with a satisfying precision. “Balance” might be the exact word to express what Jueds is striving for. Typically her poems advance by association, then take a small sidestep (often over an enjambed stanza break) and go on, creating a sense of the inevitable. 

Enjambment may be Kasey Jueds’s most effective tool. In her hands, words blink on, assert their multiple meanings, thrust the poem forward, twist back on themselves, hold the poem hostage to nuance. Oddly, though enjambment usually allows for a kind of syncopation, here it seems to smooth the rhythms in such a way that meaning is elucidated and intensified. Along with varied lines, each adjective, each simile is—and this is the best word I can find—fitting. And yet each adjective, each simile seems unique, even matchless: the “train’s brief scribble of smoke”; the “winter-polished” fields of Wisconsin; even the mine pit’s “extravagant black.” 

In fact, Jueds explores darkness—its condition—from more angles than would seem possible. For example, in “A Kind of Vanishing” the inside of a tin mailbox is compared to the total darkness of an abandoned silver mine, but all of this is in service of an imagined envelope: “How perfect the things / we are not meant to see.” But the poet also touches on the things meant to be seen, as in “The Sleeping Gypsy” where she looks hard at the dark night of Rousseau’s painting, noting the wind in the lion’s mane, the lack of wind on the sleeper’s robe. At this point, she eschews description in favor of poetry’s other upshot: “Let him be touched. / Let him sense breath, wind, / another, wilder body’s tide.” 

Kasey Jueds has an uncanny sense of the way things are of a piece—even the absences: those hollow birds’ bones with an “emptiness at the center that lets them fly.” Uncanny, too, the places where Keeper intersects with Laura Donnelly’s Watershed. There’s the same focus on music, art, and swimming, the same basic images (swings, parallel tracks, even the same painting by Bonnard, though Jueds has her focus on the model, not the painter). Scattered throughout the book, related poems on the names of flowers, the habits of birds, cave paintings, the human/seal selkies of Scots and Irish lore, dead animals, shark and skin and blood—all do double duty, reinforcing each other even as they launch ideas in new directions. 

Knitting, for example, becomes a central metaphor; Jueds not only looks at the “wrong” side of a Fair Isles sweater or the particular cable pattern that allows the body of a drowned fisherman to be identified, she also thinks about the ball of yarn, the raw material. “You start / to see how it’s made,” the speaker notes, and yes, you begin to see the poem’s inner workings. The opening lines of “Secondhand Dress” demonstrate one of Jueds’s devices; the writing is lucid and lively as, letting one word or idea slip into (or inside) the next, she creates a seamless knit and purl of her own:

Somewhere between
blue and silver
color that asks
nothing in return
that returns
nothing you know
not river not windows not swallows’
tilting flight

Over and over, Jueds creates the circumstance of waiting, body and mind on alert as the poem hovers in the conditional. This poet is searching for sources. Origin. Root cause. Foundation. The opening lines of “The Selkie Returns to the Sea” articulate both impetus and method:

I used to think my longing had an end.
I dreamed the sea so many years, the sea
became a dream.

To this end, Jueds tackles everything with a strong, sure intelligence, unravelling the “reverse sides” in order to see how the world works. There’s more to it, though, as the speaker interacts with the very world she has laid bare. Near the end of the title poem, she gives voice to her ambivalence, and its accompanying conflict:

               . . . everything is something
I tried to keep, and
couldn’t, and can’t,
and won’t, and won’t
stop trying

You can almost hear the catch in the throat, the desire to hold on to the “everything” of experience. But, the speaker in “Mackerel Sky” insists, “Seems we can only look / a little at a time.” This outstanding collection is the result of that careful, microscopic looking, and from the attention this poet has paid to her sinuous craft. Kasey Jueds is a keeper.

_____

Coda:

I took a look at some online commentary on Wright’s “To the Muse” and found myself appalled. So many assumptions. Such glib assertions. If we are going to expect our poets to have some sense of tradition and ask that they bring their own form of music to their task, then we must demand something of readers as well. 

To my knowledge, Wright never had a wife named Jenny, no wife who died of breast cancer; the procedure described in the poem is certainly not an abortion; this poem is not about Adam and Eve; James Wright did not commit suicide; there were nine muses, not three; and the doctors can remain doctors. Even the myth of Orpheus does not really apply (though it may hover as a kind of “ghost”). 

Where do all these “critical” assertions come from? Most of these “readings” would (I hope, even today) never be accepted by any creditable journal—and this is important to note if we are going to maintain anything that even resembles critical standards. Those standards get lost, too, as many journals print criticism so full of theory that the poems vanish in the process. My recommendation: a good dollop of common sense—and, if we want to toss around “facts,” a bit of fact-checking.

Simple use of the web would have provided those self-proclaimed critics with some accurate information. Yes, the poem mentions ribs, breast, snake, doctors, river, night—but they have a context that needs to be considered. “To the Muse” adds itself to a long list of works Wright wrote for or about the disenfranchised, the forgotten, the poor and unwanted. It is not about him, except in his ability to identify and empathize and grieve. The grief is both personal and general—and that is an important distinction.

Readers do not have to know Wright’s biography, but they cannot—should not—simply reach into their meager bags of personal associations. They need to know some basic facts of the world, need to note the emotional tenor of the poem, and . . . something else: they need to see how poetic craft shapes meaning, need to pay attention to stanzaic structure, to line breaks, to periods and commas and repetitions—and to sound. The unmistakably emphasized “do” and “you” of Wright’s earlier stanzas gives over to the long o of “alone” and “know” before the poem returns to a final “you” (the “muse”—whose vowel sound makes for further connection). The word “alone” appears twice—once at the end of a line, once on a line by itself—reinforcing the finality of death, its singularity. Poet and subject: each is alone, and the divide cannot be bridged except by the poem. 

So, readers and would-be reviewers—please, oh please, honor what a poet has actually accomplished. Honor the mysteries uncovered and explored. Speak a little tentatively. Do not indulge in easy conclusions that are merely surreal in their own right. Let language lead you by going where it has to go.

 

_____
Judith Kitchen died on 6 November 2014 shortly after completing work on this essay-review.

*An essay-review of

The Dead Eat Every Thing. By Michael Mlekoday. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2014. 72 pp. $15.00, paper.

Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes. By Kerrin McCadden. Kalamazoo, MI: New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2014. 84 pp. $15.00, paper.

Twine. By David Koehn. Peterborough, NH: Bauhan Publishing, 2014. 112 pp. $16.50, paper.

Watershed. By Laura Donnelly. San Diego: Cider Press Review, 2014. 75 pp. $17.95, paper.

Keeper. By Kasey Jueds. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014. 88 pp. $15.95, paper.

 

Judith Kitchen passed away on 6 November 2014, just days after completing work on the essay-review in Spring 2015 Georgia Review. The contributor’s note she supplied read as follows: “Judith Kitchen has three new forthcoming essays—in the Harvard Review, Great River Review, and River Teeth. Her most recent book, The Circus Train, was the lead publication in a new venture—Ovenbird Books, at ovenbirdbooks.org.” To that we respectfully add this brief overview of her writing and teaching career: Kitchen began as a poet, publishing the volume Perennials as the winner of the 1985 Anhinga Press Poetry Prize. She then shifted to prose writing of several sorts, with emphases on essays and reviews. Her four essay volumes are Only the Dance: Essays on Time and Memory (University of South Carolina Press, 1994); Distance and Direction (Graywolf Press, 2002); Half in Shade: Family, Photographs, and Fate (Coffee House Press, 2012); and The Circus Train (Ovenbird Books, 2013)—which appeared first, almost in its entirety, in the Summer 2013 issue of The Georgia Review. In 1998 Kitchen published a critical study, Writing the World: Understanding William Stafford (University of Oregon Press), and in 2002 a novel, The House on Eccles Road (Graywolf Press). She also conceived and edited three important collections of brief nonfiction pieces, all published by W. W. Norton: In Short (1996), In Brief (1999), and Short Takes (2005)—the first two coedited by Mary Paumier Jones. Kitchen also founded State Street Press in the early 1980s, bringing out over the next twenty years seventy-six poetry chapbooks, two pamphlets, five full-length poetry volumes, two collections of translations, and a poetry anthology—the State Street Reader. After teaching for many years at SUNY-Brockport—not all that far from her birthplace of Painted Post, NY—Judith retired and moved with her husband Stan Sanvel Rubin to Port Townsend, WA, from which they founded and co-directed for a decade the Rainier Writing Workshop low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. The collection What Persists Selected Essays on Poetry from The Georgia Review, 1988–2014 was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2015.