by Stephen Kampa
Emily Leithauser’s poems forgo histrionics. With their careful, muted tones and measured progress toward quiet conclusions, they might seem too modest were it not for the soft-spoken brutality underlying some of them. In “Undertow,” a speaker responsible for a younger swimmer considers options:
I tell you that I’ll steer us through,
but something pulls and I release
your palm from mine, letting the current
comb and choke your little ribs
for half a second. Then I decide
to tug you up and lead us home.
Granted, it’s half a second, but it’s the half a second most of us would prefer to forget. The preponderance of monosyllables and the tetrameter lend a certain childish, nursery-rhyme quality to these lines, but the verb “decide” is all grown up and frighteningly precise. It makes what might have been an anecdote about a startling day at the beach a moral assertion: to decide is to admit the possibility of having decided something else, something much darker than the language of the poem would otherwise suggest.
The title of Leithauser’s debut collection makes clear her themes: The Borrowed World acknowledges the world as an inheritance (that it is borrowed means that it has belonged, and perhaps still belongs, to someone else), and a contingent one (that it is borrowed means eventually we will have to give it back). The question of borrowing must be especially urgent for a writer who has two writers for parents, a fact Leithauser does not shy from in her acknowledgments. Faced with such predecessors, a poet has two options: to pretend as though she has sprung fully formed from some Greek egg or to accept her indebtedness and brave forward. Wisely, Leithauser chooses the latter, and her poems—though at times perhaps tonally or formally reminiscent of the work of Brad Leithauser or Mary Jo Salter (and how could they not be?)—achieve their own successes on their own terms.
The poems are richest in their wisdom about relationships, and if it seems as though the bulk of the book concerns familial grief or gratitude and a certain romantic restlessness, I see no problem: most of our lives are concerned with these very things. Leithauser can be unsparing: looking through photographs in “Haiku for a Divorce,” she sees her parents in Tokyo, “such tourists / in marriage,” and one senses in that phrase both her recognition of their newlywed naïveté and her rage at dissolution. In “Jacket,” she considers the implications of the look—in more than one sense—of her mother in a dust jacket photo.
. . . My mother
has duly mastered
without a fuss.
a vision on
a book I browse
and almost buy.
The phrase “almost buy” surely pertains not only to the book, but also to the vision. Elsewhere, she remembers an unidentified “you / telling me a riddle” and imagines
. . . we’d had a child
who waits to hear the answer,
who finds a good excuse
not to play close to me
until I’m of some use.
Those final lines are both canny and un-, making of the paradigm of innocence—a playing child—a study in pragmatism.
Formally speaking, there are few surprises here—although “My Mother’s Riddle” rhymes anagrammatically to dazzling effect (“amend” and “named” is the big payoff)—but Leithauser’s poems do not aim for the surprise of novelty; they aim for the surprise of perfection. When she finishes a poem by rhyming cemetery and hard to carry, one thinks, “Exactly so.” When she writes, “These past three days I’ve missed you comically,” one thinks, “Comically? Of course!” If I wished on occasion that Leithauser would let a poem off its leash, I came back to the final lines of “Instinct,” a poem in which the speaker prepares herself to crush the skull of a suffering animal but can’t find the animal after arming herself with a rock:
I place the rock back in my purse.
It’s for the best—
this instinct teased,
and put to rest.
* * *
Emblems of the Passing World, Adam Kirsch’s third books of poems, is puzzling and brilliant. The primary virtue of the poetry is balance, a balance evident in the forms, syntax, and conceptual binaries mentioned in Kirsch’s intelligent introduction (which include “tradition and modernity, liberalism and reaction, rich and poor, bourgeois and proletarian, left and right”). Most of the poems consist of quatrains or couplets, formal embodiments inviting parallelism and antithesis. (Rhyme schemes make this clear even when there are no stanza breaks.) Strangely, this balance often does not inflect the peculiar tone of judgment that colors the book: whenever Kirsch looks at one of August Sander’s striking black-and-white “photographic portraits of ordinary people in Weimar Germany,” as the dust jacket has it, you can be almost certain he is going to invoke the perpetuation of poverty, the impending atrocities of war, or the futility of human endeavor in light of death. One grows hungry for hope.
Perhaps the tone of judgment is simply a natural byproduct of such sustained scrutiny of the photographs; perhaps it is an inheritance from such a book’s obvious predecessors, emblem books, which were explicitly moral. In any case, when Kirsch looks at these photographs, he sees the seeds of monstrosity. In “Laboratory Technician” (the poems all take their titles from a corresponding Sander portrait), the technician is described in a way “we all know from TV / Stands for the scientific rectitude / Of men who wear white coats,” but Kirsch goes on to compare him to
. . . common laborers whose time
Gets spent on tasks whose purpose isn’t known,
Himself an apparatus to be tossed
Aside when broken or grown obsolete,
His honor and reward to have been used
Without inquiring for whose benefit.
The word “inquiring” arrives as the crack of a gavel. It isn’t that the technician has been lied to, thwarted, or compromised; it isn’t that he has misunderstood his role or held out an absurd hope that his work might yet come to good; it’s that he hasn’t bothered to ask about it. I don’t dispute that this can be the case, but when a poet makes the choice to imagine just this case in portrait after portrait, one wonders. The look of a middle-class couple is commendable for being “so conscious of its wrong,” a schoolteacher’s face is “the face the world will always show / To those whose destiny it is to serve, / Frowning as it prepares to deal a blow,” a fraternity student’s curriculum consists of “Keeping quiet, following commands, / Stopping at nothing, knowing how to bleed.” “Farm Woman and Her Children” presents an infant as learning an “aggressively erect salute,” though not until he is “nine or ten”:
Nothing can hope to undermine, till then,
His confidence that she’ll protect him from
The monster he is going to become.
In terms of style, Kirsch favors a solidly iambic line, usually pentameter, with the sort of poise and balance more typical of the Augustan era. The last few lines of “Revolutionaries” show him at his stylistic best:
To which the future genuflects will bear
These faces, so intelligently stern,
Under whose revolutionary stare
Everything that is burnable must burn.
It isn’t only the repetition of a long polysyllabic word followed immediately by a monosyllabic one in the antepenultimate and penultimate lines, nor the repetition of –gen– in “genuflects” and “intelligently,” nor even the dazzling declension of bear/stern/stare/burn in which rhyme words trade initial consonants, creating an abab rhyme scheme and an abba alliterative pattern; it is also the balance-and-imbalance of the final line, with burnable being reduced—as though destroyed—to burn.
Kirsch is a poet of great technical finesse and massive intellect, and it’s not that this quarrelsome book of emblems is completely devoid of hope— indeed, in the last poem, Kirsch imagines that Sanders himself “agrees / A man cannot be known by how he looks, / Only by the infinity he sees”—but moral books invite moral assessments. I will return to these poems, but I trust that in future readings I will be struck by something other than what strikes me now: it is a peculiar omission to gaze so long at so many human faces and fail to imagine that more than a few could be happy or good.
* * *
A book that begins with an epigraph about the etymology of the word “cannibal” is a book I want to like, so I’m disappointed I don’t like Safiya Sinclair’s debut collection.
Cannibal is a study in phrase-making at the expense of syntax. Whole stanzas go by without a real sentence—Sinclair relies to an irritating extent on fragments—and there are passages so overwritten I feel embarrassed:
Let me have it. This maidenhead-primeval
schemes what ovule of cruel invention;
the Venus-trap, the menses.
And how many ways to announce this guilt: whore’s nest
of ague, supernova, wild stigmata.
Womb. I boast a vogue sacrosanctum. Engorging
shored pornographies . . .
Syntax poses serious problems of interpretation throughout, and at times I suspected Sinclair of jamming phrases or clauses together without regard to their syntactic relationship: she writes, “Circumstance has made us strangers here, / wild dance we are slowly forgetting; what home.” For what is “wild dance” an appositive? Circumstance? Strangers? The home strangely tacked on after a semi-colon? Something that doesn’t appear in the sentence? Or is it not an appositive at all and merely an ungrammatical appendage? Such examples abound.
In some places, syntactic infelicities become so pronounced they simply look like errors:
Still I am resolved to come friendly, built
and nested my cowboy greeting, torched it out
into this world and watched it choke
soundless, die with my good foot caught
in their blue hydrangeas.
Even in colloquial speech where one begins a story in the present tense for immediacy and switches to the past, it typically doesn’t happen in the same sentence (and then back again); this sentence just looks like an example of inconsistency of tense. In another poem, Sinclair writes, “Fall, I am coughing / in the aisles again, where bare triage of voices pour / molasses in my ear,” and I have a hard time hearing “bare triage of voices pour” as anything but a subject-verb agreement problem since, technically, “triage” should be the subject of the verb “pour[s]”—albeit even if the subject and verb agreed, I’m still not sure I would know what it means.
It’s not that there are no fine moments here, but as soon as Sinclair writes one, she undercuts it. In “After the Last Astronauts Had Left Us, I” she writes, “Back then we passed one sweaty dream back and forth / between us like a hot bowl,” and I appreciate both the pain of the image— the bowl too hot to hold—and the implication that whatever is in it might be nourishing; yet the next sentence does away with implication (“It could have been hope”), and soon Sinclair is writing, “Here in our sea village / the whole world swam drunk in the pool of my navel,” and I can’t help but notice she has managed to fit the whole world into her navel and is now gazing at it. Another poem begins, “I waited only a decade / for the package to arrive,” a package the speaker is sure holds “the cure / for all things,” a package that says “Do not open.” Here is how the poem ends:
I awoke to find it hatched
like the cleanest egg, polished steel and glass
alive in my bed. The machine was small
and simple the way my life is small and simple:
only seeming, or aching for itself to unmatter,
to shatter at the heel of greater things.
The last two lines ruin it. Had the poem ended with the preceding couplet, it would have ended in a strange, evocative, perhaps even frightening place; instead, poetry has been defeated at the hands—or heel—of commentary.
To cavil about matters of grammar or accuse a writer of anticlimactic moments in poems praised for possessing “a new music that is as brutal as it is beautiful” feels unkind, as though I were impugning a singer’s passionate performance by pointing out half the notes were flat. I recall, however, lines from William Matthews’s “A Night at the Opera”:
They have to hit the note
and the emotion, both, with the one poor
arrow of the voice. Beauty’s for amateurs.
Sinclair is no amateur; still, too many notes here fall flat.
* * *
Pleasures of the Game, Austin Allen’s first collection, is a cabinet of quirks. Comprising four sections, each of which takes its title from a quatrain from The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, it is artistically coherent, technically accomplished, and intellectually satisfying. I envy both its whimsy and its wisdom. I’m quite sure I haven’t heard the last of Austin Allen.
The book’s superb first section, “The Games We Made,” includes among others a poem about a childhood job as a little league umpire, an ode to a Connecticut hockey team, and a parable about grade school horseplay. The latter, titled “Elementary,” turns dark as we recognize in this childhood game—complete with cheaters, bullies, and failed attempts at bypassing the whole game itself—a satiric depiction of adult society. The poem ends smartly:
If some whiz kid could figure out a balance—
guaranteed lunches with dessert as prize?
new ways of scoring to reward more talents?—
if grown-ups ever came to supervise;
if cliques were banished; if the kids weren’t us
and we weren’t always It, could skip a turn,
patch up our cuts, be rescued by a bus
or bell, file quietly inside and learn . . .
learn what? The game’s back on. Our ears are ringing.
The swarms are clashing and the ropes are swinging.
That final image, evocative of the gallows, is nicely turned. The second and third sections, “For Some We Loved” and “The Moon Who Knows,” consist of love and art poems, respectively, while the last section, “About the Secret,” is an astonishing meditation in Rubaiyat stanzas on the Somerton man story—“Australia’s most famous cold case”—wherein a dead stranger on an Australian beach was discovered to have “Tamám Shud,” a phrase from Omar Khayyám meaning “finished,” sewn into his pocket. The final section suggests the coherence of the whole book: the long poem invokes games, love stories, the mysteries of art, and the FitzGerald poem itself, which winds its way through the collection like a whistled motif. I imagine this larger coherence was partly discovered and partly designed, but it never feels forced.
Allen has impressive technical chops, and the simple elegance of his pentameter line deserves particular praise. I admire the confidence, the casual air of mastery: One never gets the sense he’s fumbling toward the right word. At the same time, Allen is flexible: his ode in ottava rima—in trimeter!—displays a variety of movement I suspect he learned from Yeats, and in another mode, he uses erratically rhymed, syncopated lines that flirt with meter while pushing against it, a verse technique I associate with Kay Ryan, middle-period Lowell, Heather McHugh, or Todd Boss (although Allen sounds different from any of them). That’s good company to keep. Moreover, Allen has a fine ear for rhyme, even entering Byronic territory at times:
But what is athletic grace?
And who are sports’ true heroes?
I watch a Zamboni trace
its Zen, concentric zeroes
on empty mental space.
Within that zone of clear O’s,
one small black speck will go on
eluding me like a koan.
For some, I’m sure, that “clear O’s” is too much; for my part, I admire a writer who balances the alliteration of “Zen” and “zeroes” around the “-cen-” at the center of the line—a syllable which echoes “Zen,” of course—and am perfectly willing to give him the whole stanza. In a villanelle with the refrain “A fundamentally unserious man,” Allen varies the line by writing “The fun, the generally unserious man,” and by picking up the “fun-” of “fundamentally,” he lets me know that, above all, he is listening to the language.
For all the play, there is a quiet nihilism inflecting the ludic antics:
No one he knows will genuinely grieve.
He carries, like a last trick up his sleeve,
the torn-out fragment of The Rubáiyát
in his fob pocket. He does not believe
in prayer—prays anyway, to all the gods.
A man in his profession plays the odds.
He’s heard of Pascal’s wager, bets on Yes,
but knows that No awaits him when he nods.
There is also wisdom: “You learn the world is terrible / or that you are terrible. / You know which is more bearable.” A poet with such linguistic and moral resourcefulness is one to read and reread.
* * *
There are many varieties of inheritance: familial, historical, cultural, aesthetic. In David Sanders’s Compass & Clock, a reader can see how all such things—all the reading, every experience, all the lines echoing in the imagination, each image stored until a fitting setting can be found for it—combine and contribute to every writer’s unique inheritance, the substance of the writer’s own life. I don’t mean that poetry is always autobiographical, of course; I only mean that a poet must write out of the center of his sensibility, a sensibility indebted to the sum of his inheritances.
Sanders’s poetry is one of negation: the piano not played, the life not changed, the children not had, the lesson not learned, the words not said. The interest of these negations comes from whether such negations might not in fact be better for us. In “Pianos,” he writes:
Furniture now of friends,
undisturbed and undisturbing, the strings
ease further out of tune against
the padded hammers waiting to be sprung.
Unused, the pianos “ease further out of tune,” yet in their silence they are “undisturbing,” sources of neither “tortured practice” nor a perhaps painfully evocative “half-remembered strain.” In “Day Trip,” Sanders considers the world of dreams, where details can be terribly meaningful, and the real world where sometimes, it seems, nothing is. The poem concludes:
This is no brilliant, double world
of dreams, but only the semblance of one.
And if we run into a squall
on our drive back home, let’s
let it mean little, or nothing at all.
In a world divested of meaningful symbols, a storm can just be a storm, not a harbinger of the day trip’s devolution into the discord implicit in squall.
Formally speaking, Sanders reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop or Richard Hugo, writers for whom the accuracy of the line outweighs the perfection of its meter; and indeed, there are tonal and thematic affinities, as well, in Sanders’s plain-spokenness and vignettes of bypassed lives. The poems range from two- or three-page meditations and narratives to brief poems that suggest an epigrammatic impulse. The long poems can be quite rewarding: “The Mummy’s Curse” weaves together a viewing of the eponymous film, the afterlife, a father’s funeral, and a trip back home after a long absence to reach a compelling conclusion:
But even now I can’t get past the fact
she recognized without a moment’s thought
my face unseen by her since I’d left school.
I, who traveled far afield, put streets
between us, languages and lives and years,
returned to her and to the rest, no doubt,
untouched by time. The change was theirs, it seemed,
incremental as an orchard’s growth,
but real. And I, like the unlucky dead,
would gladly move among them as their own.
Anyone who has expected to leave a hometown and be changed forever by the escape will recognize the complicated feelings of the first half-dozen of these lines, but in the conclusion a reader recognizes hard-won wisdom.
Fine as this is, I was most taken by the epigrammatic poems. Here is “The Glass Branch” in full:
They say when lightning strikes the shore, the path
it takes is like a quick nerve burrowing
beneath the beach. And in the aftermath
of fused sand, a branch of glass. A little
like thought made deed, the blast of energy
cools off in formation and turns brittle,
grounded in its own design. The storms subside.
Whether it stays buried or is exposed
and shattered will be determined by the tide.
That “thought made deed” is cagey: it suggests, in light of the ending, a secretiveness that fears above all things the uncontrollable changes in circumstance that bring to light not deeds but misdeeds. Yet when I read this poem, I can’t help but hear an ars poetica: Jarrell famously said, “A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times,” and I don’t believe any poet could read “The Glass Branch” without considering whether the tides of time or fashion will leave a poem buried or expose it—and whether upon being exposed, the “thought made deed” will shatter. I like the idea of a poem being a deed: not only an action, but also a way of transferring or confirming something of lasting value, a gesture toward inheritance.