Once again, October has sidled up like a stalker. It's been on our heels for months. We know this because the school bell is ringing. Traffic is worse. We're bored with our books. However, you have clicked on a link which has ferried you, rather magically, to this essay, which has chosen to ignore traffic and the school bell in order to address your book ennui.
April may have staked its claim, but for many of us, autumn is the real poetry season. The glib optimism of summer has run its course. The fall movie and television lineups are as appealing as iceberg lettuce without the ranch. Fall was made for reading. Fall is about reimmersion. We return to language and our lives the way we return from a long vacation. It is no coincidence that Keats' "To Autumn" is not only one of the great poems but one of the great poems about poetry. To assist with this shift to the autumnal mindset, I have selected three provocative books of poetry all of which have connection to the Bay Area and all of which contain themes of movement and transformation. Each is wonderfully mysterious and amazingly readable.
Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things. Milkweed Editions, 2015.
Almost every poem in Ada Limón's generous new collection is in dialogue with a literal person. By this I do not mean that the poems replicate a conversation, but rather that the speaker of the poems seems--the vast majority of the time--to be talking to someone. Like literally talking. This is rare in contemporary poetry, where the speaker of a poem is usually addressing himself or the universe or the reader or his inner demon. Limón's poems do some of these things as well, but because they reach out to another, they also pull us in. Here are a few examples of what I mean:
All these great barns out here in the outskirts,
black creosote boards knee-deep in the bluegrass.
They look so artfully abandoned, even in use.
You say they look like arks after the sea's
dried up, I say they look like pirate ships,
"What It Looks Like to Us and the Words We Use"
Six horses died in a tractor-trailer fire.
There. That's the hard part. I wanted
to tell you straight away so we could
Last night we killed a possum,
out of mercy, in the middle of the road.
It was dying, its face was bloody,
the back legs were shattered. The mistake
I made was getting out of the car
(you told me not to), but I wanted to be
sure, needed to know for sure, that it could
not be saved.
"In the Country of Resurrection"
Tonight over casual conversation,
words brought you up or out
from where I keep you,
and you were my stepmom again
and I was telling some of his family,
my family now, how it was
to have you a as a mother figure
"In A Mexican Restaurant I Recall How Much You Upset Me"
Consider how different the poem would be if it began "words brought her up or out / from where I keep her, and she was my stepmom again." Or, reread any of the previous poems and substitute a "he" for each "you." The second person point of view not only changes the tone of the poem, it changes the dynamic. The poem is activated by its direct address. It feels more present, less remembered. And even though we know the "you" in the poem is not us--it is not directly the reader--we can't help but feel spoken to. And, we like being spoken to, especially intimately, and these poems are, as my students might say, hella intimate. So much so, at times we get the sensation that we are overhearing a confession to a lover or plea to a parent.
And yet, despite their intimacy, these poems are clearly designed to be shared. They are meticulously honed and gorgeously crafted. They marry the lyric poem's interior emotional intensity with its exterior mode of social conveyance and aesthetic beauty. Put another way, these are beautiful poems that feel both public and private. A good example is "State Bird," a frontrunner for my favorite poem in the book, whose opening line is: "Confession: I did not want to live here." There is something seductive about being confessed to. Even if we are not really the primary receiver of the confession. However, for a moment, at least a line, we believe it could be us Ada Limón is opening up to, but, alas, we learn eleven lines down, it is someone else:
But love, I'll concede this:
whatever state you are, I'll be that state's bird,
the loud, obvious blur of song people point to
when they wonder where it is you've gone.
Of course, the poet is addressing her partner, who she lives with in Kentucky. Several of the poems in the book are set in the Bluegrass state and investigate not just her new life with him there but the landscape, sounds, moods, and tenors of a new locale. Kentucky often functions as a peculiar text the poet reads against the more urban New York and the more familiar Sonoma, where she is from. In fact, a sub-theme of the book might be moving or migration. Many of the poems take place on road trips across the United States or are recollections of interactions while traveling. Limón is clearly interested in teasing out what it means to re-place oneself. Is one still one in Kentucky? What, exactly, is mutable? Is identity altered when one moves from one place to another to be with an other? To what degree are residence and relation part and parcel of each other? To be sure, the poems of Bright Dead Things seek relation, often by way of family members, old friends, and lovers, as though seeking an anchor, as though taking extra measures so as not to drift too far from where one feels most moored. Talking to family, to lovers, is a way of remaining connected, even if it is through complaint, maybe especially through complaint.
Which is why I want to return to "State Bird." This is a sonnet of devoted complaint and perhaps even of reluctant love. I like to think that the "Love" Limón sings to here is the Great State of Poetry. And perhaps Ada Limón will be that state's bird. Imagine how cool the post cards and shot glasses would be.
A common criticism of contemporary American poetry is that it is too insular; that it is written only for other poets, or, worse, that it is written only for (or to) the person writing it. That is not the case with this collection. In fact, just as this review was being prepared to go live, we learned Bright Dead Things made the shortlist for the National Book Award--a recognition that Limón has made an important connection with an important audience. But, the best compliment one can give a book of poems is that the book loves the reader. Bright Dead Things doesn't just love poetry; it loves the reader. My hunch is, Reader, you'll love it too.
Alexandra Teague, The Wise and Foolish Builders. Persea, 2015.
The Wise and Foolish Builders is heavy wise and not even remotely foolish, though its motifs teeter on the edge of the foolhardy, like spiritualism, seances, and fortune telling. But, Alexandra Teauge's mesmerizing (in the modern sense) new book is way more than a bag of tricks. It takes as its point of departure and return the so-called Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. It's owner, Sarah Winchester, was the wife (and widow) of William Winchester, whose father, Oliver Winchester, was the owner of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, the manufacturer of the Winchester rifle, which became known as "The Gun That Won The West." After the death of William in 1881, Sarah consulted a spiritualist, who told her that William's passing and that of their only daughter, Annie, who died in infancy in 1861, were caused by the ghosts of the people the Winchester rifle had killed. To appease the ghosts and to keep them from killing her, Sarah must move West and continuously build a house for the ghosts. That house still stands and does so as an odd tourist destination. Teague's ambitious book moves back and forth among the Winchester House, Sarah's many anxieties, Buffalo Bill, Harry Houdini, Teague's own life, the horrific Sand Creek Massacre, Golden Gate Park, and even the Transcontinental Railroad. The entire book is an exploration of how we are all haunted by ghosts, but it is also a shrewd indictment of the mindset and machinery of Westward Expansion.
Like the Winchester House, Teague's book is masterfully built. Each poem is a different room of various shapes and sizes. Some rhyme, some don't, some are tiny, others are sprawling. It is one of the most formally impressive collections I've seen this year. There is an array of sonnets, a couple of sestinas, a villanelle, a poem in one word stanzas, a poem in two parallel columns, and a series of poems in two sections that move in reverse rhyming order. My favorite of these is itself a sonnet divided into two stanzas of seven lines each. Below is an excerpt from the middle of the poem, which is from the perspective of John Brown, the first proprietor of the Winchester House. In addition to opening the house to tourists, he wants to build a roller coaster that would go forward and backward:
The way maybe she built this: each morning's trip
down new stairs leading back up old stairs. Not death
but the fear that precedes--the long rickety climb, yes,
that clacking, then the quiet at the peak when we know.
Sure, I never finished building, I was waiting, you know,
for more cash--spun like cotton-candy from fear: yes
they all wanted thrills. I sold tours of hallways to death,
slipped in cordite and ghosts. The truth's just one trip,
Like the rollercoaster--and perhaps like the Winchester House--the poem's rhyme goes forward and backward. The cliche "life is a rollercoaster" finds innovative remodeling in Teague's inverted form, as though the two stanzas stare at each other in a mirror.
Looking, as it happens, is one of the key points of exploration in Teague's book. Tourists look at the house; audiences look at Buffalo Bill and Houdini; America looks Westward; Sarah Winchester looks at her ghosts; the railroad surveyors look at the wide expanse in front of them; soldiers look at Indians; Teague looks at her past. Being looked at is not the same as being seen, and Teague seems intrigued by our many blindnesses, our willingness not to see, our eagerness not to remember. My favorite poems are those bent on recouperation; the ones that force us into recollection, like the powerful "Sand Creek Testimony." Spoken from the perspective of George Bent, a Cheyenne, who watched the horrible Sand Creek Massacre in 1864, the poem bears witness:
on this (1/13th of this) land we give you. Americans--
if you raise a flag on a pole--will know to not open fire,
will know that you're peaceful. That day, our best warriors
had ridden west to hunt bison. The brains of our women
knocked out with rocks, children wailing in fear
as cannon fire surged and thundered floods over
our fields. These were Chivington's orders. American,
yes, lifted fetuses, genitalia like flags in that fire;
they murdered without reason or warning--here
on the land we were promised. They cut women
to strips like red stripes on that flag that calls fear
to all hearts now--waving as the troops opened fire.
A slightly modified villanelle, the poem is horrific. Its exquisite form does not, as one might suspect, aestheticize the violence. Rather it codifies it. It arranges it, systematizes it. It formalizes its historicity, solidifies its injustice.
Like Limón, Teague is drawn to poems of address. A large percentage of the pieces in The Wise and Foolish Builders are persona poems--poems, like the one above, spoken in the voice of other people. This is a nice move, as the genesis of the book involves spirits speaking through a spiritualist to Sarah. Teague is not a spiritualist, but most of the personas are long dead, and Teague speaks to us through them, lending an already otherworldly project a fantastically ghostly quality. In one, Sarah Winchester talks to Andy Warhol, in another, Sarah Winchester and Annie Oakley exchange mini soliloquies in side-by-side in vertical columns, and in yet another, entitled "Ammunition: Or Sarah Winchester, 23 Years Dead, and My Grandmother, Newly Widowed, Speak," Teague weaves dialogue from Winchester and her own grandmother in a form reminiscent of W. D. Snodgrass' "After Experience Taught Me". My favorite is a smartly crafted sonnet in the voice of Calamity Jane:
Sure, the guns are good, but it's your shirts
I liked the best: the ones you used to make
with the necks sewn so they didn't slip--shit,
I'd wear them every day with trousers, take
whatever wife's man. It's not all bang, bang
bang the way they say. There are bodies too
beneath stiff cuffs. Women shouldn't hang
themselves between lace and lady. Yes, it's true:
that charge of fornication. Yes it's true guns
make a hard life quicker.
"Calamity Jane, Somewhat Inebriated, Thinks of Writing to Oliver Winchester"
I love how Teague conflates Winchester's two vocations--guns and shirt-making, in much the same way Calamity Jane conflates sexuality, clothes (and what's under them), and shooting. Her bravado, her confidence, her swagger is perfectly executed, and the ending, not printed here, is worth the price of admission.
In another poem of strange conflation, "L. C. Smith and Bros., Makers of Fine Guns and Typewriters, Advertise," Teague explores the bizarre kinship--especially for a writer--between the machinery of the typewriter and rifle. This piece, like many others in the book, makes a subtle argument about technology, the lure of "progress," and the long tail of American invention. When read through lens of Empire, the book's title, The Wise and Foolish Builders, takes on a whole new meaning. I admire Teague's willingness to make her project commensurate with Sarah Winchester's--both are willing to go big and both want to appease the ghosts. They are also both willing to take risks. Not everyone digs persona poems, sestinas, revisionist readings of American icons, or researched sonnets, but they should, and If they read Teague's bold new book, they will.
Rebecca Foust, Paradise Drive. Press 53, 2015.
Given how much I enjoyed Limón's sonnet and how excited I was by Teague's many inventive sonnets, you can imagine how completely stoked I was to receive Rebecca Foust's new book which is composed entirely of sonnets. The sonnet is one of the all-time great art forms and perhaps the most durable poetic structure. It is a mode built for poetry's natural tendency toward question and answer, call and response. Foust makes great use the sonnet's dialogic frame to pose provocative questions about the self, society, and the many bizarre calls and responses between them.
Like Teague, Foust is drawn to the persona poem. In her case, though, the persona is a version of her own self, which she names "Pilgrim." Though pretty much every poem in Paradise Drive is autobiographical, Foust refers to herself in the third person, so that the poem's speaker (also Foust?) is observing, naming, and mapping Foust-the-Pilgrim's interior landscape. Reading the self as a text authored by the self is ideal for the sonnet--it hems you in, forces you to compress, makes you drill down.
And Foust drills down.
Her deep pools of exploration include her autistic son, her transgendered daughter, her impoverished and somewhat dysfunctional parents, her own depression, her on-again-off-again liaisons with alcohol and prozac, and, most frequently, her ill-fitting relationships with the super wealthy of Marin County. In a poem like "Party Etiquette"--a poem comprised of three connected but distinctly titled sonnets--there are some horrible collisions among these, as in the opening poem, "Remain Upbeat and Polite:"
Everything was plu-perfect, gosh-darn-it,
till Pilgrim's kid got tagged autistic
and the PTA moms froze her out
with their Tupperware optimistic
"Best for him, too" not to raise hope
re: invites to parties, and Jeez-O-Pete
but when their kids played crack-the-whip
with him the one cracked, into the wall,
it got tough to stay all nice and polite
when they said, "Just a little blood,"
Acid tone + feathery rhyme is a brutally effective combination. The tripping leaps of Foust's language make me think of Nabokov and how dark and light he can be in the same phrase. Like Nabokov, Foust knows when to turn up the heat or turn down the lights. I was deeply moved as both a writer and a parent by the final lines of "Don't Talk about This," the final sonnet in the sequence:
and where to find
the manual that tells how to respond
to the loved child who from his snug bed
whispers, I wish I were dead, Mom?
Tell me, Dr. Spock, what to do about that,
what does a mother fucking do about that?
There are, of course, questions not even the sonnet will provide answers for, despite its many gifts. However, over the course of her adult life, Pilgrim keeps finding herself returning to language as a healing source. In fact, it is one addiction she won't kick. At one particularly tedious party, she sneaks into the bathroom not to snort coke but to read Ezra Pound's Cantos. In another, "Anastrophe Elegy," the only way the poet can order the disordered is by way of dis-ordering language: "Not the woman we all knew. No. / Never would have done she, like this a thing. / How could someone, her, like that ever do?" Similarly, in "Diction," language is the call and the response, the question and the answer, the solution and the problem:
Does the fire
care what phrase names its fierce thirst
or on which beat I break the line?
What metaphor can loosen the vise
closing the actual throat--not just mine,
but hers from an actual tumor--
Except that language, while ameliorative, while beautiful, while healing, is somehow never quite enough. One needs content, the "metaphor [that] can loosen the vise." Metaphor's weight is appealing to Foust, but allegory's heft is even more so. John Bunyan's great Christian allegory, Pilgrim's Progress, is often lurking in the wings of the Foustian theatre, but to her credit, Foust never trots him out on stage. Paradise Drive is an allegory for a new age. "Sloth" or "Vice" are not actual characters who actively try to block Pilgrim from reaching God; rather, they are versions of her own self she confronts when she journeys inward.
Perhaps my favorite thing about Paradise Drive is the fact that the book never really distinguishes between destination and journey. They are one in the same; two sides of the same coin, much like form and content in, say, a sonnet or a book of sonnets. The medium is message. Form is function. Pick your cliché. Foust articulates this paradox more elegantly than I do here. For her the big is also the small; the disastrous is the revelatory.
In the acorn, the entire tree.
A quark encrypts a universe,
a world unfurls from just one joule
of fire. An atom splits and spews
Japan. Blood, bone, gene, and cell
predict events as well as tell them,
and no science, god, or creed
can unwind the strands that bind
our eyes and blind our hands
That's just lovely writing. How so unlike paradise that the path to God might also be the path away from God. What if blindness is a form of illumination?
This poem and pretty much all of the others in this award-winning collection suggest that the "drive" in Paradise Drive is not, despite the spooky cover, a street but rather a mindset. A persistence, a stamina, an urge. Thoreau is the best at demonstrating how the shared etymological histories of journey and journal extend beyond mere spelling. Foust's brave new book reminds us just how tragically beautiful the marriage of the two can be.