Book Reviews: Torn Awake and Such Rich Hour
Such Rich Hour
8 As contemporary poets turn in increasing numbers to the fashionable strategy of combining experimental techniques with lyric and narrative modes, many of these recent efforts have taken on a familiar look and a familiar set of conventions. (Calvin Bedient, writing in these pages, recently dubbed it the "soft avant-garde.") One image leads to another in associative or nonsequiturial cascades. Sequences of sentence fragments are interrupted by bursts of conventional syntax. The page is manipulated as a visual space to the extent most word processors allow, with varied patterns of indentation and spacing. Descriptions reflect distraction and fragmentation, and are often accompanied by philosophical inquiries into the nature of perception. The poems explore (or ransack) personal and historical archives and document these explorations through cut-and-paste procedures. And throughout this accumulation and disjuncture, they dutifully rehearse the postmodern axiom that the natural, the personal, and the social are linguistically constructed.
Forrest Gander and Cole Swensen are among the few contemporary poets who are using these strategies well, adapting them skillfully to their own purposes and questioning the assumptions behind them. Both have earned reputations for addressing the concerns of "post-Language" and "post-confessional" poetry, and both alternate between indeterminacy and lyrical intensity. Their projects entail efforts to map, on multiple axes, the ways life or history or selfhood or human contact takes place, and these efforts allow the onrush of data and dailiness to coexist with the event, the climax, the moment of heightened awareness. While many of their contemporaries are giving us pages and pages of what amounts to little more than note-taking, Gander and Swensen are doing the difficult work of sifting through the scribble.
Throughout Torn Awake, Gander divides, reorders, and splices strands of argument and observation. Although this procedure resembles that of many poets who resist straightforward narrative and chronological sequence, Gander sticks close to human time and thus avoids the emotional flatness typical of such collages. In "Line of Descent," a poem about a father and son at the Grand Canyon, Gander aligns the geological and interpersonal, piecing together phrases to spark unpredictable associations:
On varved clay,
Like the rock formations Gander describes, the language of the passage is chipped away to reveal its strata. A prepositional phrase situates us on terra firma, followed by a jolting line-break between adjective and noun ("oozing / gap") that underscores the exposure of "fresh rock" of another color. Then, without breaking to a new line, we see something "Crimson, finger-shaped." With this shift from rock to flesh, Gander evokes the father's shock at seeing the effects of his anger. (In the next section: "Swears, / I will not grip his arms / in anger again….")
Fatherhood and family life lie at the center of this book, and this subject matter helps to preserve the appeal of Gander's torquing language. Torn Awake memorializes the "voluptuous / Acoustics of home," just as Science and Steepleflower, Gander's previous collection, gave us the "audacious / originality of the ordinary." The similarity of these phrases from one book to the next reminds us how deeply committed Gander is to what Wallace Stevens called "the malady of the quotidian," though for Gander home life is not an affliction but a complex source of joy, humor, and passion. We once again get endearing glimpses of the kid in pajamas, the kid with his "Bowl-of-Chex mouthfuls / Mostly open," but we also find him in a dizzying acoustic display worthy of Gerard Manley Hopkins (to whom Gander alludes elsewhere): "Nidor of match-torched tick rising from the sink, he / Hams and dishes across a heel-dinged softwood floor."
Gander, like many contemporary poets, gives us the flux of everyday life, yet his book's careful structure redeems it from being an unremitting stream of associations. Each of Torn Awake's six sections includes a long poem or sequence followed by, in all but the final section, a "Love's Letter," a short poem of direct address. (Addressees include the beloved, the reader, Eurydice, the state of Virginia, and the Invisible World.) This structure gives the volume a rhythm of expansion and contraction, and it balances the disjunctions of the longer sequences with the poignancy of lyric apostrophe.
Torn Awake rehearses familiar postmodern principles, but Gander has the good sense to question them: "Truth / is structured, I scribbled, like language. / Which language?" He italicizes the self as a linguistic construct ("Each morning, the I from which acts go forth: picking up / a newspaper from the bed of sage, staring off / toward the neighbor's house, thoughtless") but he also wryly resists being reduced to grammar: "I will never / condescend to be a mere object of turbulent / and decisive verbs." Throughout, he is conscious of language as language and indeed the book is peppered with linguistic terms ("Embarrassing you. / Again. Like the softening of a stem vowel / in a stressed syllable."), but the linguistic self is never far from the bodily self. We are reminded that we know ourselves through words, and we are also reminded "To recognize the scent, mixed with pine-combed wind, / of mucus in one's own nostrils."
When geologic and personal history intersect (an unusual stone is found in the garden), the speaker pauses: "Events / occur as discourse, it's true, but who / would read the stone or say at such-and-such a point, at these coordinates of / August luster / and the ratcheting of cicadas, it entered the drama‹." Gander briefly theorizes the moment of rupture when the everyday meets the event, turning from the notion that events occur as discourse to the more immediate, passional awareness that "I write and see your mouth." Gander responds to serious theoretical worries, but don't read him for that. Read him because he marshals a sinewy and strenuous language for familial, sensory, and erotic experience, and because he gives us images that work: we see a "lour of cumulus," hear the "dry / Plash of cars."
* * *
In Such Rich Hour, Cole Swensen employs strategies of accretion and disconnection in service of a very different project, a collection of poems "based on the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, a fifteenth-century book of hours." Her sequence of poems riffs on the various images that each illuminated calendar page presents, as well as on the issues raised by studying these visual works in their historical and social context. Like Gander's, Swensen's process aims to "suspend the here and this" and to "sieve" her materials through awareness of their linguistic construction, but her unit of composition is shorter than Gander's usually complete sentences. Swensen prefers the subordinate clause, which together with the imperfect tense provides the grammatical means through which she assembles her vision of an ongoing past. The point of view in this book is more radically destabilized than Gander's, but unified nonetheless in glimpses of "someone (a woman) watching." Here is part of "January 29, 1408: The Great Flood Of":
The single quotation mark signals the woman's account, but her words dissolve into their latter-day recounting, as the word "now" reminds us. The coinage "atonish" merges the concerns with atonement and astonishment that Swensen explores throughout the book; the chain "Embellish / Embitter / Embark" suggests that corruptions of meaning, at the sonic or etymological level, are as vital a part of the interpretation of history as the dramatic re-envisioning represented by the stunning image of the cup and saucer.
Like Gander, Swensen convinces the reader to follow her arrays of fragments by grounding them in a compelling source. While Gander's material is contemporary family life and travel, Swensen's is fifteenth-century France. Drawing on hagiography, mathematics, apiculture, and other subjects for detail (the book includes an extensive bibliography), Swensen explores a period of cultural and political upheaval in which modernity emerges in the shift from theological to technological systems of knowledge. A central trope is the regularization of clock time, the "invention of equal hours," and it is this preoccupation with time and "timeliness" that makes her project not an attempt at reenactment or recapitulation, but an experiment in historical remaking.
Swensen reins in the use of disjunctive techniques, as Gander does, by structuring the volume according to a clear pattern. After some elaborate prolegomena, the book follows a calendrical sequence, each poem dated and grouped by month so that the events of a hundred years follow a seasonal ebb and flow, not chronology. The Duc de Berry's book of hours inspires an ekphrastic poem dated the first of each month, and Swensen's innovative use of the ekphrastic mode (a project she continues from Try, her previous collection) is the volume's most significant accomplishment. These descriptions call attention to their own interpretive fallibility: "A small dog is running up to the road / in front of a flock of sheep in front of a large man carrying / something (we can't see what) (sheaf?) (shearing?) holding (soft) / against himself." The April betrothal scene takes place "in a field of green (read: early love) (ground from the malachite of / Hungary)," lines that astutely combine objective observation, symbolic meaning, and awareness of artistic medium. Swensen's ekphrases are distinguished by her attentiveness to the perceptual lacunae and artifice inherent in these efforts to give voice to the visual: one figure "pointed and smiled, but I couldn't hear what he said."
Postmodern theory may underpin aspects of this poetic enterprise, but Swensen approaches theoretical concerns with refreshing forthrightness. To address tensions between historical contingency and necessity, she offers her own contingent propositions: "that it had to happen/will happen (circle one) this way." In response to a quoted source who adumbrates a late twentieth-century insistence that "Beauty in nature does not exist; / it is we who weave it thus and thus believe it is," the speaker answers: "Beauty is no less unlikely for having been invented." But Swensen's theorizing is most often demonstrative, not discursive. Throughout Such Rich Hour, she gives us language that is at once equivocal and palpable, a surface evocative and generative in itself: "ire, iron, ether / ember, every, ivory / eternity and isosceles, ides." Swensen's forged fragments suspend us on the surface tension of utterance, as here in the ringing opening of "Recipes for Red": "ardor and pestle / igneous anchor / suckled on iron."
Although Gander and Swensen are both writing a kind of "soft" avant-garde, theirs does not deserve the pejorative edge of Bedient's designation. Torn Awake and Such Rich Hour give us memorable examples of painstaking poetry that employs sedimentation and disjuncture in service of evocative, original projects. Leaving room for lyricism, story, and autobiography in ways that the "hard" avant-garde does not, their work is the richer for this more capacious, less suspicious mode of poetic experimentation.
At the same time, their techniques share an unfortunate side-effect. Consider these two moments, both of which stand out from the denser and more difficult linguistic surfaces that surround them. Here is Gander, in "Facing in All Directions," the final poem in Torn Awake:
On the island of Cyprus, amid rubble
Here is Swensen, describing an account of wolves in fifteenth-century France:
Both of these passages come as gusts of easier reading. We see clearly, and shudder as these situations come graphically and intimately into view. With the exception of the skipped clause following "because" in Swensen's passage (which effectively suggests that what is omitted is unspeakable), both of these terrifying anecdotes are told using standard syntax and a straightforward, almost journalistic style. Gander's account is more tender, Swensen's more gruesome, but both pack an emotional punch in the midst of the volumes' complex riffs and vicissitudes. Both passages let down their postmodern guard and broach a kind of sensationalism, and I am glad for it, because they allow the reader to feel pathos.
Did I say that I was glad for it? Is this what it has come to, that two stories of parental agony, one the story of burial alive and the other of a grisly wolf attack, should be felt as respites, as moments of relief, in volumes of poetry? The usual, quasi-ethical explanation for the poetic strategy at work here goes something like this: moments of violence and loss and fear should be given to us in all their terrible clarity, out of a kind of respect for their power. They are not susceptible to fragmentation or they should be protected from it, so that these moments can be memorialized and felt intact. Yet, from a reader's point of view, coming upon these sudden pockets of dread has a troubling effect. In the context of disjunctive poems and syntactically difficult passages, this relative clarity allows us to relax, even as these stories distress us.
Both Gander and Swensen thus present us with a paradox: the experience of reading fragmented, layered, refracted, and distracted poems can become numbing; moments of clarity then inject doses of pathos; but the ease and satisfaction we feel when we come upon these moments counteracts their ability to unnerve. What is at stake in this paradox of stylistic density and emotional resonance, it seems to me, is the efficacy and value of disjunction as a foundation for contemporary poetic practice. I will be looking to the future work of both these poets for innovative ways out of it.<
Originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of Boston Review